A few notes for those reading this:
- This is a sequel to the Taggerung
- Feel free to do fan art for this story and I will post it when I figure out how. (LOL)
- I will not be adding characters into this story on your request, my apologies. The only person who gets this privilege is someone who has already asked me before I thought to put this up. (If they like my idea)
- I will update you unless you say otherwise
- In chapters 27 & 28 there is content that may be disturbing to some readers, reader discretion is advised.
- If I think of anything else then I will tell you.
- A Redwall Seasonday is parallel to this...different timeframe, but same characters.
- Thanks to SM and her version of Keyla, for Rorc's condition.
Dedicated to... All those I have met on this wiki for making me feel welcome. Also to all those who have their own Fan Fics esp. those who update frequently and/or who have a finished Fan Fic for inspiring me to write my own.
Now enough of the sentimental blabber and on with the story.
The sun shone brightly upon a warm spring day. The bees hummed as they busied themselves, traveling from flower to flower in search of sweet nectar. The great stone abbey of Redwall stood next to the woodland path, towering above the trees. From inside came the sounds of happy young voices and the chatter of abbeybeasts as they busied themselves with their various chores. Inside the abbey however, not everyone was as contented. A tall, strong male otter paced the hallway outside a room on the second floor with nervous energy. He paused and listened to the murmurs and gasps coming from behind the door and resumed pacing the corridor with worry etched on his features. A gold-furred harvest mouse came up the stairs from the hall below.
“How’s it going Deyna me old mate?” said the mouse anxiously glancing at the closed door. “They’ve been in there for hours.”
“They chased me out.” The big otter looked glum, “They said I was only in the way. I can’t stand it Nimbalo! If they don’t come out and get me soon I’m going to have to break down the door to see if she’s alright.”
“Calm down mate.” Nimbalo got up. “Yore mum knows what she’s doin’, yore wife’ll be just fine.” He started walking down the stairs again. “Now I’d better get back to the kitchens or me matey Boorab will eat everything and leave nothing for afternoon tea. Can’t let that happen now can we?”
Deyna thought ruefully that what Nimbalo really meant was that if he didn’t get to the kitchens soon the hare would eat everything and wouldn’t leave anything for him. He didn’t bother to tell Nimbalo this but sat down against the wall opposite the door he was watching. His mind drifted back over the past few seasons starting with the visit of Russano the Wise, Badger Lord of Salamandastron. The Badger Lord had revisited everything he had known in his dibbun days at Redwall and listened attentively to Deyna’s story. He stayed until the first snow and then bade Redwall farewell, saying that he needed to get back to his mountain and see that the hares hadn’t eaten him out of house and home while he was gone. The winter feast had been held in their honor. Deyna had promised Russano that he would come to Salamandastron in the summer and stay there for awhile. Friar Bobb had sunk to his knees with relief when the army of hares had left, declaring that one hare was defiantly enough to cope with. Deyna spent two happy seasons with his mother and sister, surrounded with creatures and things that he should have grown up with but never had the chance to. But when summer came around, true to his word, he set off to visit Salamandastron. When he had first seen the mountain he had been amazed by its sheer size. Even when he spotted it, it took him a full day to actually reach its threshold. He had been received warmly and the days had passed by quickly, with Russano showing Deyna around his domain and answering his every question about its past with pleasure. One day stood out in Deyna’s memory vividly, it had been one of the most important days of his life. Deyna shifted to a more comfortable position and brought this memory to the forefront of his mind and recalled as many details as he could.
Deyna woke to the sound of seabirds calling to each other through the early morning air. He stretched luxuriously and got up from his bed, wincing as he placed his feet on the cold stone floor of his room on the west side of the mountain. He got dressed and headed towards the Badger Lord’s forge. He knew by now that, early riser as he was; Russano always woke up before him. Deyna stepped into the forge; the soft glow of sunrise and the red glow of the fire in the forge were the main sources of light in the vast cavern. Russano heard him enter and called him over to the desk he had placed next to a large window opening in the stone. From it, he could look out over the sea and watch the waves pound ceaselessly against the shore.
“What are you doing today?” Deyna peered over Russano’s shoulder trying to get a glimpse at what the big badger was looking at, “Are you still on Lord Brocktree?”
“Yes,” Russano looked at Deyna his excitement evident in his eyes, “I am piecing together his story so that those that live here can learn more about how this mountain came to be what it is now.”
Deyna glanced at the stacks of scrolls, papers, and books that littered the tabletop and asked, “So, ‘ow long have you been at this mate?”
Russano chuckled and replied, “Only two seasons so far, but many more will pass before this history is finished.”
Deyna sat on the edge of the window and looked out over the sea, “It’s a good thing that badgers live longer than most creatures mate, otherwise…” Deyna words dwindled away as he stood, looking intently out over the sea.
Russano got up from his desk and looked out the window, his gaze sweeping over the expanse of water while he asked Deyna anxiously, “What do you see friend? Is it a ship?”
“Aye, it’s a ship shore enough, but I can’t tell what kind it is or who the crew is yet.” Deyna pointed his paw at the horizon, “Can you see it? It’s straight out, just coming into view over the horizon.”
“Yes I can see it now, Fleetwood!”
A young hare stepped into the forge, throwing a salute and then standing rigidly at attention. “Yes sah?”
“Fleetwood I want you to get the Long Patrol ready, tell them that Arflow’s coming.”
“Yes sah!” The young hare dashed away, footpaws pounding madly against the cold stone floor as he raced off through the mountain.
Deyna stared after him quizzically, and then turned to Russano for an explanation. “Who’s Arflow mate?”
Russano smiled and sat down, watching the vessel draw nearer to the mountain. “Arflow is a sea otter, Skipper of the Waverunner. His crewbeasts consist mainly of his wife and their ten sons and eight daughters, but there are a few in the crew who are not related to him, mainly sea otters who have fallen head over tail for one of his daughters.” Russano laughed, his brown eyes twinkling as he struggled to contain his mirth as he continued fill Deyna in. “The only problem for them is that Arflow’s daughters want to have nothing to do with malebeasts other than their father and brothers.” Russano could no longer contain his mirth and between deep laughs said, “So all those poor beasts are crewing the Waverunner in the hope that his daughters will fall in love with them, while the maids don’t want to have anything to do with them.”
Deyna smiled and shook his head, “Well, ‘ave any succeeded?” Russano could only shake his head, so engulfed was he in his mirth. “What I still don’t understand,” continued Deyna, glancing out at the rapidly approaching ship and the hares gathering on the shore. “is why you’re lining up for battle if there not foes.”
“Ah yes,” Russano said, his mirth now under control, “It’s really just a big act that we both put on when they arrive. It started when they came to Salamandastron the second time. They had just acquired the Waverunner and we didn’t recognize them, and so prepared Salamandastron for defense. Arflow got a kick out of seeing us all on shore in battle array and so for the last twenty seasons every time they visit Arflow and his crew pretend to invade the mountain just to rub in our mistake.” Russano glanced out the window and was surprised to see the Waverunner starting to anchor. “We’d better start if we’re going to get down there before they land.”
Both warriors left the forge quickly, one carrying a short length of black hardwood while the other had a magnificent sword with a red pommel stone, black leather grip, and a blade that shone like fire.
Deyna watched with interest as the sea otters poured onto the beach shouting wildly and found himself being swept along by the hares who were giving their battle cry as they rushed toward the strong looking otters, sand flying from their footpaws. When the two groups were five paces apart everyone sheathed their weapons and the two sides crashed into each other with shouts of “Ahoy mate, I ‘ope ye ‘aven’t gone along and scoffed all the vittles when ya saw us coming!” and “Wouldn’t dream of it old lad, wot wot?” Deyna didn’t take part in any of the friendly insults and greetings exchanged. He stood thunderstruck by the ottermaid that stood before him. When Russano had said that some otters had fallen head over tail after Arflow’s daughters he had assumed that they were pretty, but the female otter that stood in front of him was beyond description. A strange feeling swept over Deyna. His mind raced as he tried to decide what this feeling was. Was it excitement? Aye, maybe a little excitement. But that wasn’t all, there was something else…Deyna thought hard, searching his mind. What was this feeling called? Suddenly it hit him, this was the feeling he had heard Broggle talk about, it was love. He stood there stunned until the ottermaid held out her paw and said “Ahoy mate, me name’s Pearl wot’s yours?”
The Abbey Warrior blinked and shook his head. “Deyna.” was all he could manage.
The days passed away the quickly with Deyna hardly being able to break himself from Pearl’s company. When fall came and the leaves of the few trees on the mountain had turned to their reds and yellows, Deyna said he must leave to go back to the abbey. Much to everybeast’s amazement Pearl said that she had decided to go with him. Russano wished them a long and happy life together and they departed.
Deyna’s memories were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. His mother, Filorn, looked out and saw him sitting against the wall looking expectantly at him. She pushed the door open wider and said quietly “Come in and meet your son.” Deyna stood up quickly, his entire body suffused with joy, and slid quietly through the door to find his wife Pearl and the much awaited cub.
Book 1: Taggerung
It was a normal day in the abbey kitchens, Broggle the head abbey cook, was baking a mushroom pastie with onion gravy while Filorn made her famous woodland trifle. Mice and squirrels made up the majority of the kitchen crew but there were a scattering of moles, a few otters, and one hare. He usually got the jobs that kept him away from the food. A scurrying of paws was heard and the kitchen door flew open and stopped with a bang as it hit the wall. A young otter dibbun fairly flew through the kitchens in his haste, dodging helpers with mixing bowls and ingredients and paused only to grab a handful of candied chestnuts.
Broggle was indignant at the otterbabe’s audacity and cried out “Come back you little thief! I need those for my new plumcake!”
The little otterbabe gave a short chuckle as he raced off into the pantry. Just as he disappeared the kitchen door burst open and Sister Alkanet stalked into the kitchens fuming, her habit streaming out behind her.
“Ooh just let me get my hands on that little rouge and I’ll physick him into next season!”
“What did the little rogue do this time Sister?” asked Fwirl who was trying very hard to hold in her laughter as the stern Sister went on with her grievances against the little Rorc.
“What did he do? I’ll tell you what he did! This morning I woke up and went to go do my duties as assistant cellarkeeper and I couldn’t get my door open! The little nuisance had wedged a piece of wood under my door so I couldn’t get out. I was willing to let that pass but then I was tending to the cellars and every time I turned my back he would coat the tools I was using with honey or rearrange them so I couldn’t find the tool I needed. That dibbun deserves a good physick and to get sent to bed early!”
Filorn attempted to hide her merriment behind her paws while she placated the ruffled Sister. “I’ll make sure that both Deyna and Pearl have a talk with the rouge. He respects my son the most out of everyone in this abbey. I think Rorc will listen to him.”
“He’d better,” said Sister Alkanet as she glided out of the kitchens, “or I’ll make him!”
The door closed and in the silence that followed everybeast looked toward the pantry from which a small voice issued, “I don’t fink da sista lik me. She sounda berry berry angry!”
Amid the laughter that followed this remark Filorn called Rorc out of the pantry.
“Did you hear what Sister Alkanet said?” Filorn tried to make her voice sound stern.
“Yes Granmuver.” The little otter looked down at the kitchen floor.
“Why did you do those things to our good sister?” The kitchen staff looked at the otterbabe, who, they knew from experience, could never really come up with a satisfactory explanation for his mischievous behavior.
“She send me ta bed lots.” The little otter was wiggling with impatience now and kept his eyes fixed on the floor.
Filorn shook a paw at the mischievous babe, “Only because you play pranks on her constantly. I am going to have to talk to your father and mother about this.”
“You may go now. And try to stay out of trouble.”
“Yes, Granmuver.” Rorc dropped to his knees and reached under a counter. “Ooh, a candid chesknut!” Filorn shook her head in despair as her grandson dashed out of the kitchen and wondered if the little troublemaker had even heard a word she had said.
In an empty dormitory two dibbuns, Rorc the otter and Rosabel the squirrel were enjoying a warm mushroom pastie that had been destined for the Abbess’s table. The dark gravy had run down their chins and covered the bed that they were sitting on.
“You daddy made nice pasties Rosie.” declared the otterbabe as he polished off the last piece of crust and began licking his paws.
“But we even better at eat’n dem!” The little squirrel said as she leapt off the large bed, “An' you berry gudd at sneaking dem away.”
Voices reached the two dibbun’s ears as they stood cleaning themselves off.
“Deyna you really must do something about Rorc’s behavior.”
“Uh oh Rosie.” whispered Rorc glancing around, “Dat’s me Granmuver an’ Faver. Dey’s not too ‘appy wid me.”
“Quick unner ‘ere!” said Rosabel as she dived under the bed. “Dey no look unner ‘ere.” The door swung open as Deyna and Filorn walked in, Filorn was talking to Deyna as she had promised to.
“The fact that he’s your son makes it even more important that he behaves well. Because you’re the Abbey Warrior your son is automatically somebeast the dibbuns look to to see what is acceptable behavior.”
“I know Mother. He doesn’t listen to me as well as he used to though. Sure if I talk to him he’ll behave for a day or two and if I give him an extra chore he might behave for a week. But then he relapses back to his pranks. I don’t think a normal punishment will do the job.” The bed creaked as Deyna sat down. “Why is this bed wet?” There was a pause as both beasts sniffed the air.
“It smells like the pastie Broggle was making. I know for a fact that one of them was missing this morning.”
“Let’s look around; maybe the culprit’s still here.”
Rorc felt a tap on his footpaw. He looked back and saw Rosabel slip behind the oak wardrobe. He wiggled in beside her and they both held their breath trying not to giggle as the two otters searched the room.
“Deyna, did you check under the bed?”
“Yes I did. Did you look in the wardrobe?”
There was a rustle of cloth and Filorn’s voice came from directly behind the thin sheet of beech wood that served as the back of the wardrobe.
“Nobeast in here.”
“Besides for you Mother.”
“Stop playing around.”
“Well I guess whoever ate the pastie left before we got here.” Deyna’s voice was slightly muffled, probably because he was looking in something.
“Yes and it’s almost time for tea, I should go see if Broggle needs any help.” Footpaws began to retreat toward the door.
“I’m going to see what Pearl’s doing and search for Rorc along the way.” The sound of slightly heavier pawsteps made their way to the door.
As the sound of their pawsteps died away in the distance the dibbuns crawled out from underneath the bed.
“Phew, it dirty unner dere!” Rorc said as he attempted to dust himself off.
“Not anymore, it all stuck to me tail.”
“I ‘opes dat Granmuver no find us lik dis or we get lotsa lotsa baffs.”
“Uh oh Rorc, dey closeded da door!”
The otterbabe snorted at the alarm in her voice. “So? We jus ‘ave to open it.”
“How we gonna do dat?”
Rorc sat on the floor and thought for a moment. Then his face lit up. “You gonna stand on me and reach the handle dat’s how.”
The two abbeybabes carried out this plan against the strong oaken door.
Rosabel reached to her full height. “I be too short! I can’t reach it.”
“Try stanin’ on me head.”
Just as Rosabel moved to stand on Rorc’s head the door swung open and they tumbled out into the corridor. Rorc opened his eyes and saw Deyna’s stern face looming over his. Rorc smiled as much as he could and tried to placate his father. “Hello Faver, me an’ Rosie was jest playin’ a game of of… of hide and seek! Right Rosie?
The little squirrelmaid who was all covered in dust and cobwebs, nodded her head furiously in agreement. “We was Mista Deyna sir.”
Deyna however, was taking no nonsense. “Rosabel, I want you to go find your mother and tell her that I sent you. Rorc, come with me.”
Rosabel started walking and glanced over her shoulder at Rorc who, cheeky as always, winked at her, confident that his punishment wouldn’t last long.
Deyna and his family lived in a set of rooms that were slightly apart from the rest of the dormitories. These rooms were set up much like the gatehouse that had once been occupied by the Abbey Warrior, but in the absence of a champion it had become the home of the abbey recorder. The champion’s rooms as they were called by the dibbuns consisted of two bedrooms and a room with a few chairs and a table for times when one of their family members wanted to eat or study in peace. This room, with its table, chairs, and fireplace, was where Deyna chose to talk to his son.
“Rorc, why do you insist on misbehaving? You need to set an example for others to follow.” Deyna saw the stubbornness in his son’s eyes and knew that he was going about this all wrong. He shook his head and paced up and down in front of the fireplace, the flames making his shadow dance upon the wall and over the sword and dagger that hung there. He saw his son’s gaze resting upon both weapons and this gave him an idea. He stopped pacing and turned to his son. “Rorc what do you want to be when you grow up?”
The dibbun’s eyes lit up with adoration, “Me wanna be a warrior like you!”
Deyna smiled at the eagerness in his son’s voice. “Rorc, a warrior needs to be strong in body, but gentle towards others. He must be honest and fair. But one of the most important qualities of a warrior is that he knows when there has been enough joking for one day. This is one thing you have not learned.” Deyna watched as his young son hung his head in guilt and wondered if he was going too hard on him, after all he was only two seasons old. Then he caught a glimmer of resentment in those young eyes and he decided he must go on with the punishment. If only my son didn’t have such a stubborn and independent spirit. He thought regretfully. “Do you understand this?”
“Yes Faver.” But his eyes told Deyna that he had understood but wouldn’t obey. Deyna sighed and reluctantly continued on to his next plan.
“As you no doubt know already, your Aunt, Abbess Mhera, is holding a fall season feast tomorrow. You are to stay either in this room or in your bedroom for the rest of today, and during the feast day also.”
Rorc’s little eyes opened wide in horror as the realized what this meant. “But Faver I’ll miss the feast!”
“Aye, and hopefully you’ll behave after this. I will tell Broggle to bring you some food during the mealtimes.” He strode to the door, then turned and looked at Rorc. “Remember, no leaving this room at all.” Then he walked out and closed the door, leaving a speechless Rorc slumped against the chair.
“Do you think I was too hard on him?” asked Deyna as they walked toward the Great Hall amid the crowd of abbeydwellers.
“No I don’t think so” Pearl said softly as they took their seats at the big oak table next to Filorn and Abbess Mhera on one side and brother Hoben and Foremole Gundil on the other and looked out over the crowded chamber which was still filling up. “I think it’s actually a punishment he needs if he’s going to become a responsible Redwaller.”
Nimbalo tapped Deyna on the shoulder. “Hey Deyna me matey lissen ta this.”
“What is it Nimbalo?” asked Deyna noticing the laughter that shined in his friend’s eyes.
“Everyone already knows that little Rorc is confined to yer room but look over at the door.”
Deyna wasn’t sure if he liked the fact that everybeast knew of Rorc’s punishment but he looked over at the entrance to the Great Hall. “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary Nimbalo.”
“It’s not what’s unordinary that’s funny mate. It’s what’s ordinary. Everybeast knows that Rorc isn’t ‘ere but there still going ‘round the place where he rigged the water pail up.”
Then Deyna realized what Nimbalo thought was so funny. Rorc had made a pail that he could fill with water and dump on anybeast that walked under it. He had done this so many times that even though they knew he wasn’t there, everybeast still avoided the spot the water fell on. He began to chuckle at the thought of the habits that had been imposed upon the Redwallers by his little terror of a son.
After a while Rorc got up and began to look busily about the room. “No more baffs an’ miss feasts for me, oh no! Me gonna go far ‘way were dey no find me an’ bing me back.” His eyes fell on the two weapons hanging on the wall. “Hoho! Me need a weapin.” He studied them for awhile. “Big sword too big. Me take little sword.” The dibbun looked around at the few pieces of furniture that the room contained. “Aha! Dis is wha’ I needs.” Rorc walked over to a large wooden chair that stood near the wall. After much grunting and exertion on the dibbun’s part he managed to push, pull and drag the heavy chair over to the weapons. With a feeling just short of reverence he removed the dagger that had once belonged to Sawney Rath, that had served his father so well until he had arrived at the abbey and had been chosen by Martin as Redwall’s champion. He carefully climbed down off the chair and laid the dagger aside. Rorc then commenced pushing the chair back to its original position and hid the dagger under his bed. He turned and wiped sweat off his brow. “Me wait ‘till dey all at da feast den I go an’ get some food and away I goes!” The door of his room began to open and he quickly put on a sad face.
Broggle backed in carrying a tray. “It’s just me young Rorc. I brought you some food. An apple, a few slices of oatbread, and a bowl of autumn vegetable soup. Oh yes, and some water to drink.”
