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The Prophecy Fulfilled

SaynaSLuke February 27, 2015 User blog:SaynaSLuke

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The Prophecy Fulfilled

TPF cover art :3

By Sayna


When thought it is, strife is no more,

And lazy summer sun shines down,

An evil holdeth western shore,

While kings and queens must find their crowns.


Though snow white lord and evil queen,

Do both lie still in death,

The offspring of one,

Good will shun,

Hating light to their last breath.


The gold mouse maid and her true love,

As well as brother bold,

Must war long with the warlord's son,

Where sun turns sea to gold.


Far in the west, three rulers fight,

And one will stay behind.

But even where all seems at peace,

There is the dark of night.


A long lost father shall be found,

Near tallrocks by the sea.

Though old one knows where hide the crowns,

A blue one holds the key.


Now when this riddle has been solved,

And enemies been killed,

The green-eyed alliance is dissolved,

And the prophecy fulfilled.



Editors Note

This is the sequel to Four Warriors Cometh. You might want to read that one first .. just saying ;)

Five seasons have passed since the end of Four Warriors Cometh.

This is the rewrite of The Legend of Luke.

It's a kind of in-progress project, so go ahead and leave your ideas in the comments! I'm willing to use them .. cause I honestly don't have a ton planned for this book. Maybe that's a good thing .. FWC was a bit long at 60 chapters ;P This one might be 40 chapters, but I think you'll really like it XD

This book is dedicated to Brian Jacques, for writing the original 'Legend of Luke', and also Salem for listening to all my crazy plot ideas. (also for Roseanna's name)

It goes to everyone who commented on 'FWC'; Illusion, Spirea, Astar, Vaylayna, Reep, and Jukka, also everyone who reads and comments on this book. :D

Last but not least, this book goes to my mother, who has helped me a lot with spelling and grammar .. and an occasional idea here and there ;)

(my I have a lot of dedications XP But I couldn't have done it without you!)




Prologue

The night was dark .. the kind of dark that makes your skin crawl.

It was a darkness you could feel.

On the western coast, Salamandastron stood a looming sentinel .. one that once signified good, and the power of Lord Ignasa.

But not anymore.

The sliver of a moon slanted down through a tall window in the mountain's rock face, dimly illuminating what once was the forge of the mighty badger lords.

But not anymore.

No badger resided in this hall .. and the forge was still and dust-covered. Cobwebs hung in the rooms corners, and the décor had changed since the death of Lord Boar.

For the room's owner .. was different.

The oaken door creaked softly open, emitting a tall, handsome snow white ermine, clad in a leather sea-jacket, tall leather boots, and a burgundy cape of smooth velvet. He had several earrings, and a menagerie of jeweled rings on his fingers. This outfit was topped by a circlet of plated gold on his brow, and a golden tail-ring.

The door swung shut silently behind him, as he strode regally forward. His cape swirled royally behind him as he approached a small alter set in front of the window the moon shone through.

He knelt before it, before throwing a pawfull of something in the faintly glowing fire. There was a hissing noise, followed by a ghostly green glow.

The ermine's voice was a soft .. almost silken sound. "Milord Malimore .. I have come. What do you wish of me .. master?"

The voice that answered was a terrible, frightening sound .. a sound that could make your hair stand on end. "Rise Lotor, and hear what I will tell you."

Lotor stood, but kept his head bowed as the voice murmured, "Both Verdauga and Tsarmina have failed me .. for Ignasa's kings and queens have risen. You hold my last stronghold .. see I do not loose it."

Lotor's voice was almost sneering. "I am not the fool my father was .. I will not fall to those Lukes!"

Malimore's voice was a bit condescending. "Your father said the same thing, and look at where he is. No Lotor, do not underestimate the enemy. I am sending you two helpers .. watch for them. They are both highly trained in my ways."

Lotor bowed his head. "Yes Milord."

Malimore's last words were a deadly command. "Do not loose Salamandastron .. lest you should face my wrath."




Chapter 1 Overshadowed

Lotor

Lotor >:3

Lotor paced his chamber .. what once was the forge of the badger lords. His velvet cape swirled behind him in a flow of burgundy, and his boots stirred the thin layer of dust on the floor.

He clenched his teeth, uncertainty building in his heart. He had hated Badrang, his father, for the ermine had sold him to Ripfang as a slave when he was little more then five seasons old. But he had heard, over and over, the tale of how a golden mouse warrior had slain Badrang with his own sword, and took the weapon for himself.

Some said the mouse was King Martin from the ancient tales, some said he was the long lost prince, Luke. Still some said he was the foretold High King .. the one who bore the mark of the star.

Others said there had been a golden maid with him, and she bore the mark of the feather .. the hawk.

And now, Malimore had said himself, the chosen kings and queens had risen .. and that was five seasons ago. Lotor had been on alert, rigid and ready .. and yet these challengers had not come.

But the white ermine knew, that sooner or later, he would have to face his father's murderer. And when he did .. he planned to kill him.

I will not fall! I am the master of the western coasts .. I will be a greater warlord then even Verdauga! The weakling who was killed by his own daughter, who was later was slain by these four warriors. Well, I will not fall to their rule .. no, they will fall to mine!

There was a knock on the door, and Lotor called out, "Come in!"

The oak door swung open, revealing a tall, sinewy, male ferret. The creature knelt before Lotor, his short blue cape falling over one shoulder. Lotor waved a ringed paw at him, stating, "Make your report Captain."

The amber and chocolate furred ferret stood, revealing that he was almost taller then Lotor himself. "Milord, there is no sign of any uprising. We have had no trouble .. there are few woodlanders left on these coasts .. I saw to that."

Lotor resumed pacing, asking, "The creatures Lord Malimore said he would send me. Have you seen any sign of them?"

The ferret shrugged. "Milord, I have not."

Lotor gave him a sharp look. "Or any sign of the marked warriors?"

The ferret held forth his paws, showing that the right one was abnormal, with six claws instead of five. "As I say Milord, there has been no disturbances .. not in the last season. Although Velox asked an audience with you."

Lotor waved a paw at him again. "Very well, although I want to know the moment anything out of the ordinary happens. Is that clear Captain Sixclaw?"

The six clawed ferret dipped his head, and Lotor nodded dismissively. "Go about your duties Swartt. And tell Velox I am waiting for him."

><><

But in every stronghold of evil, there is contention. Sometimes this contention is born from greed and hatred, and other times, it is born from a creature who dares to dream of a better place.

It is hard and dangerous for any light to shine in such darkness, yet sometimes, it does. The beast who dares to dream may not be the strongest, or even the bravest .. but they are brave enough to search for the truth. And that is what matters.

And so it was, with one such creature. She was a frail beast in some ways .. and yet very strong in others. And her heart, was searching for a better existence.

This creature stood at one of Salamandastron's tall windows, staring out at the pounding sea below. She was a blue gray ferret, with long black hair, and black paws. Her name, not many knew, or cared to know.

Few even remembered where she came from, or how she had come to be here. But she did. She could not forget.

She had come from Southsward; nothing but a homeless orphan. The slave trade was a major source of income for many creatures in that country, despite the laws against it. So for a helpless child with no home .. they were easy prey. Traders from Southward had brought her to this accursed place, and sold her.

The creature who had bought her was a cruel beast. Handsome and silver-tongued on the outside, yes. But a wicked, foul beast on the inside. Swartt Sixclaw, Lotor's second in command.

He called her his wife .. but she was his slave. If the ferret had her way, she would have found a way to kill him .. but there was one problem.

If she was caught or killed in the attempt, what would happen to her son? His father hated him .. she was the real reason the poor child was still alive.

She slumped across the window sill, watching the waves pound onto the shore .. ever restless, always changing .. and yet .. always the same in some odd way. Her name was Bluefen, although she really couldn't remember who had given it to her.

It didn't really matter though, for nobeast ever called her that. She was trapped in a life of misery and slavery, and really had no way of getting out. At least .. not yet.

But should an opportunity ever arise, Bluefen would take it.

Something tugged on her skirt, snapping her out of her reflections. She sighed, asking, "What is it Veil?"

The ferret was a close copy of his father, with amber and chocolate fur, and six claws on his right paw. But there was one distinction, and that was his wide, sapphire blue eyes. He pointed to the door, and Bluefen raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Who's there?"

Veil shrugged, but looked wary. Bluefen fingered the hilt of the long but thin knife she always had hidden in her long sleeve, slipping to the door soundlessly. She laid a paw on the knob as a soft voice murmured, "It is I."

Bluefen relaxed slightly, opening the door a crack to emit a short but sinewy pine marten. The creature wore a long black cloak, and he had an eternally shifty look in his brown eyes.

Veil had come out of hiding now that he saw who it was. Bluefen's voice was a sigh. "What news Velox?"

The pine marten looked around quickly, before stating, "Same as it has been for the last five seasons. But my visions are changing, and they do not lie. I have seen trouble ahead for the horde .. if Lotor stays leader. So I plan to overthrow him. But Swartt's in my way."

Bluefen clenched a paw into a fist. "If you can kill him .."

Velox gave her a crafty look. "Why do you think I have helped you and your brat all these seasons? You will kill him for me."

Bluefen narrowed her eyes. "I would not hesitate Velox. But how?"

Velox sneered. "Shouldn't you be able to think of that? Because I think I've done enough."

Bluefen closed her eyes. "I will think on it. When I find a way, I will tell you .. when shall we do it?"

Velox looked disgruntled. "Not yet .. we need a distraction."

He smiled an evil smile .. one that made a chill run up Bluefen's spine. "And for now, we bide our time. For I sense we will soon have one."

Bluefen laid a paw on her young son's head, asking, "What do you mean?"

Velox narrowed his eyes. "The marks are coming .. I have seen. And with the disturbance they bring, will come our chance .. don't fail me, for your brat's sake."

><><

Bluefen curled her lip as the door slammed shut behind Velox. She hated him, almost as much as she hated Swartt. But he was the one that saw she and Veil had food to eat, in return for her information.

Swartt couldn't care less .. in fact Bluefen suspected he wished they would die of neglect and starvation, just so they'd be out of his way. The cruel ferret had wanted offspring at first .. until he'd actually succeeded in getting a son. Then he'd quickly lost interest and become discontented; after all, Veil was only a child. He'd have to grow up before he could be a great warlord and an honor to his father.

Bluefen picked her son up, sighing, "Oh Veil .. I don't know what to do anymore."

Veil was sympathetic, as he always was. "Mommy, why's Vel'x so mean like daddy?"

Bluefen shook her head, not sure how to answer. "They are wicked and cruel .. both of them. Let me deal with them Veil .. you must stay away from them. Don't listen to them or talk to them, ever! Do you understand?"

The little ferretbabe nodded solemnly, asking, "But mommy, what if they hurt you?"

Bluefen sighed. "Then you must be strong for me Veil. We will never be cruel like your father is, although that is what he wants of you."

Veil's big eyes widened, as he stated determinedly, "I nev'r want to be like him!"

Bluefen hugged him, whispering, "And you must not be Veil, you are so much of a better beast. Someday son, we'll find a way to get out of here .. and never have to see your father again. Maybe we could even go to the woodlanders .. I have heard they sometimes take pity on creatures like us. Would you like that?"

Veil nodded. "I'd like it. Would daddy foll'w us?"

Bluefen set him down, her fingers dancing on the hilt of her hidden knife. "Not if I can help it Veil .. not if I can help it."

This seemed to satisfy her son, and he walked over to the window, peering out. Bluefen looked away sadly. Veil was a little over five seasons .. he should be a strong, healthy child. But he was not, thanks to the lack of food Bluefen could get her paws onto. He was thin and weak, although he was already rather tall for his age.

She ground her teeth in determination. Swartt would not succeed in killing either of them .. they would get out! There had to be a way.

There had to be.

><><

Velox had left Bluefen and Veil in disgust .. that wench had better prove useful to his cause! Or else.

The pine martin's black cloak swirled behind him as he strode to Lotor's door, knocking swiftly three times. The voice that called out was as regal as ever, and it made Velox cringe. He should be leader, not that pompous white fool that had enthroned himself.

Lotor was a weaker Shadow Fighter then he, and yet the ermine liked to claim he knew more of Malimore's plans than Velox did! Velox hated this, and he also knew what could get Lotor's dander up more then anything.

Talking about the four marked warriors.

So Velox had come up with many dire prophesies about them .. some of these fabrications of his own mind. However now, what he was going to tell his fool of a leader, was true.

The pine marten knelt before Lotor, his voice sneeringly submissive. "Milord, I have news from Malimore himself."

Lotor was sitting on the ornate, massive chair he used as a throne .. the one-time throne of the badger lords. He sipped a chalice of wine reflectively, waving a ring-covered paw at Velox. "Speak then."

Velox stood without being ordered too, stating, "Through my visions in the night, I have foreseen them. Three of the marks. The star, the leaf, and the feather. They are beginning to stir once more .. to grow restless. My voices then tell me, that they will face you before the summer ends."

Lotor hid his fear, but Velox could sense it. "And it is only the earliest start of spring. Thank you Velox .. but we will be ready for them. Dismissed."

Velox slipped from Lotor's throne room, a sneer growing on his features. Oh yes .. they would be ready.

More ready then Lotor could imagine.




Chapter 2 The Walls of Redstone

The start of spring was bringing new growth to Mossflower Woods, and the creatures that lived there. For any traveler passing the place Kotir had once stood, there was a grand sight to behold .. a sight as majestic as the great castle that had once stood there.

This was the building that had been under construction for five seasons .. and wasn't near completion yet. The walls and gatehouses were finally complete, although one of the four towers that stood sentinel at all four of the wall's corners was still being built. As for the building itself, it was little more then a foundation and a few walls.

However, the grounds were already being developed, with the already existing pond, and an orchard of sapling trees.

The gray light of dawn slowly painted the gray stones red, and slowly brought this place's inhabitants awake. Some were easier to wake then others .. and some were already up.

Down on the Abbey lawns, near the pond, a bush rustled subtly, betraying a beast's presence. Or .. more than one beast's presence.

These two creatures were a golden mouse maid with rich chocolate headfur worn in a braid, and a cream rat maid with mottled gold and brown tips. They were about the same age, and that was nearly four seasons apiece.

That rat thrust her head out of the bush, pulling it in the next second. "No sign a anybeast Fripple .. all clear!"

The little mouse had an amazingly long tail .. proportionally longer then the rat's. She had a sling shot in one paw, and a expression of serious duty on her face. "Right, well we've gotta wait for Ivan an' 'Nofflet, cause they're comin'"

The rat nodded, eyes twinkling. "Right, an what 'bout Luke?"

Fripple scowled. "I don't like Luke Ash, an you know it."

Ash shrugged. "Yah, but he's helpful."

Fripple crossed her arms. "He is not. I'm the DAB leader, not him."

Ash shrugged again. "I know .. we don't want him to be leader! He thinks girls are stupid, just cause he's king Martin's son."

Fripple rolled her eyes. "I know! And it's not like that makes him so great. I can whip his hide!"

Ash giggled. "It's so funny when you do! And then he's all Mommy! Fripple's being mean!"

Fripple scowled. "Yah, he's a big cry-baby. I don't do that when he whacks me!"

Ash stuck her head out of the bush again, griping, "Where are they?"

Fripple yawned. "Pro'bly still in bed."

Ash frowned discontentedly. "But we're supposed to be the 'Dibbuns Against Bedtime'! Not the dibbuns who like bedtime!"

Fripple shrugged. "I donno. But Ivan should come soon .. he's a cat!"

Ash grimaced. "Let's hope Iris doesn't come with 'im, she's irritating."

Fripple made a face, grumbling. "Yah .. she's crazy. Hey .. sshh! I hear Ivan! Be quiet, an' we'll scare him!"

Ash giggled and Fripple poked her, stifling her own giggles. It may have been said that cats are stealthy .. but Ivan was the exact opposite. Ash and Fripple peeked out of their bush at the young wildcat dibbun. He was gray tabby, and wore a yellow tunic, along with his father's old boots, and hat. Of course, he could barely keep the boots on his paws, and was continually walking out of them, diligently stopping, and putting them back on. The hat slipped over one ear, flopping in his eyes so he could barely see.

Ash poked Fripple, before jumping out of the bush, yelling enthusiastically, "Hi Ivan!"

The gray cat literally jumped out of his boots; a feat that wasn't terribly hard to do. As soon as he saw who it was, he looked hurt. "Awww .. why'd you have to do that Ash?"

Ash giggled. "Cause it's awful funny to see you jump Ivan, you leave your boots behind!"

Ivan scowled as he pulled his over-sized footwear back on, straitening his hat. "It's not funny, then I have to put them back on!"

Fripple had taken her place beside Ash by now, and she rolled her eyes. "That's why you don't wear clothes that are too big, even if your daddy is Ging'vere, an' you wanna be just like him. My daddy is king Timbal, an I don't wear his ol' clothes!"

Ivan looked injured. "Your a girl. What'd you care about being .. a hero?"

Fripple looked offended. "I am a dead-eye shot, Unca Groddil says so. I don't go around tripping over my boots."

Ash twirled the quarterstaff she always carried like a baton, succeeding in whacking herself in the head. "Oww! Yea Ivan .. we don't trip over our boots!"

Ivan looked droll .. for a dibbun he had an extremely developed sense of dry humor. "No, you just hit yourself in the head with your stick instead."

There was a laugh from nearby, and a voice stated, "Ash megel, sometime yer ol' daddy needs ta teach ya how ta twirl that stick properly. What'd you think?"

Ash flung herself on the speaker, squealing, "Daddy, daddy, daddy! You will won't you? You will? Please?"

Whegg tossed her over his head. "Course I will gel, wouldn't think of not. Yer liable ta hurt yerself doin that, an then wot'd yer mother do ta me?"

Fripple planted herself in front of the rat, stating, "Gina'd be mad Unca Wheggy."

Ivan looked solemn. "Yea. And 'ts not nice when she's mad Unca Wheggy, you know that."

Whegg laughed, tweaking the cat dibbun's ear. "Aye, that's the truth liddle matey. Now what's you three doin' up so early?"

Fripple looked around secretively. "We're havin' a meetin' Unca Wheggy. But don't tell nobeast, alright?"

Ash nodded. "Uh huh, ya can't tell daddy. It's important."

Whegg winked at her, stating, "Alright den, I won't tell. But you'll miss breakfast if'n ya stay out here much longer. Wother'll eat it all .. an' we all know dat, now don't we?"

Ivan looked mortified. "That's were they all went Fripple, breakfast! Unca Wheggy's right, Wother will eat it all! Come on!"

The young wildcat took off into a full run, only to trip over his boots and fall flat on his face. He sat up sighing, "Awwww .. now mommy'll make me wash before breakfast! I hate to wash, it makes my fur all soggy!"

Whegg winked at him. "Why don't you carry those boots a yers matey, I won't tell."

Fripple poked Ash. "Come on, race ya to breakfast slowpoke!"

Ash chased after the mouse, yelling, "Slowpoke? I'm no slowpoke, you are!"

Ivan pulled his boots off with a sigh, solemnly informing an amused Whegg, "Unca Wheggy, daddy's boots are nice, but they don't help you get to breakfast faster."

><><

Within an hour, the still abbey lawns were a bustle of activity, as they were everyday. Filled with creatures working on the abbey building itself and the unfinished wall tower, as well as many horses.

Timbal and his horse Darkdiamond were operating a sort of pulley system devised to raise the heavy wall stones up to where the tower builders needed them. Diamond did this with little difficulty; he was a strong and good-sized horse.

But as the morning wore on, the chocolate bay grew tired. He sighed as Timbal took his harness off to allow Martin and Wildfire to take their place. As the two started walking across the lawns, Diamond perked his ears, asking, "Timbal, I find it rather strange."

The mouse raised an eyebrow. "Find what rather strange?"

The horse flicked his black tail, stating, "This. All this peace .. it's been five seasons since the war! My question is this. How long can it last?"

Timbal nodded. "I too, have thought this. It's so quiet .. we weeded out the remaining Kotir soldiers at least three seasons ago, and we haven't even had trouble from Rigvar and his bunch. So I share your worry .. and I have felt for a good season, that something is brewing. Sayna too, shares this feeling .. and her dreams are getting worse."

Diamond cocked an ear. "Her dreams?"

Timbal shrugged. "She's talked to Groddil about it .. and he has no answers. She has asked Lord Ignasa, but he has given her no sign. My dreams too Diamond .. they are .. confusing. Either we're both going mad .. or something's wrong. Martin doesn't like to think it, but I know he feels trouble is coming."

Diamond looked up at the thunder of hooves, in time to see Ghostdancer vault through the main gate, coming to a fancy sliding stop. Sayna dismounted before her horse came to a complete stop, and began talking to Bella.

The badger lady was no longer young .. her black stripes were slowly fading to silver. However she was in a way, an overseer of the construction. Timbal could hear the two's conversation from where he stood.

Sayna motioned to where she'd come from, stating, "Gingivere's bringing another load of rock on the Bloodwake."

Bella nodded. "That's good, when will he get here?"

Sayna shrugged. "Thirty minutes more or less. Prairiefire and Redcloud are there to help him haul it here."

Bella frowned. "We should look into taking those two off hauling duty .. they're getting rather old for it."

Dancer shook out her black mane, stating, "They do their job well."

Bella shrugged. "Alright, but tell Dancingphantom to go help them."

Timbal thought of the gray mare .. she was the horse Tsarmina had ridden. She was also Ghostdancer's mother, as it had been discovered in the seasons after the battle. Timbal couldn't recall her very well, but she had once been part of his tribe .. the wife of Stardust, Luke's horse.

Timbal shook his head. All that was so blurry .. so long ago. He could remember Phantom a little .. Vurg had ridden her once. It had been said Luke's wife Sayna was the gray mare's best friend, but Timbal couldn't really remember that. He didn't like thinking about the past, because it was so hard to recall.

They still had not discovered Sayna's true origins, although it had been accepted as fact that she was some relation of Martin's. Timbal knew there was more to it than that .. but he couldn't remember. He couldn't prove anything.

Phantom herself, shared his feelings. He had asked her what she knew, and she had tried to tell him .. she had. But her memory was bad, and he couldn't blame her. She'd been taken by Vilu Daskar on the night of his long-ago attack, and the ermine had later sold her to Verdauga. She said it was hard for her to recall very much about the past.

Besides her and Martin, there was no one else from Luke's tribe in Mossflower .. unless maybe Sayna herself.

So Timbal could prove none of his suspicions. Although some of the things Sayna told him about her dreams .. only made him more sure, she was a Luke.

Either Lord Ignasa was giving her excerpts of the past, or ... somehow, she was remembering.

><><

Not all that far from the new abbey, there is a water meadow, as there has been for time immemorial. It may seem quiet and even beautiful .. but the majority of Mossflowerians avoid it .. and there is a reason.

A large, glossy black raven sat in the branches of a newly budding weeping willow, watching the surroundings with an air of condescending acceptance. He ruffled his ebony plumage as a small black and white magpie landed beside him.

The smaller bird dipped her head, distinct fear in her eyes. "Oh great Doomwyte, I have come as ye called me."

The raven barely glanced at her. "And what news have you, Yar?"

Yar swallowed nervously. She was a young magpie, and the tips of her wings and tail were painted with odd, swirling patterns of phosphorescent green. She did not meet her leader's gaze. "The Mossflower beasts .. they keep building their red stone house. All four walls stand strong now."

Rigvar Skurr, king of the Doomwytes, sneered at her, clacking his beak close to her neck. "Raaaaacckk! Yar, stop acting the fool! I know these things! I want to know their plans .. and what of the gold eagle?"

Yar had wisely backed up. "Argulor? He's not done much to come after us Great Doomwyte .. He .."

Her words were cut of by Rigvar himself, who lashed out with a claw, catching the shy little bird across her face. "Rrraaaaaeeeccckk!! I never want to hear that name again, you understand? If you say that name once more Yar, you pay with your life! Get out of my sight .. OUT!"

Yar fluttered painfully away, blood running down her face and creating a salty taste in her beak. She landed in a hawthorn's branches a good ways from Rigvar, wiping the sticky blood away with her wing. The small magpie trembled as a large tear threatened to slip down her cheek. She didn't know how much more of this she could take.

She hadn't always been part of these terrible Doomwytes .. once she and her sister Yaz had been loners. But Rigvar had found them .. and seemed decent at first, not cruel like he really was. Yaz had quickly found friends and purpose as a Doomwyte .. she loved it here. But Yar? Yar just wanted to get away.

Many times, she had thought of defecting to the woodlanders, but she was too afraid of what Rigvar would do to her.

So she watched sadly as Yaz fell deeper and deeper into evil .. and Yar had no way of saving or helping her. The little magpie hung her head, staring at the swirling patterns on her wings and tail. At night .. they would glow. And it was her duty to lure any she could to their death in the swamps.

Thankfully .. she hadn't been faced with that terrible task .. yet. But when she was .. Yar had no idea what she would do.

I can't lead an innocent beast to their death .. it would be murder! I would never forgive myself .. Oh .. I hope I never have to do it.

Yar closed her eyes as a nasty thought occurred to her.

But Yaz would .. and she wouldn't care. If only we'd stayed away from Rigvar!

But it was too late now .. they were both caught in a trap. The difference was Yaz loved the trap, and Yar hated it. But it didn't matter .. neither of them could ever get out .. ever.

They were just caught in different ways.

><><

Dusk was falling over the abbey as the creatures called off their duties for the day. As always, they assembled near the pond for supper .. there really wasn't any building to have it in yet.

Sayna and Dancer were the last to arrive, and both were tired. They'd spent the day either carting rock or carrying messages. Dancer stood still as Sayna pulled her saddle off, then the gray mare laid down and rolled to get the feeling of her tack off.

Sayna smiled at the horse as she staggered to her feet, shaking dry grass out of her ebony mane. Dancer cocked one ear, asking, "What?"

Sayna tried to stay serious, but burst into a laugh as a stalk of grass flopped into Dancer's eyes. The gray horse shook her head to rid herself of the unwanted ornament.

The two friends had changed over the five seasons since the battle .. in most ways for the better. Sayna had grown more cheerful, although she still had her moments. She'd seemed to have got ahold of her temper .. at least to most. But Sayna herself was not fooled .. she knew the only reason she seemed calm was because there had been no cause for her to Bloodwrath.

And when there was .. Sayna shook her head. No .. it was best not to think of that.

She looked down, thinking of the her ever-worsening nightmares .. nightmares she could never recall properly when she woke up. Last night .. they had been so vivid! Like she'd lived them .. not just dreamed them.

Dancer nudged her. "Hey wake up! Let's go eat .. I'm starved!"

Sayna nodded absently, following her friend to where the others were eating. She sat down near where Martin was talking earnestly with Trubbs and Lepus. Their eldest son, Wother, sat beside them, slyly eating all the food off a distracted Martin's plate.

Sayna could never get over the amazing difference between Trubbs' sons. Wother was outgoing and gluttonous, just like any hare. But his younger brother, Sedge, was quiet and very shy; although he was only around a season old, so he wasn't all that developed as of yet.

Martin was nodding to Trubbs, stating, "I understand your thoughts Trubbs .. completely. It has disturbed me that we have had peace so long .. and no word whatsoever from Salamandastron."

Rose was sitting beside him, holding their daughter, Roseanna. She spoke up suddenly, asking, "And what about the riddle? Have we grown so comfortable as to have forgotten it?"

Martin nodded. "That was sent to us for a reason .. you're right."

Sayna felt herself speaking, although she hadn't exactly intended to. "When thought it is, strife is no more ... that sounds like now."

Timbal's voice came unexpectedly from behind her, quoting another stanza. "Aye, and doesn't it say, An evil holdeth western shore?"

Trubbs nodded. "That it does laddie buck wot, wot .. and that's what jolly well bothers me chaps .. and chappesses."

Wother looked up at his father, stating solemnly around a piece of Martin's cake, "You forgot to say wot, wot at the end daddy."

Trubbs gave his son an absent look. "Oh .. yes ol' bean .. so I did .."

He suddenly noticed what the dibbun was up to, and exclaimed, "Hey, stop that you jolly little fat blighter! That'll be quiet enough of that young cad!"

Wother's grin was cheeky as he added in the part Trubbs had forgotten. "Wot, wot!"

Martin waved a paw at Trubbs. "Continue .. he's eaten so much of my food he my as well finish it."

Trubbs sighed. "Sorry bout that ol' chap. Anyhow, as I was jolly well saying before, I think we ought'a look over that blinkin' riddle once more .. see if we can sort the blighter out wot?"

Rose spoke up. "That's the conclusion I've come to as well .. I feel as though trouble is coming again."

Fripple had walked up, and she broke in excitedly. "Trouble Aunty Rose? If any crummy old vermin come around here, I'll shoot them!"

Timbal looked droll. "It'll take more then a slingshot, I'm afraid."

Martin nodded. "Quite true. Bella .. do you still have that riddle?"

The badger lady nodded, "Of course Martin, I would not think to throw something of such value away. It is at Brockhall, along with my other artifacts of ancient times."

Rose looked up. "Can you bring it tomorrow?"

Bella nodded. "Count on it Rose, I too feel the unease building .. something is very wrong."




Chapter 3 An Unseen World

Malcheus and Aquilo

Malcheus and Aquilo

The world a normal beast sees is not the only world .. far from it. Even the hidden world of the Prophets and Shadow Fighters is but a pale reflection of the mighty land hidden from the eyes of mortals.

Some think, that Malimore has just as much power as the mighty Lord Ignasa .. that the two are nearly equal. But it is not so.

Some also think, that the only beasts in their commands are those mortal beasts who serve them, the Prophets and the Shadow Fighters. But far from it.

The soft echo of clicking claws on rock was all that broke the echoing silence of a time forgotten cavern. Two creatures stood in a large cave with a subterranean river running it's winding way through it .. two very dark creatures.

One was a pewter gray wolf with green eyes. He wore a necklet of two fox tails, and his fangs were dyed red. His forelegs had odd patterns of green dye running up them, as did his face.

However his companion was many times worse then he. He was none other then Lord Malimore himself. The black wolf was obviously preparing for something as he ran his claws through his thick brush of a tail, remarking to his companion, "Kaltiv, I want you to keep an eye on Salamandastron for me .. personally."

Kaltiv was standing to a rather rigid attention, and he nodded without hesitation. "Yes Milord."

Malimore gave the ornate patterns of green dye on his black legs an inspecting glance, before stating, "Good. The woodlanders know nothing of my plans .. it almost amuses me how ignorant they are! Imagine it Kaltiv. The mighty warriors leave for the mountain, only to die at Lotor's paws. And just days after their departure, their little abbey is put under siege!"

Kaltiv nodded. "Aye .. they have no idea what they're up against. Also, my informants tell me the two beasts you promised Lotor will arrive in just a few days time."

Malimore's flat red eyes glittered ever so subtly. "Perfect .. all the pieces are in place for my conquest. And then .."

Kaltiv's eyes shone. "Then we take over!"

Malimore let a nasty grin spread across his face as he straitened the cat jawbone he used for a crown. "How I wait for it! If Ignasa thinks he can stop me .. ha! The Lord of Light .. my darkness is greater!"

Kaltiv raised an eyebrow. "And yet .. you have to appear before him and answer for yourself .."

Malimore sneered. "I go to show the others what they lost when we rebelled .. and they didn't. Insight envy, eh Kaltiv?"

The gray wolf dipped his head, although he looked rather unsure. "As you say Milord."

><><

Past the gates of the Lands Beyond is a country that living beasts can only imagine .. for one will not see it until they have died, and then only if they serve Lord Ignasa.

However that land is one that never sees night, for it is the home of Ignasa himself .. and he is called The Rising Sun. The light of this place could blind mortal eyes .. but then, it is not mortal eyes that see it.

Every kingdom has it's armies, and Ignasa's does as well. They are strange and amazing creatures .. beautiful white wolves.

At the very same moment Malimore was boasting to his captain Kaltiv, some of these creatures were assembling in the courtyard of Ignasa's palace, ready to report their doings in the mortal world.

The most noble of them was shining white, and almost a head taller then the others. His neck was adorned with a circlet of sky blue, and his forelegs were decorated with swirls of the same color .. only it almost glowed.

A smaller white wolf with light silver points did a quick bow to the first, stating, "We have assembled General Malcheus, except for .."

Malcheus had a begrudging look about him. "It is Lord Ignasa's decision when that traitor appears, and when he leaves Captain Aquilo. For me, I'm glad of it."

><><

In the palace, Lord Ignasa sat almost completely still. The only movement about him was the soft twitching of his golden tail, and the subtle glitter in his azure eyes.

With him were two other pumas, each different in his own way .. and yet still the same in another. The three cats were echoes of each other .. for they were in a way, the same creature. And yet .. not somehow.

But then, no mortal beast has total understanding of the Lord of Light, and never can have until they die. His ways are mysterious to all creatures, and it is beyond any to comprehend all his glory.

Besides Ignasa himself, one of the pumas was glowing white, with the same cobalt eyes. His paws had wisps of blue around them that swirled like ever restless wind. The other cat was more majestic then both his companions, with golden fur that glowed like fire, and shining blue eyes.

Ignasa himself spoke first, stating, "Mossflower is recovering from the Greeneyes' rule well .. although they are slow to realize the danger that threatens them."

The white puma spoke next, his blue eyes aglow. "It is true .. if they would have only looked to our prophecy sooner. What we sent Polleekin was not meant to be forgotten."

The third cat looked up, sighing, "Their eyes are not open like they should be; evil is always with them. It keeps them from seeing properly, and understanding as they should. We know this all to well, Ahio."

Ahio nodded as Ignasa spoke once more. "And yet Aedus, some of them are realizing .. just slowly. Still, I will be with those who serve us."

He looked grim. "And we have yet to hear the traitor's report .. he will lie as he always does. If he thinks we do not hear his schemes .."

Aedus's azure gaze hardened as he stated, "He has been blinded by his own pride, this we know. He lives in his own delusions, for he dares think he could defeat us .. and he believes his lies. His own conceit and greed destroyed him, and if we did not call him to account, he would believe he could do whatever evil he wished."

Ignasa flattened his ears ever so slightly. "His authority is delegated .. the day will come when he is demoted once and for all."

Ahio stood, the faint blue around his paws dancing restlessly. "They have assembled."

Ignasa stood as well as Aedus flicked his flame-like tail. "Let us go."

><><

In the palace courtyard, Malcheus, Aquilo, and quite a few others had gathered, forming two lines. And one place, at the farthest end, was empty.

At least .. at first. However it did not stay this way long, although the white wolves may have wished it to.

For when Aedus had flicked his tail, he'd been summoning a beast.

The waiting white wolves stiffened as Malimore himself appeared, blinking considerably at the blinding light he was now in. The black wolf was squinting, but trying desperately to make himself appear like he wasn't.

He slowly recovered, although he still subtly acted as though the light hurt him. Malimore held his head high, giving the wolves around him haughty looks of pride.

They stood at attention, but gave him continual looks of total suspicion from the corners of their eyes. Even in this place of total majesty, Malimore's pride was not gone .. it could never leave him. He flicked his black tail slowly, a rather smug look on his face.

The dark wolf turned to the white one beside him, stating, "Still doing this rigmarole eh? Should have come with me .. you'd have more freedom."

The wolf beside him, Aquilo, flattened his ears and looked strait ahead, refusing to meet his tempter's red gaze.

Malimore raised an eyebrow. "Kaltiv enjoys it."

Aquilo stiffened somewhat, as though Malimore hat hit a hidden nerve. However the dark wolf had no more time to torment, for the palace doors swung open.

Aedus walked out, followed closely by Ignasa and Ahio. All the wolves stood to quick attention .. even Malimore. For while his pride was not gone, it was overlaid now .. by fear.

The three pumas walked to where he stood, Aedus stopping directly in front of Malimore. The dark wolf could not hide his nervousness, although he desperately strove to. He could not hold his interrogators gazes, and was forced to drop his in submission .. although every movement spoke plainly that he hated it.

Aedus's voice was grim as he stated, "Make your report. Tell us the things you have been doing since your last visit."

Malimore drew himself up straighter, voice attempting to become haughty once more .. but not quite succeeding. "Many things .. after all, my lands are vast indeed."

Aedus's expression never changed. "That is all? Or in your own words, have you more to say?"

Malimore couldn't open his eyes properly at all .. the light around and before him was too bright. "I roam where I may .. here and there .. and see many things. Am I expected to recall every one of them?"

Aedus flattened his ears so fractionally they barely moved. "Only what you have caused."

Malimore might have wished he could brag .. but it was all he could do to keep his legs from shaking in terror. His voice was still strong, although it was laced with the faintest bit of fear. "My armies are mighty .. and we cause many things. My power is great, and I find much to do. With my rovings', I have caused too much to recall all of it."

Aedus did not blink once. "In other words, you will say no more?"

Malimore looked from Ahio, to Aedus, to Ignasa, before stating, "There is no more to be said."

Aedus flicked his tail, voice flat. "Then be gone from the Lands Beyond, where you have no place."

Malimore vanished in less time then it takes to blink; there one second and gone the next.

All the white wolves relaxed considerably as the evil presence left their home of eternal light. Aedus turned to Malcheus, commanding, "Make your report General."

Malcheus dipped his head, stating, "Milord, your Prophets are once again becoming strong, after their many seasons of hiding. It is true your people have been inactive until now to say the least, but your call is once again stirring in their hearts. However the evil is hiding beneath their noses .. they do not yet know of Rigvar or his Doomwytes. Though .. it seems there is contention among them .. Captain Aquilo?"

The silver pointed wolf stepped forward, reporting, "Milords, I have seen at least one bird in his forces that hates Rigvar's rule. Her name is Yar .. she is a magpie. She may be small perhaps, but her heart is searching."

Aedus nodded. "We have seen this, but thank you Aquilo. She is afraid of her masters, yet she also has the potential for great courage. Perhaps Redwall is not as alone as it seems .. for we have seen others. And those who serve us, we never leave alone."

><><

Kaltiv was still in the cave Malimore had vanished from not long ago, when his master reappeared, still standing rigidly to attention.

Kaltiv raised an eyebrow, asking hesitantly, "So Milord .. it went .. well?"

Malimore shook himself quickly, his normal demanding composure of evil pride returning. "Of course Kaltiv! What else would it be? Do you think that Ignasa could honestly get the better of me?"

Kaltiv dipped his head, a little dubious. "No Milord .. of course not."

Malimore stalked past the gray wolf, growling, "Good. Don't forget Kaltiv, that I am the lord of darkness."

Kaltiv nodded in submission, agreeing, "Yes Milord. Shall I carry out the plans?"

Malimore gave him a condescending look. "What do you honestly think Kaltiv? Of course you'll carry out the plans .. get to it. I want those woodlanders' nice little abbey overrun, and the four marks slain. See to it Captain .. and don't fail me."



Chapter 4 The Riddle's Quest

Sayna dreaded the night, when she knew she would dream her dreams yet again. They were blurry and mysterious even when she was dreaming them. However when she woke up .. she could remember very little about them, only that they were terrifying.

But as she fell asleep, she knew they would be waiting for her. And night by night, they were growing steadily worse.

The place she now stood was one she could have sworn she had seen before .. long ago. Nothing was very clear, but Sayna knew she could hear the far off pounding of restless surf .. just like she'd heard at Salamandastron. Or Marshank.

But this was farther back in time .. somehow, she knew.

This surf wasn't the warm rolling one of Salamandastron, or the cool salty one of Marshank. This was a wild, northern sea that leapt like white stallions; the kind of sea that crashes to the shore like thunder.

Sayna stood by it .. or at least she thought she did. She could hear it, but .. not really see it. Her vision was clouded and very unclear, full of pictures and shadows that echoed of forgotten memories.

There was a voice .. a kind voice. Sayna was sure she had heard it before .. but it sounded like nobeast she knew. The closest she could match it to was that of her adopted mother, Aryah. But that was not right .. Aryah had left for the Lands Beyond over six seasons ago!

Besides, this voice had the accent of the far north. Sayna could not see the speaker, at least not clearly. All she could tell, was the creature seemed to be golden furred .. but even that she was not sure of.

There was another voice .. wait .. was it Martin's? No .. this voice was gruffer then the warrior mouse's, although the two were certainly akin to each other.

Sayna tried to open her eyes wider, to no avail. They were open as wide as they could get, and yet she still saw nothing but blurs.

She closed her eyes, reopening them to find herself staring into Timbal's blue eyes .. or at least they looked like his. He looked .. different. No ... younger! The creature standing before her couldn't have been anyone but Timbal .. but he looked like he was maybe three seasons old .. at best.

Is this something that happened .. in the past? What is going on? Am I .. remembering something? Are these dreams more then just .. dreams?

Sayna had no more time to ponder, for at that second, the dream went wrong. There were screams .. and the sound of clashing steal. Timbal wasn't anywhere to be seen, instead there was a golden mouse maid, young and very beautiful. She grew clearer, and Sayna felt like gasping. This mouse .. was it her?

Sayna knew what her reflection looked like .. and this creature nearly matched it. Except .. the eyes. They were soft brown .. like .. Martin's!

This golden maid was holding a sword in a perfect stance, raised to deflect a blow. There was another clash of steal as a cutlass met the sword, and Sayna saw a beast she had never wanted to see again.

Badrang! Or .. wait. No .. it wasn't Badrang. But it looked like him .. amazingly so.

Sayna could do no more then watch in total horrified amazement as the two engaged in a duel .. one of wonderful mastery. The golden maid seemed a good swordsbeast, she parried and thrust her ermine attacker with excellence. However the white ermine she faced had brutal strength on his side, and he backed her against something .. although Sayna could not tell what it was.

The next second there was a cry, and the clatter of a sword falling to the floor. Sayna could not see what had happened .. her vantage point was too high. She struggled as a set of paws grabbed her .. how they did it or who they belonged to, she did not know.

The world sped up .. like she was running. No, like somebeast was carrying her.

There was a shout, and the creature she was with swung up onto a horse. The next second the thunder of hooves exploded around her, and she could feel the horse's gait .. it was galloping.

There were other hoof beats behind the horse she seemed to be riding .. although she really wasn't sitting on it.

Suddenly the animal she was on gave a strangled squeal .. one of pain. Then she was falling .. falling .. falling ..

Wump

I am dead .. I am so dead. Dancer just got shot from underneath me ..

"Sayna? Hey, are you alright?"

Sayna's eyes weren't open properly as she mumbled, "Dancer .. I'm sorry! Are you dead? Where are you?"

The voice spoke again. "Sayna, what are you talking about? You fell out of bed."

Sayna blinked her eyes open to realize she was lying on the wooden floor of Brockhall, with sun streaming through the window. Sayna moaned, asking, "Timbal, Dancer didn't really get shot from underneath me .. right?"

Timbal was giving her a bemused look. "You ride in your sleep?"

Sayna frowned. "It's not funny! Someone was chasing us .. no, not you and me .. me and Dancer. And we were galloping, and then Dancer fell out from underneath me .."

She sighed. "Ok .. so it sounds crazy. But Badrang was there .. and a gold mouse like me! And you were there Timbal .. I saw you. Only you were .. younger I think .."

Timbal's expression grew serious. "Wait .. I was younger? How could you remember that? What did I .. look like?"

Sayna shrugged. "You looked like .. you. Only shorter, and .. well .. younger. Like a dibbun. A lot like Fripple really."

Timbal's eyes widened. "You say there was a gold mouse maid? What did she look like .. can you remember?"

Sayna scratched an ear. "Like me I guess .. except with Martin's eyes. Why do you ask?"

Timbal was staring at her in complete and utter amazement .. like he was too stunned to say anything. He finally blinked, gulping, "That sounds like Sayna .. Luke's wife!"

Sayna stared at her sword, hanging above the door, and gasped as a realization hit her. "Oh no .. what is going on? My sword .. it was the one she used to fight .. the white ermine! Only it wasn't refurbished .. it was like it used to be before Cludd broke it!"

The mouse kicked her entangling sheets off, scrambling to her feet and running to her weapon, pulling it down. She unsheathed it, exclaiming, "Yes .. it was this sword! This very one! Of course .. the blade was not etched and was tarnished and nicked .. it was the old blade!"

Sayna stared at the name engraved on the gold hilt .. her name. No .. the name she had given herself. Her eyes widened as she realized something. "Timbal .. did Sayna .. Luke's wife .. own a sword?"

The mouse looked thoughtful. "I know Luke did .. his was the one Martin has now. But Sayna .. I can't remember anymore if she did. I spent time around Luke .. not his wife .. it's too long ago. I'm sorry Sayna."

Sayna leaned against the wall sighing, "But I saw her! She dueled an ermine in my dream .. and .. I think he killed her."

Timbal nodded. "Luke's wife was killed by Vilu Daskar .. at least .. that's what I heard. I didn't see it happen .. I didn't even see Vilu. I wasn't there .. I .."

He looked away. "I was off playing with a friend. But they killed her .. I'm not sure how. I fell off the rock I'd climbed onto .. like a little idiot .. and didn't wake up til it was over. So I don't remember all that much of it."

Sayna sheathed her sword, asking, "Do you think Martin would remember?"

Timbal looked doubtful. "He was very young when that happened .. but we can ask him."

><><

Bella was up early, as she always was. Her fur was turning silver, but her strength was by no means gone. The badger lady was in her study, reading the riddle over and over. Some of it she understood .. some of it she did not. But it would be quite interesting to her to hear the marked ones interpretation of it.

"Mornin' Bella! What'cha doin'?"

Bella looked over to where Fripple was standing in her doorway, slingshot held behind her back. The badger lady's face creased into a warm smile as she answered, "I'm looking at a riddle miss. What are you doing?"

Fripple clambered onto Bella's knee, peering with interest at the parchment. "The riddle Luna gave Unca Martin an' Aunty Rose?"

Bella tweaked the little mouse's brown braid. "That's right."

Fripple grinned. "I can read it, cause I know what it says. It's about an adventure .. ain't it Bella?"

Bella nodded, stating, "You've been around 'Unca Wheggy' too long, you're beginning to sound like the young scamp. But yes .. it is about an adventure."

Fripple turned around on Bella's knee, stating solemnly, "It's one mommy an' daddy an' Unca Martin is gonna have, right?"

Bella raised an eyebrow. "Now how did you find that out little missy?"

Fripple snapped her slingshot idly, explaining, "It's not hard Bella, you know that. Cause mommy is the only golden mouse 'sept me an' Unca Martin, an' Unca Martin ain't a girl. An' mommy loves daddy mor'n anybody else. An Unca Martin is her brother!"

Bella smiled. "Well .. I don't think he's really her brother Fripple. You call him Uncle because he's your father's best friend."

Fripple shrugged. "Whatever, riddles say things weird anyway. They try to make you think somethin' else then what they really mean."

Bella had to laugh. "They do, don't they Fripple? Well .. I tell you what. You can come with me, and help us with the riddle, if you're that good at reasoning through them."

Fripple beamed. "I can help like a warrior?"

Bella nodded. "Yes, I think your input could be .. interesting."

Fripple jumped off Bella's knee and grabbed her paw. "Does that mean I get to ride on Prairiefire with you? And help solve the riddle? Oh come on Bella, I want to do it now! Won't Luke be so jealous?"

Bella rolled her eyes, thinking of the constant rivalry between Martin's son and Sayna's daughter.

Something like the rivalry that had once been between them.

><><

The seasons after the war for Mossflower had rested easily on Martin for the most part, for in all honesty, he still was very young. However one thing could never be the same, and that was his right arm.

True, somehow, Sayna's magical hair had saved him from bleeding to death. But it either couldn't, or wasn't enough to heal him completely.

He had been forced to relearn fencing .. with his left arm. His right one was very weak and stiff, and if he pushed it too hard, it would hurt him. He used it to carry a shield, but was forced to fight with it no longer.

This was a hard hit, but Groddil had helped immensely. Having been forced to duel left-pawed most of his life, the silver fox was a kind and patient mentor as he taught Martin how to fight again.

The warrior mouse clenched his right paw into a fist, rubbing his shoulder ruefully with his left paw. At least the coming of spring was kinder to the old injury than winter.

At this moment however, Martin was sitting by the pond with Rose, Sayna, Timbal, Groddil, Bella .. and Fripple. Why the badger lady had allowed his adopted niece to come, he had no idea.

Bella spoke first, stating, "Let's take this piece by piece shall we? I'll read the first verse, you tell me what you think, and then we'll move onto the next one. All in all, I find this all pretty self-explanatory."

She looked at her parchment, reading,


"When thought it is, strife is no more,

And lazy summer sun shines down.

An evil holdeth western shore,

While kings and queens must find their crowns."


Rose spoke first. "It seems that it will be something happening now, or very soon. We have had a long peace, and we are nearing summer once more."

Martin nodded. "Quite so. But the evil holding the western shore .. the only thing to the west and on the shore would be Salamandastron. But .. what evil would hold it?"

Groddil frowned. "I know not. But the riddle says more on that later. What of the kings and queens who must find their crowns?"

Fripple spoke up from his lap. "That's mommy an' daddy an' Unca' Martin an Aunty Rose! They're kings an' queens, but they don't have crowns."

Bella nodded. "That was about the conclusion I came to as well Fripple. Now, the next part of the riddle is more foreboding."

She glanced at the parchment again, reading,


"Though snow white lord and evil queen,

Do both lie still in death,

The offspring of one,

Good will shun,

Hating light to their last breath."


Sayna spoke up. "It is clear to me, that this speaks of the one we must be wary of."

Martin nodded. "True, and the 'evil queen' would be Tsarmina. But she never had children .. at least that we know of. It's more likely this enemy is the child of the 'snow white lord' .. Badrang."

Rose raised an eyebrow. "But did he have a child? Do you remember Martin?"

Martin rubbed his shoulder, an almost instinctive action. "No .. no I can't say I do. But Badrang was middle aged .. he might have sired offspring before he became tyrant."

Bella sighed. "That's all speculation. But it seems obvious he has a descendent, unless our calculations are completely off. Now here's the next piece."

"The gold mouse maid and her true love,

As well as brother bold,

Must war long with the warlord's son,

Where sun turns sea to gold."


The badger lady smiled. "Fripple was kind enough to point out that the first two stanzas would seem to speak of Sayna, Timbal, and Martin. However as to the rest, what do you think?"

Martin curled his lip. "Apparently, Badrang has a son, one we must fight. And the sun sets in the west, so once again, I assume that somehow this is to happen at Salamandastron."

Timbal frowned. "That's what I'm worried about."

Sayna looked up at him. "How so?"

Timbal shook his head. "Martin .. you say Badrang was a white ermine? Tall, handsome, and with yellow eyes?"

Martin nodded. "Aye .. he was at least the size of a normal ferret. He had a black tip on his tail, as all ermine do, but he also had a black muzzle."

Timbal's eyes widened. "I have seen such a beast before, only he was too young to have been Badrang, and had gray points on his ears and finger tips. His name was Lotor .. and he was .."

The mouse looked away, stating, "He was Ripfang's first mate."

There was a collective gasp, Fripple being the only beast who looked confused. Sayna gulped, asking, "You don't think that after we escaped .. after Lord Boar died .. this Lotor was left alive and rallied Ripfang's crew!"

Timbal nodded. "That's exactly what I'm thinking."

Rose looked remorseful. "And to think we have only thought of this just now? The western shores could have been in oppression for six seasons .. and we have done nothing!"

Martin laid his left paw on her shoulders, stating, "Now hang on a second, this doesn't make sense. If such an event had occurred, why have we not caught wind of it by now? Surely travelers or escapees would have brought the news Salamandastron had fallen. It is only a three or four week journey by horse!"

Fripple piped up from her seat in Groddil's lap, asking, "But what if Lot'r killed 'em all? An' took all trav'lers prison'r, or somfing like that?"

Rose blinked at Sayna and Timbal, asking, "Where does she get such cunning and dreadful ideas you two? She's just a dibbun!"

The two mice shrugged as Fripple explained simply, "I listen, an' I'm not a baby Aunty Rose."

She said this with mild reproach.

Groddil ruffled her brown braid. "Aye, you're a sharp one little lassie. Now where we were .. "

><><

Now, as it has been done many times before and shall be done many times in the future, this whole conversation was overheard.

The eavesdropper was a magpie with ebony plumage and fluorescent green markings on her wings and tail. The bird sat in some shrubbery near the pond, nervous that she was forced to hide so close to the ground .. but there was no higher vantage point.

Yar was sure Rigvar would be quite interested with this conversation .. it sounded like the four marks and quite a few others planned to leave for Salamandastron.

However .. would she tell him? It was not right .. but then .. nothing was right.

No .. I do not wish to. Rigvar would take war to these people, and make me fight against them. But I do not want to fight them.

"What'are ya doin?"

The voice came from behind her, and was that of a young beast. Yar held in her surprised squawk, turning to see a little golden mouse with a shock of bright red headfur and green-flecked hazel eyes. He wore a blue tunic with a patchwork baby blanket tied about his shoulders as a cape, and had a wooden sword. The tiny creature stared at her defiantly, repeating his question.

"I asked what yu were doin."

Yar stammered quietly. "Uhh .. just watching."

The baby mouse was not about to go away. "Why are yu doin' that?"

Yar wasn't sure what to say. "I .. just wanted to."

The mouse looked halfway satisfied at least. "Oh. What are yu?"

Yar had no real means of escaping this rather odd conversation. "I'm a .. magpie."

She'd been about to say 'Doomwyte', but had thought the better of it. But this little mouse didn't seem in the least bit afraid of her. He even had the courage to stroke her glossy feathers, without the tiniest speck of fear in his eyes. It was obvious to Yar the child had lived all his young life without threat of danger, and therefore didn't know to be afraid of her. "Well I'm Luke. I gonna be a great warrior like my daddy. Are you a great warrior Mag'ie?"

Yar almost felt herself smiling for some reason as Luke called her the name of her species. "No, a magpie is what I am .. like you're a mouse. My name is Yar."

She regretted telling him that, but the words were out of her beak, and she couldn't call them back. Luke grinned up at her, asking, "Yu wanna meet my mommy an' daddy? They'd let yu stay, an' yu could be my friend!"

Yar gulped, shaking her head. "Uhh .. no .. not right now. I need to go .. home right now. But .. I might come back."

The magpie hated calling the place of the Doomwytes home. It wasn't her home! But it was too .. because she didn't dare leave. Yar scrambled out of the bush, creeping toward the wall with Luke at her tail.

"Awww .. why yu have to go now?"

Yar pulled her tail feathers away from Luke, stating, "Hey, don't pull on those .. I need them to fly!"

Luke pouted a moment, before holding up a small black and white feather. "Yu want this back then?"

Yar sighed. "It's not much use to me now, you may as well have it."

It wasn't until she'd left the mousebabe far below as she soared off, that it occurred to her Luke might not be the only one to see that feather.

><><

Fripple was finding the meeting a little dull by now. All that was being discussed now was if they should travel to Salamandastron and if they did, who should go and who should stay.

The arrival of Luke made things a little more interesting, but Fripple wasn't really happy to see him. She was supposed to be helping here, and now old scene stealer Luke had to come along and get involved.

The little mouse was doing nothing but irritating his father by playing with his whiskers, but all it took was Luke's presence to make Fripple feel threatened.

She crossed her arms and slouched in Groddil's lap, sighing. The silver fox tickled her ear with his scruffy whiskers as he muttered, "Jealous, eh lass?"

Fripple poked the fox, mumbling back, "Unca Groddil, how come nobody can hide nothin' from you?"

Groddil did nothing more then laugh softly and tweak her braid, before turning to the other adults and stating, "It's been on my mind for seasons now .. the thought of trouble somewhere. And I have an even worse question. What of Ferran? Or Roderick for that matter?"

Sayna stiffened with anger, and Timbal scowled, growling, "That turncoat had better never show up again .. besides, Sayna killed him!"

Sayna sighed. "I wounded him badly. Without another's aid, he'd have bled to death .. and either way .. he'd be permanently scarred."

Timbal instinctively touched the faint but somewhat noticeable scar that ran down his jaw, muttering, "Serves him right."

Sayna looked away. "If somehow he did not die, he would be furious .. mad enough to dedicate the rest of his life to revenge. And especially my demise."

Her black eyes grew as sharp as glittering glass shards as she snarled, "But if he dared show his face, I swear I would kill him. He's nothing but a pawn of the Dark Wolf now .. and he would be bent on my and the other marks' destruction."

Groddil frowned. "Aye lass, tis so. But Ferran is the one I'd worry more of .. he has the Flowers of Icetor! From what we've seen, that makes a beast near invincible, at least to minor and even more deadly wounds. You'd probably have to strike a blow that would kill instantly to bring them down."

Rose looked nervous. "But would that even do it? Could such a beast be wounded fatally and just .. get up again? Not saying anything against you, Groddil or Sayna .. but can a creature with the Flowers of Icetor ever really ... die?"

Groddil sighed. "I know not. I have felt younger and stronger in the past five seasons then I think I ever have. It's almost like .. my age was reversed. Like I'm young again."

Sayna nodded. "And neither of us have ever become sick since the day we received the Flowers. All my injuries .. ones that had bothered me for seasons .. they are completely gone. Like they never existed."

Timbal spoke up. "I know what you mean .. I never got my full strength back after five seasons of slavery. Until .."

He shook his head. "It sounds crazy .. but I swear .. well it's come back. Now I'm not saying I can't be wounded or something, but it's almost like I have never seen slavery."

Bella raised an eyebrow in amazement. "You're saying .. that just being around Sayna a lot .. has returned you to your former state? How powerful are these Flowers?"

Groddil shook his head. "I don't know. But what has happened to us .. we can assume it has happened to Ferran as well."

Martin sighed. "Making him a worse enemy than before."

Sayna nodded grimly.

Martin took the riddle from Bella, scanning it. He frowned, reading a verse aloud.


"Far in the west, three rulers fight,

And one must stay behind.

But even where all seems at peace,

There is the dark of night."


The warrior mouse frowned. "What do you make of that? We have the west again .. presumably Salamandastron. But what of these three rulers? Who are they?"

Sayna shrugged. "Could they be the ones we are facing?"

Rose shook her head. "No, I don't think that's right. Look at the next line .. 'And one must stay behind'."

Timbal blinked. "Maybe one of our enemies is to be killed. That would account for the one who stays behind."

Martin nodded. "That sounds logical. Means two of them would live though .."

Rose laughed. "Oh stop it you three! Can't you see what's staring you in the face? Look at the next two lines, what do they tell you?"

Martin rubbed his shoulder. "That even peaceful places can have evil?"

Rose rolled her eyes. "Yes, but if you put all four lines together, it means a lot more to me. Three rulers are fighting in the west. One stays behind. That makes four rulers .. four marks."

She shrugged. "It's already been said you, Sayna and Timbal are the ones who go, so it's obvious to me I'm the one staying behind."

Martin's face fell, and Rose sighed. "Though honestly, do you expect to take the children? Luke is less then five seasons .. Roseanna's even younger!"

Luke looked up from where he was messing with his father's sheathed sword, complaining, "But I wanna go too! Itsn't fair if Fripple gets to go an' I don't!"

Fripple stuck her tongue out, reeling it in as her father stated, "Oh don't worry one bit about that Luke, Fripple's going nowhere."

Sayna poked him. "Who's going to take her? Nobeast in their right mind .."

Rose spoke up. "Oh, I would!"

Everybeast stared at her, Martin and Fripple included. Martin stammered, "Dear .. are you sure about that .."

Rose waved a paw at him. "Of course I am! Fripple is a wonderful child, she just needs .. well .. if you know what I mean .. she needs a mother."

Fripple crossed her arms, complaining, "I have a mother!"

Sayna sighed as Rose gave her a look, stating, "Yes, one who teaches you sword fighting. I could step in for a bit while you're gone Sayna .. that way Fripple might learn a bit more about being .. a lady."

Fripple did not like the way this was going. "I don't wanna be a lady!"

Timbal looked dubious. "Perhaps we should ask Gingivere and Sandingomm if they could .. or Rupert and Estella .."

Fripple spoke up. "Unca Wheggy an' Aunty Gina!"

Rose sighed, a little hurt. "You don't trust my parenting skills?"

Sayna gave her a look, stating, "No, it's not that. It's the fact that Fripple .. well .. she get's in trouble! And she doesn't exactly get along well with Luke."

Rose patted her scowling son on the head, stating, "That's all the more reason to start now. They need to learn to be friends .. or at least get along. I'll see that they do .. and we'll have fun! Won't we Luke?"

Luke did not look so sure.

Martin sighed. "Well .. if you're certain it's what you want .."

Rose was firm. "It is. I love children!"

Bella stood, stating, "In that case, let's announce this at dinner. All who can and wish to help are free too .. and the sooner the better."




Chapter 5 Echo Shadows

Xemx

Xemx ;P

On the restless western shore, under the shadow Salamandastron cast, two creatures stood silently.

They were almost like pale shadows against the dunes as they watched the mountain that wasn't close .. yet wasn't all that far away. Evidenced by their long ears and bob tails, they were hares. But small, scruffy hares at that.

Of course, they were young. Perhaps fourteen or fifteen seasons apiece.

One was a female, moonlight gray and with large, brown, almond shaped eyes. She wore a short tunic made of hand woven dune grass, with a belt that looked like it had been braided from rags. Her snowy headfur was tied up with a bit of the same.

The other was a male, sandy blonde with steel gray tips and gray green eyes. His attire was much the same as his companion's, except his was a kilt of the woven grass.

The two stood like sentinels almost, letting the wind whip silently about them. The female spoke first, her accent not quite the same as a normal hare's. "Star, d'you think they'll be coming out anymore today?"

The male shrugged, his accent much the same as hers. Not like a normal hare's, but with elements of it. "I donno Breeze. Prob'ly not, but you never can tell with those rats."

Breeze, as she was called, sighed, "Star, they aren't all rats wot?"

Star rolled his eyes. "Oh whatever. They're all rotten ol' blighters an' cads anyway, so what's the difference?"

Breeze frowned. "You know what mother'd always say about language Starbuck."

He stiffened, sighing at last, "Mother's not here. Neither is father .. an' .. an' I don't wanna think about it."

Breeze looked away, asking, "Star .. what if they're still prisoners? What if Lotor didn't .. well .. what if we could save them!"

Her brother didn't turn around. "Breeze .. if you think he'd let them live this long, you're mad wot? They're dead .. we may as well face it. And even if they weren't, what could we do? Even if Lightfoot helped, what could three do against so many? No .. we may as well face it .. they're gone."

Breeze's ears drooped, and she sighed, "Well .. what if the new badger ruler would come? Would that help .. could we then .. maybe?"

Starbuck snorted. "Huh .. if they'd ever come. But when? I .. I'm not sure I want to try again anyway."

Breeze poked him. "What do you mean by that wot? If I got a chance, I'd give them what for! I'd make them pay for what they did to our parents!"

Starbuck wouldn't look up. "Leave me alone .. please Breeze? Go help Lightfoot or something .."

Breeze sighed, knowing how moody her brother could be. "Alright .. if you promise not to let them catch you."

Starbuck laughed dully, although there was no merriment in it. "Like they could."

><><

The pale blonde hare watched his sister sweep off into the dunes like a speck of moonlight in the day. He sighed, looking away, his steel green eyes hard.

six seasons ago, he and his sister had lived in Salamandastron with their parents, Lupin and Buffheart. Lord Boar had been ruler then, and there had been six other hares, and other horses as well.

But the Lord Boar had fought Ripfang, and been slain doing so. Three of the hares had been killed as well, Harebell, Wother, and Honeydew. A few horses had died too .. but the rest had escaped on Ripfang's ship, along with some visitors from Mossflower.

Starbuck could remember how sad his mother and father had been as they buried their fellow Long Patrollers and their lord. They'd found Whitelighting, one of the horse's, half dead on the battle field, and brought him back for treatment.

The only healer left had been Lightfoot, a small dun pony. She'd patched the creamello stallion up .. but it hadn't done any good.

For that night, the peace was shattered. Starbuck could remember wanting to sleep in the infirmary with Lightfoot, and Breeze had too. The little pony was almost like their second mother, and they were fond of her.

The two little hares had dropped off to sleep when the attack came .. Lightfoot had awakened them. There was nothing to be done .. they couldn't even go back for Lupin and Buffheart.

Lightfoot had been forced to leave Whitelighting to the mercy of their attackers, for the horse was too weak to escape. Starbuck could remember Lightfoot making he and Breeze ride her .. could remember galloping through the echoing halls of Salamandastron.

They couldn't go out the front entrance; it was overrun with vermin. But Lightfoot wasn't exactly a young pony, and she could remember the rein of Ungatt Trunn. She'd been a filly then, and one of those unfortunates who had become trapped in the cellars .. so she knew of the secret exit. The little pony had taken advantage of this knowledge, and carried her two young charges to safety .. but they were forced to leave everything to do so.

Everything .. and everyone.

><><

As Starbuck finished recalling his memories, he left the dune's shadow he was sitting in and slipped off toward his hidden home. And not a moment too soon.

For as the pale gold hare left the dune, two black specks were making their way towards Salamandastron .. and would have seen him had he not moved away.

One was quite a bit shorter then the other, and wore a long black cloak with a enveloping hood. The glimmer of a metal sword-like weapon peeped from beneath the creature's cloak hem, as well as the white tip of it's tail.

The taller creature was .. odd to say the least. He was a fox, although one would have to look twice to assure whether he was a male or a vixen. For he had hair .. long black hair done up in a braid. If it had been loose, it would have surely fallen about his feet.

This did create a strange effect, to be sure. Thankfully, he had a braided beard to accompany his amazingly long hair .. a fact that helped define his gender. He was sooty black .. and his fur did not shine in the sun. His attire, weapons .. in fact everything about him .. was black. His pale, unsettling orange eyes were the only contrast .. and a striking but frightening one at that.

The smaller beast stopped atop the dune Starbuck had been at moments before, it's hood tilting like it was giving the ground a cryptic glance. The creature's voice was a bit nasal .. although not terribly high. "A hare has been here .. very recently."

The fox gave the hooded beast a condescending glare. "What does that matter? And why are you wearing that stupid cloak? Afraid?"

The creature sneered. "I am taking precautions Ferran. You'd be wise to do the same."

Ferran growled. "Oh, you be careful kid. Don't back talk your elders .. lest they get mad."

The creature's voice sounded as though it was clenching it's teeth. It took a few steps towards the fox, snarling, "Kid? Get over it Ferran, I'm just as good as you."

Ferran sneered dryly, reaching to flick the smaller beast's hood off, but a black paw shot from the cloak, seizing his arm with a grip of iron. "See? I do not need eyes to tell me your motives, and my powers are every inch as strong as yours. As I practice more .. we'll see who wins out."

Ferran wrenched his paw away, rubbing it grudgingly. "Watch your back kid, I know tricks you don't. Do you really think I'd teach you everything?"

The beast brushed past him, sneering, "What are you going to do old one? Knife me in the back? I'll know, and can stop your blade in midflight. You keep an eye on your own back .. it's the one in danger, not mine."

><><

Lotor sat on his throne surveying the two creatures Swartt had brought to him. He could feel their darkness, and knew they were Shadow Fighters as he.

The ermine nodded to Swartt. "Thank you Captain. Dismissed .. though I will call for you later."

Swartt bowed, before striding out, and the door shut behind him. Lotor nodded to the two beasts before him. "So you are the two of which Malimore told me of? Has our Lord sent you?"

The black fox nodded, orange eyes blank. "He did."

Lotor waved a paw. "Introduce yourselves."

The fox spoke first. "I am Ferran. Strong in the physical world, as well as good in the mental world."

The other creature spoke through it's hood. "Roderick is my name. I am decent in the physical realms, but the spiritual world is my strength."

Lotor gave him a half condescending look. "Remove your hood .. I like to see those I work with."

The beast flicked his hood off a one deft move, and Lotor stood speechless a moment. This creature was a mouse! He had black fur, brown eyes, and a cream underbelly, as well as a hideous scar running jaggedly between his eyes at an angle; covering his face from left ear to right cheek.

Lotor laughed, half in total mockery, half in disbelief. "A mouse? Malimore sent me a mouse? What does he think I am .. a vole? That I need a mouse to help me?"

Roderick barely moved, just held his right paw out slightly, before making a throwing motion.

Lotor instinctively held up a paw as there was a quick flash of green, and a bit of rock came flying at him. The stone dropped to the ground with a clack as it connected with Lotor's power, and Roderick's mouth twisted into a small sneer. "Your lack of faith disturbs me .. majesty."

Lotor drew himself to his full height, stating dryly, "Very well .. mouse. I see I have made a hasty judgment."

Roderick didn't let his sneer untwist. "Most beasts do. There is a difference between a mouse and a goodbeast .. and I'm living proof."

><><

This whole interview was watched however, by a pair of luminescent violet eyes. Their owner was a rat maiden the color of pale sunlight, clad in black seer garb.

Her strange eyes narrowed as she saw the mouse called Roderick demonstrate his power, and Lotor's counter. She smiled ever so slightly, although it was more of a sneer then anything.

Velox would not pleased to hear this .. but he would want to hear it.

The rat leapt off the ledge she was sitting on and to another, agile as a squirrel. She was far above the three conversing beasts, and on a series of rock ledges only she knew of. The shadows were thick up where she was, and afforded her good hiding.

These small spurs of rock high in the walls led out to a narrow rock window, which the rat slipped quickly out of and onto the side of the mountain. The dizzying height did not seem to effect her as she scaled Salamandastron's face, unmindful of the fact she could drop to certain death.

The slim little rat slipped almost effortlessly onto a jutting rock spur, darting over to a narrow opening that led into the mountain, and sliding softly in.

A cloaked beast stepped from the shadows, asking, "Well? How did it go? How strong are they?"

The rat maid blinked. "Quite strong sir. They seem on par with ye, if'n ye don't mind me a'sayin' so."

Velox paced a little, finally stating, "Go tell Bluefen to be on guard, and be quick about it."

The rat nodded, "Yes sir."

As she turned to go, Velox added, "And Xemx, tell Bluefen to steer clear of that husband of her's .. tell her to go easy. I need that wench alive .. understand?"

Xemx dipped her head. "I'll see ta it."

She then bolted off through Salamandastron, fast as the light of the sun she was named for.

><><

Far from Salamandastron, on the northern most fringes of Mossflower woods, lurked another shadow from the past.

He was one most had thought to have died already, or at least be completely mad and therefore no danger. But he was not.

While he was not a sane beast, he was just cognizant enough to be dangerous. His mood and sanity were unpredictable, for he was quite a loose cannon.

Also, he had a overdeveloped fondness for grog, and being intoxicated did little to help his half-addled mind.

He was to be sure, a hard beast to forget. Why he was lurking on the outskirts of Mossflower on this early spring day was hard to say for sure, but it had to do with the fact he was in truth, a loyal beast. And a loyal beast always returns to their master.

The creature was an ermine, although some would have said stoat. For his fur was in it's brown summer coat, although pieces of it were turning gray with age. He had a cutlass, and a braided beard.

A rat ran up to him, bowing quickly. "Capt'n, it's like ya said. These woods is nice, although we ain't had any sign of a castle .."

The creature rolled his eyes. "Course you ain't Scritchy, we're too far north yet. But ye will, jest wait'n see. Milord Verdauga Greeneyes is da richest king around .. an' he'll wanna hear 'bout how I killed me ol' brother."

The rat cocked her head, asking, "Will 'e reward us Capt'n?"

Her Captain raised a brushy eyebrow. "Reward us Scritchy? 'E'll be pleased as anythin' ta know ol' Badrang's dead! He wanted nothin' more then ta get rid a dat traitor, an' sent me ta do it. Well I did. An' now I'll 'ave earned meself good standin' with 'im."

A weasel walked up to them, stating in a rather dim-witted voice, "Uhh .. Capt'n? Where's we gonna camp for da night?"

His captain gave him a disgusted look. "I shoulda knowed you'd be stupid, with a name like Bootbrain. Wippback's got more smarts'n you do! So does Floggtail, an all da others! Why yer ol' captain let you be steersbeast, I'll never know. Mayhaps dat's da reason yer ol' ship wrecked an' he died eh?"

Bootbrain shook his head, exclaiming, "But Capt'n, dat weren't me fault! It was dark an' stormy an' Scritchy here messed up an' put a whole bottle a ale in da skilly .."

Scritchy put her paws on her hips. "Ahh shud'up ya dim-witted animal! I never signed up ta be cook, ol' Reynard made me be one. Course I was bad at it!"

Bootbrain nodded. "Uh .. yep. Ol' Reynard was alwus makin' beasts be wot dey didn't wanna be .. Capt'n Clogg's better bout dat."

Clogg, for so he was, waved a paw at the two. "Go call da others back .. we'll set up 'ere. It'll be a week or so for we git ta Kotir anyhow .. no need ta wear our paws out if'n we don't have ta."

><><

Xemx stood near Lotor's chambers, violet eyes glimmering ever so softly. She had relayed Velox's message to Bluefen, noting with interest that the ferret wife seemed uneasy. Like she wished they could progress faster.

However she had agreed to wait .. grudgingly. Xemx might have felt pity for her .. but then .. Xemx rarely felt pity for anyone.

The gold rat suspected Bluefen hated Swartt so much, the idea of slaying him was tantalizing .. a chance for well deserved revenge.

Xemx tossed her head, her usual sneer widening. That's why you had to be witty and cruel, smart and sly, willing to use anybeast, no matter the outcome. Or else you would end up like Bluefen; hated, enslaved, neglected, and saddled with a brat on top of it.

One thing was for sure, and that was that she, Xemx, would never be faced with such a situation .. never. And it was one of the reasons she was waiting outside Lotor's throne room .. she was waiting for that mouse.

He had power .. wonderful power. She had seen it .. and she wanted it. The mouse could teach her .. and she could make him. Xemx knew how to deal with malebeasts, and had raised quite a name for herself among the lower beasts in Lotor's horde. She was charming, beautiful, silver-tongued, and sly, and many a rat had lost his heart to her.

But she never returned affection, simply used it until it no longer benefited her, then moved on without the slightest pause. The only beast Xemx loved, was herself.

And this little mouse .. ha. He was easy prey. She would get him to teach her his secrets, then leave him in the dust. No problem.

Her eyebrows arched as the creature himself walked out, the tiniest bit of a smirk on his face. He paused as the black fox strode past him without so much as pausing. The mouse directed a sneer at him, before pulling his hood up and heading off in another direction .. the direction of Xemx's hiding place.

The little golden rat's sneer widened fractionally, as she stepped out of her shadows, asking, "Meetin' the boss eh?"

The mouse stopped, stating finally, "I wouldn't call him that if I were you."

Xemx wasn't sure what to think of this response, but she didn't loose her composure. "I'd not call him that to his face. But between you an' me, I don't mind."

The mouse shrugged. "Your neck, your problem."

He tried to push past her, but Xemx held up a paw. "Now don't go runnin' off me friend, I have a few things ta ask ye."

The mouse had not taken off his hood. "I do what I please, and I have no friends. But still, what are your questions?"

His voice was flat, unemotional, and the kind that expects an honest answer. Xemx would have been batting her eyelashes at the creature, but with his hood up, she felt it would be lost on him anyway. She took a few steps nearer, flicking his hood off with an agile paw.

His brown eyes stared back levelly, neither surprised nor questioning. This confused Xemx slightly, for she had never met a creature who could resist her for very long. Her boots made the smallest of clicks on the stone floor as she circled him, stating slyly, "I want somethin' from ya."

The mouse's eyes held the slightest bit of suspicion as he asked flatly, "Well then, what do you want?"

Xemx gave him a dazzling look. "Your power."

The mouse's eyes hardened. "You don't know what you ask."

Xemx smiled sweetly. "I can learn."

The mouse sneered slightly. "You'll regret it. Why don't you run along and steal some other beast's heart .. I do not give mine away."

Xemx could not hide her look of shock quick enough, and the mouse saw it. His sneer widened as he stated, "Oh, you thought I would be an easy con? Think again .. Xemx. I am strong in the ways of the Dark Wolf, and even the most hidden thoughts are known to me. So be careful what you think, my dear."

Xemx recovered quickly, smiling. "Ye are a beast after me own heart, I see. An' all the more now, I want yer power. So teach it ta me."

The mouse's eyes glinted subtly as he paused, finally nodding. "Very well. But you will regret this day."

Xemx brushed past him, stating, "Oh, I doubt it me friend, I doubt it. Meet me here tonight .. and we'll see what ye can do."

She slipped quickly away, the mouse's answer nearly inaudible .. but not quite.

"Oh no my dear .. we'll see what you can do."

For the first time, Xemx had to wonder who was playing this game.




Chapter 6 Westward

Sayna was trying hard to focus on packing her belongings, while having to answer her daughter's endless questions.

"But why do you an' daddy have to go?"

Sayna sighed. "I told you dear. As kings and queens of Mossflower, we are honor bound to search out the matter of Salamandastron's well being. Our countries have long been allies, since before Verdauga's conquest. Also, Trubbs and his patrol have been kind enough to stay with us these five seasons, assisting us in the building of Redwall .."

Sayna turned and faced her daughter, who was staring blankly at her. "And you probably don't understand a word of what I'm saying, do you?"

Fripple looked sadder then Sayna had ever seen her. "Only that you an' daddy are leaving! An' I don't want you to .. not if I can't come!"

Sayna sighed again, tying her packed haversack and motioning for Fripple. The little mouse climbed onto the bed as Sayna stated, "Fripple, listen. I don't want to leave you either .. please believe that. I love you .. and I'll miss you. But if I was to take you .. and you would get hurt .. I can't let that happen ok? And your father couldn't either."

Fripple sniffed. "But I can fight mommy .. I can!"

Sayna sat beside her daughter, stating, "Dear, you have the makings of a mighty warrior. But we could be faced with anything .. hordes, Shadow Fighters .. anything! And you are not yet ready."

Fripple grabbed Sayna's paw. "Then teach me mommy! Teach me to fight like you an' daddy! Please?"

"And she will Fripple, as will I."

Sayna started, to see Timbal had walked in unnoticed. Fripple ran to her father, exclaiming, "Daddy let me come! Please let me!"

Timbal sighed as he picked her up. "As your mother said, you are too young. Someday little one, you will be a strong and mighty warrior, I'm sure of it. But you must stay behind now, so you may live to become that warrior."

Fripple's sky blue eyes grew begging. "Daddy, please?"

Timbal shook his head. "I'm sorry sweetheart, but that's not going to work this time. The answer is no. And I mean it Fripple .. we're very serious. War is .. not something a child can face. Your mother and I were little more then children when we were forced to fight .. we were too young to have seen everything we saw. And that's not going to happen to you Fripple, it isn't."

Fripple pouted as Timbal set her down, nodding to Sayna. "The horses are ready and waiting. We need to join the others at Redwall .. and leave Fripple with Rose."

Sayna rolled her eyes as she picked up her haversack, thinking of her adopted sister. "That is a setup for disaster .. and she won't listen to me!"

Timbal laughed. "I know it. But I suppose if Rose gets too frazzled, she'll send Fripple over to Rupert and Estella's, or Whegg and Regina's. They offered you know."

Sayna nodded. "I expect that's what will happen. It's no use arguing with Rose once she get's an idea in her head .. might as well just let her find out for herself, you'll get farther."

She looked over at a pouting Fripple, calling, "Come on Fripple, you want to ride on Dancer or Diamond?"

Fripple perked up a bit, stating, "Dancer! No .. Diamond .. no .. Dancer .. no .. can I ride both?"

Timbal shoved Brockhall's door open, sighing, "No, you may not. Pick one."

><><

At Redwall, just about everyone had taken the day off. With so many leaving, everyone wished to see them off.

Martin had announced the quest at supper the night before, and many had volunteered to go. Trubbs, Lepus, Ffring, and Willow weren't about to stay; the three hares desperate to learn the fate of their beloved mountain, and Lepus loyal to her husband.

Of course, they had decided to leave their two sons at Redwall, under the care of Abbess Germaine and the other creatures who had come from Loamhedge. Wother was quite disappointed, but Sedge was too young to really know the difference.

Also going were Lady Redfarl and a good portion of her tribe .. they were war-like, and a little bored with so many seasons of peace.

Warthorn may have been old .. ancient in fact, but he was determined to come, and a good part of his holt as well. His son in law, Kaylar, was with him, although his daughter was staying in Mossflower with his two twin grandchildren, Catkin and Mayberry.

Most of the horses were coming. Over the seasons since the battle for Mossflower, they had formed a herd, known as the Wind Runners. Their lead stallion was Prairiefire, and as is custom among horses, his lead mare was his wife, Redcloud.

The only ones who planed to stay behind were Luna, with her and Flyingsparks' son, Glowingsparks, Midnightshadow, and Wildfire and Dancer's children, Forestfire and Mystiquestar.

Bella and Groddil were among those who planned to come, along with Martin, Timbal, and Sayna.

So it was an interesting assortment that had gathered on Redwall's lawns that morning, for it was all these as well as those who were to stay behind. Old friends greeted each other, goodbyes were said, horses had their shoes checked .. it was a regular hive of activity.

Bella was having a quick talk with Germaine, Rose, and Brome about what should be done if something should go wrong.

Brome was a brawny young mouse of twenty seasons now, and he had grown far more responsible, although some of is youth would always remain with him. He had finally grown fond of Amyl through her relentless teasing and flirting, and had married her a little less then a season ago. Amyl had been completely delighted with this .. she'd been madly in love with Brome since before the battle with Tsarmina.

Rowanoak and Ballaw, along with the rest of their troop were staying at Redwall. They had talked much of returning to the life of a traveling circus, although neither badger nor hare had done anything more then talk. Abbess Germaine would often confide in Bella that she felt they wished to see Redwall Abbey finished, before they started traveling once more.

Urran stood with his son and the abbess as Bella gave instructions. He had not returned to rebuild Noonvale, he physically could not. The vision in his right eye was destroyed from the whipping he had received on the Bloodwake, and his right wrist was twisted even worse then Groddil's had once been. He walked with a staff, and had a chronic limp, but he was surprisingly content. Germaine had taken him on as infirmary assistant when Columbine married Gonff, and made him infirmary keeper when she had officially become Abbess once more.

So many things had changed since the coming of the four marks, and most for the better.

But not all .. for that can never be.

><><

While the adults conversed, the dibbuns snuck off, one by one. No one exactly noticed; they were too busy with last minute orders and goodbyes.

Once the young beasts had congregated by the pond, there really were a lot of them. Catkin and Mayberry the otter princesses, Gonfflet, Ivan and his twin sister Iris, Wother, Ash, and Esther, the daughter of Rupert and Estella. Of course Luke was there, and where Luke was, so was Roseanna. Even Wildfire's foals Forestfire and his sister Mystiquestar were there, and of course, Fripple.

Fripple was in truth a bossy dibbun, and had appointed herself leader of the DAB, or the Dibbuns Against Bedtime. Luke was forever vying for this coveted position, and his adopted cousin forever battling him to keep it.

She paced up and down like a Long Patrol captain might, something she had learned from Trubbs. "We've gotta do somethin'! They're gonna leave us an' go on a 'dveture!"

Luke rolled his eyes. "What we gonna do genius? Go after 'em?"

Fripple pointed her sling shot at him, stating, "Of course! If we can .. but we've gotta have a plan .. an' a good one too .."

Ivan interrupted. "But Fripple .. well .. I donno. But do you think this is such a good idea? I'm not sure .."

Gonfflet crossed his arms. "Yea, how'm I gonna swipe Germaine's pies if I ain't here?"

Esther hurriedly took his stead. "'Nofflet's right .. Fripple, can we steal stuff if we go?"

Fripple rolled her eyes. "Course you can silly! There'll be vermin an' stuff, an' we can plunder them!"

Esther frowned. "Is that sorta like stealin'?"

Luke nodded. "It's the same thing a course!"

Fripple shoved her cousin. "No it ain't, it's more noble ta plunder."

Luke shoved her back. "Ukk, stop touching me!"

Fripple poked him. "And why should I?"

Luke huffed. "Cause you're a girl, that's why!"

Fripple jumped at him, yelling, "Ooohhh I'll teach'a who's a girl! Take this!"

><><

It had taken a while to get the questers organized, but the task was finally accomplished. It was decided that Redfarl should take her squirrels on ahead and meet the main party on the edges of Mossflower.

Warthorn and his otters were to travel as far as they could by the Moss, before joining the others on land.

Argulor had volunteered to carry messages from party to party, and also to and from the questers and Redwall, along with Emalet.

The owl had become a good friend of Argulor's, and decided to stay in Mossflower, at least until Redwall was built.

Martin was feeling a little better about leaving Rose because of the two birds, and the fact he would still know what was going on in Mossflower. Still, it was a sad parting between them, even if it was only for a while.

Rose sighed, asking, "Promise me you'll be careful .. and not do anything stupid! Don't get yourself pinned to another tree .. I won't be there to save you."

Martin smiled, remembering. "I'll try not to .. and don't run into any pirates while I'm gone."

Rose couldn't help but laugh. "I seriously doubt that will be a danger Martin .. I won't be in any trouble. It's you I'm worried about."

Martin laid a paw on her shoulder. "I'll be fine .. it's not like I've never had to fight before."

Rose looked away. "Just .. be careful. I can't explain why but .. but I'm nervous about this whole situation."

Martin nodded. "I am too .. I think we all are. And .. I'll miss you Rose. I wish I didn't have to go."

Rose sighed. "You are the high king, and it is your duty .. you would never shirk it. A king cannot leave an allied kingdom in distress; it is not right. Besides, you are too noble for that."

Martin nodded as Wildfire trotted up, tossing his head. "We're ready to leave Martin."

The horse dipped his head to Rose, stating, "I'll see him safe eh?"

Martin gently shoved his old friend, stating, "I think I can do that mate. Rose .. I'll be back soon."

She hugged him, stating, "See that you are. And don't do anything stupid!"

Martin smiled a little. "I won't. And we'll be back before we know it. Who knows .. there might be nothing wrong, and we come back without ever fighting."

Rose managed a smile for him as he swung up into Wildfire's saddle, and the two trotted toward the main gate and the other questers. Martin waved to her, and she waved back, but deep down .. she knew it would not be a false alarm.

Rose closed her eyes, whispering, "Lord Ignasa go with you my love .. and may he watch over your pawsteps."

><><

The questers looked a grand sight as they rode from Redwall that day and along the path. And they were not watched only by those they were leaving behind.

In a nearby oak were two magpies, near shadows of the other. One was larger, fiercer, and stronger looking, but they really weren't that different from each other.

The larger bird narrowed her eyes, cawing softly, "They are leaving .. you heard nothing of this on your last visit?"

The smaller bird shook her head. "No Yaz .. I heard nothing. Just talk of building the redstone house."

Yar tried to make herself look as honest as possible .. even though she knew she was lying. Yaz's black eyes swept unnervingly over her, and Yar almost held her breath.

However her sister nodded the next second. "They probably talked where we would not hear them .. but Rigvar will want to hear of this now."

Yar's heart sank, but she nodded miserably. Yaz cocked her head. "What's wrong Yar? You don't seem .. happy."

Yar sighed. "I .. haven't been. Not really."

Yaz was skeptical. "Why? Rigvar gives us what we need, and he even promises us the hope of ruling Mossflower! What more could you want?"

Yar looked down. "Yaz .. is that so important? Remember when it was just you and me .. with no one to tell us what to do? I .. miss that."

Yaz frowned. "Yar, this is important. We are magpies .. woodlanders hate and fear us. They want to kill us! So we must kill them first!"

Yar blinked in shock. "Yaz .. but that's not true! That's what Rigvar says .. but I think .."

Yaz cut her off. "Then don't. Rigvar is honest, and I believe him. And if he heard what you'd just said .. just go along with it. Keep your beak shut .. or else you'll get into trouble bigger then I can get you out of. Got that?"

Yar looked away. "Yes Yaz .. I didn't say a thing to Rigvar or any of the others .. just you."

Yaz sighed. "Yea .. well just don't even think about rebelling. You're the one who's mistaken .. those woodlanders would kill you without a thought."

Yar could not make herself believe it; quite on the contrary, she believed Rigvar was the one who would kill without a thought. However Yaz was blind to this, and Yar had no way of making her see.

The little magpie sighed. "Yes .. I guess you're right."

Yaz nodded. "Good, now you're thinking. Let's go tell Rigvar .. he'll be pleased as anything to hear this!"

Yar flapped reluctantly after her sister, heart heavy. Could she make Yaz understand the trap she was in .. before it was too late?

For both her, and the woodlanders.

There must be a way for me to stop this .. and to save them! There has to be a way!




Chapter 7 Evil's Call

Roderick

Roderick ;3

Bluefen paced her chambers, while Veil watched her silently. The blue ferret shook her head as she groaned inwardly.

Oh, why must we wait? Why? If that Velox is hiding something from me I'll ..

She shook her head, sighing. There was nothing she could do .. she had to trust that pine marten .. something she loathed to do.

He'll play me false .. I know it. He'll use me until I'm no longer helpful .. but when I need help he won't care. That double crossing liar!

Veil's eyes widened as he asked, "Who's the double crossin' liar mommy?"

Bluefen blinked, realizing she must have been talking aloud. "Velox .. he's up to something, I know it. If he betrays me to Swartt .."

Veil shook his head. "But mommy, you said he hat'd father."

Bluefen nodded as she sat beside her son, stating, "I did .. I did. But Veil .. that doesn't mean he wouldn't get his help in something, if he felt it would benefit him. And I can't let him .. I have to protect you."

Veil blinked up at her, stating, "I could help mommy .. if you'd teach me."

Bluefen smiled at her son .. he was so determined .. yet so weak physically. He wouldn't have had to have been .. it was Swartt's fault. It was all Swartt's fault. She sighed. "Oh Veil .. I'm sure you could. But .. you aren't ready .. not yet. Someday my son, you will be."

Veil looked a little disappointed, but nodded. Bluefen felt a pang in her heart .. Veil was so trusting of her. If she should ever fail him ..

No. I won't .. I'll free us both. We won't stay here and wait for death. We'll be free if it's the last thing I do!

Bluefen shook her head. If she didn't have Veil, she would simply go out and find the truth of the matter. But if she left her son alone .. and his father should find him .. no. That wasn't an option.

However Swartt kept them here almost like prisoners .. and she could barely even take Veil down the sea to look for food. The little ferret loved it when she did .. but he knew better than to ask. As young as he was, he was very intelligent, and the surroundings he lived in were not lost to him.

He knew to avoid his father, and all other beasts as well. The only creature he'd come near was his mother .. she was the only one who was ever kind to him. Some thought he couldn't talk, but it was not so. He simply talked to nobeast but Bluefen; after all, she was the only one who talked to him.

Long ago Veil had learned his mother was the only kind beast in the world .. at least his world. And it was the only world he knew.

><><

Out in the dunes surrounding Salamandastron, all seemed still. Apart from the soft rustle of few and far between clumps of dune grass, all was quiet.

The soft lapping of a calm sea could be heard in the distance, and the soft breeze shifted the ever-moving sands. The scuffed tracks of many boots announced the path of a recent vermin patrol, although the creatures who had left them were no longer there.

It seemed vacant, until one looked closer. Then you would only notice the creature if you looked very closely, and knew exactly what you where looking for.

Breeze was little more then a pale speck crouched silently behind some dune grass. Her moonlight gray fur had been dulled purposely with sand, and her woven grass tunic offered good camouflage.

The young hare didn't move an inch as she surveyed her surroundings carefully, ever watchful. It wasn't that she was watching for someone so much, as the fact she did this every day. She would stay here, waiting. Waiting for something she could only dream existed .. the badger. The one of prophesy .. said to come and rule Salamandastron once more.

Starbuck .. he watched in the night. But Breeze knew he wasn't watching for the badger with the mark of the sun .. she knew he'd given up. All he watched for was vermin, ready to defend their hidden home.

I cannot blame him .. I am close to giving up as well.

Lightfoot was the only one who refused to give up hope, and she kept her two young friends trying. The little mare was as good as a mother to the two hares .. even if she could never replace their real one.

Breeze missed her family; she did. But the memories were slowly fading .. she was starting to forget. She had been little more then nine seasons when the attack had come.

The hare finally sighed, turning and leaving her dune like a wraith. She slipped soundlessly through the sand walking so she purposefully blurred her tracks. She went a ways before ducking into what seemed a solid dune.

But it wasn't. The silver white hare vanished behind the solid-seeming sand covered screen, her paws softly pattering on the flight of steps leading down, into what had been her home for six seasons.

It was an odd stone cavern, although the rocks in it were sand-like to be sure. The light came from several torches and lanterns hung on the walls, accompanied by some candles here and there.

Breeze shook sand from her fur and tunic, rubbing it off of her long ears. "Beastly hot out there you know. Summers on it's way."

Starbuck made a noncommittal sound, not looking up from the javelin he was whittling. The cavern's only other occupant on the other paw, smiled. "It is Breeze, and I feel it will be a long, dry summer at that."

The speaker was a golden Appaloosa pony, with a white blaze on her face. She had kind, understanding brown eyes and a somewhat continual smile, as well as a frothy brown mane that fell a good ways down her neck.

Starbuck looked up from his whittling, asking dully, "Lightfoot, how do you know?"

Lightfoot turned back to the dried herbs she was going through, stating, "My little Star, I read the weather. It tells me it's secrets, and I listen. We have had little snow or rain this last winter, and spring came early. I will not look for rain until mid-autumn."

Breeze frowned. "What if the spring dries up?"

The pony tossed her forelock, sighing, "Then we will have to leave."

Starbuck's eyes hardened. "Leave? No, I want to stay! How can we fight the bally vermin if we leave?"

Lightfoot sighed. "Star, that is not everything. We might return when the rains do, but if our well goes dry, we leave to find a new one."

Breeze shrugged. "Well .. maybe it won't go dry wot? Maybe we'll get lucky."

Starbuck turned back to his whittling, his voice begrudging. "Like we've had much of that .. ever."

><><

Swartt strode through the echoing halls of Salamandastron, his boots tapping on to stone floor with an important air. He cut a handsome and imposing figure, with his swirling blue cape and metal breastplate.

However .. his companion was .. less awe-inspiring to say the least. He was a pale, silver gray rat with pink eyes, and a cowering demeanor. He had to nearly run to keep up with Swartt, and yet somehow he did, with an odd little scurrying gait.

The ferret captain did not slow down for him, just asked in a commanding voice, "Well Slugwort, how long until it is in order?"

Slugwort, as he was called, had a rather high-pitched, squeaky voice; one that possessed an eternal nervous quality. "I'm workin' on it Melord, me an' Scound are."

Swartt scowled. "Tell that weasel I want it done now!"

Slugwort nodded furiously. "Oh yes Melord, I'll tell 'im but he don't listen ta me .."

Swartt rolled his eyes. "The idiot weasel never listens to anybeast, haven't you figured that out yet Slugwort? You must learn to speak his language."

Slugwort nodded again. "I'll try Melord but .. it's hard ta tell him nothin'. Most cause ya never get ta say nothin'."

Swartt growled, his long-suffering attitude wearing thin. "Tell him to move his tail or I'll come have a word with him. Got that Slugwort?"

The cowering rat did his classic nod. "Yes Melord .. I'll see to it."

As he turned to scurry off, Swartt ordered, "And don't call me, Milord! Not yet Slugwort .. not yet. Call me Captain for now .. because that's what I am. But if you two would move a little faster .. you'd get to call me Milord sooner .. eh Slugwort? Now go!"

><><

Slugwort hurried down a passage away from Swartt, and as he did, his composure changed a bit. His pink eyes still possessed a nervous, flighty look, although now it was more shifty than fearful.

He straitened up a bit, and his walk became less skittish; more purposeful. The rat turned a corner coming face to face with a tall, rather sinewy weasel. The creature leaned nonchalantly on a spear, asking in a airy voice, "Well Slugwort, what'd the boss want this time?"

Slugwort hated being caught off guard, and took it out upon his questioner. "He want's ya ta move it with the plans, or else he'll talk ta ya himself! An' ya don't want that!"

The weasel gave Slugwort a bored, skeptical look as he answered in his normal voice, which was his airy one. "Oh he will eh? Well that's fine by me .. it's about time he got involved in his own underpaw dealings. If he want's ta kill Lotor he'd best help out, unless he's so negligent to think I can do it all myself Slugy."

Slugwort's nose and ears turned red with fury as he snarled, "That ain't my name an' ya know it!"

The weasel laughed, completely un-intimidated. "I know it Slugy, I know it. That's why I do it you know."

Slugwort stamped a paw. "Yer ol' mum was thinkin' clear when she named ya Scoundrel!"

Scoundrel .. or Scound as he was often called, sneered back. "Aye, mum knew what I'd be .. an' so'd yours. Where'd you get a name like Slugwort? Is it cause you're ugly, and stupid?"

Slugwort went red with complete anger at this insult, snarling, "Yea, well just watch yer ol' flea-bitten hide weasel! One a these days dat big mouth'a yers is gonna git ya in trouble .. an' I can't wait ta see it!"

Scound rolled his eyes. "You'll have long since gone blind from yer own bad looks Slugy .. fraid you'll 'ave ta miss out on that one."

Slugwort was so mad he could barely stand still. "Scound .. you .. I'll .."

Scound raised an eyebrow. "You'll what? Scare me with that squeaky voice of yours?"

Slugwort could take no more .. he was so furious he seemed about to turn completely red and faint. "Ya just see the plans get carried out! Or Swartt'll have yer hide!"

The rat stomped away from his weasel antagonist in high bad humor, ears red with fury. Scound just laughed, calling after him, "Shouldn't get yerself so worked up Slugy, it's bound to be bad for yer looks .. as if ya had any!"

><><

In any horde of vermin, there is much discord. It is only natural .. without Lord Ignasa, how can anybeast have true honor .. true strength? What is to prevent them from using whoever can assist their cause, but without a thought to that beast's safety or well-being?

There is nothing, for without Lord Ignasa, there is no true good.

Salamandastron was nothing but a hive of hatred and underpaw dealing, backstabbing and lies. Lotor may have thought his horde was subservient to him, and in truth, some of them were. But the larger part were ready to turn on him at any moment.

Ready to follow any leader they thought would benefit them more.

Both Velox and Swartt were opted for that position, and were greedy to take it. They hated Lotor, and they hated each other; each one believing they were more worthy of ruling. The horde had split into hidden thirds almost, one third for Velox, one for Swartt, and one who believed their present leader was best.

Lotor had not caught real wind of this, for he found it below him to mingle with his common hordebeasts. However he did have spies, who told him of mild discontent .. for even they could not see the hearts of beasts.

But in reality, it was like a castle built on a scaffold; teetering, and ready to fall at any moment. And for those who were destined to fight for Salamandastron, this was a good thing.

For it is indeed said, that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

And this one was in thirds.

><><

In his conquest of Salamandastron and the surrounding country, Lotor had killed many beasts.

But not all. The survivors were few and far between perhaps, but they were there. Besides Breeze, Starbuck, and Lightfoot, there were others in hiding.

Most hid in groups, unwilling to leave the lands that had been theirs for generations. However, some hid alone. It was harder for them, to be sure. But there were a few who did.

One of these lived in the fringes of Mossflower, in sight of Salamandastron. She was seldom seen by anybeast, although all beasts were seen by her. She was wraithlike; a stealthy shadow of the forest.

Strangely she did not come from there, and had no real connection with the land she lived upon. She could have left anytime she wished .. but then, where would she go? She'd been raised in the northlands, but her family had been killed by wicked beasts .. beasts she highly suspected as Shadow Fighters.

Her mother, father .. and her dear twin sister. But they'd been murdered, while she had somehow escaped. She'd never been a beast of stalwart bravery, and when she'd got a chance to run .. she'd ran.

Now she hated herself for fleeing without them .. she might have been able to save them! But she'd been too much of a coward .. and now they were dead.

She was in truth, a rather skittish creature. She'd had nowhere to go .. and her mind had recalled tales she had heard of Salamandastron, the mountain of the badgers and their fearless hares.

While she was no hare .. she had hoped they might take her in; might train her how to be brave. After all .. she had no one left in the world.

So she had thought she might come here. However, the mountain was not ruled by badgers any longer, but by vermin. So she stayed in the surrounding regions, silent and hidden.

She had always been a sensitive creature; always been able to see and hear things others couldn't. Now, a voice was telling her to wait .. and stay. So she did. What she was waiting for, she did not know. But she would not disobey that voice .. the only voice in the world that could calm and comfort her.

The only voice that could ease her fears.

><><

The same sun that was setting upon Salamandastron, the wraithlike watcher, and yes, the questers; set also upon a pretty little pine grove to the south of the usurped mountain. It was in sight of Salamandastron, but then, many places were.

In a spreading pine which had thick and camouflaging needles, sat a cream furred squirrel. He was young, perhaps eighteen or nineteen seasons, and had the most amazing brush of a tail .. amazing even for a squirrel. His creamy white fur had striking black tips, and he had bright, sparkling sky blue eyes.

His attire was a pine-green tunic with a leather jerkin on top, which served as light armor. He had a bow across his back, and a throwing spear in one paw. All in all, he might have been a rather impressive creature .. except for the mischievous twinkle that forever danced in his eyes.

