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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Back at the Abbey, dinner was a much quieter affair than usual; nearly all the older Pinspikeses and half a score of Skipper's ottercrew had stationed themselves as sentries per the Abbess' instructions. Furthermore, Sy Stoneclaw, the Dibbuns, and a few otherbeasts had, for some strange reason, stayed in the dormitories throughout dinner thus far, telling the otherbeasts to start without them. The rest of the Abbey Population were gathered in the orchard; the night had been so fine that Abbess Saffron had ordered lanterns to be hung and blankets spread for a moonlight picnic. The Abbess had already announced her plans to hold a council of war following the meal, but at the moment she wished her creatures to enjoy themselves, which they did with gusto.
There were no set rules to the spread; each beast ate as much as he wanted, in whichever order he so wished. Skipper Windryder sat beside Dippertail; the pair were demolishing an immense almond-topped cherry pie between them. The otter passed a bowl of shrimp-and-hotroot soup to the falcon. "Here, matey, leave th' rest of the pie t'me an' git some o' this down yore famine-faced gob. T'will give ye a shine t'yore eye an' a spring t'yore step!"
Dippertail, who had always secretly wanted to be like an otter, accepted the soup, causing much hilarity among the other beasts as he tried bravely to cope with the fiery substance without complaining.
Friar Dimp plopped down between Brother Marc and Grandmum Dawbil, helping himself to a pastry filled with fruit and dripping with honey and damson juice; this was what was known as a Nunnymoler, a traditional favorite of Abbeybabes (and some elders as well). Munching on the sticky treat, the plump squirrel winked roguishly at Dawbil. "Well, well, well, look who's here. You know, Marc, I believe I know this good beast, but she's been away from meals so long I can't recall her name!"
Amid giggles from his neighbors gathered about the spread, Dimp fled to another place, pursued by several well-aimed windfall pears thrown by the old molewife. "You'm gurt fatbeast'n, you'm nought but a rascally villyun!"
Formole Aggit and Euodia had both grabbed the biggest roasted potato within their reach at the same time; they winced in pain as their digging claws were burned by the hot vegetable, neither one wishing to relinquish their prize to the other. "Burr, leggoo, Aggit, Oi 'ad ett furst!"
"Oi let goo furr nobeast, hurr aye. You'm young uns, b'ain't you'm got any respek furr elders?"
Veera Pinspikes, one of Dimp's young kitchen helpers, solved the problem by plonking a huge dish of deeper'n'ever turnip'n'tater'n'beetroot pie in front of the pair of moles. As the duo released the spud and let it roll away, their attention captivated solely by their favorite food, Alyssum the ottermaid snatched the scorching hot tuber up and downed it in one gulp, steam emanating from her mouth as she grinned at the astonished company. "No sense in lettin' good food go t'waste, mates!"
Dippertail had bravely forgone remedies thus far, but the spice of the hotroot had finally proved too much for him. Skipper swatted his friend's talons away as he reached for the otter's tankard of ale. "Belay, there, Dip; go an' find yore own drink!"
His beak feeling as if it were aflame, he falcon did so, soaring past the place where Jorty Cellarmole had rigged several barrels to spigots and trestles, and immersing his head in the Abbey Pond; giggles and good-natured ribbing broke out among the otters as the falcon noisily guzzled the water.
Any further conversation and merriment was halted by Brother Syzygus, the Abbey Beekeper, who had only just entered the grounds. His oversize habit flapping, the the tiny, middle-aged harvest mouse made his way to an overturned wheelbarrow and stood upon it, clearing his throat noisily. "Ahemahemahem! Your attention please, friends, your attention, please!"
Every beast turned to face the little fellow; Shermy raised a tankard of dandelion fizz in salute. "What ho, Brother Gus, got a message for us, old chap?"
Gus (nobeast ever used his full name) shot the young hare a disapproving glance before continuing. "As you creatures may know, we are honored to have three guests in our Abbey today; Lady Siyuzin Stoneclaw and her cousins Speedwell and Rivereye. Their prescence here is indeed a treat."
Brother Willow was heard to snort in derision; ignoring him, Brother Gus continued. "As you also may know, Lady Stoneclaw and her cousins came from lands far away to be with us; to show their gratitude for our welcoming them and caring for them, they have been practicing with our Dibbuns and Abbey musicians a traditional Wildcat song, which we now present to you."
