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Cover art by ForrestFighter
Though the clouds had finally blown away, the air was still quite damp from the storm of the night before. Like swirling seas of gold, sunrise-tinged puffs of mist practically obscured the woodlands. Here and there, a beam of sunlight was broken into countless shining shards by the branches of a tree they were forced to shine through, creating harlequin patterns of light and dark through the fog. It was a beautiful, and breathtaking sight; yet it meant little to Dankfur and his four remaining martens, crouched miserably in the mud by a damp, smoking fire as they waited on the return of the blacksnackes. Aside from a roasted woodpigeon and her clutch, which they had divided amongst themselves, the group had eaten nothing all evening; all of their looted supplies from the Guosim had washed overboard when they had tried to shoot the rapids in the previous day's storm.
Gronk, the first mate, had learned his lesson about complaining outright, and had the dock-leaf bandage about his ear to prove it. He tried to stay conversational as he posed his captain a question. "So, when do ye think them two snakes is gonna come back, Cap'n?"
A smallish, stunted marten named Scruffgutt beat Dankfur to the answer. "When they's ready to, addlebrain! Huh, of alla shoopid questions...oooooffff!"
Gronk kicked him savagely in the stomach, sending him flat on his back. "I ain't talkin' ter ye, Shorty, keep outa this."
Gronk suddenly found himself sprawling beside his victim; he looked up into the eyes of Scruffgutt's hefty brother Uja. The giant was shaking a clenched paw threateningly. "Ye had no call ter do that!"
Not a bit short of nerve, or strength, Gronk leapt upright, catching Uja a belt in the nose with his sword hilt; knocked off-balance, the big clumsy marten stumbled backwards into the stream with a booming splash. Gronk shook his saber threateningly at his spluttering comrade. "Yew lay a paw on me again, Fatty, an' ye ain't gonna live ter remember it. Git outta there afore ye catches fever. What the....Gerroff!"
Scruffgutt had leapt upon the first mate's unprotected back, knocking the saber from his paws and pulling him backwards to the ground. Gronk retaliated by rolling over and punching his assailant in the eye; not to be outdone, Scruffgutt grabbed the first mate's injured ear and bit, hard. Ignoring a bloodied nose, Uja scrambled from the streambank and joined the fray, booting Gronk in the behind. Ringgob, the only member of Dankfur's crew who had not participated up to this point, decided to help Gronk out; he flung himself upon the giant's footpaws, sending Uja crashing to earth. Roaring and screeching at each other, the four martens scuffled paw to paw, careening up and down the sludgy riverbank. Dankfur dropped his head into his paws in despair, not even bothering to intervene. "Idiots, I've got idiots for a crew!"
The two blacksnakes slid silently into camp, a bit out of breath from the dash; they had covered an amazing distance that night. Whiptail made her report, then gestured with her blunt snout at the now-unrecognizable muddy blobs still fighting each other tooth and nail. "What issss thissss about, Massssster?"
The Voice of the Shadow shot a disgusted glare at the continuing scuffle. "Just squabbles, brought about from too much hardship and not enough feeding." He pointed his hook at Jettcoil. "Well, what are you waiting for? You know what to do."For a creature of his monstrous size, the blacksnake could be very stealthy when he wished to. Slithering, undetected, up to the squabblers, he sent the lot of them into the water with one powerful flick of his neck. Spluttering and hawking water, the four looked up into the steely eyes of their captain. Dankfur gestured with his hook dramatically. "Just look at you. You call yourselves servants of the Black Shade, or even mere pirates? You're nothing but a pack of babes fighting over trifles. Now get out of there and gather your things. The serpents have run our quarry to earth at last, about three days travel from here at our speed. We'll have enough enemies to fight then, without bickering amongst ourselves."
Abashed, but still glaring resentfully at one another, the martens exited the stream, gathering up swords, daggers, cloaks and masks from where they had fallen on the bank during the melee. As the logboat began to sail down the sidestream towards the still-rough River Moss, Dankfur questioned the blacksnakes again. "You're sure the cats are still inside the building you told me about?"
Jettcoil, who was traveling on the bankside with his mate, answered. "Yesssss, Masssster. The tracksssssss ended at the gate; there were no otherssssssss."
"And the directions again, in case we become separated?"
"Follow the great ssssssstream until it reachessssss a ford, then follow the path from the ford to the redssssssstone fortressssss."
Gronk, now in better spirits at the thought of immenent victory, gave his captain a lopsided grin. "Ain't too difficult, eh, Cap'n? We'll have 'em back in no time, now."
Dankfur shot him a withering look. "You don't realize what we're up against, do you?"
The first mate was puzzled. "A big redrock buildin', I thought."
