Author's note: Please read!
For all my original readers, I just want you to know I found some mistakes in the middle of ALNM that made me blush with embarrasement at not having found them for so long. Please bear in mind that the details removed were MISTAKES and not intentional. I hope I haven't given you the wrong impression in any way, thanks.
To Brian Jacques.. (Sniffle) It sucks I never got to write to you like I planned!
(Told by Vilaya)
It is night. A light wind plays with my fur. Where am I? It seems I cannot stay awake long enough to tell. Either way, I'm lying on a hill covered with dead grass. I have no memory of coming here. I only remember falling onto my own poisoned dagger and then.... I gasp. It feels like pieces of glass are stuck in my chest wound, flaming, burning. I'm so feverish I start to hallucinate. Zwilt's ghost taunts me from somewhere near yet distant, how exactly this is possible I don't know. My vision is fogged by a reddish mist. Words of a song ring in my ears Oh, you'll take the high road and I'll take the low one, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond... Where me 'n my true love will never meet again, on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond... It dawns on me that I must leave. Gasping with exertion; I force myself into a sitting position and regret it. My hallucinations fade but the pain reaches its climax.... Before it, too, fades out. I am left with only a faint ringing sensation in my ears. The music I heard before gradually returns. Just before I fall unconscious, something dawns on me. I now know what I am hearing. A little night music.
There is darkness when I awake. Somewhere a candle flickers; like my consciousness. And with that, I go out again.
The horrible scent of dried blood fills my muzzle when I wake again. I blink to clear my eyes and then breathe deeply to get rid of the smell. I notice then I'm lying in a bed; with only one thin blanket and a cloth pillow stuffed with reedgrass. The room is strangely warm; and a fire is crackling. I look up to see a male wildcat sitting by my bed. Apprehensive of any stranger no matter what their intentions; I pluck the pitiful remains of my dagger out of my sheath and brandish it. The cat only laughs. "You're not the only one who's a beast of war," He mutters. I look up. Hung up on the wall, above the mantel there is a sword not unlike the wretched Sword of Martin. Surprised, I fiddle with my sheath. "Do you know who I am, Cat?" I snarl. He grins wryly. "Vilaya. The Sable Quean. There isn't an animal in Mossflower these days who doesn't know that name." I sit up. "And.... Who are you?" The cat glanced out the small window. "Isaac." He mutters, half to himself. "Used to be in a horde under her Ladyship Cassava." "CASSAVA?!" I snarl, teeth bared. "And what were your relations with Cassava." Isaac seems hesitant to answer my question. "I was once second-in-command under her, for your information. Before.... Before she found out I was a counterspy. Then I was exiled. I 'aven't been involved with hordes since. Consider yourself lucky I took you in." "You said you're not involved with hordes. Why, then, would you have mercy on a beast of war down on her luck?" I challenge. Isaac shrugs. "I'm not telling." I want to, but I don't ask again.
The rest of the day is painfully slow. Even though Isaac and I were still wary of each other; he let me have some watered brandy wih poppy seeds to ease the pain and make me sleep and for that I was grateful. Soon.... I think as the to myself as the poppy seeds take effect. Soon I'll make everybeast at Redwall wish that they were never born. The name The Sable Quean will be heard and feared throughout the land once more. When Redwall falls under my claw..... A new era is sure to dawn....
But it seemed my dreams of vengeance could wait. First, I had to get well. I'll spare you the details of my painful and somewhat-long recovery. I'll only say that in a month (I was very lucky; it could've been four or even five.) I was strong enough to leave Isaac's cabin in the hills. I think he was quite grateful I did not kill him. After all, that is the way I kill. Murder first. Ask questions later. Now I was on the road to Salamandastron. Perhaps there there would be creatures.... Supportive of my cause
Book One: When Adventure comes knocking you knock back
A life without adventure is likely to be unsatisfying, but a life in which adventure is allowed to take whatever form it will is sure to be short. -Bertrand Russell
Chapter One: An Abbey at Play
All appeared to be well at Redwall Abbey. Abbess Marjoram sat in the cloisters where it was cool to watch the young ones at play. “Hard to believe there was a time when we were that small, eh?” The Abbess looked up to see Lord Brang Forgefire of Salamandastron standing next to her. “Brang! Er…. Lord Forgefire. What a pleasant surprise to have you here!”
She grinned. “Yes, it does seem like only yesterday we were ALL young ones, doesn’t it?” “It truly does.” The badger and the mouse were silent for a moment, watching the young ones play in the sunshine. The Dibbuns were having imaginary adventures by the gatehouse, and the older ones were reenacting past wars. “Bang! Swish! No one can defeat me! I am Martin the Warrior!”
A young mouse laughed, wielding a butter knife as though it were the Sword of Martin. He jumped aside as a young squirrelmaid darted past him, clutching a ball, a horde of molebabes hot on her heels. “No! It’s MY ball! You can’t have it!” The young mouse stepped aside to stand with the Abbess and her friend under the shade of the cloisters. The Abbess was laughing. The young mouse just stood there with embarrassment. “That’s quite the sword you have there, Drake!” She laughed. “But you’re eleven years old. Aren’t you getting a little old for pretend play?” Drake dropped his butter knife and it fell to the floor with a clatter. His head hung droopily over the floor. “Yes, Mother Abbess.” He answered.
“Now, now, Drake, don’t look so grim-faced. Just because I said you’re probably too old for it doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep playing.” Drake was silent for a moment. “I really am sorry, Mother Abbess. It’s just that….. It’s just that sometimes I get lonely.” The Abbess and the badger lord exchanged looks. Drake was eleven and had lived at Redwall since he was eight; when his family had been killed by Warlords. Drake had been lonely and perpetually quiet ever since the ordeal. There were many creatures willing to reach out to him but Drake just didn’t want sympathy. And with that, the young mouse walked off, disappearing as he often did leaving Abbess Marjoram and Brang alone on the cloisters. “I knew I shouldn’t have said what I did.” The Abbess griped, hitting her temple with her paw. Brang put a paw on your shoulder.
“Drake’s an awfully sensitive young mouse.” He said. “Sometimes even I forget how he is. He wants to be a Warrior awful bad, Mother Abbess.” The badger went on in a gentle tone. “I know.” She whispered. “I know he does,” The pair of animals on the cloister were so deep in thought they almost didn’t hear the Dibbuns chanting in the distance: “Ooooh! Drake got in trouble! Drake got in trouble!” And then dissolving into fits of giggles on the grass.
An albino squirrelmaid named Leah was practicing archery by the Abbey pond. "Ready.... Steady as she goes....FI- WHAT?!" Leah set down her bow and glanced over at the oak tree she'd almost used for a target. It was Drake, who was two years Leah's junior.
"Hi, Drake." She said, waving a paw feebly. Drake waved back vigorously. He'd had a secret crush on Leah ever since he'd first came to the Abbey, but had a feeling she didn't like him back and found him to be an annoying nuisance. "I'm practicing archery and sword-fighting. Wanna join?" Leah asked, drawing her dagger. Drake jumped at the chance. Leah had never invited him to do anything with her before. "Yes please!" The young mouse also noticed the squirrelmaid could not seem to take her eyes off the darkening sky. A storm was coming.
Chapter Two: Being Bellatrix
(Told by Vilaya)
Three days had passed since I’d left Isaac’s place and I was already well on my way to Salamandastron. I trotted down a dirt road; my paws almost bleeding from three straight days of walking over rocks and pebbles. Looking up; I saw I was standing outside a small tavern. It was about two stories tall and a wooden sign swung feebly in the breeze. It read: THE JACKAL AND THE PHOENIX. Hearing laughter and screaming from inside; I figured it was a typical tavern and went in. The inside was much better than I thought it would be. A single chandelier hung from the ceiling, and all the tables were made of mahogany. Many of the patrons appeared to be wealthy and were dressed in fine clothes. With my plain black dress and black shawl I looked very-out-of-place. That was the effect I was going for.
I trotted over to the bar and arranged my skirts over the stool. The bartender; a fox who had just finished wiping down the counter, looked me in the eye and said “What’s your name, lass?” “Bellatrix Updike.” The name came out of my mouth instantly. It could have been mine all my life. “And I want half a pint of Corpse Reviver.” I said in vermin jargon. “Coming right up.” A few minutes later I was served half a pint of whiskey as I had asked for. Then the bartender asked “Well then, Miss Updike, how are you on fighting?” I grinned. “I’m very good at it, thank you.” “How would you like to go up against a creature…. Much stronger and more skilled than you in a prizefight?”
My eyes widened. “It would be an honor and a pleasure if I did.” A few moments later I was introduced to Ezekiel Bentley; a stoat who was the owner of the tavern and the arranger of the nightly prizefights. “And now, ladies and gentlebeasts, on my right we have Bellatrix Updike, a newcomer to our tavern!” The crowd cheered wildly. “And to the left there is the famed, the fabled….. COBAK BLACKSCYTHE!!!!” If the patrons hadn’t been cheering before they certainly were now. I did not gulp at all as I turned to look at the wolf on my left. He was clad in a burgundy-and-gold tunic and clutched a black-handled scythe in one paw. I could nearly see the sinewy muscles that rippled under his coat and knew that even with brute strength he couldn’t defeat my cunning strategies.
Soon, Cobak realized I was staring at him. “What’re you lookin’ at, Updike?” He snarled, baring his teeth. I only smiled and looked away. Then I tugged at Mr. Bentley’s sleeve. “Mr. Bentley,” I said in the most innocent-sounding voice I could muster. “What am I to do? I have no weapons.” Bentley fumbled with his sheath. “Here. My broadsword.” I took it from him, bowed and stood with Cobak. Then, Cobak and I took ten steps away from each other and counted backwards from ten, walking backwards as we did so.
Eventually, we were standing side by side. “It brings me great pleasure to welcome everybeast to the fight. Let the games begin!” And then, all hell broke loose. I immediately bolted away from Cobak and leapt onto a table no one was sitting at.
Cobak followed me and immediately we started dueling. I was a bit slow; having spent the past four days and days previous recovering from my wounds, but it was nothing that a few more days of practice and exercise couldn’t have fixed. But now, I noted, was certainly not the time to think about things like this!
Sword clashed against sword as we fought. Fangs clenched; I threw my entire weight onto my broadsword and struck Cobak on the chest. He grimaced but kept fighting. I jumped off my table.The broadsword felt as heavy as lead there in my arms, but I still managed to swing fairly well as I leapt down and dodged from behind. Cobak quickly turned to face me. “Think you’re clever, do ya now?” He whispered.
“Yes and I intend to be the death of you.” “You poor, poor dear. You don’t know that I’ll kill you first!” Foaming at the mouth savagely; Cobak made as if to behead me. I ducked and crept up behind him. Cobak Blackscythe did not know what hit him when I jumped into the air…. And split his head open with my broadsword. As Cobak’s carcass fell to the ground; I saw a well-dressed ermine wearing a pearl necklace faint in her mate’s arms. “Blimy!” Exclaimed the bartender who’d gotten me my Corpse Reviver. “She’s split ‘is bonny skull open!” I turned to Mr. Bentley, whose mouth hung open in shock. I handed him back his bloodied broadsword, and then bowed before him. For a moment Bentley was silent. Then, he put a paw on my shoulder and asked “Will you stay? Miss Updike, you are the best prizefighter we have had in a very long time.” I took a deep breath. “I’m not staying but I’ll return. Now if you’ll excuse me….” And with that, I brushed past Mr. Bentley and headed out the door.
I was followed out by a cat who appeared to be feral. His fur was a dirty orange color; one ear was crooked and, unlike the rest of the patrons, he did not appear to come from a privileged background. "Miss Updike! Oh, Miss Updike!" He called in a romance-tinged voice as I prepared to leave. "That was amazing! What you did to Cobak, I mean! He hasn't been defeated by anybeast in seventeen years! That's nearly two decades. Amazing!" I stared the cat in the eye, coldly and seriously. "My name is Jangus Redclaw." He said, and I could just tell by his voice he was madly in love with me, or at least my sword-fighting skills. I smirked. "Mr. Redclaw, you are too kind." I said in a faux-civilized voice.
He grinned. “Oh please. Call me Jangus.” He glanced at the scrape on the muzzle that Cobak had given me. “My dear, you’re bleeding.” With one paw he tried to wipe the blood away but I waved him off. “As I said before, Mr. Redclaw- Jangus – you are very kind but I must go.” I started to walk off. Jangus Redclaw followed. “Don’t leave. I’m very useful.” This was going to be good. “Useful? How?” Redclaw stopped walking. “I know how to get to Salamandastron.” My eyes widened. Amazing! What a stroke of luck! If Lover Boy knew how to get me to Salamandastron, then maybe, just maybe he was worth keeping…. For a few days, anyway! Oh, when I ditch him he’ll never know what happened….. I thought slyly. Then, I turned to Jangus. “Very well. You drive a hard bargain.” I said. “You may come.” He squealed excitedly and the two of us disappeared into the night.
Chapter Three: Trouble
The following day, Drake could not keep still with excitement!Leah had asked if he’d wanted to practice archery with her! What a miracle! Drake thought joyfully. Leah had NEVER paid this much attention to him before! “Come on, Drake. Drake?” Drake was so caught up in his fantasies he didn’t hear Leah pounding on the dormitory door. “Dr-aake? Come on! If you’re still sleeping in there have I got to shove you out of bed?!” Drake came back to reality with a start. “I’m awake and I’m coming!” “Good.”
Drake opened the door, and Leah was standing there, as he’d expected. She was wearing her typical royal blue habit fastened with a gold sash. She looked, if anything like the archeress she was.
They talked of minor things as Leah led him out of the dormitories; out past the cloisters and into the orchard. A few paint-flaked targets had been dragged down from the attic for their use. Leah immeadietly got out her crossbow and fired…. A bull’s-eye. If only I could be that good… Drake thought. "Now." Leah said, turning her attention to Drake.
“You keep a good grip on the bow at all times. Otherwise you’ll drop it. Then, you put the arrow in, pull back and…. Fire!” So Drake did.…And got a bull’s-eye. However, his joy was short-lived as a muscular, burly red squirrel came out from behind the bushes. Drake gulped. It was Shemp. Leah’s boyfriend. Drake’s borrowed crossbow fell to the grass. “Watcha doin’ with my girlfriend, pal?” Shemp demanded, striding over to Drake, lifting him up by his habit collar. “I… I didn’t do anything.” He whispered. “L-Leah invited me.” Shemp promptly dropped Drake. “Leah, how could you?” Shemp said. “I thought you hated mousey-boy here!” Leah was at a loss for words. “Come on, Leah. Let’s go!” Drake was suddenly left alone in the orchards.
Chapter Four: Milk and some gossip
As Ambry trotted down the dirt roads of the town of Indigo Crossing, she felt welcome there. Occasionally somebeast would wave or say “Good mornin’ to yer, Miz Ambray!” And she would say ‘good morning’ back. Chickens clucked and darted out of the way as she passed by, and Ambry had to smile.
Indigo Crossing was a farm town by trade…. But a gossip town by industry. It seemed like just about everyone in the populace gossiped, or spread rumors. Eventually, at the edge of town Ambry reached a small, two-story apartment house. It was occupied by two elderly spinsters who lived down the hall from one another. They were both old mousewives; and very superstitious ones at that, often whispering or gossiping even as they milked their dairy cows out on the Common. Their names were Rhoda and Max (Yes, a female named Max!) and they were both widows long past their prime. Ambry, or anyone else at Redwall for that matter, occasionally got sent to their apartment to collect milk, as Redwall lacked a stable and cows. Gingerly, Ambry knocked on the door.
“Come in!” An old, slightly creaky voice said. Max’s. They were meeting in Max’s apartment. Ambry got the door open and entered Max’s parlor. It was furnished modestly with simple wooden furniture, a brick fireplace and a whitewashed wall. Max and Rhoda sat in chairs beside one another, wearing their traditional black. “Well, Ambry, my dearie, here for the milk again, aren’t you?” Ambry nodded. “Well that’ll be six coppers.” Ambry felt around in her pockets and handed Max the money and then prepared to leave.
“Oh, wait!” Rhoda cried, rising from her chair. “Have we got a rumor for you! Do tell her, Max!” Ambry turned around slowly. Usually rumors from Max and Rhoda were unimportant but still fun to listen to, so she decided to stick around. “Well…” Max began, clearing her throat. “I heard this from a gentlebeast on the Common and decided to pass it on to Rhoda. Now we both know it. Anyways, the rumor went like this….” Max gave Rhoda a look. Ambry realized both mousewidows looked nervous. She had no idea why. Max went on
“Well y’see, it went like this. You know the name of Vilaya, the Sable Quean?” Ambry’s eyes widened. She stood as still as a statue in the parlor doorway. She nodded mutely.
“Well this gentlebeast, he told me that Vilaya is still among the living! And you know what I said? I said that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard!” Max burst out laughing and so did Rhoda, while Ambry was silent, all too serious. Two elderly mousewives might doubt that story but she certainly did not. “Tell me more.” Ambry mouthed. “Apparently Vilaya was cared for by a gentlebeast named Isaac up until a few days ago. Supposedly Isaac’s some good-for-nothing out ‘n the hills.” Rhoda grinned, on the brink of laughter and said “In the beginning she was apparently so weak Isaac had to hold her head up to let her drink!” They both grinned, and Ambry swallowed, still very serious. “…And supposedly Vilaya was last seen at a tavern called the Jackal and the Phoenix.” Max turned to Ambry. “Oh you poor dear, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost. Did I tell too much?” “N-no….” Ambry picked up her glass bottles of milk and fled the apartment. There was vengeance flashing in her eyes as she went.
Chapter Five: A little swindle goes a long way
(Told by Vilaya)
The moon was full. It hung down over Mossflower like a critical eye that watched every move I made. It had been exactly one day since I’d made my swashbuckling debut as Bellatrix Updike at the Jackal and the Phoenix. And I’ll tell you, traveling with a cat like Jangus Redclaw is annoying, even if you are the most patient creature ever. I still had not told him my true identity yet and did not intend to until we reached the next stop on the road to Salamandastron…. The Hall of Swindlers.
As we slunk along a dirt trail in the moonlight; I began telling Jangus stories; little lies that I made up as I went along. “….Of course, it’s been so hard after darling Zwilt died…” I said, my voice dripping with fake grief. I had told Jangus that Zwilt had been my mate which hadn’t been all that far from the truth. “Yes, I… I know how that feels.” Jangus stammered as we went along. “And where exactly are we heading now?” I felt my patience snap out of nowhere. “The Hall of Swindlers, thickhead!” “Oh. Oh yeah…” He murmured, obviously hurt. Jangus bared his teeth and growled but kept silent after that.
I grinned and led him onward. We stopped at a small one-floor building with a thatched straw roof. I’d know this building anywhere! It was the Hall of Swindlers, a meeting place for all sorts of hordes, slaving gangs, you name it. Once, it had also even been a rendezvous point for the Ravagers before we’d…… I’ll let you finish that sentence. All was chaos when we entered the Hall. Half a dozen animals lay dead on the floor, battle axes sticking out of their heads and cutlass blades protruding from their stomachs and backs. A bar fight had been in progress and not too long ago. And these were not organized fights, like at the Jackal and the Phoenix. These were full-blown fights-to-the-death where animals battled one another while completely and totally drunk. Jangus looked uneasy. But I grinned at the sight of it! I immediately headed towards the bar and sat on the stool. Ned, the wolverine who tended bar was at my side in a few moments. “What’s with the pussycat?” He whispered, indicating Jangus. I leaned over the counter and whispered back “To make a long story short, I picked him up on the border at the J and P. He has no idea who I am. He thinks my name is Bellatrix Updike. Pretend you think that’s my name.” Ned nodded.
“All right. The secret’s safe with me.” “What secret?” “You like him, don’t you?” “OF COURSE NOT!” I almost shrieked. Then, I snapped coldly at Ned: “Get me my usual.” With a sigh, Ned got out his notepad and flipped through to my last order three weeks before. “Let’s see….. And that would be… Nectar of the Southern whitesnake…. Half a pound of hotroot pepper…. Three aged strawberries in cordial sauce…. An ounce of red wine……. Is that it?” I noticed Jangus was looking green around the gills. “Yes it is. Get it now and I’ll tip you extra.” Ned hurried off. “What?” I said to Jangus, who was staring at me. “I think I’m going to be sick…” I shrugged. “Go ahead and do it. I don’t care.” Just then, my drink arrived. “Thank you!” I said to Ned, who bowed. I put my satchel on the counter, handed him a fistful of money and he walked off humming to himself. I glanced down into my tin mug. This was what I always drank at the Hall. I glanced down at the liquid; which was white with a reddish tint. Strawberries and peppers floated lazily in the fluid. I picked it up and drank greedily, paying no mind at all to Jangus hurrying off to be sick. While his back was turned, I decided. I would tell him tomorrow night.
Chapter Six: Return to Indigo Crossing
That afternoon, a somber-looking Drake happened upon a Dibbun who was just so sweet and cheerful she made him forget his horrible day. Her name was Marti and she was Leah’s little sister; a Dibbun of three. Marti, unlike her sister had pale brown-red fur and sparkling green eyes. She was named after their late father, who was in turn named after the Warrior. Drake’s brow furrowed; he noticed that Marti had something concealed behind her back. Holding back a laugh; Drake said “Now, now, Marti. What’s that you’ve got there?” Marti stuck a claw into her mouth and began sucking idly. “Sister Maybelle gave me a ras’brry scon for bein’ a good girl.” Oh I’ll just bet she did… Drake thought. Marti was known for doing typical Dibbun things like stealing sweets and pastries when no one was looking. And in a moment, Drake turned out to be right. M
arti produced a half-eaten raspberry scone from behind her back and shoved the whole thing into her mouth, which was soon stained red, and Drake noticed the Dibbun squirrel was carrying a small pouch that was bulging with round, circular objects. If anything; the Dibbun had stolen candied apples from the Great Hall. Drake was not surprised. A moment later, once she’d finished her scone, Martin announced “D’ray! I wanna piggybackride!” Drake sighed, but obediently got down on the grass so Marti could ride on his back. He was well-accustomed to her games. Drake trotted around the courtyard and back to the tree where he’d found Marti. He deposited the squirrelbabe there. “Now. You go along now.” He told her. “Lest Sister Nicole catches you with those fruits.” Marti nodded and darted off. Drake looked up a moment later to see Ambry coming in through the gate, her paws full with several milk bottles.
“Ambry!” Drake ran to her and took some of the bottles. “Back already?” Ambry carried the remainder of her load to the tree and sat down. “Yes.” She sighed. Drake sat down next to her eagerly. He liked Ambry because she was like a big sister to him, and she was one of the few creatures who didn’t find him distracting or a nuisance.
“What’s wrong?” Drake asked when Ambry didn’t say anything. Ambry sighed and took a swig of milk out of one of the extra bottles. She passed another one on to Drake, who drank as greedily as she did. “Well,” Ambry began, wiping a milk mustache off her muzzle. “It happened like this. So I’d gone over to Indigo Crossing to get the milk you’re drinking now. And well…. Do you remember Max and Rhoda, those two old mousewives?” Drake nodded.
He did remember the two spinsters, who’d always struck him as being too gossipy for his taste. “Well one of them, Max, told me the strangest thing: That Vilaya the Sable Quean is still alive.” Drake spat out his milk so he could talk. “WHAT?!” “I know.” Ambry nodded.
“I said the same. But that’s what Max told me and I can only hope it’s not true. Besides. You know what Indigo Crossing is….” “A gossip town!” Drake exclaimed, springing up. Ambry got up too; brushing a little grass and dust off her skirts. “Right. That’s exactly what it is. Anyway, I’d best be going.” And with that, she trotted off. Drake found himself following. “Oh, and I heard something else!” Ambry called from the distance. “What?” “A minstrel’s coming to Indigo Crossing tonight!” Immediately Drake could not help but become excited. In rural communities such as Indigo Crossing, a minstrel was like a traveling newspaper. A minstrel, you see, was a group of animals who traveled around performing popular songs, dances, recited poetry and enacted plays. Watching a minstrel show would be a good night of entertainment for anyone in the Indigo Crossing vicinity. But as he thought about this however, Drake was roused by the sound of shouting over by the eastern wallgate...
Chapter Seven: Lover Boy
(Told by Vilaya)
I was positively miserable. It had been a day since I’d gone drinking at the Hall of Swindlers, and now I dearly wished I’d stayed, and worse yet, I’d missed my chance to tell Jangus my true identity. On top of it all, it was a scorching July day, and it seemed that Jangus and I were going around in circles in a vast, unending desert plain.
He still followed me around like a lovesick puppy; which only confirmed my earlier assumption: Yes, Jangus Redclaw was very, very in love with me. I however, was a little more…. Reluctant. And believe me, I had my reasons. “How far away is Salamandastron now?” I asked Jangus as we traveled. He shrugged.
“It should be a few days away.” A few days?! Heaven help me. To change the subject, I asked “Jangus, where’re you from?” “M-me? I’m from Malkariss. Down south.” “I know where that is.” I muttered impatiently. “Oh. Well, uh, anyway, I used to be in a horde but I got thrown out.” “And why was that?” I asked, curious. Jangus shrugged.
“Because I couldn’t fight very well. Something like that.” No wonder. Suddenly, I saw my chance. I walked a little closer to Jangus and whispered in his ear. “I have something very important to tell you, Jangus Redclaw.” “What?” He whimpered. I straightened. “My name is not Bellatrix Updike nor was it ever. My name is….” I paused for dramatic effect. “Vilaya. The Sable Quean.” I waited patiently for that realization to hit Jangus. When it did, he backed away, stuttering “W-what?! The Sable Quean is dead. Everyone says so.” “Well that’s all a pack of lies!” I snarled. “And I’m going to Salamandastron for a reason, Jangus: To get a horde. Every single Ravager in the band is now dead, and me looking to conquer Redwall Abbey alone would be pitiful. Is that much understood?” “Y-yes.” Jangus said. “Fine. Get going.” Jangus trotted over the edge of the nearest sand dune and I followed.
SWITCH TO THIRD-PERSON POV!
Jangus Redclaw was horribly frustrated at himself. So he was trying to play dumb. So far it wasn’t making that much of a difference. He sighed. Right now he was supposed to be out hunting but Jangus was much more content to wander around. I really blew it now…. He thought to himself. How could I not have known that Bellatrix was really Vilaya? I overlooked all the signs…. He sighed.
“Maybe it’s because I didn’t want to think that….” He muttered to himself. “It’s because I was too in love too care. I’m still in love…. But she doesn’t really love me.” He sighed and looked up at the afternoon sky. What’ve I got to do to make her want me? He thought. Maybe I should tell her about… My real self. She already did the same for me, so why shouldn’t I? Slowly but surely Jangus made his way back to their camp. “I’m not what you take me for.” He whispered. Vilaya looked up from the fire. “What?” She half-snapped, obviously angry he’d failed to bring back any game from the nearby woods.
“I’m. Not. Stupid. And I can fight. I was never thrown out of any horde. I just made that story up so I could get a little bit of sympathy… And I didn’t!” Baring her teeth ferociously, Vilaya leapt up and pulled a switchblade from her pocket. She’d stolen it from Cobak back at the Jackal and the Phoenix. “Don’t.” Jangus snarled, wrestling the knife away from Vilaya. “You’re clever. But so am I. I don’t want to have to use this on you.” Vilaya smiled icily. “So you really believe you can defeat me, don’t you, Jangus? You saw what I did to Cobak at the Jackal and the Phoenix. Shouldn’t you be afraid?” “Why should I be afraid of the one I love?” Jangus hissed, no longer afraid to reveal his secret. Vilaya stared icily at him.
“That isn’t much of a secret, Jangus.” She hissed. “I could always tell you loved me all along, Lover Boy. It’s just illusion to me. You did see that I didn’t want to be in love. You just didn’t want to believe it.” Jangus winced. The sable had turned out to be right about that. He sighed, and reluctantly lowered his dagger. “You’re right.” He whispered, but then added, pacing “Vilaya, can’t we go to Salamandastron in peace? Obviously not as lovers but maybe, as friends, allies…” Vilaya seemed to consider this. She took back her switchblade from Jangus. “All right then.” She said. “We go as partners, but not partners in romance. Agreed?” “Agreed.” And so two creatures walked away from their battle-ravaged camp. They had entered it has almost-enemies and were leaving as friends.
Chapter Eight: A duel and a rescue
Francis Hare, esquire seemed to be the rowdiest hare to live at Redwall since Basil Stag Hare decades back. He was up at the crack of dawn; parading around the walltop and belting out ancient Mossflower ballads with only the rising sun as his audience. He had a set of four powerful legs; always kicking or moving as hares will impulsively do, and he carried a sword called Caplan Cantil, a leftover from his days as the brigadier general of an all-hare infantry known as the Light Brigade. Nowadays Francis was Redwall’s sword instructor; who often dueled Buckler, a much younger hare who sometimes dropped by to visit Redwall with his mentor, Lord Brang of Salamandastron.
As for Francis’s appearance, he was a sleek, well-muscled hare, his pelt black in color with white shadows around his blue eyes. He dressed in burgundy. Always burgundy. No exceptions. Now Francis stood in the Abbey garden, dressed in his burgundy tunic and breeches and a matching cravat, dueling with Leah. “Miss Leah, you’re a good swordbeast, don’cha know?” Francis said, dodging a swipe from Leah’s cutlass. Leah paused to wipe a bead of sweat off her forehead. “And you’re a very silly old hare, Francis.” Teeth clenched, Leah made a blow at Francis’s leg. Luckily it only ripped the hem of his gold-buttoned breeches. Francis cringed and clutched his ‘wounded’ leg.
