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A Spell Cast

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Accused; A Spell Cast

Accused: A Spell Cast cover art


By Sayna



Four are not one when two are gone,

Echoes of evil shall rise.

Only a breath of morning song,

Could break this spell of lies.


A chosen one and chosen true,

Has a call to answer.

Far from home but not alone,

He has a home to fight for.



Editor's Note

This is the long awaited, first book of Accused .. A Spell Cast. Accused is the rewrite of the Outcast of Redwall. The sequel to The Unsung Heroes series. (yes, each of those three words links to a book) XP

This is going to be a radical, outside the box reinterpretation of the Outcast. It is going to grip you vividly if at all possible, and I hope you enjoy this beloved brainchild of mine.

It will be shocking sometimes, maybe in some cases disturbing (although as always, I have nothing really over a PG level .. although some of the ideas will delve much deeper into real life questions about deceit, truth, and things of that nature .. than say .. 'Frozen' or 'Brave' or any Disney movie I've ever watched would) XP This story is meant to be very deep.

Of course I'm probably overestimating your reaction ;P I doubt you'll find all of this terribly disturbing. Just warning you that there are some things in it like an eleven season old, desperately hateful villain, and deception runs rampant .. even skewing the views of our good characters.

This book should be fifteen or twenty chapters. A lot smaller then my others. ;P

I dedicate this book to Brain Jacques for his wonderful world, even if the Outcast was my least favorite book. If it hadn't been written .. I'd never have re-imagined it. ;)

This also goes to all my friends and faithful readers .. it wouldn't have been possible without you :D ^^

And of course, this goes to my mother .. who, despite her crazy Cedric impersonations (XP) .. has helped me here and there .. and is my faithful beta reader.

For the Graphic Novel adaption, go here A Spell Cast: The Graphic Novel



Prologue

The low echo of pawsteps was audible through the twisting halls of a forgotten, time hidden sepulcher. The low echo of voices followed.

There was little light here, nothing but guttural torches affixed here and there to the walls. Shadows danced at will, some living, and some simply echoes of the living.

Here in the cool, dark halls of a twisting comb of tunnels, shadows were at home.

Two dark ones, both hooded, swept down a dimly lit corridor. One was tall, the only really visible thing about them being their snow white paws that turned abruptly to black. The other was short, almost dainty .. or perhaps in reality, very young.

The first's voice was a tinkling yet ominous sound, if those two could really be combined. "My young apprentice, this is the day you become one of us. Do not remove your hood, even though I do .. it is not to tradition."

The smaller beast's voice was a dark, yet youthful and feminine sound. "Yes Mistress Nightshade."

The first let her hood fall away, revealing she was an ebony vixen, as the two slipped into an alcove, one that turned out to be a room. "Ah, I see you have all gathered. Now Shroud my dear, is your lovely project finished?"

The beast she spoke to was a dog fox as black as she, only with red tips instead of white. He wore a flowing gold and navy cape that fastened about his neck with exotic pins. "It is indeed, and after seasons of effort .. I believe it is ready, as Lord Malimore commissioned it."

He motioned to a cloth covered object, before sweeping the veil of satin away .. to reveal a large piece of glass.

Another of the room's occupants, a golden ferret, sneered. "Glass? Shroud, I expected more from you after the grand scene you made ..."

A whip seemed to materialize in the fox's red paw, one studded with glittering shards of metal and glass .. although it's owner's voice showed little emotion. "Have I told you all it's properties, Swartt, son of Sixclaw?"

A tall, lean youth of a dog fox spoke out. "Father, show the polecat who's in charge around here!"

The whip dematerialized beneath Shroud's cloak as he gave his son a look. "Hold your tongue Ramon, lest it deem you incompetent by your foolish statements."

Shroud turned back to his creation, picking up a small, glittering object. "This is the first of it's kind .. but it shall not be the last."

Swartt snatched the item; a beautifully filigreed monocle. "What is this?"

Shroud smiled .. not a nice smile. "Look through it, Sixclaw."

Swartt glared at the fox before doing so, pausing as he let his gaze rest upon Shroud. "Hellgates, it has a way of making even you look innocent .. what's the use of it?"

Shroud's smile, seemingly gentle through the deceptive glass, was a demonic sneer in truth. "Don't you see, my slow friend? This distorts its owner's understanding. It makes evil seem good, it makes good seem evil .. it will change the way woodlanders see the world forever!"

The fox snatched the monocle away from Swartt, who made an instinctive grab for it. "And all the better, the more a beast uses it .. the more they want it. They can't escape it, they will fight to keep what blinds them .. and it works on those stupid followers of Ignasa .. the ones we cannot seem to infiltrate. Lord Malimore used his darkest magic."



Chapter 1 The Stranger

The warm spring sunshine shown across the lawns of Redwall .. a nearly complete Redwall. Beyond normal activities, a bit of a show was going on near the pond .. one of swordplay.

A silver fox sat nearby, but out of the range of the two contestants, calling occasional advise. "Veil, keep your blade up! Dodge her!"

The ferret, a strong young creature of about seventeen, did as he was told, and his opponent tried other measures. She was a tall, golden mouse maid with a long brown braid, a long tail .. all in all, she could be described as almost gangly.

She ducked under Veil's sword arm splitting the air with a clash as her saber connected with his elegant rapier.

The fox's voice rang out. "Fripple, not the ... tail."

It was too late. The mouse maid had wrapped her long tail around the ferret's right foot and yanked him off balance!

Veil fell, rapier falling a little out of reach. Fripple shoved her spiky brown headfur out of her sky blue eyes, asking, "Are you alright Veil?"

The ferret didn't get up immediately, just gave her an incredulous look with his steady sapphire gaze. "What is it about you that'll let you beat someone, then ask if they're ok?"

There was a perky little voice from nearby. "According to my calculations, it's because she never puts thought into her actions until they are done."

Fripple glared at the speaker, a golden, green eyed mouse maid with a pair of large glasses. "Oh be off, you walking library! Sometimes I think you're one giant calculation!"

A brown and cream otter maid intervened from were she sat on a nearby rock with a reddish pointed white ermine. "Fripple, that isn't nice! You should be nicer to Aubretia .. she is your cousin!"

Fripple grumbled. "Huh, I'm not sure how the two of us ended up related .. we're alter-egos, Catkin!"

Catkin sighed. "That doesn't mean you have to be mean to her .. being mean never makes a beast happy!"

Veil stood, brushing himself off as another otter maid, light brown all over, glared at the first. "You and your endless happiness. Ugg .. it makes me lose my appetite."

"I'll eat it for you, whatever it is!" Exclaimed a newcomer, a mottled roan and pinto mare, just growing out of filly-hood. "Was there food somewhere?"

The silver fox leapt off his rock, a little exasperated. "Enough, enough, all of you! Mayberry, that's not needed. And Star, there's no food around here, this is a training session! Who's next? Ivan and Luke? Ivan and me? Anyone else? Veil, you up for another try?"

Mayberry, the otter, turned away with a huff. Veil shook his head. "No, not right now. I dueled you and Fripple .. that's enough for a bit."

Groddil motioned to a red and gold mouse armed with a longsword, sighing, "Luke against Ivan. And please focus this time!"

He gave the watchers a look. "Don't be distracting, or I'll have to send you off, understood?"

><><

The woodlands of Mossflower were drenched in sunlight that danced through the trees, and dappled the chocolate coat of a traveler. She was a pretty little weasel with intricately braided ebony headfur that fell to her waist.

Her garb was outlandish for the woodlands she now walked within, it was a square necked white dress that fell to the knees, simple and stained. The outfit was topped by a muddy violet sash, and a strange necklace of silver, set with an amethyst.

Her right paw and arm was bound in a tight black brace disguised as a glove, while her left sported a simple, yet elbow length silver armband.

Her steps seemed to amble without real purpose, although she always headed northward. Expressive brown eyes watched the noon sun, almost calculating, yet ever-roving, as if distracted.

She came to the edge of the woods, and was faced by the impressive western flatlands .. and more impressive yet, the newly quarried Redwall.

The little creature swiped a few stray strands of hair from her eyes, before making her way toward the towering abbey. When she was faced with a trench in the sea of grasses, it did not greatly hinder her, she simply began to slip down the side.

Her paws were nearly to the bottom of the four foot drop, when one slipped, and she toppled to the floor of the trench, sitting down hard on her left foot.

She winced, struggling to her paws and scaled the edge of the ditch, dress dirtier than ever. The weasel, no more than a child, looked a pitiful sight as she hobbled the rest of the way to the red stone building, likely in hope of refuge.

When she reached the gates, the weasel knocked several times, but didn't really get a result. She tried again, with greater determination this time.

A few moments passed before the gate pivoted inward to reveal a mottled rat. He was middle aged and lanky, and he stared at her with surprise, speaking at length, "I say liddle miss, where'd you come from?"

Her voice was weary. "The south sir .. the far south. I've traveled at least a season .. I'm so hungry and tired .. and I just fell down the ditch and sprained my foot, sir."

The rat blinked, finding no immediate reason to disbelieve her .. she was thin, filthy, and bedraggled. He shrugged. "So I'm assumin' you'd like in then?"

She nodded. "My foot hurts awfully sir."

The rat opened the gate a little wider, allowing the little creature to limp in. "Me name's Whegg miss, ya can call me such. I'll have to present ya to the high king, he'll ask ya some more questions. After all, we have ta make sure ya ain't from some horde nearby."

The young beast dipped her head. "I understand, sir."

Whegg looked at her, not totally trusting, yet not completely judgmental either. "What's yer name miss?"

She smiled a little crookedly. "It's Xzanthia sir .. you're awful nice around here. What's this place called?"

Whegg led her out of the massive gateway, stating, "Redwall. Redwall abbey."

><><

Martin's life had morphed over the last eleven seasons, though he and Rose still lived in the gatehouse with their four children .. Richart, the youngest, being about five. However Luke the elder had gone to the Lands Beyond a few seasons after the battle with Lotor .. and Vurg had followed several seasons after.

Eleven seasons could change a lot.

To add to the changes, Bella had come home from Salamandastron to retire at Redwall .. the badger was truly an ancient now .. she was in good company with Mask, who now lived in Holt Willow.

Most of the old ones .. Erwin, Germaine, Urran, and a few others had passed on, however most the younger beasts were still around.

Some had migrated, in truth, as Brome and Amyl had left to rebuild Noonvale with what was left of the Rambling Rosehip Players, and Emalet.

A few beasts like Einar and Iona had left for Salamandastron, but the greatest loss to Martin was that Trubbs, frazzled and worn from trying to run the mountain with no badger, had begged a few of the Mossflowerian nobles to come and aid him.

So it was that Sayna and Timbal, along with their two sons Gustav and Coll, had left for the mountain. They intended to return to Brockhall .. in a few seasons. But Martin was so used to relying upon them, it was a hard hit.

They had left less than a month ago, and left Fripple with Groddil, as she was training under him. Everything seemed to be settling down after this disruption, and Martin hoped it would even out. It was temporary, at least.

Now Martin was faced with Whegg, and the newcomer. She didn't seem like much, she was just a ragged vermin child .. and Martin's dislike toward vermin had numbed through the seasons.

She didn't seem in the least imposing or evil, just bedraggled, wistful, and innocent. Whegg was a bit apologetic. "I'm sorry ta bother ya, a course, but we have a visitor."

Martin nodded to him. "It's fine Whegg, you did right. Miss, what's your name, and where do you come from?"

The little creature smiled. "I'm Xzanthia .. I'm from the far south. I was a seer's apprentice .. but I ran away sir. I want to live as a goodbeast .. and maybe .. I could stay here?"

Martin had heard the story before .. this young beast was just like other vermin who wanted to run from their lives. The least he could do was to give her a chance. "Perhaps. I'll let you stay for a bit, and if you prove yourself loyal, you can stay as long as you like, Xzanthia."

He had been looking her over the whole conversation, and was curious ... she looked a little odd .. not quite like any vermin he'd ever seen. "Not that it matters miss, but would you tell me what kind of creature you are?"

Xzanthia smiled. "Of course sir .. I'm a wearet."

Martin raised an eyebrow. "Where are your parents .. and they are a weasel and a ferret, I assume?"

The young beast nodded. "I think they were .. but they died before I could remember. All I know is what my mentor told me, sir."

Martin couldn't help but feel bad for the creature .. she wasn't even as old as his youngest daughter. "You may stay here. Whegg, take her to get some food and new clothes, would you?"

The rat nodded, leading Xzanthia off. Martin stared after them, and scratched an ear. The little beast seemed so innocent .. why was it he felt unrest?

The golden mouse pushed the feeling away. There was no real reason for it, after all.

><><

The afternoon sun was sliding it's way down the sky as Veil and his adopted brother Ivan left the training arena. They weren't alone long, as Fripple joined them, sabre clinking at her side. "Where are you two going?"

Ivan shrugged, emotion staying flat, and Veil answered. "Supper, I suppose."

Fripple nodded. "I'll come with you."

Veil looked at her, stating, "You're thinking about something, I can tell."

Fripple was used to Veil's uncanny way of sensing emotions, so she simply sighed. "All this. Do you ever .. wonder .. if we could have an adventure. You know, like are parents did!"

Veil was silent a moment, before stating, "I don't know. I'm not sure I would want to go through all the danger."

Fripple gave Ivan a look. "What about you?"

The cat shrugged, a common gesture of his .. and one that could mean just about anything.

Aubretia's voice rang out from nearby. "According to the historical accounts, adventures are hazardous and inflict casualties."

Fripple glared at her cousin. "You think I don't know this, library?"

Another voice spoke out. "Well, I guess she's right. It would help if you'd speak woodland, Aubretia."

The golden mouse pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose, giving the speaker, the red haired ermine, a glare. "I speak our language fluently, Esther. What's more, I can read the old script, and .."

Esther nodded. "We know. Can I go to supper with you guys, huh?"

She was looking specifically at Veil, who shrugged. "That's fine .."

They had reached the abbey doors, and Ivan spoke with dryness, "But don't steal anything."

Fripple shoved the door open, hurrying into the great hall and toward what was referred too and Cavern Hole. "Yea, don't. It doesn't exactly win friends."

Esther looked wounded. "I won't steal anything this time .. I'll have you know I wasn't even thinking about it!"

She huffed, sweeping past the others and taking a seat near the end of a table, tossing her rich reddish head fur over one shoulder. Fripple rolled her eyes, sitting down next to the ermine.

At this second the patter of paws rang out, and a black mouse maid of about thirteen tripped on her long skirt, falling through the doorway. She picked herself up, pushing strange golden hair away from brown eyes, and stating to somebeast behind her, "I'm fine .. here. This is where we eat."

The creature that followed was a stranger, chocolate furred with black hair. She was a weasel like beast, and young, younger then Bryony, her guide.

Veil had turned around at the disturbance, and something odd happened .. something Fripple found a little disturbing. The newcomer stared in total shock for a moment, before her eyes fell to the ferret's right paw .. the one with six claws.

She did nothing for another few moments, before she ducked her head .. almost shyly. Veil was looking at her oddly now, and Bryony forestalled further staring. "Come on Xzanthia, let's find somewhere to sit, cause this is all filled up."

The weasel followed the mouse, not looking at Veil again .. almost purposely. The golden ferret shook himself, before sitting down. Fripple looked at him questioningly. "Xzanthia? Who's that? Why was she staring at you?"

Veil scratched an ear. "I don't know. There's something .. I don't know. She .. feels odd, how can I put it?"

Aubretia was writing on some parchment with her quill pen, and she stated, "That's an oddity .. she seems perfectly agreeable. Perhaps she was surprised to see another creature who is of the weasel family."

Veil stared in the direction Xzanthia had gone. "Probably. She's very young to be .. well .. I'm sure it's nothing."

><><

Night fell gently over Redwall, turning the gentle warmth of spring to a cool, breeze filled darkness.

The abbey lawns were quiet, and faintly illuminated by starlight. It was past the hour a normal best would be up, and the parapet was deserted .. except for one thing.

A shadow.

It slipped around to the northern wall, the back, before standing up straight and glancing carefully about.

However, there was no sound, no testimony that anybeast knew of the shadow's presence. The creature on the wall top turned to face the surrounding woodland, emitting the sound of a placid woodland owl, soft and wistful sounding.

Nothing happened at first, and the shadow tried again. At length, there was the flutter of wings, and a small creature .. too small for any owl, alighted on the parapet. "What is it .. impatient beast .. what would your mentor say?"

The shadow sniffed, shaking out waist length, night black hair. "I don't care Tyre, but listen, they don't suspect me in the least."

The creature stepped more into the moonlight, revealing leathery wings and long, glittering fangs .. a bat. "That's good and well, but you need to be careful .. this game we're playing is tricky. One misstep will make us loose, Xzanthia. You know as well as I."

She sighed. "Oh yes Tyre, I know .. what do you take me for? Is everything in place?"

The bat huffed. "Yes, it is. Been nice if you would have helped."

Xzanthia smiled .. not very nicely. "Ahh .. but I found out something you did not, my partner. I found the son of Sixclaw!"

Tyre blinked. "What? That's impossible ..."

Xzanthia snorted in disgust. "No, I mean the one who was supposed to be dead. Well, when I get done, he'll really be dead. Any son of Sixclaw is no friend of mine!"

Tyre rolled his eyes. "Just be sure your revenge attempts don't ruin what we've planned .."

The wearet's brown eyes gleamed. "My doubtful friend, if anything ... this helps or plan. I have it figured out. And these idiots will never see through it!"



Chapter 2 Tainted Treasure

Fripple woke slowly, to the sound of quiet morning birdsong, not bothering to move at first. Dreams could be strange things, she decided as she reflected on all she could remember of the one she had awoken from.

It was a frightening thing, blurry and hard to recall .. but she could remember running.

Fleeing something she did not know, and in near irrational fear.

But why? Why would it seem so vivid, so real?

It irritated her not to know, but it wasn't like her parents were here. If they had been, she'd have asked them .. her father and mother always seemed to have an answer.

But that couldn't be helped. She'd have to ask Groddil, but her adopted uncle always seemed busy. Well, that settled it. She'd ask Veil, for the ferret had a wisdom beyond his years, and he never disregarded something like a dream, no matter how silly it might seem.

Fripple shoved her sheets off, sitting up in the small room she called her own. It wasn't like anything happened around Redwall anymore, anyway.

Thank goodness for Groddil, and his training in the ways of war .. it was about the only exciting thing, besides dreams.

The mouse slipped open her door, to be faced with Goody Stickle. The old hedgehog dipped her head, asking, "Dearie, have you seen Bryony .. or the newcomer, Xzanthia, by any chance?"

Fripple buckled on her black leather belt, stating, "No, I just woke up. Why do you ask?"

Goody shrugged. "I'm sure they won't have gone far, but you see, I was going to have them help me in the kitchen. It just worries me a bit."

Fripple followed the hogwife down toward Great Hall, stating, "Well they can't have gone far. You know Bryony .. she hates getting all that dirty. Maybe she'll play in the woods a bit or plant flowers in the gardens .. but she likes the finer things of life."

The golden mouse maid added, "And she doesn't know a thing about roughing it .. not one thing."

><><

The mouse maid Fripple spoke of in this manner, was, at least in her mind, roughing it. She was out in the woods with her new friend, playing in the trees because that was what Xzanthia wished to do.

Bryony was a little tired of it, and the hem of her pink dress was stained, but Xzanthia seemed well at home out of doors. The wearet dashed from one tree to another, asking questions and stating trees were uncommon where she came from.

Bryony was about to ask if they could go back for breakfast, when Xzanthia discovered something that interested her greatly .. a large oak with a hole in the trunk. "Oohh I wonder what's in there? Do you know?"

The black mouse shrugged. "Nothing, most likely. The others used to play here .. and I came sometimes."

Xzanthia frowned. "Are you sure?"

Bryony nodded. "Yes, I know there's nothing in there .. here. I'll prove it to you .. ohh!"

She broke off, as her searching fingers touched something hard. The mouse maid paused, before grabbing hold of the object and pulling it out .. revealing it was a rectangular wooden box.

Xzanthia's eyes were wide. "Is it a treasure? It looks like one!"

Bryony was unsure .. and something felt wrong about the whole thing. Hadn't she been to this tree many a time? Why then would there suddenly be an old, battered trunk in it .. one that looked like it had weathered the ages. But Xzanthia was ecstatic, after all, she couldn't be expected to know. "Open it! I want to see what's inside!"

Bryony shook her head, asking, "But what if there's something nasty inside? What if it's bones, or a bloody knife, or somebeast's head .."

The thirteen season old had a good imagination. Xzanthia looked downcast. "Oh come on .. don't you want to know for sure?"

Bryony frowned. "Well .. yes. And no. I'm curious, but I don't want to see it if it's not nice."

Xzanthia was grumpy, but then her face lit up. "I know! We can take it back to Redwall, and some other beast can open it for you. That way you won't have to see, and they can just tell you what's inside."

Bryony gave the old box a look, before tucking it under her arm. "Alright. I suppose there's not much harm in that. And King Martin will want to know anyway."

><><

When the two got back to the abbey, breakfast was almost over, and Goody looked exasperated when they came in the kitchen. "Oh there you are, finally."

The hedgehog was about to launch into a scolding, but Bryony was quicker. "Goody .. we found this in the woods! Wouldn't King Martin want to see?"

Goody blinked at the proffered trunk, asking, "The woods? You were out in the woods before breakfast?"

Xzanthia ducked her head. "It was my fault marm .. I ain't used to order I guess. I'm sorry .. it wasn't Bryony's idea, though."

Goody's eyes softened. "Humph, well .. don't do it again. Playing in the woods is fine, but not before you eat .. and help me serve everybeast else."

She looked at the box, as if recalling Bryony's earlier question. "As long as it's not some shenanigan you young'uns is always playing, yes, go show him. I don't really need you anymore anyway."

Xzanthia skipped off, Bryony following. They made their way out of the kitchens and to Great Hall, the grandest room of Redwall.

"Where will we find the king?" Xzanthia asked.

Bryony shrugged. "Well at this hour, I'm not sure .."

A voice rang from behind them, making them both jump. "You wanted me?"

Martin himself had been walking down the stairs with Rose, Gingivere, Redfarl, and Arvid, the latter two visiting. Bryony nodded, holding up the box. "We found this playing in the woods .. it was in a tree trunk. And I thought you'd like to see it sir."

Martin took the battered object, smiling at her. "Hmm .. a tree trunk? It's odd something this old wouldn't have already been found. But you obviously found it."

The mouse set it down on an ornate table by the wall, fiddling with the latch. "It's locked .. but it's almost falling off."

He drew a dagger, prying the rusted latch from the box. The others had gathered around by this time, watching with interest as Martin lifted the lid.

Bryony had a worried look on, however it dissipated as she saw what the box contained. Under a layer of dust and splinters from the rotting trunk, was the flash of gold and silver!

Martin reached in, pulling one of the valuables out and holding it to the light. It was an eyepiece, tarnished as though it had sat untouched many a long season, sporting a crystal piece of cut glass and a chain and rim of etched gold.

The king of Mossflower frowned in confusion, swiping the detritus off the trunk's other occupants .. more of what he held, yet each decorated uniquely.

Rose scratched an ear. "What sort of beast would leave a trunk full of monocles in a tree near Redwall?"

Martin shook his head. "I'm not sure dear .."

He raised the object, looking through it across the hall. There was a pause, and Redfarl asked, "What is it?"

Martin slowly let the monocle drop, shaking his head. "I don't know .. I .. "

He raised it to his eye again, frown deepening. "This thing is very odd, I can say that."

Rose looked worried. "Whatever do you mean?"

Martin looked like he was searching for the right words. "It's .. hard to describe. Huh .. maybe I'm getting old .. my vision sort of swims when I look through it .. and things look a little different."

He smiled at Xzanthia and Bryony. "Would you mind if I kept this one? I rather like it, and perhaps it is time I had some sort of looking glass."

Xzanthia curtsied. "Of course sire! Everybeast can have one if they like .. can't they Bryony?"

The mouse nodded, thinking it was very nice of Xzanthia to give the treasure they'd found away. "Oh yes .. we want to share it .. what would we do with all of them?"

Arvid ruffled the mouse's headfur. "Not much little miss, thou art rather young for one .. as are Redfarl and I, eh dear?"

The squirrel queen nodded to her husband. "Oh yes, I never thought I'd see the day I'd have to wear glasses .. and I still don't. But I'm sure some of the older beasts would like them."

><><

Bryony may not have liked climbing trees, but she did enjoy gossip now and then. So it wasn't long before all of Redwall knew of the discovery.

Veil wasn't sure what to think of it, mostly because he didn't know what to think of Xzanthia. The wearet, as Veil had learned she was, made his skin crawl slightly whenever he was near her. He could understand that Bryony would be clueless to the feeling, she was not adept in wisdom.

Of course, she wasn't as old as he. And Veil had grown to realize over the seasons, that he wasn't quite like everyone else.

He could feel things he could not explain, he could hear voices he had not summoned, and he always knew when a beast he was close to was sad, happy, frightened, or thinking.

At first the ferret had assumed all beasts were this way, but as he grew, Groddil informed him it was not so. Not even his own adopted family were as sensitive as he.

All in all, while he couldn't say why or how, Veil somehow knew something about Xzanthia was wrong.

Now he was faced with her again .. and he couldn't help but feel a tiny bit cold. But Catkin, who was with him, was as cheery as ever. "I heard you two found a treasure! What is it? What do they do?"

Bryony answered. "They're monocles, I guess. You look through them! I see fine, or I'd use one."

Catkin picked one out of the box, exclaiming, "Why, it's so pretty!"

She had stopped eating her hotroot for a moment, and now she looked through the object at it. A frown spread across her face, something very odd for Catkin. "Oh! Oh whatever is wrong with my hotroot?!"

Veil gave her an odd look .. while he didn't particularly love hotroot, he didn't see anything wrong with Catkin's. But the otter maid was in earnest. "It looks strange .. oh .. this thing doesn't make me happy!"

Catkin dropped the offending item back in it's box, and Fripple, who had walked up, asked, "Catkin isn't happy??"

The otter looked a bit unwell, and Veil shook his head. "Wait .. let me look."

The ferret slowly picked up one of the monocles, freezing as he felt it tingle in his paws .. tingle like melting ice, without the wetness. Veil could feel his heart beating a little faster as he scanned the room for something to look upon .. something he knew was good.

His gaze fell upon a carving in the likeness of Ignasa's face, and the ferret lifted the monocle to his eye.

Veil felt himself freeze with terror as the hall grew darker .. and was it .. older? It was like a whole new Redwall .. and not one that felt right .. one that felt terrifyingly wrong. But as he turned his gaze to the carving of the Lord of Light, he felt the desire to gasp .. and maybe he did.

The carving was swimming before his astonished eyes, morphing into something dark ..

There was a clatter as the monocle slipped from Veil's six clawed paw, and he felt a wave of nauseous blackness crash over him .. one of pure darkness. The ferret felt himself fall against something rock, felt himself clutching his throat in an effort to breath properly and not wretch.

It only lasted a few seconds, as he could hear Fripple calling, "Veil, Veil! What's wrong .. what happened? Veil are you alive?"

The ferret choked in a proper breath as the world came back .. but he still felt sick to his stomach. "I .. I'm fine .. I think .. Ahhh!"

Veil felt a pang shoot through his skull, prohibiting him from recalling what had happened in detail. Fripple was worried. "Are you hurt?"

Veil kept a paw on his stomach, mumbling, "I'm fine .. Oh .. but I'm sick. It must have been something I ate .. Fripple .. tell Groddil I'm not feeling well .. I'm going to bed."

The ferret wasn't conscious of any feelings as he stumbled off, but Fripple stared after him, nervous. Catkin looked up from where she leaned against the wall, muttering, "He's right .. I'm not feeling happy .. I'm sick. I'm going to sleep."

Fripple was soon alone in the Great Hall with Xzanthia, Bryony, and the monocles. She cast one glance at the one Veil had dropped, as Xzanthia asked, "Will they be alright? That's very odd .."

Bryony nodded. "It couldn't have to do with the monocles .. Martin looked through one and nothing happened! A lot of others did too!"

Fripple took a step back, before heading for the door. "I .. I have training."

><><

A slow stream of Redwallers came throughout the next few hours, to see the odd new treasure. Some took a monocle .. most did not, deeming them rather frivolous.

Bryony left for a bit to help Goody, leaving Xzanthia alone. The wearet waved cheerily to the mouse as she vanished through the doorway, and, upon finding herself left to her own devises, slammed a paw against the wall in frustration.

Trust the son of that worm Sixclaw to be a psychic!

He was too sensitive! The monocle's power worked too quickly on him, allowing him to see through it's charms!

Xzanthia cursed mentally .. that threw a twist in her plan .. she would have loved to turn the ferret into a mindless puppet, have him do her evil and blame him. But without the power of the monocle, she could not bewitch him .. at least not yet.

As soon as he recovered from his taste of Malimore's power, he'd spread the word! She had to get rid of him .. and fast! But how? If she murdered him, she could cast light upon her scheme .. not enough beasts had succumbed to the powers of darkness.

Wait. Murder?

Xzanthia scratched an ear. Murder .. there was something she was missing ...

The wearat sat against the wall, plotting. If she could blame Veil for something bad enough .. like murder ... Yes!

Xzanthia smiled wickedly, outlining and polishing her plan. She could murder somebeast important .. with poison, poison made it hard to discover who had done the deed .. and frame that psycho Sixclaw spawn .. oh, it was perfect!

But who to kill .. who to kill .. royalty was always a good target. What about the king? No .. he'd be the one to make the judgment, so she needed him alive.

His queen. It was so obvious! That would infuriate the king, his wrath would be against Veil, of course .. and then .. Xzanthia rubbed her paws together.

Her plan could continue without that interfering psychic.

The echo of paws disrupted Xzanthia's evil enjoyment of the wicked she was planning, and the wearet scrambled to her paws. A haughty voice informed her she'd been caught. "And what are you doing? Going to steal something, vermin?"

Xzanthia turned to face a slim otter maid of about fifteen, who was giving her a look of scorn. It was the one named Mayberry, Xzanthia knew from her quiet and quick observations. The one who always seemed to sit alone .. head high and never happy, like her brain-dead, bubbly twin.

Mayberry was not used to being ignored. "I asked, what are you doing?"

Xzanthia smiled disarmingly. "Nothing, Mayberry .. what are you doing?"

The older creature paused, asking with suspicion, "How do you know my name? I never told you."

Xzanthia sighed. "I know a lot of things .. and I know from watching, that you don't have many friends .. even though you always try to follow the rules. You're very, very good, I think .. how is it they don't understand you?"

Mayberry gave her a glare. "I don't know, and I don't care. Rules are here for our safety, and Lord Ignasa is pleased when we follow them."

Xzanthia smiled. "Well then he must be very pleased with you .. don't you think?"

The otter nodded. "Of course! I try to never be bad, or trust anything bad .. like vermin." She added quickly.

Her wearet companion smiled. "I know what you mean .. did you see that ferret .. Veil? He seems very quiet .. he could be plotting anything!"

As soon as she said it, Xzanthia could tell Veil was a touchy subject for Mayberry, by the thoughts that swam loose in her mind. The otter spoke like she had a bad taste in her mouth. "Yes, well, he thinks he's so special .. just cause he can feel the 'spirit world' better than others. He's a vermin! He shouldn't even be here .."

Xzanthia was smiling a little more .. this find would make her stronger than ever! Mayberry was jealous of her fellow beasts .. or more rightly from her thoughts, jealous of their happiness. Because obviously, she didn't have much.

The wearet looked sad. "They just don't see what we see .. do they? The poor blind beasts .. wouldn't it be wonderful if they thought just like us?"

Mayberry paused, before nodding. "Yes, it would be nicer if they followed rules better .. they don't even bother to be perfect, and are so sickeningly happy .. huh. It's disgusting."

Xzanthia knew how to play a game. "Isn't it friend .. isn't it?"




Chapter 3 The Red Mark of Poison

Fripple was finding dinner boring without Catkin to stick hotroot under somebeast's nose, and disturbing without Veil's quiet presence. All in all, she wasn't eating that much.

The golden mouse maid fiddled with the food on her plate, nibbling a little here, sipping a little there, but not finding much comfort in any of it.

It was about this time she realized she had not told Veil her dream, but it didn't seem important anymore, not after this afternoon's events. Why had Veil become so sick .. and Catkin too!

It was those monocles .. it had to be. What else would have caused it? Fripple poked at her food one more time, before slipping off her seat and stating, "Ivan, Esther .. I'm not hungry. I'll be back, though."

Without another word the mouse slipped from the dining hall, out toward where she had last seen those monocles.

There was something wrong with them!

Even as a little girl, Fripple had never liked the dark. She always had the odd phobia something would jump out and get her.

The echoing, empty hall sent shivers up her spine, and she felt like she was being watched by wicked eyes.

Fripple, really? The dark? You're sixteen .. pull it together.

Despite what she told herself, the nearer she got to the place she knew those things sat, the more shivers crawled up her spine. She blinked in the gloom, swallowing as she made her way to the table, fingers dancing over the hilt of her sabre.

Fripple paused, staring into the box, unsure of what to do. The ideal thing would be to look through one of the monocles to see what Veil saw .. but did she really want to?

The mouse was stretching out a paw to try, when a dreadful commotion rang out from behind her!

Fripple pulled her paw away, wheeling around and running back across Great Hall, boots echoing hollowly. The mouse was mystified as to what the disturbance was about .. had somebeast stuck their paw in boiling water? That was about the only thing that had ever happened at dinner, that and Esther or Gonff jr. stealing something ..

She came through the door in time the run into Sandingomm, who wasn't dreadfully affected .. but Fripple fell backwards. The cat was surprised, but pulled Fripple effortlessly onto her feet as the mouse asked, "What's happening?"

Sandingomm was worried. "Where were you? Your aunt is sick .. it looks like poisoning to me."

Fripple's eyes widened .. "Rose, poisoned? What? What happened?"

The gray cat shook her head. "She was fine until Ben brought out some of his strawberry fizz .. and there must have been something in it .. Rose practically fell over! Columbine took her to the infirmary .. I hope .."

Fripple swallowed, asking in disbelief, "Somebeast put poison in the drinks?"

Sandingomm shook her head, "I donno dearie, but I was a vermin seer .. and I've seen poison in action before. This was all too familiar."

Esther looked shaken as she stared at her beaker. "I'm glad I didn't drink any .. will Rose be alright?"

Sandingomm got an odd look on her face, before snatching Esther's drink and sniffing it. To Fripple's horror, the cat tasted a drop .. and Esther stared at her like she expected her to keel over instantly. However Sandingomm did not, and she frowned. "Wait a minute ..."

The gray cat bolted to where Rose had been sitting, picking up the fallen chalice and staring inside, before stating darkly, "Aha .. just as I thought! The diabolical creature put it in the glass itself .. look!"

Fripple blinked, seeing the red stain that clung to the cup's sides. Sandingomm's voice was certain. "It's Wolfbane .. that's the only poison I know of that stains red."

Ivan, who'd been standing nearby silently, asked, "Mother .. who would do this?"

Sandingomm shook her head. "I don't know ... I'm honestly clueless as to that. But I will say they may not be hard to find."

Esther looked at her oddly. "Why?"

Sandingomm crossed her arms. "Because Wolfbane stains everything red. If mixed with water it will dye fur, and it irritates the skin .. our poisoner won't escape, whoever it is."

