Cover art by ForrestFighter
Thrice, the sun had set over Redwall Abbey since the day of the tragic battle; now, it was morning again, with bright summer sun shining down upon the rose-hued bulk of the Abbey, warming the stones after two solid days of steady rain. The interior of the Abbey had seemed to be one vast chamber of gloom during those two days, for more reasons than just the weather. The deaths of several Abbeybeasts, especially that of baby Kwinsee Pinspikes, had hung over everybeasts minds like the dark rainclounds; furthermore, many beasts had suffered hurts in the battle, and the infirmary was packed almost to bursting point, with not only the wounded and healers but also the many anxious family members and friends of the injured beasts. Grandmum Dawbil, atypical to her usual preferences, had allowed these last named to stay under the condition that they not interfere, only assisting in the healing if specifically called upon to do so. The sickbay had, in fact, become the place for Abbeydwellers to meet and chat of late; as it helped to somewhat dispel the gloomy atmosphere, nobeast raised any complaint.
Standing by the infirmary window, Abbess Saffron and Jorty Cellarmole watched the bright rays of sunlight streaming in, conversing together in hushed tones. The molewife gestured with her digging claws. "Burr, Oi think ev'rybeast bees quoiter 'n usual this mawnin', missuz; they'm a-thinkin' ee fooneral shudd bee t'day, ho urr."
Saffron nodded, her voice tight with emotion. "I had already come to that decision myself when I saw the rain had stopped this morning, though I had to order Skipper to bring back his search party before we lay our fallen ones to rest. Poor fellow, he's so worried about Dippertail not coming back."
Jorty shrugged. "Hurr, Oi don't blame ee Skipper furr that, bein' the wunn what raised Dip when ee'm bee nought but ee 'bandunned eggchickur. Whurr doo ee think ee'm gone, missuz?"
The Abbess shrugged. "Who can tell? We can only hope he hasn't been hurt. But if two days worth of searching has brought us neither hide nor feather of him, that seems unlikely. Maybe he suddenly felt the longing to return to the northern mountains where his kind usually live; birds of prey do do that occasionally."
Shermy joined the pair, bringing with him a heavily laden trolley of food. He used his uninjured paw to swing up into a seated position on the broad windowsill; sensing his companions' gloom, he tried to lighten up the situation, smiling broadly. "Hello, ladies! Beautiful morning, wot?"
The Abbess smiled back; she, along with just about every other beast in Redwall, had been hugely impressed by the young hare lately. Shermy's right forepaw was completely gone, lost forever to the fangs of the late blacksnake Whiptail; however, he had neither grieved this loss, nor been angered by it. Instead, inspired by a memory of the sight of Dankfur, the hare had instructed Bumbill the Abbey Forgemaster to make him a simple metal hookpaw. Jorty's husband had finished the task the previous morning; now, with his new appendage attached skillfully by Grandmum Dawbil to his pawstump, the hare went about his business just as calmly and obediently as usual, totally unaffected. What impressed everybeast more than his philosophical handling of the situation, however, was that his skill as a healer had not diminished. True, he had needed a bit of assistance when he had only a stump of his right paw to work with; now that he had a hook to hang bandage rolls on, or tie stitching thread to, Shermy could (and did) continue his tasks unaided, bringing help to many sorely wounded creatures.
Off-duty for the moment, the young hare washed his paw and hook in a nearby water basin, addressing the Abbess. "Well, things are taking a turn for the better, marm, ain't they? Bloomin' weather's finally clearin' up, beasts we were worried might not make it are starting to recover, and so on. Oh, and that Foremole chap says his team's made quite the progress on the new main gate, marm."
Saffron patted his back. "That is definitely good news, young sir. Pray tell me, are you planning to eat all this breakfast yourself, or could you spare a bite for a hungry Abbess and Cellarmole?"
Shermy threw a strawberry in the air and caught it skillfully in his mouth. "I believe so; help yourself, wot!"
The base of Sy Stoneclaw's ear had been punctured clean through by an arrow; she sat on the floor while Sister Jerrabeau checked the dressing about her wound. Hearing food mentioned, she made as if to rise. "Save some for me; I'd like some breakfast too...YEOW!"
The elderly mouse had given the bandage a hard yank. "Sit still, miss, or I'll never get this on!"