“Oh misery! Woe is me!” He cried. “You…..” He made up a word at random. “Bloomin’ ballywoppers, you’ve ruined my best dueling breeches!” Leah grinned and leaned on her cutlass. “Should we call a truce?” She asked. Francis sheathed Caplan Cantil. “Call a truce? Leah, I think we’ve already comta one.” Leah sat down by the pond. “Francis, what was it like when you were with the Light Brigade?” Francis shrugged. “Oh, you know. Travelin’ ‘round Mossflower, fighting Warlords here, rescuin’ babes there. Fun work if you like that sorta thing. Why?” “No reason…” Leah said, playing with a blade of grass. “Well.” Francis stood up. “Whaddya say we head down to the kitchen, Miss Leah? Maybe the Friar’ll give us some vittles.” Leah nodded. “You go ahead, Francis. I think maybe I’ll see Shemp.” As Leah departed, she saw Francis’s brow furrowed. He knew that a squirrel like Shemp was not desirable company for a creature like Leah.
Drake crouched uncertainly in the Abbey shrubs; ears flattened against his head. The mouse sat listening, listening to the conversation between Leah, and Shemp and his band of squirrels. “Why were you hanging out with him?” Shemp was saying. “Leah, I thought we were---“
“Yeah, yeah!” Another voice cut in. Leah growled “Shemp, quit it.” Her paw flew out and smacked Shemp across the face. Drake grinned. “Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!” Just as Shemp and Leah began circling each other; Drake charged out of the bushes. “STOP!!!!!!” He screamed. Everyone was staring at him now, but Drake didn’t care. “You leave her alone.” He said, stabbing a claw at Shemp. “Me?” Shemp said innocently. “What did I do? Or should I answer to…. The high-and-mighty Drake the Warrior?” Drake bared his teeth and growled savagely. So did Shemp. “Back off, Buster.” Shemp muttered.
“I’m not going anywhere.” And so Drake did not readily expect it when Shemp whacked him across the face with his birchbark staff. Drake cringed and broke the stick in half with his trademark butter knife. Shemp looked crestfallen; and almost cowardly and Drake grinned. He looked like a Warrior and not the coward everyone took him for, and Leah smiled too. But just then; Abbess Marjoram trotted into the orchards and Drake swallowed. Here it comes… He thought. “Shemp! Drake! Leah! All of you! What is the meaning of this?! Violence is strictly forbidden at Redwall. All of you should know better.”
“He started it.” Drake said, pointing to Shemp; who only growled. “I was just sticking up for Leah.” The Abbess sighed. “Fine, then. I understand. Shemp; you and the rest of your little friends will have extra chores for the rest of the day.” A heavy groan arose from Shemp’s gang.
“Leah, Drake, as soon as I get these rapscallions taken care of I’d like to have a word with the both of you…” “Are we in trouble?” Drake asked. The Abbess shook her head. “Quite the opposite. I’ll talk to you later.” And so the two young creatures were briefly left alone in the orchard… Until Francis Hare trotted in! “What ho, Drake m’lad!” He exclaimed, clapping Drake on the shoulder. “Wish we had a fighter like you in the Light Brigade. I reckon you would’ve been pinned up with all manner of medals.” Drake grinned, and then he said to Leah “So. You take sword lessons from him?” “Indeed she does!” Francis answered. “And Leah is getting quite good at it too, might I add!” “Francis!” “Well you are, marm!” Francis chuckled. He looked up. A voice could be heard in the distance. “Bloomin’ ages! Is that m’darlin’ Teresa I hear calling me? I do believe it is! Teresa! I’m coming my lovely little summer flower!” Leah and Drake were both laughing as Francis departed the orchards. Then, they headed inside to meet with the Abbess.
As Drake and Leah went down the corridor to the Abbess’s office, Leah whispered confidentially to Drake “You know, when I was a Dibbun I played in there all the time.” Drake noticed she was looking more pink in the face than white. He wished he could think of things he’d done as a Dibbun, but no matter how hard he tried he just couldn’t remember.
“Oh. Well I don’t really remember anything much from when I was a Dibbun.” By this time they were nearing the Abbess’s door. Drake knocked, and a moment later they heard her say “Come in.” Drake breathed a sigh of relief as soon as he got in. He always felt welcome in there. The Abbess’s room was modest- not fancy, or overly-decorated but still. It was a place of peace and Drake sometimes came in there to hang out while the Abbess wasn’t around. The two young ones found Marjoram sitting at her desk, writing something on a scrap of parchment. It appeared to say Memoirs from Brambletyde but who or what Brambletyde was neither of them knew. As soon as she saw them come on, the Abbess set down her quill. “Drake, Leah.” She said. “I’ve been waiting for you. And Drake. I wanted to tell you, that despite being reckless you did a very brave thing today. Leah, you too. Even though you were both very courageous today, I should hope I don’t see either one of you being violent on these grounds again unless the situation calls for it. Redwall is a place of peace. Remember that.” Shortly after, the two left.
Chapter Nine: The stranger in the woods
“Come on, don’t be sticks-in-the-mud! It’ll be a jolly old adventure, eh wot?” That was what Francis had said as Drake and Leah packed some food into their satchels and traded in their sandals in exchange for trail boots. Reluctantly, Leah and Drake decided to accompany Francis on his picnic on Freebeast hill, as the hare had a tendency to get bored if left alone. However, the going proved to be tough. Leah and Drake quickly tired as they climbed the impossibly steep slope. Francis however, was in high spirits. He leapt and bound ahead of the young ones; singing the Light Brigade’s war song.
By the time they reached the top of the hill, Drake and Leah were exhausted, panting and sweaty. Francis wasn’t. "Oh my gosh," Drake groaned, fur slicked with sweat, exhausted from the long trek uphill. Leah slumped against a tree, muttering to herself about how hot it was. However, both creatures perked up when Francis offered them some water from his satchel. Lunch consisted of a salad, woodlander’s meat pie, bread and dandelion wine. For dessert there was Teresa’s best elderberry scones and cherry pasties. Half an hour later, just as everyone was preparing to go home to Redwall, an arrow sliced through the summer air. It landed a few inches above Francis’s head! All three looked up suddenly as a large, blue-black rat clutching a bow and quiver stepped out of the foliage, looking if anything, very embarrassed with himself. He did not look anything like the crazed Warlords who had tried to capture Redwall in the past. “Just hunting.” He said, holding up both paws in an apologetic gesture.
“Didn’t mean to start a war.” He laughed nervously, half to himself. Francis’s eyes narrowed. After years of fighting all manner of rats and other vermin, he was not convinced. “Riiiiight.” He muttered, toying with Caplan Cantil. “All right, spit it out, laddie. Name, rank and number on the double.” Leah sighed and slapped her forehead with her paw. Drake rolled his eyes. Being a former military hare, Francis jumped to conclusions ALL THE TIME. The rat stepped forward. “Nitram Roy Wrav’s the name, known to some as Nitram the Warrior.” “Yes, and where are you from, Mr. Uh… Wrav?” Francis asked. Drake and Leah gave each other looks. “Northwest. From the sea.”
Nitram answered vaguely, gazing out over the ridge. He swiftly walked over and removed the arrow from the tree. “I missed the quail I tried to shoot.” He explained. “Those things are cleverer ‘en they look.” He put the arrow back in the quiver. “And if youbeasts will excuse me I’ll be going.” Francis would’ve protested had Leah not held up a paw for him to be silent. Drake grinned. Leah may have been a female, but she was not, if anything dainty. A few moments later, they packed up the remnants of their picnic and prepared to head downhill to Redwall, but Drake could not keep his mind off the mysterious rat, Nitram.
Chapter Ten: The Merry Undertakers
Jangus and I had finally hit paydirt!! We had finally made it to Salamandastron! “It’s about time…” I mumbled to the reddish-pink mountain looming in the distance. A hawk circled overhead, screeching. I narrowed my eyes. Jangus stopped walking and turned to me. “What is it?” He whispered. “Look.” I said. A cloud of dust was billowing towards us. Several animals were approaching on paw- and they were coming on fast! “Hellgates, look at ‘em come!” Jangus breathed, eyes wide. No sooner had he said those words than we were surrounded. I grimaced. “Looks like we’ve got company,” I said, spitting on the ground. “And what’re you lookin’ at, Missy?” Instinctively I looked up. Staring over at me was one of the ugliest wolves I’d ever seen. He was a filthy brown in color, and wore a ragged tunic and belt, and carried a twisted dagger.
A hat with a crooked brim covered only one ear. “Your hideous face.” I replied. The wolf, clearly taken aback, bared his teeth and snarled viciously. I snarled back. “There,” I mumbled sarcastically. “Let’s get the introductions done and over with. Who are you?” The wolf grinned broadly, revealing a mouthful of crooked yellow fangs. “Switchblade Sal’s the name and this here is The Merry Undertakers.” “A strange name for a horde,” I commented. “We ain’t a horde. We’re a gang. There’s a difference.”
After a slight pause, Switchblade Sal the wolf, pointed towards a seductive-looking vixen clad all in lavender: A lavender dress, lavender scarf, lavender shoes and lavender eye-shadow. “Jessie Sly, m’girl.” Sal said, pointing to her and moving on to the next beast, a muscular brownish wolf who looked like he had a brain the size of maybe, a walnut. A quiver of arrows was strapped to his back. “Grybe Poisondart. Trust me. They don’t call him ‘Poisondart for nothin’.” Sal’s pace slowed to a steady trot, and he laughed, a dry, echoing sound. Then, Sal gestured to an insane-looking ferret, blue-gray in color, who had two longswords called katanas strapped to his back.
“And this little sparkplug here,” Sal said, chuckling. “Is Dylanus. He’s awfully prone to bloodwrath…” As if to defend Sal’s point, Dylanus said “Yeah, don’t you mess with me!” And bared his teeth. So far I was impressed. Need I point out, SLIGHTLY impressed? “You forgot someone.” I muttered crisply, and pointed to a small wolf at the end of the semicircle.
“Oh. That.” Sal lost his earlier emotion. “That’s Ssenia. She ain’t quite right in the skullthing. She’s a good fighter, though.” “Now.” Sal added. “Now that the introductions are over….. Let’s get back to reality. Drop your weapons.” The Undertakers drew their swords and bows and pointed them at us. Jangus quietly dropped a finely-crafted longsword. My eyes widened. “I had no idea you had that!” I whispered. “No time to explain. I’ll tell you later.” Jangus whispered. “All right.” As I stood up, there was rage in my eyes. Take a Quean prisoner and get away with it? I didn’t think so!
Jangus and I were led, at the swordpoint across vast stretches of desert wasteland for the remainder of the afternoon. Two hours later, we finally reached a ramshackle old winery in an oasis, a remnant of the Prohibition days. “Old boozehouse.” Sal grunted as Jangus and I were led in. “This is our place.” I rolled my eyes. As if we hadn’t guessed... The interior of the ‘boozehouse’ wasn’t like what I’d expected: It was furnished modestly, with only a few chairs and decaying old wine firkins here and there.
A large ginger wildcat sat atop a firkin, sharpening her claws with a rusted nailfile. There was a distinctively bored look in her eyes. As soon as Sal came in through the door, she snapped to attention and said “Sir?” Sal grinned. “Amin, Amin. How was the guarding?” The wildcat, Amin, shrugged. “Easy and boring. Gimme a real job next time. Why do those bozos have all the fun?” She stabbed a claw at Grybe and Dylanus.
“And these bozos,” Dylanus declared, marching up to her and grabbing her by the collar. “Happen to be second-in-command and soothsayer, mind you!” Amin only bared her teeth at him and shoved him away before saying to Sal “Well, well, well. Look what the wolf dragged in! Good find, sweetheart.” The affection for Sal in her voice made me feel nauseous. And I thought Jessie was his girl...??
“Well. If it isn’t the Sable Quean, come along to give us hell!” Amin muttered sarcastically. “You watch your tongue, sweetheart! I growled. You might be halfway to Hellgates by the time I’m done with you.” Amin rolled her eyes, leaning on her rusty broadsword. “Oh really?” She asked, batting her eyelashes in a falsely innocent way. “What a broad,” I heard Jangus mutter under his breath. “DON’T YOU EVER CALL ME A BROAD OR YOUR HEAD’LL BE ON MY SWORDPOINT!” Amin thundered, getting directly in Jangus’s face, spraying saliva all over his whiskers. Jangus cringed and backed down. “Now.” Sal proclaimed, turning to Amin and co. “Let’s interrogate the prisoner, shall we?” And then Ssenia the mad wolf bared her teeth and growled viciously. “That’s nice, Ssenia.” Grybe said, shoving her aside. Jangus and I were led across the room and shoved coldly against the wall, so that we were facing it. Sal said
“Now. What brings the famed ‘Sable Quean to Salamandastron?” “She was- we were-“ Jangus began, but was cut off
“SHUT UP, PUSSYCAT!” Sal raged. “I don’t wanna hear from you, ya mealworm. Got that?” Jangus nodded curtly, defiance blazing in his eyes. Give ‘em hell, Jangus… I thought. “I was looking for mercenaries and Jangus is my partner-in-crime.” I began. Jangus, now not allowed to tell his side of the story, only nodded his confirmation. “We plan to invade Redwall abbey!” The Undertakers laughed. Grybe Poisondart exclaimed “Take Redwall Abbey? Fat chance. Name one horde who hasn’t tried!” Jessie said “Darlings, it’s just impossible!” Amin: “Sweetheart, you can’t do that!” Dylanus: “You’re going to Redwall? Yeah, you and one significant other!”And Ssenia? “Noooo! Don’t jump off that ledge!” I bit my tongue, frustrated beyond words.
“WAIT!” I finally cried out. “Maybe there’s some way we could all have a mutual relationship.” “Huh?” “What?” “She’s kidding!” “Yes!” I repeated to show I was serious. I turned to Sal. “If you side with Jangus and I for our Redwall campaign, you will have equal rule of Mossflower Woods alongside me and Jangus. Your gang will also profit considerably. Does anyone like the sound of that idea?” There were a few murmurs of agreement. “All riiight.” Sal said after a while, elongating his i’s on purpose.
“You have my agreement. But only on EQUAL TERMS of agreement do we make this deal. Once false move you ‘n kitty boy are as dead as dead as this!” Sal gestured to the bat skull used as his belt buckle. Beside me, Jangus gritted his teeth, trying hard not to say anything. He detested being called ‘pussycat’ and ‘kitty boy’ and I could see it in his eyes. “Release the prisoners.” Sal said to Grybe and Dylanus, and reluctantly, they did so. Sal tossed me a bullwhip. It was a beautiful bullwhip, if one could call it that: So perfectly straight; the curved arc of rawhide burned you just by touching it. A bone handle. A Thwack! Sound when you cracked it. “Use this well.” He told me. “It’s a spare, but if you get so much as get it nicked I’ll—“
“I know. You’ll skin me and hang my pelt up?” I guessed. Sal rolled his shoulder blades in a masculine way. “Yes. And I’ll flay your hide with the whip you’re holding now.” But Sal didn’t know what I was thinking, didn’t know what was going on inside my ever-devious mind. I didn’t really care about my punishment for wrecking the bullwhip. I could always fight back if that happened. But what I was really thinking about, was how sorry the woodlanders would be when we took their precious little Abbey by storm….
We made plans on exactly when to attack Redwall after lunch. On another note, Sal wanted to drink to the proposal of equal rulership over Mossflower Woods. We drank outside, under the shade of an old bent-over hickory tree, around a wooden table that had been dragged out. Sal sat at the head of the table, of course, and I sat at the end. Jangus sat next to me. Suddenly, I raised my head. Dylanus and Grybe were arguing. Dylanus had reached to refill his flask of wine, and accidentally touched Grybe’s sword. Grybe, who became enraged over the slightest thing, immeadietly misunderstood this and thought Dylanus wanted to take his sword. Within minutes a fullblown argument had broken out: “I told you I don’t want the rusty ole thing! My katanas are better!”
“Liar!” Grybe spat. “You’re jealous and you know it!” The bickering gangsters were interrupted when Sal gave them his Evil Eye. “Quit it.” He barked. “Especially you, Grybe.” “He started it!” Grybe protested. “Aw quit squealin’, Grybe. You’re acting like an infant!”
“But he wanted my sword!” “Rubbish!” Dylanus protested. “I didn’t steal ‘is rotten old sword!” As the argument settled down a few moments later, I silently pushed in my chair and went over to Sal’s. “…More wine, darling?” Jessie asked him. I ignored this and pushed closer to Sal. “Well let me tell you a little story, Sally Boy!” I whispered into Sal’s ear. “But before I begin…. Is there any more red wine?"
I watched with intent, narrowed eyes as Jessie nervously poured me wine. I snatched my glass from her paws and poured the red wine noisily down my throat. Then, I wiped a little of the blood-red liquid off my muzzle and began. Sighing with pleasure; I was quiet for a minute for the sake of dramatic effect. Then, I began to monologue a completely false backstory about my experiences.
“Sweetheart, that’s amazing!” Amin exclaimed, eyes wide. I brushed the wildcat off. “Pure luck, that’s all it was.” I leaned back in my chair for a moment, relaxed. Then, I trotted over to a nearby table where Grybe and Dylanus were playing poker.
“Do you gentlebeasts happen to keep an extra ace in the deck? If so, that’s just the way I like it!” With a grin, I scattered their playing cards about the grass and table and fanned a few ace of spades against my face. “I was born to raise hell! In fact, you might even say I’ve been to hell and back!” Everyone was silent for the longest time, all staring at me. I cracked a grin. All Grybe had the nerve to say was “Wow……” Everyone else clapped, and I just bowed. “Bravissimo! Quite a good tale, I must say.” “Thank you,” I muttered to myself, and then turned to Jangus. “Tell me about that sword. Now.”
Chapter Eleven: A Secret for a Secret
Muttering under his breath, Jangus grabbed my paw and dragged me away from the feasting and merriment and onto a dirt trail. “Where’re we going?” I hissed. Jangus looked over his shoulder.
“If I can tell you about the sword it’s got to be private.” With a quick sigh of impatience; I allowed Jangus to lead me into a group of pine trees that formed a natural ring. We were alone together in the darkness under the pines. Once there; we sat down at the base of the tree together and I said
“How about this: We make a sort of bargain; a secret for a secret.” I grinned slyly. Jangus looked reluctant, but nodded, saying
“All right. You tell me your secret and I’ll tell you mine.” Taking a deep breath, I said
“Fine. I shall tell you my secret. But on one condition: You must swear total and absolute secrecy.”
“Swear it!” I prodded Jangus with my switch. He gulped; caught off-guard by my sudden attack. I grinned.
“Good.” I waited a moment before saying “I killed my own brother. Brothers.” Jangus grinned.
“So that story about you killing someone in your family is partially true, isn’t it?” I ignored this and went on.
“Their names were Samson and Greengate, and they were extremely greedy, believe me. I killed them because they were after my money.” “Money?”
“Yes, money!” I laughed. “I’m an heiress; I was raised on a bloody keep, why shouldn’t I have money? And I know what you’re thinking. No, no it isn’t in the Northlands. I never spent so much as a day of my life in that place. And that, Jangus Redclaw is my secret.” I leaned against the trunk of the tree; relieved and relaxed I’d finally told and gotten it over with.
“Just one question.” My eyes narrowed. “What?!” “Have you always been….?”
“So temperamental? No. When I was younger I was quite the attention-seeker if you can believe it. I used to crave attention, but I never got it. Just because my brothers Greengate and Samson were males they were considered my betters.” I wrinkled my muzzle in disgust and continued.
“When I was sixteen I realized my insolence would get me nowhere and that I had better change my course of action. That’s how I got to be the way I am. Your turn.” Jangus gulped and looked slightly nervous before saying
“I committed murder once, too.” He fidgeted and began looking uncomfortable. “Oh really?” I mumbled sarcastically.
Jangus shot me a dirty look. I shot him one back and bared my teeth.
“Yes. I used to be in a horde; under a wearet named Frango Deathslayer. I used to be his second-in-command and…. One day; we were going into battle in Malkariss. It had just rained and it had been very foggy out. I could barely see anything. Really, I couldn’t see anything more than shadows. No one could. So, I raised my bow and arrow and shot at the first animal I saw. I didn’t know what I’d done until somebeast cried out ‘Murder! He has slain Frango!’ I don’t remember much of what happened next. I was so crazed with grief I couldn’t fully comprehend. In the fog; I fell upon Frango’s body, stole his sword and ran off carrying it. That’s why I have it now.”
An eerie silence passed between the two of us; then Jangus spoke up, saying “Vilaya. I admire you as a friend. I…” He paused, grimacing. “Tell me your full name.” I wagged a claw.
“Curiosity killed the cat, but if you must know…..” I leaned over and whispered in his ear “Vilaya Regina Skelton.” The name flowed like water off my tongue. I closed my eyes. It seemed like Vilaya Regina had been a whole other sable; so long ago had it been I’d used my full name.
“What’s yours?” I whispered, surprisingly contented. Jangus straightened.
“Jangus Matthew Redclaw.” Without another word; the two of us went our separate ways. Neither one of us had kissed. I was glad we hadn’t. I didn’t want to experience the feeling of Jangus Matthew Redclaw’s muzzle meeting mine. Yet.
Chapter Twelve: The Minstrel
The night of the minstrel had finally arrived. Drake and Leah were en route to Indigo Crossing via the forest. Since Ambry already had plans at Redwall; Nitram secretly decided to tag along instead. Along the way he’d taken advantage of the long way up to Indigo Crossing to teach Drake and Leah better ways to shoot with arrows. So Nitram would walk alongside them, and say to whoever it was with the bow:
“All right. You tilt your head up likeways, make sure the arrow won’t fall out, then you pull back and let ‘er go!”
Even Drake, who was new to bows and arrows did not have a particularly hard time catching on.
“You really got Francis mad,” Drake said, rolling his eyes as they trotted down the forest paths strewn with pine needles.
Nitram gazed up at the starry sky. “I know.” The rat chuckled to himself. “Poor old hare hadn’t had such a good time with rats in that…. Regiment, what was it called?” the rat wracked his brain.
Nitram grinned triumphantly. “Yes, that’s it! The Light Brigade!”
A crow cawed in the distance. Leah stared up at the night sky.
“You don’t really get nights like this anymore.” She commented.
Drake and Nitram gave each other looks. It seemed they could both relate to the night scenery as well; all was tranquil: The sky was painted a soft blue-black, crickets chirped in the bushes along the side-paths, pine needles were strewn along the trails, and a few night birds chirped softly in the bushes. It was a perfect night.
“This IS a night to remember.” Drake agreed wholeheartedly.
Nitram gazed up at the stars and uttered one single word “Aye.”.
Not too long later the lights at Indigo Crossing were in view. The three animals stood on a ridge overlooking the town, called Martin’s Ridge by the locals. Legend had it that Martin the Warrior had gazed at the then-new town from that very ridge; along with his unlikely companions Gonff the Mousethief and Albertine and Gingivere Greeneyes. So as they descended down from the ridge; Drake, (as he knew the story by heart) told Nitram the legend of Martin’s Ridge.
“That’s right great” Nitram commented as they went down. “t’is Martin creature must have been a great ole beast”
Drake nodded, but Leah said
“He is and was, but in Indigo Crossing, they’re used to distant echoes of history.” Drake nodded. Leah was definitely right; Indigo Crossing WAS an old, historic town after all….
Drake squinted, noticing a dark shape jumping up and down and yelling at the bottom of the ridge. “Nitram, Leah, look at this. I think that’s Francis down there.”
Leah sighed, exasperated.
Drake slapped his paw on his temple.
Nitram grimaced and headed back up the ridge. “If yew two’ll excuse me I’ll be going.”
Before Leah could say one of her typical clever remarks, Drake hurriedly asked Nitram “Where?”
Nitram shrugged. “Not too far off. I’ll come into Indigo Crossing through the south side of the forest. That way a certain someone down below won’t notice me.”
Before Drake nor Leah could do or say anything else, the rat was gone, bounding off towards the woods once again.
They had a very annoyed-looking Francis waiting for them down below. The two young ones begrudgingly climbed down to Francis, who was shouting things like “How dare you scalawags associate with vermin!” Or “What in the name of Warrior’s Honor were you doin’ with that bally old rat?”. His incessant chattering was unbearable to the young creatures
“I can explain everything!” Drake finally exclaimed, to put an end to Francis’s crazed shouting.
Leah gave Drake an amused look that said "So you think you can pull this off?"
Drake sighed. Leah wasn’t usually ornery but when she was… WATCH OUT! Drake shot her an angry look quickly, and then resumed arguing with Francis. After a short time he was able to conceive a tale that satisfied the hare, and Francis walked off shortly afterwards.
As soon as they were alone, Drake grabbed Leah and dragged her over to a nearby tree. “What were you doing, abandoning me like that?” He hissed.
Leah just flattened her back against the tree, saying only “I wanted to see how you’d do against Francis.”
Drake was disappointed at the squirrels indifference “Leah, we’ve been friends for a while now, and friends are supposed to stick up for each other!”
She simply shrugged and walked away, back towards the path to Indigo Crossing.
Fifteen minutes later, Drake, Leah, Nitram (Nitram and Francis sat as far away from each other as possible.) and some animals from town were sitting around a bonfire. As the fire cracked and sparkled, it sent tiny flames into the night sky, burning ashes. After a while, a dog the color of the ashes wearing a burgundy cloak stepped out from one of the horse-drawn wagons parked nearby. The small crowd began to murmur excitably. “Ladies and gentlebeasts, my name is Abel of the Scraggway Traveling Minstrel and I can give you news and rumors from all over the nation.”
Immediately several males began demanding for war news, and so Abel cleared his throat melodramatically, looked around, and said “Well, the Royal House of Salamandastron and the nobles down in Malkariss are still at war.” A steady stream of groans rose up from the crowd. “Travel to either of those areas will not be possible for the next three weeks.”
Still more groans. The rest of the evening was nearly as fun as a nameday, when the seasons are named. The audience gathered around the fire listened with rapture to southern and northern folk songs, watched abridged plays as well as bouts of slapstick humor by the minstrel’s traveling company. Finally, as the fire dwindled down to ashes in the pit, Leah and Francis headed back to Redwall. Nitram would take Drake to Redwall, before turning back and eventually going himself. That was the plan, but it wasn’t followed accordingly……
Before long Drake and Nitram decided to take the shortcut; down winding paths and trails Drake had never seen before. After a while they came to a dead end in a darkened meadow. A ring of pine trees towered above them, and it seemed darker than usual in this part of the woods….
Nitram grimaced. “Hell's teeth.” He cursed, and handed Drake his bow. “You’ll need that for protection. You never know what might jump out at you in Skelton’s Glade.”
“Huh?” Drake was puzzled. He had heard talk of Skelton’s Glade but had never actually been there before.
Nitram produced a dagger from his cloak pocket so that he had a weapon too. “They say the place’s haunted. At first I thought it was just stories to keep babes an’ little children in line, but it ain’t. I’ve heard tell from more ‘n a few animals claimin’ the ghosts of Old Man Skelton and his greedy clan prowl the meadow at night.” Nitram gestured around the meadow.
“They say Skelton used to have a keep or noble's manor here. Exactly where it lies nobeast knows. His family was fabulously rich- refugees from another house somewhere to the west from one of those Border Wars. You were probably a babe then, but I remember it well enough. It was a lot of disagreement over territory and the like if I remember correctly. Anyhow, Skelton and his clan are buried here, and they were the evilest pack of stubborn sables you’d ever want to meet. Don’t worry though, Drake. I’ve got your back.”
Drake nodded. They gazed up at the sky that seemed to darken by the glade’s presence. “How hard will it be to get out?” He asked, sort-of-worried.
Nitram shook his head. “Depends.” He answered vaguely.
“Nitram,” Drake whispered a moment later as they started across the wide meadow. “The ground’s starting to feel… Strange.”
Nitram nodded. “Aye, mate. I feel it too.”
The ground was indeed beginning to feel strange; soft, squishy under the two rodent’s paws, like quicksand. Drake’s eyes widened as his right hind leg disappeared into the dirt, then his left. Quickly his lower body became enveloped as well.
“It’s like bloody quicksand!” Nitram exclaimed. Drake was too stunned to think of anything to say as they were sucked down, down, down, into the earth…..
“DRAAAAKE!” Drake heard Nitram screaming his name as they fell onto a soft floor with a THUD!
They were now in a dirt walled room under the ground. Drake looking up, eyes narrowed because of the dimness of the room.
“Where are we?”
Seven stone slabs were at one corner of the room, nothing else decorated the gloomy scenery.
Nitram shrugged, baffled. “Your guess is as good as mine, matey, but I reckon this is Skelton’s tomb.”
Drake felt gooseflesh rising at the back of his neck, although he was certain there was no such thing as ghosts.
“Come on!” Drake said, wandering over to the coffins. “Let’s look and see if there’s an exit.”
Nitram dashed over to his friend, wary not to trip on any uneven floor in his haste “Capital idea.”
Before they began looking, Drake noticed old, dust-covered writing on the huge stone coffin nearest him. Curious, he brushed it off to read the inscription:
EPHRAIM JEBADIAH SKELTON;
PATRIARCH OF THE SKELTON CLAN
THE WINTER OF SHINING ICE – THE SPRING OF THE YELLOW DAISIES
AGED 75 YEARS, 3 MONTHS, 7 DAYS
Drake breathed, nudging Nitram “Nitram, look at this. The Old Man’s grave…”.