><><

The poisoner herself was always one to defy what should be, evidenced by the fact she stood in Redwall's flower garden, calmly burying a pair of reddish stained gloves. She kept an eye out for anybeast who might chance to see her, however she doubted she would be caught .. everyone was too worried about the queen, and the chance of more poison showing up elsewhere.

Xzanthia smiled to herself .. that was a trick she had learned in her travels .. to poison the cup, not the wine.

It fooled the intended victim every time .. it was too bad the queen had only sipped it. But then, whether Rose died or lived was really meaningless to Xzanthia .. either way, her plan had succeeded.

Of course .. she had to put the next part into action .. and this might be the trickiest piece of all.

The wearet rubbed the dirt from her paws as she scattered some stray pebbles over the patch of turned earth. Now she simply needed to slip into Veil's room .. and put a sprinkle of Wolfbane into the ferret's wash basin.

When he washed his paws in the morning .. he'd have the reddest paws anybeast had ever seen.

However, Xzanthia knew good and well, it is dreadfully hard to convince anybeast there is nothing wrong when one is found trying to climb through a second story window in the middle of the night .. it just wouldn't do.

It was far more prudent to go about her goal from the inside. If Veil happened to lock his door for some reason .. well, there was such a thing as picking locks.

Xzanthia wasn't in the least bit worried Veil would awake .. he was probably totally exhausted from his encounter with the monocle. It was everybeast else.

Hopefully they'd still be sufficiently distracted.

><><

In truth, they seemed to be, as Xzanthia moved through the halls without hindrance, toward where she had learned .. from probing Bryony .. Veil slept.

The wearet reached the door she was looking for, and cast a glance about the shadow filled hallway she now stood in .. to satisfy herself she was unwatched.

Xzanthia smiled in satisfaction, slipping her paw onto the doorknob, and turning it silently. The room wasn't locked, evidenced as the door swung silently inward, surprising the intruder. She winced as it thumped against the stone wall, and Veil murmured, shifting in his sleep.

However he did no more, breathing even and eyes closed. Xzanthia allowed herself to watch the beast for a few minutes, evaluating him.

He was tall and sinewy like his father, his fur was only a shade brighter than his father's .. he looked amazingly like Swartt. And yet he had his puny mother's eyes .. and was a little sparer than Swartt, the son of Sixclaw. Still, if the mere resemblance were not enough, the six clawed paw confirmed any doubt.

This was the one .. the one she'd heard had been killed by woodlanders after being abandoned at Salamandastron. But obviously he hadn't .. they had raised him instead.

Xzanthia's face contorted with hatred.

Oh, if only Swartt knew!

Ahh .. but there was so much Swartt did not know .. and would never know. He would never get this son of his back .. that thought was soothing to Xzanthia. This son that he bitterly cursed leaving .. the son that he wanted back .. would die.

And die by the very paws he had grown to love.

How fitting .. how perfectly satisfying. The torment Xzanthia knew she would inflict was almost more satisfying than if she had gotten to kill the son of Swartt herself.

And it was long overdue. Xzanthia swept over to the simple washbasin, and sprinkled Wolfbane in the water filled pitcher, smiling as she edged out the door .. giving the sleeping Veil a last look, and whispering, "Oh Swartt .. you fool. I'm doing this to you. Someday .. you'll know. Someday when you die beneath my claws."

><><

Columbine was tired and frazzled .. after all, the infirmary keeper hadn't exactly planned on trying to save somebeast's life that night. Martin was pale .. frozen almost .. and looked sick as Columbine went about her work with determination.

The king of Mossflower sat waiting, totally helpless against this sort of enemy. However Columbine knew what antidote to use, and administered it quickly.

Tense moments passed, silent and clouded with unspoken fears. Yet Rose still breathed, and though pale, wasn't as ghastly looking as before.

At length, Columbine sat down, sighing, "I've done all I can .. pray it works."

Martin fiddled with the monocle he now carried, asking, "Columbine .. will she live?"

Columbine shrugged. "I think so .. she won't feel well for a while .. Wolfbane is very strong. Thank Lord Ignasa she only got a sip of it. Even then .. she nearly died. She may suffer some memory loss and be weak for a few days .. but it should all be temporary."

Martin looked relieved, before he asked, "How did this happen .. who would have tried to poison Rose?"

Columbine looked weary, as Sandingomm, being a good friend of Rose, spoke out. "I don't know Martin .. but one thing's for sure. This was intentional, and Rose was a specific target .. the poisoner coated the rim of her chalice in Wolfbane. This was no accident."

Martin's brown eyes darkened. "Whoever has done this will die, according to the laws of Mossflower .. a life for a life."

The king fingered the hilt of his sword, growling, "And we will bring them to justice."

><><

The night passed uneventfully, though all beasts were on alert and worried .. keeping wary eyes out for anybeast with red paws.

All except one, that is.

Veil lay fast asleep, recovering from the monocle's crippling power. However, as the morning began to turn light gray, he began to awake.

The ferret stretched, blinking his eyes open .. what an odd dream he'd had!

It was so faint .. but of a beast that called out to farthest recesses of blurry memories .. a stately blue-gray creature with long, dark hair. Sandingomm? No, this beast was smaller, with smaller ears and a black mask .. a ferret.

Veil blinked a little, sitting up. He'd dreamed of the ferret before, many a time. Something about her made him want to run to her .. see her clearly .. but she was always far from him. Still, she was familiar .. perhaps she was his real mother.

The ferret knew good and well he had not been born to Gingivere and Sandingomm; they were cats, and he was not. But as for his real parents .. it was so long ago! His mother was blue gray .. he had thought .. and he could remember fearing his father .. but not seeing him much and therefore not remembering the faintest thing about his looks.

Something in his heart made him want to see his mother again .. he had loved her dearly, he could recall that much. But he was pretty sure that his parents were likely dead, killed in the battle of Salamandastron.

Veil sighed, slipping off his bed and over to the window, and his wash basin. The light was dim and the ferret was more concerned with the world outside his window than the water he poured in the bowl. Veil was scrubbing his paws in it, not really looking, when there was a knock on his door. "Veil, Veil! Are you awake?"

That was Ivan, and Veil opened his mouth to answer as his brother called, "Somebeast tried to poison queen Rose at dinner last night!"

The ferret wheeled about, jumping as this abrupt movement caused both bowl and pitcher to smash to the floor. "What?"

Ivan opened the door, no more than a silhouette in the dim light. "Rose almost died last night .. from Wolfbane! Somebeast put it in her glass."

Veil gathered up the broken pieces of porcelain, setting them on the table to be disposed of later. "Who did it?"

Ivan shook his head. "That's what we're trying to figure out .. where were you last night?"

Veil buckled on his belt, stating, "I was sick .. because .. wait .. it was those monocles! Ivan, those things are evil .. just plain evil! I looked at a carving of Ignasa with one .. and I swear it started to turn into .. Malimore!"

Ivan raised an eyebrow. "Through the monocle. But when you looked again without it, nothing was wrong?"

Veil shook his head. "Oh .. I don't know .. I didn't look again. I was about to vomit Ivan, I swear .. something dark was choking me."

Ivan blinked. "We better tell King Martin .. and quickly. If those things really are that bad, we have to get rid of them!"

His ferret brother pulled the door shut, walking out into the darkened hallway with him. The two hurried along without a word, and about three minutes passed before Veil noticed his paws were itching.

The ferret tried to ignore it, but then they began to sting and throb. He cast a glance at his brother, a beast he knew loved to play dry humored pranks .. all too well. "Ivan, you didn't put Poison Ivy in my water basin, did you?"

The cat gave him a surprised look. "No, not this time anyway. Why do you ask?"

Veil winced. "My paws itch! And sting now .."

They were in the Great Hall by this time, and Ivan frowned ever so slightly. "Let me look ..."

The cat didn't get a chance to, as Martin entered through the main doors, pausing at the sight of the two. "Neither of you have seen our poisoner, I assume?"

Ivan shook his head, "No, but we'll keep an eye out .."

Veil interrupted, "Sir, not to interrupt, but I need to tell you something ..."

Martin froze suddenly, frame rigid as he stared at the ferret's paws. Veil soon did so himself, and gasped. They weren't black .. they were red .. as red as fresh blood!

Veil frowned, unaware of the position he was now in. "My paws are red? Is that why they hurt? Ivan what did I touch .. do you remember?"

Martin's teeth were clenched as he growled, "Of course he doesn't remember .. don't try and play stupid. Why did you .. of all beasts .. poison Rose?"

Veil blinked in shock. "Me? But I didn't .."

Martin was furious. "Oh really? Then why do even your paws testify against you? And where were you last night?"

The ferret shook his head. "Look, I don't know why my paws are red .. but I was sick last night. Because of those things .. they're dangerous!"

He pointed to the monocle stuck in Martin's belt, and the mouse king glared back. "It seems to me that you are the one who is dangerous .. take off your sword."

Ivan stepped forward. "Martin, sire .. this isn't right! Veil didn't do it .. I know he wouldn't!"

Martin glared at the cat. "He will have a trial .. it's more than he deserves. But he will remain a prisoner until then. Is this clear? I will hear no arguments."

><><

An organized Mossflowerian trail is diplomatic and complicated .. but this one was thrown together speedily. Martin, Redfarl, Bella, and Keylar were at the head of the whole affair, with Rose still unconscious and Sayna and Timbal missing.

The news spread like wildfire .. Veil was the poisoner!

Rumors went around that he was planning a takeover .. or more poisoning .. after all, he was rather quiet and not a lot of beasts knew him well.

But the few that did, were horrified.

Esther was in hysterics. "They can't do this!!"

Fripple was, as usual .. not optimistic. "They have. Crying won't change anything."

Esther sniffled, shaking Fripple. "But they'll kill him for murder .. they'll kill him! You of all beasts, know the law ... you're the princess! Fripple, do something!"

Aubretia was taking notes. "According to my calculations, she can't do all that much. Martin will see her as biased, and she has no real evidence."

Catkin was eating hotroot to calm herself. "I don't understand .. how can this make anybeast happy?"

Fripple stomped a boot. "It doesn't make them happy! Do you think it makes me happy that they'll behead my best friend?"

Esther thought about this a minute, then wailed. "We have to do something ... quick! What would Veil do?"

Fripple sighed. "He's the one imprisoned, genius."

Mystiquestar, the horse, looked up from the grass she was cropping furiously as a form of stress relief. "He'd help him escape .. well .. if it wasn't him."

Esther suddenly looked up. "I know! We could steal him!"

Ivan, standing nearby, was droll .. and yet serious. "Steal the keys first."

Esther turned around. "What ... ohh ... wait. The keys? Well of course I can steal the keys."

Fripple crossed her arms. "In this case Esther .. I agree with you. We have to do something radical .. and fast!"

Ivan's voice never changed. "How fast, exactly? Today, or tomorrow?"

Fripple glared at the cat. "How can you joke about your brother's execution?"

Catkin had the answer. "Because we won't let it happen .. will we?"

Fripple crossed her arms. "No we won't .. I can't stand by and watch that .. Veil is my friend .. Veil is our friend. He's bailed us out of trouble more than once, and we are going to do the same for him .. we wouldn't be true friends if we didn't!"

><><

Veil felt truly numb .. this was crazy. What had he done .. how had he succeeded in getting into Wolfbane?

The ferret knew good and well what charges he was facing .. if he wasn't proven innocent, he'd be executed for treason and attempted murder. Worse yet, murder of royalty.

Part of him was in truth, furious. He had done nothing! He knew he'd done nothing! But he couldn't prove it! Still .. had he ever done anything terribly wrong before? Had he not kept in good standing with the ones who had raised him? What right had they, to imprison and accuse him?

A bitter tear trickled down Veil's cheek as another emotion came to him. What did his parents think? Were they disappointed .. did they hate him now? What about his friends? Did they all believe he was the poisoner?

The ferret sighed .. he couldn't expect them to not. It looked terribly like he had indeed poisoned queen Rose.

Fearful doubts and suspicions began to settle in his mind .. had he unknowingly done this? But how? Had somebeast framed him? Who hated him enough to do that?

Veil tried to chase away the terrible thoughts he was thinking of his fellow beasts, but they wouldn't go .. they plagued him.

After all, the mind is a fascinating, horrible thing ... one that tasks itself in explaining the unexplainable .. and almost always does it wrong.

Veil closed his eyes, trying to block out the dreadful throbbing in his paws as he turned to higher power. "Lord Ignasa .. what are you doing?"

The cellar door clanked open, and Whegg stepped in, stating almost reluctantly. "You'll have ta come with me."

Veil stood slowly, asking bitterly, "You hate me too?"

Whegg looked down. "I .. this is a bad business, all of it. I donno what to believe, Veil. I don't like to think this of you. Do ya hate me?"

The ferret felt his anger slowly melt somewhat. The rat was nearly his uncle, as he was to every young beast at the abbey .. besides, he was only following orders. "No Whegg .. I know this is above your command. I don't hold it against you .. and I promise I did nothing .. is Rose alright?"

Whegg nodded. "She is recovering .. and I'm inclined to believe you. But all I can do is say a word on your behalf."

The rat motioned out the door, and Veil followed, sighing, "Thanks Whegg."

Whegg laid a paw on his shoulder. "Be strong."

><><

Fripple, Ivan, and Esther watched Whegg lead Veil out to where Martin sat .. along with Redfarl, Arvid, Keylar, and Bella.

Fripple bit her lip .. her friend looked utterly despondent. She heard Martin talking now, and in a tight voice. "Veil, I am, admittedly, disappointed. Perhaps I should have seen this coming, but I liked to think better of you. Why would you dare to try and kill my wife?"

Fripple clenched her paws .. her uncle sounded so judgmental .. like he was absolutely certain Veil was the poisoner. Redfarl's voice rang out. "With all respect Milord, are we sure Veil did this?"

Martin looked angry. "Are his paws not enough?"

Arvid sighed. "The evidence lies hard against him."

Bella may have been ancient, but she was highly respected. "Warrior, I do not feel Veil did this."

That was directed to Martin, who glared at the badger despite himself. "Who else would have done this? He stands before us with red paws, and yet you doubt his guilt?"

Bella frowned. "What does Veil say?"

The ferret shook his head. "Milady .. I would not do this! I was as horrified as you when I heard what happened .. and I don't know why my paws are red!"

Arvid raised and eyebrow, and even Redfarl looked skeptical. "How is that possible?"

Veil appealed to the squirrel queen. "Milady I swear I don't know! I did not touch Wolfbane .. I promise!"

Martin stood, wrathful. "You are a liar of the worst kind .. vermin!"

Fripple felt something boil in her heart, and she ran from her hiding place, bolting between her uncle and her best friend. "Veil is not a vermin, and he did nothing!! How can you accuse him of this??"

Her voice shattered the oppressiveness .. and had a way of making it even more oppressive. Martin glared at her as though seeing something he had seen before .. something he did not like. "Fripple, stay out of this."

Fripple flinched at how cold her uncle's voice was, for normally, they got on fairly well. But she didn't back down. "I will not! Veil is not a murderer!"

"Fripple is right sire." Ivan had joined her unbeknownst, and his steady brown gaze defied the high king.

His next, and steady statement surprised even Fripple. "You are wrong, Milord."

If somebeast had happened to drop a pin, it would have sounded like splintering glass. Veil was blinking in astonishment at this sudden turn, and Martin's brown eyes looked like thunderclouds. Bella broke the silence. "I understand your concern for your friend, but this is not your place. Kindly stand down."

Fripple glared at the badger. "This isn't right, and you know it! I won't .."

Ivan laid a paw on the mouse's shoulder, stating, "Do as she says."

Fripple wasn't terribly used to listening to orders. "But how can you .."

Ivan picked her up without the slightest show of effort, setting her down further from her uncle and Bella. "Do as she says."

Bella nodded to the cat. "Thank you Ivan, but you are both out of line, I am sorry to say. I realize Veil is your friend, but we must get to the bottom of this, and you are only making it worse."

The badger cast a meaningful glance at Martin, who looked utterly furious. The high king's voice was a grating sound. "Leave us, now."

Fripple opened her mouth to argue, but Ivan grabbed her paw, complying and taking his argumentative friend with him. When they reached the outer pillars of Redwall and the voices behind them commenced, Fripple yanked her paw away. "What are you doing? Why wouldn't you let me stop them?"

Aubretia was standing with Esther, Star, and Catkin, and she spoke. "According to my calculations ..."

Fripple wasn't in a good mood already. "Will you shut up! I don't care about your calculations, that is my friend they have, and they will kill him if we don't do something!"

Esther looked like she was about to cry, and Catkin hugged the ermine. "Fripple, you are not making Esther happy!"

Fripple glared at the otter. "I am telling the truth, and I will not stand for this nonsense! If my parents were here they'd stop this stupidity! We're getting out tonight, and we're taking Veil! We'll take him to Timbal and Sayna at Salamandastron, and they'll fix this whole mess!"

Esther rubbed her eyes. "Will they?"

Fripple stamped a footpaw. "Yes! They won't stand for this and they won't believe this lie! If they were here, Veil wouldn't be in this mess .. so we'll go to them!"




Chapter 4 Escapes and Escapades

ASC Chapter 4

Cedric, (in a tight spot) Fripple, and Aubretia ^^

The soft echo of sandals on marble was the only sound to be heard in the regal yet dimly lit hallway of a palace, one beautiful and elegant beyond many. The creature that occupied this place was just as lovely and stunning as it, clad in pure white, gold, and exotic jewels and furs.

She stopped on a high balcony that overlooked a vast city of beauty, one whose many lights glowed in the night like a thousand stars. Rich, curling brown hair spilled over the balcony as a soft voice echoed in the stillness. "Oh my city, my city I loved so. If father still lived I would not have lost you."

The rabbit that stood at the lofty rail did not seem imposing or terribly dignified, more like a lost and frightened child. "My city of a thousand lights .. have I lost you forever? Do you blame me for the evil that I cannot stop, yet never invited? I wish I could wander your streets and help your poor and sick again .. I hope they have not forgotten me."

"They would not forget a beast as noble as you, Milady."

The voice came from behind the rabbit, who didn't turn to answer. "They might, Zarya. You never know, what with the lies that run rampant now. From all that Kensly tells me .."

Zarya, a badger with oddly cut, layered black and white headfur, sighed. "Kensly does his best Lilly, but sometimes I think he makes things seem a little worse than they truly are."

Lilly shook her head. "Zarya, I know you try to keep positive about this. But the city is tearing itself apart out from under me, and I cannot stop it; I .. or should I say .. we are as good as prisoners."

Zarya suddenly scowled. "Oh yes. That Shroud Bloodpaws. Well I'd like to pound that one into the dust, let me tell you .. one of these days .."

Lilly held up her paws. "It's no use Zarya, Shroud rules this city now. Face it, the slave trade is all Southsward stands for anymore."

Zarya growled. "It shouldn't! When your father was alive .."

Lilly slumped across the rail, muttering, "But he's not. He's gone. And I can't rule in his place .. I've failed him."

The badger suddenly looked like she felt bad. "Lilly, it's going to be alright .."

The rabbit shook her head, whispering, "No. No Zarya .. this time it's not getting better."

><><

Night had fallen over Redwall, and Veil's case was still not settled. The ferret was locked in the cellar until morning, but his friends, though having cast suspicion upon themselves, were not under lock and key yet.

If anybeast had known of their plans, they might have been. But only they knew.

Ivan, Fripple, Catkin, Aubretia, and Star had gathered near the pond in the shadow of the wall, and Esther was presiding .. having created the greatest part of the plan. She was very determined .. but also stressed. "Ok, so .. I'm a little nervous about this one .. you know if one thing goes wrong we're finished. And of course Veil is .. so yea. Pay attention."

Ivan's voice was flat. "We are."

Esther nodded. "Umm .. ok! So, first off .. I'm going to steal the cellar keys."

Aubretia instantly began writing something down like her life depended on it. Esther indicated her bow and arrows, thin dagger and satchel of burglary tools. "So .. I'm ready, but you guys have got to get your stuff together, alright? While you do that I'll steal Veil his rapier, and meet you back here. Then I'll steal Veil! Does that sound good .. maybe?"

Ivan didn't seem so sure. "You'll 'steal' Veil by yourself?"

Catkin broke in. "Of course Ivan! Esther wants to do that cause she likes Veil very much, right Esther?"

The ermine nodded, before the reality of what Catkin was saying sank in properly, and she flushed a little pink. "No! I mean .. uh .. not like that and all .. and .. and .. let's just do this. I'm getting the keys .. you get everything else. And supplies! It'll be a while before we get to Salamandastron so .. yea. I'm going to get started."

She walked off quickly and a little stiffly, and Fripple rolled her eyes. "Well, let's get started too."

><><

Veil lay in one corner of the dark storage room he was confined in, trying to sleep. There were some blankets down here, but he couldn't get comfortable.

The ferret wondered what time of day it was .. for it seemed hours since he'd been locked down here. Perhaps they had decided his fate and someone would come to execute him shortly ...

The lock clicked softly, and Veil assumed his thoughts had come true. Did dying hurt terribly much?

However the voice that hailed him from the cellar's darkness was not that of an executioner. In fact it was laden with worry. "Veil? They didn't hurt you .. they didn't kill you yet .. did they?"

Veil's ears perked up. That was Esther! The ferret whispered back. "No, I'm alright so far. Why are you here though?"

Esther bumped into him as she stated simply, as if this was the most natural thing in the world, "I'm stealing you, of course. So .. let's go. Ben's asleep and if we're quiet he won't hear us. Oh yea .. and I stole your rapier for you."

Veil was a little dumbfounded as the cold and familiar steel of his beloved weapon was thrust into his paws, sheath, belt, and all. He followed Esther out, asking, "But I don't understand .. where are we going?"

Esther was holding tightly onto his paw as she nearly pulled him out, explaining quietly. "Oh, we're going to run away, and we're taking you with us .. I mean .. what else could we do? Don't worry, Aubretia calculated the whole thing!"

Veil stopped dead. "King Martin's daughter is helping you .. me .. us?"

They stood in the kitchen now, and Veil could see Esther's surprised look in the dim light from the ovens. "Um .. yes. Why wouldn't she be? You don't judge her for her .. uh .. crazy calculations and stuff, so I guess she wants to help you. Isn't that natural?"

Veil allowed Esther to pull him along again, but asked, "Who else is coming, then?"

Esther listed off the names without breaking pace as she made her way across the Great Hall. "Well .. there's me, and you, Aubretia, Fripple, Catkin, Star, and Ivan. They're getting supplies and all and they'll meet us by the pond .. so we need to hurry ok?"

Veil heightened his pace as they made their way out the main doors and onto the lawns. "And .. how are we getting out?"

Esther didn't pause. "East wall gate .. I mean .. that's the simplest."

Veil nodded, but he had another question. "And .. where are we going?"

Esther pulled him into the shadow of the wall, stating, "Well .. we thought Salamandastron, but I'm open to ideas, you know. Where are they anyway?"

Fripple walked up, all her many weapons present, as well as a gunnysack. "Here. I brought some food and blankets."

Veil buckled on his rapier as Aubretia staggered up, satchel full of quill pens and inkwells, accompanied by a bag of formidable volumes. Two throwing knives were stuck in the mouse maid's belt as an afterthought. Fripple rolled her eyes.

Ivan was next, with his mace, ball and chain, hat, boots, satchel, and a sack of supplies. Catkin came running up after him, with an exceedingly lumpy and large bag slung over one shoulder. She had a pillow under one arm, and a blanket. Upon seeing Fripple's look, she defended herself. "A good nights sleep makes me happy."

Fripple was about to roll her eyes again, when Mystiquestar hurried up, a pair of carrot-filled saddle bags slung over her back. She stretched her neck out, neatly snagging a carrot with her teeth and crunching it. "I'm ready! I hope there will be good things to eat at Salamandastron!"

Veil was nervous about congregating in the abbey grounds .. for he felt they would surely be caught. "Let's find out, shall we? I don't like staying here so long."

Fripple nodded. "Come on .. let's get out."

She made off for the gate and Veil followed her, the others in suit. Fripple opened the gate, but she, Veil, and Ivan were the last ones out. As Veil pulled the gate shut behind them, the three exchanged glances.

That one, echoing click seemed to end their happy childhood forever.

><><

The western flatlands were larger than Fripple had imagined, and her paws were dragging .. they had to have been about this whole adventure at least a few hours. Ivan had ended up putting Aubretia on Star's back, as the young mouse was lagging the worst, due to her books. She was making calculations now. "According to my calculations, as soon as we reach the woods, we can stop for the rest of the morning, until sunrise."

Veil sighed, a bag of provisions over one shoulder. "That'll be another thirty minutes."

Fripple groaned. "That's wonderful."

Star's head was down, and she was panting like she'd run a race. "Ohhh I need .. food .. more food .. I'm .. going to .. drop .. pretty soon here .. "

Each pause consisted of the horse tearing up a mouthful of the long prairie grass. Ivan was droll, as always. "If we let her go first, think she'll carve a path for us?"

Veil realized something. "Oh no .. that's not funny! Star, stop that please .. you'll leave a trail!"

The horse looked crestfallen. "But how will I survive?! I'm going to dry up and blow away, I just know it!"

Fripple coughed, finding it impossible to imagine something as plump as Star blowing anywhere. Esther broke in. "No, you're not, ok? You'll be fine .. just try it for a while?"

Star sighed, seeing the looks her friends were giving her. "Oh .. alright. But if I drop dead of starvation, it'll be your fault!"

Ivan walked past. "I'll take the risk."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Let's concentrate on getting there."

Esther paused, looking back. "I .. sure hope this works. What if they never take us back? What if .. even our parents .. hate us now?"

Veil slowly shook his head. "I don't .. know. You .. you can all go back now, if you want. You don't have to do this for me .. I'm not worth it."

Catkin stared at him a moment, before hugging him tightly. "Oh no! That wouldn't make you happy! And you can't say you're not worth it, cause we know you are .. right everyone?"

Esther nodded, "Well of course!"

Fripple crossed her arms. "You're my friend Veil, you're worth it."

Ivan gave Catkin a look. "My brother will always be worth it .. and you might want to let go of him now. I think he's uncomfortable with that."

The otter released her hug, and Veil looked slightly less stiff. "Thanks .. all of you."

Star trotted past, Aubretia holding on for dear life. The horse neighed back to them, "Hurry .. up you guys .. we're almost to the woods. And food!"

Veil sighed. "I hope we make it through this in one piece .. I really do."

><><

Despite protests, Veil insisted they go into the woods a ways before making camp. When he was satisfied, camp was blankets on the ground in a clearing. Star fell asleep straight away.

Veil lay on his blanket as Ivan gave him a look, one that made it clear the ferret should sleep at least awhile. Veil might have argued, but the stress he'd been through was tiring .. and he thought he would at least close his eyes for a bit.

Sleep was calling, but Veil promised himself he wouldn't. He'd open his eyes presently .. just a few minutes .. just a few ..

The ferret lost that thought in the darkness of rest for a few moments, and he knew nothing.

Until he heard the voice.

"Veil .."

The ferret stirred, mumbling, "Shall I guard for a while Ivan ..?"

The voice was not akin to Ivan's though, and Veil realized this as it spoke again. "Veil. Open your eyes, son."

Veil slowly did so, to realize it was not dark, but light. And a wonderful, surreal light at that. For Ignasa stood before the ferret, blue eyes smiling. "Are you awake now?"

Veil trembled, falling back to the ground. "Milord .. I think I am .."

Lord Ignasa laid his muzzle on the ferret's shoulder, voice gentle. "In my land, you are."

Veil looked up, confused. "Am I .. dead?"

Ignasa shook his head. "My son, you are dreaming. And I called you here for a few reasons. One is that you needed to see me .. you needed to know I care, and that I am with you."

The ferret dropped his gaze, voice sorrowful. "Why .. what did I do to deserve this, Milord?"

The Lord of Light sighed. "You did nothing to deserve the charges against you, I promise this, my son."

Ignasa looked sad, and sympathetic. "But you are needed Veil, you hold a secret. Every veil holds a secret. I allowed this to happen, because I need you to listen to me .. you are called. Will you accept the task I have for you?"

Veil was surprised. This was not what he had been expecting, not at all. And yet as he met Ignasa's steady gaze he knew his answer. "Lord Ignasa .. I will try. I am not a hero .. but I will try."

Ignasa smiled. "That is all I ask of you, is that you try. I can make anybeast a hero. Now listen to me, and heed my words .. your destiny lies not at the great mountain of the west."

The puma blinked, whispering, "The city of a thousand lights holds your future .. a city of the sea, sand, and the greatest of rivers. You will find trials, you will find joy .. and you will find many secrets .. so many secrets the world forgot."

Ignasa touched Veil's forehead with his nose, stating, "Some secrets should never be forgotten. Find your past and in it your future, Veil ... and remember. Every veil holds a secret all their own."

Veil blinked, closing his eyes as there was a flash of white light, and then darkness.

But not for long.

The ferret sat bolt upright, clapping a paw to his head as the land of the living slowly returned to him .. or perhaps he returned to it. He heard himself groan, mumbling, "The city of a thousand lights .. the city of a thousand lights .."

Ivan's voice broke in. "What?"

Veil stared dumbly at his brother for a moment, before whispering, "Ignasa .. I saw Lord Ignasa. He said I hold a secret .. and that I must not go to the mountain, but the city of a thousand lights."

"And he said I was called .. to be a hero." The ferret added, mouth a little dry.

The morning was just dawning, and a low mist lay over the chilly woodlands. Fripple was rubbing her eyes. "Lord Ignasa .. where?"

Veil stared at her. "I saw him in my dream .. Fripple .. where is the city of a thousand lights? Do you know?"

Aubretia was onto the question in a heartbeat. "The city of a thousand lights?"

She yawned, shoving her paws into her bag, rummaging around, and finally pulling out a thick, silver bound volume. "I was reading this last, and I do recall something speaking of the city of a thousand lights."

Veil gave the item a look, able to read the title ... Cities of Trade. The ferret wasn't greatly surprised .. Aubretia mowed through books that would bore the greatest scholar. She was speaking now, triumphant. "Aha! Here we are! It says here; Southsward, a great city of the far south. It is known for its vastness and wealth, its caravans, and its seaports. Jerbilrats are its founders, and make up at least a fourth of the population, though both woodlanders and vermin are prevalent as well. At night the city is never dark, because of the lanterns that decorate every street of precedence .. this beautiful phenomenon lends the glorious city its second name; The city of a thousand lights."

Veil didn't summon his next statement as such, it just came out. "That's where we have to go. Southsward."

He thought about this a moment, before adding, "It's where I have to go, that is."

Fripple stood. "Oh, I'm coming with you, and you can't stop me. But do we know how to get there?"

She gave Aubretia a pointed look, and her cousin cleared her throat. "Well .. according to my previous research, it's to the south .. and across the great desert. Of course .. it would have been advantageous if I had brought my book of maps ..."

Fripple groaned. "We were going on a journey, library. Couldn't you think to bring maps??"

Aubretia looked slightly offended. "I wasn't reading it at the moment."

Fripple glared at Aubretia a moment, before picking up her water jug from where she had set it by her rumpled blanket. Ivan raised an eyebrow. "Belting her over the head won't help, just so you know."

Fripple huffed. "I'm not doing any such thing .. though it's terribly tempting. I'm going to get water to cook breakfast with."

The golden mouse walked off, and Veil sighed. At least he knew where to go. But how to get there?

For a beast of seventeen who'd not been three days march from his home .. that seemed almost impossible.

><><

Fripple made her way towards a brook she knew of, a tributary of the Moss. The morning was chilly, as most spring mornings were, and the air had a lovely bit of frost in it. Fripple might have begun to enjoy it's cold freedom .. had not Aubretia followed her, making enough noise that a deaf toad could hear her.

Her cousin didn't turn around, just ordered, "Go away!"

Aubretia didn't listen. "According to my previous research, the great desert is treacherous, large, easy to become lost in and .."

Fripple wheeled about, glaring, "And you're telling me this because?"

Aubretia pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "I'm simply stating the facts."

Fripple continued on her way. "I already guessed them."

Aubretia followed her cousin down the brook's gentle bank, asking, "How positively amazing .. and yet you never read about it?"

Fripple carelessly filled her water gourd, stating, "Some things don't take reading."

Aubretia frowned. "According to my calculations, you won't have need of all that .."

Fripple simmered. "Oh shut up, I think I can figure out how much water I need, you four-eyed walking library .."

Things might have gotten nasty, but a cheerful, easy going voice with a foreign accent rang out from somewhere behind the two. "I say, good morning!"

Fripple jumped, whirling about and drawing her saber in a second. However she lowered the weapon when she saw who had spoken .. the strangest creature she had ever seen. He was a mouse, but had the longest fur Fripple had laid eyes on; bright, reddish fur that faded to stark black points. While he was quite enough to summon astounded amazement, his predicament increased the effect tenfold.

He was caught in a trap by one foot, dangling in the most undignified position; with headfur long enough to rival most. However he seemed totally nonchalant about the whole thing, by the grin he was wearing. Fripple raised an eyebrow, stating simply, "You seem to be stuck."

The mouse crossed his arms, something that looked completely funny upside-down. "Oh no. I'm fine .. in fact it's quite relaxing."

Aubretia was taking notes, and she nudged Fripple, stating worriedly, "According to all my calculations, he is not fine at all!"

Fripple rolled her eyes. "You forgot to account for a liar in that equation."

The mouse looked a bit offended, almost scolding. "Liar? Liar? I am quite on the contrary, a noble and truthful beast."

Fripple glared at him. "Then you may as well admit you need help, no matter if it comes from a maid or otherwise."

The mouse was a little put out. "Oh don't you worry, I never need help. I'll get out of this when I want to, not a moment before."

Fripple slung her water jug over her shoulder. "Fine. You must like fighting Doomwytes empty pawed .. cause that looks like one of their traps. They may come check it presently .. but if boxing twenty some carrion birds upside-down is your idea of fun, I'll leave you to it. Let's go Aubretia."

The younger mouse shook her head. "But Fripple, I've calculated this! The Doomwytes will eat him alive in a little over five minutes! I'm not sure if they take the skeleton with them though, and that's leaving a gap in the equation ..."

The mouse broke in. "Now wait a second .. could we come to an arrangement on this ..?"

Fripple wheeled around. "If you want my help, you'll have to ask."

The mouse sighed, huffed .. and finally offered his paw. "I suppose .. but it won't happen again."

Fripple gave the paw a glance, before drawing a throwing knife, flipping it into the air and throwing it with lighting speed. The mouse yelped, crumpling to the ground below the tree in an ungainly heap of fur. Fripple walked by him, retrieving her knife, as she stated, "There. You're down."

He sat up, a long lock of hair falling over one eye as he pulled the rope off his foot. "There are better ways of freeing a handsome beast like me, you know."

Fripple gave him a look. "Oh I don't know. Where are you from, you don't look like a Mossflowerian."

He didn't, with silver tone armbands and neckband; accompanied by a stained white kilt that didn't bother to go over one shoulder, and a green belt that looped over itself once. Aubretia answered before the beast in question could. "According to my previous readings, he is clad in the dress of the great southern kingdoms; these consisting of desert tribes, Southsward ..."

The mouse stood, brushing himself off. "Now there's a smart little girl for you .. why yes, since you guessed it. I used to be of Southsward."

Fripple jumped on this. "Then you've been there?!"

