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From the South

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This is a fan fiction story by Peony Laminar. It is not considered canon, nor is it a policy or guideline.


Summary: Condemned to a self-imposed exile from Redwall Abbey, Dann Reguba wanders south where he discovers woodlanders held in slavery by wicked pine martens. However, the pine marten Regolith’s cruel green eyes are not only focused on his Castle, he also yearns to venture into Mossflower Country. Dann is forced to journey back to a home he swore never to return and to embroil his friend Thalweg, a ferret, into a nail-biting cat and mouse game with the devil himself. Immerse yourself in Dann’s fantastic adventures together with a group of Long Patrol Hares lead by Major Peony Laminar, an otter named Cinnabar Shellhound and the ferret Thalweg as they all discover the true meaning of duty and loyalty.


Book One
The Castle


Book Two
A History Better Forgotten


Book Three
Familial Bonds


A million thanks to Foeseeker and Jade TeaLeaf on ff.net for betaing! Let me know if you'd like updates.


Book One: The Castle

“You shouldn’t have come so far south.
There’s nothing but suffering and slavery here now.”


Chapter One

The deep white snowdrifts were piled high on the sides of the paths to the gatehouse and the front gate. Skipper and his otters had toiled long into the night just the day before to fight the quickly falling snow. Swathed in a warm scarlet cloak that the Abbess had given him, Dann Reguba stood at the front gate with his arms crossed over his chest. He was waiting for the Skipper of Otters to open and rebolt the front door of the Abbey for him.

The otter hurried over to him with an ice spade in one paw and a bag of scones from Brother Jerome in the other. He studied the Abbey Warrior intently with his dark eyes. “How long do you think you’ll be gone this time, Dann?”

Dann sighed irritably and retied the white scarf around his neck. ”Not long, no more than a day and a night.”

Dragging open the large wooden gates to Redwall Abbey with a groan, Skipper eyed the squirrel warrior and whispered, “You know the Abbess worries when you’re gone.”

Dann raised an eyebrow at the otter. “What’s the whispering for, mate?”

The otter chieftain opened his mouth to reply but another voice cut him off, Abbess Song’s voice. She was standing in the open doorway of the gatehouse with her mother, Rimrose, the Abbey recorder. Three other creatures peered out at them from their tall chairs by the fire, Mother Cregga and their friends Cypress and Hawthorne who had been staying at the Abbey for nearly two seasons now.

The Abbess looked through her snow-tickled eyelashes at the Abbey Warrior and Skipper. She smiled at them kindly and said, “Come back soon, Dann.”

The cold breeze stung his eyes as he gazed at her. “I will."

It was not long after Dannflor Reguba had settled into his role as Abbey Champion that he started to notice a change within himself. All his life he had lived at Redwall Abbey and its safety would always be paramount to him, but new circumstances and feelings were surfacing that created an almost audible dissonance within him between what others expected and what he wanted for himself. He felt himself pulled in all directions by the rules of his position, the loyalty he owed his home, and the feelings quietly suppressed deep within his heart.

So the Abbey Warrior would find solace in wandering the verdant greens of Mossflower Woods. Occasionally he would visit with his friend Log-a-Log Dippler or Chief Burble. Together with Abbess Songbreeze Swifteye they had all shared a grand adventure in the southern lands – four chieftains going forth – and it was always great fun reminiscing. However, the shrew and watervole had very little trouble settling into their own respective leadership roles, and Dann felt awkward discussing with them his own very personal troubles.

It was only last season that he had discovered a wonderful little copse of trees a little more than a day’s walk from Redwall. That was where he was heading this winter afternoon. Looking over his shoulder at the Abbey, he smiled to himself thinking of Brother Jerome whipping up a batch of chestnut scones just for him. He reached into the bag Skipper gave him and bit into a scone with a sigh. They were still warm from the oven!

His ears pricked up at the sound of another creature stumbling about in the snow. From the sound, Dann was able to deduce that there was only one creature, moving about with stumbling steps. But this creature was dangerously close to Redwall. Unsure of what sort of creature it was, the squirrel warrior stood very still and unsheathed Martin’s great sword from behind his back. Treading carefully through the deep snowdrifts, he peered from behind a tree and saw him. It was a red squirrel about his own age, covered in grievous wounds.

His own paws slipping in the icy snow, Dannflor Reguba sheathed the sword and ran towards the other squirrel, catching the stranger just as the beast’s knees buckled. The warrior felt himself pulled down by the other’s limp weight. Resting the other squirrel’s head in his lap, he looked in horror at the red squirrel’s dreadful condition. Dann tried to hold back the sick feeling twisting in his stomach when he realized that the large crimson splotches on the other squirrel’s thin blue tunic were blood. The squirrel’s eyes shot open to stare back at him unfocused.

"What happened?” Dann demanded, grasping the tattered ends of the other squirrel’s sleeves. “Who did this to you?”

"The raven. I didn’t think…” the stranger’s weak voice faded.

“Don’t speak,” Dann said in alarm. “Don’t strain yourself. I’ll take you to the Abbey.”

“Thank you,” the squirrel said with a feeble smile. “My name is Sinon.” With what little energy he had left, he gazed with his bloodshot eyes at the beautiful red gem in the sword hilt visible over Dann’s shoulder.

“Come on,” Dann grunted, pulling the other beast up and putting him over his shoulders. The poor beast was out cold.

Dann thanked his lucky stars had he was still so close to the Abbey. Nevertheless it seemed as if hours had passed before he staggered up to the front doors and beat weakly on them. He prayed that some beast would hear him. Perhaps Skipper had not wandered too far.

Almost as if anticipating his request, Skipper himself peered over the wall tops leaning on the spade. He gasped when he saw Dann and the stranger. Dann could hear the otter’s voice calling loudly for a stretcher and someone to open the gates.

It was Abbess Song who finally opened the gates. Her father Janglur and his own father Rusval dashed out from the Great Hall with a stretcher to help the unfortunate newcomer. Dann, with his father’s help, moved the injured squirrel onto the stretcher. Thoroughly unconscious, the squirrel didn’t even stir.

Abbess Song gasped when she saw the bloodstains on Dann’s cloak. She grabbed his paw as he turned away towards the Abbey. “Dann, are you alright? Is that your blood?”

Dann looked surprised that she considered him first. “No,” he said,”It’s his.”

The Abbess sighed in relief. She hastened beside him as their fathers carried the injured squirrel to the Great Hall. Dann looked ahead at them and said half to himself, “He said his name was Sinon.”

~*~*~

Dann jolted out of his dream. He supposed it couldn’t really be called a dream, not if it was part of his own history. For three seasons now, he found himself constantly rehashing the events the led up to his expulsion from Redwall, self-imposed or not. The event that directly determined his exodus couldn’t be disputed, but the circumstances that lead up to it were less cut and dry. When did it all start to fall apart? What was the point of no return? It had been so long since he had left, but he couldn’t bear to go back. Not yet. How could he face her after what he had done?

Trying to remember what had awakened him from his dozing, Dann shifted his weight between two tree branches. The sun was now directly overhead and the oppressive heat of a southern summer still hung in the air. Dann kicked lazily at a bee tasting the nectar of the pink and white flowers all around him. He chuckled at his own half-hearted attempt to get rid of the insect, his mind wandering again before he realized…

The birds had stopped singing. He readied an arrow on his bow as he heard the shouts and the pounding of rapidly approaching footpaws growing louder.

A young red squirrel in ragged clothes burst from the undergrowth, flying past the tree Dann was lounging in. An arrow embedded itself into the ground near inches from the youngster’s footpaw. Barely halting to take another gasping breath, the young squirrel leapt into the next tree and scurried up surprisingly fast. His frayed brown tunic camouflaged him nicely against the trunk of the oak.

It didn’t take long for the squirrel warrior to piece together what was happening – especially as the vermin came bumbling through the trees and bushes. He sized them up quickly. There were six in all. Dann noticed first that the vermin were surprisingly well organized. They all wore the same gray tunic and pants over sloppily-crafted mail. Their helmets, all of different designs, appeared to have had the same hurried craftsmanship as their mail. However, a stoat stood out from among their ranks. His uniform showed much more care in its making. His garb was supplemented by a resplendent blue cloak attached to each of his shoulders which fell down his back.

Dann took a moment to count the arrows in his quiver; he didn’t have enough to waste multiple arrows on multiple vermin. It would be a close skirmish. He prayed he wouldn’t have to bring the battle to the forest floor.

The young squirrel was hiding in the upper boughs, cowering behind the trunk. His ears pricked up when he heard the stoat captain issuing orders.

“Saw the blighter run up that tree,” spat the stoat. “Go get ‘im.” He pushed one of his fellows, a ferret towards the tree. The unfortunate ferret had not yet climbed onto the first bough before he was cut down, an arrow sticking out of his throat.

“Halfear, the wretched bushtail’s shootin’ at us. ‘Ow’d ‘e get…” the rat didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence before another well-aimed arrow silenced him forever.

The other three soldiers gulped and looked to their captain for guidance.

“Rush ‘im, you lily-livered scum. ‘E’s just a slave!” shouted the stoat Halfear, trying to encourage his nervous band. He took out a long daggar and twirled it expertly at his three remaining troops as they tried to back away from the tree. “Trust me when I say Regolith’ll do much worse t’ ya if you don’t.”

His three remaining followers fearfully approached the oak. A ferret whimpered in despair as he stared transfixed at another of his species lying in a pool of blood. However, he didn’t have the chance to stare for long before he himself was transfixed by a brown fletched arrow.

A third ferret, bolder than the rest, began climbing the tree. However, the tree was slick with the first victim’s blood. Slipping, the ferret landed hard on his backside, an arrow embedding itself in the tree above his head. A moment sooner and it would have gone clear through his neck.

The second arrow didn’t miss.

The last soldier, a rat nearly jumped out of his skin as the last of his companions fell lifeless. Not sparing even a moment for hesitation, he turned and ran towards the stoat captain, Halfear.

“I can’t do it, capt’n!”

The stoat captain kept up his bravado. Pointing his daggar at the rat running towards him, Halfear growled, “Get up that tree now!”

“I ain’t gonna end up like …” An arrow grew out of the rat’s neck, snuffing him out like a light.

Wide-eyed, the stoat dropped the long dagger in fright and ran at a dead sprint away from the slaughter.

A final arrow embedded itself in the ground where he had stood but a moment before.

The red squirrel jumped over to Dann’s tree, staring over at his rescuer as the young squirrel struggled to regain his breath. The archer only appeared to be several seasons his senior and certainly didn’t seem like much. If anything, he dressed like a common wanderer. A simple brown short-sleeved tunic with some insignia or other and a dark green undershirt – nothing worthy of a warrior. But there was the entirety of the search party dead at their feet. Whoever this beast was, he had taken them all on with hardly any effort.

Dann slipped a last arrow back into his quiver and raised an eyebrow at the newcomer. “Alright there?” he inquired kindly.

The young squirrel nodded, staring. “T-That was amazing, sir! I couldn’t believe you’ve did it, but….ya did! Who would have thought. Help’s finally come! ‘S that why yer here? To save everyone at the Castle? Where’d you get that nifty…”

The warrior cut the other squirrel off decisively. Seeking to redirect the conversation, he said, “My name is Dannflor Reguba. What’s yer name?”

“Beech,” said the squirrel now gaping open-mouthed at the golden furred squirrel. The squirrel warrior was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the younger squirrel’s worshipful stare. He cleared his throat, eager to break the silence with some much-needed answers.

But before he could, the younger squirrel blurted out unthinkingly, “Do you have any food?”

Dann blinked, and then realized his inhospitable, though reasonable, manner. “Of course,” he smiled. “We need to put some meat on those bones. I have some rations in my pack, but I suggest we head elsewhere for lunch.” As he spoke, the warrior’s keen eyes scanned the forest floor for movement. “It’s not safe to linger here if that stoat brings reinforcements.”

Beech caught on quickly to Dann Reguba’s suggestion. Halfear would easily recognize the place of this carnage. He looked up at the golden furred squirrel and gestured to the bodies littered below. “Should we…”

Dann wrinkled his nose, “We shouldn’t waste our time on the likes of them. Let the vermin bury their own dead.”

“But, it doesn’t seem right to just…”

“Are you coming or not?” asked Dann impatiently.

“Yesssir.”

Dann considered Beech with an upturned eyebrow. “Enough of the ‘sirs.’ I’m not that much older than you. Please call me Dann.”

“Right, sorry, si--- I mean, Dann.”

Dann laughed, patting Beech on the back before waving him on as they darted gracefully through the trees to find a nice spot for lunch and further conversation.

In no time they were sitting together in the upper boughs of a hickory tree a little bit away. Beech watched in open mouthed astonishment as the squirrel warrior took out all manner of deadly weapons from the fastenings across his back in order to take out his haversack and riffle through it. A short sword, two knives and a scimitar were hidden beneath his quiver, not counting all the weapons hanging from the squirrel warrior’s broad belt. This creature was a living, breathing armory!

Dann pulled out some peaches he had scavenged the day before as well as scones and cheese. “Got these from a lovely mole family. I stayed with them over the winter after I chased away some foxes from their settlement,” Dann said. “I’m mostly a wanderer by nature. Just go where the mood takes me. And I guess on this beautiful summer morn it carried me here.”

“A wandering warrior?” said Beech in wonder. “I like the way that sounds. What are you doing over here?” “Dunno. I’ve never been this far south before. Thought I’d see what ‘tis like,” Dann shrugged. “Who were you running from?”

Beech glared down at his scone. “Halfear and some of Lord Regolith’s filthy vermin. You shouldn’t have come so far south. There’s nothing but suffering and slavery here now.”

“What do you mean? Who’s Lord Regolith?”

Beech puffed up with righteous indignation. “That ruthless green-eyed vermin! He’s the pine marten who rules the Castle. He came to our settlement seven seasons ago with a horde of vermin. He said he merely wanted to coexist in peace,” Beech snorted. “I don’t know why anyone believed him. I didn’t for a second. He commissioned Willow’s father to draft plans for a grand castle.”

“Who’s Willow?” Dann asked.

Beech blushed and murmured, “A squirrelmaid.”

Dann raised his eyebrows amusedly at the young squirrel’s obvious crush. “So Regolith commissioned her father to make the plans for the castle?” asked Dann.

“Yes,” said Beech, pausing as he regained his train of thought. “And when he completed them, Regolith immediately started the construction, hewing vast rocks from the nearby quarries and felling trees like daisies. In no time he had enlisted the help of all the woodlanders. Slavery, I mean.”

“Yes,” Dann replied in wonder. “This was seven seasons ago?”

Beech nodded, taking another bite of his scone. “It’s a huge project. We’ve almost completed it. Regolith crushed every semblance of resistance. My parents died in the first rebellion. After that he didn’t waste any time dallying and burnt down Willow’s house so that no woodlander would possess the blueprints to his fortress. Her father and brother were locked inside.” Beech frowned at the memory but allowed himself a little smile as he recounted what happened next. “But Regolith wasn’t quite quick enough. Willow and I hid a copy of the final plans in a gnarled beech near the southern marshes. In case we ever needed them, ya know?”

Dann nodded, nibbling on a piece of scone. Beech leaned back relaxing. “So what’s it like being a nomad warrior? I bet it’d be lovely. Have you ever wandered over to Redwall Abbey in Mossflower?”

Dann almost choked on a piece of his scone. “Why do you ask?” he wheezed coughing.

“Dunno.” Beech shrugged. He popped the rest of the scone in his mouth before lying on his back and folding his paws behind his head. His dark eyes gazed intently up at the clouds drifting overhead. “It’s all we talk about in the slave compound. Sounds like a lovely place. Overflowing with delicious food, safe warm beds, kind creatures everywhere, the heir of Martin the Warrior protecting the Abbey and bearing Martin’s own magnificent sword.” He sat up and looked at Dann with a glimmer in his eyes. “I’ve heard tales of huge Badgerlords even visiting. How big do you think a Badgerlord would be? At least as big as this tree, right!”

“Don’t forget Badgerladies as well,” Dann teased. “Wouldn’t want to get on their bad side. It might be the last thing you ever do.”

Beech laughed so hard he almost fell out of the tree. “So, Dann. You look like a veritable one creature armory. What are all those weapons? Could you show me how to use some of them?”


Chapter Two

Willow was a squirrel. She had always found it a wonderful blessing to be such a swift nimble creature. She was able to climb quickly and with ease, whether it was a tree or a rampart. Her bushy red tail was perfect for balance and her tenacious claws gripped even the sheerest surface. However, in times like this, she wished she were a mole.

Such a shame. Gorgeous summer afternoons were meant for basking in the sun or in the drifting scent of linen as clothes hung out to dry- or at least, that’s what it meant before Regolith. Willow crouched in the ditch, pressing her ears against the walls while her best friend Galena kept watch, though such attention wasn’t quite necessary at the moment.

The little dug-out was barely even a speck on the blue-prints and had gone unnoticed and unattended for nearly three seasons before they had discovered it. How something so crucial could be forgotten, Willow was at a loss. But of course, she herself used to pass its way daily, dismissing it for another grimy mud hole until she realized that it was level with the officer’s quarters. It took a lot of effort, secretly widening the ditch and boring a hole into the wooden walls.

Lean in, pray for silence, concentrate, and she could hear just about every little thing passing through their lips.

Forgotten but useful. The moles who had been “commissioned” to build the tunnel system had sunk the portion to Regolith’s quarters at this very spot. However, they didn’t have the opportunity to level the area to that of the parade grounds before they were cut down by Regolith’s soldiers.

The marten didn’t particularly like moles. He didn’t like particularly like any beast for that matter, and he certainly didn’t appreciate the structural masterpiece at paw.

It was just like her father to design such a complex building – a building with an ingenious tunnel system that connected the main building, kitchens, Barracks, and Regolith’s quarters. Nobeast could deny her father’s attention to detail, his brilliance and passion for his art. Nobeast else could possibly make his designs possible. But while he had a remarkably keen eye for walls and pillars, it was poor compensation for his judge of character.

Willow inhaled deeply. Whatever mistake her father made trusting that vermin, he’s paid dearly for it.

Galena poked her brown head out of the hole, her dark eyes gleaning the area for the slightest bit of movement. She was sure the frantic beating of her heart could be heard for miles.

“I dunno, Willow,” said her otter friend, nervously rubbing the wooden pendent hanging around her neck. “Are you sure you saw Halfear comin’ back alone?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” the squirrel hissed back.

Galena crouched down further into the hole. Being an otter, she was much bigger than Willow and therefore she was much less comfortable than her squirrel friend. “How can you be so relaxed, Willow?”

Willow’s bright blue eyes sparkled as she glanced at her friend. “What’s the worse thing that could happen?”

“You always say that,” Galena sighed.

Willow shifted away from the hole so her friend could try her luck. She elbowed the otter in the head as she did so.

“I’m sorry!” she gasped.

Willow moved her arm aside and allowed more space for Galena.

“I couldn’t hear a thing, just a lot of yelling,” the squirrel complained. She slouched down farther all the while looking across at her otter friend. “Beech must have gotten away! But what happened to all the other guards? Halfear was alone when he …”

Galena cut her off with a whisper, “Shh! I think I can hear something.”

They both moved their ears to the hole in the wall and bumped heads again. Galena rubbed a paw to her head and looked at the squirrel with a sour expression before making more room.

Lord Regolith had finally stopped shouting and his drawling voice could now be heard clearly. “Halfear, my friend. I simply can’t comprehend how five of my soldiers could be killed by a runaway squirrel. It seems to defy logic. Don’t you agree?”

The next words were spoken in a softer, submissive voice. The stoat’s voice was all boom and thunder everywhere else, but not here.

“…sorry m’lord… send more after him…?”

“Surely you know I wouldn’t tolerate such a nonsensical proposition. I can’t spare another group of soldiers. Besides, what can one squirrel do? If you are so keen on the idea, go by yourself. Though keep in mind that if you don’t have different results, I’ll … but we really must think of more important matters. Send in Captain Zigor. I want to know how our preparations are coming for the expedition. I want to be gone from here by the end of the week.”

“We’ve stayed too long,” whispered Galena to Willow. “I don’t want to run into that black fox. Hurry, back to the compound.”

Galena climbed out of the ditch and grabbed Willow’s paw to haul her out. Willow brushed dirt off her blue dress and followed behind Galena as they slunk back to their holding area. Two ferrets peered at them suspiciously before opening the huge padlock on the wooden door to the slave compound.

The other slaves had finished their morning shifts and had all gathered in their “rest area” to wait for their lunches. They sat on their flimsy bunks piled two or three on top of the other and waited for the thin gruel to arrive.

As soon as Willow and Galena returned, they were accosted by the questions of the other slaves. What had happened to Beech? Did he get away? What happened to the other guards?

“Quiet down everyone! We don’t want to attract unwanted attention,” Galena whispered.

She motioned for everyone to sit down again, her eyes never straying from the ferrets standing guard outside. The slaves were expecting rats carrying vittles to enter at any moment.

Content that she had a moment to relay her information, Galena continued quietly. “We heard Regolith talking with Halfear in the officer’s mess. Beech got away and the five vermin sent after ‘im were killed. The soldiers aren’t gonna track Beech ‘cause they’ve got other plans. Regolith said ‘e plans to leave ‘ere by the end of the week!”

Whispers of excitement ran rampant at this development. One young mouse named Phillip actually jumped up and started to dance. Galena looked at Willow apprehensively.

Willow nodded at her and began to speak her piece, “Let’s not pack our bags so quickly. We don’t know anything about the pine marten’s plans. He might be goin’ to recruit more vermin. Mayhap he’s not pleased with our productivity and’ll be going to enslave more creatures.”

Galena nodded at her friend and joined in, “Let’s all just keep our ‘eads. We know they won’t just free us. I want everybeast t’ start stealin’ as many weapons as they can lay their paws on. That way we can protect ourselves if’n somethin’ happens.”

The creatures nodded at the ottermaid’s wise words and whispered back and forth about what the two young maids had discovered. Finally the door in the compound to the main building creaked open and the rats walked in, heaving the steaming cauldron between themselves.

Willow turned to Galena, “I’ve gotta serve Regolith his lunch. I’ll tell ya if I hear anythin’ else.”

Willow walked past the rats and into the main building. The stoat captain Halfear was waiting just outside the door and grabbed her roughly by the back of her dress, pushing her towards the staircase to the basement.

C*~*C*~*C

Lord Regolith paced his quarters as two rats hauled a large chair throughout the room, eagerly awaiting the word of satisfaction so that they could relieve themselves of their burden. But their lord was a picky one. He prided himself in his tastes – his collection of all fine and beautiful things. And he was just as selective in arrangement as he was of quality.

“Right there.” The rats sighed, lowering the furniture as carefully as possible. They barely got their claws from under it before Regolith seated himself on his throne.

In his mind’s eye, Regolith found that the seat was fitting of his status. The delicate inlays of mahogany and cherry wood complimented the rich fabrics and valuable paintings on his walls. A seat this comfortable and this handsome was surely meant for nothing lower than a king. He said that much to its creator and the old squirrel had grinned like a fool for such praise. For a split second, the marten actually regretted burning the architect alive. He could have been of more use, but no matter. There were other issues to worry about. Upcoming plans.

The possibilities were endless, boundless. They’d kept him up at night, meddling with his concentration, anticipation putting him on edge and driving him to distraction. He scowled down at the rats, enjoying how his silky crimson sleeves seemed to flutter as he waved them off. Their exit was nothing graceful as they stumbled to get out of his way. But as usual, he was constantly surrounded by idiots.

He turned with a sigh as Halfear hurried in with another captain, Bloodnose. Regolith hadn’t yet determined why he kept the stoat captain around. Halfear was as dumb as a stump, though he did followed orders very well for a creature so simple-minded. The only thing the stoat could say for himself was his skill with a blade.

Regolith’s weasel captain Bloodnose was the exact reverse of Halfear. He was surprisingly clever for a creature that was so clumsy and inept with a sword. With Halfear and Bloodnose together, Regolith had one passable captain. Thank goodness for Zigor, the black fox.

Bloodnose was in such a haste that he tripped over one of the rats on its way out. He sat up nursing a bloody nose. The weasel captain shrugged the setback off and continued behind Halfear. Regolith rolled his eyes. It was quite astonishing how many bloody noses the weasel captain got. Maybe he could have that pretty squirrelmaid who served him start counting.

“Milord, ya called us in for a meetin?’” Bloodnose asked, making an awkward bow and wiping the blood on his yellow tunic. The weasel always made an effort not to dirty his blue captain’s cloak.

Behind the two captains, a third captain hastened in; this time it was a rat. The rat’s chainmail clinked together discordantly. Regolith’s green eyes shone with malice at the rat’s entrance.

“Please sit down,” the marten announced smoothly. He made sure to lean back in his seat, just to establish who it belonged to. “I want to discuss our food supplies in preparation for the journey.”

The pretty squirrelmaid walked in with a beaker of wine. Her blue eyes were downcast. It was her fool of a father who had designed his throne and his castle. She used to smile and laugh with the other beasts way back then. But that was when she and the others were free. Now she was nothing but a reminder of his cunning and deception. A nice little trophy to have at paw while he spit upon the architect’s grave and unbeknownst to her she would soon become a keen bargaining tool. He waved her over to refill his cup and then seized her by her narrow waist and tossed her on his lap before she could slip away.

“Milord,” said Bloodnose, the weasel captain. He saluted awkwardly. “Zigor is directing the collection of our food stores for the journey. We have four carts piled high with supplies, enough to last us a season: vegetables, grain, bread, water, rum. I have the slaves cookin’ extra rations fer us.”

“Beggin’ yer parden milord,” began Deekeye, the rat captain, “but the troops are havin’ trouble understandin’ why we’re leavin’ the Castle. Your fortress is nearly complete and we have food and slaves aplenty. It seems madness to leave it undefended while you’re wanderin’ the countryside.”

“Madness, eh?” Regolith narrowed his eyes dangerously. He pushed the squirrelmaid from his lap and onto the floor. Taken by surprise, she collapsed into a pile at his feet before clambering up and running to stand in safety by the door.

Deekeye seemed unsure of himself for a moment, but he was taken with the passion of his argument. “Yessir. Madness. ‘Tis madness to travel en masse during the harvest season, to leave the Castle completely undefended, and to besiege an impregnable fortress in the dead of winter. Everyone’s heard the stories. Damung Warfang and Cluny the Scourge with greater hordes than ours were defeated there. We’ll all be killed to fuel your lust, your madness, and your greed. Can’t you see that you’ve already won? What need do you have to prove it? It’s madness!”

Regolith stood up regally from his throne and selected an ornate knife from his leather belt. “Madness you say?”

Deekeye gulped. “Aye, madness. Think of your troops, milord.”

“Deekeye, my friend,” the pine marten drawled, strolling over and draping an elegant paw around the trembling rat’s shoulders. “I see now what you’ve been murmurin’ in the darkness, plans of mutiny and treason. You’re tryin’ to turn my troops against me.”

“No! I…”

“Insurrection will not be tolerated,” Regolith purred, holding the knife close to the rat’s throat. A drop of blood dripped down Deekeye’s neck.

“This is madness,” Deekeye whispered before a ruthless flick of the wrists cut him off.

Regolith tossed the rat’s body aside dispassionately and glared at the other captains. They gaped down at their colleague, whose blood was now staining the floor. Regolith looked over at the squirrelmaid. “Get someone to clean this up.”

“Yessir,” she whispered before hurrying out.

All beasts had their weaknesses: Vanity, Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Mortality. Her father was kind, loving, and more than intelligent. Yet it was his undying pride that had been his undoing. If there was justice in the world – any at all – then she would see Regolith fall from his so-called accomplishments. Let his vanity and pride consume him, just like the fires had done to her family. It would happen someday. She knew it. She swore it.


Chapter Three

Writings from the records of Recorder Rimrose Swifteye:

The whole abbey is aquiver with excitement. We are swiftly nearing the anniversary of my daughter Abbess Songbreeze’s tenth year as Abbess. She is always loath to have celebrations in her honor, our modest Abbess, so we are organizing a surprise feast!
All of the chefs in the kitchen have been baking and cooking up a storm! Brother Jerome, our jolly cook, is in his element, ordering his helpers around to organize a grand feast. Song’s good friend, Log-a-Log Dippler, as well as Chief Burble of the Rivervoles will be joining us in the festivities with their tribes. Our Badger Mother Cregga’s former protégé, Lord Russano the Wise, is also visiting with a very small contingent of his Long Patrol, lead by Colonel Basil Nymium. It’s suffice to say that all the hares are eagerly anticipating the upcoming feast. Although Brother Jerome bemoans the extra “famine faced gobs” of the hares that he will have to feed, secretly you can tell he is flattered by their near worship of his culinary skills.
My daughter is visiting our friends Hawthorne and Cypress who live in Mossflower Glade; they will also be coming to the great feast. We didn’t know what to make of them, a pine marten and a vixen, at first when they arrived in Redwall and in the ensuing tension several seasons later when they decided to build their homes outside the Abbey. However, when we got to know them better, we realized their kind hearts. Our Abbey Warrior himself suggested a site for their little paradise in a pleasant copse of trees a little more than a day’s march from Redwall.
They have settled down to a peaceful and plentiful life in the shadow of our abbey, Hawthorne, Cypress, and the vixen’s twin sons. We are very fond them, our Badgermum Cregga especially. She gets along with the old vixen Cypress surprisingly well.
The squirrel Sinon is accompanying the Abbess to Mossflower Glade to visit with our two friends. We’ve taken this event as the opportunity for us to prepare the feast for the Abbess. Though there are fewer hostile vermin bands lately, Sinon is bringing the sword of Martin the Warrior with him just in case. To our knowledge, it is the first time a creature who is not the Warrior of Redwall has carried the blade. However, seeing him hold it with such reverence puts no doubt in our minds that he will treat it with the utmost care and respect.
Indeed, it is the first time is had been carried, since Dann Reguba relinquished it. It’s now almost four seasons to the day he left us. I fear that we may never know the true reason for his departure. Rusval was very saddened to see him go. He moped around for a full season before Cregga spoke some sense to him. She tells anyone who speaks ill of our champion that many warriors are wanders by nature and fate deals them strange destinies. She is sure that if he is ever needed, Martin will guide him home to our beloved abbey.
My daughter is also very sad that Dann left, though she tries not to let any beast see. I can tell by the look in her eyes whenever she sees the sword hanging above the tapestry. They were such good friends who went on such grand adventures together.
Well I must be going to wash this ink from my paws before I go to help Brother Jerome in the kitchens! Please visit us at Redwall anytime! Any travelers on the North Path are always welcome to cool their heels with us before continuing their journeys. And of course “to scoff as many mouthwaterin’ munchies they can bally well get their paws on,” as says Colonel Basil Nymium.

Rimrose pushed her chair back and stretched her arms over her head, the sleeves of her summer habit falling down past her elbows. She sneezed again and rubbed a paw over her eyes. The afternoon light had not yet penetrated the small high windows of the gatehouse. It was still content to light the upper shelves of the bookcases, teasing the tomes and scrolls in a soft golden light.

She jumped slightly when there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called.

Her husband poked his head around the door. Unlike his wife, he had never taken to donning the Redwall habit. He preferred to wear a green and brown traveling tunic as he had in his younger years. He sidled in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek and looked at her last entry. “Goin’ to the kitchens, eh? Do ya mind if a handsome young warrior accompanies you, my fair young maiden?”

Rimrose swatted at her husband playfully. “You know as well as I do that neither of us are ‘young’ anymore. You can come with me to the kitchens if you promise not to eat too much food from under poor Jerome’s nose. The beast must be at ‘is wits end with all those ravenous wolves on his threshold.”

“I thought hares were bad enough, mates. Now poor Jerome needs to fight off wolves,” said a voice from behind them. Janglur turned and winked at his friend Skipper. The otter was leaning casually in the threshold. His tunic nearly dry from a dip in the pond.

“Aye,” said Janglur, resting his paws on his belt buckle. “Come with us to help fight ‘em off. Mayhap Brother Jerome will reward us with some vittles.”

Skipper’s dark eyes lit up dreamily. “Maybe ‘e’ll even make a great ole’ pot of hotroot soup for a brave otter, matey.”

“Hello, Rimrose, Janglur, Skipper,” trilled a little white mouse as she skipped by with a few large tomes held against her chest.

“Doin’ some more studyin’ I see, Sister Bianca,” said Janglur as the little Sister ran by.

She halted and jumped from one footpaw to the other in excitement, almost tripping on her light green habit. “Yes, Mother Cregga gave me this book she found in her room. She had it supporting the uneven leg of a desk, can you believe it! What a waste of a beautiful book! It describes Abbot Arven’s Battle at the Ridge of a Thousand. I can’t wait to finish it. Isn’t our history fascinating? Arven seems like such an interesting fellow. I wish I was alive when he was Abbot all those years ago. Have you ever heard of a beast being both Abbey Warrior and Abbot? Amazing!” said Bianca without once taking a breath between sentences.

And even more amazing was the fact that she’d said all that in one breath- at least, it caught Skipper’s attention

“Yer lung capacity’s amazing, marm. Have you ever thought ‘bout bein’ one of my divers?” asked Skipper.

Bianca blushed and shook him away with an ink stained paw.

“Nothin’ more ‘bout Martin the Warrior, eh?” asked Janglur. It was well known by all that Bianca had a fascination with the Abbey founder, possibly bordering on an unhealthy obsession.

The little sister pouted. “Unfortunately not, I haven’t been able to find any more books. I’ve already gone through all the books in the gatehouse and the lower attics a thousand times. I’m yearning to get a chance to root around in the upper attics. No one’s gone into the attics in countless seasons so no one knows where the entrance is anymore! I’ve been meaning to ask the Abbess for permission to climb up from the lower attics. There’s a window that we could climb into. Perhaps she or Sinon could help me up there and root around a bit.” She paused wide-eyed for a moment. “Mister Swifteye, you’re a squirrel as well! Would you like to help me?”

Janglur was about to promise the sky to the mousemaid, but Rimrose proclaimed sadly, “Alas, Bianca. We aren’t as young as we used to be and I’m afraid Janglur might not be able to squeeze through some of those tight places as well as he might have in his earlier seasons.” She patted her husband’s stomach with a paw. “Well we must be off,” Rimrose said pulling her husband past Skipper and out the door with her.

The mouse waved goodbye with one arm, the other paw holding the books tight to her chest.

Skipper shook his head. “Wot a funny gel, eh Janglur.”

Janglur looked down at his stomach in dismay. “Yer right of course.”

“Shall we head off those hares?” said Rimrose. She picked up her skirts and harried off, calling behind her. “I’ll race you.”

“Sink my rudder and call me a frog, your wife sure is quick, mate. Let’s catch ‘er up and make her regret callin’ a freebooter like you chubby, eh?”

“Sounds good to me, Skip. Though she might have a point.”

The otter and the squirrel raced across the grounds. Some of the Long Patrol hares that were helping Skipper’s otters set up tables for the feast among the trees in the orchard paused to watch the otter chieftain and his squirrel friend try to catch Rimrose.

“I say, they have the right idea, wot,” said one of the hares starting to drift towards the kitchen.

“Not yet, mate,” said a big otter putting a paw on the hare’s shoulder and effectively tripping with his rudder another hare racing to the kitchen. “Yer not finished with the tables.”

The unfortunate hare, brushing grass stains off his formal red jacket, muttered to himself, “Steady on, you pirate. S’nothin’ wrong with a chap stealin’ a bit o’ sustenance.”

Chapter Four

Beech lay as quiet as he could, welcoming sleep that wouldn’t come. His mind was so awhirl with thoughts and changes and impossible hopes. It was all so overwhelming, so amazing. If only Willow was-

The movement and rustle triggered his attention. His lungs and muscles ceased altogether while his heart pounded. And then Dann mumbled something about music, turning fitfully in his sleep, completely unaware of the scare he’d just caused.

The younger squirrel let out a relieved breath, turning his musings to the sky, staring up at the moon as the thoughts whirled around in his brain. These scenes playing out in his mind weren’t so wild and adventurous anymore. Not when he’d realized that his first instinct was to freeze at danger instead of draw a blade. If it wasn’t for Dann, Beech was sure his hide would be drying in front of Regolith’s fireplace by now. Regolith…

They had traveled for nearly the whole day, Dann urging him far away from the Castle, wedging their distance from danger. Beech sighed heavily again, blinking back up at the thin sliver of moon as the cool night breeze ruffled his fur and the crickets played their symphony to the stars. Even so, the lonely, gently illuminating display offered neither light nor joy to the young squirrel’s musings. To think this was only the first night that he had been free from the castle. It seemed as if so much had happened.

Yesterday afternoon, Dann had taught him all manner of techniques of sword play and tricks to improve his accuracy in slinging and javelin throwing. The warrior was forever correcting him on his stance and parries and ever reminding him to take notice of his surroundings and how he could use them to his advantages while attacking a foe. Dann was also immensely curious about Regolith’s Castle and Beech’s enslavement. What manner or creature was Regolith? How many beasts did he have at his command? What was the general health of the slaves? Could they be fit for travel? Yet the other squirrel was mum when it came to his own past. As much as Beech pressed him, Dann would shake his head and change the subject.

Beech could feel his eyes drift closed, seemingly through some other power. A vision came in front of his eyes, a mouse. He was dressed in gleaming armor, wearing a red cloak and a kind smile. He unsheathed a magnificent sword from a scabbard oat his hip and pointed its keen tip at the young squirrel. The flawless metalwork gleamed like a fallen star. The blade seemed fresh from the smith’s forge, yet the hilt seemed to be bound in leather well-worn from generations of good use. Even more wondrous still was the dark red pommel stone on the sword’s hilt.

The young squirrel felt a chill run up his spine, part in fear and part in anticipation. Who was he to be visited by such a magnificent warrior? The mouse radiated comfort and Beech felt as if he had known him all his life. How was it then that he could not think of the creature’s name?

“Don’t let the fear of failure consume you, Beech. You’re stronger than you may have realized, you will soon discover your inner strength. The key to the liberation of your friends lies under the earth. Strike north with your new companions and bring my warrior to his beleaguered home. Those warrior born will finally be one.”

C*~*C*~*C

His footpaws hanging down from the tree, Dann inspected the new buds that had begun blooming in the orchard that early spring. Abbess Song was on the bough above him, her head resting in her paws as she gazed out unseeingly out towards the walls and the swaying trees of Mossflower wood.

He swung up to join her. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

She sighed and glanced over at him, the spell broken. “I just don’t know what to think. Cypress and Hawthorne have been here for so long, three seasons! Why would they want to move out of the Abbey? And why would they leave it up to me to choose?" She pouted, “Either way somebeast’s bound to be sulking.”

“You’re the Abbess. This is your Abbey.”

Song continued pouting and put her paws into her wide sleeves. She wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s the same thing mum and Cregga said.” She leaned back against the trunk of the tree with a sigh. “Still, I don’t see why they want to leave. Have we done something to offend them?”

Dann plucked one of the flowers and twirled it between his fingers. “You’ve been more than welcoming towards them! You’ve allowed them to become truly contributing members of the Abbey. But blood is thicker than water. The story and history of this place has always made it uncomfortable for creatures of their species to live here. We tell scary stories to the Dibbuns about Marlfoxes and pine martens with hypnotic eyes. You can see how they’d start to feel a little… awkward.” Dann made a funny face at her. “Cypress’s twins Milkwort and Mugwort are always asking me to play Marlfox with them!”

Song tried to hold in her merriment, but burst out laughing. “Those two are little devils. They always know what to do to make me laugh!”

He followed her previous gaze out into Mossflower wood. “But things aren’t always as black and white as we might wish them to be. But you don’t have to exile them from the Abbey.” Dann winked at her and said in a false falsetto fluttering his eyelashes at his friend, “As Abbess Songbreeze of Redwall, I’m sorry to say that you four will have to leave here, effective as of… well right now. Pack your things and scoot. I realize that we have dozens of empty beds in the dormitories and vast grounds here at Redwall, but they’re not for the likes of you. Leave today or I’ll have Dann chase you out with the butt of his sword!”

Song giggled at her friend’s terribly inaccurate impression of herself and whacked the squirrel warrior over his head with a paw. “You villain! I don’t talk like that!”

Widening his eyes goofily, Dann shrugged. “What I’d do?”

Song laughed as she berated him, “This is serious business, Dann! Stop goofing around!”

“Well in my serious and professional opinion…”

“Very professional, yes,” interrupted Song.

“Yes, in my very serious and very professional opinion, I proclaim… What’s the big deal?”

“What’s the big deal! Dann you’re no help at all! I guess this is why I’m the Abbess and you’re not!”

“Yeah, I suppose I would make a terrible Abbess,” Dann agreed.

Song couldn’t control her laughter this time. She leaned in and tweaked him on the nose. “I’m not sure why I asked your help at all.”

“So now us warrior types can’t give advice?”

“As long as it’s not the terrible advice you usually give. Don’t worry Song, that table isn’t too heavy. You and your mum should be able to move it up a couple of measly stairs and into your room.”

“It wasn’t that heavy,” Dann said in his own defense. “And there weren’t that many stairs.”

“There were two whole flights of stairs!”

“I think this is just another instance of you say ta–may-to, I say ta-mah-to.”

“Well let’s just agree to disagree. And what was your advice this time?” She mimicked his voice, “What’s the big deal?”

“What is the big deal? Why don’t they live just outside the Abbey in a cute little cottage, have some privacy from the uncomfortable stares and come to visit as often as they like! I even know a lovely quiet glade only about a days walk west of here that would be a great place for them. We could help them build two little cottages...”

Song merely gaped at him.

“Well say something, mate.”

“I’m shocked. That’s actually a good idea!”

“I know! Wait, what do you mean you’re shocked?”

Song shrugged at him with an amused expression.

“It’d be lovely. Imagine. We could build each of them a cute little cottage in the glade. They can have some space from the curious and disapproving eyes of some of the Redwallers. The distance will afford them to have the luxury to really be themselves.” He leaned toward her, his voice soft, “They would no longer have their decisions made for them; they wouldn’t have to live the life someone else dictated for them anymore. They would finally be free to…“

She closed her eyes leaning towards him as well…

“Do you need some help up there?” said a voice approaching them.

Song’s eyes snapped open. The spell was broken.

Looking horrified with herself, she muttered an apology and then jumped down into a lower bough just as another squirrel climbed up to join them. It was Sinon. Song didn’t waste any time. She scurried off to the kitchen.

The red squirrel looked at Song’s quickly retreating form and frowned at Dann accusingly. “What did you do to her? She looks really upset.”

Dann looked at Song running away as well and spoke to hopefully distract Sinon from the true reason of the Abbess’ distress. “She’s just doesn’t know what to do about our guests. She’s having trouble reconciling a way that they can be part of the Abbey while not being in the Abbey.”

Sinon’s blue eyes were ice cold, tainted by a memory of his past that he was never comfortable to discuss. “It’s dangerous keeping them too close to us. They volunteered to leave.”

“But Redwall’s mission is to be a welcome haven to all creatures regardless of their species or experience. As the Abbess, she doesn’t want them to leave in this manner: as if they feel obligated because of the Redwaller’s prejudice. It would go against everything Redwall stands for and everything Song is trying to achieve as the Abbess, to have them leave because of hate and misunderstanding, with such a bad taste in their mouths.”

“Sometimes our opinions about other species can be justified. How many other foxes and martens have caused harm to woodlanders, some might even do so with their same faces. I say we should just kick them out of the Abbey and be done with it. They bring danger to all of us just by being here. As the Abbey Warrior, you should be the first to show them the boot. Vermin don’t understand anything but evil and don’t enjoy anything but other creatures’ suffering. Nothing can change that fact. We should kill them before they have a chance to do the same to us.”

“Now, Sinon,” Dann started calmly, “I really must…”

The other squirrel interrupted, full of ire, “Just because you get to wear Martin’s sword doesn’t make you better than me, Reguba!” he spat. “I’m just as capable and I bet if I was here before you that…”

Dann rolled his eyes when he sensed the familiar tirade about to ensue. “O stuff it, you windbag,” he grumbled, pushing Sinon off the branch.

Dann jumped down himself and stormed back to the Abbey. If anything left a bad taste in his mouth, it was his interactions with the red squirrel. He was glad at least that Song wasn’t here to see this one. He could still hear Sinon’s belligerent voice yelling, “Don’t walk away from me, Reguba!”

“Dann! Dann!”

~*~*~

Dann shot up and looked around. It was only a dream, a memory. Rubbing his head, he looked around a second time for Beech. He finally noticed his friend hanging from a lower branch as he tried to regain his balance and swing onto the branch.

“What are you doing hanging there, mate?” Dann teased.

Beech huffed and jumped up next to Dann. “Some creature pushed me out of the tree! Do you always push creatures trying to wake you from trees?”

Dann laughed and pushed Beech off the branch again. “Only the annoying ones!”

After breakfast they climbed to the ground and Dann put aside all his accoutrements and weapons from his thick leather belt and from the fastenings across his back. A short sword, two knives and a scimitar were hidden beneath his quiver. He put aside his haversack which was strung across his chest in the same manner as his long bow.

The squirrel warrior unsheathed the broad sword from his belt and tossed it to Beech. He then picked up the scimitar and tested its balance.

“Let’s fence,” announced Dann.

The lesson was quick, as Beech anticipated. It seemed as if Beech only got to swing his sword once before Dann disarmed him.

“Sorry, sir,” the young squirrel muttered apologetically. “I’m not the best at swordplay…armstrength…or balance for that matter.”

“That’s rubbish!” Dann frowned and for a second Beech thought it was from anger. The warrior continued, “Your swordplay is first rate. But your real strength is archery. You’re much better than I am. You can see your target very clearly.”

“Thank you,” Beech exclaimed, both surprised and overwhelmed by the strong praise. In his eagerness he swiped at his bow, fumbling with the position before looking back at his mentor. “What would you like me to hit?”

“How about those chestnuts on the high braches.” Dann squinted up at the tree and indicated them with a paw. “They’ll go nicely in a salad for lunch.”

The squirrel warrior was also increasingly impressed at how far his new friend could throw a javelin or sling a stone. There was a sort of burning intensity in Beech’s eyes whenever he held a weapon.

He had latent potential. Plenty. But what Dann didn’t gauge was Beech’s unfailing stamina and tenacity. Dann may have disarmed the younger squirrel thirty – no more along the lines of fifty – times, but each time Beech would snatched up the short sword in his paws and say, “One more time.”

Soon it wasn’t long before the warrior felt the dull ache in his muscles, the sweat stinging his brow, and then most importantly the feeling of empty paws as his sword was smacked into the air before landing in a bush.

Beech stared at its landing spot, and then looked at his sword. He gaped at his mentor, and then looked back at his blade again.

“If you leave your mouth open much longer a bird will mistake it for a promising nesting site,” Dann joked.

Beech’s arm slackened. “Ha. My mom used to say that about my tail,” Beech chuckled at them memory. “Surprised no birds ever made a nest in this tangle. Er… is it alright if I take a break sir?”

“Was just about to say the same thing,” Dann replied, slumping down against a fallen log. Beech nodded and ran to the bush, beating back thorns and stubborn twigs before he retrieved the weapon.

“Here you are, Dann,” Beech beamed, not realizing that the blade tip was pointing at his mentor.

But Dann didn’t take it immediately. Instead he furrowed his brow in a few seconds of contemplation. And then he smirked at bit. “You can keep that one. It’s about time you had your own blade anyway.” He saw Beech open his mouth and another question spilled out – if only to the prevent the younger’s overly grateful thanks. “So what do you plan to do with your new found freedom?”

Beech hesitated for a moment, the fear and uncertainty he contemplated last night again creeping into his mind. “I’m gonna free my friends from the Castle and make Regolith regret taking us captive.” He searched the squirrel warrior’s eyes for approbation

“Ah,” said Dann solemnly. “This should bring about the most important aspect of your training as a warrior. You must always remember to fight for justice, never revenge or jealousy. Protect the weak and the helpless and never fight in anger. In losing control, you will also lose all that is dear to you. ”

Beech furrowed his brows at the slightly enigmatic wording of the commissioning Dann gave him. Why shouldn’t he fight for revenge? Dann hadn’t seen the horror’s Regolith committed. All the families torn apart: parents murdered before their children, children cut down before the faces of their parents. All the friendships and loyalties splintered, all their freedoms stripped from them.

“But I want to free all my friends from slavery and prevent Regolith from committing any more atrocities. Isn’t that revenge?”

“That’s justice, my friend.”

“Like the justice you brought for the slavers who were chasing me? The bodies you left at that tree?”

“Yes,” was Dann’s certain response.

“But why not fight with your anger and vengeance? Wouldn’t they give you strength? Why not use it?”

“They are to be used very carefully. It can give you inordinate amounts of strength but it can also be your downfall. It can blind you to your surroundings and be ignorant of the pain you feel, make you behave as you hadn’t planned. For some it can be much too dangerous to unleash it, a feeling I know all to well.”

“What do you mean?” Beech pressed him.

Dann chose to ignore the question. He patted Beech on the shoulder. “So I see two squirrel warriors. What’s your plan, general?”

Beech looked uncomfortable. “Promise you won’t laugh? I had a strange dream last night. A mouse in armor spoke to me and instructed me to free everyone by going underground and then going north to save someone’s home.”

Dann blinked quickly in shock. He didn’t speak for nearly a full minute and when he did, his voice was pained. “A mouse in armor?”

Beech looked at him strangely, “Yes… Why is something wrong?”

The squirrel warrior pursed his lips together and glared out into the forest. “No. That just reminded me of something. A bad memory.”

Beech opened his mouth and exclaimed, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize that I had spoken wrongly.”

Dann smirked at the younger squirrel’s ever enthusiastic response. “Don’t worry it about, Beech. Go on. What did the mouse say? What did he look like?”

“Well he had armor on,” Beech continued as before, he felt like he was grasping at sands falling from his paws trying to remember the dream, but one vivid detail jogged his memory. “He had the most beautiful sword I’ve ever seen. Gleaming like a diamond with a well-worn leather hilt and pommel stone. It must have been the most magnificient blade I’ve ever seen. Regolith would kill to have something like that.”

“Yeah, the sword really is marvelous,” Dann murmured to himself.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing important. I think you spoke to Martin the Warrior last night.”

“I spoke to…What? How is that even possible? I thought he only spoke to the warrior of Redwall.”

Dann shrugged, not saying a word about it. Beech tried to question him again, but the warrior cut him off saying, “Well I think we should go find those blueprints you’ve hidden away. And it’s about time I returned to see Hamath.”

“Who’s Hamath?”

“It’s not a person, it’s a place. Remember that settlement where I got those delicious scones? It’s about a week’s walk or a two day run from here.”


Chapter Five

Shaking dirt from her fur, Galena looked in displeasure at the great hole she was digging. The little excitable mouse named Philip was digging energetically next to her. So energetically that he was tossing an equal amount of dirt on her as he was outside the hole. It was very hot this morning, so the dirt stuck to the sweat dripping down her face. Galena wiped her face on the sleeve of her ragged light green tunic.

“Can you believe they have us diggin’ another foundation, Galena? I thought we had finished all the buildings. I wonder what this will be.” He paused and laughed gleefully. "Ha! I don't care; I won't be here to see it! We're getting away from here in a few days!"

Galena looked over at him. She closed her eyes as he threw more dirt in her face. "I’m sorry, Galena!" he whispered apologetically.

“Not so loud, we don't want the vermin to know wot we're thinkin,’” the otter whispered.

Philip pouted and whispered back, “They don’t care what we’re thinkin.’ I wish I was a warrior like Martin the Warrior. He would have grabbed old Bilgetail’s whip and started hitting him with it like this and this!” The little mouse punctuated each remark by hurling large shovelfuls of dirt over his shoulder and incidentally on Galena.

Galena smiled wryly as she pawed the dirt out of her eyes. Changing the subject back to their previous discussion, hoping it would induce less dirt slinging, she remarked, "I do wonder what this building will be. I wonder if Regolith himself knows. You know how these vermin are. Can’t make up their minds ‘bout anythin.’ Maybe Regolith needs a special room for his lady friend to keep all of her beautiful gowns.”

Philip laughed. “She would probably need a whole building! She wears a new dress every day!”

"What's all that talkin' for!" yelled a voice from above them. "Shuttup and keep diggin'!" yelled the rat Bilgetail before he swung his whip at Philip. A rat on the other side of the great hole laughed at Phillip. “Hey Bilgetail, I bet you can’t snap off that mouse’s ear with your whip.”

“Shut up, Lousewort,” the other rat growled.

“I bet you two pieces of silver,” Lousewort taunted.

In dismay, Philip looked up between the two rats cursing at each other. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, submissive and ready for the blow. Galena felt such a rage curse through her veins that just as Bilgetail swung his whip, Galena held up her shovel to block the blow.

The whip coiled around it.

Lousewort roared with laughter.

“Bloody waterdog. I’ll whip the fur from your bones for this!” the rat Bilgetail hollered. He pulled forcefully at the whip, almost dragging Galena bodily from the hole.

Amazingly it was the advent of the Captain Bloodnose that saved the ottermaid. The weasel looked down his broken nose at the rats with displeasure. “How’s yer productivity?”

“Er?” Bilgetail scratched his head, his ire forgotten in his confusion.

Bloodnose rolled his eyes. “Progress? How are you progressing? I see you’re dragging that ottermaid from the hole. All done?”

“Er,” repeated Bilgetail. The rat was not very smart.

Captain Bloodnose sighed at the rat and looked over at Lousewort. “Get those slaves out of the hole.”

“Yessir,” said Lousewort.

“That’s enough, you lazy lay-a-bouts!” yelled Lousewort, his voice cracking. “Get outta that hole!”

Galena tossed Philip up out of it. She looked around at the other creatures trying to scramble up before she did so herself. She slipped down the first time, with the loose dirt crumbling in her paws. Captain Bloodnose rolled his eyes and grabbed her wrist roughly, pulling her out of the hole. She grabbed Philip’s paw and ran back to the compound. A squirrel walked past them, winking as he tucked a small knife he had found in a pocket.

While they finally returned to compound to be assigned another task, Galena saw Willow hurrying towards Regolith’s quarters. Willow paused momentarily and whispered to Galena, “There was no building there on my father’s blueprints. There should be nothing between the slave compound and the west gate. I got a good look at it when Beech and I hid it in that tree.”

“I thought as much, matey,” Galena whispered back. “Though I don’t want to think ‘bout what it must be. It’s much to shallow to be a foundation. Don’t tell anyone. They might panic if’n they discover they’re diggin’ their own graves.”

Willow nodded sadly in understanding and hurried off to complete her next task.

The Castle’s buildings were arranged in a very simple pattern. The main building, a tall square building made of wood and stone, was in the center of the grounds, with three floors: the first floor with separate mess halls for officers and enlisted creatures, the second floor with the infirmary and war room, and the third floor for the officer’s quarters. The slave compound was attached to the main building almost as an afterthought, composed of thick wooden bars creating a lattice pattern. There were only two entrances in or out of the slave compound, one onto the parade ground and another into the main building. A long gray one story building spanned the entire length of the south wall, doubling as the armory and soldier’s barracks.

There was a vast open space between the main building and the barracks, which was used as the parade ground for the soldiers to practice drills. Regolith’s quarters were completely separate from those of his officers and enlisted creatures. They were in the northeast corner of the grounds, where he would not be disturbed. The kitchen with its unpainted wooden walls and stone foundation was separate from the other buildings in case of fire, in the northwest corner of the grounds.

This was where Willow scurried off to. Skidding to a stop in front of the kitchen, she opened the door and walked inside. She coughed against the smoke of the ovens and hurried over to the old dormouse Acrey. The heat from the stoves was truly oppressive in the summer heat, but Acrey suffered it good naturedly.

“How are you today, darlin?’” the kindly dormouse asked.

“Well, thank you. And you?”

Acrey wiped a floured paw over her forehead and sighed, “I’m doing alright, I suppose. What news of your friend Beech?”

“He’s fine!” said Willow excited to be bringing good news for a change. “Galena and I were listening in on Regolith’s conversation with Halfear and we heard that somehow Beech escaped and dispatched the five guards chasing him.”

“Beech did all that by himself!” Acrey gasped in astonishment. “That’s wonderful news.”

Willow smiled happily. “What’s on the menu for the pine martens today?”

“Regolith’s favorite roasted woodpigeon and a spring salad today. Vermilion likes these biscuits well enough, I suppose.”

The dormouse piled the platter high with three plates of dinner. Willow felt her heart sink. Regolith must be expecting Zigor for lunch. Acrey gave the platter to the young squirrelmaid and smiled at her. “Take care of yourself, my dear. Thank you for telling me the good news. I always liked your friend Beech.”

Willow climbed down the staircase on the east side of the kitchen into the basement. Standing with her head bowed, she looked through her lashes as the ferret guards at the doors into the tunnels heaved aside the iron bars. She watched her feet carefully as she danced down the steep steps, light from the torches dancing over her leather bracelet.

It was a gift from her father the season before Regolith came. He had braided together and studded pieces of leather around a final piece that had her name embossed into it in swirling letters. A smile would always come to her face when she thought of her father sitting with her by the fire as he wove together the bracelets for her and her brother – although her brother had thought of his as a wristlet.

The light from the wall torches flickered over the metal tray she carried. The torches were attached to the wall at the point where the huge oak cross beams supporting the walls intersected.

She always hated going into the tunnels. They were so hot and close in the summer. She felt like she was breathing dirt and the ashes of the dead. The ceilings were rather high and the entirety of the tunnel system was well buttressed. After all, her father had designed it.

She shifted the tray and raised a paw to rap on the door for the guards’ attention on the other side. All the tunnels meet at the Main Building, so she waited there before she could take the tunnel to Regolith’s quarters. An irritated looking stoat opened the door before ushering her into the more carefully protected entrance to Regolith’s private tunnel. The guards all looked at the covered trays hungrily.

Standing in the bare servants’ passage on the west edge of Regolith’s quarters, she set down the large platter down on the flimsy wooden table before removing the extra plate and adding the decanter of Regolith’s favorite wine. She waited in front of the door to the marten’s chambers, taking a deep breath trying to steady her nerves. From inside she could hear the imperious voice of Regolith drawl: “I wonder where that blasted squirrelmaid has gone off to. I’m hungry.”

Willow waited until her paws had ceased shaking before she glided gracefully and quietly into the chamber. Placing the platter down on the massive mahogany table, she tried not to look at Vermilion’s paws.

Vermilion was a fatally beautiful pine marten. The soldiers said that she had betrayed her fiancé to Regolith, who was his own brother, forcing the other pine marten from the area. Her paws were a bright crimson from her claws to up past her wrists. Some said that it was merely a birth mark, but others said that she had participated in so much slaughter that the blood of her now dead enemies had dyed her paws a permanent blood red.

Vermilion barely looked at he squirrelmaid. Her nature was ice cold, barely acknowledging those around her. Regolith looked at his mate and said, “That green dress is very fetching.” Vermilion merely stared at him, making no reply. She steepled her blood-red paws in front of her and gazed lovingly at the black diamond that gleamed darkly from where it was set in a silver ring on the middle claw of her right paw.

Willow moved silently into the shadows of the room standing with her back to the luxurious jewel-toned wall hangings. She shivered. Regolith raised his voice and said, “Squirrelmaid, I would like some more wine.”

Grasping the decanter in one paw, Willow leaned over to pour into his glass. As she tried to slip away, Regolith tried to grab her around the waist. This was his game. However, this time she was too fast. Regolith leaned back and laughed. Vermilion merely looked at Willow with her chilly gaze.

There was a knock on the outside door and Zigor, the black fox, walked in, his blue cloak trailing behind him. Of all of Regolith’s troops, Willow hated him the most. He was the cruelest, whipping the slaves just to revel in their screams of agony. And he was sly. He seemed to be hiding in every shadow, hearing everything the slaves and the hordebeasts said. Regolith trusted him implicitly because he had a way of sniffing out malcontents and their machinations.

Vermilion stared down at her plate as her mate smiled over at his favorite officer. “Pull up a chair, Zigor.”

Willow danced out of his way as the black fox dragged a stool over to the table and sat at Regolith’s right paw. The fox’s voice was deep and silky. “Preparations are going well. The crops are doing much better than I had anticipated so we should have excess supplies.”

“Wonderful,” Regolith praised his captain. “Get us another glass of wine, squirrelmaid.” He turned back to Zigor. “Thank you for warning me of Deekeye. You were right that he was planning to mutiny.”

“I live only to serve you, milord,” the black fox proclaimed. “The rebellion was only in his thoughts for the present, but how long must we wait for it to coalesce into something more tangible, to twist into something more sinister?”

Willow left the room, closing the inside door behind her. She put a trembling paw to her breast. Each time she was near the pine marten or his most trusted lieutenant, she was never sure if she would leave the room alive. When she returned with victuals for the black fox, the conversation had become more technical.

“Mortys will be arriving in the next few days with news from the north,” said the pine marten.

“The winds are very favorable; he might arrive as early as tomorrow.”

Regolith glanced over at Willow, his green eyes piercing into hers. “His past report from our friend up north seemed quite positive. He presented us with a definitive time frame to stage our conquest.”

“Indeed,” said the black fox. He smiled up at Willow as she put down his plate. Leaning back, he picked up his fork. “The woodpigeon looks excellent.” His creepy obsidian eyes beamed maliciously at her.

Chapter Six

Beech had never seen a place quite like Hamath. Since Dann had spoken of it so casually, Beech assumed it was merely a home or two in a small clearing, not a bustling town. There had to be at least ten wood and stone structures built around a main square and many more creating several wide avenues. Most were single level, but a few climbed two or three stories into the sky. Fascinated, he studied the cleverly painted wooden signs hanging above some of the doors: Hamath Inn, The Tipsy Seagull Tavern, Loampaw’s General Store, The Warrior’s Armory.

It seemed this afternoon most of the creatures were standing in the square, buying goods from some sort of market. Around a statue in the middle of the square, there were many carts and booths set up so that a path was created between the inside and outside rings of carts.

Beech looked over at Dann perplexed. Dann indicated the creatures laughing and trading with each other. “They have a market day once a week. You see not everyone lives in town. Many of the farmers live on the outskirts and bring in their produce to sell on market day.” Dann looked at Beech’s ragged and torn brown tunic. He picked at the sleeve. “We’ll get you some new clothes too. Can’t have you wandering around like this!”

As they got nearer, Beech noticed that it was not only moles, hedgehogs, mice, squirrels and otters. There were also vermin! Ferrets were carrying baskets of brown bread, two stoats were leading their little ones by the paw, a group of rats were throwing dice, even three foxes were trying to trick an otter into giving them a discount.

Beech took a step back in alarm.

Suddenly the stoat family seemed to notice them approaching. The mother did a double take and elbowed her mate roughly. “Would you look at wot the wind blew in, Blacktooth!”

“Great seasons of slaughter! Is that Dann Reguba?” said Blacktooth in surprise.

His announcement instilled a sudden quiet into the market place. Every beast turned to look at Dann and Beech. Beech took another step back in alarm, his paw going for the hilt of the sword. Then there was a chorus of cheers and all ran up encircling Dann, trying to shake his paws.

“Dann, me old messmate, I thought you were heading out for good. Where ‘ave you been these last two weeks?” laughed an otter shaking his paws.

“Far away from you. Didn’t want to eat your spicy food anymore!”

“So did you finally make up with your pretty lass, eh, mate?” asked a ferret, shaking his paw and offering him a piece of bread.

“If I did, would I be here lookin’ at yer ugly mug, eh?” quipped Dann.

“Did ya see the statue, Dann?” asked one of the rats. “Me and me mate finally finished it.”

“Is that supposed to be me?” laughed Dann. “I think you took too much artistic license, mate. You made me look like a fat frog.”

Beech watched on from the edge of the crowd, constantly being pushed back by all those striving to shake the squirrel warrior’s paw. Puzzled, he let himself be pushed away from the gold furred squirrel warrior. He turned around when he felt a paw tap his shoulder.

“Ahoy there, matey. I’ve never seen you afore. What’ve you’n’Dann been doin’ lately?”

He turned to look at a big and brawny sea otter smiling at him. He was a handsome creature, sinewy built and powerful looking, but with a roguish air with a red bandana across his forehead and two silver hoop earrings on his right ear. He wore a simple but well made green tunic with brown thread embellishing the sides and the collar. A broad brown belt was loose around his hips with a fearsome curved blade thrust through it.

The otter’s warm brown eyes twinkled as he held his paw out to Beech in friendship. Beech was astounded; he only came about up to the otter’s broad shoulders. Beech could only remember meeting one creature as tall as the otter, Regolith the Ruthless.

“Well I’ve only been traveling with Dann for a few days. I came from a place called the Castle about a week’s walk away. My name’s Beech.”

The otter smiled and said, “The name’s Cinnabar Shellhound, pleasure to meet you, Beech. I guess Dann must ‘ave taken a shining to you. I didn’t think he tolerated company on the march.”

“Well slap me thrice and hand me to me mater. I say, Cinnabar, you otter chap, that bally squirrel over there isn’t Dannflor Reguba?” boomed a deep carrying voice from behind them. Beech turned to see an older hare approaching them with a great smile on his face and a few pasties in his paws. He was wearing a dashing crimson jacket lined with beautiful gold thread. A myriad of metals fought each other for space upon it while its well polished brass buttons strained over his large stomach.

“Aye, ‘tis, Sax,” said the otter smiling. He turned to Beech. “This hare calls himself Sergeant Saxifrage.”

Cinnabar stole a pasty from the hare’s paw as Sergeant Saxifrage shook Beech’s paw.

The Sergeant’s large grey mustachios bristled in indignation as he made as if to unsheathe his saber. “That’s bloomin’ bad manners. Imagine stealin’ a mate’s scoff right from his paws, wot! I should have you flogged for your impudence!” The Sergeant turned to the astonished squirrel and winked. “By the left, it must be three blinkin’ seasons since I last saw that Dann Reguba. And wot do you call yoreself, old chap?”

“My name’s Beech, sir.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” said the Sergeant. He pulled at the shoulder of Beech’s tunic just as Dann had. One of his long ears scratched his head. “I say, old bean! This is a very strange getup. Where did you say you came from?”

“I didn’t. I’m from the castle. Just escaped a few days ago.”

“Escaped?” gasped the Sergeant.

“Yeah, I used to be a slave in a great fortress called the Castle,”

“Well this is bally well awkward,” the hare stage-whispered to the otter. “Imagine givin’ an escaped slave a hard time over his uniform.”

The sergeant looked over at another pair of hares walking toward them. They were a handsome pair. One was a tall, powerfully built male, just as tall as Cinnabar the otter. Strangely though, the hare didn’t appear to be carrying any weapon other than a sling around his lean waist. His crimson jacket had even more metals than that of Sergeant Saxifrage. The other hare was a slight creature, with rich dark fur and bright grey eyes. The top of her head only reached her companion’s collarbone. Yet she strolled confidently by the male hare’s side, with one paw held comfortably on her rapier.

The Sergeant waved them over and explained, “Major, this squirrel just escaped from a blinkin’ fortress holdin’ woodlanders prisoner. Dann Reguba brought him here.”

The female spoke first, “I say, sounds like awfully bad manners, eh. Image holdin’ woodlanders in slavery, wot.”

“We’d received reports of vermin enslavin’ woodlanders down in the South. Then we came upon this jolly place. Couldn’t believe the jolly old peepers when we saw how creatures treated one another here. Whoever heard of vermin and woodlanders livin’ together in harmony! Thought our informants got their blinkin’ facts wrong. Aren’t we a load of bounders!” said the male.

Beech looked towards the bigger hare and asked, “Major, do you know any moles in Hamath. I thought we’d try to free the slaves somehow by digging a tunnel.” He made as if to remove the haversack that Dann had given him. “I have blueprints of the Castle, to help determine where to dig.”

The hare that Beech had addressed looked over at the female hare with something akin to embarrassment. “I say, old gel. Ain’t this embarrassing. That squirrel type thinks I’m the leader of this patrol, wot!” he turned to Beech and offered his paw. “The name’s Captain Darcy Turnsol. This is Major Peony Laminar.”

Beech felt himself redden all the way up to his ear tips. Completely mortified, he tried to stammer out an apology. Wagging her ears at him, Major Peony said, “Don’t fret, young ‘un. It happens all the time.”

“Indeed ‘tis baffling that such a rare beauty as Peony Laminar would be a Major, wot,” Sergeant Saxifrage intoned in his deep loud voice. “She a bally prodigy of sorts, you know.”

“Indeed she is, Sax,” Turnsol added teasingly as he threw a paw around Saxifrage’s shoulders. “And a bloomin’ paradigm of strategic intelligence. The youngest hare to ever be a Major, doncha know.”

“Enough of that, you silver tongued rascals. Yer only sayin’ that so I’ll buy you another bloomin’ pint at the Tipsy Seagull,” Peony snorted waving her paws at them. She smiled over at Beech. “‘Tis a pleasure to meet you.”

Cinnabar chuckled and patted Beech on the back. In his deep cheerful voice he laughed, “Well, mateys. Seems that Beech’s got most of the plannin’ done afore we came. Wonder if ‘e needs us at all!”

Peony laughed as well before saying, “Why don’t we head over to the Tipsy Seagull to discuss our plans? We can hunt down Foremole Loamsnout and ask his advice. Besides, I’m famished!” she took the last pastie from Sargeant Saxifrage as he was about to stuff it in his mouth.

“I say, Peony. That’s my last one, wot!”

“Privilege of rank, doncha know,” she said. Winking at Beech, she patted the Sergeant’s large stomach.

====
C*~*C*~*C

They had taken a detour on their way to the Tipsy Seagull to acquire a new tunic for Beech while Captain Turnsol ran a few errands. Cinnabar told them that Loampaw’s General Store sold ready made tunics, so they made their way to the gaily painted front windows of the store. Cinnabar opened the door for the others.

The otter winked roguishly at the aged mole standing near the front of the shop, “Good afternoon, shipmate. This young ‘wants some garments.”

The little old mole scuttled over, leaning on a walking stick. He peered at Beech through his glasses and said, “You’m a rarscal, Cinnabar, that young ‘un surpently ain’t a varmint. Eet’s just a squirrel beast.”

Cinnabar looked shocked. “Well shiver me barnacles, so it is a squirrel!”

Major Peony clamped a paw to her mouth to keep from laughing.

Beech looked at them like they were all mad beasts. “I’m sorry, sir. I just want a new tunic.”

The mole poked Beech in the stomach with his walking stick. “Boi okey, naow why din’t ‘ee sez so in ee furrst place?”

“Lead the way, sir mole,” said Cinnabar with an elaborate gesture.

The little mole hobbled towards the back of his shop with the others walking behind him. Beech was starting to wonder if he was going to regret escaping from the Castle after all. These otters and hares were mad beasts!

The mole waved at the tunics set out on the back table with his digging claws. “ ’Elp yerselves. Oi’ll bee waitten furr ‘ee boi ee frunt.” He teetered away and Beech could hear him muttering, “wretched otter villans,” to himself.

Cinnabar disappeared into another aisle while Sergeant Saxifrage picked out a simple but well made tunic for Beech. He held it up against the squirrel’s front consideringly

Major Peony, who was leaning against the back shelves with her paws crossed over her chest dissolved into fits of laughter. “That’s much too big for that little squirrel fellow, Sax!”

The sergeant glared at his superior officer. Shrugging, he held the same tunic up to his front. Just right. “It’s a nice color. What do you think, Cinnabar? Complements my eyes, eh, mate?”

“Shut it, Sax and keep looking,” Peony said.

The otter peeked his head over the tall shelves from the another aisle. He started laughing along with Major Peony. “I thought we were getting new clothes for Beech.”

“Bunch o’ rotters.” Saxifrage put the tunic back down.

“I found a nice belt for Beech,” said Cinnabar, walking up and putting the belt around Beech. He stepped back and put a paw to his chin. He glanced back at Peony. “Nice right?”

The belt was studded with iron barbs and much too large for the squirrel. It stayed on for a moment before falling to the squirrel’s footpaws. Beech stood stalk still in utter confusion. Peony sighed and shook her head. She unhitched herself from the shelves and walked over to the squirrel. Leaning down, she picked up the belt and put it around Cinnabar’s waist. Just right.

