This is my third, and probably final, story about Beechtail, Maplefur, and Lutran. If you have not already read Two Swords; The Return of the Rapscallions and Two Swords; Descent, you probably should before reading this.
I don't know how much time I will have to write when school starts, so updates will be very irregular. If you want to be updated, please say so in a comment.
This story is dedicated to everyone who commented on my other stories, especially Skipper Rorc, because if he hadn't been commenting I probably wouldn't have finished the first one.
Prologue: The Sibling
Nettleclaw was not the only survivor of the day the second Great Rapscallion Army fell to the blades of the Long Patrol. There was another ferret; Bloodeye. He had been knocked unconscious by a slingstone early on in the battle, and was hidden under several slain rats. He had awoken at the end of the battle just in time to see Nettleclaw sneaking off into the woods. Once the woodlander army had left the battlefield, he rose and ran after his leader. Being an excellent tracker, he had caught up with Nettleclaw just outside Redwall. The ferret warlord had instructed his one remaining servant to wait outside for him, while he “negotiated” with the Redwallers for their safe passage south.
Bloodeye had remained hidden, and witnessed the whole incident; from Aspen’s suicidal attack on Nettleclaw to the ferret’s duel with Beechtail atop the bells, and finally Nettleclaw’s subsequent death after a long and horrible fall. Bloodeye had fled immediately afterwards; he didn’t want to be within a day’s march of the Long Patrol any longer than he had to be. He had traveled southwest; towards the sea. He had been one of Nettleclaw’s original followers, and was a decent leader in his own right, but there were better; one in particular, who was almost as clever as Nettleclaw.
Two weeks later; Bloodeye was hiding behind a small boulder overlooking a hidden cove. There was a ship moored there; a two-masted brigantine with a reinforced iron prow used for ramming. The ship was too far away for Bloodeye to make out the name written on the side, and there was no breeze causing the flag, which would have otherwise identified the ship, to hang limply down. Bloodeye still knew that it was probably the one he was searching for, but on the other hand, if it wasn’t, the crew probably wouldn’t like a strange ferret snooping around.
Suddenly something smashed into Bloodeye’s wrist, sending his sword flying. He tried to rise, but somebeast’s knee pushed him flat. A cold metal blade pressed into the back of his neck. The ferret froze, not daring to breathe. For a minute nothing happened, then his unknown assailant spoke, “Well, if it isn’t Bloodeye the tracker. So, has my brother finally conquered Redwall and Salamandastron? Or did you just drop by to say hi?”
Bloodeye relaxed; he knew that voice. The blade and knee were removed, allowing the ferret to move. He rolled over. A ferret stood over him.
She was tall and slender with a brown back and a creamy throat. Her green eyes glittered dangerously below a black silk headband that encircled her brow. A scimitar was thrust through a thick belt with a golden, jewel-inlaid, buckle. She wore a dark red silk coat, with a brass spyglass sticking out of one pocket. Several gold pawrings and bracelets adorned her paws, one of which carried a coiled whip. She was hauntingly beautiful, if you ignored the crescent-shaped scar running from her cheek to her temple.
“Hello, Deathrose, it’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Bloodeye replied, he glanced at her various gem-studded pieces of jewelry, “I take it you’ve been doing well lately.”
“Yeah, being the most successful corsairs on the seas has its perks, and they’re usually better than what you get robbing travelers like my brother does. By the way how is he?”
Bloodeye opened his mouth to reply, but then paused; he really didn’t want to have to tell her bad news. Deathrose noticed his hesitation, “Well, are you here for a reason, or did you just come out here to stare at me?”
“He’s...uh...I mean…He was…slain,” Bloodeye stammered.
“WHAT!!! NETTLECLAW WAS KILLED!!!” Deathrose shouted. She grabbed Bloodeye by the shoulders and pulled him upright, “Tell me everything! Everything!”
Chapter One: Eavesdropping
As night fell on the mountain fortress of Salamandastron, around three hundred hares, except for the few on guard duty, made their way through the passages that honeycombed the mountain to the mess hall where the hare cooks produced delicious, and much more importantly, enormous dishes to satisfy the appetite of the most renowned army ever.
On the south face of the mountain, two young hares lounged on either side of a narrow window slit. Both were rather young and somewhat unhappy with their assigned duties. Soon, one of them voiced his thoughts aloud, “Oh, I bally hate night watch,” he said, “All we ever get for supper are bread, apples, and cheese.”
His companion nodded, placing an apple core next to a pile of at least a dozen others, “I agree entirely, old chap, but at least there’s nothing particularly tasty tonight, wot wot.”
“Still, I don’t see why we have to guard here at all. Do they think some vermin is just going to walk up here in the middle of the night?”
As he spoke, a dark figure dashed from a large piece of driftwood down on the beach to the shadows at the base of the mountain. Since both hare sentries were busy debating the value of their post, neither of them noticed anything unusual. Below them, the figure breathed a sigh of relief.
It was Deathrose, she had been watching the sentries through her spyglass for almost an hour from the cover of the piece of driftwood; which was not really driftwood at all, but instead a cunningly disguised coracle just big enough for Deathrose to ride in. The ferret slowly began to climb up the side of the mountain, following an almost invisible path. She took every precaution to prevent noise of any sort; one stone falling would be enough to alert the sentries, no matter how distracted they were.
In spite of her efforts, her footpaw dislodged a pebble. It tumbled down the mountainside, taking several more with it. The two sentries suddenly stood and peered out of the window, now much more attentive. Deathrose pressed herself against a boulder, trusting in her dark fur and clothing to avoid detection.
“Hmm, must have been the wind; false alarm, wot,” muttered one of the hares. The two went back to their conversation.
Deathrose breathed a sigh of relief and continued her climb; it was incredible how a little thing like a stone falling could so easily have gotten her killed. Her brother Nettleclaw had always been good at that; finding the little things that others over looked. She had learned a lot from him, and put it to good use as a corsair. Not only was she much more cunning than the average vermin, she was also a deadly fighter; even better than Nettleclaw. She had left her brother’s band of robbers because she didn’t have the patience for Nettleclaw’s scheme to conquer Mossflower. Deathrose had joined the crew of the Waveraptor, and became the captain within two seasons. Now her crew was the most feared on the seas, but she had managed to conceal her existence from Salamandastron. Then Bloodeye had showed up last summer, so she had someone she could leave in charge of the ship, and not have to worry.
The ferret stopped at a hidden crevice in the otherwise smooth rock face. This was what she had paddled all day in her coracle for. At any other time of day, this particular crack was rather unremarkable, but at dinnertime in Salamandastron, this crevice, which happened to lead directly to the mess hall, provided her with an easy way to eavesdrop on the Long Patrol officers. It was surprising what they let slip during mealtimes; patrol routes, travelers coming and going, and other information that she could use.
Deathrose put her ear to the crack, leaned back against a rock and closed her eyes. Against the background noise of three hundred hares eating, several voices could be heard.
“…So all being well, and nothing unusual happening, they should get here sometime next week, of course that takes into account bad weather, and them not being in a hurry.”
The voice was deep, and unaccented; Deathrose guessed it must be the Badger Lord Adaracor. The next voice was more feminine and had the usual hare accent, “Well, I hope they don’t run into any trouble, wot wot. I’ve wanted to meet Beechtail and Maplefur for ages!”
Deathrose’s eyes shot open, she had deduced from Bloodeye’s story that the squirrel who killed her brother was called Beechtail; but who was Maplefur? She decided it didn’t matter.
“Yes, Cel, you’ll like them. I heard that they had quite the bally adventure last fall, something to do with mice and snakes.”
“I say, Curra, are you going to eat that pasty? I’ll take it if you don’t want it, wot”
“Get your pilfering’paws of my pastry! I’ll have you know it’s bally difficult to eat quickly with one hand!”
“Y’know I read a story about a searat who lost a paw fighting a Badger Lord. Some old healer or other fixed him up with a bally hook! Maybe you could have a fork instead…”
The rest of the conversation was similarly useless banter. Deathrose slipped back to her coracle considering the one important thing she had heard. Beechtail would be visiting Salamandastron soon, and she would be waiting.
Chapter Two: Morning at Redwall Abbey
Beechtail was falling.
Leaves rushed by him at eye-blurring speed, branches lashed his body; tearing at his clothes. He grasped at them, but caught only empty air. He tried to scream, but his throat constricted, turning a wail into a whimper. The squirrel knew that at this speed, the impact with the ground would kill him instantly; pulverizing every bone in his body. Beechtail broke through the final canopy of leaves, and there was nothing below him but the hard, rocky ground, and a scimitar jammed between two rocks with the point upward. Beside it was the mangled body of Maplefur, a victim of the same fall. He shut his eyes; hoping dying didn’t hurt much…
Beechtail sat up abruptly, gasping for breath. All around him the residents of Redwall Abbey slept, and dreamt relatively peaceful dreams. The squirrel sighed and flopped back onto his bed; an unwise move as it turned out, because he was already on the very edge. Beechtail tumbled out of his bed onto the wooden floor with a dull thud; the noise slightly muffled by his sheets that had become wrapped around him during the course of his nightmare. He disentangled himself, and sat back down on his bed.
Wow, Maplefur must be pushing me way too hard with her climbing lessons, he thought. Beechtail glanced around the Dormitories to check if anyone else had been woken up by his fall. All as was quiet and the sky through the window was brightening with the pale light of dawn, he decided to get up.
Tiptoeing down the stairs, he entered Great Hall. As the Tapestry fluttered slightly in a draft of wind, the watchful eyes of Martin the Warrior seemed to glance from side to side in their eternal vigilance. Beechtail silently crept along the wall and passed through the shadows of Cavern Hole using the warm golden light spilling from the famous Kitchens to guide his footpaws.
Friar Cibus, the fat dormouse cook, was grating some spice into a large cauldron. Not wanting to disturb him, the Beechtail took a seat on a small stool. The Friar finished adding his ingredients, and turned around. Cibus jumped, startled by the squirrel’s sudden appearance, “Ah! Oh, good morning Beechtail; I didn’t hear you come in.”
Beechtail returned the greeting, “Good morning Cibus. Can I do anything to help?”
The dormouse thought for a moment, slowly stirring the contents of the cauldron, “There’s a batch of scones in the third oven that needs to come out…”
The squirrel was already moving; he quickly opened the oven, averting his face from the cloud of heated air that rushed out. As soon as it had passed, he reached in and snatched the tray of scones. Wincing in pain, he deposited them on a nearby table, and plunged his burned paws into a tub of greasy pots, pans, and thankfully, cool water. “Ouch, those are hot!”
“That’s strange, I put them there to cool,” joked the Friar, “Now I think you’ll appreciate the usefulness of oven-cloths more. While you’re there, you might as well do those dishes.”
For the next hour or so Beechtail was busy washing, drying, and putting away the dishes. Soon several other helpers came to prepare breakfast. Cavern Hole became a bustle of activity as the inhabitants of Redwall awoke to see a beautiful summer morning. Plates and utensils were set out, and bowls for oatmeal and porridge. There were veritable mountains of warm fresh scones, some with berries, others with cinnamon mixed in, and a few with hotroot, just in case some of the otters wanted a taste of their favorite spice. Jams and jellies were plentiful, and fresh fruit was abundant. There were even mushrooms sautéed in meadowcream butter!
Lutran was caught trying to walk out of the kitchen with an entire batch of scones, so Cibus sent him to help Beechtail. Between the two of them, they soon had the job done. Lutran wiped the water from the last one and handed it to Beechtail with a flourish, “I don’t know where this goes, so if you don’t mind doing the honors, I’ll just be off before Friar Cibus comes back, wot wot.” Then he vanished, along with a scone that had just come out of the oven.
Beechtail wasn’t sure where the dish went either; it was a large mixing bowl that was rarely used. Cibus finished supervising several moles loading the large cauldron of oatmeal onto a trolley. He turned, surveying all the activity in the kitchens, and caught sight of the clueless looking squirrel. “Er…Beechtail, that goes on top of that cupboard over there…You might want to let someone else do that.”
The squirrel glanced at the cupboard in question; a towering structure of oak and ash. It went all the way from the floor to the roof of the kitchens; the top shelf was empty. The only to reach it was to climb, and knowing Beechtail…
“Here I’ll do it,” said a soft voice behind him. The bowl was taken from his paws by a pretty dark red-brown squirrelmaid. She stepped from a stool to a table, and then onto a shelf at head height. Holding onto a rafter for balance, Maplefur leaned out and gently slid the bowl into its place. Opting for a more direct descent, she jumped straight from the shelf to the floor and landed gracefully; bending her knees to absorb the impact. She straightened up and yawned, “Aaaaahhhm, good morning Beechtail, been up long?”
“Yep, I’ve been up a while, so I’m hungry; let’s go eat.”
The meal was delicious; Beechtail busied himself with ladling hot oatmeal onto slices of russet apples and dried cranberries. Maplefur was enjoying her favorite food; scones, scones, and more scones. Most of the other Redwallers had a little of everything; Lutran was devouring a plate with a lot of everything. Some of the dibbuns were recreating an incident from Redwall’s history many seasons ago, where oatmeal had been used as a weapon. The Infirmary Keeper, Sister Ancilla, herded the troublemakers upstairs for a mid-breakfast bath. Beechtail was chuckling at the sight of the dibbuns when a choking sound from Maplefur caught his attention. The squirrelmaid had accidentally bitten into one of the special hotroot scones by mistake. After several seconds coughing, she managed to swallow the spicy bite. It was soon followed by a beaker of strawberry fizz.
After that incident, Maplefur was decidedly less enthusiastic about eating; so instead she started talking to Beechtail, “Did you remember to get packed for the trip?”
“Oh, right…I’ll do that right after breakfast,” the squirrel replied.
“No you won’t,” Maplefur interjected, “You’ve got a climbing lesson.”
With a moan, Beechtail slumped forward onto the table.
Chapter Three: A Relaxing Vacation
Beechtail was falling…again.
This time, however, everything was real. Fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as far to fall; unfortunately this would actually hurt.
“Oooff,” Beechtail hit the ground relatively softly. Climbing lessons, or “falling lessons” as Beechtail mentally called them, had not been a total failure. Since coming back from the adventure with the Deepmice, he made the jumps about once for every ten tries, and he could fall from high places and land softly. Maplefur attributed his progress to the confidence boost he had received on the trip and the long hours of practice she made him do. He attributed it to luck.
“Not bad that time,” Maplefur called from her perch high in the tree, “If the cluster of leaves hadn’t hit you in the face I think you could have made it.”
Beechtail grabbed a low branch and hoisted himself up. From there it was a matter of going from bough to bough until he reached Maplefur. It wasn’t too terribly difficult, but he had to watch where he put his footpaw, or else take a sudden plummet. He reached the top safely, and sat next to the squirrelmaid; letting his footpaws dangle down, and trying not to think about the all too familiar vertical path he would likely be taking in a few minutes. Rubbing an old bruise on his shoulder, he tried to start a conversation with Maplefur to buy him another minute to rest; “I can’t wait to see Salamandastron,” he commented.