The mouse laughed. "I was raised there."

Thinking only of what Veil had said, Fripple exclaimed, "Then you could take us there!"

The mouse did look surprised at this. "Now wait .. hold up. First off, no, I don't take anybeast anywhere. Second .. what's a pretty little woodlander like you want with Southsward?"

Fripple gave him a long look. "Firstly, I am not a 'pretty little woodlander', I am Fripple the Blade, princess of Mossflower. Secondly, I and my friends must get to Southsward .. my friend knows more about that. And thirdly .. we can pay you."

The mouse looked sly. "Princess. Princess? Hmm .. I've never met a princess until now. So, Princess, where are these friends of yours? Perhaps I'd like to meet them."

Fripple glared. "The name, is Fripple. And perhaps I'll take you to them."

The mouse grinned. "You've got some spirit, now don't you? Well, lead the way Princess. And by the way, in case you were wondering .. the name is Cedric. Cedric the Mercenary."

><><

By the time Fripple got back, Veil was glad to see her. Catkin had woken up and was threating to make breakfast .. something no one was excited about, seeing as she laced everything with hotroot.

However the ferret wasn't expecting to see a strange mouse with Fripple .. one that seemed to be irritating her to no end, by the look on her face. Aubretia came behind them, long skirt held off the ground.

Veil paused in his attempt to dissuade Catkin from utilizing her hotroot, asking, "Fripple .. who's that?"

Fripple's voice was disgusted as she answered, "That, as you rightly put it, is Cedric. He's from Southsward."

Veil blinked. "Southsward?"

Cedric broke in. "Princess, there are nicer ways of introducing a beast than that."

Fripple turned on him. "Will you quit it with the Princess thing? I have a name!"

Veil interrupted. "You're from Southsward? Can you .. tell us the way?"

Cedric was amiable. "Sure, that's not a problem. Straight south, across the desert, and make sure you hit all the oasis while you're at it."

Catkin broke in. "Desert? But water makes me happy!"

Cedric gave her a rather odd look, finally stating, "Princess here asked if I could take you down to Southsward, and looking around I think I can see why .. the great desert isn't safe for greenhorns. I don't think you'd last two days, if you don't mind me saying."

Fripple was getting seriously irritated, and she vented it by stomping a paw. "My name is Fripple!"

Cedric winked at her unashamedly. "Whatever you say Princess. And what was that you were saying about paying me?"

Fripple was giving Cedric her best death glare, and she finally wheeled around to face Veil. "A word? With Ivan?"

The ferret nodded, and Fripple glanced back at Cedric, voice a half growl. "And you stay out of this."

The mouse crossed his arms, giving her a very good look of innocent surprise. Fripple's eyes glittered with danger, before she stomped off to join her friends. Veil raised an eyebrow. "And you .. found him where?"

Fripple was matter of fact. "A Doomwyte trap .. you know those birds still hang around in hiding .. though they always steer clear of Redwall."

Ivan gave Cedric .. who was watching the three from a distance .. a look. "Is that how you normally meet new creatures?"

Fripple sighed. "Oh I don't know. But he sure is giving me a headache ... Veil .. do you get the feeling going to Southsward might be a little .. rash?"

Veil understood .. after all, this whole misadventure had been rash from the start. What with little planning, only a few supplies, and only a vague idea of how to get to Salamandastron .. and now the dream of one creature threw a sudden change into already faulty circumstances. "I .. yea. It is .. but Ignasa .. I saw him. I felt he wanted me to go .. I still feel it. But I'll say again .. you don't have to come with me. None of you do."

Fripple crossed her arms. "I am coming. I've said it before and I'll say it again .. I won't go back on this, I've made my choice. If you feel we should go to Southsward, than we will go to Southsward .. I trust you."

Ivan nodded, stating simply, "And did you find it odd that the very morning after Veil has this dream, Fripple finds a Southswardian caught in a Doomwyte trap? I've never met a beast from Southsward in all my eighteen seasons, and suddenly, one just happens along. Do you get the feeling Ignasa's giving us a clue?"

Fripple sighed begrudgingly. "Oh .. yes .. yes I do. But I sure wish he'd sent us something besides an irritating mop!"

Veil gave the mouse a glance, to realize he was talking with Esther. "Maybe he's not so bad Fripple, even if he likes to tease you."

The mouse maid groaned. "I should have never said I was the princess of Mossflower, I see that now."

Ivan shrugged. "Live and learn."

Veil sighed. "What do you two think .. should we pay him to take us?"

Ivan unsheathed a claw, scratching his chin. "Honestly, what do you think?"

Fripple rubbed a paw across her face. "As much as I hate to think it, he seems to have been sent to us. I suppose Ignasa can use mops for good .. in one way or another."

Veil closed his eyes, feeling for an answer more then anything. But there wasn't a real distinct answer, and he shook his head. "We could try it .. don't pay him first, pay him after he gets us there. I don't entirely trust him."

Fripple nodded. "Ohh you and me both!"

Ivan shrugged. "Should we ask the others?"

Fripple nodded. "I suppose, it's only fair. But you know good and well they won't be bothered by it .. a good dose of common sense and insight, that's what they need."

That second there was an exclamation, and Veil turned to see Cedric snatching his neckband from Esther, who didn't look terribly sorry. The ferret was surprised to see that a faded yet obvious scar ran across Cedric's collar bone .. and the mouse didn't seem pleased the one time injury could be seen. He buckled his jewelry back on in a heartbeat, asking in a hurt voice, "What's that about, huh? I didn't come to be stolen from!"

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Uh oh."

Veil stepped in. "Hey! Esther don't do that .. he's a guest! That's not how you treat a guest, he doesn't even know you!"

Esther looked sorry now that Veil was in on it. "Well .. it looked interesting! Shiny and all and .. and .. Oh .. fine. I won't take it if you don't want me to."

Ivan nodded. "We'd rather you not."

Cedric was a little put out by the neckband incident, and was giving all three vermin a very suspicious look. "Princess, do you trust these guys?"

Fripple sniffed. "Yes. Very much so. Now look .. we decided we want you to lead us, and we'll pay you."

Cedric raised an eyebrow. "Ok, let's see the color of your money."

Veil looked at Ivan, asking, "Did you bring any?"

Ivan shrugged, but Fripple sighed. "I did. About two hundred sheckles."

Cedric was surprised at this. "You are loaded Princess .. I suppose a princess would be."

Ivan was droll. "It's not that. She's a miser. She hasn't spent hardly anything in .. what?"

Fripple kept a straight face. "About six years. There was that time I bought that knife off that one traveler .. and I can't remember another time since .."

She looked up. "But we're off topic. How about I pay you fifty."

Cedric was a bargainer to be reckoned with "A hundred and fifty, and I'll consider it."

Fripple stared at him. "Are you kidding? I could buy a horse for less .. I'd do seventy, no higher."

Ivan broke in, seeing Cedric wasn't going for it. "And how about some of us give you a trinket .. like this."

The cat held up a heavy golden ring set with an emerald. Cedric was interested. "Hmm .. what else have you got?"

Catkin had been listening, and she held up her pearl necklace. "Would this make you happy?"

Cedric nodded amiably, stating, "Well .. this deal's getting more promising. I think I'm considering it."

Veil nodded. "And we'll pay you when we get there."

Cedric frowned, giving the ferret a look. "You don't trust me, do you?"

Fripple shook her head. "And why would we?"

Cedric huffed. "I see no reason to try this with no money whatsoever .. what if you stiff me?"

Fripple was exasperated, Veil could tell. She reached up, unclasping her pure gold necklace that looked like a clump of feathers. She reached out, emphatically dropping it into Cedric's paw. "Does that interest you?"

Cedric gave her a long, mistrustful look, before inspecting the jewelry. "Hmm .. a fine piece .. very fine. I've not seen many to equal it."

Fripple sighed. "My grandfather made it for me, he was a beast who knew fine metal working."

Veil winced at this .. Vurg had made that for Fripple .. the last gift he had given her. The ferret once again felt unworthy of what his friends were giving up for him, but Cedric nodded. "I see that. Alright, I'll give it a try Princess .. provided Swipe here keeps her paws off my things."

Esther glared at him despite herself, and Veil sighed. This was going to be interesting, if nothing else.




Chapter 5 Light in a Shadow

ASC Chapter 5

Tyre and Xzanthia >:)

Soft echoes whispered through the rock passages that marked a kingdom of evil .. one that never saw the light of day. The shadows of one corridor were deeper then most, broken only by a feeble lantern that did little to light the grotto it hung in.

It cast a little light on shimmering, loose, and unruly silver headfur .. headfur that spilled unchecked into it's owners eyes. She was looking at a piece of wood she was dexterously witling, although her ears were perked, listening for signs of any comers.

She was a young rat maiden, dressed in the garb of a seer, although she did not fit the type, for her light blue eyes were soft and worried. Soft paw steps in the adjoining hall caused her to hide her work behind her back defensively.

However when the comer, a slender, chocolate and white cat stepped into the light, the rat relaxed. "Oh Skadu .. it's only you."

Skadu was dressed as her rat companion, and she sighed. "Yea, 't's me. I ran inta Bluefen today. She asked 'ow ya was, an' I told her you was fine .. though I s'ppose that's a sort of lie."

Kinta shrugged, returning to her work as Skadu called softly, "Zenith, I'm back!"

There was a rustle from the shadows, and the sound of halting pawsteps before a young, black vixen stepped into the light. She had dull green eyes and red points, but the most characteristic thing about her was the fact that her left leg twisted uselessly beneath her, and she walked with a staff. Her ears swiveled forward and her whiskers twitched, before she nodded. "I could hear you. How is Bluefen?"

Skadu shrugged. "Same as the rest a us .. a slave."

Zenith sighed worriedly "Is Nightshade coming?"

Skadu shook her head. "Don't think so, an' it's best when she don't."

Kinta picked up a piece of wood that perfectly matched the one she had been working on. "You can say that again. Her apprentice Xzanthia was knighted almost two seasons ago .. yet we have yet to master the basics of magic .. she's disgusted with us."

Skadu nodded. "We've gotta get out .. I'm tellin' ya. We've trained longer than Xzanthia by seasons, an' yet she's already a Shadow Fighter!"

Zenith shuddered. "She hates me the most .. she wants me dead, I swear!"

Skadu put an arm on the fox's scrawny shoulders. "You'll be alright .. we'll protect ya, I promise."

Zenith shook her head. "I've been a dead weight to her for as many seasons as you .. or actually more! The only reason she hasn't killed us all yet is because she busy with this whole takeover .. you just watch .. it won't last forever. I will not learn her power .. and without it I am useless."

Kinta shook her head. "You are not .."

Zenith looked down. "Kinta, I am crippled and I am blind. What use have I to anybeast, and what beast would want me to read their omens, even if I could?"

Skadu sighed. "You're our friend, an' we care about ya, ok? We're gonna be fine. I've been here the longest an' I'm gonna see us through."

Kinta fiddled with a length of loose chain, comparing it with her pieces of wood. "If only we all had your hope .. I'd just like to see the sun again."

><><

Those tunnels were home to many a beast, and many a beast who did not wish to be there. One of these had made herself one with shadows it seemed, for she used them to hide whenever she went anywhere .. mostly because she did not wish to be found.

She had her reasons, and very valid ones at that.

Some might have just hid .. but she would not. The creature stood at a small window, one that admitted only the light of flickering torches from yet another dark room.

The place she spied upon showed the signs of wealth, in a way. It was decorated with tapestries and draperies that attempted to disguise what it really was.

However there was no disguising it's occupants for what they really were, at least to their unknown watcher. The one that seemed the most at home in this netherworld was a ferret, tall and golden furred.

The sight of him evoked a snarl from the shadow beast who spied on the proceedings, but it was a silent snarl.

The watcher's small ears perked forward, concentrating on the conversation of the ferret and a black dog fox.

"The city is nearly under our power .. and by the end of summer it will be. Then we can get rid of that stupid rabbit queen once and for all!"

It was the fox speaking and the ferret didn't seem pleased about it. Or perhaps it was the other creature's mere presence. "Don't forget it was I who took out her guards and deceived her loyal supporters .. without me she'd still be stomping on your job Shroud!"

Shroud grumbled. "You Sixclaws like to brag, don't you?"

Swartt sneered. "You Bloodpaws aren't guiltless of it .. what's your dear little boy up to now, huh Shroud?"

Shroud sneered. "Jealous? At least I have a son .. that's worth something. You threw yours away."

Swartt's paw danced on his cutlass hilt. "Shut up! I will make up for it, you just watch. I didn't need that useless pile of fur, I'm glad he's dead! And that brat of yours isn't much to be proud of. How many baby mice did he kill today?"

Shroud's eyes glittered. "Be careful Sixclaw, be very careful. You rule the underworld; I rule the land the sun touches. Which is greater in the end?"

Swartt grumbled, huffing. "This was the only reason you came? To taunt me. I suppose you haven't anything else to do."

Shroud replied, but the listener had heard enough .. far too much. She backed away, mouth set in a grim and bitter line, before sweeping off through a darkened corridor. She was stiff .. she had heard this sort of talk many a time, yet it never failed to wound her deeper than ever.

For that son Swartt spoke of was her son too .. her son she had lost nearly eleven seasons ago. Bluefen's eyes glimmered spitefully. She should have fought harder, even if it killed her. She should have fled.

But she had done neither, and her Veil was gone forever. The ferret did not like to think of that time .. there were too many losses.

She sighed, turning her thoughts to the future. She had learned. The hard way perhaps, but she had learned.

She might still be chained to Swartt, and she was broken, but she would not fall. She would never fall. And if she did .. she would take Swartt down with her.

For she had a spark, one small spark of hope that she protected and loved .. one spark she would train to be a fire. That spark was her joy in her dark life .. it almost seemed her Veil had returned.

He had not, of course, for that could never be. But as she slipped into the dank rooms and grottos she was forced to call home, she dried all tears that had threatened to spill. Her spark must not see her cry.

And that beast was not shy in coming, as he leapt at her with excitement. "Mother! Mother you're back!"

Bluefen swept the cream and light gold creature up, hugging him. "Yes Esmund, I am back."

The only other creature Bluefen cared for spoke up from where he was scratching something or other on a flat piece of rock. "He's been no end of trouble marm, running about and messing up everything."

Bluefen frowned. "Esmund, don't bother Byron .. and don't leave these rooms!"

Esmund was not unduly sorry. "But I didn't! An' I was only playing!"

Bluefen sighed, setting the child down. "Alright. But Byron is here to look out for you while I'm gone."

Byron, a young black creature that seamed an ungainly molding of rat and mouse, looked interested. "What did you learn marm?"

Bluefen shook her head bitterly. "Only that they think the city will fall in full by the end of summer."

Byron said no more .. after all, there wasn't much to be said, and Bluefen's next statement was enough. "Something has to happen .. before they kill us all."

><><

Morning fell over Redwall with all the grace of early spring .. but a shadow lingered over the grounds. Groddil felt it heavily, and the fox shuddered.

Spring felt as cold as winter to his heart, and he knew where he had to go .. to his one reliable friend. The sliver fox knocked on her door, the sound echoing in the stillness. "Bella .. I must speak with you."

There was the creak of a rocking chair, and Bella's voice returned to him. "Come in .. the door's not locked and I'm feeling too stiff to open it."

Groddil shoved the door open, stating only a few words .. but they were sufficient. "The birds have flown."

Bella sighed. "So they ran. I thought they might. Veil, Fripple, and Ivan at least, I assume."

Groddil nodded. "Star, Esther, Catkin, and Aubretia as well."

The badger looked deeply troubled. "If only there had been a way for me to prove Veil innocent .. you know good and well it is he the prophesy speaks of .. the veil that will set us free!"

Groddil shook his head. "It was not him, I know it was not. He is a son of Ignasa .. and Martin had no true proof!"

Bella was grim. "Martin is not himself .. there is something terribly wrong with him .. and yet it has masked itself from me, as to what it is."

Groddil bit his lip. "I have prayed, and the only thing I see is six claws .. which proves to me that Veil .. or perhaps his family .. holds the key to our problem. And what our problem is .. if only I knew! Knowing your enemy is the first key to victory .. a hidden enemy is the very worst kind."

Bella sighed. "Indeed. And if it can blind the very followers of Ignasa .. Groddil my friend, these may be Redwall's darkest days."

Groddil nodded. "I'm afraid so. And while we know Malimore is the cause of any evil .. there is always somebeast under him. So our task is to find and stop that beast .. the pawn that I believe is inside our very walls."

><><

The morning was quite enjoyable for the travelers .. except for one thing. They really knew nothing about traveling.

Even Veil, Ivan, and Fripple, who had enough sense to guess what to do, were getting a few surprises.

And their guide had an irritating sense of humor. He had promptly christened them each something he felt fit them .. and this was grinding on Fripple's nerves.

Cedric walked past Star, who was devouring a patch of clover instead of moving. "Princess, is Munch always like this?"

Fripple huffed, refusing to answer. Cedric turned to the horse, frowning. "How can you expect to get anywhere, if you're eating all the time?"

Star didn't pay a lot of attention. "Clover's nice!"

Cedric sighed. "Sure, course it is. Until we get chased by something, then what? How fast can you run?"

Star was horrified. "Run? Oh I don't run .. that's exhausting!"

Cedric snorted. "Munch, you're a horse. Horses run. It's one of the laws of nature."

The pinto cocked an ear, but said nothing. Cedric gave Fripple a glance. "Princess, you just let her do this?"

Fripple grumbled. "Keeping Star from eating is like keeping you from irritating me."

Cedric pounced on this despite himself. "Irritating you? I'm not irritating, I'm simply getting to know you!"

"By irritating me." Fripple finished.

Cedric winked at her. "Your problem is your mindset Princess, you've told yourself I'm irritating you. If you think about it, I think you'll see you're very lucky to be irritated by a hot guy like me."

Fripple stared at him a moment, before her lip curled. "You think I like you or something stupid like that??"

Cedric shrugged. "Most girls do."

Fripple snarled. "And you expect me, to be as stupid as 'normal' girls? Huh, I'd sooner drop dead than act like that! It may be all fine and good for them, but I am me .. and I happen to be weird! You have a problem with that?"

She was glaring him down, as if daring him to say he did. Veil and Ivan had stopped by now, and the cat nudged the ferret, winking slowly and deliberately .. not at all concerned.

Cedric reacted to Fripple's glare with a grin. "I have never seen such a reaction as yours Princess. But it's fascinating. Cute even."

If Cedric had bothered to look at the others, he would have noticed they were all staring at him. But he didn't bother, and so he didn't get the hint.

Fripple's blue eyes sparkled like fire, and she drew her sabre. Cedric looked even more interested. "What a reaction .. Princess, what am I supposed to do with your weapon?"

The mouse maid growled. "You will duel me for that .. on my honor as a warrior, I will have satisfaction!"

Cedric was not hurried in drawing his own weapon, a simple, double bladed spear. "Satisfaction? Now Princess, I wouldn't want to hurt a sweet little mouse like you .."

The sabre whipped less than a foot from his nose. "On guard!"

Cedric raised an eyebrow. "You're serious. You've got to be kidding."

Esther shook her head. "Umm .. you might want to do as she says cause she sure means it!"

Ivan nodded. "I'd defend myself, if I were you."

Cedric looked back at Fripple, waiting impatiently. He seemed to think about it for a moment, before he smiled. "If that's what you want, Princess .."

Fripple jabbed her sabre at him. "Oh, I want it!"

The mouse's smile never failed as he pulled the spear off his back in a deft movement. "I'll go easy on you."

Fripple leapt at him, slamming the flat of her sabre against his spear, wrenching it from his unsuspecting grasp. "Seriously? You've insulted me; the least you can do is give me a fair fight!"

Cedric had such a look of shock on his face it was amusing, as he retrieved his spear. The mouse's yellow green eyes suddenly glittered with a bit of fierceness. "If that's the way you're gonna be .. you asked for it Princess!"

Catkin held up a paw, voice hurried. "Oh I don't think ..."

Esther shoved her as the clash of steel rang out. "Hey .. let 'em be Catkin! Think about it .. when has Fripple ever got this worked up over anybeast? I mean .. yea, she's real defensive and all but think about it!"

Catkin glanced at the two mice, going at each other with determination. "Erm ... I don't know. But that can't make them very happy!"

Esther looked at Aubretia, writing observations down in her parchment notepad. "But I think it does Catkin .. What if .. no seriously, think about this .. what if Fripple likes him?"

Catkin looked blank, before wincing at the clash of nearby steel. Esther rolled her eyes. "Oh .. never mind. It's probably nothing anyways .. after all Fripple doesn't like anyone .. you know, not like that."

Catkin still looked blank. However Ivan looked mildly interested with the duel, Veil looked half worried and half impatient, and Star just devoured some grass while she watched.

Fripple was in her element, especially as it became obvious Cedric was not unskilled. The mouse was concentrating on disarming his opponent .. or perhaps, more realistically, saving himself from disarmament. The mouse suddenly swung his spear pole at Fripple, causing her to duck, overbalance, and fall flat on her back.

Cedric nodded to her cheekily. "Nice try Princeeeeesss .."

Fripple whipped her tail around his legs, yanking while scrambling to her feet. "Ah-ha!"

The mouse held her sabre close to Cedric's nose .. too close for comfort. "I believe I won .. because in a real fight, you'd be dead right now."

Cedric blinked, before regaining his composure and pushing her blade away. "Well then I'm lucky it's not a real fight, no?"

Fripple swiped her blade away from his paw. "Indeed."

Veil broke in. "Can we carry on, by chance? Shouldn't we cover some considerable ground before nightfall?"

Cedric brushed himself off. "Well I was simply complementing Princess here, and the thing is, she doesn't take compliments well."

Veil sighed. "You also go about it the wrong way, and I think she'd like you to leave her alone .."

Fripple swished her sabre. "Oh I'm quite ready for him, if he want's another defeat!"

Veil nodded. "As I said. Now let's get going again."

Cedric walked past Veil. "As you say; highness."

><><

Xzanthia slipped from the abbey, furious. She doubted anybeast would even notice her, and she was correct .. none did.

The wearet made her way into the shadows of the woods, before letting loose an owl call. She held forth her gloved paw, repeating the sound several times before she was rewarded by the swooping sound of wings.

Tyre alighted on her forearm, and she held it steady, despite his size. The bat raised and eyebrow. "And you called because ..?"

Xzanthia stamped a paw, voice angry. "Didn't I tell you to keep an eye on things?"

Tyre didn't bother with flinching. "Yes, and I have. Your point is?"

Xzanthia glared at him, yelling, "You let that son of Sixclaw get away, you fool!"

The bat scolded her. "What did your mentor tell you about tantrums? They are you greatest falling."

Xzanthia snarled. "Oh don't play Nightshade; I didn't even want to bring you, but Swartt made me. He doesn't think I can do this!"

The wearet dropped her arm, causing Tyre the flutter up to a nearby tree branch, where he watched his companion rant with seasoned tolerance. "They don't think I can do this, none of them do! Even you don't! Well I'll show you! All of you! A beast doesn't have to be old to be dangerous .. and villains don't have to be male! I don't care what you think, I can do it!"

She stomped a paw. "I will be the greatest warlady of all time!"

Tyre was sarcastic. "Not if you don't learn to control your temper, you won't. That's why I'm here to .."

"Protect and advise me I know." Xzanthia finished for him, in a rather disrespectful replica of his voice.

Before Tyre could counter, she fell back to her first train of thought .. albeit a bit calmer this time. "But that stupid ferret has gotten away from me .. those woodlanders are so slow in their executions! Why can't they just kill a beast and be done with it?"

Tyre rolled his eyes. "Because they play by a different set of morals than we do. Did you learn anything in your training on understanding the mind of a woodlander?"

Xzanthia huffed. "Well they're so stupid they don't bear thinking about, but yes, of course I did."

She sneered. "But I was so close .. so close to revenge .."

Tyre sighed. "You and that revenge issue .. can't we just do our job for a change?"

Xzanthia smoldered. "Oh, we will do that. But I will kill every male of the Sixclaw line, you just see if I don't .. and don't you dare try and stop me with your irritating logic!"

The bat opened his mouth to argue, but then shut it in disgust. "What would the point be in that? You've got your mind made up, so I may as well leave you to it. More practically, are the monocles working?"

Xzanthia wasn't done with her bad mood just yet, so she sounded snooty. "Of course they are. That dumb mouse thing, Bryony, was the one who found them .. after you hid them in that tree. And why would anybeast suspect a nice mouse who's lived there all her life? She doesn't even know what I'm up to. And never fear Tyre .. I have the feeling we could have some inside help pretty soon."

Tyre raised an eyebrow, but Xzanthia beat him to it. "Oh just watch .. I've got this one figured out myself .. and I didn't need your help."

><><

Martin was not in a good humor, not in the least. Part of him realized how temperamental he was being, but he liked to place the blame on the fact Rose had almost been poisoned, and by a vermin .. a vermin he had let stay.

Perhaps the truth was, he felt responsible.

If he had just seen Veil for what he really was .. a liar and a murderer .. this wouldn't have happened. Once again, Rose had nearly died .. and it was his fault. It had always been his fault.

Would it always be? For the rest of their lives, would he keep making mistakes like this?

And now .. now! To top it all off, his own daughter had vanished .. on the same day Veil and some others ran away!

What would he tell Rose when she awoke? That Aubretia had run off with the very creature who had tried to kill her mother?

The golden king paced the length of the gatehouse, starting as his eldest son came in. "Oh father, there you are. Roseanna and I have asked everybeast .. but .."

Martin buried his face in his paws. "No .. no Luke .. she's gone. I know it .. and with a murderer! I'll never see her again .. never!"

Luke looked down, saying no more. Martin sighed. "I don't blame you son .. but what was she thinking? How could she do this to her mother and I? She is a princess .. she is valuable .. who knows what he'll do with her! Hold her for ransom .. anything!"

Luke shrugged. "I doubt he'll even be back .. he'd be a fool to do so."

Martin groaned. "I know, I know .. are the search parties back?"

Roseanna came through the doorway, shoving red fur out of her eyes. "Yea, they're back dad .. and least Gonff's. And they didn't find anything .. not even a trail."

Martin rubbed the cool gold rim of his monocle, and action that was becoming quickly involuntary. "Keep an eye out for any clues as to where they might have gone .. and tell me what the other searchers find when they return."

Luke nodded. "Of course .. come on Roseanna."

The two left, and Martin shook his head. This day was getting worse by the minute! His gaze fell upon the monocle he was rubbing without fail, and he paused.

He liked the object, and it's cool solidness in his paws. Martin held it to his eye, something he found himself doing more and more. The world just didn't look .. the same without it. It didn't look right anymore unless through the glass of the monocle.

It was fortunate he had the chance to acquire it.




Chapter 6 Life's an Adventure!

The sun set slowly over the travelers, and the beginnings of southern Mossflower. Veil was seriously wondering how hard it could possibly be to cross the great desert .. and if one could do it with a map.

Cedric was becoming a little irritating even to the tolerant ferret .. that mouse was one of the proudest beasts Veil had ever met. And he just wouldn't shut up about it.

Fripple had taken to walking between Veil and Ivan, due to the fact she knew Cedric was suspicious of both ferret and wildcat. Instead, the mouse flirted with Catkin, Esther, Aubretia, and even Mystiquestar .. and Veil highly suspected that Esther was the only one who understood at all.

Even she was starting to look tired of the whole situation as the sun began to set. Catkin and the others just looked tired.

As dusk settled in, Veil sighed. "Well .. perhaps we should call it a day. We've gotten a ways .. and we'd better just get used to this."

Star flopped down where she stood. Aubretia took some calculations, before stating, "According to my calculations, this would be a good campsite right here. There is dry wood nearby, and I'm sure we could light a fire .. we're far enough from Redwall."

Veil thought about it, before nodding. "A small one at least."

Cedric raised and eyebrow. "What does it matter? You'd think you were trying to hide or something."

Fripple glared at him. "That is our business .. Mop. Stay out of it!"

Cedric put on a look of mock horror. "Mop! Mop? Oh wait Princess .. I think I know what you really mean .. Most Ostentatious Person!"

Fripple smoldered. "No. Most Obnoxious Person!"

Catkin frowned. "Fripple, that is not very nice! That can't make Cedric very happy."

Fripple glared at the otter. "I'm not concerned with making him happy!"

Cedric just looked smug, something he was very good at. Veil sighed, before digging in his satchel for a tinder box as Ivan and Esther piled some wood together for the fire. Fripple stalked over to join them, growling, "Oooh he makes me so mad!"

Veil gave his best advice. "I think he wants a reaction .. ignore him if you can."

Fripple nodded. "I'm doing my best."

Ivan gave her a look. "Oh I can see that."

The mouse flopped down on a nearby log. "Alright, alright .. but I think he goes out of his way to annoy me!!"

Esther shrugged. "He likes you I guess. Care to help me make supper .. maybe?"

Fripple made a face. "I guess. It's better than putting up with the mop."

Aubretia was standing nearby, and she was confused. "Fripple. According to all my calculations he is not truly a mop .."

Fripple grumbled. "He looks like a mop .. but I'll admit he's not half as useful as one."

Cedric jumped in at this point, offended. "Excuse me? I am quite useful."

Fripple glowered at him. "For what, mopping the camp? You certainly have enough hair."

Cedric's voice was scolding. "Princess, how can you think of using a hot guy like me to mop anything?"

Aubretia paused scratching something down. "I don't understand at all .. you keep saying you are hot. Do you mean to say you are overheated?"

Cedric blinked, before laughing. "No, no, no Bookworm, you've totally got the wrong idea. When I say 'hot' I mean incredibly handsome."

Fripple made a gagging noise, and Aubretia looked even more bewildered. "According to my calculations and previous research, the temperature of something has little to do with it being handsome. I do believe you are very confused."

Cedric sighed. "No Bookworm, it's you who's confused .."

Aubretia broke in a little sharply, not fancying her intellect being countered. "Then pray enlighten me."

Cedric was a little exasperated. "Hot means good looking, handsome, cute .. however you put it!"

Aubretia did not look impressed. "Have you ever bothered to read a dictionary?"

Veil couldn't help an odd desire to laugh, despite how irritating Cedric was being. The mouse sighed. "Oh forget it Bookworm .. I couldn't expect a thirteen season old to understand."

By this time the group had gathered near the fire, even Esther, who was working on supper. Aubretia drew herself to her full height .. not very tall .. and sniffed. "I understand one thing very well, and that is that you do not know how to speak properly."

Catkin broke in. "Now stop it, both of you. You are not making each other very happy!"

She looked rather concerned. "But Cedric, I'm worried about you .. are you overheated now?"

Cedric sighed. "You chicks have got this all wrong .. I'm hot. Not 'overheated'. And yes, of course I am hot right now .. I was born that way!"

Aubretia scratched something down, asking, "Would you always be hot .. no matter the circumstances?"

Cedric rolled his eyes, a little irritated that neither Catkin nor Aubretia seemed to comprehend what he was trying to communicate. "Bookworm, I'd be hot even if I fell off a cliff."

Catkin poked Fripple, whispering, "Goodness .. Fripple .. I feel dreadfully sorry for him, being so overheated all the time. It must be a terrible condition to live with!"

Fripple nodded sagely, and Catkin continued. "Fripple .. do you think if I poured some water on him, if that would cool him down a bit .. would it make him happy?"

Fripple thought for a moment, before agreeing. "You know Catkin, I think it might. You could always try and see."

The otter nodded with total serious determination, before hurrying off. Aubretia was giving Cedric a dreadfully odd look. "I'd better calculate this .. how tall is the cliff?"

Cedric shrugged. "It wouldn't matter either way Bookworm."

Aubretia scratched away at her notepad a moment, before stating, "Actually, according to my calculations, the action of you falling would be so fast there would be some wind resistance, which I believe would make you slightly less hot."

Cedric looked smug. "Wouldn't change one thing."

Aubretia stared at her equations. "This defies calculations! What if the cliff is exactly five thousand seven hundred and thirty four feet high?"

Cedric shrugged. "It couldn't effect me."

Fripple looked about as droll as Ivan. "Better put a lake at the bottom .."

Cedric looked at her with sudden approval, that morphed into resignation as she finished her sentence. "With a shoal of two thousand piranhas in it."

Cedric gave her a look. "And what is that for Princess?"

Fripple looked smug. "I'm just wondering if you'd look hot as a skeleton."

Cedric drew himself to his full height, rather tall for a mouse. "I would. I'll have you know, Princess ..."

His words transformed into a sort of gasping glub as Catkin dumped a full bucket of cold river water on his head. The otter looked genuinely concerned. "Are you hot now?"

Cedric looked like a drowned rat, with his long fur soaked .. and he didn't look pleased about it. Aubretia echoed Catkin. "Yes, are you?"

The mouse huffed, deciding not to answer. Veil looked relieved, as though he'd had quite enough of hearing about Cedric's looks. Esther broke the silence. "Supper's ready! I just warmed up some leftover flan from Redwall cause we have some left, you know."

Fripple sat next to Veil and Ivan, and the wildcat looked mildly contemplative. "Veil, Fripple. You think our guide needs taken down a notch?"

Veil sighed. "I hate to say it, but I think it's the case."

Fripple nodded vigorously. "Oh yes he does .. will you prank him Ivan?"

Ivan took a bite of his flan, chewing thoughtfully. "Perhaps Princess, perhaps."

Fripple glared at him for a moment, before she broke down and laughed. "Alright droll one, I'll hold you to that promise."

><><

The night was never dark in Southsward .. at least the wealthier streets. However every city has it's areas of poverty, and these places were festooned with the darkest of shadows.

A shadowy corner of a rundown tavern was dark, and in it was a beast .. perhaps not entirely sober, but certainly still in his right mind. The creature was nothing special, just a dingy brown weasel with dingy brown eyes .. but those eyes were full of many emotions.

The creature slammed a chalice of wine down on the table he sat at, muttering to himself. "He'd give me power eh? He'd make me as mighty as him eh?"

The weasel was slightly tipsy, and he spat on the floor. "That liar Sixclaw .. that spawn of 'Ellgates .. I'd like ta send him there!"

He sat alone, and his eyes were calculating as he took a sip of the wine. "The liar .. I gave up freedom fer nothing!"

The weasel gave his drink a look, before finishing what was left in one swallow, shoving himself to his feet and stalking out the door. However he hadn't gone very far before he bumped into another beast, sending them both sprawling.

The other, a plump, decidedly unimposing silver rat, said what he thought. "I knew I'd find you here .. I just knew it! Swartt isn't going ta be happy you were up here Scound .. he sure ain't .."

Scound sneered. "Oooh the boss sent ol' Slugy ta git me, I'm scared outa me mind!"

The rat shook his fist. "Ya better be! Ya know what could happen if'n we get discovered before the city is ours .."

Scound rolled his eye. "Slugwort, come off it you ugly mug. They'll all know if'n ya yell it any louder."

Slugwort stood, brushing himself off. "Well ya just better git yerself back!"

Scound leapt up, towering over the rat. "Or what? Or ye'll gripe ta the boss? Yu idiot .. I'll give yer one fer dat!"

Slugwort backed up. "Scound, yer drunk. Ya know better den ta try an' stay up here .."

Scound growled. "Aye an' if'n I go back ta that grave, what do I git? More lowdown jobs fer scum like you?"

Slugwort was insulted. "I am .."

