Cover art by ForrestFighter
Dankfur instantly realized the seriousness of his position; his agile mind was working before some of the others had even grasped what was going on. The band charging straight at him from the Abbey gates consisted of mostly older or younger beasts, without a proper weapon between them; furthermore, they were fanning out, some of them ignoring the foe to try to round up the Dibbuns that were fleeing in all directions across the grounds. However, their noise had alerted the big otters and other warriors serving as sentries; without bothering to look, the marten could tell by the sound that these were pounding along the walltops to the stairs, about to charge down and get his group from behind. The sensible option would have been to speedily retreat through the Abbey Gates; however, Dankfur's fanatical dedication to sucess did not allow for retreat. The other option would be to charge the little band in front of him and overwhelm them, and get inside the Abbey before they could react. Then, they could lock themselves in and plan the next move.
Dankfur had thought of this, and figured out his plan of campaign, in less than one second. He raised his saber "Charge! Charge for the door! Slay all that hinder you!!! Quick, before we're hit from the back!"
With a mass roar, the Ranks and Krozfoxx bulled into the oncoming creatures, fueled by the madness of sheer desperation.
To the vermin's surprise, the heavily outnumbered council of war party fought with equal desperation. They had charged in the heat of the moment, without stopping to consider their lack of skill, or that the Abbey door would be left undefended; knowing that to let the foebeast inside where the other Dibbuns and several oldbeasts remained would be a disaster most stupendous, they flung themselves into the fray, yelling the timehonored "Reeeeeedwaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllll!!!!!" warcry as loud as they could.
The Battle For the Abbey had begun!
Sister Flim lost an ear to a dagger slash; she retaliated by sinking her teeth into the wrist of the fox responsible, right down to the bone. Shermy, who had armed himself with an axe, finished the job, then went off after Tings and Raggle, who were hot on the trail of the fleeing Dibbuns. "I say, wait for me, you chaps!"
Foremole Aggit slew two vixens in one swipe of the outsized hammer he had grabbed; Scruffgutt, the smaller of the marten brothers, tripped the mole leader and seized the hammer for himself. "Hahaaaarrr, Tiz yer dyin' day, moley!"
Whhhhoooooosh-CRACK! A broom handle struck the back of the unlucky marten's head with savage force; he dropped like a log. The Abbess stood frozen over the first beast she had ever slain, a look of shock and nausea on her face. Foremole, seeing the danger his ruler was in, struggled out from under the weight of the marten, "Moov thoiself, Missus! Lukk owt!"
Automatically, Saffron sidestepped. Akalle's downward slash with her poisoned rapier sliced off a bit of Saffron's habit; had the squirrel not moved, she would have been sliced down the face. Brought back to reality, The Abbess struck backwards with her broom handle, stunning the vixen; she then began barking out orders to the beasts in her command. "We're too scattered; we need to guard the door. Everybeast, Rally to me! To meeeeeeee!!!!"
But this proved to be an impossible task; some of the Redwallers were too far out of earshot, or had too many foebeasts between them and the Abbess, to heed the command. Seeing the first of the Walltop sentries hit the back of his army, Dankfur pressed his troops harder. "Quickly, while we still can, get inside! Look, there's only one, charge him!"
Walldoh's footpaw had been transfixed to the porch by an arrow as he came out the door; unable to move from the spot, he had fired arrow after arrow into the vermin pressing towards him, as cooly as if he were having a target practice. Ux Boulderpaw, in a flash of inspiration, whipped off his adderskull mask and flung it, laying Walldoh low. Triumphantly, the vermin charged the helpless dormouse en masse, fleeing from the otters and other sentries pursuing their back ranks towards the open door.
"Gggggrrreeeeeiiiiiiaaaaooouuggggh!" The shrieking snarl of an enraged wildcat filled the air as Siyuzin Stoneclaw exploded onto the scene, leaping over the stunned dormouse straight into the packed masses of vermin. The Wildcat had come out in the first charge, but had been sent back inside with the body of Kwinsee Pinspikes, and her two shell-shocked sisters, by the Abbess; now, her one eye streaming with tears for the fallen young one, and her face a twisted mask of heartache and wrath, the Wildcat wreaked her retribution like an avenging fury. As the Abbey Armory had been emptied into the Great Hall along with the woodcutting tools for the benifit of the sentries, Sy had managed to find her two scimitars; both broad, curved blades flashed through the air like windmills as the formidible creature went berserk, roaring out her spine-chilling caterwaul again and again as she went through the enemy like a juggernaut, heading straight at their leader.
