Journey of Warriors: Sequel to Segalia Riverstorm’s Voyage
This is a sequel to Segalia Riverstorm's Voyage, so I would advise you to read that one first. Enjoy!
Also, while the first story bordered on PG-13 violence-wise, this one is strongly PG-13 with content warnings for torture, mind control, and forced suicide starting in Book 2. Read at your own risk.
The setting sun burnished the rich green landscape with a dull gold. Warmth became reticent and soon smoke curled in the treetops as fires heated hearths. One particular hut was just finishing supper when the young daughter piped up.
“Papa! Kin ye tell us the stowy ‘bout ‘ow ye ‘n Mama fell in wuv?”
The beast in question smiled as he cleared off the hardwood table. “Wouldn’t you find the story of the exciting quest to far lands, to find secrets and confront war ladies more interesting?”
She pouted and crossed her arms. “Same ting.”
Her mother chuckled from where she was washing the few earthenware dishes. “Maybe you should wait until the reunion in a few days so the others can hear it too.”
“Ah’m ‘ere!” piped up the cheerful voice of an unrelated child spending the night.
“Dear,” the lone male looked questioningly over at his wife.
“We’ll take turns and make it last for several nights.” She dried her paws on her apron as she came over.
“Making sure to stop in the climatic spots!”
Squealing happily, his daughter avoided his tickling fingers, while her friend asked the former’s mother, “Wot’s cwimatick?”
“Very important and exciting.” Her explanation was drowned out as the father scooped his daughter up and over his shoulder.
He plopped her breathless onto a chair at his wife's bidding and she began. “This story starts at Redwall Abbey…”
Book 1: Commencement
Redwall Abbey cast a large shadow over its grounds in the afternoon sun. Basking in its warmth were a group of Dibbuns, the young beasts at Redwall. The oldest, technically a graduate from Dibbunhood, was the badger, Maben. He was enthralling his audience with a tale of the past events of winter and spring, officially known as the Warring Winter ended by the Spring Skirmishes. Maben liked to call it “the battle where everything froze and I was the commander and so we won.”
“No, you din’t!” Mumzy, a fairly new resident volemaid protested. “My mum beat d’evil foxlord.”
“She did?” A wide-eyed small bunny turned incredulously to her friend.
“Yeah, ‘n she ‘venged me dad ‘n won da war.” Smiling proudly, she added, “Oh, ‘n Carma helped.”
The mention of the female badger pacified Maben only slightly. “Yeah, but…I’m tellin’ this story!”
“Well, get it right!”
“Dibbuns, dibbuns,” the slight crunch of grass alerted the arguing pair and their audience to the arrival of Ampanna, a young squirrelmaid of the otter holt Weasprears who had fought in the war.
“’Panna!” The young creatures jumped up to crowd around her, blades of grass falling from their dirty habits.
“Sure, h’ignore me.” Segalia Riverstorm grinned from behind her mobbed friend
The gray squirrel tried to distract them as she ruffled their fur, then, giving up, let them drag her to the ground among pleas to tell the story better than Maben.
“So, what’s happening over here?”
“The usual mob.” The otter chuckled to the newly arrived Selra. “H’I bet she’ll be glad t’leave.” She looked over. “Where’s Rip?”
The daughter of aforementioned fox warlord shrugged. Being a “vermin” meant that she and her twin had been largely distrusted when they had first arrived. A testament to her aid in the final battle was the fact that, though still close, they didn’t feel the need to stick together constantly. “We’re leaving in a few days, right?”
“Yeah, Ah’m ‘cited, h’aren’t ye?”
The hesitant look reminded the tan otter that it was more than an adventure for her friend, rather, a long-awaited and dread homecoming. Luckily, the potentially awkward silence following the thoughtless question was broken by the arrival of Rori.
He wasted no time on salutations. “Segalia, come quickly!”
“What now?” She groaned, though her speed belied her anxiety.
The boar panted, obviously having just jogged his formidable form over. “It’s…Lijel.”
Though this explained a lot, she still requested that he extrapolate. “We were looking for stuff in the Attic when he got bored and decided to climb on the roof. He was doing fine when he got stuck and asked for help.”
Segalia snorted, having trouble imagining her fairly independent friend actually requesting help. “’E h’asked fer ‘elp?”
“Not exactly, of course, but it’s obvious he needs it.”
“’N from me, because?”
“You’re his friend so you can talk him down,” at her dubious look, he added, “and you’re one of the best climbers here.”
She shrugged, not arguing with the compliment; it was merely one of the perks of growing up with a squirrel best friend, who herself was a good swimmer.
Selra, having followed, pointed upward. “Is that him?”
It was worse than she had anticipated. He had obviously slipped on the tile now broken on the ground and fallen, only to be caught by his leg on one of several small chimneys littering the broad roof.
Sighing, she shouted up, “H’I’m comin’!”
She received a non-committal grunt and rolled her eyes before following Rori up to the attic room. Looking out the window, she wrinkled her muzzle and asked for boost, being shorter than her male counterpart. In a few minutes, she was scampering happily across the roof. Upon arriving at her fallen friend, she grinned at his upside-down figure and asked, “So, wot seems t’be the problem?”
Lijel glared at her shortly before settling on a nonchalant expression with his arms crossed behind his head. “Nothin’ much. ‘Ow ‘bout ye?”
She examined his position. “Well, Ah don’t see h’a problem. Kin’t ye just use yer supposed abs ‘n pull yerself h’up?”
“Me tunic’s stuck.”
Putting her paws on her hips, she retorted, “Oh, ‘n Ah h’assume yer h’arms’re stuck behind yer ‘ead ‘n so kin’t be used t’unsnag h’it?”
He nodded. “Yup.”
Rolling her eyes, again, she tried to retrace his steps. “So ye walked this way ‘n-Daish!” Obviously stepping in the same weak spot as he had, she slid headfirst on her back towards the edge of the roof while Lijel leisurely unfolded his arms and hooked her sturdy belt.
“’N slipped ‘n fell.” Segalia finished as her quickly beating heart slowed.
He watched amusedly as she leaned forward, her arms falling a rudder-length short of the chimney. “So, ‘ow’re ye goin’ t’get h’up, Miss H’Expert?”
Ignoring his dissent, she grabbed his leg and maneuvered herself to where she could grab the chimney and swing her lower half back around to stand. “That’s ‘ow. Now, grab me paw, ‘n Ah’ll pull ye h’up.”
“’Ow secure h’is yer grip?”
“Fine, just take me paw.”
“Ah kin’t reach it; untie yer belt.”
Sighing, she undid it and swung it out. After laughing for a second at the way her tunic hung baggily nearly to her knees, he grabbed it and stood.
“Now,” she secured her belt, “d’you need me t’old yer paw or kin ye get h’across the roof by yerself?”
“Yore the one ‘o h’obviously needs h’a paw t’keep from fallin’. H’I’ll race ye.”
Segalia hesitated, glancing at the skittish tiles that had brought both of them down.
With her courage on the line, she couldn’t say no. “Go!”
Hobbling slightly, they sped back off the roof.
On the ground below, Riplar commented casually. “I bet one of them’s going to get hurt.”
“Yeah,” Rori agreed, “probably Lijel.”
“Nah, did you see the fall Seg just made? She will.”
Carma shook her head at their callousness and started for the building. “I’ll go get my herb bag.”
“Wait,” Selra stopped her, “let’s see what happens.”
A groan from behind them alerted them to the third member of the original trio from the holt. “What’re they doin’ now?”
“Racing.” Riplar said.
“On the roof.” His sister finished.
“H’o’ course.” Ampanna sighed.
They stood there watching the tentatively speedy process before Selra commented, “I suppose we should tell them that we closed the window.”
Rori’s paw met his forehead with a thunk. “I’d forgotten about that.”
“So, are you going to change that?” Carma asked when neither moved, eyes fixated above.
“Fine,” both she and Ampanna huffed simultaneously before setting off together.
Above them, Segalia scooted off the roof while Lijel swung over dramatically. He crashed into the closed window while she smirked and Rori held a paw meaningfully towards Riplar.
“Did you even bet anything?” Selra asked and they both shrugged.
“At least a toe-jam won’t impede our trip.” The fox kits nodded in agreement though both of their eyes shot elsewhere.
Rori was ignorant of the awkwardness, but changed the subject to be more acceptable. “Speaking of which, we should probably visit Naraudo in the kitchens to arrange food.”
Selra grinned, “Too bad Ampanna isn’t here.”
“She visits her boyfriend plenty.” Riplar rolled his eyes.
Again, Rori ignored them, now focused on his task as he headed to the large doors. “It’s going to take a long time, maybe even a season, so he obviously can’t provide us that much. It’ll just have to be a starter amount and we’ll pick up more on the way.”
Scurrying after him, the twins looked at each other, rolled their eyes then grinned. Maybe this trip would turn out okay after all.
- Many weeks previous*
The future Warlady and Conqueror of Salamandastron, Holt Weasprear, Redwall Abbey and Mossflower, Slayer of Otters and Queen of Two Thousand Warriors, Omi, had little to show for her claimed title. Currently, she paced drenched, bloody and dirty on the floor of a cave. She often stopped and glanced irritably at a dark corner.
“Stoopid beast.” Kicking a mucky rock, she plopped to the ground almost despairingly. In an attempt to stay focused she made a list of current events. “So, me da’s dead. Very well, Ah’ll kill th’dog ‘o did it. Me mentor,” she sneered over her shoulder, “’s’lyin’ near dead ‘n Ah don’t reckon Ah know ‘ow to save ‘im.” Brushing a scraggly scrap of fur out of her eyes, she winced. “’N Ah’m not too well off meself, ‘specially ‘thout vittles.” She sighed. “’Ow’m Ah s’posed to ‘courage ‘n army to side with me iffen’m this badly off?”
A gentle voice drifted to her from the front of the cave. “I’ll tell you, lassie.”
The stoat looked up from where she had dropped her head. “Wot?” Before the voice could answer, Omi stood, her voice strong though her legs trembled with exhaustion. “Who're you?”
The cloaked and imposing creature clouding the cave door laughed lightly. “It's not about who I am, but about who you can be.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Why, why shouldn't you? I have tricks and knowledge that could be of great use to you.”
Unwillingly, Omi found herself trusting the lilting voice. “Like?”
Though the creature's face was hidden, she detected a slight glimmer, indicating a smile. “For starters, I could heal your friend.”
“Well, because I have skills-”
“No, why d'you want t'help me at all? What d'you want from me?”
The laugh came again. “Such a smart girl. We can make use of it. And as for me? You're probably right to distrust me, but I mean you no harm. You want revenge; so do I.”
“It is of no concern, lass.”
Her fist tightened around one end of her numchuck. “No, I b'lieve it is. Iffen you want to work with me, I have to know.”
The creature had slowly moved closer throughout the conversation and now circled Omi who fought to keep the hairs on the back of her neck from standing up. “Tsk tsk, dearie. That's one thing we'll need to fix. I suppose your da's at fault for your dreadful speech, raising you the way he did.”
She whirled to face the creature. “My da raised me jist fine!”
For a beast of such ample stature, the creature moved surprisingly fast. “I'm sure he did. But, here are the facts. You need help. Though you have that,” the disdain was evident in the creature's tone regarding the wounded beast in the back of the cave, “you need more. He can't do anything right now and his brain's so addled that who knows if he'll be any help at all.”
“True though that may be, you still 'aven't 'nswered my question.”
Sighing dramatically, the creature responded, “Fine. My revenge is more than just one beast, it is against all of Redwall Abbey.”
Curious despite herself, Omi asked, “Why?”
“It is of no concern. Our aims are the same and we have skills to help each other. It would be stupid not to team up together.” With calculating eyes, the creature added the last push. “You wouldn't want your “da” to be ashamed of your “yellow-belliedness”, would we?”
The stoatmaid's jaw clamped up. “Very well, but I have con'itions. First, I'm in charge. Then 'im.” Now it was Omi's turn to circle the creature, though her victim seemed to be taking it much better. “Second, know that I'm not 'fraid t'kill you to get what I want.”
“I expected no less. But you look tired. Wouldn't you like to relax, let me heal your wounds?”
“I'm fine. Now-”
The soothing voice filled the cave. “I'm sure it's important. We'll cover it later. You need your strength, don't you?”
“Of course you do.” Omi slowly fell to the floor as the creature removed a needle from where it had been quickly injected in the stoat's neck. “Sleep well, lass, we have a lot to do tomorrow.” The laugh that followed was more cackle than the easy one earlier. “But until then, I have both of you in my little paws. Soon I will avenge myself using the skills of my ancestor.” The creature flung back the hood to reveal a spiky head and knelt by the male in the back of the cave.
“Don't 'arm 'er.” Though his body was weak, the threat implied in his voice was very much real.
“And why would I want to do that, sweetie? I still need her, both of you.”
His untrusting glare fogged over as the creature jerked out another needle from his arm. Removing supplies from a heavy bag, the creature stopped and allowed a smile. This was good, this was very good, indeed.
The birds serenaded each other in the trees, their songs prompting no response from the lone figure on the rosy battlements. He stared silently, not over the misty green of Mossflower as most beasts did, but at the quietly bustling grounds below. He didn’t acknowledge the approach of the Abbess, but she sensed that he was very much aware of her presence.
Skipper Joncho had retreated in on himself following the final battle. Though a battle-hardened warrior, the death of his friend, the squirrel abbess, Fern, seemed to have saddened him beyond repair. This morning, however, Abbess Paldra wondered if his somber mood could be attributed to the imminent departure of the warriors he had trained, several of whom he had known since they were Dibbun-age.
“How much longer will you be staying with us at the Abbey, sir?” Her gentle voice barely broke above the breeze.
“’M not h’a sir.” His gaze never wavered, though his voice cracked, probably from disuse.
“Very well, Skip.”
Sighing, he decided to avoid skirting her question. “H’I was thinkin’ ‘bout stayin’ on t’’elp, but now Ah think h’it’d be best iffen we leave h’as soon h’as possible.”
The breeze ruffled her off-white fur, disguising a tremor. “As we recover from the devastating attacks these last few seasons, it might be helpful for some extra leadership.” She placed her paw on his. “Will you stay? For a bit longer?”
Still not looking at her, the scarred otter removed her paw from under hers. The mouse leader bit her lip, a nervous tic she had developed under her new burdens. He looked down and when he finally spoke, it was gruff. She had to lean in to decipher all of the one word
“Thank you, Skipper.” Paldra wanted to hug him with relieved thanks, but knew it wouldn’t be appreciated.
Instead, she looked down to the lawn. The scene provided a cheerful contrast to their more somber mood. Two badgers stood discussing some papers while a fox and otter retrieved weapons from the Gatehouse. The respective males of their species were aiding a red squirrel carry haversacks of food; accost seemed to describe their actions better, however, when viewed more closely. There looked to be one beast missing from the traveling group.
“Sayin’ bye t’the Dibbuns.” Short though his responses were, at least he was replying.
Before she had become a cook, the mouse, too, had helped take care of the Abbey’s young. Her previous professions brought to mind, she inquired, in hopes of maintaining their small talk, “Do you suppose I might get to help in the Kitchens with Naraudo away?”
He shrugged and finally she gave up, figuring she could be of more use down below. As she trotted down the stairs, she asked, “So, are you all set for departure down here?”
“Just ‘bout, ma’am.” Segalia dumped a pile of weapons in the dewy grass.
“We just need to double-check Carma’s list.” Selra held up a long piece of parchment and rolled her eyes.
“Well, it’s good to be-” her tentatively responsible reply was cut off as her successor yelped.
“For the last time, Lijel, stop or I’ll-”
“You’ll what?” Riplar took the opportunity to snag a scone and Naraudo growled with rage.
It was no secret throughout the Abbey that while Segalia was fine with her friend’s new relationship with the cook, she never let him know, keeping him constantly on edge. Such a chance now presented itself as she sauntered over. “Ye know, ‘Raudi, we might ‘ave t’keep ye ‘ere iffen ye kin’t control yer temper ‘n keep shoutin’ like that.”
He seethed. “Don’t call me that.”
“Ye mean, Ampanna doesn’t ‘ave a pet name fer ye?”
“My full name is just fine, thank you, and who are you to talk about tempers?”
The mischievous otter knew exactly what he was talking about: the incident, several months previous, where she had beat him up, simultaneously discovering her Bloodwrath. “H’as Ah recall, Ah was perfectly h’in the right.” She paused, placing her finger on her lips in mock-thought. “Wot’s yer weapon, h’again?”
His argument that females preferred long-distance weapons to avoid battle had been refuted, not only by the fierce females he now accompanied, including the one he now dated, but because his favorite weapon had proven to be the slingshot. He closed his eyes, trying to stay calm while thinking of a retort.
The abbess was wondering if she should step in, but Ampanna’s arrival saved him from exploding. “Seg, ‘re ye h’antagonizin’ ‘im, h’again?”
She smiled innocently as the rest of the group chuckled quietly. “’Course not. Now, h’are we good t’go?”
Riplar looked over his twin’s should at the list. “Food, clothes, weapons, maps, fire-starter, blankets, hotroot,” he stopped and looked over at Lijel. “Hotroot? A necessity? Really?”
Carma waved him on, ignoring the desecration of her list. “It’s an otter thing.”
He skimmed the rest of the list. “I think that’s about good.”
“I guess this is about it.” Rori clapped his large paws together. “Let’s go!”
“I’ll say a prayer for safety first.” Though there was some grumbling, the young warriors gathered around the Abbess.
A few minutes later, the large recently-repaired gates swung open and the tromped through. Abbess Paldra waved, though few turned to respond, wondering at the last minute if they should have insisted on a chaperon. Here was a group of very different beasts setting out on a potentially treacherous journey for different reasons: going home, discovering ancestry, adventure and for friends. She could only hope that this journey of warriors ended well. Her spoken concern fell on deaf ears; the elusive Skipper had, once again, disappeared.
The beginning of their trip did not bode well for the remainder. Trouble hit after they had been out of the gates no longer than fifteen minutes. Rori and Carma had been leading the group as they had the maps while the squirrel couple chatted behind them. Lijel and Riplar had offered to guard the back and Segalia and Selra walked in front of them. Slowly, Rori came to a halt.
“I told you to turn right at the crooked tree!” Carma gesticulated wildly.
Rori jabbed his large paw at the map. “Here it says to keep going until you hit the ford.”
“We’re nowhere close to the ford.”
“And how do you know so much? You’ve never been out here!”
Her burly arms were crossed and her usually passive face crinkled into a snarl. “I have too; I had to go back and forth here many times to get herbs for Nottenc.”
Now Rori hesitated, knowing he was close to a touchy subject. His pause gave the others, who had grown silent, a chance to step in. “Are we lost?”
“No, Selra, just going the wrong way.”
Rori pressed a fist to the middle of his forehead in an attempt to keep his temper.
“Shouldn’t ye guys know where we’re goin’?” Segalia turned to the fox twins.
“Yeah,” Lijel agreed, “ye jist came this way.”
Selra stared at them skeptically. “That was two seasons ago.”
“And it was all snowy then, so it all looks different.”
As the two otters’ faces fell, Ampanna stepped in between the still-glaring badgers. “So, uh, what ‘xactly ‘re we tryin’ to find?”
“The ford.” Carma stated while Rori scowled at the parchment in his paws.
The gray squirrel’s face lightened. “Oh, well, we know where that is.” She looked behind her at Segalia for back-up. “Don’t we?”
“Hm? Oh yeah, the ford’s h’easy t’ find.”
As the badgermaid grumbled something about speaking up earlier, Rori looked up expectantly. “Well, which way?”
Segalia sprang forward. “H’it’s,” she paused and looked around them. “Lemme see…iffen back there’s th’Abbey ‘n-”
“This is h’easy, Seg. We’re h’obviously ‘sposed t’go that way.” Lijel pointed to the group’s general left.
She made to speak, saw where he was pointing, and glared at him. “H’I knew that.”
“H’o’ course ye did.” Turning to Riplar, he remarked, “Good thing she h’isn’t leadin’ us h’all the way. We’d be lost ‘fore we got to the River Moss.”
His last word was cut off as a maddening Segalia came up behind him and pushed him through the nearby bushes.
Though shocked, the whole group started laughing, dissipating the tense mood brought on by the earlier argument. Segalia and Lijel fighting was much more natural than the badger friends’ quarrel. The accompanying splash from the otter’s stumble broke through their joviality.
“What in the-”
As a whole, they rushed through the brambles to find Lijel lazily floating on his back in the river. “H’I was gettin’ ‘ot.”
They rolled their eyes good-naturedly as Segalia offered, “H’I found it?”
“Sure ye did, Seg.” Ampanna elbowed her lightly in the ribs when the tan otter suddenly found herself surrounded by water.
She burst from it, spraying the whole group with little droplets of sparkling water. “’O was that? H’I’m gonna kill ye!”
Turning to the obvious culprit, she caught Lijel trade a wink with somebeast on the bank. As she splashed towards him, he raised his paws. “Now, now, Seg. We h’all need t’go through-” Though his logic was sound, his methods were uncalled for, or at least the ottermaid thought so as she caught him in a choke, pulling him into the water.
“So,” Carma turned to Rori, “do we just go through and straight or turn?”
He turned from where he had been shielding the precious parchment with his body. “I think we’re supposed to turn right. See what you think.”
As the navigators reconciled, Naraudo stepped down into the river and offered his paw to his girlfriend. Selra rolled her eyes, but Ampanna smiled, blushing, and accepted it. He helped her down and then, as a joke, splashed her. Her whole body stiffened and she sharply released his paw to wipe the water out of her face.
Segalia and Lijel had stopped their water wrestling to watch. “Oh, snap.”
“She’s mad now.”
“That’s not gonna be good.”
True to their words, when she opened her eyes, they were blazing rage. Though he didn’t step back, Naraudo was visibly shaken. “I’m sorry, Ampanna, that-”
He stopped as, to their astonishment, she began to laugh. Her laugh only increased at his astonishment when she leaned down and splashed the liquid back. Soon the two were engaged in a full-out water war filled with shrieks and giggles.
The siblings were just about to jump in and join when a boom of “Hey!” cut them short. The dripping creatures in the water glanced over as well to Rori. “As much fun as this is, we really need to get going. We want to reach our destinations before winter, since we know how much fun traveling in winter is, so we can’t stop to play just outside of Redwall.”
Remembering the cold journey the winter previous, Selra and Riplar agreed and crossed the river to wait on the other side. They were joined by the others one by one with Naraudo, genuinely this time, helping Ampanna up. Lijel shook himself wildly to dry off and Riplar pushed him.
“Hey, watch where you’re doing that.”
The others wrung out their tunics though Lijel gave an extra spray in Riplar’s direction. Damp and grateful for the bright sun, they rearranged themselves and headed off again.
“You just ate breakfast, Lijel.”
“Oh, jist give ‘im something to h’eat, Naraudo, ‘fore ‘e grumbles us t’death.”
“Like you can talk, Seg?”
“Good point. Kin Ah ‘ave somethin’ t’eat too?”
They chuckled as Naraudo pulled out some pastries. Maybe this trip would turn out well after all.
“Are you sure we’re supposed to go this way?”
Omi had saved the crazy coyote on the verge of death to help her. Mainly because he had seemed in accord with her wish to avenge her father. But now, she was starting to doubt her resolve. It was starting to look like she had underestimated his insanity.
“Slashclaw?” She had given up on titles many minutes before, her exasperation eroding any civility she might have had.
“Hm?” he asked from his position on the ground, crouched by a series of scrambled tracks. He leaned forward, sniffed a pawprint, wriggled his muzzle and licked it.
An hour ago, this behavior would have shocked even a vermin like her, who was very much accustomed to wallowing in filth. Now, she doubted anything would faze her, her sureness of his insanity having no bounds. “Slashclaw,” she repeated, “jist get up! Yore not gonna get anyt’ing from that mess, ‘specially not if ye put it in yer mouth.”
He chewed the sludge contemplatively. “Wait a second, m’dear. Ah think I’m getting something.”
Sighing, she slumped back on the stump, though she continued to protest. “Missus Walthers will be back soon. She won’t ‘preciate ye doin’ that.”
The blood-red eyes took on a slightly darker tint, as they tended to do when their new patron was mentioned. Soon enough, though, they had brightened, and he spat out the dirt. “Ah do believe an otter has been this way. There was a distinct streamy taste that is often associated with the water beasts. I also believe there might’ve been a cook. Some flour and spices on their footpaws.” He stood and wiped off his paws. “How ‘bout that?”
Though the stoatmaid did admire all the information he had gleaned from the dirt, she didn’t show it. “And how does this ‘elp us?”
“Last I checked, our quarry is an otter.”
Her mind whirled, revenge tainting her thoughts as her mind went into battle-mode. “So, were they goin’ to or from th’Abbey?”
He chuckled. “Ah’m glad you think so much of my skills, but I’m not sure.”
“She must’ve been goin’ to th’Abbey.” She ignored him, caught up in her ramblings. “If it was her. Either way, she was close! We must proceed with all haste.”
She strode off, scuffling the already mussed tracks and Slashclaw stared amused after her.
“Honey, that’s the wrong way.”
Instantaneously, both creatures spun to look at the hooded Malital Walthers.
“Where did you come from?” The coyote’s tone was hard, little emotion being expressed.
“Come on, sweetie, why would I give away all my secrets?” The hedgehog lifted a paw to his chin and he flinched away.
Omi ignored the tension as she hurried back over. “Ye know where ‘tis?”
“You know where it is, you should say. And yes, I do.”
“Then why haven’t you led us there yet?”
“Because I have a plan.” Though still cheery, her homey voice now had an underlying threat. “We wouldn’t want to attack the famed Redwall Abbey without one, now would we?”
The stoat didn’t seem to register the threat as she barged ahead. “We’ve been waitin’ fer weeks! We’re all healed good now, so why didn’t ye tell us?”
“Healed well, darling, well.”
She rolled her eyes, but took some time choosing her next words. Before she could, her other mentor spoke. “The lass has a point. We’re supposed to be a team, so why weren’t we informed?”
“You weren’t ready yet. But now, I suppose you are.”
“Tell me where th’Abbey,” at a look from Malital, she corrected herself, “the Abbey, is and we’ll attack it now. Simple.”
Slashclaw shrugged, fully in agreement.
“Why do you suppose you didn’t succeed last time? Simply because you just rushed in like you’re suggesting now. No, my plan starts with the simple gathering of information, undercover, spirits in the night.”
The coyote’s eyes narrowed as he considered while Omi’s widened. “Y’mean, we’re gonna spy?”
“Going to, and yes. We will.”
Though he still didn’t trust Malital, or Missus Walthers as she liked to be called, her plan seemed to be sound so far. “All right, when do we start?”
The crafty eyes wrinkled under her evil smile. “Right away, if you’re ready.”
Neither had quite come to terms to the hedgehog being their leader, but both were eager to go forward. “Yes!”
“Always ready,” after a second, he added sardonically, “ma’am.”
“Well then, let’s get started.”
Old habits die hard. This was especially true for Paldra, now Abbess. Every morning she would wake up and start thinking about what meals she would make during the day and whether she should ask the Abbess about feast plans. Then she would remember: she was the Abbess. No matter that it had been nearly a season since she had taken the role; it still took time to process.
It helped that the Abbey was calming down from the war. She knew there was no way she would have been able to control the Abbeymembers the way her predecessor had. For goodness’ sake, she had barely been able to subdue the food fights in the kitchen when she had been head cook! She laid the back of her paw on her forehead, sighed and sat up. This was no time to be lying in bed thinking self-condemning thoughts. After all, if she wasn’t capable for the job, Fern wouldn’t have nominated her, right?
Tying the white cord about her green-clad waist, the young mouse headed down to the Kitchens. Even if she was no longer the head, no other beasts would be up at this time to visit with. After all, it was important to know the beasts you were leading. She paused by a window near the infirmary and smiled, remembering a harrowing moment two seasons before when Selra, Carma, Riplar and Rori had shown up. Her eyes narrowed; she was starting to think she might need to get glasses soon. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was, yet again, a group of creatures waiting at the gates.
Scurrying off, she wondered if it would be prudent to grab another beast to go with her. Maybe if she saw someone on the way, but otherwise there was no need. After all, she was a fairly competent beast, right? Nevertheless, she was grateful to find Sister Howlia, the Abbey’s resident boxing hare recorder, walking across the grass when she exited through the double doors.
“Cheerio, Paldra! H’I mean, Mother Abbess.” The twinkle in her eye belied her seriousness.
“Good morning, ‘’Sister’’ Howlia. What are you doing up and about so early?”
While pretending to be offended at the use of her title, the hare replied, “I could ask the same o’ you. Actually, I was up early anyway, couldn’t blinkin’ sleep, so I decided to do some drills to keep in shape, don’cha know? Then, I heard somethin’ at the gates ‘n’ was just comin’ t’inform you. I also heard something that’a’way,” she gestured to the southeastern corner of the Abbey, “but it’s probably nothing.”
The two chatted amiably on the way to the front gates, reminding Paldra of how she had unintentionally neglected some of her friends since she had become Abbess. The thought was pushed to the back of her mind once they arrived at the large gates. Sparking something in her list of things to-do, she turned to her companion.
“Have you thought of a replacement ga-”
Her question was cut off by a sharp rap on the door followed by a soft voice asking, “Sorry to interrupt, but might we gain entrance?”
Howlia cheerfully reached for the heavy bar locking the door, but Paldra held up a paw to stop her. “And who might you be?”
“Just a poor old hogwife and an orphan who are suffering from the effects of the war.”
Paldra had been trained even from Dibbunhood that Redwall was all about helping those in need, which these two obviously were, qualifying under at least five principles of the Redwall Charter. But something in her recoiled when her paw made to drop its objection. Perhaps it was fear left over from the war or maybe even the too-sweet sound of the voice that seemed to harbor malevolence.
Whatever it was, she kept her paw firmly restraining the recorder from giving them entrance. “What do you require from us? And, as a precaution, do you carry any weapons on you?”
Howlia laughed, slipping from her grip. “You’re so bloomin’ paranoid, Pald. ‘Sides,” she dropped her voice to a not-so quiet whisper, “If there’s any trouble, I can take them.”
Before she could form a proper protest, the hare had the gates creaking open. For a second, she thought she saw a flash of steel, but it was merely a cheap-looking brooch pinning a thin shawl around the hogwife’s shoulders. Paldra forced herself to relax; she was being way too uptight about the obviously innocent and bedraggled pair.
“Welcome to Redwall Abbey,” she inclined her head warmly. “I’m Sis- Mother Abbess Paldra.”
“Delighted to meet you, ma’am,” Stolid though the hogwife was, her curtsy was surprisingly graceful.
After a sharp, yet surreptitious elbow, her companion, whose species was hard to discern, jerked her roving eyes back to the Abbess and mumbled, “Pleased t’meetcha.” A second elbow merely produced a glare.
“Follow me.” The mouse turned and walked briskly back to the Abbey while Howlia, having nothing better to do, shepherded their visitors from behind.
During the short tour on the way to the dormitories, she tried to find out as much as she could about them without being overly nosy. What she uncovered was definitely interesting: the hogwife, whose name was given as Missus Dubya, had healing capabilities and would be able to provide for their stay with her services. The orphan, Olivia, had revealed herself to be an otter when she had asked about the whereabouts of other otters residing at the Abbey; when Howlia had thoughtlessly commented on how she looked different than most otters she knew, Olivia had stammered, saved when the hogwife had smoothly stepped in with the comment that she was a sea otter.
Intrigued, but with fears pacified, Paldra left them with Goodwife Burna at the Infirmary for a simple checkover. Howlia followed and the two chatted cheerfully.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today?”
“General Abbess work, I suppose. As the recorder, do you know of anything in particular I should look into?”
“For Abbessin’ stuff? You need to look into startin’ up a new year of school for the little chaps, especially the new ones, Maben and the like.”
“Right. Who taught last year?”
Howlia paused before replying, “Brother Goma. He died in the war.”
“Oh.” Paldra was silent, reeling with the knowledge that she had forgotten the death of one of her own Abbeybrothers. "Well then, who do you think would be a suitable replacement?”
They discussed a few possibilities before she brought up the need for other replacements that she had tried to bring up earlier. “Have you thought of a potential replacement gatekeeper yet? Or bellringer? For that matter, what about a replacement Abbey Warrior? We haven’t had an official one since…why, since Laird Bosie.”
“I wonder how they’re doing on their quest.” Paldra mused.
“Marvelously surely. Superb warriors most, if not all, of them and it’s bound to be loads of fun. I almost wish I had gotten to go!”
“Well, I’m glad I have you here. Imagine what I’d do without you in the case of encroaching vermin!”
Howlia laughed with her. “I’m sure you’d be fine. You’d just hit them on the head with a frying pan and be on your way.”
The two continued running through the list of important business matters, unaware that they had unwittingly let in a very real threat to their tentative peace, without a frying pan at paw to stop it.
Several days later, the group had stopped for a rest and meal. While the summer sun had been fairly mild up until then, it had chosen that particular day to shine its brightest. Their fur was drenched from their sweat and the squirrels' tails dragged limply. The foxes, who did not sweat, panted heavily, ignoring any decorum their rank might have given them. Unfortunately, they had left the River Moss behind after some zigzagging to maintain their heading. Though Rori assured them that since they had rested at the abandoned farm previously owned by Gingivere Greeneyes the night before, they would soon reach a tributary at which they would change directions, the general exhaustion of the party convinced them to call a stop.
Lijel collapsed on the ground as soon as the words were out of the badger's mouth. “Ugh, Ah wish h'it was cooler.”
Selra shivered in reminder of the traveling circumstances the winter before. “Trust me, it could be worse.”
“I think I'd rather be cold than hot.” Naraudo commented, slouching in the meager shade of a tree.
Ampanna agreed. “H'after h'all, snow h'is really fun t'play in.”
Segalia had to disagree. “Yore jist sayin' that 'cause yer 'ot right now. H'I think 'ot's better.”
As a debate threatened to erupt, Riplar glanced over to see if the badgers had any opinions to add. He found them curiously upset as they stared at a map, not even having taken the chance to be seated.
When his sister saw him getting up to go inquire as to their dilemma, she called over, “Hey, Rip! Can you get me a pastry from the food sack?”
He waved her away. “Get it yourself.”
“It’s too hot!” she pleaded, flopping back dramatically.
Lijel pounced on her confession. “Aha! So ye do think h’it’s ‘ot!”
“It’s still better hot than cold!”
“No snowball fights in the heat.” Naraudo pointed out.
“’N iffen yore cold, ye kin jist put more clothes on.”
“But then we miss the pleasure,” Segalia remarked sarcastically in response to Ampanna, “o’ h’all the guys sheddin’ their clothes ‘cause they’re too ‘ot.”
Lijel, halfway through pulling his tunic off, stopped as a memory flashed over his face. Riplar wondered at this, but decided more important matters were at paw as he interrupted the badgers’ conference. “What’s up? Are we going the wrong way? Did you hear something?”
Though they seemed startled at his sudden existence, they sighed in what he perceived to be an overly-dramatic fashion and looked at each other. He arched an eyebrow, though its darkness left it invisible amongst his black fur.
“We might as well tell them eventually.” Carma remarked.
“Better now than never, I guess.” Rori murmured in return.
Carma seemed reluctant to say whatever news they had to share and Riplar’s paw drifted to his sword. Not because he wished to threaten it out of her, but because if it was that horrible, perhaps he should be prepared.
“We’re leaving.” Right…he wasn’t expecting that.
“’N swimmin’ ‘n goin’ h’outside without bein’ ‘fraid o’freezin’-”
“Shush, Seg. What did you say?” Selra peered anxiously over at them from the debate.
“’N sunshine h’actually doin’ somethin’ ‘n warmth ‘n climbin’ trees-”
This time the others joined her in silencing the adamant otter. “Shut it, Seg. The badgers’re leaving!”
“’N early mornings ‘n-what?” She finally heeded their pleas as their point hit her.
Riplar continued to stand, forehead clenched, mouth slightly open, struggling to find something to say.
Ampanna gracefully got to her footpaws without using her paws. “Rori, Carma, what’s all this ‘bout leavin’?”
“Yeah, you weren’t supposed to leave until after we got hom-to the palace.”
Rori sighed again. “Well, we weren’t going to, but-”
“You promised.” Several emotions broiled under Selra’s tone and Riplar knew that he should be doing something, but his mouth wouldn’t form coherent words.
“I don’t know if we promised per say,” Carma tried to say pacifyingly.
“So you were just going to leave? Just like that? Sneak away in the middle of the night?” Maybe it was the pressure on his chest that was keeping him from speaking.
“Look, it’s not that simple!” The others looked worriedly at each other at Rori’s outburst, but Selra just advanced.
“Of course it is! You never wanted to come in the first place!” Riplar felt he was the only one that knew she was referencing to their first journey, way back when they left the island.
“It’s not that or you or anything like that! It’s the stupid map!” His paws fell heavily to his side after his wild gesticulating while the group continued to stare. Riplar thought he saw Segalia stifling an absurd urge to giggle that he did not understand.
Lijel leaned over, biting back a grin, as he whispered not-so quietly into her ear, “Why does that sound like h’a really bad break-up line?”
Her attempt at hiding her chuckles failed as she burst out laughing. She quickly clapped her paws over her mouth, but her shaking shoulders betrayed her continued mirth. Lijel smirked, but soon switched to a somber face when he caught the others staring incredulously at them. This only made the ottermaid laugh harder.
Ampanna seemed to be hiding her amusement as well, though considerably better, when she asked, “The map?”
Rori nodded slowly with his eyes closed as he tried to regain control over the situation. Carma gently took the parchment from his paws. “Look at this.” Riplar moved enough that he wouldn’t be blocking the others’ view as she presented the map. “Here is Redwall, here’s where we are-”
“We’ve only travelled that far?” Naraudo asked, surprised.
Carma ignored him as she continued. “Here’s the Marlfox Island and here’s where we need to head.” The two spots really were in opposite directions from where they were.
Though Selra’s temper had diminished, it still left an edge in her voice. “And you only now figured this out?”
“We were trying to stay with you as long as possible. We really didn’t want to leave you this soon.” Riplar saw a sort of understanding pass between Rori and Selra, a sort of apology, and Selra smiled slightly.
Carma rolled up the map in a business-like manner. “We’ll probably have to leave after lunch since you should be turning south here.”
“Wait,” Ampanna spoke up, “don’t ye ‘ave th’only map? ‘Ow’re we s’posed t’ind our way?”
His brain, mouth and lungs finally connected. “We’ve done it before. We’ll find our way.”
Lijel looked up from the dissipating laughing fit he had been sharing with Segalia. “Ye said that ye didn’t ‘member where we were ‘cause last time ye were ‘ere, h’it was snowy.”
He looked at his sister and shrugged. “We’ll manage.”
She nodded in return, meaning more than the others could tell.
“H’I guess we should h’eat lunch now?” Segalia sounded sheepish.
Murmuring agreement, they huddled in the thin shade provided by the midday sun. Ampanna and Naraudo manned the food packs, passing out bruised apples and crumbling pastries.
Carma chewed contemplatively on a crunchy core. “What was so funny, anyway?”
Lijel and Segalia glanced at each other, smiles dancing at the corners of their stuffed muzzles. She must not have heard the whispering.
Riplar spoke up. “It’s just because we all know that Rori really doesn’t want to continue with us because he’s scared of my mom.”
“However did you guess?” Rori drawled sarcastically while the others stared up in surprise. After a second, the otters guffawed, morsels of food shooting out of their mouths.
“Ew, that wasn’t necessary, Seg! H’it wasn’t h’even that funny.” Ampanna scowled in disgust as she wiped slimy crumbs off her tunic. She shot a glare at Naraudo who had continued laughing, quickly shutting him up.
Slowly, the banter increased to its usually tempo as the friends enjoyed their last meal together. Lijel dusted the last bits of pastry from his paws before drying his sticky mouth on his sleeve. He stuck his tongue out at Ampanna when she rolled her eyes at him. “So, what’s the plan now? ‘Ang out fer h’a bit more h’or get movin’?”
Segalia stared at him, eyes narrowed, as she finished up herself.
“Sometimes Ah don’t think ye ‘ave a lot o’ tact.”
Lijel ignored Ampanna’s comment. “Yeah, like ye ‘ave h’anythin’ t’say h’on that subject with all yer laughin’ h’earlier.”
Her pointed look reminded him that he had laughed as well, adding, in fact, to her hysteria. He kicked at a nearby knobby root. “H’I still don’t see wot’s so h’untactful ‘bout that.”
Before Carma could question his albeit correct grammar or any of the others could answer his original question, there came a rustling from the bushes. Instinct from the recent battles made them all reach for the weapons as they sat up intently.
A ragged nose stuck out followed by its owner. Beady eyes spotted an extra pastry and widened in greed. “See,” the rat called back to as-yet unseen companions, “Ah told ye Ah smelled fo-” He cut himself off when he spotted the eight young warriors.
He looked alarmed for a second when he spotted their weapons, but his face relaxed when he figured out that the average age was a mere fifteen seasons old. “C’mon out, yoo guys. We’ve got comp’ny.”
Fed and rested, the friends stretched lazily as they prepared their weapons. Ampanna and Naraudo, the closest to the bushes, started swinging their loaded slings viciously at the vermin advancing through the shrubbery. Unsure whether their enemy was stragglers of Grovelum’s army or merely a roaming band of vermin, their unfriendly intent was assured when the lead rat aimed a violent slash of his dagger at Ampanna. Segalia quickly shot him after Ampanna gave him a solid blow that would have turned into a black eye. She glanced down and scowled at the gash in her tunic that didn’t seem to have reached her torso then attacked again. The vermin attempted to surround them making those on the other side of the tree busy soon as well.
As Riplar stood at an angle with Rori, facing off with a pair of burly weasels, the fox asked, “So, about that leaving thing…”
Rori laughed. “Don’t worry, we won’t leave until these are taken care of.”
Riplar smiled bloodily as he skewered one of the weasels that had just hurt his mouth. Injuries could be taken care of later. He knew the bonds of friendship wouldn’t be injured any time soon.
The best word to describe the morning was idyllic. The sun had just finished rising, leaving behind traces of glorious color, but it was not bearing down with heavy heat. Lazily, the inhabitants of Mossflower arose to embrace the summer day with relaxed hubbub and merriment.
Omi was not enjoying it. True, she and Missus Walthers had made it into the Abbey, but to no avail. She was still working on differentiating the different species of woodlanders, much less identify the river/sea dog that had taken her father’s life. Also, she felt her façade slipping every moment she struggled with polite conversation. She could tell the Skipper already suspected her and her failed attempts at imitating the cheery Abbey-dwellers didn’t help. It wasn’t her fault that they were so stinking happy-go-lucky and happy the whole day.
Just thinking about it made her insides broil. She dissipated it slightly by letting slip a strong oath. After having said it, she realized it would not fit her image as a demure orphan and turned to make sure nobeast had heard her. A small mouse, who had apparently been involved in DAB, whatever that was, the season previous, was staring at her with round eyes.
She searched her mind for an appropriate excuse. “Uh, Ah said ‘goody tell’.” When he continued to stare at her mutely, she added, “As in, Ah’ll give yer a goody not to tell. Now shoo!” After looking disdainfully at the ragged flower thrown his way, he stalked imperiously away.
Sagging against the wall, she sighed. She then proceeded to jump out of her fur a second later when a gravelly voice in her ear complimented her with just a hint of sarcasm, “Nice going.”
Pretending that she hadn’t been startled, she hissed, “Slashclaw! Finally!”
“Any developments?” At her growl, he chuckled. “By your earlier cursing, I’m guessing it’s not good.”
Omi kicked the flower bush next to her and winced when she hit a pointy branch. “Nah, it’s all so confusin’. Ah don’t know ‘ho she is ‘nd it’s so difficult to live with these beasts.”
His voice became guarded. “And Missus Walthers?”
She shrugged irritably before realizing that the mousebabe had returned and was staring at her along with a few more Dibbuns. Trying to smile pacifyingly, she was shocked when they started giggling and running towards her.
A small bunny piped up. “’E said yousa said funny word!”
As she realized word of her slight had spread, she accidentally let slip another curse.
“Dam?” asked a volebabe.
“Yes,” her mind whirled, “dam h’as in a beaver dam. Ye know wot beavers are, yes?”
For a second, Omi thought she was off the hook. Then the volebabe piped up again. “Why you talkin’ ‘bout beibers?”
Resisting the very strong urge to curse again or hurt something, the stoat floundered for an excuse. A voice spoke up in her ear again and she managed not to jump. “Tell them that you thought it would be fun fer them t’make one in the pond.”
“Huh? Oh,” she turned back to the Dibbuns, “Ah jist thought it would be fun t’make a dam in the pond.”
Their reaction was instantaneous. They swarmed her, jumping up and down, pleading for her to come make one with her. This would not do. She needed to report to Slashclaw and plan the next step in their infiltration. She could not be dragged away to make beaver dams. “Ah can’t. Ah got somethin’ else t’do.”
“You’re talkin’ t’a wall.” The badger pointed out. Brat.
Before she could come up with a reasonable excuse, a hogmaid crossed her arms. “We ain’t leavin’ ‘til ye promise t’come ‘elp us when you’re done.”
Eager to be rid of them, she agreed. When they finally ran shouting to the Pond, she groaned. “Ah’m doomed.”
The chuckle from the other side of the wall through the previously-discovered crack informed her that the coyote was very amused by her predicament. “Oh, shut it. Ah need ‘elp. Missus Walthers is dabblin’ in th’Infirmary and suckin’ up to the Abbess. But we need t’make a move on ‘n Ah don’t know ‘ow.”
“If Ah could be in ‘n see the situation fer myself…”
She sighed, cutting him off. “Ye know why we can’t do that. Missus Walthers says-”
“That one of my species is more difficult to disguise than you. Ah know.” He growled and she thought she could hear the slight thump of his fist hitting the wall. “Ah still don’t like this.”
“H’it’ll be over soon. We jist need to keep workin’.” She rested her head on the sun-warmed red stone.
She listened, amused, as he started listing off their plan. “First, trust in crazy revenge-driven lady to help us get into Redwall. Check. H’enter said establishment ‘n trick ‘em into trustin’ us. Check.” He paused. “Right?”
“Well, Ah think the Skipper might suspect me.” Hurrying to assure him that their plans were still on track, she added, “But ‘sides that we’re good. Ah think.”
After a contemplative pause, he resumed his counting. “That means the next step of the plan is either to take over Redwall as Malital wants, though Ah don’t see that ‘appenin’ any time soon. Or, we get th’information needed ‘n get on with it.”
“’Ow should Ah kill ‘er?”
He snorted. “’Ow do ye normally kill beasts?”
“With me numchucks o’ course. But that’s not…personal ‘nough fer this.”
“For yer father’s killer.” He finished her unsaid sentiment. “A dagger t’the heart usually works pretty well.”
“D’ye ‘ave ‘un Ah could borrow?”
“We can deal with that when the time comes. Now,” she heard the fabric of his tunic scratch against the wall as he stood up, “if ye don’t have more news to report, Ah think ye should go play with yer young friends before either of us get caught.”
She groaned. “Ye sure ye can’t stay a little longer? Ah don’t wanna play with them.”
“It’ll be good fer ye. Remember,” his voice lost some of its previous levity, “report back t’me in a few days at the normal time or sooner if ye have news. And keep an eye on Malital. She might have a double-timin’ scheme, so be careful.”
“Ye too.” Omi stood from the wall and stretched, looking for all the world like a peaceful Abbeydweller rising from a short morning snooze against the wall. Glancing surreptitiously over at the pond, she noticed that the Dibbuns were indeed building a dam and none were looking her way. Now was her chance. She tried to walk innocently away, whistling a tune, but the only song that came to mind was a vermin song that she was not sure would be appropriate.
Before she reached the nearest tree for cover, a childish shout reached her ears. “Quick! She’s gettin’ ‘way!”
She quickened her pace, but underestimated the speed of persistent Dibbuns. As she was carted off to the Pond, she could have sworn that she heard Slashclaw’s trademark laugh floating on the breeze.
“H'I don't trust 'em.”
Mother Paldra started at the sudden opinion from the beast she had not heard from in weeks. “Excuse me?”
“Ye h'asked me to 'elp ye lead. So, Ah'm 'elpin'.” Skipper Joncho stood from the doorway of her office, a room off of the library that had been converted to an abbot's office by Abbot Glisam. He entered, his paw playing absently with the pommel of the knife in his belt.
Trying to organize her papers and thoughts, Paldra looked up at him. “Who don't you trust?”
His answer came out more as a growl. “That conniving 'edgehog 'nd 'er little henchbeast.”
“Whyever not? She's been a great help in the infirmary.”
He pulled out a chair on the other side of her desk and slumped into it. “H'as a leader, ye need t'learn t'trust yer h'instincts 'n Ah got a bad feelin' 'bout these two. 'Sides, Ah know h'otters 'n that 'h'Olivia' doesn't look like h'any h'otter Ah've ever seen.”
“Missus Dubya did mention that she was a sea otter.”
He snorted. “H'I've seen plenty o'sea h'otters h'in my time, 'cludin' Seg's pa. That ain't no sea h'otter.”
Taken aback, Paldra stared back at her desk. “Can't Dubya be trusted? Just this morning, she stopped me to tell me that she had received a message from a mouse that looked an awful like the one on the Tapestry.”
She could tell he still didn't trust their visitors, but he sat up anyway. “What did she say h’it said?”
“I wrote it down somewhere.” She rummaged amongst the documents on her desk before she produced a scrap of parchment with hastily scribbled lines on it. “Aha!” She cleared her throat as she squinted in an attempt to decipher the almost illegible handwriting.
“To the South
You must go
To longears, yes,
The mountain, no
“From thence take heart
Or its opposite
To survive this plight
Your allies, you must edit
“Attitudes of those you’re with
Will go from noon to midnight
Watch your tongue and watch your back
Be sure you know who you fight"
She let the paper drift back down to the table. “I’ve been puzzling over it all morning and I’m still not sure what to make of it. Some of it seems straight forward, like knowing who you fight, but the rest is all a mess to me.” Looking up at the contemplative Skipper, she asked, “What do you think?”