Maplefur smirked, “It’ll be the perfect place for you, not a tree in half a day’s march.”
“Ahhh, I’ll finally get a chance to sit back and relax,” said the squirrel, “first time in seasons.”
“Don’t count on it, there’s a lot to see and do. Just think of it; the sea, water stretching on and on forever. I’ve always wanted to see the sea,” mused Maplefur.
Beechtail grinned, “Yes you told me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. What I really want to see is the forge. I heard the anvil is the same one that was used to forge Martin’s Sword!”
They were silent for a minute, each thinking about their upcoming trip. Beechtail broke the silence, “The Abbot said anyone who wanted to could come, who’s all going?”
“Well,” Maplefur replied, “You, me and Lutran of course, and…six of the Limbrunners.”
“That’s all?” asked Beechtail incredulously; he thought a trip to the legendary mountain would attract much more interest.
“Yes, I think the reason is that with our current schedule, we will return the evening before the midsummer feast, and since it is old Thren’s twentieth anniversary as Abbot, it’ll be huge. If we hit any sort of delay coming back we’ll miss it.”
“Then I’m surprised Lutran’s coming.”
“Haha, he said,” Maplefur began, trying to keep a straight face. She deepened her voice imitating Lutran perfectly, “This’ll be the first bally time I’ve been to the jolly old fire mountain since I was a leveret, wot wot.”
Beechtail laughed, “I wonder if he’ll ever figure out he’s an otter.”
The squirrelmaid smirked, “Probably not, but now it’s time for you to prove that you’re a squirrel.”
Groaning Beechtail stood up, and prepared to leap towards the tree Maplefur had selected, “All the same, it’ll be nice to go somewhere where we won’t be caught up in a war.”
“I doubt it,” Maplefur replied, “You seem to be a magnet for danger.”
“Me? Who was held hostage by Nettleclaw? Who nearly got strangled by a big lizard?” asked Beechtail, and then jumped before she could say anything.
Many falls, one success, and a half-hour later, Maplefur decided that Beechtail had done enough for the day. Beechtail headed up to the dormitories to pack for the trip. Maplefur followed him to ensure that he didn’t forget anything. As they reached the top of the stairs, a mole dibbun shot out of a doorway and down the stairs, bumping against Beechtail along the way.
The squirrel overbalanced, and would have tumbled back down the stairs if Maplefur hadn’t been there to grab him. “Honestly, Beechtail,” she commented, “If there’s a height, you’ll fall down it.”
Inside the dormitories, Beechtail filled a pack with a bedroll, tinderbox, a few clean tunics, and the old coil of spider silk that had long since lost its stickiness, but not its strength. From a box at the foot of his bed, he removed two objects made of what looked like red glass. Beechtail hefted the Flameblades, and then added them to the pack; they didn’t weigh much, and Maplefur was right, he did attract trouble.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully, interrupted only by a new balance exercise Maplefur designed, consisting of Beechtail standing atop a board nailed to a section of a log so that it rocked from side to side every time Beechtail moved. It was considerably less hazardous then most of the things she had him do. He went to bed early; knowing he would be walking for the next few days.
Luckily for him he didn’t have another nightmare; instead he dreamed he was slipping on warm slick surface that suddenly became a tilting wooden floor that morphed into a narrow path overgrown with lush vegetation, farther along the path ended; overlooking a glowing red-gold river that oozed slowly along. The scene changed to a view of a ship that suddenly blossomed into a tower of fire, and then another, larger, ship. An ottermaid leapt over the side of the vessel, and hit the water with a splash. Everything vanished again, to be replaced by the Sword of Martin flashing in the glow of lightning that flickered along the edges of the blade. After that he drifted off into a deep dream-free sleep.
In what seemed like no time at all; he was roughly shaken awake by Lutran, “Rise and bally shine! We’re off to Salamandastron, wot!”
Beechtail shot out of bed, grabbed his pack, and, stopping briefly in Great Hall to pick up rations and Martin’s Sword, was soon out on the path with Maplefur and the half-dozen other squirrels going on the trip. Together, they headed west; bound for the legendary fortress of Salamandastron.
Chapter Four: Arrival
Deathrose stood on the prow of the Waveraptor, watching a single rowboat gradually draw closer and closer, bobbing over the waves. They were anchored some distance north of Salamandastron; just far enough to be completely out of sight from the mountain. Over the past few days her crew had taken shifts rowing to shore, and watching for the group of Redwallers, that was supposed to arrive soon. She guessed they had something to report because they were coming back early; and because of the dream she had had the night before. Unlike most dreams, this one hadn’t faded like mist when she had awoken:
A dark form enveloped in a cloud of shadows drifted toward her. She felt strangely calm; all the things she had been worrying about before she fell asleep seemed trivial and insignificant. A voice spoke from the form; a voice she knew, her brother’s voice. “The time for your revenge draws near. Take the two that issue from the mountain when my killer arrives. Do what you will, but leave no trace. Obey, and nothing can stop you. Avenge me, my sister!” Then the dream had ended. Deathrose felt sure the squirrel called Beechtail had reached Salamandastron. She just wanted confirmation of the fact before putting her plan into action; she would only have one chance.
The occupants of the rowboat reached the ship and were swiftly hauled aboard. The leader, a weasel, hastily gave his report to Deathrose, “Large group spotted at dawn, Cap’n, about nine methinks.”
“What kind?” came the anxious reply.
“Mostly squirrels, and something that might have been a hare or an otter.”
Jackpot, thought Deathrose. She immediately began to give orders. “Lower the other rowboat, quickly. Runty, find Bloodeye,” the diminutive rat she had yelled at jumped, and scurried off. Deathrose motioned to two giant hulking weasels, “Grutt and Rukk, you two get in the boats and man the oars. The rest of you, get the ship ready for sail, we’ll be leaving in a hurry.”
Amid the flurry of orders she gave, Deathrose allowed herself a breath of relaxation; her chance would come, Nettleclaw had told her so.
“I see it! We’re nearly there!” came the shout from the far side of a massive sand dune. Beechtail was struggling to make it up the sandy mountain. Maplefur was almost at the top, using her unstrung bow as a walking stick. The squirrel paused, panting for breath, and glanced behind him. Lutran was just beginning to stagger up the slope, looking exhausted. None of them had slept for hours, mainly because the map to Salamandastron Beechtail had found didn’t include a toad-infested marsh they had wandered into, and then realized they couldn’t spend the night in. They had had to keep going, and when they were out, they decided to cover the last few miles, and sleep once they got to Salamandastron.
“Come on Lutran! You can make it!” Beechtail shouted encouragingly.
Lurtan looked up at him, “Well it’s bally difficult for an oldbeast like me’self; you young’uns have too much energy!”
It was true, Lutran was considerably older than him, almost old enough to be his father, but he usually didn’t act like it. He waited until the otter had reached him, and then took his paw to keep him upright. After gaining the summit, they caught up with Maplefur and the Limbrunners, who were all resting and drinking the last of their water supplies. Salamandastron stood about a half-mile away, smoke issuing from the crater; evidently Lord Adaracor was working in the forge. Beechtail sat down next to Maplefur, who passed him an almost empty canteen. He drank the water in a few gulps and yawned, “As soon as we get to Salamandastron, I’m going to bed,” he said, “sightseeing can wait.”
The squirrelmaid nodded, “Especially with these heavy packs.”
“Y’know your pack wouldn’t have been so heavy if you hadn’t brought so many weapons,” Beechtail observed. Maplefur had the whole set she had brought on their misadventure with the Deepmice, “We’ll be inside Salamandastron, what could happen?”
Maplefur poked Beechtail in the chest with her bow, “That’s what you said last time, and look where we wound up!”
“Point taken, but still, you have a lot of weapons.”
After a few more minutes rest they all got up, and headed down the beach to Salamandastron. Several minutes later they arrived at the reinforced main entrance. “Do we just knock?” Beechtail asked.
Lutran marched up to the gates, “Open the bally gate for the weary travelers!” He yelled, pounding on the door with his spear.
Seconds later the door opened, and the party was faced with a slightly annoyed Badger Lord, “Will you cut that out?” Adaracor asked, taking away Lutran’s spear, “Some of us enjoy peace and quiet in the mornings.”
Lutran didn’t seem too unhappy about the confiscation of his weapon, “Well, some of us are bally exhausted, wot. Our evening campsite turned out to be a swamp.”
“Oh dear,” replied the badger, “I guess you can sleep now if you don’t mind missing breakfast.” He threw the gate open wide, “Welcome, friends, to Salamandastron!”
Chapter Five: Swords and Stories
Far to the north of Salamandaston, Deathrose’s two rowboats were bobbing their way towards the shore. With the huge muscles of the weasels, Grutt and Rukk, pulling the oars, the vessels almost flew over the waves. Bloodeye sat in the prow of one boat, the rat named Runty in the other, both using their spears to nudge the boats away from the dangerous reefs and sandbars in the area. Deathrose sat behind Runty, scanning the beach through her spyglass for any sign of danger. All was clear.
The ferret captain mentally reviewed her team, trying to formulate a flexible plan that could fit whatever opportunity arose. Grutt and Rukk provided plenty of brawn, offset by their lack of brains, but since they followed her orders to the letter, she didn’t foresee any trouble there. It was true that Osin the Oarmaster was almost as strong as the weasels, and much, much smarter, but he was a little too sadistic for what Deathrose had in mind. Bloodeye would be handy in almost any situation, plus the fact that he was the only one to have actually seen the squirrel called Beechtail, and Runty had a knack for imitating voices, a key point of her plan.
While the shore drew closer, one thought occupied Deathrose’s mind; revenge!
After a nice long nap in the Salamandastron barracks, Beechtail felt much better. At about noon, he slipped out quietly, past Lutran who was snoring loudly, looking like he had fallen asleep in a bowl of oatmeal. The squirrel went looking for the others. It was some time and several wrong turns before he realized he had never been to Salamandastron before, and had no idea where he was going. Following the sound of voices, he came to a narrow window on the east face of Salamandaston. Far below on the beach, hares practiced with sabers and lances, and on several terraces, they were tending to rows of vegetables. Judging by the height of the window, Beechtail guessed he must be near the top of Salamandastron. He had just decided to go try to find his way to the crater when he heard a low voice behind him, “Pretty good view, isn’t it?”
Beechtail spun around, Adaracor, the badger Lord of Salamandastron stood there, almost filing the passageway entirely with his huge bulk. Maplefur stood beside him, grinning, “We’ve been looking for you for fifteen minutes. You really know how to get lost.”
Also with the badger and the squirrelmaid were two hares; one of them was Currare, Beechtail’s friend from the battle against Nettleclaw’s army. The other Beechtail had never met, but he guessed that she was Celeriter, the haremaid Curra had married last spring. “How are you, Beechtail,” asked Curra, “I’d shake your paw, but…well…you know.”
“I’m fine, but a little hungry,” replied Beechtail.
Adaracor nodded, “You should be hungry. I had the cooks bring some lunch up to the forge; with hares, there’s no such thing as leftovers.”
The forge chamber was only a short distance away from where they had found Beechtail. As they entered the room Beechtail’s eyes went wide. From pegs in the walls hung beautiful sabers, elegant rapiers, deadly lances, dirks, pikes, and other assorted weapons that comprised the bulk of the Long Patrol’s armaments. Among them were the massive weapons of the Badger Lords of Salamandastron. Quivers of arrows were stacked in one corner, while in another an imposing suit of badger war armor, studded with steel spikes and complete with a helmet and boots, rested on a wooden frame. In the center of the room was the renowned forge that had produced such an arsenal. Dominated by a badger sized anvil, it had every steel-working tool imaginable.
Maplefur and the hares made a beeline for the food that was laid out on a small table by the window, Adaracor, however, followed Beechtail towards the forge. Almost reverently, the squirrel reached out and touched the horn of the anvil. It ended in a perfectly smooth plane; according to legend, the first thing Martin had done with his sword after it had been reforged by Boar the Fighter was to slice the tip from the anvil; a story that was apparently true. The anvil itself was considerably high quality steel, but it had been cut like a loaf of bread.
Suddenly Beechtail noticed a familiar object lying on a workbench, “Hey! What’s this doing here?” he asked, picking up the Sword of Martin.
“Oh, um…I just wanted to look at it, and you were asleep,” replied Adaracor, “I didn’t want to wake you up.”
The badger lumbered past Beechtail, and walked over to another part of the forge, “I remember watching you fight the Rapscallions and thinking, ‘that squirrel’s got talent with swords’, I made you something, and I think you’ll like it.” He turned, and handed Beechtail a sword.
It had a simple cord-bound wooden hilt that fit comfortably in the squirrel’s paw, and the blade was as fine as any that had come from Salamandastron’s forge; that is to say, incredible. It was double edged, but curved slightly at the tip to make it more effective for the slashing attacks Beechtail used when wielding two swords. It was nothing compared to Martin’s Sword of course, but it was far superior to the Rapscallion sword he had before. Now he had two swords again. Well, actually it was four if you counted the Flameblades, which he didn’t because they were more like edged vambraces than swords.
“I think every warrior should have his own sword, that doesn’t mean one loaned to him by a long-dead warrior,” Adaracor commented.
Beechtail took a few practice swings, it was excellent. “Wow,” he said.
Adaracor chuckled, ”Glad you like it. Let’s get lunch before those three gluttons eat all the food.”
They walked over to the window where the food was laid out. The squirrelmaid and the two hares were chatting amiably; Maplefur and Celeriter seemed to get along excellently.
Maplefur, looked up from a cheese-and-oatfarl sandwich, and laughed, “Lutran has to do my chores for a week; we had a bet, you see, on whether or not you’d wind up with another sword.”
Beechtail ate a simple, but tasty lunch of bread, apples, and cheese. Adaracor had already eaten, and spent his time getting information from Beechtail and Maplefur about the battle against the Rapscallions the previous summer for a record he was making for the Salamandaston archives. Like true hares, Currare and Celeriter consumed an amount of food roughly equal to the lunch they had had only a few hours before.
After they were finished, Adaracor said to Beechtail, “Now, I want to hear all about that adventure you had last winter, your friend Maplefur won’t tell me anything.”
Beechtail shot a quizzical glance at Maplefur, who shrugged, “Hey, it’s your story; you’re the hero after all.”
The sun was beginning to set by the time the squirrel finished his story. Adaracor’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates; quite a sight in a badger.
Curra stood up to leave, “Sorry, I have south watch tonight,” he sighed, “oh well, duty calls, wot wot.”
“Want to go for a walk on the beach?” Maplefur asked Beechtail; giving him her best doe-eyed smile, “Please?”
Beechtail, whose legs were sore from three day’s marching, shook his head, “Maybe tomorrow.”