“I always wanted a stubbed belt. Reminds me of my Uncle Laon. What a loon! Tried to go fishing on a shark, see. Great idea, but poorly executed. The shark scared all the fish away and then, of course, ate Laon. Still, this belt looks dashingly debonair. What do you think, Sax?”

"I say, it looks quite dashing, wot!"

Peony sighed heavily before hitting both Saxifrage and Cinnabar over the head with her paws. “You’re supposed to be lookin’ for the squirrel. Not fer yerselves!”

She picked up a light green tunic and plain brown belt that she had been eyeing for awhile. Handing them to Beech, she winked at him. “Try ‘em on.”

Beech smiled at the new clothes. “They’re perfect. Thank you, Major.”

“You’re welcome,” the hare muttered as she pushed Cinnabar and Saxifrage towards the front of the shop. She dropped a few coins on the desk in front of the old mole and then hurried her three charges back into the main square.

“Bunch o’ rotters,” Saxifrage and Cinnabar muttered together.

C*~*C*~*C

The Tipsy Seagull was a bustling tavern an avenue down from the main square. It was both below and behind the Hamath Inn, and to the right of the Hamath Armory. The tavern had wide bay windows set around the open front door. The brown shingled outside was brightened up with a fresh coat of green paint on the door and the molding around the windows. Above the door hung a sign with the likeness of a seagull having quite a difficult time getting off the ground.

Beech peered at it curiously. Sergeant Saxifrage noticed the squirrel’s amused smile and put an arm around his shoulder. “This is the best bar in Hamath, old bean.”

Major Peony, walking behind them with Cinnabar Shellhound, chuckled to herself and announced rather loudly. “Sergeant Saxifrage would be the one to know, he’s frequented every bar in town since we arrived here two nights ago.”

Captain Turnsol had left the others before they went into Loampaw’s General Store to bring the remainder of the patrol to meet them at the tavern. Dann Reguba had been notified of their plans, but was still shaking paws in the square and promised to meet them later.

Beech strolled in side by side with Sergeant Saxifrage and gazed around in wonder. The tavern looked rather small from the street, but appearances were deceiving. The room was not rather wide, but it was perhaps twice as long as it was wide. It was surprisingly dark inside, the tavern windows faced full north, but the wall scones and mirrors lent enough light to the room.

Turnsol had wasted no time; he and the other hares were pulling together two heavy oak tables in the far corner of the bar by the fireplace. For the summer, the bar owners had moved aside the grate and placed several bright potted plants inside. A mole walked over to the tables with trays of ale.

Beech felt a thrill of anticipation course through him. Never in a million seasons, could he have ever thought to be so close to freeing his friends from the castle and Regolith’s clutches. He could just imagine Willow’s smile of awe and appreciation as she congratulated him on the escape effort he organized. He could die happy if she smiled at him like that.

The mole was talking to Captain Turnsol as Beech walked in with the others. “Oi duzz loike a gudd pint o’ ‘tober Ale.” The mole turned to the squirrel with a smile tugging at the corner of his snout as Beech stopped in front of them. Captain Turnsol introduced the mole as Foremole Loamsnout.

“Boi okey, et’s vurry noice t’ meet ‘ee.”

“Er, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” Beech mumbled embarrassed. He couldn’t understand a word of what the mole was saying.

Turnsol motioned for the newcomers to take a seat, so the Major sat first at the head of the table and Turnsol sat next to her also at the head of the table. Loamsnout sat to their right as Beech, Cinnabar and Sergeant Saxifrage sat to their left. The other hares filled in the remaining chairs with the youngest ones farthest from the Major.

The hares were all dressed similarly to their officers, in red jackets all bearing different types of weapons at their waists. All the hares had metals on their splendid red jackets, most just one or two. Several hares had insignias of stars or stripes on their shoulders. Beech would have to ask later what they meant.

Major Peony had them all introduce themselves. In addition to Major Peony Laminar, Captain Darcy Turnsol and Sergeant Saxifrage there were also: Lieutenants Oswego and Tobias sitting next to the mole; Borage the healer who sat next to the Sergeant; Jonquil their weapons specialist who sat next to the Lieutenant named Tobias; and five younger hares sitting together at the end of the table.

The younger hares were very excited to be sitting in this impromptu council of war. They had been sitting outside with Lieutenant Oswego for a sort of lesson, a tradition that Major Peony had started with their patrol. Beech couldn’t catch all the younger hare’s names; the Major said them very quickly.

Beech was astounded that there were so few hares in the patrol. Major Peony explained. “Quality not quantity, old bean. We’re a scouting party, doncha know. Scoutin’ out the theoretical slave compound thing-a-me for ourselves to determine if we need to send word to the Badger Lord to bring in the jolly ole’ reinforcements, wot.”

As Cinnabar turned his head to listen to the Major, Beech saw Sergeant Saxifrage take a drink from the otter’s ale. The hare wagged an ear at Beech and winked.

Cinnabar picked up his beaker and was surprised to see it empty. He glared over at Saxifrage. “You great feedbag! Ya drank all me ale!”

Saxifrage feigned surprised. “Did I? I took merely a sip, just a little taste. So as to wet my whistle, wot. Imagine accusing a chap of such a thing, wot!”

Cinnabar didn’t get a chance to respond because Dann burst in, with a ferret at his side. The ferret’s face was rent asunder by fearsome looking scars. Beech couldn’t bear to look at him for long. Dann sat down between Peony and Beech and took the half-filled beaker of ale Captain Turnsol offered. He took it, looking surprised there was still ale remaining. The ferret went to get more drinks. “Thanks for leaving me at the mercy of the crowd!”

“Anytime, old boy,” said Turnsol.

“So I guess Beech has already told you all about what’s going on,” Dann announced. “Thanks, mate,” he said as the ferret handed him a mug of ale and put down a tray with more for everyone. He pulled up a stool and sat next to Dann. Beech offered Major Peony a mug of ale, but she declined, saying she needed to finish her Blackcurrant Cordial first.

Beech took out the blueprints and spread them across the table. The sour looking Lieutenant Oswego moved his drink aside with a huff as the paper unraveled near it. Beech pointed to a black path on the grid. “The black paths are the tunnel systems. This tunnel connects the kitchens to the basement of the main compound. There are the fewest soldiers guarding this tunnel. Here are the stairs up to the main floor and the door opening into the slave compound. I was thinking that if Foremole Loamsnout and his moles could dig a hole that intersects this one, we can lead all the other slaves out this way.”

Captain Turnsol looked down at the drawing. “I say, sounds a bit complicated to me, wot! We’d better get started soon. Don’t want the blinkin’ winter to set in before we finish the subaerial labyrinth, wot.”

Dann looked at Turnsol amusedly. He pointed to the neat markings on the map and commented. “I dunno if you noticed, but there’s a small wicker gate set into the walls on the west walls of the fortress. It’s right in front of the slave compound. Instead of havin’ to deal with dangerous subaerial labyrinths, I propose that Beech and I scale the wall, open the wicker gate and help the slaves escape through the gate.”

“I suppose that could create a smaller distance to traverse so weaker slaves won’t be at as much of a disadvantage and less bloomin’ time for the jolly old vermin to notice our presence,” observed Turnsol.

The Long Patrol Major was silent in thought, her head resting on one of her paws as her keen grey eyes watched the creatures conversing. Beech looked over as the Lieutenant Oswego spoke challengingly at the Major, “I agree with Dann’s proposition. A tunnel may be bally well dangerous if the bloomin’ thing caves in on us while we’re escapin.’ And it’s hard to make have a swift retreat whilst in a tunnel.”

“Burr aye, Wotever yoo’n’s feel bee best. Us’n’s molers’ll ‘elp yoo’m, Dann zurr. Oi’m glad oi bee not cloiming thee walls,” said Foremole Loamsnout holding up a heafty digging claw.

“Are you sure you don’t want us to dig a tunnel. I had a dream and…” Beech began.

“I know, young’n,” Dann interrupted condescendingly, “But Martin doesn’t always know best. I’ve heard his story how he escaped from slavery. He used a tunnel. That’s why he told you that.”

Major Peony finally spoke, “No need to criticize the young ‘un, Dann. I’ve made my decision. We’re going to scale the wall rather than building the tunnel. Too many variables we can’t control with tunnel digging,” she checked them off on her paws, “Might get the wrong tunnel, might take too long. The tunnels are bolted with sturdy doors so we might not be able to go any farther once we get into the tunnel. Scaling walls is cut and dry. Easy to scamper down in a dark cloak and whisk away all the slaves before the soldiers even notice we’re there.”

“Oh,” said Beech disheartened.

“Don’t worry, old thing. We’ll get your friends out safe’n’sound. We’re not all puddenheads. These officers do know wot their doin,’ ” said the healer Borage wagging his ears at Beech. He smiled over at Turnsol. “Some more than others.”

Lieutenant Oswego snorted at the healer’s joke, his narrow shoulders shaking with mirth.

Beech could feel his face warming in embarrassment at all the attention and the quick dismissal of his plans. “So when do we leave?”

“I say, you chaps. As soon as I finish this cordial, wot,” said Major Peony. She lifted it to her lips only to have it promptly taken away and drained by Sergeant Saxifrage. She looked over at him in dismay. “You’re a right bounder, Sax. Wot’s a chapess to do when her misbegotten muddlebrained excuses for recruits start to scoff her scoff!”

“Why get on the march or course, Majoress,” said Captain Turnsol teasingly.

Chapter Seven

Mossflower wood was surprisingly quiet as the squirrels trekked along on the well-worn trail. Up in the verdant canopies, a few birds trilled melodies to each other, sounding as lazy as the air itself. The dusky red sandstone of Redwall’s battlements was no longer visible behind them; the trees and thick undergrowth had long since hidden it from view. Though Sinon thought he could still hear the dull clanging of the Matthias and Mortimer bells tolling the hour.

The trail was well made, and recently so. Here and there the faint smudges of the red paint Foremole had used to mark the route for the trailblazers could still be seen on the odd tree or stone. It was a well made path, serving as an easy route between Redwall and Mossflower Glade. It intersected the North Path about half a day’s march south of Redwall, and many creatures now made use of it. Not only did it connect the homes of Cypress and Hawthorne to the Abbey, but served as an easy route for all the creatures living in Mossflower.

Sinon merely stared ahead as he and the Abbess walked on in companionable silence. She didn’t seem inclined to conversation at the present. She merely hummed softly to herself, her voice rising and falling in a tune he didn’t recognize. It was a melancholy haunting melody. He stole a glance sideways at her as was his habit. The summer sun stealing through the trees sparkled on her long lashes as she blinked off a particularly bothersome gnat.

As they walked along, the Abbess and friend, many beasts on the way stopped them to talk or to shake Abbess Song’s paws. Sinon was always proud of the devotion and awe his Abbess inspired in all the creatures around him. Indeed he was sure that he often had the same reaction every day since the first he ever meet her.

Ever since the day he came to Redwall, as a wounded vagabond, Abbess Song was forever kind and thoughtful towards him, even when her friend the Redwall Champion treated him in quite the opposite manner. But Dann had been gone for several seasons now, and frankly Sinon saw it as no fur off his tail.

A hedgehog family was pushing a small cart from the direction of the Mossflower Glade piled high with all manner of herbs and spices from the area. Certain days during the week, creatures would come with their wears to the Glade and set up a sort of market.

The hedgehog family stopped as they neared the two squirrels. “Abbess, it is such a pleasure to see you, marm!” said the mother.

Song laughed musically, shaking their paws, carefully avoiding the spikes. “How are you, Daisy Quill? It’s been at least a season at least! You look so fine! How are all the little hogs?”

As if on cue, two little hogs popped their heads out from the cart and jumped down. Their mouths were stained purple, presumably because the little hedgehogs had gorged themselves on the blackberries that grew wild along the path. The little ones ran over to Song; the little male hedgehog tripped on his footpaws and jumped up to catch his older sister.

Pulling at the Abbess’ skirts, they assailed her in their high voices, “Abbess marm, Abbess!”

“Abbess, Abbess! Do you want to see my rock? I found it in the woods. It looks like a leaf!” the little maid trilled, twirling in a circle so her light green dress twirled with her.

“Abbess, don’t look at Dagelet’s rock, look at what I got first,” cried the little male hog trying to slip in front of his older sister.

Song laughed and made a face at them. Swinging Dagelet around and avoiding her spikes, she said, “Did you get a pretty dress to wear for the season day feast at Redwall? It’s coming very soon, you know! Autumn is almost here after all. We have to name the summer before autumn arrives.”

Dagelet scratched her muzzle and said, “Is it tomorrow?” Her father shook his head at his daughter. Song didn’t notice a chuckle and wink that Daisy Quill gave her small daughter.

Song laughed heartily. “Not quite that soon, silly. There are still a few days left in this season after all!”

Ned Quill spoke to Sinon in his gruff baritone. “How are you, mate?”

“Fine, thank…” All the hedgehogs seemed to notice the pommel stone and the sword hanging across his back at the same time.

“Bless my spikes!” said Goody Quill. “Is that Martin the Warrior’s great sword?”

“Marthen’s sword? Are you da warrior ‘a Redwall, sir?” asked the little male hedgehog, peeking his head from behind the Abbess’ skirts.

Sinon looked indignant that he would have to say he was not, so Song answered for him. “No, Dann is still off questing. Sinon is merely carrying Martin’s sword in case he needs to protect me from any fierce hedgehog babes.” Her voice took on a sinister note and she picked up the little male hedgehog up and tickled him mercilessly.

The whole company laughed. The hedgehogs gave Song several hugs and said their goodbyes to Sinon before heading off in the opposite direction.

The squirrels pressed forward, taking a break for lunch on a bridge built over a stream that crossed the path. Sinon clambered down the banks to fill their canteens as Song stood on the bridge, nibbling on a few candy chestnuts. She looked out into the forest with a faraway look in her eyes.

“What are you thinking about?”

Song started and looked down at the red squirrel standing in the creek; he was trying to keep his leather wristlet dry as he filled their canteens. “Nothing of importance. The mention of the season day feast was just reminding me of something. It’s not important. We’d better hurry along.”

The shadows eventually lengthened as the sun sank in the West. They sat down to dine in the fading light, not noticing the pairs of eyes staring at them from the shadows.

They continued the journey until the darkness became oppressive. Sinon sighed and looked over at the Abbess who had started to hum again quietly to herself.

“It looks like we are getting pretty close. We could make camp here tonight and arrive there tomorrow morning,” he suggested

“That sounds like a good idea,” said the Abbess. “I guess we started a bit too late this morning.”

Sinon took off his haversack and was about to search in the woods for some firewood when suddenly wraithlike figures glided towards them from the shadows. Song let out a little gasp of surprise and ran to stand by Sinon’s side, holding a small knife he didn’t realize she had been carrying. He eased down the haversack and slowly drew Martin’s sword.

The foremost wraith spoke in a deep hollow sounding voice. “Put down your weapons, squirrels, you are now the captives of the corpse makers.”


Chapter Eight

The Abbey was in chaos. The Abbess would be returning soon and nothing seemed to be going right. While Skipper and his otter crew were setting up tables in the shadow of the orchard for the feast, a gang of dibbuns had snuck up on the old cellarhog Tragglo Spearback and cut loose the barrels of ale he was moving towards the orchard. They careened down the slope at an astonishing velocity, almost pinning down little Sister Bianca and Brother Melius as they brought out plates and beakers. Grimacing ferociously at the babes, Tragglo sent them scurrying off while Skipper and his otters tried to fish the great barrels out of the pond.

Janglur was sitting in the grass a little ways away with his wife and the Long Patrol Colonel Basil Nymium, working on making paper lanterns to hang in the trees above the tables. The Long Patrol Colonel was squinting through his monocle at the small hole in the needle as he tried to rethread it.

The Badgermother Cregga had supervised her dibbuns in cutting the colored pieces of paper into the correct shapes, now the squirrels and hare were sewing the pieces together and cutting the string to suspend them from cords strung between the boughs of the trees. Thoroughly exhausted after having spent much of the morning reining in the dibbuns’s rambunctious behavior, Cregga was taking a well-deserved break from the arts and crafts, instead talking inside with the calm and mild-mannered Lord Russano.

Janglur glanced up as Rusval Reguba strolled over with a tray of ice cold raspberry tea. The drink was refreshing on such a warm summer afternoon. Rusval sat down and stretched back in the grass with a sigh. He stole a glance over at the dibbuns playing in the pond with the otters. “Those dibbuns are awfully rowdy today.”

“I say, wot! ‘Tis probably the prospect of a Redwall feast,” replied the Colonel. “My patrol’s gettin’ rather ecstatic and rather erratic as well.” He eyed two hares helping Skipper with the barrels. They wiggled their ears at each other and then pushed Skipper into the pond. The otter submerged sputtering before pulling the hares in as well with a hearty chuckle.

As Janglur handed Rusval a grouping of green papers, a little squirrel babe jumped onto Rusval’s back, hanging from his ears. The squirrel’s partner in crime, a little molemaid, snuck up and pulled on Colonel Nymium’s tunic.

“When’s da feast, Misser Reguba? When’s da feast?” The little squirrel squeaked.

Rimrose pulled the squirrel babe from Rusval’s ears. “When my daughter returns of course!”

“Oi’s be hopin’ she’m comes zoon. Oi’s be gurtly ‘ungered,” the little molemaid complained to Colonel Nymium.

“By the left, missie, you’ve got the flippin’ problem solved. We need the Abbess before we can jolly well start scoffin’ all the vittles, eh, wot!”

“She should be here soon. She’s probably arrived at the Mossflower Trading Post by now, or will tomorrow morning,” said a voice from above them. It was their friend Brother Melius, the hedgehog. He stood above them with an amused smile on his craggy face.

“Unless somebeast gets in their way.” Rimrose frowned. “I hope my Song is safe in Mossflower.”

“Well she and Sinon have Martin’s sword. I feel bad for anyone who tries to get their way. Sinon has a warrior’s spirit, and Song is as much of a warrior as her father,” Brother Melius assured them.

Colonel Nymium winked at the little molemaid pulling on his tunic. “I say, why don’t you chaps take first watch on the battlements. Keep your peepers peeled for the Abbess, eh? Mention in dispatches and all that, wot wot.”

“Oi say, zurr are. You’m be a ball gud caramel,” the little molemaid intoned in her best hare impression.

The elders laughed as the little squirrel and molemaid saluted the Long Patrol Colonel and raced off.

Colonel Nymium shook his head. “By the left, I can’t understand a word those mole chaps say. I’m a ball of caramel. Sounds a bit dodgy doncha think?”

The hedgehog Brother Melius laughed and corrected the Colonel, “I think she was trying to say that you were a bally good colonel.” He sat down next to the Long Patrol Colonel.

The colonel shrugged, the metals jingling on his tunic. “Then why didn’t she bally well say that?”

Rimrose eyed the dibbuns pushing aside creatures as the mounted the battlements. She put down a pink lantern she had just completed and turned to the Long Patrol Colonel. “Those dibbuns look very determined in lookout duty. I hope you haven’t created a monster, Colonel.”

“Not at all, not at all, milady. ‘Tis always beneficial to give the young ‘uns a bit of responsibility, eh, wot?”

Brother Melius picked up the pink lantern that Rimrose had just finished sewing. “Can you believe it’s been ten seasons that Song has been Abbess! It seems like only yesterday that she and her friends were off rescuing Martin’s tapestry.”

“And at least three seasons now since I’ve seen my son,” Rusval hissed harshly. He tugged ferociously at the twine of his lantern and it snapped under his paws.

Rimrose laid a paw on his arm. “Don’t fret, Rusval. Dann is a great warrior. I’m sure wherever he is, he is fine.”

“It’s strange. I had a dream about him last night,” said Rusval with a note of hesitation in his voice about sharing such a personal thought. “He looked older than I remembered. He was coming to Redwall with a group of friends. It was like he was trying to tell me…” Embarrassed at his moment of weakness, Rusval stopped in mid-sentence.

Janglur glanced up through his long eyelashes and saw the otter leader approaching. Skipper leaned on the window pole that he had been using to fish out barrels of October Ale and looked down at the squirrels, hare and hedgehog making lanterns. “Ahoy there mates, why the long faces?”

“Rusval was just telling us about a dream he had last night,” Rimrose replied.

“Was it important? In mine last night, I was fishin’ in the pond fer blackberry crumble,” Skipper said scratching his rudder.

“By the left, I’d love to try my paws at a bit of crumble fishing, wot!” exclaimed the Long Patrol Colonel.

“Did you catch any crumble, mate?” teased Janglur.

“No, just a couple o’graylings,” the otter chieftain deadpanned. He glanced at the other squirrel warrior. “What ‘bout yore dream, Rusval?”

The others turned to Rusval as he spoke. “I dreamt of my son. He was on the march with a group of companions, a group of hares, and a pair each of otters and squirrels. He was marching next to a mouse wearing a splendid red cloak. The mouse said something about how Dann was coming to protect Redwall again. Something about the Abbess being in danger and something about a betrayer and something about those warrior born finally being one.”

“Strange,” Janglur answered for all his companions. “I wonder wot it all means.”

Chapter Nine

Galena ran a paw over her eyes. The sun was surprisingly hot today. Heaving on the line, she kept pace with the drum as she and the others watched the large oak beam slowly ascend into the sky. She peered up in hopes of seeing Willow’s lithe form dancing about the roof, helping to put down the beams. Even though her friend was a squirrel, for some reason, Willow usually didn’t work the nosebleed shift. However, now they were short on squirrels because Beech had escaped.

It wasn’t called the nosebleed shift for nothing. The ten unlucky souls assigned to it had the dangerous task of laying the beams on the roof of the buildings, without any cables to anchor them, or any guards to oversee them. She would never forget that spring day last season when Beech had almost fallen from the roof of the Barracks as they were laying the last beams. She had watched transfixed by horror as he hung by one claw to the roof. Luckily, he had found some strength to haul himself back onto the roof. Even still, the cruel slave drivers had forced Beech to continue his task.

Though, today the four – no, now it was three – horde captains seemed to be in a rush, pushing the slaves longer and harder than usual. The twenty or so slave drivers on the ground were pushing the slaves to their breaking point. Something new was on the horizon. Yet no one seemed to know what it would bring for them, neither the horde nor the slaves.

As she stared up, she noticed a dark mass descending from behind the forest. It was that fierce looking raven. She was sure she hadn’t seen the accursed bird for at least a season. It glided effortlessly above them, watching their attempts to reach into the sky with a sort of amused incredulity. Glaring when it noticed her staring, it stalked straight into Regolith’s chambers.

Galena looked up at Willow again. Too bad she was on nosebleed duty. Phillip the overly excitable mouse was serving Regolith today. He wasn’t quite as adept as her friend at eavesdropping. She’d have to question him later.

Her wooden pendent hit against her chest. It was a beautiful ancient piece. Probably worth no more than the memories of all the creatures before her that had worn it. Her parents had told her that their ancestors had been great Skippers of Holts in the north. She had no other information about them than the wooden pendent with the likeness of a willow tree on it.

She always teased her squirrel friend that this pendent proved that they were related. Galena glanced up again at the squirrels working on the roof. She hoped her friend came down from her dangerous shift safely.

C*~*C*~*C

Their claws made loud scratching noises on the wood and they scurried about shifting the beams and making room for the last piece of the roof to the upper rooms of the officer barracks. They were tempted to leave a few holes so that rainwater would pour in occasionally, but the knowledge that they would be beaten was a slight deterrent.

An elderly squirrel looked over at the squirrelmaid as she stared wistfully at the forest. The branches were always trimmed meticulously so no squirrel could jump to freedom from the ramparts without first breaking his or her neck on the fall. The tall trees swayed teasingly at her as the warm summer breeze ruffled through their branches. Of all the things she missed about freedom, Willow would probably say that it was the freedom of the woodlands. There were no trees or flowers inside the Castle, only dirt and blood. The Castle could not sustain life.

“Don’t worry, Willow. We won’t be here much longer. Beech is a good creature and he’ll bring help to us,” the old squirrel said in a hoarse voice.

She tried not to shake her head in frustration. “Beech is young and inexperienced. What can he do?”

The old squirrel smiled. “You’d be surprised, my dear.”

C*~*C*~*C

At that very moment, Beech was crouching outside the castle with Dann on one side and Cinnabar on the other as they looked at the sentries on the battlements.

The more time Beech spent with Cinnabar the more surprised he became at hearing Cinnabar’s history. Beech had seen a far share of river otters in the castle and the woodlands – after all, his friend Galena was one – but he had never seen a sea otter. Beech had assumed that Cinnabar had to be an adult because he was so tall, but Cinnabar was only two seasons older than him, even younger than Dann! Dann and Cinnabar had met two times before. They had meet in the past fall and spring on the shores south of Salamandastron.

Beech wrinkled his nose as a gnat settled on it. The two squirrels and the sea otter were crouched at the beginning of the tree line in a small ditch Foremole Loamsnout and his moles had dug out for them – they were so happy to oblige Major Peony and Dann.

Seasons before, Regolith and his soldiers had cleared away a vast expanse of the woods to clear space for his grand Castle and then later to create a wide perimeter to ensure that no creature could try to leap from the battlements and into the boughs of a tree to freedom. The empty plain was about half as wide as the width of the Castle grounds!

Cinnabar’s dark eyes took in the west walls of the Castle and the two guards marching back and forth on patrol. The sea otter looked at the squirrel warrior with uncertainty. “Are you sure that you’ll be able to scale that wall, mate? It’s not like climbing the rigging? It looks dangerous.”

Dann Reguba eyed his friend with raised eyebrows. “Don’t worry, mate, I do this stuff all the time. Beech may have been a slave, but he’s in fine health. He’s probably a better climber than I.”

Beech looked offended at the very idea that Dann wasn’t good at something.

Major Peony and Captain Turnsol were sitting not far off, just out of everyone’s range, avidly discussing the plans. All the long patrol hares had discarded their bright scarlet uniforms in preparation for the assault. Beech was glad. He was afraid the red would attract unwanted attention from the foebeasts. When Beech had asked Dann why the Long Patrol had changed into their dark green tunics, Dann explained that the scarlet jackets were their dress uniforms and the dark green tunics were better suited for this kind of work.

Lieutenant Oswego was inspecting the weapons of all the creatures that had come to free the slaves and occasionally glancing over at Peony and Turnsol with disapproval. There were the twelve hares of the Long Patrol, about as many otters and five moles. None of the vermin had decided to come, only Dann’s ferret friend. The others had considered it too dangerous to invade the pine marten’s fortress. Beech couldn’t blame them.

Dann’s ferret friend came over to where Dann, Beech and Cinnabar were huddling. He sat down next to Cinnabar and nodded at the otter. “All are well armed and ready. Wot’s the plan, Dann?” he said.

The ferret looked over at Beech and held out his paw. The ferret tried to smile at the squirrel, but the fearsome gashes across his face marred the gesture. Beech looked at the ferret’s paw for a minute considering and then against his better judgment shook it. How could Dann be so friendly with such a creature! “Nice to meet ya, mate,” the ferret said, “the name’s Thalweg.”

“Beech,” said the young squirrel quietly.

Dann looked over at Beech and said, “We’ll wait ‘til dark. At the changing of the guards we’ll scale the west wall.”

Beech nodded and glanced sideways at the Long Patrol commanders again who were whispering intensely back and forth to each other. Beech couldn’t imagine what they were arguing about. They struck an interesting appearance, Major Peony with her bright grey eyes and Captain Turnsol with his powerful frame. If he didn’t know that they would soon be entering into an important battle, Beech might have thought they were discussing a torrid love affair. He laughed silently to himself at the silly notion. Though he wondered what could spark such discussion. He thought that the plans had been almost unanimously voted upon.


Chapter Ten

Song yelped and took a step backward as the wraith-like figures materialized from the shadows. Sinon unsheathed Martin’s sword and held it in front of him, edging closer to Song.

“Imagine the booty we’ll get by capturing an Abbess.”

“Though not until after we’ve a little fun with her first,” another sneered.

Song cocked her ears and shook her head as she recognized her assailants’ voices. “If it isn’t Mugwort and Milkwort!” Song exclaimed with a laugh.

The two figures stepped closer and Sinon could see from the shadows that they were two evil looking foxes, spitting images of each other. Song laughed joyously and threw herself at them. Sinon blanched.

“You rogues, I ought to tell your mother the mischief you are getting into! Scaring travelers as the corpse makers? Wherever did you think of such a name?”

The foxes laughed and patted Song’s head fondly. “We weren’t going to hurt you, Mother Abbess. We just wanted to play a little trick,” said Milkwort.

“And it seems to ‘ve worked,” replied Mugwort wryly. “Your squirrel friend is still waving his sword at us.”

The twin foxes shared a laugh. Song rolled her eyes at them and smiled over at Sinon apologetically. “Don’t worry, Sinon. These are friends. They’re Cypress’ twin sons.”

Sinon put away Martin’s sword, but it did little to hold sway over his worries. If anything, he looked more alarmed.

“How did you know we were coming?” asked Song.

The twins looked at each other and said together, waving their paws eerily, “Mother said that she saw you coming.” They drew out the word and waved their paws around outrageously.

Song smiled, she wasn’t sure how much she believed the old vixen’s powers as a seer. Cregga, however, was a great believer, but badgers were a breed unto their own. Cregga had told Song that she had heard of Badger rulers with the gift of foresight.

Song took one fox by each paw and said, “Then let us hasten to the Glade. Perhaps we will arrive by morning. I have all these splendid guardians now after all.”

C*~*C*~*C

They reached the Mossflower Glade by dawn. It was hushed in the growing light of day. Song noticed a couple of creatures sleeping on the benches which Skipper and his otters had arranged in the Green just last season. There were no lights on Hawthorne’s home but there was a small light shinning from another home down a path lined by cypress trees.

Song took out the blanket from her haversack she had packed in case they stopped to sleep on the way and draped it softly over a sleeping rat. The summer nights could be surprisingly chilly. Sinon looked over at her with a soft smile on his face.

Grinning at each other, the twin foxes nodded their heads to the path home. The way was bordered by tall cypress trees that gave a pleasant shade to the cobblestones. Song was humming again, this time the tune was more upbeat, not that slightly depressing melody she had been humming earlier.

Mugwort and Milkwort led the way. The house was a small one story cottage with ivy crawling up the dark shingles and a colorful garden with all sorts of herbs and flowers. Cypress had told Song that the herbs were specifically chosen because they aided her as she looked into the future. Song wasn’t sure about the plants’ mystical powers, but they sure smelled nice!

Song could remember nailing down the roof tiles with Dann and their fathers. She could count on two paws the number of times she had almost fallen off, but Dann was always there to catch her. Sinon had stayed in the Abbey that season, not wishing to help with the construction. This may have been the first time Sinon had even visited the vixen.

When they walked into the house, an old vixen sat up from her rocking chair by the window. Her pelt had turned to a beautiful silver with age. She said in a voice like a creaky door, “It’s so nice to see you, my dears. I knew you would be coming soon, Song. I’ve some iced raspberry tea brewing. Had my sons out picking the raspberries just yesterday.” She glanced up at the twins and barked out, “Don’t just stand there! Fetch the tea and scones for the Abbess!”

Song giggled as the “corpse makers” ran off to do their mother’s bidding. She walked over and picked up the vixen’s paws, rubbing them warmly against her cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Cypress. You are looking very well.”

The old vixen cackled, “The old bones are still holding together if that’s what you mean.”

Ignoring the exchange, Sinon looked around at the house while Cypress and Song were talking. The old vixen had always made his fur stand on end and besides, he didn’t really care about what she had to say.

There was a rather odd collection of mementos cluttering the house, strange woven circlets hanging from the walls, dusty books piled precariously on shelves or holding up uneven legs of tables, a horrifyingly diverse assortment of animal bones and sticks of seemingly perpetual burning incense. Sinon wondered if most of this was a show, a front for the seer.

Cypress offered him a seat and he sat down next to Song. Cypress said, “I had such a nice conversation with Martin last week. My inner eye has never been so clear since I lived near your Abbey, Song.”

Sinon hid his snort. Song glanced at him in disapproval before she asked the vixen eagerly, “What did he say?”

Cypress sat back breathing in the incense and rocking in her chair. Her sons walked in putting the pitcher of iced tea and scones on the table in front of their guests. They sat down between their mother and the Abbess.

Cypress closed her eyes as she intoned in an eerie voice:

Danger comes to Mossflower
As Warriors arrive from the south,
Bringing death in their wake.
The death bird flies with a bloody mouth,
Warning all to fear the green-eyed one.
But the one sent before must betray
To preserve a familial bond.
He poses as one like you to this day,
though still obedient to the Ruthless one.
The Abbess, resolute, will protect all,
Though she will never again rule her Abbey.
By a warrior’s paw will the Ruthless one fall.
Danger comes to Mossflower.

Everyone sat in shocked silence for a moment and Sinon felt a shiver run down his spine. He felt like the very blood in his veins had turned to ice. He felt like the sickly sweet smell of the incense was assailing his very sensibilities.

Cypress spoke again, seemingly unperturbed by the death sentence she had just given the Abbess. “It was a rather strange prophecy. I will like to stand by and watch it unfold.” The vixen glanced at her son, Milkwort, who looked perplexed. “Were you going to say something, my dear?”

The fox shrugged. “I was just wondering what the death bird was.”

“Oh, that’s a raven. I saw one in the woods a few weeks back while I was collecting herbs for a poultice. It was strange. At first I thought the great black bird was speaking to some creature, but when I was able to get close enough, he was flying away, completely alone.”

Mugwort scratched his tail before he spoke. It seemed to Sinon as if none of the foxes were as affected by the prophecy as he was. “I wonder what the part about the betrayer means. Posing like one of us, protecting a familial bond?”

Cypress smiled over at her sons. “I asked Martin the same thing when he was finished speaking. He said that it would be the last person we expected, but someone we trusted.”

Sinon stared at the vixen, shocked by the way she treated their fates with such nonchalance.

Milkwort spoke up again. “I’m not sure what Martin means about the Abbess though. What does it really mean that you’ll never rule your abbey again, Song?”

Song started at the direct question the fox asked. It was about the precise thing in the prophecy that she was trying hard to forget. “I’m sure I’ll never know,” she stammered. “Though it was nice of the warrior to warn us.”

“Yes,” announced the vixen in a voice like crackling fire. “I don’t think we’ll know what that last part means until it’s fulfilled.”

“Don’t you see!” Sinon hollered standing up outraged. “It means you’re going to die! Though I’ll die first if I can protect you in anyway!” he vowed.

Song patted Sinon’s paw. With a singularly unhappy smile, she said, “Thank you, my friend. Though hopefully it won’t come to that.”

C*~*C*~*C

Song closed her eyes and leaned back. The incense in the room was starting to make her head spin. Sinon was pacing by the door, still worked up over Martin the Warrior’s riddle. The riddle did sound rather dire, but she was sure that Martin would watch over her. He had never led her too far astray in the past and seemed to know what was best for all.

Milkwort and Mugwort, the terrible twins, were chuckling at Sinon as he paced. No doubt planning some prank on the poor squirrel.

Cypress eyed them suspiciously from her rocking chair, “Why don’t you two sit down for a moment. Yore drivin’ me out of my mind. Besides Hawthorne’s comin’ soon.”

The words had barely left her mouth when the door creaked open. Sinon jumped aside to allow Hawthorne to enter. The pine marten was dressed in a resplendent green cloak dragged across his broad shoulders. He smiled at them with friendly green eyes.

Chapter Eleven

It was impossible to jump from a branch and onto the ramparts, so Dann and Beech had agreed that it would be best for them to climb the walls and open the gate for the others.

Standing on the edge of the trees with Cinnabar and the hares, the two squirrels prepared themselves for their dangerous mission. Dann had two small knives on the front of his belt and one of the Long Patrol hares had given Beech a pair of knives as well. It was the one with the thin mustache who wore that floppy black beret with his ears sticking out of the top of it. Beech thought his name was John something. John feather? No it was Jonquil.

Dann crouched down and coated his paws with some loose dirt as he looked up at the high fortifications. Beech rubbed his own paws together in anticipation. It had seemed like hours before the sky became dark enough for their mission, and now that it had come, Beech could think of nothing but how his stomach was tying itself into knots.

Major Peony had given them both dark green cloaks to help disguise themselves, and Beech hoped it would be enough to help them escape the guard’s notice. They would be totally vulnerable until they reached the top of the walls.

Foremole Loamsnout patted Beech on the back. “Gudd luck, zurr squirrel.”

Silent as wraiths, Beech crept with Dann to the foot of the wall and began to climb. He could remember the season when he laid these very bricks one on top of the other. The mortar they had used was poorly mixed and hurriedly assembled; it crumbled easily under the squirrels' claws.

Taking out one of the knives in his left paw, Dann skillfully used it to help steady himself. Beech followed his example. Beech could feel the warm night breeze rustling his fur and dancing with his dark green cloak. There was no sound except for the symphony of crickets and leaves.

Peeking their heads over the ramparts, the squirrels saw that the unfortunate stoat on guard was fast asleep. He stood looking out into the forest, leaning on his spear. He snorted slightly as a lightning bug tickled his nose.

Dann eased himself over the battlements and Beech held his breath, hoping none of the guards would notice. The squirrel warrior laid the stoat low with a hard whack from the butt of his knife. Leaning down, the squirrel warrior took the spear from the senseless vermin and checked his pockets for a set of keys.

Empty. The squirrel warrior cursed colorfully under his breath.

Beech pulled himself up as well and put away his knife and unsheathed the short sword that Dann had given him a few days ago. “What now?” Beech whispered.

Dann glanced at him, surprised by the simple question. He waved his knives at the younger squirrel. “You go and open the gate for the others. I’ll try to find a set of keys to the slave compound.”

Dann slunk off in the direction of the southwest gatehouse, unsheathing the broad sword from his side. A fire flickered from over there in the darkness.

Beech readied his sword and also melted into the darkness. Hunching his shoulders and bowing his head, he climbed down the stairs. As he shuffled over to the two guards watching the small wicker gate, he prayed that his bushy squirrel’s tail wasn’t too obvious. The guards were two rats dressed in chain mail and metal helmets. Sitting on the ground in the flickering light of the wall torch, they were playing a dice game. They glanced up briefly when they saw Beech approaching and immediately turned their greedy eyes back to the game.

“Another game to me,” said one of the rats tauntingly. “Do ya want to see if ya can lose another week of rations to me, snotnose?”

The other rat was obviously a bit more slow-headed than his friend. “I dunno. What do ya think, Lousewort?”

Beech said in a gruff voice. “I think yer mate’s got a wieghted dice.”

“Wot?” asked the rat scratching his head. “Do ya, Lousewort?” he grabbed his spear and made as if to rise.

But Lousewort was too fast for him. The smarter rat struck him hard over the head and turned to Beech enraged. He tossed out the weighted dice and brandished his sword, trying to look ferocious. “Wot was that, mate? I was winnin.’ But after I’m through, ya won’t be as lucky,” he licked the blade of his sword and leered at Beech savagely. “I’m gonna gut ya and then I’m gonna…”

Closing his eyes, Beech hit him hard over the head with the spear. He looked down at the stunned rat, amazed that it had been so easy. “I guess I was lucky you were as dim as your friend. What kind of vermin wastes time taunting his victim?”

Smiling to himself, he opened the gate. Cinnabar and the hares hurried in. The moles had stayed behind in the woods to help all the slaves after they escaped. Major Peony told two of the young hares to guard the gate and swept off into the darkness with the others.

Dann jumped down in front of them suddenly waving a pair of keys. Turnsol only just stopped himself from laying out Dann with a swift blow from his paws.

“Look what I found!” said Dann excitedly.

“Well stop waving the bloomin’ keys around like a manic and open the bloody door!” hissed Lieutenant Oswego.

C*~*C*~*C

Willow jumped as she was prodded awake. The stoat captain jostled her with his spear again and said, “Hurry, bushtail, the Lord Regolith’ll be wantin’ his breakfast soon! He needs you to clean up his dining room too. That raven made a mess when ‘e was eatin’.”

Willow rubbed sleep from her eyes and followed the sour-looking captain through the other bunks and waited as he unlocked the door leading directly from the slave compound to the main building. He pushed her ahead of him and walked her to the stairs. She went down and he went up yawning, presumably to go back to sleep now that his task was finished.

The stoat captain Halfear’s comment reminded her that she would have to ask Phillip about what he had heard in of the conversation between the pine marten and the Raven. She and Galena had intended to question him last night; however, Philip must have returned rather late because they had both fallen asleep while they were waiting. She had forgotten to check with him this morning.

Willow walked down to the storage quarters and grabbed some flour for Acrey in the kitchen. Regolith claimed that his fortress was designed with tunnels to be used by his slaves so that he wouldn’t have see their grubby faces any more than he needed to.

She opened the door that lead to the kitchen passage. This passage was typically left unguarded early in the morning. The only night shift for guards in the tunnels was those connecting Regolith’s chambers to the main building. Willow hated the tunnels, especially in the early hours of the morning. She felt like she was being buried alive. All she could breathe was dirt. The tunnels smelled like death.

She visited her friend Acrey the dormouse, Lord Regolith’s Chef. Willow held a rag over an arm as the dormouse gave her a jar of honey and a platter with tea and fruit.

Back through the tunnel, a nod to the guard as he searched through his ring of keys for the set to the door. This tunnel was locked for purposes of security, so creatures could not enter Regolith’s quarters without his express permission.

Climbing up the steep steps into the tyrant’s quarters, she almost tripped on the bottom of her dress, but righted herself just in time.

She surveyed the dining room with a quick glace. It wasn’t as dirty as the stoat captain had implied. In the dim light she couldn’t see anything out of place, especially not the dark puddle of fresh blood.

Her legs flew out from under her. Her paws full of food, tried in vain to find any purchase on the wall. She had only time for a small cry of shock before she hit her head hard against the wall and slumped against it. The hot tea soaked her dress and mingled with the little mouse Philip’s blood on the floor…


Chapter Twelve

She would never know what it was that had shocked her into wakefulness. Perhaps it was the fleeting dread brought upon by the advent of the raven, perhaps it was the hushed whispers from outside the compound or perhaps it was the hedgehog Quin poking her with one of his quills as he shifted in slumber.

She rubbed her footpaw. Yes, it was definitely Quin.

However, as she tried to go back to sleep, she could hear voices whispering from outside the compound, although she couldn’t at all identify what sort of beast was making them.

“Hurry up, you blighter!” one of them, a male voice, growled in anger. “We don’t have all bloomin night, wot!”

“I say, Lieutenant. Why’s this takin’ so bally long? I thought any ole fool could open a flippin’ door?” asked a second male voice, with an edge of frustration and urgency.

“Sorry, Cap’n,” said a third male voice with a twinge of embarrassment. “This’s harder than it looks, wot! It’s bloomin’ dark out here. Can hardly see my blinkin’ paw in front o’ me.”

“I say, you chaps! Would you two cease hovering over Jon’s shoulder like that, wot wot. It won’t make the blighter open the bloomin’ door any faster. And Captain, your confidence in our troops is bally well inspirational,” a fourth voice, a female voice, laced with sarcasm whispered at the others.

“Sorry, Major,” said one of the hushed voices.

Galena shifted and swung her legs over her cot. She rubbed the wooden pendent around her neck nervously. The guards had finally decided to finish all the slaves off. And to add insult to injury, they would do it with funny voices. She glared at the door savagely. Well if they were so inclined, she would take a few vermin down with her! She shook several of the other slaves awake. They all seemed a bit dazed at being roused so, but quickly understood her whispered explanation. The sturdy hedgehog Quin smiled comfortingly at her and held a rusty bar like a club.

When she went to shake the bundle in Phillip’s cot, she was surprised to find it empty and cold, as if no one had slept in it that night. She forgot to check Willow’s cot, close to the door to the main building.

The other slaves gathered behind her, holding weapons in shaking paws. It was a motley supply of weapons, kitchen knives, rusty daggers and the like. Galena unstrung her sling from her waist; she had taken it from one of the guards. She fixed a stone on it. The door finally creaked open. She heard one of the voices berating another harshly and a slap before several dark figures glided into the compound as swiftly and silently as Death.

“Us’n’s bee dead beasts,” moaned a mole behind her.

She felt a rage filling her body at the terror in her companion’s voice. The raised her sling to hurl a rock at the closest attacker. However, she had miscalculated in the dark. She was in much too close range.

Her adversary merely grabbed the sling from her paw. “Sorry, miss, but we’ve got to ‘urry from ‘ere.” She stared into the kind dark eyes of another otter. He was half a head taller than her and very handsome. Galena felt the breath halt in her chest and her heart start to beat rather quickly. For a fleeting moment she almost wished that it was a vermin and not a handsome stranger. She knew how to react around the former but not the latter. He gallantly offered her his paw and pulled her none too gently from the compound.

“The name’s Cinnabar,” he whispered softly to her.

“Galena,” she whispered back, her dark eyes gleaming.

“And I’m Peony,” said an annoyed voice from her left effectively ruining the mood. “I say, it’s a blinkin’ pleasure to meet you and all that, but we’ve got to get away from this jolly ole prison sharpish.” It was the female voice who had berated the other voices breaking into the compound.

Galena turned and saw in the darkness a creature with two long ears. When the figure got closer, Galena could distinguish it as a hare.

“Hey there, you jolly otter. You seem to be the bossess in here, wot,” the hare said wiggling her ears. “Are these all the creatures enslaved in this gloomy whatchamacallit? How many are unfit for travelin’?”

Galena smiled at the hare. “I think everyone’s ‘ere. We’re mostly fit. We’d ‘ave died long afore this if we weren’t.”

The hare shook her ears at Galena in understanding, a sad smile reflected in her grey eyes. “Well quick’s the word and sharp’s the jolly ole action, wot!”

The motley group hastened from the compound silently and slunk towards the little wall gate.

The stoat that Dann had brained when he had first scaled the wall groaned. Natural selection must have blessed him with a very thick skull and remarkable powers of recuperation, because he was soon sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. Memories flew back to him in an instant. He stood up and roared out, “Attack! Attack! The slaves are escaping! Rouse the army! Attack!”

His stentorian voice carried easily in the quiet darkness. The wall guards on the other side of the ramparts were jolted out of sleep. Still disorientated at being woken so unexpectedly, they ran helter skelter along the ramparts. In short time, soldiers soon came pouring out of the barracks in a flood. Some were fighting to put on their chain mail; others hadn’t bothered at all with their mail and were instead drawing their blades; others realized quickly that they had forgotten both their blades and chain mail and ran back into the barracks to retrieve them.

“Oh corks, mates,” Lieutenant Tobias hissed as he draw his twin long knives.

One of the younger hares crouched into a warrior’s stance ready to give battle, his claymore at the ready, but Sergeant Saxifrage grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him towards the gate along with the others.

Captain Turnsol ran in step with Major Peony. He tested the balance of a wickedly curved scimitar he had snatched from the trembling paws of a stoat. “It looks like the wheeze is blown.”

“Give ‘em blood’n’vinegar, chaps!” yelled Major Peony to encourage the others.

The weasel Bloodnose rushed out onto the lawn and took in the situation at a glance. He roared to his command giving orders and encouragement. “Surround them, they’re just slaves. Cut ‘em off from the wall gate!”

Guards, now armed and awake, poured out in droves surrounding the small group of escapees. Major Peony’s rapier flashed in the darkness of the coming dawn, delivering swift death to all in her path. Turnsol bobbed and weaved nearby, laying low a hulking ferret with a hard left. He shook his paw. “By the flippin’ left, that bounder had a bonce like a bloomin’ boulder.”

Peony stabbed a rat trying to behead her with a scimitar and growled through her teeth, “Cease your alliterative prattle, Turnsol, and start knocking out some of those rotters, wot!” She caught sight of a stoat trying to stab Turnsol from behind and neatly dispatched the vermin, sending his saber flying.

The hares roared out their bloodcurdling battle cry: “Eulaliaaaaa! ‘Tis death on the wind! Eulaliaaaaa!”

The hairs on the back of Galena’s neck stood out at the eerie sound as she ran behind the hares, impressed by how they kept their heads in the heat of battle.

Tearing a spear from the limp paws of a ferret laid low by a stone from Galena's whirling sling, Cinnabar sprang into the melee, scimitar forgotten, and began dealing sound blows to foebeasts left and right. His eyes flashed in the heat of the battle as he charged two weasels, his war cry resounding off the stone walls. “Shellhound!”

The flustered guards on the walls were shooting arrows at the slaves. In their panic, barely half even managed to reach the parade ground. Jonquil was doing his best to keep the guards’ heads pinned down by firing at them with his bow.

The black fox had made his way onto the southern walltops.

Sighing in frustration, he pushed aside a rat that lingered a second too long in his path. The black fox snatched the bow from the unfortunate creature’s paws with a smile before shoving him over the ramparts. Windmilling his arms helplessly as he teetered backwards, the rat seemed to hang in space for a moment. Eyes wide with horror, he finally fell to the parade ground with a bloodcurdling scream. The sickening crunch of his body on the ground below resounded through the fortress.

Unperturbed, the black fox narrowed one obsidian eye and grinned showing all his teeth as he aimed an arrow at the heart of the female hare waving her rapier in the air, directing the troops.

Alerted as if by some sixth sense, Captain Turnsol grabbed the Major roughly and pulled her to him. He twisted her out of the way and took the arrow meant for her clear through his shoulder. Groaning in pain, he hesitated in his stride. Peony looked up at him with bright eyes. She slipped from his grasp, instead putting his paw over her own shoulders and dashing now in a full out sprint towards the gate and freedom.

Galena stumbled forward with Cinnabar at her side, taken aback for a second at Major Peony’s quick pace. The ottermaid took a knife from Cinnabar’s broad brown belt in her now trembling paws and hurled it with all her might at Zigor. The smiling sadist was aiming a javelin at Cinnbar’s chest. Zigor dropped the javelin as he backpedaled to avoid Galena’s knife. His black eyes narrowed at her.

Cinnabar smiled down softly at her and winked. “Thanks, matey.”

Her eyes opened wide when she saw Beech running towards her yelling something. Her brain was full to bursting with the screams and war cries and flying arrows and the very blood pounding in her head that she hadn’t noticed Beech until he was almost upon her. Finally she realized what he was yelling. “Where’s Willow?”

Galena gasped and looked around in horror. Thoroughly ashamed at herself, she realized that she had been so caught up with Cinnabar and with escaping that she had forgotten all about Willow. Willow, all alone somewhere in Regolith’s quarters preparing the tyrant’s breakfast.

But no one could escape on their own when separated from the crowd.

Galena shouted at Beech. “Willow’s supposed to be on serving duty in Regolith’s quarters.”

A hedgehog overtook them as they hesitated in their stride. He gave a burst of speed and broke slightly ahead of her group. His rush for the gate and freedom but was cut down just short of the door by a well aimed arrow from the black fox.

Bloodnose’s voice could be heard over the din. “Stop shooting arrows, you rotten rabble! We want slaves to work, not dead meat! Knock them over the head, don’t kill them!”

As Sergeant Saxifrage ran by the weasel shouting orders, he dealt him a hard rap over the head with the butt of his saber. “Take that, you wretched whipsnouted weasel!” he shouted.

A golden furred squirrel ran up to them and grabbed Beech by the scruff as he started to run off in the other direction. Beech yelled at the older squirrel. “Dann, Willow’s still in there somewhere!”

Dann looked at Cinnabar in dismay, his paw still tight on Beech to keep the younger squirrel running in line with them. “It’s hopeless, Beech. We can’t be separated now. You won’t survive if you try to look for her. We’ll come back, I promise. We’ll come back!”

Galena felt her own heart break at the expression on Beech’s face. It was devoid of any hope. In his heart, he knew that he would never see the squirrelmaid again. It was too much for Galena to bear. Recklessly, she slipped from Cinnabar’s grasp and ran off towards Regolith’s quarters. She could barely hear Cinnabar’s frantic shouts over the pounding of blood in her veins.

Cinnabar was about to give chase, when Dann yelled at him. “Leave her, mate. There’s nothing we can do. We need to get out of here and re…” he cut himself off with a grunt of pain and pulled out a feather-tipped arrow from his upper arm.

Galena flew through the crowds of vermin pressing forward, taking them all completely by surprise. What was this mad ottermaid doing rushing away from freedom? She raced towards Regolith’s quarters, knocking down a ferret guarding the door.

Galena had only time to see the pine marten looking in dismay at the shattered plates that once held his breakfast and the pretty squirrelmaid lying on the ground in a pool of blood before darkness engulfed her vision and the ground came up to meet her surprisingly fast.

Chapter Thirteen

“By the left, Peony old gel,” said Captain Turnsol skipping aside as a pile of dirt flew up near his footpaws. “That mole chap really knows what he’s doin.’ I’ve never clapped eyes on a fellow who could chuck quite so much dirt around.”

“You’m roit, zurr ‘are. Us’ns molers dig gurtly well,” said Grumbee, one of Loamsnout’s moles, as he climbed out of the hole with a pail of dirt.

“Yes, they do dig so jolly well,” agreed Peony.

The Long Patrol Major and Captain were standing in the woods north of the castle, a ways from where the forest started. The two squirrels, Dann and Beech, were hiding in the upper boughs of the trees nearby to keep a lookout for Regolith’s soldiers. Major Peony was surprised that they had not yet come upon a single soldier. Borage the Healer and Sergeant Saxifrage were organizing and seeing to the medical needs of the escaped slaves. The Long Patrol planned to lead all the slaves to Hamath after the remaining ones were saved from the pine martens.

The two officers stood in the shadow of the entrance to the escape tunnel. Foremole and his moles were cleverly using the plans the young squirrel Beech had brought with him to connect their escape tunnel to that underground passage which ran between the kitchens and main building.

“I wonder how Dann’s pal, Scallywag-a-thing, is doing,” mused Peony.

“He’ll look the part at least. It was mighty clever of you dragging that ferret out of the Castle with you, Major,” said Turnsol.

“Hm, he probably didn’t think so, the blighter,” laughed the Major. “But when I saw Beech, Dann and Cinnabar arguing about those two maids, I thought we might like to have a spare uniform.”

“It might have been hard to find the right sort of chain mail in Hamath, I suppose,” commented Turnsol. “Well that’s what we count on you for, mah dear, those split second decisions,” he said patting her roughly on the back. Then Turnsol turned wistful. “Though, I do love the old espionage wheeze. A shame it couldn’t be us chaps.”

With a raised eyebrow, Peony looked sideways at him in his smart dark green military uniform and heavily bandaged right shoulder. “I don’t think you could pass for the lousy vermin type, Turnsol.”

“Maybe if I take off these confounded wrappings,” Turnsol mumbled sullenly, tugging at the white bandages.

She grabbed his paws disapprovingly. “Don’t you dare, Darcy Turnsol! How many times do I have to tell you to be careful? That bloomin’ black fox got you right through the shoulder!”

Turnsol shook her paws off, “Well luckily Borage is the best healer either of us has ever met. Besides now we can compare war wounds.” He tugged at her right ear. It was missing a large chunk from the top, a wound from many seasons ago.

Peony hid the top of her ear with a paw in embarrassment. She hated when other creatures commented on her ear. She glared at Turnsol again. “Well that was mighty risky of you trying to take that arrow. You could have been killed!”

“If I hadn’t, you certainly would be!”

Turnsol’s comment rendered her speechless.

Foremole Loamsnout walked out of the tunnel and tugged his snout politely at Peony. “Boi hokey, marm. Us’n’s bee done on yon tunnel boi dusk.”

“Well this is marvelous news, Loam-gob-a-thing!” said Peony excitedly.

Turnsol glanced inside the tunnel from where he could hear the loud echoes of Cinnabar’s voice. The otter was pacing near where the moles were digging, not helping them but instead waylaying the moles as they attempted to exit, demanding to know how they were progressing and ironically exhorting them to tell him how he could help.

Turnsol asked Peony, “Do you think we should help those mole chaps? Save them from ole Cinnabar?”

“Indeed, he is being a rather effective nuisance isn’t he,” replied Peony.

Peony called Cinnabar out of the tunnel and the otter came out with his shoulders slumped, tugging at one of the earrings on his right ear. He smiled at the two hares sheepishly.

“Oh hello, Cinnabar. How nice to see you,” said Peony with a cheeky grin. “Turnsol and I were just talking about Dann’s friend Thalweg. He’s got quite the adventure ahead of him.”

“Where does Dann find these creatures!” said the otter in amazement. He ticked them off on his paws. “A runaway squirrel slave, a chummy well behaved ferret, a shipwretched sea otter!”

“Maybe old Scallywag will share his story sometime,” said Turnsol.

“Sooner than later hopefully,” said Peony. “I’m not sure what to make of him.”

“Major, our two scouts are back with their reports,” said Lieutenant Tobias as he walked over to the hares and otter. Tobias was the younger of the two lieutenants. He was many seasons younger than Lieutenant Oswego who was in fact even older than the Major Peony. Tobias was a rather serious hare and very sensible, but even so he was never happier than sharing a joke with his friend Jonquill, the weapon’s specialist.

Tobias waved over two young hares, a male and female. They stood rigid at attention, with their chests out and arms held stiffly at their sides.

“Excellent, wot!” said Peony cheerily. “At ease, you chaps.”

The two hares relaxed their arms. The first one hesitated and then spoke quickly, her voice soft. The haremaid had gentle dark eyes and a lithe frame, she made even the petite Major Peony appear large in comparison. “We scouted the bloomin’ great perimeter of the place from the woods out’ah the sight of the vermin, wot. The wallguard’s been doubled. Changing of the guard hourly.”

The other hare picked up where his friend had left off. He was almost as tall as the Lieutenant Tobias though still half a head shorter than Turnsol. His voice was a boisterous tenor and he punctuated his remarks with wide sweeping arm gestures. “Just like Lorica said, there’s enough of the brutes to make a good scrap of it, wot! But the bounders aren’t makin’ a move to hunt us or the slaves down. Seems strange to me, wot.”

“Indeed, Blackberry,” said Turnsol impatiently. “Did you see anything of the slaves still in the fortress?”

Cinnabar snorted at the impatience in Turnsol’s voice, but became very intent when the subject of prisoners was addressed.

Blackberry seemed to puff up with pride when being asked a direct question by Captain Turnsol. He gave a mock salute and winked. “I say, Cap’n, the vermin weren’t paradin’ the captives along the ramparts, wot! Tried to climb a tree like that squirrelchap to see what was goin’ on inside the fortress.”

Lieutenant Tobias’s ears shot up in alarm. “You what?”

Cinnabar was only confused. “Which squirrelchap? Beech or Dann?” he murmered to Turnsol.

Blackberry wiggled his ears at the Lieutenant, “No need to fret, old scout. Lorica was bally well threatenin’ me not to also. Though nothin’ came of it, wot! Didn’t even get onto the first bloomin’ branch.”

Turnsol waved a paw at the younger hare. “That was reckless, you custard-headed curmudgeon! You might ‘ave broken all your limbs and been caught by the enemy! Hares climin’ trees!” Turnsol shook his head in disbelief. Blackberry’s ears seemed to wither in embarrassment.

“Dismissed,” said Peony firmly. She grabbed Lorica’s paw as the younger hare was about to run off. “You did well, young ‘un. But be sure to make your voice heard in the future if Blackberry runs off to do something foolish again.”

“Yes, sir, I mean, marm,” stuttered the young hare.

Turnsol turned his eyes back to Lorica and smiled at her. “Yes, indeed, job jolly well done. You’ve got a good ole head on yer shoulders, missie. Be sure to use it, wot.”

Lorica’s eyes were wide at his praise as she bowed awkwardly and shot off like an arrow from a bow to join Blackberry who was waiting for her just out of hearing range.

Major Peony, Captain Turnsol, Cinnabar Shellhound and Lieutenant Tobias watched them go. They looked at the two young hares whispering back and forth, evaluating their commanders’ praise and censure. Blackberry’s ears were at about half mast and his friend Lorica was whispering something to him, either to chide or to comfort him.

Tobias had an amused smile on his face. “Climbin’ trees, eh! The perilous hares of the Long Patrol can bally well do anything!”

Turnsol rolled his eyes. “What will those blinkin’ leverets think of next!”

“Don’t be so hard on them, Turnsol. If I remember correctly from my first patrolling days with Major Purslane, there was another wild young leveret like Blackberry who tried to climb a tree to get a better lay of the land,” said Peony teasingly to Turnsol, whose ears were turning a delicate shade of pink.

Lieutenant Tobias looked incredulously at his commanding officers. Uncertain as to how far he could pursue the joke at his superior’s expense, he replied, “Er, that must ‘ave been a bad show, wot!”

Cinnabar gaffawed at Turnsol.

“Indeed it was, Toby,” said Peony trying bravely to keep a straight face. She leaned back with her paws clasped behind her back, a silly smile lighting up her grey eyes. “Yours truly suggested that it mightn’t be the best idea. You know how those hot-blooded young bucks can be. As I predicted, he fell out of the bloomin’ tree and right on his scut. Sprained his footpaw, doncha know. Had to limp along in the back with the healer for weeks! I say, Cap’n Turnsol! Why are you standin’ there with a face like flippin’ thunder.”

“I’m goin’ to make myself useful, you rotters. See what those squirrelchaps are up to,” groused Turnsol.

He stalked away mumbling to himself, “A bally wolf in hare’s clothing! I save her life so she can live to tease me.”

“Just make sure you don’t climb one of those trees, Turnsol,” called Peony.

“Aye, they can be quite perilous,” yelled Cinnabar.

C*~*C*~*C

Rubbing the back of her head and feeling a good-sized bump, Galena gazed around blearily at her surroundings. Her head was pounding. It was so painful it felt almost as if the ground were swaying beneath her. Bars, a cage, were what greeted her eyes when she was finally able to open them. Groaning, she closed them again and rubbed a shaky paw over her face. What had happened? What was she doing here?

As Galena shifted, she felt the ground tilt crazily. She settled down waiting for her head to stop spinning and trying to ignore her protesting stomach. She closed her eyes and took a moment to focus on nothing but taking deep breaths.

But what had happened? She remembered a handsome otter smiling down at her. Cinnabar. Taking her by the paw and leading her to freedom. He was helping her and the others escape. Escape? Beech had come back. He had with him a group of hares, a squirrel and an otter. It was Beech who noticed that Willow was missing. But it was she who ran off to look for the squirrelmaid.

She sat up in alarm. The world spun around crazily again. This time however, Galena realized it was not the bump on her head that was causing her to feel the ground dancing so. She was suspended high in the air above the tables of the mess hall in a wooden cage.

Oh, how she hated heights.

It was bright in the mess hall; the light poured in from the tall windows. How much time had passed?

Very uneasy, she grabbed onto one of the bars and gazed down at the floor. It was a long way down. She slid back from the edge and grabbed the wooden pendent around her neck, rubbing it nervously.

She glanced around again this time at the wooden cage. She was able to lay down comfortably in it, but it was not tall enough for her to stand in. Where had the cage even come from? She couldn’t remember ever having built or heard about something like this being built. She was afraid of what would happen if she tried to loosen the bars. Would she fall to her death? There was a large wooden padlock on the door to the cage. That seemed like the logical progression for escape, but how would she open it? And where was Willow?

“Galena! Are you awake?” A voice drifted to her from the ground. It was followed by a scraping sound.

Galena kept her eyes tightly shut. “Is that you, Willow?”

“Yes, it’s me. Are you alright? You’ve been out cold for hours. I was starting to worry,” said the voice. Galena thought it sounded much too cheery considering the circumstances.

“I’m alright,” said Galena with her eyes still tightly closed. “I’m just waitin’ for my stomach to be. I’m not a fan of heights. How are you? Were you very hurt? I saw you lyin’ in a pool of blood before.”

“It wasn’t my blood. It was Philip’s blood. He was serving Regolith when the Raven came to visit. He was…” the squirrelmaid’s voice broke. She couldn’t bring herself to say the mouse’s fate. She took a steadying breath and continued, “It was his blood. I slipped in it and hit my head. Ouch!”

“Yeah, that must’a hurt.”

“What?” said Willow’s voice from below. There was that strange scraping noise again. “I’m trying to unlock these manacles. Regolith has me chained to the wall down here. I thought I’d try to pick the lock. My brother taught me many seasons ago. But all I seem to be doing is pricking my arm.”

“What could you possibly be using to pick the locks?”

“I had a little knife hidden in my skirts. Remember how we told the others to steal weapons? I just took our own advice.”

Eyes still tightly closed, Galena shook her head in amazement. She needed to stop underestimating her friend. “But why did they suspend me up in this cage?”

The sound from below ceased for a moment. “It was…well it was Zigor’s idea. The black fox guessed how much you hate heights and is upset with you for throwing a dagger at him during the escape…Did you really throw a dagger at him? That’s amazing. But I’m not sure what they’re planning. I think Zigor just plans to leave you up there.”

The ottermaid shivered thinking about the cruel plans of the black fox. The sadist wanted to entertain himself by watching her starve to death while consumed by fear.

There was a dull metallic thud and then another soon after. Galena perked up. “Did you get your shackles off already?”

“Yes, I did. Be quiet. I’m trying to think of a way to get you down.”

Galena sighed. “I’m not a fan of high places. I’m not sure if I can get down even if you release me. Save yerself, mate.”

Willow chucked from below. “Don’t be so dramatic, Galena. Can you climb down a rope?”

“I suppose. But where will you find a rope?” Galena wondered.

“I suppose it’s more of a curtain than a rope,” was the squirrelmaid’s reply.

“Are we the only ones left in the Castle? Did Cinnabar and Beech help all the others to escape?”

“It’s just us and Acrey left in the Castle. I heard the soldiers talking about it during supper. Who’s Cinnabar?”

“Only the most handsome and debonair otter I’ve ever meet.”

“Love at first sight, eh?” Willow laughed. “You know I don’t believe in that!”

Galena sighed. “I just wish I could see him again.”

“Not to worry! When I get us out of here, you’ll have to promise to introduce him to me.” Willow’s voice was much closer now.

Galena let out a cry as there was a loud bang and the cage began to rock violently. Uncertain, she took a paw from over her eyes and looked at Willow balancing on the cage like a true acrobat and trying to open the padlock. Soon, the door swung open and Willow herself swung in with a broad smile. “Beautiful afternoon for a climb, doncha think?”

Galena looked uncertainly at the dark blue cord coiled up and slung around Willow’s shoulder – it looked suspiciously similar to the floor length curtains donning the walls. “How did you get over ‘ere?”

“Scaled the wall and jumped,” said Willow. Her eyes gleamed. “Did you see me jump onto the cage? I wasn’t sure if I would make it. It’s a bit far. Did you see me leap?”

Galena shook her head apologetically. “Sorry, mate. I was too busy tryin’ not to be sick. Though I did feel when you landed.” Galena groaned and closed her eyes as the cage swayed again. “I don’t care if we escape, I just want to get out of this flyin’ cage.”

“Your wish is my command,” said Willow with a wink. She began to unstring the rope and knotted it firmly to a bar of the cage.

Galena looked at it doubtfully. “Are you sure this’ll work?”

“What could go wrong?”


Chapter Fourteen

Thalweg the ferret had his paw tightly grasped on the hilt of his sword as he walked through the front gates of the Castle with the remainder of the troupe into which he had invited himself. He was glad of the uniform the hare Major had given him. It blended in seamlessly. Dann said she had taken it from a ferret that she had dragged out of the Castle during their escape. Those Long Patrol hares sure were resourceful.

He, Dann and the squirrel warrior’s young friend Beech had kept a close watch on the gates both to find a chance for him to enter unnoticed and to discover if any soldiers were making their way to the woods on the northern side of the Castle. That was where the escaped slaves and their saviors were hiding as they licked their wounds and prepared for the next assault.

The chance soon presented itself when a stoat captain, Halfear, marched out at the head of an assorted troupe of weasels, ferrets and rats and selected several trees to be felled for some construction project. Apparently the fox captain needed wood for his project but couldn’t be bothered to fetch it himself. The stoat captain was complaining to a weasel in his band about being assigned all the menial tasks.

The squirrel Beech crouched up in the boughs with Dann as they watched Thalweg put on his helmet and smooth down his tunic nervously. Dann frowned at the ferret. “I can still see the scars on your face a bit though that helmet. Try this one.”

The squirrel tossed a second one down with a wider snout piece. Thalweg put it on and looked up at the squirrels. Dann and Beech glanced at each other and wrinkled their noses. “Better, but not quite,” said the younger squirrel. “Do we have any with just eye slits?”

Thalweg groaned in dismay. “My scars aren’t that bad are they?”

Beech put up his paws in alarm. “No, sir! It’s just that…they’re…they’re not something a creature would be liable to forget. They might wonder where you came from if they notice the scars too soon.”

Thalweg put his paws on his broad belt and glared at the younger squirrel; the expression was quite terrifying. Beech yelped in dismay and hid behind Dann. The squirrel warrior chuckled. He had become immune to Thalweg’s scary looks after some time of traveling together.

“How ‘bout this one,” said the squirrel warrior.

Thalweg caught it and held it out in front of himself to examine. “How many helmets did that Long Patrol captain take with her?”

He put it on and looked up at the squirrel warrior. This one covered his forehead and his mouth, leaving his eyes and nose mostly uncovered. Unfortunately those were the areas of his face that were the most heavily scarred.

“At least one more,” said Dann, throwing down the last one.

Thalweg put it on and rolled his eyes. “I don’t see what the big deal is over the helmet anyway. You said that the pine marten has an army five hundred strong. Shouldn’t be hard to blend into the masses.”

“But, mate, with the unusual scars you have on your face, the other creatures are going to wonder why they’d never noticed before. If you have a good helmet, they’ll just assume they didn’t notice you before because you were wearing a helmet,” said Dann.

“Hmph,” snorted Thalweg. “You’re right of course.”

The squirrel warrior looked down at his friend considerably. “That helmet works quite well. So, are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. I still don’t know how you talked me into this, mate.”

Dann winked at the ferret. “If I remember correctly, you volunteered.”

“Oh bother,” said the ferret. He looked up at the other squirrel staring at him from behind Dann. “So what’s the name of the weasel in the blue cloak? Is he someone important?”

Beech peeked out from behind Dann. “That’s Halfear. He’s pretty dim, but mean tempered and good with a sword. He won’t notice if he comes back with one extra creature.”

“Let’s hope so,” said Thalweg.

Thalweg used all his guile to melt into the band. He hurried up from behind, pretending to have lingered a moment too long at the gates. Luckily the other creatures weren’t exactly sure what they were doing there either, so he blended in quite well. He even got a smile from a rat he helped with the sawing and got to hold one of the mallets as they rammed in the last bar to the cage. The other creatures hadn’t noticed the scars on his face yet. The last helmet Dann had thrown at him was well chosen.

He kept his eyes peeled for the pine marten, Lord Regolith, as he followed the others into the Castle. Dann had told him earlier that day to find the two maids and then make it as quickly as reason would allow to the cellars. Foremole Loamsnout and his moles would be digging into the tunnels that led to the kitchen.

The weasels leading the way waved to the weasel captain, Bloodnose, as he walked towards the captain’s quarters rubbing his head. He was still out of sorts from when the Long Patrol Sergeant knocked him unconscious during the skirmish last night. Thalweg could hear him muttering, “damned rabbits,” to himself as he passed.

The rat he had helped with the sawing caught up with him and grabbed his paw. “Hey mate, do you have another task assigned yet?”

Thalweg replied unsurely, “Not yet.”

“Then you wouldn’t mind doing yer old pal Lousewort a favor, would ya?” asked the rat winningly, putting an arm around the ferret.

“Not at all, Lousewort mate. Wot’s on your mind,” Thalweg said delightedly. He was glad to have an ally in the fortress.

“Well I promised one of my mates to help him with his job as a sort of recompense for cheating him at dice last night, but this afternoon I heard a couple ‘o my weasel mates are playing a round o’ poker durin’ their lunch break and didn’t want to miss out, ya know.” Lousewort smiled, showing his broken front tooth. “It’s almost like stealin’ from a baby mouse, weaselin’ money from those fools.”

Thalweg laughed along with the rat, inwardly cringing at making friends with a rat who could read poker faces well.