For the very first time, Dankfur saw the face of the creature he had pursued through those long seasons. Here she was, the escaped prisoner he had so relentlessley hunted; she was still a good distance away, but coming at him like an arrow from a bow, the intent in her charge only too clear.
By now, Skipper Windryder's full band of sentries had descended to the grounds and was soundly thrashing the vermin army; many of the foxes and other martens scattered into the Abbey grounds in a panic, pursued by the enraged Redwallers. The marten, virtually alone before his oncoming wildcat enemy, felt a chill of fear; he looked wildly about for his two serpents, who had been strangely absent from the fray. Jettcoil was nowehere to be seen, but Whiptail was still visible, not too far off; running an otter who had ventured too close through with his saber, Dankfur raised his voice to a panicked screech. "WHIPTAIL! GET OVER HERE!"
The serpent obeyed; Dankfur grabbed the side of her mouth with his hook. "Where is your husband?! And where have you been?"
"You commanded usssss to pursssssue the littlebeasssssstssss, massssster. I Wasssss ssssearching. Jettcoil isss probably ssssstill ssssearching, too."
Dankfur realized only to clearly his blunder; his hasty command was about to cost him more than any decision he had made in his career. He released his snake with a jerk, snapping at her. "Get Jettcoil back here at once! If he's found the young ones, bring one back alive for a hostage; it's our only chance! Go, NOW!!"
Whiptail shot off across the grounds as fast as she could go, disappearing into the thick white fog in an instant. Dankfur dispatched a nearby squirrel, screaming at his creatures. "Hold them, stand firm! When my serpents get back, we'll pay these creatures back tenfold for their rashness in attacking us!"
The vermin tried, half-heartedly, to rally against the Redwallers again, but to no avail; the outnumbered foe fell before the oncoming goodbeasts like a sand sculpture before the tide. Skipper fought his way through to Sy, shouting at her face. "Leave 'em be, they've got 'em now! Come on, let's get after t'ones that ran off arter t'Dibbuns; I saw that marten send a snake after 'em!"
The otter held his breath as the wildcat turned to face him, wondering if she'd even recognize him in her beserk state; he had seen creatures with battle rage, or Bloodwrath, before, and knew that nobeast, friend or foe, was safe within their vicinity. But the otter had no need to worry; the wildcat was no Bloodwrath creature, just a formidible fighter. Her tone was filled with concern. "Good Heavens, I didn't even notice; they must have been on my blind side! Come on, friend, we'd best get to them before the serpent does!"
Dankfur saw the big wildcat suddenly stop fighting and run off with the tattooed otter into the mist; Realizing what they were after, he shouted to the depleted force of creatures loyal enough to stick near him. "Quickly, after them! Once we capture the Wildcat, we can leave this accursed place!"
It took a moment or two to get organized, but then the group pounded off in the direction Sy and Windryder had taken.
Some distance away from the battle, plowing and blundering through the mist, a small band of scattered beasts wandered the grounds; some were looking for the missing Dibbuns; others were trying to get away from the battle; but one, a marten, was looking for an enemy.
Ayeriss Pinspikes had temporarily given up hunting Gronk down to look for the other missing young ones, unaware that Gronk was also looking for her. The first mate of the Redclaw had never before run from an enemy, and was furious with himself for panicking when Ayeriss knocked the saber from his paws. It was only an unarmed hogmaiden; why in the world had he been so afraid? Well, no matter, he'd get her back for the humiliation.
A sound of a twig snapping caught the marten's ear; there was Ayeriss now, heading right at him! Crouching behind a bush near the western wallsteps, he watched as the hogmaid approached; clasping his adderskull mask in his paws, the marten tensed for a spring.
Some sixth sense told Ayeriss that somebeast was behind the bush nearest her; she halted, loath to walk past it. Gronk stifled a groan of frustration; he needed her to go by him so he could get her from behind! Picking up a small pebble, he lobbed it over the hogmaiden's head.
Hearing the pebble clunk to earth, Ayeriss looked in the direction of the sound. Gronk pounced then, slamming down hard with the mask, hoping to impale the hogmaid with the fangs of the skull.