Again, Brother Willow snorted. "Some bloody vermin ballad, no doubt."
Nobeast dignified the remark with a reply; with a flourishing bow, Brother Gus gestured dramatically to the main door of the Abbey, which he had left open. "Gentlebeasts, I give you.....The Tambourine Dance!"
There was a smattering of applause, though most of the Abbey creatures looked a bit confused, having never heard the word "tambourine" before. A brief silence followed; a couple curious Dibbuns poked their heads around the door frame, then ducked back again. Realizing they had missed their cue, Brother Gus raised his voice. "I said, I give you the Tambourine Dance!!!"
The wail of an expertly-played fiddle filled the air, sounding out a slow, sad-sounding song. Limping ever so slightly, but minus her crutches, Sy Stoneclaw made her way across the lawns to the orchard, scraping away at an old violin sombeast had lent her. Her voice, deep for a female but resounding, sang out plaintively over the gathering.
" It is a cruel, hard, sadd'ning life;
Filled with woe, and pain, and strife,
I tell you, friends, it's quite a sight to seee-hee-heeeee;
This world has many, many troubles,
But they'll vanish on the double
If you'll all just sing and dance with meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...."
She paused, then raised her voice. "ONE, TWO THREE, FOUR!"
Suddenly, the bow was flying across the srings, the fiddle singing out one of the liveliest jigs anybeast had ever heard. Whooping and shouting, a veritable horde of whirling, quick-stepping Abbeybabes stormed the grounds, each one holding a small wooden barrel ring studded with jingling pieces of metal. Friar Dimp nodded sagely. "Ah, so that's what she wanted all those old, broken spoons I threw out for."
Behind the Dibbuns, Sister Tracy and Sister Jerrabeau appeared, the former playing a flute and the later a mandolin; Brother Gus produced a small hand-drum, which he began to beat in time to the music. Without breaking their stride, the Dibbuns began clapping their strange instruments along with him, the cheery jingling noise ringing out over the lawns. After a brief interlude, some of the dibbuns sang along with Sy in enthusiastic, if a bit untuneful, voices; the chourus was soon picked up by the other Abbeybeasts, who sang and clapped along with the musicians.
" Whirl round n' round and clap your paws!
Slap your tail upon the ground!
Don't smash my toes, or I'll smash yours!
Always smile; don't wear a frown;
Sing, Tambourine, Sing!
Jump o'er your partner; one, two THREE!
Do a cartwheel, if you can;
Watch where you're going; don't hit me!
Just keep in time with the band;
Sing, Tambourine, Sing!
Sing, Tambourine, Sing!
I may not be the brightest beast,
But I sure know this much, at least,
It's not so hard to forget all your troubles;
Just sing and dance along with friends,
And, long before the music ends,
You'll find your worries disappeared like bubbles!
Spin your partner! Take a bow!
Hop on one paw, then on two!
Come dance with me, I'll show you how!
Jig 'n whirl 'til you turn blue!
Sing, Tambourine, Sing!
Sing, Tambourine, Sing!
Sing, Tambourine, Sing! HEY!"
The applause broke out at fever pitch; even Brother Willow had to admit the show had been remarkable (to himself, of course, not out loud). The musicians and Abbeybabes were compelled to take a bow as almost every creature present leapt to their paws to give a standing ovation. A loud voice rang out from just behind the crowd. "Sure, an' wasn't that the fine performance; must have taken a goodly ould time t'practice. I tip me hat t'ye!"
Everybeast whirled around to see an athletic-looking, golden-furred dormouse clad in a green-and-sage striped tunic with black sleeves. A long black scarf was wrapped about his head like a hood, leaving only his dark eyes visible, and he wielded a bow and a quiver of arrows.
Sedgebrush and Raggle sprang over to the creature as quick as lightning, embracing him. Sedgebrush was grinning from ear to ear. "Walldoh Branchbounder, you old scoundrel! What brings you here?"
The dormouse pushed back his hood to reveal the rest of his face; he was still in his prime, though there was just a smattering of grey in his bristly whiskers. He grinned delightedly at his two friends, patting them heavily on the back. "Sure, an' would ye look at what the cat dragged in (beggin' your pardon, madam). Good to see ye, truly it is. Faith n' fur, Raggle, have ye taken to wearin' a hood again, or did ye happen to fall down a tree?"