“Not at all, mate. I’m not so good with betting. Terrible poker face, ya see,” replied Thalweg with sheepish smile. “Where’s yer friend?

“See that rat o’er there.” The rat indicated another of his species. The poor creature was trying rather unsuccessfully to balance two trays of food precariously on top of the other. He was glancing around the parade ground as if waiting for someone.

Lousewort patted Thalweg on the back and indicated the other rat. “That’s him. He’s got to take lunch to the chief.”

“Oh,” was all Thalweg could say in reply.

“Well see ya around, ferret,” said Lousewort with a wave over his shoulder.

Lousewort walked with a jaunty stride as he chuckled to himself. Not only did he get out of helping that old clod Bilgetail as the simpleton served Regolith – who was still bitter from the attack last night and would most likely take it out on his servers--, but he also got to win money from a couple of weasels instead! Bilgetail was so stupid, he probably wouldn’t even notice.

“Bloody slaves ‘ad to escape, didn’ they! Now I gots carry the vittles to the chief. And where’s Lousewort got to?” Lousewort’s friend groused out as he struggled along with the trays.

Thalweg sighed to himself unhappily. Well at least he would get to see this Regolith fellow and maybe figure out where the maids were. A little detour wouldn’t hurt. He walked over to the rat just as he dropped one of the platters.

“That was a close one, mate,” said Thalweg, holding the tray in one paw and offering the other to take the tray that looked about ready to fall. “The name’s Thalweg.”

The rat started and stared gaping at the ferret, dropping the other tray as well. Thalweg caught that one as well. The rat took one of the trays and said, “Er. That’s nice, in’it. Oh, sorry.” He slapped a paw to his forehead. “You were introducing yerself. My name’s Bilgetail.”

They shook paws. The rat smiled warily at the ferret. “Sorry ‘bout that, mate. My ma dropped me on my head lots when I was naught but a liddle h’infant. My mate Lousewort says I’m an ignore-mouse. Still don’t know wot it means.”

Thalweg chuckled at the rat. “Do you mean an ignoramus?”

“What’s that?”

“Nevermind,” Thalweg answered, chuckling again. “It’s too bad the slaves had to run away. Why doesn’ the chief ‘ave the rest of them servin’ his vittles?”

Bilgetail seemed to puff up at knowing the answer to Thalweg’s question. He groused out, “Well sink my whiskers if that ain’t the most dummiest question I ever did ‘ear. Everyone knows that the cook’s chained up in the kitchen. And didn’t ya see the others this morning? The bushtail’s shackled to the wall in the mess and ‘er friend the riverdog’s up in that cage. Didn’t you come in from the woods with the rest of the folks who built it?”

“Yer right of course,” said Thalweg apologetically, hoping that Bilgetail wouldn’t make a scene.

“I’ve ever seen the like. I’m glad I’m not up in a cage like that, hangin’ high above the tables.”

Thalweg was sorry to have met two such dramatic and thoroughly unpleasant characters, the last thing he wanted was to draw too much attention to himself. But all the same, he was glad to have received the information he sought from the rat Bilgetail.

Perhaps Bilgetail was an alright sort to begin with but never had any good influences in his life, instead having that scurvy villain Lousewort using and abusing him for his own ends. Thalweg supposed he really shouldn’t be one to judge considering the sort of life he lead before he came upon his good influence – his friend Dann.

But indeed, it was rather kind of Regolith to put both captives in the same room. It would make Thalweg’s job all the easier. Though he hadn’t a clue how he would free the riverdog from her high cage.

By this time, they had reached Regolith’s quarters. Two weasels opened the doors for them and Thalweg took a deep breath before he walked in with the rat Bilgetail at his side. Regolith frowned at them as they put the food down. Vermilion swept in, garbed in a resplendent crimson cloak. She paid none of them any heed and sat down across from her mate. Thalweg and Bilgetail stood back, not sure of what to do.

“Well are you going to pour the wine or not, you fools?” drawled the voice of the pine marten.

Starting at the smooth voice, Bilgetail scrambled over to Regolith with the bottle, spilling some of the precious wine on Regolith’s paw as he went.

“Fool,” said Regolith.

His disdain painfully apparent, Regolith snatched the bottle from the rat's trembling claws while at the same time plucking a daggar from the terrified creature's belt. Without so much as a second glance, the pine marten plunged the blade into Bilgetail’s heart with a lightening swift thrust of his arm. Bilgetail didn’t even get a chance to cry out before the light went out from his eyes. Regolith pushed the slain rat’s body away with a grimace of distaste. Then the pine marten turned his stony green eyes on Thalweg.

“Well are you going to pour for your mistress?”

Shaken to his very core, Thalweg had no choice but to obey. Taking a shaky breath, Thalweg took the bottle in trembling paws. “Yes, sir,” he stuttered, hoping not to displease or anger the pine marten.

As if entranced, he walked over. The female pine marten held out her glass in a blood-red paw, a black diamond glittering on her claw. She quirked a smile and raised an eyebrow at the hapless ferret. Thalweg very carefully poured a cup for the female pine marten and bowed awkwardly before slipping into the corner.

Regolith looked at Thalweg with distaste. He looked over at his mate and asked, “What did you think of the attack last night?”

Vermilion was silent, staring straight ahead over Regolith’s head. The pine marten slammed down his goblet, spilling wine on the tablecloth. He glared over at Thalweg who was standing in the corner unsure of what to do. “What about you, ferret? What did you think of the attack last night?”

Thalweg pulled together some words to say. “Dunno, sir. The woodlanders seemed to know wot they were doin.’ They killed most of the guards. Though ‘twas fortunate one of ours was able to sound the alarm. Some looked like trained warriors. That big otter and those rabbits.”

Regolith and Vermilion gaped at each other before turning to stare at him, aghast at his intelligent response. Regolith nodded, his brows furrowed in mystification.

“Aye,” said Regolith after a few moments of awkward silence. “Those rabbits were strange. They seemed like real fighting beasts and all had the same camouflaged uniforms. I saw one on them lay low one of my soldiers with just a swung of his paw. I wonder what they were doing here. They reminded me of something, but I’m not sure what.”

Gaining more confidence in himself, Thalweg continued, “I’m sure I know why they’re ‘ere. Those woodlanders all seem to be cursed with that pestilence called conscience, milord.” Thalweg made a face. “Never want to leave their kind in slavery and the like.”

Vermilion looked up at Thalweg interestedly. Regolith seemed to notice and looked strangely at the Thalweg. “What’s your name, ferret?”

Thalweg tensed and said, “Thalweg, yer mightiness.”

“Thalweg, eh? Well you seem like a clever beast. I would like you to be one of my captains.”

The pine marten’s smile was colder than ice.

Thalweg looked shocked. A few moments before he had thought that Regolith was going to slay him on the spot like the unfortunate rat. Instead he promoted him. How strange. Apparently, his moods could be as intense and violent as they were swift.

“Sir?” said Thalweg.

“A position has recently been made… available,” was the pine marten’s cryptic response.

Thalweg looked at him blankly.

“Stop being daft, ferret,” growled Regolith. He waved a paw at the ferret. “You are now a captain. You may wear the blue cloak and eat in the officer’s mess and so on.”

“Thank you very much, your mightiness,” said Thalweg bowing stiffly. He looked up unsure of what to do next.

“So what was your take on the woodlanders’ midnight sortie?” asked Regolith. “Come pull up a chair and eat with us.”

Thalweg grabbed a stool from the corner and perched between the two pine martens. He slouched over to make sure he was not sitting up higher than Regolith. The pine marten tyrant looked over at him distastefully. “Stop slouching and take off your helmet, ferret!”

“Yes, sir!” said Thalweg. He hesitated for a moment before taking off his helmet. He glanced uncertainly at the pine marten, expecting the usual reaction.

Regolith however seemed delighted by Thalweg’s scars. He leaned forward eagerly, grasping Thalweg’s chin roughly in his sharp claws. “My my, you’re an evil looking beast. You’ll do just fine. Can’t have the troops getting soft. One look at you and…” Regolith let the ferret go and burst into laughter.

Thalweg smiled unhappily at the insult and ran a paw along the scars on his face.

Regolith smiled at the ferret with all his teeth. “Well what did you think of the midnight sortie?’

“Er, it seemed relatively well planned. They got most of the slaves freed with few casualties. Though they’ll probably be back to save the others. Woodlanders would not rest it they thought a few of their own were locked up by us evil vermin,” Thalweg said with a chuckle as he warmed up to the conversation. Regolith seemed to appreciate the comment and smirked.

“Indeed. That’s why I’ve posted extra guards,” said Regolith.

“It is a very good plan, milord. Though perhaps it would be even more beneficial to add extra guards on the walls. After all it is the only entrance into the fortress. If we are fortunate, the woodlanders may even try a similar maneuver this second time, if it worked once, why not twice?”

Regolith laughed, “Why not twice, indeed! You’re a ferret after my own heart, Foulleg.”

“Yes, sir,” said Thalweg amused though not entirely surprised that Regolith had spoken his name incorrectly. “Perhaps some could even keep their heads down to make it seem that only few are on guard.”

“You are very clever, Foulleg,” said Regolith. He posed again a question that was perplexing him. “What did you think of those rabbits?”

“Well they were all dressed the same like, in those green tunics. I’d heard stories about big fightin’ rabbits that lived on the western coast inna huge mountain fortress ruled by a fierce stripedog.”

“So have I,” said Vermilion. Thalweg turned to her as did Regolith. He seemed as shocked as the ferret that she had spoken. Her voice was quiet and a bit hoarse, almost as if from lack of use. She looked up suddenly from where she had been staring at her paws as she twisted her ring on her claw. “Salamandastron. Ruled by a great badger and a host of fighting hares. My…” she paused for a second looking at Regolith. “My father liked to tell stories. I love to hear them.”

“Very good, my love,” drawled Regolith smiling at her. He looked over at Thalweg with pleasure. “Leave us please. Go to Bloodnose for your provisioning as a captain.”

C*~*C*~*C

Willow had finally convinced Galena to climb down the coiled curtain. Volunteering to swing down first, Willow grabbed the rope and wrapped her legs around it before plummeting towards the ground. Willow looked down as she neared the ground and was dismayed to see a ferret in a blue cloak running towards her. A Captain of the Guard! “Hey, you…” the ferret started. Willow swung towards him and shot out at the vermin with her footpaws, laying him flat. He fell heavily onto the ground unconscious.

Landing hard on her tail, she crashed into one of the benches arranged around the long tables. Laying her head on the ground, she closed her eyes and tried to ignore the pains in her back from her hurried and clumsy landing. She laid a paw on her pounding heart and looked up at Galena. “Come on down!”

The otter followed with a strangled yelp as she descended swiftly to the ground. When she had reached the ground, she ran over to Willow and helped her up. “Are you alright. That was a nasty fall.”

“I’ll be alright,” said Willow gritting her teeth in pain. “I’ll need to be. I’m sure I made lots of noise. We’ll have to get out of here quickly.”

Galena looked worriedly at her friend before analyzing the situation. “All the guards are outside on the ramparts on guard. Let’s use the tunnels to get closer to the wall gates. We’ll sneak out from by the kitchens so we can grab Acrey on our way. That’s got to the shortest distance to the gates.”

“Alright,” the squirrelmaid answered, running along with the otter as they dashed for the stairs to the basement. As they passed the unconscious ferret, Willow looked down at him. “I don’t think I’ve seen him before. I didn’t know there was a ferret captain.”

Galena grabbed the squirrelmaid’s paw and dragged her towards the door. “He must be Deekeye’s replacement. Of course Regolith would chose the most evil looking beast as his new captain. Let’s hurry, mate. Some beast is sure to have heard us.” She whispered a thought that had been consuming her for the past few moments, “I was afraid he was gonna get you for a minute.”

“Me too,” said Willow hard eyed.

They hastened down the staircase, listening keenly for any sound of another creature’s footpaws. They went to the door to the underground passage, silent as shadows.

“It’s awfully quiet down here, Galena,” whispered the squirrelmaid.

“Too quiet,” the ottermaid agreed. “But we can’t leave Acrey.”

Wrenching open the iron bars to the door, the squirrelmaid moved aside for her friend to heave on the heavy oak doors. Galena was about to heave the door open when it swung open unexpectedly, bowling her over.

Willow barely had time to take a breath to scream when dark figure clamped his paw over her mouth.

“Oops! Sorry, miss,” a voice whispered from the doorway. She looked up at the creature holding a paw over her mouth and saw a handsome golden furred squirrel standing in the doorway. He let her go and reached down to help the ottermaid.

Another squirrel ran in from behind the newcomer. It was Beech. He pulled Willow into a tight embrace. Willow grabbed onto him dazedly, still gaping at the squirrel warrior. Beech let her go and moved onto Galena. The dashing squirrel turned to look at another creature approaching from the tunnel. The golden furred squirrel had such strong broad shoulders and a beautiful thick bushy tail!

“It’s good to see you, matey,” said Galena patting Beech on the back.

“You too, mate,” said Beech laughing.

The squirrel warrior smiled at the reunion of the younger creatures. A long-eared creature peeked her head over his shoulder and ran over to Galena, patting her on the back. “It’s nice to see you again, Galley-a-thing.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Peony mate.”

“I say, there’s an otter perishin’ out of a desire to see you, wot!” said Peony. She pulled the others into the tunnel with her. “But we really should have our reunion later, we can’t waste that much time dawdling. Somebeast might hear us and sound the alarm.”

Beech looked over at Dann as they hurried down the tunnel toward the kitchens. “Dann, where’s your ferret friend?”

“Dunno,” replied Dann. He looked over at Willow. “Do you know where Thalweg is? Didn’t he bring you two down here?”

“What?” asked Willow gaping. She was so confounded by the current state of affairs that she barely had the remaining brain power to put one footpaw in front of the other. Who is that handsome squirrel warrior? Where did Beech and the others come from? Where were they going?

“No,” replied Galena and she rushed by to find Cinnabar. “We came by ourselves. No creature helped us.”

“You know we can only wait so long, Dann. After that we’ve got to shift from these flippin’ foundations sharpish!” replied Major Peony.

“Yes,” replied Dann. “He knows where to find us.”

Little did the squirrel warrior know that his friend was lying unconscious on the floor of the mess hall, knocked unconscious unknowingly by the very creatures he was trying to save.

“By the bloomin’ left. Where are those wretched tubbucketed hares? I knew I shouldn’t have sent them to save the chef in the kitchen. She’ll need savin’ now from those famine faced blighters!” Major Peony mumbled angrily to herself as they ran back to the escape tunnel.

But luckily, as they reached the entrance to the escape tunnel, they saw Major Peony’s patrol standing next to Foremole Loamsnout who was gallantly holding onto a lantern and his laughter.

Peony was right, they were alternately finishing pawfulls of vittles and complementing Acrey the cook. The little dormouse tossed her apron over her burning face, not used to such complements.

“Acrey my darling, your trifle is heavenly,” said Jonquil, stuffing some of the aforementioned food in his mouth.

“How say you come cater to the poor blighters who’ve never tasted your meadowcream at the old fire mountain, eh!” Captain Turnsol said with a winning smile.

“I guess everything went alright, Captain Turnsol,” replied Peony darkly. “I suppose all you all had to fight your way through was some bloomin’ scoff, you silver-tongued rogues!”

Turnsol scoffed, “also a few guards and a blinkin’ load of ravenous hares, Major.”

“They were very brave, miss,” said the dormouse, now peeking out from behind her apron.

“Into the tunnel, you rogues. I can’t for the life of my figure out why you would all be standing and chatting in these bloomin’ tunnels when you should be escaping!” raged Peony as she shooed them all into the tunnel

“Not to worry, Peony darling,” Turnsol said before he climbed into the tunnel. “We just arrived a moment before you did.”

Major Peony waited for all the others to pass and then climbed in behind Willow and Beech. Foremole Loamsnout looked around for Dann’s ferret friend and then piled some dirt behind them to cover the entrance to the escape tunnel.

C*~*C*~*C

Thalweg had a rather rude awakening when he finally regained consciousness. He sat up rubbing his head and flexing his paw as he strove to return consciousness to it. When he was bowled over by the little squirrelmaid, he had fallen so his weight had pinned the paw to the ground. It was all pins and needles. The first sight that greeted his dizzy eyes were the barred teeth and blazing green eyes of Lord Regolith, Regolith the pine marten, Regolith the slaver, Regolith the ruthless.

A chilly fear ran through his bones, freezing all the blood in his veins. He had been left behind. Dann wasn’t able come back to find him. It was much too dangerous. Trying to push aside the frustration and anger of being left behind so lightly by his so called friends, he strove fiercely to come up with a story that Regolith would believe and value. His very life depended on it.

“Explain.” The pine marten drawled out the single word slowly.

The black fox grabbed Thalweg by the scruff of his neck and pulled him to his feet. With a grin, he selected his sharpest skinning knife. His dark eyes seemed to swallow what little light there was in the room and what little hope remained in Thalweg’s heart.

“The slaves have escaped,” Thalweg stated outright.

“I can see they escaped, you corpse,” Regolith howled as he ripped out his sword and swung at the ferret.

Thalweg ducked instinctively. Regolith missed the ferret and stumbled with the force of his motion. Even more enraged, he whirled back to the unfortunate ferret, green eyes blazing, and took the knife Zigor offered him. This time he stopped himself only a millimeter from Thalweg’s trembling neck. A trickle of blood pooled from a small prick.

“It was those rabbits again, sire. That big one hit me over the head before I was even able to see he was here. They were covered in dirt, probably from a tunnel. They must have dug into our tunnels. But how could they have known about them?”

“Dirt, you say!” growled the pine marten in a soft voice, his nose almost touching Thalweg’s. His green eyes were lit with a poisonous fire. He spat out very slowly, “Then why is there no dirt on the ground.”

Thalweg had trouble speaking while the dagger was so close to his neck. “Their fur was… so matted in it…it didn’t fall onto the ground. That squirrel used that rope to get the riverdog out of ‘er cage, sir?”

“What squirrel?” asked Regolith.

Thalweg glanced over at the empty shackles. Regolith rolled his eyes. “Don’t you dare say it was the squirrelmaid. That pretty little thing could never manage that.”

“It was the squirrel warrior who attacked us last night, the one with the golden fur. I just barely saw him hurling up the rope before the big rabbit hit me over the head.”

“And you said that they came in from the tunnels?” the pine marten drawled. “That’s impossible. Bloodnose, Halfear!” he barked. “Go look down the tunnel to the kitchens.”

Bloodnose stumbled and fell on his face before running off behind the stoat captain.

It was surely the longest five minutes of the ferret’s life. He hoped his death would be swift. The two breathless captains ran over and Bloodnose gasped out, “There was an escape tunnel, Lord Regolith. The ferret spoke truly.”

“Indeed,” said Regolith straightening and striding down to the tunnels, his cape billowing behind him. Zigor dropped Thalweg in a heap before following behind Regolith like the very shadow of death. Thalweg stood and walked down to the tunnels in their wake, curious to see Dann’s escape tunnel.

They stopped in front of an excavation that was clumsily filled in. Regolith kicked the middle of the hole in hard with his footpaw and frowned as it fell forward into a tunnel. He looked at Thalweg in amazement, who by now was shaking in terror.

“A tunnel. I am impressed, Foulleg. You spoke truly. ”

Thalweg had no words left.

Regolith pointed his paw at two rats and said, “Find out where this tunnel ends.” Then he indicated Thalweg dramatically. “And I’ll be seeing you at dinner, ferret.” And with that he stormed off, leaving a group of stunned horde beasts in his wake.

Zigor looked at Thalweg intently, his black eyes seemed also hypnotic. Thalweg hoped the black fox could not see the lies in his eyes. The black fox seemed content with his study of the ferret and walked off after the pine marten. Halfear hesitated then followed a few steps behind the fox. Bloodnose, the weasel captain, walked over to Thalweg who was still trembling slightly. As usual, Bloodnose was nursing a bloody nose. “You were right lucky, mate,” said Bloodnose. “I was afraid you were a goner for a few minutes there.”

“Aye, me too,” Thalweg said with a timid smile.

Bloodnose patted him on the back with a bloody paw. “Don’t worry about dinner mate, he won’t kill you there. If he wanted ta kill ya for this, he’d make an example of you right now in front of the horde.”

“That’s comforting,” Thalweg quipped.

Bloodnose chuckled a bit. “I’m sorry mate. I wish I had some good words for you.”

The weasel nodded to him and then walked off. Thalweg watched him go in surprise. Had he just made a friend?


Chapter Fifteen

The dibbuns had long since commandeered the ramparts and wallsteps up to the main gate after the Colonel of the Long Patrol had suggested that they go on watch. They were persistent little tyrants, scolding any creature who wished to pass into their guard territory. In fact, when Skipper walked up to bring them down for tea, two little molemaids ran him off with half of a broken window pole, whacking the poor otter on the bottom as they did so.

Janglur and Rimrose walked up to the ramparts with Skipper treading unsurely behind them, afraid of getting his bottom hit again by the little molemaids. They grinned mischievously at him.

“Hello, my lovely dibbuns,” said Rimrose politely. She winked at the molemaid brandishing the broken pole at Skipper. “Would you mind lending a paw to an old creature?”

The little molemaid Rosemoyne looked sheepish. “Oi’s bee sorry marm. Usn’s’ll ‘elp you.”

Putting down her weapon, Rosemoyne took Rimrose’s paw and walked the squirrel mother to the battlements. Skipper snatched the pole and lobbed it over the gate and far into Mossflower woods. Then yelling his war cry, he chased after the babes. They scattered laughing and begging Skipper to capture them.

Janglur walked over to a little mouse sitting looking out into Mossflower wood. “Whatcha lookin’ at, mate?”

“Them shrews and volers are comin’ to Redwall now, Mr. Strangular.”

“Wonderful.” Janglur leaned down and yelled at Brother Melius who was lingering by the wallgate. “Let in Log-a-Log Dippler and Chief Burble, Melius mate.”

The Hedgehog Brother opened the gate as the shrews and voles raced in, excited about the feast for the Abbess’ tenth anniversary. The shrews, about three score in all of males, females and young ones, had left their short swords at home and instead had donned colorful tunics and headbands. Renowned as excellent cooks, several were carrying desserts for the tables and beautiful loaves of shrew bread.

Janglur ran down the steps to greet Dipper. Skipper followed close after, a troop of dibbuns riding on his shoulders. Log-a-Log Dippler thrust a loaf of shrew bread into Skipper’s paws before pulling Janglur into a crushing hug.

Chief Burble swaggered up behind them in a splendid crimson robe, making the shrew leader look particularly shabby even in his finest blue tunic. The watervole put his leafwood stick to his forehead almost as if in a salute. “Yiss, yiss. Nice to see you, Janglur, Skipper. When’re we expecting the Abbess?”

“Soon,” said Skipper wincing as the molemaid pulled on his ears and a little squirrel tried to stick his paw up the otter’s nose.

“Come ‘ere, me lovelies,” said Log-a-Log Dippler’s mate Cadence as she pulled the molemaid down from the otter’s shoulders. “Show Cadence the pretty lanterns that Brother Melius told me you were making.”

Skipper watched in admiration as Cadence lead the babes over to the tables in the orchard. The otters had done an excellent job. The curved tables were arrayed in a circle for all the creatures to sit at and a few long tables stood in a line off to the side for the platters of food to be arranged on. Cadence lifted the little molemaid up as the mole showed the shrew the pink lantern that she had cut out.

“Lovely gel,” said Janglur to Dippler.

C*~*C*~*C

Rimrose looked down from the walltop as she tried to urge a little mole away from the ramparts and down the stairs.

“Come on, little one. It’s time to go down and see our friends the shrews and voles. What are you looking at?”

“Oi be lookin’ at ee gurt clud comin’ to da H’abbey.”

Rimrose followed the little one’s gaze. “Isn’t that…O my goodness! It’s Song and the others!” she yelled to Janglur and the others loitering around the gate.

The squirrel mother squealed with joy and ran down the steps, with the little mole crawling down the steps behind her.

All the creatures of the Abbey creatures rushed to the gate where they gathered excitedly for their Mother Abbess. Lord Russano held Mother Cregga’s paw as the badgers hurried over. Little Sister Bianca peeked her head from the dusty gatehouse and danced over to the others.

The doors were flung open and a confused Abbess was pulled inside by Janglur and Rimrose. Old friends were reunited and new friends were made. Dippler gave his old friend the Abbess a great hug while Russano the Wise and laughed and patted her on the back. Cregga and Cypress the fox embraced. The two badgers and the old vixen spoke like old friends as Cypress lead Cregga towards the tables.

Hawthorne the pine marten and Janglur were congratulating each other and themselves for a cleverly and successfully executed plan to surprise the Abbess. Sinon and Skipper were chatting as they walked back to the Great Hall to return Martin’s sword to its rightful place above the tapestry.

The little molemaid Rossmoyne was tugging on Mugwort’s and Milkwort’s capes. The little dibbun was amazed that the foxes were mirror images of each other.

C*~*C*~*C

When Song had sufficiently gotten over the surprise of their greeting, she invited all the creatures to sit down for the feast. Brother Jerome’s helpers rushed about loading the back and front tables with all the delicacies Redwall had to offer.

Brother Jerome, a middle-aged mouse, waved his wooden spoon like a baton as he directed the monstrous Deeper’n ever turnip’n’tater’n’beetroot pie to be placed in front of the Foremole and his crew.

Skipper and his crew had started to sing lustily about their favorite watershrimp an’ ‘otroot soup until Brother Jerome had his servers rush to bring it to them. Jerome hit Skipper over the head playfully with his spoon as he admonished the otter leader, “You sound like a naughty dibbun. You should know better, you great puddenhead riverdog.”

At that announcement, the dibbuns -- lead by the naughty squirrelbabe and the molemaid Rossmoyne – took up Skipper’s chant. Brother Jerome threw up his paws in despair. Song suppressed a giggle and rang the little bell next to her chair. Amazingly all the chatter stopped as the Abbess stood to intone the grace. A little hedgehog babe didn’t realize that the chanting was over and finished his verse in a squeaky voice.

“Give me a spoon and fetch it soon, Brother Jerome,
A bowl of good ole hotroot for….oops!”

Skipper laughed sheepishly as he put a paw over the hedgehog’s mouth and another on the little one’s head. “Ouch.” He said, plucking out a quill from his paw. “Shh, little matey. ‘Tis time fer the Abbess’ grace.”

The abbey creatures and their guests laughed at the otter’s antics and soon quieted, glancing at their Abbess. She smiled and intoned the grace.

“Behold our family here assembled.
We thank you for our wonderful home and friends.
Bless us, if it may be, in all our peaceful endeavors,
If it may not, give us strength to persevere in what is to come.
And most importantly, let’s get on with the feast.

There was a brief confused silence after the last few lines, but it didn’t last long. The long patrol hares in particular, could not be distracted from their food for too long by a veiled warning.

“I say, chaps! Give me m’bally nosebag or give me death!” called one of the hares to break the awkward silence.

Every beast went at it with a will. Dessert was as good as salad to begin, and strong ales as good as mint tea. Skipper put a heaping portion of hotroot soup on a hare’s bowl, who ate it all indiscriminately.

“I say, milord, have you tried these rosemary popovers, they’re lovely.”

“Try some of the yellow cheese studded with those little hazelnuts.”

“Tragglo’s Dandelion and Burdock cordial is simply divine.”

“Pass me some of that Carrot and Celery Flan.”

“I say, old thing, would you like to share one of those spiffin’ Maple and Mint Cream Pies?”

“No thank you, zurr ‘are. Oi wun’t bee’s abul to eat it, hurr.”

Song smiled out at all the friends in her beloved abbey chatting good-naturedly and enjoying the fruit of their labors.

“You’d better hurry and eat something, Song, before all those hares do. That one looks about ready to steal your Candied Fruit Sponge right from your plate,” said Sinon sitting on her left.

The afore mentioned hare waggled his ears at Sinon. “By the flippin’ left, you squirrel-chap. I had not the slightest intention of swippin’ food from the chappess of the hour, wot! The very idea of such an accusation. Unpardonable!” He paused in his tirade and smiled winningly at the Abbess, “unless you didn’t want it, Abbess?”

Everyone laughed at the hare and in the confusion, Song was able to steal a rosemary popover from his plate with a mischievous smile.

C*~*C*~*C

Belts and Tongues were beginning to loosen as the Feast continued well into the night. Skipper and his otters raced around using window poles to light the paper lanterns hanging in the trees above the tables and on lines strung between the trees in the orchard.

When an otter cub, sitting on his father’s shoulders as he helped to light the lanterns, fell into the hotroot soup, everyone cried out in dismay. But the shocked faces quickly turned to cries of delight as the otter poked its head out licking his lips. Russano the Wise ladled the little one out and put him on Colonel Basil Nymium’s plate.

The long patrol hare was perplexed. “What am I supposed to do with this little chap, milord?” He peered through his monocle at the laughing otter cub. Picking up his fork, he inquired. “Should I scoff the bugger?”

The little otter squealed and ran into the pond away from the hare colonel. The little one’s mother fished the babe out and scolded her husband for causing such mischief.

Log-a-Log Dippler and Abbess Song were watching aghast as a tubby rivervole challenged a lanky hare to a scoffing contest. They tried to dissuade the vole but watched in horror as the two creatures downed mushroom and leek pasties with gravy at an alarming rate.

Chief Burble was eventually called in to put an end to the contest. “Yiss, yiss. You two boyos both won. Take a bow.”

Foremole and Brother Melius were having great fun sampling Tragglo Spearback’s entire selection of brews with the Cellarhog. They clinked their mugs together and made outrageous toasts.

“To Abbess Song!”

“To October Ale!”

“To Jubilee Feasts!”

Little Sister Bianca looked across the table at the Abbess and cleared her throat a few times before Song was able to hear her. “My dear Mother Abbess, I was hoping I could speak with to you later about exploring the upper attics,”

“The upper attics? Have you found a way inside?”

Sister Bianca looked down at her paws and after a pause said, “Well no. But I thought we could climb up from the lower attics into that window. I wouldn’t be able to undertake such a perilous climb myself but I was thinking with your help and perhaps yours, Sinon, I might be able to have a look around to see if there are any valuable papers or manuscripts about early life at the Abbey.”

The Abbess took a sip of Damson Cordial and nodded her head. “Of course, Bianca. That would be lovely. I’ve always wondered myself what sort of manuscripts we might find up there.” She turned to Sinon sitting on her left. “Sinon, would you like to…”

“Of course, Song,” said the other squirrel eagerly. “I’d love to help you out searching the attics. It should be a great adventure.”

Log-a-Log Dippler, who was sitting on Song’s right with his wife Cadence, had been listening in on the whole conversation very intently. He patted the Abbess’s paw to get her attention. “I hope you won’t leave an old shrew friend out of your adventure. “

Skipper who had been lighting the lanterns above them with a window pole had come to a dead stop behind them as he shamelessly eavesdropped as well. He now interrupted, “Beggin’ your pardon, Mother Abbess. Would you mind if an old riverdog tags along too?

“Not at all Skipper,” said Song smiling. “I’d be glad to have you. Who knows what sort of things we might discover up in the attics. It’ll be a fun adventure for the lot of us. “

“Anyone else want to join in?” Sinon groused.

The hare who was inspecting the food on Song’s plate again with a greedy eye replied, “Not to worry, old thing. For my part, I wouldn’t want to miss the leftovers tomorrow. Ouch!” he cried when Skipper tapped his over the head with the window pole.


Chapter Sixteen

With Willow and Galena, Beech was finally walking back to Hamath. It was so nice to be reunited with his friends. Cinnabar was at Galena’s side, as they had been since their reunion.

But not everyone was as happy as the two otters. Dann had to be torn away from the Castle. He was desperate for news of his friend Thalweg. But the Long Patrol officers reasoned with the squirrel warrior. It was much too dangerous to leave almost two score escaped slaves in the shadow of their prison for any real length of time. How easy it would be for the whole group to be recaptured and enslaved again, rescuers and all! And how on earth could they feed and clothe and tend to these emancipated slaves’ medical needs without attracting too much attention. Hamath was an easy but safe distance from the Castle where they could reconvene and determine the best course of action to pursue for Thalweg’s sake.

It was difficult to argue with the keen logic of Major Peony.

Even the birds had started singing again as they got farther away from the Castle and it seemed as if the sun shone brighter and with renewed vigor now that they admired it with the eyes of free creatures.

The other escaped slaves frolicked at the very front of the column, picking fruits off the trees and skipping ahead enraptured by their newfound freedom. Foremole Loamsnout’s moles and Dann Reguba led the column from the front along the shortest road to Hamath. The escaped slaves were like dibbuns in their excitement to experience everything they had missed in their seasons of slavery. And dibbuns always needs lots of supervision.

The older hares marched in the middle of the column, congratulating each other on their victory and discussing their future plans. The younger hares were marching in the back of the column with Beech and his friends. They had all taken time to introduce themselves again. There were five in total, all wearing the same long green tunics as their officers with broad belts at their waists and various weapons bristling perilously from them.

Their young galloper, Fleepaw Charpentier, was a tall, lanky hare. He had sandy colored fur and a jolly personality. He was swift, as all gallopers typically are, and took great pride in his speed. Several times he even sprinted a short way up the trail ahead of the group to show off to the squirrels and otters.

He carried a sling tied around his waist in a similar manner to that of Galena. He explained that he didn’t want a weapon that would get in his way when he would be running ahead on scouting missions in which speed was crucial. However, he had no trouble getting his paws on a sword if he needed one. Jonquil, the beret-wearing weapons specialist, was a walking armory and always had weapons for the others to use.

In his own humble opinion, Fleetpaw explained that he was a good chef, and proclaimed proudly that his greatest desire in life was "to be cook at the flippin' fire mountain!"

This of course inspired a great deal of snickering and laughing among the other hares.

Blackberry Nymium introduced himself next. He was shorter than Fleetpaw but with a more muscular frame. Beech wasn’t really sure what to make of his boisterous and slightly obnoxious behavior. Blackberry told them that “my pater’s a Colonel of the Long Patrol, Basil Nymium, doncha know” before he scrunched his face up as if he were wearing a monocle and did an impression of his father that was perhaps not very complementary, but very funny nonetheless.

Cinnabar asked him, “Wot weapon do you carry, mate?”

Blackberry took out his basket-hilted claymore and showed it off to the otter. He sheathed it and then struck out at Cinnabar: a quick left and right with his paws. Cinnabar backpedaled in alarm.

“But I’m learnin’ how to be a boxing hare like Captain Turnsol, wot!”

Fleetpaw laughed and said with a wink at Cinnabar, “Like Cap’n Turnsol, eh! Blackberry bally well idolizes the Cap’n. He’d jolly well like to be ole Cap’n Turnsol, wot!”

Another hare that they were introduced to as Lorica De Fformelo Tussock sighed dreamily and said in her soft voice, “Ole Cap’n Turnsol’s a handsome blighter alright.”

The other female hare laughed uproariously at this. She was half a head taller than Lorica – and probably taller than Peony as well. She had a rather prominent nose and dark eyes that seemed to dance with mischief.

She elbowed the squirrelmaid Willow roughly in the side and said. “Let me tell you, chaps, Lorica’s bally well perishin’ with love for the Cap’n.”

Lorica blushed and tried to cover her red face with her ears. She looked up ahead where Captain Turnsol was marching with Major Peony as the commanders congratulated themselves on their successful rescue mission. She whispered heatedly, “Oh! Please be quiet, Alma, he might hear you.”

“Leave Lorica alone, Alma De Langle, I’ve seen how you look at Cap’n Turnsol too,” remarked the other hare who hadn’t yet spoken.

He was shorter than the other two male hares and the tufts of brown hair between his ears stuck up a little bit. He raised an eyebrow at Alma who grinned sheepishly.

Alma laughed uneasily. “Point taken, Sage. Sometimes you can be a bally sage, old scout. But a gel would have to be flippin’ well blind and as bad tempered as ole’ Oswego not to appreciate a hare like that, wot! He doesn’t need those strong paws of his to knock me out!” She pretended to swoon dramatically onto Beech.

Laughing he caught her and tossed her back up.

Galena seemed to appreciate the level head on Sage’s shoulder and remarked, “That’s a beautiful blade you carry, Sage.”

“Aye, messmate,” replied Cinnabar as the hare took out his rapier. “Very well crafted, could ‘ave been an officer’s weapon afore.”

Sage Sinistra looked at it with a smile. “It was. ‘Tis my mum’s. She gave it to me before I went on this patrol. My uncle Perigord offered his saber as well but the rapier seemed to fit me better.” He stared at it pensively. “I wonder how they’re doin’ back at the fire mountain. My mother was a Cap’n in the Long Patrol like Cap’n Turnsol.”

Alma laughed at this remark and nudged Lorica, saying, “Not like ole’ Cap’n Turnsol.”

By now, Willow was sure that Lorica would faint from embarrassment. She was glad that Beech saved Lorica by remarking: “Doesn’t Major Peony carry a rapier too?”

Lorica took out her dirk and fenced Alma with it, rather more fiercely than necessary. “And she bally well knows how to use it, wot!”

“Major Peony, the prettiest hare ever to slay vermin,” remarked Fleetpaw as Sage, Alma and Lorica put away their weapons.

“I can’t wait for our next lesson!” said Blackberry excitedly. “I wonder when it’ll be. We haven’t had one in blinkin’ ages!”

“Lessons?” asked Beech in confusion.

“Yep, strategy with Peony, diplomacy with Toby, military history with Oswego, figurin’ with Turnsol, fencin’ with Peony, healin’ with Borage, boxin’ with Turnsol, archery with Jonquil,” Sage rattled off, counting them off on his paws.

“And scoffin’ with Saxifrage,” interrupted Alma.

“He does fencing sometimes too,” Sage deadpanned back with a wink.

“If we have to have another military history lesson with Lietunant Oswego, I think I’ll flippin’ well desert!” Blackberry intoned dramatically, pulling his ears down over his eyes in a most pitiable manner.

“As will Oswego,” quipped Sage.

“We have suffered through quite a number of Oswego’s lessons lately,” pondered Fleetpaw. “I guess it’s because Cap’n Turnsol and Major Peony were a bit busy with breakin’ out these slave chaps from the Castle-a-thingamy.”

“Or mayhap he annoyed our fearless leader,” Alma chortled. “I’m sure jolly old Peony knows as well as we do that Oswego enjoys givin’ lessons about as bally much as he enjoys lookin’ in a bloomin’ mirror!” She made a horrendous grimacing face.

More chortles from the hares.

“I wonder if we could sit in with you,” asked Willow thinking out loud. “I’d love to learn how to fence.”

Beech looked at her in alarm. “You would?”

Willow crossed her paws over her chest. “I would,” she snapped, cowering him with a terrible glare.

“Me too,” replied Beech nonplused. “Though I’d really like to learn more about archery. Dann said I was quite good at it. He even gave me his longbow and quiver. Said I could use them better than he could!”

Willow looked at the bow. “That’s Dann’s? He gave you a sword and bow. Wow!” She pawed one of the green-fletched arrows in the quiver.

“Do any o’ yer leaders teach slingin?’ I’d very much like to learn more ‘bout it,” Galena asked.

“Borage teaches us slingin’ sometimes,” remarked Fleetpaw, tugging at the sling he had tied around his waist.

“That I do, chaps,” came a jolly voice from behind the hare. Fleetpaw started in alarm and almost dashed away. They turned and gaped into the smiling face of Borage the healer himself.

“Oh corks!” said Sage wisely.

“I say, ‘tis bloomin’ bad manners droppin’ eaves on us like that!” Blackberry cried out indignantly.

Borage looked over at his friend Sergeant Saxifrage who was marching beside him. Willow was sure that the craggy old Sergeant winked at her before barking out in his best parade ground manner, “Eyes front, you stinky, slop-pawed, snaggletoothed excuses for soldiers!”

Perplexed Captain Turnsol and Major Peony glanced back to see what was going on. Lorica blushed deeply again.

Sergeant Saxifrage roared, “You had a good home and ya Left, yer Right, ya Left, yer Right, ya Left, yer Right. Pick up those footpaws you lanky lopsided lettuce leaves! Your mums might‘ve loved you, but I don’t!”

Saxifrage marched past them with Borage, remarking to Alma out of the corner of his mouth, “Teach you scoffin,’ eh? I don’t think ya need any bloomin’ lessons, Miss De Langle.”

As they passed, Willow was sure that Borage coughed, disguising a laugh.

“By the left, at least it wasn’t Lieutenant Oswego. I was sure that my heart was gonna bally well…” began Blackberry.

“Less gabbin’ n’ more marchin!’ “ yelled Sergeant Saxifrage from in front of them.

“That ‘are sure has a pair a lungs, eh, Galena,” said Cinnabar with a wink. Galena just laughed that the dismayed faces of the young hares.

C*~*C*~*C

“Wot was that all about?” Peony wondered as Saxifrage and Borage came to march next to her.

“Nothin’ important, marm. Just showin’ the recruits the ropes and all that.”

“They were actually hopin’ for another lesson of all things,” said the healer Borage to Turnsol and Peony.

“Yes, I suppose we haven’t had one in while,” agreed the Major. She looked behind her at Oswego who was talking with Foremole Loamsnout.

Noticing her gaze, his thick eyebrows -- shot through with coarse gray hair – gathered above his eyes in a fierce scowl. He ranted, “Don’t even think ‘bout it! That would be my fourth in a row! I’ll roast those leverets for supper before I give them another lesson.”

“Jolly good, I hope you save some for me. Ouch!” Turnsol skipped aside as Peony punched him in the ribs while carefully avoiding his bandaged shoulder.

“Not at all, Oswego,” said Peony agreeably. “I thought that because you’ve had to teach so many lessons that you could choose the next victim – I mean officer – to teach the lesson.”

Oswego smiled nastily at Turnsol. He pointed at the hare captain with his javelin. “Turnsol. ‘Ow do you like those apples, mate?”

“Fine enough I suppose,” quipped Turnsol, shrugging with his bandaged shoulder. “Besides it’ll be nice to get another chance to buffet the bloomin’ daylights out of those rotters.” At Peony’s sideways glance he corrected himself. “Er. I mean, it’ll be nice to share my knowledge with the young ‘uns.”


Chapter Seventeen

Thalweg had been a wreck all day, dreading the dinner he would have with Regolith. As he walked around the Castle with his traitorous blue cloak floating behind him, he heard the whispers as he passed. The rat Lousewort was taking bets on which of the ferret’s extremities would be severed by the end of the meal. Thalweg didn’t have the heart to hear what the odds were. A weasel was whispering sorrowfully to a stoat about the loss of this new captain. Three ferrets were arguing about who would have his sword when he was dead.

However, the time soon arrived and the whisperings intensified as he headed into Regolith’s chambers. Walking into the dinning room, Thalweg noticed that a few more candles had been lit tonight than he had remembered from his previous visit. They flickered, casting eerie shadows across the pine marten’s face. Zigor, sat at the pine marten’s right, his obsidian eyes observing Thalweg intently, watching always watching.

Vermilion swept in. Tonight her gown was a gleaming white, softened to gold in the candlelight. She sat down and nodded to Thalweg. Regolith commented, “You look beautiful, my darling.”

She looked over at her mate and said nothing.

Regolith turned to Thalweg and drawled sarcastically, “Would you like to serve us today, Thalweg. We’re a bit short on servers tonight. You must understand.”

Thalweg smiled uncomfortably as he went to the side table. Lifting the decanter in both paws, he poured red wine for everyone at the table. He looked at the four dishes sitting on the table – badly burned pigeon. The ferret captain felt a shred of pity for the unfortunate pair of rats who had been assigned the task of preparing dinner for the pine marten tyrant. This must have been their best attempt. If he wasn’t dead by morning, he was sure they would be.

The ferret walked to the dining table and asked, “Do you like your pigeon well-done sir?”

Regolith laughed and took the plate Thalweg offered with the least burned of the birds. After he had served the others, the ferret sat down again, poised on the stool, rigid with fear and anticipation.

“Tell us another story, Foulleg,” mumbled Regolith as he tore into the pigeon with his sharp white teeth.

“A story, sir?”

“Zigor didn’t hear your story the last time,” said the marten indicating to his favorite confederate.

“Like the one you told about Salamandastron to us last time, Thalweg,” was Vermilion’s hoarse whisper.

Regolith looked over at his mate appreciatively. “We would like to hear another one. How do you discover such tales, Foulleg?”

“When I was a wandering and thieving for my livelihood afore I joined your band, I would make woodlanders tell me tales before I skinned ‘em for caps. You wouldn’t think lookin’ at ‘em, but moles have very soft fur.”

“Did you hear any interesting mole stories, Thalweg?” asked Vermilion.

“Heavens no! I can’t understand a word they say.”

Regolith laughed uproariously at this comment, patting Zigor on the back heartily. The black fox did not laugh along with the others. He just stared at Thalweg. Watching, always watching.

Regolith waved his paw regally for the ferret to continue. Thalweg scratched his head and said, “I heard a story from a squirrel once about a mouse with a magic sword.”

“Magic sword?” said Vermilion in her quiet voice.

“Yes. This mouse was a warrior and a powerful mage. He had supernatural powers and was cursed with the rage of a Badger berserker – a sight to behold.”

“Supernatural powers, you say.” Regolith took a sip of his wine and leaned back closing his eyes. “Sounds like an entertaining story.”

“Yes. This squirrel said that he was from an Abbey up north called Redwall.”

Zigor shifted impatiently in his seat. “Redwall?”

Regolith opened his eyes and watched the exchange between the captains on his right and left.

“Yes. It was founded by this warrior mouse. His name was Martin the Warrior. Strangely though, the Abbey was built like a stronghold, a fortress impregnable to any attack. This warrior watches over the abbey from beyond the grave. His magical powers are awesome to behold. He had even invaded the minds of warlords intent on capturing the place and drove them into madness.”

“Drove them mad? Who? How?” asked Regolith.

“Through dreams and visions, haunting them day and night. To name two: Cluny the Scourge and Tsarmina the Queen of the Thousand Eyes.”

“What of this magic sword? Surely such a thing cannot exist,” said Vermilion in wonder. Regolith looked at his mate with interest. Her head was resting in her blood red paws as her black diamond gleamed in the firelight. She watched the ferret captain intently, her eyes shining in wonder. The black fox raised one of his eyebrows.

“Indeed. So the squirrel claimed. He said that he had once lived at Redwall and that the Abbey creatures there had even entrusted him to wield the sword for a time. It was a marvelous blade made from a falling star with a red stone of great beauty and value on its hilt. ‘Tis said that the wielder of such a sword is invincible.”

Vermilion smiled wryly and said with a giggle, “Then why would the squirrel ever give it up?”

“Yes, Foulleg. Why did the squirrel surrender such a powerful weapon?”

Thalweg scratched his head. “You know the ways of peace loving woodlanders. At the Abbey of Redwall, they are unaccustomed to war. Yet, they often have a Redwall Warrior protecting them in peaceful times. This squirrel was once the Redwall Warrior but had to forsake his title when he attacked another creature at the Abbey.”

“He had to turn in his sword for attacking someone?” Regolith asked in wonder. “What nonsense!”

Zigor snorted derisively at the remark. He too was unable to comprehend the values of the Redwall creatures.

Vermilion shrugged, “I guess they do not condone violence in this Abbey our friend Thalweg speaks of.”

“Then how do the creatures solve any arguments?” Regolith asked turning to the black fox who chuckled with him. The pine marten slammed a dagger deep into the wood of the table. The table shook and Thalweg’s goblet of wine tipped over, the red wine staining the tablecloth and dripping onto his blue cloak. Regolith roared with laughter at the strange Abbey customs and Thalweg’s distressed face when he saw the red stain on his captain’s cloak.

“Do you know any more about this place, Foulleg?” asked Regolith leaning towards Thalweg menacingly.

Zigor looked on unblinkingly. Always watching.

Thalweg bowed and said, “No, milord. ‘Tis only things I’ve heard second hand. I’ve never seen these things and places for meself.”

Regolith sighed and sat back, dissatisfied to have the story end so abruptly.

Thalweg looked worriedly at the knife Regolith was unconsciously playing with as he sat in silence. The ferret added one more comment, hoping to keep the pine marten’s interest, lest he be killed by the tyrant merely for sport. “The last thing the squirrel mentioned before I skinned him was rather interesting. He said that there were creatures like us who lived in a little glade near Redwall.”

Now the ferret had Regolith’s full attention. “What sort of creatures?” he asked leaning forward eagerly.

However, the conversation could not be allowed to continue because Vermilion interrupted Thalweg before he could respond. “Perhaps we should let Thalweg go and take his rest and we can speak in private, Regolith. And perhaps next time you can tell us about your scars, Thalweg.” Vermilion’s soft voice carried across the tense silence.

Regolith sat back and Thalweg took a deep breath in relief.

“As you wish, my love. Leave us, Thalweg.”

Thalweg bowed stiffly and scurried out. He heard Vermilion’s soft voice say to her mate before he left. “I like your new captain, Regolith. He has such interesting stories to tell.”

“I’m glad you like him, my dear. I will keep him close and alive then for your sake.”

“Thank you.”

“More wine, Zigor?”

C*~*C*~*C

The other captains Halfear and Bloodnose came up to Thalweg’s rooms in the Captain’s sleeping quarters on the third floor of the main building. Halfear stood there awkwardly, waiting for Bloodnose to speak.

“How did yore dinner go, mate?”

“Fine,” said Thalweg in wonder. “I’m still alive and surprisingly unharmed.”

“I can see that,” spat Halfear impatiently. “What happened?”

“Vermilion asked me to tell her another story. She had enjoyed the one I told yesterday. The pine martens seemed in good spirits. Zigor was there too, but he just sat across from me and didn’t speak two words together.”

“He does that sometimes,” said Halfear, picking his nails with his sharp claws. “Just likes to stare at you and try to ‘figure you out.’ Must be some kind of fox powers.”

“Foxes don’t have powers, Halfear,” Bloodnose corrected.

“Well what about that old vixen that was friendly with Regolith’s brother. She definitely had magical powers. Chills the blood in my veins just thinking about ‘er,” Halfear countered.

“Let’s not talk about ‘er. She and her mirror-image sons give me the creeps, even after they’ve been gone from here for seasons,” said the weasel captain.

Changing the subject, the weasel captain, Bloodnose, looked over at Thalweg. “You said that you spoke to Vermilion? I’m surprised by that. She’s usually very quiet. I’ve been with Regolith for seven seasons now and I don’t think I’ve once heard her speak. I can’t even imagine what her voice sounds like.”

“Of course you’ve heard ‘er speak! She’s not mute! Every beast has got to speak sometime, right?” Halfear spat condescendingly at his compatriot. “But what did you talk about with Regolith and Zigor, Foulleg?”

“A lot about a place called Redwall.”

“Redwall? Bloodnose, that’s the place we’re going innit,” said Halfear.

Bloodnose shook his head in frustration at Halfear’s dim wit. He spat back condescendingly, “Yes.”

Thalweg felt his blood run cold as the other captains continued their argument about Redwall. Never in a million seasons would Thalweg have guessed that Regolith’s arm would extend so far.

“There’s a whole bunch of treasure there,” said Halfear knowingly.

“And creatures there that Regolith’s got a personal vendetta against,” said Bloodnose. “We heard from Mortys a few days ago that our spy in Redwall is prepared and that the time is ripe for invasion.”

“While ‘e wasn’t scoffin’ that mouse slave. Disgusting,” said Halfear.

Bloodnose nodded in agreement.

Feigning disinterest in the subject of Redwall, a subject in which Thalweg had extensive interest, he asked as a way to change the subject, ““So wot’s gonna happen to me? Should I expect execution at any moment?”

“No. Yer lucky that Vermilion’s taken a shinin’ to you. Regolith’ll do most anything to please ‘er. So he’s goin’ make sure you are always nearby and in good health. He’ll probably never have you out of his sights.” Bloodnose grinned. “Yer probably in the best shape outta the three of us. Regolith’ll be sure not to kill you or let another do so.”

“Oh,” said Thalweg sitting heavily down on his bed feeling weak from the stress of the danger to his best friend’s home and his own hide.

“Whatever,” said Halfear, not paying much attention to the conversation now that it have moved into the realm of things he didn’t know or particularly care about.

“You look pale, mate,” said Bloodnose to Thalweg. “We’ll leave you to catch yer beauty sleep.”

Bloodnose patted Thalweg heartily on the back and then walked out with Halfear trailing a few paces behind. “Goodnight, mate.”

Thalweg sat down heavily on his bed again. If what the other captains had to say was correct, he might not be able to escape from the Castle as easily as the slaves. Regolith had unknowingly locked Thalweg into his own tightly bared cage, much more secure but much less tangible than the one Zigor built for the ottermaid Galena.

Chapter Eighteen

The Long Patrol officers were lounging in the Tipsy Seagull as they waited for the others to return from their various errands. Beech and Cinnabar had just returned with Willow and Galena. They had taken the maids to Loampaw’s General Store for new clothing. Willow hadn’t been sure how much longer she could bear to wear her blue gown stained with another creature’s blood. She and Galena had traded in their ragged garments for a tunic and trousers – for Willow – and a green dress for Galena. Galena and Cinnabar were still chuckling about their matching belts. Willow and Beech hadn’t yet discovered why studded belts were so humorous.

Dann was showing the escaped slaves around Hamath, as the local celebrity, he was able to hold a great deal of sway with the locals who offered new clothing and food for the refugees. The slaves felt awkward around the vermin species living in town, but with the Reguba warrior as an intercessor, they began to develop a sort of camaraderie with the other creatures, who had also suffered under the tyranny of creatures like Regolith.

The younger hares were picking up supplies for the long patrol – food and medicine mostly. Major Peony was planning on leaving tomorrow morning to return to the Castle for Thalweg. Captain Turnsol had unfortunately picked the short straw and had been sent with them to make sure they didn’t misbehave. When they had been unsupervised last time, Blackberry had tried to fit a whole blackcurrant and meadowcream pie in Lieutenant Tobias’s haversack. They hadn't yet determined whether it was for some malicious purpose or from general ignorance.

The young hares bounded in, dispelling all the quiet around them. Captain Turnsol plopped down on the long bench next to Major Peony and said with a sigh, “Those young ‘uns will be the death of me someday.”

“Mmhmm,” Peony agreed.

Lieutenant Tobias looked at Blackberry suspiciously before he restarted the conversation. “So do you think we should try going through that tunnel again to save old Thalweg? Maybe the vermin haven’t discovered it.”

“But then there’s also the chance that they have found it,” challenged Oswego. “And why should we risk our necks for that vermin? He may very well be dead now anyway. No skin off my nose.”

Cinnabar shifted from where he was sitting next to Galena and Willow, “Dann’s friend risked his life to help those maids. It’s a poor way to repay his sacrifice, Oswego.”

Oswego glared at the otter. “Besides, how do we even know that the ferret wants rescuing? He might be just where he wants to be.”

“I say, it looks like we need some sort of plan, idea, stratagem, or a combination of all three,” proposed Blackberrry.

Peony looked over at the young hare with an amused smile. “Yes indeed, Blackberry, old scout.”

Next to her, Turnsol leaned forward and put his elbows on the table resting his chin in his paws. He proposed an idea before Blackberry could come up with another clever one. “We should try to exchange a few quick words with old Scallywag to discover his intentions.”

Oswego scoffed at Turnsol’s idea, “So you will just walk up to the fortress, talk yer way in with that silver-tongue of yours and ask the ferret what his plans are over a pot of bloomin’ tea?”

“Maybe not tea, I prefer elderberry wine,” Turnsol quipped back.

“Be quiet, you two. Let’s focus on our common enemy,” scolded Peony. The Major then pronounced her own idea. “I propose that we give Thalweg a day to try to get out on his jolly lonesome. He seems like a clever beast. Then if we hear nothin’ from him, we could send some of those other vermin chaps to talk to him and we can arrange a rendezvous point for their escape. Those rats and weasels seem like able beasts to get the job done, eh.”

Lieutenant Oswego shrugged and stood up. “I’m parched.” He turned his back on the others and walked over to the bar.

Blackberry and Alma made horrible grimacing faces at each other as the Lieutenant left the group.

“Why don’t you two go to the bar and get us some drinks, my dears,” said Major Peony when she noticed their expressions. “I’ll have a cup of apple’n’spice tea.”

“How nice of you to volunteer, chaps,” said Borage agreeably.

Blackberry looked like he was about to protest when Sergeant Saxifrage said in his loud voice, “Yes! Top hole, me lovelies! Mention in dispatches and all that, wot. I’ll have a pint of October ale.”

Blackberry and Alma stood with identical expressions of little enthusiasm. After taking all the orders, they went to the counter. They stood uneasily next to Lieutenant Oswego who was also ordering a pint of October ale.

“By the left, isn’t Major Peony silly? Only ordering a bloomin’ cup ‘o apple’n’spice tea,” said Blackberry.

“She probably just wants to be alert in case of any problems, Blackberry,” said Alma, defending the Major.

They stood by Lieutenant Oswego uneasily. He smiled at them and wiggled his ears saying, “I thought you two young ‘uns bally well knew that Peony’s a lightweight. She can’t drink as much ale as the rest of her h’officers and retain her senses.”

“Thanks, mate,” Oswego said to the bartender before tossing several gleaming coins into the rat’s outstretched paw with a wink.

Blackberry and Alma looked at each other with almost identical fiendish grins. “You aren’t thinkin’ what I’m bally well thinkin’ are you, Blackberry old chap.”

“By the flippin’ left, If involves spikin’ the Major’s drink than I bally well am!”

They brought over the drinks looking innocent as newborn babes and handed them out very courteously to their superiors. Major Peony was amazed by the treatment and wiggled her ears at them approvingly. “Thank you very much,” she said with a smile. Taking a sip, she remarked, “This tastes very good. How did you know that I liked iced tea?”

“Er, it was just a…” Blackberry squeaked when Peony drained the tall glass in one swig. “Steady on, Major, no need to imbibe so quickly.”

Alma and Blackberry looked at each other in alarm, worried that their prank was taking perhaps a dangerous turn. Oswego turned to look over at their table from where he was now sitting at the bar talking to a tough looking sea otter covered in grisly tattoos. The mastermind glanced over at the table to see the culmination of his prank.

“Can you refill my glass, Blackberry?” asked the Major holding out her drink before turning to Cinnabar. “Now that we’ve had business mostly solved for the night, I don’t suppose you could entertain us with your story of how you meet Dann? I bet the young ones would love to hear it, Cinnabar.”

The sea otter chuckled merrily in his deep baritone and took a swig of October Ale. “Well you see I was born on the most beautiful liddle isle you could ever wish to see, Green Isle. But when I was naught but a little otter cub, I was taken from its shores by a group of slavers…”

Blackberry stood up from the table with Peony’s cup and walked over to the bar. He glanced over at Alma, who was worrying her lip between her teeth, not paying much attention to Cinnabar’s story.

“…and that was the first time I was shipwrecked on the Western Shores. This time it was in the lee of yer great fire mountain. When Dann was heading over there last fall, he stumbled upon me. Literally stumbled, I might add. Stepped on me head! Muttered some lame excuse and then took me into Salamandastron to get cleaned up…”

Alma stood up as well and hastened to join Blackberry by the bar. She hissed, “What do we do? The Major wasn’t supposed to drink it that fast!”

Blackberry glanced back at the table and at Major Peony who was facing the bar from her seat at the table. One elbow on the table, she was resting her head on her paw as she tried to focus on Cinnabar, her grey eyes unfocused.

“…after I had finally found the port city in the south, I sought out a ship that would be going back to my home. There weren’t very many ships at all embarking because it was storm season and sea voyages were very dangerous in the winter months. But in the end I was able to sign up as a deck hand on a merchant vessel that would be sailing near Green Isle. And believe it or not, that ship was attacked by pirates as well and I became a galley slave again! Not for long though. The pirate vessel was caught up in a terrible storm, and we were tossed about like a twig on a mighty stretch of rapids…”

Alma tugged at Blackberry’s paw. “What did you get for the Major?”

The rat bartender looked over at the two anxious hares. “What can I get ya this time mates?”

“Our friend wanted another of whatever it was you gave her last time,” said Blackberry offering the Major’s glass to the rat.

The bartender furrowed his brow, “Another harbor ice tea? Are you sure, young uns? Those things are quite strong.”

“Er, could you mix one up again but without any alcohol in it, sir,” asked Alma.

The rat bartender raised his eyebrows. “There’s naught but alcohol in it.”

“…the second time I was shipwrecked was just last season not at all far from here. And just like the last time it was Dann who found me and this time he brought me to Hamath to get batched up. Had a splinter in my bum, very unpleasant business…”

Alma and Blackberry looked at each other. “Nothing but alcohol? But she didn’t taste anything.”

The rat bartender looked at them strangely. “That’s harbor iced tea. All the different kinds cancel out the tastes of the other. Tastes like iced tea, not liquor.”

Alma could feel the dread slowly bubbling up within her. “That glass was really tall, wasn’t it, Blackberry.”

As one they looked back at the table. By now, Peony had her head resting in both paws on the table. Captain Turnsol and Sergeant Saxifrage who were sitting next to her, nudged her worriedly.

“Peony? Are you alright? What’s the matter. Borage, could you take a look at her?” Saxifrage called worriedly.

Borage the Healer got up from his seat and walked over to Peony. He looked into her eyes and shook his head in amazement. “I think she’s drunk.”

Turnsol’s ears shot up in surprise. “But how could that have…”

The rat bartender looked over at the table with a funny expression on his face and the two young hares staring at him with worry. He picked up another glass and filled it with water. “Why don’t you give this to your friend. It should help.”

Alma and Blackberry stared at the tall glass of water the bartender placed on the table, neither making any motion to pick it up. By now, the others had realized what happened and were staring at Alma and Blackberry disapprovingly.

Turnsol stood up and cowered them with a ferocious glare. “Peony might have a bad headache on the morrow, but ‘twill be nothin’ compared to the one I’ll give you tonight!”

He bounded up from his chair and chased after the two young hares who squealed in dismay as he raised his clenched fists. They bolted away fast enough to put any galloper to shame. Borage headed over to the bar and picked up the glass of water the rat bartender had prepared.

Fleetpaw was impressed at the speed and pace that Alma and Blackberry were able to maintain while overcome by such a consuming fear. “By the left, those two can sure shift dust when certain death’s on the horizon, wot!”

Peony merely groaned at this remark, which brought back Turnsol’s attention. He glanced out the door at the two still fleeing hares and walked back to the table shaking his head. “We’ll probably be safe from those rotters for a little longer.”

Sergeant Saxifrage looked over at Borage, “How do you think the poor gel’ll be in the morning,’ eh?”

“Probably not very good. Sedgepaw mixes up a mean harbor iced tea. The one you had at the beginning of the week threw you for a real loop. The water should help though. Why don’t you take her up to her room so she can be more comfortable.”

Turnsol nodded and helped Peony up from the table. She muttered in dismay as he tried to support her with his injured shoulder. “Not that bloomin’ shoulder, Turnsol. It’s still injured.”

Turnsol let out a little chuckle. “She’s drunk out of her mind and still worried about my bloomin’ shoulder. Figures she won’t leave off teasing me about it.”

Almost the moment after Turnsol had disappeared upstairs, Alma and Blackberry burst back into the Tipsy Seagull. They ran to the table, out of breath and agitated.

“We ran near the river that meanders outside town and saw vermin from the castle congregatin’ there,” panted Alma.

As he tried to catch his breath, Blackberry continued, “They looked like they were fillin’ up canteens with water.”

“Why on earth would they be doing that?” wondered Oswego as she wandered over. “Don’t they have a well in their Castle?”

Blackberry shrugged, still out of breath.

“We thought we saw Dann’s friend Thalweg there. What should we do?”

“O corks!” said Lieutenant Tobias. “This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to communicate with Thalweg. Too bad Peony’s out’ah commission.”

“Indeed,” groused Sergeant Saxifrage. He gave Alma and Blackberry a horrible scowl. ‘Tis a bloomin’ shame that you rotters had to drug the poor gel.”

C*~*C*~*C

Thalweg sighed. He was about waist deep in the cold river water. The other horde beasts had not dared to go quite as far as he did into the water. One said to his neighbor that he admired Cap’n Thalweg for his fearlessness. It wasn’t a lack of fear that urged him to walk into the river. Under the moon, the river gleamed and twinkled as it reflected the thousand diamonds in the sky. The cold running water soothed some of the aches from the stress and helped to numb his weary limbs, although his mind already felt numb from the recent events.

As they prepared for their trip north, Regolith’s army had completely exhausted the well in their fortress. Thus Thalweg was out today filling up vast cisterns that they would be taking on their journey.

Thalweg had been surrounded by a sort of guard night and day to “protect” him. He wasn’t sure if it was because Regolith was keeping Thalweg close because he amused his mate or because he wanted to keep an eye on Thalweg because he had said something wrong while he was telling one of his stories.

He pulled the stopper from his canteen and emptied it into the river. Not really caring, he watched the water sweep off downstream. He leaned down and submerged his canteen in the life-giving water.

He almost jumped out of his skin when a furry head appeared out of the lake not a breath from his canteen. It was none other the otter Cinnabar that he had met at Hamath, another old friend of Dann Reguba. Thalweg leaned down more to hide the head of the otter from the view of those on the shore.

“Hey, mate,” said the otter smiling at him. “How ya holdin’ up?”

“About as well as one would expect considering the circumstances. Are you mad! This river’s crawlin’ with soldiers. You could get killed comin’ ‘ere to chat with me!”

The brawny otter seemed to shrug even though only his head was above water. “We must be quick. ‘Tis the least I can do fer wot you did to help those maids. I wanna thank you again for savin’ ‘em like you did. “Twas a very brave thing. Galena, the ottermaid wanted to send her blessing to you and her ‘eartfelt thanks. She wanted me to give you this bracelet. She said ‘tis her good luck charm.”

Thalweg took the small string of beads and looped it around his wrist. “Well tell ‘er thank ye kindly. I only wish I could’ve been more help. That little squirrelmaid was much too quick fer me. She’s got quite a powerful kick.”

“Yeah, she wanted to apologize for knockin’ you out and Dann sends his regards as well. He wanted me to tell you to hold on and he’ll help you in any way he can. So where’d ya get that nifty blue cloak from?”

“I’m a captain of the horde now.”

“Well slap me thrice and hand me to my mamma. Congrats, mate.”

“The pine marten Regolith took a shinin’ to me. Not sure why. His mate Vermilion’s likes the stories that I tell. Regolith keeps me alive mostly to amuse ‘er. But I’ve found out somethin’ very important. You must tell Dann. They’re goin’ to Redwall. That’s where Regolith’s takin’ the horde. Redwall.”

“Redwall? Why?”

“Dunno. You must tell Dann. Promise me you’ll tell Dann,” Thalweg replied frantically

“I will, I promise,” the otter assured him. “Do you want us to ‘elp you escape from the Castle? Maybe I could pretend to be a pike and drag you under.” Cinnabar winked and pretended to chomp at Thalweg’s blue cloak.

The ferret snorted. “I think I’ll pass. Besides, I want to hear more about Regolith’s plans for the time being. I can be a great help to Dann here. When I find out what I want, maybe I could stage my death or somethin’ and escape with you guys. But don’t worry ‘bout me too much. I’m not a babe. I can take after meself. Besides, you fellas don’t seem to have havin’ any trouble communicatin’ with me.”

“Stay safe, mate. I should get goin.’ Don’t want you to be standin’ out ‘ere talking to yerself for too long mate. Might seem strange to the others. Take care of yerself.”

Thalweg was about to wish the brave otter the same when his head disappeared from sight and with hardly a ripple he was gone.

Book Two: A History Better Forgotten

“I don’t like discussin’ the troubled pasts of others.
The past will be revealed at our own discretion.”


Chapter Nineteen

Thalweg fastened the clasp to his blue cloak as he walked over to Regolith and Vermilion’s tent. It was set away from the main camp to provide the leaders with a bit of privacy. Regolith's horde had spent most of the day marching northwards, so all were anxious to kick up their footpaws by one of the fires scattered around the campsite and enjoy a flagon of the nettle beer which they had an excess of.

Thalweg didn’t realize until he came very close that the pine martens were arguing inside their tent. Regolith’s voice was deathly quiet and Vermilion’s voice was always soft from lack of use.

“You’ll go where I lead.”

“But why must we go to Redwall? You promised me that we wouldn’t…”

“Are you afraid to see him again? Afraid of what he’ll think of you?” came Regolith’s acidic response.

“But I… You said…You gave me your word…”

“You know I did nothing of the kind.”

“You’re a monster, going back on your word like that!”

“I may be many things, my dear. But one thing I am not... is a creature who goes back on their word.”

Thalweg tiptoed closer to the tent. Consumed by morbid curiosity, he didn’t notice where his footpaws were treading. The branch he stepped on broke loudly under his footpaw. He cursed and lifted his footpaw, trying to pull out a splinter. The arguing stopped abruptly.

When he looked up from his injury, he fell directly into the distrustful gaze of the black fox.

“Splinter,” the ferret stuttered.

“Indeed,” was the sarcastic reply.

Regolith wrenched open the tent and glared down at his two captains. “What do you two want?”

“Ask him,” was Zigor’s cryptic reply.

“Well, Foulleg. Why are you disturbing my and the Lady Vermilion’s peace?” Regolith growled belligerently.

Thalweg had trouble looking into the pine marten’s dangerous green-eyes, but it would be death to look elsewhere. “Milord, I meant no offense. Please give my apologies to the Lady Vermilion. I thought I was to dine with you and the lady tonight, but I see I was mistaken.”

Regolith showed his teeth and was about to spit out an acerbic reply when another voice called pleadingly from inside the tent. “Regolith, please let him come in. I did ask him to come for dinner tonight.”

Regolith considered his mate’s plea before staring at the ferret considering. “Well don’t just stand there, gaping ferret. Come in. You too, Zigor. I’m in the mood for another story.”

Thalweg was sure he was getting whiplash from the pine marten’s swift and intense changes of mood.

The strong oak posts, secured the four corners of the tent and the linen walls stretched over the pliable saplings which served to both buttress and also to create the shape of the tent. A pile of rich burgundy pillows were heaped up in one corner of the tent where a large cot that had been moved to the side to make way for the dinner table.

The dinner table here was much smaller than the table at the pine marten’s chambers in the castle. There the two ends of the table seemed almost miles apart. This was a blessing for Thalweg in that he hadn’t had to sit that close to the deadly pine martens. Sure he was within an arms’s length of Regolith on the off chance the pine marten wanted to slay him on the spot or grab his chin to examine his heavily scarred face. However, here Thalweg’s elbows rubbed against those of Regolith and Vermilion.

A rat walked in with a large platter of steaming fish. Thalweg realized with a jolt that he recognized the unfortunate creature. It was Lousewort the rat.

“Tonight we ‘ave Perch with a parsley sauce, milord. Fresh from the river. The fish is quite tender this season.”

“Thanks, mate,” said Thalweg when the rat put his plate down last.

Lousewort just looked down at him without any emotion. No doubt he was jealous to be serving a wonderful dinner to the creature he had been working side-by-side with just days before.

“Wine, sir?” continued the rat, his words dripping with sugar.

The rat filled everyone’s glasses, without any incident, and slipped out of the tent.

Thalweg looked down at his plate, taking in the delicious aroma. These cooks had done a much better job than the ones the night before. Vermilion said so herself after tasting the fish. “These chefs did an excellent job. I hope you won’t kill these ones too, Regolith. I won’t mind eating their food again.”

Regolith nodded, picking out a bone. “Though I would have preferred if they picked a fish with less bones.”

“Do you have a story for us tonight, Thalweg?” asked Vermilion. “Perhaps about your scars?”

“You wouldn’t like to hear about that,” replied the ferret as he wrestled a piece of fish bone from his teeth.

“Humor me,” said Regolith, smiling with all his teeth.