“H’I don’t trust Dubya, like Ah said, but that sounds like the word o’ Martin. The first question is ‘o h’is it fer?”
“You don’t think it’s for us?”
The fiddling with his knife increased as he struggled to explain his thinking. “See, h’often throughout our ‘istory, ‘e’s used different beasts to relay ‘is messages ‘nd most o’ the time the messenger’s h’involved h’in the quest. But is the message for Dubya h’or h’us ‘n Dubya h’or ‘nother group o’ beasts fer h’a quest?”
Paldra started to catch on as her own brow furrowed with thought. “Do you think it could be for the group already on a quest?”
“H’it could be. ‘N iffen h’it is, ‘ow’re we s’posed to get h’it to them?” His fingers danced on the hilt vigorously. “The message doesn’t sound good.”
“Indeed.” The abbess leaned back in an unlady-like pose before quickly returning to an upright position. “Dubya!”
“That could work.” The skipper leaned back in his own chair and did not hurry to rectify his lack of propriety.”
With a few over-exaggerated head motions at Joncho, Paldra stood. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“I’m afraid so, Mother Abbess.” Dubya herself entered the doorway while Joncho hastily stood to offer her his chair. It looked gentlemanly, but he wanted to be prepared for a potential fight, especially as he had been caught off-guard already.
“Why, what is it?”
The picture of sorrowful resignation, the hedgehog slid gracefully into the proffered chair. “It’s Olivia.”
“Is she okay?
The skipper’s fingers became notably tense as both Abbey leaders waited for the reluctant answer. “I have reason to believe that she is not to be trusted.”
Though his expression remained schooled, Paldra detected a hint of smugness in Joncho’s eyes. She shot him a look while attempting to remain dignified. “What is your evidence?”
Missus Dubya looked hurt. “You cannot take me at my word? I had hoped that we had become friends, Mother Abbess.”
The abbess hastened to assure her friend of her good intent. “Why, of course we are! It’s just standard procedure at the Abbey to create a thorough case against somebeast before we take action.”
Smiling benevolently, she sat down from her half-up position. “Naturally. Forgive my hasty words. As for the case against her,” she shook her head, “it is many things. I believe she is not who she at first appeared to be.”
“Why, the skipper was just saying that!” She ignored Joncho’s vigorous shaking of head from behind the hedgehog. “He doesn’t believe she’s a true sea otter.”
Dubya spared a look for the warrior behind her. “Good point. But it’s other things as well, mere misdemeanors that make look simple at the time, but when added up create quite a frightening picture.”
“Oh my. Could you perhaps write me a list of these faults in character so that I can examine them with the Abbey Council?”
“But, of course. Were the two of you busy discussing something?”
Again, the skipper shook his head and again, the abbess seemed to ignore him. “Actually, we were discussing the information you-” Suddenly, she stopped and smiled. “Well, never mind that.” Joncho let out a barely audible sigh of relief. “It’s just something else that will have to be discussed at the next Abbey Council.” She looked to the parchment chart of days and seasons. “I plan to have the next meeting in a couple of days. Is it possible that you could compile a list for me by tomorrow?”
“Absolutely.” Dubya stood and started to leave before turning back. “Just out of curiosity, how does one get in on these Abbey Councils?”
“You apply and we consider your application. Why? Are you interested?”
The hedgehog laughed lightly. “I don’t think so. Politics bore me. I’m merely interested to find out more about this place. It seems very…quaint. Good day, Mother Abbess.”
“Quaint?” But she was already gone done the hallway. Paldra shook herself and turned back to Joncho. “See? You were right about Olivia, but Dubya is to be trusted.”
“H’I would be h’on me guard iffen Ah were ye. Ye trust too h’easily.”
“Nonsense. I’m merely adhering to Redwall Abbey principles. Now, unless there was anything else, I need to get back to my work.”
The otter looked like he wanted to say something, but decided against it, saying instead, “H’I’d just prefer iffen we could ‘ave that meetin’ sooner rather than later.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said firmly in an authoritative tone. “Good day.”
As he nodded and left, Paldra could not help but feel a slight chill at the threat that seemed to be implied everywhere she looked. Perusing weekly reports from Abbeymembers did not help dispel the cloud of doom threatening to break over her head and all she had sworn to protect.
Today we left our companions to head north. It was a sad parting. Lijel tried to cheer us up by saying, “Don’t worry. Iffen we don’t die by h’an accident or by bein’ murdered ‘n iffen we somehow all find each h’other ‘gain, we’ll see h’each other soon!”
Needless to say, this did little to raise our spirits, though most of us cracked a smile. I find it kind of funny, but also kind of sad: I’ve known most of these beasts for just about two seasons and already I feel closer to them than any of my family back “home”. I guess that just goes to show why I have to do this. I need to help out my friend and find out if I have any real family, any actual connections with him.
Diary, I’ll tell you a secret. Sometimes, I don’t know if I want to find out if we’re related. Would that make things awkward? Better? I’ve seen Selra and Riplar’s relationship and though they do fight a lot, you can tell they really love each other. I pity any beast that would try to separate them.
Anyway, from here, Rori and I have to figure out where to go. He knows of the general idea of his ancestry, as I do mine, and we just have to see if they match up. I’m hoping that we don’t end up having to visit my old family. Not that they were particularly mean, but they weren’t really nice, either.
I’m also starting to wonder about the other beasts who I feel are true family to me, Mumzy and Nottenc. Perhaps we can devise a message system between us to update each other on our whereabouts and important information. I wonder-
“What’s that?” Rori’s sudden presence on the log next to her, startled Carma from her musings.
Blocking her face at the sudden flare of the fire he had just stoked, she asked, “What?”
“The book that you’re writing in. I was just wondering what it was.”
“Oh. This is my-” Suddenly ‘diary’ seemed far too girly a word. “Journal.” She shrugged. “Nottenc thought it was a good idea so I’ve been using it for a few seasons.”
“Can I see it?” Nothing incriminating immediately popped into her thoughts so she handed the small worn, bound book over.
The flames crackled amiably as they sat together in comfortable silence, Rori occasionally flipping to the previous page. Carma noted that if they had been with the larger group such a thing as silence would not exist. There was always some conversation or action going on involving all of them or even just a few in the background. For a second, the badgermaid missed it. The easy communal living of their trip thus far was definitely something she’d miss, but traveling with two would be much easier. She should savor every chance of silence she got.
She lounged comfortably, kicking out her legs, as she went over a to-do list in her head. A surprised noise from her right made her look up. “What is it?”
“Nothing. Your entries are…interesting, to say the least. I’m just amazed at how far back it goes. Look, here’s one about right after you met us.” He straightened in his seat and cleared his throat to assume a falsetto, to her amusement, before starting to read. “Dear Diary, Today I joined up with Rori and his companions, foxes, a brother and a sister. They’re royalty, too! They seem to be an improvement on his “master”, anyway.” Carma’s embarrassed laughter faltered as she watched his face for any signs of discomfort. When none appeared, she relaxed before suddenly remembering an earlier entry that was definitely incriminating. “I hope they’re happy to have me. I’m just glad-”
“That’s enough.” She cut him off, laughing awkwardly. “Can I have it back now? I haven’t finished today’s entry-”
Laughing and ignorant to her dismay, Rori lifted the book from her reach and continued reading on a different page. “No, this is just getting good! Listen to this one,” he skimmed down the page before finding a line that apparently amused him. “See entry Cregga Rose Eyes is Awesome for more detail.” He looked down at her contorted face. “I didn’t know you were a Cregga fan.”
Suddenly, he became aware of how distraught she was getting. “Whoa, Carma, are you okay? I didn’t mean to make fun of you. I thought…” he trailed off. “Sorry. Honest.”
She tried to play it cool, but continued to reach for her diary. “That’s alright.”
Sighing, he glanced at the entry for one last skim. “It’s a shame too. This one’s even about me.” He was just closing it when his whole body visibly stiffened. Carma took the opportunity to snatch her possession away. Throwing it into her sack and not in the mood to finish her entry, she turned to the food sack.
She tried to keep her voice steady as she calmed her emotions. “Now that the fire’s going, what do you want to eat?” When no reply came, she looked back over her shoulder. “Rori?”
Jerking his head out of his paws, he blinked at her twice. “Yes? I mean, anything sounds good.” At her look, he added, “Or just get me a cheese and mushroom pastry.” His forehead dropped back into his fingers.
Carma busied herself getting supper together, even letting out a chuckle. “Segalia probably would get on to me for catering to female stereotypes. You can cook tomorrow, though, so she’ll be fine.” Getting no response again, she glanced back. Rori was now gazing aimlessly off into space. “Can you even cook?”
“Yeah, sure.” He sighed. “Actually, I have no idea what you said; I was distracted. Can you repeat that?” He turned his whole body towards her and gazed at her intently.
“I was just asking you if you can cook.” She frowned at him. “Was my diary so deep that it got you so distracted?”
His laugh was shaky. “Real deep.” Regaining the falsetto, he quoted, “Nottenc helped me with spelling and grammar. Isn’t she nice?”
Throwing a twig at him in retaliation, Carma knelt to inspect the pastries wrapped in foil near the fire. “I think these are about ready. Wanna eat?”
“Yep! I’m as hungry as a hare!” Rubbing his stomach exaggeratedly, he licked his lips. Using the ends of her belt, she dropped the pastry into his proffered paw. He immediately dropped it into the dirt. “Yowch! That’s hot!”
“It was just in the fire, of course it was hot.” Carma cracked hers open and blew on it. “Do you want to say a blessing or should I?”
Gingerly picking his meal up with two claws, Rori gestured for her to go ahead.
“Thank you, Mother Nature for this food and help us to have a good trip. Amen.” She started nibbling at the end of her piece.
The boar gawked at her. “That was the quickest prayer I’ve ever heard.”
She laughed. “Nottenc was in the mindset that if you’ve got nothing else to say, you might as well eat.”
“Sounds logical.” Finally prying his meal apart, he bit in and stopped.
Carma was careful to swallow before she spoke. “What’s wrong?”
“Either these are really old or you cooked them wrong.” His swallow did not look pleasant, but he gave her an overly broad smile before staring dubiously back at the not-so tasty-looking pastry.
Her look was calculating as she watched him go for another bite, chewing dramatically in an attempt to make her laugh. She shook her head. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
“Saw what?” His eyebrows were too high, his tone, too innocent.
“Oh no, you did!” Carma tossed her food to the ground, obviously not hungry anymore. “It was stupid, okay? I was immature, younger, hadn’t been around a lot of badgers my age and just wrote without thinking. It’s not like it was true and at this point, there’s no point in doing or saying anything before we find out something. So just,” she held her paws up as she breathed in after her rant, then dropped them, “don’t.”
She wouldn’t look at him, but instead poked with her toe at the dropped pastry, her cheeks flaming. She couldn’t imagine what he was thinking, what he was feeling. She didn’t even know what was going on in her mind.
Finally, Rori broke the silence. “It could be worse, you know.” Her shocked look that bordered on offended made him backtrack. “No, no, no. I’m not saying that I’m the best guy to…” he paused, “think you’re in love with. I’m just-” He sighed, looking, for some reason, embarrassed.
“You’re probably going to laugh at this, but,” he sighed again, struggling for words to say. “Many seasons ago, when I was young, Mas- Slashclaw and I were visiting some warlord friend of his. Among his ranks, I think she was the cousin once removed of one of the generals, but I’m not sure, there was this young weasel.”
“A weasel?” Perking up slightly, the badgermaid was now facing her friend, expression skeptical.
“Just let me continue. Anyway, most soldiers, even if they’re around my age, don’t generally take to me at first. But she, she just let me be. And I appreciated that.” A shy half-smirk crept over his face. “It helped that she was pretty, but also one of the strongest and toughest warriors in the army.” His exhale bordered on lovesick and suddenly, Carma felt woefully inadequate next to his description of this vermin that she didn’t even know, with no idea why.
“We only stayed with them a few weeks, but I fancied myself in love with her. I mean,” he straightened up, “I got over her soon enough, but every once in a while, I wonder what happened to her.” He cleared his throat. “As I was saying, it could be worse.”
She stared at him curiously. “I realize that you grew up around them, but how could you like a vermin?”
“I was young, okay? And seriously, you know Rip and Selra. You can’t really be prejudiced against all vermin, can you?”
Conceding his point, she still laughed. “I still think it’s funny.”
He turned on her. “Any secrets you’d care to impart?”
Searching wildly for inspiration, her gaze caught on her forgotten food. “Well, apparently, I’m a terrible cook.”
“That I will have to agree with.” Rori made a face and this time, with the awkwardness out of the air, it was genuine and Carma could laugh. “I never answered your earlier question, though. I can, in fact cook. Slashclaw was definitely not a cook,” he shuddered and she had to wonder just what the coyote had tried to feed him, “so I learned to fix meals for both of us. How ‘bout this: I handle cooking for the rest of the trip and you…you do something else of importance.”
“I can make the fire. Luckily, we have no dishes or sweeping to worry about.” He looked around their skimpy campsite and had to agree. “Also, I can’t do anything fancy, but I’m not too bad at sewing. If our clothes start getting really torn up,”
“Which they will soon enough.”
“Then I can fix them.” They smiled at each other.
“Sounds like a deal.” Kicking the disastrous meal to the side, Rori offered her his paw and they shook on it. “I’ll start right away.”
“And I,” she leaned over her bag again, “will try to finish my journal entry. Hopefully, there are no more distractions.” She gave him a reprimanding look, but her eyes sparkled teasingly and he laughed.
Setting cheerfully about their self-assigned tasks, the two badgers chatted as the fire swept up the previous discomfort and sent it spiraling into the dark, blue sky.
Omi was not happy. Actually, this was an understatement. Omi was bordering on furious, while Missus Walthers stayed insufferably calm. She sat composedly at her perch on the window in the dormitory while the stoatmaid raged.
“’Ow dare ye? Ah’ve gone along with all yer stooped plans ‘n this is ‘ow ye repay me? Ah’m a warrior h’in me own right; ye kin’t treat me like this!” Her crazed anger turned steely as she faced the hedgehog. “Do not forget that Ah’m the leader o’ this ‘spedition ‘n ye will do h’as Ah say.”
Pushing the dagger that had suddenly appeared away, Malital stood up. “Be that as it may, who got us into the Abbey? Who has charmed her way into the Abbess’s good graces? Who got you and your questionable friend up on your footpaws again? And who,” her passive determination twisted into a conniving smile, “recently set plans in motion to send the Abbey into chaos and allow us a getaway all under the guise of instructions from their beloved founder?”
Despite her boiling mistrust and growing dislike, Omi wasn’t ready to let her ally in on her feelings. Also, she couldn’t help it, but her interest had been peaked. “Pray tell,” she imitated the hedgehog’s prim manner of speech, “what grand plan h’is that?”
Missus Walthers merely pulled out a copy of the poem from her belt and handed it to her.
The stoat squinted at the words. “To the s-south, ye moost go, to l-lonjeers, yes-”
“Oh, give that to me.” Taking the paper, she quickly recited the lines.
Despite her lack of education, Omi was not stupid. She saw the poem’s potential, but she did not appreciate its fallibility. “’Ow’d ye get ‘er to believe that load o’ rubbish?”
“It wasn’t too hard. Abbeydwellers believe anything if you want them to.” Omi looked up from the poem which she had snatched back to examine just in time to catch a seething malice cross the healer’s eyes. She let it slide, saving the information for later use.
“’N they really believe that that dead mouse or whatever wrote it?”
“That’s because he did, honey.” Startled, the stoatmaid scrutinized her conspirator. Sighing, but looking secretly pleased, Malital shared the tale. “I was in the Infirmary, studying a recent case and testing out different potions.” At Omi’s skeptical look, she sniffed, “Healing is a useful art for life, death and our current situation. As I was saying, I was up late in the infirmary when I started to hear some mumbling noises. This young mouse, recently fell off the belltower during tryouts or something, was tossing and turning. I was about to administer a sleeping potion when he suddenly froze. Then he started saying that poem. Luckily, I had quill and paper nearby so I could quickly get it down. When he woke up a few hours later, I asked him if I had dreamed, but he couldn’t remember anything.
“So, I took a look around the library, under pretense of looking for healing potions of course, and I found out that he shares all the symptoms of a classic recipient of a message from Martin: mystifying poem, foreboding situation and no memory of it the next day.”
The stoatmaid was pensive. “Won’t ‘e ‘member it ‘ventually?”
“Eventually, yes. That’s why we have to get moving. I have him drugged up on painkillers for the moment, but they can’t last forever.” Her demeanor turned serious and commanding. “That’s why you must leave as soon as possible. I’ve planted the suspicion and I can concoct a reasonable lie once you’ve gone.”
She was just opening her mouth to argue when they heard a timid knock on the door.
They both whirled to see a young hedgehog, close in age to Omi, peek his head in. “Sorry to interrupt, but my sister needs a change of clothes. “He made his way to a trunk at the end of a small bed and stopped when he saw Missus Walthers. “Missus Dubya! I think they need you in the infirmary as soon as possible. There’s been a bit of an accident.” Grabbing a light green habit, he sped away.
While he had stopped their conversation, Omi had taken the chance to take another look at the poem. One line in particular stood out to her: watch your tongue and watch your back. She schooled her expression. “Why must Ah leave ‘gain?”
The hedgehog sighed. “Firstly, they were getting suspicious before I said anything so it would have needed to happen sooner or later. Also, we need more eyes on the outside. After all, we do have reason to believe your quarry is already gone and getting further away everyday.”
At this, Omi completely lost the composure she had strived to build. “She what?! Yer tellin’ me that Ah’ve been waitin’ ‘round ‘ere, babyin’ the stupid infants ‘n dealin’ with these sickenin’ woodlanders fer nothin’? She h’isn’t even ‘ere?” She scurried about, gathering up her meager belongings. “Where is she then? Why’re you just standin’ there? We gotta go!”
Missus Walthers stopped her frantic scurrying. “You have to go. I must stay here so they don’t suspect anything.”
“Slashclaw’s stayin’ ‘ere.” It was not a question.
“I assumed he would go with you.”
“Ye don’t think Ah’m capable ‘nough ‘lone?”
Soothingly, the hedgehog patted her shoulder. “Of course you are, sweetie. But I’m told she’s traveling with seven others including two badgers. I don’t think even Slashclaw could take down all of them alone.”
“Probably that traitor,” the stoat mumbled to herself before looking back at Malital. “’Ow,” she paused, Martin’s advice in mind, and chose her subject carefully, “will we keep in contact to ‘form h’each other o’ plans?”
The hedgehog looked momentarily startled at the stoat’s forward thinking. “Good point. I believe there are some birds hereabouts who could be persuaded to help us and carry messages back and forth.”
Omi still felt a dozen of objections cropping up, but none made it to her tongue. Her whole mindset was now on predator, ready to target her prey. She made a quick decision, “Slashclaw stays ‘ere. Ah’ll either get allies on the way, or use ‘ssassin techniques.”
“Very well. Fortune be with you.” The hedgehog inclined her head, given the appearance of respect. “If there is nothing else?”
“That will be all.” Her curtness was somewhat lost when she buried her muzzle in a bag as she went through her belongings. She scarcely noticed Malital leaving as her brain whirred. She was one step closer!
Abbess Paldra had had scarcely enough time to thank the other Council members for being there and announce the agenda of the meeting before the room erupted into an uproar.
“H’a message from Martin? Wouldn’t that ‘ave been more ‘elpful iffen h’it ‘ad arrived sooner?” Korla, the Cellarmaster, asked.
“Iffen it’s really from Martin, that is. How can we make sure of that, wot?” Howlia tapped the parchment with the end of her quill before frantically examining both for damage.
An otter, one of the cooks temporarily taking over as head while Naraudo was gone, spoke up. “Why ‘as h’it come now? We’re h’in peace, h’aren’t we?”
“’Ow’d ye cum ‘bout dis message, Mudder?” Sister Burna, infirmary keeper addressed the Abbess.
“Silence!” Once the Abbeymembers had quieted, the mouse waved a paw to the Recorder. “Now, can we hear the message before we ask questions?” When they all assented, she asked Howlia to read it.
“Absoballyflippinglutely, marm!” Clearing her throat, the hare shook the paper out with a flair and dramatically read the poem.
“To the South
You must go
To longears, yes,
“Oo, longears! That's me!”
“Continue please, Howlia.”
"The mountain, no
"From thence take heart
Or its opposite
To survive this plight
Your allies, you must edit’’
“Attitudes of those you’re with
Will go from noon to midnight
Watch your tongue and watch your back
Be sure you know who you fight"
Before anybeast could spew their opinions, the Abbess quickly spoke. “As several beasts have mentioned, the first thing to do is make sure of its authenticity. Any suggestions as to how?”
Howlia spoke up. “I can collaborate with the librarian to go through records and check it against other poems.”
“Very good. That said, we will now approach it as if it is real. Any thoughts?”
The otter cook timidly raised her hand. “H'it says longears 'nd that's 'ares, right? Maybe they're s'posed to go to Salamandastron.”
The other cook, a young hedgehog whose younger sister had recently been in the infirmary, frowned. “It says, 'the mountain, no'. Hares, yes, but the beast this is addressed to is not supposed to go to Salamandastron.”
Sister Burna tapped a digging claw on the parchment. “Who be h'it 'dressed to, Mudder?”
Folding her paws, the mouse rested her chin thoughtfully on them. “That's another question we must answer. I'm not entirely sure of the reliability of my source,”
Across the table, Skipper Joncho snorted derisively.
With a slight glare in his direction, she continued, “and the source of the dream was not mentioned, though I assume it was her. Perhaps, however, the poem gives clues as to its recipient?”
Howlia looked skeptical as she gave the poem another look, but Korla spoke up. “Could it be fer Redwall in general? Not sayin' t'send a particular beast t'the 'ares, jist somebeast at all 'nd to be careful while doin' it?”
“Iffen that's true,” the skipper slammed the front legs of his chair back on the ground as he leaned forward, causing half of the Council members to jump, “then we should start h'assemblin' a team h'as soon h'as possible. This seems urgent 'nd we've h'already h'ignored it fer too long.”
Howlia nodded. “You could take several otters from your holt. I'd be willin' to go too, wot!”
“What about Naraudo and the rest of them?” The hedgehog cook asked. “Aren't they already out there?”
Korla dismissed the idea. “Don't they already 'ave a quest? 'N 'ow would we get a message to them, h'anyway?”
“Actually,” the Abbess leaned forward, “that could work.”
At the same time, the skipper pointed triumphantly at the cook and nodded. “Yes, 'n this is 'ow we could do it.”
The mouse turned and let the otter have the floor. “We choose h'a group o' beasts 'ho h'are fast 'n capable. Then they 'ead south, like the poem says, h'in the direction o' the travelers. Iffen they kin't find 'em or they kin't stray from their quest, then the group will go h'on to the 'ares. Iffen they do find 'em, then they will pass h'on the message 'nd return t'the h'Abbey.”
Warming to the idea, Abbess Paldra spoke up. “That sounds sensible. We could even pack extra supplies for the travelers. However, I was informed earlier that Olivia is moving on from the Abbey. Could we not just send the message with her?”
Silence fell over the assembly. Howlia looked hesitantly at the others, “Well...”
“Iffen she's leavin' 'cause she's not trusted, 'ow kin we trust 'er to deliver the messsage?”
Paldra stared at the skipper's impassive face before conceding. “Very well. I trust you can manage putting a team together? It was your idea after all.”
At the otter's nod, she rose from her chair. “Unless, you have other concerns to discuss, that will be all. You are dismissed.”
As the Council members mingled and left, they could be heard analyzing the rest of the poem more deeply. "What could he mean by, 'from noon to midnight'? Are beasts only going to be mad after lunch?"
While the hedgehog cook's companion answered with her own assessment, the otter cook asked Skipper Joncho, “Why do we need t'find the 'ares again?”
“H'I guess we'll find out, won't we?” Smiling, he sent her on her way before turning back to the Abbess. “Iffen ye h'agree, we'll leave by daybreak.”
“So soon? But you don't even have a team together yet.”
He shrugged. “H'I already 'ave several willin' 'n capable beasts in mind. Besides, time h'is o' the essence.”
“Very well. Check back with me when you have a team arranged. I'll head down to the Kitchens to get some supplies together.” As she was leaving, a thought struck her and she turned back. “Hopefully it won't take too long, but do be back by the Nameday of Autumn, will you? With all this traveling and poem fuss, I think we might worry some of the Abbeymembers. A good feast will help morale, especially if you are back after a successful trip.”
“Without knowin' 'ho or where the 'ares are, h'it's 'ard t'say, but Ah'll see what Ah kin do.”
Scurrying down the short incline from the Cavern Hole to the closer Cellar, an image of Martin as seen on the Tapestry popped into the Abbess' head. “Oh, Martin,” she whispered, “I hope we deciphered your meaning appropriately and the trip goes well. I don't think I could bear a disaster so soon into my leadership.”
Skipper Joncho, on the other hand, was in an almost cheerful mood. They were finally tackling the poem, at least half of the suspicious pair was gone and he got to leave on a quest. What could wrong? Certainly nothing he couldn't handle.
With a crash, a body fell from the tree, raining leaves and debris down on the bystanders. “Lijel!” Segalia jumped up from the ground.
Lijel popped his head out of the upper foliage. “That was Rip.”
“No, it wasn't!” The fox protested from another side of the tree.
“'E kin barely climb the tree by 'imself, Lijel.” After she heard another protest, she added, “No 'ffense.”
“Sure, none taken. I love having my skills critiqued.”
Rolling her blue eyes, the ottermaid prepared to resume climbing the tree. “H'I'm speaking relatively, Riplar.” She caught her breath as she hung from the branch. “Do ye want t'take the blame fer pushin' me h'out o' the tree? ‘Cause Ah kin do the same t'ye iffen ye do.”
“I'm good.” The fox assented. Selra gave Segalia a boost up to the high branch before reaching her arms up to follow.
“H'it's crowded up there, Selra. Maybe ye should wait down 'ere.”
The fox in question frowned, but made to sit back down. “I still don’t see why the squirrels are the ones staying down here.”
Ampanna shrugged, obviously unperturbed by the usurpation of her species-dictated role. "They were h'itchin' t'do somethin' 'n' h'it's a bad idea t'get in their way when they got their mind set on somethin'. 'Sides, there're h'already too many beasts up there."
The tree shook as if to prove her point. Naraudo agreed, having always preferred the ground to the skies.
Another argument broke out among the foliage and as the others waited for a report, Ampanna turned to Selra. "H'I know ye don't want t'talk 'bout it, but we need t'know what t'expect when we reach the castle."
"Yeah," Naraudo added, "what's got you so scared? If it's that bad, we need to be aware of it in advance."
Hugging her knees, despite the warmth of the day, Selra sighed. "It's...it's my mom."
"Your mom?" The red squirrel burst out laughing; his girlfriend hit his arm, chiding him for the inappropriateness of the sound, but not before he added, "What? Is she a master assassin or something?"
The hard glint in Selra's eyes was enough to fully silent him. "When Riplar and Rori were talking about her the other day, they were only partly joking. If she had wanted to, my mom could have been one of the best in the business. For goodness' sakes, she's a Marlfox."
"Did she teach you any of it?"
The fox made sure that he was genuinely interested before she answered with a shrug. "Some. It took a while for us to convince them to let us learn weaponry, since they didn't think we'd be facing any active threats, but before we got too far..." she trailed off before shrugging again.
"You left." Ampanna finished for her. When she was still silent, the squirrel queried, "H'I've always wondered. Why did you guys leave h'in the first place? Weren't ye practically a princess? 'N what 'bout yer family?"
Her eyes were hard again. "Rip's the only family I need."
Before the two slightly stunned squirrels could speak, Selra relented. "There's you guys, of course, as well. Actually, that's part of the problem."
"Yore 'fraid yer mom..."
"Won't love you anymore because you left and then fought against your dad." Naraudo finished, looking surprisingly understanding. When both females looked at him in astonishment, he shrugged. "I've had family issues, too. Not as drastic, of course, but, you get the point."
"Yeah, that's really the issue. I mean, it's not like there's a giant mysterious sea monster in the lake you guys should be worried about." Selra stood up and dusted off her tunic. "At least not anymore. We think." She grinned at their suddenly concerned looks and headed back to the base of the tree.
A rare peaceable conversation between the two otters drifted down to her:
“’Member climbin’ trees back ‘ome on the bank o’ the River Moss? Sometimes Ah miss the h’old days.”
“Yeah, ‘n’ ‘ho knows what’ll ‘appen now. H’aren’t ye bein’ requested t’ be the Warrior o’ Redwall?”
A rustle of leaves informed the eavesdropper that Lijel had shrugged. She hesitated, wondering whether it would be ruder to wait or interrupt.
“Well, wot with all the turmoil h’after the war, nothin’ was really settled. ‘N ‘ho h’even knows iffen Martin wants me t’take ‘is place?” He sighed. “H’I guess we’ll just ‘ave to wait ‘n see.”
“Would ye want t’do h’it?”
“H’I mean, h’it could be fun.”
Segalia agreed, almost wistfully. “Yeah, fightin’ h’off vermin, goin’ h’on quests, bein’ a ‘ero.”
“Course, Ah already do h’all that.” A thud informed Selra that Lijel had been elbowed for his comment. “Fine, most o’ h’it.” After a short pause, that allowed small chuckles, he added, “We’ll see.”
The fox took advantage of this seeming end to the conversation by shouting up, “Ahoy! Do you see anything?”
Her brother answered her query, while more rustling informed her that the otters had been forced to reposition themselves first. “Mostly clear, but I think I see something at 10 o’clock.”
Confusion was evident on the ground as well as in the tree as beasts spun in every which direction. Sensing the misunderstanding following his directions, Riplar sighed and clarified, “Thataways, towards that pine tree.”
As they resituated themselves, the other lookouts backed up his claim, albeit dubiously.
“Yeah, Ah think Ah somebeast. Looks like they’re from th’Abbey!”
“That’s just a bush.”
“No, h’it’s—Fine, what ‘bout that?”
“That’s h’a shadow.”
“Check yer eyes, Lijel. H’I’m right this time. H’I’m thinkin’ h’a ‘are?”
Those on the ground who weren’t privy to the view perked up.
“Sister Howlia?” Naraudo offered.
“Maybe even those dreaded Low Patron hares.”
The squirrels stared at Selra. “The who?”
“You know,” she gestured impatiently, “the warriors from the mountain, Salama-something.”
“Oh,” it dawned on them who she meant, “ye mean the Long Patrol.”
“Same difference.” She grumbled.
Before this could be debated, more information was shouted down from the tree. “I think I see more beasts!”
“’Re ye sure? H’it’s ‘ard t’see—Lijel, stop pushin’!”
“Then share the branch! H’I think there might be some more beasts way behind the runner.”
Ampanna called up, asking, “What’re they doin’? ‘Re they settin’ up camp h’or followin’?”
“That’s funny,” was the only response they got.
“What?” Naraudo asked. “What happened?”
Lijel answered. “They disappeared. Probably jist campin’ fer the night or somethin’.”
Segalia cut off their discussion when she cried, “Look! There’s another beast! Catchin’ up on the ‘are too.”
This news was ignored by the fact that the hare had come close enough for them to see that it was, in fact, Sister Howlia. “Howlia!”
“What’re ye doin’ ‘ere?”
The tree shook as they called out to the Recorder; in response she waved something above her head.
“What is that?”
“H’I don’t know. What’s she sayin’?”
“H’I kin’t tell,” Lijel replied before shouting back, “What’s that?”
This time the muffled cry was almost decipherable.
“A modem from mountain?” Riplar suggested before wondering, “What’s a modem?”
His sister on the ground tried too. “Loam from a tartan?”
“Oh!” Ampanna’s tail shot up, a sure sign she was excited. “It must be a poem from Martin!”
The others agreed and Segalia yelled a reply back. “H’a poem? What on?”
They tried to decipher her replies.
“Something ‘bout ‘ares?” Lijel offered.
“That’s a big help; that could mean anything!”
“Shush, Naraudo. What about the other part, something about a mouth?”
Selra’s speculation was cut off by gasps from the tree.
“What is it? What happened?”
There was rustling before Segalia’s footpaw appeared on the bottommost branch. “Ampanna, toss me my bow 'n quiver!”
The squirrel did as she was bid while Riplar relayed the action. “The beast that Segalia spotted earlier, it, it attacked her!”
“From behind too, the nasty coward.” Lijel hissed. The boisterous hare had made herself a friend to most of the group and they railed against this injustice.
“Seg, kin ye shoot that far?”
The otter struggled to nock an arrow amongst the foliage. “Let’s ‘ope so.”
“Can you do it without hitting Sister Howlia?” Riplar worried.
Selra turned to the squirrels. “Should we try to go help?”
Naraudo just shrugged helplessly.
“Stay calm,” Ampanna encouraged. “Jist do what ye did at the final battle when ye saved me.”
Breathing deep, Segalia stood from her position on the branch, pulling back the arrow before stumbling. Lijel steadied her before she could fall too far.
“Thanks.” Her voice shook and her face turned red.
“Just save ‘Owlia.”
Firming her shoulders, she pulled back the arrow again, this time with Lijel’s paws firmly holding her in place. Sighting carefully down the wood to her target, she adjusted it for the trajectory and let it fly. They all held their breath while Segalia nocked another arrow, just in case.
Those on the ground looked up ineffectively when groans came from the treetop.
“’Owlia’s attacker saw th’arrer—”
Segalia continued for Lijel, “’N pulled away puttin’ ‘er h’in h’it’s path.”
“Luckily, she saw it too, so neither was hurt.” Riplar concluded.
“Should Ah try ‘gain?”
Lijel stilled her arm. “Maybe we should jist wait t’see what ‘appens.”
Selra fidgeted on the ground as she waited for another report. Ampanna’s paw brushed Naraudo’s and he subconsciously grasped it. They all started when the tree erupted with sound.
After a few seconds of chaos, Riplar calmed down enough to inform the bystanders of the action. “Sister Howlia fell down. I think she was knocked out, but…”
“What about her attacker?”
“'E…” Lijel paused before muttering, “That’s weird.”
Selra barely restrained her urge to stamp her footpaw. “What?”
“Th'attacker disappeared. 'E or she's gone.”
Those on the ground took a second to understand Segalia’s statement and when they did, they reached for their weapons. “We have to go! At least see if we can help Sister Howlia!”
A few seconds later, Riplar hopped down, followed by Segalia, this time of her own accord. She reached back up for her weapons that Lijel handed down to her. He hesitated.
“C’mon, Lijel. What’re ye waitin’ fer?”
Sighing, he followed. “H’I was goin’ t’see iffen Ah could see h’anything else, but Ah don’t think it’d be that ‘elpful.”
The group had barely made it twenty feet into the brush before they heard a twig crack nearby. Immediately, they all formed a circle, backs in the middle, eyes out front, scanning the area.
Suddenly, Selra gasped. “You!” Before any of them could move or truly process what was going on, Howlia’s assailant attacked.
Omi sighed, squinted and swiftly spun a knife from her paw. She heard shouts and a thump before a clatter informed her that her dagger had fallen to the floor of the cave that her prey had been driven into. A second later, she ducked the arrow that whizzed over her head. That was the seventh one by her count. The quiver she had seen couldn’t have held more than an even dozen. Of course, she had a suspicion that there were two archers, doubling their source of ammunition.
Good. She stood cautiously, peering into the dim cave. That gave her some time before they got desperate. She was starting to get desperate herself; she needed to do something quickly. She had to get rid of the riverdog who had murdered her father before her companions rushed to defend her and overtook the stoat and her recently and hastily-assembled army. There was also the likelihood to be considered of the group who had been following the hare catching up and avenging her.
Her army. She summoned the ragtag group to her. She had encountered them a few days before, half-mad after they had run into a group warriors, at least two score of them, they had claimed, half a dozen of whom were badgers, and all consumed with Bloodwrath. With the help of her numchucks, she had gotten the truth and the location of the fight out of them as well as their allegiance in return for promises of revenge.
“How many arrers ‘n stuff d’you got left?”
The ferret scratched the back of his neck. A rat had previously been in charge of the band, but was violently demoted after the failure of the encounter with the otter and her cronies. “Just a bit under a score, I reckon.”
Omi did the math in her head. If their trapped enemy had two dozen arrows and had already used seven, that left them with three less than a score. She cursed. This did not give her an advantage. Especially not when at least one of the party had Bloodwrath.
It was time for a new strategy.
“H’alright, ‘ere’s wot we’re gonna do.” The stoat reached into her pouch. The vial she retrieved sparkled slightly in the setting sun’s light.
A weasel snorted. “Wot’s that gonna do? Sprinkle ‘em?”
The only other stoat in the group considered this. “Well, iffen it’s oil, all we need is a bit of flame and,” he mimed an explosion with his paws. “Kaboom!”
Eying the stoat, Omi considered his expanded usefulness. “You, wot’s yer name?”
He looked surprised to be addressed. “Uh, Darmon, sir, I mean, ma’am.”
She waved his mumbled titles away. “M’lady will do. From now on, you are Colonel Darmon.”
His shocked silence allowed the others to protest their lack of rank:
“Wot ‘bout me?”
“Hey, I wanted t’be a kernel!”
She rolled her eyes at the ferret. “Ah was gonna make ye me General, as me second- in-command, but Ah kin always switch the two.”
When the others continued to complain, she hushed them. “We kin do yer ranks later. First, we must take care o’this lot.” She held up the bottle again, then paused. “You, Minkett, I believe yer name was.”
The archer weasel scoffed. “Minzetto, actually.”
“Shoot somethin’ in so they don’t get suspicious.” That done, she turned back. “Me, uh, mentor, gave this to me. She told me that it produces halluc’ations that dis’rient those affected. It kin even knock ‘em out.”
“Isn’t that too little?” Her newest general queried. “For all ‘alf a dozen of ‘em?”
Giving him an appraising look, Omi nodded. It looked like she had made a good choice. “’Zactly. That’s why we need t’choose the best target. That would be…” She waited for them to all chime in and when they just stared at her blankly, she sighed. “Th’otter. It might ‘fect beasts close by, too, ‘n’ iffen it does, we jist capture ‘em.” She smiled maliciously. “Double revenge. We knock ‘er out ‘n’ take ‘er mates. We kin even kill ‘em in front of ‘er later. Even better, torture ‘em first!” She couldn’t restrain herself and let out an evil cackle.
When her gang hesitantly joined in, she stopped. “Ye know what t’do?”
The weasel who had questioned her earlier held up a paw. “’Ow d’ye know this’ll work? Kin ye trust this ‘mentor’?”
Omi sneered. “O’ course not. But she’s good at potions ‘n’ whatnot ‘n’ needs this t’work for ‘er part o’the plan so Ah’m sure it will. Iffen it doesn’t, well,” she shrugged. “That’s what we ‘ave weapons fer, isn’t it?”
Their faces spread into conniving grins, causing her to smile, too. “Now, we need t’make sure we kin get close ‘nough to the otter t’get it to work.”
“’Nother name fer the riverdog. Now shut up.”
Giving a nod to her general for silencing the idiot, Omi allowed her archer to speak. “The treejumpers were by th’entrance, ‘n’ th’riverdog was behind ‘em.”
“That should work. Places!”
Once they had scurried away, Omi signaled for the weasel archer and rat slinger to bombard the entrance. As they shot, she watched an expendable rat sneak up and toss the contents of the vial over the beasts within the entrance. Right before he tossed it, the otter turned.
“No!” She shouted, but it was too late.
The otter who was not her father’s murderer stumbled. “Wraltor? H’is that ye?”
“Lijel?” One of the squirrels at the opening moved to him, caught the fumes of the liquid and tripped, pushing the otter to the side.
Omi cursed again. “Get the treeclimber!” As the other squirrel peered through the darkness, reaching for the first and succumbing to the hallucinogenic instead, she amended her statement. “Both o’them!”
Chaos broke out as the otter nearly pleaded, “Yore leavin’ already? Ye jist got back!”
She didn’t wait to hear the rest. “Quick, it’s fadin’!”
They moved in. The stoatmaid followed, creeping past the beasts carrying the unconscious squirrels away. Within the cave, a battle was going on, accompanied by a cacophony of words.
“Stay away from the puddle and fog!” A fox coughed as he dueled one of her soldiers.
"Lijel! Fight! Wot’re ye—” Her prey, the otter, was cut off by an attack.
The fox continued his warning. “We can’t get—Selra!”
The last word, punctuated with terror, was accompanied by a nearby fox’s fall to the ground. She struck out with her bow, but missed as the drug overtook her. “Mommy? I’m sorry!” Curling up into a fetal position, the fox fell unconscious. The other fox, Omi thought she might have recognized them as relatives of the late King Grovelum, raced for the fallen fox.
As sweet as that was, she would not allow it.
She stepped into his path. “We’re takin’ ‘er.”
A fury that frankly terrified her filled the fox’s eyes, making them glow. “No, you won’t. Give me back my sis—”
The beast he had been fighting before he had run off knocked him hard over the head, effectively ending his sentence.
“Let’s go.” They grabbed the foxmaid and dragged her outside. Omi cast a longing look back into the cave where the otter lay unconscious next to the black fox. The other otter looked like she was about to go into Bloodwrath, however, and, since she knew how short-lived the potion could be, they had no choice but to escape.
A thought occurred to her as she rejoined her army and she leaned back towards the cave for a parting shot. “Don’t ye worry, riverdog. Soon ye’ll join yer little bunny friend in the Dark Forest!”
At the subsequent, though weak, yell of rage, Omi cackled. Though not entirely successful, this would do very well. Very well indeed.
The window shutters flew apart and banged against the redstone walls of the Abbey.
“Oh, Dubya,” cried Paldra as she dangled precariously over the sill, “Isn’t it the most gorgeous day?”
The day was indeed beautiful with a nearly uncomfortable heat combined with a cool breeze wafting over the vibrant green of Mossflower. The hedgehog in question, however, stood to the side seemingly unimpressed. “Indeed. Might it be better, however, to close the windows and keep the insects out?” As she spotted a gaggle of Dibbuns tumble around the corner, she added wryly, “and the pests in?”
Ignoring her friend’s unappreciativeness, the Abbess took a large breath of summer air. “It’ll be such a shame when summer ends and we have to worry about heating and such again.” Privately, she hoped that that would be the extent of their worries.
“Yes, but we still have the problem of figuring out meals from last year’s limited harvest.”
“It’s a shame to waste our time indoors. Can’t we make teams to forage from the Woods?” Despite her words, the mouse pulled back inside.
Missus Dubya reached for the shutters. “Our success would be limited. After all, Redwall Abbey wasn’t the only place afflicted by the early winter.”
Casting one last wistful look outside, the leader conceded. “What would you suggest?”
“I have a few ideas if you’ll hear them out.” The hedgehog gestured towards the Library, their original destination.
“Very well,” she started heading the opposite direction, “walk with me.”
Expression unnaturally calm, Dubya strode after her. “You don’t wish to sit and have tea while we discuss?”
“No.” Her answer was firm. “It’s much too gorgeous a day to sit cooped up inside. Besides, we might as well kill two bird with one stone and discuss supplies with Cellarkeeper Korla.”
“Sound idea, Paldra. Now, first is the idea of rations.” At the mouse’s pained look, she sighed. “Surely you must see how out of control most Redwall feasts are, unnecessarily so, and it would not be unwise for certain, less active, members of the Abbey to lose a bit of weight.”
She was cut off. “I predicted some resistance. Here is another slightly unusual idea. Instead of using as much of the limited ingredients we already have, we should substitute other healthier and hardier ingredients that aren’t too difficult to find.”
“If they’re unusual, wouldn’t that affect the food?”
She shook her head as they descended the stairs. “Not substantially. The dishes might taste a bit different, possibly odd, at first, but if your cooks are as good as purported, nobeast will notice anything after a few meals.”
Her own reputation as a chef on the line, Paldra smiled thinly. “The cooks will do fine.”
The hedgehog smiled serenely in return. “I have no doubt. Now, since you seem to agree, this part of the process will require a bit a transition. Might I have permission to have some say in the kitchens?”
Her hesitation, if any, was very short. “Of course. So what are these unusual ingredients?”
They crossed the Great Hall with a few short stops for the leader to confer with Abbeymembers.
“Kale, a few herbs,” she waved her paw, “I’ll make up a list if you wish. Actually, I should be able to find most of them myself.”
The mouse gave her a sharp look. “Within the Abbey?”
She inclined her head. “Most of them, yes. A few must be found in Mossflower Woods.”
This time the Abbess did hesitate for a full second at the entrance to the Cellar. “I’ll send a few beasts with you, but not too many. We can’t afford to take too many supplies from those in Mossflower who prefer not to live in the Abbey.”
If Dubya’s eyes flashed with simultaneous emotions, Paldra took no special notice of it. And if she seemed to take exceptional interest in the supplies stocked up in the cellar, Paldra saw it as nothing out of the ordinary.
After this short visit with Korla, the Abbess headed across the Hall to the Kitchens.
“Where are you off to?”
The mouse smiled back at her friend. “I’m going to ask the cooks to make a spread for a lunch in the Orchard. Don’t worry,” she added when the hedgehog raised a spiny eyebrow, “it will be frugal. It’s just too lovely a day to go to waste. We can even start planning a feast within the new parameters for when the scouting party returns.”
Her comment proved oddly prophetic as she passed the double doors. Just as the roaming beasts were starting to look up at the sound of pealing bells, the doors crashed open and Joncho stumbled through.
“Skipper!” Paldra cried, a smile widening over her face as she rushed to support him.
Her smile was wiped clear off her face a second later when he gasped, “Sister Howlia…she’s dead!”
The Abbess swayed on her footpaws and the otter, rushing to support her in his turn, did not miss the quick grin that raced over the hedgehog’s face. He glared at her as she stared evenly back. It only broke when Paldra started babbling questions and he hastened to fill her in. However, he knew now for certain that Dubya could not be trusted and if she knew he knew, all the better.
As the Abbey slowly exploded into pandemonium, the two shaken leaders staggered upstairs towards the dormitory, shouting vague promises that everything would be fine and the Abbeymembers would be filled in later. Everybeast knew it was a lie; their tentative peace had shattered in their faces and it was up to them to keep the ground from following suit or who knew where they would land.
Segalia couldn’t move. She sat there stunned. Why Howlia’s death had affected her so badly, she didn’t know. But it had. Throughout the last few seasons she had seen many beasts, both friends and enemies, fall to the curse of life and had inflicted it on a few herself. This death, however, had shaken her to the core. Maybe it was its unexpectedness or perhaps her feeling of helplessness. She was also thrown by how guilt and horrified she felt for the partial decapitation of a brawny rat shoved to the back of the cave. Gruesome yes, but terribly unusual it was not. Just thinking about it, however, made bile rise to the base of her throat.
What only exacerbated the situation, though, was Lijel. What in the four seasons was wrong with him? Why had he frozen, calling out to some nonexistent ghost of the past? Both Ampanna and Naraudo had both fallen in front of him and he had done nothing to help them. The vermin who had killed Howlia, who were lead by the stoatmaid who had promised revenge, who would do who knew what with their friends in the form of revenge, they had carted the squirrels and Selra away right past Lijel and he hadn’t budged an inch. Segalia felt that, in some ways, he had personally failed her.
Riplar elbowed Lijel who himself was staring aimlessly at the wall, regaining his bearings. He didn’t react so the fox elbowed him again, harder.
“Ow! Wot was that fer?”
Riplar gestured over to the huddled ottermaid. “Go help her.”
“’Re ye serious?” Lijel looked alarmed. “She’ll stinkin’ kill me! An’ wot h’am Ah supposed t’do h’anyway? Talk ‘bout our feelin’s?” He looked at his paws. “H’I know Ah messed up. But Ah don’t know what ‘appened.”
“Which is why you need to talk to her. Explain what you remember and apologize.”
Though not happy about it, the otter saw the logic and went over to his friend. He slumped down the wall next to her. “Wot’s wrong?”
“H’I just thought this would be h’an ‘dventure with mates. Goin’ ‘round Mossflower, ‘aving’ fun. H’I wasn’t ‘spectin’ all this…” she gestured for lack of a better word then shuddered and dropped her head to her knees.
“Ye’ve killed before. H’I don’t see why this ought t’’fect ye more than those-”
At his voice, Segalia seemed to recall the end of her sentence and glared over at him. “’N wot was h’up with ye? Ye completely betrayed us!” Her shout made Riplar look warily over while Lijel shrunk into himself. “H’I-Ah saw Wraltor.”
Her anger had robbed her of any sensitivity she might once have possessed. She snorted. “H’oh right, Ah forgot. Th’otter ye knew for a month h’is far more ‘portant than h’anybeast from th’’olt ye’ve lived in yer h’entire life.”
“Seg…” he felt her words land painfully in his gut.
Heedless of this, she continued. “No, o’ course. H’it’s not like h’Ampanna wasn’t yer mate ‘o ye ‘ung h’out with. H’it’s not like h’any o’ h’us were in danger when ye decided t’turn traitor.”
“That’s not fair…”
“Fair? ‘Ow h’is it fair that our friends, ‘o trusted us with their lives, were captured ‘cause ye couldn’t let go?”
That was too much for Lijel. “Wraltor was yer friend too. Iffen ye saw somebeast ye’d lost, ye would’ve ‘esitated ‘n done the same.”
“Not when there was so much else h’at stake.”
“H’oh, that’s right. Ye’ve never lost a close mate or family member. Ye’ve never ‘ad t’suffer that kind o’ wrenchin’ loss.”
“No, ye ‘aven’t. Ye don’t understand!”
Segalia took a deep breath in a pointless attempt to calm herself down. “That’s no ‘scuse, Lijel, ‘n ye know h’it.” Her wounded glare hurt far more than any blow he was convinced she would give him. Her head went back down, signaling the end of the conversation.
Lost for any words appropriate for expressing his rising feelings, he stood up angrily and stormed off to the opposite side of the cave. When passing Riplar, he merely said, “See?”
