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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Morning dawned rather unpleasantly for Scaleflier, the stunted racer serpent sent out to summon Dankfur and his crew back. The sky was completely overcast, with another layer of thick cloud forming a fog across the ground, swirling about and obscuring nearly the entirety of Mossflower; however, this was the least of the tiny serpent's worries. The whole of his body ached and stung, scored by countless wounds, some of which were still bleeding; he also sported a fine black eye, which showed up rather drastically against his greenish scales. Unable to treat his injuries, Scaleflier curled miserably in a muddy patch of ground, racking his brains for means of revenge against Captain Yirta, who had deserted him the night before.
After the first time the raven had attacked him, Scaleflier had become sulky, and refused to travel as fast as he really could, hoping to buy some time and think out a means of escape. Yirta, however, was not a captain for nothing; he had figured out what was going on, and began diving at the serpent, pecking and scratching him, hoping to drive him to move faster. He had even knocked the little serpent unconcious at one point, lifting him bodily and flying with him as far as the border of Mossflower Woods; this was as far as Yirta knew to go, as he had never been to the Abbey before. Upon being placed on the ground again, Scaleflier had defiantly continued to go slower and slower. This infuriated the Raven enormously; in fact, he would have gladly slain Scaleflier and delivered the message himself, had the snake not been his only guide to point him to Redwall.
Things had finally come to a head the previous evening. The pair had been arguing verbally for some time, with Scaleflier hissing derisory remarks towards both the Raven and his wolf master, and an enraged Yirta shrieking, squawking, and heaping all sorts of colorful insults upon all reptiles in general. Then, Scaleflier made the big mistake of calling Yirta "a cowardly ffffeatherbag, too affffraid of getting losssssst or ssssslain in ssssstrange territory to ffffend for himssssself". The little serpent had correctly predicted that this remark would cause Yirta to fly off and leave him alone, intent on proving his worth; unfortunately, Yirta had not departed until he had ferociously raked and beaten Scaleflier and left him for dead, flinging his limp form into the bankmud bordering the River Moss. The raven had then flown off to a secluded spot to sleep, planning to continue his search for Dankfur in the morning.
Though horribly stunted in size, the little serpent was made of tough stuff; ignoring his wounds, Scaleflier set his unusually educated mind to work. It was true, he could have easily just slithered quietly off, and made a new life for himself in the woods; however, being an evil beast, Scaleflier was not going to let all the seasons of deception on Enzi Grexx's part, distrust and beatings from his fellow serpents, forced labor from the Ranks of the Shadow, and this final straw of Yirta's trying to kill him to go unpunished. But, what could a little shrimp of a snake do against all these creatures bigger than himself? Strength was not going to be an aid here; he needed to use all of his serpent's cunning to figure this problem out.
As he lay there, regaining his strength, a noise from the woodlands caused him to start. Two patched, raggedy-clothed foxes and the monster serpent Whiptail materialized out of the gloomy, swirling fog, all carrying food supplies gathered from the wood. The pair of foxes were some distance ahead of the blacksnake, who was merely following to ensure they didn't escape; thus, the duo were able to converse in quiet tones.
Ux Boulderpaw hissed out of the side of his mouth to Layka, Kaiah Greenhide's mate. "Wottee rotten day. An' we gonee attackee dat Abee today, Skulleebeast sez."
The vixen shook her head. "We noteenuff to killee dose abbeebeasts, Hook Skulleebeast mustee bee crazybrained. An' why you dressee likee dem, Uxee?"
The big fox glared at her. "Dissee my plunder, I findee dedd skulleebeast innee river. 'E not wanee mask back. An' nono callee me Uxee, or I pullee bushtail off!"
" 'Oo you callee bushtail, bigmouth?"