Thalweg put down his fork and looked around at the others before beginning to weave the tale with words. “These scars are all that remain of my youth.” The ferret ran his paw along the torn up ridges on his face. “I was born in the forests of the far north into a tribe of ferrets. Our leader’s name was Eryngo. He was the most feared and loved of all the creatures in our tribe and he was the best warrior. Warriors were crucial to our tribe and very well respected. For generations we had been engaged in a blood feud with the neighboring tribe; the bad blood between us seemed to stretch back farther than our memory of it. Indeed it had been so many seasons since the feud had begun that the reason for it was no longer known – perhaps it had started over land or food or general dislike or even a misunderstanding of one another, no one could be certain. My father was Eryngo’s second in command and was killed in one such skirmish, sacrificing his life for Eryngo’s. My mother died in the night raid on our camp that immediately followed, so I, barely a season old, was left parentless. To honor my father’s sacrifice, Eryngo adopted me and raised me as his own son. First and foremost, I was taught to fight.“

“And what caused you to fight for yourself? You’re a mercenary now. Why did you betray your adopted father and the leader of your tribe?” interrupted Vermilion.

“Yes, why?” asked Regolith with his eyes narrowed.

“I was young and impetuous. My downfall proved to be a beautiful dark eyed maid.”

“Isn’t it always,” said Regolith laughing. He elbowed Zigor in the side good naturedly before turning back to the ferret. “She betrayed you? Rejected you when she saw your ugly mug?”

Thalweg hesitated and touched the scars again. He decided to finish the story as Regolith would have wished it. “You’re right of course, milord. Sylvia was the jewel of our tribe, beloved by everyone. Fatally beautiful and just as cruel. I gave her everything I had and she rejected me, couldn’t bare to look at the scars I obtained protecting our tribe and bringing honor to our leader Eryngo. I ran away in shame, making my living selling my sword to the highest bidder. I’ve always been searching for a true cause or creature to serve. It took many seasons, but I’ve finally found it.”

Regolith leaned back and rested his paws behind his head. “You are a very good story teller, Foulleg. The Lady Vermilion and I look forward to hearing more of your yarns. And Zigor as well, naturally.”

“Naturally,” was the sarcastic reply. The black fox didn’t seem to take much pleasure in anything.

“Thank you, milord,” was Thalweg’s reply.

Taking the pine marten’s words for a dismissal, Thalweg stood up and bowed. He hurried off before the pine marten could change his mind. As he hastened toward where Bloodnose was warming himself by a fire, he heard the last words exchanged by the pine martens and the fox.

“Didn’t you like the story, Zigor?”

“Well enough, I suppose. I just felt like something was missing from it.”

“I enjoyed it immensely, my dear. Don’t let that wretched black fox ruin your appreciation of our ferret captain’s tales,” whispered Vermilion.

Chapter Twenty

As the younger patrollers were loathe discovering, Major Peony was not happy when she finally awoke the next morning with a splitting headache. But even so, she subjected them to a rousing hour long lecture about pranks, alcohol abuse and the dangers of drugging other creatures.

Then still moaning about her migraine, she led them to the Tipsy Seagull for breakfast. The rat bartender put a foul-smelling concoction in front of the hare major with a wink. She pinched her nose and tossed it back, grimacing from the taste. “This is supposed to help? Yuck!” she complained before putting her head back on the table.

Alma and Blackberry looked over at Peony guiltily from where sat with her head down on the table between Borage and Captain Turnsol. The pair of jokesters had been unusually somber since the lecture.

“I can’t believe I bally well missed the secret rendezvous!” Peony moaned while keeping her head down on the table. “At least Cinnabar was able to talk to Thalweg.”

Cinnabar and Galena were sitting across from the two hares, keeping an eye on Peony. “The horde is going to Redwall of all places. We should warn them no doubt,” declared Galena.

Turnsol looked across at Dann. He was glaring furiously at his own paws from where he was sitting next to Cinnabar. The squirrel warrior had been stubbornly silent since Cinnabar had revealed the pine marten’s plans. “What do you think, Dann old chap? ‘Bout time to return to yer old stompin’ grounds?”

Galena stared. “Old stompin’ grounds? You’ve been to Redwall?”

“Yes. I passed much of my youth there.”

As one, the whole table turned to gape at him.

“Then why did you leave?” Galena asked aghast that anyone would want to leave such an idyllic haven.

Peony lifted her head off the table and looked over at Dann. The warrior blenched for a moment before schooling his face into a blank expression. Peony said loudly. “Can we stop talking?” before dropping her head back down on the table.

C*~*C*~*C

Many of the slaves, now that they were free, wished to live at Hamath. They were not in a hurry to travel and fight Regolith again. So in the end it was only the long patrol, Dann, Beech, Willow, Galena and Cinnabar who wished to travel and fight the tyrant.

By the time Major Peony was finally feeling like her self again, the sun had risen directly overhead. So in the end, they marched off northward in the early afternoon. The creatures of Hamath gathered in the main square under the statue of their squirrel warrior founded and waved their goodbyes.

Beech had hastened to the front of the column where Dann was marching with Turnsol and Peony. The young squirrel tried to ask Dann more about Redwall, but the squirrel warrior didn’t utter a word to the other squirrel. It was almost as if he didn’t hear the younger squirrel’s pleas.

So in the end, Beech fell behind, past Cinnabar and Galena, past the Long Patrol captains to where he finally joined Willow toward the very end of the line where she was marching by some of the younger hares. Willow particularly enjoyed their company. She was vastly curious about Dann’s past as well, but either hadn’t possessed the courage to ask him, or recognized a lost cause when she saw one.

Marching the patrol was more difficult than Beech had expected. He felt foolish as he tripped over his footpaws for the thousandth time that day. Willow smiled at him kindly and grabbed his paw to steady him as he almost tripped yet again. Unfortunately, this caused her to fail to notice a large tree root at her feet. So both squirrels ended up falling ears over tails and landing in a pile of tangled limbs and bushy tails at the feet of two of the young hares.

Lorica De Fformelo Tussock had a paw over her mouth to try to hide her giggles at the squirrel’s foolish appearance. Sage Sinistra looked at her disapprovingly. He offered his paws to the two squirrels and pulled them to their feet, offering a bit of advice. “It’s easier if you march in step. Left, right, left and all that, doesn’t make your footpaws so sore and makes you less likely to trip.”

“I like to watch Sergeant Saxifrage’s footpaws’ at first,” added Lorica. “Helps me to figure out the pace.”

“That’s a great idea!” Willow exclaimed. She smiled at the two hares and followed their advice.

“What are you bounders talkin’ about?” came Blackberry’s loud voice from behind them. He was marching alongside Alma. Fleetpaw was scouting up ahead.

“We were just showing Beech and Willow the best way to march,” explained Sage to Blackberry.

“Oh,” said Blackberry. “I thought it was something more exciting.”

“I heard that it’s Cap’n Turnsol who’ll be giving the lesson tonight after dinner,” Lorica told to Alma. “Jonquil and Toby were talkin’ about it. They said everyone is welcome to come and see.”

"Great!" Willow exclaimed with enthusiasm. "I've been hoping that we'd get to see some of his boxing talents that you told us about! Will he box for us?”

“You can bet your blinkin’ bushy tail on it, old gel.” Blackberry winked.

“Won’t it be a problem with his injured shoulder?” wondered Beech.

“Not to worry. Cap’n Turnsol’s great with this stuff. He’ll probably show us moves you can do with one arm or something,” replied Blackberry.

“Right you are; Major Peony wouldn’t allow him to have the lesson if it means he’ll reopen his wound. I’m sure they know what they’re doing,” agreed Sage.

They marched gamely on for most of the day, enjoying each others’ company. Beech found that the hares’ advice was very effective. Neither he nor Willow had tripped again once and their footpaws weren’t feeling very sore. Beech had been certain he would be in much worse shape by the end of the day.

It was great fun marching with the younger hares. Beech hadn’t been sure what to make of them the night they had meet as the marched from the Castle to Hamath. He had thought them a little wild and wasn’t sure he understood their sense of humor. But now that he had more time to understand them, he began to appreciate their humor more and saw them indeed as reckless and perilous warriors to the foebeasts but also as good and loyal friends to each other

By the time the sun had finally stared to set, they had reached the edge of a large swamp.

Sage said, “I don’t very much like swamps, everything’s so absoballylutely damp.”

“By the left, have you ever been to a flippin’ dry swamp,” Blackberry scoffed.

“No need to quarrel, chaps,” said Lorica wiggling her ears reprovingly at them. “Major Peony’ll knows what she’s doin.’ So there’s no need to look like a frog in a blinkin’ bucket, Sage. “

“That’s probably not the best metaphor, Lorica.”

“You’ll see. Peony’ll find a nice dry, frog-free place for us to rest the old footpaws and have some scoff.”

Interestingly enough, Major Peony did find just a spot in the middle of the swamp. They didn’t bother scavenging for vittles for dinner tonight. It was starting to get rather dark and besides, swamps can be dangerous with sink holes and the like. In the end, the company dined on a little bread and cheese which they washed down with a pale elderberry wine.

Everyone ate quickly, partly in excitement for the lesson after dinner and partly because frankly, most of them were hares. Beech felt completely safe in such an illustrious company even in a strange and dangerous country. After dinner, they gathered around leaving a wide circle in the middle for Turnsol.

Blackberry was pouting because where he was sitting didn’t afford the best view of Turnsol. He glanced around at the eager eyes of his friends, oblivious to the bright eyes also watching them from the darkness of the swamp.

Turnsol rubbed his paws together nervously looking at Peony. “I’m not accustomed to such a large audience.”

“Don’t be shy, Turnsol. Why don’t you just do a demonstration tonight. You can teach the young ‘uns next time.”

Turnsol nodded. He looked over at Cinnabar. “Would you like to be my assistant tonight, mate?”

The otter shrugged his shoulders. Galena shifted so he could stand up to stand next to the boxing hare.

“Oh, and Turnsol, Cinnabar, don’t even think about reopening that wounded shoulder or I’ll have both your guts for garters!”

“Right you are, mam.” Winked Turnsol.

Turnsol turned to the younger hares and said, “We’ve mostly been boxin’ each other. Things always are jolly well more interesting when you battle with a creature from a different species such as our friend Cinnabar here. Keep an eye on how he uses his rudder for balance and as a weapon.”

That seemed to be all the introduction necessary for the bout.

Immediately, Turnsol and Cinnabar each took steps back and circled each other. Peony, noting Beech and Willow’s confused expressions, explained that Turnsol and Cinnabar were searching for openings.

Apparently it didn’t take long. Turnsol shot out a quick left at Cinnabar’s jaw, but the otter blocked it swiftly and aimed a flying kick at Turnsol, almost catching the hare with a powerful swing from his rudder. Then Turnsol caught him in the jaw with a grazing blow of his left paw. They backed off and circled each other again, Cinnabar rubbing his chin and tasting blood as he smiled ruthlessly at Turnsol.

Dann and Peony, sitting next to one another, were providing a running commentary.

Peony remarked approvingly, “Turnsol typically leads with his right paw, but I’ve told him not to jostle his injured right shoulder too much, so he’s been leading primarily with the left. Nice to see that his left hook is still just as effective as his right one. He made that move famous in the Battle of the Dunes: fifteen single hit knockouts.”

“That’s quite remarkable,” Dann commented approvingly. “Cinnabar tried to teach me that flying kick move once, though bushy tails are not quite as effective weapons as rudders.”

The other creatures around the fire watched the combatants in avid silence, enthralled by the contest between the two well matched warriors. Willow bit her lip as Turnsol scored another blow this time on Cinnabar’s stomach with his powerful hind legs. She heard Peony’s sharp intake of breath when Cinnabar slipped under Turnsol’s defenses and caught him in the jaw with a quick right paw.

“Not his injured shoulder!” the major exclaimed.

The match ended after a little when Turnsol tripped up Cinnabar with a kick from his hind legs. He stepped on the otter’s chest, then leaned down to give Cinnabar his left paw. Turnsol stepped aside and pulled the otter up. They patted each other on the back and turned to the audience.

They bowed to rousing applause. Willow leaned over Beech and tried to ask Peony over the din, “Do you box with Captain Turnsol? Are you the next demonstrator?”

Willow must have spoken louder than she had expected because she received a reply from Blackbarry instead of Peony. “Major Peony box Cap’n Turnsol? Those matches are always rubbish. He always lets her win.”

Lieutenant Oswego laughed and agreed with Blackberry. Turnsol looked over at them all laughing and Peony fuming and said, “Wot’s wrong?”

“Those rotten recruits said when I fight you, Turnsol, you always let me win!”

Turnsol’s ears shot up in indignation. “Nothing of the sort, Peony.” He spared a glance over at the younger hares. The captain had a feeling they had started this line of thought. Blackberry was made guilty by trying to look innocent.

Peony stood up. “Then I can be your next demonstrator.”

Peony made to put down her rapier, but Turnsol said quickly, “Why don’t we fence instead.” He nodded to Jonquil, who tossed him a saber. He pointed it at his enraged superior.

Peony kissed her blade and pointed it at Turnsol, holding it in her left paw. “Alright then, Turnsol. Defend yourself. I’ll use my left paw as well.”

Then she struck.

The jarring sound of metal on metal echoed through the camp. The duel sped up as the fenced back and forth, alternately parrying and attacking. It almost looked like an elaborate dance as they two hares swayed back and forth on their light footpaws.

Lorica grabbed Sage’s paw as Peony’s blade came within an inch of severing Turnsol’s left ear. Dann and Cinnabar whispered to each other as they watched the contest remarking on the skills of the combatants.

“It almost looks like Peony’s just playing with him,” remarked Cinnabar.

“She is using unnecessarily showy moves,” agreed Dann.

“But it’s working nonetheless,” agreed Cinnabar.

“That’s Peony for you,” said Sergeant Saxifrage. “I’ve seen her do this on the battlefield before too. When she feels like she’s under matched, she’ll doesn’t focus on beating the opponent – she always wins anyway – she just focuses on embarrassing them.”

“She does this on the battlefield too!” Beech asked with concerned. “Couldn’t that be dangerous?”

“She doesn’t do it often. Not when it’s melee fighting and such. When we were going through a heavily forested area last season, we were ambushed by a savage stoat tribe. She faced off with their leader in a one-on-one, fencing battle to the death. After embarrassing their leader immensely, she thoroughly trounced him.” Saxifrage explained in defense of Peony.

Unfortunately, the duel ended much too soon when Peony neatly disarmed Turnsol, sending the saber spinning off into the swamp. Peony bowed to the applause and Turnsol sat down looking peeved. Peony tossed her blade from one paw to the other. “Who’s next? What about you, Dann. Let’s see what the AWOL Redwall champion can do.”

Everyone turned to gape at the squirrel.

Willow echoed everyone’s thoughts when she whispered, “AWOL Redwall champion?

Dann chose to ignore the whispers. Shrugging, he stood up. “I guess so. I hope I don’t have to use the saber that’s sitting buried in the swamp.”

“Not at all,” said Peony agreeably with a toothy smile.

She nodded to Jonquil who produced another sword, a cutlass this time and looked uneasily at Peony. “Beggin’ your pardon, marm. But could you please try not to destroy this one? I lose more swords this way than anything else.” He then tipped his beret at Dann and handed the cutlass to him. “I’m sorry, sah. ‘Tis no Martin’s sword.”

Willow and Beech, sitting next to each other now, gaped at the Dann. Willow whispered in Beech’s ear, “Did you know that…”

“No,” Beech whispered back in wonder.

Peony began this fight much as she had begun her last with Turnsol. Using her left paw, she battled Dann first testing his strengths and then manipulating her style to properly combat his.

“She’s still using some fancy moves,” said Cinnabar to Turnsol. “Though not as many as she did with you, mate. Is her left paw her sword paw? She’s used it in both battles.”

“No, she’s best with her right paw,” answered Turnsol.

“Dann’s using his left paw too, that’s his weaker paw as well,” said Cinnabar.

The fight did not last very long: not because of a large difference in skill of the combatants, but because of a large difference in strength from their weapons. Dann’s sea rat cutlass stood no chance against the officer’s rapier. A particularly powerful swing from the badger-wrought sword managed to slice the cutlass in half.

"How did her rapier manage that, mate?" asked Cinnabar in shock to Saxifrage. "I thought rapiers were delicate, certainly not able to cute through a cutlass!"

"Peony's rapier is a bit heavier than the usual ones. And it's a bloomin' badger wrought weapon, nothin' stronger than that!"

Everyone looked disappointed at the premature end of the battle. Jonquil was especially disappointed by the destruction of another weapon in his collection at Peony’s hand.

Peony sheathed her rapier and shook Dann’s paw. “That was quite enjoyable. Though I fear I turned it more into a fencing exhibition than a boxing one. I hope you’ll forgive me, Darcy.”

“No need to apologize,” was the amused reply.

“Does anyone want to tell us a story before we go to bed?” asked Borage.

This pastime of Major Peony’s long patrol had been explained to the squirrels by the younger hares as they marched this morning. Some evenings, when they were too excited to fall asleep, one of the hares would share a story with the others. Any sort of tale, before they went to sleep.

“I could tell you the story about General Dotti and her defeat of King Bucko at his court,” suggested Peony.

“Er,” said Turnsol as the whole Long Patrol seemed to moan in unison. It seemed as if they had heard that particular story many times before. “Why don’t we hear a new story instead?”

“I say, you’ve told that one to us ad nauseam, majoress,” was Blackberry’s cheeky reply. “We could probably all quote it with you.”

Peony pouted. “No appreciation for culture and history these young’uns. General Dotti is one of my role models, you custard-headed curmudgeons, and a distant relative.”

“A very distant relative,” remarked Turnsol, who seemed to know the whole story.

“Let’s keep it that way,” Blackberry quipped.

Dann Reguba put an end to the arguing by volunteering to tell a story himself. He explained that, “With so much riding on my friend Thalweg at the moment. I thought you all might want to know more about him and how I met him.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Dann,” said Peony. “If you don’t mind telling us.”

“That way we don’t have to hear anymore stories of Peony’s distant relatives.”

Peony bopped Blackberry over the head with the butt of her rapier.

“I’m shuttin’ up, marm.”

“Very good, Private Blackberry,” was the sarcastic reply.

Without further ado, Dann began the tale. “I meet Thalweg last winter. We spent a few weeks traveling together, so we had a chance to share out stories with each other. I’ll relate to you what he told me about himself over our campfires.

“He was born to the North – no, his tribe was from even farther north than Redwall. How much farther? I’m not sure, Beech. His tribe was one of warriors. Fighters were especially valuable because his tribe had been fighting a blood feud with their neighbors for generations.

“Both of his parents died in one such skirmish, so the leader of the tribe adopted and cultivated Thalweg as one of their warriors. During a raid on their camp, Thalweg’s sweetheart was murdered. It was the night before they were to be wed. The leader of the tribe was unsympathetic. He had other worries that far outweighed his concern for his protégé’s broken heart. If anything, he was glad of it. Eryngo believed that tender emotions made a warrior soft, which was why he had never married. In the next skirmish Thalweg used all his rage and frustration on the enemy, but was reckless and received those terrible cuts on his face, barely missing his eyes.

“After that, Thalweg got fed up fighting other creature’s battles and deserted the tribe to venture off on his own. He didn’t have much with him in terms of clothing or supplies, so he asked all the travelers he encountered for aid, but they all rejected him.’’

“He would make it his practice of asking first and then just taking. He was always rejected, so he eventually stopped even bothering to ask.

“Then came the day I finally met him.

“He had seen two rats roasting a sparrow over a campfire, so he snuck up on them and killed them for their meal. While he was taking his ease by the fire and enjoying the dead rats’ wine, two mangy looking foxes came to his camp and asked to join him. He refused and sent them off with veiled threats.

“Not to be so easily cast aside, the foxes beat him to within and inch of his life, stole the sparrow and even his cloak of fur that he wore on his back -- trust me, Cinnabar, you don’t want to know where he got the fur coat from!

“I had just made a campfire and was roasting vegetables for supper and drinking ale when he stumbled into my camp. He was quite a sight to behold: shivering madly in his ragged clothes, scars disfiguring his face and fresh wounds that the foxes had inflicted.

“I invited him to join me and dressed his wounds and shared my ale and supper with him. He was surprised by my behavior and I told him that I was originally from Redwall and that was how we treated other creatures.

“We slept around the campfire each with one eye open, not sure what to make of the other. The next morning as we were about to part ways, he attacked me and tried to steal my haversack.

“We fenced and I won by a hair. – not a hare, Turnsol – I scolded him and told him that I would have given him some supplies anyway. Then we parted ways.

“But not for long, I stumbled upon him later that day when he was being set upon by the foxes that had attacked him just the evening before. I came to his aid and we defeated the two foxes together.’’

“We traveled together for a few weeks, swapping stories and looking out for one another before I left him on the outskirts of Hamath last spring. I didn’t realize I’d be seeing him in just the following season.”

“What a wonderful tale,” said Cinnabar. “I had always wondered about those scars but thought it would be rude to ask.”

“Yeah. Old Scallywag sure sounds like an interesting fellow,” replied Turnsol.

“Yes, he does. Well it’s been a long day,” said Peony. “Why don’t we all hit the jolly old sack? You can take first watch, Saxifrage. Then you can wake Blackberry.”

Saxifrage took an apple turnover from Peony’s haversack and winked at the Major. “A little sustenance to keep an old body awake for sentry duty, eh, wot.”

Peony laughed and patted his tummy. “Carry on, Sax.”

C*~*C*~*C

Slipping out from under the blanket and grabbing his short sword, Beech tip-pawed over to where Peony was sitting at the edge of camp. As he stepped over Dann, Beech glanced down at the squirrel warrior who was shifting and muttering to himself again. Beech smiled at his friend sadly. He could not remember a single night when the squirrel warrior had slept peacefully.

Knees pulled up to her chin and her paws wrapped around them, the Major was staring out into the dark woodlands, the light of the flighty moon occasionally gleaming on the rapier lying at her side. She didn’t turn when she heard Beech approach.

“Couldn’t sleep, eh Beech?” asked the Major. She leaned her head back to look at him and shifted over, patting a patch of ground with her paw. “Come join me. I’ve just started my watch.”

“How did you know it was me?” he asked in wonderment. He sat down placing his sword next to Peony’s.

“You have a rather distinctive walk. There’s interesting mix of confidence and insecurity in your stride. I can’t explain it. Couldn’t sleep?” she repeated.

“I’m tired, but my mind isn’t. So many thoughts are revolving around in my head,” he remarked with a sigh, “that I can’t put it down to rest,”

“Funny thing, the mind. I find my own doin’ the same bloomin’ thing. Old Major Purslane said it was just all the brilliant thoughts wantin’ my attention.”

Beech gazed into the wood allowing his eyes to adjust to the consuming darkness and taking in all the night sounds so as to discover any unusual ones. Peony smiled over at the young squirrel. “I see you’re on alert now too. I always find it a bit tricky to hear the important nighttime sounds when old Borage and Saxifrage are competin’ in a snorin’ competition.”

Beech chuckled and turned to the Major. “What’s it like being a warrior?”

She merely winked at him. “I could ask you the same thing, young ‘un.”

Beech didn’t answer. He merely looked at her imploring her to answer his question. She shrugged. “Dunno. It’s all I’ve ever known really, all I’ve ever dreamed of.” She waved her paw at the sleeping group behind them. “To have a patrol to my own. To guide and advise younger creatures. To purge the land of malicious malefactors who wish to cause harm to those around me.”

Beech looked down at the rapier lying unsheathed at Peony’s hip and his own smaller sword lying beside it. “Does it frighten you?”

“What?”

“Killin’ other creatures. It frightens me.”

Peony laughed. “We long patrol buffs were nursed on blood’n’vinegar as leverets. I love goin’ into battle, but the feelin’ afterwards isn’t go grand. I have trouble sleepin’ at night sometimes thinkin’ about those I’ve slain and those I couldn’t prevent from bein’ slain.”

“Do you think you’ll be a warrior forever?”

“I dunno,” replied the Major glancing back into the camp. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am today. So many of the high ups never wanted to promote me so far. I feel like they expect any day that I’ll –“

“That you’ll what?” asked Beech curiously.

“I dunno,” was her mysterious reply. “But I need to do my best, no matter what. You see, my mother died bringing me into the world so I was raised mostly by my father. He was a Sergeant in the Long Patrol and best friends with Saxifrage, who’s like a second father to me. He died when I was just a leveret,” her voice cracked as she spoke, blinking to hold back tears. “He died to protect me from a group of vermin. It would seem a crime to quit now that I’ve come far up the ranks. I need to make their sacrifice worthwhile.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re a wonderful leader,” said Beech. “My only experience with officers before I meet you was mostly those vermin officers at the castle. They were either bossy and mean, or just enigmatic. They didn’t inspire others. And then I meet Dann who I thought would be different, but he’s just as enigmatic as them and doesn’t listen to anybody. You’re exactly what I imagined an officer should be: kind and open-minded to the ideas others, but also strong and fearless.”

“Stop that! You’re making me blush,” she wagged her ears at him.

Suddenly, Peony’s ears shot up in response to a mysterious sound in the wetlands. Beech bounded to his feet in alarm. The Long Patrol Major, on the other hand, stood smoothly and calmly, holding her rapier. Feeling foolish for jumping up without his weapon, Beech reached down and grabbed the short sword that Dann had given him.

“Where’d you hear the noise?” Beech asked.

“Coming from the east side of camp by where Lorica’s sleeping. Let’s go check it out. It sounded like some twigs breaking, as if some creature was prowling over there watching us.”

They crept into the fringes and eventually reached the place where Peony had heard the noise. There was a broken branch but no sign of any creature.

“Dash it all,” hissed Peony. “We must have scared the creature away.”

“What do we do now? Do we chase after it?”

“Not in the dark in unfamiliar territory. We’d be just as likely to get hopelessly lost as find something or someone interesting. It might have been nothing, but we’ll be extra careful just in case.”

“This is terribly exciting,” exclaimed Beech turning around and looking into the swamp.

“Yes,” replied Peony, though by the tone of her voice it seemed like this was anything but exciting.

She took another step forward then cried out. “I feel like something is grabbing onto the edge of my tunic. Can you cut it off? Be careful.”

Beech hacked at the thing and when Peony pulled it from her tunic they saw it was a bramble. “How strange,” said Beech.

Peony looked to find where the branch had come from and when she tugged on it, it come free into her paw. “That’s strange. It looks like the end was broken off. It broke loose without a struggle when I pulled it. Someone must have broken it earlier.”

“Someone or something,” said Beech with a shiver. Suddenly this was becoming less exciting. “But I don’t understand. There aren’t really any bramble bushes around here.”

“Very strange, indeed,” said Peony. “Let’s go it down on watch again near the camp. Perhaps someone just dropped the branch over there while we were making dinner.”

“But what about the noise and those other broken branches?” asked Beech as they finally approached the camp. Lorica rolled over in her sleep and Beech cried out in shock.

“Don’t worry, Beech. There’s no need to jump at shadows. Let’s be reasonable and listen keenly. We can look around in the morning when the sun is out.”

“Should we sit down over here?” asked Beech.

“Sure,” said Peony. “This was where the noise had come from after all. Though it is a shame we are so much closer to Saxifrage and Borage. How will we be able to hear anything over their snoring?”

Beech laughed, feeling a bit less frightened as he sat next to the Long Patrol Major. He looked at Peony’s eyes shinning in the moonlight and finally expressed the thoughts that had been plaguing him since he had met the squirrel warrior. “I’m a bit worried about Dann. I don’t know much about his past. For the time I’ve known him, though, I’ve never seen him sleep well all through the night. He’s forever tossing and turning. As if he’s plagued by some horrible mistreatment.”

“Or guilt,” replied Peony.

“Guilt?” asked Beech. He looked out into the woodlands. “Guilt. Yes. That seems like a reasonable answer. Do you know the story? You said before that he used to be the Redwall warrior. Why did he leave?”

“I don’t like discussin’ the troubled pasts of others. The past will be revealed at our own discretion. I respect his privacy. Though I don’t even know the full of the story. Turnsol, I believe, knows a bit more than I jolly well do.”

“I hope Dann can find some solace before he returns to the Abbey. Though the first step to recovery is the hardest: To have the strength to forgive yourself.”

Peony looked over at him and shook her head. “Your wisdom is far beyond your years.” She stretched her arms over her head. “Well it’s almost time for the next watch. I have to wake Jonquil.”

“I thought you said you just started your watch,” said Beech.

“I might have exaggerated.” She sheathed her blade. “Would you like to go back to sleep?”

“Yes, I’m suddenly very tired,” replied Beech.


Chapter Twenty-One

The day after the great feast, the Abbess and her companions had arranged to explore the attics of Redwall. It had been difficult to dissuade all the creatures eager to observe what with the Abbess, the Skipper and the Log-a-Log all actively participating. Luckily, Mother Cregga had convinced everyone that the adventurers would be fine and would be impeded by extra creatures running around under paw. So in the end, everyone set up blankets outside where they could watch the progress and enjoy the leftovers from the feast. Several hares along with the fox twins Mugwort and Milkwort found this all great fun, so they chattered amiably together on blankets enjoying an afternoon picnic.

Song had urged Bianca to wear a shorter and lighter habit to make the ascent easier. Song herself had changed into an old habit and raised the hemline to her knees. It may have not been very appropriate for an Abbess, but it would make the climb for a squirrel more manageable.

Skipper peered in the infirmary, counting his blessings because all the beds were empty. Abbess Song winked at him as he lingered in the hallway between the infirmary and dormitories, “Changed yer mind, Skip?”

He chuckled and followed the tall squirrelmaid into the dormitories. Light shimmered in from the windows across row after row of neatly made beds. Nightstands next to the beds were cramped with all manner of books and flowers in vases or candles with wax messy from burning.

The tall oak door at the southern end of the dormitories was locked. The ever excitable little Sister Bianca was very distressed by this development; however, Sinon took out a little dagger and piece of wire from his pack and with a wink a Song, started to pick the lock. They would not be deterred from the Lower Attics so easily!

The way to the lower attics was common knowledge, a winding stone staircase from the dormitories, but to the Upper Attics from there was unknown. It was the passage of time more than anything that had caused this to happen. The creatures of Redwall hadn’t need or interest to go into the Upper Attics for generations, so no creatures bothered to wonder how they could go about it.

The Upper Attics were used for storage in the younger seasons of the Abbey’s history. They were below the roof spaces of Warbeak Loft and above the lower attic spaces once inhabited by Fermald the Ancient. It was this same creature who had hid the tears of the ocean which were found during the time of Martin II, another of Sister Bianca’s favorite Redwall Warriors.

This was where the companions started their arduous journey to the highest reaches of the Abbey. There was a south-facing window with a large ledge that would be an apt starting place for their climb. Amazingly, the window into the upper attic was directly above the window of the lower attic.

Skipper and Song stood side by side as they watched Sinon rub his paws together in anticipation. He would be the first to climb. His task was the most dangerous and the most important. He would be the creature to set up the pulley system to help anchor the others as they climbed up. It was quite easy to construct. The Long Patrol captain had sat with them this morning, going over the pulley system. Apparently the hares used quite a bit of simple machines in their day to day workings at the fire mountain Salamandastron.

Sinon tugged at the large length of heavy rope tossed across his shoulders where that it hung heavily across his chest. He watched as Skipper the otter chief tied a second cord around his waist. This cord would anchor Sinon to Skipper. It was be a last resort and the final lifeline in case anything happened during the climb.

“Wish me luck,” the squirrel said.

Then with a leap and a bound he was out the window and climbing upward. Little sister Bianca sat perched on the windowsill watching the squirrel’s progress. There were faint cheers and calls from those below as the squirrel scampered up the stonework.

Bianca turned to Song, “Do you think we’ll find anything, Mother Abbess?”

“There’s liable to be something of interest up there. The things up there hadn’t been touched in seasons. It’ll be like a time capsule.”

“That’s what I was hoping,” the mouse replied.

Log-a-Log Dippler had the third length of cord and was tying it around his waist in what looked like a sort of homemade harness which could later be hooked onto a line. He cut the extra length and passed both the knife and rope to Skipper. Skipper did the same for himself. He then cut the remainder in half and handed each of the maids a piece. “Tie this ‘round yerselves, missies. ‘Tis good to be anchored to somethin’ when climin’ so high.”

Skipper walked to Bianca’s sill and peered up at Sinon as the maids tied the ropes around themselves. Song was a bit indignant. She put her hands on her hips and looked over at Dippler and Skipper looking out the window. “I’m a squirrel, you silly otter. I don’t think I’m in any danger of falling.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Song, but yer also our Abbess and we don’t want anything to happen to you. Cregga thought it was a good idea.”

Song sighed and gave into Skipper’s hopeful smile. The cheering outside stooped and there was a faint call from above and they saw two ends of the rope fall down across the window. Sinon the squirrel must have found a strong celing beam and looped them around it.

“I’m up. Be careful,” was all they could hear from Sinon above them in the upper attic.

“Why don’t you go first, Mother Abbess. With you bein’ a squirrel and all,” suggested Skipper.

Song shook her head at him teasingly with a smile. “You won’t mollify me so easily, Skip. But I will go first.”

Skipper tested the knot around her waist and then tied an elaborate loop to thread one end of Sinon’s rope through. In this way, Song’s harness was connected to the climbing rope slung around a ceiling beam of the attic. He tied a very strong and large knot to Song’s loop and took the other end, tying a similar knot through his own loop.

In this way as before similarly with Sinon, Song was connected both to Skipper was the anchor and also indirectly to the attic spaces. In fact, Song could just hang twiddling her thumbs if she wished and Skipper could pull her up to the attic.

Log-a-Log and Skipper had developed this easy pulley-like system with the harnesses to make the ascent for the explorers much safer. Skipper’s weight would counter that of the others as they climbed up and if they missed a paw hold they would still be attached to his harness so he could pull them up to safety.

Song kicked off her sandals. Skipper held the other end of the rope and nodded to Song. Dippler patted her on the back as she grabbed the rope and swung out into space. Skipper grunted as he took on her weight and Dippler ran over to help the otter support his friend. Bianca looked out the window to watch the Abbess’ progress.

C*~*C*~*C

The pleasant noonday sun shone down upon the creatures taking their leisure on the grounds of Redwall. A myriad of different colored tablecloths and blankets off all shapes and sizes had been laid out on the soft grass for the Abbey dwellers to sit on and watch the progress of the explorers.

Brother Jerome was everywhere at once, directing numerous cakes and scones and cream pies around to the different groups of creatures. The mouse cook had even though to give each of the tables a wicker basket to make transportation and clean up of the picnic even more efficient.

The Badgerlord Russano the Wise grunted as he dropped the vast cask of rosehip cordial on the high table behind the blankets.

His job now complete, he sat down between Colonel Nymium and Tragglo Spearback on a vast tablecloth. Cypress, Cregga and Hawthorne were thick as thieves as usual, chatting amongst themselves about something or other. It had been a few weeks since the vixen and pine marten had been to Redwall, so the Badgermother wished to catch up on all their news.

“By the fur, is that the Abbess climbin’ now?” Tragglo Spearback marveled.

“I say, old chap,” remarked Nymium squinting through his monocle, “It bally well looks like her. Makes a fellow feel a bit squeamish thinking of those great heights.”

C*~*C*~*C

It was exhilarating to be climbing again. The wind blew through her tail and the soft sandstone bricks and mortar held firm in her grasp. It had been much too long since she had allowed herself to climb. Thinking it uncouth for an Abbess to be seen scurrying up trees and walls, she hadn’t allowed herself the luxury for perhaps ten years. Although she had done a bit of climbing on several occasions when she had an excuse to merit it – building Cypress and Hawthorne’s homes was one such example. That would be something she would have to be sure to tell her successor, not be afraid of what others thought of him or her, not to be embarrassed to continue hobbies that were important to him or her.

She let go of the rope and used footholds in the stones as Sinon had. She allowed herself a peek down at the others gathered below. They were merely a bunch of colored specks on the ground.

She let her instincts and natural agility take over and before too long she was nearing the window from which Sinon was peering out. She climbed in with a hand from Sinon and stumbled down from the sill, nearly knocking Sinon out the window.

They laughed as they untanbled their limbs and the cord. The two squirrels tried to untie the otter’s knot, but it was much too complex. In the end Song just cut the long rope as close to the knot as possible and lowered the end down the others waiting below. Skipper was so funny sometimes, showing off with his fancy nautical knots.

Sister Bianca looked impartially down at Skipper tying the complicated knots into the loop of her harness and commented, “This pulley system is fascinating and very clever, Skip. I wonder if Martin the Warrior and his friends used a similar one to build the upper reaches of the Abbey.”

“Mayhap they did, Sister,” replied the otter. “Are you ready to start the climb. I’m anchorin’ you at the other end, so no need to worry.”

“Wonderful!” said the little sister as she bounded out the window.

Skipper and Log-a-Log looked at each other in shock. They had not expected the Abbey Sister to take so easily and enthusiastically to climbing.

“That Sister Bianca could have been a squirrel in a former life. Have you ever seen a mouse jump out of a window like that?” asked Log-a-Log.

“Never.”

“Maybe you should start moving backward to give her less slack, Skip. I’ll go check on her progress.”

But before Log-a-Log Dippler got to the window a dismayed cry came from outside. “Oh dear!” hollered Sister Bianca. “This is much more difficult and frightening than I had thought. Can you help me back inside? I’m not too sure that I want to go up to the upper attics after all!”

Dippler leaned perilously out the window and looked up at Sister Bianca who had her eyes shut tightly, though not as tightly as she was clinging to the lifeline holding her out into the void.

The shrew and otter shared a look before the otter chieftain nodded to the shrew. Dippler called out to the mousemaid. “You’ve come this far, Sister, and have been very brave. Just think of all the remarkable discoveries you’ll make up there. Just keep your eyes closed and Skip and I will pull you up to the attic. There’s a good mouse.” Dippler nodded and Skipper stepped back pulling on the rope.

Song pulled her friend into the attic and gave the Sister a great hug. “You were so brave!”

Sinon cut off the rope and tossed it back down. Dippler tied it around himself. He tied a basket to his back which would later hold the manuscripts. He then winked at his otter friend and began to climb.

Dippler made it up in no time. He climbed into the attic and looked around. “How’s the rope holding up?” he asked his friend the Abbess.

Song turned around. She’d forgotten to see where the cable was anchored. But there it was, slung across a beam in the ceiling. Song hoped that the friction would not cause it to fray.

Sinon climbed up to check on the rope hanging from the rafters and nodded. “It’s fine, Dippler. The rope’s fraying a bit, but holding strong!”

Dippler let out a sigh of relief. He took off the basket tied to his back and handed it to Bianca. “You might as well look after this, Sister.”

“Oh thank you, sir Log-a-Log,” said Bianca smiling.

Sinon jumped down beside Song and Dippler and was about to cut the rope from Dippler when the shrew cautioned him, “No! Leave it. We need to help support Skipper’s weight now. Why don’t you two tie yerselves onto the rope as well. I think the three of us could support Skipper’s weight.”

Song winked at her friend the shrew chieftain and tied her harness onto the cord in front of Dippler and Sinon tied himself in between Song and Dippler.

They grabbed onto the rope and Bianca ran to the window. Leaning over the sill, she called out, “Go ahead, Skip. We’re ready for you.”

Skipper looked out tentatively and gulped. Down below the creatures watching were mere dots in the distance. He reached out and took the first pawhold. Full of bravado, he called out to the others, “Just like climbing the riggin’.”

Song, Sinon and Dippler were all anchoring their feet on the floor and taking slow steps to lessen the slack on Skipper’s rope. Everything was going fine until Skipper missed a pawhold while at the same time the sandstone under his footpaw crumpled under his weight.

He cried out in horror as he lost all purchase from the wall and hung out in space.

Sister Bianca screamed in horror.

Skipper swung himself closer to the wall, trying to grab another pawhold.

It crumpled in his grasp.

Bianca closed her eyes and groaned, “I can’t watch. The poor brave beast.”

Song was about to offer words of advice when her footpaws skidded forward. Behind her, Sinon and Dippler made noises of protest as their footpaws skidded towards the window.

Bianca called out to her. “Skipper’s losing height, Mother Abbess. What do I do?”

Song skidded forward more. She shook her head, momentarily paralyzed by the ’’gravity’’ of the situation. Dippler and Sinon tried to pull backwards, but the otter’s weight was too much for the squirrels and shrew to support.

Song called to Bianca. “Watch him. Give him encouragement. Help him pick steadier pawholds.”

“Oh, I can’t Mother Abbess. I can’t bear to watch!”

Song yelled to Bianca in reply, “Then help us pull him in, Bianca!”

Bianca ran to her companions, grabbing hold of the rope between Song and Sinon and tugging with all her might.

Dippler yelled, “Hold on, Skipper!”

“Song, it’ll be hopeless before too long. We’re not strong enough,” Sinon’s voice called from behind her. “Before long, you’re going to be pulled over the rafters and out the window.”

Song didn’t think it wise to tell her companions, that her feet were already lifting off the ground.


Chapter Twenty-Two

Beech yawned and stretched. A bubbling hiss had woken him from his sleep. He was alarmed at the angle of the sun peeking through the tall swamp trees. Why had no one woken him? It was already late morning!

He stumbled towards the middle of the camp, rubbing his eyes, where a few creatures were sitting around a campfire enjoying breakfast while others were hastening to and fro getting ready for the march.

Willow was sitting with Cinnabar and Sage at the fire as Galena waved her arms around as if telling a story. Willow saw Beech and waved him over, handing him a few pancakes. “I saved these for you.”

“Literally,” remarked Cinnabar. “You should see breakfast here in the morning. It’s a madhouse.”

“There’s naught wrong with a hare having a healthy appetite,” said Sage.

“As long as you leave enough for others,” said Willow. “Can you finish the story for us, Galena.”

“Sure,” said the otter. “I was just telling the story about my pendent. Sage was asking about it.”

“I’ve never heard that story either,” said Beech.

“Then be quiet and you will,” said Willow.

Galena took the small wooden pendent from around her neck and passed it to Beech. As he listened to her, he ran his fingers over the elaborately carved likeness of a willow tree on the front.

“It’s a willow tree,” said Beech. “I had never noticed.”

“My mother gave it me and her mother before her,” began Galena. “We trace our ancestry back to great Skippers from the North. When my great-great-great-and so on grandmother was only a kit, she lived in the North. She died many many seasons before I was born, but her father was the Skipper of a Holt in the North that was near the great sandstone house called Redwall Abbey.

“Her father was a talented carpenter so he was making beautiful pieces to furnish Redwall Abbey. Her father had only two children. One day while she was looking with her brother for a pine tree for the Abbess’ great desk, she was found by searats. Her brother was older and fought, but he was no match for the crew of searats. They slew her brother and took her as an oar slave.

“These searats were pirates that would pillage and steal from other vessels on the seas and take prisoners from these crews. They sailed far south in search of richer plunder but in the end their greed did them in. They ran aground when they were trying to lay waste to a coastal town and the ship was ruined. The villagers killed the searats and set all the prisoners free. The oar slaves were a mixed bunch, some very young and others very old. Many of them decided to live in the coastal town that had saved them.

“But she did not wish to stay in the town. She yearned to return home to her mother and father, who must have believed that they had lost both of their children. But the journey was much more arduous than she had anticipated. She struggled through marshes and deserts before she reached the area near the Castle. She was so weak that she collapsed then and there. She was nursed back to heath by her future husband. So she settled there.

“The only token that she had left to remind her of her father and home is this pendent. Her father carved it for her. I’m not sure why there is a picture of a Willow on it though. Maybe their holt was in a Willow or something.”

“That’s a wonderful story,” said Beech.

“Remarkable,” agreed Sage.”

“When we get to Redwall Abbey, we can ask some of the creatures there if they know anything about my story,” said Galena.

“I have heard that there are many wise creatures there. Some that even study history,” said Sage.

“Did you ask Dann if he knows anything about the story? He was the Redwall champion in seasons past. Maybe he knows more of Galena’s story.”

“Unfortunately not,” answered a voice above them.

They turned. Dann and Lieutenant Tobias were standing above them looking worried. Dann answered, “I didn’t really study very much history at Redwall. I only know the stories they told us as dibbuns when they would put us to sleep. I’m not sure how your story fits into Redwall history, but I know a Sister who is a good friend of the Abbess. She studies that precise era of time, when the Abbey was being built. She’s sure to know all about it.”

“Can you tell us more about Redwall? Why did you…” began Beech.

Dann raised his eyebrows and remained stubbornly silent.

Beech sighed, redirecting his questions towards a question that would receive an answer. “So what’s going on today? Are we setting out soon? I’m sorry to have slept so late. It seems like everyone else is up and moving around. Where is everyone, Lieutenant Tobias?” Beech asked.

“Please call me Toby,” said the hare. “We’re having a bit of trouble getting started this morning too. We can’t seem to locate Major Peony. Everyone’s out scouring the swamp for her. ”

“We’re holding down the fort,” explained Sage as he indicated his friends. “In the small hope that she wanders back.”

“Or is released,” said Toby

“Major Peony?” asked Beech. “Where’d she go?”

Dann shrugged his shoulders as Toby looked over his shoulder biting a lip. Lieutenant Tobias told them, “No one knows. When we woke up this morning she was gone. The others are out scouring the swamp for her.”

“When was the last time anyone saw here?” asked Beech.

“She woke Jonquil for the fourth watch then went to bed. No one’s seen her since. Jon told me that she had mentioned hearing a sound out in the swamp which turned out to be nothing. That’s the last anyone had heard of her.”

“And everyone’s out looking for her?”

“Yes,” said Cinnabar.

“I saw her last night too,” said Beech. “While she was on watch, I had trouble sleeping so I sat with her and we talked.”

“Did you hear the noise she told Jon about?” asked Toby.

“And more,” said Beech. “Let me show you.”

Beech he led them to the spot where he and Peony had found the broken branches the night before. The squirrel stood a little ways off from the bushes, indicating the area with a wide sweep of his paws. “Major Peony and I were sitting and talking when we heard a noise out in the swamp. I guess she didn’t tell Jonquil what we saw when we investigated. We were able to pick out some broken branches, but it was much too dark to see anything else.”

“Yes,” said Toby crouching on the ground looking at the sticks. “I can see some tracks. I wish Captain Turnsol or Jon were here. They’re very good with tracking and such. I can see what I think would be your pawprints and Major Peony’s. I think one of us saw these before, but they don’t go into the forest, they just go back to the camp.”

“Do you see any pawprints from what might have made the noise in the woods last night?” asked Beech.

“You’re unlikely to see anything,” stated Dann. “Everybeast has been walking around here that the tracks will either be obscured or completely obliterated.”

“What about nearer to the woods where there are less tracks?” suggested Willow.

“I guess it’s worth a try,” said Lieutenant Tobias.

“Unlikely,” repeated Dann.

“Look!” said Galena, who was standing by the bushes. Being the closest, she was able to see into the brush first. “I see a pawprint. What kind of creature makes one like that?”

“Maybe a toad?” Cinnabar wondered.

Staring at the prints intently, the others agreed with the otter’s assessment. Beech then noticed the bramble branch on the ground a ways off. Remembering how it had seemed to grab at Peony the night before, he picked it up and showed them where it had seemed to originate from.

Willow looked around and asked, “But where did the bramble branch come from? There’s no brambles over here. They seem to be farther away from the camp.”

Toby picked the bramble and indicated the broken end to the others. “And look at the edge of the branch. It looks almost as if it was cut off, not broken naturally.”

Galena found another toad print in the bushes. They all crouched around it. Still on their knees, they stared at each other in horror as the unfortunate truth seemed to sink in.

“So it was probably a toad that got her,” said Sage.

“But why would they only take her?” asked Galena. “Do they know that she’s the Major of this patrol?”

“How will we ever find her?” asked Willow.

“What happens if…what happens if…” Beech tried to say.

“We can’t find her?” Willow finished Beech’s thought in a soft voice.

“That’s what Turnsol and Oswego are arguing about. If she can’t be found, they will both be promoted to Major and Captain respectively. ‘Tis what Oswego bally well wants. He’s wanted to be promoted for ages. It’s said that he’s been a Lieutenant since he was my age. Frustratin’, eh wot!” explained Lieutenant Tobias

“Bally well frustratin,’ ” agreed Sage.

“Why would Oswego be promoted and not you, Toby? You’re both Lieutenants,” asked Beech.

“By the left, that’s a good question. Oswego is the senior lieutenant, so he would be promoted before me.”

“So Oswego just wants to leave Peony behind not knowing what became of her just so he’ll be promoted?” asked Galena completely horrified.

“In this place and with our serious mission for Redwall, it would even technically be a legal proposition. There’s not really anything illegal or undermined about the affair. But Oswego doesn’t have the final decision, Turnsol does because he is the senior officer. And Turnsol doesn’t want to leave her behind,” answered Lieutenant Tobias.

“It doesn’t really seem right to me,” Galena said, turning to her friend the sea otter.

Cinnabar put an arm around her shoulders as they walked back to the campfire, now only ashes. The sea otter remarked, “Aye, it doesn’t feel right to me either, mate.”

Looking out into the swamp for the other officers to return, Lieutenant Tobias sighed and walked over to where the others were gathered by the ashes of the campfire. Thoroughly disheartened, they began the painful task of waiting for the others, waiting for the inevitable.

They didn’t need to wait long. Turnsol came out of the brush with the younger hares. Peony wasn’t with them. Turnsol didn’t get a chance to talk to Tobias before Oswego burst out of the trees with the older hares trailing behind him looking disappointed. Peony was still missing. Borage was patting Sergeant Saxifrage on the back. The crusty old Sergeant was immensely fond of Major Peony. They all were.

“Nothing like battlefield promotions, eh wot, Turnsol,” said Oswego with a sneer. “I guess ‘tis well deserved. Peony got promoted to Captain that way after all.”

“I’ll show you a battlefield demotion,” said Turnsol, pulling up his sleeves and marching over to the Lieutenant with an extremely belligerent look in his eyes.

Alma tugged on Lieutenant Tobias’ sleeve and said, “Toby! Do something.”

Lorica stood next to Sage with her paws over her mouth as Lieutenant Tobias, Sergeant Saxifrage and Cinnabar all stood between the two enraged officers.

“This isn’t helping anyone,” said Lieutenant Tobias, ever the voice of reason.

“This whole bloomin’ affair is helping no one!” said Oswego. “No one’s found any trace of Peony. We should get out of here before we all get swallowed up by this bloody place like Peony did.”

“How dare you suggest that we abandon our commanding officer like this! She might still be alive somewhere and need our help,” yelled Turnsol.

“Commanding officer! This is procedure. Just accept the promotion and let’s get on with our orders. It’s what Major Peony would have wanted,” spat Oswego nastily.

“And how do you know what Peony would have wanted?” yelled Turnsol.

He was about to lunge at Oswego, but Cinnabar and Jonquil – who was running to the help of his friend Toby – each grabbed one of Turnsol’s arms as the enraged hare struggled gamely on, heedless of his wounded shoulder. Oswego put his paws on his hips and sneered at Turnsol.

“You know we can’t delay here for too long, Captain Turnsol,” said Borage sadly. “We need to get to Redwall post haste. There’s a bloody army marching to take the place. They need to be warned.”

“But we…” said Turnsol struggling in Cinnabar and Jonquil’s grasp.

“I think we should follow my orders before we’re all killed in this bloomin’ swamp. I propose that we incarcerate Turnsol because in this present state of mind he’s a danger to himself and others.”

“How dare you! You have no right….” began Turnsol.

“I hate to break it to you, Turnsol,” said Saxifrage. “But he does.”

Turnsol started his struggling anew, now trying to hit anyone who got too close.

Beech ran forward in front of Oswgo. “Wait, everyone! Let’s not be in such a rush. Let us just share our discoveries before we start making rash decisions to leave our fellows behind,” Beech yelled over the din.

Oswego rolled his eyes and tried to swat away Beech like a gnat. “You’re a squirrel, and a young one at that. You’re not even in the Long Patrol. Why do you think you have any say in any of our motions?”

Beech looked back at Dann and Cinnabar to support him. “I may be a squirrel and a young one at that, but we are a mixed company. My friends are your companions as well and you cannot make decisions for all of us even if you are the temporary leader of the Long Patrol.”

“Temporary leader,” said Oswego, his eyes shining.

“We have made some discoveries that might tell us more about where Major Peony is and what befell her. Please, come with me,” said Beech.

C*~*C*~*C

The hares looked on as Jonquil crouched over the footprints. Oswego stood tall. He seemed to walk with a swagger in his step as he passed Turnsol tied between Tobias and Saxifrage. “What manner of creature is it, Jon?”

“Toad,” said the taller hare straightening up. Jon looked over at Turnsol for confirmation. The Captain’s eyes blazed as he glared back at the archer. “Turnsol is the true expert in tracks, Oswego, shouldn’t we…” started Jonquil.

“That’s Major Oswego,” said the hare.

“Acting Major Oswego,” Jonquil corrected. “Shouldn’t we ask the Captain as well?”

“I think not,” said Oswego. “Turnsol has been court-martialed and is a prisoner. He has no say in our affairs.”

“Really, Oswego,” said Sergeant Saxifrage disapprovingly as he grabbed a hold of Turnsol’s arm as the boxing hare tried to lunge at the temporary leader. “You’re taking this a bit too far. Turnsol is incarcerated yes, but you bally well have no authority to court-marshal him. You know that only his commanding officer can do so with the permission of the rest of the Council.”

“I am the leader of this patrol; therefore, I am his commanding officer.”

“Turnsol still outranks you, Oswego. He has not been court-marshaled, only temporarily removed from his rank,” said Sergeant Saxifrage. “And the council is the other creatures of rank, myself and Toby. I can flippin’ well say for myself that this is a temporary condition. Right, Toby?”

“Indubitably,” replied the younger Lieutenant.

“Let’s stop arguing and start tracking these toads that kidnapped Peony,” said Beech. “We can’t be sure how much time we have to waste.”

“Right you are, bushtail,” said Tobias. “Jon and I will start tracking the Major. Fleetpaw, I want you to scout ahead to find where Regolith’s army is. Maybe we can use those hoards to our advantage.”

“Shut up, Toby,” said Oswego. “I’m giving the orders here. Don’t you move Fleetpaw or I’ll cut off your legs.”

“Really, Oswego,” said Borage. “Don’t make me restrain you too. Everyone is acting so unreasonable.”

C*~*C*~*C

Peony would never deny that she had suffered through some bad wakings in her time. The most frightening ones usually involved being in too close a proximity to Sergeant Saxifrage’s footpaws. This one however, might win in comparison to all the others. She came to realize first that it was a combination of the terrible din and the noxious smell that had woken her and second that she was in the middle of a camp tied to a post on a high platform while toads danced around her either waving tridents and torches or putting brush and firewood under her footpaws.

A fat toad wearing the most ridiculous headpiece of feathers and bones waddled up to her and looked at all the medals pinned on her tunic. With his trident, he sliced off a shiny one with emerald encrusted snake eyes on it and showed it to a smaller toad who had flopped over. Both toads looked at it with something akin to reverence.

Where was she? What was going on? What had happened to the rest of her patrol? She racked her brains, desperately trying to remember the past few hours. She had spoken to the young squirrel Beech, woke Jonquil and made her way to her sleeping bag. Or had she made it to her sleeping bag? There had been a strange noise in the swamp as she was returning to where she had set down her pack and sleeping bag. She’d paused for a moment and took a step towards the forest. There were some peals of croaking laughter before her mouth and nose were covered by a poultice of foul smelling herbs. That was all she could remember.

Kidnapped! Why would she have been kidnapped? What could these marsh savages possibly have to gain from her and her alone? Is she was a toad, she would have picked Saxifrage to eat or maybe one of the pretty young haremaids, Lorica for example, for a sacrifice. Why did they grab her? Had they made a mistake in the darkness which they would correct after they’d done away with her?

The smaller toad tried to speak to Peony in a language which was composed of many grunts and gargling noises and seemed frustrated when she didn’t understand. He called over a mean looking newt who spoke to the Major with an annoyingly smug voice.

“King and son say Good Day Rabbit, how many of an honor it is to meet fine leader of warriors.”

Peony spat at him. “You can tell slime face that I’ll slice him up into Frog meat just as soon as he unties me.”

The toad king seemed to understand what she yelled at him and rather than insulted, he seemed pleased. The newt spoke again after the King Toad had given him directions. “King and warriors go to war. We sacrifice you, great long eared warrior, to Great Toad for luck against Wiley Green Eyes.”

“Sacrifice?” said Peony blinking against the terrible smell and din that threatened to drive her back into the peaceful oblivion of unconsciousness.

The toads and the newt laughed at her and made gurgling noises as they hit their heads with their webbed hands and rolled their eyes back in their heads. Peony was sure that they were making fun of her.

“Our warriors saw you last night fighting other long ears and the Brushtail. Your death please Great Toad. Bring luck in battle. We feast on your flesh and share your strength and skill.”

“What? You do realize that this sounds completely mad, right? When does this happen?”

The toads laughed again. The newt said with a twisted smile, “When the Great Toad ready. Sunset.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

The summer sun beat down on the creatures reclining on the blankets set out in front of the Abbey as they only half watched the explorers climbing into the attic spaces.

Colonel Nymium of the Long Patrol sat down next to the others and passed around the mugs of Elderberry Cordial sweating in the heat. The Long Patrol Colonel rejoined the conversation with Tragglo Spearback and the Badgerlord Russano that he had interrupted on his search for refreshments.

“Yes. The only Patrol from the mountain besides ourselves that is out and about this season would be the patrol of a gel named Major Peony. They’re investigating news of a slave compound to the south. A dreadful business, slavery.”

“Major Peony,” pondered Tragglo. “Wasn’t she the one that you mentioned having all those young ‘uns in her patrol.”

Nymium laughed and said, “Yes. She’s got quick an agile mind, Peony. General Purslane’s immensely fond of her, says she's the best young officer on the mountain. He trusts her so much, that his only grandchild is in Peony’s patrol.”

“That’s remarkable.”

“Yeah, it is, innit? My son’s in her patrol as well. I hope she and the other officers will be a good example to him. Blackberry’s a bit wild you see.”

“Like father like son, eh?” came the teasing voice of the Badgerlord.

Nymium laughed and winked at Russano the Wise.

“Not only General Purslane and Basil have young’uns in the patrol. Captain Twayblade’s son is in her patrol as well. I think you meet her and her brother Perigord Sinistra during the famous Battle of the Ridge, Tragglo, when I was just a babe,” continued the badger

“Perigord and Twayblade? They sure were perilous beasts. Puts me in mind of another young hare who fought in that battle. What was his name? Oh, yes: Tammo De Fformelo Tussock. A very brave lad.”

“Tammo? You don’t mean Colonel Tammo? He’s one of my good friends. That puts me in mind. His daughter’s in that patrol as well. Lovely gel, Lorica’s her name. Spittin’ image of his wife Pasque, doncha know.”

Tragglo laughed in delight at all the familiar names.

“Where is Major Peony’s patrol now? I wonder if they’ll come by Redwall. It would be nice to meet all these youngsters having been so well acquainted with their parents.”

Russano frowned and replied, “Oh, Peony’s patrolling very far south. Slim chance that they’ll come to Redwall. They should be returning to Salamandastron probably by the end of the season.”

Tragglo nodded, trying to hide his disappointment. He changed the subject, “I wonder how the Abbess and the others are doing on their climb.”

“It’s bally difficult to see much of anything, wot.”

Russano peered upwards and surmised, “I think Skipper’s climbing now. That creature on the rope looks much too big to be a shrew, mouse or squirrel.”

“Jolly well strange. Doesn’t it look like Skipper’s not moving upwards?”

C*~*C*~*C

Skipper closed his eyes as he dropped another foot, his footpaws dangling from the wall. He heard Abbess Song’s cry of pain from inside before he really started losing height. His friends must be getting dragged closer to the window.

“Skipper!” called Sister Bianca’s voice from above him. “Are there any pawholds that you can reach?”

“No,” he said. “Maybe the others can try to lower me back to the ledge and I can try to climb up on my own or wait for you below.”

“That sounds like a great idea, Skip,” yelled Dippler’s voice. “We’ll start lowering you….”

“You haven’t been already?” Skipper joked, trying to lighten the mood.

The shrew’s voice was cut off by a loud crash and screams from up above. Skipper plummeted downward, passing the ledge in a blur and dangling far out of range of the window.

Skipper could hear Sinon screaming for Song to cut the rope and Song weeping from up above.

“Song, we’ll all get pulled out of the window if you don’t cut him loose. Do you want him to kill us all?”

“I can’t cut him loose! I can’t send him to his death!”

Dippler yelled down to the otter. “Skipper, hang on mate. We’ll figure out something,” his voice cracked at the last word.

Almost as if in a dream, Skipper noticed right in front of him embedded deep in the wall a rusty knife, stuck in the mortar between two bricks. Reaching out entranced, he grabbed it and was able steady himself. It was definitely real. He reached behind him onto his belt and pulled out another knife. That was a good idea – to make his own pawholds.

“I’ve got an idea, mates. I’m steady now and think I can get myself up. Cut me loose, Abbess. I’ll see you soon.”

“No!” came her cry from above him.

Skipper used the knife and free hand to saw at the rope, all the while holding onto the old rusty knife to steady himself. Now he was on his own.

When the others realized that the rope had gone slack, they ran to the window and looked down. Their fear for their otter friend quickly evaporated when they saw him deftly scaling the walls, a knife in each paw. In the blink of an eye, he swung himself up over the ledge and onto the floor only to be promptly set upon by Abbess Song. She was both whacking him with one of her sandals as well as hugging him tightly.

“Skipper, I’ve got half a mind to throw you out the window after all!” she scolded, beaming at him through her tears.

He only winked roguishly at her. Then he finally got a good glance at them. The squirrels, shrew and mouse were covered from ears to footpaws in dust and even small pieces of pulverized wood that had clung to their fur. Sparing another glance, he looked around at the attic.

“Avast, me cullies! This place is an utter mess! Look at all those ceiling beams strewn across the floor. It looks like a hurricane swept through.”

Abbess Song and Log-a-Log Dippler glanced sideways at each other. Dippler explained what had happened, “Your weight pulled down the ceiling beam that we had hung the cord over.”

“By the fur, that’s embarrassing, mates” replied Skipper. “Makes me wonder if I should swear off ‘otroot soup for a little while.”

Song let out a most unladylike snort. Sister Bianca covered her mouth with her paws and let out a peal of laughter.

Now that the danger had passed, the friends all relaxed a bit to survey the wreckage. Skipper’s weight pulling down the ceiling beam had caused a chain reaction. The ceiling beam had been torn out of its position and pulled down part of the roof with it. Light from the gaping hole in the roof shone down on the dust kicked up into the air and the floor now a chaotic mess of splintered wood and roof tiles.

Abbess Song stood in the middle of the wreckage staring up at the ceiling in dismay. How on earth would she and the creatures in the Abbey repair this mess? It would be dangerous for anyone but a squirrel really to prance around on the rooftops. Look at the danger Skipper was in just moments before! But the roof would have to be repaired, or the rainwater would leak through the upper and lower attics and into the dormitories any time it rained.

If only Dann was still here. He would have been a great help. She could always depend on him.

Sister Bianca, not a mouse to be deterred from her search by a setback like this, prowled around glancing at the objects in the upper attic. Most of the scrolls and books sitting out had been destroyed either by time or by the disaster. However, there could be books in chests and things. She heaved against a particularly large beam that seemed to be obscuring something interesting under it.

Skipper came over with Dippler and moved it for her. Sinon was looking around at some of the old armor and weapons in one corner. There was a particularly fine set of knives and sword ideal for a traveling warrior.

Dippler leaned against a chest of drawers that they had uncovered under the debris and wiped a bit of sweat of his forehead. “This is a really beautiful piece of craftsmanship,” he said.

“There’s a pretty design of willows on the corners too,” said Skipper.

Sister Bianca gasped out loud, recognizing the piece immediately. “I don’t believe it! It’s Abbess Germaine’s writing desk! This is priceless. It was crafted by Skipper Tungro and his holt for the Abbey along with the rest of their furniture. Would you look at the inlays around the edges! These are of Martin the Warrior by a creature who knew him personally! How amazing!”

Skipper stared at Dippler, who was sitting on the desk, as he said, “It’s a miracle that the roof caving in didn’t damage it.”

Dippler jumped off the desk, looking horrified that he himself might damage it. Skipper punched the shrew lightly in the arm. Pulling back the chair sitting at the desk, Bianca looked at it in wonder as well. It was a miracle that the roof caving in hadn’t harmed it either. It was a beautiful chair upholstered with a depiction of a willow.

Skipper ran a paw along the beautiful inlays along the top depicting a mouse battling a wildcat. “This is the only piece that Tungro himself made. It’s said that he and his brother Folgrim made it together.”

Skipper picked up a large book that was keeping the chair balanced because one of the front legs had broken off. He brushed dust off the cover and peered down at the title embossed on the leather. The Great Wildcat War: a War for an Independent Mossflower.

“What?” Bianca gasped. She grabbed the book from Skipper’s astonished paws and clutched it tightly to her chest.

Abbess Song walked over the them and looked at the desk as well.

“Mother Abbess, please can we bring the desk down from the attic? I long to show it to all the creatures of Redwall. This is a piece of such historical significance,” begged Bianca.

“Beg pardon, marm,” said Skipper, “I’m not even sure how we will get down.”

“We could lower it to the room where we climbed up from and then have the moles help us move it down from there,” said Dippler. “The hardest part will be getting it down from the attic, we’ll have to rig some sort of pulley system. It’s a shame we don’t have more squirrels at Redwall.”

“I was just thinking that myself,” mumbled the Abbess.

“Why don’t we bring it down the way it came up,” announced Sinon, who had just walked over, carrying the sword and knives he had been examining. “How did the Redwallers bring it up here in the first place? And when? How was anything brought up to the attic?”

“The upper attics haven’t been used in such a long time that it’s fallen out of memory how they were first used. We should probably speak to Foremole first about repairing the roof, then we can ask him about moving the desk. It looks awfully heavy and delicate from age.” Abbess Song reasoned. “We can take all the papers and books we find first and come for the desk later.”

Dippler pulled out the basket he had brought for holding manuscripts and papers. Sister Bianca took in her impatient paws and began emptying the desk of any and all interesting material.

“I can’t wait to get my paws on this!” exclaimed Sister Bianca.

Sinon was keenly examining the carvings around the edges of the desk. “It’s all pictures. Aren’t there any words or poems?”

Sister Bianca put another book in the basket and looked over the desk. “That is curious. I’ll have to examine it thoroughly when we get it down from here. I’m sure I have a book in the gatehouse about the furniture made by Holt Tungro. I’ll have to read over it again.”

“Holt Tungro. I’ve never heard of it before,” said Sinon.

“I keep forgetting that you didn’t grow up in the Abbey and hear all these stories from the time you were a dibbun,” said Sister Bianca. “Holt Tungro was friends with the founders of Redwall. They didn’t fight in the Wildcat War, because they were elsewhere or maybe too young during that period, but they were a great help to Martin the Warrior and Abbess Germaine when they were building and furnishing the Abbey. Tungro’s brother Folgrim even traveled with Martin the Warrior and Gonff the Mousethief to find the place of Martin’s birth. He was a great friend to Martin and Gonff. I read in one of Germaine’s memoirs that Folgrim was mad before he befriended the travelers, engaging in the worst kind of savagery– I can’t even bear to describe it. However, Gonff and Martin and his companions had a calming influence on him and for the rest of his days he lived in peace and free from madness in the Abbey.”

“That’s a remarkable story,” said Sinon. “I’m glad it has a happy ending. It sounds remarkably familiar. I’d very much like to see where it’s written.”

“You would!”

Skipper, Dippler and Song laughed at the two, not really believing that Sinon had very much interest in the subject of mad otters and furniture.


Chapter Twenty-Four

Turnsol had convinced Lieutenant Tobias and Sergeant Saxifrage to untie him and let him assist them in their planning of Peony’s rescue. Oswego sat with his arms crossed glaring at his superior officer. Dann sat sharpening his sword and looking pensive.

“There are bally well too many toads for us to attack them head on. We’re outnumbered at least ten to one,” said Tobias. “But when Fleetpaw returns with the location of Regolith’s army, we can draw the Toads away from their camp and into Regolith’s. That way we can decrease Regolith’s numbers and draw the toads away so we can free Peony.”

“But how can we lead all the Toad’s armies away? Will the lot of us charge in weapons shining, and then run off?” Oswego asked, “We’ll be cut down before we get anywhere near Regolith. We have no idea of his position. It could take days to reach him even if any of us survive to lead the toads there.”

“Toads are known to be superstitious. Perhaps we can trick them with some sleight of hand while we get Peony out of the camp,” said Turnsol. “Do we still have those magic salts and coppers those foxes from Hamath gave us?”

“You’re going to use something foxes from Hamath gave us?” said Oswego angrily. “They aren’t to be trusted. They’re verm…”

“I say, Cap’n. I believe Jonquil’s carrying the little chest that the foxes gave us. I’ll go and ask him for it,” Toby interjected into the middle of Oswego’s tirade.

Toby returned a few minutes later carrying a small box in his hands and flanked by Jonquil and the squirrels Willow and Beech. Beech plopped on the log next to Dann with a smile. The squirrel warrior gave him a half-smile before turning his attention back to his blade.

Accepting the box from Toby, Turnsol gingerly lifted the lid and peered inside. There were four different types of salts of varying color, texture and size arrayed in the colorful stripes inside the box. The foxes had placed three strips of bark to separate the different types from one another. On the lid of the container were four words written across the middle Green-White-Red-Purple to indicate which salts performed which tasks.

Absorbed in his study, Turnsol didn’t notice Jonquil sit next to him on the log and Willow stand in front of them wringing her paws together. However he did notice when Jonquil cleared his throat rather loudly.

“Cap’n Turnsol, I wanted to let you know an idea that this little lady’s given me an idea of how we can save Peony.”

“I’m the superior officer here,” raged Oswego. “You’ll direct all your attention to me, Jonquil!”

“Er…” Jonquil stuttered awkwardly.

Dann frowned at the hares, rolling his eyes.

Saxifrage snorted and barked out, “Stuff it will you, Oswego. We’re just havin’ a bloomin’ meetin.’ Jon and the squirrelmaid can share their information with whoever they choose.”

Oswego stormed off in a huff.

Turnsol looked at Jonquil and Willow with interest. “Well then, spit it out.”

Willow fiddled with the edge of her sleeve and directed most of her attention towards Dann, the handsome squirrel warrior. “When my father designed the Castle for Regolith, he had an idea of a defensive system to set up in the courtyard, but decided against it. He didn’t want to make Regolith too powerful. You rig bows in the forest to pepper a certain area with arrows. Make the toads think we have more soldiers and give you cover.”

“And you know how to set this up?” said Dann skeptically.

“Not really,” started the squirrelmaid. “Beech and I were talking about it with Jon before we came over and…”

Dann huffed. “We don’t have time to waste building dollhouses and wings to fly and bows that shoot by themselves suggested by foolish squirrel maidens. It’s a fool’s errand. I’m going to go and find Fleetpaw.” With that the squirrel warrior stood up and walked away, ignoring Willow’s pleading gaze and Beech’s shocked gasp.

Willow, blinked rapidly to try to keep from crying, her cheeks flaming with embarrassment.

“It’s not a foolish idea, darlin’,” soothed Saxifrage. He patted the log next to him. “Come next to the Sarge and show us what you mean.”

She dropped heavily onto the bench next to Saxifrage.

Turnsol sighed before remarking with a frown, “I don’t see how this will help Peony.”

“Peony would listen to the maid and see how we could use her idea to our advantage,” said Saxifrage. “Perhaps it will hold the key to Peony’s escape.”

“I suppose,” was his uncertain reply. He glanced wistfully at the colorful salts again before closing the lid and looking over at the squirrelmaid.

“You’re the best with figurin’ and geometry. If anyone can pull it off, it’s you, Turnsol,” said Jonquil.

Willow started to draw figures in the dirt with one of Toby’s knives.

C*~*C*~*C

The heady smoke of the nearby bonfires circling her pyre spiraled into the air and choked her, making her eyes water. Long Patrol hares were nursed on blood and vinegar. They weren’t supposed to weep at their fate.

The tears in her eyes were from the smoke, from the frustration of meeting her fate much differently than she had expected, from the guilt of leaving the world too soon. If she was snuffed out now, for what would her parents have given their lives? Her mother died bringing her into this world and her father died to insure that she stayed in it. But Major Peony Laminar would die in some backwards swamp as a blood sacrifice to some made-up diety. What a waste! Besides! It was bloody embarrassing!

