Cover art by ForrestFighter
From her vantage point high in a fungi-crusted elm, a stout young squirrelmaiden scanned the muddy woodland floor about for signs of life. Her position matained a stillness and rigidity that made her nearly impossible to spot; her keen eyes missed absolutely nothing that went on beneath her. She was highly trained in the skills of steath and observation, and would probably have noticed had a single leaf on a bush been awry; such was the code of the Branchbounders, who believed in always preparing for the worst.
From a small platform set up in the branches some distance below, an impatient voice demanded, "Well? Any sign of them, Kelah?"
Kelah's bushy grey tail flicked angrily as she hissed down at the speaker. "Sure, an' why dontcha let alla woodlands know we're here, bigmouth?"
Another voice joined the first. "Come off it, chubby, we've been here for hours now. There's obviously nobeast around, right?"
The first voice agreed. "Besides, yore Lady Boss never said to stay hidden, just to see if'n they was comin' yet."Kelah dropped from the heights, swinging acrobatically from bough to bough until she had joined her companions. Both were Guosim in Log-a-Log Yik's crew, and thusly were argumentative beasts unused to patience and silence. The squirrelmaid berated the impudently reclining pair, paws akimbo and tail twitching away. "First off, don't ye nivver call me 'chubby' again! An' maybe not outright, the boss didn't say t'be quiet, but t'is the way we've allus done it! T'is a fact an' a law, no mission is ever, EVER carried out noisy; no indeed it is not!"
This completely foreign concept illicited gruff laughter from the two shrews. The larger of the pair settled himself more comfortably on the platform. "Well, we don't follow Branchbounder rules, mate; Guosim lives by their own codes."
"Aye, and rule number one is 'always follow what the Log-a-Log says'!"
The two shrews and the squirrelmaid swiftly came to attention in the presence of the revered chieftain, who had just ascended to the platform. The older shrew paced about them like a drill seargeant, addressing Kelah in short snaps. "Any sign of Billeo's patrol yet, missy?"
"Nivver so much as a peep, good sir!"
"An' of the Branchbounder Cheiftain?"
"None at all, sorry to say."
"An' of the vermin?"
"Couldn't say, sir."
Yik stopped his pacing, staring up into the big, stout squirrelmaid's face menacingly. "Then what the blazes are ye down here for? Get back up there an' look again!"
"Yessir, sorry sir!" Kelah bowed and ascended hurriedly to her lookout post. The shrewchief turned his wrath upon his crewmembers. "She's learned to obey orders; something you two obviously need a sharp lesson in! Oakpaw, how many times am I gonna have t'tell ye? When we're guests in anotherbeast's home,follow their rules!"
The larger of the two shrews hung his head guiltily as Yik turned to his companion. "An' you, Sorex; what am I going to do with ye, eh? Bein' loud on a sentry mission, antagonizing allies, making a lookout desert her post...I swear ye've got fluff for brains! Ye both do!"
The two shrews started to mumble apologies; Yik placed his paws on their shoulders, addressing them in a more reasonable tone. "Now, I know we ain't used t'livin' the way these creatures do; they're quieter and more stealthy than we are, by a long way. But (and remember this well) they've stayed alive all these seasons that way. This is a dangerous part of Mossflower, mates, and they know how to survive it better than any otherbeasts livin'. While we're here, we do as they do and obey their laws - NO arguments. Is that clear?"
Oakpaw, like all shrews, was born to debate. "But, cheif, we've been here for almost two weeks now! I know these beasts are allies, but we just can't behave like them; that should be apparent by now, t'aint the Guosim way! We'll be at each other's throats before much longer if this keeps up!"
Yik seemed to appreciate this point. "Ye may be right; not sayin' ye are, but ye might be. What about it, Sorex? Do ye feel the same way?"
Emboldened by being asked his opinion, Sorex drew his rapier and brandished it. "I say we clear out altogether, hunt down the scum an' kill 'em all, make 'em pay for..."
Yik stopped him with a sharp command. "Sheathe that thing afore ye hurt somebeast!" As the abashed Sorex stowed his rapier away, the Log-a-log shook a stern paw under his nose. "I know ye lost yore friend Biggla in that raid, an' ye want t'avenge 'er; ye've told us all often enough. But ye ain't the only one who lost a friend, or family, and ye can't just think about you. Great seasons, have ye forgotten the crash on the falls some weeks ago what killed me wife an' some others? Have ye forgotten half of us, including me son Flipp, have gone missing? An' have ye forgotten Biggla was not just yore friend an' fellow frontrunner scout, but also me own gel?"
