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Cover art by ForrestFighter
In the woodlands, some distance away from Redwall Abbey, the rain-swollen River Moss thundered along its winding course to the sea, carrying a substantial amount of mud and woodland undergrowth with it. The shrews of the Guosim had been on their way to Redwall for a long-overdue visit; knowing it would be foolish to attempt to shoot the storm-induced rapids, they had pulled their logboats ashore, and pitched camp in a large bankside cave until the weather died down. The Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower were small, fierce, spiky-furred creatures, who followed a cheiftain they designated as the Log-a-Log. They were stout warriors all, renowned for both their bravery and their tendecy to bicker and squabble amongst themselves in their spare time; however, there was not a shrew among them who felt like arguing now, as they viewed the terrible scene about them.
Log-a-log Yik, the long-bearded chieftain of the Guosim, was still in a state of shock, as were many of his tribe. Some little while back, two tall strangers bearing swords had marched boldly into the shrews' cave. They were obviously some type of vermin, but, as they wore hooded blue cloaks and masks made of adder skulls, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what manner of creature they were. They had imperiously demanded that the shrews surrender all of their provisions and one of their logboats, saying that they would be needed by the Ranks of the Shadow. As he had no idea what the Ranks of the Shadow were, and it was still a good three days' journey to Redwall, the dutiful Log-a-log had refused point blank. When the creatures repeated their demand with a threat to use force, he had ordered his shrews to take the two beasts prisoner.
That was the last thing Yik remembered clearly; everything afterwards was a jumble of teeth, claws, blades and screams, followed by total blackness as one of the vermin knocked him unconscious with its sword hilt. Now, almost a score of his creatures lay dead, and a dozen more wounded. All their supplies had been looted, and every boat but the one the villains had taken was smashed to pieces.
Ringo, a much older shrew, tended the bump on his chieftain's skull, making a report as he did so. "There were more of 'em in hidin', Yik; four of those vermin in masks and two full-growed snakes. We never stood a chance; they fought like demons!"
Yik's face blanched; he, like most shrews, had a horror of serpents. "Were the snakes adders?"
Ringo shook his grey head. "No, they were blacksnakes; big 'uns, too. One of 'em crushed pore Dribble's footpaw with just th' end of its tail!"
Dribble, the shrew in question, was Yik's second in command; he hobbled over on a makeshift crutch, cut from a tree limb. "I sent some scouts upriver, Chief; they went as far as they deemed safe, given the circumstances. No sign of the vermin; they're well away. What do we do now?"
Log-a-log Yik gazed once more at the sorry state the Guosim were in, and made a pronouncement. "Nothin' much we can do, mate; not until this storm lets up. As soon as the weather clears a bit, we'll make for Redwall, on foot. There should be enough forage in the woodlands for us t'get by. Ringo, ye'd better see about getting some carrying litters made for any beast too bad hurt t'walk well; we need t'get there as soon as we can!"
The old shrew passed the instructions along to to the other shrews, who began immediately to lash broken logboat timbers together with the now-useless mooring ropes. Dribble sat painfully down beside his chieftain. "I agree with ye there, Log-a-log; I gotta feelin' they'll be needin' us at Redwall, with them Shadow creatures roamin' Mossflower!"
Back at Redwall Abbey, the storm had slowed to a misty drizzle. The fire brigade on the roof, deeming their work finished, had descended to the dormitories to dry off; several of them stopping by the sickbay on the way, to be treated for chills and sniffles. Abbess Saffron had allowed the rest of the Abbey Population to leave the cellars and return to their everyday tasks, or to their beds, if they so desired. Now, she was presiding over a council of Redwallers in Cavern Hole. This was the room used for gatherings when the Great Hall was not being utilized for that purpose; it was smaller and cosier than Great Hall, and a good deal warmer, due to the lit fireplace in one wall.
Tings had been placed upon a moss-covered ledge in Cavern Hole until she recovered from her faint; she awoke to the sound of Abbess Saffron's voice. "Raggle, do sit down; pacing back and forth won't make Tings wake up any faster. That's better, thank you. Skipper, what's your assessment of the damage?"
Windryder tapped the floor with his rudder pensively. "Well, marm, there's at least two holes in the roof, an' a few fire-damaged tiles 'n girders to replace. A good crew workin' in shifts should take care of that in not too much time. The windowpanes didn't break as bad as we feared, either; only about 'arf a dozen of 'em need work. The orchard's no worse than it usually is after a big 'ole storm, either. What really is worryin' me is that gate; havin' a busted main gate's just askin' fer trouble with vermin and such like. If you'll take my advice, we should concentrate on that first thing."