“I’ll go with you,” said Celeriter. The two of them stood up, and headed for the door.
“Take a weapon, and watch out for crabs,” Lord Adaracor called, “You do know how to deal with them, right?”
“Of course, sir,” replied Celeriter, slightly offended, “It’s part of bally basic Long Patrol training!”
After they had gone, Adaracor rose and motioned for Beechtail to follow him. He led the squirrel into an adjoining room. “There’s something you should see,” he said. The badger levered aside a section of the wall with his powerful muscles, exposing a hidden tunnel. Beckoning for Beechtail to enter, he stepped inside.
Chapter Six: Deathrose’s Chance
Deathrose kicked Bloodeye awake; they had landed farther up the coast and hiked down through the dunes until they were just north of Salamandaston. She had decided to let them sleep while they waited for their targets to appear. So far hares had been busy around the base of the mountain all day, but now a haremaid and a squirrelmaid were making their way up the beach towards them. Deathrose felt certain they were the two her brother had told her about, and had already formulated a plan. She explained her idea to Bloodeye, who agreed entirely, but had one question, “What’s to keep their friend from coming after us?”
Deathrose grinned fiendishly, “I arranged for a diversion, which will keep them occupied for some time. If it doesn’t work, they won’t find us because,” she picked up two small shells from the sand, and clenched them in her paws, “they will simply vanish,” the ferret opened her paws to reveal the shells were gone, “without a trace.”
Once else everyone was awake, she outlined her idea, and once everyone understood their part, she returned to the top of the dune to continue tracking the unsuspecting pair’s progress. However, a sharp crack and cry of anger behind her demanded her attention.
Grutt had accidentally bumped into Runty, who had fallen and accidentally shattered his spearhaft. The tiny rat was whacking the much larger weasel with a fragment, but doing as much damage as a snowflake does to a bonfire. “Runty, get back to your place!” Deathrose hissed angily.
Runty stopped his futile assault and pointed accusingly at Grutt, “He pushed me and made me break my spear! It was bamboo too, do you know how rare that stuff is?” he whined.
The ferret captain sighed inwardly; she had forgotten how annoying Runty could be, “If you shut up now and get back to your post, I’ll let you have the javelin the squirrelmaid’s carrying; it looks badger-made.”
Runty’s eyes gleamed greedily as he scurried away behind a dune, all thoughts of his spear forgotten; even among vermin, Salamandaston weapons are regarded as the epitome of quality. Grutt had a question, “We. Kill?” he asked, gesturing to where his brother Rukk crouched with two heavy clubs.
Deathrose shook her head, “No,” she answered, emphasizing the word so that Grutt’s tiny brain would register it, “We could use a couple oarslaves.”
Beechtail remembered reading about this passage in a narrative about the founding of Redwall as soon as he saw the enthroned skeleton of the great Lord Brocktree encased in armor at the end of the tunnel. This was where the strange carvings were that predicted so many things. Adaracor took a lantern from a holder at the entrance, and began to point out some of the more important ones, explaining who they were and what they did. Beechtail glanced around; searching for where Martin the Warrior was supposedly pictured.
Adaracor seemed to read his mind; the badger tapped a set of figures halfway up the wall, “I’m guessing you’re looking for these.”
Beechtail grinned and leaned in close to study the tiny carvings. They were small, but very sharp and clear. Martin looked almost like he did on the Tapestry of Redwall, but there was something wrong about it; something that was obvious, but Beechtail couldn’t pin down what it was.
Adaracor read the expression on the squirrel’s face very accurately, “It’s something to do with his sword,” he hinted.
“Ah,” said Beechtail, as it dawned upon him, “You wouldn’t normally hold a sword like that, it’s pointing downward-Oh, I get it!”
The badger directed Beechtail’s gaze to a line of miniscule carvings that ran along the floor, “It’s pointing at those, I noticed them a few weeks ago.”
The squirrel bent down; the figures were all the warriors of Redwall! They were all represented; from Matthias, standing atop a cracked bell holding a sword and shield, to Triss, who stood triumphantly waving the Sword of Martin above her head with a broken manacle dangling from her wrist, to the end of the line, where another squirrel with a sword in each hand hung in midair next to a tree. Three vertical lines indicated it was moving downward with great speed.
Beechtail opened his mouth in surprise, closed it, and then opened it again, “W-w-what?” he stammered, “Is that me?”
“I believe so, unless you know another squirrel with two swords who falls out of trees,” replied Adaracor, setting the lantern down, “It’s also a list of the warriors of Redwall, so you would be on there.”
The squirrel stood up, “It seems what I will be known for is falling, that’ll make Maplefur ease up with the climbing lessons. By the way, what happened to the rest?” Beechtail had noticed that the figures after him had been obliterated by long deep scratches.
“I’m afraid my predecessors were not always the best at controlling their Bloodwrath, I myself was lucky enough to discover an old text written by Russano the Wise on how he managed his; it’s extremely difficult, but possible. Although I doubt I’ll ever be as good at it as he was; except for his wife, no one realized he had it.”
“Is that what you wanted me to see?” asked Beechtail.
“Yes, but did you notice the swords? One is definitely Martin’s, but the other is the one I made for you. Actually, that’s what prompted me to make it in the first place; I think you’ll have need of it someday.”
“Well, whatever it is I need it for can wait; I came out here to see old friends and relax…and get away from trees,” he added as an afterthought.
Adaracor chuckled, “I wouldn’t count on it. While we were looking for you, Maplefur told me she was going to have you scale some of the steeper sides of the mountain.”
Beechtail took an involuntary step backward. He footpaw landed in a puddle of a warm slippery substance and shot out from under him. He fell forward on his face, “Ahh-ow!”
“How interesting,” said Lord Adaracor.
The squirrel raised his head a fraction, “If you think it’s interesting to see a squirrel trip, you won’t be bored while I’m here,” he said glumly.
“No, not you, that,” the badger replied pointing.
Wax was dripping down the wall, melted by the lantern’s heat; revealing tiny words just above the carving of Beechtail that it had filled. Beechtail sat up and wiped away the remainder of the wax.
Deathrose takes vengeance;
Two maids in chains,
Two Swords will give chase,
But One-Hand remains.
Seek out Night’s Blade,
When dark clouds you see,
Stay clear of the Sword,
And flee Stormy Seas.
“That’s one cryptic poem,” said Lord Adaracor after reading it, “I have no idea what the second verse means, and the first…uh-oh.”
Beechtail had arrived at the same conclusion; Two Swords likely referred to him, and that meant Maplefur was probably one of the “two maids”. Now she was out alone with Celeriter, which would explain the mention of Currare; “one hand”. Something bad was going to happen.
The squirrel raced out through the forge room, seizing his weapons. Rounding the half-open door, he ran headlong into Lutran. They both went sprawling, but Lutran was quick to recover, “Ow! You’ll get hurt running a chap down like that, dashing here and there like bally mad otters! Slow down, this was supposed to be relaxing, wot wot!”
“Maplefur is in trouble!” was all the reply Beechtail gave before speeding off in a futile race against time and fate.
“In trouble? I hope it’s not for scoffing all the scoff; I haven’t had dinner yet,” called Lutran after him.
“Cut the chatter!” ordered Lord Adaracor; hefting his mighty flail. He tossed Lutran a spear, “Follow me.”
Maplefur loved the sea; the glow of the setting sun on the water was beautiful, and the wet sand near the waves felt great between her toes. She carried her javelin, and Celeriter bore a dirk, sling, and large piece of driftwood “for use against crabs” and as a walking stick. The squirrelmaid had collected several pretty seashells that would provide hours of entertainment for the Redwall Dibbuns. The only thing that could have been better was Beechtail coming, but already she was great friends with Celeriter.
They were well north of Salamandastron, and talking amiably, when they heard a long, drawn-out cry from the dunes on their right, “HEEELLPP!!”
Celeriter’s paw went to her dirk, “That was a hare!”
“A young one too, come on!” said Maplefur, running towards it.
The haremaid was more cautious, “Maybe we should get help…”
The cry came again, this time ending in a scream.
“No time, we’re too far away.”
Dropping the driftwood, Celeriter sprang after the squirrelmaid. She caught up with her at the crest of the dune. As they rushed down the slope, Maplefur felt a dull pain on the back of her head. Stars swarmed across her vision, and the world dissolved into blackness as the sands rushed up to meet her.
Chapter Seven: Gone
Sand flew from under Beechtail’s paws as he sprinted along the beach, desperation giving strength to his footpaws. He was no tracker, but Maplefur’s and Celeriter’s pawprints were easily visible in the soft sand. Occasionally the trail vanished where they strayed too close to the sea, but it was always visible up ahead.
Suddenly the prints veered east towards the dunes, just after a large piece of driftwood. Beechtail turned to follow, catching sight as he did so of a large group of hares, Adaracor, and Lutran coming after him.
He stumbled going up the dune, but continued his headlong rush, not caring if he stumbled into a trap; any enemy in his way would find out just how hard a squirrel can fight when his best friend is threatened.
Cresting the top of the dune he halted; the tracks ended abruptly, and there was no sign of Maplefur or Celeriter. They were gone, and he couldn’t follow.
The reality of the situation hit him, and he gripped the hilt of his swords so hard that his knuckles turned white. He felt a tear well up in his eye, and made no effort to stop it. You idiot, he mentally berated himself, You should have gone with them, you could have done something. Yes, you were tired, but that didn’t stop you sprinting up here, did it? Maplefur was his best friend, more than that really, and now she was gone, possibly dead, and his newfound confidence had went with her.
He heard the others come up behind him. Adaracor was explaining the situation to a shocked Currare. Lutran put a comforting arm around the squirrel, but said nothing. Two trackers immediately began searching the area. Soon they came back and made their report to Lord Adaracor.
“Lot’s of surface sand churned up, sah, possibly a struggle; but a quick one, since it’s in a small area. Whoever did it covered their tracks well, we can’t trace them, sah,” said one.
“Also, I believe the maids are still alive!” added the other.
“Alive?” asked Beechtail
“Yes, there’s no bodies, and anything that would eat them wouldn’t be smart enough to hide its tracks, and there’d be blood,” she replied gesturing around them, “Which there isn’t. What happened was; they were ambushed and kidnapped.”
Adaracor was thinking, “If they were kidnapped, it could have been any number of things: searats, toads, a juska clan, or maybe a lost band of river rats. We need to find some hint if we want to go after them.”
The group spread out searching the nearby dunes. Beechtail plodded unhappily along, looking for something out of the ordinary. He could see nothing except a fragment of driftwood; a common enough thing on the beach. He kicked angrily at it, and watched it go spinning across the sand.
Suddenly a thought struck him; they were well above the tideline, there shouldn’t be any driftwood here! He ran after it, and picked up the piece that was twice as long as his paw. Now that he looked closely it was like no driftwood he had ever seen before; it was smooth, hollow, and segmented.
“Hey! I found something!”
Adaracor came running up. Beechtail handed him the fragment, and hastily explained where he had found it. The badger motioned to one of the hares; an important looking one with the insignia of a captain, “What do you think? Bamboo?”
The hare nodded, “Most definitely, sah; that’s bamboo.”
“What’s bamboo?” asked Beechtail.
“I think it’s like a giant reed,” replied Adaracor, “It’s very rare in Mossflower; usually only searats have it.”
“Searats! They were taken by searats!” exclaimed Beechtail, horrified. In all the stories he had read, the life of an oarslave was the worst. To imagine Maplefur as one…he just couldn’t. “We have to rescue them!” He turned towards the sea, as if to charge out into the surf and swim until he found Maplefur
“Of course we’ll go after them,” replied Lord Adaracor, “I’d be ashamed to call myself Lord of Salamandastron if we didn’t, but it’ll have to wait for tomorrow; it’s getting dark, and we need to make a plan, get rations, and other things. If it’ll help you sleep, I just figured out what the next part of the poem means.”
Beechtail spun around so fast he almost fell, “What!”
“There’s an otter who lives north of Salamandastron about half a day’s walk. His name is Rorc Nightblade. If we are going to find Celeriter and Maplefur, we’ll need a ship, and he might have one, if I’m reading the poem’s meaning correct.”
As the group trekked back to the mountain, Beechtail walked alongside Lutran, “I just don’t believe it! Me and Maplefur have been through just about everything, Rapscallions, giant lizards, snakes, and now she is captured by a bunch of searats!”
“Just think of it as training; if you’ve beaten bally Gorthumbar, what chance does a flea-ridden bunch of mangy searats stand? None of course, wot wot,” replied Lutran.
If only he had known just how wrong he was.
Aboard the Waveraptor, Deathrose was organizing the ship to make sail. The limp forms of the hare and squirrelmaid had been carried down to the oardeck. The ferret smirked, those two were in for a rude awakening, and headaches besides.
She shook aside her thoughts of triumph; more time for those when they were well away from Salamandastron. Right now they needed to move in case the diversion didn’t come. If it worked, the Long Patrol wouldn’t be able to come after her for days, but she didn’t like to take chances.
Chapter Eight: Rorc Nightblade
About half-a-day’s march to the south of Salamandastron, a huge galleon bobbed at anchor a short distance from land in the pale light before dawn. Almost four hundred searats and corsairs milled about on the shore, many of them unloading barrels and crates from a small dinghy. It was easy to pick out the leaders; they were supervising the excavation of an underground pit, in which the containers were being stockpiled. One was a tall dangerous-looking fox, with a large feather in his equally large hat, and an elegant rapier at his side. The other was a haggard looking stoat hefting an axe. His silk clothing must have been very fine at one point, but now was in tatters. The fox was clearly the dominant of the pair, judging by the way the stoat stood behind him, glaring sullenly at the fox.
Captain Rodel, for that was the fox’s name, grinned fiendishly and turned to the stoat, Captain Shelg, “I don’t think your lot are puttin’ their backs into it.”
The stoat groaned, “Cum on, ye seascum, if you lot were any slower, I’d throw myself in the sea for shame!” he shouted at his crew, even though they were working at least twice as hard as Rodel’s. They were all sworn to serve Rodel for a season, ever since he rescued them from an island where they were shipwrecked; a fact Rodel never let him forget, “Tell me again what we’re doin’?” he asked the fox.
Rodel laughed, “So about a half-season ago, Deathrose comes and says, ‘Captain Rodel,’ she says, ‘since we’re the two biggest Captains on the waters, we oughta join forces and take Salamandastron for ourselves, I ‘ave it from a good source they’re only numberin’ three ‘undred or so.’ Course she said it a lot better and fancy-like; you know how she is.”
Shelg nodded, his ship had been boarded and looted by the ferret twice when it still floated. He hadn’t had much choice, the Waveraptor could sink anything.
“So I says, ‘Deal,’” Rodel chuckled punching Shelg in the shoulder, “But I’ve double-crossed her, we was supposed to attack today, but we’re going to hide our vittles here and go lay siege to the mountain tomorrow. If she doesn’t like it…well, I’ve got four times her crew.”