Shermy filled a small tray with eatables and brought it to his wildcat friend; noticing that her good eye was red with recent weeping, he patted her paw gently. "Now, what's all this, then? I thought you said 'tis better to smile during troubles than to weep."
The wildcat sighed, shaking her head. "It seems all of my kind are doomed to bring trouble wherever they encounter goodbeasts, even when someone as wise as your warrior mouse commands them. I don't know that the Pinspikes family will ever forgive me after what's happened; I tried to speak to Ayeriss today and nearly got my head bit off."
The hare shook his head. "She's like that most of the time anyway. Besides, she's still grieving, and in great pain, doncha know. After all, she fell flat on her back and drove a good deal of her spikes inwards; we must have removed enough to fill two buckets. She'll come round, don't worry." Seeing that Sy was still trying to hold back tears, Shermy adopted a firmer tone. "Now, you stop this right this minute, miss. No one could say Kwinsee's death was your fault; nothing you did induced her to climb out the window, or caused that marten to decide to slay her. In fact, you saved many of our lives charging into the vermin like you did; besides, the scum who killed our Dibbun got what he deserved, wot!"
Sy shuddered. "I actually feel rather sorry for the marten. I'm glad we already buried him and his lot in the ditch."
Shermy nodded, his face grim. "Aye, the drop from the battlements isn't fatal, usually, but landing headfirst on a stone..." He, too, shuddered. "Anyway, that's over and done with, thank goodness."
Sister Jerrabeau finished tying off Sy's bandage, moving on to attend Walldoh Branchbounder's wounded footpaw; Sy stood, smiling weakly. "I'd better go check on my cousins. Thank you for your kind words, friend; I'll be glad to have you by my side when I go to free the rest of my kin from the Black Shade."
Shermy offered her his intact paw (his hookpaw was still rather sore), which the wildcat shook. "I share the sentiment. When do you think we should move out?"
Sy shrugged. "Well, we can't go until Ayeriss and Walldoh are fit for travel. Besides, we still don't...hello, Skip, what's your hurry?"
Windryder and his search party had just returned, and stormed into the infirmary without waiting for permission to enter. Shoving his way past Sy without even looking at her, the otter chief marched right up to Abbess Saffron. The squirrel could tell by the expression on Skipper's face that something was badly wrong; she tried to remain calm. "I take it you found something. Speak!"
Skipper bowed, making his report. "As ye know, we 'ad no way of knowin' where Dippertail might've landed in that fog, so we've been coverin' the points of the compass. We've searched south an' west for signs of that falcon; today, we went north. We found the body of that raven in a clearin' not too far off, an' a good deal of Dip's feathers. Alyssum found this writ onna tree trunk nearby an' took a copy."
Skipper handed a parchment to the Abbess, who read it aloud. "We have one of your youngbeasts; a falcon. Do not try to follow us or he dies!" Her face paled, and she glanced at Skipper, who nodded grimly.
"We also found a shred o' blue cloak on a thorn bush by that dead raven. Ain't no doubt about it; Dippertail's been kidnapped by them Ranks beasts, and they're usin' 'im as hostage while they make their getaway!"
There was a complete storm of murmurs of shock, indignation, and alarm from the beasts in the infirmary; Saffron waved her paws for silence. "Please, friends, this is no time to panic, or threaten enemies that are not here to hear you. Skipper, what do you propose we do?"
The otter chieftain shrugged his shoulders sadly. "Not much we can do. The rain washed out the villain's tracks; we don't have the foggiest idea where they're going."
Sy decided it was time to speak up. "Yes, we do; at least, I do. They'll probably be heading back to the Shadelair, to gather reinforcements. Dankfur's not stupid; he knows we're bound to follow him and free our comerade."
Everybeast turned to look at her; Ayeriss, who had been huddled miserably on a bed in a corner, sat up, demanding, "What do yeh think we should do about it?"
The wildcat laid out her scheme. "Martin instructed seven of us to seek out the Shadelair; Myself, Ayeriss, Tings, Shermy, Walldoh, Raggle, and one other we haven't figured out yet."
Sister Sedgebrush interrupted. "Hold hard there, miss; I don't see where that rhyme said my son must go."
Sister Flim the Recorder rummaged through her parchment pouch, finding the scroll where she had written down the rhyme. "It says here,
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."
