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For Freedom

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This is a fan fiction story by User:Astar Goldenwing. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.

Spoiler Warning! This story contains spoilers for “Triss” and “Mariel of Redwall”. If you have not read those books, do not read this story yet. Thanks!

NOTE: I began to write this story after I read Russian edition of “Triss”, where Freedom’s gender was changed into female. I learnt that Freedom originally is male only when I came to this Wiki, but to that moment, I just couldn’t imagine my character being male. So that’s why Freedom is female in this fan fiction.

In this story, one season equals one year.

Feel free to comment at the end and correct my mistakes if you want.

You may also want to check out a side story ‘Sharkslayer’ devoted to the character of Skvold Sharkslayer. This story is best to be read after chapter 20 or later of ‘For Freedom”, though because of the long time gap between it and the main story it could be read first as well.

Prologue

An old but still strong and firm hedgehog stood near Redwall Abbey’s door enjoying the morning. Oh, it was a great morning! All the Abbeydwellers were preparing to the big feast. Otters were fishing in the Pond, squirrels and moles were harvesting fruits and vegetables, mice were setting the tables for food. Everybeast was busy. Well, almost everybeast.

“There he is! Father Phredd, Father Phredd!”

A bunch of small baby otters, mice, squirrels, moles and other creatures rushed toward Abbot, a small squirrelmaid and an otterbabe at the head of them.

“Heehee caught you!”

Phredd had been taking care of Dibbuns, as the babes were called, when he was just an Abbey Brother, and he hadsn’t given up his habits when he became an Abbot. He allowed himself to be laid flat on his back and begged with mock terror. “Oh, mercy, mercy! I’m captured by savage bandits!”

The otterbabe shook a paw under the Abbot’s nose. “We are not bandits; we’re warriors, like Martin!”

“Sure you are warriors, Bragoon the Mighty! Now let me up, great Sarobando the Victorious, my bones are too old for lying on wet grass.”

Dibbuns immediately help Phredd to rise on his feet. “Tell us!” they demanded.

Phredd was puzzled. “What should I tell you about?”

“This!” Saro pointed her paw at the tables. “It looks like there’s going to be a feast, but nobeast wants to tell us what’s it about!”

“Well, there’s going to be a feast”, Father Abbot smiled. “A friend is visiting us soon”. He paused. “When he’s been younger, he’s been visiting us every season, but now he’s too old for such a long journey, so he’s coming here once in a five seasons. He usually comes in the fourth week of summer, so we’re preparing to meet him beforehand.”

There were many questions.

“What friend?”

“Where is he from?”

“When will he come?”

Little Toran, Brag’s younger brother, cried aloud “Tell us about him!”

“Well, it’s going to be a long story, not only about our friend, but about lots of others. It’ll take a few days to tell it!”

“Tell us!” Now all Dibbuns were crying all together. Father Abbot sat on the footsteps making himself comfortable, Abbeybabes around him.

“You’ve heard about war with Princess Kurda and Riftgard’s liberation, haven’t you? This story happened about fifteen seasons later. It’s a story of warriors and peaceful woodlanders and sailors and farmers and slaves, a story of brave and honest creatures fighting for freedom…”

BOOK ONE: CHAINS OF SLAVERY

Chapter 1

One-ear was a scaring creature. He’d always seemed to be the most scaring creature to all the new slaves. He was a huge searat with ragged black fur, dark sparkling eyes and thunder-like voice, covered with scars and tattoos from whiskers to tail. A half of his left ear was missing, giving him his name. He was a slave-driver. He’s always been shouting and swinging his whip over slaves’ heads as if he was going to kill somebeast.

“Idle scum! Work harder, or I’ll skin you alive, you shaggy scrub!”

Freedom wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t half as dangerous as he seemed to be. One-ear almost never hit a slave, and if he did, it was just a soft slap that gives you a few bruises, not a hard whipping that can skin you alive. Of course, the searat behaved like that not because he was kind – One-ear had been a corsair himself and knew how hard it’s to find a new slave. Houk, the Slave-drivers Captain, or the Slavemaster as he was called, was the one you should beware. This ferret enjoyed sneaking to the slaves and lashing them furiously when he saw even a shot break in the work.

Freedom still remembered the day she was captured, though almost seven seasons past since that. That day she and her best friend Tarro managed to persuade her foster parents, Kroova and Sleeve, to let them go for a picnic. Tarro was about three seasons older then her, so the otters could rely on him.

“Freedom is your responsibility”, they said while the mousemaid and the squirrel were preparing a boat.

“Don’t worry, we’ll return safe and sound”, Tarro said.

The duo sailed south and soon found a nice place to set fire and roast some fish and toasts. They were enjoying themselves when they heard a rude voice.

“Hey, look what’s here!” A band of evil-looking vermin was approaching from the north.

Tarro was the first to react. “Quick, Freedom! To the boat! I’ll slow them down!” The brave squirrel grabbed a burning branch and run into the vermin, trying to fight them. A huge fox with dark red fur disarmed Tarro with one sweep of his pike. Another sweep threw the squirrel on the ground.

“Tarro!” Freedom rushed to her friend’s lifeless body, but was knocked down by the same fox. He’s already raised his pike for the next blow…

“Krugg! Lord Darm needs slaves, not deadbeasts, you fool! And you’ve already killed a strong creature!”

Krugg the fox looked at a tall stoat. “But the squirrel attacked me! And this one’s too young and weak to be a good oarslave!”

“You’re here to obey orders, brainless! And it’s me giving orders here!”

Krugg seemed to be displeased, but he bowed without hesitation. “As you command, Cap’n Drooptail. Should I take this one on the ship?”

“Not before I’ll question her. Now, missy, where did you come from?”

Shocked Freedom could hardly understand anything. “W-what?”

Drooptail kicked the helpless mousemaid. “I said – where do you live, mouse?”

They want to raid my home, Freedom realized. No! I won’t let them!

“I-it’s a small village… On the south!” She mumbled.

The stoat Captain suddenly gave her a wink “Not far from a rock that looks like a seagull’s beak?”

Freedom didn’t know what he meant, but nodded. All the corsairs laughed. “Don’t worry; we’ve already visited your home, so you’ll meet all your friends and relatives on our ship, whoohahaha!”

As Krugg has already mentioned, Freedom was too young to be an oarslave, and she was sent to Terramort Island to work in the fields.

She was a property of Darm Deathtrap, Lord of the Seas. This weasel wasn’t the biggest of his kind, but he was strong and sly enough to unite all the vermin corsairs under his paw. Those who didn’t want to join him were sent to the Dark Forest. Terramort Isle had become his headquarters many seasons ago. Deathtrap rebuilt the ruined Fort Bladegirt with its walls and courtyard and built some new barracks for his soldiers and his slaves. About a dozen of ships anchored in Terramort Bay.

Lord of the Seas conquered almost all the islands in the Western Ocean – Sampetra and Volcano Island, Wood Isle and Daggerrocks, Stonehall and Northern Isles… As far as Freedom knew, the only island free of Darm’s rule was Green Isle, but that’s because wildcats ruled there. The mousemaid heard that Darm made a deal with wildcat’s leader about slave-trading – at least, some of Green Isle otterslaves said so… Other rumors had been spreading among slave-drivers recently, rumors about Deathtrap preparing to a new quest – quest to conquer Mossflower. However, Freedom kept hoping that rumors were what they were – just idle silly gossips that simply not true. However, Freedom also had never heard any of the vermin and slaves mention Riftgard or Peace Island, and it meant her friends most probably were free…

A whip flicked a fraction from Freedom’s ear.

“Are you asleep, mouse? Want to lose your ears?”

Freedom bowed down over vegetable beds, weeding them. One-ear cracked his whip again, raising his voice. “Thank your Lord Darm for ending working so early, he’s come to the barracks tonight!”

A small hedgehog about Freedom’s age pulled the mousemaid by her sleeve. It was Chestnut, her best friend. “Do you know what’s going on? Deathtrap isn’t doing anything with no reason!”

Freedom shrugged her shoulders. “How could I know? Wavehound said they need more slaves to serve in Fort, but who can know for sure?”

Wavehound Streamdiver was an otterslave from Green Isle who had been serving corsair officers since he was brought from his homeland, and he was first in the slave-barracks, called the Barn, to know all the news.

Chestnut forced himself to a smile. “At least we’re lucky to end the work early, Dom.”

Dom. Everybeast on Terramort was calling the young mousemaid by that name, as even talking about freedom was forbidden. Yet every of the slaves dreamed of nothing but freedom.

Both slaves hurried where their friends huddled and slave-drivers fussed around trying to count them. “Forty, back in line you mouse, forty-two, forty-three… There should be one more! Where’s one more?”

One-ear was already shouting orders. “Jah, Zhmura, Thinfur, check around the field! He couldn’t be far away!”

“What’s going on? A slave missing?” A burly ferret carrying not only a whip, but also a saber on his belt came closer.

One-ear saluted his Captain. “No trouble, Cap’n, we’ll find an escaper soon”

“Yes, you’d better find him, or I won’t envy you”, Houk the Slavemaster grinned.

Meanwhile Freedom was looking round herself. “Who’s an escaper? Everybeast I know is here”

A volemaid named Elsie whispered in Dom’s ear. “It’s a newcomer arrived in Terramort this morning, I’ve seen him!”

“There he is, Cap’n Houk!” Two slave-drivers dragged a young squirrel between them. “Was asleep among vegetable beds!”

Asleep? What kind of fool he is, Freedom wondered.

Houk eyed the squirrel angrily. “An escape!”

“No!” the unfortunate slave cried. “I’m sorry, very sorry, but I wasn’t going to escape!”

“Liar!”

“No! I just don’t used to such a long work, but this won’t happen again, I promise!”

“So, the work is too hard for you? Think you’re special?” growled Houk.

“No, I just say…”

“Shut up, squirrel!”

“Perhaps you’d better stop shouting and listen to me?” burst out the squirrel.

For a moment, Houk just stood jaw-dropped. No slave had ever dared to talk to the Slavemaster like this!

“Mutiny!” Houk’s paw strayed to his sword, but before he could reach it, One-ear leaped forward.

Whack! Smack! Crack!

The searat lashed out at the ill-fated slave furiously, so the squirrel fell on the ground - he could only cover his head with both paws. “That’s our punishment for escapes! And for lying! And for mutiny!”

Dom’s eyes narrowed. Something was wrong. That’s it! One-ear was holding his whip too high, so there was more cracking and swinging then real beating.

After all, One-ear gave the squirrel a final blow. “In line, and don’t waste Cap’n’s time any more!”

Houk looked pleased. “Double work and no food for this one tomorrow!”

Dom and Chestnut helped the squirrel to get up and half-dragged, half-carried him as vermin drove them to the barracks. “Hurry up, don’t slow everybeast down!”

The squirrel was shivering from whiskers to tail; he looked bruised and ragged, but not wounded. “Thanks. I’m Maple.”

“I’m Dom, and this is Chestnut.”

Maple flinched when One-ear cracked his whip once more. “Is this black one always so cruel?”

“Cruel?” Freedom couldn’t help laughing. “He’s not cruel at all. Actually, you should thank him.”

“Thank? What for – skinning the hide from my ribs?”

“If One-ear hadn’t whipped you, Houk would have killed you for mutiny. The Slavemaster doesn’t think twice before using his saber.”

“Oooh…” It seemed like Maple only now realized how close to death he was.

Dom felt sorry for the little squirrel. He was scared, confused, and unknowing what was awaiting him – just as she was seven seasons ago. The mousemaid started giving Maple some advice on their way to Fort Bladegirt. “Here on Terramort slaves work from dawn to dusk - today we’re lucky to end work early. You may work slowly, but you should do it without breaks. And never – remember, never! – argue with slave-drivers. A rebellious slave is a dead slave.”

“I see…” Squirrel nodded.

“Where are you from, Maple?” asked Chestnut.

“Pineforest Isle!” Maple curled his tail soulfully, it seemed like the very name of his home makes him feel better. “Here I’m living in Pinesquirrels Tribe… well, was living… before those vermin arrived. They burned our village and killed many… my mother among them. Those who survive were taken prisoners.”

“But you are the only new slave here,” Chestnut pointed out carefully. “And all the rest of your tribe…”

“That wicked fox that raided our Isle, Captain Krugg Bloodpike,” Dom clenched her teeth when Maple mentioned a name of Tarro’s murderer, but said nothing. “That fox,” continued Maple, “took them all as new oarslaves for his ship. He said I’m too young and weak and wouldn’t last a moon on the high seas, and he sent me here.”

By the way, slaves entered Fort Bladegirt through the big oaken gates and headed toward the Barn they were staying for nights. Here they were lined up awaiting their Lord.

Chapter 2

Soon five beasts approached to the small yard before the Barn.

The first one was middle-sized weasel wearing ordinary clay-colored vest and kilt, with only a red cloak to show his title; a long rapier thrust through his snakeskin belt. His fur was unusual light sandy color, bright yellow on his throat. The vest was covering weasel’s chest and stomach, but Freedom knew they were yellow too. She’s heard lots of slave-drivers’ talk about their master. One of them said that the Warlord’s mother called him Yellowbelly because of his uncommon fur, but the young weasel came to hate this name immediately and renamed himself Darm Deathtrap as soon as he had became a Captain. Since that, calling him by his old name was the fastest way to get to the Dark Forest.

The second one was Drooptail – a few seasons ago the stoat Captain was promoted. Now he was on Terramort almost constantly. The third one was short dark-furred rat. Freedom saw this one a few times before, but knew nothing about him. But for sure he was high-ranked enough to accompany Lord. The other two were black-clothed Darm’s bodyguards who always were following him at a distance enough to protect him.

Houk saluted with his saber “Hail to Darm Deathtrap, Lord of the Seas!”

Darm nodded approvingly. “Stand easy. I’m here not to revise your work, but to choose slaves for my heirs.”

Heirs? Yes, Freedom remembered now that Darm had two children about eighteen seasons each, a male and a female. The mousemaid hadn’t seen any of them – fields or the Barn is not a place for Lord’s heirs. But she’s heard enough rumors. Shamra, the female one, was notorious for her bad temper and beating she was giving not only slaves, but vermin soldiers too. Her brother Nabon was said to be calmer, but he still was a weasel. Freedom felt sorry for those who were to be the heirs’ slaves.

The mousemaid was so surprised that she misheard what did Houk say, but she heard Darm’s reply. “I don’t need your advice, Houk. I’ll choose creatures to serve my heirs myself.” Deathtrap walked up and down the line of slaves, them stopped right before Dom and waved his paw. “These two. A squirrel and a mouse.”

“B-but Lord,” the ferret Captain tried to object, “This squirrel is a rebellious one, and he’d already tried to escape!”

“Then Shamra will teach him obedience.” Darm turned away showing that the order is not to be discussed. He addressed the short rat. “Marduk, get these two dressed properly and send them to me.”

They are talking about Maple! Freedom realized. What an unlucky creature he is, going to be that awful weasel’s personal slave! Only when a slave-driver poked her with a whiphandle she did understand “a mouse” Lord mentioned was her.

Marduk knocked the door of Darm’s Working Chamber. “Sir?” Then he waved his paw at slaves following him. “Come in.”

The first thing caught Dom’s eye was a big map of the Western Ocean and the Western Coast pinned to the wall with lots of small color marks. Terramort, Sampetra and many other islands were marked blue, and Salamandastron, Redwall, Mossflower Woods and almost all the coast were marked red. Freedom guessed the map showed Darm’s lands and the other ones. The other wall had different things that looked like trophies hang on it. There was a giant eagle’s skull and it’s crossed claws, an unusually scary helmet, a piece of lizard’s skin, a stone plate with some signs carved on it…

By the same wall stood a table covered with scrolls and papers and books. Not far from the table, Darm Deathtrap lounged in a chair. Freedom was so interested in room’s decorations that she noticed him quite late. Darm continued to talk “You have my spirit, but it’s nothing without discipline.”

A tall sinewy weaselmaid with tawny fur only snorted. “That’s mean following orders, yeah? That’s exactly what I’m not going to do, especially if it’s your orders!”

Another young weasel interrupted her. He was as tall as the maid but slimmer, his fur sandy as Darm’s but without yellow throat. “But he’s right, Shamra. You can’t continue bulling everybeast in Fort!”

Shamra gave him a disparaging look. “You’ve always been a fool, Nabon. Not everybeast, but everybeast who deserves it. And who are those ones?” She pointed her claw at the visitors.

“They are personal slaves to serve you.” Darm said.

For a moment, silence fell in the room. Then Shamra shrieked. “Decided to get spies upon me? I won’t let these mangycoats to eavesdrop on me talking!”

“We don’t need slaves, father,” Nabon added.

“Silence!” Darm roared. “You’re my heirs, and you should have somebeast serving you!”

“Don’t say you do it because you take care of us,” Shamra snapped.

“I do it because you should learn how to give orders,” Deathtrap parried.

Nabon looked embarrassed. “Well, if you say so…”

But his sister was far not so respectful. “I’m already able to give orders!”

“This is not to be discussed!” Darm raised his voice. “Shamra, your slave is the squirrel, and your, Nabon, is the mousemaid.”

“Okay,” the weaselmaid gave Maple a murderous glance. “But don’t be surprised if any fatal accident happened to the squirrel…”

The warlord smiled, but his smile was as cold as northern wind. “Then you will replace him in the chainline.”

Shamra looked astonished. “It’s just a slave!”

“And you are my heir, and you mustn’t behave like a wildbeast!”

It seemed impossible to Shamra to admit her defeat, and she just said nothing.

“So everything is set,” Darm concluded.

“What my father ordered you to do - spying on me?” It was the first thing Nabon said to Freedom when they entered young weasel’s room.

Dom shook her head. “No, sir. He ordered me nothing.”

“I’m not going to punish you, just say the truth.”

“I am speaking the truth, sir. Your father hadn’t even spoken to me, sir.”

Nabon hemmed. “You came to the chamber with Marduk.”

The mousemaid was puzzled. “Sir? What do you mean, sir?”

“Don’t play the fool with me.”

“I may be the fool, but I’m not playing, sir. I don’t know what you are talking about.”

The heir explained. “Marduk is in charge of all the spies in Fort. Those among soldiers and slave-drivers who have their eyes and ears open report everything to Marduk, and he reports everything to my father.”

Freedom shook her head. Of course, she heard servants like Wavehound or Tosna the squirrelwife complaining about lots of spies in Fort, but she’s never known about Marduk.

“Today’s the first time I saw him close.”

However, Nabon doesn’t seem to believe. “Listen, let’s make a deal. I’m treating you properly without beating or abusing, and you aren’t spying or eavesdropping or squealing on me, agree?”

Freedom almost said yes, but held her tongue. If she agrees, she would admit she was sent here to spy. If she does not agree, she still would admit she was going to spy. So she just said, “I’m not going to spy on you anyway, sir.”

“So it’s agreed,” Nabon concluded. “And what’s your name?”

“Dom, sir.”

“One ‘sir’ is enough, don’t say it after every two words. And bring me something to eat.”

“As you say.” Dom turned to the door, but whipped round halfway. “Um… Where is a kitchen?”

There were little work for Freedom. To bring or cook Nabon food, to clean his room, to hand him weapon when he was training – that’s all the mousemaid has to do. It took little time for her to find out she can move throughout Fort freely. She was even allowed to go to the courtyard but not to the Barn. Besides this, all the slave-servants in Fort always were followed by vermin, so she had no chance even to talk to her old friends. Freedom felt very lonely, though Nabon was keeping his word and treated her decently enough.

Dom met Maple again on her third day as a personal slave. Nabon was called to his father’s Chamber, and he ordered Freedom to wait him outside.

Maple already was here, his eyes shone with joy. “Dom! You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you!”

“Bet I can!” She laughed and hugged the little squirrel. He twitched as with pain, and Dom stepped back. “Are you all right?”

Obviously he wasn’t. Maple’s right ear was puffy, and when he took a step aside, he limped a bit. However, he just shrugged. “I’m okay, thanks.”

Freedom lowered her voice. “Did that weasel beat you?”

“Well, it’s not actually a beating, after all… just a few cuffs. She loses her temper easily.”

“I hope you have wits enough not to argue with her.”

“I think that’s annoying her most – me responding all her insults and blames with ‘yes, marm’ or ‘no, marm’, surely.”

Dom wondered how Maple was able to joke after all – to her it seemed like Hellgates.

“Shh!” Maple whispered, looking around. “Let’s listen now!”

He leaned against the doorpost. Freedom followed his example. At first she all heard was just muted mumbling, but when she strained her ears words began to be distinguished.

First, it was Darm’s voice. “Element of surprise is vital in the war. A fleet sailing across the sea or an army marching through the plain attracts attention. That’s why I’m sending my troops to Mossflower ship by ship. They wait there staying in the cover and divided into crews, so if any woodlander sees them, they’ll be thought to be ordinal vermin gangs.”

Then it was Nabon’s one. “What a brilliant idea, father.”

Shamra interrupted him. “Stop wheedling, you mealy-mouthed toady.”

Darm growled. “Perhaps you have something to say?”

“Actually, I have. Where is a point in conquering Redwall? There is still the Western Coast between us and Mossflower!”

Deathtrap explained. “If we had Mossflower Woods, we’re able to attack Salamandastron from the west and from the east at once. And then I’ll be ruling not only all the Seas, but all the Lands as well!”

His daughter snorted, her voice mocking. “Of course, how could I forget about ruling all the Lands?”

Freedom heard enough.

They are going to conquer Redwall! So, all the rumors were true. The only thought about it was terrible. The little mousemaid has heard many stories about the famous Abbey from her father Kroova and her grandfather Mokug. The Abbeydwellers were her foster parents’ friends, and she used to think of them as her friends as well. She can’t let Darm kill them all!

“We should do something,” Dom whispered. “We must do something!”

“You see there is not so much we can do.” Maple paused as some guards passed by a next passage. “Even if we escape, we can’t leave the island.”

“So you’re going to give up.”

“To begin with, I’m going to find out more information. It seems to be the only possible thing to do.”

“Then I say what I’m going to do.” Freedom said. “I’m going to find a way to escape!”

Chapter 3

Warlord’s door was opened without knocking.

“Darm?” A huge searat entered the chamber.

Lord of the Seas sighed. He definitely would never teach that bumpkin proper manner. “What do you want, One-ear?”

The rat stated without any subordination. “Krugg said you’re sending his ship to the Southern Coast and then to Mossflower.”

“Yes, I want him to recruit some Juska, and…” Darm cut himself short. Why should he make excuses to that slave-diver, not even a Captain? “But that’s none of your business.”

However, One-ear paid no attention to his words. “So, that means that you still want to war with Redwall.”

“Yes, it is.”

“It’s a wrong thing to do. Very, very wrong.”

Darm clenched his teeth. One-ear too often was just unbearable. Without any doubt, he was a brave and loyal creature, skilled in both fighting and commanding, respected by others and quite smart – for a rat, of course. The corsair’s lack of manner wouldn’t prevent him from becoming a Captain if he wasn’t so stubborn and willful. Unlucky for Darm, One-ear was always willing to meddle in matters that shouldn’t concern him.

“I know every word you’re going to say now,” said Darm, doing his best not to fly into a rage. “You say that it’s too risky and dangerous, that we would lost lots of soldiers, that many warlords tried to conquer Redwall before, but none succeed, that we can’t win war with the entire country against us, and even if we can, almost all the army would be dead by then. I’ve heard that all before. And I say what I’ve said before. I’ve not only fought corsairs and isledwellers, I’ve studied tactics and strategics for seasons. I’ve even visited both Redwall and Salamandastron disguised as peaceful traveler and now I know what to do to get them! And I’ll never do any silly mistakes as those so-called ‘great warlords of the past’, like trusting your enemy’s word or do not looking where to set your footpaw on!”

“You’ve seen woodlanders in the seasons of peace, and I’ve seen them in the seasons of war.”

“Did you become too old and soft to fight?” Darm mocked trying to change the subject.

“I don’t want to see my shipmates dying. And you, Darm! You’ve already killed your wife in a senseless battle; isn’t it enough for you?”

“Shut up, rat!” Deathtrap cried angrily. “It wasn’t me who killed her, and you know that!”

One-ear agreed. “Aye, it wasn’t you who plunged a knife into her. But it was you who put an untrained and inexperienced creature in charge of a crew and sent her to scotch a mutiny. Have you really expected her to cope with it?”

“I’ve expected my wife to be my strong right paw whom I can trust commanding my Fort or my corsairs, not a nursemaid sitting in Fort all the time! And leave that subject alone, I don’t want to talk about it! The point is we would win the war with Redwall!”

“The point is not if it’s possible to win the war or not. The point is why should we start the said war. Redwall is no threat for us.”

“It sounds like cowardice, if not treason,” Darm snapped.

“It sounds like common sense. Your greed and lust for power weakened your mind, and you can’t see even the simplest things.”

Deathtrap nearly choked. “You! Do you remember whom you are talking to?”

“Aye, I remember it pretty well. You are son of my good friend Lazybones. She asked me to look after you, and I do. You’re going to lead your corsairs to their death, and I won’t let you to.”

“And what would you do? Kill me?” Darm paid no attention to the threat, through One-ear was almost twice his size.

“I ask you to think about it once more. It’s never late to stop this madness.”

When the black rat left, Darm kicked a chair angrily. That slave-driver thinks he can command Lord of the Seas just because he was a friend of Darm’s mother! Darm could ignore this importunate corsair before but today he went too far! Lord of the Seas wouldn’t let him to ruin his plans.

And that meant he should get rid of One-ear…

Twilight deepened upon Fort Bladegirt. The castle loomed against grey sky. The place seemed to be completely lifeless. However, it wasn’t.

A sentry guarding the locked Barn’s door gave a jump as a dark figure came from shadow.

“Ah, One, that’s you,” he sighed with relief when a creature came closer.

“Aye, that’s me,” One-ear nodded. “It’s cold tonight. Come and rest in the soldiers’. I’ll guard instead of you for a while.”

The foxguard obviously liked the idea but still hesitated. “Thanks, but… I don’t want Lord to catch me off guard.”

“Don’t worry, Jah. I say, I’ll be on guard.”

“Right then!” Jah hurried to the castle without turning back.

Right after the sentry went away, One-ear took a key from his belt and opened both the Barn’s wooden door and iron bars behind the door.

The slave-driver stepped inside moving so carefully as if he was a ghost, not a creature of flesh and bones. He slowly looked round, his eyes inspecting sleeping slaves curled under old rags. Finally, the rat’s eyes set on small hedgehog lying not far from the entrance.

One-ear took one step more and bent over the hedgehog, his paw stopping the slave’s mouth. The captive immediately opened his eyes and twitched as if about to cry. The corsair’s other paw seized his head and hit it on the floor softly, knocking him out. The hedgehog went limp, stunned into unconsciousness.

All of that happened in a complete silence. Nobeast had even stirred.

One-ear threw the hedgehog over his shoulder and left as silently as he entered.

Chestnut felt salt water splashed in his face. He groaned and reached to touch his head where a big bump had already swollen up.

A low voice echoed in hedgehog’s aching head. “Take this.”

He mechanically gripped a wet rag and pressed it to his head. Only then he noticed that a creature who gave him this rag was One-ear.

“Listen now,” the rat said as Chestnut stared at him at a loss. “Let’s make a deal. I help you to escape Terramort. And you do me a service in return.”

Chestnut suddenly found it difficult even to understand simple words. “D-deal?”

“See that ship?” One-ear pointed his claw somewhere to the right. Chestnut turned his head and saw they were on a jetty in Terramort Bay. Ship the slave-driver pointed at was a big dark-colored vessel, her sails red. “It’s Bloodpike. Krugg leaves on her the morrow to the Southern Coast. I hide you on the ship. She arrives to the Coast close to the Mountain of the Fire Lizard, just a day marching to the south. All you do is to go there and bring this to Captain Longstep from that mountain.” The slave-driver showed him a small scroll of birch bark sealed with wax. “Then you can go wherever you want. Understand?”

Chestnut could only repeat. “T-the M-mountain of the Fire L-lizard?”

“Aye, it has a really long name, a jawbreaker like ‘Sala-mala-thing’, but everybeast understand if you say just ‘the Mountain of the Fire Lizard’, you know.”

He was talking as if Chestnut’d already made this journey. Perhaps it was his calmness and confidence that make Chestnut lose his patience almost for a first time in a few seasons. He may be a slave, but he is not a tool in his masters’ paws!

“I’m not going to help you in your shady dealings!”

“There’s no need to shout, I’m not deaf. And I wouldn’t try to attract attention if I were you, either I’d have to say you tried to escape.”

It wasn’t the answer Chestnut had been waiting for.

“Don’t you understand? You vermin killed all my family either by swords or by hard work here on Terramort! I won’t carry messages for you to kill and enslave even more creatures!”

Next moment the black rat’s claws tightened their grip on Chestnut’s throat.

“Listen now,” One-ear growled. “I’m going to save us all. Darm is preparing to war with Redwall, and it would kill lots of creatures, both corsairs and woodlanders. I am about to stop it. And I need you to carry this warning to Longstep to help. See?”

Chestnut was gasping for breath. Only now he realized how foolish he was to anger this beast.

“Okay, okay! Let me go please!”

“Good. Follow me.” One-ear released the poor hedgehog and headed to the ships without turning away to see if Chestnut was following him or not.

The little hedgehog hurried after him. “One more question, sir?”

“What else?”

“Why me?”

One-ear shrugged. “You’re small enough to hide. And you were the easiest to pick up.”

“No, I mean, why don’t you send your message with a gull?”

Chestnut was talking about a small flock of seagulls living under Bladegirt’s roof. Actually, corsairs and seagulls were sworn enemies as bird meat and eggs were a common vermin dish. However, some gulls turned out to be greedy enough to forget about this death-feud when Darm offered them plenty of food and shelter in exchange for their services as scouts and messengers.

“A gull missing will attract attention, and the other birds have no reason to keep secret about my message.”

Chestnut couldn’t hold his surprise. “And you think nobeast will notice a slave missing?”

One-ear suddenly gave him a wink. “Ha, not with me and Greywhisker saying we killed you trying to escape!”

Marduk sneaked in the shadows near the Bay. Where was that damned slave-driver? Thinfur said he was somewhere here! In a few minutes, Marduk saw One-ear coming down off Bloodpike.

What, of blood'n'fangs, he was doing here? Marduk pulled out a little dagger. Anyway, it doesn’t matter after all.

The spy waited One-ear to turn his back to him, then he leapt, fast and silent, and stuck his dagger right under One-ear’s ribs. The big rat gave a lurch, but still found strengths to swing round, his paw grabbed Marduk’s throat.

“You filthscum!”

For a moment it seemed like Marduk’s neck is about to crack, but suddenly One-ear gave a gurgling sound, his claws unclenched and his body fell to the ground.

Marduk rubbed his aching throat and smirked. One-ear was a strong creature, but not strong enough to survive the poison on his bladetip!

Chapter 4

“Look, it’s our chance,” Dom whispered right in Maple’s ear while helping him to wash dish. “Bloodpike leaves about noon. We can sneak in her and hide…”

“By cone’n’needles, what are you thinking about? How are you going to sneak in the ship swarming with vermin?”

“I have a plan. We can say we’re carrying out Darm’s order and then...”

“And then guards would catch you,” Maple interrupted. He put aside a bowl he was scrubbing and looked right into Freedom’s eyes. “I don’t want you to be killed, really. Listen, I’ve heard Lord Darm and his heirs are sailing in Mossflower in a quarter of month, may be a bit later. Perhaps they would take personal slaves with them, but even if they don’t, it wouldn’t be so dangerous then.”

The mousemaid nodded and shook Maple’s paw. “Thanks, friend. But I have to warn Redwallers before Darm’ll get to them.”

The squirrel sighed as she hurried away. “Good luck.”

Freedom was caught even before she got to the jetty.

Darm was furious. However, his fury was turned not against Freedom, but against Nabon.

“You dumb-head whelp! It was you who let the slave escape!”

“B-but father, the mouse was captured anyway!”

“It was me, not you who captured her!”

None of them paid any attention to Dom huddled up on the floor where a guard pushed her. She looked lost and shocked as if her whole life was shattered. Maple wanted to comfort her, but when he took a step toward the mousemaid Shamra gave him such a murderous glance that poor squirrel didn’t dare to.

“Shut up you both!” the weaselmaid growled. “It’s no use with you becoming hoarse railing at each other.”

Darm sniffed scornfully. “You hardly ever believe, but I still try to teach you at least something. You both are supposed to become my Captains and, later, second-in-commands. And how, by blood’n’fur, can you command corsair crews if you can’t command even your own slave?”

“Speak for yourself!” Shamra snapped. “I can command anybeast, let alone slaves!”

“But father, it wasn’t my fault,” Nabon managed to interrupt. “There is no way I could have known about escape!”

“You should have known! That slyface is your responsibility now!” Darm’s features softened and he added more gently. “However, Shamra is right; it’s pointless just to argue. I just want you to take things more seriously.” His children nodded, and the weasel lord continued pointing to Dom. “Any other slave would have been killed trying to escape, but this one is your personal servant. She will live, but she shall be punished. She shall receive fifteen lashes from Houk.”

Maple shuddered. Fifteen lashes!

“No! Don’t!” He didn’t know what he was going to do, but he should help Freedom somehow. “It is not her fault, it was me… Ouch!”

Shamra twisted the squirrel’s ear violently. “Shut up, bushtail! You aren’t allowed to speak!”

“Can command anybeast, Shamra?” Deathtrap chuckled. “Speak, squirrel!”

“It was me who planned the escape!” Maple blurted out the very first thing that crossed his mind. “Dom didn’t want to escape; it was me who persuaded her! It’s me who should be punished, not her!”

Freedom lifted her head for the first time since her capture, her eyes wide. “He is lying! It was me…”

Darm’s impatient growl interrupted her. “I am not going to waste my time and find out what it's all about! Each of you shall receive fifteen lashes!”

“Hey, you oldfur! You’ve just said the slaves are our responsibility!” Shamra cried in her usual manner and gave Maple a heavy cuff. “This one may be stupid useless furball, but he is mine. It’s my will to decide how to punish him, not yours!”

“Really, father,” Nabon intervened, “such a harsh measure is unnecessary. These slaves have already had their lesson. They won’t escape again, I promise.”

Darm shifted his gaze from Shamra to Nabon, and then smiled. “Good. You’re able to make your own decisions without looking up to somebeast. The slaves are yours, do as you please.”

Maple thought he wouldn’t see Freedom again for a long time, but he was wrong. Shamra had given him the dirtiest work as a punishment. And the same evening, when he was sent to scrub the floor in soldier barracks, she already was here rubbing out dirty spots on all fours. Maple took a floor-cloth and squatted down alongside his friend.

“Hi,” he whispered. “How are you?”

Dom nodded, her face as black as thunder. “Fine.” She paused, and then added. “Thanks for defending me. It was very foolish.”

Maple couldn’t help smiling. “I thought you were about to say ‘brave’”.

“Brave, yes. And foolish. More foolish then brave, actually.” She fell silent again.

“Nabon punished you, didn’t he?”

Dom shook her head. “No, he only said he won't defend me if I try to run away again… Er, why are you looking at me like that?”

“Are you the same mousemaid who once said I was lucky not to be killed?”

The little mouse forced herself to smile. “Ah, I know what you mean.” She cast a glance at the guard standing by the door, but it seemed like slave talk was the last thing he was interested in. Nevertheless, Freedom lowered her voice. “I’d only hoped to warn Redwallers. You know, they are my parents’ good friends. I’m sorry not for myself being caught, but for them not being alerted. But now I see you were right. We should wait for Deathtrap to depart.”

Bloodpike sailed away from Terramort Isle. The wind was fair, and by sunset, the ship was far at the sea. Her main deck was deserted and silent; the only thing could be heard was a low mumbling of two steersrats.

“What a pity it’s our Bloodpike to deal with that barbarian Juska! Aaarh! I wish I’d never seen that painted snouts of them!”

“Well, you’ll see them anyway, matey. Cap’n is about to recruit them. And listen, Lugear, it’s better to be outside Bladegirt then inside.”

“But why?”

“Wait – didn’t you hear about ole One-ear body found floating near the jetty?”

“Aye, but I’ve heard he had drowned!”

An older steersrat gave his younger companion a stern glance. “Didn’t know One-ear, right? I did. This feller could out-swim a fish!”

“Do you mean that…”

The older rat immediately clamped his paw about Lugear’s mouth. “Shhh! Don’t you know Lord has ears everywhere? I mean that One-ear was a good swimmer, that’s all, see?”

None of the rats noticed a sharp muzzle peeping out from a small cabin near rostrum. It was Chestnut. During all the day he was hiding inside large chest that could be locked from inside. As One-ear explained, corsairs used to sit on it when the ship was overcrowded, but nowadays it was forgotten in a cabin with old sails, half-broken tools, rusty weapon and other needless stuff. A perfect hide-out.

When the night fell, the runaway decided it’s time to act, for he has his own plan to put into practice. And carrying massages for vermin wasn’t a part of it.

After Chestnut made sure steersrats weren’t watching him, he sneaked to a bottom deck. The hedgehog stood there for a moment or two for his eyes to get used to the darkness. Here he saw two rows of long oars and wretched slaves, chained in pairs at each oar, fast asleep with their heads resting on their chests. Most of them were squirrels, though there also were few moles and mice.

Chestnut shook the nearest slave by his shoulder. It was a middle-seasoned strong-looking squirrel, which woke up immediately, a fear shone in his eyes.

“Shhh!” Chestnut whispered. “I’m here to help you!”

The slave nodded, a fear in his eyes was replaced with hope. “Aye, friend. How did you free yourself from the chains? The fox claimed it’s impossible even if the oar is broken.”

“I’m not an oarslave, I’ve escaped Terramort Isle and hidden here. My name is Chestnut.”

The sound of their voices woke the other slaves.

“Urr, wot’s goin’ on?” stirred a molemaid next to the squirrel.

“Hey, who are you?”

“How did you get free?”

The hedgehog waved his paws. “Hist, please! Vermin would hear you!” The slaves immediately calmed down, and he continued. “I’m Chestnut, and I’m here to help you. Take this.” He handled the squirrel and the molemaid two old rusty files he’s found in the cabin.

The squirrel shook one of his paws vigorously while the molemaid grabbed his other paw.

“Thanks, Chestnut! I’m Broom of Pineforest Isle, and I’m your friend to the end!”

“Zurr, Oi’m Myrra of Stonehall, Oi’m yor friend furr shure!”

Murmurings came from all around the bottom deck. A mouseslave spoke for everybeast as he called out, “We'll be with you, to the death!”

Chestnut shook his head, “No, friend. Not to the death. To the freedom, for we’ll escape this ship together!”

Then Broom was speaking. “Listen, mates, I’ve heard vermin are going to trade us for Juska recruits so we should saw the chains before that. Be careful and don’t let corsairs notice anything! I think a night the ship’s arriving to the shore is the best time to escape. Chestnut, can you bring us more tools and something that could serve as weapon?”

“I’ll try to come tomorrow or in a few nights.”

He was going to leave when Broom called him once more “Wait, friend! You’ve escaped Terramort, right? May be you’ve seen… or you’ve heard… a young squirrel named Maple…”

“Yes, I know Maple, he was chosen to be a servant in Fort. Last time I’ve seen him he was safe, though not completely sound.”

Broom sighed with visible relief. “Thanks seasons, he’s alive! My son is alive!”

Chapter 5

Extract from the writings of Churk the otter, Head Scholar and Recorder of Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country.

Today is the first summer day, the first day of the Summer of the Whispering Trees! It seems like Mother Nature decided to reward us with good weather after that cold late spring. The weather is staying fine these days. The sun shines brightly, and only one or two clouds are soaring in the sky like feathers of some giant bird. However, there is no heat: cool breeze is blowing all the time so trees’ branches keep rustling as if they are trying to tell you something. That’s why our good Mother Abbess named this season the Summer of the Whispering Trees.

‘Our good Mother Abbess’, hmm! I’m pretty sure anyone not familiar with our Abbess will imagine an old stiff lady. In fact, Bikkle is one of the youngest Abbey leaders in Redwall history, and everybeast agree she is the best to be one. Frankly speaking, about six or seven seasons ago I would not believe I can say it – our caring and responsible Mother was such a mischievous Dibbun back then! She made proud our old Abbot Apodemus, who has passed on to the land of sunny slopes and quiet streams seasons ago, together with his friends Malbun Grimp and Crikulus and a few other our dear companions.

Alas, there is no joy without sorrow. The Nameday Feast set on today was delayed because of terrible event. This morning Skipper Rumbol (he became Skipper five seasons ago, when our old uncle decided to retire) went to Mossflower to invite our neighbors for the feast. There he found woodmice house ruined and devastated and all its inhabitants but one killed. The only survivor is an old woodmouse who is badly wounded and treated by our Herbalists and Infirmary Keepers Sister Vernal and Brother Turfee. Poor creature is too weak to speak, but it’s unnecessary. Tracks left around the house make it all very clear.

Vermin. A small gang of that scum, no more then seven or eight. Right now Rumbol is gathering his crew of about score of otters to track those vermin down and kill them. They are joined by our Abbey Warrior Trisscar Swordmaid and, of course, my nephew Simon.

Simon, son of Rumbol and his wife Rekka, always respected Triss. He was only three when she arrived in Redwall and has almost no memory about that, but he became old enough he learnt everything he could about that cruel season. He decided he wants to be a warrior like Triss and defend all the weak, young and old from evil. Triss accepted him as her apprentice and they’ve been training for a few seasons already. I hope one day he would be able to replace Triss as Abbey Warrior.

Well, Rumbol is waving his paw to me – I think I’d better come and see him off!

Churk put aside her quill and came to the Main Gates where a lot of Redwallers flocked to. Everybeast knew what happened, and everybeast wanted to wish the defenders good luck.

A strong big sturdy otter with his fur turning grey tapped on his younger companion’s shoulder. “Give that butchers a good thrashing, Rumbol!”

“Don’t worry, Old Skip, I’ll give them a thrashing they will never forget!” Skipper was a title given to the leader of the otters in Mossflower. Those who retired usually have to give it up and return to their previous names, but Rumbol and Churk’s uncle was respected by both his crewmates and Redwallers so much that everybeast kept calling him Skipper or Old Skip, and Rumbol was called either Skip Rumbol or just by his name.

A young mole poked the air with his mighty blunt claws. “Hurr, ur otters bee real wurriers, not loike dose vermint, urr! Oh, an’ yu too, Trizz, furr shure”

“Hey! And what about me, Ruggum?” cried a short spiky-furred shrew wearing a bright green headband. “Who do you think I am – a tadpole going for a walk?”

The mole nodded. “Aye, an’ yu too, Fleggen, surry. Oi’m just such a forgotful creetur!”

“Do not forget about me, dirtypaws,” Fleggen snorted.

A small young squirrel with a huge bushy tail interrupted them. “No need to be rude, Fleggen. Foremole Ruggum didn’t want to offend you, and you know it.”

The shrew gave her a frown. “It’s easy to say for you, Abbess, it’s not you staying here when all Guosim are far down the River Moss at the gaudy for all the season, meeting Guosssom and Guoraf and celebrating and feasting and singing and so on!”

“Well, it wasn’t me disobeying Log a Log and leading a bunch of young shrews to battle a pike! And anyway, it’s not Ruggum’s fault, and I wish you to apologize immediately.”

“Sorry,” Fleggen growled, not a shadow of regret in his voice. “Now, will we leave after all?”

However, they still had to wait for Simon to be hugged by his aunt.

“Be careful,” the kind otter asked.

Simon, a tall brown otter, nodded very seriously. “I will.”

“I’ll look after him,” said a middle-seasoned squirrel. There was nothing special in her appearance, but she looked confident and strong. The sword of Martin, a proficient simple double-edged blade, hung over her back from left shoulder to right waist.

“Oh, thanks Triss… You know, this would be his first battle…”

“I’m not a Dibbun any more, auntie,” Simon interrupted. “And I have the best mentors in the whole Mossflower!”

None of the Redwallers noticed a gull circling high above the Abbey.

At the same time far in Mossflower Woods, eight vermin couldn’t raise their heads up to their Captain Tamant Silentblade. If there were a word to describe him perfectly, it was the world ‘ordinary’. This middle-sized brown-furred rat wasn’t the strongest fighter or the smartest commander, but there where a thing he was best in – scouting. No one could beat Tamant in hiding, lurking, camouflaging and spying. They said that a creature standing in an open country with no shelter for an arrow-flying distance would notice Tamant only a second before being killed. The corsair Captain wasn’t called Silentblade for no reason.

His calm voice made the eight corsairs lower their heads even more. “You are a mob of iron-witted marauders. I’ve ordered you to stay in the camp, be meek as a mousebabes and under no – no! – circumstances show your dirty snouts to woodlanders. And you? Ravaged that mousehouse and let everybeast know we are here!”

A sturdy stoat standing next to Tamant gave a growl. “We should have killed that otter as I’d said!”

“And ruin Lord’s plan once and for all? I’ve always known you ain’t very bright, Clyde, but not that far!”

“I’m Captain Clyde,” the stoat straighten out a lap of his blue cloak, a mark of Captain rank in Deathtrap’s army. Tamant also had one, but he preferred plain green-and-brown jerkin.

However, the rat wasn’t looking at Clyde any more. “Arrowfly, did you cover up all the tracks?”

Arrowfly, a slim weaselmaid and a Captain herself, just nodded. “Aye, my crew didn’t leave a single pawprint there.”

Next moment with wings flapping and a fierce shriek, a small gull landed at the clearing where the vermin were.

All the Captains looked at him in waiting. “What’s the news, Ragfeathers?”

The gull prinked his plumage before answering. He didn’t like vermin, but spying was far easier task then fishing all by himself and fighting with the other gulls for food and nests. “Redwallers are leaving the Abbey. A score of them, big and strong warriors are they all.”

Tamant’s calmness vanished in seconds. “Arrowfly, make a fake camp where I’ve shown you. My crew will put fake tracks right into it. Clyde, you keep the rest of crews in the camp.”

“And what about them?” Clyde pointed to the delinquent vermin. “They disobeyed the order. I could execute them while you’re out…”

“No. They’ll be put into our fake camp.”

As they heard this, all the vermin fell facedown on the grass wailing outrageously.

“Wahaah! Mercy, Cap’n!”

“Chain us and make us slaves instead! Whahahaah!”

“Redwallers will kill us!”

Tamant just grinned cynically. “Of course they will. That madbeasts wouldn’t leave us alone until they have their revenge. And if somebeast have to be killed, it’d better be those who are guilty, right?”

Poor corsairs gave a chorus cry of horror, and Clyde pounced on them, wreaking his anger by delivering them heavy blows with his swordblade.

“Stop this!” The rat Captain cried as the first blood was spilt. “I need them alive and unmaimed!” A stoat left his victims with a growl of dissatisfaction, and Tamant gave another order. “Now, hurry up everybeast!”

A few hours later, a score of otters, a squirrel and a shrew sneak up to a small clearing in the Mossflower Woods. A small fire burned in the middle of the clearing, with two sloppy shelters of branches loomed nearly. Two or three vermin were sitting around the fire, their heads bowing drowsily. Loud gruff voices could be heard from the shelters.

Skipper Rumbol and Triss watched the camp lying in the thick bushes. The otter chieftain whispered right into the Warrior’s ear, “I’ll take half of the crew and come at the vermin from the other side. I’ll give a crow cry as the signal to attack.”

The squirrel nodded, and Rumbol turned to his son “Stay near Triss.”

“I will.” Simon didn’t expect himself to be so calm, as if he just had been waiting for another training. As by contrast, his Dibbunhood friend Olva was trembling next to him.

“Are you all right?”

The slim ottermaid shrugged her shoulders. “Yes, I’m just, well, worried. Those rats look dangerous.”

Simon cast a glance over their enemies – a tall rat almost fell into the campfire while trying to take a leather flask away from his companion. “I wouldn’t say so.”

The longer Simon was watching vermin, the stronger was the anger burning inside his heart. That scum just killed innocent creatures and ruined their home just for pleasure, and who knows how many they have murdered, enslaved and robbed before? The only thing they really deserved was death!

When the signal came, Simon was first to rush to the attack.

“Redwaaaall!!!”

He struck and stabbed and sliced and slashed. Then suddenly he realized the javelin in his paws was stained with red. And his paws were stained with red. And then everything turned red. The sky, the trees, and the creatures around him – everything was red. But this change didn’t bothered Simon – all he felt was energy and power. And anger. His mouth was wide open with a battlecry, but the only thing he heard was his own heartbeat. The otter struck and stabbed and sliced and slashed until he spun around and there were nobeast to confront him.

“Simon! Stop! Stop!”

The otter’s javelin stopped in the air. Simon knew that voice! He shook his head, and slowly everything became itself – the sky was blue, the trees were green and Triss Swordmaid was standing right in front of him.

The rest of the crew were standing nearby, watching him with mixed expression of astonishment, anxiety and – well, maybe fear?

Fleggen’s shrill voice broke the silence. “Storm’n’thunder! What’s the matter with you, Simon?”

That was like signal for the other Redwallers. “You fought like a madbeast!”

“We called for you, but you didn’t seem to hear!”

“I’ve never seen anything like that!”

“Nay, I’ve seen – Lord Sagaxus of Salamandastron was fighting against corsairs like that!”

Simon lowered his gaze – his javelin and his paws were still stained with red, and he felt dizzy. His father’s anxious voice reached the otter’s ears. “Simon! Are you all right?”

“I… I don’t think so…”

Triss waved her paws to the ottercrew. “Leave us alone! Don’t you see Simon is just too nervous after his first battle? All he needs is fresh air and cold water.”

“I’ve never seen nervous beasts fighting like that,” snapped Fleggen.

“Lead the crew back to Redwall, Fleggen. We’ll catch up with you later.”

Fleggen wanted to object, but then realized he was put in charge of the crew. His narrow chest puffed out with pride. “Ha, there’s nobeast to do it better!”

Some fast, some slow, but soon all Redwallers left the ruined vermin camp. Except Olva.

“Go away, gel, Simon will be all right,” said Rumbol.

“But I’m worried. And I’ll stay here.”

“No need, really. Though… well, okay, stay here. Simon, there’s a stream not far from here. Come on, sonny.”

Simon felt better after he washed his face and paws in the cold water and drunk it until his teeth began to chatter.

Triss waited him to come out of the stream, then asked “Now Simon, what happened with you?”

The otter youngster shrugged his shoulders “Well, I attacked after I had heard the signal, and then… I was fighting, that’s all. Oh, and did we defeat those vermin?”

“Sure we did. That scum was blind drunk with that rotten seaweed grog of them and hardly ever fought back.” The squirrel paused and exchanged glances with Skipper before asking another question “By the way, Simon, what did you feel?”

“Well, I was angry – I mean, with the vermin. I wanted them to die. And I felt like I could fight forever. And... and perhaps I was just too nervous, but it seemed like everything turned red.” Triss frowned, and Simon began to worry. “Is it bad?”

“I don’t know if it’s bad or good,” Triss said simply “But I do know for sure that you were possessed by Bloodwrath.”

Bloodwrath! Simon knew about it. Bloodwrath was an unstoppable rage, which could give a creature the strength of ten badgers and fury of ten wolves and nothing could prevent such a creature from pursuing his or her goal. However, Bloodwrath was notorious for overcoming its possessors, making them to forget anything and everything but their targets, leaving no place for any other feelings. No wonder Simon has always thought of Bloodwrath as of a curse rather then as of a blessing. But the most important, it was a bad quality for an Abbey Warrior. After all, a Warrior is supposed to be noble and selfless creature, not a madbeast possessed by lust for blood!

His emotion most likely could’ve been read in his face, for Triss hurried up to say “Don’t take it to your heart. You know, I also was possessed by Bloodwrath when I was younger.”

“Really?”

“Yes, and I was so overcame with lust for revenge that I cried despairingly when Kurda the Pure Ferret died not from my paw, but killed herself by accident. But later I realized I was wrong; the real warrior should never let his heart rule his mind. So when I’ve sailed back to Riftgard, I did it not to take my revenge, but to free all the slaves suffering there.”

“But that means,” Olva interrupted, “there should be some way to get over that Bloodwrath!”

“Of course there is,” Skipper Rumbol put his paw round Simon’s shoulders. “And you will get over it, me boy, for you’re honest and decent creature. Now let’s go home, before your Mum’s began to worry.”

Later in the evening, Simon left Redwallers dining in the Great Hall and came to the Abbey Pond. Here he was sitting with his heart saddened. Simon had always dreamed of becoming the Abbey Warrior – not for honor or respect of the position, but for he wanted to defend his friends and family and all the weak from evil. Now he was afraid he should say goodbye to this dream. But the otter was much more afraid of himself. What if Bloodwrath will turn him into a murderous monster even worse then vermin?

“Not the best time to fret, Simon,” he heard his mother’s voice a moment before she and Olva came up from the behind and sat down side by side with him. “Why don’t you dine? Friar Furrel and me have cooked your favorite fruitcake.”

Simon shook his head “I’m not hungry.”

“You’re worrying about Bloodwrath, right?” Simon just moved his shoulder saying nothing. “Look, it’s not that bad. There are lots of creatures who have Bloodwrath – almost all Badger Lords, and our Triss herself!”

“But they’re real warriors. I’ll never be anything like them!”

“What a rudderhead you are, Sim,” Olva pointed. “Are you just going to sit here and give up? This ain’t what warriors do! They keep fighting, even if their enemy is Bloodwrath. That’s what you should do – keep training until you get over that curse and become a real warrior yourself!”

“Take this,” Rekka hold him out something round. It was a plain brass locket carved like sun, with short winding ray extending from wide yellow disk. “It belonged to your great ancestor Deyna the Taggerung. This locket was passed from parent to child till it came to Old Skip. He passed it to Rumbol, who passed it to me. And now I’m giving it to you, Simon. Wear it with pride, and always remember who you are, son.”

Simon took the locket and swung it slightly. “I see what you mean. Deyna was raised by vermin, but he’d become fair and true creature. Not like me.”

“What a rubbish!” Rekka cuffed her son’s ears lightly. “Everybeast makes his own fate, that’s what I mean. Deyna became fair and true creature because he had chosen to be one, not because somebeast had decided it instead of him. And you would become a warrior if you choose to be one. Just keep it in mind.”

The young otter smiled and put the locket on, than hugged his mother. “Thank you… thank you for believing in me.”

“You are stronger than you think,” Olva smiled. “If there’s a beast to become our next Abbey Warrior, that’s you!”

Simon squeezed her paw gently “And if there’s a beast who is the best friend ever, that’s you!”

Chapter 6

In a forthight after Bloodpike’s departure, Darm prepared his best ship called Deathtrap to sail to Mossflower. The rest of his army was already there, and Lord of the Seas was ready to start a war. As Maple had predicted, both Shamra and Nabon took their slaves with them, though the weaselmaid didn’t seem to be pleased with it.

Dom could think of nothing but Redwall since she first set her footpaw on the deck. Will she manage to warn Redwallers or she will witness the fall of the Abbey?

Maple tried to reassure her. “Look”, he kept saying, “There’s nothing you could do right now. I’ve heard that we’ll arrive to Mossflower in a half of month if the weather is good. Maybe it’s better to calm down and don’t start worrying till we got here?” But Freedom simply couldn’t stop worrying.

The only good thing about sailing was that Dom didn’t have to see Drooptail and Marduk any more – the stoat had been appointed Fort Commander and the rat was in Bladegirt constantly. However, there were other faces the mousemaid had to see. Like Shamra, whose shot temper hadn’t changed during the journey. Or Zorra the dark-cloaked vixen, Darm’s sly and cunning adviser. Or Captain Greywhisker, an old grizzled pine martin, agile and brisk for his age. Freedom had a good reason to hate this vermin: back on Terramort, she had heard him saying he slew a hogslave trying to escape. Later she finally managed to exchange a few words with Wavehound who told her the said hogslave was Chestnut. The loss of her friend hit Dom badly, and the only appearance of Greywhisker had been giving her pain.

The corsair crew wasn’t any better. At the very first day of sailing, they tried to make Dom and Maple to serve them. The slaves were on the upper deck when a big fox in a company of other vermin called them “Hey you two, bring us a bottle of seaweed grog from caboose!”

“We don’t have to obey your commands,” Freedom said to the fox. “We’re the heirs’ slaves, not yours.”

The fox and his shipmates roared with laughter. “Want to be chained to oars, yeah?” The fox drew a heavy cutlass and stepped closer. “It can be arranged!”

Maple’s voice was nervous. “Lord and the heirs wouldn’t like that, you know.”

Corsairs only grinned, surrounding the slaves. “Who’s said they would know?”

Suddenly a stern voice could be heard. “Stop this! I’m talking to you, Stonetooth!”

The fox turned to a tall lean stoatmaid watching them with her paws crossed on her chest. “That’s none of your business, Amina!”

The next moment Stonetooth bent down, his head to his footpaws, as Amina hit him in stomach with all her might. Then the stoatmaid’s fist smashed Stonetooth’s nose and sent the big fox flying down on the deck. Amina pressed down the neck of her defeated adversary with her footpaw and declared. “First, I’m Lieutenant Amina. Second, it’s forbidden to drink grog while aboard. Third, the slaves ain’t your to command. Fourth, there’s nothing Lord wouldn’t know. Anybeast wants to argue?”

With faint murmurings, corsairs shook their heads and stepped back. “Nay, nay, Amina, er, Lieutenant Amina!”

“It was Stonetooth who started the whole mess!”

“Aye, he’s always been a bully!”

Amina kicked the unfortunate fox lightly and let him go. “Now come and clean your weapons instead of hanging out here!” She turned to the slaves. “And don’t you two have work to do? Go back to your masters!” Then the stoatmaid added a bit softer “Let me or Cap’n Greywhisker know if they trouble you again.”

Since that Freedom and Maple tried to stick as far from the crew as possible; the crew did the same. Nabon still was the only vermin Dom wasn’t afraid of. She wished they could reach Mossflower as soon as possible.

Far away from Deathtrap, another ship sailed across the sea. By that time, Bloodpike had already made her way to the Southern Coast.

Captain Krugg Bloodpike brought his fist down on the table. “Thieves! There are thieves abroad my ship! And it’s your job to catch them, Squinteye!”

His first mate, a stout weasel Squinteye, asked hesitatingly “Maybe it’s not that important, Cap’n? It’s not the end of the world, after all! It’s just a few vittles, a handful of crops here, a pair of scones there, maybe somebeast from the crew was a bit more hungry and we have plenty of vittles.”

Krugg brought his fist down once more, this time on his mate’s head. “Plenty of vittles, aye, but not for thieves to grow fat! I order you to catch them!”

“But how, Cap’n? We’ve searched all the ship from top to bottom, and we’ve found nothing! Each time we’re laying an ambush there’s nobeast to appear, and the next day we’re leaving it there’re vittles missing! What else can we do?”

“How could I know? I’m the Captain, I’m running the whole ship, and it’s your job to keep the crew in order! Lay another ambush if you want, but bring me the thieves!”

In a small cabin next to the Captain’s, Chestnut took his ear away from the thin partition. So, vermin are laying another ambush. Good luck he had left one scone in store. Of course, it’s not enough to feed a hedgehog, even as small as him, but he was afraid to steal more food in case corsairs would guard caboose constantly. Anyway, he would hold out that far, for they will reach the Southern Coast in a day!

Broom clenched his teeth when slave-driver’s lash descended across his back. “Back water and ship oars, lazypaws!” Then Vuten, thin lanky searat, whipped Broom once more, chuckling “Sleep well, tree-hoppers, it’s a long march to your new masters tomorrow!” Still chuckling, he left the bottom deck.

A young female squirrel chained about two rows back growled hushfully, “Can’t wait to choke this scum with his own whip!”

Broom shook his head “I’d liked to, Yew, but we shouldn’t mess in battle with corsairs. Most of oarslaves are exhausted and famished, and those villains are skilled murderers.”

Yew nodded with a deep sigh. “I know. And when it will be time to escape?”

“We should wait till moon is high.”

When moon was high, the slaves easily freed themselves from already notched chains. Most of them armed themselves with the same chains, other took a few weapon Chestnut managed to find – rusted daggers, splintered clubs, spearshaft with no spearhead.

“Wee’s Chesknut?” murmured Myrra. “He shoud ‘ave got ‘ere bye naow!”

Broom looked worried. “Let’s get out of here and see.”

Chestnut had a very good reason for not coming to his friends: when he tried to open the door of his cabin it was locked. He poked the door lightly only to find out it was too solid to break.

“O great seasons,” he whispered. “Why it should have happened tonight? Not the night before or, even better, the night after?”

Picking up a half-broken knife, Chestnut began working on the hinges of the door.

On the other side of the door, Squinteye grinned his teeth. He’d caught the thief at last! He’d noticed scone crumbs in the cabin this morning and just locked it to deprive the thieves of their hide-out. And now, he thought, there’s a thief as well, for who else could be inside? Cap’n will be very glad to know it!

After Squinteye left the upper deck, the oarslaves went up on it. There were only two sentries, and they were looking to the coast, not behind them. Two good strokes with Broom’s spearshaft laid them unconscious.

Broom armed himself with a fallen corsair’s sword. “Yew, Myrra, lead the others away to the shore and further to the dunes. I’ll look for Chestnut.”

The molemaid nodded and waved her paw to the freed slaves, but Yew cut the air with searat’s cutlass. “I’m staying here. Pinesquirrels Tribe doesn’t leave anybeast behind!”

“I don’t want to risk the lives of the others. I’m risking my own, and that’s enough.”

“Broom is right,” a big squirrel put his paw on Yew’s shoulder. “We should take those who can’t defend themselves to the safety.”

The squirrelmaid frowned but eventually nodded to her companion. “Okay, Elm. We will.”

After his friends left the ship, Broom quickly discovered a small cabin near rostrum from which faint scratching noise could have been heard. Holding sword at the ready, the squirrel approached to the cabin. “Who’s inside here?”

He sighed with relief when he heard the familiar voice, “It’s me, Chestnut! Open the door, Broom!”

Then suddenly a pikeshaft was dropped over Broom’s head from behind and was pulled backward, choking him.

“Hahar, decided to run away, squirrel?” growled Krugg Bloodpike. “No slave leaves my ship alive!”

Broom was still holding sword in his paw. He pushed it backward, slicing corsair’s hind paw. The huge fox roared with pain and let his captive go. Broom fell on the deck on all fours, but before he could get up two more vermin lunged at him. Vuten whipped his lash round the slave’s neck while Lugear snatched sword out of his paw and brought his whole weight upon Broom.

Krugg already picked his pike up. “Rotten tree-hopper, you’ll become fishbait before dawn! Arr, what do you want, Squinteye you fool?”

Squinteye was pulling his Captain’s sleeve. “But Cap’n, what ‘bout the one locked in here?” He pointed his claw to the cabin were Chestnut was banging the door furiously and shouting “What’s going on out here? Lemme out, lemme out!”

“Open the door,” ordered Krugg.

Chestnut burst out the cabin into the crew of Bloodpike like spiky lightning. It wasn’t easy to capture him, and those who tried to do this leaped back, yelling in pain at the spikes, embedded in their paws and bodies that they had collected from the hedgehog. Finally Krugg brought him down with a blow of his pikeshaft.

“Now, let’s finish with the- auch!” A big pebble hit corsair Captain’s jaw.

“Freeeedom! Hurray!” With that thunderous cry, even more pebbles came down on the corsairs, hitting them on their heads, paws, sides and backs. Vermin could only whine in pain and cover their heads with paws.

Vuten dropped his lash when a big pebble hit him right between ears. It was the chance! Broom pushed the slave-driver away from him, grabbed a sword from Lugear’s belt and hit him with the flat of his own blade.

Chestnut was already back on his footpaws, making his way through corsair crew, his half-broken knife was replaced with a long dagger. “Broom! Behind you!”

The squirrel ducked, and Vuten’s sword slipped down on the side of Broom’s head instead of chopping him in two. However, Broom was knocked off his footpaws with the blow, and Chestnut rushed to his friend with all speed his short paws had allowed him.

“Noooo!” the hedgehog run Vuten through with dagger before the slave-driver could finish the helpless squirrel off.

“Jump overboard! Quick!” cried a voice somewhere from above.

Chestnut didn’t look up. He grabbed Broom by his waist and shoved him overboard, then jumped off the ship himself.

But corsairs did look up. Three squirrels were hanging on masts ropes.

“One, two, three, go!” All the squirrels cut off the ropes at once, and huge red sail sank down on the vermin crew, capturing almost everybeast beneath the spreading canvas. With furious shouts corsairs tried to cut through the sail, but it wasn’t that easy. Most of them ended up hitting and knocking their own crewmates, and chaos issued.

The squirrels jumped to the shore, where about of dozen freed slaves lead by Myrra were helping Chestnut and Broom out of water. “Ho urr, bee ye hurt?”

Blood was gushing from Broom’s head, and the molemaid couldn’t help shivering while cleaning the wound with salt water, as his whole right ear was sliced clear off with corsair’s sword. Finally, she bandaged her friend’s head with a shred of her tunic. “Burr, dat’ll bee better.”

Broom stirred and opened his eyes. “I’ve told you… to take the others to the safety…”

“And we did, friend. Hid them in the dunes and came back to help you. And just in time, I think!” Elm triumphally waved his self-made sling. “Now lets hurry before that scum will get out of sail!”

“Where we are going?” asked Chestnut while they trotted down the shore.

“Well, north bees nought but dunes, eest bees Juska cump an’ west bees see. So fur we ‘ave unly un way – south!” noted Myrra.

South. The same direction that the Mountain of the Fire Lizard lays. Chestnut automatically touched the bark scroll still hidden in his bosom. He wasn’t going to give it to Longstep whoever he may be. Perhaps, Chestnut thought, he wouldn’t even meet him if they keep away from the mountain.

Chapter 7

Bulot Zig Juskazig met the morning in a good mood. His clan had plenty of forage and weapon, and neither other Juska nor hares from the badger mountain troubled them. But the most important, there were no sight of corsairs for almost two moon-cycles. Sure, sometimes it’s convenient to have an ally whom you can sell the captured slaves or plundered loot. But corsairs were bad allies. They had always been paying less then asked, cheating during trade and threatening with Deathtrap’s fleet destroying them if Juska tried to clamp down on them. No, it was better without any corsairs.

Bulot Zig Juskazig was big and fat rat, but under his clumsy appearance, great strength and cunning mind were hiding. His clan was the only one that dared to live so close to the badger mountain, which other Juska were afraid to approach. Here they could find food, shelter, and no rival Juska clans.

“Chieftain!” a stoat entered Bulot’s tent. Two blue stripes running across his eyes had made him look like a ferret; three yellow circles were laid on his cheeks. The same Juskazig clan tattoos marked everybeast including Bulot himself. “Chieftain, there are beasts approaching our camp. They look like corsairs!”

“Blade’n’thunder on their rotten heads! May they choke with their own grog and fall on their own swords!” Bulot sighed and calmed down a bit. “Let them enter.”