The squirrel watched the slowly setting sun for a bit, before another squirrel, this one brown with silver tips; leapt into the pine beside him. This creature bowed quickly, stating, "The king and queen want thou Sir Arvid. I'm to take thy place."

Arvid, as he was called, nodded easily. "Right, then I'll be off Grood. The vermin haven't come close today but .. just watch thy back. Ye never know."

The cream colored squirrel then turned and leaped easily into the next tree. He sped through the pine bows, leaping with practiced but natural ease. Arvid never missed a beat as he swung into a large pine .. larger then the others.

That is .. never missed a beat until he attempted to do a quick bow before the two squirrels who stood in it, and tripped over his own, wonderfully fluffy tail.

One of the squirrels, a sable-furred female with sparkling brown eyes, sighed. "Arvid, son. Thou must watch thy tail lest ye do that."

Arvid picked himself up, brushing himself off with a sigh. "Yes mother .. it just .. get's in my way."

The other squirrel, a white furred male, nodded. "Well, all the more reason thou should look out for it. How does thou expect to do battle?"

He said it with firmness, but kindness as well. Arvid looked down momentarily, as his father nodded to him. "Make thy report young Arvid."

The young squirrel nodded, looking for once, strictly military. "No signs of immediate unrest from yonder vermin, it seems they have little interest in our pines. I saw nothing unusual. That's my report, king Beddle and queen Ruro."

Ruro gave her husband a look. "Does thou think Arvid means to make light of things, or does it simply sound that way?"

Beddle waved a paw at his son. "Alright, thou needn't worry about the formality, we are thy parents. Why doesn't thou join thy older brother, he too is done with his watch."

Arvid laughed a bit, stating, "Asger is busy, I am sure. But if thou wishest, I will."

><><

As the sun set in glory upon Salamandastron, sending long beams of light through the narrow rock windows and casting deep shadows in the stone corridors. One of these shadows was darker then the rest, for it was alive.

Roderick stood still and completely silent, never moving once.

So the little golden rat thought she was so smart eh? She might have told him to meet her here when the sun set, but he would be the one waiting, not her.

She was a fool .. so much so it could almost make him laugh. She'd thought she could pull the wool over his eyes .. thought he would be entranced by her beauty.

While she was, in way, beautiful, Roderick's long and strenuous training had taught him to be immune to such things. He was focused on power .. focused on killing the ones he believed had wronged him.

The black mouse's eyes were calculating as he felt Xemx's presence, although he did not see her. She was good at hiding, Roderick had to admit.

However even her skills of silence and camouflage were no match for him. He simply turned from the rays of sunlight, allowing his uncanny vision to adjust; something it did in a matter of seconds.

Xemx was standing in some particularly thick shadows, and Roderick flicked his hood off, stating, "You may as well came out; your presence is known to me."

Xemx came into the light, a little pout on her face. "See why I want yer power?"

Roderick shrugged. "Many do my dear, many do. But few are strong enough to gain it."

The golden rat's boots made little clicks on the stone floor; a part of Roderick was just a little surprised she could keep them silent when she wanted to. Her voice was conniving. "I'm stronger than I seem, me friend."

Roderick walked towards her. "This we shall see, whether you say true, whether you lie, or whether you simply have no idea how weak you are."

Xemx didn't drop his gaze, she held it almost challengingly. Roderick felt a little put off by this, but he did not show it. The black mouse stopped a few paces from the rat, stating, "If you are to be a Shadow Fighter, you must hide your thoughts. Right now, you are thinking of your own wonderful cleverness at swindling me into teaching you because of your infinite beauty. And I must tell you, I am doing this of my own free will my dear, and we will see who swindles who."

Xemx crossed her arms. "That we will me friend .. that we will. Now, what will ya be teachin'?"

Roderick rolled his eyes. "If you think this will be easy or quick, think again my dear. It has taken me five seasons to learn what I know. Now, tell me. What can you feel?"

Xemx raised an eyebrow. "Feel? How so?"

Her teacher sighed, exasperated. "You are a petty fortune teller at best, one who swindles beasts with superstitious paw-reading and mumbled chants. You know nothing of the mighty powers that rule our world, powers so great they are beyond the normal mortal creature. I know this world well my dear, I live in it, I fight in it, and I know it's secrets. Now tell me, what do you feel?"

The golden rat huffed. "I feel nothin' really, just a bit of cold. Likely brought on by the evenin'."

Roderick's eyes narrowed as he circled her, stating, "It is the start of summer my dear, the evening's aren't likely to become much cooler than the days. What you feel is me .. me and my power. I am used to the cold, dark, empty cold. And if you are to embark on this journey, you will be too."

He stopped in front of her, stating, "Now, focus on that cold. Pay attention to it .. let it grow stronger. It is the power you seek. As you search for it and wish for it, it will indeed come to you. And as you learn to bend it to your will, it will grow within you. Learn it's ways; but more importantly, learn to love it's ways."




Chapter 8 Dibbuns' Games

Cousins

Roseanna, Luke, and Fripple <3

Rose was not sure her decision to take Fripple was such a good idea after all. Almost directly after the questers had left, she and Luke had shown up, completely filthy and still fighting.

Luke had complained to her about Fripple being mean, and Rose had asked Fripple if she thought punching Luke was nice.

Fripple had stated plainly that it wasn't nice at all, and it wasn't supposed to be. She'd then informed Rose Luke had been bossy and called her a girl. Rose pointed out that she was a girl, and that there was no reason to take offence at the truth.

Fripple had explained that it wasn't what Luke had said at all, but how he had said it. Rose could imagine her son had not been flattering in the way he said girl, as the word seemed to be something rather derogatory in his vocabulary.

Rose had taken them both for a bath, Fripple complaining almost more than Luke had. Rose asked Fripple if her parents ever bathed her, and she'd admitted they had, but not in a washtub. Rose had asked how else anybeast could possibly bathe. Fripple explained that she had taken baths in outside water, like the river Moss or the pond. Either that or Bella's washtub, which was bigger and you could swim in it.

Rose had countered by saying that was not how creatures took baths at her house, and Fripple would have to get used to it.

She'd been dreading actually bathing the little mouse, but had discovered she was almost better than Luke, for she sat in sullen silence instead of thrashing about.

After she'd washed the two, she'd tried to have them help in the kitchen, and quickly discovered it was easier to do the work herself. Luke had spent what seemed hours scrubbing on one pan. Fripple was a bit more excited when Rose had set her up with a tub of sudsy water to wash dishes in; and Rose had felt hopeful that the little maid's ladylike side might come through.

This had been a disastrous assumption however, when Fripple washed the dishes with so much gusto one would think she was attempting to drown somebeast. Of course, when she saw Luke still poking about with his pan, it seemed her natural reaction to start a soapy water fight.

Rose tried to look on the bright side of things and tell herself it was better than a mud fight, but the soapsuds all over her kitchen had a way of dimming her positive outlook.

She'd finally sent them outside for the day, and cleaned up. However they'd come back as filthy as before, demanding more cleaning before they could go to bed. Thankfully Sandingomm had stopped by to borrow some flour and offered to help.

Fripple seemed totally enthusiastic about Sandingomm bathing her for some reason. The wildcat had obliged her, and got her clean amid shrieks of happy laughter.

Rose didn't know how she did it.

That had been yesterday. As she lay still half asleep in bed, Rose promised herself today would be better.

Somehow .. she wasn't as sure of this as she would have liked.

><><

Her doubts were not ungrounded. It may have been before sunup, but Fripple and Luke had managed to gather a group of their friends .. or at least allies. Roseanna was naturally there, for she followed her brother about like she was his shadow.

The others were Ash, Gonfflet, and Wother.

Fripple may have been distracted from following her parents by Luke's argument yesterday, but she was still very determined. She was going to go to Salamandastron with her mother and father, no matter what.

Luke, as usual, was trying to be the boss. He paced up and down like an army sergeant, stating, "We've gotta do somthin'! They left without us, an' it's all Fripple's fault cause she distract'd me!"

Fripple was totally indignant. "Oh no it weren't, it was your fault for distractin' me!"

Gonfflet shoved himself between the two. "Yu stop it! We won't get anywhere today either if yu get distract'd again!"

Fripple crossed her arms. "What'da you care, it weren't your parents that went."

Gonfflet shrugged. "I wanna steal stuff cause it's fun."

Luke resumed pacing. "Yea, whatever. But we need ta go! An' we're so far behind an' we don't have any horses .."

Ash interrupted. "Says who stupid? Course we got horses! What 'bout Forest, he likes ta play with us."

Wother frowned, chewing on a carrot. "Forest eats my carrots wot, wot?"

Gonfflet waved a paw at him. "That's ok, I'll steal'ya some more."

The soft clop of dainty hooves broke the conversation as the one they were speaking of trotted up. Forestfire was a chestnut colt with a misshapen white star on his forehead, and tall white sock markings on his hind legs. He was not a true foal, yet not a yearling either; so being he seemed all spindly legs. He stopped beside Fripple, asking, "What're ya doin'?"

Fripple looked secretive. "We're gonna 'scape, an go to Sal'mandastr'n."

Forest perked his ears up. "Ooohhh can I come too?"

Luke tried to take charge. "Course, if we can ride yu."

Forest craned his neck to look at his back, and then his friends. "Sure ya can .. but I don't think you'll all fit right."

Ash improvised quickly. "S'ok, yu can pull the cart!"

Forest cocked his head. "The abbey cart? I can't pull it, 'ts too heavy!"

Gonfflet shook his head. "Na .. yu don't have ta pull that. I'll get somthin' better, just wait here."

><><

As the sun's very first rays began turning Mossflower slightly gray, the Redwall dibbuns weren't the only ones who were stirring.

The others were Clogg and his crew.

Clogg was feeling relatively good this morning, for while his sanity was incomplete, he knew Mossflower fairly well. And he knew Kotir was near.

Today was the day! He would finally return to Verdauga, tell him of Badrang's death. The wildcat would be pleased to hear this, Clogg was sure. Then perhaps he would even outfit him with a new ship and provisions. Maybe he would even appoint Clogg as his head sea captain!

Having always ranked the lowest among Verdauga's corsair captains, this title was tantalizing to Clogg.

The stoat had not bothered to get up yet, he was dreaming about his good fortunes in his makeshift hammock. The seasons had not been terribly kind to Clogg, not at all. His once rich brown summer coat was flecked with many streaks of silver, as were his plaited beard and fur. Also, there was one more thing a good few seasons of seclusion and deranged wandering about the ruins of Marshank had done to him; they had lessoned his girth considerably.

He was not a thin beast, but he was not as robust as he had once been. It was only natural, after all the first few seasons after Badrang's defeat, he had been little more than a lunatic. Over the course of a few more seasons, his sanity had began to spottily return. Now it was strong enough to last for days on end, but stress or anger would cause it to snap; also anything shocking.

But he had not left Marshank, not until the Greenhawk had wrecked on the northeast shores one wild and stormy night a season and a half ago. Clogg could remember Reynard Chopsnout, he had once been one of Verdauga's captains, but had rebelled and stolen the Greenhawk. Verdauga had sent beasts off to kill him, namely Badrang with his ship the Darkprow. But Badrang had traitored as well, and Reynard had gotten off scot free. That is, until his ship crashed on the eastern shore and he was killed in the wreck.

Without a ship, nor a captain, the Greenhawk's crew had nowhere to go. Clogg had offered them to be his crew, and to sail his ship, the Seascarab. They'd accepted willingly, but had troubles making the Seascarab sea worthy again.

Clogg's ship had sat idle in Badrang's disused cove for over seven seasons, for the woodlanders had never discovered the hidden bay. After much struggling, Clogg had sadly decided to give up. The Seascarab had become a victim of the elements, it was half sunk and barnacle-encrusted, having to have survived the wild eastern seas in idleness a few seasons too long.

However Clogg's new crew were willing to go with him when he promised Verdauge would outfit them with a new ship. Some had run off however, deathly afraid to face their former master after their previous desertion. But the younger ones had stayed, eager to gain a new craft and sail the seas once more.

So here they were, almost ready to reach their goal. Clogg was pretty pleased with himself, and felt his fortune was finally turning for the better.

But alas, the tide of fortune was turning against him .. and others too.

><><

If anybeast had been awake as the sun's first rays turned the abbey lawns gray, they might have found the sight that was to be seen rather amusing.

Forestfire was staring at the tea trolley his friends had hitched him to with serious doubtfulness. He had an improvised harness made of Ash's jump rope, and a few other ropes Gonfflet had stolen along with the trolley.

The young colt shook his head. "I donno .. I don't think s'gonna work."

Luke jumped onto the tea trolley, drawing his wooden sword and stating nobly, "Course it will! We'll go to Sal'mand'str'n in a chari't!"

Wother plopped next to Luke, beginning to munch on some scones that had been sitting covered in the trolley, waiting for breakfast. "I'm just glad 'Nofflet stole a chari't with food'n it wot?"

Fripple pulled on the makeshift harness one last time, before using the ropes to climb on Forest's back. "Yea .. well yu can ride in the chari't, but I'm gonna ride on a charg'r."

Ash jumped up behind her, trusty stick in paw. "Ya, an' I have a lance for if we run inta some stoopid vermin!"

Fripple shrugged. "So'what? I've got my slings'ot, an' that'll hit 'em from far off!"

Luke pulled Roseanna into the tea trolley, stating, "I have a s'ord .. an' s'ords is better."

Gonfflet climbed onto Forest behind Ash. "Whatever Luke .. I can steal an'thin'."

Forest frowned, taking one last skeptical look at the trolley before taking one nervous step. Upon finding nothing drastically terrible occurred, he began walking with more consistency. Luke had been forced to sit down as he found it impossible to keep his balance on a moving tea trolley.

Forest made his cautious way to the east wall gate, which posed another difficulty for the escaping dibbuns. The chestnut colt sighed, stating, "I can't quite reach'a handle .. I've tried."

Fripple didn't hesitate, just jumped onto Forest's head. The colt gave a snort of surprise, but Fripple ordered, "Hold still .. don't move'ya head."

Forest stood obediently as his mouse friend reached for the handle, squealing softly as she turned it and the gate creaked open. Fripple slid down Forest's neck and onto his back, reassuming her previous position.

"Alright, now'ya push the door open an' we can go!"

The colt did so, nudging the wall gate open with his muzzle and pulling Goody's favorite tea trolley into the vastness of Mossflower ... to say nothing of his dibbun friends.

><><

Clogg was by both nature and habit; not a morning creature. He enjoyed sleeping in, and his crew knew better than to disturb him.

Of course, some of his crew liked sleeping in as much as their captain.

Bootbrain, as dull-witted as he was, wasn't such a beast. Neither was his best mate Wippback, who could about match his intelligence level .. and honestly was a little smarter.

The two had risen and were conversing over last night's campfire. Wippback threw a few twigs in the smoldering embers, griping, "We's almost out'a vittles mate .. 'pose that means us'll 'ave ta for'ge for some'ore."

Bootbrain nodded compliantly. "Uhh .. yep. We can't be gettin' low on vikkles .. it makes me 'ungry."

Wippback rolled his eyes. "Course it makes ya 'ungry ya dull-witted an'mal .. whut else it make ya?"

Bootbrain looked confused. "I donno mate .. I thought bein' low on vikkles alwus made a beast 'ungry."

Wippback huffed, picking up a sack. "Awww .. shudap. Ya make me head 'urt wid yer stupid babblin'. Com'on, Capt'n'll want some breakist .. let's go get some."

Bootbrain nodded again. "Uhh .. yep. That's right smart'a ya mate."

><><

The dibbuns were finding their adventure .. not quite as satisfactory as they had hoped. For some reason, the ones they sought after were not to be found, and Redwall's surrounding woodlands were seriously lacking in dormant volcanoes.

Also, Forest found it uncomfortable to pull a tea trolley he was hitched to with rope very fast, so the grand chariot was forced to move rather slowly.

Gonfflet was an impatient dibbun, so it wasn't terribly surprising he found the quest a bit boring after a while.

The sun had risen by this time, and as Ash pointed out, there was probably a wonderful disturbance because of their disappearance. Luke said it would be alright, after all, when they found the questers in wasn't like they'd be separate from adult beasts.

But Gonfflet was becoming a bit disenchanted with the whole setup .. after all, his parents weren't on the quest, and he hadn't had a chance to steal anything as of yet.

The tubby little mouse poked Wother, who had discovered a jar of jam in the tea trolley, and was devouring it with sticky gusto. "Hey, stop't Wother! If yu eat all'a food we won't have'ny left!"

Wother's voice was somewhat muffled from the jar he was cramming his muzzle into. "S'ok, we get ta Sa'maddastr'n for supper wot?"

Gonfflet poked Luke. "Hey, I've got'a idea! I could go 'head .. just like'a spy! An' when I find'a mountain, I come tell yu."

Luke pretended to think on this matter for a minute, and Fripple used his commander-like pause to beat him to his orders. "Sure'a can 'Nofflet! We might be goin' the wrong way, so'ts a good idea! We foll'w yu."

><><

Gonfflet was finding he enjoyed sneaking through Mossflower far better then riding on a tea trolley. That might be fun, but this was sneaky! And Gonfflet rather enjoyed being sneaky.

Also, in his young life he had never yet been left completely unsupervised in Mossflower woods.

He'd got a ways from his friends when he heard the crashing of grownup paws! The little mouse grinned mischievously. That must be some of the questers! He ducked into some camouflaging ferns, intending to jump out when the adults came into view and scare them to death.

This was going to be fun!

After a few minutes the crashing stopped nearby, and Gonfflet braced himself to jump from his cover, but a unfamiliar voice rang out. "Mate, we ain't findin' nothin'"

Gonfflet peaked from his hiding place, to see a stoat and a rat conversing in the clearing. He felt excited .. real live vermin! And they didn't look very nice like Whegg or Rupert did.

The rat growled at the speaker, a stoat. "I told ya ta shudap, ya make me head ring! When we get ta de .. red castle Capt'n was talkin' about, there'll be vittles there."

Gonfflet's eyes widened as he heard this. A red castle? That sounded like his home!

He held completely still, for while he was very young, he was also one of the smartest dibbuns at Redwall. He'd heard enough stories to understand vermin were not nice beasts .. normally.

It wasn't that he was honestly afraid of them .. he viewed the whole thing a sort of grand game.

He wasn't about to come out though .. and a sudden inspiration came to him. What if he followed their trail back to wherever they came from? There might be more .. and then he could be a hero like his father and king Martin!

It didn't take very long for the two vermin he was watching to move further off into the woods, still grumbling at each other. Gonfflet watched them with amusement, giggling silently at their arguments.

As they vanished from sight, Gonfflet came out of his hiding place and looked about for the two vermin's trail.

It was not hard to find. Gonff had already been teaching his son the art of a woodsbeast, and while Gonfflet viewed it as nothing more then a game, he had learned quite a bit.

The rat and the stoat had left a clumsy trail that even a child could follow .. something Gonfflet was about to make quite clear. He ran quietly down the rampaging path they had left, giggling ever so secretively. This was a very fun game .. if only his daddy was here to see him!

The little mouse grinned cheekily as his sharp young ears picked up the faint sound of snoring. Were some of the vermin still sleeping? How lazy were they? Even he had gotten up before the sun this morning, and it was nearly noon!

Gonfflet followed the noise, thinking of how funny it would be to sneak up on a sleeping vermin. It was at this moment, a very loud snore sounded from nearby. Gonfflet paused, his eyes opening wide as he saw a very strange sight.

A creature like Rupert, only much older and fatter, was sleeping soundly in a sagging, makeshift hammock. Gonfflet suppressed a giggle, suddenly alert as he caught sight of a glint around the creature's neck.

The young mouse snuck closer, a sly grin forming on his face as he saw what it was .. a long golden chain! Gonfflet was excited at the prospect of stealing his very own treasure. His father had played games with him and his best friend Esther, teaching them about how to take something off a beast without their knowing.

Columbine always berated her husband about teaching children bad habits. Gonff just laughed and countered by telling her they might have need of it someday; after all, he always had.

So Gonfflet was not unprepared for the foolhardy thing he was about to do. He had no thought of the danger, for true danger and war was something completely foreign to the Redwall youngsters; they had never been faced with it. The stories they heard seemed like glorious adventures .. they were not yet old and wise enough the understand the horrible brutality of battle, or the cruelness of wicked beasts.

Gonfflet crept over to the stoat's hammock, fitting his tiny, agile paws behind his neck and undoing the chain's clasp. He lifted the creature's beard ever so carefully, freezing as he murmured a bit. The next second however, the stoat was back to his loud snoring, and his robber pulled the chain from beneath his beard, before setting it softly back down.

Gonfflet giggled softly as he crept back into the woods, holding his stolen treasure up to admire. It was simple enough, but wonderfully glittery and pretty yellow. The little mouse tried it on his neck, but it was enormously too big. However he was determined; completely so. Gonfflet wrapped it twice about his plump middle, tying it in a awkward knot.

The little mouse grinned, following his own path back to where he'd left his friends. They had to see this! And when he told them he'd stolen it off a real live vermin .. well. He was sure they would turn positively green with envy.

><><

Fripple was slowly tiring of this quest, as much as she loathed to admit. Nothing exciting had happened thus far! While riding Forest through Mossflower was fun, it was slowly becoming a bit dull. After all .. hitched to a tea trolley, the colt didn't feel like running.

Riding her favorite horse friend Mystiquestar in galloping laps around the pound was more exciting. More than that, there was no sign of her parents anywhere.

As much as Fripple hated to admit she'd been defeated, she did have some poorly developed common sense, and it was just strong enough to tell her Salamandastron was far away and so were her mother and father. She felt a little sad .. she had never been away from her parents very long at all.

It wasn't really bad, but Fripple felt a little downcast by the thought it would be a very long time before she saw them again.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Gonfflet jumped out of some bushes, squealing, "Hey lookit what I found!"

He pointed to a glittering gold chain he had wrapped around his waist. Fripple wrinkled her nose. "Where yu get that 'Nofflet?"

Gonfflet vaulted onto the cart, taking a seat as far from Roseanna as possible. "There was a vermin .. an' he was sleepin' see? An' I snuck up on 'im, and stole this!"

Luke wasn't one to feel bested. "Thatsn't hard, if he was sleepin'."

Gonfflet gave his best friend a hard look. "Huh, yu wouldn't say'at Luke, if yu saw how many guards'e had! All big vermin with s'ords an' knives an' spe'rs an ... ever'thin'!"

The young mouse nodded, proud of his exaggeration. "Yep, that's what there was. An' I snuck past'em all!"

Forest opened his mouth to say something, before freezing, flicking his ears back and forth. "Shhh! I hear somthin'!"

Fripple took out her slingshot, thinking of all the vermin guards Gonfflet had been talking about. She looked at him, asking, "Yu 'spose they foll'wed yu 'Nofflet?"

The thieving dibbun shrugged, as two bumbling voices became audible.

"Uhh .. mate, Im'a tellin' ya .. dere ain't nothin' out 'ere! It's best we wait 'til we get ta .. dat castle Capt'n was'a talkin' 'bout. Whut's it was called .. uhh Kotir. Yea, that's whut 'e called it .."

The other voice counterd. "An' Im'a tellin' ya, shudap! We ain't done yet, cause we ain't done til I says so you stoopid andimal!"

The first speaker grumbled, "Uhh .. but mate I donno I like this 'hole thing. We ain't had nothin' real good happen all this trip! An I'm a thinkin' ..."

The one who seemed to want his companion silent, a rat, snarled, "Fer the last time, shudap! Ya ain't s'posed ta be a thinkin', whys else yer mother name ya Bootbrain? Capt'n says ol' Ver'auga or wot ever 'es called'll rewards us fer killin' Badrang see? An' when Capt'n says sonthin' Capt'n means it ya gots that?"

Bootbrain looked confused. "But Wippback ol' matey, we never done ol' Badrang in, twas Capt'n wot did that .."

Wippback yelled at his companion. "Shudap!!"

Bootbrain shoved past him, grousing, "Alwight, Alwight! I'll shudap If'n ya wants but .."

The weasel stopped dead as he came in sight of Forest, the tea trolley, and the other dibbuns. "Uhhh .. mate? Ya ain't never gonna belive this .."

Wippback jumped at him, yelling, "SHUDAP!"

Bootbrain griped. "No lookit mate! It's a liddle 'orse tied ta a servin' cart .. wid liddle mice and a liddle rabbit .. an a liddle rat!"

Wippback had seen the dibbuns by now, and grinned a snaggletooth smile. "Hey ol' matey fer once ya's right! An' it looks like we jist found bre'kist!"

Forest gave an alarmed snort, taking a few steps back as the rat came toward him. Ash pulled out her stick. "Oohhh, you get back yu bad ol' varmit, cause I'll give ya som'a this!"

The rat stopped his advance, guffawing. "Ho ho, bad varmit eh? An' if'n I'm a bad varmit, whut is ya cheeky liddle thing?"

Ash waved her stick threateningly. "I'ma rat! And yu is a vermin! So get back or I'll let'cha have it!"

Fripple had pulled out her slingshot, and loaded one of her deadly ammo collection, a sizable shard of glass. "Ya, yu lisson ta Ash, cause I've got this!"

Wippback laughed harder .. and regretted it. Fripple let loose her sling, and the rat's mockery was transformed into an anguished yowl as her piece of glass connected with his leg. The golden mouse grabbed Forest's scrubby mane. "Now run awful fast For'st, don't letem catch us!"

The colt needed no second bidding .. he bolted, back in the direction he had come from!

Fripple just hung on like a burr, and so did Ash. But it wasn't as simple or smooth for the dibbuns in the trolley.

The plain truth is that tea trolleys are not made to be pulled by a horse .. even a colt .. and especially not in an all out run through a dense wood.

Wother found his muzzle crammed unforgivingly into the jar of jam he had been cleaning out. The tubby hare managed to grab ahold of Luke, who had grabbed onto his sister and the cart. Gonfflet had fastened himself to the trolley, his tiny claws sunk into the wood as deep as they would possibly go.

However .. Roseanna did not liked being touched .. by anyone. Not even in a stampeding tea trolley. Out of pure habit than anything else, she bit Luke; and hard. The little mouse yelped, and let go of her.

This resulted in her falling off, and landing in a thick pile of leaves and grass.

The little red-tipped golden mouse sat up staring after the retreating tea trolley in pouting irritation. She stuck one thumb in her mouth and tightened her grip on her ever-present doll, giving the direction the trolley had sped off in a dark look as she stood up.

She stuck her lower lip out, brown eyes rather accusing. How come she'd fallen off anyway? She'd just bit Luke for grabbing her .. but she bit everyone but her mother and father for such an offence, and nothing bad had ever happened before!

There was a dull-witted chuckle as the weasel her friends had been talking to earlier walked up, calling, "Uhh .. Wippback ol' matey? One of 'em fell off!"

There was a pained groan from farther away. "If'n it's that liddle gold wench wot shot me .."

The weasel shook his head. "Nu uh mate, it's the teeny liddle mousey maid with da red pigtails!"

The pained voice snarled, "Oh den take 'er anyhow! Capt'n'll wanna see 'er!"

Roseanna stared innocently at the weasel as he reached to grab her, clamping down viciously on his paw as he did so. He did an awkward dance of agony, yowling in the most undignified manner and hopping up and down.

"Ow ow ow ow ooohhh! She bit me da liddle demon!"

Roseanna tried to run, but there was a yell, and the next second her world turned dark as the weasel threw a sack over her, tying it triumphantly. "Ha ha I gots ya liddle mousey .. dat'll teacha ta bite yer elders!"

The sack thrashed and moved furiously, although Roseanna never made a sound, for she never did that anyway. Bootbrain held it up, exclaiming, "I got'er mate, let's go show'a Capt'n .. somth'n wrong wid yer leg matey?"

Wippback's answer was the one he seemed to forever be saying.

"Shudap!"




Chapter 9 The Shadows Darken

The questers were well on their way by now, although not in full. Redfarl and her squirrels were to arrive a little later, due to the fact they had no horses, and weren't terribly accustomed to traveling in the open.

It was just the naturel assumption they would travel at their own pace. However, the mounted creatures were hoping to arrive at their destination in a month, if not sooner. The horses spent most of the days trotting; they could do this seeing as the entire company was riding.

Skipper Warthorn and his otters had arranged to meet them when they would be forced to cross the Moss to leave the eastern flatlands, due to the rivers path.

Martin had sent Argulor on ahead toward Salamandastron, in hopes he could tell them the news, good or bad. It was forward thinking on his part; if they were to be faced with an enemy it would be helpful if they could know beforehand.

However as fast and strong as the golden eagle still was, his age was slowly beginning to show, and Martin knew it would take him three days or so until he'd return with the news.

It had been little more then two days since they had left Mossflower, but it was telling on all of them. Lepus and Trubbs missed their two children, as Wildfire and Dancer did theirs. Bella had not been away from her beloved Mossflower for many seasons, and it was obvious she missed it already.

However she knew her duty. As the daughter of the late Lord Boar, it was her responsibility to see Salamandastron was safe. It would not have been if there was another badger to take the mountain, but there was not, thanks to Verdauga.

Martin had only heard her speak of her lost son, Sunflash once, but he knew enough to understand the child had been stolen by Verdauga, and either slain or sold as a slave. Either way, Bella did not know where to look .. and as she sadly stated, her son was not young anymore. If he had been sold, he was almost certainly dead from brutal slavery alone .. nobeast could have lasted forty seasons under any master.

Not even a badger.

Bella did not wish to speak of it, and so many creatures didn't even think about her having a son. It was hard for Martin to see her as a mother of one beast .. for she was like a mother to all the Mossflowerians.

Martin himself hated having to leave Rose, but at least she would be safe. There had been no stir of trouble in Mossflower for over three seasons. The last thing Martin wanted was another repeat of cruel history .. history he had trained himself not to think of.

He was happy now .. or had been until he had to leave. But once this was over and done, he would be able to come back.

Perhaps he had been too comfortable .. maybe that was why he hadn't wanted to acknowledge the foreboding he had felt.

Maybe that was why they all hadn't.

><><

Starbuck was foraging around on the edges of Mossflower, his favorite javelin held loosely in one paw. He didn't often stray this far from his home with his sister and Lightfoot, but they'd been getting low on supplies.

We wouldn't be though .. not if Lotor hadn't taken our home. We might be free .. but we're almost his slaves.

The young hare hated the vermin that had taken Salamandastron and killed his parents .. and yet he had no way of avenging them. He wasn't a beast who hoped all that much .. maybe because he'd never seen much hope.

Starbuck had just stooped to pick some wild turnips when a cheery voice rang out behind him. "Hey Starbuck! Where've thou been hiding thyself?"

The young hare jumped, looking up into the tree behind him and asking, "Arvid? Wot are you doing here .. I thought you'd be back in your bally pine grove."

The cream colored squirrel lounged idly in his tree, twirling his spear. "Well I'm not king yet, and they can't make me act like one all the time. I still have some of my freedom. After all, it's Asger that will become king, I'm just the prince."

Arvid dropped gracefully from the tree, and tripped on his tail. He stumbled a bit but managed to stay standing as he stated, "And I'm alright with that."

Starbuck shrugged. "I wouldn't know wot? But I bet you anythin' kings don't trip over their own tails."

Arvid laughed good-naturedly. "Of course not, thee would think they'd be more dignified. Which I am not. But Starbuck, I haven't heard from thou in over a season .. I thought thee had been captured!"

The hare looked a bit indignant. "I'd like ta think it's take more then some bally vermin to catch me or my sister .. or even Lightfoot. We happen to be good at this wot, wot?"

Arvid looked worried. "Thou is never safe Starbuck, and thee knowest it. Thou should come join us, Ruro and Beddle would be glad to have thee."

Starbuck might have absently said no out of sheer habit, but his thoughts fell upon Lightfoot's comment of them leaving if their spring went dry. If they went to Arvid's tribe, they would not be that far from Salamandastron. And .. as much as he hated to admit it, that ferret Swartt and his patrols were becoming more frequent.

Yesterday he had even seen Swartt himself, riding the ragged horse he always did if he left the mountain. Starbuck was sure there was something familiar about that stallion, but he couldn't put his paw on it. he hadn't seen the horse very many times, and when he did it was only from a wary distance. However he did know it was white, or at least looked that way.

Starbuck shook his thoughts away, turning to Arvid. "You sure they won't mind us coming .. we aren't squirrels ya'know."

Arvid laughed. "No, thou doesn't have the tail for it. But they will not mind thou and thy family joining us, already we have others not of our species. I know my father and mother wish to create an army .. one that could take on Lotor. Thou will be welcome additions, and I've always seen thou as a sort of friend Starbuck, ever since before the ermine conquered and our tribes would visit one another."

Starbuck thought on this a moment, before nodding. "I will ask them wot .. I'll see how Lightfoot takes it. She's used to the dunes and wild shores ya know. Of course .. all she really wants is ta keep us safe, so I imagine she will wot?"

Arvid swung back up on the low branch he'd once stood on, stating, "Well good luck to thee, and don't let the vermin catch thou. If thy decide to come, thou knowest where we are."

><><

Velox strode through Salamandastron, black cloak billowing behind him. Xemx matched his pace well, tall black boots clicking.

The pine marten didn't look at his companion as he stated, "I see you've taken up with that mouse Shadow Fighter."

It was almost threatening, and definitely not a question.

Xemx shrugged. "What's it to ya?"

Velox's voice was flat. "Watch what you do. You're my little paw reader .. I need you alluring. Got that?"

Xemx didn't break her stride. "So what? I kin learn 'is power, I don't hav'ta do nothin' else."

Velox nodded. "See you don't Xemx, see you don't. Otherwise you may find yourself in a great deal of trouble .. the kind you can't imagine."

Xemx laughed. "I've played this game before .. don't ferget. I know how ta work a beast."

Velox didn't bother turning around. "He is a Shadow Fighter, and you are not. Not yet at least, and you by no means match his power. We can play with a creatures mind Xemx; I know because I have done it. Be careful what you wager ... some things are easily lost."

Xemx huffed. "Huh, what's that supposed ta mean? I know what I'm doin'."

Velox shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I can always get another paw reader, it's nothing to me. And where does that leave you eh? Because I don't leave alone those who play me false .. I will punish the ones who disobey me. And I don't give out mercy."

The flat, almost dead way he said it made a cold chill run down Xemx's back, but she gave no indication. Velox spoke again the nexy second. "Run down to Bluefen and give her this."

Xemx took the bundle of food, asking, "An' should I tell 'er anythin' else?"

Velox crossed his arms. "Only to bide her time. Tell her to butter Swartt up .. whatever. Anything to dull any suspicions he might have. And that she must tell me all she overhears from him."

><><

Xemx ran through the corridors of Salamandastron, sack in one paw and a disgusted look on her face. Velox thought he was so smart eh? Well he wasn't completely in charge of her .. it wasn't like she was really his slave.

Sure .. she earned him some decent money by reading paws here and there, but he hadn't bought her. However .. they did have a sort of deal. He paid her for her services, and the other odd jobs she did.

Like this one.

The golden rat slipped up to the door of Swartt's chambers, knocking softly on it. She was ready to bolt away lest it be Swartt who answered, but she assumed the ferret would be out about his duties.

She was right, it was Bluefen who answered, and warily. "Who is it?"

Xemx sighed, stating, "It's me. Velox sent me down wid food fer ye."

The door creaked open to reveal the blue gray ferret, just stowing her long knife in her flowing blue sleeve. "It's about time he did something .. kept up his end of the deal."

Bluefen took the sack from Xemx as her scrawny little son peeked out from behind her, staring at the golden rat a moment before scurrying off; further into his home.

Xemx was on ... distant terms with Bluefen at best. She didn't really care one way or another for the blue ferret, or her half-starved little brat. However there were times like this, when the two would meet.

Xemx dusted off her paws as she stated, "Velox want's ya ta try an' please Swartt .. jist get his suspicions down. He don't want nothin' ta go wrong, and this whole job'll be easier if Swartt's not suspectin'."

Bluefen looked honestly dismayed. "Oh, and he thinks I can just do that? He dreams to think I could do anything to please that creature worthy only of Hellgates? Everything I do he despises .. for he despises me! He utterly hates me; why he has not slain me already I cannot fathom. And Velox thinks he can ask me to please such a creature? He may as well ask Lotor to freely give him the throne .. it's as preposterous."

Xemx crossed her arms. "That ain't my problem. All I know is what 'e said, and that's that 'e want's ya ta do it."

Bluefen shook her head. "I can't! You can't even begin to understand .. you're a free creature. I am a slave, and I have a son to look out for! Do you think that is simple? Does Velox? He knows not what he asks of me."

Xemx shrugged. "Whatever. I kin tell him ye don't wanna play along .."

Bluefen held up a hasty paw. "No! No .. I will .. try. Tell him that. That is the very most I can do .. is try."

Xemx grinned, knowing she'd twisted Bluefen's paw behind her back. Without Velox, she and her son would likely starve .. he was the one who fed them, in return for Bluefen's cooperation.

The gold rat ignored the look of anger in Bluefen's cobalt eyes .. after all, why would she give a thought to the ferret's feelings? Who cared .. she was just a slave Velox had working for him .. under her master's nose.

"Right, an' he want's ta know anythin' Swartt does, got it? Or else he may just leave ya hangin'."

She slammed the door behind her, traipsing off down the rock corridor without one thought to the poor ferretwife she'd left with such a frightening statement.

She was smarter than Bluefen.

She was also of a higher rank .. anybeast ranked higher then a slave.

Besides, she had someone to meet.

><><

Bluefen exhaled grimly as Xemx slammed the door behind her. She really couldn't stand that cocky little rat maid.

Not her, and not that demanding, wicked creature called Velox.

She knew how delicate her situation was .. if she made one wrong move and stopped being useful, those two would both leave her in a lurch.

One of these days .. the tables might be turned. If only they were. Even as she thought this, Bluefen knew she would act no differently than they. She might have wanted to, but she knew better. There was no place for kindness in a vermin horde.

Veil's voice echoed worriedly from behind her. "Mommy .. why's X'mx so mean?"

Bluefen let her shoulders droop. "It is the way of a vermin my son. To use and abandon at will. It may be wicked, but it flows in all our veins .. mine too. I don't know if I can ever truly be free of it .. I don't think any vermin can turn truly good."

She set the food on a cabinet, walking over to the window and looking out. Veil joined her as she slumped miserably across the sill. "The woodlanders .. they are the lucky ones. They have a chance in life. But us vermin .. the ones who want to be good .. we can't!"

Veil's eyes were sympathetic as he stroked her skirt comfortingly. "Why not mommy?"

Bluefen looked down at him, sighing, "I don't know son .. I don't know. I know I am evil .. and cannot make myself good. You .. you are different Veil. You have a chance, if I could only get you out of here! Lest you fall prey to our ways .. lest you become as cruel as your father. I will not let it happen .. I cannot."

She let a tear drip from one eye, staring out at the sea. "I cannot. Promise me Veil .. promise me you won't be like him."

Veil shook his head solemnly. "I hate father .. cause 'e hates yu. An' I love yu mommy."

Bluefen hugged him, whispering, "Thank you my little Veil .. if no one else cares for me, at very least you do."

She sighed, setting the little ferret in front of her. "We've got to get out of here."

Veil nodded understandingly, before Bluefen planted a quick kiss on his unruly shock of chocolate colored headfur. "And we will .. we will. While there is life, there is hope .. and you are my hope son."

The blue ferret stood, stating firmly. "Now .. I suppose we'd best make use of what Velox gave us. And .. I will try to do his bidding."

><><

Night fell slowly over the questers, bringing a long day of travel to a quiet close. Bella was drawing a map in the dirt near the crackling fire, and planning out the next few days events.

"We should meet up with Warthorn and his otters around midday tomorrow, when we cross the Moss to leave the flatlands, and officially leave Mossflower. Redfarl and her squirrels will travel at their own pace .. they'll likely arrive two or three weeks later then us."

Martin tapped his claws on the log he was using as a seat. "That could pose a problem, especially if we are confronted with an enemy .. something I'm afraid is very likely."

Bella nodded. "It is .. although we will not know until Argulor returns. Still .. prepare for the worst, and hope for the best."

Sayna frowned. "True. But Bella .. if Salamandastron is taken, it's likely by a greater force than ours. What could we do to get it back?"

Groddil sighed. "Best worry about that later lass. But you do have a point, in a way."

His eyes didn't really loose their stoic expression as he stated, "I've been there before .. long ago. But so has Prairiefire, and Redcloud. They've lived there, and much longer then I .. they will know things I don't."

Timbal spoke up. "Ripfang had been in the mountain before, I know that much. But I doubt Lotor or anyone else has .. they'd be too young. From what I know of Salamandastron, it's a bit of a maze .. there could be a lot of places they wouldn't know about. You know, secret passages, hidden rooms .. the like. Even hidden entrances .. and all that could work in our benefit."

Trubbs nodded to him. "There are at that wot? The mountain's chock full of hidin' spots and bally passages .. good place ta get lost if you don't know what you're doing."

Lepus looked up from where she was shining one of her twin rapiers. "Sounds like a great place for surprise attacks if you ask me. After all, if you have less numbers than the enemy you go against, the best thing to do is reduce them."

Ffring grinned almost cheekily. "Right, and Redfarl an' her squirrels can jolly well help with that! Remember how Amber and her crew took on Tsarmina's blighters? It was flippin' amazing wot, wot?"

There were agreements all around; for the valiance of the late squirrel queen was not to be forgotten. She and her army had slain near two hundred of Tsarmina's forces, loosing relatively few themselves.

Bella looked sad however, but she brushed it away momentarily. "It was at that Ffring .. Lady Amber was the bravest of the brave .. and we will never forget her. I'm sure Redfarl can command just as well, so they will be invaluable to our cause. For now though ... get some rest. We have a full day ahead of us tomorrow."

><><

As Sayna dropped of to sleep with the crackling of the fire in her ears, she didn't have to wonder if she would dream the dreams again. She knew they were inevitable.

She dreamed them every night, although some nights she couldn't remember them hardly at all; just wake up in terror.

However this night was not going to be one of those; Sayna could tell instantly. She might have thought that perhaps she would be able to memorize these nightly tormenters, but they were different every time .. and yet the same in an odd way.

Sometimes they made absolutely no sense, other's they were clear as day .. and yet were still confusing.

They almost made her think these things had happened to her .. but how? The only past she knew was the one in Noonvale, which was relatively uneventful. Just training with Groddil, sneaking off and spending her days in the woodlands rather then learn the things her adopted parents wanted, and fighting Roderick. There were no attacks .. no battles .. no death. Nothing like this.

And yet it was like she had been in these dreams, dreams of killing and war. So when had she? Groddil had told her he had found her abandoned .. could that have something to do with this? But how could she have .. remembered? Why had she not done so before?

Could it be she had been wounded at a young age, even left to die .. and had amnesia? It was possible perhaps. But it still didn't make total sense. She had never had this problem before her adventures in Mossflower.

Once again the wind was cold, as it always was in these dreams. The pounding of sea was in the distance; the fuzzy, unrecognizable voices along with it. But tonight .. it was different somehow. As of yet, the screams and clashing steel had not tore the dream into a nightmare .. not yet.

Instead that voice continued unhindered .. almost singing. As if this was a time even before the attacks that populated the dreams unmercifully.

Sayna knew that voice .. from somewhere. It was a voice she loved to hear, even if she knew the killing would follow it. It was a voice she could listen to forever; gentle, loving .. motherly.

Now the scene was changing again .. or maybe not. All Sayna knew was there was another voice .. that voice that sounded like Martin's, only with a wilder touch to it. Her greatest frustration with these dreams was that she could not see, at least not properly. Her vision was blurry, and nothing was clear.

She couldn't even shut her eyes to try and focus better on the sounds, which were fuzzy as well.

Sayna tried to focus her vision, but really to no avail. Her first dreams hadn't been this bleary .. so what was going on?

She heard the pounding of hooves, then a splintering crash and a clatter as the dream morphed again into a nightmare. Now there was pain .. everywhere. Her vision was clearer now and a shadow stood over her .. no! No .. it was Ferran!

Sayna desperately wanted to lunge for her sword, but she couldn't move and it didn't seem to be anywhere!

Her black assassinator raised his cutlass .. and he seemed so much bigger in this dream! Even bigger then the time he had tried to kill her in Noonvale! The next second was blurry, but there was one thing that was clear.

The clash of a cutlass, and silver ... silver fur!

><><

Sayna woke with a start, her breath catching in her throat.

What had she just seen?

She looked around the camp, realizing several hours had passed, and it was very early morning. The stars were like glowing jewels in the ebony sky, and the fire had died into embers. Sayna looked over to where Groddil slept, only to see his blanket in a rumbled heap.

The gold mouse sat up silently, her long hair falling loosely to the ground. She stood, looping it over one arm as she caught sight of her mentor, standing sentential a ways from their camp.

She ignored her hair's confining weight, walking up silently behind him. The fox's voice was soft as he asked without turning, "What is it lass?"

Sayna took her place beside him, before stating, "Groddil .. you didn't just find me on the north shores, did you. I wasn't alone .. was I."

Groddil had started, but now he looked away. He fiddled with his long black beard a minute, before answering. "Well .. I should have let you know all long ago lass .. this is my greatest falling. I don't like to confide in anyone but myself, and I don't like to see those I care about hurt .. by anything. But I can understand that you not knowing .. it will hurt you worse then the truth."

Sayna shook her head absently. "How exactly?"

Groddil had not met her gaze as of yet, but now he did, momentarily. "This new prophecy tells of kings and queens finding their crowns, and the fourth stanza seems totally separate from the thought in the rest of the poem. Blue ones and keys, and old ones who know where the crowns hide? That has no connection with the previous warnings of war and fighting. I can only assume the fourth stanza has something to do with your hidden past .. yours and probably Martins. After all, it is you who seek these crowns, along with Timbal."

The silver fox was not accustomed to saying this much in one day, let alone a few minutes. But he did not stop; it was as if he must tell of his long hidden secrets.

"You are right, I did not find you alone. You see, Ferran found you first. I managed to stop him from killing you and drive him off, but I was not in time to save the creature who had been protecting you. He was an old mouse, with mostly white fur, and he didn't stand a chance against Ferran. My brother .. well .. he had already slain the creature, whose origins and name I do not know. Later I found the body of the horse I assume he'd been riding, an appaloosa mare. The wound on her looked like Ferran's doing .. looked like one of his knives had made it."

Groddil paused momentarily, continuing soon after. "I had Stargazer with me; and of course you. What I told you was true, you had been wounded, and were perhaps a week old at best. But you see lass, you were not the only beast I found."

Sayna's mouth dropped open fractionally. "I wasn't? Who else .. "

Groddil interrupted. "Your best friend lass; Ghostdancer. She was very young too .. and her coat was completely black then. I found her wandering in confusion near the dead appaloosa .. whom I suppose I naturally assumed was her mother. I guess I was wrong, from what we know of Phantom. The long story short is me and Stargazer took you both to Noonvale, and left you with Lightingflash."

Sayna did not know how to answer properly .. so Dancer had come from the same place she had? If Dancer was Phantom's daughter .. and Phantom was the wife of Luke's horse ..

Then she had to come from Luke's tribe, because Dancer had!

How complicated is the story of my life? What other wonders and horrors have I to discover?

Sayna suddenly thought of something disturbing. If Groddil had confirmed what she had seen in her dream, then it had really happened. And if it had .. how in the world was she remembering something that had happened when she was a week old .. or less?!

It truly was impossible .. so why was it happening?




Chapter 10 New Difficulties

Rose was truly frantic; when she had awoken to find her children and Fripple nowhere in the gatehouse, she had first assumed they would be off somewhere with their friends. However, this was proven wrong when a frazzled Midnightshadow had come asking if Forestfire was with Luke, Roseanna, and Fripple.

Rose had replied that her three charges were nowhere to be found. Regina had come in at that moment with Ash's baby brother, asking if Rose had seen Ash.

Of course, no was the answer. By this time Rose was getting worried, badly so. Her worries were not settled when Whegg came in, to tell her the east wallgate was ajar.

Gingivere had shown up a little later with Sandingomm and their twins, who, as soon as they realized what was going on were very disappointed they had not gotten chance to take part in it. Sandingomm offered to go find the 'little scamps' as she rightly called them, if she had a horse to ride. Luna volunteered.

By this time the worried parents had assembled by the main gate, which they'd opened. This group caused a stir from normal activities, and attracted a decent crowd.

There was a quick search made of the grounds, but it was no good; the escapers had indeed escaped. Columbine was desperately worried and was not as discrete about it as Rose; it took all of Gonff's efforts to keep her in one piece.

The mousethief was nervous about his son, but not unduly so. For as he told his wife, their son was a conniving little trickster.

Rose mentally agreed.

It had to be a little after high noon by now, and there was a lot of talk going on .. with not as much action. Whegg was standing in the massive gateway, so he had the best vantage point of the path on the flatlands. All of a sudden the rat squinted, staring with a somewhat disbelieving look out of the abbey.

He was momentarily silent, before exclaiming, "Mates, come 'ere! This ain't somthin' ya gonna see every day .. I've never seen somethin' so crazy in me life!"

Rose bolted to his side, staring down the path to see what he meant. It was Forest, locked in an all out run with ... Goody's tea trolley hitched behind him?

Rose's mouth dropped open momentarily .. the things dibbuns could come up with!

Forest was just as fast as his mother, and seemed to have her legendary stamina as he didn't slow his pace a bit. In fact he looked downright scared, like he was running due to complete terror!

In reality it took a few minutes for the chestnut colt to barrel his way through the gates. He skidded to a stop in front of a disapproving Midnight, the tea trolley he was pulling jolting to an awkward halt. It was missing the front wheels and the back ones where so clogged with leaves and other woodland debris they couldn't move.

Luke tumbled off the trolley as it skidded to a stop, sitting up and complaining, "Aww For'st ya weren't 'sposed ta bring us home!"

Rose grabbed him the next second, hugging him and exclaiming, "What did you think you were doing? Running off? You scared me to death!"

Luke didn't bother struggling, he knew it was futile. Rose set him down, asking, "And where is your sister?"

Luke held up a bleeding paw, complaining, "She bit me mommy."

Rose stood strait again, sighing, "Yes .. I'll see to that Luke. But where is she?"

Gonfflet had climbed off the tea trolley by now, as had Wother, who had been forced to pull his muzzle from the jam jar it had been crammed into. Ash jumped off a panting Forest, twirling her quarterstaff. "We run inta vermin! Real live vermin like rat's an stoats!"

Sandingomm grabbed the ratbabe, voice deathly serious. "What? Ash, whe're the vermin?"

Fripple jumped at the gray cat, one of her favorite creatures. "Out in Mossf'ower Sandygom! 'Nofflet says there was .. hundreds!"

Erwin had joined the group by now, and she interrupted. "Hundreds of vermin? Fripple, what are ya talking about?"

Gonfflet planted himself in front of the black ermine, exclaiming, "I saw 'em! There was a bunch, an' dey was talkin' bout comin' ta a redstone castle! Lookit Erwin .. I stole this off'a one!"

Erwin's clear blue eyes widened as she saw the golden chain Gonfflet was wearing, and she relived him of it the next second, despite his protests. The ermine raised it up to where she could see it better, gasping as she examined the pendent on it.

Whegg broke the silence, "Erwin .. what's that?"

The black ermine's voice was soft. "Clogg .. this is .. Clogg's! This is my brother's chain .. it has his emblem on it! What other beast uses a clog as their insignia, but Tramun Josiah Dasker, that's what I'd like to know. No, it's his! But what is he doing here? I'd thought the mad drunk had died seasons ago!"

She turned to Gonfflet, exclaiming, "What did the beast look like .. the one you stole this from?"

The dibbun shrugged. "Kinda like Rupert .. but fatter an' older an' with a lot more hair. He'd a braided beard like Unca Groddil's .. but his weren't black, it was brown an' silver."

Erwin shook her head. "It's Clogg. It has'ta be."

Rose could remember Badrang and Erwin's insane sibling, and how he had met them right before the attack on Marshank, half-accidentally informing Erwin her daughter was alive. He had been completely untactful, telling his sister Estella was Verdauga's barmaid and quite a cute one at that.

Erwin had leveled him a hard hit for that unwise statement, leaving him unconscious and bolting into Marshank after Badrang's blood. Because of her near-death injuries, Rose had no idea what had happened to the mad Clogg.

Apparently, he hadn't been killed.

But why was he in Mossflower? And headed to a redstone castle? That sounded like Redwall!

But how could Clogg know of the abbey, when he was near a raving lunatic, and had lived in the northlands since the battle of Marshank?

Unless ...

Unless he was really looking for Kotir!

><><

Clogg was not in a good humor.

That was a bit of an understatement.

He'd awoken to find his chain; the only real piece of wealth he had left, missing from around his neck.

Of course, Clogg instantly turned on his crew, demanding which one of them was the thief. After all .. who else had been in their camp?

Nobeast .. except a little mousebabe; and of course, Clogg didn't know this.

His crew however, were quite firm about stating they hadn't laid a paw on his necklet. Clogg was just a bit confused; he was a slightly gullible beast, although with a hot temper and deadly stubborn when he wanted to be.

He and his crew had come to a sort of stalemate, the crew stating they hadn't taken anything; and Clogg stating that when he found out who stole from him, he'd skin them alive.

The situation was not exactly improved as Bootbrain and Wippback came into camp; the former carrying a wriggling sack, and the later limping heavily.

Clogg had about had enough for one day, and Bootbrain's excited but stupid voice did nothing to help his captain's frayed nerves. "Capn't, you'll never guess whut me an' Wippback saw! I ain't seen nothin' so funny in all me days!"

Clogg was not amused. "What's ya talkin' bout ya stupid an'imal? And what's that ya got in da sack?"

Bootbrain grinned a bit foolishly. "Dere was dis servin' cart Capt'n .. hitched ta a liddle 'orse! Wid liddle mice kids an' a liddle rabbit kid .. an' a liddle rat kid! An' we got one of em in da sack Capt'n .. brought 'er back ta ya!"

Clogg crossed his arms, unimpressed. "A servin' cart hitched ta a liddle 'orse wid a bunch'a kids? I ain't never heard the like Bootbrain .. dere's a reason ya gots dat name. An if ya do have one of em in dat sack .. well show me."

The stoat turned on Wippback, asking, "And why is ya limpin? Wuts wrong wid ya?"

The snaggletooth rat growled bad-temperedly, but it was testing his pride to answer truthfully.

Clogg didn't waste time questioning him; he didn't really care to know, and it seemed unprofitable in the least. He just turned on Bootbrain. "Well? Show me what's ya gots there!"

Bootbrain suddenly looked unsure. "Wull .. ya I will Capt'n but .. "

Clogg's temper snapped. "'Ellgates Bootbrain! Open it!"

The weasel gulped, nervous now. He undid the sack's ties, and hesitantly reached in.

Clogg had never viewed Bootbrain as the smartest of beasts, but his hesitant behavior made his captain just a little jittery. What was in that sack anyway?

He soon found out as there was a most undignified yell from Bootbrain, and the weasel yanked his paw back, with a little golden mousebabe biting his wrist and arm!

><><

Roseanna had never been treated this roughly in her life; tossed into a sack and carried joltingly along.

She had a hot temper for a mousebabe, and despite her innocent looks, could hold a serious grudge.

She wasn't just biting Bootbrain, she was literally chewing. The weasel yowled and hopped about crazily, desperately shaking his paw to get rid of her. He finally managed it, although loosing some fur in the process.

Roseanna tumbled away from Bootbrain, landing at a most unfortunate Clogg's feet. The little mouse was so furious she didn't care who her wrath fell upon.

Clogg bellowed in pain as Roseanna latched onto his leg, chewing without mercy. The corsair yelled a few colorful curses, lashing out with his foot in attempt to rid it of Roseanna.

The little golden mouse maid couldn't hang on, despite her furious biting. She flew through the air, slamming against a nearby tree and crumpling to the ground limply.

Clogg held his now bleeding leg, moaning and glaring at his hapless crewbeast. "'Ellgates Bootbrain, what'd ya bring a demon like dat inta camp fer?"

The weasel was bemoaning his own wounded limb, and he sniffed back. "Capt'n, dats why a ain't wanted ta take 'er outa da sack!"

Clogg didn't like to admit such an inferior creature as Bootbrain knew more than him, ever. "Awwww .. Shudup. I 'on't wanna hear it ya hear? She's jist a little'un, an I did her in."

Bootbrain didn't answer .. he knew better. The weasel did nothing more then lick his torn paw, shooting suspicious looks over at the crumpled form of Roseanna.

Clogg stood straighter, putting some experimental weight on his chewed leg. "But what I don't un'erstand is why dere's a liddle mousy maid out 'ere anyway! I thought's Verdauga'd killed al'da woodlanders in Mossflower!"

Scritchy spoke up, being one of the smarter beasts in the horde, although not the best cook. "Wull .. ya never know Capt'n. Maybee 'e missed some."

Clogg gave her a look, before nodding. "Ya .. must be da case Scritchy. Wull I did that there demon in for 'im .. he can thank me later. Let's just go onta Kotir .. Verdauga'll give us a ship, an den we can sail the seas again, eh me hearties?"

There was a hearty cheer, all of Clogg's crew were seabeasts and uncomfortable on land.

Wippback had been sitting on a log, extracting an embedded piece of glass from his leg. Now he cast a glance at the motionless Roseanna. "Whut if she ain't dead? Shouldn't we jist do her in .. gut her or sommit?"

Bootbrain looked up from his injury, snickering, "Huh, sure. If'n ya wanna git dat close."

Wippback glared at the weasel. "I ain't afraid of a dumb mousey maid .."

Clogg stamped a foot .. his uninjured one. "Shudup, I killed 'er, an dat's dat! I think I kin kill a liddle mouse like dat .. me, da terror a da seas! Unluss ya think I can't .."

His voice held a note of danger, and Wippback lowered his gaze. "Na .. I ain't sayin' dat Capt'n. Jist thought cause .."

Clogg laughed. "Thought she'd come back fer revenge or somethin'? Come on Wippback, she's a liddle mouse girl! She ain't more'n three seasons ol'! An' now she's deader'n a doornail .. doesn't look to lively layin' dere, does she? Now come on! I wan'ta reach Kotir afore nightfall!"

><><

The cave of the Doomwytes was a dismal and frightening place, but Yar was accustomed to it. The little magpie sat broodingly in one corner; barely visible in the green-lit gloom.

Her black feathers blended well with the black stone alcove she sat perched in, but her glowing green marks lit her outline in a weird way. Her black eyes glinted in half calculation, half fear.

Yar narrowed her black eyes as she saw Rigvar himself preening, seated on the jeweled marble statue of Lord Malimore that sat on the island in this midst of the bubbling, green sulfur lake. The glossy black raven had his smoothsnake seer, Sumiss perched on his silver-plated crown.

Yar disliked Sumiss, a uppity female smoothsnake with glowing green markings running down her face. Of course, the snake felt she was too high in rank to speak with the common Doomwytes. The Ravenwytes perhaps, but then condescendingly. Basically, Sumiss thought she was above all others, the only creature she respected being Rigvar himself.

Yar clenched her beak. Ever since she and Yaz had brought the news that many of the Redwall fighters had left, Rigvar had been plotting, discussing things over with Sumiss, his oracle.

Yar knew he was up to no good, this she was sure of. But she did not know what to do. She had thought much of defecting to the woodlanders, but she was afraid of Rigvar .. and afraid for Yaz, no matter how hardened her sister was becoming.

There was a sudden rustle of feathers, and a raven landed in the alcove next to her. He was not colored normal black like a common raven, but smoky gray. His markings were more plentiful then Yar's, and they shifted from green at the tips to yellow, signifying his greater rank.

Yar bowed low instantly. "Captain Kree, I am sorry. Do you wish something of me?"

The raven, Kree as he was called, stated, "Rigvar wants you on the patrols tonight. See if you can lure some of those woodlanders into the swamps .. the more we kill, the better."

Yar kept her expression flat as she nodded. "Yes captain."

Kree looked her over for one minute, before nodding. "Good. Meet the others at the cave entrance just before sundown."

Yar watched Kree fly away, heart aching. How could she keep doing this? How?

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Rose gasped softly at the thought Clogg might really be trying to reach Kotir. Erwin turned to her. "What is it?"

The mouse maid shook her head, explaining her theory. "Erwin, if Clogg has been wandering the ruins of Marshank, how would he know about Kotir sinking .. or even Mossflower's conquest?"

Gingivere spoke up, voice grim. "He wouldn't, which means .. he'd really be looking for Kotir .. and my father!"

Sandingomm frowned. "But Tsarmina killed him before our conquest .."

Gingivere nodded, "Yes, but dear, don't you see? Verdauga sent Clogg away seasons before my sister usurped the throne. He hasn't been back since, and from what I've been told, he's not quite .. right in the head either."

Erwin shook her head. "Aye that's the truth."

Rose was still looking about for Roseanna, and a sudden and terrible thought came to her. She grabbed her son, who had his bitten paw in his mouth. "Luke! When Roseanna bit you .. was it on the tea trolley? Did she fall off?"

Luke didn't answer a moment, before nodding slowly. "I'm sorry mommy .. she bit me! I tried t'keep her on .. but she bit me!"

Rose stared at him in horror, asking, "She fell off? In Mossflower? She's still in Mossflower?"

Luke nodded, his head hung. "For'st wouldn't stop."

Rose stood bolt upright as Regina put a paw on her shoulder. "Rose .. it'll be ok. We'll go out an' look for 'er .. she'll be fine. Take more'n fallin' off a tea trolley ta really hurt that liddle maid, she's tough like her daddy."

Rose shook her head. "But she's so young! And out there on her own .. and now what about Clogg .. What if he took her prisoner!"

Whegg looked serious. "Now look .. we need a plan. I met Clogg a'couple times in Kotir when 'e was'a capt'n, an I was'a just a little'un. He ain't .. well .. if ya get me drift .. he ain't the .. quickest a beasts. An now if'n he's gone mad .. wull we might just be able ta snow 'im."

Rupert and Estella had been standing nearby, and the former spoke now. "How are you going to snow Clogg .. and why would you?"

Regina raised an' eyebrow. "Yea Whegg, what gives?"

The mottled rat shrugged. "Wull here's da thing. It ain't like we couldn't take him on I guess, but we don't 'ave all that many fighters left. An' wid Roseanna missin' it might not be such a good idea ta declare war on 'im. So I'm thinkin, we could confuse him! Maybe even make 'im leave us alone!"

Gingivere frowned. "From what I remember of him, he's deathly stubborn. But from what I know of you Whegg, you're good at strategies. So what do you suggest exactly?"

Whegg dipped his head. "Well my thoughts this. We're buildin' Redwall over where Kotir stood, an' we've taken a lot'a da designs for this place off'a the castle. It ain't the same, but it's built outa the same stone right? An Clogg's mad. Besides all that, we have you!"

Gingivere looked baffled. "What do I have to do with stopping Clogg?"

Estella's voice was excited. "Oh Ah see what Whegg means! Gingivere looks a whole lot like 'is ol dad!"

The wildcat looked slightly uncomfortable as his wife clapped her paws together. "I got it! We got ourselves a redstone castle an a green-eyed golden wildcat!"

Erwin leapt into the conversation. "An' look at how many vermin we have! Think about everythin' we could do!"

Rose broke in. "Wait .. you guys think we can .. make Clogg think this is Kotir and Gingivere is Verdauga?"

Erwin narrowed her blue eyes. "Way better then that Rose, way better. I've got a thought ..."

She pointed at Iris, Gingivere's golden, green-eyed daughter. "Don't she look a lot like Tsarmina, beggin' your pardon?"

The wildcat looked a little bit upset for a moment, before nodding with a sigh. "She does."

Erwin nodded in satisfaction as she motioned to her son-in-law. "Rupert, come here."

The brown stoat did so, a little dubious. "Uhh .. What for anyhow?"

Erwin made him stand up strait, giving him such a good looking over, he had to fidget a little. The black ermine nodded in sudden satisfaction. "Ya, Rupert, it's a real good thing we got ya. You're tall, good looking, have a long and well-furred tail .. sure your fur is brown but it wouldn't have to be .."

Rupert raised an eyebrow. "What? My fur is always brown in summer! What are you talkin' about .. it wouldn't have to be?"

Estella crossed her arms. "Ya mum, what are ya playin' at?"

Erwin got an undeniably cheerful look on her face. "Rupert's a stoat, sure .. in summer. But he's an ermine in winter. You an' I are different sweetie, we don't change. But Badrang always did you know. An so can Rupert .. he can play Badrang for us!"

Rupert's mouth dropped open. "What? Erwin .. I .. why would you need Badrang? Badrang got killed! That's that .. he's dead!"

Erwin grinned. "Oh sure. But can't ya remember being in a horde, before you met Lord Ignasa? Hordebeasts are always superstitious, and Clogg ain't an exception."

The black ermine crossed her arms, quite pleased with herself. "In other words .. we make him see a ghost!"

Rupert shook his head in disbelief. "But .. you want me .. to be Badrang? I .. don't know. He was my old master and .. I ran from him."

Erwin rolled her eyes. "It's a costume. You're only pretending."

Rupert crossed his arms. "Alright, so as a trained assassin I may not talk a lot, and .. I've done things I've regretted. But I do have a little honor."

Sandingomm broke in. "Maybe so mate, but this is kind of important. If we can stop a war .. "

Midnightshadow spoke up for the first time. "Also, Clogg will say the craziest things when he's scared. If we can succeed in frightening him .. we may just learn some valuable information."




Chapter 11 Meetings and Warnings

TPF Chapter 11

Veil, Kinta, Kesha, and Bluefen :3

Far from Redwall, on the southern coast, Salamandastron loomed a grim sentinel. Far above the mountain, in the clear blue sky, Argulor watched all that went on.

The golden eagle's heart sank when he began to near Salamandastron, thanks to all the signs of vermin activity he'd been seeing.

But now ... now he was sure. The great stronghold of the badger lords had fallen.

No mounted hares galloped gracefully over the sweeping sands; wild as the sea and the wind. No horses raced each other in the dunes, nor played in the frothy waves. Not a goodbeast was in sight .. only vermin.

Now the sands were trodden by evil beasts, creatures with heavy boots or riding half-starved, enslaved horses.

The mountain that all had thought would stand only and always for good, had fallen to evil.

Argulor was saddened by this, and wished to bring the news back to Bella and the others. But he understood that if he and his companions were to stand a chance, they must know exactly what they were up against.

The magnificent golden eagle swooped closer, intending to get a better assessment of this unknown enemy's numbers .. and it's origins. Argulor squinted his golden eyes .. ones that were growing a little old and were loosing their proper vision. It wasn't that the eagle couldn't see, but his sight was very slowly degrading.

He didn't like to get this close, it was against all his better judgment. But how could he count anything from so far away?

Argulor flew even closer to the ground, sweeping in a majestic arch around the seaward side of Salamandastron.

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Down in the dunes, a good ways from the mountain but still in it's shadow, were two vermin. One was a lanky weasel with a spear, and the other a rat with a bow and arrows.

The rat was complaining to his companion. "I say it ain't fair mucker. Here we are, practically officers, an' lookit what they make us do? Huntin'. That's a common hordebeast's job! I shouldn't have ta do it!"

The weasel, Scound to be exact, was becoming tired of his loud sidekick. "Well we ain't capt'ns yet Glimpy. Maybe someday .. but not yet. So we have ta go huntin' see? I didn't ask fer the job, an' ya didn't ask for the job. But we gets it anyway. It's how things work round Lotor's horde."

Glimpy scowled, kicking a large pebble that was laying idle in the sand. "Ya, wull the way things are stinks. An' I wanna be a capt'n now!"

Scound's tolerance snapped. "Shut up! We have this job fer now, an' we have ta do it. If we don't come back with somthin', our hides are grass an' ye know it. So stop gripin' an' whinin' an bellyachin' an' scarin' all the prey!"

Glimpy fell into scowling silence as Scound scanned the sky for any gulls. Unfortunately, over the past five seasons, prey like birds and crabs had gotten scarcer, many of them having been killed for food. The survivors had come to realize that the western coasts near Salamandastron were no longer a safe haven, and migrated to new places. This caused Lotor's patrols to begin expanding their hunting grounds, and a lot of them to become fisherbeasts.

Scound shook his head in disgust. It wasn't a paradise, that was for sure.

All of a sudden, Glimpy's voice rang out, only softer this time. "Scound .. lookit what I see! Wouldn't that make a whoppin' meal?"

Scound looked up, to see the biggest eagle he'd ever laid eyes on swoop around the seaward side of Salamandastron and head strait for them. Glimpy loaded an arrow, grinning and showing his fangs.

"Now that mucker, is what I call dinner."

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Argulor had seen all he needed to see, and it wasn't brightening his outlook. This force was a large one .. larger than the Mossflowerians'. Now all he wanted to do was get out before some of the vermin below him started to get hungry for golden eagle.

He was a little late; a fact that was soon made openly clear to him.

The eagle had gotten a ways from Salamandastron when the air was split with a whistle, and an arrow sank through his right leg, right at the hock joint.

Argulor screeched in terrible pain, doing a rapid turn and spotting the villain who had shot him, a rat. The eagle screeched again, before launching himself at the unfortunate hunter, and scooping him up in his left, uninjured talon.

The rat's yelp of terror was almost satisfying to the voracious bird he'd antagonized, and Argulor ignored his struggles as he flew off to enjoy his lunch .. as best he could.

The golden eagle's right leg was on fire with pain, and every movement made it worse, thanks to the arrow still impaled through it. Argulor was a bird of the woods, so he made a beeline for the nearest forest, an idle looking pine grove.

He settled painfully in a tall pine, before giving the rat he'd caught a fierce golden glare. "Ah'd give ya a talkin' to about the stupidity of shootin' golden eagles, but Ah don't normally talk ta my supper."

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Scound was pretty dismayed by the fact his hunting partner had been captured by the eagle he'd tried to kill, but he also realized that the creature was wounded. And what a beast to bring back! That eagle looked big enough to feed Lotor and all his captains, besides some others!

Knowing he couldn't return without something, Scound, being the aspiring beast he was, decided to give the wounded eagle another shot.

The fact that it had entered the pine grove didn't exactly please him .. there were a lot of superstitious rumors about that place. However .. on the other paw, Scound wasn't the most superstitious beast. And bringing back a massive golden eagle would be sure to please his higher-ups .. they might even promote him!

It wasn't that Scound didn't realize the golden eagle was dangerous .. after all, it had just taken Glimpy! However .. Scound wasn't the type to give up very easy. In his mind, now that the bird was wounded, it might be an easier kill.

As he reached the edge of the looming pine grove, Scound suppressed a cringe. He didn't like forests, being a former corsair. However, it wasn't like there was something that would attack him .. except a golden eagle.

The weasel pulled his spear off his back, fingering the hilt of his simple dagger. He slipped into the woodlands, not quite as silent as he would have liked, but not exactly loud either. He was following the widespread spatters of blood from the eagle's wound.

If all went well, they would still have eagle for dinner at Salamandastron.

However .. what Scound didn't realize, was that a pair of eyes watched him.

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The pair of eyes were twinkling, and sky blue. Their owner grinned almost cheekily. One weasel? That was the best the ermine could come up with?

They had to be kidding.

Arvid whipped his bow off his back, loading an arrow. While he wasn't adverse to killing a vermin if necessary, it occurred to him that there might be more, and it was best to question this one.

The squirrel prince sighted down his arrow, before letting it loose with beautiful fluency. There was a quick whistle, and a yelp from the weasel as it pierced his simple chainmail sleeve, pinning him solidly to a tree, while never drawing blood.

Arvid jumped out of his tree with deliberate coolness, twirling his own spear. "I'd give thou a warm welcome, but it seems thee have already let thyself in."

The weasel's left arm was pinned to the tree uncomfortably, yet he held his spear up as defensibly as he was able. To Arvid's great surprise, he did not whimper, nor plead for his life, but instead answered back almost cockily. "Nice shot that was. Nice'a ya ta not kill me either. But I'm sure we can come ta some sorta agreement, can't we?"

Arvid hadn't ever been at a loss for words all his life, but now he almost was. "Why wouldst I want to make any agreement with thou?"

The weasel smiled disarmingly, despite being pinned to a tree. "Why else wouldn't ya kill me? Ye must want somthin' .. an who knows. The name's Scound by the way."

His cream colored interrogator pointed his spear at him. "I simply wish to know, are there more of thou? Art thou the only one from the mountain, or are there more?"

Scound seemed to realize something, and almost teased, "Aye, but if I told you one thing or another, how would ya know I wasn't lyin'?"

Arvid's eyes grew as cool as his captive's. "There are ways of making thou speak truth."

Scound was, admittedly, quite a few seasons older then Arvid. The weasel's eyes glittered .. almost challengingly. "Oh? Is that anythin' a kid like you should be doin'?"

Arvid shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe it is, maybe it's not. But I will do it .. Scound. So if I were thou, I'd choose thy words carefully."

Scound's eyes darkened .. it looked like this young squirrel meant business. "Alright, alright! So I'm alone ok? I came alone .. how's that?"

Arvid's eyes twinkled in turn. "Aye, but how am I to trust thou? Thy said the truth thyself."

His captive looked irritated as Arvid turned the tables on him. "Look I'm tellin' the truth! I ain't lying, honest. I weren't doin' nothin' but me job, huntin'! Just so happens my quarry came in here ok?"

Arvid twirled his spear, asking, "Oh? And what was thy quarry?"

Scound opened his mouth to say something, but there was a rustle of golden feathers, and Arvid stared. The most magnificent bird landed a few feet away, balancing awkwardly on one leg due to an arrow through the other.

He spat out what looked like part of a rat's tail, stating, "Yaarreekk! Ah was his quarry laddie, him and his mate's. So happens I turned the tables a bit .. Ah was more courteous than they though; at least my lunch knew Ah was comin'."

Arvid was truly amazed by the bird's size, and he held his spear up as a precaution. "Er .. thou wouldnst happen to still be hungry .. wouldst thou?"

The eagle let loose a soft screech, that sounded almost like a laugh. "Yarareek! Na laddie, not hungry for a squirrel at least. Ah've never made a practice of eatin' goodbeasts, vermin or not; in fact some of my friends are such."

He gave the still trapped and now very worried Scound a long, almost wishful glance. "But to those who are vermin outside and vermin at heart, Ah have no issue with eating."

Arvid pointed to the eagle's leg. "Thou needst a healer, that is sure."

The golden bird grimaced, squawking, "Yeeaaark! Aye, tis so laddie. But me friends have healers, an' I must bring them the news Salamandastron has fallen."

Arvid perked his ears up at this point. "Wait, why wouldst thou care about that? What is thy name sir?"

The eagle dipped his head. "Ah am Argulor, Laird of Mossflower's skies and king of the birds. And you are .."

The squirrel was staring at him with complete wonder in his eyes. He finally stammered, "I .. I am Arvid, prince of the Pine Woods squirrels. But thou .. thou art from Mossflower? Our land's great ally? But it twas said Verdauga Greeneyes had enslaved thy country!"

Argulor ruffled his feathers. "Yaaaeeereekk! The cat king was murdered by his own daughter, who in turn fell to the prophesied marks! Our land is free, and we at long last have come to help free yours!"

Arvid's sky blue eyes widened even more, and his voice was almost dry. "The .. marks? Thou sayst .. the marks .. they of the great prophecy .. came? And they are coming .. here? To help us?"

Argulor nodded. "Yarrreeek! Tis so prince. We haven't the enemies numbers, but our strength is our Lord Ignasa; and we are ready to fight for our allies. Ah am their messenger, an' it so happens .. Ah must tell them."

Arvid held up his paws, "No .. wait, I beggest thou. My parents .. they will want to see thou, and speak with thee. Besides, my mother is a healer of old .. tis far better to fly healed than wounded."

The golden eagle gave his skewered leg a rueful glance. "Yeeeaark! As ye say, it'll be hard to land on this. Ah will come, but only for a short while."

He looked over at Scound, who had been attempting to work the arrow out of his mail sleeve, without much success.

"But what of this one .. Ach, if ye don't want him, why .."

Arvid shook his head. "Nay .. not yet. My parents may wish to question him."

The cream furred squirrel pulled his ever-present grappling hook and rope off his back, a contrivance he found useful when climbing. He pulled the arrow out with a vicous yank, stowing it once more in his quiver.

Under the fierce golden gaze of Argulor, Scound suffered his paws to be bound with the rope; not cruelly tight, but certainly not loose enough for him to run.

Arvid gave the knot one last pull, before blindfolding the captive weasel with a scrap from his tunic. The squirrel prince nodded his thanks to the Eagle. "Lest he shouldst learn the way to my home .. come now, tis not far yonder."

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Common hordebeasts did not often frequent the upper halls of Salamandastron; the homes of Lotor's officers and their families, if they had any. These corridors were usually empty, only occupied by one or two beasts at a time; unlike the lower caverns.

The noon summer sun slanted lazily through the tall rock windows, casting yellow-white rays to the smooth lava floor. Dust floated softly in the windows, falling gently to the ground in hopes of lying undisturbed.

However, the silence of the once empty corridors was broken by the quiet patter of bare paws. They belonged to a middle aged ratwife and her young daughter. The older rat was dusty brown with brownish blue eyes. She wore a lace up dress that fell loose about her ankles, and carried a basket and long cane with feathers tied to it.

Her daughter was five or six seasons old with beautiful, shimmering silver fur and sky blue eyes. She had to scurry to keep up with her parent, who's paws were full of purpose. The ratwife's bare feet stirred the newly fallen dust without a thought, her eyes and thoughts fixated on her destination.

The abode of Swartt Sixclaw, and his unfortunate wife and son.

It was the latter two this creature was concerned with, although she was wary of the first. However she doubted he would be in at this time of day. If he was, well, she had a good excuse. She was the wife of Slugwort, and should Swartt be in, her sole purpose of coming was to relay a message from her husband.

If the ferret captain was not in his home .. then she had a far more important mission. To speak with a creature few cared to remember, but she did.

Bluefen.

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The ferret in question was sweeping one of the caverns she lived in, when the knock sounded. She set the broom down instantly, drawing her knife as Veil scurried off to hide.

Bluefen swept over to the door quickly, warily opening it with her knife held behind her back. However when she saw who it was, the weapon clattered to the floor as it's owner gasped in amazement.

"Kesha?"

The ratwife smiled a little. "Yes, it is I. With Kinta."

The silver rat maiden looked up as her name was said. Bluefen picked up her dagger, stowing it in her sleeve as she asked, "But .. what are you doing here? What if someone sees you?"

Kesha shrugged. "It would not be the end of the world, I am a healer. We are given some measure of freedom."

Her dusty blue eyes narrowed. "Is Swartt in?"

Bluefen spat. "He is not, more the better."

Kesha looked sad as the ferret motioned inside. "But come in. That vile beast will not be back until after his duties are completed .. not until the sun begins to set. Few others come."

The ratwife motioned to her daughter follow as she walked into Bluefen's home, setting her basket on a table, one of the meager furnishings. "And your son? Is he .. well? I do hope .."

Bluefen sighed. "He is .. he's simply hiding lest you were Swartt."

Kesha shook her head in sadness as Bluefen called, "Veil, you can come out. They are my friends, and yours too."

Kesha almost started as the scrawny, honey colored ferret stepped out warily, blue eyes wide. She winced. "He starves you, does he not?"

Bluefen's eyes hardened. "He couldn't care either way. Sometimes I think he plans on killing us this way, other times I think he doesn't really care to remember; we're inferior beasts to him."

Kesha sighed, nodding to her daughter. "Kinta, go play with Veil while I talk to Bluefen, would you?"

The little rat nodded cheerily as ever, skipping over to Veil who stared at her with somewhat nervous suspicion. Kinta put her paws behind her back, asking, "What'ch wanna do?"

Bluefen nearly smiled in amusement as Veil gave her a look as if to ask, "Why is she talking to me? What am I supposed to do?"

She nodded encouragingly to him as Kinta asked, "Do'ya like stories? I'll tell you some!"

Veil gave his mother a last questioning glance before sitting down on the floor as Kinta did so, launching almost instantly into an animated tale.

Bluefen looked back at Kesha, stating, "I'm glad you came my friend .. but .. why did you?"

Kesha looked grim. "Bluefen, I understand you hate Swartt, and have all good reason to. But I must speak to you about your partnership with Velox. It is not a new thing, I know. But please, listen to me. You cannot keep doing this .. plotting Swartt's death at the risk of your life. What about young Veil? What about you?"

Bluefen frowned. "Kesha .. you do not know what it is like. Your husband may be irresponsible and cowardly, but he does not utterly hate you as mine does. I want Swartt dead .. if he's not, he may follow me. I .. know too many secrets."

Kesha shook her head. "I am not saying I know, but I am warning you. Because you are my old friend, please listen to me. This will end in nothing but disaster for everyone. You know Swartt has my husband and Scound in on his little plot to kill Lotor, and you're in Velox's little plot to kill Swartt? I'm telling you Bluefen, this is precarious. It could topple at any time, and the best thing to do is get out of it's way."

Her friend snorted. "How, when I am chained to it?"

Kesha sighed. "I know, I know. But there are creatures that could help you .. and even beyond that .. Lord Ignasa can do anything."

Bluefen inhaled softly, asking, "But .. why would he care about me?"

Kesha shrugged. "Why would he care about me? I was little better then a seer, but he came to me anyway. He saved me from that life. I may live under the iron heel of the Shadow Fighters, but I am learning the ways of a Prophetess; for the Lord I serve never forsakes his followers."

The rat looked around a bit before stating, "Bluefen, there is a hidden following in the mountain. Some follow Lotor, some Velox, some Swartt; and all ultimately Malimore. But some .. some follow Lord Ignasa. We are few to be sure, but we are there, and we could help you."

Bluefen blinked. "How can you possibly do a thing if you serve .. Lord Ignasa? From what I've heard, the Shadow Fighters hate him, and his followers. Lotor is a Shadow Fighter, as are Velox and Swartt. With the two who joined recently ... that makes five. How do you evade them?"

Kesha smiled. "Our Lord is our strength, shield, and power, and we stand as proof he is the ruler of all. Without him, we would have been slaughtered long ago. Of course, without him, we would still live the lives of true vermin; waiting for our deaths and our fate in Hellgates. Please my friend .. join us. We can hide you, and Veil as well. Did you know we have hidden that last hare Lotor had captive for seasons? He is with us now .. in fact, he is the reason we exist. He told one of his guards of Ignasa, and the word spread. Now if we can hide a woodlander in a mountain of vermin, how much harder is a ferret?"

Bluefen did not answer right away, almost as if she was too afraid. She finally choked out, "Oh Kesha .. would that I had the choice! But what if Swartt learns? What if something goes wrong? He'll kill me for certain, and probably Veil as well! No .. I cannot. I dare not. I'm sorry Kesha .. this is the only way."

She suddenly looked up. "Not yet, but Kesha .. if it should become to dangerous for Veil here .. could you take him? I must kill Swartt even if it takes my life .. it's the only thing I really live for besides Veil, to make that wicked creature reap the pain he has sewn. But that is not Veil's fate .. he is better then I. He is not tainted by hatred like me, not yet. And I pray he may never become that way. But no my friend .. revenge is a wicked beast, and it runs strong in my veins. I must stay."

Kesha was silent a moment, before dipping her head. "I see my friend. While it saddens me, I .. understand. I will pray for your safety in this thing, and should anything go wrong, I would do my very best to help your son. I do promise."

Bluefen smiled a little. "You are a true friend Kesha .. nobeast can promise more then that. May you Lord continue to protect you."

Kesha laid her paw on Bluefen's. "And may you find him my friend, may you find him."

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The upper galleries of Salamandastron were not penetrated only by a furtive ratwife and her daughter that day; but by two far more sinister beasts.

Roderick was wearing his hood again, as he usually did. He did not find it exactly wise to reveal his true species to the general public. This was, in all honesty, a wise precaution on his part. Often vermin are just as wary of woodlanders as woodlanders are of vermin, if not more so.

His companion was none other then Ferran, who's black boots echoed loudly in the still corridors. The ebony fox suddenly shot Roderick a look, voice condescending. "So I see you've taken up with a .. rather winning little rat."

It was not a question, but a certain statement.

Roderick snarled, hating his mentor's tone of voice. "She came to me for training, and I train her."

Ferran sneered. "Oh, so you've got yourself an apprentice. Is that all? You're in over your head kid."

Roderick tried to ignore Ferran's jibe. "On the contrary, it's she who is in over her head. I know what I am doing."

His mentor smirked. "Sure. You're too young for an apprentice kid .. most Shadow Fighters do not take on one until they have honed their skills at least ten seasons."

Roderick growled. "I'm just as good as any of you!"

Ferran spat. "You're a mouse kid. You're inferior to us. A true Shadow Fighter must be a true vermin."

Roderick snarled in fury. "I may be a mouse, but I am just as evil and just as powerful as any of you! Or do you wish to challenge me and find out; I will prove it to you!"

Ferran sneered. "I would not hesitate, but Malimore seems to still have use of your pitiful skills. I think he'd rather I not exterminate you yet."

Roderick jumped in front of the fox. "Oh? Or are you just a coward?"

Ferran's orange eyes glowed dangerously, and his voice sounded like rocks grating against one another. "You don't know what you're dealing with kid .. after five seasons, you still don't. You are a Shadow Fighter, yes. But you are still young in our ways .. you have not yet attained the status I have. I have trained for over seventy seasons kid .. and you have trained five. Watch what you say."

Roderick held up his paws, sending a blast of green at the fox. Ferran laughed, holding up one paw and causing it to dissipate to nothing, before making a throwing motion with the other. His apprentice reeled backwards, falling to the ground as Ferran sneered, "That was a warning kid .. watch your smart mouth."

Roderick stared balefully up at him, before the fox laughed mockingly, "The sun's setting kid .. better hurry. Wouldn't want to be late meeting your little girlfriend."




Chapter 12 Ruses and Rescues

Redwall had turned into a hive of activity once it was realized Clogg was really coming. Beasts worked on shoring up the bars that locked the main gates; as of yet they were rather flimsy.

Germaine had called a meeting at once, as soon as she had realized what was going on. All the vermin were there, along with Rose, Midnight and Luna, and Urran Voh. They were out by the pond, due to the fact that while the fortifications were up, the abbey building had yet to become more than a foundation.

Thanks to Clogg, the construction had come to a complete halt; everybeast was far more concerned with shoring up the defenses should it come to war.

Germaine hadn't changed all that much over the last five seasons, she still wore her green habit, silver chain, and crystal glasses that precariously perched on the end of her nose. She used her blackthorn walking stick constantly, but that was the only real difference.

The Abbess was staring through her glasses at Sandingomm at this particular moment, a dubious look on her face. "You want to do what? Explain this again."

Sandingomm gave Erwin a look, before stating, "It's real simple Abbess! All we wanna do is have all the beasts from Clogg's past .. or at least similes of the ones we can't, greet him when he arrives. So that's gonna be Gingivere, as Verdauga, Erwin, Estella, Midnight, Luna, an' Gina as themselves, me as a seer, Iris as Tsarmina when she was a kid, Whegg as Ripfang, an' Rose lookin' like she did after the battle."

Rose turned on the cat. "Hey!"

Sandingomm rolled her eyes. "He saw Badrang kill you right? Ok, ok .. not actually kill you, but I'm sure Clogg thought he did. The point here is for him ta' see creatures he thinks is dead!"

Rose buried her face in her paws with a miserable groan. Sandingomm patted her on the shoulder. "Awww come on Rose, it'll be fun! You get to dress up."

Rose was not convinced. "Like I'm dead. Swell."

Erwin sighed. "No, Sandingomm, you're putting it all wrong. Rose, what Sandingomm means is we'll have to braid your hair and .. you know. Try to simulate the dress you were wearing."

Germaine shook her head. "Alright, let me get this strait. Your plan is to scare Clogg into leaving?"

Erwin crossed her arms. "If he thinks this place is haunted, it might work!"

Germaine sighed. "Well .. you know more about Clogg than I do. But who will be .. designing these costumes? From what I hear, we don't have that much time."

Sandingomm looked rather excited. "I can! I love making costumes!"

Gingivere smirked a bit. "Sayna and Timbal told me about the ones you made for them."

Sandingomm looked mildly offended. "They got you out didn't they?"

Gingivere shrugged. "Well, that is true. But what sorts will you be making this time?"

Sandingomm rubbed her paws together. "Well, I'll have'ta be a seer, Stell and Gina'll have'ta be bar maids again, Whegg'll be Ripfang, I can dye Rupert white .."

Rupert looked surprised. "Dye me white?"

Sandingomm crossed her arms. "Naturally. How else do you plan to be Badrang?"

Rupert muttered something that sounded suspiciously like; "I didn't plan to be him at all."

Urran Voh, who had sat silently next to Germaine all this time, suddenly broke in. "I hate interrupt, but we need to hurry. Clogg could arrive any minute for all we know, and then what would we do? No, we must act. Also, what about Roseanna? She hasn't turned up yet."

Rose looked away. "She's lost .. I need to go find her!"

Sandingomm sighed. "Ya, I'm worried about her too. But she ain't totally defenseless, and until we get Clogg where we can see 'im, it's deadly for groups of woodlanders ta be runnin' about. If we can distract Clogg long enough, somebeasts can search for Roseanna. Until then .. wull .. all we can do is trust Lord Ignasa."

Rose looked down, nodding worriedly.

Germaine stood. "I'm going to question Luke and the others about where they last saw her. The young scamps are serving time under Meriam .. she's got them scrubbing pots for dinner. What they deserve, I'd say."

Urran nodded, using his staff to get to his paws. "Sandingomm .. um .. all of you I guess .. come with me. I'll take you to the infirmary."

The 'infirmary' was a temporary one, seeing as the abbey itself was not erected. Redwall had two main gates, the regal set in the front, in which gatehouse Martin and Rose lived; and a smaller, less grandiose set in the wall opposite the first. In this gatehouse was the infirmary, at least until the building could be finished.

Urran pushed the oak door open, stating, "Now don't make a mess, please .."

Sandingomm ran past him, eager to begin.

The old mouse rolled his eyes at Gingivere. "She's as bad as the dibbuns you know."

Sandingomm had heard, and just laughed. "You're only young once! I'm making the best of it!"

><><

While she was concerned about the impending battle, Sandingomm loved designing costumes and disguises. She honestly couldn't discern why Rupert looked so glum about the whole situation. Rose was understandable .. if Sandingomm had lost one of her twins, she would have been just as worried .. and probably a lot more vocal about it. So she could admire Rose for her stalwart silence, even if it was deathly worried.

However Rupert really had no excuse for looking so .. disgusted. Sandingomm had found a bottle of white dye in Abbess Germaine's collection of herbs, medications, and the like. She'd given it to Estella, and told her to dye Rupert while she worked on his costume.

Estella had given her husband a questioning glance, but he'd just sighed, momentarily submissive to what he seemed to assume was fate. Sandingomm was glad he wasn't making a fuss; after all, it was rather necessary.

Also, Rupert's begrudging acceptance might have had something to do with Erwin, and his own good sense.

Erwin frowned at the tunic Sandingomm held up for her inspection. The black ermine crossed her arms. "Yea .. it's close. But he needs a blue cape. And Martin's sword."

Regina looked up from where she was attempting to simulate Ripfang's armor from Whegg's. "We dinnae have Martin's sword .. he has it."

Sandingomm tapped her claws on the counter. "Ya, that's a problem. Martin's sword is gold hilted, with a red pommel stone. That's going to be hard to fake."

Erwin sighed. "Well .. maybe. But if we have to, we could use a different, plainer one."

Rupert looked up. "Let's hope it doesn't come to fighting .. I'm no swordsbeast. I do long range fighting best .. that or close up with knives. But I've never really fenced."

Whegg had walked in with Iris, whom he had relieved of pot-washing duty. "It's the best we can do unfortunately. I asked Brome, Ballaw, an' Rowenoak ta try an keep an eye on things from the wall tops .. they'll let us know if they see ol' Clogg."

Rose stood up, asking hesitantly, "Whegg .. did Germaine find anything about Roseanna?"

The rat shrugged sadly. "I donno Rose .. not really. She was still tryin' ta get sense out of 'em when I left. Let's hope fer the best .. it's what I'm doin'."

Rose nodded, walking over to the open window that looked out in Mossflower. She stared into the slowly falling dusk, praying to Lord Ignasa for a miracle.

One that she had no idea, was already on it's way.

In the oddest manner.

><><

The summer night fell gently over Mossflower, like quiet snow in winter. Not all that far from her home .. but farther then she had ever been, was a little golden mouse babe.

She lay still under a spreading maple tree, curled in a tight little ball. Some might have thought she was dead, but she wasn't. This was proven as she stirred at long last, blinking her large brown eyes open.

Any other beast might have moaned, or at least made some sort of noise. But not Roseanna, she just slowly sat up, blinking in confusion.

Where was she? Where was her mother, and brother? Why was she out in the forest, where she knew it had been forbidden she go?

The previous events slowly returned to her, starting with her brother and cousin's plan to escape and go after her father, aunt, and uncle; and ending with her being flung in a sack, biting the nasty fat vermin, and hitting the tree trunk.

Roseanna picked up her beloved little doll, before sticking her thumb in her mouth and sucking thoughtfully on it. She didn't rightfully know where she was, or how to get home.

This morning, it had seemed like a good idea to run away. But now she just wanted to be home, where her mother would fix all her aches and scratches, before singing her to sleep. And oh .. how she ached! Her ribs stung where she had hit the tree, and upon further inspection, Roseanna realized her elbow was slowly oozing blood from a painful scrape.

The little mouse maid couldn't help the tears that sprang to her brown eyes, even if they fell without a sound. She hugged her doll, dragging her aching little body closer to the maple tree she was under. Roseanna sniffed just a little, curling up against the rough bark of the trunk, wishing it was her mother's soft paws.

But she didn't know the way back! It wasn't fair Luke and the others had left her! And that mean old vermin that had kicked her into the tree .. well. Roseanna almost wished she could see him again. If she ever did .. she'd bite him! No .. she'd chew him! Ever so much worse then the first time!

Just .. not his leg.

Yes .. Roseanna was a dibbun who could hold a serious grudge.

><><

The night darkened, and under the tree where Roseanna was, it was a friendly darkness. Fireflies danced on the early summer breeze, which was gentle and warm. Roseanna would have liked to chase the waltzing insects, as she'd done before on the abbey lawns. But she hurt too much.

It wasn't getting any better, as she'd hoped, instead the pain was growing steadily worse. She curled up tighter, hoping it would go away. But it didn't; just intensified. Roseanna drifted into a feverish sleep, lulled into restless repose by the soft, friendly wind.

But in the shimmering water meadows, far from the tree Roseanna was curled up at the base of, the darkness was not so friendly. This was a darkness a beast could feel tangibly, a darkness that could penetrate the soul.

And it penetrated the heart of one, ordinary yet miserable little magpie.

Yar sat in a weeping willow, waiting for the rest of the patrol to arrive. She watched the trailing leaves drag the ground in the soft breeze. It was almost hypnotic, really.

The little bird let out a sigh. Ever since she had openly stated she felt the woodlanders were not the real enemies and should not be killed, Yaz had pointedly avoided her. Yar suspected her sister felt like she should tell Rigvar, but somehow had a bit of family loyalty left.

Yar stared once more at the sweeping willow fronds. How long before Yaz decided to tell? It wouldn't be forever, Yar knew. It was only a matter of time.

I've got to get out of here .. with or without her! Oh Yaz .. if only I could take you. But the creature that once was my sister .. I don't know if I even want to call her that anymore.

If Yaz told Rigvar, Yar knew she'd be killed for treason. Drowned in that wretched green sulfur lake the idol of Malimore watched over .. that vile thing Yar was sure seemed to watch her every move with its cold, crystalline red eyes.

She shivered as Kree's voice rang out, "All Ravenwytes with me! Doomwytes go with Yaz!"

Yar felt her heart sink. Yaz's leading the patrol? Oh .. how can this get worse?

She soon found out as her sister landed beside her, speaking to her in what was the first time in a week. Yaz's voice was grim. "Look here Yar, I know what'll happen to you if I tell. So I'm not. But listen, if you mess up one more time .. just once more .. I'll have to. Got it?"

Yar nodded miserably. Yaz looked determined. "Good. Let's see if we can kill some woodlanders .. we're just pretty lights, right Yar?"

The little magpie felt her heart twist at Yaz's cruel joke .. how could her sister possibly jest over something so wicked? What had happened to her?

Yar knew.

Rigvar had.

It was his fault.

Yar sighed as her sister screeched, "Doomwytes to me!"

The magpie leapt off the weeping willow branch, followed by several others from nearby. Yar took a deep breath, following with a rustle of glowing tipped black wings.

They really did just look like beautiful, gleaming lights; evasive yet alluring and hypnotic.

Pity the one who fell to their charms.

><><

At Redwall, tensions were high. Clogg had not yet come, but as the summer night fell, the walls were not unguarded.

Whegg was one who had offered for sentry duty, as he had done it many times before in Kotir. It had been seasons, but the mottled rat was remembering what it was like.

And it really wasn't that bad, in all honesty. Not on a warm summer night, with the stars twinkling merrily down from the heavens. Like nothing was wrong, or could even go wrong. But Whegg knew they were lying.

The rat sighed, looking out into the shadowed woodlands. Somewhere out there, was Roseanna, lost, or maybe even captured. The whole abbey was fairly worried about her .. although .. not too much. Everyone knew how absolutely ferocious she could be.

But Whegg knew there were a lot of things in Mossflower, that were far more ferocious than a little mouse maid, no matter how hard she could bite.

There was the soft scuff of a step on the wall stairs, and Regina's voice rang out. "Ah do wonder where Argulor is .. he should have been back by now."

Whegg grimaced, thinking of the rather friendly but very untactful eagle. The rat hadn't missed him all that much .. what with his awful statements about how he missed eating plump Kotir soldiery. The bird didn't mean to be offensive, rather, he said such things out of habit and without serious thought. It really made Whegg sick.

Regina had a stomach of steel, Whegg had decided. She just returned Argulor's question of if she thought pine martens tasted like pine with a joking attitude. Whegg couldn't help but think of his beloved mentor and friend, Ashleg.

Argulor thought of this afterward, apologizing to Whegg and telling him he wouldn't think of eating such a noble beast as Ashleg had been .. although any other pine marten would be fine.

It failed to make the rat feel any better.

Regina broke through his thoughts, asking, "Whatever happened to ol' Rigvar d'ya think?"

Whegg shrugged, glad to stop thinking about Argulor and his atrocious eating habits. "I donno Gina .. it's been seasons since we saw one of 'em. Maybe they left."

Regina sighed, leaning against him. "Perhaps. Although Ah think they might have found a way ta hide. Donno how .. but still. An' I worry about Roseanna .. Rose won't sleep. Ah just hope she don't decide ta go after her."

Whegg shook his head. "She's got Luke to look after .. I hope she don't either."

Regina closed her eyes momentarily, before looking out into the woodlands. "I just pray ta' Lord Ignasa she'll be ok .. an' this whole Clogg thing'll work."

Whegg followed his wife's gaze. "You an' me both Gina .. you an' me both."

Far out in Mossflower, there was a soft glimmer of light .. almost like an answer. At least, Whegg took it as a good sign .. a sign of hope.

And perhaps it was.

><><

Yar was perched in an oak now, listening with a sinking heart as Yaz gave out last instructions.

"Alright, we're going to split up. Za, take two and go south. Vee, take Karree and go north. Yar and I will scout around this area. We'll meet back here two hours before dawn. Understood?"

There were nods all around; then a rustle of feathers as the assortment of rooks, crows, and magpies took off, leaving the sisters alone.

Yaz turned to Yar, eyes hard. "Now if we find a woodlander, I want to see you lure them into the swamps, got it? That way I know you're loyal."

Yar was staring at Yaz in horror .. what kind of cruel monster had Rigvar turned her once kind but always gullible sister into? She could barely make herself believe what she'd just heard, but she realized she should have seen it coming.

Oh why didn't I just leave? It's too late for Yaz .. now it's probably too late for me!

Yar dipped her head. "Y .. yes Yaz. I .. understand."

Yaz nodded curtly. "You better. Your life depends on it."

The black magpie took off, swooping low to the ground in an elegant arch. And as always, Yar followed, heart so heavy she wondered if she could even fly.

One thing was for sure, and that was that she could not lead an innocent woodlander to their doom.

If she had known the turn fate would take, she would have been even more horrified.

><><

Yar swooped after Yaz, hardly able to think properly. Her only real hope was that they find no woodlanders, because she knew she couldn't lead one to their death.

The two found themselves near the Redstone castle, but to Yaz's disgust, had not found any creatures.

Yar was beginning to hope she and Yaz were the only ones stirring ... but fate seemed destined to always be cruel.

The larger magpie landed in a oak tree, stating, "There always seem to be creatures out on nights like this ... how is it we cannot find any?"

Yar wisely said nothing, hoping they would find nobeast. Though the stillness did bother her .. the woods seemed nearly dead. Normally there would be much more woodland activity than this, farmers sowing their fields in the moonlight to avoid the heat of the day, otters doing night fishing, or beasts taking a stroll.