The loss of his sister weighed heavily on the fox as he stared at the palpable tension between the two otters. Not that Selra’s temper would have been much help in this case; she was still his twin and he missed her. If he didn’t get her back… He hit one paw into another. The two otters could deal with their issues another time; they couldn’t afford to let any time slip past them. The longer they waited, the further away the captors and the victims got and the higher chance they had of being tortured. Even if it was nighttime, they need to outline a plan and rest before starting out at first light.
“Alright then. Let’s start cleaning up so that we can start working on a rescue plan.” His words fell on deaf ears. Riplar fought the urge to stamp his footpaw to express his own rising frustration before clenching his fist. If they wouldn’t help him, he would just have to do it himself. Nothing, no vengeful stoats, no hallucinogenics, no forces of nature and certainly no moody otters would keep him from getting his sister back.
He would find her or die trying.
Her first instinct was to fight back. After all, after having been drugged, kidnapped, and rudely awakened, one’s first instinct is not to be cheery and gentle. Fortunately, Selra’s common sense kicked in and she feigned sleep a few minutes longer in order to gain a vague awareness of her surroundings.
The distinct smell of a forest pervaded her senses, tinted with the smoke of damp wood. Her footpaws were bound tightly at the ankle and her elbows were painfully secured behind her back. Her rude awakening had come courtesy of an ongoing argument close to the fire.
“Ye numbskull! We’re s’posed t’be keepin’ a low profile. Ye kin’t jist light fire with damp wood o’all things.”
As the screech hit her ears, the fox didn’t think its owner was doing a great job at keeping a low profile.
“H’it was ‘im, m’lady. ‘E likes ‘is pigeons crispy.”
“Don’t blame h’it on me! Ye h’agreed with me that a bit burnt was better than underdone.”
A rat chimed in bitterly. “H’it’s called rare.”
He was ignored and interrupted. “Well, now it’s nothin’ but burnt!”
The subject of the debate had indeed started to burn vigorously, sending an acrid breeze into Selra’s nostrils. Try as she might, couldn’t keep a sneeze from shooting out of her nose, announcing her conscious state to the world, or at least the surrounding forest.
The screech’s owner was revealed to be Omi and her tone quickly changed from irate to pleased. “So,” a scheming smile spread across her face, “our pris’ner finally ‘wakens. Tell me,” she strode across the pine needle-strewn floor to stand over her captive, “’ow does un fall from mighty princess to,” she sneered and aimed a kick at her leg, “lowly scum ‘o ‘ffiliates with woodlanders?
Selra chose not to respond, merely glaring stonily up at the stoat.
“Hm, Ah wonder ‘ow much yer dear mudder’d pay t’ave ye returned safely.”
The foxmaid knew that a reunion on somebeast else’ terms would go even worse than the planned one was supposed to go. Despite her attempt at maintain nonchalance, some of her trepidation must have shown on her face because Omi’s smile grew wider and eviler.
“Or would the reward be h’even larger iffen we brought ye back with a knife through your ‘eart?”
“Cut to the chase, Omi.” Her voice was hard, hopefully opaque. “What do you want with us?” A quick look earlier had revealed her squirrel companions similarly trussed up beside her, but still unconscious.
The few awake vermin around the fire looked up intently. Apparently, they hadn’t been briefed on the purpose of their prisoners either.
“Nothin’ really.” She flippantly waved her paw. “Ah never ‘tended for ye t’be captured.”
“What?” As soon as she had voiced her confusion, it vanished in an instant. Segalia! She must have been the target.
Omi paced, head thrown back in an attempt at regality. In reality, she looked somewhat ridiculous. “H’it’s no matter. Yore now me bait.” Her teeth glinted predatorily.
Selra had no idea what to expect from this plot, so she decided to exude bravado. “That’s brilliant. Is this supposed to be your trap? This open forest with your well-placed sleeping soldiers?”
Furious, the stoat started to stamp her footpaw, but stopped when she noticed her soldiers watching her. She forced a laugh. “’O said this was the trap?”
The foxmaid considered her words carefully. Any information they could obtain from their captors would be beneficial as it might prove useful, but who knew how the fledgling leader would react. “If not,” she inquired nonchalantly, “where is it?”
When Omi seethed silently, her numchucks thrumming by her side, Selra sighed dramatically, “This is it then? I don’t know why, but I expected more from you, Omi. What would your father say?”
It was a legitimate question as Selra had barely interacted with the late General Dir enough to that the stoats were related, but it did the trick. “O’course h’it’s not,” she snapped. “It’s beautiful, ‘tually. Far ‘nough ‘way that we’re not visible, but close ‘nough that it’s easily h’access’ble.” She cut herself off, afraid of saying too much. Smiling instead, she added, “’Nd yore the perfect bait.”
The fox did not have to respond to the regrettable sturdiness of this plan because both participants in the conversation were distracted by the squirrels waking up beside them.
Groaning, Ampanna tossed and turned before blearily opening her eyes. Her pain and confusion filled expression turned into that of horror and shock when she saw Naraudo’s stirring form beside her. This horror only transitioned into anger when she took in the rest of her surroundings as well as the bound state of her limbs. Despite this, she smiled pleasantly and merely greeted the two females. “Good mornin’. H’is that breakfast Ah smell?”
In spite of herself, Selra’s stomach growled. She had eaten birds before, but pigeon was not her favorite, especially not with the feathers still on. Now that she was affiliated with the woodlanders, she had thought she had given up fowl for good. However, she might have to renege on this implied promise if there was no other available fare.
The question made Omi remembered the failed attempt at food as well and she marched back over to the fire. “Get some more vittles. We need to start settin’ the trap.” She cast a look over her shoulder at her captives. The male was attempting to sit up while the squirrelmaid was trying to examine the knot on his head with her constrained paws. “No food fer the captives. Let’s see ‘ow much more path’ic they h’are iffen they’re starvin’.”
Back with the prisoners, Ampanna had finally concluded, after nearly dislocating her arms in the process, that Naraudo’s head was fine.
She turned to her other companion. “’Ow’re ye, Selra? Did ye find h’anythin’ out ‘fore we woke up?”
“Don’t worry about me.” Waving Ampanna’s straining paws away, she caught them up. “I couldn’t find out much, but essentially she was trying to capture Segalia, but now we’re her bait.”
“Right. So, ‘ow do we h’escape?” When the other two shot her startled looks for her boldness, she raised an eyebrow. “H’I’m not ‘bout to wait ‘round t’be rescued like some damsel h’in distress.”
“I agree, but quieter, okay?”
Chastened, but still determined, Ampanna faced the others. “H’alright, wot do we ‘ave? We’re h’outnumbered ‘bout three h’or four t’un.”
“I’ve been trying to get out of my bonds,” Naraudo offered. “By securing our elbows they limited our range of motion to a certain extent, but since your elbow is typically bigger than your wrist, we should be able to slip out. Unfortunately,” he cleared his throat and mumbled, “I’m having trouble getting the rope over my forearms.”
Indeed, his muscular forearms as well as the sizeable arms of the other two from seasons of practice did prove to be a problem. Selra deemed it a minor one. “We can help each other. Now, if we want to escape, early morning is probably best.” “Like now?” They all raised their eyes to the sky. Through the foliage, it was clear that the sun had barely broken over the horizon.
“Now?” Selra’s brow furrowed.
“No, I like that.” Naraudo agreed with his girlfriend. “They won’t be expecting an attempt so soon, and it’s a good of day to do it. Besides, most of the vermin are still asleep.” At an eyebrow raise from Selra, he corrected himself. “The soldiers.” Selra started to nod as she examined their surroundings more closely. “This could work. But which way do we go? East? South?”
“’Ow ‘bout up?” Their eyes were again drawn upward. The tree under which they had been trussed was smooth and branchless for at least three or four times Ampanna’s height.
“I know you’re good at climbing, but isn’t that a bit much?” Naraudo queried.
“Not that tree.” She tried to move her arms to either point or adjust his head, but stopped when her bonds stopped her. Gesturing with her head instead, she said, “two h’over.”
Though a fair distance away considering their bound state, the tree in question had two branches within reach before consecutive branches ascended at a reasonable pace. “Oh, and then once you reach that branch,” he motioned ambiguously, “you can get over to the next tree and keep going.”
“Exactly. H’and iffen needed, ye kin go ‘igher ‘n go h’across there.”
“You’d probably need to do a turn and switch, but it’s doable.”
“That’s wot Ah was thinkin’. H’it looks like ye kin easily go from tree t’tree fer quite a while.” Ampanna turned to the bewildered fox. “D’ye recognize where we are? Iffen ye do, we kin figure out ‘ow far the forest goes ‘n plan a trail.”
Selra weakly waved a paw, making her resemble a lizard with its limited mobility. “Hold up. You lost me with all your squirrel lingo.”
They glanced at each other. “It might be better if we describe along the way.”
“But do ye know where we h’are?”
She took a more scrutinizing look at the forest around them. Now that the headache, one of the aftereffects of the drug, was wearing off, she was indeed starting to recognize where they were. She had a vague recollection of a family vacation here when she and Riplar had been around 9 seasons old. The memory made her even more determined as she it made her to miss her brother even more. “I think we’re almost due east,” waving her paws to illustrate her mental map, she amended her statement, “no, west of the palace.”
“Well, that was kind of Omi.” Ampanna commented.
“If we can escape and hope the others continue to the island and not get caught in the trap, then we can just meet up there.”
Instead of contemplating on all the ifs of the escape, Selra twisted her wrists. “Well then, let’s get ready to go.”
After double-checking to make sure the soldiers and Omi were still occupied elsewhere, they got to work on their bonds. Though they did help each other as Selra had advised, it was painful going. The rope chafed their arms, removing bits of fur.
“Ow!” snapped Selra after the ropes snagged her fur for the umpteenth time. “Curse this scraggly-”
Luckily, her exclamation was covered up by more yelling from the vermin. “Ah want ye ‘n ye to go scout out the trap site. See iffen they’re h’any woodlanders about.” The weasels in question saluted and trotted off. “Ye!”
“H’us three?” a rat scratched his arm and pointed to the ferretmaiden and stoat next to him.
“Sure. Ah don’t care ‘ow many, but Ah want ye to finish workin’ on the mech’nisms. The rest o’ ye finish gettin’ new supplies ‘n cookin’ the grub.”
The sound of arguing filtered through the trees as the weasel scouts returned.
“Uh, sorry to bother ye, m’lady, but-” one of them started.
“She got us lost.”
“No, Ah didn’t! Ah knew ‘zactly where we were goin’, but ye were doubtin’ me so we ‘ad to come back ‘ere t’ask.”
“Iffen it was up t’ye, we’d ‘ave been ‘eaded off a cliff by now!”
“Silence!” Omi’s shrill voice cut through their bickering. “Never mind what ‘appened. Yore both h’incomp’tent.” Throwing her paws up, she declared, “Ah’ll show where h’it is. Some o’ ye watch the pris’ners.”
At the mention of their status, Selra, Ampanna, and Naraudo immediately assumed postures of innocence. Unfortunately, due to their close proximity, they clonked heads. Over their pained groans, they could hear one of the vermin commenting,
“Stoopid filth stinkin’ up our camp wiv all their goody two-shoeness.”
The others laughed. “Look at them. They ain’t goin’ nowhere fast.”
When Naraudo fumed, Ampanna placed her free paw on his arm. “We’ll be h’out o’ ‘ere soon ‘nough.” She promised. “Now, Ah think we need a distraction.”
“I’ll do it.” He responded before either could say anything.
Though in essence the same, Selra’s answer was more shocked and even sardonic where Ampanna’s had been admiring. “You would?”
“Of course. I might as well. I’ll just run through the camp, while you run that way, and we’ll meet up at the edge of the forest.”
Selra shook her head. “This is too risky.”
“But, we might ‘as well try h’it. Now,” Ampanna rubbed her elbows, “when ‘e starts runnin’, we wait a second, then follow suit. We h’aim fer that tree ‘n keep goin’. Iffen ye h’ever ‘ave trouble goin’ forward, go h’up. Get it?”
“Got it.” Naraudo nodded while Selra sighed.
“As I’ll ever be.”
After steeling himself with a deep breath, Naraudo charged. He aimed for the outskirts of camp and was halfway there before the first soldiers had gotten to their footpaws. After that, he really had to prove himself. He leapt over the outstretched leg of a ferret and ducked under a rat’s reach. Speeding up to escape a spear thrust, he started wildly waving his arms.
Selra grabbed Ampanna’s arm. “Come on!”
“But,” she stared worriedly after the other squirrel.
“Now’s our chance.” After being dragged to her footpaws, Ampanna took off running so fast that Selra struggled for a second to keep up.
“D’ye need ‘elp up?” the squirrel asked once they reached the tree.
“I can make it.”
She watched her struggle for a moment while she made sure that they faced no imminent danger. “H’are ye sure?”
Shrugging, she leapt past the fox to a higher branch and swung herself up. Her eyes widened when she glanced back down. “Selra!”
This time, she had no choice but to accept the squirrel’s help as a sword came slashing towards her. With a jump and a pull, she scrambled into the tree. As they hurriedly ascended, they heard Omi’s irate return.
“What’s goin’ on ‘ere? Ah thought Ah told ye to watch the pris’ners!”
“Ye didn’t say ‘ho, m’lady.”
“Ah don’t care wot Ah said. Jist catch ‘em!”
As plans go, what it lacked in tactical particularities, it made up for in effort. Almost. Although Selra had climbed many trees in her lifetime, her lack of experience in bounding from one tree to another slowed her down. While Ampanna had natural talent to draw on, talent only goes so far without practice. Naraudo, meanwhile, was running out of ways to evade his pursuers.
Forcing her way through branches and jumping hurriedly over gaps between trees, Selra lost sight of Ampanna and merely followed her direction instinct. The sound of footsteps crashing through the brush below grew louder and was accompanied by an arrow whizzing in her direction. Though adrenaline coursed through her veins, she knew she could not keep this pace up, at least not in the canopy.
After nearly missing the next limb, she spotted a branch suitably close to the ground. She dropped down to it and swung to the ground. Stumbling and wincing, she hurled herself forward.
She made it as far as the next conifer.
A large ferret caught her as she tried to dodge around the tree. She struggled valiantly, but his companions helped subdue her.
As she kicked out at her captors, the ferret frowned at her and growled, “Traitor.”
Before she could protest, he had knocked her on the side of the head, sending her into a half-conscious state. By the time she had cleared her mind, they were nearly back at camp. It was part-relief and part-despair when she saw another group of fighters escorting a kicking Ampanna back to the camp. Within a few minutes, they were joined by Naraudo. Their bonds were made even tighter this time, with additional ones on their wrists and gags in their mouths.
Omi strode over to gloat while they were being tied up again. “Thought ye could best me?”
Selra spat at her footpaws before her gag could be secured. “Just untie me and then we’ll see who can best who.”
She laughed. “Ye kin say all ye want, but ye mates are still goin’ t’go straight into me trap.” As she turned away, she added, “Ah think Ah’ve decided on torturing ye ‘n yer brother ‘fore killin’ the rest of yer friends. Then Ah’ll let yer dear mummy decide what t’do with ye.” Selra bit at her gag, trying to protest. “Come to think of it, she only needs one of ye. Which un kin she do without?”
The trio shared a look of despair as the stoat walked away. What now?
The immediate turmoil that ensued after Skipper Joncho and the others returned was barely contained before the council was hustled into a room to discuss the situation. Even then, it simmered, waiting for the slightest upset to burst the bubble of calm.
“Okay,” the Abbess said once the door had been closed and the councilmembers had started to situate themselves. “Okay!” she repeated to still the hubbub of sliding chairs and restless murmurs. “Joncho,” she turned to him, as always at her right paw, “tell me what you know about Sister Howlia’s…untimely demise.”
“We saw some h’action h’in the distance ‘n thought we’d caught up with the questers. ‘Owlia was eager t’get goin’ so she volunteered t’scout ahead. We let ‘er ‘n saw h’a skirmish, but before we could move, the villain’d disappeared. We went t’find out wot ‘ad ‘appened ‘n’ we saw h’another group o’ beasts ‘ho scattered when we came h’into view. H’it might’ve been the questers, but we couldn’t tell. We were too busy tryin’ t’ tend t’ ‘Owlia.” He sighed and diverted from his formal tone for the first time. “H’it was—There was too much blood. ‘Er last words were, ‘Well, h’at least Ah jolly well tried. Get the blaggard for me, will you?’.”
There was a light chuckle around the table as they recognized the hare’s light-hearted attitude.
“So, what can you tell me about her murderers? Oh,” she glanced back at the Skipper, “I’m sorry. Were you finished?”
He waved her away. “There’s no need t’dwell h’on it. ‘Er murderers were tricky. We know that much due t’their disappearin’ h’act. H’it looked like h’only one beast, but h’I’d wager h’it was three h’or four.”
“At least,” the young hedgehog cook who’d volunteered for the team chimed in.
The rest of the table looked over in surprise and he shrunk back slightly.
“No,” Paldra looked over to make sure this was alright with Joncho, “go ahead if you have something to say.”
“Well,” his voice was quiet, but controlled, “the randomness and spread-out…ness of the attacks made it impossible to have been made by only one beast, not even several. It had to have been four or five beasts doing guerilla attacks, ganging up on Howlia, but not even making it look like they were.” His face wrinkled in disgust. “Filthy vermin—”
“Denol,” Joncho’s voice was firm, “thank ye fer yer h’input.”
Chastised, Denol quieted.
The Abbess recognized the spark remaining in his face and echoed in the others around the table. “We will do our best to bring them to justice.” She gestured at the otter.
He nodded. “We’ve considered the possibility of ‘em bein’ remnants o’ Grovelum’s forces, but Ah find that unlikely considerin’ their tactics differ from those o’ the warlord’s. We won’t completely disregard it, ‘owever. H’it’s also likely that the few ‘ho h’attacked represent a fraction o’ a larger h’army. That means we’ve got t’strategize carefully, but we’ve got t’act fast.”
Before the words of war could flow off his tongue, Paldra stood up. “Hold it. We’re ignoring something vital. One of our own is dead. Yes, that means we will get to the bottom of this, but first, we have to honor her memory. Celebrate her life. There will be no more talk of causing more deaths before we—” she swallowed hard and stared at the table for a second, “acknowledge hers.”
“O’ course.” Joncho stood too. He turned to the temporary cooks. “Start making preparations fer h’a feast.” Putting a paw on Paldra’s shoulder as she continued to stare at the table, he continued, “H’I’ll get a crew together t’start diggin’ a grave. We kin continue this conversation tomorrow.”
The council rushed off to follow his orders. Still, try as they might, chaos descended on the Abbey. The usually organized cooks bumped into each other and spilled sauces on the counters. The peace that had finally settled over the Abbey after the war with Grovelum was shattered in an instant. No one knew what the death of Howlia meant or how it would affect them, besides losing a friend and sister to all.
The funeral was a messy affair. It was quick, and while it was ordered, due to the fact that they’d all had practice with it within the season, the actions were still sloppy. The speeches were good, but overly long or short.
Near the end of the service, Dubya took to the stump they were using for a stage. “I can’t say I had much of an acquaintance with Sister Howlia, but by all accounts she was a wonderful, vibrant beast.” The audience chuckled appreciatively. “I think the best way to conclude this ceremony is to have a nice calming cup of tea while we reminisce about the wonderful life Howlia led.”
There was a collective agreement amongst the audience and several dozen beasts rushed to help the drink occur. Mingling among them was the helpful hedgehog, mixing a drink here, dropping a kind word there, and sprinkling taste-enhancing herbs in the tea.
The tea helped tremendously. Beasts relaxed, started recalling happy memories with Howlia and mingling on the Lawns. The Dibbuns should have been rounded up long before, but the adults were feeling indulgent. Several of them curled up in the chairs or under the trees and before long, they were dropping like flies.
Paldra sat at a table next to Joncho and with a few other random Abbeymembers starting to drift off.
“Ye know,” he commented, “maybe we shouldn’t be lettin’ ‘em sleep out ‘ere.”
“Ah, Joncho. Just let them relax. This has been hard on all of us. A little fun won’t hurt anybeast.” She nudged a kettle over. “You need to relax, too. Here, have some of this tea.”
“Now, you’re insulting my tea.” Dubya appeared silently behind them, smiling.
His smile in return was thin. “That was not my h’intent.”
The mouse and the hedgehog got to talking about menial things. “I have to say, Dubya, this is really good tea. Is this part of your new eating program?”
Her grin was secretive. “Indeed, you could say it is. You will probably see its effects very soon.”
“Brilliant.” The Abbess fought back a yawn. “Well, it is certainly relaxing. I might just have to turn in myself.”
“Feel free. No one’s going anywhere.” She stood to continue talking with the others.
Despite himself, the Skipper found his eyelids drooping as the evening went by. He had purposely not drunk any of the tea so as to not relax himself, but he had helped himself to a few sips of October Ale. Now as the noise died down, the last sight he saw in the light of the dying fire was a large creature moving amongst the fallen creatures.
Book 2: A Deeper Evil
Meanwhile, the traveling pair far to the north was completely unaware of the diverse and drastic dramas occurring to their friends. Instead, the badgers were enjoying a hearty discussion about the many aspects of apples which Rori personally disliked.
“Apple pies and apple crisps are some of the most amazing desserts ever, though.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Cooked fruit is too squishy.”
“Well then, just don’t cook them as long. Or just have it as cider.”
His face was indecisive. “Not that great. Really, the only noteworthy purpose for apples is that you can poison somebeast if you get enough seeds.”
“Which means small amounts can be used to force sick beasts to throw up.” She stopped in her tracks. “Wait. Can you really?”
Vaguely amused, he responded, “Considering I’ve had a weasel die right in front of me due to an overdose, yes, you can.”
She nodded slowly as her footpaws regained motion. “So, how involved were you with these murders?”
He shrugged as they rounded a bend in the forest path. “I mashed up the seeds.”
“Stop me if it’s uncomfortable,” she looked over questioningly, “but what’s this I hear about you killing a woodlander?”
He was silent for so long that she held up a paw. “It’s fine if you don’t tell me.”
Waving her concern away, he concentrated. “It was a while ago. I’m trying to remember all that happened.”
The only sound for a few minutes afterwards was the mere brushing of their footpaws through green foliage.
“It was a few seasons ago, while I was on my first quest to discover my past. On my way I stopped at this village for a few weeks. Slashclaw was supposed to send me word of his destination so I could meet him so I was waiting for news.” He flashed a half-grin at her. “Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to return to him anyway, but I hadn’t come up with a good reason not to.”
Carma’s first thought was that the fact that Slashclaw was a coyote was proof enough to search for employment elsewhere. She squashed the thought as soon as it bloomed. She knew that despite the mad beast’s evil deeds, Rori had been close to his old master. Besides, she was trying to work past her prejudice towards vermin for the sake of Riplar and Selra.
“So,” she prompted him, “you stayed at the village for a few weeks?”
“Oh, yes.” He snapped out of his silence. “I was afraid you were no longer interested.”
No longer interested in how the mostly gentle Rori had come to commit his first killing? “Not a chance.” She grinned at him.
“Very well.” He gave a rueful chuckle. “Anyway, as in any community, there were a couple of jerks.”
“Shrews?” Carma couldn’t keep herself from blurting out.
“Shrews?” His forehead scrunched up. “No, if I remember correctly there were a few mice, an otter, and a squirrel. Why?”
“Oh,” she flashed back to numerous debates with the Guosim on her travels, “never mind. Just continue.”
He gave her a weird look. “Okay then. Anyway, they got the idea in their head that a newcomer was not welcome in their midst. I didn’t even mention Slashclaw or anything, yet they had it out for me since the day I arrived. Every day they’d start insulting me as soon as they saw me, calling me huge and alien. Sometimes they’d throw stuff at me if I ignored them.”
“That’s rude.” The intensity of hatred required to lead to such animosity boggled her mind.
“I suppose they believed they were defending their village. But yeah,” he admitted with the cheer that comes from faded memory, “it got annoying.”
“And one day you snapped?”
He see-sawed his paw in the air. “Kinda? Well, what happened was one day I was out fishing for my host and they started yelling about how I was polluting their waters. Finally, I stood up to my full height and strode out of the water. It usually works on vermin and it worked on most of them. But not the otter. She stood up to me and firmly told me that if I was quite done, I should leave.”
“She sounds almost like Segalia,” Carma remarked, ignoring her initial aghastness at the fact that his first victim had been a girl.
Sorrow streaked across his face. “Worse. Segalia, at least…” he trailed off, shaking his head.
“Knows when to stop?” Carma gently probed.
“Yeah. Anyway, as you guessed, I was rather sick of it by that point and, I don’t know, grabbed her shoulders to let her know I was serious about staying for a few more days. She fought me and,” he passed his paw over his head, “it’s kinda a blur,” he admitted.
She willed him to continue, not sure how to encourage him with words.
“She fell,” he continued after a few interminably long seconds. “She stumbled into the river and lost her balance. She probably still would’ve been fine, but there was a drop-off a little ways out.”
Pursing her face, she asked. “She’s an otter. Couldn’t she swim?”
He spread his arms helplessly. “I don’t know. She just sank under the water, a scream dying on her lips.”
Personally, Carma thought his description was a touch overdramatic, but she pushed it aside. “Then how do you know she actually died?”
“Because I looked for her.” The grief was raw in his voice. “I panicked and searched for,” he laughed mirthlessly, “what felt like a very long time.” He took a few breaths. “I finally found her caught in the roots of a tree. It was weird, though. She had a few cuts around her footpaws, like they’d caught on something, but no evidence of what really happened.”
Without even realizing it, Carma flashed into healer mode. “Was there mud on her muzzle? Were any of her limbs at odd angles? Or her rudder?”
He laughed, genuinely this time, at her questions. “I’m not really sure. It’s possible. But I tried to revive her, to no avail. Of course, it might have helped if I actually knew resuscitation techniques.”
Chuckling, she offered to teach him at a later date. “First, though, finish the story.”
“Well, as fate would have it, Slashclaw showed up at that very moment as I cradled her corpse in my arms. He had chosen not to send a letter, but to come himself, because he’s Slashclaw. “
From what she had heard of the coyote, this was a perfectly adequate explanation. “So he assumed it was an intentional murder?”
He nodded sadly as the detoured around a clump of trees. “I had no choice but to go with him. I’ve been helping him kill ever since. Well, not now of course.” Her laugh was grim. “Now you kill all by your lonesome.”
“At least now I have a choice.”
She was just starting to hunt for a more pleasant topic as they worked together to haul a fallen tree out of the middle of the path when he broke the silence. “The worst part was when she first fell and vanished, I was happy. Sometimes, I wonder if that’s what it’s like to have Bloodwrath.”
Having no idea how to respond, she weakly offered, “You could always ask Seg. Then again, didn’t Slashclaw have Bloodwrath?”
He shuddered, but she wasn’t sure whether it was from the exertion of throwing the tree off the road or from memories. “It made him go mad.” He said it so quietly she had to ask him to repeat himself. “It’s where he got his nickname.”
She had a sudden, horrible vision of a crazed hunched over Segalia, wracked with anger. Before she could either voice her concerns or change the subject, there was a sudden rustling all around them. She made to turn and was met with a spear at her throat.
A small fuzzy head popped out of the bushes. “Apple?”
Slashclaw was not sure what to make of recent events. The first few days after Omi had gone charging off on her reckless mission had been exceedingly boring. Even the return of the failed expedition party had provided only a brief respite from banality. He had spent the previous evenings lounging in a tree, scanning the festivities, and crafting bombs from nearby materials.
The morning had barely broken, however, when he had peered over the wall to discover fallen bodies scattered around the grounds. His instinctive suspicions were confirmed when his eyes scoured the lawn to land on a hedgehog pulling a body across the grass.
“Ah took ye fer a lot o’things, Malital, but a mass murder was not one o’ them.”
His voice carried well over the distance and the hedgehog dropped the body she was dragging and turned his way. “Slashclaw! How delightful it is to see you. Would you care to give me a paw?”
Settling petulantly back in his tree, he crossed his arms. “Nope! Not until ye tell me ‘zactly what ‘appened ‘ere.”
“Isn’t it clear?” When he didn’t respond, squinting at the scene below, she laughed. “I took you for a lot of things, Slashclaw, but an idiot wasn’t one of them.”
“Sorry,” his tone indicated he was anything but, “but Ah fail t’see ‘ow takin’ out all o’ the Redwallers will ‘elp ye achieve Omi’s plan o’ domination or yer plan o’ revenge. ‘Ow I see it, ye kin’t torture beasts ‘o’re already dead.”
Her laugh was hearty and bell-like, unnerving him far more than a cackle would have.
“Oh, how little you see. You’re just stuck inside your mad, mad mind.” She smiled patronizingly at him. “It’s adorable.”
Before he could retort, she extended an arm, her gesture encompassing all of Redwall Abbey and its inhabitants. “It’s quite simple. They’re not dead.” Even from this distance, he could see a playful, dangerous light dancing in her eyes. “They’re drugged.”
Now that he knew the truth, he could spot affirmations of it all over the yard: the subdued breathing, the distant, not absent eyes, the groaning from a nearby beast.
“Clearly effective. That un’s wakin’ up.”
She had only begun to turn when a rope-like object twirled through the air and wrapped itself around its victim’s head, its hard ends re-finishing the job. Malital’s eyes were suspicious, but not hard, and she merely thanked him.
He nodded in response. “So, you drug ‘em. Then what? Ye draw mustaches on their faces? Steal their food? Dump ‘em in the woods? There’re too many variables yore not considerin’.”
“Oh, I’ve got the variables covered. Don’t forget: I have quite a few tricks up my sleeve. It’s how you’re alive, I might add.” As she spoke, she rolled up her flowery sleeves and resumed moving the body.
Refusing to beg for answers or stoop to helping her, he merely stared at her, his mind racing furiously. Luckily for him, she was in a bragging mood. “There are more ways to win wars then bloodshed, Mr. Warlord.” She dumped the body near a bizarre contraption where a dozen or so other bodies had been placed. Noticing his stare, she patted the machine proudly. “This is an injector. It’s a more effective way of giving doses of drugs since it goes straight into the blood.”
“Ye kin’t possibly be thinkin’ o’ draggin’ every single Redwaller o’er there to drug ‘em.”
“Sadly, no. But I have a pocket sized one that will allow me to dose the rest.”
“Then why bring ‘em o’er there h’in the first place?”
She did not seem stumped by any of his questions. “This contains a larger amount of the drug. If I drug them here, I won’t have to continually run back and forth refilling my needle.”
“Inefficient waste o’ time ‘n energy, but carry on. It’ll be good for you.”
This time the stiffening of her spine could not be imagined and the coyote smirked. So the conniving healer did have a weak spot. Typical.
When she faced him, a bristly eyebrow was raised. “I’ve come up with a plan to mentally enslave all of Redwall and executed it single-handedly, and you think I care about my figure?”
“Course. ‘Ow else could ye keep up yer illusion?”
She waved her paw dismissively. “Ah, well. I’ll be so busy keeping up the drug doses so that the Abbey can function normally, but still not suspect anything amiss that it won’t matter, anyhow.”
He stared at her as a real smile spread across his face, exposing canines and gaps alike. Now this was his kind of plan. Ingenious, logical, but just enough crazy to make things fun. “Ye’ve got drugs that kin do that?”
His admiration evoked candidness from her. “Well, ideally. At the moment, I plan to put all but the essential beasts on a heavier dose of the drug until I get the right formula.” Neither reacted when a well-aimed projectile, again courtesy of Slashclaw, stunned another beast back into unconsciousness. Malital turned instead to inject her latest victim. “It shouldn’t take that long really, especially since I have all of the Abbey’s kitchens at my disposal.”
She scarcely flinched when he suddenly appeared at her shoulder. “So, wot ‘zactly does this drug do?”
“It makes its users very…susceptible to suggestion, shall we say.”
“Susceptible ‘nough t’, say, h’ignore the presence of a coyote ‘n let an army h’into their midst?”
“Ah ah ah.” She tsked, shaking her finger. “As I already said, an army is quite unnecessary. But yes, it could be done.”
Mind spinning with the possibilities for psychological torture lying within his grasp, the coyote cackled and snorted gleefully. Her light laugh rose to mingle with his, spiraling upwards and causing the eviction of a nearby nest in fear. Now that the two masterminds were on the same page, Redwall was only the first acquisition of the many within their reach.
“At least it’s a nice view.”
The two squirrels looked in over at their fellow captive. Between them were the bars, covered in thorns, that held them suspended above rows of deadly spikes. If one looked past the ugly, painful, depressing reality of their situation, it was possible to appreciate the splendor of the green forest surrounding their peaceful clearing.
Well, somewhat peaceful anyway.
The oasis was marred by the occasional shouts from the nearby mostly hidden soldiers waiting in an ambush. Minutes of silence would pass when suddenly an argument would break out or a soldier’s lack of stealth ability would become audibly apparent. No matter the disturbance, it would always end with Omi, generally in the form of shouted orders, occasionally given with slaps upside heads.
Ampanna was having trouble seeing past the dismalness of their situation. Her usual optimism was hindered by a thorn hidden in her bushy tail that would not come out. “H’I personally love the view o’tail prickin’ thorns and body-spearin’ spikes keepin’ me from freedom.”
“While the noise doesn’t help,” a growl, thwap, and a yelp resounded around the clearing, sending a handful of birds flying, “at least our friends will know they’re headed into an ambush before it’s too late.” The red squirrel tried to pat his girlfriend reassuringly on the shoulder but got his arm stuck between the bars separating them and had to settle for brushing her forearm instead.
“Wait, did I really just hear Ampanna complain while Naraudo agreed, but made a compromising remark? What is this world coming to?”
Naraudo stammered while Ampanna, muttering, buried her chin between her knees as she pulled on her tail fur.
Selra ignored them, choosing instead to stare at the forest. When they had quieted, she murmured, “My home is over there.” She gestured with her chin.
The fact that the fox had mentioned her home with only longing in her voice was not lost on the squirrels. The usual traces of fear, disgust, and reluctance were gone, leaving bare the simple longing of a girl for her mother. Still not willing to broach the topic, Ampanna asked in a gentler tone, “’Ow kin ye tell?”
“See through those trees over there? The gray thing? That’s the tallest point on the castle.”
Naraudo whistled in awe. “We’re this close? You could’ve been home by now.” He winced not only at his thoughtless comment but at the glare Ampanna gave him in reproof.
Selra just huddled in on herself. “Yeah, I know.” They were looking for something reassuring to say when she continued. “Rip and I always tried to climb up there, but the timbers were weak so my parents never allowed it. The closes we got was one day when we tried to get there by the roof.” She chuckled.
“One of the guards saw us and started shouting and attempting a rescue. Rip was startled enough that he slipped on the next foothold and fell.” When she saw the shock and horror on their faces, she laughed again. “We have so many roofs on that place that he didn’t have far to fall. He ended up breaking his arm, but luckily it was his right one.”
“Luckily?” Ampanna wrinkled her nose in confusion.
“Yeah, he’s left-pawed. Didn’t you know that?”
They tried to picture the black fox swordfighting or eating.
“It sounds vaguely familiar.” Naraudo ventured.
Shaking her head, she went back to staring in the direction of Marlfox Island. “After that, we had to have more guards. They promised to teach us technique with proper equipment, but what with the war, they never had time.”
“None?” Naraudo looked from the tall trees surrounding them to the spikes far below. “You don’t have any climbing skills that could get us out of here?”
This time her laugh was mirthless. “It’s going to take a lot more than climbing skills to get us out of here. Besides, you’re the squirrel. You supply them.”
“I just didn’t want you to slow us down with your lack thereof when we did escape.” He shot back.
Immediately snapping into peacekeeper mode, Ampanna put her arms out as best as she could given her bonds. “Guys, stop. We kin’t afford t’fight. Though h’it is worth discussin’ our h’escape plan.”
“Yeah, since our circumstances have improved so much since the last time we tried that.” Naraudo groused and the fox was inclined to agree with him.
Indeed, it would be difficult for their would-be rescuers to help them, much less have the captives accomplish it themselves. Their thorny cages, while technically making up one structure, were separated enough to make it near impossible for them to help each other with undo their footpaw or paw binds. If Segalia or another archer tried to simply shoot through the rope holding the cage up, both the height and inevitability of being impaled ensured their deaths. In the time it took for their friends to assess the situation and devise a plan, Omi would have them surrounded.
“We have to at least help. Have you guys had any luck cutting the ropes on the thorns?”
The squirrels shook their heads.
“I’ve broken off spikes more than anything else.”
“’Nd Ah got this fer me h’efforts.” She continued picking away at her tail.
“Here, beautiful, let me try.” Wearily accepting his offer, she let out a smile.
"What is it?"
“Well, iffen Ah know Seg, she’ll stop at nothing to get us free. Therefore, Ah h’imagine we’ll be out soon ‘nough ‘nd back on track.”
“Rip, too.” Selra looked pensive.
“Probably Lijel, too.” Ampanna hastily added with a grin.
“Yeah.” She smiled. “He wouldn’t like being forgotten.” Her smile receded. “Then we better be ready for their arrival.”
Before they could start churning over more ideas, Naraudo inquired, “Have you ever thought about Sister Howlia’s last words?” When they gave him weird looks, he hurriedly added, “It’s just, I’ve had a lot of time to think, and something about what she said sounded familiar.”
Ampanna sighed. “H’Im not sure Ah even recall wot she said.”
“Something about southern hares, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Naraudo answered the fox. “I’d come to the conclusion that the part about the mouth could’ve meant the South, too.”
Before he could further extrapolate, Selra raised a paw. “Wait, what if they decide to go to get the hares from the south before rescuing us?”
“Why would they do that?” Nobeast needed to ask who they was.
Instead, Selra saw her fears reflected on Naraudo’s face. She put her paw to her chin in thought as she answered Ampanna’s question. “Because they’ll need help. They don’t know what other tricks Omi has up her sleeve and they could use more warriors. If they think of the prophecy, they’ll probably go for it. Besides, I feel like I remember my dad talking about dealing with a group of hares to the south to secure Mossflower.”
“Like by Southsward?” Ampanna asked at the same time Naruado blurted, “Well, did he?”
“Hm? Oh no, he didn’t have time. I think it was around phase twelve of his plan and he only made it to three or four.”
She waved the question away, but the squirrels shared concerned looks. Not only had Redwall, and by extension they, been responsible for her father’s death, but they were also worried about the possibility of her mother undertaking the task of finishing her husband’s plans. From what they had heard of her, she sounded very capable.
Selra ignored them and continued talking. “I’m not sure where they were, but they might have been part of the Tall Scouts or whatever they’re called.”
“The Long Patrol?” Naraudo corrected.
“That’s it. I knew that.”
There was a pause before he grinned. “The Tall Scouts? Really?”
He took longer to tease her than Riplar would have, but she was grateful for the action nonetheless. “It makes about as much sense as the Long Patrol. What is that even supposed to mean?”
“Actually,” he put on a scholarly expression from his days in Abbey School, “the origin is—”
“Guys. H’as fascinatin’ as this is, h’iffen wot she says is true, we need t’act fast.”
“Why?” Naraudo asked, but Selra cut him off.
“Oh no.” She glanced at her paw where a thorn had pricked her when she had grasped the bar. “She’s right.”
Absent-mindedly petting Ampanna’s tail which had been left in his lap after the successful thorn extraction, Naraudo frowned. “What am I missing here? Our friends are getting help from beasts who are capable and not wiped out. It sounds better to me.”
The girls shared a mock disparaging look and smiled. Their happiness vanished, though, as they returned to the reality of their situation.
“Well, for starters, th’ ‘ares could’ve been h’attacked h’or gone rogue. They ‘aven’t been ‘eard from in a while.”
“And if something doesn’t happen soon, Omi will act. We’ll be tortured and killed and I’ll be given to my mother and Rip will be killed.”
“So,” he looked between the females, “as we were saying before, we have to act on our end?”
“Yes, but faster!”
“’Nd we’ll ‘ave t’do most o’ it.”
He stretched as much as he could with his bonds in the restricted space. “What are we waiting for then?”
“Did you come up with any great ideas in the last five minutes?” When he shook his head, Selra just stuck her chin in the air. “Well, then.”
Naraudo advised the others in getting their bound paws in front of them as he already had which eased their discomfort slightly. They were testing the strength of their cage and discussing the pros and cons of using their teeth to break it open when something crashed into the branch holding them up. The collision rattled the cage, throwing them against its thorny edges and raining shards down on them.
When the movement had stopped enough for them to regain their bearings, they looked down to find Omi grinning up at them. “Ah thought that’d get yer ‘ttention.”
“What do you want, Omi?”
“Ah jist noticed ye poking ‘round yer cage ‘nd wanted t’let ye know iffen yer mates don’t show up soon, say by—” She waved at a nearby ferret. “Colonel, wot moon is it?”
“Hm? H’it’s nearly full, marm! M’lady!”
She dismissed him with a wave of her paw. “H’excellent. H’iffen nothing ‘appens by the full moon, Ah will take care o’ ye meself. Jist somethin’ fer ye to think on while ye rest.”
As she finished confirming their worst fears, she snapped her fingers and assigned two more soldiers to a closer guard, putting one in the very tree they hung from.
“Omi!” Selra shouted before the stoat disappeared in the trees. She didn’t turn, but she did slow. The fox grasped the opportunity. “We have more friends than you could possibly know. Even if they don’t show up in time, they will show up, and they will watch me kill you with my bare paws.”
She wasn’t sure where this burst of violence came from, but it surged through her, filling her chest.
Omi punctured it with a laugh. “H’why waste yer vengeance h’on me? Yer true h’enemies are h’in the cage with ye. Ah’m jist givin’ ye the h’opp’tinity ye’ve been waitin’ fer. ‘Nd iffen ye don’t take h’it, yore h’a bigger fool than Ah thought. ‘Nd Ah’m the better daughter. They’re not yer mates.” Her laugh was dark. “Nobeast is.”
A growl echoed after her as she returned to her post. If she was mad, that was even better. Rage made for rash decisions. She laughed a laugh reminiscent of her mentor’s. This was fun.
The heat was overwhelming. The fire raged, sparked, and spattered. Its bubble of heat swelled and blended with the large remaining vestiges of heat from the set sun. If not for the necessity of food and protection, the trio might have gone without a fire. Even so, the oppressive heat of the day made them reconsider. However, the savory temptation of roasted fresh-caught fish finally won out.
The heat suited Segalia. Her anger had been simmering under her skin for the last few days since their companions had been captured. The hallucinogenic plus the speed of the attack had been enough to trigger her Bloodwrath but not enough to draw it all the way out. As a result, she had been an emotional wreck in the days since. Anger was, of course, the strongest emotion, but beneath it swirled a lust for revenge, a determination, a puzzling fear, and others that she couldn’t identify.
Her traveling companions had put up with a good deal. Even the littlest things had a chance of setting her off and once a spilled pot had resulted in minutes of uncontrollable laughter. A part of her hated it more than guys did. A part of her needed to be in control, needed to get ahold of herself, needed to interact normally, needed to not hate. But it wasn’t strong enough to calm her emotions and, instead, she was left with a degree of self-loathing she had never experienced.
The flames scorched her legs and burned her fur while she fumed. This she could endure. Her roiling thoughts and emotions were interrupted by Riplar dropping down next to her. “Hey.”
Startled as she was, she didn’t respond, nor did this surprise him. While the boys had most left her to her own devices, her proximity to the fire had definitely scared them away. He was just fortunate her Bloodwrath hadn’t kicked in enough for her to immediately attack him.
“Just wanted to see how you were. Making sure you weren’t burnt to a crisp.”
Biting back her initial snappish response, she shrugged and replaced her chin on her knees. As she tried to figure out just what she was feeling, she studied him out of the corner of her eye.
“Look,” his voice became more serious, “I know losing the others was hard. It hasn’t been easy for any of us.”
She felt a sudden pang of guilt to remember that he had, in fact, lost his twin. She managed to choke out a sorry.
He laughed. “Yeah. But it would be a lot easier to work through this if we did it together. Otherwise, we have no chance of success when we do catch up with them.”
“H’I know.” Her voice spilled from her lips raw with exhaustion before raging, “Don’t ye think Ah know that?” It fell again. “H’I’m tryin’. H’I jist…Ah don’t know ‘ow.”
“I can tell. It’s okay.”
He surprised her yet again. The response she had been expecting was further instructing, some reprimanding perhaps, a plan to fix her problems.
“So,” he fidgeted and tugged on his ear, “do you want to talk?”
Her blue eyes fought past their heavy lids to sit wide on her face. While she considered him her friend after hanging out with him the last season or so, their lack of on-on-one interaction hadn’t made them close. Yet here he was, offering the paw she needed to keep moving when he knew there was a very good chance she would break it off.
“Sure. Thanks. H’I jist,” she stared back into the flames, “H’I have Bloodwrath h’as ye know, but Ah kin’t control it. Yet.” She explained the situation as concisely as she could.
He sat quietly, murmuring appropriately. “I can’t say I know too much about Bloodwrath. But I know even talking helps.”
“H’a little.” She huddled in on herself again. “Not as much as Ah wish.”
His green eyes bore into her. “You know, you’re not the only one hurting.”
“H’I know.” She growled before trying to muster up the right tone of sympathy. “Ye lost Selra.”
“I did. But Lijel lost Ampanna. Even Naraudo.” He paused as she considered this. “And you.”
“Me?” She couldn’t help herself.
His smile was sympathetic. “Of course you. You guys are friends, grew up together. Even if you argue a lot, it’s obvious you care for each other. And while he would never show it, your shutting him out isn’t helping the guilt he already feels.”
Events from the past few days flashed before her eyes: unreasonable outbursts aimed at the other otter, staying away from him, ignoring his questions, not seeing the suppressed emotions in his eyes.
“Wait, ‘e feels guilty? Over—” Her leg fell to the dirt. “Oh. Wraltor. H’I’ve been a little ‘arsh, ‘aven’t Ah?”
“A little.” He laughed and her fists clenched to squash the irrational burst of anger. He tapped her arm gently. “Hey, you think we could move away from the fire?”
Taking a deep breath, she allowed herself to be moved back. “So, wot d’ye ‘spect me t’do ‘bout it? H’or ‘bout any o’this? Where’re we h’even ‘eaded?”
“For starters, you should apologize. But,” he held up paws to defend himself from her glare, “we’re headed southish at the moment. Based on where we think they were headed, where the island is, the poem, easiest direction.” He shrugged.
Squinting at him, she coughed at a whiff of smoke in her face. “Yore seriously considerin’ h’askin’ yer mom fer ‘elp with this?”
He spread his arms helplessly. “Well, I’m pretty sure she’d agree to that. And who knows what we’re up against? We might need more beasts.”
“But we dispersed yer dad’s army h’in the war. H’even iffen there are some left, they saw ye fightin’ h’against them. Why would they ‘elp us?”
“And that’s why we’re just headed in a southwardly direction. We haven’t really decided yet.”
Segalia couldn’t decide if she should be more annoyed at the fact that she was left out of this discussion or that she had been too annoyed at the time to be included in it. “D’ye h’even know where we are?”
He winced. “Mostly? I think I recognize it and we can always follow the sun. Do you recognize anything from your constant traveling with the holt?”
“We stayed more h’in the north.” She said, but inside she was berating herself. Technically, she had lived here longer than he had. She should know where they were.
“Anyway,” he hurried to distract her from her destructive thoughts, “if I’m right, there should be settlements close by that we can ask to double-check our position. Even if I’m wrong, there have to be other beasts around here somewhere. We’ll figure it out. Now,” his look was calculating, “do you want to talk to Lijel?”
“’Nd say wot?” Her fist pounded into the dirt. All her past teachings told her that she should apologize, but her pride was stubborn. In truth, she was also afraid of his reaction. Would he forgive her? And why shouldn’t he apologize himself? She still felt that he was partially in the wrong.
Riplar had other thoughts on the matter. “Go over to him, offer to fight, then let him win.” At her confused look, he replied, “What? That’s how we always used to settle our arguments. And if we were still mad, we got it out in fighting.”
“Lucky ducks. We h’always used t’ave t’sit ‘nd list all we were sorry fer, ‘nd then give them a trinket.”
His voice was contemplative under its amusement. “Maybe there are some things ‘vermin’ are better at after all.”
“H’I think there might be more than a few.” She put her paw heavily on his shoulder. “Thanks, Rip.”
“No problem, Seg.” He groaned as she lifted herself to her footpaws using his shoulder.
“Oh, Ah s’pose Ah need t’borrow yer sword.”
“So demanding.” He teased. Her eyes flashed then she grinned ruefully as she took the proffered weapon and bowed in return.
“H’I guess Ah’ll…” she waved in the direction of Lijel whose footpaws could be seen dangling from a tree.
He nodded. “Good luck.”
After running through a few moves with the sword, both to calm herself and to make sure her skills weren’t rusty, she walked boldly to the tree. “Lijel?” She called up.
“D’ye want t’swordfight?”
“’Nd let ye cut me ‘ead off? No thanks.”
Instead of replying, she swung the sword at the tree with a satisfying thunk.
“’Ey, stop it. Ye know that’s bad fer the sword.”
She swung again.
“Yore goin’ t’ave t’resharpen that sword after killin’ this tree.”
A stab proved to be less effective sound wise, so she yanked the weapon from the tree and hacked at it a third time.
“D’ye want me to come down there?!”
Her grin was mischievous. “Yes, actually.”
A grumble was the only reply.
“H’I promise Ah’ll try not t’kill ye.”
“Shouldn’t we be settin’ up watches ‘nd gettin’ sleep?”
She hesitated. “Then a short battle.”
From his silence, she could tell that he still didn’t trust her. That was understandable. She still didn’t trust herself. Trying to pump her apologetic feelings into the word, she asked, “Please?”
He continued to be quiet and she was fighting the violent urge to yank him down by his footpaws, when all of a sudden, there was a rustle and he fell practically on top of her. His grin at her surprise disappeared when he realized that she had cut him with her borrowed sword. It was back in full force when he went to pick up his own sword from his bag. “H’I’ll get ye fer that.”