Sorex and Oakpaw silently shook their heads. None of the Guosim would ever forget the terrible, haunted look on their cheiftain's face when, en route to the Branchbounder swamp, he had found his daughter's body...or what little was left of it, after Jettcoil and Whiptail had eaten their fill.
Yik continued his lecture, punctuating words with gestures and fist-pounding. "Now, understand this. We all want t' get after the vermin, but we can't with only a pawful of beasts healthy. I've got more reason than most of us, but as much as I'd like t'go meself, I wouldn't be so selfish as t'make the rest of t'Guosim go on a suicide mission. When Walldoh gets back, we'll discuss what we can do about getting some new boats; that's our primary worry. Then we'll hunt about for our missing shrews; and then, and only then, we'll see about attackin' the vermin. Until then, we stay here and keep on the good side of the Branchbounders. And that's an order!"
What Sorex and Oakpaw would have replied was interrupted by a low cry from Kelah, high above their heads. "Beasts approachin', quite the gatherin' by the look of it!"
The three shrews ceased their conversation and scrambled noisly into the foliage to see for themselves. Kelah shook her head in pity as they arrived, dusting leaves from their fur and clothes. "Sure, an' did nobeast teach ye lot anything in the time ye've been here? Ye scared birds from their nests with all that rustlin'!"
Yik waved this aside. "Never mind, where are they?"
Kelah gestured to a dark area of the swamp, where a treacherous path wound between morasses and tree trunks, some distance to the north. Yik shaded his eyes with a paw. "I don't see anything, missy."
"There, cheif!" Oakpaw had keen eyesight; he pointed exitedly. "Good deal of dark shadows some distance back; some of them look too tall to be dormice or squirrels."
Oakpaw sniffed the air; his face suddenly went rigid with alarm. "Krozfoxx!"
Kelah stared at him. "Are ye sure, sir? T'is not like them t'come in any great numbers, it isn't."
Yik sniffed, too. "He's sure. I'd know that pungent odour anyplace. Sorex, go for help, bring back archers!"
The young shrew started to back down the tree; Kelah halted him. "Wait, listen!"
A loud, sweet note rose on the wind, echoing and thrumming the very air of the swamp before fading gently away. Kelah grinned broadly. "I knew it, t'is only Billeo's patrol. They must have taken a prisoner."
Vastly relieved, the four sentries began waving and shouting, hoping to get the attention of the returning Commander.
Ayeriss uncovered her ears, glaring at Billeo. "Did yew absolutely have t'do that?!"
Thundro was in complete agreement. "Next time ye blow that thing, either stan' in front or watch where it's pointed!"
The young woodmouse ignored them, showing his most prized possession to Tings. "D'ye like it? It was my grandfather's."
The mousemaid, who felt slightly embarrassed at all the attention Billeo gave her, shyly fingered the inricately carved horn. "It's gorgeous!"
Billeo nodded. "Aye, my grandfather was a great craftsbeast. He made it out of the fang of a great serpent, long before I was born. T'is the only thing I have from him, y'know; the Painted Ones burned the rest."
Tings touched the carvings on the horn again. "He certainly knew what he was doing; that's the most beautiful instrument I've ever seen!"
"Here, you have a go." Billeo pressed it into her paws, laughing at the shocked expression on her face. "Well, go on, give it a good blow, let 'em know we're coming!"
This time, everybeast covered their ears as Tings accepted the instrument, placed it to her lips, and inhaled a huge amount of air.
Kelah grimaced as an extremely loud and piercing off-key squeak nearly blasted her from her perch. "Hmm, maybe t'is vermin after all; Billeo never blows it like that, indeed not!"
"Eh, what's that?" Yik and his two Guosim rubbed and swatted at their heads, trying to stop the massive ringing that had erupted in their ears.
The arrival of Billeo's patrol, coupled with the return of Walldoh (with some very unusual companions, at that), caused quite a to-do in the Branchbounder community. Every dormouse, squirrel, and Guosim shrew descended from the platforms and treehouses to welcome the crowd, and catch a glimpse of the "giant wildcat", "wild bird", and "crazy fox" they had reportedly brought with them. Creatures were introduced to one another, old friends shook paws and embraced, all above a steady undercurrent of ceaseless curious questions.
"Ha! What a funny-lookin' ragbag. Where'd ye pick him up?"
"Raggle, t'is me, Kelah!"
"Great seasons, you still remember me? You were a babe-in-arms when I left!"
