Cover art by ForrestFighter
Earlier that morning, the sun shone brightly down upon the River Moss, causing dancing flashes of silver and white upon the surface as it flowed placidly along a heavily-reeded bank. From various nests in the small willows about, several kingfishers darted to and fro, catching small minnows and watershrimp to feed their young; other birds, perhaps charmed by the afternoon's idyllic beauty, set up cheery songs and warbles in time with the babbling river.
The peace of the riverbank was not to last; a rustling crunch and a thud heralded Dippertail making an ungainly crash-landing among the reeds, dislodging an abandoned duck's nest there. The wounded falcon felt he could travel no further; the pain in his wing and the several days without sleep had finally overcome him. However, neither of these things bothered Dippertail as much as his current need for food and water; in fact, he was hardly conscious of anything else but a raging thirst and ravenous appetite.
The realization that he had landed by a riverbank lifted the weary young falcon's spirits; rousing himself from his exhausted stupor, he staggered upright, tottering unsteadily towards the water. Upon reaching the river, he practically fell forward into it, totally immersing his head and guzzling away greedily.
A small fish swam by, tickling his beak; Dippertail made a half-hearted lunge for it, but it evaded him with ease. Desperate, he leapt into the shallows, pouncing on the minnow several times; the fish, as if in mockery, evaded his talons and led him a merry dance, nearly causing him to be swept away into the main current. Dippertail struggled back to shore and collapsed with an angry moan, tears of helplessness beading in his dark eyes.
"Beek burt-a hurt, ya?"
Dippertail looked about for the owner of the strange, clipped voice. "Heeeer, who said that?"
A female belted kingfisher, perched on a nearby reed, repeated her question. "Beek burt-a plenty hurt, not go fly, ya?"
Rightly translating the question, Dippertail nodded, forcing a half smile. "Hyee, this big bird has a broken wing, methinks."
The kingfisher fluttered down beside him, inspecting his wing and some of the scabbed wounds he bore with quick jerks of her head. "Not broka, no. Beek burt-a not move vink if broke; it go move little. Beek burt-a fight vermin, hurt vink, get-a scratch, ya?"
Dippertail nodded again, realizing that to speak in clipped sentences would best get his meaning across to his new friend; some birds were like that. "Yiee, this bird fight big raven; raven make scratches, hurt wing."
The kingfisher tutted, preening her chest plumage. "Raven bad-a keelaburt; break ekk, eat chick, scare fish. Beek burt plenty hurt in brain; why fight-a raven?"
The falcon shrugged, as best as his sore wing would allow. "Yeek, raven kill friend of mine. Not kill anymore, though; this bird make sure!"
The kingfisher was duly impressed. "Beek burt-a keel raven, do all fishaburt favor. Fishaburt-a do favor beek burt, if vait."
Without warning, she streaked by him in a blur of shining white and blue, hitting the river with a splash. Seconds later, she returned, bearing a slain fish in her long, spear-like beak. She deposited the fish at Dippertail's talons; seeing his astonished look, she chided him as if he were one of her own eggchicks. "Eet-a fish; gutt fish, just catch!"
Eagerly, Dippertail tore into the morsel. The kingfisher dove into the river several times, pressing more minnows upon him until she was satisfied he had eaten enough. "Rest vink in vater, feel better. Fishaburt go; bye-bye beek burt!"
She winged her way back to her nest; heeding her advice, a full and happy Dippertail settled down for a nap, leaving his hurt wing trailing in the cool shallows, dreaming, as always, of Redwall Abbey and Skipper Windryder.
It was some hours later when the falcon leapt to his feet in shock. The peace of the flowing river and birdsong had been shattered by a shrill, piercing scream; this was followed by a flurry of stampeding footpaws and battlecries. The treatment perscribed by the kingfisher had worked wonders; still sore but now almost fully alert, the falcon took to flight almost instictively, scanning the woods for the source of the noise.
It was as if an avalanche had suddenly been suspended mid-fall. Aside from a distant riversound, and the crackling of a smoky, damp fire, total silence reigned among the Branchbounder army and their Redwaller comerades. Many of the creatures still had weapons drawn, or arrows set to bow; all of them, however, were in a state of total bewildered shock, unsure of what to do next.