They passed on. If a serpent could smile, Scaleflier was doing his level best; it was not a pleasant sight. He had seen in an instant how he could be revenged upon Yirta, and also the rest of the Ranks. Obviously, Dankfur had recruited these rough-looking foxes as reinforcements, and was planning to attack Redwall Abbey; a foolish venture if there ever was one. The serpent's eyes lit up as more details of his evil scheme leapt into place; divide and conquer, that was the key to success. Pretending to be in more pain than he really was, he crawled pathetically out into Whiptail's line of sight, moaning and hissing as if he were dying. "Sssss, my comerade, help me! I bring newssssss from Black Ssssssshade!" He then swooned most convincingly.
The blacksnake pulled up, hissing a halt to the two foxes in front of her. "Sssstop, come back thissss inssstant." Too terrified to do anything else, the pair of Krozfoxx returned; Whiptail gestured to her little companion. "Thisss beassst isssss hurt; you will carry him to the masssssster. Ssssssstay ssssstill now..."
She lifted the limp form of Scaleflier with her huge head, flicking it skillfully so it was draped across both foxes' shoulders. She then getured foward. "Continue to camp at oncccccee. Do not let him sssssssslip, or you die. Foward March!"
Their faces showing every sign of horror and disgust, Ux and Layka obeyed. Scaleflier suppressed a wicked snigger as they passed by a small bankside cave; to a trained tracker of his experience, it was obvious that Yirta had gone in there to sleep the night before, and had not yet awakened and exited. Settling into a more comfortable position across his bearer's necks, the little serpent thought pleasedly to himself, "I sssssaid sssso to you before, Raven; we'll ssssssooon ssssseeee which of us is ssssssssmartest!"
Back at the Abbey, many creatures were also still abed; the exeptions were Friar Dimp, who had started breakfast; the sentries on the outer wall, who had rotated shifts in the middle of the night; and Rivereye, the mute albino kitten. He had awakened earlier than his fellow Dibbuns, and had begun to explore the babes' dormitory, having nothing better to do. He would have gone further, and explored the upper floors of the Abbey, but he was far to short to reach the doorknob, even with the help of a stool. Not being given much to bawling when he couldn't get his way, the precocious little kitten shrugged the problem off philisophically and continued his silent rounds of the room.
It wasn't long before the other Dibbuns were awakened by a muffled thud and crash; climbing up a linen cabinet to reach a jar of candied chestnuts that was atop it, Rivereye had knocked one of the slat shelves loose and and sent himself, the shelf, the pilfered jar, and a fair amount of pillowcases straight to the floor. Pringill, a very tiny squirrelmaid, shook her head reprovingly at Rivereye as he fought to exricate himself from the entangling pillowcases. "You shouldn've done dat, we get in big trubble now!"
However, the noise had not been loud enough to penetrate to the other dormitories, or alert any otherbeast. Shaking himself free of the pillowcases, Rivereye carefully picked the chestnuts from the debris of broken glass, splitting them up most fairly between his fellow Abbeybabes. Little Biddee Pinspikes giggled as she accepted her share, and whispered conspiratorially, "Heehee, Sissyflim an' Muvver H'abbess be verry upset if they find out!"
Huffy the molebabe agreed. "B'ain't no larfin' matter. Hurr, they'm say, 'Wot naughty likkle villyuns, you'm go abed wi'out no brekkist, hurr aye!' An' they'm gonna baff us'ns, too, boi okey they'm will."
There was a pause as the Dibbuns thought on this ominous prospect. Speedwell ventured a tentative opinion. "Maybees we can fix it?"
Biddee and her older sisters Harrbuckll and Kwinsee all snorted this suggestion aside. "Sillybeast, we not fix a broked jar!"
"You must be daft, thinkin' like dat."
"We nevva get dat shelf put back, either!"
Squirt had an idea; he raised a flipper. "I know, we run away, farfarfar away, where they never find us!"
This suggestion was greeted with much enthusiasm. Trying to work to fix something was no fun; however, the prospect of doing something really naughty, to the mischeivious abbeybabes, was. Only Rivereye shook his head, pointing at the door. Kwinsee Pinspikes looked at him strangely. "What be wrong now, likkle kitten?"