Peony glanced down at the rapidly increasing pile of brush and kicked at it with her footpaws. Things were going to be getting very hot, very soon. She had to work quickly before any rational thought of hers was consumed by the fear and fire.

She had tried to use her rapier to cut through the ropes, but she wasn’t able to move it from its sheath with her paws and footpaws both tied so tightly. She had also tried to use the small dagger she had sheathed on her lower arm but had thus far not gotten it nearly close enough to the ropes to saw through them. She most likely wouldn’t be able to break out of this pickle without outside help.

Outside help? No doubt when they found her missing for this extent of time they would be in conflict about how to proceed. They would be torn in their duties. Would they hasten to save their superior officer or to Redwall’s rescue. In such a case as this with Redwall in such grave danger, the natural course would be to move out and hurry to Redwall. The long patrol was rather small, but they were reinforced with Dann’s friends, so they could send an auxiliary force to search for her and the majority to continue to Redwall.

She sighed. She didn’t expect any help to come, she was insignificant in comparison to Redwall. But she couldn’t help but feel a certain twinge of regret and betrayal when thinking of Turnsol marching towards Redwall with their companions, now the Major of the patrol. It would be his duty, but wasn’t she his closest friend?

They had always been together through thick and thin, now that she was meeting her fate, it didn’t seem fitting that she would do so without Turnsol. Memories came unbidden to her mind, distracting her…

She was sitting on a ledge high in the upper rooms of the mountain, gazing out at the sandy dunes undulating in the distance and the tiny patch of trees where she and her father had been just that morning.

Just that morning her father had still been alive.

She loved her Badgerlord Russano, but she couldn’t help but feel a keen stab of bitterness towards the Badger for sending them to the groves. All to fuel his new hobby, his curiosity about one of the first Badgerlords of the Mountain, Lord Brocktree.

But she was being unkind. It had been a new hobby for her father and herself as well when they discovered that one of her mother’s ancestors had played a large part in the story as well. Her father had volunteered to go the grove to speak to the squirrels who lived there. He had beamed at her with pride as they trekked out the grove.

He put his arms around his her shoulders and repeated it seemed for the millionth time that week, “I’m so proud of you, Pe’ny. My little blossom, the first hare in the Laminar family to be commissioned officer!”

“But you’re a Sergeant, daddy. You’re an officer too.”

“You should know, Lieutenant Peony,” he stressed the word Lieutenant rather strongly, “that to be made Lieutenant and Captain and Major and such, you need to pass examinations and show extreme prowess as a warrior and a leader.”

She punched at him with a laugh, “I guess, Sergeant Laminar,” she stressed the word Sergeant very much like he had stressed her title.

“Ouch!” he complained. “Did your friend Darcy Turnsol teach you to punch like that?”

She winked at her father with a laugh. “I’m just as deadly without a rapier as I am with one.”

“Nice lad, Darcy Turnsol,” he said to himself. His next comment was cut off by a snicker as several figures materialized in front of the two hares. A whole score of weasels with malicious grins on their faces...

She let out a heart wrenching cry and put her head in her paws, sobbing bitterly at the memory of the morning. She jumped and almost fell of the ledge when she felt a paw on her shoulder. She turned her tearstained face to Darcy Turnsol.

His dark eyes glittered with compassion and he whipped away her tears with a paw. She sniffled again and threw herself at him.

“I’m an orphan, Turnsol. My parents are both dead! I’ve always told myself, I can survive without knowing my mother, just as long as I have my father. What do I do now? How can I live without them?”

Turnsol looked down her whispered, “Just live. It’s what they would have wanted. Make them proud. They want you to be happy.”

She turned her red-rimmed eyes to him, sniffling. “But I can’t. How can I be happy anymore without them?”

“You still have me,” he reminded her. “And my mum’s basically adopted you too. And my million little brothers and sisters, they adore you too. You’ll never really be alone. Good luck trying to get away from them anyway.”

She let out a couple gasping breaths as she tried to smile through her tears, “Good ole Ma Turnsol.”

“See! Better already,” he teased.

She turned to look at his shoulder in horror. “I’m sorry, Darcy, I’m getting tears and snot all over your shoulder.”

Turnsol chuckled.

~ ~ ~

The newt who was the translator between herself and the Toad King and his son seemed to be in an argument with his majesty. It seemed these “religious rituals” were more complicated than the toads had at first realized. A blessing in disguise really, prolonging her anticipation or disappointment when no one came to save her.

She glanced over at the idol they were making next to her pyre from woven vines; it seemed to be the rather crude image of a toad.

She twisted her wrist, slowing moving the dagger towards her paws. Success! She started sawing at the ropes.

C*~*C*~*C

The sun was finally starting to set, painting the sky in majestic purples and reds. All the toads had a jaunt in their step as they bustled around the camp making plans for tonight’s sacrifice and tomorrow’s battle. A pair of toads with particularly unpleasant looking faces had set themselves up in front of Peony, sharpening their tridents and taking long swigs of unpleasant tasting grog. She could speak truthfully on that count because they had offered her some. She had shaken her head in response to their…kind?... offer, but they hadn’t heeded her and poured some into her mouth. She had coughed and sputtered and most of it had dribbled down her chin. Flippin’ disgustin’ stuff!

Peony had finally freed her paws and had wriggled out of the ropes around her footpaws, but she was unable to loosen the ropes around her waist – perhaps the ones most crucial to ensure a successful escape. An icy chill ran up her spine: the time for the lighting of the pyre had come too soon. Her chest all of a sudden felt tight and the anticipation had made her feel lightheaded. She hoped that she could meet death bravely. At least she would be with her family soon.

Some toads had lit a fire in a pit slightly off to the side and were taking swigs of the same foul grog and spitting it into the fire and laughing when the fire shot up at them.

They moved aside hastily as the Toad King walked up to the pit. Lighting a torch from the pit, the Toad King handed it to the Newt. Then the toad waddled over towards the Toad Idol where he sat his ponderous weight in a reed chair before his equally corporous son.

The Toads began chanting excitedly as the Newt lifted the torch dramatically and pointed it at Peony. When he made the Prayer to their god, he did so in words that Peony would understand.

“The Great One will bless us in battle tomorrow with our enemies because we the faithful have promised him the blood of the great long-eared warrior. Her spirit will make our forces invincible against those of the Heathen vermin!”

The smoke was overpowering now, choking her. She had hoped to meet her death bravely, but she was….She wanted to live! She wasn’t ready to give up yet!

The newt walked slowly and dramatically towards the haremaid as she struggled against the tight cords around her chest, which held her arms tightly to her sides. This seemed to amuse the newt immensely because he gave her a sadistic wink as he lowered the torch. Kicking out at him with all her might, she knocked him off his webbed feet and onto his bottom.

He sat up glaring at her, the torch still burning at his side. She glared back just as ferociously and spit in his eyes.

All the toads around roared with laughter. The Toad King was elbowing his Son. This sacrifice was much more entertaining than the other sacrifices usually were.

Sore from the throw and the embarrassment, the newt leapt to his feet and was about the light the wood just as the fire pit at the foot of Peony’s pyre erupted in green flame.

The newt danced back from the pit and stood next to the Toad King grasping onto the torch in terror. All eyes were rooted on the flames, Peony’s included. She barely noticed an arrow fly from the swamp and cut into the cords around her chest which tied her tightly to the pole. The cords feel in a heap at her still bound footpaws. A terrible and powerful voice arose above the clamoring of the toads.

“I the Great One look down with favor on my faithful ones.” The fire turned purple. “I see a great victory tomorrow.”

The toads cheered and the flames turned a marvelous blinding white. She closed her eyes, the light was almost painful in its brilliance.

The toads leapt up and danced around throwing their webbed fingers into the air.

An arrow hit the pole above her head. She opened one eyes against the bright lights and saw a thick cord extending into the woods in a downward slant. Then she saw a piece of paper flitter down in front of her. It was in Turnsol’s hand. It must have been attached to the arrow somehow

Peony-
Use the bow to slide down the cord
while Cinnabar’s distracting them
and we’ll meet you on the other side.

Good ole Turnsol!

The fire was changing colors again and now was emitting a great amount of smoke to blur almost everything from her vision and those around her. Luckily none of the toads had noticed the cord and the arrow yet, the colored smoke and flames made it hard to see anything but what was in front of your nose.

The bow must have fallen off before it hit the post, so Peony untied her leather belt and held her rapier in the teeth. The fires changed colors again, this time a gleaming green. She had to shut her eyes tightly against the blinding light as she sped towards the swamp.

She felt a familiar pair of paws grab her tightly even before she landed. She opened her eyes timidly, hoping not to still be seeing stars. The first thing she beheld was the beaming face of Captain Turnsol.

“We were worried about you missy,” said a voice from beside the hare captain. It was Borage the healer who winked at her.

“Isn’t this a hoot!” said Cinnabar laughing. “Toads are so stupid.”

“Cut the cord, Jon. Peony’s here. Be ready to wheel in the cord, Beech and Willow” whispered Turnsol to the others as he winked at the Long Patrol Major.

She tried to take a step forward, but forgot her footpaws were still tied together. She stumbled and fell against Turnsol.

Borage chuckled and handed her a dagger. “Here you go, Peony.”

Cinnabar continued in his loud voice as the Toad God. “I have already taken the long-eared warrior and am most pleased with this gift. Go on and fight in my name.”

The smoke started to clear and Peony heard Willow whisper, “We’re ready.”

The fire turned a blinding red this time and then they were sprinting away from the Toad camp, tracing markings the others had made earlier as to the safe path. Holding their weapons at the ready, the only sound they would hear was their own heavy breathing.

“By the left, am I glad to see you! I was trying to figure out how I was going to battle my way through all those nasty toads on my own,” said Peony between breaths as she ran next to Turnsol.

“Weren’t you scared? Major Peony?” asked Beech in wonder.

The hare major winked at the young squirrel. “I was terrified, but not too terrified to act.”

“Yeah!” said Willow excitedly. “Did you see how she kicked that nasty newt right in the kisser!”

“What a gel,” said Turnsol with a wink.

Peony shook her head at them and twitched her ears about embarrassed. Tying her belt back on, she nodded to Jonquil as he ran up to them. “What happened to the bow we gave you?” Jonquil asked.

“It must have fallen off when you sent it towards me. That was brilliant though. Great sleight of hand. You’ll have to tell me all about what happened when we can stop running,” Peony gasped out.

She glanced around at the others running with her and only counted six. “Only six? Are the rest marching to Redwall?”

“Not yet,” said Borage huffing and puffing to keep up with the others.

“The rest are waiting for us with the packs,” said Willow. She leapt over a fallen branch. “I can’t hear any signs of pursuit.”

“That’s good,” said Peony. “I won’t mind a scrap of vittles. Almost getting sacrificed and eaten can sure give a gal an appetite.”

They all laughed at her comment.

In no time, they burst into a clearing and Peony almost collided with Sergeant Saxifrage. He pulled her into a tight embrace. “It’s good to see you, Peony.”

“Any pursuers?” Lieutenant Tobias asked Captain Turnsol.

“No,” answered the Captain.

She put a paw to her chest as she tried to catch her breath. She glanced around at the others running over greet to her and her jubilant smile turned to an expression of worry. “Where’s Fleetpaw? And Dann Reguba?”

Toby answered the Major’s question. “I sent him out to scout out Regolith’s camp and report back to us.”

“Dann went to get him and lead him back to us. I gave Dann an idea of our future whereabouts,” said Oswego.

“Will they be coming here?” asked Peony.

“No,” said Turnsol. “We told them to meet us a little farther north.”

“Good show, wot,” said Peony. “Then let’s not linger. Onward and upward, eh chaps.”


Chapter Twenty-Five

The captain’s tents were set up very close to that of Regolith and Vermilion today. Everything in the camp was closer together tonight than it had been just the night before. There was so little dry ground that space was truly at a premium.

The area that Bloodnose had scouted out and decided to use for their camp tonight was a vast plane with seven corners. Scattered throughout the area were sinkholes and patches where muddy mangroves towered above the swamp. Regolith always seemed to depend on Bloodnose for the more technical tasks, so the weasel was assigned the job of staking out dangerous areas with sticks and colored cloths so creatures would not get injured. The weasel captain found his helpers very obedient, especially after they saw a fox get swallowed up by a patch of quicksand before their very eyes. The fox that hadn’t heeded Bloodnose’s warning about that patch of mud.

Regolith’s tent was staked out in the middle of the large plane and the four captain’s tents were arrayed in each of the four corners of the tent: Zigor facing the north, Halfear the south, Bloodnose the east and Thalweg the west.

Thalweg had never liked marshes and swamps. After he left his tribe for the first time, he had stumbled through a swamp and that truly unpleasant experience had never left him. The very thought of sinkholes and mud and toads made uncontrollable chills run up and down his spine.

He passed by Bloodnose, supervising a group of rats taping off a particularly dangerous stretch of quicksand. “Thalweg, the supply train is falling behind us,” stated Bloodnose without any preamble. “Could you go and help them dig out of the mire? “

Thalweg raised an eyebrow, making the fearsome scars on his face contort grotesquely. “I’m due to dine with Lord Regolith later, but I can run over and check their progress.”

“Thank you. I heard from a group of stoats that Halfear’s having a lot of trouble with it.”

Thalweg grabbed a thick length of cord and draped it across his chest. He “commissioned” two other ferrets and a pair of mangy looking rats to help move the supply carts lagging at the end of their column. They all moaned and groaned about more chores, but were too afraid of Thalweg’s scarred face to refuse.

“I’m gonna have ‘nough trouble making supper from mud, and now we gotta drag out the supply carts!” one of the rats complained.

Thalweg silenced him with a blood-chilling glare.

Thalweg thrust four more lengths of cord into the paws of the ferrets and rats and bid them to follow him as he stalked off bravely into the swamp, blue cloak billowing behind.

It took awhile longer than the ferret expected to find the supply train. The trek was made especially tedious because Thalweg and his companions had to test the ground ahead of them with long sticks and heavy rocks to be sure the ground was steady. Neglecting to do so could be deadly. However, the location of the supply train was unmistakable, Halfear was hollering directions at his creatures in a carrying voice, creating a clear path to follow.

Halfear was standing a bit off to the side on a log, yelling at rats who were in mud up to their knees as they tried to budge one of the carts. The stoat seemed to be paying more care to the mud on the bottom of his blue cloak than to the rats’ efforts to dislodge the cart. Of the three carts packed high with grain, nuts and other supplies, only one was out of the mud. Halfear had the rats working on the cart that was less submerged in the swamp.

“I thought we had four carts,” Thalweg recalled as he walked up to the stoat captain with the others.

“That was before we hit that sinkhole this morning,” Halfear shuddered. “We lost four soldiers trying to salvage it.”

“It’s this bloody swamp,” Thalweg said.

“Right you are, Capn’” said one of the rats pushing the cart. He slipped and fell face first into the mud.

“I’m lookin’ forward to that cup of grog with supper,” muttered one of the ferrets Thalweg brought with him to his mate.

Halfear turned to the ferret captain and said, “We’ve been at this for hours, and it hasn’t budged. I’m afraid of what Regolith’ll do to me if we don’t get this lot movin’ by morning.”

“Right you are, mate.”

“And I hear all these strange sounds coming from the swamps,” Halfear whispered to the ferret captain, “I don’t want to be alone in the woods after dark. Who knows what’s waiting in the darkness for us! Toads or Lizards. Wait what’s that? I though I saw something move.”

Thalweg glanced over quickly where the stoat was pointing and saw a pair of long ears sink down behind the vines. Damn rabbits, blowing his cover.

“I didn’t see anything,” Thalweg laughed. Hoping to distract Halfear from the hares hiding in the brush, he walked up the cart and called his creatures over to attach their ropes to the submerged cart. Splitting the workers up, Thalweg had half of the creatures pushing from behind and the other half pulling on the cords from the front.

Halfear and Thalweg watched with bated breath as the cart started to stir from the depths like some great Leviathan. One of the rats behind the cart stumbled and pitched forward into the mud. Thalweg realized that in a moment that if no one acted, the poor rat who had fallen would be crushed under the spokes of the cart. Tossing his captains cloak at the mystified Halfear, Thalweg jumped into the mud and grabbed the rat. And not a moment too soon.

The rat was ghostly white and breathing heavily from the shock. He looked up at Thalweg’s terrifying face, not sure what to make of his grisly savior. Thalweg pulled the rat to his footpaws and together they pushed against the cart as well.

The rats around him pushing looked over at ferret officer part in fear and part in admiration. With Thalweg’s help, all the creatures seemed to work with a renewed sense of purpose and soon the cart was free. Exhilarated by their success, all the beasts stepped back away from the cart patting each other on the back and laughing. In his merriment, Thalweg slipped and fell backwards into the mud. He looked up at the rats with a silly smile on his scarred face, his paws resting behind him and the nice white-shell bracelet the ottermaid had given him covered in mud. The rats around him chuckled and hauled him to his feet, patting him on the back.

“Thanks, cap’n. That was a great thing you did back there,” said the rat Thalweg had rushed to help.

“What’s your name, solider?”

“Bleeknose, sir.”

Thalweg shook the rat’s paws warmly and walked over to Halfear, wiping mud from his paws and taking back his cloak as he did. “I’ve gotta see Lord Regolith in his tent, but I can tell him you’re making great progress with the wagons.”

C*~*C*~*C

When he got back to the camp, night had already fallen. The other creatures had lit bonfires and sat together eating and drinking. Spirits were down because of the long march and dense swamp, so Regolith had given all the troops spirits.

Thalweg passed by Bloodnose on the way into their leader’s tent. The weasel was tending to yet another bloody nose. The ferret captain pulled back the velum to his leader’s tent and meet Regolith’s raised eyebrow. The pine marten Regolith looked up at the ferret from his bench and turned up his nose at him. “You look filthy.”

Vermilion looked up as well, she covered her mouth and her giggle with a red paw. Regolith smiled indulgently at his mate. He lifted up the dagger that he had been cutting up his woodpigeon with and threw it at Thalweg. It barely missed the ferret’s eye, cutting off one of his whiskers as and imbedded itself in the pole to his left.

Thalweg let out the breath he had been holding as he pulled out the dagger, and handed it back to the pine marten. He then pulled a stool up to the table and took the glass of meade Regolith offered.

“Next time, try to come covered in less mud, Thalweg,” giggled Vermilion.

“Yes, milady,” quipped Thalweg with a wink.

Pulling back the linen door to the tent, the black fox walked in and joined the others. He sat at Regolith’s left and accepted the mug of meade.

Thalweg commented to the pine marten tyrant, “It was brilliant move, giving the troops spirits. They will march well tomorrow,” said Thalweg.

“Yes,” drawled the pine marten, using the dagger to clean out a piece of meat between his teeth. “Bloodnose convinced me of the benefits of improving…what did he call it, my dear?”

“Morale,” said Vermilion in her soft voice.

“Morale,” said Regolith laughing. “I can’t abide weakness!”

“What story do you have for us tonight, Thalweg?” asked Vermilion.

“One I heard shortly after leaving my tribe in the north. I heard it from an emancipated mountain hare who had escaped from slavery only to run into my knife.”

“Wretched bad luck, eh,” Regolith chuckled.

“It’s a rather long story, so if’n you don’t mind, sir, could I tell you part tonight and the rest next time.”

Regolith turned to his mate and raised an eyebrow. She smiled at him and shrugged. “That would be lovely, Regolith.”

The pine marten turned to his fox confederate. The black fox was as enigmatic as ever. He seemed to offer no preference for either of the alternatives.

“There’s your answer, ferret.”

“This is a tale about a wildcat, a dream and a rare pink diamond. Tezgall the Claw was a wildcat. She was small for one of her species but she was much larger than all the creatures under her command. And she had a dream as many creatures have dreams, but she was strong and she was bold and she would see her dream become a reality.

“Life was rough for those creatures unfortunate enough the live in the northlands -- I agree with their claims, having lived there myself – and only the strong survive. And Tezgall the Claw was strong. Her claws, decorated with beautiful rings and jewels, were as sharp as her tongue, both dangerous weapons at her command. For she carried no weapons, preferring to tear her victims apart with her own bare claws, wanting to feel the life leave their bodies.

Regolith had leaned back in his chair and was sipping his meade with a small smile on his face. He seemed to be in a wonderful mood this evening. He interrupted the ferret. “Sounds like an interesting lady. Don’t you think, Zigor.”

“I suppose,” was the black fox’s indifferent reply.

“I think she sounds very interesting,” snapped the lady Vermilion, offended by Zigor’s apathetic reply. “Captain Thalweg’s beautiful story telling paints her very well.” She looked down lovingly at the black diamond on her own claw.

“Thank you, milady.” Thalweg smiled.

“Tezgall gathered quite a following, almost as large as that you have gathered, my lord Regolith. Some creatures dream of empires, others of great conquests, but what Tezgall dreamed of was something else entirely. She wanted to be famous for creating something that no one else have ever dreamed of – a place where others of her kind in leisure could watch woodlanders fight to the death.

“Woodlanders fighting to the death! I’m only jealous that I hadn’t thought of that earlier!” was Regolith’s joyous exclamation. “Perhaps after we conquer Redwall we can visit this Tezgall the Claw.”

“Would she still be living, Thalweg? How long ago did you hear this story?” Vermilion wondered.

“Not too long ago. I imagine she’s still alive and kickin’ in the northlands,” answered Thalweg. He stopped to ponder the question.

“Well don’t stop there. Go on, ferret,” Zigor snapped impatiently.

“Tezgall’s creatures caught woodlanders and began their games, but these games were vastly disappointing, tremendously overrated. They had captured a couple of squirrels and otters who fought well, but after she had these creatures slaughter each other, all that was left were the dregs, the cowards. They did not have the blood of warriors running through their veins.

“Tezgall the Claw was disappointed, but she didn’t lose hope. She would find woodlanders who would fight and die for her amusement. She realized that the problem was that the types of woodlanders she had gathered: moles, mice, hedgehogs. They were not warriors. But she didn’t need to wait long before she found the exact type of species she had been searching for all along: mountain hares.

“She certainly is correct on that count. Just thinkin’ back to those hares which attacked us in the castle, makes me shiver. They sure were perilous warriors,” said Vermilion.

“How right you are my dear,” agreed Regolith.

“They weren’t that ferocious. They could bleed and die just like the rest,” argued Zigor.

“I suppose,” said the green-eyed tyrant considering. “Go on, Foulleg.”

“Tezgall the Claw’s creatures stumbled upon the mountain hares entirely by accident. A squadron of ten of her fierce warriors was dragging a pair of hedgehogs to her battle arena when they were ambushed by a mountain hare and his mate. Those two creatures alone trounced the squadron of her bloodthirsty creatures with little effort. Only one of her creatures escaped alive from the slaughter.

“When the unfortunate escapee arrived at the battle arena covered with wounds, last out a hand picked squadron, with no woodlanders for the games, he feared for his life. But Tezgall forgave him instantly when she heard his story. He had discovered the exact type of creatures she wanted for her games.

“Tezgall the Claw as well as the single survivor from the hare’s attack along with three squadrons tracked the two hares the very next day. The male mountain hare had been wounded and the path of his fresh blood was easy to follow.

“What they discovered was something she couldn’t have imagined to exist even in her wildest dreams. A huge tribe of mountain hares, about fifty in all: males, females, babes. They would be perfect for her games.

“But how do you capture and control creatures that can defeat your own warriors so easily and decisively? But she didn’t need to wait long for the answer. She was clever and ferocious, but she was also devilishly lucky. The answer fell right into her lap.

“This seems like a good place to stop, don’t you think, Regolith,” said Vermilion. “It’s getting awfully late.”

“Yes, my dear. We can learn how the wildcat captured the hares tomorrow night.”

“Good night, Thalweg. And thank you for the story,” whispered Vermilion as the ferret left their tent.

“Didn’t you enjoy the story, Zigor?” asked Regolith. “Sometimes I think you take little pleasure in anything.”

“I don’t take pleasure in sitting around bandying stories back and forth,” the black fox snapped.

“You’re no fun, Zigor,” chuckled the pine marten tyrant.

“I haven’t had this much fun in years,” said Vermilion. “I’m so glad you appointed the ferret captain, my dear. I like him much more than the others.”

“I’m glad, my dear.”

C*~*C*~*C

Only a short day’s march to the north, with the Toad camp between them, the Long Patrol were heading with all haste to the rendezvous point where they hoped to find Dann Reguba and Fleetpaw Charpentier already waiting for them. Of course, this didn’t prevent them from engaging in friendly banter among themselves.

“I’d love to hear how you blighters concocted my grand escape from those toads,” said Peony to her companions.

“Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear about that,” said Saxifrage to her left with a teasing smile.

“I was surprised that you were able to think of something like that. It was rather clever. I was afraid that you would just leave me to go and warn Redwall,” said Peony.

“How could you think something like that!” Turnsol protested.

“We almost did,” said Saxifrage.

“I would have been the safest course of action,” said Peony truthfully.

“See!” said Oswego to Turnsol.

Turnsol glared daggers at the Lieutenant. It was a lucky fluke that the two officers had Peony and Saxifrage standing between them. Turnsol looked like he wanted nothing more than to hit the Lieutenant.

Saxifrage intervened. “We were very conflicted at first. We didn’t want to leave you at the mercy of toads…”

“But we do have such an important mission. More important than the safety of one creature,” said Peony. “I assumed that you would either leave me or split up and have half hasten to Redwall and have an auxiliary unit try to free me from the toads. We are a large enough party now, reinforced with the squirrels and otters, to try something like that.”

“Why didn’t we think of that!” said Saxifrage. “I guess that’s why you are our jolly old leader-ess.”

“So tell me how my patrol functioned without me,” said Peony.

“Badly,” said Saxifrage. “Oswego and Turnsol got into an argument about how we should proceed.”

“Really?” said Peony in disbelief.

“We even had to tie up Turnsol for a little while and had Oswego as our Acting Major.”

“Goodness. Anarchy rules. I’ll try not to be kidnapped by anymore toads in the future,” said Peony laughing.

“Please do,” said Turnsol. “It was the young squirrels Willow and Beech who really contributed the most to your rescue. Beech reasoned with all of us, when we were fighting and Willow helped us to think of your escape route,” said Turnsol.

“Fascinating,” said Peony impressed. “That young squirrel Beech really has a great head on his shoulders. And it appears that Willow is much more than just a pretty face. Who thought of using the foxes’ magic tricks?”

“That was Turnsol,” said Saxifrage. “You should talk to Willow about the first idea she gave us. She said her father developed a free standing device that shoots arrows. You just need to cut a cord of somethin’ and it unleashes all these arrows at a predetermined location.”

“That is quite interesting,” replied Peony. “It sounds like a super-Ballista!”

“Jonquil, Willow and I were tryin’ to puzzle through the physics of the thing. Maybe we’ll figure it out before we get to Redwall and can add it to the Abbey’s defenses,” said Turnsol. “As we were discussin’ the tensions required in the cords for that device we thought: Why not just shoot an escape cord into the toads’ camp for you to use.”

“Worked like a charm. It’s a good thing that Jon is such a good shot,” said Saxifrage.

“Lucky for me,” said Peony.

C*~*C*~*C

Alma De Langle looked over at Major Peony, Captain Turnsol, Sergeant Saxifrage and the now again Lieutenant Oswego marching up ahead deep in conversation about who bally well knows. They always seemed to be in discussion about official business and the like.

Alma was walking next to her friend Lorica, but Lorica De Fformelo Tussock was deep in conversation with Sage Sinistra, exchanging stories that they had heard from their parents who had been on the same patrol. Blackberry was marching next to Sage trying to join in on the conversation.

“Did you hear about the time that my father was captured by that tribe of tree rats?”

“Yeah, my mom told me about how they kept off the blighters by threatening to eat the rotters’ leader. Wot a wheeze!” Sage laughed.

Alma whirled on them. “How can you be so unconcerned about Fleetpaw. He’s running around through this bloody swamp. He might have stepped into a puddle of quicksand or been killed by vermin!”

“Or he could be fine,” shrugged Blackberry. “There’s no sense worrying about him before we get to our rendezvous point.”

“But how do we know that he could even find the rendezvous point? Maybe he’ll come after we’ve already left!” Alma retorted

“Dann will be with him. He was the Redwall warrior, and he’s traveled quite extensively so he must be bally used to this sort of thing, wot,” said Blackberry.

The two squirrels marching in front of them with Borage glanced back at their mention of the squirrel warrior before they started speaking amongst themselves again.

Alma paused and wrinkled her nose in disgust. The other three hares shrugged and kept walking, continuing their conversation.

Jonquil and Lieutenant Tobias who were ambling behind the younger hares stepped in line with her. Jon and Toby put their arms around her shoulders and pulled her along with then. She marched with them looking down at her footpaws.

“Wot’s wrong, darlin’?” asked Jonquil.

“I’m just worried about Fleetpaw,” she said to him. “This swamp is so blinkin’ creepy. I can’t imagine wanderin’ around here with just my jolly lonesome. And everyone else seems so unconcerned; telling me not to worry before we get to the rendezvous point.”

“They’re probably just trying not to think about it, lest they get too upset and worried,” said Jonquil.

“But…I…Is it wrong to worry about our friends?”

“It’s not wrong to show concern for your friends,” Toby responded.

Alma looked up and smiled at the two older hares. “Could you tell me about Peony’s rescue,” Alma turned to head to left, asking Jonquil.

“I was just entertaining Lieutenant Tobias with the story. I can start over if you don’t mind, Toby,” said Jonquil winking at Alma and wagging his ears at Lieutenant Tobias.

“Not at all.”

“I was curious how only you six were gonna rescue Peony and how Borage was gonna keep up with you when you ran back to us.”

Jonquil seemed delighted by Alma’s remark. He and Toby glanced at each other and then erupted into gales of laughter. When the two had finally stopped laughing, Jonquil began the story.

“Well, each of us had a definitive purpose. My job was to free Peony from her bonds and then to hit the top of the pole with the cord so she could escape. It’s a well known fact that I am the best with a bow around these parts,” Jon winked, rubbing a paw on his tunic.

Alma laughed and hit him playfully in the side. “So you say.” Toby laughed as well at the pair of them.

“Turnsol was the Master of Ceremonies for Cinnabar’s grand debut as the Great Toad God and all of the squirrel’s gymnastics. Borage was waiting in the wings in case anyone got hurt.”

“Grand Debut as the great toad god, eh?” teased Alma. “Was he very convincing?”

“Oh, they were quite taken with the blighter. And especially with Turnsol as the backstage manager, lobbing all sorts of smoke coloring thing-a-mies into their bonfires. The whole thing was a smoke and mirrors affair. I think Peony even believed us for half-a-second.”

Alma snorted. “Major Peony is much too smart for that!”

“Well we’re almost at our rendezvous point, so you’ll know if we need to worry in a few moments,” said Toby.

They walked into the clearing and on seeing Fleetpaw and Dann leaning against one of the trees, Alma let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.

Peony smiled and shook Dann’s paw and winked at Fleetpaw who smiled at her in relief. “I say, marm, it’s jolly good to see you!”

“I can say the same for you, Fleetpaw.”

“Did you find Regolith’s troops?” asked Turnsol.

“I did, they’re about a day’s march straight east. And I saw our ferret on the inside. He was supervising some of the vermin digging out their supply trains. I heard him saying that one of the four supply carts was lost in the mud. Also, Regolith is giving all his troops grog with dinner to raise their morale. And with good reason, because all the blighters seemed spooked by the swamp and the toads and lizards lingerin’ in the darkness.”

“We’re having nothin’ but good luck!” said Peony delightedly. “Regolith’s troops are going to be heavy with drink when the toads launch their surprise assault tomorrow morning. And their supply train is suffering difficulties? Brilliant. We can make sure that they encounter even more difficulties.”

“Let’s rest here while we plan for tomorrow,” said Turnsol.

C*~*C*~*C

Dann strode away from the Long Patrol officers debating with the others about the best course of action. Sitting on a log next to Willow and Cinnabar, Beech glanced back at the squirrel warrior.

“It might be dangerous to hide in the trees near the vermin’s camp. The vermin might climb up there to escape the toads, or the toads could launch part of their attack from the trees,” said Cinnabar.

“I still don’t think we should interfere in the battle between the toads and the vermin. Let’s just let them tear each other apart,” said Oswego.

“I agree. Battles are almost the most dangerous for the bystanders,” said Borage.

Beech excused himself and went to follow Dann. The squirrel warrior was standing in the shadow of a tree in the edge of the camp. Beech stopped a few feet behind him. “You shouldn’t wander off, Dann. Think about what happened to Peony.”

Dann turned around and raised his eyebrows at the other squirrel. “You’re right of course.”

He sat down and leaned back looking at the sun starting to set. Beech sat next to him and fidgeted a bit, not sure how to sit. “I wanted to talk to you about what you said to Willow this morning. It was unkind.”

“What did I say?”

“You don’t remember?” said Beech aghast. “I wish I could forget those cruel things you said.”

“I didn’t think it was important,” the squirrel warrior shrugged.

“Beggin’ your pardon, but that is the main problem. You’re so preoccupied with worrying about the welcome you’ll receive at Redwall that you don’t want to waste your time being a leader, setting an example for the other creatures or supporting your companions. I suppose that’s why you’ve been traveling alone for so many seasons. It almost seems like your punishing yourself for somethin’.”

“Alone? Who said I travel alone.”

“Cinnabar told me once that he didn’t think you could abide company on the march.”

“Huh,” said Dann looking off into the swamp, deep in thought.

“I’m sorry if I spoke wrong, or impertinently.”

“No,” said Dann. “What you said has almost too much truth.”

Chapter Twenty-Six

Abbess Song walked with her mother Rimrose, Lady Cregga, Cypress the vixen and Hawthorne the pine marten to the gatehouse with a tray set with afternoon tea for five. Rimrose shook her head smiling. “Ever since Bianca got her paws on that book about Martin the Warrior, she’s barely stirred from the Gatehouse for mealtimes or bedtime!”

“It’s wonderful that Redwall has such a devoted historian,” quipped Hawthorne.

Cypress the vixen giggled as she lead Cregga by the arm.

Pulling open the door to the gatehouse, Rimrose stepped aside for the others to enter. Her daughter winked at her in thanks before placing the tray down in front of the little mouse.

Sister Bianca rubbed her eyes and looked up from a near undecipherable passage and at her visitors. “Moles should not be historians,” she grumbled.

Hawthorne chuckled good-naturedly and scanned the passage Bianca had been reading.

Leaning back in his chair, Bianca daintily sipped her tea and answered Song’s inquiring look, “Foremole wrote a chapter for Abbess Germaine on how he engineered the flood tunnels of Kotir as well as where and how he sunk the foundations for the Abbey. I didn’t think moles also wrote in mole speech!”

Song tried to hide her laugh behind her cup of tea, but was unsuccessful and gave into the chuckles with the others. On that beautiful summer afternoon, the dusty gatehouse seemed to shake with those boundless chuckles that seemed to come from the very bottom of ones’ chest.

After the hilarity had died down, Song followed her mother’s example and took a scone from the plate. After shaking off the excess sugar, she bit into it. She said to the little mouse, “You’d be glad to hear, Bianca, that Sinon and Foremole are supervising the lowering of Abbess Germaine’s desk from the attics. Colonel Nymium and Lord Russano and their hares have been a great help. I can’t wait to show this important relic to the creatures of Redwall.”

“I have a feeling that desk will be of great importance,” the vixen commented. “It’s almost as if someone has been searching for it all his or her life.”

“That’s a funny thing to be thinking, Cypress,” Hawthorne answered.

“It’s strange. When you told me about Abbess Germaine’s writing desk, Song, I felt strange, like the last cards in fate’s hand had been put on the table. And I felt a chill in the air, as if a storm was coming that I will not see the end of.”

Hawthorne looked disturbed by the vixen’s words.

Song felt the fur on the nape of her neck stand up. “I can’t imagine what you mean,” she stuttered.

Cregga turned her blind head towards the Abbess perplexed.

Sister Bianca coughed; she was never one to abide awkward silences for long. “Abbess Song, I meant to show you that book about Holt Tungro’s furniture. Abbess Germaine penned it herself.”

The little mouse jumped up and in the blink of an eye had scurried up the nearest ladder to sort through the huge stacks of books. The Abbess stood up slowly in worry when she saw the little mouse leaning over dangerously far and holding onto the ladder with only one paw.

Lady Cregga turned her head towards Sister Bianca, also worried by the creaking she heard. “Be careful, Sister.”

Bianca plucked the book from the shelf and scampered down the ladder, offering her findings to the Abbess. The little mouse turned her head to the Badger Mother, “Sometimes I think you see more than we do.”

“Perceive more, perhaps,” said Cypress. The vixen held Cregga’s head between her hands and stared into her blind eyes. “You share the same perception of the future that I do, my friend.”

Bianca looked at Song in confusion, “Aren’t you gonna take the book, Song?”

Flustered, Song accepted the book and opened it reverently. “There are Beautiful sketches and diagrams of some of the more noteworthy pieces that Tungro’s holt made: the head table in the great hall, the front gates. And Martin the Warrior, Skipper and Lady Amber all are quoted on their recommendations for the Abbey defenses. Amazing!”

“Where does Abbess Germaine talk about her desk?” Rimrose asked Sister Bianca who was now bouncing back and forth on the balls of her feet in excitement.

“Not until the end. The explanation of the inlays and other decorations are particularly interesting. Folgrim even carved a poem into the back of the desk somewhere. I can’t wait to read it!”

Hawthorne sat back and laughed again, taking another sip of his tea.

C*~*C*~*C

Lord Russano was standing a bit off to the side with Colonel Basil Nymium, Log-a-Log Dippler, Chief Burble, Janglur and Rusval, watching the progress being made in moving the desk. Sinon the squirrel was climbing up and down between the attic and the floor they were presently on, keeping and eye on the desk’s progress, while Skipper and his otters were anchoring him on a safety line. Foremole was directing his moles and the hares as they moved the desk in much the same way that the Abbess and her companions had climbed up to discover it in the first place.

Sinon jumped down onto the windowsill and Skipper helped the squirrel try to untie Dippler’s complicated knot around the squirrel’s waist.

Russano winked at the squirrels standing next to him. “To be young and winsome again, eh.”

Rusval patted Janglur’s stomach. “They’d have to use a bit more cord for us, eh, mate.”

Janglur crossed his arms over his chest. Colonel Nymium chuckled and patted the squirrel warrior on the back, saying, “I say, wot a bit of luck that Sinon is so dedicated to the Abbey. ‘Tis a good thing you have him, since…” he glanced awkwardly at Rusval.

Now Rusval crossed his arms over his chest. “My son abandoned his duties? Is that what you were going to say?”

The Colonel’s ears flopped down in dismay “Not at all, old chap. Merely that….”

“Redwall’s lucky Sinon is there to replace him? That squirrel will never replace my son, never.” Rusval stormed off in a huff.

“Bad show, chaps. Open mouth, insert foot, eh.”

Skipper and Sinon walked over to the others. The otter chieftain looked over as Rusval slammed the door shut. “Looks like everythin’s shipshape, mateys The desk should be down momentarily.”

“Shipshape? Right you are,” said Dippler with an ironic smile.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

They came at dawn; the morning air was rent with screams and their jeering croaks. The sunlight shone teasingly through the trees of the early morning and flies came to join the melee in the blood soaked marshes.

The vermin captains were roused by shouts of “Attack! Ambush!” coming from the creatures on watch in the middle of the camp. Thalweg ran out of his tent almost crashing into Halfear the stoat. Bloodnose skewered a toad stretching his trident towards him, before jumping over the body and running towards Regolith’s tent. He slipped in a puddle of mud and landed at Regolith’s feet. Regolith swung out with his broadsword and easily decapitated the toad coming towards them.

He kicked out at Bloodnose lying on the ground. “Guard my tent, Bloodnose. Protect Vermilion.”

The female pine marten was standing in the shadows, holding a longbow in her blood colored paws. Regolith looked back at her with flashing green eyes. “Don’t leave this tent,” he growled firmly.

Regolith barked out orders at his captains, “Get them in ranks, Halfear! Organize the archers, Thalweg!”

Thalweg could feel the throws of panic welling up in his chest, but he suppressed them and instead grabbed the free arm of a scimitar welding fox and directed several sword beasts to fight in front of the line of archers. There was a dry patch in the marsh for them to do battle.

Many of the archers, sleeping on the edge of the camp had been killed as they slept or cut down as they fled in terror from the toads. The monstrous creatures came from the shadows of the trees, covered in slime and hideous warts. The vermin in his flank stood rooted on the spot, unsure what to do. They were made witless in their all-consuming fear.

Thalweg raised his voice above the melee, hoping it wouldn’t crack, “Archers to the left flank! Form ranks, you lot!”

The confused vermin organized themselves immediately. Thalweg was surprised that they had listened to him at all. He didn’t think that he had a very commanding presence.

“First rank, fire! Reload. Second rank.”

The other soldiers battled on with renewed ferocity, as they listened to the familiar commanding voice of their ferret captain. Their faith in his abilities drove Thalweg to greater heights.

Thalweg reached down and plucked a bow from the motionless paws of a dead stoat. The scimitar welding fox in front of the archers was doing well directing his companions. They had thus far kept the toads at bay and away from the archers who were vulnerable to the toads’ close range frontal assault. The fox’s jaunty headband was splattered with toad blood.

“First rank! Second rank, pick a target. Fire!”

Thalweg notched an arrow to his bow and aimed at toad. The monsters just kept coming in endless waves from the shadows of the forest. And the rising sun did nothing to illuminate Thalweg as to the toads’ position. He wasn’t sure how long he would be able to keep his flank from folding and himself from losing his cool.

“Protect the sword beasts! Second Rank!”

Hearing a gasp behind him, Thalweg whirled around and saw a toad dead on the ground, felled by an arrow in his back. Where had it come from? And who had shot that arrow which saved his life?

Thalweg glanced over and saw Vermilion standing in her tent holding a longbow. She aimed and hit another toad.

She and Bloodnose seemed to be having a great time standing in the entrance of Regolith’s tent and aiming at the toads attacking the troops. With an arrow notched in her bow, Vermilion eyed Regolith as he directed the middle flank of troops. The weasel captain saw where she was looking and directed her attention to the other side of the camp at some of the toads attacking Halfear’s flank. Then he aimed his bow at the toad wearing a ridiculous feather and bone headdress.

The tide seemed to be turning in their favor. At first Thalweg thought they were greatly outnumbered by the toads, but they had grossly overestimated the toads’ numbers. The toads had staged their first assault as a flood of their troops, hoping to cut down Regolith’s creatures in their sleep.

“We’ve got them on the run, my friends! Keep those arrows flyin!’” Thalweg roared.

Thalweg’s troops cheered and were about to take off into the swamp to chase the retreating toads, but Thalweg barked out firmly, “Reform the line!”

Thalweg sighed in relief and clasped paws with the archer next to him. The stoat to his left held up his longbow in celebration and patted his captain on the back.

Regolith walked over to his ferret captain, who was flushed with victory. “Very good, Foulleg. Meet me in the tent in five with your report and number of casualties.”

Thalweg did a preliminary count and examined his archers and sword beasts for injuries, patting them on the back and congratulating them as he did.

He shook the fox with the scimitar. “Name?”

“Riveneye, capn.”

“You fought very well, Riveneye. Any injuries among the swordbeasts?”

“Two dead, and among the rest, just cuts and bruises. The archers kept us well covered.”

“Very good. Thank, you, Riveneye.”

Unable to hide his smile, Thalweg walked through the camp, and ducked below the white velum canvass of Regolith’s tent to convene with the other captains. Regolith stood behind his makeshift table and listened intently to the casualty reports. In the far corner of the tent, Vermilion sat on a stool twanging the cord of her longbow and watching them intently.

Finally it was Thalweg’s turn. “Two casualties among the fighters. I believe about twenty archers were cut down in their sleep.” Thalweg reported of his flank.

“How did they surprise us? I would like to see the night guards,” said Regolith.

“I wondered the same thing myself, milord. The night guards on the edge of camp were all killed. The toads attacked all the guards at the same time, trying to catch us unawares. They didn’t realize that we stationed guards in the center of camp as well. The two guards in the center of the camp saw it and sounded the alert,” Bloodnose reported.

Regolith frowned. “About a tenth of my troops cut down in their sleep. Have you checked our supply train, Halfear?”

“I was on my way over,” replied the stoat nervously.

“Thalweg, I would like you to check and report back on the supply train.”

“Yessir.”

Thalweg shook his head and said, “Those abominable rabbits attacking the fortress, claiming fifty of the soldiers, ten taken by the swamp, fifty in their beds and twenty more in these blood soaked marshes. How many will we have left to conquer Redwall?”

Regolith’s green eyes glittered. “Plenty. Don’t worry, Foulleg.”

Thalweg walked through the camp towards the edge of camp and the supply carts, shaking paws and patting backs as he went. One of the three supply carts was still rather muddy. But as he rummaged through them, he was surprised to find them mostly unharmed.

He began to walk back and report his findings to Regolith when he was grabbed by the back of his cloak and pulled behind a tree. The ferret was about to draw his sword and stab his attacker, but then he recognized him.

“Nice to see you too, Captain Charisma.”

“Dann? What on earth are you doing here?”

“I wanted to make sure you weren’t too seriously hurt in the toad ambush.”

“Is that all?” said Thalweg incredulous. “You are risking your life just to… Dann, you’re much too reckless!

“I could say the same to you, mate,” the squirrel winked.

“Well I’m fine, all things considered. A split lip is all. And the heart attack you just gave me. Wait a minute. You knew about the toads?”

“Yes. We had an encounter with them yesterday.”

“And?”

“They took the Long Patrol major to sacrifice her to their gods for good luck in their attack today.”

“Peony? I’m sorry. I thought she was alright for a hare.”

“She’s fine. We got her out of there before they were able to sacrifice her.”

The ferret was impressed. “But that can’t be all you came here for. You wouldn’t risk coming to see me if it wasn’t important.”

“I also wanted to know if you have any more information about Regolith’s plans for the invasion of Redwall.”

“You wouldn’t believe the vague generalities he presents the captains with. He says we shouldn’t have any trouble getting into Redwall because we have a creature on the inside. But he hasn’t told us anything about this creature. He’s also expecting a visit any day now from some creature named Mortys.”

“Mortys? Never heard of ‘im.”

“Me neither.” shrugged Thalweg. He glanced around again to make sure none of the horde was watching his illicit meeting with the squirrel warrior. “One of the other captains, Bloodnose, is terrified of this Mortys creature. He didn’t say what kind of creature it is or anything about ‘im, just that Mortys chilled the very blood in his veins.”

Dann smiled wryly. “I bet you’re excited to meet him.”

“Can’t wait,” drawled Thalweg. “Have you come to tell me anything? Besides Major Peony’s latest escapades of moonlighting as a toad goddess?”

“Not really. Just to check in. I’ll let you know if we have any other developments,” Dann said. “Actually there was one thing. The others in my party were curious about how we met. I already told them the story. I hope you don’t mind.”

Thalweg gave him a half smile, the scars stood out on his face. “Regolith wanted to know the same story. I told him about Eryngo and Sylvia. He assumed I left the tribe because Sylvia rejected me.”

“Now why could he think that? You’re such a handsome fellow!”

The ferret grinned with all his teeth. “I would have preferred if you asked me permission before you went off revealing my colorful past, but I suppose it’s like they say...”

“…It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission?” asked Dann.

“Right. Although I was gonna say a bird in the paw is worth two in the bush, but I was never very good at those anachronism things.”

“Don’t ya mean aphorisms?”

“Right, right…” Thalweg replied impatiently waving a paw. “Showing off your fancy Redwall education. Very nice, Reguba.”

“My pleasure,” the squirrel quipped.

Thalweg smiled at him slyly. “How about to make amends for spilling the milk and for letting the beans out of the cat…”

“You’re just messing those up to annoy me aren’t you?”

“That would not be an incorrect statement. Well, in recompense for telling them my story, you have to agree to tell them yours as well.”

“Sometimes I think you’re the devil,” pouted Dann. “You of all creatures should know how much I hate talking about that.”

“In all seriousness though, Dann. You should tell them before you get to Redwall.”

“Of course you’re right. Everyone is being so demanding lately.”

Thalweg snorted at the squirrel. “What do you have to complain about? Well I’ve got to be off, pacifying murderous sociopaths and all. It’s a full time job.”

Thalweg slipped off muttering Captain Charisma to himself. Dann watched him go with a smile before he jumped back into the tree.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The day had finally come for the Long Patrol to return to Salamadastron. They were all loath to leave Redwall but Lord Russano never wanted to be away from his mountain for too long and never wanted to inconvenience his friends at Redwall for any real length of time with his hares’ voracious appetities.

The sky itself seemed to be shedding tears along with the Redwallers. The rain was rather cold, serving to remind Song that autumn was fast approaching. Russano lead the Badger Mother out onto the grounds with him, where she and the Abbess could say their farewells to their friends from Salamadastron.

Dressed in their fine scarlet jackets, Russano’s hares were in smart formation on the lawn waiting for their Badger Lord and the Colonel Nymium. Concerned for the old badger standing out in the rain, Song took off her dark blue mantle and draped it over the blind badger’s shoulders. Cregga smiled at her.

Janglur, Rimrose and Rusval were all standing together by Skipper’s otters in front of the wallgate, sheltered a bit from the storm. Janglur and Rimrose were sharing their cloaks, wrapped in each other’s arms. Glancing at the large doors to the Great Hall, the squirrel warrior saw Skipper slip through them before shutting them tightly. The otter hastened over the others lingering by the front wallgates. Standing next to the squirrel warrior, he leaned down and whispered in his ear. “The Colonel Nymium said he wanted a private moment with Sinon in front of the tapestry before they left. Said he had something important to impart.”

The squirrel winked lazily at his otter friend and then as one they turned their gaze to the badgers and the Abbess.

Cypress with her sons and Hawthorne, as well as Brother Jerome and finally Tragglo Spearback came from the side doors, carrying last minute gifts. Tragglo, the Cellarhog, handed Russano a bottle of his best Elderberry wine – Russano had greatly enjoyed it at the feast. Brother Jerome wept into the beautiful scones he had prepared for the hares on their journey. Hawthorne presented the Badger Lord with a resplendent crimson cloak that could be fastened over one shoulder with a glorious golden broach.

Gaping at the beautiful garment, Russano made as if to hand it back. After all, the Badger Lord was accustomed to very simple garb. Hawthorne the pine marten waved his paw regally at the Badger and said with a peaceful smile, “I know that you have no desire for glory or finery. Please don’t take offense at my gift. I only wanted to give you something that would properly reflect your inner generosity and goodness.”

Russano smiled at the pine marten. How could one say no to such eloquence! The Badger Lord blinked rainwater from his eyes and a few tears as well before grasping the pine marten’s paws fondly. “Thank you very much, my friend. I will cherish it more than you realize.”

Turning her blind head back to Russano, the Badger Mother said fondly, “Have safe journey back to Salamandastron, Russano. We’ll miss you.”

Brother Jerome, the jolly cook, had moved to stand in the shelter of the gatehouse along with Sister Bianca to get out of the rain. He sniffled and took the kerchief the little mouse offered him. Blowing his nose loudly, he pulled all the hares near him into crushing hugs.

Lord Russano looked upwards as the heavens opened in an even greater deluge. He sighed, “I hate to be leaving so soon after the feast and with such an interesting discovering from the Abbey’s past being uncovered, but we are expecting news from one of our Long Patrols, and don’t want to be away to miss it.”

“Very good,” said Cregga nodding her craggy head.

“Hope yer not planning on leavin’ without me, sah,” said Colonel Basil Nymium as he sidled up to the crowd with Sinon the red squirrel.

The Badgerlord laughed heartily and turned to face the gates as Skipper and his otters wrenched them open. The long patrol hares followed Russano through the gates and delighted the Abbey Beasts once more with their hair-raising battle cry. “Eulaliaaaaa!”

The Abbeybeasts flew to the ramparts and leaned over as far as they dared to wave farewell.

With a sad sigh, Abbess Song wiped a tear from her eye as she watched the hares and Badger trudge through the woods of Mossflower and soon out of sight. She glanced up as her mother and father standing on either side of her. They put their arms around their daughter and they all stood together in companionable silence gazing into Mossflower.

“Well nose the old grindstone again, eh, Song,” said Janglur with a sigh.

C*~*C*~*C

The hour was getting late. Much of what remained of the day had been spent gazing wistfully out the rain jostled windows or cleaning up the Abbey after their guests had left. Most of the creatures went to help Brother Jerome in the kitchens. After all, Brother Jerome was known for always whipping up something wonderful for his helpers. They took stock of the larders and sorted all the beakers and plates that the hares had been putting in the wrong cupboards.

Exhausted from their labors, most of the Abbey creatures had already gone up the stairs and into the Dormitories. Lady Cregga followed her paw along the wall and settled herself in her chamber in her cozy armchair. She hadn’t slept in a bed for seasons. The storm continued in earnest outside, beating on the windows and howling through the open window in the stairway.

There were only four creatures still burning the midnight oil in the Great Hall as they examined Abbess Germaine’s wondrous writing desk. Skipper of Otters, entranced by the willow markings on the side and the history of one of the Skippers of days past stood over the others with a lamp in one paw. The light from the lamp stole over the desk in teasing flourishes.

Sister Bianca danced around them with a pair of spectacles on her nose as she studied the small and intricate carvings intently; she occasionally did a rubbing if the area was particularly interesting.

Sinon had taken an eager interest in the project as well. The others hadn’t realized that he was such a history buff, or perhaps he had an interest in furniture. Nevertheless, the others hadn’t yet found the link in his interest in the desk to anything similar that he had shown in the past.

And last but not least was Song. The Abbess was not one to slink away when an adventure was to be had and a new discovery to be made.

The lower drawers were mostly empty and all the parchments and books had been removed from the glass cabinets above the closed angled panel, which would presumably open into a desk. Thus far, the slant top remained tightly closed. There was a small metal keyhole at the very top, which was the main cause of their trouble. Sinon wanted to just pull it open or pick the lock, but Sister Bianca would hear no talk of “defiling Abbess Germaine’s beautiful desk!” Thus they had finally reached a standstill.

A bolt of lightning split up the sky followed by a ferocious thunderclap, effectively putting an end to their quarreling as the Great Hall was lit up as bright as day.

Skipper let out a huge yawn and covered his mouth sheepishly. “Sorry. It’s been a long day, mates. I think I’ll hit the sack.”

Covering another yawn with his paw, he handed the lantern to Sinon and dragged his sleepy footpaws up the stairs to the dormitory.

Bianca was unsurprised to find herself yawning as well. The little mouse patted Song’s paw and said, “Abbess Marm, if you don’t mind I think I’ll head up to bed as well. I feel as if we won’t figure much else out tonight at this hour.”

“Yes of course,” said Song. “I think I’ll head up soon as well.”

The little mouse walked up the stairs, turning back only once to see the Abbess drift towards the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. It had become almost a daily custom for the Abbess to touch the tapestry before heading off to bed. She usually stood right under the representation of the Mouse Warrior and his wondrous sword itself.

One paw on the warm cloth, she hardly noticed Sinon walk up to her and stop behind her. She did notice when he put his paw on her shoulder. Startled, she glanced back at him.

“I didn’t realize you were still here, Sinon,” she said. “I thought you went up to the Dormitories along with the others.”

He pulled his paw back, the lantern clinking as he switched it from one paw to the other. “Not yet. Your habit’s still a little wet from the rain. You better be careful or you’ll catch a cold.”

Song chuckled and patted the tapestry one last time before she turned to Sinon, her paws resting in her oversized habit sleeves. She looked at him curiously. There was a strange light reflecting in his eyes. “Something’s on your mind.”

“Yes,” replied Sinon slowly. “You’re probably curious about what I was talking to with Colonel Nymium in the Great Hall before Lord Russano and the Long Patrol left this afternoon.”

Song blinked her long eyelashes in surprise. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t really noticed.”

Sinon frowned but continued in his calm voice, “Colonel Nymium only brought closer to my attention, something that has been nagging me for quite some time. You must realize how long Redwall had been without a champion. It’s dangerous not having a warrior here to protect you and the Abbey. Especially with that prophecy the vixen…”

Song raised her eyebrows in surprise and cut off the rest of Sinon’s sentence, “I can take care of myself, thank you,” she said curtly. “Besides, you can’t just elect to be the warrior. Martin the Warrior is the one who chooses the creature to bear his sword. Colonel Nymium is a very talented warrior, but he has no right to interfere in our affairs. Besides, we already have a champion and I’m not ready to…”

Grabbing the Abbess’ paws roughly, Sinon yelled at her, “You’ll never be ready will you! Open your eyes, Song! Dann’s gone. He’s not coming back. It’s been four seasons! How can you still keep that stupid sword polished waiting for him as if nothing’s happened? How can you forgive him after what he did to you?”

Song cringed back from the other squirrel. He’d never raised his voice at her before. Taken aback, she felt like a timid old mousewife when she replied frantically in a small voice, “He didn’t mean it. He wasn’t himself. It was an accident.”

“Can you call this an accident too!” Sinon cried, putting aside the collar of his tunic to show her the thin scar that still ran the length of his collarbone.

He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard. “I’ve been here all this time, four bloody seasons, playing the dutiful squirrel, picking up the pieces, and keeping the secret of Dann’s fall from grace. Not for him. I couldn’t care less if he lives or dies! I did it all for you! All I ask in return,” he started huskily.

Song cut him off decisively with powerful punch from her right paw.

She struggled from his bruising grasp. “I don’t know you at all,” she whispered in horror before turning on her heels and running up the stairs.

Sinon looked down at his paws before sinking to his knees in front of the tapestry. “What have I done?” he gasped out in horror.

C*~*C*~*C

The storm was even fiercer to be weathered for those unfortunate enough to be outside. Lord Russano had sheltered his hares for the night in a cluster of caves. They were dark and smelled rank, but at least they were dry. Colonel Basil Nymium had built a fire from a few dry leaves and branches that had blown in during a previous summer storm. He set down his cloak for his Badger Lord to sit on, before taking a seat himself by the fire. The other hares hastened to and fro pulling together something for dinner and bandying messages between the other caves.

“Wot a day to start the ole march back to the fire mountain, eh. I feel like a saturated stoat. I’ll be wringing rainwater out of my ears for a season.”

“I feel soaked to my very skin,” said the Badgerlord. “Maybe I will find a use for Hawthorne’s present after all. Hard to pass up a nice dry cloak on a night like this.”

“Hit the nail on the head with that one,” the hare winked at him.

Russano laughed and pulled out the cloak from his pack and draped it over both of their shoulders.

“Very dapper, milord,” complimented the Colonel.

“I wonder if we should have left on another day to avoid the storm,” said Russano. “I’d hate for the whole Long Patrol to catch pneumonia. I’d never hear the end of it from Major General Purslane.”

“Not at all, milord. It’s hard to know with these summer deluges. Sometimes they pass in a few moments, sometimes in a few days. It may have become autumn before we decided the weather was proper for us to leave in. Besides, we’re the bloomin’ long patrol, not a gaggle of rabbits out on parade! We’ve weathered weather much worse than this?”

Russano smiled at the Long Patrol Colonel. He was always learning things about being the Badger Lord. Sometimes he did feel quite young, like a babe playing Badgerlord.

“Well said, Basil. I am anxious to hear from Major Peony’s Patrol. Perhaps some news would have come from her by now. I don’t want to leave any creatures languishing in slavery because I couldn’t pick up my lazychops from the feast tables at Redwall. And no doubt you’ll be glad to see your son or hear some news of him as well.”

“That blackguard? Er, I mean, he’s the very apple of my eye. I’ve been completely bereft without him, wot. The wife and I don’t know what to do with all the peace and relaxation that has been our burden since he went on patrol. Perhaps Captain Turnsol will have knocked some sense into that son of mine by the time they return. He’s a good son, just needs a few more years under his belt to help curb his wild temper. Though he’s a right perilous warrior.”

“Just like his father.”

“You flatter me, Russano.”

The Badgerlord sat up straighter as he thought of something. “I was meaning to ask you what you were talking about with Sinon the squirrel right before we left.”

“Oh that!” chuckled Nymium as he took his saber to shifted some of the logs on the fire. “Nothing too important, doncha know. Merely wanted to confer with him about that prophecy I heard about from you, milord. You know the one, Cypress the Vixen’s prophecy.”

“Yes. I know it well. It’s been rattling through my mind on endless repeat since of I heard it. Feel like a fool not being able to make heads or tails of it.”

The hare Colonel winked at the badger through his monocle. “Not to worry, sir. That makes two of us. No one in the Abbey had figured it out yet either.”

“Perhaps with all our minds on it, well solve it soon and its terrible conclusion won’t come to pass.”

Nymium said the words aloud to himself. “The Abbess, resolute, will protect all, Though she will never again rule her Abbey,” the hare paused to consider the words. He shrugged his shoulders and looked back over at the badger. “That poor creature Sinon seemed convinced that the Abbess was going to die. I tried to reassure him, you see.”

“That was very kind of you, Basil.”

“Thank you, sah.” Nymium stroked his mustache. “Funny thing too, now that I think of it. He also asked how the Abbey Warrior was chosen. Guess he had interest in throwing in his resume for the position as well,” the hare chuckled his eyes crinkling up in his merriment. “I said it was that Martin the Warrior type who’s in charge of that, wot.”

“Naturally, of course,” Russano laughed in agreement. He took the beaker of heated wine that one of the hare cooks offered him. “Supper’s ready? Wonderful.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine

This summer afternoon was much more relaxing for the ferret captain as he continued in his dangerous mission. Most days he felt like he was treading on the very edge of a knife point, or poised on the edge of a precipice, but today there seemed to be a bit of relief for him.

The ray of hope for Thalweg had come from a most unlikely source, Regolith’s mate Vermilion.

For the past several days, the female marten had been carried in a sort of palanquin by several of Regolith’s soliders. However, Vermilion could not bear the thought of having to sit in the litter by herself for the fifth day in a row and asked Regolith if Thalweg could join her.

The pine marten tyrant saw nothing wrong with this arrangement. He always enjoyed spoiling his mate. But lately she almost never asked for gifts or favors and often even seemed dissatisfied with those he presented to her. So now that she finally did ask, he didn’t hesitate to oblige. His only condition was that Thalweg not finish the story of Tezgall the Claw that the ferret had started last night while the two were taking their leisure together. Regolith wanted to be there to hear the end of the story as well.

It was the weasel captain Bloodnose who had seen to the construction of this litter made from strong oak beams, young saplings and flat boards. The linen curtains of the pine martens’ tent served as the walls of the palanquin during the day and the soft burgundy pillows from Regolith’s tent served as its cushions. Regolith himself had even complemented Bloodnose on the design, which would have made even the dead squirrel architect envious. The litter was borne on the shoulders of four strong beasts – eight now with the extra passenger. Long poles coming from the four top corners of the litter were heavy on their backs as the lady pine marten reclined on the soft pillows, her regal footpaws and expensive gowns safe from the mire.

“Come join me, Thalweg,” said Vermilion holding out her red paw to the ferret.

Thalweg hesitated for a moment; loathe to ask other creatures to take on his weight. However, Riveneye the scimitar wielding fox and several of his friends as well as Bleeknose the rat and the rats from the supply train volunteered, happy for a chance to return a kindness to the ferret captain.

The female pine marten was dressed in a black gown today, her scarlet paws arrayed beside her on similarly colored pillows as she studied the ferret with half open eyes. “You seem to be developing a following amongst Regolith’s soldiers, Thalweg. That fox and those rats admire you.”

Thalweg seemed surprised by her comment and was unsure how to reply.

She waved a sharp claw at his face and smiled with all her teeth. “Regolith is easily jealous. He’s been known to become paranoid when he feels threatened. You should know better than most. After all that’s how you got the captaincy in the first place. Your predecessor Captain Deekeye was killed after he made a bid for Regolith’s power. You stepped in to fill the empty post.”

Shocked by these comments that could be construed as helpful, Thalweg stuttered as he replied, “Wh-why are you telling me this?”

Vermilion shrugged languidly. “You fascinate me, Thalweg.”

“What do you mean?”

She let out a mirthless giggle. “You’re not like the other creatures under Regolith’s command. Don’t look offended like that! One wouldn’t think looking at your horrifically scarred face, but your soul is not yet as black as the others.”

Thalweg folded his arms defensively across his chest and spat. “I’m just as nasty as the rest.”

The pine marten lady just smiled eerily at him and steered the conversation in another direction, noting Thalweg’s unenthusiastic response to her previous topic. “It seems like an age since you were telling stories to Regolith and myself in our quarters back at the Castle. Could you refresh my memory?”

“I’m not sure which story you’re referring to.”

“You spoke of a sandstone abbey to the north, Redwall, and creatures like us living there. I’d very much like to hear more about that.”

Thalweg frowned, “I told you and your mate all I know.”

“Hmm.” The marten shrugged languidly. Her movements reminded Thalweg a bit of Regolith’s. They both seemed so elegant and sophisticated with their graceful motions and half-disinterested expressions. This time she was not deterred by his terse replies, and continued on doggedly, “Do you know what manner of creatures live there?”

“I have never been there myself. But I heard from another than four creatures live there: an old vixen and her twin sons and a pine marten like yerself.”

Eagar, she leaned forward, “I don’t suppose you know their names.”

“I didn’t think to ask. I’m sorry, milady. That’s all I know.”

Vermilion sat back against the pillows, disappointment evident in her pale eyes. “If you don’t have much else to say about Redwall, why don’t you tell me more about yourself? Tell me about the tribe you came from and the sweetheart you left behind.”

“Sylvia?”

Vermilion’s pale eyes bored into the ferret’s. “You said she betrayed you. Forced you to leave your home.”

“I did,” was the ferret’s terse reply.

Vermilion leaned forward and whispered to the ferret fervently. “Would you ever wish to see her again? Could you ever forgive her after what she did? If she regretted it deeply, would you take her back?”

Thalweg leaned away from her, confused by her passion for the subject. He was silent for a moment as if considering the questions. “Another chance with Sylvia? I would take it without a second glance.”

“But how could you forgive her after all the terrible things she did?”

Thalweg ran a paw over a scar that ran diagonal across his brow over to his neck. “I’ve done my fair share of terrible things, much worse than anything she could have done.”

Vermilion grasped the ferret’s paws suddenly in her blood-colored ones. She turned them over and studied them. Tossing them back to him unsatisfied, she peered up at him with her pale eyes. “And if you hadn’t?”

Thalweg knew the answer to his question and rejoined without hesitation. “I loved her. That’s all that really matters in the end, right?”

The pine marten lady glanced out into the swamp and worried her lip in her sharp teeth as she whispered. “All that really matters…”

“Captain Thalweg,” came a voice from outside. It was Riveneye the scimitar-bearing fox.

Thalweg opened the linen curtains and peered out at the fox as the creature struggled with the ponderous weight of the palanquin. Vermilion stared unseeingly at the swamp, still mulling over Thalweg’s words. The ferret captain looked at the solider and demanded, “What is it, Riveneye?”

The fox gave a salute. “Sir, I wanted to inform you that Mortys is here now. He’s speaking with his Majesty, the Lord Regolith as well as Captain Zigor at the head of the column.”

“Thank you, Riveneye,” said Thalweg.

The fox nodded to the captain and glanced curiously at the female marten before again returning his attention to the weight of the litter on his shoulders.

Thalweg sighed wearily, still holding open the linen door. “I suppose I should join Regolith and meet the Raven.”

“No!” the cry ripped unbidden from Vermilion’s throat. She grabbed his wrist, letting the linen door fall shut. It seemed her attention was firmly back on their conversation.

“Milady?” was his perplexed reply.

She locked eyes with him and whispered. “Please stay here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Perhaps it’s selfish of me, but I didn’t want to take the risk of having Mortys take you away from me. You’ll be safe here.”

“Milady, I didn’t know my life was that important to you.”

Vermilion sighed and glanced at the linen curtains swaying delicately in the breeze. “You’ll never admit it and you may not believe it yourself, but you’re one of the most decent creatures I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. You’re too valuable to have your life stolen by some bird-brain lookin’ for an afternoon snack. Perhaps your noble heart will cleanse mine of its stains.”

“Milady, I have no such power.”

Vermilion merely smiled at him in reply. She considered him for a moment and then as if satisfied asked, “Could I tell you a story?”

“Tell me a story?” Thalweg asked in reply.

“Yes.”

“What manner of story is it?”

“I suppose you could think of it as a manner of things: a love story, a drama, a tragedy, a history. Think of it as you will.”

“All right,” replied Thalweg.

“I must warn you that I’m no story-teller. I’ve never told anyone this story. Not that many would care to listen.”

“I’m listening.”

“Thank you, Thalweg. The story starts many years ago and it starts with the story of a beautiful maid who was loved by two brothers. The maid and the brothers had often played together as children, for the maid's parents were friendly with the brother's parents even though they came from different homelands. The maid was from far across the sea. She was the daughter of the Emperor of the Corsairs, and though she had lived in a palace during her childhood, her time as a princess would be of short duration -- only four seasons. For her mother fled from the island in the middle of the night with her young daughter, no longer wishing to live in fear of her husband. On the other paw, the brothers had spent most of their lives in a little hovel near what would become Regolith's Castle. Their parents were diligent farmers who worked the land along with the other woodlanders and vermin which lived in the area. The maid's mother had landed at a nearby shore and finally weary of her toils rested her paws for awhile at the town square. This is where she met the parents of the two brothers who took her and her daughter back to their home and offered her refreshment. The children from the two families got along famously and the two brothers fell in love with the maid at first sight.

"They were often mistaken as twins, though they were born a season apart. They were so alike, both sharing the same piercing eyes that were as vibrant a green as an emerald. But in their manner they could not have been more different. The older brother was kind and gentle, often with his head in the clouds. The younger brother was hard and cruel, with a drive and a hunger for more.

The two families lived for many years in peace, growing strong together. But as the years went by, the two brothers became more and more stuck in their ways. The brothers' parents worried about their younger son, worries which they took to their graves when they died of the fever during one particularly harsh winter. The maid lost her mother in the same winter, but the children of the two families survived.

Each mourned their own parents bitterly for a season, but eventually there comes a time when life must go on. The following summer, the older brother asked the maid to be his mate and she agreed without hesitation.

“They were happy for a little while, but it couldn’t last. Because the maid was like the younger brother in her manner. She was also hard and cruel and desired much. She wasn’t happy as the wife of a farmer! She wanted to be a queen. No, she deserved to be a queen. And she wanted pretty things. But she only became unhappier when she received them. More, more, she always wanted more.

“One day she met a young squirrelmaid who had the most beautiful bracelet of intricately woven leather the maid had ever seen. The young squirrel was naïve and flattered by the maid’s complements and took the maid to meet the squirrelmaid’s own father, an architect. The father also succumbed to the maid’s fluttering eyelashes and showed the maid a sketch of his brainchild, his masterpiece, his Castle.

“The maid fell in love with the Castle. She wanted it more than anything else in the whole world. Her mate amused her for a little while with talk of how to gain such a thing. But when he realized that she was earnest and would be merciless in her aim to gain this Castle, he became horrified. She planned to gain the castle through the enslavement of all the woodlanders nearby. They would build her the Castle, a place fit for a queen.

“Her mate scolded her. So she ran away and into the arms of his younger brother. She knew that the younger brother desired her and she knew that he had ambition. She knew that he would give her what she wanted. He was not weak like her mate, held back by his compassion for others – the very thing that had made her fall in love with her mate in the first place. She cursed his compassion and called it weakness.

“The younger brother was strong and cruel and already had something akin to an army at his command. Others flocked to him because of his drive and vision, weak souls clinging to one that was strong, dragging onto his coattails and hoping to get leftovers from his table, a taste of the spoils.

“The maid and the younger brother returned to the squirrel architect to see the wondrous plans for the Castle. When they returned to their home, greed in their eyes and an army at their beck and call, they were astounded to find the older brother already there waiting for them.