But tonight .. there was absolutely nothing.

Yaz huffed. "Look, we'll have to split up. But I won't go far Yar .. play it safe. Get my drift?"

Yar was hating having to agree again and again, but she nodded almost spitefully. Yaz gave her a long look, before pointing to the west with one wing. "Go that way, I'll head east a little. But I will be coming back."

She flew off without another word, leaving Yar with a heavy heart.

The little magpie suddenly looked up, determination in her eyes. It was now or never .. she'd never get a better chance than this.

She was almost surprised at her own defiance as she thought vehemently, "Oh, Yaz will come back will she? To an empty tree. Because I'm getting out .. I'm leaving Mossflower for good.

She swooped off the oak, flying low to the ground. The last thing she needed was to be caught trying to fly above the treetops .. it would be a dead giveaway. It would be best to stay below the woodland canopy, try not to be seen, and head north .. away from those accursed water meadows.

Yar's wings were just a little frantic as she flew, for she was deathly afraid of being caught now that she had finally got up the courage to run.

Her eyes were accustomed to seeing in the dark, so it wasn't all that shocking she caught sight of the little golden pile of fur that huddled miserably under a sheltering maple.

Yar could have kept going; and the thought crossed her mind, temptingly so. But something made her wheel about, wasting precious time to discover what it was she had seen.

The magpie landed beside it with a flutter of wings, nudging it gently with her beak. The thing moved fractionally, slowly lifting a tousled golden head. Yar started a little. The creature was a little mouse maid, one that looked much like the little mouse who had caught her in her last spying attempt.

She must be his sister, the poor thing. But what's she doing out here?

The little babe was staring at her with weak suspicion, a tiny glare of exhausted defiance in her brown eyes. Yar looked nervously around, realizing that with her glowing green tips against black plumage, she probably looked rather demonic. "I'm not planning on hurting you .. but .. how did you get out here?"

><><

Roseanna had been drifting in and out of restless slumber, when something hard brushed up against her bruised ribs.

The little gold mouse blinked her eyes open, to see a looming black shadow before her, one with glowing green around pieces of her outline. The creature was speaking to her, and while the voice was a soft, odd one; it was not unkind.

For once, Roseanna did not bite, or even move. She simply stared up at the animal that had found here in complete wonderment.

She'd been hoping her mother would come for her .. and this was not her mother. But as gentle black feathers swept over her, Roseanna really did not feel like biting this strange, glowing creature. She couldn't stand up anymore .. it hurt so much!

The soft feathers were a welcome contrast to the sharp, jabbing pain, and Roseanna relaxed; letting the creature cover her with one wing, murmuring something to her. But she couldn't hear it properly anymore.

Her hurts had stiffened quickly over time, and Roseanna had never felt true pain before. In all honesty she was very young .. too young to be thrown about as she had been.

The little mouse babe did not trust easily, but she somehow felt no fear of the glowing winged creature that had found her.

Perhaps the friendly beast could take her home.

However the most comforting thing was that she was no longer alone.

><><

Yar laid her wing over the little mouse, who was obviously hurt and only half conscious. The magpie wasn't sure what to do at first, until Yaz's voice rang in her head.

"I will be coming back .. so play it safe."

Yar jerked her head upright, gulping. Now that she had found this poor little creature, she couldn't leave her. If she did .. the other Doomwytes would find her. Besides, she was already hurt bad enough Yar could tell she needed help.

And the ones who could help her were the creatures of the Redstone house. Yar gave the mouse maid a critical glance. She wasn't very big at all .. not too large for a magpie to carry. But then .. Yar was a very small magpie.

Still, the bird gently latched her talons about the mouse, before launching into the air with a rustle of wings.

Yar found that while carrying the little mouse was not as easy as flying solo, it wasn't as hard as she had feared it would be.

Her wings beat rather franticly, for she was terrified of the possibility Yaz would catch her. In order to reach the Redstone castle, she had to retrace her path somewhat; which brought her closer to where her sister would be.

Yar took a deep breath, forcing herself to steady her pace. The little mouse was small, but already growing heavy and straining her carrier. If Yaz did see her, Yar knew her only chance was to get over the Redstone walls .. the other Doomwytes would not be so mad to do such a thing.

Yar knew she was going absolutely crazy .. to a Doomwyte, the woodlanders were thought of as a sort of certain death sentence.

But no one knows ... none of us have ever been brave enough to discover the truth! I don't think the woodlanders .. are terrible monsters like the rumors said.

But what if they were? Was she going to her own grave? Would she have to give her life to save this young unfortunate she'd found?

Yar felt a little panic, before something occurred to her.

Whatever they do to me ... it can't be worse then Rigvar's brutal punishments. And I've gone too far ... I can't stop now.

This was made abundantly clear as a half-surprised, half-furious screech rang out.

"Yar!"

The magpie didn't pause, or even bother looking ... she new who it was. Yaz. And she knew there would be no mercy now, not as another screech rang out from behind her.

"Yar you traitor!"

Yar took a deep breath, pushing herself faster. She could hear her sister's wings thrashing the wind in pursuit, and it only forced her on.

Now this mad attempt of Yar's had turned into a completely dangerous race, both birds forced to weave through the many trees of Mossflower. Yar swept around a large oak tree, catching a glimpse of the redstone wall. She gasped in a desperate breath, aiming for it and pushing herself to a greater speed then she'd ever gone .. or ever even knew she could go.

But Yaz was gaining steadily, she was larger, and had no burden. Yar couldn't even turn and fight, not with the mouse babe. Not like she would have won anyway .. Yaz was always the better combatant of the two.

She felt her sister's beak clack down upon her tail feathers, and rip a few out. Yar screeched, letting go of the mouse with one talon and lashing out with it, slashing Yaz across the face!

The larger magpie squawked in surprised pain as Yar refastened her talon about her charge, realizing that the lost feathers had cost her. She swung clumsily around a tree, thankfully the last one before the wall. Her tail feathers helped her maneuver in full flight ... and now she was missing some.

She practically threw herself up and at the red wall, which was in all honesty, a blessed sight. She was slowing, exhausted, and gasping .. the woodlanders were her only hope.

><><

Whegg was still on guard duty, although Regina had left to put Ash back in bed .. the mischievous little rat dibbun had attempted to sneak into the gatehouse to reach Fripple, who was not able to get past Rose.

The rat shook his head; he wasn't sure what Rose was going to do with Fripple. He figured if the mouse got too frazzled, he and Regina would offer to take her. After all, she wasn't that bad .. just energetic and imaginative. Perhaps too much so, but Whegg was used to that, with Ash around.

He shrugged .. it always seemed best to let these sorts of things work themselves out.

The rat turned his gaze to Mossflower, just as the oddest looking bird he'd ever seen swooped stumblingly around a tree on the fringes of the forest! And it had ahold of .. Roseanna?

Yes, that's what it had. The little mouse wasn't struggling .. in fact she seemed unconscious .. at best. Whegg fervently hoped she wasn't dead as he took a good grip on his spear in case he had to fight the relatively small bird that was carrying her.

She seemed desperate, beak hanging halfway open and wings beating furiously. The creature launched herself up and over the wall in what seemed a last, clumsy attempt, before awkwardly almost collapsing on the parapet.

Whegg leapt back as the black bird softly crumpled to the fresh planking, staring up at him through glittering black eyes.

She really looked freakish against a dark background, for the glowing tips were all that could be seen. But on the wooden parapet, she looked far less demonic; just an oddly painted little magpie with glossy plumage.

The bird nudged Roseanna's motionless form towards him, before crouching down on the floor and weakly attempting to get her breath back.

Whegg scooped Roseanna up, relieved to see she was still breathing evenly. She was dirty, scraped, and bleeding a little, but there seemed to be no fatal injuries.

Brome had run up, and he broke out as he saw his niece. "What happened? Where'd you find her?"

Whegg shook his head. "This .. bird brought her back .. "

Brome looked surprised, but just ordered, "Take her to Rose .. my sister's as much of a healer as me. I'll see to our .. feathered visitor here."




Chapter 13 When Plans Go Awry

TPF Chapter 13

Quinn, Buffheart, and Kesha :)

Argulor tried to keep still as queen Ruro worked on his injury, however it was quite obvious by his wincing and occasional muttered curses the procedure pained him greatly. The golden eagle could barely stand anymore, especially not once the arrow had been removed.

However as soon as his wound was bound up, Argulor fought to be on his way. Ruro shook her head disapprovingly. "Nay, wist a bit. Thy shan't be flying today."

The eagle glared at her. "Ah must take the news ta those that sent me lassie .. er .. Majesty."

Ruro glared back. "Ruro. And thou shallt stay til thou art healed."

Argulor sighed. "Ye dinnae understand lassie! This could mean .."

The sable furred squirrel crossed her arms. "I do know good sir, all too well. My people and I have lived frugally under a tyrant's boots for seasons .. he knowest not our presence. But still, it hath made us go into hiding. However these kings and queens thy speakest of, they bring me new hope."

Argulor tried to sit up again, only to be shoved back down by a very determined squirrel queen. Ruro shook her head disapprovingly. "Thee reminds me of a friend I hadst once. He was just as stubborn as thou, and just as foolhardy."

The golden eagle argued. "But lassie, as a fellow laird ye know the importance of being prepared for battle! If they dinnae know .."

Ruro looked over at Arvid, who had walked over. "Thy friend Arvid; a more hardheaded beast I hath not seen since my old friend Fleetscut. He thinks only of now, and putest no thought into yonder times."

She turned back to the eagle. "Thou shan't be landing on that leg sir, it wouldnst hold thy weight. Wist two weeks, perhaps three .."

Argulor started. "Blood 'n' Hellgates lassie, three weeks? Ye might as well doom us .. me friends must know before three weeks .."

Beddle had approached the three, and Argulor appealed to him. "Sir, being the laird of these woods, might ye talk some sense inta this wife'a yours?"

The white squirrel king shrugged. "Good sir, I am not a healer, I wouldnst not know. My Ruro knowest best what thou can and canst do."

Argulor groaned, muttering a bit before asking, "If Ah am ta be invalid, will ye send somebeast ta meet them and break the news? They must know beforehand!"

Beddle looked thoughtful. "That sir, I might be able to do. But thou must understand we canst go as fast as thou. Still .. I could try to send beasts yonder to thy friends. I am not sure which ones I could .."

Arvid broke in. "With all respect father .. I might!"

><><

Arvid leapt through the tree tops, brushy tail swirling behind him. The cream squirrel leapt easily from branch to branch, never loosing his balance.

He knew exactly the beast to go find the kings and queens .. Starbuck! There was no better rider then that hare, not that Arvid knew of. But the squirrel prince had no way of reaching the elusive hare, not unless he showed up with his family. He hadn't heard from his friend in a few days, not since they had talked before.

Arvid knew Starbuck, Breeze, and Lightfoot loved their sandy home out on the shores, but he was worried for them. Hopefully they would join the Pine Woods squirrels, out of the immediate reach of Lotor.

However Arvid couldn't wait for Starbuck to get around to it, he needed him now. But there was no way that he, a cream furred squirrel, could make it to the hare's secluded home without being detected.

So he needed someone who could.

And the squirrel prince knew who could do the job .. a beast few knew of. She was elusive, and in truth, somewhat paranoid. But she was good at hiding .. very good at it.

He had stumbled upon this creature totally on accident one day last winter, when she hadn't disguised her snowy pawprints well enough. He knew her haunts, for though she had been quite afraid of him and completely defensive, he had trailed her without her knowing.

She always came to a certain stream for water, so Arvid hid himself behind a large tree near her favorite spot, and waited.

It took a little, but sure enough, the creature he was seeking came without fail.

She was a thin little rabbit, almost haggard. She was younger then he, fifteen seasons old at very best. Her fur was a rich dark brown on her underside, and a caramel color on her back. Her entire coat seemed to have an almost dappled appearance, which helped her blend with her surroundings. Her eyes were a soft brown, but they roved constantly .. nervously.

She knelt to fill a pitcher with stream water, and Arvid knew he'd have to be careful how he approached this flighty little creature. He took a deep breath, stepping out and calling softly,

"Thalia?"

She started, jerking her head up and freezing, staring at him almost as though he wished to do her harm. Arvid held out his paws. "Thalia .. I won't hurt thou. I needst thy help."

The little rabbit looked from side to side, finally stammering, "M .. my help? What .. for?"

Arvid looked excited. "We hath learned .. the kings and queens .. three of them .. are coming to defeat Lotor! They shallt take back Salamandastron! But their messenger was wounded, and we needst one to go in his stead .."

Thalia had looked hopeful at the thought of Lotor being overthrown, but now she stared at Arvid in fear. "Y .. you can't want me to .."

Arvid quickly corrected her. "No, I do not mean that .. I simply needst thou to take a message to the creature who can. He lives in the dunes nearer the mountain than I can go."

Thalia blinked, flattening her long ears slightly. "I .. you mean you want .. me to .. find someone for you?"

Arvid shook his head. "Look, I knowest where to send thou. I just need thou to carry a message, one I canst carry myself."

The squirrel prince sighed, stating, "This is important .. Thalia. If we can overthrow Lotor .."

The little rabbit nodded. "I know .. I just .. I don't know. I .. well. I suppose ..it's the right thing to do. Where is .. this friend of yours?"

><><

In Salamandastron, the sun may have coated the floor of the upper galleries in a layer of soft, shifting dust. However down below even the main hall, down in the twisting passages of never ending drips and echoes, there was no sun.

That was not to say however, that there was no light.

For in truth, in these hidden, time-forgotten caverns, there was far more light than in the regel throne room of Lotor.

There, the sun slanted through rock windows, lighting a place physically that was festooned by the dark presence of Malimore.

Here, there was no sun. Nothing but a few, flickering lanterns or dying torches to illuminate the abode of a very diverse group of creatures. They were few, and many very poor looking; the only thing they seemed to share was the fact every one of them was a vermin.

However .. even that resemblance was faulty, for they had a steel-gray hare in their midst.

It was dark where they met perhaps, but there was a beautiful feeling of light .. the feeling of Lord Ignasa. For he was this group's alikeness; and the one that had brought them together.

Two creatures sat in the flickering shadow a guttural torch cast; one a scrawny young dog fox, the other the hare. The fox, normal red like most of his species, was whittling intricate patterns on a javelin with a small stone knife.

His hare companion gave his work a quick glance, remarking, "Very good laddie buck! I'll make a craftsbeast of you yet young Quinn wot, wot?"

Quinn beamed momentarily, before letting his gaze drop. "I'm glad'ya think so Buff. But .. there ain't no market for craftship 'round here .. ain't no interest in it."

The hare patted him on the head, ruffling his unruly shock of drooping headfur. "Now Quinn ol' lad, ya can't let a thing like that get ya down. Stiff upper lip an' forward ta' the bluffs eh? Someday .. we'll be free beasts again .. all of us wot?"

Quinn smiled a bit from beneath his rumpled hair. "Thanks Buffheart .. ya, we will. An' we are already .. Lord Ignasa is with us, like ya alw'ys say!"

The steel gray hare opened his mouth to say something, pausing as the soft swish of bare paws became audible. Kesha stepped through a concealing screen, walking into the echoing cavern with a soft sigh.

Buffheart looked over at her, asking, "Kesha me gel, what's wrong?"

The ratwife shook her head sadly. "It's Bluefen. If only I could convince her to join us .. she wants to, I can tell. But she is afraid .. and .."

Kesha let out a sigh. "And she wants revenge. So she refuses to come .. but I worry for her."

Quinn perked his ears. "You mean .. Bluefen, ol' Swartt's wife?"

Kesha nodded, pacing. "That's exactly who I mean Quinn, and it worries me. Swartt starves her and her son .. well he's not going to anymore. I didn't know had bad it was but .. I'm putting an end to it. I'll bring her food in secret .. she's my friend from old times."

Quinn saluted. "Well I'd like ta help Kesha! An' bein' one a da guards, I can help more'n some could."

><><

In truth, down in the damp, dripping hidden caverns of Salamandastron, the creatures were far happier than some that haunted the sunlit corridors.

Certainly happier than one of them; one that stood silent in some gathered shadows around a window.

She was far from being the slightest bit optimistic. All her life, the tide had seemed to flow in her favor, and the tables had been on her side. But now, it was all going wrong.

She'd used her good luck to cheat, steal, and harm, and hadn't been a bit sorry. And still wasn't.

However, now the tables were turning heavily against her, and the tide was growing contrary to her purposes.

Velox had given her fair warning .. she had not listened. She never listened. Now she almost wished she had.

The pine marten's words returned to her, echoing forebodingly. "And remember Xemx .. I do not give mercy."

The rat shuddered .. Velox would make good his threat. The pine marten could not stand being defied or bested in anyway, and he held long and terrible grudges. If only she'd managed to learn better the ways of the power she'd got Roderick to teach her! She did have some .. a little. But it was so far from enough!

And now ... now. Now she would have to hide .. she couldn't trust her .. mentor. It'd be like trusting a snake. Because it had been .. she'd trusted him too much, and without even knowing.

For once in her life, Xemx knew she'd been got the better of. And from one miscalculation.

She'd thought she was stronger then she had been.

><><

Bluefen was fixing a little of the food Kesha had brought her, extremely thankful for the return of her rat friend. The ferret looked over to where Veil sat at the only table, watching her with solemn interest. She smiled at him, stating almost to herself, "What we would have done without this .. I don't know."

Veil just nodded as his mother sighed. "I almost wish I could go with Kesha .. but .."

Bluefen looked away. "It's not going to work."

Deep down, she knew there was a chance it could. But while part of her wanted to go .. part of her wanted to stay.

Just to give Swartt what he deserved.

It was selfish, she knew. Part of her hated it. Part of her found comfort in her fury.

Her life was nothing but a twisted mess .. one even she couldn't figure out. It was like a tightly knotted rope .. there was no black and white. Everything was gray.

Bluefen stiffened as there was a knock on the door. Not a loud, impervious knock .. yet not a timid one either. Somewhere in-between .. but underlain with urgency.

The ferretwife drew her dagger, hiding it behind her back and walking softly over to the door. Was it Kesha? Bluefen hoped so .. the ratwife was the only one she wished to see.

However as she opened the door, she scowled. The creature was one she rather disliked .. that cocky little rat maiden, Xemx. Bluefen sighed. "And what do you want? More news and orders from Velox? I'm doing my best ok? Tell him I .."

Xemx interrupted her, violet eyes flighty. "I ain't tellin' him nothin' .. he'll be after me."

Bluefen raised one eyebrow. "Did something to make him mad huh? What was it this time Xemx?"

The rat looked from side to side, asking, "Can I come in .. if'n he sees me .."

Bluefen held up a forceful paw. "Oh no you don't, I won't have it. Not before you tell me what the problem is. If he sees you, that's your problem. If I let you in and Swartt finds you, I'll get murdered see? So speak .. what exactly do you want?"

Xemx looked disgusted. "I've gotta hide ok?"

Bluefen almost smirked. "Yea? What's that have to do with me?"

Xemx rolled her eyes. "Ain't that obvious? I ain't normally one ta have ta say this, but I need yer help ok?"

Bluefen crossed her arms. "Oh you do eh? And you really expect me to .. care?"

Xemx looked entirely exasperated. "Look, I can help you! We each got somthin' the other one needs .. ain't that just callin' for a deal?"

Bluefen narrowed her blue eyes in total suspicion. "Maybe .. but not until you tell me exactly what you want, and exactly why you want it. So get talking."

Xemx ground her teeth. "Alright, ya want honesty? I gotta hide from Velox see, an' you can hide me."

Bluefen snorted in total disbelief. "What?! Hide you .. I'd have to feed you! I can barely keep myself and my son alive, and you expect me to take care of you? If you don't have a message from Velox, get out. I can guarantee I won't jeopardize my son's health for yours."

The rat looked almost desperate. "No! No listen! I ain't askin' fer that, I'll feed meself. I can get out in disguise .. an' even get you more food'n you've got!"

The ferret had been about to slam the door in Xemx's face, but paused at this. "Oh you will. And how do you plan to do that?"

Xemx almost dared let her normal smirk return .. but not quite. "I can use a cloak .. dye .. whatever. I got some money from workin' fer Velox see? An' I can forage too .. better'n you can. So it won't be ya feedin' me .. it'd be the other way 'round."

Bluefen paused. Before, she'd already made up her mind she was in no way helping the snobby little rat, but now .. she was close to reconsidering. Still, for whatever reason, Xemx seemed to want her help badly. Bluefen decided to push her advantage. "That seems reasonable. But tell me .. what else do you plan to do eh? I'd be risking my neck to help you."

Xemx's smirk got a little wider. "Here's the part ya really need .. I can sense when a beast's comin'. I can warn ya whenever Swartt's gonna come, or Velox. Ye can be ready for 'em!"

Bluefen almost froze. What an advantage that would give her! She would have time to hide Veil, and seem completely unsuspicious .. it was tempting. Very, very tempting. Still, there was no way the ferretwife trusted Xemx of all creatures. She raised her lip slightly. "How are you able to do such things? And more importantly, how do I know you will not betray me."

A sudden thought came to her, and she snarled, "Wait, did Swartt hire you? Are you in on one of his sick plots? Is that why you're hiding from Velox? Is this some twisted plot to kill me .. if it is, I swear I'll ..."

She drew her knife, growling with deadly anger. "You will not tell him anything .."

Xemx held up her paws, crying, "No! I've nothing to do with Swartt .. I promise! It's not that .. that ain't why I'm hidin' ok? I ain't gonna betray ya, cause it'd just get me killed!"

Bluefen slowly let the knife drop, although she didn't put it away. "Before I agree to do one thing for you, you tell me what it is that you're afraid of. Why do you want to hide? You had better be believable .. or I'll get the idea you're one of Swartt's helpers .. understood?"

Xemx nodded, looking for once, totally bested. The golden rat's nostrils flared a little, and her voice held underlying anger .. the anger of a beast outwitted. "If you must know .. I'm pregnant."

Bluefen stared at the rat, before slowly stowing the dagger in her sleeve. "Well that is quite interesting. So that's why you'd come sniveling to me and beg for help .. why don't you go to the father?"

Xemx curled her lip, and Bluefen nodded with a smirk. "Oh I see. He's just as untrustworthy as you. How very fitting. Well, you should have known better than to do something that stupid."

Xemx crossed her arms. "Look, I can help you. You can help me. I don't wanna a counselor, I want a partner, see?"

Bluefen nodded slowly. "Aye, but for how long? What happens when your kid's grown up some? You light out .. betray me .. dump your brat on me? I mean, what's really in it for you Xemx?"

The rat growled, frustrated. "I ain't gonna play ya false ok! I'm willin' ta make ya a deal ya can't hardly refuse, an' all I want is ta be hidden til I can .. be normal again. That's all I want! If I betray ya, I betray me! Velox'll kill me for this!"

Bluefen considered for a moment. She had places Xemx could hide; secret caverns she had discovered adjoining her chambers. But if she was to take the rat in, she'd have to put up with having her around, the danger of Swartt possibly finding her ... and then what about Veil? She didn't trust Xemx to be around him.

However .. if Xemx could get her more provisions .. and tell her when a beast were coming ... oh it was dreadfully tempting.

Xemx held out a paw .. almost hopefully. "Do we 'ave a deal?"

Bluefen took a deep breath, pointing one black claw at the rat. "Alright. You've got a point .. we both need help. But if you stay around here, you've got to play by my rules, got it? Firstly, you will do what I tell you. Secondly, if all this about you having .. supernatural ability is a lie, I'll kick you out. You'll have to prove too useful to be disposed of, see? And thirdly, and most importantly, you leave Veil alone. I don't want to see you near him .. you will not teach him your wickedness. Is this quite clear?"

Xemx nodded, fake honesty all over her face. Bluefen curled her lip. "Then I will. But only if you hold up your end of the deal. And remember ... I will be watching what you do .. be careful. I'm still Velox's partner .. don't forget it."

><><

Thalia crept softly among the shifting sand dunes on Salamandastron's shore, desperately nervous. She'd never done something this dangerous before .. well not since her escape from the northlands.

The little tortishell rabbit trembled a little as she crouched in the sparse cover of some dune grass, thinking over the directions Arvid had given her. They were relatively simple, but Thalia was unused to being away from the friendly, sheltering woods.

This in and of itself was disorienting, coupled with the blinding, blistering hot sunlight. Thalia was glad the darkest part of her coat was on her underside, as dark fur collected heat unforgivingly. What she wouldn't give to be somewhere cool and dark; quiet and safe.

Still .. maybe she could help overthrow Lotor. Then there would be far less reason to fear .. fear was something she fought constantly.

She was fighting it now, as she strained her senses to catch any sound that might betray an intruder.

From Arvid's descriptions, the hare he called Starbuck lived somewhere nearby here. The squirrel had warned her the hare had two other creatures with him, his sister and a pony. He'd also said finding their abode itself was the hardest part .. apparently it was hard to find.

Thalia stiffened, trembling as there was a crack of some driftwood breaking behind her. The rabbit did not turn to see who or what it was, just leapt from her hiding place with terror. In mid-leap, she realized she was going to slam into the side of a dune. She braced herself to hit the hard sand ... instead something far more shocking happened.

The solid seeming dune was hollow, covered by a well disguised screen; a contrivance that did nothing whatsoever to break Thalia's leap. The little rabbit felt herself falling, her plummet halted by something living .. and fairly large.

><><

Starbuck had been resting in the hidden sand cavern, preparing himself for his nighttime vigil. He, Breeze, and Lightfoot had talked long about leaving and living with Arvid's tribe, but had come to no decision as of yet.

Lightfoot thought it would be a good idea .. Breeze was against it. Starbuck was unsure.

So they stayed, undecided.

The gold and silver tipped hare shrugged, trying to find a more comfortable spot on his bed of old blankets and dune grass. This was rather hard to do, and his grass kilt itched irately. Sometimes he felt it would be better to live with Arvid.

Lightfoot walked past him, nickering, "I'll be off to see where Breeze went Star .. I won't be long."

Starbuck nodded a little absently, watching as his almost adopted mother walked toward the flight of sandy stairs leading out of their home.

The next second however, he sat bolt upright, as the strangest thing he'd ever seen occurred. A small brownish creature seemed to fall from almost nowhere, slamming into Lightfoot's amber side.

The pony tossed her head with a snort, barely fazed. The newcomer however, sat up rather slowly, rich brown hair spilling around two distinctly lupine ears. She looked just a little groggy, but mostly nervous as she looked from Lightfoot to Starbuck.

Her voice was almost a stutter as she swallowed hard. "I .. I'm sorry .. I didn't know .."

Lightfoot shook out her shaggy brown mane. "It is alright little one. But who are you .. and where did you come from?"

The creature was too slight and timid to be a hare .. she had to be at least partially rabbit. She picked herself up, brushing sand from her old green tunic. "I .. I'm called Thalia. Arvid .. he sent me. I .. was to find the one called Starbuck."

Starbuck blinked, stating, "That'd be me wot. But .. what does Arvid bally well want?"

Thalia looked half hopeful, but still nervous. "He says .. the kings and queens .. the marks .. are coming. But there messenger .. was wounded. They don't know about Lotor .. but they need to. A .. Arvid's parents want to send somebeast to tell them .. and he asks if you will do so."

Starbuck stared at her in amazement, before Lightfoot shot him a triumphant glance. "I told you we needed to join the squirrels."

><><

A good ways from Salamandastron, slowly making their way across the western flatlands, were the Mossflowerian questers. They had joined up with Warthorn and his otters, which slowed their pace somewhat.

Emalet carried messages from Redfarl to Warthorn and Martin on a regular basis .. and they were still waiting for Argulor's return.

In fact, this was the very thing Martin, Warthorn, Keylar, Emalet, Sayna, and Timbal were discussing at this very moment.

The group had stopped for a quick rest, and Emalet used this to speak her piece. "Look, it should have taken him three days. It's been five now! I'm telling you, something's wrong. Argulor would not take this long!"

Keylar nodded. "I've thought of it. But what could have happened to him?"

Martin sighed. "It's all too simple really, I'm afraid. He was going to spy on Salamandastron .. if there is an enemy there .. they killed or captured him."

Timbal looked grim. "Something that's all too likely."

Sayna crossed her arms. "What do we do about it? Argulor's our friend."

Timbal shrugged. "There's not all that much we can do .. not until we get there."

Martin nodded. "Not unless we sent Emalet there .. and we'd run the risk of loosing her."

Emalet spoke up. "I am willing to run that risk Martin .. we need to know what's going on."

Warthorn, who had sat in silence through this conversation, stepped in. "Have any of you thought of what's going on in Mossflower?"

There was a moments silence, before Martin dipped his head. "That's another thing to think of."

Sayna took a deep breath. "If I may .. that's not the most pressing thing right now. We need to know what we face."

Emalet nodded. "I agree."

Martin sighed. "Yes .. you're right. Emalet, will you tell Redfarl what's going on .. and then head for Salamandastron?"

The owl blinked her yellow eyes, stating, "Consider it done .. I'm worried about what's happening."




Chapter 14 An Insane Event

The sun dawned bright and early over Mossflower, but in the caves of Rigvar Skurr, there was nothing peaceful or cheerful.

The raven himself was completely furious, shooting long glares at Yaz and Kree. He turned on the magpie, cawing, "You chased her, that little weakling, and you failed to catch her? Karrraaa!"

Yaz drew back ever so slightly, glowering at Rigvar through the dried blood on her face. "Krraaaww! I would have got her, had she not done this to me!"

Rigvar was unimpressed. "You say she saved a woodlander .. had them in the talons .. and still managed to wound you? One of my best Doomwytes?"

Kree spoke up. "I saw what happened, Yar used a tricky move. Yaz pulled some of her tail feathers out .. she just managed to get over the wall. I doubt she can fly properly any more."

Rigvar paced in disgust. "I suppose it's not a total loss. But she is with the woodlanders! She'll tell them all our secrets! We have to get her back .. and give her what she deserves!"

Kree cocked his head. "But how do you plan to do that? She's in their Redstone house!"

Rigvar gave his captain a long and terrible glare. "We have penetrated their defenses before, we can do it again."

Yaz growled. "But Yar was our spy!"

Rigvar turned on her, sneering, "If she's the only bird in my flock that can spy, there's a problem. Get Za, he's small .. a rook. He can spy too."

The raven paused as Sumiss, acting as a necklet, whispered something to him. Rigvar's eye darkened as he nodded, squawking, "You two get someone .. I don't care who .. but get someone to find Yar! I will make her rue the day she hatched, that traitor!"

><><

Clogg had awoken feeling .. refreshed. It was warm in these woods; pleasant. So different from the cold eastern shores he was used to.

And today .. today he would finally return to his master.

There was a sort of security in this for Clogg, although he wouldn't have admitted it. He was a beast with free will, yes .. but sometimes he found comfort in having another beast make decisions for him.

True, as captain of a crew, he had to make choices. But he'd always had Verdauga assigning him missions.

Go plunder this; go pillage that.

Go kill this traitor for me; go get me new slaves.

So without his master, he wasn't quite sure what to do in terms of his next conquest.

Now that his sanity had halfway returned, Clogg was feeling pretty good about this whole thing. Verdauga would give him and his crew a new ship, provisions, and a mission to accomplish.

Clogg sat up in his hammock, ignoring how the trees it was tied between creaked rather ominously.

What he wouldn't give for some good ale right now ... the corsair captain shook himself. Best not to think of such things .. not after the lack of alcohol he'd managed to get his paws on lately.

At least Verdauga'd have plenty around .. and a bar to serve it in. If he hadn't been anxious to tell the cat king of Badrang's death, he'd probably have set his sights for the 'Bloody Axes', which he was certain had to be nearby.

But then .. Verdauga always expected reports to be made immediately, before such things.

Clogg stood, stretching and kicking a for once, exhausted Bootbrain. The weasel looked up blearily, cradling his torn right paw; an injury that was looking rather ghastly. His captain was unsympathetic, thinking of his own sore leg. "That's whats ya get Bootbrain, fer bringin' a demon like ya did inta camp. Now get movin, I want all da crew up an' goin'. We reach Kotir today .. an' ye can get that there hurt seen ta."

><><

The morning sun spilled softly through the gatehouse windows, creating soft patches of light on the stone floor. Fripple sat in one, fiddling idly with her slingshot. She looked over into the adjoining room, where Rose had fallen asleep, sprawled in a chair by Roseanna's bed.

The little mouse sighed. She hadn't meant to get Roseanna hurt, and it had sort of been Luke's idea.

Rose had been horrified when Whegg had brought her daughter back, unconscious, bruised, and bleeding, but she'd set to work immediately. It had taken a while, but she cleaned Roseanna up, got her into bed.

Then she'd simply fallen asleep in a nearby chair.

Fripple had decided not to wake her aunt, unsure of who she blamed. Besides, nobody was terribly happy to be awoken early in the morning after staying up half the night.

However, as fate would have it, Fripple didn't have to do anything.

There was a knock at the door, one that was repeated. Rose murmured, but didn't really wake up. Fripple looked up as Sandingomm pushed the door open, pausing as she saw the young mouse. "I say Fripple, where's yer aunty?"

The small gold mouse stared at her wildcat friend in awe, for she was arrayed in her old seer outfit; a thing the like of Fripple had not seen. She pointed speechlessly to the room where Rose was sprawled half in the chair, half on the floor.

Sandingomm knocked on the doorframe, stating, "Goodmornin'! And how's Roseanna?"

Rose looked up slowly, giving the grey cat an odd look; not fully comprehending why she was in the gatehouse so early. However she scrambled to her paws the next second, placing a paw on a still sleeping Roseanna's forehead.

The mouse's voice was a little sleep-laden, but she sighed, "Better, I believe .. and thank Ignasa."

Sandingomm smiled. "It's good ta hear, we was all pretty worried about her when she went missin'."

The cat's voice was genuine, and Rose nodded, before pausing. She raised an eyebrow, asking, "Wait .. not to be rude but .. why are you here so .. early? And ... wearing .. that?"

Sandingomm leaned against the doorpost, grinning, "I needs ya in costume, remember? All da others is ready, an' Clogg could come anytime. Whegg's on guard up on da walls, with Brome."

Rose gave her daughter a look. "But .. Roseanna .."

Sandingomm shrugged. "It's worked out. Urran's gonna come watch her .. fact he's here now."

This was proved as the mouse healer himself walked in, pausing at Sandingomm's outfit, which he'd not got a chance to yet see. The wildcat smiled at him. "We're all ready, sept fer Rose. I had ta dig this thing out of me stuff .. you know .. it's almost embarrassing. I've not worn it in seasons."

Rose sighed, tired. "It wasn't before?"

Sandingomm yawned. "I was used ta it then. Oh well, it ain't too awful bad, just takes some reconditionin'."

She stood strait up, her overskirt of chains and pendants tinkling merrily. "We'd best get started .. who knows how long it's gonna be?"

Rose nodded blearily, planting a quick kiss on Roseanna's forehead. She straitened up, casting a reluctant glance behind her as she followed the wildcat out.

She'd have liked to stay .. but Roseanna was with her grandfather .. and this was important.

><><

The ones who were to meet Clogg were assembling near the main gate, where Abbess Germaine was giving out instructions.

Sandingomm led Rose over to them, remarking, "Ya look tired enough ta be a ghost ya know."

Rose sighed. "I feel it."

Whegg nodded, pulling at his refurbished armor, made to look like Ripfang's. The mottled rat's fur had been coated with ash, to turn it grayish. "I do to Rose .. I've been up guardin' all night!"

Regina walked up, dressed in her old barmaid outfit. "Ah told ya to let Brome do it."

Whegg shrugged as Estella and Rupert walked over, the former dressed in her barmaid getup, and the later strangely white.

Rose reflected that it looked very odd to see Rupert white in summer .. he was always brown during the warm months. That is of course, unless he was dyed. The stoat looked a little disgusted as he held his temporary sword, an item salvaged from the Great War of Mossflower, from slapping against his legs and tail. He had on a brown tunic accented with sliver trim and a black leather vest over top of it.

Sandingomm looked oddly at him a moment, before snapping her claws together. She picked up a blue sheet, walking over to the stoat and fastening it about his shoulders with a silver clasp. The cat gave him an approving nod. "There, that's about perfect."

Rupert shrugged noncommittally.

Gingivere walked over with Iris, both of them done up regally. Iris looked completely enamored with this idea, dressed in an emerald gown with flowing sleeves. Her father was slightly less enthusiastic, although he did cut a royal figure in a green tunic with a darker green cape of velvet. Formole and Dinny were skilled in working metal, so they had crafted him a simple coronet from bronze, due to the lack of all that much gold.

Gingivere really did look like the king he was born to be .. although he looked embarrassed about the whole thing. Sandingomm nodded approvingly. "Right, this is lookin' pretty good!"

Midnight, standing nearby, gave Gingivere a glance. "It's good .. but Gingivere needs to act more .. kingly and condescending to others."

The wildcat gave the black horse a stern glare, and Sandingomm nodded. "Much better .. dear, you'll be fine. Just .. be commandin'. It's for the good a Redwall .. an' .. we all know that ain't the way ya really are."

Erwin hurried over, dressed in her long, eastern styled gown of sky blue. She gave Rupert a long gaze. "That's perfect. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was Badrang himself."

Rupert sighed, but straitened up, stating in his most commanding voice, "Alright you lot, we've got some pirates to fool! So pick it up ya layabouts!"

Estella clapped her paws. "I told ya ta just have fun at it!"

Rose smiled at Rupert's let-on personality; so far from his real one. What would Martin say if he saw what they were doing? It could be rather funny .. Martin staring at Rupert's new look, and Rupert looking totally embarrassed ..

Ballaw's voice rang from the wall tops. "I say chaps and chapesses .. not to bust up the jolly ol' party .. but we've got some unwanted cads for visitors!"

><><

Clogg's bright morning was .. becoming slightly overcast. He'd reached Kotir .. or .. what should have been Kotir.

This building was relatively the same size, and had many similar features .. but it wasn't the same. While the gatehouse was grandiose and the walls thick and made of red sandstone .. the drawbridge was notoriously missing. As was the trench to go under it.

And somehow or other .. Kotir just seemed .. a bit out of place. Clogg couldn't say for sure, but somehow, the whole building seemed to have moved. It just didn't seem in it's proper place on the flatlands .. although it was extremely close.

Also .. Kotir seemed .. well .. far newer then the last time Clogg had seen it. And it occurred to him that the passage of time has a way of making everything older, not the other way around.

Wippback grinned at his captain .. after all, he'd never seen Kotir in his life. "Wull Capt'n, it's just like ya said .. a big redstone castle. But I gerra question .. don't places like dis alwus seem ta have .. a palace insida 'em? Cause dis one ain't seem ta have somethin' like dat."

Clogg scratched an ear, rather confused. "Wull ya Wippback, I thinks yer right. But den .. Kotir sure has changed a lot since da last time I saw 'er. Verdauga musta been .. redecoratin'."

Whippback shrugged as Bootbrain walked up, stating, "Uhh .. Capt'n? Wull .. da crew want's ta take a quick rest."

Clogg rolled his eyes. "When we's found Kotir?"

Bootbrain shrugged, still favoring his torn up paw. "I donno Capt'n, but I guess after so many seasons ya might not wanna make a big scene .. ya know."

Clogg paused, finally nodding. "Donno how a thought like that gots inta yer head, but it's a right goodun. Ya stay wid da crew .. an' send me Scritchy. Ya .. an' Floggtail."

><><

Sandingomm watched from the parapet, tips of her gray ears just visible over the battlements. The wildcat grinned as Clogg and three rats made their way to Redwall, walking across the flatlands.

Her black-tipped tail switched slowly as she suppressed a snicker. She hadn't seen Clogg in ages .. and he sure looked washed up. His bright outfit was tattered, cutlass rusted somewhat, and girth lessened.

As he got closer, Sandingomm could make out his look of astonished bewilderment. The three rats with him had on looks of amazement, and their watcher grinned almost insolently. Clogg and three young rats who'd never laid eyes on the old castle. Perfect.

Brome stood nearby, dressed in a green tunic made to mimic the Kotir livery and holding a spear. Sandingomm had decided since only the top half of him could be seen, it wasn't all that necessary to worry about making him look terribly like a rat. His job was to be a gate guard from the parapet, nothing more.

Ballaw, Rowanoak, and a few of the older but still fit members of Redfarl's tribe were hidden behind the battlements with bows and javelins, in case anything should go wrong.

Sandingomm's amused look only widened as Clogg's voice rang from the ground far below.

"Ahoy up there! Sentry ahoy!"

The cat nodded to Brome, who leaned over the battlement slightly, shouting back. "State your name, an why you come to Milord Verdauga Greeneyes castle!"

There was a loud guffaw from below, followed by Clogg's reply.

"Yer a new beast ain't ye? Wull sure .. ya don't look half-grown, not ev'n fer a rat! I am his Lordship's sea captain, Truman Clogg, returned from me long an' unfortunate absence wid a message fer Milord himself!"

Sandingomm let loose a little giggle at Brome's insulted look, after being called first a kid, then a rat. The mouse yelled back, replying, "If'n that's the case, I'll inform my general. He'll speak wid ya."

Brome hurried away with the air of someone delivering a message, complaining as he passed Sandingomm, "The nerve .. half-grown rat??"

She shrugged, following him down the wall stairs. "At least ya pulled it off!"

><><

Clogg was waiting a little impatiently, searching his brain to remember if he had ever seen that little rat wall guard. Somehow he seemed almost familiar .. and not all that .. rattish. Not with his reddish brown fur and white underbelly.

Besides ... had he seen such a creature before? Anywhere?

His thoughts were interrupted as a shout came from above. "Ahoy Clogg, ya ol' seadog! Where's ya been hidin' yerself?"

The stoat snapped his gaze to see none other then Ripfang standing on the battlements. Clogg felt just a little disappointed .. why wasn't that old rat dead yet?

Still, he answered amiably enough. "Ahoy ta ya Ripfang, ye ol' freebooter! Can ye tell Milord Verdauga ta let's us in? I got a message fer him! One he's bound ta wanna hear!"

Whegg, alias Ripfang, was enjoying this more then he'd have thought. "Oh 'e will, will he? Wull ye've been away fer a good long time messmate .. we all thoughts ya turned traitor like ol' Badrang!"

The rat grinned at Clogg's response, which was just a bit indignant, just a bit afraid. "I never do such a thing Ripfang, I'ma loyal ol' beast, ya know it! Me message is important!"

Whegg nodded almost mockingly. "I'll tell 'im messmate .. He'll come's out ta meet ya!"

Without waiting for Clogg's response, Whegg bolted across the parapet and down the wall stairs. He slid to a stop at the bottom, nodding to Gingivere. "Right, he want's ta talk ta ye mostly. Says he's got a 'portant message for ye .. Milord Verdauga."

Gingivere sighed, straitening up and nodding to Sandingomm and Whegg. "You two come with me, the rest wait for our signal. Just stand right behind the gates .. and be ready."

The wildcat, his wife, and Whegg hurried to the gates, which Midnight, Rupert, and Erwin opened slightly.

Gingivere stepped out, his two companions directly behind him. Sure enough, Clogg stood outside .. although he had changed since Gingivere had a chance to lay eyes on him.

The pirate captain bowed low, exclaiming, "Milord Verdauga, yer lookin' right well, even after all dese seasons!"

Gingivere cleared his throat, stating in a condescending tone, "Do you dare think Clogg, that even the seasons could touch me? But where have you been? What is your excuse?"

Clogg bowed again. "Milord, as ye sent me ta do, so I did. I have slain the traitor, Badrang!"

Gingivere had a hard time to keep from looking utterly dumbfounded .. Martin, Rose, and Sayna had told him of the Battle for Marshank, and how Martin and Erwin had jointly slain Badrang. He collected himself, stating, "Well, where is his head? Did I not tell you to bring me his head?"

Clogg looked down. "Wull ya .. but it ain't quite all that simple. See we 'ad .. some problems, an' I 'ad ta bury 'im."

Gingivere felt this was a good as time as any to begin the real ruse. He announced loudly, "Oh you did eh? Well I know a liar when I see one, and I can prove it. Badrang is neither buried or dead, and neither is he a traitor to me .. he returned with more riches than you've ever laid eyes on!"

As it had been planned, Rupert stepped out of the gates, taking his place beside Gingivere with authority. Erwin followed him, along with Estella, Regina, Rose, Iris, Midnight, and finally Luna.

The stages of shock Clogg went through was almost amusing .. and just a little frightening. The stoat first went completely ashen, then trembled, almost muttering incomprehensibly. He held up a trembling paw, shaking violently. When he spoke, it was a dry, terrified sound.

"B .. Badrang? Buts .. I saw ye! Ya was dead .. I killed ye .. na .. the gold mouse did! With yer sword! What's ya doin' here .. an .. with Erwin?"

Clogg turned to his sister, stammering, "Why is ya even lookin' at 'im? Ya wanted ta kill 'im .. na .. ye did! An' cause he killed yer mate .. an' yer son! An sold yer daughter ta Verdauga .. Milord .."

He stared at Regina and Whegg, gasping, "Why's yer daughter here Ripfang .. ye sold 'er as a barmaid!"

Whegg gave Regina a look. "I liked 'er too much ta leave 'er there."

As Clogg turned to gape at the two horses, Regina poked her half-joking husband.

Clogg missed this gesture, as he exclaimed, "Ya two, what's ya doin' here? An .. the white one .. I .."

The captain broke down in almost terror as Luna spoke ever so softly. "You tried to kill me .. didn't you."

It was a statement, full of hate and as sharp as a double edged sword.

Clogg held up his paws. "Now .. I ain't mean nothin'! It weren't personal .. what else was I ta do wid a blind horse? I couldn't 'ave an animal 'round that didn't do nothin ..."

Luna's tone never changed. "I was a dead weight. So you threw me, a helpless newborn, overboard to drown .. and my mother tried to save me. So you killed her .. but I'm here to confront you .. finally."

Clogg's already pale features grew even more ghastly, as his voice trembled. "N .. now mates I .. I alwus liked deadbeasts .. I alwus did. I never 'urt a ghost .. they're right likable beasts!"

Rose stepped forward, voice soft. "No, you never hurt a deadbeast .. you only hurt living ones."

The mouse had her paws on Iris's shoulders, who was gazing oddly at a totally terrified Clogg.

The corsair stared at the mouse, stammering, "Y .. you! Badrang .. killed ya! I saw it .. just like Crosstooth killed dat mouse who came wid ya .. the brown one! He was a fighter if'n I ever saw one .. but ol' Crosstooth never was one ta give up .. they killed each other. But .. is 'e here too .. both of em? Is dis .. Hellgates?"

Sandingomm stepped forward, jingling her many silver bracelets with an air of importance as she stated, "Whatever the case, we ain't here ta tell ya. Just here ta confront ya, fer what ya did .. My voices tell me Lord Malimore's got a right cozy berth fer ya!"

Clogg almost fell to his knees, gaping in total fear. "All I wanted was ta get's a ship Milords .. I'm just a poor sailin' beast .. I never wanted ta do all that .. all I want's is a ship. An' I promise I'll leave ya ta enjoy 'Ellgates .. I won't bother ya! I just want a craft again!"

><><

Sandingomm was having a hard time keeping a strait face. This whole situation was so crazy, it was almost laughable.

Luna's whiskered muzzle brushed against the cat's ear, murmuring, "He's lying .. he did want to do all the things he did. He's just terrified, and terror can loose a beast's tongue .. and make them lie. But look at his rats .. they're the ones I worry about."

Sandingomm did so, quickly seeing Luna's point. One of the males looked confused, the other looked suspicious. The female was staring oddly at her captain, who she'd probably never seen this insane.

The cat nodded, muttering back, "Ya .. good point. Looks like trouble."

She looked up as Gingivere stated imperviously, "A ship eh? Why should I give you a ship? Where's the last one I entrusted to you? Wrecked somewhere on the northeast coast?"

Clogg was pleading now, in addition to terror. "Please Milord .. I won't mess up dis time!"

Gingivere crossed his arms. "I see no reason to waste a ship on you, after what happened last time. I could execute you, but .. what would you say to have a second chance, my most unfortunate captain?"

Clogg knelt, trembling. "Milord, don't let them ghosts touch me .. I won't fail ya! What must I do?"

Gingivere looked thoughtful. "I will think on your request .. Clogg. Until I have made my choice, you will not enter Kotir. Is this understood?"

Clogg nodded violently. "Yes Milord .. I wouldn't think ta not .."

Gingivere nodded commandingly. "Then leave my sight; you shall know my answer with the sun tomorrow."

Without another word, he spun on his heel, striding back into Redwall; cape swirling behind him. Sandingomm followed, then Whegg, Regina, Rose, Rupert, and the others.

Midnight slammed the slightly open wallgate with a powerful hoof, and Luna spat on the ground, something uncharacteristic. "That vile beast .. I knew it! It's his fault my mother's dead!"

Midnight tossed her head. "Our mother .. I share your feelings Luna."

Gingivere relaxed as the gate slammed shut, and Sandingomm hugged him. "I knew ya could do it! Ye did better then we thought ya could even!"

The wildcat smiled, despite what he'd just had to do. "I watched my father ... I learned some things."

Rose sighed. "Here's my worry. Clogg ... well .. he doesn't seem to be such a problem. It's those rats with him. They aren't going to stand for this forever."

Rupert crossed his arms. "True .. and do we really want this to last forever? I admit, that despite me humiliation, it was a good idea. But it's a stall .. that's all. Some of Clogg's crew will get wise .. even if he doesn't."

Regina nodded. "Ah'm afraid yer right Rupert .. we need to do something to get rid of Clogg."

><><

Wippback and Scritchy sat in their makeshift camp, eating a few poorly roasted roots. Wippback spat in the fire stating darkly, "I ain't never seen the like .. did ya Scritchy?"

The female rat shook her head. "Na .. a madder thing I ain't never seen. Somethin's fishy 'bout all that ... that's fer sure."

Wippback sneered. "I've alwus believed in ghosts Scritchy, ain't sayin' I ain't. But them .. they didn't look dead. They looked downright lively."

Scritchy looked thoughtful. "Wonder what would happen ta one of 'em if ya stuck a spear through 'em."

Wippback got a fiendish look on his face. "That Scritchy .. is a right good idea. Let's see .. which one should we try? The liddle mouse wench .. the white horse?"

Scritchy snorted. "Na .. Badrang. Capt'n be right glad if'n we killed 'im anyhow."

Wippback drew a wicked curved knife, sneering, "I'll test this on him. After all Scritchy .. everybeast knows .. ghost's ain't gonna bleed."

Scritchy winked wickedly. "Aye .. but a live beast will."




Chapter 15 Playing with Fire

TPF Chapter 16

Luke in the northlands

Velox was in high bad humor .. where was that seer of his?

He hadn't seen Xemx in over twenty four hours, and it was irritating him. Curse that little rat! What did she think she was doing?

The pine marten had asked around somewhat, but his seer seemed really and truly missing. Nobeast in the horde seemed to have seen her since the day before, and had no clue as to her whereabouts.

Velox clenched his jaw. That wench had best have a very good excuse.

Or else.

The pine marten tapped his claws thoughtfully on the rock sill of the window he was standing at. He narrowed his amber eyes, as he thought more deeply on the matter.

He'd asked some of the lower-down beasts if they'd seen her, but their answer was no .. and honest too.

So where was she? He needed her to run his errands and deliver his messages, as well as earn him money reading some paws here and there.

Velox reviewed all the creatures that might have seen her. He'd asked some of the guards. He'd asked some of the soldiers. Nothing.

Suddenly his small ears perked up. Ahh .. but he'd not asked the mouse Shadow Fighter who'd been training her. Velox knew where he'd be, likely lounging about his chambers, given to him by Lotor.

Perhaps that was where Xemx had disappeared .. hanging out around that mouse. Velox's eyes suddenly glinted as a thought occurred to him.

If Xemx had gone off and gotten pregnant ... Velox clenched his jaw, seething inwardly. He'd told her to do the exact opposite! If she had, she'd disobeyed him .. and he couldn't stand being disobeyed, by anyone.

The pine marten strode off, black cloak flowing about him. Velox's boot's thudded echoingly, disturbing the shifting carpet of quiet dust as he hurried through the hallways.

He reached the mouse's door, knocking on it imperiously. He had to repeat this process once or twice, before the creature opened the door, griping, "Well? What do you want?"

Velox tapped his paw dangerously on the floor, sneering, "My seer."

The mouse did not take the hint. He crossed his arms, stating in a totally condescending manner, "Your seer. And why in Hellgates would I have your seer here? I don't even know who they are!"

Velox rolled his eyes. "Little gold rat wench with quite an .. attitude."

Anger suddenly dawned on the mouse's face. "Oh she's your seer eh? Well she came to me, and asked me to train her. Then of all the cursed things, she stood me up!"

Velox looked interested. "Oh she did. And this would be .. last night I assume?"

The mouse crossed his arms. "Yes, it would be. I haven't seen her since .. but if I do I'll show her what happens to ones who toy with a Shadow Fighter."

Velox smirked at him, huffing, "Oh no mouse .. I will."

><><

Arvid's day was taking an .. interesting turn. With a golden eagle to feed, he was learning how to fish ... Argulor could put down more than the squirrel could have ever imagined.

The squirrel prince was now heading down to the prisons with his father, to question the weasel he'd captured, Scound.

Beddle turned one of his keys in the lock of a tree trunk, pushing the door that was set in the bark open. Sure enough, the weasel sat on a bench, one paw chained loosely to the wall. He looked up as the two squirrels entered, asking, "What's ya gonna do with me eh?"

It was almost challenging, yet cautious at the same time. Beddle ran his claws through his scruffy beard, replying, "That my good weasel, rather depends on thy cooperation."

Scound gestured with his fettered paw, causing the chain to clink. "I weren't doin' nothin', I promise! All me'n Glimpy was doin was hunten' .. and it weren't the smartest thing Glimpy never did ta shoot that eagle. But we wasn't lookin' fer nobody, til yer son 'ere pinned me to a tree."

Beddle shot an almost amused glance at Arvid. "Oh he did, didst he? I always knew the lad was a good shot."

Arvid nodded, never cracking a grin, although his voice was smiling. "I never touched one hair on his pelt .. but chain mail sleeves are as good an anchor as any."

Beddle dipped his head. "That they do son .. thou provest it."

He turned to Scound, asking, "Does thy leader know or suspect our presence?"

The weasel shrugged. "Ain't heard nothin' bout a bunch a squirrels like yers. Lotor thinks all the woodlanders 'round here is dead."

Arvid smiled at Scound, chuckling, "Oh does he?"

Beddle held up a paw, stating, "I see. And what doest his horde number exactly?"

Scound's cocky look vanished as he replied, "I can't tell ya that mate .. restricted information ya know."

Beddle drew his slender long sword, holding it close to his captive's muzzle. "Quite on the contrary, thou can."

Scound held up his unchained paw, gulping, "Now .. don't get excited mate .."

Beddle's expression stayed stolidly stoic. "I am the king, and most definitely not excited. Answer my question, and thy life is safer."

Scound gulped again, stammering, "Wull .. I ain't sure fer certain but I'd say .. at least five 'undred soldiers an' some captains."

Beddle nodded, removing his sword from it's threatening position but keeping it loosely in his paw. "I see. I hath heard there art Shadow Fighters in Lotor's horde .. how many are they?"

Scound looked honestly confused. "What'cher mean .. Milord?"

Arvid spoke up. "Shadow Fighters .. beasts who serve Malimore. They have immortal and uncanny abilities, as well as great strength and unnatural resistance to pain. It all comes from the Lord of Darkness .. The Dark Wolf .. Malimore .. whatever name thou call him by."

The captive weasel's face lit with sudden understanding. "One's who follow the Dark Wolf? Ya .. I knows what'cha mean now. Uhh .. wull I donno. Not really. I think Lotor's one, an' there's rumors bout two more that came near a month ago .. there's a couple others I guess, Ya .. Swartt's one I think. But I donno fer sure .. honest!"

Arvid raised an eyebrow. "Swartt?"

Scound shrugged. "He pays me, I work fer him. Ain't me first choice, but I do it cause there ain't nothin' else for a low beast ta do. We ain't fit ta be nothin' but bein' hordebeasts .. but it's not me idea a what's fair an all .. it's theirs. After all .. what's a beast ta do? It's not like one ol' beast kin do nothin' bout it."

Beddle spoke, asking, "They tell thou, that thou art nothing in other words?"

Scound nodded, a small bit of resentment in his eyes. "I alwus dreamed a bein' a capt'n .. or a leader .. but I ain't fit fer it. Ye never are .. only if'n yer born inta it. Lemme tell ye, some beasts get all the luck. Other beasts .. we ain't get nothin' .. just ta fight fer a warlord til we die. I guess .. we ain't worth much."

The weasel spat on the prison floor, muttering, "I've learned to get used ta it .. I'm expendable."

Beddle spoke again, and in a thoughtful voice. "Is this the mentality of all the soldiers in vermin hordes? They all thinkest they have no purpose, and are useless? This is what thy leaders tell thou?"

Scound shrugged. "Ya .. if it weren't true, how could any horde work? We're only there ta fight an die fer our lords .. that's all most vermin are. Some of us love killin' and such .. I don't mind it, I aint' afeard ta slay creatures. Still .. it ain't me first choice. It's me destiny .. an' nobeast can escape that."

Arvid had never thought of vermin in the way Scound was describing them. He'd never have thought that the soldiers in a horde might not feel the same way their leaders did. In fact, at this moment, he realized a woodlander looked at a horde's leader, and judged all his subordinates for his wickedness .. even if it wasn't what they wanted to do.

The squirrel prince spoke, barely meaning to. "Nobeast is worthless .. nobeast. All have worth .. in the eyes of Lord Ignasa."

Scound looked for once, honestly serious. "Lord .. Ignasa? Who's he?"

Arvid raised an eyebrow. "Thou hath never heard of him?"

Beddle held up a paw. "Son, why would the Shadow Fighters let their servants know of Lord Ignasa?"

The squirrel king turned to his captive, stating, "If thou willt heed me, I will tell thou .. listen .."

><><

Kesha and Quinn hurried through the lower halls of Salamandastron, bare paws pattering softly. Despite his larger size, the fox was only matching his companion's purposeful stride.

The ratwife had a covered basket of food over one arm, and her feathered walking staff in the other. Her voice was a low sound, so as not to raise suspicion from the guards on duty. One of them would hail Quinn every so often, having been on duty with him now and then.

"Quinn, I want you to be careful .. understand?"

The black tipped red fox nodded, holding his ornately patterned spear easily. "I try ta be Kesha."

The rat bit her lip, never slowing her pace. "I know Quinn .. I'm sorry. It's not that I doubt you .. it just .. I don't know. I feel like something could go terribly wrong at any moment. As if it isn't wrong enough."

The fox shrugged. "Why is it worse now .. den ya'know .. it always has been?"

Kesha shook her head. "I don't know .. oh .. I just don't know! I pray to Lord Ignasa for help .. there is a greater darkness than before. Or maybe it is simply .. growing."

Quinn looked quickly around. "Why would'it do that .. all sudden-like?"

Kesha sighed. "I know not."

She paused, looking at the tunnel leading up into the upper galleries. "Thank you for coming this far Quinn .. but you know the rules. The common guards aren't allowed any farther than this. From here, I'm on my own."

Quinn nodded as she turned to leave, stating quietly, "Ignasa go with you."

><><

Kesha hurried through the upper caverns, sweeping heedlessly through the patches of sunlight cast through the windows. As she neared Swartt's chambers, she started getting even more nervous .. something felt .. wrong.

She could feel the darkness, although it was faint. At first she thought for some reason, Swartt was in. But that was not right, this evil was too weak to be Swartt.

Still, what would be around Swartt's rooms to cause her to feel that unmistakable cold, but Swartt himself? Kesha forced herself to calm down, reminding herself the caverns Bluefen lived in seemed forever infested by chilling evil.

Still .. it was slightly more potent than before. Kesha knocked hurriedly on the door, ready to give an answer to Swartt, but pleading to Ignasa he wasn't there.

Sure enough, Bluefen opened the door, and almost expectantly. Her tired features broke into a smile as she saw her friend. "Kesha! Thank the fates .. come in."

The rat did so, asking softly, "Bluefen .. Swartt isn't here is he?"

The gray ferret spat on the floor. "He is not, seasons be thanked. The less of him I see, the happier I am."

Kesha shook her head. "Then what is it I feel? Something .. dark."

Bluefen looked worried. "I've always trusted your judgment friend .. it's uncanny. Who or what do you think it is .. and where?"

Kesha set her basket on the table, stating, "It is too faint to pinpoint .. but something's not right around here .. something's just off. You're sure nobeast but you, Swartt, and Veil has been in these rooms?"

Veil peeped cautiously around a kitchen cabinet as his mother paused, stating finally in a disgusted voice, "No .. actually that is not the case."

Kesha's eyes widened. "It isn't .. Bluefen .. who is here?"

Bluefen sighed in disgust, stating, "If I tell you, you must keep it a secret .. I made a deal."

This was sounding worse by the minute to Kesha, she gulped, asking, "A .. deal ..?"

Bluefen crossed her arms. "Yes. With one of Velox's .. former helpers. Her name's Xemx, she .. came to me for sheltering. She's pregnant see? I guess the father's a louse, cause she doesn't seem in a big hurry to tell him, whoever he is. From what she tells me, Velox'll have her hide. Besides, she's got .. abilities. Ones that are quite helpful to me."

Kesha looked dismayed. "Abilities .. Bluefen .. what are you talking about?"

The ferret shrugged. "She gets us more food, she sneaks out and tells me what's going on with the horde. Even better, she can sense when beasts are coming .. she told me you were .."

Bluefen broke off, growling into the farther recesses of her chambers, "Though she was a little late!"

An uppity little voice answered from some shadows, griping, "I didn't feel 'er real quick ok? She don't feel like Swartt an' the others."

Kesha started as the rat stepped out of hiding, clad in a cloak, her normal attire now. The two rats gave each other a long look, Kesha finally stating, "Bluefen .. a word?"

The ferret nodded waving a paw at Xemx. "Get out of here .. go back to your hiding place and leave us alone. Remember, I'll be watching the doorway!"

Veil scuttled over to his mother as Xemx disappeared into the shadows once more. Kesha closed her eyes momentarily, taking a deep breath and stating, "Bluefen .. you can't keep her here! She is a danger to you and Veil .. she feels dark! I swear there's something wrong with her!"

Bluefen looked worried as she countered, "I know she's not trustworthy. But she offers me a deal .. one that helps me immensely! She can tell me when Swartt's coming .."

Kesha nodded, exclaiming, "With evil power .. I swear she feels like she dabbles in dark magic .. the power of Malimore. I know Swartt is a danger .. but so is she! You're fighting fire with fire .. and you're going to get burnt!"

Bluefen sighed. "Yet what other choice do I have? I am a slave, nothing more. One who dreams of revenge .. and she can help me get it! What else can I do .. I need her!"

Kesha looked desperate. "Bring Veil .. and leave this place! Come with me Bluefen, please! We'll protect and hide you, and you won't have to shelter a Shadow Fighter apprentice to be safer than you were. You'll be far safer than right now!"

Bluefen looked hopeful .. and very thoughtful. Like she wanted to. Almost like she was going to. But her eyes dulled as she sighed, "No .. not yet. The fires of vengeance are too strong .. I'm sorry."

Kesha hung her head. "Not as sorry as I fear you will be .. but I will do my best to help you still .. and I will pray for your protection. But be careful Bluefen .. be careful. I fear somebeast will pay for this dearly."

><><

Xemx might have been told to leave, but it was seldom she did what she was told .. ever.

She had admittedly, slunk into the concealed room to lower Bluefen's suspicions .. however as soon as the ferretwife turned to that friend of hers, Xemx had slipped out again and into a good, shadowed vantage point.

She listened with suspicious anger to the whole conversation, conniving mind working overtime. If this 'Kesha' could convince Bluefen to leave, Xemx couldn't expect them to take her too. They'd leave her on her own to starve, get found .. whatever. But they wouldn't look out for her.

Besides, that ratwife was messing up her perfect plans! Xemx had it all worked out .. until Kesha came along.

Needless to say, her plan was a selfish, horrible one, as they all were. But it was quite advantageous to her.

Xemx did not want to have to take care of a stupid brat .. that was not on her agenda at all. As soon as she gave birth to this child she was now saddled with, she'd bolt .. leaving Bluefen to deal with the kid. It wasn't like Xemx had any sentimental attachment to this worthless, unwanted whelp .. and it certainly wouldn't benefit her to run around with a dumb toddler.

So dump the problem on Bluefen .. well that was the perfect solution.

Xemx didn't bother to think about what would happen to her child or the poor ferretwife she planned to leave it with .. neither did she care.

But now .. now this Kesha rat had to come along and try to steal Xemx's .. partner. That had to stop .. one way or another.

Xemx was willing to bide her time, but if this turned into a serious problem, she'd have to take serious measures to protect herself. She'd heard why Bluefen had refused to go, and planned on twisting that crank. If the ferretwife was so determined to have revenge against her husband, Xemx would be sure to feed that fire.

However, if Kesha would not give up and kept trying to get Bluefen to leave .. well then.

Xemx would have target the root of this problem.

She'd have to get rid of Kesha .. once and for all.

><><

The noon sun may have slanted harshly across the shores of Salamandastron, sending waves of simmering heat across the landscape; however it wasn't this brutal in some other places.

In fact it was gentle and merry in a place far from the mountain .. in the well wooded northlands. And the soft, golden rays caressed the rugged features of an older mouse, who's striking golden fur was slowly fading into tired gray.

There was a certain amount of kindness about the creature, despite his tattered looks. While he stood strait, and wore a worn tartan kilt, one that was still in decent repair, there was a long scar running across his blind right eye. His ears were nicked from many battles, just as his arms bore not only the scars of war, but the tell-tale signs of once existent manacles.

The mouse stood beneath some tall, rustling pines a short ways from a thatched roof cottage. A few other pretty little houses stood near the first one, but they were not the object of this creature's observation.

He was facing west .. the land of the setting sun .. and the land of his past.

The wind whipped warmly about him, bringing him all the memories. Ones he'd tried so hard to forget .. but they wouldn't leave. They never would.

All his mistakes .. all their cruel consequences. Couldn't they just leave him to live out his latter seasons in peace?

But they would not. And now they were growing ever restless, as if Lord Ignasa was forcing him to relive them again. Almost like this was a test .. or preparation.

The mouse closed his eyes, only shutting off his sight in one, for the other would never see again. But as he was swept into the world of yesteryear, the long lost vision returned ..

Now this tired, battered old warbeast was a young mouse, with the fairest of all golden fur and jetstone-black eyes. Youth and odd nobility marked him as something different .. something special.

Luke had always loved to hear Twoola tell he and his adopted brother Vurg stories of the olden days of Mossflower. The young mouse understood Twoola was not his father, just like Vurg was not his brother, but he viewed them as such.

After all, he'd never met his real father. As for a mother, Luke had no idea what one would be like. He'd never had one .. not even an adopted one .. that he could remember.

But Twoola was both mother and father to the two boys, one motherless, one orphaned from infancy. He would tell them of the golden days of Mossflower, and also how they fell to the brutal Verdauga Greeneyes. The middle-aged mouse refused to describe anything in detail however, no matter how much Luke begged him.

One day when he was about eight, Luke had finally convinced his adopted father to tell everything .. never dreaming all the horrors he would hear.

But Luke had always been headstrong .. he'd always had to discover things for himself .. the hard way.

The mouse snorted at himself now .. mocking himself for the little pains he had caused himself .. but far more for the latter ones that had torn his life into shreds.

If only he had learned sooner .. but he was too proud to admit he was wrong. he rued his decisions now, but it was too late.

After all .. hindsight has a taunting way of always being perfect.

Twoola sighed, looking down at Luke with sorrow. "Son, must I tell you that?"

Luke wanted to know what had really happened, so much so it hurt. "Please father .. I'm old enough! Shouldn't I know .. well, you've told me I'm a prince .. so shouldn't I know what befell my land in full?"

Twoola closed his eyes, sighing, "Perhaps you are right .. perhaps it is time you heard. But it will not be easy to hear."

Luke crossed his arms. "You've told Vurg .. shouldn't I know too?"

Twoola sat down on a stool in their makeshift tent, and Vurg sat down wordlessly, as did Luke. Their father finally spoke, voice gruff. "Yes .. well Vurg is two seasons your senior. He is ten seasons old .. and in our existence, almost a man. But .. you are strong .. and .. perhaps you are ready."

The mouse had folded his paws, and looked at Luke .. although the young creature got the idea his adopted father was looking through him .. even seeing some one else.

Twoola's voice had been soft as he began talking .. remembering. "Your real father, King Martin and I had been best friends for a long time .. since our childhood really. We'd done a lot of things together .. we were squires together .. we were knighted together. When we each got married, we fell apart somewhat .. although we were still close.

Through the passing of time I was granted a son, Vurg. However as much as Martin and his queen, Sunflower, wanted a child, their prayers seemed unanswered. Still, it wasn't all that long I suppose, but time seemed to pass much slower then, than it does now. You were born around Vurg's second season, and I remember how happy we were. So happy in fact, that king Martin proclaimed a great feast in your honor.

This was to be a grand celebration, and out of courtesy and friendship, the other leaders of Mossflower attended, along with many nobles, and even commoners. They held it in our beautiful Kotir, and such singing and dancing and I have not experienced since. For on that night .. it all went wrong.

We had been hearing rumors of vermin uprisings in the north and to the west, and of course, we were always on guard for the wicked cat ruler of the highlands, King Mortspear. His name meant 'the spear of death', and so he was. However he had grown old, and was not such a problem as in the days of our fathers. Or so we thought."

Twoola had broken off here, snorting mockingly. "The fools we were .. the absolute fools. Has any king, unless through the wiles of contrary fate, ever been childless? No, they always desire an heir, most preferably a son, to pass their ways and kingdoms down to. And so it was with Mortspear."

Twoola looked up, stating softly, "I remember it all like it was yesterday; how we were dancing and feasting without a care. Perhaps we were prideful .. nay, I know we were. After all, since when could any enemy best Kotir? But they did. There was only a very minimal watch outside, and this horde used grappling hooks to scale the walls. Before they were discovered, it was already too late .. they were in. The drawbridge was already down .. all they had to do was raise the portcullis. Suddenly, our mighty fortress had been turned into a bloody grave for us all."

The hazel brown mouse heaved a sigh, stating, "What can I say? They burst into the great hall, a green-eyed cat at their head .. and we fought. We fought like madbeasts, all those who could. But they were too many, and we had children and the elderly among us, and they had archers. We were disorganized .. they were not. Many a warrior and mighty knight fell on that fateful day, and Kotir was painted in our blood. They spared none .. they cared not. I remember Martin pulling me over .. making me promise to get his wife and son out. He gave me his beautiful crown and sword, laid one paw on your head and stated,

"He may have need of them someday .. I need them no longer, not where I am going."

Twoola shook his head, gruffly continuing. "They always told me the Lukes were the best and most insane of all fighters, and after seeing what I saw, I believe it. Your father didn't wait one second after that, he seized a fallen longsword and went after the wildcat himself. It wasn't a fair fight, but it was a good one, for as long as it lasted. Those two were masters, both of them. They dueled up and down the hall, and even as I fought our way out, I had hope Martin might triumph. But they fought dirty .. one of them shot at him. It didn't kill him then and there .. but the cat had the upper paw. I never saw for sure what happened, but .. he was killed, I know that. Others who escaped later and rejoined us, say the cat beheaded him."

Twoola looked away. "After that .. Sunflower .. she was a wreck. I swear she just wanted to die in Kotir .. and .. she got her wish. My wife .. she'd already been killed, and I was having to watch Vurg. I couldn't keep track of everything .. even though to this day I feel like I failed my friend miserably. The queen was behind me, carrying you .. and one of our pursuers shot her down .. killed her. I slew her murderer, but that changes little. So there I was, with an orphan and my motherless son, and the dead queen. I felt like the lowest of all scoundrels, to do what I did; but to preserve what little was left to the Mossflowerian nobles, I took her crown. Should it be left, that cat would get his paws on it, and take one more thing from you."

Luke had never known all that much of the conquest, just that it had happened. He could only listen in dumb horror as his adopted father finished his gruesome tale.

"We left the dead to the mercy of our conquers .. there was nothing else to be done. I knew of a secret exit, and I used it. Over a few hours, the ones that were going to escape did, and some rejoined us. They are the most of those in our tribe, after all."

Luke had shaken his head, whispering, "I never knew .. then Verdauga .. killed both my parents?"

Twoola sighed sadly. "Essentially, yes. Perhaps I should not have told you. Then again .. I think you were right. I think it was time you knew."

Now, as he reflected upon it, Luke decided Twoola was right. Waiting longer wouldn't have made it easier, only worse. He was glad to know that history in a way, although it cruelly taunted him in the way it seemed to morbidly repeat in his own life.

He too, had lost everything. And in just one night.

Almost blessedly, a shout broke him from his reverie. "Luke? You alright matey?"

The old mouse looked up to see an equally aged creature behind him, one with fur so dark brown it was almost black, although it was flecked with silver and scars. The creature's eyes were shockingly sapphire blue, a stark contrast to his dark coat.

Luke nodded to him, calling, "I'm fine Vurg."

His friend walked to his side, instantly sobering up a little. "You're remembering, aren't you? You've got that look about you."

Luke nodded absently. "Vurg .. you remember the stories father would tell us. Do you think .. that they just repeated themselves in our lives? Do you think they would have had to?"

Vurg gave Luke a look, before looking down. "It's a very good question, one I've even asked myself. And so far .."

The mouse looked away. "So far I do not have an answer."




Chapter 16 Of Plots and Pirates

Yar lay in Redwall's makeshift infirmary, reflecting on all that had happened to her in the last forty-eight hours. She had honestly, been expecting these woodlanders to throw her out or kill her .. admittedly she had believed more of Rigvar's lies then she had thought.

However these creatures were kind to her, not the other way around. She'd been taken to the back gatehouse, where she'd promptly fallen asleep, not really caring one way or another what happened .. she was too completely exhausted to bother about it.

When she'd awoken on the night after her arrival, she'd been greeted by Urran, who had thrown her a sort of turn. After all, Yar had never seen him before, she wasn't used to his battered, scarred appearance.

However he had treated her well, and she soon lost her nervousness of his rather disfigured state. He'd not done anything to harm her, in fact quite on the contrary, he'd fed her and put something soothing on her aching tail.

Yar was sort of surprised by this turn of events, and yet, sort of not. She'd always thought the woodlanders were far better then the rumors about them.

Why? Well .. Yar really didn't know how to answer that. Maybe it was because she honestly knew very little of herself.

The bird saw herself as a coward, for while she had managed to save the little mouse that had been lost in the woods, she couldn't promise herself she could do it again. It had taken every ounce of her courage just to do it the first time.

She watched Urran limp about with his hawthorn walking staff, doing this and that. It took a while, but Yar finally got up her boldness to ask the question that was weighing so heavily upon her.

"Sir .. what are you going to do with me? Are they going to question me .. torture me or .. execute me?"

Urran stopped in mid-step, adjusting his spectacles in order to shoot Yar a positively horrified look through them. "Torture you? Execute you? What wretches we would have to be to do such things to you, and after you brought back my granddaughter. If anything we owe you our gratitude, and I can assure you that unless you should have fiendish motives for your good deed, no harm shall befall you."

The old mouse paused, continuing, "As for questioning, I'm certain our Queen, Rose, and some others will have to ask you questions. But they will not be cruel about it, especially not Rose. After all, it is her daughter you saved."

Yar blinked. "Then I .. rescued a .. princess? And I guess .. you're the .. king?"

Urran stared at her a moment, before laughing kindly, "Me? The king? Why no friend, I am nothing but the old, crippled, infirmary keeper. I was a chieftain once .. although by far not the wisest or bravest. And honestly, I am far happier as I am now then I ever was then."

Yar wasn't sure what to make of this, but didn't have a lot of time to ponder. The door opened, emitting a lanky young mouse that looked like he was just growing out a boyhood. His fur resembled carrots, or fire, or anything strikingly orangey red, and he had a crop of quite visible orange freckles on his white muzzle.

Urran motioned to him, stating, "Oh, and this is my son, Brome .. who happens to be up very early today."

Yar was surprised, but asked cautiously, "Oh .. he's the king then?"

One of Brome's very oddest looks was bestowed upon Yar, before the young mouse sputtered, "Me .. the king? No .. Martin and Timbal are the kings, not me. I'm still a squire .. at best. More of an assistant infirmary keeper then anything."

Urran clapped him on the back. "I was attempting to explain some of our strange and entangled relations to her .. ones that have a way of confusing even me. I wasn't doing the best job, apparently. But what on earth are you doing here this time of .. morning? It's still dark out."

Brome yawned. "Well I'd rather not be up, and I'll tell you Amyl's not. But it so happens that Gingivere is being impatient, and wants to have a conference now, of all confounded times. So here I am, and I'm to bring you and our visitor .. umm .."

The magpie blinked. "I'm Yar."

Brome nodded. "That I'm to bring you two to the meeting. We're having it by the pond, naturally."

><><

Yar followed the two mice nervously, unsure of exactly what was in store. The lawns were dark gray, due to the fact the sky was just beginning to grow light, and the sun was not up yet.

The three were met with a smoky gray wildcat with silky black hair that fell to her waist and twinkling cobalt eyes. "Ya up yet? We've got vermin on our paws .. an' no real plan!"

Brome grumbled. "Sandingomm, you're a cat. Cat's don't sleep a whole lot at one time, but mice are another matter!"

Sandingomm stretched, causing her silver overskirt of chains to tinkle. "Oh whatever .. yer just grumpy in the mornins. But if we don't do sometin' we're all in fer it."

A golden rat with the most strikingly contrasting ebony hair Yar had ever laid eyes on yawned. "Ach, tis true. But Stell an' Ah .. we have a plan fer ye."

A mottled brown rat leaned nearby on a double bladed spear, and he looked half asleep. "Good thing that my dear .. I'm ta tired ta think'a anythin'."

A gold wildcat with jade eyes shook the speaker, stating, "Well wake up then Whegg, we need your sense."

Whegg just shook his head as Sandingomm crossed her arms. "Now where is that queen of ours? Do I have to go wake her up every day?"

A white ermine who was shining her rapier spoke up. "Ya, probably. Best do it now .. if she showed up once as a ghost, she's gotta do it again."

Sandingomm huffed. "Wull fine then, I'll go get 'er. She's really got ta get ta be more of an early riser though."

Yar watched the gray cat walk away, before Urran nodded in her direction, stating, "This is Yar, she's the one who saved Roseanna, and I thought she might be of help to us now."

The rat called Whegg looked up finally, stating, "Oh yer awake at last! Wull we're mighty glad ya brought the mousy maid back, we was all worried 'bout her."

Brome nodded. "Aye, if it weren't for the pirates we'd have gone after her .. as it was a lot wanted too anyway. But we decided against it, not knowing the numbers or .. intelligence level of our .. besiegers."

A white ermine in a blue cape spoke up. "Brome, those rats aren't half as dumb as their captain. Didn't you notice the calculating looks they kept giving us?"

The black-haired gold rat nodded. "Exactly. Which brings me ta Stell an' Ah's plan."

The female ermine winked at the rat. "Right Gina, you wanna tell 'em or should I?"

The rat shrugged, "Don't matter .. you go ahead an' I'll fill in fer ya Estella."

Estella rubbed her rag across her sword's blade, speaking in a deliberate voice. "Wull, ya'll know Gina an' I was barmaids. An' bein' such, we knowed a lot about things like poison an' drugs."

The rat grinned almost cheekily. "Yea, an Ah happen ta know if'n ya use the right amounts a certain poisons, dey don't kill."

Estella rubbed her paws together, just like a dibbun. "Yah Regina, an' we know of one dat causes .. mental derangement .. don't we now?"

Regina held up a small jar. "Sure we do .. this 'un right here. Ah swiped it out'a Urran's infirmary .. it's nightshade. 'Nough a this'll kill a beast, ta little'll make em mildly sick. But if'n ya can use just enough .. well it causes temporary madness an' memory loss. It's what we used on Tsarmina ya know."

Rupert's eyes lit suddenly. "I see your plan .. we use it on Clogg and his horde!"

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Sandingomm was glad Rose did not lock the gatehouse, as the mouse seemed utterly tired these days and not in a habit of answering the door very quickly.

Today the gray cat didn't bother knocking again when Rose didn't answer the first time. She simply pushed open the door and walked in quietly, so as not to wake the dibbuns. Sandingomm's tail swished softly against the floor as she pushed Rose's door open, calling softly, "Rise an' shine yer majesty! You wanna wake up ta play ghosts awake or would'ya rather do it in yer sleep?"

Rose sat up in bed blearily. "What? Where's the ghost?"

Sandingomm laughed. "I said play ghosts. Only thing that looks half-dead an' white as a sheet 'round here is you."

The gray cat put her paws on her hips. "I say Rose, that's right .. ya don't look very well. What's up with ya anyway?"

The mouse groaned. "Oh I don't know .. I'm just so tired .. can't you do it without me?"

Sandingomm sighed reluctantly. "Well, I suppose that would be fine .. ya didn't have'ta do all dat much yesterday anyhow. But I ain't gonna leave ya if'n yer sick .. are ya?"

Rose gave the cat a glance, almost an evasive one. "Do I have to tell you?"

Sandingomm put her paws on her hips. "So you do 'ave a guess?"

Rose rolled her eyes. "Guess? I know!"

Her cat friend raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Oh? Then why're ya tellin' me ya don't?"

The mouse sighed. "Well I suppose there's not much use in hiding it anymore .. you'll guess soon enough anyway. I didn't want Martin to know .. I doubt he'd have left otherwise .. I mean, you know how he is."

Sandingomm yawned. "You didn't wanna to tell Martin you was sick? Wull no, I don't think he'd 'ave left either if'n he'd known that. But ya could have told somebody so we could do somethin' .."

Rose gave Sandingomm a look, finally stating, "I'm not sick Sandingomm, I happen to be pregnant. And I wasn't going to tell Martin, he'd have never left if he'd known. Then Clogg came and .. I'm the last mark left! I have to be in fighting condition .. it's up to me to protect Redwall and all of Mossflower! I guess .. I just didn't want you all to worry."

Sandingomm stared at the mouse for a few minutes, before blinking, "Wull wishin' don't change nothin' at this point. We've got what we've got .. we'd best make the best of it."

Rose allowed herself a tired laugh. "Something you're good at."

><><

The dark of early morning was broken by the almost arguing voices by the pond. Gingivere's momentarily rang out above the rest as he asked, "While I agree drugging Clogg and his horde is a good idea, how do we plan to go about it?"

Erwin looked droll. "Well he never was one to pass up any kind of ale, not even Seaweed Grog."

Rupert nodded. "True .. but how do you plan to get him to drink it? What if he guesses it's poisoned or drugged or something?"

Regina scratched an ear. "Ah didnae think he's that bright."

Brome broke in. "Maybe not, but his horde might be."

Whegg cleared his throat, speaking up. "Sorry to break inta all this. Now I know ya may take this rather .. bad, but I'm speakin' from a military standpoint. Not the first thing I wanna do, don't get me wrong. But don't ya think that just .. well .. poisonin' 'em all would save us a whole lotta headache?"

Urran looked hesitant. "I don't like it .. I'm not going to be like before .. but .. don't you think that's a bit .. much? Their presence seems a threat to us. But have they actually threatened us? I .. just don't think it's right."

Whegg sighed. "It sure ain't noble an' chivalrous an' all that .. but it might be what we hav'ta do."

Yar spoke suddenly, startling the assembly. "Who is Clogg an his horde .. might I ask? Are they furred creatures like you?"

Regina nodded. "Yea. A bunch'a rats an' weasels I guess."

Yar cocked her head. "You wouldn't want to kill them then .. they could be of great help to you!"

Whegg raised an eyebrow, asking incredulously, "How exactly?"

Yar wasn't excited about doing this much talking, but she shrugged. "The Doomwytes .. the ones I ran from and .. used to be one .. they .. well, they like to eat creatures like you. I never did .. I don't know why. I guess I was too timid .. I just .. couldn't make myself. But my master .. Rigvar .. he's targeting you. But if there's a group of your kind that is against you .. well .. they can serve as food for my kind. That way the Doomwytes will focus less on your redstone house .. at least temporarily."

><><

The soft rustling wind of early morning swept through the quiet woods of Mossflower, causing the green leaves of summer to dance in the darkness.

Just outside of Redwall, was a figure with oddly pale and completely stoic eyes, once that told of many battles and adventures. The creature's fur was dull gray with age, and he was, at the moment, an otter.

At the moment because he was an absolute master of disguises, and could be one creature in one second, and another the next.

The oddest thing about him was his profound lack of any tail, and a small red mark on his graying cheek.

The creature's pale eyes took in all that was around him, although they never showed the remotest spark of emotion about any of it. He closed the amber-yellow depths with an almost imperceptible sigh, pulling his russet brown cloak tighter about him, although it wasn't a bit cold.

The otter tapped his webbed claws against a tree, finally drawing his hood over his head and face. Without another moments delay, he swept closer to the abbey, cape swirling mystically behind him.

He'd had many names in his life, but the question was, what name should he go by now? Long had he wandered, displaced by Verdauga, accused as a traitor, and outcast by his own kind. However, he had learned much, and some might wonder why he had returned now, of all times.

In all truth he was a recluse, but by the words of his Lord, he had chosen to show himself. And honestly, he had watched the Mossflowerains for near three seasons. But it was not until now, that he's been ordered to come to their aid.

After all, before now, they hadn't needed all that much.

While what they were faced with now might have seemed not unduly dangerous, this creature knew of things they did not.

He paused by the little oak wallgate in the east wall, finally knocking three swift times. They would know him by the name he thought of himself as.

The Mask.

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Gingivere wasn't sure how much more insane this whole situation could get. Also, he wasn't going to ask.

The wildcat stared at Sandingomm, asking, "Alright, let me get this strait. Rose is pregnant, we have to go out and give Clogg our answer, and you think I should send him on an errand?"

His wife nodded firmly, and cheerfully. "Yep!"

Gingivere sighed. "What makes you think he'll do it? And what errand?"

Whegg raised a paw, asking coolly, "If I may Milord?"

Gingivere groaned, complaining, "Please Whegg, will you all stop calling me that? And yes, you may speak .. you don't have to have my permission."

The rat inspected the binding on one of his spearheads, stating, "Sandingomm's plan ain't as crazy as it seems. Clogg was deathly loyal ta ol' Greeneyes, an' that means he's deathly loyal ta you .. as long as he thinks you're yer father. An I've been thinken .. about what Yar's been tellin me over here."

The magpie looked surprised, then hung her head. Whegg winked at her. "Don't be ashamed miss, tell 'em bout what ya told me."

Yar looked up, stammering, "Um .. well .. I was just telling him how the Doomwytes work. You see .."

She held up a faintly glowing green-patterned wing. "These markings .. well, they are made with phosphorescent liquid from the sulfur lake in the Doomwytes' lair. The great Doomwyte, Rigvar, sends patrols of birds marked just like me out every night, to see what woodland travelers they can lead astray. For some reason, most furred creatures are mesmerized by us, for in the night, we look like nothing more then dancing lights."

She hung her head, stating, "But should one follow a Doomwyte, they would be led into our many entanglements in the water meadows, where they would become trapped. Then they would be taken to Rigvar's lair, and eaten."

The bird shuddered. "It was .. miserable and dangerous for me there."

Regina's eyes lit up. "Oh! Ah see the idea .. it's perfect! We send Clogg on an' errand .. and to da home of these Doomwytes!"

Estella nudged her. "Yah, an' what if'n they were drugged too!"

Whegg dipped his head to the ermine. "Simple. Dey wouldn't know what hit 'em!"

Gingivere scratched his chin, remarking at length, "Well .. this is actually starting to sound promising. But there is one thing .. what will we send Clogg to do?"

Brome crossed his arms. "Good point. I mean .. what do pirates do besides pillage and plunder? we can't send them off to do that."

Sandingomm raised a paw, asking brightly, "would they .. oh .. dig for treasure?"

Rupert looked dubious. "I .. don't know. What treasure would we send them to dig for?"

Gonff had been walking by, as he was just getting off guard duty. The plump mouse stopped, asking, "Treasure?"

Sandingomm sighed thoughtfully. "But there ain't one. What are we gonna have 'em dig for, when we don't have treasure ta bury anyway?"

Gonff looked confused, until Rupert filled him in. "We're trying to distract Clogg from attacking, because we can't keep up this ruse forever. His crew won't take it. Apparently, Sandingomm thinks we should send them out to dig for .. non-existent treasure."

Gonff looked suddenly sly. "Well if that's the only problem, it's not all that bad. Just make a fake map or something like that. After all, we don't wanta waste our treasure on a bunch of rotters like them."

Yar broke in. "Wait! No .. wait! I know!"

Whegg raised an eyebrow. "You 'ave an idea?"

The magpie looked this way and that, before stating softly. "The Doomwytes .. they have a treasure of unmatched worth."

Gonff looked interested. "They do eh?"

Rupert gave him a look. "Let her speak."

Yar looked nervous, finally continuing, "In the cave of Rigvar, there is a marble statue .. of the Dark Wolf .. the Lord of Darkness .. he's got many names, I know .."

Gingivere spat the name. "Lord Malimore."

He saw Yar shrink back, and sighed, "Yes .. I know of him. I know who you mean .. continue if you would."

Yar nodded nervously. "Well, this statue's eyes are rubies. The largest, most beautiful rubies I have ever seen. The thing .. I hated it .. it simply gave me chills. But it is a treasure, the like I've not seen."

Erwin broke the silence, stating, "Well .. that solves the issue then. We send Clogg off to the cave of the Doomwytes."

><><

Clogg himself, was in a very bad humor. He was utterly terrified by the previous day's events, and it had deprived him of sleep.

This did nothing for not only his appearance, but also his temper and his sanity. The stoat hadn't had a wink of repose, for he honestly had the phobia Badrang's ghost would assassinate him in his sleep.

Clogg wasn't sure if the beast that appeared to be his brother was alive or dead, and the more he thought on it, the more it confused him.

One second, he reasoned the whole thing out by telling himself Badrang had somehow survived. The next, he remembered that he had buried the tyrant over seven seasons ago, and he'd definitely been dead then!

Beyond the appearance of Badrang even, was all the other creatures from his past. His horse, the white horse he'd thrown to the sharks, Erwin, Estella, the ghost of the mouse Badrang had killed .. it was all too much.

The corsair was a nervous wreck, terrified, jittery, and frazzled, he looked a deranged sight.

And his crew was growing uncomfortable with their captain's sudden bout of total insanity.

Clogg was sitting wearily in his hammock, muttering to himself, when Bootbrain walked up behind him. The weasel began as he always did .. stupidly. "Uhhh .. Capt'n?"

Clogg's fur bristled, and he jumped bolt upright crying, "No don't kill me! I ain't never done nothin', I swear it on 'Ellgates!"

Bootbrain looked at his captain oddly, "Uhh .. I ain't gonna kill ya Capt'n, I'm a loyal ol' beast. What's ya talkin bout?"

Even in madness, Clogg was able to recognize Bootbrain. After all, the weasel was so dumb and untactful, he was hard to forget. The insane corsair now vented fury upon his hapless crewbeast.

"'Ellgates Bootbrain ya fool! What's ya doin', interuptin' me when I's got important business ta take care of?"

The dull weasel was easily confused, now was no exception. "Capt'n, I ain't tryin' ta interrupt nothin' .. but ya need ta get ready cause .. wull .. ya know. We's gotta go talk ta da ghosts."

This was not the right thing to say to the mad corsair, as was obvious be his reply. "Bootbrain .. ya don't think .. wull .. I'm askin' ya. Do ya .. think they was really ghosts?"

Bootbrain was surprised .. his captain had never asked him anything before. "Uhh .. wull I donno Capt'n. I didn't go wid ya .. best ask Wippack or Scritchy."

Clogg nodded weakly. "Ya .. maybe I will Bootbrain .. maybe I will. Let's go .. an' I'll ask 'em I guess."

Bootbrain followed Clogg, more confused then he'd ever been. Since when had his captain ever taken orders or even suggestions? Clogg was always giving orders!

But not now. Even as slow and dull witted as he was, Bootbrain knew something was drastically wrong with his captain's behavior.

><><

Gingivere and all the others, now minus Rose, were waiting directly outside Redwall as the sun climbed in the sky.

Sandingomm swished the contents of a full jug of ale merrily, stating, "Well we have a .. welcome home gift fer him, now don't we?"

Regina grinned, winking at the cat. "Ach, that we do. Nothin' like a bit a nightshade ta liven things up!"

Whegg, mottled fur dusted to mimic Ripfang's once more, stood beside Gingivere with some other provisions.

Sure enough, right on time, Clogg, two rats, and a weasel showed themselves on the north path outside the main gate. Gingivere surveyed a nervous Clogg with interest, as the corsair bowed low. "Milord .. an' .. goodbeasts all .. I've .. come back."

Gingivere took a deep breath .. it was now or never, and up to him. The wildcat made his voice as imperious as possible as he stated, "I thought you might. Now my unfortunate sea-captain, I happen to have a deal for you."

Clogg gulped. "Yes Milord .. what is it .. I .."

Gingivere glared down at him. "Silence! I will do the talking. Now listen Clogg .. out in Mossflower, due west of here, there is a water meadow. In this water meadow is a cave, and in this cave it is said there is the most beautiful treasure any had lain eyes on. The Wyte eyes, two giant rubies of unmatched value. I want them."

The cat crossed his arms, continuing, "And so this brings me to the terms of our deal. You bring me these jewels, and I will outfit you with a new ship, provisions, and mission. If you do not .. well. Let's just say a traitor to the crown does not die easy."

Clogg was terrified, and did a poor job of hiding it as he nodded franticly, "Oh yes Milord .. I will .."

Gingivere motioned the Whegg, with the food. "Good. I will give you provisions for your journey, so that you may do my bidding faster. Take these and be on your way."

Whegg handed the baskets to the weasel and one of the rats, noting the look of suspicion that was given to him by the latter. Gingivere however, was in no mood to haggle. "Alright, you have your mission and your provisions. Be on your way!"

Clogg bowed low. "Yes Milord!"

As the corsair stoat turned to go, Gingivere called after him, "Oh and Clogg? Don't come back empty pawed."




Chapter 17 Running Races

Starbuck's paws were buried in Lightfoot's mane, feeling the rhythm of her lope and hearing the hollow thunder of her hooves.

If anybeast had told him he'd be doing this; going out on a insane mission to find three of the legendary marks and their armies because of the word of a wounded eagle, he'd never have believed it.

Yet here he was. Breeze had stayed behind with Ruro and Beddle in their pine groves, with Arvid and that odd but pretty little rabbit, Thalia.

Starbuck cocked one ear .. why was he thinking of her anyway? She'd been timid and very stressed, like she was afraid of everything. It was a little sad .. and sort of nerve-racking.

The hare came back to reality as Lightfoot slowed her pace, breaking into a jolting trot. Starbuck complained a little. "I say Light .. that's not the nicest gait wot?"

The appaloosa gave him a sideways look. "I can't run forever. I'll trot for a while, then lope, then walk. Honestly Star, I am just a pony."

The hare rode easy, sighing at length, "This'll be a long trip then."

His adopted mother snorted. "It was always bound to be. There's nothing we can do but make the best of it. They're headed this way .. we may meet them in four or five days."

Starbuck grimaced, yawning regretfully, "Then this .. will be interestin' wot?"

><><

By the time the sun cast it's glory over the western plains, the questers were already on the move. It was taking them longer than originally planned, for they had the otters with them, many of which were on foot.

Lady Redfarl and her squirrels were still behind, but that was to be assumed, as they had no horses in their company.

Sayna and Dancer would scout ahead every day and find a suitable camping spot, then return and lead the others to it. This was the way things seemed to be going .. in fact they'd kind of fallen into a sort of rhythm.

This was only broken by sparring, as all their skills would have to be honed for what seemed an inevitable battle. Martin especially, was relentless at this, as he felt he must compensate for the loss of mobility in his right arm.

He dueled Groddil, Bella, Sayna, Timbal, Keylar, and others in attempt to ready himself to face all manner of weapons and all sizes and strengths of creatures.

The others too, practiced heavily, both in hand to hand combat and long range weapons. After the day of travel had worn to a close, those who could ride practiced jousting on horse back, half for themselves, but half for their mounts.

Sayna was admittedly bad at this, and so was Dancer. This was quickly proven when Timbal expertly unseated her in their first match. The gold mouse maid and her steed had practiced in a vain attempt to get Timbal and Diamond back for this first episode, but hadn't had much luck.

After all, Dancer wasn't a warhorse. Neither was Sayna good with pole weapons. Admittedly, the two had gotten better. However they couldn't keep up with Timbal, Martin, or Bella.

Of course, they were adept in other areas. All in all .. the Mossflowerains were feeling fairly confident about what was to come.

However .. they did not yet realize what they were faced with.

><><

The same sun that slanted over Mossflower, Salamandastron, the questers, the pine groves, and all the interwoven plots for life and death among them, fell upon the quiet little northern town of Evenglade.

The town Luke and the few friends he had left had chosen to reside in.

When they had been first washed ashore, Luke had been so bad off he would have likely died were it not for Vurg and Cardo. They were the only other survivors Luke knew of .. everyone else, from his old friend Stardust to Beau the hare, had been lost.

At least to his knowledge.

The three mice had been forced to live where they could for at least a season, Luke being in no condition to travel. In all truth, it had been at least two before they had left the far north coasts, and another before they had reached the home of their tribe.

Or what once had been.

When they arrived, they had been greeted by the worst sight they had ever imagined. The caves were ghostly and abandoned, all remnants of civilization worn by the elements, and all structures leaning and decrepit. While the many seasons had washed away the blood that must have stained the shore, they could not hide the traces of the battle that must have occurred.

For there were fallen weapons littered on the shore, and bones. Of both vermin, and woodlanders.

Luke could still remember the scene as plain as day. Cardo had been sorrowful, but he had no family left to morn. His only daughter, Fripple, had been killed seasons before .. when Luke's had. But Vurg had been devastated .. after all, it was his son, Timballisto, who had been left in charge of the tribe.

And now they were all gone.

Luke sometimes wondered if his son, Martin, could have somehow survived. But the chances were nil. If the raid had been from pirates, they would have taken all the survivors as oar slaves.

For a young child .. it was a death sentence. And with no ship, no idea of even the general direction to look, and no idea who had lead the attack, there was no way Luke could save his son.

Besides, it was too late. All Luke would be able to do was take revenge. And he was sick of revenge.

If it weren't for the fire that had drove him to leave everything, just to take vengeance for something that was already gone .. Martin could have had a father. Luke could have had a son. But it was too late .. it was over. Luke had got his revenge .. he had. However it had cost him everything but his life .. and sometimes he wished it had taken that too.

The old warrior had resigned himself to live out the rest of his days in peace .. not that he wouldn't fight if he had to, but he was done looking for war.

Let war come to him, if it wanted to fight so badly. Then he would give it one.

But for now, he and his few friends were farmers, with a small farm, one old plowhorse, and a few fields to till.

They lived just outside of Evenglade, and sold what they raised in the little town. Sometimes they went as far as the neighboring town of Winterdell, but seldom farther. Of course, to the west was the desolate town that had been called Noonvale, however now it was in ransacked shambles, completely abandoned.

Luke had heard stories of what had happened, how pirates had attacked and enslaved the beasts of that village before the neighboring ones had ever learned what happened, and how non had ever came back.

Luke found it similar to what had befallen his tribe, but there was nothing he could do. He had been called a prophet once .. long ago. However he no longer saw himself as such, after how stubborn and willful he had been. Lord Ignasa had given him his just deserts, had Luke didn't bother complaining .. he didn't even think he had the right.

He was nothing more then a bystander in a world of conflict.

But it hadn't always been this way .. long ago, Luke had thought he could do something to save the world .. to make it better.

Now he wondered if it was really worth saving.

Once again, the old mouse was drawn back in time to relive a memory .. and this time he didn't bother fighting. For this time .. he wanted to remember.

Because he knew he would see someone he never wanted to forget, even if she was nothing more then a shade of long gone days.

><><

Back then, Luke was an adventurous young lad. He'd spent his entire life moving nomadically from place to place, doing without, and teaching himself how to do things.

He really had no mentor except Twoola, and his adopted father fought with an axe, not a sword. But as a few creatures here and there joined the nomadic tribe, Luke found a few beasts to help him.

One of these was a horse about Luke's own age, a blue roan called Stardust. While the colt was no help with sword fighting, he was an immense help with riding.

Luke might have been seventeen, and Stardust the same, when they were engaged in a race they would never forget. As he reflected on it now, the warrior mouse had to chuckle at how the whole event had come about.

But he was glad it had. For even after all the pain he had gone through .. he would do it again to live this day once more.