She pointed at the young black squirrel, who was, somewhat green-facedly, helping to bandage Walldoh's bloody footpaw. "Your son saved several Dibbuns' lives by slaying one of those blacksnakes, and he used the Sword of Martin. Therefore, he goes!"
Raggle agreed, somewhat weakly. "I don't know what possessed me to grab Martin's sword, when there was a perfectly good pile of weapons in the room already. But, there it is; can't change what's happened, can I?"
Walldoh grinned at him. "Sure, an' why would you want to? A little adventure'll do ye the world of good, so it will. Why, I remember when I was yore age..."
The Abbess noticed that several beasts were getting a bit impatient; she cleared her throat. "If we could get back to the matter at hand, please?"
Sy elaborated her scheme. "Right. As I was saying, we don't know who the seventh beast is, but in the light of Skipper's news, we may have to go ahead and leave, and trust it's sombeast we'll meet on the way, instead of a Redwaller. Anyway, Brother Willow was good enough to find the directions to the Shadelair in his studies. I know where he put them, so we may use these as a guide. Dankfur is just about as lost as I am, of that I am sure; he and his crew may know the general direction to take, but they will be a while in getting there. If we start soon, we can probably use the directions to overtake them; then, we can form a plan of campaign to sneak Dippertail away from them without things coming to a direct battle. Any questions?"
Ayeriss shrugged, gingerly. "Anythin's better than sittin' here mopin'. It all seems a bit risky, tho'."
The Abbess agreed. "That it is, but I doubt anybeast could come up with a better plan. All those in favor, raise their right paws."
Immediately, a mass of paws shot up; Sy smiled. "Well, that seems to be unanimous...Sister Sedgebrush, are you raising your paw? I can't tell."
The squirrelwife's paw had flicked halfheartedly up, then down again; she fidgeted with her habit cord. "Er...er...I don't know that I really want my son to go marching off who-knows-where. But, if Martin said he must go, then he must go, I suppose."
Raggle looked relieved; for a minute, he had feared his mother would panic and force him to stay. Hoping to change the subject before she had second thoughts, the young squirrel piped up, "When should we leave? I don't think that Ayeriss or Walldoh are fit to travel yet."
Ayeriss leapt to her paws, ignoring the pain of her wounds. "Sez who? I dunno 'bout you lot, but as soon's my sister's put to rest, I'm out of 'ere. I don't never wanna see this place agin!"
In the aghast silence that followed, she made an ungainly dash from the room, hoping nobeast had noticed the tears suddenly beading in her eyes.
Walldoh was the first to recover; he, too, stood, testing the poultice about his footpaw. "Poor lass, the grief's still too near for her to think clearly. Sure, an' I should be able to walk on this whenever we're ready; feel's like a new paw, so it does."
Sy looked about her group of comerades, all looking ready and willing to go. "Very well; with your permission, Abbess, we'll move out at sunset, after the ceremony and funeral dinner. That should give us time to study the route, and pack for the trip. I wish we knew who 'Two eyes faking one' was, but we'll just have to do without him, or her for now."
"That seems the best course of action to me, friend." The Abbess took Sy's paw. "May blessing follow you wherever you go, all of you. Go now, and make ready to leave; I will send for you when the burial is to take place."
The small party made as if to depart from the infirmary, when Twigga the harvest mouse came dashing in from the back room, where the most seriously injured patients had been kept. "Miz Sy, there's a patient who wants to speak to you; he says it's urgent. He says he wants you, too, Raggle."
The wildcat and the black squirrel turned to follow her, their curiosity aroused.
Brother Willow's wound was the worst any of the creatures still living had recieved; it was, as Shermy had put it, "a bloomin' miracle the old chap wasn't slain, though I couldn't say how long he'll hold out with a gash like that." The old shrew had been unconscious when Sy had rescued him and brought him in, and had remained that way until a few minutes previously. Twigga halted the two beasts following her, cautioning, "Whatever you do, don't excite him in any way. I think he might be delirious, so just let him say his piece and don't contradict him."
Sy took a look at the thin, wan, pitiful figure dwarfed by the large bed he was in, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Is he going to die?"
Twigga nodded sadly. "He might live for a few days more, or a few minutes; it's difficult to say. But we're trying to keep him as comfortable as we can, so please don't antagonize him, no matter how ornery and disagreeable he chooses to be."
Raggle, realizing the remarks were aimed at him, waved his bushy black tail impatiently. "All right, all right, I get the message. I won't say a thing if he doesn't ask me too. Let's get this over with, shall we?"