In the center of the smoky glen, just in front of the cooking fire he had made, stood the tallest, bulkiest, spikiest young male hedgehog anybeast had ever seen. Clad in a basic grey tunic and tattered green jacket, the creature had about him an air of rustic simplicity and stolidity; he, too, stood frozen to the spot, obviously completely at a loss. In one paw, he weilded a pair of sharp pincers, in the blades of which was trapped a broken hogspike. In the other - making the scene even more ludicrous - he held aloft a quietly sobbing otterbabe, who had a goodly amount of quills embedded in his rear end.
For a few seconds, everybeast stood in blank silence. The hedgehog moved first, looking around at the loaded Branchbounder bows surrounding him, then back over his shoulder, as if wondering whom the arrows were aimed at. Seeing nobeast behind him, he returned his gaze to his would-be assailants. "Er...'ave I missed something?"
Several chuckles and sighs of relief broke out as the attack force lowered their weapons. Sy gestured about the glen. "What was all that screaming about just now?"
From his undignified, upside-down position, the otterbabe set up a fresh wail, pointing at his captor. "'E poked me inna behind widda big scissors..."
The hedgehog gave him a good shake. "No I never, ye liar; ye jumped me! I didn't stick ye with these things!"
The otterbabe stuck out his bottom lip. "Did too!"
"Well, 'ow did ye get yore be'ind full 'o my spikes if ye didn't try t' jump me an' sit on me?" The young hedghog appealed to his audience. "I ask ye, how else could it've 'appened?"
By now, most of the army was somewhere between sniggers and full-blown guffaws, depending on how quickly they had caught on. Something seemed to occur to Ayeriss Pinspikes; bulling her way through the crowd, she faced up to the newcomer, teeth bared in rage. "Yew thief! Yew babe-stealer! Yew sorry sack o' murd'rin' filth!"
For the second time that day, the big hedgehog was at a loss; he dodged the punches Ayeriss threw at him, looking about beseechingly. "Land sakes, wot'd I do NOW?"
Sy, too, suddenly recognized the otterbabe for who he was; she snatched him from the big hog's grasp, giving him a few good shakes of her own. "Squirt! You little...how'd you get outside?!"
Other members of the army, especially the Redwallers, began shouting; some assisting Sy in yelling at Squirt, others joining Ayeriss to angrily berate the newcomer.
"I say, old thing, what's a Redwall Dibbun doing in your custody?"
"Do you know how much trouble you've probably caused back home?"
"Yew quill-bottim'd murd'rin snotnosed thief, I'll show ye..."
"Little scallywag! Skipper's probably losing his rudder in worry!"
"How dare you capture a defenseless babe!"
"Hold it, wait, I don't...yeow!" In trying to gain a basic understanding of what was going on, the big young hog forgot to dodge and took a hard right to the nose; he jutted out his jaw truculently. "Right, that does it!"
Ayeriss aimed for another swipe, only to find her paw trapped mid-swing by the other hedgehog. With a suprisingly quick maneuver, he spun her around and brought her crashing to earth, placing a footpaw on her back to keep her from rising. In the brief pause that followed, he addressed the stunned company at large. "Now! Would somebeast explain t'me wot inna name of seasons is goin' on around here?!"
Calming the others with a look, Sy addressed him in a more reasonable tone, still holding Squirt aloft by his rudder. "This one is a Dibbun from Redwall Abbey. Did you take him, Mister...?"
"Spikkle. Thundro Spikkle." The light of comprehension dawned on the big hog's features. "Now look, I never took nobeast from noplace. T'young 'un found me last night; 'e was wandrin' about the woodlands - lost, I think - cryin' an' weepin' and wailin'. So I let 'im stay. I figgered somebeast'd come lookin' for 'im. Didn't figger on no army, tho'."
Sy waved a paw. "Oh, that was a misunderstanding. Raggle, could you explain it to him, please? As for you..." She began viciously removing the hogspikes from Squirt's rear end with her claws, chiding him the whole way. "What on earth are you doing in Mossflower? Don't you know you could have been killed?"
The otterbabe wailed piteously, tears of pain streaming onto his face. "Wanna go find Dip, wanna fight varmints, jus' like you! I sneaked outta gate, Skipper never see'd me go."