“Erm,” muttered Shelg uncomfortably, “My crew’s not happy attackin’ Salamandastron.”
“Those rabbits fight like madbeasts, but they die, same as anybeast,” Rodel tapped his rapier hilt, “I’ve got this to prove it.”
The fox captain was hailed by a rat from the dinghy, “We’ve finished loadin’ the stores Cap’n.”
“Good, take two o’ the crew with ye an’ sail the Bloodgush to the hidden cove. Come back in the dinghy and meet us at Salamandastron,” ordered Rodel, he turned to Shelg, “I always hide my ship ‘fore a fight, so it’ll never be stolen. C’mon now, get the crews ready to march!”
The trio of searats were veteran sailors, but they failed to notice a figure pulling itself paw over paw up a rope hanging from the stern. It was an otter, and his name was Rorc Nightblade. His only clothing was a pair of green cloth shorts held up by a black belt from which dangled two dagger sheaths. Only one of them contained a knife; the other blade was clenched between his teeth. His face was tattooed, and he moved as silent as a shadow.
One of the vermin climbed the mainmast to fix a tangled part of the rigging. Rorc ascended the mizzenmast undetected by the steersrat not three paces away. The otter quickly reached where the rat was hanging from a rope to reach the knot. He removed the dagger from his jaws and smiled sympathetically, “Always have a backup rope, mate…”
The steersrat abandoned the wheel, “Rat overboard!” he rushed to the rail, and bent over to see his shipmate floundering in the waves.
Rorc slid down from the mast just in time to see the rat bend over. It was too good of an opportunity to miss. The rat’s rear end presented a perfect target. One kick sent him over the rail to join his friend. The rat who was watching for reefs in the bow of the ship had heard the commotion. He came charging to the stern brandishing a long boathook. Unfortunately for him, he failed to see some coils of rope in his mad rush. He went flying overboard without any help from Rorc. The otter waved at the three vermin bobbing on the sea from the stern of the galleon. Only one of them had collected his wits, “Stop! Thief!”
“If I’m a thief, what are you?” he retorted, and then strode over to the wheel, “I always wanted one o’ these,” he said stroking the fine wood.
As the sun rose, Lord Adaracor led Beechtail, and a few hand-picked hares, northward to find Rorc Nightblade. The Badger ruler had left instructions with the senior officer, Captain Resscut, to have Lutran, and one hundred of the least prone hares to get seasick, ready and armed by midday, along with provisions and water supplies for a long voyage. They hoped to be back about mid-afternoon, at the latest.
Beechtail strode unhappily northward; the awful events of the previous evening combined with the cold wind created a general feeling of misery around the squirrel, which was transmitted to the rest of the party. He shivered, the bone-chilling wind was all to appropriate for what he felt now. The sun rose, but did little to improve the warmth or the squirrel’s mood. They trekked onward until midmorning.
Suddenly he noticed that they were walking in the shadow of a large object. There was a grinding crunch, and every head swiveled towards the sea. A large ship was stopped just offshore with its keel aground in a sandbar. An otter’s head appeared over the forecastle after a minute, “Oops,” he said.
Adaracor waded out a few paces, “Rorc Nightblade, is that you?” he called in a booming voice.
“Aye, what brings you this far from the mountain?”
“How about you come over here so we can stop shouting?”
Seconds later, Rorc emerged from the surf, and surveyed the group, “So, what’re you up to, or did I swim out all this way just to chat?”
Beechtail stepped forward, and began to relate the story, “Well, last night, my best friend Maplefur was out walking on the beach…”
“…and so we need a ship. Will you help us?” he finished several minutes later.
Rorc grinned and rubbed his paws together, “Fair maids to rescue and searats to fight? Sounds like the beginning of a great story, I’m in! This ship might not be the best made on the seas, but it’s probably one of the fastest. If you wait a few minutes the tide will lift her off the sandbar.”
Adaracor flexed his considerable muscles, “Why wait?”
About midday they made it back to Salamandastron. The hares were lined up on the beach, the Limbrunners were testing bowstrings, and provisions were piled high. Adaracor heaved the anchor overboard. Beechtail and Rorc lowered two rowboats, and the group headed for the shore. Adaracor had to swim, as he would sink the boats. As soon as they reached the beach, Beechtail sought out Lutran. His friend grinned, “I say, looks like we’ll be goin’ after Maplefur in style, you sure don’t settle for less than the best to help her, wot.”
“Attention everybeast!” roared Lord Adaracor, addressing the hares, “Very shortly, you will be departing to rescue Celeriter and the squirrelmaid Maplefur from searats. This is a volunteers-only mission, so if you would rather stay here, please say something now.”
No one stirred.
“Excellent, now, Captain Resscutt will head the mission, and this otter here, Rorc Nightblade, will be Captain aboard the ship.”
Rorc glanced around, “Okay, there’s a lot of you, so we’d best get movin’ right away, as we’ve only got two rowboats.”
As the hares made for the boats, Adaracor suddenly grabbed one by the ear, “Hold it, Lieutenant, you’re not supposed to go.”
It was Currare, “What do you mean, “not supposed to go”? I have as much right to as Beechtail, Cel is captured, remember?”
“Yes, but I think you would be of more use here, and this whole incident shows that the searats are getting bolder. We will only have two hundred defenders until Resscut gets back. The poem Beechtail stumbled upon (quite literally by the way) indicates that you should stay. Besides, you get very seasick.”
Beechtail patted his friend on the shoulder, “I’ll find them, just keep the mountain intact.”
Curra still seemed unhappy, but didn’t argue.
Now it was Lutran and Beechtail’s turn to be ferried to the ship along with several water barrels. As they loaded them, Rorc grinned at Lutran, “Nice to have another otter on the trip.”
“I am a hare, and I think you need to get your head checked.”
Lutran walked by leaving Rorc standing there nonplussed. “He’s not right in the head,” whispered Beechtail, “So just pretend he’s a hare.”
“Oookaaayy,” replied Rorc mystified.
Eventually all the stores were loaded and everybeast was on board. As the anchor was pulled up, Beechtail asked Rorc, “What’s the name of this ship?”
“Hmmmm, she’s called the Seastorm.”
As the late afternoon sun beat down on the sea, the Seastorm set off, never to return.
Chapter Nine: Tinden and Griff
A dull throbbing pain; that was all that she was aware of. Her skull felt like it had been crushed between boulders, she had a massive headache, and the world was black and silent. It was an immeasurable time before she could remember who she was, and what she was doing. Her name was Maplefur she remembered, and she was walking on the beach with Celeriter. She must have fallen and hit her head, she decided. Gradually her senses returned, but everything was wrong. She realized she was sitting on a hard bench, and slumped over a wooden shaft. Oddly, it seemed the bench was tilting to and fro. She could hear voices, as well as a low booming sound, but she couldn’t recognize them, although they were strangely familiar; they almost reminded her of Lutran.
“…she seems to be coming round. How’s your rabbit?” said one, with a light, feminine, sound.
“I AM A HARE!” that was definitely Celeriter.
There was a pause, then a deeper, rougher voice, definitely a male’s, “Seems okay.”
Maplefur opened her eyes, and tried to sit up, but something held her down, “Sit still!” the female ordered, “I’m trying to get the swelling down on your head.”
The squirrelmaid noticed a cool sensation that was driving away her headache. She opened her eyes and looked sideways as far as she could without moving her head. From her angle, she could see the hem of a tan tunic, a pair of brown-furred legs, and a thick muscular tail. Otters! That was why the voices reminded her of Lutran!”
After some more time the coolness ebbed away along with her headache and she was allowed to sit up. Maplefur glanced around, an ottermaid, slightly younger than herself was sitting on the bench next to her, examining a sopping wet length of cloth wadded into a ball. She looked at Maplefur, “Feel better?”
Maplefur nodded. The ottermaid grinned, “Good, cause we’re out of cold water. Can you pretend to be really weak for a few more minutes? I don’t want to row.”
“Row?” Maplefur looked around. In front of them, several pairs of assorted creatures continuously bent forward and then leaned back. The wooden shaft she had been leaning on was an oar. She glanced down; manacles secured her paws. Her eyes widened in horror.
She was a slave.
“No!” Maplefur struggled fiercely, trying to slip her paws from the chains. She was not a slave; she would not be a slave.
The ottermaid watched her sympathetically, “You’re not going to get anywhere like that. You’ll only tire yourself out,” she gestured to an iron lock that closed the manacles, “not even my brother can break these.”
“Your brother?” asked Maplefur. The ottermaid jerked her head, indicating a position behind Maplefur. She turned around as far as her chains would allow her. On the bench behind her, and to her left, next to the aisle that ran down the middle of the ship was a slightly older otter, big, muscular, and tough-looking, with a vertical scar running across his eye.
“Hello mate, welcome aboard the Waveraptor, accommodations courtesy of Captain Deathrose. Name’s Griff, by the way.”
“And I’m Tinden! I’d shake your paw, but the chains don’t reach,” added the ottermaid, “Who’re you?”
“Maplefur,” replied the squirrelmaid, “I had a friend, a hare named Celeri-”
“Right behind you, and not too happy, but at least somebody knows my bally species!”
There was a chuckle from Griff, “I knew you was a hare, I just wanted to see whether you could hear me or—LOOK OUT!”
The otters both ducked instantly, as did Celeriter , who had quick reflexes from long hours of combat training in the Long Patrol, so it was Maplefur who took the sharp and unexpected sting of the whip, “Ow!”
A large evil-looking stoat leered at the squirrelmaid, “Yew’s the one Deathrose telled me not to spare from the lash; if you don’t get a-rowin’ I’d be happy to oblige her.” He cracked the whip dangerously close to her head once more before walking away down the aisle.
TInden released a sigh of relief, “Wow, we got away easy there. That was Osin the Oarmaster; he’s worse than Deathrose. She only kills for loot, he just likes inflicting pain. Now about rowing…grasp the oar with both paws like this.”
Maplefur complied, and was vaguely aware of Celeriter doing the same. Tinden continued, “Now we bend forward, pushing down. Now we brace our footpaws and…PULL!”
The squirrelmaid did so, and was aware of the resistance the sea exerted on the oar, but it was much less than she had expected, “This isn’t so bad.”
Tinden chuckled, “If you can say that after a few hours I’ll be surprised. However, the Waveraptor is a very good ship, and moves easily. Oh, if you get seasick…there’s the hole the oar goes through. Try not to get anything inside. Now we repeat…”
As the day wore on Maplefur realized Tinden was right, it was difficult. Twice they were allowed to stop, and received water and their food, which consisted of a porridge-like substance supplemented by fruit and other things that Griff claimed were the leftovers from the corsairs’ meals. Shortly after sunset, the drum that beat out the cadence for the oarslaves to go by stopped, and Maplefur slumped forward; panting for breath. “Thankfully Deathrose can’t sleep while the drum beats, or we might have to row all night!” commented Tinden.
The squirrelmaid took the opportunity to ask a question that had been on her mind all day, “Tinden? How did you and your brother get captured?”
The ottermaid’s face fell, “It’s a long story…”
Chapter Ten: Tinden’s Tale
“I can barely remember my parents, and neither can Griff,” explained the ottermaid, “actually, the only thing I do remember is their deaths. Do you have any idea how horrible that is?”
Maplefur couldn’t imagine anything like that, although she had lost both her parents and her brother that fateful day long ago when Angdelve had been massacred, so Tinden began her tale.
Tinden, and her one season older brother Griff were the image of perfect otterbabes; they were already proficient swimmers (even though Tinden could barely walk), had a great appetite for their mother’s homemade shrimp-and-hotroot soup, got along perfectly, loved a good splashing war, could get in and out of mischief like a squirrel gets in and out of trees, and had perfect manners to boot. Like anybeast, they had their quirks; Tinden was able to amuse herself all day with only a jar of assorted buttons, and Griff was fond of making intricate constructions of fallen branches. In short, they were adorable.
But today, being adorable was no advantage; they had been rudely awakened from their mid-afternoon nap by cries of pain and the clash of steel on steel. Tinden nudged her brother, “Wha ‘appen?”
Their mother, her features obscured by a haze of forgotten memories, burst into their room and scooped them up, “Shhh…be quiet, Tinden.”
She took them and left the bedroom hurriedly, the sounds of fighting were coming from the living room; which was the only entrance or exit from their home, dug into the side of a hill near a river, as it was. She took them into the kitchen, and after glancing around, deposited the two of them on a low shelf in the pantry, “Stay here, and don’t make a sound.”
The terrified otterbabes didn’t need to be told twice; wide-eyed, they held each other close as their mother swung the door shut, plunging them into darkness. Of the pair, TInden was the more frightened, being younger, and somewhat afraid of the dark. Her brother dipped his paw into a nearby jar of honey, and fed her some to calm her.
The fighting had died down now, and intelligible voices were heard drawing closer, there was the sound of a door opening, a loud “bong!”, and then shouting.
“Watch tha’ fryin’ pan!”
“Take this!” Bong!
And then a sickening crunch. All the noises ended, and there was silence.
“Who said these riverdogs were peaceful beasts? That ‘un knew ‘ow to use a frying pan?”
“I dunno…I’m hungry where’s the food yew said was here?”
The pantry door creaked open, and light spilled into their hiding place. Tinden let out an involuntary shriek, “Eeek!”
The otterbabes found themselves face to face with a weasel, “Hey, lookit what I found!” he said lifting the pair out, “Liddle ‘uns!”
The other five assorted vermin were nonplussed, “What we gonna do with ‘em?” asked one.
The weasel, who was the leader of the group, pondered the question before grinning and smiling craftily, “I’m a genius. We feeds ‘em and lets ‘em grow up. Then we makes ‘em do some o’ the hard work around the camp. Otters are strongbeasts.”
The other vermin chuckled and shoved each other in merriment at their leader’s “genius” suggestion. A small rat was selected to carry the otterbabes, and a ferret had a sack of valuables looted from the otters’ home. After they ate a meal, during which Griff got a bruise for lecturing them on their manners, the vermin picked up the loot and captives, who were by now thoroughly terrified, and headed back to their camp. As they left the kitchen, Tinden caught sight of their mother lying still by the door in a pool of blood, and burst into tears.
Suddenly the rat carrying them collided with the backs of the other vermin as they stopped abruptly. Tinden could just barely see past them. Their father was leaning on a low table. He turned towards the vermin, blood coating his face. The weasel raised his spear and charged; their father simply sidestepped and caught hold of the spearhaft. With a mighty burst of strength, he hurled the weasel head-over-heels across the room. The vermin struck the wall, and slid down with his neck at an impossible angle.
With their leader slain, the cowardly streaks in the others came to the surface instantly. As Tinden’s enraged father leapt at them, they scattered; many dropping their weapons. The rat carrying the otterbabes saw his chance and fled out the door while his companions were being cut down. He turned just outside the door, and ran to where three other vermin were waiting with a raft. One of them looked up at the rat as he approached, “Where’s everybody?”
