Cover art by ForrestFighter
Dankfur Clawhook was in a foul mood; everybeast, from Jettcoil to the least intellegent of the Krozfoxx, could tell that just by looking at him. True, his adderskull mask hid his facial expressions somewhat; however, even his very posture and movements seemed to emenate an almost palpable aura of dangerous temper. Everybeast in his band stayed well away from him for the time being, trying to mind their own buisiness and stick rigidly to orders as they proceeded at a double-march through Mossfower Woods.
Bringing up the rear of his band, watching intently for stragglers, the marten captain was alone with his bitter thoughts and sulking. The truth was, for the first time in his despicable life, Dankfur had been forced up against the reality of failure; however, his obsessive brain was practically unable to accept the fact, or admit he could have been in the wrong. Totally forgetting his hasty commands and bad decisions during the incident, he had firmly convinced himself the failure at Redwall was the fault of one of his martens, or of a Krozfoxx. Accordingly, he brooded on a suitable punishment for the culprit, once he figured out whose fault it was; these vengeful thoughts, however, were overshadowed by the nagging fact that he was going to have to explain to Enzi Grexx the failure of the mission.
Even though the Black Shade had not actually commanded the pine marten to pursue Sy, he would most definitely take a dim view of his Voice's crew being outsmarted and defeated by simple woodlanders, or being forced to ally with primitive, scraggly, stunty foxes who were definitely not real Ranks material. There was no lie Dankfur could concoct that would fool the wolf, nor was there any way he could think of to smooth over this setback. Even should he produce a scapegoat, plus the prize of the captive falcon Dippertail, to the wolf, Dankfur knew that nothing would save him the embarrassment that was sure to come. Even his clever plan of luring Sy to the Shadelair would not save him; Enzi Grexx would want to know what had taken so long, and how it had happened that over half of Dankfur's crew had been slain in the simple task of pursuing an escaped prisoner. Forced to come to grips with this unalterable truth, Dankfur continued to sulk at the back of his crew, angrily wracking his brains for some way out of the unthinkable situation.
From his position at the very front of the group, Jettcoil spotted a good place to camp for the night and called a halt; some of the Krozzfox, not used to watching the leader for orders, ran into each other's backs and tripped on each other's paws while attempting to come to a sudden stop. Dankfur snarled in frustration at the sight of the mass of waving paws and tails, which eventually transformed back into his band's marching column as creatures began to extricate themselves from the pile. "Oafs, dullards! An army of babes would be of more use than these louts."
Trouble broke out at the front of the column when Akalle Bladewhip drew her rapier and began waving it angrily at Ux Boulderpaw, who had trodden upon her tail. "Gerrof, ye big dope! Watch where you're going!"
The big dogfox did so, dodging the poisoned blade with suprising grace and aloofness. "Oh, shuddee up ya mouth, Kallee; I nottee do it a-purpose."
The rapier blade flickered dangerously beneath his muzzle; the vixen glared at her taller adversary. "Impudent bigbeast, you'll pay dearly if ye tell me to shuddup again! Who do you think you are?"
Ux returned her glance calmly, as if he were adressing a creature no more threat to him than a fly. "I nottee scaree of ya, Kallee, nono more I be scaree of ya. I see ya runnee 'way from dat fightee 'fore Hook Skulleebeast callee stop. Ya nono moree danee big cowwid! An dat bigee knife not poison, I callee ya bluff dere; I nono see ya poison nobease widee dat t'ing yet, ya jus' stabee wid it."
Akalle realized that Ux, who had never been particularly fond of her, was lying in hopes of souring the other's opinion of her; this was a typical Krozfoxx method of challenging authority. Angrily, she lunged, making as if to run him through; Ux sidestepped neatly, listening to the whistle of the blade going by. He struck out with his knotty fists, striking her a vicious one-two on the jaw. Undaunted by the sudden loss of a couple of her teeth, the tough little vixen charged, her flashing blade weaving patterns in the air before her adversary.
Ux had hoped to catch her off-guard and knock her out before something like this happened; despite his show of bravado, he was actually very frightened of Akalle, even though he had been beginning to doubt the supposed poison qualities of her weaponry. Ducking and dodging in blind panic, he backed into a rocky outcrop, knocking several large stones loose. Instintively, he grabbed one up and flung it at her; it fell short, but the advancing Akalle tripped on it, crashing to earth face-first. With a howl of triumph, Ux lept at her unprotected back; she rolled over just in time to catch the full of his weight descending upon her stomach and chest. Holding the winded vixen's paws spread-eagled, so that she could not reach the rapier or one of her many knives, Ux grinned at her, relief and elation mingled in his smile. "See wottee I mean, I nono scaree of ya!"