Then there was a loud cry of “Eulalia!” and thuds of a dozen powerful footpaws. Swords flashed, the fire was doused, and beasts were everywhere. Paws grabbed at Segalia and her anger raged up again. She couldn’t see her companions or her attackers, but she would not stand for this. Lashing out, she blinked through the blurry streaks of red in her vision. If only they would join together for a full red mist! Her violent kick to the side was caught and even her violent flurry of punches and elbows were not enough to release it. Instead, a blow to her head blurred her senses, allowing her arms to be caught behind her.
Her last clear thought was, “Wot a lousy bunch o’ rescuers we are, iffen we let ourselves be caught.”
The laundry had to be done. The mound of stylish clothes, some practical, some decidedly not, that she had placed gingerly on a bench was only one of many sprawling mounds of uniforms, and spare tunics in the room.
Oxos sighed. One would think that after losing the bulk of clothes-wearing beasts, the laundry loads would diminish. Unfortunately, this also meant that the majority of beasts who usually attended to such menial tasks had been spread thin to maintain the numerous other tasks required for the upkeep of a castle.
She had no time for this. “Maid!”
Unlike this time a season or two before, when the exclamation would have heralded a cacophony of noise from around the stone fortress, only the hum of insects outside the window graced her ears. Taking a deep breath, both to calm herself and fill her lungs, she was about to sound off again when a subtle patter made her ears twitch.
Less than a minute later, a rat/mouse hybrid trotted wearily through the doorway and curtsied. “Yes, yer majesty?” The product of a slave/soldier union, the maiden had few defects to show for her interspecies heritage. That is, except for her ridiculously large tail and ears.
“Roseear. The laundry must be done.” The foxlady strode towards the door brushing past the maidwith nary a glance.
“Wait, yer ‘ighness! If I ‘ave t’do it all today, I won’t get done ‘fore midnight.”
“Then get somebeast else to help you.” The situation was getting ridiculous if her workers, albeit not slaves, thought they could question her orders.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, but there is no ‘un else. They’re all patrollin’ or trainin’ or cookin’ or cleanin’ or gardenin’. I just jist got off dish duty meself.”
The Queen considered the maid. Her resources had indeed been stretched thin by the defeat of her husband’s army. What was that saying? If something done you want, yourself you must do? After all, she wasn’t in the lap of luxury anymore.
She couldn’t believe she was even considering this. She was a queen, a Warlady. She had spent too much of her time climbing to the top. She couldn’t be expected to—
She was also pragmatic. If needed, she could kill a beast and get her hands dirty, so if needed, she could do laundry. She rolled up her sleeves, reveling internally only slightly over the stunned look she received. “Let’s get to it.”
The hot job did go quicker with more than one beast, but Oxos wasn’t exactly great company. Not only was she rusty at laundry, but she was often distracted by handling supply reports, schedules, and more.
“Wow, it sure takes a lot to run a castle, don’t it, yer majesty?”
The fox was also fairly noncommunicative.
When the task had finished, long before midnight, but far after Oxos had hoped, she headed straight to work, ignoring the shy thank you in her wake. She stopped by the infirmary on her way to the throne room. It was not a social call. Malrua, the wolverine who had advised her husband for years had survived the devastating battle the season before. It was through her that Oxos knew much of what had occurred: how the war machine had wreaked havoc before Rori, Slashclaw’s slave, had destroyed it (she had never trusted the woodlander), how they had had the advantage and even breached the wall until their leaders had started falling, including her husband at the paws of a puny vole. Her own children Malrua claimed to have seen once or twice, with Selra even rescuing her, but she could not vouch for their survival. Oxos presumed them to be dead.
The wolverine herself had sustained extensive injuries and only survived due to her sturdy genetics. Now the foxlady visited to gather more information and learn how to exploit the Abbey’s weaknesses when she had a chance. Of course, she was more realistic than her husband and if none could be found, she was quite willing to take over somewhere else. She needed to act soon to get her forces up, otherwise she was left defenseless, particularly if the Redwall creatures decided to finish eliminating them. The reports of the war were quite brutal.
“How is she?” The weasel hustled around, dropping a quick bow. “Much better, your majesty. Should be walking on her own quite soon.”
“Excellent.” Her claws clicked on the floor as she drifted past.
“Your highness.” Malrua nodded her head. “Before we start, have you ever considered not fighting?
This stopped her in her tracks. Not fighting had never occurred to her. It was in her blood. She had the ability to assassinate leaders and take over lands. If she didn’t, she would be a failure. “Because I must.” Her tone allowed no argument. “Now, where can I go to recruit beasts?”
By the time she left, they had outline four plans to gain more beasts and scout out targets. She glanced out a window; the moon was high in the sky. What could she finish before she went to bed? Or should she go to bed at all? Sleep was for the weak. She ordered a squirrel to bring food to her throne room.
She pulled out her husband’s old schematics at her throne desk. They were good, to be sure, but time had given her the ability to see the holes where it had been exploited. There were still plenty of ideas that could be used to reinforce these plans, some that her husband had been reluctant to use due to their extreme nature. She had no such qualms.
The sudden burst of the double doors made her sit up, slamming her paws on the papers. “What?” She got no further as her words caught painfully in her throat. Maintaining a hard look, she tried to control her sudden internal turmoil. How dare she?
Before her, stood a smug stoatmaid that seemed vaguely familiar. She was thronged by dirty mongrels bearing assorted arms. Most importantly, however, was the figure on the floor in front of the mini army. The red and gray mottled fur was further distorted by caked blood and dirt and was strewn with open wounds. Even now, a cut on the forearm dipped blood on the rock floor while the other arm was pressed hard into a gaping tattered slash across the torso.
It was a wonder the creature could even move, much less speak, but that’s what it did, compounding what Oxos already knew. The blue eyes, one closed with blood, looked up at her, emptied of tears, and full of relief, fear, and exhaustion. “Hi, Mommy.”
Only years of training allowed her to keep a neutral, even uninterested look on her face. She even managed to calm her heartbeat within a couple of breaths. “What do you want? It’s late at night.”
“Queen Oxos,” the stoatmaid curtsied insincerely. “We came in ‘ope o’ collectin’ a reward for deliverin’ yer daughter.”
Light seemed to catch in the blue eye. She ignored them, steepling her paws together. “I don’t remember offering a reward.”
As Omi realized that her quest might not be as rewarding as she had hoped, either financially or sadistically, she scrambled to recuperate. “Look, yer majesty. What you do with ‘er is up to you. Kill ‘er, h’abandon ‘er, keep ‘er, it doesn’t matter to me. I jist assumed, due to yer lovin’ relationship, that you’d be grateful for news of her.”
The bundle in the middle of the floor trembled, spattering blood all over the rough stones. Thinking idly that she would have to pull someone away from another duty to clean it up, the queen clasped her paws. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. My husband was the loving one. I am more ruthless than he could ever dream.” She examined her claws, flicking away traces of dirt. “I presume you found her in that condition?”
While the transition seemed abrupt, Omi knew she had to tread carefully. “Naturally, my queen. She was hidin’ in a cave a little ways away from the Abbey. She ‘ad recently escaped and was on the verge of death, so we brought ‘er ‘ere straight’way.” “You’re saying they did this to her?” She shot to her footpaws and, to disguise her fierce protective maternal instinct, walked over to kneel in front of her daughter. It was worse up close. The wounds were gaping and only partially closed over. The smell was atrocious, the recently dried blood and unwashed body scents filling her nostrils.
The mix of emotions dimmed from the partially opened eye temporarily before rushing back and threatening to spill over in tears. “Mommy.” Her voice was pitiful and weak. Her throat might have been targeted in the torture.
A derisive snort from the stoatmaid reminded the fox more than ever that she could not afford to lose her composure. She twitched her one ear back, hoping her daughter would remember the signal. “So, Omi, why were you near the Abbey with your vagabond crew?”
“I, uh,” the foxlady might have been one of her father’s commanding officers, but she had no idea how much she could trust her. “Revenge.”
Oxos straightened up. “Against Redwall?”
Her eyes flashed. “Against the murderous seadog scum who murdered my da.”
“I presume you are not alone in this endeavor?” When the stoat gestured at the silent warriors gathered behind her, she waved her paw. “Please, I am not a fool.” A grin winked in the corner of Omi’s mouth. “Your grammar is much improved and you’ve picked up the ability to lead a band. Somebeast else is helping you.”
She was good. Selra looked up at her towering mother with as much interest as she could muster. Omi conceded with a sigh while her underlings looked on with interest. “Slashclaw’s helpin’ me.”
“And? He certainly didn’t improve your speech.”
“Malital Walthers. She also wants revenge against Redwall. I left Slashclaw with her because I don’t trust ‘er.”
The queen’s smile took everyone by surprise. “It is good to see you again. But it is late and you’ve travelled far. I wish to hear about your plans regarding Redwall in the morning.” She turned to the door and summoned a maid. “Don’t try to leave or anything else during the night. You know how it goes.” She flashed her canines in a thin smile.
Taken aback, Omi could only stammer, “Yes, yer majesty. And my ransom?”
“In the morning,” the queen responded over her shoulder before leaning down to give orders to the maid. “These guests need chambers. Conserve as much as possible but do not appear stingy. And remember the rules for guests?”
The squirrel winked at her. “Never trust them. Be polite, but be armed at all times.”
“Excellent.” Turning back, she projected her voice across the throne room. “She will take you to your rooms now.” When a burly pair of ferrets reached towards a cringing Selra, she held up her paw. “I’ll get someone to take care of her, thank you.”
Not until she was certain that all beasts in the vicinity were out of hearing, did she approach the heap on the floor. Selra’s face, when gently lifted, was stony, betrayed only by the trembling of her jaw. “Oh, sweetheart, come here.”
The foxmaid needed no further bidding to crumple into her mother’s arms. “Ow.”
“Let me look at you.” Still gingerly holding her child, Oxos ran a light paw over her injuries, separating tufts of fur to examine rope burns on her wrists. “We need to get you cleaned up.”
Before she could move, Selra’s rusty voice stopped her. “I thought you no longer loved me. I thought—” She couldn’t speak any longer as she broke into silent sobs that were only exemplified as they ripped her torso open.
Her own face filled with tenderness, sadness, and anger. “Never, my little Arrow, never.” Rocking her damaged child in the middle of the stone floor, Oxos vowed vengeance.
The first time Paldra woke up, there was a hideous beast leering over her. As soon as she gasped, however, it vanished and Dubya was there, soothing her fears.
She felt a prick from the hedgehog’s spikes as she brushed her arm reassuringly. “Go back to sleep.”
Seeing no harm in it, she complied. She thought she remembered being lifted, seeing parts of the Abbey drift by, but it was all a blur. She did recall feeling exhausted, yet like she’d slept for days when she seemingly woke up from drifting off in a daydream during a meeting about Abbey affairs with Dubya.
“And that will be fine with you?”
The walls spun, shining with psychedelic colors. “I’m sorry. What were we discussing?” She coughed; her throat was dry.
“The policy regarding vermin. I had a few guests who wanted to visit here. Seeing how you felt about the foxes I’ve heard about, I figured you’d be fine.”
Was that a flower blooming from the wall? “Certainly. I trust your judgment on their characters. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really must lie down. I feel positively--” She stopped abruptly, left staring at her paw.
Another meeting had her giving over control to the records since, for some reason, Howlia was unavailable. At the back of her mind, she wondered about Joncho, but she was sure he was handling things. Just until she snapped out of whatever this was. Did Dryditch involve this sheer exhaustion?
When she woke up long enough to register that she was in her bed (hadn’t she just been in her office?), an argument outside her door made her fight the urge to go back to sleep. Her initial thought was that it was the pair of otters who were also arguing. Were the questers back? What had happened on their quest? What season was it?
She tried to sit up and then stopped as the first voice registered. “-what we came for. Let’s leave! They’ll die in this state anyway, so boom, problem solved.”
She froze in her shaky efforts to raise herself. A snort from the unrecognized voice was cut off by a smooth familiar voice. “True, but this was never just about a few trinkets. My purpose has not yet been fulfilled. Don’t you see, dearie? This is about revenge, about not only obliterating Redwall, but tarnishing their reputation so fiercely that no one will remember anything good about them. And there will be no one left to reestablish it.”
Paldra’s heart beat so fast in her chest that she could barely concentrate on the next few words. What did this madbeast plan to do? Al the Dibbuns and her friends and creatures who had spent their entire lives here, obliterated? How? Why? She had to get Joncho. Now.
“Ah like that h’idear,” the first voice graveled. “But ‘ow d’you plan t’do that? ‘Nd wot ‘bout their allies?”
“Honey, what allies? Salamandastron won’t know what happened until long after the damage has passed. And then who’s left? The main strongholds in any direction for days are those who would celebrate Redwall’s downfall with us. Any small woodlander holdouts came to live at the Abbey during the war in the spring. They have no one.”
The mouse tried to slip quickly and quietly out of her sheets, but her movements were clumsy, and she kept getting tangled.
With a derisive snort this time, the deeper, possibly male, voice growled. “’Nd where were they durin’ the war h’in the spring? Those other warlords?”
“Allies can be suicide—”
“Wotever. Wot about the shrews h’or other h’otter tribes?”
“Last I heard, the Guosim were quite a distance north. How are they supposed to hear? Trust me, sweetie, I have this all figured out.”
A low rumble was interrupted by Paldra’s unceremonious tumble from the bed as her torso moved but her footpaws got caught.
In a flash, Dubya and the hideous creature from earlier were both in the room. “It looks like it’s time for Miss Abbess’ next dose.”
Paldra struggled, but her blankets got even tighter, constricting her breathing. She watched, eyes wide, as the hedgehog nonchalantly took an odd liquid-filled needle out of her dress pocket and leaned towards her. Joncho had been right and she had completely doubted him! Oh, where was he when she needed him? How could she have trusted the conniving beast in front of her? All the signs that she had ignored because she had had faith for the best. Despite her efforts, she felt a sharp prick in her neck. “Ow,” she whimpered.
Wait. Why had she thought it was Dubya in front of her? The hedgehog was her friend. This was…her blurry focused. Grovelum? But he was dead! How did the fox warlord get in the Abbey? She scrambled for the frying pan on her dressing table, her movements even more sluggish than before.
“Wot’s wrong with ‘er?”
A surprisingly feminine voice came out of Grovelum’s muzzle. “This is a slightly different ratio, a stronger hallucinogenic. She probably imagines me as one of her worst nightmares.”
All of a sudden, they were no longer in the Redwall room, but in the far-off land of her home. She was a child, around a dozen seasons, and her father was dragging her kicking and screaming away from her friends. Away from one of the only lives she had ever known. Pain blossomed in her chest and tears jumped to follow gravity’s will. She banged her fists against the surprisingly hard grass. “No! NO! I won’t leave! Papa, no!”
“As fascinating and educational as this is,” her best friend said in a significantly altered voice, “I’m sure I have to redose the rest of the Abbey now.”
Her first crush blinked back tears as a horrid laugh came out instead of his voice. “Quite a sight, ain’t it? Now, wot kin Ah do?”
The voices drifted away, but the onslaught of memories stayed. She didn’t even know when they changed from visions to full on nightmares. The next time she woke up to find a dagger plunging towards her chest, her throat was too hoarse to even croak.
As soon as the head had popped out of the bushes, proffering fruit, Rori had pulled his axe off his back, flipped it appropriately in his paw, and gestured for Carma to take the other side if necessary. His companion, however, was faster. When he glanced over to make sure Carma was in agreement, she had reached into the bushes and pulled the fuzzy creature out by the tail.
“Longear,” she addressed the squirming creature conversationally. “Let your compatriots know that if they proceed with their ambush, I will not hesitate to rip your tail off.”
“Stop!” The beast was still too busy moving for Rori to identify its species, but its voice had a bizarre squeaky timbre. “Guys, come out! It’s Snarma!”
Rori was hesitant to lower his axe as an amused scowl spread across Carma’s face, the likes of which he typically saw between Selra and Riplar or Segalia and Lijel.
“Aw, come on.” A host of the beasts spilled out of the bushes and swung out of the surrounding trees, leaving dozens of green leaves billowing in their wake. With their tattered headbands and increased numbers, Rori saw that they were, in fact, shrews. “You ruined our fun.”
Grinning, Carma, let her captive go to land flat on his head. “My pleasure.”
“Ow! Jerk! Blood-faced mudfur.” He growled, rubbing his head.
“Good to see you, too. Where’s Log-a-log Lior? What’re you doing up here?”
“Well, after we tried to help your Royal Highnesses with the war in the spring, we decided to scout our prospects up this way. Log-a-log’s at camp.” A scruffy female jerked her thumb over her shoulder and looked over at him. “Who’s this scrub?”
Seeing no immediate threat, Rori holstered his weapon. “I’m Rori.” What was the polite form of greeting with shrews? Tugging ears or bowing with your tail or baring your teeth? Give him almost any other species, and he would have a wealth of knowledge, but the Guosim were not a group that he and Slashclaw had often encountered on their trips.
He didn’t have the chance to try a greeting because she raised an eyebrow at him. “Rori? Isn’t that a girl’s name?”
“What?” Before he could process the question, the other shrews leapt on it.
“Of course not. It’s short for like…like—”
“That’s my cousin’s name!”
“Totally a girl’s name.”
“Rorian! Or…or Lorelai?”
“Idjit! That’s a girl’s name!”
“Maybe it’s a girl’s and boy’s name!”
Pressing his fist to his forehead, Rori understood Carma’s earlier comment about shrews being jerks. At the moment, they were mainly annoying him with their volume, but their clear lack of tact could make them cross boundaries with an energetic bound in no time.
Carma glanced over and saw his expression. “Hey!” She shouted to no avail. “Hey!” She tried again with a few claps of her large paws.
Catching her drift, Rori put two fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle.
While the majority of the shrews froze mid-argument, two, Rori noticed one of them was the one Carma had captured at their meeting, kept fighting.
Taking what she could get, Carma ignored them and addressed the others. “Thank you. Now, is there any useful information you can give us? If not, we’ll be on our way.”
This only prompted further argument.
“There’s an apple orchard that way.”
“She doesn’t care about that, dummy!”
“Well, it’s not like we know anything else!”
“What about the badger village that way?”
“Why is that important?”
“They’re badgers, duh.”
“I think important means like vermin in the area.”
“Well there aren’t any. They’ve been unnaturally silent.”
“They’re just scared of us!”
“Us, yeah. Not you.”
“Excuse me? Who beat you the other day? Who can do it again?”
“Her, not you, knucklehead! But we can go now if you want!”
Carma stepped in before the altercation got violent while Rori hung back, eyes wide, eyebrows drawn. “Ugh, this is why—never mind. Go back to the badger village. What can you tell us about that?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“What do you have?”
A slap sounded from the middle of the crowd. “She doesn’t need to pay us, idjit. Just help her out.”
“But I don’t know anything!”
“Then who does?”
For a too short, peaceful second, there was peace as the shrews tried to figure out who among them knew anything about the badger village. Then chaos broke out as they all volunteered names.
“Take us to them.” No response. “Take us--” Before she ruined her voice trying to shout above the noise, Carma looked over at Rori. Waving a paw forward, she asked, “Would you care to do the honors?”
Repeating his performance from earlier, he let out another sharp whistle, calming the tumult.
When a dozen or so intent pairs of eyes swiveled his way, he held out his hands peaceably. Something about this situation felt remarkably akin to dealing with Slashclaw on his off days. “Can you please take us to whoever has information about the badger village?”
“Why do you need to know, Mr. Nosypants?”
“He was just asking a question.” Carma rolled her eyes.
In a way, since he was trying to make a good impression on the shrews, he had more patience. Carma, on the other hand, due to her experience, had given up trying to be polite with the shrews a long time before. “We’re trying to travel to a badger village around here.”
“Well, why didn’t you just say so in the first place?”
He stared at the speaker, flabbergasted with irritation, and amusement rumbled through the shrews. In response, he put his fist back to his forehead. “Carma?”
She laughed at him, gently, and started moving in the direction that the shrew had gestured earlier to indicate their camp. The shrews followed, now debating on the quickest way back to the camp.
As he brought up the rear, Rori realized that he had a small companion. “Um, hi.”
The shrew stared quietly up at him. “Why do you carry an axe?”
“Because the axe is my preferred weapon.”
“Uh, because I like the power it gives me and the medium range.”
“So, I don’t have to get dangerously close to an opponent, but I don’t become useless if I’m not 50 taillengths away.”
He glanced down at her tail. “Uh, sure. Maybe a little farther.”
“Okay.” Silence for a second, then, “Why?”
His head spun. “Why what?”
“Why would somebeast be useless if they weren’t 50 taillengths away?”
“Because, if, I don’t know, they were an archer or something, they wouldn’t be able to get the right range or power.”
Was this the precursor to being annoying and arguing all the time? Being annoying and asking questions all the time?
“I don’t know! I’m not an archer!” In fact, he had a feeling that the two passionate archers he did not might have a few choice words for him after his last few statements.
He breathed in deeply, his fist retreating back to his forehead. “Because I prefer the axe.”
“We’re going in circles.”
Suddenly, overcome with the situation and choosing amusement over irritation, Rori laughed.
Taking her cue from him, the young shrew giggled, alternating between convulsing and staring up at him with shining eyes. Then, as if that had been her mission the whole time, she ran off to join a pair of shrews up ahead.
He looked after her, wondering how Carma, or even Ampanna, did it. He was not cut out to care for younger beasts. All of a sudden, he flashed back to many seasons before when he had first met the twins. Then, his season of superior age had actually mattered and he had found himself at a loss of what to do with these tottering, giggling fox cubs.
He groaned at the memory and was startled by a laugh at his side. Carma had abandoned the leaders at the front to check on him. “Not a huge fan?”
“Not particularly. If we have kids, you’re taking care of them.” Laughing drily, he cut off in seconds as soon as he realized what he had said. “Oh my goodness, that’s not what I meant!”
Blushing though she was, she tried to laugh it off. “It’s okay. I’d be happy, too.”
She looked like she was about to say something else, but the words didn’t come as they entered the Guosim camp.
The scene was hectic, shrews rushing back and forth between tents, campfires, and logs covered with food. Savory smells were drifting from the pots bubbling on the fires, only to be marred as an acrid smell wafted through the pleasant mixture.
“Edvic!” The sound cut through the hustle and the bustle.
A squat shrew cutting vegetables at a log looked up. “You called?” Suddenly, he realized that the burning was coming from his overflowing pot. “Oh, Mother Nature, no!” He stood, gathering his dingy apron around him, and dashing over. In his exit, he knocked several carrots off the log and the short dagger he had been using teetered dangerously on the edge, before the long-suffering shrew beside his station reached over and halted its journey before it started.
A chuckle from beside the two badgers made both of them reach for their weapons. Rori’s took longer to return to his side as he reminded himself that these were Carma’s friends. Or, at least acquaintances. The sound had emerged from a shrew with a long nose that come up next to them without either warrior noticing which did not fail to alarm Rori.
“Poor Edvic. He can never keep track of everything he has to do. But he is one of our best cooks.”
“Log-a-log Lior! It’s good to see you again.” Carma respectfully inclined her head.
“Carma! Who’s your mate?”
“This is Rori.” She turned to him. “Rori, this is Log-a-log Lior.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
“You too. Are you staying for grub?”
Not eager to put up with more of the Guosim than he had to, Rori started to respectfully decline. “Thank you, sir, but we were hoping—”
“If that’s an invitation, then certainly!” Carma shot him a look to quiet him. “Trust me,” she muttered under her breath.
Nodding slightly, he wondered when he had lost the ability to tolerate annoying creatures. Goodness knows that Slashclaw had made him endure some very unpleasant characters throughout the years. Or maybe he had gotten used to exercising freedom of choice now that he wasn’t a servant.
He was removed from his introspection by Carma tapping him to direct him over to the logs where the food preparation had been replaced by rough wood dishes. How had the morning gone by so fast? Taking his cue from Carma, he followed her to grab a dish and jump in a hastily forming line. He wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a bowl or a plate. A shrew came up to Carma, having recognized her, and started a conversation. Rori drifted between eavesdropping and dazing off until he reached a pot.
“What? Oh.” He handed over the bowl to the shrew who took it, slopped a glob of savory-smelling soup in with a makeshift ladle, then handed it back. “Next.”
Rori peered at the food hesitantly and started to make his way back to the log. He turned when Carma called his name. “C’mon, you can’t forget the duff!”
Laughing, she tugged his arm and dragged him to another quickly forming line. Once they got to this pot, a lump of dough that resembled dirty snow too closely for his liking was deposited in his bowl. When they arrived back at the log, there was already a frenzy going on as the shrews dived into their food.
Noticing that he was looking around at the chaos, a lost expression hiding on the fringes of his expression, Carma elbowed him gently. He turned to her and she wondered idly when they had gotten so touchy. “There aren’t any utensils. You’re supposed to take some duff,” she demonstrated, pinching some between her fingers, “And use it to scoop up the skilly,” She did so and plopped it in her mouth. “Just like that.”
He followed suit and chewed slowly. His eyes widened slightly. “Wow, this is really good.” There was a hint of seafood, mixed with a hearty dose of potatoes and other vegetables, with just enough spices to give it a zing.
“Yep. Good ol’ shrew Skilly ‘n’ Duff.”
He laughed as he scooped some more into his mouth. “Well forgive me if I was hesitant. I’ve had a searat variation before that was decidedly not good.”
She grinned. “I told you to trust me.”
Good food is a great oiler of joints in the machine of friendships, particularly when it is starting, and Rori soon found himself falling into conversation with the shrews close to them. When they weren’t arguing, they were actually very interesting conversationalists. Of course, the meal was not without dispute and several instances involved flying food. The food also kept flowing into dishes and after a suitable portion of the meal had passed, they switched over to a dessert skilly ‘n’ duff which had more nuts and berries to accompany a sweet pastry.
“Was that not one of the best meals you’ve had?” Carma asked as they cleared their bowls.
“Well,” he considered this. “Redwall, of course, has some great meals. But there was one meal I had, on the north coast with a gang that Slashclaw was helping, that is still one of the best I’ve had. They had this particular mixture of spices, seaweed, and fish that was just,” he closed his eyes as the memory came back, “so good.”
“If it’s that good, you should try and make it for me sometime.”
Rolling his eyes, he grinned. “I’ll see what I can do.”
After Carma made sure that there was nothing else that required their assistance, they headed over to the Log-a-log to bid their farewell.
“Thank you for letting us stay for lunch. The food was delicious, as always.”
“Yes, thank you.” Rori chimed in.
“But now, we should really be on our way, so if you could give us directions to this badger village, we’ll stop bothering you.”
“My pleasure.” The shrew beamed, the action causing his long nose to bounce up and down. “Guosim!” He shouted. “Break camp! Assemble in five minutes!”
The badgers stared at him as pandemonium erupted all over the leafy clearing. “Log-a-log,” Carma protested over the noise, “we just need directions or maybe a few scouts.” She paused to consider alternatives. “Or were you already planning on leaving?”
“We can accompany you, no problem.” He waved her concerns aside. “We Guosim don’t like to stay in one place for too long, anyhow.”
The camp was taken down in record time, with nary a trace left of their presence. Upon further inspection, Rori noticed that it had been specifically manufactured to suggest the presence of a far smaller group of beasts, making their passage more inconspicuous. Not a bad plan.
Then they were off. A few shrews started belting out several ditties veritably simultaneously, but Lior enforced order by picking one and singing it louder than the others until the rest of the Guosim joined in.
“At least we don’t have to worry about anybeast attacking this raucous bunch.”
Before Carma got the chance to answer, a shrew piped up beside him. “And we’re fierce warriors.”
Stifling a laugh at his fleeting glance of irritation, she nodded. “That is true. Though I can’t speak for this one personally.”
After the shrew and Carma stuck their tongues out at each other, the former skipped off to join her friends. Carma let her face deflate as she watched her leave. “To be honest,” she looked around to make sure they were relatively private, “I’m more concerned with what we’ll find when we get there.” Seeing his confused look, she elaborated. “I never got along well with my extended family. I just,” she shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“Whatever happens,” he placed a heavy comforting paw on her shoulder, “I’ll be there.”
She sent a small smile in his direction. “I know. Thanks.” Her expression was transformed as it lit up a few minutes later and she began clapping to the song. “Hey, I know this one! Sing along!”
Grudgingly smiling, Rori listened to the words before belting along in a slightly off-key baritone. Who knew what awaited them in the badger village? He would enjoy this relative peace while he could.
The crow circled lazily, feeling the warm sun glimmering on its wings as slight currents buffeted it on its course. There was no indication of movement from the target that it was approaching ever nearer. It had been watching the clearing on and off for several days and it seemed that it was now safe to approach.
In anticipation of its upcoming meal, the crow thought back to the last times it had visited. At one point, there had been three beasts hanging in a cage. Then there had been screams so loud and terrible that all the other birds in the area had fled. When the crow had made its way back, after the sound had quieted to a barely audible whimper, it had been just in time to see the two with the bushy tails strung up, shot, and left for dead, while a bloodied bundle had been dragged away by the small army.
Now, it hoped that the suspended bodies had been ripened enough in the summer’s sun to make for tasty eating. With one last circle, it landed gently on the stick protruding from the gray one’s skull, flapping its wings to dislodge bugs and slow its descent.
As soon as it fully put its weight on the stick, a sound came out of the body so loud that it bounced around the clearing, shocking the crow into flying away fast. It would search for food elsewhere.
Though it was piercing in its volume, the yell was also very short, leaving the squirrel panting heavily and painfully in her harness. When Omi’s army had tied them up to watch Selra’s torture, the soldiers had bound the upper part of the legs to their torsos so tightly, it was hard to know if there was any circulation to their lower legs. Breathing was also very difficult. However, these matters were trivial considering the fact that they were supposed to be dead.
Omi had no other intentions; she had made that very clear. Ampanna had been shot in the eye. Naraudo had been shot in the heart. So how were they alive? The yank on the arrow in her eye had been enough to jolt Ampanna out of unconsciousness, but she wasn’t sure what the status of her companion was.
Pain squeezed her body as more of her nerves came back online, streaming through her chest and legs and radiating from her eye. Gasping sharply, she tried to control her breathing in a vain attempt to control the pain. One thing was clear: they had to get down.
As she tried to remember what had happened, she had a sudden flash. She and Naraudo had died with their tails touching since that was their only body parts that could cross the gap between them and touch. Or not die as it turned out. When she tried to lift her tail to see if she could reach his body hanging beside her, she was alarmed to get no response. Her tail refused to move. Was it still there? Had they removed it in one last act of savagery?
A small part of her that sounded oddly like Segalia commented wryly on how concerned she was that her tail was missing when there were more important things at stake; namely, their survival. The littlest of smiles crept past her pain; the fact couldn’t be ignored that a “tail’s ‘por’ant part ‘o squiggle ‘namoty”. Any happiness evoked from the memory that now seemed so distant as a breeze fluttered through the clearing. It danced around her body, pressuring the arrow in her eye, and rubbing the ropes along their raw, familiar paths.
Her squeak of pain seemed to summon a response from her companion. “Ampanna?”
“Yes?” Her tone immediately filled with concern and compassion as she attempted to look over at him. She immediately regretted her action as the pain in her eye flared. Having him hanging on her left side while the arrow rested in her left eye made it near impossible to look at him. The sometimes surprising thing about Ampanna, however, was that she didn’t understand impossible.
Taking inspiration from the breeze, she rocked her body back and forth with as much momentum as she could muster. Since she couldn’t let the pain of movement overwhelm her consciousness, this was not substantial. Luckily, she didn’t need more than substantial at the moment. Her rope swayed and twisted and then she was facing him.
Blood had crusted around his shoulder and chest where an arrow still protruded. His eyes widened as he took in her damage. Then his two eyes met her working one and warmth filled her chest, temporarily blocking out the pain.
“You’re alive.” The words spilled out of their mouths simultaneously and a grin threatened to fight past her pain in relief. The resulting pain as her eyes contracted, however, quickly halted any such facial celebrations.
As thick as he could sometimes be, Naraudo was in tune to Ampanna’s reactions after a season together. “Honey, we have to get that looked at.”
“We ‘ave to get yers looked at, too.” She attempted to nod in the direction of his own protuberance and then decided that any head movement was a bad idea, period. Tightening her mouth into a short line, she squelched the pain. “First, we have to get down. How do we get down?”
“Uh.” Using the greater range of motion that his relatively unscathed head maintained, Naraudo examined their situation.
They dangled from the same tree from which they had previously been in a cage. Similarly, they couldn’t swing far enough to reach the tree, particularly not in their incapacitated state, nor could they reach up far enough to touch the branch. And, of course, if they did somehow manage to escape their bonds, the spikes still remained below them. He peered at the spikes. They appeared to be an assortment of rocks honed by wind, termite mounds, and stakes sharpened and secured by their captors. Was that a possible means of escape? Was anything a possible means of escape?
Another breeze ruffled the leaves, allowing sunlight to fall through and glint off something on the ground. One of Omi’s underlings— he couldn’t identify the species with the pain pounding from his shoulder and seeping through his head and the rest of his body—had been taken out, apparently permanently, by the trio’s resistance when they had removed them from their cage. Their fighting had been ultimately futile, but Naraudo felt a fierce spark of pride for being able to leave a mark on Omi’s army. The sun had reflected off a blade that apparently the other vermin had overlooked in the fascination of watching Omi torture Selra.
A different fire, one of rage, ignited in his chest, right under the pain blazing from his shoulder, but he ignored it. For now. There would be time for revenge later. “Well, there’s a weapon we could use if we manage to get it.”
Ampanna thought better of moving to look and grunted. “H’I’ll take yer word for it. Now ‘ow would we get it?” Each word physically hurt to get out as pain throbbed through her head, suffocated her body. But talking helped her focus on something else, helped her work towards escaping some of it. She worked her jaw. It was still raw from wearing a gag for so many days. The only reason it wasn’t on now was because Omi had wanted to hear to hear their reactions to Selra’s torture. They had had no option but to eventually give in. The pain of reliving the blood, the blows, the screams, oh the screams, overcame her physical pain.
Naraudo’s voice broke through the fog of pain closing back over. “We need food.”
“Food?” She half breathed, half gasped a laugh. “’Ow kin ye be thinkin’ o’ food right now?”
“Well,” he glanced down at the dark spots littering the spikes below, “we lost a lot of blood. We need to gain back iron, and pump us full of nutrients that will help increase our healing.”
She smiled lopsidedly.
“Nothin’. Yore right.”
“I often am. And, besides, when I don’t eat for a while my teeth start getting long.”
He made a face and she twisted back to see him baring his teeth grotesquely. She managed a laugh before stopping abruptly. His eyebrows lowered confusedly.
His expression of confusion did not disappear. “Come again?”
“Yer teeth! H’our teeth! We kin bite through h’our ropes!”
“Well, we have no other plans.” He let his head hang down and noticed the spikes again. “What about those?”
“Those what?” He made to gesture again and she strongly avoided the temptation to roll her eyes. “H’I kin’t look.” The pain made her bite off an insult she would have reconsidered another time. “Genius.”
He breathed shallowly to keep from shooting off an insult himself. “The spikes below. If we drop, we die.”
For terrible, horrifying second, death sounded like the more palatable option. Then she shook it away. “Maybe iffen we bite through the right ropes, we’ll drop slowly?”
Both squirrels looked down and winced. Ampanna’s wince might have stemmed from a different source than Naraudo’s, but the result was the same. “Not likely.” A wave of pain throbbed through both of their bodies and they both groaned.
After the pain decreased enough to speak, Naraudo breathed, “But what other choice do we have?”
Ampanna gingerly moved her head to grab the rope in her mouth, but flinched back as the arrow brushed her arm. “This is such h’a stupid idea.”
“Hey, hey!” He saw her reeling with pain, drifting into consciousness, as sharp pangs stabbed her eye and pounded through her body. “This is all we have right now. We have to get out of here. We have to fix your eye.”
She fought the wave of blackness threatening to engulf her. “And your shoulder.” She sucked air in before her face screwed up in agony. This only resulted in a pained gasp as she tried to neutralize her face. “We’re supposed t’be dead. Why h’aren’t we dead?”
“Cause we’re not done yet. We’re supposed to save Selra. See Segalia and Lijel and Riplar and Carma and Rori again. Our families. Redwall.” He paused and the muscles in his neck clenched as the arrow in his shoulder brushed the ropes binding him. “In all likelihood, the archer was good, but not good enough.” He nodded in her direction. “Arrow pierced your eye, not your brain. Arrow pierced my shoulder, not my heart.”
“So yore sayin’ we should take h’advantage o’ this gift of ‘is h’incompetence ‘nd seize the day?”
He smiled. “That’s it exactly.” He reached down and bit the rope on his right shoulder. “Ugh,” he shuddered, “that’s nasty!”
She had already chewed most of the way through the first rope. “Start chewin’.”
If it wasn’t impossible, she would have rolled her eyes. The thought made something occur to her. “Naraudo?”
Her head spun as she watched the rope so close to her face slowly stretch on its last thread. “D’you think Ah’ll be blind forever?”
He bit his bottom lip. “Yeah. Sorry.”
In the following silence, she tried to shake it off. No more vision on her left side. Ever. She would have to relearn practically everything. Certainly fighting. It would be impossible to be as observant as she had been. But, if she just turned her head a bit more, she could manage. After all, she could be dead. “H’it’ll be fine.”
“Think of it this way: you get to wear a cool eyepatch.”
“So ’elpful.” She went back to her rope.
He felt cold and on the verge of fainting, but he kept biting, no matter how slowly. “Hm?” He inquired through a mouthful of rope.
“H’I bit through the rope, but nothin’ ‘appened.”
“Well, maybe if you--” He didn’t get the chance to finish her sentence as she let out a piercing scream and tumbled a taillength or two through the air.
Now that her momentum seemed to have stopped, he could detect a shaky whimpering. “Ow ow ow ow ow. H’I kin’t. H’I kin’t. No more.”
“Ampanna? Ampanna!” But she was gone, her body mercifully shutting her down to avoid the pain shrieking through her system. As he strained towards her, pain tore at his shoulder, screamed at the raw furless skin beneath his bonds. Stars swirled in his vision as he, too, threatened to go under.
Neither remembered quite how they made it to the ground when they finally did. All they knew that it was dark. Who knew how much time had passed. Only impressions of biting and pain and falling and pain and going in and out of consciousness marked their passage to the ground.
Naraudo woke to find himself on his back, his footpaw brushing the pack of spikes, and rope littered about him. The stretched out position was so glorious that, for a second, he could forget about the pain emanating him from his shoulder. A rasping sound caught his attention. The resulting jerk of his head made all the pain come rushing back. He took advantage of his new freedom and filled his lungs deeply with the crisp summer air.
“H’it feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll never not appreciate the gift of breathing again!” He slowly turned over and sat up, wincing with every movement, yet reveling in his very life. He could move and breathe and do what he wanted, not be subjected to Omi wanted. He could—an attempt at moving his left arm dashed all the positivity away as agony screeched into his mind.
“’Ere.” Slowly, another presence pervaded his consciousness. It gently supported him while placing pressure on his shoulder. “This might ‘urt a little.”
At the tug on his shoulder, the agony in his mind flared until it blocked out all other senses. He gasped as his vision cleared, the pain resigning itself to throbbing consistently throughout his body. He looked down to his shoulder where gray paws were firmly applying torn bandages. No arrow protruded from it any longer. In awe, he reached over to touch it.
“Don’t.” Ampanna slapped his paw away. “Don’t move h’it at all iffen possible. Yer muscles’re torn and ye’d do well t’not agitate the wound.”
Not really hearing her last words, he put a paw gently to her face. “Your eye.”
Her left eye was coated with cracked white. Traces of blood ringing it gave off an eerie picture.
“How did you get the arrow out?”
“’Eld me h’eye h’in with one paw, ‘nd pulled it out with th’other.”
“Why don’t you have an eyepatch or something then?”
She gave a last tug at his bandages as she secured the last knot, then sat back on her haunches and sighed. “For an eye wound to properly ‘eal, both eyes need t’be covered since they move together. H’I figured that Ah needed to get everything done that needed eyesight first, before blindin’ meself. Plus Ah figured it’d be h’easier iffen ye were h’awake enough t’guide me.”
Grabbing her paw, he stared into her right eye. “Anywhere. Are you okay?” He used his other paw to cup her face again. “Do you need anything? Tell me?”
She blushed at his attention, but kept meeting his eye. “We need food. H’I don’t know ‘ow prudent a fire would be. We h’obviously need better medical treatment than this. We need to start thinkin’ ‘bout where we go next. We—”
“Hey,” he moved his thumb cover her muzzle. Her eyes crossed to look at it for a second before snapping back with a wince of pain. “You. What do you need? We can deal with what we need in a second.”
Her smile was small and lopsided with a touch of wryness. “Thanks.” She looked down at her tattered tunic, raw wrists, burnt patches littering her limbs, and breathed, feeling the pain resonate through her body. When she met his gaze again, her eye was hard and fiery. “H’I need Omi.”
“You need to make her pay for capturing us, and torturing Selra, and trying to kill us?” He nodded in agreement, as his own eyes glowed to meet her own. “I agree. Now we know that—”
It was her turn to stop his ranting. “No.” She hurriedly continued at his aghast look. “H’I mean, Ah think she should pay for her h’actions, but Ah don’t think that’s our place. H’or at least not out o’ a ‘eart of revenge. H’I think iffen we find Omi, we kin find Selra, ‘nd take care o’ ‘er first. She’s more h’important than Omi.”
“But, Ampanna.” He grabbed her paw tightly in his. “She took your eye. Selra might be dead. We are more involved than anybeast else. “How is it not our responsibility to take care of her? She deserves it!”
She looked away, taking in the sights while she still could. The night breeze was refreshing, almost chilly. But the celestial bodies were bright, illuminating the rich green of the swaying trees and brush. It was too beautiful to be marred by hatred. “H’in a way Ah guess Ah feel sorry for ‘er.”
“Sorry? How—”At her look, he quieted. “Continue.”
“Well, she jist lost ‘er dad. H’I kin’t imagine she ‘as much support so she’s lashin’ out in the h’only way she knows ‘ow. She’s a little lost?” She shrugged.
“Lost? She’s blooming bonkers! And apparently so are you.” He reached for her head. “How hard did you hit the ground?”
Brushing him away, she got to her footpaws. “That’s what Ah think, Naraudo. No revenge. Not right now. Things might change. ‘Nd iffen they do, Ah’ll be ready for them.”
The light glinted off a blade hanging from her belt. The first word to describe the weapon that popped into his mind was wicked. Because this blade was made with the sole purpose of getting the job done. The curved side of the metal was typical of a knife, but the other side was jagged. Though at first glance it appeared to be cuts brought on by too many clashes in battle, he soon saw that it couldn’t be anything but purposeful, with the upper half serrated while the section closer to the hilt was a series of breaking waves of steel. Even the hilt was deadly with carved holes for the wielder’s fingers ending in spikes and the knob in place of a pommelstone also curving to a point. It was a thing of malevolent beauty.
He smiled up at her. “I told you it could be useful. That’s,” he shook his head in awe, “an amazing weapon.”
“Yeah,” she hefted it in her paw. “H’I’m a little confused though. Why would somebeast jist leave h’a weapon like this ‘ere? Ye don’t jist overlook a blade like this.”
“I—” he stopped. Why would the knife just happen to be there? This couldn’t be a coincidence. Unless… “Do you think it’s a trap?”
She frowned. “Iffen they thought we were dead, why would they leave h’a trap? ‘Nd iffen this was a trap, why would they arm us? No, Ah was thinkin’ quite the h’opposite. Maybe somebeast is ‘elpin’ us.”
“Why would somebeast be helping us?”
As soon as she sighed, he was struggling to his footpaws, reaching for her shoulders. “H’I don’t know. H’I’m jist doin’ the best Ah kin to figure things out.”
“I know, honey.” He ran his paws down her arms until they ran into her own paws which he held. “Look, whatever it was there for, it can only help us. Besides, they don’t stand a chance against me.”
She smiled despite her suddenly watery eyes. “O’ course they don’t.”
“And you, of course.” He stroked her ear again. “Now, we can figure it out later. Should we get moving?”
“Wait, let me do this first.” Letting go of his paw, she tore another scrap of fabric from her tunic. Her sleeves were so short by now, they were virtually nonexistent.
“I like the sleeveless look.”
She stuck her tongue out at him while she wrapped the fabric around her head. He took the ends from her and brought them together. “Tell me how tight.”
After her blind was in place, she fumbled for his paw and grasped it tightly. “I trust you.”
Squeezing her paw in return, he took the opportunity to take one last look around the clearing that had played such a tumultuous part in their lives. There was nothing left for them. So they were striking out without food, other supplies, or any idea of what they were doing, with barely any working parts between them. “Let’s go.”
There was a knife at her throat and she couldn’t even scream. She croaked as she blindly thrust her paws out before her.
“Never,” she mouthed, no sound escaping her scratched throat. “You’ll never take Redwall.”
“Paldra! H’it’s me.” The fuzzy form trying to kill her morphed temporarily into the Skipper’s face. She stared at him, hoping against hope that his face wasn’t another hallucination. His eyebrows drew towards his muzzle. “H’are ye okay?”
The dagger. What happened to the dagger? Her eyes shifted frantically from side to side. She couldn’t trust anything right now, certainly not herself, but if there was a dagger, she needed to find it. His paw had moved from waving in front of her face to resting on the pillow as he bent over her. It seemed empty, but where could the weapon have gone?
She jerked back to him mas he was suddenly leaning over her and lifting her easily into his arms.
“No, let me go!” This time, she managed to produce a squeak.
“Hush,” he looked alarmed at her. “H’I’m tryin’ t’get ye h’out of ‘ere.”
“What?” Her limbs couldn’t be urged to muster up more than a minor resistance.
He ignored her, instead glancing both ways outside the door, which swirled prettily in her vision, before charging to the right.
“Where are you taking me?” The redstone spun by slipping into a memory then out again, as easily as a puzzle piece. Too many versions of it spun through her head, obscuring facts.
She only realized that had reached the end of the hallway when he stopped. He peered around the corner, but before she could work up the energy to lift her head to look herself, he slammed back around the corner, knocking her head against his solid chest with the impact.
“What—” she started to ask but he clamped his paw over her mouth, muffling the rest of her question. Her drug-dazed mind hovered over the question of how he managed to get his paw over her mouth if both of his arms were busy carrying her.
A slow arrhythmic sound slowly growing louder finally drew her foggy brain away. Her head lolled over his arm enough to see a vaguely familiar form shamble down the hall assisted by a cane, his cape flapping behind him. Though she could have sworn she hadn’t made a sound, he somehow sensed her attention on him. The canine-like creature turned and stared at her with bloodred eyes.
The otter slid silently down the wall, but Paldra couldn’t shake the feeling that the creature had stared at her like he knew something she didn’t. The tapping sound continued, shifting downward in pitch as he walked away.
“Who—” she started again, but her question was snatched away as Joncho looked around the corner again before speeding off. The Abbess wondered how the creature could possibly far enough away that he didn’t hear the pounding of Skipper’s footpaws, but she couldn’t find the breath to ask. She merely rested in the knowledge that he would protect her. Her subconscious idly brought up the fact that the last time he had cradled an Abbess in his arms, the last time he had dashed through the Abbey to save its leader, the last time he had enacted a rescue mission it had been unsuccessful.
This time when she forced out her question, it had enough voice behind for Joncho to hear and deem worth answering. “To the cellars.” He slowed as they reached the staircase to the Great Hall. Peering over the bannister, he pulled a grim face before running down it. She got the impression that he was stilltrying not to get caught, though it still confused her why, but it was a wonder that he was succeeding what with every thump on the stairs echoing and pounding in her temples.
His words finally registered. “Why?”
He skipped the last three steps, sending her insides colliding together. “That’s where the rest of us are.”
“Rest of who?” Though her voice was quiet, it was coming back. Joncho, however, resumed ignoring her as he sped across the Great Hall. She couldn’t help noticing something seem off. Too quiet. Not enough smells, either. “Joncho,” she managed to cover the quiver in her voice with irritation, “tell me what is going on right now or so help me…”
Still furtively checking his surroundings, the otter slid into the corridor down to Cavern Hole. “There’s a group of us ‘o’ve gotten free from the poison. We’re ‘oled up in the Cellar, freein’ others while we kin.”
“Practical, not too small with access to food and water. But why are you holed up?” Slowly, too slowly, she felt her mind returning to her.
He looked down at her, gaze steady despite the pounding of his footpaws. “Ye’ve been out fer h’a while. But h’after that thing ‘nd Dubya,”— he said the name like a curse; she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him this angry, mouth drawn into an angry scowl, eyes flashing with a threat she wasn’t sure she’d like to see fulfilled—“took over, they’ve been keepin’ us compliant with that potion.” The word was spat out with another sneer as he turned into Cavern Hole, pace considerably slowed. “H’I managed t’escape ‘nd gathered a few more. We’re tryin’ t’oust them out.”
“But, they are only two of them. Why haven’t you kicked them out already?”
He avoided her gaze as he slowly approached the ramp down to the Cellar. “Because we couldn’t save h’all of ye.”
She couldn’t come up with an answer as he placed her gently on her footpaws. “Kin ye walk?”
She took a step and immediately reached for his arm. “With help.” With a smile, she anchored herself to the only thing that seemed certain at the moment.
And then there were other beasts surrounding her, congratulating her rescuer, celebrating her escape, and inquiring after her health.
With a wave of a practiced paw, she quieted the room. “I’m…doing well. Skipper Joncho did quite well in saving me and I’m very happy to be back with you all.” She flashed a charming smile at her Redwallers. “Now, if we have a…an issue, I need all the facts. Can somebeast please tell me what’s going on?”
Sharing worried looks and pressing food and drink into her paws, they escorted her to a makeshift table of planks on barrels. Taking turns, the group, who was smaller than she had thought, explained the situation, concluding with the recent admission of a harvest mouse family into the Abbey.
“They were planning on using the control serum on you and having you kill them!” The young hedgehog and replacement cook banged his fist on the plank. “That’s why we had to get you out of there.”
“I see.” She took a sip of the October Ale, struggling not to let her emotions shine too brightly in her eyes, yet still struggling to clear the remaining cobwebs from her mind. “How long has this been going on?”