“No strawbee fizz?”
“’Fraid not young sir. Not allowed because of your punishment.”
Rorc’s face fell and he began muttering, “No more punishments eider.”
“What’s that Rorc?”
“Notink Mista Broggle sir.”
“Ok then, I need to get back to my kitchens. Lots to do for the feast.” He grimaced as he realized what he had just said. Rorc attacked the food with a will as the head cook carefully left the room, still looking for a trap or an escape attempt. Rorc finished with the food quickly. He stood at the window looking sadly at the dibbuns playing happily for awhile, and then he sighed and turned away. He wandered into his parent’s bedroom and looked around for something to do. His eyes settled on his parent’s bedsheets and his eyes lit up. Soon there were no sheets on the bed, but a tent had appeared in the middle of the bedroom. Rorc lay in the middle, curled up and fast asleep.
Deyna and Pearl returned with the setting sun, darkness settling over Redwall and the surrounding woodlands. The Dibbuns had been long since sent to bed, amid wails of protest at their fate. Everybeast began to ready themselves for a good night’s rest. Deyna placed Rorc softly in his own bed while Pearl remade theirs. The Abbey Warrior emerged from Rorc’s bedroom and softly closed the door. He turned to Pearl and embraced her. “It’s hard to realize that the picture of tranquility that I just placed in that bed is the same terror that has caused us so many headaches.” The sadness he felt was evident in his voice.
“I know Deyna but whatever happens we have to believe that he’ll turn out responsible.”
As they stood there in the dark room Deyna felt his wife’s composure and mental strength flow into him, rejuvenating him as sleep never could. He relaxed, confident that he could face the problems of raising the troublesome dibbun.
“I think I can believe that.”
Rorc woke to the sun’s first rays appearing over the treetops. He slid out from under his covers and dropped to the red stone floor. He pulled his habit on then walked over to the door and opened it. He had persuaded his father a few weeks ago to place the handle lower so he could open the door himself. He peeked out into the main room and looked around for Deyna or Pearl. Finding nobeast, he opened the door fully and entered the room. He went a window overlooking the abbey pond and found his father practicing there with Martin’s sword. Deyna didn’t practice much with his dagger anymore, as his main weapon had been Martin’s sword since his arrival, so he had not missed the blade. Deyna knew how much his son loved to watch him practice and therefore he usually practiced in full view of the window to his family’s rooms. Rorc watched his father go through a series of acrobatic exercises he had invented to keep himself flexible. Deyna bent and twisted, leaping into the air and completing great somersaults. As Deyna’s training workout came to an end Rorc heard his mother getting up in the next room. The dibbun’s eyes darted around the sparsely furnished room, searching for a spot to hide himself until she had left. As the dibbun was about to sneak back into his room Pearl opened the door and stepped into the room. Rorc then noticed something he had never really thought about.
“Muver?” the dibbun looked inquisitively at her from the chair he had climbed into when the door had opened, “Why your fur long an’ not short lik Faver’s or Skippa’s?”
“Well my little fish,” said Pearl sitting next to him and looking at him affectionately, “it’s because your Father and Skipper are river otters and I’m a sea otter.”
The little otter wrinkled his nose. “So?”
Pearl sighed, seeing that a short explanation would be useless. “Sea otters live near the sea, which is a very, very big pond.”
“Lik da pond down dere?” Rorc pointed out the window.
“Yes, only much much bigger.” Pearl laid a finger to her son’s lips. “Now don’t interrupt”
“Is it bigger dan da h’abbey?”
“It is much bigger than the abbey. It’s bigger than all of Mossflower. You can sail on it for days and days without seeing land.”
Pearl watched her son’s eyes grow wide at the thought of so much water in one place. Then he narrowed his eyes as he found a new question.
Pearl sighed; it was going to be awhile before she got anywhere.
Pearl closed the door quietly after her, hoping that Rorc would stay occupied with the squirrel bottle she had given him to play with until she could sneak away. It had been given to her by Abbess Mhera as a wedding gift. The latch clicked and she leaned against it and sighed, studying the grain of the wood as she relaxed.
“How’s me pretty seashell?” said a voice from behind her shoulder.
Pearl gave a start and spun around to see Deyna standing behind her with Martin’s sword strapped across his back. “You startled me!”
Deyna laughed as he dodged a swipe from her rudder. “Haha, you looked relived when you came out of that room. What did he do?”
“He didn’t do anything; he just had a lot of questions.”
“Like what?” asked the big otter as they strode down the hall arm in arm.
“Well, it started out with him asking me why my fur was longer than yours.”
“I figured he’d realize the difference someday.”
“Yes, well then he had to know what the sea is.”
“Uh oh.” Deyna shook his head, “I can tell where this is going.”
“And then I used the word sailing.”
Deyna held up his paws. “No need for further explanation me dear. I can work out the rest.” He shook his head, “I guess that’s the problem with having a curious dibbun.”
The two strolled down the corridors toward the Great Hall, where the sounds of many creatures decorating, moving tables, and talking had begun to reach their ears. Pearl suddenly looked at her mate quizzically. “Deyna, why didn’t you put Martin’s sword back in our rooms? You don’t usually carry it around all day.”
“Pearl you remember the arrangement I made with Mhera right?”
The sea otter smacked herself on the forehead. “Ah yes, I remember. She said you could keep it in our rooms as long as you brought it to the Great Hall during feasts.”
“Absolutely.” Deyna stopped walking and motioned Pearl though the door. “Now-”
He never got any further, there was a loud splash and Deyna was suddenly standing in a puddle of water. He glanced around and saw Rosabel and a molebabe named Dinny slipping into the crowd of Redwallers that had gathered to help with the feast.
“Ahoy Deyna, wot ‘appened?” Skipper said as he walked up, his paws spread wide.
“Hello Skip.” Deyna turned and addressed both Pearl and Skipper. “I think Rorc has been a bad influence on them.” He nodded towards where Rose and Dinny were now eating an apple flan that probably should have been cooling in the kitchens.
“Hoho no way mate.” Skip shook his head and laughed. “Those two were destined to be rogues even before Rorc came along. By the way Deyna, you sure that Rorc is really only two seasons old? He’s been more trouble than ten dibbuns already.”
Deyna and Pearl laughed, “I’m pretty sure I know when he was born.” Pearl said as she straitened Deyna’s soaked clothing. “But sometimes he makes us wonder if we didn’t all fall asleep for a season or two.” “Skip!” called Broggle as he dragged Nimbalo and Boorab from the kitchens. “How ‘bout taking care of these two before they eat the entire feast beforehand?”
“Eat the entire feast?” said Skipper, aghast at the thought. “Belay there mateys. Leave some for otherbeasts you great gluttons.” Skipper strode over. “Here mate I’ll relieve you of the villains.” The big otter shook them playfully. “Now listen ‘ere mates, yer gonna help out ‘ere an’ leave all the vittles alone.”
Nimbalo looked around, his face mournful. “This is a cruel abbey mate, I dunno why I stay ‘ere.”
“Same here old lad.” Boorab shook his head sadly. “Barely enough to keep jolly old fur ‘n flesh together, wot wot?
Pearl whispered in Deyna’s ear, making sure that Boorab and Nimbalo could hear. “They’ve had enough to eat; I think they should miss the feast too. They could keep Rorc company.”
The three otters fell about laughing at the mixture of horror and indignation on the faces of the gluttonous duo.
Rorc had busied himself all morning getting ready to make his escape. He continually muttered to himself about what his mother had told him that morning.
“Me tink dat muver was fibbin’ ‘bought da big water. Bigga dan Mossflower, humph! Me no belevin dat one!” Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Rorc quickly hid the dagger and the sack he was going to put food in. “Who dere?”
“Rorc, it me, Rosie wid Dinny.” The door handle turned and Rosabel and Dinny tumbled in. “Wha’ you doin?”
“I gonna runned ‘way.” Rorc said paw on his hips. “An’ you no gonna stop me.”
“Burr, zurr Rorc we’m not gunna stop ‘ee.” The molebabe shook his head. “We’m bees cummun wid yoos.”
“Tanks,” Rorc looked glad, “When da feas’ starts yoos come get me.”
“We gonna miss da feat?” Rosabel’s face fell, “I no wanna miss da feas’. Can we go later?”
Rorc rolled his eyes. “During da feas’ is da best time. Dat way dey no notice we gone.”
Rosabel chewed on her lip for a few minutes, thinking the idea over and sighed. “Kay we cumm when dey started da feast.”
The two dibbuns left, shutting the door carefully behind them. Rorc looked at the piece of wood that had been cleverly shaped like a squirrel that Mhera had given Deyna to keep on the fireplace mantle. Pearl had told him that it was actually a bottle and it had a secret opening. He had long since found the opening at the neck. Rorc sighed, and having nothing to do, he climbed into a chair for the long wait.
The Abbeybeasts had begun to claim their chairs in preparation for the feast. The noise in the Great Hall began to escalate as more and more abbeydwellers and some visiting woodlanders arrived laughing, joking, and generally having fun. Deyna looked around at the various breads, soups, and desserts that lay waiting on the tables. He looked over his table and saw a bowl of candied chestnuts, oatbread, a fruit and honey cake, as well as an apple pie and Broggle’s new plumcake. As he looked long and hungrily at a pot of watershrimp and hotroot soup the kitchen crew continued to bring out steaming trays of food strait from the ovens. The moles were especially pleased when a deeper ‘n ever turnip’n’tater’n’beetroot pie was placed on their table. The only hare there, Boorab, was happy when any food at all came his way. Deyna tore his eyes away from the bubbling pot of soup just in time to see Broggle emerge from the hallway leading to champion’s rooms. He raised his voice over the din of creatures and called him over.
“How’s Rorc doing mate?”
“Well Deyna, he isn’t tearing the room apart. He’s just sitting in a chair.” Broggle nodded decisively, “I think you’ve finally got to him.”
“I sure ‘ope so.” Deyna sighed, “I would hate to have to do this again.”
“Yes, but it’s relaxing to know that you don’t have to test your drink every time before you take a sip.” Broggle thought for a moment. “That is of course if my Rosabel or Foremole Gundil’s Dinny haven’t been near me recently.”
Next to them, Abbess Mhera laughed. “Yes, but they aren’t nearly as sneaky as Rorc. I have no idea how he gets the hotroot pepper in my beaker half the time.”
By this time the last of the Redwallers had arrived and the dibbuns had begun their “start the feast” chant.
Mhera grimaced, “Looks like everybeast’s getting impatient, so I’d better start.” She got up, said the grace, and everybeast attacked the food with a will.
Rorc had long since finished the bland food he had been given to eat. The crumbs from a slice of onion bread littered the floor and chairs. There was water on the floor, as he had accidentally knocked his glass over. He sat and stared at the door as time passed very slowly as it seemed to him. Then he heard pawsteps coming up the hall and stop in front of the door. Rorc leaned against the door, listening hard, trying to determine who it was.
“Rorc, dey all be eaten all da food.”
Rorc dragged a chair next to the door and climbed onto it. He looked at the gap between the chair’s edge and the door handle. He shook himself and jumped, grabbing the handle as he flew past. The door swung open and Rosabel and Dinny snuck in.
Rosabel whispered secretly to Rorc, “Wha are we takin’ Rorc?”
Rorc pulled Deyna’s dagger and three sacks he had snuck from the kitchens a few days before for fun. “We take me dagger an’ dese big bags. Dey gonna hold all da food we be takin’.” Rorc buckled his father’s dagger around his waist and picked up a sack. “Now we goes an’ get sum food an’ we goes out the door in da back of da h’abbey. I knows ‘ow to close dat one from da outside.” The three dibbuns picked up the bags and snuck down the halls. Raiding the kitchens turned out to be a piece of cake as everybeast was at the feast. Nobeast was outside to see the three dibbuns sneak across the abbey grounds and open the east wallgate. The gate closed and there was a short pause and then the bolt slid into place. There was a rustle of leaves as the dibbuns made their way through the new autumn leaves into the depths of Mossflower.
The door of Deyna’s family room swung open and Deyna and Pearl entered quietly. Deyna walked over to the pegs of the wall where he hung Martin’s sword. He carefully placed the sword on the pegs and froze; he could feel that something was out of place. His gaze raked over the otherwise bare wall and then fell on the empty place where his dagger had hung for so long. He turned around just as Pearl came out of Rorc’s room.
“Deyna, Rorc’s gone.” she told him breathlessly, worry etched into her features.
Deyna shook his head in frustration, “Aye, and so is my dagger. I expect he could bear his confinement no longer and is playin’ somewhere.” He held up his paws. “No need to worry jes’ yet.”
The Great Hall was quickly filled as word spread that not only was Rorc missing, but so was Rosabel and Dinny.
Abbess Mhera stood and raised her voice over the murmur of voices in the hall. “Friends please listen.” She waited as the noise died down. Everybeast turned and looked at her respectively. Mhera cleared her throat, “Thank you. Now, I know that everybeast is anxious to find the missing dibbuns, but dibbuns have gone missing before and they usually turn up in the morning. Skipper has checked all the gates and they are all locked, so it is safe to say that they are somewhere in the abbey. So will everybeast go to bed please? They’ll probably show up for breakfast.”
Eventually the only creatures left in the great hall were the parents of the lost dibbuns and Abbess Mhera who felt it her duty as Abbess to stay with the worried parents, as well as being Rorc’s aunt. They stood in mutual worry until Fwirl voiced what they were all thinking. “Knowing who’s missing gives me the feeling that this isn’t going to be an easy search.”
Deep in the woodlands, the only light that night came from several campfires surrounded by rough cloth tents. All was silent except for the crackle of the fires and the low chant coming from one of the largest tents. The fire in this tent flared green and blue with many flashes and bangs. A strange-looking vixen huddled near the fire, staring into its depths; always muttering and trying to decipher what she saw. Her fur was a sooty gray color and her eyes were a deep gold. The only other occupant of the tent was a large dog fox, his fur a blazing red-orange. He kept his eyes trained on the seer whose name was Mist, although he didn’t call her by it much.
“What do you see vixen?” The fox started up as Mist drew away from the fire, the mysterious flashes and bangs continued as she answered the Chieftain.
“My lord Scar Ron, we shall soon have a Taggerung in our clan.” The word Taggerung was emphasized by an extra bright flash.
“A Taggerung!” Scar ran his paw over the mark across his face that gave him his name. “Are you sure?”
Gray eyes met gold as the seer held the chieftain’s eyes. “Have I ever been wrong?”
Scar looked away unable to hold his seer’s gaze. “Well no, but still a Taggerung! This would change the fortunes of the Juskaron forever.” The clan chieftain let his mind run over the possibilities. “Did the omens tell you what the Taggerung will look like?”
The seer shook her head. “No, the omens only told me that the Taggerung will be young. Not an infant, but very close to it.”
“Nothing else?” Scar Ron slammed his paw on his chair in frustration. “How are we supposed to find the Taggerung out of all the brats running around here?”
“Quiet.” Mist turned back to the fire and stared into its depths. “I was not finished yet.” The Juska chief did not see her put anything in the fire but all of a sudden it leapt high in a swirling mass of colors. Blue and green were dominant, but he could see a shade of red that looked like blood and purple as well. Her shadow danced on the walls of the tent as she continued relating her visions. “This Taggerung will be carrying the lost weapon of an earlier Taggerung. It will be his main weapon. This is all the omens have told me.”
“They didn’t tell you were this Taggerung will be found?” The chieftain shook his head and began pacing around the tent, trying to find the best move to make to ensure his clan’s chances of getting the legendary warrior.
“No. If the Juskaron want the Taggerung, they need to prove they are deserving of him.” Mist watched Scar pace around. “So what are y’ goin’ to do?”
The chieftain nodded decisively as he turned to his seer. “I will send out patrols looking for babes with Sawney Rath’s dagger.”
The seer raised her eyebrows, “Why Sawney Rath’s?”
Scar smiled, his fangs gleaming in the firelight, “That is the only weapon of a recent Taggerung that I don’t know the whereabouts of.”
Mist nodded approvingly. “Thou art a good planner. See to it that this plan of yours is carried out.”
The first shafts of golden morning light filtered down through the red gold leaves of autumn and illuminated the sleeping forms of the three dibbuns. Rosabel was the first to wake. She lay in one spot staring at the leaves that fell softly around them for a few moments, trying to figure out why she was not in her soft bed in the dormitories. Then she remembered the events of the previous day and shook the other two awake.
“Wake up it morningtime.”
Dinny moaned and turned over, maple leaves clinging to his velvety fur. “Oi wus ‘aven a gurt dreamer ‘bout etten brekkist.”
As soon as Dinny said this, Rorc sprang up, shaking off the leaves that had fallen on him during the night. “Ooh, brekkist.” He began rummaging through the sacks. “’m starfished!”
Dinny got up. “Doan’t et it awl, Rorc. Save summ for ‘ee.”
The dibbuns ate heartily, not realizing that food would not be so easy to find in the woodlands.
“Wha’ way we go now?” The squirrelmaid looked around at the large forbidding trees in the early morning light.
“I no know.” Rorc shrugged, “Dinny choose.”
The molebabe scratched his furry head with his large digging claws. “Burr, I doan’t be knowen.”
“Den chose some way.” Rosabel stamped her paw on the ground.
“Burr okey den we goes dat way.” The molebabe pointed northwest.
In a few minutes there was nothing to show that the dibbuns had been there besides for a few pie crumbs which were being quickly taken away by the ants.
“Oh where could those dibbuns be?” Mhera muttered as she searched the attic for the tenth time in the two days the three dibbuns had been missing. “I bet my nephew is at the bottom of this. When I find the little rogue the only thing he’ll be doing for a season is washing greasy dishes.” She looked out a window and watched the various abbeydwellers combing the abbey grounds and pond. The still-young Abbess sighed. “I’d better tell Skipper to get together a group to look outside the abbey. I can’t imagine how they got out.”
“Mother Abbess!” Skipper bounded into the room. Seeing her, he lowered his voice and glanced around before speaking. “I don’t think they’re in the abbey. We’ve searched the entire building from top to bottom, the grounds too.”
“I know Skipper.” Mhera leaned against the wall and hung her head. “I was just about to come and ask you to put a search party together.” Tears began to leak from the corners of her eyes. “I feel so bad for Broggle and Fwirl and also for Gundil, Deyna and Pearl. But I think the person I pity the most is my mother. She’s lost my father and Deyna for seasons and just as she gets one of them back, she loses her grandson eight seasons later.”
“I agree with you Mother Abbess. Filorn’s searched the hardest of all. I think she’s afraid of losing him.” The Skipper of Otters shook his head sadly, “I’ll get that search party together.”
The three lost dibbuns sat on the bank of a clear, fast-flowing stream. Rosabel looked sadly at the limp sacks that lay next to them. “I berry ‘ungry Rorc.”
The young otter sighed and got up. “Yoos stay ‘ere. I gonna go get sum food.” Rosabel and Dinny watched as Rorc disappeared into the brush.
Dinny lay down, tears leaking from the corners of his small eyes. “Oi do wish oi was ‘ome at de h’abbey.”
Rosabel leaned against him. “I does too.”
Both dibbuns cried themselves into an uneasy slumber, alone in the woodlands.
Rorc peered under rocks and over branches and dead logs. “Humph, dere be notink ‘ere!” He glanced around and squeaked in surprise. In front of him was an apple tree laden with the fruit. The otterbabe picked one and bit into it. His eyes opened wide and then he closed them with pleasure at the sweet taste of the fruit. He squeaked in surprise again as he was lifted off his footpaws and hung upside down.
“Hey ‘alftail lookee what I caught ‘ere!”
Rorc opened his eyes and looked at his captor. He was a large ferret with an orange stripe down the middle of his muzzle. Two black circles over his eyes made it look as if he had an extra pair of them. Rorc heard somebeast crashing through the brush and dead leaves and suddenly a rat stumbled from behind a tree.
“It’s a liddle h’otter!” Halftail exclaimed at the sight of Rorc. “Where’d ya geddim Crooky?”
The large, fat and rather smelly ferret smiled, “Haha ‘e was jes’ stannen dere eatin’ an’ h’apple.”
Halftail gave a shout and all of a sudden Rorc was surrounded by more vermin than he could count. The young otter tried, but he couldn’t get past five.
“Wha’ ya gonna do wid ‘im?” asked a small weasel who looked like he had just gone through a famine.