Scound cut him off. "Oh yes yes I know. Yer the boss's yes beast .. ya coward. One of these days .."

The silver rat looked slightly nervous, but he knew how to worry Scound. "Ya better not try it, or I'll tell Sixclaw on ya! Ya know he's fond of boiling beasts in oil .."

Scound was a little more subdued. "You .. you just be careful Slugslime .. be very careful .. the boss don't know everything."

The weasel wheeled off, stalking away. Slugwort huffed, before turning and going the opposite direction.

Scound cast a glance behind him after a moment, growling when he saw Slugwort had gone. These fools that thought he was a subservient pawn .. one day, he'd show them!

><><

The night was quiet and tranquil in a certain little forest glen in which the embers of a small fire smoldered. Aubretia, Catkin, and Star were asleep already, and Cedric was too. Ivan however, was not.

Veil gave his adopted brother a look. "Ivan .. don't do anything too crazy, please?"

Ivan was nonchalant. "I won't."

The ferret nodded. "Look, I know our guide is .. insufferable. But we do need him, I think."

Fripple nodded from where she sat on her blanket. "Perhaps. But he won't shut up unless we let him know we're serious .. and you don't want him to go on and on about how amazingly 'hot' he is .. ugg."

Veil sighed. "No .. I don't. Which is why I'm not arguing more with you two."

The ferret paused. "But what are you going to do?"

Ivan didn't crack a smile. "Nettles work every time."

Veil groaned. "I just have the feeling you two are about to make a big mistake, that's all I've got to say."

Ivan shrugged, unrepentantly and obviously not going back on his decision. Veil gave up. "I am going to bed."

His adopted brother shrugged again, before giving Fripple a look that meant he did not need her help. The mouse sighed. "Alright, I'll go to bed too."

She flopped down on her blanket, casting a glance over at Cedric, sleeping under a tree a few yards away .. and snoring. She suddenly felt a bit of unconditional pity. Ok, so the mouse was seriously stuck up. But was this the best way to really get through to him?

She reconciled herself as Ivan finished with the nettles, took hold of the water pail and headed for the nearby river they were following south. Cedric wouldn't listen to reason .. and it could really be hard to get a word in edgewise sometimes.

Yes, he deserved this.

And besides .. a little part of her just wanted to get him back for almost defeating her in their duel this morning.

The mouse didn't hear Ivan return before she saw his gray tabby paws stalk by her vantage point. The tree Cedric was under did have some low branches, but Fripple was amazed at how Ivan could climb it with a bucket of water and not spill any.

The mouse sat up slightly, and she saw Veil was looking knowingly at her.

They were not mistaken in their suspicions, as Ivan dumped the pail full of water directly on Cedric's head .. while remaining entirely sober.

The tranquility of the night was shattered as Cedric gasped, flailed, and regretted it with a yell of pain as he came in contact with the nettles. Veil sighed.

Cedric leapt up like a singed rat, for Ivan had not been stingy with the stinging leaves. The mouse didn't bother with pausing, just made a mad dash for the nearby river and jumped in, evidenced by the splash.

Fripple was trying hard not to burst out laughing, even though part of her felt they were being unfair. After all, Cedric looked terribly funny when he was wet .. and he had asked for it.

However Catkin, just waking up, did not find Cedric's splashing and yelping funny at all .. quite on the contrary. The otter blinked sleep from her eyes, sitting bolt upright and listening with great concern. Her expression morphed into horror as she came to a conclusion .. albeit the wrong one. "You guys, somebeast's drowning! That's awful!"

Fripple tried to explain, but was choking on her laughter and wasn't fast enough. Catkin bolted for the river, and said drowning beast.

Veil jumped to his feet. "We'd better get down there ... there's a deep part and she'll dive in it .. with him! But Cedric's not an otter!"

Fripple stopped laughing, suddenly realizing Veil was all too correct. In attempt to stop the inevitable, she hollered, "Oh no Catkin, don't!"

It was too late. There was a splash, and a split second before a terrified howl rang out .. ending with an odd glub.

Veil and Fripple got to the river's edge first, Esther, Ivan, and Aubretia close behind ... Star was still trying to wake up properly. The river was still except for a few ripples, and Fripple dared voice a question. "How .. long can an otter stay under?"

Veil glared at her and Ivan. "I told you this was a bad idea!"

Fripple was feeling bad .. and guilty .. and Ivan even looked a little remorseful. Esther spoke up timidly. "I .. don't think I could hold my breath as long as they've been underwater .. I mean .. you know. I hope Cedric can .."

Aubretia looked up from her notepad. "According to my calculations the longest a normal beast could stay alive without breathing is .."

Catkin exploded from the river in a shower of water, holding up a limp, coughing Cedric. "I saved him everyone!!"

Veil was staring at her, shaking his head. "Really?"

Fripple was concerned, feeling rather responsible. "Catkin you .. better set him down. I don't think he can breathe very well like that."

The otter realized the state Cedric was in, and plopped him on the shore. "Heavens! You're lucky I came along .. one more moment and you'd have been a goner .. what a narrow escape! Well, we can all be happy you're alive."

Cedric didn't answer, he couldn't. Catkin blinked at the look Veil was giving her. "What?"

Veil sighed. "You had to dive with him? He's not an otter Catkin, he can't hold his breath as long as you."

The otter maid thought about this a second, before realization hit her. "Oh my ... Oh Cedric I am sorry .. Veil's right .. I almost drowned you didn't I?"

Cedric looked up at her, green eyes dull and voice raspy. "I .. thought .. a giant .. snake grabbed me .. that .. was you??"

Catkin was horrified. "There's a snake in there?! But snakes don't make me happy!!"

Cedric stared at her a moment, before collapsing wearily and mumbling, "Anybeast care to help me .. I just about died. I'd like .. to sleep .."

He paused, coughed, and looked up again. "Where'd .. that awful .. stinging water come .. from .. who .. did that?"

Ivan was stoic. "Actually, those were stinging nettles. And a pail of normal water."

Cedric coughed. "You .. did it?"

Ivan shrugged. "Perhaps."

><><

Redwall's stones turned from night-washed gray to their natural rosy hue as the sun blessed them once again with it's dawning. A figure stood on the walltops, facing the sunrise. He seemed frozen at first, but looked around as a voice hailed him. "Martin matey .. Rose woke up. Columbine sent me to get you."

The king wheeled about, eager. "She did? Is she alright?"

Gonff shrugged. "Weak, but that's to be expected. You'll have to ask Columbine if you want to know more .."

The mousethief stopped as he realized he was talking to the morning breeze; Martin being nearly halfway across the lawns.

The mouse was all but unaware of his friend as he ran toward the abbey .. when he reached the infirmary door he was panting a little. Martin paused, before shoving the door open about in the same moment Columbine was opening it.

The black mousewife raised an eyebrow. "Ah, there you are sire. My Gonff got you, I assume?"

Martin nodded. "He did."

Columbine called over her shoulder, "Rose, he's here!"

Martin walked in to see Rose was sitting up, looking pale, but alive. She blinked up at him, before smiling. "Martin .."

He pulled a chair next to her bed, picking up her paws. "Rose .. are you alright?"

She coughed, wincing. "Martin .. what happened? I can't remember much .. just drinking something and then .. then nothing."

Martin bit his lip. "Somebeast tried to poison you .. Columbine saved you."

Rose blinked, finally asking, "But .. who?"

Martin couldn't help his scowl. "It was Veil .. that dirty ferret! I should have known from the start."

Rose stared at him. "Veil .. no! Veil wouldn't, Martin .. how do you know this?"

The warrior felt an initial prick of irritation that Rose doubted him. But he realized she didn't know all the proceedings. "Rose .. he used Wolfbane .. and you know Wolfbane stains red. He disappeared the night you were poisoned, and the next morning his paws were red .. blood red. It couldn't have been any other beast."

There was silence for a few moments, before Rose whispered, "Did you kill him?"

Martin saw how sad Rose looked, and he was almost glad the ferret had ran. However he mentally slapped himself the next second. This wasn't about feelings, this was about justice. "He .. escaped. With some of the young beasts who were close to him .. Ivan, Fripple, Esther, Catkin, Star, and ..."

The warrior paused, and Rose prodded him. "And?"

Martin hung his head. "And .. Aubretia."

Rose's grip on his paws tightened. "Our daughter? But .. Oh Martin .. she doesn't know anything about living in the wild .. well .. at least the others are with her .."

Martin was shocked at Rose's concerns. "Rose, she's with a murderer .. never mind the woods."

Rose looked scared, but she murmured, "Veil .. but Veil was Groddil's apprentice .. he was training as a Prophet!"

Martin sighed. "Looks .. can be deceiving Rose, we've seen. I didn't like to think Veil did it .. but he did, and that's the ugly truth. We're trying to get Aubretia and the others back .. I promise."

Rose shook her head. "And .. then you will execute Veil .. what about the others?"

Martin was grim. "They'll be under suspicion, that's for sure. Some are just deceived by him .. but I couldn't say for all."

Rose was worried. "Martin .. dear .. are you alright? There's something .. different about you."

Martin's eyes softened. "I'm just worried about you .. you should probably sleep."

She closed her eyes. "I am a little tired .."

Martin sighed. "Then sleep .. I'll be here if you need me."

><><

Morning over the travelers was cheerful .. unfortunately .. quite a bit more cheerful then the beasts it graced.

Cedric was still disgusted with the fact Ivan have pulled a prank on him and Catkin had nearly drowned him .. after terrorizing him with the mistaken thought she was a giant snake. It kept the irrepressible mouse quiet .. but his silence was moody.

Catkin was feeling bad .. and eating hotroot. Fripple wasn't about to apologize .. after all, she hadn't done anything .. as such. And besides .. he did deserve it.

Esther just made breakfast. Fripple decided to help, for what it was worth.

Cedric was gone a long while, trying to fully rid himself of the effects of Ivan's prank .. so long Veil began to wonder if he was even coming back, or if he'd given up on them. However the thought of seventy sheckles must have been too strong to resist, for he came back presently, looking halfway dry and tired.

He stared around at the group, before stating, "Alright, look. I'm not gonna take you anywhere if you try and kill me like this on a regular basis .. I have my health to look after, you know."

Veil opened his mouth to answer as Cedric continued. "Heck, I think I'd rather starve in poverty than run into those awful stinging plants .. or be half drowned by a massive snake!"

He shot the two miscreants looks at the appropriate moment. Catkin deflated. Ivan did nothing.

Catkin was contemplative, before grabbing a plate of Esther's pancakes and offering them to the mouse. "Would these make you happy?"

Esther swiped them back. "Not the whole plate!"

She took a couple off, dumped them on a different dish, and handed them to Cedric. "Here you go!"

Cedric sat down, nibbling suspiciously at first, before digging in. The group ate in silence for a while, until their guide was done eating. His good mood was slowly returning. "Why thank you Swipe .. at least somebeast around here appreciates their guide."

Veil was determined to get the truth out of him. "Cedric .. we shouldn't have done what we did, and I think we all are sorry .. we certainly didn't want to drown you. Catkin was .. confused."

Cedric shrugged, licking his plate. "Well she certainly confused me .. she is strong. Sunshine, if anybeast calls you defenseless, I'll whack 'em for you, k?"

Catkin frowned. "But that wouldn't make them happy .. so please don't."

Cedric gave her an odd look, as Veil asked, "You're .. coming with us?"

The mouse frowned. "Yes, I'll give you another chance .. mostly cause I have nowhere to go and I need the money. But if you do something like that to me again .. well I don't know. I wasn't really planning on going back to Southsward .. at least for a while."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Why is that?"

Cedric paused, a tiny shadow in his yellow green eyes, before he shrugged. "Hey, a guy wants to see the world now and then. And you talked to me Princess .. we're getting somewhere!"

Fripple scowled. "Don't read into it. But let me ask you, why would you take us all the way back .. if you wanted to leave?"

Cedric shrugged. "It's no great mystery Princess .. I'm practically broke. Seventy sheckles would set me up for a good while."

He looked stern. "But I'm not going to do it if I'm going to be in danger of dying in the process. I value my life over money."

Fripple sighed. "Look it got out of paw ok? We don't want you dead, what would it avail us?"

Cedric stood. "Not much .. I seriously doubt you lot could get across the desert alone .. in fact I guarantee you couldn't. And besides .. why would you want to kill off such an incredibly handsome and charming person as myself?"

Fripple whipped her wooden cooking spoon beneath his nose, making him jump. "We don't want to kill you at all. But the reason we encouraged Ivan to use the nettles is cause of your insufferable arrogance!"

Cedric blinked at her a couple of seconds, before pushing the spoon away with an air of innocence. "Insufferable .. Insufferable? Arrogant? Me? I have never been called such Princess."

Fripple was blunt. "Then you were lied to."

Veil was working hard to keep a straight face, and he was slightly jealous of Ivan's easy stoic demeanor at the present moment. Cedric looked, honestly, a little blank.

Aubretia broke the silence. "According to my calculations, we should be on our way."

Cedric recovered himself, winking at her, "Right you are Bookworm .. time's wasting."

><><

It was awhile before they actually got to moving, and Cedric did not seem pleased with their pace, especially as the day wore on. Ivan, Veil, Esther, and Fripple kept up pretty well, and Catkin wasn't too bad at it.

However Aubretia and Star were lagging, the former dropping things or tripping over her skirt, the later always grazing.

Cedric seemed increasingly irritated with the horse, and it came to a head when they stopped for a bite to eat around noon. Star staggered up, panting, "Whew .. I am .. not used to this .. food! Can we eat now?"

Cedric tapped a bare paw on the ground, stating, "No, you can't .. Munch .. I want to see you run."

Star had such a look of horror on it evoked a tiny giggle from Esther. "But .. I can't run! I haven't in seasons!"

Cedric pointed to a thin spot in the treas. "Well come on .. it won't kill you to try."

Star looked grumpy, but Veil broke in. "Star .. maybe he's right. We don't know what we'll be faced with."

Star groaned before she gave in. "Oh .. fine. But if I die of overexertion, it's going to be your fault!"

Cedric crossed his arms. "Come, come Munch .. show us your paces."

He walked over to where the trees were thinner, stating, "Walk around me .. just walk. That won't hurt you."

Star looked decidedly grumpy, but complied. Cedric nodded, clapping his paws together. "Alright, good. Trot!"

Star huffed, picking up her heels and trotting around the mouse, beneath his watchful eye. He did not seem unpleased. "Remarkable pattern .. I've not seen finer. Good. Lope!"

The horse was panting as she broke into a rather lumbering lope, and Cedric never flinched, no matter how close she came to him. After she'd gone around two times, he held up a paw. "Alright, good. Very good Munch .. you can stop now."

Star came to a halt, head low. "I .. am .. going .. to .. die .."

Cedric laughed. "No you're not Munch, trust me. So the thing is, you've got a beautiful gait, and you've got the build to positively fly. But I'm gonna put this to you plainly .. you're fat. That's your problem."

Star didn't have the energy to be insulted as Catkin broke in. "Cedric, that won't make her happy ...!"

Cedric shrugged. "Maybe not, but this is gonna make her less happy .. and that's the fact I'm training you Munch. You went around me twice in each gait. We're gonna do that again today. And every other day. By the time we get to Southsward you'll be runnin' with the best of 'em."

Star flopped dramatically to the ground as Cedric walked over to join the others. Veil raised an eyebrow. "I take it you've worked with horses."

Cedric nodded, "Course I did. I've trained horses, I've raced horses. I was a .."

He paused, before shrugging. "I was a charioteer, once."




Chapter 7 Shadow of Deceit

At Redwall, things seemed to fall back to normal .. for the escapers were not found, and life had to go on. Most never saw or sensed the falling cloud of darkness .. but a few did.

These did their best to cry out, but it was futile .. Martin and a few others weren't the only ones with monocles. For the ones that had them spoke fondly of them .. soon everybeast wanted one.

Soon nearly every beast had one.

Groddil and Bella weren't the only ones who kept their distance .. Gingivere and Sandingomm did too. They weren't in a good light already .. after all, they'd raised Veil .. a murderer.

When he was accused, they'd been stunned .. and hadn't really been able to do much. Then both their adopted and real son had run away .. and with the king's daughter. Being wildcats already, it didn't look good for them.

They'd been staying at Redwall for a time, but they had a comfortable manor out near the quarry. So it was that they took their daughters, Iris and Irene, and left .. it was better than staying in a place where they were under suspicion.

This was the topic of conversation for Bella and Groddil .. and Luna, for the blind prophetess felt the danger too.

The three were at the base of the wall, in the dim morning of the third day since Veil and his friends had run. Bella shook her head. "I don't blame Gingivere for getting his family out .. in fact .. I want to get out too."

Groddil looked surprised despite himself. "Leave? But this is our home!"

Luna flattened her ears. "It is not the place I've loved for seasons .. it's full of discord and suspicion; hatred and false accusations. We could stay and fight .. but is it really our fight?"

Bella nodded wisely. "That is the question my dear .. that is. Is it our duty as Prophets to fight this .. or is it our duty to find and aid a hero?"

Groddil's voice was quiet. "If it is .. what hero?"

The old badger shook her head. "Ah .. but that is another question. And I think I know .. our hero is the very one we have thrown out, the very one we have spitefully accused and tried to kill .. for nothing. Do you not know the prophesies? There was the one of the marks. There was the one that spoke of destroying the greeneyed alliance. Those were fulfilled. But there is another .. one that has long been my favorite. But if I recall correctly, the book is still in Brockhall."

Luna tossed her head. "Groddil and I could get it."

Bella shook her head. "No, I want to come."

She heaved herself onto her paws, sighing, "I'm not that old .."

Groddil frowned. "You'll never make it to Brockhall .. that's a thirty minute ride, and across the fords!"

Luna stepped in. "I'll carry her. The herd is out on the flatlands anyway .. and I'm sure Sparks and Glow are worried about me. I just had to see you."

Bella gave in. "Alright, I suppose. No matter how old I get, I hope I'll always be able to ride."

><><

The Great Hall was still, caught in the moments between night and dawn. And it's lone occupant was just as dark as it .. if not far darker.

Xzanthia stood before the trunk of monocles, a slow smile forming on her face as she pulled out the last glimmering chain and eyepiece .. plain silver with a few swirls of etching on the rim. "Ah .. they took the finest ones. Shows they are just as greedy as us vermin, are they not?"

"They are."

The voice from behind cause Xzanthia to jump, and the monocle to clatter to the floor. Mayberry stood in a faint patch of colored light from a stained-glass window, watching with something odd in her eyes.

The wearet picked up the fallen monocle, brushing it off as Mayberry asked, "What are you really up to? You aren't like most of the vermin around here, and I don't believe you came here just to become 'good' .. as if any vermin could do that, it defies logic."

Xzanthia wasn't quite sure where Mayberry was headed, and it was dreadfully hard for her not to utilize her power and probe the otter's thoughts. She would have .. but her takeover wasn't complete and she could insight those Prophets against her should she use Malimore's strength. However the wearet knew how to work a conversation. "What do you mean by that? Your kind isn't perfect, after all."

Mayberry tossed her head. "Only because they don't bother trying to be perfect. They think Lord Ignasa will just love them as they are .. but I think you have to prove you're good enough."

Xzanthia pounced on this. "That makes sense .. why would Lord Ignasa want a beast who isn't perfect .. if he's perfect?"

Mayberry replied quickly. "He wouldn't. It doesn't stand to reason."

She paused, realizing fully what Xzanthia had said. "You .. think so too?"

Xzanthia nodded, bringing conviction into her voice. "Of course I do .. because it's right, and you're right."

Mayberry was slowly letting her guard down, and it showed. "Nobeast's ever thought that about me."

Xzanthia looked sad, though inwardly triumphant. "They don't like you at all .. even though you're such a good creature!"

The otter maid crossed her arms. "They hate me."

Xzanthia smiled shyly, as she stated, "I don't .. I like you .. because you think like me."

Mayberry looked at her oddly, as the wearet held out the silver monocle. "It's not the nicest one .. but I'd like you to have it. You didn't get one at all .. and this one's still pretty."

Xzanthia smiled hopefully as Mayberry slowly reached out, taking her offering. The otter maid rubbed the silver rim, before putting it to her eye. She looked around, before letting the object drop into her palm. "I .. like it, actually. I think I'll keep it .. thank you."

Behind a sincere smile, Xzanthia's brown eyes gleamed in victory. "No Mayberry, thank you .. for listening to me."

The otter shrugged. "Maybe you're not so bad after all .. Xzanthia. I never said it, so .. welcome to Redwall."

Xzanthia smiled. "Thank you .. and I love it here. I really do."

><><

Veil woke slowly, feeling a little stiff from sleeping on the ground. He didn't open his eyes at first, in fact it was an odd crashing that made him do so.

The ferret sat bolt upright as Star burst from the undergrowth, sliding to a stop and nearly throwing her rider .. but Cedric hung on. Veil couldn't help having a bit of new respect for the mouse, and his apparent riding skills.

Star was panting, and Cedric slid of, staggering to a log by the dead fire and sitting down. "Ugg .. Munch .. good grief! We have got to work on those gaits of yours. You slide your hooves more than you pick them up .. Ahh! My back!"

Star huffed, before tearing up a bite of grass. Cedric sighed. "And how do you expect to get in shape if you eat all the time?"

The horse tossed her head. "It's not eating .. as such. It's more like .. tasting."

Cedric rolled his eyes as Veil walked to where he sat. "Can I ask you something?"

The mouse shrugged. "Have at it, your highness."

Veil sighed, deciding not to go after Cedric about the nickname he'd received. "How far until the desert?"

Cedric shrugged. "At the pace we make .. five days. If we moved faster, maybe three."

Veil raised an eyebrow. "And how long will it take us to cross?"

Cedric shrugged again. "That depends .. on a lot of things. Dust storms, dry springs, nomads .. a lot of things, as I said. There's a town right before .. and I advise you to get some supplies there."

Veil nodded. "Yea .. I think we will. Thanks. And .. thanks for taking us."

The mouse shrugged. "I'm doing it for the money. I don't have sentimental attachments."

><><

The soft call of a sparrow was all that could be heard in the morning stillness as Groddil, Luna, and Bella made their way toward the badgers old home. As they walked through the old garden behind it, now in semblance of order, but overgrowing with spring weeds, Bella sighed. "Ah, this old place .. I do love it so. I'm glad Timbal and Sayna will love it for me, long after my seasons are over."

Groddil nodded, before stating, "I wish they were here."

Luna tossed her head. "I as well. The four are not one when two are missing."

Bella's ears perked up. "The four are not one when two are missing ... that's it! Come on you two!"

She slid from Luna's back, using her staff to limp to the door of Brockhall. Her two companions caught up as she pulled an old key off her belt, inserting it in the lock and turning until there was a hollow, echoing click. The badger pushed the door open, limping down the short, initial staircase. "Just as I left it .. I have missed my dear home."

She nodded to Luna, as the horse stuck her head through the large doorway questioningly. "I think you can fit dear, you're quite small for a horse. Do mind the steps though."

The blind albino did her best, though she stumbled on the third and last stair, having to quickly compensate for it .. something the resulted in an loud clatter. Luna shook herself off as Bella called, "Well come on you two, we've got to go to the library."

The badger seemed to be feeling her liveliest, excited about what they might find. She opened the old door of the library, taking a moment to light the central lamp, something that featured at least a thousand dangling prisms, things that reflected and doubled the light like twinkling stars.

Bella seemed to know where to go as she hurried to a shelf near the back of the room. Her large paws were gentle as she shifted the ancient occupants of this mounted bookcase .. finally drawing out an old scroll .. something that looked as though it had weathered too much time to tell.

The badger gently unrolled the object on a nearby writing desk, and Groddil whispered, "It's written in the old script."

Bella nodded, before reading aloud.


"Four are not one when two are gone,

Echoes of evil shall rise.

Only a breath of morning song,

Could break this spell of lies.


A chosen one and chosen true,

Has a call to answer.

Far from home but not alone,

He has a home to fight for.


Echoes will ring, echoes will fly,

Sixclawed though he be.

A hated one will answer this cry,

What hides will set us free.


Concealed the truth of his past,

His father's fire within.

The truth he may find at last,

The echoes on the wind.


Though he flees the grip of death,

Paws red though white as snow.

He's called to fight til his last breath,

His heart through trials will go.


Through it all one can see,

Past this web of mystery.

The plan laid out in ancient time,

A veil shall set us free."


Bella paused as Groddil read over her shoulder. "Signed .. Spearlady Gorse."

His badger friend nodded. "My great grandmother .. many, many generations before me. This scroll has been in my family for hundreds of seasons. Have you any doubt that it speaks of our Veil?"

Luna shook her head. "None Bella, it's him. It's got to be."

Groddil's voice was odd. "Do not judge the veil yet ... the conqueror's seeker son must conquer his own path."

Luna looked up. "What?"

Groddil shook his head. "I heard it .. when I first saw Veil as a wounded child. After the battle at Salamandastron, with Lotor."

Bella shook her head. "The poor young one .. he's so young. Even now, he's hardly an adult. But he is the one .. I always knew he was special. I just always knew."

><><

Travel was hard, especially with the beasts Veil was in the company of. It wasn't like he didn't like his friends .. or feel deep gratitude for their sacrifices .. he just wasn't sure how he was going to get anywhere.

Of course .. all he knew was that he should go to Southsward. What he would do when he got there .. he had no idea. He simply figured Lord Ignasa would show him his next step.

But first he had to get there. And just getting there seemed half the fight.

At least it certainly seemed that way.

And there was Cedric. Veil didn't know what to think of the mouse at all. It was starting to grind on his nerves that he flirted with every maid in the group .. and Esther especially. For some reason, that was seriously irritating.

Veil shrugged inwardly. He didn't like it when Cedric bothered any of his friends .. after all, he cared about them, and what they thought and desired. They were his friends, and if he didn't care, what sort of friend would he be?

Still, there was something about Cedric bothering Esther that made Veil the angriest .. though he really couldn't say why. It was an unnamable emotion .. involuntary even.

But all he could do was try and tell Cedric not to irritate the maids, and the mouse retorted by asking if he was jealous or something as equally prideful and insane. He wasn't jealous at all .. that would be silly .. he just wanted to make sure his friends were ok. That was all.

However the thing was .. Cedric was like lichen on a rock. They couldn't get rid of him. And worse yet, they needed him to survive. However once they were through the desert, Veil would be happy to pay the mouse and send him on his way.

He could tell Fripple would be more than overjoyed.

Dusk was setting in .. it had been a long day. Veil had his eyes open for a plausible campsite, though clearings were fairly infrequent in this part of Mossflower.

Presently however, they came across a space where the trees were thinner, due one large tree overshadowing the ground .. a positive giant, and completely ancient. Ivan didn't hesitate, simply threw his haversack over one of the lower limbs, perhaps five feet off the ground. "I call this one."

Veil smiled a little, thinking of how his adopted brother had a fondness for sleeping in trees. Aubretia looked up from her notepad, stating, "According to my calculations, we are almost out of provisions and must forage for sustenance."

Veil was tired, but he nodded. "Let's split up. Aubretia, Catkin .. could you get us water from that stream? It's nearby, I'm sure .. I can almost hear it. Ivan and Fripple can go one way and look for provisions .. Esther, Star and I will go back a ways to where I thought I saw some wild turnips. And Cedric .. is it too much to ask, or could you chop some wood?"

The mouse sighed. "Yes, highness."

><><

Left alone, Cedric started to gather some fallen branches to chop for firewood. At first there were really no thoughts of mischief on his mind .. until he had the old axe in his paw to split the wood.

It may have been almost four days since Ivan had put nettles in his bed, but Cedric hadn't forgotten. He hadn't let the wildcat off the hook yet.

Looking first at the axe, and then at the tree limb Ivan had thrown his haversack over, Cedric was hit with an inspiration. It was a classic old trick .. chop something almost through so whoever stepped on it would fall. Cedric had seen how Ivan got into bed .. he pounced in, just like any cat would.

Simple, but he'd better hurry before the others got back. The mouse walked under the sizable tree branch, axe in paw. He felt the bark, before carefully pecking away at it with the cutting tool; not too forceful, yet forceful enough.

Cedric hadn't done something quite this immature for a while, but after all, stinging plants and near drowning deserved retaliation.

He'd gotten perhaps a third the way through the branch, when an insect dropped on the back of his neck. Cedric slapped it, before he felt another on his ear.

The mouse swiped the tiny creature away, irritated and about to go back to his deed, when Aubretia and Catkin's voices became audible on their way back from the stream, and Cedric hurried back to his pile of firewood, set the axe down, and picked some branches up before the two came into the clearing. Catkin was cheerful. "Oh you've gotten firewood? Thank you so much! Bring them over here, and I have Veil's tinder box. A nice fire always makes me happy, doesn't it do the same for you?"

><><

Dusk had melded softly into night by the time everybeast returned to camp, and it was even darker by the time supper was made and eaten. Veil wasn't enchanted by the food, a menagerie of woodland vegetation in the form of stew .. but it was better than nothing.

Conversation was mostly consisting of Catkin, trying to cheer everybeast up by talking.

The otter smiled at Cedric. "I'm so glad you're taking us, it does make us all happy .. and I'm terribly sorry for nearly drowning you .. I really am."

Cedric shook his head. "Eh .. it wasn't all your fault Sunshine."

He directed a look at Ivan, who shrugged, reaching for a third helping. Veil couldn't quite understand where the Wildcat put it all, but his brother was certainly a hearty eater.

The ferret stood, stretched .. and couldn't help a yawn. "Ahhgg .. I'm going to bed. It's been a long day .. and we've got to start out early."

Fripple nodded. "Me too .. I hate early mornings."

Veil threw his blanket down near the tree branch Ivan's satchel hung from, and Fripple took her place on the other side of the trunk, just out of sight. Veil lay down, letting his gaze shift to the dark, restless canopy of leaves above him.

He slowly started to drift off as the others took up different sleeping places nearby, and the sifting smoke of the fire drifted up into the shroud of leaves.

Ivan went to bed last, as always. The cat stretched, leapt to his feet, and stalked toward the tree trunk. He kicked off his boots, and pounced onto the tree limb with amazing strength.

That second everything went wrong .. for one moment there was nothing but an odd groaning noise, but in the next heartbeat, the sizeable branch broke with a terrible crack!

Veil threw himself sideways as twigs and dry leaves snapped when they came in contact with the ground. There was a yelp, and Fripple scrambled away from the tree .. Ivan picked himself up carefully, and Veil called, "Are you alright?"

Ivan sighed. "I think I'm in one piece .."

He suddenly slapped something on his tail, and Veil frowned as Fripple leapt to her feet with a little scream. "Oh there's bugs .. yeowch!"

Ivan jumped up before Veil felt the first pinch down on his leg. The ferret jumped to his feet as there were a thousand more stinging bites! He knew what the insects were, and Fripple stated it loud and clear. "Ants .. Carpenter ants! Ivan .. ow Ivan they were in the tree!"

By this time the entire camp was just about crawling .. the ancient tree had a nest of the insects in it. Blankets, supplies, and fire forgotten, everybeast made a mad dash for the stream to rid themselves of the biting pests.

Veil leaped in the shallow water, wading quickly out .. the others behind him. The ferret didn't relax until the stinging sensation faded .. even if it still hurt a little. Esther was combing ants out of her long, diagonally cut reddish headfur, complaining. "Ukk .. Ivan, why don't you test the branch first?"

In the moonlight, Veil could see his brother had several bleeding scrapes. The cat rubbed some blood away, stating, "Something's wrong about the whole thing. A branch that large wouldn't just break under my weight."

Aubretia was without her parchment, and her glasses. She squinted around a minute. "It's so dark and blurry .. which way is shore again?"

Catkin took the nearsighted mouse's arm. "Here, this way."

Fripple surfaced with a splash, shaking out her long, wet headfur. "Oh .. ugg! That was awful .. Ivan .. test the branch!"

The cat wiped a trickle of blood from his eyes. "I'm going to have a look at that branch."

He crawled out of the water, long fur dripping as he made his way the short distance to camp. Veil couldn't help but be wary as he followed, and to be sure, there were ants left in the camp.

Not as many and not as furious, thankfully. Ivan walked to the wreckage of his one time bed, shifting the branch over and glaring. "Just as I thought .. it was cut partway through. Look."

Veil did so, seeing the axe inflicted chip marks .. fresh ones. The ferret raised an eyebrow. "Who would do that?"

Ivan crossed his arms. "Aye, and who was left alone .. to chop firewood?"

Everybeast whirled to look at Cedric, who was standing behind them .. guiltily. He rushed to defend himself however. "Look, I didn't mean it to hurt everybeast .. I had no idea there were ants in the tree! I thought ants live in the ground! I only did it because he did it first!"

The mouse pointed at Ivan, who glared rather stoically back. Fripple marched over to him before Veil got the chance to .. picking up the empty water pail on the way .. something that was filled with ants. Cedric held up a paw. "Princess, I swear I didn't mean it for you .. Agg!"

Fripple plopped the ant filled bucket on his head, snarling, "I don't want to hear it!"

Cedric pulled the pail off, dumping it on the ground and glaring at Fripple. "Can't you take an apology? Huh?"

Fripple turned on her heel. "You're not sorry .. I won't believe one word of that."




Chapter 8 Sifting Sands

After the entire tree and ants incident, the travelers fell into a rather sulky silence .. at least with Cedric.

Catkin was about the only one who would speak to him, and she gave him as stern of a lecture as she could about being nice and doing things to make others happy.

Star didn't really speak to him anyway, just begrudgingly did what he said when he was training her.

The others only spoke to him when totally necessary, and Fripple didn't speak to him at all.

Veil didn't like how bad the relations were, but he wasn't sure what to do about it. After all, he could plainly see both valid sides of the argument .. and he wasn't pleased with Cedric himself.

The days passed in monotony, just silent travel. However Veil was paying attention to the changing landscape .. and it was changing. The trees grew thinner. At night the sky stretched out like a beautiful velvet carpet someone had strewn the millions of stars upon. By day, clouds chased each other in the vast blue expanse, throwing odd, dappling shadows on seas of waving grass, scrubby bushes, and sometimes a sloping hill dotted with chunks of limestone.

It was a wild beauty .. a free beauty. Veil had never seen anything like it in his life, having been raised in the sheltering woods of Mossflower, where one saw the sky by bits and pieces. Here, the sky was endless.

The temperature grew warmer, almost day by day. The sunset was stark and the dawning was gold .. and the only trees dotted the landscape in small thickets.

Veil could tell his home was far, far away. In part, he was relieved. They would not find him here. Perhaps Ignasa was sending him to a new home .. but deep down, he knew it wasn't the case. Deep down he knew he would return to Redwall.

Redwall. He'd been raised there, and in Mossflower. He loved Mossflower. He loved the ones who'd instructed and taught him. Even King Martin .. had not the mouse honed his skill with the sword along with Groddil and Gingivere? While he wasn't as close to the mouse king as he was with his own adopted father .. he'd always looked up to Martin. He'd viewed him as a sort of glorious hero and role model .. somebeast he wanted to be like. He wanted to be that strong, noble, and just.

And then .. in less than a day .. Martin had turned on him. Turned on him with accusations and hatred .. with no real proof.

Veil closed his eyes. He hadn't forgiven the mouse .. not yet. He was still angry. If he thought too hard, he became so angry he frightened himself .. so he didn't think on it. Or at least .. tried not to.

"Veil?"