“Shaddup, there’s a mad riverdog in there, and he’ll be comin’ after us next! Cast off!”
They hastened to untie the raft, and within moments were out of sight down the river. The other three turned to the rat after they were a safe distance away, “Did ya get anythin’?”
Tinden and Griff were deposited in the center of the raft where they huddled together while the vermin decided what to do with them. Eventually it was agreed that their leader had had a good idea in raising them as slaves. The vermin had once before attempted to be slavers, which had failed miserably (although it still turned out better than their attempt at becoming corsairs, which isn’t worth mentioning), but figured they could handle two baby otters. Two pairs of manacles were bought out, and Tinden examined hers curiously before showing it to Griff, “Loo’ bro…baselet!”
Many seasons later, Tinden and Griff were still slaves to the four surviving vermin, though, they hoped, for not much longer. They were no longer tiny little otterbabes, but fully-grown otters, strengthened by the constant work they were forced to do. The vermin were all snoring by their fire, while the otters were chained to trees a pace away. Tinden was keeping watch in case one of them awoke, and Griff was attempting to pick the lock on his chains with a stolen dagger; lock and pocket-picking were two skills he had developed over the long seasons of their imprisonment. He accidentally rattled his manacles loudly, and froze at the noise.
“Shhhh,” whispered his sister, “be careful.”
None of the vermin stirred, and soon Griff resumed his work. With a soft click, the manacles fell open. Griff smiled and closed his eyes, “Hear that? It’s the sweet sound of freedom.”
Tinden rolled her eyes, “Whatever, just get me free!”
In no time at all, they were both loose. Tinden massaged her wrist, free for the first time in seasons from the “bracelet”. She glanced at the sleeping vermin, and then at Griff, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Her brother nodded, “Definitely!”
It was the work of a moment to chain the vermin together while they slept. Tinden hid the keys for good measure. The pair of otters slipped into the current of a river that passed near the campsite, after they were a considerable distance away, they surfaced, “Sooo…what do we do now?” asked Tinden.
“I don’t know…I guess we’ll just head down the river until we find somewhere nice,” replied Griff.
As they traveled downstream, night turned to dawn, and Tinden noticed the mud was taking on as sandy color. A dark shape ahead cast shadows in the river, and the otters dived to avoid it. Tinden suddenly noticed something shiny in her brother’s path. He clapped his paws to his face; a stream of bubbles bursting from his mouth. She swam over to him, and made him peel back his paws.
A fishhook was embedded in his face, making a long gash that had barely missed his eye, she tried to remove it, but the line was jerked upward, forcing Griff to surface. Tinden followed, bursting out of the water beside the boat. A ferret in a long black coat held the line, an evil-looking stoat was with her. “I caught an otter!” chortled the ferret, “Am I a good fisher or what?”
Tinden bared her teeth and lunged at the ferret, but the stoat was quicker; a hard punch to the jaw knocking her cold.
“So that was five seasons ago, and we’ve been here since,” finished Tinden, “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to get some sleep.”
Chapter Eleven: One Hundred Hares, Seven Squirrels, and Two Otters on a Ship
“All you squirrels, into the rigging and unfurl the mainsails!” shouted Rorc from his position at the helm of the Seastorm. They had just cleared the last reef, and were headed for open water. He wanted to see just how much speed his newly-acquired craft could make.
“What?” asked one squirrel, looking confused as he staggered to and fro. Most of the squirrels already had their sea-legs, except for this one…Beechtail; that was his name.
Captain Resscut, who was standing beside Rorc, whispered in the otter’s ear, “Try not to use your nautical terminology, wot, most of us won’t understand what you’re saying!”
“Oh, right…uh, climb up the ropes that hang down from the masts, and untie the cords that hold the sails to the horizontal beams,” replied Rorc, grimacing, “That’s a lot harder to say, mate”
The squirrel stumbled off, and a few minutes later, he and the others were scrambling up the rigging and mast. Soon, the sails were unrolling, and the ship lurched as she shot forward.
“Yeehaa!” shouted Rorc, exhilarated by the sudden acceleration, “Now this is real sailing!”
“Aaaahhh!” came a scream from above them; Rorc glanced up to see Beechtail swinging on a rope tied around his footpaw, “HELP!” he cried.
Rorc eyed the squirrel quizzically, “What’d you do, jump?”
“No! I…fell!” came the embarrassed reply from the dangling squirrel.
“Fell?” asked Rorc, one of his eyebrows lifting a fraction.
“Yes…fell…I…do it all the time,” said Beechtail, now being lowered to the deck by two of the Limbrunners, “That’s why I tied myself to a rope.”
“All the time?” Rorc’s other eyebrow was up now, “are you serious? You’re a squirrel that can’t climb? Hahaha that’s a first! Well, if you’re no use in the rigging, can ye cook? I’ve got to mind the tiller, the other squirrels will be busy with the rigging, and I don’t trust hares, or that Lutran, in the galley with my lunch.”
Beechtail untied his footpaw, “Yes, I can cook well enough, but…” he turned to Rorc grinning, “I have to warn you that I did set fire to a salad once!”
“WHAT! A SALAD!?!”
“Actually, it was only flaming for a few seconds, and I didn’t accomplish it alone. Maplefur was helping me make it for the summer feast at our old home, Angdelve. It was early in the morning, and she had poured a salad dressing with lots of vegetable oil in it all over. I turned around for some reason or other, and knocked the candle we were using into the salad bowl with my elbow,” Beechtail explained, smiling broadly at the memory and throwing his hands up in the air, “Fwoosh! Big fireball, luckily Maplefur wasn’t bending over the bowl, or she could’ve been burned pretty badly…” his voice trailed off and his face fell, “I really miss her.”
“She must be very special,” Rorc commented.
Beechtail looked up, “Yes, she is, and we’re going to find her. I’m going to find her.”
Rorc smiled sympathetically, and fished out the key to the galley from the cord around his neck. He had locked it as soon as he had heard the majority of his crew on this voyage would be hares. You could never tell what would happen, and the last thing he wanted was to be sailing the seas with an untrained crew, searching for prisoners who could be anywhere, without any provisions. He tossed the key to the melancholy squirrel.
“As Captain of this vessel, I appoint you…official cook!” he announced in a very dramatic voice, before glancing down at Beechtail, “Now go and make lunch, I’m starvin’, mate. Oh and try an’ find some hotroot pepper while yore at it.”
Beechtail took the key, and entered the galley, within a very short time pale smoke was rising from a shaft that vented the fumes out of the galley from the fire. Soon the squirrel poked his head back out the door, “Sorry, no hotroot,” he called, “There are a few kegs of some ghastly liquid lying about, seaweed grog I think, should I throw them overboard?”
The otter shook his head, “If the wood ever gets wet, that’ll get it going again.”
After Beechtail had returned to his cooking, Rorc was able to devote more attention to the sailing of the ship, all the while muttering to himself, “Honestly, no hotroot? What are searats coming to these days? If I were Cap-PUT THOSE DOWN THIS INSTANT!!!” he shouted at a foolish young hare, who, in trying to impress a young haremaid, was juggling a trio of belaying pins.
The hare dropped the heavy wooden dowels immediately, but the one that had been in the air when the otter had shouted at him came down and clipped him on the forehead, knocking the hare flat. Rorc rested his face on the wheel of the ship miserably, “Oh why did I sign up for this…”
Chapter Twelve: Threat of War
Currare ducked underneath his opponent’s rapier as it slashed at his face. He straightened, and jumped forward, forcing the other combatant on the defensive. Currare’s saber whistled as he performed a complex attack, striking from four different directions, one after the other. His opponent jumped backward to avoid having to parry the blows, and lunged, her rapier darting with lightning speed. The hare batted it aside expertly, his riposte flicking the sword from her grasp and sending it sailing across the beach to stick point down in the sand several paces away. Before it touched the ground, the tip of his weapon was up at her throat, and she stumbled backwards against the stone side of Salamandastron.
Behind him, a few half-hearted claps broke out from a weary looking trio of Long Patrol recruits. The haremaid he had just disarmed pushed the tip of his practice sword away with a finger, and went to retrieve her weapon. This scene had been repeated innumerable times over the last few hours. Currare sighed; he couldn’t take his mind off Beechtail and the rescue mission even while fighting. Last night he had lain awake for hours thinking about the awful possibility that they would come back without Celeriter, or even worse, they might never come back at all! However much he tried not to think about it, it always slipped into his thoughts; him sobbing over Celeriter’s lifeless body, or staring out over the seas, waiting for a ship that would never come. Even thinking about it almost made him cry. The worst of it was, he knew exactly how he would feel in either situation, and a minor form of it seemed to permeate his mood; some of the others avoided him now. At breakfast, it was so bad he had almost decided not to eat!
“You should go a bit easier on the recruits, Lieutenant. You don’t want to scare them away from joining the Long Patrol,” said a deep, booming voice behind him. The hare jumped up, and spun around, saluting hastily along with the other four hares.
Lord Adaracor stood at the massive gate into Salamandastron, his muscled arms crossed over his powerful chest as he surveyed the group who had been practicing fencing. One of the hares, unable to stop himself, replied, “On the contrary, sah! If we learn to fight like that, I’d do anything to join the Long Patrol! Nobeast can match a hare with a sword! Lieutenant Currare has already beat me twenty-three times, Salmona twenty-seve-mmff.”
He was cut off by his friends clamping their paws across his mouth. Adaracor gave him a stern look, “That’s enough, Garrulous, I know he’s good, now go and train somewhere else, I want a word with him.”
The four looked questioningly up at the badger, and shuffled away, Adaracor watched them go, chuckling once they were out of earshot, “Huhuh, Garrulous will make a fine Patroller one day, provided he learns to keep a hold on his tongue long enough to learn.”
Currare nodded, “He sure will, but you didn’t come out here to talk about him, wot, did you, sah?”
“No, I didn’t,” replied Lord Adaracor thoughtfully, “Curra, I’ve decide that you are going to do the south patrol today. I think a nice long run will improve your mood some. Get a water bottle from the kitchens, and leave immediately. Dismissed.”
Currare saluted, “Yes, sah!” Several minutes later he was jogging along the tideline to the south of Salamandastron, the rhythmic thrumming of his paws easing his worries away. It wasn’t often that a Long Patrol officer went on a Patrol, but he had been a galloper not too long ago; running, like fighting or eating, was second nature to him.
An hour later, he turned, and headed off into the dunes to sweep around and come back to Salamandastron from the east, the south patrol’s usual pattern. He stopped a few times to catch his breath and drink water, but made excellent progress, and soon had half of his patrol arc covered.
His first warning was when he heard loud noises that could only be generated by a large crowd. He cautiously approached the next dune, and crawled up it on his stomach; ears drooping so as not to be visible sticking up above the hill of sand. What he saw took his breath away, hundreds of corsair vermin were marching up among the dunes, in the haphazard, chaotic way characteristic of everything searats and corsairs did. The disorganization made it impossible to get an idea of their numbers, but Currare guessed that there must be at least three hundred. The hare slipped quietly back down the dune; Salamandastron had to be warned. Using the tip of the mountain and the direction of the sea as references, he made a note of the approximate location and direction of the vermin.
Suddenly, he saw a figure standing on the next dune between him and Salamandastron; a rat holding a bow, with an arrow on the string; a scout! Only his battle-tested reflexes saved him as the rat let the shaft fly. He dodged sideways, and charged down the hill, flicking his saber out of its sheath in one smooth movement. The rat pulled out a rusted cutlass, but the badger-made steel clove it in two easily. The searat let out a shriek of dismay, lost his footing and tumbled down the dune. Currare left him, and raised a cloud of dust as he tore off back to Salamandaston.
Captain Rodel saw the rat scout come running back over the dune, he nudged Shelg, “Yore scout’s comin’ back early. You’d better hope he has good news.”
The rat reached them, “Cap’n Shelg, there was a bunch o’ rabbits out patrolin’ and they spotted us!”
Rodel glared at the unfortunate scout, “Har, and I suppose you let them get away? What a useless hunk of fur an’ bone! I oughta…” his paw began to inch towards the hilt of the rapier.
“No! Please! It was four to one, an’ I fought them, I did, but they pushed me down the hill and ran like cowards!” stammered the rat, lying outright to save his neck.
The fox captain relaxed, “Well, what are you standin’ around for? Get back to scoutin’, or we’ll have an army o’ hares takin’ us by surprise!” After the scout had ran off, Rodel shook his head and muttered to Shelg, “Another failure by yore crew. I should have left yew on that island!”
Shelg fingered the blade of his axe; one day, Rodel would pay for these insults.
“Over three hundred, you say?” asked Lord Adaracor, who was pacing around the forge, “Of all times for vermin to appear! Just when a third of our number leaves! I wonder if there’s some organization behind this or is it just coincidence…”
“A bally big coincidence, if it is one, but now I’m glad I didn’t go with Beechtail; somebeast has to make sure they have somewhere to return to, wot!” commented Currare.
Adaracor reached a decision, “Issue a threat alert, with luck they may not be stupid enough to attack the mountain, but we need to be ready in case they try anything.”
When a threat alert was issued nobeast was allowed out of sight of the mountain, the lookouts were doubled, and any feasts were postponed in case it progressed to a siege. The changes were implemented in a matter of minutes, with top Salamandastron efficiency and discipline. Soon, hares on lookout duty found their eyes drifting apprehensively to the southeast, scanning for any sign of approaching foes.
Chapter Thirteen: Negotiations
A hare lookout burst into the forge room where Adaracor and Currare were examining maps of Salamandastron and the surrounding beach and poring over lists of supplies. Both looked up at the newcomer, it was Garrulous. The young hare threw a hasty salute, “Sah! Vermin spotted just beyond dunes! Sah! Possibly around four bally hundred! Sah! They’ve stopped, sah! Any orders, sah?”
Adaracor rolled his eyes, “Just one: Don’t use “sah” more than once in every two sentences. You’re dismissed.”
Currare stood up and saluted, “I guess we should get everyone inside and seal the gate, wot.”
“See to it, Lieutenant, and then meet me up at the crater, we’ve got work to do,” the badger glanced towards the gleaming suit of armor hanging on its rack, “I’ve got to get ready…”
Captain Rodel examined Salamandastron through his spyglass and cursed under his breath. There were hares on top of the mountain, and nobeast was outside of it. Evidently Deathrose had either not shown up, or been defeated. He highly doubted the latter. If his idiot crew hadn’t let their ship be stolen, he would have turned around and left right now. Gritting his teeth, tried to keep his anger under control; right now he needed a clear head to think.