“The older brother had always been weak, he had no ambition. But he was stirred by his compassion for the woodlanders and he was determined to stop the maid and the younger brother from their evil plans. In this aim, he was joined by his oldest friend, an old vixen who had quite a reputation as a seer.

“But their only weapons were words, which were no match for the younger brother’s steel. The younger brother was about the plunge his sword into his older brother’s chest, but the maid stopped him at the last minute. She wanted the Castle more than anything else, but she still loved the older brother, even though he couldn’t give her what she wanted. But in the end, she begged the younger brother to let her mate go. She said “Let him leave and never return.” He couldn’t stay because he would try to warn the woodlanders.

“But before the older brother and his vixen friend left, the seer put a curse on the younger brother and the maid. For she had seen into their futures. She said that they would never be as happy as the older brother. The maid would never be as rich as the older brother, her mate that she abandoned. The younger brother would never be as happy as his older brother and he would meet his downfall, utterly alone and consumed by madness.

“The maid and the younger brother merely laughed at the seer, calling her a fool, a simpleton. She was simply jealous of their success.

“But eventually the maid began to fear that what the seer said was true. She finally had her Castle and had a beautiful dress for every hour of the day, but she began to wonder if her old mate was richer than her. Would she have been happier if she stayed with her first mate? She never really loved the younger brother. Yes, he was handsome and strong and she desired him, but she did not love him. She began to see the older brother in a new light and began to realize that his compassion was not a weakness but a strength. She began to hate the dresses and the Castle. She began to hate the younger brother. She began to think she was cursed, that her paws truly were red from the blood of all those she had destroyed to get what she wanted.

“The younger brother in turn also began to fear the predictions of the seer. His mate became distant; her heart still belonged to his older brother as it always had. He had innumerable troops at his command and a Castle. So he began to wonder what his brother had that would make him happier than he.

“After the younger brother dispelled an uprising by the woodlanders who he had pressed into slavery, he met a raven who was feasting on the dead on the battlefield. The struck up a strange friendship, and the raven could see he was troubled by something. So the raven volunteered to search for the older brother and see if he was happy.

“The raven flew northward and wasn’t seen again for nearly a whole season. When he finally did return, his report enraged the younger brother. The raven had found the older brother in a sandstone palace. Older and much larger than the Castle. It was full of bounty and beautiful foods and happy creatures. And the older brother was very happy there.

“The younger brother was enraged and became obsessed with ruining the happiness of his older brother, who he believed had taken away all of his happiness. He wanted to destroy his older brother and take over his palace. So he sent someone ahead of him to prepare the way. The younger brother promised to kill someone this creature loved dearly if the creature did not do everything as the younger brother instructed. If this creature did not do everything to thwart the happiness of the older brother.”

Vermilion fell silent, her story complete. Thalweg would only stare spellbound at all she had revealed. He whispered, “How does the story end?”

Vermilion looked down at her blood-red paws. “Unhappily ever after. How else?”

C*~*C*~*C

Zigor the black fox peered at Regolith with his flat obsidian eyes. Most creatures would quail under such scrutiny, but Regolith seemed to be the only creature immune to the black fox’s considerable power of inspiring fear in others. The fox nodded towards the sky at a considerable black shape that was swiftly winging its way towards them.

“I said Mortys would arrive today,” the fox said in his silky deep voice.

Prruk-Prruk-Prruk!” came a deep resonant call.

The huge bird seemed to obscure even the sun as it glided towards them and landed gracefully on a wide dry patch of the swamp. Tucking its immense wings, it strutted towards the fox and pine marten before standing eye to eye with Regolith. The other horde creatures gave the three a wide berth.

Kraah! Good morrow, emerald eyes and black brushtail. Nasty swamp ya got here. Though no doubt Ziggy feels at home.”

Regolith smiled languidly and let out a snort of laughter. Zigor meet the raven’s black eyes with his own in a keen glare.

Mortys waved a wing dramatically and said with charming alliteration, “But you won’t have the benefit of the bog much longer, brushtail. The swamp stops soon and then ‘tis a tall mountain.”

Regolith nodded and then asked the bird without preamble. “Have you ever tried frog meat, Mortys? The cooks’ve prepared smoked frog legs for you.”

“Frog legs?” The raven scratched its shaggy throat feathers with its beak in thought. “Surely you have slaves to spare. I was thinking of dining on riverdog today. That one with the pendant looked tasty the last time I saw ‘er. Didn’t you say you planned to bring a couple with you? Where’re ya hiding ‘em, emerald eyes?”

Regolith raised an eyebrow at the raven and drawled, “We had a slight change of plans.”

The raven was taken aback. “Change of plans? But you need slaves for your plan to succeed.” In its agitation, the large black raven let out a grating cry. “Kraah! Surely you realize that your spy in the sandstone palace will not cooperate without… the proper provocation…the proper leverage.”

Zigor sneered at the bird, his black eyes cold. “Are you going to tell the spy that we don’t have the slaves?”

Toc-Toc-Toc!” the raven sneered back, before calling out in a perfect imitation of the black fox’s silky voice. “He won’t behave until he sees them unharmed, particularly that maid.”

The black fox growled at the raven and pulled out his skinning knife. “I don’t like being mimicked.”

A beady eye winked at him. Then the raven disarmed the fox with a quick kick of one of his sharp talons. The blade spun off and landed with a muddy plop into the marsh. “Touchy today aren’t we, brushtail? No need to be sheepish.” His voice had a teasing lilt to it when he asked Zigor innocently, though this time in Regolith’s voice, “Was it you who lost the slaves?”

Regolith chuckled at the furious face of his fox captain before replying to the raven. “I assure you that the escape of the slaves was the blunder of a great number of my soldiers, who have since been taught a lesson.”

Prruk!” The beady eyes gleamed with malice. “A deadly lesson? Any leftovers?”

“You’re disgusting,” murmured the black fox.

Regolith merely chuckled at the displeasure of his fox captain. “We all have our own … peculiar habits.”

The raven scratched its head with a wing. “How did the slaves get out of your humble abode, emerald eyes? Did Ziggy forget to close the door?”

“They were freed by a group of rabbits,” spat the black fox, “You nosy birdbrain!”

“Rabbits? I wonder how those taste. I’ve never tr…”

“Enough of your disgusting feeding habits!” growled Zigor starting to lose his always impeccably maintained composure. Nothing rankled the black fox, nothing except that accursed raven. If only his skinning knife hadn’t been tossed into the mire. He crossed his paws over his chest.

“Any word from our spy in Redwall?” drawled Regolith.

The raven gave him a mock salute. “The badgerlord and his hares are gone and Redwall is ripe for conquest. The spy is equipped for his task so long as you...” the Raven tittered with laughter. “Krah-ha-ha… hold up your end of the bargain.”

Regolith chuckled and grinned with all his teeth. “Oh, he’ll get what’s coming to him, alright.”

C*~*C*~*C

Halfear narrowed his eyes. Again he was stuck babysitting the lousy wagons with the horde’s food. Regolith and Zigor were at the head of column talking to the Death Bird, Mortys. The stoat captain didn’t envy them in the slightest. Bloodnose was scouting ahead with a pair of weasels. The wagon they lost in the swamp had a very great provision of their rations of water so it was vital that more be found. Thalweg was relaxing like some sort of prince in the litter along with the Lady Vermilion. A number of rats and foxes had even volunteered to carry the ferret, like he was something special. And here he was, Halfear, the captain with more tenure, stuck babysitting the lousy carts.

“Why the long face, mate?” called a voice from above him.

Halfear peered up at the lofty vault above him curiously for a moment before he heard an amused laugh from a voice not at all celestial.

“Vulpuz’ claws! What do you want, Lousewort?” Halfear glared up at a rat sitting on the cart he was marching beside. The creature had a disarming grin. Halfear went on, “I’m not gonna play dice with you if that’s what you want. I don’t fancy losing any more of my water rations to you.”

The rat chortled and jumped down from the cart and gave the stoat a smart salute. “Not at all, cap’n. Wouldn’t dream of winning from such an upstandin’ fella as yerself. It’s a real honor just’a stand ‘ere in your presence”

Halfear puffed up a bit at the compliment before looking at Lousewort suspiciously. Lousewort often won money off of a pair of Halfear’s weasel friends, so the captain knew that the rat was often up to no good.

“What do you want, rat?”

“Not much, yer handsome-ness, I was just wonderin’ why such a capable and clever commander such as yerself would have been left looking after the luggage when a fool like that Thalweg is off reclining in luxury with ole bloody paws herself. It just don’t seem right to me, cap’n.”

“Orders is orders, rat. Regolith himself gave me this commission. It’s a soldier’s job to do wot ‘e’s told.”

“Right,” agreed Lousewort disingenuously. “Just is strange to me ‘ow the new cap’n gets so much attention when an excellent fella like yerrself gets pushed to the fringes.”

“I suppose,” replied Halfear. “Who was Thalweg before he was made captain anyway?”

“An excellent question, sire. I’m sure I ‘ave no idea. And if’n you ask me. I’d say that ‘e shouldn’t have been made cap’n in the first place. Should’ve had a rat replace Captain Deekeye, not a ferret. Or better yet, a stoat. ‘Tiss a well known fact that stoats are the most reliable ‘o species, not sly like foxes, stupid like weasels or untrustworthy like ferrets.”

“Yer right about that, rat,” agreed the stoat captain wholeheartedly.

“Lord Regolith sure is lucky to have a captain like you who obeys his orders so well and looks out for his lordship’s best interests. Thank goodness Lord Regolith doesn’t have a captain that looks after ‘is own self-interests as ferrets are often apt to do.”

“Yeah,” agreed the stoat, though he wasn’t really sure what apt meant.

The rat smiled and walked along with the captain in companionable silence.

What a fool Captain Halfear was! The rat’s blandishments had the stoat like puddy in his hands. Lousewort would have an unsuspecting ally helping him discredit and depose the ferret captain. Then the rat would receive the captain-ship, which had was rightfully been his.

He hadn’t gone to all the trouble spreading rumors about Deekeye just to have the position snatched up by some no-name ferret, who hadn’t even been a smudge on anyone’s radar until he subverted Lousewort’s plan and stole his rightful captaincy.

Oh he would see to the ferret captain, alright!

Chapter Thirty

The red pommel stone of Martin’s great sword gleamed in the setting sun. Dann Reguba had never made it his habit to walk around the Abbey armed, but today was the Midsummer Night feast and Abbess Song had begged him to wear it. But not only that. She along with Log-a-Log Dippler and Chief Burble had strong armed him into performing a sword dance that he had developed while he trained outside the abbey. The sword was now fastened across his back and the hilt peeked over his shoulder where he could quickly draw it. Though he would have no reason to do so today.

Now as the feast went long into the night, everyone relaxed under the gently swaying branches of the orchards. Taking their ease, they either studied the stars twinkling like diamonds, drank in the delicious aromas tossed about by the calming night breezes or delighted in watching the fireflies delicate nighttime dances.

The three Mossflower chieftains, Song, Dippler and Dann, sat together at one of the tables. Chief Burble of the Rivervoles, the fourth chieftan, was lounging at another table with Skipper trying to talk the unfortunate otter -- who had recently been building furniture for the foxes and pine marten in Mossflower glade -- into making a treasure chest for the irrepressible watervole.

The three old friends, thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, had spent much of the feast discussing both serious and trivial matters with other beasts or watching performances of the Redwallers, otters, shrews and watervoles that thus far they hadn’t had much time to just sit together and joke around.

Giggling together as a firefly landed on Dann’s nose, Song and Dippler began to tease the warrior. The shrew held out his beaker to the squirrel warrior and proclaimed, “Go and refill my beaker, mate. Tragglo’s damson wine is mighty fine this season.”

The Abbess was helpless with laughter as she presented her beaker to Dann as well. “Yes, I wouldn’t mind some more as well.”

Dann crossed his arms over his chest. Trying to keep the laugh out of his voice, he replied petulantly, “Go get your own drinks, dozychops!”

This had become one of their games of late while they were feasting – teaming up on one of their number to drive them from the table to refill their beakers or plates with something or other. With Dann being such an easygoing squirrel and with Dippler and Song both having mischievous streaks, the game typically played out in this manner.

Dippler laughed and put a paw around the Song’s shoulders. Sharing a conspiratorial sideways glance with the Abbess, the shrew went on doggedly, “Now, mate. You should know that as the Abbey Warrior of Redwall it’s your duty to protect your Abbess and all Redwallers.”

“Really?” the squirrel warrior responded with a sarcastic smile. “What are you two devils in danger from?”

The squirrelmaid winked at the shrew before throwing her paw over her forehead and pronouncing dramatically, “Why dying from thirst, of course.”

Dippler tried to hide his snort and played along saying, “We’re just wilting away, warrior. It’s your duty to protect Redwallers!”

“But you’re not even a Redwaller! You live in Mossflower!” Dann complained. “I shouldn’t have to go all the way to the drink table for you, Log-a-Log.”

Dippler and Song looked at each other with matching expressions of mock-horror. They whispered loudly to one another.

“Sink my whiskers, he didn’t just say what I thought he did, did he?”

“Doesn’t he realize Redwall’s mission is to support all of Mossflower country? In rain or shine? In war and in peace? In hunger and in thirst?”

Dann sighed dramatically as well, “You two win. I’ll refill your glasses.”

Dippler and Song dissolved into laughter as they congratulated themselves on their success. The squirrel warrior stood up and took their glasses with a broad smile. Walking off to the table, he shook his head and trying to hide his chuckles.

“You’re so diabolical, Mother Abbess,” praised Dippler.

“Why thank you, Sir Log-a-Log.”

“Does that make us three for five now?” wondered Dippler.

The Abbess pursed her lips as she pondered the question. “Didn’t we deem the contest at the Harvest feast a draw?”

“I suppose,” agreed the shrew chieftain. “We all ended up leaving table and getting our own drinks. But I thought we gave ourselves half credit for that one? Three and a half for five, then.”

A gruff voice laughed from behind them. “Did you two win? What’s Dann fetching for you this time?”

The squirrel and shrew turned as one and saw Tragglo Spearback and Foremole passing by.

“Burr aye, whurr’d Maister Dann get off t’?”

“We sent him off to get us more Damson Wine,” replied the shrew leader.

Song glanced over at the drink table. Dann was no where to be found. She was just about to speak again when Skipper slunk by trailing Brother Jerome who was hauling a steaming cauldron of hotroot soup. The otter crew had finished the first cauldron mere moments after the feast had begun and had been pestered the poor Redwall cook since to make them another.

“Are you looking for Dann?” asked the cook. “He volunteered to go and fetch another cask of damson wine from the cellars.”

“We already finished the first cask?” asked the Abbess aghast.

Log-a-Log chuckled, “I guess we unknowingly made his task a little more difficult than we first anticipated.”

Song broke into a fiendish smile when she realized the shrew’s point. “I suppose you’re right, Dippler. How amusing!”

The two Mossflower chieftains broke out into fits of laughter again, holding onto each other and their sides.

“Boi okey, ee Abbess surpintly bees enjoyen’ ‘erself,” Foremole remarked.

Song wiped tears of merriment from her eyes with a paw and stood up as well. “Maybe I should go help Dann with the wine. No, don’t trouble yerself, Dippler mate.”

“Oh, you don’t need to fret about it, Abbess,” said Brother Jerome as Song walked back to the Abbey. “The squirrel Sinon went in as well to help Dann.”

The light from the wall sconces flooded the entrance as Song wrenched open the heavy back doors to the Abbey. Her footfalls echoed in the consuming silence as she walked towards the Great Hall and the entrance to the cellars. She hesitated for a moment when she heard whispers coming from the Great Hall and then a very loud cry of fury. It sounded like Dann’s voice. Was he in trouble?

Picking up the skirts of her habit, she raced to the Great Hall, her footpaws pounding on the stones as her heart beat frantically in her throat. She faltered and came to an uncertain stop at the strange sight before her eyes.

Dann had unsheathed Martin’s sword from its tight fastenings on his back and was swinging the Abbey sword furiously at one of the Abbey’s own inhabitants, Sinon the squirrel. Unarmed, Sinon had his paws in front of his chest as he backed away from the enraged squirrel warrior, trying to dodge the swings of his sword. The tableau was made all the more grisly by their placement. They were standing in the middle of the empty Great Hall, directly under the depiction of Martin the Warrior. The mouse warrior stared out impassibly from the tapestry with a soft smile on his face.

Dann’s sword work was sloppy in his towering rage, but it would not protect his unarmed victim for long. With just another slice of the keen blade, the squirrel warrior landed a blow. Blood poured from the wound that traced the entire length of Sinon’s left collarbone. The wound was just as deadly a crimson as the battlelight in the Abbey Warrior’s eyes.

Song didn’t notice Sinon glance at her quickly before he fell to his knees in front of the squirrel warrior, staining the hallowed hall with his blood. Song had seen quite enough. She ran towards the two male squirrels, yelling loudly, “Dann! Stop it! Stop right now! Dann!”

Whether or not he heard her, she would never know. He was completely insensible, blinded by that accursed bloodwrath. She let out a little sob of horror. Was she too late? Could she stop him from killing one of the Abbey’s own creatures? She was just as tall as he, but he was much stronger.

She reached him just as he raised the sword over his head as if to deliver a death blow to the creature kneeling in front of him. From behind his back, she grabbed the sword in her paws, clinging on doggedly with all her strength.

Again she pleaded with him, “Dann. Open you eyes. Please! It’s me! It’s Song. Please, you can break free of this!”

He did not heed her desperate cries. Instead he turned his face to her as he glared unseeingly at her through his blood-suffused eyes. She let out another sob of horror. “Please, Dann. This is so wrong! Break free of this!”

Her tight grip on the sword wouldn’t allow him to weld it. Growling, he took his frustration out on her, pushing her roughly aside and out of his way. He used his shoulder like a battering ram, slamming her into the wall with all his strength. The back of her head struck the wall forcefully and she slid down, lying in a muddled heap under the tapestry. Her head felt all fuzzy, like she was sloshing through thick mud.

The spell was broken.

Dann dropped into a crouch over her, peering deeply into her eyes. His eyes had returned to normal, to a calm brown. But the expression on his face was like nothing she had ever seen him wear before: guilt intermixed with horror and doubt.

She tore her gaze away from Dann to spare a quick glance over Sinon lying motionless on the floor, bleeding out. She looked back at the Abbey Warrior with renewed horror.

Still holding Martin’s sword, wet with another creature’s blood, he lifted his free paw and reached out to touch the back of her head where a nasty bump was surely forming. She used her own paw to touch the back of her head where she felt something warm and sticky. Drawing her paw back, she examined her own blood on it, not seeming to understand why it was there or what it meant.

“Song,” he said ardently in little more than a whisper.

Subconsciously, she flinched away from him with her entire body. He stopped his paw just millimeters from her. It hung there motionless between them for a moment before Dann pulled it back and struggled to his feet. Unceremoniously dropping Martin’s bloody sword at her feet, he stumbled backwards with a sob. Song stared curiously at the sword as it clattered to the floor at her feet and then at the warrior who dropped it. The Warrrior of Redwall sped for the doors and ran out of the Great without once daring to look back at her.

Song, too dizzy from the blow to stand, crawled over the squirrel Sinon. Gingerly, she turned him over. He was still alive, if bleeding profusely. She breathed a sigh of relief which turned into another and then a flood of tears. Her heart-wrenching cries echoed through the empty Great Hall.

~*~*~

Drenched in cold sweat, head pounding, Abbess Song let out a quiet sob as she woke up from the dream. She felt terrible, and it wasn’t merely from the memories of her past. It was probably from standing out in the rain without a cloak. She was so stubborn sometimes.

For a moment, she glanced out into the darkness. What hour of the night was it? When would the sun return to drive out this endless night? The rain hadn’t ceased either. It still pounded insistently on her window.

She wasn’t one to dwell too much on the past, though it was difficult not to dwell on her past with Dann and the night he left the Abbey. That’s why she hated being sick, or sitting still for too long. Her mind would always drift back of its own accord to memories of him and the incident – she had started to think of it as such. It was heartbreaking to think of that night, so filled with both utter joy and heart-breaking sorrow.

In her mind, she could still hear the dull clattering of Martin’s sword as Dann dropped it in horror at her feet before running out of the Great Hall and then out of the Abbey. That was the last time she had seen him. She didn’t want his last memory of her to be that look of horror she must have given him. He had shoved her away, unintentionally knocking her senseless against the wall. Her expression was of surprise and shock – nothing that would merit him running from the Abbey.

She regretted it almost the moment after, regretted looking at him in such a way. Of course she realized that it was an accident. She had forgiven him a thousand times in her head, so why hadn’t he come back? Had she done something else too? What had made Dann that upset anyway?

She pulled herself out of bed, struggling to her feet. She felt so weak. She shuffled over to the tall-backed chair where she had tossed her soaking wet habit before she went to bed. Even now, it was still damp. Reaching into the pocket, she pulled out her kerchief to blow her nose. Groaning aloud in frustration, she tossed it onto the ground. It was just as cold and damp as her habit.

This time she felt her way over to the small chest of drawers across the room. Opening the top drawer, she felt around for a clean and dry kerchief. She pulled out a couple of things that weren’t kerchiefs before she found what she had been looking for.

With a sigh, she sat down heavily on her bed and blew her nose and then took a sip of the water sitting faithfully on her nightstand. Resting her pounding head in her hands, she closed her eyes and sobbed silently to herself.

For how long she stayed like that she didn’t know, but after a little while she slipped back into a fitful slumber.

C*~*C*~*C

Mother Cregga couldn’t understand it. She was blind, covered in innumerable old battlewounds, and some days she felt as old as the sandstone walls themselves. Yet she was hale and hearty this morning and the young, I’m-not-gonna-get-sick-Cregga-what-a-silly-notion Abbess Song was in bed with a fever.

Cregga blamed it on being out for so long in the rain without a cloak yesterday. After all, the Abbess had given the ancient badger the very cloak from her back. However, the Abbess said that she didn’t mind being sick this morning as long as she had gotten the chance to see off Russano and the Long Patrol. Janglar and Rimrose were worried about their daughter and Sinon the squirrel, usually a stolid and steady squirrel had all of a sudden gone into hysterics.

He had taken to hiding out in the upper branches of the trees in the orchard this afternoon and refused to come down for lunch even with Brother Jerome’s cooking to tempt him. Skipper of Otters had tried to climb up to talk to the squirrel, but Sinon threw hard, unripe peaches at him until he gave up. The dibbuns of course thought this was great fun and had started chasing after Skipper throwing all manner of projectiles at the otter as well.

The Badger Mother, on the other paw, was enjoying the summer afternoon in the shade of the porch in front of the Great Hall with Cypress. In her dry old voice, the vixen said to her badger friend, “How would you like to take tea upstairs with the Abbess. Perhaps the company will do Song well.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea, Cypress,” was Cregga’s gruff reply.

“I hope the Abbess hasn’t taken the prophecy too much to heart. I hope it wasn’t my words that made her sick.”

“Your words? Prophecy? What are you talking about?”

The vixen turned to Cregga. “Surely Song told you about my prophecy. I should have told you earlier, but because it concerned her, I thought I would let her reveal it. It came to me just a few days ago. Such strange rhymes:”

Danger comes to Mossflower
As Warriors arrive from the south,
Bringing death in their wake.
The death bird flies with a bloody mouth,
Warning all to fear the green-eyed one.
The one sent before must betray
To preserve a familial bond,
He poses as one like you to this day,
Though still obedient to the Ruthless one.
The Abbess resolute will protect all,
Though she will never again rule her Abbey.
By a warrior's hand will the Ruthless one fall.
Danger comes to Mossflower.

“Oh my,” said Cregga. “I didn’t know that you had prophesied again. The Abbess will never rule her Abbey again? Some creature will betray us to the Ruthless one? Did you tell this prophecy to Sinon and Song when they arrived at your home?”

“Yes.”

“Now I know why Sinon is so upset. Being privy to that sort of knowledge would make me want to climb up a tree and throw peaches at creatures as well.”

The old badger heard the door to the gatehouse swing upon as well as the footfalls of Sister Bianca and Rimrose as they walked back to the Great Hall of the Abbey. While Rimrose had been writing down a mention of the day in the records, Bianca had been reading through old Abbess Germaine’s tome on the furniture built by Holt Tungro for the Abbey.

“Good afternoon, Bianca, Rimrose,” said the badger.

The two creatures started when they heard the badger’s voice; they hadn’t seen her and the vixen sitting on the porch, as they were partially hidden behind a pillar.

Cypress chuckled and remarked, “When you see the world through your other senses, you sometimes see more than you would with only your eyes.”

“Yes, yes,” interrupted Cregga. “Are you two going to see Song? Cypress and I were thinking of taking tea with her this afternoon, try to cheer her up.”

“We were about to go to the kitchens to ask Brother Jerome to make a tray of tea for three. We can just as easily ask for a tray for five.”

C*~*C*~*C

It seemed as if she had been having a staring contest with her own paws for hours now. But she continued to stare at them stubbornly, not wanting to look at the eyes of the creatures around her. She couldn’t bear to see their worried gazes and probing questions.

She had tried once to remind Sister Sloey that the infirmary was supposed to encourage patients to feel better, but the Infirmary Sister didn’t heed her. She merely brought in more guests for the Abbess.

Still unconscious, Sinon the squirrel was lying on a bed much farther down from her. This was perhaps because so many creatures were sitting on the beds adjacent to their Abbess: her mother and father, Cregga, Dippler, Burble, Skipper, Rusval, Cypress, Hawthorne, to name a few. Sister Sloey was standing over the red squirrel, looking to see how the wounds she had sown up a few hours ago were holding up. Sinon had lost a lot of blood.

Of course they all wanted to know what had happened. She couldn’t blame them. However, she didn’t know what to say about the whole affair.

“Don’t strain yourself, darling,” said her mother. “You’ll remember soon.”

Of course she could remember exactly what had happened, with a nauseating amount of detail. But for some reason when the others rushed in after they found out there had been an accident or some kind of attack, she said she couldn’t remember amything. They believed her instantly. She had hit her head pretty hard and besides, she was the Abbess. And everyone knew that Abbess’ don’t lie.

She put a paw to the heavy wrappings around her head and sighed.

“Head wounds bleed a lot, Abbess,” said Sister Sloey as she walked over. “But luckily I don’t think you have a very serious concussion. You didn’t lose consciousness after you hit your head? Only felt a little funny? I can’t understand why you’re having trouble remembering what happened a little while ago, but the memories should return very soon. Not to worry.”

“Thank you, Sloey.”

Her father moved from where he was perched on an empty infirmary cot, to sit on the side of her bed. He put a paw to the ponderous white wrappings around her head and said with a sigh, “I got a strange sense of deja-vu seeing you there under the tapestry. It was just like what when you started your journey to retrieve the tapestry from the Marlfoxes. I was just as worried then as I am now.”

She gave him a warm smile with a tilt of her head, causing the bandages to fall over her eyes. “Confounded things,” she muttered.

When she got the bandages up from over her eyes, she saw that mother had moved as well and was now standing with her hand on Janglur’s shoulder, gazing down at her daughter. This left Rusval Reguba sitting alone on the cot that the older squirrels had been sitting on. Rusval hesitated and then said, “Do you remember who did this to you? And I don’t want to worry you, but we haven’t been able to find my son. Do you know where Dann might have gone?”

Cregga turned her blind head to Rusval before she said disapprovingly, “Don’t rush her, Rusval. The Abbess has just suffered a great shock. Perhaps when Sinon wakes up he’ll remember something, jog her memory.”

That if nothing else had the express effect of “jogging” her memory. Song didn’t want Sinon to take the reins of this cart racing headlong off the tracks. It would have to be her who would tell the others what had happened. But what should she say? The truth didn’t seem appropriate to tell. She didn’t want to besmirch Dann’s reputation.

“I think things are finally starting to fall into place,” Song finally spoke. “I’m starting to remember what happened. I went in to look for Dann and Sinon who had been gone much longer than they should have. When I arrived in the Great Hall, I heard the sound of fighting.”

“Fightin’ in the Abbey? Who was fightin’?” interrupted Skipper, his shock overcoming his manners.

“If’n you’d let her speak you’d find out. Ya great puddenhead riverdog!” groused Log-a-Log Dippler. The shrew turned to his friend. “Who was it fighting, Song? Go on. I won’t let that waterwalloper interrupt you again.”

“Er,” Song trailed off, not sure that she wanted to tell the story after all. “Well there were Dann and Sinon fighting under the tapestry.”

“Who were they fighting? Did some creature break into the Abbey?” asked Skipper.

Dippler growled at him and put a paw over his mouth. “Was it a vermin? A villainous ferret or something who snuck in when he smelled the vittles from the feast?” asked the shrew leader. He realized a second too late what he said and looked at Hawthorne and Cypress with something akin to embarrasement. “Meaning no offense of course.”

“None taken,” replied the pine marten. “They are plenty of creatures like ourselves whose behavior would merit disapproval and hate from all woodlanders. I can easily see how you might believe all of our species are villainous,” the pine marten turned his kind emerald eyes on Song. “I see how why you hesitated to tell us all what happened. You’ve known all along haven’t you? It was very considerate of you, Abbess, to hesitate in order to protect my feelings and those of Cypress and her sons. But if someone of my species has done wrong, please tell me. I’m willing to take on the burden of their wrongdoing on my shoulders. I don’t want you to have to be burdened with it.”

Song gaped at Hawthorne. The answer was right there, placed tantalizingly in front of her. It would be so easy. They would believe her without a doubt. But would it be right to lie to them, even if the lie was to protect the reputation of someone she loved?

“There was a ferret… with terrible facial scars,” she began. “He had made his way into the Abbey after he smelled the feast in the orchard. He was in the Great Hall looking for treasure. Dann was fighting him with Martin’s sword and I ran up trying to help. But I ended up only getting in the way. The ferret grabbed me and… tried to use me as a shield so as to escape. Sinon tried to help, but the ferret slashed him with his blade. The ferret threw me at the wall and then ran for it. The last thing I remember is Dann rushing out the door after him.”

“But why did Dann leave Martin’s sword?”

“Oh,” whispered Song. Was her story already unraveling? “He didn’t want to dirty Martin’s blade any further with the coward’s blood”

“That’s very brave of him,” replied Rimrose.

“Foolish,” growled Rusval disapprovingly. “Chasing down an armed creature to do battle with them without any weapons? A darned foolish notion!”

Song looked at her paws, “I suppose it’s foolish to fight a creature with a sword when you have only your paws.”

“Dann’s a perilous warrior. He’s just as accomplished with a sword as he is without. We have no need to worry for his safety too much. He should be back soon,” said Cregga.

The Badger stood up from the cot and said, “Let’s leave Song to take her rest.”

The others filtered out of the infirmary and Sister Sloey ran off to get some lunch for her patients. Glancing over at the other patient, Song saw that Sinon had finally woken up. He stared at her accusingly. “Why didn’t you tell them the truth?”

“You were listening? How long have you been awake?”

“Long enough to hear you covering for Dann’s mistakes. Do you really believe you can wash away his sins with your pretty stories?”

“He’s the Abbey Warrior. I have to protect the sanctity of his office.”

“I don’t understand why you’re lying to protect him.”

“That’s my business. But I can’t ask you to lie for me. If you wish to reveal the truth, I won’t stop you.”

“You don’t have to ask me. If it’s what you want, I’ll do it. I’ll keep Dann’s secret.”

“Thank you, Sinon.”

~*~*~

It was the second time in as many hours that Song had woken up from a terrible dream of that day. She often thought about Dann and what he must be doing and why he left, but this was the first time in many months that she had dreamed about it. Naturally for a week after he ran away from Redwall, she had dreams of this kind almost every night, but it had been seasons now and she thought she was finally getting over it.

She had promised herself after he had been gone for a week that she wouldn’t think about and wouldn’t talk to anyone about it – not Cregga, not her parents, and not the only other one who had been present there, Sinon.

However, if she was going to die soon, what harm could there be in hearing the truth before she went to the Dark Forest? When she got better she would confront Sinon about the incident and about what happened last night. Enough of hiding the past and running from it!

She started when she heard a knock on the door. Cregga and Cypress strolled in on either side of Rimrose, who was bearing a tray loaded with afternoon tea for five and a pile of Jerome’s cinnamon scones – those were Dann’s favorite. Bianca trailed behind the others, carrying a leather bound notebook to her chest.

Rimrose put the tray down and said softly to her daughter, “We decided to take tea with you this afternoon, Song. If you don’t mind.”

“Not at all. What a lo…” Song stopped speaking for a moment and let out a mighty sneeze. She continued in a nasally voice, “lovely idea.”

Rimrose chuckled a bit at her daughter and her rather undignified appearance. Then she put a huge spoonful of honey in Song’s tea and presented it to her. Then she poured cups for the others.

“What a shame to be sick on such a nice summer day,” announced Bianca, paws in her lap over the little notebook.

“Although it is rather hot outside. It’s nice to be taking it easy inside where it’s cooler. Why Cypress and I were just sitting on the porch in front of the Great Hall enjoying the shade,” remarked Cregga.

“Perhaps if you’re feeling better later you can join us, Song,” said the vixen.

“Thank you. That would be lovely,” replied the Abbess, finishing her tea.

“Isn’t tomorrow Midsummer Night?” asked Bianca. “I hope you’re feeling better by then so you can join us outside for dinner.”

“Midsummer Night?” Song gulped.

“Yes. Wait, wasn’t it the last Midsummer Night that…”

“Yes,” interrupted Mother Cregga. She could hear Song’s labored breathing and became worried.

“You look pale as a sheet, Song,” her mother pointed out worriedly. “Perhaps we should leave you to get more rest.”

Song smiled weakly at them. Cregga put a paw to Song’s forehead to feel her temperature. “She’s very warm. Perhaps we should leave her so she can get some more rest.”

“Alright,” said Rimrose. She accepted Song’s finished teacup and then laid a kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “We’ll be back in a few hours, darling, with your dinner.”

“Thanks, mum.”

“Oh, Abbess. I forgot to give this to you when I came in,” Bianca said guiltily. “It’s blank, so you can write in it if you want. I know sometimes I have so many thoughts running around in my head that I get anxious or have trouble sleeping.”

Song accepted the book with a smile. “Thank you, Bianca. That’s very nice of you. I’m sure I’ll think of something to fill this book with.”

The others stood up and left. Bianca gave her a smile and wink before she closed the door behind her.

Song opened the leather bound notebook and ran a paw in a soft caress over the blank page. It would be a comfort to put her thoughts together on paper. To try to piece together her fractured thoughts and memories of Dann. Enough secrets. The quill seemed to flow across the page, faithfully accounting her thoughts as they were swept onto the paper.

Dann, it’s been almost four seasons now that you’ve been gone. I hope your travels have helped you to clear your head.

Please know that I don’t hold any of it against you. You weren’t yourself, I understand. I’ve heard from Lady Cregga Rose Eyes herself how the bloodwrath is a great and terrible thing. But I don’t care about that. We can work through it together. I’m stronger than you think I am. Please, let me help you bear the burden. Just come home to me, come home to Redwall. We miss you.

I’m sorry that I didn’t give you a chance to confide in me earlier. I’m the Abbess, I should’ve spoken to you when I got the first whiff of something on your mind instead of pushing you away. because I was embarrassed and alarmed by the feeli

Now there is word of a prophecy and I’m frightened. I don’t want the others to realize because I don’t want to start a panic. I’m supposed to be resolute and protect them. How did you find the strength to bear the safety of Redwall on your shoulders?

There is one thing I want you to know before I go, before this green eyed Ruthless person ends me. No matter what, I have always and will always love you.

She looked down at what she had written of this imaginary letter to Dann. What a selfish waste of the time she had left. Cypress’s prophecy said that she wouldn’t see the Abbey long after this. Of course they said not too be concerned about it, but it was hard not to be. Song could use these moments sitting in bed much more constructively. She would not dwell on her thwarted romance; she almost chuckled at the irony of it. Abbesses weren’t supposed to fall in love like that anyway. That was the beginning of the problem to begin with.

She ripped out the page and crumpled it up, tossing it away. It rolled under her bed.

She would fill this book with her thoughts and memories of what it was like to be Abbess. What sort of qualities the next Abbess or Abbot should have. Stories and Anecdotes and advice. If she didn’t have much time, what a wonderful way to spend it to help her Abbey!

She tapped the end of quill pen against her forehead and looked down at the blank page considering. She dipped it in the ink and began to write.

Strength Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns.
Understanding Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Courage Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Truthfulness Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Frankness Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns

Song looked down at the list she was making. Goodness! She was starting to see a theme. She chuckled. She needed to stop thinking about the incident. Of course she wished she had learned this qualities better before the incident – maybe they would have helped with what had happened in her past. But she was being narrow-minded. There were other qualities just as if not more important.

Humility Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Decision Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Wisdom Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns.
Compassion Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Patience Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Friendliness Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Fairness Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
When Jerome Opens The Kitchen Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
How Much Hares Eat At Feasts Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
Dibbun’s Favorite Bedtime Story Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
How Much Hotroot Soup Can Be Safely Consumed Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns
The Rivervole’s Dialect Is The Thing A Good Abbey Leader Learns

“Yiss, yiss,” Song chuckled to herself as she kept on writing.

C*~*C*~*C

Standing by the drinks, he watched them laugh merrily at some sort of game they had invented. Abbess Song seemed to be in her element. She had a glow about her as she laughed uproariously at what Dann and that shrew were saying to her. He had never made her look that happy. He had never made her smile and laugh like that. He was forever fated to be in the shadows, pushed to the fringes by that accursed squirrel warrior.

Watching nauseated as the Abbey warrior touched her paws and shoulder as they teased one another, Sinon poured himself a glass of Damson wine. The drink was rather fine this season. Tragglo Spearback sure was a talented hedgehog. What a shame, there was only about half a glass worth of wine left in the barrel. Sending another glare at the back of the Abbey Warrior, Sinon tossed the drink back and finished it in one swig.

He finished and smacked his lips together. Noticing the creature who had just walked up next to him, he flinched. The very creature he had been cursing was standing in front of him with several beakers.

“Hey, mate,” greeted Dann.

“Reguba,” Sinon nodded coldly at him.

“Right,” replied the squirrel warrior with a tilt of his head. He looked back at Song with a smile.

Dann tried to fill up one of the beakers but was dismayed to find that the barrel was empty. He scratched his head and looked over as Brother Jerome passed their way with Skipper trailing behind drooling.

“We’re out of Damson wine, Brother Jerome. I’ll go to the cellars and fetch another cask.”

“Why thank you, Dann,” said the mouse agreeably. “I’ve got to keep the otter crew happy. Can you believe they finished that cauldron of hotroot soup in ten minutes?”

“’Tis nothin’ like a good ole pot of ‘otroot soup to put a twinkle in yer eye and a shine in yer coat,” was Skipper’s reply.

“Right you are, Skip,” said Dann with a laugh. The otter winked at him in reply.

Sinon followed behind Dann with the intention of helping him retrieve the large cask of wine from the cellars. He noticed Dann again looking back wistfully at Song laughing at the table with the Log-a-Log. The Abbey Warrior gave a little sigh.

“You’re disgusting,” raged Sinon without preamble.

Dann looked at the other squirrel in alarm. Narrowing his eyes, he growled dangerously in reply, “Excuse me?”

“I see how you look at the Abbess, Reguba. Did you think no one would notice? Disgusting! She’s the Abbess and you’re the bloody Redwall champion. You shouldn’t look at her that way. It’s wrong.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” countered Dann, looking decidedly belligerent.

Sinon opened the door to the Great Hall and ushered the Abbey Warrior inside. Dann had his paws tightly clenched at his sides. Sinon spared no delay in continuing his accusations. “You didn’t get this position with your own merit. You got it because of your name. Reguba,” he spat. “You don’t deserve to wear that sword, not when you harbor those thoughts about the Abbess. You’re a fraud, a coward, an abomination.”

“How dare you!” shouted Dann, unsheathing Martin’s sword from behind his back.

“How much longer are we going to have to pretend that we don’t notice your lust filled stares? All of Redwall would be better off without you. Especially Song.” Sinon continued, heedless of the strange battlelight growing in Dann’s eyes.

Sinon had never seen a creature taken by the bloodwrath. It was truly a terrifying sight. The Abbey warrior let out a bellow like a wounded animal and charged the red squirrel, his sword glittering in the candlelight. Jumping back in alarm, Sinon ran from the warrior, heart pounding in his throat.

He had only wanted to help Dann realize what sort of monster the warrior was. Sinon thought he could maybe anger the typically easy-going squirrel into punching him, a light blow to the face or something. He didn’t think the squirrel warrior would go stark-raving-mad and assault him in the Great Hall with Martin the Warrior’s sword.

There was the sound of another pair of footpaws and the Abbess herself ran into the Great Hall, skirts flapping around her as she ran at Dann calling his name. Her entrance distracted him, enabling Dann to land a blow across his shoulder, a deep slash that bled profusely.

He fell to his knees in front of the squirrel warrior rather more dramatically than necessary. He wanted Song to realize what sort of villain Dann truly was. The Warrior raised his sword over his head to deal the killing blow but Song grabbed his paws just in time.

“Dann. Open you eyes. Please! It’s me! It’s Song. Please, you can break free of this!”

Sinon couldn’t believe how well this scene was turning out. Dann gave her a terrifying look and threw her against the wall. Sinon suddenly started to feel a bit guilty for involving Song in all this.

Dann’s eyes soon lost their deranged appearance and he knelt before Song with a tender expression on his face, whispering her name. For a moment Sinon wasn’t sure if he had lost this round or not. But as he saw her flinch away from Dann’s supplicating paw, Sinon felt as if he had won his war with Dann.

The squirrel warrior relinquished the sword at the Abbess’ feet before pounding across the hall and through the doors. He didn’t even hesitate once and look back at them. Feeling as if his work was done, Sinon feel deeply into unconsciousness.

~*~*~

Sinon jumped when he heard voices passing under his tree. It was the Badgermum and her two vermin friends, the vixen and the pine marten.

The vixen had such morbid tastes. She was again discussing her dire prophecy with the Badgermother. “It’s been many seasons since I thought about this creature, but I believe I know who the Ruthless green-eyed one is.”

“Do you really believe that Hawthorne’s younger brother would be coming to Redwall? I thought you said that he had built a fortress in the South,” replied Cregga.

“And I believe I know who the betrayer might be,” said the vixen. “I’ve been spending a great deal of time considering it, and I believe I’ve come to the correct conclusion.”

“Really?” asked the pine marten. “And who would be protecting a familial bond? I can assure you that I have…”

The vixen interrupted with a giggle. “I won’t tell you now. I’ll tell you all at the Midsummer’s Night Dinner. I want Song to be the first to know. She had a right to it.”

Chapter Thirty-One

“So do I understand this right? The bowstrings are all connected by this single stave. And you have it rest in the…” Turnsol hesitated for a moment.

“Unstrung position,” Willow the squirrel continued. “And when you pull it back into strung position all of the bows are armed.”

“And you can change the angle and distance of the group of arrows but stringing them back more or less…”

“Or by moving the wheel that the contraption sits on. That changes the angle that the arrows will fly at.” The squirrelmaid nodded.

“This is quite brilliant, Willow,” said Turnsol. “It’ll be a great help to the creatures in Redwall with these villains coming from the South. It’ll be like we have a whole ‘nother regiment of archers at our command.”

Willow stretched her paws over her head with a smile and a sigh. “So are we finished with the diagrams and all the figuring yet?”

“You can bet your bushy tail on it, wot,” quipped Turnsol.

Sighing, the hare tossed aside the knife he had been using to trace pictures in the rocky ground. The clatter of the metal on a nearby rock echoed in the silence around them. Willow leaned over and grabbed the dagger, thrusting it into her belt. The other creatures in the patrol were working on setting up a trap for the pine marten’s troops that would soon be marching through the gully below. Turnsol with his bandaged shoulder had been given a different task because Peony was sure he would do something to harm himself if he helped. The hare sighed again in displeasure. Although he would never admit it, he knew the Major was right.

Willow, sitting next to him on the log, looked with pride at the drawings and formulas scratched into the dirt at their footpaws. They had done it. She had finally contributed something to their mission.

She said as much to the Long Patrol Captain, “It feels nice to finally help the Long Patrol out a little. Most of the time I feel so helpless. Like I’m a bother or a infant, or something.”

Turnsol frowned. “Don’t say that, my dear. You’ve done wonderfully so far. You’ve gone above and beyond what anyone could have expected of you.”

Willow scrunched up her nose in displeasure. “That’s the problem! No one expects anything from me! And when I try to help, the other creatures don’t take me seriously. Dann Reguba said… no matter, it isn’t important. I just wish…you’re going to think me foolish and selfish…but I wish that I had the chance to shine. A chance to show him and all the others that they were wrong about me.”

“You’ll get your chance I’m sure. But when you do, shine for your own sake. You don’t have to prove anything to others; shine for your own glory.”

A long-eared shadow feel over the marks Turnsol had traced in the rocky dirt. The hare and the squirrelmaid looked up at Major Peony smiling down at them. “A wonderful soliloquy, Turnsol,” teased the Major. “Brought a tear to my eye.”

Turnsol stood up and smiled down at her. “You’d do well to listen to my words too, Peony.”

She snorted and ignored the remark. “Made any progress on our super-ballista, Turnsol?” she asked.

“We have, marm!” said the squirrelmaid excitedly. “Turnsol’s figured out all that horrible technical stuff. Maybe now we can try to make a small scale model of the thing.”

Peony put her paws on her hips and glanced towards the deep ravine. “Probably not today. We have other business to attend to now, but afterwards I don’t see why not.”

Turnsol frowned down at the drawings he had made in the dirt with Jonquil’s knives. How on earth was he to remember all of this? Peony, however, seemed to be thinking the same thing as he.

She remarked, “It’ll be much too difficult for you to remember all this technical mumbo jumbo, Turnsol, when you have so many pretty sermons and aphorisms in your head. I probably should have given this to you sooner, I only thought of it a few moments ago.”

She handed Turnsol a small notebook.

“Isn’t this where you write your reports?”

“Yes,” said Peony biting her lip and looking around suspiciously.

“Isn’t it classified information?”

“What’s that mean?” asked Willow, still craning her neck upwards at Peony.

The Long Patrol Major plopped down next to the squirrelmaid and said, “It means that what’s written in that book is for my eyes only at least until my superiors read my reports.”

Willow looked over at Turnsol, uncertain about the implications. Would Peony get in trouble for letting them use this notebook?

“Use some of the blank pages in the back to jot down the figures and formulas for our super-ballista. Maybe when we’re closer to Redwall and have a bit of leisure on our paws, you two can work on constructing a small-scale model of the thing.”

Whether they meant to or not, that seemed to be the cue for all the others to return from their various duties. Cinnabar the otter was covered in dirt from something or other and the Long Patrol Sergeant was laughing at him for it. Major Peony ran over to join Sergeant Saxifrage where lunch was being set out. Turnsol nodded to the squirrelmaid and followed Peony to the vittles. Carrying two plates of lunch and a happy smile, Galena winked at Cinnabar before going over to sit by her friend on the log. The ottermaid handed the squirrelmaid the extra platter of bread and cheese.

“How’d the preparations go?” asked the squirrelmaid.

“Great,” said the otter. “There were all sorts of loose stones and even boulders littering the mountainsides, so we lined it all up along the edge of the ravine that Regolith and his creatures should be marching through. Major Peony gave us some tall staves to use levers to push the rocks over when the time’s right.”

“Wow, that sounds exciting.”

“It was rough, heavy work, but it’ll be worth it when we get to see the pine marten’s face when the whole mountain seems to be coming down on him!”

Willow laughed heartily with her friend. “Won’t he be in for the surprise of his life! Major Peony sure is clever inn’t she. I’m sure no other creature could have thought up something like this.”

“No doubt about that.”

“Galena? Where’re Dann and Beech? They didn’t come back with the others,” asked Willow as she realized she was the only squirrel enjoying lunch.

“Oh, I forgot about that. They’re on guard by the ravine in case the vermin come sooner than we think.”

“Do you think I should go and bring them some lunch?

“Sure, I’m sure they’ll be getting hungry,” Galena replied.

Cinnabar walked over to them taking a long swig of elderberry cordial. “Feel like I swallowed enough dirt to make another mountain,” the sea otter said before sitting down next to them. He took a wedge of cheese from Galena’s plate and munched down on it, winking at her teasingly.

“Hey! Get yer own!” Galena scolded him.

He stuck his tongue out and she pushed him off the log. “Didn’t yer mum tell you ‘tis nice ta share?”

“Did yer mum tell you ‘tis not nice ta steal from other creatures?” Galena retorted in mock anger.

They giggled and proceeded to berate each other. Willow laughed at them before standing up and volunteering to fetch lunch for Dann and Beech watching the ravine for sign of the pine marten. She balanced the two platters of bread and cheese and passed by the Long Patrol officers on her way.

“I wish you’d let me help with moving all the rock, Peony.”

“But who else would have been clever enough to figure out our super-balista, eh? Besides, I don’t want you to jostle that shoulder any more than necessary.”

“This bloomin’ shoulder!”

“That reminds me. I wanted Borage to take a peek and see how it’s healin.’ Borage, mate, could you take a quick peak at Turnsol’s shoulder? Make sure it’s healin’ properly?”

Borage walked over from where he was next to Saxifrage and loosened the bandages and looked at the wound. “It’s healin’ very nicely, mate. It’s a good thing you’ve been keeping it still. The wound hasn’t reopened.”

“Told you so.” Peony grinned, tapping Captain Turnsol on the nose. He snapped his teeth at her reply.

“Shouldn’t be much longer til your back to your usual self.”

“It’s been near three weeks! How much longer could it take!” growled Turnsol.

The Long Patrol healer considered the question, “I’d say you can take the bandages off when we’re halfway through Mossflower and can start buffeting vermin again full force by the time we reach Redwall.”

“No need to pout, Darcy,” quipped Peony teasingly. “These things take time.”

“I’m not pouting,” groused Turnsol, indeed pouting.

C*~*C*~*C

The summer sun peeked through the trees and glinted off the verdant green leaves of the alders, poplars, pines and firs lining the gorge. Beech prayed that his red fur wasn’t too visible through the branches. He and Dann were spread out high up in the boughs of a pine tree, which afforded a wonderful view of the gully below. In his pack slung across his chest, Beech had brought up with him some branches he had already trimmed for arrows and green material Jonquil of the Long Patrol had provided with which to make fletches. Those Long Patrol hares sure knew the answers to everything! The squirrel warrior had promised his young friend that he would help teach him how to fletch his arrows.

“You’ll have to forgive me if they don’t come out perfectly. I’m not an expert archer by any means of the word. However, I do usually fletch my own arrows, so I thought I could show you how as well.” Dann paused for a moment considering what he said. “I wonder if the reason why I’m not a good archer is because I use arrows I fletched myself…hmm.”

“You’re not giving yerself enough credit, sir,” replied Beech, horrified that his hero had the gall to criticize his considerable talents.

Dann snorted, “even so.”

Beech hesitated in anticipation for a moment before launching out without preamble, “It was good of you, Dann, to relate to us the story of how you met Thalweg the ferret. You’re usually so close-lipped about everything; it was nice that you were willing to trust us with the information.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you with the information, it’s just that no one deserves to be burdened by my misdeeds.”

“It’s not a burden. I just want to help you to…”

“To what?” Dann asked spitefully.

“I dunno. I feel like your hurting yourself, trying to keep it bottled up inside yourself like you are.”

“Oh, really?

“I thought it might be sort of cathartic like to share it with someone. Pain shared is pain halved.”

“Pain? Have you ever heard of something called the bloodwrath?”

Beech perked up at the clue. “Yes, I have. It’s like a magical power that Badgerlords have that make them invincible, right?”

Dann smiled wryly at the young squirrel’s answer. “You’re only part of the way correct on that one. It’s not a magic power and it doesn’t make you invincible. It makes you vulnerable. It stripes away your sense of pain and your reason. It can be a powerful ally in battle, but it can also be very dangerous.”

“I don’t understand. That sounds like it would make a badgerlord invincible.”

“No, it doesn’t make anyone invincible. It takes away your sense of pain, making you battle on regardless of danger until either your enemy is dead or you are. You become a liability.”

“Oh. That does sound kinda scary I suppose,” Beech nodded.

“And even worse, sometimes it takes away your ability to differentiate friend from foe.”

Beech gasped in horror, the cogs turning in his head, trying to understand the subtext of the conversation. “Were you in a battle with the Badgerlord Russano? But I thought the Long Patrol hares said that Russano was a peaceful badger, not possessing that bloodwrath thing.”

“A battle with Russano? No. And you’re right, he doesn’t have the bloodwrath. But other creatures besides badgers can have the bloodwrath.”

Beech looked at Dann in a new light. “Do you have it?”

Dann turned away before answering in little more than a whisper. “Yes.”

Beech looked at Dann with concern. “But what did you do? What happened?”

Dann answered the question with another question. “What would you say if I told you I killed another creature?”

“I would say that you were the Abbey Warrior, it was your duty to protect that Abbey. If you had to kill a vermin to save Redwall, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Haven’t you killed countless numbers of Regolith’s vermin now since we’ve known each other? You must have dispatched at least ten when we were evacuating the slaves from the Castle.”

“What if I told you I killed a creature inside the Abbey walls?” was the equally enigmatic response from the squirrel warrior.

“I would say then that you would have been even more justified. You would’ve been protecting yourself and your Abbey.”

Dann shot back wounded, “But it wasn’t a vermin. It was a woodlander, a squirrel like you or me.”

Beech tried not to show his surprise, afraid of inadvertently making Dann retreat back into his shell. “It must have been an accident. I couldn’t believe you would do something like that on purpose. You’re a good and noble creature. You don’t kill needlessly and for your own gain. There must have been a misunderstanding, surely.”

“No misunderstanding. I just lost my temper and attacked him. I spilled his blood right under the tapestry of Martin the Warrior with Martin’s own sword,” Dann put his head in his paws. “He had so much blood.”

“Did the Abbot ask you to leave?”

“The Abbess you mean? No. I didn’t stay long enough to inconvenience her with the issue of my expulsion. I just dropped the bloody sword and ran.”

Beech was silent for a moment. “Are you sorry you killed him?”

Dann looked out unseeingly towards the ravine. “Yes and no. I’m sorry I caused so much trouble for the Abbess, the Abbey, and tarnished the name Reguba. But am I sorry he’s dead? No? Does that make me evil?”

“No! You are not evil! You saved me from Regolith’s slavers! You didn’t need to do that. You risked your life to save others from the Castle. You’re risking your life even know, trying to help Redwall. An evil creature wouldn’t do that.”

“What do you know of evil?”

“Don’t forget I was raised in slavery, Dann, under a tyrants thumb. I’ve probably seen many more terrible things than you have. So if I know about anything it’s evil. What I’ve come to believe is that most creatures are not evil. Many creatures do bad things, but they are just driven by their vices to do so – greed, revenge, lust. There’s only one creature that I’ve had the displeasure of knowing who I believe to be truly evil -- Zigor the Black Fox, one of Regolith’s Captains.”

“What is he that makes him evil?”

“He’s completely devoid of anything resembling a heart. The only thing he loves is slaughter. Even creatures who had only known evil deeds can become good. Look at the impact you have on your friend Thalweg. Any creature who does good deeds can’t be evil.”

“But what if that creature has a curse that makes him like that evil creature you described, a machine of slaughter.”

“Is that what the bloodwrath is like?”

“For me it is,” said Dann.

“And you haven’t been back to Redwall since that day? Are you afraid to return?”

Offended, Dann turned to the younger squirrel. “You think I’m afraid to return to accept the consequences of what I did?”

Beech shook his head frantically, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

Dann said passionately, “I’m more than willing to accept the consequences for what I did. I just don’t trust myself. I’m afraid of what I’ll do in the Abbey if I have another attack of the bloodwrath.”

“So why have you been gone for so long?”

Dann looked down at his paws. “I don’t want to go back before I’m ready. Not until I’m safe for her, for them. They deserve better than me, someone cursed with the bloodwrath.”

Beech paused and said, “We’re going to be there soon. Do you think you’re ready?”

Dann looked forward into the chasm in front of them, “I think so. After all, I’ve spent four seasons preparing.”

Beech stopped speaking when he heard footsteps. He peered into the gorge, but it was empty. He glanced down at the forest floor and saw a familiar form walking towards the pine tree.

Willow looked around perplexed. There were all the rocks lined up by the edge of the cliffs, but there wasn’t a creature to be seen anywhere.

“Up ‘ere, silly,” came an amused voice from above.

She glanced up at the branches of a tall pine tree and saw the familiar faces of two squirrels looking down at her.

“I brought lunch,” she said. “I thought you too might be hungry.”

“Thanks!” said Beech.

Dann clambered down the tree and took his plate from the squirrelmaid. “I’ll eat mine back at the camp. Peony’ll want to know how close Regolith’s troops are getting.”

“Sure. I’ll continue as lookout,” called Beech.

Dann waved his paw at the young squirrel and walked back towards the camp. He felt a little better after sharing his story with the young squirrel, but it felt weird to have been so open. To have his whole history put under a microscope. He was sure he wouldn’t hear the end of it from Beech, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

Willow watched Beech climb down. He smiled and took the plate she offered. He seemed to be growing taller everyday. Strange how she and Galena and Beech were all growing up so fast.

“Would you like to eat up in the pine tree? It’s a beautiful view.”

Willow smiled at him, “Sure.”

The two squirrels climbed side-by-side, with their lunch in the haversack Beech had slung across his chest. Crinkling her nose at him, Willow laughed and climbed faster. Not to be overdone, Beech climbed faster as well. In hardly the blink of an eye, the two squirrels were comfortably sitting in the top of the pine tree looking down over a great expanse of the scenery.

The languidly stretching mangroves, aspens, red maples and black willows populated the southern swamps far and wide towards the empty patch of trees where the Castle probably stood. Willow and Beech sat in that direction watching a dust cloud still moving tirelessly towards the ravine. Dann had seen it earlier and had been watching its progress. It was still a little ways away.

Side by side, the young squirrels watched the dust clouds. Taking out the cheese and bread, Beech handed his friend her portion and they ate it quickly. He had gained quite an appetite moving the boulders around in the heat of the sun.

“Are you fletching your arrows?” asked Willow. “Can I help?”

“Sure. Would you like to sharpen points on them?” Beech pointed to the dagger on her belt. “I see you’ve got a dagger. Did Jonquil give it to you??”

Willow looked a little guilty when she replied, “Sort of.” Jonquil had given the dagger to Turnsol and Willow had taken command of it afterwards. Although, she was sure the hare probably would have offered to give it to her. She had no weapon, yet.

Noticing Beech raising his eyebrows teasingly at her, she distracted him from the particulars of how she really obtained the dagger by asking, “What were you and Dann talking about?”

“Dann spoke in confidence, so I shouldn’t break the promise I made to him.”

Willow frowned at him, sore to be left out. However her annoyance at the other squirrels’ secret keeping was quickly distracted at the powerful rush of black wings. Squinting her eyes at the blast of wind, she saw a huge raven flap his wings once more and fly off into the sky. The squirrelmaid felt a chill of fear flow through her veins.

“Beech, that was Mortys the raven,” she whispered horrified. “What on earth is he doing here?”

Beech looked at the dust cloud again. It was getting rather close, and this news of the raven might be important. “Let’s go and tell the Long Patrol. It’s probably nearing the time for us to spring the trap.”

They shimmied down the tree and bounded off to the camp.

C*~*C*~*C

Cinnabar and Turnsol heaved against the poles holding the boulders in place and sent them hurtling into space. They crashed down upon Regolith’s troops passing through the narrow ravine. Galena slashed the ropes holding the rocks piled on a steep ledge, which was the signal for Beech, Willow, Jonquil and the younger hares to shot arrows into the ravine at the vermin.

Peony hiding in safety of a ledge with Saxifrage, Toby, Dann and Beech winked at her companions before dipping the end of an arrow bound with linen in the little fire crackling at their feet. The end flared up and the Long Patrol Major fired the first arrow into the canvas roof of one of the supply carts.

Regolith’s troops were in disarray as the arrows struck. They stung like wasps -- that is the arrows that didn’t leave the vermin dead on the ravine floor.

Captain Halfear and the creatures around him were in the heat of the danger. The rat Lousewort ran in circles screaming, his tail on fire. He rolled under a cart, narrowly avoided being crushed by the falling boulders. The other creatures around him weren’t as lucky.

Regolith was hollering orders at his troops, “Fire back! Kill them!”

But the pine marten couldn’t see the invisible assailants and only caused his creatures to panic.

Thalweg gasped out when a fire arrow ripped through the canvas of Vermilion’s palanquin where he was reclining. He helped the glamorous pine marten out of her burning litter and instructed the creatures who were carrying it, Riveneye the fox and Bleeknose the rat among others, to hold up their shields to protect themselves and the pine marten lady. Her black diamond ring glittered on her trembling claw.

Safe for the moment from the arrows falling like rain, they stepped over creatures moaning and dying at their footpaws and hastened to the front of the column where Regolith was roaring like mad.

The pine marten was immensely relieved that his mate was alright and nodded approvingly at his ferret captain. The green-eyed tyrant looked ironically at the fox captain who was shooting off arrows randomly towards the top of the ravine and remarked, “At least some of my captains have been blessed with brains.”

“We must get out of here, Regolith,” whispered Vermilion ardently. “I’m frightened.”

“Don’t worry, my love,” said the tyrant. He pulled her to him and Thalweg’s creatures moved to cover him as well with their shields.

“They’re using fire arrows on the supply wagons,” gasped out Thalweg. “I’ll go see if’n I can help Halfear.”

“Where’s Bloodnose gotten off to?” wondered the pine marten leader.

“You sent him to scout ahead,” reminded Thalweg.

“That’s right. Well don’t stand there staring. Go see what you can do about the supply wagons,” growled Regolith.

The ferret’s gruesome scars stretched across his face in a most grotesque manner as he smiled kindly at the pine marten lady. Riveneye the fox, Bleeknose the rat and the others that held out the shields to protect the pine martens watched unhappily as Thalweg hurried off alone back into the danger of the falling arrows.

They wanted more than anything to maintain the umbrella of protection over the ferret captain, the most noble and brave vermin they had ever meet.

Zigor the black fox lowered his longbow and frowned in displeasure. Gazing out at the path of the ferret captain, the black fox followed the ferret from a distance.

The arrows seemed to let up a bit as Thalweg neared the supply carts. The ferret hastened over to Halfear who was ordering the creatures around him to throw sand on the burning carts. His hysterical shrieks were deafening.

It happened so fast that Thalweg barely had time to react.

The entire mountain seemed to be falling down on them this time. More boulders but also loose dirt, roots and bushes rumbled down the mountain. These had not been sent by the Long Patrol. Instead they had been loosened by the weight of the boulders resting on them and the momentum of these same boulders falling to earth.

These rocks barely missed the ferret captain as he twisted away, coughing up the dust and dirt that got into his mouth as he struggled vainly to see through the thick dust. However the stoat captain was not as lucky. He was buried under the lot.

Thalweg bloodied his paws as he frantically dug through the dirt and rock to find his fellow captain. The ferret tossed away a bushy tailed creature that sat dazed on top of the rocks. The ferret was unable to see through the thick dirt obscuring everything around him that this bushy-tailed creature was not a fox as he had assumed but a squirrel. In fact, it was a squirrel he knew very well that had fallen down into the ravine along with the dirt and rocks, Dann Reguba.

But Regolith’s other creatures noticed it immediately. An axe wielding fox charged the familiar golden furred squirrel with a ferocious roar. Dann jumped out of the way to avoid the strong swing and reached for his sword to protect himself. The long sword that was buried beneath tons of earth.

Thalweg had at last found Halfear. Luckily, the stoat captain was not gravely injured. His left paw had been crushed by the falling rock, a cut on his forehead bled profusely and his legs were buried under the dirt, but he grinned at the ferret captain.

The creatures above the ravine soon realized what happened and were overcome with horror as the fox charged Dann, dazed and unarmed on the ravine floor. Major Peony roared the bloodcurdling battle cry of the Long Patrol and scaled the rumble to come to the squirrel warrior’s aid. The part of the mountain that had fallen unintentionally seemed to make a natural sort of ramp onto the ravine floor.

She sliced around the mail of the axe welding fox and skipped aside to avoid his blow before hurling herself bodily against a rat to knock him off balance before he could land a blow on her back. As he sprawled on the floor of the ravine, she dispatched him neatly.

“It’s the squirrel warrior and one of those hare beasts,” gasped Halfear, pointing to the two woodlanders battling in the ravine. He looked over at the ferret captain and asked, “Are you just gonna stand there gapin’? Kill ‘em!”

Thalweg merely meet eyes with Dann and stared at the squirrel warrior awkwardly. Halfear didn’t see their expressions, but two pairs of eyes did: a frightened pair of brown eyes from under one of the wagons and a suspicious pair of black eyes from near the head of the column. They both examined the ferret captain curiously.

“I…not until I get you out from here,” was the ferret’s stuttering reply.

“I can wait. Get those two! That’s an order!”

“I’m a captain, too,” Thalweg complained. “Ya can’t order me around.”

Halfear crossed his arms over his chest petulantly as he watched Thalweg shift the rocks and dirt around him and ignore the battle between the two woodlanders.

Major Peony battled gamely on. She had given Dann a pair of knives she kept on her belt. She was like a whirlwind of steel, dealing a swift death to anyone who got in their way.

Back to back with the hare, the squirrel warrior gasped out worriedly, “How do we get out of this, Peony?”

“I’m sure Turnsol’ll throw a rope or something,” she replied, kicking away the body of a dead rat.

The Long Patrol Major couldn’t have predicted her friend’s actions any more accurately. At that very moment, a line flew down from the heights. “Climb up, mates,” Captain Turnsol’s hollered urgently.

The two warriors looked at each other, neither wanting to be the first to climb and leave the other stranded. “Ladies first,” said Dann.

Peony glared at the squirrel. She decapitated a stoat coming up from behind Dann and growled at the warrior, “Get climbin,’ Reguba! You’re a bloomin’ squirrel. Besides, I promised myself that I’d bring ya back to Redwall Abbey unscathed. You won’t make me break my promise will ya?”

Dann started climbing first and was half way up in the blink of an eye.

A rat who was cleverer than the others, took this moment to scurry out from his hiding place under the cart. His tail was charred from the flames, but he had lost none of his determination. Picking up a bow from the ground and an arrow from the quiver of a dead stoat, he closed one eye, aimed and shot at the rope. The rat, Lousewort, chuckled evilly at his success. His glee was short-lived, however. He had to roll under the cart again as a wave of arrows flew down. They bit deep into the wood of the cart where he had stood only a moment earlier.

The squirrel warrior, only a couple paws lengths from the top, scurried up unharmed, even without the aid of the rope. Several arrows thudded into the ravine wall around him.

Peony held up her rapier in one paw and the cut rope in another. Utterly alone in the ravine, she snarled at the vermin advancing toward her. Their faces were lit up with cruel and delighted grins.

“I say, me beauty. Could you use an extra paw? Another warrior to beat off these brackish beasties?”

As one, the Long Patrol Major and all the vermin turned to stare towards the voice that had come from the shadows of the ravine.

A mountain hare in a fancy black velvet tunic walked up through the middle of the melee. He saluted Peony and the vermin with his claymore. Sidling over to Peony, he kissed her paw and winked at her flirtatiously.

“Aren’t you a pretty little thing! Why don’t you put away that pointy thing and let the big boys handle things. Don’t want you to prick your lovely paws with that!” The stranger made as to take the rapier straight from Peony’s paws.

The whole encounter was so strange and unexpected that the vermin lowered their weapons for a moment to gape and scratch their heads. What on earth was this mad hare doing?

“Excuse me?” squeaked Peony in outrage.

She parried a blow from a rat that had finally gotten over his confusion.

“Jolly rude of me, wot. My deepest apologies, me fair damsel in distress,” the hare sliced open a stoat and parried a ferret’s cutlass as he made an elegant leg to Peony and replied, “Jekker Diamond at your service marm. Your most humble servant.”

“By the fur! What does that creature think he’s doing?” gaped Turnsol from the top of the ravine.

“I think he’s kissing Peony’s paw? Bloomin’ strange thing to do in the middle of battle, but we all have our little idiosyncrasies,” Saxifrage replied.

“Sax!” exclaimed Turnsol at his friend’s joke.

“You’ll have to forgive Jekker,” came a voice from the treeline one a couple of pawsteps away. “He’s new to our order and doesn’t really fully understand how we operate.”

The hares turned to see a mouse step up and salute them. He was immaculately groomed with a blue tunic over expensive looking chain mail.

“Order? Jekker? Operate?” Turnsol gasped out in shock.

The mouse scratched his head and started again. “I’m sorry. This must all be very confusing. My name is Tiernan. I’m a Warrior Monk from Tabennisi Monastery.”

“Tabennisi Monastery?” repeated Lieutenant Toby.

“Warrior Monk?” wondered Sergeant Saxifrage.

“Er, yes. Isn’t that exactly what I said?” muttered the mouse to himself.

“What…” Turnsol, Toby and Saxifrage stuttered together.

“Come with me and I’ll show you,” said the mouse. “I’ll take you to the Monastery. It’s a safe place. The vermin won’t be able to find you there. You’ve caused them plenty of trouble already.”

“But…” started Toby

“What about Peony?” asked Sergeant Saxifrage.

“The haremaid in the ravine?” asked the mouse

“Yes, the haremaid in the ravine,” groused Turnsol.

“Jekker’ll see to her. There’s a secret passage from the ravine to the Monastery that he’ll take her through. I’ll be leading you through a similar staircase. It’s very safe.”

Saxifrage peered into the ravine and saw that Peony and the mysterious hare indeed were already gone. The vermin were milling about equally as confused as the hare sergeant. They also were confounded by Peony and the mysterious Jekker Diamond’s sudden appearance and disappearance.

“Jekker’ll see to her,” the mouse repeated.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Turnsol muttered.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Galena the otter had her brown eyes shut tight as she stood on the path cut daringly into the mountain’s side. The dizzying view downward was too much for the young otter as she held her sea otter friend’s arm in an iron grip. The sea otter was feeling the same reservations about the heights as the river ottermaid. The two felt very much out of their element as they walked with the others to the Tabennisi Monastery.

The squirrels were perfectly at ease on the high and narrow mountain passes, even with certain death only a wrong paw step away. The Long Patrol hares were taking the danger in stride, but Galena had always suspected that they probably had more in the way of bravery and foolhardiness than common sense. And regardless of the dangerous terrain, the warrior monk in his gleaming chain mail led them onward.

Suddenly Galena’s concentration was interrupted by Willow’s shocked gasp. The ottermaid almost lost her footing as she stumbled in shock. She was about to open her eyes when she heard Willow’s cry of wonder, “Open yer eyes, Galena, look at that sight!”

Still holding onto each other tightly in their terror, the otters pealed open their eyes to see what had so enraptured the squirrelmaid. Galena blinked a few times in wonder. It truly was a magnificent sight, perhaps even worth the terror and pounding of her heart from the present surroundings. In the distance, on the very top of the mountain directly across from them, stood the most beautiful structure she had ever clapped eyes on.

Like some exotic jewel with its glittering white walls and dramatic dusky red tile roof, the monastery shone from where it stood bravely on a sort of plateau with naught but sheer cliff face as its neighbor. From a distance it seemed as if the monastery had been shorn from the living rocks by nature itself. Indeed the only sign of any sort of inhabitation on the dangerous mountain peaks and plateaus was the greenery sprouting up here and there in spite of the harsh clime. Some of the greenery looked as if it had been tended by some creature’s paw, though how, Galena could not be sure.

“But how do we get there?” wondered Cinnabar. “The monastery’s on the other mountain?”

The warrior mouse turned back to look at the terrified otters. “Can’t you see the bridge?”

“Wot bridge?” wondered Galena.

“We call it the Marion Bridge,” said Tiernan with a half-smile. “Look closely.”

Galena peered closely at the area around the monastery closely and her smile of wonder soon turned into a frown of dismay.

The sea otter was having the same thought as the river otter. He questioned the mouse saying, “You can’t mean that flimsy, little toothpick of a bridge!”