Twigga led the pair over to the old shrew's bedside, gently tapping him on his shoulder. "Brother Willow, here are the creatures you sent for."
The shrew's eyes did not open; feebly, he rasped, "Are you there, cat?"
Sy knelt down close to the bed. "I'm here, Brother."
The shrew paused to draw breath before continuing. "And you, young Raggle?"
"Good." A short silence followed, broken only by the sound of Willow's labored breathing. Sy was about to ask Willow why he had called her there, when the old shrew spoke again, his cracked voice barely audible. "You saved me...stopped that fox shooting my head...Why, cat?"
Sy was taken aback by the question. "Why would I not?"
Willow seemed to be struggling with emotion, as well as to breathe. "Nasty...I've been nasty, rude...horrible...to everybeast...I've been a complete savage. Don't be a fool... asking me why not. You should have left me...but you didn't. Why?"
Sy took his paw. "How you behaved doesn't matter, Brother. You were a goodbeast in danger, that's all that mattered."
Willow's face formed a grimace. "You could have taken the arrow...you risked your life...you think I'm a good beast? Hah!"
Sy stroked his forehead to calm him. "Good beasts can sometimes make mistakes and behave badly, brother. I never held anything against you, never."
Willow coughed, wincing again. "I still say..You..are vermin..."
"Now wait just a min..." Raggle was about to speak out, but a glance from Twigga silenced him.
Willow continued. "You are a cat...you are a vermin...but you are...a good vermin. You have a good heart...Never...never let anybeast tell you different. Never...never let old fools like me...tell you different." He made as if to move his paws, then went into another fit of coughing. Sy waited patiently for him to continue; but when he did, his thoughts were on a different track. "All my work....all my studies...no good to anybeast, now....no one to keep the library...my life's work...gone now." The shrew's eyes snapped open, a look of sadness and fear stamped on his features.
Sy clasped his paw tightly. "Don't worry, brother; this Abbey is full of good beasts who love history as much as you do. The library's in good paws, I promise you." Brother Willow still looked upset; Sy stroked his head again, whispering. "I promise you, Brother, you have no need to worry. I promise."
Raggle suddenly chimed in, his voice strangley choked. "Aye, an' I promise, too."
Willow seemed to accept this assurance; he settled into his pillow, closing his eyes again. He drew a deep breath, his voice barely above a hissing whisper. "I wish...I wish I could have been remembered as a goodbeast...that I could have been your friend and not your enemy...Lady Stoneclaw."
It was the last thing the old scholar ever said; his paw slid limply from the wildcat's grasp. With tears raining unchecked down her face, Sy embraced the old shrew for the first and last time. "You were never my enemy, Brother Willow; rest in peace, my ancient friend."
Down in Great Hall, Abbess Saffron and Formole Aggit studied a parchment that contained a diagram of the part of the lawns used for seasons as a cemetery; the pair were discussing plans for the funeral ceremony. The Abbess pointed at various spots. "We had better bury Brother Gus here, next to his wife. Barbatus and the other two otters we lost can go on the area nearest the pond, where most of our lost otters lie. I suppose Brother Furze and his family will tell us where they want Kwinsee's marker to be, though I'd imagine it would probably be somewhere near a patch of flowers; she loved flowers."
The mole leader shook his head sadly. "B'ain't roight, havin' to bury thoi young'un. Poor Furze an' Teezl, Ho urr."
Sy and Raggle came downstairs, both wiping tears from their eyes. The big wildcat walked on by without a word, going over to the weapons pile, grabbing her scimitars, and polishing them furiously. Raggle halted at the table, trying in vain to keep his voice from trembling. "Regret to say it, Mother Abbess, but there will need to be one more grave dug; Brother Willow has passed on. I think everybeast should know that, before he died, he apologized for his actions and requested to be forgiven."
The Abbess smiled. "Thank you, Raggle. You may go now and gather your provisions."
The young squirrel made as if to do so, then halted. "There's one thing more. Brother Willow expressed concern that his library would not be kept up and organized after he passed on. When I return to Redwall, I plan to see to it that it is. That's all."
Bowing, he went off after the wildcat. Foremole nodded in admiration. "Hurr, ee young maister bees a-growin' up, burr aye."
Saffron nodded her head in acknowledgement; there was no need for more words.