Crookfang grinned as he drew a long, thin dagger from its sheath. “I’ve never ‘ad roasted h’otterpup before, I tink I’ll try it t’day.”
Rorc saw the dagger coming for his throat. All of a sudden he found himself on the ground with his father’s dagger in his paws. The dagger was covered with a red fluid that Rorc knew to be blood. Crookfang was lying next to him, screaming in pain as he held the stump of his left paw. Rorc stared at the screaming creature in horror, then backed up against a tree and held the dripping dagger in front of him, scared to death. He knew that if anybeast came for him he was as good as dead. But nobeast was coming at him. Whispers began to spread among the patrol.
“Didja see dat?”
“I sure did mucker!”
“Look at dat blade.”
“It’s Sawney Rath’s dagger!”
“‘es the Taggerung!”
More than a few gasps were heard as the slow-witted clanbeasts figured out what happened. Immediately their attitude changed. Seeing that Rorc wasn’t about to let his guard down and allow them to take him back to camp, the Juskaron settled down to coax him to come with them.By noon they had succeeded in securing his trust by presenting him with food and being completely in awe of him. Even babes knew when they had the upper hand and could get whatever they asked for. The Juska expertly cleaned up the clearing and exuberantly carried off the little otter who was contentedly munching on all kinds of edibles and barely noticed.
Rosabel woke up and stared at the earth ceiling above her, confused. She sat up and looked around. She was in a dimly lit cave with an open doorway through which she could see a stream. She heard a clatter of pots and turned around and saw a young male otter that looked about twenty seasons old cooking over a fire. He looked up and saw her watching him.
“Ahoy liddle ‘un. So yer finally awake. Where d’you come from? I can tell you haven’t had a fun time out in these woodlands.”
Rosabel looked the young otter over and decided he looked like he could be trusted and so she told him everything her little mind could remember. By the time she had finished Dinny had woken up. The otter introduced himself as Streambeck.
“You stay ‘ere mateys. I’ll go an’ look for yore friend. Then I’ll take ya back to Redwall.
Dinny tugged his nose. “Thank you zurr.”
Streambeck disappeared out the door, and then his head reappeared. “Remember mates, stay ‘ere.” Then there was a splash and he was gone.
“Chief!” a rat burst into the chieftain’s tent, “Halftail’s patrol is cummun back!” Scar Ron started up, and the rat started backing away, realizing that he had just entered his chief’s tent without permission.
“I… I didn’t mean to burst in on you chief. ‘M sorry. I…I…”
“Silence yer blabbering, fool!” Scar Ron glared at the nervous clanbeast, “Have they brought back the Taggerung?”
The unfortunate rat gulped as he answered, “I dunno Chief, but they sure are ‘appy.”
“When they get here send Halftail and Crookfang in ‘ere to report.” The chieftain smiled as the rat scrambled to get out of the tent. “Yer lucky ‘m in a good mood t’day.” He muttered at the rat’s quickly receding back.
Shortly after the rat left, the tent flap opened and young fox entered. “’alftail an’ Cookfag ‘ere.” He announced. “Dey got an’ h’otter wid dem.”
Scar smiled inwardly at his adopted son’s eagerness to do something of importance, but he did not let this show on his face, “Good work Rubah, you are dismissed.”
As Rubah left, Halftail entered with Crookfang and an otterbabe which Scar saw to his surprise was no older than Rubah. The Juska chieftain nodded to Halftail first. “Make your report.”
Halftail nodded to Rorc who was looking around with interest. “Chief, we found da Taggerung.”
Scar tested him, making sure that this was not just Halftail’s idea to get a promotion. “What makes you think that ‘e’s the Taggerung?”
The rat did not doubt his conclusion for a moment. “‘e ‘as da blade of Sawney Rath, an’ ‘e can use it too. Jes’ ask ole Crooky ‘ere.”
The Juskaron chief turned to Crookfang who was nursing the stump of his paw. “Well?” Crookfang gulped and reluctantly told the chief of his folly. “I wus ‘olden ‘im by da footpaw and wus gonna kill ‘im an’ all of a sudden ‘e drew dat dagger an’”
“Stop!” Scar Ron held up his paw as Crookfang opened his mouth to continue his story, “Don’t tell me any more of your stupidity. Leave me with the h’otter an’ go.” The two clanbeasts hastily left the tent. Scar Ron turned to the otterbabe. “What’s your name?”
“Me name Rorc.”
The Juskaron chieftain nodded his head in approval. “Rorc hmm, I like it. It’s a fast name which is good for one who is going to use a dagger as his main weapon. Remember that.”
Mist appeared next to them and announced, “It is time to confirm him as the Taggerung.”
“Still no sign of them Skip?” asked a young otter who, in spite of his young seasons, Skipper had appointed head of half the search party.
Skipper’s face fell. “No sign of them by you either, Pike?” Skip shuddered, “I hate coming back to the abbey and seeing all their hopeful faces and having to disappoint them. It’s like Rillflag and lil’ Deyna all over again.”
“Skip!” Blekker called, “I can see three creatures cummin down the path.” Her voice rose in excitement. “It’s Rosie and Dinny! I can’t see Rorc an’ I don’t know the otter.”
Streambeck saw the group of creatures coming toward him. He picked up Dinny and held him up. “D’ya see anybeast y’ know young mole?”
Dinny nodded furiously, “Yes zurr, oi cun see mista Skip.”
Streambeck set him down. “Well, what’re yew wait’n for mates? Chaarrggeee!”
“Redwaalllll!” The two dibbuns raced down the path and were received by the exuberant search party.
Skip approached the respectable looking young otter. “There was another young one, an otter; do you have any news of him?”
“’Fraid not mate.” Streambeck grimaced, “I went back to where I found the rouges and cast around for any sign of him. All I found was a half-eaten apple.”
Skipper frowned. “Broggle, Fwirl, and Gundil will be glad to have Rose and Dinny back, but Rorc’s relatives will only sink deeper in their grief.”
“Oho, what a Taggerung he’s going to make.” Scar commented to Mist as they watched Rorc sleep with the new clan tattoos on his face, an orange stripe down his muzzle and two black dots above the eyes. Mist had added a blue lightning bolt on each cheek, saying that the last otter Taggerung had gone bad because there was only a lightning bolt on one cheek. Scar turned to Bloodpaw, a ferret he had placed in charge of training his clanbeasts. “I want ‘im trained in every weapon we ‘ave until ‘e can beat anybeast with any of ‘em. Put my son with ‘im, I don’t want ta isolate ‘im.
A bright, sunny day was passing over Redwall Abbey unheeded by some of the inhabitants. Fwirl paused in the act of removing an apple pie from the oven and looked around.
“Where’s Filorn?” She asked Broggle, “I haven’t seen her all day.”
Broggle busied himself with his cooking. “She had another breakdown this morning. She and Pearl are in Pearl’s room crying their eyes out.”
“Oh the poor creatures.” Fwirl shook her head. “I’ll take a tray of food over there for them.”
Pearl looked up as someone knocked on the door of her room. She quickly dabbed away the tears that had been streaming down her face moments before and went to get the door. The heavy oak door opened and she ushered Fwirl in.
“Thank you friend.” Pearl dabbed her eyes, “I’m sorry we weren’t there to help in the kitchens, but we can’t go anyplace that doesn’t remind us of little Rorc so we stayed here to cry ourselves out.”
Fwirl set a tray in front of Filorn and nodded sympathetically, “I understand friends. Take your time; we can manage without you in the kitchens for awhile.” Then she smiled mischievously. “Though we may have to lock Boorab out.” Fwirl looked them both in the eyes. “Just remember what I am about to say. If Rorc could see you, I don’t think he would like you to be crying over his absence.” Filorn and Pearl looked up in surprise at her last few words. Fwirl nodded. “Yes friends, I do not think that Rorc is dead. I think he is alive and laughing at the greatest prank he’s ever played.” Fwirl walked out of the room. Just before closing the door she said, “Mark my words, that dibbun will come walking through the abbey door one day and ask what’s for tea while simultaneously putting hotroot pepper in everybeast’s beaker.”
The three laughed and Filorn shook herself, “Thank you for those kind words Fwirl. They sound exactly like something Cregga would say. Pearl and I will clean up and be down in the kitchens soon.”
It was a pleasant spot in north-east Mossflower where the Juskaron had made their camp. There was a clear, cold stream that ran next to the camp, filled with all types of fish. The land around was dotted with fruit trees, heavy with the last of their crop. This is where the Juskaron had decided to spend the fast-approaching winter. Everybeast was set to work digging out dens in which they could keep out the worst of the cold. Scar at first wanted to exclude Rorc from this work but Mist convinced him that digging would help the Taggerung grow in strength and endurance. Scar was won over to her point of view and Rorc dug his own den.
A pile of dirt was pushed out a small hole in the side of a hillock, followed by what looked like a small otter but he was so covered in dirt it was hard to tell. So far after a week Rorc had taken to Juska life like he had taken to water. The otterbabe walked to an adjacent hole where clanbeasts were putting finishing touches on their chief’s abode.
Halftail was standing guard at the door. He straitened up when he saw Rorc coming. “Zann Juskaron Taggerung.”
Rorc smiled as he walked past. “’elo Halfie. I go to see Chief ‘cause me den’s done.”
The otterbabe frowned; he had already developed strong opinions about what a clanbeast at attention should look like. “Spear straiter up an’ down, look strai’ ahead!”
Halftail hastened to obey. “Yessir.”
Rorc smiled and patted Halftail’s belly, which was as high as he could reach. Dat’s beddar mista Halfie. I go now.” The young Taggerung ran past down the tunnel.
The tunnel ended at an oaken door set into the walls of the tunnel. Rorc knocked and waited for an answer.
“Enter.” The voice sounded strong and energetic, but with a slight hint of a tone that told of a ruthless killer.
Rorc opened the door and saw Scar Ron sitting in his throne-like chair with a table in front of him. The Weaponmaster, Bloodpaw, stood in front of him, apparently giving a report. They nodded at the sight of Rorc and returned to their conversation.
“He’s da fastest beast I ‘ave ever taught. ‘E’s a quick learner too.” Bloodpaw glanced to where Rorc stood quietly waiting. He turned lazily and all of a sudden flung a small wooden ball at Rorc’s head. Rorc ducked, the ball clacking harmlessly against the wooden door. Bloodpaw turned back to his chief. “See what I mean?”
Scar Ron looked impressed, “I do. You are teaching ‘im well. Leave us now.” Bloodpaw nodded and left. Scar Ron turned to Rorc. “What do you have to report?”
The otter straitened up his small frame as much as he could. “I finished me lil’ h‘abbey.”
The Juska chieftain nodded his head. “And your room is right over here?” he asked, pointing to the right wall.
“I want you to dig a tunnel into this room from your room.”
As Rorc left Scar sat down and planned. During the winter the Juskaron would rest and the little otter’s parents would cease searching for him. The Taggerung’s memories of his old life would grow dim. Scar Ron smiled, life for the Juskaron was changing, he could feel it. The winds of change were blowing, and they felt good.
Book 2: Wanderings
A cold sun shone down unmercifully upon a ring of hard-packed snow. This circle had been the Juskaron’s training area for the entire winter and so had a few bloodstains throughout it. The clan had gathered to watch a mock-fight between their Taggerung and his best friend Rubah, their chief’s adopted son. Rubah had allied himself with a ferret named Zorr, to make it fair. The red-orange furred fox and the black furred ferret circled the taller, brown-furred otter cautiously, having just had their pincer movement evaded with ease. The lithe otter straitened up from his fighting crouch and spun his dagger expertly. It was the best dagger owned by any of the clan, with a straight blade and an amber handle with a blue sapphire set into it.
“Aw, common mates, actually try!” He smiled, “I won’t kill yew, buckos.”
The fox tightened his grip on his double-headed battleaxe and nodded to the ferret who began inching forward, holding his sword in front of him.
Scar Ron watched in interest as the Taggerung parried and thrust, leapt and twisted using his body as well as his dagger to fight, his dagger being considerably shorter than his opponent’s weapons.
Bloodpaw approached, shaking his head in amazement. “Dat Taggerung is amazing. Only fifteen seasons old and already ‘e’s mastered every weapon I ‘ave the ability to teach ‘im.”
The Juska chieftain nodded, his mind on other things. He turned to his Weaponmaster. “How are his memories about his old life?”
Bloodpaw thought for a moment. “Foggy, if ‘e ‘as ’em at all.”
Scar nodded his head. “Good, I don’t want memories of ‘is old life pulling ‘im away from us now.” He held up a paw to forestall the ferret’s question. “It will be answered soon.” He turned to the battle where Rorc was barely blocking his attacker’s blows. Scar noted the triumphant grin on the face of Zorr. “Rorc, when yer done there I want to see ya in me den.”
The otter looked up and nodded, then ducked as Zorr’s sword cleaved the air above his head. “The lil’ bugger took the fur off the top of me ‘ead!” He grinned, “I’ll be right there Chief.”
Scar Ron entered his winter den followed by yelps of pain from the fighting ring. Bloodpaw entered shortly after followed by Rorc and Rubah. The two were laughing uproariously.
“I knew ya were goin’ easy on us mate.”
“Haha, but Zorr didn’t. Didja see th’ grin pasted on that ‘un’s face?” The otter was almost crying from laughter.
“Hoho, yew bet I did. I also saw that grin turn to terror at the end.” The fox shook his thick fur sending snow showering in all directions. Rorc laughed and did the same.
Scar watched them and relaxed, confident that Rorc would not leave as long as he had such a strong friend among the Juska. He drew himself out of his mental reflections and concentrated on the matter at hand. “Rubah I did not ask for yew but I think that it would be a good idea for this plan to include two beasts.”
Rorc rubbed his paws. “Oho, I think I know where this ‘un is goin’. Yer gonna ‘ave us do some spyin’ I can tell by your face.”
The Juska Chief looked concerned. “Am I really that easy to read?”
The otter twiddled with his dagger. “No, you jus’ ‘ave a certain gleam in yer eye when y’ talk or think ‘bout that Juska clan an’ las’ thing I knew they were too big for one or two bests to take down, even if both of them are the best fighters in this clan.”
Rubah broke in. “So who are we goin’ to spy on?”
Bloodpaw grimaced, “From what I hear ‘m guessing it’s the Juskabor. The thing that concerns me is that they have well over fifteen score. We only have six score, how can we hope to win?”
Scar Ron paced the cavern. “See this scar?” he asked, pointing at the mark across his muzzle. “Their chief gave me that when we were still in our father’s clan. He humiliated me an’ bossed me around. He killed our father an’ kicked me out. My own brother!” His voice hardened. “I’ve grown since then, I’m smarter. He may outnumber us but I have the better warriors. We will win. We ‘ave to!” The chief turned to Rorc and Rubah. “Your mission is to sneak into their camp an’ gather information ‘bout their plans. I want to know when an’ ‘ow ‘e is going to attack. When can you leave?”
Rorc glanced at Rubah who nodded. “Right away Chief.”
“Get going then.”
Halftail never noticed the two warriors slip past him into the forest. Rorc made a mental note to reprimand Halftail when they got back if he had time.
They took the march at a slow pace so as to get to the Juskabor camp during the night. As they drew near the camp they sat down to wait for full darkness to descend.
“What weapons d’you ‘ave on you Rubah?”
The fox thought for a moment. “Lemme see. Ah yes, I ‘ave me axe an’ a couple o’ throwing knives as well as a sling an’ some stones. ‘Ow ‘bout yew?”
The otter smiled and spread his paws wide. “Only me dagger mate.”
Rubah held his head in his paws. “Didn’t yew lissen to Bloodpaw’s lessons?”
The otter smiled. “Wasn’t it something ‘bout diversity of weapons being the key to success?”
It was a cold, clear night. Rorc fervently wished the sky would cloud over but the stars continued to shine down brightly, lighting up the night as the soft light was reflected off the snow.
Rubah caught him looking up and shrugged, “We’ll ‘ave to make do with what we ‘ave.” Rorc nodded and they slid from tree to tree, drawing ever closer to where a lone sentry stood guard on the perimeter of the camp.
The rat never had a chance. There was a whirr and he gasped as a cold blade pierced his warm heart. Rorc slid up and cleaned his dagger off on the rat’s tunic.
“That was well thrown.” Rubah whispered as they snuck through the maze of rough tents, avoiding the light of the various campfires.
“It ‘ad to be mate, otherwise we would ‘ave ‘ad to put this off ‘til tomorrow.” Rorc paused, “Where d’ya think Ruggan’s tent is?
“Well, I would think I’d be in da middle.” Rubah jumped back and pulled Rorc behind a tent. “Actually I think it’s dat ‘un over dere.”
The big otter peeked around the edge of the tent and rolled his eyes. “The one surrounded by all the guards? Really? I would ‘ave never guessed.”
Rubah smiled, his fangs flashing in the dark, “No, ya probably wouldn’t ‘ave.”
The Juskabeasts snuck around the tent in a wide circle. Rorc looked around the edge of one tent and pulled his head back, barely able to contain his laughter. “Haha, this ‘un went to far into his flagon. ‘E’s sleeping like a little baby.”
Rubah was a little on edge. “Ya ya, jes’ ‘urry up! I don’t want to stay in ‘ere any longer than necessary.”
The snow lay thick all around and had piled up deep against the side of the tent. Rorc and Rubah lay down close to the tent so they could hear what was going on inside. The deep, soft snow covered their bodies so they were invisible to a casual glance.
A voice that sounded extremely like Scar Ron’s penetrated through the fabric to them, making them jump at the resemblance. “How dare that little brother of mine build up a clan without my permission.” The voice was deadly calm, but laden with menace. “My seer, the time has come for that so-called chieftain to die. He even claims to have the Taggerung in his clan. I am the Taggerung! I killed Gruven Zann who killed the Taggerung.”
A vixen’s voice started up, “My lord, the omens say-”
“Stop!” Ruggan’s voice carried a hint of anger. “I do not want to know of the omens. My brother and his Taggerung will die.” Now Rorc could detect a tinge of triumph in the chilling voice. “He has only six score, I have fifteen score. Tell my horde that we move tomorrow! My brother will never know what hit him.”
Rorc leaned over and whispered in Rubah’s ear. “I think it’s time we weren’t ‘ere mate.”
Rubah nodded and they slid through the trampled snow toward the edge of the Juskaron camp. As they turned into the last lane of tents they slowed down. It would not do now to be seen. The dark trees of Mossflower could be seen at the edge of the clearing. From a tent on their right a ferret emerged and began walking toward the dead sentry.
“Hellsteeth!” muttered Rubah under his breath. “They’re changing the guard. If ‘e sees the dead guard…”
“He won’t, not if I can ‘elp it.” Rorc sped up, snow flying from his footpaws as he streaked over the ground.
The ferret saw the prone sentry and bent over. The otter slammed into him and the two rolled along in a whirling mass of fur. The ferret ended up on top and they both lay where they stopped, unmoving. Rubah slid to a stop next to them just as Rorc pushed the dead ferret off himself. He stood up and looked at his bloody fur.
“Ugh, if we go now a blind frog could follow our trail.” He laid down and rubbed most of it off in the snow. “That should be good for now.”
“Hold on.” Rubah removed the sentry’s daggers and placed them near their owners. “Maybe they’ll think that they killed each other.”
They backed off into the woodlands, obliterating their trail as they went. Rorc stopped and looked to see how far they had come. “This should be far enough mate.” Rubah began running. “Now we need speed.” He called back over his shoulder.
The two creatures raced headlong through Mossflower, leaping over shrubs and fallen trees, running with all their might. As the first rays of light began to flicker over the horizon they slipped into camp.
“I never knew our sentries were so bad.” Rorc panted as they arrived at the chief’s den. “They never saw us enter or exit.”
Scar shook their hands warmly, “Rubah and Rorc! Good to see ya back. What’s there to report?”
Between bites of food that had been laid out in anticipation of them, they told him.
“Ruggan’s attacking today.”
“Probably sometime ‘round midday.”
“With fifteen score Juska.”
Scar Ron shook his head, overwhelmed with apprehension at the odds. “I knew the numbers were imbalanced, but hearing it put into words… You two better get some rest. I’ll wake yew for the battle.”
Rorc pushed away from the table. “Right. See ya ‘round midday Rubah.”
He pushed aside a curtain and revealed a secret tunnel. He disappeared through it in anticipation of the bed that waited for him on the other side of it. Both he and Rubah slept soundly, but always with one eye open.