The mouse gave a little chuckle, “’Fraid so.”

The whole group groaned in chorus.

C*~*C*~*C

After traversing the narrow bridge over the gaping chasm, their only path to the Monastery, the group arrived on what they considered firm ground. Galena and Cinnabar – after their mad sprint across the Marion bridge – slowed the group down because noting could convince them to cease from kissing the solid ground under their footpaws.

However, after Galena and Cinnabar finished, they allowed themselves a moment to survey the marvelous structure in front of their eyes.

The monastery with its white stucco walls and colorful red shingled roof seemed to gleam from within because of its noble purpose. It was a massive complex with tall outer walls and very many buildings clustered closely together. For the ottermaid it was reminiscent of Regolith’s castle but only in the superficial details like size and structure. However the two structures could not have been more different.

The ponderous gray stone slabs used to construct Regolith’s Castle always seemed drenched in the blood and sweat of those enslaved to build it. Those monstrous and towering walls themselves were oppressive guards to keep her and the others locked inside the tyrant’s castle

These white stones, on the other paw, gleamed in the sunlight and offered hope and protection for those living inside

The warrior mouse Tiernan led them towards the largest building in the complex. He smiled and greeted several other creatures who passed their way: an otter, a pair of squirrels, another mouse. These creatures were all dressed in the same manner as Tiernan, blue tunics over fine chain mail, and all carried bows in a variety of sizes and styles.

“They’re off to cause some trouble for the vermin sitting in the ravine as well,” Tiernan explained.

Captain Turnsol, not to be placated by more blood’n’vinegar promised for the foebeasts, voiced his worry to the warrior mouse as Tiernan tugged open the closed doors to the main building, “Will we be seeing Major Peony and your comrade soon, Tiernan? You said they’d be taking a different route to the Monastery.”

Tiernan stood aside gallantly for the others to pass and replied, “Yes. They’re probably here already. There’s a stone staircase that runs inside the plateau that they would be using to get to Tabennisi. We took the long way home.”

“Now you tell us,” Cinnabar groaned. He and Galena shared a glance and a pair of raised eyebrows.

Tiernan continued, “Though it was the quickest route from where we were. We would have had to go into that vermin-filled ravine to enter the hidden staircase in the mountain.”

Willow, not really concerned with which trail was which, was instead gazing upwards in awe at the simple but elegant windows that allowed the afternoon sun to penetrate the main room.

There were four long tables of a walnut colored wood set out in the middle of the room with an array of different types of weapons set into a similar color of wooden holders that ran in a circuit along the walls. Wall sconces had been pounded into the stone and the wax from the candles ran in rivulets down the walls and onto several pikes rusty with age.

The only other decorations in the room were the large portraits of hard-eyed warriors staring down at them. Strips of the same blue-colored cloth that Tiernan and the others wore as their tunics served as markers for the beautiful portraits with the names of long dead warriors sown in white thread by a delicate paw. Above several of the portraits hung weapons, perhaps the very same ones that the warriors had wielded during their lifetimes.

The room was empty but for three creatures sitting at the end of the one of the tables. Two of the creatures, hares, were cleaning their weapons, a rapier and a claymore, while the third, weaponless, sat by.

The third creature at table stood and greeted them. She had a gruff non-nonsense manner. “Glad to see you return uninjured, Tiernan. These must be the companions that friend Peony here has told me about.” She nodded to the haremaid cleaning the blood off her rapier.

Major Peony put down her rapier and hastened over to greet her friends.

Willow stared intently at the creature who had spoken. The other hare sitting at the table was of course the Jekker Diamond who had appeared like smoke in the ravine but this third creature was someone completely new. She was a badgermaid, with silky black and white fur and the most startling blue eyes that the squirrelmaid had ever seen. She was not wearing any chainmail, only the blue tunic.

The badgermaid indicated the benches at the table with a wave of a paw. “Please sit down at table with us and we’ll answer all your questions. Tiernan, could you go and bring some refreshment for our guests.”

The mouse winked at his badger friend, “Of course.”

The mouse disappeared out a side door with only the sound of the clanking of chainmail to announce his departure as the Long Patrol hares, squirrels and otters took their seats on the benches alongside the badgermaid and the hare, Jekker Diamond.

The badgermaid continued in her husky voice, “My name is Rosalaun. I stumbled upon Tabennisi Monastery only a pawful of seasons ago, completely by accident. I had been traveling with my father when we were set upon by vermin in the same ravine you were fighting in this afternoon. I....I lost my father, but I was saved by Tiernan and …speak of the devil and he’s here with the drinks!”

The warrior mouse walked up balancing a tray with a bottle of dark liquid and small glasses. He sat down and popped open the cork and poured a glass for everyone. As the mouse passed around the glasses of the thick amber drink, Rosalaun explained what they were drinking.

“This is a special hazelnut meade that we brew here at Tabennisi Monastery. What an honor it is to share it with you, our honored guests.”

Beech held up the cup towards the high windows and peered through the glass at the amber liquid.

The badger continued, “This drink is our main export. Well, frankly it’s our only export. We can’t grow much on these steep mountain passes, so we use this fine meade to trade for food and such from other regions nearby. For example, we’ve been trading it for seasons with a mining town in the south where Jekker Diamond used to live. Isn’t that right, mate?”

“Right you are, Rosalaun.”

Dann Reguba interrupted them, “You should begin trading with the town of Hamath. It’s a new settlement to the south.”

The mouse and badgermaid glanced across at each other in puzzlement. Tiernan was standing behind Sergeant Saxifrage as he handed the hare his drink. Rosalaun shrugged her shoulders and furrowed her brow. The mouse turned to the warrior squirrel and commented, “Hamath? Rosalaun and I haven’t heard of it. Have you Jekker? You’ve traveled around a lot.”

“Hamath? No, never ‘eard of it,” Jekker said wagging his ears at them. He rested his head on his paw and went back to staring unabashedly at the Major Peony.

Peony widened her eyes and faced Turnsol as the warrior mouse handed her a glass. “When was it founded?” asked Tiernan, leaning in with his paws on Rosalaun’s shoulders.

“Only a season or two ago,” the squirrel warrior answered. “But it’s a bustling village now.”

“Hm,” said Rosalaun. “Thank you for telling us about it. Maybe we’ll send an embassy down to do some trading with them. I’ll have to take you to my map room, and you can point out this new settlement on the maps. Peony here was telling me all your names before. You must be Dann Reguba.”

“Er, yes,” said the squirrel warrior.

Tiernan sat down next to Rosalaun and together with the badger stared at the squirrel warrior.

“Reguba? Descended from the ancient squirrel warriors? We had a Reguba here very many seasons ago. I can show you her portrait,” said Tiernan.

“I thought a creature named Dann Reguba was the warrior of Redwall Abbey. You must be the same creature. What are you doing here?” asked Rosalaun.

Dann gaped at the badgermaid in alarm.

“Map room?” interrupted Peony to save the squirrel warrior from an awkward conversation.

“Yes,” said Rosalaun looking at Dann Reguba consideringly and Peony curiously. “That’s what my father and I were doing when we were ambushed in the ravine all those years ago. My father was a mapmaker. He had a colleague in the far north that he wanted to confer with. An owl in some secret vale. It was so secret that he didn’t tell me the name either of the owl or the glade. He didn’t even put the vale on his maps. So when he died, secret died with him. But to honor his memory I’ve kept the maps that he made and kept notes about things too add to them.”

Tiernan had a paw on Rosalaun’s back as she told the others about her father. It was clearly a difficult subject. She took a deep breath and continued, “But we are warriors here, not artists, so the maps have not been added to at all. I hope someday to find someone who can complete them. But the maps as they are do have very extensive views of the southlands.”

“Fascinating,” said Major Peony.

“Do you like the meade?” Tiernan asked as a way to change the subject.

“Yes. It’s excellent. Thank you very much, for sharing it with us!” Major Peony complimented.

“Not at all, Peony,” replied the badgermaid agreeably. “Would you like to continue the story of the Monastery, Tiernan. You know about the Monastery’s history better than I.”

“It would be my pleasure, Rosalaun. Well, Tabennisi was built very many seasons ago, by my great-great and so on grandparents and my family has lived here ever since. You see, they were traveling to Redwall Abbey from Southsward with their young son and a good friend who was a hedgehog. They were ambushed in these dangerous mountain passes, which when left unchecked fester with vermin. In the battle, their hedgehog friend died defending them and in his memory they built this monastery. Redwall Abbey was its main model in terms of design. Not surprising because the two mice were from Redwall and even were good friends with the Abbot. But while Redwall’s mission is to heal the sick, feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless, Tabennisi’s mission is to protect creatures using the strength of our steel. My forebears had trouble thinking of a name for the Monastery, at first they thought of naming it Bowly Pintips after their friend who had given his life for them, but eventually they settled upon the name Tabennisi.

“And from that day onwards, the warrior monks who live in Tabennisi protect all good creatures traveling in the area and obey the Warrior’s code that we’ve passed down.”

Rosalaun added, “We sighted you and your party a while back. We can see everything for leagues from the upper windows. Our warriors went down the mountain in pairs to see what we could do. As the warrior with the most seniority, Tiernan was working with Jekker Diamond, the newest of our order. I stayed back this time, because Tiernan is usually my battle partner.”

“Jekker was a bit overzealous, and went down alone into the ravine to help the haremaid,” Tiernan chuckled.

“I’m always a sucker for a damsel in distress,” Jekker cooed at Peony.

Peony pursed her lips in annoyance before sharing an amused glance with Turnsol.

“The warriors in our order garb themselves in these blue tunics,” continued Tiernan.

“Jekker’s black velvet tunic isn’t part of the dress code, you understand.” Rosalaun explained.

“I figured,” quipped Peony.

“I couldn’t help myself. Nothing becomes me like black.” Jekker winked at Peony.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” muttered Peony.

Lorica looked over at the badger lady with a look of awe. “You truly show amazing dedication staying on this mountain season after season to look after travelers on these dangerous mountain passes.”

Jekker Diamond buffed a paw on the front of his tunic. “A labor of love, my pet.”

“Don’t listen to him,” Rosalaun warned. “He’s been ‘ere barely a week.”

They all laughed at the badgermaid’s joke which was unfortunately at Jekker’s expense. Tiernan stood up from the table and said, “Why don’t we show our guests around the Monastery, Rosalaun.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” said the badger standing up as well.

The others stood up and followed the mouse and badger to the front doors where two portraits were hanging.

Tiernan paused for a moment by two portraits hanging on either side of the main door into the room. His companions looked up at the two mice depicted in them, Tiernan’s ancestors. Above the portraits, the weapons of the two mice hung. Willow looked curiously at the knotted rope above the mouse lady’s portrait.

“Mariel and Dandin,” Willow read.

“Yes,” said Tiernan. “And see the portrait above the door?”

“Bowly Pintips,” read Galena.

Cinnabar looked at the portrait of the brave hedgehog warrior. “His weapon is missing.”

Tiernan laughed along with Rosalaun at the sea otter’s question. Rosalaun nodded to the mouse to tell the story. “Well ole’ Bowly Pintips used two weapons: a warhammer and a pair of really stale oat cakes. The warhammer was used later by one of the other warrior monks and the oat cakes...some foolish badger who didn’t know of their importance tossed them out with the trash!”

“I didn’t know that they ...” Rosalaun started coloring.

The others laughed with the warrior mouse. After they had sombered, the warrior mouse pointed to a portrait on one of the adjacent walls of a golden-furred squirrelmaid. “You’ll want to see that portrait as well. It’s Jill Reguba.”

Dann Reguba stood under the portrait in wonder. “She wielded a crossbow?” he asked in wonder? He hesitated for a moment and reached for it. “May I?”

Tiernan smiled and nodded. “It’s yours if you’d like it.”

“Really?” asked Dann in wonder.

“If anyone should take it, it’s you, Reguba,” whispered Rosalaun solemnly.

From there, Tiernan, Rosalaun and Jekker led them through the monastery to the different buildings, which were mostly dormitories. The main hall which they had first entered served jointly as the dining area and also the armory. The infirmary was on the second floor of the main building and a little kitchen was off to the side away from the other buildings for safety reasons.

Tiernan lead them to one of the dormitories that were mostly empty. “This is where you can sleep tonight. I think we have enough beds for everyone.”

The three haremaids and the badgermaid trailed behind the others as Peony tried to convince Rosalaun of the merits of a trip to Salamandastron.

Alma and Lorica were giggling to themselves at their Major’s attempts to serve as a matchmaker for Rosalaun and their Badgerlord Russano. The two badgers were roughly the same age and had very complimentary temperaments, but Peony’s attempts were rather inept.

“As a great warrior, yourself, marm, you’d be delighted to be in the presence of the perilous hares of the Long Patrol. Lord Russano is our brave and sagacious leader. You’d like him as well. He’s a very nice bloke,” hinted Peony.

“And the tucker is first rate, milady,” added Alma chuckling.

Rosalaun laughed. “I’ll think about it, ladies. And Peony if you’re so keen on matchmaking, you should look no further than your Captain Turnsol. He seems like a nice bloke as well,” teased the badgermaid.

Alma and Lorica chortled and followed the badgermaid out of the room as Peony covered her red face with her ears and muttered to herself, “Cheeky rotters! Try to do his Lordship a favor and look where it gets me. Flilthy blighters!”

After the three hares and badger caught up with the others, they joined in the conversation that they had just interrupted.

Saxifrage spoke trying to pin down the details about the order, “So you chaps practice, what did ya call it? Asceticism?”

“Yes,” replied Rosalaun.

“Must be wonderful,” Saxifrage continued with a wistful sigh. “Fight off the vermin vagrants for the helpless mountain residents and then feast long into the night afterwards.”

“Well we don’t feast. You must be thinking of Redwall Abbey. We’re not one and the same. We were inspired by Redwall true, but we have a vastly different mission,” corrected Tiernan

“They’re bloomin’ warrior monks,” said Blackberry excitedly. “Where’s the blinkin’ sign up sheet?”

“This asceticism, is that like admiring beautiful things?” wondered Turnsol.

Jekker Diamond snorted.

“No, Darcy, that’s aestheticism,” corrected Peony.

“Isn’t that what I said?” he whispered to Cinnabar, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Tiernan went on, “The warrior monks at Tabennisi Monastery practice asceticism by living a simple life and a life directed by the Rules of the Warrior Monks.”

“Neat!” exclaimed Blackberry. “What are those?”

“Listening to our superiors, not getting up during mealtimes, eating our crust of bread, piece of cheese and barley water in silence…”

“Crust of Bread? Barley Water?” repeated Blackberry, much less enthused.

“Yes, that is our main meal.”

“Hmmm,” murmured Saxifrage, becoming much less impressed by these Ascetic Warrior Monks.

“Well in that case, for my part, I think I’ll stick with the Long Patrol,” said Blackberry. He muttered to Captain Turnsol, “This lot makes our measly rations looks like a taste of paradise.”

The sun was starting to sink behind the mountain by the time their tour of the Monastery was finished.

“I think it’s about time for dinner. Won’t you join us for our evening meal,” asked Tiernan.

“Er…” Saxifrage and Alma stuttered together.

They went with Tiernan and Rosalaun back to the main room with the four long tables. Although they had only seen a few creature’s during their exploration of the Monastery during the day, very many creatures crammed into the four tables around dinner time. There were about twenty creatures with the blue warrior monk tunics on and the rest wore whatever garments they were accustomed to. It seemed that many families who lived on the mountain were invited to dine with the warrior monks for dinner. So many families who had made the mountain their home joined the warrior monks.

It was made painfully obvious why the fare was so meager. There were very many mouths to feed and only a very little to go around, but all the creatures who lived on the mountain were thankful for whatever they had.

The Long Patrol hares nibbled on their dinner, feeling morose by the small rations. Saxifrage whispered to Peony as quiet as he could so that the Tabennisi Monks couldn’t hear. “I won’t stand for this, Pe’ny. I’m bloomin’ famished. Please tell me we won’t stay here a moment longer than we need to!”

“Er….” The Long Patrol Major stuttered. She glanced over at Beech, Willow and Galena who were sitting at the end of the other end of the table. The young ‘uns seemed to be perfectly happy with the meager fare.

She said as much to Sergeant Saxifrage. “We shouldn’t disrespect their hospitality. It’s not that bad, I suppose,” her stomach growled loudly. “Well young Beech, Willow and Galena seem to be taking it in stride.”

“That’s because they were bloomin’ slaves Pe’ny!” he growled. “Just make up some mumbo jumbo about us needing to rush back and help the Abbey. I don’t think I can take another meal like this,” he glanced around to be sure no one was listening in. All the hares looked away and whistled suspiciously. Saxifrage lowered his voice even further, “I hate to say it, and don’t tell a soul I did, but I agree with Blackberry. This lot does make our rations seem like a taste of paradise.”

Turnsol, who had be listening in on the conversation interrupted, “Yer secret is safe with me Sax. Can’t you make something up, Peony? If you hurry we might even be able to have a real dinner once we’re on the march.”

Borage, who had also been eavesdropping, added, “It’s worked in the past for Oswego. Why don’t you announce our departure right now, Pe’ny. Take one for the team and all that.”

Toby and Jonquil had also been shamelessly listening the entire time added their two cents. Jonquil spoke for the two of them, “That’s right, Major Pe’ny. All for one, and one for all and all for tucker and all that!”

Blackberry, another hare who had been eavesdropping keenly, added, “I’m honored that Sergeant Saxifrage values my opinion so highly. This seems like a great stratagem, Major.”

Sergeant Saxifrage groaned.

“We can always count on Major Peony to pull our chestnuts out of the fire,” added Fleetpaw, another eavesdropper.

“As long as we get to eat them too,” quipped Sage.

“I’ll say something to Tiernan and Rosalaun,” said Peony finally standing up. “Who knew that this meager fare would be public enemy number one.”

“Thank you so much, marm,” interrupted Lorica leaning in to the conversation with Alma.

Alma continued her friend’s thought, “We’re blinkin’ ravenous.”

“Indeed, my lovely Peony. The excellence of your suggestion is only surpassed by your good looks and keen intelligence,” added Jekker Diamond who had also been listening in. “Would you mind if another hungry hare joins yer party?”

Peony wagged her ears at all the entirety of the Long Patrol hares all leaning in suspiciously on the conversation. “This situation is entirely ridiculous.”

“Right you are,” chortled Dann from across the table.

Rosalaun who had unfortunately heard most of the exchange smirked as she said, “Would you like to tell us something, Major?”

Peony colored and glared at her patrol. Luckily many of the others at the table seemed oblivious to the whispered, not so secret plans of the hares. She stood up with a half-smile and spoke for her patrol. “I say, Lady Rosalaun. We’re loath to leave behind the generous hospitality of the Tabennisi Monastery, but our mission – nay our sacred duty – calls us onward. I dare say we won’t tarry a moment longer from our duty. The defenseless creatures of Redwall are ignorant of the bloodthirsty horde of murders that is marching straight for them. Time is of the essence, my friends, and we must leave within the hour to complete our mission. Though our hearts will remain behind forever here with your…whatever the bally…”

Rosalaun chuckled at Peony’s outrageous speech and winked at Sergeant Saxifrage as he muttered to her, “Once again, Pe’ny mate, but with more sarcasm.”

Jekker Diamond stood up as well and buffed his black velvet jacket with a delicate paw. “I will take this moment as well to say farewell as well to the good warrior monks of Tabennisi who have been so kind to me. I feel as if my destiny is tied to these good chaps. And I will follow them to Redwall Abbey if they will have me.”

“I suppose so,” muttered Major Peony at the same time as Captain Turnsol groused, “Absobloodylutely not!”

C*~*C*~*C

Peony wasn’t sure how it happened, but as she was packing up her bags for the journey, mere moments after their meager dinner – it seemed as if all the hares had wings on their heel, so quick was their departure from the dining tables for their haversacks and weapons – she was left alone in the empty dormitories with none other than Jekker Diamond. A situation she had never planned to find herself in.

“Glad to be traveling with your patrol, my pet,” began Jekker. He smiled roguishly and slipped an arm over Peony’s shoulders, slowly pulling her next to him. He leaned in and winked at her. “How about we seal the deal with a kiss?”

Peony snorted and pushed his face away with her open palm. She looked away from him and said with a laugh in her voice, “We’ll consider your addition to the Long Patrol an informal contract. No need to seal the deal as you say.”

Jekker could not be put off so easily. He whispered in her ear, “How about just a little peck, my dear.”

As he went in for the kiss, Peony shook her head in amazement at his audacity and slipped out of his grasp. She heaved her haversack onto her back and walked out of the room wondering aloud to herself, “I’ll never understand why other creatures don’t take me for the bally epitome of professionalism.”

“Wot a gel,” said Jekker watching her go.

Just as she closed the door, Lieutenant Oswego opened the other and stepped into the dormitory. When he noticed Jekker Diamond as the only occupant of the room, the sour faced first lieutenant made as if to leave.

“Come on in, mate. Don’t be a stranger,” said Jekker to Oswego.

Oswego narrowed his eyes at the other hare, but didn’t leave the room. Instead he lingered a moment longer in the doorway.

“Strong and silent type, eh. I like that. Name’s Jekker Diamond.”

“I know,” snapped Oswego. He stomped over to the cot where his haversack was sitting.

“I know you know,” chortled the other hare as he stood on the other side of the cot. “I was merely giving you the opportunity to introduce yerself.”

“What’s my name to you?” said Oswego, not willing to concede an inch to the stranger.

“A name’s a powerful thing mate. Jekker was not the name I was born with. Me ole mater and pater gave me a different one before they departed this world for the Dark Forest.”

“What was it?” asked Oswego, suddenly feeling curious in spite of himself.

“You go first,” winked the other hare.

“Oswego.”

“Nice to meet you mate. Can I call you Ozzie? Oz-way-we-go?”

“Just Oswego,” growled the other hare. “Yer a right ole piece of work, Jerker Diamond. What did you say your original name was?”

“Something dreadful. Though a good friend picked this new one for me. I say, mate, if’n you’ll forgive me fer saying, you don’t get along that well with the other hares in yer patrol, do you? You seem like a loner. Noticed that you weren’t participating with yer mates in that not so secret conference at the dinner table.”

“So?” asked Oswego, looking inside his pack to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He glared up at the other hare. “What’s it to you, Jekker?”

“Nothing that’s all. Just thought we could be mateys is all.” The black velvet wearing hare winked.

Chapter Thirty-Three

The warrior mouse’s pawsteps resounded on the stone stairs to Rosalaun’s map room in a narrow tower of the Monastery. The circular room was in disarray. Maps had been unrolled and tossed onto the stone slab which served as a table in the center of the room, while others had been tightly rolled up and put into a pack. The map on the top of the pile read Salamandastron and the Surrounding Countryside.

Tiernan put down the heavy haversack with a sigh. Leaning on his yew longbow, he smiled knowingly at the badgermaid from where she was perched on the windowsill of one of the four large windows of the room, the window facing westward. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”

Rosalaun sighed and turned toward him. “Yes. How did you know?”

He walked up to her with a smile. “I’ve known for a while that you would be leaving. It’s not in your stars to stay on this mountaintop forever.”

“Tiernan, I’m sorry. You must think that I’m forsaking the order.”

“Not at all, Rosalaun. I know you better than that. Your dream is to finish your father’s maps. There are so few of us here and we are so remote. We don’t have anyone who could finish your maps.”

“I thought at first when I saw those portraits in the main hall that…”

“They are gifts from the court artist of Castle Foret from when we visit Southsward. But he is no mapmaker.”

“I know,” mumbled Rosalaun.

Tiernan peered out the window towards the setting sun. “Salamandastron is the mountain of badger lords and fighting hares. They have considerable influence abroad. I understand that it’s a wonderful opportunity for you.”

Rosalaun looked out the window as well. “Salamandastron. I’ve been having dreams about the mountain of the fire lizards lately. I was surprised when Jekker Diamond, a hare, came to Tabennisi. But he had no connection with the place.”

Tiernan chuckled. “Then a whole patrol of hares come to our mountain. Couldn’t have been entirely by chance.”

Rosalaun smiled. “I suppose not.” She indicated the haversack Tiernan dropped by the door with a nod. “What’s that for?”

“For you. I figured that you might be leaving for Salamadastron as early as today.”

Rosalaun shook her head in wonder. “I wanted to leave as soon as I finished packing up my maps. Is my axe still downstairs in the main hall?’

“Of course. None of us can lift it, so naturally it would be were you left it.”

Rosalaun punched the mouse in the arm. “You’re a good friend, Tiernan. I’ll be sure to write to you when I get to Salamandastron.”

Tiernan leaned on his longbow again. “I can walk you down the mountain. I wanted to get a couple more shots at those vermin stuck like sardines in that ravine.”

C*~*C*~*C

The whole affair was nothing but a big ole mess. At least it was in Regolith’s opinion, an opinion which Thalweg shared. The entire horde was stuck tight, marooned in this terrible ravine which by now was nothing more than a ditch. The supply carts were in tatters or in ashes, the troops were scattered but even still there was an occasional flight of stinging arrows which seemed to come from the heavens themselves.

But the pine marten tyrant pressed on. He was not a creature to be beaten even by thousands of tons of the very earth in his way. He called upon all his creatures that could be found to pick up a shovel, a spade, anything they could find to help dig themselves out.

The pine marten tyrant was standing glaring at the rocks and boulders and entire pieces of the Cliffside that stood in his way, as if his bitter gaze itself could serve to move them.

Thalweg had put aside his cool and comfortable seat in the Lady Vermilion’s palanquin to dig alongside the others. He was not entirely surprised to find himself elbow to elbow with his scimitar-wearing fox friend, Riveneye and his rat friend Bleeknose.

The fox wiped the sweat and dirt off of his forehead with a shaky paw and said, “Glad to see you’re alright, sir.”

“Yeah,” said Bleeknose, “With those arrers falling like rain, I thought the lot of us were goners, sir.”

“Me too, mates. And for the last time, please, call me Thalweg.”

Riveneye chuckled, “Old habits die hard, I guess.”

Thalweg winked, “Not to worry, matey.”

Riveneye heaved another load of earth out of the way. “Do you know what’s strange, mate. Ya know that squirrel that fell into the ravine before the rabbits ran in to help ‘im out? I thought he looked familiar. Like one of those blokes who broke into the Castle afore. Same with that rabbit lady who jumped on in after ‘im.”

“Ya know what, Riveneye. I was thinking the same thing. That’s probably why I hesitated for a moment when I was ‘elping Halfear.”

“I felt a chill go down my spine when I saw ‘im. A bit of foreboding is all,” muttered Riveneye.

“A fox feelin’ a foreboding, eh?” wondered Bleeknose. “My ole’ momma always told me to worry when a fox feels a chill of foreboding.”

Thalweg chuckled a bit at the rat and said, “I think my ole’ momma used to say somethin’ similar.”

Riveneye laughed and nudged Thalweg good naturedly. “No need to worry, mate. Just be a bit more careful, is all. Besides. I’ve a feeling not all the creatures in the horde feel as kindly about you as Bleeknose and myself… and well the majority of the boyos.”

“Oh really?” Thalweg laughed.

“’Tis no laughing mater, sir. I ‘eard the rat Lousewort talkin’ ‘bout you behind yer back,” interrupted Bleednose the rat worriedly.

“Lousewort? But we’re mateys like you and I,” corrected Thalweg, clearly surprised.

“Not like you and I, mate,” continued Riveneye. “I reckon that the old trickster Lousewort is jealous of you for yer lovely blue cloak.”

“Riveneye is right, yer honor,” said Bleeknose. “I was listenin’ in on Lousewort, see. I’ve known ‘im since we was babes, and he’s always been trouble. Thinks he’s better than everybeast, see! Not even his good mates are safe. Look what happened to his best mate Bilgetail.”

“Poor Bilgetail. Nasty end for him,” reminiscence Riveneye. “He was dumb as a stump really, and mean as a blind old vole, but he was loyal to Lousewort. I still think that Lousewort killed ‘im somehow.”

“Course the creature that served Regolith dinner after that night of the rabbit ambush would be killed on the spot if’n he annoyed his lordship,” said Bleeknose.

“Aye, that or promoted,” winked Riveneye at Thalweg.

Bleeknose howled with laughter. “Bet that sourpuss Lousewort is still sore that he didn’t go serve Regolith that day. Though he probably wouldn’t have ended much better than his friend. Not everyone has the charisma of good ole’ cap’n Thalweg.”

“But everybeast knows that he fancies that he should be the cap’n, not you. He thinks that he should have been poor ole Cap’n Deekeye’s replacement,” Riveneye countered.

“Deekeye, the poor ole sod, my fool of an elder brother,” said Bleeknose sadly.

“He was yer brother?” asked Riveneye in wonder. “I didn’t realize. I’m real sorry, mate.”

“Thanks, mate,” said Bleeknose, wiping a tear from his eye. “How a gentle soul like my elder brother ever got promoted to cap’n is beyond me.”

Riveneye hesitated as he glanced at Thalweg who was listening keenly on the conversation.

“Well, alright. I know as well as the next sod that the Lady Vermilion was fond of the ole fool,” Bleeknose groused out.

“But even with the Lady Vermilion’s approval, he should have known better than to speak to Regolith like that,” Riveneye countered.

“Like what?” asked Thalweg, finally getting a word in edgewise..

“Don’t you remember, mate?” asked Riveneye. “He was yer predecessor after all.” Riveneye glanced around suspiciously before whispering to Thalweg, “Deekeye tried to challenge his lordship. He disagreed with his lordship’s plans. Not a wise move, you see.”

Bleeknose whispered to Thalweg, “and my fool of a brother used the one word his lordship hates to hear ever since that old vixen used it all those seasons ago…”

“Madness,” Bleeknose and Riveneye whispered together in chorus.

Then the three creatures shivered a bit as if a chill had passed through them and continued digging out the path in silence. Too frightened by the eerie conversation to start another.

Pieces were starting to fall into place in Thalweg’s mind. He was so close, so tantalizingly close to understanding the pine marten and his weaknesses. So close to finding the way to help Dann save his home.

However, the closer he got to the truth it seemed, the deeper into the mire he sunk, or the more tangled he became in the web these pine martens were weaving. If he spent too much time with them, would he become again the creature he had tried to leave behind that winter by the squirrel warrior’s campfire?

But then again, not all the creatures in Regolith’s army were bad. In fact, in his opinion, the majority of them were good, if manipulated by greed and fear. He had tried to distance himself from the other creatures, but it was too tempting to do the opposite.

These creatures were his kind. These were the creatures he should be loyal to. And he had already become too close with some of them. Was he betraying his own kind for a woodlander, some miscellaneous squirrel? And what would happen if, in the small chance, he succeeded. What did Dann expect him to do? Step aside with a smile as all the horde was murdered before his eyes? Would Dann ask him to do that? If Dann did, could he bear to?

C*~*C*~*C

Thalweg felt a tad uncomfortable as he sat next to the Raven at Regolith’s table. Both because of his turbulent thoughts and also because of the present company. Mortys had been eyeing him with interest almost since the moment the ferret captain had entered the tent. He thanked the stars that Vermilion had detained him the day before in her palanquin. Although his meeting with the raven was probably inevitable, it was not something that he would have wished to rush.

Regolith snorted as he saw Thalweg duck his head again and try to twist away from the Raven’s piercing gaze. “Mortys, I think you’re making our guest uncomfortable.”

Prruk- Prruk” the Raven chuckled and chirped out charmingly at the ferret. “Don’t worry, mate, I won’t eat you. Not if Vermilion is so fond of you. Toc-Toc-Toc, it’s a shame really,” the raven deepened his voice, “you look tasty.”

Regolith chuckled, Vermilion narrowed her eyes disapprovingly, and Thalweg sputtered. He couldn’t be sure if the raven was being truthful or just playing games with him.”

The velum door of the tent was swept open and the black fox plopped down at Regolith’s right paw and glared at the ferret and raven sitting across from him.

“You’re sure you saw two red squirrels in the pine trees above the ravine?” Zigor ground out, glaring at the raven. The black fox was furious at himself to have to ask the raven anything at all.

Mortys winked one huge obsidian eye at the black fox. “Kraah! I did. I would even say that they were two of Regolith’s old slaves. Two of the slaves that you let escape, Ziggy.”

Zigor, ever enigmatic and composed in all other contexts except those that involved the raven, shouted, “For the last time, you mangy bird, I did not…”

“No need to shout, Zigor,” Mortys tittered teasingly in Regolith’s voice.

The black fox looked like he wanted no more than to launch himself across the table at the bird. “You need to get your eyes checked, Magpie,” Zigor said maliciously.

Krah!” the raven called, outraged to be called such a thing. “I am certain that the squirrelmaid in the tree was the very same one that poured wine at Regolith’s table. And the male squirrel was the one that would climb on the roof and stare at me.” He closed his eyes, preening his feathers. “He wanted to fly as well.” He opened up one with a glare at the black fox. “And he succeeded in flying the cop with the help of Ziggy here.”

“Why you!” Zigor hollered and leapt up to throw himself at the bird.

Vermilion looked down at the black diamond on her paw and sighed impatiently.

Noticing his mate’s frustration, Regolith scolded the two of them. “Behave. The Lady Vermilion wants to hear the rest of Thalweg’s story.”

“Thank you,” Vermilion whispered.

Zigor glared at all of them, except Regolith of course, even the black fox feared the pine marten tyrant. Both feared and loved the tyrant. The black fox sat down again tensely.

“Why don’t remind us of the story and bring Mortys up to speed,” said the pine marten tyrant.

“Yes, milord,” said the ferret.

Mortys shifted and peered intently at the ferret. Perhaps he was memorizing his voice so he could use it to mock Zigor later as well.

“This story is about a Wildcat named Tezgall the Claw and her dream of having woodlanders fight and die for her amusement.

She was called the Claw because her claws, decorated with beautiful rings and jewels, were as sharp as her tongue, both dangerous weapons at her command. She gathered quite a following, who worshiped the ground on which she trod. But what she really wanted was to be famous for creating something no one have ever dreamed to – a place where others of her kind in leisure could watch woodlanders fight to the death.

She built a compound which she called her Colloseum and then caught woodlanders to begin her games, but they were vastly disappointing, tremendously overrated. The woodlanders they had captured were not warriors.

Tezgall the Claw was disappointed, but she didn’t lose hope. She would find woodlanders who would fight and die for her amusement. And indeed she didn’t need to wait long before she found the exact species she had been searching for all along: mountain hares.

"Her creatures stumbled upon them entirely by accident. A squadron of ten of her fierce warriors was dragging a pair of hedgehogs to her battle arena when they were ambushed by a mountain hare and his mate. Those two creatures trounced her hand-picked squadron of her bloodthirsty murders. Only one of her creatures escaped alive from the slaughter.

When the survivor arrived at the Colloseum covered with wounds, Tezgall was ecstatic at his story.

Tezgall the Claw, the single survivor, and five squadrons tracked the two hares the very next day. The male mountain hare made been wounded and the path of his fresh blood was easy to follow.

What they discovered was something she couldn’t have imagined to exist even in her wildest dreams. A huge tribe of mountain hares, about fifty in all: males, females, babes. They would be perfect for her games.

But how do you capture and control creatures that can defeat your own warriors so easily and decisively? But she didn’t need to wait long for long for the answer. She was clever and ferocious, but she was also devilishly lucky. The answer fell right into her lap.

“This is where he left off last time,” said Zigor. “And I thought it was two squadrons of troops.”

The pine martens raised their eyebrows at the black fox. The fox captain had claimed indifference in the story the last time he heard it, yet he knew the exact moment that it had stopped.

Toc-Toc-Toc,” the raven clipped out with his tongue. “Can I keep ‘im? I can see why Vermilion keeps him to herself.” He finished his thought in Zigor’s voice to rankle the black fox, “Mr. Scallyway sure is an interesting bloke.”

True to form, Zigor growled at the raven.

“What was the answer that fell into her lap?” wondered Vermilion.

The answer was a mountain hare, by the name of Dudley Montmorency, who had noticed Tezgall and her troops. But rather than warning his fellows, he went to the Wildcat to make a deal. For the gleam of a pink diamond on Tezgal’s claws had entranced and bewitched him. In his greed, he forgot his duty and loyalty to his tribe, or perhaps he had never really cared anyway.

“He was probably teased so much as a leveret that he wanted revenge. Imagine having a name like Dudley! Kraah! It’s almost as bad as Ziggy.”

Zigor seethed in his seat, trying to keep his rapidly evaporating cool.

Thalweg chuckled at the Raven’s joke along with the pine martens. At first he had thought the raven would be a terrifying audience, but Mortys wasn’t that bad. At least he had a sense of humor. “Tezgall and the mountain hare got along like a house on fire. Between the two of them, they devised a plan to capture the mountain hares that was as brilliant as it was terrible. However, Tezgall had to part with one of her most prized possessions – a beautiful pink diamond – to see her dreams realized. But the reward of this sacrifice was beyond reckoning.

Vermilion clamped a blood-red paw to her own black diamond in horror.

Regolith glanced at her in surprise that she cherished his gift so much.

During the night, Dudley herded all the young ones of the community towards the edge of the camp with some pretty scheme or other, to where Tezgall was lying in wait. With nary a peep, her troops snatched up the young ones and took them back to the Colloseum, locking them up in her dungeons.

Toc-Toc-Toc,” interrupted the Raven, “That sounds delicious!”

“You’re disgusting,” Zigor retorted.

“Sticks and stones, love,” winked the raven.

Regolith snorted in amusement and nodded at the ferret captain to continue.

The next morning, the whole mountain hare community awoke to find their little ones missing. Dudley and the Wildcat Queen strolled in the midst of the mountain hares bold as brass. Tezgall dragged one of the little ones into the camp by the thick hemp rope tied around its neck.

Her demands were simple. They would fight and die for her amusement, or she would kill their children in the slowest and most painful ways she could dream up.

“I guess she had quite an imagination,” winked Mortys at Regolith.

“I would say that too,” the pine marten grinned back.

Vermilion sniffed, “I can’t help but feel something for those poor babes.”

“Go on, Foulleg,” said Regolith.

“Foulleg? Prruk! That’s a good one too!”

Thalweg winked at the raven, who winked back before he continued, “The mountain hares gave into Tezgall so that she wouldn’t harm their little ones. They fought each other to protect their babes, occasionally laying down their lives just for Tezgall’s amusement.

She was true to her word. She fed and clothed the babes and attended to them as if they were her own children. But her gladiator slaves were never allowed to speak to their children. They were only allowed to see them from a distance to know that they were alive and healthy.

The hare Dudley Montmorency who had benefited from his own tribe’s misfortunes decided to leave the northlands to find his fortune elsewhere.

Tezgall said that he couldn’t use the name Dudley Montmorency anymore; he would leave it behind in the northlands. He had earned a new name, a name that spoke of his betrayal of his species all for a gleaming jewel: Jekker Diamond.

Thalweg sat back, his story finished. Vermilion clapped her paws together for the ferret captain, and the raven put a wing around the ferret.

“That was the best-est story I’ve ever head, Foulleg,” said the raven in Zigor’s voice.

Thalweg chuckled and waved a paw at the raven. The white shell bracelet on his arm slid down to his wrist and clinked together.

It caught the eye of the black fox, the piece of jewelry seemed very familiar to him, but he couldn’t place it. He was certain that he had seen it before. Reaching for it, he asked, “Where’d you get that bracelet?”

“This bracelet? From a maid.”

“Your sweetheart, Sylvia?” wondered Vermilion.

“Sylvia? Yes,” answered the ferret.

The black fox examined it again. He pressed the other captain, “I’m sure I’ve seen it before. Could you tell us about it?” he inquired slyly.

Thalweg hesitated, not sure what to say, he feared that he would reveal himself if he had to fabricate a story on the spot.

His savior this time was – ironically enough – the Raven. Never to miss a dig at the fox captain, Mortys said, “Can’t get enough of our little Scallywag’s stories, Ziggy? I never thought I’d see this side of you.”

Zigor huffed in annoyance at the bird and stood up from the table, his chair falling back behind him and onto the ground with a clatter. The black fox gave the raven one final parting glare before he stormed out.

“Was it something I said?” wondered the raven innocently.

The pine martens laughed.

Zigor pushed the fabric aside and stalked out of the tent and away from the thrice accursed raven. In his fury, he didn’t notice that he marched straight into a rat who had been lingering by the entrance of the tent.

The dagger was in his paw in a blink of an eye and at the rat’s neck in another. The rat gulped out, “Please, sir! Don’t kill me. I have information you might like to know!”

Zigor rolled his eyes with a sigh at the rat and held the dagger pressed even tighter to the rat’s throat. “What could you possibly have to say that I would like to hear?”

The rat spoke quickly in his terror. “Just that I’m as suspicious of the new ferret captain as you are milord. He’s not what he seems to be.”

Zigor paused considering, though he didn’t remove the dagger from the rat’s throat. “I saw him with that squirrel warrior in the ravine as well. I was hiding under the cart and I saw you watching him from the front of them line.”

Zigor sighed again, “I’m still not interested.”

The black fox lifted the dagger to deliver the death blow just as the rat yelled out, “He looked at the squirrel like he knew him personal like, sir. Why else would he hesitate to kill him?”

The black fox shook his head at the rat in wonder, but he put away the dagger. “You’re just jumping to conclusions rat. I’m not interested in your pretty theories. I know you. You are more likely to spin some sort of lie than to tell the simple truth.”

“But not when it’s important, sir.”

“Alright then. Speak. I’m listening,” said the black fox. He grabbed the unfortunate rat by the scruff of his neck and half-dragged, half-marched him too the outskirts of Regolith’s camp so that they could have a private conversation. The black fox crossed his legs under him and peered into the rat’s eyes with his flat obsidian ones.

The rat cowered but spoke quickly. “You see, sir, I was in the group that made the cage for the ottermaid and so was ‘e. It was the first time I met him, see. And I’ve asked around and no other creature could really remember meetin’ him before that either. And it’d be easy to get a uniform from any ole dead beast. There were plenty after that rabbit ambush. Then he’s made captain. And the very next time we see ‘im he’s unconscious in the room that the prisoners were ‘eld. The escaped prisoners! And ‘e knows exactly where it is they went; thought there’s not a trace of ‘em. Then we meet those same creatures again in that ravine, and he and that golden squirrel…” the rat trailed off.

Zigor narrowed his black eyes at the other creature. “What did you saw your name was, rat?”

“I didn’t. Lousewort. The name’s Lousewort, sir,”

“Well Lousewort, my friend, you’ve gotten in way over your head, mate. I’m a great deal smarter than Halfear.” He leaned in and whispered into the trembling rat’s ear, “I know when I’m being manipulated.”

“No, please! I wa…”

The black fox sat back and watched the blood flow from the deep slash he had just made in the rat’s neck. The rat cried fearfully and coughed up blood as he stared at the black fox.

“I’ve been watching you for a while, Lousewort, if that’s really your name. And I haven’t liked what I saw. You only saved me the trouble of seeking you out.

The light died from the rat’s eyes.

Zigor muttered to himself. “And you really had nothing interesting to offer at all. At least nothing that I didn’t already know. But you did serve a purpose. I feel better know.”

C*~*C*~*C

“So I think I’ve figured you out, matey,” whispered a dark voice from the shadows.

Lieutenant Oswego jumped up in surprise, the watercress he had been gathering lay forgotten in a pile by the mountain steam.

The patrol had made good time down the mountain by way of a route that would not lead them by Regolith’s troops still trapped in the narrow gorge. They had stopped after awhile to scatter and find vittles for a proper dinner. As usual, Oswego went off on his own to do his part for the patrol.

Holding his lance out towards the voice with a trembling paw, he hollered into the darkness, “Don’t come any closer, whoever you are!”

The dark voice chuckled and a long eared figure stepped out from the shadows, his paws held out wide to show he was unarmed.

“Jekker, you made my blood freeze cold. What are you doing scaring me like that?” said Oswego with relief in his voice.

Jekker smiled at him and shrugged. “Just playing a joke on ya, mate.”

“What do you mean you have me figured out?” Oswego asked, crouching down and trying to pull together the watercress he was collecting into his jacket for the Patrol’s dinner.

The other hare crouched next to him and picked up a couple of smooth rocks from the stream’s banks and tossed them into the water, one skipped five times before sinking. “Well you see, Ozzie, I’ve spent most of the evening listening to the tales of the patrol’s journeys and I’ve figured out something about you.”

Oswego looked up into the mountain hare’s dark eyes. “What’s that?”

“You, my friend, are like me, what I would call an opportunist.”

“Opportunist? But I haven’t had any opportunities. Not like the others in the patrol. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth like the young ‘uns. I wasn’t in the right place at the right time like that bloody Major Peony.”

“You’re just blind to what’s in front of you, mate. You don’t know what to do with your opportunities.”

Oswego scoffed. “Opportunities? Good fortune?” He whirled on Jekker and spat, “Let me tell you about the sort of opportunities I had! When I was young, my father was killed as he ran away from a battle. My mother killed herself with shame. She didn’t care enough for me to live a moment a longer. I was half-raised and half-neglected by all the hares at the Long Patrol.” He continued his rant, tears either of sorrow or of frustration in his eyes, “But they never gave me chance to get further then a Lieutenant in their stinkin’ club! See! What opportunities have I had?”

Jekker’s smile widened. “True, you may not have been given many opportunities, but when you are awarded one, you go for it like a seagull after their supper.”

Oswego looked down at the watercress in his paws. “What do you mean?”

“For instance, when your patrol was stuck in the swamp, you took advantage of the situation,” the mountain hare tapped his comrade on the nose, “of the opportunity. You turned a challenging and unpleasant event into an opportunity for yerself. None of the other hares had the courage to do so.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did,” whispered Jekker, a malicious glint in his eyes. He stood up swiftly and continued, “But you ended up making a right mess of your opportunity. Your problem is that you are afraid to follow through. Why else do you think that you’ve been a Lieutenant for so long?”

Oswego bared his teeth at Jekker. “What’s it to you, Jerker?”

The other hare put up his paws in surrender. “Nothing at all. We’re mateys remember. I just want to see you succeed. I have a habit of rooting for the underdog.” Jekker crouched down next to Oswego and hissed in his ear, “Isn’t it about time that you were rewarded for all your hard work? Isn’t it about time that you were promoted? For far too long have others been benefiting from your hard work. Isn’t it about time that you receive the benefits from your achievements, no longer have them taken away from you?”

Oswego leaned in and whispered back, “How do I do it?”

“We’re mateys, Ozzie. Just let your ole pal Jekker help you out. It’s been a long time comin, mate. Finally you have another creature on your side.”

A tear came unbidden to the old Lieutenant’s eye. “Thank you, Jekker. I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“You see, yer problem is that you’ve been waiting for the opportunity to arise. You’ve been waiting patiently for a promotion to fall into your lap. The world doesn’t work that way, mate. If you want something you have to take it.”

“Take it?” asked Oswego in confusion.

“Yes. If the opportunity doesn’t present itself, you just have to create it.”

“But? How? I don’t understand.”

Jekker smiled with all his teeth. “Divide and conquer. It’s simplicity itself. We split apart the patrol and then…”

“What? What do we do?”

“Well kill Turnsol to start. He’s already wounded, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. He was the one who stopped you from becoming Major in the first place in the swamp. He was the one who was obstinate and made you all wallow in that swamphole just so that he could ruin your promotion.”

“Yes! Yes he did.”

“And we have a scapegoat to blame it all on, the pine marten tyrant.”

“Regolith?”

“Yes. Or better yet, we could get them involved as well. Make a trade.”

“Get them involved? I don’t know about that, Jekker. They’re vermin.”

Jekker’s smile was hypnotic. But the Salamandastron hare had taken the bait and now the mountain hare only had to reel him in.

“They’re vermin, yes. But who better to do our dirty work. I watched them down in the ravine. They have riches beyond our wildest dreams. We can have them pay us to get rid of the Long Patrol.”

“Riches? Promotions?”

“Yes. Imagine having a big ole ruby on yer paw the very same color as yer fancy new jacket with the Major’s insignia.”

“But what do you get out of it?”

“Me? Oh I don’t need much. But what I want is that diamond on the pine marten lady’s paw.”

Jekker pulled a chain around his neck from under his black velvet tunic and showed Oswego the rings strung on it. Three diamonds glittered in his greedy eyes: yellow, blue and pink. The mountain hare smiled fondly at the pink one. “This little pink one was the start of my collection.”

Jekker glanced back at Oswego. “So do we have a deal, Major Oswego? Partners?”

Oswego smiled at the mountain hare. It was so exhilarating to finally have a friend and to have a real purpose. Finally, he was going to be promoted. He was really going to be a Major of the Long Patrol. There were tears of joy in his eye as he shook the other hare’s paw.

Chapter Thirty-Four

“Did you bring the longbow, matey?” Jekker asking turning with a pleasant smile towards the other hare who stepped into the glade with him.

“Yeah, Jekker. Here it is,” said Oswego putting the longbow into Jekker’s outstretched paw.

Jekker squinted into the blue sky. “And not a moment too soon.”

“And I brought a blunt like you asked.”

“The others are scouting for Regolith’s troops. What is all this for again?” Oswego scratched his head with an ear.

The mountain hare grinned. “You’ll see,” was his enigmatic reply

The mountain hare pulled the string back and tilted the bow back at the sky, aiming very carefully. He grunted as the full draw weight rested on his two fingers for a moment before letting the blunted arrow fly into the seemingly empty blue sky.

“Krah!” came an outraged cry from above them and then Oswego saw a black blob fall from the sky in a rapid descent towards them.

Jekker drew his saber and glanced over at the Salamandastron hare who was gaping at the dark shape swiftly winging towards them. Rolling his eyes, the mountain hare groused out, “Well hold yer lance at the ready, Major. The birdbag doesn’t know we came here to parlay.”

“Oh right, sorry,” stuttered Oswego.

The raven fell upon them like a shroud. Oswego, in his fright, was swept off his feet, his lance tossed from his trembling paws.

“Pruuk! Pruuk! I’ve always wanted to taste hare meat!” the death bird threatened.

What then followed was a fierce contest between the two creatures still standing. The tempest storm of lightening fast paw and wing movements were echoed by hollow resounding of steel on the raven’s beak.

Oswego closed his eyes in fear, unable to bear the slight for a moment longer. A few tense moments followed, but when the scuffling stopped, Oswego dared to open his eyes and saw both adversaries breathing heavily, Jekker standing tall with his claymore at the bird’s breast.

Oswego grabbed his lance and went to stand by the other hare.

The raven peered at the claymore pointed at his heart and yelled, “Toc, Toc, Toc! Well you’ve got me, ya villains. Make it quick.”

Jekker laughed and said, “We don’t want ta kill you, mate. We just wanted to have a little chat. Fancy a brief banter with a couple o’ hares? A little repartee?”

The raven was not put at ease. “What is it that you want, longears.”

“The name’s Jekker, Jekker Diamond.”

The raven scratched his breast feathers with a wing. “Well alright then, Jekker. I see nothing wrong with a quick conversation. You can call me… Death.”

Oswego paled.

Jekker put a paw under his chin and peered at the raven curiously. “Well I heard from a pair of crows that you prefer to go by Mortys.”

“It does roll better off the beak. Well I heard from a ferret that you prefer not to go by Dudley Montmorency.”

“Can you blame me?”

The raven seemed to shrug. “Not at all. It’s a terrible name.”

“What on earth were the mater and pater thinking?”

“Krah!” chuckled the raven.

Oswego whipped his head back and forth, not following the conversation at all.

“Well you seem like a nice enough, fella, all things considered,” said the raven.

“I could say the same fer you,” quipped Jekker.

The raven folded his wings behind his back. “Well what can I do for you, Dudley?”

Jekker tried not to let his annoyance show at being called his birth name. How on earth had this raven heard the story? “I’d like to make a proposition for you. I want you to tell your friend Regolith that he and I can help each other. We have similar aims.

“What makes you think that? How can you be so sure?”

“You’ll see,” was Jekker’s enigmatic reply. “I want you to send a message to your master. My friend and I will be in this glade again at midnight. We hope to see you there.”

“Midnight it is then,” said the raven with a wink of his obsidian eye. Then with a rush of his powerful wings he was back into the sky and winging towards the pine marten’s camp.

Oswego felt a chill down his spine at Jekker’s smirk. He had a feeling that the other hare had done this sort of thing before.

C*~*C*~*C

“Toc-Toc-Toc!” Mortys called out as he landed in the middle of the lines on Regolith’s troops.

The black fox eased his grip on his longbow and glared at his hated rival as the raven winked teasingly at him on his way to the pine marten tyrant. They had finally dug themselves out of the thrice accursed mountain pass and were making their way towards the foot of the mountainside. It was all pleasant countryside from here on: gently rolling hills and vast verdant woodlands as far as the eye could see. The beautiful countryside and the cooler weather – autumn was fast approaching – had a wonderfully beneficial impact on the troops morale.

A pair of stoats had even taken to singing a pleasant marching song, under the encouragement of Thalweg the ferret captain. He was in fine form this morning, the smile etched on his face was pleasant even in spite of his terrible facial scars. His paws were tossed back to support his head as he reclined perfectly at ease in the Lady Vermilion’s palanquin. This afternoon the velum walls of her litter were opened wide, with ornate knots tied onto the wooden frame with a crimson scarf from her vast wardrobe. She was giggling helplessly at the lyrics the stoats had composed extemporaneously.

Gather ‘round mates, I’ll tell you a tale of a stoat
Who was wicked and cruel, the ole goat!
Clodd, the ole fool, lived in the mountains up north
Three o’ ‘is brothers got scoffed by eagles, an’ ‘e didn’t wanna be fourth.
But the old clodd woke up one morn, hungry fer eagle eggs,
Fer all that was left ‘o ‘is scoff was the dregs,
So ‘e decided to climb the ole mountain, peg leg an’ all!
O climb you ole Clodd you,
O climb you ole fool
O climb you ole Clodd you
But be sure not to fall!
Old, Clodd gets to the nest an’ wot does ‘e see,
Nothing but eagle eggs, he must be ‘ome free.
But look to the sky, Clodd, you’re sure out o’ luck
Cuz wingin’ towards you ain’t no eagle, but it’s a duck!
So ‘e climbs, t’ get away, peg leg an’ all!
O climb you ole Clodd you,
O climb you ole fool
O climb you ole Clodd you
But be sure not to fall!
Climb ‘e did high and climb ‘e did fast,
But, Clodd, yer good luck, it ain’t gonna last.
To be sure to next sight will turn yer fur ta chalk!
In this distance! That must be a hawk!
So ‘e climbs faster still, peg leg an’ all!
O climb you ole Clodd you,
O climb you ole fool
O climb you ole Clodd you
But be sure not to fall!
Finally, poor Cldod reaches the mountain peek
And sees the very creature ‘e was loathe to meet!
Though the eagle was happy in ‘is heart oh so black
Fer tis nothin’ wrong with a midmorning snack!

Regolith had glanced back at them occasionally, delighting in his mate’s uninhibited laughter. A jolly grin was even making its way to his normally ruthless and unemotional face. The pine marten couldn’t remember a time that he had been happier than this summer of conquest. His mate was in almost a perpetual state of good humor – a truly unusual event – and he himself seemed more at ease than he had in the longest time. Those nagging little voices in the back of his head had almost seemed to have quieted.

“You’ll never be as happy as him.”

“She doesn’t love you. You’re fool for ever thinking you could please her.”

“Madness! Yer sanity is fleeting. Why else would you be hearing voices, Lord Regolith? Lord of Nothing! Yer not even lord of yer own wife!”

But he hadn’t heard those voices for awhile now, and he hadn’t missed them in the least. Not for a little while, at least not since Captain Thalweg had come up from the ranks.

It seemed as if a light poured out from inside the ferret, driving away his bad dreams and bad humor. The ferret had someone brought about good humor in everybeast: his mate, his troops, even himself. Although, Zigor still didn’t like him. Then again, Zigor was infamous in his inability to be pleased by anything or anyone. Regolith smirked. It was this quality of the black fox that amused him so much and had gained his respect in the first place. Zigor couldn’t be seduced or hoodwinked by anything.

Zigor also had noticed the troops’ merriment from where he was marching beside his Lord. The black fox glanced back at the ferret king as well. But he saw the ferret in a much different light. To him it seemed as if the Captain Thalweg was lying in the litter with the Lady Vermilion like a king among his subjects. Tt made the fox bristle with an uncomfortable emotion, something he wasn’t accustomed to feeling, something like envy.

The ferret had always rubbed him the wrong way and he was going to figure out the ferret’s secrets. Everyone always had secrets and the Captain Thalweg seemed to have more secrets than most creatures.

The black fox knew from the moment he met his fellow captain that there was something very wrong about the ferret. It was said that the eyes were windows to the soul, and although the black fox had not detected lies in the ferret’s eyes, he had detected a certain disingenuous air about the ferret. Thalweg may not have lied to them about himself, but he hadn’t revealed everything. Sometimes a creature’s careful omissions are more telling than their lies.

Of course that swine Louse-something or other, wasn’t to be trusted. The rat was disingenuous to the extreme. He may not have realized it, but Zigor had been watching him as carefully and earnestly as the rat had been watching Thalweg. Naturally they had come to similar conclusions; Zigor had even been impressed for a moment at how much the rat had noticed about the ferret captain. But that louse had an agenda of his own, Zigor knew this of course. The rat’s primary motivation for discrediting Thalweg was because he coveted the other’s position.

The rat could have been an ally for the fox in his information gathering, but Zigor had always preferred to work alone, not trusting in anyone’s information other than his own. Besides, the other creatures in the horde had no more love for the rat than they did for Zigor himself, so the rat couldn’t be any use to him really. Zigor had already noticed that the other horde members were accustomed to giving the louse a wide berth. They hadn’t trusted him any farther than they could throw him.

And Zigor didn’t want to put Thalweg on his guard. The ferret would be even more careful at what he said.

They feared Zigor liked the shadow of death that he was sometimes even reputed to be, but they respected him.

Mortys, whose name meant Death, walked up to Regolith finally and gave the pine marten a jaunty salute with his wing. “Krah! Beautiful day innit, milord?”

“Yes it is, Mortys,” answered Regolith. “I feel like we’re getting very close to Redwall Abbey. Wouldn’t you say?”

“How perceptive you are, milord,” chuckled the raven.

Regolith chuckled at the compliment.

With his huge obsidian eyes, the raven peered curiously at the black fox frowning next to them. The bird’s black orbs lit up in amusement as he said, “Prruk-Prruk-Prruk! Might I have a private word with you, yer majesty. I have made a very interesting discovery, that you might like to know of.”

Zigor bristled at being spoken of in such away and was about to bite back with a similar reply, when Regolith spoke before he could. “Zigor wouldn’t mind, I’m sure. Why don’t you, I dunno,” said the pine marten distractedly waving his paw at Zigor, “go in the back of the column and sniff out some mutiny or other.”

“Sir!” said Zigor indignantly.

“Goodbye, Zigor,” replied Regolith impatiently. “I’ll see you in a few moments after I’ve spoken with Mortys.”

The black fox slipped away after giving the raven one last glare. Regolith chuckled and turned to Mortys with his eyebrows raised.

“I just made a most interesting acquaintance, Milord,” said the raven.

“Did you know,” Regolith sighed impatiently. “What manner of creature was it, Mortys.”

“A woodlander.”

“Fascinating, I’m sure,” quipped Regolith dryly.

“Fascinating indeed,” countered the raven. “It’s a beast we’ve learned about recently, but assumed was merely fiction.”

“Really? A creature from one of Thalweg’s stories then? I wonder who it could be. Not that mountain hare we heard about last night? What was the fellow’s name?”

“The one and the same. Prruk! A mountain hare who goes by the name of Jekker Diamond.”

“By the fur! I couldn’t be the same creature!” gasped the pine marten.

“I believe it to be so. I tried to put him off guard by telling him I knew his birth name, and he seemed taken aback by that fact. Though not enough put off to counter that he knew my name as well.”

The pine marten scratched his chin with a claw as he ruminated over the raven’s words. “Vulpuz’ eyes! What on earth did the harebeast want?”

The raven beckoned him in closer with a wing and glanced around for prying eyes before going further. “Prruk! You won’t believe me when I tell you, but he’s bamboozled some ole fool from those longears with the fancy uniforms into mutiny or something or other. He didn’t give me very many details, but he told me that,” then the raven spoke in a different voice, a voice Regolith assumed to be that of the hare Jekker Diamond, “‘I want you to tell your friend Regolith that he and I can help each other. We have similar aims.’”

Regolith couldn’t help the grin that was spreading across his face. “This is quite a fascinating development, Mortys.”

The raven chuckled. “I thought you’d be entertained by it, sire.”

“I am. Immensely.”

“I thought it would be equally entertaining if we had Captain Zigor go and speak to the hares tonight.”

“You never do tire of teasing him do you, Mortys.” Regolith smiled.

“Never,” was the amused reply.

“This is just the sort of thing that would rub him the wrong way. If there’s one thing he hates it’s the idea of a mutiny,” said Regolith with the air of a philosopher. “Then again he’ll put the fear of Vulpuz into the hares and make them think twice about double crossing us. And his scorn for mutineers will make him sure to strike a deal with them that’s beneficial to us.”

“Excellent, can I tell him?” asked Mortys eagerly.

“I think you’d better not. I’ll let him know about his latest duty to me. You’re a wonderful fellow, Mortys, but you’re sometimes a little lacking in…tact? delicacy? … when dealing with Zigor. Not that I mind, of course. It amuses me.”

C*~*C*~*C

Everybeast was excited to be off the mountain, out of the swamps and into woodland country. Turnsol peered backwards again towards the end of the column where Jekker was chatting amicably with Oswego.

He turned to Peony marching beside him. “It doesn’t feel right.”

Peony raised an eyebrow as she looked at him. “Wot do you mean?”

“Jekker and Oswego being so chummy. I can feel it in my bones…they’re up to something.”

Peony burst out laughing. “I’m surprised at you, Turnsol. I’ll grant you that Jekker is a bit strange and anything he does seems I’ll hold suspect at best. But I don’t see anything sinister in the fact that Oswego has befriended him. It’s actually quite nice, because Oswego doesn’t seem to get along as well with the others in the patrol. I’m glad he has a friend.”

“How does that saying go? Evil deeds attract other bad deeds.”

“I haven’t heard any sayings like that.”

“That’s beside the point. Just think about it, Peony.”

Major Peony frowned.

C*~*C*~*C

There was barely even a sliver of a moon to light the way back to the glade for the two hares. Jekker walked with a purpose, accustomed to business that could only be conducted after dark. Oswego, on the other paw, stumbled through brambles and tripped over tree roots. He supposed that this was his way of running gauntlet. After all he was about to betray his patrol. He hesitated for a moment in fear and anticipation.

“Come on, matey, we’re almost there.”

Jekker’s smile seemed to gleam in the darkness and his outstretched paw beckoned him. “The glade’s just up ahead.”

They walked a bit further until they reached the trees gave way to a little glade. The same glade that they had stood that afternoon and shot at the raven, Mortys.

“He’s not here, maybe we should,” Oswego whispered.

“Your not gonna anywhere, longears,” whispered a silky voice behind his back, emphasized with the knife held dangerously at his back.

The creature let him go and in the blink of an eye was standing in front of them. Oswego could barely make out the outline of a fox in the darkness, because of the foxes dark fur.

“I’m here on behalf of Lord Regolith. Speak your piece, longears, and I’ll determine if the pair of you are worth our time.”

“Er…” stuttered Oswego. “We want to make a deal with your master.”

The black fox bristled at the use of the word. With a whirling of his cloak, the fox distracted with hare for a moment. He only needed a moment to place his skinning knife at Oswego’s throat. “I am no slave,” he growled.

“Indeed you are not, my friend,” said Oswego’s companion. He put a heavy paw on the foxes’ back and tugged away the foxes’ arm from Oswego’s neck. “Give the chap a moment to speak his piece.

The black fox glared at the other hare. “I’ll deal with you later, Jekker Diamond. Or should I say, Dudley.”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t. Dudley’s a terrible name. Go on, Ozzie. Tell the chap our proposal.”

Oswego stuttered, “I….I think that we can…can help eachother. You see, we want...we want the same thing.”

The black fox sneered at him. “And what’s that?”

“The long patrol dead,” whispered Jekker.

The black fox turned to him. “Do you make it a habit, betraying your kind?”

Oswego looked at Jekker perplexed. “What does he mean, mate.”

“He’s just being cruel,” Jekker pronounced looking straight at the fox.

“No more than you are,” the black fox corrected.

“We don’t need the entire patrol to be dead, just a couple of them, the officers,” Jekker further corrected. “That way you’ll rob Redwall of some warrior leadership and at the same time secure my friend a promotion.”

The black fox raised an eyebrow. “Promotion, eh?”

“Er…” Oswego stuttered. Fear had robbed him of speech.

Jekker rolled his eyes and went on, clearly seeing the Salamandastron hare would not be much help anymore. “Well lead them into some sort of trap for you than then yer creatures can go to it and deal with the hares as they see fit. But not all of the hares, that is. There’s one I’d like you to keep alive. She’s a female hare, petite and dark-furred. The Major, the leader of the Patrol.”

Zigor looked at Jekker dumbfounded. “A maid is the leader of the patrol? Inconceivable! What do you want me to keep her alive for?”

“You can learn all you want from her and then I’ll take her off yer hands. She’s a pretty thing, she’ll make a good wife if she’s of the mind for it. A slave, if she’s not,” Jekker grinned.

“Yore a monster, Jekker Diamond,” the black fox said with condemnation.

“Thank you,” he quipped. “The second part of my payment will be the black diamond on the pine marten lady’s paw.”

“You want Vermilion’s diamond.”

“Yes.”

“Starting a collection are you?” the black fox.

“Perhaps,” quipped Jekker.

“We’d also like the slaves that escaped from Lord Regolith’s Castle returned. Especially the squirrelmaid, before we ambush the others”

“I will see to that personally,” said Jekker. He went on the explain their intentions, “Oswego and I will be splitting up the patrol tomorrow, he will take a small group westward towards their fire mountain for “reinforcements” and I will be with the remainder of the patrol heading towards Redwall. The Long Patrol Major will be in my group and all the escaped slaves. Oswego and I will see that campfires are lit for you to locate out positions.”

“Very good,” said the black fox. He turned and pointed to Oswego. “Your cost is not so heavy for us, hare. But you do not bring as much to the table as your friend, hare. So your cost to us for our good behavior will be heavier than your companions.”

“What…what is it that you want then, vermin,” Oswego tried to say bravely.

“You must kill all the creatures in your party. We will not help you with it. If not, we will not kill the officers in our companion’s group.”

Oswego looked troubled.

“This will not be a problem for you will it, longears?”

“N…no, sir,” said Oswego quietly.

“Very good. Everything seems to be in order then,” said the fox.

“I like knowing a creature’s name before I make a deal with them. Especially because you seem to know my birth name,” said Jekker holding out a paw.

The black fox looked at the hare’s paw disgustedly. “Zigor.”

Oswego looked over uneasily at the two creatures shaking paws.

Chapter Thirty-Five

The wall sconces flickered in the darkness of Redwall’s Great Hall as well as the tall candle sitting at the head table in a metal basin. This was called the Candle of the Hours. It had several nails stuck in it to tell the passing of the hours. The nail, which read midnight, fell down with a clatter onto the metal basin as the burning wax no longer supported it.

Midnight, the witching hour.

This was the only sound to accompany the soft tread of footsteps into the great hall. The creature passed by the tapestry of Martin the Warrior before stopping in front of the head table. The creature took a small candle in its holder and used the flame from the Candle of the Hours to light his own little candle.

Then he slid silent as a wraith in his black cloak over to the beautiful antic secretary desk. Drawing an assassin’s knife from within his dark cloak, the creature leaned closely with his candle and tried to pick the lock to the desk.

His knife scratched the beautiful antique beyond repair, but eventually the locking mechanism clicked and the desk flap fell open with a dusty crash.

Looking up in worry to see that the noise had not disturbed any of the Abbey Dwellers, the creature went back to his business.

“A cure for madness? Could it be possible?” he whispered excitedly to himself. “This could be the key. Maybe I could convince Regolith to change his mind.”

He held his candle close to the desk and tried to make out the beautiful script. A smudge of wax dripped onto the desk as he leaned closer to the words inlaid into the wood. He hardly dared to breathe in his excitement. There was a poem written along the back of the desk!

THE creation of this Abbey will, Oh what a brave deed,
Hopefully ensure that no creature should suffer as I did.
You wish to learn a REMEDY for my disease?
If any beast should have an ear, pay heed to my words.
FOR too many seasons I was lost in the darkness of my own
MADNESS, but finally I was brought to the blinding light of truth.
The answer IS so simple, it was almost lost in my stubbornness.
For I learned that THE cure is not something that can be bought
or stolen, indeed cannot the same be said for LOVE?
And OF it’s nature, it is not a thing to be achieved by ONE’S own power.
The Remedy for Madness is the Love of one’s FRIENDS.

He finished reading the words with a sob. The love of one’s friends? For yet another time the Redwallers, even unintentionally, had brought the key to his shackles to his paws, only to snatch it away with some excuse or other.

They were all the same. Their obsession with love and forgiveness would be their undoing.

But wait! Pawsteps! Pawsteps on the stairs.

After being startled near out of his wits, the creature blew out the candle and hardly dared to breathe as he watched the stairway from behind the Abbess’ Germaine’s large writing desk.

After a moment, another creature glided down the steps. Through the shadows and the flickering light, he was able to make out the figure. It was the vixen. The light from the pipe she was smoking lit up her face in the darkness. The seer herself had stepped into the Great Hall and out the main door onto the Abbey grounds muttering, “The one sent before will betray, to preserve a familial bond, he poses like one of us but he’s still obedient … ” to herself.

She closed the front door slightly, but it swung open again with a creek. Stepping out from behind the desk, he went to the door and slipped outside to walk down the promenade. The vixen, standing in the grass of the front yard looked back at the door swinging open.

With faltering steps and uneasy glances, she made her way to the door to the Great Hall and closed it tightly. She glanced around again. The fur on the nape of her neck was standing up. As if some beast was watching her.

But all that she could see was darkness, utter consuming darkness.

She stepped off the promenade and went to the right. Her strides were slow as she meandered towards one of the small rows of plants that the sisters and brothers had planted in preparation for the fall harvest. Puffing on her pipe, she watched the smoke swirl upwards in patterns only a seer could understand.

Walking through the piles of dirt, tossed up by the plow, she looked behind her again. The prickling of the fur on her neck had stopped. She no longer felt as if some creature was following her.

Shaking her head at her perhaps overactive imagination, she continued at a slower pace towards the small wicker gate on the Northern part of the walls. She had barely reached the small wicker gate when a figure stepped from the shadows of the wallstairs and into her path.

“I’ve known for quite awhile now that it was you,” the vixen whispered.

“Then you won’t begrudge me this? Consider it an act of self-defense.”

The vixen spit at him. “I’ll consider it a further way for you to cover your tracks. I’ve looked into your future and I’ve seen great suff…”

Her final words were lost as he plunged the assassin’s knife into her heart.

C*~*C*~*C

Willow wiped a tired paw across her forehead. The morning sun overhead was high and very hot. Even though the autumn was swiftly coming, the summer’s heat was reluctant to relinquish its hold.

With a sigh, she asked, “Are we ever gonna get to Redwall?”

Major Peony and Captain Turnsol peered back at her from where they were peering at a spot of moss on a tree. Jonquil, the other tracker, was standing by his friends Toby and Alma and the three of them were looking at the swift river flowing west towards the sea.

Major Peony patted Turnsol on the back and walked over the squirrelmaid. “We should be at Redwall Abbey in just a matter of days, Willow. We’re at the southern bend of the River Moss. Turnsol and Jonquil have picked out our heading so we’ll just head due north until we bump into the Abbey.”

“We’re also at least a day ahead of the pine marten,” added Turnsol.

“So we should arrive at Redwall with plenty of time to warn them. If we hurry and travel longer into the night, we might even arrive at the Abbey a day early,” amended Peony.

Sergeant Saxifrage rubbed his growling stomach. “I can’t wait to taste those Redwall vittles.”

“I’m with Sergeant Saxophone on this one,” chuckled Jekker Diamond.