“Cap’n Shelg!” he called, “ ‘ow bout you take a few o’ your crew and go ask them harebeasts to surrender? They won’t hurt ya if’n ye carry a white flag. Yew can scout around the mountain while your at it”
Shelg licked his lips nervously, Rodel obviously didn’t know whether or not they would shoot a group carrying a white flag, or else he would have gone himself. His rival Captain was likely using this as a chance to get him killed, and he couldn’t refuse a suggestion, because Rodel’s crew was three times as big as his! Hastily, he selected several of his crew, and improvised a white flag. Rodel had better be right about this…
Currare reached the crater of Salamandaston just after Lord Adaracor did, he saluted, “Main gate is sealed, sah! Everybeast inside and at battle stations!”
“Good work, Lieutenant,” replied Adaracor, gazing out to where the vermin could be seen waiting among the dunes. The badger looked like a figure out of nightmare; spiked plate mail encased his body, and a massive longbow twice as tall as any hare hung alongside a quiver of broadhead arrows, which weren’t that much smaller than spears. His massive war flail was at his feet, the deadly chains wrapped around it. The badger growled as a small group broke off from the corsairs and headed towards them, “Looks like we’ve got some visitors.”
All around them, the other hares at the crater top nocked arrows, and loaded slings with heavy stones. The corsairs coming towards them hesitated, and one waved an object overhead on a pole. Adaracor paused, “Hold fire!”
“Is that supposed to be a bally white flag?” asked Currare, “That says a lot about searats if that’s the whitest cloth they could find, wot!
“WHAT DO YOU WANT!?!” Lord Adaracor roared at the vermin, causing the hares to clamp their paws over their long ears.
The vermin had to come closer so that their shouts could be heard, “Surrender! Or we’ll kill you all!”
Currare raised an eyebrow, “Ambitious little blighters, aren’t they?”
Lord Adaracor rolled his eyes, “Won’t these scum ever learn?” he muttered, and then shouted, “NO! WE DON’T SURRENDER TO FOOLS! YOU’VE GOT FIFTEEN SECONDS TO GET OUT OF ARROW RANGE”
The massed vermin instantly began to flee, Adaracor surveyed his archers, all poised with arrows on string, waiting for his command. He nodded, “Give them a volley, but anybeast who hits one, even by accident, will be on half-rations for the rest of their short lives, understand? Good, FIRE!” The deadly projectiles hissed upward and out over the beach, falling just short of the rear searat’s footpaws. The fleeing group tripled its pace, and was soon behind the dunes out of sight.
Captain Rodel twirled his rapier grumpily as the group came pounding back over the dune. He could tell by their speed, and the looks of terror, that they had not been successful. To tell the truth, he was surprised to see them, after hearing Adaracor’s roar and seeing several arrows arc high above the beach. As Captain Shelg skidded to a stop in front of him, he read the stoat’s mind for him, “Them harebeasts ain’t surrenderin’, an’ they fired arrers at ya.”
“Them harebeasts ain’t surrenderin’, an’ they fired arrers at us!” Shelg replied, “Hey! I wus gonna say that!”
“Oh never mind,” muttered the fox, turning to the rat from his crew who had gone to look for weaknesses in the fortress, “Graklo, did ya see anythin’?”
The rat paused, mentally composing his report, “It’ll be suicide to charge, Cap’n, they’ve got good cover, and powerful bows…if we could get close, our numbers will make up the difference, and we might be able to cause some damage with a battering ram…”
Rodel chuckled to himself; he could always count on Gracklo. Seeing as the rat was an expert archer, he took his word for it that an all out charge would end in disaster. Fortunately, brute force had never been Rodel’s favorite tool anyway. “Shelg, take ‘alf yore crew an’ encircle the mountain; out of bowshot o’ course. I don’t want anybeast to come or leave. Make sure yew ‘ave fast runners to alert us if’n they tries anything. The rest o’ you, come with me! Cap’n Deathrose gave me a little something that’ll win the battle for us!”
Chapter Fourteen: The Scuttling Crab
Down, push, up, pull, down, push, up, pull, down, push, up, pull, down, push, up, pull, down…the rowing cadence beat itself against the inside of Maplefur’s skull. The squirrelmaid wasn’t sure how long she had been rowing, or what time of day it was. The rhythmic movements and incessant pounding of the drum disrupted all attempts at organized thought. The constant heaving of the ship didn’t help much either; she had been sick several times already. She glanced sideways at Tinden; the ottermaid was calmly rowing as if this was an everyday thing, which of course it was.
It had been three days since she had been kidnapped, and her hopes of a quick rescue were fading. Maplefur had consigned herself to the fact that it could take Beechtail and Lutran weeks, or even seasons, to find her. She had no doubts that they would catch up with her eventually; the real question was whether or not she would be old enough to join the Redwall elders when they did. The seas were vast, and a clever corsair captain could find any number of hiding places.
She noticed that it was now much more difficult to pull the oar. Tinden had stopped rowing, and since she was the stronger of the two of them the ottermaid did most of the work, with Maplefur helping out the best she could. Her longbow had a relatively high draw weight for a female squirrel, but Tinden had been doing hard labor since she was a dibbun.
Not wanting to get whipped for not working hard enough, Maplefur tried to continue rowing, but a sharp sting, like a bar of hot iron tapped against her shoulder brought her to a halt, “Yah!” She cried, the pain reflexively bringing tears to her eyes. Glancing up, she saw that none of the other oarslaves were rowing, and that Osin the Oarmaster was glaring angrily at her, whip raised for another blow. Everything was silent, the drum had stopped.
“When you hear drum, you row; when you don’t, you don’t! UNDERSTAND?!?” roared the stoat.
Maplefur nodded meekly, and ducked as he swung the whip again, cracking it a fraction from her head before continuing to patrol the rows of slaves. Deathrose glided down the stair to the slave hold, and held a whispered conversation with the rat beating the drum and Osin. Soon she returned to the deck and the drum started again, albeit at a slower pace.
“Ship is turning,” Tinden muttered, “See if you can see why…now!”
As Osin turned his back to them to punish an unfortunate vole, Maplefur and Tinden paused in mid-stroke. The squirrelmaid pressed her eye to the hole in the side of the ship that the oar went through and scanned the seas. A small ship was visible on the horizon, and they were turning towards it…
Deathrose was watching the ship through her brass spyglass and barking out orders to the crew, “Fifty-eight degrees to starboard! Grut, load up the ballistae but wait for my signal to fire! It looks like a deep-sea fishing smack called…Scuttling Crab; crewed by otters…won’t put up much of a fight methinks.”
The fishing vessel had caught sight of the larger corsair ship and turned to run. However it was no match for the Waveraptor which closed the two quickly. Deathrose nodded in approval and signaled to Bloodeye who was standing ready by the fist ballista, “Give them a warning shot across the bows. Be careful, we wouldn’t want to sink them.”
The Waveraptor turned slightly to port, and as the otters’ ship crossed into Bloodeye’s field-of-fire, he launched a heavy spear from the massive bow. It curved across the bow of the ship, nearly smashing a hole through the hull. Deathrose cupped her paws around her mouth and shouted loud enough for the other ship’s crew to hear, “Cut speed and turn to port or else the next one will be flaming and accurate!”
Being the weaker party in speed and weapons, the otter crew was forced to comply. As they turned, the Waveraptor came up alongside them, and the ballistae were now too close to be used, unless Deathrose wanted to fire at the mast of course. The otters had managed to gather a small fighting force of barely a dozen, while the Waveraptor’s decks were crowded with scores of corsairs and searats, armed with just about every weapon imaginable.
Grappling hooks were thrown across, and the otters made no move to attack, but stood clustered around the door that likely lead to the lower decks. A gangplank was put into position, and Deathrose strode confidently across, followed by the other high-ranking crewbeasts. The ferret captain boldly walked up to the leader of the otters, paws swinging at her side, appearing totally relaxed, but a trained eye would notice that her hand was position to draw her scimitar in an instant. Standing toe to toe with the otter, she looked him in the eye, “Now let’s drop all this pretense about you fighting us and have a look at your cargo holds. It must be your lucky day, we probably won’t need any oarslaves today, just any valuables you might have with you.”
“Over my dead body,” growled the otter, “you vermin are all liars, I’m not letting you near my family while there’s breath in my body.”
Deathrose snorted, “I’m no liar! Or murderer, for that matter! Deadbeasts aren’t worth the effort it takes to kill them, unless they’re a threat,” She smiled condescendingly up at him, “which you’re not.”
A hot-headed young otter shouldered aside his Captain, enraged by the insult. He held a long dagger, but before he could use it, a crossbow bolt took him through the chest, killing him instantly. Deathrose stepped aside to avoid getting her paws in the spreading pool of blood, and glared distastefully down at the body, “Not a very bright idea…Any ways, how about you step aside now, before anybody else gets hurt?”
Maplefur and Celeriter had squeezed their heads through the oarlocks, and were watching as Deathroses crew carried barrels of salted fish, and the few valuable belongings the otters had. The squirrelmaid sighed inwardly, she had thought at first that the ship had been a rescue mission from Salamandastron, and voiced the thought aloud to Tinden. Now her hopes had dissolved like maple sugar candy on a dibbun’s tongue. It wasn’t helping that Tinden wanted to know what was going on, and kept demanding updates, “Their carrying three more barrels out of the hold…Deathrose is talking with the otters’ captain…now their walking to the edge of the ship…Deathrose is coming back aboard…looks like the crew is following.”
Tinden sighed and slumped back forlornly, “Ah well…I suppose it’s too much to ask those otters to help us, they’d all be slaughtered. Pity they aren’t real fighting beasts; like this “Beechtail” you keep going on and on about.”
The squirrelmaid scowled at her, “I don’t “go on and on” about Beechtail!”
The ottermaid shrugged, “Okay, I exaggerate things; bad habit. But anybeast could tell that you must’ve been best friends since you were dibbuns.”
“Well…I had lots of friends, but Beechtail was by himself most of the time,” muttered Maplefur, thinking back to her dibbunhood at Angdelve. The reason Beechtail hadn’t had many friends was that one of the favorite activities of young squirrels was dashing through the upper branches of trees, chattering to each other, and in general, having fun; something that Beechtail was never able to do. She had always felt sorry for him, and tried to teach him to climb, making her one of the only real friends he had. “Ever since Angdelve fell, Beechtail is the only person alive that I’ve known for more than four seasons; he’s going to come after us, and I bet he brings half the Long Patrol with him!”
Chapter Fifteen: Traces of Vermin
Beechtail sighed and looked up at the ceiling of the galley, swinging back and forth gently in his hammock. In his hands he held a bamboo fragment twice as long as his paw, the only clue to Maplefur’s whereabouts. Five notches were cut in the wood, one for every day since she had vanished. The squirrel sighed; the sun was rising, and he needed to get to work. He swung a leg over the side of the hammock, and was dumped unceremoniously on the floor as it flipped over. Oh well, he thought, I was getting out any way.
He stood up and stretched, then strode over to the remains of yesterday’s fire. Sleeping in the galley meant that he was the only creature on the ship to get the warmth of a fire. Beechtail dug around in the ashes until he unearthed a pile of smoldering coals. Blowing on them softly was not enough to ignite the pile of tinder he retrieved from a small box, so he drew a dram of liquid from one of the barrels of seaweed grog and poured it on the soft mound. The flames emerged in an instant, and the squirrel hastily added more wood to keep it going.
That being done, he added another notch to the bamboo fragment, and began to prepare breakfast for the hundred and one hares that were aboard the ship. Normally this would have been near impossible, but many appetites were cut down by the rocking of the ship. Beechtail smirked, not that anyone really had much of an appetite for the food. Searats didn’t have much in the line of cooking utensils, so for every meal they had a giant pot of vegetable stew that he supplemented with pre-made biscuits from Salamandastron. At lunch, everyone received a carefully rationed amount of fresh fruit.
A knock on the door interrupted the squirrel’s ruminations on their diets. He walked over to peer through a peephole at whoever was knocking. Since they had no idea how long they would have to go without finding food, they could take no chances with Lutran or some hare filching food, however small it was. After verifying that it was Rorc Nightblade, Beechtail unlocked the door. The otter shuffled inside, going over to warm his cold paws by the small fire; he had just finished being on night watch.
Rorc eyed the bubbling pot, “So, mate, what’s for breakfast?”
“Same as dinner last night…and lunch before. I did try to add some variety with mushrooms. If I can find a frying pan I might be able to sauté a few, but it’s hard to cook with one big pot, and no pans or bowls. We’ve got plenty of knives though, this being a searat ship. Anything happen last night?”
“Nope, but it seems I’ve finally found a few hares that can steer the ship and not ‘ave us completely lost in the morning!”
“That’s good, but I wish we had a better idea where to look than a randomly picked direction. We could be sailing in the opposite direction for all we know.”
Rorc shrugged, “We just don’t ‘ave any ideas, matey, but searats leave traces; a looted island village, a dead slave thrown overboard, a ship they tried to board and failed, but once we find a trail we can find a captain who will tell us if anybeast has sailed in the vicinity of Salamandastron. Captains usually know such things.”
A pounding on the door of the galley signaled the arrival of the first hares, eager for their breakfast, as unappetizing as it was. The meal occupied the next few hours, after which Rorc went back to his duties aboard the ship, and Beechtail started to clean up. He could have enlisted any of the three score hares wandering about on the deck with nothing to do, but he didn’t want to have to watch everybeast out of the corner of his eye for food-stealing.
Rorc had also noted the large number of idle workers. At the wheel of the ship, he watched the activity, or lack thereof, while conveying his thoughts to Captain Resscutt, who had sailed before and was an invaluable assistant, “We need to get these hare’s moving, or at least the ones not half-dead with seasickness. They’ll get into trouble if we let them stand around doing nothing.”
Resscutt nodded, “I’ve been thinking; once we find these searats were after, we’ll need to get aboard their ship if we want to have the advantage in a fight. We might be able to make a large gangplank that’ll anchor somehow on the other ship. It’d be a good project to keep them occupied.”
“Yes, you ought to go get started on that right awa-SAIL OFF THE STARBOARD BOW!!!”
There was a bustle of activity below as hares rushed to the side of the ship to look. One passing near the galley door was nearly run over by Beechtail, who dashed out, still holding a soup-coated ladle. Rorc spun the wheel, turning the ship towards the sail, berating the hares, “Don’t just stand there! They may be corsairs; get your weapons!”
The hares rushed en masse below deck and returned bearing swords, lances, bows, dirks, and many other deadly weapons. The ship was much closer now, and looked to be trying to escape. The Seastorm was fast though, for all its bulk, and soon caught up. One hare leaning over the bow called out, “Haha, these aren’t searats, wot wot. We’ve found a ship full o’ bally otters!”
“Otters?” called another, gesturing to her rapier, “I don’t think we’ll need these, wot.”
“Great,” muttered Rorc under his breath, “someone who doesn’t say ‘wot wot’ every other sentence.”
The Seastorm drew up alongside the smaller craft, the crew of which, upon realizing they were pursued by hares, ceased trying to flee (although they likely locked their galley up tight). Rorc decided that he and Beechtail would go aboard to speak with the captain.