The other Krozfoxx, who had never liked being forced to follow the vixen, were about to raise a cheer for their biggest fighter when Dankfur arrived on the scene. The marten looked about slowly, his lowered voice laden with menace. "What, may I ask, is going on around here?"
Ux, still elated by his unexpected victory, grinned at the marten. "She startee fight, but I showee disee wun who bee da strongest, she nono gonnee scaree me no more."
Dankfur nodded understandingly; he himself was wary of Ux, who far surpassed him in height and girth, though he dared not show it or admit it aloud. Realizing that more unnecessary fights might break out if he challenged the Krozfoxx's new hero on the spot, he decided to act nonchalant for the time being. "I believe it; though I wonder that a runt like her could scare you in the first place. However, we already have a shortage of beasts, so I don't want any fighting amongst ourselves. The next one I catch at it will be severely punished. Did you mark that, Jettcoil?"
The big blacksnake, who was still somewhat shocked by the loss of his mate, shook himself from his stupor and nodded. "Yessss, masssster. If fightssss ssssstart, I ssssshall finisssssh them."
Dankfur smiled; it was not a pretty sight. "Good." He glanced around. "This seems a good spot to stop for the night; we'll camp here and start again as soon as its light. Somebeast start a cooking fire; Ringgob, you scout about for some meat to cook with these accursed plants we have for rations. The rest of you, get some rest."
Grateful that they had been spared, the martens and Krozfoxx scattered to do his bidding. Akalle, who had nearly been suffocated by Ux's sitting upon her, was left lying on her back, gasping for air. Dankfur placed a footpaw on her chest, touching her muzzle with his saber. He lowered his voice so only she could hear. "This is the second time you've caused me trouble; by rights you should be dead. Mark my words, if you once more attack any member of this crew - fox, marten, or serpent - you will not live to gloat about it. I shall see to it personally. Is that clear?"
Akalle nodded, though the look in her clear blue eyes made it plain that the fire of her personality had not been dampened just yet. Stripping her of her knife belt with a deft flick of his hook, and picking up her rapier from where it had fallen, the marten captain signalled to Jettcoil. "Watch her while I bury these. If she moves, kill her." He smiled again at the look of helpless, baffled fury on the humiliated vixen's face. "You can help Jettcoil with sentry duty tonight; I'll sleep on these so you don't get up to any tricks. If you behave yourself, you can have them back in the morning."
He set to work scraping a narrow hole at the base of a nearby laburnum tree, while Jettcoil wrapped a length of his massive body about the vixen to keep her from moving or objecting. Both he and his master, however, were unaware of the spy close at hand.
From his perch high in the laburnum tree, the tiny Scaleflier had seen and heard it all. He, too, smiled; things were going even better than he could have hoped. That night, he would put the start of his plan into action; if everything went as well as it had been going, Dankfur would soon be dead, and most of the hated Ranks with him. For the second time, the clever snake hissed complacently to himself. "Knowledge issssss power, my sssssoon-to-be dead freindsssss!"
Late that evening, after the fire had burned low and the moon had risen, the vermin lay about the rocky riverbank ditch they had found for a campsite. Some twitched in their dreams, whimpering; others snored, some more noisily than others. Jettcoil, the massive blacksnake, also slumbered; he still had Akalle Bladewhip in his unshakeable grip, to ensure she stayed put on sentry duty and did not try to run away. She had orders to wake him when she needed a rest; however, sleep was the farthest thing from the vengeful vixen's mind as she scanned the campsite repeatedly for signs of trouble, or funny business.
Still strung between two poles, now cast aside on the dewy grass, Dippertail sighed wearily, glad of the respite. Gagged and trussed in this manner, he had ridden on the shoulders of several Krozfoxx all the previous night and day, without stopping for rest, food, or water. His head, and the wounds the late Captain Yirta had inflicted upon him, ached umercifully; the ropes, tied tightly about him to prevent his escape, bit into his skin, leaving red weals beneath his feathers. Lack of food and sleep had totally overcome the once-fearsome bird of prey; ill, weak, and exhausted, he had not even the strength of will to open his eyes. He began to weep as he thought of his home at Redwall; of the plenty and peace he could no longer be a part of; of the infirmary, and the skilled healers who could have treated him; of the friends who probably thought he had been slain, and would grieve for his loss but not come looking for him; of Skipper Windryder, his adoptive father, whom he would never see again. Loneliness and sadness like he had never imagined gripped the falcon in their icy talons; he sank into a dull despair, waiting for the inevitable end to come.