Ringgob, a marten with an unusually large mouth, had caught on. "Idjit! That's Redwall H'abbey! It ain't gunna be no easy job git'n them cats outta there; I heard lotsa bad tales 'bout that accursed place."
Horrorstruck, the other three martens looked towards their captain for confirmation. Dankfur nodded, driving his message home by repeatedly pounding his hook into his good paw. "He speaks the truth. Countless warlords have been done to death by the inhabitants of Redwall. This job is going to take every ounce of cunning I possess, and complete, unquestioning obedience from you lot. Anybeast who's got any objections may as well throw himself overboard right now; there will be no room for loose ends once we reach that Abbey. Understood?"
The four former corsairs nodded furiously; they knew, by the look in their captain's eyes and the way he pawed his long saber, that he meant every word.
Friar Dimp, as befits a ruler of Redwall's kitchens, always rose before the sun was fully up to begin preparing breakfast. This morning, the good squirrel had decided the main course would be oatmeal, served with strawberries, honey, and almonds; thinking it would be nicer to use fresh strawberries instead of preserved ones, Dimp gathered up a few baskets and made his way to the main door. Normally, he would have awakened his kitchen assistants to have them help with the task, but, after yesterday's ordeal, the kind-hearted Friar had decided to let the younger beasts sleep in a little.
Out on the lawns, the main abbey building and its surrounding walls rose majestically out of the mists, tinged a pale, dusty rose in the soft, pre-dawn light; but there, any suggestion of beauty ended. The grounds and orchards were a soppy, muddied mess, covered in fallen fruits and branches. Now that it could be seen more clearly, the useless main gate was a sobering, horrific sight. Friar Dimp was a meticulously tidy creature; squelching his way through the mud with a grimace of distaste upon his face, he sighed heavily, announcing to empty air, "This wreckage will take ages to repair!"
Fumbling and dropping some of his baskets, the Friar sighed again; attempting to hold a berry-picking expedition by oneself was no easy task. He turned his pawsteps to the Gatehouse, deciding he would ask Furze or Teezl to give him some assistance.
Suddenly, he broke into a run; disregarding baskets and muddied clothes, he dashed to the side of the fallen Ayeriss, kneeling and taking her in his paws. A quick glance showed that she had suffered a terrible concussion; a bit of blood from where a sharp staircorner had caught her head was congealed in her spikes. Assuring himself that the hogmaid was still breathing, the Friar leapt to his paws again, and barged noisily into the Gatehouse.
Some little time later, Shermy and his friends were awakened by a frantic pounding on the door of the infirmary, followed by Grandmum Dawbil's gruff shout. "A'roight, oi'm a-cummin, keep ee shurt on!"
She opened the door to reveal a disheveled and muddied Friar Dimp; the pudgy squirrel was panting and weeping so hard that he only articulate nonsense syllables. After a short moment of staring at the rare spectacle of a dirty Friar Dimp, Grandmum Dawbil threw a hefty digging claw about his shoulders, ushering him gently into the sickbay. "Thurr, naow, take ee deep breather'n tell oi all about et, zurr."
Shermy, Raggle, Tings, and Speedwell all leapt from their beds, crowding round the distraught Friar as he sobbed out his message. "Found her outside...Ayeriss Pinspikes...her parents are tending to her now...oh, it's horrible, friends, just awful!"
He burst into fresh tears, unable to continue. The old mole healer immediately took charge of the situation, her voice ringing out authoritatively. "Shurmee, Raggle, goo ee an' foind out what happun'd. Oi'll stop hurr wi' ee Froir till you'uns get back."
"Aye, Miz Dawbil, marm!" The hare and black squirrel charged out the door and down the stairs. The big wildcat, Siyuzin Stoneclaw, had come awake more slowly than the other beasts in the infirmary; her voice came from the back room. "What's going on, what's wrong?"
Tings came to the cat's side, her face drawn and anxious as she explained, "Friar Dimp says one of our gatekeepers has been hurt."
Immediately, Sy heaved herself into a sitting position. Tings became seriously alarmed. "No, no, it's all right, Shermy and Raggle already went downstairs. Wait here, they'll come back and tell us what happened."
The wildcat smiled at the agitated mousemaid. "Don't worry, missy, I'm not getting up. I just want to look out the window here."
There was a large, shuttered window beside the cat's bed; she threw it open with one swipe of her mighty paw. Tings and Speedwell joined her; together, they gazed through the rapidly clearing mist at the scene below.
The entirely of the Pinspikes family and a large percentage of the Abbey population were out on the lawn; some crowding around a huddled figure on the ground, others milling about as if unsure what to do. News of Ayeriss' injury had traveled fast, in the strange way that all news seemed to find its way around the Abbey with no real effort on the part of anybeast. Dippertail, spotting the open infirmary window, soared up to it and landed on the sill. He bowed politely to the bigger wildcat. "Yiieer! Nice to see you feeling a bit better."