They shared looks around the table. “Several weeks, Mother.” Somebeast finally offered.
She stared back. “Right. Well then, if they’re trying to control us, how can we use their power against them?”
Several beasts all started at once. They cut off quickly with a few awkward chuckles.
Paldra turned to Jagjo, ex-Cellar Keeper. She pointed at him, then traced a circle around the table. “If needed,” she added out loud, “raise your paw.”
In that fashion, the meeting proceeded less chaotically. Ideas tossed around included putting Jagjo in a dress, continuing their current method, stealing the serum, and, the all-too popular: kill Dubya and companion.
Joncho shut these suggestions down roughly. “H’are ye suggestin’ that we’re worth more than h’any o’ the h’other Redwallers? H’any single beast still h’in the dormitories could be murdered iffen we put a footpaw wrong.”
“Trust me,” the temporary cook said, “I know. My sister’s still up there. I know the risk. But we can’t keep going like this. The sooner they’re out of the picture, the better. Surely there’s some way we can incapacitate them both at once.”
“As much as I hate to con,” she struggled to find the word she was looking for, “condone violence, I believe he’s right, Joncho. There must be some way. Surely a whole Abbey of beasts has some…leverage over two psychos.”
“We’re not a whole h’Abbey o’ beasts, Paldra,” he gently reminded her. At her tired pleading look, he sighed. “H’I would jist feel more confident ‘bout attackin’ iffen Ah ‘ad more capable warriors.”
The table bridled at the insult. “We h’all fought in the Winter War, Skipper. Some o’ us h’even ‘ave trainin’.” An ottermum of the Weasprears Holt pointed out.
“Yes, then, do ye recall durin’ the Spring Skirmish when Silverfalcon fought that fox beast?”
A few beasts shared puzzled looks around the table. “Silverfalcon?”
“The otter with the tattoos and the,” for lack of a better word, Paldra pinched her ear between her forefingers. “Red eyes. Go on, Skipper.”
“’E ‘ad Bloodwrath ‘n ‘e still ‘ad a ‘ard time ‘gainst ‘im. ‘Nd ‘o knows wot Dubja ‘as up ‘er sleeve. H’I’m not eager t’jump into h’a fight that ‘as such potentially disastrous unknowns.”
“Well then, I say we find out. How about we use scouts, Jagjo in a dress,” the hedgehog in question scowled but made no comment, “whatever it takes to gather information. In the…meantime, we get more beasts out, warrior types, and more. Then, when we get the chance, we’ll strike better armed.”
Joncho stretched his arms out in front of him. “Kin’t argue with that logic. We’ll discuss details later. Beki,” the ottermum looked up, “you’re on guard duty.” As the other Redwallers dispersed, Joncho turned to the Abbess. “Now, let’s find ye h’a bed.”
“It can’t be but mid-afternoon,” she protested.
“Fer yer info, h’it’s actually long past dark. ‘Sides, Ah saw yer h’eyes droopin’. Ye need rest to keep fightin’ off the drugs.”
She followed him silently to a corner of Cavern Hole where a random assortment of bedding was placed. “It’s just—” she cleared her throat as he shook out an afghan. “I’m just afraid,” she looked around the room where other beasts were occupied with menial tasks, “they’ll come back,” she finished in a whisper.
“’O? We’re safe down ‘ere. H’are ye worried ‘bout the questin’ group?”
“No,” she laughed shakily, “though that’s an excellent question. I do hope they’re alright.” She paused, blissfully unaware of how not alright the beasts in question were. “I’m afraid the nightmares will return.”
The otter finished what he was doing then put a paw on her shoulder and looked her in the eye. “Yore safe ‘ere. Try not to think ‘bout it. But iffen they do come, don’t ‘esitate t’ask anybeast ‘ere for ‘elp. We’re all ‘ere fer ye.”
“Thanks.” Her smile was small but genuine. “Have we not got Howlia free yet? I would have thought she’d have been first.”
His eyebrows came down, but his voice was gentle. “Paldra, don’t ye remember? We lost Howlia h’on our poem trip a few weeks ago. Warrior’s death. Right before this ‘ole h’affair ‘appened, h’actually.”
“Oh,” the word broke as it fell out, along with its owner. “I was really hoping that was just a bad hallucination. I—” she looked about hopelessly as tears rapidly filled her eyes before spilling over. “I miss her.” Her chin wobbled and she swallowed hard.
“H’I do, too, Pald, Ah do, too.” He enveloped her in his arms as she sobbed, coming to terms with a world that was unalterably changed.
Segalia was ticked. Not only was she still partially in the throes of the Bloodwrath that had been threatening to flare up all week and had not been thoroughly subdued by her pep talk with Riplar less than an hour earlier, but it had done her no good when she got bested by their mysterious assailants. Even when they released her and introduced themselves as a southeastern branch of the Long Patrol, her irritation lingered. All it took was a tiny spark to light it.
This spark came in the form of an imposing female hare who appeared to be the leader. “Release the otters.” She examined them closely as they were freed from their bonds, her eyes hard and calculating.
“Wot ‘bout the fox, Major?” asked a stout young male.
“Who’s the vermin?” She was blunt and to the point. Riplar tried not to squirm under her accusing look.
Lijel rubbed his wrists and sighed. “Don’t worry ‘bout ‘im. ‘E’s wit-” He never got the chance to finish.
Segalia’s pink-stained eyes snapped up. “H’excuse me?”
Her indignant tone bore no real question, but the commander answered nonetheless, used to shooting down insubordination in her own ranks. “Why should I trust the vermin?”
“First of all,” the otter flung down the ropes she had finished removing, “’e h’is not h’a vermin. ‘E’s me mate ‘n a good warrior ‘n deserves t’be treated as such.”
The males winced as the major’s eyes flashed. “Seg, it’s alright…” Riplar tried to say before clutching his paws in towards his stomach in a gesture of pain.
“No, h’it’s not!” She had either lost all control over her volume or she didn’t care. “Nobeast treats me friends like that!”
“What reason do I have to trust you? If you’re associating with beasts such as him, you could be easily involved in some diabolical plot.”
Lijel saw and understood the sparking rage in Segalia’s eyes and intercepted her wild charge just in time. His bear-hug pinned her arms to her side. She thrashed, not in control of herself or her Bloodwrath enough to escape.
“Is this normal behavior for her?”
“She ‘as Bloodwrath, marm.” He looked her straight in the eye. “Ye still shouldn’t treat our mate like that.” He saw the barriers of stubbornness rising up from long experience with Segalia and quickly added, “H’all Ah’m askin’ h’is that ye give ‘im a chance.”
The Major hmphed, but nodded to a nearby hare anyway. “Release him.”
As a veteran female leaned over to cut the cuffs with her sword, she whispered, “Sorry ‘bout the Major. Bad blinkin’ experiences and all.”
Riplar just nodded somberly, his mind dwelling on how much worse the situation would have been if his sister had been there. It only made him miss her more, strengthening his resolve to rescue her whether they recruited these hares or not. A stabbing pain hit his stomach again and he was forced to bend over, narrowly missing the hare’s sword.
“Ho, there!” In a swift movement, she sheathed her sword and grabbed his shoulders. “Are you quite alright, chap?”
“I—” he breathed heavily, the world blurring around him. If he didn’t know better, he would have sworn that her sword had stabbed him in his torso. Or that another hare had stabbed him during their capture. But no, it was this nagging pain of doom that had kept him from fighting well and that was hampering his actions now. Something about the sensation was familiar.
The realization made him bolt upward, ignoring the pain jolting in his stomach. “Selra.”
Lijel, who had been awkwardly standing behind Segalia, still hurt from her behavior throughout the week, worried that she would attack again, yet still wanting to help, turned. “Wot is it? D’ye know where she is?”
“No, I—” he gasped suddenly as the air was driven from his lungs. The Long Patrol hares who had started walking away looked worriedly at him. “She’s being hurt.” He stared up at the otter, eyes pleading. “We need to help her.”
Lijel looked awkwardly between the tense Segalia and the worried Riplar. “Well, yeah. Wot kin we do?”
This time, the fox didn’t even manage to get words out before he staggered, crumpling into himself. This time, Lijel didn’t hesitate to dash over and support his friend. Even Segalia was brought out of her anger-centric world enough to look over.
Due to his superior height, Lijel had to almost crouch to get Riplar’s arm over his shoulders. He looked over at the hares who were awkwardly standing around. “Kin ye bring us t’yer camp so that we kin h’attend to h’our friend?”
They glanced at each other, obviously sending signals back and forth via ear twitching.
Riplar clamped his jaw shut but a moan still emerged.
“Now?” Lijel asked impatiently.
With a last eyebrow raise and the barest eyeroll, the major turned to them. “H’absolutely. Follow h’us. ‘Nd, iffen the poor dear kin manage, keep the moanin’ at a minimum. Silence is imperative.” She turned sharply and the rest of the Long Patrol fell easily in line behind her.
Lijel glanced warily at Segalia, who had not moved, as they approached her. “H’are ye okay?”
“H’o’ course.” She snapped. Breathing in deeply, she jerked her chin to the side. “We’ll see.”
When she looked over, he saw the pink that lingered on the vestiges of her vision. “H’I’ll let ye spar me h’after this.”
Barking a laugh, she stepped forward. “Thanks. Need ‘elp?”
“H’I mean, ‘e’s really light,” Riplar’s groan was muffled in Lijel’s shoulder, “but sure. Iffen h’it makes ye feel better.”
They grinned at each other as she looped Riplar’s right arm over her shoulder. With a start, he realized that that might be the friendliest conversation they had had all week. Well, he didn’t plan on ruining it, especially if he had just lost his fellow victim to pain.
As it turned out, the majority of Riplar’s “twin-sense” pain left within a few hours. The sense of foreboding, however, lingered to the point where he wasn’t sure it would ever leave. He had never felt that much pain courtesy of his twin bond before. The only possible explanation was that something terrible had actually happened to Selra and he hadn’t been able to do anything about. His only consolation was that he was pretty sure she wasn’t dead. Really close to death, certainly. But she was alive.
More aggravating was the fact that they had not made any progress towards getting her back. The hares were hesitant to stray from their domain nor did they trust any plan of the trio’s.
Lijel tried to placate him. It felt that “try” was a word that summed up the otter’s existence these days. Try to help Segalia. Try to work with the hares. Try to keep Riplar from doing anything rash.
Which was why the fox had made sure he was quite occupied with sparring Segalia before he had left. When he peeked in, the fight held great potential to last a while. Both parties were too competitive to admit defeat quickly. Even better, there were several hares that had gotten involved, swapping fighting tips, and sticking around to watch the fight in hopes of taking on the winner.
As if there weren’t more important concerns in the world than who could get a triangle choke faster.
Shaking his head, Riplar weaved his way between the tents, fading from shadow to shadow, avoiding the light thrown out by campfires and lanterns. Shouts from the makeshift fighting ring started to fade in the distance as he ran through the plan. Smuggling food from the dining hall had been a piece of cake. He had feigned a voracious appetite, not hard after watching almost every beast around him eat. Baggy tunics and belts were great hiding places. Once he made it out of the camp, which so far was going smoother than he had hoped, he anticipated a day or two journey to the area around the castle. Given the passage of time and the potential trajectories Omi could have chosen, the Inland Lake seemed as good a place as any to start. Besides, if Omi had intended to set up a trap, she couldn’t have gone too far.
Riplar knew the plan was about as sturdy as a rotting log, but he really could not care less. He was done with waiting around to sense that Selra had died. He was tired of the others not caring about the larger affairs of the world surrounding them. He was sick of woodlanders and their inability to get anything done.
Pretending to stretch his neck, he swept his eyes over his surroundings. Was he being unfair to the others? Probably. The hare patrolling the border did an about-face, stifling a yawn. Sticking to the deepest, darkest shadows so that his jet black fur didn’t give him away, he advanced around the last tent. It didn’t matter; Selra needed him. The otters would be better off without him. He wasn’t self-deprecating or stupid; it wasn’t like Riplar was oblivious to the tension that appeared whenever he walked into a gathering, particularly if the major was present.
Nearly there. The memory of the last time he was sneaking around clenched his heart. Now he was breaking out only to head back to the same castle. The irony was not lost on him. Moving as smoothly and quietly as he could, he strode confidently past the invisible border. Secretiveness would only raise more suspicions but so would blatantly strolling out. He remembered his mom giving him a rare secret smile as she corrected, “The balance is important”.
The forest would have even more places to hide. If he could only reach it.
A prod on the back jolted a gasp out of him. Who—? “Lijel?” He started to turn, sending desperate pleas to Mother Nature that his plan had not been foiled just as it was starting.
“Didn’t know Marlfox came in black, boy.”
Heart speeding though it was, he schooled his expression to that of a calm, arrogant prince as he turned to face his impedance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was heeding nature’s call.” He added an extra eyebrow lift to sell it.
The major kept her sword raised. “The latrines are thataway.” He was temporarily distracted and intrigued by her flexibility of her ear as she pointed it behind her.
He allowed an embarrassed smile to slip out. “Ah, but the last one to use the pit left quite a mess. I didn’t want to add my dinner to the problem.” Would another eyebrow raise be too much?
“How considerate of ye.”
The noises of the night from insects in the forest to shouting from the fighting ring rose uncomfortably around them.
“So, Marlfox,” she finally broke the silence, “would you like to tell me why you’re sneaking around the border of my camp so bloomin’ late at night?”
He found it somewhat amazing how easily he could slip back into the steely arrogant prince persona when it suited him. “I was not aware that I was your prisoner, Major.”
The deep breath that she silently inhaled caused the tip of her sword to inch closer to his chest. Despite his experience with weapons in the last few seasons, something about the proximity of a deadly weapon in her paw made him breath in, sucking his chest imperceptibly back.
“True.” The sudden polite smile creeped him out. “Proper hospitality, then, would entail I give you a proper sendoff. More supplies than what you managed to skiv from the mess hall, and you certainly can’t leave without everybeast saying farewell. How ‘bout, you stick around a little, and we send you off bright and early in the morning?”
She was already turning away, looping a friendly arm around him, steering him back to camp. “Yes, I’m sure you said goodbye to your otter mateys, but the rest of us would hate it if you were to leave without giving us a chance to say goodbye.”
“As much as I appreciate the gesture,” his attempts to dig his footpaws into the grass were proving quite futile, “I really must be going.”
She halted abruptly. “And where must you be going?” When he didn’t answer right away, she started to circle him. “Off to meet up with your Marlfox buddies, perhaps? Share the info on us like a good little informant?”
Keeping his voice as steady as possible, he said honestly, “I have no interest in you, your armies, or your activities. I merely wish to continue the original quest we were on before we were waylaid by you.”
“Waylaid? You make it sound like a bad thing, all the care we’ve give you and resources we’ve expended on you.” Before he could formulate a response regarding the initial assault, she stopped in front of him. “Glad you’re finally being honest. But if you’re returning to the original quest, why aren’t you taking Lijel and Segalia with you?”
Uh oh. “I’m, you know,” he silently cursed himself for the traitorous filler, “going ahead, scouting it out. They’ll come after me.”
“What’s your quest?”
“Personal business. As your guest, I believe I retain the right not reveal all of my secrets.” This conversation was making him grateful for his court intrigue lessons. He and Selra had gone through a phase where all their arguments had been framed as political debates, full of left-handed compliments and flowery words. As they had practiced, they had become more skilled at saying the words of one conversation, while simultaneously discussing something else. It was exhausting and Riplar was afraid he was rusty.
“Ah, of course. I don’t mean to pry, but you must understand our predicament. We’ve had a recent influx of vermin groups. We can’t afford to trust anybeast.”
A scene from the winter before flashed through his mind: “In the middle of a war, mistrust is natural…”. Another rejection due to his species but masked by perilous situations.
“But Seg and Lijel are fine, right? Because they’re otters which makes them automatically good.”
“Look at the evidence.” Her voice was as sharp as her blade which was still held in a deceptive ready stance. “Foxes killed somebeast close to me. Yet otters have helped me time and time again.”
A sneer tugged on his lips and he couldn’t rein it in. “And a vole murdered my father, but you don’t see me running and screaming every time I see my friend’s godchild.” Her ears were flattening against her head, but he didn’t let her speak. “My sister is in mortal danger, but no, let’s continue debating how evil I am just because I’m a fox. It’s not like “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a new idea.”
“Look, if the evidence just based on your species wasn’t enough, I know what I saw. You have ties to Marlfoxes and you’ll be hard pressed to say anything good about that scum.”
Riplar was past caring. “Yes, my mother is a descendant, and she taught us some of her tricks. How terrible. I’m doomed for Hellgates.”
His heart froze in his chest, paralyzing the rest of him. He had said too much. Yet, his tongue flew without his bidding. “That’s Queen Oxos to you.”
Her spit landed by his footpaw brought a sense of reality back to the exchange. “A cruel slavedriver fox who doesn’t do anything for the Woods she supposedly owns will never be my queen.”
He looked away and sighed, trying to calm his inner turmoil with his controlled breathing. Then, calmly, with detached irritation, he asked, “Are we done here? Politics don’t concern me. Whether my sister lives or dies does.”
His voice cracked on the last word, and he quickly looked away again, breathing hard as his emotions tried to force themselves up his throat. For a second, he didn’t dare look back at her for fear that he had lost any ground he had gained. Yet, when he looked back at her, he could not place the bridled emotion hinting in her eyes.
“You really love your sister, don’t you?”
He nodded mutely.
The calculating look was back, but it was fresher, as if she was analyzing him for the first time. “What about this: you return to camp, get some rest and appropriate provisions, and then leave early tomorrow morning with one of my guards? I’ll cover for you with Seg and Lijel.”
Riplar stared at her uncertainly. “I appreciate the offer, but I can get more of a headstart if I leave now. I’m also familiar with the area so a guard won’t be necessary.” His casual placement of his paw on his hip was anything but, indicating his weapon as another reason he didn’t need a guard.
“If you insist.” She held her paw out to shake as one of her ears bent in a respectful salute. “Godspeed.”
Still not sure what to make of this development, he nodded. “Thank you. Take care of my friends.”
He resisted the urge to look back until he reached the treeline. When he did, the major was gone. Squaring his shoulders, he oriented himself, and started off. He was going to save his sister.
From a safe shadow, the major watched him closely. “Follow him,” she ordered the soldier she had quietly summoned. “And if he does anything suspicious, you know what to do.”
The soldier nodded, eyes glinting, before bounding off.
The major stroked her chin. Very interesting, indeed.
“’No!’ she cried helplessly as the spear came ever nearer. There was nothing she could do except to accept her fate. She closed her eyes and pictured all the beasts she would miss in her life. She had never even told him of her undying passion for him.
“And then suddenly it was over. She opened her eyes. Was this the Dark Forest? If so, it was a pretty lousy afterlife. Everything looked exactly the same. Yet at her footpaws was the body of her beloved.
“She crumpled gracefully to her knees beside him. ‘You did this for me?’
“‘I would do anything for you.’ He looked so handsome even when he was dying.
“’Oh, I feel the same!’ she cried and, not minding the blood, she bent down--”
“Anything except for move out of the stinking way, apparently.” Selra scowled and let the book slide from her fingers. She had higher hopes for this novel thanks to the rough sketch of a ferretmaiden holding aloft a scimitar, but apparently writers were incapable of recognizing that competent warrior maids who were not drama queens actually existed. She had been in battle before. It wasn’t that hard to dodge a spear, particularly if you were staring at it and picturing your entire life flash before your eyes like in the novel.
She groaned at the terribleness of the novel, then groaned again as her body was racked with pain. It had only been a few days since Omi had dropped her unceremoniously off at the castle. In fact, her eyes hadn’t been healed enough to focus on anything, much less read a novel, until this morning, yet she was already very sick of them. Usually when their tutors forced them to read, she and Riplar would spend their time making fun of the characters. Or when one of them was sick enough to be put on bed rest, the other would sneak in to bring them food and entertainment. Suddenly, she missed Riplar with an ache so powerful it temporarily overwhelmed all the numerous other pains throughout her body. Being home, if that’s what it was, made it worse. She hadn’t even imagined the possibility of confronting their mother without him by her side. Not until Omi, anyway.
At the thought of Omi, a heavy mixture of anger and pain swelled within her. She had, in fact, received rudimentary lessons on torture. Though the bulk of them had covered its uses and its implementation, there had been a few about resisting. Despite that, nothing could have prepared her for the pointless, sadistic violence she had experienced at the paws of Omi and her minions. And poor Ampanna and Naraudo! They had gotten dragged into this because of her, and now they were dead.
Selra gritted her teeth and reached for the book again. Even this trash was better than her thoughts. She was startled by a soft knock on the door. “Yes?”
Smoothly, her mother entered the room and slid the wooden door closed behind her. “Hello, dear.”
“Hi, Mom.” She noted the hardness of her mother’s jaw and the set of her shoulders under her light cape. “What’s wrong?”
Shaking her shoulders, the queen came to sit by her bed. “Nothing to worry you about, Arrow. How are you feeling?”
“Fine." she lied. "Mom, I’m sixteen seasons. I have a feeling it relates to me. What is it?”
For a second, Selra was worried that she had pushed too far. That, despite her injured state, her mother would not hesitate to hold her running away for two seasons against her. But she merely sighed and stroked her head. “That is true.” Settling back in her chair, she shook her head. “Where did you come across Omi? I don’t know what to make of anything she says.”
Selra squirmed under the light blanket, irritating the lacerations on her back. They hadn’t yet broached the topic of how she had been brought here by Omi, nor, for that matter, any of the events of the last two seasons. Oxos had seemed more concerned with making sure her daughter would live through the night.
When her mom stared at her, eyes calculating, she figured the question wasn’t rhetorical. “Somewhere between here and Redwall?”
“So it was Redwall?” Her voice was too casual.
Worried that she was betraying something, she shook her head. “No, Redwall…the Abbey actually took us in when we were freezing to death.” After a load of persuading and prejudice, but Selra thought it prudent not to mention that.
“It was the middle of winter after all.”
Selra was pretty sure she could see the ice underlying her mother’s words. “Yeah, about that…”
“Selra, as interested as I am to hear why you disappeared in the middle of a war, I am more concerned with the conniving scum in our castle.”
Her mother casually cursing beasts she had to deal out of their hearing was so familiar that she almost smiled before the slash in her cheek stopped her. “You can’t trust her.”
“Obviously.” She glanced at her claws. “I’m just wondering if I can use her or if I should murder her and her cronies in their sleep.”
“I’d help,” she muttered.
She didn’t think it was audible, but she found her mother peering intently at her. “Tell me the truth, did they do this to you?”
She nodded slowly, her neck muscles protesting loudly.
“I knew it!” Oxos seethed.
“Really?” a raise of her eyebrow informed her that her eye was not as healed as she liked to think it was. “Then why did you let them stay?”
“So I could get as much information as possible out of them. I’m still piecing together your father’s defeat.” She lifted her chin. “Would you happen to know if he is, in fact, dead?”
The old pain lanced through her. “Yeah, I was there.”
“As I thought.” The queen bowed her head for a minute before turning back to her. “So, Omi tortured you. Why?”
Opening her muzzle and shaking her head, she had to fight back sudden tears of pain. “I don’t know. They captured us to get to our friend and when they didn’t show up in time, they,” she had to breathe as deeply as she could in her bandages to calm her quickening breath, “they just shot them after torturing me. To sell the story of something? Pleasure? I really don’t know.” She dimly realized that her attempt at holding back tears had not been wholly successful.
Her mother merely nodded. “So Riplar is dead, too.”
“Rip? No, we were separated when I was captured. I…I don’t know, but I don’t think he’s dead. I’m pretty sure I would have felt it.” Though, considering all the other pain she had undergone recently, wasn’t it possible that she had missed it. She smiled a watery smile. “We have this thing in battle where we can sense when the other’s in danger. Saved our lives a few times.”
The queen smiled softly. “I’m sure.” Her eyes hardened slightly. “It will probably come in handy again soon if we want to take care of Omi and Redwall once and for all.”
Selra’s jerk in response opened at least two wounds and she cried out in surprise mingled with pain. “Redwall?”
“Just because they helped you once doesn’t mean they don’t deserve vengeance.” Her eyes narrowed. “They still killed your father, wiped out our armies, and kept you from me for two seasons.” A strange sound escaped her mother’s throat on the last few words and she looked down sharply, breathing erratic.
“No, Redwall is good. You—” she struggled to show her mom what she barely knew herself. As she searched the room for inspiration, her eyes landed on the trembling Oxos. “Mom?”
Her mother stood suddenly and strode to the door. “Doctor,” she called out, “my daughter requires further attention.” As Selra lay in befuddlement, her mother turned back to her. “We will take care of Omi first so I’ll be back to discuss what you know. As for Redwall,” her eyes flashed with extra brightness, “we will also discuss that later.” Spinning on her heel, she sped away, leaving her daughter confused, and still full of pain.
Slashclaw knew he was crazy. He had embraced his title “the Mad” and had long since surpassed ignoring to enjoying beasts’ reactions at his idiosyncrasies. He was quite certain, however, that his insanity had not yet reached the point of “hearing things”. And yet, as far as he knew, there was no logical explanation for the skittering, shuffling, and, dare he say, giggling that kept approaching his ears.
He investigated, to be sure. One didn’t get to be a mighty warlord by ignoring suspicious happenings and hoping they would go away. However, he had yet to collect any piece of solid evidence that could explain the noises. Malital’s slowly increasing horde of puppets were always accounted for. The drug was still so strong that they could barely shamble along beyond a snails’ pace. Surely he could have caught one of them if they were to be blamed.
He was walking around, tapping his cane aimlessly, and enjoying the view from the windows in one of the many halls in the Abbey. Part of him could still scarcely believe that in just a few weeks Malital had almost single-handedly accomplished what Grovelum had attempted for seasons. If only he had been there to see it. Then again, he wasn’t certain how well the fox and the hedgehog would have gotten along. Both of them were too conniving for their own good.
A distinct sound of a pebble dropping sounded behind him. He spun, years as a warrior allowing him to keep his balance and gain a pace in less than a second. Despite his speed, there was no sign of anybeast. Nothing but a small stone sitting square in the middle of the hall. He approached it cautiously, rolling his eyes wildly as he glanced for any sign of movement. No flashes of fur or clothing. No more sounds. The hall was completely still.
He bent and picked up the rock. It was a normal pebble, mostly smooth with a rough nub on one end. Making a face, he sniffed it, and was just opening his mouth to lick it, when he heard another stone drop behind him. His whirl left his cape flapping and still no trace of the rock’s origin. This time, he did not approach the fallen earth, choosing instead to finish his examination of the pebble already in his keeping. There was a distinctive pond taste. Perhaps he could find answers there.
Still, his footpaws did not move. Maybe he could force his attacker to act again, perhaps in a riskier manner that made them more likely to expose themselves.
His answer came in the form of a sudden pain to the skull as another rock bounced off his head. He yowled as the pain pounded through his head and he clutched it in an inane attempt at relief. All sense was stripped from him as his already pink vision turned red. “Where are ye, cowards? Face me like a warrior!” He looked wildly in all directions, but jerking his head about only made it hurt worse.
The only response he got was another rock to the head just as the pain had started to fade away. His inhuman roar echoed as he stormed off, muttering “pond” and over to himself.
Up in the rafters, the two assailants waited until he was out of sight before nearly falling off with peals of laughter. “Did you see his face after the first one hit him?”
“Hahaha, or the second? I thought he was going to explode!”
“Oh Mother Nature, that was great!”
As their laughter finally quieted, the squirrel wiped a tear from his eye. “What did I tell you? Beasts never look up.”
“I thought he was going to catch us so many times! But he didn’t! Way to go, Tanyon!”
Tanyon did a mock bow. “Now, let’s see how else we can antagonize the poor soul.”
Despite his original intent, Slashclaw did not end up at the pond. Instead, he bumped into Malital. She was in the middle of setting a new bunch of brainwashed Redwallers on simple tasks to test the extent of the drug. Slashclaw had questioned the wisdom of integrating a dozen new variables into the system when they already were tripping over a score of barely-there Redwallers. As usual, she had ignored him, laughing off his concern.
“I kin see it’s progressin’ well,” he drawled, still attempting to shake the mysterious rock incident off, as a mouse bumped into a table, fell down, and stared confused at his paws.
She waved a paw like a composer cutting him off. “Dalo, honey, can you get back up? You’re headed to the Gardens. Those are that way.” She pointed to another door.
The mouse didn’t look up, transfixed by his paws.
“Dalo!” She snapped, advancing on him.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of motion and a large flowered lump was lying at the hedgehog’s footpaws, blocking her path to berate the hapless mouse.
“I—” Malital stopped and bent over the form. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”
“Uh,” the figure, a hedgehog in a flower patterned dress stood up. “Uh,” she repeated in an oddly pitched falsetto voice.
Slashclaw’s eyes narrowed before relaxing. Something was off, but that wasn’t his problem. He would let Malital deal with her kind, while he stood back and enjoyed the show.
“Funny,” Malital muttered. “I thought I knew everybeast in the Abbey.” She peered closer. “You do look familiar…No matter.” She straightened. “Where were you supposed to go?”
“Kitchen?” The hedgehog blinked heartily, probably trying to dissuade them from noticing the odd cadence and tone of her speech.
“Right. Well, off you go. I will be checking in on you in a few minutes, dearie, so I hope you’ve managed to get something done by then.” Her sweet smile contrasted with her words and Slashclaw thought he saw a twitch in the blank mask on the other hedgehog. Interesting.
Malital sighed as the hedgehog slumped off along with the other slow-moving Redwallers. “I’m thinking of easing back the drug even further. They’re a little too mindless.”
“Really? By the way that hedgehog was actin’, Ah could’ve sworn ye were sisters.”
She turned and raised her bristly eyebrows at him. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. What—” he paused, certain this time that he had heard laughter.
Her left eyebrow ascended further.
Sighing, Slashclaw looked upwards. “D’you ever feel,” he looked about shiftily and noticed that Malital’s expression was borderline dangerous, “like there’s somebeast else here? Laughing at you?”
“Oh,” her face and voice all false sympathy, she placed a paw on his shoulder, “are you hearing voices now?” She patted his face none too gently.
Irritated, he batted her paw away. “Ah’m not that mad,” he practically growled. “Surely, ye’ve noticed some strange things going on.”
“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary.” She scoffed. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an Abbey to run.”
As he watched her go, Slashclaw’s mind raced. He needed somebeast else on his side. Since he was clueless as to Omi’s whereabouts, he would need to think of another ally. His bloodshot eyes sparked and widened as an idea hit him. Of course. She would work perfectly. He cackled and snorted as he left the Abbey. Where was that messenger bird friend of his?
Back in the Abbey, Jagjo had started trying to rip the dress off as soon as he had stepped through the doors, muttering “never again” fiercely under his breath.
“Jagjo!” The loud whisper was accompanied by a very amused Beki emerging from a pantry. “Ye kin’t take it off yet. Yore not done yet.”
Grumbling, he straightened the dress. “What do I need to do again?”
The ottermum was clearly trying and failing to hide her amusement as she puffed up his sleeves. “Jist start choppin’ somethin’, carrots or somethin’, not too fast mind ye, ‘nd don’t notice h’anythin’ we do. Got it?” She stepped back to look him over and grinned. “Ye look great.”
He rolled his eyes, but put on his falsetto and swayed, “Isn’t it just my color?”
She barely held in a guffaw, titters sneaking out from her paws clamped over her mouth. “Oh stop it; yore goin’ t’give h’us away.”
He fluttered his eyelashes at her, looking for all the world like he was trying to dislodge a bug. “Oh, but Beki, I thought you liked my dress.”
Shaking with laughter, she pushed him towards the counter, shaking her paw, pricked by a stray quill. “’Ere, cut.” She handed him a board and knife, while he reached in a barrel for a root vegetable. Turning, she asked the air, “H’are we ready?”
“Yep,” a disembodied voice said. “H’everythin’ in place.”
One of the knives lying conspicuously on the counter shuddered and started to rise.
A whack was heard. “Not yet!”
It slammed back onto the counter with a thunk.
Beki gave Jagjo a thumbs up before disappearing back into the pantry.
Checking to make sure Dubya had not yet arrived, he quickly cut a few slices to make it look like he had worked for longer than he had. Then, sticking his tongue out, he proceeded to cut the carrot agonizingly slowly.
Less than a minute later, Dubya burst through the doors, shaking her head. “So, how’s it going here?”
Jagjo looked up, eyes wide, face concerned.
Dubya rolled her eyes. “You’re fine. Keep chopping.” She came over to examine his board and freaked. “Stop!” She clutched his wrist. “Don’t you know anything? You’re supposed to peel the carrot before you cut it!”
Tilting his head innocently to the side, Jagjo inwardly cursed himself. He worked in the Cellars, not the Kitchens! Peels often enhanced brews. How was he supposed to know to peel the carrot?
Sighing exasperatedly, Dubya reached for the knife. “Give it here. I’ll show you how.” When he hesitated, she looked questioningly at him. “Give. Me. The knife.”
Almost too late, Jagjo remembered he was supposed to be extra susceptible to suggestion. With a slow, broad smile, he handed it over. With a few scrapes of the knife, she tossed the slices into the compost pile. Jagjo winced at the waste, but schooled his expression back to wide-eyed when she turned back.
“You just,” she dragged the blade down the side, peeling off a long orange strand, “do this around the whole carrot.” She finished both peeling and cutting the carrot with surprising speed. “Like that. I’ll help. It will go faster.”
He stared anxiously at the knife in her paw. If she didn’t hand it back, she would have no reason to notice the other knife and their plan wouldn’t work. He attempted a whimper.
She ignored him, halfway through her second carrot.
He tried again and she looked up as she finished. “What is it?”
“Knife.” He pointed at the one in her paw.
“Yes, it’s a knife. What? Do you want it?”
He nodded vigorously.
“Oh for goodness’ sakes.” She slammed the knife down on the cutting board, dislodging two slices onto the floor. “I’ll just get my own.”
Spotting the other knife over his shoulder, she strode over to it. He bent slowly, picking up the lost carrot, silently urging his friends to get going.
Malital was just reaching for the knife when it shuddered. She hesitated, drawing her paw back, and the knife rose from the stone counter. “Very funny!” She exclaimed at the ceiling. “I know how this trick works.” With a smug expression on her face, she waved her paw over the knife, fully expecting to encounter seemingly invisible threads.
Her paw hit nothing but the wall.
“What?” Less certain now, she glanced over her shoulder to the hedgehog slowly chopping away at a roughly peeled carrot. She seemed oblivious to any supernatural happenings. And yet, Malital glanced back, the knife was very much rising from the counter.
She snatched it out of the air. It felt ordinary. Making sure nobeast was looking, she let go, carefully avoiding her footpaws. It fell normally, with no pretense of gravity-defying stunts. Picking it up, she looked from it to the counter hesitatingly. She slowly placed it back on the counter.
Immediately this time, the knife rose from the counter at a startling speed which soon decelerated. Clenching one fist in front of her chest, she waved the other all around the floating object. Nothing. No strings, air, or any other mechanisms that she could tell. It did not fall into her experience with magic tricks.
She backed away slowly, accidentally bumping into the other hedgehog who looked down on her, eyes wide as ever. “Did you—” she cleared her throat. “Did you see that?”
She pointed at the phenomenon but when she followed her gesture, the knife was sitting gently on the counter as if it had never budged. “I—but it—I could have sworn…”
Straightening up, she turned sharply. “I just remembered something I have to do. I’m afraid I can’t help you tonight. I’ll send another beast over later.”
Hurrying out of the room, her mind racing furiously, she missed the slow wink and smile that spread over the other hedgehog’s face. When she had told Slashclaw earlier that he must be going crazy, she hadn’t wanted to admit that she had been noticing weird things herself. But a floating knife took the cake. Maybe it wasn’t Slashclaw going crazy. Maybe it was she.
No. There must be an explanation for this. But what could it be?
Torturing herself with questions, she rushed off, leaving the Redwallers to fall out of their hiding places in cupboards and pantries, shaking with laughter.
“Oh, the look on her face when she realized there were no strings!” The mouse kicked her legs against the stone floor in glee.
“That was perfect.”
“Jagjo, ye were h’excellent.”
“Top marks, mate.” Joncho slung a friendly arm over Jagjo’s shoulders. “Good call on the peelin’ mistake.”
When the relieved hedgehog looked up to find his friend’s eyes twinkling, he knew he was being made fun of. “Shove off. That was totally on purpose.”
The Skipper just grinned. “Sure, Jagjo. Excellent plan with the magnets, Beki.”
The otterwife in question curtsied.
“Now, let’s get out o’ ‘ere ‘fore somebeast catches us.” They all slunk off and Jagjo was tugging at his dress as he followed when Joncho stopped him.
“Sorry, mate, but yore s’posed to be choppin’ veggies. Dubya ‘spects somethin’ for supper ‘n’ she’ll know somethin’s up iffen ye disappear.”
“But—you can’t be serious!”
“It’s true.” The Skipper shrugged and Jagjo knew, despite the twinkle in his eyes, he was right.
Grumbling, he re-buttoned the top button on his dress. “You have to wear the dress next time.”
“But o’ course,” he promised insincerely, receiving an annoyed smile in return. “Oh,” he became more serious, “ye need to report to me anythin’ ye learned.”
Jagjo nodded. “Not much, but—”
“Ah ah,” he held up a paw. “Later. Ye got choppin’ to do.”
In mature fashion, Jagjo tossed a handful of carrot slices after Joncho. “I’ll show you chopping.”
“Thanks fer the carrots!” was the only response he got as the otter disappeared from sight.
Shaking his head in amusement, Jagjo continued his work, feeling a spark of hope bloom in his chest. Even if it meant wearing the stupid dress, he thought it might be worth it. They were definitely rattling their captors. Maybe this could work.
The parchment rustled slightly as Rori looked up from where he was bent over decade-old records. To say he was studying them would, frankly, be false. He had stopped even skimming at least half an hour before, but he was stilling putting on the appearance of attentive work for Carma’s sake. “What?” He blinked away his glazed eyes. “Did you find something?”
Carma, who was surrounded by books and records that she was eagerly devouring, tilted her head in his direction, but kept her eyes trained on the sheet in front of her. “Maybe. This is just a death certificate for a young badger couple. I guess they were found and the news passed along here in hopes that someone could identify them.”
Sitting up straighter, Rori cracked his back. “Is it your brother?”
“I—” she stared intently at the paper. “Possibly? She leaned over the warped wooden table where the community recorders had left them and pointed the sheet in his direction. “See, a young male and female badger were found dead in a clearing in the woods. They were estimated to be late teens/early twenties. There was a young cub, practically a newborn found with them. The cub was thought to be dead, but, when found otherwise, was left at Redwall Abbey since it was closer than this community.” She looked up to find him craning over the paper a breath from her face. “Does that sound like anyone we know?”
He frowned for a second, forehead wrinkling in thought. “Wait, Maben?”
“Yeah, don’t you think that’s possible?”
How she could still be excited after hours of this dreariness, he couldn’t say. He tried to process what she was saying. “Okay, so this random couple was offed and they happen to be Maben’s parents. Does it say how they were killed?”
Making a face, she pulled it back so they were no longer sharing the view. “Apparently the messenger couldn’t determine the cause either. No obvious signs of either disease or violent death. Though, it does mention an odd scar on the male that could almost have been fatal at its onset…” she trailed off and met his eyes.
“You did say that your brother had a scar, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. I mean, I would expect so from his injury.”
“Wait, did you say your brother was younger or older than you?”
“Older.” She was studying the scant report again.
Rori frowned. “But if he was only a few seasons old when the skirmish happened and you remember it…”
“When did I say that?”
He shrugged. “After we first met, when you first told me about his death.”
“Oh.” Making a face, she shrugged back. “I don’t really remember that. I’m kinda surprised you do. The truth is, I heard about it enough from my parents and, later, cousins that I missed what could have been and was able to build up a slight resentment towards Redwall. I mean luckily that all worked out.”
He nodded, leaning back in the wicker chair. “Indeed. So, you were newly born, a season old, what?”
“A little less than a season, why?” A slightly wicked smile grew on her face. “Wanted to check if I was older than you?”
He snorted. “Well, yeah. I assumed I was older.”
She laughed. “I did, too. But apparently, that is not the case.”
“Oh, quit being so smug.” They grinned at each other, before he asked, “so he was a little older than you?”
“Yes, probably five or so seasons? Enough to be running about and interested in war, but obviously far far too young to fight. Nobeast noticed him missing until it was too late.”
Just in case she got emotional, he hurried forward. “So, operating under the assumption that this mysterious badger is, in fact, your brother, we can speculate on a few other things. One, somebeast took him when Redwall refused aid. There’s many possible reasons why, but—”
“A healer saw that he was hurt and not helped by Redwall so absconded with him in an overzealous attempt to help.”
“What about the fox healer you said started him on the road to recovery?”
“Oh yeah.” Carma hesitated to accuse the healer automatically, trying to drill automatic suspicion of non-woodlanders out of her system.
“I mean, if he was already being healed, there’s no need for a vigilante medical kidnapper.”
Laughing, she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms comfortably. “A vigilante medical kidnapper? Fine. What about another badger coming across him with the healer, assuming the worst, and taking him. I mean, clearly he came across other badgers if he married one and had a child.”
“Good point. At any rate,” he glanced at her with a critical albeit smiling look for interrupting and she laughed again, “he disappeared. Instead of dying, it’s possible he ended up in another place with no way of reaching you.”
“I mean, the elders here confirmed what I already knew: the community was so ravaged by that skirmish, which you also disappeared in, that they rebuilt here, obviously a fair distance away from the last site. That wouldn’t help communication efforts.”
He nodded. “I can testify to that. So, let’s assume he grows up, knowing a little of his past, but probably not a lot. He tries to get ahold of his family, but can’t. He settles in where he is, comes across this other badger at some point, and falls in love. They marry, have their own place, and have a child. Then on a trip, presumably, of some sort, catastrophe strikes and they fall dead, leaving a child to be delivered to Redwall Abbey and this message,” he waved at the paper, “to be left for us to find several seasons later.”
She seemed to be considering this, her gaze fixed on the wall behind him, but not really seeing what was in front of it, focused instead on her mind’s eye. The room they were in did have plenty to feast the eye on if you chose to. One wall was crammed with shelves overflowing with sheets of parchment and books, despite the collection they already had strewn about the table. The large table was conducive to small group meetings which he had a suspicion was indeed its purpose. A desk occupied a corner, hosting a surprisingly organized amount of stuff considering the state of the shelves. The rest of the walls were covered with scribbled reminders or colorful dried flowers. There was even a hanging row of shrubs Carma had informed him were medical herbs.
The multipurpose elders room was very useful for their purposes. When they had arrived at the community days earlier, the badgers had been welcoming, inviting Carma and her companions in, eager to hear about her adventures in the seasons she’d been gone. The festivities had gone on for longer than they had anticipated, full of probing questions that neither were quite sure how to answer, and laced with badger customs that were entirely foreign to Rori. It was not until today that they had even had the opportunity to search through the records to find traces of their family history.
“Well,” he looked up as she finally spoke, eyes a little watery, but smile evident, “if he couldn’t have a life with us, I’m glad he was happy, at least for a short bit.
“That’s a good way to think of it. I mean, now you know he had a bigger life than you thought he did. And, now you know you’re an aunt.”
“Yeah, Maben.” She shook her head. “It just blows the mind.” Standing all the way up, she took the opportunity to stretch. “Wow, what time is it? How long have we been in here?”
Rori dropped his head to the table and grumbled into his arms, “A very long time.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” She put her large fists on her hips. “I didn’t realize looking into our family histories, you know, what we came here for, was so boring.”
He hid a grin behind his fist while looking up at her. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
“Yeah. I am sad that we haven’t found anything about you yet. Maybe that would help keep you interested.” Smiling to prove that she was teasing, she started to organize the sprawling mass of parchment and books on the table.
“Well,” he stood to help her, “we only just found your information which is exciting enough for today. Good stopping point for now.”
“True.” She glanced around the room as she picked up the stack of papers. “Now, where do we put this for the time being?”
“Beats me. We could ask one of your cousins; I’m sure they’d love to help.”
“Oh yes, I’m sure they’d be so helpful.” She rolled her eyes, her tone more bitter than Rori, who had been expecting a laugh, had anticipated.
As he crossed the room to find an answer, he contemplated the friendly, but awkward interactions Carma had had with her extended family since arriving.
“Carma!” a badger he assumed was her aunt cried, pulling her into an overly expressive hug. Pulling back, she peered at her. “You look different. Have you done something with your fur?”
“Aunt Marjorie, I, uh, actually, I’ve grown.” Carma’s smile looked a little stiff and Rori wondered if she was bad at hiding her expressions or he just knew her well enough to recognize it.
“Have you really? Come here, Gregor. Come greet your cousin.” Rori stifled a laugh as a medium-sized badger trundled over. His clear disgruntled attitude visibly changed to shock as he had to crane his neck to peer up at his taller cousin. Even if Rori had not known about Carma’s growth spurt from both her testimony and seeing the latter end of it himself, her cousin’s shock at his displacement from the rank of taller cousin confirmed it.
“Gregor,” Carma’s arms hung awkwardly at her sides as if she wasn’t sure whether to go for a hug or not, “Good to see you again.”
He nodded. “Good to see you too.” Without further preamble, he asked, “why are you here? When you left, I got the impression that you never wanted to see us again.”
“Gregor!” his mother admonished in a shocked falsetto. “She is our guest.” Turning to Carma, she apologized for her son, who rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome here any time, dear.”
Looking awkward as more badgers congregated to see what the ruckus was about, Carma reached her arm in his direction, beckoning. “Thank you. Aunt Marjorie, Gregor, others, this is my friend, Rori.”
“Friend?” Aunt Marjorie raised her eyebrows too high and winked unsubtly. “A big strong badger like this and you’re just friends?” She reached out a paw and shook Rori’s paw. “Nice to meet you, Rori. Excuse my niece, she’s always been awful with males.”
“Yes, ma’am. Uh, nice to meet you, too.” Rori had no idea what else to say.
To her credit, Carma did not react as strongly as she might have previously. “Aunt Marjorie,” she asked, exasperation tinging her voice, “would it be possible for us to stay here for a while?”
She gave him one more look over before returning to her niece. He saw Carma restraining the urge to roll her eyes, and, in return, he fought the urge to laugh. “Our house is always welcome to you, like I said. Of course, we might need to get another house to host him. Wouldn’t want you to getting up to anything!” Winking again, she turned to converse with a nearby villager.
Carma opened her mouth to speak, possibly to protest the insinuation, possibly to change the subject, he wasn’t sure.
“Right!” Her aunt turned back from an impossibly fast conversation. “Now that that’s settled, follow me!”
Rori looked over at Carma. He was ready to follow her lead. If she wanted to protest, find a different place to stay, oppose the jabs, he would willingly back her up. However, if she wanted to acquiesce with their request until they found what they were looking for, he was willing to oblige.
Looking only mildly irritated, she caught him looking at her and smiled. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Since then, they had been caught up in whirl of festivities. Rather than being due to their arrival, their presence merely happened to coincide with a harvest celebration. Though Rori thought that there were quite a few fruits and vegetables harvested at the time, due to his lack of knowledge regarding both general agriculture and northern Mossflower growing seasons, he was really not sure which harvest in particular they were celebrating.
That was at first, anyway. When he’d asked Carma, the more agriculturally-minded one of their group, not to mention the two of them, she’d looked thoughtful and rattled off a string of plants. “Well there’s beans and beets, of course.”
“Of course,” he’d mimicked jokingly.
She’d made a face at him but continued, “cabbage, onions, peas, spinach, and tomatoes. Oh and melons. Besides, of course,” she’d added pointedly, “the fruits and vegetables with longer harvesting seasons.”
“Right. Well, harvest festivals are always good, right?”
He had no idea how much he was going to regret that statement.
To be fair, it wasn’t necessarily the harvest festival’s fault. More…the attendees. But the patently ridiculous melon-festooned elements of the festival didn’t help. There were melons everywhere, implanted in any form of dish Rori had thought possible along with a few he had not even remotely considered, including pies and casseroles. Why anybeast concoct such a monstrosity, much less submit otherbeasts to it, was entirely beyond him.
Between stomaching often delicious, often disgusting dishes, the intense social scene made him more squeamish than the questionable mix of foods in his stomach. They were mobbed by questions regarding their history, how they met, what they had been up to, but also leaving no room for them to answer, more concerned with talking about themselves. This actually wasn’t terrible, since whenever they managed to sneak a few words in, their replies involving the war got negative responses, ranging from shock to disgust.
They didn’t seem to care that they didn’t have much choice before getting involved in a war, nor that by doing so they had possibly saved lives and, at least in Carma’s case, changed the potential course of it. They also didn’t appreciate their attempts that it wasn’t just killing vermin, because, after all, they knew very well that not all vermin were villains. This black and white mentality, the refusal to see their side of the situation, severely hampered their attempt to strengthen the already weak familial bond.
From what Rori could tell, Carma’s family was well-meaning, but stuck in their own worldview. With the small isolated community as it was, they had never had a reason to alter it. Apparently, this unreasonable stubbornness had worn on Carma more than he had realized.
He snapped back to the present and sighed. “Well, hopefully we can find what we’re looking for and get out of here.”
“Yeah,” she frowned, “I guess I just hoped things could be better now. I missed having a family.”
“Well, that’s what we’re for, right?”
She looked up sharply. “We?”
“Yeah,” he hesitated at the door, “the gang. Selra, Rip, and the others.”
Smiling, she looked down before meeting his gaze again. “That’s true. And I’m glad of it.”
“You’re glad of it?” He teasingly questioned her turn of phrase.
“Oh shush. Go find somebeast who knows something.”
Grinning, he stumbled out the door. Spotting an elder badger rushing towards him, he hailed her. “Hey, I actually had a quick question.”
“Mr. Rori.” She waved his summons away. “I have some news from you.”
“Okay?” He leaned further out the door. “What is it?”
“It’s from the south.”