Suddenly, his yellow eyes snapped open as a loathsome, dry, scaly touch entered his consciousness. A little snake, barely longer than the falcon's body, was crawling over him. Dippertail twitched and rolled feebly, trying to rid himself of the beast; a forked tounge caressed his eyeball, and a quiet voice whispered to him. "Ssssstill, be sssstill and ssssilent. Ssssscaleflier will not harm you."
Tiny fangs tore the gag from the falcon's beak; he inhaled deeply, glad of the extra air after being stifled for so long. Scaleflier began unhurriedly working on the ropes, stopping every so often to make sure nobeast was watching. Dippertail tried to crane his neck to see the little racer; though he dared not raise his voice, he was still suspicious of a serpent and wanted to know exactly what was going on. Scaleflier berated him in his gentle whisper. "Be ssssstill, I ssssaid. When I finisssssh, you may leave. Fly to wherever you wissssssh before thessssse horrid beasssssts awaken."
Dippertail was suprised, though he kept his voice low. "Hyeee, I thank you, though I fail to see how my escape helps you."
Scaleflier finished biting through the last rope; he descended from Dippertail's back to the earth. "Ssssssshh, no more sssspeaking. Thesssse beassssts are my enemiessss asssss much assss yoursssss; any enemy of theirssss isssss my friend. Go now, make hassssste!"
Dippertail's sprained wing still hurt him, but the effective splint the ropes had made when the vermin carried him had helped to relax it somewhat, to a point where it was usable again. He took off without a backward glance, swooping silently off into the woodlands as fast as he could manage in his weakened state. Satisfied, Scaleflier left the camp as well, returning to a small rock crevice he had found to sleep in.
As he passed Akalle, the vixen hissed to him. "Good job, runt; I didn't think you could do it without waking anybeast. Did ye handle the martens and this big black brute that's got me?"
Scaleflier had made an alliance with the vixen, who was all too eager to accept his assistance, a few minutes previously; he had briefly explained the first stage of his plan of dividing and conquering to her, and she had readily agreed, having no better ideas. Curling up smugly at her footpaws, the little snake whispered back. "Oh yessss, it isss all done. There isss sssometimes no better way to get to a beassst than to messs with hissss dreamssss. They will have heard my voicccce telling them why they ssshould betray their massster, without knowing it wassss I who sssspoke."
Akalle did not seem as pleased. "That's all fine and dandy, then, if they remember their dreams; seems a bit risky, though I guess we'll have to take some risks in this game. Shall I do my part now?"
Scaleflier nodded. "Allow me to get out of ssssssight, then procccceed."
The vixen watched his tail disappear into the crevice. "May good luck come to both of us, mate." She raised her voice to a shrill screech. "Escape! Escape! The prisoner's gone!"
Confusion broke out in the vermin camp; beasts leapt up, ran into one another, shouted, pointed, accused, and scuffled. The noise was so great, Dankfur was forced to beat about with the flat of his saber and shout to be heard. "All of you, quiet! Do you hear me?!! SHUT UP!!!"
An instant silence fell, broken only by whimpers of pain from the wounded. The Voice of the Shadow strode determinedly through his little band of followers to the two poles and broken ropes, his bloodshot eyes fairly blazing with wrath. By his tense, quivering body and heavy snorting breaths through his nose, everybeast present could tell that a momentous punishment was about to befall some unlucky beast; accordingly, they kept silent and still, trying desperately not to attract Dankfur's attention.
Slowly, the marten turned to face Jettcoil, who had a look of pure bafflement upon his features. "Those ropes were cut, not snapped. And how, pray, did this happen?"
The serpent could have made up a dozen lies to save his skin; however, he was so terrified by the look in his master's eyes that he blurted out the truth unthinkingly. "I do not know, I wasssss ssssleeping. T'wasss her turn to watch!"