Stardust had always been rather cocky and prideful about his speed, which was, admittedly, something worth a legend. However it would often get the colt in trouble as he couldn't stand being bested, and was extremely competitive. Luke just went along for the ride, which was always breathtaking.

Twoola's tribe had moved northward by this time, and were currently traveling along the far northeastern shores. They'd not met many other creatures up this far, and it seemed these coasts were nearly desolate. However, Luke and Stardust discovered differently.

As Stardust was the only horse, the duty of scouting for the next night's camp naturally fell upon him and Luke. On that specific day, they were faced with walking along a smooth and sandy shore, under the shadow of towering, rocky cliffs.

It was a wild and beautiful spot, one just right for two young adventurers to gallop along, kicking up sand and making sea water fly. Which was admittedly, what they ended up doing. Luke could still feel the salt breeze on his face, the moisture from the sea, and the thunder of his mount's hooves beneath him.

He never could say exactly how it happened, but suddenly the echoing hoof beats seemed doubled in their resounding off the cliff face. The mouse looked behind himself, to see a smoky gray horse several yards behind them, but gaining swiftly. It's rider was a small beast, dressed in blue and northern tartan, with a sword across their back and a hood over their head. What fur that was visible was a gold to rival even his.

Luke wasn't positive what manner of beast the new arrival was, or if they were a threat, but whatever the case, their horse was a swift one. By this time Stardust had seen the newcomers, but instead of stopping, only heightened his pace.

Apparently the other horse was just as competitive as Luke's, for she lengthened her stride as well, drawing beside the blue roan with defiance in her eyes.

If there is one thing equines take pride in, it is their swiftness. And without one word, these two horses had challenged each other .. and accepted. Luke knew all to well, there would be no reasoning with his steed. The only thing to do was ride until one horse either won, or gave in.

The mouse was crouched low over Stardust's neck, not daring to look at the flying sand below him. That would only disorient him and cause him to fall, something he desperately did not want to do. He cast a glance at the rider beside him, to see the creature was doing the same as he, it's golden paws buried in it's horses black mane. Suddenly it spoke, not to him, but to it's mount. "Phantom, stop! Ah dinnae plan for this, just to see if they were vermin!"

Luke had started, for the voice was feminine. However the gray horse did not listen, just lunged forward, striving for the lead. Stardust did not give up, he wouldn't. By this time both horses where fetlock deep in the sea, sending waves of water spraying up about them. The other rider didn't seem to accept her horse's ignoring her, for she reached up, seizing the creature's streaming black forelock and pulling firmly backwards. "Phantom this is downright dangerous, now sto .."

Her voice turned into a little scream as the gray horse did a surprised sliding halt, sending a positive wave of sea water across both Stardust and Luke; this ultimately resulting in the blue roan stopping too, in order to shake the water from his eyes. The other rider toppled into the water, sitting up the next second and sputtering, "Ukk .. nice job Phantom, Ah'm soaked."

The horse's voice had been an injured sound. "Hmmph. We all are, an' you had to pull on my mane! An' you made me loose a race! There was no need for that .. Ah would've beat him!"

Stardust had shook the water from his mane, snorting, "I would have won!"

Luke could remember dismounting, shoving his horse and stating, "Miss, I'm sorry. Stardust likes to race and I guess .."

She'd stood up, flinging her hood back to reveal gold headfur and dark brown eyes. "No, Ah'm sorry. Ah should've seen first off you weren't a vermin. My father has constant trouble with vermin bands, so Ah just naturally assumed you were a threat. Phantom .. is competitive."

She had then shot her horse a look, before doing a quick bow, "An' Ah am Sayna, daughter of the chieftain of the chieftain of Eastshore."

Luke could remember how embarrassed he'd been when Stardust had nudged him, laughing, "Aye, and this is Luke, prince of Mossflower."

Thinking on it now, Luke had to smile at his long lost friend. He'd been furious at the time, especially when Sayna had taken the whole tribe to her village and told just about everyone he was a noble from Mossflower. It had been a good long while before he'd lived that down, and Sayna never stopped teasing him about it.

That is .. until she'd been murdered by Vilu Daskar. Because alas .. all of this was in the past .. nothing more then a memory.

><><

Scound sat in his cell, unsure of what to think. He'd listened with great interest to Beddle's description of Lord Ignasa, but .. he had to wonder what Swartt would say.

While Scound saw himself as a free creature .. he really was rather imprisoned by his own ways of thinking. And despite his vengefulness toward his servitude, he was quite accustomed to it.

So it was only natural that when faced with something this serious, he would fall back to the one that his heart had learned to call master, no matter what he said to counter this.

It wasn't like he could leave .. he hadn't found an avenue of escape as of yet. So he wasn't sure what he should do, in all honesty; he was very confused. And Scound liked being sure of his next move.

Apparently, he wouldn't be going anywhere, as of yet. Not with one paw chained to the wall, a locked door, and likely a guard outside. No, he really was trapped. Trapped physically, and spiritually too. Trapped by both the tangible and the unseen .. just trapped.

He wished he could talk to that squirrel king again though .. what he said was tantalizing. The fact the Lord Ignasa gave all a free chance, no matter their wealth or their birth .. it was appealing. Did that mean, that if he was to change sides, he could gain the rank of a captain or a noble?

That was all he'd really ever wanted .. to be in charge. So .. could Lord Ignasa give him that opportunity if he was to follow him?

It was all very confusing to Scound .. and he really did want to ask Swartt his opinion. But that was totally imposable, he couldn't get back to Salamandastron.

And he was also worried about how long he'd be absent .. Swartt was bound to be disgusted about this.

><><

In truth, Scound's suspicions were not ungrounded, for Swartt was indeed becoming disgusted with his henchbeast's absence. The ferret paced one of the upper corridors, Slugwort watching him warily.

Swartt suddenly burst out, "Where is he? That incompetent fool! Lotor sent him out to hunt .. to hunt! It's been almost four days .. what does he think he is doing?"

Slugwort shrugged, trying to sound sympathetic, but failing. More then anything, he sounded almost cheerful. "I donno Capt'n."

Swartt shot him a death glare. "Yes I know you don't care. But I need that stupid weasel! And as dumb as he is, sometimes I think he's got your intelligence level beat."

Slugwort wisely shut up, trying and almost succeeding to hide the grin that wanted to paste itself across his features.

Swartt rolled his eyes, frustrated. "Oh go do whatever it is you're supposed to do, you idiot! You're no help."

Slugwort scurried off, and Swartt was almost certain the rat would have to celebrate the loss of Scound. The ferret set his claws on a rock window ledge, drawing long white marks on the rock's surface.

Fools, all of them! That's what he had to make do with, incompetent fools!

Swartt's jaw hardened as he thought of the idiots he was forced to put up with. Slugwort, Scound, Lotor, Velox, those two new Shadow Fighters, Bluefen, and that .. son of his.

At least the latter two tried to simply stay out of his way .. unlike the others.

In fact .. it was almost suspicious. But that was silly; that weakling that he called his wife didn't have the strength or the intelligence to plot against him. She was submissive at least, and tried her best to do nothing to anger him.

As for his son .. the little ferret was nothing but a helpless kid. Swartt was disgusted with his offspring, he wanted a strong son to carry on his name. But whenever the child saw him, he simply hid, terrified. Not the makings of a future warlord, that was for sure.

In fact Swartt had even forgotten what Bluefen had decided to call him .. some wimpy name that sounded like a woodlander's.

Anyway, it wasn't like it even mattered. The child showed no courage, no strength. He was just as weak as his idiot of a mother.

><><

As soon as he was out of Swartt's line of sight, Slugwort's scurry transformed into a cocky little skip.

Scound was gone! Maybe he'd never come back!

This idea made Slugwort grin widely .. if there was one beast in the world the pale silver rat loved to hate, it was Scound.

Scound of the unflattering comments, Scound of the never-ending arrogance, Scound of the 'I'm better then you' attitude.

Slugwort scowled as he thought of all the times the weasel had called him Slugy. And Slugbrain. And Slugslime.

The rat huffed. It wasn't his fault he had such an awful name, he hadn't been consulted. Scound had no reason to go out of his way just to make fun of him over it!

It just wasn't fair at all.

The silver rat pushed open the door of his chambers, to see his wife packing something into her basket. Slugwort sighed mentally, asking, "Kesha, what are ya doing now?"

The dusty brown rat met his gaze stolidly, stating, "I am doing my best to help those in need of it."

Slugwort almost admired his wife for the way she seemed undaunted by the opposition of Lotor; forever trying to go against the effects of his reign. In all truth, he didn't know half of what she did.

However, her boldness also frightened him, badly so. What if she was caught doing something Lotor would consider wrong? What if the effects fell upon him?

That was the last thing Slugwort wanted. First and foremost, he didn't want any danger to befall him, but secondly, he was honestly afraid for Kesha. As much of a coward as he was, he did care about her, and didn't want her to get herself killed.

Or get him in trouble.

However Slugwort did smile at his little daughter, Kinta, as she popped out from beneath the table. The rat returned his gaze to Kesha's, begging, "Please Kesha, don't keep this up. It's gonna cause nothin' but trouble, I swear."

His wife looked away momentarily, before stating, "I have to. There are those who need me .. but don't talk too loud. Your conspiracy with Swartt isn't exactly safe."

Slugwort was a little irritated. "That has nothin' ta do with this .."

Kesha sighed, stating softly, "Yes Slugwort, it does. It's dangerous, plain and simple."

Slugwort looked injured. "How else am I s'posed to watch out fer you two?"

His wife met his gaze sadly, shaking her head. "You could get a real job, like being a guard. Or a patroller. I'm sure we would have to live more frugally, and you would have to actually work .. but we would be better off. Think of Kinta! If Swartt .."

Slugwort countered rather sharply. "I can't do nothin' about it Kesha, I couldn't leave if I wanted to! I'm .. in too deep."

Kesha closed her bluish eyes momentarily, finally sighing, "Then we all are Slugwort .. we all are."

><><

Bluefen had her paws buried in water, scrubbing what clothes the members of her household had to their name. Veil was helping by trying to hold the soap for her, which had a way of slipping out of his little paws every few seconds.

Xemx was out gathering both food and information, although it seemed not much was happening about the horde these days.

Veil ran off after the runaway soap bar as Bluefen silently pondered how long this peace could last. As if it was peace.

Not for her and Veil anyway.

Hiding Xemx was hard and terrifying, after all, Swartt was a Shadow Fighter, even if he was still weak in their ways. At least he hadn't seemed to sense the rat maid .. not yet.

The golden rat was playing her cards wisely, making sure to do whatever she could to please Bluefen, and had left Veil alone as promised. All in all, Bluefen's little deal seemed to be working as well as it possibly could, but the ferret had to wonder how long it would last.

She was almost certain Xemx was plotting something .. though she couldn't put her finger on what.

Of course, this whole situation was a gamble between two desperate creatures. It was a game, albeit a sick one, but still a sort of test to see who was smarter .. who could get the better end of this deal.

After all, there was nothing personal. It was just what seemed to be the best solution for the time being.

Of course, Kesha had other ideas. Bluefen smiled a little absently at Veil as he triumphantly handed her the unruly bar of soap. She scrubbed away with it, thinking on her rat friend's offer.

Kesha wanted her to leave. Maybe she should. Maybe she should just give up this whole idea of revenge ..

But no. There was something .. some inner fire, that made her stay.

Or at least that was what she told herself.




Chapter 18 Treasure Hunts and Trials

Out in Mossflower, Clogg and his corsairs were feeling decidedly sick and disoriented. Regina and Estella's nightshade was not agreeing with them.

Clogg himself, was half drunk and totally confused on top of it; combined with feeling dreadfully ill, this made him fall into a restless sleep in his hammock.

The rest of his crew were no better off, most of them falling into feverish repose or wishing they could.

Bootbrain had eaten more than some, and he was deeply regretting it now. With the pounding headache the weasel had, and how nauseous he felt, all he wanted to do was curl up and die somewhere.

Which was, what he left to do. The weasel stumbled miserably away from the camp, staggering off into Mossflower. Bootbrain moaned miserably .. he really did feel terrible. His wrist was still aching and would likely be scarred for life. However that was no longer his main concern.

Right now all he cared about was the fact he felt like he wouldn't be able to keep his supper down, and how his head felt like it was splitting in half.

The weasel slumped against an old, half-rotten hollow stump, making a feverish little yelp as the side collapsed under him, unable to hold his weight.

The fall wasn't a bad one, Bootbrain crumpled into the middle of the sizable stump, feeling undeniably worse. He groaned, stopping blearily as his half-fevered ears picked up a faint sound akin to the one he'd emitted .. groaning.

There was a creaking of ancient timbers, before an ominous crack split the air, and Bootbrain felt the ground drop from beneath him!

The weasel tumbled to a stop in what would have been total darkness, if not for the shaft of warm, leaf-dappled sunlight that slanted down through his impromptu entryway.

Bootbrain didn't even bother trying to get up .. he knew he'd wretch if he did. The weasel lay still where he'd fallen, listening to the soft dripping of water from further down in this .. odd, dark place he'd discovered.

The air smelled damp, and the place simply echoed of times past. However, Bootbrain wasn't terribly concerned with this .. more then anything, he just wanted to sleep.

Sleep.

It was such a welcoming thought.

The weasel's eyes drooped .. he just couldn't keep them open anymore. Everything was so blurry and he felt dreadful .. sleep would be respite.

Five minutes later, anybeast who happened to look into that rotten old stump would have seen a weasel curled up on the floor of a stone passageway around five foot below it's entrance.

But then .. nobeast was there to look.

><><

Back in Redwall, everyone was feeling pretty good about how their whole corsair ruse had gone over. Sandingomm had made sure to go tell Rose, due to the fact she was pretty ecstatic about it and had to tell someone.

However Whegg and Gingivere were faced with the odd new arrival, an otter who called himself the Mask.

He was silver, with an odd red mark on his cheek, one that had the look of two stylized ocean waves, each one curling in a different direction. His pale eyes were stoic, and they greatly reminded Whegg of Groddil's.

The three were walking across the abbey lawns toward the makeshift infirmary, in hopes of finding Germaine. While the mouse was no longer head infirmary keeper, she was close friends with Urran, who was.

Whegg shot the creature a look, asking, "So .. where're ya from?"

The Mask's voice was a soft, almost wistful sound. "Many places young one .. many more than you have ever been. But if you speak of the place of my birth .. I have at long last returned to it."

Gingivere raised an eyebrow. "You come from Mossflower?"

Mask nodded to him. "Yes, although I was forced to run when your father took over."

There was no anger or grudging in the otter's voice, just the simple sound of one who states a non-personal fact.

However Gingivere winced. Mask blinked, stating simply, "I mean no offence Gingivere."

Whegg stared at Mask, asking, "But .. how could you know about Gingivere .. and his name? he hadn't told ya .. had he?"

Mask looked almost surprised, before stating, "I am sorry, I did not mean to say more than what I should know. I know many things however."

Gingivere spoke up, asking, "Forgive me, but .. we are vermin. If my .. father threw you out, why are you speaking to us?"

Mask blinked slowly, answering at length, "I do not hold grudges over things that do not deserve them. No creature is a vermin on the inside if they follow our Lord Ignasa."

Whegg and Gingivere were forced to look at each other in astonishment .. they were unused to not having to prove their loyalty to a newcomer.

Mask smiled slightly at the two, stating, "Do not be amazed over this thing, yes I know you are followers of Ignasa. If your actions and attitudes were not enough, I feel his light in your hearts."

Understanding flashed in Gingivere's eyes. "You are a Prophet!"

Mask shrugged, stating simply, "I have been called such."

><><

The pond was a favorite spot of the Redwall dibbuns .. and they had once again congregated beside it.

Fripple and Ash stood near Luke, who was making a speech that he considered quite important.

"Alright so .. we made a m'stake .. we shouldn'ta gone off inta Mossflower."

Wother rubbed his muzzle reflectively, obviously thinking of the jam jar that had become wedged on his nose during the misadventure.

Gonfflet was still wearing Clogg's chain around his ample middle, and he stated, "I donno .. it weren't all bad."

Luke did not like being countered. "It was so, silly .. Roseanna 'lmost got ate up!"

Ash stared. "Nuh uh .. Roseanna? She don't get ate up, she eats things up!"

Luke stamped a paw, un-general like. "She did so 'lmost got ate up, by big evil p'rates an' monsta birds!"

Ivan's mouth dropped open. "Whoa .. evil p'rates an' monsta birds? If they come 'ere, I'll .. fight 'em!"

The wildcat kitten swung a paw to emphasize this, tripping over his large boots and falling on his face. His twin sister, Iris sighed. "No, you'll trip over your boots, just like a clumsy boy."

Ivan glared up at her. "An' yer never clumsy?"

Iris sniffed. "No, I am not. I am going to be a princess when I grow up."

Luke rolled his eyes. "Whatever. But the point is, we shouldn'ta gone, an' it was Fripple's idea!"

Fripple, who had remained silent throughout this discourse, suddenly looked up in fury. "No it ain't, it's your fau't!"

Luke was furious! "No, it's your fau't! Cause your a girl, that's why!"

Fripple snarled, jumping at Luke and plowing him into the dirt with gusto. "I ain't a girl!"

Luke shoved her roughly off, arguing, "Is!"

Fripple kicked out, snarling, "Is not!"

Luke looked injured. "You stop kickin' me! I get ya for that!"

The two dibbuns rolled over and over by the edge of the pond, biting, scratching, punching, and doing whatever other potentially damaging thing they could think of.

They didn't stop until they'd rolled into the pond itself. Fripple sat up, sputtering, "Ugg .. Luke now see what'cha did! Auntie's not gonna like it!"

Luke was sullen. "Yu started it."

Fripple glared murder at him. "Did not!"

><><

Rose was waxing the string of her bow, which she kept over the gatehouse door along with her quiver of green-fletched arrows. While she did not know if she would really be able to use it properly if this should come to battle, she did want to be ready.

She smiled at Roseanna, who had limped over and was watching what her mother was doing with interest. The young dibbun was back on her paws, although she still slept a lot.

The door was left open to allow the summer sun entrance, and a velvety head was suddenly thrust in. Dinny the mole tugged his snout, stating, "Hurr missy Rose, Oi do believe those two young'uns a yorn are getting into a might of trouble, boi 'okey."

Rose sighed setting the bow on a nearby table and asking, "What mischief have they gotten into this time Dinny?"

The mole shrugged. "The usual Oi think Roser .. them's foighten again."

This was proven true the next second, by the arrival of Fripple and Luke, both sopping wet, dirty, and generally scratched up. Rose was tired all the way around, but she was becoming exceedingly tired of this.

It seemed that the two got in at least one fight per day, and Rose was finding she simply didn't have the energy at the moment to chase them down and stop them.

The mouse groaned .. if only the others were here right now, Martin especially. Luke would listen to his father far better then he did her.

Rose didn't bother asking who started the fight. She crossed her arms, asking sternly, "What do you have to say for yourselves?"

Fripple at least, had the decency to say nothing. Luke just griped half-heartedly, "She .. fought me an' we fell in the pond."

Fripple glared at him but remained silent.

Rose didn't have the heart to ask herself how much more of this she could take. Who knew when the questers would return? Nobeast, that's who. And with another child to take care of soon .. Rose was regretting her decision to take Fripple.

While she was upset with Sayna's daughter because of her involvement in the idea that had ultimately hurt Roseanna, she understood her son had an equal part in the mischief. Fripple had seemed honestly sorry that her idea's had harmed Roseanna, although she had no idea how serious it could have turned out.

Still, Rose could plainly see this wasn't working. She couldn't make it work, and she was getting the idea it might not even be meant to.

Maybe she should ask Regina if her offer to take Fripple was still valid.

><><

Bootbrain awakened later in the day, although his return to consciousness was slow. The first sensation he noticed was the quiet dripping of water, an echoing, almost wistful sound.

The weasel moaned, blinking his eyes and wondering why this day had grown so dark. He recalled how he'd felt before he passed out, and cautiously rubbed his stomach. It ached to be sure, and he felt weak all the way around, but he wasn't as nauseous as earlier.

Bootbrain sat slowly up, rubbing his head ruefully. It still ached, but it was more of a dull pain than a sharp one. The worst thing, was he simply couldn't remember what had happened, or how he had come to be in this damp, dripping, dark place.

The weasel had never viewed himself as a terribly smart beast, but it disturbed him to be able to recall nothing about the day. Bootbrain sat up, still massaging his temple and thinking harder than he probably had in his entire life.

After all, he'd always had someone to think for him .. always been told he had to have someone to think for him.

Always been told he wasn't smart enough to think for himself.

And he'd always believed it.

However now he couldn't recall where his captain was or how he'd gotten separated, and after all, since the death of Reynard Chopsnout, Clogg had been the one to think for Bootbrain.

The weasel bit his lip nervously, staring at the jagged hole about four or five feet above his head. It looked an awful lot like he'd fallen through it, but he just couldn't remember!

A pang ran through his stomach, and Bootbrain blinked. Wait .. falling? Falling! Yes, he could recall that. Something about being sick, and leaning on a stump ..

Pain jolted through his aching head like a lighting bolt, and the weasel moaned, not really thinking about what he was saying. "Ohh .. How we's gonna find a treasure like dis, I sure donno .."

Bootbrain leaned against the smooth, cool rock wall behind him, suddenly thinking on what he'd just said.

Treasure?

Wait .. treasure! Yes, the red castle beasts had said something about finding treasure .. in a cave!

There was something more then that .. but Bootbrain couldn't remember that part. And the harder he thought, the more pain lanced through his skull.

However, having never really done anything clever in his life, the weasel was finding his newfound thinking skills something to be rather proud of. He set about recalling what he knew of caves, which, being a seafaring beast, wasn't all that much.

Bootbrain's extent of knowledge on the subject of caves is about as follows.

Caves were dark, damp, underground, and normally decently large. It did not occur to him that they are not usually made of hewn stone, after all, he'd never seen one before.

The weasel blinked in amazement, looking around. Why .. that looked like what he'd fallen into! Could it be that he'd found what his captain was looking for? Was this where the ... White eyes or whatever they'd been called were? If it was .. Clogg would be pleased as anything!

Bootbrain hauled himself onto shaking paws, calculating the distance between him and the outside world. Being rather lanky, after a few clumsy attempts the weasel was able to achieve his goal.

He lay on the ground beside the stump for a minute, before carefully getting back on his feet and making his way back the way he'd come .. after all, his trail was quite clear.

><><

Clogg was feeling slightly better as the day started to draw to a close, although far from perfect. He could remember relatively nothing about the day before he'd fallen asleep in his hammock, and this irritated him.

Of course, he didn't go about berating his crew about it, not with the headache he had.

Besides, most of them were still asleep or sitting around the fire looking rather miserable. This confused Clogg, for his first assumption to the reason he felt the way he did was because he'd drank too much ale.

So had his crew been into his ale? They'd better not have, those bilge sopping swabs ... if there was one thing Clogg couldn't stand, it was beasts who pilfered with his alcohol.

However he really didn't have a lot of time to think on it, for Bootbrain hobbled weakly into camp, calling, "Capt'n .. Capt'n I thinks I found da cave wid da treasure we's lookin' fer!"

Despite how much his head hurt, Clogg couldn't forget seeing the creatures from his past or their message. He'd been worrying about finding the cave Verdauga had been talking about .. but if Bootbrain had found it ..

The corsair sat up, moaning, "What cave .. where?"

Bootbrain looked as excited as he possibly could be, contrary to the way he seemed to feel. "Wull .. I was feelin' awful sick .. an' I leaned on dis ol' stump see? An' it busted an' I fell down ina cave!"

This was not exactly what Clogg had expected to hear. It didn't really make him feel any better either .. he was sure there was something wrong with what his idiot of a crewbeast was saying. Stumps didn't lead into caves the last time Clogg checked ... but then, that had been a while. And besides .. his head ached too much to think on it properly.

Still .. it just didn't sound proper. But Clogg couldn't say why he believed this, and he needed to find that treasure for Verdauga .. he wouldn't get his ship until he did. Besides .. if e didn't, he might be thought of as a traitor .. and then ..

The corsair winced. No, he didn't want that.

He tried to stand up, but groaned. He felt awful .. not in shape for any treasure hunting.

Clogg growled at Bootbrain, asking, "Are ya feelin' alright now?"

The weasel nodded. "Uhh .. ya, better Capt'n but .."

Clogg waved a paw at him. "No buts. Take Wippback an' Floggtail, an' see what ya can find in dis cave. Report back if ya do, an' I'll come if'n I'm feelin' better."

Bootbrain looked almost hesitant, but nodded with a sigh. "Aye aye Capt'n."

><><

Bootbrain wasn't terribly happy with the way things were turning. He'd been feeling as good as could be imagined in his present state, after all, Clogg had never asked him to oversee anything before.

Now however, he had Wippback on his mission. Which meant, Wippback was leading.

The rat was in a foul temper due to the headache he possessed, and had taken immediate control. More then that, he was bossing Bootbrain around to no end. The weasel found himself loaded down with ropes, a torch, and supplies for making more light should they need it.

Floggtail had a torch too, as well as Wippback himself. Bootbrain had led them to the entrance, trying to ignore Wippback's constant derogatory remarks.

The three had some difficulty making it down the hole, for none were feeling too well. Once inside the rock passageway they lit their improvised torches of oil-coated rags and tree limbs, inspecting the odd place.

There was only one way to go really, seeing as the tunnel dead ended about where the entrence was. Bootbrain rubbed his still aching head, remarking, "Wull .. looks like we'll 'ave ta go dat way .. seein' cause there's a dead-end 'ere .."

Wippback turned on him. "Shudap! Course we'll have ta go this way .. an' this is the weirdest cave I've ever seen."

Floggtail seemed to feel the worst of the three, for he said nothing. Bootbrain fell into silence as Wippback took the lead, for the weasel was observing his surroundings with interest.

This cave was, admittedly .. odd. Even by his standards.

It was made from hewn and fitted stone .. red stone. It was crumbling here and there, roots grew through it at will, and it was damp. Water dripped echoingly, forming stalactites that hung from the roof like jagged teeth.

Bootbrain slipped around one such formation, skirting a place where a stone from the ceiling had fallen to the ground in a heap of crumbling debris. Somehow, he'd not imagined a cave as being made out of cut rock.

Cut red rock.

The weasel wasn't great at logical explanations, so he gave up thinking on this. The three vermin had been traveling down the passage for a while now, and Bootbrain was noticing something.

As they progressed further along, the more decrepit the tunnel became. It was crumbling in earnest here, and it was even starting to slant downhill. Like some massive paw had forcibly shoved it downwards, further into the earth.

All of a sudden, the three where faced with a spot that had almost completely been filled with crumbled rock and dirt. However there was a small opening, and Floggtail, being the smallest, was forced to crawl through it first.

The rat's tail vanished with a small cascade of rubble, and a moment elapsed before his voice rang out in awe, echoing oddly. "Mates .. ya gotta see dis .. dis ain't like how I thought a cave would look .. bloody 'Ellgates it ain't!"

><><

Bootbrain shoved past Wippback, stuffing his head trough the hole Floggtail had just disappeared into. The little rat was standing a few feet away from the partial cave in, holding his torch as high as he could and staring down into what looked like a black chasm.

Wippback pulled Bootbrain back, snarling, "Get outa me way ya oaf! I'm going through next, den you, see?"

Before the weasel could say a word, the overbearing rat's tail was disappearing through the gap. Bootbrain had half a mind to pull on it, but decided against doing so, despite how much he disliked Wippback.

The weasel thanked the fates he was scrawny as he wormed his own way through the aperture, carrying the supplies. "What's ya found Floggy .."

Wippback glared at him through the gloom. "Shudap an' look at dis if'n ya got any sense."

Bootbrain felt like glaring back, but simply did as he was told. He had to stare the next second, for Floggtail and Wippback seemed to be standing on the edge of a bottomless pit. Odder still, the opening in which they stood was a perfect arched, rectangular hole .. with decorative molding around it.

Bootbrain arched his eyebrows in confusion as he pulled a loose shard of yellow glass from the edge of the opening, holding it up to the light of his torch. The weasel stared at it a moment, confused at why there would be glass in a cave. He looked out over the empty black space, before dropping the twinkling piece of glass into what seemed oblivion.

About two seconds passed before the faint, shattering clink of it hitting the ground echoed back to the three pirates.

Bootbrain raised an eyebrow. "Uhh .. wull there's a floor down there .. so should we try an' .."

Wippback snarled at him. "Shudap! Who told ya ya have a right ta think? Course we gotta go down dere .. gimme da rope."




Chapter 19 Forces Joined

Scound fiddled restlessly with his manacle, not really expecting it to come loose. He wasn't sure of what was going on anymore.

He wanted to get free and go back to his master, but these woodlanders seemed decent too. What they said was intriguing to him, and they hadn't treated him badly.

Scound had thought on his unanswered questions more, and it had become pretty clear he could not just ask Swartt about Lord Ignasa .. he wasn't stupid, and he knew the only Lord talked of in the horde was the Dark Wolf.

So he'd have to .. rephrase his question. But he'd worked around Swartt long enough to know how to do this.

Still, there really wasn't any way for his escape. Scound examined the fetter about his wrist closer .. he hadn't really paid any attention to it before now. It was a simple one, just like the ones that were used to chain slaves to their oars on the Bloodwake.

The weasel pricked his ears up .. perhaps his seasons under Ripfang weren't wasted after all. He fit his claw in the keyhole, wiggling and twisting in multiple directions. He wasn't having a lot of luck, so he tried to pull his claw out. However it wouldn't budge.

Scound muttered a curse as he yanked backwards with his entrapped paw, feeling it come loose with a small click. The manacle fell to the wooden bench he was sitting on with a dull clack, and the rattle of chains.

The weasel rubbed his now free paw, rather surprised at this turn of events. However, he wasn't out yet.

Scound slipped to the door, peering out the barred entrance cautiously. Sure enough, the guard was a brown and silver squirrel armed with a spear. He looked fairly alert, although his back was to the prison door.

Scound groaned inwardly, looking about his cell for any other possible way out. He was about to risk the door, when he noticed a small window far up in the wooden wall!

><><

Starbuck hadn't ridden this much in months, and it was slowly telling on him. After all, staying astride a trotting or loping horse for hours on end is extremely tiring.

The hare had to wonder how many days he'd be doing this, seeing nothing but scrubby outcrops of woodland and endless, waving grasses.

When would they find these Mossflowerian nobles? Would they find them at all? Would they just pass them on accident?

Starbuck hoped not .. they really couldn't afford to. Not with Lotor's choke hold on the western coasts growing tighter day by day. It didn't used to be this bad, but as the vermin ran out of food, they expanded their hunting grounds. It wouldn't be all that long before they discovered the abode of the Pine Woods squirrels.

So the sooner they brought these eastern kings to their aid, the better. And he was the messenger.

Lightfoot broke out of her lope and into a trot, jolting him back into the present. Starbuck gave her an odd look as she slid to a stop, asking, "Light .. what's up?"

The pony stopped dead, inhaling deeply. "A horse is coming."

Starbuck felt the wind hit his face, coming from the direction they were headed. While he really couldn't smell a thing, he knew not to doubt Lightfoot. The hare set about scanning the horizon line for any sign of movement, anything that might betray the intruder.

Lightfoot still had her eyes closed as she murmured, "It's headed our way .. we may meet it by sunset. I will follow the scent .. perhaps it is one of the ones we seek."

Starbuck looked vainly at the spot where the prairie met he sky, sighing, "I sure hope so, eh wot?"

><><

Emalet had been flying for days now, and she finally was in sight of the great mountain of Salamandastron. However, she had not seen so much as a golden eagle's feather to hint she was on Argulor's tail.

This worried her greatly, for the Skyking had become like family to her, after her parents had vanished near six seasons ago.

They had gone to make maps of Southsward and the west .. and never came back.

Emalet had tried in vain to learn their whereabouts, although travelers from countries to the west and the south had seemed nil. The owl hadn't felt right about leaving Argulor and the Redwallers to search for them, but that did not mean she did not pray for their safety.

Now, with this looming western threat on the horizon, Emalet feared she would never see them again. But she could not loose Argulor too! He was a second father to her.

The owl was by nature, a nocturnal creature. She was not used to flying all this much in the day, although she had done it during the wars against Tsarmina.

However, it was around three hours past the zenith of the sun, and Emalet was looking for a spot to rest for a bit. Besides, she wasn't keen on flying about Salamandastron itself, and since she was an owl, and it was still light, she could easily arouse suspicion.

She focused in on a little pine grove, one that looked nice and quiet. Hopefully nothing lived there, so she could sleep until dusk fell and examine the mountain under then cover of night.

The owl's feathers fluttered a bit as she landed in a tall spruce tree. She yawned widely, about to try and fall asleep when her eyes caught sight of something on the bow on which she sat.

Blood.

It was dried, and smeared .. but it was still blood!

This however, wasn't what concerned Emalet the most. What did was a clump of golden eagle feathers stuck in in it!

Only one beast she knew of had feathers like that .. Argulor!

><><

Buffheart was shining the small collection of weapons the few followers of Lord Ignasa had when Quinn burst into the cavern. The black-tipped fox laid is spear down, exclaiming, "You ain't gonna believe what Kesha told me."

Buffheart squinted at the blade of the rapier he was working on, stating, "I might. What is it?"

Quinn sighed. "You know how she's tryin' ta get Swartt's wife Bluefen ta join us? Well she just came from there. She said Bluefen's got a Shadow Fighter apprentice helpin' her!"

Buffheart looked up, shocked. "What? Since when did one of those blighters help anybeast?"

Quinn nodded. "It's what I said. But I guess dere's some kinda deal .. the Shadow Fighter's expectin' an' don't want nobeast ta find out, an' she can tell Bluefen when beast's is coming. So they made a deal, from what Kesha told me."

The hare raised an' eyebrow. "Expecting? You mean .."

Quinn shrugged. "Ya. Lot'sa stuff goes on round the horde dat shouldn't."

Buffheart set his rapier down, stating, "If that's the bally case, Kesha shouldn't be going around there anymore wot?"

Quinn sighed. "I thought'a that. But Bluefen's 'er friend, an' she don't want .."

Buffheart interrupted sadly. "Sometimes young Quinn, when a beast has heard Lord Ignasa's truth but will not heed for one bally reason or another, it is best to leave them be wot? After all, it isn't us who can save 'em .. it's him. An' sometimes he wants us to let him do his own work, eh wot?"

Quinn raised an eyebrow. "But Bluefen's in an awful fix .. an' Kesha just wants ta help."

Buffheart sighed. "I'm not saying don't help the poor gel. But from what I've learned in the seasons I've been around Kesha, sometimes her compassion gets the better of her wot? I'm just sayin' she needs to tread careful if Shadow Fighters are personally involved."

Quinn nodded. "Or somethin' awful could happen."

Buffheart stood, setting the rapier back on it's rack on the cavern wall. "Quite."

><><

Sayna loved riding. She loved the wind whipping about her face and hair, the thunder of Dancer's hooves beneath her, and the feeling of wild freedom.

The gray horse was loping at the moment, conserving most of her energy to last the entire day. The two stopped momentarily at the top of a slight ridge, letting the wind blow freely about them.

It was from the northeast today, a surprising coincidence for summer. However it would occasionally happen, and Sayna had to admit, the breeze at your back was nice.

Dancer suddenly snorted, asking, "Sayna, do you see that?"

The mouse snapped her head up, staring out in the direction they were going.

It wasn't more than a tiny, moving speck on the horizon line, but there was undoubtedly something out there. Sayna's voice held suspicion as she asked, "What do you think it is?"

From the sound of her voice, Dancer had set her jaw. "Let's find out. If it's friendly, all is well. But if it be a foe .."

Sayna fingered her sword hilt. "They will not live to see tomorrow. That or we will not."

Dancer cocked her head, giving Sayna a 'was that really necessary' look. "Honestly? Must you be so grim about it? It's likely nothing more than a harmless traveler."

Sayna shrugged. "Likely, but you never do know. Let us go however, it seems we shall not meet up with them for a good hour. The sun will be setting by then."

Dancer broke into a trot. "The others will worry."

Sayna sighed. "True, but there's no help for it. We have to find out who this beast is, and it's intentions."

><><

By the time dusk had began to fall over the land, the two riders and their horses were in plain sight of each other.

Starbuck really couldn't tell yet what type of creature was coming toward him, only that the horse was gray. However as they got continually closer, the hare began to suspicion it was a smaller beast then he.

It was likely a full four or five minutes before the two horses stood only six feet apart. The rider from the east might have been shorter then Starbuck, but her mount towered over his.

She swung from her saddle with a subtle jingle of the girth, landing lightly on the ground. She was a mouse, dressed in a black tunic with a wide belt, and her hair was done up in an amazingly long loose braid.

Her paw rested easily on the turquoise pommel stone of a gleaming broadsword, and Starbuck got the idea she was ready to draw and use it in a second. Her voice was a questioning sound, and she got strait to the point. "Are you a friend or a foe?"

Her horse nudged her from behind. "You haven't even introduced us! That's rude."

The mouse sighed. "Oh come off it. I'm asking an important question."

The gray horse rolled her eyes as the mouse turned her piercing black gaze back onto Starbuck.

The hare raised his paws. "Friends .. we're both friends."

The gray horse smiled. "Great! I'm Ghostdancer, and this is my overly suspicious and rather rude friend, Sayna. What are your names?"

Starbuck wasn't sure what to think. He stammered, "Umm .. I'm Starbuck, and this here is .."

The pony interrupted, supplying her own name. "I am Lightfoot. We are from the region of Salamandastron, and we were sent to find three marks who were said to be coming to help us. Do you know of them?"

Dancer and Sayna exchanged a look, before the horse piped up cheerfully, "Oh, well that's Sayna! She's a mark."

The mouse lightly shoved her friend's muzzle away, sighing, "Yes, I am a marked one. The others are perhaps half a day's ride behind us .. we're the scouts. We have an army, I guess."

Starbuck was excited. "An army? Ya don't say .."

Lightfoot flicked her tail into his side. "Speaking of creatures who are rude .. I am sorry. If you are a mark, you must be the queen."

It was almost a question, and Sayna shrugged. "Yea ... I guess that's how it ended up. It's still .. well .. I'm still getting used to it."

Dancer laughed. "Uh huh .. after five seasons .."

Sayna poked the gray horse, asking, "But you said you were seeking our help? Is .. something amiss in the west?"

Starbuck laughed drily. "Amiss? You could bally well say that .."

Lightfoot flattened her ears slightly. "Enough Starbuck. Yes your highness, much is wrong. Our land has been enslaved by an ermine named Lotor for nearly six seasons. Many were killed, and those that are left have gone into hiding, least we share the same fate. Your messenger, an eagle named Argulor, was wounded by these vermin. He's healing now, but we were sent to bring you his report, as he cannot."

Sayna looked serious now, dead serious. "So it was Lotor .. and you say Argulor is hurt?"

Lightfoot dipped her head, nodding, "Yes, although not badly. However he had to stay off his feet long enough, that we were sent to bring this news to you."

><><

Scound was having difficulties. He'd used the wooden bench and simply scaled the rest of the wall, but now he had to get through the window.

And that was, admittedly, a problem. The gap was almost smaller than Scound himself.

The weasel had wriggled his way through it, but was now faced with reaching the ground. Scound had to admit to himself that this might not have been the best idea as he held onto the window ledge, looking ruefully at the forest floor nearly ten feet below him.

Somehow, this wasn't how he had planned for things to go. The weasel looked about himself as his arms began to ache in earnest.

Thankfully for him, he noticed a tree limb down near three feet and to the side a ways. Scound thanked the fates the squirrels made their prison in a hollow tree as he swung himself side ways, half leaping, half falling.

The weasel grabbed hold of the limb awkwardly, pulling himself onto the branch, and shaking a little. How those silly treebounders did this all the time .. he couldn't possibly comprehend.

And they liked it too .. they liked it!

Scound was extremely glad he was not a squirrel, that was all he could say. The weasel calculated his next jump, a branch another two feet below him.

It wasn't really jumping either, just falling. Scound seized hold of the lower branch momentarily to break his fall, before simply dropping to the ground three feet below.

The weasel crouched motionless where he'd landed a moment, before shoving himself back onto shaking paws.

Now he just had to get out of the pine grove and back to Salamandastron .. something he feared was far easier said then done.

><><

Bluefen was finding Xemx hard to put up with; not only because of the danger and the small grudge she held against the rat, but because of the feeling of darkness that seem to come from her.

The ferret wife doubted this was a good influence for Veil, in fact she knew it wasn't. At least the two stayed as far from each other as they possibly could.

Veil stuck around his mother far more than he used to, and he plainly told her he was afraid of Xemx.

Bluefen understood the way he felt .. she liked the rat no more than her son.

But if she would have known what the creature was plotting .. she would have been ten times more against her.

Xemx herself was using this whole situation to her own advantage, as she did with everything.

The little rat was far from stupid, and she had a plan already formulated and ready. However as the days passed, it kept getting better.

And if it was getting better for Xemx, then it was getting worse for some other beast.

The rat knew Velox would be furious with her .. completely so. Even if he didn't know she was pregnant and she succeeding in dumping this brat on Bluefen, the pine marten would be angry because of her extensive disappearance.

So she needed something to please him .. to buy back her job and her life.

And to her delight, she had found her payment. She knew what she could tell Velox so that he would want her as an assistant again. It was all so amazingly simple.

All she had to do, was listen. And the answer had leapt into her paws!

For all those times Kesha had spoke to Bluefen, Xemx hadn't been out of ear shot as she was supposed to. She'd listened with growing delight the entire time.

So there was a group of vermin turned traitor living in hidden caverns below the known corridors of Salamandastron? How perfectly convenient for her!

Velox would be extremely interested in such a group, Xemx knew. And if she was the one to tell him, she'd have better luck at surviving this dumb mistake she'd made. Even if she'd sort of guessed what she was getting herself into .. making it not so much a mistake as it was pure, rebellious foolishness.

Of course, there was no power alive that could make Xemx admit this freely .. at least, not in her way of thinking.

Still, despite her wickedly brilliant plot to sell the lives of others to redeem her own, she couldn't put it into action now. She'd have to wait until her brat was born, when she could leave the unwanted child with Bluefen, and make up some believable lie about her absence.

But when she could .. there wouldn't be any traitors left in Salamandastron.

Some might have wondered how Xemx could plan such a thing without the slightest feeling of remorse.

The answer was simple.

She was the most important creature in her life.

And after all, it was nothing personal.

Just business.

><><

Emalet was flying low to the ground, beneath the overhanging bows of this pine copse she'd discovered. There had been no rain since early spring, and while the owl knew a storm was needed to wet the drying ground, the absence of water helped with following an old trail.

Even now, she could make out a few splatters of dried blood amongst the fallen pine needles, and she knew Argulor must have come this way.

Don't let him be dead .. please Lord Ignasa .. please!

Emalet swooped onto a low hanging pine branch, landing with the rustle of feathers. She was calculating her next move, when a cheery voice caused her to jump.

"Well it never rains but pours with thou's kind does it? Where there's one yonder, others seem to flock eh?"

Emalet whirled around, blinking at the sight of a cream furred squirrel leaning nonchalantly against the tree trunk. "Argulor toldst me to keep an eye out for thou. I assume thy name is Ema, or as Argulor calldst thou, Emalet?"

Emalet didn't bother answering this. "Argulor? Is he alright .. do you know where he is?"

The squirrel bowed, leaping to the ground in a smooth movement. "I do indeed .. the creature has a marvelous appetite, I will say that. Come with me .. I assume thou are with the Mossflowerians?"

Emalet hopped to the ground, nodding, "Yes, I am. Is Argulor alright though?"

The squirrel nodded, smiling, "Well, yes, he's fine now. Still recovering from a nasty leg wound, and grousing about it continually. My name's Arvid, by the way."

><><

Little did Emalet or Arvid know, that as they walked off further into the woods, two eyes watched them.

Scound's.

The weasel kept himself well hidden, waiting until the two creatures were out of sight. He'd found some of Argulor's feathers near his prison, and discretely decided to keep them.

After all, he'd need some evidence to give Swartt. He didn't really feel right about betraying the woodlanders, they'd treated him decently. However, he would have to make up something. And he felt like golden eagle feathers might come in handy.

As soon as Arvid and the owl vanished from sight, Scound slipped forward. It took him a while to reach the edge of the pine groves, and he had quite a few false alarms.

For all he knew, these squirrels kept their guards in trees! That meant they would see him long before the other way around.

So it was only natural Scound was stiff, and jumpy. He had no weapons, and was slightly lost as well. However the weasel was a determined beast, and he reached the beginning of the dunes after a considerable amount of sneaking.

Breathing a sigh of relief, but still keeping his guard up, the weasel hurried out into the warm dusk sunlight. He hated the forest, with it's dark and shadowed trees that hid the sun.

Scound paused at the very edge of the pine copse as he heard a subtle crack of a snapping twig .. like somebeast had stepped on it.

The weasel stood tensely for a few minutes, but the sound was not repeated.

Scound shrugged off the chilling feeling of being watched .. or tried to. He loped off into the dunes, all too eager to get away from the reach of the squirrels .. they wouldn't take his escape lightly, he knew.




Chapter 20 War Councils

Bootbrain growled to himself as he slid paw over paw down the rope and into what seemed never-ending darkness. That's what came of being the stupid one .. you got to do everything dangerous.

The weasel had a torch in one paw, although it did very little to penetrate the gloom. He'd been descending for at least the height of a large two story building by now .. how tall was this odd precipice?

However suddenly, his footpaw touched the floor .. made of smooth red sandstone. He looked up at the tiny specks of light far above him now, calling, "It's safe .. dere's a floor down 'ere mates!"

Wippback's answer echoed back. "Shudap! Sure it's safe .. we're comin' down now."

Bootbrain huffed, holding his torch up and walking a ways further into this odd .. cavern. As he progressed forward, the ground became coated in a layer of damp sludge, and the weasel could feel gaping cracks through the mud with his bare paws.

He held his torch higher, starting at the sight of a decrepit object that looked like it had once been .. an upholstered bench? Bootbrain ran his paw along it's back, starting again. It was a bench .. even almost a pew! It was lying at an odd angle, half buried in sludge and partially broken.

What else was to be found in this impossibly strange cave? Floggtail came up behind him, asking, "Boot .. is that .. a chair? Why's it ina cave, huh?"

Bootbrain shrugged. "Sure I donno Floggy .. this place get's weirder alla time!"

Wippback's paws slopped through the mud, as his voice rang out, "Ya, sure it does! Shudap an' lookit dat!"

Both vermin did as they were told, and Bootbrain stared in wonder. For lying on it's side in the mud, not twenty paces away, was what looked like an alter .. and overlaid in gold!

Floggtail's voice was amazed. "Mates .. dat dere's a treasure on it's own!"

Wippback shoved him. "Shudap! Look over dere."

Bootbrain complied, raising his eyebrows at the sight of a gaping hole somewhat behind the alter, that was half filled with rubble. The weasel shrugged. "Wull .. should we go an' have a look ..?"

Wippback said his classical line. "Shudap! Ya we gotta go check it out. You first."

Bootbrain scowled, climbing what seemed to be a small flight of stairs and peering down into the dark opening. The weasel felt it looked like a massive mouth, and swallowed hard as he took his first step into the cold netherworld of blackness.

Wippback and Floggtail were behind him, their torches casting a weird glow about this narrow space that was almost like a castle's turret staircase .. it curved like one, and even had rusted torch grommets on the stone walls.

Floggtail's voice was confused. "'Ellgates dis 'ere cave sure 'as a lotta features .."

Wippback sneered. "Shudap!"

Bootbrain turned to glare at the rat, opening his mouth to say something. Wippback was facing the weasel as they descended the stairs, and suddenly a look of wonder spread across his face. Bootbrain raised an eyebrow at his bossy companion's sudden change in behavior.

Wippback's mouth dropped open slightly, and he exhaled, "Shudap."

Bootbrain turned around, to see what Floggtail already had his eyes fixated upon, and gasped.

There was another layer of sludge in this room, but that wasn't what the corsairs were looking at .. far from it.

While some was scattered and half sunken in the mud, most of the items of interest still lay on their proper stone-carved benches in the walls. Just as two of the marks had seasons before, Bootbrain, Wippback, and Floggtail had the pleasure of seeing a great and beautiful treasure of truly unmatched worth.

For there was not a greater treasure, than that long lost one of legend.

The treasure of the Lukes.

><><

Emalet had been reunited with Argulor, who'd been very glad to see her and asked if she might be willing to try and talk Ruro out of her decision he not fly for another five days.

Ruro had come in at that moment, and remarked it wasn't her fault if Argulor succeeded in killing himself from flying injured.

Arvid had rolled his eyes at the rivalry between his mother and the eagle-king.

However, not much more was discussed, for Thalia burst into the meeting. The rabbit looked pretty paranoid as she gasped out, "The prisoner .. I saw him! He escaped .. a .. and he's headed toward Salamandastron!"

Arvid bolted upright. "Is he out of the copse .. where is he?"

Thalia looked like she was trying to keep it together as she shook her head. "N .. no! He's out .. in the dunes, and headed for the mountain .. he'll tell .. tell them everything!"

Ruro's paw had fallen to her dirk, and she snarled, "Then we cannot halt him .. and thou are right Thalia .. he will betray us."

The rabbit gulped. "What do we .. do? How can we stop this .. they'll find us and kill us all!"

Arvid pulled his spear off his back. "Not if I can help it .."

Ruro waved a paw at him. "Be not so rash Arvid. Bring thy father and brother, and Grood. This calls for a council of war .. we must be ready for anything they bringst again us."

><><

Scound really didn't have any intention of betraying the squirrels, although he would not hesitate to do so if it would better suit his needs.

However, it was not the first thing on his mind, so when faced with questioning, it would not be his first means of verbal defense.

And as it was, he was forced to defend himself almost immediately.

For he'd not gotten five minutes out of the pine grove, before he caught sight of a few moving specks among the dunes. As they got closer, Scound realized with a sinking heart it was a patrol .. led by Swartt himself.

The weasel almost wished he'd stayed with the squirrels.

But it was too late for that now, as Swartt pulled his creamello mount to stop by a cruel yank to the bit. The ferret's face held surprise, irritation, a hint of anger, and just a little smugness.

All these wound up turning out as a demonic looking smirk.

Swartt waved a paw at the other members of the patrol, stating stonily, "Continue."

As the rest of the patrol headed off without daring to speak a word, Swartt swung down from his saddle with a jingle. "And where have you been? Care to do some explaining?"

Scound's mouth was a little dry now, but he gulped, "Sure Capt'n .. it was unintention'l. Ya see, dere was this eagle .. a huge gold one. An' .. Glimpy shot at 'im. He got awful mad .. cause de arrow went right through his leg see, it didn't kill 'im. But he got awful mad an' swooped down an' grabbed me an Glimpy. He flew off inta da woods .. a long ways from here .. an' .. he chained me up! Guess he was savin' me fer later .. cause .. he done ate Glimpy .. everthin' but 'is tail! Made me watch too .. sure was dreadful .."

Swartt was very unimpressed, despite the marvelous story his henchbeast was telling him. "So let me get this strait. A giant eagle swooped you up, chained you up, ate Glimpy up, didn't eat you up, and you got away. And this took a whole week?"

Scound frowned .. somehow, that hadn't been the way his tale had sounded when he told it. "Yea! I'm tellin' da truth .. there was a golden eagle that ate Glimpy, sure as I stand here!"

Swartt glared at him. "Oh? What proof do you have?"

Scound dug his paw in his belt, producing Argulor's feathers. "These! They came off da eagle!"

Swartt snatched the items in question, examining them closely. "Where'd you get these?"

Scound was in earnest. "Off the eagle!"

Swartt tapped the feathers against one paw, stating drily, "You plucked them yourself."

Scound got the feeling he was being toyed with. "No, course not! These just fell off when 'e got wounded by Glimpy!"

Swartt gave Scound a long, suspicious stare. "Come on, you really expect me to buy a story about a giant eagle that carried you off? What have you been drinking? And where's Glimpy really?"

Scound was frustrated. "I ain't been drinking nothin', an' Glimpy's dead an' eaten!"

Swartt crossed his arms, a half sneer on his face. "I don't know Scound, but something about this seems way more than fishy. You're lying somewhere."

Scound met Swartt's gaze. "No, there really was a golden eagle, an' he really did eat Glimpy, an' I really was chained up!"

The sixclawed ferret glared at him. "Alright Scound, I'm not torturing you yet .. as I need you to do my dirty work. But because I don't think your little story's straight, you're on night guard duty for a month."

Scound deflated, half in relief, half in disgust. Night guard duty for a month?

Swartt pointed a black claw at the weasel. "And that doesn't mean you're exempt from your normal duties, or the work I have you do. And I won't be around to save your hide if you fail at something."

The ferret stopped just as he was about to mount his steed, stating, "Oh. And if Glimpy ever returns, you get the rack. Understood? Excellent. Get back to the mountain .. I'll have to explain to Lotor of your late return."

><><

Bootbrain was the first to speak. "'Ellgates .. just lookit all dis boodle!"

Wippback could say nothing for once, and Floggtail had slopped his way over to one of the rock benches. The little rat picked up a handful of multicolored rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and amethyst.

He exhaled slowly. "If'n dis is those white eyes er whatever dey was called .."

Wippback snatched up a golden chain that glinted richly in the torch light. "Oh who cares 'bout white eyes? Lookit dis pile .. I'll be rich da rest a me life!"

Both Bootbrain and Floggtail glared at him with murder, and Wippback hurriedly corrected himself. "I mean alla us. An' Clogg a course."

Bootbrain shuffled his way through the muck to where a chest sat on it's rock ledge. A little water damaged, but still beautiful. It was made out of mahogany that would have shone had it been clean .. in fact Bootbrain guessed a beast would be able to see himself in it's surface then.

A graceful feather and star arched their way across it's surface, and Bootbrain had to admire the intricate design. He got the feeling this piece might have been older even then the cave it sat in, and he carefully lifted the lid, expecting to see some marvelous treasure .. but there was disappointingly nothing. Just red velvet lining that was musty and disintegrating, worn and rotting from the dampness trapped in it.

Bootbrain's shoulders slumped in initial disappointment, but there was just something about the trunk that seemed .. important. Maybe it's central location in the room. Maybe it's rich mahogany structure. Maybe those odd patterns on the lid. Whatever the case, the weasel just felt some need to carry it out.

Maybe to discover why it, though dull compared to the elegant treasures about it, held a mysterious splendor to put them to shame. Like it was made for something ten times more gorgeous than itself.

The weasel shook himself, highly suspicioning this weird cave was bewitched. What else would cause him to have such an interest in a trunk .. one that sat in a roomful of splendid treasure?

Still .. he wanted it. Wanted to learn it's secret.

Bootbrain quickly shoved some jewels and gold chains into the trunk, stating, "'Ere, let's use dis ol' thing ta carry some stuff out .. so we can show Clogg."

><><

In Redwall .. there had been an overall release of tension. Not to say the gates were left open, or the walls were unguarded; that would have been utterly foolish.

But by many beasts standards, Clogg was as good as dead. However, that did not mean the newly realized threat from the Doomwytes was overlooked.

Far from it. Yar helped by telling of the practices of the Wytes, how they functioned, their nightly patrols, and how far they usually ventured.

This helped the guards know better what to look for, and also when to anticipate any possible attacks.

However, as of yet, there hadn't been the slightest stirring. Not since Clogg and his crew had been sent to their deaths. A little construction had begun again on the main abbey building, although little could be done without new stone or the horses to haul it.

Besides, with a possibility of Clogg and the threat of the Wytes, creatures hadn't been keen on venturing outside the walls. Although, after hearing Yar tell of them, Gonff had developed what his wife described as an unhealthy interest in them.

Regina and Whegg had agreed to take Fripple, at least until Rose had her new child and was back on her paws.

This was an arrangement that made everyone pretty mutually happy. Ash because she got to live with her best friend, Rose because she didn't need another thing to keep track of, Luke because he didn't have to put up with Fripple, and Fripple because she got to live Ash, and because she didn't have to put up with Luke.

While Regina did have Ash's brother, a toddler, to look after, Whegg would take Fripple and Ash to help him do guard duty.

Of course, they loved it completely.

So things had pretty much fallen back into relative peace at Redwall, although nobeast knew how long it would last.

And while it would last for a while, it was only temporary.

Only the calm before the storm.

><><

Argulor sat broodingly in the after dusk darkness, staring dully out among the many pine trees. He'd not this immobile for seasons, in fact, not since the last time he'd been wounded .. Verdauga's conquest.

The eagle closed his golden eyes a moment, sighing. It was best not to think of those far off times. To remember all the thinks he'd once had .. things that had been taken away.

He was grateful the marks had come and were rebuilding Mossflower .. but they couldn't bring back everything. Not his friends, killed in the war, not his tribe, scattered to the winds .. and not his beloved yet long lost family.

His wife, and their two sons .. they were gone. All of them.

Argulor did not spend his days thinking of them, dwelling on things past. he preferred to look to the brightening future.

But deep in the furthest corner of his heart, there was a need for something .. something called revenge.

Revenge against a certain black-hearted raven that Argulor was sure, despite his mysterious disappearance, stilled lived and plotted.

And Argulor planned to make an end of it should he ever have a chance.

One day .. he would give that scruffy little raven the fight of his life. Argulor couldn't help but narrow his eyes in anticipation. Someday.

Just .. not today. Because for now .. the priority was taking Salamandastron.

Besides, Argulor didn't really believe in chasing revenge down .. if he was truly supposed to have it, it would simply come to him.

Didn't all good things come to those who wait?

><><

Beddle slammed his paw down on the table he, Ruro, Arvid, Asger, Thalia, and Emalet sat around. Prior to this moment, the area had been populated by many voices at once.

"Peace! We must have a strategy, and not suggestions, I want a solid plan!"

Asger stood, dipping his head. "If I may, father?"

Beddle sighed. "Yes, speak thy mind son."

Arvid's sable brown brother nodded. "Father, wouldn't it be best to send Emalet back to these questers? They might send some of their swiftest creatures on ahead .. and they couldst help us plan."

Arvid clapped his paws together enthusiastically. "Thou hast struck on it! When the rest of their forces arrive as they may, we shalt be ready to attack."

Thalia looked a little nervous, as always. "W .. what if it's already too late s .. sire?"

Ruro stood, shrugging, "Then we shalt have to make the best of it. Fight unto death."

Beddle nodded. "Too true dear. But for now I think it would be best to take stock of our armory and prepare our defenses. Let us make ready for this battle, which I do not doubt shalt come."

Ruro blinked. "As we shalt do. Emalet, willt thou get them?"

The owl rustled her feathers. "As you say Milady."

Beddle stood, resting his paw on his longsword hilt. "Then let us be about our business. Thalia young one .. come with me. I hath a few things to speak with thee about."

The tortishell rabbit followed him timidly, her ears laid halfway back. Beddle waited until they'd walked out of earshot of the dispersing council, asking at length, "Thalia, if thou saw the weasel leave, why didst thou not stop him?"

The rabbit cringed, like she was expecting some dreadful punishment. "I .. I was too afraid sire."

Beddle stroked his chin. "Well .. we all art afraid now and then, I suppose."

Thalia looked away, before bursting out, "But sire, that is the trouble with me .. I am always afraid! I w .. want to stop .. but I just don't know how to be brave!"

The squirrel king sighed. "It is as I tell my lads, Thalia. Sometimes there is bravery hidden in us .. yet we know not where to find it. Lord Ignasa can help thou learn how to use thy courage .. because thou does have some. Why else would thou go find Starbuck?"

Thalia shrugged. "I .. don't know sire. It was .. the right thing to do."

Beddle smiled. "As I say, you have courage. Hidden, perhaps. But Ignasa will help thou .. just trust him."

Thalia smiled thinly back, nodding, "T .. thank you sire .. I will try to take your advice."

><><

Night fell silently, casting long shadows across Salamandastron that made it's twisting corridors even more ghostly than usual.

At least to Scound's mind.

The weasel found it below himself to do night guard duty; he'd always had the rank of a day guard or a patroller. Admittedly, these were not choice positions, but they were of a higher status than the night guard!

He'd gotten stuck as one of the gate guards .. along with that easy going black tipped red fox that normally had the job. Scound couldn't remember the creature's name, he'd only ever spoke to him in passing.

Still, the cold, echoing veil of night caused him to want to fill it's lonely void with something. The fox seemed totally unaffected, after all, this was normal for him.

But it wasn't for Scound. The weasel turned to his fellow guard, asking quietly, "Hey, I've let yer name slip me mind .. what's it again?"

The young fox looked up, as if broken from reverie. "Umm .. Quinn's me name."

Scound raised an eyebrow. "What's ya thinkin' bout eh? Seem's important."

Quinn shrugged. "Nothin' in particular."

Scound was never one to let anything slide. "Some cute liddle vixen I'll bet."

Quinn blinked in honest surprise. "No, I ain't thinkin' a nothin' like that."

Scound shrugged, bored. Getting this fox excited wasn't terribly easy, and Scound wanted a good conversation to pass the dark hours. "Well what's ya thinkin' a then?"

Quinn gave him an indiscernible look. "I ain't usually one ta tell others me thoughts. They're mine after all."

Scound huffed .. there went his hope of conversation. However the next second, he wished he'd just kept his mouth shut, as the fox's voice rang out again.

"As ya seem ta wanna talk, how's bout ya tellin' me a yer 'vetures .. why ya was gone so long."

Scound stiffened, asking sharply, "An' how is dat any a yer business, nosy young whelp?"

Quinn shrugged easily. "Yer da one what want's ta talk. They say a giant eagle carried ya off?"

Scound answered while barely thinking. "Ya, course one did! A great gold one what ate Glimpy an' kept me chained up!"

The fox looked honestly interested. "Well how'd ya get out den? Sounds like a right tricky spot."

Scound liked to brag, and it had a way of causing more trouble than it was worth. "Wull yer right Quinn, it weren't no easy spot. A lesser beast wouldn't a had a chance, I'll tell ya. I had ta sneak out da window ten feet off da ground, cause'a da guard at the door. Past dat, I had ta sneak outa the pine woods, cause there was guards ev'ry where see? An' it was mighty hard I tell ya."

Quinn was a very good listener, he listened in silence and let Scound tell his story. Scound, used to questioning and threats, hardly had control of his tongue when he told a tale unhindered.

"There was a ton of 'em I bet. All big, tough ol' squirrels, armed with javelins, spears, bows an' arrers .."

Scound realized his mistake as a half-asleep Quinn jerked his head up, asking, "Squirrels? What squirrels?"

Scound was frozen momentairily, before scowling, "That ain't yer business, an' it ain't even important. But don't ya tell nobeast, unnerstood?"

Quinn was not getting flustered. He simply asked coolly, "Wull if it ain't important, why's ya so all fired up 'bout it?"

Scound growled. "I don't have ta tell ya nothin' whelp. But ya jist don't go tell Swartt what I said, see?"

For the first time that night, alarm flashed across Quinn's face. "Swartt? I ain't gonna talk to Swartt 'bout nothin' .. he's a Shadow Fighter!"

Now it was Scound's turn to be interested. 'Shadow Fighter' was the term Beddle had used .. it wasn't a term used commonly in the horde. The weasel was casual as he asked, "Shadow Fighter? What's dat eh?"

Quinn didn't really mean to say what he said .. it was almost an involuntary response. "They're da beasts that serve Malimore .. the direct enemies of Lord Ignasa."

The fox clapped a paw to his mouth, expression changing from serious to sudden fear. However Scound's reply was far from the reception he'd imagined.

"Lord Ignasa? You .. know who 'e is?"

Quinn was hesitant now, and Scound couldn't honestly blame the fox. He held out a disarming paw. "I ain't gonna tell on ya Quinn, I'm tryin' ta learn 'bout Lord Ignasa meself."

Quinn's black ears swiveled instantly forward. "Yer .. not against 'im?"

Scound shook his head. "Na, I ain't. I like da sounda what the squirrels tol' me .. I want ta learn more about him."

Quinn looked taken aback. "The squirrels told ya of 'im? I thought ya ran away from 'em!"

Scound shrugged. "Uh .. yea I did. I was tired a bein' a prisoner .. an' da eagle was still 'round .. who knows when 'e was gonna get 'ungry fer weasel. Sides, dey were talkin' bout an army comin' .. an' I jist didn't wanna be hangin' round fer dat."

Quinn's mouth dropped open, and he looked amazed. "An ... army? Did ya say a army?"

Scound nodded, mouth ahead of his mind once again. "Yea .. talkin' bout da marks .. from the legends ya know .. that they was gonna take war ta Lotor!"

Quinn's pale green eyes glittered. "War .. ta take da mountain back?"

His weasel informer nodded. "Dat's da gist I got, yea."

The fox blinked in utter amazement .. tonight was to be a very long night. Of course .. perhaps not. If Scound wished to learn of Ignasa, then Quinn would do his best to tell what he knew.

But deep down he knew he would be waiting impatiently for morning, when he could be relieved of his post .. and able to tell the others what he had learned!




Chapter 21 Ending Travels

Ignasa, Aedus, and Ahio

Ignasa, Aedus, and Ahio :3

The dark of night was not as cool as Sayna would have liked .. not with her hair. Over the last five seasons, she'd grown to cope with it and accept it .. mostly.

To say completely wouldn't be quite true, there were still times like this when it irritated her. At least it didn't seem to grow anymore, almost like it couldn't.

When she'd first acquired her amazingly long mop, Sayna had gotten the dreadful picture of herself ten seasons later, with hair long enough to touch the ground from the very top of Brockhall.

However it had not become reality, and Sayna was immensely relieved. She sat on a boulder just outside the camp, sifting her fingers through the thick headfur. It was loose now, unlike in battle.

Sayna had learned how to braid and twist her mane into an amazingly tight hairdo, one that fell to her shoulders. Otherwise it might get cut off .. and that would have disastrous effects.

A voice rang from behind her, one she wasn't really expecting. Martin's.

"Sayna, I've been looking at the last two lines of this poem, and I've been thinking."

The mouse turned to face her near twin, asking, "How so?"

Martin shook his head. "I'm sure you've noticed, but they just don't seem the same as the rest. It talks of an old one who knows the whereabouts of these crowns we're supposed to find. And I can't help but wonder .."

Sayna shifted her position on the bolder to better see Martin. "Wonder what?"

Martin held up a paw. "When I tell you this, please don't come back with some wise remark about how being away from Rose has addled my sanity or something like that. But if you think about it, where would these crowns have come from?"

Sayna laid her chin on her paw, remarking, "I don't think your sanity's addled Martin. In fact you seem perfectly normal to me, but I really can't answer your question .. not when I don't even now where I come from."

Martin shook his head. "Maybe I'm just condemning myself as insane because of this idea I've got in my head now. But it won't go away!"

He sighed, stating, "Truth is, the only beasts that would have had crowns before Verdauga conquered would have been my grandparents. And from the stories my mother's mother, Windred told me .. my father was the only one who knew the hiding place of our tribe's great treasure. He was going to tell me on my tenth birthday .. but he left to fight Vilu .. and only a few months later, Windred and I were captured by Badrang's scouts."

Sayna had decided it was best to do nothing but listen, so Martin continued unhindered. "Thankfully .. they never found the rest of the tribe .. we were a ways from home when it happened. But .. they are all dead anyway, except for Timbal .. Ripfang killed them. Still .. no one ever found that treasure, because Luke was the only one who knew it's hiding place."

Sayna broke in, quoting softly, "Though old one knows where hide the crowns .."

Martin nodded, voice a little dry. "Sayna .. it might be my father, Luke! But .. I just don't see how. I was told he was lost in a shipwreck!"

Another voice broke in, Timbal's. "That would not, however, guarantee his death. Did anybeast ever find his body?"

Martin shrugged. "Not to my knowledge."

His friend nodded. "Well, I suppose while unlikely, he might have lived. You aren't crazy, in other words."

Sayna gave him a look of surprise, and he didn't wait for her question. "Yes, I've been listening. I guess you're not the only one with bad dreams."

Sayna opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, but there was an odd little screech and the flutter of wings nearby. All three mice tensed, relaxing the next moment when Emalet stepped into view.

The owl said nothing for a few minutes, slowly getting her breath back. She spoke as soon as she could, stating, "There's been a leak .. a prisoner escaped, and went back to his master .. we all know what that means."

Martin groaned. "Oh no .. yes Emalet, we do."

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "What's the plan of action then?"

Emalet nodded. "Their majesties Beddle and Ruro wish some of our group .. those who's horses are the swiftest .. would ride on ahead to help them plan the attack. That way when the army arrives, we'll be ready."

Sayna fingered a knife. "Fair point."

Martin spoke up, firmly. "We'll leave tonight, Me, Timbal, Sayna, Groddil, and Bella. Come, let us hurry!"

The mouse paused, nodding to the owl. "Thank you Emalet. Could you go back and tell Lady Redfarl of this .. tell her to make all haste."

><><

It was likely very early morning, Arvid was certain. There is always a cold, lonely stiffness about one if they have slept outside all night, and awaken in the first hours of the day.

Not like Arvid had meant to go to sleep, or even should have gone to sleep, not on guard duty. But he had .. standing propped against a tree the whole time.

The young squirrel prince stood a little straighter, glad that the captain, Grood hadn't found him. Arvid stretched as inconspicuously as possible, yawning silently. He was stationed on the eastern most edge of the pine grove, so as to keep an eye out for the ones Emalet promised she would send.

He'd honestly expected Lotor to have attacked already, but so far, there'd been nothing. Had that weasel .. Scound, not told what he knew for some reason? Why would he do that?

Arvid shook his head. It made no sense, and he couldn't figure it out.

However, he really needn't have worried about it, not as he heard the approaching thuds of horse hooves.

The squirrel prince whipped his bow off his back, loading an arrow for safety measures. He leapt from his perch in the tree, bowstring slack but ready to pull back at any given second.

It took a few moments for the first horse to come into view, but when they did, Arvid blinked in excited amazement. The creature was bright copper bay, with distinctive white patches; so strikingly colored you could see it in the dark.

The next two horses blended better with the early morning darkness, the were duller colorations, and Arvid wasn't sure what they were. However the two steeds behind them were just as fiery as the first, one chestnut, and one sorrel pinto.

Still, it wasn't even the horses that caught the greatest part of Arvid's attention, it was their riders. A badger, two strikingly gold mice, a darkly colored mouse .. one that seemed just slightly rat-like, and a light silver fox with the longest hair Arvid had ever seen .. at least on a male. The female golden mouse had head fur of the same length .. but she was a maid at least.

The first golden mouse, the male, gave Arvid a quick looking over, asking, "Who are you? Do you know of .. a group of squirrels in these parts?"

Arvid didn't really answer this. "Art thou the ones from Mossflower?"

The golden mouse nodded, and Arvid cast a somewhat suspicious glance at the fox before stating, "Then my parents .. that is the king and queen .. will wish to speak with thou. I was sent here to await thy coming .. follow me."

><><

Contrasting greatly with the dark night that lay silent over Mossflower and the western coasts, was the light of the lands that never saw darkness .. the Lands Beyond.

For even though mortal beasts cannot see them, or what goes on in them, they feel the effects.

And in the courtyard of the magnificent palace of the Lord of all realms, the white wolves had assembled yet again to report their doings in the mortal world. And yet again they waited for the traitor.

For this was not a strange occurrence. It happened regularly, not because the Lord of Light did not know all things already, but because he holds all beasts to account.

Even traitors.

Malcheus watched his wolves ensemble, remarking to Aquilo, "The traitor has not yet come."

The silver tipped wolf's lip curled ever so slightly as he replied, "While I understand it is necessary, I wish he would not."

Malcheus sighed. "Kaltiv made his own choice Aquilo .. and the wrong one."

Aquilo shrugged. "This I know .. and also regret."

Malcheus nodded. "As do I .. he was a good captain. But all have a free choice .. there was nothing you could do."

Aquilo said nothing, and Malcheus twitched his tail fractionally, just to move it. "Malimore is here because our Lord forces him to acknowledge his lower status. But he uses it to tempt and accuse .. that's what's in it for him."

Aquilo sighed. "Still .. he is under control .. even if he thinks he is not."

Malcheus looked about to agree, when the palace doors swung open, emitting the three Lords themselves. The army stood to a quick attention, and Malcheus saved his remark for later.

Aedus nodded to him, but didn't ask for his report immediately. Instead the fiery cat settled himself directly in front of the still empty space of Malimore's, the two others on either side of him.

This done, Aedus flicked his fire-like tail almost deliberately, never blinking as Malimore himself materialized before him, unable to keep from blinking.

The dark wolf instantly realized where he was, he didn't even look surprised, just a bit nervous .. and almost prepared.

However he wisely said nothing, waiting for Aedus to begin the interrogation as always. The puma did, stating, "Make your report. Tell us your interactions with the mortal realms."

Malimore tried to look nonchalant .. and failed. "I've .. done many things in my rovings' .. seen many things too."

The dark wolf's red eyes glittered a bit. "And through wandering, I have seen what the Redwallers did .. they trusted their own judgment. They did not call on you for help, as they should have. How can you call them your followers?"

Aedus's ears went back ever so fractionally. "To the beast, they are not."

Ignasa spoke, voice bordering dangerous. "The ones that follow us we accept, Traitor."

Malimore got a conniving look about him, stating. "But see what they have done? They did not seek your advice on the matter of Clogg .. will you let them get away with that? You had a different plan, but they used their own .. and didn't even ask! You wouldn't want them not to learn a lesson .. would you?"

Ahio's blue gaze intensified somewhat as he replied, "We allow all things to happen with justice, Traitor. Say what you really mean."

Malimore's legs trembled slightly as he tried to answer proudly, "I mean, will you let them go unpunished? Will you not let the consequences of their actions befall them? A just Lord would."

Aedus answered with the touch of a growl in his voice. "You know nothing of justice, Traitor."

Malimore almost looked cocky; like he had the false notion he'd won something. "Then you admit you must let me take full war to them?"

Aedus's ears were working on being pinned as he growled, "I am not under you wolf, you are under me, and you appear before me lest you should forget it through your insufferable pride."

Malimore couldn't help but shrink down as Aedus continued, "You may besiege them, and advance twice upon them .. but only twice. You do not have permission to overrun them in any way however, and should you let your forces attack more then two times, or should you try to take one life, you shall pay with your armies."

The puma paused only momentarily, adding, "And do not dare to think I cannot read your thoughts. You have not gotten me to bargain with you, for as I own everything, what is there for you to wager with? I am using you for my own purposes, to teach those who serve me something .. in order they may better understand me. But do not push my boundaries, lest I deal with you and your craven followers in person."

Malimore could stand no longer .. he'd been forced to crouch to the ground and lower his gaze. "Yes .. Milord."

Both words were said with loathing beneath them; Malimore hated acknowledging any as higher than him.

Aedus chose to ignore this as he asked, "And you have no more to report, I assume."

Malimore didn't have the courage to look up again. "That is correct."

Aedus flicked his tail. "Then be gone from my sight, and be wary of my warning."

The dark wolf vanished as suddenly as he'd come, and Ahio stated, "He will not keep his word, this we know."

Ignasa nodded simply. "True. But let him fall victim to his own pride as always, and be all the more the fool."

><><

Clogg stared over the treasure Bootbrain, Wippback, and Floggtail had brought him in absolute wonder. He hadn't seen this much wealth since he'd last been in Kotir .. seasons on end.

Bootbrain laid his paw on the trunk lid as Clogg drew a long string of pearls from it, only half listening to his crewbeast.

"Capt'n, we found dis stuff ina cave .. I'll bet it's dose white eyes!"

Clogg raised an eyebrow, muttering only half attentively, "Ya .. might be."

However Bootbrain's next statement brought the corsair's ears straight up. "But dere's more of it Capt'n .. a whole lot more!"

Now Bootbrain had Clogg's full attention. "What? More? 'Ow much more?"

Wippback shoved in. "Betcher could fill at least five more'a dese trunks Capt'n .. an maybe more'n dat!"

Clogg couldn't answer for a moment, he was so blissfully shocked. "An' ye say dere ain't nothing guardin' it? No band'a vermin or a monster .. it's just sittin' dere lonely like?"

Bootbrain nodded. "Aye, it's so. Nothin's laid claim ta it, so I figger it's ours fer da takin'!"

Clogg stood, still a little weak from drinking drugged ale. "'Ellgates it is! We're goin' down an' gettin' every last ruby .. Verdauga be hung! When 'e sees how much gold we bring 'im, 'e ain't gonna care one lickin' if'n we're late .. get the crew together! Let's go gits ourselves some treasure!"

><><

Arvid listened with interest to the early morning meeting his parents and Asger were having with the three marks and their two allies.

Somehow he'd expected them to be .. well .. grander. Maybe even perfect. But they weren't .. they were just like ordinary beasts.

It was a tad disappointing, really.

Still, with the three of them combined, as well as the fox, and input here and there from the badger, they could make a decent plan of attack.

Martin was pointing at a map Breeze had drawn under the instruction of Lightfoot, one that showed the secret entrance. The mouse spoke thoughtfully .. improvising on his plan as he went. "If we could get over half their force to come out into the open sands, they could be met by our cavalry. Lady Redfarl and her squirrels could already be hidden in the many boulders around the mountain, and we'd have an ambush."

Timbal tapped his short claws on the piece of the map depicting the hidden tunnel. "True, and we could send .. perhaps sixty beasts in this way. They could split into regiments of twenty, that way one group could open the gate, and the other to could create some diversion. Something to cause confusion preferably."

The fox, Groddil, stated simply, "Vermin are superstitious beasts. If there was a way to frighten them .."

Bella nodded. "We could draw many of them outside and to their deaths. But what about these five Shadow Fighters Ruro and Beddle say are in the mountain .. they will be the most deadly adversaries."

Sayna spoke up for about the first time. "But also, who are they? You don't suppose Ferran would be part of this?"

Arvid found Groddil's reaction interesting. First he winced, then his yellow eyes darkened considerably. "I'm afraid lass, that is all too likely."

Martin turned to Beddle, asking, "Do you know the names of these Shadow Fighters, by any chance?"

The squirrel king shrugged. "It is common knowledge Lotor himself is one, and through a certain, rather unreliable source, I have learned Swartt could be the name of another. Does that helpest thou?"

Groddil shook his head. "I'm afraid not Sire, but it is helpful to know Lotor could be one."

Bella sighed. "It cannot be helped. We will have to discover the Shadow Fighters as we find opportunity to do so."

Sayna tapped her claws on the table. "In the midst of battle? That poses a difficulty."

Groddil looked stoically droll. "We shall not have trouble distinguishing them, never fear. Those who can look at a beast and kill them with no more than a wave of their paw are hard to mistake."

Sayna gave him a irritated look. "No? I would like to have some warning before I get fried by a bolt of green lighting, personally."

Bella brought her paw down on the table with a bit of force. "You'll have to talk to Lord Ignasa about that one. Now, about this diversion."

Timbal shrugged. "Shall we have Trubbs, Ffring .. and others who have been familiar with Salamandastron, lead these contingents of twenty? I can guarantee I won't be good at it, having never been in this place."

Martin nodded. "Good thought. Those two hares and the pony .. Breeze, Starbuck, and Lightfoot, would be invaluable in such a case."

He cast a look at his friend, remarking, "And I'd like if you'd be in the cavalry Timbal, it's what you're best at .. you and Diamond."

Sayna crossed her arms, stating, "We'll have to arrange this outer attack carefully; if you want the squirrels in ambush. After all, we can't arrange it so they're shooting into our ranks."

Martin gave her a look of exasperation. "You think I haven't thought of this?"

Timbal held up his paws. "Alright you two, save fighting for the battle. But she does have a point, even if you had thought of it."

Bella rolled her eyes, stating, "About these contingents. I think Groddil should lead one."

She had the undivided attention of everybeast, including Groddil himself. In fact, it was the silver fox who spoke first. "What?"

Bella shrugged. "You have lived in the mountain, and you are a Prophet."

Groddil shook his head. "But you can claim both as well Bella .. shouldn't you lead one instead?"

Bella looked cool. "I sir, am not a fox."

Timbal nodded. "Good point that, Bella. He'll be less conspicuous."

Sayna looked excited. "He can be the one to have the gates opened .. they won't suspect him as fast as if he were a woodlander!"

Martin's brown eyes suddenly sparkled. "Wait .. wait, I've got it! Groddil goes in as a lone traveling oracle three hours or so before our attack. He pretends to be insane, and spreads rumors of doom .. or whatever might scare them. That way they'll already be jittery, and easier to frighten into running outside the mountain."

Groddil decided to do nothing more than shrug noncommittally. Ruro spoke up, asking, "But what will this diversion be?"

Timbal looked thoughtful. "Let's say Groddil already has the gates open, and our contingents from the inside could charge them .. roust them from wherever the most of them are. They'd have to seem like more than they really are .. and if we decide on this, perhaps we should send in another group of twenty?"

Martin nodded. "Probably, yes. After all, how many does Lotor have?"

Beddle frowned. "Around five hundred foot soldiers. He hath no cavalry to speak of, and that, at the very least, is in our favor. Or should I say, in thy favor."

Timbal shrugged. "That's more than we've got, but the odds aren't as staggering as the last battle we fought. We likely have around three hundred, including both squirrel tribes."

Ruro nodded. "Yes, what can we do? Shalt we fight along with this .. Lady Redfarl, as thou call her?"

Arvid perked his ears up at this point, eager to hear what part of the battle he would be fighting in. Maybe it would be best to fight alongside the Mossflowerian squirrels .. after all, squirrels were understood better by those of their own kind.

Martin shrugged. "If you wish to .. of course, she may not arrive on time .. you may have to take her tribe's place if need be .. would you be willing?"

Beddle exchanged a glance with his wife, before nodding. "We would. And I would leave one of our tribe to meet her, and inform her of whatever hath occurred."

Bella looked fairly satisfied. "This seems on the right track. When shall we begin to infiltrate?"

Ruro blinked. "As soon as we possibly may .. thou understand there is a leak .. and who knoweth why Lotor hath not already come after us."

Timbal tapped his claws on the table, thoughtfully. "What about tomorrow night .. several hours after sunset .. perhaps in the first hour of the day? The darkness would offer us better camouflage than the sunlight."

Sayna nodded. "Good point. This revolves around surprise .. if we loose that, we likely loose altogether. Besides, most of them would be asleep."

Martin sighed in partial relief. "Our armies should arrive sometime midday tomorrow .. that's perfect."

><><

Sayna could not sleep .. not at first anyway. She was honestly tired as the meeting disbanded, but for some reason her eyes would not close.

The mouse walked over to Groddil, asking, "You're going to do it .. go in by yourself?"

Her old mentor looked at her, sighing, "If that is what must be done, I will do it."

Sayna looked worried. "But what if they catch you? There are Shadow Fighters involved .. they could feel you if they tried. And what about Ferran? He'll recognize your silver fur .. and what about your hair?"

Groddil shrugged. "Hopefully they will not see me as worth looking into .. it may be that I do not go in through the main gates, but the secret tunnel. That way I could more easily mingle with the horde."

He paused, stating, "And of course you realize, I will not go in as a silver fox, but a brown one. If it fooled Greeneyes and his seer, it may work now."

Sayna knew what he meant, for in the seasons after the conquest of Mossflower, Groddil had confessed he had been the bar keeper in the Bloody Axes on that long ago day. The day Martin and Sayna had first made the acquaintance of the land they now ruled.

It somehow did not surprise Sayna as much as one might have thought, for before Martin's accidently revealing their species, she had caught sight of that fox's eyes, and the unnatural yellow they were. Her heart had leapt then, but plummeted almost instantly; for she in truth, had at that time believed Groddil was dead.

She shook her head, pulling herself from memories. "But you did not have your hair then .. that will be hard to hide."

The fox shrugged. "Well lass, I suppose that's true. I'll braid it, and wear the cloak I did in Kotir .. for I still have it."

He smiled fractionally at his apprentice, sighing, "Get some sleep lass .. you'll need it."

She shrugged. Groddil spoke on instant, having read her thoughts. "Do not fear the dreams lass .. learn from them. They may speak of something in the future .. or perhaps something of the past you are destined to learn."

Sayna opened her mouth to say something but her mentor spoke again. "Just rest child .. dreams are not our greatest concern at this time. Who knows but that they may become that later .. but not now."




Chapter 22 Desperate Plotting

The day before the battle was relatively uneventful, to the great surprise of all the Mossflowerians. Warthorn and Keylar arrived a few hours after the sun's zenith, led by Starbuck and Lightfoot. They were all pretty tired, and told to sleep as long as they could.

The marks themselves slept through most of the day, and Sayna remembered very little of it .. just confusing dreams, of which were blurry and unmemorable.

She woke late in the evening, about the eighth hour of the day, and it wasn't of her own doing. Bella woke her up, and had to shake her to do so .. Sayna had always been a heavy sleeper.

The mouse changed from her black tunic to her war armor in a half daze, donning her weapons by way of habit more than actual thought. She become slightly more awake from saddling Dancer; it takes concentration to work the many buckles and ties tack possesses.

So by the time Dancer was ready for fighting, Sayna was too. She swung into her saddle, settling herself softly in it and heading toward the other cavalry members, grouped around Martin and Wildfire.

She found herself sandwiched between Lavarose, ridden by Keylar; and Timbal, on the only mount he rode, Darkdiamond.

Martin was giving some last minute instructions to his cavalry. "We'll wait at the edge of the pine woods until the night's last hour, then move on to our positions. As soon as Groddil get's the gates open, we'll lead an attack, then feign retreat .. hopefully they'll follow us out. Understand?"

There were collective nods all around, as the mounted beasts were joined by Beddle, Ruro, their son Asger, and the rest of their tribe. Beddle dipped his head to Martin, stating, "We art ready .. are thou?"

The golden king nodded as Wildfire tossed his head impatiently. "We are .. let's move out."

His mount took the lead, followed by the rest of the cavalry and finally the squirrels. The soft night air was broken by nothing more than quiet hoof falls, and the occasional jingle of saddle buckles or stirrups .. it really was quite peaceful.

However the peace was to be short lived.

><><

Veil crouched behind one of his mother's rickety kitchen cabinets, unable to understand why Bluefen was so agitated. His father had not yet come home, although that was unusual. So if Swartt was not here, why was Bluefen so upset?

She paced the length of the little kitchen, rapped her claws on the table, then swept to the door to listen for something .. likely Swartt.

Veil was a little puzzled by this as well, after all, he understood Xemx was the one who was supposed to tell them if somebeast was coming. The little ferret disliked the golden rat greatly, but she didn't really bother him.

Still .. there was just something .. dark about her. He liked Kesha, and Kinta when her mother would bring her. However something in his heart told him Xemx was just bad.

Veil turned his gaze to his mother again, worried by how nervous and jumpy she was. That was the main reason he was hiding, after all.

He couldn't have understood why Bluefen was so upset, even if she had told him. And perhaps it was best he did not know what his mother was worried over, or the terrible results that could come of it.

The ferret was mentally cursing her luck at that moment, and was waiting in terrible dread of when Swartt should come. If only Kesha was here .. the ratwife always seemed to know what to do, unlike Bluefen.

Kesha had made a practice of coming twice a day now, and successfully irritating Xemx. However Bluefen had the feeling the golden rat might not feel so against Kesha now, not when she was to have her child.

Bluefen ground her teeth. Now. That stupid little rat had to pick now! With the threat Swartt might come any time, and then the fact it could be difficult for Xemx to keep her mouth shut ... Bluefen ran her claws along the surface of her old table.

It didn't really matter to Bluefen that Xemx didn't exactly have control of the situation, in her mind, she had perfect control of who she had chosen to take up with. This was quite a clear thought on Bluefen's part, despite the poor deal she'd made with Xemx.

I should have left her on her own .. I should have never let her trick me like this! If only I'd gone with Kesha .. oh the fool I am!

The ferret wife cast a quick glance at her son, thinking the wildest thoughts. If only Kesha were here .. they could all get out .. Xemx do what she may. Bluefen couldn't care a lick if Velox sent the rat to Hellgates, in fact, she thought it would be an excellent solution at this moment.

Still there was nothing she could do .. nothing. She'd made a bad choice .. and now it looked as if she was to pay for it.

However the minutes ticked by, and still no Swart came. But it didn't matter to his wife .. she waited his coming in terror, having no idea when it might be.

><><

Swartt himself, was in a meeting with Lotor, and was tired .. so being, he wasn't in the best of humors.

His white master paced the length of his throne room, shooting a dark look first at Swartt, and next at an also present Velox. Even the fox Ferran and his silly mouse apprentice were there, basically for no other reason than to listen to Lotor rant.

Swartt did not think very plainly, but deep in the farthest part of his heart, he felt this was totally unnecessary.

Lotor was in a rare and dreadful state, complete with drawn sword and temper to match.

"You half-witted excuses for Shadow Fighters! I need beasts of action, and what am I given? Washed up relics that care more of their looks, stomachs, and comfort! How are we to be ready for them if we keep on with this?"

Velox rolled his eyes. "Honestly Lotor, what more do you want of us? There is no stirring, and nothing is amiss. Why this suddenly?"

Swartt felt like smirking as Velox dared address Lotor with no title, but he held it in. The white ermine glared murder at his pine marten antagonist, snarling, "You of the dire prophecies? I have seen them now, I did not need to look through your eyes. They are close, I feel it .. and they want my mountain. But they shall not have it .. nay, I shall have their lives!"

Ferran spoke with a flat tone. "You are not certain."

Lotor wheeled upon the fox, snarling, "Oh I'm not? Well what would you know .. plaited idiot."

Ferran showed no visible sign he'd even heard the insult toward the length of his hair, but he expressed his disgust verbally. "I know more than you, insolent pup. And I can sense your heart .. I say again. You fear them."

Lotor sneered. "Old one, I fear nothing."

Ferran shrugged. "Time will speak truly."

Velox turned a critical golden glare on the black fox. "Then you sense the kings and queens will come?"

Ferran fingered a curved, double-bladed throwing knife. "Without a doubt. And I have .. a little unfinished business."

The black fox's odd orange eyes glittered wickedly. "Someone has a debt to pay .. I do not forget."

><><

Scound paced the area near the main gate, doing rounds in the corridors nearby. As soon as he completed these blasted things, it would be Quinn's turn .. the fox was still watching over the main gate.

The weasel's eyelids felt heavy as lead, and he could barely make his paws drag the floor. Just two days of night guard duty coupled with his normal daily activities was killing him .. how could he last two weeks, let alone a month?

It wasn't fair! A beast could not manage on less than four hours of sleep per twenty hours of work!

Deep in his heart, Scound knew all too well what Swartt was up too. If the ferret could not openly torture him to death for his disappearance, he planned on simply working him to death .. or at least to sleeping at his post. Then Swartt could prove Scound had done wrong, and Lotor would have no qualms at killing just another lazy guard.

So in a weird, twisted way, Scound had been condemned to death anyway .. just not in the obvious fashion. Lotor wasn't in a great rush to worry his horde unnecessarily.

Scound growled inwardly. If he ever had a horde of his own, he wouldn't treat them like this! He'd be a fair leader .. and he wouldn't plunder woodlanders all that much either. He'd have his horde war against other vermin warlords instead .. and even maybe protect the woodlanders if it happened to be beneficial. After all, those woodlanders seemed right likable beasts .. a lot better than Lotor and Swartt.

And of course, if he lead his horde better than all these other hordes .. the Lord Ignasa the squirrel's had spoken of would likely be very pleased with Scound and how he was trying to do the right thing .. he'd just have to be!

Scound pondered on this. Who could he get to join him? Maybe that fox, Quinn would. He knew a lot about Lord Ignasa after all. Yes, that was a good idea. A lot of the beasts .. the lower downs .. were discontented.

The weasel hated how Salamandastron's corridors echoed as they did; it was hard to distinguish the echoes from actual pawsteps. This was proven as Swartt himself swung around the far end of the tunnel Scound was patrolling.

Part of the weasel groaned .. the part of him that was just beginning to lift it's head in defiance. But another part of him .. the cold, dead, imprisoned piece of him that had been taught to heed and obey, still wanted to ask Swartt of these great mystical powers he had learned of.

It is amazing the kind of security an imprisoned beast may find in the shackles that keep them from true freedom. It is sad, dreadful, and utterly twisted how a beast may learn to love and protect the very thing that enslaves them, but it is nonetheless true.

And so it was with Scound. From infancy he had been taught to bow to the greater beasts, the warlords and their captains. Until his life had been touched by the truth of Ignasa, he had resented his state, but had still found security in it, even without his knowing. Because he had knowledge of the truth, but did not have the truth, he still had no way of completely breaking his servitude.

Swartt had paused in his walk to glare at Scound by now, and the weasel wanted to ask his questions. He wasn't sure what mood his master was in at the moment, but simply decided to test the water cautiously.

The weasel bowed, remarking, "A good an' quiet night Capt'n .. I hopes yer well?"

Swartt sneered. "Flattery will get you nowhere, weasel."

Scound sighed inwardly .. maybe it was not the best time to ask after all. However Swartt was onto him in a heartbeat, and Scound kicked himself mentally for thinking so freely.

"Well? Ask me what? Do not bother to hide your thoughts from me, even a young Shadow Fighter can read such disorganized ideas as yours."

Scound did not know how deep Swartt had read him, so he decided to play it as safe as he could. "Wull .. I've just been wonderin. You 'ave great power .. and I'd like to know .. is the power you use .. the only one?"

Swartt's brown eyes hardened on instant. "Why would you even know of any power?"

Scound shrugged. "Capt'n, its' common talked 'bout in the horde. Some say dere's another power .. some say it's all da same .. an' other's say dose .. stinkin' woodlanders serve da same power we do .. just in another way .."

Swartt sneered once more, after having a momentary look of uncertainty. "Scound, it seems the horde thinks too much, something I shall .. deal with. But know this for certain, there is only one power, and it is the real Lord. These two so called Lords are nothing more than the imaginations of the weak and feeble minded beasts who created their existence. They are no more real than a mirage, nothing more than good luck charms and fabricated figure heads. However the power I have is real .. the only real thing. And the Shadow Fighters are the greatest and most exalted beasts, for we have learned to control this magic."

Scound decided not to argue Swartt's philosophy. Instead he nodded, asking, "Capt'n, if'n the Shadow Fighters are the greatest, how come a creature like Greeneyes was allowed a throne? He weren't nothing like ya."

Swartt looked deathly suspicious as he paused, growling at length, "Listen Scound, mayhap Greeneyes was given an army and honor. But the times are changing, and to deflect these puny woodland attacks, beasts like Verdauga aren't going to have positions as he did. Only the best of the best .. no more mortal weaklings."

Scound dared ask one more question. "Den .. if I was ta want me own horde someday .. I would 'ave ta learn yer ways?"

Swartt snorted. "You? You, a horde leader? You haven't the smarts to be a warlord. And even if you did, mark my words. The only beasts that will rise in this new era, are the Shadow Fighters. Unless you are as us and learn the ways of magic, you will never lead anything .. not even a patrol!"

><><

Groddil hardly looked himself, not with his black hair and beard braided as tightly as was absolutely possible, and his silver fur was dulled to a soft, flat brown. There was no hiding his eyes however, this could only be covered by a cloak.

He stood silently with Trubbs and Ffring on the seaward side of Salamandastron, watching the low tide lap idly on the shore a few spear lengths below the place they stood. The three had a good hiding place in the shadow of a few jagged, sea carved boulders; and Groddil could tell the place they stood would be underwater at high tide.

Trubbs fingered his pike shaft, peering around the far edge of the rock outcrop, before turning back to his companions. "Lightfoot was right, eh wot? The blinkin' entrance is right where she bally well said it was .. seasons of salad you gotta look close to see the darn thing!"

Groddil looked around the outcrop as Trubbs had, mentally agreeing with him. The tunnel's mouth was nothing more than a small fissure in the boulders about the mountain .. but he remembered it. How could he forget?

He had lost a one-time comrade in arms to that treacherous passage, and the creatures therein. Despite all he had gone through since that fateful day, Groddil could not suppress a slight shudder at the thought of those crabs that were the tunnel's first occupants. They were not so big, perhaps. But in mass, they could bring a beast far larger than they down .. and eat them.

That was the main reason Trubbs and Ffring were with him; to help him get past the crabs and into the less confusing passages of Salamandastron.

Past that .. it would be up to him. The fox, and the rest of his comrades, did not like the thought of one beast having such an integral part, but they had to get the gates open.

Ffring drew one of his twin sabers, as he crept toward the tunnel entrance. Upon reaching it, he flicked one ear to his two companions .. the all clear signal. Trubbs and Groddil joined him, the former murmering, "Alright chaps, try not ta make a sound, that's the jolly old ticket. Don't like to disturb these rotters anymore then we've got to."

Groddil agreed mentally, only stating, "I'll go first."

Before either hare could forbid this, the fox's white-tipped tail was vanishing into the entrance.

Trubbs and Ffring hurried in behind him, all three beasts pausing to let their eyes adjust to the blackness. Groddil pulled out a small, crystal lantern, handing it to Ffring as he pulled out his tinderbox. The fox lit the candle inside, the only light the three creatures dared have.

The tiny light only weakly lit the dark tunnel's walls, creating an effect of foreboding. Groddil held it as high as he dared, taking the first soft step into a dark and unwelcoming netherworld.

The three creatures proceeded as fast as they could with as little noise as absolutely unavoidable. After they had gone a ways, Ffring whispered, "I say, where are these jolly cads?"

Groddil glared at the hare through the gloom. "Hush lad .. we are little over halfway to the outlet, as I recall."

Trubbs added his glare to Groddil's as a tiny crab scuttled almost soundlessly through the soft pool of lantern light. "There's your answer, bally cad. Let's hope his nice mommy an' daddy don't come for a visit wot, wot .. double time!"

Groddil heightened his pace, as did the hares. For a few minutes, all that could be heard was the quiet patter of shoe leather on loose rock, and the occasional soft jingle of a belt buckle or sheathed weapon.

However an ominous sound was growing slowly, one that might have been the grumble of rising tide. But Groddil knew better .. the sea was too far away to be heard now. No, it was the skittering of many little almost insect like claws, and growing by the minute.

The three were sprinting down the tunnel now, caution pretty well thrown to the winds. Trubbs shot a look at Ffring, complaining, "You bally rotter! You had to talk .. like a young greenhorn!"

Groddil thanked Ignasa his leg was whole, unlike the last time he'd done this. He looked back at the two hares, panting, "It's not him, it's the light!"

Ffring tried to catch up with the fox, not succeeding all that well. "But I thought the cads were blind, like all cave creatures!"

Groddil shook his head, never breaking his pace. "They leave the tunnel to search for food .. unless food comes to them. In this case, we're on the menu, and our light gave us away!"

Trubbs groaned. "Well we couldn't bally well come without light!"

The skittering of crabs was audible even above their foot falls now, and Groddil was sure he could have seen them should his light have been better. "I thought we could pull it off if Lightfoot did, but she's a pony .. we should have brought twenty!"

The fox flattened his ears to his head, trying to make every movement count as he called, "The outlet's near here .. if we get through it, we'll be safe .. hurry! We can't fail this!"

Ffring gulped. "Yea, or we'll be the midnight snack!"

Trubbs glared at the young galloper. "Never mind the jolly ol' tucker Ffring .. we'll loose this battle!"

The three swung around a corner, coming face to face with a dead end .. and half a dozen good sized spider crabs. Groddil skidded to a halt, turning and holding his lantern up to see half again as many behind them.

Ffring drew his two sabers, crying, "You led us wrong .. there's no way out!"

Groddil didn't have to say a word, Trubbs did, pike at the ready. "No, he didn't! Up that dead end is a series of climable rocks .. Lightfoot told me of them. Said it was the bally hardest thing she'd done. Past that is a higher tunnel, and it's leads into the lower caverns .. we've got ta get one of our hides through there!"

The black and silver hare emphasized his point by jabbing his halberd at a nice sized crab with vengeance. The creature hissed at him, clacking it's claws and backing up slightly.

Groddil set the lantern down, drawing his cutlass as Ffring sighed, stating in his usual voice, "Well, I guess there's only one thing for it then."

The sand colored hare raised both sabers, shouting, "Euuulaaaliiaaa!"

Trubbs cast one glance at Groddil before leaping into the fray. "That leveret .. if these cads don't take us out, Lotor's rotters'll hear us!"

Groddil slashed his cutlass into his first attacker as hard as he possibly could, having to smash through the heavy shell to do any damage.

This really did seem like it could be the end .. of everything.

However, Lotor and his soldiers weren't the only ones in Salamandastron.

><><

Buffheart was carefully arranging the small supply of food that was kept in the cellars as a precaution by the few followers of Ignasa. The hare felt younger and more hopeful than he had in seasons .. Quinn's information about the marks had lifted all the hidden beast's spirits.

Especially Buffheart's. It had been so long since he'd last seen sunlight .. or had a chance to converse with those of his own kind. Not that he minded the company he was in .. every one of the vermin who frequented the place was a special friend. But still, what he wouldn't give to talk to a real hare.