The large bandage poultice about Ayeriss' head saved her life; the fangs of the adderskull ripped it off, missing her flesh entirely. Suprisingly swiftly for a beast of her girth, the hogmaiden whipped around and crushed her right fist into Gronk's nose, followed by a swift left uppercut to the chin. But the second-in-command of Dankfur was a pretty good paw-to-paw fighter in his own right; blocking Ayeriss' next two punches, he kicked out savagely with both footpaws, catching her in the midriff. Gasping for breath, Ayeriss was forced to back up a pace; seizeing the moment's respite, and nursing a bleeding mouth and nose, Gronk leapt up onto the wallsteps, hoping to take advantage of the highter ground.
With a roar, Ayeriss charged up the staircase after him; Gronk brought both cleched fists down on the back of her head, where he could see she had already been wounded once before. Ignoring the fiery stars of pain, Ayeriss still came onward. Suddenly frightened again, Gronk raised his paws for a second blow; thinking quickly, Ayeriss curled up in a ball at the last possible second, allowing the full force of the marten's blow to come down on her back.
Gronk gave a scream of pain as several hogspikes embedded themselves in his paws; Ayeriss leapt up, inadvertently headbutting her foe and embedding more spikes in his chin. Still howling in agony, Gronk struck wildly with his fists, retreating up the staircase as he did so. Blocking most of his thrusts, Ayeriss pursued him, landing blow after blow in her enemy's stomach and chest, and taking the occasional knock to the chin and face as the pair of fighting beasts ascended higher and higher.
Suddenly, they were on the ramparts. Thinking quickly, Gronk charged Ayeriss, bulling into her chest shoulder-first, trying to shove her down the stairs. The Hogmaid dug her footpaws in, pushing back with all her might; realizing that she was still, slowly but surely, heading backwards, the hogmaid suddenly leapt to one side, allowing Gronk to fall face-first to the battlements. Bruised, bloodied, and winded, The marten scrabbled upright hurriedly, expecting Ayeriss to try to leap on his back or something like that; however, he found himself facing the hogmaiden, who, also ignoring several bleeding wounds, had assumed a boxing stance on the Ramparts in front of him. "Cummon, put up yer fists, vurmint, I dares yeh! I ain't fightin' a downed beast!"
Gronk, still on all fours, made a last, desperate move. Like lightning, he latched his claws into Ayeriss' belt as he leapt upright; then, whirling around as if throwing a discus, the marten slung his foe over the battlements.
Gronk had failed to realize that, just before he had released her, Ayeriss had instinctively grabbed at the nearest object to stop herself falling; Gronk's blue, heavily embroidered cloak. The marten had no way of stopping himself; the momentum of his own throw, and the weight of Ayeriss herself, pulled him over the edge before he knew what was happening. With a piercing wail, he went sailing out into the mist in Ayeriss' wake, plunging earthward, headfirst.
Shermy had managed to round up Pringill and Leeam; he had just put the two Dibbuns back inside the Abbey building through an open kitchen window when he heard the sounds of conflict between Ayeriss and Gronk. Brandishing his axe, the young hare ran towards the noise; he skidded to a halt and hid behind a tree, however, when he saw Whiptail and Jettcoil, returning from the orchard to the main site of battle. This was the first glimpse the young hare had taken of the monsters; he gulped visibly, trying to stop his paws from shaking, and praying he would not be seen.
A terrified squeal suddenly reached Shermy's ears. The serpents, intent on joining their master, had not noticed him, but their captives had. Both Blacksnakes had a terrified Abbeybabe with them; Squirt, held fast in Whiptail's mouth, screamed at the young hare. "Shermeeeeeeeeeee! 'Elp meeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"
Speedwell the kitten, dragged along in a loop of Jettcoil's tail, also set up the plea. "Over heeeeeere, Shermmeeeeeee!"
The hare had not noticed the babes before; upon seeing them, he charged, all fear of serpents forgotten. The warcry of hares and badgers rang out as he swung his axe at Jetcoil's ugly head. "Eeeuulaaaaaliiiiaaaaaaaaaa!!!! Blood and Vinegaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrr!!!!"
The big male blacksnake lunged with the force he had used to break many necks before; dodging, Shermy sliced several scales off Jettcoil's neck. Dropping Speedwell, the blacksnake looped several coils about the young hare, but was repulsed from pulling them tight and strangling his quarry by the flailing axe blade, which scored wound after wound in his black-armored hide. The kitten, now free to move, sank his needle teeth into the tip of the big serpent's tail; with a convuslive jerk, Jettcoil tried to sling him off, at the same time finally managing to pull his coils tight about the hare.