Raggle sported a large bandage at a rakish angle about his head; he laughed. "We had a skirmish today with some foxes, Walldoh, but we took care of them. What news from the Branchbounders?"
Walldoh looked about. "Well, I would tell ye, but 'tis unpleasant an' not fit for the ears of babes, ye understand."
By now Saffron had joined the gathering; she nodded. "We understand perfectly friend. Come, dine with us; we were planning on having a Council of War after the meal so you may make your report then. You are hungry, I trust?"
Walldoh's eyes lit up. "Well, and aren't you ever the wise one, me darlin'. 'Tis true, me humble self and Shay haven't had one measely bite since we left the Colony. T'would be a pleasure, so it would!"
Raggle looked confused. "Who's Shay?"
A tiny, black-hooded head appeared over Walldoh's shoulder; a baby Dormouse, the spitting image of her father, scrambled out of the quiver on Walldoh's back. "I Shay, an' I hungry! Where's all the food, daddy?"Walldoh assisted his little daughter to the ground, giving her a gentle, playful kick to the rump. "Go on with ye, liddle rogue, eat until ye bust for all I care." He smiled at Raggle. "'Tis me newest liddle 'un; goes with me everywhere, so she does."
As Shay ran off to join the other Dibbuns, who were digging in to the remainder of the feast as if they were facing a famine, Walldoh shook paws with Sy. "An' ye'll be the beastie who taught the liddle darlin's that luvverly song. T'is a fair change to meet a cat what's on our side, so 'tis."
Sy flashed her cheerful grin. "Thank you very much, sir. Er, I was wondering, how exactly did you get in?"
The golden-furred dormouse did a comical double take. "Faith, are ye blind in t'other eye, too, missy? T'is plain as the nose on me face that Redwall don't have a gate, or haven't ye noticed?"
Sy stifled a giggle. "Yes, I noticed. But we have sentries posted all over the wall; how'd you get past them?"
Walldoh replaced his hood, winking conspiritorially at the wildcat. "Sure, an' tis a fact nobeast sees a Branchbounder when we don't want 'em to. T'is our motto, Climb like lighnin', vanish like breeze, Branchbounders won't be caught with ease!"
Removing his hood again, he applied himself to a large blueberry cake, stemming further conversation. Sy limped over to join Raggle, Shermy, Ayeriss and Tings, who had an entire picnic blanket to themselves. Shermy congratulated her as she sat down. "Top hole performance, old gel. Didn't know you could play the fiddle, wot!"
The big, scarred wildcat shrugged, placing the instrument to one side. "I haven't done it in a long while; not since a season or so before we left the isles. I'm suprised I still remember how, really."
Raggle tossed her a Nunnymoler, biting into one himself. "Mmmmmm, I don't think anybeast ever grows out of these. Look at Walldoh, he's eating them, too!"
The mention of Walldoh brought Sy back to a question she had been meaning to ask the young black squirrel. "Raggle, I noticed you also wear a green striped tunic, like Walldoh and Shay, instead of a robe or a habit like most of the other male beasts about here. Are you one of the Branchbounders?"
Raggle laughed. "I like to think so, but that's just a fancy of mine. The Branchbounders are a colony of dormice who live out near the marshes in Mossflower Woods, about a day's march from here. Anyhow, when I was a tiny babe we - that is, my mother, my father, and I - lived in Mossflower, too. Then Father came off for the worse in a fight with a adder and was killed; mum and I were about to be snake meat, too, when Walldoh and his wife Wardah showed up, and filled the horrid thing full of arrows. They took us back to their colony, which is hidden up in the marsh trees; we lived there for about four or five seasons, until I was an old enough Dibbun to travel, then we came to Redwall. I do like it here better than the swamp treehouses, but I respect those dormice highly. I mean, can you imagine, standing within striking distance of a serpent and firing arrows at it? I doubt I could do that with any snake, let alone an adder. Anyway, that's why I dress like a Branchbounder, minus the hood."
Sy gave him a playful shove. "And I suppose the camouflage comes in handy when you want to skip out on chores, eh?"
Raggle looked the picture of righteous indignation. "I'd never do that!"
Tings couldn't resist adding. "Well, there was the one time when Brother Gus needed help with the bees..."
Raggle waved a paw. "I was a Dibbun then, that doesn't count."
