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Cover art by ForrestFighter
"NOW what're we gunna do, Cap'n? Huh, this izza fine mess, ain't it...yeeeek!"
Dankfur landed a hefty kick on the backside of Scruffgutt, who had made the remark. "I know it's a mess, stupid!" He guestured with his hook to the rest of his crew, breathing heavily through his nose as he tried to keep his temper down. "All of you, shut up and let me think. So help me, the next one who so much as opens his mouth without my telling him to is going to lose his tongue; that's a promise!"
All had seemed to go well with the five martens' journey to Redwall at first. The River Moss had still been a bit rough, but not unduly; with a moderate amount of difficulty, they had managed to sail the logboat down to the ford over the span of the last day and a half, pulling in to the bank to rest when necessary. During one such rest, Jettcoil and Whiptail had found a small colony of magpies, complete with nests; Ringgob, who always carried a quiver and bow, had assisted the two serpents in raiding the area, bringing back enough meat and eggs to satisfy the whole crew. As the quicker current of the River Moss had caused them to make much better time than they had thought they would take, Dankfur reasoned there was no point in wearing his crew out rushing them on towards the Abbey. He and his martens had therefore strolled in a leisurely manner down the path, letting the blacksnakes go on ahead to scout out their position.
That was when disaster struck.
Jettcoil and Whiptail had just gotten out of sight of Dankfur's crew when a patch-coated, burly vixen, practically bristling with over a dozen knives and swords, had marched boldy out in front of the two monsters, and demanded their buisiness. Jettcoil had been too taken aback to react at first; Whiptail, however, was quicker than her mate, and lunged at the intruder. The vixen had nimbly avoided the strike, putting a forepaw in her mouth and whistling loudly around it. Dankfur and his four martens had come round the bend in the path just in time to see about twoscore patched foxes leap out of the cover of the foliage, beat the two blacksnakes unconscious with cudgels, and drag them off into the woodlands.
Dankfur could hardly believe his eyes; nobeast had ever before been brazen enough to attack his precious pets, let alone stand up to them. Yet the indisputable fact remained that the two giants had been kidnapped, right when he needed them most, and by a group of armed fighting beasts more than eight times his crew's number.
After a long, uncomfortable silence, Danfur finally shrugged resignedly. "Well, one things for certain; we can't go on unless we steal my blacksnakes back. How we'll do it, I don't know. Let's track those foxes and see where they went, for a start."
He set off, bent double, following the drag marks left by the two unconscious snakes. The other four martens followed behind, though not with any great relish. The same thought had occured to all of them; if the band of foxes hadn't been frightened by the blacksnakes, they wouldn't be afraid of a small group of pine martens, even those from the Ranks of the Shadow. For the first time, it would be they who had the disadvantage, and even their captain wasn't sure of how to proceed in those circumstances.
What in the world were they going to do?
Unaware of the spectacular capture effected by the rest of his band, which had stayed behind in the camp, Kaiah Greenhide struggled desperately to free his crude mace and chain from Euodia's dogged grip. As he fought a tug-of-war with the molemaid, the patched fox continued to screech, "Hurree, stealee food, quick!"
Skipper and the other Redwallers, some hundred yards away in the oak grove, had been singing and chopping wood too loud to hear what was going on at first; however, the unaided young ones were putting up quite a fight on their own. Raggle had armed himself with Tings' saw; he beat Layka with the flat of it, forcing her to stop throttling the mousemaiden. "Gettoff, you filthy robber! Redwaaaaaaa - Ungk!"
Zyxxa stole Zaikee's scepter and swung it into the side of Raggle's face, stunning him. Shermy, seeing what had happened, leapt into the air, kicking out hard with both of his strong hindpaws, striking the vixen full-force in the stomach. He stood over his winded foe, berating her. "I say, that was rather unsporting, foxy old thing. Hope you can't eat a bite for a week, wot!" He got no further, as a pair of dogfoxes leapt upon his back, tackling him low.