If these marks came .. two of them those golden warriors that came to Lord Boar .. there just might be a chance he would.

There was a soft rustle as another beast shoved through one of the many screens about the labyrinth of a hideout .. a stunted little pine marten armed with a crossbow and a few knives. She shoved a few rich chocolate curls out of her black eyes, stating easily, "Evenin' Buff! Kesha says she's gonna see Bluefen 'gain .. an' Quinn's still on guard duty."

Buffheart smiled at the little creature, who wasn't so much stunted as she was young. "And how come you're off duties, eh Iona?"

Iona shrugged. "My guard changes 'for Quinn's .. I make rounds. We get switched out sooner."

The pine marten inspected one of her arrow's fletchings, remarking, "Oh an Kesha says she might 'ot git ta come tonight .. 'parently the liddle rat a Bluefen's is gonna give birth soon .. nobody knows when fer sure."

Buffheart's gaze hardened. "Iona, ya can't mean ta say Kesha's bally well willin' ta help the blighter?"

Iona shrugged again. "Donno Buff. But ya know Kesha .. so yah, who knows? Maybe."

Buffheart bit his lip, about to grumble of Kesha's kindness, sometimes beyond reason, when a shout rang out that made every hair on his hide tingle with unquenchable excitement.

It was faint, and a bit distorted, but it was an unmistakably unique warcry .. the cry of badgers, hares, and other goodbeasts .. but never a vermin.

"Euuulaaaliiiaaaa!"

><><

Buffheart drew his claymore, voice tense with excitement. "Iona .. do ya bally well hear that?"

The pine marten shoved her curls out of her eyes once more, stating, "Ya, I hear it .. but it sounds a ways off .. like it could be in our water cavern!"

Buffheart frowned, hurrying in that direction, Iona having to run to keep up. He nodded to her as they shoved through a screen. "You might be right wot? Sounds are always strange down here .. an' why don't ya put an arrow on the string me gel? That cry is only uttered in battle!"

The silver hare seized a flickering wall torch left to light the passage they were in, and rushed into the cavern that was home to a pool so deep it's aquamarine waters changed to dark blue; leaving no bottom visible.

Iona hurried in behind him, frowning as the cavern was proven disappointingly empty. "Guess I was wrong Buff .. ain't nobeast down here."

The hare held up a paw for silence, ears perking up as a shout of pain reached them. Iona had lifted her bow with a questioning glance to Buffheart. "Buff .. if they ain't in 'ere .. where is they?"

The silver hare shook his head. "I don't know Iona .. just be ready."

He started as a voice with a distinct Lupine accent rang from somewhere nearby. "Ow! You bally flippen rotter! I say .. fight fair you rotten cad, wot wot? Yeeoowwch!"

Buffheart felt his breath catch in his throat. No .. it couldn't be! That voice was familiar .. but it couldn't be! Could it?

The silver hare called out, "Ffring? Ffring .. is that you ol' chap?"

He didn't wait for an answer, just added on, "I say old thing .. were are ya?"

It wasn't Ffring's voice that answered, but one that had a strange, slightly highland accent. "The end of the cave .. come to the end of the cave! We're in a secret tunnel .."

The voice broke off with an almost dog-like yelp, as someone filled in for him .. someone unmistakably Trubbs. "Hurry it up would ya? These bally rotters are hungry!"

Buffheart bolted to the end of the cave, one that was filled with the pool, stalling any hope in his heart. However Iona suddenly shook him, crying, "Oh look Buff .. look up!"

The hare looked where he was bidden, sudden understanding coming to him. A rock ledge hung down into the pool on the other side, affording a way across to the beast that could jump. Beyond that was a rocky slope going up, and Buffheart could just see a weak flicker of light on the ceiling behind the brink of the incline.

He didn't hesitate, just called, "Hang on you chaps, we're comin!"

Iona was already backing up, tail switching in nervous readiness. The pine marten narrowed her eyes, slinging her crossbow on her back, and bolting into a run. She jumped gracefully, sailing over the expanse of perhaps three and a half feet, and landing awkwardly on the ledge. She didn't wait for Buffheart, just ran up the incline clumsily, half dragging herself to the brink. The pine marten whipped her bow off her back as she quickly took in the fray below.

Two hares and a fox were battling a veritable army of spider crabs back to back in the weak glimmer of a lantern. Iona sighted in on the crab closest to the black hare, firing just as Buffheart crawled up beside her, torch in paw.

Buffheart wedged the torch between two large rocks, ordering, "Iona, cover for me, wot?"

He didn't wait for her answer as he leapt down onto the first rock ledge, calling, "I say chaps, try an get over here!"

There was a twang from beside and slightly behind him, and a massive crab crumpled to the ground, arrow through the back of it's shell. Buffheart mentally thanked Ignasa that Iona wielded a crossbow; a weapon capable of sending it's bolts through crab shells. He grabbed the ledge above the one he stood on, only four feet off the ground. The hare reached down, yelling, "One of you chaps .. grab hold!"

Trubbs shoved the fox towards Buffheart, shouting, "Buff, get him through, no matter what happens to us .. get him through!"

The fox grabbed Buffheart's paw, scrambling onto the bottom ledge, and then the one above him. He pulled a good sized long bow off his back, stating, "I'll help cover .. get the others out!"

Trubbs yelped a little as a crab's claw slashed into his right wrist, practically kicking Ffring toward Buffheart. The silver hare pulled the tawny one up on the ledge as a green fletched arrow skewered a crab trying to sneak up on Trubbs, and one of Iona's bolts took another down.

The advancing crustaceans paused momentarily as Trubbs backed up against the ledge the other's stood on. Buffheart didn't hesitate, just grabbed the back of the black and silver hare's tunic, hauling him onto the spur of rock with Ffring's help.

Buffheart drew his claymore, slashing at a crab that was trying to clumsily climb the ledge. "Get up to where Iona is chaps .. she'll take ya further in wot? I'll be behind ya."

><><

One slide down a rocky incline, leap over a bottomless pool, and a few cavern lengths later, Buffheart and Iona had their visitors in the furnished caves. Iona bound up Trubbs' wounded paw and arm, remarking, "Fraid this is gonna be kinda poorly done .. I wish Kesha was 'ere. She could help ya right well .. better'n me."

Trubbs shrugged, wincing by accident. "It's alright me gel, we've got what we've got, wot?"

Ffring was grinning at Buffheart, asking, "How'd ya give Lotor the slip Buff?"

The hare shrugged. "I wouldn't have, if it weren't for Iona, Kesha, an' Quinn .. they're vermin of the best sort .. they serve Lord Ignasa as us."

Iona smiled at the hare, swiping her unruly curls from her face. "That's thanks ta Buff. 'E tol' Quinn, Quinn tol' me, an' I tol' Kesha. We couldn't just leave 'im in prison and starvin' like he was .. not after what 'e did fer us. So we risked everythin' .. an' won out, least so far. Course, that's thanks ta Lord Ignasa."

Trubbs voice was a little gruff as he stated, "Buff ol' chap, we were told you were dead. Your kids sure think ya are, an so does Lightfoot."

Buffheart started. "My .. children? They're alive .. an well .. both of 'em?"

Ffring nodded. "Right as rain, the two of 'em. Fact is, young Starbuck's leadin' one of the contingents!"

Iona looked up. "Contingents?"

Groddil spoke for the first time. "Yes lass .. this is war."

Ffring grinned. "Right, that it is. Ya don't think we'd come in here for nothin' more than a jolly ol' lark, did ya?"

Buffheart had to smile a little. "Well you might laddie buck, but these two stolid troopers wouldn't. What's the plan of action?"

Trubbs tested his paw, wincing a little. "We're to take Groddil as far as the first upper cavern, where he'll try an spread rumors .. dire prophecies .. whatever might get the horde's dander up; he'll be heading towards the main gates. He's got ta get those jolly things open so our cavalry can mount a charge, bluff a retreat, and lead the main bunch of the horde out to be ambushed by squirrels. Least that's the plan wot?"

Iona gasped in delight. "The gates? That's easy .. Quinn's a gate guard! There are only two .. security's down after all dis peace, ya know. You talk ta Quinn .. tell 'im ya know Buff an' Iona an' are a spy fer da marks, an' he'll do his greatest ta help ya, mark me words!"

She pulled a glittering silver chain with an old key on it from around her neck, stating, "Since yer a fox, ya better show him this, ta prove yer on the level. An' don't worry about the rumors mate .. leave that to Iona Knifeclaw!"

Buffheart looked worried. "Iona me gel, are you sure?"

The pine marten grinned. "Course I am Buff, we can't live under Lotor's shadow forever! They'll catch us .. an' you. But if I can help, I'm gonna do me best, see?"

><><

Kesha was as unaware of the drama in the cellars as the rest of Salamandastron .. however, she was to learn something those in the cellars did not.

The rat's paw steps were soft as ever as she slipped through the upper corridors, towards Bluefen's chambers. She wouldn't have tried this, but for the fact Slugwort had come home and accidently informed her Swartt was not in the best mood, and was prowling the lower caverns with such purpose he would be unlikely to go home before five in the morning. The rat hadn't meant to let his wife know Bluefen would be unguarded, he was simply complaining about how grumpy Swartt was bound to be tomorrow.

After a bit, this had led to Slugwort griping about how Scound had come back. Kesha listened in seasoned silence, knowing all too well her husband was excellent at whining about beasts behind their backs, and cowering to their faces.

She had waited until Slugwort fell asleep in a chair beside the empty fire place, then put Kinta to bed. As soon as she was sure her family wasn't awake, she'd written a short note .. admittedly for Kinta's benefit .. and left silently, basket over one paw and feathered walking staff in the other.

Hopefully she'd be back before they woke up, if all went well.

Deep down, she felt a little unrest. Like something telling her she should not go. But this was the right thing to do .. to help those in need of it! Ignasa himself wanted his followers to help beasts who wanted it and wished to hear more about him.

Kesha could feel Bluefen wavering .. she was close to coming with her friend; taking her son and escaping. Veil himself liked Kesha very much, for he was always pleased to see her. And thanks to the food she brought, he was stronger and acting more his age. Of course, he was still painfully shy around new beasts, and terrified of those he did not trust. Still, at this time, that was likely the best thing.

Velox had pretty much dumped Bluefen, not having need of her at the moment and knowing good and well she could do nothing to make him uphold his end of the deal. Kesha felt her friend needed her, after all, Xemx was shady, only caring about herself. She wouldn't go out of her way to aid anybeast.

The ratwife tapped her walking stick on the door, tensing up momentarily, should Slugwort's information be wrong. The door swung slowly inward to reveal Bluefen .. a very nervous, jittery, and worn out looking Bluefen.

As soon as the ferret saw Kesha however, she gasped in relief. "Thank the fates .. but you can't stay! Swartt could come any minute .."

Kesha shook her head. "I doubt it .. Slugwort says he's prowling about downstairs like he's looking for somebeast .. and from what he said, it doesn't look like he will be back for a good while."

The rat paused, setting her basket down. "But Bluefen .. you look awful. Is something wrong? Where's .. Xemx? Is she out?"

Bluefen shuddered. "No, but I wish it. She picked tonight to do it .. and I've been so terrified Swartt would come .. and I wouldn't be able to hide it. And than if she makes it and all, we'll have a baby on our paws .. Oh I was so stupid! There's no hiding an infant .. Kesha, I want to bring Veil and go with you!"

Kesha stared at Bluefen a moment, asking, "Xemx is having the child tonight? Isn't that early?"

Bluefen shrugged. "She's a rat .. I know not. Well .. but you would, of course."

The ratwife looked toward the entrance of the hidden cavern, before shrugging. "How is she?"

Her ferret friend rolled her eyes. "I haven't the faintest clue. I told her to deal with her own problems, and keep her mouth shut .. she can't expect me to wet-nurse her, idiot brat that she is."

Kesha did not like or trust Xemx in any manner, but she must have let just a little compassion flit across her face, for Bluefen stared at her. "You can't be thinking of helping her .. that little fool? It's her fault she has this problem .. she should learn a lesson from this."

Kesha paused, sighing at length, "Perhaps so. But is it her child's fault? They, if nobeast else, are an innocent party."

Bluefen looked away, grumbling, "Yea .. yea I know. But their mother isn't .. she's worse than a rattlesnake!"

Kesha sighed. "I still think I should do something .. the child never did a thing wrong, even if it's parents are desperately wicked."

Bluefen laid a paw on her forehead in defeat. "Very well .. you are right. If you must, I will not stop you. But don't trust that despicable wench for a second, you hear me? Nay, I'll come in and out to keep an eye on her .. I hate her and her worthless lies. She can't be left unguarded, even now!"




Chapter 23 Bargaining's Cost

TPF Chapter 23

Martin vs. Lotor >:3

Sayna listened to the faint lapping of waves on the sea shore, and the soft swish of Dancer's tail now and then. She could tell her horse was tense .. no matter how many battles she fought in, the gray mare was always nervous before one.

In all truth, Sayna was too. And it was proven as a paw was laid softly on her shoulder.

The mouse jumped, wheeling around in her saddle, paw on her sword hilt. Timbal laughed quietly. "After all these seasons .. remember when you pinned me to a tree when I followed you on a spying mission?"

Sayna relaxed somewhat. "How could I forget .. you completely terrified me!"

Timbal shrugged. "You paid me back .. my jaw ached for a while after that."

Sayna had to laugh just a little, but Timbal's next statement made her grow serious again. "Sayna .. promise you won't do anything too crazy? Don't almost get yourself killed .. or actually succeed in dying. You seem to have a talent for getting into more trouble than you know what to do with."

Sayna sighed. "I do .. don't I? But then you aren't guiltless of it .. who got captured by Shadow Fighters and nearly got shot with a crossbow?"

Timbal nodded, shrugging in partial defeat. "Yes .. I suppose I wasn't terribly careful that time."

He added on the next second, "But who jumped between me and that crossbow?"

Sayna shrugged. "Ehh .. me. Though .. weren't you .. grateful at all?"

Timbal sighed. "I was more utterly horrified and frantic than anything else. The emotion of gratitude was momentarily lost in desperation."

Sayna smiled a little, stating at length. "Somehow, I can imagine. If the tables between us had been turned .. that you were the one dying and I was the one who'd been saved .. I'd likely have completely lost it and freaked out. At least you kept your sanity."

Timbal patted his mount's neck, stating, "With great difficulty. But this brings me back to my first statement .. please don't scare me like that again? We haven't had to fight since then .. perhaps I've just grown unconditioned. But what I'm trying to say is .. just be careful."

Sayna gave him a long look. "Within reason, of course. I'm not going to try and take on twenty beasts by myself. But if you mean I should not put myself in danger to save you .. or any one of my friends .. at the cost of my life, well .. I can't promise it."

She looked down. "I couldn't let you die .. no matter what happens to me."

Martin's voice carried back to them. "Alright, we move in now. Remember, if all goes well, we should only have to take care of about a hundred .. it's the guards we're taking out. The contingents coming through the tunnel will try and take out the main body of the horde in it's sleep .. we can't have a pitched battle, our numbers don't allow for it. With all luck and the blessing of Ignasa, we'll be successful in this first try, then be able to weed out the rest of the captains and high-ranking beasts. Redfarl and her squirrels will likely arrive before the night is over .. they may be able to help us. Is this understood?"

There were nods and a collective agreement, before Martin drew his sword. "Good .. move out!"

><><

Swartt's blue cape swirled about his knees as he strode softly through the basically empty corridors of Salamandastron, unknown apprehension growing.

Why tonight, of all nights, did he feel so restless? Was it thanks to Lotor's stupid phobias?

But he felt something .. wrong. Or perhaps, in total truth, he was actually feeling something right.

However, while not to his knowledge, Swartt was not the only Shadow Fighter to be restless.

Roderick was perhaps the least worried, as he wasn't really feeling for anything. This had a lot to do with the fact he was too busy thinking dark thoughts about the beasts he held grievances against.

Velox was uneasy .. quite uneasy. However part of his uneasiness, he calmed by plotting both Lotor and Swartt's demise. The other part just irritated him .. and made him overly jumpy.

Lotor paced his throne room long into the night, starting at the slightest noise, and cutlass on the ready. He paused every now and then to look out any one of the tall rock-cut windows in his chambers, trying in vain to see the night-darkened shore below.

However he saw nothing, just the stars, made to appear brighter than usual by the fact it was a new moon.

But then .. not even a Shadow Fighter can see everything, no matter their level of expertise.

Still Lotor could not make his uneasiness leave .. and he knew he wouldn't until he had a better guard posted .. say at least four on the gate.

The ermine ground his teeth. And he'd just sent Swartt and all the others off! He snarled in anger. These idiots .. they couldn't do one thing right!

The ermine growled, sticking two more dirks in his belt. If you wanted something done, you had to do it yourself!

><><

Ferran was not pacing, or even hardly worried. He simply stood stoically at the tall rock window, watching in silent contemplation. The black fox was hardened to the point of no return, his coat a true reflection of his soul.

It hadn't always been this way, once Ferran had been very close to his brother, Groddil. Once long, long ago. They had even been friends once, although Ferran would have never admitted it.

But there was something time could never erase .. a bond. Once a bond of brotherhood and friendship, now twisted into a channel of hatred. But it was still there.

Weakened by the echoes of time and the diverse paths the two had taken .. truly polar opposites .. this old bond was not as easily recognized. But at length, it inevitably was.

Ferran had realized his brother was in the mountain long before he made one move .. he felt the silver fox about the time Groddil was meeting Buffheart and Iona. He could have told Lotor that the Prophet-fox was in Salamandastron .. but he didn't.

The answer to the question 'why' was simple .. Ferran found all his fellow Shadow Fighters idiots. He'd had enough of being the submissive errand runner, always under others. This time, it was his turn for glory .. his, and his alone.

He did not doubt Groddil would be helping some force of good with a plan of attack. But this time, another would not steal his chance.

This time .. Groddil would have need of facing his dear brother .. and on his own.

Ferran wheeled about suddenly, pale orange eyes gleaming as their owner shoved the door of his chambers open, and blended perfectly with the shadows.

He did not doubt Groddil would sense him, but that was the least of his concern.

Because it was his intention.

><><

Quinn and Scound were on gate guard duty, the latter hardly able to stay awake. Quinn cast a glance at his fellow guard, asking at length, "Swartt's tryin' ta kill ya .. ain't he?"

Scound shrugged wearily. "Ya .. guess so."

Quinn looked around momentarily, before stating, "Get some sleep. I'll wack ya if'n I hear somebody comin'."

Scound stared at him. "Ye'd run dat risk .. fer a beast wot ain't one a yer group? Ye'll be killed if we're found out .. I will too."

Quinn shrugged. "I'd do it .. an' fer that last thought, yer just gonna have ta trust me."

Scound's eyes softened suddenly. "Yer're a beast a da right sort mate, donno why fer sure, but ya sure is. Thankie .. nobeast's never done nothin' fer a scoundrel like me."

Quinn nodded, finally stating, "I guess .. that's Lord Ignasa in me."

Scound said no more, simply leaned against the wall and let his eyes start to close of their own accord. He was dreadfully confused, and dreadfully tired on top of it. On one paw, he couldn't help but like these followers of Ignasa. They possessed a mercy and kindness unlike anything he'd ever seen .. and part of him wanted to be like them.

However a piece of him still wanted to be a leader .. to have a horde .. to be in charge. Would he get to if he joined these woodlanders? Part of him wanted to anyway, whether he got leadership or not. Maybe it would be best to just live a peaceful, calm life and never lead anything.

But then .. Scound liked adventure. And deep down, he knew he would always want a horde .. always.

So what was he to do? Could he play at both sides, dance about here and there and do some good deeds to please this Lord Ignasa? Would that work? Maybe it would .. maybe he could find a way to please everyone and still get what he wanted!

Scound's brain was starting to ache from all this, and he let his eyelids slowly droop .. sleep was so inviting!

The rigors of the day that could not be compensated for with repose were too much, and Scound propped himself against the wall, so as not to fall over as he slept.

However the in the second his eyes closed, they caught a subtle movement in the shadows of the adjoining cavern. Scound snapped his eyes wide open, hoping desperately it wasn't Swartt .. and if it was, that he hadn't noticed anything.

When the creature stepped into the open, Scound almost let out a sigh of relief. The beast was a tall, dull brown fox with a braided black beard and hooded cloak, under which peeped the glint of metal ... likely weaponry of some sort.

He paused only slightly, before walking strait up to the two gate guards. Glimmering, half-hooded yellow eyes bestowed an indiscernible and slightly unnerving look upon Scound, before the beast turned his gaze to Quinn.

When he spoke, it was in an odd accent .. like it was created from many accents woven into one, the most predominant being highland sounding. "I have a message for a fox called Quinn .. are ye him?"

This was quite obviously directed toward the beast of that name, who answered with suspicion and just a quaver of fear. "Why do ya want ta know? I'm just doin' me duty."

The brown fox pulled something from his cloak, holding it up for inspection; a glittering chain with a rustic key on it. Quinn started a little. "Where did ya git that .. ya didn't .."

The cloaked fox held up a paw. "Hush lad .. all's well. The beast who owns this gave it to me to show you, in order to better prove my message as true."

Quinn looked like he wanted to relax, but he just nodded. "Alright .. what's the message?"

The cloaked beast cast a look at Scound, a meaningful one. Quinn nodded. "Oh .. right. Scound .. cover fer me while I see what he wants eh? Fair's fair, ya know."

Scound tried to keep his immense curiosity from showing as he replied, "Be quick at it kid."

><><

Quinn followed the mysterious fox just out of earshot of Scound, but where they could still see him, and the gate. As soon as they'd gone a short way, the younger fox spoke in a low voice. "What's this about .. why do ya 'ave Iona's key? Who are ya, I ain't seen ya 'bout the horde before .."

The fox shook his head. "Quietly now .. listen. My name is Groddil, and I am a spy for the marks and their armies. We are launching our attack tonight; I was sent in to spread discord among the guard, and open the gates. I met Iona and Buffheart in the cellars, they told me of you and your position."

This all was a little much for Quinn, and he shook his head. "Wait .. ya work fer da marks? They're attacking tonight?"

Groddil nodded. "Yes lad. And I came to seek your help on the matter of the gates .. they must be opened in less than fifteen minutes, or the attack will fail."

Quinn suddenly looked interested. "That's all? But Lotor'll rouse the horde 'for ya kin do that much damage .. wait, if'n ya don't mind me askin', how'd ya git in here?"

Groddil shrugged. "Don't worry about it, we've got it set up. All we need is your help in the matter of the gates .. will ye help?"

Quinn nodded. "I will, certain sure! But what about Scound?"

Groddil cast a glance at the weasel. "I know not .. he is too shifty for my liking. He knows not his own loyalties, and such beasts are dangerous. Do you trust him?"

Quinn looked uncertain. "In a way .. but not in others. He's sympathetic and curious .. but he don't follow Lord Ignasa yet .."

Groddil sighed. "Too true, I'm afraid. So you see why I cannot trust him to stay loyal."

Quinn opened is mouth to say something, but Groddil forstalled it. "Hush .. I feel darkness .. get back to your post, quickly! I'll come back .. if I don't, open the gates anyway .. go!"

The younger fox's paws made barely a patter as he ran back to the gate, taking his normal post as the cloaked creature disappeared into the shadows.

Scound gave Quinn a look, asking, "What was that 'bout, huh kid?"

The young fox shrugged, trying to think of an excuse, but he needed have bothered. For not two seconds later, Swartt himself came around the corner!

Both guards stood to immediate attention, but it soon became evident Swartt was only interested in one .. Scound. He shot Quinn hardly a glance, just nodded to his weasel accomplice. "You .. come with me. I want to talk with you."

Quinn watched Swartt practically drag Scound off, the weasel looking reluctant, but knowing better than to argue.

The fox waited a few minutes after the ferret and his prisoner disappeared around a corner, wondering if he should do as the strange fox Groddil had said. He waited only a few more seconds of contemplation, before looking around. Seeing nobeast in sight, Quinn raised a paw to the massive bar that kept the oaken gates securely shut.

He had never opened the gates before, that was the duty of the morning guard, who took the night guard's place at around the fifth hour of the morning. because of this, he had not known how heavy the gate bar was.

Quinn slung his spear across his back, shoving upwards on the bar with all his might. It lifted off its brackets slowly, and the young fox guessed two creatures were usually used to remove it. Suddenly there was a soft scuff beside him, and the bar seemed to lessen in weight drastically.

Quinn turned his head slightly, to see the cloaked fox beside him once more. He wondered at the creature's almost complete silence as the other fox helped him lean the bar against the rock wall, stating, "Tis a job for two beasts, that. Do these gates creak?"

Quinn shook his head, panting a bit. "Na .. not really. They was just oiled."

Groddil nodded. "Good. Help me."

It might have made a strange sight were there anybeast to see it. The gates opened for the forces of good .. and by two foxes.

In less than two minutes, the gates stood open as wide as they would go. Groddil nodded to Quinn. "Thank you lad. They'll see it .. believe me, they're on their way. Now hurry .. with me. They know not of your presence .. they will surely kill you should you stay here."

><><

Down in the cellars, the attackers had not been idle. Trubbs, Ffring, Buffheart, and Iona had set up some torches in the entry tunnel, secret no more, and did their best to rid it of crabs.

This hadn't been all that hard really, for the creatures had lost about seven of their number in the first skirmish, and seemed willing to retreat, at least for the time being.

About fifteen minutes later, the first contingent of twenty arrived, led by Lepus, who had temporarily taken Trubbs place. The next was led by Willow, who was quite happily surprised to see Buffheart, whom she'd been informed was dead.

A third patrol was led by Keylar and Warthorn, though it was to be led by Ffring as soon as they got through the tunnel.

However Buffheart wasn't greatly concerned with any of these, he waited for two beasts only .. ones he thought had died. Trubbs laid a paw on his old friend's shoulder, stating, "They're comin' Buff .. never fear ol' chap, wot wot?"

This was proven as the next contingent came into the cavern, led by a moonlight gray hare maid in squirrel armor. Buffheart didn't have to wonder who she was, she could be no other than his daughter, and it was proven as they locked eyes.

The young hare froze momentarily, staring open mouthed. "F .. father?"

Buffheart didn't have a chance to move as she threw herself at him, hugging him triumphantly. "Father! I knew it .. I just knew it'd take more than a blinken ermine ta take you down!"

Buffheart felt a few tears spring to his eyes as he whispered, "My little Breeze .. I thought they bally well killed ya!"

Breeze shook her head. "Lightfoot saved us! Me an' Starbuck both .. wait til Starbuck sees ya! He'll be so happy .."

The clatter of a falling javelin interrupted her, as the tawny hare himself came around the corner. Starbuck stared at his father in utter amazement as Breeze called, "Star .. he did live! He did!"

Buffheart put one paw on his stunned son's shoulder, before hugging him fiercely. "Star .. Breeze .. Oh I never dreamed I'd see the pair of ya again!"

Starbuck still seemed caught in amazement. "Dad .. but how? How .. I thought they'd have killed everybeast left in the mountain!"

Buffheart motioned to Iona, standing nearby. "They would have too, were it not for Iona here and a couple of her friends. They're the ones that saved me."

Starbuck's mouth dropped open. "Her? She rescued ya? But she's a vermin!"

Buffheart frowned a little sternly. "Inside, the gel is anythin' but a vermin son."

Iona dipped her head to Starbuck, smiling hopefully. The hare stared a moment, before shrugging at length, stating, "I guess it's as ya say, wot?"

Breeze suddenly frowned. "Wot about .. mum? Dad .. she .. got out too .. didn't she?"

Buffheart looked down, slowly letting his paws slip from his children's shoulders. "I did my very best, ya know that .. ya know I would. I tried ta save her .. but I couldn't .. I failed. We defied that bally scum Lotor .. weren't nothing else ta be done. I thought for sure he'd kill us both .. but he didn't. Killed her in front a me instead .. then left me alive!"

He looked up slowly, shaking his head. "I'm sorry .. I truly am."

Breeze spoke, because Starbuck couldn't. "Dad .. it .. it wasn't your fault."

Starbuck shook his head vehemently. "No .. it was that scurvy coward, Lotor! I'll take the rotter on meself if I have to .. kill him for this!"

><><

Bluefen had sent Veil to bed, in hopes he would have a little sleep. The ferretwife sat at her table now, knife clutched deftly in one paw as she waited in stony, nervous silence.

She kept one eye on the door, and one on the hidden entrance to the secret room. More realistically, her eyes kept flitting from one to the other.

It seemed hours on end, and likely it was a few. Bluefen would go to the door and look out, then go to the hidden cavern and look in every so often, so as to keep a wary eye on things.

Finally, Kesha slipped from the room, walked over to the table, and sat down wearily. Bluefen said nothing for a minute or two, finally asking, "So she made it? She die or anything?"

Kesha gave no heed to the hopefulness in Bluefen's voice, obvious that she would have greatly liked it had Xemx died.

The rat shook her head. "No .. she's worn out, but alive. She had twins, a girl and a boy."

Bluefen looked surprised, asking in a not unkind, but indifferent voice, "Oh? And they're both alive too?"

Kesha nodded. "Yes. Although .. something about them .. well, I can't say for sure. But Bluefen .. they do not look like proper rats!"

At this, Bluefen looked mildly interested. "They don't? Maybe I'd better see them then."

Kesha stood, yawning. "As you say .. here. I'll show you .. she's asleep."

Bluefen didn't bother asking who she was; it was quite obvious. Kesha slipped into the room, her friend behind her. The ferret cast a glance at Xemx, who lay in a corner on her pallet, seemingly fast asleep, as Kesha had said.

Bluefen raised an eyebrow as Kesha reached into her basket, sitting on a small table, this room's only furnishing. The ratwife pulled out a tiny bundle, pulling its concealing blanket away fractionally to reveal the blackest of black fur, save for a splash of white on the throat.

Bluefen stared in amazement a moment before smirking. This babe was an odd creature, something not natural; not quite a rat. His large, rounded ears and short muzzle splashed in white seemed to say, 'mouse'. And yet he was rat too, with a long, partially naked tail and tiny, furless forepaws. He blinked a little, revealing strange, violet eyes that sparkled very like his mother's.

Bluefen took all this in at a glance, before reaching into the basket herself and pulling out the second babe. This one barely looked rat-like at all, she looked almost like a pure mouse. Her fur was iridescent black, with a tiny crop of dark golden headfur, and a minuscule tip of dingy gold on her unusually long tail.

Kesha set the male back in her basket, stating, "Her eyes are brown. But you see what I mean? They are not proper rats .. they look like mice!"

Bluefen sighed grimly, laying the female beside her tiny brother. "That my friend, is because they likely are .. at least partially. After all Kesha, think on it. There is only one mouse in this horde, and he has been widely talked of despite his attempts to hide his species."

Sudden understanding flashed in Kesha's eyes. "The mouse Shadow Fighter .. Roderick! I should have thought of it .. who else has black fur with a white underside? And besides .. I should have guessed the one that started her in the ways of Shadow Fighting was the father."

Bluefen smirked. "His own children betray him, though they know not."

Kesha sighed. "She would not name them, so I did. The male is Byron, and his sister is Bryony. I had my reasons .. in later days I perceive these two may be tools of Lord Ignasa."

She leaned over the basket, murmuring, "Poor young ones, their paths are fated to be hard ones. Neither mice, nor rats, with wicked parents and a dishonorable ancestry .. yet I feel their legacy may change the face of history."

Bluefen blinked in amazement. "You do? They are half-breeds .. between a woodlander and a vermin!"

Kesha shrugged. "I don't know. I simply know what I feel .. but mark my words, one day they will do great things, both of them."

Bluefen wasn't sure how to respond to this, for she really could not see how two half-breed children could do much of anything. Instead she shrugged, asking, "Well now that these .. creatures have been born, what will we do? I'm through waiting for Swartt to kill me and Veil .. I want to get out .. to go with you. I should have long ago .. and this made me realize it."

Kesha cast a glance at Xemx, who was still fast asleep and breathing evenly to prove it. The ratwife nodded. "Of course I will take you, and tonight seems as good as any. It's quiet, and the guard is down. We'll likely have no trouble .."

Faint, and echoing from the twisting passages of Salamandastron, came a sound. A slight rumble .. like that of horse hooves, and the faint report of clashing steel. Kesha paused, looking at Bluefen in confusion.

The ferretwife frowned, bolting out of the secret chamber and too the tall window in the rock face of her main living area. This one was situated almost directly above the gate, and Bluefen gaped as she made out the hides and sweeping tails of horses far below, only faintly visible in the light of the unaided stars.

It didn't take long for her to register what was happening .. an attack. But by whom or what, she did not know.

The ferret stumbled backwards, seizing her knife from where she'd left it on the table, and ran back to the hidden room where Kesha was hurriedly gathering her things.

Bluefen burst in, stating in an urgent whisper, "Kesha .. we're under attack!"

The rat looked up, sudden hope in her eyes. "Attack? Why that's .. then Quinn's informer wasn't lying! Bluefen, it's the marks!"

The ferret's eyes widened. "You mean the mouse kings of Mossflower? The ones Lotor is paranoid about?"

Kesha nodded. "Yes, and we have to get out of here! Listen, I know where we can go, and when the fighting dies down, we will present our case to them .. They are servants of Ignasa, they will hear us."

Bluefen hesitated only a second, before nodding, "Alright, that's more than Swartt would do .. I'll risk it. What about her?"

Kesha gave Xemx a distasteful glance. "She is not on our side .. let's leave her here. She'll have a chance .. it's just up to her to take it."

The ratwife gently touched her basket. "But they are helpless, and she will not care for them .. Let's bring them along."

Bluefen shrugged. "Fine, so long as their mother is left to her own demise, which she brought upon herself."

The ferret paused. "I'll take a look down the hall .. see the coast is clear."

Without another word, Bluefen ran from the secret chamber and shoved her door open, hurrying out into the hall. Kesha had some of her supplies and her canteen in her arms, but she dropped them as Bluefen ran out.

The rat followed her, calling, "Wait! Let me look, what if someone sees you!"

The second Kesha disappeared out of the chamber, Xemx stirred, snapping her violet eyes open. Eyes that glittered with malicious fear and hatred.

><><

The gates had opened exactly as planned, and Martin gave Beddle a last instruction. "If we cannot draw them out .. please come in to aid us, as we will be far outnumbered."

Sayna cast a glance at Timbal, stating, "I sure hope the contingents have started taking out the barracks .. if they get reinforcements, we'll be dead."

Timbal shrugged. "We have at least a hundred guard to deal with .. what can I say? Ignasa go with you, and may he protect you."

Sayna smiled just a little, sighing, "And may he go also with you."

Timbal nodded as Diamond tossed his head. "May he be with all of us .. and may he see us through this."

Martin held his sword aloft, calling softly, "Mossflower .. charge!"

The warrior king bent over his beloved horses neck as Wildfire sprang into immediate action, leaping toward the gates .. no, almost flying towards them. Martin could hear his steed's hoof beats, but he could barely feel them at all.

It seemed like everything was almost in slow motion as Wildfire galloped up the slight, rock hewn ramp leading up to the open gates. The horse's hooves echoed like thunder as he passed under the gate molding and into Salamandastron itself.

The world was blurry to Martin, but he vaguely remembered this place .. Wother, Trubbs, and Ffring had lead them here almost seven seasons ago. He was first encountered with a stoat armed with a spear, who attempted to hamstring Wildfire out from under his rider. Martin's unstoppable sword nearly cleaved him in half, and would have too, should the mouse have been lower to the ground.

Wildfire wheeled around, head low, successfully impaling an attacking rat on the horn of his armored headpiece. The horse flung his dead enemy to the side with a toss of his head as Martin shouted, "Retreat! Retreat to the gates!"

The Mossflowerian cavalry sprang into action as planned, horses wheeling about and bolting back toward the still open gates, trampling any in their way. The initial guard was roused, and Martin could only pray all had gone as planned, and the contingents had taken out the vast majority of the sleeping horde.

However something happened in the next second that wasn't called for.

Lotor.

The ermine was watching with something between unspeakable horror and unspeakable fury. He had neared the gate when the shouts began, and he'd ran the rest of the way. He'd come around the corner in time to see Martin sound the retreat, and had only been frozen for a very miniscule second.

Lotor snarled in pure hatred, raising his paw and sending a blast of green at the mouse-king and his steed!

Martin could never say quite what happened, but the dark, minutely torch-lit corridor suddenly was lit with a weird and blinding green glow. Wildfire reared ramrod straight, and Martin felt himself slipping!

The warrior mouse let loose a cry of dismay as he fell, hitting the ground flat on his back with force that sent a flash of pain searing up his right arm. He couldn't see much of anything as the strange light had temporally blinded him, but he could hear perfectly. Sayna's voice was ringing out, clear as day.

"Stop! Martin needs us .. we have to go back!"

The thunder of hooves, likely Dancer's, exploded from a ways away as Martin staggered to his paws, still blinking from that sudden light. His vision returned enough to see Wildfire was on his knees about six feet away, jaw clenched against the pain he was in. He must have ran a few paces before he'd fallen, for now he fought to get on his feet. Martin could just make out an oozing wound across Wildfire's chest and upper forelegs .. one that looked almost like it'd been singed!

The warrior mouse wheeled about, looking for the devil that had brought his horse down .. and he didn't have to look far.

A shadow of his past stepped into view, a bit of fluorescent green still dancing about one paw. It was Badrang .. or, as Martin quickly reminded himself, Badrang's son.

The white ermine shed his velvet cape, drawing his cutlass with a nasty grin. "So you're the one who killed my father .. the celebrated and legendary high king. Well your people won't be helping you."

Martin followed Lotor's gaze to see most of the guard keeping his cavalry back and Lavarose practically dragging a limping Wildfire toward the gates, which were really close by.

Lotor sneered at him. "Let's have some fun .. your majesty."

Martin was forced to jump backwards Lotor shot a blast of green at him. The ermine wasn't even in sword range, and Martin expected he didn't ever plan to cross blades. The warrior mouse ducked, bringing his shield up as Lotor shot at his head.

Martin couldn't hold in his cry of pain as the power hit the edge of his shield, forcibly tearing it from his arm and wrenching the previously injured limb backwards. The object flew a ways before hitting the floor, definitely beyond it's owners reach.

Lotor laughed. "Ha! Why did my father fall to an inept beast like you? But then he wasn't a Shadow Fighter .. that makes all the difference, majesty."

Martin heard the scorn and cruel mockery in Lotor's voice as he saw the blast of green shoot towards him. He jumped to the side and brought his sword up, although he figured it would be futile .. he wasn't fast enough.

Lord Ignasa .. help me!

Martin's eyes were open .. only a great fool would close them in such a duel. In a split second, the warrior mouse thought he was seeing again the moment Rose had brought his sword against Tsarmina's scepter.

The amazing weapon glowed blue in the fractional second Lotor's power hit it, and the wisps of deadly green were deflected back at their owner!

Lotor yelped in shock as he just dodged his own missile, the power singeing the white fur on his right leg black. The ermine's paw shook a little as he stared at Martin and his sword, still glowing blue. Martin broke himself from his own shock, growling, "I may be inept as you say. But my Lord can make yours cower before him, and he will defeat you, whether he uses me or not!"

><><

Xemx had not been asleep, simply a very good actor with believable circumstances on her side. Now she weakly sat up, terror and hate glinting in her eyes.

No! That Kesha! That stupid, interfering Kesha! She was stealing Xemx's only protection, and going to leave her to the mercy of Velox on top of it!

The rat shuddered. Velox might torture her to death .. with the rack .. or worse! No .. no .. she wouldn't let him! She'd win out .. she always won out!

The rat's eyes fell upon the things Kesha had dropped, and they glinted with wickedness at the sight of the canteen. Xemx listened for one second, before dragging herself toward the objects, and scooping the desired one up. The slosh of water rewarded her, and the rat dug in the folds of her purple sash, desperately hoping the thing she desired had not come loose in her latest adventures.

It hadn't, and Xemx drew it out with a certain amount of triumph. It was a vial cut from clear crystal, with colorless liquid in it, yet it still had an air of deadliness about it.

Xemx's paws trembled a little as she undid the canteen's stopper, then her vial's. The rat's eyes gleamed a bit as she poured the entire flask into the water holder, replacing the stopper and shaking the contents.

Xemx shoved the now empty vial back into it's hiding place, and replaced the canteen as best she could. She allowed herself a slight smirk at her own genius, before dragging herself back to her pallet and lying down almost exactly as she had been.

With all luck, that fool would never know what hit her.

However, there was something Xemx didn't know; that was that two sapphire eyes watched her. Veil had been awakened by his mother and Kesha's raised voices, and decided he was thirsty.

He'd opened the door to the secret chamber because he'd heard his mother in it, and had watched Xemx's deed unbeknownst. Now the little ferret drew back, not because he really guessed what Xemx was up to, but because neither Bluefen or Kesha were in the room after all, and he didn't like the golden rat.

Veil was too inexperienced to understand the dark deed he'd just witnessed, all he knew was his mother was not there, and he wanted her.

He'd got a few feet from the hidden cavern when Bluefen and Kesha hurried back into the chambers. The blue ferret scooped her son up, calling, "I'll get Veil ready, and some supplies as well .. will you get .. them?"

Kesha nodded. "Yes, and my other supplies .. who knows how long the battle will last?"

The rat ran into the hidden room, scrambling to pick up the items she'd dropped. She seized her feathered walking stick, a few other objects, and her canteen. She cast a glance at Xemx, who hadn't moved.

Kesha set some of her things on the table with her basket and the twins, about to sling her canteen over her shoulder. However she hadn't had a drink for a few hours, and one seemed quite inviting .. after all, there couldn't be any harm in it.

She undid the stopper, swallowing a quick mouthful before making a face. Somehow, it didn't taste quiet right.

Xemx was doing her act quite well, however her devious violet eyes watched through hooded lashes as the canteen fell from Kesha's paw, rolling under the table and spilling it's contents onto the floor.

Oh, that was even better .. destroy the evidence! And she didn't even have to .. how much better could this get?

The golden rat had to hold in a black snigger as Kesha stumbled weakly to the door, Xemx's work taking effect. The beast of that name snuggled down under her thin blanket, strange eyes alight with vengeful fire.

That was what happened to beasts who messed with Xemx.

Bluefen would kill her if she should find out, but then, Xemx had that worked out too. After all .. how could a creature that was fast asleep and totally exhausted poison anybody? Especially if they had nothing to do it with.

Bluefen herself had no idea what Xemx had done as Kesha appeared in the secret chamber's doorway, the oddest look on her face. In fact, she looked downright sick.

The ferret frowned, asking, "Kesha .. are you alright?"

The rat took a step forward .. or tried to. However, she collapsed in an unmoving heap as she did so, and Bluefen dropped her basket she was packing food into, crying out with horror. "Kesha!?"

The ferret fell to her knees beside the ratwife, begging, "Kesha! Oh Kesha be ok! You're the only friend I've got!"

However the rat didn't even stir, and Bluefen picked the smaller beast up, cold dread settling in her heart as she felt how limp Kesha was. Though she could barely make herself believe it, deep down, Bluefen had seen death enough to know what she was looking at.

The ferret felt tears blur her vision as she whispered, "Oh Kesha .. why? Why you? How .. Oh if only I'd listened .. if only I'd listened! This is my fault .. me and my stupid revenge .. Oh what have I done?"

There was no moon perhaps, but the faint light of the stars glimmered through the window upon a mournful scene. A ferret sitting in total stunned silence, her crying son, and the body of a creature who had truly been too compassionate for her own good.

But beyond only what the eye could see was the wickedness of Malimore .. and how he had torn two friends apart.




Chapter 24 Vengeful Fire

Redfarl and Arvid

Redfarl and Arvid ;3

Before the silence of the corridors of Salamandastron was broken by the shouts of war, the scuff of paws had disturbed it.

Swartt dragged Scound along at a quick pace until they'd got a decent ways from the gate, before the ferret growled, "Tell me true Scound .. why were you suddenly so interested in my power?"

Scound was a little surprised by this, but he had to have an answer, and fast. So he answered with what first popped into his head; something that was not fully true, yet not fully false. "Wull .. I'd like ta be that powerful .. Capt'n."

Swartt's brown eyes were narrow as he growled, "But how did you know so much about it?"

Scound shrugged. "Like I said .. da horde talks about it! I've just been hearin' it around."

Swartt grumbled as he had before. "The horde thinks too much."

Before Scound could answer, Swartt spoke again, as if realizing something. The ferret looked conniving now, like he was wheedling an infant out of a candied chestnut. "What say Scound, I was to teach you the ways of the Shadow Fighters .. or not yet. You'd have to prove yourself, see?"

Scound didn't know how to respond, not really. He just wasn't sure of anything anymore, and beyond that, he didn't dare think very hard, lest Swartt read his thoughts. But then .. power was tantalizing. And it was such a temptation, because deep down, it was what he really wanted.

At least that's what he thought he wanted.

The weasel stammered, "Er .. well, what would I 'ave ta do?"

Swartt grinned, and Scound had the remote feeling he might be selling his soul to evil .. but now he was curious.

Swartt looked cool now, like he had all the time in the world. "Listen Scound, I've got a little plan. I want both Velox and Lotor dead, and you're going to help me with that. Then when this horde is mine .. let's say I make you a captain. And if you do well in that, I'll train you to wield this power."

Scound didn't know what to say, or even what to think. What an opportunity .. to be a captain! And to gain such power! Of course .. he didn't want to be like Swartt .. just have power like him. He could even use such a great and mighty power to help others .. and do good things!

He did not realize what he was dabbling in could distort him .. could own him. He figured he'd own it, not the other way around.

Swartt tapped a paw on the ground. "I'm waiting .. your decision, yay or nay?"

Scound paused for a moment, before nodding. After all, he could always back out and change his mind if things didn't go the way he hoped.

It couldn't hurt to just try .. could it?

However he didn't have a whole lot of time to think on it, not as the echoing thunder of hooves rang out, accompanied by shouts. Swartt drew his cutlass, brown eyes darkening.

The ferret snarled as a faint and desperate cry rang out, one that was quickly extinguished. "Attack! Mates, we're under atta .."

Scound pulled his new spear off his back, as Swartt wheeled about. "Go raise the barracks Scound .. hurry!"

The weasel was frozen for a second. An attack .. the marks! It must be the marks .. Argulor hadn't been bluffing! But the question was, should he really do as Swartt said?

His ferret master curled his lip. "What are you waiting for .. move! Or I won't give you anything!"

><><

Groddil and Quinn's paws echoed through the corridors, the former's boots thumping against the floor, the latter's bare claws skittering across the volcanic rock.

Groddil had greater stamina than his companion, who was panting heavily. The older fox stopped, letting his companion catch up. "Listen lad .. we need to get you somewhere our troops won't be .. do you know of such a place?"

Quinn gulped in air, shaking his head. "I .. donno sir .. sounds like ya've already taken the barracks .. or are takin' them. Dat means they've taken the cellars."

Groddil nodded at length, finally stating, "Then ye'll have to stay with me."

The younger fox nodded, panting, "Alright .. an' .. I can fight too."

Groddil shrugged. "I'll tell you what .. let's say we find a contingent, and we can join them. Come on .. which way to the barracks?"

The older fox paused, asking in a softer tone, "Or .. would you not like to kill ones of your own kind? I am hardened to it .. I do not view them as my kind."

Quinn blinked, stating, "I don't either .. not really. Iona and Kesha are me only friends among my kind .. dat is vermin. It's not like any of 'em ever really cared about me."

Groddil nodded. "Right lad .. bravely said indeed. Let's .."

Without warning he broke off. Quinn blinked. "Hey .. mate .. I mean sir .. are ya alright?"

Groddil's yellow eyes were narrowed now, in suspicious anger that was not directed toward Quinn. He looked up abruptly, stating, "I'm fine lad .. just have a .. you could say, oath to keep. Come, we must find a contingent quickly .. you can't come with me."

Quinn ran after him, asking, "Why not? I might be safer then .."

Groddil's reply was just a little sharp. "You will be in deadly danger should you follow me, my path I walk alone!"

Quinn didn't have time to ask questions, all he knew was Groddil sounded halfway frantic, something that didn't seem to fit his character. And in the next second, Quinn knew why. For a shadow disentangled itself from all the other shadows along the walls .. and this one not only looked dark; it felt dark.

Groddil's voice was a snarl. "Ferran."

Quinn took a step back .. he couldn't help it. He'd never seen the reclusive Shadow Fighter from Mossflower, only heard of him.

The demonic looking fox's eyes fell on him, and he felt his heart go cold with sudden dread. It wasn't that Quinn was a coward, but this creature .. he could give even the most stalwart beast shivers.

Ferran's voice was a dark, yet very proud sound. "Got yourself a new apprentice, eh Groddil?"

The normally silver fox growled. "Leave him out of this Ferran, he has nothing to do with it .. and you won't be touching him!"

Ferran sneered. "Oh, a lowbeast? Like your other apprentice, the little mouse-queen .."

The black fox spit at this pointed, continuing darkly, "Of course brother, I would not touch him .."

Quinn readied his spear, backing a little ways from the two other foxes. They were facing each other as Groddil drew his cutlass, and he suddenly shouted in desperate fury. "No!"

Quinn couldn't say what went wrong, but something seemed to hit him in the side .. even though he saw nothing. The next second he was being thrown across the room .. or at least that's what it felt like.

His breath was knocked from his lungs as he slammed into the far wall. He heard his spear clatter to the floor .. then felt himself crumple beside it. But the world was fuzzy now .. too fuzzy to discern any longer.

However if Quinn had managed to stay conscious just a few minutes longer, he would have heard Ferran's mocking voice ring out.

"But I never do as I'm told!"

><><

Groddil turned furious eyes on his brother as his young ally fell unconscious to the floor .. at least Groddil hoped Quinn was no more than unconscious. The yellow eyed fox growled at his brother, bringing a quick cut at him.

Ferran parried, smirking as he did so. "So tender of you brother .. it's your fault. Why didn't you kill me when you had the chance?"

Groddil leapt over Ferran's blade, shedding his cloak as he snarled. "I should have!"

The black fox laughed wickedly. "You're too late!"

Groddil thrust, causing Ferran to jump back. "I may change that!"

"You can finally fight now .. I've been waiting five seasons for this!" Ferran's voice was triumphant as he raised a paw.

Groddil ducked, letting Ferran's power blast into the rock wall behind him; but slashing at the black fox's unarmored legs in the same movement! Ferran staggered back, only halfway avoiding Groddil's blade.

The silver - now brown - fox was rewarded by a grunt of pain, and a few scarlet drops spattering to the floor. Groddil brought his weapon against his brother's once more, only barely dodging another blast of green, one that seared his left ear tip.

There was only a minute flash of pain, then a tingle as the Flowers of Icetor did their work. But in that second, Groddil remembered something.

He slashed out at Ferran once more, rewarded by a clash of steal. But he remembered what Timbal had said happened when Sayna cut only a small piece of her hair .. she'd almost fainted.

That was the answer to taking Ferran down .. to cut his hair!

><><

Sayna was still astride Dancer, fighting with the cavalry. Timbal was trying to get through the ranks too Martin, fighting Lotor. The mouse couldn't make out a lot of what was going on, not really.

Battle leaves little time for observation, after all.

The Mossflowerians would not leave without their king, locked in a paw to paw, life and death duel with Lotor.

Kill him Martin .. kill him! They will be leaderless without him .. this could define our victory!

But she could not reach him, nor speak to his thoughts. Besides, she assumed he'd thought of it already.

Sayna slashed down a guard trying to charge her, as Dancer reared in attempt to avoid a spear, and was successful .. partially. However the spear slashed through the girth of Sayna's saddle, before her horse trampled it's owner to death.

The warrior mouse yelped a little as both she and her saddle fell to the lava rock floor, and she desperately rolled out of the way of Dancers hooves! The horse managed to catch her a weak kick in the side however, and Sayna was momentarily glad of her hair, no matter how long and bothersome it could be.

There was no time to think on these things however, and Sayna kicked her next attacker in the legs, impaling them as they fell!

The mouse staggered to her paws, a little pain racking her side despite the flowers. She found herself locked in combat with a dingy red fox that wouldn't fall, whether it was because he was a very good fighter or she was weakened by Dancer's blow, Sayna could not say.

He snarled at her, bringing his curved sword against hers, and growling even lower as her magnificent blade nicked his. He tried to behead her with a swift cut, but Sayna ducked, slashing at his legs!

The fox yelped, just barely leaping over her blade, but countered with a blow aimed for her head! Sayna was forced the throw herself to the side and inevitably the ground to avoid this, and the fox ran at her, triumph in his eyes.

However .. he didn't run faster than a knife was thrown.

Sayna's attacker crumpled lifeless to the ground, her knife in his chest. She bolted up, expecting to see another enemy, but there really were none.

Beddle and his squirrels stood among the members of the cavalry, and there wasn't a living vermin left in sight .. those who were not slain must have fled.

Sayna gulped .. what about Martin?

She wheeled around to see the most amazing sight she had in a long time .. Martin was still dueling Lotor, but his sword was glowing blue!

The ermine usurper sent another blast of green at the golden warrior, and Sayna could have sworn she saw pain flash across his face .. almost like the power had somehow hurt him. Martin ducked Lotor's blow, advancing with a thrust from his shining weapon!

The ermine cast a glance at his dead guards as he leapt back, crying out as the sword caught him in the right paw. Lotor hesitated just one second, before turning tail and bolting .. there was no guard to come to his aid now.

Martin's voice was furious. "Coward .. just like your father!"

But Lotor's white pelt was already disappearing into the vast darkness of Salamandastron, for Martin's words were true.

Timbal was the only mark left mounted, Sayna realized, as something with tickling whiskers was thrust against the side of her head.

"Sayna, I'm sorry! I didn't .."

The mouse patted her friend's muzzle with a sigh, as Martin walked toward the group, his sword's blue glow fading to the shimmering surface of cold steel. "What of Wildfire?"

Beddle spoke. "Ruro is seeing to him .. he shalt run another day, though not tonight."

His eldest son, Asger, broke in. "But what of the contingents?"

Martin nodded. "We must help them .. they should have long since been in the barracks, yet we have had no word .. quickly! Lightfoot, show us where they are!"

The pony had charged riderless, and now she waited for Martin to vault upon her back, before hurrying further into the mountain.

><><

Arvid meanwhile, had, in his mind, been served with terrible injustice. He, the son of Beddle and Ruro, prince of the Pine Groves, should be fighting alongside his people.

But no. Instead, he had to wait for this .. Lady Redfarl and her tribe, and lead them Salamandastron when they came.

When they came! But Arvid felt it must be the third hour past midnight!

At this rate, he would never get to lift a spear or shoot one arrow!

Beddle had said he felt this might teach his son patients and chivalry, but Arvid felt the real reason had to do with his father fearing to take him into battle.

The white squirrel prince glared at the tree trunk he had his back against with distaste, speaking to it, as it was his only companion.

"I see not why I should stay! Why not Grood? Or one of the guard? But instead they leavest me, the prince! And I am to wait for this Lady Redfarl who knowest when she will come."

He gave the silent tree an exasperated glance. "I am eighteen! So perhaps my tail is fluffy and I hast a habit of tripping upon it, but still!"

The squirrel prince leaned against his quiet listener once more, sighing, "And who hast known a squirrel to be so late? But what father says I'll do .. Oh I'll never havest one chance! Where is this Lady Redfarl?"

To his great surprise, there was a rustle from the tree in front of him, and a lithe little squirrel maiden dropped to the ground, bow in paw. She had a challenging look on her face as she stated matter-of-factly, "She is here."

Arvid realized he was staring at her, and he stammered, "Thou is .. her scout?"

He noticed the leaf-like circlet of gold on her brow as she shrugged. "No, I am Redfarl."

Arvid was amazed .. the marks had spoken of Redfarl in a manner that made him imagine a beast of at least forty seasons, perhaps married, and a veteran of many battles. Certainly not the pretty little beast that stood before him, who looked like she couldn't be a day over seventeen seasons.

He shut his mouth with a snap, asking, "But where is thy army? Does thou not have scouts?"

Redfarl looked irritated. "Oh stop sounding like my general! Just because I'm the queen does not mean I have to act like one! I can scout for my own army if I want to!"

She sighed. "I have to put up with Brush .. I don't need another mentor. Now where is Sayna? I guess you're one of the squirrels that allied with the marks? The .. guard?"

Arvid quickly corrected this, "No .. I'm the prince! But the marks went to war .. didn't Emalet tell thou?"

Redfarl shrugged. "She talked to Brush. I heard they might go to do battle .. but that they are .. we've got to help! I hope Sayna's alright!"

><><

Roderick had been successfully awoken by the noise, which at first irritated him, than frightened him. He'd donned his gray cloak and sword, and slipped from his chambers, intent on going to Lotor's throne room and asking what this was about.

However he could distinguish the sounds of battle, even if he could not pinpoint where exactly, not with the way Salamandastron echoed.

He paused as the thump of boots broke the silence, and Swartt came around the corner. The ferret growled at him. "What are you doing, standing around? We're under attack!"

Roderick's paw fell to his sword hilt. "Attack? By who?!"

Swartt snarled as he ran past. "The marks, that's who! Why don't you go play with your little friends .. mousey?"

Roderick growled, yelling, "You dare insinuate I'm a traitor?"

The ferret laughed harshly. "Once a mouse, always a mouse! You don't deserve to be a Shadow Fighter!"

Roderick would have liked to throw something heated back, but Swartt had already ran around the corner. The mouse's brown eyes sparkled with hatred as the ferret disappeared, but he was thinking of his taunts no longer.

The marks.

Sayna.

Roderick drew his sword with a snarl. That mouse maid .. he'd kill her yet. Kill her nice little friend too, that arrogant mouse that got to be a king, Timballisto.

Of course, he'd likely have married her, after the way he'd talked of her when Roderick had captured him five seasons ago. The black mouse grinned wickedly. Even better .. maybe he could arrange some convenient little accident.

Roderick smirked as Swartt's words rang in his head, and he answered them.

"Oh yes ferret .. I will go play with my little friends .. stake your life on it."

><><

Scound was in more trouble than he knew what to do with, he felt like he was drowning in it.

If he didn't do what Swartt wanted, he'd never get to be a captain, and be killed on top of it.

If he went to the woodlanders, there was no way he'd know if he'd ever get a position of prominence, and they'd likely kill him for running off!

Scound had the feeling he'd caught himself in a self-made trap, but there really wasn't a way out anymore. He'd made his choice when he ran from the squirrels .. perhaps he should have stayed. But it was too late .. there was only one option that seemed like it might give him a decent outcome, and that was to do what Swartt said .. sound the attack.

After all, while he liked the woodlanders and there ways of thinking .. it wasn't enough to put himself in danger for them.

However as he reached the main barracks, he had the feeling it was too late. The horde was scattered in confusion, some running, some fighting, and quite a few dead.

From his vantage point, Scound could see the woodlanders had sustained losses too .. although not as many. The weasel felt somewhat relived .. after all, how could he sound an alarm he had been too late to warn anyone with?

The weasel turned around and hurried away from the massacre, one he wasn't excited to take part in. He'd got only as far as the lower and smaller set of barracks however, when he caught sight of about twenty woodlanders lead by a steel gray hare.

Scound ducked out of sight around the corner just fast enough, watching as the hare gave out some rapid orders.

The weasel clenched his paws, bracing himself against the rock wall, and wincing. Now what should he do? The decision that had seemed to solve itself had found him once again, and this time he had to choose fast!

If he'd had more time to think it over, maybe he would have chose differently. Maybe he wouldn't have.

After all, the first things that come to a beast's mouth are almost always the ones in their heart.

Scound let his claws score marks of frustration on the lava rock wall, before shouting out something he vaguely realized he might very well regret.

"Attack mates .. we're under attack!"

This done, the weasel bolted ... half to avoid detection, and half to escape the consequences of his decision.

><><

Bluefen hadn't really moved .. she didn't feel like she had the strength. Without Kesha, she didn't know what to do. The ratwife had known where to go, not Bluefen.

The ferret calmed Veil down as best she could, and it was actually he that convinced her to try again. The little golden ferret rubbed his eyes, sniffing, "What if father comes?"

Bluefen stiffened, hugging him. "I .. well .. it'll be alright .. we're still getting out .. that wretch won't find us."

She glanced sadly at Kesha, before setting her son on her knee. "Listen Veil, remember what I said .. about joining the woodlanders? Well they're here .. and now we must get to them, before your father gets to us."

Veil nodded, hesitating, and finally asking, "Kesha can't come with us .. can she?"

Bluefen sighed, tears in her eyes. "No Veil .. I'm sorry."

And she was too, far more so than her son could imagine. However the young ferret understood death, for he was not unaware of it .. she knew Veil was really just begging her to tell him Kesha wasn't dead.

But she could not, and Veil looked even sadder than before .. like he'd been hoping she could do something.

As soon as the dreadful realization Kesha was truly gone sank in, Bluefen started asking another question .. why.

Why had Kesha just .. died like she had? It didn't make sense!

Bluefen's eyes narrowed in deadly suspicion, glaring at the hidden cavern. She set Veil down, stating as calmly as possible, "Stay here son .. I .. need to speak with somebeast."

The ferretwife seized her fallen dagger, slipping softly toward the secret room. If Xemx had moved an inch .. or if there was something to claim her guilt in this matter .. she was a deadbeast.

However when Bluefen entered it .. nothing seemed to have changed. Xemx still lay asleep, her two children still in Kesha's basket. Nothing seemed touched in the least, not even Kesha's feathered staff, leaning against the wall.

Bluefen ground her teeth, half considering skewering the rat anyway .. she was almost sure she'd had something to do with this! It was the only logical explanation!

The ferret's paw clenched tighter around the hilt of her long knife, and she raised it, considering. Xemx deserved to die if she'd killed Kesha .. but then .. Bluefen no longer had Kesha.

She'd need a guide if she was to get to the woodlanders alive .. after Xemx had fulfilled her duty, she'd be deader than a doornail, Bluefen would see to it. That rat's lies had gone on long enough .. without them, Kesha would likely be alive!

The ferret's gaze fell upon the basket once more, and she paused. What about the children .. Kesha had thought they were special. Kesha would have wanted them cared for.

Bluefen closed her eyes, vowing she would do it for her friend, when the rat could not. She walked over, gently swiping the male's unruly black topknot aside.

"Kesha said you would both be great one day .. and .. I believe her. You'll come with me .. I'll keep my friend's prophecy alive."

The ferret turned on Xemx, growling, "As for your mother ..."

She shook the rat roughly, grumbling, "Get up .. I'm not as compassionate as Kesha .. not about you."

Xemx groaned, just waking up. "Ugg .. I ain't done nothin'!"

Bluefen almost pulled her onto her paws. "Sure you ain't. Liar! Kesha is dead .. you know something about it, I'll wager!"

The rat had something that resembled honest surprise, though Bluefen didn't believe it .. nothing could make her trust Xemx was truly innocent. Before she could say a word however, Bluefen growled. "Don't speak you snake .. listen to me for a change. I am getting out of here, and you are taking me .. got it?"

Xemx grumbled. "I'm tired .. an I've done nothin' ta yer friend! I donno nothin' about it!"

Bluefen was getting truly angry with Xemx, and this was something rather rare. Normally the ferret was pretty soft-spoken and gentle .. but not now .. not now that Kesha was gone. Now her eyes flashed with deadly fire as she snarled, "You can sleep when you're dead .. I mean that .. get my drift?"

Xemx gulped a little, deciding Bluefen was serious. She staggered to her paws, asking, "But what'm I supposed ta do?"

Bluefen's voice was bordering dangerous. "You will lead me to the woodlanders, see? Me, Veil, and these two children you couldn't care less about, you will see us safe .."

The ferret drew her knife. "Or I will see you get your rest. Is this quite clear?"

Xemx nodded slowly, with reluctance, but unable to refuse.

><><

Sayna swiped a few irritating strands of hair from her eyes, ones that had somehow found a way out of her tight braids. The barracks were vast .. in fact, from her previous visit, she could have sworn Lotor had turned the mess hall into sleeping areas for his horde!

She had to wonder how many his group really numbered. At the moment, the section of the barracks she stood in was pretty much empty, save the dead.

Most of these were vermin, but an otter or squirrel lay motionless here and there. Sayna looked away, realizing that as a queen, she felt responsible for every life under her command. It hadn't been as personal the last time she'd fought, but then she hadn't felt as much of a leader as she did now.

The mouse tightened her grip on her bloodstained sword, looking around for the others. There was some fighting still going on at the far end of the hall, and Sayna took the first step to join it .. when a voice rang out.

A soft, yet grating and very familiar voice. "Sayna .. we meet again, don't we?"

The mouse maid wheeled around, sword on the ready and fury in her eyes.

Sure enough, Roderick stood not twenty paces away, sword in paw. The black mouse smiled with total wickedness. "Still have that temper of yours my dear .. remember what happened the last time you lost it?"

Sayna's voice was guttural. "I am not your dear, you twisted maggot! This time you don't have my love to barter with, and this time .. I swear I'll kill you for sure!"

Roderick circled her, laughing, "Brave words Sayna .. but I know you too well. Your words are always braver than you are."

Sayna could see red tingeing the corners of her vision, and she knew she was close to Bloodwrath. She felt her nostrils flare, mostly because she knew Roderick's insult could be true sometimes.

The mouse kept her voice low as she grated, "You came here to fight me rat, and I will give you that fight .. quit wasting time insulting me, and cross blades you coward!"

Roderick grinned, brown eyes alight. "Ahh, but that would be too easy for you, my dear. I fear you underestimate me."

Sayna's eyes widened as she fit the puzzle pieces together in a split second, ducking in the next. She was just in time, as a deadly blast of green flew over her, almost searing her ear tips!

Sayna leapt up and to the side, snarling, "You're a Shadow Fighter!"

Roderick's laughed was dark, far from merriment. "So you only just figured this out, dearie? You do underestimate me!"

Sayna lunged, staying close to the ground with an upwards thrust, growling as her enemy parried it. "I will no longer, you vile worm!"

She drew a knife and threw it in about the same movement, dodging to the side as Roderick deflected her own weapon back at her!

The mouse sneered. "You don't have a chance my dear, and neither does your fiancé .. or should I now say, your husband?"

Sayna decided not to answer this, snarling instead, "He is not your concern, rat! Leave him out of this .. this is our fight, and ours alone!"

Roderick grinned evilly. "So be it .. you will die as you have lived .. alone."

Sayna dodged away from the blast of green he sent at her, admitting that for once, Roderick might be right.

She didn't have a freakish supernatural power, just an unbreakable sword and the best training a mortal beast could wish for.

But it's not enough .. he's too fast! I can't touch him with my sword, unbreakable as it may be, and I cannot even hit him with a knife! He's actually got one up on me this time .. and he might be right.

Roderick laughed, asking, "Well little queen, what does it feel like? To be the one at a disadvantage? To be the one who will die?"

Sayna got the feeling he was toying with her .. that if he really wanted to kill her, he could.

The mouse maid snarled, not giving him the satisfaction of an answer. She ducked below his arm, thrusting for his ribs, sword point paving the way! Roderick jumped back, parried, and shot power at the same time .. it was too fast!

Sayna staggered back, almost screaming because of the terrible pain she was in. Roderick's power had torn up her left arm .. from the paw to the elbow.

It had been a long time since she'd felt this much agony .. it felt like her arm was on fire! However the next second, the injured limb felt like it had turned to solid ice as the blackened fur and terrible burn simply faded to their normal gold with a faint flash of ice-white light. Sayna felt terribly light headed .. and she suspected had the wound been any worse she'd have likely fainted on the spot. Yet in just a few seconds, her vision cleared and her strength returned. She stood straight, panting heavily and sword in paw, as Roderick's stunned voice rang out angrily, "What? Impossible!"

Sayna stared levelly back at him, a growl forming at the back of her throat. "I too .. have a few surprises .. up my sleeves."

Roderick recovered quickly, blasting power at her once more. "It's not enough!"

Sayna threw herself to the side, gulping as the searing green fire shot uncomfortably close to her ear. She had to admit .. he was right. What was magical healing confronted with green lightning? The mouse maid loathed to even think of her next resource, but it was really her only one .. to run. Not run away .. but to find a terrain she could better fight this devil upon. But to turn her back on him ... she couldn't!

Sayna had a sudden inspiration, a desperate gamble perhaps, but still, a chance! She ducked beneath the next bolt of green fire, slashing at Roderick's legs while stomping down on the hem of his cloak. The mouse fell for it, jumping back .. and falling on his back with a thump!

Sayna knew better than to try and stab him even then, for he was far faster than she, and would hit her with his demonic power. She simply staggered to her paws and bolted, knowing he'd be right behind her. Her boots pounded on the lava rock floor as her mind worked furiously .. she could hear Roderick behind her!

Where to go .. where to go .. where can I go to better face him? Someplace I have been .. someplace I can use the terrain against him!"

She dodged around a corner, gasping in air as she stared behind her .. Roderick was still coming!

Sayna gulped, suddenly thinking of the answer .. the forge of the badger lords .. there were plenty of objects to hide behind there!

><><

Groddil and Ferran's duel was still in progress .. and ranging far and wide. The two foxes had long since left the place their fight began, each of them forcing the other into retreat in turn.

Groddil was the one backing up now, as Ferran attacked with a vengeance. This battle was becoming increasingly deadly as each fox took higher and higher risks to do the other in .. after all, if they did not land a fatal blow, the other would get up again.

It was a duel of supreme mastery, and even though Ferran could shoot green fire at will, Groddil knew exactly when it was coming.

The silver fox was careful to lead Ferran on, making him use his power over and over, and being sure to not think clearly on the matter of cutting his hair.

Ferran did not know the repercussions of such an act, he wore his hair in a waist-length braid. It would have been pretty easy to cut under normal circumstances, but Ferran was not normal. Groddil couldn't get close enough to prick his brother with his sword point, let alone land the blow he desired to.

In fact Groddil was in quick retreat, ducking and dodging every few seconds, much to the frustration of Ferran. The silver fox could tell his brother was using too much power, for a look of pain shot across his face every time he sent a flash of green lighting at Groddil.

The Prophet had wondered if the magical flowers would give his brother greater stamina against the deadly effects contained in the power he wielded .. but they seemed to do nothing. If anything, the coal black fox was failing even faster than usual.

But Groddil could not think very long on this subject, not with the intensity of the duel he was in.

Ferran had gotten him into a dark hallway, one where it would be nearly impossible for Groddil to get help. The silver fox could tell his brother was desperate, and intended to finish him off quickly .. before he was destroyed by his own power.

Groddil dodged another green lighting strike, ducking quickly behind an outcrop of rock in the wall. Ferran wasn't the only one who was tired .. he was too. He needed respite .. one he wouldn't get.

The fox stumbled back against the wall, paw landing on something wood, not rock. Groddil could sense Ferran coming closer even though he could not see him, and he knew it would be hard to dodge the black fox's power at this close a range. All Ferran had to do was come around the rock and blast his green fire .. that would be the end of it.

Groddil's paws fumbled across the wooden surface they rested against, coming to a doorknob! The silver fox turned it .. finding to his great dismay it was locked!

Lord Ignasa ..

Groddil paused .. was he really pleading to live longer? He should have been a doddering elder by now, instead he felt as young as in his youth. The silver fox closed his eyes a fraction of a second, finishing his plea.

If this is how my life ends .. help me be strong in it!"

Groddil readied himself for Ferran's arrival .. ready to charge him as soon as he came into view, when he felt something shift slightly in his chainmail tunic. He reached in the neck of his shirt, pulling out the object given to him only to make another beast believe his words .. Iona's key!

No .. it's madness .. there's only one chance in a thousand it will ever work!

Never the less, in the few seconds he had left, Groddil shoved the old key in the lock, gasping as it fit .. and clicked!



Chapter 25 Red Sky in the Morning ..

As the battle at Salamandastron progressed, the first rays of the sun tinged the sky pink. And that same sky that shone it's glorious hues over the western shores, fell also over Mossflower.

Sadly to say, Clogg and his crew were unable to enjoy this properly. Of course, they'd found something they found far more beautiful .. treasure.

If the Redwallers had tricked Clogg into thinking he'd died and gone to Hellgates, the wealth he stared at now had completely convinced him he'd died and gone to the Lands Beyond.

And it was all his!

All his!

It was a seemingly wonderful turn of events for the corsair, and he was reveling in it. Clogg truly could not believe his luck .. from almost a pauper .. to being as rich as Verdauga .. in just one day!

Verdauga.

That was the only thing dampening Clogg's morning .. his wildcat master. Verdauga would take most of what he'd found .. give him less than one fifth!

It wasn't even fair!

Clogg suddenly got a devious look about him .. that wouldn't have to happen! Verdauga had asked only for the .. White Eye things .. two large rubies. Well there were large rubies in this pile of wealth .. Clogg could spare two.

And the rest was his to keep forever!

He could buy a new ship .. the finest of crews .. Hellgates, he could probably buy Verdauga's castle!

Two rubies .. ha. If only Verdauga knew what Clogg had found!

The corsair grinned, rubbing his paws as he watched his crew cart the treasure out of the cave, in the light of the torch Floggtail had.

He wasn't going to tell Verdauga .. this was his little secret!

><><

Bootbrain was down in the treasure room on his hands and knees, scouring the sludge on the floor for fallen gemstones and gold. Wippback was there too, working in the other corner of the torch lit room.

Bootbrain pulled a diamond necklace from the muck, admiring how it glittered in the guttural gloom. The other treasure had been taken out already .. the weasel just couldn't bear to leave without searching the entire floor .. lest one piece of the wonderful treasure be left behind.

However his tawdry tunic was already filled to bursting, and Bootbrain had the fear it would rip out should he try to stuff some more in. The weasel pulled the diamond necklace over his head, slopping to the staircase leading upwards.

He could hear thumping and raucous singing over head .. likely Clogg doing his famous clogging jig because he was so elated. Bootbrain glanced back at Wippback, still digging in the filth for more treasure. "Wipp! Ya comin?"

Wippback's answer was his classic one ..

"Shudap!"

Bootbrain rolled his eyes, making his way up the stairs and past Clogg and Floggtail, both dancing and singing a pirate's ditty at the very top of their lungs. The weasel crossed the cave's floor, reached the rope and started scaling his way up, just like climbing rigging on a ship.

He scrambled onto the rock ledge that led into the cave, casting a glance down at Clogg, and some other beasts in the crew, all singing loudly now .. the place completely resounded with the noise!

Bootbrain paused as he prepared to make his way from the tunnel and to sunlight .. the floor was shaking beneath his paws. The weasel gasped as a loud rumbling drowned out Clogg's bad singing .. causing shrieks of terror to come from the previously reveling corsairs!

Bootbrain threw himself away from the drop-off and further into the tunnel, praying to all the fates Clogg hadn't doomed them all!

><><

In Redwall, Foremole and his grandson, Dinny, were enjoying some tea and scones by the south wall before they got to work on digging out the cellars with the rest of the mole crew. Not being fond of heights, the two moles were having their breakfast on the abbey lawn.

Dinny popped a scone into his mouth, laying back upon the ground with a contented sigh. "Oi sure do loikes having brekist outsoides, don't you'm gran'pa?"

Formole took a sip of his mint tea. "That Oi do young'un .. in summer o'course. Winter brings a chill to these ol' bones a moine, burr aye it do."

Dinny yawned, rolling onto his side. He looked about to say something, when he paused, pressing his ear to the dirt. Foremole took another sip of his tea, asking, "Hurr, you'm young rip, what've you'm found?"

Dinny looked excited. "Oi say gran'pa, it sounds loike a regular old shaking dowm there!"

Formole laid a digging claw on the ground, frowning and setting his tea down. The old mole copied his grandson a minute, before sitting back up and rubbing a claw on his snout. "Ho hurr, you'm got something there young'un .. there be a great rumble in the earth, so there is!"

Dinny looked worried, stolid mole logic kicking in. "Owd 'Arry gran'pa, you'm s'pose it'll be hurtin the walls?"

Foremole frowned at his grandson. "That'll be a roight nuff of talk loike that you'm skalwag, burr oi it will. But you'm do have a point .. Oi'll go get the molecrew. Best we'm look into things loike this'un."

><><

Later that morning .. which was about the time the sun was climbing into proper view .. Foremole and his crew were carefully examining the south wall.

Billum, Foremole's old deputy, was grumbling a little darkly to his leader. "Burr, Oi always said we'm never should have built on ee ol' ruins, tain't stable nor roight."

A velvety black mole looked up from were he was testing the dirt with his digging claws. "Hurr mayhaps zurr Billum, but were'm else us'ns be buildin' it?"

Billum crossed his arms. "Oi'm don't know Soilflyer, but anywere but this ol' place. Memories loi strong for us old'uns."

Foremole patted his deputy's arm. "Oi do be knowin' how'm you feel Billum, but it's the best place. Kotir was built boi moles, an moles know our craftin. Soides, us'uns are only over the north wall .. Oi saw to that'un moiself."

Dinny looked confused. "Boi 'okey gran'pa .. then were's it comin' from?"

Foremole shrugged. "Outsoide our gates, Oi do reckon. It sounds ta be comin from due north, so'm it do."

Gingivere was up early that morning, and he was bound to see the molecrew messing about the south wall. This aroused his curiosity, due to the fact he knew moles liked an orderly structure to their workdays, and were usually already busy about the abbey cellars by this time.

The wildcat stopped to observe them for a moment, calling out in a friendly manner, "Morning to you Foremole! What's all this?"

Foremole dipped his velvety head. "Hurr we'm found a gurt rumble in the earth, so'm we did .. moi Dinny be hearin' it first."

Gingivere scratched an ear. "A great rumble? You mean an earthquake?"

Soilflyer looked up from where he had an ear to the ground. "Tain't gurt enough to be an earthquake zurr Ging'vere, it do be sounden loike a roight gurt tunnel fallin in, so it do."

Dinny nodded, pressing his ear to the ground and adding, "Boi 'okey so it do! But it be gettin' a moight fainter now .. loike it's all done."

Gingivere didn't doubt mole logic, especially when in question of things under the earth. The wildcat looked concerned, asking, "Do you think it will hurt our walls? Is it because we built over Kotir?"

Soilflyer frowned as he listened again, stating, "Ho hurr zurr, Oi'm don't think it'll be hurting the walls .. it do be too far north. But Oi can't 'elp but wonder what it be .. and what do be causein it!"

Billum crossed his arms. "There do be one way to'm be foindin' out, Oi do say."

Gingivere looked surprised. "Now hang on a second .. you fellows can't be thinking of leaving Redwall to search .. not with Clogg about! It's too dangerous. Besides, how far away is it?"

Soilflyer was listening again, and remarked, "Moi, what gurt odd echoes there do be! Oi'd say it's mayhaps another Redwall from here .. the length of the grounds it do be."

Gingivere frowned. "The length of the grounds ..."

He turned to Foremole, asking, "You built over Kotir's outer north baily, didn't you?"

The mole nodded. "Burr oi zurr, so'm us'n did. That an ee gurt north tower."

Gingivere looked across Redwall's grounds, then closed his eyes as if trying to recall a picture in his head. "Wait a second ... if it's due north and the length of Redwall's grounds from here ... that sounds like it could be the old cathedral!"

Foremole rubbed his snout, squinting in concentration. "Ho hurr, you'm do have a gurt foine memory zurr .. Oi do think you'm is roight."

Gingivere bit his lip. "That cathedral was huge .. if the whole thing collapses, would it affect the walls?"

Foremole frowned, contemplating the matter more deeply. "Burr .. Oi don't spect so zurr Ging'vere, but Oi do be guessin' Billum's roight. Us'ns best be havin' a look at it."

Gingivere shook his head. "I don't like the thought of you going out .."

The odd gray otter, Mask, had walked up, and now he asked, "Going out?"

Gingivere explained the situation to Mask, who was not confused at the wildcat's mentioning of Kotir or the cathedral; for he had once been in these places. At length, Mask asked, "Should we tell the queen of this then?"

Gingivere looked a little awkward. "Ehh .. I don't think that's a real good idea .. that's why I'm up earlier than usual. Sandingomm went off to help her, see .. it's her baby."

Mask did not look daunted, just .. almost knowing. "I wondered .. and that is as it should be."

Dinny looked confused, asking, "What do you'm be meaning boi that'en zurr?"

Once again, Mask looked startled. "I'm sorry Dinny, I meant to say nothing. I am used to having nobeast to hear me .. what I said will be understood in days that are coming."

Gingivere felt like Mask did not wish to say anymore on the subject, so he covered for him. "And I'm sure it will .. but for today, what do you plan to do about the walls?"

Foremole sighed. "Well now zurrs, us'ns will have to go out to have a look. But that don't mean we'm be going above the ground .. we'm be digging a roight ol' tunnel!"

><><

Bootbrain sat at the edge of Clogg's camp, listening to superstitious grumblings and injured groans. The beasts that had carted the treasure up and were already out of the cave when the collapse had started viewed themselves very lucky.

After all, Clogg and Floggtail had been the only ones to escape. Bootbrain listened in on a conversation between two rats and a stoat.

The stoat looked ashen as he told his gruesome tale. "They say twas a ghost or a bad spirit .. one what wanted ta keep dat treasure fer demselves .."

The youngest of the rats piped up with cheekiness, "Ya, sure day did .. 'Ellgates, if'n dat boodle was mine, I'd wanna keep it too!"

The stoat shot back. "Clamp yer smart mouth shut Snag, ya know what 'appened ta ol' Wippback .. an' Houndseye? And Ragtail? Why dey's all dead .. dat ghost ain't 'lone no more, I'm tellin' ya!"

The older rat looked grim. "Aye, an' ye know wot dey say .. ghost's alwus come back fer vengeance .. an dey like ta take it out on da one wot spoke to 'em last!"

Bootbrain gulped a bit, recalling he was likely the last one to speak to Wippback. But that was silly .. the bossy rat had been buried so deep it was doubtful if even a ghost could get to the surface.

Or could they?

The weasel swallowed hard, Wippback's snarky voice ringing in his ears.

"Shudap."

"Shudap!"

"Shudap!"

"Oh Shudap yerself! I'm darn sick'a ya tellin' me too, even if ya is a ghost!" Bootbrain grumbled to thin air.

Feeling a might better having done this, the weasel headed towards where Clogg lay in his hammock, leg bandaged from where a rock had hit it. As his did so, he passed Scritchy, sitting by herself and muttering almost incoherently.

The weasel skirted her widely, knowing she was downright mad at the loss of Wippback, her mate. Bootbrain could not sympathize.

He reached Clogg's bedside, asking, "Uhh .. captain .. now what's we gonna do?"

The stoat corsair did not seem upset at the loss of his crewbeasts, or by the fact his leg was injured. He was counting his gold, because for once in his life, he had gold to count.

Clogg gave Bootbrain an odd look. "Do? Do? Why we're rich! Good an' filthy rich .. we kin do what ever we wants ta!"

Bootbrain frowned. "But Capt'n, what about them ghosts?"

Clogg's demeanor changed in a heartbeat, from immensely happy to immensely frightened. His paw trembled a little as he replied, "Uhh .. wull ya Bootbrain, sure we've gotta give 'em dere share .. ya. We'll go soon as me legs right enough."

><><

The twittering of birds filled the northern forest as Vurg and Cardo made breakfast in their cottage.

That is, Cardo made breakfast, and Vurg set the table owing to the fact he could not cook. The old mouse was almost completely silver, although his blue eyes never changed. He smiled a little at Cardo, as the rotund mouse stirred something over the fire.

Vurg could remember when Cardo had been thin, but no fighting had allowed him to grow rather pudgy in his latter seasons, as did his interest in culinary arts. However the graying old mouse enjoyed experimenting with food .. something that could sometimes be a true experiment.

Still, as the seasons rolled by, Luke and Vurg found they no longer had to contemplate how to complement Cardo's cooking, as it became quite good.

Vurg finished the table, calling, "Cardo matey, I'm going to feed Firebird. I won't be long!"

The answer was muffled, as Cardo was tasting his creation.

Vurg nodded understandingly, "No, I'll be sure not to let my breakfast get cold!"

The gray mouse shut the door behind him, walking towards the stable .. and thinking, as he always did. Vurg opened the small stable's door to be greeted by a friendly nicker from the old plow horse, Firebird.

Vurg patted her nose as he went to get her grain out, not thinking very much about the horse. He was thinking more on their situation. There had been no rain this spring, and the crops were dying .. the only thing green was the garden, and that because they hand watered it from the well.

Vurg saw it as a sign almost .. a sign they needed to move on.

Where to? There was a place that beckoned him .. called out to him.

The others wouldn't want to go back, but something in Vurg's heart did. He wanted to see the old caves again .. to walk them again .. and to remember.

Vurg's voice was soft as he voiced a question .. mostly for his own benefit. "Kari .. what would you say if you saw me now?"

There wasn't any answer, just Firebird's impatient whinny. Vurg dumped her grain into her feed bin, ignoring her reproachful snort about how long he had taken.

The mouse went to the thatched stable's little window, laying his paws on the sill. "Kari .. they all hated you, I know. But I loved you .. and I wish you were here now. Is .. our son with you?"

He didn't expect an answer, but there was one. "Vurg. We didn't all hate her, you know that."

Vurg didn't have to look behind himself to know it was Luke, and he winced. His friend must have come out here to have time alone, and had likely heard everything he'd said. The silver mouse swallowed hard. "You didn't .. but the tribe did."

Luke's answer was decisive. "They were blind fools to think bad of Kari for things she had no say in."

Vurg paused, stating at length, "I loved her .. as much as you loved Sayna."

Luke shrugged. "There was nothing wrong with that .. I did not judge you."

Vurg sighed. "You are the only one who thinks so .. and perhaps it is best Timbal is gone .. they would have judged him too. He bears the mark his mother did .. though perhaps not as clearly."

Luke looked sad. "The lad would have been a fine beast Vurg .. why else would I be willing to betroth my daughter to him? Ahh .. but that is a thing of the past .. it's best not to dwell upon it."

Vurg shook his head slowly. "No .. I suppose it is best to forget."



Chapter 26 Sailors Take Warning ..

Groddil shoved the little door open, practically diving through the opening as Ferran came around the corner. The black fox growled, shooting a blast of green at Groddil, one that hit the door instead, nearly ripping it off it's hinges!

Ferran was breathing heavily as he gasped, "Give in brother .. I've got you now!"

Groddil ducked behind a shelf, realizing with a flash that they were in the kitchen! In a split second, the silver fox noticed a contrivance hanging from the rock ceiling that resembled a very plain chandelier .. something a beast would hang pots and pans on. It hung on three iron chains, perhaps three feet above a sturdy wooden table.

Groddil's yellow eyes widened as he thought of something .. if only he could get to that table!

But he had to get there .. the silver fox drew a throwing knife, noting he had only three left. Groddil peeked around his shelf, throwing the knife at Ferran and bolting for the table. There was a snarl from his brother as Groddil vaulted himself onto the wooden surface and wheeling to face his enemy.

Ferran was glaring balefully at Groddil, his long hair spilling around him. Groddil started, realizing his knife must have flown in such a way that it cut through his brother's hair-tie. The silver fox pointed his cutlass at the black one, growling, "Ye can shoot that stuff til it kills you fox, or ye can fight like a brave beast, instead of a coward!"

Groddil knew Ferran's soft spots, for sure. The black fox growled deep in his throat, snarling in hatred toward both insult and insulter, "I could kill you now, you fool!"

Groddil snarled back. "A brave deed that is .. you're a stinking coward! Ye hide behind that power of yours .. fight like a real beast! Or are ye afraid? Ye used to be a good swordsbeast!"

Ferran raised his cutlass, almost barking in indescribable fury, "You'll find out who's the coward turn-coat ... in Hellgates!"

The black fox ran at his brother on the table, as Groddil swallowed hard, drawing a knife.

This had better work.

><><

Swartt had been through just about enough .. Lotor be hung. It'd be murder to stick around much longer! No, this was war .. everybeast for himself.

The tall golden ferret bolted towards the stables, a piece of Salamandastron still untouched by woodlanders.

He needed a horse .. and to flee from this massacre. He could start another horde elsewhere .. maybe the far south. The slave trade was well established down there .. a smart beast could get rich pretty fast if they just knew how to use the situation.

Swartt shoved the stable door open, starting at the sight of Slugwort and his daughter, the former saddling an old chestnut. Swartt scowled at his henchbeast, snarling, "Oh and you got down here? Where's that wife of yours?"

Slugwort looked pretty upset, something that Swarrt didn't care one bit about. The rat's voice was worried as he stated, "I donno Capt'n .. I'm gonna try and find her .."

Swartt's mind worked pretty quick, and he cut Slugwort off with a sneer. "Oh no you won't, you're coming with me .. south. I told you I'd get my own horde someday, and by Hellgates I still will! You're going to help me .. or shall I kill you now? You know too much to go free .. I'll make the stakes higher, and say I'll kill the girl too!"

Kinta ducked behind her father in terror, and for once in his life, Slugwort thought of somebeast but himself. The silver rat was easily manipulated, so it wasn't all that surprising what his answer was. "No .. leave her alone! I .. I'll go with ya .. if you promise not ta hurt her!"

Swartt rolled his eyes. "I promise nothing rat. But I shan't kill her now .. come on! Before they come here!"

><><

Xemx was in a fix, and she was cursing it inwardly. Bluefen was carrying the male twin, and had Veil close beside her.

She also had her dirk almost pricking Xemx's back. She'd made the golden rat carry her daughter, too Xemx's disgust.

Bluefen's voice was low as she growled, "Alright, now where are these woodlanders? You of the powers?"

Xemx gulped hard. "Ya sure ya wanna go to 'em? What if they kill us?"

Bluefen snarled, "It's better than the fate I face now .. move. If Swartt finds us I'm dead!"

Xemx was glad Bluefen could not read thoughts .. very glad. For she purposely avoided anybeast she sensed .. she didn't want to face any woodlanders, not with Bluefen to convince them she was evil!

Bluefen herself, had the feeling Xemx was pulling a trick on her, despite the knife and her threats. The golden rat was headed downward .. and hadn't led her captor to any woodlanders as of yet.

Bluefen was seriously considering killing Xemx then and there, taking Bryony and striking out on her own. But where were these woodlanders anyway? She could hear the echoes of battle everywhere, but could see nobeast!

They must already be infiltrating the upper galleries .. where we just left!

The unhappy group had reached the lower caverns, and Bluefen paused as she thought of this .. but Xemx did not.

Bluefen looked up again, to see Xemx had walked around a corner, thinking the blue ferret was directly behind her. Bluefen grabbed Veil's paw, intending to run after the golden rat, when a voice rang out.

A cruel, dark, and far too familiar voice.

"And where do you think you're going?"

Bluefen looked up in terror as Swartt reined the pinto he was riding to a sliding stop, leaping from his saddle in the next second. Bluefen swallowed hard as her wicked husband growled, "I asked you a question wench, where are you going? And what in Hellgates is that?"

Bluefen stammered quickly, realizing Swartt was pointing at Byron. "I .. he .. his mother was dead .. killed in the fighting! We had to leave or we'd have been killed too!"

Swartt sneered at her a moment, as if deciding what to do. After a few seconds, he grumbled, "You should have been one of those cursed woodlanders .. you and your idiotic compassion!"

Bluefen could feel Veil trembling beside her; dreadfully afraid of his father, yet too afraid of his surroundings to try and hide. Swartt huffed in the next second, snarling, "Whatever, keep it. I can have it as a slave when it's old enough .. get on the horse."

Bluefen gulped, knowing she couldn't fight Swartt, he was too strong for her. She squeezed her son's paw, asking with the tiny bit of defiance she had left, "W .. What about Veil?"

Swartt snarled, reaching over and wresting the knife from her. "You don't need that little toy .. yes, bring the brat. Just do it!"

Veil was terrified of the already frightened horse, but his father shoved him on it's back. Bluefen hauled herself on, as Swartt swung up into his saddle. The ferret kicked the animal into a trot as Bluefen did her best to hang on to Veil, Byron, and the horse at the same time.

The world was a blur for her, it flew by in a wash of grays and blacks as Swartt urged his mount toward the gates. They swept out of them and into the red streaked dawn, Swartt practically flogging the poor horse.

The animal nearly leapt off the incline leading to Salamandastron, trying in vain to please a rider that never said enough. Bluefen was forced to grab hold of Swartt due to the speed they were going .. and she could have sworn she saw something out of the corner of her eye .. but she could not say for sure.

However the blue ferret was not wrong in thinking she noticed something, for she had, and that something was Redfarl's squirrels. They had just arrived when a ferret and a few others burst through the gates on a galloping pinto!

Redfarl was holding her loaded bow anyway, and she didn't hesitate. She had barely any time to aim, just a spilt second in which she drew the bow back and shot!

The squirrel queen thought for sure she would miss, but miracle of miracles, her arrow found a mark .. in the large golden ferret's paw!

><><

Swartt yelped in pain as an arrow seemingly flew from nowhere, skewering his prized namesake, his sixclawed paw. The ferret was too afraid of pursuers to even slow his horse, so he did something he would come to regret bitterly later.

The horse still in a lope, Swartt laid his wounded paw on the reins, thinking only of how he must rid himself of the arrow. The next few things happened in a few seconds.

Swartt meant to just yank the arrow out .. but he did not count on the fact the tip was designed to purposely come off in its target. Because it had gone all the way through his paw, the arrow tip simply dropped harmlessly to the ground .. but Swartt's arm and the arrow swung with more power than he'd planned!

Bluefen cried out as the arrow noch caught her across the jaw, tearing a jagged wound. The injured ferret let go of her son for only a spilt second and out of shear pain, but it was enough.

Swartt's elbow smacked Veil hard in the side of the head, just as the horse reared in terror!

Veil was dizzy .. all he knew was that his head hurt and now he was slipping. The little ferret fell just as his father kicked the horse .. hard.

Veil felt the warm back he was seated on simply vanish .. and felt himself falling. The ground was rough and he hit it hard, all his breath knocked forcibly from his lungs. The world spun .. or maybe he was sliding .. Veil didn't know.

All he knew was everything hurt .. and so bad! The little ferret fought to breathe again, choking a gasp in before the world went black.

><><

Xemx was counting herself very lucky .. in fact she was almost certain her luck had come back. Why else would she have walked around a corner just when Swartt showed up?

That lucky break had gotten rid of Bluefen, Veil, and that little unwanted brat .. Byron or whatever that idiot Kesha had called him.

Of course, Xemx still had her daughter .. Bryony or something .. was tired, and had the threat of being found by Velox over her head. The rat wanted somebeast to help her .. some idiot that would fall for her charms, who she could get rid of later.

As she swept around a corner, she noticed a good candidate. He was a weasel, trying to sneak in the direction of the gates .. well that was perfect. All Xemx had to do was to be pitiful, and put on an act.

She swept into view, calling in her best mournful voice, "Sir .. kin ye 'elp me git me .. an' me daughter ta safety?"

The weasel paused .. he looked in a hurry. But his face softened a little .. and Xemx grinned inwardly. Malebeasts never learned.

The weasel nodded at length. "Wull .. alright miss, I'm goin' out da gates though .. I gotta catch up wid somebeast. Me name's Scound, jist so ya know."

He cast a glance at Xemx's baby, something the rat was just a little glad of having at this moment .. it helped inspire pity. Scound's voice was curious as he asked, "Wot's 'er name then?"

Xemx stammered .. she'd barely thought of what Kesha had called the child, and it wasn't her who had named it. "I .. er .. Bryony. Yeah, that's 'er name."

Scound was giving her an odd look .. even among vermin, mothers still cared enough for their children to remember their name without hesitation. Xemx quickly covered up for herself, making up as sad of a tale as she could. "She was born jist a few hours ago .. me mate was killed a little after dat .. an I'm still mournin' .. I ain't thinkin' awful clear."

As she said this, Xemx had to wonder where her mate was .. he didn't know he was a father. However Scound looked satisfied. "Aww dat's too bad miss, I'm sorry fer ye. I'll git ye out .. wait here a minute while I look on ahead."

Xemx saw his point; the tunnel curved off sharply so a beast couldn't see what was around the corner. The golden rat was willing to wait as Scound disappeared from sight to check .. and she regretted her decision as the echo of running boots rang out from behind her.

Xemx wheeled around as a beast ran into view .. none other than Velox.

The pine marten stopped dead as he saw her, a sudden sneer forming on his face as he took in the scenario. His voice was menacing as his expression twisted into a demonic grin .. one of triumph. "Oh so that's where you went .. my little seer. I thought as much .. you disobeyed me."

Xemx was terrified .. fumbling. She set Bryony on the floor, scurrying backwards toward the tunnel wall and gasping, "No .. no it ain't like that! I .. didn't mean to!"

Velox sounded almost crooning. "No, you may have not my seer .. but I warned you. Some things are easily lost."

Xemx gulped, hard. "Now .. wait a minute .. we kin have an agreement! I've learned some Shadow Fightin' .. I kin sense beasts comin' an' ..."

Velox held up a paw, laughing, "Do you think I cannot do this as well .. and far better than you?"

Xemx yelped as she felt something hit her side .. felt herself fly through the air and slam into the far wall. Her landing was softened by the corpse of a stoat killed in a fight, and her paw practically landed on his fallen dirk.

The rat staggered to her feet, grasping it and staring at Velox, who watched her with black amusement. Xemx swallowed hard, mind racing.

This is my only chance .. if I can just kill him .. if I can just kill him ..

She raised the dirk, running at Velox in desperation. The pine marten never batted an eyelash .. just raised a paw.

The last thing Xemx ever saw was a flash of green .. and a taste of Hellgates, her final punishment.

Velox laughed as he stepped haughtily over his seer's mangled body, pausing at the sight of her babe, lying helpless where she had left it.

The pine marten laughed condescendingly, asking nobeast in particular, "I wonder how long a rat baby can live without it's mother?"

Velox sneered at the pitiful little creature at his footpaws as it wailed thinly. His last words were like a final, mocking knell. "Well then little pet .. let's find out!"

However, Velox's words had not fallen upon deaf ears, but Scound's. The weasel looked horrified by all he had seen, and as Velox continued on his way, Scound peered cautiously into the passage. He wanted out before the woodlanders found him .. but it was below him to leave a helpless, orphaned newborn to die!

The weasel scurried to the crying child, gently picking it up and fixing it's blanket. The tiny thing slowly stopped its wails, as Scound asked himself what in the name of the fates he was supposed to do with a baby .. he couldn't keep it.

Scound looked around. Wait! If he could leave it someplace the woodlanders would be sure to find it .. well .. it would have a better chance at life than if he tried to raise it.

><><

It took all of Groddil's self control not to jump back as Ferran charged him, pure fury on his features. The silver fox waited however, waited until his brother was in the very act of jumping onto the table!

Groddil leapt backwards onto the sturdy wooden bench the accompanied his perch, kicking the edge of the table top with all his might!

Ferran landed on a wobbling surface, and about half his long, loose hair swung around, wrapping twice around one of the pot-holder's iron chains and getting stuck in the links!

The black fox jerked back as Groddil had hoped, pulling his ebony hair taunt. However Ferran saw the knife as Groddil threw it, and raised his paw.

In the second the knife found it's mark, Ferran shot .. and Groddil didn't have time to dodge, not completely. The green lighting seared across his side, throwing him to the ground. Groddil felt the world growing cold .. ice cold.

The silver fox looked weakly up in time to see Ferran stagger back like he'd been fatally wounded, collapsing the next second .. or trying to. Groddil's knife hadn't sliced the entire sheaf of hair, and Ferran hung limply by it for a few seconds, before his body weight simply ripped it out of his head.

The black fox slid into an unmoving heap on the floor, as Groddil's vision swirled into cold, ice blue light.

The cold of winter was nothing compared to this .. this felt as though every drop of blood in his veins was freezing to solid ice. Groddil rasped in what he was sure was his last breath as his world froze into emptiness .. glowing white oblivion.

><><

Redfarl, her captain Brush, and Arvid, along with the rest of the squirrels, had reached the gates; and were now staring at the scene of carnage before them.

Redfarl was still disgruntled her earlier shot had only wounded her quarry, all she really knew was she had hit the mounted ferret, and non-fatally. His horse had reared momentarily and there'd been a yelp, but that was all Redfarl really knew.

It was still only predawn light, with a bank of clouds in the southeast, forbidding the sun to rise with any speed. So at the distance it had been, Redfarl couldn't tell quite what had happened .. only that the ferret didn't fall dead from his saddle, and had made a quick getaway.

However the squirrel queen had no more time to think about it, not now that they were faced with deadbeasts everywhere. Redfarl scanned the dimly lit battle field, relieved that most of the dead seemed to be vermin.

Arvid suddenly gasped from beside her, running to the crumpled form of a brown and silver squirrel. The cream colored squirrel prince raised the other's head momentarily, before gently laying the creature back down. "It's Grood .. my father's general! I should have been here .. Grood was my mentor! Why did father make me stay .. why?"

Redfarl's sergeant, Felldoh, and his wife Ashtwig were standing near their queen, and Felldoh murmured to her; "Lady, where are the others?"

Redfarl gulped, shaking her head. "I .. really don't know Felldoh."