The Abbess adjusted the large towel she had wrapped about her shoulders, nodding her head. "That sounds sensible. Tomorrow, when we've all rested up a bit, you, Foremole, and Dippertail take as many creatures as you'll need into the woodlands and search for some timber; preferably good, strong oak beams, if possible. While you're at it, you could have a scout round for materials to repair the roof. Jorty Cellarmole, could you and Bumbill see to the woodcutting tools?"
Bumbill, a jolly, perpetually-smiling mole, answered for his wife. "Burr, we'm could doo et awright, Missus. Leave it to us'ns!"
Tings sat up a bit, interested in the conversation; Dippertail spotted her, and alerted the others. "Yieeeeek! The young one has awakened, I believe."
Raggle and Shermy, who had attended the council, were immediately at the mousemaid's side. The young squirrel grasped his friend's paw, nearly sobbing with relief. "Tings! Thank goodness you're all right. I'm sorry I couldn't catch you; the fabric just ripped off in my paw!"
Shermy was grinning from long ear to long ear; he patted Tings on the shoulder. "Well, good afternoon to you, miss. Feeling better, wot?"
The mousemaid nodded gingerly, as her neck was a bit sore from the impact. "Much better, thank you, though I doubt I'll be going on the roof again anytime soon. You don't have to apologize, Raggle; it wasn't your fault I fell. Frankly, I'm surprised I'm still here, myself. What happened?"
Shermy explained in detail - as he had already to the council - about his vision of Martin, the creature at the gate, and how the mousemaid had been rescued. His face showed great admiration for Tings' preserver as he wrapped up the narrative. "Leapt up like a bloomin' frog on a cinder soon as she saw you falling, wot! Must be a rare creature, that one, risking life and limb for a total stranger. Grandmum Dawbil says the strain might've done her in, even without the rough landing. Whoever she is, she's no wiltin' lily, that's for certain; a few weeks' rest and good feedin' should have her tip-top again, if you ask me!"
Brother Willow's harsh, derisory voice interjected from across the room. "We all would like to hope that's the case, young 'un, but it is a fact the poor beast's half starved, and badly wounded in several places. No one knows what's going to happen, really. Grandmum Dawbil doesn't even know, and you only recently became an infirmary assistant so you couldn't possibly have the experience to... "
"Thank you, Brother, that's quite enough of that!" Abbess Saffron interrupted firmly. "We appreciate your input, but now is not the time for lectures."
Tings stood; somewhat shakily, as her head was still a bit fuzzy. Raggle threw a paw about her shoulders to support her. "Don't worry, I won't let you fall again. Where to?"
The mousemaid smiled. "Thanks, Rag. I'd like to go thank my rescuer; would that be possible?"
Shermy supported his friend on the other side. "I certainly don't see why not; I'm due back in the infirmary, anyhow. I say, might we be excused from the council, Abbess Marm?"
Saffron gave them her permission. "I believe you've told us all you can for now. Go on, friends."
With Tings between them, the leveret and the black squirrel made their way upstairs to the sickbay.
By the time they reached the infirmary, the mousemaid had regained her balance enough to totter a few paces on her own. The door the the sickbay was bolted and locked, as Grandmum Dawbil wished to discourage the horde of curious Abbeybeasts from suffocating her patient. Raggle rapped noisily on the door; a gruff mole voice answered.
"Goo ee away, oi need et quoiett round yurr!"
Shermy looked offended. "I say, steady on, miz Dawbil, marm! It's only myself and two others; Tings wants to offer her thanks to the beast that saved her life, y'see."
There was a pause, then the door slid open a fraction to reveal the old mole healer. She wrinkled her velvety nose in a smile. "Of course ee can enter, young'uns. Furgive moi bad mannurrs; oi thought you'm bee more o' they pesky Dibbuns, nosey likkle villyuns!"
Timidly, the trio entered the infirmary. Grandmum Dawbil shut the door behind Raggle, the last to enter, and gestured to the back room of the infirmary. "Roight thiz way, doan't ee be afeared."
As Shermy had helped to clean the mud off of the patient, he knew what to expect; the other two young creatures stopped dead, drawing in their breath sharply. Sprawled across two beds pushed together was a scrawny, full-grown female wildcat. Her fur was a smoky grey, with dark flecks here and there; the spots converged into black rings on her tail and to black stripes on her head. The tip of her tail and her ears were black; her paws, however, were snowy white. She wore a shredded and tattered tunic of sharksin, the only ornaments being a fishbone necklace and a braided scarf headband. There was also a single gold hoop earring through her left ear; a rip in the right ear showed where the other ring had been wrenched off, some time ago. Countless scars and raggedly healed wounds showed through the fur, all over her body; one particularly large, curved scar ran from her left ear to her chin, right over a permanantly closed eyelid. She was a barbaric and terrifying sight; yet, at the same time, curiously pathetic.