Nevertheless, he’d met corsairs with open paws. “Haha, Krugg me old mate, where you’ve been for so long?”

The fox Captain hugged the big rat. “Hoho, Bulot you pal, sorry I’ve made you wait. You know, I was capturing slaves for you, strong and healthy beasts, just as we’ve agreed. You remember the deal, right?”

“Sure I do! You get me twoscore slaves, and my clan joins your Lord in the war with Redwall and get our share of loot after all.” …as long as we gain more plunder and vittles than we have now, Bulot thought to himself. Then he asked aloud, “But I don’t see any slaves here.”

“Alas, friend.” Krugg shook his head with feigned sorrow. “Who’d thought beasts could be so ungrateful? We’ve spared their lives, and what they did? Escaped our ship. But if my crew and your clan join forces we’ll catch them before noon!”

“Aargh! Don’t you worry, my clan’ll catch them before you sip a cup of nettle beer!”

Marching all morning among dunes with burning sand covering everybeast’s fur and faces and with no food and water was very difficult even for strong creatures, not to mention the freed slaves. Most of them were tired and famished, and even before noon creatures began to fall from exhaustion.

“Urr, we shoud stop fur a rest,” called Myrra when Broom stumbled over the stone.

“Corsairs’ll be on our tails soon,” argued Chestnut. “We’d better keep going!”

“Then lets go,” wheezed Broom. “I’m all right.”

“Nay ye ain’t,” growled the molemaid and glanced back where their other companions were panting heavily. “An’ not unly ye Oi sez.”

“I can see a shadow down here!” cried sharp-eyed Yew. “Looks like some kind of shelter. Better make our way to it and rest here.”

The shadow Yew saw was cast by small group of rocks huddled together. There even was a streamlet running between the rocks where thirsty beasts could drink.

Chestnut was very tired as he hadn’t been used to long walks, and his shoulders ached from the blow of Krugg’s pikeshaft. However, he just took a few gulps of water before taking a look-out behind one of the rocks. “Somebeast should be on guard if… well, just in case!” he said when Myrra joined him.

“Ye sez roight,” the molemaid bowed her velvety head. “Oi’ll gard thee oder slope o’ dere!”

The slaves weren’t resting for a long when Chestnut spotted some vermin coming to the rocks. “It’s corsairs down here!” he cried. “We should leave the rocks, quick!”

“Hurr, we can’t!” cried Myrra. “We bees suraunded, dere’s Juska ‘ere. Oi’ve seen dat painty snauts o’ them beefo! Oh, great rock’n’crag, wot we’ll do?”

Yew was already swinging her sling. “Well, I didn’t come all the way here to be captured again. I’d better die fighting!”

A loud cheer of approval rose among the rocks.

Meanwhile, Bulot stepped out the vermin group. “Hey, in the rocks! We know you are here! It’s useless to fight, just lay down your weapon and surrender. Nobeast will be hurt, I say!”

“Except for the spikehog who slew Vuten and the tree-hopper who wounded me!” cried Krugg with an evil grin.

Bulot gave his ribs a firm thrust. “It’s my slaves now, not yours no more! And I say, nobeast will be hurt! I’m a beast of my word!”

After a short pause, a squirrel appeared from behind a big stone. “Want to get our weapon? Take that!”

The big rat saw the squirrel whirling her sling and dodged with a great swiftness for the creature of his weight. A big pebble zipped a fraction from Bulot’s ear. “It was your choice, pals.” Juskazig Chieftain murmured to himself. “Attack!”

Krugg Bloodpike clenched his deadly weapon. “Now they’ll pay!”

Bulot quickly grabbed the pike away from his paws. “Nay they won’t. I don’t need maimed slaves.” He cried for his clan, “Don’t kill them, stun or wound, hear me?”

The vermin rushed to the rocks slaves were holding, shouting their battlecries.

“Juskaaaaaa!”

“Deathtraaap!”

The slaves responded with rain of pebbles and their own cries. “Hurray! Freeedom!”

Much to surprise of both vermin and slaves, they all had heard a third warcry. “Eulaliaaaa! Death on the wind!”

“Wha-at’s? Blood’n’fur!” Bulot turned round to see four hares charging his clan. The rat’s face blanched with terror. “Retreat! Juskazig, retreat! Retreat, everybeast!”

Krugg seized his ally’s paw. “What’s that? It’s just a bunch of rabbits! Our beasts’ll crush them down!”

“This ain’t ‘just rabbits’, it’s hares from the badger mountain, and they and their badger will blow you to smithereens if you don’t make it off here!”

With those words, Bulot gave an example to his clan, taking to his heels with a great speed for such fat creature. Juska followed him; many of them even threw away their weapon to quicken their running. After a momentary hesitation, corsairs went after them, with Krugg bringing up the rear.

The hares didn’t pursue them. Three of them straggled to fetch dropped weapons, and the fourth one made his way to the rocks. That tall stringy hare with his fur turning gray obviously was a leader. He made a gallant bow to all the creatures in the rocks.

“Ma greetin’ to you, brave goodbeests,” he said with slight accent, drawling words a bit. “Ai hope you wouldn’t mind to share our deener back at jolly old Salamandastron, sah.”

Myrra spoke for everybeast. “Thankee, thankee, koind zurrs, fur yur words an’ fur yur ‘elp. Rock’n’crag, four beests rauted at leest hundred o’ vermint! Oi’ve neve’ seen anythink loike that!”

The hare bowed once more. “We’ve deelt with those Juska before, they’re just bleenkin’ cowards. Think notheen’ about it, sah.”

“Aye, chaps,” said a young light-furred hare coming closer. “Think nothing about it, for you don’t have any jolly vittles for us, wot!”

His pretty haremaid companion twisted his long ear. “Hold your flippin’ tongue, Hopse! Long Patrol doesn’t need any rewards for helpin’ others, wot!”

“That’s a pity,” grumbled the four hare. “All we get is blinkin’ battle wounds and sore paws. Hah, no good deed goes unpunished, wot!”

The hare leader gave him a stern glance, “Ai’m ashamed for you, Corporal Trenton! Hopse is youn’ an’ green, but you should know the preenciples o’ Long Patrol better!” Then he turned to the freed slaves again. “Never mind Trent, hee just likes to complain, wot! Now, you know he’s Corporal Trenton; those two are Hopse an’ Plana, an’ mee is old jolly Captain Longstep.”

“Longstep!” Chestnut breathed out. Longstep is a hare? He’d always thought that he was a vermin, a corsair Captain just like One-ear! “B-but… you’re a hare!”

A smile touched Longstep’s lips. “Veery observantly, chap, for somebeests keep mistaking me for an otter. Now we’d better go to old Salamandastron before our jolly dinner is eeten by some gluttonous mouths!” He led the freed slaves south, accompanied by Broom and Myrra.

Chestnut gave younger hares an inquiring look. “What is Long Patrol?”

Hopse winked and gave him a broad smile, “Long Patrol is us, lad!”

However, Plana explained him, “Long Patrol is a group of fighting hares from Salamandastron. We patrol these shores and keep all the blinkin’ corsairs and Juska and other vermin away from it, to defend simple beasts like you and your friends.”

“Oh, I see. And what is Sala-mana..? Is it the place called the Mountain of the Fire Lizard?”

“Yes, it’s also called the badger mountain, for we’re ruled by the Badger Lord, old jolly Lord Sagaxus. You’ll like him, you see!”

After a time, they saw a huge mountain in the distance. Coming closer, Chestnut could distinguish small windows made in stone and big oaken double door in the bottom. When they drew near, this door was swung open.

“Greetings, my friends!” A young badger stood in the doorway. He wasn’t as big as Chestnut imagined, not even as tall as a hare, and rather narrow-shouldered, wearing simple green tunic and no weapon.

Broom bowed to him. “Lord Sagaxus…”

The badger quickly held him back. “No need for such deference. And, actually, I’m not Lord Sagaxus. My name is Grawn Woodsmith, and I’ve just come visiting. Lord Sagaxus should be in the mess hall, that way.”

“Are you some kind of Lord’s relative, Grawn?” asked Broom while the young badger led them through the wide stone-carved passage.

“Well, actually no, though Lord Sagax is like uncle to me. You see, I’m a carpenter, and my parents were carpenters, and their parents, and so on. We’ve lived in a small pine grove east from here, and then… You know, the winter five seasons ago was especially cruel. My… my parents came down with a fever, and I had to take care of them myself.” Grawn sighed ruefully. “If only I went to seek help! But I was afraid to leave them alone. And then I fell ill myself… Long Patrol hares found our house and nursed me back to life, but… it was too late for my poor parents…”

Myrra patted young badger’s paw with sympathy. “Ho urr, pur creetur, wot a ‘orrible story!”

Grawn gave the kind molemaid a smile. “Thanks. Well, that’s how I met Lord Sagaxus. He was very kind to me, and I was living here for a while, before returning to my old home, though I come visiting fairly often, just like today!”

The mess hall was filled with noise. A lot of hares laughed, joked and sang songs, demanding dinner. For a moment, Chestnut thought he was about to become deaf from that hubbub. "Is there always like this?"

Trenton gave him a scornful glare. “Yes, it is, and you’d better look for another bloomin’ place if you don’t like it, wot wot!” The dark-furred hare twitched his ears and left.

“Ha, my Da says old Trent scoffed a frog when he was a leveret, that’s why he’s so flippin’ sulky, wot,” Hopse patted the hedgehog’s shoulder carefully to avoid spikes. “Let’s find your friends some place to sit. Hey chaps, move your tails, sah, we have guests today! Move aside there, you great fatties, let poorbeasts in!”

By the way, Longstep, Grawn, Broom and Myrra came to an old badger pair.

“Lord Sagaxus…” Broom addressed a huge grizzled male badger.

“I’m afraid I’m not him,” smiled the badger. “My name is Hightor, this is my wife Merola, and Sagax is actually our good son. Ah, here he goes!”

A strong middle-seasoned badger as big as Hightor came into the hall. Broom gave him a light-hearted wink. “Don’t say you ain’t Lord Sagaxus, please!”

The badger was really puzzled. “Why should I? Umm, why everybeast is laughing?” Longstep tried to make his report, but the Badger Lord shook his head. “Later, Cap’n. Our guests are weary and hungry. Let’s have dinner and rest first.”

Chapter 8

Krugg Bloodpike spat at the dry sand. “You an’ your Juska are no more then a bunch of lily-livered cowards! It was just four rabbits, and you let them have your slaves!”

“Then you are no more then half-witted fool,” Bulot snarled in the same tone. “You should be a loony, or a self-murderer, or both, to mess with that fighting hares and their badger leader.”

“So, you are just goin’ to lose your slaves to them?”

“It’s always better to lose slaves then to lose life, fox!”

“Then I will get the slaves,” the corsair Captain snapped back. “My crew’ll drag them out of that mountain, and my crew’ll keep them! Got it, rat?”

Bulot’s pot-belly rocked with laughter. “Wahaha, then your crew’ll become fishbait before down, fox!”

Lord Sagaxus lifted his hefty paw, calling for silence. “Hares of Long Patrol, you can see we have guests today. I want to greet them on behalf of us all and say that they are free to stay as long as they wish.”

Cheerful cries could be heard in response. “Hey, welcome you chaps!”

“Salute to Salamandastron’s guests, wot! Eulalia!”

But one displeased voice shouted them all down. “So, we have to feed that blinkin’ lot of beasts as long as they wish? They’ll eat us out of house and home, sah!”

Bang!

The dignified middle-seasoned hare sitting next to Sagaxus stroke his paw on the table. “Mind your flippin’ manners, Trent!” he cried. “Can’t you hold your blinkin’ tongue if only for a day, wot? If you’re so concerned with our bloomin’ rations, go to the kitchens and help to wash the flippin’ pots as long as our guests are saying here, wot wot wot!”

Sagaxus patted his friends paw peacefully, “Well well, Scarum, calm down. You are too hard on the young fellow.”

“Young fellow? That utter flippin’ rip, blinkin’ rogue’n’bounder? Do you know how many grey hairs he put to my fur, wot wot?”

The big badger couldn’t help smiling. “Hmm, I remember our parents saying the same words about us! Don’t you worry, Scarum. All hares are always a bit wild when they’re young.”

“Well, that un is different, sah,” argued Colonel Bescarum, who preferred the name Scarum. “Trenton is not a jolly leveret any more! I thought he’d become a little wiser when he is somewhat older, but he wouldn’t! I asked him if he wants to leave home for a bloomin’ good adventure or two, do him a bit o’ good – he said no! I made him Corporal to give him more responsibility – he’s the same cheeky blighter, wot wot! And what you think should I do?”

“Just let him be. He’ll outgrow it sooner or later.”

After he finished his dinner, Chestnut found Captain Longstep waiting for him. “Now, lad, what deed you want to say mee?”

Chestnut blinked, baffled. “C-captain?”

“You wanted to say mee sometheen’ back in dunes, sah. You looked like that. And?”

“Well actually, I did.” Chestnut took a deep breath and said, “Captain, do you know somebeast named One-ear?”

Longstep’s reaction surprised the little hog. The hare gave a jump and clapped him on the back, nearly knocking him down. “One-eer! One-eer me old lad! Sure Ai know him, he’s ma best pal! Now, chap, how is he? What do you know o’ him?”

Chestnut took another deep breath and told Longstep everything he knew about One-ear and the task he gave him. He didn’t hold back the news about black rat’s death he overheard on Bloodpike. Longstep stood with his eyes shut, paws clenching One-ear’s bark scroll. Then the hare Captain sighed and turned away from Chestnut, wiping his paw across his eyes.

“Chestnut, pleese, ask Myrra to come to the meetin’ chamber.” He said in flat voice. “You an’ your friends should know aboot it too. Wot.”

The perplexed hedgehog followed the leaving hare with his eyes. He had hoped Longstep would cast some light on the situation, but he’d just tangled it all even more!

Chestnut found Myrra in the sickbay talking with Broom, whose wound had already been treated by healers. When the squirrel had heard about the meeting, he immediately wished to come with them.

“Yu ain’t goin,” Myrra stated. “Yu’re waunded!”

“But I’m alive, right?” Broom got up and set his new bright-red headband on one side, covering his missing ear.

The stern molemaid folded her forepaws. “Weel, dont comploin when yu wull fall somewhee insoide dat mauntoin!”

“Hey, who’s old grumpy beast and who’s young cheerful maid, you or me?”

One of the healers showed them the way to the meeting chamber, where friends found Lord Sagaxus, Hightor, Grawn, Colonel Bescarum, Longstep and another hare officer, unfamiliar to them.

Captain Longstep took the floor. “Weel, everybeest is ‘ere. You all know eech other, right? Ow, sorry. Myrra, Broom, Chestnut – this is Lieutenant Kvalla, sah.” Rather plump middle-seasoned harewife winked to them. “Kvalla, that’s Myrra, Broom and Chestnut. Now, let’s begeen.”

Longstep waved the now-unsealed scroll to them. “Ma ole friend One-eer sent me that jolly message with this young chap. It says Darm Deathtrap – you know, the one callin’ heemself Lord of the Sees, wot, - goin’ to attack jolly well Redwall an’ sendin’ his troops hee. One-eer dunno when or how that flippin’ weesel do it, but he will, for sure. One-eer asks me – sah, I meen you, Lord Sagaxus, - to send a good squad o’ hares to Abbey, about a hundred o’ them, to defend the blooming Redwall. He says, mayhaps Deathtrap’ll leeve when he sees the Abbey ain’t that helpless as he though, wot, but that’s unlikely. If that we’ll war weeth that vermin, sah, sirs’n’marms?”

“Did I get you right,” Kvalla requested, “that One-ear is a vermin? If he is, how could you trust him?”

“One-eer ain’t a vermin, he’s a rat,” the hare Captain stated. “Vermin are scum, murderers, robbers, rascals, knaves who’ll kill theer mothers for a mug o’ grog, wot. A good an’ honest rat ain’t a vermin, wot. One-eer especially. You know what he asked mee in the letter? To be merciful at Darm’s soldiers an’ don’t kill with no reeson. He’s tryin’ to save both bally corsairs an’ jolly woodlanders, see?”

He looked round on his companion. “Righto, Ai’ll tell you from the very beginnin'. You know, Ai’m from far south, Sunlands, if to bee accurate, though Ai’ve come north to live in Southsward, wot. Aye, that was jolly pretty peaceful country – before the War of Thousand Rains came.”

“The great war with reptiles?” Hightor murmured. “Yes, I’ve heard about it. It was twenty – no, twenty-three seasons ago.”

“Righto, Lord. That season was awfully rainy – eet was downpouring for days! Mayhaps that’s why flippin’ reptiles deecided to get Southsward for themselves. Lots of toads, snakes, frogs, lizards, newts, eels and other slimeskin lot. That was a seeson when woodlander’n’vermin fought side by side, for reptiles didn’t want any ‘furpelts’ – that’s how they called us, sah, - in ‘theer’ lands. An’ Ai know what Ai’m talking aboot, bloomin’ weel know! Many o’ ma good friends are vermin, wot. An’ One-eer is ma bestest pal. Ai’d been ten times dead if not for him, wot wot!” The hare Captain quickly turned away and wiped his paw across his eyes. “A gnat in ma eye,” he explained.

Myrra wasn’t fooled with the excuse. “Ow, we see. Friends bees too precious to devoid dem intu woodlande’s an’ vermint, urr!”

“Longstep, you’ve been living in Salamandastron for many seasons, and I trust you,” Lord Sagax declared. “If you say your friend wants to help us, I trust it. Now, what the others think about it?”

“You’re kiddin’!” Bescarum sniffed. “Sure we’ll help jolly Redwall, wot! Can’t allow some flippin’ vermin ruin all those kitchen’n’cellars full o’ the best vittles I’ve ever eaten!”

“Stop thinking about food, Scarum!” smiled Hightor. “And, actually, I agree with you both. Me and Merola will look after the mountain while you’re out.”

“Pinesquirrels Tribe will come with you,” interrupted Broom. “It’s our war too!”

“Are you speaking on behalf of all the former slaves?” asked Sagaxus.

Broom was confused. “Well, I didn’t talk with them yet, but I will. I think most of them will go, and those who won’t…”

“Those who won’t could stay in Salamandastron,” suggested Kvalla. “We’re always glad to help goodbeasts, sah!”

“Very well,” concluded Lord Sagaxus. “And what you have to say, Grawn?”

The young badger spoke for the first time. “Umm, I dunno. Isn’t it dangerous, leaving Salamandastron defenseless?”

“Salamandastron is never defenseless, lad,” smiled Sagax. “Over then five hundreds o’ hares will stay here!”

“Ow, sorry,” Grawn looked down on his paws confusedly. “I shouldn’t have said such a silly thing.”

“You should say what is on your mind and speak from your heart,” the Badger Lord noted. “That’s how youngbeasts grow into the true warriors.”

“But I’m not going to be a warrior. I’m a carpenter, and I’ve always wanted to be one!”

“Never mind. I’ll announce the news to Long Patrol. On the dawn we march to Redwall!”

“Hey, have you heard the news? We march to jolly old Redwall on the dawn, wot wot!” Plana couldn’t hold her joy and hopped high. “Woohoo!”

Trenton frowned at the cheerful haremaid. “Aye, sah, another crazy badger idea. Why, after all, should we, hah?”

Plana stopped dancing on the spot. “Hey, what do you mean? First, Redwall is in danger. And second, we should obey our Badger Lord!”

“That’s the point! Don’t you find it… strange – we, hares, obeying Badger Lord? Hares should be ruled by hares, like in the bloomin’ Ancient Seasons, when we’d been ruled by Hare King Bucko Bigbones, wot wot!”

“Who then had joined jolly Old Lord Brocktree to fight a flippin’ wildcat warlord,” continued Plana. “I’ve read that story. That’s how our jolly Long Patrol had been created, to defend the shores’n’woods from evil.”

“That’s the point! Why should we always guard an’ defend otherbeasts without getting nothin’? Couldn’t they defend their bloomin’ selves, wot?”

“Trenton!” Plana cried with a terror in her voice. “That’s not how goodbeasts do! What, blood’n’vinegar, do you mean?”

Trent waved his paw. “Oh, nothin’. Just forget about it, sah. I say, nothin’…”

Two dark shadows darted from the dunes to a big boulder where about fifty creatures were hiding. Krugg Bloodpike rose to listen his scouts’ report. “Well?”

“Cap’n, the mountain is well-guarded,” said a lean stoat. “We saw sentries in all unshuttered windows.”

“Did the sentries see you?”

“Nay, Cap’n, we were hidin’ well. And we didn’t see no way to get in.”

“Then we should find the way in!” roared Krugg.

“Umm, Captain,” Squinteye muttered. “Why should we risk and mess with that rabbits? Lord Deathtrap ordered us to recruit Juska, that’s all. Why don’t just leave them?”

“Leave my slaves?” the fox Captain kicked his mate’s tail. “No slave leaves my ship alive! I’ll get them alive or dead, and then kill them myself, even if it takes seasons!”

“Sah, then you grow whiskers to your footpaws waitin', fox!” A creature in dark hooded cloak stepped into the circle of vermin.

Krugg gave Squinteye another kick. “Whom you posted at guard, Squintbrains? They can overlook a whale in their flasks, let alone a stranger!” Then Bloodpike faced the outsider. “Who are you and what you want?”

A faint chuckle came from under the hood. “Hah, it doesn’t matter who is me. What does matter is that I have a proposition for you.”

Chapter 9

Without taking his gaze away from sandy dunes, the sentry hare stretched his paw to a plate on the windowsill, but his paw grabbed only a few sticky crumbs. “Hey Chris Bigeater, you’ve scoffed my share o’ candied chestnuts, wot!”

His companion, a large wide-shouldered hare known as Chris Bigbow quickly licked the plate. “Sah, Bigeater yourself, and Bigtongue as well. It’s you who got almost all bloomin’ nuts ‘efore I could lay my paw on them!”

“Ow, an’ you ‘aven’t eaten at all, Bigmouth?”

Chris shrugged his shoulders. “Is that matter, Meekl? We don’t ‘ave no flippin’ chestnuts no more.”

“Hmm, an’ why don’t go an’ pick some from the kitchens, wot?”

“ ‘cos we’re on duty, stupid.”

“Well, you was on duty two day ago when you swiped a jolly full plate o’ oatscones and gobbled it in a minute, wot wot!”

“Two days ago there weren’t no blightin’ corsairs ‘round.” The big hare gave a heavy sigh. “What a pity. I’d give both my ears for a good big oatscone with meadowcream an’ a mug o’ hot tea!”

“Hah, have somebeast just mentioned tea?” Two sentries turned round and saw Trenton carrying a big tray with plate of oatscones and two steaming mugs of tea. “Here is some, wot!”

Chris finished a big mug in two sups and poured more from copper kettle. “Hmm, raspberry’n’honey! Thanks, Trent!”

“Well, I thought you ain’t on duty tonight, Trent?” requested Meekl after drinking his tea. He was surprised when usually sullen and grouchy Corporal gave him a smile.

“Aye, but, sah, I couldn’t sleep and decided to do somethin’ useful.”

“Good lad!” Chris Bigbow yawned as he took a scone from the tray. “Wish I were you, chap. I’d give both my ears for a good jolly nap…” Another yawn twisted his jaw, the hare’s eyes closed and he slowly slipped down the windowpost on the floor.

Meekl suddenly found it difficult to keep his own eyes open. “That’s your blinkin’ tea!” he pointed an accusing claw to Trenton. “You…” Trent clamped his paw about Meekl’s mouth. The sentry tried to fight back, but his strength left him and he could only jerk weakly. Soon the sleeping potion got him, and he slipped on the floor next to Chris.

Trenton pushed him closer to the stone wall and hurried down the stairs. He opened massive door, and fifty corsairs immediately sneaked in, as if they were waiting outside.

“All the sentries are drunk, and Long Patrollers are locked in their chambers,” Trent reported to the vermin Captain.

Krugg pulled his lips into bare-teeth grin. “Fine. Now, where are my slaves?”

“Hah, not so fast, vermin. Remember the deal? First you kill all the flippin’ badgers here…”

“…and get my slaves and leave you to rule the mountain. I do remember. Aaargh, now, show me the way where that splittin’ stripedogs are… hare.”

Corporal Trenton couldn’t help smiling. He was lucky to find that fox! With all the badgers dead, he would kill the fox, get rid of corsairs and rule Salamandastron as true Hare King.

Captain Krugg Bloodpike couldn’t help grinning. He was lucky to find that hare! With all the stripedogs dead, he would kill the hare traitor and take control of the mountain. May be Darm would even let him rule Salamandastron as Lord's Fortress Commander, if he’s lucky!

Grawn Woodsmith didn’t sleep well that night. He pulled the blanket over his head trying to muffle the tramping in the passages. Why, he thought, that sentries are stamping like badgers!

Bang!

The metal sound of a fall and the following gruff voice made him believe that were not sentries.

“Lugear, you stonebrains! Pick up your sword and back in line, right now!”

Without a second hesitation, Grawn swung the door of his room open – and saw a fewscores of vermin staring at him. “Kill him, hah!” cried somebeast from behind, and Grawn shut the door just as a heavy javelin pierced the wood.

Grawn’s heart sank down into his stomach. Vermin in Salamandastron! The young badger had never fought somebeast before. He wasn’t a warrior, but a simple carpenter. What could he do? Grawn knew what he should do to warn his friends and save their lives.

There was no weapon, so he picked up a wooden stool near his bed and rushed out of his room before corsairs broke into.

“Eulaliaa!”

He twirled the stool round, blocking blows of spears and swords and scattering those vermin who came too close. Few well-aimed blows got his paws, which immediately began to bleed, causing the stool to slip from his grasp. But Grawn couldn’t tighten his grip, afraid to lose his weapon. All he could do was to keep fighting and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Eulaliaa! Vermin! Eulaaliiaaa!”

Krugg clenched Trent by shoulder and pulled the hare to him. “You’ve told all the rabbits are locked in!”

“Does this one look like a rabbit?” Trenton snapped. “It’s a stripedog you ought to kill, wot! Can’t you vermin kill off a weaponless youngster, sah?”

Krugg hardly held himself back from smashing the hare’s head. But he still needed that traitor.

“Squinteye, take fifteen o’ the crew an’ shut the stripeface up! The rest o’ all are comin’ with me! An' you, hare, lead us to that striped Lord o’ yours!”

Corsairs rushed upstairs, a mighty shout following them, “Eulaaliiaaaa!”

Grawn’s cry woke Captain Longstep up from his not-so-sound sleep. The old hare was on his footpaws the next moment he’d heard it. “Alarm! Vermeen!”

The other Long Patrollers had also heard the sounds of battle and they began to spring out of their beds without any loss of time. Except Hopse, who just rolled over his side. “Ow, give poor critter a bit o' sleep, wot.”

With no time for explanations, Longstep kicked Hopse out of his bed. “To Lord Sagax, leveret! Plana, Nella – to the armory! Otheers – with me, to battle!”

“Aye aye, sir!” Hopse dashed to the door – only to crash into it at full speed.

Bam!

Following him, Plana almost tripled over the fallen hare. “Ouch, watch your paws!” The haremaid pulled the door handle, but with no luck. “Fur’n’tails, it’s locked!”

Longstep looked round. Almost all the hares had been stored their weapon in the armory, and now only a few had their personal weapon like daggers and rapiers with them. With no hesitation, the hare veteran hacked into the door with his saber.

“Breek the door, lads! Eulaliaa!”

Lord Sagaxus’ personal living quarters were quite high up in the levels of mountain chambers, and Grawn’s battlecry hadn’t reached them. It was loud corsairs’ tramping that had waked Sagax up. He sat upright on cushion-strewn rock ledge that served as a bed. Next moment the thick cedar door creaked open, and Bloodpike’s crew burst into the chamber.

Zzip! Whack!

Four spears pierced the air, and only Sagax’s quick reaction saved him. The Badger Lord dashed right, where his battle-axe hung on the wall. Grabbing his weapon, Sagax turned round and whirled the axe in a circle, deflecting a javelin with it. “Eulaliaa!”

Vermin shrank back. They came here to kill a weaponless badger in his sleep, not to fight a deadly beast in battle rage. Krugg almost shoved them forward. “It’s just one stripedog, kill him!”

Sagaxus’ eyes burned with fierce anger. "Eeulaliaaaaaa!" Three vermin fell under the axe as the badger threw himself at corsairs. They fought him viciously, as now they were fighting for their lives. Lord Sagaxus was a mighty warrior, but the vermin numbers had began to tell when they surrounded him. He wasn’t able to fight them all at once, and his homespun tunic couldn’t defend him from their sharp blades. Soon he would be brought down and slain, Sagax realized as Krugg’s pike stabbed his side.

The Badger Lord grabbed the nearest corsair and hurled him into other vermin, crushing his skull on his companions’ weapon. It gave him some time to escape to the forgeroom through a postern. Sagaxus put a forging hammer under the door handle to prevent corsairs from entering, pulled on a first helmet that fell into his paws and rushed to another door leading back in the passage. Vermin didn’t know about it. If he could attack them from behind…

A voice that definitely belonged to a hare cried from the other side of the door, “Here! This way, sah!”

Corsairs poured into the forge, and Lord Sagaxus was trapped. Now he could only fight. “Eulaaliiaaaa!”

Crack!

A heavy strike of a hatchet almost split Grawn’s stool in two. One more blow – and I’ll be weaponless, thought young badger. He laid a stoat low by thwacking him hard between the ears with the stool, but the force of the blow snapped the weapon in two halves. Still holding a broken piece of wood, Grawn tried to fight with it, with no success. He knew he’d better pick up some other weapon, but he was too afraid to. Three or four vermin already lay down slain, though the rest of them kept pressing Grawn against the wall. Where’s Long Patrol? “Eulaliaaa!”

Suddenly came a reply cry. “Freeedom! Hurray!”

More then a score of squirrels and other beasts appeared from another passage. Trenton had locked the hares’ chambers, but he hadn’t locked the sickbay where most of the freed slaves were. They attacked corsairs like madbeasts, their weapon was few, but their fury and spirit were great. And now they had the corsairs outnumbered.

Squinteye turned round, trying to find a way to escape. “Retreat! Get out of ‘ere!”

Clang! Somebeast struck him a mighty blow at the base of his skull that broke the weasel’s neck immediately. Elm spat at the dead corsair’s body and put a heave wooden tray aside. “Now the fight was fair, coward!”

All the other vermin were already killed, and Chestnut and Myrra were helping Grawn back on his footpaws. The youngster gasped for air, his paws and sides bleeding. “Vermin!” he croaked. “Come that way! Want to kill Lord Sagaxus! Quick!”

Lord Sagaxus managed to overthrow a big oaken table and hide behind it, fending away attacking corsairs.

Soon he heard a hare’s voice once more, but this time he recognized it. “Surrender, stripedog! You’re done with, wot!”

“What?.. Trenton?..”

The hare gave a satisfied chuckle. “Surprised? Now your flippin’ rule is over, tyrant!”

Sagaxus was so staggered that he missed a searat’s blow, and sharp blade slashed his cheek. He hardly restrained his Bloodwrath from overcoming him and battered the rat with his axe. “Why, Trent? I’ve always tried to be a fair and just ruler! What I’ve done wrong?”

“You? You keep usurping the throne o’ hares, just like your blinkin’ Brocktree did, and make us fight your wars! Hah, but now I will rule this mountain as the only rightful Hare King!”

Krugg decided he had enough. “Wrong, rabbit.” With these words, he thrust his pike into the traitor’s throat. “I will rule this mountain!” he said, looking right into Trent’s eyes clouded with death.

“Eulaliaa!”

At the same time as the battlecry cut through the air, Krugg noticed a dark shadow dash from behind with the corner of his eye and rapidly jumped away, turning round. Hightor grabbed the fox’s pike and snapped it with his bare paws like a twig. Near the entrance in the forgeroom, his wife Merola was fighting corsairs with a big javelin. Krugg staggered back from the enraged badger, then grabbed one of his crew and shoved him toward Hightor, who immediately killed the unlucky corsair with the remains of pike. Krugg had never been as scared in whole his life. Three full-grown infuriated badgers were more than he or his crew could handle.

To make things worse, great number of hares, squirrels and other creatures burst into the forgeroom and joined the battle. “Eulaliaaa! Hurrey! Freeedom!”

Krugg restrained the panic that almost seized him. He won’t lose! He never loses! Some small hedgehog attacked him – the fox easily dodged his blow, grabbed him by neck and pressed the hog’s own dagger to his throat. “One more move and he’ll die!”

The battle stopped; Salamandastron’s dwellers circled him watchfully, holding their weapon at ready. Three survived corsairs – all that had left of Bloodpike’s crew – snuggled close to their Captain, uncertain if they should fight or surrender. The hedgehog tried to break free, but Krugg tightened his grip. “Hold still, if don’t want to lose your head!”

Lord Sagaxus stepped forward. His fur and tunic were covered with blood, and he had to lean on his battle-axe to stand upright, but his voice was as firm and unshaken as ever. “What do you want, vermin?”

Krugg grinned his teeth. He was in full control of the situation once more! “I want me and my crew out of here – alive’n’safe, or you’ll be able to play ball with this spikehog’s head!”

“Leave our friend alone and never let me catch sight of you again, for next time you won’t be so lucky, fox.”

“No!” Broom stepped between his friends and corsairs. “You can’t let this murderer go like that! Lord, there were more then threescore squirrels living on Pineforest Isle. There are less then three dozens here, for Krugg killed all too old, young and weak to be slaves!”

Sagax put his heavy paw on the squirrel’s shoulder. “I know how you feel, but a creature’s life is a too high price to pay for revenge.”

“I’m going to pay with my own life for it.” Broom turned to the fox Captain. “You, vermin! I challenge you to a duel to death. Just you’n’me, nobeast would intervene. If you win, you an’ you corsairs leave the mountain safe. And if I win…”

“You ain’t in condition to trade, tree-hopper,” growled Krugg.

“Then you’re a white-livered coward who should have been born a rabbit. No, even a rabbit can fight when cornered, and you were made Captain for killing defenseless!”

Corsair’s eyes shone with anger, his sense suppressed by his arrogance. “Give me weapon, and I’ll shut you up forever!”

Broom willingly pulled out his short twin swords that Kvalla recently gave him, but Sagaxus held him back. “You’ll have a little chance against such a skilled and strong fighter. I’ll fight this battle instead of you.”

“It’s a too big service to ask you. And you’re wounded.”

Badger Lord looked down on his wounds as if he’d just noticed them. “I’ll have them bandaged. Besides, I’m stronger then you and have more experience. It’s my battle too.”

“Don’t make my whiskers laugh, sah!” Bescarum nudged his old friend carefully. “I’ll come’n’battle that bally blinkin’ slysnout, wot!”

“I’m old, but still strong enough to fight one more battle,” Hightor interrupted.

Lord Sagaxus shook his head. “I’m the Badger Lord of Salamandastron. It’s my duty to defend otherbeasts. I’ll fight this duel.”

“But I won’t!” Krugg raised his voice, still holding Chestnut hostage. “I ain’t fighting that madbeast!”

“Afraid to lose over a half-dead stripedog?” Sagaxus suggested with a scornful smile.

The big fox snorted, his fear gone. “Give me weapon, and I’ll finish what my crew has begun!”

Chapter 10

In a quarter of hour, Sagaxus stepped in the main hall, his wounds bandaged. Kvalla approached the fox Captain, handing him a big spear. “Here, firm’n’solid. No cheating!”

But Krugg Bloodpike hesitated to take the weapon. The look of Lord Sagaxus reminded him how dangerous that beast could be. “An’ what’s a guarantee you ain’t skewer me with arrows as soon as I let the hedgepig go?”

“I give you my word of Badger Lord, word of honest creature,” Sagax replied. “I promise, nobeast will touch you but me.”

Krugg tilted his head, as if thinking, and, throwing off Chestnut, grabbed the spear and lunged himself into attack.

Clang! The axe-blade and the spearhead met. Both beasts bore down, trying to force each other’s weapon to the floor. Sagax gritted his teeth and held, the muscles in his aching paws screaming. Feeling his strength slowly leaving him, the badger broke away, causing Krugg to lose his balance. Without losing a second, Badger Lord darted forward, and the tip of his axe sank deep into Krugg’s right side.

With a yell of fury, the fox rained down a whole hail of blows, his eyes wide and crazy. Sagaxus whirled his axe, parrying the blows. Most of them were disordered and impetuous, thus easy to fend off, but some of them got him in his shoulder and chest. Finally, Sagax struck the spear away and slid his own weapon straight toward Krugg’s heart. Corsair stepped back hurriedly, and Sagaxus lunged back before he went off-balance.

Two enemies circled each other, watching for an opening they could use. They exchanged few more blows, but none of them was winning… till Lord Sagaxus slipped on blood dripped onto the floor from their wounds. In his haste to restore the balance, the badger stumbled, falling flat on his back.

Krugg was over him less then in a moment. Crash! Sagaxus tried to shield himself with his axe as corsair dealt a mighty blow that shattered the axe-shaft and notched the spearhead. With the second blow, Krugg thrust the spear into the badger’s throat.

“SAGAX!!!” Bescarum darted to his life-long friend; fury and fear could be read on his face.

Hightor barely managed to held him back, grabbing the struggling and kicking hare by paws. “My son gave his word, and we should hold it,” he said, his rough voice trembling. Then he turned to Krugg, “You’ve won the battle, vermin. Go away.”

Instead, the fox Captain stepped closer to his defeated adversary and raised his spear, snarling with evil grin. “Hah, you’ve said ‘duel to death’, so…”

All the swords, sabers, javelins and spears were aimed at him in a moment, and the air was fill with angry shouts, Scarum’s voice overwhelmed them all, “Let me go, stinky stripedog, I’ll rip that scum into pieces with my bare paws, I didn’t gave any flippin’ promises, wot wot!!”

Grawn and Broom had to help Hightor to struggle the enraged hare down, while Merola stepped out of the crowd. “Leave my son alone and disappear, fox, or you’ll regret my son hadn’t killed you!”

Krugg backed away hastily, for the badgerwife’s unbridled and at the same time ice-cold fury was greater then he had ever seen.

“Lord Sagaxus said you can leave the mountain unharmed, but he didn’t say all your crimes would remain unpunished”, Merola continued. “We give you time before dawn. That’s fair. But as soon as the first sunbeam touch the sky, Long Patrol would be on your tracks.”

Her last words hung in the air, for the fox and his subordinates left Salamandastron with all speed they could master.

“Sagax!!!” Scarum finally break loose from Hightor's grip and fell on his knees before his friend. “Sagax!!!”

The big badger’s eyes were wide open, but his chest barely moved. The blood trickled from his lips, and the blood run from his throat, forming a pool on the stone floor.

“Sagaxus, Sagax, my dear boy!” Merola seized her son’s paw. The iron Badger Lady had gone; there were just old badgermum weeping over her son.

“We need healers, quick!” cried Hightor, one of the few creatures remaining calm and collected, though his voice was about to crack, and his cheeks were damp.

Myrra, Kvalla and some others bent over Sagaxus, trying to stop bleeding with cotton and bandage his throat, but the wound was too severe. Everybeast felt it, and yet everybeast was afraid to admit it: Lord Sagaxus had one paw in the Dark Forest.

The world reeled before Sagaxus’ eyes, covering with white shiny haze. He saw his best friend Scarum, his parents, his old and new friends, and couldn’t help smiling. He had a good life. He defended the weak, protected both young and old and always was ready to guard the right. On his life path, he had lost many, but he had found more then he lost. He hadn’t any more time to do deeds he could have done, but he still did a great of things. He knew very well that he would die soon, very soon. And he wasn’t afraid of it. After all, dying that young not so bad if you had a good life.

Sagaxus looked over his friends gathering around him, and saw tears running down everybeast’s cheeks. Why were they crying? Didn’t they know he would be waiting for them to join him as long as it would take? Sagax didn’t want his friends to be unhappy. With the last strain, Badger Lord whispered, “Don’t cry…”

Sagaxus from Salamandastron, fond son and true friend, passed away smiling.

Out of Salamandastron, four corsairs were making their way through the dunes.

“Why-why, ain’t it brave Cap’n Krugg and his glorious crew? What’ve you done so great to keep those four lives of yours?”

Krugg raised his head and looked at Bulot Zig and his Juska that surrounded them. “I’ve killed the great stripedog Lord!”

All Juska gasped with terror, and even Bulot looked surprised before he pulled himself together and continued in a derisive tone, “Ah, I made a mistake. You didn’t keep those four lives of yours, for now that fighting hares will get you at the other end of the world.”

“You’re right,” much to everybeast’s surprise, agreed Krugg. “We shouldn’t have attacked that mountain. Now those hares won’t stop till they have our dead bodies. It’s impossible to stay here any longer, but we can survive if we join our forces. Bulot, you have more then fifty strong warriors, and I have a ship and only I can steer it. You will still have your share of loot if you join Lord Deathtrap, and when Redwall fall, he’ll conquer the badger mountain!”

“Hmm. It’s very convincing,” nodded the rat chieftain. “But you made a slip in your great speech. It’s your dead body hares want, not ours.”

Bulot’s paw rose so fast that nobeast saw a dagger flying. Whirr! The short wide blade thrust Krugg right in his throat. The fox Captain coughed slightly and grabbed the dagger, as if trying to pull it back, then dropped dead on the sand.

“Typical corsair,” snorted Bulot. “Meddles in matters that don't concern him, makes a mess of everything and thinks we would keep helping him. Arrgh, I had enough of this. No more corsairs! Now you,” Bulot turned his face to the remaining corsairs. They stepped back in fear, but other Juska pushed them to their leader. “What about you, hm?”

Lugear was the first to find right answer. “Cap’n… er, sir… er, chieftain, we want to join Juskazig clan.”

“Good!” Bulot smiled – neither grinned nor smirked, but gave a pleased smile. “You’re cleverer then your Cap’n! Come on, we’ll make a proper Juska of you three!”

Grawn let his head fall into his paws. The previous night and the following day seemed like one long nightmare for him. Corsairs attack, the duel, Sagaxus’ death… Grawn tried to occupy himself with routine duties like helping the wounded or standing on guard, but nothing could distract him from the recent events. Even Longstep’s news about the fox’s death didn’t help. Then there was long funeral in the ancient tomb where other long dead Badger Lords were buried…

There was a light knock at the door. “Grawn?” Hightor came in and sat near young badger. “I… I know it’s a stupid question, but still… how are you?”

“Bad,” sighed Grawn without looking at his companion. “I feel like I had lost my parents for a second time. Lord Sagaxus saved me, but I did nothing to save him! I just let him die! I didn’t like the very idea of duel, and yet I hadn’t even tried to talk him out of this!”

“You know, Broom also blames himself for challenging that corsair Captain in the first place. And Chestnut just can’t forgive himself for letting the enemy to capture him. And me…” Hightor’s voice stumbled. He looked like just a one day made him ten seasons older. “It’s me who should have fought that battle! It’s me who should have lain in that stone tomb – me, not Sagax!” The old badger stayed silent for a while, then continued. “Well, I must have a serious talk with you. Both Longstep and Broom agrees that a mixed patrol of hares and Pinesquirrels and other beasts should depart for Redwall tomorrow. We’d better hurry – that weasel scum can already be in Mossflower.”

“And so?..” Grawn looked up at the former Badger Lord. Why he is telling me this?

“Grawn, we want you to lead the Patrol… as the new Badger Lord.”

“Wh-what?! Why – why me?” mumbled Grawn. “I’m not a warrior! I can’t lead Long Patrol in battle, I can't even fight well!”

“Can’t you? I saw you handling bow and arrows at the Spring Archery Competition.”

Competition, not battle! An’ – an’ there are lots of more experienced warriors – like Colonel Bescarum, say…”

Hightor shook his head. “Scarum… is still in the tomb. He can’t get over Sagax’s death that fast… and I afraid won’t be able to do it at least for a month… like my poor wife… and me. Pains to admit it, but I’m too old to lead the Patrol again. My paws full of aches since I broke that pike last night, and it’s no good… Hares need a Badger Lord, Grawn. The one to lead them, the one to unite them, the one they can rely on… And you are the only one who can help now.”

Grawn swallowed hard. He would come and help to defend Redwall with no hesitation, but to become a Badger Lord… It was too great responsibility for him. And still… he couldn’t just leave his friends without support.

“I… I will lead the hares… if Longstep and other officers will help me…”

Much to his embarrassment, Hightor got up and bowed to him. “Then I greet you, Lord Grawn Woodsmith!”

Freedom tightened her grip on the paw-rails as Deathtrap soared up on a big wave. Her joy of approaching to the land was overshadowed by the fact that the ship headed straight into a large group of enormous rocks rising near the shore.

"Take ‘er in steady! Half-speed ahead!” cried Captain Greywhisker steering the ship.

He’s going to kill us all, thought Dom, feeling sick from the constant sways.

“He is not,” said somebeast behind her back. Realizing that she said her thoughts aloud, the young mousemaid turned round to see Maple. The squirrel was calm and easy – as he always was. “Shamra says Greywhisker is wise and experienced Captain. There’s nothing to worry about while he’s in charge of the ship.”

“I’d never thought I say it, but hope Shamra is right,” sighed Freedom. After all, at least we ain’t chained to oars. One of the few good things on Deathtrap was the absence of any slaves except for Dom and Maple, because Darm took more vermin instead, and now most of the corsair crew sat at the rowlocks.

"Get ready to push 'er off 'n take 'er 'round, mates! Now!"

A big group of vermin hurried to the boards, carrying oars and long poles, ready to fend the rocks off. Amina roughly pushed two slaves aside. “Off my way, lazypaws!”

Dom and Maple stepped closer to the mast and grasped it, for now the swells were high.

“How can we help?” asked Maple politely.

“Just don’t get under my paws, lame-brains!”

The ship slowly turned round, and Freedom saw where they headed – right into a narrow passage between the rocks. As Deathtrap came closer, corsairs fend the rock off by pushing against it with oars and long poles. Dom held her breath for a moment, afraid the ship would crash into high pinnacles, but she passed through into some kind of a bay shielded from wind and waves and hidden from sight with the same stones that nearly killed them. Five more ships were at an anchor here.

“Make ready to tie up, for'ard!”

The moment they were near a flat terrace, some vermin whirled weighted lines. The strong slender ropes snaked out and up, nooses clasped round the carved stone pillars. Deathtrap was secured safely, and bobbed up and down alongside the rocks, with the slack lines allowing her to ride easily on the swells.

“Wish I could steer ship like that,” murmured Maple.

“And I wish I could set my paw on a land once more,” whispered Dom.

“Then we’d better come’n’help our masters down off the ship. Don’t know about Nabon, but Shamra surely dock my tail if I’m late to obey!”

Freedom frowned. She just couldn’t comprehend the relationship between Maple and Shamra. Her friend often showed up with a blackeye or puff ear, and yet he kept insisting that Shamra was neither evil nor cruel, but just ill-tempered, intolerant and unruly. Luckily for Dom, Nabon was different – he just left his slave alone most of the time. He was almost… no, surely not a friend – he was a weasel, after all! – but at least not like his farther and sister.

A small group of vermin was waiting on the terrace. A middle-sized sinewy ferret openly grinned as Greywhisker came down the shore. “Haha, you’re getting old, raggy-pelt. It got you too long to get here!”

The pine martin tried to give the ferret a death glance, but failed because he couldn’t help smiling. “I’m older then you, dirtyface, but I still have strength enough to toss you in the sea!”

“Tut-tut, my granny in her eighty seasons are faster then you, slugpaws!”

“Slugpaws yourself, you slynose!”

Darm Deathtrap coughed down, and two vermin, who were about to give each other a friendly trash, turned to face him.

“Make your report, Captain Catcher,” ordered Lord of the Seas.

“Yes, sir,” bowed the ferret. “The crews stand camp in a dark elm grove, no woodlanders are here. Tamant regularly sends Ragfeathers to spy on Redwall without them noticing, and nothing changed anymore. And Captain Krugg still hadn’t arrived, sir.”

“Strange. He should have been here long ago. But I’ll deal with him later. Now we all march to Redwall – unseen and unheard, everybeast!”

“We know the safe way here,” added Captain Catcher. “Woodlanders don’t know about it, and it takes just a few days.”

One by one, corsairs followed Catcher and Darm, carrying weapon, tents, different tools and utensils and other possessions necessary for making camp. Shamra purposely let herself lag behind to walk near Greywhisker in the middle of column. Her brother, vice versa, hurried to keep pace with Darm. “Farther, will you make me and Shamra Captains when we get to Redwall?”

“And do you want me to?”

“Yes! Well… I don’t want to be an ordinary crewbeast – it isn’t proper for your son, right?”

“Hmm… At least one of my children shows some ambition. You will be a Captain – when you prove you’re worthy to be one. First I should test you strength, courage and loyalty.”

“I am worthy… I mean, I’ll do my beast to pass the test…”

Freedom followed Nabon, a big haversack of his possessions on her back. Every muscle in her body urged her to run – as fast as possible, as far as possible. But she didn’t need Maple’s reasonable advice to know that it wouldn’t do any use. They would get to Mossflower with vermin – and then she and Maple escape, by any cost.

Chapter 11

The second month of summer is not a season for a raging stormgale, but surely, the storm that broke over Mossflower Woods just forgot about it. All the night the wind keened and the rain battered, and next morning Redwall Abbey looked like it got right into the middle of a maelstrom. The orchard turned into a mess of blown twigs, knocked fruits and broken branches, but the biggest damage was done to an extremely old thick ash tree, which was almost split in two, a half of the trunk by some miracle hung over the earth without falling.

Next morning all Abbeydwellers were busy repairing the damage, with the task of bringing the broken tree down being done by a combined crew of moles, otters and squirrels. Dibbuns tried to be as useful as possible and, of course, caused most of the troubles.

“Eric, Winnie, you should be gathering these apples, not eating them!”

“Ripple, dear, leave that branch alone before you got full paws of splinters!”

“Cleve, get down here, ye fiend! Ye’re too small for climbing that bloomin’ tree, wot!”

A little squirrelbabe with fuzzy pelt climbed higher on the broken tree and stick tongue to an old fat harenurse. “Ha ho, try to catch me! Oouch!” Too busy teasing his nanny, Cleve didn’t look behind his back, and two strong paws firmly grabbed him.

“You shouldn’t talk like this to Memm Flackery,” scolded Triss as she put the Dibbun down. “She is worried about you.”

“Sorry,” peeped Cleve and turned to face the Abbey Warrior. “But I want to climb the tree! I’ve never climbed broken trees before!”

“Hohoho, bet you haven’t even seen trees split like that before!” laughed Gurdle Sprink who was sitting on an upturned wheelbarrow under an apple tree. Unlike his friends Skipper and Urrm, the old Cellarhog didn’t want to retire, though his assistant Toobles was doing almost all the work instead of him. “What do you think, Memm?”

The old harenurse shook her completely white head. “I think I won’t cope with these scoundrels alone, wot! Urrm, where are you?”

The former Foremole always was glad to help his friend with Dibbuns, but now he was busy explaining something to Ruggum. “Hurr, surry, Memm”, he said. “But Ruggum ask’d me to ‘elp him with dat tree…”

“Ye, Oi ain’t iks-… iks-perienced enough to brink dat tree dawn with no advice,” nodded Ruggum and touched his nose guiltily. “Surry.”

“I can help, I think,” intervened Abbes Bikkle. She raised her paws to get everybeast’s attention. “Well-well, little sirs’n’marms! I remember I promised to show Brockhall to you, righto? Who wants to come?”

“Yaaohoo-oo!” In a moment, Dibbuns were bouncing and dancing round the Abbey’s elders, waving their paws. But not all of them. Some of the babes began to wail immediately, crying they want to help with the tree, and some were obviously torn between these two opinions.

Memm Flackery closed her long ears. “Oh my, not all at once, ye little rascals! Listen, all of you can come to Brockhall – t’day ot t’morrow, as you want! Now, raise paws those who want to see that jolly Brockhall t’day – no, Ripple, one paw is enough! One, two… eight. And who wants to help here now and come to Brockhall t’morrow? One, two… ten…”

“Are you sure you cope with the rest of them, Memm?”

The harenurse sighed and looked at the Abbess as if she was still a Dibbun. “I handled ye’n’Ruggum, and these youngsters are angels compared to you two – well, may be except Cleve… an’ Winnie… an’…”

“Okey, okey,” Abbess Bikkle waved her paws peacefully. “But I need some help. Churk, will you…”

The otterwife gave one of her bright smiles. “You think I can miss an opportunity to visit Brockhall once more?”

Brockhall, the ancient home of badgers in Mossflower, was discovered by Redwallers fifteen seasons ago and, due to Abbeydwellers work and Churk studies of history, it was restored to the same state as it was during seasons of Martin the Warrior. As everybeast had agreed, the ancient place had been turned into some kind of museum where young and old could learn about the history of their lands.

Hearing his sister’s voice, Skipper Rumbol put down a pile of wood he was carrying. “Well, having one more otter in the group surely will help. And we can bring back some fresh watershrimp and good long watercress. Maybe some hotroot too, if we spot any. Hey, Simon, Olva, will you go?”

Two friends exchanged glances. “Aren’t we needed here?”

“You needed here?” Old Skipper flapped his rudder on the earth. “I need good hotroot soup for supper much more! And besides,” he gave them a wink, “it too cruel to make you young work with us old grumpy beasts! Go now!”

“Wait for a minute!” Triss Swordmaid came up to her apprentice, the Sword of Martin the Warrior in her paws. “Simon, I think you forgot something.”

“No, Triss, I didn’t… Wait, do you mean… No! It’s your sword!”

Triss smiled. “The sword belongs to Martin, not me. And today I trust you with it to defend our little ones.”

Simon shook his head in terror. “No, I can’t…just can’t take it! At least, not before I get rid of Bloodwrath,” he added faintly. All the last month he couldn’t force himself to practice well – he was too afraid to do something wrong and unlash a monster inside of him.

“Simon, I can see very well you aren’t going to let Bloodwrath rule you,” seriously said Triss. “So let's say I appoint you to do my duties today. Who knows – may be Martin will give you some advice?”

Glad to hear his mentor’s approval, Simon saluted with the Sword of Martin. “I won’t let you down!”

We finally made it! thought Freedom as she entered corsair camp with Maple. Though she loathed vermin, she couldn’t help admiring their mastery in making camps. Scores of tents were scattered among the trees, camouflaged with leaves and branches, several small fireplaces put near them, but with no fire. Vermin either were hidden in tents or were sitting outside, cleaning weapons, fixing their possessions or just talking, but all at all they produced far smaller amount of noise then one could expect from so many beasts. Freedom had to admit that one could pass forty steps aside the camp and doesn’t notice it.

“Look, up here,” whispered Maple and nudged her lightly. Dom threw back her head and saw several platforms on the trees, with at least two archers on each. It won’t be easy to make off here, she though with regret. I’d better to come up with something, and soon!

Nabon gave her an opportunity as he ordered to bring some water to cook meal.

Dom slightly bowed her head. “Can I take Maple to help me, sir?”

“If my sister let him go.”

The mousemaid bowed once more, a plan began to form in her head. The only place where they could get water was a broad stream they crossed earlier. Dom was a good swimmer (that’s what usually happens if your parents are otters), but she was dubious if she could say the same about Maple. But the current was swift, so they had a good chance to escape.

Freedom finally spotted Maple in the crowd of vermin when strong claws grabbed her shoulder. “There are you, slave! You come to Lord with me!”

The mousemaid twisted her head and squinted to see her capturer. It was Tanhide, a large female stoat, one of Darm’s bodyguards. “But I didn’t break any rules!” Dom tried to protest. “I was about to…”

Tanhide shut her up with a rough clip. “I don’t care, mouse, you go to Lord! And it’s your luck Lord don’t want you to stain the scene with blood, or I’d teach you arguing with guards!”

The scene?… Carried away by the stoat, Freedom turned back to see Maple being captured just like she was. Minutes later she and Maple were shoved into Darm Deathtrap’s large tent, bound and gagged.

The corsair chieftain was dressing for a battle. He had already changed his vest and kilt for a long chainmail tunic and silver-plated armor, blue cloak draped about him. Darm hadn’t even looked at the slaves as his guards entered. “Leave the slaves here, I’ll deal with them,” he ordered putting on a pointed silver-plated helmet.

Freedom felt sick. Darm was speaking like they weren’t living creatures at all! That was awfully bad. They would be dead soon. But why? pondered the mousemaid. Darm surely couldn’t know I was going to escape! Or could he?..

With a faint tap, an ordinary-looking brown rat entered the tent. “Lord, I have urgent news.”

“Speak, Tamant.”

“The squirrel Abbess and the otter Skipper with three more otters and more then half-dozen of small fry left Redwall and now head south-east, to a place called Brockhall. There is a Warrior’s apprentice among them, the berserker otter I reported you on earlier.”

“All the adult beasts must die,” said Darm as if they were talking about picking flowers, not killing creatures. “The babes would make good hostages. Take fifty soldiers and leave immediately.”

Freedom gulped. Redwallers wouldn’t have a chance against so many corsairs! As if repeating her thoughts, Tanhide whispered to her companion, a female ferret that captured Maple, “Fifty soldiers to kill six creatures? Hmm, that’s a waste of force!”

Darm Deathtrap shifted his gaze on the stoat, and Tanhide lowered her head. “Not every day you have a chance to kill two of Abbeyleaders and a Warrior,” said the weasel Lord. “I want no slipups. That’s why you and Baffla will come with Tamant’s crew.” Two guards saluted him with no words, and Darm finally paid his attention to Dom and Maple. “Now it’s time to set the scene…”

The role of scene was played by a wide clearing away from the camp, with a large elm standing on the edge. Freedom and Maple were tied to that elm tightly, and Dom couldn’t even loosen ropes, no matter how much she twitched and jerked.

Maple hadn’t even tried to do anything, though he was frowning much more then usual. “Look, it’s Amina over here,” he moved his shoulder where the stoat Lieutenant leaned on a bow in a crowd of corsairs, who slowly gathered on the clearing.

Dom felt sorry her paws weren’t free to punch her friend. “We’re about to be… I don’t know what are we about to be, but it’s definitely not a pleasant thing, and you’re bothered with some vermin?”

“Hey, Amina was kinder to us than… Look, they’re coming!”

Vermin gave them way as Darm and his heirs entered the scene, scowling Shamra lagging behind, Nabon hurrying to get ahead of Darm. Then the young weasel stopped as abruptly as if he hit an invisible wall. He obviously hadn’t expected to see what he saw. “E-mm… Father… What’s going on? Why my servant is tied?”

“It’s the test you both should pass,” was the answer followed. “Kill your slave – and you’ll become a Captain.”

Astonished Nabon stood silent for a second, feeling everybeast’s eyes on him. “But... but I thought it’ll be some sort of battle… may be a duel…”

“That would have been too easy,” noted Darm. “It’s easy to kill in the battle, and it’s far easier to kill enemies. But to kill a creature that made you no evil, that served you well, that you got used to… Yes, that needs guts. It’s difficult, but once you’ve done with it, you are able to destroy anything standing between you and your goal.”

Nabon swallowed hard. “May be there is some other way…”

“There is no other way. Kill the slave and be my Captain – or you aren’t worthy being my heir and be an ordinary soldier instead.”

Nabon shifted his gaze from his farther to Dom, slowly drew a long dagger and stepped closer. Now Freedom was trying to tear herself away from ropes with all her strength, but still with no success. At first the mousemaid was more then determined not to let vermin enjoy her cry, but as her master was reluctantly coming up to her, her spirit gave way to her sense. “Nabon, you know very well, I didn’t do anything wrong to be killed just because! You don’t want to do it – then don’t!”

Slowly, but firmly the young weasel shook his head. “Sorry, Dom,” he whispered. “But I want to be a Captain more than I don’t want to kill you.”

“Phh! Don’t make me wait, bratter,” Shamra, who was staying silent all the time earlier, shouldered Nabon aside and tore the dagger out of him. “If you have no backbone to kill a slave, let me do it! Ha, I’ve been dreaming about getting rid of that poor excuse of a bushtail for a month!”

Chapter 12

“Here it is – Brockhall!”

A loud ‘wow’ breathed out of Dibbuns’ mouths. They were sure they had just seen the biggest, the oldest and the most impressive oak ever – and it was close to the truth. The tree heaved its boughs high into the sky, so thick that only half-dozen badgers holding paws could embrace its trunk. There were not a single leaf or bud on its bare gnarled branches, what made the oak look like an ancient creature with its paws risen.

The silence was broken by Cleve’s excited voice, “I wonna climb the tree!”

“Afraid you can’t,” said Abbess Bikkle with a smile. “This oak has been standing here before Redwall was built – imagine how old it is? It’s long dead now, nothing but a tree skeleton here. The branches will break even under such a light Dibbun as you!”

The squirrelbabe nodded with a sigh, and Simon decided to cheer him up. “Try to climb my back instead, little warrior!” he said as he put Cleve on his shoulders. Simon wore the Sword of Martin across his back, and Cleve immediately clutched its red pommel stone, happy again.

Churk opened a small door in the trunk and lit two lanterns that hang inside. “Common, I’ll tell you the history of this place. Simon, Olva, look after Dibbuns, we don’t want anybeast to get lost!” As all Redwallers entered the gloomy passage inside, the Abbey Recorder pointed at the carvings on the walls. “Look, they were made by Lady Sable Brock, one of the first rulers of Brockhall…”

Simon soon found himself occupied with the story, and only some time after noticed there were no more extra-weight on his shoulders. “Cleve?.. Cleve! Where’s Cleve?”

Bikkle raised her lantern higher – there were only seven Dibbuns with them. “He must have gone to climb the oak!”

“I’ll get him!” Simon was closest to the exit, and he rushed away from Brockhall as if he was chased by wolves. When he went out, Cleve had already climbed on the lowest tree branch.

“Look, it ain’t break!” At that very moment, the branch broke, and the squirrelbabe plummeted down with a short ‘eep’.

“Krrreeeeegaaaaah!” A cloud of black feathers dived from the sky, and Cleve cried again as he was caught by a giant hawk.

Dibbun’s cry for help waked something inside Simon, and a fire of rage blazed up in his chest. “Aaaar-rraaagh!” The young otter jumped for the hawk with his teeth and claws bare, the weight of his body hit the bird in mid-flight, and both creatures fell on the earth, Simon atop his enemy, biting and clawing and trying to reach the hawk’s throat.

“Simon, stop! I order it!” The cold liquid sloshed in his face, and Simon backed away, tossing his head to shake off drops of mint tea from his whiskers. Bloodwrath slowly faded away, and he could see the Abbess standing between him and the hawk. The bird was squatting, his tattered feathers bristled, his claws clenching. Bikkle held her paws high as a sign of peace. “You are Truvo Blackhawk, right? I remember you, our Infirmary Keepers treated your dislocated wing two seasons ago. We are peaceful creatures, there’s no need to fight. What happened here?”

“Gaah!” shrieked the hawk. “I was trying to save your nestling from falling when that crazy riverdog attacked me!”

Simon dropped his head in shame, his conscience was giving him more pain then a wound on his shoulder left by the carved beak. Now he recognized the hawk. What he had feared most happened: he let Bloodwrath overcome him and attacked a friend. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “I was confused. I thought you was attacking a Dibbun.”

Truvo ruffled his plumage. “Kraah, I came here not to snatch your useless whining maggot, maddog!”

‘Useless whining maggot’ had already got over with his fear and now was tugging Truvo’s tail. “Mr. Hawk, gimme a ride, pleeease, I wonna fly!”

Truvo stared at the annoying squirrelbabe as hawks alone can stare, and Olva hurried to take Cleve away. “Cleve, it’s impolite to pester our friend like that.”

“Let me add my apologies to Simon’s,” Bikkle bowed her head to the fierce bird. “We should thank you for helping our Dibbun.”

“Hmm. Then my two-season old debt for your help is paid off.” Truvo turned away and flapped his wings, preparing to leave.

“Wait, sir!” cried Olva. “You said you came here not to help Cleve. Then, what did you come for?”

“Kreeh, there’re fifty vermin on your tracks. I’ve heard them say they will kill you and take you nestlings hostages. Krreegaah, dirty cowards! They are brave enough to ravage nests and kill nestlings, but not brave enough to face a warrior like me! Krrreee, white-feathered, stinky-beaked, pale-hearted…”

“Okay, okay, we got the point!” interrupted Rumbol. “I mean, thank you, but we should hurry, mates! We can’t go back the same way, but…”

“…But we can use Brockhall’s secret entrance to escape!” concluded Churk, finishing her brother’s thought. “Me and Abbess know it best, so we’ll show the way. Rumbol, Simon, watch our backs. Olva, try to cover the tracks. And carry all the Dibbuns, everybeast, we can’t lose any more time!”

“Sure, sis!” Rumbol saluted with his rudder.

Simon’s little sister Ripple clutched to her brother’ hind paw. “Bad beasties comin’?”

Simon held her tightly. “Yes, but don’t worry, I won’t let them harm you!”

With the dagger in her paw and a grin on her face, Shamra was coming to the slaves. Freedom was trying to break free with no effect, her teeth clenched. It was no use to ask for mercy, and the mousemaid knew it.

Slash! With quick move of the dagger ropes bound Dom and Maple were cut. But instead of finishing off slaves that slumped to the ground, Shamra turned to her father. “Remember what I’ve said you a month ago, oldfur? It’s my will to decide if my slave lives or not, not yours! And I say – these two live!”

Instead of losing his temper, Darm inquired, “Don’t you want to be a Captain?”

“I do. But I don’t want to be your Captain and obey you for the rest of my life. I’m not going to dance to your piping any more. I’ve got enough of you and your wars and you conquests. I’m leaving!”

While everybeast’s eyes were fixed on warlord’s daughter, Freedom and Maple got to their paws and backed to the forest edge. However, under shadows of elms they both stopped, too curious to leave.

Now Nabon, still shocked, looked at his sister almost pleadingly. “But Shamra! You – you shouldn’t leave! How…”

“Poor fool brother,” sniffed Shamra. “You still think Deathtrap will share his power with you? Even if you become a Captain, you’ll always be nothing but a puppet in his paws! Come with me – you still have a chance to leave that madbeast!”

“No!” cried Nabon. “You – you are lying! No!”

“I was wrong to call you my heir,” growled Darm, and his voice gave Freedom shivers. “I’ve sensed you’ll never be a great warleader like me!”

Shamra laughed madly. “Didn’t you realize, Yellowbelly? I’m happy I’ll never be a monster like you! I’m ashamed I have your blood in my veins! Now, what would you do? Kill me like you’ve killed my mother? If that, why don’t you just order to – FIRE!”

Z-zip! S-shh! Whi-ip!

All Freedom saw next was a blurry movement behind Darm’s back, and then vermin just stumbled down on the earth with arrows in their bodies and cut wounds. Most of the corsairs made the same mistake as Dom did – they were too occupied with the scene before them that they hardly noticed anything suspicious until it was too late. About a dozen of vermin cut through their crewmates’ line and now stood near Shamra, their weapon at ready.