Rorc’s dreams were a whirling jumble of images. At one point he thought he saw a gigantic red building, but he couldn’t be sure. Faces, smells, and places that he had never been to, or didn’t remember, flashed through his mind with lightning speed. Every once in awhile a familiar scene would come through but none of them were comforting. A crew of shrews he had slain, the face of a dead weasel twisted in pain, Rorc’s knife still buried in his heart. Then through the jumble of sounds he heard a strong, warm voice. “Peace, be still.” Rorc slipped into a more comfortable sleep. Suddenly a paw touched him on the shoulder. He reacted instinctively, throwing himself at the intruder and slamming it against the wall. Rorc opened his eyes and found the ferret Zorr pinned against the wall with his blade against Zorr’s throat. The look of pure terror in the ferret’s eyes was understandable.
“What are you doing in here Zorr?” Rorc asked his voice hard.
The ferret gulped, “Chief sent me to wake yew up. ‘E says the battle is ‘bout to start.”
Rorc relaxed his grip and Zorr dashed away up the tunnel. “Humph! ‘E’s lucky I didn’t kill ‘im, sneaking up on me like that.”
He turned and walked in the opposite direction, down a long, dark tunnel that he and Rubah had made that connected their rooms. Rorc entered Rubah’s room and walked over to where he was sleeping.
“Rubah.” Rorc touched him lightly. Rubah’s dagger came whistling through the air and with practiced ease Rorc blocked it.
Rubah smiled, his eyes still closed. “Is it time Rorc?”
“It is but you’d better ‘urry.”
Rubah donned one of the only shirts of chainmail owned by the clan and turned to Rorc. “Is that what yore wearin’?”
Rorc looked down at the green homespun shorts he was wearing, which was his only form of clothing. “Yes, I could use chainmail but it slows me down and with a dagger as your only weapon that’s not good.”
“I guess, as long as you make it through the battle.”
Rorc winked, “We’d better get out there or we’ll miss the battle entirely.”
The Juskaron had chosen a wide, long clearing as the battlefield. A hill blocked a long range of view from in front. As Rorc and Rubah arrived, Crookfang sprinted down from the top of the hill.
“Chief, they’re coming.”
“I know that muck’ead get yerself a bow." Crookfang looked slightly confused but nodded and rushed off knowing that to contradict his chief meant death. "Archers ready!”
There was a clatter of shaft against bow, and then silence reigned supreme. Not a word was spoken, nobeast moved. The minutes ticked by and the only noise he heard was the crunching of snow under footpaws. Rorc looked over the vast clearing of unmarred snow. By the end of today this will all be history, everything will be different. He thought.
There was movement on the crest of the hill; Ruggan Bor stood gazing at the forces arrayed against him. His voice rang out under the overcast sky. “Haha, Scar you will be crushed. My forces are more than double yours.”
Scar stepped out from the line and retorted, “Aye Ruggan, but each of mine are worth two of yours. Besides, we have the Taggerung!”
The Juskaron shouted out their approval at this statement. Ruggan Bor however only sneered at the thought. “Ha! You think he is the Taggerung? I am the Taggerung; you will learn that before the day is through. The Taggerung cannot be defeated remember?” He turned to his clan, “Juskabor, Chargggeeee!”
The Juskabor swept roaring over the hill and down toward the Juskaron who poured wave after wave of barbed death from their bows into the oncoming foes.
As they drew closer Rubah threw away his bow, “Time for some real fighting!”
Rorc glanced at his friend, a smile creeping over his face. “Aye, I’ll see yew after the battle, mate.”
The fire-furred fox drew his axe from its shoulder strap and charged. “Juskarrooonn!”
Rorc drew his dagger and raced to catch up with his friend. As he slammed into the first rank of Juska he gave his challenge. “I am the Taggerung! Ee aye eee!”
Threepaw the rat saw the Taggerung coming. He had heard about the legendary fighting skills of the Taggerung and did not relish the prospect of fighting one. He gave a strong double-fisted stroke with his sword as soon as the Taggerung was in range. He never had another chance. The otter ducked under the blade and bowled him over. Rorc rolled off the rat quickly as mace swing that was meant for him crushed Threepaw’s skull. He stabbed up with Threepaw’s sword and killed the mace’s owner. He leapt to his feet and began fighting like a miniature tempest, striking everywhere at once.
Rubah bounced from foe to foe, his axe dealing death to whoever he came in contact with. The crash of metal upon metal, the screams of the wounded and dying filled his ears. He ducked under a spearthrust and buried his axe in a weasel’s chest. He tugged it out and skillfully batted away the menacing array of blades intent on ripping his flesh.
Rorc slid his dagger from a fox he had killed with a throw and looked around. All of a sudden he noticed the absence of battle noise. The only sounds that reached his ears were the moans of a few wounded Juska. Most were dead; the Juska did not let fallen enemies rise to fight again. He glanced around, his chest heaving, and was surprised to see only himself, Rubah, and Scar Ron alive out of all the Juskaron. They stood back to back and eyed Ruggan and his remaining score of clanbeasts. Ruggan’s forces had encircled them and they stood in a ring on the now-red snow with the Juskaron in the center.
“Your clan fought better than I expected. My clan is destroyed, but I can’t stop yet. First you must die.” Ruggan motioned to his clan and they began to close their circle. Rorc could feel the blood pulsing through his body, his vision began to go red, and he remembered no more.
Rubah saw his friend launch himself at the line of foes. “Rorc stay ‘ere!”
But the otter either couldn’t hear, or ignored him and Rubah was too busy defending himself to pay any attention to what was happening to his friend. Eventually Rubah fell into a sort of rhythm; block, hack, confront the next foe.
Through the red haze that clouded his vision Rorc saw Scar Ron defending himself against three adversaries. The two rats wielded cutlasses and the fox held a longsword. Then time seemed to slow for Rorc. One of the rats got behind the Juska chieftain and stabbed his cutlass though Scar’s body, the blade protruding from his stomach. Then the red haze thickened and Rorc could see nothing clearly.
“Don’t kill me!” The panicked broke through the bloodlust clouding Rorc’s reason. He looked down with surprise at Ruggan Bor who he had pinned to the ground. The Juskabor chieftain’s blood was flowing from his many wounds and darkening the snow around him.
“Why shouldn’t I?”
The gold-furred fox started at the sound of Rorc’s voice. “I know you,” he muttered, “or somebeast very like you.”
Rorc’s interest was peaked, “Where, when? Tell me and I won’t kill you.”
Ruggan considered his options. He could feel his life ebbing away. His only chance to hurt this creature that had caused his ruin was to withhold the information and keep him wondering. He relaxed, “No, I won’t tell you.”
“I’m going to kill yew if yew don’t.”
Ruggan shrugged as well as he could. “I’m going to die anyway.”
The last thing Ruggan saw before he went to the Dark Gates was Rorc’s snarl as he thrust his dagger into Ruggan’s heart.
Rorc cleaned off his dagger on Ruggan’s tunic and stood up. He surveyed the once-pristine field with sadness. “They’re all dead.” He whispered as he looked at the bodies of creatures he had known. He couldn’t call them all friends, some had tried to kill him before, but they were all familiar; creatures he knew and could relate to.
Rorc threw himself away from the unexpected voice and spun around, blade held ready to throw. Rubah continued cleaning off his axe, undisturbed by the threat of a dagger in his heart. Rorc relaxed at the sight of his friend. “No the Juskaron will survive as long as we do.” Rorc sat down next to the fox.
“So what are we going to do now, oh mighty Taggerung?” Rubah asked laughingly.
Rorc gave him a playful shove. “You’d bedder be careful mate, or I’ll start insisting you call me by me title all the time.” The otter stood up, “I dunno ‘bout yew mate, but I’m goin’ to wash off. If this stuff dries it’ll be like walking in clothes made o’ wood.”
“Besides makin everybeast within a mile faint.” Added Rubah, “There’s a stream west of ‘ere, we can wash there.”
They began to walk west through the woodlands. Not a creature stirred in the woodlands save for an old owl that had watched the entire battle. He spread his wings and lifted off flying southeast.
“Well what are we goin’ t’do now?” Rubah asked again as they dried off after taking a dip in the ice cold water of a winter stream.
“Well, I don’t want to join another clan jes’ yet.” Rorc sat down, leaning against the rough bark of an old oak. “I want some time to relax an’ not ‘ave to defend me life against an assassin every other day.”
“Ha! None have laid a scratch on you so far.”
Rorc glanced at the bandages that covered the various wounds he had sustained during the battle. “Aye, no single beast ‘as laid a paw on me yet but when they come in swarms, that is different.”
Rubah winced as he tightened a bandage around his leg. “Yes, yew can’t defend yerself against ten foes all swingin’ at th’ same time, nobeast can.”
“How ‘bout we go west? I faintly remember somebeast tellin’ me that dere was a gigantic lake over in that direction.”
Rubah shrugged. “Sure, why not? Ha! It wouldn’t ‘ave been any of the Juskaron, none of ‘em ‘ave been very far west.”
The next few days passed in a blur as the trekked west through Mossflower. The snow on the ground was smooth except for a rare pawprint or two. At night they both relaxed more than they were accustomed to, knowing that there were none present to backstab them.
Rorc woke up with the bright sun in his face. He got up, amazed at how long they had slept in. The fire had melted all the snow in its vicinity and the ground near it was a cold, wet mess. He crouched near the fire on an old oak stump that stuck above the water and took stock of their surroundings. They had not been able to see where they were going last night on account of a dense fog that had obscured their vision until darkness made the fog unnecessary for low visibility. He was amazed to see that they were camped a short distance from the edge of a cliff.
Rubah’s voice came from behind him. “It’s a good thing we stopped when we did las’ night or we’d be in trouble.”
Rorc leaned over the edge and watched the tops of the trees toss in the wind far below. His eyes traveled slowly upwards as he surveyed the land laid out below him. The otter’s gaze reached the horizon and he heard a sharp intake of breath behind him.
“Rorc are yew seein’ what I’m seein’?”
“Unless we’re both ‘aven the same weird dream.” Rorc shook his head. “If I hadn’t seen it with me own eyes I’d ‘ave never believed it.”
They stood gazing at the distant sparkle of sun off water for many minutes, staring in awe at the vast sea that stretched as far north, south, and west as they could see.
Finally Rubah glanced up at the sun high above them in the sky. “Rorc, we’d better get going if we want to get anywhere today.”
Rorc shook his head, as if to clear it from some dream he had been having. “Right.” His voice held a tinge of eagerness. “I can’t wait to get there.”
They made camp when they reached the fringe of the woodlands, neither being experienced with life in the dunes and not wanting to venture foolishly into the unknown so close to nightfall. Rubah set about making a fire while Rorc searched for something to supplement their diet of fish. Rorc was returning to the camp when he heard a babbling voice accompanied by a bloodcurdling scream. He arrived at the camp in a rush to find Rubah standing over a dead ferret whose blood was rapidly darkening the snow.
“What ‘appened Rubah?”
The fox looked confused. “I’m not sure. I was lightin’ the fire when all o’ a sudden dis ‘un rushes in and trips, falling flat on ‘is face. I grabbed me axe ‘cause I didn’t know if ‘e was friend or foe. ‘E got up an’ saw me an’ started babblin’ sometin ‘bout not meaning ta kill me wife an’ sell me son. Apparently this was all a big fake to keep whoever ‘e thought I was off him for a few seconds ‘cause ‘e drew a dagger an’ stabbed himself.” Rubah shuddered, “Whoever he had double-crossed must ‘ave been really bad. Dyin’ from a knife wound is one thing, but killin’ yerself?”
They moved south to the bank of the river Moss. Here they made camp, away from the dead body of the ferret.
Rorc shivered as they sat near their small campfire, “It makes me uneasy Rubah when we don’t see a single creature for days an’ then we see one an’ he’s ‘alf mad.” Rorc glanced uneasily at the night-enshrouded woodlands around them. “This silence jes’ aint natural.”
Rubah nodded his head in agreement, “Aye, mebbe we should ‘ave a watch from now on.”
“Right mate. I’ll take first watch, yew need to get some beauty sleep.” Rorc grinned at his friend.
“I know I do.” Rubah smiled slyly, “Yew don’t though. If we were ever to run across a pretty ottermaid I bet she’d run away faster than if a bloodthirsty horde was after her.”
Rorc closed his eyes and feinted sleep, “Can’t hear ya mate. I’ve fallen asleep an’ you’ll ‘ave to take me watch.”
Rubah laughed and leaned against a beech tree, his eyes scanning the darkness as Bloodpaw had taught him. “Fine with me. I always liked firs’ watch bedder anyway.”
The snow fell outside the abbey of Redwall piling up against its walls in great drifts. This pleased the dibbuns and other young ones immensely as I provided the opportunity to play that they were all moles and dig tunnels without getting dirty. At the moment however, the drifts were abandoned and the tunnels were absent of any activity. Firelight shone from the Great Hall where everybeast was gathered, listening to Pike’s tale of the disappearing dibbun. The tale had been embellished a bit, adding serpents and gigantic birds to the mix to make the story more interesting as Pike said. The dibbuns loved this story more than any other, with perhaps the exception of Rosabel’s story The Taggerung. Pike brought the story to an end with a warning.
“And all they ever found of him was a half-eaten apple.” The otter who was now in his twenty-ninth season looked at the young ones gathered around him and warned, “Beware mateys, if yew are naughty like lil’ Rorc then the same fate will come to yew!” Pike sat back and relaxed, “Well mates, what d’ya think of that tale? Not bad eh?”
Rosabel shook herself out of her gloomy speculations about what could have happened to Rorc and laughed, “You embellished the tale a lot Mister Pike.”
“Well what d’ya expect? We never figured out half of what happened out there in the woodlands. There may have been serpents and birds that could carry you away for all we know.”
“And then none are seen by anybeast?” Rosabel looked at him incredulously. “I doubt that there were any serpents or great birds of any sort.”
Pike opened his mouth to reply when a knock sounded on the great doors that closed out the elements. A deep voice called out, “Hello? Can anybeast hear me?”
Pike looked around at the gathered creatures, “Who could that be? I thought everybeast was inside.”
“They are.” Abbess Mhera looked at the door suspiciously, “So whoever that is must have gotten through one of the gates. Are you sure you locked them all Horag?”
“Yes I did.” Replied the old dormouse. “In fact none of them have been opened since yesterday when Skipper came back from a patrol with his crew."
The burly Skipper of Otters strode in just as the knock sounded on the door again. “Hello? I know you’re in there! Open up will you?”
Skipper sat down laughing, “Ahoy, I know who that is! Arbuc open the door for our mate Sova.”
A young otter quickly sprang up and sprinted to the door, opening it to admit both a gust of snow and an old owl. As Arbuc closed the door the owl was beset by dibbuns.
“Mista Sova tell us a story!"
“Burr, aye yoo alwuys ‘has za bes’ stories zurr Sorva.”
The old owl pushed them all back with his great wings, “Not now young’ns, I need to see your abbey warrior.” He turned to Arbuc who was lounging against the wall and fishing about in the various pouches that hung about his waist. “Young Arbuc will you take me to Deyna?”
Arbuc stopped rummaging around in a pouch and looked at Sova. “Sure I’ll take you to Da.” He thought for a moment, “He’s probably practicing with Martin’s sword up in the attics. This blizzard has kept him from practicing outdoors so the only place he has enough room to move is in the attics.”
As they walked toward the spiral stairwell that led to the attics Sova looked at Arbuc in a new light. “So you’re Deyna’s son?”
Arbuc looked at Sova and smiled, “Why does everybeast always ask me that?”
“But you are?”
“How old are you?” Sova cocked his head at the young otter, “You can’t be any more than thirteen seasons old because you weren’t born before Rorc disappeared.”
Arbuc laughed, “I’m actually thirteen seasons old. I was born at the end of the Fall of the Missing Dibbun as the season that Rorc went missing is called around here.”
“You don’t look as if you spend a lot of time practicing with weapons.”
The otter gestured to the sling that hung around his waist. “No, I can sometimes hit things with a sling but what I really know a lot about is herblore and healing. I spent a season with Streambeck and learned a lot about the effects of different herbs and how to treat wounds and poisons. You wouldn’t believe how much that otter knows. I picked up the rest by watching Egburt and Floburt in the infirmary.” They reached the top of the stairs and Arbuc knocked on the wooden door, “Hey Da! Sova’s ‘ere to see you.” He whispered to the old owl, “He wants everybeast to knock ‘cause there is not really a lot of room in the attic so there’s always a chance that the door will open at the wrong time and somebeast could get hurt.”
The door opened and Deyna ushered them in, “Sova, I haven’t seen yew in ages! I was beginning to wonder if ya would ever come back or if time had finally caught up t’ you.”
Sova stretched his wings, nearly knocking over Arbuc in the process. “Not yet Deyna, but soon it will and I’ll have to retire to some hollow tree and live out the rest of my days barely moving.” The owl’s feathers shook in the equivalent of a shudder.
“You can stay here when the time comes I’m sure.” Said Deyna, “But what news is there of the world beyond the horizon?”
“I have some good news and some semi-good news.”
“Well tell me the good news first.” Said Deyna, settling down on a bench that was pulled near the wall.
“The good news is that I witnessed the almost complete destruction of two Juska clans, one of them was the Juskabor who attacked this abbey lets see…ah yes twenty-one seasons ago.”
Deyna leaned closer, “You said that they were almost destroyed. Tell me what happened.”
“I was getting to that; it is part of the sorta-good news.”
Arbuc stood next to the door and listened with interest as the tale of the battle between the Juskaron and the Juskabor unfolded.
As the tale concluded Deyna sat back and folded his hands. “You said only two beasts were left alive, how is that not good news?”
Sova buffeted Deyna with his wing, “Quiet you big riverdog I was about to get to that part of my story.” He paused for a moment, and then took a deep breath. “One was a fox but the other…the other was an otter.” He looked Deyna straight in the eyes. “And he was carrying your dagger.”
The champion’s rooms were crowded with creatures, all excited with the news that Rorc might have been seen after a thirteen season’s absence. Abbess Mhera had asked everybeast to leave the room except for those invited to stay by Deyna and his family. This was still quite a crowd, including Broggle and Fwirl, Skipper, Boorab, Nimbalo, and Gundil. Sova was invited to stay because he was the bringer of the news and there may be more questions asked.
Sova tried to answer their questions to the best of his ability. “I didn’t notice him ‘till the end so I can’t tell you how he fought during the battle, but it must have been well seeing as he survived and the others didn’t.”
Deyna turned away from Sova and left him to be beset with questions from the three otter ladies and began holding a conversation with Nimbalo and Skipper. “I need to go to this battlefield mates. I need to see if I can track this otter and find out who he is.”
Nimbalo winked, “Aye matey, me an’ Skip will be right behind ya. Right Skip?”
“Aye mate, we will.” Skipper said with a determined expression on his face, “An’ we’ll find that otter too.”
“I’ll come too.”
Deyna looked around for the source of the voice and winced inwardly when he saw that the speaker was Arbuc. He would like if his son came along but there was a good chance that there would be some fighting involved and he was only thirteen seasons old, and not very good at fighting at all, being more of a healer. “No son, yore gonna stay ‘ere.”
“Why? I want to come!” Arbuc realized why Deyna didn’t want to take him. “I know I can’t fight very well, but if there is a battle I can treat any wounds you get.”
“No yore not coming. In a battle we’d have to protect you as well as ourselves.” Deyna’s heart groaned with pain at the sight of his son’s dejected face. Arbuc took a deep breath and then turned on his heel and stormed out of the room. Deyna looked after him in dismay. He turned to Nimbalo and Skipper who were watching him. “I did the right thing, right?” He asked them pleadingly, “Didn’t I?”
“Tell me again why we left the woodlands Rorc.” Rubah panted as they tramped up yet another dune.
“Oh stop yer complainen.” Rorc called back as he reached the top of the dune and stood, framed against the sky, “This was the last dune.” Rubah arrived next to him and they stood panting, surveying the blue-green water and the foam-flecked waves that crashed ceaselessly against the rocky shore. Their eyes were drawn out over the rising swells to the horizon where the blue of the water met the blue of the sky. The sky was laced with wisps of cloud, suspended like feathers in the firmament above. It was a sight they would both remember for the rest of their lives.
They slowly made their way down the dunes and across the beach with its rocks and tidepools. Rorc jumped onto a large, round, flat rock and looked out over the water. “Hey Rubah! There’s a big boat out there mate. It’s bigger than th’ ones the liddle shrews use. Whoa!”
