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Cover art by ForrestFighter
The burly hogmaiden, despite Grandmum Dawbil's protests, had risen from her bed and was pacing the room in agitation when Sy and the two kittens entered the infirmary. The taller wildcat extended a friendly paw. "Good afternoon to you! The elder mouse Sister..."
She got no further; Ayeriss had flung herself across the room and clasped the wildcat's paw tightly, staring into her face with haunted eyes as she gabbled, "We gotta hide yer, quick! Y'ain't safe here, they know where y'are! Them pore kittens, it don't bear thinkin' about...!" She broke down weeping.
Sy was suprised to find that, though she was bigger and presumably stronger than the hogmaid, she could not pull her paw away from Ayeriss' grip. She raised her voice to be heard over the sobbing. "Whoa, hold on there, friend; there's no need for hysterics!" She managed to maneuver Ayeriss to a chair, gently pushing her onto it and adopting the tone of a mother to a child. "There, now, just relax, and take a few deep breaths. Now, stop crushing my paw, and tell me all about it, from the beginning."
Ayeriss, as if realizing for the first time that she was acting strangely, cleared her throat several times, scrubbing a paw across her eyes. Her voice dropped back to its usual gruff register. "Errr-'hem! Sorry 'bout that, t'wasn't thinkin' straight. But we do gotta hide yer, an' fast, afore the giant snake gits back."
The Abbess, who had entered the room at that moment, looked strangely at the hogmaid. "What giant snake? There's not been any large snakes around here for quite a while."
Ayeriss' eyes regained their haunted expression. "I ain't nivver seen nothin' like it all me born days, I swear I ain't. The moon'd jus' cummout, an' that thing wuz in the ditch. I didn't see what it wuz, so I tells it t'get outta the mud an' git where I c'd see 'im. An' 'e did."
She paused, to take a deep breath "Now, I know what I'm about t'say ain't gonna sound real, but I gives yer me solemn promise that's what I seen that night. 'E wuz jet black, wid dirty great yeller eyes an'a blue tung. 'E comes outta that ditch, and just keeps comin'... and comin', ...and comin'..." She groaned, burying her face in her paws.
Saffron had been about to dismiss the story as a nightmare brought about by lack of sleep and a bump on the head, until she noticed the way the three wildcats looked; all of them had wide eyes and clenched jaws - the picture of apprehension and terror. Sy's voice was tight with fear as she addressed the hogmaid. "Did he say anything to you? Any messages, anything at all?"
Ayeriss nodded. "Oh aye, 'e spoke t'me right enuff. 'Where are the catsssssssss', 'E sez, jus' like that, with all 'is ess's drawn out. 'We track'd 'em t'thissssss redssssssstone housssssse,' 'E sez. " She cleared her throat again, her voice sinking to a low, highly embarrassed mumble. "That's t'last thing I 'amembers; er, must've fainted, or summat."
There was a long pause, as the horror of the situation dawned on all present. Speedwell grasped his cousin's leg fearfully. "What we gonna do, Sy?"
Siyuzin Stoneclaw turned to the Abbess. "If that snake comes back he'll do so with a tracking force of fighters from the Ranks of the Shadow, the most dangerous vermin on earth. They're the ones that drove us from our home, and if they think we're here they'll probably slay you all for fraterenizing with creatures they consider their prisoners. I've got to go intercept them before they get here."
Grandmum Dawbil looked horrified. "Burr, you'm get'n yoreself killed if you'm troi that; you b'aint bettered yet!"
Sy shook her head stubbornly, hobbling for the door. "I've seen what those monsters can do; I don't want anything to happen to this place like what happened to my home. The two kittens can stay here, but I've got to go before they storm this place."
Saffron blocked the doorway. "Let us send an army with you. Skipper and his crew would be glad to help, and so would many more of our younger creatures."
Sister Jerrabeau nodded. "Aye, and the Guosim shrews are due for a visit any day now; they're always armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight. I'm sure they'd want to be in on the battle, as well."
But Sy would not be convinced. "No, if any of them were slain it would be on my head for coming here in the first place. I thank you for your hospitality, but I really must go."