Her somber expression stole his question from his mind. Without another word, he opened the door for her, then closed it behind them.
Despite the heat starting to beat down outside, the stones of the castle still retained the cold of night. Omi shivered as she roamed the halls. Even though the castle had been her home for many seasons, for some reason it felt unwelcome, almost as if it could sense that she had hurt one of its own. She shook, tying to fling the thought away as well as return warmth to her limbs. It was probably just the realization that this was the first time she had been back without her father. The whole place had an empty feel to it, the walls dank with sorrow. That must be it.
She stopped at a window and peered out. Her father’s absence also reminded her how her revenge plot had stagnated. Admittedly, she hadn’t planned much beyond bringing Selra in. She had hoped, assumed even, that she would get some sort of compensation for returning the queen’s wayward daughter, but, so far, nothing. Instead, the queen had been non-committal, encouraging Omi to stick around, but being unclear as to the terms of her bounty, merely assuring her that she would be rewarded. Come to think of it, there had been a less than reassuring look in her eye. Perhaps…but no. There was no way she could know. Her soldiers wouldn't dare spill and Selra was clearly terrified of her mother. She was safe.
Sighing, she put her back to the wall, ignoring the shiver inspired by the cool stone. Where was that otter? Maybe she had moved too fast, taking her following for granted. With a snort, Omipushed herself off the wall and kept moving down the hall. She had stayed in the trap clearing for over a week and left two very obvious bodies when they moved on. If the otter had missed those, perhaps she was giving her too much credit. After all, it would take a great deal of luck to bring her father down. That didn’t change the fact that her father, simple instructive, and her role model, was no longer on this earth. The otter had to go.
Omi snapped out of her thoughts when she heard a slight rustling. Without her full attention, her footpaws had continued aimlessly through the castle leaving her here, where here was. She peered through the crack in the door. Sunlight filtered through the window illuminating drifting dust motes. There was another rustle and her attention dropped to the sliver of orange and gray patterned fur.
Omi perked up. Maybe she could get some information out of the fox, use it to plan her next moves. With only the faintest of creaks, Omi slipped through the door, closing it softly behind her.
There was a grumble from the bed and the fox pulled the sheets up higher. So. The princess did not like being woken up.
She approached the bed. “Ah jist ‘ave a few questions if ye don’t mind me askin’.”
She did not miss the way the body stiffened, the only movement coming from an increased breathing rate. Slowly, deliberately, the fox rolled over and pushed herself into a sitting position. “What do you want, Omi?” Her voice was as cold as the look in her eyes.
“Oh, like Ah said,” seating herself in the bedside chair, the stoat drew her dagger and started casually twirling it, “Ah jist ‘ave a few questions about your otter friend. Stuff like that.”
Selra dragged her eyes away from the weapon and leaned back against the headboard with a sneer. “Why do you think I would know anything? The last time I saw her was—oh let me think,” she put her finger to her chin in mock pondering. “That’s right,” her smile was sickly sweet before vanishing in an instance, “when you kidnapped me. Same as you.”
Omi shrugged. “Surely you discussed plan with each other h’in case somethin’ ‘curred, being the warriors that you are. Or were you,” she put her paw over her mouth, “too cocky, convinced that you wouldn’t get hurt?” Her fake sympathy only deepened Selra’s glare.
All she said, however, was, “Too many variables have come into play. I can’t be certain what plan they would have gone with.”
“Yeah,” Omi shook her head and idly looked to the side, “h’it’s too bad you don’t ‘ave some sort of mental connection. Oh wait,” she focused her gaze back on the fox and let a smile play on her lips. “You do.”
She wondered if that was indeed a flash of fear before open disgust settled over Selra’s face. “Yes, because that makes sense. Just because we’re twins doesn’t mean we have a mental connection. That’s just a myth.”
Omi did not miss the muttered insult that followed. She let it roll off with a short laugh, examining her knife. “Ah don’t know if you remember, but Ah was at the battle in the spring. Ah heard…stories, shall we say.” She looked back up at the fox and smirked, Malital’s influence seeping through. “Oh my, are you all right your ‘ighness? You don’t look well.”
“I wonder why. I am currently recovering from torture.” She spat the last word. Omi didn’t give her the dignity of wiping the slight spit off.
“Hm, question,” she settled back in the hard wooden chair.
“And the others were what, probing remarks?”
“Nothing,” there was definitely a smirk back on Selra’s face, only reinforcing her urge to wipe it off. “Please, do continue.”
Omi frowned, but continued. She was still in control. “Due to your and, Ripscar is it?” The fox’s face tightened but she didn’t take the bait, “your little thing, do you think ‘e felt it? The torture, AH mean, as you so extinctly put it.”
“Look, you turd,” she snarled, and the pure rage radiating from her eyes made Omi grip her dagger and press further into the chair, “I don’t even know if my brother’s alive! Much less if he happens to be heading west or south right now. How’s that for a mental connection?”
Taking a breath, Omi opened her mouth to reply, but Selra cut her off. “Now, if that’s all you’ve got, please leave. After all, as you said, I don’t look so good.”
She forced a laugh. “If you think for a second that Ah wouldn’t ‘es’tate to kill you right now—”
“No, if you think for a second that I wouldn’t hesitate to call the guards and the full wrath of my mother on you, then you’re dumber than I thought.”
They glared at teach other before Omi pulled back, scrambling to salvage her exit. “Well, Ah got what Ah wanted fer now. Don’t think Ah won’t be back.”
“I’m sure you will.” Her smile was thin. “I look forward to it.”
She honestly couldn’t tell if the fox was serious. Flashing an insincere smile of her own, the stoat left the room. Well. That was not as helpful as she had hoped. Now she knew that Selra was scared of her, which she could use, but bloody hell, she still had a mouth on her. Riplar’s survival was also in question, but how did that help her? This manipulation thing was not her forte. She propped her elbows on the windowsill and peered at the lake below. Where was Slashclaw when she needed him?
As if on cue, there was a fluttering sound and a high voice announced, “I has a message from Slashclaw the Mad for Queen Oxos the Magnificent!”
Omi stared at the bird who had delivered this statement and grinned. Oh, this was interesting. Very interesting.
Ampanna honestly thought she might snap if she tripped over one more tree root. In the best of situations, hiking did come with difficulties such as bugs or unstable slopes. Hiking when one could not see, however, was most decidedly not the best of circumstances, and not an experience Ampanna would wish on anybeast. Actually, upon further reflection, she would most definitely wish it on her worst enemies. They would most assuredly deserve it.
She was just starting to contemplate who her worst enemies, in fact, were, and if they had indeed wished it on her, when she felt the tug that indicated they were coming to a stop. She stumbled and heard Naraudo grunt as her other paw flew to grab him. “Why h’are we stoppin’?”
There was silence and she fought the urge to injure herself further by rolling her eyes. “Naraudo, iffen yore makin’ a face, Ah still kin’t see h’it.”
“Oh right.” His voice was just above a mumble and she realized that he must also be exhausted even though he could see. “I need to answer nature’s call.”
“Ah.” She felt the corner of her mouth turn up the slightest degree. “Visit Miss Murphy h’as it were?”
“Take a leak?” She could hear the grin burgeoning in his voice.
“Take h’a dump,” she countered and he snorted.
“Send a log down the river?”
“Well,” she deadpanned, “since there’s no river ‘round ‘ere, Ah guess ye’ll jist ‘ave t’lay h’a brick.”
This time, Naraudo full out laughed. It was short, and bereft of long-lasting joy, but the true amusement seemed to disperse a temporary shot of energy into the air. “Sometimes I forget.”
Ampanna considered quirking her eyebrow but the dried blood and eye guts on her face made her reevaluate. “Forget what?”
“That you’re not as proper as you might seem.”
A fly buzzed around her blood-matted blindfold. She had no patience for his assumptions. “H’I’ve trekked fer days covered in blood ‘n dirt. H’I’ve scavenged fer vittles. H’I’ve killed many h’a beast in battle. ‘Ave ye ‘eard a whit o’ complain’ escape from me muzzle?”
“Ampanna, no, honey,” she could tell he was scrambling, and she could picture the frantic look in his eyes as he readjusted his paw in hers. “I just meant you don’t seem like the kind of beast to enjoy bathroom humor.”
Sighing, too exhausted to deal with emotions, she asked, “Weren’t ye goin’ to the bathroom?”
“Yes,” he dropped her paw; part of her felt free of his hot, clammy paw, but another part suddenly felt lost, disconnected from the universe. “Uh, would your mind turning around?”
“Naraudo. H’I’m blind.”
“Right, yes.” His tone suddenly turned from contrite to bitter and her heart clenched with guilt. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“H’I never said ye were,” she reached blindly for him.
“You don’t need to. Your tone did. And everybeast else does too.”
The air felt cold and she dropped her paw. “Look, iffen this is ‘bout Seg…”
“No! It’s not about Seg!” He snapped.
She didn’t know what to say and, after a moment of silence, she felt him take her paw.
“I’m sorry. It’s just, that’s part of what I’m saying.”
Furrowing her brow only hurt more. “Wot d’you mean?”
“I know she doesn’t care if we date. I mean, I know how she is. If she really didn’t think I was acceptable for you, I wouldn’t be here anymore. She’s already tried to kill me once and, if she thought I was a threat, I don’t think she’d hesitate to take me down.”
“I mean, yeah, I guess, but,” she sputtered.
“Ampanna,” he cut short her incoherent words, “I may not be the smartest beast, but I can recognize these things by now. Why do you think I act so cocky all the time? It makes me feel better about not being good enough.”
Ampanna opened and closed her mouth a few times before simply saying, “H’Im sorry.”
She felt him shrug, then grip her paw a little too hard as he agitated his shoulder. “What for? It’s not like it’s your fault.” He sounded inexplicably weary.
“No, h’it’s just,” she shook his paw as she tried to sort out her thoughts. “What ye said makes sense which means on some level, Ah already knew. But instead of ‘elpin’ ye, like a good mate ‘n girlfriend,” she felt a slight warmth in her cheeks and pushed on, “Ah jist ignored it. H’I guess Ah was ‘opin’ h’it was jist cockiness stemmin’ from true confidence like,” she thought better of making a comparison, “Ah don’t know, h’other beasts. Wot Ah’m sayin’ h’is Ah want to do a better job bein’ there for ye. H’I mean, Ah kin see so many great things h’about ye.” When he continued to be quiet, she tried for a smile. “Why d’you think Ah’m datin’ ye?”
He didn’t say anything, but kept adjusting his grip on her paw. Finally, she ventured, “H’I kin’t see yer face. H’I’m sorry iffen Ah misspoke.”
He let go of her paw and her heart plunged. She had failed her first boyfriend, but, more importantly, her friend. Why were relationships so complicated?
But her head only had a second to spin before she felt his arms around her. She hugged him back, tucking the good side of her face into his shoulder. “Thank you,” he muttered into her fur.
She just nodded, too emotionally exhausted from the ordeals of the last few days to muster up additional encouragement. The movement, however, made her realize something. “Naraudo,” she pulled back. “H’is yer arm workin’?”
That told her all she needed to know. “Oh no,” she ran tentative paws over his bound shoulder. “When did this ‘appen? The last thread of muscles must’ve snapped. We don’t ‘ave the equipment t’sew h’it up, not that AH could see to do h’it.” Her paws slowed.
“I’m guessing this is bad.”
“Yes, this is bad! H’I’m worried—”
“That I might lose my arm?”
“Yes,” she tilted her head up to face him, despite the fact that she couldn’t see. “H’I’m so sorry. Iffen only Ah—”
He cut her off. “What is it that the otters say? Shoulda coulda woulda buta? What’s done is done. This is Omi’s fault, not yours.”
She was about to speak, her face softening, when he continued. “Now I really do need to pee so if you’ll let me…” she felt her paw brush bark as he led her to a tree. She sank down next to it gratefully. Her muscles groaned, reminding her of how far they had walked that day.
“So, ‘ow much further are ye thinkin’ of goin’ today?”
She heard a splattering sound to her left and fought the childish urge to giggle. “Well, we still have a few hours to go before sunset, but considering how weak we are, I think we should stop for the night as soon as we find at least a water source. Hopefully food as well.”
She smiled at the ease he formulated a plan, but merely asked, “’Ow close do ye think we might be?”
He sighed, and she heard rustling. “Ampanna, I’m not even sure what direction we’re heading. Even if I knew where we were, I couldn’t tell you if we were close to a water source.”
Sometimes, she forgot that he had grown up secluded in the Abbey. Her head pounded as she tried to recall the map of Mossflower Woods they had had before the badgers left. Without success, her brain spiraled, wondering where the badgers were. Did they even know what was happening? Oh no, what if Omi had gotten them too? Or what if that had no idea what had happened to them? That Omi had, that Omi had…
She didn’t even realize she was shaking and breathing hard until she jumped at Naraudo’s paw on her shoulder. “Whoa, Ampanna, what is it?” He slowly rubbed his thumb in a circle.
With the blindfold, she couldn’t even look at his face. All she could see, flashing over and over again in her mind’s eye, was Omi’s knife cutting into Selra’s cheek; Selra whimpering as her head was forced to say in place; Omi’s cronies’ harsh laughter making so much of a racket that Ampanna thought, hoped, prayed that surely somebeast would hear and come to their aid; Ampanna’s own screams of horror and anger leaving her throat raw, with Naraudo’s shouts echoing in her ears. One of the last things she had seen before her eye had been shot out. “Stop stop, nonononono.” She gulped, rocking in place, “nononononono.”
“Mother Nature, ‘Panna,” she felt his working arms curl around her. The tears that didn’t soak into her blindfold dripped onto his tunic. His chest shuddered beneath her cheek. “I know, I know.”
She heard him start talking again. Not all the words were registering in her violence-arrested mind, but the few she caught sounded like the makings of a recipe. She focused instead on the sound of his voice, the relative steadiness of his breathing, the strength of his hold, fighting against the flashes of horror that kept leaking across her mind.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when the steady hum of Naraudo’s voice paused before asking. “Are you okay?” The memories were still there, hauntingly so, but her breathing had slowed and the crying had stopped. It was under control for the moment. She nodded. She thought he nodded too before he laughed shortly. “I guess this is payback for my nightmare the other night.”
Breathing a laugh, Ampanna recalled how she had heard weird sounds coming from his sleeping area. When she made her way over, she found him twitching and whimpering. After her shaking proved ineffective, she sat holding his paw and singing to him until he calmed down. He told her later that his flashbacks had changed to a beautiful meadow full of light where he could fly. “Yeah,” her voice was shaky, “Ah guess so.”
“See?” She felt a momentary pressure on the top of her head. “You’re there for me.”
Sitting up, she remained in his hold. “’N yore there fer me. That’s the only way we’re goin’ t’get through this thing.”
“Yeah.” They were silent and Ampanna suddenly wondered if he had kissed the top of her head. “Well, how much further do you think we should go today?” He leaned back against the tree. “I’d be happy just staying here. You can sleep while I keep watch.”
“Fer the last time, Naraudo, ye kin’t keep watch all night. We kin take turns.”
“And, no offense, but you can’t keep watch blind.”
“Then we’ll find shelter ‘n build a fire.”
He laughed as their argument from previous nights repeated itself. “Whatever you say, sweetie.” He tugged her closer and she complied easily.
“We really do need t’find food though. Do ye see h’any fruit trees close by?”
Luckily, being a cook meant that Naraudo was more aware than most of the local agriculture’s seasons. “Well, let’s look.” He stood, pulling her up with him. “You good?” He checked.
Nodding, she asked, “You?”
“As I’ll ever be.” They linked fingers again and started off, Naraudo regaling her with obscure details of fruit trees for her amusement.
He was just catching her as she stumbled when he paused. “Do you hear that?”
Despite the impedance of the blindfold over her ears, she thought she could detect a bizarre fluttering and chirping. “Yeah,” she straightened fully, “what is it?”
He let the sound itself answer her question, and, as it drew nearer, a voice became clearer. “From Slashclaw the Magnificent to Oxos the Mad Queen. No, I gots this. It’s Queen Slashclaw. Nonono.” The muttering bird swooped overhead and kept flying.
“Follow that bird?” Naraudo asked.
“Follow that bird.” Ampanna confirmed. With that, they dashed off headlong into the forest, letting hope give them wings.
Even the battle – hardened hare walking past the tent to report to the Major winced as the voices escalated. There was another group of hares standing an appropriately polite distance away and talking in low murmurs. Their constantly swiveling ears made it abundantly clear that they weren’t really paying attention to the conversation they were having. It was just for show, so they didn’t feel too bad eavesdropping on the growing argument inside. Of course, given the quickly ascending volume of the aforementioned argument, they could probably be standing on the outskirts of camp and still clearly hear each word that was shouted between the otters.
“Yes!” A low growl reverberated through the tent, and Lijel raked his fingers through the fur on his head in frustration. “H’as Ah’ve mentioned twenty times now.”
“Okay, but wot Ah don’t understand is why. Why did ‘e leave? We’re getting’ the ‘ares, we’re goin’ h’after Selra ‘nd Ampanna. Why?”
“H’it doesn’t matter why. We need to do somethin’. We need t’go h’after ‘im. We kin’t stand around wonderin’ why.” He tsked in annoyance. “Maids, honestly. Iffen we left decisions up to ye, nothin’ would ever get done.”
The hares outside gasped audibly, but it was covered up by Segalia’s yell as she rounded on Lijel. “H’excuse me? Iffen males made all the decisions, h’all we’d get is violence ‘nd stupid plans without thinkin’ o’ the consequences. Oh, wait. That’s wot we do ‘ave!”
“Mother Nature, Seg, this h’is not the time fer un o’ yer rants against sexist patriarchal society! Riplar h’is missin’, ‘nd we need t’find ‘im before ‘e gets ‘urt.”
“H’okay, one, yore the one ‘o was sexist in the first place, so don’t act like Ah’m draggin’ h’it into this conversation.”
She didn’t let him cut her off. “Two, why h’are ye h’assumin’ Riplar kin’t ‘andle ‘imself? We’ve fought side by side with ‘im.”
“Seg, that’s not wot Ah’m—”
Apparently, she still wasn’t finished. “No! Wot’s wrong with ye? Kin’t ye trust ‘im? Look at ‘ow ‘elpful we’ve been. Maybe ‘e’s better h’off without us.”
Though her voice had retained its furious anger throughout what she wanted to say, the stunned second of silence following spoke wonders. The hares outside were just starting to turn to one another, questions in their eyes, when Lijel crashed through the fragile pause. “We kin’t lose h’any more beasts! First, the badgers, then Ampanna ‘nd Selra ‘nd Naraudo, ‘n ‘o h’even knows wot’s ‘appened t’them, ‘nd now Riplar. We ‘ave t’get ‘im back. Otherwise, wot kind o’ mates would we be?”
Another deafening pause. The hares shared an awkward look. Perhaps this was getting too personal. Perhaps they should leave.
“The same poor ones we’ve been h’all season Ah guess.” She sighed, desperately weary. “Lijel, wot do ye want me t’do? H’I guess Ah feel like Ah’ve already failed everybeast.” Her voice tensed, the anger returning, but this time they were pretty sure it was directed at herself. “Like ye said, Ampanna, Selra, ‘n Naraudo got captured, ‘nd we did nothin’ t’save them. Then Ah couldn’t control myself fer h’a week or so because my Bloodwrath acted up. Fat lot o’ good it did to ‘elp us. H’and now, jist when Ah think h’it’ll be h’okay, because we’re trainin’, ‘nd the ‘ares are gonna ‘elp us, ‘nd we’ll save them, ‘nd we kin go ‘ome, wherever that is, Riplar disappears. H’I—” she waved a paw aimlessly. “H’I don’t know wot t’do. H’I mean, wot iffen h’it’s too late?”
If Segalia and Lijel had been any other beasts, the hares would have assumed that Lijel had given Segalia a much needed, comforting hug. There was no doubt in their mind that Lijel also needed a hug. However, given the otters’ uncomfortableness with the vulnerability already displayed in the conversation, as well as their complex relationship with physical affection, the chances of a hug actually occurring were very slim.
Instead, Lijel asked the question that they had all wondered, but wouldn’t have wanted to ask, even if they had been a part of the conversation. “Too late for who? Whom,” he corrected a second later.
Segalia raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment on it. “H’I don’t know, h’all o’ them. Ye saw Riplar the other day. ‘E knows somethin’ ‘appened to Selra. Something could easily ‘ave ‘appened to Ampanna and Naraudo ‘as well.” She bit her lip before meeting his gaze. “Lijel, wot iffen they’re dead?”
“Seg, ye kin’t—”
“But it’s true! They might be! H’I feel like Ah would know iffen my best mate died, but ‘o’s knows? H’I don’t ‘ave some psychic connection with ‘er. Wot iffen they’re dead, ‘nd it’s all our fault?”
“Seg, stop. Ye kin’t go down that path. Trust me, iffen somebeast ye cares about dies ‘nd ye blame yerself fer it, thinkin’ ye could ‘ave done somethin’, h’anythin’ t’stop it, all ye get is h’a lot o’ unnecessary pain. Besides, we don’t know iffen they’re dead h’or even ‘urt. H’Omi wanted them as bait fer ye, so she’s probably jist waitin’ h’around fer ye to show up, ‘nd then she’ll do somethin’.”
“Omi doesn’t exactly strike me h’as the patient type,” she muttered. “’Nd really,” her tone was humorless, “iffen Ah’m the reason this all ‘appened because Ah ‘elped end a war ‘nd a stoat got obsessed with revenge, ‘ow am Ah not supposed to feel guilty ‘bout our mates gettin’ kidnapped ‘nd disappearin’?”
“’Nd ‘ere Ah thought ye were so self – confident, ye couldn’t develop a guilt complex. Jokin’,” he added when she glared at him. “But instead o’ jist wallowin’ in yer guilt, use it as, Ah don’t know, h’a catalyst, h’an instigator. Use it to motivate yerself to do somethin’ ‘n do everythin’ h’in yer power t’’elp them.” He laughed mirthlessly. “Probably not the ‘ealthiest option, but it’s better than sittin’ ‘round doin’ nothin’.”
“Fine, whatever.” They were sure she had appreciated his advice, but now Segalia sounded very done with any and all emotion. Then she paused. “By the way, Ah never apologized fer wot Ah said ‘bout Wraltor. That was…uncalled fer. H’I,” she shook her head. “H’I’m not gonna make excuses. Ah shouldn’t ‘ave said it. H’I know ye were really good mates, ‘n Ah was ‘is mate, too. H’I kin imagine that seein’ ‘im h’again like that must ‘ave messed ye up, so,” she grimaced, “Ah’m sorry.”
He nodded slowly. “H’I, yeah, thanks. H’I ‘ppreciate it.”
“Right.” Glad to have that over with, she barged forward. “So wot do we do? We don’t know wot direction ‘e took or h’even ‘ow long ‘e’s been gone.”
Lijel opened his mouth to speculate when an authoritative voice interrupted. “Actually, we do know that.”
Both otters whirled to find the Major standing at the tent opening. She strolled in like she owned the place. “I couldn’t help but overhear your little disagreement,” Segalia scowled, “and I have some information that might be of interest to you.”
“Wot is it?” Lijel’s voice was not much warmer than Segalia’s glare.
“I had a little chat with your fox friend as he was leaving last night.”
“’N ye didn’t stop ‘im? Wot’s wrong with ye?”
The Major seemed unaffected by her outburst. “I did stop him. And then I let him go. He was quite determined, you see. Angry, if I recall.”
“Whatever. Did ‘e say where ‘e was goin’?”
“Where do you think?” Before giving them a chance to guess, she smiled and answered for them. “The Inland Lake, home of Marlfox Castle, of course.”
“O’ course!” Segalia turned excitedly to Lijel, hope bringing life back to her naturally optimistic personality. “This whole trip was to see their mom h’anyway, ‘n Omi might’ve ‘eaded that direction as well.” She turned back to the Major, slightly more sedate. “H’excuse us, but we need t’leave h’immediately.”
“Finally,” Lijel mumbled under his breath.
Shooting him a sideways glare, she continued, “Right away. We thank ye greatly fer yer ‘ospitality. Now, we’ll jist be h’on our way.”
She turned to roll up her bedspread, but the Major stopped her. “Now what kind of hosts would we be if we let you go without supplies?”
“Oh, well, that would be nice.”
Lijel stepped in. “Iffen yore willin’, then we would really h’appreciate it. ‘Ow long ago did ‘e leave?”
“I would guess a few hours after nightfall. But if you’re headed north, why don’t we go with you?”
They turned to her in unison. “Wot?”
She looked less than patient, almost bored. “You came to us, asking for help. This is me offering it to you. I was getting ready to move camp soon anyway, and my warriors would be more than happy to help you take down that evil Marlfox.”
“Uh,” Lijel and Segalia shared a glance, “we’re not sure iffen we’ll be takin’ ‘er down.”
“H’I mean, she’s Riplar and Selra’s mom.”
The hare quirked an eyebrow at them, unimpressed. Lijel noticed absent – mindedly that her ear quirked simultaneously. “You fought a war last spring to kill their father. That didn’t seem to affect you too badly. Or them considering you roped them into fighting with you.”
Eyes narrowed, Segalia crossed her arms. Lijel put his arm out, looking ready to stop any altercation that erupted, but she ignored it and spoke calmly, with just a touch of steel in her voice. “Okay, h’it’s not that we don’t want yer ‘elp. But there’s a crazy stoat out there with h’a lust fer revenge ‘n crazy h’allies ‘o ‘as captured our mates. She killed one o’ our mates from Redwall, a ‘are,” the Major subtly perked up, “’n ‘o knows wot other damage she could cause. She should be the main concern ‘ere, not a grieving mother ‘n warlord ‘o ‘asn’t been ‘eard from h’in months.”
This time there was a tinge more respect in her gaze when the Major met Segalia’s eyes. “That’s fair. What do want us to do?”
Startled for a second, Segalia quickly tried to formulate a response. “Um, yeah, Ah think ye should go h’after Omi. She ‘as a small band with ‘er, Ah’m not sure ‘ow many beasts, but she also ‘as tricks up ‘er sleeve.”
“Yeah, she used an ‘allucinogenic to knock h’our mates out ‘n h’affect the rest o’ us.”
Segalia nodded, considering something. “Would ye ‘ave t’report t’the Badger Lord at Salamandastron iffen ye went after h’Omi?”
The Major seemed amused. “No. We’ve run our own missions here for seasons. Besides, we’re so far away from the West Coast that even our fastest runner wouldn’t be back until next season. Not very efficient, if you ask me.”
“Do ye think ye’ll be h’able to track ‘er down?”
“Are you always this doubting of those who offer you their aid, Sir Lijel?”
Lijel spluttered. “Wot? No, Ah—”
“We have a squadron of highly trained, very efficient scouts. Combine that with the information you provided, and I think we’ll manage to track down our abductor stoat. I’ll send a few hares with you whenever you leave. I’ll send the scouts out as soon as possible, then follow behind them. The hares will be ready in five minutes. That will be all.” She stood at attention, as if waiting for something.
“Uh,” Lijel shared a glance with Segalia, “yore h’in our tent.”
“Naturally.” Unfazed, the major nodded and ducked out of the tent.
“Okay then.” The otters looked at each other, and Segalia finished rolling up the bedroll in her arms. “H’I guess that’s good then.”
“Yeah. H’I think so.”
“H’I kin’t ‘elp but feel,” she grunted as she shoved the bedroll into her sack, “that we should contact Redwall somehow.”
“Wot d’ye mean?” Lijel shoved his spare tunic in his bag.
“Well, we’ve been gone most o’ the season now, ‘n we ‘aven’t really ‘eard from them since ‘Owlia.”
“Not that we really ‘eard from them then h’either.”
“’Zactly. H’I jist feel like with h’everything goin’ on, they should know ‘bout it.”
Lijel stood. “Well, not everythin’. We don’t want to worry them. Iffen they ‘ear too much, they’ll freak.”
“True. The ‘olt would not be ‘appy t’learn we let Ampanna get kidnapped.” Segalia swept her eyes over the tent interior, making sure they hadn’t left anything.
Lijel approached the tent flaps. “Let’s see iffen one of ‘er runners kin send a…censored message fer us.” He looked back with a small smile. “’N don’t worry. We’ll find them.”
She smiled back and hefted her sack onto her shoulder. “Yeah. Thanks, Lijel.”
As they stepped out of the tent, she asked, “Why d’ye think Riplar left without tellin’ us?”
He sighed. “H’I don’t know. ‘E probably felt like nothin’ was ‘appenin’, ‘n got desperate. Maybe ‘e figured iffen ‘e told us h’it would be too much of an affair.”
“Probably thought it was quicker t’cut out on ‘is own. Poor Riplar. H’I ‘ope ‘e’s alright.”
“Yeah, Ah’m sure ‘e’s fine. Like ye said, we’ve fought beside ‘im.”
She nodded as three hares walked up to them. “Your warriors, sir and ma’am, at your service.”
“I’m Rocky,” said the lead speckled brown one.
“I’m Shadow,” said a dark gray one.
“And I’m Bounder,” said a small powerful – looking pale one.
In unison, they said, “And together we make up the Secret Crushers!”
“Um,” the otters glanced at each other, “Okay. H’I’m Segalia.”
“’N Ah’m Lijel. Nice t’meet ye.”
They all shook paws enthusiastically in turn.
“We’re still working on the name,” Rocky admitted.
“We want something that shows off all our key skills,” Shadow continued.
“But also sounds super cool!” Bounder jumped in.
“’N yer key skills are?”
They stared at Rocky who broke into a grin. “Just joshin’ you, mateys. I’m a slinger, wot.”
“And I’m leaping. Oh, and running.”
“Ah, hence the names.”
“Yes. Wot? You thought our dear old mummies gave us these? Nah, we earned them for ourselves.”
The otters nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Now, did the Major tell ye the mission?”
“Yes, sir.” Rocky saluted.
“H’I’m jist Lijel.”
“Yes, Lijel. She said we were finding the fox who was with you when you arrived.”
“Uh, yep. Pretty much. So, d’ye ‘ave everythin’ ye need?”
They nodded, leaping into attention. “Sir, yes, sir!”
“Sorry,” Shadow apologized as they fell out of stance, “force of habit.”
Segalia stifled a giggle at Lijel’s flabbergasted expression. “Well then, we might as well ‘it the road.”
As they left the camp, Bounder sprang up, “Oo, we should sing a marching song!”
Segalia and the other hares readily agreed. As they started off, Lijel groaned. What was he getting himself into? He met Segalia’s eyes over the hare in between them, and she grinned cheekily through the ditty in response to his groan. He rolled his eyes teasingly in return, then let a small smile as she returned to singing the song, narrowing her eyes in concentration as she tried to catch all the words. What was he getting himself into? A quest with his friend to save other friends; what cause could be greater? He adjusted his pack on his shoulder; he just hoped they weren’t too late.
To Queen Oxos the Magnificent from her humble servant, Slashclaw the Mad,
I hope things are going well at Marlfox Island. I regret that I haven’t been able to visit since Grovelum’s defeat in the spring, but I’ve been caught up in other matters. There is one matter in particular that I was hoping you could help me with.
I am currently at Redwall Abbey where a crazy hedgehog, Malital Walthers, and I have used some sort of serum to knock out the inhabitants and take over the Abbey. Quite the nifty trick. The thing is, I don’t trust Malital, and I don’t agree with her plan to conquer Redwall. Not enough blood, if you ask me.
How would you like to get revenge on Redwall Abbey? The inhabitants are all drugged and incapacitated which gives you the perfect opportunity to slit the throats of those who took out Grovelum. If I remember correctly, I can probably point out the exact beast who did it.
Besides, it’s been a while since we caught up with each other. Let me know if I can do anything to help you.
Seriously, Oxos. I’m here for you.
To Slashclaw the Mad from Queen Oxos the Magnificent, Ruler of Marlfox Lake and Mossflower Woods,
As much as I appreciate the offer of help, what makes you think I need anything? I am quite capable of handling matters myself. As for your offer of “catching up”, I do believe that, once again, you are overestimating my tolerance level for you and your shenanigans. We might have to postpone that.
Your description of Redwall Abbey, however, is interesting. What matter of drug keeps them in such a state? Who orchestrated such a drug? Surely you haven’t picked up apothecary skills since I last saw you. I could not decipher your scratched-out scribblings, but my own sources report a Malital Walthers seeking revenge. What can you tell me about her?
I am not convinced that killing one beast in a host of drugged beasts is the best way to exact revenge. It seems cheap with too many variables unaccounted for. If this is how you went about most of your plans, it is a wonder you have survived thus far.
Respond with more details when you can.
wat in hellgates is going on at redwall? everybeast is drugged? how did you do that? wy isn’t everybeast dead yet? wat is malitawl up to? tell me wat’s happening!!!!!
i need help. i read yor letter to the queen (don’t worry i gaev it to her) wich is how i know all that. i’m at the cassel cassle caselt and i browt the foxmade here. oh yeah i kidnapped her and the sq…..s for bate then killed the sq…..s wen the riverdog didn’t show up. but now i don’t know wat to do!!!! the queen hasn’t given me ransom for returning her dater and selra won’t tell me anithing about the riverdog. i don’t no wear the riverdog went. how do i find her? how do i get revenge?!?!?!
Omi queen of lots of stuff
From Slashclaw the Mad to the esteemed Queen Oxos, Warlady and Ruler of Marlfox Lake and Mossflower (my deepest apologies for forgetting all of your title),
You wound me with your harsh words. I take hope, however, in your use of the word might.
To address your other accusations: Yes, the plan is shaky which is why it could use the boost of a wonderful mastermind such as yourself. I am currently allied with the Malital Walthers of whom you speak; she, despite her other qualities, is masterful at potions. I’m thinking of stealing some to use in other schemes.
That being said, I do not know enough about this drug to explain how it works to you. You’ll have to come see for yourself. Once you’re here, you can examine and upgrade the operation. Then, it shouldn’t be too long before we take Salamandastron and finally, truly take over all of Mossflower.
I look forward to your help.
Your faithful servant,
Calm down. Yes, Malital used a drug to induce hallucinations and comas in the Redwallers. She’s now pulling back the drug in increments to control the populace. Everyone’s not dead because that doesn’t seem to be her plan yet. I have my own plans…
As for your dilemma: I would suggest torturing the information out of Selra, but that seems inadvisable now that she’s back under her mother’s roof. Also, something tells me you’ve already tried that.
One tactic you could try is to retrace your steps; send spies around Mossflower and check in the likely, then less likely places for your otter. I hope you’ve gathered an army by this point to help you with it.
Another possible solution would be to just wait. This could be precarious given Oxos’s refusal to give you a reward, but I have a feeling that Riplar, Selra’s brother, will come looking for her. There’s a good chance the otter will be with him.
I’m sorry I can’t find out more information for you here, but the drugged state makes it hard to get anything comprehensible out of these beasts. Good luck.
If you need any more advice, let me know.
PS. Malital would probably rebuke you for reading another beast’s mail, but I think it shows resourcefulness.
To Slashclaw the Mad from Queen Oxos the Magnificent et cetera,
Flattery will get you nowhere. You of all beasts should know that. In fact, it makes me even more disinclined to acquiesce to your request. A shaky plan? From what I can tell, the plan is in shambles, practically nonexistent. Either Malital’s only skill lies in potion making or some information is not being passed along here, either to you or to me. If there is even the slightest chance of me helping you, I must have all the information.
To start the process of sharing information, I should mention the child you mentor, Dir’s brat, Omi, is here. What can you tell me about her and her plans? She seems very unreliable; I hope you know what you have gotten yourself into. How much would it pain you if she died? I am sorely tempted for a variety of reasons, most not worth mentioning. Let us just say that Redwall Abbey is not the only thing that needs to pay for the harm done to my family and leave it at that.
Salamandastron is an interesting concept. Implausible, given what I know about your situation, but interesting. Surely you understand the complexities of running a kingdom. I cannot simply leave the castle to my simpleton underlings and gallivant across Mossflower Woods merely because something is “interesting”. Even if my children were here, they are not quite ready for this burden. Please pass on more information. Draw pictures if you must. Perhaps I can dispense some valuable information from afar.
Slashclaw looked at the freshly delivered letters in his paw and shook his head. Then, he turned and reentered the Abbey to respond, ignoring the sounds of crashes coming from throughout the Abbey. He had business to deal with.
Denol had had enough of this sneaking around. Sabotaging Dubya’s schemes from the inside out was good and all, but he still didn’t see why the almost score of free Redwallers couldn’t take down two beasts. He didn’t care how good a warrior that fox–like creature was, nor did he really care about repercussions. After all, they could overpower both Dubya and Slashclaw without too much trouble, he figured, so how could they possibly retaliate? What was most important was protecting their Abbey. What would Martin say if they just let themselves be run over by scum? He had no idea what was coming.
Luckily, there were several other beasts among the underground who agreed with him, thinking Skipper Joncho’s stance a bit harsh. Or rather, not harsh enough. And so, in between freaking out the invaders and keeping tabs on their activities, they plotted. By the time the end of summer was fast approaching, they were ready to put their plan into action.
Their surveillance had revealed that, while neither Dubya nor Slashclaw went to bed early, Dubya had a tendency to sleep in a little later than Slashclaw. Of course, that was relative since some nights Slashclaw didn’t appear to have gone to bed at all. Besides that unpredictability, neither were particularly heavy sleepers, a fact tested by several different sleep deprivation techniques that had proved fairly effective.
The day would not prove to be too much of an added difficulty, however, if they got it just right. Dubya usually ate breakfast at 8 am sharp down in the kitchens. She had been trying different potion levels on the inhabitants to try to keep up with the many demands of running a large Abbey. She had had partial success so far, with the bellringers and gardeners back in place, but she didn’t yet trust them to cook her food. It was a shame too, because Denol didn’t consider himself above poisoning. Besides, he was, or used to be, one of the temporary head cooks; he figured he could slip a poison into her food without too much difficulty. And after all she had done to them, it would be sweet revenge.
As it was, she usually went about her rounds right after eating, checking potion effectiveness and getting what Abbeymembers she could get back to work. It was weird seeing the Abbey slowly came back to life, some of the hustle and bustle returning, but without the friendly atmosphere that had always made Redwall what it was: a home for all who travelled through. It was with this incentive in mind that they planned to ambush her as she checked in on a patient who they would swap out with one of their own.
At the same time, the other part of their group would take down Slashclaw. Unfortunately, he did not follow the precise schedule that his partner did, and so the team would just have to make their best guess. They would try to be as quick and efficient as possible, killing them before Joncho and the others got wind of their actions.
And so they were off. Tanyon, the squirrel, peered around the corner waiting for the first sign of Dubya. As soon as he heard the shuffle of footpaws on redstone and rustle of dress, he waved wildly down the hall. Beki saw the signal and ran to the room where a sleeping mousemaid was being replaced by one of the escapees.
“She’s comin’!” She hissed, “h’arrival in two minutes, max.” She met Denol’s eyes. “Ye ready fer this?”
He knew Beki had been sneaking out at night to visit her season–old son who was in an induced coma, packed into a dormitory with all the other Dibbuns, too young and uncontrollable to be of use to Dubya. Her husband had died in the war, and her brother had left on that quest months before, and not been heard from since. Her son was all she had left.
Denol nodded firmly. His own sister was still in Dubya’s keeping, and it hurt him more than he could say to see her shambling about, her eyes lacking their normally bright spirit as Dubya directed her movements. This couldn’t keep going on. “It’s time.”
They finished the switch, and the other two beasts dashed back into the hall, ready to ambush her in the room. Beki hid under the bed, while Denol ducked into the closet. A few seconds later, Dubya came through the doorway, her steaming cup of wake-up drink firmly in her paw.
“So, how are we—” she smothered a yawn against the back of her free paw, “this morning?”
He froze for a second, worried that they had been caught, before realizing that she was addressing her patient. She came around the bed, setting her mug down on the nightstand, and picked up the mouse’s limp wrist to check her pulse. Then, she reached over and pried open her eyelids. From his closet post, Denol prayed feverishly that she would stay relaxed.
Apparently not enough because Dubya hummed thoughtfully. “Looks like you might be ready to rejoin the Abbey. You feel like getting up and moving around yet?”
In a flash, the mousemaid shot up, her paws aiming for the hedgehog’s throat. “I feel like killing you.” With a speed that was not evident at first glance at her solid frame, Dubya leapt off the bed. “Excuse me—” If she had more things to say, they were lost in a scream as Beki tripped her. That was enough of a sign for Denol and the others to come bursting out of their hiding places to overpower the hedgehog.
As the others held down her struggling paws, Denol reached for his belt and drew out a dagger that they had salvaged from the attic earlier. Even as he approached, steel flashing in the sunlight drifting peacefully through the Abbey window, a squeamish worm of doubt roiled in his stomach. Despite what he had told himself earlier, slitting another beasts’ throat or stabbing them in the heart was nothing like chopping carrots in the kitchen or even killing and gutting a fish. Carrots didn’t stare back at you, fear and hatred flashing from their eyes. Fish didn’t mutter threats of death and destruction in frightful tones that crescendoed and decrescendoed impressively. Food didn’t have a soul. Well, fish might, but now was really not the time for semantics. Due to his participation in the kitchens and the infirmary during the war, he hadn’t participated in the fighting. Now, he doubted his resolve, doubted his ability to take the life of another beast.
“Well?” Beki asked, the exertion of holding down the struggling Dubya evident in her voice. “Wot’re ye waitin’ fer?”
“Nothing. It’s — it’s fine.” He shook his head in an effort to clear his thoughts as easily as shooing away flies. Just like flies, unfortunately, they returned, buzzing incessantly until he couldn’t concentrate on anything else.
As Beki stared, waiting, at him, the look in her eyes changed from one of irritation to one of compassion. “It’s okay. H’I kin do it.”
When she held her paw out for the dagger, however, all hell broke loose. To put it more aptly, Dubya broke loose, elbowing the mousemaid hard in the muzzle and stomping on Beki’s footpaw. As they tried to reassert their hold on her, she flexed her spikes and shouts of pain rung out in the room. Instinctively, Tanyon, who had joined them for the takedown, brought his paw to his mouth in an effort to suck the pain away. That was enough for Dubya to grab the dagger, stab the last beast who still had a firm grip on her, and head for the door.
“Stop her!” Denol heard himself cry, footpaws unreasonably rooted to the floor, “she’s getting away!”
Beki bumped into him as she scrambled to her footpaws and suddenly his own were moving again, sending him flying to the hall just in time to catch the end of Dubya’s dress flapping around the corner. As he sped after her, intent on finishing the job even if it was Beki that dealt the fatal blow, it did not at first occur to him where she might be leading them. However, as the doorways flashed past him, a feeling of dread started to grow. Where could she be taking them?
Everything connected with a startling, agonizing crash in his head when he skidded to a stop in the doorway to yet another dormitory. The dormitory, it so happened, that his sister was housed in. “No no no no no no no no.” The protest was out of his mouth before he could even think it.
The creepily light-hearted laughter came from his sister’s bed where Dubya was perched, knife at the ready. “Oh yes, Denol. Surely you didn’t think I wouldn’t recognize you, did you? I will admit, it took me a few seconds, but, after all, I did make it my duty to learn everything I could about the inhabitants of this Abbey. My Abbey.” Her eyes grew bitter, then evil as she looked down at the resting hogmaid. “Your little sister. Such a sweet girl. Three seasons younger than you, am I correct?” A glance at his simultaneously terrified and furious face was enough to confirm it for her. “Poor little Frisa. Babied by an overprotective brother, never to reach her full potential.”
“Stop.” He took a determined step forward, but halted as soon as the blade dropped a hair lower. “Just, just stop. What do you want?”
“Denol,” he heard Beki protest gently from behind her, offering potential alternate strategies. He ignored her. What choice did he have anymore? It wasn’t her son’s life on the line. It was his sister. Maybe if it had been, she’d understand.
“Hm.” She put the knifepoint to her lips, tapping softly. When his eyes darted back to her sister, his footpaws unconsciously scooting forward as his paw clenched, she returned the weapon, resting it casually, terrifyingly, on Frisa’s windpipe. “Don’t even think about it.” As he pulled back, she returned to his question. “Continual rule of this Abbey? Would that work for you? Or, how about I ask you to stop terrorizing me? Would you do that?”
Denol seemed to consider this for a second. “Well—”
“What d’ye think yore doin’?!” Beki hissed frantically from behind him. “Ye kin’t negotiate with ‘er!”
She laughed again, the sound eerie enough to seemingly penetrate their cores. “She’s right, you know. You shouldn’t negotiate with me. I mean, certainly not without your precious leader, Joncho, here. Oh wait,” she dropped her jaw in mock surprise, “he doesn’t know you’re here, does he?”
Denol’s fist clenched again and Beki growled as Dubya’s lips curled into an evil slice of a smile.
“But no worries. As it so happens, I’m not in the mood to negotiate.” She dragged the knife lightly over Frisa, tracing out delicate patterns.
Denol’s breath hitched, but he couldn’t make himself look away.
At Frisa’s paw, she stopped. Instead, she lay the knife down, handle resting in Frisa’s open paw.
What was she doing? His brow furrowed. She wouldn’t be that careless, would she?
“You tried to kill me.” Her voice turned to ice, and he shivered, despite the warmth in the room. Ugly rage and bitterness contorted her face as she continued. “I don’t want you to have any misconception about how far I will go, not only to stay in control, but to destroy Redwall and every single one of your miserable lives.”
“You can’t—” His voice caught in his throat. He was begging, but he didn’t care. “Don’t kill her. Please. I—” She had already turned down his offer of a bargain. He looked frantically around the room. “Kill me instead.”
“No,” Beki whispered from behind him. “Ye kin’t do this, Denol. Ye kin’t be serious.”
In that moment, he felt more serious about sacrificing himself than he had about killing Dubya. More serious than anything in his life. His little sister couldn’t die. Not like this.
“Oh, Denol.” Her voice was overly sweet, full of concern. “I’m not going to kill her.”
“You’re not?” He blinked furiously to get rid of the tears that threatened to fall. He was not crying.
“Of course not.”
He was almost convinced, lulled by the sound of her voice and the hurt concern on her face.
“She’s going to kill herself.”
“No!” This time, Denol did dart forward into the room, flinging himself at the bed, across his sister, towards the dagger, anything that could save his sister.
He didn’t make it.
“Ah ah ah,” Dubya tutted, the sadistic snarl back in place as she guided Frisa’s paw to her throat. Frisa mumbled as she finally woke up at the motion – she’d always been slow in the mornings, he recalled with fondness and too – early grief.
“Frisa, dear, would you mind doing something for me?”
“Sure,” she mumbled, blinking bleary eyes.
“I need you to kill yourself.”
There was no response this time, the request transmitting, but failing to fully process.
Dubya rolled her eyes, temporarily losing her cool. “I swear, every time,” she muttered irritably before reigniting the charm. “Just take this knife, honey, and pull it across your throat, okay?”
Denol watched, horrified, as her paw rose, clutching the dagger. “Frisa, no!”
Her unfocused eyes turned towards him, and he clung to it. “Frisa, it’s me, your big brother Denol. Don’t do this. I’m begging you.”
She didn’t react. Meanwhile, Dubya watched amused from her perch, like a seagull watching a crab fall to its doom in the rocks before it feasts.
“Put the knife down, okay?” He chanced a step closer to the bed, paws out in what he hoped was a non–threatening manner. “Put it down and come here. It’s gonna be okay.”
Slowly, heart – stoppingly slowly, she lowered the knife. Denol took another step. “I’m here. Just put the knife down. That’s good.”
He was so close, just a tail’s–length away from the bed, the knife hovering above the comforter, when Dubya said, “Don’t listen to him. Kill yourself.”
Frisa looked at Dubya, blinked, and cut her throat.
The gasps behind him were audible, but he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t move or blink. Why was he always frozen at the worst times?
Beki pushed past him once again, grabbing the comforter to stop the blood.
“Frisa,” the name pushed itself past his lips and suddenly he could move again. The last two steps to the bed felt like the longest distance in the world. “Frisa,” he grabbed her paw. “I’m here. I love you.”
“Denol?” She looked over at him. He couldn’t tell if her eyes were glassy for the tears clouding his. “I—” she coughed, blood gurgling over her lips. “Denol,” she repeated, smiling as the coughing fit subsided. “Denol…” her voice faded, and then she was gone.
With a growl of rage and no coherent thought, he turned on Dubya. Ignoring the knife covered with his sister’s blood, he leapt over the bed intent on pummeling the life out of Dubya.
This time, however, she was ready for him and the beasts coming behind him to back him up. As soon as he was about to grab her, she slipped through his fingers.
When he turned, he saw her at the doorway. How—?
“As fun as this was, don’t try it again. We don’t want this,” she waved her paw at his sister’s body, “mess to repeat itself, now do we? Tata!” She turned away, and by the time the others had reached the door, she was gone.
Denol wasn’t sure if the others spread out to look for her because all his strength had left him. He slid down the side of the bed as the tears came fast, accompanied by ugly sobs. The only thought pervading the choking fog of grief was the damning ‘Joncho was right’.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was not alone. This part of the forest, however, was fairly isolated, and he had yet to see anybeast but a few birds he had startled from the trees. If somebeast was indeed tracking him, and it wasn’t some latent war – induced paranoia acting up, he or she was very skilled at their craft. He hadn’t even considered the possibility of a follower for at least the first day or so he had travelled. To be fair, he hadn’t been paying more than the scantest, bare minimum of attention to his surroundings the first day, his body in automatic while his brain alternated between churning over the worst case scenarios and steadfastly refusing to think of anything at all.
Now, though, he had the clarity of mind to stop occasionally and be more aware of his surroundings. Along the way, some things had felt off, niggling at his consciousness, until they added up into a disconcerting possibility. Only twice had he even heard a noise that could be attributed to somebeast other than himself. The first time had been so slight, so subtle, that he had nearly convinced himself that he had imagined it altogether, suddenly having to force down a longing for his long – ago and more recent traveling companions. The second time, however, a brush of the foliage underpaw that was just barely out of synch with his own was what had confirmed the possibility. Now he just needed a sighting to know once and for all. Whatever beast was tracking him was good, but he had been raised by a Marlfox; he had his own tricks up his sleeve.