Having finished her task, Sy sat him down with a sigh. "There, that's done. Shermy, get some bandages on this rogue." She glared at the otterbabe. "You do realize Skipper and Mother Abbess and all the others are probably crying their eyes out worrying about you, don't you, Squirt?"
Squirt pulled a pointed stick from the red kercheif he was using as a sash, brandishing it. "I'm not a Squirt, I'm a warrior cat! Gotta sword, too."
Walldoh, who was standing nearby, stifled a giggle as the otterbabe danced around, making Shermy's task of bandaging him even more difficult. "Sure, an' don't he look just like the part, too. Faith, the liddle rascal's even wearing an eyepatch!"
The truth of the matter hit Sy like a thunderbolt. "Shermy, look! Look at this!"
The hare came to her side. "I say, what's all the kerfuffle, marm?"
Sy pointed at at the comically flopping scallop-shell eyepatch the otterbabe habitually wore, ever since his first meeting with the wildcat. "I think we've found our missing companion! Don't you see?"
Shermy caught on immediately. "Of course, it bloomin' well has t'be. Who else has two eyes, faking one?"
Thundro released Ayeriss, nodding. "Aye, 'e's the only one here answerin' that description. But why d'ye need..."
Any further conversation was cut short by a loud, happy screech as a feathered mass bulled through the trees, crashing straight into Shermy. Dippertail was so elated to see a fellow Redwaller he threw all pretense of dignity aside, hopping about excitedly and trying to embrace his flattened, struggling friend. "Hyeer, thank the seasons, I found you!"
Sy hauled the falcon bodily from the suffocating hare. "Here, hold it, let him breathe! Goodness, you don't seem much the worse for wear!"
Ayeriss sullenly spat out a few clods of grass. "And here we was worried t'death about yew. Ain't yew s'posed t'be captured by varmints?"
Dippertail smiled at her. "Yeeek, t'is a long story. Ye don't know just how good it is to see a friendly face again!"
More laughter broke out; at the moment, Ayeriss' muddied face looked anything but friendly. The hogmaden glared at a sniggering Thundro, her eyes smoldering with rage. "Yew think it's funny? Yew won't laugh so hard with no teeth, now will ye?! Cummon, put up y'paws an' fight proper!"
She went into a more professional boxing stance, watching alertly this time instead of flinging punches willy-nilly. Thundro held up his paws. "Now wait a minnut, missy, I ain't fightin' no maid."
Ayerisses paws thudded into his midriff, one after another. "Cummon, fight!"
Horrified, Tings tried to intervene. "Leave him alone, Ayeriss; he'll kill you!"
But Ayeriss was past listening. "Nobeast makes sport o' me, 'specially not a big, fat, shoopid oaf like 'im!"
Thundro sucked in air, straightening to his full height, his voice and eyes bleak. "An' nobeast calls the son of Mammee Spikkle a big, fat, stupid oaf an' gets away with it! Don't worry, I won't kill ye, just teach ye a liddle lesson!"
Dodging Ayeriss' next two punches, Thundro suprised everybeast by dropping into a proper crouch, fists knotted. Sword drawn, Raggle leapt between the two irate hogs before any blows could be struck, keeping them apart. "Wait a minute, friends, there's no call for anybeast to get hurt. Let's just shake paws and drop the matter, can't we?"
But things had already escalated past diplomacy; seeing the two snorting, fuming hogs were irrevocably out for blood, Walldoh offered a suggestion. "Sure, and why should we stop 'em? We should be after makin' it a proper contest, let out some steam."
Sy addressed the young squirrel. "That would probably be best, Raggle; let them fight fair and get it out of their system. We'll stop them if things get too rough."
Raggle took a look at Thundro, who far outdid Ayeriss in bulk. "Might be too late for Ayeriss if ye wait 'till then, Miz Sy."
The hogmaiden growled at him. "Yew quit worryin' about me, I c'n take 'im!"
Selecting a region some distance from the fire, Sy scractched a small ring. "Bring them over here!"
The army of beasts escorted the two combatants to the fighting area, making sure to keep them away from each other until they got there.
Shermy decided, being the only healer present, that he should be the referee. He explained the rules, raising his voice so everybeast could hear. "Now chaps, and chapesses, this is going to be a fair fight, wot! Only use punches an' blocks; no kickin', pokin', scratchin, or jolly well bitin' allowed. Nobeast may leave the ring, except if yours truly calls a halt, wot! Oh, and no punchin' a downed beast. Right, ready....begin!"