He gave a cry of pain as Dankfur whacked him with his sword again and again, slicing his hide open in several places. "IDIOT! So you slept on guard duty, eh? You scaly piece of useless rope, you're nothing without your mate; I wish you'd died in her place!"
He left off beating to turn his glare on Akalle. "What happened? Tell me!"
The vixen, whom Jettcoil had released when trying to get away from Dankfur, shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know for sure, but that big fellow, wotsisname, Uja; he was sleepin' right next to the prisoner."
Akalle was a very convincing liar; Dankfur rounded on the giant marten, whacking away with the flat of his blade until he drew blood. "You dolt, somebeast let him go and you slept through the whole thing!!!!"
Uja tried to protest, backing off. "Aaaargh, owwwooo! Cap'n, I weren't anywhere near 'im! Yeowch, ooh, aaagh! I swear, I ain't lyin', I weren't sleepin' o'er there!"
Ringgob had been the one closest to Dippertail; seeing Uja's plight, he opened his mouth as if to say something, but Dankfur whirled round on him, slicing his haunch open. "Keep your oversize jaw shut, you're as bad as these other dolts!" He rounded dramatically on the Krozfoxx, waving his dripping sabre blade about threateningly. "Halfwits, you've all been so foolish as to let the most important part of our scheme escape! Let this be a lesson to you; nobeast, even my own crew, are safe until we find that falcon again; I'll beat you all every night if I have to, until we get him back! Which way did he fly off, did anybeast see?"
Scaleflier now played his part; he slithered into camp, panting as if he had traveled a long distance in a short time. "Voicccce, Great Dankfur! I have newsssss!"
The marten was in no mood for suprises; he snarled at the little racer. "This had better be good! Where did you come from, anyway? I thought you got left behind!"
Scaleflier collapsed limply, as if regaining his breath, before continuing. "I wassss, but I am not the Black Sssshade'sssss persssssonal messssenger for nothing. I have ssssseeen the falcon; he fffflew off that way, northwessssst!"
Dippertail had, in fact, flown in the exact opposite direction, in an attempt to get back to the Abbey, although nobeast but Scaleflier and Akalle knew this. Dankfur, for his part, knew that tracking a falcon in full flight was a task only a great scout like Scaleflier could manage; however, he was by now loath to trust anybeast. He caught the tiny snake under the chin with his hook, pressing the point in threateningly. "Then we make for the Northwest, at once, with you in the lead; but mark my words, shorty - if you play me false, just once, I'll feed you to Jettcoil. I'll feed you to him in little tiny pieces!"
Scaleflier tried his best to look innocent, while lying through his teeth. "I am weak and ssssssmall; what chancccce have I againsssst your might? You may trusssst me; I mean you no ill."
Dankfur was not fully convinced; he released the little snake with a wrench of his wrist. "Go then, now! Find that falcon for me...or else!"
Scaleflier set off on the false trail at once, with the rest of the sore and sleepy army stumbling, limping, and blundering their way in his wake. Akalle hung back to dig up her sword and knives and fasten them back on; as she was no longer in favor, nobeast paid her any attention. She could have wandered off unnoticed, if she wished; however, curiosity, and desire to get even with several beasts, prompted her to catch up to the rear of the band, muttering as she went. "I must be crazy, trustin' a snake. Ah well, things haven't gone so bad so far; I wonder what big schemes that little runt'll think up next!"
On through the moonlight-studded woodlands the vermin blundered; some with thoughts of revenge, but most with sheer terror, fearing for their lives.
In the grey light preceding the dawn, Sy and her augmented band of companions were awakened by Billeo, who had taken over as sentry halfway through the night. The Commander was an adventurous sort, and not gifted with much patience; as soon as the first semblace of light began to show, he began beating on a hollow log with a thick branch, shouting at the top of his lungs. "Are ye lot all going to sleep clean through the morning? T'is a fine day, and not one to be wasted!"
Raggle threw the sackk he'd been using as a pillow at the woodmouse. "Oh, be quiet! I've still got a headache from last night."
But the mouse, eager to be up and going, was undaunted. "Ye weren't hit in the head, ye just had the tip of an ear nicked. Cummon, everyone, up and at 'em, we'll leave right away..."
He faltered when a none-too-pleased Walldoh suddenly appeared before him, paws akimbo. "...er, that is, whenever you're ready to leave, er, Boss."