The ferret jumped, and turned to find Esther watching him. "Hey .. are you alright? You look .. stiff, I guess."

Veil let himself relax, before shaking his head. "I'm ... fine."

Esther planted herself in front of him, crossing her arms. "No, you're not. You can't fool me .. I've been around you almost as long as I can remember, and you're upset, I can tell."

Her green eyes softened. "You can tell me .. I'll not tell anyone."

Veil sighed, realizing he'd not talked a lot with Esther after he was accused. "I .. well .. I'm not really ready to tell anybeast .. not yet. I'm just trying to figure it out myself."

Esther allowed him to pass, falling in step beside him. "Oh .. ok. I guess that's fine then."

Neither said a word for a while, just walked in contemplative silence. Veil felt bad for not being honest .. but he just didn't want to talk about it, not even with a good friend like Esther.

She seemed to sense this, and sometimes Veil wondered if she had the sensitivity to be a Prophetess, with her uncanny powers of observation. Of course, in the next second, he reminded himself that it might just be one of the attributes to being a thief.

><><

The day wore on slowly, and it was warm .. warmer than spring in Mossflower ever became. Nobeast really felt like talking .. except Catkin, who always did. She was talking to Cedric, because he was the only one who did not seem affected by the heat at all.

The otter was panting as she asked, "So .. How far until the desert? It feels awfully like the desert here!"

Cedric laughed. "Sunshine, have you ever been in a desert?"

Catkin shook her head. "No .. but it's so hot!"

The mouse shook his head. "Just wait. And we should come across that town I spoke of by nightfall. It sits at the edge of the desert."

Veil sighed, breaking his silence. "What's it called?"

Cedric shrugged. "Sirocco. It means 'wind'"

He pointed to some sloping hills covered sparsely with grass .. a good ways in the distance. "It's just over those hills .. they're not that far."

The mouse looked around the travelers, sighing, "Well .. ok. So we'll camp in the hills and reach Sirocco in early morning .. you guys are going to have to pick up the pace in the desert. Wells are only so close together you know."

There was no real answer, just a blank look from Catkin. Cedric sighed. "Why do I even bother? Let's keep on."

Veil followed the mouse, understanding that he meant they would have to move faster to make it through the great desert, however large it was. The ferret cast a glance behind him, at the restless, waving grasses .. and he hoped they'd survive.

><><

At Redwall, a dark and gloomy cloud had settled .. growing ever darker and colder. Bella had decided she did not want to go back, but simply stay at Brockhall. Groddil wouldn't leave her alone, and he felt the chill too.

The two sat discussing it over tea in the soft glow of afternoon, sitting under a trellis in the old garden. Bella took a sip of her drink, sighing, "I do wish I was younger. I'd find whoever's at the bottom of this!"

Groddil nodded. "I don't think it wise to leave you alone, and I doubt I could return anyway. Martin was increasingly against vermin already, and it's been days."

Bella shook her head. "It is a cruel irony, that Malimore is twisting even one of the marks. He is turning our hero against us .. I pray every day the truth may be revealed. Lady Gorse's riddle speaks in honesty .. four are not one when two are gone."

Groddil nodded sadly, swishing the tea in his cup, before slowly looking up. "Bella .. what are we thinking?"

The badger stared across the sunlit clearing, shaking her head. "I know not."

Groddil broke in. "No, I mean .. why haven't we seen it? Seasons of peace have set us too at ease. The riddle has told us what to do in the very first line and yet we do not heed!"

Bella's small ears suddenly perked forward. "Four are not one when two are gone .. of course! We must bring home the two that are gone!"

She suddenly sighed. "I cannot .. but you can Groddil .. and you must!"

The fox cocked one ear. "But what about you?"

Bella shrugged. "I'll be fine .."

Groddil interrupted. "No, not alone. I will not leave you."

Bella glared at him. "You will, and I care not for your words. You are going. Get Stargazer .. the herd hasn't been deceived yet .. and go to Salamandastron. I won't let you refuse."

Groddil glared back, before his yellow eyes softened. "Alright .. but only if you let me take you to Gingivere's manor first."

><><

Bryony wasn't sure what was going on with her home .. she really wasn't. Everything seemed .. odd. She told herself she was overreacting, and nothing was that different. But as the days went by, tensions rose.

Martin became snappish toward the vermin in Redwall, in fact he'd gotten into an argument with Rupert the night before. Estella had tried to stop the two, but Martin had accused her of being Badrang's niece and evil because of it.

Bryony had been shocked .. that was not at all like the high king, and it disturbed her to see him act as he had. Rose, now on her feet, had begged Martin to apologize for what he said .. but he would not.

Bryony shivered. When had the king not listened to his wife's kind voice of reason? She had never seen him not.

The black mouse looked up as her friend, Xzanthia, broke into her thoughts. "Why're you so quiet?"

Xzanthia was another thing, for the wearet was becoming increasingly less shy. Bryony told herself it was because Xzanthia was becoming a real Redwaller, but she was a little blunt and sharp sometimes .. almost demanding.

The mouse answered. "Oh .. I don't know. Does it feel cold to you?"

Xzanthia's brown eyes sharpened, before she smiled. "Cold? It's late spring silly, why would it be cold?"

About that moment somebeast hailed them. "Hey, wait up you two!"

Bryony turned to see Ash, one of Fripple's close friends come hurrying up. Ash had been hanging out around Xzanthia a lot, just like Mayberry. The rat looked slightly put out. "Why is it everybeast is so .. oh .. easily angered? All I did was walk by the kitchen and Goody told me to get out because it wasn't time for supper yet. Huh. That's not like her at all .. I wasn't even coming in, she just assumed!"

Ash looked at Bryony, raising an eyebrow. "Hey, are you ok? You look sick or something."

Bryony felt sick, cold, and completely unwell. She shook her head, muttering, "Or something. I'm .. going to bed, must have been something I ate."

Ash looked concerned. "Oh .. Ok. I hope you feel better soon .. should I come with you?"

Bryony just wanted to be alone. She shook her head as a shiver ran up her spine. "I'd .. rather go alone. Thanks though."

The black mouse hurried away, as fast as she could. She was almost aware of Xzanthia's gaze drilling into her back, and somehow, felt all the more nervous. She didn't began to feel remotely better until she entered Great Hall, out of sight of the wearet. Bryony rubbed her arms, staring behind her as she made her way across the hall.

Why had she gotten so sick? It had been gradual, but soon became overwhelming. And how could it be Xzanthia, she'd not felt that way at first! Besides .. Bryony wasn't special like Veil or Groddil or Bella, and she knew it. She couldn't .. feel things like they did anyway, so why ...

Her train of thought was cut off as she slammed into somebeast, and fell backwards to the ground with an 'Oooff'. The mouse blinked owlishly up at who she'd run into, and her heart sank.

Martin stood before her, and he picked up his fallen monocle with slight bad grace. "Will beasts not watch where they're going?"

Bryony was about to burst into apologies, but she didn't have a chance to, for in that second, something frightening happened. Martin replaced the monocle on his eye, where he usually wore it .. and froze, staring sharply at her. His voice was a low, dangerous sound. "You .. we killed you."

Bryony felt as if her heart was ice, and she stammered, "S .. sire? What are you .. talking about?"

Martin slowly let the monocle drop, and his intense, almost insane glare faded to nearly worse blankness. He blinked at her a couple times before muttering something and simply walking away.

Bryony felt herself breathe for what seemed the first time in ages, and she relaxed slightly, slowly getting to her feet.

What in the world had Martin meant by what he said? It was almost like he had seen some other beast but her .. and not a beast he was fond of. Apparently, someone he'd killed seasons ago.

But .. who? And .. why?

Bryony had more unanswered questions now .. questions she was afraid to know the answers to but knew she must. Questions that would bring her to the bottom of what was really going on .. because it couldn't be denied anymore.

Something wicked was at work .. in Martin, and in all of Redwall.

><><

The sun sank slowly in the sky as the travelers toiled their way up the hills they had seen around midday. Cedric kept coming back and asking if they could move a little faster .. every ten or fifteen minutes at least.

Veil didn't bother wasting his energy on Cedric, and he was glad of Groddil's training. Fripple wasn't about to speak to the mouse, who she seemed totally disgusted with .. and Veil felt it wasn't just about the ants.

Mystique star was doing better at keeping up, and shockingly, wasn't eating all the time either. Apparently Cedric's training was paying off.

The sun was setting as they reached the brink of the last hill. Cedric was already there, waiting for them. He pointed out beyond the hill, smiling. "There you are folks .. the great desert."

Veil, and everyone else hurried to where their guide stood, his back to a glorious, vast, and stark scene.

The sinking sun cast rays over a sea of sand, turning scrubby flatlands and sweeping sand dunes to shimmering gold. As far as the eye could see, there was sand, nothing but some scruffy vegetation that faded into waterless wasteland of emptiness.

Fripple's voice was soft in the stillness. "It's .. beautiful."

Cedric smiled at her. "Isn't it Princess?"

The mouse didn't notice who was speaking to her as she nodded, eyes fixated on the desert. "I've never seen anything so .. amazing, ever."

She suddenly jerked her head up in realization, before looking pointedly away. Star shook her head. "It's so .. big! And there's no .. food!"

Cedric had been looking irritated that Fripple was still angry with him, but he left off to wink roguishly at the horse. "Well Munch, it's the world. You thought we were going to cross this in a day? The first oasis alone is a good day and a half's journey in."

The mouse pointed to the base of the foothills, where some lonely buildings of rock sat like watchful sentinels. "That's Sirocco. We could get there tonight, but all the shops will be closed and the inn is small. We'd be better off right out here, and go there in the morning."

Veil was tired himself, and the others were too. "Then we will. Let's set up camp and get supper going."

><><

The night was dark, and surprisingly cool. Cedric himself had left camp .. not really knowing what he intended to do. Perhaps just look out across the desert.

He might have been a versatile creature, but he did long to be in Southsward again. At least .. Southsward the way it once was.

The mouse cast a glance behind himself at the soft glow of the fire. Should he tell them how bad it was? How dangerous and how wicked?

But if they decided not to go, he wouldn't get those seventy sheckles. After all he'd been through, he felt he deserved that money.

It was selfish .. yes. But they were selfish too! They weren't any different from him .. except maybe for Veil. That ferret was quiet and sort of withdrawn .. and yet the whole group valued his word over their guide's!

It wasn't fair. That ferret knew nothing about the desert, as sensible as he may be. Experience was the key to surviving.

Ceric had the experience, but should he even try? Would they listen to him at all? Was this going to be the end of him?

About this moment, Cedric's ears caught the sound of Fripple and Catkin returning from the stream with water, and Catkin was chattering blithely. "I think it's so cool we got to the great desert!"

Fripple shrugged. "We just have to get across."

Catkin wasn't unduly concerned. "Oh, we have Cedric with us .. you know he's very nice."

Fripple scowled. "You trust him way too much."

Her otter companion frowned at her. "He likes it when we listen to him .. you've been very mean to him, and I think you need to forgive him. That would make you both much happier."

Fripple grumbled, lapsing into unresponsive silence. Catkin sighed. "Why don't you like him Fripple? He's very sweet when you get to know him."

Fripple looked shocked, before sputtering, "He's a loser, and a .. jerk, that's what he is!"

Catkin looked horrified. "Fripple, that's just mean!"

The mouse stamped a paw. "I can't believe you've let him deceive you!"

The otter crossed her arms. "Why don't you like him? He's very nice .."

Fripple growled. "Yes! That's just it! He's nice to every girl. He's all 'Princess this and Princess that' and than he flirts with you, Esther, my thirteen year old cousin, and the horse! He has no loyalty, no .. morals .. no honor .. he's so infuriating!"

Catkin was silent for a moment, before a big grin spread across her face. "Why Fripple! Are you saying you like him?"

The mouse glared at the otter. "I'm saying I can't stand his rotten dishonesty!"

Catkin nodded patronizingly. "Yes, but if he was loyal, honest, noble, and all those other things, you would like him?"

Fripple was silent a moment, before snorting. "Fat chance. That's just not who he is."

Catkin wasn't about to let it drop. "But what if he was!"

Fripple sighed. "Oh .. I don't know! It's not like I'll ever find out, he's not going to change!"

Catkin crossed her arms. "He's only eighteen, he's got to grow up still .. and so do you. Just give him a chance! You might find out you are very happy if you do."

Fripple glared at the otter. "I'd be his friend, if he wanted a friend. But that's not what he wants, it's as plain as day .. he wants .. you know .. Ukk. And I don't. So there."

Catkin thought about this a moment. "I think you like him very much, deep down inside. You've just got to accept that .. and then you'll be happy! Don't you .. want that?"

Fripple looked down, before shrugging. "I don't know what I want. But My concern is clearing Veil's name, not worrying about some irritating carpet."

Her blue eyes smoldered as she growled, "A carpet who has no loyalty whatsoever! That's the problem with him .. he's just so .. so .. infuriating. It's the only word I know of that describes him. He's so .. artificial!"

Catkin cocked her head. "Huh? He seems alive to me."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "There's a real beast under his façade of being charming. Charming my foot. He's not charming, he's just .. a .. loser. How else can I say it?"

Catkin was concerned. "Well you could say it nicer."

Fripple sighed. "I don't bother with saying things nicer. I state the blunt facts. And the blunt fact about Cedric is he's pretending he's somebeast he's not because he thinks this way is more attractive or something stupid like that. Sheesh, if he'd just be a little more .. real .. I might actually like him!"

Catkin crowed. "I knew it!"

Fripple groaned. "As a friend."

Catkin sighed, before shrugging. "Oh .. well .. everybeast has to start somewhere."

><><

Cedric had listened to this with silent interest .. and it was probably the oddest conversation he'd ever eavesdropped upon.

And he'd eavesdropped on many an odd conversation.

However the fact that it was about him .. and in the manner it was .. it amazed him. Perhaps even subtly chastised him .. although he wasn't marvelous at listening to his conscience. Still, the fact that Fripple of all creatures even conceded that she might like him at all was definitely strange to hear.

He'd thought she really hated him. She certainly acted like it.

Apparently he was being hasty. But then he was accustomed to maids who .. apparently didn't have a lot of smarts or morals, by Fripple's odd way of thinking.

Cedric contemplated for a moment. After all she'd done, Fripple might just deserve having him hang about .. simply to irritate her more. Cedric liked having the last word in a fight. And if he gave up now it was sort of like admitting defeat.

He didn't admit defeat for anybeast. Not even the cute but .. rather violent and hotheaded princess of Mossflower. No, especially not her.

She couldn't make him go away. And not after hearing that lovely piece of information. She was mad because he had no loyalty? Then she was jealous despite all her claims she did not care!

The mouse twirled a whisker thoughtfully. She was right, that he hid his true self. But she wasn't guiltless of it.

This was almost a challenge.

Cedric smirked, thinking how odd that the challenger he had to face to win this princess .. was the princess herself.




Chapter 9 Our Little World No More

ASC Chapter 9

Bryony finding the gloves >:)

Early the next morning, Cedric woke his charges .. despite the fact they didn't exactly appreciate it. Veil rubbed sleep from his eyes as the mouse called, "Alright, we'd best be on our way .. you'll want to do as much traveling as you can before it gets unbearable, and we've got to stop by Sirocco yet."

Veil looked around, realizing it was still dark .. night dark. He couldn't even tell if there was a bit of gray in the eastern sky .. and while the moon was long gone, the stars glittered overhead.

Star heaved herself to her hooves, groaning, "It's so early!"

Fripple glared at Cedric. "It's not even the tiniest bit light out. Do we have to get going so early?"

Cedric winked at her. "Welcome to the desert Princess. Now let's get going; we can eat on the way. I want to reach Sirocco by dawn."

Esther grumbled. "Oh, who died and put you in charge?"

Cedric crossed his arms sternly. "For being your guide, you sure don't listen to me much. Now you may be able to get away with that in the forest or on the grasslands. But in the desert, you're going to have to trust me. I know what I'm doing, and you don't. So let's go."

Veil gathered up his bed as Ivan came leaping down from his lofty perch on a large boulder. Aubretia took some calculations, stating, "According to my previous research, I believe the hottest part of the day is from the sun's zenith to three hours after."

Cedric started towards the tiny glimmering lights of Sirocco, calling, "Right. And you better figure on cutting those three hours out. I don't think you'll be able to survive them."

Veil cast a glance at Ivan, who shrugged, following their guide. Veil did the same, and the others did as well .. leaving only a few dead embers to ever betray they were once there.

><><

They reached Sirocco just as dawn was turning the sky gray, and Veil was surprised to see the town was not dead and asleep as he had expected. In fact, the shops were opening and a few carts were already being drawn through the streets.

Cedric stretched. "Ahh, perfect timing. We want to get here before the rush and heat."

Veil sighed. "What are we here to buy, exactly?"

Cedric shrugged. "At least a canteen apiece. There will be days .. sometimes two days at a time .. when we will not see water. I made it across on foot, but I also had two canteens and drank sparingly. Just something to think about."

Veil looked at Star, walking near the back of the group. "What about her?"

Cedric shrugged. "She's an Arabian, isn't she? The desert's in her blood and soul, she's just got to acclimate. She can carry the supplies and extra water, it'll be good for her."

The mouse paused, before adding, "And I advise you buy something to cover your head. The sun is brutal out there in the heat of the day, and the nights are cool .. even chilly."

Veil nodded, casting a glance at Fripple. "Fripple? Can we talk?"

Fripple caught up to Veil. "Sure .. what are we buying?"

Veil shrugged. "Apparently .. two canteens apiece, and something to cover our heads."

Fripple nodded, sighing, "Oh .. and I suppose I have to pay for it?"

Veil was apologetic. "Well .. you've got the money. I should have some .. but I .."

He caught Cedric watching with interest, and decided to omit the fact that he had fled in haste. "But I forgot it."

Fripple caught his drift. "Oh, right. Yes well, it's no problem. It wasn't like I was going to spend it in any other manner .. just horde it. And this is necessary."

Cedric pointed to a nearby shop. "This is probably where we want to go. We could go to the market but they try and get the highest price possible out of you. Best to go to a store."

Ivan shrugged as the mouse walked through the doorway, Veil behind him. The store keeper, an old, scruffy looking vole, watched them with a suspicious gaze .. especially Ivan, and Star, when she stuck her head through the door out of curiosity.

The creature raised an eyebrow. "And .. can I help you .. goodbeasts?"

Veil felt they were not making a wonderful first impression. "Um .. yes. We'd like to look at canteens, and .."

Cedric stepped in. "And some head cloths."

The vole nodded, pointing to the far wall. "That is all over there .. and would you mind keeping your horse out of my shop?"

Veil turned to see the beast in question was halfway through the doorway. He sighed. "Star .. could you wait outside?"

She laid her ears to the sides, huffed, and withdrew. The vole seemed relieved. "The floor is really not made for that. I take it you're crossing the desert .. where are you going?"

Cedric didn't turn from inspecting a canteen. "Southsward."

The shopkeeper was surprised. "All the way to Southsward? I envy you nothing in that case."

Cedric handed Fripple three canteens and continued choosing some others. The mouse flattened her ears in exasperation. Veil sighed. "Here, let me."

The vole watched with interest as Aubretia hurried over to Fripple, holding up a couple inkwells and some parchment. "Fripple, they have ink! It would be beneficial for me to possess, if I am to keep a record of our trip."

Fripple glared at her cousin. "I don't know why we had to bring a library. Can't you wait until Southsward?"

Aubretia sighed. "I suppose. I do have some left .."

Fripple groaned as Cedric dumped a pile of cloths in her paws. "Then make do with that. I'm already spending enough."

Cedric took a moment to review what they had. "Yes, I think that's good."

Fripple set the objects on the counter. "I would hope so .. how much is that?"

This was directed to the vole, who looked it over a minute as if to decide how much was there. "I'd say ten sheckles."

Fripple sighed, digging in her satchel and producing the required amount. The shopkeeper took it as Ivan gathered up their new belongings. Fripple walked out, and the others as well .. Veil being last. As he was headed out the doorway, the vole nodded to him. "I wish you luck sir .. and keep a wary eye out for the hunters."

><><

Veil paused, confused. He was about to ask the vole what he meant, but Catkin plopped a rag over his head. "Here's yours!"

The ferret shook himself, staring at the otter maid. She had one of the cloths over her head and looped over her shoulders several times. It had an odd effect.

Fripple gave the cloth a look, as Cedric walked by, asking, "Too vain to put it on eh?"

Fripple gave him a murderous glare, pulling the cloth over her ears and wrapping it around her shoulders with defiance. Cedric just grinned unashamedly. "You look adorable Princess."

He had to jump out of the way as Fripple kicked at him with deadly accuracy. Cedric rolled his eyes, evacuating out of the mouse maid's immediate reach, and going over to Star. "Alright, you're gonna get some good exercise Munch, how would that be?"

Star didn't look overly excited. In fact she looked dismal. "Ugg, what new torture have you thought up?"

Cedric began piling the blankets and satchels of food on the horses back. "You can carry these .."

He piled some canteens on. "And these .."

He tied the old water pail to a canteen strap. "And this while you're at it."

Star sighed. Cedric nodded. "I'd say we're almost ready."

Aubretia piped up. "According to my calculations, it could be beneficial for us to have a map."

Cedric huffed. "A map. A map? Bookworm. I made it through without any such thing once, and I can do it again. You know there are caravan trails. And besides. You may think this desert looks .. flat and boring now, but just wait 'til we get a day or so in. There are plenty of landmarks. Cliffs, boulders, arches .. the like. We'll fill our canteens at the well and move on before the sun fully rises."

Esther walked up beside Veil, rich rust colored hair peeping from beneath a white cloth about her head and shoulders. She followed him as they started down the street, sighing, "It sure looks .. well .. empty. Empty .. and dead .. and there's not anything worth stealing out there, you know?"

Veil rolled his eyes. "You and your thieving .. Esther, you've got to stop .. really."

Catkin walked by, stating, "It would make him happy!"

Esther sighed. "I know, I know .. but when I see something shiny I just .. want it! You know .."

Veil watched Cedric untie the pail from Star's load, sighing, "No .. I'm sorry, I really don't."

Esther let her ears droop. "Well .. maybe the desert will cure me of it .. you know, not having something to steal for so long."

Cedric lowered his pail into the well a ways, before hauling it up determinedly and setting it on the ground. "Alright, fill all the canteens and water gourds, brim full, and get a good drink yourselves. We'll drink once midday, and see if we can get away with that until the first oasis."

><><

The sun slanted down across the dunes intensely, even if it was hours before noon. Veil was, for what might have been the first time, honestly glad of Cedric's advise.

The others were too, even Fripple. Aubretia was wearing her head scarf, despite earlier protests that it hindered the efficiency of her glasses.

Catkin had given up talking, and the silence was odd and dull, broken only by the thud of hooves and boots on sand. Cedric was totally at ease, though he looked strange with rags wrapped around his black furred footpaws, a blanket tied over one shoulder to provide some protection from the sun, and a scarf around his head. The mouse would run on ahead often, tufted black tail sweeping over the sands .. and he truly looked a worthy part of his surroundings. The others .. not so much.

Veil regretted the fact his blue tunic had long sleeves now, and his leather vest trapped heat. The ferret had already packed his leather vambraces in his satchel, and he was quite warm .. it never became this hot in Mossflower.

Star didn't walk, she plodded, head down. Ivan looked miserable, and Veil felt bad for his thickly furred brother .. the wildcat had shed all clothing beyond his yellow tunic and tall boots. Catkin was panting a little .. and nibbling hotroot. Esther wasn't as affected, for her fur was pure white. Still, she looked hot and tired. Fripple walked near Star .. as far from Cedric as possible .. and she wisely kept herself in the horse's shadow.

Aubretia however, was by far the worst off. Her flowing gown with it's wide sleeves looked miserably hot, and the mouse was continually pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose lest they slip off.

Cedric returned, pointing to a far off smudge in the horizon. "At midday, we'll rest there for a few hours."

Catkin was hopeful. "Is it .. an oasis?"

Cedric shrugged. "Nah, we won't get to the first well until this time tomorrow, or a little later. That's an outcrop of rocks, but there will be shade, and it will be cooler. I don't think you'll make it through the heat of the day."

Esther stared at him. "What .. do you call .. this?"

Cedric wasn't phased. "Early morning. I'd say .. pleasant. But this is why we'll have to stop for those hours .. you guys can't take the heat."

He bounded over a few sand dunes, tail whisking behind him. "Come on! We're not stopping here.

><><

The cool of evening fell upon Redwall, and a lone figure on the walls. Bryony stared across the flatlands, thinking the summer would soon be here.

But she was not joyful. She couldn't help but think of how Veil had reacted when he'd looked through that monocle. It hadn't been Veil's fault .. it had been the fault of the thing he'd been looking through.

Everything that was going wrong had something to do with those monocles.

Bryony sighed .. and shivered. She was so high-strung. She couldn't act inconspicuous unless she was calm. But she wasn't.

However there was one thing she enjoyed doing that always soothed her .. gardening. Bryony loved planting things and watching them grow. She wanted to be Redwall's chief gardener someday.

The mouse left the wall tops, heading for the gardens of flowers that Abbes Germaine had created before she died. Rose spent a lot of time caring for them, but Bryony loved them too.

She walked under a trellis on which ivy vined, smiling as some fronds brushed against her face. However she frowned when she noticed some nearby daffodils looked a little peaked .. and the faint scuffs of pawmarks littered the area.

Bryony knelt beside the spot of disturbed earth, running her golden-tipped fingers through the soil. Rose wouldn't dig near plantings unless she wished to move them .. and these daffodils had been here as long as Bryony could recall!

There was something a bit .. off about the whole picture, and the mouse maid pawed at the scuffed dirt thoughtfully. With some unknown curiosity driving her on, she dug deeper into the soft soil, suddenly freezing as her paws touched something foreign .. something that wasn't dirt.

Bryony gently drew out the item .. a dirt stained glove. A bit more research revealed it's mate. The mouse laid them down where she could look at them, raising an eyebrow. Why would anybeast bury gloves in the garden? There was absolutely no reason .. unless ..

Unless they were trying to hide something.

Bryony brushed some dirt from one of the gloves, noticing it looked a little ratted .. like it had been buried a few weeks. Further brushing revealed there was something dark and reddish on the object, at least on the fingers.

Bryony frowned. That couldn't be bloodstains, for dried blood turned brownish. This was still vibrantly red beneath a coating of ground-in muck. The black mouse knew plants .. that was the stain of Wolfbane!

Had Veil used these? But no, that could not be right. These were only slightly larger than Bryony's size, and Veil's paws dwarfed hers by comparison. Besides, his paws themselves had been stained. Why would these dainty, almost feminine gloves be stained as well .. and buried here?

A slight rumble in the heavens caused her to look up, seeing that a bank of pewter gray clouds was rolling in. A normal spring rain, nothing unusual, but Bryony didn't want to be caught in it. She stuffed the gloves beneath her overskirt, scuffing the dirt back over the hole and hurrying toward the abbey building.

She had the feeling she had found a clue to the mystery .. but she wasn't sure she wanted to.

><><

The Great Hall echoed oddly with the rumble of thunder, and the soft rustle of pawsteps. Bryony paused at the archway leading down into Cavern Hole .. but she didn't feel like supper. She was so confused and preoccupied she'd be bound to show it.

She headed up the stairs instead, stepping inside one of the dormitories and walking to her little bed in one corner. She sat down on the edge of it, pulling out the gloves and rubbing at some dirt on one of the hems.

She frowned as her fingers found the texture of embroidery, but the dirt was thoroughly rubbed in. Bryony was too curious now to give up, so she slipped off her bed, walking the few steps to a nearby water basin, and started rubbing at the dirty glove.

The water turned an awful color, a mixture of red and mud, but the glove got a lot cleaner, revealing it was once white .. with violet embroidered moons and stars around the edge. Bryony held it up for closer inspection, frowning. It did not look Mossflowerian at all .. and it looked elegant, like a wealthy beast would have owned it.

The mouse glanced down at her paws in the next second .. and stared. They were dull red!

Bryony looked from the gloves, to the filthy water, to her stained paws, and slowly sat down on her bed in horror.

"What have we done?"

She couldn't help asking the question, though there was nobeast to answer it. She flopped down onto her pillow, whispering,

"Veil .. oh Veil .. what have we accused you of?"

The mouse closed her eyes, opening them as something tickled her whiskers and muzzle. She slowly sat up, picking up the scrap of parchment tucked under her covers, and reading the simple message scratched carelessly on it.


Please meet me where the orchard meets the wall two hours into the morning. It's important. I think I know what's going on.

Xzanthia

><><

The winds of evening rolled coolly across the desert, and it was a blessed thing to the travelers. Cedric kept going until the sun was sinking in the sky, when he stopped in the shadow of a dune. "All right, that'll do for today. Let's make a fire."

Star was panting as she stopped. "Oh .. that's why .. I've been .. carrying this stupid wood .. all day."

Cedric pulled a few sticks off her back, laying them down and rummaging in his satchel for a flint. "Oh, you'll be glad of it Munch, just wait."

The horse rolled her eyes as the mouse set about lighting his small fire. Esther stopped dead when she saw what he was doing. "Good grief .. a fire? Are you insane? I want a blizzard, and you make a fire? Aren't we boiled enough already?"

Cedric was unconcerned. "Just wait a few hours for the heat to seep out of the sands, and you'll be quite thankful I was kind enough to make this."

Veil ran a black paw through his shock of mottled brown headfur, asking, "Shouldn't we keep on a few more hours? The night offers relief from heat, shouldn't we take advantage of that?"

Cedric blew on the tiny flame he'd started, stating, "A couple reasons your mightiness. One, I think you guys are bushed, two, it gets rather cold, and three ..."

He was interrupted by a wail from Aubretia, who had been about to take her nightly notes. "Oh, my ink! It's dry .. completely dry!"

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "How is that possible?"

Aubretia kicked at some sand, bad temperedly. "Ooh it's this .. despicable wasteland! It's so hot!"

Cedric exclaimed in shock as the mouse maid's way of venting her feelings threw sand on his fire. "Bookworm! Seriously? I just had that going! And this is far from a .. despicable wasteland as you call it, it is a beautiful and life-filled place."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Right. It's hot, and .. dry and .. oh .. I admit it's stark and breathtaking sometimes, but .."

Cedric couldn't resist a jab. "Like me Princess?"

Fripple kicked an extra pile of sand on his fire, and in his face. "No, not like you!"

Cedric brushed himself off, glaring at the mouse maid. "Alright there's no need for that! Can't you take a joke? Now I have to build another fire ..."

Ivan seemed to have had enough of the heat, for he spoke. "I don't think you need to build one. We should keep on."

Esther crossed her arms. "I second that."

Cedric stared at them. "You're kidding."

Veil shrugged. "We aren't used to the heat Cedric, perhaps they are right. We should travel at night."

Cedric blinked. "What? You're insane .."

Fripple snapped at the mouse. "No, you are! You think you can boil us in that infernal heat and get away with it? Traitor."

Cedric stared at her. "Princess, you think it's easy for me either?"

Catkin was pleading, "Then let's stop traveling in the day, and travel at night. Please Cedric? It would make everyone happy!"

Cedric sputtered. "happy? Sure and it'll make .."

Star interrupted. "It sounds like the right sort of idea. If I'm going to lug all this stuff around, let me do it while it's cool!"

Aubretia was in agreement. "If I could calculate, I'm certain my calculations would say this is the obvious solution to our problem."

Cedric was flustered. "Look, what you guys don't understand ..."

Ivan broke in with a bad tempered snarl, something that was truly rare and truly frightening. "What I understand is that we are going. If you want to broil in the sun, go ahead, but we're traveling tonight!"

Cedric wasn't easily dissuaded. "But .."

Ivan's voice was almost a hiss. "Silence! Come with us or don't!"

The mouse took a step back as Ivan slowly turned around, fur on his spine raised and lips drawn back to reveal razor-like fangs. The cat started off in the direction they'd been headed, and the others followed.

Cedric caught up with them. "Stop it! You don't .."

Fripple turned on him. "Shut up! You think you can just tell us what to do cause you've been here before! You can't give us orders!"

Veil tried to appease the situation. "Cedric, we can't take the heat. We need to travel at night."

Cedric shook his head. "You need to listen to me .."

Esther snapped at him. "No, listen to us! We're going, and that's final! You can come along, or stay!"

Cedric was mad. "I could just leave you losers here, how would that be? You think you're so smart? Well just wait! I can go back to Sirocco and let you die out here .. Maybe I should!"

Fripple snarled. "Don't you dare threaten me ..."

Cedric interrupted her. "Oh, it's my fault is it? Well I won't be the one threatening you soon! You just wait .. haven't you heard about the hunters of the sands? You insane, stubborn beasts .. I ought to let them eat you all alive!"

Veil didn't let any other beast speak as he called, "Enough! Stop it! Cedric, what are you talking about?"

The mouse's nostrils flared as he growled, "Oh, now you'll listen huh? Don't you know what a jackal is?"

Aubretia paused. "I'm sure I could look it up .."

Cedric broke in. "You needn't. A jackal is a wild dog, about half the size of a pony. They hunt in packs of twenty or more, and they hunt at night! Fire is the only thing they fear .. why do you think I wanted to build one!?"

There was a fractional moment of silence, before Catkin gulped. "Oh .. this .. doesn't make me happy .."

Fripple interrupted. "Get some wood .. quick!"

Cedric rolled his eyes. "Princess, I don't have any but the ones you guys kicked sand over!"

Fripple sighed, exclaiming, "Ohh .. Then I'll go get them!"

She turned to run back the way they'd come, but Cedric grabbed her arm, crying, "Princess, don't! They'll .."

About at this second, there was a guttural growl from the shadowed sand dunes behind them, and Cedric reacted instantly, throwing Fripple to the ground behind him and slashing out with his spear!

There was a furious yipping cry, and Cedric seized hold of Fripple, just getting up. "Run you idiots, come on!"




Chapter 10 Flight to Safety

Bryony wasn't sure what to do. She didn't tell anybeast because she wasn't sure they would listen to her .. not with those monocles.

The mouse maid lay in her bed, listening to the steady dripping of the storm outside Redwall. The gloves were still shoved under her skirt, and she had the covers pulled up to her chin, pretending to be asleep as other Redwallers came to bed.

Perhaps she did drop off for a bit, for the next thing she knew, the rain had stopped, and the only sound was soft rumbles of thunder.

Bryony sat up, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dark of night. Or was it the dark of early morning? She slipped off her bed, picking up her sandals and creeping for the door .. careful not to awake anybeast.

The mouse got to the top of the stairs leading down to Great Hall before daring to put her sandals on. She made her way down them, hoping it was not past the hour of two.

As she reached the bottom of the staircase, another thought occurred to her. Did she really want to meet Xzanthia anyway? But if the wearet had a clue as to what was going on .. well .. maybe she wasn't the problem. Maybe she was trying to help!

Curiosity is a powerful and dangerous thing, and it had ahold of Bryony now. The mouse slipped from Great Hall into the dripping night, hurrying toward the orchard. That must be it. Xzanthia seemed so .. nice.

Still .. Bryony felt as though she should go carefully. What if it was a .. trap?

It couldn't be!

But .. what if it was?

The mouse maid shoved a lock of gold out of her eyes, slowing down as she heard voices. Voices that sounded like Xzanthia .. and Ash?