Eethian, unable to see properly without his spectacles, had absentmindedly grabbed Ting's saw from where the unconscious Raggle had dropped it. He waved it about, causing friend and foe alike to duck to avoid the freshly sharpened blade. "Er, take that, and this, and, er, take that...."
Back in the oak grove, Skipper Windryder had halted chopping for a moment to help some of his otters load the cart the Redwallers had brought along with them. He blew sweat from his nosetip, sighing heavily. "Phew! I tell ye, mates, I never thought it could git this hot'n one day."
Barbatus, one of Skipper's ottercrew, agreed with him. "Yore right there, Skip. An' it ain't even the 'ottest part o' the arternoon, yet. What say we take a break an' get somethin' t'drink?"
Formole Aggit stumped over to join them, puffing and blowing with the exertion of lugging a piece of wood far to large for him. He grinned. "Burr, Oi sekkin's the motion, zurrs. Oi'm furr wore out'n, burr aye."
Skipper shook his head, relieving Foremole of the burden. "We jus' took a break, mate. Let's give the young un's a chance t'relax afore puttin' 'em t'work agin."
During the conversation, Dippertail had flown down to perch on the cart; he glanced casually over towards the young ones as Skipper made his remark. Seeing what was going on, he shreiked an alarm. "Hyeeeeeeeee, Ryder, trouble, look!"
One look was indeed all it took; grabbing the javelin he always kept nearby, Skipper raised his voice. "Robbers, attackin' the young 'uns! Redwallers, CHAAAAAAAAAAAAARGE!!!!!!!!!!"
Arming themselves with hatchets, saws, pieces of wood, and whatever other implements came to paw, the woodcutting party broke into a headlong run, with Dippertail soaring in the lead.
Kaiah saw the game was up; relinquishing his mace, he turned to flee. "Runee 'way, dey see us, dey see us!"
Those foxes who were still conscious did the same; one of them collided with Eethian, causing the young hedgehog to fall directly on top of Kaiah. The Krozfoxx shreiked in pain; the blade of the saw, still clutched tightly in Eethian's paw, had landed directly on the root of his tail, chopping it clean off.
For a second, all the other foxes halted, staring in dumb shock at the tail-less Kaiah, rolling around on the ground in agony. The moment's hesitation was all it took: some distance ahead of the other Redwallers, Dippertail flung himself into the foebeasts ranks, raking with talons and beak. Taken aback by the falcon's ferocity, the foxes tried again to flee, but Skipper and the rest arrived on the scene, encircling the band of robbers completely. Windryder's voice was a harsh bark. "Drop yore weapons, all o' ye! NOW!"
Immediately, there was a loud clatter as daggers, cudgels, bows, quivers, spears, and all manner of weaponry fell to the ground. Skipper motioned with his javelin. "Now siddown, an' keep yore paws in yore laps where I kin see 'em."
Every conscious dogfox and vixen plonked themselves down into a sitting position, staring dull-eyed at the big, tattooed otter, expecting no mercy. Skipper nodded. "That's better. Don't ye dare move from that spot til I sez so. All right, Sedgebrush, ye may tend t'yore son now. Some of the rest of ye check on the other wounded."
The anxious mother squirrel needed no second bidding; she fairly ran to her son's side, cradling his head in her paws. "Raggle, can you hear me? Speak to me, son!"
The young squirrel opened one eye; the other was swollen shut. He managed a feeble grin. "Do y'have to shout, ma? My poor head feels like it's going to explode already, without you yelling down my ear."
Foremole took a quick look at Tings, who was conscious but still prone, gulping air greedily. "Burr, wun o' they vurmints troid to strangle 'ee maid, but she'm bees mostly a'roight."
Dippertail noticed Eethian sobbing; he waddled over to the young hedgehog's side, putting a comforting wing gingerly round the spiky shoulders. "Kyeek, are you injured, friend?"
Eethian's reply caused much hilarity. "I broke my spectacles. Dad's going to flay me alive; they're the only pair I've got!"
Barbatus and another otter named Alyssum had managed to hold Kaiah still and inspect his wound; Alyssum motioned to Shermy. "This wound needs attention, mate, afore the pore beast bleeds t'death."