Amina stood next to the weaselmaid, an arrow notched to her bow aimed at Darm. Shamra waved her paw to Lord of the Seas. “Don’t hope your armor will save you, Amina is aiming for eyes, so don’t try to follow me!” she cried while backing away with her supporters, and Dom and Maple also moved back not to get under their paws.

“You won’t get out of this so easy,” promised Darm. “You are already dead. I’ll get you even if the earth would swallow you up.”

Shamra didn’t response. At the very edge of the clearing, the small group of vermin finally turned and ran to the forest, and soon it turned out that Freedom and Maple were running with them. The mousemaid was too busy running to be surprised when Amina didn’t let stumbled Maple fall. “Come on, don’t slow us down!”

After crossing a small spinney, they ran right into a shallow stream and jumped into it with a splash. Even in this summer month, the water was icy cold, and Dom had to hold her breath when they went downstream.

The corsairs headed to an old tree leaning over the water. Shamra was the first to jump on the trunk and, digging her claws deep in the bark, climbed up, disappearing among the branches. One after another, vermin followed her, but at her turn Freedom could only gave a jump and try to grab the branches. “I – I can’t climb trees!” Next moment two strong rats grabbed her under the paws and literally dragged her upward. The mousemaid immediately clutched to the trunk: looking down made her sick.

“Now sh-hh!” The hush was needless. Now they could hear angry shouts of corsairs following them, and everybeast fell silent, some even held their breath. Their pursuers were examining the stream, and Dom rejoiced that they lost the trail. She could only hope none of them noticed scratched treebark and movement among the branches. Finally, corsairs left the stream and disappeared in the forest.

Freedom sighed with relief. They were free at last, free… but only due to Shamra. The last thing she expected from that bad-tempered brat was to save them… and the last thing she expected from Nabon was trying to kill her. Dom glanced at the weaselmaid. She may dislike her, but now she owed her her life.

It wasn’t easy to say these words, but Dom whispered, “Th-thank you, Shamra… you saved me and Maple.”

“Don’t you think I cared about you,” spat Shamra. “I just didn’t want to follow orders of that poor excuse of a weasel, and then you two could be caught and give us away.”

“And what are you going to do now?” asked Maple in low voice. “Wait for Captain Greywhisker?”

Shamra got closer to her former slave and twitched his ear. “So you were eavesdropping, bushtail!”

“Leave him alone!” hissed Freedom. She won’t let anybeast abuse her friend anymore!

“I’m okay,” reassured her Maple, moving aside from the weaselmaid. “And I wasn’t eavesdropping. I was looking and listening carefully. And I saw you, marm Shamra, and you, Lieutenant Amina, and Captain Greywhisker, and some others, talking more often then other crewbeasts. So I thought you are plotting something…”

“Why, he is an observant chap, noticing what we managed to hide from spies!” Amina shook her head. “We need the one like him in our crew!”

Shamra rolled her eyes. “Put up with that stupid furball again? No, thanks!”

“And we are not going to put up with you, to begin with!” argued Dom.

“Fine. Then go wherever you want… but don’t get on my way anymore!” said Shamra.

“P-ss! Shamra?” Like a silent lightning, Greywhisker climbed the tree and was on a branch next to the weaselmaid in a second. “I gathered a score of our followers, they’re waiting over there, but we must hurry!”

“Good. What about those sent after us? And Deathtrap?”

“We’re lucky that Darm sent Tamant and his best trackers after Abbeyleaders. And Darm took his army to Redwall, saying he’ll attack it leaderless and deal with you later. But there is bad news: one of ours was wounded during your escape… and Clyde got him before me.”

“Stinky foul dirty…” Shamra lowered her voice and uttered more curses. “That hangbeast will make poor creature say everything he does and doesn't know!”

“That’s it. So I immediately came here. Hellteeth, I didn’t even have time to talk to my old buddy Catcher! Sure he’d joined us…”

“No time to wait for him! The faster we get to the ships and leave this country…”

“Are we going to Terramort?” interrupted Amina. “Drooptail and Houk are loyal to Darm, but Viro Strongclaw, Captain of soldiers, can support you…”

“That prideful arrogant strutter? ‘Backstabber’, that’s what even a fool can read in his face,” Sharma made a sour muzzle. “We won’t sail to Terramort, at least not before I recruit a good full crew, Amina, no matter how you miss your fiancé.”

Amina frowned and crossed her paws on her chest, miraculously managing not to fall from the branch. “Broknose ain’t my fiancé!”

“Wherever. Now, it’s time to go!” One after another, vermin silently slid down the earth and disappeared in the forest till there were only Freedom and Maple on the tree.

Two friends were silent for a moment, then Dom asked in offended tone, “So, all that time you knew Shamra was plotting something, and said me nothing?”

Maple tried to avoid her gaze. “S-sorry, I just was afraid to. I mean, there were spies, and it was dangerous, and I could give everybeast away, and…”

“Well, I see.” The mousemaid nodded, her offense gone. “Now, when we’re finally in Mossflower and we’re finally free, we must go to that – Brockhall, right? – and help Redwallers!” She began to go down the branches only to feel giddy. “…as soon as I manage to get down.”

Maple didn’t seem to be bothered by the height. “Why to get down? We can travel from tree to tree!”

“Looks like you forgot one little thing, Maple: I’m a mouse, not a squirrel. I can’t climb trees and jump from branch to branch. I just can’t!”

“But it’s faster, and there’re still Darm’s corsairs lurking down in the forest. Look, I’ll show you.” The squirrel went down on all fours and walked over a branch. “Grip the branch with all your paws, use your tail to balance yourself. Don’t be afraid if the branch bent under your weight, it’ll hold. Oh, did I mentioned not looking down?”

At that very moment, Dom looked down. “Can I close my eyes?”

“No. Try to concentrate on something. Think… I know! Think about Redwall! You won’t help the Abbey if you fall to death, right?” Surprisingly, it helped, and Maple went on to the next lesson. “Now grab that upper branch, swing yourself back and forth and let the branch carry you to this bough – it’s firm enough to hold me, see? Try it yourself!”

Freedom clenched her teeth and grabbed the branch. For few terrible moments her footpaws hung in the air unsupported, and then they softly hit the bough. “I did it!”

“Aye, you did it,” agreed Maple. “But remember, vermin left earlier then we did, so let’s hurry!”

Chapter 13

Constantly turning to watch their backs, Redwallers hurried to cross Brockhall’s spacious rooms. Simon kept straining his ears in case their followers catch up with them. Wait, is it a sound of footfalls, or my ears deceiving me? Then why it’s in front of us, not behind?

Abbess Bikkle, having better hearing then small-eared otters, stopped and raised her paw. “Beasts in the next passage,” she whispered. “More then two of them.”

Skipper Rumbol nodded to his son, and they both silently handed Dibbuns they carried to Olva and Churk. Simon unsheathed the Sword of Martin, and Rumbol loaded his sling. Without uttering a word, they came to the next passage.

“Whoo’s dere, Skippa?” cried one of the Dibbuns before the others could stop his mouth.

“Redwaaaall!” Without wasting any more time, otters leaped forward, their weapon at ready. Simon seized the sword’s hilt so tight that his claws ached. He won’t lose his head! He won’t!

The otters landed in front of small group of moles, which backed away in terror. “Whoa! Dun’t kill us, aurr!”

“Yeep! We didn’t knuw it’s yer ‘ouse, zurr!”

When Rumbol saw who stalked his friends, he immediately put down his sling. “Sorry we frightened you, friends, we thought it was vermin. We are from Redwall Abbey.” He quickly introduced himself and his companions, who now joined him.

One of the moles, a short male with glossy black pelt, stepped forward and touched his nose in a traditional mole gesture. “Burr, we’re Claypaws, koind zurrs. Oi’m Roben Claypaw, dese’re moi brother Rupet, moi parents Rolf’n’Marfa, moi wife Deelma an’ our likkle ones, Renee’n’Allie. We came to Mossflauwer from west to settle ‘ere, an’ found dis ‘uose few days ago. Dere wein’t nobeast, so we stayed ‘ere. Is it yer ‘uose?”

Abbess Bikkle shook her head. “No, Brockhall doesn’t belong to anybeast. And it’s not safe here, there are vermin on our trail, and they surely won’t spare your family!”

Rolf Claypaw angrily rapped his walking cane on the stone floor. “Urr, rotten-harted vermint! I’ve dealt with dat scam when I was younger…”

Rupet touched his father’s paw. “Sure, Pa, but we’d better woit through it in our secret hoideout.”

“Which hideout?” asked Churk. “I’ve studied this place, but don’t remember anything like this!”

“Dat’s an empty chamber in nort rooms,” explained Roben. “Dat’s not our ‘ouse, so we stayed in dat chamber. Wery well hid, only moles will foind one. We all can hoide ‘ere.”

“Ah, a sanded-in passage!” remembered the otter Recorder. “Urrm said it’s too old to reconstruct. Is it big enough to hide us all?”

Moles nodded, but Skipper Rumbol shook his head. “Thanks, but we’d better give word to Redwall.”

“Wait. We can’t put our Dibbuns under such a risk,” said Bikkle with commanding notes in her voice. “We can’t run across Mossflower with vermin on our tail and little ones in our paws. Me and Dibbuns will stay with Claypaws.”

“But I ain’t wanna to stay!” cried Cleve. “I fight vermin, like Triss’n’Simon!”

“You are too small for a fight,” noted Skipper and went on arguing with Abbess. “Staying here is risky too! What if you are caught?”

“We’ve hid eivery trace ‘ere, an’ not a crack is between door an’ woll,” reassured them Roben. “Not an eartworm will foind it!”

“Look, Skipper, you’n’others are all otters. You can escape fastest by the water,” said Bikkle in such harsh tone Simon rarely heard from her. “If vermin catch up with you, me and Dibbuns will only slow you down. You should return to Redwall fastest. I’m the Abbess of Redwall, and your duty is to obey me. We’ll be alright.”

Rumbol frowned – he knew it’s useless to argue when the Abbes was that serious. “Right, but… take care of each other.”

When the sun climbed up the sky to its peak and began to go down, the great ash tree was chopped down, some of its branches and boughs already hewn off and a piece of its trunk cleaved. Triss put away her woodcutter axe and looked round with pride. “Good work, everybeast! I won’t be wrong to say we all deserved a big savory lunch!”

“Excellent!” Brandon, a young squirrel that was chopping off branches with Triss, jumped down of the fallen tree. “I’ll come to Friar Furrel and bring some treetop broth with Summer Salad, apple pie'n'meadowcream and strawberry cordial… may be some cheese… and blueberry tart…”

Other Redwallers were quick to add their favorite dishes to the list. “An’ deeper'n'ever pie, ho urr!”

“Hotroot soup, mate!”

“Bilberry pudding!”

Brandon waved his paws in a mock terror. “Right, I’ll just tell Furrel a gang of hungry beasts going to plunder her kitchens!”

“I think mint tea and a few oatscones with honey is enough for me,” said Triss when the laughter died out. “Can you bring them to the eastern walltop, Bran?”

Young squirrel nodded, and Triss asked Old Skipper. “Would you join me, friend?”

The aging otter sat among the molecrew and imitated mole accent, “Ho urr, Oi’d bees a mole t’day, an’ we moles nivver understand ‘ow ye squirrels so lurve heights. No zurr, Oi’ll stay on gud firm soil!”

The Abbey Warrior responded in the same fashion, “Burr, then Oi’ll wait t‘ll ye turn back to h’otter on the wall.”

When she was on the walltop, the squirrel spread the cloth and laid out the food. “Okay, if that riverdog doesn’t want to join me, at least I can enjoy a quiet break here!”

Nice warm weather, good food and rest after hard work had its effect on Triss, and soon she dozed off. She woke up when somebeast touched her paw. Triss opened her eyes and saw Martin the Warrior standing next to her. The celebrated hero of the past pointed his paw somewhere over Triss’ head. “Look, Trisscar Swordmaid, and beware!”

Triss realized she was sitting on the western walltop, not the eastern one, but it didn’t surprise her much. She looked across the western plains and the road and saw a cloud of dust rising over the road. It was rising higher and higher, and finally it blocked up sunlight, casting a dark shadow over the Abbey. “What’s that, Martin?” cried Triss.

Martin’s voice was firm and serious, and yet it gave her hope. “A darkness is coming, Trisscar, a darkness created by cruelty and evil. Redwallers will need all their strength and courage, all the fire burning in their hearts to banish that darkness. Stand firm, my friend.”

Triss opened her eyes – she woke up again, this time for real. She was relieved to see there were no darkness, but just a quiet summer forest lying before the wall. Then she saw a shadow moving in the underbrush. A rat! The squirrel warrior stared at the forest attentively and spotted even more vermin sneaking here.

“Vermin!” shouted Triss jumping on her footpaws. “Alarm! Vermin at the gates!”

Outside the Redwall walls, deep under the cover of thick bushes, Darm Deathtrap knitted his brow. “Kill the squirrel! And tell Catcher to attack!”

S-wishh! Triss’ cry was cut short when an arrow pierced her chest, and squirrel tumbled down the walltop to the ground.

“They killed Triss!” cried somebeast in despair.

Skipper was first to jump to his friend and bow over her. “She’s alive!” shouted he loud enough to outvoice other Abbeydwellers as he checked her pulse. “Call for sister Vernal! Others – arm yourselves, everybeast! We’ll deal with the vermin that wounded our Triss!”

Fleggen ran up the walltop before Old Skipper. “Logalogalog! Where’s that vermin?”

As if responding to his question, a warcry came from the north. “Death! Death! Deathtraaap!”

The shrew rushed to the northern walltop, but Skipper grabbed him by shoulder before he could go. “Wait! Vermin are coming from the north, but Triss was shot at the eastern walltop! It must be some kind of distraction! You stay here and watch over the walls!”

Fleggen tore himself free from the otter’s grip. “What?! I won’t stay aside while you fight vermin, riverdog!”

Skipper grabbed the young Guosim by his throat. “No time for silly squabbles! You stay here, shrew!”

Leaving Fleggen behind, Skipper made his way to the northern walltop and quickly looked over battlements. At least eighty vermin were almost under the Abbey walls. All Skipper had time to pick up with him were a sling and a pebble pouch, but even this simple weapon was deadly in old veteran’s paws. Three or four corsairs were knocked down lifeless with his clear shots before vermin return volley of arrows forced him to hide behind the battlements.

Down on the Abbey lawn Sister Vernal, Infirmary Keeper of Redwall, was treating Triss’ wounds carefully, commenting aloud for other Abbeydwellers, who considered it their duty to check on their Warrior before going to the wall. “She will live, she will… the wound not very deep, they missed the heart, though the lung may be caught in… and her hindpaw is broken by the fall… Wait, Turfee, where are you going?”

Her assistant, a young mouse named Turfee, ran up the wall stairs with healer’s pouch in one paw and an axe in another. “They need either healer or warrior up the walls, and I can be both! Redwaaall!”

Meanwhile, corsairs came close enough to throw metal hooks over the wall, but none of them managed to get high up the ropes, as Redwallers immediately cut them through. Then Ruggum’s molecrew made its way up the walltop, carrying baskets of the rubbish Redwallers cleaned before the lunch - blown twigs, broken branches, mixed earth and mud. Foremole and his crew hurtled the baskets over the parapet wall, knocking vermin down and causing confusion among corsairs. This and the increasing hail of arrows, stones and javelins finally made vermin retreat and disappear in the woods.

“Hurr-hurr-hurrey, we won!” chanted Ruggum happily.

Skipper was fast to bring him down the earth. “They retreated too easily. It cannot that simple, bet it!”

“Vermin! Attack from the south!” cried Fleggen from his post. “Logalogalogaloog!”

Skipper cursed into his whiskers. “To the southern walltop! Ruggum, stay here! Redwaaall!”

Outside the Redwall walls, deep under the cover of thick bushes, Darm Deathtrap smiled. Excellent! His plan finally snapped into action. He had corsairs enough just to succeed by dint of their numbers, but he didn’t want to waste his soldiers. Let Redwallers run from one walltop to the other while two of his crews attack in turn one after another, in charges short enough not to kill too many soldiers. Then, when Redwallers would be too exhausted… Redwall Abbey will become his!

One after another, small groups of corsairs had been coming back and reporting the results of their pursuit to Nabon. Though Darm’s son wasn’t left in charge of the camp, he was acting as if he was, because Captain Arrowfly was wounded during Shamra’s escape and now was treated by healers, and Captain Clyde was busy – judging by the shouts heard from his tent, he was questioning Shamra’s follower captured today. At least, Clyde alone called it ‘questioning’. All the others called it ‘torture’.

The news weren’t good. Shamra escaped, Captain Greywhisker disappeared together with a score of soldiers, and all the tracks of them were lost.

“Shall we stay in the camp, sir?”

Nabon hesitated before answering. His farther would have ordered something useful. Thinking about Darm, Nabon felt a prickle of resentment. Not only Darm didn’t make his son Captain – he left him in camp like a troublesome whelp! “It’s too dangerous, Nabon. You’ll have another chance to prove yourself.” He might have said this, but for Nabon it meant, “You’re too young and inexperienced and would ruin everything.”

Now, with Clyde’s Lieutenant waiting for his command, Nabon felt he had that very chance to prove himself. The young weasel tried to remember his father’s lessons, and it immediately sprang to his mind that Darm was always worried not to let other woodlanders interfere in his plans. If it’s a problem, I’ll remove it.

He looked down on a short wall-eyed ferret. “What’s your name? Badeye? You should know these woods and its inhabitants well, right? Then look what we are going to do…”

“Are you sure we didn’t miss that Brockhall?” asked Freedom as she stopped to catch her breath on a thick birch bough. “We’ve been heading south-east for ages!”

Maple shrugged. “How could I know? I don’t even know how that Brockhall looks like!”

“Yeek! Yahee! Aaaarr!” A loud shriek rose somewhere not far from two friends.

“Here!” Maple flashed among the branches like a red lightning, Dom barely keeping pace with him. Then the young squirrel stopped so abruptly that Dom almost crashed into him.

They were at the very edge of a large clearing with an ancient dead oak in the middle of it. Freedom eagerly looked down and felt giddy again – not because of the height, but because of the sight she saw. Large bunch of vermin was dragging four moles and a squirrelmaid out of entrance hidden in oak trunk, three rats carried a big sack full of tiny writhing crying creatures. Woodlanders tried to struggle despite being bound, but with no success.

Freedom instinctively moved forward, but Maple held her back. “Shh! There’re too many of them!” They ducked back into the cover of leaves, and Dom silently thanked seasons that her green dress and Maple’s dark blue shirt and breeches were unnoticeable among green and brown of tree crowns.

Meanwhile, under the oak Captain Tamant bowed over the squirrelmaid. “Think you can hide from Silentblade? Ha, I’m a better tracker than you think of me. Now, where are the otters, Bikkle? And don’t say you’d rather die then tell me. Your old molefriend had already made this mistake, and you know I won’t hesitate to… honor the request.”

The squirrelmaid kicked out at the rat with her tightly lashed footpaws, but Tamant easily dodged the blow. “Tanhide, Baffla! Take eight crewbeasts, I can’t waste time here! Question these ones, you may kill or maim some, but the babes should be unharmed, it’s the order from Lord! If they don’t tell you where the otters are – kill them. If they do – pass me the word… and kill them anyway.”

The corsairs silently disappeared in the oak dark entrance, and Dom grabbed Maple’s paw. “It’s ten of them now, we can cope with them!”

This time Maple didn’t argue. “I have an idea. I’ll distract vermin and lure them into the woods, and you will free the prisoners!”

Two friends shook paws, and while Freedom went down to the lowest branch, the squirrel boldly jumped on the upper branch where everybeast could see him.

“Take that, you spineless scumbags!” He picked a chestnut from the sprout and hurled it at the vermin; the nut hit Tanhide right between her ears. “In the bull’s eye! Right in the empty pan you call a head!”

Tanhide was more surprised then angry. “It’s a squirrel slave!”

“You made a right guess – strange for a beast with a pumpkin on her shoulders!” Maple mocked, throwing more chestnuts at the corsairs. “I didn’t expect this from such a stinky toad as you!” Some vermin fired a few arrows at him, but Maple easily hid himself in the thick leaves. “Nice try, but you’re too slow-witted and slow-pawed, Tanny!”

This time the stoat guard was literally shaking with rage. “Stonetooth, Brick, you watch over the prisoners! You all – catch this bushtail! I’ll bring his head to Lord myself!”

A laugh was heard from the wood. “Dream more, stoathide!”

Eight vermin disappeared among the trees, and Freedom frowned at two tough-looking foxes that guarded woodlanders. The first part of Maple’s plan worked right; now she had to think how to deal with the rest of it.

Chapter 14

Freedom knew she would never match two corsairs in combat. She didn’t ever have any weapon! She could go down and gather some stones, since she was not bad with sling back in Riftgard, but she was out of practice for many seasons. Besides, stones alone surely were not enough to knock down such big beasts as foxes. No, Dom needed something heavier…

It’ll work if I’m lucky, thought the mousemaid and threw a broken branch into the bushes under the tree. The foxes tensed as they heard the rustling, but didn’t move. Freedom hurled down another branch, this time a bigger one. Finally, one of the foxes – Stonetooth, as Dom had remembered, - gave his crewmate a sign to stay silent and carefully walked in the direction of the noise, his cutlass at ready.

The mousemaid held her breath when the big fox stepped under the tree. She waited till he was under the branch she was sitting on, then jumped down, landing right onto Stonetooth’s shoulders. Her weight and the force of her jump joined, knocking the fox down. The corsair fell onto the earth facedown, Freedom tumbled over his back. Stonetooth was half-stunned, but still tried to get up. Dom was faster. She grabbed the cutlass he dropped and whacked the fox over his head twice. He went limp, fully-stunned now.

“Alarm! Alarm!” Another fox rushed to her crying, though it was unknown whom he tried to alert. Dom jumped aside, and a speartip aimed at her throat sliced her shoulder. She still had cutlass in her paws, but she had neither strength nor skill to defeat Brick in fair fight. But she could outwit him. Dodging thrusts of spear, Freedom ran to the chestnut tree. Here she pretended to stumble and cried out aloud like in pain. Leaning on cutlass, she stood with her back to the tree trunk, as if unable to run.

Brick saw it and paused to take a better aim. “Ha, mouse. Not so fast now, eh?”

Thru-ush! Dom jumped aside, and corsair’s spear sank deep into the trunk. Brick tried to tug it out, but the spearhead was stuck. Freedom made a good use of the moment, and slashed the vermin with cutlass. The blade went deep into his side, and the fox fell on his knees from the blow. The wound was deep, but not fatal, and he turned to the mousemaid and stared at her with shock, as if asking, “Had you really just killed me?”

That look was unbearable, and Dom slashed him again – once, twice. One of the blows reached its goal, and Brick winced in agony and gulped, then sank on the earth, dead. Freedom dropped the cutlass. She hated vermin, and yet that look of a dying corsair made her fur stand on end.

I had to kill him, the mousemaid reminded herself. If I haven’t killed him, he would have killed me. Killed those woodlanders on the clearing. Killed the babies they captured. Killed a lot of creatures who can’t fight back.

That thought made her feel better, and she practically replaced the blood-stained cutlass with a short dagger from Brick’s belt – the cutlass was too heavy for the little mousemaid.

She hurried back to the clearing and freed the woodlanders, then untied the big sack, and a bunch of small babes ran to the adults crying. The squirrelmaid tried to hug them all at once and briefly nodded to Dom. “Thanks, friend. I’m Bikkle, Abbess of Redwall, and the sooner we get to the Abbey the better.”

Freedom silently wondered at such a young beast being an Abbess, but there where no time to wonder. “Are all of you here?”

The elderly molewife named Marfa shook her head, tears running down her cheeks. “Hurr, moi old Rolf stayed insoide dat ‘ouse, buhuhur.”

“Then I’ll bring him here!” Freedom turned to the oak, but Bikkle held her by sleeve.

Making sure Dibbuns can’t hear her, she whispered, “You can’t bring Rolf. He… corsairs killed him when they captured us.”

“Ooh, sorry,” sighed the mousemaid.

“Redwall is that way,” Abbess Bikkle pointed to the north. “Everybeast, try to carry the Dibbuns! Freedom, does your friend knows where to look for us?”

Dom was confused. They hadn’t thought it over. “No…”

“Then I’ll try to see him first,” said Bikkle as she climbed up a tree. Freedom took two small mouselets in her paws and headed north with the moles. They weren’t walking long when she heard rustles and cracks from the above.

“Your friend’s coming!” cried Bikkle. “Hey, we are here!”

Maple almost dropped down the earth, his paws shaking, his breath heavy and his eyes wide. “I- I lured them away! I left them in the woods, but they will head back soon!”

One of the mouselets Dom carried began to cry again, the other one tried to break free. “Lemme go, I kick stinky vermin!”

Bikkle gave them a strict glance. “You won’t fight anybeast, Winnie. Eric, stop crying, dear.” Then she turned back to Maple. “Where are the corsairs?”

He silently pointed north.

“No, anythink but not dere!” cried Deelma. But Freedom, as well as everybeast else, could already hear distant cries of vermin coming to them.

“We’ll take that way!” the Abbess waved her paw to the right. “Go now! Me and Maple will hold them for a while!”

Trying to stop Dibbuns from crying, moles and Dom came the way Bikkle pointed. Vermin were coming closer and closer, but as soon as they saw the runaways, a hail of small green and therefore very hard acorns pattered down their heads. Most of this little projectiles hit corsairs’ paws, making them yelp in pain and drop their weapons. By the time they picked them up, two squirrels had already joined their friends in running.

Soon the thick forest gave way to small bushy trees and patches of open earth covered with tall grass. Then the trees disappeared, and the soil became sloppy and muddy. It slowed the woodlanders down, as everybeast’s paws began to stick in the mud.

“Are you sure we are going the right way?” cried Maple, turning to see the Abbess.

“No! But we don’t have much choice!” The next step Bikkle sank down into the watery mud knee-deep. Maple instinctively jumped to help her, and immediately felt his footpaws sinking through the soil. Judging by scared shouts of the others, they also got into the same situation.

“Burr, no panic!” cried Rupet Claypaw. “Don’t move, it makes ye sink! Try to spread yer paws apat, it ‘elps ye float! Ho urr, we got roight into a swamp!”

The terror that gripped woodlanders had only grew when eight vermin came close, carefully standing off the slough.

“What do you think, Baffla?” grinned Tanhide. “Will we let these ragbags drown… or pull them out and kill as slowly as possible?”

Four otters were making their way through the forest, fast and silent. At first Olva was covering their traces, but soon she stopped doing it: it was taking time, and wasting time was the last thing they could afford.

“It’s Bluestream!” Rumbol pointed to a swift current at the clearing not far away. “It’ll take us almost to Abbey’s walls!”

“Good,” smiled Churk. “The faster- Ouch!” The otter Recorder stumbled over a rock and fell on all fours.

“I’ll help!” Simon immediately bent over her to help his aunt up. B-zzz! An arrow flew over Simon’s back, so close that he could feel the breeze it had raised on his fur.

“Run!” cried Skipper, and otters jumped away as more arrows poured the soil where they had stood seconds ago. Vermin were running to them from the forest, not hiding any more. Rumbol cast a quick glance at his sister, who was limping because of her fall. “Olva, take Churk to the stream! Me’n’Simon hold them back!”

Two otters attacked the corsairs with a fury the latter hadn’t expected. Two rats from the first line of vermin were knocked down with a thick tree bough Rumbol picked up earlier, and two more of them met the blade of Martin’s sword. Vermin stopped firing arrows, afraid to catch their crewmates in a cross-fire, but it didn’t make things easier, since corsairs outnumbered their enemies.

Rumbol was trying to fend off three vermin at once when he heard Olva’s cry. “Here, Rumbol! They are surrounding you!”

The otter chieftain punched a stoat in his face with his improvised club and winced as somebeast’s lance slashed his cheek. He briefly turned back and saw Olva and Churk in the water, trying to stop attacking corsairs with their slings. “Simon! To the water!”

But Simon hadn’t heard him. He was fighting. When the battle had began, he tried to take control over his anger, but with vermin attacking him it was too difficult, so he just fought with all his might. His fierce assault even made the enemies back away – not many vermin wished to die for their warlord.

Then somebeast grabbed his shoulder from behind. Simon automatically turned round, swinging his sword at shoulder height: a perfect move to behead his opponent. Then he heard a cry. A very familiar cry. Bloodwrath left him, and Simon saw his farther trying to close a deep gash in his shoulder with his paw. The sword almost fell from Simon’s paws when he realized what he had almost done.

“Behind you!” Rumbol grabbed his son with his good paw and literally dragged him away from a weasel’s blow. “To the stream, now!”

Simon pounced upon vermin once more, and once more anger gave him strength. But this time, the young otter was angry with himself. How could I?.. How could I?!

In a few seconds, the otters dived in the water of Bluestream. Being otters, all runaways held their breath and began to swim away from a dangerous place. Unfortunately for them, blood from Rumbol and Simon’s wounds painted the water red, and a volley of arrows and slingstones hammered the water. Simon clenched his teeth when an arrow pierced his hind paw.

Then he saw his aunt. Churk wasn’t as lucky as him: a slingstone hit her right in the back of her head, and an otterwife went limp, slowly sinking to the bottom. With two strong strokes of his rudder, Simon was near her. He was still holding the sword of Martin in his right paw, so he grabbed Churk’s shoulder with his left paw. An additional weight began to drag him down at once, and Simon tried to sheathe the sword to free his other paw. But the sword didn’t get into the sheath at once, sliding over it instead; Simon felt its weight on his back as he tried to balance himself and don’t let it go. The weight of Churk’s body in his paw reminded Simon that he had no time, and the otter folded his right paw over his aunt’s shoulder, letting the sword slid down his back and sink to the bottom of the stream.

Simon came up to the surface holding Churk’s head high above water. The otterwife coughed, splitting the water she swallowed, and took a deep breath. Simon gave a sigh of relief. At least she is alive! But the sword! The sword…

“I see them!” cried some vermin from behind, and Simon whispered Churk to hold her breath and dived again. More arrows pierced the water, and Simon put all his strength in rowing, as his aunt hadn’t quite come to her senses. Olva saw it and hurried to help him, silently nodding to a dark hole under the bank.

Yes, Simon remembered, Bluewillow passage. His parents showed it to him before. Many seasons ago, water made its way through the earth and soil and created a hidden passage between two streams, Bluestream and Willowspring. The entrance to the passage was underwater, so only otters could enter it.

There were very little space in the underwater tunnel, but luckily it had a bit of air trapped under the ceiling. Simon and Olva carefully placed Churk’s head on a flat rock, making sure she can breathe.

“Are you badly wounded, Sim?” asked Olva.

“I don’t know,” said Simon, and it was true. He hadn’t even felt pain when he was fighting possessed by Bloodwrath. However, he did feel pain where an arrow pierced his hind paw, and now every bit of his body was aching.

“Well done, you both!” Young otters squeezed together to make room for Rumbol. Simon almost moaned when he saw a lump of river silt on his father’s shoulder. “I showed myself to vermin a bit downstream,” continued Skipper. “Let them look for us there. I doubt they find this place, but we’d better leave now.”

“You go now,” whispered Simon, not brave enough to look his companions in the eyes. “I stay to-”

“No you won’t!” interrupted Olva. “There’s nothing you can do!”

“I must! Must retrieve the sword!” Meeting uncomprehending gazes, he explained. “I… I’ve dropped it. I tried to sheathe it, but it slid, and I had to help Auntie… so I’ve dropped it.”

“I see,” nodded Rumbol. “Now let’s go to Redwall.” Simon opened his mouth to argue, and he continued. “You saved Churk, and that’s the only that matters. The sword is important for us, but not as much as one’s life. Let’s go.”

“Let’s go,” repeated Olva. “And don’t you dare blame yourself. Martin or Triss would have done the same if they had to choose between the sword and a beast’s life.”

“No,” whispered Simon as his father shoved him further into the tunnel. “They would have found a way to save both the sword and a beast’s life.”

That thought rang in his head on the way to Redwall. He’ll never be a warrior like Martin or Triss. Great Salt Seasons, now he can’t even call himself a decent creature! First he attacked a friend, then lost the sword of Martin and, the most terrible, almost killed his own father. The fact that the others didn’t blame him and even tried to show some understanding only made him feel more guilty and shameful. How could I let everybeast down?..

Chapter 15

Redwallers fought bravely, but even their courage couldn’t help them win. Old Skipper tried to divide their forces to fight at both walls, but there were too many vermin and too few Abbey defenders, so they had to run from one walltop to another with every attack. And with every attack Redwallers were wearing themselves out more and more and it was more and more difficult to held corsairs back. Healers were running among walltops, trying to be everywhere and help everybeast at once.

Young Brother Turfee was bounding Skipper’s chest and shoulder, scolding him like a Dibbun. “What was you thinking about, standing on battlement like a perfect target for archers, ah?”

The old otter managed a smile. “But I speared their commander – the ferret in blue cloak! I got him! Ouch, it stings!”

“It should sting; you have four arrowheads in your body! And don’t move!”

But Skipper had already twitched as a big fox climbed the wall right behind Turfee. “Vermin!”

Turfee span round, his herb punch hit the corsair in his face so hard that he fell back and disappeared behind the battlement with a long cry. “I told you not to move!” repeated the young mouse.

“Bo urr, give us a ‘ay!” Panting and puffing, Ruggum’s molecrew climbed the stairs, dragging a heavy piece of cleaved tree trunk with ropes.

“Here you go!” The healer briefly leaned out of the battlement and immediately ducked away. “They’ve put their ladder here!”

The moles dropped the log where Turfee pointed and Ruggum with two more moles began to rock it. “Hurr one, hurr too, hurr three!” Then the log tumbled over the wall, and loud shouts of vermin proved it had found its target.

Outside the Abbey Darm made a sign for his corsairs, and more then half-dozen of vermin rushed to the eastern wall and whirled their ropes. Metal hooks wrapped in rags hit the battlement without a sound.

“After me!” hissed Deathtrap to his crew. It’s always good to show an example to your horde. However, he let two of his bodyguards climb the ropes before him.

Redwallers saw the new treat only when most of the vermin had already got to the walltop. “Zorra, you and half of the crew take the north wall, the rest – south one!” ordered Lord of the Seas. Giving orders was easier then carrying them out: even though the Abbey walltops were quite wide, such a big amount of vermin inevitably created a mess, and it took time to draw them up.

Redwallers used this time to draw themselves up too, ready to fight. Darm found his way blocked by Ruggum who was holding a heavy club. “No step fuver, vermint!”

“Don’t you dare to talk to Lord of the Seas like that!” roared one of the guards and charged, expecting to get the better of slow mole. He was proved wrong when Ruggum’s club crushed both his javelin and his paw. Darm didn’t waste any time. His rapier moved like lighting, slashed Foremole’s forepaw and then both his hind paws, making him drop his weapon and fall flat.

“If you don’t surrender you die,” declared the weasel and raised his rapier for the final blow.

Z-wip! “Aaaaarghhh!” A huge arrow a size of javelin came from nowhere and speared Darm’s right paw through, so he had almost collapsed. Then the warcry came. “Eulaaliiaaaaa!”

Both vermin and woodlanders turned their heads as if on command, right in time to see large army of hares march out of the forest, a badger at the head of them.

“It’s Long Patrol!” cried somebeast on the walltop. “Lord Sagax’d sent us help! Hooray!”

Darm winced and clenched his teeth. He knew he had lost this battle. He couldn’t fight both Redwall and Long Patrol at once. “Retreat! Back into the forest!”

Outside the Abbey, Grawn slackened his pace when he had seen corsairs hastily leave the Abbey walls, and put his longbow and quiver of arrows behind his back. Chris Bigbow couldn’t help clicking his tongue. “You must have hawk’s eyes, shooting that vermin from such a distance, Grawn!”

The young badger silently smiled to himself. He finally managed to persuade hares stop calling him ‘Lord’ or ‘sir’. Even since they had left Salamandastron he tried to behave just nothing changed and, much to Merola’s frustration, refused to wear Sagaxus’ armor, staying in his old green tunic and sharkskin plastron instead.

“Pity you missed an’ didn’t kill that bloomin’ weasel, wot!” continued Chris.

“I didn’t miss, I was aiming at his paw.” Seeing his friend’s disturbed look, Grawn explained. “I don’t really want to kill beasts, even such a villain. Let this weasel just go away.” He took a deep breath and shouted at the top of his lungs - not a mighty roar of grown-up badger, but still pretty impressive. “Leave Redwall alone, Deathtrap! Go away and never return! Do you hear me?!”

To his surprise, Grawn heard a response. “I do hear you, Badgerlord!” cried Darm before disappearing in the forest.

Grawn frowned and went on giving orders. “Broom, take your tribe and go round the Abbey; we should make sure there are no more vermin left. Help wounded if you find any. Kvalla, take hares to help Redwall healers. Captain Longstep, post sentries over the walls.” Young badger bent forward to his Captain and lowered his voice. “I didn’t forget anything, did I?”

“No, lad. You make a good lord, remembee’ ma word.”

Panic had seized Freedom’s heart as she desperately tried to free herself from sticky mud. The mousemaid was being pulled into the slough, and all she could do was to raise her paws high up, so the little ones she was holding wouldn’t drown as well. This movement made her sink chest-deep into the mud. And vermin carelessly discussing their fate was the worst part of the situation.

“Let’s take kids to Lord,” suggested Baffla. “And I’d let that bushtail drown for-“

“Zzlis-ssa!” An eerie hissing came from bushes of reed, and Dom saw its stems swaying. “Zlisssa!” Finally, both vermin and woodlanders saw the source of hissing: a giant snake was moving through the reeds, its brown-and-grey scales forming a hypnotic pattern as the snake slithered, its blunt head slowly turning from one corsair to another as the monster probed the air with forked tongue. But the scariest thing was snake’s unwinking eyes with unmoving pupils, which looked like the eyes of a deadbeast. “Zzlissa!”

No wonder vermin ran as soon as they had seen the snake and basically two seconds later the snake and woodlanders were the only living creatures on the swamp.

“Vermin are gone,” noted Maple in his usual matter-of-fact manner. “That’s good.”

“Fine,” snapped Dom, who was more angry than afraid. “Now we’ll just drown or be eaten by a snake. Just fine!”

The snake crawled closer, but instead of attacking, it, to everybeast’s amusement, extended its tail so it had reached to Abbess Bikkle and Maple. “Hheld my thhail,” it hissed, “I pull ye outhh.”

Freedom could hardly believe her eyes. Of course, she had never seen a snake before, but she had heard stories about snakes from her grandfather Moguk, and judging by them trying to help wasn’t what snakes usually do. However, even she had to admit they have had little choice but to accept the help.

“Let’s go,” Maple gently shoved the Abbess toward the snake’s tail, but Bikkle hadn’t moved an inch. She looked like she had frozen with fear, her paws trembling, her red fur standing on end, her eyes fixed on the reptile. She moved only when Maple grabbed her paw and seized the scaly tail.

The snake strained, pulling out both beasts. Then it was the others’ turn, and soon all grown-up creatures and Dibbuns were standing on firm soil. Mother Abbess didn’t quite come to her senses, so it was Roben who had addressed their strange ally.

“Than’ ye, sir o’ marm,” he said, his voice a bit unsure. “Thankee fur ‘elping us.”

“Alwayss glad to hhelp goodbeassts,” came the answer. “I’m called Zlissa.”

“Zlissa Evileyes!” cried Deelma, and by her frightened voice, Freedom could say she indeed had heard the name before. The molewife clasped both her daughters to her apron, and the frightened babes clenched to their mother. “Terror of the Swamp! Death for woodlanders!”

The snake uttered a shot low sigh. “Alass, alas, rumorss, unfair and ffabulous gosssip! I sswear I’ve never hharmed a creathure! I eat only fishh!”

“Why should we believe you?” asked Bikkle in a harsh tone. The Abbess had finally got over her fear and now was holding a short dagger dropped by one of the vermin. “Me’n’Ruggum had almost been killed by the likes of you when we were Dibbuns, and some other of our friends had never returned after battle with that monsters of a snake!”

Zlissa pressed her head to the ground, turning her gaze away. “I’m ssorry… I’m sso ssorry that ye had ssuffered from thosse of my kind… But it’s not my fault that I wass born a ssnake. Beassts are afraid of me jusst because of my sizze, my sscaled body, my eerie eyes, my poisoned teeth and wicked reputation of ssnakes. That’ss where are those rumorss come from!”

Freedom nodded, a bit surprised to realize that snake’s soft hissing voice wasn’t frightening her anymore. “One shouldn’t judge a creature by its species,” she murmured, remembering Shamra.

“Zlissa had a chance to kill us all,” added Maple. “But she had saved us instead. Why shouldn’t we trust her?”

Roben and Rupet were nodding too, but Deelma still doubted. “But moi cousin’s woife had said…”

“Deelma, Oi’m sure you cousin’s woife has nevve’ actually met Zlissa and was only repeetin’ gossip,” softly interrupted Roben.

“All right then,” Bikkle finally hid the dagger in her wide sleeve. “Sorry for doubting you, Zlissa, and thank you for the help. Now we have to go back to Redwall.”

“Aww, ye’re leavin’? Don’t ye sstay for a while?” hissed Zlissa. “I… I hhoped ye stay. I’m sso old… And I’ve never had a friend before.”

The Abbess was adamant. “We should tell Redwall about the vermin and see if our friends came back.”

Zlissa had raised her head, shifting her gaze from one beast to another, and the piercing yellow eyes looked straight into Dom’s soul. “It’ss dangerouss in the woodss. Vermin can wander around. My lair iss close from hhere. Ye can resst, and then I accompany ye on the way to yer hhome. Nobeasst will harm ye withh me around. Little oness can ride my back.”

Freedom looked up to the sky: it was getting dark already. She had spent almost all the day running, and now she finally realized how tired she was. How good it would be to lie down, even for some five minutes…

Maple must have felt the same. “Maybe we can stay… not for a long…”

Rupet added one more reason. “Urr, likkle ones are hungry an’ exhausted. They need vittles and rest, eve’ a likkle bit.”

“Pleeese!” wailed Dibbuns. The perspective of riding snake’s back had made them forget all their fears.

“Okay,” surrendered Bikkle. “But we won’t stay longer than half of hour!”

Zlissa slithered further into the swamp, showing the way; a bunch of Dibbuns hung on her back, so the snake was moving slowly not to let them fall; adult beasts followed their guide.

“We all must be mad to trust dat snake, ho-urr,” old Marfa shook her head. “Strange, but Oi feel loike she’s our friend, burr.”

“Zlissa had saved us, Ma,” smiled Roben. “Dat snake is our friend, hurr!””

BOOK TWO: SHADOWS FALL

Chapter 16

The storm that had blown in Mossflower was just an echo of the one that raged over Terramort Isle. In that northwest island, storms and tempests were frequent guests. This was one of the strongest corsairs had seen in their lives – they could only thank their luck that they weren’t in the open sea at that night. The storm had brought enough problems for Fort Bladegirt: vegetable and grain fields were damaged, fishing boats were broken, and half of the roof was blown off soldiers’ Barracks.

In the morning, Drooptail lined up all the vermin and declared that all the vermin were ought to work together with slaves. As one could expect, discontented grumbles and sighs could be heard immediately. “You are going to work, like it or not!” snapped the stoat Commander. “The all work must be done in a day!”

New grumbles followed, and soldiers’ Captain Viro Strongclaw had to intervene. He was a grey cat with amber eyes, not big, but muscular and strong. He wasn’t carrying any weapon, since his main weapon had always been with him: his strong forepaws, which could break a creature’s neck and his sharp claws, which could tear out a creature’s flesh. Captain was well-respected by his soldiers, and everybeast fell silent when Viro had talked. “Listen, mates! All the work is for your own good – you’re going to mend the roof, so it’s either workin’ now or sleepin’ in the weather later. So, what would you choose?”

There were shouts of approval, and a dark-brown stoat with long muzzle cried, “Sure we work! We ain’t idlepaws!”

“Good,” smiled Viro. “Then you, Broknose, would be in charge of the work, so take all the soldiers and a half of the slaves. Bigger and Smaller will help you.” Two big identical foxes saluted, one only an inch taller than the other.

“Don’t take new timber from the warehouse unless necessary,” said Drooptail. He was angry with Viro commanding the soldiers without even paying any attention to him, Fort Commander. Then Drooptail quickly divided the responsibilities. There were three groups of vermin on Terramort, thirty beasts each, including soldiers, whose duty was to defend the Fort from possible invaders and who was commanded by Viro Strongclaw, slave-drivers commanded by Houk the Slavemaster and Fort guards, the elite force commanded by Lord himself or, in his absence, by Fort Commander. “Houk will take the rest of the slaves and cleans up the fields, and the guards will repair the boats,” ordered Drooptail.

The stoat cast a sidelong look at Strongclaw. Drooptail would never admit it, but he was wary of this cat. Viro was ambitious, and he had pretensions to the title of Fort Commander as a senior Captain, but Darm had chosen Drooptail because of his loyalty. However, more than fortnight had passed since Lord’s departure, and Viro hadn’t caused any troubles. But Drooptail still couldn’t trust him.

Half of all the slaves were working at the field. Vegetables didn’t suffer much as they were close to the earth, but most of the crops were beaten down by the heavy rain, and barriers surrounding the field needed to be fortified to prevent mudslides from the hills. It was supposed that slave-drivers should work together with slaves, but vermin were doing what they could do best: command. Many of them walked among slaves, urging them to work harder, some bustled around, pretending to be busy, and those high-ranked enough were just doing nothing.

Houk was eating his lunch when a lean otter with tan-colored fur silently came to him and bowed. It was Wavehound Streamdiver. He normally served vermin in Fort, but today even servants were taken to work in the field.

“Speak, riverdog!” ordered Houk.

Wavehound bowed once more and began in low voice. “Captain, sir, it’s more than three hours past noon, sir, and we’ve been working since dawn, with no food or water, sir, and…”

“Oh, I see. You want a little break and some food, right?” Wavehound nodded, and Slavemaster raised his voice, “You won’t get any till sunset, so get back to work, seaweed head!”

“But sir, give us at least some water, for old beasts only,” pleaded the otter.

“There’s enough water for everybeast,” Houk grinned, waving his paw at the muddy pools that didn’t dry out after the storm. “To your work, lazy scum!”

Wavehound could only bow and go away, but that wasn’t enough for Houk. Slavemaster picked up a flask of wine and a loaf of bread and jauntily strolled to the group of slaves Wavehound was working with.

“Yeah, that wine is better than water,” he murmured, taking a sip. “What do you say now, riverdog?” Houk sliced a piece of bread with a pocketknife, intentionally letting a chunk to fall in the mud, next to a thin old squirrelwife. The squirrel tensed; her stomach rumbled, but she knew too well what would happen if she tried to take the bread. “Looks like you ain’t hungry,” smiled Houk and trampled the bread down with his footpaw.

Then the unpredictable happened. Wavehound, who was known as the most obedient and patient servant in Fort, jumped on his footpaws and attacked Houk. The otter’s fists crushed into slave-driver’s face, hammering it with a fierce rage.

“Mutiny!” The nearest vermin sprang to help his Captain, but tumbled down as Elsie the volemaid threw herself across his way. However, all the other slaves were either too scared or too astonished to do anything, and soon Wavehound and Elsie were thrown onto the ground, badly beaten but alive.

“You!.. You two!..” hissed Houk, shaking with hatred. “You know the laws! The punishment for mutiny is death!”

“Should I kill them?” asked one of the guards.

“And let us lose two pairs of working paws?” frowned the ferret Captain. “Zhmura! No food or water for these crazy fools!”

The air swayed as all the slaves sighed in relief. Such a light penalty was just a gift from heaven! A fleshy rat responsible for feeding the slaves asked, also a little surprised. “For how long, Cap’n?”

“For the rest of their lives!” smirked Houk. “It would be a good lesson for every other slave to see how rebels starve to death, begging for a mouthful of water! And if anybeast try to smuggle them food or water…” he hadn’t finished the line, but everything was clear to the slaves who shrank back with terror.

Houk enjoyed the sheer fear for a moment, then ordered, “Now stop wasting time and work, if you don’t want to stay here till dawn!”

Elsie got up with difficulty, and Wavehound had to be helped. Swaying, the otter dragged himself back to the work, but inside he was triumphing. Sure, attacking Houk was risky. But now, with Deathtrap gone and storm clouds closing the sky, it was one of the rare chances to accomplish a first step in his plan. And he, Wavehound, took it and succeeded.

Slaves got back into the Barn only at the sunset. It began to drizzle, and vermin urged them to walk faster. That day, unlike usually, Zhmura and her assistants not only divided scanty rations among slaves, but also stayed while they ate to make sure nobeast would try to hide food. By the time vermin padlocked both iron bars and wooden door the drizzle turned into steady rain, so Zhmura pulled her thick shawl over her head and run to the fortress, the others following her.

During the meal Wavehound and Elsie attracted attention of their fellow-slaves that was fixing the Barrack’s roof and didn’t know what happened on the field. Now they finally had a chance to ask all their questions. “Treetops’n’leaves! What’s with you, Wavehound?”

“You are punished, mates? What for?”

“Looks like you got a good beating. Grr, stinky vermin!”

“What happened, you poor thing?”

“It happened that they two are great fools!” announced a sturdy hedgehog with long spikes. “What were you thinking about, attacking the Slavemaster, you silly riverdog? Thought you can get away with it?’

“Oh, it’s all because of me,” cried out the old squirrelwife that was working with Wavehound. “Houk was teasing me with bread, and then Wavehound… Auh!”

“Don’t worry, Tosna, it’s not your fault,” smiled the otterslave. “I had another reasons for it.”

“What reasons, I’d like to know?” frowned Elsie. “I’ve tried to help you, but now I want to know what I was helping!”

“Sh-hh!” Wavehound swiftly moved to the door and stood here for a moment, listening carefully. Then he nodded, “Nobeast. Sure, no vermin would stay in such a rain all night.”

“Stop babbling and answer!” demanded the hedgehog.

“I’ll answer you, Thornbush. I’ll answer everybeast. That’s what I had attacked Houk for!” Metal glittered in the dark of the Barn as Wavehound took Houk’s pocketknife out of his patched shirt and lifted it up in the air. “I’ve snatched it from ferret’s paw and hid it in my clothes, and all the slave-drivers were too occupied with my attack and didn’t notice it’s gone!”

All kinds of whispers and murmurs spread among the slaves. “You- You are totally mad!” cried out a male squirrel with shabby tail. “If vermin find it out… No, when vermin find it out, they’ll make us all pay for your stupidity!”

“No, Basko, ‘cause when they find out, we’ll be far away from ‘ere. We’ll force locks with this knife and escape!”

Now all the creatures in the Barn were speaking at once. “There’s no way anybeast could escape Bladegirt!”

“But it’s our chance! Maybe the only one!”

“Nobeast has ever left that bloody island alive, that’s for sure!”

“And what of it if so? We’ll be the first!”

“That’s madness, a true madness…”

“Calm down, everybeast! Do you want vermin to hear you?” called Seabird Galedeep, Wavehound’s fellow ottermaid from Green Isle. “Calm down, or I kick tails of those talking!” The slaves lowered their voices: Seabird’s clan, Galedeep, was known for its strength and heavy build, and even seasons of slavery could do nothing to the ottermaid’s wide shoulders and sinewy forepaws.

“Wavehound, you are putting everybeast at risk,” stated Basko and rolled up his sleeves, revealing old scars upon his paws. “Remember my brother? He’d tried to escape, and vermin not only killed him, but also punished me – just because I could have been helping him.”

The otter dipped his head. “I remember your brother, friend. He’d tried to break free during the daywork, but we’ll sneak away in the dark. The rain would wash our tracks away, and Drooptail isn’t as smart as the weasel. Vermin wouldn’t catch us.”

“You’ve forgot about two guards at the Fort’s gates,” said Mlika, Basko’s wife. “They are always on duty, rain or no rain.”

Wavehound had already thought it through. “They are guarding the fortress from an attack from outside, not inside. We’ll just sneak to the wall and stun them!”

“And where you are going to go, sir-know-all?” grumbled Thornbush. “We’re on a bloody isle, seaweed head! Do you expect us to fly away?”

“I know, the hills around Bladegirt are too open, but there are a kind of rocky range to the north shore, and where rock is, there’s caves and crevices – plenty places to hide!”

Now most of the slaves were nodding approvingly, but Thornbush was still angry. “Ha, it’s easy for you to say ‘Let’s escape’, you risk nothing but your own hide! And what about those who has somebeast to care about? I have a wife and a little son, Basko and Mlika have a daughter and old Tosna, Basko’s mother, and… There are too many beasts to list! Why shall we risk our families’ lives just because of your word?”

“Don’t you want your son to be free?” said Elsie.

“First of all, I want my son to be alive!”

“Quite!” Seabird tapped her rudder at the floor. “We won’t get anywhere like that! Let’s vote! What more than a half of beasts decide, the others will agree, so nobeast would be left behind! Agree, Thornbush? Okay, now, raise your paws those who want to escape with Wavehound!”

Before the slaves could vote, a deep husky voice spoke – the voice that had been staying silent for months and that nobeast expected to hear. “I will!”

Everybeast’s eyes fixed on a dark shape in the far corner of the Barn. A big creature stirred, straining its chains. “Help me out of my chains, and I’ll tear every vermin with my bare teeth’n’claws!”

That creature was Betta, a badgerwife from Daggerrocks, and her story was known by every slave. Her home island, despite its warlike name, was a peaceful land, inhabited by mice, hedgehogs and badgers. Those badgers were farmers, not warriors, but Deathtrap, a young Captain at those seasons, knew how fierce and deadly they could be. So he hadn’t conquered Daggerrocks – he had simply burned it to the ground, and those who hadn’t died in the fire were killed by corsairs’ arrows.

Betta, no more than a young maid, was the only one spared. Darm imprisoned her out of his pride and vanity, showing chained badgermaid to rival Captains as a symbol of his might. It’s not that Betta didn’t try to fight – during those seasons, she tore many chains, broke many cages and killed many vermin, but finally the starvation, harsh treatment and seeming hopelessness of all efforts broke her, and badgermaid became no more than a pale shadow of her former self. After Darm become the ruler of all the corsairs, he had no need to demonstrate Betta any more. Since that, she had been chained in the Barn constantly, never going out except for rare occasions when Deathtrap wanted to remind his subjects why he was their ruler.

So as she sat at the darkest corner of the Barn, bone-thin, with her fur gone grey before age, in ragged clothes, Betta looked something like an old hag, and certainly not like a healthy strong middle-seasoned badgerwife she would have been if it wasn’t for Darm. The badgerwife was always silent, deep in her thoughts and memories, and didn’t even seem to hear when the others addressed her.

But tonight the word ‘escape’ woke something in her and Betta’s usually lack-lustre eyes now shone blood red, her long claws gripped the chains in desperate effort to break them and a wheezy growl came out of her chest. “Let… let me out! Let me out, and I’ll kill them!..”

“She’s going to bring here every vermin in Fort,” complained Thornbush. “We can’t take her with us!”

“Of course we can!” rebelled Elsie. “We can’t leave… Wait – have you just said we?”

The hedgehog nodded with a grim look. “Yes, we. If I can’t talk you out of that mad idea, me and my family will go with you.”

“And we too,” added Basko, and soon all the slaves were nodding approvingly.

Meanwhile, Wavehound neared the captive badgerwife. “We’ll help you out of chains, Betta, but you mustn’t attack vermin. You would give us all out!”

“Don’t care!” snarled Betta. “I kill them, kill them all – and the rest doesn’t matter!”

“I know, you want to avenge your compatriots for what the corsairs did to them – but if you do, a lot of other beasts will suffer, elders and babes among them. Do you want them to share the fate of your tribe?”

At first, the otter thought that bloodthirsty badgerwife simply couldn’t hear him, but then Betta’s bloodshot eyes changed to their normal wane gray color. “No. Let me out. I won’t harm anybeast… unless vermin treat me… or you.”

The rusty locks on Betta’s chains weren’t easy to open, but after some effort, Wavehound managed to force them. Betta immediately got to her paws and headed to the doors, but her near-starvation didn’t let her go far, and the big badger collapsed to the floor for want of habit to walk long.

Basko and Mlika jumped to the badgerwife and helped her up. “Common, lean on my shoulder, marm!”

“You’d better take care of the vermin outside, Wavehound,” muttered Mlika, sagging under Betta’s weight. “I doubt me’n’Basko could hold our friend if she sees one!”

“Don’t worry.” The rebellious otter had already forced open the locked iron bars and now was dealing with the door. With a happy smile, he opened it – and a blast of wind immediately threw a flow of showering rain into his face. Wavehound threw his head back and laughed. “That’s how the freedom feels, mateys!”

Chapter 17

Darm Deathtrap wasn’t in his brightest mood when he and his troops returned to the camp. Healers had treated his wounded paw, but the weasel lord couldn’t help brooding about the battle of Redwall Abbey. He had almost won – almost! – and then the cursed stripedog and his rabbits ruined everything. Now it would take much more time and efforts to get Redwall. But he will get it, surely. May be it was even better to finish both Redwallers and the hares of Long Patrol at once…

Clyde was waiting for them, and Darm didn’t even bother to answer his salute. “Make your report, Captain. Has Greywhisker brought Shamra and the traitors back?”

“No, Lord.” The stoat held his eyes down, as if it was his fault. “He and a score of his crew disappeared, and all the other searchers couldn’t find a trace either of him or of your dau- I mean, Shamra. I’ve questioned a traitor captured in the morning, and he confirmed that Greywhisker and some of the minor officers were involved in Shamra’s plot all along. Their plan was to desert your troops, steal one of your ships and drown all the others.”

Darm’s brow knitted further, but he just nodded. “I’ll talk with that traitor after Tamant’s report.”

“Uhmm… Well… Lord… I’m afraid there was a kind of accident, and… well… the captive… how to say it… died…”

After all failures of the day these news didn’t please Deathtrap. Steel flashed in the weasel’s left paw, and he slapped Clyde with flat of his dagger.

“Fool! Brainless crookpawed brute!” he hissed as the stoat staggered back, clasping his paws to his swelling cheek. “You’ve tortured him to death, haven’t you? Do you at least understand you’ve killed the only creature who could tell me everything about the treason? I’ve been shutting my eyes to your little sadistic habits only ‘cause they hadn’t foiled my plans before. But now…”

Darm made a dramatic pause for Clyde to speak out. “Sorry, Lord. It’d never happen again, sir! I… I’ve served you well. I’ve always been loyal to you, Lord. I’ll do my best…”

“Sure. Because if you don’t, I pass your blood-stained cloak to somebeast more suitable for a position of Captain. Now, enough of that. I want to speak to Tamant.”

“I’m here, Lord.” The rat came from nowhere and bowed before his Warlord.

Deathtrap looked over Tamant’s jerkin splashed with mud and soiled footpaws. “So, it hadn’t been long when you returned?”

“No, Lord. Ragfeathers reported about everything happened in the Abbey. He said that the stripedog had sent a dozen of hares to fetch their friends from Brockhall, and I dared to lay an ambush. Beg your pardon for acting without your orders, Lord.”

“I would have ordered the same,” nodded the weasel. “So, I assume those hares are dead now?”

“Not all of them. My archers killed about a half and wounded the rest, but then a black hawk attacked us.” Tamant frowned at the thought. “My crew chased it away, but the hares escaped as well.”

Darm carelessly shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you have killed the Abbeyleaders.”

Silentblade took his gaze away, what he almost never did. “They live. I’ve captured the squirrel and some others, but they managed to break free. Tanhide and Baffla claim they were eaten by a snake, but there’s no proof for these words. And the otters escaped by some streams. That’s my fault, sir. I’ve underestimated those beasts.”

Only Darm’s firm set jaw could give away his discontent. “Now we know what they are capable of. No more splitting the troops. I’ll destroy the Abbey, its inhabitants and Long Patrollers in one blow.” He walked for his tent, giving orders as he went. “Zorra, make sure the soldiers are fed and their wounds treated. Tamant, keep Ragfeathers watching the Abbey. Clyde, send Nabon to my tent.”

“Ahgm… That’s other news I wanted to tell you, Lord. Your son… He… well, gone.”

“Gone!” Darm spun round in instant, his countenance lost. “What do you mean, bloody scumbag, - gone?”

“He ain’t here,” muttered stoat Captain. “I was questioning the captive, and then I saw he ain’t here. And twoscore of my crew gone as well.” He tried to move back as Darm stepped closer, but Tamant blocked his way.

“You are not only a fool, you are a traitor, Clyde,” said Darm, looking down the stoat, even though the latter was taller. “All you had to do was to guard the camp and watch over Nabon. You’ve failed even in this. Where I shall look for my heir now?”

“I’m here, father!” The young weasel stepped into the camp followed by twoscore of corsairs.

Deathtrap felt a load taken off his mind. Nabon didn’t desert him. Then his son’s beaming face boiled his anger again. “So, what do you have to say?”

“Father?” Nabon blinked, clearly not prepared for such a meeting.

“You’ve left your post without order and led other Captain’s crew as well. Explain yourself, soldier.”

Nabon saluted with a halt. “Lord, Lieutenant Badeye reported of twoscore of hedgehogs camped at the north river, big rowdy lot. They could cause us trouble, so I took soldiers and attacked their camp. They’re destroyed now, not a treat any more.”

“Tamant?” Lord of the Seas turned to his chief scout.

“Big rowdy hedgehogs at the north river,” he repeated. “That must’ve been Waterhogs, vagrant tribe sailing river Moss. Noisy lot, yes. Don’t like us vermin, but don’t seek battle either. My scouts reported there were about fourscore of them.”

“No no, only twoscore,” Nabon shook his head. “Twoscore were in the camp I destroyed, that’s for sure!”

The rat officer just shrugged. “My scouts never miscalculate.”

“See what you’ve done?” Darm snapped at his son. “First, by that foolish attack you’ve informed the hogs we are here. If it wasn’t for you, they would’ve just passed their way by the river. Second, you haven’t managed to kill all the hogs, so the survivors will come for revenge and cause trouble.” Nabon was quivering now, his teeth clenched, and Darm thought he was pushing him a bit too far. After all, he didn’t want Nabon to betray him as Shamra did, right? “And third, you’ve put yourself into a great danger. What do you think I thought when I heard you’re gone?”

Nabon’s face finally brightened. “You were worried for me?”

“Sure I was. You are my only heir. Don’t you ever disappear like that again!”

His son bowed with deference. “I won’t do anything without your orders, Lord… I mean, father.”

Darm imitated a smile. “I’m sure you won’t.”

However, Nabon wasn’t intended to finish conversation at that note. “Father? Have I proved myself as a commander now? I mean… can I be a Captain?”

The older weasel nodded after a short calculation. Let him think of himself as an officer if he wants; the only thing that matters is who gives orders. “Take command of those soldiers that followed you today. I know, it’s about half of normal crew size, but it’ll be enough to begin with. And you still must obey me and all the elder Captains.”

“L-lord, this crew is of my ship,” Clyde dared to object.

Deathtrap’s answer cut him short. “You’ve just proved yourself incapable of commanding them. Thank your lucky star you’re still an officer. You’re dismissed. Nabon, you’d better take care of your crew now. Tamant, follow me.”

Darm spoke to Silentblade again only when they were in the warlord’s tent. The weasel made himself comfortable in his big carved chair, wincing as he accidentally brushed his wounded paw against elbow-rest. “Tamant, I need the best spy in all my troops. The one who can watch over a beast constantly, follow him like a shadow for days without being noticed.”

“Then you need Marrowbone. She can hide in a spear’s shadow.”

“She must watch Nabon day and night.” Tamant nodded, and Darm went on. “The rest of Greywhisker’s crew is being divided among the Captains. Watch them as well, there still may be traitors.”

“I think all the traitors deserted with Greywhisker, but I’ll do as you say, Lord.”

“Right, Tamant. You do as I say, regardless what do you think. You should take care of those hedgehogs as well. I’ll send Zorra and her crew to finish them off. You will lead them to the hogs and make sure there wouldn’t be any survivors. Go now.”

The rat bowed his head slightly. “Sir, there is one more thing I have to report. My scouts have found it at the bottom of a stream.” He took out a long object wrapped in soft barkcloth and carefully unwrapped it, revealing double-edged sword with hard black hilt finished with a ruby-red pommel stone and curving scrolled crosspiece.

Consciousness was coming back very slowly. First she heard the voices – unfamiliar and strange. She could hear them well, though she couldn’t catch the words. Then she regained a sense of touch. She could feel something soft under her cheek, feel warm blanket covering her body… Wait – was she lying in a bed? There where no proper beds in their forest camp. But if she wasn’t there, where on the earth she was?

She forced herself to relax instinctively tensed muscles. Life taught her not to rush in decisions. Don’t open your eyes. Let those talking think I’m still senseless. Wherever I am, I’d better think before acting. And of course, I’d better find out where am I in the first place.

She strained her ears – the voices became more distinguishable.

First, there was somebeast young. “The Infirmary is overfull with wounded! Why should we waste our time on this tramp?”

The second voice belonged to an older creature. “I’ve told you before, Turfee. We made a promise to heal all those who need our help, remember?”

“Even those who attacked us first, Sister? Let her vermin friends treat her!”

“Look, I’m also not fond of having to treat vermin, but what can we do? Do you have heart to throw her out to the woods and leave there to die?”

There was a pause before the young one – Turfee, - sighed. “No.” Then he added, “But let’s at least tie her paws! Imagine what this vixen can do when she’s awake and roaming the Abbey?”

The Abbey. She should have known. She was captured by Redwallers! What those terrible woodlanders are going to do with her? Obviously, she was still alive because they thought her to be unconscious. They must be waiting for her to wake in order to torture her and find out all information about Lord. The vixen felt her heart booming against her ribs, and ordered herself to calm down. I’ll find a way out of this.

Meanwhile, the old one chuckled. “With her injuries? With broken leg, cracked ribs, dislocated arm, smashed claws? Right after that piece of tree trunk had fallen on her? Turfee, poor creature is simply in no condition to do us any harm.”

The vixen stirred her paws. They were numb, but could move quite well. Let them think me to be helpless. That’s the best of all.

She heard squeak of a bed and rustling of blanket as a third creature moved somewhere in the room. His voice was a deep bass, “Don’t worry, Vernal. A couple of vermin thorns won’t prevent me from holding a fox down.”

“Skipper, you rogue, I didn’t let you out of bed!”

“Ha, I’m not as badly wounded as you’d like to think, Sister. Besides, Turfee is a fine young warrior himself. I wish you’d seen how he dealt with that big fox on the walltops. That fellow stood right behind Turfee, holding his curved blade, grinning and staring with his mismatched eyes, and then boom! – and he’s over the wall!”

Her heart sank in her chest. Big fox with mismatched eyes and a curved sword?! Kars! They were talking about her husband! About how they killed him!

