Cover art by ForrestFighter
Owing to the length of her stride, and the natural catlike stealth she possessed, Siyuzin Stoneclaw had soon gotten far ahead of her friends; the other five searchers were having great difficulty in keeping up with her without betraying their presence to the enemy. When she finally halted at the edge of a small clearing, holding up a paw to signal the others to do the same, Shermy breathed a huge sigh of relief, hissing to the wildcat.
"Whooof! I say, madam, could you possibly set a slower bloomin' pace the next time we're jolly well sneaking up on the bally enemy, wot? D'ye know, I stepped on a flippin' briar back there; haste makes waste, y'know..."
Sy's big, scarred mitt covered the gabby young hare's mouth, effectively stifling further remarks. She beckoned silently to Raggle, who made his way to her side; the wildcat lowered her mouth to his ear, her voice barely audible. "I think there's more than just three, by the sound of it; climb up and count them. Do not let yourself be seen."
Walldoh, who had been listening in, forestalled the young squirrel. "Better let me, young 'un; t'is more my type of job, so t'is."
Before anybeast could react, he had wound his headscarf about his ears and muzzle and ascended into the leafage of a nearby alder. A short moment passed; then Walldoh dropped from the hieghts to land in front of them, wincing slightly. "Sure, an' me ol' footpaw t'isn't quite shipshape yet. Countin' the pore ol' fox, t'is twenty-t'ree of 'em all t'gether, so there are. T'ree of 'em torturin' the fox, the rest of 'em flopped around the clearin' edge, the lazy bums! Sure, an' one has her claws red like ye said, missy, t'is true. Oh, by the way, I be knowin' this band of stoats; allies wid the Painted Ones, I seems to recall. An' they've no clue we're here."
Sy nodded decisively. "All right then, let's move. I'll go in first; you come when I call; we'll have to strike quick before they call up the Painted Ones. And please, young 'uns, be careful; don't be ashamed to run for it if everything goes wrong."
Without waiting to explain exactly what Painted Ones were, and pulling up the hood of her cloak to where her features were completely masked, the wildcat left the shade of the trees and strode boldly into the firelit clearing.
Tikah Guttro was a stoat; she was the self-appointed leader of the Guttro Clan. The band of stoats were all members of the same family, mostly distant cousins of one another, with a few closer relations. They were lazy, argumentative, and rather stupid, yet brutally cruel to any helpless beast unlucky enough to fall into their clutches; looting was second only to torture in their favorite pastimes.
When she had stumbled upon the old blind Krozfoxx Zaikee, wandering helplessly lost about Mossflower, and practically coated in trinkets, baubles, and other things vermin consider loot, Tikah's wicked little heart had exulted. This was a robber's dream come true! She had called the whole clan in to the attack; within a very short time, the old one had been divested of everything he owned save his magpie-tail kilt; not being content with a mere easy looting job, Tikah and her two brothers had then tied up the unfortunate, and began slowly torturing him with their spears while the others looked on. He yelped, squealed, and shreiked as the spearpoints prodded, scratched, and tickled, never fully stabbing him.
Yaghoo, a scrawny young stoat, hopped about and giggled naugtily as his elder sister tickled Zaikee's nose with her speartip. "Go on, stick 'im, sis!"
The spearpoint was suddenly at his nose; Tikah's small teeth showed in a viscous snarl. "I'll stick yew, or sumfin worse, if'n yew dare t'call me sis agin."
Yaghoo seemed loth to believe this until Frisz, the other brother, gestured to the long scar he sported along his jawline. "Ho believe me, she will at that. Where d'yew fink I got dis liddle beauty, eh?"
Zaikee, given the moment's respite, began shreiking at the top of his lungs. "Hurt me an' dey commee f'you, you nottee gettee 'way; you see!"
Frisz slapped the fox, who squealed loudly. "Ain't nobeast comin' for us, shoopid!"
Though he was bound paw and tail to a thorn bush, and bleeding from several shallow stab wounds, the old fox had not lost his trademark oafish grin. He broke into a little singsong chant.
Wun you lettee gettee 'way,
Live to fightee 'nother day!
He let out another yelp as Tikah prodded his nosetip so forcefully she drew blood. "Yew shuddup, miserymouf. I never lef' an enemy livin' yet, see!"