Shermy still had his axe paw free; he struck out blindly, catching Jettcoil's head with the haft, completely stunning him. Unable to disentangle himself form the heavy, limp coils, Shermy raised his axe again, about to slice his foe in half to free himself.
Seeing that her mate was about to lose his life, Whiptail spat out Squirt and clamped her powerful jaws down hard on the hare's foreleg, forcing him to drop the weapon. Shermy gave an agonized yell; Squirt and Speedwell grabbed sticks and began beating at the two snakes with them. Shay and Rivereye came out of their hiding places to do the same, roaring at the two monsters, "Leave mista Shermeee alone, ya big bully!"
Enraged beyond using common sense, Whiptail wrenched her teeth free of Shermy's arm and came after the four babes, mouth wide open as if to swallow them whole.
"REDDWAAAAAAAAAALLLLLL!!!!"Out of the mist came a seemingly disembodied sword; the shining blade rammed itself into the open mouth of Whiptail. Raggle, his green tunic and black fur camoflauging him perfectly up until that point, materialized out of the mist, Tings at his side; the pair pulled the Dibbuns out of the way, yelling, "Move, quick, or you'll be slain!"
As is common with dying snakes, the body of Whiptail jerked spasmodically about in a frenzied dance, snapping weaker saplings in half, flattening bushes (slaying several unlucky, cowardly Krozfoxx, who had been hiding under them), and ripping large stones from the earth. Sy and Skipper arrived on the scene then; the otter pulled Shermy free of the coils of Jettcoil, and prepared to stab the serpent with his javelin. However, the blacksnake had regained consciousness; as soon as he saw his slain mate, the big serpent fled for his life, astonishing the watching beasts by actually climbing over the Abbey wall in his headlong flight.
Sy grabbed up her two cousins, weeping uncontrollably as she embraced them. "Thank heavens, you're alive!"
With a roar, Dankfur's force came crashing through the orchard, straight towards them; Skipper pulled the blade free of Whiptail's head and tossed it to Raggle, nodding towards the oncoming enemy. "Let's make a stand, an' allow the little uns t'get away! Shermy, Tings, see they get inside!"
Shermy felt faint from the loss of blood, but he obeyed, helping Tings to herd the last four Dibbuns to the Kitchen Window, locking and bolting it behind him. Sy, Skipper, and Raggle, weapons at the ready, prepared for the clash of foebeasts.
It never came.
As soon as the vermin were close enough to see that Whiptail was dead, they panicked and fled; Dankfur found himself left alone facing three grim-faced creatures, and was forced, for the first time in his life, to flee as well. Yelling the retreat, he charged for the Abbey gates, with the three warriors hot in pursuit.
Totally lost, Brother Willow wandered about in the fog. He had been so caught up in the moment of the charge that he had failed to notice when his spectacles fell off; now, alone, and scarecely able to see, the old shrew had actually managed to wander out the main gates and into Mossflower. Thinking he was in the orchard, the shrew tried to get his bearings, brandishing the wood chunk he had grabbed.
"Lets see, this tree is a hazel, or is it an oak? Well, never mind, the Abbey must be some way to the left. Oh dear, I wish I could see..."
He was nearly knocked flat as a scattered mass of martens and Krozfoxx ran by, fleeing from the Abbey conflict. Reacting insticntively, Willow flung his wooden stave, catching a vixen a blow to the back of the shoulders. The throw was not very hard; Zyxxa, the Krozfoxx archer, turned and loosed an arrow at her assailant.
Willow gasped as the shaft pierced the side of his ribcage; he sank to the ground, his head swimming in pain. The fox laughed contemptuously as she approached the collapsed shrew, casually fitting another arrow to her bow, and aiming for the shrew's head.
Suddenly, she looked up, and fired the arrow to a point behind Willow. There was a spine-chilling screech as something big sailed through the air, smashing headlong into the vixen. Her bow, quiver, and collarbone snapped in two, Zyxxa crawled painfully away from the conflict; ignoring her, and the shaft through its ear, the big shadow made its way back to Willow, lifting him bodily and running full-speed ahead to the Abbey. Just before he completely blacked out, the old shrew glanced up at his preserver...and found himself staring into the anxious, friendly face of Siyuzin Stoneclaw.