“Blimey….” The rat’s eyes widened, feeling uncomfortable around the caskets.
“Before we find that exit….. Let’s get a look at those other coffins, see who else’s buried here.” So Drake set about brushing away more dust on the coffin to Ephraim’s left. He read loud and clear “‘Saul Greengate Skelton, son of Ephraim, The Summer of the Golden Hawk, The Autumn of the Early Leaf, aged 39 years, five months, six days.”
Nitram grimaced as he read from the grave to Ephraim’s right “‘Samson Ernest Skelton, The Autumn of the Black Oak, The Autumn of the Early Leaf, aged 33 years, one month, two days….”
Nitram gave Drake a look. They were both thinking the same thing: Murder!
Gulping, Nitram made his way over to the grave next to Samson’s “ ‘Amanora Greengate Skelton ’ ”
Nitram slowly read aloud, struggling to decipher the elegant, curling script. “ ‘The Spring of the Thorn Birds, the Winter of the Great Snowstorm. Amanora. Ephraim’s mate…..”
As Nitram stared in shock at the coffin panel, Drake leaned heavily into the wall. He pulled back as part of the wall pulled back with a sliding sound! Nitram immediately came over, and a set of dust-covered steps led beneath the ground, far deeper than the tomb.
Drake felt adventure surging through his body. Leaving behind any thoughts lurking danger or paranormal terrors, he put his paw on the first step swiftly and beckoned to the rat. “Let’s go.”
Nitram grinned at young bold creature.
“With ye all the way, matey. Onwards we go!” Five minutes later Nitram and Drake were hopelessly lost in a dark, underground corridor with no light to guide them. It was light enough to distinguish the handy work done ground, cultivation made in bygone seasons. There where even traces of some unidentifiable herb.
“An underground keep.....”
Nitram muttered, shaking his head. “Old Ephraim must’ve been off his rocker when he dug this place out!” Drake wandered ahead of Nitram in the dark, squinting as they entered towards what appeared to be a lit chamber. “Call me crazy Nitram, but I think we’re going towards light.” Nitram had swiftly caught up with Drake. His pace matching that of the mouse “Drake, I’ve seen so much of this place, now nothing surprises me anymore.” Drake couldn’t have agreed more. The two animals both ran into the light without another word between them.
Book Two: By The Skin of Our Teeth
Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil. –Marcus Aurelius
Chapter Thirteen: D.A.B. Rides Again!
It was dusk now at Redwall. A large group of Dibbuns stood in the deserted Cavern Hole. Redwall was theirs- all the grownups were someplace else so they could do whatever Dibbuns Against Bedtime things they wanted! Tassy, a squirrel who was five, perched atop a dictionary, her best friend Marti beside her. "Attentiuhn." Tassy said in a voice strange from missing teeth. "Dis meetin' of Dibbuns Aginst Beddytime has now come tuh orduh!"
A few Dibbuns began to murmur excitedly amongst themselves as Tassy spread out a badly-drawn map of Redwall. "Fowr toonight's missun we will go heeure." She pointed to the dormitories on the map. Marti tugged at Tassy's skirt, and then pulled a claw out of her mouth.
"What'll we do there, Tassy?" She asked. Tassy grinned. "I'm not telling! Every Dibbun follow me!" You know what they say: 'Where there's smoke, there's fire, and when there's Dibbuns, there's trouble.....' Tassy led the way to the dorms, and along the way the Dibbuns stockpiled their weapons: Thick ledgers, stale food, sticks and sheets of paper. By now they had reached the dormitory. Tassy sniffed the air, a look of mock-importance on her face. "Evwybuddy in!" She exclaimed. "I mean it now!"
All the Dibbuns scrambled inside the dormitory they were standing near. Within minutes a pillow fight was in full-swing. The Dibbuns were everywhere: Jumping on the beds, on the floor and even under the beds. "Ha ha! Gotcha Tassy!" Marti cheered, tearing through Tassy's pillow with a sharpened stick. Tassy grimaced but kept at it.
"Marti, you're no good." She said, and when Marti's back was turned she snatched the stick leaving Marti unarmed. Marti pouted, a loose fang sticking out of her muzzle. She looked very much like her older sister when she did that. The pillowfight continued. Well, it did until the door was flung open. Sister Nicole, who had a reputation for being the strictest sister in Redwall stood in the doorway, eyes cold. The Dibbuns all dropped their weapons and gulped. They were definitely in trouble now.....Nicole gave all the Dibbuns a harsh, unwavering look.
“Ugh, look at this mess you’ve made..... Back to bed, all of you.” All the dibbuns scampered off to their dormitories without a word. “But not you. You stay here.” Sister Nicole pointed a claw at Marti. “You’re the little ringleader, aren’t you? Well that’s it. I don’t take any riffraff in my dormitories. Tomorrow you’re to have extra chores and you can bet your life you’re on the abbess’s list!” Marti gave a sad little sigh and dragged herself back to tomorrow. She may have been out of action; but in the dibbun’s clever little mind, she was already making a freakishly pathetic revenge plan....
Meanwhile, Drake and Nitram stopped their little expedition outside a door that had been left ajar. “Wot d’ye suppose is in there?” Nitram whispered, pressing his eye to the keyhole. Drake grinned boldly. “Only one way to find out.” He opened the door. First Nitram went in, and then himself. Drake gasped. The room they entered wasn’t just beautiful-
it was extravagant! Red Oriental-patterned carpets covered the floor, and against one wall there was a bed with a dusty burgundy canopy.
There was even a marbled fireplace, in addition to a mahogany table with well-carved legs, and several wing chairs and ottomans, near an ebony shelf containing dozens of thick, dusty volumes. “Old Man Skelton sure could afford a lot.” Drake commented, running a claw down a book on the shelf. Nitram sniggered, almost accidentally knocking over an oil portrait on the fireplace. He held it in trembling paws. It depicted the Skeltons themselves: A youngish Amanora and Ephraim, as well as their children. Greengate looked around fourteen in the picture, Samson about nine. And next to them, with a cunning little grin on her face, was the youngest of the three, a seven-year-old female sable who was none other than Vilaya! As Nitram was examining this find, Drake too, found another interesting artifact…. A journal. The handwriting was curvy and hard to read, but clearly masculine. He’d since sat down in one of the chairs to read it. Here is an entry:
September 1st They’re up to something all right. I may be old; but I’m not stupid. Vilaya and Greengate. They’re saying things about ‘out of misery’ and ‘need the land’ And as for Samson? No, one could hardly suspect him. He’s far too dull to understand such complex things. He might be their helper though; Greengate always could persuade him into anything. Yes, it’s Greengate and Vilaya I need to watch. Those two always thought they were so clever; but now they’ve overplayed their cards. I know they want my land and I won’t give it to those scoundrels until the day they burn in Hellgates! If my own children are planning an assassination attempt on me, then by the teeth of hell, I’ll be ready….
After this, all the pages were blank.
Chapter Fourteen: Calm before the Storm
I had been sleeping on a bag of sugar (or flour) when I felt the violent tug on my ear. I gasped and leveled myself upright; with a weak protest from my old wound. As I was still half-asleep, it took me a moment to recognize who was standing over me with a badger-sized grin plastered on his face: Sal.
“Sal,” I growled. “What were you trying to do, rip my ear off?” Sal offered me a paw, which I reluctantly accepted and stood up. “No. Just the opposite, darling Vilaya.” Sal had called me ‘darling’! I tensed. Obviously something was not right here. “Come. I have something very important to tell you.”
I glanced around the abandoned winery where the other Undertakers (and Jangus) were fast asleep. Sal was waiting for me near the doorway. He had his switch in one paw. Grimly knowing I didn’t have any other choice; I walked somberly to the door and into the night. The desert was surprisingly pleasant, even from my point of view! The sky was midnight blue-black, and dotted with silver stars. Somewhere in the canyon, fireflies darted in and out, and the wind toyed with the dunes. There was something disgustingly romantic about this setting, which only put me even more on guard as Sal strolled leisurely through the desert with me at his side.
I didn’t dare speak; not wanting to know what he wanted to tell me. Eventually, I found out when we reached a quiet bridlepath near a duck pond. It was there that Sal guided me to an oak tree near the cattail-dotted shore and put his arm around me. I squirmed, repulsed at his touch. I felt even more shocked and disgusted when Sal fumbled in his breech-pockets and pulled out…. A ring. A tarnished gold ring.
“Vilaya Regina Skelton,” He breathed. “Will y’marry me?” “No!!” I shoved him away roughly. Sal almost stumbled, but then pulled himself upright. “And how do you know my full name?!” Sal grinned evilly, revealing corn-yellow fangs. “Oh, no reason…. Yeah. I was eavesdroppin’ on you and Pussy Boy earlier. I gotta say; you two were so cute! I wanted you to be meh girl, Villy. But I guess that ain’t the way.” He growled at me, but in a halfhearted, depressed sort of way and trudged off. I myself was going to hightail it out, but I stopped, hearing pawsteps. A stalker?! Wanting to get away from the unseen animal; I quickly began to run off… I almost got away… Until a blurred reddish-brown footpaw was thrust in front of me like lightning. “Jessie,” I grated, looking up at my assailant. “You’re two minutes too late for the best day of your life.” I growled, and showed her the ring Sal had dropped. Jessie’s eyes widened and she snatched the ring from me. “You little mate stealer!! Who are you, thinkin’ you can take my mate from me like that?! You evil, lying little—“ She stopped as I handed her Sal’s whip, which I had brought along. “I borrowed this for fun. Your little boyfriend needs it back.” Suddenly Jessie’s anger seemed to ease a little. “Well, well…” She muttered, gazing lovingly at the whip. “And I’ll take that, too!” I gladly surrendered the ring. “Now you stay away from Sal!” “With pleasure,” I muttered, and took off in my own direction. It was probably going to rain soon and Sal's band of idiots could certainly wait. At the moment I could care less about them. I had my own things to do now.
Chapter Fifteen Know your Enemy
Drake had now found himself hopelessly lost. Somehow- he didn’t know how; he and Nitram had gotten separated shortly after reading Ephraim's journal; and this had ocurred while they were wandering through the numerous corridors and twisting pathways within the vast estate of Five Pines. Stopping to rest a moment, Drake leaned against the wall and caught sight of a half-open door. There would probably be someplace for him to sit in there. A bit curious, he edged towards it and put his paw around the doorknob, removing a cobweb in the process. The mouse entered a large, musty-smelling room he got the feeling was once a children’s nursery. The nursery was exactly preserved at it had been in Vilaya’s childhood- perhaps in the hope that someday, another Skelton (most likely, the children of any one of its original inhabitants) would inhabit it.
It was a small, sparsely decorated room, furnished with the following: Two curving mahogany-framed beds with motheaten sheets still on them were propped against the wall (something; probably termites had eaten away at their wood and caused them to be somewhat unstable) at the far end of the room there was a rocking chair made from bird’s-eye maple, an extremely rare and costly type of wood. (that shows how rich the Skeltons were- they HAD Bird’s-eye maple. They didn’t need to aspire to it like everyone else.) and near it a wooden ball that three Skelton children had inevitably used at some point; and next to this there were a few jars of fine, cat’s-eye marbles.
Near this side of the room; there was a dresser that was empty and open, containing only filthy rags on the inside, and a rocking horse that had once been proud and elegant with a real horsehair mane and tail and glass eyes, but was now reduced to an eerie creature with beady, staring eyes, a paint-chipped base, a ratty tail, stubby ears and scraggly mane.
Drake inched away from this ghastly specter and looked over the remainder of the room. Based on the once-fine furnishing and toys that dominated the room, it was obvious that Ephraim and Amanora Skelton had wanted only the best for their children and could care less how much it would cost them to get it. Wandering over to the edge of the room, Drake noticed what appeared to be a plain wooden coffee table with a thick, dusty ledger on it.
The inscription on it was simple and read MY TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS. What would a book like this be doing in the nursery?? Curious, Drake blew some dust off the book and opened it. The bindings were rotting, and some little red bugs called jelly bugs were crawling in between the pages but not enough to obscure the words. On the book’s first page there were words in a bold typeface: WARNING: PRIVATE PROPERTY OF V.R. SKELTON AND THE SKELTON ESTATE. ANY THIEVES WILL BE FOUND IMMEADIETLY AND PUT TO DEATH! Could this possibly be another journal of some sort? His interest piqued, Drake flipped to the next page. There was handwriting there, but it was written, shockingly, in a Dibbun’s scrawl, and was a bit hard to read, but still legible. The entry was:
JULY 14th Today marks my seventh birthday! Mother gave me this book to write in, and Samson was jealous. He’s jealous of everything I do, so I bit his paw and made it bleed, and everyone yelled at me. I heard somebody say to Daddy that I’m an ‘unruly and boisterous child’ but he just smiled and said ‘that’s my Bullhead’ I was going to listen more, but then Mother found me and she slapped me. It hurt. Then she started yelling at me and saying ‘Vilaya Regina Skelton- look at yourself! How dare you show such disrespect, let alone to your own brother?’ and then she found Samson sucking his paw and made me say I was sorry but I wasn’t sorry. I liked biting Samson’s paw. He deserved to bleed!
And suddenly from there it was as though Drake was unable to stop. He flipped page after page; day after day, week after week in the thick, rotting volume, not quite able to bring himself to stop hearing about the bizarre but true story of the future Sable Quean.
Vilaya Regina Skelton, The Sable Quean, as Drake had learned from that one journal entry, was once something as pathetically simple as a mischievous child with too much time on her paws. But as time had passed, she had grown into something far worse. As the years passed by, the evil festered within her like a disgusting open wound until Vilaya became another creature, one who was hopelessly drunk on her own power and transfixed by her own wrath, until it became clear she was definitely winning the twisted game of her own design.
It was one of the few things in life she thought was entertaining: Manipulating. All her life Vilaya had ALWAYS wanted to know what it was that creatures wanted, and then would hoodwink and delude them into thinking they were getting it, and then quietly betray them. Indeed (although Drake did not know this yet), when she had met the seemingly thickheaded Jangus Redclaw she had been certain that this was the plan of attack. But now, something was happening. Vilaya was beginning to feel the slightest bit…. Uncertain? Uncertain of what? Uncertain on whether or not she loved Jangus… The sable was beginning to have a sinking feeling that it was so, and that she did; a concept she partially despised: She had at last found her weakness. Falling in love had revealed Vilaya’s soft spot, and she needed to keep it covered. But what was there to cover it with? Nothing more than decaying fragments of a naïve little creature who had died years and years ago….. Or had she?
Nitram stumbled down the hall; as lost as Drake was. He had no idea how they’d gotten separated but somehow it had happened. The blue rat made his way down through the twisting corridors and long halls of the Skelton estate, as handicapped as a blind creature, uncertain of what route would take him to Drake, and maybe an exit. Suddenly though, he stopped dead in his tracks, hearing strange laughter. It echoed off the walls and sent a chill shooting through his spine. As he searched for a way to avoid it, somehow the laughter seemed to get louder and more deranged. Breathing hard, Nitram took a left and found himself in the most ghastly room he’d ever seen.
Apparently once it had been a kitchen. That much he could tell. Dressed-down chicken skeletons with meager scraps of flesh clinging to them hung from their claws on the ceiling, entrees in a dinner never served. Cabinets hung open and there was a foul, bitter odor permeating the room. At the center of the room, there was a filthy, grease-covered table with a thick wooden slab on it, probably for cutting meat. And all around there were the suspicious dark red stains on the walls. Nitram was just about to turn around and leave; when the laughter started up again. Suddenly he had a choice. Go back and get lost in the creepy halls again; or figure out what lay in the room beyond…..
Nitram was about to leave through the doorframe he’d entered; when suddenly, the laughter got louder, and he could hear the distinct scuffling of bare paws on the dirt floor. Soon, a lumpy, malformed shadow was edging in through the adjoining room. Nitram’s heart began to pound wildly.
In moments; a creature out of nightmares had entered the filthy kitchen: He appeared to be a hedgehog, but unlike any Nitram had seen or met in the past. His fur was a dark, blackish-brown color, and his spikes poked out from innumerable small holes in the back of his sweeping navy cloak, which, judging by size had to have been made for one of the house’s original residents. His one eye was beady and bloodshot; and there was a maniacal gleam in it, and he wore a gap-toothed smile that revealed many of his teeth were either crooked, butter-yellow or missing. The hedgehog took a staggering step back, laughing and then saying to Nitram in a strange, low yet squeaking voice:
“Gitoutta ‘ere! This ‘ere’s my ‘ouse! Triggut Frap may be a madbeast, but he doesn’t like strangebeasts, no.” Nitram’s first instinct was to start an argument, but his conscience told him otherwise: You’re dealing with a madbeast here. Get on his good side.
“The spooks,” The mad hog muttered, pacing back in forth. “You’re the one they warned me about! Ye’re the berserker!”
“Er….No.” Nitram said in a firm, certain voice that surprised even himself. Triggut stared at Nitram for a long time, studying him with his one eye. Then he let out a hoarse cackle.
“Ahahahah! I knew it! I knew it all along! After all, been a servant here for so long Triggut has to know, huh, huh? Ye’re Mr. Ephraim; come home after all thiss time, ahahaha! So, are you right proud of your daughter, sir, are you?” Nitram decided it was in his best interest to play along.
“Ahahahahhah! Good one! Your daughter. YOUR DAUGHTER THE MURDERESS! A right old fizzy drink she is.” After a moment, Triggut stopped laughing. Strangely, he seemed to calm down somewhat; and looked almost sheepish as he said “Er…. Follow me, Mr. Ephraim, I’m sure you’d like to sit down, eh?”
Nitram flinched a bit as Triggut put his filthy, long-clawed paws onto his shoulders and steered him into the room next door. The dining room was even more derelict than the kitchen, and at least ten times as chilling to look at: A long, mahogany table steadily being devoured by termites leaned haphazardly to the right. It was covered by a moth-eaten yellow lace-edged tablecloth Nitram was certain had once been white.
At the center, there was a large metal candelabra, which was lit; illuminating what would otherwise be a darkened room. Soon the rat Warrior found himself seated in a straight, high-backed chair with a faded, moth-eaten red velvet cushion under him and behind his back. And the longer Nitram examined the bizarre scene, the more he saw the dark red stains that were becoming more and more common throughout the house; except that here they were EVERYWHERE, the mysterious stains covered more than half the tablecloth; implying that a massive bloodbath had once taken place there many years before….
Indeed, it was almost as though the dining room had been ransacked by a creature who was a ‘berserker’ as they were commonly called. This was confirmed when Triggut yanked a rusty meat cleaver COVERED with the dried red substance out of the table and began dancing about, waving it as he did so.
“Bloodbath!” He muttered to himself. “S’ gonna be a bloodbath!” The mad hog looked around for a moment, before wincing and slapping himself on the face. “Dark Forest Gates!” He cried. “I forgot about Mr. Saul! You two are going to have SO MANY things to discuss!” And with that, Triggut Frap, the mad hedgehog and apparent former servant to the Skeltons, ran out, leaving Nitram alone in a darkened room with a flickering candle as his only light.
Chapter Sixteen: Every Day a Little Death
After spending half an hour of napping under a tree, I woke at around midnight. Moonlight shone onto my back, and it felt like someone was pounding at my skull with a sledgehammer. I groaned and roused myself, stretching. I stood up a moment later, and began to take the trail back to Sal's camp, but before I could, I stopped in my tracks, seeing a shadow on the horizon.
Cautious of any stranger, I kept watch and toyed with the hunting knife I'd stolen from the Hall of Swindlers. As the tall shadow got ever closer, my heart quickened a little.
It can't be, it can't be I thought nervously to myself. I tried to put the fear of my bloodstained past behind me; and I turned swiftly around and began walking no- running- in the direction of Sal's camp. Halfway there, I felt icy breath on my neck and was spun around roughly by my collar.
Eyes blazing hatred, I gazed up into the face of my follower, who, much to my horror was another sable. And not just A sable. Gideon Blair. My ex-mate. I took a moment to gaze at him; sides heaving. He had an icy grin on his face like always; which matched his scathing green eyes. He was wearing a long waistcoat of blue silk, and an immaculate white tunic and brown breeches beneath this; an overdresser.
Once in another world I had been the same. I glared at Gideon; watching him as he watched me. After a time, I growled "What do you want? If you think you've come all this way seeking my paw again you're a deadbeast." Gideon laughed.
"Jumping to conclusions; just like always. So you’re wearing black I see, like a good little mourner…” Gideon chuckled, toying with his dagger. “I recall Ellys liked to wear black.” I gasped. Suddenly my vision became blurred, and something in my throat tightened.
“Oh, don’t be that way Vilaya… You were such a horrible parent as I recall.” Temper flaring defensively, I snarled
“That’s not true! I loved Ellys! She was all I had!”
“How could you love her when you never wanted her from the beginning?!”
“All right, so what if I DIDN’T want Ellys at first? That was your fault and not mine! YOU wanted her, as I remember! You wanted a perfect little daughter that you could spoil and mollycoddle… And where is she now? Dead!” Gideon snorted. “She’s only dead because you killed her.”
“I….. Didn’t….. Kill…. Her… I only punished her for what she did!” I protested, gritting my teeth. In a flash I backhanded Gideon. He pulled back, wincing. I grinned smugly at the pain I’d caused, leaning on a nearby tree. But this little verbal duel was far from over. “You did, kill her, Vilaya. You know it. You just don’t want to admit it, don’t want to admit you didn’t love your daughter… She was just a pawn for you to put all your ambition into, all your hate and your lies… That was my goal. I have to admit you did a good job of getting there first…..” Gideon went on with his rants, but his words suddenly became no more than the keening of gnats on the sticky wind. I blocked them out of my mind; and was transported back to that awful, distant night.
TWO YEARS BEFORE
I glanced haphazardly at my reflection in the mirror and took a deep breath, examining my reflection. I was clad in a dress with a black velvet bodice; and a flowing brocaded white skirt. I slipped on a necklace of black pearls and opened the door, also grabbing my ebony walking cane with its tapered brass shaft, reminding myself that I was only at Gideon's wretched house for a party and after that I'd go home to Five Pines (my own estate), where I belonged.
Humming as I went, I crossed the landing and came to a stop in front of the paneled oaken doors to the ballroom with their fading copper handles. Everyone stopped what they were doing and murmured greetings. I did the same, making my way across the room to a fuchsia velvet chaise lounge and sitting on it; pouring myself a glass of red wine. I was enjoying myself with the rest of my friends until…. Gideon came by and sat in wing chair beside me, grinning.
“There’s going to be a dance, soon.”
He informed me. I winced; not having danced in years. He only laughed; as though sensing my discomfort.
“Oh come now, Vilaya, it’ll be fun. You haven’t enjoyed yourself in seasons knows how long.”
Again I tensed. Gideon was being too friendly towards me but I figured I knew: He was preparing for a full blown argument later; and I could handle him.
Grinning subtly, I rose and picked up my cane, wiping reddish liquid off my muzzle with my sleeve. As the other guests lined up to dance a reel, and I went off to join them, I almost didn’t see Ellys, giving me a glare that could’ve melted ice. Almost. And so we did dance; and I hate to admit it but Gideon was right: I DID have fun. And I, once again had gone to my chaise lounge, laughing as I raised a cup of tea to my lips and lapped at it. Everyone’s eyes were on me; and I loved every moment of it.
Being raised in the nobility certainly had its perks; I knew that this was probably one of them. So I sat there; lounging and talking with some of southern Mossflower’s most elite vermin families, enjoying myself, the definite, only mistress of Five Pines, the Glade, and all 150 of the acres surrounding it….
Until the moment shattered. I looked cautiously over the rim of my cup and saw Ellys, striding boldly to the center of the ballroom. My eyes widened with horror as she declared that she was in love, and marrying at that. Eyes blazing, I leapt up from my seat and clutched at the shaft of my cane, long ago gone sticky from beating Ellys the night before.
“You little backstabber!” I snarled. “How dare you! Ellys, I am ashamed. I cannot believe that you have so much of a DROP of good Skelton blood in you!”
“And I don’t care!” Ellys snarled back.
“Because it’s nothing but the blood of jumped-up megalomaniacs like you!”
Suddenly I recoiled as though I’d been slapped. I turned, frantically looking around for Ellys but didn’t find her. She had already fled. I gritted my teeth together and followed her, my cane resounding on the hollow marble floor every step of the way.
“….I love Brent.” Ellys said, standing on the stairs with me when I’d found her.
I stood beside her, body twitching madly in anger, eyes blazing as I snarled
“I DON'T CARE! Ellys you're my only heir; and does it even matter to you that I brought you up as such?? All the pains I took in raising you never paid off and I wish I'd known that earlier. How can you betray your family and our name like this Ellys, how can you? You're destroying your own bloody reputation and MINE as well!”
My voice rose, and I could see contempt blazing in Ellys’s eyes as she snarled back at me
“Well then I’ve had it with you too, Mother! I DIDN’T make a fool of myself at that stupid party that I ‘ruined’ saying I loved Brent was the best way to end the night! And I DON’T care about all your society friends; and that I have a noble and a warlady for parents, because I’m not, Mother, I’m not! I’m not a high-and-mighty warlady; and I know I’m not a… What do you call yourself? Sable Quean!”
“You never will be one, Ellys, if you marry or not! No daughter of mine will EVER elope and marry at this age!”
before Ellys could dare do anything otherwise; I viciously wrenched her paw and claws off the stairrail lamp and shoved her from behind. An anguished cry welled up from her throat as she began her descent down the mahogany stairs, but then she fell silent as she hit the bottom steps. I raced down the stairs and to the still corpse, rolling Ellys's body over with my footpaw. She didn't move. I smiled in grim satisfaction. Ellys had been taught her lesson, and had paid for it in blood. However, I can't say that she didn't deserve it though.
Hurrying away from the crumpled body of my daughter; I rushed up the stairs and back into the ballroom, flinging the doors open. When I entered, I was the picture of a grieving, injured mother: My eyes were smeared around the edges with false tears, my breath was coming quickly, and I had a disheveled look to me. Gideon, surprisingly, approached me.
“Vilaya, what in hellgates happened to you?!” He growled, grabbing my shoulder blades and giving me a shake. I wiped away a nonexistent tear.
“Oh Gideon, it was Ellys. She was leaving like she said she wanted to and I tried to get her to stay, but she wouldn’t listen and had the most TERRIBLE fall….”
I could tell by the look on Gideon’s face he did not believe this story, however it appeared everyone else did. I was offered condolences and sympathetic agreements. Gideon tried to help me to the fainting couch but I brushed him off as lightly as I could. So I sat down in a chair on the far side of the room. I was grinning evilly; but no one ever saw it. It was concealed by the rhythmic flapping of my white damask fan.
With a shudder, I roused myself from the past and turned a glance towards a nearby tree. I winced as I saw what was propped underneath it. My standard! It was a long, oaken spear-pole with the head missing, something the Undertakers had had no use for. Affixed to it there was a ragged purple cloth; which had a shilouette cut through it depicting a claw holding a dagger. It was nowhere near as impressive as my former standard; but alas it would have to do, and the thought that some of Sal’s underlings had tried to steal it made me suppress a sigh.
I glanced at Gideon. He was obviously waiting for me to resume speaking to him. But before I did, an idea surfaced in the reaches of my mind: I needed SOMETHING to sit atop my standard, something to strike fear into the hardened hearts of my enemies…. And then it dawned on me: Since Zwilt’s skull was definitely unavailable; what would work better than the skull of my own daughter?! In a trice; I whirled on Gideon.
“Suppose we make a bargain, the two of us? A little deal together, hmm?” Gideon paused a moment and then said what I expected him to:
“What’s in it for me?”
“Nothing! You will get me what I want or else you’re a deadbeast and believe me, I have my ways….”
Gideon winced a moment, almost revealing his secret cowardice, which I knew that he had. Then he said:
“Fine. What do you want, then?” I grinned maliciously.
“Take me to your family crypt. I want Ellys’s skull mounted on my bannerstaff!”
“I’ll provide. Follow me; we don’t have long a walk.” S
niggering evilly, I gladly trailed along Gideon down a shortcut, knowing that his residence was less than ten minutes away; and as it wasn’t even pre-dawn yet, I could be back at Sal’s camp before Jangus (or anyone else) missed me.
Gideon’s estate was as close as he claimed it was; and we arrived after about ten minutes of straight walking down twisting bridle paths and dead end side trails covered with rocks and poison ivy. I recognized it immediately: A once-abandoned fortress of stone.
After we got there; he quietly and discretely disappeared into his manse like the coward he was and left me with Shamus, an aging stoat who was the groundskeeper and in addition keeper of the crypt. Shamus and I held our lanterns aloft as he silently led me up to the crypt. There was a loud creaking as he eased open the door, which was tarnished from exposure to the elements. Wordlessly, we entered, Shamus leading the way.
The crypt was a darkened, hollow stone room that smelled of moss and old clothing; and it contained the remains of various members of Gideon’s family who had invariably fallen to some axe or pike or longsword over the years; their remains hidden away in drawers in the wall. It wasn’t until we reached the very back of the room did Shamus shine the lantern high so that both of us could see Ellys’s name, relatively fresh compared to the others.
“Ah, there she is, m’lady, clear as the noonday sun.”
Fiddling in his pocket a moment, the stoat then produced a tarnished spare key, which he pressed into my paws. Then, Shamus edged off back towards the door.