From the ring of lounging stoats, a hag-like female broke into a cackle, pointing at the trio. "Heeheehee! Wot about dat bigbeast, eh? Yew looked a proper fool den!"
Tikah's neck hair stood up stiff with anger; without any hesitation, she whipped around and flung the spear, which puctured the speaker through her upraised paw. A younger male stoat immediately leapt up, brandishing a dagger. "Yew had no call t'do dat to my muther!"
Tikah was shaking with rage; grabbing her brother Yaghoo's spear, she knocked the dagger away. "Nobeast makes sport of me, Raiderfang; an' that goes f'yew too, Mirka!" She made a sweeping gesture about the ring. "Alla yew, remember dis; nobeast I ever killed came back to life, see! If dat giant cat crawled off t'die affer I got frough wid it, t'ain't no laughin' matter, see!"
"Oh, I think they see, though I doubt you do."
At the sound of the cultured voice, Tikah whirled around. "Who said dat?"
A tall beast totally enveloped in a long, black cloak stepped forth from the ring of stoats, were it had stood unnoticed for a considerable length of time. Tikah immediately went into a fighting crouch, teeth and red-dyed claws bared. "Dis is my territory, see! Geroff unless yew wanna spear in y..."
Her jaw, and those of every member of her clan, dropped wide open as the creature flung its cloak aside, revealing a huge grey and black wildcat. The Guttro Clan stoats could only stare in horror; though the clothes were different, and there were more scars than before, this was undoubtedly the same cat that they had just been talking about. Tikah backed up as Sy advanced, her face a mask of terror. "No, no! Go away! Yew were dead; yore a ghost..yeeeeeeeeeee!"Swatting away the spear, and snapping it like a twig in the process, Sy grabbed the stoat by the tunic collar, lifting her bodily. The wildcat's lips drew back from her teeth in a fearsome snarl. "Oh, I'm no ghost, believe me." She addressed the stunned vermin about her. "Now, tell me, are you vermin going to release my fox friend, or am I going to throw you to the top of that oak tree over there, one by one? It's your choice!"
Upon realizing she was not going to be immidiately slain, some of Tikah's boldness returned; she chomped down hard, biting Sy's paw to the bone. Sy roared with rage, flipping her prisoner over to grab her by her tail and whirl her about her head. Tikah screamed like a banshee as the world around her became a spinning blur. "Brudders, 'elp meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"
Suddenly galvanized into action, the vermin attacked, grabbing up their weapons to charge the lone wildcat. Releasing Tikah, who sailed in a poetic arch upward and outward to crash to earth some distance away, Sy threw back her head and bellowed, "NOW!"
Walldoh, Shermy, Ayeriss, Raggle, and Tings leapt into the firelight, hitting the vermin from the back; they fled, only to be met by Sy, who was making good on her threats by grabbing any stoat within reach and flinging them as high as she could make them go.
Mirka, the haglike female stoat, leapt upon Shermy from the back and tried to strangle him. "Heehee, gotcha, rabbet!"
Her son Raiderfang suddenly descended from the heights to land upon both her and the hare, flattening them to the ground. Tings helped Shermy out from beneath the unconscious pair; he grumbled moodily. "I say, you'd think that cat'd have the decency to watch where she's chuckin' the bally vermin, wot!"
Frisz and Yaghoo were still guarding Zaikee when Raggle charged them, yelling and waving Martin's sword wildly. As it was obvious the young squirrel was an inexperienced swordsbeast, they didn't even bother to run, but mocked him as he danced about in front of them. Yaghoo giggled nastily. "Lookit the liddle 'un wid the shiny toy sword. O lack a day, e'll slay me an'...wot the blazes?"
Raggle, in his wild dance, had accidentally sliced both Yaghoo's spear and his belt, causing his billowy pantaloons to descend about his ankles. The stoat grabbed up the pointed half of his spear and charged. "I'll kill yew for that!"
Raggle screamed as the spearpoint found his ear; dodging the second spear thrust, he lunged, running the vermin through. Unfortunately, the body of the dead stoat toppled foward, causing the squirrel to stagger under the weight. Frisz, seeing his brother fall, let out a howl of rage and came at the helpless Raggle; he had not gotten more than two paces before Ayeriss' fists found him, striking him a viscious one-two on the jaw and laying him out flat. The burly hogmaiden whirled about and caught another approaching stoat a fierce uppercut to the neck, sending him sailing backwards. "Take that, vurmint!"