Suddenly the rock Rorc was standing on began to move. Rorc heard Rubah’s nervous voice behind him. “Mate, the rock yore on…I don’t think it’s a rock. It’s got legs an’ two gigantic claws.”
Rorc crouched on the creature as it scuttled around, all the while trying to grab him with its claws. He leapt off and spun around, sand flying, to face the monster that he had mistaken for a rock. The creature eyed them for a moment, then slid into a rockpool and disappeared.
Rubah made a face and said, “If dere are those things in the water then ’m not goin’ swimmin’!” He looked at Rorc. “Well, we went as far as west as we can. Now what’re we gonna do?”
Rorc shrugged, “Go north or south I guess. You choose.”
Rubah glanced up the coast and saw lots of rocks and tidepools. He turned south and across the river Moss he saw a wide beach of undisturbed sand. “Uhh, I think we’ll go south.”
The young creatures traveled leisurely down the coast, sometimes sporting in the shallows despite the cold weather. As darkness came on they camped on the beach, without a campfire for the improved night vision of the beast on watch.
Nimbalo sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose. “Does anybeast know what that absolutely awful smell is? ‘Cause it’s making me gag.”
Skipper picked a few blue colored flowers that were growing near the path and tossed them to Nimbalo. “That’s the battlefield ya smell mate. It’ll get worse as we get closer.”
Nimbalo stuffed them up his nose and Deyna struggle to hold his laughter in enough so that he could continue walking. All that showed of the flowers were their long green stems. Deyna’s troubled mind relaxed and the sad thoughts of his son Arbuc vanished from his mind. The young otter had not come to say farewell to him in the morning when he left. Deyna knew where he had been, though. He would have been in the infirmary, looking at all the different herbs and caring for whoever may need care. Ever since he had been young Arbuc had been different than most dibbuns, Arbuc loved the infirmary. He spent most of his free time watching the infirmary keepers Egburt and Floburt care for the sick and tried to get as many of his chores assigned to that room as well. Deyna was brought out of his reminisces as the three warriors pushed through a particularly thick section of brush and stepped into the blood-soaked clearing that had witnessed the Juska battle.
The trio stood transfixed, staring at the bodies of the dead Juska. Nimbalo was the first to move, sinking to his knees at the combined sight and smell of the mutilated and decaying bodies.
Deyna grimaced as they begin walking over to the west side of the battlefield. “There must be over twenty score vermin ‘ere. Sova never said how many Juska there were…” His voice trailed off and they walked in silence, nobeast speaking a word, trying their best not to step on a snow-covered weapon or half-rotted corpse.
“Deyna!” Skipper called, “I found their tracks. It’s not much, more of a depression in the snow, but they’re too regular to be anything other than somebeast’s tracks.”
“Well, what are ya wait’n for matey?” Nimbalo picked up the pace. “Let’s leave this place an’ find yer son!”
Rorc shook Rubah awake shortly before dawn. “Rubah, let’s ‘ave some fun t’day.”
Rubah looked at him suspiciously, “What d’ya mean? Las’ time yew wanted to ‘ave fun I ended up in an ice cold river.”
Rorc grinned, “That wasn’t the plan. Anyway, look o’er there.”
Rubah glanced over a rock that blocked his view of the shoreline. He ducked back down, struggling to hold in a laugh. “Oh, that kind of fun.”
Rorc and Rubah were both born troublemakers and had annoyed the Juskaron with their continuous pranks, both as dibbuns and as they grew older. They snuck across the beach in the pre-dawn darkness and slid noiselessly into the dark water.
“This is almost too easy.” Rorc whispered as they surveyed their target, the large wooden vessel they had spotted on the previous day. It had one mast and large lettering on the side that proudly declared it to be the Gutslasher. As they scaled the ship’s sides they reached the name. Rubah glanced at Rorc.
“Don’t ask me mate. I dunno ‘ow to read.”
“Shh!” Rubah peeked over the rail to make sure that a sentry hadn’t heard them. “I wasn’t askin’ yew.”
Rorc looked over the rail at the only guard, a rat, who was too interested with his flask to notice an otter’s head peering above the rail. Rorc ducked back down, “Here’s the plan mate, when we hit the deck yew look ‘round fer another sentry. I’ll take care of this ‘un.”
“Right. Ready, set, go!”
Flatnose the rat was beginning to enjoy his lonely watch. There was nobeast to reprimand him for taking a swig or two of seaweed grog; or three, maybe four. Suddenly through his bleary vision he saw two creatures come over the rail, out of the sea. He rubbed his eyes and peered around, but they were gone. He looked suspiciously at the flask. “Huh, dere mus’ be sometink wrong wid dis grog.”
“Yore probably right mate.”
Flatnose nodded, “O’ course ‘m right. Wait, who said dat?” He began to turn around, but suddenly he saw stars and then blackness.
“Any more of ‘em mate?” Rorc sheathed his dagger and also thrust the unfortunate sentry’s dagger through his belt as well.
Rubah shook his head, “No but you’d think they wouldn’t jes’ leave one of ‘em on sentry duty at a time.” He looked around at the empty deck. “I wonder if they ‘ave some good food.”
Rorc sniffed the grog and gagged, “I dunno mate. If they can drink this stuff I have a feeling that they never ‘ad good vittles before. We can look though.”
They began to approach a door that looked like it could lead to the galley.
“’Elp! Dere’s two beasts on da ship. ‘Urry!”
Rorc spun around and threw his newly acquired dagger at Flatnose, who obviously gotten over being stunned faster than expected. Flatnose stopped yelling and gazed at the dagger in his chest. He gave a gurgle and staggered back, falling over the rail into the sea. “That was a good dagger.” Rorc sighed as the pounding of footpaws began to be heard. “An’ I think they know we’re here now.”
The door burst open and the deck was suddenly flooded with searats, as well as a few ferrets and a weasel. A burly rat stepped forward, his cutlass drawn. “I’m the cap’n of the Gutslasher an' I order you to give up your weapons.
Rorc glanced at Rubah, “Alright mate we have three choices. Either we can give in to the scum or two, we can kill them all. Finally we can jes’ kick ‘em all overboard.”
Rubah thought as the menacing array of blades drew closer. “Well, I dunno about yew but I like option three.” Most of the searats furrowed their brows, trying to remember what option three had been. Rubah drew his axe and threw himself at the searats, “Juskaroonn!”
Rorc smiled at his friend’s choice. Of course it was the only one that made sense. Surrendering was not an option, killing them all would be too easy and not any fun at all, so that left kicking them all overboard. He smiled as he dodged a swordstroke from a grimy rat and spun, his heavy rudder knocking the rat into the sea. He could hear yelps of pain from behind him as Rubah used the flat of his axe to batter the searats over the side of the ship and into the icy water. He heard somebeast shift behind him and turned around, leaping sideways to avoid a downward stroke from the weasel’s sword. The weasel overbalanced and stumbled forward, giving Rorc the opportunity to give him a kick to the tail that made the unfortunate weasel stumble over the edge of the vessel. Rorc glanced over his shoulder and elbowed the rat sneaking up behind him in the chest, coupling that with a fist to the face. The rat yelped and held his nose, tears streaming from his eyes. The strong otter picked him up by the scruff of his neck and by his tail and tossed him over to the side of the Gutslasher. He glanced over to where Rubah was fighting three rats at once. It looked like he was having a hard time of it, but then again, he always looked like that and he rarely lost. A dagger thudded into the mast beside Rorc, bringing him back to reality. He pulled it out and returned it to its owner, throwing it so that the hilt knocked the rat out. He smiled as the rat staggered and fell over into the sea with a splash.
Rubah spin-kicked a particularly smelly rat off the Gutslasher and glanced about for Rorc during the moment’s reprieve. The lithe otter looked as if nothing in particular was going on instead of being in the middle of a life-threatening situation. He seemed to be able to walk through the battle as though his enemies weren’t even there. The fox grinned and shook his head. Then his grin vanished as he spun around and blocked the downward slash of a sword with his axehead. Rubah grinned at the shock on the rat’s face as he relived him of his weapon, spun him around, and sent him flying over the side of the ship, upside down.
Within a few minutes it was over. A soaked crew of rats stood on the shore and watched in shocked silence as their ship glided out into the sea in the morning light. The two warriors watched as the demoted captain kicked a few tails in frustration. His shouts and oaths floated over the water to their ears. They grinned at each other and turned to the deck of the ship and the problem that confronted them there.
“Rubah, d’ya know ‘ow to steer this thing?”
“No, I thought yew did mate.”
Rorc shook his head and laughed, “We’re on a ship that’s sailing out into the biggest body of water that either of us ‘ave ever seen, an’ we don’t know how to steer.” He thought a moment. “How did we get movin’ in the firs’ place?”
Rubah pointed to where a severed rope attached to the ship. “I think the anchor was attached to this rope.”
“Well ‘ow did the rope break?”
Rubah grinned sheepishly, “I accidentally cut it wid me axe.”
Rorc stood silent for a moment and then turned and began searching the deck of the ship, “Oh well then we don’t ‘ave an anchor, but we still need to steer this thing. The tiller’s probably near the back of the ship, if it’s the same as the liddle shrew’s boats.”
The Gutslasher cut through the dark blue waters of the sea smoothly, traveling steadily southward. Both beasts were stretched out next to the tiller, which they had found shortly before noon.
Rorc gave a sigh of contentment, “Aye mate, this is the life. No walking ‘round or worrying ‘bout treacherous clanbeasts, jes’ lyin’ ‘ere and watchin’ the clouds drift by.”
Rubah asked one of the questions that had been nagging him for awhile, “Rorc, do ya ‘amember anything ‘bout yer parents?”
“Oh, I remember a face, a sound, or a voice every once in awhile, but nothing really fits with anything else.” Rorc sounded like this annoyed him slightly.
Another question popped into Rubah’s head that he felt he needed to ask. “Are y’ goin’ to go an’ look for them?”
Rorc took a long time to answer. “I…I think so. Why?”
Rubah turned over on his side and looked at Rorc, “’Cause yer a h’otter so yer parents will be h’otters.”
A defensive edge crept into Rorc’s voice. “Wot’s wrong with that?”
“Nothin’, its jes’ that I’m a fox, a vermin; I dunno if they would let me stay if y’ found ‘em.”
Rorc looked at Rubah, “Of course they will! Yer me only friend.”
But Rubah was not as confident, “An’ if they don’t?”
Rorc turned on his back so Rubah couldn’t see the pain in his eyes, “Then…then I would ‘ave only gone there for a visit.”
Hookclaw, the demoted captain of the Gutslasher was not in a good mood. He had lost his ship and there were mutterings among the crew about mutiny. He had had relatively good luck during the theft of his vessel. He had only lost two of his forty crewbeasts. Still, this did not compensate for the week they had spent on the freezing shore when they could’ve been in their ship, sailing for warmer weather. Hookclaw growled and was about to take out his frustration on a small, thin rat when a shout distracted him, to the immense relief of the crewbeast.
“Chief dere’s two h’otters an’ a mousie cummin down the shore!”
Hookclaw smiled and immediately began giving orders. “Alright me buckoes, get in cover an’ when they pass we’ll jump ‘em.”
The former crew of the Gutslasher grinned and chucked as they jostled each other for the best hiding spots, confident that their superior numbers would overpower the three travelers.
Skipper nudged Deyna as they drew near a patch of sand that had been churned up, “I think we’re gonna have visitors mate. I can see some rat pawprints from ‘ere.”
Deyna nodded as he loosened Martin’s sword in its sheath across his back, “Aye, an’ it looks like there’s gonna be a lot of the vermin too.”
“Good thing I’ve been practicing.” Nimbalo commented dryly as he drew his axe from its shoulder strap and held it in his paw.
The Redwall trackers proceeded at the same leisurely pace, keeping a sharp lookout as they drew near the disturbed sand. When they set paw on the shifted sand there was a shout from a dune to their left and the Gutslasher’s crew came pouring from around rocks and jumping out of pits in the sand. Martin’s sword was out of its sheath and in Deyna's paw before the searats had gotten three paces. The Redwallers formed a loose triangle, giving each other plenty of space to swing their various weapons, but still being close enough to help each other out if anybeast was hard-pressed.
Skipper bounced from paw to paw as the vermin drew closer, twirling his sling in one paw and brandishing his double-tipped otter javelin in the other. “Yah, common ya mangy flea-ridden vermin! I’ll give ya a beatin’ ya won’t soon ferget!”
As they crashed with the searat crew Nimbalo shouted to Deyna, “We can’t hold them off for long mate. There’s too many of them.”
Deyna grunted in agreement as he swung Martin’s sword, using any maneuver he knew to bat away any blade that came near and slay the owner. “I’ll try to get to that rat who’s giving orders from behind. I’d bet a bowl of watershrimp an’ ‘otroot soup that ‘e’s the leader.”
Hookclaw saw the otter with the magnificent blade fighting his way toward him. He had seen the otter wield that blade and didn’t fancy going up against him. The searat captain felt a feeling in the pit of his stomach that he had felt only a few times before. It was fear. The otter broke through the last line of searats and came rushing toward him. Hookclaw didn’t hesitate, he turned and ran. He felt a paw on his shoulder and was spun around by the strength that it contained. The otter was facing him, sword at the ready.
“Stop an’ face me rat!”
Hookclaw began sobbing, “Please don’t kill me! It’s not my fault ‘m a searat. I had a hard an’ cruel upbringin’.” He kept this babble up as he secretly drew his sword, readying himself for the lunge at his opponent. With a shout he slashed at Deyna’s throat.
Within moments it was all over. The searat crew moaned and dropped their weapons. Deyna stepped over the slain captain’s body and addressed the demoralized crew. “Now me buckoes lissen up! Yer gonna travel north and yer gonna stay north. No more cummin down ‘ere or to Mossflower. Got it?” The remaining searats nodded furiously. Deyna smiled, “Good! Now if yer not outta me sight by the time I count to ten then we’re gonna come after ya. One…”
The trio laughed as the sand flew as the searats raced north, one was a little slow, limping behind the rest. Skipper walked up and grabbed the unfortunate rat who immediately began screaming.
“Don’t kill me please! ‘M goin’ as fast as I can, ‘onest!”
“Oh, sheddup will ya?” Skipper growled, “Or I will kill ya.” The terrified rat lapsed into silence. “What I want to know” continued the Skipper, “Is if you’ve seen a h’otter like dis ‘un ‘ere.” He gestured at Deyna, “No lies now, I know if yer lyin’ to me or not an’ if you are…” Skipper’s voice trailed off menacingly.
“I…I’ve seen an h’otter like dat ‘un recently. ‘E stole our boat an’ kicked us all overboard, him an’ a fox.” The rat gulped as they looked at him, “There, that’s all I know, honest! ‘M not lying!”
Deyna, Nimbalo, and Skipper watched the rat scurry over the crest of the hill. “D’ya think it was Rorc?” asked Skipper.
“If it was he hasn’t changed at all.” Nimbalo laughed, “The dibbun I remember would do exactly the same thing.”
“If it is him then we’re getting closer.” Deyna said his voice filled with anticipation. “All we need is a boat to catch up with them.”
“Maybe there’s one at Salamandastron.” Offered Nimbalo helpfully.
They struck out south, staying near the waterline on the firm, wet sand. They had only gone a few paces when Nimbalo noticed that Skipper had fallen behind. He turned to see what was slowing him down and was amazed to see Skipper limping along behind them with a pained grimace stamped on his features.
“Skip, what’s the matter?” asked Nimbalo, tugging on Deyna’s tunic to get the warrior to stop.
“Silly really.” Skipper gave a short, bark-like laugh, “As soon as the battle was over I stepped on a fallen sword and cut me footpaw.”
Deyna winced as he examined the wound. “Now I wish I would’ve allowed Arbuc to come along. He could fix up this wound in no time.” Nimbalo can y’ take Skip back to Redwall?”
Nimbalo shook his head sadly, “I know what yer thinkin’ mate. It won’t work. If we ran into a band of vermin I can’t defend both me an’ Skipper and Skip can’t defend himself with that paw.” Nimbalo patted Deyna on the paw, “Yer gonna hafta come back to the h’abbey with us mate.”
Deyna sighed and glanced wistfully out over the sea, “We were so close Nimbalo I could feel it! A few more days and we would have found him I’m sure of it! If only…” Deyna didn’t finish his sentence but sighed and turned his face away from the sea, toward home.
“Ahoy mate! Mountain hoooo!” Rorc called from the top of the mast. “Turn a liddle to the left. Annnnn…straight ahead now mate!”
“Why are we goin’ to th’ mountain?” Rubah yelled back.
“We’re goin’ to th’ mountain ‘cause we’ve never been to a mountain before.”
“Oh…” said Rubah. He thought about the few days that they had been on the ship. The food was awful because there were no proper ingredients to be had on the entire vessel. He gripped the tiller and spun it to correct the Gutslasher’s course as the mountain came into view. He gasped at the sight of the gigantic mountain; its peak seemed to be touching the clouds. Rorc slid down from the platform on the top of the mast.
“ ‘Ere mate, I’ll take the tiller. Yew go an’ fix up some vittles.” Rorc made a slight gagging noise. “If ya can. Another reason to go to the mountain; there may be fruit growin’ on its sides.”
“Ya, we need some fresh fruit instead of that slop that they called provisions.” Said Rubah as he relinquished the tiller, “Call me when we anchor.”
It was beginning to snow in Mossflower yet again as the travelers neared the Abbey gates. Skipper limped along, supported by Deyna and using a wooden staff as a crutch. Nimbalo filled his lungs and shouted as they pounded on the gates.
“Ahoy the abbey! Open up for the wounded and weary travelers!”
The gates opened and Hoarg ushered them in. “Who’s injured? Skip, that looks like a bad ‘un. We’d better get you to the infirmary.”
They didn’t even get past the Great Hall though. As soon as Arbuc saw Skipper limping toward the stairs to the infirmary he intercepted him and sat him down on the nearest bench.
“See? If ya had brought me ya could’ve continued with the search for me brother. Now hold still I’ll get ya well in no time.” Arbuc rummaged around in the various pouches around his waist and brought out the herbs he needed with amazing speed. “You’ll take longer to heal because I wasn’t able to do this sooner, but after a week or two it’ll be as if you’ve never had a cut. Not a scar or anythin’.”
Skipper chuckled, “If I didn’t know better I’d think that yew were trained by Rukky Garge herself!”
Arbuc stared off into the distance. “Yes,” He murmured, “you would think so.”
“Rubah ‘m anchoring. Better get up ‘ere if ya want to go onshore.” Rorc smiled as Rubah came shooting up out of the galley.
“Good ‘cause the vittles aren’t turning out all that great.” Rubah shoved the makeshift anchor overboard, which was a bunch of spare water kegs filled with scrap metal and spare weapons from the belly of the vessel. It sank to the bottom and lodged in between the rocks. “Well, the ship’s not going anywhere.”
Rorc looked over the side of the Gutslasher and grimaced. “Ya but now we need a new anchor mate.”
Rubah shrugged and leapt over the side into the water. “It’s a mountain, we could use a rock.”
“Well ya but how are we gonna get it to the boat smarty?” muttered Rorc as he followed suit.
They waded through the surf and reached the beach. Suddenly they were surrounded by a score of hares led by a young badger. They were armed with various weapons, swords being the main weapon present. The badger was wearing a suit of studded plate mail on and carried an enormous double-pronged broadsword. A hare with graying whiskers stepped forward, his sword pointing at them.
“Halt right there y’ vermin types. Are there any more of you, scum?”
Rorc and Rubah stood back to back with weapons drawn, warily sizing up their adversaries. Rorc answered the hare, “No, it jus’ us two. Who wants to know?”
“Sergeant Briggo Fleetpaw Windscut of the blinkin’ long patrol currently stationed at Salamandastron doncha know?”
Rubah ventured a question, “Wot’s Salamandastron?”
Sergeant Briggo spluttered, “Wh…wot’s Salamandastron? It’s only the mountain of the badger lords, the headquarters of the long patrol, the guardian of the western shores, the, the…”
The badger stopped him, “I think you’ve described our home enough Sergeant.” He turned to them, “Why are you here?”
Rorc smiled, keeping an eye on all the hares in front of him, knowing that Rubah was doing the same behind him. “We’ve never been on a mountain before so we decided to climb it.”