Leaning forward, I held my lantern with one paw and searched for a keyhole with the other, it difficult to see in the near-darkness. At last, I felt my claws latch onto it. I let go and inserted the key. There was a hollow click. I discarded my lantern, hanging it on a nearby wooden post where a torch must’ve been but strangely no longer was. With the lantern close enough to cast a glow, I peered into the gloom of the crypt drawer at my daughter’s body. Ellys was lying (of course!) on her side, drawn up into curled position in which her head faced me, no, her SKULL. Even though she was only two years dead, Ellys’s body was clearly decaying fast, and her bones were bleaching already with age. I stared vacantly into her empty eye sockets, murmuring
“Poor, Ellys. You stupid, stupid, creature. If only you had listened!”
Then, I placed both paws on her neck and tugged hard. There was a dry snapping sound. I staggered back against the wall, Ellys’s skull now clutched in my arms. Breathing hard, I took my lantern off the wall and headed out to confront Gideon…. But as I instinctively looked around in the dark, I saw it was too late.
He was already there. I turned to him, eyes flashing icily and teeth bared.
“It wasn't wrong before I figured out my flaws, Gideon. It wasn’t.”
"I used to be so happy with you but after Ellys….. After that I began to hate you with a passion. I cried when you touched me. It was almost funny what an idiot you were. All the excuses I made so I wouldn't have to be with you...You didn't even care! You never suspected. And then my hatred just became..... Unbridled. Pure. RAW. One day I’ll be back, and the next time you won’t be as lucky as today.”
Gideon snorted and toyed with the bone handle of his gold-plated dagger.
“If you’re in that bad a mood we can fight here and now.”
“Fight??! Now? Hellgates no!” I shrugged nonchalantly.
“I almost died twice this summer; and I don’t want to find out what’ll happen the third time around…” Gritting my teeth, I turned to Gideon and said “And, there are a few MORE things I’d like from you as part of our little bargain here. I’d like your best sword and your axe, too. If I’m to have my revenge I’ll need some real weapons to do it!” Gideon gave he a long, hard stare.
“Fine, I will get you what you want but hark to me, Vilaya: Why did I ever marry you? Vilaya Regina Skelton is dead. Her greed and lust for power killed her years ago. I married another creature altogether; but why? Hear me now: Your avarice will be your fatal flaw and I don’t lie when I say this.”
As Gideon took his torch and departed the crypt I was alone. Again. Suddenly, I tensed as I heard a barely audible, childish whisper in my ear, a voice from long ago:
“Mama, mama, why don’t you love me?”
I suddenly got cold chills from nowhere. This was a conversation I had had with Ellys when she wasn’t even five yet! I didn’t answer the voice I had heard. To do so would’ve made me seem insane. But was I? WAS I?? An icy bolt of lightning flying down my spine, I clutched even tighter at my daughter’s skull and raced out of the mausoleum, eager to flee the demons of my past.
Chapter Seventeen: Thriller
Drake stopped reading Trials and Tribulations after he’d learned of how Vilaya had committed her first murder at age nine. Shutting the book and returning it to where he’d found it; Drake left the abandoned nursery and tried to retrace his steps to where he’d last seen Nitram. “Let’s see….” The mouse thought aloud. “If the last place we saw each other was the corridor to the right….” He was well aware that the mansion’s atmosphere was becoming increasingly eerily (not that it had ever been welcoming to begin with!) and suddenly it seemed to be teeming with darkness and mystery. He thought of simple things to keep his mind on the present task and worried little. It was only when he reached a dead-end anteroom that Drake began to feel the presence of another creature. He brushed it off as nothing and looked around: He was in a relatively small chamber sparsely furnished at all, save for a canvas-covered object mounted on the wall. Curiosity peaking; Drake yanked off the sheet. Staring back at him were two piercing, blue-gray eyes….
Breath catching, Drake staggered reflexively back. He blinked; cringing with embarrassment. The sly, haunting eyes that stared back at his own were merely painted; but they were so realistic that anybeast who had first seen them could’ve mistaken them for being real.
Drake studied the rest of the painting on the wall slowly, taking a moment to get his breath. It was a portrait of Vilaya, head of the family after her father’s death. Her eyes held the young mouse in their icy grip still: They were almond-shaped and dark grayish-blue, like winter pond water, and were flecked with undertones of turquoise, silver, and palest white. But Drake gradually willed his own eyes to move away from the ones that held them in their eerie grasp and navigated the rest of the portrait: It was an oil; and in it Vilaya, slightly younger-looking than she was at present was wearing a narrow-skirted dress of navy blue and white; with a wide lace collar with a sapphire-blue silk ribbon corded through it in a loop. The sable’s eyes seemed to be staring right into Drake; even as he looked at the rest of the picture.
A small brass plaque below the painting read: V.R. SKELTON AGED 34 YRS. The presence became slightly more intense, but Drake didn’t notice; as it was so subtle. Quietly as an owl in flight; Triggut Frap stole up beside Drake, holding a candelabra. He chuckled insanely.
“There’s Miss V’laya, yore sister… Pritty, ain’t she?” Pretty?! Well yes, Vilaya was INDEED beautiful but there was something far more to her than that…. Even in the picture; the sable was quite clearly the very epitome of evil. Drake nodded mutely; so as not to upset his mad captor.
“Any’oo; I kin’t stand here chattin’ idly away to yew, Mr. Saul; no, no, Triggut thinks youse is too important for that!” He stared at Drake, like a puppy waiting for its owner to instruct it to do a trick. Drake nodded and played along. “Yes I am. Now what do you want of me, er, Triggut?” Triggut grinned; revealing his bad teeth.
“‘What does ye want o’ me Triggut’?!” The hog laughed insanely and almost dropped his candelabra. “That’s a good one! Yore pa wants ye, he said so ‘imself earlier, so ‘e did…. Yew two’s gonna eat together.”
“And what about my sister?” Triggut paused and winced.
“Oh yore sister won’t be joinin’ ye. Yore sister Miss V’laya, old Triggut’s a deadbeast if’n he knows what she’s up to…Yore sis is a right old slybrain; so she is, such a clever one…” Still muttering to himself, Triggut led Drake out of the antechamber, sniggering madly. He held the candelabra like a torch and stood stiffly at attention until Drake had passed by him. Then, the mad hog tagged along behind. Drake knew he had little choice but to stay with Triggut; and continue whatever insane journey the hog wanted to travel.
Drake was now reduced to blindly following Triggut down the numerous corridors, passageways, and narrow chambers as the crazed hog related anecdotes about the eloquent Skeltons. Even though there were many painful seemingly golden opportunities to escape, Drake knew they were just mirages: He was the captive of a madbeast who would clearly kill him if provoked or goaded out of his twisted fantasy and so the young mouse had no choice but to play along with his games. After several more minutes of journeying, Triggut stopped at an ajar door. He sniffed the air and sighed.
“Ah, this’s it, Mr. Saul. Yer father’s waitin’.” Triggut opened the door for Drake. When they entered the dining room, Nitram sat by the filthy wooden table, drumming his claws irately.
“Triggut!” He snapped. “What kept you?” Nitram was clearly also engaged in playing the game. He winked to Drake.
“Er… Uh, uh, nothin’, Mr. Ephraim yer ‘onnur, nothin’….” Triggut narrowed his one beady, rheumy eye. Mumbling under his breath, he walked to the door.
“Drake!” Nitram whispered, and gestured for Drake to sit beside him, which he did.
“Nitram…” Drake heaved a sigh of relief. “We’re really in it now… How’re we going to get out??” Nitram looked around, clearly making sure Triggut wasn’t watching or listening.
“Dunno, mate, but we’ll think o’ something….” Too late. Clearly, Triggut had been eavesdropping. His one eye widened, and his voice rose to a high octave as he yelled out: “ ‘Ey! Youse two en’t the masters!” Drake stood up. “Yes, yes we are, and we are not amused!” He protested, but it was over now. They had lost the game. The rat and the mouse were unarmed, alone, and with a madbeast and now there was only one thing left to do: RUN.
Drake and Nitram ran blindly from the room, at the speed of cheetahs, or greyhounds. The echo of Triggut’s crazed laughter from the dining room confirmed they were being pursued. So they kept running. Down corridor after corridor, chamber and chamber, hall and hall. Finally, after what seemed forever they arrived in the hallway they had first seen after leaving the family crypt.
Like a piston, Drake shot ahead of Nitram into a nearby doorframe, skidding to a halt quickly. Nitram joined him moments later. They sat there in silence for what could’ve been minutes or hours, breathing raggedly from running so far, so long and so hard.
After another period of long silence, a loud, unsteady pawstep could be heard, as well as Triggut’s muttering. Outside in the hall, the mad hog staggered back in forth, clutching his decaying headspikes and whispering madly to himself:
“She’s laughin’ she’s laughin’… That dirty turncoat wants me t’die…. She ‘ates me, she ‘ates me…. Nobeast likes old Triggut, nobeast does… Mwaahahhahhhah!” His bizarre lament was followed by an odd, half-howl half-sob. It was all Drake could to to keep from sniggering as he exchanged looks with Nitram.
“I know… I’ll see the masters. They’ll ‘elp me. They will. They’re dead, they kin’t ‘urt me… Aye, the masters’ll ‘elp….” He departed to the right, the direction of the mausoleum. When Drake was reasonably sure Triggut was gone, he creapt forward from his hiding spot and poked his head over the doorframe into the deserted hall.
“Is the coast clear?” Nitram asked nervously. Drake nodded.
“Aye, it is.”
Wordlessly, the two rodents stepped forward into the hall and began searching desperately for an exit. So they traveled once again by the vast; labyrinth-like hallways of the Skelton manor. Finally, at the very end of the hall they reached a set of dusty pink granite steps cut into the wall. They led far upwards, and moonlight shown down on them, giving them an eerie, ethereal glow.
But Drake and Nitram did not care.
“We’re free! Free!”
Struggling not to scream out with joy, they ran towards the light and to the surface, into the silent beauty of the moonlit glade. Miracle of miracles; they did not sink.
Chapter Eighteen: Rolling in the Deep
With Ellys’s skull in my arms, I staggered away from the crypt, clutching my chest, and off to the right. The sky was dark gray, laced with steel-colored clouds. My paws dragged across the soil as I moved, as though in a trance, to the garden. Ellys’s garden. My throat constricted at the sight of it: Once well-tended and filled with rosebushes, hydrangeas, daffodils and other flowers I can’t name, now it had fallen into a state of absolute disrepair: Dried skeletons of small trees and bushes swayed feebly in the rising gale, and the force of the wind also swept away some dogged, rotting plant stalks.
A rustling nearby startled me. I leapt back against a tree, heart pounding. It was only Gideon; carrying an axe and a long object wrapped in rags. He laughed. “What’s the matter? Afraid of the dark? Here. I’ve brought what you asked for.” He approached me, offering out the wrapped object. For an instant I was a naughty young one on my seventh birthday, biting my fool brother’s wrist.
I clenched my teeth, snatched the object from Gideon and tore off the rags. They fell away easily, revealing my long-lost cane. I set down the axe against a tree. Casually, I removed the shaft and reached inside. From within the hollow cane I produced a long saber, and smiled as I cut down a tree limb with ease. Gideon shook his head.
“You kill with such ease and without remorse…. Vilaya; how you killed your only child so mercilessly is beyond my understanding.”
I smiled as I leaned on the sword hilt. “Gideon, you poor fool! Ellys WASN’T my only child.”
Gideon glared at me, obviously wanting me to keep going. He stamped his paw impatiently. I sighed and muttered under my breath: “I was a bad girl. I confess I wasn’t married to this certain creature I will mention, however we were engaged. Until a certain thing drove us apart.”
“And why do you keep saying ‘was’?” I eyed Gideon coolly. “Because both this child, Accalon, and its father are no more.” Zwilt glared at me with his dead black eyes.
“And who was the father?”
“None other than Zwilt the Shade, the dirty traitor.”
“Mhmm. And what became of this child of his?”
“I told you myself: The child is no more.”
“Don’t evade my questions! Answer me outright, spawn of Hellgates.”
I smiled. “Temper, temper.” I chided, before going on. “Some might say that Accalon never existed at all, but Accalon DID die; when I took on Zwilt in a fight…. And lost. If you must know the whole story it happened like this…. Zwilt stared at me with his dead, black eyes……”
……Zwilt stared at me with his dead, black eyes. “I know.” He hissed. “Don’t try and lie to me, Vilaya. It’s over.” I kept up my pretense in vain.
“What are you saying Zwilt?! I carry no child of yours! The blood of the noble must never mix with blood of the inferior!” But Zwilt would not back down. He took a step forward and rested his swordtip on my stomach.
“Blood of the inferior my eye, Vilaya! You can’t hide from me any longer. Nobeast can hide from Zwilt the Shade.”
“I can and I will.”
“Hah! A foolish ruse. The only place you can hide is in your head and soon it won’t even be safe for you there.” I felt a cold bead of sweat trickle down my neck.
“Lie to me and you’re a deadbeast. Now tell me: Is this my child that you carry? Mine and none other’s?”
“It.. It is.”
“Yes. I thought so. A child who would’ve lived in shame and the mockery of others.”
“Would have…?” Zwilt laughed but even a fool could see there was no humor in it.
“Do not play mind games with me. I know.”
“I’ll never die under the blade of a fool.”
“And what makes you so CERTAIN?!” Zwilt snarled, putting extra venom into the word certain. He whistled. Threescore of his loyal minions surrounded us.
My heart throbbed dully in my chest. I could sense the child’s fear. But it was too late for fear now.
I leapt nimbly back as Zwilt tried to behead me but I wasn't fast enough. It was too late when he made his next blow. This time I could not run.
Fast as a bolt of jagged lightning; I could feel the blade sticking from my midriff. Blurrily; I saw Zwilt standing over me. Something warm and wet was running down the front of my tunic. My eyes rolled back into my skull and I struggled to breathe.
My heart slowed and slowed until it was a slow, almost imperceptible throb. My breathing ceased altogether.
Shouts and screams permeated the edges of my consciousness: “ZWIILT! ZWIILT! ZWILT! ZWILT! ZWILT THE SHADE!” It was all over. I was dying and now Zwilt was in charge…. Just before it all faded to black a single thought crossed my mind: It’s over. Accalon is gone now. My secret shame is dead now….Accalon….My evil; secret shame…..
“….And that’s what happened.” I bent to pick up my axe. As I did, Gideon stared at me for a long time. Then he shook his head. I glared at him.
“Isn’t it bad enough that you eat cake on the day Ellys died?”
Gideon stared at me, gape-mouth, obviously wondering how I knew that. And how did I? It’s so simple any fool should know: Rumors go around. After a pause however, Gideon pulled himself together and shrugged. “Let them eat cake.”
“Gideon, the cake is a LIE!” Calmly, without another word, I took my weapons and departed in the direction of Sal’s camp. On the way back, I hid them in some bushes, not bothering to conceal them well. Sal and his cohorts were nothing more then simple imbeciles, and would never have found where I hid my weapons unless someone showed them. But something was gnawing at the back of my mind as I walked. What was it? Doubt? Fear? Uncertainty? Of what?! And then I knew: it was my one painful flaw, my love for Jangus, and it was something I knew could not go addressed for much longer. But I was prepared.
The decision was clear and feasible, and without a doubt I knew what it was: No matter what my conscience thought about it; continue our relationship. Continue it and savor it.
Chapter Nineteen: What Lies Beneath
When Drake and Nitram emerged from the underground abyss of Five Pines, it was difficult to say exactly how much time had gone by. The grass was damp and wet, the trees were damp as well; a rain or at least a light shower had happened while they were underground- which meant hopefully only a few hours but possibly a whole day or more.
It was also much colder, and Drake pulled his slightly dampened tunic closer around him. Nitram looked to him, leaning hesitantly against a pine tree. “We’d best get going, mate.”
“Aye.” Drake nodded.
“Some close call we had.”
And with that, they gave each other knowing looks and split up, Drake going north to Redwall (naturally, he avoided Indigo Crossing; it being the seedy place it was) and Nitram going south to his house in another neck of the woods.
The going back to Redwall was a bit rough, but manageable for Drake. With the full moon as his guide, he walked at a steady pace. Occaisonally, now that his underground experience was behind him, thoughts of Leah would come into his head. Drake banished them when they did.
I’m fine on my own. I don’t need her now; I’m better off being friends with Nitram.
As Drake wandered down the damp paths, and as Redwall got closer within view, he approached quickly. Physically, nothing seemed amiss at Redwall. It was deathly silent in the summer night, but something seemed different. TOO different. Drake could still not get this feeling out of his head as the familiar gates came into view.
Chapter Twenty: Sweet Dreams are Made of This
The first thing I did after arriving back at Sal’s camp was go straight to sleep. I was suddenly so tired it was almost as though I’d been sleepwalking. But soon, I felt myself sinking into a nightmare. It was so vividly real I prayed and prayed it wasn’t.
In the nightmare, suddenly I was back on the flatland prairie. My legs dragged behind me, like leaden statues shackled to a ball and chain. I was trembling as I struggled to run, feeling my pursuer’s breath on the back of my neck. I screamed and screamed but only a choked gasp came from my constricted throat.
In a frenzy, I tore off my cloak and flung it towards my badger assailant. For a moment my plan worked and she was snared up in it, but soon got back up and started charging after me. I wasn’t very far ahead. I’m fine. I thought. Sooner or later she’ll run out of breath and I’ll be out of here! But I was sadly mistaken. The badgermaid seemed somehow invincible; unstoppable!
She never tired, even as I gasped for air and slowed to a halt. I felt thick paws on my back and yelped as I was pushed onto my own dagger and the terrible agony burned from my chest all the way up to my throat. Now, FINALLY, I opened my mouth and began to scream just before the grotesque darkness swallowed me up.
When I woke up, I was plastered in cold sweat, my heart raced, and I struggled to get my breath. Half-awake, strangely, my wound still throbbed even though it had healed completely long ago.
Terrified, I ran my shaking paw down the front of my tunic and held it before my face, expecting it to come away soaked with blood. It didn’t. The pain stopped and faded out. Still trembling, I glanced over at my right arm, which rested on something soft.
I had my arm around Jangus’s neck! I cringed, figuring I must’ve moved in my sleep. After a moment or so, his touch began to feel warm and soothing. I gently drew my arm away but still couldn’t stop shaking. Then, in case anyone had seen me acting this way, I laid down and pretended to sleep. A moment later, my plan was foiled when I heard Jangus move slightly, yawn a bit and say. "Vilaya? I know you're faking..."
I turned around and stared into Jangus’s eyes for what felt like an eternity. Then I said, “How can you love a bloody monster Jangus, how?” Gideon’s words echoed in my head: You kill with no remorse….
“I don’t feel regret or remorse for anything I’ve done. How in Hellgates can you still love me for what I am?” My paws began to tremble; and my blood pounded in my ears.
“Because sometimes I’ve felt the same.”
“Is…. Is that true?”
“Yes. It is.”
I stared at Jangus for a long time. Then I took a deep breath and said “If you’re going to be like that then fine, I’ll tell you a secret…. I….. I want to love you so badly. I do. But I’ve been afraid to. In the past I thought I’ve been in love; but I was wrong. So, bloody wrong! Now I want to love you, but I’m almost afraid to. I’ve had no conscience, no remorse and no mercy for so long I’m afraid it’ll be my downfall if I suddenly get them NOW. It almost feels like being with you is my fatal flaw and it shames me.”
“You don’t have to be ashamed.”
I glanced outside through the cracked window. It was early predawn; the sky was an ugly shade of gray outside. Quietly and wordlessly I looked at Jangus. He looked at me. This went on for a long time.
“No, no I don’t have to be.”
Silently but VERY fervently, sitting only a few inches from each other, yes. We kissed.
I had never felt this way with Zwilt or even Gideon, not once. I showed affection for one creature now. So what? I wasn’t about to let that make me a changed beast. Far from it.
It is often said ‘why do fools fall in love?’ Well why do murderers?? I can’t answer that question, either.
Moments later, I looked Jangus in the eye and said
“Jangus Redclaw, I…”
Suddenly I couldn’t think of the word I was looking for. I moved away from Jangus just a little and lay back.
“I don’t know. But as sure as Hellgates I’m not forgetting this night… Or rather, morning.”
And then, in the darkness of the very early morning, I drifted back to sleep. This time; the nightmare did not revisit me.
I woke with a massive headache, like I was slowly being beaten with the handle of an axe. I moaned and turned over. Opening one eye, I saw the pinkish glow of dawn bleeding in through the cracked window. It had to be very late in the morning and SOMEHOW I’d overslept.
I got up slowly, and walked to the doorframe. I paused, sensing the presence of Sal and a few of his minions. I caught what they were saying in hurried whispers:
“….Huh, I looked in on Miss High an’ Mighty a seckind ago…. Snorin’ away like a ground’og in it’s ‘ole!”
This was followed by laughter. I stiffened.
“…She’s getting too powerful, mates…”
“….Was using us all along….”
“……….Have to get rid of her.”
Their last words stuck with me: Get rid of her. Even an infant would know by those words the Undertakers were plotting to kill me. So they hadn’t been as dumb as I’d suspected.
But… I thought, grinning slyly. No one beats the Sable Quean at her own game….. I crept off through the back door and went to find Jangus.
I found Jangus alone; dueling unseen enemies as practice with his sword. “The backstabbers will have it coming to them…” I muttered as I approached. Jangus stopped practicing and leaned on his sword.
“What? Repeat that.”
“Never mind…” My gaze darted about the desert lands. Then; I took a deep breath and said
“Sal and friends have decided it’s time for me to get axed. I heard them say I want too much power and am getting too much, and by hell’s teeth they’re right…” I took a few steps closer to him.
“They aren’t as thick and slow as I thought they were, Jangus. I’m willing to bet they had this planned all along; and were smart enough not to act like they did. I’ll be leaving for a few hours; there are things I need to do. Would you be willing to stall for me?” Jangus looked at me a moment, and then nodded.
“Yes. I could do that.” I grinned broadly. “You’re loyal. I like that. Loyalty will get you places, Jangus Redclaw and I’ll see to it you’re rewarded greatly for this.” I glanced up at the pinkish-purple dawn sky.
“I’d better get going.”
“When will you be back?”
“Probably around eleven.”
“I’ll keep watch.” “Good.”
And with that; I started off north towards Five Pines. Home sweet home. Walking down the same trail I’d gone down only the night before, I stopped at the grove of bushes where I’d hidden my weapons and standard, and took my saber from within its hollow cane that served as a sheath.
Twirling it in a random manner; I traipsed down the beaten path, following the sky and the way moss was growing on rocks. To reach Five Pines, I would have to go straight north to the glade in which it was located. Not hard; even a babe could remember the simple directions: North, by north, by north.
Twenty minutes later I reached the meadow. The grass was wet and cool under my footpaws; and the sky was a shade of smoky pale blue, the sun glaring harshly as I strode on the far left side of the meadow, so as not to sink.
Hidden by some small shrubs to the far left where I stood, was a dusty set of pink granite steps leading deep into the ground. I frowned as I examined them- there were two sets pawtracks on the stairs and they were very fresh. Trespassers had gotten into Five Pines and this was not to be tolerated!
My teeth were bared and my fists were clenched at my side as I descended the hardly-walked staircase. Five Pines; in the rare occasions I actually visited, was my own secret, special place, very much like Althier. If I found whoever had gotten in, I’d make sure they’d pay dearly.
With this thought in my head, I steeled myself as I entered the dusty tunnels and long-walked halls of my gloomy childhood and far-stranger adolescence. I had returned to get something very, very, important and would not revisit for some time.
In mid-thought, I froze, clutching my saber; hearing a faint noise from the end of the hall. This was where the mausoleum was located. “What in Hellgates…?” I muttered under my breath, and hurried towards the mausoleum; wanting to see the source of the odd, murmuring, squealing noises.
I flung open the wood-and-steel main door of the mausoleum, and was vastly unprepared for what I saw. The inside; once clean and well-kept, was now a dark chamber containing only my family’s bones. It was musty and smelled of rainwater, stale milk and old clothes.
I grinned visibly as I entered; seeing a lumpy shape covered by a ragged cloak lay stretched out on a crypt. It was Triggut Frap; a former household servant. Seven years ago I had framed him for the death of my father, Greengate and Samson so I could get away clean. It had never occurred to me what had happened to Triggut since.
I approached him somberly. “Triggut! I’m back!” Triggut immediately snapped to attention.
He let out a little scream when he saw me, but then forced a nervous smile. “M-M-Miss V’laya you’re home! YOU’RE HOME!”
“Yes, I’m home, idiot!” I snarled, losing my patience; wanting to get right to business.
“Er… Is there anythin’ I kin do for ya, anythin’ anythin’ at all??” Triggut whimpered, groveling at my footpaws and kissing the ground near where they were.
“Yes. There are a lot of things you can do for me, Triggut.” “Aye, yes, yes, anythin’ for ye, Miss V’laya!”
“Then answer me or you’re a dead madbeast…” I said, forcing my swordpoint under his chin, ready to slit his entire throat open. “Where is the… Inheritance Powder and where are my mother’s best dresses kept?” Triggut winced.
“Oh, I’ll show ye, Miss V’laya. Triggut Frap knows, yes he does!”
“He had better!” Triggut hurried out the door and I followed. He led me down a long, twisting corridor, muttering nervously as he did. He stopped outside a large chamber I recognized as my mother’s room. I nodded towards him. “I hope you’re not lying, Triggut because you’ll pay if you are!”
“Aye, aye, Miss V’laya, I u-understand.”
I smiled deviously. “Good.” And with that, I entered my mother’s room and slammed the door behind me.
The bedchamber I entered was covered in dust and dead insects: A four-poster, mahogany-framed bed sat moth-eaten and alone at the far corner of the room; the top of its wooden frame decorated with fading acorns and oak leaves. The great stone hearth and fireplace stood with nothing but ashes and rotting wood in its center.
A few wall sconces and candles were mounted on the walls, and covered in dust and cobwebs. As though in a trance; I walked swiftly beside the fire to a small wooden shelf containing several thick, rotting volumes. I automatically reached for a red one with the words: THE SECRET OF DESTRUCTION written in gold on the spine.
I chuckled slyly as I took the book from the shelf and discarded it. In the wall; there was a small brass handle and a square-shaped piece of wood. My mother had taught me from an early age what lay behind that container.
“Now Vilaya,” I remembered her saying. “Always remember what is behind this door: The secret to slaying your enemies. Never use it without reason or without plan, for poison is powerful.” And sure enough; exactly as I expected, inside the container there was a wood-and-brass tankard.
I picked it up and removed the lid. Inside there was a thin, reddish powder. Arsenic; otherwise known as ‘the Inheritance Powder’ in wealthy vermin families like my own.
Grinning, I shut the door, put THE SECRET OF DESTRUCTION back on the shelf and took a leather satchel from a small rusty nail on the wall. I carefully placed the tankard in and went to the far side of the room; to the elaborately-decorated oaken wardrobe containing my mother’s old clothes.
Inside there were various ragged cloaks, tunics and moth-eaten dresses. I ignored them all, and grasped at a small circular hatbox. I picked it up and slammed the wardrobe door.
Once that was done; I fell greedily upon my mother’s things in a heartbeat: First; I examined a small bottle that was wrapped in rags and damp paper.
I removed these and discovered a blown-glass bottle containing a few meager drops of liquid. Perfume. An engraving on the bottom read: ILLUSION.
I almost laughed. How appropriate! I quietly and discretely put it on. Trembling, I opened the hatbox next. Inside it was a folded, dusty dress.
It was black, spangled and made of silk, with scalloped lace and crow feathers around the top, and short sleeves that only reached the shoulders and appeared to be no more than clear black-ish straps I shook it out and walked, as though in a trance, to the single mirror on the wall and held it to my shoulders, knowing that as it had been my mother’s dress, who knew if it would fit me.
All I can say is, thankfully, it did. I studied myself in the cracked mirror, letting my left arm fall to one side. I gazed at my reflection for a moment, before going back to the hatbox and finding a black choker, thickly beaded, lying on the bottom. I put it on and inspected myself once again, leaning heavily on my saber. I was every inch the Skelton. I was just about to leave to finish up my affairs when a face appeared in the mirror, one I’m ashamed to admit was not my own….
I flinched. The face I saw in the cracked mirror was none other than Zwilt the Shade’s! “You know you can’t win, Vilaya.” He hissed. “Every warlord and conqueror has a final fall.” I… Will… Win! I thought in my head, but determined not to say it aloud.
As though Zwilt had known what I was thinking, he simply laughed. “…And believe me. You’re closer to yours than you think.” I backed away from the mirror and fled the room like a bat out of hellgates. Triggut was still standing by the door; and by the time I saw him I’d regained my composure.
“Take me back to the entrance, Triggut, my business here is done.” I said, holding him at swordpoint. Triggut nodded. “A-Aye, an’ I’ll git ye back there.” As we walked; silence engulfed Five Pines, and I thought briefly of my two stolen petty weapons that I had hidden in the box. Would Triggut….? No. I assured myself. Mother and I were the only ones who knew! By now, we had reached the steps. I nodded to Triggut. “You’re dismissed, but if I come back any time soon it won’t be a happy day for you.”
“Y-yes, Miss V’laya, yore ‘onnur.”
I eyed him coldly once, before departing up the stairs.
By the color of the sky, I was guessing it was now afternoon. The grass had dried considerably, and the sky had gotten a lot darker. With this in mind, I headed south to the wastelands and Sal’s camp. I decided not to hide my saber- after all- soon the Undertakers would be dead; and using a weapon for show was an idea that appealed greatly to me.
When I reached camp; everything seemed normal but I knew better: Sal and his minions were having seemingly ordinary conversations with each other, but then dropping low to whisper things in each other’s ears. The atmosphere of camp seemed to have changed for the worse, but who was I to care?