The eldest stoats in the band, led by an ancient male called Korvy, hid at the fringes of the clearing, firing sharp thorns from blowpipes at anybeast near enough to pass by. Sy took one in the cheek, and another in the footpaw, before Walldoh spotted them and volleyed shafts in their direction to drive them off. Shermy grabbed up a dart and licked it, smiling at Sy. "Not poisoned; shouldn't hurt a bigbeast like you, wot!"
He ducked as the oblivious wildcat caught up with Korvy and sent him hurtling through the air, missing the hare's head by a fraction.
Deep in the woods, a force of one hundred fighting beasts were on their way northward when they heard the sounds of battle. The leader of the band broke into a run, geturing to the others with the big crossbow he wielded. "Sound's like trouble over that way; come on!"
Silent as moonshadows, the skilled hunters followed their leader to the battle site.
The stoats, unwilling to relenquish their territory, were still fighting like madbeasts; however, they were severely outmatched. Ayeriss and Tings released Zaikee and tried to lead him away from the conflict; however, the crazy old fox refused to go, struggling madly in their grip. "Nono! Nono takee Zaikee 'way, nonono! Zaikee needee his majee back, nono takee 'way!"
Tings translated to a bewildered Ayeriss. "He said he needs his magic back, whatever that is. Come one, old one, we'll get your magic later; up ye come!"
Tikah had regained consciousness and was trying to sneak away, heading for a large log drum set up at the corner of her territory; Sy saw her and instantly realized what was going on. "Stop her, Walldoh, don't let her get away, or we're sunk!"
Unfortuantely, Tikah had already reached the drum and was beating on it frantically when the dormouse bounded over the campfire and loosed an arrow at her, slaying her on the spot. But the damage was done; a fierce screaming noise filled the air, growing louder and louder by the second. Sy groaned; she shouted to her friends. "Get the fox and run for it; hurry!"
They were halfway through carrying out her order when the woodlands exploded with vine-covered tree rats, their bodies daubed and painted yellow and green colors to camoflauge them in their habitat. Their voices were raised in a loud warcry; "Choohooo, killee killeeee! Yeeeeeeh!"
In no time at all, the six found themselves surrounded by more than fourscore of the beasts; Frisz, who had regained consciousness, shook paws with the biggest of the tree rats. "Welcome, Jigvi, strong cheif of Pain'ed Ones!"
Jigvi, Cheiftain of the tree rats, returned the gesture. "Kakachoo, what for you call us this time?"
Frisz gestured dramatically. "Half a batch o' loot, as usual. Dese beasts slew my sister and bruvver, an' invaded our lands."
Jigvi gave him a look of disdain. "An' dey still alive?"
Frisz seemed to wilt under the glare; he shrugged lamely. "The big 'un fights like ten."
Jigvi shook his head in disgust, and drew a blowpipe from his vine belt, signalling to the others to do the same. The sickly smell of poison rent the air as they opened their dart pouches. "Chookah, you weak. Arrah well, not fight like ten when ten darts hit 'em! Chaharr, ready! Aim!..."
He fell flat suddenly, an arrow between his eyes. A veritable rain of arrows suddenly descended upon the vermin; as it continued, a commanding voice rang out from the trees, clear and sharp. "Drop your weapons, vermin! NOW!"
There was a musical clatter as the multitude of hollow wooden tubes fell to the ground. As suddenly as it had started, the rain of arrows ceased; the voice rang out again. "Now drop all the loot you stole an' run for it, an' don't look back! If anybeast is still here by the count of ten we shoot again! One! Two!..."
Almost instantly, the trinkets stolen from Zaikee were on the grass, and the clearing was emptied of vermin, save for the bodies of the slain. As the sounds of retreating vermin footpaws vanished into the distance, a youngish woodmouse, clad in a black cowled hood and brown striped tunic, appeared in the firelight. Behind him were a hundred Branchbounder archers; mostly dormice like Walldoh, with one or two squirrels in the mix. Raggle's face broke into a delighted grin; he had recognized the leader. "Good old Billeo, perfect timing as usual!"