Bryony paused by the wall of the abbey, about to call out .. but froze as her ears caught Xzanthia's smooth, honey-sweet yet snarky voice. "Oh .. foolish, foolish beast .. do you really think you can outwit me?"

Ash's voice rang out as Bryony dared peep slowly around the corner. "I don't know what you're talking about, but I won't help you with any shady dealings, you hear? I'm going to tell on you, and you can't stop me!"

Xzanthia stared the rat down levelly. "Can't I?"

Ash snorted. "Pfft you? You're just a kid .. I can do what I want!"

Xzanthia's gloved paw shot out, and before Bryony's horrified eyes, Ash reeled back, slamming against the wall. The rat's eyes were wide as Xzanthia smiled, showing milk white teeth. "On the contrary .. you will do what I want."

Ash tried to get up, but Xzanthia's paw shot out again, and while the rat was several paces away, it almost seemed like her head was forced up by some invisible paw. Xzanthia almost purred. "Look into to my eyes .. yes, you are my beast now."

Ash seemed frozen, and she stammered, "What .. what are you doing?"

Xzanthia's laugh was like tinkling bells in a crypt. "Showing you my true self. But don't worry little rat .. you'll tell nobeast."

Ash seemed frozen as Xzanthia brought her paws together in a swirling pattern, whispering unintelligible words, before stating two lines in common woodland. Two lines that were enough to make Bryony's teeth chatter. "Foolish one and foolish still, let your soul bend to my will."

The wearet opened her paws to reveal faint wisps of green and her brown gaze glimmered glowing emerald. Like a whisper of pure evil, she gently threw the green at Ash, who tried to recoil but seemed to become mesmerized as the wisps swept around her and simply appeared to melt through her cream fur .. vanishing!

Xzanthia let her paw drop, and Ash fell to the ground, motionless. Bryony couldn't even breath as the rat slowly sat up, blinking and staring dully at Xzanthia. The wearet laughed. "Ahh, such an easy case .. only the simplest magic."

Her voice was commanding. "You will remember nothing of this. And from now on .. you are to do what I say. Understand?"

><><

Veil did run, as Cedric had ordered. Running felt odd .. Veil wasn't used to it. But with a pack of jackals on his heels, his dignity was quickly forgotten.

The ferret half slid, half skidded down a sand dune, starting as there was a cry from behind him. He wheeled around, in time to see Esther trip and fall flat on her face .. one of the beasts close behind.

Veil heard the noise of a sword being drawn, and it was a second before he realized it was his own. He leapt at the advancing jackal, slashing out with strength born from pure fury!

There was a strangled yip as his rapier tore into the beast's throat, nearly beheading it. Veil grabbed Esther's paw, dragging her to her feet and bolting back toward the others .. but he didn't have far to go.

They were in an odd semi-circle, and within seconds, Veil realized the jackals had them pinned in. One of the large, tawny beasts lunged at Fripple, regretting it as she struck out with an experienced paw, her saber wounding the dog-like animal in the chest.

Cedric menaced one of the growling creatures with his spear, panting, "They've got us now .. we can't fight forever!"

One of the more adventurous jackals leapt for Ivan's throat, only to be met by his mace. The creature yipped, flying a few paces away and slamming lifelessly into a sand dune .. but another took its place.

There was an odd hiss at Veil's side, and one of the attackers fell transfixed, an arrow in its side. Esther reloaded her bow, panting, "We've .. got to break their defenses .."

Aubretia's eyes were wide as she threatened a jackal with a throwing knife. "I wish I could calculate our chances ..."

The beast leapt at her, only to be met by an iron shod hoof. Star was trembling and terrified, and she paused only a moment after kicking Aubretia's attacker.

The horse suddenly reared with a terrified whinny, charging the pack's ranks in wild fear!

The jackals, hunters as they were, weren't excited about being trampled and monetarily bolted, affording their prey a means of escape. Veil took it, leaping over a nearby sand dune .. and into a situation that was, honestly, more chaotic than the one he had just left!

Something plowed into the ferret, knocking him clean off his feet and onto his back. Veil gasped as another of the things leaped over his head, strangely white in the moonlight. There were tons of the things, and whatever they were, they seemed terrified.

Sudden yells rang out, and the thunder of horse hooves. Veil pulled himself the his feet as Star came running back, yelling, "There's thousands of jackals Veil ... run!"

About this second, she collided with one on the frantic white creatures, and it hit her head on. The horse flopped dramatically to her side, gasping, "They .. got .. me ..."

The entire crew was over the sand dune now, and they had differing reactions to the white things. Fripple stared, gasping, "Oh .. what are they .. yow!"

One of the creatures ran over her. A couple mounted beasts thundered past, cutting the stampeding white animals off and herding them back. Catkin yelped. "This doesn't make me happy .."

Cedric broke in. "Move, move! Do you want to get trampled!"

They obeyed, bolting to the side as the herd of creatures thundered back toward them. Aubretia gasped, "Oh, what are they?"

Cedric yelled back. "They're sheep, what else? Haven't you ever seen a sheep .. ahhgg!"

A stray flock member plowed the mouse down, leaping over him and missing planting a hoof in his face by a hairsbreadth.

Veil wheeled around. "Are you alright?"

Cedric was clutching his stomach, where he'd collided with the sheep's head. "Yea .. but we won't .. be .."

Esther ducked away from a tardy sheep, stating, "As long as they don't come back we should be fine .."

The thunder of hooves and the swish of flying sand caused her to break off, as a dark colored horse with a daintily dished face skidded to a halt nearby, several others behind it.

A creature about the size of a rat dismounted with a jingle and a thump, striding over to them. It stopped five feet away, voice dangerous. "What are you doing in milord's pastures?"

Veil felt as though he should say something, so he apologized. "We are very sorry .. we didn't know at all. We were simply running from the jackals .."

Another beast of the same stature and dress turned to the first. "These are the clumsiest sheep thieves I have ever seen."

Esther looked amazed, as if she couldn't believe the creature had guessed she was a thief. Veil sighed. "We were not trying to steal those .. odd creatures .. we are simply traveling to Southsward!"

Cedric struggled to his feet, exclaiming, "Look, we're sorry! These guys are from the north, they don't know a thing about the desert, and despite my warnings they wanted to travel at night. We don't want to steal your sheep, and we didn't even know they were here!"

The two beasts whispered a few things to each other as Star limped up, bleeding a little here and there from where a sheep had run over her. She gasped, "Guys .. I'm not dead! I'm not! Those awful white things didn't eat me alive!"

The two guards and their mounted companions looked rather incredulous in the moonlight. The first crossed his sleeved arms, stating, "The sheep won't kill you, but our chief might .. you'll appear before him and he will decide what to do with you. Annon!"

One of the mounted guards nodded, kicking his horse into a gallop. The first guard glared at Veil and his friends. "And you will come with us. Don't try and run, it will only make your situation worse."

Catkin felt bad. "Oh, of course I'm coming .. I do want to apologize you know. My name is Catkin .. what's yours?"

The guard gave her an odd look. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but it won't work."

A mounted guard spoke to the first. "Ittai, these are the oddest thieves I have ever seen."

Catkin smiled. "Oh we're not thieves! Well ..."

Veil poked her before she could say, Esther is.

Ittai shouldered his spear. "Enough talk. Save it for our chief."

><><

Ittai didn't bother mounting his horse again, just threw the graceful animal's reins to his mounted companion, who was following the travelers from behind. Veil watched their guide and captor walk with confidence, as if he knew exactly where he was going.

A brown tufted tail just like Cedric's black one was visible beneath the hem of Ittai's robe, though it curled up loosely in a way Cedric's did not.

Veil didn't have a lot of time to ponder this however, as the brink of the next dune brought a strange sight to the eyes of the northern bred ferret.

It was a cluster of tents, some larger than others, but all good sized. They shone silver white in the light of the moon, and several more guards stood nearby, watching expectantly. Apparently the one called Annon had informed the others of the thieves.

Veil hadn't seen a beast in this strange place that was a diverse species from these tufted-tail mice .. or rats, or whatever they were. Aubretia was looking around with total curiosity, and she turned to Cedric. "What manner of beasts are these?"

The mouse blinked. "Jerbilrats. What else would they be Bookworm?"

Aubretia didn't answer, just blinked at the mouse as if contemplating something or other. However she didn't have time to ponder, as they had come to the largest tent, outside which stood Annon, holding his mount's reins. He nodded to Ittai. "The chief will see them tonight."

Ittai drew back the tent flap. "Inside .. all of you except the horse."

Star's ears drooped, and Ittai nodded to Annon. "See she doesn't run off."

Veil stepped through the tent's doorway, blinking in the sudden lantern glow. A noble jerbilrat with golden fur and chocolate points sat on a couch of cushions and draperies, watching as the miscreants filed in under Ittai's watchful gaze.

He folded his paws, stating in a half questioning voice, "Annon has told me you were trying to steal my flock .. and lead jackals into it."

Veil held forth a paw. "Sire, we are very sorry. We are from Mossflower .."

The creature nodded sagely. "As I guessed. Head scarfs befit you not."

Ivan pointed to Cedric. "Sir, it's my fault. I would not listen to our guide ..."

The jerbilrat stared at Cedric a minute, before giving Ittai a look. "General. It is not past the third watch of the night, and you disturb my rest for this maggot?"

Cedric's ears shot up in a little indignation. "Uncle Mizzah ..!"

Mizzah folded his paws again. "Address me as sir. Now, what were you doing, stealing my sheep eh? I wouldn't see these beasts doing it as such, but you are another matter."

Catkin had been listening, and she poked Cedric, gasping delightedly, "He's your uncle?"

Mizzah turned his gaze to her, stating. "Sadly."

Catkin disagreed. "Oh, it's not sad at all! I love family reunions .. they're ever so happy!"

Mizzah's voice was pretty flat. "This one might be an exception."

He turned to his nephew, stating, "I thought you were a charioteer down in Southsward, running those foolhardy races. Why have you come up north to pester me?"

Cedric crossed his arms. "Uncle Mizzah, I stopped that almost a season ago!"

Mizzah did not look pleased at how Cedric was still calling him 'uncle'. He crossed his arms. "And why is that?"

Cedric paused, finally shrugging. "Hey, I wanted a job switch. So I trekked across the desert, got to Mossflower, met these guys, and agreed to lead them to Southsward."

Mizzah turned to the travelers. "Where did beasts like you get ahold of such a shady character as this?"

Cedric opened his mouth to protest, but Fripple beat him to it. "I found him caught in a Doomwyte trap. He was hanging upside-down by one foot."

Mizzah nodded. "Somehow, it does not surprise me. Why ever did you cut him down?"

Fripple shrugged. "For one thing, I didn't know what he was like. And we needed to get to Southsward. He wore that type of dress .. and so we freed him."

Mizzah's eyes softened as he looked them over. "You are hardly more than children! Where are your parents .. why must you reach the great city of lights?"

The silence was complete for a few minutes, before Veil looked up. "I don't think you'd believe us, if we told you."

The jerbilrat chieftain folded his paws. "I have seen many things, and heard many things nobeast could believe. Things that were true. I will listen to you without reminding myself you are in his company."

Cedric sighed, and Veil bit his lip. "It's .. my fault we're out here."

Fripple broke in. "No it's not! We chose to come .. and we did it cause we believe in you."

Catkin patted Veil's shoulder. "Oh, I did it to make him happy."

Aubretia crossed her arms. "I came because what my father did is against his own laws and all my calculations said Veil was innocent. It was plain as day .. and I took notes on the whole thing. Calculating Veil's personality and his previous deeds, it did not add up to him trying to poison my mother."

Veil sighed. "Thanks for telling him everything."

Aubretia did not get her friend's meaning. "You're very welcome Veil."

Mizzah had the ghost of a smile in his eyes. "No, no, I am finding this quite interesting. Do go on .. one of you."

Fripple poked Aubretia, stating, "Now that my cousin has informed you, I don't suppose we can hide it. Veil was falsely accused of trying to poison my aunt, Queen Rose of Mossflower. My uncle, King Martin, wanted to execute him .. but we helped him escape."

Mizzah raised an eyebrow. "Then you are the king's niece?"

Fripple rubbed her nose. "I'm .. the princess. My mother is the High queen .. my uncle's twin sister."

Mizzah folded his paws. "Ah, I see. But tell me. Why would you leave such a postion .. for a beast convicted of murder .. even if it was false?"

Fripple put her paws on her hips. "Because he is our friend .. my friend .. and I will not abandon a beast who I care about. What sort of friend would I be then?"

Mizzah smiled at her. "What is your name .. what are all your names? You interest me .. certainly the most loyal, happy, reasonable, and clumsy sheep thieves I hath ever laid eyes upon."

He gave Cedric a look. "With the exception of this one, of course."

Fripple dipped her head. "I am Fripple the Blade, this is Aubretia my cousin, and of course Veil, our dear friend. There's Ivan, son of Gingivere, Esther the .. um .. archer, Catkin the otter princess, and our friend Mystiquestar is outside."

"The horse." Ittai added as Mizzah raised an eyebrow. The chieftain nodded. "I see. And Fripple .. why do you call yourself, the blade?"

Esther broke in. "Oh, that's easy! It's because she fights with blades so well! She's a paw-to-paw dueler see, her only long-range weapon is the sling .. and she can be clumsy with that."

Fripple gave Esther a look as Mizzah nodded. "Hmm .. most extraordinary. Do you all fight?"

Veil shrugged. "I .. fence with the rapier. Ivan .. he doesn't talk much .. but Ivan uses maces, and of course his claws."

The wildcat unsheathed his claws for Mizzah's benefit as Esther exclaimed, "I'm an archer, and at close ranges, I use knives."

Aubretia crossed her arms. "I'd rather find a peaceful way around the argument, but if I must, I throw knives."

Catkin smiled. "Oh I don't fight .. I like making other people happy! Because I like being happy! Can I make you happy, sir?"

Mizzah smiled at her, not thinly but genuinely. "Yes, I do believe you all can. What do you like to do, dear?"

Catkin grinned. "Oh I like to cook .. but they won't let me cook, sir."

She looked downcast as Mizzah asked, "Why ever not?"

Veil sighed. "She puts hotroot in whatever she makes sire."

Mizzah laughed. "Oh is that so? Well it so happens that I like hotroot a good deal myself .. you may help my wife tomorrow .. she'll see you get to cook. As for the rest of you .. it's been a long while since I saw a staged duel. Perhaps you would spar with us on the morrow?"

Veil looked around, and his friends shrugged. Ivan retracted his claws, stating drolly, "I suppose I'm in."

Fripple nodded. "Hey, me too! The last time I dueled somebeast, it was Cedric here."

Mizzah looked extremely interested. "Oh you did eh .. and how did that turn out?"

Fripple crossed her arms. "I beat him."

Cedric sputtered. "Only because of her tail ..!"

Mizzah clapped his paws together, almost laughing. "Enough, enough. I see how it is. I have a little deal for all of you .. even Cedric here. Seeing as you have disturbed and endangered my flock, I suppose you owe me a debt, do you not?"

Veil looked down. "Yes sire, I suppose we do."

Mizzah nodded. "Good. Tomorrow we move to other pastures .. closer to Southsward .. and you will help us. Then you will stay with us for a few more days to shear the sheep .. and I myself would not mind a duel. Of course I wish to see the blade mistress here duel my .. nephew. How does that sound to you?"

Veil shrugged. "I don't believe we really have a choice."

Mizzah smiled. "You do not. Ittai, find our new helpers a place to sleep the rest of the night. And do keep a wary eye on this nephew of mine."

><><

Bryony didn't dare move, or even breathe. She pressed herself against the alcove of the wall, closing her eyes.

What had she seen? Had Xzanthia cast a spell on Ash? Hexed her?

How was that possible? Unless ...

Bryony felt shivers run up her spine as she thought of the stories she'd been told about the Shadow Fighters. They could wield magic .. green, glowing fire.

Xzanthia .. kind, shy ... young Xzanthia .. a Shadow Fighter?

Bryony had always envisioned Malimore's elite warriors as being vicious looking, adult, and ... well .. obviously wicked. Xzanthia was none of these things .. on the outside at least.

The wearet was glaring at Ash, who stared dully back .. stared back like she was an empty shell .. like her soul was either gone or oppressed. The rat's glassy gaze was enough to give Bryony nightmares.

Xzanthia sighed, stating flatly, "Get up. Be as you were before, it is my command."

Ash did so, standing slowly and blinking a few times, before giving Xzanthia a befuddled look .. and walking dazedly away.

Xzanthia watched her go, snarling to herself, "Hellgates, I wish I hadn't have had to do it .. they might notice her state. At least those Prophets aren't here to catch me .. they'd notice that for sure."

The wearet crossed her arms. "I thought I told that stupid mouse to meet me too! Where is she?"

Bryony felt like somebeast was drowning her in a lake of ice. She couldn't breathe .. Xzanthia was talking about her!

The wearet growled, talking to herself once again. "She's onto me .. I've got to stop her before she figures it out! And such a well laid scheme .. no gangly-tailed mouse will thwart Xzanthia .. and I'm so close! Even if I couldn't get the mouse-king to kill Veil, I can still kill all his friends!"

Bryony had heard enough, her heart was thumping so hard she was afraid Xzanthia would hear. She started to slip away, as Xzanthia's grumbles faded into worse silence. Bryony couldn't see the wearet any longer .. and couldn't hear her either. It was like she had suddenly gone silent .. perhaps .. to listen.

Bryony tried to move faster .. she hadn't made any noise .. not hardly! How could Xzanthia hear ...

Her train of thought was broken as something grabbed her from behind! Bryony ducked, falling to the ground and trying to roll away, but whoever it was jumped on her, trying to pin her to the ground!

Bryony was desperate, and she lashed out with her short .. but strangely sharp claws. They connected with the beast's face, digging past the fur and spattering blood on the ground. There was a yelp .. and Bryony struggled to her feet, bolting!

Her sandals pounded through the slippery wet grass, and the way her skirt slapped against her legs was constricting. The mouse gathered it up, just as her foot caught on a stone and she fell on her face, pain searing through the paw. Bryony pulled herself upright, just in time to see Xzanthia raise a paw, a grin on her bleeding features .. truly ghastly.

However at that second, a voice rang out. "What is going on here?"

Bryony looked up to see Martin standing in the doorway of the gatehouse .. and he only stood still a moment. He came striding toward them as Xzanthia called out in a stricken voice, "Oh ow, ow .. oh sir she attacked me! She did it for no reason!"

Martin frowned, and Bryony broke in, "No sir, oh no! She's wicked .. she's a Shadow Fighter! She cast a spell on Ash .. and she tried to do the same to me!"

Xzanthia gasped. "What? A Shadow Fighter, me? No, I'd never! I just want to be a goodbeast .. why did you claw my poor face? You're the wicked beast .. you had no right to turn on me!"

Martin crossed his arms. "Bryony, why did you do such a thing?"

Bryony shook her head, staggering to her feet. "King Martin, don't listen to her! She's lying! She's lying just like those wicked monocles!"

Martin's eye's darkened as Xzanthia pounced on her statement. "What are you talking about? You found them first!"

One of the gatehouse windows was thrust open and Rose appeared in it .. awoken by the noise. "What's going on? Martin, what are you doing up at this time of night?"

Bryony didn't know what to do .. and she was terrified. Xzanthia would find some way to get rid of her now .. like Veil.

They couldn't .. no .. they wouldn't execute me!

But the fear was very real .. and Bryony bolted. She was frantic .. she had to get out. She just had to get out!

There were cries from behind her, but she paid them no heed .. not even noticing the one dirty white glove that fell from its place beneath her skirt.

><><

Martin's frown deepened as the young mouse ran .. it seemed there were a lot of suspicious happenings recently. First Veil, now this!

He grabbed whatever it was that had fallen out of Bryony's skirt, giving chase in about the next second. He could hear Xzanthia's paws behind him, and could barely see Bryony in the dark. She seemed desperate not to be caught.

There was only one reason for such behavior .. Martin had seen it many a time.

It was the mark of a guilty beast.

Whatever had caused Bryony to strike a fellow beast in such a manner, Martin intended to find out.

The night was dark, but Bryony wasn't a marvelous runner either. However she bolted around the corner of the wall, and Martin jumped after her .. panting. He was apparently out of shape.

However the corner revealed no more than the empty red stone wall. Martin narrowed his eyes .. she had to be here somewhere.

Xzanthia's paws rang out behind him, breaking the silence. The wearet caught up to him, asking, "What did she drop?"

Martin frowned. "This isn't the time .."

Xzanthia nodded. "Yes sir, it is! What if it was something important?"

Martin sighed, but there was the sudden feeling that he must. That Xzanthia was right. He pulled out the object to realize it was a glove .. a dirty, red stained glove.

Martin stared. The red might have been faded, but it wasn't brownish .. it was still obviously red. Wolfbane. The only reason.

But why would Bryony have a glove stained with Wolfbane? Was she a poisoner too? Had she been working with Veil?

Xzanthia reached for it. "Let me see!"

Something .. some tiny twinge .. made him yank it out of her reach. "No .. this is evidence. It is for the council to investigate."

Xzanthia looked down. "I just wanted .."

Martin pulled out his monocle, putting it to his eye. Xzanthia looked so sad and innocent he sighed. "I'm sorry .. wait .. you're bleeding! Go in and get Columbine to deal with it."

There was a tiny flash of fear in Xzanthia's eyes, and Martin shook his head. "It won't hurt, Columbine knows what she's doing. Go on."

Xzanthia paused, before turning toward the abbey building and hurrying off. Martin looked down at the glove in his paw, starting as he noticed the red looked far more vibrant. The mouse glared at it. Wolfbane .. definitely no doubt about it.

He looked up. Where had Bryony gone? She'd disappeared right near here ...

"Martin!"

He looked up to see Rose hurrying across the lawns. She looked a little white .. she shouldn't be up and running about this much! She blinked at him. "Martin .. what's going on?"

Martin sighed. "It's not good .. I think we have another poisoner."

Rose was shocked. "What? Who?"

Martin held forth the glove, grumbling, "Bryony .. this fell out of her skirt."

Rose took it, inspecting it, before stating, "Martin .. dear .. this doesn't look Mossflowerian at all. And the red is very faded."

Martin blinked at the glove, stained like fresh blood through his monocle. "Rose .. I think you need some rest. Come on .. Bryony won't leave the abbey .. she's probably hiding somewhere, waiting for this to blow over. Well .. it's not going to .. not this time. Poisoning is a serious thing."

><><

Bryony was hiding somewhere .. somewhere within hearing range. She had dove into a stand of hedge-like bushes growing beside the wall, panting and unable to keep running. She'd lain in the dead leaves underneath her shelter, listening to all.

Now she was even more terrified than before. No .. no .. they couldn't do this! She'd done nothing! She'd tried to stop the guilty one .. and they called her guilty instead!

The mouse maid waited until Martin and Rose were out of sight, before crawling from beneath the bushes, and staggering to her feet.

She paused only a second, before running toward where she knew the east wall gate was. She wasn't going to stay and just let them kill her!

Where she would go ... she had no clue. But she had to get there .. wherever there was. She had no other choice.

Bryony pulled the gate open a crack, slipping out into the damp woodlands. She cast one glance behind her as the door swung shut. Small tears grew in her eyes .. but they didn't hurt as much as her heart .. the faith she had put in those who had raised her was broken.

She didn't know if it would ever heal.

The mouse's paws pounded through wet grass .. she didn't know what to do anymore. Her head was down, and she could hear herself sobbing .. but she didn't really care. Suddenly however, she slammed into something very alive, real, and solid.

Bryony staggered back as the creature jerked away, and the mouse fell to the ground. The moon's light glimmered silver off the horse's white coat, defining his bright copper chestnut mane, tail, and legs. Bryony sniffed. "Glow?"

His eyes were shadowed in the dark, but Bryony knew they were dull, milky blue. She knew he could not see her. However his voice was concerned. "Bryony .. what are you doing outside the abbey in .. the fourth hour of the morning, I believe."

Bryony rubbed her nose, muttering, "How'd you know it was me?"

Glow snorted. "Your voice .. and you're crying. Did somebeast hurt you?"

Bryony looked down. "You could say that .. they think I'm a poisoner like Veil .. only it wasn't Veil! Glow, it wasn't!"

The horse pricked his ears. "I didn't think so .. but how do you know for sure?"

Bryony dug in her skirt, producing the glove. "Because I found this buried in the garden .. it's Xzanthia's, and she's a Shadow Fighter!"

Glow stretched his muzzle forward. "What's this?"

Bryony sighed. "Oh .. I forgot Glow, I'm sorry! It's a white glove, stained with Wolfbane! Glow, Veil had it on his paws themselves .. and this is way too small for him, it's my size!"

She looked down. "Which is one of the reasons .. they think I did it now. But that's not all .. I saw Xzanthia cast a spell on Ash .. it was like she was dead afterwards .. she could move but her will .. it was just gone!"

Glow was serious. "We need to tell somebeast .. like my mother .. or Bella! Mother said she was going to visit Bella .. they must be at Brockhall. I'll take you there!"

The horse nudged her up onto his back as she asked, "Can you?"

Glow laughed. "I think so. If you're so worried, tell me if I'm going to run into anything."




Chapter 11 Wanderers

Night in Mossflower was dark, but Glow seemed to have an uncanny sense of where things were. Bryony wasn't sure how he did it.

It took them longer than another beast, perhaps, because Glow didn't bother trying to trot in a dense woodland. However after perhaps an hour, Brockhall loomed before them.

Bryony slipped off the horse's back, stating, "I hope she's in .."

Glow cocked an ear. "I expect she would be .. knock and see, why don't you?"

The mouse maid did so, the noise ringing hollowly inside the massive tree. Mouse and horse waited, and yet no noise came from within.

Bryony was nervous. "You don't think something could have .. happened to Bella .. do you?"

Glow tapped his hoof against the door. "But my mother said she was visiting Bella .. and she'd hear us. She hears everything."

The colt paused, before stating, "Let's see if the scullery is unlocked .. it often is you know."

Bryony followed Glow around Brockhall, surprised that he seemed to know exactly where he was going. "How do you know there is a scullery .. and where it is?"

The horse's orangey tail vanished around the tree trunk as he replied, "I've never been able to play the rowdy games my peers did. Luna would take me with her instead .. so I've been a lot of places. I notice a lot of things .. even if I never see them."

Bryony wasn't sure how to answer as she caught up, but she needn't have worried .. as the opening Glow spoke of sat nestled between the tree roots. The horse yawned, stating, "There should be some sort of light behind the door .. as well as something to light it with. I remember from a time Gustav and Coll were playing with it .. they got a talking to."

Bryony raised an eyebrow. "It's very dark .."

Glow snorted, carefully sticking his head through the opening. "That doesn't bother me."

The small horse had to duck his head, but he could fit. Bryony followed him into a place so dark she couldn't see a thing .. not even if she touched her face with her paw. They hadn't gone more than a few steps when Glow stopped, and Bryony ran into him.

The horse sighed. "I forgot you aren't used to feeling your way through life. Feel the walls though .. the lantern must be here."

Bryony did so, her paws finally coming upon metal and cut crystal .. as well as something that felt like a tinder box. The mouse struck it, laughing nervously as the lantern sprang to life. "I do hope we don't wake up Bella .. she won't be pleased."

Glow cocked an ear, the equine equivalent of shrugging. "I think she'll understand."

Bryony held the lantern up, walking past Glow to the door into the kitchens. She paused .. before pushing. The door swung open silently as Bryony and her companion walked into Brockhall's familiar .. yet empty kitchen.

Bryony didn't like being in the old manor when it was this dark .. at least she had Glow, even if his warm breathing behind her had a way of making her imagine all sorts of gruesome things. She slipped out of the kitchen, hurrying down the hall. She'd been here before, a few times, but the many doorways were confusing.

The mouse stepped through a doorway, starting as her lantern's light multiplied in a central chandelier's many dangling prisms. Bryony walked in, stating, "I guess this is the library .. do you think Bella might sleep near here?"

Glow cocked an ear, stating, "Maybe. But shouldn't she have heard us by now?"

Bryony paused beside a writing desk, blinking at the object lying on it. An ancient scroll written in strange letters. A parchment lay atop it, resting at an odd angle, as if it had been dropped there.

Bryony slowly picked it up, noticing there was a stain of ink at the bottom, like it had been spilled upon.

"Glow!" Bryony called.

The horse looked around. "Hmm?"

Bryony held out the parchment, asking, "Doesn't this look like Bella's handwriting?"

Glow raised an eyebrow. Bryony sighed. "Oh .. yea. Sorry. Here, I'll read it to you."

She hadn't really skimmed the parchment, so what she read surprised her. "Four are not one when two are gone, Echoes of evil shall rise .."

Glow tossed his head. "What?"

Bryony continued. "Shh .. I think it's a poem!"


"Four are not one when two are gone,

Echoes of evil shall rise.

Only a breath of morning song,

Could break this spell of lies.


A chosen one and chosen true,

Has a call to answer.

Far from home but not alone,

He has a home to fight for.


Echoes will ring, echoes will fly,

Sixclawed though he be.

A hated one will answer this cry,

What hides will set us .."


Bryony paused. Glow perked his ears. "Go on!"

Bryony frowned. "I think Bella upset her inkwell on this .. the rest is just a big, black stain .. sorry."

Glow was thoughtful. "What hides will set us free, I bet it is. Free rhymes with be."

"And Sixclawed though he be? This is talking about .. Veil!" Bryony exclaimed.

Glow raised an eyebrow. "What does the whole thing mean though?"

Bryony wrinkled her nose. "Well there are some really .. weird parts. Like .. Four are not one when two are gone .. what's that supposed to mean? I mean .. like .. four can't make one even if it's four .. and not two! That's confusing!"

Glow was blinking at her, as if realizing something. "But what if four are one! It's not talking about a number .. it's talking about the marks!"

"How do you know?" Bryony wasn't convinced.

The answer was longsuffering. "Have you studied our history?"

Bryony looked down. Glow nodded as silence prevailed. "As I thought. The marks are supposed to be a team .. but with Sayna and Timbal gone, they are not one!"

Bryony blinked at the riddle in her paw. "Then this is saying .. Veil .. is going to free us from the monocles .. even the marks!"

Glow nodded, starting at Bryony's next statement. "Then we've got to bring him back .. or bring Timbal and Sayna back .. or anything!"

Glow frowned. "But you .. what .. we?"

Bryony was in earnest. "Yes, we! Do you want to see Redwall destroyed? I can't stay here anyway!"

Glow was dubious. "Shouldn't we tell Bella or my mother?"

Bryony sighed. "They aren't here! And this is urgent!"

"I'm pretty sure .. after thinking about it," Glow stated, "That they are at Gingivere's place. Luna can't be with Bella all the time, and she wouldn't leave her alone."

Bryony felt the need to go .. now .. and she didn't want to risk being caught by somebeast from Redwall. "But if we tell them .. they won't let us do it!"

Glow cocked an ear. "Maybe we shouldn't. Ever thought of that?"

Bryony was slightly irritated. She wanted to go. Maybe she wanted to prove herself innocent. Maybe she wanted something even deeper than that .. something she couldn't name. "So you'll just .. let them tell us not to? Just cause I'm thirteen and you're blind? Does that make it so we can't do anything?"

Glow's ears flattened .. his blindness, addressed in the way of it being a weakness, was a touchy subject. "I can do as much as any."

Bryony looked down. "The adults .. they're falling to this lie. Maybe it's time beasts like us took a stand .. and did something!"

The horse heaved a sigh, and Bryony held forth a paw. "Think about it? Redwall needs help. Bella and Luna can't really leave Mossflower .. and .. well .. we can. Please Glow .. this is the right thing! You don't want Redwall to be destroyed .. it isn't about us. It's about them!"

Glow flattened his ears to the sides, slowly and gently tapping his hoof to her paw. "Alright. But I'm going nowhere without a plan, ok?"

Bryony crossed her arms. "Then let's make one."

><><

The sun rose early in the desert .. it only had to clear the dune-tops, after all. Veil woke slowly with it, although dawn couldn't be given all the credit.

"If you want any breakfast, you'd better wake up."

Veil raised his head, blinking blearily at a cream and dark brown jerbilrat, whom he remembered as Annon. The creature folded his arms. "Well? My father sent me to get you. He insists you eat before you get to work, but he won't wait forever."

Veil realized he was curled up in the storage tent Ittai had assigned him and his friends to late last night. The ferret stumbled to his feet, nodding. "Uhh .. yea. Thanks for telling me."

Annon really wasn't much older then Veil, upon further inspection .. perhaps by a few seasons. However the jerbilrat possessed a professional edge. "That's well and good. Do you think you can rouse your companions?"

Mystiquestar stuck her head through the tent flap. "There's breakfast! Come on .. wake up you guys!"

Cedric looked up, mumbling in a half asleep voice, "Yea but you don't .. get any."

Fripple walked past him, hair sticking up wildly. "She can eat some .. slave driver."

Cedric blinked at her, before rolling his eyes. Catkin sat up. "That won't make him happy!"

Annon broke in. "Oh he's not here to be happy .. my father will see to that."

Aubretia stood, shaking sand from the folds of her skirt, as Esther emerged from the pile of tent cloth she'd been sleeping in. Ivan just leapt down from the stack of barrels he'd chosen to perch on.

Annon raised an eyebrow. "Have we all assembled?"

Veil nodded, and the jerbilrat left the tent, beckoning the others to follow. Veil stepped out of the tent, into a glorious morning .. and he wished he could be on his way. Still .. after having endangered Mizzah's flocks, Veil could see it was only right to pay their debt. He wondered what was in store for them today.

He didn't need to wait long. The camp was already mostly awake, and Annon led them to an already wide awake Mizzah. The chieftain was in a better mood than last night. "Ah, up at last? Well I saved you breakfast."

He handed Veil a plate of flat cakes, stating, "The cooks cleaned up ages ago .. I was lenient with you since you nearly got eaten alive earlier. You'll have to make do with that. Now .. what is your name again, dear?"

He motioned to Catkin, who complied cheerily. "I'm Catkin."

Mizzah nodded. "Annon, son. Take Catkin here to your mother .. she can help her."

The jerbilrat's eyes twinkled. "As for the rest of you .. follow me. Oh yes, you too nephew. I have something special planned for you."

Cedric deflated. "Uncle Mizzah .. I'm sorry for putting that burr under your horse's saddle .. I really am."

Mizzah shrugged. "Ah .. but you never paid for it, you young scoundrel. That and those other tricks you pulled on your 'old uncle Mizzah'. And now you shall. Come, the day waits for nobeast."

><><

The dawn's first light broke over Southsward, filtering into the marble and granite halls of the great palace. Once, there might have been endless activity here. Now it was like a king's tomb, regal, rich, and elegant .. yet lifeless.

Although not in full.

The quite echoes of pawsteps from the armory broke the silence as a sturdy young mouse trotted across the great hall.

A marvelous hall it was, two sets of alabaster pillars running it's length, the final set supporting two grand, curving, marble staircases. The mouse half slid across the tiled floor, making for one set of stairs. His sandaled paws made hollow clacks on the marble, and about halfway up, he called, "Lady Lilly .. oh Lady Lilly! Where are you, Milady?"

No answer was instantly forthcoming, so the tan creature continued on his way. He reached the top of the stairs as the graceful rabbit slipped from an adjoining hallway. "Yes sir Kensly, what is it?"

Kensly panted. "Milady, it's the race .."

Lilly laid a paw on the mahogany rail, sighing, "As it always is .. isn't it a month away?"