"Are you really on our side, bigbeast?"
"Hullo, Log-a-thing; how are you, old chap?"
"This is my new friend Tings; be nice to her, she's a lady!"
"Who's the scruffy-lookin' hedgehog gel?"
"I heard that! Yew just step closer and say that again..."
The chatter died down when Wardah, a hansome, no-nonsense figure of a female dormouse, stormed determinely through the crowd. She welcomed back her wandering husband with a harsh, two word demand. "Where's Shay?"
In all the the excitement, Walldoh had nearly forgotten that he'd left his little daughter at Redwall; he hastened to explain the situation. Sy grinned at Raggle. "Looks like Walldoh's cheiftain everywhere except in his own home, eh?"
Once Wardah had been informed how matters stood, she addressed the beasts at large. "T'is a serious matter my husband reports to me. We'll be hearin' the cheiftain out in full when he takes his rightful place at table tonight, so we will. In the meantime, stop the prattling and be after showin' our guests to their quarters. Geraon, Halur, see to it, please!"
Obediently, the dormouse brothers so named stepped foward. Halur, the younger, gestured to Zaikee, who was nodding pleasedly, obviously not following a word of what was going on in the clamor. "Sure, an' what should be be doin' wid that 'un, lock 'im up?"
Shermy seemed scandalised. "Indeed you will not, old scout! The idea! He'd probably do himself a mischeif on his own, wot!"
Halur grinned mischeviously. "Very well; I'll be puttin' him in your quarters then."
"Now see here, that's not what I meant...!" Shermy started to protest, but the two dormice had already walked away, one of them leading Zaikee by the paw. As the rest of the Redwallers followed, the otterbabe Squirt looked quizzically at the hare.
"What d'matter, mista Shermee?"
Shermy gestured to his oversize footpaws. "Take a good look at one of the marvels of the universe, old scout; somehow yours truly just managed to put one of these bloomin' big things right in his mouth!"
Late that night, the newcomers to the colony were treated to the best meal the Branchbounders had to offer. Refreshed and well-rested, the travelers followed their two guides to a dry island in the center of the swamp. Between four ancient elm trees on this island, a massive, multi-leveled platform sprawled, upon which many rows of low, square tables had been placed. There were no chairs; one and all, the creatures sat upon sacks and cushions on the floor. Walldoh and his family had the largest table; it was able to seat a good score of beasts, whereas the rest could at best seat eight or nine. There were no rules for seating; everybeast simply found a place that was comfortable.
As soon as the last beast had arrived and seated themselves (Shermy, forecefully escorting a suddenly argumentative Zaikee), dinner was served. As the kitchens were located underground, in a stone dugout beneath the trees, the food was raised to the platform by means of dumbwaiters, each beast serving themselves from the nearest one. The main course this particular evening was a sort of thick stew made from mushrooms, edible swamp weeds, and some unidentifiable fish or eel; it was delicious, but very salty. Fortunately, there was ample water to drink, raised from a well in the kitchen cellars; there was also nettle ale and dandelion cordial, for those who favored drinks with flavor. The Guosim had made a contribution to the meal with their shrewcake, a thick, sweet concoction made from dried fruit, ground nuts, and honey. This was served alongside the stew, and complimented its taste marvelously.
Being too large to squeeze in with the beasts at most of the other tables, Sy found herself seated with Yik and a few other shrews. Some of them were a bit suspicious of her towering, scarred self at first; however, her friendly and disarming demeanor soon put them at ease. As the night wore on, she suprised them by joined in their joking and debating wholeheartedly, even scoring a point or two in a battle of wits with the Log-a-Log himself. Draining a beaker of ale, Yik smiled at her. "Ye'd make a good shrew, cat; ye've got a way with ye, and no mistake."
The wildcat grinned, helping herself to another slice of cake. "Thank you, sir! If you'll forgive my saying so, you remind me a good deal of my uncle."
Asio, one of the shrews at the table, spoke up. "Ye do yore uncle a disservice, I'm sure he's better lookin' than the cheif!"
Ribald laughter broke out from the other shrews seated there; a still-grinning Sy countered boldly. "Well, he's certainly far and away better looking than you! And smarter, I might add!"
More laughter came from the shrews; friendly insult matches were right up their alley. "Well said, miss!" Yik patted the wildcat's big paw. "Ye know, you remind me of me son Flipp; he's got a toungue just as sharp when roused."