The badger started to wave the hares off but Sergeant Briggo wasn’t convinced that this was the reason of their arrival, “They’re vermin laddo, evil is their nature, they only want to burn and slaughter.”
The young badger sighed, “Fine then, we’ll let Lord Russano decide what to do with them.” He turned to Rorc and Rubah, “Come with us. I will take you to my father.”
In the Champion’s Room Pearl sat across from Deyna and looked him in the eye. “So are y’ goin’ to tell me what y’ found or are y’ gonna keep silent about it?”
Deyna smiled, “Yew were so busy that it would’ve been a shame to interrupt ya. Why, Redwall might’ve gone to pieces if it weren’t for you.”
Pearl shook a paw at him, “No excuses, a few moments would not have kept me from any of my chores.”
The Abbey Warrior laughed, “Okay me beauty I’ll tell ya what we found.” He took a deep breath. “We tracked the otter to the coast where we were attacked by a crew of searats. We defeated ‘em and Skipper questioned a rat and found that their ship had been commandeered by an otter an’ a fox. We began to go south to Salamandastron but realized that Skipper was injured and that it would be faster to return to Redwall than to continue on to the mountain and so we returned to the h’abbey.”
Pearl sighed, “I knew I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, but I couldn’t help it. I really wanted to see my lil’ Rorc again.” Her voice broke and she held her head in her paws as tears streamed down her face.
Deyna moved around the table and sat down next to Pearl. He laid an arm across her back, “He’ll come back someday Pearl, don’t worry.”
Russano sat in his desk and listened to the waves crash against the shore. The badger lord found this sound strangely calming. The door of the Forge opened and Russano opened his eyes as his son filed in with a score of hares, accompanied by a fox and another vermin that looked somewhat like an otter. They were both tattooed up in the manner of the Juska. He looked at his son with interest, “Why have you brought these vermin here Snowstripe?”
Snowstripe fiddled with one of the studs on his belt. “The Sergeant and I had a disagreement on how to deal with them after they anchored their vessel, the Gutslasher, just offshore.”
Russano sat back, his brown eyes looking thoughtfully at the two Juskabeasts that stood before him. “Snowstripe, what did you want to do with them?”
“I was going to put ‘em back on their vessel and send ‘em off.”
The Badger Lord turned to Sergeant Briggo, “And what did you want to do?”
The grey whiskered hare shook his fist, “H’I was going ta give ‘em a good lick’n, wot wot!”
Russano sighed, “Sergeant, sometimes I think the fights you were in didn’t just scar you on the outside. You need to learn some restraint.” The badger lord stood up, towering over all present except Snowstripe. He stared down at Rorc and Rubah, his eyes willing them to be truthful. “You may stay here as long as you promise not to harm any of the inhabitants of this mountain.”
Rorc spoke for both of them, “Sure mate.” He shrugged, “If we had wanted to hurt somebeast we would ‘ave already done so.”
Russano doubted that the two creatures before him could have taken out an entire patrol, especially when that particular patrol had his son along with his best fighters in it. But he decided not to say this; it would sound as if he was provoking them. Rubah’s stomach rumbled to the fox’s great embarrassment. Rorc’s stomach echoed the sound. Russano looked down at them, his eyes softening. They were young ones after all, and they didn’t look evil like the rest of the vermin he had seen. Despite the fact that they had obviously been raised by the Juska, he already had begun to like the pair. “You must be hungry, Fleetwood told me that there was no food on that vessel worth eating, and he’s a hare.”
The mess was just off the main hall. It was crowded with hares that were eating as if there was a seven-season famine ahead. Rorc and Rubah slid into a corner seat, aware of the stares that were being directed at them by the more battle-hardened hares of the mountain. A young hare sat down next to them, drawing a sharp dagger that he skillfully used to slice and core an apple. Rubah watched the thin hare pack away the food at an alarming rate with an expression that conveyed disbelief.
“Where are y’ puttin’ it all?”
The hare finished off an apple pastie and wiped his mouth on a clean handkerchief. He turned and looked at Rubah, “Humph! Doncha know ta ask a chap’s name before y’ go an’ ask questions about where he puts his blinkin’ scoff?” He snorted, “H’I will answer the question ya should’ve bally asked first, wot wot! Th’ name’s Lynum De Fformelo Tussock doncha know? Named after my great-grand uncle, word for word, er, name for name I mean, the entire thing an exact copy, wot!”
Rorc leaned over and whispered into Rubah’s ear, “I dunno if ‘e’s ‘appy ‘bout that or not.” He nodded over to Lynum, “Pass the salad mate.” The hare obliged willingly, snagging a good-sized portion for himself as the bowl came past his plate. The meal continued on and the former Juskabeasts began to relax around the good-natured hare.
Rubah noticed Sergeant Briggo holding a whispered conversation with Snowstripe. The young badger had removed his armor revealing a plain tabard belted around his waist, very similar to his father’s mode of dress. He nodded and glanced over at Rorc and Rubah, standing as he did so. Rubah nudged Rorc and nodded towards Snowstripe who was rapping a hefty paw on the table to draw attention. “Think we’re gonna ‘ave ta do something for our supper. I wonder what it is.”
They didn’t need to wait long. Snowstripe called out over the bedlam, “Attention please!” Finding that the rowdy hares didn’t pay any attention to the polite request the badger sighed and resorted to military style orders. “Attention, Long Patrol!” His deep voice boomed out over the repast, “Quiet in the ranks there!” Complete silence fell over the mess hall as the hares gave him their undivided attention. Snowstripe looked over the heads of all the hares, “As you all know, we have two guests tonight.” He nodded to the duo in the corner. “Now would you all agree that they should provide entertainment in exchange for the food they ate?” This was met with a chorus of assent from the assembled group.
Rorc sighed and rose from the table, followed by Rubah. They strode to the center of the room and held a whispered conversation. After a few moments they made their decision. Rorc pointed out a group of young, strong looking hares. “Ahoy, you four, get t’gether some of yer mateys an’ clear out th’ middle o’ this ‘ere room.” The hares he had pointed out hurried to do his bidding, others joining in to help. Soon there was a sizeable clearing in the middle of the hall.
Murmurs began to circulate around the hall. “What d’ya think they’re gonna do, bucko?”
“Mebbe they’ll give us a dance, wot? I’ve never seen a vermin chap dance b’fore.”
“Well, I ‘ope they aren’t goin’ ta sing a blinkin’ song. Th’ whole thing’d probably be ‘bout killin’ ‘is flippin’ granny, wot wot!”
Rubah held up his paw for silence. “We’re not gonna sing a song fer ya buckoes, ‘cause we don’t know one that’d be worth singin.” The fox shook his head, his thick winter coat shifting and showing its unusual luster. “Nah, we’re gonna perform our legendary Bladedance for ya.” This drew murmurs of pleased astonishment from the hares of the Long Patrol, who were always ready to observe feats of swordmastery or other fighting skills. Rubah continued informing the hares of the proceedings. “Firs’ we’re gonna warm up; stretch the muscles, and then we’ll get on with it.”
Rorc had gathered a length of rope which he spread out in a circle in the middle of the floor as a boundary for the Bladedance. Then he began his training routine, a set of exercises that he had known ever since he had come to the Juskaron. Every time he preformed these exercises he always wondered where he had learned them. It hadn’t been Bloodpaw; Rorc knew this because he had taught the Weaponmaster the exercises when he had been about five seasons old. He completed the exercise with five lightning-quick cartwheels that smoothly transferred into a roundoff that launched him into the air. The otter completed a triple backflip and landed on the ground lightly, looking for all the world as if he had only been walking around a table.
Rubah finished warming up and drew his axe; giving it a few experimental twirls as he took up his position opposite Rorc. He grinned at his friend, “Let’s not finish this too fast mate.”
Rorc smiled back, “Yes, that wouldn’t ‘ave paid sufficiently for our food.” There was a rustle of clothing, and he turned to see Russano framed in the massive doorway. Rorc called over to the great badger, “M’lord, y’ arrived jes’ in time. Rubah an’ I are ‘bout to perform our Bladedance for yer long patrol.” The Badger Lord weaved his way through the mass of tables that had been jammed together to make room for the performance. He sat down in his great chair and nodded for them to continue.
As Rorc turned back to face Rubah, the fox belted out his challenge, “H’I was born in the middle of a thunderstorm that stripped a forest bare of its leaves! I’m the greatest warrior ye’ll ever find. Who dares challenge me?”
Rorc drew his dagger and flung it into the air, nearly hitting the high vaulted ceiling, and caught it as it fell back to the ground. He spun it until it was a shining blur. “I dare to challenge that claim! H’I was born in the teeth of a winter gale, fathered by lightning and mothered by the wind! I am the Taggerung and nobeast can best me!”
The hares waited with bated breath as the two warriors circled, each searching for an opening in the defense of the other. With a yell Rubah swung his axe at Rorc’s head. The otter lazily leaned back as the axe thrummed past inches from the tip of his muzzle. The room was deadly quiet as they circled and exchanged blows, sometimes blocking a blow with dagger or axe, or at other times nimbly dodging out of the way. To anybeast that was watching it would seem like they were intent on slaying each other but they both had trained with each other so often that they both knew what each other was about to do before the move was made. They began to speed the tempo of the “dance” up and then the battle really began. Rubah swung his axe at Rorc’s feet and the otter leapt into the air, flipping and landing behind him. The fox spun around and knocked the slashing dagger away from his body. Rubah swiftly stuck out his footpaw and tripped Rorc. Rorc rolled as Rubah’s axe crashed into the ground, showering sparks around the two combatants. Rorc leapt to his feet and went at Rubah with a vengeance. Many of the hares were turning blue from holding their breath for such a long time. In a final flurry of movement Rorc disarmed his opponent and brought his dagger up to Rubah’s throat.
The entire room broke into applause and shouted their approval of the Bladedance. Sergeant Briggo clapped as well and Rorc knew that if they hadn’t made the long patrol their friends, they had at least earned their respect.
The Main doors of Redwall abbey opened just enough to allow a young squirrel to exit and walk across the sunlit snow on the abbey grounds. He was average height for a squirrel of his seasons, but agile and strong for his age. He had a fire in his light brown eyes that bespoke of one with more than the usual share of warrior spirit. He scanned the lawn, his active eyes picking out every detail of the vast area, including a sling whirring up on top of the north-western corner of the battlements. He climbed up the steep stairs and walked up behind Arbuc, who was slinging stones into the woodlands, muttering his targets before he loosed the stone.
“Alright, now let’s try to hit that branch over there.” The young otter muttered as the sling thrummed around his head. It was a well-made sling, given to him by the Skipper of Otters as his thirteenth seasonday gift. It had also come with a pouch that blended in well with the rest of the pouches tied around Arbuc’s waist.
“Arbuc, how long have ye been up here? I’ve been looking around for hours an’ I couldn’t find ye.”
The sling wrapped around Arbuc’s paw as he turned to his friend. There were tearstreaks down his face, showing that he had recently been crying. “It’s not fair Awavian!” He shouted as he swung his sling and let off a pebble randomly, without aiming. “Jes’ because I’m not the best warrior here he babies me. He won’t let me go anywhere by myself, not even out into Mossflower to gather herbs for the infirmary. I’m thirteen seasons old; I can take care of myself!”
Awavian MacDrummond, to give the squirrel his full name, leaned against the battlements and eyed the frustrated otter. “So yore goin’ to practice until yore the best slingin’ beastie in the abbey are ye?”
Arbuc’s features relaxed and he let out a small chuckle, “No, Skipper will always be better than me, I jes’ want to get good enough that he’ll stop worryin’ about me.”
The borderland squirrel motioned for Arbuc to continue practicing, “Well show me what ye can do. Go for the branch ye were about to hit before I came up here.”
“Alright, but you should know by now. Mum says that she barely ever sees me without you around.” The sling whirred though the air as Arbuc screwed up his face in concentration.
The squirrel shook his head as the stone zipped off, wide to the right of the intended target. “Yore goin’ about it all wrong Arbuc.”
The otter smiled at his friend’s borderland accent. He turned and looked him up and down, his smile widening as he finally noticed the kilt that the squirrel always wore, despite attempts by many of the abbeybeasts to get him to wear a habit. “Well ‘Wave, show me then.”
“Here laddo, ye aren’t hittin’ yore target because yore facing straight at it. Yore right-pawed so turn a little to the right of yon target, like so.” He spun Arbuc until he was facing slightly to the right of the branch he was trying to hit. “Now try.”
The air thrummed as the sling cut through the air. After a few rotations Arbuc let go, sending the pebble humming through the air. It clacked off the oak branch that he had been aiming at and bounced away into the woodlands. Arbuc glanced from the sling to the branch, surprised that with only a little change of position he was able to hit the target he had been aiming at unsuccessfully for hours.
“You certainly know how to teach a beast to use a sling mate.”
Awavian chuckled, “I had a good teacher myself.” He unwound a sling of his own from around his waist. “We’ll take turns choosing targets, ye start.”
The two friends laughed and joked, time passing unheeded as darkness drew near. Finally they were interrupted by the grumbling of Arbuc’s stomach. Awavian laughed as the otter rubbed his stomach ruefully. “Are ye hungry ye great riverwhomper?”
“I am, so ya better watch out ‘Wave ‘cause I eat treebouncers when I’m hungry.”
The squirrel pretended to shake in his fur, “Weel then, I’d better get ye to the kitchens or I’ll be scoffed an’ there will be none to cry over mah cold body.”
As the two friends descended from the walltops for the evening meal a rat strolled around the corner of the path. He was rather nondescript in looks and his only weapons were a sling and a dirk. As soon as he sighted the abbey he dove into the foliage on the side of the path. He scanned the abbey, memorizing possible weaknesses and strengths of the stone fortress. He melted into the east woodlands, wiping away all trace of his ever being there. The night continued on undisturbed, unaware of a great evil stirring in the east. Already drums could be heard beating out a savage beat over the land. They were the drums of war.
The origins of these drums could well have come from the camp of a fox named Zartho. The tents of his camp blanketed the floor of Mossflower as completely as the snow that covered the ground. Zartho sat on his throne and studied the scout that had brought news of a big redstone abbey filled with peace-loving creatures. He was a large fox with fur that was of the most unusual color. It was such a glossy red-gold color that he seemed to be eternally aflame. He was the first fox to be the leader of the Five Armies in living memory. Zartho had killed the former leader in hand-to-hand combat and for once, there had been no tricks from either side, just an honest fight. Zartho was a beast to be reckoned with, for the last leader had been a wolf. He examined the rat that stood nervously before him critically, trying to discern whether or not the rat was lying. He turned to another rat, who was one of his generals. “Halfear, what d’ya know about this ‘un?” He asked nodding toward the rat that was shaking with apprehension.
Halfear saluted his Commander, “M’lord he has been your loyal follower ever since you defeated the wolf.” That was the only way anybeast talked about the former commander of the Five Armies. It had been decreed by Commander Zartho, and who was about to argue with somebeast who had slain a wolf?
Zartho turned to the rat, “You have been a loyal beast and I believe you.” The scout swayed and nearly fainted with relief. But the fox was not finished with him yet, “I believe that you have seen this building, I have already heard of it and your report confirms it. But as to it only being defended by peace-loving woodlanders, that is what I do not believe as of yet. Guards!” This time the rat scout did faint. The five guards that were always nearby came at a run and saluted their Commander with their various weapons.
“Take this scout and lock ‘im up. Feed an’ treat ‘im like any other beast under my command but jes’ ‘ave somebeast keep an eye on ‘im at all times. When you leave, send my generals in.” The five guards saluted but remained where they were. It was a common tactic used by those in authority; make the hordebeast feel as if he had been dismissed before you actually dismissed him. A jumpy hordebeast could be caught and punished for turning to leave before being dismissed. The commander nodded his approval, “You are dismissed.”
The fox watched as the five hordebeasts departed, dragging the unconscious form of the rat sentry between him. They each owed their loyalties to different generals of his army but ultimately they owed all allegiance to him. The Five Armies were headed by five generals who were in turn commanded by Zartho. Each of the five sections of the horde were comprised entirely of a single type of vermin headed by the strongest, most wily of their kind. The only exception to this rule was in the Ferret army, which included Stoats. Thus the Commander’s guard consisted of a rat, ferret, weasel, fox, and cat. The same went for his generals who entered shortly after his guard had left. Zartho rose from his throne and paced around the tent while he informed his generals of the report brought to him by the scout.
“Halfear’s scout has brought us news of a big redstone building not far west of here. He says that it is held only by a few peace-loving woodlanders. Do not let this deceive you though. Deatheye should know this well, considering his near defeat by a few woodlanders in that village a few days back.”
The ferret general winced, wishing that the Commander had not brought his recent defeat to mind. He had located a lightly defended village and had taken two score of his army to overrun the village, which was only defended by half a score of soft woodlanders with barely a sword between them. He had destroyed the village all right, but he had also left a score of good fighters in the ruins to rot.
“Dagger, you will take a squad of yore best assassins and scout out this building. Head them yoreself, I want no mistakes.” The weasel general nodded, sharpening his black-steeled dagger on a piece of shale. Nobeast knew the weasel’s real name besides for him and perhaps Zartho, although if he did he never let on. He was called Dagger by the Generals and the Commander and General by everybeast else. Zartho addressed the remaining generals, Smoke, a fox who lived up to his name by being a master of camouflage, and Sawtooth, a ruthless wildcat that did not know the meaning of pity. “I want you to ready yore troops for action. I want blades sharpened and ready for blood. You are all dismissed.” The generals bowed and left the tent to carry out their master’s bidding. Zartho sat back in his throne to wait, if the reports came back favorable, the scout would be rewarded, if not…the fox smiled as he thought of all the ways he could cause pain. He had been known to drive those who had lied to him or crossed him mad long before they died. His current record was keeping a ferret alive for five days after he had been skinned. The Commander’s smile grew wider; perhaps he would be able to beat that record.
Rorc and Rubah sat back down in the corner, both breathing hard. Rorc glanced sideways at his friend, “I think that was the best Bladedance we’d ever done mate.”
Rubah nodded, to winded to speak. Lynum provided words to fill in for the tired fox, “That was ababsolutely flippin’ amazing! Nevah seen anythin’ like it in all mah born days. You two could take out a flippin’ long patrol an’ not ‘ave a single scratch on ya, wot wot!” He opened his mouth to continue but snapped it shut and straightened his ears up until they were stiff points in a long patrol salute that was used when a superior officer approached when a hare was sitting down or too wounded to rise. Rorc turned around and saw Sergeant Briggo approaching him from the head table.
The Sergeant stopped and scanned Rorc up and down before taking a deep breath and launched into his speech. “H’I apologize for what I said when y’ first arrived. H’I was a fool not see that you were sincere and to give you a chance. D’ya accept mah apologies?”
Before Rorc had a chance to answer Lynum leaned over and whispered, “A little advice in yer small funny-lookin’ lug. The Sergeant barely ever apologizes to anybeast, including th’ Lord Russano.”
Rorc took this advice and shook the Sergeant’s paw heartily, “’Pologies accepted mate, as long as y’ stop callin’ us vermin or I’ll really start fightin’.”
A brown-furred hare peered over a veritable mountain of food and gaped at the two warriors. “Y’ mean that y’ weren’t goin’ all out?”
Rubah chuckled, “I’ve never seen ‘im go all out. Actually at the end there he held himself back ‘cause ‘e didn’t want to reopen out wounds that we received during the last battle of the Juskaron.”
The flabbergasted hare returned to his food, “Not even goin’ full out? Mmff gulp, if only we had a few like those two in our regiment, we’d never lose a battle! Grumph mmff.”
For the first time in his life Dagger inwardly cursed his jet-black fur. It would only serve to make him more visible against the pure white snow. He pulled back at the woodland fringe, surveying the tall walls of the abbey. He motioned his squad of assassins closer as he rasped out orders. “We are not here to kill; only to scout out the building, you understand that? If any of you return here after killing a creature or stealing something, even if it be of great value, I will have you slain on the spot. Do you understand?” The four weasels that he had hand-picked from the horde nodded, knowing that if they didn’t they would be dead before they had a chance to draw their weapons. Dagger, satisfied that they would obey him, began giving them their assignments. “You and you go along the west wall and check all gates on it. See if the locks are rusted or anythin’ like that. When you get to the southwest corner, turn and check out the south wall also.” He turned to the other two weasels who were waiting patiently for orders. “You two do the same, except go along the north and east walls.” After he received nods of confirmation from the squad he motioned toward the Abbey. “Go, and do not be seen or you will wish you had never been born.”