Brush's voice was commanding. "Yes Milady, but you have been here before .. we have not. Where are the others most likely to be .. and address your Sargent by his rank, how many times have I told you?"

Redfarl sighed, opening her mouth to say something, when she caught sight of a weasel trying to sneak past them in the shadows. The young squirrel was about to draw an arrow on him, when Ashtwig's voice snarled, "Hey, vermin! Don't move if you value your wretched life .. where are our friends?"

The weasel stopped dead, and Redfarl noticed he was carrying something a little awkwardly. Arvid stood up, starting. "Wait .. Scound?"

The weasel seemed to know he was caught, because he stepped from the shadows, hurriedly defending himself. "Prince .. by da fates I didn't tell on ye, I swear on me honor! I ain't never raised steel 'gainst nobeast neither .. I'm just tryin' ta git out, I promise I aint done nothin' else!"

He suddenly paused, looking down at the bundle he was holding, and light suddenly shone in his eyes. "Hey wait though .. I was tryin' ta leave her were some woodlanders would find her .. I ain't gonna be able ta do nothin' wid her .. I'd kill da poor thing cause I ain't know nothin' about babies. But since yer 'ere anyhow .. here!"

Scound kept a wary eye on Ashtwig and her loaded bow as he thrust his burden into Arvid's paws, stating, "Her mum's dead .. I saw it meself. She tol' me her name was Bryony for she got killed .. ye kin do better by her den I kin .. or maybe some a yer pals. Please lemme go .. I ain't tryin' ta hurt nobeast .. I took time ta save da liddle 'un when I coulda jist run after all .. an I ain't fixin' ta fight nobeast if'n I kin help it!"

Arvid stared down at the tiny black bundle in his paws, stammering, "But I canst .."

Scound shrugged. "Ya but da sweet liddle miss here kin .. or some nice wifebeast ye know of .. now please lemme git out!"

Arvid cut him off, forestalling Brush's retort to Scound's referring to Redfarl as a 'sweet little miss'. "Wait .. if thou is against fighting us, why doesn't thou joinst us? We woulds't see thou safe .."

Scound looked this way and that, shaking his head. "Sorry mate .. right good a ya ta offer though. I'd almost like ta .. but .. wull it jist ain't dat simple!"

Before Arvid could protest, Scound was bolting desperately for the gates. The cream furred squirrel held up a paw before Ashtwig could shoot. "No .. do not slay him! He kept our attack secret whenst he might have told .. that is more than most wouldst do. A life for a life .. I feel wrong to kill him after the favor he gavest us."

><><

Velox was pretty disgusted with the fact he'd had to kill his stupid seer for her disobedience; not because he needed her for anything or couldn't replace her, but simply because she'd disobeyed him in the first place.

His mood was not improved when he caught sight of Lotor, sneaking in the general direction of the gates and holding his right paw rather oddly. However, when the ermine saw him, his first statement made Velox's temper snap.

Lotor's voice was furious as he snarled, "You! Where were you when the attack started .. you who prophesied so much! Or did you let them in just to kill me .. so you could take over? Is this a plot?"

Velox reply was livid. "How dare you accuse me of treason, son of Hellgates?! I was unaware of their presence as you .. that is .. if you really were ignorant, you coward!"

Lotor seethed out his answer. "Oh you've been waiting for this haven't you .. you've been plotting against me! I swear I'll kill you, you rotten turncoat!"

Velox threw off his black cloak, knowing it would only hinder him now. The pine marten ducked a blast of green power, starting a little to see Lotor's right paw was nothing more than a blackened stump.

Velox countered with his own bolt of green fire, hiding his wince as the power left him with a wrench .. like it was being forcibly pulled from him. It was always like this, and the pain only grew each time he used the magic.

However, he had seen Lotor's visible wince when he'd shot the power, and Velox guessed the ermine must have fought with it already.

Perfect. That meant time was on Velox's side.

He jumped over another bolt of lighting, grinning visibly at Lotor's tiny gasp of pain. Velox laughed, suddenly unafraid of his weakened king. "Alright, you want the truth polecat? I have been plotting to kill you for five seasons .. ever since you made that upstart Swartt captain instead of me! And now I'll do the job, since you can't shoot much more of that .. Sire."

The two Shadow Fighters were in one of the windowed hallways, fairly low to the ground level; Velox with his back to the windows and Lotor with his back to the inner wall. Velox could see the terror in his former king's yellow eyes, and he felt cocky.

This was going to be fun!

Lotor suddenly held up his useless stump of a paw, and out of sheer habit, Velox followed suit. But he realized the ermine's trick the next second, as there was a flash of green from his whole left paw!

Velox was amazingly fast as he shot from his right in defense, but the magnitude of his dreadful mistake hit him the next second as the two bolts of power collided with a blinding flash of light!

Velox felt the force of his own power fly back at him, and he flew backwards, slamming into something that felt like a ledge. The pine marten realized with horror that it was a ledge .. of sorts .. it was the sill of a window!

Velox could do nothing but scream as the force he'd been thrown back with toppled him out into open space .. head over heels!

The pine marten felt himself falling .. falling .. the ground was further away than he'd thought. When he finally hit something, it was flat on his back .. but for some strange reason .. he couldn't feel all that much pain. Everything felt numb .. and blurry .. and vague.

Velox tried to lift a paw .. but he couldn't move an inch .. like he no longer had control of his own body. Like he was dying.

><><

Argulor was circling Salamandastron; being of no real use in fighting in the close quarters of the mountain, he was doing his best to pick off any escapers .. although he couldn't catch them all.

However, to his great and unexpected delight, a heather brown creature with chocolate tips tumbled backwards out of a low window, smacking hard onto the rocks below. Argulor swooped around and headed for the broken looking animal, momentarily leaving his pursuit of stragglers to Emalet.

The eagle landed on the crag of rock beside the limp beast with a cry of delight .. for it was a pine marten! Argulor surveyed his newfound delicacy a moment, admitting it was rather mangled .. but still quite edible.

He cocked his head as the creature blinked up at him with bleariness .. looking like it was trying to get up again .. but couldn't move. It choked in a rasping breath before going completely limp as the life fled from it's broken body.

The eagle sighed dreamily. "Ahh .. one wee pine marten ... Ah wonder if they taste like pine?"

Argulor licked his chops in anticipation as he stated in a genuinely sympathetic voice. "Ach, Ah'm sorry you had to go like that laddie, Ah'd have liked to have told you if you tasted like pine. Of course .. you wouldn't be around to hear it anyway. But Ah promise Ah shan't leave you for the gulls .. me little treat!"

Argulor had many good traits, to be fair.

But table manners was never one of them.



Chapter 27 Storms of Old

TPF Chapter 27

Veil and Thalia

Sayna was panting hard as she ran up into the higher galleries, Roderick still on her heels. He didn't seem overly hurried about this .. Sayna felt he must view it as some sort of demented game.

She cast a wild glance over her shoulder, wondering at why the black mouse wasn't trying to hit her with green fire as she ran. Whatever the reason, Sayna was glad as she shoved open a familiar door .. the carved door Lord Boar had lead her through as he took her to his forge room.

Sure enough, Sayna's memory served her well, as she dove behind the now dust covered forge and it's bellows. The mouse whipped her bow off her back, thanking Ignasa Roderick's first hit hadn't snapped her string.

Her tall leather glove on the arm that had been hit, however, was a different story. The top of it was almost completely burnt off, and what was left was seared blackish. Sayna winced as the frayed edge scraped against her bow during the act of drawing it back.

She crouched in the dark shadows about the forge, leveling her bow at the doorway. It went against her pride to shoot such a mortal enemy down like this .. but sometimes pride wasn't everything.

If it had just been her .. she'd have tried harder to face Roderick. But what about Timbal? And Fripple?

No, she'd have to at least try a coward's tactics, and if they failed? Well .. they failed.

Everything happened in a few seconds; Roderick ran through the doorway, Sayna shot, and somehow, the vile black mouse saw it coming. He deflected the arrow .. mostly. However it grazed his left leg, and his brown eyes grew deadly.

Somehow, Sayna knew the play-fight was over as a blast of green tore her bow from her paw, sending it spinning away and out of her reach. The mouse maid quickly unbuckled her quiver ... there was no need for it now, not with her bow destroyed by Roderick's green fire.

It would only hinder in this fight .. Sayna knew. She readied her sword as Roderick came at her hiding place .. like he could see through the shadows.

She bolted to her paws and ran around the other side of the forge, asking herself how she honestly expected to defeat a beast she could not touch. Sayna took a steadying breath .. and prayed.

Oh Lord Ignasa .. it may be selfish .. but I don't want to die! Not like this, not yet! Please .. help me!

Sayna heard nothing .. but there was an answer.

"My daughter, trust in me, and the gift I have given you to fight the darkness .. as of yet, I have work for you on earth."

Sayna looked down at her sword blade, which had the faintest blue aurora around it .. just like Martin's when he fought Lotor! Roderick came around the corner of the forge, triumph in his eyes and a sneer on his face.

Sayna had just enough time to hold up her sword as the black mouse shot fire at her! She couldn't help a moment of fear as the power hit her faintly glowing blade .. dissipating completely.

Sayna's heart leapt as she suddenly understood, and gasped mentally, "Thank you Lord Ignasa .. Thank you! I should have trusted you .."

The reply was inaudible as ever, but held a faint note of chiding. "Why must I show you everything daughter? But come .. use my gift in trust, and see in full what I have given you."

Roderick was gaping at Sayna's blade, now glowing brightly. The mouse maid advanced, and her adversary shot green power that was deflected back at him the next second! Roderick yelped as he jumped over his own bolt of lighting like a singed rat, brown eyes wide.

He quickly resorted to new tactics however, and still had an advantage, seeing as Sayna could not launch fire at him. The mouse maid's vision was tingeing with red again, as rage built in her heart against this evil beast .. and all his vile deeds.

She wasn't completely mad yet, and was begging Ignasa to keep her from it .. she needed precision for this fight.

Sayna leapt back as Roderick left off his rapid fire bombardment for a second, using his power to pick up a disused shield and throw it at his opponent. She ducked to the side, realizing she was disturbingly close to the wall ... especially as her shoulder-length braid caught on a hook, previously utilized for hanging a piece of in badger lord's armory!

She realized the danger of yanking her hair too hard ... but this was bad either way .. so she took her chances. Sayna threw herself away from the wall, surprised by how quickly her braid came free, and because there was no real tearing either!

She staggered to the side, just managing to deflect one of Roderick's bolts .. and realizing what had happened as she saw her leather hair-tie hanging on the hook!

As Trubbs would say .. Oh corks!

Sayna jumped to the side as she thought this, wincing as she felt her hair start to unwind.

The mouse maid gulped hard. Could this situation possibly get worse?

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Timbal had lost track of the others; the melee off battle had scattered just about everyone. There were little duels here and there, but the main body of vermin seemed to all have escaped or been killed, as their leaders seemed to be non-existent.

The mouse had inevitably been unseated from his horse, and had been fighting on foot for some time now. He'd gotten driven out of the barracks by a large, burly weasel .. the same creature that lay dead a few feet away, and headless on top of it.

Timbal allowed his breathing to come to normal as he looked around the passage he was now in .. empty, save for his slain opponent. The brown mouse took a second to assure his tail barb was still affixed properly, and satisfied that it was, set about trying to find where he was, and where the others were.

Having never before been in Salamandastron, the twisting passageways and distorting sounds were confusing to anybeast. Timbal gripped his axe a little tighter, trying to discern the faint echoes he was hearing.

He shrugged, heading in the general direction he felt the noise was likely coming from, and figuring so long as he found somebeast .. whether they be friend or foe .. he would be able to do something.

As he made his way along the dim, windowed tunnel, he had to wonder where Sayna was. He was worried about her especially for three reasons in particular. Number one, they were married, so it was his job to worry about her. Number two .. he actually cared about what happened to her, and knew she wasn't quite as invincible as she seemed.

And number three, no matter if she went on a pointed quest for trouble, or trouble went on a pointed quest for her ... they always had a way of meeting up in the middle.

Also, by way of previous experience, Timbal knew the outcome had a way of being deadly.

He paused momentarily, listening again, as he'd made good progress along the tunnel. The clash of steel was louder now .. and accompanied by a cry of pain.

Timbal froze .. that voice! It was too familiar to be any other beast's .. but Sayna's!

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Sayna herself hadn't the faintest idea Timbal had heard her cry, she'd simply emitted it due to the fact a blast of Roderick's had seared through her boot and across her footpaw. However the black mouse was slowing down .. every time he used the power pain flashed in his eyes.

He was resorting more and more to lighting advances with his sword, although the blade was nicked badly every time Sayna's shining sword came in contact with it.

However, her hair was almost completely loose by now, spilling down her back and nearly onto the floor. In fact .. it was the hair that turned up being the duel's real deciding factor.

Roderick thrust, and Sayna parried with a vengeance .. so hard in fact, her glowing blade sheared his off near the hilt! However this had its cost, as Sayna took a step back to balance herself .. and trod on her own trailing headfur!

The golden warrior fell flat on her back, sword skittering just out of reach. Sayna struggled to sit up as Roderick's panting, but triumphant voice rang out. "Make one move to pick up that sword, and I'll fry you on the spot!"

Sayna froze, glaring at her childhood nemesis, hated enemy, and wicked tormentor. Her voice was a low growl as she answered, "Why don't you, misbegotten worm? It's what you've wanted to do since the first time we laid eyes on each other. And I'll have you know, the feeling is more than mutual!"

Roderick laughed. "We always hated each other, didn't we .. my dear? Maybe it was because you always had so much more than me."

Sayna couldn't rightly move, but she snarled, "Quit calling me that .. you sick freak! I am only one beast's dear .. and I praise Ignasa he's not like you!"

Roderick sneered. "Oh never fear darling .. I'll deal with him next. As for your Ignasa .. he won't save you!"

Sayna would have liked to leap up and take Roderick on single-pawed, for her vision was completely clouded with red. The mouse Shadow Fighter smirked. "Oh, is the little mouse-queen angry? I suppose I've had my fun .. and I was right. You will die .. alone."

Sayna braced herself, fingers itching to draw a knife. She was about to throw all caution to the winds and do so anyway, when something unexpected happened .. something that made Sayna's heart freeze in terror.

><><

Timbal had run around the corner of the tunnel he was in, coming face to face with the massive door of the forge, and about the worst sight he could've thought up.

That being, non other than Roderick had Sayna pinned on the floor. For the first few seconds, Timbal was confused at why Sayna did not leap up and throttle her seemingly weaponless enemy ... but the black burnt marks all about he forge testified true .. Roderick was a Shadow Fighter!

Who else could cause so many fire stains in a place with no fire?

At first Timbal felt as though he might go about this carefully, but Roderick's last statement reached his ears .. and filled him with total fury. The mouse jumped from the shadows in the doorway, axe and tail at the ready, throwing caution to the winds as he yelled, "Oh no she won't rat .. face me you coward!"

Roderick dodged Timbal's initial swipe with the axe, as Sayna bolted into action .. or tried to. She'd fallen on her hair, and while that didn't stall her more than a few seconds .. it did for just one moment too long.

The next few things happened so fast it made Timbal dizzy. Roderick shot a blast of green power from one paw, something Timbal dodged as fast as he could. However the next second another bolt of lighting grazed the blade of his outstretched axe, sending it flying back toward him!

Timbal couldn't stop the axe, or even move .. everything was too fast! There was a terrible flash of pain in his shoulder, and then he was flying backwards .. falling to the lava floor with a gasp as the agony intensified brutally.

That must be the end then .. and after all he'd been through! Because while he wasn't dead as of yet, Timbal knew Roderick would be onto him any second .. but he wasn't .. not yet.

And as a cry of absolute horror and fury rang from somewhere nearby .. Timbal guessed the reason.

><><

Sayna's vision went totally red as Timbal was thrown backwards, his own axe lodged in his shoulder. She threw the knife she'd drawn only seconds before, leaping up and seizing her fallen sword as Roderick yelped in pain!

Sayna wheeled around, blood red vision revealing Roderick laying on the floor, the knife through one arm! The golden mouse was beyond trying to have any precision with her sword as she swung it, so what happened next truly was the work of Lord Ignasa.

With the very last of his strength, Roderick shot a bolt of green lighting at his attacker .. his last hope. However it was intercepted by her swinging sword .. and deflected back at him!

There was a flash as the power hit Roderick in the torso, throwing him forcibly across the forge room, where his mangled body slammed into the wall .. and crumpled lifeless to the floor!

Sayna too, was thrown back by the force and onto the ground, and lost her grip on her sword. However this managed to clear her head, and she felt the fiery fury of Bloodwrath recede .. to be replaced by dread as the mental image of what had sent her into the madness returned.

She wheeled around, not even bothering to go after her sword as she saw Timbal, still where he'd fallen. Sayna scrambled to her feet and ran to his side, grabbing one of his paws .. a little less than gently in her fear. "Timbal ... oh Timbal why? It was my fight .. it was always destined to be .. oh why did you stop him?"

Timbal was still awake, only just. "Sayna .. he would have killed you .."

Sayna felt tears grow in her eyes as she assessed the situation and was faced with the answer she dreaded .. she couldn't stop fate's inevitable cruelty. "Maybe he would have but .. but .."

Timbal coughed, gasping, "And he would have come after me .. and then Fripple had he known .. he had to be stopped .."

Sayna's vision swam as she whispered, "Your life is not worth ten of his!"

Timbal's blue eyes dimmed a little as he murmured, "I .. didn't give it to him .. I gave it .. to you."

Sayna couldn't hold in a sob, and this time she didn't really want to .. this time, she wanted to cry. "You can't go .. you can't!"

However there was no answer, and Sayna closed her eyes against fate, tears loosened. She snapped her eyes open the next second as a lock of hair slipped in front of her face .. a tiny spark of hope shining in the darkness.

Germaine had said just a few strands of her hair had saved Martin's life! If it could save him ..

Sayna pulled a chunk of hair over her shoulder, realizing in total gratitude Timbal was still breathing .. weakly, but alive! She franticly wrapped the thick bunch of hair about the bleeding wound, drawing a throwing knife. The golden mouse winced as she wrapped her paw around the pole of the axe, yanking it from Timbal's shoulder as smoothly as possible.

She seized the knife, placing it against the section of hair and slashing with all her strength. Sayna's world turned to ice again almost instantly, just like on the day she'd received the flower.

And just like then, everything morphed into a sea of glowing white .. an endless sea.

><><

Groddil knew he was dead. He had to be.

So .. was this the lands beyond? Everything seemed quiet .. but as Groddil blinked his blurry eyes open, he got the odd feeling he was in the same room he had left.

It was a little different, with the rose stained morning spilling softly in the window, illuminating Salamandastron's kitchen with gentle light. However, Ferran still lay in a heap by the table, his black hair still caught in the chains of the utensil holder. Half of the hair on his head was light silver now, giving him a skunk-like quality.

Groddil shifted a little, bracing himself for pain like he'd felt just before he'd blacked out .. but nothing happened!

The fox stared down at his seared and blackened leather armor in confusion, noting how it had been completely burnt off on one side, revealing smoke darkened chainmail.

Groddil gaped as he realized this was where the power had hit him .. that would likely have been fatal! He really should have died ..

So why hadn't he?

Groddil tried to get to his paws, but they trembled weakly .. he doubted they could support his weight. The fox lifted his head slowly, as he felt dizzy and slightly nauseous .. like he'd been knocked out and left for dead.

His paw trembled as he tried to push himself into a sitting position .. but a wave of blackness swept over him as he slumped once again to the floor. Groddil lay still for a few minutes before trying again, and this time it was easier.

The fox sighed as he wearily sat up, gaze falling on his patiently waiting cutlass just a few feet away. Groddil seized hold of it, using it like one might a staff to struggle to his paws.

His legs were terribly unsteady as he stumbled over to the table, peering across it at his limp brother, as if expecting him to leap to his feet and continue the fight. However the black fox lay still .. deathly still.

Groddil gave the raven wing black hair caught in the iron chain a long look, before laying his cutlass on the table, well within reach. He took hold of the ebony headfur and untangled it, feeling it seem to tingle the tiniest bit in his paws.

The silver fox looped the loose hair over one arm, taking hold of his cutlass and walking around the table toward Ferran.

This had gone on too long .. and Groddil intended to make an end to it.

><><

Iona was far from being in the best state of mind, in fact, she was pretty frantic. The pine marten had done exactly as she'd said she would, and done a good job of it too.

She'd left the cellars, spreading rumors among the night guard, and then kept out of the woodlander's way .. after all, they didn't know who she was, at least not the ones in the cavalry.

However as the fighting died down and moved to other sections of the mountain, Iona had slipped from her hiding place in a tiny shadowed grotto in the wall, brushing messy curls from her eyes.

She'd started for the barracks, where she figured Buff might be, and it hadn't been long before she'd stumbled across Quinn .. quite literally. In fact she'd tripped over his tail and nearly face planted.

Now she sat with him in a shadowed corner she'd dragged him to, trying to bind up her still unconscious friend's wounds. The fox looked almost like he'd been thrown into the rock wall, as the fur on his side was matted with crimson, and his ribs felt .. strange.

In fact, they pained their owner greatly, something Iona discovered as she tried to tie the bandage tighter. Quinn groaned a little and he blinked his eyes open, taking in the surroundings a minute before rasping, "Iona .. there's a .. Shadow Fighter .."

The pine marten gulped, looking around the empty corridors with worry, before asking, "W .. where?"

Quinn's pale eyes scanned the area once more, before he sighed, voice tight. "I .. think dey're gone .. it was Ferran .. 'e threw me 'gainst the wall .. an' I don't remember no more .."

Iona wasn't a healer, and neither did she like healing. The pine marten winced, asking, "Are .. well .. does it hurt awful much ..?"

Quinn moaned a little, answering, "Yea .. I think I musta landed on me side wrong .. feels like somethin's broken .. fer sure .."

Iona gulped. "Well .. what'd ya want me ta do? I sure wish Kesha were here .."

Quinn coughed, wincing as another jolt of pain must have shot through his ribs. "Yea .. you an' me both .. jist try bandagin' em pretty tight .. an' we'll 'ave ta hope somebeast comes along .. cause I ain't moven, that's fer certain."

><><

Thalia hadn't taken active part in the battle, mostly because she really wasn't that skilled with any weapons, and Beddle deemed it best she not go.

However, when Redfarl and her tribe had arrived and left with Arvid, Thalia couldn't help but be curious. Was the battle over? It had certainly started by now, right? And who was winning?

The little rabbit followed the squirrels to the edge of the woodland, watching as they made their way across the dunes toward Salamandastron, the gray light of dawn slowly brightening the landscape.

It was then Thalia made up her mind. She needed to see what was happening. For some unknown reason, she felt as though she must find out what was going on. Like if she didn't, she would let someone down.

Like she was needed.

Whiskers trembling in nervousness and a hard lump of apprehension growing in her heart, Thalia bolted after the squirrels, silent as a shadow.

They needn't know she was here .. they would only forbid her coming.

But she knew she must go! That gentle voice she had learned to trust was guiding her .. instructing her. A voice she now knew was Lord Ignasa's .. and she knew she must obey him, no matter the outcome.

The sun had began to only subtly rise in the sky, casting long, dark and confusing shadows of early morning across the shore as Redfarl, her troops, and their unknown follower reached the mountain. The squirrel queen and her army started ascending the ramp leading up to the gates, but Thalia stopped in the dunes, hiding worriedly behind one.

She wasn't sorry to have done this, because just as the squirrels reached the gate, a mounted vermin shot by them!

Redfarl shot at him, and being at a higher vantage point than Thalia, the rabbit could understand how the dark of early morning might have hidden all she saw from the squirrel and her tribe.

But Thalia had been spared nothing. She'd seen the arrow strike the ferret in his paw, saw his horse rear .. but most importantly, saw the little creature fall just as the horse was spurred again into action.

Apparently Redfarl had seen nothing, as she continued through the gates. But Thalia paused only a minute before hurrying to where she'd seen the small beast land.

The rabbit ran up the dune covered in hoof prints, casting about until she saw the pile of huddled, dirty fur. Thalia was cautious as she slid down the dune to the thing's side, nervously turning it over.

The creature was a very young, male ferret, scratched and unconscious. Thalia tentatively wiped a trickle of blood from a scratch on the smaller creature's forehead, almost afraid to touch him. He was a vermin, and who knew what one could do .. no matter how young and wounded.

However his youth and battered state inspired Thalia's pity, making her forget her fear momentarily. She gently picked the younger beast up, surprised by the fact he was heavier than she'd expected.

When she stood, Thalia realized she'd best take the ferret to a healer .. and that meant into the looming mountain.

The rabbit hesitated a moment .. just one. But she knew she would have to try .. she felt Lord Ignasa would want it.

Thalia wasn't a terribly deep thinker when she wasn't trying to be one, so it didn't really cross her mind to ask Ignasa why she felt this half-dead ferret was important. But she knew there was just something about him.

Just ... something.

He didn't look like much of anything, lying limp and bleeding in his benefactor's arms as she carried him into Salamandastron. He looked like nothing but a pile of messy fur.

Yet Thalia somehow knew she'd been sent to save this vermin's child .. and that he would be something different .. something special .. somehow.

The rabbit hurried through the gates of the mountain, out of the already humid summer morning and into the cool, cave-like darkness. It was quiet here, save receding echoes, but Thalia felt shivers run up her spine at the sight of the many fallen.

She gulped, fumblingly grabbing a dead rat's spear and holding it clumsily because of her burden. It wasn't that Thalia really knew how to use a spear, and she couldn't fight holding the ferret ... but there was a sense of security being armed in a place of so much death.

The rabbit stumbled gamely along for a while, choosing a tunnel leading upward that had windows in it .. she didn't like the thought of being in the dark in this frightening scenario. However the ferret, small as he was, grew heavy to carry .. very heavy. Thalia set him down, kneeling beside him and trying to wipe some blood from a scratch off his face. He was a pretty little creature, by far one of the handsomest ferrets Thalia had set eyes on.

Most members of the species had buff or heather brown as their main fur color, but not this child. His fur was gold beneath blood and grime, and his mask and points faded from rich chocolate to pure ebony. Thalia gently stroked his unruly headfur, picking up his limp right paw .. a paw that had one more claw than it should have.

Thalia frowned a little, but shrugged off the feeling of surprise. Somebeasts were simply born slightly deformed in that way .. it certainly wasn't anything to be jugemental about.

Still ... six claws. Sixclaw! Where before had she heard of a creature named Sixclaw?

Thalia scratched an ear, shoving the thoughts away. No, it was just one of her paranoid, unreasonable suspicions .. nothing to be worried about. The child had a simple and unhindering deformity .. that wasn't his fault.

She put her arms beneath him once more, stating, "Don't worry little one .. I'm going to get you somebeast to fix you up. It's going to be alright .. the marks have taken care of all the vermin .. that is .. bad .. grown up vermin. I hope anyway ..."

She froze in true terror as a low, almost pained growl rang out. "Oh but they didn't take care of all of us rabbit .. and they won't be here to save you."

It had been pure misfortune for Thalia to have picked the tunnel leading up that Lotor was using to escape. Now the white ermine drew steel with his whole left paw, and the little rabbit grabbed hold of her spear .. trembling. Something that might have been a condescending smile flew across the usurper's face, followed quickly by pain as he jostled his right paw, something that made Thalia cringe as she saw it was nothing but a bloody stump. She laid the helpless ferret down again as Lotor advanced, menacing him feebly with the spear and stammering, "D .. don't come .. any closer ... I'll .. stop you!"

Lotor laughed, sneering, "What a brave little warrior ... do ya know how to hold that thing? It's a bit hefty for you sweetie .. I'd not be a gentlebeast if I left you to carry it."

He disarmed the rabbit with an expert flick of his cutlass, sending the spear clattering to the floor. Thalia gulped hard, knowing she couldn't fight this ermine ... she didn't know how too fight at all! The little rabbit trembled, calling, "Help! Somebeast ... please!"

Lotor smirked. "I'm afraid you lose rabbit .. no one will hear you!"

But for once, Lotor was wrong.

><><

Groddil had his paw buried in his unconscious brother's remaining black hair, cutlass ready to shear every last piece off, when a desperate cry rang from the hallway outside. The silver fox let go of Ferran's hair on instant, realizing it was a maid's voice and it sounded like she was in dreadful trouble!

He stumbled, running toward the door, still clumsy from his near-death experience. Groddil shoved the main kitchen door open to see none other then Lotor, ready to kill one of the smallest hare maids the fox had seen.

He snarled, pointing his drawn cutlass at Lotor. "Get away from her, or face me! Come on Shadow Fighter .. care to face a beast your own size?"

Lotor paused, looking down right mad. He looked down at his left paw, clenched around his cutlass hilt .. and seemed to realize something. The ermine bared his teeth at Groddil in fury, before turning and bolting out of the passageway toward the gates.

The fox made to bolt after him, but stumbled to his knees as his still weakened legs buckled beneath their owner. The small hare maid looked at him cautiously, and Groddil recalled his fur was still dyed brown, making him look unfamiliar. The fox sat down, deciding not to try and force himself back on his paws instantly. "It's alright lass .. Thalia, isn't it? I'm Groddil, the one who came with the marks ... this brown fur is just dye."

Thalia relaxed somewhat, stating, "S .. sorry sir .. I was just frightened after ... he threatened me."

She turned around suddenly, running over to a crumpled heap of fur Groddil had not previously noticed. The little maid .. whom Groddil now recalled was a rabbit .. picked it up, bringing it for her savior's inspection. "I found him out in the dunes sir .. he fell off a horse. I don't think he's going to die .. but he needs help .. are you a healer?"

Groddil frowned, surveying the ferret. It wasn't as young as he'd have liked .. and the fox couldn't help but have doubts on the child's future choices. However something overlaid suspicion .. something in Groddil's heart that he had not summoned.

"Do not judge the veil yet ... the conqueror's seeker son must conquer his own path. Whether he will be evil or not, is his own choice .. let him make it."

><><

Timbal came awake slowly, to almost complete silence. There was a faint echo here and there, but the noises of battle were all but gone. Well of course, he'd died. And there was no fighting in the Lands Beyond.

The mouse didn't bother trying to open his eyes at first, just lay still, trying to discern the faint and very few echoes he was hearing, wondering at what could be making them. Also, he slowly realized something rather heavy seemed to be lying across him. Timbal blinked his eyes open a little weakly, coughing and trying to move his paw .. but whatever was on top of him was on the paw too.

The mouse turned his head, to realize what was on him ... Sayna. A dreadful suspicion was growing in Timbal's mind as he murmured, "Sayna ... you didn't cut your hair ... you can't have!"

She neither answered, nor moved, which was enough to confirm Timbal's fears. He struggled to sit up, and Sayna crumpled to the floor, unmoving. Sure enough, she had another gray streak in her headfur, a thick one this time. Timbal blinked as his eyes adjusted, and he saw the shimmering, disintegrating hair that was wrapped about his shoulder .. something that was no longer the slightest bit injured. Timbal tried to pick the crumbling headfur up, but it turned into a shower of shimmering dust as he jostled it more, for it's magic was gone.

The mouse didn't stare at it long, instead he put a paw under Sayna's shoulders, begging, "Don't be dead Sayna, please! Oh why did you do it .. why? You said you would never cut it .. I made you promise because I knew this would happen ... the hair is what keeps you alive! If you cut it ..."

Timbal could say no more. He simply picked Sayna up, asking dryly, "Why did you do it?"

But he knew. It was that same fire that drove him to confront Roderick in the first place ... the fire that had driven Sayna to save his life the first time.

It was a fire that could never truly die.

Timbal didn't move. He didn't bother. He wasn't sure where to go from here anyway ... was this truly the end? The hair was magical .. and Sayna had a lot of golden hair left .. maybe she wouldn't die. But she certainly seemed dead .. and last time she'd cut it, she hadn't even lost consciousness. Of course, she'd cut a lot less that time.

The scuff of boots rang from the corridor, and Timbal looked dully up to see none other than Redfarl, staring at him in horror. "Sayna? Timbal .. she's not ... she can't be dead! Sayna has magic hair .. she's got to be ok .. right?"

Timbal could see the young squirrel maid knew the truth of the matter, just wouldn't let herself believe it. He looked away as Redfarl stammered a little brokenly, "I'll get help ... anyone .. Willow or another healer ... she won't die! Not even if she did!"

Redfarl took off like a singed rat, not bothering to think that her last statement had made no sense whatsoever. Timbal understood her reaction .. she and Sayna were like siblings almost, and had been since the wars for Mossflower. The mouse sighed, eyes dull. He should have guessed this would happen .. but why did it have too?

Sayna lay still .. although Timbal could have almost told himself she wasn't as pale as when he'd first awoke. She looked just about normal, and Timbal frowned as he noticed she was breathing .. faintly to be sure, but breathing! Had he simply not noticed it?

Whatever the case, Timbal was really beyond caring about his powers of observation as Sayna coughed, blinking blearily up at him. Timbal grabbed one of her paws, asking, "Sayna? You're alive?"

Sayna closed her eyes again, groaning, "I don't know ... I don't think so .. too tired to be alive ..."

Timbal breathed a sigh of relief, stating, "If you can talk, you're alive."

He paused a moment, recalling how scared he'd been. "And I told you not to cut the hair! You said you wouldn't!"

Sayna was almost asleep, but she mumbled, "I .. didn't want to .. but you would have died."

Timbal sighed .. Sayna would always be Sayna. And of course .. he wasn't terribly sorry either .. just every once in a while.



Chapter 28 Winds of Fortune, Times of Change

TPF Chapter 28

Trimp's story at the inn :3

Luke and Vurg were seated on their cart, driving into Evenglade for the day. They'd left Cardo, as the old mouse was not terribly excited about walking all day.

Vurg leaned against the back of the cart, casting a glance at Luke, who had the reins. "I say Luke, what's the agenda for today? We've really got nothing to sell, not since the rains stopped."

Luke slapped Firebird gently with his driving whip, stating, "Oh, there's a few things we need, and besides, a bachelor's life is dull, even among friends. Sometimes I just like to hear the news from other lands .. what battles have been won or lost .. the like."

Vurg laughed easily. "No matter how old you get mate, your heart always longs to be a warrior once more."

Luke sighed. "Yes .. I suppose that is the way I was born. Adventure .. excitement .. valor .. huh. All grand things we're a mite old for. I don't know if I'd recognize adventure even if it came and walloped me one."

Vurg yawned, twirling his silver mustache. "Oh you'd know matey .. you'd know. You always know.

Luke gave Vurg a look, stating, "Don't go yawning .. you'll make me tired. Ho hum .. see? Now you've gone and done it!"

Vurg leaned back, closing his eyes. "Brother, you're a great nuisance when a chap's in need of some sleep."

Luke rolled his eyes. "You slept all night old one. Now wake up, we're here."

Vurg sat up, stating, "I knew that. Hear all that marketplace bartering? You can hear that three miles off and under a flat rock!"

He curled his whiskers a bit, asking, "Luke, why don't we stop by the inn, get the latest news, and go to the market after the sun's zenith .. it'll be quieter then."

Luke pulled Firebird to a halt outside the weather beaten inn, stating as he jumped off the cart, "Suits me mate .. the hustle of a busy market isn't my thing. Besides, it's summer, the time for traveling. So who knows what we may hear?"

The mouse tied Firebird's reins over a hitching post, before following Vurg inside. The Evenglade inn was a quaint little place, run by a jolly old shrew and his wife, who were themselves driven out of Mossflower by Verdauga's conquest. Luke and his friends got on quite well with the two, being able to discuss some of the old things.

The shrew was son of the Guosim Log-a-log, therefore a sort of prince himself, although it was common knowledge that the Guosim as a tribe were extinct, slaughtered and scattered to the winds by Verdauga.

Luke hailed his friend by the name he enjoyed being called, as undignified as it was. "Hey Logs old matey, what's the word on the latest gossip and such eh?"

Logs, as he preferred his name to be, stated, "Ahoy you old mouse warrior, gossip? I never gossip, simply spread the word along. And just before you came in I was sayin' ta me Daisy, we sure ought ta tell ol' Luke a what we heard, cause he was bound to be interested. An' no sooner then I says it, why ..."

Vurg interrupted the talkative shrew. "Begging your pardon Logs, but what is it?"

The shrew wiped his paws on his tunic, nodding to him. "Always to the point Vurg .. ya wouldn't be Vurg if ya wasn't. Come on then, this young gal who's stopped by me inn for a few days seems to be a great un for telling tales .. ya can probably hear her yourself. Cause we all know I'd get stuck on the details .. an' that has a way a ruining the whole story. Here we are."

Logs had led them to the open air porch at the back of his inn, where a group of creatures were gathered, including Logs' wife, Daisy. In their midst was a pretty hedgehog maid who might have been twenty seasons at best, telling a very animated tale .. so animated in fact, she was almost acting it.

She raised a paw, stating, "Mossflower'd lain in shambles for seasons on end; the Corim was our only hope .. an' I was part of that .. a few seasons ago it twas. We couldn't do much, not with that wildcat breathin' down our necks and then his kitty-daughter after she took over from him. Ol' Bella a Brockhall kept us together she did, waitin for the marks ta come. An' her faith weren't wrong I tell ye, cause they came, all four of 'em! Four a' the greatest warriors I ever set eyes on, the strongest mice ye'd never seen. There's the mark a da rose, an' course, 'er name is Rose cause it wouldn't be nothing else. She's an archer, a great shot an da kindest a da four, most peaceful too. Den there's the mark of the leaf, has a great long handle I ain't never got me mouth around, even his shorter handle is a strange un, so I'll just call him Tim fer ya. He's an axe fighter, I never seen a better one, an' his tail is as good as any whip, long as one too, an' he can sure use it!"

The hedgehog drew in a breath, seemingly not to have taken one all throughout this tirade. However she continued the next second, this time astounding Luke and Vurg more then they were already.

"But the high king an queen aren't like any I've seen. They have great, unbreakable swords, an' just as it was said, they have fur like shinein' gold! The mark of the feather, she's like a shadow of the king, sept with a hawk's eyes .. black as ebony. Her name's an odd'un .. Sayna. Some say it ain't her name, say she named herself cause she ran away from home once an was done wid what dey named her .. a right rebel that'un is. The mark a the star is the high king .. though he ain't married ta the high queen, but queen Rose. Anyhow, he's shining gold like his twin .. though they ain't siblings. He's a strong warrior, a fierce one so he is. Martin's his name .. aye Martin."

The narrator continued her tale, growing more animated than she was. "The cat queen had an' army of a thousand, I tell ye true! She was ready ta wipe us off the map, but king Martin stopped her. A paw ta paw duel so it was, musta been the greatest fight ever! Queen Rose helped him, and together, they slew that vile beast! Killed by her own poisoned scepter, somethin' she'd killed many a goodbeast wid, me father included. The marks served justice to those rotten filth heads I tell ya, an Mossflower grows better everyday they sit rulin .. long may they live, I say! A toast to them, and the peace they brought!"

There was a cheer from the listeners, Logs and Daisy included. The only two that could not speak were Luke and Vurg, who were staring almost wildly at each other, hardly daring to hope. As the crowd dispersed, Vurg made his way to the hedgehog maid, asking almost shakily, "Miss .. can we speak with you?"

She smiled at him. "Sure ya can sir! Me name ain't 'miss' though, it's Trimp. Trimp the Rover. Jist Trimp is dandy a course. What's they call you an your silent friend eh?"

Vurg made the introduction, seeing as Luke still could not speak for his amazement. "I am Vurg, my friend is called Luke the Warrior."

Trimp interrupted brightly. "Warrior huh? Yea, he looks like a warrior. Me, I'm a rover. Don't bring steel 'gaist any vermin lest they bring it 'gaist me .. then let 'em watch out says I. Anyways, ya was sayin'?"

Luke finally seemed to break from his trance, stammering, "Mis ... I mean Trimp .. is what you say true? Of these marks .. and of Mossflower?"

Trimp's eyes hardened a little as she asked defensively, "You callin' me a liar? I ain't fibbin' like I do sometimes, on me oath! Just cause I'm prone ta exaggeratin' sometimes don't mean I ain't on the level now ..."

Vurg held up a paw, realizing Trimp was quick to assume, as well as exaggerate. "Now Trimp, Luke wasn't saying you were lying, he's just shocked by all you've said, as am I."

The fiery hedgehog maid looked somewhat happier. "Well ok sir, but .. why's it so shocking?"

Luke shook his head. "Martin .. Martin my son I thought died? Trimp, does this Martin look a lot like me?"

Trimp gave the warrior mouse a good sizing up. She nodded at length. "Ya, sure he does! Why now that ya mention it, he's yer spittin' image .. though, if ya don't mind me sayin' so, he's a mite younger'n you. Ya say he's yer son? I heard his da an' mum was dead .. how's that work, huh?"

Luke shrugged. "He probably thinks I am dead."

Trimp scratched her head. "Hmmm .. interestin'. How'd he get ta thinkin' a thing like that of his own patter?"

Luke looked away. "I ... it's my my fault. I thought he was dead."

Trimp raised an eyebrow. "A right ol' mess a family relations eh? Right, well I shan't ask, wouldn't like ta be called nosy ya know. A body's liable ta get called all sorts a things they ain't if they aren't careful."

Vurg couldn't help but smile at this irrepressible young creature, as he took over from Luke, who looked downcast.

Trimp seemed to feel guilty at the warrior's demeanor. "Hey I ain't meanin' nothin' sir, I just love a good story. Shouldn't a asked nothin course .. ain't proper manners. I'm awful sorry sir .."

Vurg laid a paw on her shoulder. "It's ok Trimp, Luke's not angry with you, I promise. We've all .. made some bad choices in the past, ones we've paid for heavily. But I must ask you a question .. this mark of the leaf .. the mouse king you said had a tail like a whip ... what is his full name?"

Trimp shrugged. "Aww don't make me try an' say it sir, I'm bound to get it all wrong ya know."

She sighed, seeing Vurg's determined look. "Oh, ok, but don't ya report me ta nobody for sayin' royalty's name poor. Let'see .. it's somethin real strange, like Timbalsto. No, no, that ain't right, more like Timballista. No, somehow that ain't sounden' proper either .."

Vurg interrupted. "By chance, is it Timballisto?"

Trimp looked surprised. "Why that's the very handle sir .. how'd you know?"

Vurg's paw trembled as he sat down on the bench of a nearby table, stating softly at length, "Because he's my son .. my son I lost to the sea raiders .. my son I gave up ever seeing again. Trimp ... where are they?"

><><

At Redwall, tensions were high once more, as Formole and Dinny's discovery on the south wall could not be kept a secret. There was general worry all around, fear that Kotir should collapse and bring the south wall down, and possibly more.

It didn't die down very well, because Soilflyer, posted to listen for further developments, kept reporting more rumbles here and there. Foremole told the others he highly suspected a part of Kotir .. likely the old cathedral .. was crumbling due to an unknown circumstance. Nobeast could say what was causing it however, and there were wild guesses all around, from ghosts to underground flooding to the notion Redwall was too heavy to sit upon Kotir's outer north wall.

None of this was doing anything about the situation, and it was Foremole's unfailing logic that won out in the end. He commissioned Dinny, Billum, and Soilflyer to dig a tunnel out to see what the ruckus was.

The three moles went about the task with enthusiasm, but also caution. Gingivere and Whegg, along with the otter Mask, stood on the south parapet, instructed by Foremole to see if they could spot any sinking or movement.

For once, the homely old mole that had done so much under the orders of others, was in full control. Nobeast even thought to argue .. after all, Foremole knew far more then they about this sort of thing.

Dinny, Soilflyer, and Billum had been gone a good while, when Dinny himself crawled out of the tunnel, stating, "Ho hurr .. Gran'pa? We'm found a gurt wall!"

Foremole trundled over to his grandson, asking, "A gurt wall? Boi 'okey .. what's it be made of?"

Dinny shrugged. "Hurr it do be red stones, cut red stones .. an a moight ol'uns too. Older'n Redwall boi far it do be. Soilflyer an Billum do be commin' out after me .. ol' Billum says it's not a bit stable down there, burr oi."

Soilflyer and Billum hurried from the tunnel, the former shouting, "Boi 'okey we'm shored her up, but she'm baint about to hold, so she'm baint!"

><><

Up on the south wall, the tension had gone down somewhat. Yar had joined Gingivere, Mask, and Whegg, her eyes sharper than theirs.

The little magpie ruffled her glossy feathers, stating, "Karriie! It seems well my friends."

Whegg shrugged. "It probably is .. Yar, what ever 'appened wid those pals a yers, the Doomwytes?"

Yar shuddered. "Krrawwwk! They're no pals of mine, those worms .. they would have killed me."

A little voice piped up from behind her. "Nuh uh, I likes yu Yar, an' if anybody don't, I sticks em wif this!"

Yar sidestepped to miss being hit by Luke's ill-timed wooden sword thrust. She laughed, something her woodland friends heard her do more and more. "Krawww you young terror! Yes, Rigvar might loose all his feathers if he saw you."

The little bird grew serious as she stated, "But why are you here Luke, it's dangerous! Where's queen Rose?"

Luke scowled. "Mum is busy an Sandygomm an muvver Abbess sent me an' Roseanna way."

Yar smiled at Roseanna as the little mouse clambered onto her back and buried her paws in Yar's feathers. It had been a shock to all, even Rose, when Roseanna had become a fast friend of Yar. She would follow the magpie around like a shadow, and never showed even the slightest hint of wanting to bite her.

Yar blinked at Luke, asking, "Why would they send you away?"

Luke shrugged, and Gingivere murmured something in Yar's ear. The magpie looked surprised, then nodded. "Krrayy, I see. But they cannot stay here, what if ..."

She paused. "Kreee! Can any of you feel that?"

Whegg looked confused. "Feel wot? I can't .. hey wait .."

Mask spoke, pointing out onto the flatlands. "Look!"

All the creatures peered over the walltops, and Luke jumped up and down in vain attempt to do the same. Out on the flatlands was a spot about the length of another abbey from the wall .. a spot that was sinking down!

Before their eyes, a crack split away from the small sinkhole, running straight for the abbey!

Mask leaned over the parapet a little as Luke jumped beside him, calling, "Mista Mask, I wanna see! Not fair I don't getta see!"

The tailless otter put a friendly but firm paw on his head, one that successfully kept the little mouse from jumping wildly about. Luke scowled as Mask grabbed him, but grinned widely as the strong otter lifted him so he could just see over the battlements. The little mouse giggled, unmindful of any danger. "Oooh the grounds doing funny stuff mista Mask .. higher! I wanna sit on your shoulders!"

Mask shook his head, staring as the crack ripped its way in front of Redwall. Gingivere bolted around toward the front wall, in hopes of seeing where and if the cleft in the earth stopped .. the others were close on his tail.

Whegg was the fastest runner, so he got there first. The rat breathed a sigh of relief as his companions crowded around him. "Mates, it looks like it's stopped .. don't look real deep ta me. Just somethin' from the cathedral colapsin' all the way .. but we'd best tell Foremole about it."

As Whegg hurried for the wall steps, Yar squawked, "Krrreee! I wonder what caused all this in the first place?"

Gingivere sighed. "I guess we'll never know Yar .."

Mask interrupted, stating, "I would not be so sure."

Before Gingivere could ask what he ment, the otter had plopped Luke on his shoulders, asking, "You wanted a ride mister Luke? Hang on .. I'll take you for a ride .. down the wall stairs!"

Luke didn't care where he went, evidenced by his happy squeals. "Fasta mista Mask! Fasta!"

Gingivere and Yar followed more sedately, the later with Roseanna on her back. But little did they know as they left the wall tops, they were watched by a pair of eyes.

Hateful black eyes, glittering with desired revenge.

><><

The midday sun over Salamandastron saw all battle come to a halt. The vermin that were left fled, having no leaders to guide them. Martin called off all pursuit, ordering all to have their wounds seen to and find whatever food there was to be found about the mountain.

Willow set up a sickbay in some of the upper barracks, and got Ffring, Arvid, and Keylar to scour the mountain for any wounded that needed her attention. Lightfoot stayed to help, as did Breeze and even Starbuck, who had both learned some of their pony friend's skills.

Buffheart was there, wincing as Willow bound up the stump that had once been his left leg. The older hare bore the pain well, groaning, "Willow me gel, I was blinken lucky I tell ya .. the rest a me contingent wasn't. We were going inta a piece a the jolly ol' barracks, intendin' ta finish those toad wallopin' cads off, when one a their number raised the alarm! We didn't stand a chance .. fought bravely though. The otter king Warthorn .. brave beast he was .. he saved my life .. was killed doin' it an' fell across me. There was pain in my leg .. I don't remember nothin' else afterwards .."

Starbuck laid a paw on his father's head. "You did your best dad .. couldn't of done better. An' you'll be right as rain 'for ya bally well know it."

Buffheart smiled lopsidedly at his son, murmuring, "Thanks laddie buck .. but I'll need a new leg wot?"

Breeze looked up from where she was tending a squirrel's injured paw. "We'll see ya get one dad .. a fine one too!"

The old hare opened his mouth to say something, when the door was flung open by Keylar, who looked a pale wreck after finding his father-in-law dead. The otter nodded to Willow. "Willow .. we found an odd patient for ye .. mighta killed him were it not for Ffring. But your husband seems to know the fellow .. says he's Buff's friend."

The hare of that name tried to sit up, falling back as he asked, "My friend? Who .."

He trailed off as Arvid and Ffring carried in a limp red fox, and Iona appeared behind them. She looked a little relieved as she saw Buffheart, and she ran to him. "Buff! Oh Buff, thank Ignasa ya ain't dead! A Shadow Fighter hurt Quinn but .. he will be okay .. right marm?"

The pine marten had addressed this to Willow, who was already bending over Quinn, who'd been lain on an empty bed. The harewife nodded to her. "I think so, wot? Never can tell for sure in one of these bally cases .. I can't see all of what's wrong ya know. But I think he'll make it .. just be hurting for a while."

She fell about cleaning the fox's wound as the door was opened again .. this time by Groddil and Thalia. Groddil spoke up, asking, "Willow, I know you're busy lassie, but me and this lass here found a poor little one in need of help."

The hare sighed, muttering something like, "I wish Germaine was here .."

Bella appeared in the doorway behind Groddil, stating, "I'm here. Martin was right when he guessed you'd need help."

She took the ferret from Groddil, shaking her head. "The poor thing .. I can not believe the way vermin treat their children."

Breeze looked up from where she was binding Trubbs' wounded paw under the instruction of Lightfoot. "Aye, I understand Milady .. Arvid brought us a tiny baby .. I guess she's some sorta rat. She looks like a mouse though, wot wot? Says her name's Bryony."

Bella sighed, unsurprised. "I am not unduly shocked Breeze .. at least these two children will have a future with us."

Willow reached for a bandage, before giving Groddil an odd look. "I say ol' thing, are you feelin' alright?"

Groddil shrugged. "I feel a little weak .. that's all lass. Why do you ask?"

Willow wrapped the bandage around Quinn's side, stating, "Oh .. it's nothin' I guess me lad, but I can't help noticing you've got a light streak in your beard .. hair too. That's part of the dye job is it? Clever wot, dying your jolly old hair .."

She said no more, because Groddil had slipped past her, picked up a glass bottle off her table of supplies, and was looking into it with amazement. The fox stammered, "I never dyed my hair lassie .. how in the world .."

He broke off, and Willow made another observation. "Wot are you planning to do with that, might I ask?"

She was pointing to the sheaf of black hair the fox had over one shoulder. The harewife gave him a suspicious look. "I say ol' chap, that isn't your hair is it?"

Groddil grabbed the pile of Ferran's hair, holding it up as he remembered something. "Oh no! No it isn't lassie .. and I have something to finish! Thalia lass, stay here!"

He plopped the black headfur in the rabbit's arms, before bolting out the door. Bella shook her head sadly from where she was cleaning the little ferret's wounds. "Blood will yet spill blood again .. but the victory has been robbed from them today. Let seasons pass, but their blades shall cross once more .. and define the triumph of one."

Willow cocked an ear. "I say milady, what does that jumble of words mean?"

Bella looked startled. "I heard it .. I don't know."

Starbuck dipped his head to Thalia, asking kindly, "I say miss, can I take that mop for ya? Looks a bit heavy wot?"

The little rabbit looked shy, but willingly gave Ferran's hair to Starbuck. He picked it out of her arms, stating, "By the flippen left, this stuff is heavy wot wot? Feels like a wet rug .."

Willow had been looking intently at the hair, and now she broke into Starbuck's tirade about its weight. "Look here you chap, let me see that, wot?"

Starbuck brought it over, and Willow selected a small bunch of strands. Starbuck had to chunner a bit. "I say marm, you might have jolly well taken a bit more than that .. er .. wot do ya plan to do with the flippen stuff, might I ask?"

Willow laid the strands on Quinn's side. "This, wot else .. it's some of that magic hair."

Iona started. "But it was a Shadow Fighter's! What if .."

Willow interrupted. "That doesn't make it evil me gel, does it now? Watch."

Sure enough, the black hair glowed a gentle white, before its color drained to soft silver. The hair disintegrated as Quinn shivered a little, then blinked his eyes open weakly, mumbling, "'S awful cold Iona .. funny .. thought it was summer .."

Willow pulled a blanket over him, patting his head fur. "You'll be right as rain in a jiffy ol' thing .. just rest it off. Sleep'll set you right again, that an a drink. Here you are .. lucky buck, not everybeast as bad off as you were gets up again, wot? But you will, never fear me lad."

><><

The noon sun dappled through Mossflower's foliage, speckling Yaz's black feathers with light. The magpie's black eyes glittered as she saw her sister leave the wall tops with the wildcat.

Yar would pay for turning traitor, Yaz would see to it. She would make Yar pay for her humiliation, demotion, and injury .. all that craven magpie's fault!

After Yar had escaped, Rigvar had taken it out on Yaz. She'd been demoted from her place as leader of the Doomwytes, and forced to spy on the red stone house and her wretched sister.

The most infuriating thing was that Yar was not treated poorly! Those woodlanders treated her as one of them .. she must be spilling all Rigvar's secrets, otherwise they wouldn't do that!

Yaz gave an angry caw, fluttering up above the trees and heading back toward the water meadow. If only she had something constructive to tell Rigvar .. but nothing seemed to be happening! Nothing except those bumbling pirates.

The magpie clacked her beak. At least they were tasty, and if nothing else, kept the woodlanders from being very focused on the Doomwytes.

So they served some purpose, Yaz supposed. But it wasn't enough to get her out of hot water .. she needed something better than some foolish corsairs.

She needed something drastically helpful ..but there was nothing.

At least not yet. But Yaz was careful to keep her eyes open.

><><

Trimp smiled at Vurg, shrugging. "Where else would they be, but Mossflower? They've got families ya know .. Martin and Rose are always busy with the liddle prince and princess .. that an' rulin' the land. Course the other liddle princess, she's a right old scamp she is, runs her poor parents ragged .."

Luke interrupted in amazement. "I'm a grandfather?"

Trimp shrugged. "Ya, guess so sir. After all .."

Vurg forestalled more story telling. "You say they're in Mossflower?"

Trimp nodded. "Ya, last I knew they were. Course I've been wanderin' for about a season now, things may have changed, but I doubt it, not with the work on Redwall .. ya know, cause we sunk ol' Kotir, right out from under the kitty, so we did!"

Luke dipped his head to Trimp. "Thank you miss .. Vurg, a word?"

The warrior pulled his friend a few paces away, stammering, "Vurg, this is too much at once .. I never dreamed .. a grandfather, me?"

Vurg patted his friend's shoulder. "It sounds like that .. what are we going to do about it?"

Luke gave him an odd look. "Do? Do? Mate, there's only one thing to do .. we'll sell the farm and head to Mossflower .. seasons, I don't care if we even sell it! I'm going to see my son again, penniless or not. I'm no young pup Vurg .. I only have so long to live, so I'm not wasting time. We leave as soon as we possibly can."

Vurg looked about, noticing Trimp was watching them closely. "Luke, what about the treasure? It is the marks' after all .. and it belongs to your family. Remember what I went through to craft the two silver crowns? Shall we really leave them to the mercy of the elements and time?"

Luke paused, undecided. Logs broke in at this second, having been listening. "No me friend, you told me of that treasure .. it belongs to your son, not the wind or rain. You should take it to him .. you're still kickin'. You've got enough time on your paws ta do that."

Luke sighed. "Well, I suppose you're right Logs .. if I die, the secret of that treasure dies with me. But I don't have the key to it anymore .. I gave that to Stardust. And he lies somewhere at the bottom of the sea, the poor brave beast."

Vurg raised an eyebrow, asking, "Couldn't you just take whatever you put them in? Of course .. I never saw how you hid the crowns."

Luke was thoughtful. "It will be hard .. but yes, I think I could. Come Vurg, when we get home, I will tell you its whereabouts .. I guess I never saw it as worthy to go after .. that is, until now."

Logs accompanied the two warriors to the front of the inn, but Trimp didn't move at first. She took a calculating sip of water, licking her whiskers thoughtfully.

This sounded like an adventure .. just perfect for a rover like her.




Chapter 29 The Next Step

The next morning saw Luke and his friends preparing for their journey, Cardo being the least enthusiastic. The tubby mouse peeked his head around the kitchen door, calling, "Mates, aren't we all a bit old for this sort of thing?"

Luke looked up from where he was waxing his bowstring. The warrior mouse looked ten seasons younger almost, and it showed in his voice. "Oh lay off it mate, a beast is never too old for an adventure!"

Cardo looked uncertain. "But what about the crops? And my garden?"

Vurg stopped honing the blade of his old battle axe, stating, "Sorry to say it Cardo, but the fields are all but dead from this drought .. I rode Firebird out and checked. We'll have no crop this season anyhow. As for the garden .. pick as much of it as you can eh? We'll have need of vittles."

Cardo didn't look convinced, just ducked back into his kitchen. Vurg tested the blade of his axe, jerking his hand back as the razor sharp edge drew a little blood. "Yep, I think she's sharp enough, what say you?"

Luke nodded as he tightened an arrow tip. "Can't tell the blade from the air, I'd say it's able to take a vermin's head off. And that's the main thing."

Vurg gently wiped his axe down with a rag, pausing as an important sounding knock came from the door. The old mouse cast a glance at Luke, who shrugged, stuffing his formidable artillery of arrows into his quiver.

Vurg opened the door, expecting to see Logs and maybe Daisy. Instead, Trimp the hedgehog stood in front of him. She smiled, stating quite matter-of-factly, "Good mornin' sir! Nice axe ya got there. Well, when are we leavin'?"

Vurg stammered. "Leaving? Us?"

Trimp walked inside, paw on the hilt of a slim rapier. "Aye, leavin. Ya wants ta find a treasure, an' that sounds right interestin' .. better then just rovin. Besides, you could likely use some help."

Luke looked stern as the hedgehog invited herself to sit, plopping down in a rocking chair. "Now miss, it could be dangerous!"

Trimp shrugged. "Used to it sir."

Vurg tried another tactic. "We'll have to sleep outside .. it'll be hot, and uncomfortable, no nice beds, mosquitoes .."

Trimp looked a little reproachful. "I already said I was used ta it. What ya think I've been doin' all last season, sleepin' in a nice bed? I ain't slept in one fer a good long while .. probably longer'n you haven't."

Cardo gave Vurg a look of sorrow from the kitchen as Luke took over. "Miss, there could be all sorts of things, vermin, quicksand, Flitchaye, anything. It's not safe!"

Trimp seemed to consider this for a moment, before nodding. "Sounds good ta me, if you're game. When do we start?"

Cardo came out of the kitchen, dragging along his caldron, stuffed with all the implements of his kitchen it could hold. "Well it don't sound good to me, but I'm a loyal beast. True blue to the end, that's what I am. An' the end don't seem too far away, from all you lot is sayin'."

Trimp patted his shoulder. "Aww, don't worry sir. I'll deal with any vermin that comes our way, don't ya fret."

Cardo gave her a long look. "Can ye cook?"

Trimp shrugged. "Ya, a little. I can make .. let'see here .. porridge. Aye, an salad. Skilly 'n' duff, stew, tea, pancakes ... ya. An' that's about it. I can make stew outa just about anythin'. Ramsons, wild turnips, carrots, fish .. I tried some odd tree fungus once, but that didn't go too well .."

Cardo shook his head. "Oh stop, stop .. the idea .. tree fungus. Vurg, Luke, I can't abide a young beast that can't cook, she's coming so I can teach her. I've been wanting an apprentice you know .. come on miss Trimp, help me take this stuff to the cart."

Trimp jumped up happily, picking up the caldron. "Golly, what have you got in here, lead? But I likes ya sir, what's your name?"

The old mouse opened the door, stating, "Cardo, miss."

Trimp lugged the caldron out the door, stating, "Cardo eh? Well you're better than these two worrywarts .. huh, mosquitos. Fancy thinkin' I'd be scared of a load of silly insects."

As the two disappeared outside, Luke and Vurg exchanged a glance .. and a sigh.

Neither of them had anticipated this.

><><

Sayna awoke in an odd world, a strangely empty one. She lifted her head, to see nothing but fog .. restless, stirring fog.

Slowly, her vision morphed so it seemed she was seeing through another beast's eyes, as she always did in these dreams. But this time it was clearer. Not in entirety, but certain aspects .. ones Sayna had envisioned before, only blurrily, seemed nearly clear as day.

This dream was in a cave, as Sayna had thought. It was a spacious, dry place that was set up as a home, with a crackling fire, chairs, and some weapons here and there, although the details were fuzzy. Sayna turned her gaze toward where she felt the entrance should be, but that part of the dreamscape was still indiscernible, as was the far end of the room opposite the door.

Only the fire was clear, that and something that resembled a wooden rail near her face. Sayna reached to touch it, but as always, had no control over her limbs.

I'm not dead am I? Where is this place? More importantly ... why am I here?

There was nothing she could do, she could not mandate these dreams, they were their own law. They did what they wanted, and they did it the same almost every time.

All Sayna could do was wait until the inhabitants of the dream came .. some gentle, some brutal, but all cruel tormenters. Like teasing, swirling echoes of an answer you know, but cannot quite remember.

And they did come, one by one. First was the golden mouse maid with soft brown eyes, the one that made Sayna remember what it was like to have a mother .. the one she had lost long ago.

Who are you? Why do you appear to me? Why?

Sayna had tried so hard to ask those questions, over and over, but she could not speak. Was this her real mother? If it was .. who were they? And why did they have her sword .. the one she'd found hidden in Urran Voh's stable?

But these questions were left forever unanswered, and Sayna feared they never would be.

However, tonight she saw the other beast clearly .. the male golden mouse. As soon as she got a good look at him, she felt like gasping.

Martin! It was Martin!

No .. this creature had jet black eyes .. like hers! As he got closer and more concisely visible, Sayna felt herself freeze .. for he had a sword.

Precisely, a golden hilted broadsword set with a red pommel stone.

This mouse .. he had Martin's sword!

><><

Sayna's eyes snapped open to reveal another cave, a larger one this time. She blinked once, surprised she could do even that.

"You're finally awake?"

Sayna stared at Timbal a minute, trying to discern if he was real, or just another dream. He laid a paw on her forehead, asking, "Hey, are you alright?"

Sayna closed her eyes momentarily, mumbling, "Yea .. I think so."

Her dream came back to her in full force, and she gasped, "Wait .. Timbal, I saw a mouse .. he could have been Martin's shadow, I swear! But he had my black eyes .. and Timbal, I tell you true .. he had Martin's sword!"

The brown mouse stared at her in wonderment, and she groaned, "I'm sorry .. my dreams get crazier and crazier .."

"It's not crazy." Timbal's voice was soft, even awed.

He gulped, finishing, "You saw my mentor, Luke. Martin's father."

Nothing was said for a minute, before Sayna whispered, "But .. how?"

Timbal sighed. "I don't know, but you described him as I would have."

Sayna groaned. "These dreams .. they're so vivid .. like memories!"

Timbal pulled his chair a little closer, stating earnestly, "Sayna .. I think it's cause they are."

She trembled fractionally. "Why? How? What are you saying?"

Timbal took her paw, stating, "Before you used your hair to save me, I was unsure. But now I'm almost certain .. because I can remember! The pieces fit perfectly, you see, Martin had a twin. Or should I say .. has one."

Sayna stared, she couldn't help it. "M .. me? How can you be sure?"

Timbal smiled a little, shrugging, "I couldn't remember until you used the hair for me .. oh by the way, I think I have you to thank for this."

He flipped a shoulder-length ponytail over one shoulder, a tiny smirk on his face. "Thanks Sayna .. you're not the only one with wild hair anymore. So much for me promising Martin your headfur wouldn't rub off on me .. it appears it did."

Sayna gaped at him, stammering, "I .. used too much?"

Timbal shrugged. "It would appear so. But that's not the point, the point is these aren't dreams at all .. they're memories. Because now I can remember too."

Sayna wasn't sure she even wanted to hear the answer to her next question, but she asked it anyway. "Timbal .. what do you remember?"

><><

Bootbrain was in a bad humor, and that was an understatement.

He'd done so much to get that treasure .. so much! And did Clogg give him so much as an armband? No!

The corsair did little more then feed his face and doze in his hammock .. and passed all the work off onto Bootbrain!

It wasn't fair! It wasn't even just!

The black weasel crossed his arms, growling at nobeast in particular, because there was nobeast to hear him. He should get some of that treasure too!

He found it first!

He had first dibs!

But did he get some? No. And worse then that, he had the great suspicion the camp was haunted.

The sentries had all disappeared last night, and not one had returned. Clogg, like the mad fool he was, hadn't hardly given Bootbrain's report a second thought.

Now that he was thinking, Bootbrain was finding it amazing .. and disturbing, and disgusting too. Maybe that's why he'd given up trying to reason through things .. because he had found relief from the rigors of life in his stupidity.

It was almost tempting to go back to his old ways, but he didn't want to be as he had been, a useless, bullied coward.

So was there a middle ground? A way to be smart enough to think, yet not loose your mind doing it?

Over the days Clogg was using to procrastinate his visit back to Verdauga and those ghosts, which Bootbrain suspected weren't ghosts at all, the weasel was growing to think of himself differently.

In his mind, he wasn't Bootbrain anymore .. he was who he had once been. Before he'd signed up as a cabin boy on the Greenhawk.

If there was one thing he would honestly call himself stupid for ... that was it.

The mocking name they had bequeathed to him was not his own, but he was still used to it. Being the lowest of the crew, and a slow, thorough thinker, his shipmates had soon christened him 'Bootbrain', because they thought he was stupid.

The weasel was actually surprisingly young, for he had joined the crew of the Greenhawk at ten seasons .. and been called an idiot for nine. He was nineteen, though considering it now, he could barely believe it himself.

It seemed so much longer then nine seasons.

As for his real name .. he wasn't ready to think of himself as that .. not just yet. He wasn't ready to leave his prison and strike out on his own yet .. he wasn't ready to face the fear of being truly responsible.

After all .. he'd hid under the face of a beast called Bootbrain for nine seasons.

He didn't know if he could leave that face behind, or dare to show his real one.

And he wasn't sure he wanted to.

><><

Timbal sighed, shaking his head. "It's all coming back Sayna .. and I can't believe I forgot so much! There are confusing spots to be sure .. but I can remember a chapter of my life time tried to hide .. a chapter of our lives."

He smiled at Sayna, stating, "The first time I saw you .. when we first met? You made me try to think on my past again .. there has always been something about you. Now I know what. Do you really want to hear my story? It sounds a little crazy .. and perhaps .. uncaring. I was only a little boy you know."

Sayna sighed, shrugging, "I've got to learn about my past sometime .. and I'd rather hear it from you, if you don't mind."

Timbal nodded. "Very well. Mind that it's still somewhat blurry to me, but I'll give it a try. It wouldn't do to start the night of the attack .. so I'll start before that."

"I always liked my adopted uncle, Luke. I viewed him as a sort of second father, since I could not remember my mother. Vurg had hampered my many questions about her by simply stating, "Son .. that's a story for another day. Someday, when you're grown up .. then I will tell you. You needn't know right now .. it isn't the time."

"I accepted this, being just over three seasons. I never really suspected anything of my father ... that Vurg might have been hiding something from me, I still don't want to .. but I was always a bit discontented by the answer."

"However I didn't think about this very much, I always had other things to think about, like how my father promised to teach me axe fighting, and apprentice me to Luke. Vurg put up with a lot of clamoring, for he and Luke had agreed I should not be apprenticed until I was ten seasons .. and this didn't suit me well, and I'm afraid to say I wasn't patient about it."

Timbal paused a moment, stating at length, "Well it came about, soon after we found the caves, that Luke became a father .. his wife had two children, I remember it now. There was great excitement .. after all, the tribe had hope Luke's line would continue to watch over them, even after his death. I wasn't terribly excited I'm afraid .. babies that couldn't play with me yet where, to my mind, quite boring. So I really didn't pay a lot of attention, though my father was very happy for Luke."

Timbal scratched an ear. "There is one night however, that I won't ever forget again .. it's too vivid now. Against my wishes perhaps, Vurg brought me over to see my cousins ... although Vurg and Luke were not brothers, just close friends. Martin was there of course .. he was already interested in his father's sword .. always has been. But you were there too .. it couldn't have been anybeast else, and you were more interested in me. You just stared at me .. solemn as anything .. never made a sound. It was a little unnerving, to be honest."

He shrugged. "Luke and Vurg talked about something for a good long time .. I couldn't understand it very well. But long story short, your mother, Sayna ... you were named after her, I remember .. she showed me the feather on your paw. And that is how I know for sure it was you .. what other beast has the mark of the hawk?"

Sayna could say nothing for a minute, stammering at length, "I ... I believe you Timbal ... it all fits with my dreams .. and besides, I trust you. But .. how .. why did they all forget me?"

Timbal sighed. "When the attack came .. you were lost and your mother was killed. I was hurt, my friend slain, Martin was saved by his grandmother .. yea. After that .. Luke never mentioned his wife and daughter again .. he couldn't. And nobeast wanted to recall that night .. so many were lost. So it was that Luke's daughter .. well the winds of time just blew her memory to nothing more then a rumor. But she lived .. and I found her."

Sayna slowly sat up, asking, "Then Martin's my brother .. twin brother. I should have guessed it .. why else would we argue as we did .. and still do sometimes? No .. it makes perfect sense .. and I guess I kind of knew it .. or guessed it. That we were related .. you know, it's kind of self explanatory. But that we are twins .. I .. don't know what to say. Does Martin know?"

Timbal shook his head. "I told you first .. I wanted to. Besides, Martin is still dealing with the last aspects of battle. That's the good thing about being wounded I suppose .. Willow confines you to the infirmary."

><><

Germaine's sandals slipped quietly across the abbey lawns in the dwindling light, but she wasn't alone for long. Urran met her shortly, asking, "Well .. how did it go?"

Germaine shifted her walking staff to her other paw, stating, "As well as expected .. you have a new granddaughter."

Urran smiled, asking, "Rose is well? What's her name? Oh dear .. that didn't come out right .."

Germaine laughed, stating, "I understand what you mean. Yes, Rose is fine, and the little one's name is Aubrietia .. she looks just like her father, but with green eyes .. she's a pretty stoic little thing, if you ask me."

Urran cast a glance at the darkening sky, asking, "How about a cup of tea in my infirmary? It's better than standing out here in the confounded heat."

Germaine nodded with a yawn. "Ho hum .. yes I'd love to. And it is confounded as you say .. when the nights are as muggy as the days. The pond's even beginning to dry up a little."

Urran nodded, opening the back gatehouse's door. "It's a mercy we aren't under a true siege .. sometimes I can't help but wonder if we should dig a well."

Germaine settled herself in one of Urran's chairs, leaning her staff against it. She watched Urran limp about after the tea a minute, before asking, "Is the old leg injury working up again?"

The mouse set his china teapot on the table, shrugging, "A little .. I think it doesn't like this prolonged heat. I can say for certain the rest of me doesn't."

Germaine nodded as he sat down with a sigh. "I don't either .. I wish it would rain. More than that .. I wish the marks and all our friends would come home."

Urran sighed as he poured her some tea. "I as well .. Martin will want to know about his new daughter, don't you think?"

Germaine got a far off look in her eyes, and she answered, "Yes .. yes, and not just he. For I see others in my dreams .. new friends and old friends who will come. But I see troubles too .. great danger for all of us. Mark my words Urran, the day will come when we will view Clogg as nothing more than a dibbun's game .. for something far worse is coming."

Urran blinked, asking, "When Abbes?"

Germaine shook her head. "I don't know .. I really don't."

She took a sip of tea, smiling at her now worried friend. "But there is one thing I do know, and that is that we will have warning. Lord Ignasa shall send us a beast before hand, to tell us whence comes the danger. However all my dreams say this beast shall be the lowest of the lowly, the one we shall not think to look to. So .. let us keep our eyes and hearts open .. let us listen for the voice of Ignasa."

><><

Night fell quietly over Luke and his companions as they made their way westward. Trimp was finding it marvelous, contrary to Luke and Vurg's dire warnings. The hedgehog maid sat in the back of the cart, remarking on this to Cardo.

"I like this right fine! I ain't never got ta ride in a cart before, I always had to walk. How fast does the horse go?"

Luke gave her a stern glance from the driver's seat. "Firebird isn't made for speed miss, she's a draft. Besides, I won't be breaking her out of a trot if I can help it, she's an old mare."

Trimp looked a bit crestfallen. "Aww ... I was hopin' you'd have her gallop! She looks strong enough."

Vurg looked incredulously at the hedgehog. "Have you ever seen one of these horses run? No, I don't suppose you would have. Well let me tell you, it's like thunder when they do."

The old mouse paused a minute, stating in downright amusement, "Though I will say it's lucky we have a draft .. no other horse could budge Cardo's portable kitchen!"

Cardo scowled at his friend disapprovingly. "You'll be glad of my 'portable kitchen' when you get hungry, you can't cook a lick. Huh, your son was better at cookin' then you were. What a disgrace that must be .. out-cooked by your own son. And I'd say you deserved it, no appreciation for chefs, that's what you've got Vurg."

Vurg chuckled as Luke pulled Firebird to a stop, stating, "See that village in the distance? We'll camp there."

Trimp frowned as she asked, "Camp? Isn't there an inn?"

Luke shook his head. "That's the remains of a town called Noonvale, it has lain desolate for many seasons, ever since sea raiders ransacked it."

Trimp peered over the edge of the cart, remarking, "Golly Noonvale? That's where Queen Rose comes from, and her brother, Brome."

Luke glanced at her, asking, "My son's wife comes from Noonvale?"

Trimp nodded, exclaiming, "Yea. Whoa this place really is sacked ... totally sacked! They even tried to burn part of it!"

Luke pulled Firebird to a halt in what once would have been the town square. He cast a glance at the setting sun, stating, "Let's set up in that cottage over there .. it even has a stable. And it looks in the best repair."

Trimp climbed out of the cart stating, "Me first! I love exploring empty buildings! Come on Cardo, let's take a look! This'll be so cool .. maybe it's haunted too!"

Cardo cast a dubious look upon the cottage as Luke sighed, "Mate .. keep your apprentice entertained. Me and Vurg will see about stabling Firebird."

Vurg raised an eyebrow. "You need me to help stable the horse?"

Luke shrugged. "Aye. Who knows what shape the stable's in?"

Cardo lugged his caldron out of the back of the cart and up the cottage's stone steps, as Trimp's clearly audible voice echoed hollowly from inside.

"Whoa this place is so neat! It sure looks haunted .. there's a whole load a' creepy spider web's .. an' dust .. Ooh, the stairs even creak! I wonder what's upstairs? Cardo, come have a look!"

Cardo's reply echoed a bit forlornly. "The kitchen's good enough for me miss .. you go ahead without me. Stairs don't agree with my poor ol' joints."

Vurg laughed as he followed Luke to the stable. "You an' I both know Cardo don't have rheumatism .. but he always has been superstitious. Ghosts .. my foot. Trimp isn't scared of much, eh Luke?"

Luke shrugged. "Not like other maids, no. But Vurg, I didn't ask you to come because I need your help."

Vurg nodded. "I thought you had something on your mind .. what is it?"

Luke pushed the leaning stable door open, stating, "Something's not right. I can't put my finger on what ... but something is wrong."

Vurg opened the stall whose door was in the best condition, asking as Luke led Firebird in, "Do you have any ideas on what it is?"

Vurg threw some feed he'd brought from the cart into a bucket as Luke stated, "I'm not sure. But it feels dark .. cold. And it must be strong if my weakened senses can discern it .. I haven't tried to ask Ignasa for his power in these many seasons .. and I did not ask him now."

Vurg latched the stall door. "So whatever you're feeling .. Ignasa sent you the warning of his own accord?"

Luke nodded, walking back to the stable door. "Aye. So it must be important."

Vurg followed him out, stating, "I'll keep my eyes open mate .. I trust you."

Trimp suddenly appeared in one of the second story cottage windows, calling, "Yoo hoo! Cardo's making supper! Come on, while we're still young!"

Luke laughed, calling back to her, "A little late for that miss, we aren't young at all!"

Trimp shrugged. "Ya, but I am! So hurry up, huh? Please?"

Vurg nodded. "We're comin' miss .. wouldn't want to miss out on Cardo's supper ... not after we lugged his kitchen here!"

The mouse's voice rang from inside the cottage. "I heard that!"

Both Luke and Vurg burst out laughing, soon followed by Trimp, and momentarily, Luke's fear was forgotten.

But only for a time.

><><

The dusk that fell on the fringes of Mossflower, didn't just fall upon tranquil summer woodland. It fell also upon a little camp, one that was far from peaceful.

For this was the camp of some of those who had escaped Salamandastron and the marks .. all that was left of Lotor's command, at least on the west edge of Mossflower.

They were twenty-five or so in number, some wounded, and incompetent in the art of building a fire. A smoky haze clouded the area they were in, which was, thankfully for them, out of the immediate range of the marks.

Lotor himself was with them, and in a foul humor, due to the pain of his missing paw. The only beast who knew a bit of healing was a ferret called Grimleg, and it was at this particular moment, very unfortunate for him.

Lotor snarled in pain as Grimleg attempted to bind up the severed limb, which had been instantly cauterized by Martin's empowered sword. The ermine growled at his subordinate, teeth clenched. "How come you're supposed to be healing me, but it feels like you're cutting what's left of me arm off?!"

Grimleg trembled in fear, stammering, "Lord, it ain't got nothin' ta do wid me ... wounds as bad as this are bound ta hurt somethin' awful."

Lotor growled at the ferret, who cringed. "Well? I don't want to have a bandaged stump of a paw, I want to replace it!"

Grimleg tried to be helpful. "Ya want's a hook Lord?"

Lotor sneered at the hapless ferret. "What do you think I want to look like, some mangy sea scum? I need something far more elegant, something deadly .. something to inspire the fear I deserve!"

Grimleg shrugged, a little confused. "Umm .. you want's a sharpened hook, Lord?"

Lotor shoved him away, snarling, "You fool, what do you think this is, a corsair crew?"

The white ermine paused momentarily, asking, "You said a sharpened hook, didn't you?"

Grimleg looked up from where he'd fallen, gulping, "Me? Oh .. er .. yes Lord, I did."

Lotor looked thoughtful, drawing one of the short dirks from his belt, ones he had not found need to use. He turned his yellow gaze upon Grimleg, asking, "Is there one of these hopeless fools that can work metal?"

Grimleg nodded, stammering, "Fribb, me matey .."

Lotor snarled, handing the ferret the dirk. "Tell him to take the handle off this blade, and affix it to a base just as a hook paw would be. I want it done by sunrise tomorrow, no later! Understood? Now go!"

The ferret stumbled off as Lotor snarled, "Sholabar!"

A large red dog fox trotted up, bowing, "Laird?"

Lotor circled him, growling, "Listen close Sholabar, and don't fail me. Those marks won't get away with what they did, I'll win yet. You will stick around .. follow them wherever they go, and kill as many as you can. Do you understand?"

Sholabar, a stolid and loyal creature, nodded. "Ah do Laird. Might Ah ask what ye'll be about?"

Lotor grinned. "That friend, is my little twist. You see, they think I am dead .. but I'm not, and neither will I die. Those marks must have taken Kotir .. and they aren't there to guard it. Probably just all their sweet, innocent friends and families are left. And that means they won't be able to fight me, a real warrior. So Sholabar, tell me. When the marks get back to their dear castle, who will be there with a welcoming party?"

Sholabar knew what answer to say. "Ye Laird."

Lotor grinned fiendishly. "Aye my faithful yes-beast, me!"

He laughed in exuberance. "That little mouse-king took my paw, and he will pay .. oh he will pay .. he and all his subjects!"




Chapter 30 Northward the Warriors

Martin had come into the infirmary on the morning after the battle in order to see if all was well, and was now staring at Timbal and Sayna in amazement. "I'm .. we're .. really brother and sister? Timbal .. are you sure?"

Timbal nodded. "About certain .. she had the mark of the feather, even then."

Sayna was looking uncomfortable, and she looked up at him almost sheepishly. "Martin .. I really didn't know. But I believe Timbal .. and if you think about it ... we sort of look alike."

Martin stammered, a little overwhelmed. "Sort of?"

Timbal laughed kindly. "I'd say there's a resemblance."

Martin nodded. "Yes .. I .. I believe you Timbal. But it's just .."

"Shocking?" Sayna asked.

Her twin sighed. "It is .. maybe it shouldn't be .. but it is."

Timbal shrugged. "You two were separated before you could remember each other .. it's not all that surprising you should be shocked."

Martin simply nodded, and an awkward silence fell over the three. None of them were terribly sorry when Willow walked over, stating, "Martin .. I don't think anybeast's told you, wot wot, but we found two abandoned vermin children. Would you like to see them .. all of you, actually?"

Martin's brown eyes hardened a little, but he nodded. "Yes Willow, I would. How old are they?"

The hare healer shrugged. "The one is no more than a baby .. she won't be a problem. But the other might be six seasons wot? Still .. be gentle with the poor lad, he's not awoke just yet .. and I feel he needs to be treated carefully. He was pretty scratched up when I was given him."

Martin nodded with understanding, though he couldn't help but look wary as Willow motioned to a bed where a young ferret lay, his fur like drops of pure sunlight. Despite all misgivings, Martin couldn't help but feel pity for this creature.

Timbal looked to Willow, asking, "Where did you find him?"

Willow shrugged. "Thalia and Groddil brought him to me, wot?"

The young creature mumbled something, opening sapphire blue eyes a crack. Willow sat gently on the edge of his bed, brushing messy brown headfur out of his eyes, and stating gently, "Now young lad, are you thirsty? You should be, wot wot?"

She administrated a little water, and the ferret seemed to wake up a little, murmuring, "M .. mother? Is .. it you?"

Sayna looked a little surprised, muttering to Timbal, "He does not speak in the normal vermin dialect. I wonder if his parents were prominent in the horde .."

Timbal shrugged, asking Willow, "Do you have any idea where he came from?"

The harewife shrugged, offering her patient more water. "Hush little one .. no, I'm not your mother .. but I am a friend."

The ferret seemed to be waking up rather than falling back asleep. He was now staring around with wide eyes, especially at Martin and Sayna .. but when he caught sight of Timbal, he had a slightly different reaction. The ferret paused, before reaching out a paw almost hopefully and asking cautiously, "M .. mother?"

Willow opened her mouth to say something, but Timbal beat her to it. He laid a gentle paw on the ferret's head, stating softly, "I'm sorry little one .. I'm not your mother."

The little creature looked confused. "Your eye's are like hers .."

He broke off, staring sadly down at his sheets. Something about Timbal wouldn't let him leave the young ferret as sad as he was. "It's alright little one .. I can't be your mother .. but I won't hurt you. What's your name?"

The ferret looked up at Timbal blankly a minute, before mumbling, "Veil .. I think .. but where's my mother?"

Willow's voice was gentle. "I don't know .. Veil, what did she look like?"

Veil blinked, suddenly seeming tired. He relaxed a little, mumbling, "She's pretty .. and she's not like father .."

His eyes suddenly snapped open again as he stammered, "Where's my father .. I have to hide .. he hates us .."

Willow quickly calmed him down, murmuring, "It's ok Veil .. it's ok. No one will hurt you me lad, don't be afraid. You don't have to hide again .. it'll be alright wot?"

Veil's eye lids drooped wearily as he mumbled, "Don't let him find me .. or mother .. he'll kill us."

Willow looked up as her ferret patient fell asleep once more. She looked pointedly at Martin, asking, "Don't judge til you know for sure me lad .. I mean Sah .. eh wot? All things are not what they seem."

Martin nodded, replying, "I see that Willow .. thank you. I'll remember."

The hare smiled, whispering, "Now come away .. let the poor lad rest. It's what he needs most, that and a little love, the poor thing.

Martin cast a last glance at the young ferret as the door opened, emitting Bella. The badger noticed Martin instantly, and she nodded to him. "Oh there you are .. all three of you. That's perfect .. we need to talk."

Sayna looked a little blank. "About what?"

Bella produced the forgotten riddle, stating, "This. I read it over last night and it's obvious to me we aren't done yet."

Timbal nodded in understanding. "Oh yes .. we have forgotten about that, haven't we?"

Bella walked over to one of the windows in the sickbay, settling in an empty chair. "Well it gives you three your next instructions .. I'll read the last verses aloud to remind you."

She glanced at the parchment, reading aloud,


"A long lost father shall be found,

Near tallrocks by the sea.

Though old one knows where hide the crowns,

A blue one holds the key."


Martin scratched an ear. "Wait, tall rocks .. is that written as one word?"

Bella nodded. "It is."

The golden warrior clapped his paws together. "It means Tallrocks .. Timbal, don't you recall them?"

Timbal's eyes lit up. "I do! Father always told me not to go there because of the treacherous undercurrents .. that doesn't mean I heeded him. To see the sun set behind those spires was a glorious thing."

Martin looked excited. "Then we shall have to journey to Tallrocks .. to the place we grew up! I guess we'll meet the 'old one' and the 'blue one' there .. when do we start?"

Bella laughed, "Don't be too impatient Martin, or you'll sound like Sayna. But yes, you must go. I also suggest you find another mount .. Wildfire's not yet in condition to travel."

Martin looked a little crestfallen as he nodded. "Yes .. I'll have to ask one of the other horses .. I wonder if Phantom would take me. She'll likely want to come anyway."

Timbal nodded. "A good point .. when should we go?"

Sayna shrugged. "Early next morning? We still need to do a few things .. like, shouldn't we send the birds back to tell Rose? And besides that, we'll have to pack provisions."

Bella handed the poem to Martin. "Good idea. And you'd best ask some trustworthy beasts to go with you .. as the daughter of Lord Boar, I must watch over his mountain. How about taking Groddil?"

Martin nodded. "Yes, Groddil .. probably no others because we want speed, not an entourage."

Bella stood, stating, "Well you four and your mounts can hold your own .. and Argulor can check up on you. Let's go about getting ready, shall we?"

><><

Lotor sat beside a guttural fire that only increased the morning humidity, admiring his glittering new knife paw.

The ermine slipped the silver-tone base over his stump of a wrist, pleased it was a snug fit. He turned to Grimleg, stating, "Your matey Fribb did well .. I'll have to speak to him .. promote him even. I want to be moving by noon .. Grimleg .. you and Fribb are captains .. see this pack of idle swill is ready to march."

Lotor watched the ferret scurry off, before setting his mind to work. Even if the defenses of Kotir were down, he'd need more than a few wounded horde beasts to take it.

That meant he'd have recruit all he could along the way .. but the marks had done their best to rid Mossflower of small vermin bands, at least that was what he had heard.

So recruiting would be difficult. Still, there had to be something .. and someway for him to conquer.

He would have revenge for the loss of his status, paw, and most of all, his most prized possession.

Salamandastron.

Once he'd killed the marks, he'd take it back.

And with Sholabar on their tails .. it shouldn't be too long. That fox was a trained killer.

Lotor grinned, licking his fangs. If done the right way, this could even be .. amusing.

At least a feat worthy of his cunning.

And the white ermine intended to put his cunning to the test.

><><

Mask was helping out with guard duty, listening to Gonff talk to a rather bored Ben Stickle.

The mousethief slumped across the battlements, griping, "I'm telling you Ben, all this talk of treasure hunting is telling on me .. I want to do some myself!"

Ben yawned. "Tell that to your missus, young rouge. Columbine would no more let you do that than my Goody would let me jump off a roof."

His adolescent son, Ferdy, walked by, armed with a spear salvaged from the wars of Mossflower. "Ya Gonff, it ain't a good idea, upsetting Columbine."

Gonff rolled his eyes. "I know how to talk to me own wife."

Coggs was close behind his brother, and he laughed. "Nuh uh, she knows how to talk to you!"

Both Ferdy and Coggs burst out laughing as they made their way along the wall top. Gonff huffed to Ben. "Hmph! And what's that supposed to mean? Columbine and I get along right well, I'll have you know."

The hedgehog cellarkeeper nodded absently as the mousethief started back on his original line of thought. "But I can't help thinking of what Yar said about those Doomwyte eyes! Think of it .. two marvelous rubies!"

Ben nodded. "Yea, and guarded by a flock of carrion birds in a cave with a glowing sulfurous lake. Come on Gonff."

Gonff crossed his arms. "I can steal anything .. me, the prince of mousethieves!"

Ben yawned again. "Even mousethief princes listen to reason .. or should."

Gonff scowled, muttering, "Spoilsport."

Mask couldn't help but let his pale eyes twinkle .. that little mousethief. Still, the otter guessed Gonff would try and steal the Doomwyte rubies some time or other .. it was likely only a matter of when.

So Mask resolved to keep an eye on the tubby and irrepressible thief .. the last thing they needed was to loose him to one of his crazy plots.

><><

Clogg's behavior was a constant worry to Bootbrain, for the corsair's mood would swing with no predictability. One minute he would be counting his gold and nearly drowning in happiness .. and the next he'd be a nervous wreck. Still another minute he would be silently brooding, or violently angry.

Bootbrain couldn't tell when his captain's mood would switch, and he decided it was dangerous to bring up the subject of ghosts.

Among the crew matters weren't a lot better, Scritchy seemed to brood and plot constantly, while the young rat Snag was a constant, cheeky menace. Bootbrain did his best to hold things together along with Floggtail, but the truth was the group was near disbanding.

Clogg hadn't seemed to even notice, so it was a bit of a surprise to all when he walked into the main camp that morning, and in a good humor. The mad corsair winked almost roguishly at his crew, asking, "How'd ya like ta get a new ship today buckos?"

There was an immediate scramble as everybeast fought to get to their feet. Snag spoke first. "Aye Capt'n, sure we would! Dese woodlands ain't fer seabeasts!"

Clogg nodded in understanding. "No they ain't liddle matey, no they ain't. Floggtail, Bootbrain, Scritchy! Get half the crew together .. we gets our ship today!"

There was a rousing cheer from the crewbeasts, none fond of the dry ground nor the enveloping woodlands. Clogg grinned, stumping off to gather up a little of the treasure.

Bootbrain and Floggtail exchanged a glance; it wasn't lost on either that Clogg was far from right in the head.

Bootbrain jumped as Scritchy elbowed him in the ribs, growling, "Dose ghosts sent us off ta get the treasure .. it's their fault Wippback's dead!"

Bootbrain shrugged. "And what's ya gonna do about that?"

The rat showed her teeth in a maniacal grin as she drew a wicked looking curved throwing knife. "I'm gonna finds out if'n their really ghosts .. a ghost's died once, it can't die again."

She licked the blade of her knife, growling, "Let's see if they've died .. or if they need a liddle help."

><><

Whegg had just finished breakfast and taken Ben's place as a guard, so it was he who saw the creatures making their way toward Redwall first. The rat started, quickly calling to Gonff to keep an eye on things and bolting down to the abbey grounds.

He'd hardly reached the ground before he shouted, "Mates it's Clogg! Clogg's back!"

Sandingomm and Gingivere were walking toward the pond along with Rupert .. still dyed white. It had been much to his dismay when he'd discovered the dye Estella had used was permanent.

The ermine had spent hours trying to get her husband's fur brown again, as it should be .. and to absolutely no avail. The stoat assassin truly was snow white until his fur grew out, and at this moment, it seemed incredible good luck.

Sandingomm grabbed Gingivere's paw, yelling as she almost dragged the cat back the way they had come, "Rupert, get into your things .. quick!"

The gray wildcat nodded to Gingivere, "And we've gotta get you into yours!"

There was a general scramble as Rupert ran one way, while Sandingomm and Gingivere ran another. Within minutes most Redwall beasts knew Clogg was back, those who did not were quickly informed.

Brome and Amyl had been crossing the grounds and heard Whegg's shout, for now the latter voiced her confusion. "But I thought we sent them to their deaths at the claws of the Doomwytes .. how can they be back?"

Yar had heard the ruckus, and now jumped in. "They can't have gone to the Doomwyte cave .. that's the only explanation."

Whegg nodded to her. "I think that's gotta be the case .. but we've got ta hurry!"

Gingivere came running back across the grounds, looking distinctly disheveled even in his green tunic and cape. Sandingomm was close behind him, holding the home-made coronet. "Dear, wait! You forgot yer crown!"

Gingivere took it as she quickly brushed him off, before remarking, "There, that's about as good as I can do wid such short notice .."

The gray cat straightened her husband's coronet, remarking, "Where has Rupert got to? We need him now .."

The dyed stoat hurried back, his mother-in-law in his wake. "I'm here .. I'm here!"

Erwin nodded, panting, "So my brother's back .. I'd rather hoped the drunk fool'd have been turned into crow-food .. too much to hope fer, I see."

Gingivere looked around a moment, before laying a paw on his cutlass hilt. "We'd best not wait for the others .. come on! Whegg, man the gates!"

He turned to his wife, stating, "Can you keep an eye on things from the wall top? Since you're not dressed for this?"

><><

Clogg and his crew would have reached the castle they believed was Kotir sooner, were it not for a yawning ditch that ran it's way in front of the fortress. It was within arrow distance .. but only just. Likely some sixty yards out from the walls.

Bootbrain scratched his head, voicing his captain's bewilderment. "Capt'n .. I don't remember no hole 'ere .. how'd it get where it is?"

Clogg shrugged, staring at the ditch as if he was searching it for inspiration. "Wull .. I donno Bootbrain .. mayhaps Verdauga's been diggin' a moat."

Snag the rat looked skeptical. "Looks purty wimpy fer a moat .. and too far from da walls .. if'n ya ask me."

Clogg looked irritated. "Hoi, wull I didn't ask ya mud-brain! Come on, git yer scurvy hides over dis thing, whatever it is."

Snag looked disgruntled, but jumped the ditch with agility. Bootbrain was next, then Scritchy and Floggtail. One by one the whole crew did, Clogg being last and by far the most ungainly.

The corsair brushed himself off in effort to regain whatever dignity he thought of himself as having, before stating, "Wull move yer hides ya sea scum .. let's git ourselves a ship!"

Bootbrain doubted the rest of the distance bothered Clogg all that much .. the stoat was already reveling in the idea of having a ship again.

In truth, Bootbrain was preoccupied by watching Scritchy fondle the blade of her already drawn knife. The weasel couldn't help but feel nervous about the vengeful rat's idea of killing a ghost .. but it was a little late to bring it to Clogg's attention.

When they neared the gates, it was obvious their presence was no surprise, evidenced by the three creatures that stood in the gateway. Bootbrain recognized them as Verdauga Greeneyes, Badrang's ghost, and Clogg's sister.

Clogg was fidgety now that he was in Badrang's ghost's presence, and he bowed nervously. "Milord .. we did what ya said .. and brought ya da white eye rubies ya wanted."

Bootbrain was puzzled as an almost unnoticeable look of surprise flew across Verdauga's face. The cat narrowed his green eyes, asking, "Well, where are they?"

Clogg reached into his satchel to produce the selected treasure .. but he never got a chance to bring it out.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bootbrain saw Scritchy aim the knife. He didn't have a chance to do as much as open his mouth before she threw, with strength born from vengeful fury!

The creature Bootbrain thought of as the ghost of Badrang clapped a paw to his left shoulder with a cry of pain, and a crimson stain quickly showed itself starkly against the creature's white fur.

Verdauga grabbed hold of the injured creature to keep him from collapsing, not seeming to notice the blood that spattered on his cape and tunic. The white creature didn't seem mortally wounded, but in a good deal of pain by the way he rigidly tried to get to his feet, teeth clenched.

Clogg let what he was about to produce from his satchel fall back in, a snarl of utmost suspicion growing on his features. "Hey wait a minute .. ghosts don't bleed! Aye an' I'd always 'ave believed in a ghost bleedin' before I'd have seen ya stoop fer anybeast .. Verdauga. If'n that's even yer name .. who are ya really?"

The cat hesitated, and Clogg seemed to realize something. "Yer 'is liddle brat, ain't ya? That liddle wimpy kitty-prince .. Gingerveer or somethin'!"

A scowl of hatred twisted the cat's features as he growled, drawing his cutlass. "My name is Gingivere, and nobeast calls me a kitty-prince and lives!"

Bootbrain clenched his spear, feeling this situation could not possibly have a promising outcome. His suspicions were confirmed as Snag, being as overambitious as he was, bent a bow on Gingivere, snarling, "Nobeast threatens our Capt'n an' lives either, kitty-king!"

Up on the wall tops, Sandingomm was far from ignorant of the situation. She'd loaded her bow, and now purposely trained it upon the rat menacing Gingivere. The cat aimed carefully before releasing the arrow, feeling a little satisfaction as the beast who dared call her husband 'kitty-king' fell dead, arrow in his throat.

Gonff whipped out his sling, loading a sizable rock and nodding to Sandingomm. "Good shot .. the blighter won't be saying that again! For that matter .. he shan't be saying anything else either!"

Down in the gate, Gingivere found retreat the best option. Seizing both Erwin and Rupert, he practically dragged them through the small crack left open, and cried, "Whegg mate, shut the gates!"

The rat slammed them, laying the formidable gate bar in place with the help of Brome, Ferdy, and Coggs.

Estella grabbed hold of Rupert, wincing as she got a good look at his wound, which was bleeding profusely. The ermine grabbed hold of the blue cape the stoat had on, clapping it to the injury and stating hurriedly, "Oh come on Rupert, we've gotta git ya ta Urran .. before that gets even worse!"

Gingivere was already making his way up the wall stairs, calling, "All defenders to the wall tops! We've got a war on our paws!"

><><

On the shore of Salamandastron, Argulor was taking some last instructions from Martin.

"We need you to go back to Mossflower .. tell Rose all that has happened, and that we are headed north, following the riddle."

Argulor nodded, in high spirits after finally eating the one little pine marten he'd always dreamed about. Timbal winked at him, unable to resist adding, "Aye, and don't go about giving poor Whegg too much indigestion .. he's not fond of the thought of eating pine martens."

Argulor took this in a serious fashion. "Er .. ahem .. yes, Ah do suppose you're right Laird. He dinae have the stomach for such tasty things, though Ah'll never knoo why."

The bird tested his still healing leg, asking, "Ach, Martin me Laird, what say Ah stop here a few days? Me ol' leg isn't feeling to braw yet, yekin?"

Martin nodded. "That's fine, I forgot about the leg. Of course, rest up a bit! The last thing needs to happen would be for you to be badly injured. Why not wait .. oh, five days or a week, and then start down?"

Argulor ruffled his feathers. "Five days is sufficient laddie, Ah'll leave on the fifth sunrise. After Ah take Lady Rose your message, Ah'll come and see you're not in trouble."

Martin bowed. "It would be much appreciated Milord."

The eagle yawned, stating, "In the line of duty me Laird .. when do you plan to leave?"

Martin shrugged. "Day's first light, tomorrow morning."

Argulor nodded. "Then Ah'll be wishing you the best of luck .. and Laird Ignasa's protection. May he watch over ye in your journey, and Ah wish ye fair winds and swift travels."



Chapter 31 The Blue One and his Key

For most creatures, the next procession of days was a lull after all they had been through. The marks made their way north, falling into a nearly carefree routine .. after all, they had killed most of Lotor's vermin at Salamandastron.

A week of travel had passed, made un-monotonous only by the changes in scenery there were to be seen every day. The rocky sand of Salamandastron's strand was slowly replaced by the soft sand of the more northern shores.

But despite the beauty and the stillness, there was an odd sense of foreboding in Sayna's mind .. something she couldn't understand. She explained it in her own mind as nervousness at the thought of finding out more of her tangled past .. but she could tell Groddil was wary as well.

They all were, in truth, even the horses. And if they would have known why, they would have posted more than one sentry at night.

For they were not alone on these seemingly empty northern coasts ... far from it.

Sholabar was a trained tracker, and it was lucky for him, with what he'd undertaken to do. The fox had changed his plans somewhat the first time he'd heard his quarries discussing treasure .. after all, from what he had heard, even they were unsure of it's whereabouts.

So if he were to go about killing anybeast now, how would he be able to get his paws on these said crowns ... ones that from the sound of things, were fabulous indeed!

No, he'd be a fool to kill them .. not yet. But once they'd discovered the treasure .. that was another matter.