Her knight shook his head. "No .. three weeks. But the finals for it were today, and as you wished, I snuck out to watch."

Lady Lilly bit her lip. "How was it."

Kensly looked down. "Bad Milady .. increasingly so. They had twenty racers .."

Lilly burst in with horror. "Twenty?! I set the limit as eight .. even for the finals!"

Kensly sighed. "I know, I know .. but milady .. only nine made it through. The other nineteen .. seven will never race again, that is for sure. Their drivers were little better .. and Shroud's son cheated again."

Lilly snarled. "Ramon .. and that wicked horse he drives .. Deathstrike. The race was once something noble .. something that portrayed our heritage. Our equines are renown for speed .. the race gave them a chance to show the world. Now all it stands for is bloodshed .. just another way Shroud and Swartt are breaking my city!"

Her voice had grown suddenly fierce, but as soon as the words left her, she laid her head in her paws. "Is there no hope for Southsward?"

Kensly bit his lip. "Milady .. dare I tell you .."

Lilly looked up, muttering, "What?"

Kensly closed his eyes, pulling out a piece of parchment. "This is the edict for the race .. Milady .. I am sorry."

Lilly's paws trembled in complete fury as she read the edict. "How dare they .. how dare they defile my father's seal .. defile my seal .. by using it to legalize their slaughter!?"

Kensly hung his head. "They don't just use it for the race. They use it for whatever they want to make law. They raise the taxes. They legalize the export of slaves. They .. are turning every citizen of Southsward against you. I .. I am sorry Milady .. but that is my report."

Lilly's brown eyes were hard as she turned away, sheer white cape sweeping behind her. Zarya appeared in a nearby hallway, asking, "Lady, what .."

Lilly's voice was soft, yet boded no argument. "Zarya, bring me my sword."

The badger looked worried, but hurried off as she was bid. She returned with the elegant weapon, which Lilly took, stone faced. The rabbit held up the edict, stating grimly, "I swear by this sword my father wielded, by my honor as queen, and by Lord Ignasa, that I myself will take these monsters' lives if needed, and I will reclaim my city .. for my people!"

She threw the parchment up, slicing it in two with practiced fluency. The rabbit whirled around, letting her cape fling the halves of the edict from the top of the stairs. "We are done hiding. They will kill us if we do nothing. Kensly, is there one in your command who is a spy?"

Kensly shrugged. "I am, Milady."

Lilly's eyes softened. "Of course Kensly. In my moment of anger I saw your father .. may his soul be at rest. Yes, young knight .. we must find where the Pitiless One takes his residence."

Her eyes darkened with determination. "After all .. if you pull the foundation from beneath a tower, it always falls. Let's take out Swartt first, then Shroud."

She turned to Zarya. "I need a disguise .. so that I may walk the streets once more. I must see this for myself."

><><

Fripple had decided sheep were not her favorite creatures. In fact, while they were indeed the oddest beasts she'd laid eyes on, she'd decided they were also the stupidest.

The mouse maid chased after one at that very moment. She leapt on the creature, trying to tackle it, but the sheep bleated, wriggling out of her grasp and running back to its companions.

Aubretia watched from nearby, stating, "According to my observations, you are improving. You hung on to that one almost thirty seconds."

Fripple scowled, panting, "Aww .. be quite .. Library."

Veil stepped in. "I'll get the next Fripple .. take a rest."

Fripple nodded. "At very least .. Cedric doesn't get a rest, since he's got to wash them."

The mouse grinned, sitting nonchalantly beside the muddy waters of a sort of side stream. "Oh yes I do Princess .. I was done with the last one ages ago!"

Fripple scowled at him, but found herself laughing at his totally sopping, dirty, and bedraggled appearance. Of course, she was no better. They had broken camp early that morning, taken the herd to an oasis Mizzah knew of. Then the real fun had begun, when they'd been assigned the job of washing half the herd .. Esther and Star escorting the clean sheep back to the camp, where they'd be shorn.

Fripple wondered how hard it could possibly be to shear them. Catching the stupid creatures was hard enough. Veil returned, pulling a very unruly sheep along with him. He shoved the creature over where Cedric was, and it attempted to trample the mouse sooner than take a bath.

Ivan staggered up, dragging a couple escapees with him. "These tried .. to run .. off."

Aubretia pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "It is quite likely then, that they are the most ill-tempered."

Ivan nodded, voice a little too agreeing, "It could just be."

Veil sighed. "At least we don't have many more."

Cedric's scuffle with the sheep he was bathing was audible in the background. "You .. hold still .. hey! Ahh! No! Down .. down you .. unintelligent .. yow!"

Fripple put her head in her paws as Aubretia stated, "We could be at this awhile, according to my calculations."

Fripple heaved a sigh. "No kidding. We better help him. It sounds like he's being trampled."

><><

By the time the sun set, Veil was exhausted. He wasn't sure how these desert creatures managed to survive .. and raise these .. sheep, as they were called. But he was glad they were done working with the unruly animals.

Besides the fact he was tired, the ferret felt a need to be on his way. To reach the city of a thousand lights .. for whatever reason. It was like a part of him was drawn to the very name.

And yet .. he didn't want to upset their .. host. After all, it was their foolish decision that had led them to be chased by the jackals in the first place.

Cedric was trying to brush grit out of his long fur, and he sighed. "Ho hum .. I wonder what Uncle Mizzah has planned for us tomorrow."

Veil glanced at the mouse .. or perhaps really a jerbilrat. Though he was shorter than them, and his ears were larger. "Is he really your uncle?"

Cedric shrugged. "Yea, he really is."

Veil didn't like to pry, but he was curious now. "Then you are .. a jerbilrat, I suppose? I guess you must be .. we just assumed you were a mouse all this time."

Cedric had stiffened a little, but he relaxed, trying to act as if he hadn't a care in the world. "Nah .. you were right .. half right, at least. My father was a mouse .. that's what mother always said."

Fripple was sitting nearby. "You're part jerbilrat?"

Cedric didn't meet her gaze. "Got a problem with that, Princess?"

Fripple blinked, before shrugging. "No. Why would I? My father was half rat, after all."

Cedric jerked his head up, asking with a certain amount of surprise, "You're part rat?"

Fripple glared at him. "Got a problem with that .. Mop?"

Ivan was droll. "I think you two are even."

Mizzah's voice rang from behind them, with a bit of amusement lacing it. "Indeed. I have another duty for you .. come. It's time you had supper."

Veil stood, as Mizzah stated, "You did as well as I expected for beasts of your experience. Now come .. I've decided you shall be my guests tonight. Perhaps you will tell me more of your plans and exactly why you are so determined to reach the city of lights."

Cedric didn't stand instantly, and Mizzah smiled ever so faintly. "You too, my nephew."

The mouse stood hesitantly, but followed as Mizzah led them to his tent, even pulling the flap open so they could enter. Catkin was already there, sitting with a stately female jerbilrat, and Annon. The otter was cheerful. "Oh you're finally back! Did you have fun? I did!"

Veil had the feeling Catkin had enjoyed her day quite a bit more than they. Mizzah seated himself next to Annon, stating, "Oh they had some good exercise, be assured. Zillah, dear. Was the young otter too much trouble?"

The cream and tan jerbilrat shook her head. "No, no .. she was a great help. In fact she made tonight's soup."

Catkin beamed as Mizzah tasted the offered dish. The chieftain coughed suddenly, before tasting a bit more. "Ah .. I see .. hmm. Quite flavorful my dear .. I like it. Indeed! It's wants bread, however."

He dipped a bit of bread in the soup, eating that with appreciation. Catkin squealed. "You like it? Really? Oh that makes me so happy!"

She popped a large spoonful in her mouth, stating, "After all, it really is quite lovely!"

Veil sipped at the painfully spicy dish, trying to keep from choking. "Ahh .. em .. it's very flavorful .. Catkin .."

Cedric was totally unsuspecting, and took a large mouthful of the stuff. He swallowed it with an odd, strangled, "Eep!"

Fripple was eating her supper tentatively, and she shook her head. "You shouldn't have done that. If Catkin makes it, it's bound to have a good amount of hotroot in it."

Zillah gave Cedric a look. "Oh yes .. she wanted to put much more in."

Cedric gasped. "More?"

He grabbed a nearby roll .. off Ivan's plate .. and crammed the entire thing into his mouth.

Annon couldn't help but laugh a tiny bit, and even Mizzah looked amused. Zillah gave her nephew a long look. "Didn't anybeast teach you manners?"

Mizzah answered for Cedric, completely unable to say anything. "Of course not dear .. he was an orphan of Southsward. It's been almost twelve seasons since we last saw him .. but you can't expect much."

The chieftain turned to Veil. "And speaking of Southsward .. do tell me. Why must you reach the city of a thousand lights? I don't believe you ever told me."

Veil looked down. "I .. well .. to put it simply, I had a dream."

Mizzah paused. "A dream, son? What sort of dream?"

Veil didn't know if Mizzah was going to believe him, but he shrugged. "Lord Ignasa .. he appeared to me. He told me I hold a secret, and to find it, I must journey to the city of a thousand lights. Then we found Cedric .. and .. it was almost like he was sent to us."

Zillah's voice was soft. "Young one .. Ignasa appeared to you in your dream?"

Veil nodded. "I don't know if you think I'm crazy now .. but .. he did."

Mizzah was smiling. "I do think you're crazy son .. and it's a good sort of crazy. And I believe you. I've believed a lot of crazy things .. that were nonetheless true."

Veil couldn't help his small smile that grew on his face .. even if it felt a little odd. "Thanks."

Annon broke in. "Forgive me .. but I thought you were accused of murder .. that I understand you did not commit. Why would those who you lived with, accuse one who is close enough to Ignasa to see him in a dream?"

Veil sighed. Esther laid a paw on his shoulder, stating, "It was .. very strange, all of it."

Fripple looked up. "It was the monocles .. those awful things."

Mizzah raised an eyebrow. "By monocles you mean something to aid vision?"

Veil shuddered, recalling how his vision had been aided when he'd looked through one. "They are .. and .. they are wicked! I looked through one .. and everything turned .. dark. Evil."

Annon blinked. "Father, remember the young weasel who came through our camp months ago? She had those eye-pieces .. and she tried to give you one."

Mizzah made a face. "Oh her. Well I didn't like her or her looking-glasses."

Fripple broke in. "Sir, what did she look like?"

Annon answered. "Dark brown .. with light tan star and crescent marking. Black hair .. she almost looked like she had a faint mask of darker fur."

Veil started. "That's Xzanthia! But she said Bryony found those monocles in an old tree .. the trunk they were in looked ancient! She brought them with her?"

Mizzah took a bite of bread. "Apparently."

Veil put his head in his paws. "I should have known. I really should have known."

Mizzah started. "She made it all the way to Mossflower?"

Ivan was droll. "She did, sadly."




Chapter 12 The Path Ahead

Morning broke quietly over Mossflower, and the early summer sun's rays filtered through the trees into a certain little forest clearing.

Two creatures populated it, an oddly mismarked roan colt .. mostly white, and in direct contrast, a coal-black mouse maid. They were fast asleep, but as the sun rose, the colt awoke. He swiveled his ears around a little, before nudging the sleeping mouse maid curled up nearby. "Bryony, wake up."

She mumbled, rolling over. "Col'mbine go 'way .. t's too early .."

The colt sighed before poking her gently with a hoof. There was a groan in response. The colt rolled his milky blue eyes, before letting loose a whinny that made his companion jerk her head up. "W .. what?"

He sounded cheerful. "The day's wasting! It's time for us to get going on our insane journey to bring back Timbal and Sayna .. let's have breakfast, before something decides we're breakfast."

Bryony groaned. "You didn't sound so dismal last night, Glow."

Glow pulled up a mouthful of grass. "Reality hadn't manifested itself in full."

Bryony sighed, hauling herself to her feet. "You can eat grass .. lucky. What am I going to eat?"

Glow motioned to some bushes growing near the base of some trees. "Well .. I smell blackberries in that direction. You can eat those."

Bryony saw he had a point, and headed over to the berry bushes, picking one of the fruits and popping it into her mouth. It was a bit sour, but the mouse was hungry. She knelt, reaching under the bushes for the best berries .. after all, the birds were less likely to reach the ones near the ground.

She was picking her breakfast, when her paw brushed against something that felt like parchment. Bryony frowned, reaching further under the bush and drawing out a faded, stained piece of paper.

"Hey Glow!"

"Hmm?" The colt looked up from his breakfast.

Bryony blinked down at the parchment in her paws. "Guess what I found!"

"Can't."

Bryony rolled her eyes. "It's paper. With writing. Here, I'll read it to you, how's that?"

Glow nodded, showing he was fine with the idea. Bryony started reading, quickly growing surprised at the faded and occasionally smeared ink marks.


"It's officially been a day since we started our quest .. of course, you know it was my cousin's idea to journey to Salamandastron. If Veil wasn't around I wouldn't bother .. he's at least a decently kind and intelligent. The others, I am not sure about. At least for being intelligent. Today we met a very strange beast with the oddest demeanor, and I am not assured about how intelligent he is. He seems quite friendly, but acts a little funny sometimes .. as if he's not quite right in the head.

Of course, he is now travelling with us. You see, Veil had a dream this morning, that we should go to the city of a thousand lights. I looked it up for him, informing him the city of a thousand lights is another name for Southsward. They really shouldn't complain at having me with them, as they'd be totally confused without somebeast like me. Perhaps they will see their foolishness someday. I do hope so. We will be traveling with Cedric now, my cousin paid him seventy sheckles and her feather necklace my adopted great-uncle made. I wonder if Southsward has any libraries. It would certainly be nice.

Aubretia; Recorder .. (not the bookworm) "


Bryony and Glow looked at each other, blinking. Glow spoke first. "They went to Southsward?"

Bryony sighed. "I guess so .. and that's going to be a long journey."

Glow stared at her. "Are you kidding? Southsward sits at the edge of the western sea .. across the great desert! We'll never make it across the great desert! That's insane!"

Bryony was silent. Glow had a point .. they probably couldn't make it across a desert. But there was something .. something .. she still wanted to go! Against the face of logic .. her heart was determined. She bit her lip. "Glow .. we've got to go. I've got to. You .. don't have to. But Veil needs to know! He needs to see this riddle .. he needs to know what's happening at Redwall. He's going to be our hero! I've .. just got to bring him home!"

Glow just blinked at her, and she took a deep breath, heading for the edge of the clearing. "I'm going. Tell Luna or Bella or .. do what you like. But I'm going to do this!"

There was no real noise behind her, and Bryony felt her hope slump. Glow wasn't coming with her .. she faced her own stupid determination alone. The mouse straightened her shoulders, striding out of the clearing .. and about that second hoof beats rang out behind her. Bryony smiled widely as Glow caught up. "You're coming?"

"Somebody's got to keep an eye on over-ambitious beasts of thirteen seasons, I suppose." Was the grumbling .. yet honest answer.

><><

Fripple's eyes were on her opponent, calculating his every move. Cedric wasn't sure he wanted to do this again .. but since when had he let anybeast best him without a fight?

The mouse dodged a saber slash, swiping his spear at Fripple's head. She ducked before he could even blink, swinging her weapon for his legs. Cedric leapt over the gleaming blade, trying to disarm Fripple in the same movement.

His spear blade clashed against her saber's paw guard, knocking her arm back .. and at that second he felt her tail yank his paws out from under him!

Cedric collapsed to the sand of their makeshift arena, spear falling out of reach. Fripple's saber blade came to rest on his shoulder, and triumphant blue eyes met his gaze. "I won. Care for a rematch?"

Cedric found it a little irritating she always seemed to beat him, and he didn't exactly answer her question. He pushed her blade away. "Only because of your tail, Princess."

Mizzah's laugh rang from nearby. "All is fair in war, nephew."

The jerbilrat nodded to Fripple. "Quite a remarkable trick that .. I'd ask you to teach me, but I haven't the tail."

Fripple laughed amiably. "That's just my genetics .. you should see what my father can do."

Mizzah nodded. "Indeed, I would like to someday. You had great speed .. great determination and a great trick .. but you were slightly lacking in strength when Cedric was able to knock your paw backwards. Just a little something to improve on, dear."

Fripple nodded, and Cedric was a little surprised she didn't argue about this. His uncle turned to him. "As for you .. you did very well too. You just need to be faster .. if she's used that trick on you before, why didn't you keep an eye out for it?"

Cedric felt defensive. "I can't keep track of everything!"

Mizzah grabbed his paw, pulling him onto his feet with a wink. "Then you should be glad Fripple isn't your enemy."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Who says I'm not?"

Mizzah smiled, despite Cedric's hurt look. The jerbilrat shrugged. "Something deep down .. it's not often wrong."

Before Fripple could reply, Mizzah turned to Veil, Ivan, and Esther, the later having a hard time to keep from giggling. The jerbilrat pointed to the rapier in Veil's paw. "Would you duel me, son?"

Veil looked a little uncertain, but shrugged. "Yes sir .. if that is your wish."

Mizzah smiled, motioning to Ittai. "It is. General, bring me my sword."

Veil stepped into the ring, as Fripple called. "Show him how a Redwaller fights Veil .. you can do it!"

Esther clapped her paws. "If anybeast can, it's Veil!"

Veil looked a little shamefaced at their praise as Mizzah came forward, slender longsword ready. "Apparently you're the best, son?"

Veil shrugged. "I .. guess we'll find out, sir."

Mizzah raised his weapon. "Indeed. On guard!"

The jerbilrat moved with such grace that his weapon seemed a part of him, and Veil seemed clumsy in comparison. The two blades met in a resounding clash of steel, and it soon became apparent Mizzah was a master of swordplay. Veil might have been Groddil's best student, but his opponent still drove him back.

The ferret countered quickly however, as Mizzah gave him some pointers. "Blade up! Yes, like that! Now come in fast and hard .. caution is good, but only in measured amounts. Take risks .. yes! Yes, perfect!"

The jerbilrat praised his opponent as Veil advanced with a combination of flashing steel, forcing Mizzah to leap over his rapier. However the chieftain had his own tricks, and he dodged, smacking Veil gently in the side with the flat of his blade. "Got you. Now son, you're good. But focus on the small things .. when you see my blade come at you, don't hesitate to block it. Try again."

Veil took a deep breath as Mizzah repeated the move he had used before. This time the ferret wheeled to meet the blade, exploding the morning silence with another clash. Veil moved in, getting more aggressive.

Mizzah was in his element, blocking, slashing and thrusting .. only to be thwarted each time. Veil was panting, but determined now.

The ferret slashed at Mizzah's head, leaping over the jerbilrat's blade as a strange determination seized his heart.

He must win .. he must! It was a strange and foreign feeling .. and yet it was familiar in a way. He'd felt such competitiveness rise in him before, when training. He could never say why. It was like an echo of something .. something that whispered to his heart, telling him he must always be victorious.

He couldn't hear anything but the clash of steal, nor see anything but Mizzah .. it was almost like insanity was gripping him.

There was a fuzzy yell, before he felt his sword fly from his paw with a resounding sting, and he fell hard on his back. The jolt cleared his head, and he blinked dully up at Mizzah, who was looking at him with concern. "Are you alright, son?"

Veil shook himself. "Yea .. I think so. What happened?"

Mizzah wiped a little sweat from his brow. "Wish you'd told me you had a crazy streak before I offered to duel you."

Veil was confused .. all he could remember about the last few seconds was a rush of strength, power, and determination. "What do you mean .. like Bloodwrath?"

Mizzah shook his head. "Not Bloodwrath .. I don't think it would even turn into true Bloodwrath .. your eyes weren't red at all. But it is akin to that. I don't think you had true control over your own sword .. or your own strength. You know it not."

Veil looked down. "I'm sorry sir."

Mizzah grasped his paw, pulling his onto his feet. "No need to be sorry son. Such a gift, used for Lord Ignasa, is a mighty and noble thing indeed. Just remember who you fight for .. not for yourself, but for your lord."

Veil nodded. "Thank you sir ... I'll remember."

Mizzah nodded, turning to Esther. "My dear, I would like to see your mastery of the bow as well .. my son Annon loves the weapon, and is our best bowbeast. Would you challenge him to a short tournament?"

Esther looked around, as Catkin poked her, squealing, "Ohhh do it! You can shoot anything!"

The ermine looked a little happy at her friend's praise. "Well .. ok. I'll give it a try, sure!"

><><

Morning at Redwall was far from peaceful, even if it looked that way. Xzanthia and Mayberry walked the length of Great Hall toward Cavern Hole, the otter talking. "Did you hear? Martin thinks we have another poisoner .. and it's Bryony! Only nobeast can find her now!"

Xzanthia nodded. "I heard .. in fact that's why my face is scratched. I tried to stop her."

Mayberry was horrified. "She did that to you? Bryony? But I never would have thought she could hurt a fly!"

Xzanthia looked regretful. "Yes .. I didn't either. Looks can be ever so deceiving."

Mayberry nodded. "Terribly! I never would have guessed .. it's dreadful! And where is Bryony, that's what I'd like to know .. planning more poisoning?"

Xzanthia shuddered realistically. "I don't even like to think .. it's probably horrible! What if she poisons all our food .. or tries to kill the leaders! What if she was working with Veil .. what if they plan to come back and kill us all!"

Mayberry was surprised. "You know she left?"

Xzanthia backtracked quickly, realizing she might have said too much. "Well no. But it's very likely."

Mayberry was in agreement. "Yes .. yes it is. And did you hear about how Ash is sick?"

Xzanthia covered for herself quickly. "I did .. and isn't it strange that somebeast should start acting ill the very night a new poisoner runs away?"

Her otter companion wasn't afraid of gossip. "No .. you don't think Bryony could have .. done something to her?"

Xzanthia ducked her head. "Well .. I don't know anything for sure .. but .."

Mayberry gasped. "No I think you're on to something! This is terrible .. Bryony of all beasts .. she was such a young, friendly beast .."

The otter broke off, adding, "Of course .. she was .. weird. She wasn't always honest .. and she liked Luke too .. you know liked him. And she's only thirteen .. she's too young for that. Besides .. Xzanthia .. sometimes I don't think she's even really .. a mouse."

Xzanthia looked honestly surprised. "What? Why wouldn't she be?"

Mayberry looked around, before whispering, "Haven't you noticed? Her tail is long .. long like Fripple's. And everyone knows the princess is one fourth rat."

Xzanthia chose to play along. "No .."

Mayberry nodded, as if she knew a marvelous piece of gossip. "Oh yes. And they both have a rotten streak .. wouldn't you know. It's what comes from being part rat .. the filthy, wicked things that they are. Hmph. It should be outlawed .. gives goodbeasts a bad name."

><><

Rose hadn't felt well since she'd nearly died from poisoning .. she was only starting to feel herself in the last few days.

As she made her recovery, she could tell something about Martin was .. off. Something about Redwall was off.

Martin was acting over protective and short tempered .. reckless, quick to accuse .. he never acted like this!

Oh but he did .. once.

Rose paused at the voice in her head. Yes .. that was true. Martin was acting like he was sixteen again!

"Just like before the battle of Marshank .. but .. why?" Rose muttered to herself as she washed some dishes.

Why would the mature, nearly forty season old Martin act like his immature, quickly angered self? Rose was getting a little irritated with her husband .. and also concerned. She wished she could find a way to show him how he was acting .. but he seemed blind to it, even when she tried to make him see.

Rose set the dishes down. "Why won't he listen to me? If only he would .. he always did before."

She paused at her own voice. Before what? But the weeks after her near-death were so blurry and vague!

Luke walked in at this second, smiling at her before entering the pantry and rummaging around. Rose followed him, asking, "Luke .. son, would you mind talking with me a bit? Or do you have somewhere to be?"

Luke came out, nibbling on a scone. He shrugged. "I .. guess. Yea .. what do you want mother?"

Rose crossed her arms. "Before I was almost poisoned .. what happened? Do you remember?"

Luke brushed some crumbs off his distinctly freckled white muzzle. "Oh. Yes .. that little wearet, Xzanthia came. And then she and Bryony found those monocle things in a tree. But that night .. yea. Those are the only things I really remember before .. sorry mother."

Rose smiled at him. "No, it's fine. That gives me enough to think on for the time .. where's your father?"

Luke pointed to the abbey building as he ran his paw through his shock of reddish gold headfur. "In there."

Rose frowned. "Luke .. do you find the way he's been acting recently .. odd?"

Luke paused, before shrugging. "A little. But he's really stressed right now, you know?"

Rose thought for a moment, deciding not to confide in her son .. he couldn't always keep a secret. He liked keeping the peace more. She smiled wanly. "That must be it. Thank you Luke."

><><

The morning desert sun slanted down over Mizzah's camp, and the small group of creatures gathered near two targets .. each at least forty yards away.

Annon was the favored contestant among the watching jerbilrats, although Mizzah just watched with interest. Esther could tell the tribe thought she would lose, and her green eyes grew even more determined as Annon's friends encouraged him to 'beat the northerner good'.

Cedric remained neutral. Veil wasn't sure who would win either .. after all, he'd never seen Annon in action.

Ittai clapped his paws together. "Alright, stand here, both of you."

He scuffed a line in the sand with his footpaw, as he stated, "Annon knows the drill, but I'll tell you how it's done miss. We won't move the targets back, because this is to be a short contest. Six arrows determine the round. Whoever hits dead center more wins. Understood, miss?"

This was directed to Esther, who nodded as she stepped up to the line in the dirt. Ittai stepped back, stating, "Alright .. have at it."

Esther pulled an arrow from her quiver, loaded it, and drew back to her cheek. Total silence reigned for a moment, before the ermine's arrow left her bow with a whistle .. half a second later it hit the target with a 'thunk'.

Annon coolly loaded his bow, drawing back with seasoned expertise. He held the bow back for a few seconds, before another arrow hit a target.

Veil stared across the distance, trying to discern whose shot was better. It was near impossible. Esther and Annon both paused this time, each waiting for the other to shoot. When neither moved, they glared at each other a moment .. before Annon snorted, loading his bow and drawing it.

The contest continued in this manner, slow, steady, and expertly. Esther pulled the last arrow with precision, and the thunk of it hitting the target was an odd 'thwack'. Fripple gave Veil a look, stating, "She split an arrow."

Veil nodded as Ivan added, "Not surprising."

Ittai motioned Annon and Esther follow him as he made his way to the targets. Mizzah turned to Veil. "Your friend shoots as well as she picks pockets."

Veil nodded in absent agreement, before his ears shot up in surprise. "What? How .. um .. how did you figure that one out?"

Mizzah smiled. "A gut feeling. She has a thief's roving eye."

Veil sighed, and the chieftain added, "Not to say, that she doesn't have her good sides. She's an unpolished jewel .. someday you'll see a better beast standing in her place, son. Don't give up on her."

Veil shrugged. "Why would I? She's not perfect .. but she was there when I needed it most."

Mizzah's headscarf shaded his face, but Veil could have sworn the jerbilrat looked knowing. "The mark of a true friend, indeed."

Star stuck her head over Veil's, stating, "They've been down there awhile .. who won?"

Mizzah patted the horse's nose. "That's what they're trying to find out, miss."

Fripple stared at the targets, stating, "Esther's shot a leaf in half while it was blowing in the wind .. I don't know about Annon though."

Mizzah smiled. "Oh, my son can shoot. Of course, it wouldn't be bad for 'the northerner' to take him down a notch. He's just a little cocky about his skill with the bow .. he didn't think Esther could win."

At this moment the contestants returned, and Veil asked, "Who won?"

Ittai pointed at Esther. "This one .. by one lucky shot."

Esther shrugged. "And I flayed an arrow on top of it .. that was the best shot ever!"

Annon nodded to her. "I underestimated you, Esther. You are a worthy opponent."

He held out his paw, and Esther hesitated, before shaking it. "Thank you sir .. it was fun too!"

Mizzah nodded. "Well done, both of you. There is one more thing I would like to see .. my nephew!"

Cedric looked up, asking warily, "Yes uncle Mizzah?"

The jerbilrat crossed his arms. "I heard you were training the filly here .. and I would like to see. Show us, would you?"

A slow grin spread across Cedric's face, but Star groaned. "Oh no, not that!"

Mizzah laughed, pointing at the horse. "Oh come, come miss .. you may have need of what Cedric teaches you. Who can tell?"

Cedric walked over to the horse, adding, "Right, listen to him! If you don't believe me, there's your second opinion."

Star flattened her ears, snorting. "Huh. You guys really want to kill me, don't you? Well I hope you're sorry when I die. Fine."

Cedric patted her shoulder. "That's the spirit Munch! Now, come on. Don't you want to show Uncle Mizzah what you've learned?"

The horse held still as Cedric vaulted onto her back with no more than a pawfull of ebony mane. She looked less than excited as the mouse clapped his legs gently on her sides, but she sprang into a prancing walk .. mostly to see how much she could throw her rider about.

Cedric hung on without batting an eyelash. He urged his mount to greater speeds, smiling a little as she broke into a smooth trot. "Good Munch ... now lope! Come on, in a circle like we've done before."

Star tossed her head in annoyance, but did as she was told. Sand flew from her hooves, and Cedric ordered, "Alright stay like that, keep going until I say."

The mouse put a paw on Mystiquestar's neck, smoothly transitioning from sitting to kneeling. He stayed like this for a few seconds, before sitting back down, grabbing Star's mane and ordering, "Sliding stop, and rear."

Star rolled her eyes, but dug her hooves into the sand, sending it flying, before she rocked onto her back legs and did a half-hearted rear. Her front feet came thumping down to earth, and Cedric slid off with ease. He shook his head. "Good except for that rear. Focus .. go up, come back down as light as a feather."

Star complained. "But that's hard!"

Cedric shrugged. "It improves your strength .. stretches you out too. Just do it Munch .. here."

He held forth a carrot, which Star took with a bit of aloofness, showing she hadn't forgiven him. Mizzah however, was slightly more impressed. "You do have a few talents nephew, I will say. Well done, both of you. Though I will reinforce what Cedric says about the rear, miss."

Star finished her carrot with a crunch, before sighing. "Yea .. I guess I'll try harder."

Mizzah nodded as he turned to Veil. "Son, you may wonder why I insisted to see what you all could do. Why I made you wash the sheep and show me your skills. In truth, while you have learned a lesson about not leading jackals into a sheep-herder's flock, that was not the main reason. From the first time you told me you were headed to the city of a thousand lights, I was concerned about you .. Southsward is not for the faint of heart. But you have proven to me your mastery and strength of character, and as long as you stay together, you should be alright. I haven't been in Southsward for seasons .. I do not greatly wish to go again. I am not a beast that can live in a creature-filled city, I am made to roam the desert with it's open, wild freedom. May Ignasa watch over you in your travels, and do not forget to look to him. Fair winds to you all."

He smiled. "You've touched an old wanderer's heart with your .. amusing ways and friendship. I would that we meet again someday."

Veil had been thinking of leaving for the last few days, but he only now realized Mizzah had turned from his captor to his mentor, almost. "Thank you sir .. and thank you for what you've taught us."

Mizzah's eyes twinkled. "I'll see you're resupplied, and I'll give you a map .. a copy of my map. Stay the night with us .. and leave early tomorrow. You have another near two week journey before you."

><><

Dusk fell over the desert in a dark haze, littering the bases of the dunes in shadows. Cedric sat in the waning light outside the group's storage tent, replacing the leather tie on one of his spear's heads.

The rustle of paws didn't really interrupt his thoughts, for he wasn't thinking on much. Mizzah's voice, however, succeeded in making him jump slightly. "Your friends nephew .. they're the right sort of friends."

Cedric shrugged. "Well .. I wouldn't call them my .. friends."

Mizzah raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what would you call them?"

Cedric didn't look up from his work. "My employers. After all, my job is to take them to Southsward."

Mizzah nodded. "Aye, and see that you get them there."

Nothing was said for a moment, before Mizzah sat down a few paces away, stating, "Cedric, I'm not saying you're the greatest beast. But I may have misjudged you at first."

The reddish furred mouse looked slowly up, as his uncle continued. "Your mother .. my sister .. I am not terribly proud to call her family. You have a chance to make me want to call you such, nephew."

Cedric let his headfur fall in his eyes, as he muttered, "Mother .. wasn't all bad. Not all that good, maybe .. but she did give her life to save me from the slavers."

Mizzah said nothing for a while, before sighing, "So she's truly dead. Yes, I figured so."

Cedric didn't answer, until his uncle spoke again. "Perhaps I should have taken you in when I first learned .. that you existed. You wouldn't have had such a hard life."

Cedric sighed. "I was ten seasons by then .. I already had a job .. and I knew what I wanted. I wanted to race. And race I did."

Mizzah watched the sun set, asking, "Why did you want to so badly?"

His nephew shrugged. "The speed. The thrill .. the danger .. the freedom. The importance and fame and glory. I just fit the life, you know?"

Mizzah nodded slowly. "I see. And if you loved it so, why did you quit?"

Cedric paused, opened his mouth .. and then shut it. "I'd rather not talk about it Uncle Mizzah."

Mizzah said nothing for a few minutes, before he grabbed hold of Cedric's paw and dropped something in it. "Take this, it may someday help you find your way if you are lost."

The chieftain stood, ordering, "You look out for your employers, they need you, and you need them. And besides .. you like one of them."

Cedric looked up, before smirking, "Oh Princess? Well she doesn't like me .. not very much anyway."

Mizzah shrugged as he walked off. "She doesn't know the real you either, does she?"

He left his nephew to watch in confusion for a moment, before looking down at what he'd given him. It was a little circular sun dial, the points of direction engraved each in it's proper place.

Cedric smiled slowly as he dropped his uncle's gift in his satchel .. apparently he was forgiven.




Chapter 13 Deliver Us

ASC Chapter 13

Glow and Bryony at the edge of the great desert :3

The soft aurora of Southsward's lights cast long and dreary shadows in the great palace, the alabaster pillars staining the main hall with long splashes of darkness.

Two living shadows made their silent journey through pools of both light and dark, one taller than the other. They stopped directly before the double, iron enforced doors that led down the stairs to the courtyard. A window cast surreal light in the spot they stood, and the taller figure let her tattered brown cloak fall away, revealing jet black fur and the glint of metal at her side. "Kensly, do I look myself in any way?"

The other beast shook his head, adjusting his tattered robe. "No milady, you look like a poor commoner .. and to add to it, you're black. The Lady of Southsward is spotted and tortishell, not soot black."

Lilly smiled a little, tightening her belt around the waist of her torn, plain dress. "Alright then. Lead the way Kensly."

The mouse nodded, slipping through the courtyard doors, Lilly close behind. The two made their way down the ghostly white marble stairs, and down into the fountain-graced arbor like yard. Kensly didn't bother trying to leave by going out the gilded front gates, instead he slipped past a graceful trellising ivy, and headed for a side door.

Lilly followed him and the rabbit stopped when he did. The mouse held up a paw. "Listen milady .. there is a small guard hidden all the way around this palace .. Swartt's creatures. Of course .. there are not so many as at first. He thinks we are helpless and will not resist him."

Lilly curled her lip in disgust, but sighed. "Yes .. well. I suppose that's best."

Kensly pulled out a small key, inserting it in the door's lock and turning it with a soft click. He pushed it open a cautious crack, letting Lilly slip out as he relocked the palace door.

Night in Southsward may have filled with lights, but the great palace cast a dark shadow. Kensly seemed to know where he was going, and he made hardly a sound as he murmured, "We're going to pass between two guards .. they aren't in sight of each other. Still, go softly, milady."