Both hogs dropped into a crouch again, the cheers of their audience ringing in their ears.
"Cummon, mista Spikkle, show 'er!"
"Don't let that big windbag scare ye, missy!"
"Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Thundro's massive paw shot out; blocking the punch, Ayeriss countered with two vicious left hooks to the jaw. Thundro knocked her back a few paces with a right uppercut under her chin; bouncing right back, Ayeriss aimed a punch at Thundro's midriff, followed by a smashing blow to the nose.
Dodging the stomach blow but taking the facial one, Thundro staggered back, clapping a paw to his bloodied snout. Ayeriss came at him again; this time, Thundro fiented to the left and smashed a fist into her shoulder as her own momentum carried her too close. Undaunted, Ayeriss shook the life back into her tingling forepaw and lashed out with both paws, catching Thundro in the neck. He fell to the earth with a thud, smiling. "Not bad, not bad at all. But ye should aim more for the collarbone area, like this!"
Bounding back up, he dealt Ayeriss four successive lightning-quick blows to the upper chest area. The first three, Ayeriss managed to block; the fourth knocked her flat, winding her. Thundro gave a crooked grin, as best he could manage with a swollen nose and jaw. "See? Works every time!"
Sucking in air, Ayeriss stood, paws milling in tight circles. "Not yet, it didn't. Cummon!"
Thundro aimed a massive blow at her head, which would have laid her spark out had it connected. Ayeriss dodged the blow, allowing him to spin off-balance past her. The big hedgehog, however, was an experienced fighter; using his own momentum as a bonus, he struck Ayeriss in the back of the neck. Whipping about, a now somewhat groggy Ayeriss caught Thundro off-guard with a fist straight in the center of the ribcage; when he doubled up for air, she uppercut his jaw so hard his eyes crossed.
Thundro lashed out hard, striking the swaying Ayeriss a left hook to the temple. She went down, out for the count. Still doubled over, the big hog grinned at the other beasts, his eyes slowly rolling back and his speech rapidly slurring. "Tol'ja I wudden' kill 'er....uuuughOOF!"
He fell face-first to the turf, out cold.
Shermy inspected the two combatants, then turned to Sy apologetically. "I say, should I have called a halt? I would have, but I was jolly well enjoying the match too much, wot!"
Sy shrugged. "Well, it's too late now. Hopefully this will teach them a lesson. Dippertail, get some water, will you?"
Sluiced down by several canteens of liquid, Ayeriss and Thundro came to. The hogmaid blinked a few times in a futile attemt to open her swollen right eye, then proffered a paw. "Er, sorry about all this, I was bein shoopid. Yew sure c'n fight, mate!"
Staunching his bloodied snout with one paw, Thundro shook Ayeriss' proffered paw with his free one. "No hard feelings, missy, t'was just as much my fault as yours. Never thought a maid 'ud best me, tho'. Who taught you to box?"
Zaikee, who had hitherto stayed out of all the confusion, now wandered his way into view, staring about with his blind white eyes. "Good fightee, veree good fightee, sound like. Who win?"
Each hog pointed at the other one, then dissolved into helpless giggles.
Later that day, after a short lunch of local fruits and berries, a second council was held. While Shermy continued to explain the concept of a tie to the bewildered old fox, the rest of the beasts gathered around to listen to Dippertail's report on the vermin. There was precious little information to go on.
"Heeer, I traveled many days with the vermin, methinks. The trail was always northward, sometimes northwest a touch, so far as I saw. Yeek, the little foxes don't seem to be getting along with the martens, though; methinks trouble is brewing in that quarter, probably even more so since I escaped. The big serpent seems to be losing his mind, too; but that may be just battle shock. But I know not where they have gone now; I flew away as fast as I could when I escaped." He hung his head guiltily.
Sy stroked his feathers. "Don't feel ashamed; you did what most any beast would have done in your place. Well friends, what do you think we should we do now? Personally, I think we should continue to Branchbounder Territory and have a talk with the Guosim before we make any definite plans; besides, the vermin may be coming by there, and a good deal of the tribe warriors are here and not back there protecting the families. They may need our help."
There were several murmurs of assent; Thundro, having finally succeeded in stopping his nosebleed, raised a paw. "Two questions, please?"