Speedwell translated. "He wanna know how we get a door open, it too tall."
This time it was Pringill's turn to snort. "Why we need dat door, huh? We gotta window! We climb down, like dis!"
Without further ado, the squirrelbabe leapt from her bed to the nearby windowsill, flung the shutters open, and shinned down a vine climbing the wall at that point, disappearing into the thick white gloom. The rest of the Dibbuns hung back, murmuring nervously. Planning a naughty escape was one thing; vaulting out an open window to climb a very long way down to the grounds in horrible fog was something else entirely. Furthermore, to use that particular vine was something strictly forbidden to the abbeybabes; many little tails, Pringill's especially, had been tanned for trying to attempt the climb before.
Shay Branchbounder was the exception; she had spent her entire life climbing and, as a visitor to the Abbey, did not know the rules. The little dormouse followed her new squirrel friend with alacrity, giggling. "Shay not afraid like you sillybeasts. You a bunch of fraidy frogs!"
That did it. With a roar of rage, Biddee Pinspikes leapt onto the sill. "Biddee not a fraidy frog, fuzzytail! Watch dis!"
As a general rule, hedgehogs are not the best of climbers; in her haste to get down, Biddee lost her grip and fell with a wail, taking Shay with her. Fortunately, they landed in a small bush at the bottom, and emerged unhurt. Biddee grinned, a bit out of breath. "See, I tol'ja me not scared!"
Kwinsee and Harrbuckll, anxious to see that their sister was not harmed, made their way to the ground in much a similiar fashion, losing their grip in their haste and slipping off about halfway down. Speedwell and Rivereye climbed out next, the older kitten carrying his much smaller brother on his back; Squirt came after the duo, followed by Leeam. The volebabe was the last down; none of the other Abbeybabes could find the nerve to attempt the descent after seeing four of their number fall off into the gloom. The little band of miscreants sat about for a moment, catching their breath, and trying to work up the courage to continue their venture. This last named task was the hardest; the fog was so intese that the white-nightgowned Dibbuns could hardly see one another, even though they were standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. Rivereye was especially hard to see, having white fur as well as a white nightgown.
Kwinsee spoke up first, taking hold of Pringill's bushy tail. "We better hold onna each udder, or we get losted."
Pringill nodded, taking the paw that Harrbuckll proffered her. "Good idea, we make a chain, den we find da open gate. Dey never find us then!"
Clutched paw to tail to nightshirt, and giggling naughtily, the little group of Dibbuns vanished into the thick white fog.
For the sentries up on the walltops, the view was rather an odd one. The fog cloud did not reach higher than the battlements, so the group of able-bodied Redwallers could see across the smooth, white top of it, thorugh which the tips of many treetops protruded. However, as the sky overhead was completely grey and overcast, the impression was not unlike being trapped inside some sort of box. It was a rather unsettling feeling, knowing that anything could be going on above or below one without one's knowledge.
These thoughts had occured more than once to Skipper Windryder, who had taken the other half of his otters and some other abbeybeasts to the walltops about halfway through the night, to relieve those already there. Dippertail perched on a battlement beside him, his keen eyes ever alert; the otter chieftain addressed his friend with a sigh. "I figgered after the hot day yesterday we'd be in fer a storm, but no, we get this liddle lot. Can ye see anything down there?"
The falcon nodded, not even straining his eyes. "Heeeeeek, it is hard to say, Ryder. Even my eyes cannot see straight through fog, though I can make out the vermin's campfire light off down the ditch, and a large black shape nearby that I take to be one of the serpents. Yieee, there are also a few shadows that look like little tents or lean-tos, some distance back from the ditch edge."
Skipper laughed mirthlessly. "Huh, I can't even see the blamed ground, let alone the ditch. That's what worries me, Dip. Ye can sort of see them from here, bein' a falcon, but the rest of the sentries see only what I see; fog above an' cloud below. If they mount an attack from the back we'll never stop 'em in time."