I found Jangus sitting alone. Shouldering my satchel, I approached him. “I have what I need to do the job.” I whispered.
“Does Sal still have any wine left?”
“Yes, he does. He said we’ll be drinking it with lunch today.”
I could’ve screamed with happiness.
“Do you know where the wine is now? It’s almost lunch time.”
“You’ll find eight goblets of the stuff on the table that’s always dragged out. But hurry!”
I needed no second bidding. I hitched my skirts and ran like greased lightning to the isolated area that was reserved for the Undertaker’s meals. Since there was always a definite order as to who sat where; which goblets to lace was infuriatingly easy.
I took the tankard out of my bag and got to business. First, I walked over to Sal’s chair and dropped a very small amount of the arsenic in it. Now all that there was to do was wait for it to dissolve; and arsenic was also tasteless, which was a bonus.
I repeated this process with Jessie’s, Ssenia’s, Grybe’s, Dylanus’s and Amin’s goblets. Then, I hurriedly put my tankard in my satchel, sat down and waited for everyone to come eat lunch.
When everyone was there, I exchanged a sly wink with Jangus. Sal eyed me coolly. I turned away from him rapidly.
“At-hem.” I said, clearing my throat.
“I would like to propose a toast…”
Everyone’s eyes were on me.
“…To the success of our Redwall-Mossflower campaign, and may many seasons of prosper follow. To us.”
I clinked glasses with the Undertakers and Jangus. I raised my goblet to my lips and then said in a sly voice:
Before any of them were really aware of what was going on; Sal and his five partners-in-crime slumped over dead in their chairs, eyes glazing over rapidly.
“That’s what you get for plotting against The Sable Quean!”
I laughed, but stopped when realizing Jangus was eyeing me. “So what now?” He growled, obviously getting impatient.
“Drink if you want. Do it; it’s safe.”
Jangus examined his glass suspiciously.
“After all we’ve been through together, would I poison you, Jangus?”
Jangus took a breath, clearly embarrassed now of his over-suspicion. “You wouldn’t.”
“Of course not. Now listen here: I have a reward for you, like I said earlier.”
“And that is…?”
“How would you like to be my Commander?”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Everything… Where we’ll be going today, we’ll have a horde to be in charge of by nightfall!”
“Cassava the Scourge’s! Hah! The old fool has about a hundred in her command, but they’ve done nothing but sit and be idle all these years. Cassava’s little more than a senile, crazed idiot.”
I paused and said in a low voice: “They say she finally cracked years ago when her son Richard died in battle.”
Again, a pause.
“If everything goes well, her horde should be in my command by nightfall. What do you say to becoming a commander under me?”
I stood up. A moment later, Jangus pushed in his chair and stood a few feet away from me.
Jangus knelt before me, as was custom. “Hand me your sword.” I said, taking a deep breath. Jangus obeyed. “Now, repeat after me: I, Jangus Redclaw, take this sword from the paws of my Sable Quean.”
“I, Jangus Redclaw take this sword from the paws of my Sable Quean.” Looking solemn, Janugs took the blade from me.
“‘Where the Sable Quean commands I shall use this blade.’”
“Where the Sable Quean commands I shall use this blade.”
“‘I dedicate this blade to the service of my Sable Quean; to the slaying of her enemies, for as long as our blood shall flow.’”
Jangus repeated the last line after me. “Kiss the blade.” I ordered. Jangus nodded and did so, again in the same solemn manner. Then, in the custom manner, he rose and kissed my sword arm (my left one) “That went well.” I commented, leaning on my sword hilt. Jangus eyed me.
“Come on.” He said, clearly growing impatient. “Let’s go make war!” I nodded, eyes gleaming.
“Yes, COMMANDER…. At present nothing sounds better… Let’s find Cassava now. Surely she can’t be too far away….”
I left the bodies of Sal and his companions behind me, and shot off north towards Cassava.
Chapter Twenty-One: New Divide
As the day went on at Redwall; the dewy and beautiful morning dissolved into a gray, overcast afternoon.
As Drake had noted the previous night; the atmosphere seemed indeed different. Redwallers still went about their daily lives and routines exactly as they had before; but still. Something amiss was in the air and Drake could sense it.
As midday crept by, Drake sat outside a gnarled crabapple tree in the orchard, finishing up lunch. He swallowed the final pieces of his russet apple and looked up at the sky.
It was gradually getting darker out. I’d better go inside before it opens up. The mouse thought, and did so, making a beeline for the cool, shadowed cloisters just as distant thunder rumbled on the horizon.
Drake cringed as a figure stepped out of the shadows towards him. He was still a bit jumpy from his underground voyage the previous day. Drake saw that it was Francis Hare. Even the normally outgoing hare seemed strangely hushed.
His jaw was set firmly and he said in a low voice “C’min. The Abbess wants t’ have a word with you, Drake my laddie buck.”
“The Abbess? What’s going on?”
Drake said, tensing. Judging by the way Francis was talking, something was obviously up here. He straightened his tunic and began following Francis down the darkened cloisters.
Francis sighed. “Y’mean nobeast’s told you yet, wot wot?”
Francis paused. He looked both ways and said in a hushed whisper “I was helpin’ Cellarmole Gurjee t’clean out his musty old winecellar yesterday after the minstrel, an’ we noticed that in some places, bricks were fallin’ off, an’ bricks are fallin’ off in this old abbey all th’time, mind you…. But this was different.” Francis paused to suck in air.
“A lot of bally bricks fell out where we were standin’ one almost hit old Gurjee in the head. And they fell away to reveal a great doorway, biggest I’ve ever seen in me bloomin’ life I’ll bet you. And in that doorway there was writin’, writin’ on the walls.”
“Writing?” Drake was intrigued, but still puzzled by the mysteriousness and secrecy of the whole situation.
“What did it say?”
“That’s for the Abbess to tell you; and I suspect she’ll want you there now.” And without further ado, Drake was ushered inside Redwall and off towards the cellars.
Wordlessly, Drake was led into Redwall, past the great hall and to the steep stairs leading down to the cellars.
Once they got there, Francis nodded and began to walk off. “I’ll leave you to the Abbess now.” Drake began a brisk descent down the dust-coated oaken stairs the groaned and squealed wherever he stepped. When he reached the bottom, the air was musty and the dirt floor was cool underneath his paws.
Drake immediately recognized the HUGE gap in the wall leading into an ancient, once-sealed chamber. Abbess Marjoram’s voice carried from the inside: “Drake? Drake did Francis send for you?”
“Aye. He did.”
“Please come in. I’ve been expecting you. I have a lot of things to tell you.”
Drake entered. He found Marjoram standing with her back to the wall. Upon seeing Drake, she turned and walked a few steps back so he could see. Written into the stone in jagged lettering was the following:
West wind, north wind, carry on
When blood of weak meets blood of strong
Through sea, and under stone, thou must never travel alone.
Seek out the ones who live by the river’s flow
They will help you, this I know
Travel east, travel west,
Go where you must to complete this quest.
Sail beyond the oceans blue,
What is false and what is true
Here this message, O chosen ones:
A stripedog, a blue rat and a mouse shall prevail.
Determine the outcome of this tale.
It took a few minutes of thinking for Drake to consider who was being referred to in the prophecy.
And suddenly, he realized. A blue rat. Nitram. He mouthed. And a stripedog… Who else could that be but Ambry? The look on Abbess Marjoram’s face told Drake all he needed to know.
He knew, without a shadow of doubt that he was the mouse in the prophecy.
“….I’m the one. I just know it. And Ambry’s part of the prophecy, too.” He said, his voice a whisper, but very firm and unwavering. A warrior’s voice.
“Mother Abbess, I have to do this.”
Marjoram took one look into Drake’s eyes. They were afire with bravery, compassion and strength. She nodded. “I trust you.”
Drake headed out of the room to speak with Ambry. The Abbess watched him for a moment, shaking her head in amazement. She did not think it was possible for one young mouse to grow up in a few minutes, but in Drake’s case this was the truth. The young mouse had indeed grown up.
Chapter Twenty-Two: Don't tread on me!
The morning dissolved into a corpse-gray, foggy afternoon. Jangus and I traipsed down road after road, me carrying my cane and my standard and him carrying my axe. We rarely spoke.
Now we strode, slowly, slowly down a battered dirt trail, a forest of maple, pine, beech, elm and sycamore blocking our way. I saw a jagged tongue of forked lightning split the sky like a snake.
“Hellgates!” I yelped, jumping out of the way. Jangus laughed a bit, and we continued going. I stiffened. “We’re entering Cassava’s territory.” I intoned, holding a claw to my lips.
“There’s no telling who she’ll have greeting us, if anyone.”
“So we’re best being silent?”
By now we were within the darkened woods. Pine and maple trees cast hulking silhouettes against the darkening sky. It didn’t bother me. I walked smilingly forward, embracing the dark.
The scent of wet wood and campfire smoke made my nostrils flare. I looked up; seeing smoke in the distance. Almost there. I could hear a river in the distance, and hear the faint, faint murmuring of beasts.
I drove myself on, suddenly not caring how far behind Jangus was. And then I froze dead in my tracks.
We were there. Finally! I glanced ahead at Cassava’s camp, motioning for Jangus to follow. It was a bit less grand then I’d been expecting: Groups of weasels, stoats, foxes, rats sat milling around. Some were practicing (and failing) with their weapons, some sat in tents erected under trees to take shelter from the coming rain, and still others sat around campfires and talking in low voices.
“Who are you, outsiders?” A harsh, arrogant voice like stones on pavement made us both look up. A tall, slender ferret covered in warpaint and armed with a cutlass stood before us. I smirked. “I am Jangus Redclaw and this is—“
“Jangus.” I brushed him off lightly and with manners. “I introduce myself.”
Jangus nodded and I stepped in front of him. “My name is Vilaya Skelton, but to most I am called the Sable Quean. Now who, by hell’s teeth are you?”
The ferret looked irate. He glared at me with gray eyes.
“I am Czigo, second-in-command to Cassava the Scourge. Now follow me, outsiders, Her Ladyship will want to have audience with you.”
I smirked. Czigo retaliated with a glare. Jangus sighed and walked ahead of me as we were led off to meet Cassava the Scourge. Or rather- Cassava the Fool!
Shafts of gray light peeked in between overlong pine boughs and branches waving feebly in the wind. The trail was rough and harsh on our paws as we walked along in complete silence.
After a few more minutes, we stood outside a large purple tent. Deranged laughter could be heard inside. Wordlessly, Czigo entered and then came out a minute later. He glanced at me.
“Come in. Lady Cassava desires audience with you and you alone.” Czigo turned to Jangus. “You too will have your turn, cat. But in the meantime be patient and wait.”
I brushed aside the satin tent flap and entered, Czigo at my heels. I was largely unprepared for what I saw: The tent was decorated sparsely but decadently, and furnished with a velvet couch, several ebony chairs, and an oaken steamer trunk.
A pile of various weapons sat alone at the far righthand corner. In the center of the tent, there as a small wooden table. At it sat an old rat, a creature I hadn’t seen since I was seven years old: Cassava the Scourge.
She sat at the table, greedily devoured what looked like a mustard-colored pudding; something I dimly recognized it as being liver pate. The last time we’d met, Cassava had been an arrogant, headstrong warlady and I a mischievous young one.
But now things had changed. Cassava was now ancient, hunched-over with arthritis so badly she was almost hunchbacked. Her fur was a dirty tan-brown, crisscrossed all over with black stripes, a brindle. A ragged purple cloak covered her, and her once-long pink tail appeared to have been cut in half.
Cassava’s eyes were rheumy and bloodshot, and she stared directly at me as Czigo led me over to her.
“M’lady, look who I found out in the woods. A tomcat of questionable descent was with her.” Czigo bowed and then stalked off to the entrance.
Cassava raised her snout and head from the bowl, licking liver pate off her muzzle. “Well, well, well!” She cackled. “If it isn’t Regina Vilaya. Vilaya Regina. How art thou?”
I gritted my teeth in annoyance but tried to make myself seem to be a loyal ally, a strategy that had certainly worked for me in the past.
“I am fine, Your Ladyship.” I said, and knelt.
Cassava laughed again. “How is thy family faring?”
“They’re all dead.”
“Tragic. Very tragic.”
Limping heavily, Cassava walked past me and to Czigo.
“Richard, I want another liver pate, but you have to make that. I can’t make it!”
Czigo winced, embarrassed at being referred to as Cassava’s dead son.
“Milady, I’m not Richard nor can I make you a liver pate.”
Suddenly Cassava’s mood changed sharply. Her ears flattened against her skull, and with an irate look on her face she snarled:
“You’ll make me a liver pate because I’m your leader and I say you MUST!”
Czigo grimaced and bowed.
“What liver shall I use?”
“Oh any kind will do- but just not the ones of our nice guests!”
Cassava turned to face me.
“You’re dismissed. I want to meet your cat companion next!”
I walked unhurriedly towards the flap, glancing back at Cassava, stifling a laugh. She was little more than a crazed old fool. A crazed old fool with a horde to back her however, was more formidable than most.
But I’d soon find a way around that. I knew I would. These thoughts lingered in my mind as Czigo hurried out with me. I saw an anguished look on his face. Was it one of hate? Contempt? Was it towards Cassava? I hoped it was.
Czigo turned to Jangus. “Cassava wants you.”
With a grimace, Jangus walked into the tent. Czigo turned back to me.
“I need to talk to you.” He said, and led me away from the tent.
“Her Ladyship seems to have known you in the past.” Czigo went on. “Do you support her?” I shook my head fervently.
“Hell’s teeth, no! I’m just waiting for the old bat to die.”
An evil grin unfolded across Czigo’s hardened features.
“Come with me.” He said, and gestured for me to follow him to the back of camp, where a muscular rat was giving archery lesson to a large group of vermin. Another few scores of them, sat working on a yellow banner flag depicting a black snake poised to strike. Below it were the words DON’T TREAD ON ME!
“C’mon ye rotten whelps! Yore mudders kin shoot n’ sling better’n ye!”
“Scarshade.” Czigo said in a harsh voice, placing his paws on his hips. “Stop the training; we have a new ally.”
The rat Scarshade looked amused. He blinked his yellow eyes.
“Well, well, is that so?”
In a flash I was beside Scarshade. I gave him a wry grin.
“Aye, it’s true.”
I did an elaborate bow.
“May I present myself, Vilaya, the Sable Quean.”
Czigo grinned wryly. Scarshade looked to me a moment.
“Hah! The famed Sable Quean here, I never thought my ole eyes’d see the day!”
He nudged Czigo.
“Tell ‘er about our plans, matey!”
Czigo cleared his throat and put his arm around me. I jerked back.
“We plan to overthrow Cassava and be our own horde. The Bloodfangs have never ruled anyone but themselves! We have sat and been idle for year after year! That is not the way of the horde. That is the way of the woodlander! Who’s with me?”
The large crowd roared back their agreement in fervor.
Czigo looked to me in anticipation.
“Would you and your cat friend be willing to lead us? I’m not one who’s best with leadership.”
A grin spread across my whole face.
“Czigo, it’d be an honor… How exactly do you plan to overthrow Cassava?”
“Unfortunately, we do not know yet.”
“What will Cassava be doing tonight?”
I began to pace.
Czigo thought a moment and then said with a grimace:
“Being taken past the lake in her palanquin, just like every night. I’ll be with her.”
“Czigo, does anything live in the lake? Anything carnivorous?”
“Yes. A pike.”
“Is it a big one?”
I grinned wickedly. “Czigo, get Jangus over here, so we can talk business….”
Czigo walked wordlessly off and came back a few moments later with Jangus.
“Jangus!” I hurried up to him.
“Excuse us.” I said to Czigo, and beckoned for Jangus to follow me to the nearby riverbank. I stood up onto a rock and said to Jangus in a low voice:
“Jangus, you’d never believe our luck! Czigo and the ENTIRE HORDE are on our side! They want to help us overthrow Cassava!”
“And what exactly DO you have planned?”
“I was waiting for you to ask that. Czigo told me. He said that later tonight, he and another creature are going to ride with Cassava in her palanquin and throw her to the pike.”
“I’ll tell Czigo.”
“No, I’ll do it.”
I watched Jangus as he went off to scheme with Czigo about our little plot. So far, things were going very, very well. Eventually, I joined them and we began to plan exactly WHEN to execute our plan. The chosen time would be 6:30. After 6:30, I would truly be a Sable Quean once more, with a commander and a horde to back me.
The very concept enthralled me beyond words. A horde of a hundred was a good, strong number, but not quite as many as the Ravagers. That fact didn’t bother me. All of Cassava’s horde, the self-titled Bloodfangs, were all trained killers who could take a rabble of foolish, simple woodlanders with their paws tied behind their backs. No, I wasn’t worried at all.
Eventually, 6:30 came around. I crouched behind a cluster of dampened rocks by the lake, watching, my cane beside me. The sky was dark and midnight-blue now, and the trees were like skeletons against its eerie backdrop. I had to smile. This was the kind of scenery I enjoyed.
The lake’s calm waters lapped against the shore in the distance, and the surface was glossy black. Occasionally small fish could be seen diving close to the surface, or water beetles skimmed the edge, making irritating little rippling sounds. Other than that, all was quiet. Too quiet.
I waited a few minutes more, my patience wearing thin. After a while, I looked up, hearing the faint crunch of paws on the rocky ground. It gradually got louder until I could see, in plain view, a large, roofed palanquin being carried by several muscular ferrets and rats.
It had burgundy curtains, but they were not drawn, and I could see Cassava, grinning twistedly on the seat, with Jangus and Czigo on either side of her. A grin spread across my face as Jangus gave Czigo the signal, slapping the velvet seat twice. Now they were close enough to the lake to do what needed to be done.
“Goodbye, old fool!” Czigo snarled in a grating voice, pushing Cassava off the left side of the palanquin. With a terrified scream she fell into the lake with a huge SPLASH!
The carriers of the palanquin stopped there. The grin on my face got bigger as I watched Cassava writhe and flounder in the water, desperately trying to swim away from the horror in its depths.
And sinking. Slowly sinking. Until, without a warning, the wide jaws bristling with huge yellow fangs snaked up from the abyss. They grabbed up Cassava as though she were no more than a pile of rags and shook her roughly.
Surprising for a creature of her age, Cassava fought back. She leapt onto the pike’s back and began gouging it with her claws, gnarled fangs bared. The pike flipped back and struck Cassava with its tail.
Then it bit her below the ribs, the blood seeping through her scruffy purple cloak. Cassava went rigid with shock and the blood loss, too weak to fight back. Something within me pulsated and writhed. I threw back my head and laughed. The pike bit Cassava again on the hip, and again. And again. Finally, when it had lost interest in its deadly game, the pike swam away from the shallow water near the shore where it had been.
Cassava’s body washed up near where I was sitting; now some of the lake was tainted with her blood. I unsheathed my saber. Then, I waded into the bloody depths and poked Cassava with my swordtip. She moaned and whispered in a hoarse voice: “What do you want with me, Evil One?”
I smiled, in a way that seemed pleasant and endearing on the surface but cruel and twisted beneath. “Nothing, Mightiness…”
I paused and snapped out:
“Only your horde!”
Then, I laughed more.
Cassava looked around rapidly. She dragged herself into a sitting position and yanked at my sleeve with her blood-slicked arm.
“Save me, please do….”
Her voice was a piteous whine.
I grabbed Cassava’s outstretched paw and made as though to pull her up. Then, I threw her back into the darkened lake from which she’d came.
The pike immediately swam over, eager for more. A moment later, I heard a loud Crunnnch! Of Cassava’s skull cracking in the pike’s jaws. Humming cheerfully, I put my saber back in its cane and walked away.
Jangus mustered what was now MY horde while I sat on a rock by the lakefront, my paw on my face. I’d never been a sewer, but yet here I was now, embroidering in the words DON’T TREAD ON ME! On the bottom of my standard (as of course, no one else in the horde would sew it for me!) I cursed as I poked myself in the paw with the bone needle, a thin line of blood spreading across my paw.
It seemed to be in the shape of a snake. I reflexively shut my paw and finished the last of the embroidery and gratefully discarded the needle. Voices whispered at the back of my skull.
Cassava’s: Ohhhh, you poor, poor little wretch!
And Ellys’s: Mama, they’re coming…
Both voices were a vehement hiss.
I flinched and got up, carrying the standard and my cane. I went back to Cassava’s tent and hurriedly changed out of my bloody dress and into a simple pair of breeches and a chainmail tunic. I shoved my bloodstained clothing into Cassava’s clothing-filled steamer trunk and strutted out.
I found Jangus and told him the warcry of my old horde, the Ravagers so that we could FINALLY muster our forces.
Lightning split the sky as the a hundred vermin yelled as one: “VILAYA! VILAYA! SABLE QUEAN! BLOODFANGS! BLOODFANGS! KILL! KILL! KILL!”
Again the warcry was yelled out: “VILAYA! VILAYA! SABLE QUEAN! BLOODFANGS! BLOODFANGS! KILL! KILL! KILL! YAHARR!” I leapt up, quick as lightning, onto an outcropping with the entire horde gathered below me.
I thrust the standard high, and then lowered it back down. “My loyal warriors… Listen to what I say and listen well! I confess I run a strict horde; I am ruthless and I won’t hesitate to execute any one of you filthy maggots if you so much as slightly annoy me. But… Stay loyal and you’ll be rewarded! You’ll become fat off the land; and have wretched slaves to wait on you. But you will not, WILL NOT, be idle, foolish gluttons like you are now! D’ye hear me?” A chorus of wild, enthusiastic “AYE!”’s Ripped through the air.
“Do you want to be rich?”
“Do you want to live well; with scores of slaves to wait on you every moment?”
“Do you want to end up like your fool puppet leader, Cassava?” Thunder flashed. “NAY!”
“Do you wish to serve me and pledge your undying loyalty?”
One voice rang out louder than the rest:
I flinched. My ears flattened against my skull. “Czigo!” I muttered, signaling the ferret to come closer from where he stood, his bow and arrow trained on the crowd.
“Aye, Majesty?” He whispered. “I don’t like the look of that one there…” I mumbled, pointing to the lone ferret who had said nay.
“Keep your eye on him.”
“Aye, m’lady. I will.”
“Jangus, do you have your eye on everybeast else?” “
Yes, I do.”
A moment later, we were too late to do anything more. The one lone deserter, standing poised to exit the camp, was slain in seconds by a jagged bolt of lightning. I threw back my head and laughed. Then, I pointed my saber towards the darkening indigo sky “Tonight; we begin our path to victory! Let us conqueror the Abbey of Redwall and make it rain blood!”
Book Three: The Warmblood Games
"If we don't end with war, then war will end with us." -H.G. Wells
Chapter Twenty-Three: Spies
Dawn engulfed the red granite walls of Redwall in its fiery, red-pink embrace, bathing everything it touched in a gentle fuchsia light. The distant cawing of a crow awoke Drake. He stirred in bed and turned over with a faint moan.
A few moments later, the mouse was completely awake, and found it impossible to go back to sleep, an unfortunate habit. Eventually, a strange white haze began to fall over him, slowly at first but then larger until it was as though he was seeing through fog. As though in a trance, Drake dressed, and walked out of his bedroom in the dormitories.
Eventually, he arrived at the familiar flight of wooden stairs leading to the Great Hall. Drake’s pawsteps echoed off the ancient wood; it was obvious he was probably the only one up. The complete silence was eerie.
Finally, Drake stopped at the tapestry of Martin the Warrior. Martin’s eyes seemed to be alive and glowing, and staring directly at Drake. Suddenly, the tapestry began to change. Warriors of the past appeared in Martin’s place:
And suddenly they all faded, back, back to Martin himself who appeared before Drake. He was a strong, hardened and yet ageless-looking mouse who was clad in glistening armor that was lit up in the dawn starburst. When he spoke, his voice was a deep ringing echo:
“Did you see the creatures on the tapestry in my place?”
Wordlessly, Drake nodded.
“Do you know who they are?”
Drake rattled off the names, having learned them all long ago at the abbey school.
“Do you know what these creatures have in common?”
“Yes. That is what got them to where they are today.”
“What is my destiny, Martin?”
Drake’s voice was a solemn whisper.
“Listen to the prophecy. Sampetra. Holt Stormbattle. Seek them out, young warrior. I wish you good luck in your quest.”
And then, it all faded to black, as did Martin’s voice.
Ambry sat up in bed blearily, rubbing her eyes. Some time ago she had been awakened by a strange THUMP!
Puzzled, the badgermaid got out of bed and put one massive footpaw on the oaken floor. There was a squeak, but she kept going. Ambry walked down the vacant dormitory hallway, and down the stairs leading into Cavern Hole. She saw Drake, curled into a ball under the tapestry of Martin.
“Drake?? Drake what happened to you?!” Ambry shook the mouse on his shoulders, and a moment later he got up shakily.
Drake shook his head. “Ambry you would never have believed it.”
“Try me. I’ve seen a lot of unbelievable things.”
Drake took a deep breath and said to Ambry: “I think you, me, and another creature named Nitram are part of the prophecy…”
“A friend of mine. He’s helped me out in the past.” Drake told her a condensed version of their underground odyssey, and then explained the prophecy.
Ambry began to pace.
“And… Nitram is a rat.” Drake waited to see how Ambry would react to this news. After this pause he said: “But he’s part of the prophecy. We’re all in this together.”
Ambry faced Drake and nodded calmly. “I agree. What next?”
Drake thought a moment.
“Well, let’s try figuring out exactly WHAT the prophecy means. Let’s start with one of the early verses: Through sea, under stone. That implies some sort of sea journey. And Martin said ‘Sampetra’”
Ambry stared at Drake.
“Sampetra? What’s that?”
Drake shrugged vaguely.
“I wish I knew, but it seems to be some kind of place. The elders say there used to be records about it in the gatehouse, but they’re long gone.”
Suddenly, Drake’s eyes widened.
“Wait a minute…”
Judging by the look on his face, Drake had had a ‘Eureka!’ moment.
“We can ask Dalla.”
“And she is?”
Drake winced for forgetting that Ambry was still new to the Abbey community and didn’t know everybeast by name just yet.
“Dalla Bluestream; she’s one of the elders. She’s usually awake and in the library by this hour. Maybe she can help us.”
“All right. I’ll see you there.”
And the two went their separate ways.
Drake got to the library door first. It was a huge door made of oak, and had an ornate blown-glass doorknob. Drake turned the doorknob and opened the door as cautiously as possible. It still squeaked.
Drake crossed the library threshold. The large room was flooded with dawn light: It flooded in in reddened seas from the stained-glass windows depicting Redwall in times of triumph.
Its vast mahogany shelves spanned the whole room, and contained many thick volumes with embossed titles on their spines, the barkcloth dust-jackets damp from condensation. The room was alive with the smell of books.
Drake took a few more steps into the room and glanced to the back of it. Slumped in a comfortable velvet armchair with a half-eaten pasty on a nearby table, was Dalla Bluestream, Redwall’s oldest otter resident. The beautiful blue fur for which she was once known had faded into a dull gray, but her eyes were still bright and vivid, their consistent shade of electric green that matched the habit she wore. There was a light volume on plants and herbs in her lap.
Dalla looked up, polishing her slightly-cracked spectacles as Drake approached. “Well. It’s been a while since there’s been a young’un here.” She looked again. “I almost didn’t see you. Sometimes I just get so caught up in my reading! Huh, it’s that or I’m blinder than I thought.”
Before Drake could mention he was expecting a friend, the door swung open and slammed against the wall; causing a few thin books to fall off their shelves, but that was all. Ambry entered and walked over to Dalla and Drake.
“We’re here to ask you about Sampetra.” Drake began. “What can you tell us about it?”
When Dalla took a moment to think, Ambry prompted:
“Well? What do you know?”
Dalla paused thoughtfully and polished her spectacles. Then she put them back on and lay back in her chair with a sigh.
“I wouldn’t be one t’ask that. Better ask Ruark. When ‘e was but a babe in arms his fodder would sit ‘im on his lap and tell him stories about the place. Now Ruark doesn’t talk about anything except it. Huh, he’s always ‘Sampetra, Sampetra, Sampetra’ all day and all night, aye, that’s Ruark.” She gave a slight smile, and let them think about that. Ruark Boldstream was the Abbey’s Skipper of Otters, and he’d be very easy to find, as he was always up with the sun outside every morning, fishing.
“Thank you, Dalla.”
Dalla shook a claw at them. “Oh, don’t ye thank Dalla Bluestream for nothin’. It’s Ruark you’ll be doin’ the thankin’ for.”
With a mysterious, sly smile, Dalla returned to reading her book as Drake and Ambry exited the Abbey, leaving the old otterwife alone with faded days of lore and bygone battle stories.
The badger and the mouse left the Abbey as the sky was fading from reddish-pink to a delicate blue. At that time, Ruark Boldstream, Skipper of Otters, was making his way to the Abbey Pond, his usual fishing spot.
Humming as he went, the tall, broad-shouldered otter hefted a wooden fishing pole with a hempen string attached to it over his strong back and shoulders, carrying with him a wooden box of bait.
Brushing aside some damp grass, Skipper sat on a drying flat rock and set his box beside him. Selecting a worm from the box, he placed it on a hook at the edge of the rod and dipped it into the blackish water and waited. After a few moments, he felt a strong tug.
Yanking hard, Skipper pulled his rod out of the water and tossed a writhing salmon that would be his breakfast later. He looked up as he saw the two young creatures approaching him.
“Ahoy there, Drake ‘n Ambry! Good to see you up.” He gave a rough laugh.