"Oh does he?" Sy's eye glinted with the prospect of another battle of wits, thinking Yik wished to set up a challenge. "We'll see about that; which one is your son?"
There was a bit of an awkward pause. Yik glared at the other shrews, who seemed apalled by the question. "She wouldn't know, don't think badly of her for it! My son, miss Sy, was one of the ones that went missing back when we were separated."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Had you no idea what happened to him at all?"
Yik shook his head. "All we knew is we searched for their trail for several days, but the only sign we found was vermin tracks everyplace. We were far north at the time, though, near the coast; lots of vermin tribes live up there."
The wildcat's jaw tightened. "Then I think I know what happened to your son, sir. That army I told you about, the ones that burned my villiage, they've assimilated about every vermin band in the north now into their Ranks. I hate to have to say it, sir, but odds are high your shrews were attacked and taken prisoner, just like my kin."
Yik seemed taken aback by the idea. "If yore right - not saying ye are, mind - this means we'll have to make some drastic changes of plan."
A loud clanging interrupted further conversation. Seeing he had everybeast's attention, Walldoh ceased rattling his dirk in his empty beaker and addressed the gathering. "Sure, an' t'is a fact this gathering isn't so we all can chat together. Everybeast knows by now the situation; faith, anybeast who doesn't hasn't got ears, for nobeast has scarcely talked of anythin' else. By now, t'is plain to all these Ranks beasts are posin' a threat far worse than has come to these parts in many a long season. Now, mark me; me goodself has been chosen in a dream by the spirit of a great warrior long dead to fight these vermin; sure, and ain't it the duty of all beasts good of heart to defend their homes anyhow? Now, be thinkin' on that and listen to this young dormouse here. Shander?"
Shander stood next to Walldoh. The pair were almost identical; the likeness between father and son was extraordinary. However, the younger dormouse did not have the Branchbounder accent, which seemed a bit suprising to the guests. He spoke in what seemed to be sort of a controlled frenzy.
"As ye lot may know, myself and a band of rebellious youngbeasts left here some seasons back to seek adventures. I am the only one who was able to return and tell the tale; the first week out we were attacked by a huge band of adders and beasts in cloaks like Yik described. Some of us were slain; I and the rest were dragged away, bound and gagged. Weeks and weeks we traveled, ever northward; I remember that horrid journey blazed in my brain. They talked constantly of meeting up with a main army many times bigger than they were, and having us join their slaves. I collapsed with fatigue about the fourth week; they beat me over the head and left me for dead. It took me all this time to drag myself back.
"We were only a few days north of here when they attacked us; they must be planning to take over a wide area, if they ranged this far just to take prisoners. And father tells me this threat has already come dangerously close to invading Mossflower. If we don't act now, we could very well find ourselves under a tyrannical vermin rule. If we don't act now, our friends may be slaves forever, and so will we!"
A shocked silence followed; Walldoh resumed. "So now ye see the position. I propose we should be stocking ourselves with supplies, and march northward; not for fightin', mind, but to raise a bigger army to have a proper war later. Sure, an' there must be a massive amount of goodbeasts in the lands farther northwards with reason to get back at the Ranks. What say ye? No rush; be after takin' some time to make up yore minds."
The idea of the massive undertaking seemed to stupefy some of the beasts present, all save the quick-minded Guosim. Yik stood and raised his rapier in salute, as did the rest of the shrews.
"I'm with ye, and so are my beasts. I know I wasn't advocating all-out war at first, but I've realized it's likely my beasts are prisoners with the Ranks as well. We'll follow ye anyplace ye ask!"
Billeo and his beasts stood and raised their bows, followed by the rest of the Branchbounders. "You know we're all with you, Chief, to the death!"
It was understood Sy and her companions were already going; however, not wanting to be left out of the dramatic moment, they drew their weapons anyway.
"Foward to honor and glory, wot!"
"We'll stop 'em gettin' any more liddle 'uns hurt!"
"Hyeer, I was not one of the Chosen, but I will fight to help them!"
Walldoh smiled at all of the beasts looking up at him. "T'is settled, then. We'll stock up and move out at once, so we will!"
The treetops rang as each band sounded their warcry at the top of their lungs; Sy joined in with a will, tears of joy in her good eye. The impossible mission did not seem so impossible, now. There would inevitably be a terrible war, and many slain, but she was now certain; with the help of such good friends as she had made, how could the masters of evil stand a chance?
Again and again the trees rang with the cheers, as beasts prepared to set off on the next grand, unknown adventure.
END OF PART THREE. FINAL PART STILL TO COME!