Dippertail preened himself pensively. "Kyeeer, that is a problem. Suppose I fly up and circle the Abbey, watching the vermin? If I spot the shadows moving, I will shriek as loud as I can."
Skipper patted the falcon's back. "Haharr, yore a smart one. Go on then, but keep safe, all right?"
Without a further word, Dippertail took to the skies, soaring up just beneath the upper cloud bank in a steady circle round the top of the Abbey building.
Dankfur made no attempt to disguise his suprise at seeing Scaleflier so far from the Shadelair, and in such a pitiable state. After hearing Whiptail's report, he lifted the snake from the two fox's shoulders with his hook. "Well, this is not what I expected from the forage, certainly. Come over here where we will not be overheard, and you can tell me your news."
Scaleflier waved secrecy aside with a shake of his head, having his little speech ready. "All of you ssssshould know thisssss, great Dankfur, Voicccce of the Sssssshadow. The Black Sssssshade hassss ssssent me with a dire warning. Captain Yirta hassssss turned traitor!"
Now the pine marten was really suprised. "Traitor, Yirta? That seems highly unlikely."
Scaleflier shook his head. "It isssss the truttthhh. In your abssssenccce, Yirta thought the Black Sssshade might assssssume you were dead, and that he might be chosssssen as the new Voiccccce. When it became clear thissss wassss not sssssso, he began plotting with sssssome othersssss to find and kill you!"
An audible gasp arose from the other martens. "He what?"
Dankfur silenced them with a glare, and Scaleflier continued with his lies. "Yessss, he planned to ssssssslay you, I sssssswear it. Ssssomehow, the Black Sssssshade found out; he executed the followers of Yirta, but the bird had ffffflown. I wasss ssssent to warn you, mighty Dankfur, that the Raven issss coming, even asss we ssssspeak! He found me, beat me, leffffft me ffffor dead, but I sssssurvived, and came with thissss messsssssssage!"
The other martens and the two blacksnakes all growled and grumbled angrily, muttering dire threats against Yirta. Dankfur nodded decisively. "Good work, for a worm. One of you foxes, heal his wounds, we may have need of him later."
Scaleflier shook his head, diving into one of the lean-tos to hide. "Too late, he issss here! Do not let him ssssssee me, he will ssssssslay me!"
With a happy squawk, Yirta soared through the fog to land in front of the pine marten. "Rrrrrak! I have found you at last!"
Dankfur leapt foward, his saber at Yirta's throat. "Oh yes you have, you traitor! Hold him, don't let him escape!"
The poor raven was completely suprised; whatever welcome he had expected, it was not this. He tried to back off, but was suddenly wrapped in Whiptail's coils, and held helpless before the oncoming saber. He cried out in alarm. "Haaaaark, there is some mistake, the Black Shade sent me with a message, you are to return to the Shadelair at once!"
Dankfur was past listening, "Oh, he did, did he? You think I can't see through your ruse to get me killed for disobedience to the wolf? You shall die for your crimes, ex-Captain Yirta!"
Yirta panicked then, saying the first thing that came to his mind. "No, no! Rrrawk, I swear on my life, I am not trying to kill you! Yakyak, I shall prove it, I shall help you to conquer the Abbey!"
Dankfur paused mid-charge, as if a sudden idea had struck him. He thought for a moment, then sheathed his saber. "Oh, will you now? Very well then, fly over the back wall and capture a Redwaller for me to interrogate. Ringgob is a dead shot, so you know what will happen if you try to flee. Whiptail, release him."
Too thankful at having his life spared at that instant to realize the obvious death sentence, Yirta took off like an arrow from a bow. "Haaark, You'll see, I'll do it, I won't fail!"
Dankfur watched him go, then signalled his troops. "That will provide a distraction while we invade the main gate. As soon as we hear the commotion, run for all you're worth behind me. But not one sound out of any of you; we don't want to give the game away!"
The little army pawed their weapons eagerly, spoiling for the fighting and slaying that was about to come.