"You will not go." Saffron could be quite firm when she wished to be. "As ruler of this Abbey, I forbid you to leave until you are sufficiently healed. What sort of creatures would we be if we let a friend go out alone, and unhealthy, to face a band of vermin? Besides, our Abbey has had many, many bands of vermin attack it, and yet has never fallen. Therefore, you will stay for now; that is an order."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence as the two creatures stared at one another; then, Sy took a deep breath. "So be it, Mother Abbess. But I must warn you, the Ranks of the Shadow are more ruthless and pitiless than you would imagine in your darkest nightmare; they will slay oldbeasts, youngbeasts, even Dibbuns, if their orders are to do so. You'll need much more than one sentry, and be constantly on the alert. If they once take you by suprise, you're done for."
Saffron smiled gently. "I'm glad you see sense, finally. As soon as Skipper Windryder gets back, we'll hold a council of war."
Ayeriss stood. "I wanner be in on that. Them murderin' scum ain't gonna git me by surprize agin', no sir. I been practicin' my boxin' a lot; I'd give 'em this, and this, an this..."
Sy stifled a chuckle at the comical sight of the burly hogmaiden, head swathed in flapping bandages, dancing about and directing jabs and punches at the empty air. "That's all well and good, but have you ever boxed a live creature before?"
Indignantly, the hogmaiden stopped her dancing. "Boxed a live...I'll 'ave yer know I beat Sammerlasderdron trained boxin' hares at t'Great Springtime Jubilee las' season! Twice!"
Sister Jerrabeau nodded, smiling at the memory. "She did, really. The badger Lady Rowanbloom brought some of her army from Salamandastron fortress for a visit this spring. Some of the youngest fighting hares staged a boxing contest outside on the path, and Ayeriss won. Then the silly young things demanded a rematch the next day, so she beat them all again. Their Brigadier took them to task rather properly for losing twice to a Redwall hogmaiden, let me tell you."
The wildcat laughed. "I'll bet he did! We've heard of the regiments of Salamandastron where I come from." She addressed the Abbess. "When do you supposed the woodcutters will get back?"
Saffron shrugged elegantly. "They packed an afternoon tea, so they'll probably be gone a while yet. But I can't imagine Skipper'd keep them out after dark, when vermin could ambush them; especially when he took youngbeasts with him. Provided nothing goes wrong, they should be back before supper."
Kaiah Greenhide was a cross fox, or, as he would put it, "wunna da Krozfoxx."; his fur was mottled with black, slate, and rust patches, instead of being the usual red with black paws and ears. His surname, Greenhide, came from the fact that he wore a shirt and pantaloons made from an old fishnet, stuffed with fern leaves, giving him the appearance of a shaggy green pelt; he also wore a willow withe tied about his brow like a bandanna. The Krozfoxx people were selfish, lazy, independent robbers and murderers with no permanant home; they wandered the woodlands as a desultory group, each beast answering to no one and acting as he saw fit, and only working together or helping each other when there was something for each beast to get out of it. Even so, Kaiah was semi-respected as sort of a lordly prescence among the Krozzfox, for he was, aside from an ancient seer that no one really paid much attention to, the eldest of them. He also was the father or grandfather to most of them, even though he was only middle-aged: his wife and he had so many cubs and grandcubs that they had lost count long ago.
Crouched behind a bush, his strange garb making him almost invisible, Kaiah watched the group of about twoscore beasts chopping away at stormfelled trees, singing and chattering cheerfully as they did so. Nearly three-quarters of them, all older and stronger beasts, had stopped a moment back to take their afternoon tea; the smell of the amazing food had nearly driven the stunted dogfox mad with hunger, but there was no way he could possibly steal from such sturdy-looking otters, squirrels, and moles. However, the time for the elder beasts to resume work and the younger beasts to take their tea break was soon approaching; Kaiah had heard the big falcon, who seemed to be superintending the whole strange proceedings, announce the fact not too long ago. Backing out of the bush, he joined a small group of fellow Krozfoxx who had left their current camp to come with him, more out of curiosity than desire to be in on a robbery. Kaiah idly twirled his crude mace and chain, made from a boulder, a tarred rope, and a stick, addressing the group in the strange, shrill Krozfoxx dialect. "Weel, ol' Zaikee's seein' troo feer wunce; dey gottee vittles, lotsee vittles, jus' likee sez."