Last moments of the battle at Redwall Abbey flashed before her eyes. Her husband, Kars, smiled to her and climbed up a ladder to the wall. She followed him with a second delay, but it was enough for them to get separated as number of other corsairs got to the ladder before the vixen. She saw him stand at walltop and sway his sword – and then he reeled backward, lost his footing and fell down, down, down, till he crushed into a group of rats with long pikes. She saw pike blades pierce through Kars’ body, saw his wide open eyes. Dead eyes. She howled in pain and tried to get down, but vermin behind her kept going up. Then something big and heavy crashed her back, knocking the air out of her.

All her plans and thoughts regarding staying low and pretending to be senseless were forgotten. Rage and hunger for revenge overcame the vixen’s natural caution and fear of her captors. All she wanted now was to kill those who murdered her beloved Kars.

“Arrraaw!” She jumped of the bed, her teeth bare, and darted toward Redwallers, who backed away. But before she could reach the creatures she hated so much, sharp pain run through the vixen’s paws to the very marrow of her bones. She collapsed onto the floor, cursing and growling as she writhed, trying to get her enemies. The vixen’s limbs refused to serve her, and pain was throbbing in her body.

It was too late when she saw a big otter approaching. The thwack of a hefty rudder knocked the breath from her, and the otter landed upon her back. A paw cuffed her ears soundly, then seized them and dragged her head backward. “I get her!”

They’ll slit my throat! The vixen panicked, feeling as exposed as never.

Instead, a mousewife pressed strong-smelled piece of cloth to her muzzle. The vixen held her breath as long as she could, but finally she had to inhale. Immediately its scent became overwhelming, and she drifted away.

Chapter 18

The sun had disappeared behind the horizon when Zlissa slithered out of spacious cave that served as her lair. Her scaled face was as emotionless as ever, but a tiny sparkle of light in her eyes could pass for a smile.

It was so easy! Take on a pitiful look, get a sad expression, add some stupid words about friends and other staff, and that silly woodlanders are ready to believe you. However, that squirrelmaid was constantly trying to lead everybeast back to her home, and the old molewife didn’t seem to trust her, but a couple of Zlissa’s persuading stares had solved the problem. Right now, the whole group was sleeping inside the cave. What a fools.

Zlissa Evileyes didn’t need great strength or great size to rule the swamp as she did – her sharp mind and hypnotic gaze was enough. She always could persuade anybeast to do whatever she wanted – always, since the day countless seasons ago when she got rid of her rival Berussca. The swamp wasn’t big enough for two snakes, and normally, they would have fought to death. But Zlissa simply kept ranting how miserable was the swamp and how great was the forest, so once Berusska left to settle in the Mossflower Woods – left as a winner, not knowing that she had actually lost.

The part of the swamp Zlissa entered now was studded with dozens and scores of sloppy dilapidated huts, made of mixed mud and reed. These huts swarmed with sleeping toads clustered inside and nestled outside. The snake set her jaw firm, trying not to be distracted by such amount of meat. Toad flesh is slimy and tasteless. Tonight I’ll have more delicious meal.

The biggest hut was occupied by one dweller only – an old fat toad. Zlissa thrust her head inside and hissed. The toad gave a jump – and immediately froze, caught by the piercing yellow eyes.

“Lissten,” hissed Zlissa, and the toad automatically nodded. “Thhake all yer tribe and go tho my cave. Guard woodlanderss inside ithh. Bound thhem iff ye need, buth not a ssingle one must be injured or killed. Othherwisse yer meath will ssatisfy my hhunger.”

The toad was nodding again like a rush swayed with the wind. Zlissa left the toad, heading back to her lair. There was some business to do - she would leave even before toads arrive. That Deathtrap woodlanders told about must be a cunning beast. He would see benefits of allying with another cunning beast. Tomorrow he’ll get his prisoners as a token of new alliance. Not all of them, of course...

Nothing changed in the snake’s lair when she was absent. Woodlanders still were fast asleep on their rough beds of leaves and moss when Zlissa had returned. The reptile’s forked tongue flitted as she slowly turned her head, looking over the guests – or, better to say, captives. Dibbuns huddled together in the middle of group, but two small molebabes were lying a bit away, closer to four other moles. They immediately became Zlissa’s target.

Freedom dreamed of Riftgard, of the North and of cold sea when something rough touched her tail. The mousemaid stirred, trying to move aside, but her tail was pinned to the ground with something heavy. Dom reluctantly opened her eyes. “Oohh, whaat-”

The rest of the sleep left Dom. Her tail was pressed down with Zlissa’s own tail – but she gasped in shock not because of this. Zlissa wasn’t paying any attention to the little mousemaid. The snake was looming over Renee and Allie, Roben and Deelma’s children. Her jaws wide open, Zlissa lowered her head, like some monster from an elders’ tale said to eat Dibbuns.

“Hey! What- what you’re doing?” Freedom shook her head, struggling to understand if it was still a dream or not. The snake’s head turned round sharply, and Dom found herself staring right into Zlissa’s eerie yellow eyes.

“Lissten. Ssstay ssilent. I thhake thosse I wanth. That’ss how it should be.” Freedom heard nothing but this soft husky voice, and saw nothing but these deep acute eyes, unable to resist their charm. “Come hhere.” Without even thinking what she was doing, the mousemaid stepped forward. Then she made one more step, and one more…

Suddenly Zlissa’s head jerked upwards with a short hiss, breaking eye contact with Freedom. The mousemaid quickly jumped back, and giant reptile curved her body as Renee hung at the snake’s tail trying to bite through solid scales.

“Auurr, leave ‘er alaune, ye big slimmy eartwarm!” The molebabe’s high-pitched cry had probably waked up every living creature in the swamp.

But the snake’s struggle with Dibbun couldn’t last long: with a strong stroke of her tail, Zlissa threw Renee against the wall, snake’s whole body tensed before the thrust. “Ffor thiss ye die!”

“No!” Dom jumped to help the little molemaid, but she was too far away. But Deelma wasn’t. The molewife threw herself between Zlissa and her child, and the snake caught her shoulder in jaws, sinking her teeth into Deelma’s flesh.

“Deelma!!!” In a second, Roben was here. With the angriest roar Freedom had ever heard, he brought his mighty forepaws upon snake’s head, raking his claws across her eyes. Zlissa hissed and turned round, intended to bite Roben as well, but the mole didn’t let go snake’s head, staying out of her reach.

“Riift-gaard!” Freedom lunged herself onto reptile’s back and tried to claw at it, only to discover that snake’s scales were too hard and firm. Zlissa arched her body, and Dom’s paws slipped on her smooth back. With another whack of her tail, Zlissa made the mousemaid crash down the hard ground of cave.

While she was getting back on her footpaws, she saw Abbess Bikkle and Marfa forcing Dibbuns to the corner, away from where the infuriated snake coiled, still locked in a fight with Roben. Now Rupet joined his brother, hanging to the snake’s temple with one paw and punching it with the other. Dom saw Zlissa ramming her head into the cave’s wall, and Roben broke off, gasping for air. Rupet could only tighten his grip as the snake bent her head down, fully intended to repeat the trick. Her right eye that was hit by Roben turned into a bloody mess, and the snake must been going mad with pain.

“Aim for the eye!” gulped Freedom as Maple helped her to get up.

However, the squirrel shook his head. “The neck!” Dom nodded - two beasts jumped forward and simultaneously landed at reptile’s neck. Freedom got Maple’s point now and didn’t try to bite or hit the snake. Instead she followed Maple’s example and grappled the neck with all four paws, pressing it down with all her weight. Zlissa’s stirs slowed down a lot: it was obviously difficult for her to fight while the load on her neck kept it from moving.

“Hold on! I’m comin’!” Bikkle’s muffled voice was heard somewhere from above, and Dom briefly glanced up to see the Abbess climbing the wall with a short dagger in her teeth. Unfortunately, Zlissa had also heard it and doubled the efforts she was putting into fight. Rupet fell down with a cry of pain, and Dom felt her paws growing weak with each second.

“Reedwaaall!” Bikkle jumped down, landing on Zlissa’s head by some luck or miracle. She had almost fallen down as the snake jerked, but the squirrelmaid managed to keep balance and plunged the dagger into the back of her head. Zlissa twitched and coiled her body, as if trying to see what had just happened behind her back. This last outburst of power sent Bikkle, Maple and Freedom flying. When the woodlanders raised their faces from stone floor, Zlissa’s tail lashed one last time, and then the monster was still.

Freedom stared at the snake for a few more seconds, ready to run in case she wasn’t really dead. Then a loud cry reminded her and her friends that they had other things to worry about. “Help! Help, somebest! ‘old on, Deelma!”

The molewife still laid limp where Zlissa had struck her, Roben huddled besides his wife, holding her paw and paying absolutely no attention to his own right paw that hung down his side like a broken branch. Renee and Allie clutched to their mother, crying aloud. Other Dibbuns bunched near, frightened and shocked. Rupet and Marfa also were there. Marfa was trying to bind Deelma’s wound with her shawl, but Deelma was gasping for air with evident difficulty. “Taike care o’ our likkle ones, Roben,” she whispered. “Remembe’ Oi lurve ye.”

“Dun’t zay so! Ye won’t die! Bikkle, ye’re from the Abbay – ye must knau sum ‘erbs!”

The Abbes knelt next to the dying molewife, tears running down her face. “I… I’m no healer, Roben… Sorry, but… I don’t think we can do anything…”

“Then we must find a healer!” Dom jumped to her feet, glad she can do at least something. “We must bring her in the Abbey as soon as possible!”

“Too laite,” uttered Deelma and closed her eyes.

“Hey! Look here! Everybeast!” Maple excited voice sounded as if it came from the other world, and Dom felt an irresistible urge to box his ears. Does he have no tact at all?

“Come on! It’s important!” kept calling Maple.

“Can’t it woit?” growled Rupet, turning to the squirrel. “Deelma is dying!”

That’s why I’m calling you! She is not dying!”

“What?!” Freedom, Bikkle and Roben breathed out almost in unison.

Maple stood near the head of dead snake. He forced the monstrous jaws open, using a stick as a lever, so everybeast could see forked wormlike tongue and short sharp teeth. Dom frowned. She had never seen a snake’s mouth close, so why she had a feeling something was missing?

“The fangs!” she cried. “She has no fangs!”

“That’s what I mean!” Maple gave a wide smile. “If there are no fangs, then there’s no poison, right?”

“But… but wy Oi feel venom burnin’ in moi veins?” Deelma raised herself from the floor, surprise tingling in her voice. Freedom couldn’t help noticing she looked healthier than just a couple of moments before.

“Maybe you just got frightened too much,” suggested the squirrel Abbess. “And snake bite is a nasty thing, even if there are no fangs. But now I can say for sure – you are not dying!”

“Hurrey!” Renee and Allie cried again, this time for joy. A shadow of worry still could be heard in Allie’s voice when she asked, “Ye wan’t leave us, Mammy? Ye wan’t go away loike Granpa?”

“Oi wan’t let ‘er, likkle one!” Roben hugged his wife with his good paw and unwittingly gasped as he hurt his wounded paw.

“What’s dat?” Deelma pulled back and examined his paw. “Be it brok’n? Oh no, we should taike care o’ it!”

“Dat’s all roight if ye’re well,” sighed Roben as Deelma bound his paw with Marfa’s shawl.

Marfa looked down the dead snake with disgust. “Buorr, I must’ve been too old nawadays. Taike a grass snake fur an adder!”

“This pattern looks like the one of an adder,” agreed Bikkle, pointing on Zlissa’a back.

“But look, the scales are all went gray. Zlissa must’ve been very, very old snake. She could’ve lost her poison fangs with age,” suggested Maple.

“So that’s why she made it seem she was our friend. She couldn’t just kill us, so that monster lured us into her bloody lair!” The Abbess even shuddered at the thought. “I was a fool to believe her after all the evil her kin caused to Redwall!”

“She bewitched us all,” whispered Freedom, remembering that deep trance she fell into when the adder looked in her eyes. She felt tingles down his spine and hurried to shrug it away. “Enough talking of that terrible creature!”

“True.” The Abbess was in command now. “Marfa and I will help the wounded, and you two take care of the Dibbuns. I want to leave this terrible place as soon as possible before some other snake appears!”

The Dibbuns really needed taking care of. Most of them still were struck with fear and worries of the day and the night. However, mischievous Cleve had already begun drawing near Zlissa’a corpse. “Is it dead? Is there blood?”

Maple caught the squirrelbabe, much to his disappointment. “It is dead, but you won’t even go near it, rascal!”

Freedom made her way to other Dibbuns, checking on them and soothing them if necessary. “It’s all right, dear. You are safe now. No more bad beasts, see, Winnie? You’ll be home at the morning, so don’t cry!” Ripple tugged the hem of her dress, and Dom picked the small otterbabe up. “So, riverpup?”

“Why did Zliza attack you? I thought she is our friend!”

Dom frowned, thinking how to give a good answer to such a simple and therefore difficult question. “Well, she only pretended to be our friend. But in fact, she was evil even before we met her.”

“Then ‘ow I know who’s ma friend and who’s just pretendin’?”

Freedom cast a hopeful look at Maple, who always could deal better with such matters. But her squirrel friend was busy with Cleve and a couple of troublesome hogbabes, so Dom had to come out with an answer herself. “Well… I don’t know. But what I do know is that you should judge by one’s deeds, not one’s words. You see, Zlissa said she’s our friend, but attacked us. And Shamra, a weasel I know, had always claimed she doesn’t care for anybeast – and yet she saved me’n’Maple.”

Ripple’s eyes opened wide with curiosity. “Ye’re friends with a weesel? Tell me, tell me!”

“Not this time, you nosey. Look, your Mother Abbess is already gathering everybeast to leave.”

“Be we leave naw?” asked Rupet. He wasn’t as badly injured as his brother, and now the dark-furred mole was pacing the cave. “Mebbe we woite till mornin’? ‘Cause we ‘ave a trauble ‘ere.”

Bikkle frowned. “Do seasons simply mock us? Any more trouble? What’s that, Rupet?”

Rupet Claypaw pointed a digging claw at the entrance. “Them!”

Woodlanders came closer – and struggled for breath. All the visible space outside the cavern was occupied with armed toads.

Chapter 19

Under the bright night stars, a large group of hedgehogs stood at river bank, watching silently at big raft with a hut in its center. Inside that hut laid bodies of more than thirty Waterhogs, ready for their last journey. Big hedgehog called Hart Oakspike untied the rope which bound the raft to the bank and pushed it with long punting pole.

“May wind and waves carry thee to the sunny slopes where may thee find peace.” Hart spoke traditional words of farewell, and tears ran down his cheeks. The body of his father was lying at the raft among other tribebeasts. The old hog wanted to relinquish Chieftainship of the Waterhogs to Hart and spend his last days playing with little hoglets. Who could have known that Hart would have to claim his father’s title like this? Who could have known that a fishing trip half of Tribe took the day before would cost them so many lives?

Hart stood straight. He had to be strong for his tribe. And he had to hurry. Hart had always been down-to-earth type of beast, but now even he could sense danger in the air. That’s why he insisted on performing all the rituals right now and not waiting for dawn as traditions demanded.

“Waterhogs! Nowt, when we took care of our dead, we hast take care of our living. We shall leave this place and head for Redwall Abbey.”

“Shall Waterhogs flee from our kin murderers?” called somehog from crowd.

“Not flee, but find a place where our old and young can stay and goodbeasts to join forces with. I hast a feeling yon vermin were not just bandits.”

“Chief Hart is right!” cried a young hogmaid. She barely survived the massacre, and now her paws, chest and head were bandaged. “I’ve heard yon weasel cry ‘Kill them for Lord Deathtrap!’ They must be a part of bigger horde!”

“Thank thou, Sarosa,” Oakspike dipped his long headspikes. “Then we shall warn Redwall and Mossflower about them. Thaer, I want thy family to go round the woods and send every beast they meet to Redwall. We shall meet the danger together.”

As one can see from its name, Waterhog tribe usually consisted from hedgehogs only. But seasons ago Hart’s father allowed an otter family to join them, and now Thaer, his wife and his daughter were integral part of the tribe. Otters even proudly called themselves Waterdogs.

Thaer, who looks much like a corsair himself wearing a brass earring and red bandana, saluted the big hedgehog. “Sure, Cap. We’ll all go right now.”

“Don’t go thyself, I shall need thou here. Haund, can thou lead our tribe to the Abbey?” Haund, a hedgehog a shade bigger even than Hart, nodded. Hart Oakspike asked in a low voice, “Art thou sure thou don’t want to claim the title of Waterhog Chieftain? Thou art the firstborn.”

Haund smiled and gave his brother a friendly push. “We both know thou shall make a better leader, brother. I could have coped at the times of peace but not nowt… Thou’ve always been the one to resolve troubles, even since we were hoglets.”

Hart gave him a smile in return. “Hmf, I fear I was the one to create troubles as well! Hark nowt. While thou shall lead Waterhogs and those who join us, I and Thaer shall go to Coneslingers’ woods.”

Haund and Thaer exchanged worried looks. “What’s wrong?” wondered Waterhog Chieftan. “Coneslingers art friends of all goodbeasts, and we shall warn them!”

“Things changed after old Whurp’s death two seasons past, brother.”

“But why? Whurp was a fair leader, and I am sure his daughter Burnby is a fair leader too.”

“She is the leader in title, Cap,” explained Thaer, who sometimes left Waterhogs to pay visits to his squirrel friends. “But in fact it’s her husband Flamefur givin’ orders. He arrived from the north three seasons ago with a group of squirrels, fleeing from vermin raids. And he and his followers don’t like otherbeasts interfering in squirrels’ business.”

“I shall go,” Hart repeated stubbornly. “Yon vermin is everybeast’s business nowt. Will thou go with me, Thaer?”

“Asking, Cap? Sure I go! But mebbe… mebbe we go after the dawn? Then it won’t look like we are intruding their territory, say nothing of all their traps!”

Hart was adamant. “At the dawn it may be too late. We shall go nowt. Take care, Haund.”

Hart Oakpike and Thaer Waterdog walked silently to the small forest north to river Moss.

“Do thou know where the Coneslingers art living?” finally said Hart.

The otter scratched his head while thinking. “Yeah, their houses are on the trees right in this forest’s center, but they often change paths to their settlement. I can remember the last one, but I can’t know for sure…”

Hart gripped the handle of his heavy oaken club. “Show the way, I look for the traps.”

When they left Waterhogs, Thaer tried to persuade Hart not to take his weapon in order to avoid troubles with Coneslingers. Hart refused, saying he didn’t want to be unprepared if they met any vermin. Now the otter thought about thanking Chieftain for not listening to him. The large hog walked the path Thaer showed him, swinging the club before he did a step. It already tore through a couple of nooses and broke a well-hidden javelin.

“We’re almost there, Cap!” Thaer threw his head back, looking out for squirrels’ dwelling. “I hardly can see anything in dark, but we must be almost there.”

Hart leaned on his club. “I’d call for them, nowt.” He paused before roaring, “Heeey-aaay! I am Hart Oakspike, the Chieftain of Waterhogs! I need to speak to thy leader Burnby! Heeey-aay!”

“What do you want from Burnby, hog?” Neither Hart nor Thaer heard the squirrel sneak behind them. When they turned round he just stood there – a tall fellow with dark red fur, he was rather brawny but not stout. His sling was hanging from his belt, and Hart noticed a cone put into it.

The hedgehog had never met Flamefur, but the squirrel’s impudence made him believe it was him. “I have urgent news to discuss with thy leader. Can thee call Burnby, please?”

“Speak to me!” declared the squirrel.

Hart shook his head. “Thee don’t look like Burnby.”

The squirrel put his paw on his sling. “Think you can make fan of me, spikehead?”

“Why should you be so rude, Flamefur?” A pretty squirrelwife jumped down the earth, her soft fur bright like fire. “Hart, Thaer, I’m glad to see you. What brought you to our forest at such a late hour?”

Hart saw more squirrels gathering round them – some sat at tree branches, some leaped down, but all of them were eager to hear about the reason of their guests’ visit. So the Chieftain of Waterhogs raised his voice and tried to tell their story in a few words. “Waterhogs art gathering all goodbeasts and going to Redwall,” he concluded. “Will Coneslingers come with us?”

“Why should we?” growled Flamefur. “That’s none of our business!”

“How can you talk like that?” protested Burnby. “We can’t allow vermin play the master in our lands!”

“Mossflower ain’t our lands,” pointed out somebeast from the above. “Our lands are here!”

“Your lands, our lands, - does it matter?” asked Thaer. “Today vermin killed Waterhogs. Who knows whom they’ll kill tomorrow – your friends? Your little ones?”

“That’s right,” nodded Burnby. “My tribe will go to Redwall.”

Flamefur was startled. “What? So, Coneslingers will abandon the forest they lived in for generations and go against a horde of vermin to defend some beasts we barely know… just because a spikehead and a riverdog say so?”

“These beasts are our friends!” croaked some oldbeast. “When our crops died of drought last season, they’ve been giving us food.”

Flamefur sniffed. “And why should Coneslingers give their lives for a handful of vittles?”

Burnby’s voice was cold as ice. “When you came here three seasons ago with nothing but clothes you wore, Coneslingers helped you, Flamefur, and your friends, and accepted you all in our tribe. Is that how you are going to thank us? I’d never thought you are heartless enough to turn you back to those who helped you!”

The red squirrel jerked his head up. “Don’t you understand? Back at the north, I saw my tribe die – all but for a little group of refugees. I don’t want to see any more deaths. No vermin can defeat us here, where we know every path, where we can appear and vanish like shadows, where the earth is full of traps. We will lose our advantage if we leave the forest!”

Burnby opened her mouth to answer, but her voice drowned when the entire tribe began to argue. Everybeast was speaking at once; some of them weren’t even listening to each other. Nobeast paid Hart Oakspike and Thaer Waterdog any attention.

“They can fight like that till the sky falls,” sighed Hart. “We shall not waste out time here. Let’s go to our tribe.”

In the cave among the swamps, four beasts paced the floor, touching the walls, peeping in every hole and crack, digging at the ground.

“It’s useless,” moaned Freedom as she tried to fit herself into a narrow cleft. “It’s a dead end. There is no other way out.”

“Then our only hope is to cut our way through toads.” Bikkle tried to make her voice sound confident, but the mousemaid saw her paws trembling. “I know, it’s too many of them, but we have no other choice but sit and wait them attack.”

“That’s strange,” Maple was thinking of something again. “Why don’t these toads attack? There are dozens, no, scores of them, and they just sit near the cave and don’t go inside.”

“Maybe they are waiting for their leader, or something,” shrugged the Abbess. “Now, what weapons we have here? Plenty of stones, a couple of sticks and two daggers…”

“Unly un dagger, surry,” Rupet showed them a shorn-off handle. “Oi’ve tried to pull it out off dat snake’s head, an’ it’s broke…”

“The snake! We have a dead snake here!” cried Freedom, an idea flashed in her mind. “We can – oh yes, we can scare toads away!”

“By making them believe it’s alive?” Mother Abbess critically poked the dead body with stick. “Look, it’s completely bloodstained – how can it fool somebeast?” She answered her own question immediately. “But we must at least try. Maple, Rupet, go to the snake’s right side, me and Dom take the left. Deelma, Roben, Marfa, watch after the Dibbuns, please.”

Zlissa’s body was heavy, but together four beasts managed to drag it to the cave’s entrance. At Bikkle’s command, they lifted snake’s head and began to move it. The giant blunt muzzle was thrust out of the cave. To complete the resemblance, Marfa scraped two stones against each other, imitating snake’s hissing.

Toads became stockstill for a moment, then they backed away and fell facedown, pressing their bellies into mud. “Evileyes, Evileyes! Youorder – weobey!”

“Oi be Evileyes, shurr-shrr,” Marfa did her best to sound like a snake. “Oi order ye to go ‘way, hur-shurr-shrr!”

Freedom was glad their enemies had no torches with them; otherwise they would have seen Zlissa’s wounds. Now, if they obey ‘snake’s’ orders…

The mousemaid’s footpaw slipped on a pebble, and Dom fell flat on her back. Without her support, her friends could not hold the weight of Zlissa’s body all by themselves. The dead snake plopped down, its head and neck slithered out right into a patch of crescent light. The empty eye socket stared at the toads, who couldn’t be fooled anymore.

A toad in the first line hurled a light reed javelin, and Dom rolled away grabbing the stone she slipped on. But the toad wasn’t aiming at her. The javelin sank into Zlissa’s head. The toad jumped warily to the snake, then pulled the javelin from the body and stabbed it again. “Evileyes dead!” it croaked. “Dead-dead!”

The rest of the toads were upon the dead snake like locust, scores of them, and every one wanted to kick their once deadly enemy, stab it, stone it or trample it down. The swamp came alive with their croaking, just one word repeated again and again, “Dead! Dead-dead! Dead!”

Woodlanders retreated back into the safety of cave. “Looks like those guys aren’t quite fond of Zlissa, ah?” smiled Dom.

“She could’ve been feeding on them,” nodded Maple. “That would explain why toads are so happy to see her dead.”

“Maybe that’s right, and maybe not, I don’t want to find out,” Abbess Bikkle helped Deelma get up. “We are leaving this place before those outside remember about us and turn us into supper!”

Chapter 20

The night over Mossflower Woods was calm and warm, but the night over Terramort Isle brought a heavy shower which hung in the air, forming a thick wall of water. The escaped slaves could barely see their way, so they clutched to each other firmly. Wavehound took the lead – the otter would stop from time to time and put a paw to his head trying to prevent the rain from blinding him, checking direction.

Seabird made it her responsibility to see that nobeast would get lost. “Look after your families and friends! Especially old and little ones! Or hold each other’s paws, that’ll be better!”

Betta and the squirrels helping her were ones in the rearguard: the badgerwife hadn’t been free from her chains for longer than anybeast could remember, and the race for life had already drained her strength. Betta did her best to stay on foot, but her body didn’t want to obey her. Several times she tripped and fell, dragging Basko and Mlika down as well, and each time she got up, muttered apologies, helped the squirrels and went on running.

When Betta and the squirrels fell for seventh or eighth time, Mlika stayed lying in a puddle of muddy water while Betta and Basko got back to their footpaws.

“Dear! Are you all right? Please, get up, dear!” Basko clasped his wife’s shoulders, bringing her upright.

“I… I suddenly felt so dizzy…” Mlika buried her head in her paws, the whole squirrelwife’s body was shivering from cold. “I guess that’s ‘cuz of the rain and the running… Let’s go on, I’ll be fine.”

Basko still looked worried. He clearly didn’t want to let her paw go.

“Look after Mlika, I’ll walk by myself,” encouraged him Betta. “I’m not that old to die from exhaustion.” To show it, the badgerwife quickened her pace to catch up with the rest of runaways. Basko followed her with Mlika leaning against him.

The steady rain surrounded Betta in minutes, and the recent prisoner lost all the sense of direction. She could only follow vague shapes looming in the dark. Tiredness made Betta slow down, and then she fell, and couldn’t remember anything.

The awakening was rude: somebeast kicked Betta in the ribs with a heavy boot. “Dead stripedog! ‘Bout threescore of slaves missin’ and all we find is a dead stripedog!”

Vermin! Blaze of fire flamed up in Betta’s chest. Those who razed her homeland and captured her and starved her and tortured her for most of her life! The rage of the Bloodwrath took over Betta, urging her to maim and kill those who maimed and killed her soul… except that Betta didn’t have strength to do it. The night spent on running left the badger completely worn out, and she couldn’t move a paw, couldn’t even growl at her enemies.

Amazingly, it played into Betta’s paws, since corsairs hadn’t even realized she was alive. “Oh, shuttup, Rags, you can only complain. We ‘ave to catch that scum, or Cap’n Viro would sweep the floor with our tails!”

“How ye think we catch them, Bigger? Damn rain washed ‘way half of isle, bah!”

“Ye’ve always been an idiot, Knifenut. Where would you go if you wanted to hide? You’d go to the mountains, that’s for sure. So we just go there, find slaves and teach them ‘ow to escape from us!”

“Teach them? Why, for them to escape again?”

“That’s just how they say, Nut. Let’s go!”

There was tramping of paws, which stopped after a moment. “I have an idea!” cried out the one called Knifenut.

Bigger growled impatiently. “What, again?”

“Err, this time it’s a good one, really! Let’s cut of stripedog’s head! If we don’t find the runaways, we’ll tell we tracked and killed this one, er?”

Betta tried to brace her sinews. No matter how exhausted, she won’t let some vermin get her head!

However, not all the corsairs craved for it. “Fishbrain! Do ye want to carry some bloody pate till it stinks? We can always fetch it on out way back!” Still complaining about each other’s stupidity, ungrateful slaves and bad weather, the vermin went away.

Betta managed to half-open her eyes. After some concentration, she discerned silhouettes of seven beasts atop a ridge, a lone seagull soaring above them.

Vermin. Murderers. Betta closed her eyes tight, and when she opened them again they were bloody red. She growled and tried to get up, spirit of the Bloodwrath overcoming flesh of her old body. A small part of Betta’s mind told her it would be better to find Wavehound and other slaves rather than going after corsairs. But the bigger part of her mind told her that vermin would be gone if she didn’t hurry. So the badgerwife threw her body forward in a desperate attempt to catch up with her enemies.

After few steps Betta tripped and tumbled downhill. She lay here in a gully for a moment, gathering her strength. Then ancient instinct made her continue her way. She couldn’t get up, so Betta began to climb uphill, using boulders to pull herself up.

But when she grabbed another stone, it sank into the soil like a knife sinks into butter. The earth itself shook and dropped under Betta’s paws, and she fell into gaped hole.

Betta was wakened by muted voices around her. “How is she, Skadi?”

“Worn out and famished and bruised, but nothing serious,” said a soft female voice.

“And… what is she? I’ve never seen such a creature.”

“Neither have I. May be Logi knows.”

“I do.” The new voice was a rasp of an old beast. “That’s a badger, a stripedog.”

“A badger?” the first voice sounded surprised. “Like the one that destroyed Gabool the Wild? She is far less terrifying than I’d imagined.”

“Don’t let her looks fool you, Stonebreaker. Judging by scars upon her wrists, it’s the very stripedog that was imprisoned by Deathtrap, and I’ve seen her breaking a metal cage and killing three guards. You never know what a Bloodwrathed beast can do, believe me old fox!”

Fox. That word triggered Betta’s blind fury. There were vermin, and those vermin had to die. She opened her eyes and lunged forward, barely able to discern three figures before her – two rats and a fox. Then something stopped her jerk, holding her back. Betta realized her paws were bound with leather straps. What a shame, a thought flashed in her mind as she struggled with fetters, once I was able to break chains and now I can’t tear some leather!

Splash! The fox hurled a dipper of cold water into her face. The world spun round Betta before returning to its place. The outburst of rage had passed, and now she could take a better view of the situation.

Betta laid on a straw-and-moss-bed in some closed place. She could clearly see there were no windows, but still there were quite enough light – the badgerwife could swear that walls themselves were luminous if she didn’t know it was impossible.

She shifted her gaze on her captors and growled. One of the rats, a middle-seasoned male with small ears and deep-seated eyes put his paw on a weapon thrust through his belt. It wasn’t a usual sword or dagger – no, this weapon was made completely of metal and reminded her a pickaxe miners sometimes use, with a single thick spike, the other side of it balanced by a broad flat edge of hammer.

However, a female rat slapped her companion’s paw before he could pull out that strange weapon. “Pebble! Can’t you see you’re scaring the poor creature?” She spread her paws, showing that she was weaponless. “Greetings, stranger. I’m called Skadi, this gloomy one is my husband Stonebreaker Skief, and this is Logi,” she gestured to an old fox, his fur ragged and grey from age, “he is the best healer in both Terramorts.”

Betta desperately struggled with her bounds while Skadi spoke. “Let’s stop pretending,” growled the badgerwife. “I don’t know were Wavehound and others are. And even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you, vermin!”

“You got everything wrong, striped one,” chuckled Logi. “We are not your enemies. We have nothing to do with corsairs from Bladegirt. In fact, they are our enemies. So I guess we can call you a friend.”

Betta considered it for a moment. Now she could see that the closed place they were in looked more like a cave than a dungeon cell, and roughly-woven tunics vermin wore were nothing like soldiers’ clothes. “Unbind me!” finally demanded she.

“First you must promise not to attack us,” said Stonebreaker – or was his name Skief? “In my turn, I swear by my son’s life that nor I neither my Clan attack you unless you threat us.”

Giving promises to vermin didn’t sound sensible, but even the part of Betta’s mind that longed for the Bloodwrath to come knew that blind obstinacy would get her nowhere. Still, she growled and tugged her cuffs before reluctantly agreeing, “All right. I swear by my mother’s soul that I won’t attack you unless you threat me or my friends.”

Vermin nodded with a look of satisfaction and undid knots of her bounds. Betta immediately drew herself up, though her head wasn’t ready for it, and dizziness got into her skull.

Logi supported the badgerwife under the paw. “Easy, easy, striped one. May I remind you we don’t know your name yet?”

“I’m Betta of Daggerrocks”, she said, pulling away from his paw. “And if you call yourself my friends, then tell me – where am I and who are you?”

Skadi was willing to elucidate. “You are in the caves of Lower Terramort, and we, those who live here, call ourselves Rolt.”

This statement left Betta even more confused. “This actually doesn’t explain anything to me.”

“Have you ever heard of Gabool the Wild and the destruction of his Fort?” asked Logi.

Of course Betta heard of it, but she hadn’t remembered much. “Well… I think I did.”

“Then you have to remember that one of the reasons rebels succeeded was their usage of the tunnel – or, better to say, the network of tunnels that runs under the whole island. You are in one of these tunnels. We call it Lower Terramort, and the overground part of the isle is Upper Terramort.”

“We’ve found you in one of our tunnels,” added Skadi. “How did you manage to discover the entrance? We’ve always thought it was camouflaged well enough, and you can’t move the screen of rock unless you push a hidden lever.”

“And the lever was hidden in a stone?” said Betta. Skadi nodded, and the badgerwife continued, “Then I pushed it by accident. Falling through some kind of a hole is the last thing I remember. Right, let’s move on. Who is Rolt?”

“It’s rather ‘what’ than ‘who’,” corrected Stonebreaker. “It stands for ‘Rats of Lower Terramort’. This story started soon after Gabool’s defeat. After freed slaves had sailed from Terramort, they left behind pirates who survived the battle – mostly those who fled and hid before it was too late. Without ships, those rats were trapped on the island. There were brutal fights for leadership at first, but then they realized they would wipe each other out unless they cooperate. And they cooperated. Terramort had never been a paradise on earth, but the land here was fertile enough to give rise to some crops and vegetables, and the sea was full of fish. That’s how pirates became farmers and fishers. However, there still was one problem – harsh weather. There had never been woods on Terramort, just brakes and bushes, and the rebels destroyed Fort to the ground. Pirates didn’t have any means to build houses of even huts, so they came to live in these tunnels.”

“I see, I see,” interrupted Betta. “Those rats were your ancestors. No need to go into details.”

“I just want you to see the whole picture. But in short, you’re right. With each generation they were less and less pirates and more and more peaceful farmers. That’s how it’s been till Deathtrap arrived at Terramort many seasons ago.”

“Twenty seasons past, to be more exact.” One more rat entered the cave. This rat looked even older than Logi, and Betta thought there was no better word to describe him but ‘ancient’. He had lost all fur on his face and paws, and his face was wrinkled. The rat hobbled closer, and Betta could see a peg leg replacing his right hindpaw. Without a second thought she jumped up and bowed. In her whole life she had never bent her back before a vermin, but she felt such a great wisdom and strength of mind in that beast that she couldn’t do otherwise.

“Here, don’t weary yourself out, grandfather,” Stonebreaker seated the old rat down the bedding.

“Old ones aren’t as helpless as you think, pup,” sniffed the rat. “Thought all the extra-attention does flatter my self-esteem.” Then he paid his attention to Betta. “So, you’re the stripedog that fell from the sky? I’ve never seen a badger before, but I imagined them to be much more ferocious and menacing.”

That last statement surprised Betta. “Hadn’t you seen the Badger Lord who defeated Gabool?” She blurted without thinking.

Luckily, the elder broke into a toothless grin. “Hey, I’m not that old!”

Then Stonebreaker stepped in. “Betta, let me introduce you to Skvold Sharkslayer, also known as Skvold the Retreater and Knowing One.”

“Add Skvold the Lame to the list, windbag,” grumbled the elder without spite. His words were left without notice.

“He was Stonebreaker when my parents were merely pups, and I’m honored to call him a grandfather. Skvold, let me introduce you to Betta of Daggerrocks.”

“Glad to know you, youngster,” Skvold patted the bedding. “Sit down; you still have all time in the world to give yourself stiff joints.” The badgerwife followed his advice. Betta felt much better than in the morning, but she still was glad to give her paws some rest.

“We just were telling Betta about history of our Clan,” said Skadi.

“Ah, I’ve heard. I think I’ll be a better storyteller, you were just small pups at that time.” The young rats nodded to their older companion, and Skvold turned to Betta. “So it’ll be a tales’ day. I tell you my story, and then you tell us yours.”

The badgerwife silently bowed her head. Betta wasn’t completely sure she could trust these strange vermin, but they had already told her so much.

The elder rat cleared his throat. “This happened seasons ago, when I was Stonebreaker of Clan…”

“I don’t quite understand,” said Betta. “I thought Stonebreaker was his name.” She pointed to Skvold’s grandson.

He patted a handle of his strange weapon with a smile. “Stonebreaker is its name. Only Chiefs of Rolt are allowed to carry it, so it’s a title as well. Skief is my birth name, and Stonebreaker is just an official one.”

“Right, let me continue,” murmured Skvold, and everybeast fell silent. “Rolt led a secluded life, landlocked on this Isle. Then three of Deathtrap’s ships arrived. We were glad that corsairs finally broke our forced seclusion, for it meant trade, and opportunity for young ones to leave. The weasel straight away declared he would rebuild Fort Bladegirt there and make the Isle his headquarters, and we didn’t mind. Fine, I said, Terramort is big enough for all of us, we can still be satisfied with the deal. But no, that wasn’t enough for that yellow-paunched rogue, he wanted us Rolt come to him and become his soldiers! Can you believe it? He wanted us to fight his battles for him and die for him!”

The old rat stamped his wooden leg several time.

“Sure I said no – all Rolt said no, I wouldn’t have withheld beasts against their will. Skief told you, it was long long time since our ancestors waged their wars, and none of us wanted to fight for some stranger weasel. Trouble was that Darm hadn’t taken ‘no’ for an answer. “You are with me or against me. You gonna be my slaves if you won’t be my soldiers,” he said. I tried to reason, tried to drum into his head that we’re peaceful creatures, that we’re nor with him neither against him, that we just want to stay aside, but would he listen?”

“Talking with Deathtrap is a waste of breath,” agreed Betta, her burning homeland still before her eyes.

“It is. We didn’t submit to him. There was a battle. It was my mistake.” Skvold’s speech became more abrupt and brusque, his words heavy and edgy. “We were no warriors. I knew it. But this is our land. Our ancestors lived there, we live there. The weasel had no right to set his rules there. I thought it would be enough. I was wrong. Darm’s soldiers were skilled killers. We lost many. We lost the battle. I ordered us to retreat, to run away and save our lives. That’s how I ended up being called ‘the Retreater’.”

“It was a wise decision,” Skief spoke, interrupting the story. “Rats of Lower Terramort do still live because you ordered them to retreat, or Darm would’ve killed us all.”

“I don’t regret giving that order,” snorted Skvold. “I regret starting the whole battle.”

“It’s a right thing,” argued Betta. “You have to fight to defend what you have.”

“No, youngster. You never start a fight unless you’re absolutely sure you win, or you can lose more than you win.”

Betta was puzzled. She got used to feeling herself like the oldest creature in the Barn, but Skvold made her aware of her not-so-old age and inexperience. “Sorry, can you tell us what happened next?”

“We escaped to our tunnels, and Deathtrap had the entrances collapsed. Can you believe that stonebrains thought he killed us? Ha! Can you kill a fish by drowning it? Can you kill a bird by throwing it from height? Ha! We went further into the tunnels, and we’ve been living there since that. The underground river gives us fish, caves give us mushrooms and moss and lichen, and sun grounds give us some crops and plants. We never go above during the day, and sea-robbers from Fort don’t even know of us!”

“Thank you,” Betta slightly dipped her head. “I’ve got one question, if you don’t mind.” She turned to Logi, who was silent during the whole conversation. “You say Rolt are descendants of Gabool’s searats. But you don’t look much like a rat.”

The old fox shook his head. “I wasn’t born in Clan, but I joined it seasons ago. Right now you’re talking to a criminal, because I deserted Fort and betrayed Deathtrap.”

Betta’s hackles slowly rose. The rats may be peaceful creatures, but this fox had just admitted being part of the weasel’s troops. “Why did you?”

“Well, we didn’t see eye to eye ‘bout some things.” The badgerwife’s gaze was still, and Logi explained, “We corsairs may be ruthless to our enemies, but among ourselves we observe the Law of Sea carefully. However, Darm follows only his own rules. Six seasons ago, my son-in-law was slain in battle. Darm refused to give his share of plunder to my daughter as the Law of Sea demanded, he didn’t even cared she had a little pup to feed. I tried to stand for my daughter’s rights, but the weasel didn’t even listen to me, and his rat eavesdropper whispered to me I’d better keep quiet or there be ‘an accident’. You see where it’s coming, don’t you? We all left Bladegirt, me, my daughter and my grandson.”

“So.” Betta pondered at the news, then slowly nodded, her head spinning with the amount of new information. “I hadn’t even thought somebeast could rebel against the weasel.”

“Oh, a rebellion would’ve been hopeless – there were a couple of them, but Deathtrap had them scorched in two days. But creatures jumping ships? Yes. You’ll meet them here in Rolt. Vidar was denied his fair share after he lost a leg, Idunna’s brother was killed by Darm, and Surt just doesn’t like obeying orders.”

“We often go to Upper Terramort at night,” said Skadi, “so we can help beasts who try to leave Fort. We try hard, but not all of them make it.” She sighed. “Deathtrap likes making example of those who breaks his laws.”

“Now, will you tell us how you got there, Betta of Daggerrocks?” said Skief.

The badgerwife took her time to think. But after all, she had no idea of Wavehound’s current location, and vermin in Bladegirt had already learned about the escape…

“By my stripes!!” she roared, springing up to her paws. “The others – they are out there! And corsairs are searching for them since morning! We must help them, quickly!”

Chapter 21

“Hurr, get down! ‘Here ‘re beasts comin’ dis ‘ay!”

At Rupet’s command Freedom and her companions fell flat, dragging Dibbuns with them.

“Who are that beasts?” hissed Dom with irritation. After spending the rest of not-so-quiet night making her way through thickets and bushes, she was too tired to be afraid.

The short mole stamped ground with his footpaw. “Dunno. But Oi feel them tramplin’, feel them wit’ moi diggin’ clauws!”

Dom couldn’t feel the earth like moles, but she could hear muffled rustling of branches – an evidence of some beasts trying to move secretly. Brushwood and false dawn were hiding them from strangers’ eyes, but it also concealed the beasts from them.

Bikkle crawled forward to peep from their hide-out, then let out a laugh of relief and got up. “That’s Waterhogs! Ho! How thee ‘hogs fare away from river?”

The large group of woodlanders, about half of them hedgehogs, flinched at the Abess’s sudden appearance, some of them reached for weapons. But when they saw who greeted them, wary looks immediately were replaced with relaxed smiles. Big wide-shouldered hedgehog raised his forepaw, “Ho! How thee Abbess fares away from thy Abbey?”

Two beasts shook paws. “Jokes aside, what brings you here, Hart?” asked Mother Abbess. “I don’t see your father – is he well?”

Hart’s face was dim. “No. He… I’m Chieftain of Waterhogs nowt. I’d better tell everything as we walk to thy Redwall. We can not afford lose more time.”

The vixen was awake, but she lay without motion, listening as the young mouse was fussing round. She heard clink of a bowl being set on table, then the mouse said, “Wake up.” She didn’t move, and he repeated, “Wake up. I know you are not asleep.” He got no answer. Finally, he gave up. “All right, play your games, vermin. There’s your medicine on the table – drink it yourself. The sooner you heal and get out of here is the better for us both.”

Sound of steps dying out, then silence. The vixen waited for a while to make sure her jailer had gone, then opened her eyes. She was placed in a small room – a cubicle with curtained entrance. There were a window and a small table at the head of it; the bed across the cubicle was empty but unmade – another beast must have left recently.

Bowl on the table was full with thick liquid. Ironically, but the mouse was right – she needed to heal if she wanted to escape. The vixen’s left leg was in splints, her right forepaw and all her chest was bandaged so tight she could hardly move. Indeed, trying to pick up her medicine became some kind of a challenge. Finally, the vixen managed to grip it with her left paw, but as she tried to pull it to herself the bowl fell out. Precious liquid spilled on the floor; the bowl, luckily, just clanked soundly.

In a heartbeat, curtain flew open, and the mouse returned. “Dropping things, yeah? I knew that’ll happen, so I filled the bowl with simple broth, not medicine. It would’ve been easier if you didn’t tried to fool me, you stupid beast.” He picked up the bowl, quickly mixed some potion and neared the vixen. “If you try to attack me again, I’ll throw you out of the window,” he warned, his voice bearing bitter grudge.

I won’t do that mistake again, thought the vixen looking at young mouse with dun brown fur and dark paws – looking at her husband’s murderer. Next time she would succeed. The soul of Kars would never rest in peace till she avenge him, and the vixen had already swore that one day she would kill that mouse.

But all she could do right now was to hold back a growl as the mouse brought the bowl to her lips and held it for her to drink.

“What’s your name?” he asked as she emptied the bowl. “Not that I care, but it will make talking easier. I’m Turfee.”

The vixen considered it, and then decided her name wasn’t worth hiding. “Name’s Foxglove.”

The mouse gave a smile. It angered the vixen. She didn’t like her corsair pals making fun of her name, and sure not a woodlander. “That’s fine name,” she couldn’t hide tension in her voice. “My mother was a healer. She called me after a medicine herb.”

“I know it’s a herb. It’s just… amusing. A fox named Foxglove.”

“It’s no worse than any other names, Dustpaws.”

Turfee waved his paw. “Doesn’t matter. Now, don’t you even try to get out of bed. I’ve got no intention of changing your bandages before time.”

“Who, me?” Foxglove was especially proud of offended notes in her voice. “I feel like a mountain collapsed atop me.” Actually, it was very close to the truth. “You think I can just get up an’ walk away?”

The curtain was drawn off, and two beasts walked in – a small badger in green tunic and big graying otter Foxglove recognized as the one who restrained her earlier.

“Good morning,” the badger’s eyes rested upon the vixen. “I’m glad to see you’re getting better.”

“Foxglove, that’s Lord Grawn Woodsmith, ruler of Salamandastron,” declared Turfee. “You should thank him you’re treated by civilized beasts, not abandoned on the battlefield as your vermin friends usually do. And that’s Skipper of Redwall’s otters, who offered to keep an eye on you in case you try to do anything foolish. You do understand this?”

The vixen gulped. Did they come to question me?

But no, the badger smiled and took a step toward Foxglove’s bed, “Stop frightening your patients, Turfee.”

“Careful,” growled Skipper. “She’s a wild one. Already attempted an attack on our healers.”

“I- I was blinded with pain,” this excuse sounded lame, but she at least got to try and cleanse the memory of her stupid outrage. “I remember only pain… Such a sharp, splitting pain I wanted to bite my paws off…”

The mouse and otter exchanged glances with unconcealed distrust in his eyes; even the badger frowned. They didn’t believe her – but she didn’t believe them either.

“Hope it won’t happen again,” said the badger. “Anyway, I’ve come to check on you and say you are safe here in the Abbey. We aren’t going to torture or starve you. After you’re healed, you are free to go wherever you want to. We don’t carry war on wounded. We are not killers.”

Foxglove couldn’t help giving a broad grin. She cracked them! No, Redwallers wouldn’t torture her; they chose another strategy. They’d be all nice and friendly to her, so she’s supposed to go soft-hearted (though soft-headed is better definition) and spill everything out! Well, let them play this game; it can be played by two.

She bowed her head humbly. “Thankee, Lord.”

“I’ll come and talk to you later,” concluded the badger, then both he and Turfee left the cubicle.

Skipper slowly sat down the second bed in the room – it took Foxglove some time to see bandages under his green shirt and realize he was a patient as well. “Don’t even think about pulling off some foxy tricks. I’m watching you, vermin.”

The vixen wanted to say something scornful, but decided not to anger her roommate. Clenching her teeth, she rolled over, her back to the otter. Thinking. Plotting.

Simon made himself comfortable on a little stool, leaning against the wall as he waited for Turfee. The young otter let his gaze wander over Abbey Infirmary. It was overcrowded with wounded; most of them were Redwallers who suffered during Deathtrap’s attack; seven hares that survived an ambush set by vermin were there as well.

Kvalla couldn’t stop fingering a bundled stump of her left ear. “Wot a woe, sah. Wot’s more miserable than an earless ‘are, wot?”

Sister Vernal gently pulled harewife’s paw away. “Sorry, your ear was too badly damaged to be stitched. I had little choice but to cut it off to avoid infection. How did it happen to get torn in shreds, anyway?”

Kvalla frowned at recollection. “Bloody arrow, wot. Pinned my ear to a tree, an’ vermin didn’t want to wait till I remove it carefully. So I just sprang away before they made a pincushion of me, wot wot!”

Seeing hares reminded Simon of Mother Abbess and Dibbuns. Where are they? Does that ambush mean vermin got them? We shouldn’t have left them at Brockhall!

Simon’s gaze shifted to Myrra, who came to visit the wounded Foremole Ruggum.

“Ye zay ye’re from ovve the see?” asked Ruggum.

“Yeah, from Stonehall. Ho urr, it was a wonderful place, all mauntains an’ ridges. Very liddle o’ real forest, but dere was a grove o’ stones dat stood loike trees. An’ caves with columns o’ quartz. An’ deep lakes, so clear dat ye could see ev’ry pebble at de bottum.” Myrra sighed. “An’ silver mines. We worked in dem an’ traided with passin’ ships. Then the weesel came – an’ we became slaives in ‘ur own mines.”

Foremole gentle squeezed his new friend’s paw. “Oi didna mean to upset ye, burr.”

Myrra sighed. “Oi knaw. Oi just thaught… mebbe one day, one day, when that vermint weesel bes gone, we can sail to Stonehall an’ set it free unce more.”

“We will,” said Ruggum firmly. “Oi knaw we will.”

Meanwhile, young otter stared at the curtain that separated Infirmary from a small nook where a captive vixen was treated. Turfee, Grawn and Old Skip went here quite a time ago. Simon began to tap the floor with his rudder impatiently when somebeast gave him a sharp poke in the side. He flinched from surprise and turned round. It was Fleggen, lying on the nearest bed, his gaze sullen.

Simon slightly bent his head. “Sorry. I don’t let you sleep, do I?” The shrew nodded, and Simon went on, “Sorry again. You should have told me earlier.”

Fleggen cast him another morose glare and made a cutting move across his bandaged throat with his paw. “Throat wound, can’t talk?” translated Simon. Another nod. “That’s a nasty thing. And what do healers say? When will you get better?”

The shrew frowned even more and dug himself under blankets without making a sign. “Did I offend you?” inquired Simon. “But what did I say wrong? Why are you angry?”

“Fleggen is not angry with you in particular,” called Sister Vernal from the next bed where she was changing Brandon’s bandages. “He is just angry. You see, the wound on his throat is too deep. His vocal cords are damaged.” Kind mouse sighed. “I’m sorry, but Fleggen will never be able to talk again.”

“Oh.” Simon shook his head. Fleggen could have been the grumpiest and the most quarrelsome beast he knew, but the otter hadn’t wished him such a wound. He tried to keep pity away from his voice – he knew Fleggen wouldn’t want one. “Well, I guess it could’ve been worse.”

“Simon? You’re still here?”

The young otter turned to see Brother Turfee and Lord Grawn coming into main Infirmary room. “You said I can visit Triss,” he reminded.

Turfee stopped to fill a bowl with a strong-smelling tincture. “Sure. Follow me.”

The Abbey Warrior was staying in a dormitory not far from Infirmary, reclining on pillows and blankets. Simon could see her ears and whiskers were sagging, even if the squirrel smiled and waved her paw to visitors. “Hi Simon, hi Turfee! Umm, what are you carrying? You aren’t going to make me drink that nasty skilly again, are you, Turfee?”

The mouse healer cast Triss a stern glance (sometimes Simon wondered where did he learn it – definitely not from Sister Vernal), “This ‘nasty skilly’ is saving your leg. You have to drink it.”

Triss let out a feigned sigh. “How such a nice Dibbun could turn into such austere beast?”

“Sometimes I think he likes tormenting his patients,” agreed Simon.

“Fine,” sniffed Turfee. “Next time you’ll have a pleasure of stitching your own wounds.”

Simon and Triss chuckled at the thought, but Triss’s laugh quickly grew into cough. Simon hurried to give his mentor a cup of warm mint tea and didn’t take his eyes off her while she sipped. “How do you feel, Triss?”

“Not as good as I’d want to,” admitted the squirrel. “My chest hurts, and I can’t move my leg. But I’m much, much better that yesterday, thanks to Turfee and Vernal.” A small smile showed up on Turfee’s face. “I hope I’d be back on my footpaws in few days,” said Triss.

“A broken bone can’t heal in few days,” softly said Turfee.

Simon felt he couldn’t put off inevitable any more. “Triss, did… did you hear what happened in the woods?”

“Yes. Churk told me when she visited.”

The young otter looked down, unable to raise his eyes. “I’m… I’m sorry, so sorry. I’m not fit for the warrior, I know. I shouldn’t have left the Sword of Martin.”

“Silly riverpup.” Nobeast called Simon ‘riverpup’ since he was a Dibbun, and his face burned with shame. However, there was a note of sorrow in Triss’s voice as she went on, “I’ll make no secret of it, I’m upset with what happened. But Simon, we all do mistakes. All of us. The only thing that matters is whether we can set thing right at the end. In your case, we can.”

Simon understood. “The sword is still in the stream. We can go back and retrieve it.”

“Yes, and that’s what we’ll do after things clear up a bit.” Triss forced a smile, then frowned again. “As you see, you still can set things right. I can’t.”

”What do you mean?” said the Warrior apprentice. “You’ve never did such stupid stuff.”

“May be I haven’t. But I’ll never forget how Shogg died protecting me.”

Simon frowned. He had very vague memories of the otter, but he knew his story well. “Shogg was killed by snakes,” he said softly. “It wasn’t your fault, Triss.”

“May be it wasn’t. But there were times when I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking: if I hadn’t fall down… if I hadn’t dropped the sword… if I had got up faster… Shogg would’ve been alive.” Triss’s head was bowed down now. “It took time to realize snakes were the only ones to blame. But even now, I would sometime think – if only…”

The squirrel warrior patted Simon’s paw, her voice bracing. “What I wanted to say is that you have no reason to fret. We still can set things right.”

Simon stayed with Triss for a while, then left her room, deep in thoughts, his paw touching Deyna’s locket – a gesture that made him feel closer to his famed ancestor. Triss was right. He will set things right.

Freedom, together with Abbess Bikkle and Chieftain Hart, looked at red-stone walls of the Abbey.

“I can see beasts on the walltops,” said Maple. “It’s – yes, it’s hares, I see their long ears.”

“Hares in Redwall?” muttered Bukkle. “The Long Patrol must have come to the Abbey. Anyway, we need to get inside.” The squirrelmaid took a deep breath before shouting, “Redwaaall! It’s Bikkle with friends out here! Open the gates!”

In less than five minutes, mixed group of Waterhogs and woodlanders was inside the Abbey’s walls.

“Christoff Bigbow at your service, mar’m,” bowed the hare that opened small eastern gates for them. “Glad you turned up, sah. We’ve been looking for you yesterday, wot.”

“I’m also glad we turned up,” smiled the Abbess. “Did Lord Sagaxus send you?”

By that time, a large group of Abbeydwellers flocked to welcome them. Dibbuns dashed to their families and friends, Mother Abbess got surrounded by both Redwallers and hares of the Long Patrol, and even Waterhogs and woodlanders turned out to have friends in the Abbey. Freedom, Maple and Claypaw family stood aside, couldn’t help feeling a little aloof.

Then Maple gasped, his eyes set on a group of squirrels. “Dad!” he cried and ran into paws of a squirrel in red headband. His father laughed, hugged Maple, then picked him up and whirled. Dom could hear their voices, “You are here! I knew you’re alive, but you’re here, Maple!”

“Hey, an’ where’s your ear, Dad? Hey, Elm, Yew, Larch, you’re all here!”

Freedom smiled at her friend’s happiness, though she felt a pang of distress: but after all, she couldn’t have expected to see Kroova and Sleeve here.

As she thought of it, Maple ran back to her and grabbed her paw, “Dom, this is Broom, my father. Dad, that’s Freedom, she is my best friend, no, she is like a sister to me. I wouldn’t have made it here without her.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have made here without you to begin with…” Dom tried to argue, but Broom simply hugged her tight, like he hugged his son.

“I guess I can call you my daughter now, Freedom,” he said.

Simon was leaving the main Abbey building when he heard sound of joyful voices and cheers and picked up his pace to greet the Abbess and her companions. However, he had to stop as Ripple ran into him at full speed.

“Saii-mon!” she cheeped. “I missed ye! Where were ye?”

Feeling a sense of relief washing over his fur, Simon picked his sister up and swirled round – Ripple’s favorite amusement.

“Are you fine, lil’ Rippie? Weren’t you hurt?” he asked with concern.

“Bad beasties put me in a sack!” the otterbabe complained. “Dom an’ Maple saved us! Come, you’d meet them!”

Smiling, Simon let Ripple lead him to where Broom and several other squirrels were talking to a couple of young beasts, a squirrel and a mousemaid.

“We owe you so much for helping our Dibbuns,” he said after Ripple proudly gave their names. “I don’t know how to thank you two!’

“Think nothing of it,” shrugged Maple. “Any other goodbeast would’ve done the same.”

“But I could do with a breakfast,” added Dom, giving Maple a friendly push. “Can we?”

“Sure,” said Simon. “It’s the least our Abbey can do for you. What would you like to eat?”

“And what do you have here?” carefully inquired Maple.

Broom patted his shoulder, “When it comes to kitchens of Redwall, you’ll learn they have everything.”

“Hotroot soup, please?” blurted out Freedom. “I haven’t eaten it for ages!”

“Me, too!” Maple supported his friend.

Simon could only shake his head. “And I thought only otters like hotroot soup. The rest of Abbeydwellers say it’s too spicy for them.”

“Wait till you hear of my parents!” smiled Dom and gave him a wink. “I’m part otter myself!”

“And you, Maple?” asked Broom, suppressing a chuckle. “Had you become an otter when I wasn’t near?”

“No,” was an honest reply. “I’m just hungry so much that I can eat anything.”

Simon was about to invite them to the dining hall when he heard a sound of hurried footsteps and an unfamiliar voice, “Hey there, matey!” He turned round to see a strange ottermaid skidding to a halt as she neared him. “Surry to cut in like that, but I’d like to see Skipper of otters!”

Simon glanced over the crowd, but couldn’t find his father here. “I saw Rumbol go to the main building,” said Broom. “Show the way to our guest, Simon; I’ll take care of the breakfast.”

The young otter motioned the maiden to follow him. Now Simon was sure he had never seen this ottermaid before. The stranger was his height and age; she wore blue dress and headscarf that shaded in her dark grey fur. A tailring and two bracelets upon her left wrist gave a faint jingle as she walked.

“I don’t think we’ve met before,” he said. “My name’s Simon.”

“Oh!” The maiden’s paw went to her mouth. “I didn’t want you to think I was born in a cave, really! I’m Moska Waterdog, daughter of Thaer and Janis Waterdogs. Our family travels with the tribe of Waterhogs.” Her pawshake was firm and strong.

“And why are you looking for Dad – I mean, Skipper?”

“I just wanted to ask when we’re going to strike back,” admitted Moska. “And volunteer to participate in the attack. Or to enter sentry patrols. You know, to do at least something after… after what those scumbags did to Waterhogs.”

Simon nodded – he knew how it felt to be unable to help the ones dear to you. “Yea, though I’m afraid there won’t be a reply attack till we restore our forces. There are too many wounded in the Infirmary.”

“Hadn’t fresh forces of woodlanders and Waterhogs just arrived here? Besides, vermin surely don’t expect us to recover so soon.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” agreed Simon. “It’s up to Abbeyleaders to decide, but we can suggest…”

Deep into conversation, two young otters entered the Abbey’s main building.

Three corsairs strolled through Mossflower Woods. They were foragers, and two of them bended from weight of sacks with fresh fruits and vegetables. All their attention was on their third companion, who carefully carried a basket full of bird eggs.

“Ye’re a lucky sly-boots, spotting a nest so high on dat tree!”

“Yeah,” the lucky rat in question bit one of the eggs and sucked it dry. “Next time I’ll get a broody hen a’ well!”

“Krrreee-gaaah!” A black lightning struck down, and a hunter turned a prey: the rat hadn’t even uttered a squeak when Truvo Blackhawk sank his claws in his back and dragged him into the skies. Two remaining corsairs staggered back in shock, then grabbed their bows. But it was too late. Truvo tightened his grip, breaking the victim’s neck, dropped now harmless rat and shot upwards to avoid arrows.

One hawk couldn’t battle a whole army of vermin – Truvo knew it. Nevertheless, he had already begun his war. He would strike and disappear, and vermin would pay for sufferings of the all birdkind.

Chapter 22

“Send help for the others, right now!” roared Betta, nearing Skief. “You should, you must do it!” The rats staggered away, concern and bewilderment on their faces. It took Betta a few seconds to realize they were startled by her sudden outburst. Faltering and stammering from nervousness, the badgerwife told them the story of the slaves’ escape. “Vermin are after them! You’ve got to help them!” she urged.

Skief stepped back to have a look at a water-clock – two connected jars standing on a slab of stone, a thin stream of water pouring from the upper jar into the lower one through a tiny holy. Stonebreaker scratched his claw on clay to mark the level. “It’s almost noon at Upper Terramort. Rolt cannot go above during daylight; the risk is too high.”

Betta growled deep in her throat. In a moment, she grabbed Skief by shoulders and shook him. “My friends are in danger! I’ll make you save them, dirty ratbag!”

With a jerky move Skief broke loose from her grip, his weapon at ready in his paws. “Do not treat me, stripedog! I’m sorry about your friends, but I won’t doom my whole Clan by sending beasts above, where they are surely to be seen!”

Red haze began to cloud Betta’s eyes. “I’ll go here myself if all you can do is to rot in these caves like mudworms!”

“How dare you…”

Crack! Both Betta and Skief flinched at jarring sound: Skadi threw down an earthenware dish with all her might. “Go on, idiots! Start a fight, that’s exactly what we need!”

“It was a very fine dish,” muttered Skief, staring at scattered earthenware shards.

“Don’t change the subject, Pebble! Just look at you two! My little son knows better than shouting his throat out like that!”

Stonebreaker let out a small chuckle. “Skadi, shouting louder than everybeast else is Sig’s main argument in any wrangle.”

Skadi gave a scornful sniff. “Now you’re proud of being as smart as a little ratlet? You know you can’t leave other beasts for mercy of those horrible corsairs! Now to you, Betta – you should know that attacking you saviors is the lowest thing a beast can do!”

“That’s very true.” That calm voice belonged to Skvold. Betta turned to see the aged rat still on the bedding, staring at them. Logi, quite the contrary, turned his back on them, going through his storage of dried herbs and roots.

Betta suddenly felt ashamed for Skvold seeing such a quarrel. “Sorry,” she said. “But anyway, I won’t abandon my friends.”

“True,” agreed Skvold. “It’s not right to leave goodbeasts without help.”

“Yes, that’s not right,” slowly said Skief. “But I still cannot send otherbeasts to Upper Terramort.” Before Betta’s angry growl came out of her throat, he continued, “So I’ll go there by my own.”

“But, Pebble,” breathed out Skadi. “If you’re to be seen, you’ll have no chance against corsairs!”

“A group of beasts have no chances against all Bladegirt, too. One rat can hide more easily from their eyes. I’ll go out, find those escaped slaves and lead them down here.”

“That’s a right decision,” nodded Skvold. “You shouldn’t go yourself, though. You’re a brave rat, Skief, but you don’t belong above. You’ll need a beast who’d once been an upperdweller.”

“Stonebreaker? Skadi?” A beast carrying a tray laden with food made way through a curtain of lichen that served as a canopy door. “Gerda thought you’d like to have a bite.”

The beast was a female ferret about several seasons younger than Betta herself. She wore the same roughly-spun tunic of sandy-and-brown colors as the rats did, and she looked attractive in it, even though her ash-grey fur was stiff and her right ear was nicked by a blade.

“Idunna! We’re lucky to have you here!” Skief exclaimed. “We’re in urgent need for an upperdweller who knows mountains of the above as his own claws. You must know such a beast, am I right?”

The ferret blinked; it took her several seconds to answer. “Surt knows Upper Isle best of all, but he’s fishing somewhere at Snake’s Eye, and I gather you’re short of time, so I may do, too. I’ve had my share of wandering in the mountains.”

Stonebreaker explained the situation in few words, and Betta had to admit he did the better work of it than she. Idunna nodded and turned to the badgerwife. “Betta, yeah? Do you know exactly where your friends were going?”

Betta shook her head. “Doubt Wavehound’d ever been to those mountains. Slaves aren’t allowed further than crop fields.”

“But which way were you heading, at least? North-east, straight north, north-west?”

Betta shrugged. All she remembered of the escape was the shocking openness and vastness that left her completely disoriented after seasons in the dark Barn.

Idunna let out a pained sigh. “Don’t think they made it to the northern shoreline,” she mused. “Better start checking from southern foothills… Skief, can I borrow your knife? The armory is too long a way round.”

The rat handed her a short dagger with wide triangular blade – more a tool of a mason than a weapon. “Give me one, too,” barked Betta.

“Oh no, you are not going above!” Logi spun round to face her for the first time since the argument. “That’s the healer’s order!”

Betta was ready to snap at him, but she was saved by Idunna. “Please, Logi! I’ll need help. After all, I’m a ferret, so those woodlanders would likely attack me first and ask questions later!”

“All right,” surrounded the fox. “You’ll get no weapons though, stripedog. Keep out of fighting!”

Betta said nothing, her heart rate picked up at the thought of encounter with vermin. If it came to fighting, her claws and teeth would do as good as any blade.

“We’re not going to let anybeast see us to begin with,” said Idunna. “So let’s go!” Betta followed Idunna out of the cave and into the tunnel about two badger’s heights tall and just as wide. Lots of offshoots and sidepasses were branching of it, but Idunna knew her way and lead Betta without stopping to look at symbols carved at the turnings. There were rats all over the tunnels, and many of them called to Idunna, though the ferret kept waving her paw and crying “Later!” The farther they went, the fewer beasts they met, and finally the badger and the ferret were the only creatures in this part of the tunnels.