“What do you young uns want with this ole waveplougher?”
Drake and Ambry explained their reason for being there.
Skipper eyed them for a while. Then he closed his bait-box and said:
“Ahh, Sampetra. Sampetra, mateys, is an island in the far south, in the Western Sea. Ye can still get there by boat, but it ‘tain’t easy, I’ll assure you.”
“But what about Stormbattle?” Drake pressed. “Do you know of any otter holts named Stormbattle?”
“Do I?!” Skipper laughed again.
“Hah, that’s me birthplace! My ‘alf-brother Darial was skipper there and still is, knowin’ ‘im. He’s a real nautical old salt, if anyone can help ye get to Sampetra it’ll be him.”
“How do we get there?” Asked Ambry.
Skipper faced them.
“Oh, ye’ll find them in the forests straight to the north. Real pretty place; Darial always loved it.”
“All right.” He turned to Ambry. “Does afternoon sound like a good time to leave?”
Ambry smiled. “Afternoon is fine.”
Skipper got up. “May luck an’ good fortune be with ye on yore way, mateys!”
The fragile, robin’s egg blue of the morning sky soon darkened and changed to darkest aquamarine. Fluffy clouds drifted lazily past as birds chirped in the Mossflower trees.
At Redwall, in the spacious limestone pantry, the picture-windows had been thrown open to let in sunlight and cool the room, casting shadows across the floor. Drake leaned against the wall, careful not to knock anything over, toying with a haversack containing some food to take on their journey.
Being a badger, Ambry did not need to use the wooden footstool as Drake had had to reach the top of the cabinets. She easily trifled through the shelves with her powerful, strong arms and paws and hunted for the foods she needed.
“Done yet?” Drake asked. Ambry had been taking a while, but then again Badgers DID need a lot of food.
Ambry’s claws closed around a blueberry trifle, and put it in her haversack, and then tied it shut with a thick strand of twine so it wouldn’t fall open and spill everything out while being carried. Drake did the same and then shouldered it.
A somewhat long silence. In the morning and afternoon that had ensued, a short farewell party had been thrown for Drake and Ambry, and they were wished the best of luck and good fortune on their quest. Now the time had come to leave the Abbey, and it was hard for both of them.
I have to do this. And I’ll come back anyway.
Ambry stood leaning in the doorway, waiting for Drake. Wordlessly, the young mouse and the badger walked out with their haversacks and began the first leg of their journey: To find Holt Stormbattle. And Nitram.
Drake and Ambry walked unhurriedly down the beaten path. Redwall Abbey grew smaller and smaller behind their backs. It was a gorgeous day to be out walking: Sunlight streamed through the leaves of maple trees, making them appear transparent and bright. The clouds, once so fluffy and thick, had dwindled into thin, feeble wisps that drifted through the turquoise sky.
The young travelers talked about small things, and within fifteen minutes, a log cabin with two slightly cracked windows was within view. One of them was wide open. This was Nitram’s house. Drake had seen it from a distance while hiking other times, but this was the first time he’d seen it up close, and to get there he and Ambry had had to rely on directions Nitram had once given Drake.
“Nitram?” Striding ahead of Ambry, Drake went to the door and knocked on it. There were a few faint noises audible from inside, and then Nitram got the door.
“Drake, matey, I didn’t expect to see you here.” He glanced to Ambry, eyes widening a bit.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This, is Ambry. She’s my friend from Redwall.”
“Hello.” Ambry stepped forward with a smile.
“We’ve come to talk to you about something.” Drake said.
“Wot?” Nitram leaned forward, listening.
To make a long story short, Drake and Ambry told Nitram everything they knew about the prophecy and why they were convinced he was a part of it.
Ambry concluded their theory with:
“Nitram, blue rats are extremely rare and you’re the only one we know. It HAS to be you.”
Nitram turned away from a moment. Then he glanced back at Ambry and Drake
“I’m in… It’s a great cause and I want to join ye in it.”
Nitram and Drake looked at each other and smiled. The journey had finally begun!
After Nitram’s house was behind them, Drake, Ambry and Nitram continued through the vast natural maze of Mossflower Woods.
“Which way is Holt Stormbattle again?”
Nitram asked as they went along. Drake shrugged.
“The Skipper said north. Straight north. So that’s the way we’ll go.”
And go north they did. The landscape began to change, slowly. The trees that grew in the deep northern reaches of Mossflower were of great variety: Redwoods, pines, maples, beeches, oaks and sycamores grazed the edge of the vast, unending sky.
A river ran through the right side of the forest, hissing softly as it roared over tiny white-capped rapids. Slick, wet blue-gray rocks covered in moss jutted out of the stream, alongside mossy loam-topped banks.
Now many of the trees were damp from recent rain, and their branches swayed a bit in the wind.
In minutes, the Holt’s camp was visible. Most of its space was taken up by dying campfires, and dome-shaped huts made from carefully-woven dried cattails and reedgrass.
Some adult otters were eating lunch, or gossiping; young ones darted in and out of the trees and the drying mud and played rough games like tag, hide-and-seek, war, and warrior and warlord. Some of the adolescents were wading through the river’s depths, crayfishing with their parents and cousins and other relatives.
“Anyone ever been to a holt before?” Drake asked Nitram and Ambry. He received head-shakes from both. By now, they were striding through the main part of camp. Some of the adult residents of the Holt’s camp had paused in their daily routines to gaze at the young visitors.
Obviously, the Holt was unused to having anyone other than otters in their camp. It being so isolated, this wasn’t too hard to believe.
Suddenly however, everything was hushed. An elegant female otter with deep blue eyes, wearing a shell-necklace and a hooded cloak that concealed half her face was striding elegantly towards them. The silence was by now, so deafening you could have easily heard a pin drop.
The otter placed her paws and set her gaze on Drake, Ambry and Nitram.
“Well.” She said in a firm, unhurried tone.
“What brings you three here?”
Drake took a step forward.
“We’re from a different part of Mossflower. We’re here on a quest.”
Ambry contributed as well:
“We’d like to speak with the Chieftain of the holt. If anybeast here can help us, it’s him.”
Drake and Nitram immediately agreed.
The otter smiled, revealing jagged teeth.
“My name is Saphira, and I am the mate of Darial Stormbattle; he’s chief around here. I’ll let you three see him but Darial’s a real ornery beast, and he just got even worse after he broke his leg.”
Saphira went to the largest hut and motioned that Drake, Ambry and Nitram follow. They did. Saphira pulled back the barkcloth flap and turned back to them. “I’ll give Darial your names now… Who are you?”
Saphira nodded and went inside. A moment later, somewhat-loud voices could be heard from behind the flap. Shortly after, Saphira emerged.
“He’ll see ye young uns, go on right in.” Saphira paused to murmur under her breath: “Huh, I swear he moans about Felix and Astrid more every day.”
Looking to them, Saphira explained without a pause: “Our two elder children, left a season ago now. Astrid joined up with the Rogue Crew and Felix went off to start ‘is own ‘Olt. Darial’ll never tell ye but he misses ‘em an awful lot…. An’ lookit me goin’ on like this. Go on, go on right in afore he yells at ye for anythin’ less.”
Drake, Ambry and Nitram were hurried inside and Saphira departed behind them.
The room inside the hut was very cozy. A small fire was dying down to ashes in the summer afternoon, and two makeshift windows had been opened to let in light and a draft. Various weapons such as spears, daggers and slings were mounted on the walls, or else kept in an overflowing wooden box.
At the center of the room, lying on a slightly raised couch, was a bored-looking, scarred otter with a stubborn look on his face. Darial Stormbattle, half-brother of Skipper Ruark Boldstream and chieftain of Holt Stormbattle. His fur was a deep shade of black, and his eyes were a piercing blue, a jagged scar resembling a bolt of lightning going up and down his right eye. He wore a steel-gray tunic and matching breeches. His right leg contrasted sharply with the rest of his attire due to the fact that it was covered in bandages, and the outline of a splint could be seen as well. He scowled as the travelers entered.
“If ye whelps want anything from me ye’d better make it quick. I’m not a beast with much time on my paws, even if it don’t look that way.” With a sigh, the otter Chieftain rose from his sofa and struggled to his footpaws, clutching two heavy oaken crutches.
After a long period of silence, he spoke. Chuckling a bit, he said:
“So you three young’uns are some sort o’ prodigies, eh?”
Nitram spoke for all of them, blushing slightly: “Aye.”
Darial looked vaguely amused, yet stern at the same time.
“Well tell me wot it is that ye want and Ole Darial will try ‘is best to ‘elp ye get it.”
Drake spoke: “We need a way to get to the island of Sampetra, and it said in the prophecy to come here.”
Darial watched the mouse with narrowed eyes.
“As it turns out, I ‘ave just the thing for yew….”
Darial was interrupted by mid-sentence as a shadow appeared in the doorway.
“Excuse me.” Darial limped past Ambry, Nitram and Drake and made his way to the creature in the doorway and closed the flap behind him. The creature was none other then his fourteen-year-old youngest son, Shawn. Shawn was tall, and had blue eyes that matched his mothers, and fur that can only be described as very dark auburn.
He was tall, rail-thin, almost like an awkward colt, but this look was more then redeemed by the undeniable intelligence and warrior’s spirit in his eyes.
“What do ye want? I was talkin’ to guests in there!”
“Dad, does it matter??” Shawn said in a low, slightly nervous whisper.
“There’s vermin afoot!”
Darial immediately froze.
“Vermin, ye say?”
“Aye! A little farther to the northeast, the Bloodfangs they call ‘emselves. I’ve heard them rallyin’ and shoutin’ up a storm this mornin’ as they got here.”
“An’ wot do ye want me to do about it, Shawnie m’lad?”
Shawn eyed Darial coolly. Then he said:
“I’d like to spy on them, find out what their motives are and use ‘em against ‘em.”
Darial looked unconvinced.
“Huh, you an’ one army!”
Shawn grinned slyly.
“Mebbe not. I intend to make some allies in this horde, the Bloodfangs, and then…. We’ll revolt! Dad, I want to do this. I’m a warrior and it’s my destiny.”
Darial faced his son and sighed.
“Very well, Shawn. It’s yore choice after all, and you need an’ adventure… And…” Darial lowered his voice:
“If the situation arose, I’d always planned on trainin’ ye t’be a spy aginst vermin if’n ye so wanted. You have it in ye, Shawn. You’re descended from Riverwyte the Mask and ye gotta use that blood to your advantage.”
“I will… He wasn’t the only one who was a master of disguise!”
“That’s the spirit, laddie!” Darial glanced to the tent flap. “We’ll finish talking later. You get later. I have guests to see to.” And with that, the otter Chieftain hurried inside, and Shawn went off with a grin on his face. Making himself become vermin was a job he was desperate to try out….
Darial reentered the hut.
“Sorry. I needed to have a liddle talk with my son there.”
Now that it had been agreed between them that Drake would act as a spokesbeast for the group, the young mouse stepped forward.
“Do you have any rafts or rowboats we could use to get to Sampetra?”
Darial laughed. “Do I! I got a liddle scrap of flotsam called the Charice, used t’be my fishin’ boat afore I lost interest in boatin’. Sh’ain’t much I’m afraid, but she’s all I’ll got.”
Drake nodded. “Anybeast want to leave after dinner?”
Nitram smiled. “I do.”
It was soon unanimous. Drake, Ambry and Nitram would leave shortly after dinner and head south to the nearest beach to begin their journey to Sampetra. While leaving with Darial to get their first glimpse of the Charice, they passed by Shawn, who had impeccably disguised himself as a weasel and hidden himself beneath his overlong cloak hood. Just another creature who, like them, was going on a very important journey, but for Shawn Stormbattle, that journey could end in his death.
Chapter Twenty-Four: Another One Bites the Dust
The afternoon sun was up, and the pale sky could be seen between tree branches. I was giving Jangus fencing lessons while the rest of the horde did what they wanted.
“We start out like this.” I said, twirling my saber idly. Jangus watched as I began circling him.
“First we circle. Always be prepared for the unexpected. En garde!” I slashed upwards with my saber. Jangus leapt back.
I laughed, leaning on my sword hilt. “Good warning, hmm?”
“Yes.” I got a smirk and an eye roll from Jangus in addition. Suddenly, (and I almost didn’t notice this) Jangus counter-slashed me from the right side. I blocked; but barely managing. “You’re better than I thought.” I commented wryly. Jangus laughed.
I moved steadily off to the right. Jangus followed. Just as he was about to aim; I charged from behind and with an elaborate strike; and cut off the head off the straw dummy with the name ZWILT crudely penciled on its chest. From the way we were only a few inches parallel to each other, the head very well could’ve belonged to Jangus.
“Afraid yet?” I taunted, disappearing to the back. Jangus grinned.
“You’ll have to try harder than that to frighten me!”
“You’re just saying that because I haven’t really tried yet!”
I froze, mid-strike as the sound of pawsteps could be heard. Jangus stopped too. It was Scarshade, the rat archery master, with his quiver slung over his shoulders.
“Scarshade.” I muttered curtly. “What brings you here?”
Scarshade took no time in explaining. He knelt before Jangus and I and said:
“Mighty Ones, I have bad news.”
My face darkened.
“What is it? Go on, spit it out!”
I prodded Scarshade with my swordpoint. He gasped, taking a moment to get his breath. Then he said:
“A-a Holt of otters knows of our location, Majesty. It was just confirmed by our sentry.”
I began to pace, while Jangus and Scarshade discussed the situation at hand. My mind wandered back to the Undertakers. I had known from the moment I’d met them they would be only a temporary solution to my problems, a little rabble I manipulate until the time came for me to find a REAL horde suitable for my needs. Now that I WAS in charge of a real horde, I needed to win their trust and show them I could stand firm even in difficult situations.
“Scarshade, tell me more.” I said coolly.
The rat nodded and said:
“Somethin’ must be done. If we don’t do somethin’ an’ soon them h’otters’ll spread the word to them Abbeybeasts.”
Plans began forming in my mind. Now that a large group of woodlanders had discovered us and would inevitably warn the Redwallers, immediate action had to be taken. Until the panic in Mossflower died down, we would need some place to hide, somewhere to disappear until no one thought we would ever come back…. The Abbeydwellers couldn’t fight what wasn’t there!
And then…. I thought. Redwall Abbey will be mine, finally, with no foolish Zwilt the Shade to stop me!
And when the Bloodfangs and I returned, we would emerge from the shadows and strike. A devious, foolproof plan. And in the back of my mind, I now knew what this hiding place was: The isle of Sampetra. Now the only thing that remained was how to get to Sampetra.
Hurriedly, I told Jangus and Scarshade of my plan.
“…But how will we get there?? No corsairs with sense would ever agree to ferry a whole horde!”
“Aye, true, Majesty…. But don’t I know the very beasts who can!” He cackled.
“Y’see, Cassava once used to have a navy of sorts, a rabble of corsairs led by the marten Zarel Longblade, an’ ‘is ship o’ the line, the Infamy. They used t’give Cassava gold an’ plunder in exchange fer protection under her, but ever since she got the butterflies in ‘er ‘ead, Zarel didn’t wont nothin’ t’do with her Ladyship.”
“Where can we find Zarel and the Infamy?” I asked, leaning on his sword hilt.
Scarshade shrugged. “Oh, in their usual spot, a good distance east o’ Salamandassommat. We kin probably be there in a day, m’lady, if’n we hurry.”
“Then hurry!” I snarled.
Scarshade eyed me.
“They might give up ship willin’ly if ye try.”
“And if they don’t?”
Getting no response from the rat, I said: “Oh well. I have my ways.” And smiled.
I turned to Jangus. “You and Scarshade go back to camp and tell everybeast of my plans, and to pack up whatever they can carry. I’ll see you there shortly.”
Jangus nodded: “We hear and obey.”
Scarshade met his eyes. “Aye, we do.”
I watched them walk away, and prepared to leave myself until I made out the approaching form of Czigo. A lean young weasel in an overlong blue cloak who was armed with a crossbow was with him. I eyed the two as they approached
“Czigo, who’s with you?” I asked curtly.
Czigo gestured to the weasel.
“This is Ragtail, Majesty. He claims to want to join the horde.”
“Do you, eh?” I glanced into Ragtail’s eyes. They were an eerie, piercing shade of blue. I looked away from them, but studied his face. There was something vaguely different I thought I noticed about it, but I blinked, and it was soon gone. Quickly forgetting about what I’d seen, I said to the scrawny weasel:
“Well. Do you want to join the horde?”
Ragtail nodded. “Aye.”
We repeated the same ritual as I had done with Jangus. When done, I nodded towards Ragtail and Czigo.
“You’re both dismissed. Go back to camp.” As soon as they had gone, I followed after them, taking my time. When I got back to camp, there was an eerie silence in the air.
My eyes scanned the scenery. Czigo was nowhere to be seen; and it was unusual for him to be out of camp for long during the afternoon. I saw Jangus leaning on the trunk of a sycamore and went to him.
Jangus’s fur paled, and he said in a low, hushed whisper:
“Vilaya, Czigo is…. Dead.”
“DEAD?!” I jumped back with a start and blinked, astounded. Czigo, dead?? How was that possible? I had seen him alive and well less than an hour before!
“What happened?” I said in a hushed tone. Jangus looked both directions, as though to make sure no one was listening. Then he said:
“We think it might be…. Murder!”
My heart throbbed in my chest. If there was an Assassin in the horde and they went after Czigo, who knew who they’d come after next?
“Tell me more.” I whispered.
“There’s not much to tell.” He replied.
“Then take me to the body.”
Jangus nodded. “Aye. Your wish is my command, darling!”
I smiled a bit as he said ‘darling’ in a whisper. I briefly ran my claws through Jangus’s fur and followed him down a side trail. After a while, he stooped in a bush and parted its branches. I stepped over and glanced at Czigo’s body.
His eyes were wide open, as though in fright, and his neck was bent at an odd angle. I stooped beside the body and parted a few pieces of Czigo’s neck-fur, and made out a patch where fur had been torn off and revealed a very pale bruise. I nodded grimly.
“He was murdered. Strangled.”
“We have to find the killer!”
I got up awkwardly and put my paws on Jangus’s shoulders. I glanced at him for a moment, his green eyes meeting my blue. I don’t know how long we held each other, but after I while I broke free of his grasp and said:
“I’m sorry if I made that any more awkward than it had to be.”
“Aye, let’s focus on finding Czigo’s killer.”
I nodded. All the way back to camp, I fought an urge to hold Jangus’s paw. When we got back, I brushed past Jangus and addressed the gathered hordebeasts:
“It has come to my attention that there is a killer in this horde… And that’s not real news, considering all of you are born murderers, am I right?”
There were nods and the general murmur of agreement.
“….However! This killer has targeted one of our own: CZIGO! But even in the face of tragedy, we will not back down. Our operations will continue as usual.”
My eyes strayed to Ragtail. There was a look of blatant nervousness on his face. I had seen that look before; and it was one of creatures who had killed someone and were terrified they’d be found out. I looked away from him and continued speaking, grinning slyly and subtly. I would do something about him, but not quite yet.
“As some of you may know by now, we have been discovered by a group of riverdogs called Holt Stormbattle; and we all know that they’re warriors to be reckoned with. No doubt they’re going to tell those Abbeybeasts where we are and then everything will go up in smoke. So, for the time being, we’ll disappear. Disappear to a place where nobeast will find us until the panic’s died down and it’s safe for us to return. And this place is… The island of Sampetra in the Western Sea. And to do that, we’ll go after Cassava’s corsair navy which NEARLY all of you have known about…” My gaze momentarily shifted to Ragtail again.
“….Later today, we’ll head south and see if we can bargain with the corsairs. If not; we will slaughter them and take their ship! WHO’S WITH ME?!” I was met by roars of agreement from the blood-hungry hordebeasts.
“And in the meantime, we’ll pack up camp and take whatever we can carry.” As the hordebeasts dispersed and began to prepare themselves for the journey later on, I found Ragtail and looked at him for a moment, saying in a silky voice:
“Ragtail, you seem like the loyal type… I bet you want to find Czigo’s killer more than anyone else.”
This evoked a nervous gulp from Ragtail. I chuckled a bit and kept going.
“How would you like to be promoted to Captain, hmm, specifically third-in-command? You’ll be in charge of half this horde, and the other half will be controlled by me and Jangus. The rewards, Ragtail, will also be great…So what do you say?”
I smiled and waited for his response. This was my plan. If I promoted Ragtail to a Captain, and placed him directly under me and Jangus in level of importance, he would obviously have to spend more time with me, and that way I could better observe him and see if he was the killer! The subtle clues he’d already been leaving, an the ones he would leave told me all I wanted to know. I glanced to Ragtail again. He nodded vigorously.
“Kneel.” I said.
“Now bow your head to me and say ‘I will serve you until I die.’”
Ragtail took a deep breath and said “I will serve you until I die.”
“Very well. That’s all. Now get going, Captain Ragtail, there’s a lot of work to be done before we leave tonight.”
Ragtail saluted and marched off.
I’ll be watching you….
I thought, and so we began the journey to find Cassava’s former navy.
Traveling with the horde however, was a procedure that required a LOT of carefulness. Since we had no mules and packhorses to carry the extra-heavy objects, we were forced to leave behind what we couldn’t carry. One of the few heavier objects that could be brought along was Cassava’s (now my) steamer trunk, which had to be lifted between two ferrets to make it easier to carry. Everything else we packed was as light as possible.
I was a little annoyed at having to travel in a complete circle, having started out in the western flatlands, gone south to Salamandastron, headed back north, only to go south again where I’d returned from, but if heading south would bring us to Cassava’s navy, then I was all for going that way.
As we traveled southward, the darkness of the forest gave way into bright, sunny meadows and lush groves. The sun beat down upon our backs as we continued our march to the sea.
Finally, after a few hours marching (we were able to get there much faster than Scarshade’s prediction) We stopped to create a makeshift camp in a small, lush meadow surrounded by elm trees. Peripherally, I could make out a ship of the line moored near a distant beach.
“Hungry?” I said in a casual tone, striding over to the shade of a bent-over weeping willow tree that Jangus sat under. His ears pricked a bit and he licked his muzzle.
“After all that marching? Of course!”
I tossed a large satchel to Jangus and pulled some bread and dried fish out of it.
“Not much but it’ll do.”
“Aye.” Being a cat, Jangus greedily devoured the fish. I smiled.
While we ate, my eyes kept straying to the ship on the horizon.
The Infamy. I was sure of it. By now, Jangus had finished eating lunch.
“You stay here and mind the horde. That’ll be the Infamy….. I’m going to have a little…..TALK… with Zarel….”
After a few minutes of walking, I soon reached the Infamy, smirking at what I saw. The few corsairs and searats on deck were either hopelessly drunk, or fast asleep on the floor. I callously stepped over them, or went around them, looking around the ship as I did.
It had three square mainsails, a cone-shaped crow’s nest (without a beast to man it) And a broad upper deck with a ship’s wheel; and currently no navigator nearby.
I stopped at the end of the ship, and knocked on a wide, open door. A lanky searat in a blue-striped shirt with a red bandanna knotted over his one ear answered the door, rubbing one eye blearily.
“Whaddya you want?” He said in a thick, groggy voice.
“I’d like a word with your captain.”
“Oh sure…. Cap’n’s right… down…. Here…”
Sniggering at the heavy intoxication of the rat, (who looked like he’d barely woken up from a long nap) I was led down a narrow hall and into Zarel’s cabin.
Brass porthole windows had been flung open to let in a cool sea breeze, and taking up a good portion of the cabin was a lopsided wooden table, and a bunk bed attached to the wall. Sitting at the table was the most arrogant-looking creature I’d ever seen (Besides of course, Yours Truly!)
Zarel Longblade was an ebony-furred pine marten, with a grayish-cream colored throat, and stunning hazel eyes. A scar covered the bridge of his nose, and another one ran from below his eye, to down the side of his broad muzzle.
He wore a long red taffeta waistcoat with gold trim, and thrust through his wide black sash was a rusting scimitar that glistened dully in the sun. Impaled on the blade was a green apple, which Zarel was biting into.
“Crinky, matey, who ye got there?” Zarel grinned smugly, finished his apple and took a swig of rum.
Crinky shrugged and looked disoriented, scratching his head.
“Er, I dunno, cap’n. She just came in and said she wanted to see yew.”
Zarel glanced at me coolly as though I had Dryditch Fever. Then he turned to Crinky and said
“Gettout, go ‘ang wid yer mates. I wont business with this ‘un.” He jerked a claw towards me.
Crinky nodded and dashed out of the room with surprising speed. Now that we were alone together, Zarel squinted at me. He poured a little more rum into his tankard.
“Say, I know you….Yer that Sable sommat beast, aren’t yew?”
“The Sable Quean?”
Zarel seemed to pause a moment. Then he said, “So what’s yore business aboard my ship, YORE MAJESTY?” In a mocking tone. I stiffened visibly.
My claws twitched as I said: “Suppose we make a deal, you and I. How would you and your beats like the best plunder you’ll ever lay eyes on?”
Zarel glanced around. He propped himself up with both front paws.
“Wot sort o’ plunder, eh?”
“Gold coins. Black pearls. Jeweled pawrings and necklaces; silver chalices. Colored diamonds as big as your fist!”
Zarel seemed to consider this, but then he tensed a bit, thinking about it. “Er… Wot do yew want in return?”
I smiled deviously.
“Ohh… Only your ship!”
“WOT?!?!!!” Zarel suddenly became alive with rage. As fast as lightning, he’d drawn his scimitar.
“I’ll never give up the Infamy; she’s my bloomin’ pride an’ joy, she is. An’ you kin just take yore business elsewhere, greedypaws. Mebbe you’ll find somebeast else who’ll fork over their ship but not Zarel Longblade!”
I laughed a bit and held up my paws in a warning gesture:
“All right, all right! No need to get so worked up….It was just an offer, nothing more.” I smiled sweetly.
“I’ll just take my horde and get out.”
“Huh, you’d better.” Zarel muttered, placing his footpaws up on the table.
Luckily, the marten didn’t see the sly grin spreading across my face as I edged out of the room.
When I reached camp, a few beasts were still finishing up their lunches, so I waited a while for them until I made my announcement, placing one footpaw onto a tree stump and saying in a slightly imperious tone:
“I’ve been aboard the Infamy and talked to Zarel. The fool refused my offer. And so…” I paused to clear my throat.
“We’ll follow my main plan: Take it by force. Zarel’s lot’ll stand no chance against us; his crew is just over twoscore! So everyone, get together your weapons. Those of you who can swim, take some ropes or grappling hooks and come in through the back. Creatures who can’t, take your weapons and follow me.”
The warcry was yelled out, but much softer than usual so Zarel wouldn’t hear:
“VILAYA! VILAYA! SABLE QUEAN! BLOODFANGS! BLOODFANGS! KILL! KILL! KILL!”
I knew Zarel hadn’t heard. The creatures involved in the water ambush went off first, ropes and grappling hooks in paw. I couldn’t swim to save my life, so I wasn’t among them. After they were gone, we lay in wait for a while, deathly silence blanketing the air. Then, I put two claws into my mouth and gave a low whistle. That was the signal.
We grabbed up our weapons and charged down to the beach. At the Infamy, the fighting had already started. Zarel, (still looking a bit shocked about the ambush) had gotten together his own beasts and they were losing badly: The main deck was starting to become slick with blood, and a small row of severed heads decorated the inside of the crow’s nest. I was one of the last beasts to get on board. Running up onto the deck with Jangus standing with his back to me, I looked around for any potential foes, my vision clouding in a red haze.
“Give ‘em blood and thunder!”
Jangus yelled enthusiastically.
“Now you just see if I don’t!”
That was the last coherent thing I said before the bloodwrath completely took over. It started with a bang: I inched away from Jangus and beheaded a passing searat with one casual swing of my saber. After that, it only got worse. I hunt down my foes with eerie accuracy, killing them all in brutally sadistic ways, like cutting off both their legs or noses and leaving them to bleed to death slowly. By mid-afternoon, a score of Zarel’s crew had been easily defeated.
Soon after, only old Wolfeye the stoat, the navigator was left alive; and for the purpose of taking us to Sampetra. (Jangus and I had made sure he was unarmed) There was an eerie silence in the air. I watched Ragtail strut across the deck and smiled. For one so young, he had proved himself as an excellent fighter and had great skill with his cutlass and his crossbow.
I froze however, as Zarel lunged out of the shadows. Somehow, he’d managed to hide somewhere until the battle was over. Several hordebeasts who’d been loitering began muttering and whispering under their breath. I let them. Recovering from the bloodwrath felt like recovering from a hangover.
Teeth bared viciously, Zarel lunged at Ragtail with his scimitar, aiming to behead him. I smiled. This was getting good already! Ragtail ducked. Ragtail got to his footpaws and tried to slash at Zarel’s left side. Zarel lost his balance and collapsed, but hit the rail and pulled himself up.
“Ye rotten little maggot!”
“Hah! Ever look in the mirror, filthypelt?”
They locked blades once, twice, three times. Ragtail tried to shove Zarel back to the right but Zarel was stronger. The blades interlocked and zigzagged in a whirling, tilting dance, until Ragtail FINALLY managed to find Zarel’s weak spot and exploit it. He uppercutted Zarel and his blade whistled down and hacked off the corsair marten’s right arm.
The marten sprawled across his footpaws, gasping and spasmodically clutching the bloodied stump as the blood sprayed out. I strode over, smiling, but soon the smile faded to a dark one. If I wanted to, I could just tell Ragtail to leave Zarel alone and let him bleed to death. However, Zarel was an interesting case! It’d be more fun, I thought. To keep him alive and suffering until he outlives his usefulness…. Playing him against Ragtail, and have them both competing for my favor could be an interesting game….