Sy turned to him. "Ask away, friend."
Thundro sniffed loudly, having become congested a bit. "Well, first off, these vermin yore followin', ain't they just headin' home? Ye could find their home an' get 'em there instead of trackin' em; saves time that way."
Walldoh shook his head, answering for Sy. "Sure, an' what about the main vermin army waitin' there? We don't have enough to take them on, yet, no indeed we don't. An' furthermore, the beasts may be just as lost as the liddle 'un there was, or not be headin' home for some other reason. We'd be better off trackin' and capturin' one for information, so we would."
The big hedgehog sniffed again, and shrugged. "Just a thought. Never been much good at plannin' things, meself."
"What's the second question?" Tings ventured to ask.
Thundro looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, er...I was wonderin'...could I come with ye?" Seeing the suprised look on Sy's face, he hastened to explain. "I know ye don't know me, an I don't know ye either. But I ain't had a permanant home or a family, not for a long time, an' I get really lonely all by meself. Besides, I like adventures."
Sy put a comforting paw to the big, young hog's lips. "You don't have to explain. There's always room for new friends among goodbeasts."
Before anybeast could voice an objection to this (if any were going to, which was doubtful), Ayeriss Pinspikes was on the defensive. "A course 'e can come. Anybeast sez different answers t'me!"
Squirt put in his two cents worth, waving his stick. "An' me, too! Mista Spikkle play with me, 'e nice!"
Shermy grinned at Thundro. "There you have it, wot; you're officially part of the family now. Well chaps, onward to the swamp, eh?"
Billeo rose from where he was seated. "Aye, the sooner we get back, the better. Branchbounders, form ranks!"
As the army hastened to obey, Sy turned to Dippertail. "You don't have to come along if you don't want to, friend, not if your wing is still hurt."
The falcon was indignant. "Yeeek, ye think a full-grown falcon would stay at Redwall, when a Dibbun can go off on adventures? I am coming, and that's final; even if I have to walk most of the way!"
He took to the air and made his way to the head of the column. Sy picked up her scimitars, sheathing them. "Well, that's that, then. Come on, Squirt, you ride on my back this next bit."
In fine style, the army swung along to their destination, unaware of the masses of dark, vengeful eyes following thier progress.
Rugg Tornpaw was completely lost. The former searat captain who had been captured by the fugitives, and later turned over to the Whisperers, had managed to escape; when the bats cut his bonds before shoving him into the dungeon cell, he had made his move. He had pulled a knife from where it was hidden in his seaboot and fought back, catching the three bats sent to guard him unawares and slaying them. Now fumbling with a guttering torch, the peg-legged rat bumbled his way through the seemingly never-ending maze of underground caverns and tunnels, desperately searching for a way out, cursing his ill fortune.
Turning a corner, Rugg entered a tunnel sloping steeply upwards; realizing that this must lead towards the surface, he practically ran up it, stumbling and bumbling the whole way. When around a bend in the tunnel a white gleam of light appeared, the rat began laughing aloud, redoubling his efforts. His luck had turned; he was home free at last, free to go where he wished, free to do what he pleased!
Pushing thorugh a painful mass of briars, which concealed the entrance completely, Rugg emerged into the clear, bright, warm summer's aftenoon. As it turned out, the briar bushes were none other than blackberry plants, which thickly dotted the slope he had come out upon; the starving searat stuffed his face, the juice dribbling down his chin and beard, staining his paws and clothes a dark, sticky violet. Realizing he was somewhere near the coast by the faint wavesounds nearby, the rat did a dance of joy, yelling through his tasty mouthful. "Stay there, me beautiful sea, I'm comin' when I feels more like it! Haharrr, free at last!"
A cutlass hilt struck him over the head; he fell down, stunned. A vixen in an adderskull mask and blue cloak, with an unsightly bald patch down the side of her tail, was standing over him. Shaking her head in disgust, she called back over her shoulder. "Found an idjit of a searat here; I think he might have information we need!"
It was indeed good fortune that, of the literal thousands of tunnels, Rugg had managed to find one of only three exits from the Whisperer's Domain; however, fickle Lady Luck had now handed him over to even more merciless captors than before. He moaned as the scaly bodies of several adders enveloped him, squeezing him into unconsciousness and dragging him away from his feast.