The captain heard their story without batting an eyelid. When they finished, he was silent for a moment before replying, “Aye, we we’re just raided by corsairs a few days ago. Lost most of our foodstuffs an’ all our valuables, and they killed one o’ my crew. Now that I think about it, I could’ve sworn I saw a squirrelmaid sticking her head out one o’ an oarlock on the ship.”
Beechtail, who had not been entirely paying attention, gave a start, “What?! Which way did they sail?”
“Well…it was about three days ago, an’ assuming they haven’t changed course, I’d say…”
Beechtail wandered off again as the captain and Rorc debated the finer points of navigation. There had to be more than one squirrelmaid captive on a searat ship, but this was the best lead they’d had so far.
Where have you gone, Maplefur? Wondered the squirrel, gazing out over the sea. He unconsciously fingered the hilts of his swords; there was going to be some very unhappy searats when he found her.
Rorc and the other otter finished speaking. When they were back aboard the Seastorm, Captain Resscutt called out to the other ship, “If you get to Salamandastron, tell them Captian Resscutt sent you!”
The otter captain waved, and the ships parted, one going southeast, to Salamandstron, the other northwest, on its rescue mission.
Chapter Sixteen: The Island
Maplefur was finally getting the hang of sleeping while sitting and leaning forward on an oar. She was in the middle of a lovely dream in which Beechtail and Lutran were torturing Deathrose and Osin, when she was jolted awake by heavy footfalls. She raised her head; was it morning already?
Instantly she regretted it, it was dark and the stoat she had just been dreaming about was walking down the aisle between the banks of oars. Upon seeing her move, he grabbed her by the shoulder and pulled her up, muttering, “Ah, ‘tis you who’ll be the lucky one tonight,” he pulled a bunch of keys out, and unlocked the chain securing her manacles to a long chain down the side of the ship. The process woke Tinden up, who barely had time to open her eyes before receiving the same treatment as Maplefur.
The pair was hauled off the bench, their paws still chained together. Tucking them under his arms, Osin dragged them up the stairs to the deck, ignoring the maids’ muffled indignant squeals. On the deck, Deathrose, and several of her crew were assembled, the ferret captain beckoned and turned towards the side of the ship, “Quickly now, get them in the boats.”
Bloodeye, who was carrying a short, curved bow, held up his paw, “Wait, that’s one of the prisoners from Salamandastron! Do we want to use her for this?”
Deathrose glanced over her shoulder at the squirrelmaid and shrugged, “I don’t see why not, I don’t think this’ll kill her.”
Thoroughly frightened, the two maids were lowered into the two rowboats the Waveraptor carried, followed by several crewmembers and two large barrels. I wonder what those are for? Maplefur thought. The boats pushed off, and the squirrelmaid craned her head around to see where they were going.
Not far off, an island poked out of the seas. Tall trees and lush vegetation covered every bit that she could see, except for a flat-topped mountain rising up from the center. A narrow beach encircled the island littered with driftwood, and in one place a shallow stream flowed into the sea. The boats rowed quietly up the inlet, until they ran aground. Farther along, past a wide pool, was a steep slope that the stream flowed down.
Maplefur’s examination of the island was interrupted by a soft rattle, she looked down to find her footpaws free of manacles. Deathrose and Bloodeye climbed out of the boats and walked a few steps to the pool. Deathrose beckoned to Maplefur and Tinden, “Come here. If you take it into your head to escape, expect to feel a fatal pain between your shoulder blades,” she commented, indicating Bloodeye’s bow.
The pair did as they were told, and Deathrose pointed at the pool, “Drink.”
Maplefur hesitated, as did Tinden; who knew why Deathrose wanted them to drink from this particular spring? The ferret obviously wasn’t very patient this evening; she grasped the ottermaid’s neck and kicked her legs out from under her, forcing Tinden’s head underwater. Maplefur received the same treatment a second later. The squirrelmaid initially tried to hold her breath, but oarslaves got little water, and her thirst got the better of her. The water was fresh and clean, if not particularly cool, and both of them drank greedily. Eventually they were hauled back to their feet, pulled back to the boats, and re-manacled. The other members of Deathrose’s crew were staring at them, and Maplefur shifted uncomfortably. After a few minutes, Deathrose nodded knowingly, “It’s not poisioned, or they’d be showing the effects by now.”
POISON?!? Thought Maplefur, as the crew filled the water barrels. She shivered; Deathrose was evil to use them like that. Well, she already knew Deathrose was evil…just not that evil. As they rowed back down the stream, she thought she heard rustling among the trees. The crew must’ve heard too, because they picked up the speed of their rowing. Once they were well offshore, Deathrose stood up in the boat, cupped hew paws around her mouth, and screamed into the night towards the silent island, “AAAIIEEE!!”
Instantly, the narrow strip of beach and the nearby jungle was filled with wild, capering shapes, shrieking warcries and hurling spears towards the boat. Maplefur ducked, but the weapons fell far short. Deathrose sat down laughing, “I love doing that; they never realize it’s a waste of time, and they’ll be all riled up for a few days in case anybeast is following us and tries to land here.”
Wearily, Beechtail crawled back out of the massive cauldron he had been cleaning; its size forcing him to tilt it on its side and stick his head and shoulders into the pot. He tossed a grimy rag into a tub of dishwater and headed out onto the deck. He was careful to step over the large bridge-contraption the hares were building to use to board searat ships; one time he had tripped on it and nearly broke his neck.
An island had appeared in the distance, and they were heading straight for it. Lutran tapped Beechtail on the shoulder, “Cap’n Rorc said we’re going ashore to resupply the bally food and water supplies, wot wot.”
“And see if you can find anything to spice up the food!” called Rorc from the wheel of the ship.
Several minutes later, Beechtail found himself on the shore with the Limbrunners, Lutran, and a half dozen hares. They headed into the jungle along a narrow stream they had spotted; fresh water was the most important thing to have on the seas. They found fruit trees, which were unlike any Beechtail had ever seen before, but the hares assured him they were edible; Salamandastron contained many records of strange plants found on islands by seafarers. They soon amassed a considerable amount of food. “Somebeast ought to stand guard while we load all this on the bally boat,” commented Lutran.
One of the Limbrunners, Oakarrow, raised his paw, “We’ll do it, and Beechtail can help if he wants.”
“Sure!” replied Beechtail, eager to be of use. The squirrels spread out to form a perimeter around where the boat was, a dozen or so paces out to give ample warning if they needed to flee quickly. While Lutran and the hares filled the boat with fruit and the barrels with water, Beechtail was given the task of patrolling around just inside the ring to prevent anybeast from slipping past them, as unlikely as that was.
On his third circuit, Beechtail paused and bent down to examine an exotic flower. It was a deep, dark reddish-brown; almost the same color of Maplefur’s fur.
“Hey all you bally squirrels! You can come back; we’re done, wot!” came Lutran’s shout. Beechtail picked the flower and put it in his pocket. He turned back towards the boat, and started to push through the foliage. Had he looked up, he might have seen the corpse of a luckless Limbrunner, impaled by a crude spear.
Chapter Seventeen: Under Siege
At the top of the Salamadstron crater, the hare sentry shaded his eyes against the morning sun, noting the activity down on the beach. For the past several days, the vermin had been content to merely guard the perimeter of Salamandastron; preventing anyone from reaching the mountain or leaving it. However, Salamandaston was well supplied and therefore immune to the effects of a siege. Now they were up to something. He quickly sent another hare to fetch Lord Adaracor; this could cause problems.
Rodel strode back and forth along the line of slaves, some old oarslaves, some newly captured, marveling at his newfound luck. Imagine the odds against a shipload of strong healthy otters sailing right into his claws, and yet they had. Several of his crew led by Gracklo stood behind with arrows nocked to bows, watching several otterbabes playing in the sand; the rat’s own idea, and a much better way to ensure the adults’ good behavior than whips and manacles. Rodel still carried a whip of course.
He thwacked the handle menacingly in his paws, giving orders, “Okay, yew lot are gonna take these,” he explained gesturing to a pile of shovels nearby, “And dig a nice, long trench from ‘ere to that mountain over there, about a pace wide, an’ deep enough to stand in. After that, yew all gonna take these rolls o’ sailcloth and spread ‘em over the trench. Yew can run for the mountain if ya like, but then yew’s babes are gonna be here with us, and we don’t know much about babes, do we, Shelg?”
The stoat shook his head, and Rodel turned to the otters, “I suggest yew get a move on it, daylight’s a wastin’”
Not having much choice, the otters and other slaves grabbed shovels from the pile and went to work immediately. More than one glanced up at the not-too-distant mountain, symbol of safety and freedom, tantalizingly close. But those always remembered the babes and young ones they had to look out for, and went back to work. Only a few perceptive ones noticed the sparkle at the summit of the mountain fortress.
Lord Adaracor peered through a old spyglass, which was barely big enough for his eye to look through, observing the activity below on the beach. Behind him, several hares, including Currare, waited patiently for orders. At length he shook his head, and lowered the glass.
“These searats are getting smarter; they’re using slaves to set up seigeworks while they wait out of bowshot with hostages. The slaves won’t run because of the hostages, and they know we won’t shoot the slaves.”
“So what do we do?” asked Currare.
The hot summer sun beat down on the beach near Salamandastron. Hares stood nervously at their posts, watching the jagged lines of the trenches drawing steadily nearer.
Chapter Eighteen: Ambushed
Beechtail threaded his way between two trees and splashed through the pool to the boat. Lutran glanced up at him, “No trouble, wot?”
The squirrel shook his head, “I think we’re the only beasts on this island.”
Oakarrow was taking a headcount of the Limbrunners, “Four, five…Where’s Yewtail?” he glanced over Beechtail’s shoulder, “He was over there…”
Something rustled in the foliage behind him. Beechtail turned around, It must be Yewtail, he thought.
Beechtail saw a blur, and a crude spear shot out of the jungle for the squirrel’s head. Caught totally by surprise, Beechtail screamed and threw his arms up in front of his face. As it was, that action saved his life since the spear ricocheted off of the Flameblades fixed to his forearms. He staggered back from the blow and saw other forms leaping out of the trees.
Trained for battle, the hares and Limbrunners sprang into action immedietly, drawing weapons and rushing to meet the attackers. However, they were caught in the open and completely exposed. One hare went down to a spear throw, and another tripped into the boat. A volley of arrows took several of the attackers down, but they kept coming. Beechtail raised his swords and charged. He took one of the things, which appeared to be small rats, down with a powerful thrust from Martin’s Sword, another with a quick swipe of his new Salamandastron blade. The hares were deadly maelstroms of steel, and the Limbrunners were a hail of death. However, they were badly outnumbered.
Lutran shouted, “Back to the bally beach!” Beechtail turned and ran for the boat, he shoved it, with the hare who had fallen in still inside, evidently unconscious from hitting his head on the side. It began to drift downstream with the current. The hares, other squirrels, and Lutran raced after him. The wild attackers formed a shrieking mass that pursued them.
A tree growing right on the edge of the stream forced Beechtail to swerve to the left, away from the stream. The others behind him followed his lead, but the squirrel soon noticed that the thickening vegetation to their right was steering them away from the river, and gradually he lost sight of it. Beechtail knew this was bad, but they were running to fast to be able to pick their way through the foliage and slowing down was out of the question. The squirrel decided to save his energy for running, and think about the consequences later, as there was nothing he could do right now.
After what seemed like an eternity, or perhaps several, Beechtail noticed that he could not hear the sounds of the pursuing vermin anymore. He staggered to a stop in a small clearing, and collapsed, gasping for breath. The others followed his lead, utterly worn out. After a while, heartrates fell and breathing calmed among the group. Eventually, Oakarrow recovered; he stood up and looked around at the group, “What were those things, and how come they weren’t seen? And for that matter, where are we?”
One of the other Limbrunners shrugged, “ I think they were some sort of small rats. They came from where Yewtail was guarding.”
Oakarrow rounded on Beechtail angrily, “You were over there last; you were supposed to be on the lookout for this sort of thing! I bet Yewpaw’s dead, and we’re probably lost too because of you!”
Beechtail didn’t know where to look, Oakarrow was right; it was all his fault. The squirrel felt miserable and helpless, feelings he thought he had left behind when he took up Martin’s Sword almost four seasons ago. Lutran, however, felt very different about Oakarrow’s outburst. The burly otter picked up the furious squirrel by the front of his tunic and shoved him against a tree. He glared at him, “If you don’t have something bally productive to say, bucko, shut up! I didn’t hear you stepping up to lead, and at least Beechtail had the bally brains to send the boat off, wot! Rorc and Currare will find it and come looking for us, so I we get off this bally island, we’ll have Beechtail to thank, wot! Understand?!”
All Oakarrow could do was give a choking gurgle, Lutran dropped him to the ground where he gasped for breath, the otter bent concernedly over the coughing squirrel, “Sorry, wot, didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Oakarrow had still not gotten his breath back, but he shook his head. Very few squirrels would want to argue with an otter. Lutran turned back to Beechtail, “He does have a bally point though; we’re lost, wot.”
Beechtail did not hear. He was looking up at the bare, rocky tip of the mountain sticking up from the center of the island. A memory was struggling to the surface of his mind; he had seen a sketch of it before; he was sure. The problem was that he could not remember where he had seen the drawing. There were images associated with the drawing, someone’s father, and fruit for some reason, but he could not recall why…
The squirrel came back to reality to find the others discussing how to get off the island and back to the Seastorm. One of the hares explained what Captain Resscut would most likely do, “If the boat get’s through, he’ll jolly well come looking for us, we’ve just got to be there when he does. He’ll probably sail around the bally island, so we need to find the beach…”
Out some distance from the island, Rorc Nightblade was contemplating the worth of fishing for shrimp while they waited for Beechtail’s group to arrive back when the hare look-out gave a sudden cry, “Ahoy! Or whatever it is bally seabeasts like us are supposed to be saying! The boat ‘tis floating out of the trees, wot wot, but there jolly well doesn’t appear to be anybeast onboard!”
Rorc ran to the side of the ship and reached it at the same time as Captain Resscut, They watched the boat drift closer. The otter spoke first although he already knew the answer, “You think it means trouble, Captain?”
The reply was immediate, “Most definitely, Cap’n.”
Chapter Ninteen: Exploring
As soon as the boat drifted deep enough, Rorc dived over the side and towed it over to the Seastorm. The injured hare was quickly hauled aboard by his comrades, and one began to treat the lump on his head. He came too once Rorc climbed back aboard and dripped some seawater on his face. As he spluttered, Resscut bent down over him, asking the question that was on everybeast’s mind, “Where are the others?”
The hare looked up at his officer and saluted weakly, “Not sure, sah, we got jumped by some sort of vermin, wild chaps, there must’ve been dozens of ‘em. I’m afraid I can’t remember much more than that, wot.”