Sy gestured to the mass of creatures. "What's this all about?"
The falcon shook his head sadly. "Heeeeek, the night sentry fell down the stairs last night; probably fainted with exhaustion after the hard night and day before. Yeeeeak, she has injured her head very badly; she does not look well at all."
He took off again, sailing back down to help Skipper Windryder and his otters to take charge of the situation. The crowd dispersed as two of the otters carried the burly hogmaid into the abbey, while the rest helped Abbess Saffron to shepherd the curious Abbeybeasts back to their normal daily chores. Tings stifled a sob. "No wonder the Friar was so upset, finding her like that. Poor Ayeriss, she was always such a tough beast."
Grandmum Dawbil had managed to calm Dimp, and send him off to his room to clean himself up; she addressed the mousemaid firmly. "Naow, thurr be no use in a-talkin' like ee pore hogmaid be dead'n a'ready, Miz Tings. You'm probl'y upsettin' ee babe."
Sy stroked her cousin on the head, her face grim. "Believe me, he's seen and heard far worse. Though it wouldn't be a bad idea to get him out of here before they bring the poor beast in."
Taking the hint, Tings took the kitten's paw, forcing a cheerful smile. "Come on, little one. Let's see if we can help clean up the orchard."
Taking the back way down from the dormitories, so as not to pass Windryder's otters carrying the unconscious Ayeriss, the duo descended to the lower levels of the Abbey. Raggle met them as they crossed the Great Hall; the young squirrel's paws and limbs were trembling with shock. Tings, motioning meaningfully with her eyes at the Dibbun beside her, addressed him brightly. "We're going to ask Abbess Saffron if there's any room on cleanup detail for two more. Want to come with us and make it three?"
Raggle seemed to come out of his stupor. "Huh...oh, er, right." He took the kitten's other paw, giving a shuddering sigh. "I've never really seen a bloody wound before. Turned my stomach a bit."
Tings shook her head at him reprovingly as they turned towards the kitchens, where the Abbess could be heard trying to motivate the cooking assistants in the absence of the Friar. "Let's not talk of it, please. Watch that step, Speedwell; here, we'll swing you over. One, two, hup!"
For the first time since his arrival at Redwall, the kitten giggled, allowing his footpaws to leave the floor. "Wheeee, again, again!"
Raggle smiled, too, as he and Tings swung their charge over another step. "Good to see him happy, after what he's been through. One, two, hup!"
A sound of pattering footsteps caused Tings to look over her shoulder; she groaned, lowering her voice to a murmur. "Oh, no, here comes Brother Furze, right at us."
Raggle also glanced at the Pinspikes patriarch approaching, whispering back, "He sure looks upset. Well, it can't be helped; probably just needs somebeast to talk to."
They stopped and turned, waiting for Furze Pinspikes to catch up. Tings took his paw as he reached her, adopting her most soothing tone. "Poor fellow, rushing about isn't going to help matters much. Why don't you come with us to the kitchens for a nice cup of tea, to help calm your nerves while we wait for news of Ayeriss?"
The hedgehog pulled his paw free. "Not worried about Ayeriss; that rabbet who helps in the 'firmary sez she wuz startin' t'come round when 'e took 'er up. Where's Muther H'Abbess?"
Raggle gestured ahead of him. "In the kitchens, why?"
But Furze was off again, shambling at a trot (the fastest pace he could manage) down the passage. Still swinging the chuckling Speedwell between them, Raggle and Tings followed, their youthful curiosity aroused.
Just as the trio reached the kitchen, Furze and Abbess Saffron emerged, deep in conversation. Raggle hailed the latter. "Excuse me, marm, but we were wondering if there were any chores for us to do? You know, helping with the storm damage and such like."
Saffron waved a paw; she looked rather flustered. "Skipper and Foremole Aggit are in the orchard, organizing that sort of thing. I really must get on. Great seasons, it never rains but it pours... "
The two young ones and the kitten fell in step with the Abbess, following her and Furze to the door; Tings voiced the question that was in their minds. "What's wrong now?"
The Abbess patted the mousemaid's head gently. "Nothing for you to be alarmed about, young one. Teezl Pinspikes is going to have her new baby - wonderful news, really - but with all that's been going on, it's a complication we really have no need of at the moment."
She and Furze Pinspikes separated from the group, heading towards the Gatehouse while the rest turned toward the orchard. Raggle shook his head in bewilderment as he addressed Tings. "First the storm, and you falling off the roof. Then Shermy sees Martin, and we wind up with two badly injured beasts in the infirmary; and now this! What next?"
Tings laughed nervously, helping Speedwell skirt a large puddle. "I'm almost afraid to ask that question, myself."