The four weasels nodded and slid off into night. Dagger peered at the high north-west corner of the wall. While those less-cunning than he were scouting out the walls, he would be scouting out the interior of this Abbey. He darted across the snow-covered clearing and reached the walls without any incident. His sable eyes gleamed in the starlight as he gauged the wall’s height. Dagger unwound a three-pronged grapple hook from around his waist and began spinning it, paying out its strong, slim line as the hook gained momentum. He let go and the hook flew up and over the wall, landing with a dull clang on the walltop above. Dagger paused, listening for the sound of pawsteps then, confident that no one had heard; he pulled the rope until the hook bit into the mortar of the battlements. After waiting a short time, he began to climb. Paw over paw he went up the abbey wall, and after a short time he gained the top. He slid over the battlements and landed softly on the wide walltops. He froze as he noticed two creatures halfway along the western wall, sitting and staring up at the sky. He could hear their voices from where he crouched in the shadows.
“It’s getting late ‘Wave, we should go in or we’ll have my mum after our skins.”
One of the figures leapt to its feet and began racing down the wallstairs sprinting toward the abbey as if there was a horde after it. “I’m not lettin’ yore mum get her paws on me. If she did she’d probably bath me until she scrubbed my tail off!”
The other laughed and followed at a slightly slower pace. “Aye, an’ there would be no candied chestnuts for ya either.”
Dagger sighed with relief as the two creatures entered the abbey and shut the doors. He began to creep along the walltop, when a bright light exploded behind him. The weasel General spun around, his throwing dagger in his paws and flying towards the source of the light before he had even seen who it was. The light didn’t falter and as he stared into the light, trying to catch a glimpse of the creature, a voice spoke.
“Why have you come to my abbey, weasel?”
Dagger immediately hated the voice more than he had hated anything in his entire life. It conveyed peace and warmth, friendship, trust, and honor. But when he saw what the creature was his heart was filled with fear, even more than the hate that had consumed it before. Standing in front of him was a mouse. It was clad in armor that shone more brightly than the sun and in its paw was the most magnificent blade he had ever seen. The blade shone with a fire that would have made the light of all the stars together seem as if they were only a single candle next to the sun. Dagger longed to look away, to run, but the magnificence of that blade held him fast. The mysterious apparition raised its paw and to his horror Dagger saw that it had caught his throwing knife. No normal creature could catch one of his knives, it was impossible! He was the best knife thrower in the entire Five Armies. Who was this mouse? As if he had heard the weasel’s thoughts the mouse spoke again.
“I am Martin the Warrior, Guardian of Redwall Abbey. This place was my home for many a long season. You are not permitted, vermin, to search this abbey. You are never to set foot in this place again on pain of death. Do you understand?” The warrior’s voice rose to a full-throated roar at this last sentence. Dagger was surprised that the Abbey creatures did not come rushing out at the commotion that this mouse was making. The mouse showed an uncanny knowledge of his thoughts again as he chuckled, “They cannot hear us, this is all going on in your head.” Then his features grew hard, “Now leave immediately.”
Dagger didn’t even pause to use the rope but instead launched himself off the wall. If it hadn’t been for the scout that was passing underneath at that time things might have turned out badly for the Dagger. As it happened he only lost one of his best assassins and gained a broken ankle. Echoing around in his head was the Warrior mouse’s chuckle as he disappeared, leaving nothing to show that anything had ever happened on the walltops except for a black dagger that lay next to the battlements glittering in the starlight.
Zartho paced the tent in a fury as he contemplated the events of the previous night. His best assassin afraid of a mouse, second-best assassin killed, and to top it all off his Seer, Shavant, predicted that they would stand a better chance of capturing the Abbey if they waited until late spring. Then he remembered the rat. Zartho smiled, he would not be without anything to do in the days to come.
It was an especially sunny day in early spring that Rorc and Rubah chose to leave Salamandastron. The entire mountain turned out to help load the Gutslasher, which had been renamed the Challenger once Rorc and Rubah had learned how to read, with provisions.
“Where do you plan to go Rorc?”
The otter paused in the act of picking up a barrel of drinking water and looked up as Snowstripe, who had become a good friend of his during their winter stay. “I don’t know exactly, Snow. Wherever the wind takes us I guess.” He turned and yelled up to Rubah who was supervising the storage of provisions, “Any idea where ya want to go mate?”
The fox leaned over the rail and shouted back down, “I don’t want to go north, too cold. South I say.” There was a sudden crash from inside the Challenger and Rubah shot away from the railing and into the bowels of the vessel. From the shore Rorc and Snowstripe laughed as Rubah’s voice reached their ears. “What’s going on down ‘ere?” There was a short pause as the answer was given. Then Rubah’s voice thundered from the Challenger, “Lynum De Fformelo Tussock I ‘ave an axe ‘ere that would like to meet your scut. C’m ‘ere now.”
Now Lynum’s voice could be heard clearly by those on shore. “Yah, stay away you rotter! H’I’m too young ta die!” He came shooting over the side of the Challenger and dashed around behind Snowstripe. “Help me mah lordly laddo, the blinkin’ bounder wants to remove mah flippin’ posterior!”
Snowstripe over his shoulder as Lynum peered apprehensively at the vessel anchored offshore.
“What did you do Lymun?”
The hare chewed on his eartip for awhile before replying. “Well sah, I was only havin’ a small mid-mornin’ repast.” Snowstripe raised his eyebrows, his footpaw tapping as he waited for Lynum to continue. Lynum got the point and started up again rather reluctantly. “Well, I drank a flask of October Ale, the one that was brewed, er, twenty seasons ago. And I, er, had a blueberry crumble.”
“That was goin’ to be our lunch!”
“Er, quite. And I had three scones and-”
“Permission to tackle the bounder and dunk ‘im in the sea, mate?” Asked Rorc, glaring at Lynum and who began to back away.
Snowstripe grinned mischievously, “Permission granted, but be back soon, my father’s coming to see you off and you wouldn’t want to be late.” The otter nodded and took off after the quickly retreating hare. Snowstripe stared after them and muttered, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Lynum gets away. He has a good head start and he’s the best galloper the Long Patrol has had in many a season as father says.”
“Rorc’ll catch ‘im.” Said a voice at his elbow.
Snowstripe jumped and looked down, “Rubah what have I told you about sneaking up on me? I never can get used to how you and Rorc just appear next to me without me knowing you’re coming.”
Rubah snorted, “It’s not that hard.”
“Are you saying that I’m not observant?”
“No, I’m saying that learning to approach silently isn’t hard to learn. It jes’ takes practice.”
Snowstripe wasn’t completely convinced, “Sure.” Then he spotted two figures emerge from the mountain. “Rorc better hurry if he’s going to be here when Russano arrives.”
Rubah looked up and down the beach and spied Lynum dashing down the tideline with Rorc hard on his heels. “Lynum’ll be in the water soon, don’t yew worry.” The fox turned his attention to the two figures approaching from the mountain. “Ah, Sergeant Briggo ‘as decided to attend th’ farewell. I remember when that ‘un only wanted us gutted an’ pushed into th’ surf.” Rubah smiled almost fondly as he recalled that memory.
Lord Russano and Sergeant Briggo Fleetpaw Windscut arrived just as the final crate of provisions was loaded onto the Challenger. The Badger Lord of Salamandastron nodded approvingly, “Good work, well done all. Now if I could have your attention far a few moments.”
A still-dripping Rorc slid between Rubah and Snowstripe, “What did I miss mateys?”
Snowstripe jumped yet again at the unexpected voice and Rubah whispered, “Nothin’ yet. Lord Russano jes’ asked for everybeast’s attention.” Rubah paused and glanced around, “Where’s Lynum?”
Rorc nodded to a sodden figure a few paces away who was trying to wring the seawater out of his long ears. “He’s over there trying to dry off. A dip in the sea won’t hurt him, though he says it will.”
Further chatter was cut off as Russano continued, “Now, military types not being to long flourishing speeches, I will make mine short and to the point. Rorc, Rubah, we say farewell and wish you safe and travels wherever you go.” Russano paused and thought for a moment, “Well if not exactly safe, then we hope that you come out the better in any scrap you enter into. Now, before you leave we have a gift for both of you. Rosalaun, Melanius?” Russano’s wife and daughter stepped up, each carrying a shrouded object in their paws. One of the objects was rather big, and was carried by Rosalaun while the other was quite small and Melanius carried it in one paw. They presented the objects to Russano who picked up the larger of the two. He turned to the audience and said, “Rorc and Rubah come here.”
Rorc glanced at Rubah and they both approached the Badger lord, stopping a few feet in front of him and stood waiting.
Russano took a step forward and stood directly in front of Rubah. “Rubah when you first arrived here no one thought a fox could resist from killing innocents. You have showed us wrong and, and, in thanks, I made you this. Russano drew away the shroud in his paws was a shining battle-axe. It was indeed a beautiful axe, with a shining blade and leather-bound pawgrips. The double-bladed axehead belonged to a true warrior’s weapon, with no unneeded flourishes or bits of metal at all. Even by just looking at it, one could tell that the blade had been pounded so that it would never need to sharpened.
Rubah took the proffered battle axe and swung, elated by the feel of the magnificent weapon. “Aye, mine feels like a branch in comparison with this beauty. Thank you Russano, I’ll put it to good use.”
Russano nodded, satisfied with this statement, and turned to his daughter who gave him the other object. He turned to Rorc, “It was a challenge to make a dagger with the same balance as the one you have there.” Russano gestured to the blade in Rorc’s belt. “But I feel that I have done my best.”
Rorc caught his breath at the sight. It was truly a beautiful assassin’s blade, with straight, keen slicing edges and a sharp point that could pierce armor as easily as it could slice butter. Above the shining steel blade the black-bound handle contrasted nicely with the amber of Rorc’s old dagger. Set in the hilt was a sparkling green emerald that shone as if a fire was blazing within. Rorc accepted the blade from Russano and was surprised and pleased with its balance. If he threw this knife he would never miss, of this he was sure. “Thank you Russano, as Rubah said, we’ll put them to good use.” Rorc said as he struck the blade in his belt opposite his original blade.
“You two better get going.” Said Russano, “It’s always easiest to leave when the tide’s going out.”
Snowstripe watched as the Challenger glided out on the outgoing tide. Rorc and Rubah stood in the stern of their vessel and waved their newly acquired weapons, the blades flashing in the sunlight. Snowstripe drew his sword and held it up in a warrior’s salute. As he watched them sail away the young badger wondered if he would ever meet them again. Of one thing Snowstripe was sure. If he met them away from the mountain, it would most likely be near danger. Warrior spirits like those seem to attract trouble, much to the joy of their owners.
Arbuc walked through the woodlands east of Redwall, allowing his eyes to feast themselves on the new greenery and blossoms of the new seasons. He had persuaded his father on his fourteenth seasonday to allow him and Awavian to take a trip into the Mossflower woodlands alone. Arbuc suspected that Deyna had agreed partially because Awavian was a skilled fighter, but this did little to dampen the young otter’s spirits. Arbuc and Awavian had left Redwall earlier that morning and had wandered through Mossflower without any real direction, this being Arbuc’s first time out of the abbey without an adult along.
“‘Wave, when did Father say we needed to be back?”
Awavian scratched his left eartip, as he usually did when trying to remember instructions. “Umm…er…Ah think Deyna said that we needed t’ be back in two days. Humph, Ah hope that we’ll be able t’ stay out longer nest time. Two days is hardly any time at all!”
“It’s better than no time, mate.”
“True…are ye hungry?”
Arbuc shook his head, “We jes’ ate.”
Awavian eyed the food pack carried by Arbuc. “So? That doesn’t mean that ah can’t be hungry.”
Arbuc sighed as he sat down, pulling the sack off his back and opening it. “Honestly ‘Wave, sometimes I think you’d ‘ave been better off as a hare.”
Awavian rummaged around in the sack, his indignant voice could be heard although it was muffled by the sack. “Me, a hare? Defiantly not mate. Ah wouldnae be a hare for all th’ food in th’ world, what with their silly long ears and tiny little tails.”
They ate in silence for awhile, then Arbuc brought up his frustration with Deyna.
“Yore lucky that yore such a good warrior, mate. If I was as good a warrior as yew we probably could’ve stayed out ‘ere longer.”
Awavian was surprised that his friend would put himself down and hastened to show him the error in his thinking. “Hold it right there matey. Both of us know that ye are the better at slingin’ between us, it’s all that practice. Deyna’s jes’ a little overprotective.”
“Well he can stop for all I care.” Arbuc growled, “I’m not a dibbun anymore.”
Mangefur the stoat captain was in trouble, along with his six patrol members. General Deatheye had sent them out under orders form Commander Zartho to forage for food along with many other patrols. Captain Mangefur had been unsuccessful in his search and he was desperate. He saw all his dreams of rising to the position where he could persuade Zartho to make a separate army for stoats fade under the threat of torture. Why the founders of the Five Armies chose to put stoats in the ferret army he never could fathom. Mangefur pushed this thought aside and focused on the matter at hand, mainly, getting enough supplies that he wouldn’t be slowly executed upon his return.
“Cummon yew lardbuckets, search harder or we’ll all be skinned.”
The vermin patrol muttered resentfully but, knowing the truth in Mangefur’s words, they redoubled their efforts. It was a frustrating task for everybeast. Everything was budding and blooming but no fruit had grown and it took a lot of green plants to feed a beast. So the patrols carried weapons and shot as many birds as they could.
Captain Mangefur had his head under a rotten log, looking for mushrooms, when a ferret darted silently up beside him.
“Cap’n, dere’s a couple a’ beasts over dat ‘ill. Dey got lotsa good vittles an’ drink.”
Mangefur started, banging his head against the bottom of the log. Normally he would have blamed the ferret scout and beat him but at the moment he was so exited at the prospect of wriggling out of his predicament that he let it slide. Mangefur signaled the patrol to be silent and nodded to a stoat, who dashed off in the direction of the camp. Then the patrol padded stealthily up the hill.
Arbuc and Awavian lounged around the remains of their lunch, not in a hurry to go anywhere. Apple cores, pastie crusts, and oatbread crumbs were scattered about as they lay “digesting their food”. All of a sudden a ripple of uneasiness swept over Awavian. He cracked open his eyelids and looked around. He started as he saw a half-dozen vermin sneaking toward them. The border warrior acted instinctively, leaping up and drawing his claymore, while shouting out a warning to his friend.
“Get yourself up Arbuc! We’ve got company and it’s impolite to sleep when company comes a-callin’, Haway braaaaaaw!”
Arbuc’s eyes shot open and he saw Awavian barreling toward the half-dozen ferrets and stoats that made up Mangefur’s patrol. In a trice he was up on his paws, sling whirring above his head. He gauged his timing and let fly. The stone shot through that air and struck a stoat who was trying to sneak up behind Awavian. The stoat leapt into the air and came back down, dead, with the stone in his brain. Arbuc froze, the sling hanging limply from his paws, staring at the shocked face of the dead stoat. Through the fog that covered his thoughts he franticly apologized to the dead stoat. I didn’t mean t’ kill yew. I didn’t, I didn’t! A blow to his back brought him out of his shocked state. Arbuc realized that Awavian had body slammed him and was shouting in his face.
“Get up Arbuc! It’s kill or be killed now. If ye hadn’t killed him, he would’ve killed me. Then they would’ve come and killed ye. Now up on yer paws mate. The ruffians are comin’ back for more!”
The four remaining vermin stalked back into the clearing. But instead of charging, they formed a circle around the two Redwallers.
Arbuc and Awavian stood back-to-back, Awavian’s claymore drawing small circles in the air and Arbuc’s sling rotating slowly. They both watched the vermin, who showed no signs of charging.
“What are they waitin’ for mate?” Arbuc whispered, “They’ve got us outnumbered.”
“I dunno, the odds are on their side. I don’t see what they could be waiting-.” Awavian stopped talking abruptly as twoscore more ferrets jogged into the clearing, led by Deatheye. The newcomers quickly reinforced the ring, cutting off all hope of escape.
Arbuc murmured to Awavian as he began to twirl his sling faster. “‘Wave yore a squirrel-”
Awavian cut him off. “No Arbuc, I’m not about to take to the trees and leave ye here to be slaughtered by vermin. Ah’m stayin’ here. What’d yore father think of me if ah came back to t’ Redwall without ye?”
Arbuc grinned sadly, “Well remind me t’ choose a restin’ place with both trees and a river next time.”
An important-looking ferret stepped forward from the ranks and pointed a drawn cutlass at them. “I am General Deatheye.”
Awavian looked genuinely relived, “Ah was beginnin’ t’ worry that ye’d never tell me!”
Deatheye glared at Awavian, “Silence Bushtail, do not interrupt a General of the Five Armies.” Awavian raised his eyebrows at this but made no comment. The General continued, “Surrender and you will not be harmed…yet.”
Arbuc let fly his stone. It pinged off Deatheye’s cutlass and struck Mangefur in the nose. Deatheye dropped the cutlass and shook his paw furiously while Mangefur held his bleeding nose. Arbuc frowned inwardly; he had meant to hit the ferret on the head. He covered his disappointment sell and replied, “We’re not about to surrender to the likes of you. C’mon ‘Wave, let’s make those at Redwall proud! Redwaaall!”
Awavian turned and followed Arbuc as he charged at the circle of vermin. As the otter hit the ranks of the vermin, whirling his sling, Awavian turned and fended off the vermin closing in from behind. Awavian could vaguely hear Deatheye calling out from somewhere in the ranks, “Take them alive! The beast who takes them captive will get promoted!” With this extra momentum the ferrets and stoats pressed in harder than ever.
Awavian laid about with his blade, chopping, hacking, and slicing. There’s too many of them. Awavian thought, Ah think we’re gonna die here.
Arbuc swung about with his loaded sling, wincing as he hit heads, paws, tails, and ribs. A stoat, who had not heard the order to take them alive, stepped forward and jabbed at Arbuc with his spear. Arbuc stepped to the side as Deyna had taught him and wrapped his sling around the spear with a skillful flick.
Awavian ducked and Arbuc spun, ripping the spear from the stoat’s paws and sending it in a blurring circle knocking several ferrets out. Arbuc then pulled the spear and unwound the sling from the spear pole. Dodging a blow from a spearbutt he cast the spear, killing a ferret. Arbuc tore his eyes way from the dead ferret and continued fighting.
General Deatheye watched with interest as the two young woodlanders took on his twoscore hordebeasts. Some movement in the trees caught his attention. A ferret stood on a thick branch and watched him, waiting for his signal Deatheye nodded and the ferret turned and waved to a second ferret and a stoat who had placed themselves above Arbuc and Awavian. The two vermin nodded and dropped a couple of heavy sandbags on the heads of the Redwallers. Arbuc dropped like a stone and Awavian staggered around until they bundled him up and carried them both away.
The Challenger cut through the western sea before a stiff breeze. Rubah sat in the prow of the vessel, leaning against the starboard railing. He fingered his new axe, admiring the workmanship that made the axe light enough to change directions quickly but heavy enough to deliver hefty blows. Rubah glanced over his shoulder at Rorc who was standing in the stern of the vessel with one paw on the tiller. Rubah turned back and stared out over the vast expanse of water that stretched seemingly endlessly before them. The shore was just a low gray line to the east.
Rubah gazed out over the sea but his mind was for away, walking through the memories of his childhood. That day that Rorc had arrived at the Juskaron camp, what had drawn him to the young otter? It couldn’t just be the fact that they were near the same age. In fact it was amazing that they hadn’t become mortal enemies. Before Rorc came he had been the sole receiver of Scar’s goodwill. But with the arrival of the Taggerung most of that pampering had transferred from him. So why hadn’t they become enemies and rivals? They had no example of friendship in the Juska clan, only loose alliances that could turn deadly over a single fish. What had drawn them together must have been the same lack of parents, Rubah decided. Rorc probably had known where his parents were when the Juskaron had first taken him but he had forgotten. Rubah thought about his own parents. He hadn’t a glimmer of a memory of his parents. He had asked Scar once how he came to be with the Juskaron. The Juska chieftain had paused a full five seconds and told him that he had bought him off a ferret for a couple of mugs of grog.
Rubah’s reflections were cut short by a shout from Rorc.
“Ahoy, Rubah! What are y’ doin’ up there, sleepin’? Ship off th’ starboard bow!”