Rorc sighed, and looked at Captain Resscut, “So what do we do now? They could be anywhere on that island, captured, or dead for all we know.”
Resscut paced back and forth, “Well, I don’t fancy reporting back to Lord Adaracor that we managed to lose the Warrior of Redwall and almost a dozen hares and squirrels, wot wot. Simply not done in the Long Patrol; leaving comrades behind. But of course we can’t go bally charging off into the jungle like a bunch of dibbuns fleeing bathtime.”
The otter nodded, “Of course we can’t.”
“So the only thing to be done is to wait. If they jolly well don’t show soon, we find a better spot and start getting the Patrol ashore. Maybe we can get a better idea of what we’re facing, but no stinking island vermin is going to stand against a hundred of the Long Patrol’s finest!”
Beechtail trudged along through the jungle beside Lutran at the back of the group, the squirrel still felt miserable about his failure at standing guard earlier, and the hot, humid atmosphere wasn’t helping a bit. The Limbrunners were scouting ahead, and this time they didn’t ask him if he wanted to help. He kicked a small chunk of rock in his path angrily, and instantly regretted it. The stone must have had a much larger underground bit, and now he had a stubbed footpaw to worry about as well. Looking up, the squirrel saw one of the Limbrunners coming back along the path towards them, his longbow clutched in his paw and an arrow on the string. Beechtail stopped, his paw moving instinctively to the hilt of Martin’s Sword, “Trouble?” he asked.
The squirrel shrugged, “Not yet, but…well, we’ve run into a bit of a problem,” he looked back, “You’d better come see.”
Lutran and Beechtail speeded up, moving silently down the path. At length they came to a wie open area, bordered by thick undergrowth. The hares and squirrels were spread out in the foliage, the hares on the ground and the hares in the trees. The open area cut a huge swath out of the jungle that ran from the beach to the mountain. Beechtail noticed that there were old, burned pieces of wood when he accidentally stepped on one, coating his throbbing footpaw with ash.
One of the hares pointed across the swath, and farther inland. Beechtail’s eyes bulged, a collection of huts was visible just inside the trees on the far side, and he could see several bleached white objects mounted on poles around them. Each appeared to be about the size of his head, but he really didn’t want to think about what they were…
Oakarrow glanced back at Beechtail, noting his wide-eyed look, “They haven’t seen us yet, so there’s no reason to fret,” he called in an almost-mocking voice.
Beechtail gritted his teeth and forced himself to ignore the other squirrel, instead listening to Lutran arguing with one of the hares, “We can’t bally come out and go down to the beach, or else any lookouts in that village will see us before you can say ‘wot wot’!”
The hare argued back, “I don’t mean just run out there; we can creep down to the beach inside the trees, right under their noses, snouts, or whatever it is they have!”
A squirrel added his bit, “Not a chance, I think I can see a group in the trees between us and the beach!”
“What!” exclaimed both of the arguers, as they rushed over to where the squirrel was perched, Lutran peered into the underbrush, standing tip-pawed to get a better angle, “Confounded blighters, there is a bally decent-sized group of them there!”
Oakarrow thought for a moment, “We might be able to sneak past them once it gets dark…” he glanced over at Beechtail, and grimaced, “You know, for the Warrior of Redwall, you’re not being much help.”
Beechtail had been staring up at the mountain, oblivious to the argument, which he had only listened to for a few moments. His eyes could just barely make out a thin, wispy plume of smoke rising from the peak. Oakarrow’s comment drew his attention just long enough for a glare before he went back to looking at the mountain.
Lutran looked around, “If we’re going to be here for a while we might as well find something to munch,” he glanced around, “too bad we sent all the scoff off with the boat, but there should be…mmm …don’t these look like tasty treats!” The otter picked up something from a pile half-hidden by a large fern-like plant. He lifted it to his mouth and chomped down.
“No!” shouted Beechtail frantically. Everybeast looked at him, and he stuttered nervously, “I r-remember where we are now. I read about this island in Redwall’s history…long ago, Martin’s father Luke landed here; most of his companions were captured by rats after eating poisoned fruit…”
Lutran choked, “Poison?!”
Beechtail shrugged, “Not lethal, just enough to knock somebeast out for a bit.”
Lutran sighed relieved, “Well, I guess that counts me bally out for guard duty, wot wot. Might as well finish the job.” He downed the rest of the fruit and grinned…then keeled over and fell flat on his face, snoring loudly.
Beechtail rolled his eyes, “I forgot to mention the headaches.”
Oakarrow looked at Beechtail, “Anything else we should know?”
The squirrel thought, “I remember reading an old treatise on rock formations, by some Foremole or other. It contained a footnote on the island saying it was a “vurconuro”.
“Not quite sure, the entire book was written in mole speech, and I couldn’t figure out what he meant. I saw the word “foire” in there a lot though, and since it was talking about mountains I though it meant it was like Salamandastron.”
“You mean hollow?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. If we ever get back to Redwall you can read it.”
Oakarrow looked around, “We could be here for a bit, some of us should get some sleep.”
Beechtail nodded, “I’ll help keep wat-”
“No,” Oakarrow cut him off, “You sleep.”
Some time later, Beechtail was wandering the land of dreams, he reading a book in Redwall’s infirmary; Beechtail turned the page and was confronted by an image of the island. There was a sentence written under it; Beware the red river. Beechtail tucked the book under his arm and strode out of the infirmary, intending to go find Oakarrow and hit him with it. Before he reached there, the dream dissolved into another, involving Lutran eating everthing in sight and Maplefur beating him with a dishcloth for not stopping the otter.
Chapter Twenty: Stealing from Thieves
The command was instantly obeyed by all the galley slaves aboard the Waveraptor. Maplefur and Tinden dragged their own oar inside the ship so that it would not get snapped off against the hull of the ship they were pulling up beside.
Deathrose ducked inside the slave hold for a moment and called out to Osin, “We’ll be here for a bit; give them their dinners early while they wait.”
Several corsairs and searats on duty that evening brought out the food allotted to the rowers, Osin carried a large cauldron in one paw, and ladled servings of an unidentifiable mush into simple clay bowls that had been distributed. Maplefur slurped greedily at the mix; a substance she wouldn’t have touched before she was captured. Griff leaned out into the aisle and bumped into Osin, who cursed and slopped food into the otter’s bowl, “Watch it scum, or you’ll get nothing for a week!”
Muttering, the stoat continued along to serve the last few rows. Griff leaned back and slipped the dagger he had lifted from Osin’s belt to Celeriter, who wedged it into the wood under their bench. From there it would be passed along and stashed under a loose board with several other weapons. Shortly after the raid on the otter’s ship, Tinden had revealed that she and her brother had organized the slaves to steal weapons and tools from their captors. It was hoped that eventually they would either be able to help if the Waveraptor was attacked, or find a knife thin enough for Griff to pick the lock on the chains with.
“Am I the greatest pickpocket on the seas or what?” he whispered.
“Shhhh!” Maplefur replied.
The squirrelmaid glanced out the oarhole to see what Deathrose was boarding now. It appeared to be a corsair ship, of all things! She mentioned it to Tinden who just shrugged, “Deathrose makes all the other vermin ships pay her tribute when she finds them. Most of the loot any ship takes winds up with her. If they can’t pay her enough, she sometimes sinks them. No honor among thieves, right?”
Maplefur looked back out to see the captain of the other ship, an old searat, shouting across the gap between the two vessels to Deathrose, “No! You can’t come aboard! There’s a plague among the crew! I’ve got gold for your tolls, but nobeast can come aboard!”
Deathrose quietly consulted with Bloodeye; Maplefur looked across to the other ship, which was quite close. Through the oar hole opposite her, she could see and emaciated squirrelmaid. Maplefur picked a hunk of dry bread out of her food and held it out, mouthing the word “catch”. The squirrelmaid gazed back at Maplefur blearily, then turned and rested her head on the oar she worked. It was a pitiful sight. Will I look like that? So hopeless that I don’t care if somebeast tries to help? She wondered, You’d better find me soon Beechtail!
Deathrose turned back to the other captain, “You’ll leave whatever you have on the island two days east of here in the cave by the spring, it’d better be there when I come back this way, or I’ll have to…eliminate a plague.” She said, putting her hand on one of the huge crossbows that lined the edge of the ship. The other captain gulped and nodded.
Soon Osin was back in the hold, swinging his whip, and ordering the slaves to get rowing again. Within a very short time, the searat vessel had vanished over the horizon.
Aboard the other ship, the captain entered the galley and sighed; lying to Deathrose was risky, but it had worked. There was no plague, but if the corsair ferret had boarded his ship, she most definitely would have confiscated not only the meager amount of treasure he had accumulated, but the barrels of seaweed grog he had acquired a few weeks previously. It was excellent quality, as grog went, and worth a lot to a crew. Going to one of the huge barrels, the captain produced a mug and drew out a good-sized draught. He needed a drink to steady his nerves.
Early in the morning several days after they had encountered the corsair ship, Maplefur and her friends were busy rowing when Deathrose descended into the slave hold and called for attention. Osin swung his whip about until everybeast was watching her. The ferret captain spoke, “Today is my thirty-second seasonday.”
She continued, “In honor of this day, I declare all rowing tasks postponed until tomorrow.”
Osin glared around until all the slaves clapped weakly, Deathrose bowed and turned to go back to the main deck. Celeriter grinned happily, “Haha, guess we get a day to relax!”
Tinden sighed, “Tomorrow we get worked extra hard though…”
“Still, we get to rest, maybe heal a few blisters!” Celriter slapped the bit of bench between her and Griff in excitement. The dagger, wedged underneath, detached itself and fell to the floor, clanging loudly against her iron footpaw-manacles. The metallic sound echoed through the slave hold.
At the top of the stairs to the main deck, Deathrose turned around, “What was that?”
Chapter Twenty-One: Out of the Frying Pan, Just Missing the Fire
Beechtail awoke with a start; one of the Limbrunners bent over him and was shaking him awake, “Time to move,” he whispered.
The squirrel sat up and looked around, Lutran had recovered from his drugged sleep, and was sitting against a tree with a cold wet cloth plastered against his forehead. The otter grinned ruefully at Beechtail, “That stuff packs a blinkin’ wallop; feels like a bally badger running around in my skull!”
Beechtail rolled his eyes and unsheathed his swords quietly; more than likely they would have to fight their way down to the beach. He quietly walked to where Oakarrow was keeping watch. The other squirrel turned to look at him, “Remember, we need to move quietly, so stay away from anything you might fall off of.”
Beechtail opened his mouth to reply, but stopped as a low rumble spread through the trees. Everybeast stopped to look around for the source, which seemed to be everywhere. Oakarrow glanced up towards the mountain, where a dull red glow had appeared; “We’re leaving, right now.”
“That sounds like a bally good plan!” shouted Lutran, jumping up and whipping the cloth off his eyes. The hares and squirrels filed quickly after him, keeping close to the trees. As they ran, another great shudder ran through the earth.
Beechtail’s footpaw collided with a stone jutting up from the ground, camouflaged by a patch of shadow, and he fell heavily. Luckily his arms were angled out so that he didn’t skewer himself on any of his swords; which would have been quite a humiliating way to die for a Warrior of Redwall.
Oakarrow stopped and offered a paw to help the fallen squirrel up as the rest of the group continued towards the beach, “Got to work on you balance when we get back to Redwall.”
The fallen squirrel stood up and hobbled along, “I have been; all my life I’ve been learning how not to fall.”
“Well, you should-” began Oakarrow, who never finished the sentence. A small shape dove out of the trees, the polished point of a polished stone spear glinting in the moonlight. Beechtail acted more out of reflex than anything else and lunged with the Sword of Martin, shattering the wooden haft of the spear an wounding its bearer. More shadowy forms appeared, and for a few minutes the world was full of shrieking fleeting forms that swung stone-tipped clubs, jabbed with spears, and sought to bring down the two squirrels. Beechtail fought with all the skill he had, and most of his luck. When at last the attackers had vanished, Beechtail had accumulated a variety of bruises, and a nick along his ribs when he had been a little slow getting out of the way of a spear. There was a thud behind him, and he spun to see Oakarrow standing at the base of a tree he had evidently just jumped down from. He nodded appreciatively at Beechtail, “Not bad, they were so busy with you I could just sit back and pick them off from above.”
He spoke truly, almost as many of the vermin lay dead from his arrows as Beechtail blades. Beechtail looked into the trees for more enemies approaching and started to run towards the beach, “We’ve got to catch up with the rest!”
He took two steps before Oakarrow grabbed him by the neck and yanked him backwards, he dropped his Salamadastron sword as he fell back with Oakarrow shouting in his ear, “Idiot, if you don’t watch where you’re going it’s a wonder you’ve lived this long.”
Beechtail looked where he had been about to put his footpaw and scrambled backwards; a glowing, red, mass of something flowed sluggishly along in a shallow depression about a pace wide. It was hot too; he hadn’t noticed the heat during the battle, but it was like he was looking into an oven; a very big, hot oven.
Oakarrow pulled a long dagger out and cautiously poked it into the flow; when he withdrew it, it glowed white hot, and the edges of the blade were deformed and warped. The squirrel dropped the now-useless knife to the ground. Beechtail stared at it wide-eyed, “It melts metal, and I was going to step in it!”
Oakarrow looked across; the others had vanished ahead. They were probably wondering where the pair of squirrels had vanished to. He looked at Beechtail, “We need a bridge. Cut down a tree.”
Beechtail looked at the other squirrel like he was crazy; then understanding, he ran at a tree near the flow with the Sword of Martin. He hacked at the trunk furiously, sending chips of wood flying everywhere. With a creaking groan, the tree toppled across the flow. Oakarrow sped across almost before it had touched the ground, he turned and signaled for Beechtail to hurry, “Quick, before it catches fire!”
Beechtail stepped cautiously onto the trunk of the tree; it wasn’t very wide...he gulped and edged his way out along it. Halfway over the tree his foot slipped; he froze, waving his arms to maintain balance. He wasn’t going to make it; he was going to die. The tree shifted, almost dumping the squirrel off of it, and throwing up several embers, one of which landed on Beechtail’s tail, singeing his fur.
“YEOWCH!” the squirrel shot across the tree like an arrow.
Oakarrow looked at the makeshift bridge and then at the squirrel hopping around rubbing his burned tail, “Maybe we should set your tail on fire more often; it seems to work pretty well,” he joked, earning a glare from Beechtail, “We better catch up with the others.”
They ran quickly down to the shore, where the others had gathered. The Seastorm was anchored off shore, and had evidently spotted them, sending the boat to pick them up. The others appeared to have run into trouble of their own; several hares had minor cuts and Lutran had acquired a black eye. He looked at the pair of squirrels, “Ha, we were wondering where you two had bally vanished to! Thought we might have had to leave you behind, wot! Why’s your tail smoking, Beechtail?”
“He practically sat in a fire.”
“Shut up, Oakarrow,” grumbled Beechtail.