So I walked over to where the pine marten lay.
“Last chance, Zarel. Join or die.” I snarled, putting my saber blade at his throat. “It’s now or never.”
Zarel moaned, blood gushing from the stump of his arm. I winked at Ragtail. Good job. I paced up and down the deck.
“Well, Captain Longblade? Is it yes or no? Tell me while you can still speak!”
Zarel’s eyes flashed. I could see easily that he was not stupid and wasn’t quite patriotic enough to surrender his life for his loyalty to his ship.
“I’ll join yer rabble!” He spat.
“Good, good.” I said in a falsely-warm tone. Shortly after, Zarel was out cold. I turned to two weasels standing by and nodded towards them.
“Go find that old ratwife, what’s her name? Snakewhisker? She’s good with herbs. Take this fool below and bind up his wounds before he bleeds to death. Do it now, and keep him drugged. I don’t want him getting any ideas of rebellion into his head just yet…”
I watched for a moment as the senseless Zarel was carried below, and then, out of pure curiosity, I followed.
I waited outside Zarel’s cabin until the two weasels had left. A moment later, a tall, slightly bent-over gray rat shouldering a red satchel opened the door and closed it behind her. I went in after her.
I sat by the empty fireplace and watched Snakewhisker tend Zarel: She put herbal salves and poultices on the stump of his arm, and then covered it with a barkcloth dressing, muttering chants in some guttural foreign dialect. I watched with a critical eye as Snakewhisker held a flask of elderberry wine to Zarel’s lips, cradling his head in her arms. I had been in this same state little over a month ago. I shuddered. A few moments passed and I grew impatient. I eyed Snakewhisker and said in an impatient tone:
“Well? Is he going to live?”
“Aye, Majesty. Zarel’s a strong ‘un. He’ll be back on ‘is paws soon, methinks.”
“Good. The sooner the better.”
I actually meant this. I was eager to start manipulating Zarel and seeing what made him tick so I could use it against him.
Soon, Zarel showed signs of coming around. He moaned and tried to talk. I left the room as Snakewhisker quieted him and placed a cool rag on his forehead.
I closed the door and walked to the doorway of the cabin next door, leaning against the wall, footpaws like leaden weights, breathing hard as though I’d been running. I tried to force my mind to other things, like my current motives.
I had once said war was nothing more than a fool’s game. Now that I was in charge of a war, I realized that this was not true.
I assured myself I would be successful as I dragged myself into the cabin next door and stood in the center of the room, clutching my saber, heart pounding wildly. A strange mist seemed to settle over my vision, clouding my thoughts. I whispered to no one:
“Come talk to me. You whisper, I’ll listen… After all, you’ve been alone in the dark all these years….” I clutched the saber to me, breathing hard, gazing at my reflection.
“Like me, my friend!” Thunder flashed outside. I was impervious to it.
“And here we are today. Together once again.” But then, the storm faded out. The feeling of happy euphoria left me. I blinked, studying my reflection in the sword, my breath fogging it slightly. I was left with a vague half-memory of what I had done.
Had I just talked to my sword…? No! I assured myself, wincing. Only fools and lunatics talk to their weapons as though they were living! You’re just overworked and need to rest.
Exhausted both physically and mentally, I put away my saber, crawled under the covers of my inherited bunk, and drifted into a troubled sleep as the storm regenerated and began raging on once more.
I was twitching and breathing hard when I woke, just like when I’d had the last nightmare. My eyes lingered on the ceiling, unblinking. I wanted to make sure I was actually awake, and that this wasn’t just another nightmare come to torture me.
The storm seemed to have passed; the sound of the waves outside was gentle and lapping, and through the thin wooden walls dividing my cabin and Zarel’s, I could hear him snoring thickly through whatever sleeping potion he’d been given, and had to smile.
But my mind dwelled on other things. Now that I’d had another nightmare, who would I go to? The thought of talking to Jangus about them again embarrassed me, but it seemed like I had no other option. Still shaking a bit, I threw off the blankets, got out of bed and stepped on a floorboard. It squeaked.
From then on I took lighter, more careful steps and glanced at the cabin door across the hall. Through the small brass porthole in the window I could faintly make out Jangus, sitting in a chair in a knees to chest position. My eyes widened a bit. So I wasn’t the only one still up after all! I knocked on the door gingerly and opened it a crack.
I heard the shuffling of paws and the scraping of wood on wood as Jangus pushed his chair away got the door.
Both of us stared at each other briefly, both thinking the same thing: I had no idea you’d been up this long!
“What’re you doing up?”
I asked casually.
“Couldn’t sleep.” I noticed he shuddered a bit but decided not to mention that. After a while, he stared at me, pale and trembling with wide, unblinking eyes.
“Yes. I just had a nightmare.” I said wearily, and entered the cabin. Once both of us were in, I gazed at Jangus and said:
“I don’t want to talk about it. I just want some way to go back to sleep.”
Jangus sighed and looked away for a moment. Then he turned back to me and said:
“Growing up, my father was a captain in the horde of Frango Deathslayer, and my mother was a healer. Whenever I had nightmares, or just couldn’t sleep, she’d always take my face in her paws and recite this little poem. A few minutes later I’d be out cold.”
My ears pricked in interest.
“And that poem was…?”
“It’s from my kittenhood, Vilaya! Do you REALLY want me to recite it HERE?”
“If it’ll help me go to sleep, then yes.”
Jangus took a deep breath and said: “Here goes…Absolute miracle I still remember it…”
Then he recited in a solemn voice:
“My love for thee is so great, As such I long for you every moment you stray. ‘Till the sea parts and the clouds burst, and the sun turns night to day, I will wait for you. I will wait for you. Here without you, my love and my thoughts will be with you always. Though we may not be together in flesh or fur, my heart will always wait for you.”
A strange peace had come over me. I suddenly felt less frightened and restless. Taking a breath, I ran my claws through Jangus’s fur and looked him in the eye.
“Thank you Jangus, thank you.”
I saw him smile as I left the cabin and went back for my own. I was asleep the second I hit the pillow. There were no more nightmares.
I woke up the next day feeling refreshed. I got out of bed, changed, and glanced out the window. The sky was a pale diaphanous shade of blue, and taken up partially by fluffy white clouds. I noticed the seawater had changed color: The previous night it had been a dark, steely blue, whereas now it had shifted into a bright turquoise. I felt a swell of relief. We’d survived the Western Sea, and the treacherous ice fields they contained. Now (and I could tell by the color of the water) we were headed northwest, to Sampetra’s blue skies and blue waters.
I strode across the cabin floor, walked out into the hall and glanced to Zarel’s cabin. The door had been left ajar. Out of curiosity, I looked in on the marten: He was sitting propped up in bed, looking much better than last night, a wooden tray of hard tack and salted beef on his lap. I edged away, wincing a bit. I wasn’t too thrilled if that was all the Infamy had for rations, but I’d lived off worse and could make do.
I went up the stairs and out onto the main deck. The Infamy had been transformed over night: The carcasses (and Zarel’s arm!) had been thrown into the sea, and the blood had been swabbed off all the decks. I leaned against the rail, and was met by a cool late summer breeze.
I glanced up towards the ship’s wheel, where Wolfeye was steering, maps and charts surrounding him. A few other vermin with nautical experience had taken over for him during the night, working in shifts, but now he was back.
“Wolfeye!” I called.
“How’s she doing?”
I had to repeat myself over the roaring wind.
The old stoat glanced into the bright horizon.
“Well, m’lady, we’re heading straight northwest, just like yew an’ Lord Jangus wanted. Real smooth passin’. If’n she goes on like this, we’ll be there in a few hours.” He pointed to a tiny, almost invisible speck of land in the distance that grew a bit as we approached it.
“And that yon island there, is Sampetra.”
I nodded, thanked Wolfeye, and had breakfast in my cabin. The hours went by quickly. After eating, I went back up to the main deck, and by then Jangus, Ragtail, and a few other select vermin came onto the deck, even Zarel (who was limping heavily and had to be assisted by Snakewhisker.) To pass the time, we did pretty much everything: Argued, dueled, spat over the ship’s rail, and told ancient jokes (ie, so two searats walk into a tavern….)
A little after lunch, Sampetra was within reach. A rallying shout of “LAND AHOY!” Soon, the gangplank was lowered, and we all charged off (yes, even Zarel, who seemed a little too eager for my liking) The part of Sampetra we had landed on was the front of the island, the first part of it any seafaring creature would see upon heading straight northwest. It was occupied by several outcroppings, tide pools, and a white sand beach.
We made camp there, and almost immediately I saw Ragtail, sitting with a few other vermin (Zarel included) by one of the tide pools. They were whispering things I couldn’t quite make out as they devoured the small crabs they’d enticed out of the pool.
“Jangus!” I whispered, motioning with my paw for Jangus to come close.
“Keep an eye on that lot. I don’t like the look of what they’re doing…I don’t want traitors afoot.”
Jangus nodded. “I hear and obey. I’ll watch them like a hawk.” We looked at each other a moment, before going our separate ways.
Eager to see what was on the rest of the island, I left camp and headed farther north.
I swung myself up on a sharp granite boulder; ever grateful that I was just wearing simple breeches and not wide skirts that were easy to trip on, or get stuck on something.
I sucked in my breath and pulled myself up onto the sandy cliff, grasping at a large piece of driftwood. It held and I managed to swing myself up after it. I stood and took in the scenery around me:
I noticed then that there were no trees in Sampetra. It had a few dead saplings and many bushes, but no trees at all. It was sparsely populated by overgrown fields, a few small salt marshes and outlying meadows. I could faintly make out a large oval-shaped dome in the vicinity, as well as a square, roofed building.
A bit curious, I took a few hesitant steps forward, and then some more. The sand rubbed and chafed against my bare paws, but I kept going, excitement filling me. According to legend, Sampetra had once been ruled by a vain and tyrannical marten emperor named Ublaz Mad Eyes, who’d lived a life of luxury here, with his Monitor lizard army and trident-rat militia around him until his palace had been burned and his own corsairs had revolted against him. Maybe some of Ublaz’s treasure and gold was still on the island!
I continued down a forking path, footpaws scraping against the damp island trail. I tensed suddenly, hearing a snapping of twigs and movement in the bushes. My heart began to pound. I heard the faint murmuring of hissing voices from somewhere, and laughter.
Suddenly it was though I was surrounded, even though I wasn’t. I heard a reptilian voice hiss: “At lasssst a Warmblood! Another for the Emperorsss’s gamesssss…” An emperor on Sampetra?! I had assumed Sampetra had been abandoned since Ublaz’s time, but I didn’t have anymore time to dwell on it. Too quick for me to fight if off, a pikepoint was whacked over my head, and I saw stars.
I didn’t have a headache when I woke up. What I had made a migraine look like fun. I felt like the back of my skull was slowly being beaten with a hammer, and faint colors flashed behind my eyes. Until my vision cleared, I assumed I was being carried.
When my eyes finally cleared, I saw I was being bodily carried by two monitor lizards! Two others marched beside us, armed with spears, yellow eyes flashing.
“What in hellgates is going on here?!” I snapped.
One of the monitors glared at me.
“Sssilence, foolisssh Warmblood! We are bringing you to our Emperor’ssss court to participate in hissss Gamesss.”
I could obviously tell that by games, the Monitors DIDN’T mean something like tag or checkers, but what exactly they meant, I didn’t ask. Something told me I didn’t want to know. I was carried through the wasteland of Sampetra in silence until a huge three-story building that appeared to be covered in gold leaf, and with a stone roof, appeared, beside it a massive limestone dome. The buildings I’d seen from a distance earlier.
“That’d be the Emperor’s palace and arena now.” One of the Monitors said, and they all quickened up their pace. My head began to pound more furiously, and I blacked out again.
When I came to again, I was deposited (none too gently!) on the dirt floor of a darkened chamber made of limestone. My saber had been confiscated. All around me various half-starved animals, woodlander and vermin alike were practicing with bows and arrows (with flat tips) or swords that were either wooden, metal, or extremely dull.
As though reading my mind, the door opened and one of the Monitors who’d carried me poked his scaly head in, saying:
“This is where the participants of the Games train. You’ll stay here until if and when the Emperor sends for you. If you’re not requested by sunset, you’ll go down with everyone else.” He pointed with his spear to a set of stairs leading underground, and left. I took a deep breath and looked around. There were two Monitor guards, one at the back of the room and one in front of the underground steps.
Taking a deep breath, I turned away from them, picked up a discarded sword and began to train. I spent what felt like the next half hour impaling straw dummies and parrying unseen enemies with a metal sword. Just as I raised the sword to challenge another nonexistent foe, the door was flung open roughly. A guard entered and strode over to me.
“His Majesty, Nexus Greenscales, Emperor of all Sampetra, desires your presence, Warmblood.” He said coolly, spitting the word ‘warmblood’
“Come.” He said impatiently, and I took a step forward. The guard took two iron shackles from the wall and bound my wrists together. I was then led out at the spearpoint, and to the door at the end of the room. I stepped, blinking into the bright sun, which shown down onto me from the clear ceiling of the dome.
All around the arena, various monitor lizards sat with impatient, wary looks. At the center of the arena was a raised box decorated with red velvet hangings, and rugs, some maroon satin, and others made from the pelts of beasts.
Sitting on a mahogany-and-velvet thronechair was a Monitor I was inclined to believe was the Emperor, Nexus. He was yellow-eyed and well-muscled, and wearing a white sleeveless robe (a toga?) and a crown of gilded olive branches. Perched on his shoulder was the most bizarre lizard I’d ever seen: He was small and runty, lime-green in color, but with a curled tail like a whip and bulging eyes. I vaguely identified him as a chameleon, and every so often his tongue would flick, and he’d devour a fly or mosquito or anything else unlucky enough to fly near his Emperor.
I suddenly felt hot rage rise in me as I saw what was propped up by Nexus’s throne: My saber! He had my sword! I didn’t have time to dwell on it however, as I was prodded along with the spear and led up a winding set of limestone stairs to the Emperor’s box. Once inside, a wooden gate was locked behind me.
Nexus studied me curiously, saying to the guard:
“Ssso, what have we here, Tauran—“ Before Nexus could go on, the chameleon on his should interrupted, saying in a squeaking voice:
“Aiieee! Sire, a Warmblood! She is evil. We must cast her down to Hellgates! Ahhhh!”
“Ssssilence, Maularano!” Nexus snarled, as the chameleon leapt onto my shoulder and started licking up any flies he saw. His colors changed from green to vivid pink, and blue to tie-dyed purple and orange, to blue and red and neon orange.
Whimpering at Nexus’s cold snarl, Maularano leapt from my shoulder back to Nexus’s. The Emperor stroked his small head, saying coolly:
“Thissss isssss my court advisssser, Maularano. He issss mad.”
“Pay him no mind.”
The guard turned to Nexus: “Sire, this is a Warmblood from the far south. I hope you find her sword appealing.”
“I do. Go on.”
“Her name is Vilaya, but she calls herself the Sable Quean, or so I’ve heard. But without her weapons she is a mere Warmblood like any other!”
I growled and bared my teeth. The reptiles ignored me.
“I can sssee that.” Nexus leaned back. “Ssshe looks quite delicious.” Then, the Emperor turned to me:
“Vilaya IS your name, correct?”
“Yes it is.”
“All right then, Vilaya. You are now a participant in the Warmblood Gamessss. You will face my traitorousss captain, Vulcan Spire. He will be armed and you will not be. The rulesss of the Games are sssimple: If you win, you will rule Ssssampetra as my equal….But if you losssse…” Nexus chuckled.
“Your limbs will be eaten and your body burned. And no one has ever won the Gamesss before…”
As I was led away, I yelled hoarsely: “But what about my horde?! What’ll you tell them?”
“Ahh, yessss. Ssso that’s the rabble we found out on the beach. They have been informed of your ssssituation and will be informed of the outcome.” He paused and nodded. “Welcome to the Warmblood Games and may the oddsss be NEVER in your favor.” The door was slammed behind me, and the guard remained with Nexus. I had no choice but to descend down the stairs and wait for my opponent.
I stood in the dirt, breathing hard. I felt cold reptilian eyes on me. The lizards and reptiles observing me obviously wanted nothing more than to see me get dismembered. But if I could help it, they wouldn’t!
Soon, a door on the far side of the arena was open, and an arrogant-looking lizard (Vulcan) strode out. His scales were a rusty red-brown color, and a hood of natural skin, and his eyes were a darker green. He was dressed simply in a long black cloak and a matching tunic, and carried a longsword.
Glancing up to Nexus’s box, he yelled “My lord, do I REALLY have to do this?”
Nexus eyed him. “Yesss you do. And if you win, you’ll be given back your title and be accepted back into court.”
Vulcan glared at me and said in a slow, cool voice: “Bring it on, Warmblood!” He lunged at me with his sword. I dodged.
Vulcan began taunting me, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Curtains of scarlet had dropped over my eyes, and soon I was in full bloodwrath, flinging myself onto Vulcan and tearing at his flesh and scales.
Yelping in pain, Vulcan tried to get up and throw me off of him. I raked my claws down his side, causing blood to well.
“You’re a Coldblood but you bleed like any other!” I said in a guttural rasp. Vulcan stared at me. He seemed genuinely afraid.
Getting back up, Vulcan tried to swing his sword to behead me. I ducked. Using all my strength, I wrenched the sword from him. Vulcan stared at me, frozen and terrified for one split second before I swung the sword and severed his head. His eyes were still wide-open with fright.
Blood splattering the front of my tunic, I was strutting around the arena and chanting out victory yells, the red fading from my vision. The assembled coldbloods gazed at me, terrified and awed at the same time. In Nexus’s box, I saw Maularano nudge his Emperor. He said nervously: “Sire, methinks this warmblood is dangerous and arrogant.”
“Aren’t they all?”
Neither lizard expected me to lunge forward when I did, Vulcan’s head pitching forward. It landed in Nexus’s lap. Flinching a bit, the Emperor stuck the head on a nearby pike and motioned me back into his box. The door was unlocked and I was let in.
“You have done well, Vilaya.” Nexus hissed in an almost-gentle tone.
“Now you will rule Sssampetra alongside me.” He turned to the guard. “Go tell her horde what’sss become of her.”
I sat forward. “And bring them up here too!”
Nexus nodded, saying calmly “They will be brought to my palace for dinner, do not worry.” He glanced to me.
“Go there now. You are dismisssssed. Take your weapon. I no longer desssire it.”
I gratefully snatched back my saber. Not waiting for another word on it, I hurriedly asked to have the door unlocked, and hurried out of the arena.
In the palace, I waited in an empty bedchamber. It was furnished with a mahogany highboy, a velvet horsehair sofa, a marble fireplace, an ebony framed-canopy bed, and red damask curtains. The entire room smelled of myrrh.
Rather than waiting forever for a servant to do it, I cleaned my clothes by wiping them with a torn bedsheet I’d dipped into a bowl of water. Luckily, the blood was only superficial and faded quickly, and as it was summer, my clothes didn’t take long to dry.
I jumped back, startled, as one of the coldblood servants (an iguana) opened the door and bowed. “Milady,” He said in a slightly gravelly voice. “Dinner is served, and your horde has arrived.”
“Thank you.” I said in a clipped tone, and followed the iguana to the dining room.
I found the dining room easily enough, not needing the servant’s help. It was a cold, drafty room made of wood and occupied by a lit granite fireplace and a long oaken table, at which sat Nexus, Jangus, and only HALF my horde…
Sitting down next to Jangus, I quickly gave him a complete but condensed version of everything that happened, and said: “….But where’s everyone else?! Nexus said that ALL OF YOU would show up.” I glanced down at what was on my plate. It was Vulcan’s leg. Jangus sighed and took a bite out of Vulcan’s other leg, which was on his plate.
“While you were gone, Ragtail and his half the horde revolted right after one of the Monitors came and gave us the news. They started questioning us, and saying things like ‘how do you know how to lead a horde? You’re not Cassava!’ and began rallying and cheering… They said something about making a name for themselves.”
My heart skipped a beat. This was exactly the thing I’d been dreading! So I explained to Nexus what had happened, and finished my speech with a request of: “I’d like to drill my horde out in the courtyard, so we can all practice with our weapons. Would some of your Captains be willing to come with us?”
Nexus nodded. “Aye, I will sssend some out as sssoon as you bid.”
“Good…But first…Would anyone like to see me demonstrate my skill in swordplay?”
There were general murmurs of agreement. So, I took my saber, and walked to the other side of the room. I heard the faint buzzing of a mosquito. So I closed my eyes and hurled the sword. It protruded from the woodwork, twitching a bit. I walked over to it and pulled it from the wall. Impaled on its tip was the mosquito.
Heavy applause. I smiled and bowed, returning to my seat. The fact that half the horde had revolted scared me, but now I was less apprehensive of facing them. Now that I had Nexus’s horde on my side… What could possibly go wrong?
Chapter Twenty-Five: Holiday
The following morning on the western side of Sampetra, Shawn (aka RAGTAIL!) was pacing by the rocks impatiently. He’d been drilling his new militia all morning while waiting to hear back from Zarel’s report on enemy activity on the far side of the island.
Getting the vermin to trust him had been easy enough, but Shawn was uneasy about revealing his true identity to them, but sooner or later the time would come. Another thought that crossed his mind was that soon, this army would need a name. And yet another problem was going on: Authority. From the very beginning, Shawn and Zarel had argued about which one of them would lead their army. The conflict was still unresolved, and Shawn was nervous about its outcome.
“All right! Stand still, now… Keep going! Keep thrusting the pikes upwards. We need more practice with those.”
Shawn froze and stopped giving orders however, as Zarel appeared. Shawn approached him.
“What’s your report?”
Zarel paused to spit on the ground.
“Huh, the Bloodfangs ‘ave joined up with them lizards… And some monitor who calls hisself emperor. Wot’s ‘is name? Nexus? Nexus.”
Zarel and Shawn stared at each other for a long time, both with serious expressions on their faces.
“Ragtail, I been meanin’ to talk to ye.” Zarel said after a while, leaning on his scimitar.
Shawn leaned forward.
“On who should be in charge.”
“I’m the one who brought us together, matey! It should be ME!”
“Huh, brave words from a smart liddle whelp like yerself. I’ve been leadin’ an’ fightin’ since you were probably but a babe in arms! How old are yew?”
“Sixteen.” Shawn lied, even though in actuality he was fourteen.
“Hah! Knew it!”
Shawn placed his paws on his hips.
“I may be young but I’m good with a sword and a crossbow.”
“I’ve seen.” Zarel winced visibly.
“But yore not as good as ole Zarel quite yet!”
“What makes you so sure?” Shawn’s claws were straying to his cutlass.
Zarel gave him a look.
“If yore so arrogant an’ sure o’ yoreself, why not prove it? Let’s fight! The winner’ll be the leader!”
Shawn drew his sword and squared his shoulders, grinning wickedly.
Zarel drew his scimitar and slashed with it, grateful that Shawn had not cut off his sword arm. Shawn deflected the blow and uppercutted it. The two opponents were circling now as their followers watched. They knew it’d be better for all of them to stay on the sidelines until the conflict was over.
Shawn parried Zarel’s blows, trying to block them and return them. The otter was growing nervous. Naturally, he was better with the bow and arrow then with the sword, but this was definitely not the place to say it.
“Is this the best ye can do, Ragtail?” Zarel mocked, slashing from behind.
Naturally, Shawn leapt forward, and spun around to face Zarel.
“Think I’m just a novice, do you? Well think again!”
Shawn lunged forward viciously and stabbed Zarel in the hip. Zarel cringed as blood poured from the wound but kept fighting, blocking, parrying and circling with expert skill.
Zarel seemed to disappear for a moment, and then returned, rushing up to Shawn and intending to run the otter through. But the young otter was faster! Feeling a surge of adrenaline charging through his veins, Shawn leaned forward and ran Zarel through.
Gasping, the pine marten tried to reflexively clutch at his throat. Pale and bleeding out fast, just before he collapsed on the ground, Zarel clawed at Shawn’s face with his swordtip. There was a faint ripping sound.
Zarel Longblade collapsed to the ground dead with Shawn’s cloth weasel mask attached to the tip of his scimitar.
Shawn took a deep breath and faced the assembled creatures, who had began murmuring among themselves suspiciously. “There are some things I need to tell you: I’m obviously not a weasel, and my name’s not Ragtail. It’s Shawn. I know I’m an otter, but don’t turn against me for it! I’m a better leader than Zarel was, and have I not defeated him? Zarel was barely involved in this at all! If it weren’t for me, we’d still be taking orders from Vilaya. Does anybeast want to suffer under the claws of a tyrant?!”
There were slow murmurs of agreement with Shawn’s charismatic speech. He felt his nervousness start to fade and be replaced by raw courage.
“I hereby name us the SRAVAN… Sampetra Resistance Against Vilaya and Nexus! Who’s with me? Anyone who wants to desert, leave now.”
Everyone stood exactly where they were.
“SRAVAN! SRAVAN SRAVAN!” At first it was only Shawn chanting and shouting. But soon, the rest of the beasts at his command joined in.
After the noise had died down, Shawn said in a firm voice:
“Now. Everybeast follow me to the beach. Zarel, who’d come here once before, said that Nexus and his horde come out onto the beach to train. Well, we’ll be waiting for them!”
The Sravan lay in wait on the beach, crouching in the aquamarine depths of Sampetra’s warm sea, scarcely breathing, waiting for the moment, waiting for Shawn to give the signal. All was deathly silent except for the lapping of the waves against the shore and the rocks.
Finally, their patience was rewarded. Vilaya appeared on a distant jetty, clad simply in a black cloak and tunic, and a chainmail vest. She was not yet close enough to see the attackers on the beach. Soon after, Nexus and his monitors (along with the Bloodfangs) appeared as well. Shawn gave the signal, indicating the jetty rapidly, twice. This was their cue.
The Sravan came stampeding out of the water like a battalion of malformed sea monsters, or raging buffalo. They charged up the natural stone steps into the open flatlands. “SRAVAN! SRAVAN! SRAVAN!” Shawn’s battle yell was louder than the rest, however.
Vilaya spun around to face them. Clearly, she had not been expecting the ambush at the beginning; her face was white in horror. But the Sable Quean soon regained her composure. Yanking a spear from an idle Monitor, and roared out “You stupid idiots! Don’t just stand there! Attack them before they attack you!!”
And that was all it took. Needing no further prompting at all, the remaining Bloodfangs and even a few monitors (and Vilaya) came charging in, armed with a variety of spears, axes, swords, and crossbows.
“Bloodfaaaangs! Victory to the Sable Queeeannn!!”
Using her saber, Vilaya fenced her way through the bloodthirsty entourage of fighting creatures.
“You filthy traitor!” She snarled, launching herself at Shawn. “I was right not to trust you!”
“Who says you didn’t?” Shawn remarked, blocking off her sword blows with his cutlass.
Slash! Clang! Swish!
Again and again the blades struck.
Vilaya was adept at protecting herself from Shawn’s blows, and then dealing back vicious ones of her own.
Vilaya was shaking in her rage.
“At least your head will decorate my swordpoint.” She mused, slashing at Shawn’s arm. Blood oozed from his tunic sleeve. Shawn ignored it- if he paused to examine his wound for even a moment it would bring about his undoing.
“In your dreams, scum!” Shawn grated.
By now, it was clear that the tide was turning in the Sravan’s favor. Vilaya clenched her teeth and sidestepped away from Shawn. By now a large rallying cry came from the back ranks:
Vilaya gasped and glanced aside to see who was yelling. It was Jangus. Before Shawn could stop her, Vilaya ran. Shawn cursed himself for a fool for not bringing his crossbow.
“I’ll get you one day, spawn of Hellgates! You hear me?! I WILL!”
Vilaya was so busy running she almost didn’t hear. Almost.
“You heard Commander Jangus! Everybeast out of here! Leave the dead and the wounded, we need to FALL BACK!”
And with that, the Bloodfangs and the Monitors retreated north, to the safety of their compound; and the walls of Nexus’s palace.
“Cowards.” Shawn growled, staying his cutlass. He spat on the ground. The otter blinked, seeing a slowly-growing shape on the horizon. Turning to his gathered ranks he said “You go back to camp. I’ll meet you there soon.” Shawn picked up his discarded sword and galloped towards the beach.
Meanwhile, on the distant horizon, the three travelers from Mossflower were nearing the end of their fated journey. The trip overnight from Mossflower had been very rough; and the icy waters of the Western Sea had not been kind to the Charice. The little boat had braved several violent windstorms overnight however, with all the valiance of a bigger ketch or rig. The afternoon of the first day, things had been in disarray. Shortly after Mossflower was out of sight, Nitram’s secret dislike for badgers had finally broken out over who was doing the rowing, and for how long.
All this fighting stopped, however, when the Charice almost capsized! After that, things slowly reverted back to normalcy.
The three questing animals had rowed in shifts as night fell, two napping fitfully while one would stay awake and row, then pass the oars to someone else.
Now however, it seemed they were on the brink of arguing again. The golden eye of the summer sun blazed down onto the frothy sea, and Ambry was panting and sweating with exhaustion as her powerful rowing slowed and slowed. The badger took a swig from her canteen, wiping her dark sweaty brow with the back of her paw.
“Drake, come on! It’s your turn to row!”
“I just rowed ten minutes ago!”
“Well it’s still your turn.”