Billeo grinned and waved cheerily. "Hullo, Raggle! Hullo, Boss! Lady Wardah sent a deputation of us to escort some injured Guosim to Redwall, and the Abbess set us on your trail. When we heard the fighting we came as fast as we could."
Walldoh embraced the mouse, patting him fondly on the head. "Sure, t'was neatly done, Commander, indeed t'was. Faith, nivver the once have I regretted your promotion, so I haven't."
Billeo laughed, disengaging himself from Walldoh's grip. "Away with ye, old 'un; I'm too young to die from suffocation just yet. So, how did you get into this mess, or would it be impudent to ask?"
Sy gestured towards Zaikee. "After saving us from a certain death, I think any impudence could be excused, friend. The stoats and I are old enemies; we had not originally planned to fight them, but when we saw they had captured the poor old one there, we tried to rescue him. We didn't intend to get mixed up with Painted Ones."
Billeo, however, was no longer paying her any attention. In looking where she had pointed, he had spotted the two Redwall maidens, and his attention was especially riveted on the mousemaid. Passing his crossbow to Raggle, he ran to her side, taking the staggering Zaikee's weight on his shoulders. "Allow me, missy; a pretty maid like yourself shouldn't soil her paws on on old misery like this!"
In his haste, he stumbled and nearly fell; both he and Tings burst out laughing. The mousemaid pushed in beside him. "Here, we'll do it together. Nice to meet you, by the way; my name's Tings."
Billeo shook her proffered paw. "And my humble moniker is Billeo, Commander of the Branchbounder Strike force. And what do they call you, my pretty hogmaiden?"
This last remark was to Ayeriss, who growled. "Kin we cease wid the nice t' meetchers an' get this pore beast t'help? 'E ain't a light fella, y'know!"
A scattered laughter broke out among the other Branchbounders and Redwallers. Shermy shouldered his hatchet. "I think she may have a point there, wot!"
Sy nodded, taking the initiative. "Aye, that poor madbeast needs a good healer, Shermy; you'd best see to it. Unless anybeast has an objection, I think setting up camp here wouldn't be a bad idea, after we bury the fallen ones in the woods someplace."
The Branchbounders looked to their Boss; Walldoh was in complete agreement. "Sure, t'is a fact you've a good head on your shoulders, miz. We'll press on to the Swamp t'morrer, so we will."
Within a short time, the fire had been stoked up, the fallen vermin had been cleared away, and the now augmented band of travelers were settled in for a late supper. As nobeasts felt much like cooking, the meal consisted of fruits, nuts, and cheeses donated from everybeast's haversacks.
Shermy, having successfully gotten Zaikee to sleep, flopped down beside Raggle, swiping an apple from the squirrel's outstretched paw and wolfing it down. "By the left, talk about a crazy old fox, wot! Wouldn't let me lay a flippin' paw on him until he was 'magic' again; I've never seen beast with so many bloomin' strings of Seer's tricks. Had to humour him, y'know; best thing t'do in those circumstances, wot."
Raggle stared ruefully at the apple core the gluttonous hare had returned to him. "Does he really believe he's magic?"
Shermy picked his teeth with his hook. "Indeed he does, old thing, with all the bally fervor anybeast could muster. He told me he'd turn me to a flippin' toad if I tried to bandage him up before he was properly dressed, crazy thing. Poor beast, he's very old and ill, really; probably he won't last out another full season."
Tings and Billeo were on Raggle's other side; the mousemaid voiced her opinion. "I think he must have at least a slight gift of fortunetelling, though; most foxes do."
Shermy agreed, settling himself comfortably against a tree root, staring into the flames. "Of course he does, no question there; Sy told me he predicted her appearance well before she made herself known to the stoats. Sometime in his better seasons he took a jolly hard blow to the head; still carries the bloomin' big scar back of his skull, y'see. That explains the insanity, and the blindness, wot!"
Billeo shook his head, chuckling. "It still baffles me why you lot risked your lives for a fox, though. I guess since he's an old madbeast you felt sorry for him?"
Shermy yawned cavernously. "That's about the flippin' size of it, wot!"
One by one, all the beasts about the fire save the posted sentries dropped off to sleep, each one wondering what the next day's adventures would bring.