He scanned the canopy, his pace normal, calculatedly even. All of a sudden, he gasped quietly, just loud enough for a keen – eared beast to pick up on, and darted forward into a run. Keeping his face pointed at the imaginary quarry in the sky, he dropped his eyes just enough to navigate a twisting and turning path through the trees. When he figured he had gone far enough, he ducked behind a tree to catch his breath. He tried to regulate his noisy panting by breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth as quietly as possible. Thinking he heard the rustle of fast approaching footsteps, he tensed, readying himself to leap out. The sound slowed. Maybe if he went the opposite direction around the tree…
All of a sudden, the earth vanished from underneath him. A half – scream, half – yelp escaped his lips as he slid down the shifting rocky dirt. Despite his scrabbling, he couldn’t gain any purchase with his paws. The feeling of terror and despair in his chest mounted as the sound of rushing water became clearer. A root, a rock, anything would help right now.
And then there was a sharp yank on the back of his tunic, and he was no longer falling. The avalanche was still progressing under his dangling footpaws so he didn’t attempt to move, but he thought he heard a faint, “Don’t worry, chap! I got you.”
A seemingly instant eternity later, the rocks and dust settled. As the rumbling faded, Riplar became aware that not only had he instinctively grabbed onto whatever had caught him, but it was also firm and decidedly furry, not bark – or lichen – covered. Struggling against the angle he was caught at, he twisted his head in a vain effort to see what, or who, had caught him.
“Hold it, pal. Can you use anything around you to climb back up?”
So yes. That was, in fact, a beast holding him up. He tentatively placed his footpaws in the dirt behind him. It shifted immediately, but that didn’t stop him from digging them in deeper, searching for something hard and stationary beneath the inconstancy.
“I can keep holding for support, but I don’t think I can pull you up all by myself.”
The voice sounded the slightest bit strained, so Riplar slowly put his full weight on his footpaw. Just enough grip that if the beast kept providing him with a lifeline, he could probably make it.
“Okay,” his voice caught on the nasty combination of dust and mucus in his throat. He cleared it messily. “Okay.” He tried again. “I think I’ve got something so I’m gonna start coming up.”
He inched his other footpaw back and up, feeling around for something more solid. There, that rock should do the trick. It held, and he transferred his weight, leaving his other footpaw free to ascend. This time, however, his attempted foothold did not hold, and he skidded back a few inches, before jerking to a painful stop with the strong tug his tunic. His grunt was echoed above him.
Finding another foothold below him, he tried again. This time he was more successful, the paw lifting with him every time he ascended so he had less room to fall if he lost his footing again. Scrabbling sounds and falling rocks from above him alerted him that his savior was also moving upwards. Luckily, it didn’t mess him up too badly.
At long last, he felt more solid ground under his paws and, soon thereafter, his footpaws. They had made it to the top. As soon as he felt he was clear of the edge, he collapsed, breathing hard as the adrenaline rushed out of him.
As soon as he had the energy to do so, he rolled over to face his rescuer. He found a female hare lounging against the tree, seemingly nonchalant, but he noted the rapid rise and fall of her chest. “Thank you.” She looked up. “For saving me.” Shaking his head, he smiled slightly, trying to get a feel for this newcomer, “I got so focused that I forgot all about this river.”
She grinned widely. “All in a day’s work, old chap. Now, what say we introduce ourselves?”
She stood, and he followed suit, though more slowly, brushing off dust and twigs while checking himself over for injuries. Despite minor soreness and a few scrapes and bruises, he had escaped unscathed. It could have ended up much worse. “I’m Riplar.” He took the proffered paw before smiling knowingly. “But you already knew that.”
Her smile was more sincere and approving this time as she shook his paw firmly. “Indeed, I do. I’m Captain Tola of the Southern Branch of the Long Patrol. I figure you’ve already cottoned on to that much.”
He nodded. “Makes sense.” Pulling back his paw, he fought the urge to cross his arms. “The Major sent you to spy on me?”
Nodding in return, she replied, “Good thing too. I probably saved your life.”
“Yes, thank you again.” He looked over at the canyon with the shifting walls and river far below that had nearly spelled his doom. “Now, would you happen to know the best around this,” he waved a paw at it, “death trap?”
She laughed. “I would actually.”
“Excellent. Now if you’ll just tell me, then I’ll be on my way.”
“Not so fast, Riplar.”
Of course. “Hm?” He inquired innocently.
She raised an eyebrow, somehow being simultaneously skeptical of his act and done with his ignorance. In fact, he thought idly, she looked inches away from an eye roll. “I’ve been tracking you for the last few days. Now that I’ve revealed myself to you think, you surely don’t think I’ll let you off the hook.”
His threshold level of patience as far as hares were concerned had been substantially lowered recently, and it showed now as he dropped the act. “Yes, I’m aware you’ve been tracking me. Why do you think I pulled the stunt off the canyon?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Her forehead creased.
With a conceding eye roll that he was sure he had picked up elsewhere, he added, “Obviously, the fall itself wasn’t planned. And I do really appreciate your help, but it did prove your existence, didn’t it?” He turned away. “So, what are you here for? Obviously not to drag me back to the major, otherwise you would have done it by now.”
His green eyes shown hard against his black fur as he looked back at her, and she found herself thinking that if he truly decided to go down the evil warlord path, he would be a truly terrifying specimen. However, she had stared down her share of truly wicked bad guys in her time and would not be scared off by a little glare. Crossing her arms, she stepped forward, “I’m coming with you.”
This took him by surprise, with a visible recoil that he didn’t think fast enough to conceal. “What? Why? What would that- I mean, what do you even hope to achieve?”
“Flustering you,” she smirked. "The Major asked me to watch you—”
“Make sure I didn’t do anything evil and try to take down all of Mossflower?”
She ignored his sardonic tone. “Exactly! And now that we’ve been formally introduced, I might as well travel with you. Besides, as earlier events proved, I can help you.”
He snorted, but didn’t walk away. “Why should I let you join me? I’ve been managing fine by myself.” When she pointed an ear at the cavern, he did succumb to an eye roll, “Besides that, course. And that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for you, anyway!”
She didn’t have time to articulate her confusion before he rushed on, “And another thing, aren’t you worried I’ll kill you in your sleep?”
“I’m a decorated Long Patrol soldier who’s fought in many battles for longer than you’ve been alive.” She scoffed, disgust hanging off of her, “I think I can handle myself.”
When his face tightened, she pushed past her well - deserved gut reaction against potential sexism, and examined his comment from a more racist point of view. After all, that was what this was really about, wasn’t it? “But no, from what I’ve seen, you seem a decent fellow. If I was really worried, I wouldn’t be offering to help you.”
“Real convincing.” When he looked back at her, his eyes were still steely, but seemed mostly to cover something broken within him.
It affected Tola more than she cared to say. “How about this: I show you how to get past the ravine and, since it’ll take a while, once we’re past, you can judge if I’m worth keeping along. If you want to part ways, that’s fine, and I’ll just head back to camp.” She hoped she wasn’t making a huge mistake. “Deal?” She proffered her paw.
“What about the Major? Won’t she be worried that I’ll slaughter half of Mossflower if she’s not keeping tabs on me?”
She shrugged. “I can take care of the Major. I’ll just tell her there was an accident, and you fell off a cliff.” A half – grin appeared on her face, “That wouldn’t be too far from the truth, now would it?”
He rolled his eyes in exasperation, but a slight grin crept onto his face as well. “If we travel together, you have to let that go.”
“So is that a yes?” She wiggled her still – hanging paw meaningfully.
She was sure he was trying for unreadable as he met her gaze, contemplating her offer, but emotions flew across his eyes, plain as day. The only thing that made them difficult to read was the speed at which they were processed.
After a long few minutes, he nodded once, “Fine.” His pawshake was firm.
She nodded in return and shook his paw, once, twice. “So we’re headed towards Marlfox Island, correct?”
Again, the flash of emotions across his face. “Yes, the sooner, the better.”
“Alrighty then.” She placed her paws on her hips as she gazed down into the canyon. “Now then, where is it?”
Her companion looked like he was already regretting his agreement to her offer. “What are you looking for?”
“Aha!” She ignored him, instead heading over to a different part of the canyon edge. As she knelt, a few rocks fell ominously off the side.
“Um, Tola? Maybe you should come back from the edge?”
“Nah, it’s fine. Here!” she declared triumphantly as she pulled a worn rope ladder out of a hidden crevice beneath the edge.
He came over. “Once we’re at the bottom of the canyon, then what? We swim to Marlfox Island?”
She grinned up at him. “Something like that! Come, young lad, our vehicle awaits!”
She started down the ladder and, after an intense second of considering splitting in the opposite direction, Riplar sighed and followed suit.
The descent was surprisingly quick, and they were just nearing the end when he spotted the mast obscured by vines and overhead rocks. “Is that it?”
“What?” She looked around, shielding her eyes with her paw. “I always have such trouble finding this thing,” she murmured to herself before, “Ah! Yes, there it is!”
He heard the snap of rope at the same time she did. He reacted faster. She barely had time to yelp or grab at the rope, when he had already grabbed her wrist. Clinging to the parts of the ladder still intact, she used her footpaws to feel around for the whole rung.
“There,” she breathed a sigh of relief as she felt something steady again.
“Are you okay?” He peered down at her with concern.
She marveled at his concern despite his clear suspicion earlier. Ignoring this thought to be mused over at a later time, she nodded, “Yes, thanks.” Taking another breath to calm her racing heart, she grinned shakily up at him. “I guess we’re even now.”
His honest, teasing smile was so surprising and so genuine that she nearly fell off a second time. “I guess we are.”
They made it to the boat, as that’s what it was, with no more happenings. They splashed into the waist-deep water, and Tola stowed the ladder as best as she could. From behind her, she heard Riplar’s low murmur as he stared at the ramshackle vehicle for the next stage of their voyage, “Oh no.”
She smiled. Oh yes, indeed.
“Wait, wait,” Carma buried her head in her paws, trying to figure out how her world had changed so drastically in just a few minutes. “Why do you think the Abbey’s in danger?”
The old badgermum spread a thin piece of parchment on the table in front of them. “We received a missive from the south.”
“From who?” Rori glanced at Carma for confirmation. “I thought all Mossflower residents moved into Redwall with the Winter War.”
“Most did. Our correspondent chose not to for...personal reasons.”
They shared a look of confusion. “Like what, ma’am?” Carma inquired.
She shot her a sharp look, indicating her annoyance at their continued pressing. “He did not have an easy past. His mother assisted a warlord back in the day, and he was the product of their union. Due to this, he had trouble living in society and so decided to retreat to a remote part of Mossflower. Now, do you want to hear what he had to say or not?”
They sat up meekly. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good,” adjusting her reading glasses on her muzzle, she peered at the letter. “Hm, let’s see here: he talks about his garden, asks how the harvest festival went...oh, how sweet. I’ll have to tell him we used his recipe for seed salad.”
Rori cleared his throat gently, and she looked at him over her spectacles until he quailed. “In due time, sir. In due time.” Rustling the papers some more, she scanned the letter, “Now where was I? Ah, yes. Here we are.” She cleared her throat and began:
“I must say I have been alarmed by recent proceedings at Redwall Abbey. I, of course, continue to maintain my distance, but recently the need for this seems to have decreased. While the usual coming and going of Abbeydwellers was the same for most of the summer, after a particularly rushed and chaos-inducing entrance by a group, the Abbey fell into a deep sleep. Normally this would not bother me, but I must admit, after several weeks of this, my curiousity did get the better of me. I did find some Redwallers wandering around, but something felt off about them. I can’t describe it well except to say that their movements were stilted and there was no life about the place. I can’t tell you how disturbing it was.”
Carma and Rori exchanged bemused looks. There didn’t seem to be cause for immediate alarm, but the situation still sounded very odd.
Rori nudged her with his elbow and whispered, “Disease?”
She shrugged. “Possibly. I’d have to know more to tell, though.”
After a resigned glare, they quieted again and she continued.
“It gets worse. As I was leaving, I noticed two creatures working who didn’t seem as corpse-like as the others in the gardens. I intended to fly down and ask them what had befallen the Abbey when I realized their purpose. They were disposing a body. There was a lot of blood, enough that I couldn’t pinpoint its origin.”
A gasp from Carma cut her off yet again, but this time Carma didn’t notice her exasperated reaction, too intent as she was on processing all the possible causes from a pulmonary disease to the obvious murder. None of the options sounded promising.
The badgerwife waited a second before shaking her head and returning to the letter. “Hm, he goes on to say that he wasn’t able to get a closer look because one of the creatures started throwing things at him. He ends with admitting his concern but not knowing enough to know how to proceed or if it was even worth acting on at all. Then some more well wishes for our community which doesn’t concern you.” She rolled the letter back up. “There you have it. Due to your connection to the Abbey, we thought it pressing that you know of the development.”
“Thank you,” Rori ventured when Carma stayed silent. “When did you receive this letter?”
“Yesterday morning. The council has been talking it over since then.”
He quirked an eyebrow, hoping his offended shock wasn’t broadcast too loudly on his face. “And you’re just now letting us know?”
She huffed. “I’ll have you know, Mister Rori, that the council does not usually come to conclusions this quickly. We considered it a matter of particular importance.”
He couldn’t help himself. “What other matters were there to discuss?”
Adjusting her glasses on her nose, she narrowed her eyes. “We have a fall harvest festival to finish planning as well as a summer harvest festival to start planning for. Two couples in town needed counseling and a third had an issue with their child that we needed to deal with. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but running a village is a serious affair!”
“Yes, of course, ma’am. Thank you for getting this information to us so promptly.” He glanced at Carma who, while no longer scanning her eyes back and forth like she was reading invisible lines, still looked pensive. “Would it be possible for you to leave the letter here with us so we can discuss it?” He hoped she got his underlying request to leave; considering her shrewd observations thus far, he didn’t think she could miss it.
She didn’t. She stood up. “I’m sorry, Mister Rori, but that won’t be possible. This letter has personal information not meant for your eyes.”
He was willing to bet that everybeast in the council had read it at least twice over.
Her face softened as she looked between them from Carma’s preoccupied state to Rori’s hovering paw and concerned expression. “I am truly sorry for this news. Let the council know what you decide to do; we will help in any way we can. May Mother Nature have favor on your decision-making.” With that, she bowed out of the room, leaving the two alone.
Carma barely looked up in time to say thank you.
“Well?” Rori turned his full attention on Carma. “What do you think?”
She shook her head, trying to clear the excess thoughts. “It’s hard to say. If it is some sort of respiratory illness, would we help by rushing back there? On one paw, the disease must be advanced if beasts are already coughing up blood and succumbing. On the other paw, this could be an isolated incident and taking our time to gather information and helpful supplies could prove more useful in the end.”
“That’s if it’s a respiratory disease at all.”
She sighed heavily. “There is that.” She looked up, searching his eyes. “Do you think it’s possible that Redwall is already in danger again after all they went through in the spring?”
“I mean,” he paused, “if there really was an excessive amount of blood, that’s a strong indicator of a throat wound. Or any other major artery anyway.” He hastened on, “For all we know, it could have just been an unfortunate kitchen incident.”
“True, but,” her eyes widened as another possibility struck her, “Rori,” she grabbed his arm. “What if it’s one of the others? Riplar, Selra, Ampanna, and them? What if one of them got hurt on the quest, and they’re burying the body?”
“Riplar and Selra would hate to be buried at Redwall,” he mused before he could stop himself.
Startled, she asked, “Where would they prefer?”
He shrugged. “Probably Mossflower, somewhere. Maybe not Marlfox Island though; I’m still not sure about their relationship with their mom.”
“Yeah,” she leaned back in her chair, reflecting. “I wonder how that conversation went...if they’ve reached the castle at all.”
He considered it. “Probably. When did we leave them, five, six weeks ago? That should have given them plenty of time to reach it.”
She fell forward in her chair with a thump. “So, what do we do?”
“Like you said, it’s hard to make a decision with so little information. I think we should get ready to leave soon, since we’re nearly done here anyway,” she frowned at that, but he ignored her. “We can leave in a few days and, in the meantime, try to get letters out so we can figure out more of what’s going on. We can contact the others to see where they are and what’s happening, as well as contact the Abbey to see if they have more specific information for us.”
“We should also try to follow up with this bird contact.”
“Well, yeah. It would make sense from the description. Plus, the last major vermin, sorry, villainous force we had around here before Grovelum was the Doomwytes.”
“Good point. Continue.”
“If the Abbey truly is in danger from a physical force, it’s possible a letter could fall into the wrong paws, which could tip them off to our arrival or send us back falsehoods in hopes of dissuading us. But, if we can get this guy to do some spying for us…”
“We might be able to figure out a little more of what’s happening at the Abbey. Brilliant, Carma.”
She smiled and glanced down, her cheeks gaining a hint of red. Her gaze fell on their documents from earlier. “Oh, so I guess they won’t let us keep our research either?”
He followed her gaze and rolled his eyes. “I’d guess not. We can use our remaining time here to write down what we have so far.”
“And finish up with the research.”
“We haven’t found anything on your family yet.”
“Yeah,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “I mean, I’m okay if we don’t.”
His paw instinctively started rubbing his axe hilt as he tried to figure out how to best express himself. “Well, I’ve never known my family just because I was taken at such a young age.”
It still surprised her sometimes how nonchalant he was about the whole “taken” thing.
“I think when there was a possibility of being related to somebeast I knew, I got more excited. But now that we know who your family is, and there’s a possibility I’m related to any of these nutjobs,” he waved a paw wildly, and she laughed, “I guess I don’t care as much anymore.”
She smiled softly at him, a warm feeling glowing in her chest. “Well, either way, like you said, we’re your family. I’m your family.” She let herself clasp his arm for a second in solidarity, before pulling herself back to her previous task of stowing their research away.
A few short days later found them at a feast in honor of their leaving. Carma found herself pleasantly surprised that her family was much more bearable with the prospect of leaving just in reach.
“Oh, Carma,” her aunt gracefully dropped beside her on the bench, “do invite us to you and Rori’s wedding. It’s just been so good seeing you again, and Rori’s such a nice, young boar.”
Carma nodded, but didn’t reply, an amused smile playing across her lips.
“Oh!” Her aunt, if possible, lit up even more. “You can have the wedding here! That’ll be just perfect! We can do it in the arbor and…” she rambled to herself, lost in the wedding that was clearly occurring right in front of her mind’s eye. “It’s settled then!” she turned back with such vigor that the badger on the other side of the wood table jumped.
Carma took another bite.
“So, you just let me know the date and what theme you want, and I’ll take care of everything.”
The ‘bride-to-be’ finally spoke up. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, Aunt Marjorie, but you do realize we’re only sixteen, right?”
She looked flustered for only a few seconds before waving her concerns away. “In a few seasons then, dear. No harm in being prepared.”
Carma was considering whether to tell her aunt that she and Rori had no such inclinations, or let her stew in her excitement a while, when she gasped.
Not sure if whatever had caught her aunt’s attention was as scintillating as her aunt presumed, Carma kept eating. That is, until her aunt continued, “Why is Rori flirting with that girl?” She tsked. “What a terrible boyfriend.”
Heart pounding, Carma kept a steady voice as she looked up. “You are aware that we’re not dating, correct?”
Carma fought the urge to roll her eyes as she searched the tables for Rori. He was sitting a few tables away, next to a badgermaid who looked close to their age, maybe younger. As she watched, they brushed paws while reaching for the bread basket and immediately jerked back, blushing so bright she could tell even at a distance.
And then she waited. She was no stranger to the vicious claws of jealousy, and she waited for them to sink back into her chest, digging into her soul and tearing it apart with illogical, crushing loss and bitterness. She waited because, while it was true that she and Rori had no romantic inclinations, that didn’t mean there was no potential. She waited because even after her silly crush had faded, she and Rori had become fast friends and surely that closeness meant something. She waited, but nothing came. Her relief, as well as her lingering amusement at the awkward interaction, bubbled over into laughter.
Her aunt looked appalled, and Carma giggled harder. She was free, free of any awkward back-and-forth or relationship conversations. She and Rori were exactly whether they needed to be. After all, what had she said to him just a few days before? They were family. As her mirth faded, Carma rested in the joy of the knowledge that she and Rori would always be there for each other. It was just as important, if not more important, than a romantic relationship.
“You’re serious,” her aunt realized, staring at her astonished.
She nodded, grinning. “We’re just good friends, Aunt Marjorie. Thanks anyway.” Then, looking back at Rori and his blushing companion as they resumed their conversation, her smile turned mischievous. “So, what can you tell me about her?”
A few hours later found Rori and Carma finally on their way. After her freeing epiphany, Carma had found that the rest of the feast flew by, the passive-aggressive well wishes of her relatives and the other villagers rolling off her like water off a duck. “So,” she recalled the private, almost tender goodbye between Rori and Beraket, “did you figure out a way to stay in contact with her?”
“Her who?” His too-innocent tone would have betrayed him even if the light blush dusting his cheeks hadn’t.
“You know,” Carma was thoroughly enjoying embarrassing her friend, “Beraket? The girl you’ve been sneaking away to see this whole time, your new girlfriend.” She turned to him with exaggerated excitement. “Have you made it official yet?”
“No,” he blurted out before glancing cautiously at her. “We said we’d see how things went. We’ll be sending letters when we can, and,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “she might even visit the Abbey in a season or two.”
“You know,” she said nonchalantly, attempting to hide her triumphant smile, “technically there’s nothing keeping you at Redwall. You’re free to travel, or move, wherever you want.”
He looked so panicked, she wondered if she’d misspoke. “But,” he sputtered, “you guys are there. And the Abbey’s in trouble. I can’t just leave!”
Ah. “I wasn’t suggesting now. Just, you know, in general, it’s easier to get to know someone if you live closer.”
Some of the tension left his shoulders. “Yeah, but even if I were considering it, I’m not sure how long I could stand that village.”
Carma hummed in agreement, and enjoyed the warm breeze as they continued in silence.
“So,” he shifted his pack on his shoulders, “you’re, uh, okay with this?”
His voice sounded surprisingly small, and her heart swelled within her. “Yes, Rori, I’m very happy for you.”
He sighed in relief. “Okay, good. I didn’t want to assume, but I wasn’t sure and now—So, did you know her back when you lived in the village?” His attitude had changed drastically, and he actually bounced on the trail.
“Not really,” she grinned, “though my aunt did tell me all about her.”
He laughed. “Should I be concerned?”
“Once, she figured out you weren’t cheating on me with her, she had plenty of good things to say about her.”
Groaning, he rubbed his neck again, “I wonder how many others thought that.”
“Rori, you know my aunt’s…intense. She started planning our wedding. Everybeast else probably wasn’t as concerned, and, even if they were, my aunt will spread the news real quick.” Just as he started to look cautiously relieved, she added with a devilish twinkle in her eye, “Now she’s probably onto planning your wedding with Beraket.”
He groaned again, and she laughed. “I had to deal with her all those years. Now it’s your turn.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he looked like he was going to say something else when he paused and frowned. “Um, do you know where we’re going?”
Carma had been distracted from their journey by their conversation, but a quick glance at their surroundings told her they were still headed the right way. “Yep, we’re good.”
“Just checking.” He sounded sheepish.
“Somebeast’s twitterpated.” She watched, very entertained and thoroughly unconvinced, as he tried to defend himself.
When he fell silent, a somber look on his face, her paw fidgeted between grabbing her dagger or giving a comforting pat to his arm. “What is it?”
“I just wonder what’s ahead, what’s happening at the Abbey.”
“Yeah, I hope everybeast’s okay.” Her voice trailed off as she allowed herself to ponder that which she hadn’t dared consider: the wellbeing of Nottenc and Mumzy.
“Hey,” he nudged her, “I’m sure they’re fine. They can take care of themselves.” As his gaze shifted, she could tell her was no longer just talking about the voles, but the foxes and the rest of their friends as well. Mother Nature, she prayed that they were okay.
“I just remembered,” she turned at his voice, “you never told me what your Aunt said about Beraket.” He nudged her again, “Spill.”
They were days away from the Abbey and unable to do anything, so there was no point in dwelling on it now. Besides, she had been enjoying teasing him. Her smile returned and she faced him, “Well…”
Selra paused before the door. The tan cracked wood, the dark knot that almost resembled a sunburst or mace, depending on one's point of view, it was all familiar to her from hours of huddling close to glean information during her parents' war meetings. That all seemed like such a long time ago, before they had been thrust into a harsh winter, and a bloody war. Before they started on this fun quest that had ended so bitterly. Back when they were innocent, and war seemed like a game. She laughed bitterly; how naive they had been. The laughter made her grimace, and she clutched her side.
After seemingly endless weeks of recovery, she had finally been released from bedrest. Walking was hard, harder than she had expected, but she was determined to return to fighting shape as soon as possible. After all, there was an enemy in their midst. As soon as she had proven her ability to walk, her mother had insisted she join a meeting. She had claimed that it wasn't a war meeting, but Selra had her doubts. Just seeing the door had brought everything back, but now she was expected to be on the other side. And she wasn't sure how to feel about that.
A pointed throat clearing behind her galvanized her into action, and she shuffled into the room. There were rings of wooden chairs facing a trio of larger ones at the front of the room. While she had occasionally caught glimpses of the room, she had never been in it, and the feeling brought an illicit thrill. She made for a spot on the far wall, not all the way in the back, but not in the front row either. A firm hold caught her arm, and she had to bite down the almost nauseous panic that welled instinctively within her.
Clenching her jaw, she looked up at the owner of the paw. Her mother. She should have known.
"Up here, my dear." With a gentle tug, but an almost inescapable grip, she led her daughter to the front of the room, to the chair her father had previously occupied.
Selra balked. "I can't-that's Dad's chair."
"Was his chair. Now that you're back, you can sit there as you learn about running a kingdom."
"No buts, Selra. This was always your father's and my plan: once you and your brother were old enough, you would join us at these meetings. We never got around to carving the seats for you, but for now, it's a moot point."
The thin line of her lips made it clear that further arguments would not be tolerated.
Selra wasn't sure what she would be expected to contribute to such a meeting, but she posed no further disagreement, instead taking a seat in the dark chair that was polished smooth from years of use.
Other creatures had filed in behind them and they now filled the first few rows of the room. There were fewer beasts than she was sure there had been before the war, but there were still more than had expected. Somewhere between a score and two dozen, she reckoned, not bothering to count. She recognized most of them from her childhood, familiar faces around the castle, though she wasn't sure she could say who everybeast was.
With a bizarre shock to her stomach, she recognized the otter cook who Rori had distracted while she had gotten food for their escape last winter. She had tried to ignore the implications of the conversation that Rori had so clearly manipulated, and, with trying to escape and survive in the middle of winter, it had been relatively easy to dismiss. And yet, it had occasionally crept back when she least expected it: at night trying to fall asleep, stomach-churning guilt as she observed how the Abbeymembers worked together to perform tasks. She got proficient at dismissing it simply because she was gone from Marlfox Castle and could do nothing about it. But now she was not only back at the castle, but in a position of potential authority, where she was expected to contribute to the running of affairs. Now was the time to do something, but do what? How?
A hard thunk beside her startled her out of her thoughts. She turned to see her mom rapping on the arm of her chair with a tarnished, but still command-worthy scepter. The other creatures in the room instantly quieted, and her mother brought the meeting to order. The first order of business was the current level of food in the castle. Selra tried not to zone out, resolving to stay silent, but learn as much as she could about running a castle.
This resolve was broken shortly after, against her will, when her mother turned to her. "The next order of business involves our political position in the larger sphere of Mossflower Forest. We've previously discussed our new guests," Selra wondered privately just how much information her mother shared at these meetings, "but now that Princess Selra is recovered," the audience clapped politely, "she can provide details to inform our next move."
Her mind raced. What would she have to say? What was she willing to say?
“So,” all eyes turned to her, “what is the current state of Redwall Abbey?”
Such an innocent-sounding question. How could her own answer be as innocent? “Well, I think it would be safe to say that they’re not not getting stronger.” Should she leave it there or extrapolate? The less said the safer, but if she said too little, her comments wouldn’t hold up. She took a chance, “It’s definitely true that while they have been better off, they have also faced worse times.” Score.
Without looking, she felt her mother’s deeply critical eyes on her. She was already treading on thin ice and, unlike that cold day when they were 8, this time there was no Riplar to save her. Squaring her shoulders, she resolved to own that thin line.
“Right,” her mother’s primary advisor, a ferret, broke the confused silence with a quick questioning look at the queen. As usual, Queen Oxos gave very little indication of her thoughts. “What would you give as a rough estimate for their population? Including demographic makeup, of course.”
Selra nodded, the gracious politician response. “Of course. That’s a good question. Their population is in a constant state of…”
“Growth?” Asked a rat, going off commonly held conceptions of woodlanders.
“Flux,” she corrected. “They lost scores in the Winter War, but they also gained dozens from woodlanders within Mossflower Woods migrating to Redwall Abbey. There are also any number of quests going on at one time, meaning groups of warriors are constantly coming and going. So, while it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number, I’d definitely say they have a fair number of beasts.”
The nodding that had commenced during her pronouncement abruptly stopped as the councilbeasts tried to decide if that could be considered a true answer. She let a small, still gracious smile slip onto her face, hiding the mounting glee within her. If Riplar were here, she was sure he’d be proud of her obfuscation.
“I mean...okay. What about food stores?” Apparently her mother’s advisor had been nominated as primary spokesbeast.
“While I must admit, I did miss some good old avian flesh while I was at Redwall, I have to say that the legends about their feasts are true. Tables overflowing with some of the best dishes you’ve ever tasted! The main courses were surprisingly filling with complex spices and tastes, and the desserts, oh!” Hoping she wasn’t overplaying it, she lay her paw over her heart. “The desserts were to kill for. They have this thing made from this type of pod that is brown and sweet and incomparable.” She turned eagerly to her mother, her enthusiasm for real this time. “They said they could be found on Sampetra. Do you think we could have your corsair friends go pick some up? Please? It’s so good, I know you’ll love it.”
There was a hint of amusement in the queen’s eyes, but she merely responded, “You’ll have to come up with a better description than that.”
“Oh, of course. And perhaps I could make some suggestions to the chefs for other dishes.” Suddenly aware of how traitorous her statements could sound, she hurriedly added, “After all, woodlanders must be good for something, right?”
Only a few beasts even responded to her cringe-worthy attempt at a joke. The rest merely nodded, stone-faced. She tried to contain her wince and waited for the next question.
Once the ferret realized she was done speaking, she tried to get her to expand on her point. “While that’s good to know, what about their orchards? What are their food sources? Are they stable or quickly running out?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said with the flounce that many would expect from one of her stature. “I never went in the Kitchens. Or I think they kept food in Cavern Hole? Or maybe in the basement. Either way, the orchards were nice. Not bad climbing trees.”
“Right,” with a slight clearing of her throat, the ferret changed her tack in hopes of getting a more substantial answer out of the princess. “Since you just journeyed through Mossflower Wood to get here, what can you tell us about the current state of Mossflower Wood?”
Selra let her bemusement show. “Surely, some scouts and gatherers have left the island since the war.”
The ferret started to answer, when the queen cut her off in a firm voice. “Not extensively. We did cursory searches after the first reports to corroborate, but since then you understand it was not our first priority.”
She struggled not to let a blush flood her face at her implied ignorance. “Of course. What sort of details are you interested in acquiring?” Though hesitant to be pegged down by specifics, an outline made it easier to obfuscate.
Her interrogator did well at hiding her surprise at Selra’s inquiry. “How many woodlanders currently live in Mossflower Wood? Did you see any signs of civilization outside of Redwall Abbey? How are the Woods recovering from last year’s winter, and are there signs of it occurring again this year? Did you run across any remnants of King Grovelum, may he rest in peace, ‘s army?”
While she had nodded thoughtfully throughout the questions, the last one forced her to swallow a bitter laugh. Had she, indeed. Not only had they run across remnants of the army in that early skirmish, only recognizable by the faded insignia on their battered tunics and one of their bicep tattoos, once they had joined Omi, she had seen far more of them than she ever wanted to. That information wasn’t endangering to Redwall, but she was still hesitant to share it. After all, shouldn’t they have already made that connection themselves?
Maybe she could answer the other questions first. “Let me think…we saw very few signs of woodlanders or any civilization outside of Redwall Abbey.” The potential Long Patrol to the south, a fact she only remembered as the question was asked, was definitely information she planned on keeping to herself. “Um,” she blanked, “what were the other questions?”
“The current state of Mossflower Woods in regard to the previous and upcoming winters.”
“Right. Um,” she furrowed her brow and tried to subdue the ingrained guilt that sprung up in her from her use of ‘um’ in a formal meeting, “to be honest with you,” something inside her laughed, “I don’t know a lot about plants in general. Ca—my friend was really more the agricultural specialist in our group. She knows a lot about herbs.” She nodded and shrugged. “So, I’m not really sure. This summer did seem unusually hot to me.” Her mind flashed back to the unbearably hot days in that cage, elevated close to the sun with scant shade, and no hope of escape. She swallowed a recoil. Now was not the time to dwell on Ampanna and Naraudo’s fates. “The woods seemed quite recovered?” She offered instead.
The council did not look impressed. “Thank you, Princess Selra.” The ferret frowned as she finished writing her notes.
Her heart and mind raced. She needed to regain control of the situation, a small part of her mind that sounded suspiciously like her mother urged. How, she wondered, struggling to remember back to the politics lessons so many seasons ago. Riplar had always taken to them more than she had, her temper often getting the best of her. Maybe…put someone else on the spot! That was it!
She scanned the council for a likely subject before the questions turned back to her. There, the head gardener. In a loud clear voice, she addressed him. “What is your opinion, head gardener?”
The rat looked startled to be addressed. “Who, me?”
Rustling filled the room as everybeast turned to stare at him. Everybeast that is except for her mother, whose she could feel staring at her intently, curiously. The room felt hot. How to proceed? Flattery? Not unless absolutely necessary, her mother had cautioned, since it made you appear weak.
“Yes, you. As head gardener, surely you are in tune to the seasons. Even from your observations just here on the Island, you must have an opinion, preferably educated, about the current and future state of Mossflower Woods.”
He stammered. “Um, uh, yes, your majesty.” Clearing his throat, he shuffled his footpaws before squaring his shoulders. “If the weather continues as it has been, we will likely get a reasonably good harvest this year. This is dependent, of course, on one or two good rainshowers before next season arrives. Due the hot nature of the summer that you pointed out, your majesty, many plants in Mossflower Woods have recovered, but, uh, not all have done so well.” He chanced a glance at the queen before adding, “there are one or two vital herbs that I’m short on as a result,” the healer nodded curtly, “but if no beast catches swigenian flu or abolic rash, we should fare okay.”
“Thank you, master gardener, for your report.” Selra nodded, noticing idly that her mother seemed content to sit back and watch until absolutely necessary. Necessary being when she was on the verge of embarrassing their family, she supposed bitterly. Intent on using her advantage while she had it, she folded her paws and pointedly asked her mother’s advisor, “Is there anything else you would like to know or will that be all?”
The ferret focused herself and looked at her notes. “I do have one more question, actually, your majesty.”
Selra cursed silently; she wasn’t sure how much more palavering she could manage. Outwardly, she smiled what she hoped was a gracious and not thin smile. “I’m happy to help. What is it?”
The ferret looked her square in the face. “What is the nature of your relationship with Redwall Abbey, and how were you involved in the war?”
The world spun. Blood rushed in her ears. Dimly, Selra registered pain in her paws as gripped them tightly. She focused on breathing, fighting the surge of nausea rising in her throat. Would swallowing be too conspicuous? She no longer cared; her body was acting without her wishes.
“Princess Selra?” That was her mother, ever formal around others, and sometimes even alone. “Can you answer the question?”
She thought she sensed a question of concern under the probing reminder. Could she answer the question? She wasn’t sure she would be able to answer it in a situation where she could be completely honest and free to be herself. In this council meeting, her chances had slimmed dramatically. Maybe she and Riplar should discuss that at some point.
“I,” she heard herself say in a shaky high voice. Closing her eyes briefly, she cleared her throat and tried again. “I was involved in the war. Rip—Prince Riplar and I both fought honorably.” Was that anywhere near an accurate description? She hurried on, not letting herself dwell. She wasn’t in the clear yet.
“As for Redwall Abbey,” her mind whirled. How could she spin their relationship in a warlord-pleasing yet technically true manner? With the adrenaline from the question still rushing through her veins, she was not having success at her attempts at evasive answering. “our…relationship could be said to be evolving. It is not concrete in any manner, but it might be one that we,” she swept her paw outward—her father always said inclusive gestures brought the audience to your side— “may be grateful for in the future.” She hoped so anyway.
With a nod to the ferret, she turned her attention back to her mother, hoping the council followed suit.
“Thank you, Princess Selra.” Her mother critically searched her face for a split second longer before turning back to the council. “Now, onto the next order of business.”
While she was aware that she could not visibly relax in the middle of a council meeting, particularly not when she was seated at the front, Selra took another deep breath trying to calm her racing heart. She felt like she had just run around the whole of Marlfox Island. Would it be a sign of weakness to beg an exit due to her recent injuries? Probably. With one last calming breath, she turned her attention back to the meeting. The information discussed here could be crucial information to know, even if she currently had no way to pass it on to anybeast else.
The rest of the meeting involved plans for an end of the season celebration, small enough to not drain their resources, but elegant enough to do them credit. Apparently, if Omi and her band were still around when the celebration was hold, they would be allowed to attend, but not be treated as guests of honor. The queen brooked no argument on this front and Selra allowed herself a grim smile of satisfaction.
When it looked like the meeting was coming to an end, and Selra was just allowing herself to revel in the imminent freedom from the hard chair, one last bombshell was dropped. Her mother asked her advisor to read over the list of figures compiled at the beginning of the meeting covering the number of beasts in each sector. The remaining army was larger than Selra had suspected, almost a dozen score of warriors. Of course, most of them had been co-opted into other duties around the castle, as they had undergone a mass desertion after the devastating loss. It was not an army large enough to take on Redwall Abbey, much less reclaim the extent of their temporary domain in Mossflower Woods. It was, however, large enough to send small parties throughout Mossflower and beyond in search of recruits and allies.
“We have largely recovered from our loss in the spring.” Though her mother showed no emotion, Selra wondered if she would ever truly recover from her loss in the spring. She doubted she would herself sometimes, when she had the chance to think about it. “Now then, is the time for rebuilding. If Princess Selra’s assessment of her relationship with Redwall Abbey continues to hold true, then we can work around them and even with them to assert control over the rest of these lands. Soon, we could see the Marlfox’s legacy extend to Redwall and beyond, north to the mountains, and as far south as the domain of Urgan Nagru!”
The council cheered, and Selra wondered if her mother had just delivered a declaration of war. What would the Marlfox’s legacy entail? What would a world with her mother in control look like? What would it mean for her? As the applause died down and the others started to exit, Selra wondered just what kind of world she had just entered.
Ampanna cautiously opened her eye. The world flared into vibrant verdant shades. She drank it in greedily, taking in her surroundings as the details gradually came into view. Oh, how she had missed this. She would never take vision for granted again. Mossflower was so beautiful.
“Are you ready to try opening your other eye now?”
At Naraudo’s voice, she focused her still blurry attention on him. Her boyfriend looked gaunt, hardened, and dingy, with concern written all over his face. Forget Mossflower, she didn’t think she’d seen a more beautiful sight in her life. Almost without her bidding, she raised a paw to touch his face. “H’I missed ye,” she murmured.
He smiled wryly, trapping her paw to his face with his own. “It’s nice to see you looking at me again.”
Smiling back at him, she turned her attention back to the issue at hand: her other eye. Feeling her eyelid’s tremors from its concerted efforts not to open with its partner, she closed her right eye and took a deep breath. “‘Ow bad is it?”
“Um, well,” he paused and she read him using the tricks she had picked up over the last few weeks of darkness. He held his breath for a few seconds before returning to regular breathing, a habit she now associated with him making thoughtful assessments. At least she knew she could trust him to be honest with her without being intentionally hurtful.
“So, there’s a lot of dried blood on your eyelid, which makes sense since the arrow went through it first. It doesn’t look terribly infected, which is surprising given that our initial attempts at cleaning weren’t great, but we should definitely keep an eye on it.”
She cracked her good eye open. “Was that a pun?”
“What? Oh,” he laughed. “It wasn’t intentional, but I will take it.” He winked at her.
Her amused eyeroll was not as painful as anticipated. It gave her hope. “H’okay, Ah’m doin’ this.”
She felt his paw take her unconsciously clenched fist, and she squeezed back. Slowly, with minor resistance from the left eye itself, she opened both eyes. Her vision was still bleary, but the pain, which she still vividly remembered, was significantly diminished. Cautiously, she looked down, then up, then all around. A little rusty and not without twinges of pain, but far more doable than it had been previously.
A relieved and delighted smile was just taking form on her face when she noticed Naraudo’s uneasy look. “Wot is it, ‘oney?”
He opened his mouth before stopping and giving her a bemused look. “Did you just call me honey?”
Now it was her turn to hesitate. “Uh yes? H’it’s all yer nicknames! They’re rubbin’ off on me!”
He laughed. “That’s no bad thing.”
She paused again then smiled. “No, Ah guess not.” With a grin, she added, “sweetie.”
“You don’t have to say it with such an attitude.” He stuck his tongue out at her and with childish glee, she returned the favor.
“H’anyway, wot’s wrong?”
“I wouldn’t say wrong, exactly. It’s just that,” he rubbed the back of his neck, “your eye looks really weird?”
“H’I mean, h’it did get shot by an arrow.” She wasn’t sure what he was getting at.
“I know but...maybe you should just see for yourself.”
Eager and hesitant simultaneously, she merely asked, “How?”
This time, his smile was full and triumphant, “In the Marlfox Lake, baby!”
He moved to brush the foliage aside dramatically, but she stopped him. “Not baby.”
“Good to know, sweetie.” He whisked the branches aside, and there was the lake with the castle-topped island in the center just out of reach.
“We made it,” she gasped softly. “We finally made it!”
He rubbed the back of his neck again. “I mean, given how close we were when we were captured, we really should have made it here sooner, but--”
“Naraudo, we were captured ‘n nearly killed, stumblin’ ‘round Mossflower Woods jist tryin’ to stay alive. The fact that we made it ‘ere h’at all is amazin’ so thank ye.” Impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
Trying to dim her burning cheeks, she focused on her reflection in the water. Due to a gentle breeze, it wasn’t calm, but she still caught a glimpse of the extent of the damage to her eye. While her right eye retained its hazel iris, her left one looked like a shattered, white globe. Tints of blood under the surface were all that remained of what she suspected had been a far redder affair, if the blood-stained cloth in her paws was anything to go by. Some blood and clear fluid which she suspected were the remnants of her eye guts still clung to the matted fur surrounding her eye. Hesitantly, she closed it again, and she saw the patched remnants of her eyelid. The bumpy slash matched the one across the faded eye beneath it. To put it mildly, it was disturbing.
Sitting back on her heels, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. “H’okay, now that it’s mostly ‘ealed, we should clean it off as best we kin then bind it with a poultice, now that Ah kin see the ‘erbs around us.” She cracked an eye at him. “We also really need t‘take a look at that shoulder o’ yers…”
She trailed off. After so many weeks of darkness, it had taken her a few seconds to realize that the blackness remaining when she opened just her left eye was not normal. “Oh.”
“Ampanna?” She felt his paw touch her face, just beneath her useless eye. “What’s wrong?”
“H’I,” she blinked rapidly and wondered if she could even cry from her left eye anymore, “don’t know. I was expectin’ this, but Ah guess it still caught me by surprise.” She met his gaze and shrugged with a weak grin. “H’I kin’t see out me left eye.” Ashamed, she felt her face crumple as the tears came.
“Oh, ‘Panna,” she felt herself being tucked into the right side of his body and it only made her cry harder. “H’I don’t know why Ah’m cryin’. H’I knew this was goin’ t’’appen, ‘n it’s nothin’ compared to yer arm ‘n we really should be focused on the castle ‘n movin’ forward ‘n-” she gasped for air with a sob.
“Honey, beautiful, gorgeous, sweetie, it’s okay. It’s a natural response. You’re allowed to mourn the loss of half your vision even if it could be worse. For nature’s sake, ‘Panna, you’ve been through a tremendous amount of trauma just this summer, not to mention fighting in a war before you’re even an adult.”
Despite the sobs still threatening to engulf her, she clung to his words. A small wry part of her that almost sounded like Segalia noted that he had a valid point. It had been a very rough and intense year. Now that her brain had mentioned it, where was Segalia? She pursued the thought in an attempt to stop thinking about their current situation and stem her tears. They hadn’t seen any of their travelling group since they had been captured. During that time, they could have headed south to get whatever group of hares were referred to by the prophecy, and then headed north to the Marlfox Castle. There was no way to know if they had already arrived. What if they too had been captured? Her breath hitched. For that matter, was Omi still at the castle? Part of Ampanna wasn’t sure she could face Omi again, but the other part of her desperately wanted to look her in the face and show her that, despite all the odds, she had survived. They had survived. Together.
She became aware of Naraudo’s comforting strokes on her arm, as well as her slowing breaths. “Naraudo?”
She felt him spring to attention even as his paw never paused. “Yes? How are you feeling?”
She bit her lip. “H’it’s manageable. ‘Oney,” apparently that was a thing now, “kin ye get me somethin’ to make an eyepatch out of? H’I,” she breathed deeply to avert the hitch in her throat, “think it would ‘elp me adjust.”
“Sure thing, beautiful.” He kissed her forehead. “Just wait here.”
As he gently slid from her side, she was painfully reminded of her dependency of the last few weeks. While she was infinitely grateful for Naraudo and all he had done the past few weeks, she was resolved to return to her old independent self as soon as possible. With only a slight fumble, she pulled out her new dagger, the one she had found at the scene of their near-deaths. When fighting from a distance, she preferred the sling, but she also found it had its uses up close. After a few hits in close combat, however, the sling’s length became unwieldy. That’s why she preferred daggers up close. And with this weapon--she gently ran her fingers over its many deadly edges--she could be even more effective. Just as soon as she figured out how to fight with only one eye.
She heard Naraudo before he spoke. “Okay, would you like a hard eye patch, as in the case of this beautiful shell, or would you like a simple cloth eye patch such as your previous eye patch which has now been washed?”
“H’l’ll try the shell.” Relaxing her face, she felt an oblong outline press down around her eye.
“Hold this please.”
She obliged and felt him gently but firmly tie a cloth around her head, securing the eyepatch in place.
“There. How’s that?”
Cautiously, she opened her eyes. As before, light and vision only filtered through her right eye, but the pressure on her left eye as well as the feeling of her eyelashes hitting the shell comforted her, even as she knew it was not the truth. The shell might not be the best idea in the long run, but she'd try it for the time being.
“Good. Thank ye. Now,” she blinked and stretched. “How’s yer arm?”
He shrugged before easing out of the dingy sling*. She noticed that only his right arm moved. “Doesn’t hurt as much.”
“‘N, ye kin’t move it?”
He looked down and slowly brought his left forearm up. “That’s not too bad.”
She agreed, but she wanted more information. “Try to lift yer ‘ole arm.”
This time, the wince of pain that she had glimpsed before was plainly visible. He gritted his teeth, straightened his arm, and struggled to lift it. When no movement occurred but some slight tremors, he moved it backwards. After a few seconds when it continued to shake, he let it fall. At first, Ampanna thought he was done trying, but then she noticed the grit of his jaw and the clench of his fist. He was still trying to move his arm forward.
He looked at her, pain mixing with something else, something dark, in his eyes. “That’s fine, Naraudo. Jist let it rest.”
He unclenched his fist.
Wobbling slightly, she went up on her knees. “Kin Ah feel it?”
He nodded, eyes closed, and she noticed the sweat now clumping the fur across his forehead. Gingerly, she probed his shoulder, noting that his arrow wound was healing but looked possibly infected. “We need to get some proper ‘erbs on this.”
With her blind eye to him, she couldn’t judge his reaction so she didn’t press it. Instead, as she continued to feel around the wound, she asked, “Where h’is most o’ the pain? ‘N besides the pain, ‘ow does it feel?”
“Shoulder, upper arm, forearm, paw, fingers, some chest.” His breaths came short and fast. “Um, tired?”
She considered thoughtfully. “So, weak?”
When he didn’t answer, she turned her head to look at him fully. “Naraudo, ‘alf yer tendons were torn apart in a vicious h’attack. H’it’s a wonder yer h’arm kin move h’at all.” He snorted, and she hurriedly continued, making a mental to research this more thoroughly when she got the chance. If she got the chance. “H’it’s no shame iffen yer arm feels weak.”
For a few seconds, he didn’t respond. Finally, he nodded. “Weak.”
“H’okay.” She settled back on her heels. “So, from my h’initial assessment, ye tore several h’important muscles in yer shoulder. Since h’it was such a traumatic injury, surgery is yer best option.” She bit her lip. If he could be honest with her about her life-changing injuries, she could be honest with him about his. “‘Owever, that surgery is still very new ‘n difficult. There’s no way we could find the necessary tools to perform h’it out ‘ere. ‘N with ‘ow long h’it’s been since h’it ‘appened, Ah’m not sure of ‘ow successful surgery would be iffen Ah could even attempt it.” Taking a deep breath, she met his eye. “Ye will have limited use of yer h’arm fer the rest of yer life. H’I don’t believe h’it needs to be amputated, ‘n with time ye’ll be able to regain some strength ‘n mobility. But, it will take time ‘n effort ‘n never be the same.”
Searching his face, she asked, “So, ‘ow’re ye dealing with all this?”
He let out a rough breath. “Like you said, I was expecting it, worse even, but it’s still hard to process.”
Reaching out, she took the paw on his good arm. “We’ll get through this together, too.”
He nodded and squeezed her paw. Then, with a quick shake of his head, he asked, “So, what do we know about Marlfox Island and Castle Marl?”
Searching his face a moment longer, she saw that this was how he would process his injury. By focusing on other things first. She could accept that. “Well, Selra said there h’is probably not a monster h’in the lake.”