Lilly nodded to show she understood, before the two beast slipped softly through a hedgerow, down through a small garden, and finally to the softly lit cobblestones of a street flanked by wealthy manors. Lilly moved to step onto the road, but Kensly laid a paw on her shoulder. "Don't milady, you no longer look as though you belong."

The rabbit paused, before following her chief guard along the roadside, in the shadows. "Where are we going?"

Kensly didn't turn around. "I'd take you to the central marketplace, but we would have to pass too close to the slave yards for my liking."

Lilly caught up with him. "The slave yards? But the slave trade's headquarters were on the seaward side near the docks!"

Kensly sighed. "No longer. Shroud has set up multiple markets here and there, and to be sure, he has them near the docks. But his biggest export is near the central marketplace .. he draws buyers from everywhere. Foreigners and the wealthy."

Lilly curled her lip. "I needn't ask if the poor end up as the ones being sold, I assume."

Kensly nodded. "You assume correctly. Though not in full .. galleys that stop here find it a good place to discard their washed-up rowers .. after all, why kill a beast if one can get half a sheckle for him?"

Lilly stared hard at his back. "And they use my seal to authorize this .. as if I approved?!"

Kensly stiffened. "Yes .. they do."

"When did this start Kensly? Why didn't you tell me sooner?" Lilly was a little irate.

The mouse sighed. "It's been gradual. When I found your seal on the race edict, I brought it to your attention instantly. But it's been almost two weeks .. and things get worse by the day. That day was the first I'd really started seeing it .. their takeover is almost totally complete."

Lilly sighed. "The only reason Swartt hasn't killed me and taken up residence in my palace is because he wants to see these changes settle in. Once he has the citizens thoroughly enraged with me, he'll slay me and take the city .. and they won't stop him. Because I'm certain he'll tell them how much better a ruler he will be, and he'll play the hero. Oh yes .. I see how it is."

Kensly didn't look up, nor did he have to. Lilly took a deep breath. "Where are we, exactly?"

The street they stood on was not overly wealthy, but it was far from the poor, dirty corners of Southsward. It was abandoned too, except for an old beggar standing slumped against a wall. Lilly frowned .. something wasn't right .. a beast of that class and dress would be begging in a marketplace where beasts would see them .. and they wouldn't live here.

Lilly cast a glance at her cloak, shrugging inwardly. Well .. they looked just like that poor beast ..

Suddenly her eyes widened. They looked just as poor and out of place .. but they were in disguise! The rabbit reached out, grabbing her knight's shoulder. "Kensly, wait! Don't you think .."

It was too late. The 'beggar' jumped up, drawing a spear and revealing he was a dirty brown weasel. Lilly met his gaze, expecting to see hate .. but oddly, she saw hesitation, almost regret .. and yet fear of something greater than he that drove him on. "Mates, looks like we got us some new slaves!"

><><

Sultry summers in Mossflower would seem like the north wind after this adventure, Veil thought silently. That is .. if he could ever go home.

"Lord Ignasa .. how is this going to work? I'm a wanted criminal, supposedly."

There was no immediate answer to the ferret's unspoken, questioning plea, and he hung his head.

Veil felt like a roasted ferret, it had been nearly two weeks of dirty, hot, and thirsty travels. Each morning the sun came up in a glorious arch, banishing the chilly night and soon turning the desert into an oven. The sun was hot overhead, and the sand reflected it's burning intensity. There was no escape from it, and the lukewarm water had to be rationed sparingly.

The grainy sand was in everything that touched it. Blankets, head scarves, clothing, boots .. Veil had gotten used to itching.

Mystiquestar trotted past the ferret, whinnying laughingly at Cedric, trying to keep up with her. The horse vanished over a sand dune, and Cedric came to a panting stop. "That's .. what .. a .. hot .. guy .. like .. me .. gets for .. being .. nice, and .. trying .. to .. teach you .. something .. Munch .."

Veil glanced at the mouse. He most certainly did look overheated. Cedric groaned. "Will you tell that .. horse to .. settle down your .. highness .."

Veil rolled his eyes as Fripple plodded past. "It's your fault you know. She got tired of your insufferable flirting .. ukk."

Cedric stood up straight, countering. "And what's insufferable about that, Princess? Why can't you girls get it through your heads that I'm flattering you? Girls like to be flattered!"

Fripple glared at him. "I don't. Because it's as good as lying. And it's stupid. Can't you get past how a beast looks? Who cares how they look? What matters is what's on the inside .. that's the real test."

Cedric stared at her a moment, before turning to Veil. "Would you listen to this your highness? I have never met a beast with ideals like Princess."

Veil felt a twinge of irritation at the mouse. "She's right. What a beast can see is far from all there is."

Cedric said nothing for a minute, before he gave Fripple an irritated glance, "So I'm to assume you don't care about how I look?"

Fripple nodded. "Quite right, I don't."

Veil felt a small smirk grow on his face from how offended Cedric looked. The mouse didn't seem to know how to answer, he finally crossed his arms, complaining in an injured tone, "Well .. what do you want anyway, huh Princess?"

Fripple opened her mouth to say something, before she paused. "What kind of a question is that?"

Aubretia had caught up to them. "According to my calculations, he wants to know what he would have to act like for you to appreciate him."

Fripple raised an eyebrow as Star returned, asking rather cheerfully, "Oh, you gave up huh? I won!"

Cedric glared at her, not in the mood. Ivan walked up, stating, "There's a nice outcrop of rocks ahead."

Cedric seemed fine with the distraction. "We'll stay the night there. Come on."

Veil followed the mouse to the top of the large dune they were on, noticing instantly the sandstone arch and nearby towering boulders silhouetted against the setting sun. The ferret sighed in some relief as a cooling breeze whipped across the dune tops. They weren't far from the outcrop .. food, a drink, and a night's rest.

The wind was picking up, and Veil didn't think any of them were very sorry. Star ran on ahead, jumping into the arch's shadow. Her voice floated back to them. "Come on you guys, it's great in here!"

It was a few moments before they reached the horse, walking into the cave-like outcrop. It was dark and cool here, though the wind made a ghostly keening as it sifted through clefts in the rock. Ivan laid his flail and mace near the base of a sizable ledge, and the sound echoed about the place. Cedric came in last, frowning. Veil thought he might still be grousing about the earlier conversation, but his words made it clear this was not so. "I don't like the looks of the weather."

Fripple raised an eyebrow. "Why not? It's cooler with the wind."

Cedric crossed his arms. "It's wind, and it's picking up .. in the desert, that's just a recipe for a sandstorm."

Esther looked confused. "What?"

Aubretia spoke out. "According to my previous research, sandstorms are caused by heavy wind conditions in arid regions with loose soils .. excessive exposure can lead to asphyxiation and .. "

Fripple broke in. "That's wonderful."

Ivan agreed .. drolly. "Indeed. Do you think we'll have one?"

Veil listened to the growing, whistling wind, and he didn't like to think about it very much. The ferret pushed past Cedric .. who was giving Ivan, Fripple, and Aubretia a glare .. and walked to the cave's entrance.

Cedric followed him, stating, "You better not .."

Veil wasn't really listening. The wind was coming from the west, and the cave's mouth faced northeast. Veil stepped out, wincing as gritty wind lashed across his face. A glance to the west was sufficient .. a towering cloud of wind-lashed sand was rapidly approaching .. it was totally frightening .. and yet awe inspiring in the same moment.

Cedric's voice came from nearby. "It's a small one .. we should be fine .. just get back in here, ok?"

Veil blinked a little stupidly for a second, as Cedric yanked his arm. "Come on! You want to get hit by it?"

The ferret nodded, hurrying back into the cave. "We've got one on the way .. it's huge!"

Catkin sighed. "Oh dear .. I did hope it wouldn't. It's not going to make us very happy!"

Cedric shook his head. "Don't bother about being happy Sunshine .. look, it's not as bad as you all might think. We've got shelter, and while we will get sandy and it'll be uncomfortable .. it's not like we're going to suffocate, ok? Let's just eat supper and have some rest. It'll have died down by tomorrow, and we'll keep on. Who knows? Maybe when the sands shift, we'll have a more direct route."

Catkin looked comforted, even as a blast of sand filled wind hit the mouth of the cave, scattering dust everywhere. The otter coughed, stating, "Well .. at least we can all be happy about that!"

Ivan was droll. "Completely."

><><

Lilly jumped as two more vermin slunk from the shadows. Kensly took a step back as the three surrounded them, the weasel snarled, "Fighting will only make things worse rabbit."

Lilly held up a paw. "Get away from us, before you suffer the wrath of the queen!"

Kensly clapped a paw to his mouth as Lilly realized her mistake .. but the weasel did not catch it. "Oh give up, the queen stays in 'er palace all day, she don't do nothing anymore. It's not like she's gonna help you."

Lilly snarled as he reached for her arm, and she drew her elegant longsword. "Get away, or taste my blade!"

The weasel stared at her sword in wonder, as the sound of Kensly drawing steel was heard from behind her. Lilly feinted a thrust, growling, "Give up .. get out while you have your miserable life!"

The weasel lashed out with his spear, snarling, "Yer outnumbered liddle rabbit .. don't know where ya stole that sword, but I'll be takin' it!"

Lilly parried his spear thrust as the clash of metal was heard behind her. "I will kill you weasel .. Leave while you have your life!"

The creature was in no hurry to flee from a rabbit, and he showed it with a sneer. "Oh, you really think I'm scared of a you, liddle missy?"

He leapt back as her sword tip grazed his chest. "Get away from here!"

The weasel's eyes darkened as there was a strangled cry from nearby, and it didn't sound like Kensly. He brought his spear at Lilly's head with deadly swiftness, but she ducked, slashing at his legs with deadly accuracy.

The weasel tried to jump over her blade, but it tore across the side of his foot, splattering blood on the ground. The creature staggered back, pain written on his face. Lilly paused .. and regretted it as her opponent lashed out with his spear, the blade connecting with her left shoulder!

The rabbit couldn't help a scream, but she didn't loose her head, and swung with her right.

The weasel collapsed with a gasp as her blade tore into his leg, staining the cobblestones red. Lilly panted, the pain beginning to grow in her shoulder as her enemy growled tightly, "Well? Ya gonna kill me or ain't ya?"

Kensly broke in, grabbing Lilly's good arm. "We've got to get out of here milady .. come on! More will come soon!"

Lilly pulled away, groaning, "But .. he is one of them!"

There was a faint shout from the far end of the street. Kensly grabbed his queen's arm again, dragging her away. "There's no time .. run! Run for your life .. our lives .. and all of Southsward .. please milady!"

Lilly found herself bolting with him, the sudden terror of being caught by slave traders giving her strength. Kensly let go of her arm to stay in front of her, panting, "The palace .. they .. won't follow us there .."

Lilly's paws dug into the sparse roadside grass, the palace was clear in their sights .. they really hadn't gotten far at all. However it was still agonizing .. and they would still have to get through the guard!

Kensly started to slow down, but the sounds of their pursuers drove him on. He jumped through the garden's hedgerow, Lilly behind .. before she felt a foreboding tug on her tattered cloak.

She didn't pause, nor look behind herself, just jerked away in total desperation. There were shouts as the two bolted through the place the guards were near, but they didn't stop .. for the little door was in sight. Kensly pulled the key from his raggedy tunic, as Lilly gasped, "We'll never .. get it open .."

Kensly didn't answer, just sprinted with what was likely the last of his strength. He leapt at the door, slamming against it .. and it swung open.

Lilly couldn't even pause to marvel at this, she heard steel being drawn behind her. She jumped at the open doorway, tripping on the steps .. and something grabbed her.

She found herself jerked through the open doorway, and heard the door slam behind her as she reeled to the floor. Lilly gasped in agony as searing pain lanced up her arm, shoulder, and neck. Now she could feel the warm, sticky sensation running down her back and side. She glanced at her dress .. to see it had turned crimson. Zarya's voice came from nearby, filled with worry. "Lilly, are you alright?"

The rabbit looked up dully, groaning, "He .. got me .. worse than I .. thought .. "

She collapsed onto her wounded shoulder, unable to sit up, and reality swam .. falling into endless darkness.

><><

Swartt was in a terrible temper, it was truly frightening. "What? You idiot! Scound, one rabbit and a mouse killed two of the slavers and almost cut your leg off? What are you trying to pull?"

Scound's world was complete agony, which only increased as Swartt pulled him onto his mangled paw, sharp claws sinking into his shoulder. "I asked. What really happened weasel?"

Scound didn't know he could speak anymore, but he managed to. "Lord Sixclaw ... I ain't lyin ..."

Swartt flung him away, snarling, "I can increase your pain tenfold if you lie once more!"

Scound fell to the ground, feeling darkness flood over him as a different voice spoke out. "Lord Sixclaw, he speaks the truth. He was only carrying out your orders."

Scound didn't have the strength left to even look up, but he knew the voice of captain Muggra. Swartt snarled at the other weasel. "Well, then, you tell me! What really happened?"

Muggra shrugged. "A black rabbit .. or small hare, and a brownish mouse in poor commoner's clothing were confronted near the palace. When Scound tried to take them as slaves, they drew steel and were skilled in the art of it. Wildag was badly injured .. he's dying .. and the other beast was killed."

Swartt was giving Muggra a look of great suspicion, as if he did not believe him. "And these two were taken into custody, soundly beaten, and given to Shroud?"

Muggra tried not to flinch. "No Lord .. they went into the palace and escaped."

Swartt wheeled around. "What?! You too? Both you fool's shall die on the rack before the dawn ..."

The ferret suddenly paused. "You said a black rabbit, was it?"

Muggra trembled at how silky Swartt's voice was. "Yes Lord Swartt."

Swartt's voice sounded like his teeth were clamped together. "And you say they went into the palace, Muggra?"

The weasel gulped .. the Pitiless One never used names. Not unless he was totally furious. "Milord, that is the truth."

The ferret's gauntleted six claw shot out, belting Muggra across the jaw. "It was that rabbit wench that sits on the throne .. you fools! General, see the guards on duty are executed for treason. Post a new guard, and a heavier one."

Swartt wheeled around, as Muggra asked .. in a muffled voice and albeit hesitantly, "Milord, what about captain Scound?"

Swartt turned back, sneering. "Oh yes .. that one. Well I don't want him cluttering my throne room ... take him to a healer, I suppose. If he lives, he can join the horde again .. either way, his days as captain are over."

Scound groaned as Muggra motioned to a nearby fox, rubbing his jaw. "Take him to the seer apprentices .. they're the healers down here."

><><

Swartt watched the fox drag Scound away none to gently, Muggra following quickly, a paw clamped to his jaw. There was no satisfaction even in causing a beast injury!

The warlord was more short tempered than usual, even though his greatest conquest was nearly complete. He wanted more .. ever more. As the demise of the south was fulfilled, it made it all the more clear .. Southsward was not enough.

"Is milord unhappy with his winnings?"

The voice was Nightshade's soft, alluring, and dangerous purr. Swartt glared at his hated partner's mate. "And what is it to you, eh vixen?"

Her green eyes twinkled at him from beneath long, dark lashes. "If the lord of the underworld isn't happy, are any of us?"

Swartt sneered. "Your sweetheart is."

Nightshade circled him, laughing gently, "Oh come, come, pay my foolish Shroud no heed. Why not heed me?"

Swartt folded his arms. "Stop trying to pacify me, I'm in a perfectly good humor! Now why have you come?"

Nightshade smiled. "I have a message for you .. from a vision of my sleep. Why else would I bother about your sepulcher this time of night? No."

Swartt was, in truth, in a very bad humor. "And how do you know it was for me? Why not for your dear mate?"

Nightshade rolled her eyes, never lessening her deadly charm. "Who else has six claws?"

Swartt looked more interested. "What was this dream?"

Nightshade laughed. "I knew you'd see it my way. I saw six claws, and they were small at first. But they grew, and then changed so they seemed to drip blood."

Swartt paused, looking down at his gauntlet. Nightshade broke in. "These claws were unhindered."

The ferret sneered at her. "Don't think that this hinders my paw. But say more. What else did you see?"

The vixen smiled. "Nothing more milord. I awoke."

Swartt snarled. "Aye, you would. And what do you say is the interpretation?"

Nightshade laughed. "Ahh, isn't it simple? It means another sixclawed ferret will shed blood .. and blood is as good as a conquest, when coupled with six claws. Your offspring is to be a mighty warrior."

Swartt stared hard at her. "My offspring, you say?"

Nightshade's voice was gentle. "Perhaps the son you seem to have forgotten exists?"

Swartt sneered. "Oh I haven't forgotten. But he is a child!"

Nightshade smiled. "The sooner a beast is trained, the better. My best apprentice began at four seasons, and well you know it."

She turned on her heel, a smile on her face. "It's never too early to start, you know."

><><

Veil woke slowly from a hardly restful sleep, blinking rather dry eyes open. Cedric was sitting near the front of the cave, and he looked up as Veil coughed. The mouse shrugged. "It's over."

Veil could see the outside was dark .. it must be early morning. Fripple suddenly sneezed, waking herself up. "Uhhg .. I hate sand .."

Ivan stretched on his rock ledge. "As do all of us."

He shot Cedric a droll look. "Most of us."

Cedric yawned, ignoring this comment. "The landscape is altered, though. I'm not sure which way to go."

Fripple stood up, sand showering from her dress-like tunic. "Oh you don't? You're supposed to know the way!"

Cedric countered. "Now Princess, this is the desert. Things change at will. I can find our way, I'm just not sure which direction is which right now. Once the sun rises, I'll figure this out."

He paused. "Or wait .. I can probably find out now, from the north star. If it has not yet set."

Veil sighed. "Why don't you .. that way we waste less traveling time."

Cedric shrugged, walking to the mouth of their spire-like shelter and out into the endless sand. Veil shook himself, deciding to follow as their guide's voice rang out. "It was blowing from the west .. I bet the other side of this arch has a nice slope leading up it."

Fripple walked out beside Veil, scowling, "It's been near two week of him leading .. sometimes I wonder if we're going in circles."

Ivan's voice came from behind them. "He does seem to know where the wells are."

Fripple grumbled. "Oh .. fine. But still. I don't trust him."

Whether Cedric heard them or not was unclear, for he didn't answer. Fripple caught up with him as he made his way around the base of the arch, quickly having to walk up a slope of sand. "And what about the jackals?"

Cedric was unconcerned. "They are evening hunters. It's likely five in the morning .. they're heading back to their dens."

Fripple shot him a suspicious glare, before asking, "What if one was hungry?"

Cedric sighed with longsuffering. "Now, now woodlander, you don't know the ways of the desert. You're just not one to talk."

Fripple gave him her silent glare of death, before dropping back beside Veil. "Oh .. he's so .. cocky! I can't stand him!"

Ivan's voice was pretty flat. "Why don't you ignore him then?"

Fripple was frustrated. "I can't ignore him! Ohh but you wait. I bet we will run into jackals."

Ivan nodded. "Your positive outlook inspires us all."

Veil decided to ignore Ivan and Fripple, and caught up to Cedric. "Look, do we have to be out here that long? What about the others, they'll wonder where we went ... by the way, where are we going?"

Cedric shrugged. "Up to the top of this arch. I'll be able to get my bearings from there. And Southsward cannot be far off .. perhaps we will see it in the distance. And the best time to see it is in the dark .. all the lights, you see."

Fripple had been listening. "I still think wandering about in the dark is a bad idea."

Cedric grinned at her. "Oh? Don't think you can stand up to jackals again? That's ok Princess, I'll protect you."

Fripple snarled dangerously. "I will protect myself, thank you. Watch me have to save your rotten hide."

Cedric paused, giving her an interested, flirting look. "You would do that?"

Fripple looked like she was at her wits end, and Veil decided to step in. "Alright, let's not fight among ourselves, it will get us nowhere."

Cedric shrugged, obviously not a bit sorry. "Yes your majesty. Now, we're almost to the top. let's take a look .. see where we are. How's that?"

Fripple growled in reply, running on ahead. Cedric snorted. "She sure gets worked up over the littlest things."

Veil felt a rush of sudden irritation. "Will you leave her alone? She doesn't like your teasing, so can't you just back off?"

Cedric raised an eyebrow .. a little challengingly. "Jealous, your majesty?"

Veil groaned. "Oh .. shut up. Ok? Just shut up. She's my friend. You don't even know what the word means. Friends stand up for each other. You can't understand that. Just leave her alone."

They had made it to the brink of the drifted sand pile, and Fripple was waiting for them. Cedric gave Veil a rather questioning look, before shrugging and walking over to the sloping side, where Fripple was staring across the sands in absolute wonder.

Veil joined them .. and he saw too.

Far off on the horizon, was an aurora of glittering, beautiful light. It sprawled along the edge of sight like a pool of liquid, twinkling gold, and near it, Veil thought he saw the shimmer of silver.

Cedric's voice was a little smug. "Well my charges .. there she is. Welcome to Southsward."

Veil couldn't help but stare. Never in his life had he seen as shocking a landscape as this. Cedric crossed his arms, a grin on his face. "They call it the city of a thousand lights for a reason. We'll be there by noon today, if we move. And you'll get to see green again too ... the great river flows from the southern mountains and into the sea .. straight through the heart of the city. It was built around it, you know."

Fripple blinked in wonder. "I've never seen so much light in one place."

Cedric smiled. "The main streets are never dark. Some say it's like magic .. that night dares not show its face and time stands still. Either way, it is a glorious sight. And even better when you're standing in the middle of it."

Ivan was practical, as usual. "A lot of beasts live there, to light all those lights."

Cedric laughed. "Oh yes .. indeed. But you'll see soon."

Veil tore himself away. "Let's get the others and take advantage of the night's cool. I want to get there as soon as I can."

He turned around, walking back the way he'd come .. and paused as his ears caught a low, foreboding growl. The ferret's paw reached for his sword, but he never got a chance to draw it. A heavy weight sent him reeling to the ground, breath knocked from his lungs, and searing pain shot up his left arm!

><><

Reality had changed drastically for Bryony, used to the sheltering abbey and never having to wonder if she would stay dry at night, or if she would have anything to eat. Glow did his best to help, though it wasn't such a shocking change to him. He'd spent a good amount of time out on the western flatlands, and he could eat grass.

It wasn't so easy for Bryony.

But she learned, as time went by. She had too. Foraging became harder as time went on, and the two left the familiar glades of Mossflower. Eating raw grains and mealy roots on the grasslands wasn't exactly Bryony's idea of food, but it was sustenance. Glow enjoyed the southern grasslands very much .. after all, Mossflower didn't have the odd .. and according to Glow .. tasty bluish grass that seemed to dominate the landscape.

So time had gone by. Day by day new wonders were to be had, from odd new insects and plants, to breathtaking crimson sunsets in the endless sky. Glow let Bryony ride him, and they made good time, following the fading trail of Veil and his friends.

As Mossflower fell behind, their campsites got messier; sometimes littered with an empty inkwell, broken quill pen, a makeshift target, a split arrow, or a forgotten trinket.

In fact one such trinket was good luck for Bryony, she found a short string of pearls .. Catkin's, most likely. The mouse maid thought to return them, but it occurred to her that she could trade them for food at the little towns she passed.

Now, as the sun dipped into the far off horizon in a splash of red and gold, Bryony and Glow came upon a ridge that overlooked the starkest and most awe inspiring sight she had ever seen.

A sea of sand spread before them, shockingly golden in the light of the setting sun. Bryony's voice was a soft, wistful sound. "We have to cross that?"

"It smells .. different. Nothing fragrant like grass or any vegetation .. just .. dust and heat." Glow's reply was not terribly comforting.

He paused, before asking, "Bryony, tell me. What does it look like?"

She shook her head. "Like a never-ending sea of pure gold .. like a stark land of beautiful .. death. It is a contradiction. How else can I say it?"

Glow's voice was amused, almost. "Quite poetic. I wish I knew what gold looked like .. but if it smells like heat .. I agree with you."

Bryony slipped off the horse's back, sandaled feet crunching in the mostly disintegrated remains of a fire. "They were here Glow!"

"I guessed." Glow never paused.

Bryony stared across the desert. "How do we get across .. that?"

Glow sniffed the air. "I smell smoke .. subtly. Is there a town somewhere nearby?"

Bryony scanned the foothills, eyes coming to rest upon a small stand of buildings in the waning light. "Yes! Yes Glow, you're right! Let's go there .. maybe someone will help us!"

The mouse maid swung up onto Glow's back, and he started down the hill, stating. "I don't know Bryony .."

"But there's always a chance!" Was her quick, and hopeful reply.

She hoped she was right.

><><

The well in Sirocco was in the small town square, and at this time, it was nearly abandoned. Not quite, however. A cream and dark brown jerbilrat stood by the old water source, drawing a bucket up from it.

He looked up as a small horse trotted into the sleepy town, white and orangey roan coat glistening ivory in the waning light. His rider was a striking black and gold mouse maid, proportionally as small among mice as he would be among horses. But she also looked very young.

However the thing that interested the jerbilrat the most, was her white and fuchsia dress, worn and stained from travel. However most certainly that of a northerner.

He hailed her as he set his pail down. "A traveler, I take it?"

She nodded, paused .. and suddenly blurted, "Have you seen a golden ferret come through here? With some other beasts as well?"

The jerbilrat's ears perked up at this. "Oh them? Oh yes, I've met them."

The horse spoke up, surprising their new acquaintance, for by his dull blue eyes the jerbilrat had assumed he was unintelligent. "We are looking for them .. we're their .. friends, I guess."

The jerbilrat slowly nodded. "Come with me .. I think you'd best speak to my father. My name is Annon, in case you wondered."

"Glowingsparks." The beast of that name supplied.

"And I'm Bryony." His companion added. "We're from Redwall Abbey .. and we've got to find Veil. It's dreadfully important!"

Annon blinked, sudden suspicion on his face as he continued walking. "He said the beasts of Redwall falsely accused him of murder and were planning to execute him ... but you can't be the search party .. can you?"

Bryony shook her head. "No .. oh no! Redwall is in awful trouble .. and there's this prophecy that only Veil can save us! So we've got to .. ummff!"

Glow slapped his tail in Bryony's mouth. "Hush! You're telling him everything!"

Annon had led them to the outskirts of town, and where a few tents stood like shadows at the edge of the last, sparse sprigs of grass. "Friends, if you are for the ferret and his companions, then you are friends of us. My father took a great shine to them, even after they drove jackals into our sheep herds .. he said their honesty was admirable. Speaking of which, do come in. I'm sure chief Mizzah will wish to see you."

Annon lifted the largest tent's flap, and Bryony dismounted, Glow following behind the two. Their jerbilrat guide nodded to a beast seated on a couch. "Father .. you'll never guess what I just found."

A tall, richly dressed male jerbilrat stood, asking, "What is it son?"

Annon motioned to his companions. "This is Bryony, and Glowingsparks. They're from Redwall abbey, and they're looking for our Veil!"

Mizzah raised an eyebrow. "Not to harm him, I would hope?"

Bryony shook her head. "No sir .. we need his help! This wearet called Xzanthia .. she .. well .. I found these monocles in a tree .. with her .. and we took them back and .. and Oh sir! I'm ever so sorry now .. and since I brought those awful things in .. I've got to fix this mess!"

Mizzah was looking concerned, and Glow spoke up. "Sir, the monocles have turned Redwall from a place a friendship to a place of war among former friends. It's .. a wreck."

Bryony shuddered. "Yes, and sir I saw .. that wearet Xzanthia .. she .. hexed .. Ash. I saw her! Ash was never mean to me! She always treated me like I was just as old as her, even if I was younger .. and now .. now Xzanthia framed me for helping Veil murder. But it wasn't Veil at all .. I found these gloves buried in the garden! It was her sir .. it was her and I know it!"

She held forth the one ragged glove for Mizzah's inspection, and the jerbilrat looked deathly serious as he examined the offending item. "This is a bad business, all of it. They accused you?"

Bryony nodded sadly. "I .. trusted them sir. Some were like my parents."

Mizzah laid a paw on her shoulder, returning the glove. "I understand. But tell me, how can Veil help you?"

Bryony dug in her satchel, exclaiming, "Because of this .. a prophecy."

She handed Mizzah the faded parchment, stating, "This sir, I found it in a Prophetess's house."

Mizzah raised an eyebrow as he read the script, his face slowly morphed into an expression of wonder. "Yes .. yes this is about him. It could not be for anybeast else .. who else has six claws but Veil?"

The jerbilrat gave his son a pointed look. "Annon, get Ittai. Tell him to choose five of his creatures to accompany us."

Annon looked surprised. "Yes father .. where are we going?"

Mizzah's eyes sparkled with new youth, almost. "To Southsward!"

><><

Veil tried to throw off what ever it was that had attacked him, but he didn't really get a chance to. The thing yipped and it's weight was torn from him by a steel mace.

Ivan pulled his brother to his feet, swinging his flail at a most unfortunate jackal. Fripple slashed into one of the wild dogs with her saber, yelling, "Cedric, you liar .. ahh!"

One of the creatures took a knick out of her left paw. Cedric slashed his spear across the beast's throat, answering, "I wasn't my fault Princess, they're normally asleep at this hour! The sandstorm must have thrown them off!"

Fripple dodged a charge, turning and burying her saber in the jackal's chest. Her sword was ripped from her paw, but two knives quickly replaced it.

Veil lashed out at one of the creatures with his rapier, beheading it in one swift cut. "There's less of them this time!"

Cedric stabbed an attacker from behind. "There's still too many for four!"

Fripple threw a knife, snarling. "Idiot! I told you this was a bad idea!"

"Veil!"

In the same second his name was called, something slammed lifelessly into him from behind, nearly knocking him over. The ferret caught himself, wheeling around to face his attacker, to find a dead jackal behind him, slain by a green fletched arrow.

Esther and Star came running, but Veil couldn't pay attention to them, he was forced to impale another attacker. However the jackals were backing up now, snarling balefully. Veil advanced, whipping his rapier at them. "Get out of here .. go, get out!"

Another arrow backed up his blade and the dogs turned tail .. not without a few challenging yips and angry snarls.

For a second, Veil was frozen, then he felt somebeast by his side.

"Veil, you're hurt!" Esther's voice was worried.

The rush of battle was flowing away now, and the ferret winced at the pain running up his left arm, he squinted at it in the morning dark, making out the splotch of sluggishly growing crimson. "Great ..."

Fripple yanked her saber from the dead jackal's chest, watching blood drip from it for a moment. She put her bleeding left fingers in her mouth, wincing ruefully. "He made sure I'd remember him .. but he won't do that again."

Star took a quick look at the gruesome plateau, asking, "What happened? Why'd you leave? Catkin and Aubretia are worried sick, Esther and I came to find you!"

Fripple pointed a bleeding paw at Cedric, growling in disgust. "He happened, what'd you expect?"

Cedric suddenly found himself the center of a rather angry attention. The mouse tried to make light of the situation. "Look .. it was a mistake .. everybeast makes mistakes! It wasn't my fault .. you wouldn't blame .. me!"

He found no immediate forgiveness in either Veil or Ivan's expressions. "Aww .. come on you guys, I didn't know! Princess .. Swipe .. Munch .. come on, you're not mad at me!"

Esther wasn't feeling terribly forgiving. "Veil's arm got bitten .. supposing he hadn't raised his arm? The jackal would have bitten him in the neck, and he might be dying!"

Star's blue eyes were accusing as she whinnied bad temperedly. "You're supposed to know the desert! We don't know it, but you do! We trusted you!"

Cedric pleaded with Fripple. "Princess .. it wasn't my fault! I mean .. really! I don't want you guys to get hurt, I promise! I wouldn't want that!"

Fripple's eyes smoldered with fury. "Why? Cause I'm cute? Cause Aubretia's cute? Cause Star's cute? Well you know something? I think you're a dirty traitor! You couldn't care less about Veil or Ivan!"

She took a breath, snarling, "All you care about is money and looks. I can't stand that! And you won't even admit it's your fault! I .. you're .. despicable."

She wheeled around, stomping back toward the cave in high bad humor. Cedric deflated, and Veil couldn't say he felt terribly sorry, with blood trickling from painful gashes in his arm. He took a deep breath, and when he spoke, his voice was lower than he had planned it to be. "Let's go back to the cave. We'll leave for Southsward at dawn."

Esther broke in. "Come with me .. I'd better see if I can bandage that .. you know. It looks .. well .. does it hurt awful much?"

Veil met her gaze momentarily, and he felt some of his anger drain away. "A .. little. It'll be fine though."

Esther was solemn. "Don't lie Veil .. I can tell it pains you. I may not be the best healer .. but .. I'll see what I can do. Ok?"

Veil smiled slowly, despite himself. The way Esther sometimes nervously asked questions about the obvious answer was .. cute? No .. maybe it was just .. insecure. Veil shrugged, and quickly regretted it. "Ahh .. ok."

Cedric's voice came from behind them, sullenly. "Dare I come in, or will I be slain by Princess?"

Ivan walked past, voice pointedly flat. "I wouldn't put it past her."

Veil gave the mouse a hard look. "Just .. be careful. We need you to get the rest of the way to Southsward. But none of us are very happy with you right now, understand."

Cedric slunk past him guiltily, not bothering to call him 'your highness'.

Before he could walk into the arch's star-lit shadows, Esther laid a paw on his arm .. the good one. "Veil. If it's been this hard just getting to Southsward .. what will the city be like? Do you think .. something's wrong with it? Something .. evil could be going on?"

Veil paused, turning to face her. "I .. really don't know this time, Esther. I just don't."

Esther sighed. "Just .. well .. be careful. I feel .. really nervous about this .. I'm almost .. scared."

Veil laid his right paw on her shoulder. "It'll be alright, somehow. All of this. And we'll face it together, no matter what. Ok?"

He mentally pleaded with her to believe it, and the ermine slowly met his gaze, smiling wanly and sighing. "Ok."

One second passed, before she broke away, stating. "I better get something to clean that wound with. There's so much sand in everything ..."

Her voice faded as she vanished in the shadows of the arch. Veil stared after her a moment, blinking. He turned his face to the black skies the next second, shaking his head. He hoped he'd told Esther the truth. He hoped they really would face everything together, no matter what it was.

But deep down .. he was unsure. Nothing was clear anymore.

The ferret strode into the arch's cave-like awning, leaving the stars to twinkle upon the dead landscape. They never changed.

Glittering and lovely, they were endlessly the same .. unlike fate's irony in a beast's life.

But then .. eventually, even stars die, leaving their place in the heavens forever altered.




The End




Tell him to buy me an acre of land.

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Tyme,

Between the salt water and the sea strand,

Then he'll be a true love of mine.


Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather,

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Tyme,

And gather it all in a bunch of heather,

Then she'll be a true love of mine.


Are you going to Scarborough Fayre?

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Tyme,

Remember me to one who lives there,

Who once was a true love of mine.


- From Scarborough Fayre, an ancient Celtic love song.

(Here's a link to the version by Celtic Women [1]. Very beautifully done :3 )



Final Note

As this is a sub-book of 'Accused', no epilogue, sorry ... :P Ok, so it wasn't twenty or fifteen chapters, it was thirteen. Ok, ok .. XP

Anyways. YAY!

The spell is cast .. now it's time to seek the dream!

Continue the saga with Dream Seekers


Fripple the Blade Fripple the Blade (new) (Sayna's new personification ..) 04:28, August 3, 2015 (UTC)

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