Now, with the need to fight and to argue gone, Betta felt the strain of previous night and early morning leave her. They were going to rescue her friends, and this knowledge made her relax her tense muscles, and she calmed down enough to take interest in their surroundings.

Betta noticed the tunnel walls were truly luminous – they were covered with short downy moss that glowed with white light. “What’s this?”

Idunna looked over her shoulder to see what she was pointing at. “Oh, this? Lightmoss. We plant it in all the caves and tunnels except for sun grounds.”

“Sun grounds?”

“Several large caves on higher levels that have wide cracks and holes in the ceiling, so the sunlight reaches all the way down. Those cracks and holes are up in the mountains, among clifftops so high and steep that nobeast can climb them, and we shouldn’t worry about hiding them. We grow moss and lichen and mushrooms in normal caves, ‘cause they don’t need sun. On sun grounds we grow plants that need sunlight – some crops and roots. Not many, though; the sun doesn’t stay there all day.”

Betta ran her paw across the wall. Its surface was flat and smooth beneath the moss. “Had you dug out all these tunnels?”

“Oh no!” Idunna sounded amused. “They were there even before Gabool the Wild first set a footpaw on the Isle. Rolt still had a paw in it, though, by making shortcuts to connect different parts of the tunnels and enlarging narrow caves and passages. And the tunnels are to be watched to prevent cave-ins and soil collapses. Chef makes sure of it.”

“Chef?” asked Betta.

“Chieftain, yeah, I mean Skief.”

“He has an awful lot of names, that leader of yours. Chef, Skief, Stonebreaker, Pebble…”

Idunna laughed, “Hey, you don’t call Stonebreaker Pebble unless you’re his wife! That’s Skadi’s privilege only!”

Betta felt corners of her mouth lifting – she was smiling for the first time in seasons. The sensation was so strange to her now. Chatting with a ferret was no less strange, though.

“Why had you left Bladegirt?” The question came out unexpectedly harsh. “Logi said Darm had your brother killed – is that right?”

Idunna flinched and stopped to a halt, her shoulders tensed. “I don’t wonna talk about it.”

“Why?” A sharp pang of suspense ran through Betta’s pelt. Was it a mistake to trust these vermin? “Are you still loyal to Darm?” she demanded, grabbing Idunna’s collar. “Is it a trap?”

“What a piece of nonsense!” The ferretwife took a step back, looking indignant. “I just don’t want to talk. Something tells me you won’t be happy to throw words round about your isle burning down, either!”

An endless stream of unwanted memories flooded Betta. Fire and smoke, and the smell of scorched fur. Cries of pain and despair all around her. A sickening feeling in her chest where an arrow hit her. The badgerwife shut her eyes tight before the lightmoss had begun to bleed red, but this only made the memories more vivid. They urged her to roar, to move, to fight. No, no. Not now. She buried her face in her paws, groaning as she sank to her knees.

“Betta? What’s it with you?” A low buzzing was filling her ears, so she could barely hear this voice. “Look, I’m sorry about what I said; I hadn’t thought it would affect you so much…”

“Do not… mention it,” Betta sighed, breathing in deeply. Her heartbeat slowed down a little, but she still didn’t trust herself to open her eyes.

“Can I help you somehow?” Idunna touched her shoulder, and the badger shrank back.

“No, no. Just don’t mention it again… please. I barely could hold the Bloodwrath down.”

Blood-wrath?” There was fear in Idunna’s voice. “Is that how they call it when a creature goes into frenzy and kills everybeast he sees?”

“Kind of.” Betta dared to half-open her right eye. She could see no red haze, so she dropped her paws and got up, staggering slightly. “I’m all right now, don’t worry.”

Idunna, however, was clearly worried. “An’ how often do you have such… fits?”

“Almost every time I see a vermin. I guess I’ll never forget all the seasons I spent in chains.”

“Rats of Lower Terramort are no enemies to you,” Idunna said slowly. “Fort soldiers will kill me if they see me, and they’ll do the same if they see any of Rolt. We’re taking this risk for your friends.”

“I – I understand, with my head. But with my heart… When you refused to talk, I – I just panicked, and… and…” Betta faltered. How could she explain all that turmoil and delirium she herself had never truly understood? “I’m sorry. I – I’ll try to keep myself in paws.”

Idunna nodded, then motioned at the tunnel. “Let’s go. Your friends are waiting.”

Betta was happy to leave the matter behind. They walked only a few steps, though, when the ferretwife said, “He was a member of Fort Guard, you know.”

“Huh?”

“My brother. If that’s what you want to know.” Betta said nothing, and Idunna continued, “He was a promising warrior, one of the best. Almost nine seasons ago he came to me and said he got a very important assignment. He was appointed to guard Deathtrap’s wife and make sure nobeast can harm her. But that was only a part of assignment. Darm ordered my brother to kill his wife if she shows any fear or hesitation or pity – ‘proves to be unworthy’, as he put it. Of course, this second part was supposed to be a great secret, but my brother had trusted me to keep it. In two days, beasts from one of the ships rebelled. There were tension between them and Darm before, and it was no surprise when they declared themselves free of his authority. Deathtrap put his wife in charge of a crew and sent her to stifle a mutiny. I was a part of the punitive crew, so I saw what had happened.” Idunna’s voice became uneven. “That poor creature was a delicate maid, not a warrior. When she saw her soldiers dying, she got scared out of her senses and called a retreat. And my brother executed his orders. He had to. But only the moment later, another of the Guard had killed him. I – I would’ve believed it to be an accident if Deathtrap hadn’t declared my brother a traitor sided with rebels and hanged his body over Fort’s gates to make an example of him. Can you see now? He used my brother as a tool to do dirty work for him – and then he disposed of him because he knew too much. Then he made a good performance, playing disconsolate widower for everybeast to see!”

Idunna fell silent, just as Betta did. After all, what could she say at this? Two beasts walked for a couple of minutes before Betta broke awkward silence. “And then you escaped and joined Rolt?”

“No. And then I attempted to kill Deathtrap and avenge my brother.” The ferretwife caught Betta’s glance and touched her left side just below her ribs. “But his bodyguards know their job well. I got a blade in my ribs and a trip from Bladegirt’s wall to the rocks at the seashore. Luckily for me, Rats of Lower Terramort found me and nursed me back to life.”

Betta nodded: futile attempts to fight were too familiar to her. “And you’d never tried to avenge your brother again?”

Idunna took a sudden interest in the stones under her footpaws. “I’d wanted to, and I still want. But if I do anything, it would expose Rolt’s existence to pirates, and I wouldn’t do such a thing. With more and more seasons passing, I’ve just learned to live with it.”

There’s more common in us than I thought, realized the badgerwife. It seems… it seems the only thing that differs is that I have not learned to live with it… and I probably never would.

Chapter 23

Abbess Bikkle chose Triss’s room as a meetings place for the War Council, so the Swordmaid could take part in it. Skipper Rumbol dumped a pile of maps and other papers on a small table, and Grawn sat himself here, taking a chance to study maps of Mossflower. Mother Abbess, Captain Longstep, Hart Oakspike and Broom settled round. Foremole Ruggum had also come, supported by Brother Turfee; the mole’s paws were covered with bandages. Simon perched a little aside, as if he felt uneasy being here. Freedom could understand him, because she felt the same.

Leaders of the Abbey invited her and Maple because they thought that runaways could give them useful information about Darm’s army. It was true, but Maple was the one talking. It amazed Dom how much he had learned just by ‘watching and listening carefully’, as he called it.

“I didn’t have time to count all the soldiers,” the young squirrel said, “but there were five ships in the hideout harbor – six together with Deathtrap. She carried a crew of seventy beasts, and if we take it as average size of a crew, that makes an army of four hundred and a score… No, a little less,” he corrected himself. “About a score and a half left with Shamra and Greywhisker. It’s about four hundred then.”

“Old Greewhiskers left?” Longstep jumped in his chair. “Haha, that jolly sly-paws knows when to take to hees heels!”

“You know him, too?” asked Grawn.

“Known him since he called heemself Darkwhiskers, wot! Vermeen like changin’ names that no longer fit them, that’s h‘t. Wee fought slimskins together, me, him, One-eer and…”

“Can us save the story for the later?” said Hart crossly. “We hast vermin to worry about! Where art that lair o’ them, I shall like to know!”

“I think I can find it in the map,” Maple bowed over the table, studying papers. “Give me a minute…”

Freedom dropped her head on her paws – and then she saw a blur of white with the very corner of her eye. She turned round, but there was nobeast and nothing behind her except for a window. But I saw it! Freedom thought. The mousemaid had good eyesight, and it had never deceived her. She took a paper from the table, pretending to study it, and carefully cast a sidelong look without turning her head.

There it was – a small white gull sitting on the windowsill, its head close to the glass. But there is no reason for a bird to behave like this, unless… unless it was sent here by somebeast!

“I do remember where the vermin camp is!” Freedom announced, pulling the map out of Maple’s paws. She picked up a charcoal stick and scribbled in the corner, ‘Don’t look at the window. There’s a gull spying on us.’

Rumbol’s brows raised a little, but that was the only sign of surprise he showed. “Are you sure it was near the stream?” he said loudly and made a postscript, ‘The less vermin know is the better. Let them think we know nothing and don’t plan to do anything.’

Skipper put the map across the table for everybeast to see while Dom and Maple continued the play. “I definitely remember walking through the birch grove.”

“But we passed it two days before that. The camp is in the hills.”

“No, near the stream!”

“So, you don’t know where it is,” Triss concluded. The youngsters shook heads, trying to look guiltily. “It’s not your fault; after all, you’re new to these places. What should we do now?”

“I don’t think there’s much we can do, except for keeping sentries on the walls,” Grawn said. “We can’t attack Darm without knowing where his base is, and it’s possible that he had already left these woods.”

“That seems the most reasonable,” Bikkle agreed. “If so, I declare the Council closed. We’d better take our leave and not tire Triss out.”

“You’d better,” Brother Turfee said loudly. “Triss’s wounds are so severe that she needs great amount of time to heal.”

This statement took Freedom by surprise. Hadn’t the mouse brother said Triss was healing just fine when they came in? The she caught a wink passing between Turfee and Bikkle and realized that it, too, was part of the play. Triss looked after departing beasts with longing, though she said nothing.

Nobeast parted at the room’s exit; all eyes were on the Mother Abbess. “Now, would you like to go down into the Cellars and have a sip of refreshing dandelion cordial?” she said. The cheer of agreement was an answer, and the squirrelmaid lead the way, slowing her pace to match Foremole’s limp.

Freedom could see the reasons behind Mother Abbess’ thinking – underground Redwall Cellars, with no windows and thick walls, were safe against eavesdroppers. The mousemaid followed the others, enjoying the coolness of air in the lower floor of the Abbey.

Mother Bikkle paused at the door and put a finger to her lips. “Shh, follow quietly.”

The beasts tiptoed through a small lobby to the door leading further downstairs. Bikkle, however, lingered to throw a coverlet over Gurdle Sprink, who dozed off in a chair.

Other members of the War Council waited for her in the main Cellars room. “Good old Gurdle”, the Abbess smiled, taking her seat at the head a big table. “He loves these Cellars too much to leave them, even though he doesn’t grow younger with seasons. Broom, would you be so kind not to seat on that barrel? That would make the ale go turbid. Now, let’s continue our conference, so to say.”

“I do remember location of the vermin camp, by the way,” Maple put in. Skipper Rumbol sorted through his papers and gave him the right one, and Maple almost immediately put a cross on it. “There it is.”

“Good,” the otter Skipper nodded. “Anything else?”

“It’s camouflaged well, and there’re archers on the trees all round the periphery, and… I’ve already mentioned everything else I know.”

“You was a great help,” Broom put a paw on his son’s shoulder; the pride in his voice was hard to hide. “Now, I don’t think we’ll need you two here anymore. Would you like to go or stay here?”

Freedom and Maple exchanged glances, and the squirrel answered for them both, “We’d rather stay, if you don’t mind.”

Abbess Bikkle took the floor again, “Okay, now let’s move on to the main question: what are we going to do with that bird spy?”

“I can shoot it,” Grawn suggested. “Not mortally, of course, but a nasty wound would keep it off the Abbey.”

“Nay, nay, nay!” Hart sprung up, waving his paw. Everybeast’s eyes turned at the Waterhog: it was so unlike him to become agitated like this. “Why dispel the one who shall help us beguile thy weasel lord?”

“Oi dun’t think the burd’ll ‘elp us unless broibed,” Ruggum burred. “An’ evun then it’ll loikely to betray us.”

“Ai don’t think that’s what Hart meent, wot,” Longstep said, nodding to the hedgehog. “You meent that we can feed the bird false inteelligence, am Ai right?”

“Precisely. It’s like that – we know we’re spied on, but the vermin don’t know that we know, and we know that they don’t know that we know, so we can make them think they know that we don’t know…”

“Yes, that’s fairly clear.” Rumbol shook his head, trying to get rid of all the ‘knows’ ringing in his ears. “Any ideas what can we use this for?”

“May I say something?” Simon looked for approval around the table and went on. “I’ve just remembered a trick that was pulled on Damug Warfang the Greatrat, making him accept battle at a place favorable for Redwallers, not for Rapscallions. We can do the same, give Darm information that will make him fight on our conditions.”

“Do you have any particular place in mind?” the Abbess said.

“I was thinking about cliffs north-west from Redwall,” the young otter pondered aloud. “It would’ve been easy to hold positions atop them. But they’re a day’s march away, and I doubt Darm would go that far.”

“And he won’t start a battle on obviously bad terms, either,” Freedom added. “He’ll easily recognize a trap in these cliffs.”

“I have another suggestion,” Broom called on. “What about swamps Maple had mentioned? Let’s see how vermin would like fighting knee-deep into a quagmire, especially if there’re hostile toads!”

Lord Grawn shook his striped head. “I’m afraid our soldiers will have the same difficulties fighting there.”

“Not if we send squirrels. They can travel among treetops and pour the enemy with arrows and slingstones.”

“The problem ees we have too little jolly squirrels, wot,” Captain Longstep glanced over some writings. “Feefty tree-hoppers, countin’ Pineforesters, woodlanders an’ those from Redwall. Feefty’s too little against four hundreed, Broom. Sah.”

“We’ll take it as a reserve variant,” Bikkle suggested.

Hart Oakspike slammed his big paw on the table. “Tooth Cape – why not?”

Both Rumbol and Simon roused at that name. “A perfect trap!”

“Vermin won’t know what hit them!”

“Aye, I thought the same, thy vermin shall hast no way out.”

Mother Abbess raised her voice, silencing the speakers. “Now maybe you’ll be so kind to explain us what are you talking about?”

“Sure, sure,” Skipper slightly bowed his head. “Tooth Cape is a place at the southern tributary of river Moss, about half-day march from Redwall. It juts out far into the river, a narrow piece of land shaped like a tooth. If we manage to get vermin there and then strike from the shore, they’ll have no way to retreat to except for the Cape itself.”

“Which will restrain their ability to fight in formations,” Grawn continued. “They won’t be able to use their numerical superiority. The narrow space will hamper them, and their numbers will turn into a weakness. I like this plan.”

“Yes, but there’re more advantages to us in this place,” Rumbol smiled. “The Cape’s shape wasn’t the only reason for its name. This area is inhibited by toothfish. These fish are small, not bigger than a mouse’s paw from clawtips to wrist. But they are predators that always swim in shoals and attack every creature that gets in this tributary – beasts, birds, other fish. Several of them can’t inflict serious wounds, but they’re attracted by blood, and when a large shoal gathers...”

A shudder ran down Grawn’s back. “That’s a cruel death. Too cruel, even for vermin.”

Hart got up his footpaws, his voice very low, “Thee want to say that the Waterhogs died a kind death?”

“I don’t mean such a thing; what I mean is that there’re lines we shouldn’t cross, even in war.” Grawn said. “We fight to protect innocent, and don’t compete with vermin in cruelty.”

“You make it sound as if we do it out of pleasure,” Abbess Bikkle noted. “We don’t. Darm’s army outnumbers us, Lord Grawn. Long Patrol, Redwallers, Waterhogs and woodlanders – all together we make it only two hundred and fifty against Darm’s four hundreds.”

“I know. You’re right. I should save lives of woodlanders above all,” Grawn said and added with resolute firmness, “But once the trap is closed, I’ll parley with Darm and offer him to lay down weapons. If the vermin have sense, they’ll see their gains.”

Nobeast objected. Then Captain Longstep said, “One more theeng we should discuss. That bloody Deethtrap laid a siege on Redwall.”

“But we already know about it,” Broom pointed out.

“No, not ‘declare-Ai-want-to-take-over-Redwall’ kind of siege. Ai meen ‘put-archers-round-the-Abbey-and-shoot-at-anybeest-appearing’ kind of siege. Ai tried to do some scouting earlier, wot, and each time Ai opened small gates even for a claw’s breadth, Ai got an arrow next to ma paw!”

“Oh no, not this!” Simon cried out. “If we have to fight out way out, then we can’t – can’t set up an ambush, that’s what I want to say.”

“We should definitely think on it,” Skipper Rumbol frowned.

For about a minute, silence hung in the air. Then Foremole Ruggum said, “Huburr, why kan’t we tunnel ur ‘ay out?” Attention of the whole Council shifted to him, and young mole explained, drawing lines on the table desk with his digging claw. “Start at one o’ de walls, dig under it an’ lead tunnul out at noice forest sheltar loike pile o’ rocks or empty log, hu-orr.”

“Sensible,” Grawn nodded. “Even if our plans regarding Tooth Cape change, it’s always useful to have a way in the enemy's rear.”

“Good, good,” Bikkle patted her friend’s paw. “I know you can’t dig yourself till your wounds are healed, but you can supervise the works. How long would it take?”

“Hum, had to see the eurth first,” Ruggum said. “Strategikul points asoide, ‘here’s soil friability to consider, an’ modulus of rigidity, an’ cavin’ probability. Shure, the danger of facing upheavals an’ carrier offset ‘cause of, say, voids in rock are low, but we ‘ave to remember…”

“How long, Ruggum?”

“Six days. Mebbe seven.”

“Don’t you have you molecrew, moles from Stonehall and those all round Mossflower?” Rumbol asked. “I’m sure you can cope faster!”

The Foremole sternly looked over him. “Do ye need a tunnul that will serve fur seasons or the wan that will cullapse afte’ ye set footpaw in it?”

“We’ll leeve jolly diggin’ for ye moles an’ take care of the rest, wot,” Longstep promised and turned at other Council members. “We’d better hide that bloomy tunnel works from some birdie’s eyes.”

“Well, it’s something to be thought over in its time,” the Abbess said. “And the last thing: talk to nobeast about what you heard there. Not that I don’t trust Redwallers and our guests; I don’t trust the spy outside. If you have to discuss something important, do it only in rooms with no window, and keep the Dibbuns out of this – little rascals repeat everything they hear!”

Everybeast was nodding solemnly, including Freedom and Maple, and Bikkle’s frown changed to a smile, “Now what about some dandelion cordial?”

At the same time, some distance away in Mossflower Woods, another War Council was held. Captains of Deathtrap’s army gathered in a big tent that served as a meeting hall and was adjoined with another one that was Darm’s personal quarters.

Clyde sprawled about on a low seat with pillows tucked at his back; Tamant was sitting aside, his tail lay neatly round his paws. Zorra leaned against canvas wall, twiddling her thin long lance. The stoat kept casting uneasy glances at those two: they had always been strange ones, difficult to comprehend for a beast like Clyde.

Two more Captains walked in the tent. Arrowfly’s slight limp was the only almost gone consequence of her injury in Shamra’s escape, but Catcher leaned heavily on the weasel’s shoulder. He headed to where Clyde was lounging. “Give me that seat, Clyde.”

The sturdy stoat snorted, “Why should I?”

“’cause I was wounded in battle, and you wasn’t.”

“I came here first.”

Catcher opened his dark blue cloak wide, showing a row of bandages going round his chest. “I got an otter’s spear through my ribs when I tried to get my crew on Redstone Abbey walls. Where were you then, Clyde? Sitting your tail off in the camp an’ pulling sinews out of some unfortunate creature?”

The challenge was issued. Clyde rose to his paws. He was taller and heavier than Catcher, whose age was showing in silver streaks lining the ferret’s dark grey fur. But Catcher didn’t stepped back, and he didn’t reach for his cutlass. He just stared at Clyde with resolution of a beast sure of his rights.

Clyde seized his sword, but felt a slight prickle on his paw as he did so. Arrowfly was holding her dagger offhandedly, its point touching Clyde’s wrist. She too did not take eyes off him. Worse, with the back of his skull Clyde could feel Tamant and Zorra staring at him. If a fighting broke he would be in minority.

Clyde stepped aside. “Take yer foul seat.”

Catcher slumped on the seat heavily and moved to make place for Arrowfly. Both Captains seated themselves comfortably where Clyde lounged alone.

They hadn’t been waiting for long when Darm Deathtrap walked in a prompt step, Nabon close behind him. Lord of the Seas had taken off his armor and helmet, but still wore the chainmail tunic. His right paw was in a sling, though his eyes blazed with anger that compensated any wound.

Darm didn’t waste time on greetings. “Does anybeast know what ‘blockade’ means? What I meant while giving orders was: nobeast gets out. Nobeast gets in. Was that clear?” The answer was hastened nods from all the Captains. “If so, how fourscore of hogs and other woodlanders got into Redwall without being stopped? Tamant?”

The scout Captain was already up his paws. “We’d caught sight of them only when they were at the range of the Abbey’s walls. Sentries were too few to strike an attack on their own, and reinforcements had no chance to get there in time. My apologies, Lord.”

“But it was your job to notice them. Didn’t you have a bird on watch?”

“Ragfeathers was watching the Abbey and its dwellers, not Mossflower Woods. He is a good spy, but he can’t watch over everybeast.”

“Then maybe we should recruit more bird spies?” Nabon said.

Darm slightly dipped his head. This was an idea he appreciated. “Silentblade, you’ll do it. Talk to jackdaws and magpies, they would sell their own nestlings for a pawful of shinings. I want to know everything that’s going on in this area.”

Tamant saluted, and Darm continued, “Any news of Greywhisker and the traitors?”

The brown rat was solemn. “Greywhisker knows my ways of tracking, so the old haggler made sure not to leave any traces. But since we’d learned from the prisoner they’re heading for our ships, I will be able to pick up trail at some distance from here, when the traitors give a slack.”

“No, I don’t want to scatter my forces.” Deathtrap raised a corner of his mouth in a dark grin. “I’ll take on Redwall first and deal with that treacherous spawn of mine and her followers later. Have you heard from Krugg Bloodpike?”

“Not a trace of him, his crew or his ship. I dare say he has probably betrayed you too, Lord.”

Darm shook his head. “I’d rather say he’s dead. Krugg wasn’t smart enough to sail off on his own.” Finally Darm paid his attention to other Captains. “Now get down to business – Redwall Abbey. We must seize it till the summer end at the latest.”

“Why, Lord?” said Clyde. “If we got Redwall in the blockade, can’t we just wait and starve them?”

The weasel warlord rolled his eyes. “Tell me again, why had I made you a Captain?”

“’cause cruelty and intrepidity are just as needful as gumption and intelligence,” Clyde replied in a monotone that sounded as something learned by rote.

Darm motioned for his son. “Tell him, Nabon.”

“Redwallers have a pond in there, and orchards where they grow food,” Nabon said proudly. “The full siege wouldn’t be effective unless we destroy their sources of fresh water and provisions.”

“Right, and one more thing to remember – this summer Guosim shrews had left Mossflower to meet their kindred,” Darm said. “When they return, I’m going to greet them from the inside of the Abbey’s walls. Enough talking.” He looked over his Captains to make sure he got all their attention. “Each of you will receive an assignment. Each of these assignments has a part to play in the battle for Redwall, so you all do you job as best as I need. If you don’t, you’d better make sure you die in battle, because it will be less painful than if you are to answer to me.”

Darm made a pause for the information to sink in, then turned to Zorra. “What moon phase is it?”

The vixen wasn’t surprised by sudden change of subject. “The third quarter was at its peak two days ago, Lord.”

Darm Deathtrap walked to the tent’s entrance and stared at the sky. “Hmm. What about the wind?”

Zorra followed him; other Captains discreetly decided it wasn’t their job and stayed where they were. “North-wester, about the same strength as today, and it will hold for four days at the least.”

“Hmm, four days. I need five. Look at that cloud over the western horizon. Will it turn into a rain cloud or get cleared away by the wind?”

“Neither. I suppose it will spread out with the wind.”

“You suppose? I don’t plan battles on guess-work. If you can’t predict weather, find somebeast who can.”

“It’s true that no beast can take weather for granted, Lord,” said Zorra. “But my forecasts are extremely accurate. I can say we shouldn’t expect a rain because the air doesn’t smell of water, and the storm passed just two days ago. And I can see it wouldn’t clear away since even though the cloud has feathery streaks at the top, its underneath has that nacreous coloring…”

“Don’t go into such details,” Darm interrupted. “What I need to know it what the weather will be in five days. Keep watching and report to me if you spot any changes.”

Arrowfly, the youngest of Captains, whispered into Catcher’s ear, “What the weather has to do with that Abbey?”

The ferret awkwardly jerked his right shoulder. That was his way of shrugging, a habit developed many seasons ago, when toad lance speared his other shoulder. “Dunno. It has to do something, I s’ppose. It’s not our job to think about it, though. Our job is to carry out orders and try to keep our crews safe.”

Darm Deathtrap went back to claim his place at the meeting tent. “The attack will be launched in five days. Mind this deadline. Tamant. Have you checked the Abbey’s defenses as I asked you?”

The chief scout dipped his head. “Yes, Lord. The place you had told me about truly proved to be the weakest spot in Redwall defense.”

“We’ll break in there then,” the weasel lord commanded. “Train five of your best beasts for this work. Put them under drills so intense that they would perform their task blindfold. The weapon master will provide you with necessary breaking tools. And check Redwallers’ positions regularly in case they decide to fortify.”

Tamant barked his ‘yessir’, and Darm turned to other Captains. “Catcher. I’ve been told about that device you came up with. I want to discuss it in private later.”

Catcher heaved to stand, but Darm waved him to stay seated. The ferret Captain saluted him anyway. “Glad to be of use, sir. Thought that idea of mine can be helpful.”

“It certainly is. How many crewbeasts do you need to construct it and would you be in form to command them with your state of health?”

Catcher pressed his paw to his chest. “Sir, I’m not fit to lead my crew into battle for a while, but I can command construction works just fine. In five days time I can cope with thirty beasts, though it depends on some structure details.”

Deathtrap seemed content with the answer. “We’ll talk about the details later. Arrowfly, Zorra, you’re going to work together. Arrowfly, you take command of Zorra’s crew to build a battering ram and train to use it. In battle you should ram attack Redwall’s main west gates. Zorra, you take Arrowfly’s archers and cover up ramming crew with valley of arrows. In battle you should take position in the trench across west gates, so train to prepare for such setting.”

Arrowfly exchanged a look with puzzled Catcher, glanced at imperturbable Zorra and dared to ask a question, “Um, Lord, don’t you think we can get better results without swapping crews?”

Darm allowed himself a wry smile, “I know you work best with crews that’s been serving with you all this time. But I need a weasel to command the ramming crew.”

“Ah, so I am to wear your armor during the battle?” this was more statement than question: Darm and Arrowfly had already pulled this trick a couple of times.

“Exactly,” the warlord confirmed. “Your main task will be to draw to the western wall as much of enemy force as possible. Both you and Zorra would use these five days to get a knack of working with unfamiliar crew.” Both Captains dipped their head, and Darm went on, “And one thing. Since you’re to provide distraction, don’t risk your soldiers without need. But don’t hold them back either. There’s always a chance of something going wrong, and then ram attack will be the only means to break into. And even if everything goes as planned, our positions will only improve from getting into the Abbey from two ways. Clyde, your crew together with my personal guard and the rest of Catcher’s crew will be the main striking force of the attack. You must get ready for it. Put your soldiers through as much drills as you think needful.”

Clyde grinned contentedly. He liked drills. They allowed him not to hold back his temper. “Sure, Lord.”

“And what about me, father?” Nabon said. “Shouldn’t my crew get an assignment as well?”

Oh yes, Nabon, Darm thought. “A special assignment for you. You should supervise all the works, report if anything goes wrong and put your crew in work where the help is needed.”

“I won’t fail you, father!” The young weasel saluted twice, full of enthusiasm.

Now tell me about getting paid without robbing, Darm concluded in his thoughts. In such a position his heir wouldn’t be able to do any real harm, for all of the Captains were experienced enough not to obey orders issued not by him. In a dire situation they would report to Darm first. Not to mention Nabon getting educated in war art without harming his pride.

“I believe there is one more question to discuss, Lord,” Tamant said when Darm was about to close the meeting. “A hawk had been attacking our forces all day, the one that interrupted our ambush on Long Patrol. He would drop from the sky, kill one of our soldiers and soar away before weapons can be drawn. We already had three soldiers killed and one maimed.”

“Do I really need to teach you such things?” snapped Lord of the Seas. “You of all beasts should remember that if it looks like you’re losing the game, it’s time to change rules! When you recruit some jackdaws or magpies, ask them about that hawk. They should know where he nests. Creep on him in the night and kill him while he sleeps!”

“Yes, Lord. There is more news Ragfeathers reported to me earlier, the one you might like to hear. He saw one of our soldiers, a vixen from Catcher’s crew, being held captive in Redwall sick bay.”

“So,” a wry smile appeared on Darm’s face. “You say there is one of my soldiers inside the Abbey? Well, I sure can use it…”

Chapter 24

The midday sun had found Wavehound and runaway slaves in rather poor conditions. The managed to take refuge in a narrow rocky crevice, but it was far too cramped to house so many creatures. Rainwater constantly ran down the stone walls, but this also proved to be an inconvenience instead of benefit, for salt and slime on the walls made it undrinkable.

After counting all the refugees, Wavehound realized there was one missing: Betta. The otter felt sick for losing one of his charges so soon, but he simply couldn’t blame it on the squirrels. Rain, cold and strain of escape weren’t kind to them, especially to those old and weak. Seven beasts had already got a bad cold, and Mlika seemed to have it worse than others. Scanty as the runaways were, they could do little but place the ill at the back of the crevice, away from the wind. Here they huddled, shivering from the chill, even though their fur was hot to touch. Wavehound could only pray for the chill not to grow into fever.

Wavehound’s gaze fell upon the one he worried about most – Mlika, her family gathered around her. Basko put some shaggy-looking scrubs under her back. “There is some lichen and moss, not much, but it’s better than sitting on cold stones.”

“That’s better,” the squirrelwife forced the words out. “Funny – my bones ache as if I am some ancient elder. I’ve always thought myself being far under the age when you can predict rain from your back pain.”

Dewberry, a thin hedgehog who was Thornbush’s wife, walked over to Mlika and wrapped an old ragged cape round her. “Here, the heat will take bone ache away.”

“You’ll need it for Bramble,” Mlika coughed.

Dewberry glanced at where her son was playing with pebbles together with the few other little ones, moving stones round according to some rules they thought along with the game. “I still have my scarf to keep him warm. Now, let’s move you further, a little away from these sharp rocks.”

Wavehound heard heavy pawsteps behind his back. “And what’s now?”

He was waiting for this question. And he said to Thornbush, “Me and a couple of other beasts will scout for a better shelter, clean water and vittles, may be some medical herbs. I leave you in charge of those who stay there.”

“You leave me in charge, huh? And who made you a leader to begin with?”

“Thornbush, will you take care of the others while I’m gone?” just asked Wavehound.

“Of course I will,” came the answer. “Go and find something worthy; this hole isn’t good for the ill and old to stay.”

This being said, Wavehound felt relief over leaving his friends in reliable paws. He called for Seabird and Elsie, and all three of them left the crevice.

Outside, the rain had stopped, though the wind was still howling among rocky hills. Seabird raised her voice to be heard, “Where are we heading?”

“North,” said Wavehound. “To put as much distance between us and Bladegirt as we can.”

“Is it worth it?” Elsie argued. “There’s nothing to the north but bare stones.”

The male otter shook his head. “Oh, there is. The hill slopes aren’t too steep, so there must be ledges with soil layers drifted on, and that means plants – grass, berries, even brakes. And there must be some gullies among the cliffs, with even better conditions for plants’ growth. Not to mention that most springs flow down from mountains.”

The young vole looked up at him suspiciously. “How do you know all of this with working in the Fort all the time?”

“Well, being a servant has its benefits. Vermin officers don’t feel the need to watch their tongues with slaves present, and you can take a peek in different maps or papers while cleaning up chambers.”

“Looks like you’ve been planning this for quite a time,” Elsie murmured as the trio set off.

“I’ve been planning this all my life,” Wavehound said honestly. “Even since I lived on Green Isle. Plotting, waiting for the right time, except it wouldn’t come… till now.”

The talk ceased as beasts struggled forward through the slush and slurry dirt. The night rain soaked the earth deep through, making already steep slopes even more greasy and slippery. By the time they reached crest of one of the hills, all three runaways were covered with mud from head to tail.

Seabird noticed something that looked like bushes at the top of high cliff range, and they headed here for the lack of better guiding line. Wavehound managed to find a narrow path winding upwards round the cliff’s base, and the trio followed it, stretching out into a line. The path had almost reached a flat summit when it got blocked by a boulder higher than an otter’s height.

Seabird, being a member of Galedeep Clan and the strongest of the three, boosted Wavehound and Elsie up; when they climbed the summit, her friends got hold of the ottermaid’s paws and dragged her up. Finally, after reaching the clifftop, they all paused to catch their breath. In a sudden silence, the scouts heard clear sounds of talons clicking upon stone and low, rumbling screech.

Wavehound slowly turned round and realized that bushes they had seen from the bottom of the hills were not, in fact, bushes. It was a nest – an enormous aerie made of tangled heap of branches and twigs. And the host of this nest, a giant golden eagle, was approaching them – wings half-spread, neck stretched out, hooked beak open in evident threat.

The tan otter quickly estimated the situation and bowed. “Good day, sir. Sorry to bother you, sir, we didn’t mean to cause you any troubles.”

The eagle snapped his beak once before his screech rose higher. “Vermin, today you die.”

Wavehound took a step back, gently pushing females rearward. “Back off,” he whispered to them. To the bird he said aloud, “No sir, we’re not vermin. We escaped from them and now looking for a place to hide. We’re friends.”

“Lies, lies, lies!”

“They are not!” Despite Wavehound’s command, Seabird stepped from behind his back and took a step toward the eagle. “Look, we are otters and a vole! Our kind had never been enemies!”

The eagle flapped his wings with enough strength for the wind to gust up in the runaways’ faces. “You come steal eggs, you come kill mate, now you come lie. It won’t save you.”

He spread out his wings widely, baring to their view an assembly of scars on his chest and wings. His right wing did not unfold completely: Wavehound could see a nasty wound on it, a piece of arrowshaft still protruding through the feathers. Its end was clipped short; the eagle must have tried to remove it with his beak, but failed.

“Please, let us prove we’re friends!” Seabird cried out. “Let me have a look at your wing…”

“Sea, no!” Wavehound caught his friend’s paw, but the ottermaid shook it free and decisively strode toward the great bird.

The eagle shrieked and took off with mighty beat of wings. The moment he was in the air, the eagle hurled for Seabird with his claws outstretched. Wavehound grabbed Seabird by her shoulders and jerked her backwards, and both otters stumbled and fell from the clifftop, with the eagle sweeping past above them.

Wavehound’s back hit the stones of hill slope, and he felt earth reel under them. Before they could roll over the narrow edge of rocky path, a paw seized each otter by the scruff of their necks. It was Elsie, who got down while the otters talked to the eagle. The volemaid didn’t have enough strength to keep her bigger companions from falling, but she hindered the fall enough for Wavehound to get hold of the path, and both he and Seabird scrambled on their footpaws.

High above them, the eagle screeched as he veered round and dived for another attack.

“Run!” Wavehound shoved the maidens down the slope ahead of him. They hurried downwards, though their progress wasn’t as fast as they wished, since their path was littered with stone debris, and a sheer cliff dropped down to their left. Wavehound was bringing up the rear of their little group, throwing glances over his shoulder every two steps.

“Down!” he shouted when he saw the eagle coming at them again. All three beasts went down on their bellies, paws covering heads. The raptor’s talons scratched stones just above Wavehound as the bird rushed past. The eagle flapped his wings and awkwardly lapsed at one side, dropping far below his victims.

The wounded wing doesn’t let him maneuver properly, Wavehound realized. Then his gaze fell upon deep furrows in the stone cliff where the eagle scraped it. Though he doesn’t need to be over-precise to kill us.

The eagle had to take some time to gain height, and the former slaves used this time to descend further. Elsie rather abruptly stopped on the path to poke her head into a narrow fissure in the rocky wall. “I think there’s space for all of us.”

“Fine!” The eagle had folded his wings and dropped; Wavehound rammed his shoulder into Seabird’s back, driving both her and Elsie into the fissure so all three of them burst into the over-narrow and tapered crevice, Elsie almost crushed by her larger companions. The cleft wasn’t wide enough for the eagle to follow; instead, his clawed hind leg shot inside, reaching for his prey. Wavehound pressed himself further in, and sharp talons only brushed his back, catching some fur and a clawful of dirt that stuck to it. The eagle screeched in frustration, butting his body against solid rock.

“Elsie, you alright?” Wavehound called when he got his breath back.

“Fine, though I wouldn’t mind more space,” came the muffled reply.

The otter cast a wary look at the shadow looming at the narrow entrance. “Sorry, no way for that. Sea, you?” he asked, using his friend’s nickname.

“Not a scratch on me.” Seabird’s voice was sad. “Why he attacked us, Wavehound? We did him no harm.”

“That eagle is dangerous – one needs only a look at him to know that. You should’ve backed off when I told you,” he couldn’t help adding a bit grudgingly.

“But we could’ve helped him! He could’ve helped us! We could’ve been allies!”

“Yeah, but have you seen his scars? Have you heard him say he lost his mate and eggs? Don’t you think he had a good reason to hate vermin?”

“We are not vermin,” Seabird declared.

“And how would he know it?” asked Wavehound. “We’re the first slaves who made it to these hills. That means this eagle had only dealt with corsairs before. To him, all earthcrawlers are vermin.”

“Ah.” Seabird sighed. “I haven’t thought about that. Of course you’re right. But still – auch! Elsie, can you stop elbowing me?”

“I think I’ve found something!” While otters were talking, Elsie dug at the other end of the cleft, scooping back loose earth and scraping at small rocks. “Here it is!” A tiny sliver of sunlight trickled into their cave through a crack Elsie had widened.

The sight of it filled tired runaways with enthusiasm. “Throw the earth underfoot, I’ll trample it from getting in your way. Pass me bigger stones, I’ll give them to Wavehound to toss aside.”

After some work, all three beasts managed to broaden the crack into a hole, large enough for a vole to fit. Further inspection showed that it couldn’t be expended without removing some solid-looking rocks, and they unanimously decided not to risk whole hillside collapsing on them. Elsie slid out of the cleft with no trouble; Seabird had to turn sidelong to squeeze herself into the hole.

“At least there’s something I can thank the vermin for,” she huffed after finally getting to the other side with a push from Wavehound. “I wouldn’t have fit in if they fed us better.” She looked round at the steep slope they ended on. “Seems we are on the other side of that cliff.”

Wavehound threw his head back, examining distant clifftop. “Yeah, I can see that eagle’s nest from there. Come on, mateys.”

“Where to?” Elsie cried out.

The otter swiftly put a claw to his lips, “Hush, you don’t want our feathered friend to hear us. Come on, we need to get to the top. It’s an excellent view point, and we still need to find water, food and shelter.”

That was a worthy argument, and the maids followed Wavehound. That hillside had no convenient trail to follow. Instead, it had plenty of chinks to grip and ledges to step on, helping the trio in their rock-climbing ascent. Wavehound went first, checking their holds for solidity. Elsie followed, and Seabird brought up the rear, ready to give her friends a push.

A strident squawk high above startled Elsie, and she lost her grip on the stone she was pulling herself on. The volemaid’s footpaws slid down the smooth rock – but not too far: one of them had met Seabird’s broad head. The otter braced and held till Elsie found proper foothold.

“Thanks, Sea. And sorry.”

“That’s just a gull.” Seabird glanced at her namesake circling overhead. “Gulls are no danger…” The rest of the phrase couldn’t be heard for another shrilling birdcry.

Wavehound gasped. His eyes widened as if he saw not a gull, but something much more sinister. “Bloody storms and salt seasons! It’s their gull! It marks our position for vermin!” He looked over the surroundings anxiously. “No way to get down on time. Speed up, mateys! They still need some time to get there!”

And the otter threw all his remaining energy into climbing, practically pushing himself upwards. He reached the summit first, rolled over its ledge and immediately turned to offer a paw to Elsie and Seabird. Pulling them up, he commanded, “Now we’d get out of this place before it’s too late!”

Then he turned about and almost ran headfirst into a band of corsairs.

Chapter 25

Foxglove lay in the bed, staring at the wall with empty eyes. All day she had been trying to come up with some kind of escape plan, but one way or another her thoughts would circle back to Kars. She couldn’t close her eyes without seeing him falling from the walltop again and again, his broken body looming before her mind gaze. Finally, the vixen succumbed to a doze, and events of seasons long past marched before her, starting with her young days…

Foxglove was born and grown up in a tiny hamlet on Northern Shores, so small it didn’t even have a proper name. The only point of note there that had kept the place alive was a corsair port. There wasn’t anything of great interest for corsairs as well, but they would dock to replenish their supply of food and fresh water or get their ships repaired. Many young vermin from the hamlet would enlist as crewbeasts for these ships in their search for a better life. Foxglove didn’t blame them – it seemed anywhere life was better than in the hamlet. Those who had stayed still worked for the corsairs one way or another: repair workers fixed the ships’ breakages and fishers pickled and smoked their catches for sale, and nobeast’s earnings could be compared with the ones of Skinflint, the local tavern keeper.

Foxglove had never known her father. Her mother said he had died even before she was born, but the young vixen suspected he just didn’t want to burden himself with a wife and a cub. Her mother was a healer, and she had clients among corsairs as well as among local beasts. When Foxglove was a little cub, they were considerably well-off. Till one day a competition appeared. Several new healers – no, magickers and seers, that was how they called themselves, - moved in the hamlet. They couldn’t mix a simple potion without chanting and replaced poultices with charms and amulets. Foxglove’s mother, who never pretended being something she wasn’t, only laughed at their mumbo-jumbo and magic nonsense. However, it soon turned out that ‘magic nonsense’ was what superstitious vermin preferred, and she lost most of her customers to them. Then came a time for Foxglove and her mother to pull in their belts.

Foxglove’s mother tried teaching her the healing trade as well, but it turned out that Foxglove had no healer’s talent whatever. After several attempts, the old vixen had to acknowledge her defeat when Foxglove accidentally put some hotroot into what had been supposed to be a cooling salve. “Well, I did heal his stiff joints,” Foxglove tried to excuse herself later. “They didn’t seem to bother him at all when he chased me all the way round the village!”

Anyway, her healer career ended there, and she needed to find some other way to earn her living. Foxglove wouldn’t leave with some corsair ship because her mother had lost all her clients by that time and couldn’t even feed herself. Foxglove couldn’t also hope to compete with fishers or repair workers who practiced their trade since very young age. That left only one path open for her: Foxglove had become a servant in Skinflint’s tavern. The job turned out harder than most beasts imagine. Foxglove’s work was not only to attend to the customers with food and drink, but also to wash the dishes, scrub the floor and the tables, clean up all the mess after the customers, - to put it short, all the work that needed to be done in a tavern. In exchange, Skinflint provided Foxglove with a roof over her head and enough vittles to feed herself and her mother.

Foxglove’s life gained a rhythm of tidal waves, going up and down, up and down. When a corsair ship arrived into the port, there would be a swarm of customers and enough work to run her paws off – but then, a servant’s share would always increase at such days. If the corsairs were extremely generous, - or extremely drunk, - a servant could even hope to receive some tips for the good service. Sure, Skinflint saw that it was him who got all the revenues and nobeast else, but with some luck it was possible to hide these tips from him. Foxglove had no regrets about stealing from her master. After all, Skinflint would use any chance to cheat her out of her earnings. Foxglove thought it only fair that she would take her share herself if Skinflint underpaid her, and she needed this share to put away for a rainy day. This rainy day would inevitably come after a ship’s departure, when there were no more customers and no more work. This state of affairs usually lasted till another ship’s arrival, and the cycle would start anew.

Foxglove’s life had been passing by like that for some seasons. However, it had all changed when she met Kars. That day a corsair ship had just arrived to the hamlet, and the tavern was full with customers. Foxglove was busy carrying a tray with mugs of grog when she heard a noise from the common room. And that noise was louder and more belligerent than usual drunk brawling. It was easy to pin up a source of the disturbance. Two beasts stood face to face; they both swayed a bit, indicating they were no newcomers to the tavern. The crowd had backed away, giving them some space, an anticipation of a good fight on their faces.

A burly weasel bared his teeth, “Say it again and I’ll break your every bone!”

His opponent, a big wide-shouldered fox, only laughed. He was almost handsome, with thick brown fur and long straight muzzle. However, the good first impression was spoiled by the fox’s weird-looking eyes. His left eye was yellow and it had a slight squint, so it seemed that he was looking sideways as if keeping an eye on other corsairs round him. His right eye was green and normal, but Foxglove had a peculiar feeling that this eye looked through the weasel rather than straight at him.

“I say it again and again and again: you’re a coward!” spat out the fox. “Where were you when we boarded that riverdog ship? And before you say you was there, why you was the only one who got out of the battle without a scratch on your pelt?”

“Bah! Scars are signs of a lousy swordbeast, not bravery!”

“So, you think yourself to be a master swordbeast? Can you prove it, coward? Or do I add ‘liar’ to your title?”

“Oh, I can!” A cutlass appeared in the weasel’s paw. “And I gonna give you a fencing les-“

The fox didn’t wait for him to finish the sentence. He grabbed a bottle of grog from the nearby table and broke it over the weasel’s head. The weasel dropped on the spot, knocked out cold. The crowd roared in triumph.

Foxglove put her tray on one of the tables and clapped her paws. “Sirs!” she had to raise her voice to be heard. “Sirs!! Fights are not allowed in this tavern. Please resolve all your problems outside. But once there – no fighting, no dueling, no poisoning and, the most important, no damaging the tavern property or staining it with blood.”

The big fox turned at her, and Foxglove again got a feeling that his green eye was looking somewhere behind her. “He started all this!” he complained, pointing at the fallen weasel with a splintered bottleneck in his paw.

“The rules must be obeyed, with no exceptions. Please, leave the tavern and take your friend with you. You can come back tomorrow.”

“Hellgate’s teeth!” The fox slammed his paw on the table heavily. “I’m not leaving nowhere, that’s it!” And he swung the bottleneck in Foxglove’s direction.

Foxglove didn’t think he had actually wanted to hit her, but rather to shoo her away. Still, she reacted quickly. The vixen ducked under his paw and grabbed his wrist, digging her claws into a sensitive tendon. The fox’s paw reflexively unclenched, dropping his improvised weapon. Foxglove wrenched her opponent’s wrist outwards, so the big fox had to fall on his knees to avoid having his paw damaged. She kept wrenching till she had the troublemaker sprawled on the floor. “Please leave the tavern, sir,” she repeated.

“Aaah… right, right, I leave, stop breaking ma paw, ye pest!”

Foxglove released him, and the big fox made for the door. “Payment for your drinks and the bottle you’d broken!” the vixen called. Without stopping, the fox threw her a bracelet – silver, three stones embedded in it were definitely rubies. That was more than the fox actually owed them, but Foxglove wasn’t about to enlighten him.

Hiding the bracelet in her sleeve, Foxglove frowned. Other corsairs had already carried the senseless weasel out of the room, but that still left her with a mess to clean up. But there were business she had to finish first. Foxglove took the tray she had put down earlier and headed to one of the tables. “Your grog, sir.”

The next day Foxglove had met the fox with mismatched eyes again. He walked into the tavern, glancing round with a confident look of a beast searching for something.

Foxglove had a sickening feeling in her stomach. He had probably come to get a payback for getting thrown out of the tavern. She wanted to sneak into the kitchen and swap her serving duty for dishwashing when the fox noticed her. “Hey, you there, vixen, come here, need t’ talk.”

Foxglove drew nearer, making sure to leave a table between her and the visitor. “Yes, sir? Do you want to order something – beer, grog, wine?” she asked with a polite smile.

“No, no. Just… look, how…” the big fox stopped himself and stared at the floor as hard as if he wanted to burn a hole in it with his green eye. He looked almost as it he was embarrassed, except that Foxglove knew such beasts simply don’t get embarrassed.

She turned away to go. “Sir, I have a work to do.”

“How did you do that?” he blurted out. “Yesterday evening – that move you used to bring me down. I mean, I’m bigger and stronger – and yet you had me crying uncle on the floor like a wee mousebabe!”

Foxglove’s smile grew into a grin. “Ha, that’s be my little secret.”

“Teach me that move.”

For a moment, Foxglove thought she had heard it amiss. “Was that a joke? Haha.”

“No, I’m serious. I will pay you for the training.”

Foxglove rolled her eyes. “Oh, and then you’ll beat me using my own moves and take your payment back. No, thanks, go look for another fool.”

“All right, vixen. Look there.” The fox with mismatched eyes held up a dagger in a way as if he wanted to throw it. Foxglove immediately bent her head down, sidestepping and bringing an empty tray up like shield. Puzzled, the fox stared at her. “Emm, what are you doing? I’m not going to attack you.”

“Then put that dagger down,” Foxglove demanded. “Yesterday’s rules still apply.”

“Wait, look there. See that rat?” the visitor pointed the dagger at one of their regular clients sipping beer in the far end of the tavern.

Foxglove nodded, and in that very moment the fox threw his dagger. It whizzed like an angry wasp and hit the rat’s clay mug just as he was about to take a sip. The steel blade broke the mug and continued its way, embedding itself in the wall. The rat shot up to his footpaws, his paws, clothes and shaggy beard splashed with beer. “Who did this?!” he roared. “Who?!”

The big fox rose to his footpaws as well and waved his paw. “I did, messmate. That was a good throw, wasn’t it?”

“You ruined my beer, mangy flea-pelt! Rotten cod an’ bald seagull yer messmates, not me!”

“Ho, that was just a joke, messmate. Don’t you have a sense of humor? Don’t fret about your drink, messmate. Hey, tavern keeper! Two – no, three bottles of the best beer for my messmate there!”

“And who’s going to pay for the broken mug?” Skinflint called, promptly coming to the common room.

The fox carelessly thrown him a golden tailring. “That should account for everything.”

Skinflint was a very fat weasel, but he had always displayed great agility when business concerned riches. Right now he nimbly caught the ring and snapped at Foxglove, “Why are you standing there rooted to the ground? Get going, there’s work to be done!”

“Ho, wait there, tavern keeper. This beast worked hard yesterday and this day, don’t you think she deserves a day off?” with these words, the fox put another gold ring into Skinflint’s paws.

Once he had gold in his paws, the weasel shrugged nonchalantly. “Take a day off, maiden, but you’ve got to be there and working in the morning.”

Foxglove turned to the insolent fox, her paws on her hips. “And what’s that about?”

“Oh, I was about to ask whether you can throw knives like that.”

“Could’ve just do it without being such a show-off.”

Much to her dissatisfaction, the customer only smiled. “I’ll take that as ‘no’. So there’s a deal: you teach me that paw-twisting move, and I teach you the knife-throwing. If I ever try to use your skills against you, you will always be able to stab me with a knife. That sounds like a fair trade for me, er?”

Indeed, that sounded fair enough; besides, a day of hanging out away from the tavern would certainly be better than another day of exhausting work. “It’s a deal, then,” Foxglove said.

The fox with mismatched eyes extended a paw to her and, much to Foxglove’s surprise, began to recite an old by-word her mother taught her:

“Shake paws, count your claws.

You steal mine, I'll borrow yours.”

Foxglove grasped his paw and shook it, finishing the saying:

“Watch my whiskers, check both ears.

Robber foxes have no fears.”

They had already left the tavern when the fox said, “By the way, my name’s Kars. And yours?”

“Foxglove.”

His yellow eye got a mischievous sparkle in it. “A fox named Foxglove? That’s…”

“Just you try making fun of my name, and I’m going back to the kitchen,” Foxglove warned.

“Actually, I was about to say ‘fitting’.” Kars noticed the vixen’s confused look and explained. “You see, I’ve known a rat called Wolfclaw and a ferret named Badgerstripe, though even a blind mole would’ve never mistaken them for a wolf or a badger. But your name is more… clear, so to say.”

Foxglove hadn’t thought about her name that way before. That was actually kind of pleasant. “Let’s hurry up and get to the training,” she said finally.

They found a sandy clearing between the beach and the forest for their training. Kars had probably realized that Foxglove still didn’t completely trust him, because he offered starting their practice with knife-throwing. Two foxes spent all morning exercising. Foxglove learned to throw pretty quickly, adopting both the strong stroke of the paw that sent the knife in the air and quick flick of the wrist that made the knife land blade first. Aiming was what had given her the main trouble – three out of four times her knife would miss the oak trunk they chose as a practice target. Seeing her frustration, Kars suggested proceeding with bare-pawed combat. It turned out that his size and slower speed somewhat cut down his ability to reduplicate Foxglove’s move. The vixen made him repeat it again and again till his movements became swift and accurate.

Finally, two foxes sat down under their practice target oak for a break.

“How it happened that you’re so good in fighting if you’re just a tavern servant?” asked Kars.

Foxglove grimaced at the thought. “Beasts tend to get wild when grog and beer involved, so it’s actually part of the job. You of all beasts should’ve known that, after a brawl you put yesterday.”

“Oh my… I’ve just realized how terrible I’ve been then…” The big fox covered his head with both paws. “You know, I was drunk and that weasel was putting on airs… No, that’s making up excuses. It’s my fault, and I’m terribly sorry.”

“It wasn’t that bad. One broken bottle and a knocked-out client – I wished it would always end with such light casualties,” Foxglove mused.

“Why are you dealing with drunken customers anyway? That tavern is a profitable place, can’t its owner hire a bouncer?”

That made Foxglove snort with something that reminded laughter. “The tavern belongs to somebeast whose name is Skinflint. Why should he spend his loot if he can just make us work more?”

Kars shrugged and changed the subject. “You’re really good with knives, you know.”

“So good that I can’t hit a tree trunk?”

“Aiming skills will come later. But you’ve got good throw, and took less than a day for it. I myself had to practice for three days till my knives stopped landing handle first. You’re a quick learner, and you can make a fine fighter. Have you ever thought about joining a corsair crew?”

Of course she did. That topic was a sore spot for her. “No. I’m not leaving the village – not now, not never.”

“Why not?”

Because that would mean abandoning my mother to starve. However, she wasn’t going to tell her new acquaintance that much. “That’s none of your business.”

“But…”

“Leave it!” Foxglove jumped to her paws and briskly went away. “Got to go. Have business to do.”

Kars rose to his paws as well. “Foxglove, wait! Did I offend you somehow?”

“Private business!” Foxglove shouted before disappearing in the forest. She quickened her pace, but nobeast was following her.

I shouldn’t have left like that, she thought. After all, he was just being curious. And he actually was nice… nicer than all the other corsairs I’ve met.

It was too late to go back, though. Besides, Foxglove truly had some business to do.

She came back to the village and headed for one particular place, whose owner could provide some goods without asking questions about his clients’ source of payment. However, he had a strict rule about accepting only those things that were cleansed off blood. Foxglove nodded to the place’s owner and put a small ruby on his counter. Yesterday she managed to pluck it out of the silver bracelet Kars had paid with, and Skinflint either didn’t notice the defect or thought it was damaged to begin with. Either way, today she could buy her mother a month’s supply of vittles. After the vixen glutted her rucksack cram-full with bread, dried meat, pickled fish, hard cheese, dried fruits and even a couple of pies, she left the village and headed for a lonely mountain towering over the hamlet.

Foxglove’s mother, while she was still in her young seasons, had chosen to settle away from the center of the hamlet, midway up the mountain. That put her close to the mountain groves and glades, where a lot of medicine herbs were growing; however, that also put her far from her main customers, the vermin of the village. That wasn’t a problem when there still were customers who went to her for help, but at the moment Foxglove was the only creature that walked the path between the settlement and the mountain over many seasons. Nobeast maintained the path in order any more.

Earth gave way under Foxglove’s footpaw and crumbled down the steep slope, and the vixen threw her forepaws wide to regain her balance. Her heavy rucksack pulled her backwards, and she faltered on the very edge of the path.

“Hold on! Coming!” Strong paw gripped Foxglove by the shoulder and pulled her to the firm ground. “There, it’s safe now.”

Foxglove wasn’t feeling safe, though. When her rescuer grabbed her, she panicked. Foxglove really hated being crept on, especially since those who usually roamed these mountains were not goodbeasts. Once on firm ground, the young vixen spun round and kicked Kars in his knee. The big fox yelped in pain, and Foxglove used this moment to seize him by the collar of his jacket and shove him to the path’s edge, so that his footpaws stood on the ground but his torso leaned over precipice. “Ye were followin’ me, mangled flea-pelt!”

“And good thing I did, or you’ve fallen down!” retorted Kars.

Foxglove shook him soundly. “I wouldn’t!”

“Right, you wouldn’t! Er, Foxglove, can you back off? I’d rather talk with a solid ground under my paws.” His yellow eye was never still, squinting at the deep gap under him.

“I’d rather not! Getting thrown off the cliff is considered to be a good punishment for bandits and robbers in these places!”

“Bandits? Robbers?” Something gurgled in Kars’s throat as if he had wanted to laugh but thought better of it. “Look, Foxglove, I’m the Captain’s first mate – my share is second biggest of the whole crew. I’ve got no need to rob anybeast.”

“With the way you throw it on the wind I won’t be surprised if you go broke tomorrow!”

“You really think I waste my loot?” asked Kars seriously.

Foxglove rolled her eyes. After she worked in the tavern so long, she should have got used to the way its clients throw gold and silver left and right. She didn’t – maybe because she had to work so hard for each bread crust she received. “Yes, Kars, you do. You pay in gold and jewels, though simple silver would’ve done, or even brass and copper.”

“That’s a good advice. Now, can you put me on the firm ground, please?”

By that time Foxglove’s anger had faded, but she didn’t back away. “You never told me why you were following me.”

“I… I wanted to know what ‘private business’ you had to do. You ran off without a word – well, I was curious!”

Foxglove took two steps back, pulling Kars out of danger of falling. The big fox stole a glance at the precipice and shuddered. “Yaarr, you’ve almost killed me, vixen!”

“Ha, there’s not high enough to kill you,” the vixen noted cheerily. “You would’ve just broken a couple of bones, that’s all.”

“So you’ve got experience? In throwing beasts off the cliffs, I mean?”

“Yeah, I’ve thrown down a couple or so of bandits who thought they can rob a lone maid of her scanty belongings. Bottom of a cliff is a good place for bandits… or strangers who jump at beasts from behind.”

Kars looked offended. “I’m not a stranger.”

Foxglove gave him a mocking glance. “We’ve met only yesterday. That officially makes you a stranger.”

Both beasts fell silent after this remark. The silence had lasted for some time before Foxglove’s patience gave out. “What are you waiting for? Go away.”

“Well, you still hadn’t told me about that ‘private business of yours.”

“Are you seriously thinking I tell you?” In response, Kars stared at Foxglove. Foxglove stared at Kars. She sighted wearily. “I’m visiting my mother. Bringing her some vittles to live on. Satisfied?”

The big fox nodded. “Can I go with you?” Foxglove opened her mouth to protest when he continued, “I can make sure no bandits try to bother you… or I can help you carry that rucksack.”

Foxglove sighed. No harm can come out of this, she reasoned. “All right, let’s go – and no, I won’t let you carry my rucksack.”

Foxglove’s mother was home; she rarely left her small hut those days. She smiled when Foxglove had entered the hut’s only room; her smile turned into a puzzled look when Kars had followed her.

“Mother, that’s Kars, an acquaintance of mine, he accompanied me on the way here. Kars, that’s my mother Coltsfoot.”

The old vixen’s smile widened again. “That was kind of you, Kars, to escort my Foxglove here. Who knows what kind of bandits you can run across in these places?”

Left paw behind his back and right paw against his heart, Kars bowed from the waist in a formal greeting. “Mar’m Coltsfoot, I pity any bandits that would run across your daughter.”

“What a polite young beast, and with a proper respect to his elders!” Coltsfoot clasped her paws. “It’s a rarity to meet such a good husband. But,” she raised her claw, “if you ever wrong my Foxglove, I’ll poison you!”

“Mother!” Foxglove exclaimed, horrified.

“All right, all right. Don’t worry, won’t poison your suitor. But,” a claw was raised again, “I’ve got a potion that will give a bellyache to last days!”

Mother!” Foxglove had regretted her decision to bring Kars along. “It’s not… We’re not a couple! Kars is not a suitor, not a fiancé, not a cavalier! We’re not even friends! We’re just acquaintances!”

“Shush! Calm down, youngster.” The old vixen turned to Kars now, who was busy observing the floor planks. “Now, look there, young beast. What do you see?” She pointed upwards.

Kars readily threw his head back; for one moment, his mismatched eyes looked in one direction. “Er, a ceiling, mar’m?”

“A ceiling, er? So that hole, through which water leaks – no, floods in right upon my head each time it rains, - so I’ve just imagined it, er?”

“You want me to fix the ceiling?” Kars realized. “Count on me, mar’m Coltsfoot!”

“Mother! Don’t pester Kars!” pleaded Foxglove. If it were possible for the vixen’s red fur to burn from her blushing, it would’ve certainly caught fire.

“If he’s good enough to walk you there, he’s good enough to fix the roof,” reasoned her mother.

“Don’t worry, I’ll fix it,” reassured them Kars. “Where’s your tools?”

‘Don’t interrupt beasts while they are harming themselves’ was a common rule among vermin, so Foxglove gave Kars their toolbox and even put a ladder to the hut’s wall for him to climb onto the roof. Even with Kars fixing the ceiling, there were still plenty of chores to do, and Foxglove went to the nearby stream to fetch water for her mother.

On her way back she passed the hut and listened to the noise: muted curses, loud thump mixed with a crack, loud curses and clunk of something falling. That didn’t sound like proper repairs. The vixen quickly climbed the ladder, “Hey, Kars, you all right?” Her head became level with the roof just in time for her to see how Kars had brought the hammer down on a plank, holding the tool with both paws. Naturally, the nail edged into a plank bent in half and the hapless plank split in the middle.

“What are you doing?” she gasped. “You don’t put the plank that way – it must overlap the other one like a tiling. And who on the earth holds hammer with both paws? Why didn’t you hold to the nail?”

“If I do, I hit my claws,” Kars explained shyly.

“Of course you do if you slam it down with such force as if trying to break somebeast’s skull! Honestly, as if it’s the first time you get a hammer in your paws…”

“Actually, it is.” Kars’s yellow eye became shiftier than usual, and his green eye attempted to burn a hole in the roof. “I’ve never had to do any work around the house. My parents had me training in fighting since the young age, hoping I would rise in ranks quick. So… I’m good in breaking beasts’ skulls but completely useless in fixing roofs.”

Why didn’t you say that to begin with? Foxglove wanted to ask, but Kars’s ashamed face restrained her tongue. He’d already properly embarrassed himself by admitting he was not capable of traditional male work. No need to add insult to injury.

“Give me that hammer. I’ll fix it myself before you wrecked the whole hut,” she said.

Kars did as he was told, an apologetic expression on his face. “Sorry. I just wanted to help…”

“You can help. There’s lots of work around. You can chop firewood. I don’t think that needs learning; just make sure you chop along the wood-fiber.”

Kars’s mood momentary improved. “I can manage that. After all, I can always imagine I’m chopping off some beasts’ heads!”

With extra paws to help her, Foxglove finished her work till dusk. She waved goodbye for her mother, ready to return to the tavern, but Coltsfoot wouldn’t let her go without filling her rucksack with herbs and potions. Foxglove’s mother didn’t have any patients for a long time, but old habits die hard; besides, Foxglove could sell some of the mixtures in the tavern if she was lucky and if Skinflint didn’t see her.

“Take good care of my Foxglove,” the old vixen said to Kars. “And remember about the poison!”

“Don’t worry, mar’m Coltsfoot, I’ve got a good memory,” laughed Kars, making another formal bow. And then, to Foxglove, “Let me carry that sack.”

This time Foxglove gave her load willingly. If Kars wanted to burden himself, let him do it.

“You’ve got a great mother,” Kars said once they were on their way back. “Though she has her oddities.”

“You’re about that talk of poison? That’s just an old healer’s joke. I’ve been hearing it since I was a cub.” Foxglove tried to imitate her mother’s voice, “If you not going to bed right now, I’ll brew a poison to palsy you for days!”

“Oh yes, that’s too. And the way she immediately thought us to be a couple.”

“Huh, pay no attention to old vixen’s stupid rambling.”

Kars stopped. “Stupid rambling? Am I not an enviable fiancé?” he asked, striking a pose.

That remark had Foxglove laughing out loud. It was quite a time since she had such a fun. “You? Ha! Have you ever seen your reflection in the water? Ha! You can scare the death out of a beast with those eyes of yours! I bet your Captain had you stand watches during the nighttime to use your eyes as signal lights!”

Kars folded his paws across his chest. “Well, I’m not talking to an ideal of beauty, either! You know, when I first saw you yesterday, I’d thought you got a bucket of water damped on you till I realized you fur is just so sleek! And your tail looks like an otter’s!”

That hit a sore wound. Thick and bushy fur was an object of pride for any vixen – just not for Foxglove. Her fur and tail was naturally sleeker than the ones of other foxes; besides, she didn’t have time to comb and brush it properly. “Hey, you know what? At least I can go through underbrush and brambles and bare rocks without leaving tufts of fur in my wake!”

“That’s a good point,” immediately agreed Kars. “There’s one more good point for you: for all the time I served among the corsairs, nobeast had ever tried to stab me in the back. They all think that my left eye is always watching them!”

Foxglove laughed in spite of her mood. “Are you doing it on purpose? The eye thing?”

“Nope, it does so by its own. I can focus the stare if I pay attention,” the yellow eye shifted its position and, together with its green counterpart, looked right at Foxglove. However, in a minute the eye began to shiver and finally slid back. “But it goes back once I lose control.”

“Well, that can be useful,” Foxglove admitted. This was as close to an apology as she could get.

“So, we’re still friends?” Kars said, offering her a paw.

Foxglove hesitated. Friend was a strong word; during all her life in the hamlet, Foxglove had some pals but not friends. But Kars looked so heartfelt that she took his paw and shook it. “Friends.”

“Meet you tomorrow?” suggested Kars. “We need to work on your aiming.”