Zaikee, the blind old seer, was a fat, hunched over dogfox; his patched coat had turned almost entirely grey, though it could hardly be seen under the countless multitude of shells, bones, feathers, beads, and fishscales he wore in strings wrapped and draped on his body and magpie-tail kilt. He shook his staff, round the top half of which was affixed the coiling skeleton of an eel.; the skull of the eel had been filled with pebbles to make it rattle. The seer's milky eyes and nearly toothless mouth were fixed in a permanant, ghoulish smile as he chanted and swayed. "Ol' Zaikee sees trooooo, I tellee yoooooo, don'ee go steeeeeeeel, or otherbeasts keeeeeeeel!"
The old one was sent sprawling by a pitiless blow from a stringy young vixen carrying a bow and arrow. "Shuddee up, ol' doomeegloom, yee allus sayee dat, or sommee likeet. Go on, Kaiah, whatee plan?"
Kaiah related how the creatures were working in shifts, and how the younger, less experieced ones would be retiring to the edge of the worksite to rest against trees and eat their afternoon tea. He waved his mace and chain again. "We sneakee up, knockee outta likee dis; Bop! Bop! Den we steelee allee vittles 'foree udder's see. Ifee creatures see, we grabee vittles muchfast an' runnee 'way. I go now, who commee wid me?"
Zaikee, from his prone position, continued to grin and chant. "Don'ee gooooooo, don'ee gooooo, ol' Zaikee see troooo, dey killee yooooooooo!"
Kaiah's mate Layka put a footpaw over the old one's mouth to silence him. "I go widee, I hungree plenny."
Zyxxa, the young vixen with the bow and arrows, shrugged. "I go, but iffee real fight start, I goee back. Not gettin' killee over vittles, hoo no."
Several others agreed with her. Kaiah shrugged. "Fine wid me. But nono noise, unnerstandee? Wun noiseefox means we all deddeefox; dey gotta hawkeeburd an lotsee otterdog, too, so be quieet!"
Nodding to show this sober warning had sunk in, the small band of robbers set off on their mission.
Back at the oak grove, the younger Redwallers had relinquished their jobs to sit against the border trees and eat their tea, some distance away from the other beasts. Shermy dug eagerly into his pack, chortling happily. "I say, pals, look at this. Cold mushroom pasty, a wedge of cheese, honeyed scones, toasted apples, and a flagon of strawberry cordial to boot! Haw haw, Old Friar Dimp certainly knows how to pamper a bod, wot!"
Tings reached into her own satchel, which was similiarly filled. "He certainly does. Oh look, I've got some pancakes, too."
Raggle laughed. "I know where those came from. Those poor Dibbuns, I think they had more batter on themselves than in the pan by the time they were finished."
Euodia, one of Foremole Aggit's crew, and Huffy's elder sister, chuckled gruffly as she bit into an apple. "Hurr hurr hurr, they'm surpintly did, zurr, burr aye. Hushen, did ee hear that?"
All of the young creatures listened intently. At first, there was only silence, then a second stifled yelp came from behind them, followed by a hissed "Shuddee up, idjit!"
Shermy, having the best hearing and peripheral vision of the group, whispered urgently out of the corner of his mouth. "Now, don't panic, chaps, but there's about a dozen stunty little foxes in the briar bushes behind us."
Raggle nodded, "Aye, I spotted them, too; I think they're after our vittles."
The other youngbeasts stared at each other worriedly. Eethian Pinspikes fidgeted with his specatacles; he was a scholarly hog of nervous disposition, unused to critical situations. "Er, er, what do we do, er, call for help?"
Tings shook her head. "No, pretend like we haven't seen them; keep eating. I'll see if I can unobtrusively get Dippertail's attention; he'll see them as soon as he looks over here."
Eethian swallowed nervously. "Er, right, but, er, supposing they attack before then?"
As if in answer to his question, a boulder attached to a tarred rope snaked out of the bushes, missing his head by a hairsbreadth and knocking his spectacles off his nose. Reacting swiftly, Euodia grabbed the rope in her hefty digging claws, yanking hard. Knocked off balance, Kaiah tumbled head over tail into the grove, screeching, "Kilee quick, steelee food!"
Tings saw Zyxxa stand, aiming an arrow straight at her; thinking swiftly, the mousemaid threw her haversack into the vixen's face, knocking her backwards. In an instant, the rest of the foxes leapt from the bushes, flinging themselves upon the young Redwallers, hoping to silence them before help could arrive; Tings shouted as loud as she could before Layka flattened her to the ground, stunning her.