Grandmum Dawbil lowered her voice to a whisper. "B'ain't a purdy soight, burr no; but she'm bain't as bad 'urted as oi furst thought. Goo on, mizzy Tings, she'm woan't 'urt ee. Oi've a'ready had ee wurd or two wi' ee gurt catbeast, moiself."
Swallowing hard, the mousemaid approached the prone wildcat. She lay so still at first that Tings thought she might be asleep; however, as soon as the mousemaid stopped beside the bed, the beast's one good eye snapped open. There was a tense silence as the cat stared rigidly and appraisingly at the newcomer; it lasted so long, Tings thought she might scream.
Finally, the wildcat sighed, relaxing again. Her voice, when it came, was feeble and rasping. "I suppose you're one of the healer's assistants, but I don't remember seeing you before."
Tings was caught off guard; she stammered a bit, staring at the other creatures for help. "Er...ah...n-no, I don't work in the..er, infirmary..."
Shermy, sensing a rescue was in order, rose to the occasion. "This, madam, is none other than the famous Tings, who fell of the rooftops earlier today."
The cat's smile showed a row of needle-sharp teeth, but it was friendly. "So it is; thank you, Shermy. Well, how do you do, miss? Good to see you up and about so soon."
Tings found her voice. "Yes, I'm all right, thanks to you. You saved my life, you know; I'll not lightly forget that. You must be either a very brave or a very stupid creature, sticking your neck out like that for a total stranger."
The wildcat smiled again, chuckling softly. "I suppose I should take that as a compliment; thank you, Tings. It really was no trouble, though."
"No trouble?!" Raggle blurted out. "How can you say that, when you nearly broke your spine?"
"And who might you be?" The cat's friendly gaze turned upon the speaker.
The young squirrel's bushy black tail drooped over his eyes in embarrassment. "Er, Raggle, marm; I'm a friend of Tings and Shermy."
The cat proffered a scarred and calloused paw, which the young squirrel accepted; his paw was completely enveloped by the huge white mitt as they shook. "Nice to meet you, Raggle; and you, too, Tings. My name's Siyuzin Stoneclaw. Now, Raggle, let us suppose you were seeking shelter in a strange place. Say, just as you got there, you saw one of the inhabitants in deadly peril, and you were possibly the only one who could do anything about it. Now tell me, what would you do?"
Raggle was nonplussed; he thought for a moment. "Well...I suppose the same thing you did, miz Stoneclaw. That is, if I were brave enough."
"I think you would be; you seem a heroic sort to me." The wildcat chuckled again, closing her eyes. "Oh, and please, call me Sy. Everyone does."
Sensing that her patient wished to rest, Grandmum Dawbil whispered in Tings' ear. "Oi think we'm best be a-goin naow."
The mousemaid began heading for the door, with her two friends and the molewife following. "I think we'll be heading to supper now; we'll be sure to have Friar Dimp send you up something. How does watershrimp-and-hotroot soup with mushroom pastie sound to you, Sy?"
Siyuzin Stoneclaw waved goodbye feebly. "As long as it's vittles and I can eat it, it sounds just fine, missy. Come back and see me again sometime. Oh, Shermy, if you see Rivereye or Speedwell, tell them not to worry about me; I should be fine after a few weeks' rest."
"Will do, marm." Shermy threw a lazy salute, then muttered conspiritorially to Raggle. "See? What did I jolly well tell you?"
Once Grandmum Dawbil had shut the trio outside in the corridor, Tings turned to her hare friend. "We don't know any Rivereye, or Speedwell. Who on earth was she talking about?"
The leveret threw a paw dramatically across his brow. "Oh, fiddlesticks, I completely forgot to tell you about that, wot! I had a word with old Siyu-what-her-whiskers earlier; was wondering why old Martin thought she should come here, y'see. She didn't tell me much, but it seems some particularly brutal vermin coves raided her tribe's home. Goodness knows how many leagues from here that is, we've not had wildcats around here for nigh on a squillion seasons, y'know. Anyway, Sy and her aunt's two babes were the only beasts to escape. They're certainly in far better health than their cousin; were just about terrified into a bloomin' stupor by the time we got 'em inside the good old Abbey, though."
Tings, like most young Abbey females, adored babes of any sort; she was immediately sympathetic. "Poor little mites, they must have been through a lot. Well, at least they'll be safe here...provided, of course, that the other Dibbuns don't pester them to death!"
Laughing at this little joke, the three friends descended to the kitchens.