“And I can show you some more fighting moves,” the vixen agreed. “Though you’ll need to talk to Skinflint again.”

“Oh, I will. And yes, I remember: no gold, no gems – only silver. See you tomorrow!”

Unknowingly to her, Foxglove had been smiling in her sleep as she relived that day in her dreams. She would have given anything to turn the flow of time back.

Chapter 26

“Get them!” barked Bigger, a fox commanding the group of seven vermin.

However, it was Wavehound who attacked first. Ducking under the fox’s paws, he headbutted him in the chest, driving all the air out of his lungs. Bigger faltered, and Wavehound grabbed his axe and threw it into another corsair. The throw wasn’t well-aimed, but it caused a ferret and a nearby weasel to jump back. This disarray created a breach in vermin ranks – wide enough for three beasts to dart through.

There was only one creature that wasn’t taken aback by such improper behavior of slaves. Knifenut, a tall, muscular weasel, never hesitated. He let his reflexes do their work for him. A pair of long narrow stilettos flicked into his paws, and he threw the knives in a wide ark. Elsie, being shorter, avoided the danger by ducking, but Seabird had her paw slashed by the blade. The ottermaid never slowed down, though she did cry out in pain. Knifenut didn’t get upset with his miss. He reached for his wide belt, where at least ten more stilettos were fastened.

His paw was caught by Bigger, who had already got up. “Don’t waste a throw. You’ll get a better aim.”

“They go ‘way, look!” the weasel protested.

Bigger flashed a toothy grin. “Oh, and where will they go to?”

Where to? This question pounded in Wavehound’s head as well. When he reached the big untidy mass of the nest, he saw that they were trapped. Sheer cliffs dropped down almost all around them. He stole a glimpse of smooth sloping path going downwards far left, but the way there was blocked by corsairs. Of course, there still was a path he and the maids took while getting to the summit first time. Corsairs weren’t in a hurry to block it, so they probably didn’t know about it yet. But again, was it wise to escape vermin only to run into the infuriated eagle?

Seabird was thinking quicker. She pushed him on the ground behind the aerie, then dropped down herself, simultaneously with Elsie. The nest with its high-piled mass of boughs and thin bushes twisted together into a wall provided an ideal cover from enemy fire. The summit was slightly ascending to the nest, and the ground was littered with stone shards and flinders.

Vermin failed to notice all this. So when corsairs, spreading to surround their quarry, began their advance, they had been met by a hail of stones. Despite Bigger’s angry shouts and axe swinging, pirates fell back, nursing black eyes and bruises. Bigger, whose fervor was cooled down by a sizable stone that hit his forepaw, grinned wickedly, “They think they’re smart, yea? We can play the same game! Fire at them, guys!”

There were two archers in the group, and the rest turned their attention to the stones covering rocky ground. However, long-ranged attack of the vermin wasn’t very successful, for all three of their opponents could hide easily behind the big nest.

“That’s not fair!” Knifenut muttered. “We stand there in open – and they don’t showup fer us to get a good aim!”

“That’s slaves for you,” growled Bigger. “Not a trace of decency. What we need is distraction. You, Knifenut, will skirt them to the right and attack from there. You’ll get a good aim from that hillock over there.”

The weasel flipped a pair of his stilettos in the air and caught them without looking. “Will do, Bigger. And who’ll be distraction?”

The big fox rolled his eyes. “Not the sharpest blade in the scabbard, are you, Nut?”

The latter was aggrieved. “Hey, ye watch yer words! I always keep my blades sharp as moonlight!”

“Just get go already… oaf!”

Three runaways used that respite to gather more stones.

“Look what I’ve found.” Elsie handed Seabird an old sword, its blade rusty and notched.

“Salt Seasons, where did you get it?”

“Right there at the nest, the hilt was thrusting out from among the branches.”

Seabird ran a paw along the hilt. It was covered by deep edged marks, carved like an eagle’s beak. “I don’t even want to think how it got there… though it will be more useful in close combat than stones.”

“Hey, ladies? Lend me a paw if you don’t want to engage in close combat.” When he got their attention, Wavehound pointed a claw to a figure moving toward them from the left. “This weasel fancies himself as bold, no doubt.”

Seabird put a stone into a looped stripe of cloth torn off her dress that she used as a sling. “Let me prove otherwise.”

She claimed no acquaintance with a sling, but her strength compensated for the lack of skill. The first stone flew amiss, though two more took its place and hit Knifenut in his shoulder and chest. The vermin soldier staggered as if in the strong wind, and only the third stone knocked him down.

Despite this success, Wavehound wasn’t joyful. “We can hold vermin for now, but if they send somebeast to Fort… Look, here he goes again!”

Faster than they had expected, Knifenut was on his paws and charging at them. He didn’t even try to duck when the runaways pelted him with stones. Even as he fell, the momentum carried him forward a couple of steps. The weasel stayed down only long enough to get his limbs under him before getting up again.

Now Seabird and Elsie hardly had time to pause as they were throwing stones. “He is what – wants to get hit?”

“That’s not the right question,” Wavehound said with an odd calm. He took the old sword and turned round, to the flank they had left unattended. “The right question is – where are the other vermin?”

Alas, a minute too late! The six remaining pirates had already got to their shelter. Once more Wavehound attacked Bigger and stabbed him in stomach. Or rather tried to stab, for the old weapon acted as a club and not as a blade. But this time, while their commander was catching his breath, two vermin encircled Wavehound and fell on him from both sides. The otter struggled to get free, but with the help of the third beast he was brought down. Behind his back Seabird and Elsie were trying to fight back as well. Seabird had time to bash a ferret with the loaded sling - hard enough for him to spit out a broken tooth, - before being kicked down. However, regardless of their efforts, all three beasts were captured.

A plan formed in Wavehound’s head, desperate and dangerous. If only he could reach for a stone and throw it from the cliff… The otter wriggled in a frantic attempt to grab some rock or shard or pebble. A rat stamped his footpaw on his wrist. “No more tricks, riverdog!”

So you think you can make Streamdiver surrender with that much? Wavehound twisted his neck and buried his teeth into forepaw of the weasel holding him – his captor yelped and swayed back. Wavehound swept his sinewy rudder, knocking aside another weasel.

“Help me!” cried out the rat – the last vermin that still had hold of Wavehound. He got a firm grip on the otter’s neck and stepped on his back in attempt to restrain him.

Wavehound strained his tired muscles and heaved himself up, lifting the rat with him. Before other vermin could subdue him, the otter made a powerful lunge for the cliff’s edge. Reaching it, he dropped to his knees – partly because he planned to do so, partly because his paws couldn’t support him any longer. Falling, he stooped his shoulders, adding a push to his momentum. The rat couldn’t hold his grip and tumbled over his head and off the cliff. For a moment, everything that could be heard was his scream and a thump of body against the rocks.

Then the axehead was brought down Wavehound’s head, and he collapsed. Bigger kicked his limp body. “You’ll pay for that one!”

“Let me pass, chaps! I gonna kill that riverdog! I gonna cut him to pieces!”

The fox turned to Knifenut who was making his way to the captives. “You ain’t killing nobeast. We take them to Fort.”

The weasel was shocked. “What! That fishy scum killed Rags!”

“He’s the ringleader,” Bigger explained. “Fort Commander wants to execute him in public.”

“Let him ex-cut the other two! This one is mine! I gonna cut out his heart an’ make him eat it!”

Wavehound wished they weren’t shouting so loud. The otter was conscious; when he heard a whizz of air behind him, he had tilted his head so that the blow lost some of its force. Now he was trying to shut out wrangle between corsairs and concentrate on other sounds. Had he heard powerful wingbeats or was it just a whiff of wind?

The uncertainty was broken with a fierce screech. Bigger was standing with his back to the cliff. He hadn’t seen the eagle soar over its edge and swoop down on him. He only managed a cry of terror as the sharp talons pierced his back and broke his spine.

Knifenut was thrown off by a blast of wind from under the eagle’s wings. But just as before, he didn’t stay down for long. “Feather-brained chicken!” he growled as he jumped at the huge bird and stabbed him with a dagger. The thought that a dagger was a poor weapon against the killer eagle hadn’t probably crossed his mind. In the next moment, the weasel choked with his own scream as the bird’s hooked talons raked him deep across his muzzle.

During that entire ruckus, Wavehound slithered to their old hiding spot behind the aerie. Seabird and Elsie joined him soon enough. Nobeast was worrying about the slaves anymore.

Two archers of Bigger’s group shot their arrows. The raptor flapped a short distance into the air, avoiding one of the missiles completely and having another one graze his flank. The vermin never got a chance to put another arrow to their bow-strings. The eagle was upon them.

The bravest of the two remaining vermin, a big ferret, sneaked on the eagle while the latter was tearing into the archers and buried his spear in the bird’s back. The spearhead sunk through the feathers into the flesh, and the eagle shrieked in pain. But his shriek was drowned out by the scream of the hapless ferret who had now been in the reach of the raptor’s deadly talons. The last surviving vermin was wiser – or simply more cowardly, - than his comrades, and tried to run away. However, no beast could hope to outrun a flying eagle.

When there were no more vermin to kill, the eagle froze in the middle of the summit, newly-turned into a battlefield. Only his head swayed to and fro, and low rumbling sound came from his throat. Wavehound was trembling in a nervous strain. Their second encounter with this fierce bird, if he saw them, would be much bloodier than the first one.

The eagle let out a low screech, and another creature had its nerves frayed. The gull that had helped corsairs to find runaway slaves shot into the sky from a crevice in rocks and wended for Bladegird, flapping furiously. The eagle uttered a triumphant shriek and took wing after it. He suffered from the fight – several new wounds were inflicted upon him, the worst being a gash on his back. He took off rather clumsily, almost pitching in the ground as his right wing had not functioned properly. But the eagle did not waver: steadily, slowly he was beating wings, gaining height. The gull might have been faster – but it had no chances of escape.

When the eagle had finally gone, Seabird gave out a long breath of relief. “That was close,” murmured Elsie, voicing her thoughts.

Wavehound nodded; his paws gripped the hilt of old sword to stop the trembling. “We should return to the others,” he said. “If there’re more vermin groups after us, - and there are, I can say that much, - then this part of the hills is not safe.”

When the trio had left their hideout, Elsie gasped. “Bloody Hellgates,” she whispered. “I don’t favor vermin swearing, but that’s all I can say: blade n’ fang, n’ bloody Hellgates!”

Truly, the scene before them was far from pleasing to the eye. The eagle was savage and merciless, and his beak and talons didn’t grant an easy death.

“We’d better take vermin weapons, as unpleasant as it is,” said Wavehound, his voice low. “We’ll need them, and they won’t.”

One could hardly argue with this statement, and the runaways circled the summit, picking up surviving armaments and gear. Both vermin bows had been broken in the fight, as well as two spears, but Wavehound armed himself with the fallen fox’s axe and Elsie found a sword and a long scimitar.

Seabird bent over a weasel half-buried with rubble and reached for the dagger in his paw. The beast’s death grip on the weapon was firm, and the ottermaid had to pry his claws open. As she began doing so, she saw the weasel’s paw flinch, and his claws tightened their grip.

“Look, this one is still alive!” she called and immediately started sweeping rubble and earth off the weasel’s hide with her paws. “What are we going to do with him?”

Knifenut, for that weasel was him, responded by half-opening his left eye and letting his eyelids drop shut again, as if that movement took all his strength. His face was covered with blood and dirt, and Seabird would have taken him for dead if not for the shallow rise and fall of his chest under the ottermaid’s paw.

Wavehound came closer and peered at the hapless vermin. “I don’t know. But I do know what we are not going to do. We are not going to take him with us and nurse him back to life. Even leaving aside that it’s the same vermin who made our life miserable, we simply don’t have neither time nor opportunity for this. Thornbush and the rest are waiting for us.”

After a moment of hesitation, Seabird waved a paw at her friends. “I’ll catch up with you in a couple of minutes. Go!”

When the two beasts had turned away, she sacrificed another strip of her dress. Wetting it in a pool of rainwater hidden among rocky hollows, Seabird wiped Knifenut’ muzzle clean of blood and dirt. However, wounds on his face wouldn’t stop bleeding, so Seabird had to shorten her already battered dress at a length of one more strip. Holding the weasel’s head on her knees, she tied the piece of cloth tightly round his muzzle.

The ottermaid talked quietly all the time she treated her patient. “There are no potions or salves, but at least you won’t bleed to death. Now you’ve got a chance to survive. It’s up to you to use it well. Good luck!” Rising to her footpaws, Seabird hurried to catch up with Wavehound and Elsie.

It took them longer to return to the crevice they had left the rest of the runaways in, since Wavehound followed a different route, the one that lead them among lowlands and made it difficult for somebeast to spot or track them. An unpleasant surprise had been awaiting them when they finally reached their hideout: it was empty.

Wavehound ran the length of the crevice from its entrance till the rear end, then darted outside and dropped on all fours, eyes on the ground. But the earth was miry and slushy from the night rain, and a whole horde of beasts could march over without leaving a readable trail in the messy dirt.

“There’s no sign of blood or struggle,” Elsie said. “Thornbush would have never given up without a fight.”

“Not if the vermin managed to capture one of the ill, old or little ones,” the otter replied.

“Hey mateys!” another otter slid down a hill slope near the narrow cave. Wavehound recognized him: Corriam Wildlough, one of Green Isle otters. Many seasons ago, prior to feral cats’ invasion, his clan had ruled all the otters of Green Isle. However, all what was left from those glorious days were legends and Corriam’s name, which he shared with a famed hero of his clan.

“Where’s everybeast?” Wavehound called to him.

“You won’t believe what happened here!” Corriam’s beaming face and wide smile should have reassured Wavehound. Instead, they made him even more nervous.

“What?!” he almost shouted.

“Betta is back!..” That were good news indeed, but it didn’t explain why the runaways left their hideout. Wavehound was about to repeat his question in another outburst when Corriam decided to break a dramatic pause he was making, “…and she found some friends!”

Chapter 27

Foxglove’s sleep was uneasy. As she was falling asleep, the vixen turned on her side, accidentally pinning her broken leg with the weight of her other leg, splints on her leg digging into her flesh. But the physical discomfort wasn’t the only reason of Foxglove’s disturbed slumber. She was dreaming again, but not all the memories were pleasant to remember.

Foxglove and Kars had met the next day to train. And the day after next. And the day after that. A month had passed by, with only several days when the two failed to meet. During this time Kars had mastered bare-pawed combat and almost surpassed his teacher while Foxglove honed her skills with throwing knives. She and Kars continued their trainings though, with the big fox teaching her the use of his main weapon of choice – curved sickle-like sword. “It’s not very good against heavy weapons like cutlass or broadsword,” Kars said. “But your opponent will have a hard time trying to predict its motion once you master it.”

Saltwave, the ship of Kars’s Captain, was in need of some major repairs, having a broken mast and several considerable breach-holes in her bottom. That was the source of Foxglove’s secret glee, since it meant it would take more time for the repairs to be done before Kars’s leave. As one of its drawbacks, though, Kars had to cancel several of their meetings when it was his turn to supervise the works.

When it happened, Foxglove was surprised to realize she missed him. It wasn’t just because she enjoyed training on the fresh air much more than working in the tavern and smiling at the drunkards she’d rather strangle. She missed Kars himself because she liked his company. Because he was kind and funny, even if his pride and pomposity sometimes took the better of him. Because he respected her enough that he had never drank more than a mug of beer after he learned how much she despised tipplers. And the most important of all, because with Kars she could take her workplace smiling mask off and be herself – and he was fine with it.

And then one day Kars didn’t come to meet her as they agreed. Foxglove waited for him for about half an hour before Skinflint ordered her to work. “It’s time you work for all those days you lazed about,” he growled.

You was okay with me taking days off while Kars paid you for it, Foxglove thought, but swallowed these words.

She had heard snickers as she went to pick up a tray. “Looks like yur cavalier finally decided ye’re not pretty enough to visit ye anymore, er, fox?”

Foxglove’s indifferent glance was all the scoffer got. She knew the other servants were angry with her taking days off because they had to work twice as hard without an extra pair of paws. It wasn’t her fault that Skinflint was keeping Kars’s loot to himself instead of adding it to the servants’ share, though; therefore her co-workers irritation was their own problem and not hers.

Something had probably delayed Kars for a while. He will be here soon enough. That thought was Foxglove’s faithful companion as she worked, but her worry grew as the time passed. Surely Kars would have warned her if he had to stay on the ship, and the previous day he had promised her they come and visit her mother after their training. At their earlier visits to the old vixen Kars would bring Coltsfoot fresh supplies himself, joking that he preferred to stay on a good side of somebeast so adept with poisons.

Foxglove sighed wearily and scanned the tavern’s common room in search of somebeast from Saltwave. Oddly, but there were none. She couldn’t see a single corsair that sailed Kars’s ship – only tavern haunters and vermin from another ship that arrived that very night. Strange. But she would have heard if there was some kind of accident…

She leapt back when somebeast grabbed her wrist. “Hey, vixen! Are ye deaf? It’s the third time I call to ye!” The shout had brought her back to the earth. An old ferret gripped her paw, pinching her fur with his claws.

Foxglove tried to put on her smiling mask, though she knew she hadn’t quite succeeded. “Yes, sir. How can I help you?”

The ferret still didn’t let go of her paw, pulling at her sleeve to punctuate his words. “Bring me a bottle of the most expensive drink there. Not the swill ye call grog; only the best for me!”

“Right away, sir,” Foxglove finally extracted her paw from the ferret’s claws and headed to the cellar, though she needed another shout from the ferret to remind her of her destination when she tried to walk into kitchen instead.

The vixen had served the old ferret his wine and was away carrying soup and beer to some ragged-looking wanderer when she had heard Skintflint shouting her name. The tavern keeper stood near the old ferret, the faces of both vermin in a scowl.

“That’s her, tavern keeper!” the ferret declared. “I put that bone bracelet on the table to pay for ma wine, but it was gone once that fox passed by!”

“What do you got to say about it, fox?” demanded Skinflint, his tone boding nothing good.

Foxglove tried to recall the said bracelet, but couldn’t. She was so distraught that she probably wouldn’t have noticed Vulpuz himself if he walked right through the tavern. “I haven’t seen your bracelet, sir. It could’ve fallen under the table, have you checked there?”

The ferret’s grin was menacing. “I didn’t ask whether ye’ve seen it.”

“Are you hinting that I took it?”

“I ain’t no hinting, vixen. I say straight away that you stole it, sneak!”

“That’s…” Foxglove swallowed a curse that was about to emit from her mouth. She tried to continue in a calm tone, but her nerves, already shaken with worry about Kars, started to give in. “I did no such thing. Skintflint can confirm that I never stole as much as a trinket all the time I work there.” Or rather, I was never caught doing it. “Why, you can search me for all you want!”

With the last words, Foxglove threw her paws wide to emphasize the point. As her left paw swished through the air, she felt something slide out of her sleeve and fall down. Three pairs of eyes – hardened ferret’s and Skinflint’s, wide with surprise Foxglove’s – followed that something as it clanked on the floor and slowly rolled on its side till it flopped down with a ting. It was an intricately carved bone bracelet.

Foxglove stared at it in horror: she had not idea how it ended up in her sleeve. And then she realized. She remembered how the ferret grabbed her paw and didn’t instantly let go, how she felt something pinch her fur. What an idiot, an incomprehensive fool she was! If she wasn’t so distressed, if her attention was in focus, then she would’ve recognized the trick straight away. Now, however…

“Thief!” growled the ferret. “And ye had a cheek to lie in our eyes!”

“You framed me up, crook!” Foxglove turned from the ferret to Skintflint. The weasel’s eyes darted from her to the ferret, calculating. Foxglove decided to call for his best feeling. Greed. “Can’t you see he’s trying to cheat on you, Skinflint? He says he wanted to pay you with this bracelet, but he took a bottle of the finest wine! This trinket isn’t worth a single cup of it, and I can bet he has no more loot at all!” The vixen pointed at the old corsair, her eye honed by all the time spent in tavern: even though the ferret’s clothes were of bright silk, they hang on his shoulders and had patched-up spots – certainly something that was taken off a dead body. “He is just trying to cause a scandal and use it to get away without paying!”

The ferret seemed undisturbed. “Hah, that’s how ye talk now? Well, ye’ve got no proof, so it’s yer word against mine. Whom do ye think they believe, tavern keeper, when I spread the word that yer place is filled with thieves and ye connive with them to rob yer clients? How many beasts will come for yer grog once ye got such a reputation?”

Skinflint’s eyes stopped on Foxglove and the tavern keeper grabbed the vixen’s shoulder roughly. “Ye sorry thief, I’ll teach ye how to steal from respectable beasts!”

Blood an’ fang an’ Hellgates teeth, that’s bad.

Foxglove reached for a cup of wine and splashed it out in Skinflint’s face. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, right at that moment the fat weasel shook her by the shoulder, and her paw jerked forward, continuing its momentum. The cup’s rim hit Skinflint hard at the nose bridge, and the weasel released his victim, wailing. The vixen avoided the ferret’s outstretched paws and darted for the door, his shout ringing over the crowd. “Catch the thief!”

Their brawl, coupled with the shout, attracted the attention of other corsairs in the common room, but they were too slow to get Foxglove. She dodged one vermin that tried to stand in her way, jumped over an overturned chair and was at the door. Once she got outside there would be no way they could catch her.

As she made her leap for the door, her footpaw caught on something hard, and Foxglove crashed facedown on the floor. The corsair who had tripped her kicked her violently in the ribs. “Got her!”

The blow knocked the wind out of Foxglove, but the vixen used the moment of distraction as the corsair called for Skinflint to try and crawl away. Her endeavor didn’t go unnoticed: a heavy footpaw stamped on her back, and Foxglove almost chocked as the vermin thrust his whole weight upon her poor spine. Her vision had gone black; she was sure she had got a couple of ribs cracked if not broken.

“Ged ‘er ub,” ordered strangely nasal voice. “Ah wonna look dis snake Ah cherished on ma chesd in de eye!”

Foxglove was roughly pulled upwards. A tight circle of vermin surrounded her, Skinflint in their lead. She had felt gratified deeply at the sight of the fat weasel holding a cloth to his bloodied and swelled nose. But that was the only good thing about the situation.

“What do we do with the thief, tavern keeper?” There was malice and wicked anticipation in that question. If there was something that vermin loved more than a good fight, it was a fight where one of the sides couldn’t stand up at all.

“Well, in oder times she’d been sdoned to dead… bud we wand ‘er to work off de losses, don’d we?”

Blows rained at Foxglove from all around. At first she tried to fight back; at first, there was some inconceivable glimmer of hope in her soul. Maybe she would break through the line of her assailants and run away, or maybe – maybe Kars would get there just in time to save her. Alas, life was not a happy-end tale her mother used to tell her, and no prince with mismatched eyes came to rescue her.

The fight quickly turned into beatdown and battery. Foxglove fell on the floor and could do nothing to protect herself except covering her head with paws and curling up to shield her soft belly. The lack of resistance only added more kindling to the fire of corsairs’ rage and they doubled their efforts in kicking and beating the helpless vixen. At one point, one of them grabbed a chair and brought it down on Foxglove’s huddled body. After that, there was nothing.

There was dull throbbing pain pulsing through all her body. Every breath was like a dagger plunged in her chest, and she couldn’t move her paws as if they were in manacles. She had heard a low pitiful whine and wondered what it was. The whine repeated, and Foxglove realized it was her who had been making such miserable moans.

Something cold and wet touched her cheek, and Foxglove emitted another whimper and tried to shrink back. Firm but gentle paw had kept her head in place while the wet cloth continued carefully wiping her face. “Chuzh, youn’ un, you’re zafe in chere. Don’t be afraid, nobeazt will charm you now.”

The vixen relaxed, reassured not by the words, but by the voice itself. She recognized it. Gibbla, the oldest maid in the tavern. There was no accent like that in the whole world.

She sighed deeply in relief, and a violent jolt of pain pierced her ribs. Instinctively, she tried to cough to ease out the pain, but it only made her ribs ache more. Finally, Foxglove started to take more shallow breaths, careful not to disturb her chest again. She had ribs broken for sure, and she was lucky if there had been only two. Foxglove’s whole body ached dully; she imagined she was covered with bruises head to toe. Moreover, her right forepaw was in such a pain that she couldn’t move it. Foxglove remembered one of the vermin stepping on her paw when she had fallen down; it was probably broken as well. On the bright side, the rest of her bones seemed to be more or less intact.

Foxglove opened her eyes – or rather, one eye. Her left eye was so swollen it wouldn’t open, and her right eye hurt as well. It was dark around her, with only two candles illuminating the shadows. She was lying on a straw mattress in the loft under the tavern’s roof where the servants’ quarters were – Foxglove sensed it rather than saw.

Gibbla’s profile was outlined sharply in the candle light, jumping shadows making it grotesque. Well, Gibbla’s look was a strange one even without the gloom to add mystery to it. The ratmaid wasn’t actually an old beast, but she had served under Skinflint the longest, and the tavern left her with scars that could make seasoned corsairs nervous. Her muzzle, normally long and sharp among the ratkind, was sharply angled downward about a third from her squashed and flattened nose. Gibbla looked as if she had run into the wall headfirst, and it wasn’t far from the truth. In reality, one of the tavern drunks decided the dish she had brought him wasn’t hot enough and slammed the maid’s face in the platter to prove his point.

“A, zo you came round at lazt. Chow do you feel?”

Foxglove wanted to answer, but there was blood in her mouth: her lips were split and several of her teeth were knocked out during the beating. The vixen cleared her throat and spat. Then she managed a gurgled reply. “What, ‘ow Ah feel? Ah ‘alf-dead now, my ribs broken, my paw shmashed, Ah ‘urt all over – an’ you ask me ‘how Ah feel? Can’t you figure it out by yourshelf?”

“Good.” Gibbla turned to the other maids who kept their distance. “Give me cher cherb zatchel.”

A very young stoatmaid, the newbie arrived only a couple of days ago, stammered, “Cherb what?”

“Foxglove’s herb satchel, I’ll get it,” said another servant and went to where Foxglove stored her stuff.

“I waz afraid that zcoundrel broke your zpine when chit you with that chair. Luckily, Zkinflint ztopped chim. Zaid che needz you alive. Che put you on chrust and water and work from dawn till duzk till you work out your debt, che zaid.”

“Skinflint.” Foxglove spat out the name like a curse. “Ah kill ‘im.”

“But what had really happened?” asked the young stoatmaid again. “Did Foxglove really steal from that ferret or not?”

“Of chourze not,” said Gibbla. “If zhe did, zhe would’ve chid cher zhare zo that nobeazt found it, no matter chow chard they zearched cher.”

“So, he just framed her up? But why? She did him nothing!”

The maid’s naivety almost made Foxglove chuckle, though it turned into pained cough. Gibbla explained dryly, “Becauze it profited chim. Zkintflint gave chim two gold brazeletz az ‘compenzation’ for chis bone one; and che chad all the clientz drink the bezt wine at the tavern’z ekzpenze zo not to zoil chiz reputation. It’z all about profit, girl.”

The stoatmaid was horrified. “But they’ve almost killed Foxglove! That’s… that’s cruel!”

Gibbla got to the maiden in a single leap and grabbed her chin with her paw, making the stoatmaid look straight in her eye. “It’z a cruel world, girl, and you’d better learn it. If you’re not ztrong or zly enough, they will break and eat you like a zeagull crackz a zhell open – and you will end up like me…” She touched her crooked nose, “… or like Fokzglove there…” Her paw pointed at Foxglove.

The vixen mentally rolled her eyes – the actual grimace would’ve been too painful. She could bet that next Gibbla would tell the stoatmaid to leave this tavern while she still could. That was Gibbla’s favorite pastime, persuading servants to quit their work. Luckily, the maid with Foxglove’s satchel returned.

“Ye’ll be on yer paws in no time with such remedies,” she said, getting a bundle of some strong smelling potion. “Come on, Foxglove, swallow it…”

“You’ve checked if it’s the right ‘erbs?” asked Foxglove suspiciously.

The ferretmaid was sincerely surprised. “What’s the difference? They are all medicine herbs, so ye can just use any of them, right?”

“Blood’n’fang, no!” If there was something that Foxglove had learned during her brief healer apprenticeship, it was how deadly medicines could be in the paws of ignorant. “Just give it to me, fur’n’claw!” The vixen rummaged through the pack’s contents with her one healthy paw, sniffing at the bundles for better feel. Finding the one that seemed right, she chewed a tiny yellow flower to be sure. “Boil this one till the water turns orange; I’ll drink it then.”

The ferretmaid frowned. “Didn’t you once say you were terrible in healing?”

“I’m terrible in ‘erb-gathering, potion-mixing and suchlike. Using prepared medicines are easy.” Foxglove felt a pang of sudden nostalgia. Only several days ago Kars had been teasing her about selling mixtures despite being a dreadful healer. The vixen swallowed a lump in her throat. “Brown-furred and mismatched-eyed fox – did any of you see him today? Please?”

The maids shook their heads as one. “Nope, I didn’t.”

“Ha, he’s probably just sick from lookin’ at you.”

“Shut it, meany. No, Foxglove, I haven’t seen any of them from that ship as well.”

“Zilenze!” Gibbla’s commanding tone quieted the ruckus down. And in the following stillness one could clearly hear a faint tap, then another, a bit louder than the first one. Just like a pebble striking closed wooden shutters.

Gibbla threw the heavy shutters open, letting in a stream of moonlight and cold air. “Uh? What do you want, fokz?” A pause as the ratmaid waited for reply. “I you want to talk, you climb up chere; the ivy under the window iz ztrong enough for a beazt your weight.”

Yes, that was Kars. He climbed into the window without a single sound, surprisingly for a beast his size. Once he saw Foxglove sprawled on the straw, he gasped and fell on the knees next to her, barely even noticing other maids. “F-Foxglove! What happened there? Who did this to ye? Who?!

Foxglove attempted a smile, but her poor lips started to bleed again. “Skinflint an’ ‘is cronies,” she managed.

Kars’s face contorted into a snarl. “I'll kill that scumbag! I'll kill him!” He sprang on his paws and his curved sword was in his grip in a moment. The big fox made for the door and the stairs leading down the tavern, ready to fulfill his threat. He got as far as the door, then Gibbla blocked his way. “Step back, rat!” growled Kars. His yellow eye was frantically darting back and forth, and Foxglove knew that was a bad sign.

Gibbla wasn’t impressed. “No, you ztep back, fokz. You’re not killing anybeazt. I don’t think you know who you’re mezzing with. Zkinflint’z providing drink for everybeazt on thiz whole zhore. Che chas more power round chere than zome warlord. I know you can chop chis chead off in no time, but then all the beaztz around – every lazt of them, - will be out for blood. And your blood alone won’t be enough. They know we maidz dizlike chim, and they know what chappened today – zhould I zay who’ll die firzt?”

Kars lowered his head, throwing a sideways look at Foxglove. His voice was filled with pain as he spoke, “So he’s going to get away with this? That blackguard had almost killed the beast I love, and you say I do nothing?!”

“No, you do zomething. You take Fokzglove away from chere – zouth, north, eazt, wezt, doezn’t matter az long az zhe iz zafe with you. Becauze the nekzt time Zkinflint needz a zcapebeazt…”

Kars didn’t give her a chance to finish. “I won’t let him!

Foxglove slowly raised herself on the elbow of her uninjured paw. Hearing others deciding her fate without asking her opinion was unsettling. “Kars…”

The big fox was at her side at once. “Foxglove?” he spoke softly. “Anything you want?”

“T’talk.” She shot a meaningful glance at Gibbla. “Alone.”

The ratmaid rolled her eyes at the request, but left the room, other maids following. Once the door closed, Kars skillfully rolled his yellow eye round like in a seizure and said loudly, “Do you know I can see through wood with it?” This statement was followed with the scared squeal and the sound of abating footfalls.

This little show brought a smile on Foxglove’s face and she cackled despite herself. Kars winked at her and turned round, but the cheerful remark about to leave his lips was replaced with an anguished moan. Foxglove quickly covered her mouth with her paw, realizing Kars had just seen gaps where some of her teeth used to be.

“I shouldn’t ‘ve let it happen,” Kars said, sitting down next to Foxglove. “I should’ve been there. Should’ve told Captain to go drown himself and come here as promised.”

“Kars,” Foxglove interrupted. “Kars, had you just told Gibbla you love me?”

His response was firm. “Yes. I wanted to say it in more pleasant circumstances, but I meant every word. I love you, Foxglove.” And he grabbed the vixen’s paw and squeezed it affectionately.

Burning pain flared up Foxglove’s paw: unknowingly, Kars gripped her broken wrist. She jerked her paw out in no time, almost wailing, “Eeeyee! Leggo, ye brute!” And then, at Kars’s hurt expression, she waved her paw in the air, as if trying to shake the pain out. “Some idiot smashed it t’day.”

“Sorry.”

“Ah, never mind. And I do, too. Love you, I mean.” Foxglove tried smiling with the corner of her mouth only, so not to demonstrate her gap-toothed grin.

“Phew! I was afraid you’ll just mock me again,” said Kars. “Remember how you made fun of my eyes?”

“And I still mean it. Admit it, yer eyes are weird – and really useful in scaring off unwanted beasts."

“Well, with my eyes, your mother’s poisons and you in general, we’ll make terrifying team.”

“You think I’m terrifying? Thanks.”

“Yep. In the best sense possible, of course,” Kars raised his paws in surrender at Foxglove’s snarl. “I was properly terrified when you had almost sent me to the bottom of the cliffs!”

“You should be!” And then Foxglove asked a question that had been bothering her since the morning, “Kars, why didn’t you come to the tavern in the morn?”

“Captain didn’t let me go ashore, he kept all the crew abroad all the day. Hmm, how to explain it… You remember that Saltwave was severely damaged and needed repairs, right?” Foxglove nodded, and he went on, “The repair crew finished most of the work yesterday, save for two breaches in the hull. Captain told them they can take a day off before coming tomorrow and fixing the breaches. The truth is, these breaches are not… well, aren’t breaches. Before we docked, Captain ordered part of the planking to be removed so the damage would seem more grievous than it was. Today, half of the crew was secretly putting the planking back in place while the other half was preparing the ship for the voyage. This night, three hours till sunrise, she’ll set sail.”

Foxglove bared her teeth in a smirk. “So, your Cap’n carried this fraud through so he could sail off without paying for the repair works? Because nobeast would expect a ship with a breach to leave the port?”

“Exactly! I knew what he wanted to do, but not when he planned to leave. I hadn’t known that Captain would detain me when I promised to come to you. Hmm, by the way, Captain also told Skinflint he would pay for vittles and booze once repairs are finished.”

“Hohoho, that serves the old meanbag right! Your Cap’n is a devious beast, wish I could shake his paw!”

“You’ll have the chance once we got to Saltwave.”

Foxglove’s laughter stopped short. “Once we what?”

Kars nodded firmly. “That rat friend of yours is right. The tavern is too dangerous for you to stay. I’ll take you off to Saltwave.”

“Stop talking nonsense, Kars. You know that my mother…”

“Will come with us. We’re not abandoning her.”

A flicker of hope bloomed in Foxglove’s chest, but she made herself think rationally, and it withered and died. “What Captain would accept a load in a form of a half-dead female and a half-crazy old crone? By the sound of him, your Captain is even stingier than Skinflint. If you bring us on board without his consent, he’ll simply throw us in the sea.”

Kars took a bag from under his bright jerkin and put it into Foxglove’s good paw. The bag was about the size of a mouse’s head and really heavy. “That’s all the loot I had from the last raid; it should be enough to buy you a passage south. And if Captain decides to jib, I’ll make him an offer he won’t be able to refuse.”

“Oh? What offer?” asked Foxglove, feeling the bag over.

“My position. Captain’s nephew joined the crew this spring, and since then the old slyface had been looking for an excuse to reduce me to the ranks, but I was careful not to give him one. He won’t miss the chance, believe me.”

Foxglove could hardly believe her ears, though. “Are you serious? You really want to give up all you have? Without loot or high post, it’ll be lowly sailor’s work for you.”

“I’m serious as ever.” The big fox gently touched Foxglove’s paw, careful not to hurt it once more. “I can live without loot or position. I can get myself new ones. But if I lose you…”

“Thanks,” Foxglove whispered, her voice suddenly rusty. Words seemed too hollow to convey her feelings, but she couldn’t think of anything else and just repeated, “Thanks.”

Kars gave her a small nod and continued in business manner, “We should hurry up if we want to get abroad the ship before she departs. Look what I think, no need for you to trudge all the way up to your mother’s. You stay here, rest, take your mixtures and gain strength. I’ll go to mar’m Coltsfoot and bring her there; then I’ll come back for you, get you out of there and all three of us will go straight to the ol’ good Saltwave.” He glanced at the moonlight flooding in through the window. “It’s a little less than midnight now, we’ve got enough time. So, what do you think?”

Foxglove didn’t like staying in the tavern longer than necessary. Kars was right, though – she would be more a hindrance than an asset, and if she had to wait, she’d rather do it with roof overhead, soft straw under her back and warm blanket round her shoulders.

“Sounds fine by me. Kars – just don’t give mother too much details about what happened; she would worry herself sick in no time.”

“You don’t worry.” Kars softly kissed Foxglove on the nose as he rose. “I’ll be back real soon!”

Only when he had left, did Foxglove realize he forgot to take back his looting bag.

Chapter 28

Kars returned in an hour with news that he had escorted her mother from her hut and that she was waiting for them not far from the tavern. While he was gone, Foxglove had drunk the herb tea that was boiled for her, crudely bound her ribs and paw and gathered her belongings. The latter didn’t take her long, for all her belongings consisted of her mother’s herb satchel and the warm clothes she put on. She attached the loot bag to her belt under her warm cloak.

Before leaving, Foxglove took a look at her fellow maids. Some of them looked confused, some frowned, probably thinking about what would happen once Skinflint discovered the escape, but Gibbla seemed genuinely happy. “Good luck,” the ratmaid said, shaking Foxglove’s paw. “Quite a time to quit. Anybeazt elze wantz to take the chanze and go? Remember, no matter chow chard you work, it’z Zkinflint who takez profit and not you.”

Nobeast moved. The maids could dislike their work, but it was bringing them enough to endure it. The newbie stoatmaid asked, “If it’s so bad there, why don’t you leave?”

“That’z zomething that zhouldn’t concern you. Now go, Fokzglove. I’ll zay to Zkinflint that we left the room for a minute and you ezcaped through the window.”

“Thanks,” replied Foxglove.

Kars climbed out of the room first. “Don’t worry, if you slip or lose your grip, I’ll be right there and catch you,” he promised.

“You know, I still got whole three paws intact,” noted Foxglove.

It was more of bravado than truth, though. With the seasons’ help, she didn’t fall down, but when her footpaws finally touched the wooden planks of the back porch, the vixen’s muscles were in pain. With a long sigh, Foxglove leaned against the waist-height porch rail.

“Do you need some rest?” asked Kars.

Foxglove wouldn’t have minded it, but they had to move on. “Just a moment to catch my breath. A moment, no longer.”

Suddenly, searing light flared up, blinding both beasts. “You’ve got no time left, fox!”

Foxglove shielded her suddenly watering eyes against the bright light, Kars moved to stand between her and whoever had caught them. When Foxglove blinked the involuntary tears away, she saw that they had been surrounded by a mob of vermin with torches. She recognized them: the same bunch that had beaten her earlier. Only this time, their numbers grew, and they all were armed.

“Let us pass,” Kars said calmly, though his right paw was resting on his dagger’s hilt.

Skinflint stepped forward. “Hoho, let ye pass? Ye’re aiding de convicted criminal do escabe, dat’s alone is enough do pud ye in chains, sayin’ nothin’ of de robbery yer cap’n is pullin’ through.”

Kars still tried to bluff their way out. “What robbery, eh? Ha, robbery indeed! Who ever told you this nonsense?”

I did.” A beast moved out from the vermin ranks – Foxglove was astounded to see the young newbie stoatmaid who bombarded Gibbla with questions. “You hadn’t thought that you could be spied on, had you?”

“You – you traitor!” spat out Foxglove. “You sold out your fellows!”

“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. After all, it’s a cruel world, and if you’re not strong or sly enough… Wasn’t that what our curator had told me so recently? You shouldn’t be surprised that I sided with the winners.”

“That’s not what Gibbla meant when she’d said that.”

“Enough words.” Skinflint shoved the stoatmaid way, not bothering to look at her. “I offer ye a chance de rest of yer gang don’t have.” He gestured somewhere behind his back, vaguely in the direction of the sea. Now that it had been pointed out, Foxglove saw some kind of illumination there. Was that fire? “Ye give ub right now, and we led ye live… as oarslaves, of course.”

“Really?” Kars said. “Then I’m making a counteroffer. You get away from there right now, and I’m not slicing your belly open. Sounds good to me, huh?”

Before the vermin mob could growl their reply threats, Foxglove stepped forward. “I’m sure we can resolve it all peacefully.” She held out Kars’s loot bag for everybeast to see. “There’s gold and jewels, a king’s share of plunder. What if I give it to you all and you forget you’d ever seen us?”

The bandits guffawed loudly, and a large rat in the first line voiced the common opinion, “What makes ye think we can’t take it from yer dead bodies, eh? Enough gibberin’, mateys, let’s get them!” He waved a sword and rushed at the two foxes. He had collapsed in a mid-stride, Kars’s dagger buried in his eye to the hilt.

Kars drew his curved sword and jumped off the porch to the ground to have more space for maneuver. The first line of this attackers stumbled at the rat’s body, and the big fox slashed the blade in an intricate eight-like pattern, beheading a ferret and forcing another rat stumble away, clasping at the deep gash across his stomach. Then the rest of the vermin were upon him, and Kars could barely block numerous blows, to say nothing of attacking.

Foxglove gripped the railing tensely; her paws were shaking with the need to take action, but there had been nothing she could possibly use as a weapon. Or had there? The vixen used her teeth to undo the knot of cord tying the bag closed. She ignored the pain in her damaged paw and flung the bag as far and as high as she could. It came opened in the air, raining armlets and tail-rings and other trinkets over the fighting vermin. One of the pirates picked up an ear-ring and bit into it. “It’s gold!” he exclaimed, and the battle array was broken. The vermin lunged for the treasure, biting, clawing, jostling in their haste to grab what they could before their fellows outstripped them. The fact that there wasn’t enough loot for everybeast had only caused more small fights and bickering to erupt. Only a handful of beasts were still engaged with Kars.

Skinflint rushed about the yard, calling, ordering, cajoling and threatening, but the vermin were heedless of him, practically putting the gold they could get right now above the hypothetical reward they would or would not get later. Desperate, Skinflint turned his gaze at Foxglove. “It’s all you, fox! Hey, beasds, get her! I wand her alive or dead!”

Only one beast responded to that order: the newbie stoatmaid servant brandished a knife and attacked Foxglove head-on. She was young and rested while Foxglove’s body still ached with the pain of the beating she had taken. She was also inexperienced and unskillful, her paw gripped the knife like a vegetable chopper. Foxglove acted almost reflectively as she turned sideways, caught the stoatmaid’s wrist and twisted, tripping her in the same time. The stoatmaid’s lunge was steered away from her course but not stopped, and her own momentum caused the maid to slam into the porch railing. The knife clanked as it fell on the wooden planks and the newbie’s body thumped as it tumbled over the railing to the ground below.

Foxglove sneered triumphantly and turned to look at her defeated enemy. Then a heavy blow fell upon the back of her head, and darkness alight with fire sparkles blackened her vision. Rough paw turned her round, and Skinflint smacked the vixen two more times. Foxglove was still dizzy from the blows, but the initial shock was over, and she punched the tavern keeper twice. Her left fist connected soundly with the weasel’s stomach, then Skinflint caught her right wrist and twisted it. Pain had almost blinded Foxglove and she could do nothing but fall backwards against the rails and howl from the throes. Too late she had realized that Skinflint defeated her with the same move she had just used to disarm the stoatmaid. Now he had held her firmly, one paw locked on her wrist, another strangling the vixen’s throat. “Ye starded all of dat, fox! You’ll pay for dat!”

Kars had heard Foxglove scream and his paws itched with the desire to turn and run to her side. Four beasts still pressing on him made it impossible. Kars narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. These beasts stood between him and Foxglove. They had brought their deaths upon themselves.

Parrying his assailants’ thrusts, Kars found the group’s weak link and his first aim: a ferret who picked up a sword without a proper crosspiece to protect his paw as his weapon. The problem was that his sword had been much longer than Kars’ curved one. The big fox locked blades with another of his opponents, deliberately hesitating after deflecting a blow. The ferret saw the opening and lunged for it, intending to skewer Kars’ left shoulder. When the ferret’s blade was within his reach, Kars swung his curved sword upwards swiftly, cutting into the sword’s hilt - and into the ferret’s paw. He screeched, dropping his sword and clutching at his suddenly shortened fingers.

One beast was out, but while Kars was dealing with him, a ratwife with a pair of daggers tried to use the moment and stab him. Kars didn’t manage to parry her blow in time, and her dagger caught him just above the elbow of his sword paw. Hissing with pain, Kars had to back away. What was worse, three remaining creatures worked out a silent agreement and started to act as a team. A large stoat with a saber and a small wiry fox with a spear would attack him in turns, forcing Kars to lunge from left to right while the ratwife darted in and out and tried to stab him while he was concentrated on the other adversaries.

Kars’ paw ached, and he was getting exhausted. He had to break this happy team. Parrying and sidestepping and edging to and fro, Kars gained himself the favorable position: large stoat to his left, small fox in the center, ratwife with daggers to his right.

The stoat slashed his saber top-down, and Kars caught it in the curve of his sword. Gripping his weapon with both paws, he slightly turned the blade sideways, locking the saber in. The fox with the spear yelped with joy as he realized that Kars’s blade was immobilized just as the stoat’s and thrust with the spear. As his adversary’s paw moved back, Kars dug his footpaws into the earth and heaved. The stoat was a strong beast, but Kars was still stronger: the stoat was lifted bodily and flung into the small fox. Both creatures crashed on the ground in a tangle of limbs, angry shouts and screeches of pain clear in the air. Kars turned on the ratwife, and she swiftly jumped back. But without a partner to cover her up, her daggers had no advantage over Kars’s sword, and a slash of the curved blade sliced her throat open.

While Kars was dealing with the ratwife, the small fox braced himself, drew a dagger out of his boot and stabbed Kars in the hindpaw. His victim’s face contorted into a grimace, but Kars didn’t utter a sound as he spun round and took the small fox’s head off. When his blade finished its motion, Kars froze for a moment. Where was the stoat?

Somebeast rammed into Kars’s back, knocking him down: needless to say, that was that very stoat. Kars flung away his curved sword so not to fall on his own blade; with his last effort, he turned the fall into the roll so that he lay on his back. The stoat had both of his knees on Kars’s chest, pressing him to the ground, and moved to bring his saber down. Kars caught his wrist, and for some moments they struggled, the stoat bearing the blade down and Kars holding it back. But the big fox’s paw was bleeding, and slowly the stoat pushed the saber forward, closing that several inch distance between the blade point and Kars’s chest. A move Foxglove had taught him flashed before Kars’s eyes, or rather a variation of it. Instead of stopping the stoat’s paw, Kars twisted it, changing the saber’s direction. Assisted by the stoat’s own strength, the blade sunk into the earth next to Kars’s left shoulder. The big fox punched his opponent in the face, and after a momentary struggle both were on their paws.

They stood there, swaying, breath coming out of their throats in rapid gasps, blood dripping from their wounds. Their weapons were cast aside, and none dared to turn his back on the enemy and pick them up. Finally, they flung themselves into battle again, this time using nothing but their paws and teeth. Only one would come out alive of it, and they both knew it.

Foxglove fought her own battle by that time. Every breath was a feat as Skinflint squeezed his paw over her throat. Skinflint wasn’t a fighter, but he was heavy as a stone, and he simply didn’t budge at Foxglove’s weakening attempts to free herself. “You’re de reason of dis welter. I’m goin’ to shake your soul out of your miserable body, fox!” he hissed.

“Let go of my daughter, knave!”

Skinflint coughed out a surprised scream and the pressure on Foxglove’s throat was gone. Without an ounce of strength left, the vixen slumped against the back door. From this position, she could see how her mother hit Skinflint with her walking stick once more. “Be gone, scoundrel and crook!”

The tavern keeper easily dodged her next feeble blow. “Get out of my way, old crone!” he barked. “That’s none of your business!”

Foxglove wanted to call out for her mother, but her throat and chest were aching, and every breath was sending a painful spasm through her ribcage. Finally, she managed, “Mother, get back to the cover! I’ll be fine!”

“Get back, uh? Not before I bash this blackguard’s skull!” Coltsfoot swung her stick, and Skinflint caught it and yanked out of her grasp with ease, then proceeded to break it against his knee.

“Enough!” he bellowed. “I’ve got a rule not to strike senile ol’ hags who can crumble into dust with a push, but I’m gonna break it if ye won’t get out of ma sight dis instant!”

In response, the old vixen fell on him with nothing but her bare paws. Her blows were weak and disoriented, and she flailed her paws mindlessly instead of actually striking, and Skinflint still had to step back and wheel, cursing as he tried to keep maddened Coltsfoot with outstretched paws. After a momentary grapple, opponents reversed their positions so that Coltsfoot was standing between Skinflint and her daughter.

Foxglove finally managed to get on her footpaws and went to stand beside her mother, her heavy breath slowly steadying. “Mother, go away before you can get hurt. I’ll finish that piece of rubbish myself.”

“Finish me?” sneered Skinflint. “I’ll wring yer neck as I should’ve done seasons ago!”

“My daughter? No, you won’t!” Foxglove took hold of her mother’s shoulder, but the old vixen shook her paw off and threw herself on the fat weasel.

Skinflint didn’t even raise a paw. He simply sidestepped, and Coltsfoot stumbled past him. She tried to stop, but took two more steps to steady herself. On the second step, her footpaw plunged through the air above the porch steps. With a short, almost inaudible shriek she fell down on her stomach and didn’t move.

Foxglove wailed and rushed for her mother’s side, the fight forgotten. “Mother? Mother! Are you hurt? Mom!” She carefully slung her paw round her mother’s shoulders and slightly uplifted her. Then Foxglove noticed a trickle of blood running from the corner of Coltsfoot’s mouth; she must have hit her chin falling. “There, Mom, I’ll help you, you’ll be alright…” Foxglove’s voice trailed off. Only now did she felt how limp Coltsfoot was in her paws. Only now did she see her neck bending upwards at the sharper angle than it should have been. Only now did she felt the unnatural stillness and breathlessness in her mother’s body. “No! Mom! No, please, please, mom…”

There was a short gasp from behind Foxglove’s back, and her sorrow somehow transformed into a cold anger and froze her ribcage from the inside. She turned to face Skinflint.

The weasel stood on the porch, his paw covering his mouth. “I didn’t want to,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to… I’d never hurt an elder, you’ve seen I didn’t even hit ‘er, I just stepped aside… I didn’t want it to end like dis, I…”

Foxglove didn’t hear any of this. She stepped closer to him, and for the first time Skinflint backed away. He was still drawing back when he bumped into the door. Foxglove advanced, only pausing once her footpaw touched the knife the stoatmaid had dropped. She bent to pick it up, and Skinflint seized the moment to try and jump over the rails. He never made it.

Foxglove grabbed him by the scruff with her right damaged paw, ignoring the pain that followed, and stabbed him in the back. Having to hold the knife in her left paw made the thrust awkward, so she stabbed him again. And again, and again, and again.

She stopped only when she had heard somebeast calling her. “Fokzglove! Blood’n’fang, what chave you done?” During the fight the servants wisely stayed in their quarters, but now Gibbla stood at the back door, looking at her accusingly. “You’ve doomed uz all!”

“He killed my mother,” the vixen said curtly, finally leaving Skinflint’s bloodied corpse alone.

Gibbla almost moaned. “You really think it’z zo eazy?” When Foxglove didn’t respond, the ratmaid grabbed her shoulders and turned her to face the other vermin. Foxglove saw Kars locked in a violent fight with some stoat, biting and clawing each other furiously, but it wasn’t what Gibbla had wanted to show her. “Look!” Her claw pointed at the squabbling pirates. The fight for Kars’s loot was almost over; now and there some little skirmishes would break out, but the grand picture was much quieter. Bigger and stronger vermin were counting their share of plunder or hurriedly hiding them in their clothes while their weaker companions nursed scratches and bruises. Very soon, their attention would turn back to the tavern. “Juzt look at them!” Gibbla said. “What do you think will they do onze their beloved tavern keeper iz dead? They’ll kill you, they’ll kill me, they’ll burn the whole building ztill with other maidz inzide! Now go chelp me, we’ve got to lead everybeazt out!”

“Nobeast will die,” said Foxglove with strange calm. “This scum didn’t follow Skinflint because of his outstanding personal qualities. They followed him because he was the tavern keeper.” The vixen took a bloodied key ring off Skinflint’s belt and handed it to Gibbla. “Now you’re the tavern keeper.”

The ratmaid took the keys, but her mouth was open with astonishment. “What?.. But why?..”

“Because you like this business.” Now all the pieces of the puzzle came together in Foxglove’s mind. “That’s why you never left, despite always urging us to, despite knowing better than anybeast that a servant’s work gets you no riches, despite the fact that this work had broken your face. You hated Skinflint, but you love the tavern.”

“Thiz may work,” Gibbla acknowledged, absent-mindedly wiping the blood on the keys with her sleeve. “Beaztz want grog. I’ll give them grog. But you’d better get out of chere, Fokzglove. Beaztz won’t be chappy about Zkinflint’z murder.”

Foxglove’s voice was bitter. “Murder? It was an accident. Much-esteemed Skinflint slipped and fell on the knife.”

“Uchum. On chiz back. Zikz timez. Churry, fokz.” Gibbla disappeared behind the back door.

“Foxglove! Foxglove!” That voice full of worry and concern belonged to Kars. The big fox was running to her out of the battlefield, his clothes covered with blood, limping heavily. But he was alive, and Foxglove felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. When she held her mother’s lifeless body in her paws, Foxglove thought nothing would ever make her feel worse even if the sky collapsed on the earth. After seeing Kars, Foxglove didn’t feel better – she felt she would have felt twice as bad if the things turned out differently, if that stoat had risen from the fight and Kars had lay on the ground. If she lost not only her mother, but Kars as well, she would’ve been completely alone. But she wasn’t now.

“Foxglove!” Kars barely managed to jump on the porch and catch the vixen as her hindpaws suddenly buckled. He helped her stand, then his gaze stopped on Coltsfoot’s body still lying under the steps. He probably understood, but stammered nonetheless, “M-mar’m Coltsfoot… I- there’s a healer on Saltwave…”

“Nothing can be done,” Foxglove said hoarsely. The finality of what had happened belatedly hit her, and a shudder ran through her bones. Kars slung a paw round her shoulders, and Foxglove buried her face in his fur. There were no tears left in her, but the vixen still wept, her body rocking with dry sobs. Kars stood with her, saying nothing, for nothing could be said.

Then this moment of mourning was wrested from them. “Hey, these two killed Skinflint! Go get them, mateys!”

Kars firmly stepped in front of Foxglove. Earlier this night, he jumped off the porch with ease and bluster. Now he hobbled down with an effort, bleeding from his wounds and weaponless. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the resolve in his voice as the fox growled, “One more step and I’ll rip your throats out with my bare fangs!”

The vermin mob wavered, but it wasn’t long before they moved forward again, howling and snarling: they all knew Kars couldn’t withstand their assault. Kars knew it too; he hissed urgently to Foxglove, “Run, I’ll slow them down.”

Foxglove only snorted in response. Run from the only beast she had in the world? Not likely. She took up that miserable knife she had killed Skinflint with and stood side to side with Kars.

The vermin were ready to charge at them when the tavern’s back door was slammed open. “Out of my way, fokzez!” Gibbla kicked the wine barrel out of the doorframe. Her paws were occupied: the ratmaid carried a small mallet and a half-dozen of empty mugs. Another kick of her footpaw, and the barrel was stopped in its roll and brought upright. A practiced strike of the mallet, and the wine was flowing into several mugs at once. “Free wine! Free wine! Chonor our mozt chonorable Zkinflint with a mug of chiz bezt wine!”

Kars and Foxglove had barely managed to scatter away from the porch before the vermin stampeded. After hearing words ‘free’ and ‘wine’ in once sentence, there was nothing that could have stopped them from going after this blessed gift of fortune. They barely noticed how two foxes lifted Coltsfoot’s body and, stumbling and leaning against each other, went away.

Foxglove buried her mother behind her old hut. The soil was hard and rocky, but the vixen dug in with the shovel again and again, venting her bitterness away. She rejected Kars’s offer of help, feeling it solely her right and duty to send her mother for her last journey.

When she came into the hut, Kars had set up a small fire in the clay stove and was bandaging his wounds. Foxglove felt a pang of guilt. The wounds on his shoulder and hindpaw were bleeding badly; she should have tended to them first. Her herb satchel was left behind at some point, but her mother had always kept a lot of herbs in her home. She loved herbs, Foxglove thought with a sob. She used some of them to make a couple of slipshod poultices for Kars. As she worked, she suddenly thought how appalled her mother would’ve been upon seeing such messy and sloppy work. Her poultices always were so neat and accurate…

Blinking tears away, Foxglove said, “Tell me if they start to burn or sting or something. I’m not sure I picked up the right herbs.” She didn’t tell him she had picked the medicine up by intuition rather than by knowledge.

Kars nodded. “Thank you.” And then he added, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have led your mother to the tavern. I wish I’d brought her to Saltwave first, or got you out and only then returned for her.”

“It’s not your fault,” Foxglove said. “It’s Skinflint’s. And he’s dead.”

“Still, it’s because of my Captain’s deception that Skinflint had brought a mob with him. If I kept my mouth shut… May be it would’ve been better if you never met me.”

Foxglove took his big paw. “I don’t regret meeting you.”

Kars squeezed her paw in response. “Neither do I.”

They spent the rest of the waning night and most of the day in the hut. “Have you thought about where we will go now?” asked her Kars once they felt appropriate to discuss the future. “Now I’ve got no loot, no position… no ship.” From the height of the mountain slope they could see the seashore well. The previous night they saw how the crew of Saltwave had fought against the bigger part of the village vermin. Angry for the loss of their pay, the carpenters managed to set fire on the ship, but the corsairs put it out and sailed off – this time the ship was genuinely damaged.

“I don’t know,” Foxglove admitted. “And I don’t care. I just want to get away from this place, doesn’t matter where to. Have you been thinking about someplace?”

Kars nodded. “Well, I heard that Darm Deathtrap always welcomes new soldiers in his army.”

Foxglove frowned. Deathtrap… “I’ve heard some of the corsairs talking about him in the tavern. He is some kind of a warlord, am I right?”

“Yes, you are. He calls himself Lord of the Seas. He set his headquarters on Terramort Isle and had already conquered a number of islands. And I heard that he treats his soldiers decently and always pays them their share of loot. Besides,” there Kars gave a small ironic smile, “I’ve heard that he plans to unite all the corsairs under his rule, and he had already sunk Swordfish because her Captain refused to obey him. So I figured out it’s better to join Deathtrap’s army willingly instead of being forced into it.”

Foxglove shrugged. “Sounds fine for me. That Lord is no worse than your former Captain, I guess.”

The next day two foxes left for the south, where they could find bigger vermin settlements and contact somebeast affiliated with Darm Deathtrap. They left, leaving their old life behind.

Foxglove shut her eyes tight, fighting the tears back. That day more than five seasons ago joining Darm seemed to be the solution for all their problems. If only she knew how it would all end! She and Kars got through many difficulties, participated in many battles, fought many enemies, lived through storms and blizzards… and yet in this cursed red-stoned place Kars had died and she had been made prisoner.

How could she escape her captors, wounded and weaponless? Well, not entirely weaponless, Foxglove though, tapping her claws on her fangs. After she had lost her right fang and some of her teeth in that tavern fight, Foxglove was rather ashamed of her gap-toothed grin. So when they managed to save up some loot, Kars had a false fang made for her. Corsairs rich enough to hire a master would replace their lost teeth with gold or silver ones; Foxglove’s false fang was carved bone and was fixed in its position with a thin wire binding it to her other teeth.

Foxglove could remove it if she wanted to, but what was the point? If she was to use it as a weapon, she could simply bite somebeast. She could probably pick a lock with it, but there were no locks. Foxglove glared at the curtain separating her cubicle from the rest of the room – infirmary, as she guessed. The big otter that acted as her guard wasn’t there at the moment, but she could hear his bass from behind the curtain. To get out of this place, she would have to pass him and probably half of the woodlanders’ army.

Loud flapping of the wings made Foxglove jerk her head round. A small gull landed on the sill of the open window. “Ragfeathers!” she cried and immediately shut her mouth close. Luckily, the beasts in the infirmary didn’t seem to hear her.

Ragfeathers was holding something bundled in his beak. Foxglove tried to get it, but her battered body harshly reminded her she was not fit: her splinted leg refused to obey, and her dislocated forepaw twitched in agony as she tried to lean on it. Still, Foxglove ground her teeth and grabbed the bundle out of the gull’s beak before collapsing on her bed. In the bundle there was a small knife and a long rope.

“Lord Deathtrap is breaking you out,” Ragfeathers said. “Can you cope with the guard?”

Foxglove nodded. How could she forget that Captain Catcher would never leave one of his crew behind? “Yes. There’s a big otter guarding me, but he’s got to sleep, too.”

But Ragfeathers hadn’t finished. “Then there’s something Lord needs you to do. This night, you ought to get out through the window by rope and open the small gate in the northern wall. Lord’s army will be waiting outside. Once he takes over this place, he will make you a Captain.”

Foxglove’s heart picked up at the thought of this colorful prospect. The numb pain in her left leg brought her down to the earth. “I can’t.”

“What? Are you disobeying a direct order? That’s treason.”

“I literally cannot,” the vixen said. “My leg is broken, I cannot cross this room without collapsing, let alone climbing.”

Small gull ruffled his feathers. “When will you be able to do it?”

Foxglove tried to remember all the occasions she observed somebeast with a broken limb. It would take long for the bone to mend, as long as two months perhaps. But there was a possibility she could use her leg – carefully, of course! – before it was fully healed. “A fortnight, no less.”

“That’s too long,” Ragfeathers said. “All right, I’ll report it to Lord. Remember, once you’re fit enough, you ought to let Lord’s forces in!” With these words as the farewell, the bird took off.

Foxglove smiled, clutching the knife. The life itself presented an escape plan to her. She would wait till she healed, and then… Then there was something she had to do, and it wasn’t part of Deathtrap’s plan. The vixen pressed the knife closer to her heart and whispered, “By my blood and by my mother’s blood, I, Foxglove, daughter to Coltsfoot and wife to Kars, swear to wash this knife in the blood of the mouse that murdered my beloved husband.”

Chapter 29

Wavehound couldn’t help marveling at the situation. Only an hour ago he wouldn’t have believed that he would be walking strange underground tunnels with a rat for a guide. But there he was, listening attentively to Corriam’s story as he followed their guide, an elderly ratwife called Magni.

“We’re almost there,” said Magni, leading four beasts into a side tunnel.

Their steps echoed among the walls, and Wavehound had heard Thornbush’s strong voice, “Who goes there?” Now he could see robust hedgehog standing at the cave’s entrance with a knife stolen from Houk.

Magni rolled her eyes. “Who could it ever be but us Rolt? Honestly, I’d never know why you had to stand there instead of getting some rest for yourself.”

“And let you creep on us unawares? No, thanks. Ah, Wavehound, have you found anything?”

The otter shook his head. “Only vermin sent on our trails.”

Magni turned to Wavehound and his companion. “Now rest. I’ll send somebeast to bring you food.”

Wavehound raised his paw, stopping the ratwife. “I’d like to talk with your chieftain.”

“All in due time. You’re all tired and hungry and bruised, and nothing will happen till tomorrow. But if you want, I’ll tell Stonebreaker you wished to talk.”

Wavehound expected the underground cave to be dark, dump and cold, pretty much like the crevice they used to hide in. Instead he saw a big spacious cavern lit by the strange glowing moss, dry and warm. The floor was lined with straw and moss mattresses where the escaped slaves were resting.

Wavehound noticed that their numbers were unusually low. “Where’s Mlika and Basko? And I don’t see Falko and Lotus and Namva…”

“All the ill ones were taken to the healers,” answered Thornbush. “Basko and several others volunteered to help. It… it got worse. Mlika’s fever became so bad that she lost consciousness. Falko and Namva started to complain of back pain as well as fever, and several other beasts caught cold. Overall… overall, there are seventeen beasts who fell ill.”

Wavehound had no idea the situation was so bad. That was almost third of their numbers. “Well, at least there’s a skilled healer who knows how to deal with a fever.”

Thornbush crossed his paws on his chest. “This healer is a fox. Charlatan like the rest of their kind.”

“You’re unfair to them.” Both the otter and the hedgehog startled. Betta was listening for their conversation, but during the seasons of captivity they had grown so used to her silent presence that it was still a surprise to hear her talk. “These beasts are our friends. Idunna risked her life to help us.”

“She did,” agreed Thornbush. “But who can say what the vermin think? Maybe they want to use us. Maybe they’d decided to gain Drooptail’s favor by returning us, or maybe they want some slaves for themselves.”

Betta’s paw lay on the wall, and both beasts heard the scraping sound as she curled it into a fist. “I don’t want to believe this. I want to trust them. But… but that’s possible.”

Thornbush carefully touched the badgerwife’s paw. “I know how you feel. You’ve spent too many seasons in chains, just like me. You cannot trust a vermin, I know that. They are all deceiving, vile, savage villains, all to the very last one. I’d rather cut off my own paw than call a vermin my friend.”

“Ehm, hello? Magni told me you need some vittles…”

Too caught in his speech, Thornbush turned his back to the tunnel he was guarding. Now there stood a pretty stoatmaid in a green woven dress and seashell necklace, with light brown fur and bright green eyes. In her paws she was holding a tray clad with some kind of sandwiches and snacks Wavehound had never seen before.

Thornbush whirled round, his face contorted in such a grimace that Wavehound couldn’t even pin down his expression. He jabbed a paw at the stoatmaid. “You! You deceiving heartless crook, you idiot stoat!” And before Wavehound could intercept him, Thornbush threw his paws wide and enveloped the maid in a tight hug, swirling her round like a child. “I thought you were dead! Never ever do that again!”

The stoatmaid laughed and patted him on the spiked back. “Put me down, Thornbush! I’m glad to see you, but you’re crushing my ribs! Seriously, I can’t breath!”

When Wavehound’s group had just returned, Elsie drifted away to talk to some other beasts. Once she saw what was going on, she shouted, “Laufey! Laufey is there!” Elsie, Dewberry, Tosna – almost every freed slave rushed to greet the newcomer, creating a joyful din. Bramble, as well as Tarri, daughter of Mlika and Basko, and several other little ones practically threw themselves at the stoatmaid, crying, “Lafy! Lafy’s back!”