Still .. Lotor would just have to wait. After all ... some things took precedence.

><><

The morning was still quite young when Martin awoke, and he came to reality slowly. It wasn't due to the occasional cry of a seagull either, but the faint sounds of an argument .. and one that sounded a little heated.

The mouse sat up slowly, realizing the sound was coming from outside the small dip in the dunes in which their camp was stationed. It was muffled .. but there was a sort of horse-like element to it.

Martin seized his sheathed sword and belt, quickly buckling it on as he slipped toward the noise. As he crept to the top of the dune, he felt something almost like amusement.

Darkdiamond was far more hot-headed then Timbal, his rider, and was suspiciously confronting a stranger, a blue roan stallion who seemed older then the first.

Diamond tossed his head now, ears working on being pinned. "What do you want with us? You shall not touch the mares .. I'll fight you first!"

Martin did understand Diamond's fear, stallions of the north could be vicious when mares were involved, killing any that stood in their way of claiming a herd. However, as he looked the newcomer over, Martin had the feeling this horse did not pose a threat.

The creature was slender for a male horse, with a light frame and a beautifully dished face. His raven-wing black mane and tail cascaded like something straight out of a fairy tail, and his thin, almost spindly white legs betrayed traces of many healed scars.

Martin frowned .. where before had he seen such a horse? Long ago to be sure .. but there was something ..

The creature was speaking now, with an irritated manner. "Ach, be off with ye laddie, Ah'm not after your said mares. But Ah do want ta knoo why you're trespassing on me land."

Diamond stomped a hoof. "I'm no laddie old one, and I didn't have a clue this was your land. And they aren't my mares either."

The horse looked a little disgusted. "Ah am not all that old you young .."

Martin decided it was time for him to make an entrance. The mouse jumped over the top of the dune he was behind, calling, "Diamond, don't antagonize our visitor, please? Let me talk to him."

The blue roan stallion looked up, and Martin thought he caught a glint of gold around his neck, half hidden by his black mane. But far more obvious was the look of complete and utter shock on his face .. the look of one who has seen a ghost.

The horse's mouth dropped open slightly as his ears swiveled forward, and he stammered, "Luke? Luke .. is it ye?"

Martin slid to a stop on the dune side, halted by the mention of his father's name. The mouse was silent a fraction of a second as he suddenly put a face with the name of the horse he knew his father had ridden .. Stardust. What he said next he did not totally mean to say, but it came out of it's own accord .. not as a question. "You .. knew my father."

Now another look of wonder had come across the stallion's face, and he gasped, "Martin! Ye was no more than a wee lad the last time I set eyes on ye! We thought for sure ye'd have died .. where did ye take yourself off too?"

Martin was about to answer, when Dancer and Stargazer trotted up, followed by Phantom. The pale gray mare froze stock still a moment, before asking slowly .. almost fearfully .. "Stardust?"

Stardust stared, before bolting into action, running to the mare and shoving his muzzle against hers. "Phantom .. but Ah was sure .. didn't the sea raiders take ye?"

Phantom buried her muzzle in his mane, murmuring, "They did .. Ah was sold to Verdauga. But Martin and his friends freed me when they overthrew the Greeneyes."

Stardust pulled away, echoing, "Overthrew the Greeneyes .."

Phantom nodded, motioning Dancer over. "Aye, our daughter was with them .. she was not killed by Vilu as we thought!"

The general confusion was only added to as Timbal, Sayna, and Groddil ran up, each having a slightly differing reaction. Sayna laid a paw on her sword hilt, Groddil looked thoughtful, and Timbal stepped forward with amazement. "Stardust? But I thought you were killed fighting old Daskar!"

><><

At Redwall, a sort of shaky siege had been established, although not all of Clogg's crew was excited to lay siege to a fortified castle .. all they wanted was a new craft!

Some of the corsairs where truly angry about the way Snag had been shot down, others didn't care so much. Clogg was angry about the loss of Snag .. but not so much about the fact Scritchy had been taken down by a sling stone in the initial attack. After all, it was her blasted fault all this had gone wrong.

One part of Clogg was glad she'd thrown the knife at the phony ghost and revealed the deception; another part of him was inclined to believe that phony or not, the creatures would have given him a ship if Scritchy had done nothing.

After all, it didn't matter to Clogg where his ship came from .. only if he got one.

In a sense, he did realize his crew was discontent. However he went by his fluctuating mood, and at this particular moment, his mood did not give the grumbling crew merit.

They hadn't moved their camp .. Clogg didn't feel like trying to make his crew do it. After all, that was an awful lot of work.

So all it amounted to was what it had been before .. the Redwallers couldn't leave their abbey, but they weren't under attack either.

It was a standoff, a stalemate.

Gingivere and Rose hoped if they could keep it that way long enough, Clogg's crew would grow disgusted with the situation and disband.

It was truthfully, a very wise move, and might have worked too.

But there was one thing nobeast planned on.

The vengeful, dispossessed usurper of Salamandastron.

><><

Lotor had been driving his horde and himself just as fast as he could, and consequently, had made good progress over the course of the last week. Not as much as he would have liked, for sure .. but he had wounded beasts in his company.

He had one horse at least, a rather old bay, and two days after he set out from Salamandastron, he'd come across a farm. Run by an old mouse and his wife, it was easy prey for the ermine warlord.

To his delight, they had a horse themselves, and a wagon for carting hay. While the harness had to be adjusted, it wasn't long before Lotor had a team hitched to his new mode of transportation.

He didn't run the horses to death, even if he might have liked to. What would he get out of horses who were too tired to keep going? Nothing, that was what.

So it was that he kept his team trotting and walking from before dawn until the sun set, and even still, it was telling on them heavily. However while it couldn't satisfy him, Lotor was glad he'd made as much progress as he had.

The object of his goal would soon be in sight now .. soon. But not yet.

When it was though .. he'd retaliate with vengeance!

They would fear him; he would make the memory of his father's brutality something to spit upon with mockery.

Badrang would be nothing compared to his son .. his son he had sold into slavery.

Deep down, this was what made Lotor the most angry .. he could have been known as the son of a warlord. In truth, he had been .. but with mocking.

The warlord's son .. and the cabin boy too.

Fetch me this yer highness!

Scrub the deck til it shines, yer highness!

That had been his life. All because his father had thrown him away as one rids themselves of a leach .. all because he'd been sold as a slave.

But he'd show them! He'd been a king once, he'd mastered the brutal art of Shadow Fighting .. and he would prevail!

><><

At Salamandastron, things had evened out pretty well. Quinn was back on his paws, and was going about repairing the scullery door Ferran had knocked off it's hinges in his fight with Groddil.

He'd also fashioned a wooden leg for Buffheart in place of his missing one, and the hare was getting around fairly well again.

Iona, Quinn, and Buffheart had been horrified and shocked to discover Kesha's death, this being accomplished by the fact her body had been found in the process of cleaning the mountain of the effects of war.

They'd buried her themselves, and Buffheart had bequeathed the rat's feathered staff to Iona, saying Kesha would have wanted it.

However, they all three were puzzled at her death, for there was no mark on her. After asking around and confirming that none of the woodlanders had even seen her, they were forced to admit they would likely never know why the ratwife had died.

Bella felt bad for them, and after hearing of Kesha's heroism, said she would have greatly enjoyed meeting her. The badger promised the poor rat's bravery in one of Salamandastron's darkest chapters would never be forgotten, but chronicled forever on the walls as a part of the mountain's history.

However despite their initial sorrow, Buffheart, Iona, and Quinn were fitting in well with their new companions. Iona had made good friends of Emalet and Redfarl, while Quinn had surprisingly found a kindred spirit in none other than Starbuck, seeing as they were both greatly interested in woodworking.

Buffheart was elated to be reunited with his former comrades in arms, and quite pleased by his son's now obvious interest in the shy but nonetheless brave Thalia. Along with the Pine Woods squirrels and under the supervision of their new badger lady, the Long Patrol was resurrected to defend the western shores. Trubbs was made chief general, Lepus captain, Buffheart Sargent, and Ffring received the place of head trainer. Starbuck and Breeze became patrollers, along with Thalia and even Quinn and Iona.

So it was that peace once again reigned over the north shores, and the stronghold of the badgers and hares stood for Lord Ignasa once more.

><><

After a few more minutes of questions, answers, and reunions, Stardust brought it all to a halt. The horse tossed his head, snorting, "Enough me friends, Ah shan't have anybeast on me lands in want of breakfast. Come on, Ah have a friend who'll want to meet ye .. he's also a braw cook, yekin?"

He flicked his tail, indicating they should follow. His wife and daughter walked beside him, while the others trailed behind. Timbal caught up with Martin, asking, "What do you make of him?"

Martin looked confused. "He's my father's horse, what am I supposed to make of him but a loyal and true beast?"

Sayna's eyes twinkled. "Oh, Timbal doesn't mean like that, he means in connection with the riddle."

Martin paused, brown eyes lighting up as realization dawned. "The blue one holds the key! What creature could be bluer than a blue roan horse! Here I thought it was to be quite confusing, when it really is so simple one can look over it!"

Timbal nodded. "Well you talked to him. Did he have a key?"

Martin cast a glance at the stallion, stating, "I'm not sure really. But his mane falls so, he could have had any number of things around his neck and a beast would never notice."

Sayna shrugged. "Since you're his rider's son, you should ask him Martin. Besides you're better at being tactful in such cases, I'll just blurt something stupid, as usual."

Martin twirled a whisker. "Alright, if the opportunity arises, I will ask him. And I'm sure it will, after all, as soon as he gets over his initial shock he's bound to ask us what we're about."

Further talk was forgotten as Stardust called "Ho there you old famine-face, Ah brought some friends for breakfast!"

They had walked into a scrubby outcrop of trees, and Martin blinked up into the one they stood under. It was set up with a number of worn wooden platforms and a dune-grass thatched roof over each. An old hare thrust his head into view around the sizeable trunk of the three-toped oak the odd, multi level dwelling was in, calling, "Ya, you flippen blighter! Call me famine-face again an I won't be bringin' any vittles down for ya wot, wot! S'not like you can come up and get me, rotten cad!"

Stardust looked amused at his friend's outburst. "Oh come off it Beau, we have company!"

Beau seemed to notice this the first time as he gave the company a good looking over through a monocle he'd produced. "Oh I say so we do, wot, wot! Be down in two ticks!"

With agility to contradict his age, the hare jumped onto a rope ladder that resembled ship rigging, climbing quickly down it. He had no sooner set paw on the ground then he preformed an elegant leg. "Top of the morning to ya, chaps and chapesses! I'm Beauclair Fethringham Cosforthingsol! Why no I ain't, I'm Beausol Fethrforth Cosingham. No, that doesn't sound right .. it was Beauham Fethsol Cosforthingring. Oh confound it all .. maybe it must have been Beausolring Fethforthing-thingy .. Oh just call me Beau! Everybeast does, the other handle's so blasted long if I wasn't careful it'd belt some poor chap over the head, say me good self."

Stardust nodded. "It belted you over the head seasons ago .. or perhaps twas a piece of the Goreleech. Either way, you haven't remembered your full title since, an' Ah never had the courage to learn it."

Beau sighed. "Oh the shame of it .. a chap forgetting his own proper handle. But I guess you'll be wantin' breakfast. Well one of you young chaps can help me bally well get it .. come on young sir!"

He had grabbed hold of Martin, and was finally close enough to get a clear look at him. The old and very near-sighed hare squinted at him a moment, before gasping, "I say .. Luke?"

Beau didn't give him a chance to speak, just hugged him in a vise-like manner. "Why you old battle-dog, you ought to be ashamed of the way you had me and this good 'orse of yours thinking you was dead! Tain't right for you to be making your mates think you was deceased!"

The old hare practically pulled Martin off the ground as he looked him over again, before stating in a griping manner, "An not only did ya fake your own death, you've been keepin' young while all the rest of us 'ave been growing old! Why you flippen' cheater, for shame I say! I ought to clap you on a fizzer for multiple offences .. pot washin' duty for a month, you rotten cad, bad form!"

Martin gave Beau a very disheveled glance. "Ow .. I'm not .. "

Stardust interrupted. "Beau, that's Luke's son."

Sayna added, "And he has a bad shoulder on top of it!"

Beau looked apologetic as he placed Martin gently on the ground. "Oh I'm sorry young chap .. bad shoulder is it? Probably as much of a warbeast as your old father."

The hare turned on Stardust, berating him. "An' ya might have said that was Luke's son before I bally well assumed he wasn't, procrastinating pony! In fact you might have told me Luke had a jolly old son!"

Stardust rolled his eyes. "Ah wasn't goin' to bring up history that Ah had no right to speak of .. it wasn't mine. Luke told nobeast of his past, the only ones that knew where the ones .."

He paused, stating at length, "The ones who lived it with him."

Beau huffed, waggling an ear at the horse. "I still say it's rotten of you, you flippen cad. The next thing you're gonna tell me is these two are Vurg and Luke's sister .. fibbin' bounder!"

Timbal raised a paw. "Well .. not quite. I'm Vurg's son, and she's Luke's daughter."

Stardust jerked his head up at this point, as if noticing Sayna the first time. The horse perked his ears, taking a hesitant step forward and asking, "Luke's .. daughter?"

He gave Sayna an astonished look. "Is .. it true? Are ye truly Luke's daughter? Nay, speak not, ye are. Ye have his fur .. his eyes .. the fire he fought with shines in them. But how .. how?"

Sayna stammered. "I .. don't know for sure .."

Timbal put an encouraging paw around her shoulders. "Stardust, we hoped you could help shed light on the matter .. we don't know everything about it, as Sayna says."

Stardust was amazed. "Her name is Sayna ... just like her mother's! It is her for certain then .. no other beast would have that name!"

Sayna interrupted nervously, "Umm .. really, I sort of named myself .. from the name on my sword."

She drew the weapon, and Stardust started. "Ah thought for sure Vilu would have taken Sayna's sword .. how do you come to have it? And what on earth happened to the blade ..?"

Timbal patted the blue roan's shoulder. "It's all a very long story .. and one that must be told."

Martin had made an effort to brush his fur down flat again, but a tuft or two remained unruly. The golden mouse spoke up now, stating, "Indeed, we must exchange stories. And in truth .. we are on a quest to find out more of our past .. and the legendary treasure of my father .. the crowns of old Mossflower."

Stardust blinked, stating, "Ach laddie .. if only Ah could help ye .. but only Luke knew it's whereabouts."

Martin looked down. "Stardust, is my father truly gone?"

The horse hung his head as Beau laid a paw on Martin's shoulder. "Young'un, your father was a right ol' warrior .. I've never seen one greater. He wanted to kill Vilu Daskar, master of the seas more'n anything .. and so he did. They battled each other like mad beasts .. were still battlin' when the Goreleech wrecked .. and both fell ta their death in the sea. Luke .. he was a fine beast. Aye and a better friend don't exist .. an never will again. Unless a course, you hold ta his standards eh wot?"

Martin said nothing for a minute, before he stated gruffly, "I will never be the beast my father was ... and someday you must tell me the full story."

Beau patted his head. "Course laddie buck, we wouldn't think of not, right Stardust ya cad?"

The horse looked up, tears in his eyes. "Ah can't do much for ye Martin .. but there is one thing .."

He pulled something glimmering off his neck, dropping it into Martin's paw. "But there's something that belongs to ye."

Martin wiped a paw across his eyes, holding up the glittering golden key on it's leather strap. He traced his paw over the object, noting that the likeness of Lord Ignasa's face stared levelly at him from atop three ivy leaves that made the key's handle. Strange writing worked it's way down the golden contrivance, the letters of an ancient language.

Stardust smiled a little. "Your father would have liked ye to have it."

><><

Luke and his friends were making good progress toward the old caves, and despite the slight feeling of fear .. Trimp's lessons with Cardo had a way of providing amusement. Right now the two were making supper .. although as Luke and Vurg exchanged a glance, both could tell the other doubted it's quality.

Apparently, the hedgehog's way of cooking was to throw nearly every available thing into a pot and boil it to a debatable mass. Cardo did not agree with her methods.

The rotund mouse was instructing her now, a little frustrated. "No, we are not putting ramsons and damsons in the same dish .. no, I don't care if they rhyme. They do not make for good flavor when mixed!"

Trimp sighed. "But ya'll never know fer sure lest ya try it!"

Cardo clapped a paw to his brow. "Logic miss, logic! Didn't your parents teach you anything?"

Trimp looked down, rubbing the back of her paw across her snout and wincing as one of her own spikes pricked her nosetip. She shrugged. "Never knew 'em .. they got killed by ol' Greeneyes. I was raised by the moles .. never took ta talkin' like 'em though."

Cardo was silent a moment, before stating, "I'm sorry miss .. that was careless of me."

Trimp wiped her muzzle again .. this time with the front of her paw. "S'ok .. it don't bother me. How'm I supposed ta miss somthin' I never had? Least I don't remember havin'. Trimp's what the moles called me .. an' Formole said 'e knew me mother an' that's what she called me too. My father got killed before I was born, Foremole said 'e knew that too."

She shrugged matter-of-factly. "Spect he knew best. But anyhow, what's we gonna put in here if it ain't ramsons or damsons?"

Cardo nodded, listing the ingredients. "Watercress, turnips, potatoes, carrots, and parsnips. Help me chop them, would you?"

Trimp drew her rapier with a flourish. "No problem!"

Luke turned away from the amusing scene, asking Vurg, "Mate .. what do you think about what Trimp says of the feather-mark?"

Vurg sat up against the log that had previously acted as his pillow, looking across a span of about three feet at his friend. "It sounds like she could be your daughter."

Luke stared up at the stars that were just starting to show in the darkening sky. "I'd ask Trimp more about it, but she's so hard to keep focused. And even more ..."

He broke off, and Vurg prodded him. "Even more what?"

Luke sighed. "I'm afraid. I've hidden so long, thinking of no more than if we would have a good harvest, and living in my past. Maybe I've been torturing myself with memories .. making myself wallow in the pain and mistakes of yesterday. I don't know that I can really face .. the future."

The mouse folded his paws, returning his gaze to the sky. "All these seasons I've been telling myself if I ever got another chance .. I'd do better. But when you actually get that chance .. how do I describe it Vurg? What else can I say but there's fear. What if we never find them .. what if this is some dream? And what if we do find them Vurg, what then?"

Luke closed his eyes. "It's not so bad for you, you can just tell Timbal, 'I didn't ever want to leave you son, I just went along with my best friend's stupid quest.' You know you're lucky Vurg .. you've got an excuse. You've got someone to blame when Timbal asks you why you left him to face the world alone. When Martin asks me that .. there's nobeast to blame but Luke .. because it's all my fault!"

Vurg sighed. "It's Vilu's fault, not yours. He killed your wife .. he slew so many of our poor tribe. You didn't do that, you risked your life to defend us by ridding the world of that scum!"

Luke's voice was soft. "And what did it do Vurg, really? Another will rise up and take his place, even more vile than he. I'm not saying I was wrong to fight him, but to leave my only son and chase a stupid polecat to the ends of the earth .. a father's got a responsibility to his family, no matter how small and shattered it may be. I should have built Martin up .. but I left him. Now he's a father, is married .. I have grandchildren .. it's too much! I should have been there."

Vurg shrugged. "It's never too late to start Luke .. Martin will be glad to see you again, I'm sure of it. Face it, he loved you .. you were his hero, he wanted to be just like you."

Luke smiled a little as the picture of his son returned to him. "I should hope he's not like me. But you're right .. you're right, as always. I've got to go back .. I've got to fully face the past .. to find the future."




Chapter 32 New Plans

A Thief in the Night

Bootbrain on the move .. >':'<

The sun was still climbing in the sky, and Lotor was already on the move. He was forced to stop for eight hours each night lest the weary horses drop dead in their traces, and at least he had a good supply of grain to feed them from the farm he had pillaged. Otherwise he and his horde would have been left on foot a week ago.

It had been two weeks now -two weeks- since he'd lost Salamandastron. That defeat stung .. but Lotor was an opportunist. He had a new prize to conquer .. moaning over his lost one would avail him nothing.

The ermine cracked his driving whip over the horses heads, causing them to trot.

Now was his chance for glory!

At about high noon, he was forced to halt again for the lagging, failing horses. Lotor begrudgingly allowed his horde to make a small fire and forage for some supplies. They'd found some wild potatoes and turnips, and were now going about roasting these edibles.

Grimleg brought his lord some of the roasted vegetables on an up-turned shield. Lotor gave it a glance. "I hope you washed that."

The ferret nodded earnestly, and Lotor spiked a turnip on his knife-paw, chewing it reflectively. "Hmm .. yes well I doubt you cooked these, they wouldn't be fit to feed a crow if you had. Look Grimleg, we're stuck here a few hours 'til these horses are ready to travel .. they're practically dead right now. I want you to send a scout out .. get the lay of the land. Got that?"

Grimleg nodded readily. "Oh yes Lord, I'm on it right away!"

He scurried quickly off, and Lotor assumed he didn't wish to hang about. That was the way it should be after all .. his presence should be enough to strike fear into anybeast!

The ermine adjusted his gold coronet, eating another steaming piece of vegetation off his knife-paw. Lotor couldn't wait to battle an opponent with it .. long enough to stab, yet not long enough to be unwieldy.

That mouse-king had taken his paw .. and made him more deadly!

Perhaps an hour passed, and Lotor was getting fidgety, when the scout, a young rat, returned. Grimleg brought the scrawny beast before the ermine, stating, "Wull? Tell yer Lord whatcha told me!"

The young rat looked nervous, but stammered, "Lord, I scouted 'round .. an' I found another vermin camp!"

Lotor was genuinely interested. "Another vermin camp? What was it like .. what defenses does it have?"

The rat scout shrugged. "Hardly nothin' Lord .. it's awful disorganized. An' I'll tell ya somethin' else .. they've got boodle! Loads an' loads a boodle .. the like I've never seen!"

Lotor pondered this a moment, before nodding to Grimleg. "Good. Grimleg, get five beasts to guard the horses. Assemble the rest of the horde .. we have work to do."

><><

Bootbrain was having a dull day as usual, just forage, give the .. red castle .. a quick looking over, and spend the rest of the sunlight hours casting glances at Clogg, counting his gold.

The weasel couldn't help a snarl that crossed his face. That Clogg!

That mad fool that called himself captain!

Unlike some, Bootbrain had never really dreamed of being a leader .. he just wanted wealth, and to live comfortably. Being leader of a horde was too much work and trouble.

The black weasel didn't really want to be bothered with mutinous crew beasts and attacking woodlanders .. that was dangerous, and somehow or other, each leader eventually came to a sorry end.

Like Clogg. That fool wasn't going to do anything but revel in his wealth, Bootbrain knew. Like it was even that stoat's gold ... he hadn't found it!

Bootbrain had .. it was his gold! If he hadn't discovered the secret passage in the old stump, Clogg would still be wandering about Mossflower like the stupid fool he was!

The weasel scowled. If he led a mutiny, overthrowing Clogg wouldn't be too hard .. and the crew were more than willing to do it. But then there would be a fight over the gold .. it would be inevitable.

That could easily get deadly, and Bootbrain wouldn't get all the treasure he deserved. No .. that wasn't the way to go about it. Far better to steal the wealth tonight while Clogg slept, hit the road, and let the rest of these fools murder each other when they discovered it was gone.

Yes, that was what he'd do. Then he'd find a nice place to settle down, and live a rich creature for the rest of his life .. never have to sign up as ship's cabin boy to ensure he'd have a scanty meal a day. He'd be able to swim in gold .. buy whatever he wanted, have servants .. lands .. horses .. Bootbrain couldn't help but envision the delight in his future.

He stopped honing the throwing knife he was sharpening, admiring the way it glittered. The weasel tossed it up, catching it by the flat of the blade and hurling it at a nearby tree. The weapon buried itself in the bark up to it's hilt with a thunk, and Bootbrain retrieved it with satisfaction.

It still flew swift and sure, as well as his other three. Perfect.

The weasel stuck the weapon in his old belt, starting as there was a rustling from the undergrowth. Suddenly the foliage was thrust imperiously apart, and a white ermine stepped regally into the camp, surveying the occupants as a king surveys his subjects. He was dressed in well made chainmail armor topped by a leather vest, a golden coronet, and his right paw was replaced by a glittering knife blade that was likely seventeen inches long.

A ferret, stoat, and rat hurried in behind him, along with others. The ermine glared at Bootbrain, asking, "Where is your leader, weasel?"

Bootbrain couldn't help but be afraid of this commanding beast, and he pointed a halfhearted paw at the form of an oblivious Clogg in his hammock, knowing the stoat was no comparison to the one that asked of him. This ermine was a real leader.

The creature passed with a haughty sneer, not even bothering to draw the cutlass that hung loosely by his side. He paused suddenly, staring a moment at Clogg, before muttering, "I don't believe it .."

The ermine smirked, walking quietly toward the mad corsair and stopping three feet from his hammock. "Well, well, we meet again my pompous glutton of an uncle."

Clogg looked up, starting so violently he fell out of his hammock and flat on his back. The stoat scrambled to his paws, growling, "Lotor?! How come ya ain't still servin' on da Bloodwake .. ya young whippersnapper?"

Lotor sneered. "Ripfang is dead, you old relic. As for the Bloodwake, why should I want to travel as a scummy corsair?"

Clogg looked offended. "Corsairs is fine an' noble beasts so we are, an' more than that, that blood runs in yer family, I'll 'ave ya know! Yer daddy was a corsair, his daddy was a corsair, an' his daddy before 'im! Generations of waverobbers, let me tell you .."

Lotor cut him off. "Fools and pitiful scum, the lot of them. They couldn't even speak properly, and neither can you! But I have a proposition for you old one .. though I don't know why I'd be merciful to a braided fleabag like you. Join my horde, and I'll let you live."

Clogg drew his cutlass with mockery. "What? Ya expect me ta join a rotten, misbegotten horde a yours? What'cha got, some baby mice? Ha! I have a crew a me own, an' enough gold ta sink a ship! What'da ya think ya are? I ain't joinin' no stinken horde, and I ain't followin' nobeast, especially not my upstart polecat of a nephew!"

Lotor showed no indication of anger, just raised a paw. "As you wish."

The next event happened so fast it made Bootbrain's head swim. There was a blinding flash of green light, Clogg flew across an expanse of at least five feet, and crumpled lifelessly to the ground, fur singed black.

Lotor stepped regally over his uncle's body, snorting at his astonished crew. "You are my beasts now, and you will serve me. As for this fool, get his body out of my sight. This treasure is mine, and anybeast who wishes can join their captain. Any takers?"

Nobeast even moved. Lotor nodded. "Good. You will refer to me as Lord, I am your king. Now tell me, where did my fool of an uncle get so much wealth?"

No one spoke for a moment, and Lotor waved a paw at them. "Go on, I won't hurt you. The beast who tells me gets a gold ring."

He plucked a ruby-set ring from the heap of treasure, holding it forth tantalizingly. Bootbrain opened his mouth to speak, but Floggtail beat him to it. "We found's it in'a cave Capt ... I mean Lord. It's fallen in now .. but we got's the treasure out first."

Lotor nodded, tossing the ring carelessly to Floggtail. "Hmm .. well I figured he must have found it unguarded, he couldn't defeat a toad."

Bootbrain broke in eagerly, angry Floggtail had gotten the ring. "Aye an' I found it first Lord, Clogg would'a never known if it weren't fer me!"

Lotor's yellow gaze hardened suddenly, but he replied coolly. "I see .. well even the lowest beast was greater than Clogg. Now, tell me, what was that stoat doing around these parts?"

Bootbrain didn't bother answering, he let the others do that. This Lotor gave him the absolute creeps .. there was something far crueler about him than Clogg. He could feel the ermine's eyes on him, and he purposely fell to the back of the crew.

A beast who could kill another by raising a paw ... that was a beast to be feared.

><><

Yaz ruffled her feathers, watching all that went on with great interest. The last few weeks of her life had been teetering on the edge of deadly. With nothing for a spy to report but the fact that a traitor was living comfortably and unable to be stopped .. that brought great danger to the spy.

However, this was bound to interest Rigvar immensely .. a beast that could throw green fire. Yaz had heard tales of such creatures, the legendary Shadow Fighters.

This must be one of them.

What an ally! This could be their chance to retaliate against Yar .. kill her for her treachery!

And they could slay those woodlanders in the process. This could turn out very well .. very well indeed.

One thing was for sure, Rigvar Skurr would want to know about this turn of events!

The magpie swept through the cave's entrance, coming to a stop at the edge of the sulfurous lake. Rigvar was waiting. He swept off his perch on the idol, landing in front of Yaz and cawing, "Well?"

Yaz gulped, but answered quickly. "Great Doomwyte, I have seen a beast of great power .. one of the Shadow Fighters, I am sure. He slew that fool we've been watching, Clogg, and took his crew .. he's a one pawed ermine sire."

Rigvar gave her a long look, squawking at length. "Raaaek! A Shadow Fighter you say?"

Yaz nodded. "He used glowing green fire to kill Clogg .. all he had to do was raise a paw!"

Rigvar waited another minute or two, before stating, "Hmmph, it may be helpful, depending on his motives. But I shall speak with him, for sure. Yaz, get Kree, Za, and Vee. Come yourself .. let's pay our new resident a visit."

><><

The morning sun lit one of Salamandastron's corridors, and fell upon two creatures walking through it .. Bella and Willow. The badger gave the hare a glance, asking, "Is the poor little one getting any better?"

Willow sighed. "I'm afraid not wot .. he's just pining away .. he's not happy here."

Bella shook her head. "He does not belong here, the mountain must hold too many memories for him. He needs to get away from here .. he needs to go to Redwall. There would be other children for him to play with there, and perhaps a family would adopt him. That might make him happy."

Willow nodded. "I think that is what must happen Bella, and soon. Before he gets worse."

The badger shrugged. "Ah, well that is easy enough. Redfarl and Emalet are leaving with Kaylar tomorrow .. you can send him with them."

Willow looked worried. "The lad is very particular about who he trusts .. he doesn't know any of them."

Bella was thoughtful. "Hmm .. yes. He's alright around Iona, isn't he?"

Willow nodded. "Yes, he trusts her well enough."

Bella smiled, "I'll ask her if she'd like to do a little traveling .. Quinn will probably want to stay here, but Iona's more adventurous, she might like to visit Redwall. Besides, she's good friends with Emalet and Redfarl .. it would sadden her to part with them."

Willow looked pleased. "That might work out .. and I want to send Bryony with them, the beasts at Redwall will be able to take better care of her than I."

Bella nodded. "This sounds fine. Most of the horses will go with them .. Wildfire too, he's well enough. Although Thunderbolt and Dancingfeather may want to stay with us .. Prairiefire and Redcloud too. They told me they were giving the leadership of the herd to Wildfire and Ghostdancer."

Willow shrugged. "Their customs have always confused me wot? Their names too .. Prairiefire, Wildfire, Forestfire .. what next? Waterfire?"

Bella laughed, explaining, "I've studied their ways long, the father always passes the suffix of his name down to his eldest son, who in turn does the same. If a stallion does not have a son, then his line dies out. That's why Flyingsparks' son is named Glowingsparks, why Wildfire's son is Forestfire. Prairiefire's father was called Snowfire, if I recall correctly. But I agree with you Willow, they are a strange and wild tribe."

The hare shrugged. "Perhaps not as wild as the birds wot, and at least they're vegetarian. Speakin' of which, do you suppose Argulor's nearly to the abbey? He left almost a week ago."

Bella nodded. "I expect he is .. poor dear bird. He had to stay here longer than he would have liked .. but he'll get there in plenty of time. He'll likely be back here in another two weeks."

><><

Argulor himself was indeed almost to the abbey, and would have been there sooner had he wanted to be. However he'd decided to take it easy, after all, on top of his healing leg, he wasn't the youngest bird anymore.

He swept easily over the treetops now, and his slightly blurry long-distance vision picked up the spire of one of Redwall's towers. The eagle gave himself a bit more speed and hurried toward his destination.

However, if he'd stopped for a second and looked down into the trees he was flying over, he might have noticed something.

That something being five oddly painted carrion birds perched in the branches of a spreading silver maple.

Za, a small rook, sighed with relief as Argulor passed. "Raack .. at least the sky-king did not see us."

Rigvar turned on him. "Reeeaaack! He his no sky king, the golden feather bag! Who is your king, Za?"

The rook looked terrified at his mistake. "You great Doomwyte, you! The eagle is as you say .. you could defeat him!"

Sumiss, perched on Rigvar's head as his crown, glared at Za, hissing, "You foolissssh rook, how dare you call the eagle sssky king? There issss only one king of birdsss and sssnakes .. Rigvar Sssskurr!"

Za nodded eagerly. "I am sorry Sire .. I meant nothing! You are the king, and you alone!"

Rigvar nodded at length, cawing, "Raaaaeeek! See you do not forget it Za! Now, let us go see this ermine of Yaz's .. lead the way magpie."

Yaz fluttered quickly toward the camp, landing in a tree just outside it. The others were close behind her, and she pointed with a wing. "Look, there he is in his private camp .. we can talk to him without the others."

Rigvar shook his head, and Sumiss held on doggedly. The raven cawed, "Let me go alone .. fur creatures are wary of us and he might call the others should he see us. I will call you if you are needed."

He didn't wait, just swooped into view, perching gracefully on a dead log in front of the ermine. Yaz watched the creature's reaction carefully, which was not one of fear, but rather suspicion.

Rigvar dipped his head, and Sumiss almost slipped off her position of elevation, one that did have it's drawbacks. The raven spread his wings as a symbol of peace, cawing, "Reeaak! I have heard you are a Shadow Fighter of high standing, and I am wondering what you are doing in these parts, since I too follow the dark wolf."

The ermine was silent a moment, before he spoke in an almost silken voice, "You have heard well. I am here to conquer a castle called Kotir, what does it have to do with you? Creatures of fur and creatures of feathers do not often become involved in each other's plotting."

Rigvar seemed to smile as he returned, "Raaaeee, but perhaps now is the time to overlook whether a beast bears feathers or fur. This castle you seek stands no more, but instead another redstone house stands in its place, and owned by woodlanders. I wish to conquer it, but alone I cannot. With you for our ally, we could change that."

The ermine raised an eyebrow. "Why should I join a raven? And why do you wish to take this redstone house, as you so call it?"

Rigvar ruffled his sleek black feathers, cawing, "You are a beast as I, full of cunning. It is well you ask why you should join me, but I have at least thirty birds in my command, and am willing to harass the woodlanders .. keep them distracted. As for why I wish to conquer, I have my reasons. The woodlanders infringe on my settlements, and force me and my birds to keep hidden. Also, I have a beast among them to .. punish."

The ermine looked thoughtful, stating at length, "I am Lotor, king of Salamandastron. And you are ..?"

Rigvar's eyes twinkled with satisfaction. "Rigvar Skurr, Lord of carrion birds and reptiles."

Lotor smiled a little. "Well then, Rigvar Skurr, as you wish. I am willing to listen to your cunning. What are your terms .. let us reach a deal."

><><

Bootbrain was sulking a little .. there went his fine plans. This Lotor was deadly .. Bootbrain had seen how the ermine glared at him when he said it was he who had found the treasure.

That couldn't be good .. it was never good when a leader gave a subordinate a look like that.

Bootbrain wasn't sure what he was going to do now, in all honesty. Should he stay? Should he run? Should he try to take the treasure and run?

He just wasn't sure anymore, and he was glad he wasn't in the main camp, the noise made it harder to think. The weasel was alone in the vast greenness of Mossflower .. it was so calm here.

Calm enough it made him think that if he ran deeper into it, he might be able to hide from his troubles in its friendly quietness. It was gentle .. unlike all the other things in his life. The sea and its beasts were never gentle, but this place was.

It would be nice to live here forever.

Bootbrain was broken from his thoughts by the sound of nearby voices, and he paused, listening closer. One sounded like the haughty voice of Lotor, but the other was a strange one. The weasel crept closer to where it sounded like they were, and as they became understandable, he froze.

It was Lotor's voice speaking, a little suspiciously. "Hmm .. you have a good plan, I admit. But what else is in it for you? Nobeast works without payment."

Bootbrain could see them now, it was Lotor; Lotor and a large raven. The bird answered the question, and what he said made chills run up the listener's spine. "A beast of true cunning you are. My people must eat, is it not so? Every dead corpse belongs to us, woodlander or vermin."

Lotor smiled. "Ahh, what use have I of deadbeasts? They are yours, every one. But that is not all you want, is it friend?"

The raven smiled. "No, of course not. I must have down payment, lest you should fail."

Lotor laughed. "A bird after my own heart! I see, and what would you like?"

The raven's caw chilled Bootbrain's heart. "Six of your horde to feed my birds, that is my request. In return I shall launch an assault immediately."

Lotor smiled with such remorselessness it made Bootbrain sick, and his next words made him want to never stop running. "You drive a hard bargain, but I sense your heart and I know you will do what you say. Yes, they are yours, and I'll throw in .. a certain overambitious black weasel as .. interest. When do you want them?"

The raven clacked his beak. "Send the beasts of your choice on a foraging patrol at dawn tomorrow .. my Doomwytes can pick up their own food .. they needn't wait to be served."

Bootbrain slowly crawled away, feeling terrible dread settle in his gut. Raven-food .. that's what Lotor planned to turn him into .. raven-food!

The weasel trembled, clasping his paws together. Fed to ravens .. no! No, he would not be! It wasn't right .. after what he'd done ..

After what he'd done. He was getting evil for good .. if he stayed here he would die painfully at daybreak. No, he had to get out .. he had to get out!

But that marvelous treasure .. some of it should be his! Lotor didn't deserve it, not after bartering in such a debase manner, with his own crewbeast's lives!

Bootbrain clenched his paw around a throwing knife. He had to take some and flee .. tonight. As soon as Lotor was asleep.

The weasel snarled inwardly. Raven-food .. that wasn't all he was good for! He'd show them .. he'd show them all!

><><

The day waned as always, and Bootbrain was a total nervous wreck .. he did his best not to let it seep through. This was extremely hard .. the weasel really wanted to hide somewhere and vent emotions .. terror, hate, fury, disgust .. there were so many.

What had he done to deserve this?

He'd done nothing! He didn't merit such a terrible, ghastly fate!

It wasn't fair!

No, it wasn't just. Bootbrain knew little of true justice, but he knew enough to know this wasn't it. If he had murdered or stolen .. then he might deserve to be executed. But he'd done nothing .. nothing!

He was going to steal now, take that treasure .. no .. his treasure from that ermine. So it wasn't even stealing then, just taking back what was rightfully his.

The weasel peeked out from under the bush he was using as a shelter, feeling justified in his cause. Yes, he was simply taking back what was rightfully his.

Bootbrain looked up at the darkening sky, shuddering. That raven who spoke with Lotor .. he could be anywhere!

What if he was here .. watching right now .. and might ..

Bootbrain gulped. The endeavor he was going about was a terrifying one, and he wasn't the bravest of beasts. However, the fire of greed was in his favor, and very strong indeed.

He wouldn't make his move until after dark .. then .. all he could do was hope for good luck. Without it, he was dead!

But .. all that wonderful gold! Yes, it had to be done .. and he needed to get ready now. He needed a sack, a big one. That and to observe what sort of guard Lotor had .. for he wouldn't leave the treasure alone.

Bootbrain swallowed hard, putting on his best foolish, un-intelligent look, and walked into camp looking as dull as he could.

Sometimes being the stupid one had it's benefits.

><><

Night fell quietly, and Lotor decided to let his horde and horses rest for the few hours they could. He'd posted a rat to guard the pile of treasure, one of his own creatures.

Bootbrain scowled. Brilliant .. he needed a diversion, but what .. what? How could he get the guard away from the treasure .. how could he do it?

The answer came to him by rustling in a nearby treetop, as well as a slight, unnatural glow. Bootbrain blinked, startled. What was that? It was tempting to go see himself .. but still .. the treasure!

Of course .. if there was an intruder .. he could report it to the guard. They might leave to find out what it was .. they might get stalled. And if they did come back ..

Bootbrain's paw fell to the hilt of a throwing knife. He'd have to deal with them, plain and simple.

The weasel glanced back at the tree, roughly twenty feet away. That odd glow was still there .. like there was something watching. Bootbrain felt a chill run down his spine, and he hurried away, toward the guard. There was something about that soft .. almost mesmerizing light the weasel couldn't help but fear.

He ran up to the surprised and now suspicious guard. "There's somethin' out dere .. ina tree! It's glowin' .. looks awful weird! Do ya think it'll come in 'ere?"

The rat looked at him oddly, but his enthusiasm was honest. The creature hefted his spear. "Alright, Imma have a look. But I won't git outa yer sight, an' if'n ya make one move to dat treasure I'll gut ye! Git dat?"

Bootbrain nodded submissively. "Uhh .. Wull I ain't after no treasure .."

The rat growled at him, pearing out into the woodlands. "I don't see anythin' ... hey wait! Ya .. you's on da level! Dere is somthin' glowin' out dere .. it's awful purty .. I wonder wot it is!"

The creature stared at the light, which from Bootbrain's vantage point, was invisible. A slow but freakish change came over the rat guard as he stood almost immobile. He simply seemed mesmerized as he dropped his spear, mumbling, "Awful purty .. aye an' it's mine, I saw it first! I want's it .. I'm gonna git it too .. come 'ere ya liddle ting .. I ain't gonna 'urt ya ..."

His voice faded to nothing as he trotted out into the woodlands, seemingly dazed. Bootbrain waited a few seconds, before untying the large burlap sack he was using as a belt. The weasel knelt by the heap of gold, quickly stuffing some into his bag.

He piled in as much as he could, quickly and silently. There was so much .. it couldn't all fit in the sack. However Bootbrain was determined to do his very best to defy logic, and gravity as well.

The weasel had made a considerable dent in the pile of treasure, when his paw hit something wooden. He dug the object out, realizing it was nothing less than the trunk he'd first took a liking to in the cave!

Bootbrain felt his luck might be good tonight .. after all, finding the trunk must be a good sign. He had just crammed it into a sack, when low voices came from nearby!

Bootbrain froze. That must be the first guard's relief!

The weasel seized his loaded bag, striving to keep it from clinking .. and doing a reasonable job. He wasn't followed as he ran out of the camp on tip-paw, wincing at every tinkle from his pile.

They weren't as smart as they liked to believe .. not if the one they had called 'idiot' so long could best them that easily.

Now, all he had to do was get far away .. and not go toward those treacherous, quicksand filled marshes. The opposite way it was then .. past that redstone house. Still .. they'd be asleep, and the place wasn't too heavily guarded.

A smart beast could get past it.

Bootbrain smiled inwardly .. a smart beast. That's what he was .. far smarter than those who said he wasn't! Hmmph .. they called him Bootbrain eh? Well they were the ones who better fit that title, not he.

So why go by it any longer? A freebeast .. they had a free choice.

The weasel intended to make the best of his.




Chapter 33 Sparks of a King

Far on the northern shores, where the sea pounded wildly onto immobile crags, night had fallen gently, with peace to defy it's surroundings. Nothing stirred to break this calm but the endless surf, and the far less noticeable plodding of horse hooves, accompanied by the creaks of the wagon the creature drew.

Luke sat silently, good eye taking in these familiar shores. Were not these the places haunted not by the living, nor spirits, but memories? Were not these the strands he'd sworn to never lay eyes on again?

What sort of irony was it that he had once again returned?

Luke did not know, and he didn't know how to explain it. The last week had passed far too slowly for his liking, and part of him wanted to leave these life-forsaken shores and make all speed for Mossflower.

However after all he'd done .. the least he could do was bring his son the crown he deserved.

Yes, he owed it to Martin after leaving him as he had. Still, Luke knew the painful recollections he would fully awaken in the process.

The mouse sighed softly. They were just memories .. but they still hurt. They hurt worse than any sword.

Milord Ignasa .. give me strength. I don't deserve your help .. not after all I've done. Still .. I ask it of you.

The answer was there, and from a voice Luke had not heard in seasons. "You doubt warrior, you have always doubted. I let you find the consequences of your decisions, but you were never alone .. I have always been here. Trust my plan this time .. you are here for a reason, and one I shall soon show to you, my son."

Luke stared up at the glittering stars for a moment, before slapping the reigns against a grazing Firebird's back; the horse had taken full advantage of his distraction.

Trimp, who had been asleep as Vurg and Cardo, looked up now, asking drowsily, "Luke sir .. ain't we ever gonna stop for the night? S'awful late you know."

Luke looked up, recognizing the familiar incline they were now moving up. He nodded, sighing, "The top of this hill miss .. we'll stop there. In the largest cave we will find .. my old home. It's dry, should we have any rain. Of course, that's quite unlikely."

Vurg sat up, yawning, "Luke matey, it ain't right for ya to do all the driving .."

The brown mouse broke off as he saw where they were. Luke pulled Firebird to a halt, watching as a stray night breeze whipped about the desolate place they had come to. He pointed to the largest, and lonely, weather-worn cave, stating dully, "There .. we'll stop there. Trimp, help Cardo with his kitchen please?"

Cardo, now awake, refrained from commenting on this statement due to the listless way Luke had said it.

Trimp seemed pretty oblivious to this as she carted Cardo's caldron and utensils toward the empty cave, calling, "Oh a cave! I love ol' caves just like I love old 'ouses! Come'on Cardo, let's see what it looks like inside! Can I cook tonight, huh? Please?"

Cardo too, seemed downhearted. He just nodded absently, replying, "Yes, that'll be fine miss, if you want to .."

Luke looked over at Vurg, stating, "Go with them. I'll stable Firebird in one of the smaller caves .. we'll get the crowns in the morning."

Vurg nodded, asking, "You'll be alright?"

Luke smiled a little sadly. "I'll be fine Vurg .. see Cardo is. He's sad about Fripple, I can tell. We aren't the only ones to have lost family."

><><

Night was relief from the day, and as Martin had decided, the northern shores were cooler than Mossflower. He'd been very downhearted to hear of his father's death from Beau and Stardust, who were now in their company traveling north.

The hare and the horse may have argued constantly, however Martin could sense that when faced with danger, they would die for one another.

At the moment they were not having at each other, instead Beau was seated on the blue roan's back, head drooping as he was constantly nodding off. Martin himself was tired as he laid a paw on Phantom's mane to steady himself. The mare turned her head, fixing her kind brown gaze upon him. "Ach, are ye weary lad?"

The mouse shrugged, mumbling, "No .. not too much."

Phantom shook her mane, ignoring him. "It's been a long day .. Ah'm wearied to. Ah think we'll be stopping soon .. Ah'm a'thinkin me Stardust wants to reach the caves tonight."

Martin cast his gaze about the strand they were on, admitting it was familiar. "Are we that far already?"

Phantom laughed softly. "We've been traveling a week laddie, ye haven't been walkin' yekin? We're very close to the old caves."

Timbal and Diamond came alongside them, the mouse pointing to the ground. "Martin matey, do you notice this? Somebeast's brought a cart along here. Aye and it's pulled by a heavy horse, one of those northern giants .. see how the hoof marks are blurred? That's due to the feathering on the beast's legs."

Diamond tossed his head, holding up one shaggy foreleg for Martin's inspection. "My mother was of draft blood. But I don't see who would be on these lonely shores other than us."

Sayna and Dancer were alongside Timbal now, and the gold mouse asked, "What if someone else is after the treasure?"

Martin looked confused. "How can that be? My father is the only one who knew of it's hiding place, and he is in the Lands Beyond."

Timbal shrugged. "Don't know for sure mate. It could be nothing .. but I agree with Diamond. These shores aren't often frequented."

Groddil was riding silently behind them on an equally quiet Stargazer, and the fox's steed stopped because the others had. Stardust and Beau came trotting back, the horse asking, "Ach, what's all this?"

Martin pointed the tracks out, explaining. Stardust cocked his head, swishing his ebony tail. "Hmm .. Ah do see your point. Whoever it is happens ta be headed right where we want to go .. could be no trouble, an on the other hoof, we could have a fight soon, yekin?"

Timbal nodded. "Too true. Am I mistaken, or are the caves just over that rise?"

He pointed, and Stardust tossed his head, neck nearly colliding with a half asleep Beau's muzzle. The hare awoke suddenly, chunnering, "I say sir, be careful where you swing that jolly old mug of yours, you un-caring equine! I should slap you on a blinken fizzer .."

Stardust snorted, somewhat intolerant from weariness. "Ah have spared your ungrateful paws a bonny good deal of walking, hare .."

Martin was not listening as he slid from Phantom's back and ran up the short incline himself. Yes .. yes, this place was familiar .. he had played here as a boy! Then the caves were before him .. the desolate caves.

The mouse paused, rethinking that mental observance.

The desolate caves? Why then did a soft, faint light glimmer from the largest one .. the one he had once lived in? Was some other beast here .. perhaps the very ones whose tracks they had sighted?

The thunder of hooves came from behind him as Dancer and Diamond raced each other up the incline, Sayna's horse coming out the victor. Timbal dismounted as soon as his steed stopped, and the jingle of stirrups signified Sayna had done the same.

Martin was about to say something when Timbal noticed what he had. "Is that .. firelight? Who would be in our old home?"

Martin shook his head. "I don't know, but I intend to find out. Where's Groddil .."

The fox's steed crested the ridge, and he slipped from his saddle. "He's here. What seems to be the problem?"

Sayna pointed the firelight out to her mentor, stating, "We've got company."

Martin took over, nodding to the horses. "I'll call you if you're needed .. likely it's no trouble. Besides, you might not fit well in the cave."

><><

Martin felt a little anxiety as they made their way toward the cave .. after all, was this not the place he had grown up? Who would be there this late at night .. and why?

As a simple precaution, he drew his sword; the soft sound of grating steel informed him the others had done the same. The fire was a smallish one, although not visible due to the short bend at the cavern's entrance.

Martin listened to the jumbled sounds coming from inside .. something that sounded like an argument of sorts.

"Miss, you expect us to eat this? We'll die .. it's as good as poison! You never put garlic and strawberries in the same dish, never! Worse than that, you used the last of my hotroot .. I was going to make shrimp soup with it!"

Another voice rang out, one that called out to Martin's memory. "Ugg .. Cardo, will you throw that mess out? And next time, please supervise her if she wants to cook .. that's enough to make me loose my appetite for a season!"

A feminine voice rang out, complaining, "S'not my fault, Cardo didn't unload all the food from the cart an' I 'ad to make do with what he did bring! You put the cart in'a different cave! S'not fair!"

Another voice rang out, a tired one. "Trimp .. we're all distracted tonight, but couldn't you think far enough not to do something like that?"

Martin had begun to make his way along the tunnel, the others behind him, and the next event that occurred could only be described as sudden chaos.

An elderly, rotund mouse came into their view, pot of something vile smelling in paw. He stopped dead at the sight of the four battle-ready beasts, especially Groddil. Before any could say a word, the creature flung the culinary disaster at the fox, yelling, "Vermin! Mate's there's vermin out here!"

Groddil ducked out of the flying pot's way, just as Beau, finished arguing with Stardust, appeared at the cave's entrance. "I say chaps, wait for me .. Mmphh!"

The hare succeeded in getting the pot full in the face, and he did an awkward and furious dance because of it. The mouse who'd thrown the missile ducked back into the cave, and Groddil followed, calling, "Sir, I'm not .."

There were exclamations of fury from the cave, as well as the sound of steel being drawn. Sayna bolted out, calling, "Don't touch my mentor!"

Martin and Timbal followed, both half blinded by the sudden light of the fire. There was a clash of steel nearby, and within seconds, Martin found himself faced with a creature about his size, armed with a spear! The warrior mouse couldn't tell exactly what color of fur the beast had, or even what species it was, thanks to the flickering firelight.

He parried the initial thrust, trying to hack the spear pole in half, but his opponent was too skilled. Martin ducked, kicking out and catching the creature in the knees .. after all, he didn't want to kill a beast who he could not tell was evil .. but he had to end the fight if he wanted to live!

The creature yelped in pain, staggering back and crumpling to the ground with a groan. Martin heaved in a breath, ordering, "Stop this .. I don't want to kill you, whoever you are!"

A half barking yell made all activity cease. "Enough!! Can't you see we aren't enemies?"

Everybeast looked at Groddil, and the hedgehog facing Sayna seemed to get a good look at her opponent for the first time. She looked totally mortified as she threw her rapier away, falling to her knees and crying, "Your majesty!"

Timbal stared at the beast who he was locked it combat with, and there was a clatter as his axe fell from nerveless fingers. "Father .. oh father .. is it you!?"

Martin swallowed hard, looking down at the beast still crouched at his feet. Now that his eyes had begun to adjust, he could tell this creature was no rat as he had first thought, but a mouse .. a mouse with golden fur.

Martin heard his own weapon fall to the floor .. although he could not feel it as it left his paw. He heard himself stammer what he already knew was true, although it didn't feel like it was him saying it. "Father ... but .. how?"

Luke looked up at his son, rubbing his knees. He didn't answer the question as such, just winced, "You've gotten better Martin .. you'd have never been able to do that before."

Martin fell to his knees beside his father, hugging him and gasping, "Father! I'm sorry .. I'm so sorry .. I didn't know!"

Luke put a paw around Martin's shoulders, moving his left leg cautiously, stating, "It's nothing time won't fix .."

His son pulled him onto his feet just a Beau stumbled into the cavern, sputtering and chunnering as he tried to rid himself of the mess Cardo had accidentally thrown on his head. "Blarg .. Ukk .. Ya call that vittles? Just let me catch the blighter that threw this rotten lot and I'll slap him on a season fizzer .. Yurk .. that's enough to slay a beast .. I say fess up, who chucked that vile slop?!"

Cardo stared at the hare. "Beau? Beauclair Fethringsol Cosforthingham?"

Beau paused in his quest to rid himself of the mess, stating, "Oh yes, that's my name .. why didn't you bring it up earlier Cardo?"

The hare suddenly realized what he was saying. "Cardo??!"

Disregarding the mess he was in, Beau hugged his long lost friend, pulling him off his paws. "Cardo laddie buck, I thought you was dead! Where've you been hiding yourself mouse?"

Suddenly, Beau put his dear friend down, scowling, "By the left, you too? A chap can't trust nobody when his own best pal pretends to be dead .. ya flippen' rotter, bad form an' a pox ta you .. after all we went through!"

Cardo looked apologetic. "Beau, I thought you were dead."

The hare pondered this a moment, before a wide grin spread across his face. "I say, I see how it is .. we were both pretendin' ta be dead! Well seein' as I'm guilty of the flippen' deception too, I forgive ya Cardo .. and tis bally good to see your old face again!"

Vurg was staring at his son, and a sudden smile filled the look of blank wonderment that had previously been on his face. The mouse hugged his son with strength to defy his seasons. "Timballisto! My son .. how long has it been .. you must be twenty-five seasons .. aren't you?"

Timbal shook his head, a little dazed. "I'm twenty-eight .. I think .."

Sayna spoke up from where she was gingerly pulling Trimp to her paws. "You are .. I'm twenty-five."

Vurg stared at the mouse, slowly looking at his son. "Timbal .. who is that?"

Timbal raised an eyebrow. "You mean Sayna?"

Luke, who'd just gotten to his paws with the aid of Martin, had heard the name Timbal had said. The golden mouse stared at his long lost daughter a minute, stammering at length, "Trimp .. is this the one you spoke of .. the golden feather-mark?"

The hedgehog nodded as Sayna slowly stepped toward Luke, asking hesitantly, "Martin .. is this your father .. I mean .. our father?"

Martin shook himself, stating, "Yes .. but .."

He turned to Luke, asking, "Father .. why did you never tell me .. I had a sister? She is my sister, isn't she .. I did have one?"

Luke nodded at length, stumbling over his words. "Y .. you did Martin .. you did. But she was killed in the same attack your mother was slain in .. wasn't she? Your name .. really is Sayna?"

The mouse maid was staring at him .. this creature was the one from her dream! Older, and blind in one eye .. but still the same beast. She stammered, stating in a half-dazed manner, "I've seen you before .. long ago .. and in my dreams .. you had the sword Martin carried. It was yours once .. wasn't it?"

Luke only paused a few seconds, before hugging both Sayna and Martin at once. "My children .. my twins .. the last time I saw you together, you were tiny, not two weeks old! And now see you .. two warriors to rival me .. I don't know what to say but your mother would have wanted it! Aye and so did I .. but I never dared hope it would ever be! And yet it is .. it really is!"

Timbal was standing by his father when Luke caught sight of him, and called, "Timbal! You old warbeast .. did you use anything I taught you?"

Timbal grinned .. he didn't look like he could help it. "I did, many times over. Though Sayna still can best me .. true Luke blood wins out in the end."

Sayna laughed, waving a paw at him. "Oh come off it .. that's thanks to my mentor, not my blood!"

Luke let go of her, asking, "Who was your mentor .. I'd like to meet him someday."

Sayna nodded to Groddil. "Well he's right here, actually."

Martin had to laugh at his father's crazy expression. He patted Luke shoulder, stating, "I know the feeling dad, but Groddil's a loyal and true beast .. a prophet."

Trimp was the one to break the silence. "Wull this is all great .. but I wanna know. I thought your majesties would be in Mossflower .. an' .. is queen Rose here?"

Martin shook his head, holding out a paw of greeting. "Trimp isn't it? Yes, I remember you .. you were part of the Corim, isn't that right? You must have left Mossflower before us .. a few things happened to liven up our summer."

Timbal snorted good-naturedly. "You could say that, matey .. you could just say that."

Vurg raised an eyebrow, asking, "Why? What happened?"

Timbal shrugged. "I'd say a war against five Shadow Fighters and a horde of at least five hundred is enough to liven up anybeast's summer."

Trimp looked amazed. "Whoa ... really? Too bad I left then .. seasons, I left cause things was too peaceful an' quiet, an' look what happens as soon as I leave! I s'pose that's why queen Rose ain't here, she's back watching over Redwall?"

Martin nodded. "Yes, and it's probably best .. she'll be safe there, and keep things in good order, I can trust her to do that."

Luke spoke up now, stating, "Oh yes, I hear from Trimp I'm a grandfather?"

Martin was startled for a moment, before smiling, "Well, yes, Rose is my wife .. and we do have two children."

Timbal laughed. "Scamps would better describe those two matey .. what with all their shenanigans."

Martin grinned at his friend, shrugging, "Oh, they're a pawfull .. and so is yours!"

Vurg looked at his son, asking, "Why you're married too?"

A sudden silence prevailed a moment, and Timbal nodded at length, stating, "Yes, I am actually."

Luke looked over at Sayna. "What about you?"

Martin had to snicker as Sayna cast a glance at Timbal, nodding, "Umm .. yes, that's correct."

Vurg looked interested. "And you both have children then?"

Sayna and Timbal looked at each other a moment, before they said in unison, "We have one."

Martin couldn't hold in his laugh at how utterly astonished Vurg and Luke looked .. it really was rather amusing. However Vurg's next statement made Martin stare in wonder. "How did you do it .. how did you know? You were too young to remember .. who told you?"

It was Sayna and Timbal's turn to look bewildered, and Timbal asked at length, "Told us .. what? Nobeast told us anything."

Luke suddenly laughed, stating, "Oh how small this world is .. you were separated before you could have remembered each other .. and yet you married anyway .. with no knowledge of the fact we betrothed you? You had no idea whatsoever?"

Sayna was staring at Luke in total amazement .. and she stammered suddenly, "I .. knew nothing .. did you?"

This was directed to Timbal, who held up his paws. "I didn't .. I promise I didn't .. they never told me."

Sayna had the oddest look on her face, but she sighed at last, "I believe you .. it's ok .. let's just say I didn't see that one coming, not in a thousand seasons."

Timbal put a paw on her shoulders, stating, "You aren't alone in that .. I never thought we had any help besides a squirrel and two little mice!"

Vurg looked bewildered, and Luke asked, "What?"

Martin laughed. "Oh, that's a story .. and I heard it from Redfarl herself! But father .. I must ask you .. well, I was told you were dead! How .. why are you even here?"

Luke sighed, stating, "Martin .. I can never be more sorry for what I must of caused you to go through .. and Vurg and I will tell you all .. all of you. As for why we are here, well .. there's something that belonged to my grandparents; two crowns .."

Martin started. "Why .. that's why we're here .. now the riddle makes sense! You are the only piece we didn't have .. we found Stardust and the key already, but we didn't know where the crowns were .."

Luke interrupted. "Stardust .. he's here? With the old key .."

Martin pulled the object from around his neck, stating, "Well, actually he gave me the key .. but father, where are the crowns?"

Luke paused a minute, stating at last, "In a cave hidden in Tallrocks. It's not easy to access, and without that key .. let's just say I worked hard on defending it. I shan't be doing it tonight, it would be foolish, and we're all tired I imagine. Let's set about it in the morning. It's not like they're going anywhere."

><><

The shadows outside the old cave of Luke the warrior were dark and long .. and one of them was living. This one now slipped away from the cave's entrance, an oddly mottled one. It's tail swished quietly across the sand as it slunk away, cape sweeping behind it like a shroud of ill omen.

The lithe shadow leaped over a boulder like it wasn't there, landing softly to the ground. The creature threw it's hood off, revealing strangely mottled fur and grayish blue eyes .. eyes that glittered with wicked calculation.

Little did they know, so very little. Malimore was furious with the loss of Salamandastron, totally livid. His grip on the lands he had so long oppressed was loosening .. ever loosening.

And so in fury, the dark wolf was falling upon the most unheard of plots .. as he felt his talons slip from his choke hold on the northern, western, and middle lands. His Shadow Fighters bore his wrath, for it flowed through them too.

Now, this cream and tan ferret-like creature was on a mission .. to destroy these crowns. After all, had not Ignasa himself said the marks would wear them? So if they were not able to have them, Ignasa could be called a liar as his prophecy was not true.

The creature brushed himself off, thinking on what he had heard. If the one who'd hid the crowns said their hiding place was well defended .. then it was to be assumed what he said was true. Therefore, it brought the thought of traps to the odd beast's mind.

So this treasure was in a cave in Tallrocks? The beast had been there, but never seen a cave. Still, the mouse had said it was there, so there it must be.

And there the shadow beast must go.

Still, to barge into a likely booby-trapped cavern was not wise .. it would be far more helpful to have another beast to send in first. Preferably a slow, unwitting, and most importantly, greedy beast.

However these were the north shores, and it was unlikely he should find such a beast. The shadow scowled. Not good .. it threw a curve into his well laid plans.

With no other option, the creature moved to leave for the rock spires, when he caught sight of a shadow just like he. It's brush tail betrayed it as a fox, and the first shadow smiled ever so slightly .. foxes were greedy, often. But he would have to go about this carefully, from what he could tell, the beast was tracking the marks and their company .. why else would it be so crafty in its movements and seemingly following tracks in the sand?

So that could pose a problem .. but the mottled shadow got the feeling if he painted these said crowns alluringly enough .. the fox would go to Hellgates for them.

And from all the mouse warrior had said, that might be exactly what happened.

><><

Sholabar wasn't one for getting distracted; whatever he set his mind to, he did. The fox was trotting along the northern shores, tracking his quarries, when a shadow seemed to materialize from behind a large rock.

The beast was a good-sized stoat .. at least Sholabar thought that was what he was. He had a patterned, blotchy chocolate mask, and caramel points. No weapon was evident, but then a long black cloak covered most of the figure. Sholabar pulled out his one-sided axe as a precaution, but the creature spoke in a smooth voice, but one of deathly importance. "You and I seek the same thing fox, tis not right we should work alone."

Sholabar was suspicious. "Ach, what do ye know of me, Ah've never seen ye in me life! Who are ye anyway?"

The creature waved a paw at him. "Don't be so rash fox, my name matters little, but if you insist to hear it, it's Adkar. You seek the marks crowns, so do I. And I know where they are."

This got Sholabar's attention. "Ye do eh? How can Ah trust ye, ye looks a bonny liar."

Adkar smiled. "Perceptive of you. But what is in it for me to lie?"

Sholabar pondered this a moment, before replying, "Ach, but what's in it for ye to not? Ye'd as soon as kill me than share a treasure, so Ah shan't be trusting ye, yekin?"

Adkar shrugged. "As you like, I don't ask for your trust. But think fox, why would I want to kill you for some crowns which you haven't the faintest clue of the place they lie, and I do? I would have left you to be killed by the marks, and not bothered. The cavern they are in is well hidden, and I thought you could help me find it. If you won't, so be it, I can always keep all four crowns myself ..."

Adkar's words had hit home. Sholabar held up a paw. "No, ye wait. Am Ah to understand ye'll split the loot?"

Adkar smiled. "Why of course, I pay my helpers."

Sholabar frowned, stating finally, "All right. But if ye play me false this axe'll be in your gut, yekin?"

Adkar had the faint look of one who had wheedled a simple beast out of a fortune. "Quite understandable fox, I agree to your terms."




Chapter 34 Fool's Gold

Lotor wasn't one for ship's hammocks, especially not his deceased uncle's sagging one. He'd had Grimleg create a relatively comfortable bed of leftover grain sacks from the wagon, and spread it with several blankets. After all, it was far too hot to sleep with a blanket .. Lotor was glad he'd inherited the odd gene some of his family possessed that kept their fur constantly white. If he hadn't, he'd look like a scruffy stoat right now .. Clogg certainly had.

At the moment, the ermine warlord was in deep repose .. for once, he truly was clueless of something .. that something being the fact that at least half his newly claimed gold had been stolen.

However his dreams were not unvisited, and this was made exceedingly clear when the blackest of all shadows appeared in his unconscious mind's eye. As proud as he was, even Lotor could not help but tremble in the dark wolf's presence.

And he had good reason, as Malimore spoke. "You failed me .. fool that allows a weasel to steal his gold, a mouse to steal his paw, and an insignificant force to steal his mountain!"

Despite his fear, Lotor could not help the anger that flashed in his eyes. Malimore smirked. "Oh that insults you? Good. You've been successful in the past however, and so I choose to give you mercy. You will take over Redwall and kill the marks .. and you will do it in just two tries, understood?"

Lotor tried to save face. "I was planning on that anyway .."

Malimore snorted. "Don't tell me what you would or wouldn't do; do what I say. You have two tries, and only two. See you do the job in them, or I'll deal with you even if the marks don't. That fool Ferran .. he's feeling my punishments now .. the lowest of the lowly is his fate. But I deal with each beast accordingly .. humiliation is what hurts that fox, far more than any sword. I know your weaknesses Lotor, I will exploit them to punish you ... choose carefully polecat, you have already fallen from favor."

><><

Bootbrain was feeling .. as good as could be expected under the circumstances. After all, he'd just had a narrow shave with death! If he hadn't overheard Lotor's plans, he'd have gone off on that patrol and never known better .. until it was too late.

The weasel shivered, trying to get the clammy feeling of dread out of his gut. It didn't work very well. Of all the ways to die in the world, Bootbrain found being eaten one of the most disturbing.

He shifted his hefty sack of loot a bit, feeling somewhat justified. He'd gotten at least part of the treasure .. they wouldn't be getting this pile, it was his!

The weasel paused, looking about. He was headed away from the treacherous swamps .. and therefore headed toward that red castle, whatever it was called. In fact he could just make out it's towering spires through the night-darkened treetops.

Bootbrain contemplated this a moment; those of the castle would likely have guards. However venturing deeper into the woodlands to skirt the building risked being found by those dreadful birds!

Well, that left one option, to get as close as he could to the walls, so the guards would not be able to see him. Likely as not it would be no trouble; after all, it wasn't like the parapet didn't overhang. And besides, which one of those creatures would be outside to find him?

None, not with Clogg's proclaimed siege. So it was simple enough.

The weasel slipped forward, with the constant feeling somebeast was watching him .. but that was because of his jumpiness. He waited from his hiding place in an enveloping bush, grayish eyes calculating as he watched the guard on the front wall move away.

A slight rustle and clinking was all that betrayed Bootbrain's presence as he bolted toward the wall, relaxing slightly as he leaned against it's cool stones.

The weasel adjusted his bag once more, before slipping along the east wall. This night was getting better .. perhaps for once in his life, he'd had some luck.

><><

Within the looming walls of Redwall however, all was not at peace, for the DAB was on the move. Not all of them, but Luke, Fripple, Ash, and Ivan could get into enough trouble, the others were not needed.

Luke was in full regimental form, and not a bit tired. He whispered militantly, "We've gotta d'fend Redwall from'a pirates .. cause we all know they want in here .. but we won't let 'em!"

Ash crossed her arms, stating softly, "Right, we're warriors! We kin handle a bunch'a stoopid vermits!"

Ivan had traded one of his hat-feathers for a length of rope Gonfflet had swiped off the basically abandoned construction site, and the wildcat dibbun had it with him now. He twirled it expertly, stating, "We're gonna have ta be awful careful though .. s'not gonna be easy."

Fripple opened the bag she always wore over one shoulder, pulling out a small ball of mortar in which multiple nails had been stuck. She put it in her slingshot, grinning, "Yea .. but I gotta bunch a these .. an' I bet they hurt awful bad! Course I never tried one before .. but I'm gonna find out!"

They'd reached the east wicket gate, and the first difficulty arose .. the gate latch. However Ivan was undaunted as he unwound his rope, crafting an impromptu lasso. The cat winked at his friends, whispering, "Brome taught me how ta do this .. watch!"

He swung the lasso over his head twice, before throwing it at the latch. The rope snaked around the desired item, and Ivan pulled back, rewarded by a soft click.

Fripple was in true admiration. "You've gotta teach me how ta do that too!"

Luke shoved the door open a crack, freezing a moment before drawing his wooden sword. "Hey, lookit! There's a bad vermit out 'ere!"

His friends crowded around him, weapons of choice at the ready. Sure enough, a stocky black weasel was sneaking his way toward their vantage point, casting glances over his shoulder continually.

Fripple pulled her slingshot back, whispering, "Don't move .. I've got 'im!"

The next few things happened in rapid-fire secession. Firstly, Fripple released her ammo with deadly accuracy; secondly, it found a target in Bootbrain's right leg. Thirdly, the weasel set up such a howl of pain it brought the nearest guard running just as fast as they were able. That being Whegg, it was pretty fast.

Fripple nodded with satisfaction. "Yep! They work good!"

Whegg grabbed an armful of dibbuns away from the gate they were peering enthusiastically out of, setting them behind him and drawing his spear. "What's goin' on .. what was that??"

Fripple did not look in the least bit ashamed. "I shot a bad vermit n'uncle Wheggy!"

Mask, Gingivere, Gonff, and Ben had all been in hearing range, and they were soon at the gate. Gingivere drew his cutlass, disappearing out the door a minute. He reappeared soon after, holding a whimpering black weasel by the scruff .. complete with bleeding leg.. as well as a death grip upon a lumpy and notoriously clinking sack.

Mask slammed the gate shut as Ben ushered a group of greatly disappointed DAB members back to bed.

Gingivere set the captive on the grass, sighing, "Phew .. you're a chunky one, I'll warrant you that. But whatever you've got in that bag is a good deal chunkier .. what in the seasons is it?"

The weasel seemed to be in a good deal of pain, but he clutched the bag protectively, groaning, "Oh it ain't nothin' mates ... anyhows I didn't steals it an' I don't think it's gonna interest ya ..."

Whegg pointed his spear at the beast. "Well show us, an' we'll decide that ourselves."

The weasel gulped, trying to keep most of his weight off his injured leg. "I'd rather not gennalbeasts .. if'n ya don't mind .."

Whegg swung his spear in one deft movement, expertly slicing the bottom of the bag open. The light of a few wall torches and the moon and stars may not have been much, but it set the astounding flow of gold and jewels that spilled gloriously to the ground aglitter.

Gonff started forward with an awed gasp. "I say! Look at all that boodle! Where'd you get it?"

The weasel stammered. "Wull .. I never killed nobeast for it .. it was inna cave .. an' awful lonely like .."

Gonff was excited. "You mean it doesn't belong to anybeast?"

The weasel was defensive. "I founds it! It belongs ta me! I already said I ain't raised steel 'gainst no mouseys or edgpigs or otters or ..."

He broke off with a wince as his wounded leg collapsed beneath him, and he tumbled to the ground. The creature paused a few moments as Gingivere motioned to Gonff. "Get Urran would you? This beast's hurt, and I'm not keeping a prisoner who's in danger of bleeding to death."

The mouse cast a glance at the heap of treasure before bolting off. The injured weasel continued where he had left off. "Or rats .. or cats .. or .. wait a minute .. you's ain't no woodlanders .. you two is vermin just like me! What's ya doin in 'ere?"

Gingivere scowled. "I serve Ignasa weasel, can you say the same? That is the difference between me and my kind. Whegg's as well."

The weasel was confused. "What's ya talkin' 'bout, I ain't never heard a nobeast called Ignasa .. is 'e the lord a this ... castle?"

Gingivere's emerald eyes suddenly softened. "Weasel, what's your name?"

The creature paused a moment, stating at last, "Wot the crew called me .. weren't me real name. An' it weren't nice either."

Mask waved a paw at him. "Then tell us, what is your real name?"

The weasel waited another few seconds, before stating hesitantly, "Einar .. me real name is Einar."

Whegg put his spear in it's sheath, asking, "And 'ow old is ya? How'd ya get mixed up with Clogg, buffoon that he is?"

Einar looked down, stating, "I'm nineteen seasons .. I think .. an' it weren't like I wanted ta .. I was da cabin boy, den the steersbeast .. an' then the ship got wrecked an' our capt'n got drownded. Clogg found wot was left'a the crew jist wanderen', an' 'e said if'n we came wid him ol' Greeneyes would give us a new ship! But then you was 'ere an' Greeneyes weren't, an ya said ya was Geeneyes .. an' if we got treasure yous give us a ship. An' we found some! But then an' awful mean ermine called Lotor killed ol' Clogg an' was gonna take us ta war against ya but 'e ...."

Whegg interrupted. "You mean ta say Clogg is dead, and Lotor is 'ere ta take war ta us??"

Gingivere looked deathly serious. "Einar, if you're lying .."

The weasel opened his mouth to defend himself, but Mask spoke first. "It is as he says; why else would Ignasa send me to you?"

A silence, dreadful and thick like morning fog, fell over the company, only to be broken by Urran and Gonff's hurried pawsteps. The old healer said nothing, just knelt beside the weasel, inspecting the injury. He looked at Whegg, asking, "Great seasons, what happened?"

The rat shrugged. "I'd say it was an overdose of Fripple."

Urran rolled his good eye, gripping the embedded missile and stating, "This may hurt a little."

The mouse yanked the offending item out in one swift movement, dropping the bloody object with distaste. Einar however, decided it hurt far more than a little, for he let loose the cry of a dying beast.

Urran quickly washed the wound out with water, sympathizing. "Sorry about that young sir, that's the worst of it at least."

The mouse healer began binding the injury as there was a rustle of giant wings .. all the fuss had aroused their owner. Argulor strode forward, stating, "Ach Ah say! Is somebeast dying?"

The bird squinted nearsightedly at Einar a moment, before exclaiming, "Why didn't you say we had a bonny weasel .. Ahem .. shall we have need to dispose of him, by any chance?"

Gingivere sighed. "At the moment it shan't be necessary friend."

Argulor looked downcast, stating, "Ach, weel tell me if you want him gone .. those are rather tasty, yekin? The flan was delicious at supper ye know, but sometimes a chap wants a sustaining midnight snack, and weasel, in it's own way is quite delectable ... "

He was interrupted by something rather like a wail from Einar. "Oh no, ya can't be so cruel as ta feed me ta 'im! It ain't fair t'all, I was 'scapin' from bein' raven-food an' now yous gonna feed me ta another bird?! It ain't right! It just ain't fair .. I never hurt's ya .. I never did!!"

Before anybeast could reassure the frantic weasel Argulor huffed indignantly. "Huummph laddie, Ah'd think being eaten by a golden eagle was a mite more dignified than being eaten by some scruffy raven, can't stand those fools meself! Ah quite sympathize with ye ..."

It was too much for Einar, who flung himself to the ground and curled up as tightly as he was able with a terrified sob. Gingivere frowned at Argulor. "Now see what you did?"

The bird looked confused. "Ah say, did Ah offend the chap?"

Mask sighed, picking up the prone form of Einar, who stubbornly refused to uncurl. The brawny otter slipped the weasel's belt and four knives off in a deft movement, stating, "I doubt we'll get any more out of him at the moment .. let's lock him up for tonight and see about questioning him in the morning."

Gingivere took one look at the limp, sobbing heap of black fur that he knew to be Einar, before picking up the weasel's fallen belt and knives. "Yea, sounds like the best option."

Mask put the weasel under one arm, carting him off. Gonff rubbed his paws together, asking, "Well .. what'll we do with this loot?"

Whegg shook his head. "We won't be giving it to you mate, sorry. Queen Rose'll have ta have a look at it in the mornin'. But with the new little'un, Gingivere ain't for waken' her up in the middle of the night."

><><

Lotor sat bolt upright, blinking sleep from his eyes. The ermine laid back down a moment, before Malimore's words returned to him.

"Fool that lets a weasel steal his gold .."

A weasel steal his gold?

The ermine was on his paws the next second, seizing his dirk from it's resting place at his bedside and working it quickly onto his healed stump of a wrist. Lotor didn't bother with his cutlass, seeing as the belt was hard to buckle with only one paw.

The warlord swept imperviously toward the spot he'd left his treasure under guard, gaping at what he saw. Even from a distance, Lotor could tell at least a third of the gold was gone!

The guard that stood over it was a rat Lotor could remember having earlier left with the tired horses and cart. The animal bowed nervously at the sight of his lord, and Lotor took this as an opportunity to seize the creature's scruff and shake him until his teeth rattled. "Where did the rest of this treasure go? Tell me, where?!"

The rat stammered, teeth clattering. "I .. donno .. lord .. wasn't it .. all 'ere?"

Lotor didn't release his grip, just stopped shaking the guard and pressed his knife-paw against the unfortunate's throat. "You lie, fool! Haven't you seen this treasure before now, every one of the crew did!"

The rat squeaked in fear, unable to swallow against the blade. "Lord, I ain't seen nothin', I was wid the horses! Grimleg tol' me to guard yer treasure!"

Lotor snarled in the creature's face. "And where's the guard who was here before?"

The rat trembled. "Lord, there wasn't no guard ..."

Lotor flung the whimpering beast away, practically roaring in fury. "There wasn't any guard, and you just assumed nothing was wrong?!"

Without another word, Lotor strode into the main camp, grabbing a sound asleep Grimleg and waking him by stomping on his tail. The ferret howled in pain, and Lotor cuffed his ears a couple times to ensure he had revived. "You! Who was the guard before that fool I found you'd posted?"

Grimleg whimpered. "It was me matey Fribb Lord .. wot's you jumpin' on me poor tail fer? What'd I do?"

Lotor growled. "While you sleep like the slovenly fool you are, some spawn of Hellgates has stolen part of my treasure! Now where's Fribb .. an' what kind of beast is he?"

Grimleg, almost choking in the vise-like grip Lotor had on his throat, gasped, "He's a rat! I donno where he is .. I ain't seen him .."

Lotor considered breaking Grimleg's neck then and there out of pure fury, but decided against it due to the fact he didn't want to be bothered appointing a new captain. The ermine dropped his subordinate none to gently, noticing an empty pallet near the smoky, insect-repelling fire, and snarled at the now awakened crew. "Who sleeps there?"

The crew weren't eager to bring their Lord's dark wrath upon them, so Grimleg rubbed his bruised throat, rasping, "I think .. that's where dat weasel .. Bootbrain sleeps .. but he ain't 'ere .."

Lotor trembled in anger, commanding, "One of you lot bring me my horse! The bay, not the piebald! Grimleg! Get me trackers, now! We have a black weasel to find!"

><><

The darkness of early morning was shattered by the thunder of horse hooves, and the curses of vermin. Grimleg had volunteered several beasts as trackers; whether or not they knew a thing about tracking was highly debatable.

With a snarl, Lotor dug his spurs into his bay's sides .. he'd find this weasel if it was the last thing he did!

His horse leapt forward with a squeal of surprise, froth forming on the corners of it's mouth in agitation. The animal hadn't gotten twenty feet when something black flew across it's path, causing it to rear. Lotor yanked on the bit, and the creature let its forefeet rest again on the ground, sides heaving.

Rigvar preened himself carelessly in a nearby hawthorn, minus his snake headdress. "Where are the others you promised to send?"

Lotor growled, "Others? I haven't sent them yet! You said early in the morning!"

Rigvar shrugged. "It is."

Lotor rolled his eyes. "I meant the sunrise!"

Rigvar cocked his head. "Raack! Why then did my people bring a rat eh?"

Lotor suddenly realized where Grimleg's matey Fribb likely would have gone, and he was irritated by this .. the rat would have been more loyal than some. "Well since you took your interest already, you can forget that black weasel. Now when will you begin the siege?"

Rigvar was irate .. a rat was smaller than a weasel, after all. He huffed. "Midday, tomorrow. Don't expect it any sooner."

><><

The dark of the north shores might have been broken by the moon and stars, but the silence was complete.

Almost. The crackle of a small fire, swish of horse's tails, and soft voices of old friends reunited formed an atmosphere of joy about the old cave of Luke the warrior, but the air was not so light a mile or so up the beach.

For here the silence was also broken .. by two sets of paws, those of evil beasts. Sholabar viewed his companion with an air of total mistrust, while Adkar had an appearance of ease about him.

It had been many seasons since Adkar had been to these shores, and he could tell Sholabar had never visited them, from the thoughts running through his head.

Adkar smiled inwardly .. this fox was easy game. Besides, if he recalled correctly, they were almost there. Sure enough, as they rounded a bend on the shore, the moon dimly lit the towering spires of Tallrocks. They stood sentinel over the night-darkened shores, looming like some foreboding giant's castle, and the faint slap of waves on the far side of the formations echoed like thunder in the stillness.

Sholabar's voice was dubious. "Ach, this is the place?"

Adkar nodded. "It is .. let's climb them. The best place for a cave would be on the seaward side, where the waves forever pound and erode."

Sholabar nodded, scrambling onto one of the smaller spires. He leapt nimbly upward as Adkar followed with more caution. The fox's voice called down to him. "It's like a giant staircase to a mansion up here .. Ah've never seen the like!"

Adkar climbed to the level Sholabar stood on, realizing what he meant. From the shore, this passageway was not visible; however from this perspective it seemed a rearing highway of flatted spires, one that led up to a smooth wall of rock.

The stoat scowled, but Sholabar was already bolting up the giant's pathway, one smooth rock at a time. Adkar followed in no pleasant state of mind. There wouldn't be any caves up this way, it was in the middle of the spires, not on the ocean's side of them.

However Sholabar kept on, brushy tail swishing behind him. He'd about reached the wall now, and before Adkar had jumped over five rocks, he was there. The fox set about searching the rock, and suddenly he stopped, staring at something on the rock face, though in the dark, Adkar could not tell what it was.

Sholabar informed him however, as he called, "Ach, ye were right! There is a cave here, hidden unless ye're on it's level!"

Adkar hurried to the fox's vantage point, noticing the fissure in the rocks as his companion had. Sholabar had his head and shoulders through the opening, and his voice was an odd echo. "There's a bonny pile of rock to climb down .. an' it ain't dark in here at all! The moon shines through a crack in the roof!"

The fox soon vanished into the hole, and Adkar slid in behind him, footpaws first. The stoat instantly saw what his canine companion meant, for the moon lit this otherworldly place with brilliant white light, casting twisting shadows off the many glittering quartz formations. At least twenty feet below where the two stood, the floor was alight with dancing reflections, like ten thousand tiny lights. Sholabar's voice was soft. "Ach, tis beautiful nay? But where is this treasure?"

Adkar pointed to a dark opening in the far wall near the ground, from which the resounding echoes of surf could be heard. "Through there, I imagine. I'll light a torch .. here!"

He picked up a gnarled piece of wood that looked as though it could have once been a plank. Sholabar raised an eyebrow. "How'd that get in a cave, Ah wonder?"

Adkar wrapped an old scrap of rag around it, answering, "When the sea is wild enough, I imagine it can toss waves as high as that cleft the moon shines through."

The stoat made his way down the rock pile, pale fur aglitter with reflected, dancing light. The floor was smooth except for a fine layer of grit and pebbles, and it sloped down towards the tunnel.

The two vermin stopped at it's dark mouth, and Adkar handed Sholabar the torch, rummaging beneath his cloak for a flint. He struck it a few times before there was a spark, and the old rag caught fire, crackling softly.

Sholabar shrugged, stepping into the tunnel without a word. Adkar could sense his suspicion, but also his overwhelming curiosity. Perfect. After all, he didn't need the fox's trust .. just his cooperation.

The tunnel would have been pitch black were it not for the torch, and it sloped continually downward. The roar of surf echoed eerily through it, like a ghostly, rumbling whistle, and soon the splash of individual waves was audible. Sholabar was ahead, and he reached the end of the tunnel first. The fox raised his torch as Adkar reached him, and suddenly, the room seemed to glow with dancing firelight. Looking up at the ceiling, Adkar realized why .. jutting from the walls were plain crystals of quartz, just as in the previous cavern. They tossed the light about the room, reflecting it from one to another like tiny prisms.

On the far wall was a natural ledge, on which sat a plain, closed, wooden box. The stalactites and columns about it formed a natural sort of arch, center-piecing it magnificently. However the dancing light revealed something else, that being a trench not six feet from where the two vermin stood.

It ran the width of the cave, and was at least six feet across. Sholabar walked to its edge, peering in. "Ach, there's water in here!"

Adkar joined him, staring down into what was likely a seventeen foot drop, and had glimmering water at the bottom. And not still water either, but rocking, swishing, hissing waves.

They rushed up the length of the trench, crashing into the far wall while sending spray flying up that spattered upon the cave floor. This done, the wave retreated with a hissing, gurgling slosh, only to be replaced by another that did the same as the first.

Sholabar spoke above their never-ending, echoing roars, asking, "Me guess is that's what we're after, nay?"

The fox was pointing to the box on the far wall, at least thirty feet from the trench. Adkar nodded, and Sholabar handed him the torch, his excitement almost overpowering. The fox backed up to the rock pile, bolting across the floor and leaping!

He sailed across the trench, landing directly on the opposite ledge. The next second there was a rumble, and Sholabar yelped as most of what he was standing on crumbled away. He dug his claws into firm ground, scrambling up onto it as the rubble splashed into the waves below.

Adkar decided to prudently wait, but Sholabar leapt to his paws, eager for the treasure. The fox didn't cast a glance back at Adkar, simply bolted toward the patiently waiting chest.

Adkar waited expectantly, and sure enough, as Sholabar ran through the first set of columns, he tripped over something, and fell on his face. There was an ominous rumble, and a large rock toppled from where it appeared to be stuck in one of the cave formations. The fox let out a yipping cry as the boulder smashed down on his tail and right leg, pinning the appendages between unforgiving rock and unforgiving floor.

Sholabar couldn't get free, and was in a great deal of pain, evidenced by his moans. Adkar paused, fitting the torch between two rocks in the pile he had used to climb down, backing up as far as he could and running for the trench.

Time slowed as he jumped, sailing over the expanse of black water and landing unceremoniously on the other side, rolling to escape the treacherous crumbling ledge. The stoat stood, brushing himself off, and striding purposely to where Sholabar lay groaning in agony. Adkar paused, noticing the old rope that snaked it's way under the boulder and presumably the fox's footpaw .. it was what he'd tripped on. A tripwire .. clever.

At least clever enough to outwit a greedy fox.

Sholabar whimpered, gasping, "Adkar .. help me! Do something .. get the rock off .. please!"

Adkar's powder blue eyes glittered, and he sighed. "That wasn't smart of you fox .. but it gave me what I wanted. Even if you're paw was whole .. which it certainly is not .. I would not help you. You've done your duty, I need you no more."

The stoat ignored his former partner's cry of pained disbelief, stepping carefully forward. Yes, just as he had thought. Another rope was deceptively strung between the next set of columns, and Adkar stepped gingerly over it, careful not to jostle it in any way.

The final set of natural pillars had a rope strung between them, nearly invisible. The intruder stepped over it as well, walking the last few paces and gripping the sides of the trunk.

It was his now.

The next few seconds were a total blur for Adkar, for this was his last, truly rational thought. He stepped forward to get a better grip on the wooden chest, and the next moment there was a creaking rumble, and pain like he'd never felt exploded in his wrists!

The stoat heard himself scream, and felt himself fall to the hard, gritty cave floor. He felt something wet splatter on his face, and while his arms seemed on fire, there was no pain in his paws .. no .. he couldn't even feel them!

Adkar opened his eyes weakly, everything blurrier than before. Light glinted off something metal nearby, something that lay at a crazy angle and was smattered with blood ... his blood.

The stoat Shadow Fighter groaned, but his vision was dimming as he turned it upon his paws .. or what should have been his paws. Nothing was clear anymore, but Adkar new enough to tell his paws were completely missing!

A sort of panic set over him .. he was going to bleed to death! He was going to .. die!

No! No, he couldn't die .. not he!

A yell of pure terror came from Sholabar, although it sounded vague and far away. There was a sudden hissing .. one that sounded diverse from the continual surf in the trench.

Adkar numbly felt something sink into his boot .. and felt himself being dragged slowly backwards. His last vision was of the ceiling, and the warm, sparkling glow of torchlight reflecting quartz crystals.

Then the world went black.




Chapter 35 Confessions

The morning sun spilled slowly to the red stone floor of the east wall tower, through a small window. Mask leaned against the wall beside this aperture, watching the wispy clouds whisk across the summer sky.

The wind was blowing at a good clip today, making the heat more tolerable. So being, Redwall's grounds were already alive with activity.

Mask glanced behind him, where a heap of black fur and dingy green rags lay, fast asleep. The otter guard thought over the young weasel's strange name .. Einar. It was a name of the far north, basically meaning one who fights alone. Mask wondered if it truly fit it's owner, and he had the feeling it wasn't too far off.

The weasel had dissolved into a heap of misery as soon as Mask had deposited him on some old sacks in the tower, and he'd not bothered trying to escape. From reading the creature's thoughts, Mask could tell he didn't feel life was even fair enough to try again.

He wouldn't touch any food, despite Mask's persuasions it was in no means a way to fatten him up for Argulor. Einar was really and truly miserable.

Mask yawned, after all, he'd stayed up since the early hours of the morning. Relief would come soon, likely in the form of Whegg or Rupert, the latter having nearly recovered from his injury, although he would always bear a scar.

There was a soft scuff at the tower's door, and Mask looked up expectantly. However as the aperture squeaked slowly open, a few giggles could be heard before Luke jumped into the tower importantly. "Mista Mask! We 'eard there was a prisoner, and we wanna see 'im!"

Mask peered over the little mouse, noticing Fripple, Ivan, Iris, and Ash. The otter paused a moment, before it occurred to him that the downcast Einar might find some sort of comfort in the dibbuns.

Another beast might have been too suspicious of the weasel despite his downcast state and lack of weapons, but Mask could read his thoughts, ones that consisted of jumbled depression. The otter really couldn't pick up any malice, just total and complete despair .. the emotion of a creature who has fought long, only to be mortally wounded just as they are about to claim the victory.

Mask smiled ever so slightly as Ivan piped up, "Ya, it's 'portant! We need to know if he wants to 'scape!"

The silver otter shrugged, after all, he would be here the whole time, and able to tell the moment Einar got one thought of mischief in his head. "Alright little mateys. He's right over here, but be gentle with him. He had a rough time last night. Don't try and throttle him for information .. be merciful like the brave warriors you will grow to be."

This put the whole matter into an entirely new light for Luke and Fripple, who nodded enthusiastically. Under Mask's amused supervision, Fripple ran toward the pile of depressed black fur. Undaunted by all of this, the little mouse put her paws behind her back, addressing the weasel with great enthusiasm. "Wake up mista weasel, I wanna talk to yu!"

A minute passed before the heap of bedraggled fur shifted, and it's grayish eyes blinked slowly open .. sorrow filled eyes, those of one who has given up on hope. Fripple suddenly looked downcast and apologetic. "Aww ... mista weasel .. did I hurt you awful bad? I didn't mean to .. well .. I did a course, but I didn't know you was a good vermit then. But I wanna know .. after I shot yu wif my slingshot, was you bleedin?"

Einar had a very strange look on his face, one composed of shock, wonder, suspicion, as well a tiny bit of uncertainty, all overlain by bleariness. His voice was a little dry from his distraught sobbing last night, Mask observed. "Dat was .. you? But you is just a liddle mousy maid!"

Fripple smiled. "Yea, but I can shoot stuffs! I woulda not shot yu though, if I'd a knowed you was a good vermit."

Einar looked confused. "I'm a good vermin? How'd I git ta be one a them? I never 'eard of a good vermin .. only the woodlanders kin be good."

Ash ran forward, stating, "Oh, you ain't look like a very bad vermit, an' that's good .. cause I wack bad ones!"

She twirled her stick, dropping it with a clatter as Einar stated in bewilderment, "But .. ya is a vermin liddle missy."

Ash huffed. "I ain't! I'ma rat, an my daddy an' mommy is rats, an my baby brother is a rat, and none of us is a bad vermit!"

Ivan nodded. "Yea, Ash isn't no vermit mista weasel, you donno that much 'bout rats I guess. I'm Ivan! What's your name?"

The weasel was so confused at the sight of a kitten, he just stammered, "B .. I mean Einar .. I guess."

Iris jumped into the conversation, stick adorned with ribbons in paw. She shot one look at Ivan, before tapping him on the head with her frilly branch. "Poof! Yu is a toad!"

Ivan scowled as his twin took over for him. "I'm Iris, an' I'm gonna be a princess when I grow up!"

Luke shoved past her, drawing his wooden sword with importance. "An' I am prince Luke, an' this is a militay .. milltar .. army invest'gation. I lead the DAB, so I will question yu."

Einar shot Mask a blank look, and the otter found himself caught in an irrational fit of coughing, despite his normal ease at a stoic personality.

Luke was speaking again, marching up and down in front of Einar. "What was you doin near our castle, so close my .. my .. sold'er could shoot yu?"

Fripple jumped in. "I'm your cousin stoopid, an' I rank as high as yu .. I'ma DAB co. leader!"

Luke held up a paw. "I'm leadin' this invest'gation, not yu! Well?"

Einar shrugged, pausing a moment before he gave up trying to look indifferent and choked back a sob of despair. "I was runnin 'way! Dey was gonna feed me ta birds, an' so I run for me life! I was jist tryin' ta get past .. I never meant nobeast 'arm! Then somethin' terrible painful hit me poor leg, an' I got drugged in 'ere by a wildcat .. an then .. after all dat .. after I worked so 'ard ... this awful gold bird was gonna eat me! Where is it liddle mates .. dat terrible bird's gone ain't it?"

Luke raised an eyebrow, something he was good at doing. "Yu means Arg'lor? He ain't an awful bird .. he only eats bad vermits, an' never good ones!"

Einar thought about this a moment, before exclaiming, "Wull then I sure wish I was a good one, but my kinda vermin is born all bad .. no corsair I knowed never turned good!"

Fripple looked sad, leaping onto Einar's lap without the slightest bit of fear or hesitation. "Aww that's not true mista E'nar, maybe none'a them never wanted ta be good. But if yu wants to, yu can be! Nobody 'as to stay evil f'rever if they don't want to!"

Einar was confused, and amazed at Fripple's friendliness. "How does dat work .. I ain't never heard it afore."

Fripple swung her long legs, shrugging, "I'm not sure .. but it has to do wif Lord Ignasa."

Einar scratched an ear. "Who?"

Ash broke in. "Lord Ignasa! My daddy met 'im once, an that's what made 'im a good vermit. He says he was the best an' greatest thing he's ever saw, or will ever see 'gain."

Ivan nodded, not silenced by his sister's proclamation of his supposed amphibian change. "My mommy says he saved 'er from'a evil Dark Wolf, an he made her brave 'nough ta save my daddy. She says Lord Ig'asa can do anythin'!"

All of this was making little sense to the uninformed Einar. "Uhh .. is 'e here den? Maybe 'e could turn me to a good vermin an' save me from that bird! 'Sides .. bein' a bad vermin is awful risky an that Lotor is just plain evil .. I think I'd like bein' good instead."

Luke looked serious. "Well yu kin be then, but yu have to talk to Lord Ignasa. But he don't live here, he lives in'a 'nother world .. but he can hear yu anyway. That's what my mommy says, an' my mommy knows everythin'!"

Einar was bewildered, more so than before. "'E don't live in dis world? How kin he hear ya if'n he ain't here?"

Ash shrugged. "I donno, 'e just does. 'E comes here only if 'e wants ta. Or at least comes here an' let's yu see 'im. My mum says 'e's here alla time even when he's invisa .. invis .. not so yu kin see 'im."

A faint cry rang over the lawns .. that of breakfast. Ash jumped up in genuine horror. "Breakfast! Hurry! We gotta get there 'for Wother eats it all!"

Iris dashed out, yelling in a very un-ladylike manner, "Nu-uh! Princesses always eat first!"

Ivan pulled off his boots, following her while calling, "Bye mista E'nar!"

Fripple hugged the weasel, before running for the door, yelling, "Bye! I'ma come back after breakfast!"

Luke, seeing himself deserted by his friends, drew himself to his full height. "This invest'gation is over!"

He paused in the doorway, pointing his wooden sword at Einar. "Don't even think 'bout tryin' scapin' .. the DAB's always watchin!"

The flutter of a patchwork blanket utilized as a cape announced the young mouse's departure. Einar blinked at Mask. "DAB?"

The otter held in his mad desire to laugh. "You've made the acquaintance of the Dibbuns Against Bedtime."

><><

Rose's morning was broken by Sandingomm, and it was far from comforting. The mouse was glad Aubrietia wasn't awake as her wildcat friend informed her of the previous night's events.

Rose stared at Sandingomm, asking, "Gingivere captured a vermin? And he didn't tell me? What if they had escaped .. or killed somebeast?"

The gray wildcat shrugged. "From what I've heard, he's a little less then that dangerous. Argulor upset 'im pretty bad last night .. by being Argulor. Anyhow, he's feeling downright depressed is what Whegg tol' me."

Rose's sympathetic nature got the better of her. "Well then I must see him."

She buckled on her long and slender dirk Martin had given her, as Sandingomm nodded, "Oh ya, you gotta see him. Him, an' what 'e brought along too! I saw it myself and it's completely amazin'! Gingivere wants ya in the infirmary .. I'll look out fer Aubrietia, shall I?"

Rose nodded, somewhat mystified. "Yes, please Sandingomm .. I'd be grateful. Now you have me wondering what on earth you're talking about .."

The cat waved her out the door. "Go see .. you gotta! I'm tellin' you, I've seen some treasures in me day but this one beats 'em all. They've got it in the infirmary .."

Rose had already leapt out the door .. after all, 'treasure' was not a word often used around Redwall.

She hurried across the abbey lawns, intent on finding out what Sandingomm meant. She discovered as she shoved open the infirmary door, to see Mask, Whegg, Gingivere, Yar, and a nervous black weasel.

But far more astounding was the heap of glittering gold and jewels laying on a table near the room's center!

Rose stepped forward, asking hesitantly, "Who's is this? Where did we find it?"

Gingivere motioned to the weasel. "That Lady, is what we're trying to find out."

Rose sighed. "No need to be so formal. Where did you find him?"

Whegg laughed. "Oh, we didn't Rose, Fripple did .. an' shot 'im in the leg!"

Urran looked over from where he was sorting herbs. "Yes, and is that feeling any better today young one?"

Einar glanced at Gingivere who waved a paw at him. The weasel nodded simply, stating, "Yea .. an' .. wull .. can I ask a question .. maybe?"

Gingivere frowned, "This is our investigation you know .."

Rose held up a paw. "I'll ask him two questions. First, what is your name? Secondly, what is your question?"

The weasel lowered his gaze. "Einar, marm .. Melady .. an' me question is about what the liddle'uns was sayin'."

Rose looked confused. "The little ones?"

Mask shrugged apologetically. "I let the dibbuns talk with him this morning .. I sensed no danger in him, I'd have never let them in otherwise."

Rose nodded. "Oh, I see. Well, then tell me. What did they say?"

Einar paused a minute, before blurting, "They says any vermit .. I mean vermin .. can be good if'n they want's ta, an' I never heard that before! All I 'eard was you was born a corsair an' ya died a corsair .. bein' good an' friendly was fer the woodlanders, an' none'a us waverobbers never had no chance! My ol' mum said if'n yer born a woodlander you's lucky, an' if ya ain't, ya ain't!"

He looked down, mumbling, "An' I sure haven't been lucky lately .. it t'ain't fair Melady!"

Rose looked genuinely sympathetic. "Sir, none of that is true in the least. Anybeast can be good, should they turn to Lord Ignasa. Likewise, anybeast can be evil if they follow Malimore .. woodlander or vermin! The truth is that none of us is born good at all .. that is our choice. And tell me, if it wasn't, if we were born good or bad according to our species .. would that be just?"

Einar looked down. "Na .. it don't sound just .. woodlanders kin be bad?"