Shermy grinned fiendishly. "And the time the Abbess wanted you to pick raspberries...."
"There was a big anthill in there!" Raggle protested. "And I apologized!"
Sy had to work hard to control her laughter; she patted Raggle's head affectionately. "I'm sure you did, friend, I'm sure you did. Pass me another one of those pastry things, will you?"
Later that evening, after the Abbeybabes had gone to bed, Saffron and the rest of the able-bodied Redwallers gathered in front of the fire in Cavern Hole, to listen to Walldoh's report. He had a roundabout way of storytelling, maddening to the less patient of Abbeybeasts; however, Saffron would not allow any interruptions, wanting to get the whole of the information the strong dormouse had to offer.
"T'was about three days back, I believe it was, when the most turrible storm one could ever hope to see blew through me humble home; it'd be the same one wot knocked down your big ould gates, so it would. The Colony treehouses were damaged up, but not too turribly, bein' inside the trunks instead of exposed; but there's still a grand amount o' work to be done to get them sharp n' shiny again.
"Well, we pore branchbounders, we're good at hidin' and archery, but we've nivver been the best at repairin' so ye see. So me good wife, Wardah, says to me, 'Walldoh,' She says, "Sure an' you c'd do worse than to run over to the dear ould Abbey an' ask if a good carpenter could be spared to help us out o' this predicament.' An' says meself, 'Faith, what a grand plan, me darlin.'. So , me 'n Shay bundles up, and starts to get ready to make our way here. Then who should show up but Log-a-Log Yik an' his Guosim, or what's left o' the pore beasts, really.
"Ah, dearie me, I recall when they passed us on the way here last summer; there were nearly threescore of the ould shrews then, but there's only a score now healthy, an' fourteen or so more sore wounded. So I says to Yik, "Log-a-log, me ould friend, what has become of yore other shrews?" an' e says to me that some weeks back the pore shrews got caught in a turrible ould current, an' some of the logboats were swept away down a sidestream, while the others sailed over a big ould waterfall. Now, all the beasts with the cheif survived, but what happened to the ones separated down the sidestream they dunno; they searched and searched but nivver so much as a trace did they find. So, they were comin' on for the summer Abbey visit, an' to ask for yore wise advice, when some strange beasts with skulls for heids an' a cloak full o' snaky patterns sewn in demanded their boats, an' Yik, bein' the stubborn beast he is, refused. E' says that they brought in more o' the boneheads (beg pardon, no pun intended), an' a couple o' huge serpents, takin' all the boats an' killin' near a score o' the shrews.
Well, me good wife Wardah, she tells me, "Walldoh, creatures less suited for travel than these pore shrews are hard to imagine. They'll stay here with meself, while you haul yore ould carcase over to the grand Abbey; I'll bring 'em meself when they're better, so I will." So Shay an' I, we makes our way here; only we left in such a hurry we forgot to bring any vittles. By the way, Abbess, me darlin', another scone would do nicely to tide me ould bones over 'til brekkist.
"Sure, but ain't I the turrible one for wanderin' from the point. So, I come a runnin' through the trees, when I hear a noise; sounded like a beast arguin' with another. So I follows the noise, tellin' Shay to hide in the quiver out o' sight until I says; for her own safety, it was. Then I sees the foxes, about twoscore an' a half of them. Runty liddle things they were, all raggedy an' dressed in plants and otherbeasts pelts. They had captured two o' the biggest, blackest serpents I nivver hoped to see, an' were fightin' about what to do with 'em, I imagine; I couldn't hear proper with me hood up, so you see. Then this mangy ould pine marten, all tattooed up, with a blue cloak an' a mask made of a skull, shows up an' starts fightin' some burly vixen carryin' more knives than any one beast needs. An' I says to meself, ho ho, Mister Marten, you'll be one o' the bold buckoes who hurt my friends the Guosim. So, I thinks whether or not it'd be a good plan to shoot the beast, when all terror broke loose, so it did. There were four more skull-faced pine martens, an' they fought like a score of beasts, slingin' stones at the foxes, an' slayin' any that tried to run away...and then they let the snakes loose. It was a terrible slaughter, friends; horrible!