Peony laughed and patted his stomach as well. “Sooner than you think, Sax!”

Lieutenant Oswego glanced meaningfully at Jekker Diamond before proclaiming loudly. “But will it be enough?”

Saxifrage turned to him perplexed. “I’d bally well hope so. I’m famished.”

Major Peony looked at Oswego in confusion as well. Could it be that Oswego had finally developed a sense of humor. “I think even Redwall’s kitchens should more than suffice to feed Sergeant Saxifrage’s legendary appetite, Oswego.”

Jekker Diamond chuckled.

Oswego rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I meant, you simpletons.”

Major Peony gave him a pained smile in her attempts to be professional. “Then do let us know what it is that you are thinking, Oswego.”

“Yeah, spit it out, you bounder!” Turnsol fussed.

“This pine marten tyrant is bringing five hundred blinkin’ vermin to Redwall Abbey. Even with the Abbey’s defenses bolstered by the… seventeen of us, we won’t stand a chance against his horde!”

Turnsol snorted. “Are you scared, Oswego? And by now Regolith has less than four hundred soldiers after all of our guerilla attacks. You might want to check your arithmetic.”

Oswego narrowed his eyes at Turnsol. “I don’t need arithmetic to see that we’re heavily outnumbered!”

Dann Reguba had heard enough. He stepped forward between the two arguing hares. “I am the Warrior of Redwall Abbey. I know our defenses better than anybeast. And I tell you that the Redwallers will be able to stand and fight against this horde. Redwall Abbey has been besieged by forces much greater than this. Not only that, it has also been defended by many fewer creatures than currently reside there, creatures with much less training that we will have this time. After we arrive at Redwall, we will be bursting at the seams with capable warriors. Regolith will realize the hard way that he has bitten off more than he can chew, charging at us blindly in the middle of the harvest season. We won’t even have to worry a bit about provisions for a siege!”

Jekker Diamond clapped his paws, “A beautiful soliloquy Mr. Rutabaga.”

“Reguba,” Dann corrected.

“Quite,” Jekker responded.

“But imagine how much surer victory would be if the thousand or so battle ready hares of the Long Patrol marched to our aid?” said Oswego. “Surely we should send somebeast back to Salamandastron!”

“It’s unnecessary at best, Oswego,” Sergeant Saxifrage countered. “It would take at least a season for news to travel to Salamandastron and forces to come to our aid, if creatures can even be spared. It would be a fool’s errand.”

“But we are late with our report,” Major Peony muttered to herself.

“Did you say something, darling?” Jekker asked, sidling up to her and pushing Turnsol out of the way. He put a paw around her shoulders and whispered into her ear, “Could you bless us again with those words of wisdom that came from yer ruby red lips?”

“Er?” stuttered Peony.

“Did you say something about the report for the patrol?” asked Lieutenant Tobias.

Lorica scratched her head with an ear, “Is there some sort of due date for that, Major?”

“Typically,” said Borage. “Is it coming up soon, Peony?”

Peony pulled out the small book from a pocket in her forest green tunic. “It was last week.”

“Last week!” roared Oswego in outrage. “You’re a bloody Long Patrol Major! How can you so blatantly disregard the rules of your office! I don’t believe this. I propose that…”

“Stuff it, Oswego.” Saxifrage rolled his eyes when he started to feel a disturbing sense of déjà vu with what had happened in the swamp. “I’m sure the Major had a perfectly good reason for disobeying orders.”

“Quite,” Peony said, looking at Oswego disapprovingly. Taking out a folded piece of paper with a wax stamp from the same pocket that the small book had come, she waved it in Oswego’s face. “My orders are clear and as your commanding officer, you should show the proper respect for my decisions for this patrol. My orders for this mission were very clear and I have followed them to a tee. The deadline for our return to Salamandastron was last week. But that was while we were a scouting party. Our purpose has changed drastically. Now our mission is not to find this slave compound – a mission we have completed above and beyond the call of duty – but to hasten to Redwall with the news of their eminent siege.”

Having taken a moment to draw breath, Peony was interrupted by the irrepressible Jekker Diamond. “By the fur, you gave me chills, my love. How I do love a beautiful haremaid givin’ the orders,” he said with a lascivious wink.

“Shut up, Jerker,” growled Turnsol.

“Can it, Turnstyle,” countered Jekker.

“Enough of the name calling, you two,” said Peony. “You looked like you wanted to say something, Borage.”

“Well I…”

“I’m not done speaking my piece!” interrupted Oswego.

“Hey, Ozzie, give Porridge here a chance to speak his piece.”

“Thank you?” Borage stuttered. “Well what I was gonna say was that, I don’t see any harm in Lieutenant Oswego’s suggestion. It might turn out to be the best thing we can do, bringing reinforcements from Salamandastron.”

“And if some of us return to Salamandastron, we could return your report as well Major. Better late than never,” added Lieutenant Tobias.

Oswego grinned. He couldn’t believe that finally creatures were appreciating his guidance and leadership, even though it was cruelly meant. He wouldn’t be leading anyone to Salamandastron. He would be leading them to the slaughter.

“I suppose it’s not a terrible idea,” Peony amended. “You see, my main reservation for Oswego’s idea is that well, we have four hundred vermin hot on our tail! Even though we’re hopefully a day ahead of them, it doesn’t mean they won’t catch up to us or catch sight of us. It’s really a miracle we’ve made it this far unharmed. There’s strength in numbers. We might end up needing the whole of this patrol to make it to Redwall for somebeast to give them the warning. If we send a smaller force to ask for reinforcements from Salamandastron, there is a great probability that they might be caught by the pine marten’s creatures.”

“But I believe that the reward is more than enough to justify the risk,” said Oswego.

“Then again, it couldn’t hurt to make the Lord Russano aware of the proceedings. Alright then, Oswego.” Peony took a deep breath and stood up straighter. “I’ll leave you in charge of the Salamandastron group. You are to bring the creatures with you to Salamandastron and give Lord Russano a full report. I will keep my notebook to finish the report myself, but you can tell the badgerlord what has happened so far.”

“Thank you, Major,” said Oswego beaming with pride.

Peony put a paw under her chin and considered the other members of her group. “I’m loath to part with any of you, but I suppose I’ll have to. I want to go as well, Lieutenant Tobias, you can help Oswego with the report when you get back home. Jonquil, you will go with them as well to help with tracking and finding your way back to Salamadastron. Fleetpaw, you’ll be going of course being the galloper. And Oswego of course.”

The four hares looked at each other. Oswego’s smile was brightening. This would be cake.

A creature behind the major cleared her throat. “Major Peony, I would like to request to join Lieutenant Oswego’s group as well.”

Peony turned to stare at the haremaid who had tried to get her attention. “Are you sure, Alma?”

“Yes, mam. If you’ll give your approval. I’d like to go as well.”

“Well,” said Peony with hesitation. At the young ‘uns pleading gaze, she smiled and said, “All right then, my dear. You can join the group going to Salamadastron as well.”

“Thank you very much, Major Peony!” exclaimed Alma.

The haremaid scurried over to stand next to her four companions. They all looked over at the remaining members of the patrol with excited yet bittersweet expressions.

The group which would continue on to Redwall, said their goodbyes to the five companions. Some not realizing it would be their last.

“Happy hunting, Major!”

“Thanks, Toby. A swift journey for you as well.”

“Give me love to my mater and pater, Alma.”

“Of course, Lorica. Be sure to scoff plenty of Redwall vittles in our honor.”

“You don’t need to tell us twice,” chuckled Blackberry.

“We knew I could count on you, Blackberry,” Fleetpaw chuckled.

Turnsol took Jonquil aside and whispered. “Be careful, mate, and keep a close eye on Oswego. I think he’s up to something. You saw what happened in the swamp.”

“We all saw a side of him we didn’t like,” agreed Jonquil.

“If anything goes wrong, just run. Run as fast as you can.”

The hare looked at the Long Patrol Captain in surprise. “I don’t understand. You want me to continue to Salamandastron no matter what?”

“Use your own discretion, ole chap. To Salamandastron or to Redwall, whichever seems the better course of action. You’re one of the best trackers I’ve ever seen. You’ll be able to pick up our trail and avoid Regolith’s if you need to return our way.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And look out for the young ones, Jon. Fleetpaw and Alma don’t realize it, but they’re getting in way over their heads.”

“I promise. And be careful yerself, Turnsol. I don’t like the look of that Jekker Diamond fellow. He’s bad news.”

“I will. Thank you. Swift journey.”

Two other creatures were having a whispered conference at the same time as the Long Patrol Captain.

Jekker Diamond patted Lieutenant Oswego on the back rather harder than necessary and inquired, “Up for the task, matey?”

There was no doubt in the Long Patrol Lieutenant’s eyes, only determination. “I know what I must do.”

“Then happy hunting, Major Oswego,” were Jekker’s parting words, his smile devilish.

Chapter Thirty-Six

Day had long since tossed aside her brilliant cloak and now Night dressed herself in a dark blue mantle studded with diamonds. The lightening bugs danced in the light of the full moon to the crickets’ symphony on the strings.

The young haremaid, Alma De Langle, turned to her companions with a sigh. Now that they were such a smaller company, the camp itself seemed deserted. But Major Peony said that they should go to Salamandastron to bring reinforcements. It would be a near impossibility for the Redwallers to fight twenty score vermin soldiers, even if the Long Patrol had picked off five score from their original number through guerilla tactics.

Lieutenant Tobias threw down his pack and looked around at the clearing they had just entered. He turned to Lieutenant Oswego. “What do you think of settling here for the night?”

Leaning on his javelin for support, Oswego examined the area with a critical eye, his lips a narrow line. “It’s as good a place as any I suppose.”

Jonquil dropped his pack down next to his friend Toby’s and rummaged through it for pots and pans.

“I say, chaps. What’s for supper?” asked Fleetpaw putting his pack down next to Toby’s and Jonquil’s.

Alma chuckled and scampered over to stand by her three friends. Oswego stood apart from them with a resolute look on his face. “Toby and I’ll light a fire for cooking and you three young ‘uns can forage for something for dinner. Don’t worry about waiting for the others. When you find something, bring it back.”

Alma and Fleetpaw looked at each other and with a shrug before heading off into the deathly quiet woodlands. Jonquil hesitated. But in the end, he followed Oswego’s orders; though not before giving his friend Toby a meaningful glance, which the Lieutenant disregarded. Jonquil has whispered to his friend the strange warning Captain Turnsol had given him, but Toby couldn’t believe that a Lieutenant of the Long Patrol could cause that much trouble.

Toby said to Jon, “Sure Oswego’s moody, but he’s not dangerous. Major Peony wouldn’t have sent us off with him if she believed him to be dangerous.”

“I hope you’re right, Toby. Peony might trust Oswego, but I don’t think Turnsol does.”

“You believe what you will, and I’ll believe what I will,” was Toby’s final answer.

Lieutenant Tobias was also unconsciously repeating this conversation in his head as his companions struck out into the woodlands to scavenge and he stayed at camp with Oswego to start the fire.

In no time, Toby had put a couple of logs together and struck a spark from the flint. A little fire blossomed to light in the darkness. He spoke over his shoulder to Oswego. “Are you sure that it’s safe to light a fire in the woodlands tonight? Are we positive that Regolith’s troops are far enough away from us?”

“You won’t need to worry about them, Toby,” Oswego muttered examining a black knife that he had taken from his broad belt.

The middle-aged hare lieutenant stared almost hypnotized by the blade. “I’m sorry to have to do this, Toby. Out of all the others in the Patrol, I’ve always liked you the best. But I can’t let this opportunity pass me by.”

The black dagger glittered once in the full moon and in Lieutenant Tobias’ startled eyes before it was buried deep into Toby’s back, a mortal blow.

The two young hares returning from their scavenging stumbled upon his horrifying tableau. Alma let out a quick ear-splitting shriek before she clamped a paw over her mouth in terror. Fleetpaw jumped forward at Oswego with his fist raised as Lieutenant Toby’s body fell heavily to the ground.

Oswego tossed aside the dagger with which he had just stabbed his comrade and hefted his javelin. Aiming carefully, he threw it at the young hare.

Fleetpaw collapsed, the javelin standing out from his leg grotesquely. The young hare let out a groan as the older hare walked up to him and pulled out the javelin roughly. Blood poured from the wound. Fleetpaw cried out in pain.

Alma stumbled backward shaking her head. This was impossible! Oswego was a commissioned officer of the Long Patrol. Wasn’t he? Hares weren’t supposed to…

Tripping on a root, she fell backwards heavily. Crawling away on her back, her paws splayed out behind her, Alma could only stare wide-eyed at the hare standing over her, javelin poised to plunge deep into her heart.

“Tell Grandpa Purslane that this is present from me!”

Like a thunderbolt, another creature barreled into Oswego, knocking the javelin out of the hare Lieutenant’s paws.

It was Jonquil!

All weapons forgotten, the two hares rolled around on the woodland floor, using their teeth and claws in a desperate fight to the death. Blood stained the ground as they tore each other apart.

“Alma!” came a voice from beside her. It was Fleetpaw. His face pale from bloodloss, he still managed to grin at her. “Go see how Toby is. Oswego did a number on me. I don’t think I can stand.”

Alma spared a glance at Oswego and Jonquil as they continued their fight. Oswego had the younger hare in a strangle hold as he slammed Jonquil’s head repeatedly against the ground. Jonquil, spurred on by adrenaline, kicked the older hare hard in the gut, forcing Oswego to release his strangle-hold.

Toby was only a paw’s length away from Alma. He had propped himself up against a tree. He opened an eye at her when she put a paw on his shoulder. “Toby!”

“I’m sorry, Alma,” he whispered, blood dribbling down his chin.

“Don’t talk, Toby,” she cried out in horror. “I’ll….”

He smiled at her. “I’m sorry, Alma, but there’s nothing you can do for …” he paused to cough forth a river of blood.

Alma blanched and started sobbing. “Toby! Don’t say that! You can’t die. You just can’t!”

“It’s too late for me now. But Fleetpaw’s wound isn’t mortal. Try to stop the bleeding. Maybe you can save one of …” he coughed again.

Eyes glistening with tears, the haremaid hastened over to her other friend. Fleetpaw’s eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow. There was so much blood. She didn’t think it possible for a creature to have that much blood.

“Stop the bleeding. Okay. But ‘ow do I stop the flippin’ bleedin?’” she muttered frantically to herself.

Fleetpaw chuckled at her and opened an eye. “Why don’t you try a piece of your tunic?”

Alma let out a snort at him. “I hope you weren’t closing your eyes just to scare me. A piece of my tunic?”

She glanced at Toby for guidance, but the hare lieutenant’s eyes were focused on the intense battle between the two lieutenants.

Oswego had shaken off Jon for a moment and reached out with a trembling paw for the black dagger lying on the ground just a paw’s length away. Jon let out a furious roar and though all his strength was spent, he crawled paw over paw to grapple with the other hare for the weapon.

Alma tried to ignore the terrifying contest going on right before her eyes and put pressure on Fleetpaw’s leg wound. The bleeding slowed a bit, but it was hard to pay too much attention to what she was doing what with all the sound effects Fleetpaw and Toby made as they watched.

“Here,” laughed Fleetpaw. “I’ll hold it. You’re doing a terrible job.”

Alma let out a hysterical laugh and scooted back for Fleetpaw to put pressure on his wound. She was glad to see that some of the color was coming back to his face. He let out of gasp.

Alma turned. Jonquil had finally gotten the upper hand. He sat over Oswego, holding the black dagger. The same dagger that had given Toby a mortal wound. There was no doubt in his eyes as he raised the dagger for the kill.

Alma couldn’t take it anymore. She jumped up with a cry and ran over to the contestants. “No! Hasn’t enough blood been spilled on his account?” she screamed. “Don’t dirty the blade with his blood!”

Jonquil looked at her, his dark eyes lost. He nodded imperceptivity and spat in the older hare’s face. “You’re not worth it, Oswego.”

Sitting back on his haunches with his paw still holding the dagger, Jon glared at Oswego. Standing at his side, Alma put a paw on his shoulder. Oswego looked bitterly at the two and skidded back onto his haunches as well. Before he struggled to his feet.

He didn’t look back once as he ran into the forest.

Jonquil fell backwards with a sigh. Looking up at Alma, he asked, “How’re Toby and Fleetpaw?”

“Toby’s in a really bad way,” she whispered to him.

“No,” Jonquil whispered stubbornly before rushing over to his friend. Jon buried his head on his friend’s shoulder. “Turnsol warned me. He thought that Oswego was up to something. This is all my fault. I should have…”

The Lieutenant’s eyes were losing their focus, but he pulled his friend from his shoulder to look him in the eye. “It’s not you’re fault, Jonnie. Not yours or mine, or Turnsol’s or Peony’s or anyone else who was fooled by Oswego’s deception.”

Jonquil felt a hot tear drip down his face. “I’m so sorry, Toby.”

Toby gave him a bittersweet smile. “It’s up to you now, Jon. You have to lead Alma and Fleetpaw back to Redwall. I’m afraid something similar might happen to Major Peony and the others.”

“But I’ve never wanted to be an officer. I’ve never wanted to lead.”

Toby’s chuckle turned into a fierce coughing fit, blood dribbling down his chin. “You don’t always get to chose where your life will lead you. Sometimes you have to do what will be best for everyone.”

“Toby…” Alma whispered.

“I’d like you to take my knives, Jon,” Toby said, pressing his long knives into Jonquil’s paws.

“I…Toby,” Jonquil called. “Toby!”

He felt a paw on his shoulder. “He’s gone, Jonquil.”

The hare turned his tearstained face to the haremaid. “Yore right.”

“What do we do know?” asked Fleetpaw from where he sat on the ground.

“To Redwall,” said Jonquil, standing up, his voice resolute. “Can you walk, Fleetpaw?”

“No,” said the galloper with a sigh. “Oswego made sure that I’d never be able to run again. Now I can barely walk.”

“We can each lend you a shoulder, Fleetpaw,” said Jon.

Glad to leave the blood-soaked glade, Alma and Jonquil carried Fleetpaw between them as they hurried to Redwall. There was not a dry eye among the three of them.

C*~*C*~*C

Was it tears or was it drops of blood dampening his cheeks? He couldn’t be sure. He felt sick to his stomach as he blundered through the forest, knocking aside plants and branches in his headlong dash to be as far from that blood-soaked glade as possible.

He didn’t feel like he had failed in his task, yet he didn’t feel like he had succeeded either. He had thought that with the others dead and his path to promotion wide open, he would finally be happy.

No, he still felt… empty.

It was painful to look at your life in retrospect and feel absolutely nothing: no friendships forged, no loves lost or even gained, no accomplishments to speak of. He was nothing.

He was so lost in his sorrow that he didn’t catch sight of the dark figure leaning casually against a tree until he was right upon him. For a fleeting moment his wild imagination allowed him to believe that the black fox was Vulpuz himself. He gasped loudly and put a paw to his side for a weapon. But he had left them in the glade.

But Oswego quickly realized that the black fox was leaning against the very tree that they had agreed to meet at after Oswego betrayed his companions. Oswego let out a sigh of relief, he had returned to their agreed spot unconsciously. For that at least he was glad.

“So?” drawled the black fox silkily.

“It’s done,” said Oswego with a heavy heart.

“Not yet,” replied the fox in a strange voice.

Zigor moved so fast that Oswego didn’t even have time to react. Right before his eyes, a dagger was plunged deep into his heart.

Oswego gasped, and fell to knees before the black fox. He put a paw, already wet with Toby and Jonquil’s blood, to the wound. It came back dripping now with his own blood.

Indignant, the hare spat at the fox’s feet. “I should have known better than to make a deal with a vermin.”

Zigor raised an eyebrow at the hare. “I wouldn’t be so quick to judge, hare. You’ll be at Hellgates soon where you’ll stand to pay for your crimes. There’s nothing worse that a creature that betrays his own kind. You merely received what you deserved. You’re the vermin.”

With a swirl of his blue cloak, the black fox the gone. He had a meeting with another traitor planned for that night.

And Oswego was alone again, as he had been all his life. He had only his bitter sobs for company as he met his death in the deathly silent woodland.

C*~*C*~*C

Humming softly to herself, the squirrelmaid followed the hare into a glade. He stopped suddenly and turned to stare at her.

She stared at him in return. “You said you had seen a little spring earlier. Are you sure it’s over here?”

The hare smiled mysteriously and pulled the chain up from around his neck. “No, it’s not over here.”

The squirrelmaid followed the hare with the ridiculous black leather tunic farther into the woodlands.

Major Peony’s group had finally stopped the day, much later than they had become accustomed. The Long Patrol was anxious to reach Redwall by the next day at the latest. They had sent out several smaller parties to scavenge for dinner. Somehow Willow had ended up looking for watercress with Jekker Diamond.

Willow noticed the beautiful rings arrayed on the chain around Jekker’s neck almost immediately.

“Diamonds. They’re so beautiful. Is that why you call yourself, Jekker Diamond?”

“Yes,” the hare said with a smile.

“You have quite a collection,” continued the squirrelmaid.

“It’s not yet complete. I’ve always wanted a black one.”

Willow laughed at his assertion, before adding “After this is all over, I’ll help you find one.”

“Oh, you’ve helped me more than you realize, darlin’,” was his enigmatic reply.

There was a sound, as if something had fallen from the sky to land at her feet. She bent down and picked up another ring, much like the ones on Jekker’s chain.

She examined it carefully before offering it to Jekker to scrutinize as well. “I don’t believe it. A black diamond! What are the chances?”

Jekker’s smile was cruel as he stepped back from her, holding the black diamond in one paw. “I can’t tell you how obliged I am, Willow, my dear.”

She looked at him curiously. “I don’t understand.”

“Perhaps it’s better that you don’t,” the hare replied.

There was a loud beating of powerful wings and then suddenly the pain of heavy talons gripping her back and then the squirrelmaid was airborne in the claws of the Raven, Mortys.

She squirmed in his hold and cried out, “Help me! Jekker!”

“Very much obliged, Willow,” Jekker called back. “Give my love to Regolith, Mortys.”

Toc-Toc-Toc!

Jekker attached the fourth ring to his chain and looked at them with admiration as he starting walking northward. Unlike that amateur Oswego, Jekker knew what would await him if he kept his meeting with Zigor the Black Fox. So with scarcely a glance backwards, he went to seek his fortune elsewhere.

C*~*C*~*C

It was the younger hares’ task to set up camp for the night as the officer’s went off to do some reconnaissance before dinner. So Lorica, Sage, Blackberry along with Beech and Dann were left in the little glade.

Toc-Toc-Toc!

It was that strange call that attracted her attention. Lorica glanced upwards and saw in the light of the full moon, a strange dark shape winging southwards. Squinting curiously at it, she felt a cold chill run down her back.

“Do you see that in the sky?” she asked the others.

As one, they turned their gaze skyward in the direction the haremaid indicated. Blackberry scratched his head with an ear and replied, “It looks like just a jolly great lump. Must be an owl or something.”

“It looks like it’s carrying something,” replied Sage.

“Whatever it has doesn’t want to be caught. It’s squirming like crazy, wot,” said Blackberry. “I say, you chaps. I must have gotten into the elderberry wine, but it almost looks like that bird is carrying…”

“Willow!” cried Lorica. She turned to Dann who was looking upwards with concern. “Dann. Could you shot the bloody great bird down?”

With a sad sigh, Dann Reguba shook his head. “I’m more likely to hit Willow if I can get anywhere near the bird at all.”

“If only Jonquil was here,” said Blackberry sadly. “He’s the best archer at Salamandastron.”

“I’ll do it,” said a confident voice.

The hares turned to face Beech who held a bow strung with an arrow in his paws. He had drawn one of his green fletched arrows to its full extent. Narrowing one eye and hardly daring to breathe, he aimed carefully and let it fly.

The arrow flew true and lodged itself in the Raven’s wing. The bird cried out in pain and let go of the squirrelmaid. Willow fell earthward with a bloodcurdling shriek.

C*~*C*~*C

It all happened so fast. One minute she was talking to Jekker Diamond. In the next she was snatched away by that horrible Raven from the Castle. Then before her startled eyes, a green-fletched arrow struck the raven’s wing.

As the Raven released his claws from where they were dug into her back, she felt strangely weightless from a moment. But then reality hit her full on as her heart pounded in her throat and she plummeted downward. A cry was wrenched from her mouth, mingling with the raven’s cry of pain. Scratched by branches all the way down, all she could think was that Beech used green-fletched arrows.

Eventually she closed her eyes, hoping death would come quickly. “Gotcha, missy,” said a familiar voice, she had hoped to never hear again.

Opening her eyes, she saw the faces of two creatures in the long blue cloaks. Captains of Regolith’s troops!

“We’ve really missed you, Willow,” said Captain Halfear, the creature that had caught her.

“We’d quite despaired,” said Captain Bloodnose with a cruel laugh.

She screamed and thrashed in the stoat’s arms as they brought her to Regolith’s camp. The pine marten stood in front of his white tent, his paws clasped behind his back and a victorious smile on his face.

“It’s been far too long, my dear.”


Chapter Thirty-Seven

When the three remaining Long Patrol officers returned after scouting ahead in the dark woodland for the quickest route to Redwall, they found their camp in disarray. The young hares, squirrel and otter were running around willy-nilly, packing their bags and arguing with each other about what to do next. It seemed as if the lack of sleep had made them batty.

Striding in next to Turnsol and Saxifrage, Peony asked. “What happened to the others?” She had realized that Dann, Willow, Cinnabar and Jekker were not with the others.

The young hares turned to them in surprise before Blackberry said without preamble, “They went to go and look for the raven.”

“The Raven?” asked Turnsol.

“Yeah. The raven that snatched Willow away,” replied Beech.

“A Raven?” asked a confused Peony.

“Aren’t raven’s nocturnal?” wondered Saxifrage.

“I didn’t think they were native to Mossflower,” commented Turnsol.

Galena growled in frustration at the officer’s conversation. “It’s not from Mossflower! It’s Mortys the Raven from Regolith’s horde!”

“A raven in Mortys horde? I didn’t see a raven in our skirmish at the Castle or our ambushes on the way to Redwall. How do you know that Regolith has a raven?” questioned Peony.

“I was his bloody slave for ages. I saw the Raven every couple of seasons when he would come to talk with Regolith. They’re friends. And now he’s snatched Willow from under our very noses.”

“Wasn’t Jekker Diamond with her?” asked Peony.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” muttered Turnsol.

“Galena, why didn’t you tell us about the Raven earlier?” demanded Peony.

“I didn’t know it was important. I would only see him at the Castle every other season or so. Though he came to visit right before we escaped.”

A horrible realization came upon Sergeant Saxigrage. “He’s their scout. He reconnoiters for them. It’s brilliant really. I don’t know how Regolith tamed this Death Bird.”

Peony turned to Saxifrage and wagged a finger at him as she pieced together where he left off, thinking through the new development. “Regolith has known about his conquest for awhile it seems. That raven’s been feeding him information for seasons. And with an eye in the sky, that pine marten may very well know our position right now.”

An eerie chill passed over the tiny group, a sense of foreboding.

“But what happened to Dann and Cinnabar and Jekker?” asked Saxifrage.

Beech was the one to answer the hare’s question. “We haven’t seen Jekker since Willow disappeared.”

“Let’s not waste our time on him,” Turnsol growled.

Galena continued, “Dann and Cinnabar went to do some reconnaissance of their own to see what happened to Willow. Beech shot the Raven’s wing with an arrow and the bird dropped her. Dann and Cinnabar are going to see if they can find where she fell. Dann knows the area well.”

“Separated,” muttered Peony to herself. “This is not good. We should continue onto Redwall immediately. But we can’t leave Dann and Cinnabar with so many vermin abroad in Mossflower.”

“It’s the middle of the night, Peony!” argued Turnsol.

“It might already be too late,” she whispered.

C*~*C*~*C

The only light to guide their way through the treacherous woods was that of the moon. It was already the wee hours of the morning and the squirrel and sea otter were no longer quite as observant as they might have had been at midday.

Dann feared that they were more likely to find the vermin than a single squirrelmaid snatched from amidst her friends. Dann had taken to the trees to scout ahead and Cinnabar followed on the ground. Concerned that his friend only had a sling as a weapon, Dann had peer pressured Cinnabar into making a hefty stave from a fallen branch for close range combat.

Even from deep in the forest, they could hear the tumultuous rumbling of the River Moss. Nearby, the river rushed through rapids before tumbling down a cataract.

Luckily, the squirrel warrior had spotted them before they spotted him and his companion. A group of stoats and rats were marching in their direction. The sound of their heavy footpaws resounded off the trees and rocks. Their metal helmets gleamed in the moonlight, further revealing their presence.

“Shellhound, get up here,” Dann hissed at his otter friend.

Cinnabar climbed onto one of the low branches with more enthusiasm than skill. He was hanging half on and half off of a branch half-way up the tree in a blink of an eye. Dann Reguba tried hard not to laugh at the otter’s display.

Dann swung down and crouched nimbly next to his friend. Cinnabar groaned and closed his eyes. “Yer making me dizzy, Dann, dancing around like that. I can’t abide heights.”

Dann stifled a chuckle and whispered back, “Just pretend yer climbin’ the riggin.”

“Yer a terrible sod,” teased Cinnabar.

“Where do you suppose they’re going?” asked Dann.

“Stamp my rudder, it’s obvious innit? Can’t you see who they’re dragging with ‘em?”

Sure enough, Dann was able to catch sight of a squirrelmaid marching bravely in the middle of the column. She was remarkably unharmed for a creature that had been snatched up by a raven and then plummeted to earth. There were leaves in her fur and she looked decidedly windblown, but also remarkable uninjured. Dann was glad of that at least. Beech would have been furious if anything happened to the squirrelmaid.

Her paws were tied in front of her and a rope was tied around her waist that one of the stoats was holding as they walked along.

“They’re taking her to their camp,” whispered Dann. “They must be.”

Cinnabar tensed. At first Dann thought it was from nervousness. But when Cinnabar gripped his wooden stave tighter in preparation to leap down into the vermin mob, Dann panicked. He grabbed Cinnabar’s paw and hoped that the vermin wouldn’t hear the tree swaying.

“What in blazes are you doing, Cinnabar?”

“We’ve got to save her!”

“You’re out of your mind. It’s not worth it.”

“Dann, that squirrelmaid down there is Galena’s best friend in the whole world. I love Galena more than I’ve ever loved another creature. How could I ever face her if I sat here and did nothing!”

“There’s no sense in throwing your life away, Cinnabar!”

“But Dann. This is our best opportunity. There’s less than a score of foebeasts down there as well. And we have the element of surprise. Those rats and stoats must be taking her to the middle of Regolith’s camp. We won’t stand a chance of freeing her from there.”

Dann took a deep breath and frowned. He hated to admit that his friend was right.

“Alright,” agreed Dann. “There’s probably no more than fifteen of them give of take. We’ll take as many down as we can and then we’ll escape. I’ll take to the trees with Willow and we’ll hurry off to Redwall. You’ll be best off escaping into the water. The River Moss will take you pretty close to the North Path and you can run to Redwall from there.”

Cinnabar beamed at the squirrel warrior. “I’m proud of you, Dann.”

“Thanks, matey,” replied the squirrel smiling sheepishly. “I’ve really been a terrible sod lately haven’t I?”

Cinnabar glanced down at the foebeasts as they approached the tree that he and his friend were crouching in. Just a second more. He looked over at Dann again, “Then I’ll see you at Redwall, matey.”

Dann took a deep breath, steeling himself for battle. “You’ll be able to find your way, right?”

Dann pulled out his sword and looked at the wooden stave Cinnabar was clutching in a death grip. They were outnumbered nearly eight to one. But they did have the element of surprise for what it was worth. Looking down at his own long sword and feeling the weight of the other two swords strung across his back, he sheathed his blade.

“What are you doing?” asked Cinnabar.

Dann lifted a scimitar and its scabbard from where it was hung with a piece of cord across his back. He pressed the weapon into the baffled sea otter’s paws. “Take this just in case you lose your stave. I have a second sword as well.”

Stringing the scimitar in its sheath across his back, Cinnabar stared down as the foebeasts passed directly under them. The squirrel unsheathed his sword and the sea otter clutched his stave tightly in his paws. The squirrel was about to leap down and start the battle the otter put a paw out to stop him.

“Somebeast’s coming,” hissed the sea otter.

Cinnabar had noticed a change within the vermin that Dann had not. The squirrel was so focused on when the vermin passed under them that he didn’t notice that the horde beasts had stopped walking when they finally did. Even more worrisome, they had broken out into whispers.

The sea otter warrior held his breath. Had the foebeasts noticed them?

No. The horde beasts had noticed something else.

Almost as if they had materialized from the shadows, three figures clothed in blue cloaks strode in their midst at the head of two score more vermin.

The now three score vermin held a reverent silence as the ferret captain slowly strode up to the prisoner. Accepting her lead in his paws from the stoat, the ferret turned on his heel and dragged her none too gently in the direction of Regolith’s camp. The horde beasts smiled and cheered as they followed their favorite captain back to the tyrant’s den.

Cinnabar and Dann stared at each other in horror. What was Thalweg doing?

C*~*C*~*C

Abbess Songbreeze Swifteye was up before the sun that morning. After keeping to her bed for nearly two days, she needed to roam around the Abbey. Her cold was completely gone; she felt brand new.

The Abbey was very quiet that morning, the only creature besides herself in Cavern Hole for breakfast was her friend Hawthorne the pine marten. He sat staring towards one of the walls deep in thought.

Song came to sit next to him. “Something on your mind friend?”

He turned his bright green eyes to her and sighed. Twisting towards her, he said in a melodious voice, “Just thinking about something Cypress told me last night.”

Song sniffed her nose. “You smell like smoke,” she laughed.

“Yes,” he said, “Cypress and I were smoking our pipes last night. The upper attics are very comfortably arranged.”

“Yes, they are,” Song answered.

They looked up at hearing the soft patter of footpaws on the stairs. Together they looked up and saw the squirrel Sinon come to join them. The red squirrel stood behind them, making no move to sit down and join them. He had never been very comfortable around the pine marten.

He had decided to change out of his usual tunic and was wearing instead the habit of a brother of Redwall. Song was both surprised and delighted. Sinon had told her once that he would never wear the garb of the Redwall’s sisters and brothers.

He put a paw on her shoulder. “Can I talk to you outside, Song?” he whispered in her ear. “It’s important.”

Song stood up slowly from the table and looked at him worriedly. “Is everything alright?”

“Everything’s fine,” he replied with a smile.

She apologized to Hawthorne for leaving and then followed the other squirrel outside.

He turned to her and said, “I think it’s time to tell you about myself. Where I came from, my personal history.”

“Really? Thank you,” she answered, following his strides out onto the grounds and then out of the south wallgate and into Mossflower.

C*~*C*~*C

After the dreadful shock of seeing Dann’s ferret friend in the strangest of circumstances, Cinnabar and Dann made their way slowly towards where they had left the Long Patrol. They skirted the River Moss, knowing that Major Peony’s camp lay near the ford of the river. Cinnabar walked by the river and Dann walked beside him.

Cinnabar sighed heavily before he spoke, “I’d only met your friend once or twice at Hamath before he took on this dangerous mission. No one really tried to get to close to him. He looked so frightening with those terrible scars.”

“Cinnabar…”

“Reguba, let me finish. But I really admired him for the dangerous mission he undertook to save Galena and Willow and what he’s doing now for you and your home. But…I’ve started to doubt his sincerity.”

“You don’t…”

Cinnabar interrupted his squirrel friend again, “I spoke to him in the River when we were still near the Castle and I thought he was brave to continue this and courageous to warn you that your home was in danger. But I never dreamed that he would stay with Regolith for this long. You saw him dragging Willow back to the camp. I almost didn’t recognize him. He looked the same as all the rest of those bloodthirsty murders in Regolith’s horde.”

Dann sighed. “I know what you mean. I was taken back at first as well. He fits in flawlessly. But his species doesn’t dictate what sort of creature he is. If he’s good or bad.”

“But can’t you see?” the otter demanded. “Can’t you see how comfortable and happy he looked with those vermin? He never really fit in at Hamath, but here…he’s in his element. He’s been traveling with them for awhile now. Do you think he’ll be able to abandon Regolith’s horde now? His own kind?”

“I trust him,” Dann shot back.

“You’re forcing him to choose between you and what he is.”

“He’s not a vermin!” Dann exclaimed indignantly.

“He’s a ferret! Is his face so scarred that you can’t tell the difference?” Cinnabar cried. “You both bonded that winter over your broken hearts? How do you know he hasn’t forged a stronger bond with the creatures in the horde?”

In the heat of their argument, they were unaware of the noise of many footpaws marching on an intersecting path with them. Dann was about to reply in kind to Cinnabar’s impossible question when the two groups collided.

Two score of rats, ferrets and stoats stepped into the bank of the river in front of the squirrel and otter warrior. They were a second party scouting Mossflower; although, they were not the group that had met their captains in the early hours of the morning. And they were as surprised to see the otter and squirrel as Cinnabar and Dann were to see them.

“They ain’t with Regolith!” said one of the rats accusingly.

“Get ‘em! Don’t let ‘em escape to warn the others!”

The horde drew their weapons and cornered the vastly outnumbered duo.

C*~*C*~*C

Even with Major Peony’s warning, the Long Patrol was caught by surprise by the foebeasts. An extraordinary number of adversaries jumped out right in front of the long patrol, pinning them in on all sides. Foxes sprung up from the bushes with brambles in their fur, ferrets jumped down from the trees, stoats and weasels leapt out from piles of leaves, and rats ran in with their blades gleaming in the moonlight.

The patrol was hopelessly outnumbered.

Yet, they fought bravely, back to back. The long patrol nursed on blood and vinegar pushed the impossible tide of foebeasts aside. Sergeant Saxifrage found himself back to back with the squirrel Beech as they fought for their lives. Pushed against a tree, Saxifrage ducked almost being decapitated by a swing of a fox’s pike.

Saxifrage pushed Beech with a paw, “Get out of here young ‘un. We’re overrun. Some beast has to warn Redwall.”

Beech looked at the others with tears in his eyes and scurried up the tree before he was lost in a blur of leaves and branches in Mossflower Wood.

C*~*C*~*C

Alma was exhausted. They had not rested at all that night as they hurried to Redwall.

Fleetpaw was in bad shape.

In his rage and towering frustration with his lack of promise, Lieutenant Oswego had struck the galloper with an almost surgical precision in the very spot that would hurt Fleetpaw the most. The tendon in the galloper’s leg was severed irreparably. Of that Alma was sure. She wished she had paid more attention to first aid and healing while she was at Salamandastron or with Borage.

Jonquil was a pillar of strength through the whole ordeal, though. Even though he had just lost his best friend, he didn’t let it stop him in his mission to see that the two young hares made it safely to Redwall Abbey.

They stepped out of the forest at a ford and Fleetpaw said hoarsely. “I need to wet the jolly ole whistle. I think I’ll bally well perish if I don’t.”

Jon laughed and the three hares knelt down by the river moss to splash water on their faces and drink greedily of the cool water.

“Where do you rabbits think yer goin?’” called a voice from behind them.

Caught completely unawares, Alma whirled around only to find herself at the end of a rat’s sword. The rat’s seven companions laughed at the hares: a haremaid with wild eyes, a hare that could barely walk and another hare covered in scratches and bites favoring one leg. The poor hares didn’t stand a chance against eight vermin armed and ready.

The rat holding the sword to her chest sneered at them, “You three ain’t getting’ to that Redwall place tonight, me cullies.”

“Right ya are, Bleeknose. You three ain’t goin’ anywheres tonight but to the Dark Forest,” another rat chuckled, his nose ring jingling.

“Tell Vulpuz that Riveneye sent ya!” hollered a fox with a scimitar and a bandana.

C*~*C*~*C

The long patrol was in dire straits, wounded all over, the seven hares and ottermaid refused to give up. Not when they were so close to their journey’s conclusion. Luckily after being separated by the rush of vermin at the beginning of the melee, they had regrouped and now were back to back in a tight circle. It was only through the brilliant direction of the officers that they had made it through this far.

The small group pushed forward bit by bit, refusing to lie down and die. They had entered a small group of trees when the tide finally turned in their favor.

From above them with a ferocious roar, two creatures leapt from the trees and into the fray. It was Beech and Dann Reguba. Rather than listening to Sergeant Saxifrage and running off to Redwall, the young squirrel came up with another plan when he bumped into the squirrel warrior on his way to the Abbey.

The vermin were taken aback by the sudden development, and it was precisely the distraction the long patrol needed to make good their escape.

“Run!” hollered Saxifrage in his loud parade ground voice.

Galena stood still in shock. She couldn’t go. Not without Cinnabar.

Paws grabbed hers, dragging her forward. She looked to either side and saw Lorica and Sage running beside her. Their grip on her paws only slackened when they were sure that she wouldn’t stop running.

Blackberry whooped for joy at the turn of the tide. Not one to retreat, he went into a warrior’s crouch charged the enemy. Waving his claymore like a baton he roared the battle cry of the long patrol. “’Tis death on the wind! Eulalia!”

Captain Turnsol cursed colorfully and turned back to run towards the brave fool. He was only able to catch hold of Blackberry as the young hare fell to his knees, a black fletched arrow through his heart.

From a tree nearby, a black fox chuckled to himself at his masterful aim. He put another black fletched arrow to his long bow and aimed for the Long Patrol captain kneeling by his dying comrade.

“Was I was brave, Captain?”

“The bravest I’d ever seen,” whispered Turnsol.

“Tell my father I’m sorry for being such trouble,” the young hare whispered weakly as the light left his eyes.

Feeling a paw on his shoulder, Turnsol lifted his tearful eyes to see Major Peony standing behind him. “We must retreat, Darcy,” she whispered sadly.

“We can’t leave him here,” pleaded Turnsol.

Peony bit her lip and shook her head sorrowfully. “Darcy!”

Turnsol sighed. He closed the young hares eyes gently and stood unsteadily.

The Long Patrol and their friends ran as they had never run before. Weary to the bone and exhausted from little sleep, the long patrol was driven by pure adrenaline as they finished their season-long trek to Redwall in a dead out sprint.

C*~*C*~*C

Alma tried not to scream.

“Now, chaps,” said Jonquil rising slowly to stand next to Alma. With a paw, he nudged the sword away from Alma’s chest. “See, this is the second time that this lady has been threatened tonight.”

The scimitar welding fox sheathed his blade and chuckled. He nodded to the rat pointing the sword at Alma. With a mischievous wink at the fox, the rat put aside his blade.

“That’s a real shame, mate,” said the fox good-naturedly.

“Aye, Riveneye, really ‘tis,” chuckled the rat. “If we’d only known we would have threatened you instead.”

“Terrible mistake,” continued Riveneye, taking out his scimitar. “We’ll be sure not to do it again, right, Bleeknose.”

“Then what would you lot say to just walking off and pretending that we didn’t see each other today. Think about it,” said Jonquil warming to the subject. “You can do a little night fishing here on the River Moss. Have a nice catch for breakfast.”

Alma was shocked that the fox actually laughed at Jonquil’s ridiculous proposal, rather than killing them on the spot. The rat Bleeknose and the fox Riveneye seemed to be good friends. They winked at each other before the rat replied.

“See, I like ya, mate. I really do. In another life we’d probably ‘ave been friends,” Bleeknose said. “I wish I didn’t have to kill you, but see we’ll get in worse trouble if’n we don’t.”

Fleetpaw struggled to his feet to stand next to his friends. If they were going to die, he wanted to die bravely next to them. Just as the hare stood up there was a noise from the river. The hares and horde beasts all turned towards the sound and watched wide eyed.

With a loud splash, a figure leapt from the river. Vaulting over the hare’s heads, the leviathan unsheathed a scimitar and cut down four of the vermin in the blink of an eye. He whirled on Bleeknose the rat and Riveneye the fox and dealt them heavy blows over the head with the hilt of his blade and made quick work of the remaining two vermin.

Dripping in river water and blood, he turned to face the hares. “Are you alright?”

Jonquil laughed joyously and threw his arms around their savior. “Am I ever glad to see you, Cinnabar mate. Forgive me for saying so, but what in blazes are you doing ‘ere?”

Cinnabar chucked good naturedly. “Well shiver me barnacles, I was just going for a nice midnight swim in the river moss and I saw you blokes and thought you could use a little help.”

Fleetpaw sat down heavily, shaking his head. What a night it had been!

Alma looked at her friend worriedly. “Fleetpaw’s lost a lot of blood, Cinnabar. And Jonquil’s not in much better shape.”

“Speak for yerself, missy,” pouted Jonquil, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’m fit as a fiddle.”

“Can we please just hurry to Redwall,” growled Alma.

“As you wish, milady,” replied Cinnabar.

“Do you think you could carry Fleetpaw to Redwall?” asked Alma. “He can hardly walk.”

Jonquil laughed at Alma. “Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“Speak for yerself, good sir,” Alma shot back at Jonquil, hitting him on the shoulder.

“Stop fightin,’ children,” chuckled Cinnabar. He crouched down and winked at Fleetpaw. “Hop on the Cinnabar express.”

With Fleetpaw perched comfortably on Cinnabar’s back, the four friends hurried off to Redwall.

“But really, Cinnabar. What in blazes are you doin’ here?” Jonquil asked again.

“I could ask you the same thing, matey. You lot are supposed to be going to Salamandastron.”

Alma growled at them. “We can share our stories of the night’s events when we get to Redwall. Time’s of the essence. Flippin’ Mossflower wood is crawling with vermin. It’s not the best time to share our stories. Save yer breath fer running.”

“I never knew you to be this bossy, Alma,” quipped Fleetpaw from Cinnabar’s back.

C*~*C*~*C

The hares were silent as they ran for Redwall. Trees and branches and brambles whipped past them, but they hurried on. The only sound was the pounding of footpaws and their gasping breaths as they run as they had never run before. The sun was starting to rise, bathing the woodland in a soft golden light, but the beauty of the morning was lost on the hares.

Captain Turnsol spared a glance over his shoulder and saw that some of the vermin were still hard on their heels, despite the hares’ breakneck speed.

The officers were the rear guard, partly because Peony and Turnsol didn’t want Sergeant Saxifrage to fall behind. The Sergeant was panting heavily as he ran next to the Major and Captain.

He spied Borage up ahead with the younger hares. The ottermaid was running in the front of the pack with the squirrels. Dann led the charge. Saxifrage tried to pick up the pace, but it was no use. He couldn’t run any faster.

He saw the gap between him and the others lengthening and the gap between himself, Peony, Turnsol and the vermin narrowing. It was no use. The rear guard would be overrun in moments.

“I’ll hold them off, you guys make a run for Redwall,” Sergeant Saxifrage gasped out.

Peony whirled on him. She exclaimed between breaths, “No, Sax! It’s my patrol. You shouldn’t have to bear the responsibility. It should fall upon the superior officer, to die for her patrol.”

“If you stay, I will too, Peony,” Turnsol to them and replied.

“No, Darcy. You …”

“I’d rather die by your side than live without you,” he professed boldly.

“Turnsol!”

Saxifrage smiled at the two hares. “Listen to me, you two. I’m old. I don’t think I can make it all the way to Redwall. I don’t want to slow the rest of the patrol down. I wasn’t born to be a galloper.”

“You don’t have to die for them, Saxifrage,” pleaded Peony.

“Neither do you, Peony. You’re young and you still have so much to live for. I’m old and I’ve lived a full life.”

“But I can’t lose you, Saxifrage. You’re the only family I have left!”

“Your parents would be very proud of you, Peony, my dear. And you don’t need to push yourself so hard because you think it’s what would have pleased them. They wouldn’t begrudge you at all if you decided to retire and settle down with some nice bloke. Like Turnsol here,” said the older hare putting their paws together.

“Look after her will you, Turnsol,” winked Saxifrage.

“I will, sir.”

“And name your first born after me,” said Saxifrage.

“Even if it’s a maid?” wondered Peony.

“Especially if it’s a maid,” chuckled Saxifrage.

Peony laughed through her tears and threw her arms around the hare she had looked to as a father. Saxifrage pulled the both of them into a crushing hug before pushing them forward.

“Hurry, you’re almost there.”

Saxifrage pulled out his saber and stood alone bravely at the foebeasts pounding towards him.

“Eulalia!”

Peony held onto Turnsol’s paw tightly, as if it was a lifeline, as they sprinted madly for the Abbey. No words were spoken, only the harsh gasping breaths as they ran.

C*~*C*~*C

It was several seasons ago. He was trekking through the southern plains, dying of thirst when he came to the realization that he would never return home. At first after his unexpected exodus, he hoped he would return someday when he had forgiven himself for his crimes. But as he put more seasons and more miles between himself and Redwall, he eventually came to the sad conclusion that he probably would never return.

Sometimes when the nights were long on his travels, Dann would amuse himself trying to think of his homecoming. How, with a little more gray in his whiskers, he would slowly walk up the North Path to Redwall, recognizing all the familiar sights. He would tread with uncertain steps towards the open doors of Redwall Abbey and all the Abbey dwellers would be waiting for him. Song would be standing on the steps to the Great Hall with a bright smile for him.

But look at him now. He couldn’t stop to smell the roses because he was running for his life! His steps weren’t at all uncertain, they were heavy and quick. What would he say to her when he saw her again?

They cleared a bend in the path and beheld an astonishing sight, an otter and three hares were pounding on the locked doors of Redwall!

From behind him, Galena let out a screech of excitement and spurred on by some final reserve of energy pounded down the lane in a mad sprint, with a speed that astonished her companions.

“Is somebeast there? Please let us in!” Dann could hear Alma scream as she pounded with all her strength on the door.

Cinnabar, Fleetpaw on his back, turn around with a grin as Galena threw her paws around him joyously. “I’d thought I’d lost you,” she whispered.

Behind him, Dann could hear his companions from the rear guard finally catch the rest of the party. Peony and Turnsol took up step with the others.

Redwall was finally in sight. If only they would reach it before the vermin breathing down their necks.

Two curious heads peeked over the battlements; it was two older squirrels, capable looking warriors. The one with the half-lidded eyes, yelled down into the courtyard, “Open the main gate quickly, Skip. We’re got friends coming with vermin hard on their tails. Come on Rusval. Let’s hurry and wake Song and Cregga to tell them what’s happened.”

An otter opened the doors just wide enough for the squirrels, otters and hares to rush in. Slamming the doors closed before the vermin could run in also, Skipper turned to look at the creatures who had collapsed in the grass by the main doors panting. He did a double take when he saw the squirrel warrior staring at him panting.

“Dann? Dann Reguba?”

Dann took a deep breath and called out to Skipper and all the creatures rushing towards them. “Lock and bolt all the wall gates! Take the dibbuns and older creatures to the safety of Cavern Hole. War council in Cregga’s room in ten minutes.”

War had come to Redwall.

C*~*C*~*C

“I really appreciate the fact that you are finally ready to tell me about your past,” began Song. “I know haven’t been comfortable enough to do so yet.”

“It wasn’t the right time,” was his reply.

They walked into Mossflower woods, admiring the trees swaying in the warm summer morning breeze and the trees bathed in the warm golden light of the sun slowly rising. It was very quiet that morning, Song noticed. There were no birds singing. She couldn’t guess why they would still be sleeping.

“You told me once that you came from the far south,” said Song. “But when you arrived at Redwall grievously wounded by that Raven, you never told me why you left or what sort of life you lead there.”

“I was born in a peaceful woodland very far south of here that was much like Mossflower,” began Sinon. “The woodlanders there had always lived in peace and in freedom. It was far enough inland that no corsairs had ever laid their eyes on the place. There were no magnificent Abbeys or Mountain Fortresses that warlords could covet. No it was a peaceful place, a place of plenty.

“My father was a brilliant architect. Forever sketching on corners of napkins and sheets of paper. There wasn’t much work for him, the woodlanders lived simply, but he would often help then with plans for new homes and such. He would amuse himself creating palaces and castles from his imagination. Places that he never thought anyone would build.

“My younger sister was born when I was nearly ten seasons old. My mother passed the following winter, from an illness. But my younger sister was the apple of my father’s eye and we loved her dearly. I’m sure she thought that I treated her more like a daughter or a niece, because I was so much older than her.

“One day when she was playing out in the woodland she met a beautiful stranger. A lady pine marten who was so beautiful it was almost painful to look at her, a fatal beauty one might say. My sister brought her home to meet our father. I was not home at the time, chopping wood for the winter, which was a short season away, so I didn’t get to meet her until much later.

“The pine marten lady flattered my sister and my father until they were quite taken with her. My father even showed her a sketch of his favorite design, a castle that was more imagination that reality. She returned soon after with her mate, a crafty pine marten with evil green eyes. They received the blueprints from my father. They would build the castle.

“I warned my father that this was a bad idea to get close to creatures like this, but he was too trusting, too naïve. There had never been strife or war in the woodland, so the others became too soft and too trusting, easily tricked and manipulated by evildoers.

“But I was not fooled. I confronted the pine marten and threatened him. He merely laughed in my face. I warned him that what he was doing was wrong and that he would suffer for it. Amused, he said that others more powerful and threatening than me had said worse things to him.

“The next day I came to confront him with a sword, but he brought a vast army with him. I was powerless to stop him. He pressed all of us into slavery and my father was given the task of supervising the construction of this castle. His dream that was swiftly becoming a nightmare.

“The pine marten had neither the time nor the inclination to make a slave compound for the creatures now under his power. Instead we continued to live in our own homes, though now we had hordebeasts living in our homes as well.

“Many of the others pressed into slavery were cowards; they didn’t have the will to fight. They didn’t know how. But I would not stand for this treatment of my family and my friends. I wanted to fight and stop the tyranny. I found myself as the leader of a rebellion against the pine marten and his creatures. But we were much too few and in the end all of the rebels were killed. I was left alive by the pine marten as a punishment.

“I was surprised that the pine marten’s retribution did not come swiftly. I was on edge for nearly a season, waiting for the hammer to fall.

“When the leaves began to change color, the hammer fell. After a long day at the rock quarry, I went back to my home only to find it ablaze. The pine marten tyrant was standing outside laughing with his favorite captain, a savage black fox. All the windows and the door were bared shut, but from inside I could still hear my father banging on the door, he was trapped inside.

“The black fox grabbed my arms. I had to stand there with those two devils watching as my father’s cries grew softer and eventually ceased. The only sound was that of the flames licking up the side of my house.

“When my home was nothing but ash, the pine marten turned to me. He told me that he had a proposition for me. I merely spat in his face. His crony the black fox slapped me hard for that. I don’t regret it in the least. The pine marten tried again. He told me that he had a family. He had a brother who lived up north in a palace with red walls. The pine marten hated his brother and more than anything wanted his brother to suffer. And the pine marten would have me extract his revenge.

“Naturally I refused. What did I have to lose?

“The pine marten merely laughed. He had predicted this development and pulled out his trump card. I did have something to lose. I had just watched my father suffer and die before my own eyes, powerless to do anything to help him. The pine marten said that he would do the same to my younger sister if I didn’t do his bidding.

“Defeated, I agreed.

“From the skies, as if he had come straight from Vulpuz himself, a huge raven flew down into the glade with us. He carried a haversack that had some charred bones in it and placed them in the ashes that was my home.

“The raven would be my companion for the next season as I journeyed northward to Redwall. He reported to the pine marten of my progress and reported back to me that my sister was still unharmed. He even helped me gain access to Redwall. He had been watching the Abbey for nearly two seasons and he knew that that you lot couldn’t resist helping and injured creature.

“I was standing in Mossflower wood just outside of Redwall wondering how I would talk my way inside when he attacked me. The next thing I knew, Dann Reguba was carrying me into Redwall and my wounds were being tended to by the Redwall brothers and sisters. The rest you know.”

Abbess Song had come to a stop, staring at the red squirrel. “I don’t know you at all, do I?”

Sinon smiled weakly. “I’m not evil. I did this for my family. I have no regrets.”

“You willfully betrayed all of Redwall! How could you do that?”

“How could you let creatures like Hawthorne and Cypress and her sons into Redwall? You brought this upon yourself,” Sinon growled at her.

Song growled back at him, “So you’ve been his creature all along? You’ve been communicating with the raven for seasons now haven’t you? Cypress thought she saw somebeast talking to a raven in Mossflower wood. That was you wasn’t it.”

“I won’t deny it,” Sinon shrugged.

“What was your mission then?”

“To make Redwall as vulnerable as possible. To drive away the Abbey Warrior, to…”

“To kill the Abbess? You do realize that I won’t go down without a fight!” she said.

“Song! Surely you must have realized by now how I feel about you. I would rather die than kill you. The pine marten wanted me to kill you, but I convinced him to let me kidnap you instead.”

“Very generous of you, I’m sure,” she snapped.

“I’m so sorry that I have to do this Song,” he pleaded, reaching for her. “The last thing I want is to see you suffer. I love you!”

“Don’t touch me!” Song screamed twisting away from him.

Abbess Song whirled around and ran into the woods. She had not gone more than a few pawsteps when a creature grabbed her in a vice like grip. She looked up into the black eyes of a fox. “You aren’t going anywhere, missy.”

“No!” she screamed as she was dragged off into the woods. Sinon the squirrel followed them with his head bowed in shame.


Book Three: Familial Bonds

“The one sent before must betray.
To preserve a familial bond,
he poses as one like you to this day,
though still obedient to the Ruthless one.”


Chapter Thirty-Eight

It was as if he had never left. Rusval couldn’t stop smiling now that his son had returned home, the very moment that Redwall needed its Warrior. All the creatures of Redwall were forever pausing in their steps and turning around when Dann walked by making his preparations for war.

Dann was spending half the time mustering his troops and the other half looking around for Song, but no one had seen her that morning.

Skipper stopped by Dann on his way to lock the north wallgate and asked, “So did you ever find that ferret with the terrible scars?”

“Thalweg? How do you know about him?”

“Song told us.”

“How did Song know about him?”

“She was there wasn’t she?”

“What?” Dann muttered in confusion as Skipper ran off to close and bolt the north wallgate.

Log-a-Log Dippler ran up to Dann as gave him a bone crushing hug. “I’ve really missed you, mate! I can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to on your travels.”

“Skipper was asking me about a ferret with terrible scars. Do you know what he was talking about? I didn’t think anyone from Redwall had ever met Thalweg.”

“So that was what the monster’s name was. Thalweg,” growled Dippler.

“He’s not a monster,” corrected Dann.

“That’s a generous thing to say about the creature you’ve been hunting for seasons.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When we found Song lying unconscious under Martin’s tapestry and Sinon bleeding out from a slash across his collarbone, we worried after we couldn’t find you. When Song finally came to, she said that a ferret had broken into Redwall and attacked her and Sinon. You came to their rescue and chased him out of the Abbey and vowed to track him down for endangering the inhabitants of Redwall.”

“She told you that?” Dann asked aghast.

“Yes.”

Dann was silent for a moment. Never in his life would he have thought that Song would concoct some elaborate lie to preserve his reputation. Why would she protect him after what he did to her?

Chief Burble of the Watervoles ran up as well and gave Dann an embrace. The young squirrel Beech was walking behind the watervole. He had been looking for ways to help the others. Burble held Dann at arms length and said, “Look at you.”

“He looks quite distinguished doesn’t he, Burble,” laughed Dippler. “What with a little but of gray fur around his ears.”

“Yiss, yiss,” agreed the watervole.

“Song will sure be glad to see you, you terrible sod,” said Dippler. The shrew turned to the watervole, “Is she feeling better now? I’m surprised she hasn’t come to see Dann yet.”

Burble looked sheepish that he hadn’t shared the latest bit of news he had just discovered. “That’s what I wanted to tell you about. Song. She’s gone.”

“What do you mean gone?” asked Dann.

Beech finally caught up and stood next to the others. Dann turned and introduced him to his friends. “Dippler, Burble, this is my young friend Beech who I meet in the far south.”

“Pleased to meet ya, mate,” said Dippler.

“A pleasure.” winked Burble.

Dann smiled and then turned impatiently back to Burble. “What do you mean she’s gone?”

“I heard from Hawthorne that she left this morning to go on a walk in Mossflower Wood with Sinon the squirrel.”

“Sinon?” Strangely enough it was Beech who asked the question. “Sinon? A red squirrel like myself?”

“Yes,” said Burble quickly. “Why? Do you know Sinon?”

“Yes,” replied Beech utterly surprised. “He’s Willow’s brother.”

Dann was stunned speechless by this new revelation. But it wouldn’t be the only one.

“Dann!”

Skipper of Otters barreled up to them, trembling all over. Dann merely gaped at him. He had never seen the otter look frightened before.

“I found her! I found Cypress. She’s lying with a knife in her back in the threshold of the north wallgate. She’s been dead for hours.”

Dann was stunned silent. Though he couldn’t stop himself from thinking what a relief that it wasn’t Song.

C*~*C*~*C

The remnants of Major Peony’s long patrol sat together in silence beneath the widely-spreading braches of a gnarled oak tree beside the Abbey Pond. They only sound besides the whistling of wind through the branches and sloshing of water from the lake was the occasional sniffling of the hares.

They were huddled very close together -- Sage, Alma, Lorica, Fleetpaw, Jonquil – sharing at least in the comfort that they still lived on; though indeed it seemed impossible to go on now that so many of their number were gone. Cut down in their youth because they were too brave, stabbed in the back by someone they trusted, sacrificed themselves to protect the ones they loved.

They hadn’t even the luxury of a proper burial. Their friends were just lying out there in the woodlands, completely alone and friendless. While one of their number, the betrayer walked free.

The brothers and sisters of Redwall were very kind to the long patrol hares; doing everything they could to try to comfort them. But they were preoccupied. Their Abbess had gone missing, one the friends of the Abbey was found dead in the doorway of the south wall gate, a huge horde was standing at their gates and a prophecy that didn’t bode well for the Abbess or the Abbey was loaming over their shoulders.

Major Peony and Captain Turnsol had been a wonderful comfort to the younger hares. The Major was a pillar of strength for the young hares, drying their eyes and doing her best to raise their spirits. Now their officers were having a hurried meeting with the other Abbey Leaders in the absent Abbess’s chambers about the Abbey defenses.

As soon as all the wallgates to Redwall were closed and bolted with guards posted on the walls, the Abbey leaders and Long patrol officers hastened to the Abbess’ chambers to discuss the imminent siege.

Borage the Healer was running wild through Sister Sloey’s infirmary making preparations and seeing to the wounded Long Patrolers. He had patched up Fleetpaw’s leg wound but pronounced sorrowfully what the hare had already come to realize.

Fleetpaw would never be a galloper again.

A mouse carrying a heavy platter of meadowcream pie hastened up and introduced himself as Brother Jerome the Abbey chef. The hares all gave him feeble smiles, their expressions utterly lackluster.

“I thought I’d try to cheer you up. Never meet a hare that didn’t brighten up at the prospect of Redwall fare.”

Alma turned her red-rimmed gaze to him and said to him, “That’s very kind of you, Brother Jerome. But I can’t even think about food at a time like this.”

The other hares nodded in ascent.

Brother Jerome furrowed his brow and changed his approach. “It’s just that Captain Turnsol told me that you all have been subsisting on really meager rations for nearly a season now. I thought you might enjoy something more substantial. Like a meadowcream pie warm from the oven. Layer upon layer of heavy cream drenched in honey and churned until creamy, still steaming from the oven.”

“Oh,” said Alma, quickly rethinking her position.

“But if you’re not feeling up to it, I understand.” The mouse turned slowly and ambled back to the Abbey, holding the pie out.

Like sunflowers turning towards the sun, all the young hares’ heads swiveled in the mouse’s direction.

Brother Jerome muttered to himself, “Three….two….one.”

The hares jumped up and chased after him, pleading with him to stop, imploring him to lead them to the kitchens, and begging him to realize that they had indeed changed their minds.

For the young hares it was if they had been lead back from the very gates of despair as they found themselves sitting at table with the bountiful father of feasting himself.

Sitting on benches around the tall table in the middle of the kitchens, the five young hares gazed worshipfully at the wonderful mouse brother who produced such beautiful creations. Brother Jerome had a joyous smile that stretched from ear to ear as he busied himself piling plate after plate and bowl after bowl of food in front of the ravenous creatures.

“Blackberry wouldn’t mind if we mourned him in Redwall’s kitchens,” said Alma.

“He’d always wanted to come to Redwall after all,” said Lorica.

“This pie’s for you Blackberry!” said Fleetpaw taking another a huge bite.

The hares all held up a pawful of their chosen fare and proclaimed together, “For Blackberry!”

“Saxifrage on the other paw was always a bloomin’ expert at scoffin,” Alma announced around a strawberry trifle. “He could put it away like no one’s business. Remember when he threw a fit at Tabennisi Abbey when they said we’d only have crusts and barley water for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Never seen him run away from a place that fast in my life.”

“Then he’d consider it fitting for us to remember him while doing something that he truly loved: feasting well,” agreed Sage.

“This trifle’s for you, Sax!” said Alma.

The hares again held up a pawful in homage to their friend. “For Saxifrage!”

“Toby would never admit it, being such a serious chap, but he loved good food just as much as the next hare. When we were naught but leverets, I caught him in the middle of the night swiping scones from the larders. I had gone down to do the same thing! What a chap he was, my best mate,” reminisced Jonquil

The hares all smiled through their tears and joined the chorus, “For Toby!”

Somewhere in the Dark Forest, three hares laughed together, glad that their friends had found solace at Redwall.

C*~*C*~*C

The black fox led Song, kicking and biting to a locked cage in the middle of the vermin’s camp. It was surprisingly well put together considering that the vermin had just arrived in Mossflower the evening before. There were white tents arrayed among the trees, and in particular a very grand white tent in the middle area of the camp.

To the side was a large wooden cage that had been hastily constructed. Inside was some unfortunate squirrelmaid who had also been caught by the vermin.

The horde beasts laughed and jeered as Song was dragged among their tents and towards the locked cage. Who would have thought an Abbess would have so much fight in her.

Two red foxes opened the door to the cage and moved aside for the black fox to throw the Abbess inside. She was hurled ears over tail and landed in a mess of robes at one of the corners of the cage.

The two red foxes jeered and turned to stand back at the entrance of the cage. The black fox smiled grimly and sat on a rock nearby, picking at his claws with a black knife.

From the other corner of the cage, another squirrelmaid stood up from where she was sitting and ran over to help Song sit up. Wiping away tears from her eyes the squirrelmaid said, “I’m sorry to see another creature in Regolith’s clutches, but am I glad to have a companion! I was so frightened.”

Song smiled at the other squirrelmaid and held out her paws. The young squirrelmaid sniffled and threw herself into the stranger’s warm embrace.

“Don’t worry, young one. I’ll take care of you.”

The young squirrelmaid sniffled and said, “My name is Willow.”

The Abbess smiled back and said, “Song. It’s nice to meet you.”

“What do you think they’ll do to us?” asked Willow.

Song was about to speak when the red foxes chuckled from the door of the cages. They turned to the squirrelmaids and grinned savagely. “I can’t speak for you, Willow dear. But I know that the Abbess here will be raven food after we talk with ‘er Abbey.”

The black fox smiled and rose. He spared one last look at the squirrelmaids before walking towards Regolith’s tent. He almost ran into another creature heading down to the prisoners’ cage.

Few things ever surprised Zigor, but this did. The cloaked figure put a blood red paw to the hood of her cloak to make sure it didn’t fall down to reveal her fatally beautiful features. But her blood red paws were unmistakable.

The black fox furrowed his brows. He would have to consider this new development later. He had more pressing mattes to attend to now. His Lord Regolith needed his council.

Huffing in anger as he pulled aside the white linen that served as a door, he ducked into his Lord Regolith’s tent. It never stood well with him, allying with traitor woodlanders. After all, what’s preventing the double-crosser from double-crossing you?

Those woodlanders thought they were all high and mighty and better than any of his species, more noble… more good.

And here was one of the prime of their species, a squirrel, sitting at table with the very creature who was about to overthrow his new home and enslave all his friends. Of course the squirrel had rationalized his evil doings, but Zigor knew better. Sinon would get what was coming to him.

“Krahh! No, the northwest wall is a bit thinner than that.”

Bloodnose the weasel was the only creature sitting down at the table, the other captains and Regolith were standing behind him as the raven corrected the weasel’s rough sketch of the abbey.

Mortys had gotten off surprisingly easy from his ordeal of being shot at with an arrow. The green fletched shaft had embedded itself in his wing, but it missed any important joints and tendons. So the raven’s right wing was heavily bandaged and splinted. But the raven’s mind was still as sharp as his talons and beak. He was able to recall in startling detail all of the particulars of Redwall Abbey that he had glimpsed over the seasons from the skies.

“I wonder how deep the foundations go,” pondered Bloodnose as he put down his little piece of charcoal and leaned back in his chair.

Captain Thalweg pulled up a chair and straddled it, looking down at the map. “Well how deep are the foundations at the Castle? It’s probably comparable.”

Regolith crossed his paws over his chest and raised an eyebrow. “My castle is built like a fortress.”

Bloodnose glanced back at his leader before gulping and waving his paw over the sketch he had just made. “I wouldn’t have thought a bloody Abbey for woodlanders would be built like this! It’s built like a fortress as well. Towering walls, battlements, towers…this place wasn’t built for peace, it was built to protect against war. Whoever designed this knew that they were doing.”

“My accursed brother has chosen his friends wisely,” whispered Regolith to himself.

Thalweg the ferret glanced back at the only creature in the tent that was not part of Regolith’s horde. The red squirrel Sinon stood in the corner of the tent looking extremely hostile and uncomfortable. His paws were crossed over his chest and he glowered at the ferret.

The red squirrel cleared his throat and then spoke in a growl. “You can’t conquer Redwall. It’s impossible. During the winter seasons, I heard nothing in Cavern Hole but the wondrous tales of Redwallers defeat of their enemies. Creature come from far and wide to give their lives to protect the Redwallers. Your creatures are ruled with nothing but fear. It’ll prove your undoing.”

Regolith snorted. “It’s better to be feared than to be loved.”

“You won’t know what hit you. There are creatures in Redwall that are ready and itching for war. Redwall’s allies like the Skipper of the Otters, the Foremole of the Moles, the Log-a-Log of the Shrews, the Chief of the Rivervoles. These are Redwall’s best allies in war. You have nothing but some rag tag group of captains to advise you,” taunted the red squirrel. He looked especially at the ferret with the terrible scars. Turning his scowl towards the stoat captian Halfear, the squirrel continued. “Captains with hardly a brain between them.”

Regolith merely sneered. “Then it was very kind of you squirrel to provide us with our secret weapon.”

Sinon growled at the pine marten, wounded by the truth of his words and stormed out the tent.

Thalweg turned to the raven and asked, “If you were attacking Redwall, what would you do? You know the place the best out of all of us here.”

Flattered by the attention, the raven waved his uninjured wing at the ferret captain. “Toc-Toc-Toc! Our good friend Sinon gave us a strategy without even intending to. Krah! We should silence the leaders of the Abbey swiftly and quietly, a lightening fast strike. They chief of otters, moles, shews, rivervoles and now the chief of hares as well. Because the harebeasts made their way into the Abbey to warn its creatures. I guess our friend Jekker Diamond was not the most trustworthy of allies.”

Zigor growled, “I told you that…”

Regolith just waved a paw dismissively, “The hare Jekker was just a distraction. Merely a way to spread fear and dissent in the ranks of those harebeasts. They’re dangerous enemies. It’s a shame that they made it to Redwall; though any of their number that we might have cut down in transit provide a real benefit for us.”

Zigor was shocked. “You also knew that we couldn’t trust the hare. Then why did you agree to make a deal with him. You had to give him the Lady Vermilion’s ring.”

“A small price to pay.”

“Milord Regolith, my designs for the battle tower are almost finished,” Bloodnose said changing the conversation.

“Wonderful,” replied the pine marten. “I want each of my captain to lead an assault on Redwall. You can have today to think of your strategy and round up horde members to assist you. That is, while we march to Redwall with our bait.”

Thalweg’s smile was devilish as he scratched his nose with a claw. A white shell bracelet flashed before it slipped under his sleeve again. Zigor caught a glimpse of it again. He was certain that he had seen the bracelet before. But where?

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