Wavehound could only stare at the commotion, completely dumbstruck. It seemed like everybeast knew that stoatmaid except for him. He noticed that Seabird, Corriam and other Green Isle otters also exchanged uncomprehending looks. “What’s going on?” he asked. “Thornbush, you know this vermin?”

Thornbush finally let the stoatmaid get away from his bear hug. “That’s not a vermin, that’s my friend Laufey!”

Wavehound’s jaw hung open. Seabird voiced his thoughts. “Thornbush calls a vermin his friend? Am I dreaming now?”

Elsie turned to them, her eyes shining. “Why, that’s Laufey!” Then she caught their look and paused. “Oh, wait. Right, I forgot that you and Green Islanders actually arrived after Laufey’s dea- uhm, disappearance. Laufey was brought on Terramort Isle about four seasons ago, recruited against her will. She was not a fighter, so she was appointed a cook. She had been using her position to help us and smuggle us food every night.”

“I grew up in Castle Floret,” Laufey added, overhearing their conversation. “My parents took up the residence there after the end of the War of Thousand Rains. I knew woodlanders well, and I knew it was wrong to treat you as those slave-drivers did.”

Elsie nodded. “If it wasn’t for you, things would’ve been much worse for us. Laufey became not only our helper, she became our friend.”

“And she saved my son!” Thornbush declared, his paw on Laufey’s shoulder. “Bramble got sick, and not a single vermin would’ve felt anything if he died. But Laufey… Laufey managed to smuggle a medicine out of the Fort, and now my son lives!”

“Sadly, it didn’t last,” said the old squirrelwife Tosna, joining in the collective recollection. “I overheard other vermin saying Laufey had been seen in the Barn and planning to catch her when she comes there another time. I hurried to warn Laufey, and she said she’d try and escape. That was the last time I saw her. Soon after that, we’d heard that Laufey was killed during an escape attempt.”

“Apparently, I wasn’t,” smiled Laufey. “I made it to the hills, and there I was almost caught… But I was saved by one of Rolt and… Oh, wait!” Laufey went back in the tunnel she had come through. She disappeared from view, but the newly freed beasts could hear her voice. “Come on, Skoggi, don’t be afraid. Nobeast will hurt you, dear.” Laufey reappeared, leading a tiny stoatbabe that toddled by her side.

Dewberry’s eyes widened with surprise. “Laufey! Is… is that your cub?”

Laufey looked at her old friends, full of pride. “That’s Skogul, my daughter.”

Elsie crouched before the babe, smiling and reaching out with her paw. She noticed that Laufey’s daughter had a darker shade of fur, though she had her mother’s green eyes. On her neck the stoatbabe wore a string with beaded colorful feathers similar to Laufey’s necklace. “Hi, little one! Laufey, doesn’t ‘Skogul’ mean ‘fierce’ in the Old Language?”

“That was my husband’s idea,” Laufey admitted. “And she goes by Skoggi most of the times. Well, say hello to auntie Elsie, Skoggi!” The tiny stoatbabe squeaked and hid her face in her mother’s dress. “She’s really shy,” Laufey explained. “Hey, and why I don’t see Mlika and Basko and Hargo there?”

An awkward silence set up in the cavern. Hargo was Basko’s brother who had been killed during his escape attempt. That and Mlika’s illness caused quite an unhappy mood among the runaways. Finally, after a pause, Elsie said, “There’s a lot that we should tell you about.”

“I also have a lot of news to share,” Laufey admitted. “But first, I have to get you some food.” The stoatmaid frowned at the remains of what had so recently used to be food: she was holding her tray when Thornbush snatched her up, so what wasn’t dropped on the floor was squashed down. “I’ll come back soon, and then we’ll be able to talk till it’s all talked about.”

“Come back and bring your husband with you,” Thornbush said. “I would like to meet this fellow!”

Laufey smiled. “I’m sure you two would get along, Thornbush! Now, Skoggi, will you come with me or stay with your new friends?” The stoatbabe hid behind Laufey shyly, and so the stoatwife had left, her daughter following her like a little second tail.

Laufey’s visit lightened the general mood greatly. “That Laufey is a good beast,” Betta rumbled. “See, Thornbush? If a stoat can be our friend, then other vermin can be, too.”

“Laufey is… exceptional,” the sturdy hedgehog agreed, still dreamy. “I’ve never met a stoat like her before. But that doesn’t mean we can trust other beasts there. Laufey is naïve and gullible, and that Stonebreaker can be plotting something without her even knowing it.”

Betta cringed. “Don’t say so.”

“I hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” Thornbush returned.

The large badgerwife closed her eyes. “I know, but don’t say so. If you keep repeating it, I… I can panic and attack the first vermin that walks in.” Her voice lowered into a menacing growl. “I don’t want that to happen.”

“Hello there!” Betta’s concentration was broken, and she roared as she saw a rat peering in the cave. The unfortunate rodent hastily backed away and fell on his backside, throwing his paws up in surrender. “Allright allright, if you don’t want me there just tell so politely, no need to roar like that!”

Wavehound thought he might have to stand between Betta and the ill-timed rat, but the badgerwife snapped out of her fit. Slowly shaking her head, Betta covered her face with her paws. “No, no, it’s fine. Sorry, I… I’m a bit jumpy today.”

The rat tilted his head to the side and gave a low whistle, “Well, if that was ‘a bit jumpy’, I don’t want to know what ‘in a white rage’ looks like!”

“Who are you and what do you want?” asked Thornbush in his usual straightforward manner.

The rat scrambled on his footpaws. He was a young beast with wide-set hazel eyes and overlarge ears he would often twitch with a comical expression on his face. “Oh, I’m Ull. I’ve heard of a company of new beasts on Lower Terramort and couldn’t pass by without coming. Do you need some help or something? Oh, hey, I got an idea! I can show you round Lower Terramort, all the caves and tunnels!”

“And get us separated?” murmured Thornbush and added louder. “No way!”

Ull heard only the second part of his saying. “Why? I know beasts think it’s all gloomy and murky down there, but there are really great places to see!”

“I’ll come with you,” said Elsie suddenly.

Wavehound placed a paw on her shoulder. “Elsie, are you sure of it?”

“If they wanted to attack us, they would’ve already done it. Besides, it would be useful to know all the ins and outs.” The volemaid came over to stand with Ull.

The rat was ignorant to the woodlanders’ suspicious glances. “All right, then come! You’re going to have a great time!” He strode out of the cave, Elsie following him. “My name’s Ull, though my gramma used to say she should’ve named me Ygg, and you?”

“Elsie.” The volemaid scowled. Ull. Ygg. Her parents had taught her a bit of the Old Language, and these names reminded her of it. “Ygg?”

The young rat – Elsie deemed him to be only a season or so older than her, - brimmed with joy as he explained the pun. “Well, ‘Ull’ means ‘glory’ and ‘Ygg’ means ‘terror’. I’ve got to agree I’m less of the first and more of the second. Now, Elsie, have you ever seen an underground forest?”

“A real forest? Here?”

“Well, not quite real, you see, but a forest made of stone. There are caves with great rock icicles hanging down and stone spike rising up and great columns where they meet! Uhm, I’ve never really seen a forest, but Freya says it looks a lot like a real forest. And then there’s the Shining Cave, oh, you must see the Shining Cave! There grains of quartz and malachite stones and rock crystal come to the very surface of the walls, so they send glinting fire all over the place, and it’s so beautiful! Oh, and yes, you absolutely must meet Old White!”

“Old White?” Elsie stuttered, but it was impossible for her to break through into Ull’s fervent speech. By that time they had gone quite far into the tunnels leading away from where the former slaves were staying, and Elsie decided it was time to ask where exactly they were going. However, Ull continued to ramble about all the places Elsie must see and all the beasts she must meet that the volemaid had not a moment to put her word in.

“Ull!!” In a blink of the eye, another rat appeared from a side tunnel and leapt upon Elsie’s companion, grabbing him by ear. “What are you doing, you idiot?”

Ull could only mumble in response, “Err… showing a guest around?”

The other rat let him go and turned to Elsie, only just noticing her. The volemaid saw a weapon that resembled both a pickaxe and a hammer at his belt. Was it that very Stonebreaker Betta was talking about? The rat bowed to her. “Sorry, miss, for you having to witness this dispute.” And then he turned to Ull again. “All right, I’ll reword the question: what are you supposed to be doing?” When he got no response, he sighed. “The nets, Ull. You were supposed to check the nets at Snake’s Nest and take the catch to the cooks. With more beasts to feed, there is more work to be done.”

Ull’s confused expression was replaced by a guilty one. “Ooops, Skief. I… I kind of forgot.”

“Oh, I can see that! Now, you’ve got to go and do it!” Skief gave one more formal bow to Elsie. “I apologize again, miss.” With that, the rat had left.

Ull scratched the back of his head with a truly baffled look on his face. “Well, I guess our plans got to change.”

“I’ll help you with the nets,” Elsie suggested. “That’s only right after what your Clan did to help us.”

Ull smiled, already back in his usual upbeat mood. “Great! Now we’ve got to turn this way.” The rat backtracked his steps, Elsie following him. “Let’s revise our route a little bit. First, Snake’s Nest. Then kitchens. And from there it’s not far till Hall of Memory, and you just must see it!”

“Yes, yes. Ull, was that rat Stonebreaker?” Elsie asked, trying to turn the conversation in the direction suited to her. “Is he always like that?”

“Who, Skief? Like what? Ah, you’re about that?” Ull tugged his ear. “Don’t worry, your ears are safe. Skief is a good Stonebreaker. I say that me and Sigvard are the only two whose ears he ever tweaks.”

“He doesn’t like you?” Elsie asked, alarmed.

Ull laughed it off. “Oh, I’d say he likes us too much. We’re family. Skief is Sig’s pa and my big bro, so he’s got a right to be bossy!”

“You are brothers?” Elsie had tried to take a better look of Ull’s face as they walked. She didn’t think that he and Skief looked anything alike.

“Cousins, actually. Well, our grappa and gramma brought us up together, so we’re brothers all right!”

“And why it was your grandparents who had brought you two up instead of your parents?” Just as this question had left her lips, Elsie realized the most obvious reason for it. “Ouch, sorry…”

“They are dead,” said Ull. He didn’t sound offended, though. “Skief hadn’t even seen his pa and ma: his pa died shortly before his birth, and his ma died giving birth to him. Me, I’m more lucky, I think, because I’ve actually seen my parents. They both died in the great battle of the Retreat twenty seasons ago. That was several days after I’ve been born.”

Elsie felt a pang of guilt for touching upon this topic. Her parents were also dead, but they were there for her for the most of her life. They brought her up and taught her everything she knew, and even now, when they were free from the slaves’ chains in the Dark Forest, Elsie still had her memories, her mother’s lullaby and her father’s old legends. Ull had nothing of it. “Ull, I’m really sorry about it, and that’s not just polite words.”

Ull shrugged. “Well, in truth, I don’t remember my ma and pa, so I don’t miss them.” Then his usual cheerfulness was gone and he added with uncharacteristic seriousness, “But I still wish I knew them.”

And then, as if not willing to talk about it no more, the young rat pointed to his right, “Look, that’s the Triple Arch!” The entrance of the tunnel to their right indeed was vaulted like an arch, with a stone column that didn’t seem to add neither décor nor function to the arch. “That tunnel leads to the sun grounds, our underground orchards. My good friend Freya works there, but we’ll visit her the next time.”

“Why that column is there?” asked Elsie. “It just blocks up part of the tunnel.”

““I don’t know,” Ull just said. “I’m not a stone worker, and that’s a good thing. You’d better ask Geri and Freki, they are master expert tunnelers in all of Rolt. I guess it supports the cave roofs there, and it it’s gone… Boom!” The rat clapped his paws. “All lies in shambles. But don’t worry, there were no cave-ins for… for… guess ‘for longer than I can remember’ is long enough?”

Ull and Elsie went further in the tunnels, and as they had walked, Elsie realized that she could hear the slowly increasing low rumble which seemed to shake the very ground around them. That unnerved the volemaid at first, since it resembled too much the avalanche that was about to come down. But then they had come in a huge spacious cavern, and Elsie finally recognized the noise as the constant sound of rushing water, which was turned into a kind of a roar by the speed with which the river was throwing the torrents of water against the stone banks. Elsie had grown up among rivers, but this narrow river was the fastest and the most dangerous one she had ever seen. Ull had brought her to a place where the river forked into two, and just looking at the currents beating against the huge granite wedge dividing the river made her wonder why it wasn’t crushed down.

“Snake,” Ull said. Elsie ruined round, expecting to see the serpent nearby, and the young rat explained, “This river is called Snake, cause it’s sinuous like one. This place is Snake’s Jaws, further upstream there is Snake’s Eye, Snake’s Throat, Snake’s Ribs, Snake’s Belly and Snake’s Tail at its headstream. Well, you get the idea. Snake’s Nest is up the stream as well, but I decided to make a detour and introduce you to Old White.”

“All right,” agreed Elsie, though she didn’t see anybeast to be introduced to.

Ull reached for his pocketed tunic, but stopped midways. “Ehm… Where it is…” He searched his pockets frantically. “Er, Elsie, do you happen to have something edible with you? Something?” The volemaid shook her head, smiling. Ull was sincerely confused. “I swear I took some scones with me… but I kind of ate them… Ah, there it is!” He extracted half of a scone from one of his pockets. “There it is!” He rapped it on a stone ledge. There was a rattle of a stone against stone.

Elsie couldn’t help teasing. “Is that a scone or a deadly weapon?”

“Well, Old White never chews his food anyways,” said Ull. “Now look!”

He walked to the river and stopped at the edge of the cliff; after making sure that he had Elsie’s attention, he threw the scone into the water. A blur of white caught Elsie’s attention, and a long, very long serpentine body coiled round the treat. The jaws with plenty of small saw-like teeth clamped shut, and the white serpent swallowed the scone in one gulp.

“That’s Old White,” said Ull proudly and waved a paw at the creature. “Hi, White!”

The creature turned around at the sound of Ull’s voice, swinging its small head with red eyes.

“Is that a snake?” Elsie asked, intimidated.

“Nope, White is an eel. Big, old, and really, really weird eel. Wave a paw at him!”

Elsie complied, and the eel finally turned in her direction and bobbed its head as if recognizing her. That gave Elsie such a strange impression that she asked, “Can it- can he talk?”

“Nope, he can’t. But Old White is awfully smart and understands everything. White? Oh no White, there are no more scones for you, sorry. I’ll bring more next time, promise!”

The eel dived back underwater, sending a scoopful of water into Ull’s face with his ribbon-like tail.

The young rat shook himself off. “Phew! White becomes such a meanie with age!”

“Maybe he’s got a tooth or two broken with that stone scone of yours?” Elsie suggested.

“Nope, if he did he’d drowned me. But that’s all right. I’m even glad he’s such a meanie. You see, my grappa was worrying about him. See, grappa Skvold and Old White are old friends – like, real old. Like, ancient ones. Grappa is afraid that Old White is getting weak with age – have you seen how he was turning around before you’d waved at him? He’s probably losing his sight…”

“It’s just a fish, idiot.”

The new voice was a rude growl. Elsie turned to look at the speaker, and her heart skipped a beat. In the entrance of one of the many tunnels leading to the river, a beast stood, and the lightmoss’ white glow gave his fur an eerie crimson color – the color of dried blood. His earless head was tilted, jagged teeth glinting in the light, sharp scar on his cheek making his scowl even scarier.

“Hi Surt! How are you?” called Ull cheerfully.

“Same as always. Who’s that?” the beast jabbed a claw at Elsie as he had walked closer to them.

Elsie silently scolded herself for being a coward. The beast was just a large stoat, his fur reddish-brown. But he was earless, however, with almost non-existent shreds where his ears had been cut off. His left fang was broken, revealing a jagged chip as he grinned. And the scar on his left cheek… For some reason, Elsie couldn’t turn her eyes away from it. It reminded her of something, as if… as if she had already seen it. That scar was like a jagged lightning put awry, like a crooked ‘M’… ‘M’ for ‘mutineer’.

“I remember you!” Elsie cried out. “I’ve seen you in the Fort! Seasons ago, several days after me and my parents were enslaved. Slave-drives had us all lined up in the yard, slaves on one side, soldiers on the other. Then Deathtrap came to the center and told us to watch what happens to those breaking his laws. They led you out, in chains, and… and they cut off your ears for not listening to the orders, and carved that scar on your face to forever brand you as a mutineer, and…” Elsie’s eyes widened. “And they led you away to be tortured and killed!”

A murderous gleam flashed in Surt’s eyes. “They tried,” he said gloomily. “My face is hard to forget. You, I don’t remember, mouse. What are you doing there?”

Ull joined in the talk. “Surt, that mouse is called Elsie, she is a part of Rolt now. Elsie, this is Surt, he lives with Rolt.”

“I’m a vole, not a mouse,” Elsie said.

Surt gave her an estimating look from top to down. “So you are the reason the Upper Isle is rife with soldier patrols. I’ve never seen such a bustle over a slave.”

“You’ve been above again?” gasped Ull. “During the daylight? Surt, you know it’s forbidden to do that! They could’ve seen you!”

The large stoat gave a contemptuous snort. “I couldn’t care less about your so-called rules even if I wanted. I go where I want and when I want. Your brother is not my boss, and I’m not dumb enough to let those Bladegirt idiots see me. Now, what you’ve done to create such a ruckus, mouse? Killed somebeast?”

Elsie stood up straighter. She hated that arrogant tone Surt had taken with her. “I’m not a mouse. And what me and my friends had done there is my business.”

Surt’s relaxed attitude was gone; he tensed visibly. “Your friends? You’re not the only one who escaped?”

“All of us escaped,” said Elsie proudly.

“All?” growled Surt. “All half a hundred?”

“Threescore,” Elsie corrected.

Momentarily, Surt whirled and grabbed Ull by shoulder. “Tell me Skief wasn’t moronic enough to take all of them in!”

“O-of c-course he did,” stumbled Ull. “Why shouldn’t he?”

“Why? Why? Threescore of slaves are not a lone runaway or a couple of deserters, Drooptail cannot just pretend they never existed! The whole garrison will come looking for them, and they won’t back down after a couple of days! Do you really think none would ferret their way in the tunnels? Aargh, I’m talking to an idiot!” Surt let go of Ull and leapt to Elsie, bending so low that his muzzle almost touched hers. “Look there, mouse. Get your friends and get out of there, now! I don’t care where you are going, I just want you out of the tunnels!”

Elsie knew that Surt’s point was valid: she had heard Wavehound worrying about their pursuers being able to track them to the tunnels. Still, the stoat’s treatment of the mater infuriated her. “I’m a vole. And you’re not the boss there, Skief is. If he wants us gone, he would tell us so himself. Before that, nobeast will make us leave.”

Surt leaned closer and growled. The scar on his cheek twisted, making the snarl even uglier. “Skief is too sop-hearted. But I’m not. You’d better leave on your own will, mouse, if you don’t want to suffer painfully. If I want you gone, you will be gone. I, Surt the Bloody, can promise you that.”

Instead of backing off, Elsie stood straighter, so that her whiskers touched Surt’s. “And I, Elsandre Ratatoskr of the warrior line of the Gnawer Tooth, can also promise you something. My friends had been through enough without your meddling to add to the list. I won’t let you hurt them, so you’d better leave them alone!”

The stoat snarled and swiped a paw to strike her when Ull butted in between them. “Stop!!” The young rat grabbed Surt’s paw and pushed Elsie aside with his other paw. “Are you two mad?! What are you doing?!”

Surt shook off Ull’s grip as if it were nothing and jabbed a claw at Elsie. “You, mouse! If you got brain in your skull, you’ll be gone out of here! You, rat! Go and tell your brother he is a dim-witted idiot!” With that, the stoat whirled round and disappeared in one of the many tunnels.

“I’m not a mouse!” shouted Elsie at his back, but Surt was already gone.

A strained silence fell over the river cave till Ull broke it. “Uhm… Elsie… A question?”

“Yes?” snapped the volemaid.

“Are you really not a mouse?”

Elsie stared at her new friend in disbelief. “Of course not! I’m a vole! That’s completely different species.”

Ull tilted his head, his eyes wide. “Seriously? No kidding?”

Elsie sighed. “Do I look like a mouse to you?” Ull grinned and nodded energetically. Elsie could only roll her eyes. “And how many mice have you actually seen?”

Ull frowned. “Including you?”

Elsie shook her head. “No, not including me.”

Ull’s face brightened up. “None, then.”

Elsie couldn’t help it anymore – she laughed with such a good, hearty laugh that Ull joined in as well. The suffocating tension in the air was shattered, but Elsie couldn’t forget Surt’s growling voice that echoed in her ears. “Ull,” she said. “Was that stoat serious or is he a type of beast to throw empty threats around?”

“Surt thinks his day wasted if he didn’t quarrel with somebeast till the sparks fly, but he’s normally not even half as bad. And he means everything he ever says.”

“Then I’ve got to warn my friends. They may be in trouble.”

“Uuhm, now?” Ull dropped his eyes and scraped with his hindpaw. “I mean, Gerda and other cooks will skin me alive if I don’t bring them the fish like… right now?”

Elsie managed a small smile. “All right, Ull, I’ll help you with the nets. But after that we’ll go straight back to my friends!”

Thornbush sat in the short side tunnel, his back against the wall. The rest of the slaves were further in the cave, resting peacefully.

“Why don’t you take a break and rest, Thorn?” called Dewberry, coming to sit next to him.

Thornbush smiled when he saw Skoggi tailing after her. Laufey had come back earlier, bringing them their meal, and sat with Dewberry, Tosna and her other friends for a long time before she was called away by some business. Over that time Skoggi grew bold and became rather attached to Dewberry, staying with her when her mother had left. However, when Bramble and the other little ones tried to approach the stoat cub, Skoggi responded by hiding behind Dewberry’s back and covering her face with her paws.

“Aye, but what I’m doing here but lounging about and cooling my paws off?” he said with a wink. “I can very well rest here.”

“I just thought you’ll want to come back once you are convinced that nobeast is going to jump at us,” said Dewberry. As she talked, she frowned and rubbed the small of her back distractedly.

That didn’t go unnoticed by Thornbush. “Are you not feeling well, Dew?”

The hogwife waved it off. “Oh, it’s nothing. Just such a funny feeling, you know, like my needles prickle my back. Funny, isn’t it, the hedgehog complaining of her needles?”

Thornbush put a paw to his wife’s forehead. Thankfully, there was no sign of the feverish heat, but Dewberry did look tired. “You should let that fox healer see you. Charlatan as he is, he could at least give you something.”

Dewberry shook her head. “The healers are busy with the real sick; I don’t want to bother them with this triviality. I’m all right, don’t you worry.”

Thornbush didn’t actually agree with that, but as he was about to argue something caught his attention: the sound of rustle and faint voices coming from the main tunnel. He could even make out words if he had listened in to the hushed whispers.

“Oi, look, dere’s sentries.”

“Careful of the hedgepigs, dey’re dangerous.”

“Huh, ye’re just gettin’ cold paws, Njord.”

“I’ll see how brave ye’re, Gev, when ye’re impaled with dem spikes.”

“Comm’on, guys, are we rats or jellyfish? Let’s do it.”

“Do what?” asked Thornbush, coming into the main tunnel and looming over the intruders. The intruders in question – three little cubs, two ratlets and a foxkit, - looked up to see a burly hedgehog with his paws crossed, squealed and ran off to hide behind a jutting boulder. Thornbush sighed, inwardly ashamed. There he was, harassing little cubs. “Uhm… Don’t be afraid, little ones. Look, sorry I scared you… You can come back now, nobeast would hurt you.”

After a quick and hushed conference behind the boulder that went among the lines of ‘Bet ye’re too afraid to get to the spikehog now!” and “Bet I’m not!” a ratlet strode out boldly, wearing a clay bowl on his head as a helmet. “We want to play!” he declared. “My Dad says you’re friends, so it’s all right for us to come here! And my Dad is Stonebreaker, so what he says is true! Oh, hi Skoggi!”

“You can go and play if you’re nice with other little ones,” said Thornbush and stepped back so that the ratlet could enter the cavern.

“Cool!” the ratlet leapt in the air and ran inside. He stopped in the middle of the cave and announced loudly, “Hi guys! I’m Sigvard! Call me Sig, everybeast does! Hey, Gev, Njord, come here!”

Bramble, Tarri and the other cubs flocked to him. There weren’t many little ones with the slaves, and those were kept by Darm for the sole purpose of ensuring their parents’ obedience. It was seasons ago when the cubs had seen a new beast their age, and they were just as enthusiastic as Sig. The ratlet’s companions had joined him, too. The foxkit stopped near the cave’s entrance while the little ratmaid came forth. “Hi, I’m Gef and that grump over there is Njord!”

“I’m Bramble,” said the hogbabe. “And I thought Sig’d just called you Gev?”

“Yep,” the ratmaid agreed cheerfully.

“So… is it Gef or Gev?”

“You can use both, silly.”

“But… what’s your right name?”

“It’s Gef, Gev, Gefjun really.”

Bramble’s jaw dropped. “Gefyu- Gevgu-?”

“Gef-jun. It’s a simple name.”

Bramble blinked before replying, “I think I’d better call you Gef.”

All the while Sig stared at Tarri and another squirrelbabe called Chirp. “Woah! You guys look like a mix of a rat and a fox!”

Tarri was so appalled she couldn’t talk for a moment. “I do not!”

“Yeah, you do!”

“Do not!”

“Do too!”

“Do not!” Tarri jumped and tapped Sig on his ‘helmet’ to stress her point.

Sig jumped aside and in his turn tapped Chirp on her paw before zigzagging through the cave. “Tag you! Now you’ve got to catch me!” Chirp squealed with joy and sprinted after Sig, with the other little ones joining in, and soon all the cubs were chasing each other, woodlander and vermin alike. Skoggi giggled and toddled after them, though she couldn’t keep up with her older friends.

Very soon the cave became too small for the game, and all the little ones ran out to the tunnels – except for Njord, who was sulking at the entrance. Dewberry walked to the little foxkit. “Don’t you want to play with the others?”

Njord stuck his nose up in the air. “I don’t play with beasts like ye! Spikehogs killed my Dad!”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” replied Dewberry, absent-mindedly rubbing her spikes. “But you probably understand that it wasn’t us who did so. Don’t you think it’s unfair to judge beasts by their species? We didn’t reject Rolt’s help just because they are rats, even though we were enslaved by their kind.”

The foxkit frowned, obviously deep in thought. “B-but dat was my Dad! And dey killed him!”

The kind hogwife sighed. “Let me tell you a story, little one…”

She was interrupted as Tarri ran into Njord, knocking him down. “Tag you! Bet ye won’t catch me!” And the squirrelmaid dashed away.

Njord belatedly got to his footpaws. “Why, ye..! I’ll get ye for dat!” And he ran after the giggling Tarri with wild shouts.

“Shouldn’t we intervene?” murmured Thornbush who came to stand next to his wife. “I’m a bit worried for Tarri.”

“Don’t worry, mista’ Spikehog,” peeped Sig, who stopped to take a breath near the hedgehog couple. “Njord is a grump, but he never hurt anybeast.”

Tarri and Njord raced past them once more, only this time the roles were reversed and Tarri was the one chasing the foxkit.

They were going for a second circle over the tunnel outside the cave when a large stoat walked in from one of the side entrances. He jumped back as the bunch of cubs almost bumped into him. “Watch out, ye maggots! Or I’ll get ye!” He snapped his jaws with an audible clack.

The cubs squealed and fled to the farther tunnels, carrying the woodlander cubs along with them. “Dat’s Surt! He’ll eat us!”

Only two cubs stayed back: Bramble who dashed to hide behind his father and Skoggi who simply plopped down on her tail and cheeped. Right in the stoat’s path. The stoat took a step forward and raised his paw. “Ah, here ye are!”

Thornbush lunged, placing himself between the stoat and the babe. He didn’t stop to think who that beast was or what did he want, he knew only that this stoat was capable of hitting a cub. The big hedgehog snatched Skoggi in his paws and turned to face his adversary.

The stoat froze for a moment when Thornbush moved, but once he had Skoggi in his paws, the vermin snarled with rage as white-hot iron. “Give me back my daughter, spikehog!!”

“I won’t let you harm her!” Thornbush snarled back before his mind registered what he had just heard. “Wait – your daughter?”

Skoggi giggled and reached for the stoat. “Da! Da-da!”

Thornbush watched in amazement as the stoat – Surt, that’s how the cubs had called him, - carefully took Skoggi in his paws. Surt wasn’t a handsome beast, earless, scarred, with broken teeth, and he couldn’t look less than Skoggi, but now Thornbush could see that Skoggi’s dark brown coat was only a tone darker than Surt’s and that Skoggi’s soft features were just a rounder version of Surt’s sharp ones.

“Hello, little fuzz,” Surt growled softly, almost cooed, and twirled Skoggi round, holding the cub high over his head. Skoggi laughed and giggled: the shy cub afraid to speak with the other little ones was gone. After the last spin Surt put Skoggi back on the ground and ruffled her headfur. “Hey Skog, look what I have for you.” He took a tiny wreath weaved of dandelion and bindweed flowers out of his pocket and put in on Skoggi’s paw like a bracelet.

The little stoatbabe almost literally beamed with light. “Peety-peety! Wuv ee, dada!”

“Yes, it’s a pretty little thing, just like you, Skog. I love you too. Next time I go above I’ll bring you sweet berries! Now be a good cub and go play, will you?” Surt turned to Thornbush and Dewberry and motioned to them to move some distance away. His voice was grim but soft as he spoke. “We need to talk.”

Dewberry smiled and reached a paw to him. “Nice to meet you. Surt, is it? I’m Dewberry and this is my husband Thornbush. So, you’re Laufey’s husband?” However courteous she was, the hogwife couldn’t hide surprise at the last phrase.

Surt didn’t shake her paw. “How do you know Laufey, hog? Ah, I can guess. You’re those slaves that almost got her killed.”

“You will watch your tongue when you’re speaking with a lady, stoat,” Thornbush grumbled.

“I’d rather speak with the leader of your bunch. Where is he?”

Wavehound was sleeping in the cave with the other freed beasts, and not even the noise of playing cubs had woken him up. The otter certainly needed his rest, and Thornbush said, “Speak with me. What’s the matter?”

“I want you gone,” Surt said simply. “You and all the rest of the slaves. I don’t care where you will go, but you’ll get out of the tunnels right now.”

Dewberry was baffled. “What? Why?”

“So you come here uninvited, leave a trail for Bladegirt soldiers to follow, saddle us with your problems and then you’ve got cheek to argue when the host shows you at the door?”

“Rubbish!” Thornbush said. “It was your leader who invited us, and the ferret who came for us took care not to leave a trail. And never do we ask anybeast else to solve our problems for us!”

“If so why don’t you clear off these caves?” growled Surt, his voice threatening.

“Please wait! Tell me, did your leader, Stonebreaker, send you?” asked Dewberry. “Did he ask you to pass us this message?”

The stoat snorted. “No. This is my message, and it should worry you more than Stonebreaker’s.”

Thornbush bristled, but Dewberry held him back. “Please, Surt, listen to us. There are corsairs and slave-drivers looking for us on the surface. We have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. If we leave these tunnels, we’ll be killed. And not all of us can fight, there are the ill and the old and…”

“None of my problem. If you cannot protect yourselves – go and die. That’s the way of the world.”

“I’ve had enough of that!” Thornbush stepped forward with a look at his wife. “Now, let me talk, Dew.” He threw a much more livid glare at Surt. “No more nice talk. Now listen to me, you earless boor. Nobeast will send my family and my friends back into the slavery. Our freedom is the only thing we have now, and a wretch like you won’t take it. If you want us to leave this cave, you’ll have to fight us.”

Surt bared his broken teeth. He obviously liked the idea. “Fight? Don’t try to scare me away with a fight, hog. I live for the fight. I’ve beaten much scarier beasts than you. Once I’m finished with you, you’ll resemble a slug out of its shell.”

Thornbush threw back a retort he wanted to say for some time already. “By the look of your face you’re a bloody bad fighter, stoat.”

Surt just waved a paw at his muzzle. “This? If you want to insult me, think of something original. Or better leave before blood is spilled.”

The burly hog pointed at the tunnel behind his back that led to the main cave. “This tunnel is narrow enough that only two beasts can walk it in a row. So I advice you to leave, because you won’t force my friends out of this cave.”

Surt grinned again, showing his broken fang. “Really? Then you’d better think how long you can hold out without food and water. Once you think of it, I can get my paws on all the vittles you’re getting…”

Thornbush couldn’t take it any longer. He lunged for the stoat and grabbed him by his throat with one paw, catching his right wrist with another. “And once you think of it, I can screw your head off right now!”

Thornbush had heard Dewberry gasp and call out his name, but that didn’t matter as Surt twisted and bit his paw, savage joy in his eyes.

“Dada! Wook! Wook! Da!”

The two beasts jumped away from each other as if they had a bucket of cold water damped on them. They both turned to see little Skoggi next to the very enthusiastic Bramble. While their fathers bickered, two cubs started a play. Bramble took notice of Skoggi’s feather necklace and quickly impressed his new friend by recognizing them as magpie feathers and even drawing a sketch of a bird on the floor to explain what he was talking about. It was this drawing Skoggi pointed at now, jumping up and down as Surt turned to look at her.

Something changed in Surt’s face as he had looked at the cubs – was that surprise in his eyes or shock? He moved to the cubs, and Thornbush hurried to stand next to his son, ready to snatch him up in any moment. Surt was precisely a type of a beast who would lash out at a cub just to get at his father. But Surt just squatted near both cubs and reached out a paw tentatively, tracing the lines on the ground. “That’s a nice drawing, little one. Did somebeast teach you to draw?”

Bramble brightened up at the praise, though he was a bit uncomfortable with receiving it from a mean-looking stoat. “Er, no. Back in the Barn, other vermin said I was too young to work, so they usually locked me and the other little ones in the Barn during the day. There was nothing to do, so I usually draw to pass the time.”

“You’ve become quite a master,” said Surt with a smile. Thornbush was astonished to see that it had been a real smile, not a leer or a smirk – the stoat was careful not to bare his broken fang at the cubs. “You would probably like to see the Hall of Memory - its walls are all covered with pictures carved into stone. Ask Ull. He is a gadabout, but he knows his work.”

Bramble looked up at Thornbush. “Can I, Dad?”

Still a little stiff, the sturdy hedgehog nodded. “But only if an adult beast goes with you.”

Meanwhile, Surt got back to his paws and motioned for Thornbush to step aside. When the hedgehog followed, Surt asked softly, “Your son?”

Thornbush felt his paws curling into fists involuntary. “If you as much as think about harming him…”

“How many others there are?”

“What?”

Surt hissed, but his voice was still quiet – he probably hadn’t wanted to scare the cubs who began a new game. “The cubs. How many of these little pesky gad-flies there are with you?”

“Eight if you count Bramble.” It was Dewberry who had said it – none of the males had heard her approach.

“Eight? Are you bloody mad? You get into this mess up to your neck, and you bring cubs with you?”

Dewberry met his gaze steadily. “Do you think I’m happy about the fact that my son is in danger? Or the other cubs for that matter?”

Again, Surt hissed quietly. “You did it on purpose! You brought these pests here just to irk me!”

Thornbush frowned. “How does it change anything if you’re still hoping to force us out?”

Surt glared back at him. “Who do you think I am to throw cubs out to be killed? I’m a family beast!” He folded his paws across his chest and snarled again. “Well, it was you who stirred up this whole lot of trouble, and I’m not helping you to get out of it. Your turn to rack your nonexistent brains over it! By the time I get back at you tomorrow, you’d better have a plan, or I’ll slit your throats while you sleep and let the rat nannies take care of the little pests!”

With that Surt turned his back on the hedgehogs and marched away. Skoggi waved a tiny paw at him, and the stoat scooped her up and put her on his shoulders. The stoatbabe gripped the fur on his neck and began to chirp something in his ear – or rather, at the place where his ear used to be. Surt nodded to her, and so father and daughter left this part of the tunnel.

Thornbush stared at them for some time. When he spoke, it wasn’t what he had wanted to say. “I’d never know why Laufey married him.”

Dewberry smiled, but her voice was uncertain. “Well, he is not a bad beast. I mean, not that bad.”

Her husband was still skeptical. “Bad or not, but we do have a problem – with Bladegirt vermin if not with the local ones. I’d better go and talk it over with Wavehound.”

Chapter 30

Simon carefully opened the door to the armoury, or rather the storeroom where the various weapons were kept. The young otter paced before rows of weaponry piled at one wall. A sword would’ve been an obvious choice, but it wasn’t easy enough to conceal. Sling and javelins were traditional otter weapons, but Simon was more adept with the blades. He picked up narrow three-edged dagger, its blade as long as Simon’s paw from clawtips till elbow. Simon recalled it being a trophy taken from a minor vermin gang. Skipper Rumbol had said it was called ‘misericorde’ or ‘dagger of mercy’ because vermin used it to finish off wounded. Vermin idea of mercy, indeed.

The dagger felt comfortable in Simon’s paw. He made several trial thrusts in the air. Yes, that would do. Misericorde couldn’t be used to make slashing and cutting blows, but it was ideal for thrusts.

Now it was time to go. Simon left the mess hall when the supper had already ended, but the evening tea hadn’t been served yet. There were several other beasts who preferred not to stay for the tea, so Simon’s behavior wouldn’t seem suspicious in the least. Of course, it wasn’t like it was forbidden to go there. He just wanted to avoid questions that would arise if he met somebeast, questions like…

“Simon, what are you doing in the armoury?”

The otter flinched and turned round. It was Olva, who entered the room and walked to him. Simon had already had a reply prepared. “Just choosing a weapon for myself. There sure will be battles and I don’t want to go there unarmed.”

“Why don’t you simply take your own sword?” asked Olva, referring to the sword Simon used in his training sessions with Triss.

Because it will be too hard to hide, thought Simon. Aloud, he said, “Well, I decided to try a dagger just for a change.”

Olva fastened the gaze of her grey eyes on Simon. “Okay Sim, what are you up to?”

“Nothing,” Simon protested. He didn’t want to lie to Olva, but entangling her in all this was something he wanted even less.

Olva smiled and chuckled quietly. “Who are you trying to trick, Simon? We’ve known each other since we both were tiny otterbabes. I saw that ‘die but do’ expression on your face all throughout the supper.”

That remark brought a smile on Simon’s face too. “Shouldn’t it be ‘do or die’ instead of ‘die but do’?”

“For you it’s always ‘die but do’, because for you even death is not a good reason to give up. And do not change the subject.” The ottermaid frowned. “You are not still blaming yourself for the loss of the Sword of Martin, are you? I hope you are not going to do something stupid like challenge that Deathtrap weasel to a duel or go retrieve the sword…” Simon’s emotions had probably clearly showed on his face, because Olva stumbled mid-sentence, her eyes widening. “Salt Seasons, Simon! You’re really going to do that – to return Martin’s Sword!”

“Look, it’s not about me anymore!” Simon said, agitated. “I’m doing it not because I blame myself or anything like that; I’m doing it because it has to be done. The sword belongs in the Abbey, especially at such uneasy times.”

“There were seasons when the sword had been away from Redwall,” Olva reminded him. “Like when Martin hid it or when different warriors left for their quests and took it away with them.”

“Our current Redwall Warrior is wounded and can’t stand by herself. The beasts need something to unite them.”

After a pause, Olva nodded. “I understand now. That’s the right thing to do. Pass me that pebble poach, will you?”

Simon blew out a happy sigh. “Thank you for understanding.” He absent-mindedly picked up a poach filled with stones and only then did he realize what Olva’s latest remark meant. “Wait, you can’t go with me. It’s too dangerous!”

“I know it’s dangerous; that’s why I come. Four eyes are always better than two. I’ll watch your back, and you’ll be watching mine.”

“No, Olva! I…” The otter dropped his dark brown eyes. “It’s not like I don’t trust you or think you’ll fail me. I just don’t want you to get hurt. And…” his voice was almost whisper now. “And if I go into Bloodwrath, I’d rather there were no friends that could get hurt.”

If you go into Bloodwrath, I’d rather be there to bring you back to your senses,” Olva parried. “You’re my friend, Sim, and I don’t want you to get hurt just as much as you do. That’s why I’m going with you.”

Simon squeezed her paw affectionately. “Thanks, Olva. I… Just thanks.” He realized he was still clutching the pebble poach in one of his paws. “Are you going to take any other weapons aside from the sling?”

“Well, I could’ve taken a couple of javelins, but I won’t be able to hide them if we’re sneaking away.”

“Hey chaps, you can hide them alright if you put them under a rain cape.”

Now both Simon and Olva yelped with surprise. None of them noticed a creature coming to stand in a doorway. “Who are you?” Olva grumbled.

Simon, however, recognized the newcomer. “Olva, that’s Moska Waterdog, her family travels with Waterhogs. Moska, this is Olva of Redwall Abbey.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Olva, and Moska echoed, “Nice to meet you.”

Once the greetings were done with, Olva frowned again. “Why were you eavesdropping on us?”

“I wasn’t, chaps,” Moska said cheerfully. “I was just walking down that corridor, the door was open and you two talked really loud.”

“I should have closed the door,” Olva muttered.

“As I said, Waterhogs use really wide rain capes,” Moska went on. “You can hide a whole arsenal under them. I can get us three.”

“Umm, thanks, that would be a great help,” Simon said carefully, not quite sure how to take this sudden intrusion. “Wait – did you say ‘three’?”

Moska grinned brashly. “Well, mateys, I don’t see what you can do to stop me from following you, unless you plan to tie me up and lock somewhere.”

Simon covered his eyes with a paw. “No point in arguing, then. I guess we’d better leave before my Dad hadn’t shown up with whole ottercrew.”

Waterhog rain capes turned out to be wider than Simon expected. He surmised that they were sewn in a way to stretch over hedgehogs’ spikes like small tents. Olva strapped two javelins to her back, and Moska took a whole bundle of light throwing lances. Simon added a short dagger to his misericorde and decided it was enough.

Seeing Moska’s enthusiasm in picking her weapons, Simon felt obliged to say, “We’re not going to get into fights. If everything goes smoothly, we’ll sneak out and return with the sword without anybeast noticing.”

“I get it,” said Moska with some longing. “As much as I want to show this scum how a Waterdog fights, I’ll stay low if needs be.”

“About that ‘sneaking out’ part – do you have any plan how to get past vermin sentries, Sim?”

Simon absent-mindedly patted Deyna’s sun locket – a habit he recently acquired. “Yes, I do.”

When the three otters left the main building of the Abbey, the sun hadn’t set yet, though dusk was falling slowly. There always were beasts spending their time on Redwall lawns and in the orchards no matter the hour, but today a particular group of beasts was catching an observer’s attention.

Ruggum’s molecrew was pitching a big tent in the corner between southern and eastern walls, putting it so close to the wall that the tent’s flaps touched the red stones. Foremole Ruggum supervised the work together with Abbess Bikkle and Chieftain Hart Oakspike.

“I regret deeply that thou and thy crew had to yield thy dwelling on account of my tribe, good Foremole.”

“Buhurr, dun’t yu wurry, we molers loike to be close to the eurth.”

“I still thank thee greatly for thy kindness, goodbeasts.”

“Oh, don’t overdramatize it, Hart. Redwallers sometimes sleep outside when the weather is as good as it is now, so it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

Simon looked up, turning his head slightly. There it was – a small gull on one of the windowsills, cocking his head in the interest. So, they actually found a good cover for the tunnel works that are about to get started, thought Simon.

“What they’re talking about?” muttered Moska. “I saw some empty rooms in…”

Simon clasped a paw on her shoulder. It looked as a friendly gesture from the distance, but in fact Simon squeezed the ottermaid’s shoulder hard. “Shh,” he hushed before Moska could object to such treatment. “Just don’t say anything, please. I’ll explain it once we’re away from here.” He cast another look at the gull, but it seemed to be paying them no attention.

The otters made the rest of their way in silence. Simon led the maids up to the battlements of the eastern wall. Sentry hares greeted them friendly, and the otters nodded them back, as if they just came up for a walk.

Near the north-east battlements Hopse hailed them with a cry. “Here ye go, jolly chaps! I thought you won’t come till sunset, wot wot! Hey Olva, hey Moska, you there too, sah?”

Simon winced at his loud voice. “Yeah, that’s us. Just not so loud, Hopse, don’t attract attention.”

“Attract attention? Me? Hey chap, I don’t attract rippin’ attention, wot; I’d attract attention if I’m not loud. Just you see, riverdog, I stay silent for two minutes and ol’ Captain Longstep gallops here thinking I got a heart attack or somesuch, wot wot! Sah, there you’re.” The young hare pointed to the rope tied round one of the battlements. “Now you duck down and wait; jolly Hopse gonna take care of bloody vermin.”

Hopse bounded off some distance away and jumped atop a merlon. “Heyaa!” he shouted so loud that Olva and Simon had to cover their ears. “Common, you stinky stoats, filthy ferrets, raggedy rats an’ wallopin’ weasels! Show your dirty snouts, I know you’re in there, wot! Yer rotten hides reek so much even a noseless frog can choke t’death!” Only silence was his answer. This, and Longstep calling for him to get down from the opposite wall. Hopse ignored the Captain and went on ranting. “Oh, I see ye bumptious foulfurred vermin have muck tucked in yer ears and can’t hear me, or maybe ye’re too busy chewing carrion to answer me? Or ye craven-pelted beetle-brained laggards are too afraid of me?”

A lone arrow shot out of one of the treetops opposite the eastern wall. Hopse jumped to another merlon with ease. “Ha, ye hear me, ye lopsided lard-bellied maggots! Now listen: ye’re a bunch of feckless widebottomed rot-hearted curs! Slop-eating toadfaced slime-tongued bootlickers! Bald-tailed crooknosed foozle-pawed dastards!”

The instructions received by vermin sentries were forgotten now; they all were flinging stones and javelins at the presumptuous hare. Some of them were so enraged that they started shouting insults back. “Loppy-legged lug-eared rabbit! Rot-boned grasshopper!” Hopse wouldn’t stop countering each of their insults with three of his own even as he hopped and jumped from side to side to dodge stones and arrows.

“It’s time,” commanded Simon. “I go first, then Olva, and Moska will cover us up. Okay, Moska?”

“Misbegotten slackgutted entrail-eatin' invertebrates,” the Waterdog maid murmured in awe. “I should remember that one.”

One by one, the otters slid down the rope and darted for the forest, keeping away from where the vermin sentries were placed. The latter were too busy squabbling with the hare to pay attention to them; besides, the runaways’ green-blue rain capes didn’t stand out against the underbrush. Unnoticed, three beasts disappeared in the forest. Or so they thought.

“Dismiss!”

Vermin sentries almost literally froze when they had realized their superior officer was standing on the tree platform behind them. Tamant Silentblade cast his piercing stare over each sentry in turn. “Explain this breach of discipline.”

One of the soldiers pointed a paw at the Abbey wall, where an older hare was busy clenching his younger subordinate by ear and scolding him. “Uhm, Captain, that rabbit, he, uhm, was unbearable, and, uhm…”

“And you kindly showed him the disposition of our sentry posts and gifted him with a quiverful of arrows, which they would use on you in the next battle?” As Tamant spoke, he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning round, the rat scanned the woodland scenery till he spotted three shadows in a place they didn’t belong to. “And you failed in your watch and allowed enemy scouts to escape.”

Happy to oblige, vermin grabbed their bows. “We’ll fix it, Captain, yeah, fix it...”

“Dismiss. Return to your guard duty. Your rations are reduced to a half and you take on additional detailing for guard for three nights. Greedybeak.” Grey-hooded jackdaw cawed in the branches overhead, not bothering to get down. Greedybeak was a leader of a small jackdaw flock Deathtrap employed to spy over the Abbey, and the bird imagined himself equal to the Lord and his Captain. Tamant decided not to dissuade him for some time. “Greedybeak, follow these beasts. And send one of your birds to report to the Lord. He would be interested to know where they are going.”

The sun was halfway through sinking below the horizon and sending its farewell light into the sky, turning it from dark-blue to pink and purple. The light filtered through the green foliage, turning water of Bluestream into a likening of a stained glass and sending glares on the fur of the otters. Once Redwallers reached the place where Rumbol’s little group had been attacked, they set to work at once. Moska stood on guard on the stream’s bank, a lance in her paw while Simon and Olva were searching the stream’s bottom, starting at the same point but moving in opposite directions: Simon going upstream and Olva downstream.

From the thicket of bushes watchful eyes were following their every move. Zorra the vixen ordered the vermin waiting at her side, “You and you, take one more beasts each and move some way up and down the stream. The rest of you, get your bows ready and wait till the riverdogs are out of water.” A score of beasts, all skilled archers, nodded as one.

“And what once they get out of water? Then we charge them?”

Zorra scowled. From the very beginning, she didn’t like the idea of taking Lord’s son with her. But Nabon insisted and Darm agreed that he needed to see real action, so there he was, asking stupid questions. “Then we open fire and kill the Bloodwrathed one with arrows. If we can, we take the other two prisoner, and it we can’t, we kill them as well. Pretty simple, isn’t it?”

Nabon nodded, then added thoughtfully, “And what will I have to do?”

“Just stay by my side and watch,” said Zorra.

The young weasel was disappointed. “And that’s all? How am I supposed to learn anything if I’m allowed to do nothing? I have to take part in the battle!”

“If everything goes right, it will be killing and no battle. So you stay there,” Zorra put more emphasis on the last phrase. The vixen shifted her attention to the stream and saw that the otters had returned to their starting point in the middle of the stream. She could hear them talking from where she stood.

Simon and Olva

Simon and Olva by SaynaSLuke

“Are you sure there’s nothing in your part of the stream, Olva?”

“Nothing but shingle and snags and duckweed and all the other things one finds at the bottom of the stream. Sorry, Simon.”

“Hey, may be you chaps should dug deeper under the silt, ye know? With the current like this, the sand can drift up any sword in a whole day.”

“Good idea, Moska, though we’d better wait for the silt to sink down. It’s too murky to dive right now.”

Zorra watched as the otters climbed the bank one by one, the male lending his paw to the slim female. ‘Get ready,” she whispered to her crew, moving away from the firing line. “Aim.” The vixen was about to say “Fire” when she was interrupted.

Nabon drew his light saber and charged the otters headlong. “Diiie from the paw of Nabon Deeeathtrap, dogs!”

“Curse that fool!” yelled Zorra, not realizing she had said that aloud. “Fire! Fire! Kill these otters now!” Not all of the archers shot their arrows for the fear of catching Nabon, who involuntary placed himself between the archers and their targets. Those who did shoot had had to angle their shots in wider arcs than they had prepared for, what immediately affected their accuracy.

Simon and the ottermaids had heard Nabon’s challenge but had no time to react before arrows started to rain round them. Most of the missiles fell too far away, but Moska had to duck to avoid one taking her ear off, and Olva grabbed Simon by his paw and jerked him out of an arrow’s path just as another shaft pierced her hindpaw right above knee. The ottermaid cried out in pain as she collapsed, and Simon’s one-minute shock boiled down into rage. One of his friends was hurt. His friend was hurt.

“Redwaaall!” Misericorde in his paw and fire in his eyes, Simon lunged at vermin that had stopped hiding and stepped into the open. Nabon took a fighting stance, but the otter rushed by, shouldering him out of the way with enough force to knock him flat on his back. Red haze clouded Simon’s vision, and he could see only enemies – but due to some trick of mind, he didn’t register Nabon as a threat. The weasel carried a saber and Olva was wounded by the arrow: the archers had been the enemy.

When he fell upon Zorra’s group, vermin hadn’t managed to notch their arrows again in time and had to fall back as they grabbed for their swords. Simon fought like a madbeast, stabbing with misericorde in his right paw and beating at the vermin with a broken bow he tore out of one of the archers in his left paw.

Moska hauled Olva down the stream’s bank where the wounded otter was hidden by the slight eminence. “You stay here, an’ I gonna give this scum a sound thrashing!”

Olva raised herself on the elbow with effort. “Go, hurry, I – no! Simon!”

Zorra jumped aside after her soldiers had revealed themselves, and now she closed in on Simon’s unprotected back, ready to pierce him with her lance.

Moska ran for them, lifting her own lance for a throw, and Olva put a stone into her sling and began to twirl it in haste. With despair, Olva realized neither of them could make it in time to save Simon. Still, she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Siii-mooon!!”

Somehow, through the rush of blood that filled his ears every time the Bloodwrath overcome him, he had heard. Simon pivoted to his right, turning round to look at them, and that movement threw him out of the way of Zorra’s lance. Its point stabbed the air beside the otter, but Simon couldn’t finish his motion right, and he fell flat on his back.

Then both Moska and Olva hurled their missiles. Olva’s stone crushed into Zorra’s shoulder-blade; the vixen’s whole paw went numb, her claws lost their grip on the weapon. Moska’s lance pierced a rat that stood closest to his Captain. Zorra turned her tail and ran.

“Catch the fox!” Simon shouted, getting to his footpaws. The Bloodwrath was knocked out of him, but the fire of battle still burned in his blood. Moska caught up with him, and together they dashed in pursuit. “Reedwaall! Waterdooog!”

Zorra didn’t run too far, but she bobbed and weaved, making sharp turns and forever staying out of otters’ reach.

“Stand and fight, coward!” Moska spat.

The vixen paused to give her a sharp look. “You really think so?”

Simon felt a cold shiver run down his spine. It was a feeling of the eyes on his back, the feeling of a sharp blade almost toughing his neck. He turned round, and everything was clear at once. Zorra was buying her crew time. Enough time for the archers to notch their arrows. The feeling of shame drowned him. You fool, even without Bloodwrath you couldn’t see the real threat!

The vermin were about to shoot their arrows when Nabon’s voice broke the eerie silence. “Stop! Stop! Don’t shoot!”

While Simon and Moska chased the fox, Nabon recovered his footing and went straight for Olva. Like his father, he knew the value of a hostage. And so did Olva. When the young weasel slipped down the bank, Olva swung her loaded sling twice. The first blow knocked a saber out of Nabon’s paw, the second half-stunned him.

Olva’s right hindpaw was slick with blood, the broken arrow still protruding from it, but the ottermaid forced herself to get up and pressed Nabon’s own saber to his throat. “Tell the archers to stop, or I’ll kill you!” And so Darm Deathtrap’s son complied, and Olva stressed the point further. “If any of you vermin as much as raise a paw, I’ll cut his throat!”

The archers froze as they stood, neither shooting nor taking the arrows off. Their Captain was Zorra, not Nabon, and right now the vixen clicked her tongue at the ottermaid. “What makes you think I care if this idiot lives?”

Olva’s wounded leg felt like it could buckle any second, and she changed her stance. “Oh, but this idiot was kind enough to introduce himself. Nabon Deathtrap. Tell your vermin to lower the bows or you’d better start thinking how you’re going to explain to your boss why you let his son die.”

“Lower your weapons,” Zorra ordered reluctantly.

Simon took control over the situation. “Throw them on the ground and kick away from you. And that applies to all weapons, not only bows. Quivers, swords, daggers – everything! Come on, I’m not going to wait forever!”

The vermin had no choice but obey. Simon could see that Olva was severely wounded, so he hurried to gather the vermin’s weapons and throw them into the stream. Meanwhile Moska picked up a lance and put it to Zorra’s throat. “I should’ve killed you now and there, fox, but I, unlike you, do not murder defenseless!”

Zorra met the threat with a smile. “You’re a fine warrior. Why waste your time in Redwall?” She turned to Simon, who was quite surprised by that response. “And you too, riverdog. You’ve got blood rage; a madbeast like you is priceless. If you join Lord Deathtrap, you will be receiving the prime share of loot, second only to Lord himself and some high officers. So, what will you say?”

Simon’s eyes were almost out of their eye-sockets. “You can’t seriously think…” He stopped. This vixen was too smart to actually think he could agree. And that could only mean that this was another of her tricks. She was trying to draw his attention right to her instead of… Simon turned round. “Olva! Behind you!”

Four beasts sent to secure the banks earlier crept up on the ottermaid, and one of them raised his saber to strike just as Simon had shouted his warning. Olva let go of Nabon and dropped to all fours – an easy move, considering that her legs were trying to give way for quite a time.

Simon reached the new enemies in two leaps, roaring all the way, his eyes clouding over with red haze. He had his misericorde in paw while the four vermin were armed with swords and spears. But Simon had Bloodwrath on his side. He stabbed and slashed, at one point even sinking his teeth in his foe’s flesh, and then whirled round and round, ready to meet another enemy. Finally, he stopped, his vision clearing. The same moment a terrible thought took over his mind. “Olva!!”

“I’m here, I’m all right.” Olva was standing to the side, leaning heavily on Moska’s paw. She must have rolled away from under Simon’s footpaws before the fight had broken out.

Nabon was nearby as well, hiding behind the backs of the now unarmed archers next to Zorra. “Attack!” shouted Zorra, prodding the vermin in their backs. “Kill the otter!”

Several vermin took some steps forward, visibly reluctant. “But he’s a madbeast,” one said.

“And our weapons are on the stream’s bottom,” reminded another.

“You outnumber him twenty to one, idiots! You can just crush him by numbers!” Zorra was wailing now, pushing and kicking her subordinates. “If you don’t attack this instant, I’ll have you executed for mutiny!”

Simon took a step forward, his paw unconsciously straying to touch Deyna’s sun locket, as he always did when trying to retain his composure. “If you mangy lot just move a paw…”

He didn’t have to finish the phrase. The whole group of vermin backed away, and Zorra couldn’t withstand a collective push of a score of bodies. The vixen misstepped and fell into the stream, backwards. She tried to rise, splashing, but her footpaws found no purchase in the slippery silt.

“Officer’s down!” Cried somebeast from the crowd, and several beasts jumped into the stream to help her. Several complaisant pairs of paws started to help Zorra get up while one beast, obscured by his fellow crewbeasts, grabbed the vixen’s shoulders and pushed her further into the water till her head hit a stone. The beast immediately pulled already unconscious Zorra out of the stream. “Officer’s wounded! Officer’s wounded!”

The entire group was crowding at the stream now, with Nabon trying in vain to give commands. “But the otters! You have to get the otters!”

A rat looked at him, not even hiding his triumph. “You’re not our Captain, and our assigned Captain is unable to give us orders right now! That means we should stay with Captain Zorra till she comes to her senses!”

“B-but…” Nabon stuttered before giving up: the otters had already been gone.

Simon could hardly remember the way back to Redwall. He and Moska ran as fast as they could, helping Olva to hold on between the two of them. At first, Olva was walking on her own before she started to stumble more and more often. About halfway to the Abbey the ottermaid had lost consciousness and then Simon and Moska had to drag her bodily, leaving a dark trail of blood behind them. All Simon could remember was his horror at seeing that trail each time he turned back, the blood almost black on Olva’s light grey fur.

He had only come to his senses when Moska pulled him to an abrupt halt and said, “How are we goin’ to pass vermin sentries?”

Simon hadn’t realized they were already so close to Redwall, yet he could see black forms of vermin tree platforms even in the dark of the night. Previously he had planned to distract the sentries so that he and his friends could get to the Abbey walls, but with Olva’s wound Simon feared he had no time for that. And so he said, “We run.”

And run they did, sprinting from the cover of the foliage as fast as their already tired limbs could carry them. Simon heard a cry from one of the platforms, but no shots with arrows or stones followed. A moment of cold fear was followed by a moment of confusion and then by a moment of surmise: the vermin had probably thought them to be one of their own, not able to see them clearly in the night.

The next thought wasn’t so hopeful. What if Redwall sentries will think the same? It will be really awkward to be shot by our own fellow Abbeydwellers. And so Simon shouted into the silent night, “Reeedwaaaall!”

Moska joined in the cry, and they were answered by a reply cry from the walltops. There was shouting from the forest as well – the vermin finally realized something was wrong. Arrows zipped overhead: Redwallers covering their run, or maybe vermin trying to get them, Simon didn’t look up.

They ran. The small door in the eastern wall had opened when they were paces away. Simon and Moska burst into like a storm and collapsed on the ground, completely winded. Gasping for breath, Simon heard the door slammed shut behind them. Simon’s heart was hammering in his chest and his head was dizzy from the run, but the fear, his constant companion in that run, was worse. The otter turned his head, pressing his cheek against the wet grass. Moska lay facedown next to him; noticing his gaze, she waved a weak paw. “I’m okay.”

Simon reached out and squeezed Olva’s slack paw. The ottermaid was still unconscious, and her paw was disturbingly cold, but Simon could feel the pulse throbbing. She was alive. She was alive.

“We made it,” he whispered. “The worst is already over.”

“Ahem.” Simon raised his head to see his father, Grawn and Abbess Bikkle standing over them. “Are you really sure about that, young beast?”

Chapter 31

The morning sun gazed down over Fort Bladegirt on Terramort Isle, the great yard of the fortress empty. It indeed was an unusual sight – no soldiers guarding the walls, no slave-drivers discussing their business near the slave’s Barn, no guards and Captains lounging about. The only evidence of life among the cold stones was several torn bodies scattered across the yard – and the great golden eagle perched on the Fort’s rooftop.

The great eagle was covered with dried blood. The one tarnishing his feathers had flown from his wounds, but the one staining his beak and talons belonged to his enemies. The day before the deadly raptor caught and killed the foul seagull that had led vermin to his nest – and then he turned his gaze to the great Fort. Nobeast had seen him coming. He dropped from the sky as the golden lightning, killing and maiming till the vermin ran from him as cowards. Cowering in the safety of the great stone building and the smaller barracks, they tried shooting arrows at him, but even with his crippled wing he avoided them easily. The vermin stopped their futile attacks with the nightfall, but the eagle knew that they couldn’t stay inside forever. Sooner or later they would come out. And so he was waiting.

A flicker of movement caught his eye. A helmet poked out of one of the windows of stone fortress, and the eagle spread his wings, preparing to dive at the unfortunate vermin. But wait – that was no vermin! That was an empty helmet mounted on a spearhaft and poked out! The golden eagle ruffled his feathers, his beak curving slightly. Had these vermin really thought he could be fooled by such an old trick? He waited and waited some more – till the helmet was pulled inside and a rat’s head poked out instead. “All’s clear!” he cried out.

Those were the rat’s last words, for the eagle swooped down, the force of his strike breaking the rat’s neck even before the raptor’s talons snatched the vermin and threw the body to the cobbles below. Before anybeast could try and shoot him, the eagle soared upwards and landed on the roofs once more, well out of reach of any arrows or spears. Soon, more vermin would come out. And he was ready.

Drooptail was nervous. First, all of the slaves somehow escaped, and now this – giant birds attacking them. That wasn’t supposed to happen at the peak of his career, just as he was appointed Fort Commander! Drooptail and the other Terramort Captains were in Bladegirt’s great hall right now, gathered to discuss their most urgent problem. “Well, now we know that the bird is still there,” he said.

Next to him Viro Strongclaw snorted not subtly. “You could’ve found it out without a good beast dying.”

The stoat threw him a hateful glare. He had no doubt that the cat Captain was enjoying seeing his old rival in such a tight spot. Drooptail lashed out at Viro, not holding back his anger. “If I remember correctly, Captain, it was you that suggested this genius plan – just wait till the morning and see if the bird is gone!”

Viro shrugged, calm as ever. “The bird was covered in blood and bad wounded when it came at us. There was a chance it would die of its wounds. But if you’re not pleased with my ideas, it’s quite a time to listen to yours… Commander.”

Drooptail looked at the other two high-ranked beasts with hope, though he knew he wouldn’t get help there. Captain Houk was the Slavemaster, used to whipping the obedience into the slaves’ heads, not fighting of threats. Marduk was the plotter and the spy, not the fighter. So it was up to him, and as the Fort Commander, he chose the best tactic – blaming his charges. Drooptail looked out of the window and spat out his next words. “It’s me who should’ve asked why the bird is still alive. We’ve got soldiers there and in the barracks. We’ve got bows. All the territory of the yard lies under crossfire between these two points. So, Viro, why is the bird not dead yet?”

Now Viro’s voice was outright mocking. “Because this bird knows it too, and it’s smart enough to keep to the areas which cannot be shot through without the archers exposing themselves. It’s one smart bird, Drooptail… smarter than some.”

After a moment’s consideration, Drooptail let it slide. “Then all we need is bait.”

“What?!” The cat’s amber eyes glowed with rage, and he grabbed Drooptail by the shoulder, snarling. “I won’t let you use my soldiers as bait! Not ever!”

Drooptail freed himself with a jerk of the shoulder, his paw on the hilt of his sword. “Do you refuse to obey me, cat? That’s a mutiny! A mutiny against me, as the Fort Commander and the Lord of Terramort! Did you hear that, Marduk? That was mutiny!”

The dark-furred rat nodded. “I heard it. Did you just call yourself Lort of Terramort, Drooptail?”

The stoat felt his anger disappearing, replaced with uncomfortable fear. “Uhm, no, I…” He found his breath and tried again. “As the Fort Commander, I represent Lord Deathtrap, who is the true ruler of Terramort and Lord of the Seas, that’s what I meant. Disobeying me means disobeying him. Is that right, Marduk?”

Marduk chose not to answer. “The bird is our problem, not your petty squabbles.”

“Of course.” Of course you would say that, slimy-tongued spy; you don’t have to deal with that predator on your own, you just give smart remarks. But something had to be done.

Drooptail turned and walked to where the rest of their troops waited - soldiers, slave-drivers and guards alike who sheltered in the Fort the day before. “Aye, good beasts!” he called. “You all know we lost some honest vermin to that butcher bird yesterday.” How did Viro could do it? When the cat spoke to his soldiers, he sounded calm and controlled. Drooptail just felt incredibly stupid. Deep in his gut, he knew he wasn’t popular with the simple vermin – and the current situation didn’t add to his reputation at all. “And our biggest loss is our good guard commander.” The sadness in Drooptail’s voice was real. The rat that stood in the head of the Ford guards, the elite of vermin soldiers, wasn’t his best friend, but the two shared a strong dislike of Viro Strongclaw, and his death in the eagle’s talons cost Drooptail a good ally. “And that means I’ve got to appoint a new guard commander!” He smiled to the enthusiastic murmurs rising from the crowd before announcing, “By my word as Fort Commander, the beast that kills the eagle will lead the Fort guards from this day on!”

The response he got varied from eager to wary to scared. “A guard commander? That’s deal fer me!”

“Huh, are you ready to become a bird breakfast? Cause I’m not!”

“Cause ye’re a coward! I’ll kill that bird!”

“Are you kidding us? Thanks, I’d rather stay alive.”

“Hey, Commander, an’ wot if a group of beasts kills dat birds? Will all of us become commanders?”

“In this case,” said Drooptail loudly, “I’ll make commander the one who does the most damage.” He cast a glance at Viro. Drooptail expected the grey cat to protest, but Strongclaw didn’t even look at him. He stood by the window, careful not to be seen from the outside.