The young hare had brought a few rolls of bandages with him, figuring, with all the saws about, that they might come in handy. Pulling them from his pack, he knelt by the moaning fox's side. "Poor chap, it's your own fault, really. You should thank your lucky stars we're decent beasts, wot!"
By now, the unconscious foxes had been awakened, and were herded by Skipper to join their companions sitting in a group. Shermy tied his bandage off, signalling to the two otters to let Kaiah rise. "Better not ask this chap to sit down for a while; rather tactless, doncha know."
Standing in front of his seated comerades, Kaiah glared sullenly at Skipper. "Well, wottee ya doee wid us, huh? Gonnee killee us, or jus' stanee dere?"
Windryder pointed his javelin at the fox's throat, about to tell him to mind his tounge, when a strange, whining chant broke out. "What I tell yoooooooooou? Ol' Zaikee see troooooooooo, you shouldn' steeeeeeeeeeeeel'd, or you get keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeled!"Old blind Zaikee wandered out from where he had been concealed in the bushes, retrieving his scepter. He broke into a shuffling dance, singing a whining, monotonous little song as he did so.
"Zaikee seer sees allee things,
Knows whattee others do;
Iffee doubt, I say to you.
Zaikee allus see what's troo!"
The Redwallers broke into hoots of laughter at the comical sight of the fat old dogfox, his countless strings of ornaments jingling as he jigged about, grinning oafishly and repeating his song. Kaiah's face nearly purpled with wrath and embarrasment; he hissed angrily. "Shuddee up, idjit! Jus' shuddee up, willya?"
More laughter broke out from the Redwallers. Tings had recovered sufficiently to rise; she looked to Skipper. "What are we going to do with these vagabonds?"
Skipper leaned on his javelin. "Well, Mossflower'd be better off without their scum, but, seein' as how we've healed one of'm, we can't jus' slay 'em; t'ain't the Redwall way."
Zaikee halted his dance, still smiling; he turned his sightless eyes to Kaiah. "See, see? I see dat ifee we steel, dey killee. But, we didn' steel, dey stop us. So dey no keel. I allus see troooooooooo!" Triumphantly, he broke into his jig again, but tripped on his scepter and stumbled heavily.
Sedgebrush reached out to catch the falling fox, stifling a giggle. "Poor funny oldbeast, his brain's gone soft with age. It'd be a shame to hurt him, really."
Dippertail preened his feathers pensively. "Heeeer, she's right, that one's blind and harmless. Might I suggest we tie the rest together tightly, and send them on their way? Kyeeee, that should teach them a lesson."
Skipper nodded. "Aye, good plan, Dip. Somebeast get a towing rope off one o' them trees over there."
Several ropes soon made an appearance; taking two long spars of wood, Skipper had the foxes stand in single file, placing the poles across all their shoulders. He then tied each fox's neck to both poles, forcing them to have to stay in a straight line, and put rope hobbles on each fox's forepaws and footpaws, standing back to observe the effect. "Right, you lot, when I count to three, I don't wanner see anythin' but yore backs disappearin' into the distance, if that much. We're lettin' ye off easy this time; if'n we sees ye 'round here again, yore deadbeasts - ye've got my oath on that. Right! One...Two...."
Stumbling and tripping, the humiliated Krozfoxx trotted as quickly as they could into the woodlands. Kaiah, the last in line, muttered darkly under his breath as he was almost dragged along with the others. "I fixee ya, otterdog. Wunee day, I fixee ya, an' you friends, jus' ya wait!"
Back in the grove, Shermy patted Zaikee on the shoulder. "Well, you're free to go now, old one. Take care of yourself, wot! Between ourselves, I'd watch what company I keep, if I were you. Staying with the likes of those beasts we ran off, you might come to harm, doncha know."
Zaikee turned to face the young hare, his milky-white eyes seeming to stare straight at Shermy, scrutinizing him. There was an uncomfortable pause, then the fox nodded. "You see troo, too. Donee forget! I go now."
And, with that cryptic message, the fat fox stumbled off into the woodlands, humming tunelessly to himself.