"Any'ow, one o' the martens, a big feller with a hook, shouts at the survivors that if they join him an' attack yore Abbey, 'e'll call off the snakes. So the foxes 'ave joined the snakes and martens, they have, an' they're headin' this way, even as I speak. So I ran as fast as me ould paws could carry me, an' beat the scum here; they should be arrivin' within the hour, though, an' you don't have a gate, so yore in trouble, if ye ask me."
Aprehensive cries and shouts of alarm broke out; Dippertail restored order with a piercing shriek. Skipper addressed at the dormouse. "How big a force are we talkin', Walldoh?"
The dormouse shrugged. "T'was very dark, me lad. A score, a score and a half, maybe; I dunno. But never mind the vermin; 'tis them serpents that's got me worried. I nivver seen even a full-growed adder could compare to 'em in size."
Sy had remained unobtrusively in the background thus far; she raised her voice. "He's right, believe me. They've got a much depleted force, but from his description I can tell you that it's the same band that destroyed my home. The big marten with a hook, that can only be Dankfur; his name's another word for horror where I come from. Rest assured, he won't rest until he's found a way to get what he wants. Surrender is not an option with him; he'll either win the fight or die trying. And those snakes are his two pets; whatever he tells them to do, they do it."
Raggle piped up. "You know, from what you said, Walldoh, that sounds like a bigger band of the same foxes that came after us earlier today. They're awful cowards, though; shouldn't be much trouble to beat them. But the snakes....I don't know what we can do against that. Anybeast have an idea?"
There was a long pause as everbeast racked their brains for a solution. Shermy noticed the fire dying down; he went to stoke it up with more wood.
Everybeast heard the cry of suprise which the young hare gave; Tings leapt to her paws. "Shermy, what's wrong, are you burnt?"
The young hare was standing rigid, staring into the fire, which had blazed up brightly once more with the wood he had thrown on. He remained like that for some little time; then, he began speaking, sounding like a pupil reciting to a teacher. Sister Flim, ever the quick thinker, grabbed quill and parchment and transcribed the verse.
"Vermin turn against each other;
Divided houses cannot stand.
T'was a snake killed Ublaz Mad Eyes,
In a far, forgotten land.
Tragedy will strike this Abbey,
Be brave, good creatures, and faint not.
Remember these words I have told you
To defeat the villian's plot.
Remember also, those in terror,
Chained away in Daskar's Glory,
Those I name must free these poor ones;
He who tells a wand'ring story,
Oldest daughter of the Guards,
One-Eye, Two Eyes faking One,
Mouse who should not be alive,
And Son of the Mad Boxer's son.
Finally, the one who slays
A threat'ning horror with my blade
Must bring it with him when he goes
On this quest which must be made.
Nothing can be done tonight;
Rest your eyes, my Abbey friends.
But be alert at dawn tomorrow,
That is when the fight begins!
Shermy's next words caused everybeast considerable suprise. "Did I forget anything, sah?"
He smiled at the flames. "Well, what do you know, right first try...hullo, he's gone now." He stared at the company. "I say, you chaps, I've just had another visit from Martin the Warrior, wot! Want to hear what he said?"
Sister Flim shook her head, waving her parchment. "No thank you, we've already got it written down. Seems like some kind of riddle to me; I can't make head nor tail of it."
Brother Willow snorted from across the table. "That's because you've neglected your studies. Allow me; I'll have it solved quicker than anybeast here."
Saffron shook her head, taking the parchment from Flim and folding it up. "No solving riddles tonight; Martin made it plain we need to be rested for the morrow. To bed, all of you; we'll put our heads together and think this out in the morning."
Concealed from the eyes of the sentries by the thick undergrowth of Mossflower, out of firing age from the Abbey, the augmented deputation of the Ranks of the Shadow crouched, waiting for a command from their leader. Gronk nodded to the body of Lumpa, whom Dankfur had sent out to make an announcement to the Redwallers as a sort of test. The body had two longbow shafts in it.
"Did yer see that, Cap'n? Them riverdogs didn't even let 'er ask questions; soon as she said she wuz with the Ranks, they made 'er into a pincusion!"
Ringgob made a suggestion. "There's only three riverdogs and a hedgepig on this wall; Me an' that archer vixen, Zyxxa, we could take 'em out for yer, Cap'n. Then the broken Gate's all ours!"
Dankfur shook his head. "And if one of them gets away, what then? We'd have the whole place come down on our heads. Give me a chance to think this out, and rest up. I should have come up with something by dawn."