“Wait, what? There is a beast by the gates. Yes, that’s one of my soldiers!” Viro cried out suddenly. At first Drooptail couldn’t see anybeast, but then he realized that a dirty heap of rags at the Fort’s main gates indeed was a living creature. “That’s the one of Bigger’s patrol,” said Viro. “That’s the only group not returned yet… Yes, that’s Knifenut!”

Yes, that undeniably was Knifenut. The weasel had spent the better part of the previous day laying low as his strength was slowly returning to him. Knifenut set off toward Bladegirt once he felt he could stand up on his paws… or at least crawl on all fours. Getting there took the rest of the day and the night. Another beast would have stayed in the hills longer or gave up on their way, but not Knifenut. He was a soldier. He had to be in Bladegirt. And so he was going to Bladegirt.

The only thing that bothered the weasel was that he couldn’t see out of his right eye. Knifenut took off Seabird’s bandage and pawed at his eye to clean it of the blood and earth, but his vision was all black nonetheless. Only after his wounds began to bleed again did he realize his right eye was gone, clawed out by the eagle’s raking blow, the same blow that had torn off half of his right ear and left deep wounds running from his right cheek to across his nose. Once that fact had been established, Knifenut continued on his way to Bladegirt: simple as he was, the weasel didn’t get upset over something that wasn’t there.

Knifenut was so relieved to get back to the Fort that he didn’t wonder why its great gate was opened – or why there wasn’t a living soul in the main courtyard. The tall weasel rested against the gate’s wing for a couple of moments, then walked in slowly, oblivious to the danger circling overhead… literally.

The eagle had seen Knifenut, even if the weasel hadn’t seen the eagle. At first the great bird was puzzled – why was this earthcrawler striding so boldly into the place where others of his kind had died? Was it some kind of trap? But the weasel looked half dead himself, and after circling over him a couple of time, the eagle folded his wings and dived at him, talons outstretched.

Knifenut made several more trudging steps and tripped over the body of one of the guards, falling atop it. “Loafer,” he grumbled at the body. The dead rat held a long pike, and Knifenut grabbed it and braced its shaft against the ground firmly, then attempted to rise, leaning on it as on the crutch.

The eagle had seen the pike being thrust upwards, and he beat his wings madly, trying to come up from the dive or at least avert his drop. But he was too old, too tired from blood loss, his wounded wing too stiff. His frantic flapping slowed him down, but not enough. Instead of snatching the weasel with his talons, the eagle dropped on Knifenut, and the force of his dive drove the pike into the bird’s chest so that its blade protruded from the eagle’s back.

Knifenut screamed as the eagle’s talons raked his back in the bird’s death-agony. The weasel got hold on one of his daggers and stabbed blindly upwards, burying the blade in feathers, but the great golden eagle was already dead.

The weasel tried to crawl from beneath the heavy body of the fallen giant, but the eagle’s talons caught in his flesh, and left deep wounds in Knifenut’s back when he finally jerked himself free. He was very dizzy from the attack coupled with his previous wounds, but he saw beasts running toward him, Commander Drooptail and Captain Viro among them. However, they weren’t the first to get to him.

“Knifenut! Blood’an’thunder, Nut, how are you?”

“Aaaee, no, no! He’s dead, Brok! The bird’ve killed him! Tore him to pieces!”

“Calm down, Sleek, can’t you see the bird is the one dead? And stop that noise, matey!”

Knifenut wiped blood off his only eye, and the blurry images before him took shape: Broknose, a dark brown stoat with slightly crooked bridge of his nose, and his constant shadow called Sleekfur, a thin fidgeting weasel with dirty yellow fur. Broknose took Knifenut by the shoulders firmly. “Nut, I’m so glad you’re alive! Bloody blades, that bird had almost shred you! You need a healer!”

Viro Strongclaw skidded to a halt next to them and shouldered Broknose away, clasping Knifenut’s shoulders like the stoat just did. “I’ve sent Jah for Matasa,” he said, meaning Bladegirt’s healer. “Sit down till he arrives. You did a good job there, worthy of a soldier from my crew. But where’s the rest of your patrol?”

Knifenut had to turn his head to the side to see his Captain properly, the vision in his only left eye blurry. “Dead. Bigger, Rags, the others. I’d be dead, too, if I wasn’t Knifenut.” He paused as if remembering something. “My knives!” The tall weasel’s paw strayed to his belt, but it wasn’t there – when the eagle had struck him, one of his talons slashed through the leather. Knifenut was more scared by this than by his near-demise; he fell on all fours and crawled to pick up his discarded knives.

“So, my plan worked,” said Drooptail smugly, nodding to the eagle’s body. By that time other soldiers had already released half-dozen arrows and several spears in the bird’s carcass just to make sure that it would stay dead. “All it took was one courageous volunteer, and nothing more.”

“Of course your plan worked, Commander,” Viro said, his amber eyes on the stoat. “Knifenut killed the eagle all by his own, before a Fort full of witnesses. He deserves to become the next guard commander.”

“What? Knifenut?” blurted out a grey searat standing next to them, a fort guard called Bladepaw for his skill with sword. “He’s an idiot, Commander! Dumber than rock! Hey, Nut, which of your paws is right and which is left?”

The weasel picked up his torn knife belt by now and was turning it over in his paws. He snapped at the remark, “What? Eh… What do you think I am, a compass?”

“See?” said Bladepaw.

“If so, why didn’t you kill the eagle while you had a chance?” calmly asked Viro. “Do the same and then judge Knifenut. The post is rightfully his, by our Fort Commander’s word and his own deed.”

Drooptail smiled widely. He could see why Viro would want Knifenut in the position of the guard commander; Knifenut was a soldier, subservient to the cat Captain. However, the weasel was also dumb, and Drooptail could turn this to his advantage. Such a guard commander would be easy to manipulate, and there always were accidents to happen if not. “Tut-tut, Bladepaw,” he said. “This good weasel may not be book-smart, but he’s certainly battle-smart. Your strategy was clever, Knifenut.”

Hearing this Knifenut held out one if his daggers. “Eh? No, it’s not cleaver, comman’r. It’s a stiletto. Not the same thing at all. They’re crude weapons, cleavers. Never liked them…”

“Aye, that’s true,” the stoat commander waved his paw dismissively. “Consider yourself promoted, Knifenut. You’re the guard commander now.”

“Eh? But I don’t like the guards, arrogant bunch they are…”

Drooptail paid Knifenut’s complaints no mind. He smirked smugly, and saw Viro Strongclaw smirk in response – a rare event when the both rivals were content with the outcome. That was because each of them believed he was the one coming out with an upper paw.

That very day another group of beasts gathered for a council, deep under Terramort grounds. There were tens beasts, five representing the Rats of Lower Terramort and five speaking on the behalf of the freed slaves. Their equal numbers were more of an accident than intent, though. Originally only Wavehound, Thornbush and Betta wanted to go, but then Seabird and Elsie joined them. The maids weren’t experts in planning or negotiations, but they hoped to balance the odds: Thornbush wasn’t the nicest beast to deal with, Betta’s control was sketchy at best and Wavehound tended to be pushy sometimes.

Idunna led them to a small cavern room with stone table and stone shelf in the wall serving as a bench. Here they were met by Stonebreaker Skief and two dark grey rats that were introduced to them as Geri and Freki, the leaders of stone workers and tunnelers of Rolt. Surt was there as well. The stoat snarled at the woodlanders as they entered, and Betta answered him with a mighty roar. To Surt’s credit he didn’t back down, though his face got crossed with a displeased expression. Thankfully, Idunna barged in and pulled Betta away; with a suspicious glance at Surt the badgerwife followed her ferret friend.

Wavehound bowed to Stonebreaker. “Thank you, sir, for sharing your food and shelter with us. You saved many lives with your kindness.”

“It’s not our custom to let beasts suffer if we can help,” said Skief. “You are free to stay if you follow the rules of Rolt. However, I was informed that problems with Bladegirt soldiers may arise,” he looked at Surt at the last phrase.

May?” growled Surt. “The vermin will come searching for their little lost slaves as sure as the sun rises every day. Even a stone-brained idiot like you should’ve known that.”

Wavehound expected a flare-up, but Skief only nodded, not a shade of anger in his clear black eyes. “Okay, problems will arise. I appreciate your advice, Surt, though that’s not a reason to go threatening our guests. As Stonebreaker I say that they wouldn’t leave unless they want it.”

The earless stoat smirked grimly. “I would’ve forced them out no matter what you say if it wasn’t for the cubs.”

“Growing soft with age, are you, Surt?” chuckled Geri.

That was a mistake on the rat’s part. Surt sprung to the rat and grabbed his ear with his claws, seizing his neck with his other paw. Lifting the rat off the stone bench, he shook him violently. “Soft? Old? I’ll show you how soft I am, wormtail! One more word and I’ll rip your tongue out and strangle you with it, got it?”

Wavehound tensed and rose in his seat, ready to break the fight apart. None of Rolt beasts seemed concerned with it, though; only Freki poked Surt in the side. “All right, enough for now.”

The earless stoat gave the interloper a heavy cuff on the head. “Say something more and I’ll knock you senseless, fool!” He did let his victim go after that, though.

“Calm down, Surt,” said Stonebreaker Skief as Geri rubbed his scratched ear. “You’ve got your daily dose of wrangle. Let’s get to business now, we lost enough time as it is.”

“Don’t you dare ordering me around, rat,” growled Surt. “I’m not a member of your little tribe, so your word means nothing to me!”

“If you are not of Rolt, then you shouldn’t be in this council to begin with,” noted Skief. “And if you are there, you’ve got to respect me as the Chieftain.”

Surt grumbled something and sat down. “Logic traps ain’t fair.”

Wavehound coughed to get some attention. “We were talking about Bladegirt soldiers,” he reminded. “If you allow me, Stonebreaker, I’ve predicted they would come for us and planned for it. I couldn’t plan meeting you, though, so I hadn’t thought that we would be able to carry out the second part of my plan so soon after our escape.”

These words had the attention of everybeast in the cave, for Wavehound didn’t share his plans even with his friends. “And that plan is?” encouraged him Skief.

“To take the fight back to Bladegirt.”

No.” Skief brought his paw down on the stone table. “Absolutely not. Never. Under no circumstances. Rolt would not fight, and I forbid you to do it as Stonebreaker.”

“Killing vermin is never a bad idea,” snarled Betta with a ferocious grin.

But even Thornbush shook his head. “If I came along with one of your crazy ideas, otter, it doesn’t mean I’ll go and kill myself at your word.”

“Just listen, I…” insisted Wavehound.

“No,” repeated Skief. “I remember what happened when my grandfather decided to battle Deathtrap, even if I was just a cub. Very few came back alive, and many of those who did died of wounds afterwards. I would not – do you hear me? – would not have that massacre repeated.”

Wavehound raised his paws placidly. “I didn’t mean an open battle, Stonebreaker, our numbers are too few to even hope for the victory. I chose my words wrong. What I mean is the guerilla tactics, hit-and-disappear. With us, their slaves, gone, the soldiers would have to work the fields themselves, and they aren’t good at it. We’ll weaken them even more. Take the crops in the fields, burn the harvest or steal it, just so that they won’t get it. They have fishing boats and nets; steal or destroy them as well. With their food supply limited to what is stored in the Fort itself, the vermin would be forced to forage in the hills – and that’s where we can attack their patrols. Shellhound otters use this tactics against feral cats on Green Isle with quite a success.”

“A sketchy success,” said Seabird. Wavehound glared at her, but the big ottermaid continued, “Shellhound otters are only a dozen of outlaws, and the damage their raids do to the cats is trifling. Besides, cats compensate it by cutting down the slaves’ rations. Before we were sold to Darm, I heard one of Weilmarks say that they planned to comb through the isle and wipe the outlaws out. The tactics you want to use may have not helped Shellhounds.”

“That’s our best chance,” argued Wavehound.

“It may work,” agreed Idunna. “If Bladegirt has a weak spot, it is its dependence on the slaves to grow their food for them.” Surt snorted disdainfully, but didn’t say anything. Skief frowned, but didn’t interrupt Wavehound as he continued.

“And we have one more advantage over the vermin,” said Wavehound. “These tunnels! With them, we can travel all round Terramort right under the vermin’s noses, strike from the underground and disappear into nowhere.”

“Aha, only till the Southern Breakline, friend,” said Freki.

Elsie looked at the rat curiously. “What?”

“He said that you can move freely only till the Southern Breakline and no further,” supplied Geri.

“Yes, but what did your brother mean?”

“We are not brothers,” they both said in unison. Wavehound looked closer at the two stone workers. He too had assumed them to be brothers, since while Geri and Freki weren’t exactly alike, they shared enough resemblance to safely presume they were related. They both were lean, with dark grey fur and long muzzles, though Freki was wider in shoulders and his dark blue eyes were more widely set.

“We’re cousins,” corrected Geri.

“Aye, double cousins.”

“Because our mothers were twins.”

“And our fathers were brothers, too, though not twins.”

“That’s why we look so alike. At least, that’s what we think.”

“Aye, thanks,” nodded Elsie. “You wanted to tell about the Southern Breakline.”

Geri and Freki began to explain it together. “You see, Lower Terramort – the tunnels, I mean, - doesn’t spread under the whole island. Or, I guess, it once was, in the time of Gabool the Wild, but not anymore.”

“There was a great earthquake, many many seasons ago, before Skvold’s great-grandfather was born. After it, half of the tunnels collapsed. The southern part of the underground was destroyed. It wasn’t much of the loss to Rolt, though – our ancestors had both Terramorts at their paws them, Upper and Lower. So they just used the northern part of the tunnels without even trying to repair what lies behind the Southern Breakline.”

“Aye, I had a look at it a couple of times. It will cost you a lifetime to clear those broken tunnels out, and it isn’t wroth it. Right now you can go as far south in the tunnels as the crop fields. Then you’ve got to get out and go above.”

“And there is an open plain from the crop field till Fort Bladegirt,” sighed Wavehound. “The guards would see anybeast moving there even in the dark of the night. Waves and thunders, curse it! It’s not going to work.”

Idunna smiled at him slightly. “Maybe it would, if we think better on it.”

“You’re wasting your time thinking on useless gibberish!” Surt spat out, his patience spent. “You’re thinking how you can beat the Fort. What you need to think is how you can stop the Fort from turning the whole Isle from top to down searching for you, because we’re deadbeasts if they do!”

Wavehound shot him a glance. “Do you have a better plan?”

“Yes, I do,” the stoat said. “Drooptail is going to hunt for his lost slaves till he finds them, alive or dead. And I think ‘dead’ is a much better alternative.”

Betta jumped to her footpaws, growling loudly, “Don’t you dare harm my friends!”

Surt the Bloody

Surt the Bloody by Voltaic-Soda: http://voltaic-soda.deviantart.com/

Surt jumped up as well, leaping on the stone shelf that served them as a bench to keep his face level with Betta. “Shut up, stripesnout! I do whatever I want, and you’re no boss to me!”

“Calm down, please, both of you!” Idunna shouted, but Betta’s eyes were already growing cloudy with Bloodwrath, and she swiped a paw to hit Surt.

The stoat sprung back, getting on the stone table. Freki tried to grab his paw, but Surt dodged him and drew a dagger from his shin sheath, pointing it at Betta. “One more move, badger, and I’ll stick this straight into your eye!”

“Surt!” Freki gasped.

“Betta, no!” shouted Wavehound and Seabird at once.

It was Skief who acted. The brown-furred rat chieftain swept out with Stonebreaker, hooking Surt’s hind paws and tripping him. The stoat fell on his back, and Skief grabbed the jar of water and splashed it in Betta’s face, causing the grey badgerwife to stagger back. “Enough!” he snapped. “Surt, put that dagger away! Betta, just sit down!”

Betta wiped the water off her face, and Idunna urged her to take her seat once more. “Next time he says something, ignore him,” the ferretwife advised. “He hates it.”

Surt jumped down from the table. A fall he had taken must have been painful, but he gave no complaint. “As I was saying before somebeast interrupted me, it’s better to make Drooptail think you’re dead. Terramort is a rocky island. Cave-ins and stonefalls do happen. Geri and Freki can arrange that.” The rat cousins nodded at that. “So, we will leave a nice clear trail for the soldiers to track their slaves, the one leading to a cave that recently collapsed and apparently buried their slaves underneath the avalance.” He glanced at Skief. “We’ll need a solid proof, though. Those in Bladegirt are dumb enough, but they won’t stop searching until they’re absolutely sure their slaves are dead.”

“And?” Skief prompted.

“I was thinking about raiding the old tombs of Rolt.”

For a moment, Skief was speechless. “Raiding the tombs of our ancestors?!”

“We need dead bones to make our ruse convincing. Drooptail is persistent enough to dig them out, but not enough to check and see they are rat bones, not woodlander.”

“That… that would be sacrilege! Blasphemy!”

Surt shrugged. “Either this or real woodlander bones.”

Everybeast was silent as Stonebreaker Skief closed his eyes for a moment. “My parents and my grandmother would’ve chosen saving lives of other beasts over decorum. All right.”

Wavehound slowly nodded. “This may actually work.”

“I helped Laufey fake her death when she escaped the Fort,” Surt said. “It will work.”

“I guess we owe you thanks,” Thornbush admitted.

“Course you do,” Surt said smugly, and all the gratitude the hedgehog had felt vanished. “Now, I’ve got to do something useful. Like scouting the land for a good grave for you.”

“Not now, Surt,” Skief cut in. “Don’t go aboveground till it’s nighttime.” The earless stoat scowled, and Stonebreaker went on before he had a chance to argue. “I know you won’t let the patrols see you, but I don’t want to take risks. We’ve got enough trouble as it is.”

“That’s too true, Stonebreaker.” A tall old fox with ragged grey fur stepped into the cavern.

Skief rose to his paws to greet him. “Logi, our chief healer,” he told the assembled woodlanders.

“Whatever happened, sir?” Elsie asked, rising from her seat. “Is it the sick ones? Are they worse? Is there anything we can do to help?”

Logi’s forepaw shot up in the air, forestalling more questions. “It indeed got worse.” He lowered his head, his voice barely audible. “I’m sorry, good beasts. One of your own, a squirrelwife called Mlika, died.”

A deadly silence hung in the cave. “What!” Thornbush exclaimed. “Mlika died? Of a simple fever, not three days after falling ill! Pah! You’re just a charlatan whose incompetence killed a good beast!”

“It wasn’t a simple fever,” Logi said, ignoring the outburst. “Though I didn’t realize that until it were too late to save Mlika. Her husband Basko fell ill, too and the other sick ones got worse. Right now Skadi is treating them, and I sent Vidar to check on the rest of you who had escaped Bladegirt. By the time I left, the number of the patients in the healing cave had doubled. I’m putting them in a complete quarantine to prevent the epidemics.”

“But what is this epidemic, Logi?” Wavehound said, tensing.

“Bonecruncher.”

The name said nothing to Wavehound, Seabird and Betta, though Skief, Idunna and Surt were visibly shocked. Thornbush’s reaction was violent. “Bonecruncher? You dirty scoundrel, you say Mlika died from an illness that exists only in granny tales? Old beasts use this fable to scare babes in washing their paws before meals! How do I know you didn’t poison Mlika and other our friends yourself? After all, we’re nothing but trouble to you!”

“Because your friends aren’t the only ones that got caught in it.” The old fox turned to Geri and Freki. “Geri, Freki… Magni died today.”

“M-mother?” Freki stuttered.

“B-but I’ve seen aunt Magni just yesterday,” Geri whispered. “She was fine…”

“I’m sorry,” said Logi. “She was escorting the newcomers yesterday and must’ve caught the illness. Her health was already weakened by her age and old wounds. She didn’t suffer.”

The light suddenly faded in Thornbush’s eyes. “Dewberry,” he breathed out. “Yesterday, she complained of back pain. That’s one of the symptoms, isn’t it, a pain in one’s bones? Oh Great Merciful Seasons… Dewberry was best friends with Mlika. She had spent the whole day helping her round. And Bramble, my son! He’s been with my wife the whole time…”

“Laufey!” Surt roared, jumping up. “She went in there to the slaves’ cave to visit her old friends! And Skogul hanged round with local cubs for hours later!” He turned to Logi, shouting, “Why are you still here?”

The fox nodded, “I’ll send somebeast to bring them all to Skadi.”

But Surt wasn’t done yet. “It’s all because of you,” he hissed, pointing the dagger at Thornbush. “All was fine before you woodlanders came and brought this plague with you! If my Laufey gets ill… if something happens with her or Skoggi… if they get hurt because of you… I’m going to drown you in your own blood, hog.”

Thornbush looked at Surt with lifeless eyes. “If anything happens to Laufey and Skoggi… or to Dewberry and Bramble… I’m going to drown myself.”

“There’s no time to argue and blame each other,” Wavehound said, putting a paw on each beast’s wrists. Oddly, even Surt didn’t protest, just winced as if in pain, and as he grabbed the stoat’s paw, Wavehound could feel old scars on it, very similar to the ones left by manacles. Was the fierce stoat a former slave? But that was a thought for another day. “What we need is to figure out how to fight this illness. What do you know of it, Logi? Is there a cure? How can we help?”

The old healer was talking to Geri and Freki. In a moment, two stone workers took off, running out of the cave. “They will bring your families to Skadi and Vidar,” Logi said. “Besides, Skadi will treat them with some herbs in case they caught the illness from Magni. Poor beasts are too upset to help us here anyway.”

“And why exactly are you still here?” Surt snapped, pulling his paw out of Wavehound’s grasp. “You’re a healer, curse it! Then heal them! Cure my wife and daughter!” He began circling the cave, his dagger in paw. It wasn’t hard to understand how he felt. The earless stoat was a fighter, and he was ready to rip anybeast who dared harm his family in shreds – but the illness wasn’t an enemy he could kill.

“And tell us how it became possible for beasts to start dying from bonecruncher, which hadn’t been heard of for ages,” Thornbush supplied. “If I remember right, the last time it was heard of was the downfall of Loamhedge Abbey, destroyed by an epidemic brought in by searats. Nobeast truly knows what that plague was, but many thought it to be bonecruncher.”

“I’ll tell everything, but first is first.” Logi came over to the stone table the beasts were presiding over and looked at them sharply. “Any of you been feeling unwell recently? Aching bones, feeling of numbness in your limbs, cramps in your muscles? Even something as simple as dizziness, headache, feverish heat? Thornbush, if your wife is sick, let me see you first.”

The grey fox moved to put an ear to Thornbush’s chest, listening how his lungs worked, them moved on to count his pulse and look at the state of his eyes and throat.

Betta shrugged when the healer finished his work. “I wasn’t well when I just got there two days ago… Well, you already know it.”

“And I was dizzy half of the previous day,” Elsie added a bit unsure. “But I didn’t want to bother you.”

Logi looked them over thoroughly as well before turning to the other beasts present. “Don’t worry, Betta, you passing out back then was caused by starvation and fatigue, not illness. Thornbush looks well, too, and all the others… but I’d say Elsie should stay in the healing cave for awhile.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, initial symptoms of bonecruncher are very similar to the one of simple fever, so I can’t say whether you have bonecruncher or just a cold, Elsie. I’ll give you a double dose just in case.”

Only now did Wavehound notice a bag the fox had carried. He pulled out several small flasks and handled each of the assembled beasts one, throwing an extra pinch of herbs in the one assigned to Elsie.

“Is it the cure?” Seabird asked, sniffing the drink before finishing it off in two sips.

“No, but it’s a strong balm with lots of healing herbs,” Logi said. “It will strengthen your body and won’t let you catch any illness. Now, let me tell you what I know of bonecruncher.” The old fox seated himself and nodded to Thornbush. “You made a good point, for this illness hadn’t been heard of for a long time. I know nothing of a place called Loamhedge, but it very well could’ve been destroyed by bonecruncher if searats were involved. This illness envenoms the vermin more often, though woodlanders aren’t immune to it, either. That’s the scary thing – bonecruncher affect all, not only beasts, but birds, reptiles and even fish as well. But vermin are especially prone to it, maybe because they are not generally known for their cleanliness, no offence to present company. In older days bonecruncher almost wiped the searats out before it was stopped. Ever heard of ghost ships, which drift in the sea on their own, with no crew but dead vermin bodies on board? More often than not, bonecruncher was the reason.”

“My grandmother used to tell me stories and mentioned bonecruncher,” Skief said thoughtfully. “She said it would get its claws in your hide and gnaw on your bones till their crack, and there is no way to shake it off without breaking your spine.”

Elsie shuddered at the image. “Your granny was telling you stuff like that?”

Stonebreaker smiled at her. “Hey, I had Hlokk for a grandmother. She loved scary stories.”

“And would this bonecruncher really kill in three days?” Surt stopped his pacing to look at Logi.

The healer sighed. “Not much is known about this illness, but to my knowledge… no. The initial stage of the illness is very similar to fever, but then a beast starts feeling a boneache, a gnawing pain in their back or limbs and muscle convulsions. Then comes the last stage… paralysis. It starts from one’s claws and reached up their limbs, till it seizes a beast’s chest and they die of suffocation because they can’t draw a breath.” This caused another qualm for poor Elsie, who automatically flexed her claws just to make sure they still could obey her command. Logi didn’t seem to notice, concluding, “What I meant by all this is that death by bonecruncher is usually slow and painful. It takes weeks, not days. The fact that Mlika died so soon means we have very little time.”

“Then why are you ever here?” Surt roared. The descriptive words of the healer didn’t improve his mood.

Betta put a bony paw on the stoat’s shoulder, asking what everybeast in the cave was thinking. “But you can heal them, right, Logi? You do have a cure?”

The grey fox’s shoulders sagged. “There is no such thing as a cure for bonecruncher.”

A moment’s silence was split by Wavehound. “Wait a minute, didn’t you say that bonecruncher epidemics were stopped in older days? So, the healers of those times were able to find a solution?”

Logi chuckled mirthlessly. “It’s not a solution any of you would like. They didn’t stop the epidemic by healing ill beasts. They stopped it by killing all those who showed even slightest signs of an illness, then killing their families and burning the bodies in their homes. If a ship was coming in a port with only a single crewbeast ill, the whole crew was killed and the ship burned.”

Betta growled softly. “That’s… not a solution.”

Skief took the floor once more, his voice tense but firm. “If I understand you right, Logi, you say that there isn’t a known cure for bonecruncher. Can you find one?”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” Logi said. “I know all herbs on both Upper and Lower Terramorts. If I have enough time, I will seek something out.”

“And do we have time?” Skief pressed on. “Shouldn’t we concentrate on stopping the epidemics from spreading?”

“Skadi almost surpassed me in the art of healing, and Vidar is an assistant anybeast would be proud of,” Logi continued. “And we have herbs to keep the illness in bay, if not to stop it. We can slower its progress, ease the pain, lessen muscle convulsions, hopefully, delay paralysis. That should buy me enough time to find the cure.”

“Wait a minute,” Thornbush cut in. “Are you saying you’re going to experiment on the ill beasts? On my wife and son?”

“My dear friend,” Logi began, but Thornbush interrupted him.

“I’m not your friend, fox!” he snapped.

The grey fox cocked an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on the remark. “Good beast, there are other ways to check if the mixture is working than forcing it at already ill patients.”

“Okay, okay,” Surt growled. “Then why…”

“Why I’m here instead of working on the cure, yes. There is one more thing we need to do. Thornbush was right when he said that bonecruncher hadn’t been heard of for ages. We must find out how it came to Terramort. At the very least finding the source of infection will help us to prevent more beasts from falling ill. At best it will help us to understand bonecruncher’s nature and find the cure.” Logi handed out two pieces of parchment. “Here I wrote down the names of the beasts who have the most severe cases, fifteen beasts at all. I can almost guarantee that they contacted the source of bonecruncher directly, and Mlika more than them. Here on the second sheet are names of the beasts who have the lesser case of bonecruncher, like Basko, and who most probably caught it from their relatives and friends. Betta, and you all, you know these beasts. Can you see some kind of pattern to indicate what could’ve caused the illness?”

“Aah, go and pine over your papers!” Surt brought a paw down the table. “I can’t just waste my time anymore! Logi, you said you’ll need herbs? I know every hill and gully on the Upper Terramort. I’ll bring you all the herbs that there are, down to the last leaf, blood’n’thunder if I won’t!”

“Surt!” Skief called when the scarred stoat turned to go. “I know it’s pointless to ask you to wait till nightfall, so just be careful!” The stoat snorted without looking back at Stonebreaker and left the cave.

Logi and the former slaves barely noticed his departure. “I can pinpoint the time of initial infection from three to five days ago,” Logi said. “Otherwise the symptoms would have showed earlier.”

“That would be just the day of our escape or shortly before that,” Wavehound muttered. He, Seabird, Elsie and Thornbush studied both lists of names thoroughly.

Elsie was the first to break the silence. “Almost all of those severely ill are squirrels. Maybe this bonecruncher affects by species?”

“But Falko is a mouse and Namva is a vole,” Wavehound countered. “Besides, why aren’t Tosna and Tarri got ill? One of them is an elder and another is a babe, and they were close to Mlika.”

“I’d say that’s because when Mlika was thought to have fever, she and Basko entrusted their daughter to Tosna, not wanting her to catch cold,” Thornbush said. “But yours is a valid question, Seabird.”

“There is one more thing I can note,” Seabird continued. “All the beasts on the first list are rather small. Falko and Namva are small by their species, and squirrels aren’t that large, either. Lotus is an otter, but she is a slim and short maid.”

“And what exactly does that give us?” Logi asked softly. “It’s a known fact that smaller and weaker beasts are more affected by illnesses.”

“We’re looking at it from the wrong angle,” Thornbush declared, bringing his paw down on the table. “Mlika was the one who had it the worst. What did she do in the days before our escape that can be considered out of the ordinary?”

“I… I don’t remember,” Elsie confessed.

“Neither do I,” said Wavehound. “In fact, I didn’t even see her in the day of escape because… of course! Because she had been assigned in the group that was sent to repair the broken roof of vermin Barracks!” The lean tan otter grabbed the sheet of parchment and brought it to his eyes, running over the names again. Finally, he slammed his rudder on the floor contentedly. “Yes! All the beasts on the first list and some on the second were repairing the Barrack’s roof that day! And of course, the vermin put squirrels and other small and agile beasts on that duty.”

“You think that’s it?” Betta rumbled, entering the discussion for the first time.

Wavehound looked at Logi. “Could it be something that was hidden beneath that broken roof? Some kind of fungus or old mould that was cracked out by the storm?”

“It’s possible,” Logi agreed. “Not sure about fungus, but we know too little of bonecruncher to deduce its origins. So far, that’s the best lead we have.”

“It still leaves the question of how Basko stayed healthy while Mlika fell ill,” Seabird said. “Remember, he worked together with her, and yet he only caught bonecruncher much later.”

“Well,” Skief said, surprising everybeast, “why don’t we ask him?”

Only Logi, Skief, Wavehound and Seabird went to see Basko. Stonebreaker instructed Idunna to gather a crew of fishers and bag as many fish as they could, for with so many beasts either down with bonecruncher or assisting the healers, nourishing and healthy sustenance would be vital. Betta went with Idunna, saying that her strength would be put to better use that way. Wavehound felt obliged to promise that all the woodlanders not occupied by aiding Skadi and her assistants would offer a helping paw as well. Sadly, Thornbush and Elsie were escorted to the healing caves; according to Logi, it was more or less a formality with Thornbush, for the hedgehog seemed perfectly healthy and not prone to infection. But Elsie admitted to starting feeling a shiver running down her limbs – mostly due to stress, Wavehound suspected, though it was Logi’s duty to suspect the worst. He sure hoped none of his friends would fall ill.

They had left Thornbush and Elsie near the cave where Betta was first brought to, and a lean middle-seasoned weasel called Vidar led them to another long, winding tunnel. Logi made them stop near the entrance. “Now, I know that there are your friends inside, but you must understand the direness of our situation. We are in quarantine, and you must abide by the rules. Don’t take out any items out of the cells. Don’t shake paws with the patients or touch them at all. Don’t touch anything they touched. It’s better if you don’t even breathe the same air they do.”

“Are you kidding?” Seabird asked.

“I am not.” Vidar handed Logi a couple of gloves and a piece of cloth the old fox wrapped around his muzzle, covering his nose and mouth. He gestured for his companions to do the same. “One can never be too careful while dealing with bonecruncher.”

Wavehound expected the healing quarters to be like the cave his friends were accommodated in: big, airy, spacious and full of light from that strange glowing moss. The tunnel they were led through was certainly tall, but very narrow, with lots of tiny cells on both sides of it.

“None of the cells are connected with each other,” Vidar said, noticing the tan otter glancing around. “That way we can stop the infection from spreading if one of the patients gets worse.” His voice was muffled because of the cloth that covered his muzzle. The weasel led them ahead sure-pacedly, even though he had to hobble on a pair of clutches since his right footpaw was missing from below his ankle. Finally, he stopped near one of the indistinguishable stone cells. “Your friend is here.”

Basko lay on a bedding of straw and moss. The squirrel already looked gaunt and weakened. He was shivering despite the warmth of the cave, his fur damp with sweat.

“Did he get worse?” Logi whispered to Vidar.

The latter shook his head solemnly. “He’s grieving.”

Wavehound stepped into the cell. “Basko? Basko, it’s me, Wavehound.”

The squirrel’s eyes snapped open, feverishly bright. “She died, Wave. Mlika died.”

Wavehound swallowed a lump in his throat. “I… I’m sorry, Basko. I’m sorry it all turned out that way. But we need your help. Can you answer some questions?”

Basko’s eyes closed. His voice was infinitely tired. “What’s the point? It won’t change anything. She died. Died.”

“But your daughter is still alive,” Seabird said, stepping closer. “And your mother, too.”

Basko’s apathy was gone. He pulled himself into a half-sitting position with a jerk. “Tarri? Is she well? Is she not ill? Tell me she is not ill!”

“Your daughter is well, due to your mother keeping her from being near your wife when she was ill,” said Logi. “But if we do not find and neutralize the source of infection, Tarri is at the risk of falling ill, too, just as many other beasts.”

Basko fell back on his bed, exhaustion overcoming him. “Ask.”

“Basko, do you remember that day after the storm had blown, when we escaped?” Wavehound asked. “When you with Mlika and other slaves were sent to repair the roof? We need to know if there was something unusual that day. Maybe something happened during the works? Maybe you found something among the wreckage? Think about anything out of the ordinary, anything can be important.”

The squirrel closed his eyes, thinking. “The only out of the ordinary thing I can think of is just that, that we were sent for repair works instead of working in the field. I never did that kind of work before… maybe long ago, in another life, when me and Mlika and Tarri were free. So I can’t actually say if we did anything unusual… we were just doing whatever the vermin ordered us: lots of climbing, lifting and woodworking. And I remember thinking that we were lucky to be assigned to this work, because even if the soldiers worked us from dawn till dusk, they in the very least didn’t whip us just to show who the boss was.”

Wavehound exchanged looks with Logi. That wasn’t going to help them. “Please do tell us, Basko,” Stonebreaker Skief said, “was there something that you did but your wife and the rest of the group did not? Or maybe the other way around, you didn’t do something they all did?”

Basko was silent, and Wavehound was beginning to think he wouldn’t speak again when the squirrel finally broke the silence. “I can’t remember anything of such sort… ah, wait. I didn’t eat dinner, though I can’t see how that can help you.”

“Please explain?” Logi prompted him.

“Well, the day before the storm Houk cut Mlika’s rations by half to punish her for working slowly.” Basko could barely hold back tears at the very memory of what had passed. “She… she felt weak from hunger. And so I gave Mlika my portion, though it wasn’t much… the vermin are anything but generous.”

Logi exchanged glances with the others once more, and Wavehound saw fear flash in his pale amber eyes. “So you say that Mlika ate a double ration of your meal, you had none and all the others ate one?”

“Yes… but why are you asking?.. How does it matter?..” Basko stopped himself and sat bolt upright, his eyes wide with shock. “No! That’s it, right? The food was what brought this plague? Then – then it’s all my fault! It was me who gave Mlika that extra portion! I, I killed her! With my own paws, I killed Mlika!..” Basko covered his head with his paws and sobbed uncontrollably, not able to take it any more.

“No, Basko!” Seabird rushed to the squirrel’s side. She remembered Logi’s instructions in the last moment and stopped, cautiously putting her gloved paw on Basko’s shoulder instead of embracing him. “It’s not your fault. Firstly, we don’t know if it really was the food, and even if it was, there were no way for you to know that.”

Basko pushed her paw away, falling back on the bedding again. “How does it change anything? Mlika is still dead… and it’s still me who killed her.”

“Last question, Basko,” Logi said softly. “What did you had for dinner, and were there anything unusual about it?”

The squirrel didn’t answer at once. “Fish. Fish stew. And I don’t remember. It was too long ago, and too trivial to pay it any attention. One thing, that fish came from a dead shoal that was thrown out on the shore by the storm. I recall soldiers saying how lucky they were to find such an easy meal.”

Skief stepped up to Logi, bringing his muzzle to the old fox’s ear. “You think that’s the source? Sick fish?”

“Most likely,” the healer agreed. “Fish can suffer from bonecruncher just as birds and animals. Besides, the illness getting inside the beast’s body with food would explain why the sickness developed so quickly – and why Mlika had the worst case of bonecruncher while her husband has the lightest.”

“You know, there is only one good thing about this,” Basko spoke, startling all of them. He smirked weakly when all the eyes turned to him. “Did you think that Bladegirt soldiers had been kind enough to allow the slaves eat first?.. Those vermin gobbled up all the prime pieces of the fish… before throwing the trifling leftovers to us. If that was enough to kill my Mlika… then by now they are dead, too.”

BOOK THREE: PRICE TO PAY

Author's note: Aaand we reach 'Book 3' mark, after almost 4 years! I have still a lot planned out for the story, so I don't know whether I'll manage to cram it all in Book 3 or add Book 4 as time comes. Please tell me if the title is gramatically correct or it should be 'Price to Be Paid'. If what I think is right, both are possible but 'Price to Pay' sounds better.

Chapter 32

Days after Darm’s initial attack passed in a relative calm. Deathtrap’s army was neither seen nor heard, but Redwallers didn’t let their guard down. The sentries had never left the walls unattended, and the Abbey’s lawns were always busy as woodlanders prepared for the battle.

“Up, keep your weapon up! Now, block me, Brandon! Block and strike back!” The squirrel’s axe blade met Simon’s sword in the air with a muted clash, but the otter pressed on. “Faster! Strike back at once, don’t wait till I retaliate!”

When Simon brought his training sword down once more, Brandon knocked it aside swiftly and swept his axe at Simon’s chest. The otter jumped back nimbly, and his opponent stumbled, losing his balance. Simon’s sword darted forward, its capped point pulling back an inch from Brandon’s stomach.

“Your skill did improve,” Simon noted, nodding to his panting partner. “But you need to work on your coordination. I wouldn’t have been able to use that opening if you didn’t stumble.”

The young red squirrel looked apologetic. “Umm, yeah. Well, I never had to use my axe on anything other than bad tree trunks and dry branches before.”

“Let’s concentrate on your footwork,” Simon decided. “There won’t be time to think where to put your footpaw in the battle, so you’ll have to do that by rote. Repeat this pattern.” He demonstrated a set of quick sidesteps, lunges and back-offs. Brandon replicated them with ease; being a squirrel, that came naturally to him. “Good,” Simon said. “Now learn them by heart, will you?” The squirrel nodded, and Simon turned away from him, looking over the Abbey lawns to see if somebeast else needed his help.

His father’s words from the night of their failed attempt to retrieve Martin’s sword echoed in his head. If you’re so eager to do something, why don’t you do something useful?

That was exactly what he had been doing all these days. His father, Abbess Bikkle and even Triss gave him a strict talking-to, but no words could hurt him more than the memory of Olva lying unmoving on the ground, grass dark with her blood. The wounded ottermaid had been taken to the infirmary at once, where Brother Turfee extracted the broken arrowhead out of her hindpaw, cleaned the wound and dressed it. She was getting better these days, and her life was in no danger, but she still was very weak from blood loss and confined to the infirmary bed.

“Hey, Simon!” Simon turned and waved at Moska, who was trotting up to him together with Haund and several other Waterhogs. “Show us that spear-butting move you did when we practiced yesterday morning?”

“Sure.” Simon smiled despite his gloomy thoughts. Moska had been visiting Olva with him a lot these days, and she could bring out a smile from both of them, always cheerful in her own brash way, and Simon was grateful to the Waterdog maid for that. Moska was a good friend and, as Simon had recently learned, a great sparring partner.

Moska was carrying a spear, and she lunged at him, aiming the spearpoint at his chest. Simon pivoted to one side, his sword in one paw, and let the spear rush past him. At the right moment he grabbed the spearhaft with his free paw and yanked it to himself, making Moska stumble forward, the force of her thrust combining with the strength of Simon’s move.

Theoretically, Simon should have pushed the spear back when Moska was unbalanced, ramming her in the stomach with the spearbutt and sending her on the ground. But instead of tripping over herself when the spear didn’t meet its target, Moska leapt forward, landing nimbly next to Simon, her paw pulling the dagger on her belt out of its sheath. Quick as a lightning, Simon changed his grip on the spear and brought it up to shield his chest and throat, then pushed the shaft horizontally at Moska. Again she surprised him: instead of jumping back to avoid the blow, she ducked under the spear and hit him in the ribs with the handle of her dagger.

“You’re dead!” she huffed.

Simon shook his head in wonder. “You know, you were supposed to be the one to lose.”

Moska laughed heartily, her blue eyes shining. “Come on! Did you really think I wouldn’t come up with a counter move?”

“That was a good fight,” Simon said sincerely.

Moska nudged him in the ribs friendly. “So, how does it feel to be beaten up by a maiden?”

Simon snorted. “My mentor is female, and she is the beast swordbeast I’ve ever seen. If you wanted the jab to sting, you’ve got to try harder.”

As usual, thinking of his mentor made him sad. According to Sister Vernal, Triss was recovering as quickly as it was possible with her wounds, but she had to stay in her rooms, much to the Swordmaid’s chagrin. Moreover, according to the healers, even when the arrow wound healed, Triss wouldn’t be able to take part in battle till the broken bones of her hindpaw knitted together, and that day was far from near.

“Do thy want to try yonder move with me, Moska?” rumbled Haund. The big hedgehog swung his simple club lightly.

Moska assessed the heavy weapon. “Only if you won’t squash me by accident.”

“Shall not even lift yon,” Haund promised.

Moska thrust the spear at the Waterhog at once, careful to stay out of the club’s reach. When he yanked the spear out of her grasp and she leapt up to the hog, Haund kept his word and didn’t bother batting her dagger aside or ducking the blow. He just threw his heavy paw out, dealing the ottermaid a glancing blow to the shoulder, but that was enough to throw her several steps back.

“Moska?” gasped Haund when the Waterdog maid fell flat on her back. “I didn’t hit thou too hard, did I?” Together with Simon and other hedgehogs he hurried to the maiden.

Moska opened one eye. “You… squashed me!”

One of the hedgehogs giggled at her dramatic tone, and Moska was up on her footpaws in a moment. “What’s so funny, pincushion? Pick up your harpoon and let’s see if you can stand against a Waterdog!”

She certainly didn’t need Simon’s assistance, and so he decided to take a walk to the south-east corner of the Abbey and see how the moles were faring with their work. He poked his head into the large tent raised to cover the quickly widening and deepening tunnel just to see the molecrew file out of the burrow, shaking dump earth off their blunt claws.

“Ho hurr, gurt work, very gurt. Lest us’n’us rest fur awhile, gurt molers,” Foremole Ruggum said, waving the crew out with a smile. “Bo urr, I’d say nothin’ like a cup of nutbrown beer to wash down alla the dust and nothin’ like deeper’n’ever pie to fortify a beast’s strength.”

“Aye, an’ some blackcurrant pudding to add to that, hurr,” laughed one of the moles.

“Dun’t furget cowslip cordial, it goes best with some berry flan,” said another, and soon enough all the molecrew were discussing their favourite food and drinks.

Simon stepped aside, letting the moles out on the Abbey lawns, and bowed politely to Foremole. “Morning, Foremole Ruggum. How is the work going today?”

“Burr hurr, gurt, very gurt. Us’d dug right under them Redwall walls, so us did, hurr.”

Simon looked at the redstone wall, that seemed to be so close to the opening of the tunnel. “You’ve been digging for several days and you’re still just under the wall?”

“Nay, not still, us already there!” Ruggum sounded insulted. “These walls were built to stand ages, bo hurr, an’ them bees agoin’ deep an’ wide. An ye wun’t want them stones to full all over yur head, wull, so us’n’us had to raise all the support beams an’ ovurlappin’ girders to keep ull of this steady’n’strong, that we did.”

“Oh, sorry. That sounds like a lot of work. When will the tunnel be ready?”

Ruggum scratched his head. “Wull, Oi think in a day or two, hurr. The most diff’cult work bees already done. With alla moi crew workin’…” He paused. “Hoi, wait a minute, Simon.” He walked over to the tunnel entrance and poked his head inside. “Ho urr, Myrra! Whoi are ye still workin’? Oi called fur a break.”

Young molemaid scrambled out, earth all over her fur. “Burr, Oi’m not that toired fur a break. An’ it bees gurt to get soil on moi diggin’ claws agin. Oi’ve spent four seasons too many on a ship with naught but sume planks an’ endless water under moi footpaws, burr oi!”

Ruggum visibly shuddered at that. “Hurr, sounds ‘orrible. Even bein’ in a boat makes me seasick, Oi wouldn’t have lasted a-day on a ship, burr nay!”

“Many didn’t,” Myrra replied. “Seasick slaves bees useless, so ye oither row or die. Oi… Oi think that was a reason moi family was sent to them oars. Moi father rebelled aginst Darm, and the weasul thought up of a cruel punishment. Now… now Oi bees the last of moi family still aliven.”

“Oi’m sorry, Myrra. Oi shouldn’t have said that, burr nay.”

Myrra smiled and put a digging claw on Foremole’s shoulder. “Dun’t apologize fur each toime Oi remember the past. It bees past, an’ we cunnot undo it. Roight nowt Oi’m glad to be in Redwall, an’ in such a gurt company.”

Simon felt he was one too many in the company, so he quietly slipped out of the tent and into morning sunlight. It hadn’t been long till he was sought after once again. “Simon?”

The tall brown otter turned to see two younger creatures hurrying to catch up with him, a little grey-furred mousemaid and a small red squirrel. He smiled and waved his paw. “Hi, Freedom. Hi, Maple.”

The two had been introduced to him some days earlier by his father. Skipper Rumbol was especially delighted to learn that Freedom was an adopted daughter of his old friend Kroova Wavedog, thought he was upset to learn that Dom had been separated from her parents for such a long time. Still, Dom was introduced to Simon as his ‘almost cousin’, and even though the otter couldn’t say that the two became his close friends due to them being several seasons younger, he liked Dom and Maple well enough.

“Whatever you two wanted?” Simon asked.

Freedom and Maple

Freedom and Maple by SaynaSLuke

“Teach us fencing and swordfight!” Freedom demanded. Simon noticed that she was holding a short rapier similar to the ones Guosim shrews used, and Maple had a dagger on his belt. “We should be ready when the battle comes.”

“Well, I guess I can,” Simon said hesitantly. “But in all honesty, I don’t think you will be allowed to fight in the battle. You are too young.”

“Too young!” Freedom exclaimed, her green eyes sparkling with indignation. “Did you hear that, Maple? We were not too young to be captured by vermin and almost killed, not to young to escape and save the Abbess and the little ones and to fight snakes, but when it comes down to the battle, we are too young!”

The squirrel wasn’t as agitated as her, though. “The elders just want to keep us safe, Dom. Think on it, they are going to have their paws full fighting off the vermin, they don’t want to worry about us being in the fray as well.”

“Are you going to just sit back and do nothing while the other beasts spill their blood?” Freedom pressed. “Your tribe will be out there in the battle, and your father, too.”

“Calm down, I’m not saying that you will be locked in the dormitory with the Dibbuns,” Simon intervened. “You can still be of help if you, say, stay on the wall with the archers to cover up our forces. I’ve heard you are both good with sling, are you not?”

“My adopted mother, Sleeve, taught me to use sling,” Dom admitted. “Though I’m certainly rusty after all the seasons on Terramort. But Maple is really great with sling.”

Now it was Maple’s turn to look down shyly and scuffle his footpaws in the dirt. “You are saying that only because you haven’t seen how the rest of Pineforest squirrels handle slings. I swear Yew can take an acorn from the tree branch!”

“Maybe she can help you hone your skills,” Simon suggested. He motioned for the younger duo to follow and went over to the shade under one of the fruit trees, where all three of them sat down. “Or you can ask any of the otter crew. Olva is especially good with sling. I’m sure she will train you once she gets up on her footpaws again.” He felt a pang of concern even as he spoke: with a wound like the one she had received, it would be quite a time before she fully recovered.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Maple spoke.

Simon started. “What?”

The young squirrel cocked his head to the side. It seemed that his light brown eyes looked right into his soul. “You shouldn’t blame yourself for what happened with Olva. Me and Dom visited her recently, and she told us how you had saved her life. She said that you took on four vermin at once all by yourself, and scared the rest off. To me, that’s something to be proud of.”

“And she saved my and Moska’s lives twice,” Simon argued. “So I still owe her. That’s not to mention that she wouldn’t have gotten that wound if it wasn’t for me.”

“But it was her choice to go with you, not yours,” Freedom reminded him. “Olva is a smart maiden, and she thought the risk worth it. I’ve heard plenty of that sword you were seeking, and I say it was a right thing to try and find it.”

“I wish I knew what really happened to the Sword of Martin,” Simon murmured. “Hope those vermin had nothing to do with it… But thanks, both of you.”

They sat in silence for awhile before Freedom spoke again, rather cheerful. “So Simon, will you teach us swordfighting? We are going to need it.”

“You really think so?” Simon looked at her sideways. “Are you afraid that the vermin will get inside the Abbey?” He knew that Redwallers had such experienced fighters as the Long Patrol on their side, as well as Waterhogs and Pineforest squirrels, but Freedom had seen the vermin army from the inside, so her opinion mattered.

Much to his relief, the mousemaid shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. But I still want to learn how to fight.” She lowered her voice. “Because Broom and the others won’t need to worry about us being in a battle if they don’t know we are out there.”

“Oh no.” Simon shook his paw sternly. “No no no. Sneaking out to fight vermin never works. Did my example teach you nothing?”

Dom stuck her nose in the air. “I’ve been dealing with vermin since I was eight, and me and Maple already have experience in fighting. We can handle ourselves.”

“I’d help her with swordfighting if I were you,” Maple said, genuinely amused. “Dom is not going to give that idea up, you know.”

Simon was about to object when he was interrupted by a pitiful wail coming from one of the walls. “Oooh my poor bally stomach! Ooh, I can feel my flippin’ innards sticking to my flippin’ spine! Woe me, I’m going to starve till I die, wot wot!”

The otter smiled and waved his paw at Hopse, who had just came down from the wall and was now pressing his paws to his stomach, a picture of exaggerated suffering. “If you are not afraid of vermin, maybe the prospect of punishment will scare you off?”

Simon knew that he had been lucky to get away with a moral keelhaul after his escapade, and Moska had to do with joking but still very firm ear-tugging by her parents, but Lord Grawn Woodsmith was truly furious with Hopse. “What those young otters did was reckless and thoughtless. But they are Abbeydwellers, and you are a serving member of the Long Patrol. I shouldn’t tell you about the importance of discipline. You were being more than irresponsible by letting your comrades go out into danger without telling your superiors. I’ll put you young rip on such a fizzer you’ll remember me till you are old and grey!”

Grawn kept his word and appointed Hopse the worst punishment a hare could ever imagine. He put him on bread and water. That left younger members of the Long Patrol in a considerable trembling, and even senior officers were heard murmuring that even though Hopse was a ripping scallywag, that was a little too harsh. Hopse, in his part, never missed an opportunity to invoke pity for his person.

Right now, the young hare had his eyes up in a theatrical fashion, bewailing dramatically. “Don’t weep for this jolly hare who dies young, wot wot! Aye, never to eat a salad or swallow a pasty! If only you knew my agony, sah, you heartless scoffering scoffers! I’d give my right paw for a shrimp soup! A lifetime for damson pudding!”

“Ah, come on, you greedy glutton,” called Chris Bigbow as he leaned over the wall. “Pray tell me, sah, who ate a loaf of squirrel nutbread and two – two! – big loaves of Friar Furrel’s special rye’n’oat’n’wheat’never bread just this morning, wot?”

“As if a beast can live on bread!” Hopse lamented. “That’s just some miserable crumbs to keep my soul from parting with my blinkin’ body, wot wot! I don’t even remember how a proper vittles taste like, sah!”

“Then care to let me remind you, Hopse?” Plana said. The pretty haremaid was carrying a tray with a warm loaf that smelled of oven and nuts. “Sah! What do you say to a ryebread baked with hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds and bits of apple and pear, the dough mixed with blackberry cordial?”

Hopse leapt high in the air, his seeming hunger debility forgotten. “Wot wot wot, Plana, me gel! You are my savior, oh the best of haremaids, sah!”

Grawn Woodsmith stood within hearing distance from the hares: together with Hart Oakspike and Rupet Claypaw, both notable carpenters, he was working on the stromfallen ash tree, small woodcutting axe in paw. It was decided that the timber would be good for making sturdy wooden shields for the defenders of Redwall, as well as for fortifying the battlements, but since the morning Grawn already found time to carve a small sword and shield for Cleve, tiny toy boats for Eric and Winnie and a surprisingly intricate otter doll for Ripple. When Kvalla jokingly asked Grawn if he were a Badger Lord or a wood carver, the small badger simply said he would gladly trade his position with somebeast else if it meant he would have to carve nothing but toys the rest of his life.

His opinion on Hopse was set in stone, though. “Noncompliance with the orders, Plana? No feeding the punished.”

Plana batted her eyelashes at the badger. “No noncompliance, M’lord. Technically, it still counts as bread, sah.”

Grawn shook his head with a sigh. “Alright, if you say so, but remember, I’m lenient only because I’m not in the mood to argue.”

Hopse perked up at once. “Then how about lifting that bally fizzer off my scut, M’lord, sah? I’ll be as stalwart as a jolly old rockface, wot wot!”

“One more day, Hopse,” Grawn said sternly. “I want the lesson to settle in that empty head of yours. Don’t teste my patience, and be grateful for having such good friends.”

“Oh, I’m grateful, sah, forever grateful!” The young hare leapt at Plana, catching her in the crashing embrace. “Have I ever told you that you are the most gracious, most generous and most graceful of haremaids I’ve ever seen? I owe you my life, wot wot, that scoff is truly the balm for my poor stomach. What can I ever do to repay you?”

Plana winked at her friend. “Hmm, how about you stand predawn watch for me?”

Hopse’s face fell. He clearly didn’t expect to be asked to do some kind of work, but he saluted nonetheless. “As you say, General Plana, wot wot, sah!”

Maple couldn’t help giggling as he, Freedom and Simon watched the exchange. “That Hopse! And to think I thought my father kidding when he had told me about the famous appetite of hares…”

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the hares,” Simon said. “They are dangerous fighters, even if they love to fool around.”

“And they are still great gluttons,” Freedom snorted. “Being put on such rations as Hopse gets there is not such a punishment, and he still complains. He obviously never faced real starvation before.”

“And you did?” Maple asked before quickly averting his gaze. “Sorry, it was a stupid thing to say. But I was made Shamra’s servant almost immediately after arriving on Terramort, so I probably will never know how hard it were for you and the other slaves.”

The mousemaid shrugged. “Well, the vermin didn’t really starve us, but the scraps they fed us were just enough to keep us alive and working, no more. Not to mention they loved reducing rations or even denying them as a punishment.” Her face hardened at the memory. “I think that’s the reason old Tosna was so weak all the time… And they starved Chestnut’s brother.”

Simon’s gaze drifted to the small hedgehog chatting with Sarosa of Waterhog tribe and young Brother Phredd. He remembered how glad Freedom was to discover her old friend alive. After all, she used to think that she had lost one more beast dear to her. That was when Simon realized it was wrong to treat Dom and Maple as Dibbuns. They may have been young, but they had already gone through what not all adult beasts could handle. They deserved his respect.

The young otter rose to his footpaws. “So, are you ready for some practice?” he asked cheerfully.

Freedom looked up, puzzled. “I thought you didn’t want to train us?”

Simon winked. “I can’t stop you, right? If so, I’d rather you made it alive out of whatever trouble you can get into.”

“Great!” Freedom leapt to her footpaws, eager for the lesson.

Maple followed her suit. “I thought you were a swordbeast, Simon?” he asked.

The brown-furred otter nodded. “Yes, sword is my primary weapon, but I like to think myself competent enough to give you some training. Besides, both rapier and dagger have common traits with misericorde, so I can help with that.” He motioned for the two youngsters to take their positions.

As he had expected, Dom and Maple proved to be fast learners and were quick to repeat his stance and the basic moves he had shown them. He was just showing Freedom a stab-and-slash movement with the rapier that lay in the foundation of many more challenging fencing techniques when he had heard a rasping cough behind his back. Turning, Simon saw Fleggen scowling at them. The shrew was already allowed to leave the infirmary, though he had to return for treatment and changing of the bandages. “What?” Simon asked.

Fleggen shook his head, but no more sound came from his tightly bandaged throat. Still frowning, he drew his own rapier and whipped the blade through the air, showing the same move as Simon but with greater swiftness and flourish, finishing it with a twist.

“Oh, I get it!” Freedom exclaimed and slashed with her own weapon, actually succeeding in following the general line of the movement, but got lost in the intricate pattern of it and almost dropped the rapier.

Fleggen attempted to groan, but had to clutch at his throat when the pain proved to be greater than he had anticipated. So he just rolled his eyes instead and repeated the move, slower this time.

When Dom didn’t quite manage to repeat it properly, the shrew stumped his footpaws and gestured wildly, pointing at the mousemaid, ground, the moles that were about to return to their tent, and their weapons. Now it was Dom’s turn to frown. “What? I don’t understand.”

The gesticulation continued, more agitated now. “I think it goes along the lines of ‘You are as slow as a mole’,” Maple suggested carefully, and Fleggen nodded vigorously.

“Hey!” Dom exclaimed, glaring at the shrew, who stared back unabashedly.

“Really, Fleggen,” Simon interfered. “Not everybeast begins practicing with the rapier since they are old enough to walk.”

The Guosim shrew sighed and went over to Dom, adjusting her grip on the rapier hilt and then guiding her paw to lead her through the movement.

Simon chuckled to himself. Trust Fleggen to start arguments even without saying a word. Making sure that Freedom was in reliable paws – and secretly overjoyed to get Fleggen’s help in what wasn’t exactly his specialty, - Simon turned to Maple. “Now let me show you how a fighter with dagger can defend himself against longer weapons…”

Not everybeast was in such a good mood in Redwall, and definitely not Foxglove. The vixen lay in her bad in the little cubicle in the infirmary, the big otter who had shared it with her leaving to go off somewhere else. That was one good thing about her situation - these days after her capture she was left alone most of the time. The mouse who had killed her husband came and went, bringing her medicine to drink and food to eat, and once she had another visitor, a grey-furred hare who called himself Captain Longstep and tried to reassure her that she was quite safe, speaking some nonsense about being good friends with some vermin due to some long-forgotten war in the far south. Foxglove nodded obediently through his speech, and sighed with relief once he was gone.

She knew that there was little she could do but rest and let her injuries heal, but the inability to act was killing her. Foxglove rolled over onto her stomach, wincing when the move hurt her splintered leg, and grabbed the back of the bed with her good paw and pulled herself up, trying to have a look out of the window. She couldn't see beyond the wall from there, but she could imagine Darm's army gathering in the forest, silent and deadly. If only they attacked soon! The vixen wouldn't get the reward for opening the gates of Redwall in this case, but she didn't want reward as much as she wanted revenge.

Foxglove's ears caught the sound of approaching footsteps, and she let go of the bedpost and plopped down, her left hindpaw getting tangled in the bedsheet. The dun brown mouse healer, Turfee, walked in. “I need to examine your wounds,” he said, frowning. “Will you behave or should I call Old Skip and make him sit on you?”

Foxglove nodded, pushing back her anger and reminding herself that only patient beast could win this battle. The mouse was still frowning as he sat on Foxglove’s bed and untangled her splintered hindpaw. “What were you doing to yourself? The splint had slid to the side.”

So that explained why she had been feeling so uncomfortable lately. “I toss in my sleep,” the vixen replied.

Turfee’s mouth was pursed as he put the splint aside and undid the bandages on her leg, then ran his paws along the healing wound. Foxglove hissed as the sharp pain shot through her very bones, and it didn’t go unnoticed. “Does that hurt much?” Turfee asked, pressing his paw at same point, and Foxglove couldn’t help letting out a yelp. “I see,” the young healer said, having the reply he needed.

Without warning, he locked Foxglove’s hindpaw between two pieces of the splint and pressed hard right at the sore spot that had been bothering her. There was such a pain that Foxglove had cried out and tried to jump up, but fell back on the bed as her left leg was useless and Turfee was holding her right one down. Growling, she writhed in ache. “What are you doing, slime-gutted torturer? Trying to break my leg the second time?”

The young mouse straightened, taking fresh bandages from the bag he had brought in. “Because of your constant fidgeting, the splint shifted out of position, and your hindpaw began to heal wrong. I had to set the bone right again, or else you would’ve stayed lame.”

“That’s not right,” Foxglove hissed. Her hindpaw went numb from the strain, and whichever part of her wasn’t numb was aching instead. “That’s not how you treat a broken paw. You splint it and leave it alone, not mess with it.”

“Oh? And you are an expert healer to know best, Foxglove?”

“My mother is, Dustpaws,” the vixen bit back.

Turfee turned to apply some kind of ointment to her aching hindpaw. “Then you can tell your mother that she is a very poor healer.”

“She is dead.” The words came out of Foxglove’s mouth before she could think them through, angry and bitter.

Turfee froze, then slowly turned to face her. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I really am.”

“You never ever met her,” Foxglove growled, tired of all the false hospitality of this place. “How can you feel sorry for a beast you don’t even know?”

The healer’s brown eyes flashed with indignation. “I can still feel compassion and sadness at another beast’s fate. Loosing one’s family is something I wouldn’t wish on anybeast.”

Coming from the beast who had killed her husband, that stung. “What do you know of loosing family, Dustpaws?”

Turfee straightened. “I say so because I never knew my parents. They both died when I was just a tiny Dibbun. I was brought up here, in Redwall, by good Sisters and Brothers. So yes, I know what I am talking about.”

Foxglove wanted to say that it wasn’t the same, that he didn’t have his loved ones ripped away from him only to see them die, that he had no right to compare them, but then another thought crossed her mind. The closer you get to them, the easier it is to stab them. So she said, very slowly, “I suppose it wasn’t easy for you to cope with all of that. I mean, my mother died when I was an adult, but you had no family even since you were a cub.”

An equally slow smile spread over Turfee’s face. “Actually, I do have a family. Redwall is my family. I couldn’t wish for a better home and better friends than I have.” His expression became serious once more. “And I will do anything to protect it against the likes of you, vixen.”

“Ah, the likes of me,” Foxglove murmured. “You mean broken-up and bed-ridden females? You really should have become a warrior in this case.” The young mouse said nothing, just bowed lower, bandaging Foxglove’s hindpaw tightly, and the vixen went on. “I bet you were locked up in this mouldy rooms by your elders because they thought that somebeast had to do the healer’s job. Must’ve been awful boring to spend your days sorting through herbs, specially for a young fellow like you.” After all, she still recalled how much she disliked her mother’s lessons on healing that Coltsfoot kept trying to drill into her head till she had finally gave up. It must’ve been the same for this mouse as well, woodlander or not.

“I like healing,” Turfee cut off. “I like working with herbs and ointments. It gives me peace.” Then he flashed an unexpected smile. “Though many wondered the same thing as you. I may seem all dignified and stately now, but I was a true scoundrel when I was a Dibbun! Yeah, the whole Redwall quivered before the name of D.A.B.!”

“So you settled on tormenting your patients,” Foxglove concluded. “Must be really rewarding.”

Turfee’s brown eyes grew serious, though the frown didn’t reach his face. “The best reward is seeing a beast that was recently ill to be hale and healthy again.”

Foxglove opened her mouth to retort, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Suddenly, she remembered of all the times she used to chide her mother for treating some of the poorer patients on credit, and how Coltsfoot used to shrug and say, “Foxglove, seeing an ill beast get better is payment in itself.” But then, she always used to smirk and add, “And of course, it’s good to have beasts indebted to you, too.” And so Foxglove just harrumphed in reply, not saying anything.

“For somebeast so interested in healing, you seem to have little respect for it,” Turfee noted.

“I’m not actually interested in it. And I do have respect for it, I just don’t like it.” The vixen tried to wave her paw for emphasis, but made a mistake of lifting her injured left forepaw, and hissed at the pain.

“Well, you deserved it,” Turfee said, and Foxglove heard a glimmer of satisfaction in his glum voice as he caught her paw and began to re-bandage it as well. “You came to Redwall with the intention to kill and capture and destroy. Now you get the taste of your own medicine.”

Foxglove sighed. This mouse wasn’t making her plan of seeming friendly and peaceful easy, and she wasn’t very good at cunning anyway. “It’s not like we came here of our own free will. Remember, it was Darm Deathtrap who had brought us here, so be angry with him. I’d much better rather sail the seas with my husband,” she added bitterly.

“But you still followed him” Turfee pointed. “And don’t tell me you had no choice, because you did.” He gave the bandages on Foxglove’s forepaw a final tug before turning to the small table at the head of her bed and pouring some mixture in a cup of water. “Drink this,” he commanded. Foxglove obeyed, curling her lips at the sour taste. “I’ll give you another dose of the mixture in the evening,” the mouse healer continued. “And don’t mess with your bandages again. The sooner you heal, the sooner you’ll see your husband again.”

Foxglove felt as if a spear stabbed her right through her chest, burning, cutting her open. She clenched her teeth and reminded herself that there was no way this mouse could’ve know that her husband was the very fox he had killed. But she forced her temper down, because there was one thing the mouse had been right about. The sooner she healed, the sooner she could lay Kars’s spirit to rest.

Polls

I already have almost all the story planned out, but with so many characters and subplots some flexibility is possible, and I want to know on which developments I'd better concentrate. I may follow the way the polls will say or I may not, but I appreciate the feedback.

Aside from the main plot following the war with Darm Deathtrap, which subplot interests you most?
 
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The poll was created at 14:34 on August 10, 2015, and so far 5 people voted.
Who is your favourite hero?
 
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The poll was created at 14:56 on August 10, 2015, and so far 4 people voted.
Who is your favourite villain?
 
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The poll was created at 14:42 on August 10, 2015, and so far 4 people voted.
What should happen with Nabon?
 
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The poll was created at 14:42 on August 10, 2015, and so far 7 people voted.
This is very random, but still - if I wrote a warrior cats fanfiction and put it on some other site, would any of you read it?
 
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The poll was created at 14:42 on August 10, 2015, and so far 6 people voted.

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