He eked out a grin. “I still don’t like the looks of that water though. Who knows what sorts of horrors could be hiding underneath.”
“Precisely.” She held up a finger. “Problem number one: crossin’ the Great Inland Lake.”
“Problem number two: finding Selra and saving her?”
“Iffen she wants to be saved. Maybe she reconciled with ‘er mum.” At his doubtful look, she added, “h’anything’s possible. H’at any rate, step two h’is to find Selra ‘n h’assess the situation.”
He squinted across the lake. “Given the lack of current activity as well as the number we vanquished in the spring, that might not be too much of a problem.”
She squinted in turn before rapidly blinking her eyes. “H’I’ll take yer word fer it.” Peering around them, she noted, “H’I suppose we could build our h’own boat but h’it’d be easier iffen we kin find one pre-made.”
“They’ve been here so long, you’d think they’d have put a ferry system in place.” He absentmindedly rubbed his shoulder. “Not that that would help us much right now.”
“Wait, that’s it!”
He stared at her like she was crazy.
“Iffen we could find a ferry, who’s to say we couldn’t pretend to be ferrets or stoats or somethin’ to get across?”
“I like to think I look like a squirrel personally.”
“Come on, Naraudo. H’I’ve dressed up as a mouse before. Now Ah ‘ave an eyepatch so Ah could shoot for corsair. We just ‘ave to slick down our tails or pin them up.”
He considered it for a few seconds longer. “Let’s first see if we can find a ferry at all.”
“Great!” she clapped her paws. “Now, before we leave, let’s get ‘erbs on both of us. ‘Ow much longer do we ‘ave until sunset?”
Naraudo glanced at the sky, seeking out what light filtered through the treetops. “Since it’s summer, I’d reckon we have until at least nine, so probably 8 more hours?”
“Oh wow.” She stopped her scurrying temporarily. “H’it makes sense, h’it’s just nice to know Ah’ll get to see so much more today.” She smiled. “Now, while Ah rally up some ‘erbs, why don’t ye look for a few more mushrooms or edible plants since our lunch was small?”
“Ampanna, all our meals have been small.” Despite his protests, he got up and scanned their surroundings. Maybe it was her regaining her vision, but she seemed a little brighter, even as she fumbled with her adjusted hand-eye coordination.
She waved her paw mindlessly at him. “Yeah, yeah. Oo, yarrow!” He raised an eyebrow as she added it to the lavender she had already collected. “Now if I just had some clove, we might ‘ave a good chance.”
He smiled and shook his head, then went back to sweeping the undergrowth. While he had plenty of experience looking for edible plants from his seasons in the Abbey kitchens, his skill had definitely been fine-tuned these past few weeks, when its purpose went from embellishment to survival. He thought he had seen a rotting log when they had arrived. If only he could find it again.
With his focus on the ground, he hadn’t realized the change of surroundings until he nearly ran into the tree. He jerked upward and immediately regretting the decision when pain ricocheted through his arm. Wait, were those mushrooms? He bent over and started harvesting the tasty fungi. Having only one paw available did affect his efficiency, but he was already starting to adapt. Maybe all hope wasn’t lost after all.
His musings drifted off as his eyes caught on something attached to the tree that had nearly taken him out earlier. He traced his length and noticed that this rope extended towards the lake. Carefully cupping the mushrooms to him, he stood. The sturdy, albeit moss-covered rope did indeed stretch across towards the island. Whether it was a ferry or not, it was their way over. He grinned and headed back to Ampanna. All hope was definitely not lost.
“H’I ‘ad the weirdest dream last night,” Segalia yawned, stretching her arms over her head as she emerged from the tent. Usually, they didn’t bother with a tent, but with the threat of rain the night before and the hares’ efficacy at setting it up, they had complied.
“Oh?” piped Rocky from his spot crouching by the smoldering remains of their fire.
“Aren’t dreams a big deal at th’ol’Abbey?” Shadow interjected before Rocky had a chance to further his inquiry.
“Yeah!” Bounder eagerly leapt into the conversation, springing out from the tent behind Segalia and startling her in her drowsy state. “It could be a message from that Martin chap. What did he say?”
She gave them a skeptical look. “H’I ‘ad fire powers ‘n Lijel was movin’ things with ‘is mind or somethin’. H’I sincerely doubt it’s a message from Martin.”
“Oh,” Bounder pouted, “that’s a bally shame. We could’ve used the direction.”
Shadow grimaced, but Lijel was the one who grumbled from his place under a tree at the edge of the small clearing, “Thanks for remindin’ us.”
“Lijel?” Blinking, Segalia rubbed her paws together over the now-flickering coals. “When did ye get out ‘ere?”
He shrugged. “H’a couple ‘ours after midnight, maybe? H’I couldn’t sleep, so Ah jist took over watch.”
The hares talked amongst themselves, getting ready for the day, as Segalia stared critically at Lijel before approaching him.
He raised an eyebrow.
Crouching next to him, she countered his eyebrow raise with one of her own. “Why couldn’t ye sleep?” Before he could answer, she hurriedly added, “iffen ye want t’talk ‘bout it, that is.” Since apologizing to him, she’d been more aware of the potential impact of her words, and had made a concerted effort to avoid offending him. Honestly, Lijel wasn’t sure which he preferred.
“Yore fine,” he waved her off. “H’I don’t know. H’I guess h’it all jist sorta hit me. H’it’s jist us. We don’t know where Riplar is, ‘ne we’re a little lost. We don’t know wot’s ‘appened to Ampanna or Selra or Naraudo. We ‘ave no idea where Rori and Carma are, or even iffen the Abbey’s h’okay. H’I guess,” he stared down at his paws, “Ah jist miss everybeast. My family, the others. And Ah ‘ate,” he pounded his fist on the ground in a sudden display of anger, “Ah ‘ate this not knowin’ anything.”
She nodded and sighed. “Yeah, Ah know wot ye mean.”
After a second or two, he laughed. “That’s it?”
“Wot d’ye want me to say?” Her laugh had traces of exhaustion and bitterness. “H’I ‘ate not knowin’, too. ‘Nd as much as we moved around with the ‘olt, missing people never gets any easier.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” They sat in silence a little longer, listening to the crackling of the fire and the birds in the trees. “H’I guess we should eat ‘nd plan out our day.”
“Yep,” she stood and brushed off her tunic before offering him a paw up, “food will be good.”
He took it and stood with a grin. “Yeah, we don’t want ye goin’ all Bloodwrath-y from ‘unger on us.”
She scowled at him. “Like yore any better even without the Bloodwrath. Or the ‘ares.”
“Sure,” he grinned teasingly and, rolling her eyes, she grinned back. “Oh, and uh, thanks for…” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
Smiling more genuinely this time, she nodded, “O’ course. Any time.”
They reached the fire; immediately, Segalia reached down for the food pack, but Bounder smacked her paws away. “No touching.”
“’Ey, Ah was jist tryin’ to ‘elp.” She put her paws up innocently. “D’ye need anythin’?”
“Well,” Rocky said from where he toasted two pastries over the fire, “the fire’s already lit so we don’t need your fire skills, but if Lijel wouldn’t mind using his mind-moving powers to fetch us some sides to go with this—” He cheerfully ducked Lijel’s swat. “So that’s a no?”
Lijel ignored him, addressing Shadow instead. “So, what direction are we thinkin’ today?
Shadow had been intently comparing three different maps, shielding them from the debris her companions kicked up. “Despite the fact that all these maps can’t seem to bloomin’ agree, I feel like north would be our best bet.”
Segalia plopped on the log. “Makes sense. Northeast or northwest?”
Shadow screwed up her eyes and randomly poked at the maps. Cracking one eye open, she examined the map her finger had landed on. “Northwest apparently.”
Lijel raised an eyebrow. “That’s wot we’re goin’ off of? The odds of yer finger landin’ on the right map?”
“No.” She said seriously before grinning. “My gut also agrees.”
“Sounds good!” Rocky proclaimed. “All in favor of listening to Shadow’s gut?”
Bounder immediately followed him in raising his own paw and Segalia followed suit with a shrug.
When Lijel looked balefully at her, she raised her eyebrow back at him. “’N wot was yer grand plan? Keep stumblin’ in circles? H’after all, ‘ow ‘ard could it be to find a giant lake?”
“Actually—” Shadow started before Rocky cut her off.
As he started doling out pastries, Shadow continued. “Finding the lake isn’t the problem. It’s choosing the best route to get there.”
Segalia bit into her pastry. “Hot!”
“Did you need a warning? Foods fresh out of the fire will be hot?”
She swallowed and stuck her tongue out at Rocky who wiggled his ears in return. “H’anyway, as Ah was sayin’, wot’re the options? Fer the route?”
“So,” Shadow picked up one of the maps, “there’s actually a giant canyon directly between our main camp and the Inland Lake. The river in it cuts east before circling back and emptying into the lake.” She frowned. “I actually think it hits the ocean at some point. I’m not sure. Bounder?”
Bounder wrinkled his nose. “Yes, there’s definitely a substantial part in the sea.”
“Wait, we’re close to the sea?” Lijel’s and Segalia’s shock was almost simultaneous.
“Yes, don’t they teach you geography at the Abbey?” Shadow pulled up another map to show them.
“We didn’t grow up at the Abbey.” Segalia muttered and Lijel nodded.
“Anyway, yeah, we’re just a day or so march away from the coast.”
Segalia’s eyes widened. “H’I’ve never been to the sea.”
“Yes, ye ‘ave.”
“Okay, fine, Ah ‘ave but Ah was really young ‘n Ah would love to go again. H’it’s the sea otter in me.”
Lijel patted her shoulder. “Later, h’after this is all over.”
“H’it’s a plan. So, the other h’option is to walk around the canyon?”
“Yes. It’s a bit out of the way, but I think it’s quicker than taking the river.”
“Nobeast ever thought to build a bridge over the cavern?”
“Well,” the hares chorused, then looked at each other, holding a secret conference with their faces about who should explain the situation.
“Well what?” Segalia asked.
Shadow sighed and rolled her eyes. Clearly, she had lost their mental argument. “At one point, a bridge was made. It’s just...no longer usable.”
“Like it rotted and wasn’t fixable?”
Shadow made a face. “Not exactly.”
Bounder jumped in. “That’s one of the theories.”
The otters’ eyebrows rose.
Bounder settled into storytelling mode. “So, the bridge was made a really long time ago, almost at the time Redwall Abbey was made. Over the years, our division waxed and waned so the bridge fell out of general use. As a result,”
“We lost it.” Rocky seamlessly picked up the story. “When the bridge was rediscovered on a map, naturally we made efforts to find it.” He paused. “We didn’t make a lot of progress.”
Both of the otters looked dubious yet simultaneously amused. Segalia looked like she was physically keeping herself from commenting.
“The thing is,” Shadow continued, “very few hares have returned from any expeditions. If they return at all, they’re usually injured to the point that they can’t relay any information.”
“Or they don’t know anything.” Bounder added.
Rocky shuddered. “Yeah.”
“Rocky went on one expedition a couple seasons ago.” Bounder informed them. “We’re very happy he made it back.”
At a loss with what to do with this information, Segalia ventured, “So, there’s a troll guardin’ the bridge, or wot?”
Nodding thoughtfully, Shadow commented, “That is one theory.”
Lijel’s head fell into his paw. “Ye’ve got to be kiddin’ me.”
Segalia looked slightly strained, like if the existence of trolls was confirmed, she might actually combust. “So wot information do ye know?”
Boulder shrugged. “We send a few hares out every dozen seasons or so to see if the danger is still there. In the first few seasons, it was a big deal with a score of elite hares going out on the expedition, but now it’s more just small checkups.”
“The survival rate is higher, but we still don’t know much about what happened.” Shadow looked more disappointed about the lack of information.
“Yore the famed Long Patrol ‘ares. ‘Ow kin a little bridge defeat ye?” Lijel looked genuinely baffled.
Shrugging, Rocky admitted, “It’s pretty terrifying to actually be in the vicinity. For now, we just take a detour because it’s easier.”
“H’and nobeast thought to, Ah don’t know, make another bridge?” Segalia asked, incredulous.
“We thought it best not to risk it.”
The otters shared a stunned look.
“H’okay,” Segalia propped her elbows on her knees and clasped her paws together. “Let’s get this straight. Riplar, our friend, left camp three nights ago. We followed two days ago. H’all things considered, time h’is probably o’ the h’essence. Our choices, therefore, h’are to take h’a roundabout river, detour ‘round it, or face h’a bridge with certain death.” She looked up at her companions. “Did Ah miss anything?”
“Time is important, big canyon, certain death,” Rocky muttered. “Nope! I think you got everything.”
She felt her head fall back into her paws. Bloodwrath was one thing, but facing monsters she’d only read about in fantasy books? That was another level of insanity that she wasn’t quite sure she could handle after the summer they’d already had.
“Well, then,” she heard Lijel dust the crumbs off his paws decisively, “Ah vote detour. H’are we ready to break camp ‘n ‘it the road?”
Taking in a deep breath, she opened her eyes before returning to the pastry in her lap. Despite how she felt emotionally, she knew she would be quite hungry shortly, and she needed to forestall that as much as possible.
Before her eyes, the hares went from free-spirited jokers to hardened, efficient workers. Rocky extinguished the fire and scattered its remnants. Shadow and Bounder cleared out the tent before quickly pulling out the pegs and folding it up. Lijel jerked out of his temporarily stunned state and started rolling up blankets to stuff into sacks. Segalia took another deep breath before cramming the rest of her pastry into her mouth and going to help Lijel. The hares had the rest of the clearing covered. Within a few minutes, there was no trace that they were ever there.
“Not gonna lie, that is h’extremely impressive.”
“Yeah,” Segalia agreed, “where were you when we needed you h’earlier this summer?”
Bounder shrugged. “It’s not that hard after a little practice.”
Rocky grinned. “We’ll teach you.”
“Now,” Shadow extended the maps in front of her again and glanced up at the thin rays of sunlight filtering through the trees, “let’s head that way.”
They kept up a reasonable pace, and, soon, they started hearing water.
Lijel glanced at Shadow. “Shouldn’t we be h’avoidin’ the water?”
She barely looked up from the map. “We don’t want to skirt it too widely.”
They chattered cheerfully amongst themselves as they walked even though they kept a brisk pace. Lijel and Segalia had to catch their breath a little more often than the well-conditioned hares, but they found they were adjusting quickly.
Rocky was in the middle of sharing a story about one of his sisters’ pranks when he suddenly stopped. “You didn’t.”
“What?” Shadow seemed to instinctively know who he was talking to and looked over, ears cocked.
“Shadow,” he looked up at gently waving branches and ran his paws over his ears, “I flippin’ swear.”
“Oh,” Bounder cut in, “Are we--”
Rocky nodded, eyes closed.
“Hm, that’s a change of plans.”
Shadow’s ears drooped from mischievous to guilty. “Rocky, it’s not too far out of the way. You don’t have to get anywhere close. I just wanted to record some usable data.” He groaned.
“Um,” Segalia put up a paw, “Wot’s goin’ on? H’are we lost?” She was certainly lost; she hadn’t felt this lost in conversations since hanging out with the twins. As Lijel had expressed earlier, not knowing what was going on and feeling slow to catch up, was definitely not a feeling she enjoyed.
“Iffen by lost you mean not heading in our original direction, yes.” Bounder offered.
Rocky finished. “However, iffen by lost you mean unaware of where we are, then no.”
“Right, so we’re,” Segalia took in the slight darkness of their surroundings and the increased sound of rushing water, “at the bridge.” Lijel finished with her. The otters glanced at each other; after all they had heard earlier, neither knew what to think about this new development.
Shadow focused on Rocky. “Rocky, I’m willing to follow your lead on this. You’re the fighting expert and you’ve actually been here before. If you don’t want to do this, it’s not too hard to get back on path. What do you want to do?”
As the hares patiently wait their third’s judgment, Segalia got a glimpse into how the trio worked so well together. Not only did they all have their areas of expertise, but they were willing to cede to each others’ skill and leadership when necessary.
She noticed Rocky’s ears flexing and wondered if it was connected to his mental processes. “Alright,” he finally broke the silence, “iffen everyone’s okay with it, we can at least check it out. It would definitely be quicker, but we have to be careful.”
The other hares fell into battle mode. Rocky looked back at their companions. “How do you two feel about this?”
Segalia shrugged. “Sure.”
“H’I guess Ah’m up fer it. Wot’s the plan?”
As they huddled to discuss strategy, part of Segalia’s brain wondered why they were making such a big deal over a bridge. It was silenced by another part retorting that it was very dangerous, beast-killing bridge. She shook her head to focus, dismissing the argument.
As they separated to play their various parts, Lijel asked, “D’ye think the ‘olt will believe us iffen we tell them we fought a troll?”
“Iffen we tell them a good enough story, probably.” They grinned at each other.
That’s when the screams started.
“On one paw, that was a very effective display of the potion’s potency. On the other paw, you can’t honestly expect them not to retaliate now.”
Malital had inclined her head at the compliment, and now she swiveled in her pilfered chair at Abbess Paldra’s desk to face Slashclaw. “I believe your first point counteracts your second. Yes, they might be thirsting for revenge but now they’ll be wary about the repercussions of their actions. Plus since the potion is clearly effective, I can greater mobilize the rest of the Abbey to fight them. I’d say we bought ourselves some time to implement the rest of our plan.”
“Our plan, ha,” Slashclaw grumbled under his breath, but he sat down at the chair across from her desk anyway. “Okay,” he spread his paws, “hit me with it. What devilish plan do you have next?”
“I’ve started slowly committing acts not up to the Abbey Charter so to speak, but it’s time to ramp up the effect as well as the spread of rumors and truths. We want beasts to go and tell who are under the effects of the potion, but coherent enough to pass along a message of true shiftiness and dread. So,” she clasped her paws as a light sparked her in her eyes, “any candidates you’d suggest?”
As Slashclaw considered the various drugged inhabitants of the Abbey, Tanyon silently wriggled out of his perch between the Library shelves. He pointed at his scouting partner, a young mousemaid, then pointed out the door. Then, he followed his motion by pointing at himself, the ground, and cupping a paw around his ear.
She nodded, the message clear, and ran off to tell the others the invaders’ newest plan. Though she had to duck several patrols, with the ringleaders in the Abbess’ Office, the danger was mitigated. She made it to the Attics, their newest base of operations, in record time.
Scanning the room quickly, she ran over to Joncho and saluted. “Skipper, sir. Where’s Mother Abbess?”
Hearing her name, the Abbess bustled over from where she’d been wrangling their meager food supplies. “I’m here. What have you and Tanyon discovered?”
They listened carefully as she spilled the details. “Hm,” Joncho mulled, “we have to get her to send one of our beasts instead, but how?”
“Could we swap h’another beast out in their place once we discover wot species she’s sendin’?”
Paldra frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“No.” The voice was quiet, but firm. They all turned to the far corner where Denol sat. His paws were busy weaving a new basket, but his demeanor clearly showed that he was understandably still in the depths of grief. “No,” he repeated himself. “Dubya knew Frisa was my sister. She took the time to learn every beast in this Abbey. She won’t be fooled by a mere swap. The only reason our scheme...worked for even a second was because she was still waking up. Her mind wasn’t clear yet.”
They digested this in silence.
Finally, Paldra broke the silence. “I agree. At the time, I thought it was mere friendliness that had her so attentive to our various inhabitants, but now it’s clear it was all part of her master plan.” Self-loathing crept into her voice. “Everything is clear now. And yet somehow, I missed it. I’m why we’re in this position. I let her in and now two beasts are dead and hundreds more are under her control.”
The Skipper did not deny this. Instead, he put a paw, tentatively then heavily, on her shoulder. “H’even the most brilliant warriors make mistakes. The h’important thing is to get back up ‘n keep fightin’. Which is wot yore doin’.” His voice changed timbre, and he was back to his usual authoritative self. “So we ‘ave t’replace ‘er beast a different way. Wot iffen we incapacitated her beast? Limited ‘er options to our choice?”
Paldra grimaced. “I don’t like it. Even if they are currently under her control, they are not her beasts. They are Redwallers, and they are under my responsibility.”
Joncho held up a paw. “We could just increase the dosage.”
“Still. I, myself, have felt the effects of this potion, and I would not wish more on any beast.” She paused. “Except maybe Dubya. That’s a question for another time, though. No, instead I propose we convert the loyalty of the beast she chooses.”
The mousemaid, who had awkwardly stood there, not sure if she was dismissed, tentatively piped up. “Dubya,” a sneer crept into her voice, “did say that the beast had to be relatively coherent.”
Joncho opened his mouth to comment but Paldra quizzically looked at the mousemaid. “Why did you say her name that way?”
She blushed. “I mean, it’s just a weird name? And I figure that’s a good way to undermine her?”
The Skipper snorted. “She’s not wrong.”
“No, no. I mean she’s right, but she’s onto something else.” Paldra looked at Joncho, an epiphany swirling in her eyes. “What if Dubya isn’t really her name? What if it’s a made-up name? What if, by finding out her name and history, we discover some way to beat her?”
Slowly, then more steadily, Joncho nodded. “H’it is always good to know h’as much as possible ‘bout one’s enemies.”
“Since most of our resources are in the library, we’ll need a few stealthy beasts to access them.” The Abbess turned back to the Skipper. “How about I find a few beasts and make a move on that project, while you get a team together to work on freeing the messenger from Dubya’s influence?”
A small smile tugged at Joncho’s mouth, and he tugged his tail in an otter salute of respect. “H’I’ll get right on it, Mother Abbess.”
As he turned away, Paldra noticed the mousemaid still standing there. “Thank you for your report, Atili. Would you like to help with either mission?”
Startled though she was at being addressed, Atili had a response ready. “Library recon, Mother.”
She nodded approvingly. “You did well there earlier, didn’t you?”
Not sure how to respond to that, she shuffled awkwardly before opting for initiative. “What would you like me to do?”
“Hm? Ah yes. Why don’t you rally up a few other beasts who you think would be a good choice and then meet with me to plan when we’ll strike first?”
“What about Tanyon?”
Abbess Paldra had started to turn away, but she turned back with a smile. “He would be an excellent choice. Oh! How about you go tell him now and see if he’s found out any more information about Dubya’s,” she imitated Atili’s disgusted tone with a conspiratorial grin, “plot.”
Saluting sharply if non-militarily, Atili scampered off, a gleam in her eye.
Within a few hours, both plots were in motion, full steam ahead. The target, a middle-aged squirrel, mother of four, had been identified. While she was heavily guarded, there was no time to waste as she was supposed to leave early the next morning.
Paldra was content to let Joncho handle that plan. Now that she had the idea of uncovering Dubya’s true self, she couldn’t let it go. Of course, she wasn’t expecting to stumble upon a diary that revealed her secret motivations, weaknesses, and real name, but surely they could find something.
As she snuck to the library on one of her first excursions since her release, she pondered on how normal it was to co-lead the resistance with Joncho. She felt complete trust in his decisions even if they didn’t always agree, and she found herself wondering what life would be like once the holt moved on. With both Howlia and Joncho absent, she would have to find herself a new second-in-command.
That was, of course, assuming they survived this invasion. How dangerous was it to plan for the future, to dream of the next step when they might not make it through the current one? Sometimes, Paldra was afraid that hope was fatal. Then the sun would shine again and she would remind herself that hope could be the greatest weapon of all. Still…one never knew what was next.
“Here,” Atili whispered as she slid her a bound notebook of tattered pages. “It’s Redwall’s genealogy records. I think the most recent addition.”
“Thanks.” As she took it, she paused. “Is the office clear?”
Atili tilted her head at Tanyon, who was just out of Paldra’s line of sight. Getting a response, she turned back. “Yes. We have at least ten minutes.”
Taking a seat while avoiding getting too comfortable, Paldra started skimming the pages, her eyes jumping to every occurrence of the word “hedgehog”. “Hm, here are the Spikkles…” she trailed her fingers over the page, quietly murmuring to herself. “Aha, good old Umfry Spikkle, Teller of Tales.” She fondly remembered all the stories her parents had passed down to her of the hedgehog recorder who she scarcely recalled herself. Reminding herself of their time limit, she shook her head and continued scanning the records.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know the records listed comings and goings. Let’s see here, the Apis family left 3 score seasons before the Doomwyte crisis, but apparently came back for a visit. They updated the records to show that they had a young daughter.” She squinted. “I can’t make out her name. Bella?” She blinked rapidly to clear her eyes. “Well, a hedgehog family with previous ties to Redwall might indeed be the place to start.”
Flipping a few pages, she found the names again. “Apparently somebeast in Redwall had ties to the family and kept updating their family tree. Their second daughter married some fellow named Walthurs? But what happened to her sister?”
She looked up and frowned. Something about this was niggling at the back of her mind. What was she missing?
Atili burst her reverie. “We gotta go! There’s a patrol coming down the next hallway!”
Snatching up the book, she stood up, taking care to replace the chair exactly as it was. “Did Tanyon find anything else?”
She shrugged. “A Mossflower history of the last dozen seasons. Mostly covers that thing with the idol and the past Winter War so I’m not sure it’s useful.”
“No, bring it with us. I think we’re onto something here.”
“Okay, sure, but we really need to get going.”
With a last look around the library, the potential for ‘’something’’ sparking just out of reach, Paldra followed Atili out the door.
Riplar couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this sick. His footpaws slipped out from under him yet again, and he collided with the deck. His side was already so bruised from previous falls that he honestly wasn’t sure where one pain ended and another began. Fumbling for the bucket that had slipped out of his paw, he painstakingly stood up. The necessity of bailing the boat didn’t concern him so much as the knowledge that if he stayed down, he would be drenched by another wave. Sodden though he already was, he knew he could only handle a wave standing up. Only a few more waves at that. Any more than that, and his grip on the boat and reality might give way altogether. He had been through a literal war, but at this moment of time, he was not sure which he would prefer.
He stumbled to the side and heaved desperately. Any food that had previously inhabited his stomach was long gone, but he couldn’t stop himself. A spare thought crossed his mind, concerned with the state of their minor provisions in the hold, but the mere consideration had him biting down forcefully to keep from vomiting up anymore. Spotting an incoming wave, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, bracing himself. He really wasn’t sure how he could be soaked to the bone and still affected by the cold deluge, but the dump of water speared him like a fox-sized icicle.
Shaking himself as vigorously as he could with his limited energy, he spared a glance for his companion. Her ears were drooping, laden with water, but there was still a spring in her step, as she busily filled up her bucket and emptied it over the side.
“Ho--,” he coughed, “how are you still keeping up?*”
Captain Tola looked over him, and smiled, taking in his bedraggled appearance. “Two reasons, lad: I tossed my cookies with the last bucket, and,” she pointed off the boat, “I know we’re almost out of the storm.”
Blinking rapidly to get the salt-infused rain out of his eyes, he followed her arm. While the darkness and crashing waves seemed to take up the entire horizon, he finally managed to glimpse a growing light. When he peered closer, he saw it was underscored by some unchanging bumps. Land. While they had been forced to steer away from the shoreline during the storm to avoid crashing, he hadn’t realized just how far the storm had pushed them.
“So,” he scooped up a measly amount of water and tossed it overboard, “in your professional opinion, what’s our ETA?”
She considered while filling another bucket. “If we hit the storm about an hour before noon, we might be out of here in half an hour, so 1 at the earliest?”
“We’ve only been in the storm for an hour?” How was that possible?
“An hour or a million years.” She spat overboard and grinned at him. “Somewhere in there.”
He offered her a shaky grin in return and went back to bailing with new resolve. Half an hour might take an eternity, but it was an achievable goal.
237 buckets, 54 sizeable waves, and 4 falls later, the pouring turned to a drizzle, and the waves shrunk. They had made it. Riplar collapsed on the prow. The slowly emerging sun was quite possibly the best thing he’d felt in his entire life.
Tola leaned on the rail beside him. “That was...quite a storm.”
He breathed deeply. “You said it.”
“We’re approaching the island so we should probably plan our next step.”
Riplar murmured his agreement. Neither of them moved.
As the rocking under his footpaws slowed to the rhythm he was now accustomed to, coherent thoughts slowly returned to his brain.
The island. Home. Or what was his home. It had been his home for 13 seasons. But now...now he was changed. He had only been gone a little over two seasons, but he had seen and experienced more than almost the whole of his existence before that. Not only was he different now, but so was the island. The population had been decimated, and one of its rulers was...dead. His own role in that gave him no end of uneasy feelings. In short, he didn’t know what to expect from the island or from himself. Now..how much of that did he need to share with Tola?
As if reading his thoughts, she sighed. “So, what can we expect when we reach the island?”
The ordeal of the storm certainly made him feel closer to the hare captain than before, but his inherent suspiciousness was hard to shake. He bit his lip. Fine. “I don’t know.”
He saw, out of the corner of his eye, her quirk an ear and eyebrow simultaneously.
“All I know is a lot has changed in the last few seasons. We can only hope that Selra, my sister, is indeed there.” His face hardened. “That’s all I care about.” If she wasn’t...he didn’t even know what he would do next. He smiled wryly to himself. Too bad their twinsense didn’t function as a tracking beacon.
“Okay,” she nodded. “What about our entrance into the lake? Are there rapids? Water predators?”
Right. She wanted real facts, and here he was stuck on nostalgia. “The Deepcrawler* hasn’t been seen for quite a few seasons, but there are a few flying fish and flesh-eating fish we’ll have to beware.” He squinted. “I think there’s just a few rapids where the river meets the lake, but honestly we hung out more on the other side of the lake. Even though there shouldn’t be many soldiers, I would still advise we exercise caution.”
“So, dusk? That way we can navigate any water hazards, but still avoid most patrols.”
The plan both steadied and exhausted him. “Sure. Sounds good. Until then, let’s take turns resting.” His eyes drooped.
The only sound he heard was the gentle crashing of waves and the cries of birds. Then the sound of approaching footpaws. He felt a light touch on his shoulder, and it was a sign of his exhaustion that he barely flinched. “I’ll take first watch.”
“Thanks,” he breathed, before letting himself succumb to the call of the sweet darkness.
A jolt jerked him from his sleep, and he bolted upright. Pain shot through him, and he groaned, stretching out the stiffness from the sleeping position and the storm.
“Glad to see you’re awake!” He traced the cheerful voice to the top of their small mast which had amazingly received little damage during the storm. Tola tested the strength of the sail that she had just repaired before swinging around the mast down to the ground.
“Hey,” he covered his yawn, “where are we? How long was I out?”
She pointed over the prow, and he saw trees almost a tail’s length away.
His powerful relief was replaced almost immediately by guilt. “You should’ve woken me up! I could’ve taken a turn.”
“It’s fine, lad. The wind brought us in quicker than I anticipated, and, ‘sides, you looked like you needed the rest.”
When he made to protest again, she held up a paw. “Riplar, I am a military-trained soldier with years of experience. I can handle it because I was trained for it. You, on the other paw, are still a growing boy. Your body needs all the sleep it can get.”
He rubbed his eyes and smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.” Twisting his core sharply, he felt a pop in his back. “Is it close to dusk?”
She glanced at the horizon and rolled her eyes. “With these accursedly long summer evenings, we still have a few hours. Better get comfortable.”
“That was more vehement than I expected.”
“Yes, well, I find they’re more of a constant irritation.”
Not having a strong opinion on the matter, he let it slide. “To each their own.” He examined their surroundings carefully, wondering if anything was vaguely familiar. “I would still suggest we head up the river now, because the tide will be against us soon.”
She nodded and adjusted the ropes at the mast. “Sounds like a plan.”
The slow cruise up the river only required a few tacks and reminded him of simpler times, and family trips. As they approached the lake, they noticed more fish leaping out of the water and took turns switching between fishing and sailing. Since they couldn’t risk a fire, they ate the fish raw. Riplar enjoyed it much more than Tola who only finished a small fish before switching to their fruit rations.
“It’s an acquired taste,” he informed her with just a tad too much smugness in his voice.
She flicked a pit at him in response.
Finally, finally, the sun began to set. They had anchored around the bend from the lake, and now slowly eased out of the shallows.
In the fading light, Riplar could just make out the silhouette of the the castle, outlined by the trees he had spent many hours in as a child. He forced the thought away; now was not the time. He manned the helm while Tola readied the sails. Peering at the opposite shore, he thought he saw some shadowy figures moving around. He ignored them too. If they were soldiers or other beasts it didn’t much concern him as long as they didn’t stray to that side of the lake. The castle looked mostly bereft of guards, but he still preferred to err on the side of caution.
“Head to 2 o’clock.”
She snorted, but complied.
“Sorry, I don’t know the nautical terms.”
“As long as I understand what you want me to do, we’re all good.”
He nodded before whispering, “A few degrees to the left--I’m sorry, port.”
He turned just for the benefit of seeing her roll her eyes at him. Her ear twitched to measure the wind, and she tacked accordingly.
After a few more adjustments, that included instructions from Riplar as farfetched as “You see that bush? Head that way.”
Tola took it all in stride, proving herself to be a formidable boatsman, worthy of her title.
They grounded the boat in a grove of overhanging trees. Riplar hopped out, his footpaws crunching in the sand. “So, we scout out the situation tonight then plan our next step in the morning. Where do you think we should head first?”
He turned when he didn’t hear her follow. “Well?”
“Technically,” she propped her boot in the railing and leaned on her knee, “our deal ends here.”
“What?” The deal had been made barely 24 hours before but it had almost passed out of his mind.
“We’re past the gorge.”
Something froze inside him. “Did I pass your assessment?” He felt his eyes turn flinty as he looked at her. “Am I Mossflower’s next biggest threat?”
She flinched slightly, and he wondered if he should feel bad. It depended on her next move.
Her shrug was casual. “No homicidal tendencies as far as I could tell. In fact--”
She cut off suddenly and only a breeze through the trees enabled him to see the glint off the blade held at her throat.
He grabbed for his side. Where was his weapon?
“He might not have any homicidal tendencies but I wouldn’t say as much for me.”
His insides felt like they had been strummed like a mandolin string. Was that--
The clouds seemed to darken and multiply before his eyes. Rori frowned. “I know we want to cover as much ground as possible, but I think we need to find shelter soon. That storm looks nasty.”
Carma looked up from shrub that she’d been trimming to replenish her herb collection. “Bother. I thought we might be able to reach the Abbey tomorrow night. This might add a whole day to our trip.”
“Maybe we’ll be able to make up time by starting earlier tomorrow.”
Groaning, she bagged the pawful of herbs. “What is it with you and your obsession with getting up early?”
He shrugged as he swung his pack over both shoulders. “You get more of the day if you start it earlier. Besides, Slashclaw was very much a crack of dawn type of guy.”
“So was Nottenc, but you don’t see me hankering for the sunrise.”
They set off down the sparsely shaded path.
“To be fair, I was with Slashclaw a little longer than you were with Nottenc.”
“So, you’re saying it’s brainwashing?” She challenged him with her eyebrows before second-guessing her comment. That could be taken wrong.
Thankfully, he laughed. “Probably. Now, what do you think about that grove of trees?”
She peered at the smudge he pointed at. “You don’t want to be near trees during a lightning storm though.”
“Would you rather stand in the middle of the path to be struck?”
“Of course not. That’s another surefire way to find lightning.”
“Well then, where would you suggest we find shelter?”
Her retort was forgotten as she spotted another figure ahead of them. “Look, Rori.”
“What? Oh, we could ask them!”
He forged ahead, and she followed with a frown. “I think something’s wrong with them.”
As they grew closer, it was clear that her assessment was accurate. Fortunately, Rori noticed something else. “Is that a cave?”
“Maybe? It’s hard to tell from this distance.” Her eyes kept straying to the lone creature standing dazedly on the side of the road.
“Grab the beast and meet me there. I’ll make sure it’s safe, then we can use it to weather the storm and assess their condition. Sound good?”
She nodded. “See you there.”
One problem solved, they surged on to the next. Thunder cracked in the sky, and a few tentative drops quickly thickened, becoming a steady rain with threats of worsening.
Carma approached the beast with caution. The beast, a squirrelwife it became clear as she came closer, didn’t appear dangerous so much as confused, and potentially hurt, but she had spent enough time tended to wounded creatures to know they could be just as harmful as armed warriors. Desperation made savages of everybeast.
“Hello!” She called out cheerily, coming slowly.
The squirrel didn’t seem to hear at first, but then turned at a glacial pace. “There was something I was supposed to do. I--” She looked lost as she stared at something over her shoulder, not sparing Carma a glance.
“Can I help you?” Carma asked, deeply aware that she had been hoping to be asked this question instead.
“I need to tell someone something.” The alarm was plain in the squirrel’s eyes as she finally met Carma’s eyes. “Something bad. Why can’t I remember?” She frantically clawed at her headfur.
“Whoa,” Carma awkwardly reached for her, not quite touching. “How about we get out of this rain, and we figure out what you forgot?”
Slowly, she nodded. While she didn’t move, she didn’t resist Carma’s gentle direction. What had happened to her?
As they approached the caved, Rori called out to her, “I think someone used to live here! It’s boarded up, but there’s a lot of old furniture. I used some to start a fire. Get this--” he caught sight of the squirrelwife, and made a questioning face at Carma.
She shook her head, indicating that her prognosis of the squirrelwife was still being determined, but it wasn’t good.
Rori greeted the squirrelwife, and introduced the two of them --Carma mentally berated herself for not doing so earlier--but it seemed to impact her just as much as Carma’s attempts at communication had. Quietly, they led her to a dry corner by the small fire, and, as she made herself comfortable, Rori murmured his findings in Carma’s ear.
“Most of the cave was boarded up when I got here. This seems to be a nice sitting room, but I explored a little more, and the other rooms are covered with bees.”
Carma blinked, only partly because rainwater was dripping off her eye sockets. “Bees?”
“Yeah, it’s the weirdest thing. Just desiccated bee corpses all over everything. There’s one big group of them in the kitchen, but I didn’t want to look too deeply into it. Maybe there’s still some alive around here.”
“Wow, that’s bizarre. Maybe the previous owner was an amateur apiarier? Apiary tender? Beekeeper, whatever, but things went wrong.”
They considered this for a second before turning collectively to their new companion. Now that she was seated, she seemed calmer, less agitated. Her eyes still held a dazed look, like something wasn’t quite there, but at least she wasn’t tearing her fur out.
“So, what’s your thought on our new friend?”
She blew out a long breath. “Clearly, some kind of psychological damage. I don’t know how or to what extent—it could just be a severe blow to the head—but we need to tread carefully until we figure out what she can tell us, if anything. I’m more concerned about us helping her than anything else now.”
“Agreed. Welp,” Rori made to clap his paws significantly together when thunder rolled across the sky and the squirrel jumped, looking about frantically for the source of the noise.
“Better hold off on loud noises.”
“Yep. I see that now. Let’s start with maybe getting a name out of her.” Rori walked over to the squirrel as gently as if the bee corpses were littering this floor as well. Carma followed, squirmish enough from the bee thought to be examining every small lump for a potential stinging animal. She loved bees as much as the next plant cultivator, but the idea of hundreds of bees, dead or alive, in the dark, confined space with them did not give her much joy.
Rori sat down on the other end of the dusty couch from the squirrel, and it creaked noisily under his weight. She looked up wearily, and he held up his paws peaceably. “I can stay far over here if that helps. My name’s Rori. What’s yours?”
Repetition was probably a good idea, Carma mused as she chose the wicker chair on the opposite side of Rori. Not boxing their guest in was probably also a good idea.
Looking like she was just fully waking up and remembering how to speak, she looked over at them. “I’m Authyn, but my friends call me Aut. At least, I think I do.”
“Hey, it’s fine. There’s no need to rush.” Carma sensed her floundering and jumped in, not eager to go back to the dazed state. “So, Aut,” she smiled warmly, “where do you come from?”
“Redwall Abbey.” The answer was so instant it was almost rote. This could be good!...or very not.
They exchanged glances, and Rori took up the conversation. “That’s great! We were even heading there ourselves.” He hesitated, not sure how much to push, then asked, “Where were you headed? Anywhere in particular?” Not an interrogation, he reminded himself. Just friendly conversation. Unfortunately, too many interrogations he’d witnessed of Slashclaw had started off as just that: friendly conversation.
“Sa—Sal—I…” she looked up at them, shaking her head. “Yes, but I can’t remember where. I’m supposed to deliver a message. Wait.” She patted her pockets. “I…might have something?”
Carma thought that sending a physical copy of a message along with a messenger with potential brain damage was a good idea, great even, but who was to say when the brain damage had occurred, before or after the messenger had been dispatched? It’s not like she was an expert in brain mechanics; she barely knew basic first aid.
She pulled out a crumpled piece of parchment, but didn’t open it to read, merely smoothing it out on her lap. Her eyes were unfocused, staring past the paper at the floor. Slowly, as if dredging it from the depths of her memory, she said, “There is a problem at Redwall Abbey. The leaders are controlling Mossflower, even killing people. Redwall is no longer a haven for the good beasts of Mossflower and the surrounding areas.” She shook her head. “No, I mean, Redwall needs help from the good beasts of Mossflower and the surrounding areas. Wait, is it both?”
“What does the paper say?” Rori prompted.
“Huh?” Authyn looked down at her lap as if surprised to find the paper there. “Oh, here.” She made to hand it over to them, but stopped herself. “I’m supposed to give this to the Badger Lord.” Her face brightened. “You’re badgers!”
Rori accepted the paper that was cheerfully thrust at him and opened it angled at Carma so that they could both read its contents.
‘’To Our Friends and Allies at Salamandastron,’’
‘’Redwall Abbey has been consumed by the baser desires of its inhabitants. Its past of gluttony has overwhelmed it under the leadership of Abbess Paltra. They feast constantly, squabbling over food, and decimating their own gardens as well as the surrounding areas, in spite of the previous devastating harvest. A vole family recently came seeking shelter; when they proved no use to Abbess Paltra, not offering food or work nor matching up to Redwall’s “peerless” standards, she forced them out. The family barely escaped with their lives, as some inhabitants even talked of eating them in an effort to feed their insatiable greed.’’
‘’Redwall has long had a history of hospitality, and helping those in need. Unfortunately, it is now blatantly clear that these claims are false. Not only does the community, if it could be called such, horde all resources, but it also rejects any creatures who are not worthy. Last winter, two badgers were in need of help, but forced into the terrible cold. Meanwhile, two foxes, related to the warlord Grovelum and inside informants, were happily welcomed. Redwall has been poisoned inside and out for years, but it is only showing through under Abbess Paltra’s leadership. The Abbeydwellers no longer laugh and sing, choosing instead to feast constantly, and drift aimlessly about when waiting for their next meals.’’
‘’This is not a call for help. Redwall Abbey is without help. Instead, I urge you to spread the word of what Redwall has become so that others are spared the same fate. If they do not kill each other with their lust and greed, I fear their greed will kill them. It would be a kindness to exterminate them now before they destroy themselves.’’
‘’The Abbess has forced me to lead as she succumbs to her gluttony, but the rest of the Redwallers keep tabs on my every movement. I fear for my life.’’
‘’Stay away. Warn the others. Do not let Redwall’s fall be forgotten.”
Rori finished reading the letter and stunned silence filled the cave.
“What?!” Carma finally burst out.
“All the things I want to say involve curse words,” Rori admitted, letting the paper drift to the floor as he covered his face with his paws. “What in Hellgates was that?”
Carma glanced from the paper to Authyn who was calmly sitting on the couch, unaffected by the letter’s contents. “I—Did—What—” she stopped herself. She sounded like she herself had had brain damage. One question at a time. “Who’s Malital Dubya?”
When Authyn said no more, Carma looked over at Rori who was still hiding his face in his paws. “Um, okay. Who’s Missus Dubya?”
“She’s really sweet. I think. Maybe she’s not? She’s a hedgehog.” She said it definitively as if that summed up everything.
“Did this Dubya send you?”
“Yes! And Joncho.”
“What?” This came from Carma and Rori.
They exchanged worried looks.
Rori ran his paws down his face then grasped them in front of him. “You mean to say, Joncho’s a part of this?”
Carma blew out a breath in frustration. “So, what’s the deal with Joncho?”
“He took the letter then gave it back to me. I assumed he added a note. He told me to say something else, but I can’t remember who told me to say what. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Rori’s voice was distracted as he reached for the paper to go over the letter again. “Help is underlined.”
“Hm?” Carma looked up.
“The word help is underlined twice in the letter. I guess this Malital character is really intent on not getting help.”
Carma reached for the letter. “Wait, that’s not the only thing underlined.”
Their eyes lit up as they met. “It’s a secret message!”
Carma reached for her bag to find a writing utensil while Rori started to sound out the message. “Th…i…s…a—“ he frowned. “This a?”
“Maybe Joncho had limited letters and words. Okay!” Carma triumphantly pulled out her diary and pen. “I got ‘this a.’ Continue.”
Authyn watched with interest as they bent close to the fire, peering over the underlined letters, and stringing out a message.
Finally, Rori put down the letter, and Carma stretched her back. “Got it.”
“Read it back.”
‘’This a trap. Don’t trust her. She has taken control and drugged all. Help. Help. One dead.’’ Carma lowered her transcription. The fire’s crackle filled the room as the badgers processed this new bombshell. “What is happening?”
“Okay. Okay okay.” Rori pressed his fist against his forehead then looked up. “Let’s go over what we do know. Authyn, feel free to add any information you know.”
The squirrel nodded, her brow knitted in concentration.
Rori started. “So, there’s this creature,”
“Hedgehog,” Carma helpfully supplied.
“Yes, hedgehog at Redwall who’s taken over by drugging the population.”
“That would explain why the place seemed so still when the village’s informant visited earlier.”
“Good point. And if one creature is dead, that explains the dead body he thought he saw.”
Carma stared at the flames. “Wow. We missed so much.”
Rori laughed ruefully. “Grovelum and Slashclaw spend almost three seasons trying to break into that place, Malital Dubya manages it in a summer.”
“So clearly her goal isn’t control so much as changing the narrative.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, look at how many times she mentions Redwall’s gluttony or its exclusivity. Clearly, she’s twisting and aggrandizing facts, but she means to ruin the Abbey’s reputation everywhere, starting with Salamandastron.”
Frowning, Rori took another look at the letter. “What does she hope to gain? Even if the badgerlord at Salamandastron,” he cast a questioning look at Carma who shook her head.
“Latest I heard is that the last badger ruler was retiring, and a new one, Forgefire or something is getting ready to take over. One of my uncles mentioned it.”
“So even if this Forgefire dude read this letter, does Malital really think Salamandastron is ready to believe that their friends and allies in Redwall have been turned that quickly?”
“To be fair, we’ve had limited communication with them since the Winter War. They might believe that this fall of Redwall is a result of that.”
“But surely, she would expect them to respond and come out in force.”
Carma’s eyes widened. “Maybe that’s what she wants. If she has control over Redwall, maybe she’s expecting Salamandastron to come out, and she can trick them into believing her. Maybe she would even try to take out the new Badger Lord while he’s visiting.”
Rori ran his paw over his head. “You’re right. That could totally be what she’s doing. Oh my word. Mother Nature, help us.”
They both turned to Authyn. “Can you confirm or deny any of this?”
Authyn bit her lip. “I don’t know about Salamandastron. I was sent to them with a message, but I don’t know what her plans were.” She blinked as she stared so intently her eyes nearly crossed. Finally, she shook her head wearily. “Yes, I think the drugging part is right. That’s all I can really say.”
“That’s fine,” they consoled her.
“So, if Joncho’s free, maybe he escaped the drugging. Maybe he’s not quite as under the influence as Malital wants.”
Stretching out in her chair, Carma stared at the cave ceiling. “What do we do? If we stopped this messenger from Salamandastron, she might send another, but we’d at least have a chance before she tries again.”
“We go back to Redwall. Pretend we don’t know any of this. Act like everything’s normal until we can make contact with Joncho and figure out a way to overthrow her.”
“You have to wonder how much the drug’s affecting everyone if one beast has control over the entire Abbey,” Carma muttered.
“Sometimes, she asks me to do something, and I can’t say no. I just really want to say yes, and do the thing for her, but I can’t think about what I’m doing. It’s hard to think.” Authyn met their eyes, her own pleading. “Do you get what I’m saying?”
Carma sat up violently. “Mind control drugs. Or mind influence drugs. I have a few ideas how she’s doing it, but, nature, that would explain everything.”
Rori breathed out slowly. “Okay, that changes things a little. Wait, if you were going to Salamandastron, Authyn, to give this to the Badger Lord, what if we pretended we were them? She might know Salamandastron is in transition, but she doesn’t know what the new rulers look like. I could be the Badger Lord, having intercepted the messenger—”
“On your way to visit Redwall to start off your reign. Yes! That’s great. I could be your sister or something. We’d force her hand while figuring out what to do.”
“Good,” Rori rubbed his on his legs and fidgeted with his axe handle. “Let’s hammer out a more detailed plan later, but for now, we should relax and rest.” He glanced out the cave opening. “That doesn’t show any signs of letting up.”
“True.” Carma stood. “It will be lunch time soon, so I’ll see if I can whip something together. How about you explore the rest of the house, maybe practice with your weapons?”
When he glanced up at her, she smiled. “You’re antsy. I understand. Get it out of your system.”
He smiled bashfully and stood as well. “That’s a good idea. Thanks, Carma. I’ll clean up after so you can beat something up.”
As he left, Authyn tentatively approached her. “I can barely think straight, but if you’d like, I can help cook as well. I make a mean stew with the right ingredients.”
“Let’s see if we can find some.” Carma hoisted her pack to her shoulder. “I have a handful of herbs in here, but not much else besides a few pastries my aunt sent with. I figure we can save those for later if we have a choice. Now where’s the kitchen?”
They made their way through the shadowy rooms, and Carma wondered if she needed to mention the dead bee infestation to Authyn. She was distracted, however, by a picture on a desk they passed.
It was a detailed sketch of four smiling hedgehogs, and the faded parchment beneath it seemed to be a missive to the cave’s previous occupants. Figuring it would be a good idea to find out more about the strange place, Carma put them both in her sack, then headed after the aimlessly wandering Authyn. Food first, plans later.