Rose nodded. "Worse than bad .. utterly wicked. And vermin can be good .. some of such are my closest friends."

She paused, stating, "And we shall talk more in this, I promise. But what were you doing about our abbey?"

><><

Einar wasn't sure what to think of this mouse, but at least she was being understanding. He thought of all the things he'd gone through in the last forty eight hours, and sighed. "I've tol' the others Melady, I was just tryin' ta escape!"

The mouse looked interested. "And why were you?"

Einar looked down. After living as a corsair for so many seasons, leaving them was hard. In fact .. using his real name was hard. Maybe he really had found security in Bootbrain. But everything was so hard now .. everything. "I .. wull .."

He paused, thinking on the horrific injustice he'd been dealt, and suddenly blurted, "They was gonna feed me ta .. birds! Awful ravens!"

The little black magpie whom Einar had been shooting nervous looks at suddenly started. "Ravens? What did they look like?"

Einar frowned, recalling the creepy bird he'd seen. "I only saw one .. he was huge! Da biggest raven I'd never seen! An' he was all painted weird too, with green an' yeller an' orange stuff ..."

The bird interrupted. "It was Rigvar Skurr! He's the only Doomwyte that dares wear orange paint."

Gingivere spoke up. "Why were they going to feed you to the Doomwytes?"

Einar deflated. "Clogg wouldnt'a .. but dat awful new ermine Lotor, 'e comes an' 'e kills ol' Clogg wid some weird .. glowing green light, an' .."

Rose looked up, interrupting, "Shadow Fighters! Einar .. this Lotor .. what did he look like?"

Whegg didn't bother letting Einar speak. "It's who ya described Rose, we asked him."

She looked at the beast she'd first asked, stammering, "And .. he is here? He's at Redwall .. he's going to take war to us?"

Einar looked down. "Ya, from what I 'eard. An' 'e's a cruel 'un, lemme tell ya! All I did was say I found the treasure .. an' .. he was gonna turn me ta bird food!"

Whegg was interested. "Oh an you found it eh? So tell me .. where'd ya find that pile?"

Einar shrugged, finding it hard to put into words. "Wull .. ina cave."

Gingivere looked incredulous. "The Doomwyte cave?"

The magpie interrupted. "The Doomwytes had no such treasure."

Whegg turned to Einar. "What'd the cave look like? There ain't that many caves in Mossflower."

Looking back on the 'cave' and thinking harder on it, Einar himself found it odd, and he expressed this. "Wull .. it was a weird cave, that's fer sure. Not awful far from 'ere .. an' made outa cut red stones! I'd never seen no caves in me life, bein' a sailorbeast .. but some'ow I never thought one'd look like that. Guess I was wrong though .. I'm wrong about a awful lotta things."

Gingivere was staring at the weasel, and he gasped, "Cut red rock? Einar, caves are not made from cut red rock!"

Einar shrugged. "Ya .. it always did strike me as wrong some'ow, specially when I sawed dere was glass, an' torch 'olders, an' chairs an' stuff. Struck me as an' awful fancy cave .. guess there's all kinds though."

Whegg stammered, "That weren't no cave .. 'ow close ta here was it?"

Einar pondered a minute, before stating, "The hole ya used ta go in was just in the edge'a da woods, an' a liddle south'a 'ere."

Gingivere and Whegg looked at each other, speaking at once. "Kotir!"

Einar was confused. "Ya said dis was Kotir."

Whegg looked a little shamefaced, just slightly. "You were .. misguided. Dis is Redwall, we sank Kotir."

Einar stammered. "Ya what?"

Whegg wasn't listening to him as he turned to Gingivere. "Mate .. den is this yer father's treasure?"

Gingivere shook his head. "Oh no. Verdauga's treasure wasn't nearly so rich. There might have been this much, but I don't recall him having this many pearls and gemstones .. and especially not that."

The wildcat was pointed to the worn mahogany trunk with it's intricate patterns. "I would have remembered something like this."

He ran his velveted paw across the lid, musing, "The picture's on this .. Rose! Wait! They're a feather and a star!"

Yar, Whegg, and Rose crowded forward to see, while Mask laid a paw on Einar's shoulder. Whegg broke the silence. "The feather .. and the star .. Sayna and Martin! The marks!"

Gingivere turned the trunk over gently, pointing to some odd scratches in the wood. "The Lukes, quite actually."

Rose squinted. "What are those? They look like scribbles to me."

Gingivere shrugged. "It's the old language. My father made it mandatory those of his house should learn it .. you see, he often kept records in it as a form of security. This says, to translate straight from the old writing; The house of Luke, mark of our royalty."

Whegg blinked. "Why then this .. is the thing of legend! The treasure of the Lukes!"

Gingivere picked up a glittering sapphire necklace, murmuring, "The Luke treasure .. oh many a Kotir soldier spoke of it in awe! To think it really was there .. and Rose, now it's yours!"

Rose jerked her paw back. "Mine?!"

Gingivere shrugged. "Well .. Martin's. And Sayna's, and Timbal's I suppose. But you are a Luke, if only by marriage. And at this time, you're the only Luke here!"

Einar hadn't been planning on speaking, but he did anyway. "Ya mean it belongs ta somebeast? But it was layin' there all lonely like an' there weren't no guard .. an' .. an' I found it! Some'a our beasts got killed down there .. cause Clogg had ta do 'is cloggin' .. an' a whole bunch'a the cave fell in! I got lucky .. but .. it just ain't fair!"

Gingivere looked a little irritated. "Are you always like this? I think you've said it ain't fair about ten times now!"

Einar looked down, scuffing a paw. "Wull .. it ain't."

Whegg shrugged. "I had a lotta injustice served ta me when I was younger .. Gingivere knows. We lived that together, and I'll tell ya, one or both'a us could have got killed .. they was out for out blood. An' I'll tell ya weasel, we didn't get nowhere sittin' with our heads in our paws an' moaning about how it wasn't fair."

The rat looked away. "Oh, and I wanted to, many a time. But we just had ta keep goin' no matter what they threw at us. And they knew how to throw a cruel blow."

Einar didn't look up, but mumbled, "Did they steal yer treasure too .. an' try and feed ya to birds?"

Whegg got a far off look in his eyes. "They tried ta kill me many a time .. and yea, they stole a great treasure from me .. one I never deserved ta 'ave."

The rat lapsed into reflective silence, and Einar wasn't sure what to say, so he said nothing.

Mask looked about to say something, when Luke traipsed in, back from breakfast. Not surprisingly, Roseanna was close behind.

However, Einar's instantaneous reaction to seeing the little mouse maid surprised everyone. The weasel made a desperate attempt to climb Mask, yelping, "Oh not her! Ya have dat demon in 'ere? Oh keep 'er away .. don't let 'er chew me up again .. oh please don't!!"

Roseanna too, did not seem pleased to see Einar, evidenced by the way she was attempting to climb Mask to get at the terrified weasel. Rose stoically pried her child off of Mask, as the otter irately pulled Einar off the back of his neck, holding him by his scruff. Mask frowned at the weasel, who was doing his best to keep his feet off the ground. "Have you ever taken a bath?"

Einar held forth his right paw, disregarding his otter guard's question a moment. "She did dis ta me .. an' she'll do it again .. oh keep her away .. please! I'll do anythin' .. I'll tell ya anythin' .. I won't say it's not fair 'gain .. just don't let that crazy mousy near me!!"

Rose blinked at the scarred paw, wincing as she kept a tight grip on her struggling daughter. "Whatever did you do to her? She's practically insane!"

Mask plopped Einar on the ground, and he whimpered, "I was only takin' orders .. I shouldn't done it .. an' I'm awful sorry I did now .. but ol' Wippback tol' me ta put 'er inna sack .. an' I did .. an' den Clogg tells me ta take her out .. an' I reached in the bag .."

His ears drooped. "I thought I put a liddle mousy in dat sack, but turned out it was .. a .. a .. piranha!"

Rose gave him a long look. "Well you shouldn't have done that, and I'll have you know this is my daughter."

Einar looked mortified, as though he was certain his time was up, and threw himself to his knees. "Oh .. Melady .. I didn't know! I swear by 'Ellgates I didn't! I'm sorry Melady .. don't kill me please .. an' worse den that .. don't let her loose on me! I'd rather ya gut me den ya let that liddle .. mousy chew me .. she bites like a .. a .. shark!"

Rose kept a tight hold on Roseanna, who was still now, but glaring balefully at Einar. "You shan't be swearing by any such thing, and I really haven't the faintest intention of gutting you, as you graphically put it. As for Roseanna, you're going to have to do something extremely nice to her to make up for her first impression of you."

Einar looked up slowly, bedraggled headfur spilling down in his eyes. "I .. ya mean .. I git a second chance?"

Rose smiled faintly at him. "You do not seem like a wicked beast to me, but a very confused one. If you will listen, we will teach you .. after all, it's not as if we could let you go. So being, I have a sort of proposition for you. You will remain our prisoner for now, tell us all you can, and be kept under guard. But we are not cruel as the beasts you know, and we will teach you of our Lord Ignasa. But there will be no more putting Roseanna in sacks, do you hear?"

Einar nodded vigorously, so hard a beast had to wonder if his head was going to stay on. "Oh no Melady, no! I don't never wanna even touch 'er again .. let alone put her anywhere! An' I never hurt her .. dat was Clogg. I just got 'er offa me .. an' she went after Clogg an' he kicked her inta a tree! I never wanted dat .. I just didn't wanna git chewed!"

Rose got a strange, fierce look in her eyes as she growled, "Oh he did .."

Einar supplied hurridly, "Course, he's dead now Melady .. Lotor killed him."

Rose sighed, glitter in her eyes slowly fading. "I supposed it's best that way. Look, I need to get back to Aubrietia, and I think Roseanna needs to .. settle down. Heavens, her eyes almost went red!"

Gingivere nodded. "Aye, I saw it. She has Martin's Bloodwrath, mark my words."

><><

Rigvar fluttered his wings ever so slightly, staring through narrow eyes at the lawns of Redwall abbey, and the beasts milling about in them. Kree and Karree were perched on either side of him, bright black eyes calculating.

About twenty more Doomwytes sat in the trees behind them, all restless and barbarically painted for war. Kree spoke softly. "Raacck .. fur mice and small beasts will be no trouble .. the horses and the eagle are the problem."

Rigvar glared at him. "Reeeak! Swarm them then! They will retreat into towers and wall houses, but we kill as many as we can before that. Then we pin them down .. they are mortal .. they must have food and water to live. We'll see they don't get it, and we'll allow none to leave. As for that eagle .. kill it if you can. Now move in. I want six birds on each wall except the back .. take five for that. You'll move at my signal .. go!"

In Redwall, Rose had just got Luke and Rosanna into the gatehouse, and was about to step through the doorway herself, when a dreadful screech rang out!

There were yells and screams as what seemed an entire flock of carrion birds descended on the inhabitants of the abbey .. and Rose only waited a second.

In the next she'd ducked into the gatehouse and seized her bow and quiver from where they hung above the door. The mouse laid the bow down as she hurriedly buckled on her quiver, then grabbed it again. She shot a look at Luke and Roseanna, ordering sharply, "Stay here!"

Rose ran out the door, loading an arrow as she did so. Almost instantly, a rook set upon her, although he seemed almost hesitant. The mouse ducked away, and having poor aim at such close range, only managed to shoot him through the left wing.

The bird squawked in pain, almost pitiable as he crumpled to the ground in agony. Rose loaded another arrow as a screech of total rage sounded from nearby. "Yar! Face a real fighter coward!"

><><

Yar had frozen stock still in the second the Doomwytes had attacked .. it was like a nightmare come true. However there was no time for contemplation or trying to reason why they were here, as Yar was faced with somebeast far too familiar .. her sister.

Yaz was barely recognizable under her warpaint and the faded scar across her face .. and the way her expression was twisted into a chilling sneer. Yar shrank back at her sister's order, and Yaz laughed. "Done hiding behind your little friends huh? Good, cause we're going to kill them all!"

Yar felt anger boil inside her at the thought of Roseanna, Luke, Urran, all of the dibbuns .. everybeast in Redwall. Creatures she'd grown to love. The magpie's voice was low, almost inaudible. "You will not touch them."

Yaz sneered, "You're pathetic .. speak would you? I can't even hear your pitiful last words."

Yar flung herself at Yaz with a screech. "Reeeaak! You will not touch them, not one!"

Yaz was taken by surprise as Yar dug her beak into the larger magpie's shoulder, rewarded by a squawk of rage as blood splattered to the ground. Yaz struck back in the next second, and Yar cried out as she felt pain sear across her collar bone and the base of her neck. She staggered back, falling as Yaz leapt on her, cawing her victory!

Yar didn't think about her next move, it was a simple, natural reaction. Being on her back, her talons were free .. and in a second, she put them to desperate action.

The little magpie slashed out with razor sharp claws, ripping a terrible wound down her sister's underside!

Yar felt instant horror at her action, no matter how wicked Yaz might be. The Doomwyte stared at her a moment with a look of dumb amazement, before rasping, "You .. traitor .."

Yaz toppled to the ground, hacking and choking for breath as she gasped, "I'll kill you yet .. nobeast .. kills .. a Doomwyte .."

The magpie's sides heaved once, before her hate filled eyes grew dark .. forever.

Yar felt the world swim as she realized she was laying in something wet .. Yaz must have wounded her worse then she had thought. The magpie tried to get up, but she was weak .. too weak.

She glanced at her dead sister, groaning, "Yaz .. I .. I didn't want to do it .. but someone .. had to .."

Yar felt the world fade into a blanket of numbness .. it was almost peaceful. For one second she was afraid .. but Ignasa would be there for her. It was more than Yaz could say.




Chapter 36 Mark of our Royalty

TPF Chapter 36

The crowns of legend ;3

Sayna awoke ever so slowly, for she'd been up half the night listening to Luke and his friends talk of the old times. No, her father.

Her father .. her real one. It was hard to get used to .. even after all her fights with Urran .. somehow she'd always called him father. Now she had another.

It was life, and she had the feeling it was going to be a little uncomfortable at first.

At least it would take some getting used to.

Her ears could faintly pick up the sound a Beau and Cardo making something for breakfast outside the cave, and singing raucously over it. Neither was the greatest singer, and the lyrics to the ditty made Sayna dubious about the food's quality.

Something about stew, frying the Captain's boots, swallowing un-chewable lumps, and tempting fate. It really was a bit unappetizing.

Luke moaned as he sat up on the other side of the fire, and Vurg yelled at the two cooks. "Ugg, stop it you two! That'll make me too sick to eat anything!"

Trimp sat up, blinking in wonderment. She scrambled to her paws, calling, "Cardo wait fer me! Teach me ta sing it too, sounds like a frightful ol' ditty!"

Beau stuck his head in the cave, calling, "Well than come out 'ere young chapess, and I'll teach ya the bally grand thing!"

Trimp grinned, heading for the entrance and pushing past Stardust, who'd stuck his head in. "Luke, can ye tell these two to lay off .. now there'll be three of 'em! It's as bad as on the Sayna, if not worse!"

Luke sighed. "Oh .. don't be too hard on them Dust, it's been forever."

Vurg sighed. "You're gonna regret that mate."

Luke stood. "Probably, but we won't be here .. we'll be deactivating all my traps at Tallrocks. Let's leave right after breakfast."

Timbal had been listening to the cooks' ditty, and he spoke doubtfully. "I'm not sure I want breakfast. Can those two really cook? I mean, I know Beau can, but what about Cardo and Trimp?"

Vurg groaned, flattening his ears against the outrageous song. "Cardo can, but Trimp cooks about as well as a toad .. and that might be unfair to the toad."

Martin stood, buckling on his sword. "Maybe I'll forego breakfast."

Luke shook his head. "No, eat it .. we've got climbing and a lot of careful work on our paws .. I spent about two full seasons on those traps, and they're worthy of some respect, trust me."

Sayna raised an eyebrow. "Maybe you could tell us what they are ..?"

Luke smiled at her. "Oh yes .. over breakfast. And never fear, the two can cook well, despite their singing."

><><

Contrary to the dreadful lyrics, breakfast wasn't stew, but porridge, and good tasting porridge at that.

As it was, Luke didn't tell them anything over breakfast, the only conversation being between the marks and Trimp. The others dug in like they'd seen a ten season famine, and despite the fact they each ate about three helpings, were done in less than about five minutes.

Cardo was filling his fourth bowl when Luke stood, sighing, "It's great to have you two cooking again, despite the ditties we're forced to put up with. You done yet?"

Martin looked up at his father's question, about to reach for a second helping. "I suppose."

Luke laughed. "Sorry son, I'm afraid you'll find us a little uncivilized in some respects. Come though, the tide will be at it's lowest, but shall rise by nightfall. So unless you want to sleep in a cave that becomes half full of water .. I'd say we'd best move."

Stardust looked up from his grazing, trotting to Luke's side. Vurg glanced around. "We needn't take all the horses .. three will do. After all, I think Beau and Cardo'd like to stay behind and get our supper ready. So it's just you three, me and Vurg."

"And me! And me! I mean .. can I come too? I love caves! And I can fight if we run into trouble!" Trimp patted her rapier for emphases.

Luke looked doubtful. "You'll have to do as I say, it's a matter of life and death."

Trimp nodded. "I can take orders, s'not like I'm some dibbun."

Cardo spoke up. "You might take her off my paws Luke, I'd be grateful."

Luke sighed. "It was your idea to take her in the first place .."

Timbal broke in. "Oh take her, it's a waste of time arguing about it. It's not like she's a child, after all."

Vurg nodded. "Right son, you think like me. And she'll need a saddle, none of the horses want her to ride bareback."

Timbal shrugged. "I've got a good one. You can ride on Diamond with her, I'll ride Dancer with Sayna. Groddil can come on Stargazer, as always."

Luke grabbed hold of Stardust's mane, pulling himself on and giving Martin a paw up. "It'll take us about fifteen minutes to get there .. I'll tell you on the way."

><><

It was amazing to be back here, among the screeching gulls and crashing surf, accompanied by the wind that soared to the jagged cliff tops. Timbal took a deep breath of it, soaking the beauty in, and coming back to reality as Luke spoke. "So, about these traps."

Vurg nodded. "Yes, you've got my curiosity up, since you never told me back then."

Luke looked down. "That was the first few seasons since Vilu's attack .. and I was practically a mad beast. I wanted a revenge I had no way of having, so I had to find someway to occupy myself. I realized good and well those crowns were what Vilu was after, being subservient to Verdauga and a Shadow Fighter himself. At that time I cursed the fate that caused them to be in my possession, or that Vurg and Twoola had ever made the silver ones .. just think Vurg, you made a crown for your own son."

The golden mouse shrugged. "Sayna .. my wife .. she found that cave, not me. And it occurred to me, that I must hide the cursed crowns, for they were to be my children's .. well, at least Martin's. I was sure my daughter was dead, but for my dear son I would do anything, even preserve the wretched things that had brought about his mother's death."

Luke sighed. "And so I did, and it gave me relief. I put my mind to the devices I was building, I grew numb to sorrow .. and everything else. However all things have their time, and when that task was finished, the fires of vengeance were rekindled, and again I sought Daskar's blood with a passion."

He smiled slightly. "Still, I put a great deal into what I did. The first night I spent in the cave was that after the attack .. after I had lost her. I was insane with grief, and I remembered this place, and came there to hide .. to pour out my sorrow. I did, on the very ledge the crowns sit now. By and by, I fell asleep, and when I awoke the tide was rising. I felt for sure I would die, and almost welcomed it, but I still had more to suffer .. as the tide never reached the ledge, or really came close. In the morning I went home .. that was when it started."

The mouse looked at Stardust's mane, sighing, "Firstly, I rigged the edge of the trench that runs it's way across the cave so any who leapt across, except at a certain point, would fall to their death. Second, a tripwire released a boulder, another a crossbow, and yet another a pile of rubble. However the last was the very worst .. and the hardest to see. There was a tripwire across the very bottom of the ledge the crowns sit on, one that would release a sharpened axe blade from the ceiling."

Vurg was admiring. "You were serious matey!"

Luke shrugged. "I was broken."

Martin leaned to the side, calling, "I see them, Tallrocks! It's been forever .. I'd like to show Rose this place, I'm sure she'd like it."

Luke winked at his son. "Wait til you see the inside son .. you've seen nothing yet. A more beautiful place I've not seen."

><><

The cry of a gull broke the air as Martin stared up the rocks before him, like some massive bridge to another country. He glanced down at the horses, now far below, and started to understand how his father had found solitude here. It was so diverse from the rest of the world.

Trimp scrambled up beside him, exclaiming, "Whoa .. I'm sure glad I came .. this is .. amazin'!"

Sayna and Timbal were next, followed by Luke and Vurg. Luke looked around a moment, before shaking his head. "It's been so long .. look, the cave is up there. You can't see it from here."

Groddil climbed up next, with a clink of ever-present knives. Luke was already climbing the staircase of flat rocks, leaping from one to another with agility. Vurg fallowed him, and the others too, without much hesitation at all. Even Trimp, a hedgehog, didn't have a lot of trouble.

Of course, Trimp was a little out of the ordinary.

Groddil reached the rock face first, being the largest and the fastest. The fox's silver brush of a tail twitched a little as he looked around, suddenly pointing to a cleft in the rocks. "This is it?"

Luke nodded. "Yes .. I'll go first .. Trimp, do you have those torches?"

The hedgehog nodded to him, handing him one. Luke slipped his paws through the hole, stating, "I'll light them once we're inside .. prepare yourselves to see one of the greatest things I have ever found."

He slipped inside, followed by Vurg, and all the others. Martin was last, and he dropped gently down about three feet into the murky darkness, lit faintly by the summer sky visible from a cleft far above.

Luke's voice was soft. "Now don't move .. hold on."

There was the sound of flint being struck, and a small spark, before the torch caught fire. For the very first second, nothing happened. Then, like stars on a moonless night, a thousand tiny lights spread across the ceiling .. dozens upon dozens of shimmering quartz crystals set alight by the torch.

Now the cave was almost as bright as day, and Luke lit the next torch, handing it to Vurg. He pointed down the large pile of rocks they stood at the top of stating, "Let me go first. there are no traps in this cavern .. we must go through that."

Martin quickly followed his father down the rocks and towards the sloping tunnel he'd pointed to. It didn't take long to reach the ground, and to get in the sizable tunnel. Trimp wasn't saying anything for total wonder.

The tunnel quickly sloped downward, and it didn't seem long before they reached the end, torchlight flickering it the surf-filled blackness .. blackness that only lasted a second. Once again, there was a burst of golden light, for this cavern was just as full of quartz as the last.

Martin was looking at the ceiling, then the trench running the length of the cave from which the sound of breakers resounded. Suddenly he tripped over something, stumbling.

Luke turned around instantly, frowning as Martin picked up what had tripped him .. a charred piece of wood. Martin raised an eyebrow. "Dad, this couldn't have been yours .. it's still slightly warm!"

Luke wheeled about, stared across the expanse. "Wait .. my eye isn't as good as it once was .. one of you tell me what you see!"

Timbal peered in the direction Luke pointed. "A fallen boulder .. red fur .. something that might be blood."

Luke's good eye widened. "The box on the ledge .. is it still there?"

Groddil spoke. "It is .. and there's something metal on the floor nearby .. see how the light glints off it?"

Luke stiffened. "Somebeast has been here before us .. hurry! The spot to cross is little lower down .. this way."

><><

The splash of waves in the trench was foreboading, and Sayna winced. She didn't like high places. Luke jumped over first, landing on the other side with grace to counter his years. Vurg was next, then Trimp, who despite being a hedgehog, seemed very spry .. although she did land awkwardly.

Sayna was next, and she made sure to back up as far as she could, ran, and jumped! There was one second of blurry terror before she fell to the ground on the far side, rolling away from the yawning chasm.

Groddil had little trouble, after all, the crossing here was only about four feet .. it was narrower than the rest of the trench. Timbal and Martin were pretty unfazed, and Luke nodded to the others. "Alright, stay behind me .. we may have company shortly."

Groddil pointed toward the ledge. "With all due respect sir, I think that company has already made the acquaintance of your traps."

Luke hurried forward, Martin and Vurg close behind. Sayna could see what lay halfway beneath the boulder now, footpaws and tail crushed .. it was a scruffy red fox.

He lay still, eyes closed and no obvious evidence of breathing. Groddil knelt beside the creature, gently picking up a limp forepaw. "I'm not sure he's alive .. but if he's dead, he died very recently; he's still warm."

Martin frowned. "With an injury like that, I think he'd die even in the care of somebeast. He can't have lain like this more than a day."

Timbal shook his head. "He must have been after the crowns .. but how did he set that off, if he fell here?"

The mouse was pointing to the red-stained axe blade laying beside the ledge. Luke shook his head. "He didn't. He must have had an accomplice .. but from the blood all over that beast must have been hit .. this way .. whatever you do, don't go through these pillars. Martin, Sayna .. Timbal and Vurg .. come with me."

The golden warrior headed around the sets of natural columns, stating, "The traps are only strung between them, after all, since when did a greedy vermin think to go the long way around?"

Vurg glanced back at the fallen form of the strange fox, stating, "He didn't."

Martin nodded. "No, but his accomplice must have gotten wise after the rock fell on his matey, because those other traps you spoke of haven't gone off."

Luke nodded. "Too true .. but whoever it was didn't see the last one coming."

They had arrived at the ledge by this time, and Luke pointed to the space between it and the last pillar. "It's safe, the trap has already been set off, so we're fine."

They stepped through the space, and Sayna frowned at the blood that seemed to be everywhere. "There's one thing that troubles me .. a beast who lost this much blood would be dead, and his body would be here. So where is the dead creature .. what happened to him? Bodies don't walk off."

Luke had taken off the key Martin had returned to him, stating, "I'm not sure, and you're right. Everybeast keep their eyes peeled .. there could be another vermin in here. However let's open this first .. I'd like you two to see them."

The mouse gently fit the key in the lock, turning it until there was a soft click. He put the object back over his head, before slowly raising the lid of the trunk.

Sayna stared in wonder as the light glittered off four elegant crowns, not heavy, clumsy things, but crafted in true Mossflowerian style. They were slim, with sweeping curves and gleaming jewels set in them, all made with perfect attention to detail.

The two silver ones looked newer than the gold ones, one being made from leaves, the other from intertwined roses.

However the golden pieces were tarnished from use and the ages, one made from two sweeping wings set with a violet stone, and the other a star set on an engraved band.

Martin broke the silence. "They are more beautiful than I thought they'd be .. I don't know that I could even wear one."

Luke smiled. "Ahh but you will .. this one."

He indicated the golden star crown, and Sayna suddenly realized the crown shaped like bird's feathers must be hers ... could she really wear that?

Luke shut the small box, picking it up off the ledge. "We can observe them better in the light anyway .. let's leave this place."

Timbal cast a distasteful glance at the blood on the ground. "It would suit me."

Vurg pointed out the pillar opposite the one they'd come in. "Is it my imagination running off with me, or does the blood make a trail through there?"

Martin frowned. "It does .. the creature must have been dragged out that way."

Luke raised an eyebrow. "You say dragged? Wouldn't another vermin carry their fallen comrade away?"

Timbal shrugged. "Yes, likely. But this creature was dragged .. it's quite obvious. The question is .. what had ahold of it? Something that couldn't pick it up?"

Vurg was staring at the scuff marks, and suddenly he curled his lip. "A snake! This looks like a snake's trail!"

><><

Trimp was standing by Groddil, fidgeting. After all, it was in her nature to be curious about everything, so the mystery of what really was in that trunk was almost unbearable.

However she was just mature enough to not interrupt, and for a far more pressing reason .. she didn't wish to run through a bunch of traps. The hedgehog put her paws behind her back, humming a few bars and staring nonchalantly at the glimmering quartz covered ceiling.

She took a step backwards in attempt to tilt her head farther back, and trod on the dead fox's arm. Trimp jumped forward in shock as the creature moaned slightly .. certainly not dead.

The hedgehog frowned. "He's alive?"

Groddil nudged her, putting a paw to his lips. "Hush .. do you hear something?"

Trimp had always prized herself with good hearing, and as she strained to listen now, Groddil was right .. above the hiss of crashing surf in the trench, was a another hissing .. an odd one. It didn't have the wild, repetitiveness the waves did .. and somehow it sounded more sinister.

The hedgehog drew her rapier, as Groddil's paw fell to his cutlass hilt. "Over by the far wall .. there's something in the shadows .. Sayna, Martin! Look out!"

Sayna's paw instantly fell to her sword, as did Martin. The others hurriedly did the same, as Sayna called, "Groddil, what is it?"

She needn't have asked, not as her eyes caught the flicker of movement between the pillars. Luke burst into action, calling, "Back! the way we came .. now!"

He was a little late, as the faint hissing became clearly audible, and a snake's head appeared between the pillars, quickly followed by the long body. The creature reared up, sniffing the air with an extended tongue. Vurg's voice was soft as he drew his axe, stating, "Spread out .. divide it's attention .."

Luke pulled his spear off his back. "And don't get near that first set of pillars .. whatever you do!"

><><

At Redwall, things were not going well. About half the population were trapped in the gatehouse, and Gingivere stared bleakly out the window. "This could be the end .. we can't defend the walls with them out there!"

Rose looked up from binding an unconscious Yar's wounds, asking, "Can we drive them off? How many bows do we have?"

Rupert sighed. "Yours and mine Rose, that's about it."

Sandingomm growled. "If only I had mine! I'd show those filthy scum!"

Dinny crossed his arms. "Well you'm b'ain't miz, an' that's 'ot going to help us, no zurr. We'm need something now, 'o hurr!"

Whegg smiled at him. "What do ya have in mind mate?"

Dinny frowned. "Well now .. moi grandpa baint here .. he be with the others Oi reckon. But Oi do believe he'd say we need a tunnel .. 'e bird bags don't be floin' unner ground."

Gingivere nodded. "Do we have any other moles with us?"

Argulor, by far the most uncomfortable, lifted a wing to reveal Mask, Einar, and Soilflyer. The black mole trundled to the door, tugging his snout. "Burr, Oi bain't much, but Oi'll be troin' for 'e."

Rupert spoke up. "Please forgive the plain, assassin's logic here, but we're in an awful fix. Those birds will drive us off the walls so we can't defend them, and I'll wager anything this Lotor is behind the attack. We need help; fast. We need the ones who left for Salamandastron .. so we can fight back. In other words ... we've got to get Argulor out!"

Whegg nodded. "Yea, we can't hold this off by ourselves .. think, we only have about twenty fit fighters, if you count Rowenoak, Ballaw, Brome, and Rose. The others aren't warriors, just peaceful creatures."

Dinny raised a hefty digging paw. "Oi bain't no warrior zurz, but Oi will be troin' .. just loike the rest of us. Burr ho, we'm don't want no bird bags in our abbey!"

Goody stickle nodded, twirling her rolling pin. "Just let one a those ruffians near me, an' they'll taste this!"

Gonff, standing nearby, raised his paws. "Oh they'll be terrified marm, I am .."

Goody turned on him. "You should be, young pie-snatcher! You better use that sling'a yours or the birds won't be the only ones with a taste a this .."

Gonff edged away from the threatening cooking implement, bowing, "Oh yes fine lady! I wouldn't think to leave your pies unguarded .. dreadful thought those ravens should get their filthy talons in them!"

Gingivere nodded. "Let's get to work .. who knows how long we have."

><><

Lotor was polishing the blade of his knife-paw, and listening passively to Grimleg's report. The ferret made sure to stand a safe distance from his Lord after the incident last night. "Lord, that patrol ya sent out .. it ain't come back yet, an' dey shoulda! Shall I send scouts after 'em?"

Lotor shrugged. "No need to waste time like that, I'm sure they'll return on their own. And when they do, send them to me, understood? You go see the horde trains hard, I want these layabouts healed and ready for war in three weeks at most! Rigvar and his birds will keep the beasts in that castle pinned and starving .. that way we'll have it easy. Who knows Grimleg, maybe we won't even have to fight them! In about two weeks I'll offer that they surrender, we'll see."

Grimleg nodded, relieved his chief seemed in a good mood. "I will Lord, sure I will! Trust me ta it!"

Lotor picked at his shimmering white fangs with a immaculate claw, smiling as he watched his henchbeast trot off. "Oh I won't trust you .. but I will use you."

The flutter of wings announced Rigvar, as he alighted on a fallen log nearby. The raven preened himself, stating, "We have them pinned down, as you wished."

Lotor nodded. "Good. See to it they stay that way, starve them out. Two weeks or so of that and the ones left alive will likely beg me to let them surrender .. isn't it just a bunch of babes, females, and old ones?"

Rigvar nodded. "Mostly. The big wildcat could be a problem, him and the lady badger. But she's old, we could take her."

Lotor nodded. "Good. Don't allow any to leave .. this is the easiest conquest I ever did!"

><><

Martin drew his sword as the mammoth of a snake reared up, hissing forebodingly. The swish of metal on metal caught the beast's attention, and it turned on the golden warrior, pausing a moment, before lunging at him!

Martin leapt back, narrowly dodging the strike and swiping at the creature's head. There was a furious hiss as blood spattered to the ground, for Martin's unstoppable weapon sliced into the snake's features.

The wounded beast reared up again, lashing out with such power Martin threw himself back ... and tripped over something that felt forebodingly like a tripwire!

There was a cry of horror from Luke, as Martin fell over backwards.

I'm dead .. that's done it ..

there was an odd creak, and as Martin fell to the ground, he had to wonder why some projectile hadn't run him through. However nothing happened .. at least not in the form of a trap. However the snake was after him in a moment, despite the other's attempts to stop it!

Trimp's voice rang out, franticly. "Sire! This way .. jump over the next rope, come on!"

Martin scrambled to his paws, running toward where the hedge hog stood. However Groddil's cry stopped him. "Martin, here!"

The mouse felt something grab the back of his tunic, dragging him back without the slightest trouble. Like a monster robbed of it's prey, the snake whipped around, long tail slamming over the final rope!

There was a rumble, and a pile of rubble smashed down on the viper's tail!

The creature first lurched forward, hissing in agony, before whipping around to attack whatever dared to cause it such pain.

Trimp ran backwards, tripping and falling flat on her back. She yelped without meaning to, and the snake turned on her, murder in it's eyes!

Timbal had managed to get around the pile of rubble, and he came at the snake now, axe ready. However something happened that hadn't been foreseen, as the pinned fox, supposedly dead, cried out in helpless terror!

The enraged snake, unmindful of anything but pain and the mad desire to kill, lunged for the wounded beast instead of Trimp, sinking it's fangs into the fox's shoulder, twice. Martin was already running forward, along with Groddil, but Timbal beat them and all the rest to it, swinging his axe with practiced precision.

There was a clang, and the adder's head fell to the ground, lifeless.

Sayna came leaping over the rubble pile, blood on her sword from where she'd attacked the adder from behind. "Are you alright Timbal? Is everybeast?"

Timbal sighed. "I am .."

Martin nodded as Trimp groaned, "Ouch .. a hedgehog ain't made fer fallin', that's fer sure .. oh my poor spines!"

Groddil knelt beside the stricken fox, who stared up at him with a confused look. "Do .. Ah know ya matey? Are ya .. one'a Lotor's?"

The others had started at this, but Groddil quickly held up a paw. "Yes mate, I am .. 'e sent me ta 'elp ya. How'd ya git in dis mess?"

The red fox hacked, trying to lift his head up, but falling back down. "Yer a little late .. but ye gotta tell 'im .. tell 'im Ah tried. Tell him don't curse Sholabar's .. name in 'Ellgates .. Ah was gonna bring him a fine boodle .. tell him ta put in a good word fer me with the Dark Wolf ... an' let 'im know, Ah was gonna kill the marks .. as he said .. I hopes he gets that castle 'e .. was .. after ..."

Groddil, unmindful of whatever roll he was allegedly playing, grabbed the failing fox's shoulders. "Castle? What castle? Speak now, now!"

The dying beast was beyond comprehending much of anything, or saying anything, but he managed five words. And those five words were enough. "Kotir .. in revenge .. fer .. Salamandastron."

><><

In the gatehouse, tensions were high. Rose peered out the window at the two hungry looking crow guards, noticing how they surveyed the door with wicked calculation. She swallowed. "They want to eat us .. the vile creatures!"

Sandingomm shrugged. "Huh, I've eaten crow for breakfast. Stupid feather bags!"

Roseanna looked up at Sandingomm a moment, before clacking her teeth in agreement. Einar shuddered, still watched closely by Mask. Rose had the feeling the weasel wasn't going to try and bolt, not with Roseanna to watch him with an evil, calculating eye.

The mouse sighed. What was she going to do about those two? Einar had impressed her as a bit of coward .. but a complete one around her daughter, tiny as she was.

Rupert tested the string of his crossbow, stating, "I've got an idea. There's only two guards .. they must think we don't have weapons. Rose, get your bow, and slide one of the windows open silently. I'll be at another. Gingivere, Whegg, get the door. As soon as these two are dead, Argulor, make a bolt for it! You're our only hope matey."

The eagle paused, before smiling at Rupert. "Ach, thankee lad. Ah'll do me best, yekin?"

Whegg dipped his head. "You'll beat all their feathers off, no challenge. They're just some ravens .. yer an eagle!"

Rose had slipped open a window silently, as Rupert did the same. The still white stoat laid his bow on his window sill, leveling it on one of the guards.

Rose drew her bow, and cast a glance at Rupert, who nodded, growling, "Now!"

Two spontaneous twangs went off, accompanied by a dying squawk. Gingivere threw the door open, and Argulor leapt out, knocking a few beasts over in his run at the door. To get out, his wings were at his sides; but the second he was free, they spread in a glorious golden arch!

The eagle caught air, soaring upward, only to be intercepted by a large gray raven. The smaller bird went for Argulor's head, avoiding his adversary's swiping beak .. however he couldn't avoid the furious talons!

They struck out, one gripping the raven by the neck the other tearing down it's back several times; rewarded by a cry of pain .. but only a feeble struggle.

His work done, Argulor dropped his now limp victim, screeching his wild cry of victory!

The gray bird plummeted to the ground, a limp, bloody pile of feathers; while Argulor directed a last call at the gatehouse, in the language of an eagle, before circling around and swooping out into the vastness of Mossflower's skies .. westward.

Rose shook her head. "Ignasa go with you friend .. and may he be with us."




Chapter 37 To Mossflower!

TPF Chapter 37

Einar and Mask ;)

The slight rustle of treetops was the only thing that betrayed Redfarl's presence, and only a very observant beast would notice it.

Arvid was a very observant beast .. Brush, not so much. The graying general crossed his arms, grumbling, "Amber's daughter is no Amber .. Oh if only the late queen had picked some other beast to train her daughter .. when will that girl learn?"

Arvid discreetly said nothing. His parents had permitted him to journey to Redwall with the rest of the squirrels, after all, the princes who were too young to inherit the crown often went to other countries. Beddle and Ruro made him promise to visit, but told him that a little sight-seeing would do him good.

He could still remember his father's parting words. "Son, I'll let thou findest thy own path, lest I choose it for thou and choose it poorly."

Ruro had nodded, smiling, "Do not be afraid to tryest new things .. I'm sure thy every choice will be an adventure."

Brush's voice broke through his reverie, and Arvid hadn't quite caught what the squirrel was saying. "I'm sorry .. thou sayest what?"

Brush rolled his eyes. "Young'uns these days .. all need a good bit of military punishment to straiten them up! But who am I to punish my queen, or a visiting dignitary? Oh the general's lot in life .. it isn't as glamorous as it's portrayed .. I say, where is that young, flighty .. tree-hopping .."

Redfarl twirled down out of the tree Arvid had guessed she was eavesdropping from, calling, "I'm right here general, yes general, at your service general!"

Brush sighed, walking off. "Why me?"

Redfarl glanced and Arvid, winking slyly. "He always wants formality, except when I actually use it."

Arvid thought of saying something about how Brush only wanted to help, but his own sense of humor got the better of him, and he had to grin. "The poor beast .. thou drivest him out of his head."

Redfarl shrugged. "Well he drivest .. um .. drives me out of my head. He's too strict and formal .. and un-adventurous. You haven't lived around him six seasons, when you have, you won't pity him."

Arvid opened his mouth to say something, but froze as wings rustled nearby. "Redfarl! Lassie, how'd ye get here?"

The squirrel jumped, exclaiming, "Argulor! I thought you'd be at the abbey .."

The eagle looked in a hurry. "Ah can't stop long .. Lotor's after Redwall, him and a whole crew of Doomwytes .. Ah've been flyin' all day. Ah only found ye cause I was looking for a restin' spot for the night, and here ye are. It'll take ye three days at least .. but make all speed!"

><><

Rigvar was in a very bad humor as he addressed his bleeding, crippled general Vee and Karree had brought him. "Crrraaw! What happened?"

Kree's back was a bloody mess, one wing twisted inward, and his eyes were squinted in pain. "Great .. Doomwyte .. it was that .. cursed eagle .. I tried to stop him, but he .. did this .. to me .."

Rigvar squawked, unsympathetic. "Oh stop grumbling, incompetent bird! Krrraaaa! You let that heap of golden feathers get past you, chief of my Ravenwytes?"

Kree looked away, sides heaving with agony. Rigvar huffed. "Caawww! You're no use like that, Vee, Karee, take him to the cave .. and tell Sumiss to read her omens for me, I want to hear them later tonight!"

The raven leader turned his back on his wounded general, seething inwardly. He'd planned on loosing maybe one or two. But he had already lost three and had two wounded .. in the first attack!

Only the first!

The raven snarled. Somebeast would pay .. Lotor would. If this kept up, Rigvar would start charging extra for every bird he lost .. a life for a life.

Fair was fair.

And if this started to really hurt, Rigvar would see to it his band got a few more tasty, vermin snacks. Lotor couldn't refuse, where else would he get an aerial force?

Nowhere.

So the tide was in Rigvar's favor. The raven knew Lotor wasn't stupid, and it wouldn't be lost on the ermine that he didn't have so much power over birds that he did over fur creatures.

If Lotor were to kill Rigvar, most of the Doomwytes would simply fly away.

It was a game of death, to be sure.

But Rigvar enjoyed such games.

><><

At Redwall, night had fallen, quiet and unbroken .. except for the occasional ominous rustling of feathers from the avian watchers.

Dinny and Soilflyer had started digging out of the gatehouse foundation, only to be met with Foremole and some of the mole crew .. industrious and logical even in the face of great danger. Hard at work, the moles had dug several main tunnels between the front gatehouse and the two closest towers .. however the back wall was still stranded.

Abbess Germaine, Rowenoak, Brome, Columbine, and Ben, Ferdy, and Spike Stickle were not to be found, so it could only be assumed they and some others had been trapped in the hind gatehouse.

The horses too, were notoriously missing. Only the little blind foal, Glowingsparks, could be found, and that because Regina had dragged him to safety along with her children. All in all, it was a dreadful mess.

Rose was rocking Aubrietia, and she cast a glance at Sandingomm. "Those poor beasts stuck in the far gatehouse .. and my brother too! I wish we could help them."

Sandingomm got a thoughtful look about her. "There oughta be a way ta get to 'em .. or at least tell 'em we're on our way. Cause Foremole won't rest .. they're real heroes ya know, even if they ain't fighters."

Rose nodded, then paused. "A hero .. without fighting. I wonder .. you don't have to fight to help sometimes .."

Sandingomm pricked her ears up. "Ya got an idea?"

Rose sighed in weary defeat. "No .. I thought maybe .. but I'm just too tired."

Her cat friend cast a glance about the room, noticing how everybeast seemed gloomy .. and in most of the dibbuns' cases .. devious. "Sing us somthin', ta cheer us up maybe .. or make these liddle terrors sleep. They look like they're plannin' a DAB resistance movement."

Rose glanced around with a sigh. "Oh dear .. you're right. Well that's the last thing we need .. let me see here."

She thought a moment, before humming a few bars of a tune in her head, then singing softly,


"Watch the rain,

Hear it fall.

Over treetops;

Over all,

The woodlands of Mossflower,

Little woodlander.


Hear me sing,

Hear me sing,

Hear my voice in the spring.

As the rain doth fall,

Over all, over all ..."


A quiet hush fell over the gatehouse after a few verses, and Rose looked at Sandingomm, murmuring, "Sayna taught me it years ago, when we were young. Oh .. I wonder where they are .. or if I'll ever see them again. If I'll ever see Martin again."

Sandingomm opened her mouth to say something, but let it fall shut again, thoughts un-uttered. It was no good trying to put an overly bright face on the dark beast of war.

For the fear was very real .. and there was no promise of survival.

><><

Mask sat in the gatehouse's upper chamber, where Rose had suggested he take Einar because of Roseanna's ever present, dangerous look she kept directing at the weasel.

The brawny otter watched his charge, who was staring sadly out the window. Mask spoke softly. "You wish you had your freedom, and that treasure, don't you?"

Einar looked about to deny out of fear, but his guard held up a paw. "I have another question for you. If you had that treasure, would you be happy? Take time to think about it."

The weasel looked about to answer immediately, but he paused as he was told. At first there was total assurance in his gray eyes, but after a minute or so, it slowly began to waver. Mask's voice was gentle. "I want to help you, Einar. Think of all the times, if any, when you wanted something desperately .. and you actually got it. Did it solve all your problems .. make your life perfect?"

Einar finally hung his head. "No."

Mask nodded. "Would the treasure be any different?"

Einar tried to argue. "Well there's so much an' .. I'd be so filthy rich an' .. I founds it first an' ....... I .. no .. I guess not."

Mask laid a paw on his shoulder. "You're right. I doesn't mean you shouldn't have a little of that treasure, in thanks for finding and saving it, and when the other marks get back, I foresee you shall."

Einar looked up. "Really? If I'm good .. an' I don't 'urt nobeast or steal nothing .. they'll just .. give me some?"

Mask smiled ever so faintly. "Martin, Timbal, and Sayna aren't the kind of brutal leaders you're used to. They and Lady Rose will reward you justly."

Nothing was said for a moment, before Einar stated, "Here I thought I was bein' captured .. but ya really saved me, didn't ya? I couldn'ta got past all those creepy birds meself."

Mask shrugged. "Lord Ignasa turns our darkest hours to blessings with the dawn."

Einar looked away. Mask asked gently, "You doubt the Rising Sun's existence?"

The weasel shrugged. "Wull .. I .. yea. I've only seen bad stuff 'appen an' .. how can 'e allow that? How can 'e turn night inta day like yer tellin' me? I jist don't unnerstand sir."

Mask sighed. "I don't know why I even think to tell you my dark hours .. but mayhap you'll benefit. Somebeast may as well know .. although I never dreamed that beast would be a weasel. Well .. since we're not needed anyway .. I'll tell you a tale of a beast's sorrows .. and his second chance. Of how he almost gave up on everything true .. it was long ago. But it happened .. to a beast who's hidden behind disguises for season on season .. a beast named Riverwyte."

><><

Einar blinked, but Mask did not seem to notice his charge's confusion. "I am many seasons your senior, for I remember Verdauga's attack. I was a young beast then, seventeen seasons exactly. My older brother Warthorn already had a wife and twin children, and our father was a wise chieftain, a good friend of the first Martin, Kotir's king."

The otter paused a long while, as if unsure about telling the story. He finally began again, softly .. regretfully. "When Verdauga came, the holt my father ruled, Holt Willow, split into many groups. Each clan took their own colors, symbols, and leaders, and they were not wrong to do so. It gave a ravished people a sense of identity and purpose, and the small holts flourished. We weren't trying to rebuild Holt Willow, we were trying to build Holt Mossguard, Holt Willowglen, Holt Silverdawn .. we were independent. Don't think wrongly, my father was beloved by his otters, but with him gone .. perhaps their own creativity grew."

Mask sighed. "In a way, it might have been a good thing. But me? Well you see .. I'd been on the walltops when the cat came, and .. I swear I never saw them coming. But I'd given nobeast a reason for my leaving, never being the most open beast .. and that aroused suspicion about me. Had I shirked my duty as a warrior and behaved a coward? Worse, had I conspired with the cat?"

Mask shook his head. "The tensions and fear was so high then .. they were angry with me. Still, they decided to give me a second chance to prove myself. We made Holt Silverdawn, and foolish they were, they built it too close to an outpost of Verdauga's .. the blind, poor foolish beasts .. they were so used to peace. They were only learning of Verdauga's brutality .. they paid for their education. However, I could not expect them to heed me. And so I said nothing."

The otter looked away. "Perhaps I was the fool."

A long silence passed, one Einar was content to leave intact. Mask spoke again, voice tired and faded. "Well you can guess what happened. The vermin found what we were doing .. and by fate's wicked games, they attacked on my watch .. relieved me of my tail, and left me for dead. However I did not die, my only true friend helped me. I came to in time to face the wrath of our leader .. I do not hate him, poor beast. They slew his family before his eyes .. I had no way to plead. It was my watch, I failed .. just as I failed before. Many rumors followed me, and it was finally believed I was a coward and a traitor."

The gray otter touched the blood red mark on his cheek, stating, "This is a mark of the greatest shame among a holt, and it is universally known as the mark an outcast wears. For that was my title .. outcast."

Mask looked down. "It's what I was, and am, and always will be. Should there have been any otters here, they'd have thrown me out."

The aging beast sighed. "I ran .. what else was I to do? The shame of an outcast was burned on my cheek, but it hurt less than my heart .. the darkest hour will always hurt. I said it was too late, I said it was over. But Ignasa knew better."

Mask smiled a tiny smile. "He found me .. he changed what I thought was final. He even accepted me later, as one of his Prophets. But I hid from my kind; they would not want me. I hid from most. Then Ignasa sent me here .. and here I am. So you see Einar, nothing is final .. not even your life. Ignasa can mend the most shattered things .. and make them beautiful."

Einar said nothing at first, finally asking, "Even .. a weasel?"

Mask shrugged. "If he can change stoats, ermine, cats, rats, foxes, and broken otters, why could he not change you? Only if you refuse to heed him."

><><

The night wind blew softly across the north shores, quiet and peaceful. But the atmosphere of a certain group of travelers was anything but.

All three of the marks were deathly worried, but they expressed it in different ways. Timbal expressed it in worry, being the most straightforward. Sayna expressed it in anger, furiously declaring she'd gut anybeast who laid a paw on Fripple, Rose, Brome, or any other beast at Redwall, thinking brokenly to herself this was impossible if she wasn't there.

Martin however, expressed the emotion by dark, fearful silence .. the very air around him was tense.

He spoke to nobeast after Sholabar's unintentional revelation, simply made every movement count toward leaving for Mossflower. They'd left Beau and Cardo to travel a little more slowly with Firebird and the cart, although the hare and mouse were moving just as fast as they could.

However even if the present company had swift, strong horses, nobeast can keep on forever. The group had stopped to let the tired horses rest, but Martin was a nervous wreck, one that couldn't sleep.

He sat at the sea's edge, watching the waves crash to the shore in stormy silence .. one that he didn't really intend to break. However, somebeast broke it for him. "You remind me of .. of me, really."

Martin didn't really answer, just muttered, "I failed her .."

Luke sat down a few feet away, staring out over the surf. "I've failed many a beast son .. I failed you."

Martin paused a minute, before stating, "Yea but you .. you had a good reason. I .. was so immature and foolish and .. I let her go! I let her go into battle with Badrang .. I thought she died .. and I hid from her father .. I was a coward. Then Ripfang captured her .. and I wasn't there! I could have known father .. if I'd just been braver .. but I wasn't. And now .."

Luke stated softly, "And now, you're afraid of loosing her."

Martin didn't look up. "Again."

Luke sighed. "I know your fear. I wish I could reassure you .. but I can't. I have lost so many beasts; from your brave mother, to so many of our tribe .. to a truly courageous squirrel who lies fathoms below the shadow of Tallrocks .. I know too well my son."

Martin looked up. "Who?"

Luke smiled softly, stating, "A true friend, a Bloodwrathing mad beast .. and a stronghold of faith .. she had more faith than I. Ranguvar was her name, the wildest of the wild she was. Not everybeast escaped that wreck Martin, and she didn't .. you'd have liked to have met her. However her grave has no marker, just the endless indigo waves."

Martin said nothing a moment, before sighing, "I'm sorry .. to not have met her .. and that she died."

Luke shrugged. "She is in the Lands Beyond .. perhaps she met her poor family there. She spoke with such fondness of them .. as you do of yours. I hope she did."

Martin lapsed into silence again, stating at length, "I wish you could have never left .. I'm sure Rose would like you. And Luke .. yes, your namesake .. he won't know what to do when he sees you. I've told him so many stories."

Luke looked away. "I'm sorry son. I was a rash fool then .. and I will do my best to atone now. We all will."

Martin looked confused, slightly. "All of you? What do the others have to do with .. the fact you all .. left?"

Luke shrugged. "It is not my place to tell another's secret .. our family and our friends have kept too many. Don't keep secrets son .. just don't. Be honest instead, even if it's hard. A dark secret always breaks you in the end."

Martin thought back in time, to the day he and Sayna had left for Mossflower, and all the secrets they kept. "Yea .. I know. I know too well."

><><

Lotor's snarl was furious. "What? You expect me to continue providing your army with food .. made from mine? That's insane, I did it once, and that's fine, but I need a fighting force left!"

Rigvar preened himself, with cool smugness. "Raack, and so do I. We lost five good birds today, two wounded, three dead. Those woodlanders aren't as soft as we thought, the ones that left must had some good fighters stay behind. So my deal is, every bird that's killed will be paid for. A life for a life ermine."

Lotor sneered. "And what if I won't? Do you dare think you can give me orders, bird?"

Rigvar seemed to smile with daring. "If you will not, then I shall withdraw my forces, and should you dare kill me, my birds will turn against you. Do you wish to reckon with the Doomwytes? We out number you by half."

Lotor seethed. "I could blast you on the spot, and what would you do then?"

Rigvar laughed harshly. "Raahaak! I'd be dead oh clever beast, but you'd be dead with me. If you think I ever come alone, you underestimate me. My Doomwytes would tear you to shreds, and I know you could not kill them all with your strange fire, I have seen beasts as you before. They fight with the fire too long, they use too much, and their death is slow with agony. This you also know."

Lotor had such a look of anger about him, he looked like killing Rigvar and his birds would bring great satisfaction.

The ermine inhaled once, slowly letting it out, before answering in a scathing voice. "You expect me to compensate for your incompetence?"

Rigvar scowled. "I expect you to pay for the work I'm doing for you .. lazybeast, you haven't lifted one paw these last days!"

Lotor stood in one movement. "Oh is that it? Well I have my own plans .. I've got my own plan of advance, you just keep yours up. We'll come knocking at their door."

Rigvar sneered. "That worn out trick? Battering rams never work fool, the defenders find a way to burn them every time."

Lotor grinned, an almost wild light flickering in his eyes. "Oh, but they won't be burning this .. the ones who use normal rams are the fools .. but you see my feathered idiot, I always improve normal."

><><


Einar wasn't sure what to say, or how to even answer Mask. "I .. I'm awful sorry sir ..."

Mask shrugged. "Einar, don't be. Learn from it as I. I was an arrogant chieftain's son, so Ignasa allowed me to be broken .. then he mended me, better than before. He can do the same for you. I feel you were sent to us, and for a reason."

Einar looked confused. "Ya think I'm s'pposed to be some sorta .. hero?"

Mask shrugged. "I couldn't say for sure, but it could be. Only if you accept the call when it comes though .. and I can't tell you what it will be. I can simply tell you, there is something special about you."

Einar hung his head. "I ain't special .. just a low-down hordebeast .. wid no horde. Da horde was gonna kill me .. guess that means I can't even do me job .. bein' stupid."

Mask smiled knowingly. "Ah, but you aren't stupid, and you grew to resent what they told you, you were. You grew to resent them, I can tell by your thoughts."

The door creaked open, emitting Gonff. "Mask, Gingivere needs you. He sent me to take your place for now."

Mask stood, nodding. "Alright. Einar .. just think on the things I've said."

The weasel watched his otter guard vanish out the door as Gonff plopped himself down in Mask's chair. Einar gave him a good looking over, processing the plump mouse and his appearance. However, words did not come hesitantly from him as they did from Mask. "What was he sayin' then? In all my experiences, Mask doesn't talk much."

Einar shrugged, unsure of what he should tell his new guard. He was attempting to think up a vague answer, but he needn't have worried, as Gonff changed the subject on his own. "So I see you found that pile of treasure eh? A good find that. And you're lucky, they'll reward you with some. Wish I was you matey."

Einar had not really expected to hear that, of all things. "Ya wish ya was me? But I'ma prisoner!"

Gonff was undeterred. "Yea, but you'll be a rich one. How'd you sneak that glorious heap of stuff past the vermin camp huh? Got any tips? Secrets? I'm a fellow thief .. the prince of mousethieves exactly .. so you're in good company."

Einar was not sure what to think. "Yer a woodlander. They ain't thieves .. not like vermin."

Gonff agreed. "I'm not that sort of thief matey, I only steal from those who stole first. It's sort of like returning."

><><

Grimleg was confused. "We're supposed ta make what?"

Lotor sneered at him. "A battering ram you fool, and not the clumsy, stupid things they are thought of as. I mean what they were invented as; in their true forms, battering rams are truly deadly. So do what I say, and we'll have something to be reckoned with!"

Grimleg nodded, not inclined to argue. "Yea Lord, course we will ..."

He broke off as Lotor grabbed him by the tunic collar, sneering, "And you know why, my bumbling captain? Because I came up with it! Now go, get some creatures, chop some trees, and follow my design! Get moving!"

The ferret ran off like his tail was on fire. Lotor smiled after him, and wickedly.

So Malimore wanted only two attacks eh?

Well the Doomwytes was number one, and when he used his new battering ram, that would be the second. He wouldn't need more than that.

If he did .. well, he wouldn't. It was as simple as that. Malimore knew how cunning his ermine Shadow Fighter was. He was simply offering Lotor a way to prove his competence.

Not a problem.

Lotor was always willing to take a challenge .. if he foresaw a good chance of winning.

><><

Night fell softly over the woodlands of Mossflower, and the group of creatures returning from Salamandastron. Keylar sat by the small, insect repelling fire, whittling a harpoon shaft. Iona sat across from him, Veil and Willow next to her.

Redfarl was demolishing a plate of bread, and informing everybeast of what Argulor had told her in the process, something that did not settle well with Brush. "So Argulor came from Redwall an' he says Lotor and that nasty Rigvar Skurr have 'em pinned down! We've gotta help, but the thing is, everybeast's tired tonight. So we gotta make a plan of attack now, for when we get there."

Brush shot her a look. "Please, don't talk with your mouth full, what have I told you? But yes, you are right. Any ideas anybeast?"

Redfarl shot a paw up, cramming a large bite into her mouth in the same movement. Brush rolled his eyes. "Any other beast?"

There were mutters, but no real answers. Brush sighed with longsuffering. "Yes Lady Redfarl?"

Redfarl ignored her general. "Ok so here's the thing. I guess there's a bunch of murdering birds on the loose, so leaving beasts like Willow and Veil in Mossflower will be dangerous .. like really. So we've got to get them in the abbey. But us others ..."

Brush crossed his arms. "Any thoughts on getting them into Redwall? It sounds cut off."

Arvid spoke. "The enemy canst be everywhere at once, can they? Nay, and suppose we couldst distract them, some elite fighters. Then we could take the ones who need shelter to this abbey, mayhap they could open a side gate. If not, there art grappling hooks."

Brush nodded approvingly, as Redfarl exclaimed, "I bet I can shoot some!"

Keylar saved Redfarl one of Brush's glares. "The rest of us .. we don't even live at Redwall normally. We can simply head back to our usual environments in Mossflower, and set about picking off enemies from the outside."

Brush was obviously relieved. "Thank you Lord Keylar. Yes, a good plan. Willow, do you think the little one could take being pulled over a wall?"

The hare healer patted Veil's head, smiling at him as he gave her his usual wide-eyed stare. Iona spoke. "If we're with him, I think so. He's awful shy, poor liddle thing. But he's better since we left Salamandastron."

Willow nodded. "It's the best plan. Veil should be somewhere protected, wot, wot?"

Keylar clapped his paws together. "It's decided then. I'd advise everybeast to get some sleep .. you'll need it for traveling tomorrow, and likely fighting the next day."

><><

Mask hurried down into the main part of the gatehouse, noticing Gingivere, Whegg, Rupert, and Rose were already waiting. "Did I miss something?"

Gingivere shook his head. "Not really. But it's fine, look, Rupert has an idea."

The oddly white stoat shrugged. "I've been thinking about the problem of not being on the walltops, admittedly, that's what will cause our defeat in the end. We need to be on those walltops, and I know how."

Whegg nodded. "I think I know what yer gettin' at mate! Verdauga would always say if'n we was ever threatened, we'd build temporary shelters on the walls, to ward off the arrows and let us shoot at the enemy relatively protected."

Rupert nodded. "Exactly. But the question is .. how can we get wood past those birds?"

Gingivere pointed out the window. "Well we have plenty of it, that's for sure."

Rose crossed her arms. "Wouldn't it be best if we did it tonight? They wouldn't be expecting it, and there won't be as many."

Mask agreed. "Yes, it would. And what about the horses? They are large, they could help protect smaller creatures."

Rupert sighed. "They'll get swarmed. But archers could help keep the birds away .. me, Rose, and Sandingomm. I'd say Brome could throw javelins, but .. well .. we can't reach him right now, unless Foremole has dug to the back gatehouse."

Gingivere shrugged. "At least he got to the west tower, where the horses and our armory are. We've got to do what we can .. if we can demoralize them enough, the birds may pause the attack. I don't think Rigvar's with them now ... so it's now or never. Rose, can you get your bow?"

The mouse nodded. "I can and I will. These filthy birds won't be taking us down!"

Midnight and Luna were in whole-hearted agreement with Rose, when Gingivere asked for their help. The sisters really could think alike sometimes, despite their obvious differences. Luna lashed her tail almost as a cat, voice nearly a growl. "I can hear them coming, and I wouldn't want to see them."

Midnight stamped a hoof. "Just give the word Rose, I'll trample any one of those buzzards!"

Rupert pulled back his crossbow, loading a bolt. "Rose, are you ready? Is everybeast ready, and understanding what to do?"

There were nods all around, as Regina purposefully twirled one of her bolas. "Let's take 'em!"

Gingivere pulled the door open slowly. "Alright, defenders, get in position. The others .. with me."

Rose knelt in some bushes by the gatehouse, arrow on the string, watching the horses and Gingivere. They nearly reached the abandoned building materials that originally were intended for Redwall, when sure enough, seven birds set upon them. Rose gulped, drawing her bow back as a twang and a falling raven informed her Rupert was already at work!

The mouse shot in the next second, rewarded by an agonized squawk and the thump of a falling, feathered body. Another arrow took a rook through the throat, presumably Sandingomm's.

The birds paused their attack, but resumed it again, as Whegg hurried up the wall steps with a board. However his attacker fell dead within seconds, one of Regina's bolas strangling it.

Rupert shot another of his bolts, taking down a crow that was after Gingivere. Rose didn't even have to shoot another arrow, for with five of the seven dead, the remaining two weren't eager to share their comrades' fate.

Rose hurried to Gingivere and the others, asking, "That's all? I thought for sure there would be more!"

Regina had retrieved her bolas from its victim's neck, and she snarled triumphantly. "It was as Ah thought. They never dreamed a bunch of mothers an' wee babes would resist 'em. Well Ah may be a mother, but that one won't be saying Ah'm weak, or anythin' else fer that matter."

Gingivere nodded. "None of us are, and I think that's our only advantage. Let's get this built .. I feel we'll need it soon. Don't you Mask?"

The otter shrugged noncommittally. "Perhaps."

Rose agreed quickly. "Yes, maybe Martin and the others will come back. But for now .. let's hurry."

><><

As he left Martin to sit and stare over the restless, sometimes comforting waves, Luke was not sure what to say. All he could do was pray his son's wife and children did not die .. and it didn't seem like enough.

Luke slipped into the camp, looking about to realize the only one awake was Trimp, polishing her rapier. However Vurg was not there at all. Luke looked over at Trimp, asking, "Where's Vurg, do you know?"

The hedgehog shrugged. "He's on guard duty, over there a ways."

Luke nodded his thanks, walking quietly out of the camp in the direction Trimp had indicated. Sure enough, Vurg sat on a small dune, staring dully out over the sea of sand. The old warrior looked occupied in his own thoughts, and this fact was made obvious as Luke asked, "Should I take over for you?"

Vurg jumped, looking blearily at the beast who was practically his brother. "No .. I'm .. thinking."

Luke sat down on the edge of the dune, stating, "You can tell me, we've always .. well .. I'd like to say always told each other everything. Rather, we should have. But I .."

His friend shook his head. "It's not just you. It's me. I should have said .. a lot of things I didn't. Like about Kari. Half the tribe never knew I married her."

Luke shrugged. "It's for the best. They might have thrown you out had they known .. at least that all happened while we were at Eastshore. The tribe wasn't caring too much."

Vurg sighed. "No, it's for the worse. You .. aren't the only one to keep secrets. And now .. now how do I tell my son his mother was a rat? What will he think?"

Luke looked down. "I'm not sure. At least he seems laid back .. and apparently has a lot of vermin friends from what I pick up. It's not like it was for us, we thought all vermin were killers .. well, until you met Kari. But while it may surprise him, I think Timbal will understand, Vurg."

The silver mouse looked away. "He might. But the fact that I didn't tell him ... well, I shall. Come what may .. I have to."

Luke smiled a bit. "Well do it in the morning. I doubt he wants to be woken in the middle of the night. But I agree .. we've kept our secrets too long."




Chapter 38 A Mousethief's Quest

The sun rose slowly over Mossflower, and some of Lotor's crew, hard at work. Grimleg was not in the best humor, by any means. He sounded about like his Lord, only less majestic, as he berated the horde. "Move ya slimy lot, Lord Lotor wants this done in two days!"

There were grumbles from the tree-cutters, all sea and horde beasts who'd never cut a tree in their life. Grimleg was forced to jump back as a sizable oak crashed to the ground nearby! The ferret was furious. "Yer s'pposed ta yell timber, you worthless scum! Ya coulda killed me!"

The impromptu lumberjack, a rat, muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "An' it wouldn't be no great loss ..."

Grimleg growled. "You jist watcher mouth idjit! Rottail!"

The brawny weasel who's name had been called looked up, his tail a scruffy, brushed out piece that duly lent him his undignified handle. Grimleg growled at him. "Ya keep dis lot workin' while I report 'em ta da Lord .. ya jist wait. He ain't gonna like no complainers!"

The crew fell to silent working as Grimleg disappeared into the woods, a smirk on his face.

However his smirk didn't last long.

The ferret hadn't gotten twenty yards from the work site, when a razor sharp blade pressed against his throat, a muscular paw gripped his muzzle, and a low voice growled, "Don't move polecat, speak. What are your mateys up to, and who do ya serve?"

Grimleg struggled to breathe, let alone say one word. A youthful voice sounded from nearby. "Keylar, he can't speak when you're throttling him, however much he deserves to be throttled."

The grip on his muzzle loosened, and Grimleg gasped in air, but only momentarily. "Don't 'urt me, please? I ain't 'urt nothin! I wus jist carrin' out Lord Lotor's orders!"

The first voice snarled. "Oh were you? Well you won't be doing that anymore today!"

There was a sharp pain in the back of his head, and Grimleg's world went black.

><><

Keylar dropped the unconscious ferret with distaste. "Shoulda killed him, but he did cooperate."

Redfarl put her paws on her hips. "Look, they're doing something over there .. and with our trees! We've got to show them who rules these woods!"

Brush hurried into the conversation. "And we shall Lady. But with caution!"

Arvid spoke from where he was standing. "We don't want any to escape, do we? Shouldn't we simply shoot them?"

Redfarl got ahead of Brush. "Yea, one squirrel for each vermin, there's only about ten. Arvid, Felldoh, Ashtwig, and Brush could come, as well as others."

Brush nodded. "Alright, let's move ... all squirrels to the trees! Spread out and surround them."

Redfarl scurried silently up a nearby tree, Arvid close behind. The squirrel queen pulled her bow off her back, loading and arrow. "You gonna make your first shot count?"

Arvid loaded his bow. "Most certainly."

Redfarl gazed around the trees at the edge of the clearing, noticing the subtle glimmer of fur and brushy tails in many. She aimed at a rat, flicking her tail up. "Now!"

There was a hiss of shafts, and a few yells, but most of the vermin fell dead where they stood. However, one fortunate beast had escaped the rain of shafts, and took off running. Redfarl struggled to reload her bow, crying, "Somebeast get that one!"

Though it wasn't a squirrel arrow that stopped the escapee, he was stopped ... by Keylar and a deadly harpoon.

The otter skipper wiped his weapon on the grass, ridding it of his enemy's blood. "He's not going anywhere. Now what were they about?"

Arvid had jumped out of the tree he was in, examining the contraption being built. Redfarl crossed her arms. "It looks like a shed to me .. a really small, poorly built one."

Arvid narrowed his eyes. "That's because it's made to be temporary .. I hath heard of these. It's a battering ram, of sorts, and the worst kind. The log is suspended from the roof of the 'shed' by chains, while the outside of the shed is coated in something non-flammable. By the time the defenders manage to set this thing on fire, it's too late .. the enemy is already through their gates."

Keylar's eyes had darkened. "And I'll bet anything they planned to use it on Redwall. Well they won't be .. set fire to it."

His otters set about this task immediately, and Redfarl frowned. "We should get to Redwall .. fast. Come on .. who will take Willow, Veil, and Iona?"

Arvid shrugged. "I'll help."

Redfarl nodded. "Me too .. let's go!"

Little did they realize, as they left, eyes watched from the trees ...

><><

At Redwall, things were going as well as they possibly could. The Doomwytes hadn't been back, but the abbey's inhabitants were ever-watchful .. even Gonff and Einar were watching from the upper gatehouse room.

Gonff stared at the window, grumbling, "They'll be back mate, I just know it! At least the ones in hiding could come out ... but I still think I should be doing something!"

Einar wasn't sure of what to think about the congenial mousethief. "I'm yer matey?"

"I'm matey to a lot of beasts. I think you qualify .. you haven't tried to kill me yet. An' if you did you'd regret it." Gonff added as an afterthought.

His charge peered out the window, asking, "If ya think ya should be doin' somethin .. whut is it?"

Gonff was always eager to talk. "Well, spying, of course! I should be spying on them, and who knows. Maybe if I spied on their cave, I could even pinch those Wyte eyes Yar talked about ..."

The plump mouse paused. "Hey ... ya, I could!! That's a great idea Einar matey!"

Einar was confused. "It was my idea?"

Gonff shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I just need to do it .. it's the perfect reason! Columbine won't mind me spying .. well she would if she knew, but .. umm .. she won't know til I've done it."

Einar looked a little dismayed. "But what about me? Ain't prisoners s'pposed ta have guards?"

Gonff paused. "Oh yea .. you. What will I do about you? If I ask for somebeast else to guard you, Gingivere will ask why ... they never seem to trust me too much, and I have no clue why .. an honest fellow like my good self. An' if you don't have a guard, you might get in trouble cause they'd really wonder what happened to me. And then all sorts of things could happen."

The mousethief slumped across the sill. "And watch, they won't change your guard til tonight .. I need to go now! While the birds aren't here!"

Einar felt bad. "I'm awful sorry sir ..."

"Gonff." The mousethief supplied. "An' it's ok .. wait! I've got it!"

Einar brightened considerably. "What?"

Gonff clapped his paws together. "Simple! You'll just have to come with me!"

><><

Lotor was having a very bad day, and when his days didn't go as planned, no one else's did either. At this moment, he was standing at the construction sight, staring at the grisly scene before him. Grimleg was nowhere to be seen, but that was likely a good thing, for his sake.

The beasts who were supposed to take over the work shift had come bursting into camp about high noon, yelling nonsense about how all their mateys had been ripped to pieces and half eaten, and how bird feathers were all over.

What made Lotor all the more furious was that they weren't making it up .. evidenced by the deadbeasts that lay in this clearing, their ravished state, and black, carrion bird feathers.

Lotor growled low in his throat. Rigvar had wanted a payment .. had he had the gall to take it without even asking?

It looked very much like that.

However the white ermine soon had a chance to berate his unfavorable partner .. as the bird himself flew out of a tree and landed on a nearby log. "Raaaaeek! What is going on here?"

Lotor's teeth would not unclench. "I could ask you that."

Rigvar looked disgusted. "I've been looking for you, we had trouble."

That was the last straw. "Trouble!? Trouble? Since when were you allowed to have trouble, you spawn of a idiotic wren!?"

Rigvar's eyes narrowed. "Raaeek! For the same reason you have it, flea-ridden polecat!"

Lotor sneered. "You, what is this trouble? It looks to me that you and your crew of misbegotten vultures were feeding your faces ... from my horde!"

"Reeeak! I knew nothing of this, you pompous fool, I was looking after five dead birds .. good birds, killed in our second advance!"

Lotor's yellow eyes glittered black. "What? Your second advance? You son of a sparrow, that was my advance, mine! How dare you use up my two attacks with frivolous nonsense ... you were supposed to keep them pinned down, you .. you ... helpless hummingbird!"

Rigvar's temper seemed dangerously close to boiling over. "Reeeeaaaaaahh! Shut your wide mouth polecat, you've done nothing! In truth your kind is called the least weasel .."

"I would have done plenty, we might have had Redwall for our own in three days .. were it not for you and your crew of turkeys ..." Lotor was boiling mad.

Rigvar shared his emotion. "How many times have I said it was not I, I know nothing of this worm! You tell me why my birds are dying in attacks against babes and the elderly, and I'll tell you ...."

So furious was Rigvar's verbal assault, Lotor actually took a step back .. and tripped over something.

Both bird and ermine fell into silence as they saw what that now visible something was .. a blood-soaked arrow, snapped in half where Lotor had trod on it, and minus a head.

Lotor picked it up, ignoring the blood that stained his snowy paws. "A squirrel arrow ... squirrels always make their arrow tips to come off in the target."

Rigvar snarled, "Squirrels? But I thought there were none left .."

Lotor interrupted him. "Fool, they came back ... halt the attack on that castle for a few hours ... scour the woods for these culprits! If they'd attack us once, they'll do it again!"

><><

Einar stared. "What ... but ya can't take me, ain't prisoners s'pposed ta stay where they's .. imprisoned?"

Gonff tapped a foot on the floor, thinking. "Ehh .. well .. I am the guard. And I suppose if you were with me, you'd still be guarded, wouldn't you?"

"Yea ... I think so .." Einar was very confused. Somehow Gonff's reasoning wasn't quite right, but it seemed plausible. After all, if he was with his guard, he'd be guarded, wouldn't he? Yes, he would. Still, there was one thing that bothered him. "But .. will this be dangerous?"

Gonff snorted. "Dangerous? Humph. Na, it's quite a lark really."

Einar wasn't quite convinced. "Were will we be goin' ..?"

"Oh," Gonff said in the most carefree manner, "The Doomwyte cave, where else?"

Einar gulped, nervous. "What? Ain't that those creepy birds?"

Gonff nodded. "Right mate, and we're going to spy on 'em!"

Einar was horrified. "Oh no! I ain't going ta let em have another peck at me, those feathered ......"

Gonff interrupted. "Oh don't be such a wimp about it! Come on matey, I can't wait all day .. besides, they've got a treasure."

"I won't, it's not ...." Einar paused. "Treasure?"

Gonff nodded. "Yea, two giant rubies. Tell ya what matey .. if you help me out, I'll give you one. Fair's fair you know."

Einar was letting his curiosity get the better of him. "You'd just .. give me one?"

His mousethief guard nodded. "Course I would! I always pay my helpers an' fellow thieves .. what do ya say? Is it a deal then?"

Einar gave Gonff's proffered paw a glance. Treasure. That was hard to pass up. A giant ruby all his own. That was tantalizing. But the birds .... Einar let the voice of greed win out suddenly. He was a good fighter .. he could do this! And hadn't Mask only just said he felt Einar was to be a hero in some way? Well this was obvious! It was his time for glory, for the first time in his life .. and he could get rich doing it!

So what if there were some dumb birds, Einar had killed worse. He shook Gonff's paw firmly. "It's a deal, an' I swear on me honor I won't run off."

"I'm not worried about that .. without me you'll never make it through those swamps alive." The mousethief winked at him. "Kind of makes me indispensable, huh?"

><><

The leafy tops of Mossflower near the back wall of Redwall rustled slightly.

But only slightly.

If anybeast had been watching, or had the guards paused from watching the skies so intently, they might have heard the soft thump of boots hitting the ground.

Redfarl brushed herself off, nodding to Arvid, Willow, Iona, and Veil. "We're good. I don't see any birds at all .. the gate's right over there."

Arvid followed her paw, and agreed. "Right .. and we canst make too much noise. Let us knock, if they cometh not, I'll use this."

He patted his grappling hook. Iona picked a wide-eyed Veil up, asking, "Won't that arouse suspicion?"

Willow shrugged. "It'll arouse something, wot, wot?"

Arvid knocked on the small gate, paused, and received no answer. He tried again, receiving the same result. The squirrel sighed, unwinding his grappling hook. He paused, before twirling it in a blur, and throwing!

The object caught on the parapet, clacking in the morning stillness. Sure enough, that got attention.

There was a yelp, clunk of boots on the parapet above, and almost in the next second Arvid's grappling hook rope was returned to him ... minus the hook.

A gray head with a cascade of ebony hair was cautiously thrust over the parapet, obviously looking for the attacking vermin. Redfarl waved. "Hi Sandingomm!"

Arvid blinked at the cat who stood on the parapet, leaning over now. "Redfarl! What if I'd cut that and you were climbing it? Give us a holler eh?"

Redfarl nodded. "Aye but there's birds about. Mind opening the wall gate?"

The cat exclaimed, "Of course! Wait a sec dear, I'll have ya in soon!"

As she disappeared, Iona asked, "She's a cat?"

Redfarl shrugged. "Oh, we have two cats and two kittens .. Sandingomm, Gingivere, and their dibbuns."

The wall gate latch clicked, and it swung open. Sandingomm quickly hugged Redfarl. "Heavens, it's good to see you 'gain! We all missed ya .. are Martin and the others here?"

Redfarl brushed herself off, rumpled after being hugged by a cat. "Nope, they went north to get the crowns or something ..."

The conversation was interrupted by Veil, who made an odd sound and flung himself at Sandingomm. "Mother?!"

Iona and Willow looked surprise at his sudden vocabulary, and Sandingomm blinked at the little ferret who had fastened himself to her. She looked at the others, asking out of the corner of her mouth, "Umm .. are 'is parents here?"

Iona shook her head. "We think he's an orphan. I'm not sure though."

Sandingomm shut the gate, picking Veil up and hugging him. "Oh poor liddle thing. Well dear, I'm .. not really your mother .. sweetie, I'm a cat, not a ferret."

Veil sniffed. "But .. you look like her!"

He looked so pitiful Sandingomm felt bad for him, and the gray cat had a soft spot for dibbuns. "Well .. don't cry dear, I can be your mother if you want, I suppose."

This seemed comforting to Veil, who started to settle down. Redfarl crossed her arms. "I thought Rigvar and his cronies were here."

Sandingomm frowned. "They were. I should take him to the gatehouse, where the other dibbuns are. It's safer there. The rest of you .. might want ta report ta Lady Rose and me Gingivere on the wall tops. More guards is always helpful."

><><

As the group disbanded, Gonff stuck his head out of a nearby bush. "Alright, we're good! Let's move!"

Einar was slightly less confident than in the gatehouse. "You sure dis is a good idea?"

Gonff snorted as he slipped the wall gate open. "It'll latch behind us, an you can only open it from the inside. I designed these things to be burglar proof .. and I'm a thief."

The mouse slipped out the wall gate, his prisoner close behind.

What they would find? Neither really knew.

Einar especially.

The weasel swallowed as the wallgate clicked behind him, almost like it was sealing his doom. Like he'd forgone safety for wild adventure .. like the thought of treasure had outwitted him and become his foe. Maybe it had.

Einar took a deep breath, fingering the hilt of the knife Gonff had swiped for him. The weasel felt his guard was likely the worst guard in the world .. even on a treasure hunt, what guard would give a prisoner a weapon?

Well ... there was a lot he had to learn about woodlanders, that was obvious. They certainly weren't like vermin. But then .. Einar got the feeling Gonff wasn't quite the average woodlander.

The mousethief beckoned to him, and he snuck across the expanse of open ground from the bush he was in, to the one his guard was peering out of.

Gonff grinned. "This is going great. Here matey, have a little snack .. I'm going to."

Einar watched Gonff munch on some scones, likely purloined off Urran Voh's window sill, where Germaine had left them.

The tubby mousethief was overly cheerful. "So here's my plan. We're going to sneak into the cave, and with the greatest caution. You'll just follow my lead, ok?"

Einar did not feel Gonff was proceeding with much of any caution at the present moment, as he sat in the bush, eating scones. The mouse suddenly crammed the last bite into his mouth, sat up, and buckled his haversack. "Right, let's move. It's time to get down to business, this may be a lark, but it's one we've got to proceed carefully on. From this point .. be silent. We'll enter the swamps soon .. I know the path. Stay behind me."

Einar followed him, muttering uncertainly, "I wouldn't think ta not mate."

><><

The winds were growing warmer as the group of travelers went constantly southward. While even the northlands were not cold, they were a relief from the heat that gripped Mossflower .. and now the cool nights were growing humid once more.

In truth, Vurg hadn't gotten a chance to tell Timbal anything, as he had gone to sleep late and the others had risen early.

The horses understood the urgency, especially Dancer, whose two foals were at the abbey. They were running just as hard and long as they could, but it would never be enough. All the Mossflowerians had visions of arriving home in time to see a ravished battlefield, and it drove them to greater speeds.

Timbal himself was the one with enough sense to call a halt midday, before one of the horses dropped in their tracks. They'd started inland, and were now stopped by a clear stream, where everybeast enjoyed a drink .. as much as they could enjoy anything.

Martin wiped his paws across his face, staring at the clear brook. "This must be a tributary of the Moss .. and we can't be far from the river itself. It's been so hot lesser streams and ones far from their main river would have dried up."

Timbal crossed his arms. "Aye, and I have to say this. No matter how hard we want to run, we can't, not forever. Let's take a short rest here, perhaps thirty minutes. Face it .. older horses like Stardust and Phantom can't keep this up."

Stardust's head was low, but he panted, "Ah .. can .. if Ah .. want to .."

Phantom simply laid down, muttering, "Oh come off it Star, ye aren't as young as you once were."

Martin heaved a sigh. "I see that. Then rest .. there's nothing to be done."

The soft cry of a sparrow was all that penetrated the forest, slightly cooler in the shade than the dunes and heathlands. Talk seemed futile, so the creatures fell about polishing weapons and resting .. most of the horses dosing off almost instantaneously.

However one beast would not rest, and that was Vurg. The mouse sat next to his son in silence for a few minutes, before speaking. "Son .. I have something to tell you, something I should have told you when you asked the first time. You may disown me after hearing it .. but .."

Timbal gave Vurg an odd look. "Father, I'd never disown you .."

The old mouse held up a paw. "No .. stop. Remember when you asked about your mother, and I said it was a story for another day?"

Timbal nodded, opening his mouth to say something .. that Vurg beat him to. "Well, her name was Kari. And she was .. well, she was a rat."

Timbal paused polishing his axe, looking up with surprise. Vurg looked almost defensive as he stated, "Kari believed Ignasa .. she wasn't like most of her kind. Her parents rebelled against Greeneyes .. and raised her in Eastshore, where Luke's wife came from. I met her there .. I didn't trust her at first .. but .. things can change. You know that. In a way .. I'm sorry, for you. But I'll never be sorry for meeting her."

Vurg fell into silence, and Timbal slowly reached out and put a paw on his shoulder. "Father .. I always looked up to you. And if you loved her .. rat or not .. I trust you. And I'll always be proud to be your son."

Vurg looked up, asking, "Even if it means you're a ... well .. not truly a mouse?"

Timbal paused again, but he didn't really have time to reply. There was a screech, and the rustling of large wings .. golden wings. Luke grabbed his spear, but did nothing more as Martin, Sayna, and Timbal jumped up, calling, "Argulor!"

The eagle drew in some heavy breaths, panting, "Reeeeeaaeek! At last Ah have found ye."

Martin got ahead of everybeast else. "Argulor! How is the abbey? Is Rose alright?"

Argulor looked suddenly grave. "Raaak ... Last I knew they were alive. But they are in desperate need of help .. first Clogg not three days after your departing .. then Lotor .. and now Rigvar Skurr .. that vulture! They've been under attack all summer!"

Martin gasped. "What? I left her to as much danger as we were in? And .. Rigvar and his Doomwytes .. and now Lotor ....."

The warrior's voice faded off as he visualized that terrible scene when Badrang had thrown Rose into Marshank's wall .... and now his son was taking war to the abbey .. and her as well ...

Martin felt somebeast shaking him, and Timbal's voice broke through the hated memories. "Martin! Matey snap out of it .. your eyes are going red!"

The golden mouse took a deep breath, exclaiming, "I've got to go to her! This can't happen again!"

Argulor nodded, interrupting. "And ye shall, Ah'll see to it. Horses aren't the only creatures ye small beasts can ride, Ah should be able ta carry a wee mouse. Just ... let me get me breath back, ye kin?"

><><

Einar was having an interesting and fur-raising time as he made his way through the swamp with Gonff. The mousethief seemed somewhat subdued now, and far more focused on the task at paw.

Gonff seemed pretty well at ease in the swamps, but Einar couldn't be, not with the dreadful mud seeming to grab at his bare paws .. like it wanted to drag him down into endless, suffocating depths. The weasel regretted his decision now, but it was too late. Him and his foolish pride! He'd feel a lot better once they got this done and were safe at that castle .. being a prisoner was far better then being eaten or engulfed in muck.

He might not get the chance to be a prisoner again! And how sick was it that he was actually wanting that?

Einar shrugged. Sometimes being safe was better than being free.

Gonff paused in the shelter of a weeping willow, and Einar quickly caught up with him. The mousethief pointed to a half hidden opening in the side of a hillock. "There it is matey .. what adventures and treasures may lie within, we shall have to discover!"

Einar gulped .. the opening looked a bit like cavernous jaws. "Uhh .. mister guard .. sir .. can we go back ta da castle? It's gettin' dark out!"

"My name's Gonff," The mousethief reminded his prisoner, "And are ya in honest? How come I always get stuck with the least enthusiastic treasure hunters? It's not fair at all! We've come this far, an' I ain't going back without the rubies, see? And you can't get back without me."

Einar admitted the thief was right .. he couldn't remember the twisting path Gonff had taken. "I .. but ... it's ..."

The mousethief looked sympathetic. "Look, Einar matey. It's gonna be ok. When I was your age, I might'a felt the same way ... it's your first spyin' mission after all. But ya just got to be brave!"

Einar sighed. "Wull .... but I just ain't brave."

Gonff was undeterred as always. "Well ya can learn now! Come on matey .. think of the treasure!"

The mousethief knew what to say, for sure. Einar paused, that familiar feeling of desire returning. "Umm .. wull .. yea! Yea .. yer right. Let's ... try anyway."

Gonff clapped him on the back. "Now that's the spirit mate! An' watch ... it's going to be a right pile of booty!"




Chapter 39 Unsuspecting Enemies

To say Rigvar was furious was a gross understatement, and Lotor was far angrier. His battering ram was burnt, ten of his now meager horde were dead, Rigvar hadn't been able to find any squirrels at all, and now Grimleg had returned. Lotor aimed a bad tempered kick at his subordinate's hindquarters. "Where were you, you mange ridden fool? You let a third of my horde get slaughtered by squirrel archers!"

Grimleg winced as the boot caught him in the tail, but he knew better than to try and duck. "Lord .. I was captured! There musta been ten of 'em .. an' they had me at knife point .. but I didn't tell 'em nothin', an' one of 'em knocked me out!"

Lotor snarled. "Oh? And who were they?"

"Wull .." Grimleg paused. "I'm not sure Lord. I didn't see em right .. they was behind me!"

Lotor grumbled. "You incompetent fool .. if they were behind you, how'd you know there was ten?"

"I .."

Grimleg began, but his lord beat him to it. "You don't know liar! Get back to your duties, and be glad I don't have a bigger horde .. if I did, I'd roast you over a slow fire!"

The ferret said nothing more, just scurried off, paws skittering through last autumn's leaves.

Lotor watched him go, unable to enjoy the fear he commanded. He wanted that castle, and revenge!

He needed a new plan. It hadn't been Rigvar's right to take the second attack .. and Lotor was past caring what Malimore thought. The dark wolf wouldn't care how he got the red castle, as long as he got it.

Which he undoubtedly would .. patience was the key now. It was time to lay low.

><><

Einar followed Gonff toward the cave, ill at ease. At the very mouth, the mousethief paused, holding a paw to his lips and pointing with the other. "Hush mate, look."

His weasel companion did so, to see two sentries, a rook and a crow, perched on the rocky incline. They seemed pretty alert, but hadn't been watching the ground. At least, not the muck and small bushes Gonff was crawling through. Einar's underside, from chin to tail, was pretty much coated in swamp filth, and Gonff wasn't much better off. However the thief seemed oblivious to mud, as he crept silently under the overhanging rocks, and out of the guard's sight.

At the mouse's command, Einar followed his lead .. although not quite as silently. Just as the weasel had reached the meager safety of the cave's mouth, his muddy foot slipped, causing a rock to roll down the small slope.

Einar and Gonff froze as a avian voice squawked, "Reeaak! What was that?"

Another voice snapped, "Raaaak! Oh shut your beak! Our orders are to guard the cave's mouth, not chase pebbles. If somebeast had tried to sneak in, we would have seen them long before now. Jumpy fool of a wren!"

The first voice sounded disgusted. "Take that back! Reeaaah! Or I'll make you!"

Gonff was grinning now, and to Einar's astonishment, he mimicked the insulter. "Reeeeeahh! Yea? Well I won't! Just try and make me, sparrow-spawn!"

Einar scurried in as enraged screeches rang out overhead, and some black feathers floated to the ground outside the cave's mouth. Gonff dusted off his paws. "That's done it matey. Come on, let's let them murder each other, while we swipe the treasure!"

Einar hurried after his guard, not excited about facing the two sentries should they stop fighting.

However when the tunnel spread out into the main cavern .. Einar couldn't help but stare. This cave was a large one, with dripping stalactites and dark shadows .. in all truth it should have been pitch black .. except for one thing.

That thing being a glowing, bubbling, sulfurous lake that cast a sickening green glow over everything, causing the shadows to dance eerily. However far more eerie, was the ghostly white, life-size statue of the Dark Wolf, and it's glittering ruby eyes.

Suddenly, Einar's interest in rubies diminished as he gulped, "Wull .. we can't get over the lake an' those jewels is in that awful thing .. we should go home now .. sir."

Gonff snorted as he unwound a rope and grappling hook. "Go home? What is all this about going home? I'm just getting started mate!"

Einar fidgeted. "But how are you gonna get the rubies, when they're stuck in Lord Malimore's head?"

Gonff sighed with longsuffering. "Simple Einar matey. I'm going to swing over on this rope, climb the statue, and pry that boodle out! Malimore isn't my lord, and he don't have to be yours. That there is one giant chunk of rock, and it's holding two a the greatest rubies I've ever seen .. I'm going to swipe em, see? All you have to do is wait here, an' cover my back."

The thief grinned. "That's the easiest job in the world. You just stand there is all, cause see, I never make any noise."

Without waiting for Einar's reply, Gonff twirled his grappling hook, tossing it soon after. The metal prongs caught on a long spur of rock, wrapping around twice and catching on the rope itself. The mousethief gauged the distance, before climbing onto a large stalagmite and gripping the rope as high up as he could.

Einar looked up at him with worry. "Mister guard .. sir ... be awful careful would ya?"

"Gonff." The thief reminded Einar once again, "And you're the most devoted prisoner I ever guarded."

Without another word, Gonff leapt off his perch with complete confidence, leaving Einar to watch with worry. All went well .. until the mouse dropped down on the other side.

For when he did so, his boot stomped down upon the tail of Sumiss, basking and asleep at the idol's paws!

The smoothsnake awoke with a pained and startled hiss, spinning around and sinking her fangs into what was the cause her injury .. Gonff's leg. The mousethief yelped, despite all promises of silence, and the sound echoed crazily about the cave!

Einar drew his knife, ducking behind a column and waiting in horror for when the guards would come rushing in. His worry was far from ungrounded as the crow came flying in .. looking rather disheveled. However, as soon as the bird saw what was going on, it rushed at Gonff, wrestling with Sumiss.

Einar didn't hesitate, just hurled his knife at the one who threatened his only hope of survival. The crow squawked, flopping lifelessly into the sulfur lake, as Gonff got ahold of Sumiss .. by the neck, and stomped on her tail once more.

The smoothsnake hissed in almost deranged fury, unable to bite her tormenter again because he discreetly kept his thumb beneath her jaw. "You .. sssstupid fur moussssse .. how dare you touch the sssseer of hisss lordsssship Rigvar Ssssskurr?! Take your pawsssss off me, and I'll ssssee your death is sssssshort!"

Gonff gave her a bored look. "His lordship? That cartload of molting pin-feathers? Humph. I'd as soon bow to a sick toad. And you ... what will I do with you then, madam?"

Sumiss was unused to rough treatment. "You ssssimple sssssson of a rat ...."

She got no farther, as Gonff slammed her skull against one of the marble idol's forelegs, snorting as she transformed into something resembling a limp piece of rope. "Huh. Sometimes you just can't reason with beasts."

Einar stared nervously across the sulfur lake. "Mister guard .. sir .. are you ok?"

"Gonff!" the beast of the name reminded, before examining his unconscious captive. "Hmm .. the seer eh? I wonder if she could be useful."

The mousethief pulled off his satchel, attempting to cram Sumiss's long coils into it. This was near impossible, so Gonff pulled her out, winding the serpent up as one might a length of rope. He dropped the snake unceremoniously into the sack, closing the sack and slinging it over his shoulder once more. He then turned to the idol, swinging himself onto it's back as one might a horse. Einar's voice rang from across the lake. "What's ya want the snake fer?"

Gonff plopped his muddy self on the idol's head in the most disrespectful fashion, and began prying at it's right eye. "Well you never know matey, do vermin like snakes?"

Einar vigorously shook his head. "No, none dat I've met anyhow .. an' I sure don't!"

Gonff pulled a few tools from his belt, and set about extracting the stubborn jewel. "See? Like I said, she may come in handy."

He yanked the ruby from it's socket, missing Einar's visible wince. "Did you ever see such a beauty?"

His sack began to weakly wriggle, and he paused, before lifting the flap and slamming the fist-sized ruby on Sumiss's head. This done, the mouse moved onto the next gem, without another thought.

Einar gulped, asking, "You almost done sir?"

"Almost ... there!" the thief exclaimed as the second ruby came loose. Gonff dropped it none too gently on Sumiss in the bag, before seizing his rope and yanking the hook from it's previous place, twirling, and throwing it back across. This time it fastened around a large stalactite, and Gonff jumped of the idol's back, swinging across.

Einar stepped back as his guard landed nearby, stating, "There, a job well done. Now .. let's go home eh? A good nights work, I'd say."

><><

Sandingomm had found it hard to leave Veil in the gatehouse, for the little ferret was terrified that she would vanish. After many promises she'd return, and explaining it would be dangerous for him not to be inside, Veil complied with her wishes. Ivan offered to take care of him, and with no other option, Sandingomm made her son promise to be nice, and not get into trouble.

Ivan agreed whole-heartedly, and as soon as his mother was gone, he turned to Veil. "I'm Ivan! Come on, let's go play with the others .. Oooff!"

He tripped on his oversized boots, falling on his face. Veil found reason to speak again. "Are you ... gonna be ok?"

Ivan pulled his large hat out of his eyes, standing up. "Oh sure. Come on, they're in the kitchen!"

Veil complied to being pulled into the gatehouse kitchen, although he was a little amazed when he got there. Fripple and Luke were grappling, all the others cheering for which ever was their favorite, the sides being about even. Ivan stomped a boot on the floor, yelling, "Hey, stopit! We've got a new member!"

Fripple stopped pulling Luke's whiskers, and her cousin relented his hold on her ear. Fripple jumped up first, rubbing her ear a minute, before asking rather brightly, "Hi! I'm Fripple, what's your name?"

The ferret looked unsure, but he was used to answering questions. "Veil .. I think it is .."

Luke shouldered his way past Fripple, adopting the air of a general. "You gotta know your own name. But if it's Veil, then we'll call yu Veil. Where yu come from then?"

Veil didn't answer at first, finally stating a little bewilderedly, "The .. mountain .. I guess. Its name's hard to say."

Esther got ahead of Luke. "Sala .. Salamandstron. We all know what that is."

Gonfflet nodded to his accomplice. "Ya, course we do ... you came all the way from there? That's cool .. we tried to get there once .. but we didn't .. but I got this!"

He pointed at the chain he wore as a belt, Clogg's. Luke didn't like being outdone. "Whatever. Well, let's keep playin', like we was before Fripple messed it up."

She aimed a kick at him. "I didn't, yu did, smarty!"

Ash stuck her stave between the two. "Oh stopit! We'll never get noting done wid yu fightin'! Let's play!"

Veil looked confused. "Play?"

Ivan looked oddly at him. "Ya, a course. You know, have fun .. and .. well .. play."

Veil didn't understand. "Fun?"

Luke took over. "Yu donno what fun is?"

Veil shook his head apologetically. Luke shook his head. "Fun is what life's about silly, havin' it! You need seri .. seri'us help, an' we'll help you."

The ferret looked relieved. The word 'help' he understood, at least to the extent that 'help' meant some other beast getting you out of danger.

Luke was speaking agian. "Well, Veil needs to have fun, an' we're gonna help him! So? What's the most funnest thing ta do?"

There were varied responses.

"Swipin' stuff!"

"Pullin' pranks!"

"Shooting things wif slingshots!"

"Sneakin' out an' climbin' the walls!"

"Eat! Pies and the like, wot, wot?"

"Ridin' Forest an' Star!"

"Putting on clothes, pretty ones!"

Everyone in the room looked oddly at Iris, and Ivan snorted. "Nah, that's only for girls ... prissy ones!" He quickly added as he saw the glare Fripple was giving him.

Luke stomped a foot. "Quiet! I'ma leader here! I say it's funner to sneak out!"

Veil did not like the sound of this. "But .. mother .. said not to!"

Luke sighed. "Oh come on, she doesn't ..."

Fripple was willing to do anything to contradict Luke. "Hey, he's right ya know, an' yu ain't. We could stay here .. and play Mossflower War!"

This game proved popular, as Iris yelled, "I'll be Tsarmina!! A good Tsarmina!"

Ivan gave her a look. "Nuuuh-uuh .. you can't do that! Cause I'm Ging'vere an' I've gotta have someone to fight!"

><><

Yar awoke ever so slowly, her world spinning from black, to gray, and slowly to color. She realized she was laying in Urran's infirmary, and vaguely wondered where the mouse was.

There was something uncomfortable around the base of her neck, but craning to see brought a sharp lance of pain running up her collar bone.

Oh yes. She'd fought Yaz.

She'd killed Yaz.

Yaz had killed her. Well .. maybe not.

The door creaked open, and Urran limped in, smiling as soon as he saw Yar was awake. "So you're back in the land of living then?"

The magpie was startled by her own voice. "Yea ... I guess .."

She winced as she moved her neck, and Urran went to get her a drink. "Good. The dibbuns were worried about you .. I told them you'd be fine, but I wasn't sure. That bird you fought was trying to cut your head off! It was a brave thing to do Yar .. a very brave thing."

Yar looked down as a tear welled up, and she whispered, "I didn't want to .. she was my sister."

Urran paused, before sitting down by the bed and letting Yar drink. "I .. didn't know, Yar. I'm sorry."

The magpie wiped a tear away with her wing tip, stating, "No .. Yaz would have killed others had I not done it. But .. I still wish .. that she could have followed Ignasa too."

Urran stroked Yar's ebony feathers, sighing, "I know child .. and I am sorry. Maybe you'd best sleep. I'll have the abbess come check on you later."

The old mouse shut the door sadly behind him, limping across the lawns in the dwindling light. What dreadful things Malimore could do to even siblings ... and what things would he do to them?

Urran looked up at the fiery colors of sunset, whispering, "Lord Ignasa .. be with us!"

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Gonff was in a very good mood as he and Einar left the Doomwyte cave. He was cautious, and it was a good thing, after all, only one guard had come after them. Where was the other?

Gonff had given his 'prisoner' his second knife, and had his sling loaded and ready. At first, nothing seemed to happen. They got a slight ways from the cave, before the mousethief confided in Einar that he felt the crow sentry must have knocked his rook companion out.

Einar wasn't so sure. His suspicions were confirmed in the form of a flash of black, feathered lighting ... one that descended on Gonff with an earsplitting screech!

The mousethief yelled as talons dug into his shoulder and back