Once everybeast was awakened and on their paws, a short conference was held; Sy and Walldoh explained their little band's mission to Billeo and the other Branchbounders, and Shermy quoted the rhyme Martin had entrusted to him, detailing who should go, followed by a short commentary of his own. "So you see, chaps, we've got to go, and rescue the good wildcat lady's kin, wot! But we jolly well don't know who the seventh member of our band - the "two-eyes-faking-one" wotchamacallit - is, if he's anywhere about, wot!"
Billeo nodded understandingly. "Aye, it's a puzzle, sure enough. Tell you what; why don't you lot keep going the way you were, back to our place? We'll discuss this with Log-a-Log Yik; he and the more fit of his Guosim are still there, making ready to pursue the ones that slew their kin. He's a well traveled beast; if any creature in these parts answers the description, he'll know about it."
This seemed like a logical plan of campaign; soon, the entire column was underway, marching off in fine style towards the Branchbounder's swamp. Some beasts began calling for a song to keep the pace; Sy obliged with a skip-rope ditty from her kitten days.
Right paw, left paw;
One step, then two;
We'll go strolling,
Just me and you!
Left paw, right paw;
Three steps, then four;
Don't stop; walk on
Right out that door!
Right paw, left paw;
Five steps, than six;
Keep on walking,
Don't pick up sticks!
Left paw, Right paw;
Seven steps, then eight;
Keep on moving,
Or we'll be late!
Right paw, left paw;
Nine steps, than ten;
What a nice stroll;
Let's go again!
By midmorning, the army of over a hundred had covered a good span of ground. In the very back, Shermy and Ayeriss walked a short distance in front of the old Krozfoxx Zaikee. There had been concern from many beasts whether the eccentric blind fox would put up one of his struggles, and have to be forcibly lead by a rope or collar; nobeast had the heart to leave him to wander alone through Mossflower after the incident of the night before. However, since his "magic" baubles and scepter had been restored to him, the oldbeast had become quite gentle and amiable; in fact, after he had tasted some of the candied chestnuts Shermy had sneaked from the infirmary before leaving the Abbey, the fox had become extremely close to the young hare, practically fawning at his footpaws to do his bidding in hopes of another treat.
Ayeriss hissed in the hare's ear. "That ol' oaf, sumtimes I wish we'd lef' im behind! Look, 'e's dancin' again! Hoi, oldbeast! Catch up, will ye!"
Zaikee ceased his shuffling jig pushed his way between the two of them, grinning stupidly. "Veree nice spikeedog, goodee sense. Nono see troo, tho'." He added as a conspriatorial aside to Shermy, tapping the hare's head. "We see troo. Ya see mouseee ghostee, Zaikee see wotee happen next! Veree majee, us-ee two, veree majee."
Shermy had earlier tried to impress the old fox by telling him of his visits with Martin the Warrior; however, Zaikee's sudden insistence that they were kindred magic beasts annoyed him slightly. "Good greif, old one; how many bloomin' times must I tell you? I'm not magic, just very lucky. Wot!"
The fox nodded sagely. "Veree luckee, very majee. Ya see troo likee me, majee rabbeast!"
"I'm a hare, old thing, not a rabbit; and for the last flippin' time, I'm not....!"
Shermy was cut off by a shout from the head of the column; Walldoh, who had been up in front of everybeast, called back to the mass of beasts behind him. "Husha, all of ye!"
Silence fell; the sound of two beasts laughing and chattering happily came clearly from not too far off. Billeo gestured to a thin black waft above the trees a short way to the east. "Somebeast cookin' somethin' over there, see the smoke?"
Walldoh shouldered his bow. "Faith, I didn't know anybeast lived in these parts of Mossflower."
Sy sniffed the air; however, there was no vermin smell - all scents were obscured by that of the smoky wood fire. "Do you think it's enemies?"
Walldoh shrugged. "Sure, an' I wouldn't be professin' t'know, missy. Mayhap somebeast should..."
The peircing scream rent the morning like a knife cutting through cloth; immediately, Sy ran towards the noise. "It's vermin all right; hurry, everybeast!"
Behind her, the army quickened its pace to a full-tilt charge, shouting their warcries at the top of their lungs. "Reeeeedwaaaallll!!! Mossfloweeeeeeeeeeer!!!"
Like a tidal wave, the army burst into the smoky clearing from whence the scream had emanated; almost as suddenly, they skidded to a halt, completely taken aback by the sight that met their eyes.