Nitram sniggered as Ambry handed Drake the heavy wooden oars. Thick circles of froth sprang up from the water as Drake began rowing.
“Nit, you see something?”
Ambry asked. Drake and Nitram both had their eyes on the approaching horizon.
“Aye, looks like an island.” They all exchanged looks. Sampetra. It had to be; they WERE heading northwest.
A slow hour crawled by. The oars changed paws yet again. Sampetra began to get bigger and bigger, the golden cube of Nexus’s palace growing ever larger with it.
“It’s Sampetra all right!”
Drake commented as they approached. Nitram and Ambry kept their eyes on the growing shore, filled with a mixture of excitement and worry. As Ambry, being the strongest, hauled the Charice ashore with the rope attached to the hull, Drake and Nitram got out. No sooner had they arrived on the massive northern beach, did a cloaked figure come rushing up to meet them…
Shawn ran up to Drake, Ambry and Nitram, breathless from running a great distance, He let the hood of his cloak fall to his shoulders so that the three travelers could see his face.
“Who are you?” Ambry asked boldly, striding up to him.
Shawn paused, gasping a bit.
“I’m Shawn; son of Darial from Holt Stormbattle… You might’ve seen me before you left.”
“So YOU’RE Darial’s son!”
Drake said, remembering Darial mentioning his son.
“Aye, and you’re Drake aren’t you? My mother gave me your names before I left.”
Nitram glanced to Shawn.
“So what’re ye doin’ here, eh Shawn?”
Shawn sighed and stroked his temple.
“I’m leader for a group of creatures called the SRAVAN- Sampetra Resistance Against Vilaya and Nexus. I came here as a spy for the Bloodfangs- That’s Vilaya the Sable Quean’s new horde, and the ones left are an awful loyal bunch. I was able t’get together a resistance, and we’re the SRAVAN.”
Shawn sighed and began to pace.
“There’s an emperor on this island, a Monitor who calls himself Nexus Greenscales. A real cruel sort. And the SRAVAN and I, we’ve been trying to---“
Ambry stared at Shawn, brown eyes getting the reddish haze of early bloodwrath. She took a deep breath and said to Shawn, struggling to control her mounting rage:
“Vilaya is on this island?”
Shawn nodded solemly.
“I wish she weren’t, matey, but… She is.”
Ambry gritted her teeth.
“Shawn…Vilaya killed my friend, a young otter named Flandor about a month ago. Flandor and I didn’t know each other for very long, but we were very close. He was very brave and a true hero to the end. I want to avenge his death.”
Shawn’s ice-colored eyes roved over the three young creatures.
“I… We… We need all the help we kin get back at camp. An’ you three alone wouldn’t last an hour in this filth ‘ole.”
He lowered his voice:
“Vilaya may have spies. But we don’t know.”
Sensing a danger in the air, Shawn looked about. Finding nothing, he turned back to Nitram, Ambry and Drake and nodded.
“Looks like the coast’s clear, mates. Let’s go back to my camp. We’ll talk there. C’mon.”
Shawn glanced nervously in front and behind him, and ushered Ambry, Nitram and Drake back to the SRAVAN’s camp.
When they arrived back at camp, a lot of heads were turned at the sight of Shawn and his new companions. Many of the SRAVAN members were either gossiping about what battle plans to use, or else practicing with their weapons, a surplus pile of which lay half in half out of the encroaching holly bushes.
“Everybeast, these are three creatures here are acquaintances of mine from Mossflower. They’ll be helping us in our plans. Don’t mind them.”
It was gradual and took several minutes, but eventually the SRAVAN went back to their original activities.
Soon, Ambry went to the edge of camp to practice with her infamous sling, and Nitram with his bow and arrow. Drake however, felt a little left out. Unlike his friends, he did not have a weapon of preference, and was as such somewhat inexperienced.
Sighing, Drake said, in a sheepish tone:
“I don’t have a general weapon. How am I going to train with everyone else?”
“Oh, it’s fine. You can take one of the weapons from there if you want.” Shawn gestured to the pile of weapons near the bushes.
“What do you say to a little lesson in fencing?” Shawn grinned and threw his cutlass into the air and caught it.
Drake nodded vigorously.
“Hah, that’s the spirit!”
Drake selected a long rapier from the pile of weapons. Shawn unsheathed his cutlass and took a few steps back.
“Good start!” Shawn yelled encouragingly over his blade as he swiped with his cutlass. The blades collided, flickering brilliantly in the bright summer sun.
The two fencing creatures moved off to the right, the swords striking again and again. Finally, Shawn managed to get the upper paw. He slashed upwards from Drake and cleaved the air near the mouse’s right side.
He jumped back, startled. Shawn laughed.
“Natural reaction, don’t worry! Keep it up. You have potential, Let’s keep going.”
By now Drake was ready to make a move of his own. He charged in from behind, catching Shawn nearly off guard and aimed a hit to the bottom right. Shawn blocked. The lesson finally ended when Drake’s planned slash backfired, and Shawn easily dodged and uppercutted it from the side.
“So how’d I do?”
“Good! You have talent for your age. We’ll fence again after lunch. And if you want, keep the blade. It’s an extra.”
Drake thrust the rapier through his belt and went off to train by himself.
The afternoon dragged slowly by. Shortly after lunch, Drake, Nitram and Ambry were called back to camp to discuss the SRAVAN’s current battle plans and interests. However, it was difficult trying to come up with a plan that EVERYONE liked and could agree upon. All of this negotiation was beginning to try Shawn’s patience just a little.
He now sat in the dirt, drawing war diagrams in the dirt with his rapier blade. His newest drawing depicted a bunch of poorly-drawn creatures fighting each other in combat.
“…..We can’t do another ambush again!”
Shawn was saying.
“Our last one was risky enough, and besides; the Bloodfangs and Nexus’s lizards will be expecting us to try again, daring us to come get them. But obviously they’re just trying to lead us into a trap. If we try to ambush them now, as sure as fur an’ fang they’ll be waitin’ for us.”
Drake stood up.
“Suppose we have a total war?”
Shawn shook his head fervently.
“All-out-war by itself would never work, but a combination of it might. We need to try something more subtle. Something the other side will never see coming. Right now, I need somebeast to spy on the opposition and see what they’re doing. It’s too dangerous for me to do it; they all know I’m the leader, and would kill me on the spot if they so much as saw me blink. Volunteers?”
A slew of paws went up.
Shawn began pacing as he studied the eager spying-happy volunteers. Eventually, his gaze settled on the dusty ground.
“What we need, is somebeast who can blend in with the shadows and move about unseen, and can hide easily if the situation calls for. Can anyone do that?”
Almost instantly, all the paws went down except for Nitram’s.
Nitram said in a calm, aloof tone.
Shawn turned to Nitram.
“Have you had spying experience before, Nitram?”
The rat nodded.
“And you really CAN do all the things I said earlier?”
Shawn nodded solemnly.
“Then may the seasons be with ye, mate. Good luck out there.”
Nitram straightened his dark cloak, and picked up his crossbow, saying to Shawn
“Where’s the enemy now?”
“Darned if I know. On this time of day, they usually seem to be at Nexus’s compound to the northeast but after what happened this morning I wouldn’t bet on it. They’re almost always on the eastern side of the island though; and I wouldn’t be too surprised if they have a backup camp hidden somewhere there.”
Nitram thanked Shawn for providing what information he had, and set out northwest to look for the Bloodfangs and the Monitors.
Dead prairie grass rustled as Nitram made his way through one of the many fields to the east. He’d been traveling for roughly ten minutes now, and found no trace of the enemy. So far. The dead grass crackled as Nitram’s bare paws trampled it, and he thought he could smell the faint scent of smoke and pelts in the air. It seemed to be coming further north.
Following the scent, Nitram left the isolated bramble patch and headed down a narrow, straight trail. The fading smell of beasts was now starting to grow stronger, gradually, as were the silhouettes of Nexus’s palace and arena.
When he reached the compound, suddenly the scents and the trail he’d been following went corpse-cold. Nitram didn’t even try to get in the arena; there were no doors that he could see, and this lead him to believe that there were definitely some hidden secret entrances, but where they’d be, the rat had no idea.
Nitram didn’t need to get into the arena to know it had been abandoned: There was no usual clamor of roaring crowds or striking weapons, no telltale squirting of blood…
Nitram shuddered and walked right, towards Nexus’s palace. It was made entirely of wood, with gold-leaf paint, a stone roof, and a massive wooden front door, as well as a steeple-shaped turret on the roof. The rat shuddered, getting an intense feeling that there were indeed creatures somewhere, and that they were watching him.
Walking up to the door, Nitram was immediately discouraged by the small brass padlock on it. So before going to their supposed mystery destination, Vilaya, Nexus and their respective hordes had known to lock up. Great. Just great!
Nitram turned around to leave, sighing. Out of the corner of his eye though, he saw something…
An open window! It was open just a crack; from when somebeast, most likely an oafish ferret or weasel had forgotten to close it all the way, but it was still open! This was a clue that other creatures could still possibly be around, and a doorway into spying on them to learn their motives!
Nitram ran to the window and opened it all the way, and lowered himself carefully in through the frame. Even though the door had been locked, it was definitely a major possibility that Jangus, Vilaya and Nexus had left behind some creatures to guard the palace in their absence, and because of that he’d still have to be careful.
If I see anybeast in here, just hide, eavesdrop on them and try to learn their plans, then leave. If I don’t see anyone…. They really are gone, and I can leave. But first, I have to search to be sure…
Nitram thought, and looked around. The room he was in appeared to be some sort of throne room: Brass hangings with incense in them hung from the ceiling, and the room’s floor was covered with grand carpets patterned with grand landscapes and pictures of water lilies. At the back of the room there was a great, limestone thronechair with a cape tossed over it. Nexus’s throne.
Obviously, there was no one here. Nitram gingerly walked out the adjoining door and into the front hall. It was a large, drafty stone room, furnished only by a long imperial staircase, a horsehair sofa, and two vases containing wilted flowers. This was the main room of the palace, where creatures would come and go. If anyone was still here somewhere, they would pass through this room, and soon.
Nitram hid behind the sofa (which oddly, had no legs) for a while and waited for this telltale activity. Nothing ever happened. Finally feeling he could take the risk, Nitram stamped the floor with a footpaw. Hard. It echoed for a few moments, and then faded.
Nobeast ever came to see what the strange noise was. His suspicions had been confirmed: The palace was indeed empty; the Bloodfangs and the Monitors had gone somewhere else. But if nobeast was around, then why had Nitram gotten that sudden, intense feeling of being watched??
Feeling it come on again, Nitram shuddered, and left the palace through the way he’d came, taking great care to shut the window exactly as it had been when he’d arrived.
Craving success after his planned espionage visit had been a fiasco, Nitram headed further northeast, relying on natural instinct.
Soon, he left the eerie palace and limestone dome behind. The feeling of being observed soon faded with it.
After traveling on a few more miles, Nitram stopped to rest in one of the prairie fields very similar to the one he’d been in earlier. He lay near a blueberry bush, and haphazardly picked one off the branch and ate it.
After eating, Nitram traveled farther north and stopped to rest his weary footpaws in another one of the small groves. He tensed and leaned forward a bit, hearing voices, as well as metal and steel clashing against each other, and the yelling out of orders:
“Come on, you worthless frogspawn! Try harder! Those SRAVAN fools will probably defeat us if you keep acting as miserably as you do!”
Nitram froze. The voice that had snapped out those words was most definitely Vilaya’s. Staying still longer, he eventually made out Jangus and Nexus’s (and even Maularano’s) voices as well, and even heard about plans to ambush the SRAVAN themselves when they finished training!
Heart pounding wildly at his find, Nitram backed away from the bush and had to run on all fours to avoid being spotted by the Sable Quean and her equally-ruthless allies.
Nitram ran south, his bare paws colliding with the dusty brown earth again and again, breathing raggedly from running so long without stopping. He’d been heading in the direction of camp back now for maybe twelve minutes. So far so good. The distant sound of voices could be heard steadily louder now, and Nitram took a gasping breath and almost tripped as he reached camp.
Weapons training was finishing up now, and most members of the SRAVAN had hunkered down in the dirt and were now arguing, gossiping or just talking.
Upon seeing Nitram, Shawn looked up from his cutlass and met the rat’s gaze with his own.
“So you’re back. Find anything?”
Nitram threw a slightly crooked salute.
“I went to the palace and the arena. It looked empty, but I went in to be sure. After that, I started headin’ northeast like ye said and…”
Nitram dropped his voice to a secretive, solemn whisper.
“I found the camp!”
“The Bloodfangs and the monitors were there, all of them? Nobeast was on patrol that you could see?”
“Aye, all there!”
Shawn burst into a sunny grin and rubbed his paws together in an underhanded way.
“They also talked about,”
Nitram added in a low voice.
“Planning to ambush US after training’s over.”
Shawn just laughed.
“Ambush us?! They’ll soon find who they’re dealing with.”
He said confidentially, and clapped Nitram on the shoulder heartily, adding:
Then, Shawn turned and faced the assembled creatures.
“Attention. Nitram here, has found something I’d like to tell everybeast about….”
“…While spying in the northeast, Nitram discovered the alternate training camp of Vilaya and her allies. He learned that they planned to ambush us when finished with their weapons training. But we are NOT going to let that happen! We’ve come too far for that now. So here’s the plan…”
A few creatures came closer, but gradually the assembled members of the militia listened to what Shawn had to say.
“While Vilaya and her allies are still training, we simply go inside the palace and invade it. And wait. Wait for them to come to us! And when they do, by Vulpuz’s fang we’ll be ready for them!”
A rousing cheer erupted from all present. Shawn waved his cutlass in a flamboyant manner. Then, out of nowhere, the warcries came (but not loud enough to be heard on the other side of the island, thankfully!)
Spurred on by raw courage, nothing more, nothing less, Shawn and his followers (including the three chosen ones!) Marched on to Nexus’s compound. The landscape changed rapidly as they ran, and in far less time than usual they reached the palace grounds.
When they reached the door, Ambry pushed her way through the gathered crowd and said:
“Everybeast stand back while I do this…..”
Taking a brief running start, Ambry raised a massive footpaw and knocked the door down with amazing, resilient badger strength. A scrawny ferret hurried up to Shawn, panting.
“Er, what now, Chief?”
“We wait. We wait…”
Silence blanketed Nexus’s palace and filled it to the core like an ominous funeral shroud; enveloping everything it touched. Drake’s heart was pounding in his chest, his paws twitched slightly in nervousness and anticipation, and he felt deafened by the hushed, solemn quiet.
Ambry lay on the horsehair sofa, playing with her sling idly. Nitram sat on one side of the grand staircase, and Drake on the other. Shawn fenced at invisible foebeasts with his cutlass. The murmuring of the other members of the SRAVAN could faintly be heard from the adjoining chambers. Everyone was here, ready to charge out into the open the second the enemy was at the door (or outside the door)
Waiting. Their entire existence had been reduced to waiting. Drake’s breath was ragged as he caressed the dusty, slightly moth-eaten carpet covering the stairs on which he sat. He felt like his heart was about to burst with the triviality of it all, and in his mind he said to himself:
Are they EVER coming?! Suppose we sit here forever waiting for an invasion that will never come?
And then, suddenly, time seemed to almost imperceptibly shift. Something changed. Drake’s heart skipped a beat. Guided as though by some unseen force, Drake crossed the main hall to a window. Pushing aside velvet curtains, he peered through it. A large group of shapes could be seen approaching on the horizon. The Bloodfangs and the Monitors!
Drake ran to Shawn, who was sitting by the stairs.
Shawn gave Drake a quizzical look.
“The enemy- they’re here!”
“WHAT?! They’re early, then!” Shawn ran to the window, dared to peek through the curtains, and then hurried back.
“Everybeast, gather round and don’t charge until I say so. THEY’RE COMING!”
“Foolsss! How dare they defy usss sssso?”
Nexus’s hissing voice could be heard above the others as the foebeasts advanced.
Shawn gave the order now.
Just as the opposition was about to do the same, the SRAVAN burst out of the palace. And so commenced the battle of Sampetra, and did it commence with gusto!
As they rampaged out, Drake only got one glimpse of Vilaya on the battlefield that day, and he feverishly hoped it would be his last. The Sable Quean was a fearsome creature indeed: Her fur was dark, blackish-brown in color, her eyes deep blue, not unlike the water in a dark pond. Vilaya was clad simply in a brown cloak, a necklace of black stones, a white tunic, and a chainmail vest. When she spoke, her voice was a low, gravelly rasp like a butcher knife being slowly dragged over a rock wall. And then there was the smile. Out of all the things the young mouse feared about Vilaya, what scared him most would have to be her smile.
It was devious, sly and clearly evil. Pure evil.
Regardless of the inevitable bloodshed Vilaya caused, creatures on both sides died almost immediately, and it became clear early on that the SRAVAN would lose many more creatures than they had on the beach skirmish (They had been lucky there; ultimately losing a little less than a score) Steel clashed against metal and more steel as the creatures of opposing sides fought on.
Spears, javelins and slingstones flew like birds of death through the bright afternoon sky. Nitram, on the western side, had managed to avoid getting hit so far. He’d slain half a score of Bloodfangs (and a few less Monitors) already at a good distance, but he was already running out of bows to put in his crossbow, and he had no other weapon….
Heart pounding wildly, Nitram’s eyes scanned the battlefield for any weapons that had been discarded in the skirmish, but the rat’s breath caught in his chest as demonic yellow eyes seemed to appear from nowhere and bore into his skull like twin knives: The eyes of Nexus Greenscales.
Nitram yelped in sudden shock as the Monitor came close, laughing, wielding a cutlass. Nitram had no weapons, and could not defend himself from the Monitor. True, he could always try and take Nexus’s sword to use against him, but Monitors were legendary for their powerful jaws and fangs, and with a heavy heart Nitram knew it was impossible, and that he was doomed.
“Hahahah, so it endsss here! Ssssad, eh? How pitiful for a Warmblood! Any lassst wordssss, Warmblood?”
“Only that I hope yore death is slow an’ painful!” Nitram spat.
Nexus laughed as he swung the cutlass, aiming to behead Nitram. Neither creature saw or heard the stealthy figure that stole forward from the shadows….
Nexus Greenscales froze mid-swing. He saw, rather than felt the rapier enter his back. It glistened in the tropical noon sun. The Monitor let out a hissing, gasping shriek and staggered slightly, the blade twitching like some grotesque appendage as he moved. But then, he fell to the ground, dead, the rapier still protruding from his back.
Silent in awe, Nitram willed his eyes to look up at the creature who had saved his life and slain the Emperor of Sampetra. It was….Drake. He stood, proud, looking just as noble as Martin the Warrior from times long-gone. Trembling a bit at what he’d done, the young mouse pulled his sword from Nexus’s twisted carcass and wiped the blood off on his tunic.
“Drake….You, you saved my life!” “I know, matey.”
Drake hugged Nitram, and they knew then, that the outcome of the battle would be successful for the SRAVAN.
Chapter Twenty-Six: The End of the Line
I smiled as I saw Nexus fall to the sword. That young mouse had accomplished something I’d been intending to do myself in the near future. No, I had never really been Nexus’s ally, (no matter how convincing an act I had put on) and had simply been waiting to assassinate him so I could be the sole ruler of Sampetra. But for now; Sampetra could wait now that there was a war to fight!
And yet….Something was wrong. I tensed and stroked my bloody swordtip, hackles rising. Voices in my head began to mount, and I wandered aimlessly west, twirling my saber-blade idly.
I encountered a sobbing Maularano (who had turned turquoise) hiding from the fighting. He wailed and blinked his orb-shaped eyes repeatedly. I smiled.
“Nobody loves Maularano! I’m not ‘andsome and all and that’s why everyone ‘ates me!”
I approached the chameleon and stroked his headscales reassuringly.
“I think you’re very handsome.”
Maularano seemed to perk up.
“R-really? Then can I have a COOKIE?”
Before he could react otherwise, I thrust my swordpoint downwards towards Maularano and held it inches above his flesh. He whimpered and began trembling.
“Maularano! There’s no need to cry.”
One of my eyes twitched slightly. My breathing was fast and ragged. I stroked Maularano’s back, speaking to him as I might well have spoke to an infant. I was dimly aware that my mind was unraveling; my world was finally coming undone now. Distantly, I could hear the singing of a mockingbird silhouetted against the noise of battle. Let it sing. I thought, a cruel smile unfolding across my lips. I don’t care…. I….. Don’t….Care… “I DON’T CARE!” The words came out in a strangled, choked-off half-yelp from me, and I laughed hoarsely, suddenly not caring who might see or hear. Then, I thrust my sword and snuffed out Maularano’s life. Snatching his small carcass from my sword and flinging it onto the ground, I strode back into the battlefield with a deranged grin on my face.
And then…. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. The badger, Ambrevina, whose name I head learned so long ago but would nonetheless stay with me forever. Picking up a cutlass from the paws of a slain monitor and looking around for me, racing towards the palace.
My heart skipped a beat. I guessed she had gone ahead of me, but I had no real way of telling, and so I ran like a madbeast, running blindly through the battlefield, not caring who I crashed into.
I vaulted up the siege ladder that Shawn’s rebels had forgotten, and flung myself onto the steep, thickly-shingled roof of Nexus’s palace.
I slumped against the steeple and its green copper weathervane, breathing hard from all that running. The steeple was shaded, thankfully, and gave me refuge from the summer heat. Until there was a clacking of shingles, and the sound of a large, flat paw on the roof.
I froze, numbed with fear. Ambrevina Rockflash. I mouthed her name silently, much too terrified to say it out loud, for there she stood, like some incongruous goddess, the sun shining brightly down onto her jet fur, brown-black eyes scorching with hatred.
I regained myself and shot her a look of equal abhorrence.
“Ambrevina Rockflash.” I finally spoke. My voice was a low snarl.
Ambrevina leaned on her cutlass.
“The Sable Quean.”
“So we finally meet again.” I said, glaring at her.
“Enough of the niceties.” Ambrevina snapped, pent-up anger bursting forth. “I tried to slay you once for the death of Flandor and now I’ll finish what I’d started!”
“Not so fast, stripedog!” With a cruel laugh, I dodged her cutlass blow and then blocked it.
Eyes narrowed into blazing slits, she circled me once, twice. Then again. I circled her with the same primitive fervor I’d shown while fencing with Jangus.
Finally, Ambrevina uppercutted me from behind, a blow I’d been expecting.
“Enough petty tricks! What’s wrong? Afraid to fight for your honor?”
“Why should I when I’m dueling somebeast who has none?”
The blades clashed against each other now, glistening brightly in the sun. I saw through and past my opponent’s blocks and probed her with my eyes, searching for areas she’d left unguarded.
I slashed at Ambrevina’s side and landed a blow. Blood gushed from her wound. I smirked as the badger winced and clutched her side. In shock, she dropped her cutlass. It struck the oaken shingles with a dull clatter.
I lunged forward and seized the cutlass, grinning evilly.
“Any last words, stripedog?” I said icily, holding both blades under her throat.
“Only that you rot in Hellgates, scum!” Ambrevina spat, her words dripping venom.
I was by now impervious to her rage. I glared coolly at the badger and prepared to slit her throat. But I hadn’t acted fast enough; and in a blurring flash, Ambrevina yanked the cutlass roughly from me, even though I’d kept an iron grip on it.
I bared my teeth and lunged forward with my saber, forcing Ambrevina to the edge of the roof. Her footpaw caught in the gutter, and the other one slipped. The cutlass slipped from her paws and clanged into the gutter.
She dangled from the rooftop by her claws; and was slipping so badly I saw no need to throw her.
“So this is it, isn’t it?”
A moment of deathly silence. Then, Ambrevina somehow found her footing. She forced herself back onto the roof with a disturbing amount of strength.
Ambrevina yanked her cutlass from the gutter. I scrabbled back as she charged forward.
I was breathing hard now. Ambrevina’s eyes were scarlet, and she charged at me with the insane fervor of a mad bull. I couldn’t run now. There was no place TO run! Except…..
I glanced down hesitantly towards where we’d both climbed up. The siege ladder was still there.
I made a beeline for it, practically tripping over the rungs as I climbed. Once I was safely on the ground, I knocked the ladder over and prepared to run.
But then, the warcry rang out in the distance:
I took off like lightning, and saw the shaft of an arrow as it soared by. I felt it land itself in my right hip. I tripped and collapsed in a heap, almost in slow motion.
The warcry of Salamandastron was yelled. Eulalia. Victory. I felt myself slipping towards the dark inevitably. I knew with a terrible certainty it was over.
I was trembling when I woke. I was lying under a holly bush a good distance from the battlefield. Something warm and wet spilled out through my right hip, the one the arrow had gotten. The actual arrow lay beside me in the dirt, its tip wet with blood. Jangus stooped beside me, holding a dampened rag to my wounded hip to clean it and soak up the blood. Every time he did, it would come away drenched in blood until he was forced to tear off a scrap of his tunic and use that.
“You’re going to live.” Jangus whispered, more to himself than me. My teeth chattered. A thickness in the air; an oppressive dark. Gaping maw of a viper crimson-scaled with blood. My blood. Foebeasts from my past and present gathered and began to mock me.
“You’re going to get well and we’ll start a life for ourselves… Somewhere far away from here.”
This was a lie and we both knew it. I had to look away. After a while, I whispered
“Jangus….” My voice was a pitiful whine.
I felt Jangus’s paw squeeze my own.
I pointed weakly to where my enemies stood.
“It’s ok, I’ve got you, Vilaya. I’ve got you.”
I clenched my teeth until they hurt and glanced at my right paw. It still had a tiny puckered scar from where I’d poked myself with that cursed needle. Suddenly that scar became a writhing, twisting snake. I did my best to ignore it, but the voices in my head continued to taunt me: we’re heeere……
“Jangus, will you hold me until it sleeps?”
“Yes Vilaya. I’ll hold you as long as you need.”
I gave a small sigh of pleasure, but soon it became a ragged cough. I gripped Jangus’s paw tighter.
We looked at each other for a long time. After a while, I jerked spasmodically upright in Jangus’s arms, my limbs suddenly stiff and rigid with shock. In the shadows, I saw a blood-red fox wearing a dark hooded robe and carrying a rusty scythe in one paw. In his other, there was an hourglass. Crimson sand the exact same color as his fur spilled out onto the ground. I tried to ignore him and turned to Jangus.
“My love for thee is so great…. As such I long for you every time you stray….” I began in a rasping voice. Jangus continued with me in unison:
“‘Till the sea parts, and the clouds burst and the sun turns night to day, I will wait for you…. I will wait for you. Here without you my love…. My thoughts will be with you always…. Though we may not be together in flesh or fur, my heart will always be with you…..” My world was dimming. I said in a voice I wish sounded braver:
“I love you, Jangus.”
“I love you too.”
I could feel my eyes hazing over.
“Jangus are you still holding me?”
In the background, I heard a primeval roaring. Judgment time is near…..
I thought I heard Jangus tell me that he was.
“Get over me. Get over me and love someone else someday… Lock me in your heart for now.”
I gasped in agony as my hip bled more. I saw Zwilt advance towards me out of the mist. I looked away.
I looked past them and into the dark sky, the last time I’d ever see it. It was blue and flecked with white clouds, reminding me that as long as there is evil there still can be innocence. Then, I gave a little moan and disappeared off to the place where there is no sky.
Chapter Twenty-Seven: We are the Champions
It had been two days now since the final battle. Things were slowly returning to what could be called ‘the new normalcy’ The butchered corpses of Nexus’s Monitors and the Bloodfangs were thrown into the sea. Nexus’s grand palace was burned to the ground. The arena could not be burned, as it was made of stone, so Shawn and his rebels left it untouched to serve as a reminder that evil is not forever.
As for Jangus, he was exiled to the far side of the island by the SRAVAN. His body was found shortly before he was due there; no apparent cause of death visible. It was whispered that he died of a broken heart. And so, Jangus’s body was buried alongside Vilaya’s on the far side of the island, with two oval-shaped gold-painted pieces of wood salvaged from the ruins of Nexus’s palace to act as their gravestones. The carved inscriptions on them now read:
~ Vilaya Regina Skelton ~
Died in the 37th year of her age
Born into evil, died of her crimes
~ Jangus Redclaw ~
Died in the 34th year of his age
Step naught into the realm of temptation, for it may bring about your undoing.
The SRAVAN was disbanded now. Sampetra was designated as a place of peace; there was no more need for bloodshed and war and conflict. Shawn pondered briefly on whether or not he wanted to return to Mossflower, but then decided it was so. Holt Stormbattle was the only home he’d ever known, and already he yearned to be near it.
Eventually he, along with Drake, Nitram and Ambry, renamed the Infamy the Autumn-Rose and sailed back to Mossflower on her. (Shawn, being an otter, had no trouble navigating the waters of the Western Sea)
In half a day’s time, they were back in Mossflower Woods. Drake, Ambry and Nitram returned to Holt Stormbattle en route to Redwall. They went there as changed beasts. Shawn’s mother Saphira noticed this as Shawn knocked on the door of his family’s hut and said in a slightly uncertain voice:
“Mother? We’re back!”
Saphira looked at the foursome with astonishment. In only a few days they had grown up, and become warriors too!
“We went to war. I guess you could call it an adventure.”
Drake volunteered. Out of all four, he was the one who’d matured the most.
“Aye in life you’ll find good adventures an’ bad un’s too. Now…How’d ye young ‘uns like to have some cake?”
Nitram, Ambry, Drake and Shawn pushed and shoved each other to get inside, laughing as they did. Then, they went inside and enjoyed the cake. The cake that was most certainly not a lie!