Rubah shot to the starboard railing and scanned the sea. Sighting a sail, he peered hard at it. Rubah turned and shouted back to Rorc, “Ah can’t see who’s crewin’ it but it’s turned toward us!”
Pain. Pounding, throbbing, excruciating pain. Arbuc moaned and turned over. He had never felt this much pain in his life. His belt! In the right-paw pouch there were some poppy seeds. They were only a mild pain reliever but they were all he had. Arbuc reached for the pouch, his eyes still closed. His paw patted bare fur. Arbuc moaned again and went limp. What had happened? Everything was foggy.
“Dis ‘un’s startin’ t’ wake up, sir.”
“Go tell the General. He an’ Commander Zartho wanted t’ be told when da prisoners wakes up.”
Everything came flooding back. The battle, the eyes of that stoat, cold and lifeless. Arbuc opened his eyes, half-afraid of what he might see. He scanned his surroundings. He was in a gray cloth tent, a rope tied around his neck and to the central pole. Awavian was still out cold, his only wound that Arbuc could see being a gash running along his right arm. Arbuc located his only guard, the stoat Mangefur.
“Sir, can I ‘ave my belt back?”
Mangefur took a gulp of grog and grinned. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The remains of his previous meals could be seen wedged between the blackened and rotting fangs that peeped through his thin lips. “Why does th’ liddle riverdog want ‘is belt back?”
Arbuc gritted his teeth, trying to keep his temper in check as he replied, “I want me belt so I can treat the wounds of me matey ‘ere an’ meself.”
At this point Awavian moaned and began to sit up. He fell back, clutching his right arm and grimacing in pain.
Arbuc moved over to him and looked him in the eye, an action that usually calmed the sounded beast down. Arbuc spoke in a calm tone, “Don’t try to get up ‘Wave. Yore wounded an’ it won’t help to move.”
Awavian didn’t try to get up but stared into Arbuc’s eyes searchingly. “Is it bad, Mate?”
Arbuc leaned over and inspected the wound. He looked back at Awavian and told the straight truth, knowing that if he told a lie it wound do more harm than good. “It’s a deep cut all right, but clean. As soon as I get me belt back I’ll patch it up.”
The tent flap was suddenly pushed aside and General Deatheye entered, accompanied by a fox. Captain Mangefur hastily set down his flask of grog and got up, standing stiffly at attention.
Commander Zartho stopped in front of Arbuc and Awavian. Awavian saw the fox and started to sit up, but Arbuc hurriedly pushed him down again. The young otter looked this fox over. He had started to think that the entire horde was only comprised of ferrets and stoats but obviously he was mistaken. This fox…what was his name again? Zar-something…Zartho! Zartho looked about his father’s age, maybe a little older. He was clad in a shirt of shining chain mail with a black cloak fastened at the shoulders that hung down behind him. His fur was a fiery red-orange color. Arbuc could see the hilt of a longsword protruding from the left side of the cloak. The pommel was gold and set with a large ruby, which seemed to blaze with an inward light. His eyes were cold, hard, merciless chips of blue ice.
Zartho stepped forward, paw on the pommel of his longsword. “I am Zartho, commander of the Five Armies. I have a few questions for you.”
Arbuc wasn’t at all interested in answering questions at the moment. “No answers until I get me belt back and I fix me mate up here.”
Zartho nodded to Mangefur who reluctantly tossed the belt to Arbuc. He quickly began binding Awavian’s arm with a poultice of dockleaves and yarrow. He then wrapped it with a long strip of cloth. Then he reached into a left-paw pouch and brought out a small flask. He uncorked it and held it out to Awavian. “Don’t ask what’s in it, mate. Jes’ drink, the taste doesn’t last long an’ it will dull th’ pain.”
Awavian obligingly took a deep draught. The squirrel’s bushy tail stood straight up and he clutched his throat with both paws, blinking furiously. When he had recovered sufficiently he gasped out, “Remind me not t’ drink anythin’ that ye give me nex’ time, Arbuc.” He thought for a moment, “I do feel better though.”
Commander Zartho interrupted them, “Now for the questions.”
Awavian looked at the large fox defiantly, “An’ if we choose not t’ answer?”
Zartho grinned. Arbuc shuddered inwardly, that grin was…evil. There was no other word for it. The Commander’s voice sank to a hiss. “Then you will be very sorry.”
Pearl stood on the battlements, gazing down along the path. She sighed and turned her gaze to the western horizon. The sun was setting, casting its orange and purple hues across the sky. Pearl sighed again. Both her sons were out there somewhere, one near, the other far. One she hadn’t seen or touched in fourteen seasons. He lurked in her thoughts during the day and flitted through her dreams during the night, always just beyond her reach. A soft, shuffling movement caused her to turn. Filorn was hobbling up the steep wallsteps. The otter grandmum, bent with age and the worry of many long seasons was one of the most respected members of the Redwall community. Pearl walked over and helped her up the last few steps. Filorn smiled at her daughter-in-law as Pearl resumed looking out across Mossflower.
“Pearl, Arbuc’s not going to come back before he has to. He and Awavian are going to milk every moment of this trip of theirs.”
Pearl leaned against the battlements, “I know, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying. And he’s out there somewhere, Rorc’s out there.” Pearl bit her lip at the pain Rorc’s name released. Not a word on him for thirteen seasons and then only a whisper of a sighting. Deyna knew that Rorc and that fox would be too far away to catch up to by the time Skipper was well again. Not to mention that they had no idea where he had gone. So Deyna settled into a more passive strategy, asking passing travelers if they had seen an otter traveling with a fox. Throughout winter and early spring there had been no word of him. Well, Pearl thought resignedly, I still have one son and he’ll be back in two days. Rorc will come home eventually.
Commander Zartho was in a bad mood. Not only had his prisioners refused to tell him anything about Redwall Abbey, which the streamdog was obviously from, he could tell by the habit, but they weren’t even afraid of him! That was what unsettled him the most. Everybeast he had met was afraid of him, especially if he got angry. But there two young ones hadn’t batted an eyelid. The one called Awavian had only yawned and the otter Arbuc looked mildly interested. To his frustration, Zartho found himself admiring their courage. Commander Zartho frowned; he would have to be harder on them when he went back. As it was, he had decided to leave them without food or water for a few days. That could loosen their tongues.
Rubah sprinted across the deck of the ship and slid to a stop next to Rorc. Rorc looked hopeful, “Maybe th’ ship’s full o’ peaceful creatures.”
Rubah patted his shoulder, “No such luck Rorc, it’s full t’ burstin’ with corsairs and they want our blood.”
“Well we’re both Juska, even if I’m an h’otter. Mebbe they’ll take us on as crew.”
Rubah raised his eyebrows, “Do you really want t’ crew a corsair vessel?”
“No.” said Rorc, “We could try to go our separate ways but I doubt they would allow that, not without takin’ all the vittles an’ no way am I givin’ that up.”
“Their ship’s too fast to outrun ‘em. Looks like we’re gonna have to fight.” Rubah sighed, “The one time I went on patrol without you when we were with the Juskaron ah didn’t need t’ swing me axe once. Every other time we ran into an enemy patrol. D’ya go an’ look for fights?”
Rorc smiled and shrugged, “Not usually, they look for me. Now you go an’ talk to th’ corsairs. A fox talkin’ to vermin will be more persuasive than an otter talkin’.”
Captain Bael was in a good mood, after endless weeks of sailing willy-nilly across the western sea he had finally found a target. This would quench the talk of mutiny among his crew.
The oakbark-furred weasel turned his gaze upon the scrawny young ferret that had called. He couldn’t remember the ferret’s name, but then he had never taken the time to know the names of anybeast besides those he had to talk to.
“Wha’ d’ya want?”
The ferret saluted before continuing, “Dere’s a fox on th’ ship we’ve been chasin’. ‘E wants t’ talk t’ yew.”
Hmm, dis ‘un’s loyal fis’ mate material. ‘E has proper respect for rank. Thought Bael but aloud he said, “Tell Goretip t’ get ‘is arrers an’ flank this fox. I’ll talk to ‘im but I’ll get me way.”
The ferret nodded and rushed off to deliver his orders.
“Right Rorc, ‘ere comes th’ cap’n. Y’ can always tell who’s in charge with vermin, always wavin’ their swords around an’ swaggerin’ like they own th’ world.”
Rorc had positioned himself off to the side, making it obvious that Rubah was the spokesbeast. “That’s an interestin’ observation Rubah, a young fox used to do that quite often as I remember.”
“Ah, sheddup Rorc.” Said Rubah as the corsair vessel pulled up alongside the Challenger, having been waiting further off for orders from their captain.
Captain Bael stepped up to the small gap that separated the two ships. He made a mental note to reward Gowja, the steersbeast, on his skillful maneuvering of his vessel. If he ordered this vessel boarded his crew could easily leap the gap.
“Y’ wanted t’ talk t’ me fox?”
Rubah ignored the weasel’s insolent sneer and laid out his question, improvising as he went along. “Ya were goin’ t’ attack us. Why were y’ goin’ t’ attack fellow corsairs?”
Bael roared with laughter, “Yew don’t know corsairs foxie. Everybeast you see here would slit his bes’ mate’s throat over a beaker of grog.” He stopped laughing abruptly and his face grew hard, “Now wha’ d’ya have fox? Weapons? Booty an’ Vittles? Fork ‘em over an’ I might let ya keep yer ship an’ go.”
“Th’ only weapons we ‘ave are me axe an’ me mate’s daggers. As for vittles we’ll keep ‘em to ourselves.”
As soon as Captain Bael finished making his demands some movement by the stern of his vessel caught his eye. Goretip, his best archer, was nocking an arrow. The rat crouched, then touched his left eartip, a gesture that the superstitious searat thought brought good luck. To Bael it had a different meaning; Goretip was ready.
“As for vittles, we’ll keep ‘em to ourselves.” Finished Rubah.
“Well, if you put it that way…” said Bael as he turned around. As he turned he caught Goretip’s eye. The rat sighted down the arrow and fired.
Something’s not right here. Thought Rorc. He wouldn’t give up so easy. A flash of light caught the corner of his eye. Rorc glanced over in time to see Goretip sight down his arrow and fire. Rorc didn’t stop to think about possible consequences, there wasn’t time. He threw himself in front of Rubah.
Rubah heard the hiss of an arrow zipping through the air. Time seemed to slow; Rubah turned his head and saw the arrow speeding through the air, a messenger of death. Rubah willed his body to move but he was responding too slowly. He heard a roar of rage and Rorc leaped between him and the arrow, slamming into Rubah and knocking him down in the process. Rubah hit the rough-hewn deck timbers hard, Rorc on top of him. He stared into Rorc’s eyes. “Not now!” Rubah moaned, “Why now, out in the middle of the ocean? Ooff!” Rorc pushed himself up, knocking all the wind out of Rubah lungs. He threw the arrow that had been shot at Rubah across to the other ship, burying it in the mast.
Bael gaped at what he had just seen. The otter had reacted while the arrow was in the air and had caught it inches from the fox’s chest. The same arrow zipped by him and buried itself in the mast. Bael glanced at Goretip, hoping for another arrow that might finish this beast off. One glance told him that he could expect no help from that quarter. The bow had dropped from Goretip’s nerveless paws and he stood as one transfixed. Then Rorc was boarding the ship and Captain Bael heard himself shouting for all hands to repel boarders.
Rubah gasped, trying to refill his lungs. He got up and shook his head, trying to rid his mind of Rorc’s eyes. He hated when that happened to Rorc. The eyes were the same, a blue-gray-green color, but the laughter was gone. Now they were filled with only wrath and the mental struggle to direct his anger toward enemies, not friends.
Rubah shook himself as grappling hooks whizzed through the air and hooked onto the Challenger's railing. The gap between the two vessels lessened as they were pulled together. There was a dull thud as they touched. Rubah leapt to the other boat, swinging his axe to give himself room. He barely even glanced at Rorc, the otter was surrounded by foes an all sides but Rubah made no move to help him. Nobeast could touch Rorc and it was foolish to try to help him while he was in one of his rages. He had a hard enough time keeping himself from abandoning all forms of defense and throwing himself at his attackers. He didn’t need the added strain of discerning friend from foe.
A ferret leapt forward, swinging a cutlass. Rubah caught the blade on the axe haft and then slammed the butt of the axe into the ferret’s throat. The ferret clutched his neck and gurgled, then fell sideways. Rubah leapt over his fallen foe and swung at the scrawny young ferret who had delivered Captain Bael’s messages. The ferret was agile and rolled out of the way. The sharp axe bit deep into the oak deck timbers. Rubah gave it a hefty tug, kicking a corsair away as he did so, but was unable to pull it out fully before the ferret was on him. Rubah relinquished his hold on the axe and grappled with the scrawny creature. The ferret wasn’t especially strong and Rubah easily overpowered him. Rubah picked the squealing ferret up by the scruff of his neck and his tail and threw him bodily at the galley door. The cook, a small, thin rat, opened the galley door just as the ferret came hurtling through the air. The ferret connected with the cook’s head and they both went tumbling into the galley, amid the crash and clang of various cooking implements. Rubah tugged his axe out of the deck timbers, ducking a cutlass swing, and turned to a new adversary.
Captain Bael and his first mate, Snagclaw, were poking around the Challenger while the crew was, in their minds, destroying the fox and otter. They had found the galley, filled with Salamandastron food and drink and had had a merry time helping themselves to bilberry scones and elderberry wine. Each was relishing in their own dreams.
This ship could be the beginning of a fleet under my command. Admiral Bael, huh, I like that.
Now that Cap’n Bael has two ships ‘e’ll probably put one unner my command. Then I’ll be Cap’n Snagclaw. Snip bedder watch out then! I never liked that do-anythin’-fer-Cap’n ferret anyway. Sneaky liddle upstart!
The big bilge rat started, “Yes Cap’n?”
Bael gestured with a half-full tankard. “Go an’ see if th’ crew ‘ave finished wid dose two jokers yet.”
Rorc decapitated a weasel and spun around, burying his axe in another crewbeast’s chest. As he spun, he noticed smoke billowing out of the galley door. From somewhere amid the chaos a crewbeast was yelling.
“The ship’s afire!”
The crewbeasts battled with renewed energy, desperate to get to the Challenger and off the burning vessel. Rorc was slashing away, heedless of the masses that pressed around him. Sometimes he threw one of his knives but he always held onto one. Rubah looked around and located him just as he leapt forward and drove both daggers into a rat’s chest.
“Rorc we ‘ave to get off this boat! The fire is spreading!”
The fire was indeed spreading, cutting off the bow of the ship from the rest of the vessel. Rubah leapt through the flames and joined Rorc near the bow. He dispatched a fox while he tried to reason with Rorc.
“Rorc, we can’t stay ‘ere any longer, th’ ship’s about t’sink. The corsairs ‘ave taken over the Challenger and they’re castin’ off.”
The corsairs that had been stuck on the ship moaned and pleaded with their comrades as the Challenger pulled away from their old vessel.
“Mates don’t leave me ‘ere!”
“Jump overboard an’ swim ‘ere if yew like, we’re not comin back there. Dat h’otter’s berserk an’ th’ fox is Vulpuz hisself!”
Rubah ground his teeth; the fire was building with every moment. The heat was becoming unbearable and the fur on a dead rat a full five paces from the blaze was melting, filling the air with an acrid stench. Rubah threw his axe into its shoulder strap and shuddered, he would probably regret this later. Rubah approached Rorc, making sure that the otter knew he was coming. Rorc turned to confront a ferret near the rail, exposing his back to Rubah. Rorc stabbed the ferret in the chest, shoving the body over the rail. Rubah took advantage of his proximity of the rail and sprinted forward, slamming into Rorc and knocking him overboard. Rorc spun in the air, his daggers flashing. Rubah grabbed Rorc’s wrists to prevent Rorc from stabbing him in the chest. They hit the water with a resounding splash and sank beneath the waves.
After listening to the din of battle for so long the silence underwater was even more pronounced. Bubbles streamed from their fur, fleeing from the aquamarine world of water. Shafts of sunlight lanced down into the depths, particles of marine life floating through them. The two ships cast deep shadows in this silent world, blocking out all sunlight underneath them. The cold water and sudden silence seemed to bring Rorc out of his battle rage. The cold hardness faded from his eyes and was replaced with the usual warmth, albeit with a mischievous glint in the mix. The otter shook his head and grabbed Rubah, kicking upwards toward air and light. They broke through the surface, Rubah gasping and Rorc breathing lightly.
“Rubah what happened? Why are we in th’ water an’ what happened to th’ Challenger?”
Rubah held up a paw and caught his breath, “What d’ya remember?”
Rorc thought for a moment, “You had just refused that weasel’s terms and he turned away.”
Rubah sighed, “Well t’ make a long story short, yew caught and arrow an’ beat the pulp out of a bunch of corsairs.”
“That still doesn’t explain why we’re in the water.”
“Ah was getting’ t’ that. So while yew were knocking corsairs around I threw a likkle guy at the galley door. Th’ cook opened it an’ they both went tumbling into the galley. Ah can only guess that they knocked into th’ galley stove an’ knocked it over, setting th’ vessel aflame. Th’ fire was gettin’ ‘ot and yew wouldn’t abandon ship so I knocked yew off. So here we are.”
Rorc nodded, “Well it’s no use tryin’ to catch the Challenger so our bes’ bet is to try t’ swim to shore.”
“But that’s…that’s…we couldn’t even see th’ shore unless we were on top o’ the mast! How are we supposed to swim that far?”
Rorc shrugged, tying his daggers to his belt, “We ‘ave no other option.”
Captain Bael opened his eyes, annoyed at being woken from his nap. “What d’ya want?”
Snagclaw gulped and shifted uneasily, “Well Cap’n, th’ Bloodclaw caught fire Cap’n.”
Bael started, then settled back. It’s probably for the best. he thought, Now I don’t need t’ worry ‘bout renegade captains. he thought for a moment, “What about those two Juska?”
Snagclaw struggled to hide a sigh of relief, he wasn’t going t’ be punished for perceived incompetence. “There ‘ave been no sign on ‘em Cap’n.”
Arbuc gazed longingly at the stream that trickled past outside the tent where they were being held. “It’s been two days since we’ve had a drop of water ‘Wave. Zartho’s gonna come soon, he can’t keep us here without water for much longer.”
Awavian stirred from his seat against the center pole. He spoke, his accent broadening with his sarcasm. “Aye laddie, th’ wee foxie should be commen’ somtime soon. Right aboot now mebbe?”
Whether Awavian heard Zartho coming or it was a coincidence Arbuc never did figure out but at that moment Zartho stepped through the tent flap and entered the darkened interior. Adopting a patronizing tone he asked, “Well yew goin’ to answer my questions young ones?”
Awavian laughed, “A few days without water won’t make us willing to betray our friends to you.”
“Besides,” Arbuc added, “Redwall will have a search party out looking for us by now.”
Zartho smiled at this bit of information. “Captain Mangefur.”
Their stoat guard snapped to attention, dropping his ever-present flask of grog. “Commander?”
“Did you wipe out your tracks when you came back?”
Zartho continued looking his two captives over. “Did you hide any broken twigs, branches and such along their trail before they got to that clearing?”
Mangefur bit his lip, “No sir.”
“Go an’ do that. Keep an eye out for that search party too. You are dismissed.” Mangefur nodded and rushed out of the tent. Zartho looked over his guards. “Blacktail”
A lithe weasel carrying a bow stepped forward. “Yes sir?”
“Follow him, if he is caught by the search party you know what to do.”
Blacktail saluted, “Yes sir.”
“Go now, before he gets too far away.”
Blacktail saluted again and raced out of the tent. Zartho turned back to Arbuc and Awavian and again put his questions to them. “How is Redwall defended? Where are its weaknesses?”
Both captives remained tight-lipped and gave no answer. Zartho tried a little peaceable persuasion, “Cummon now, I’ll give ye water an’ food if yew tell me.” Arbuc and Awavian were unmoved, faces set as if in marble. Zartho rolled his eyes in exasperation, “Stubbornness will do you no good. I have one more tactic before I resort to more…forceful action.” Turning to the tent’s entrance he shouted out, “Git in ‘ere, vixen!”
Shavant, Zartho’s seer, stepped in out of the rain. The jet-black vixen was covered in pawrings and other jewelry, all made of gold. “Yes m’lord?” Her voice was light and airy, full of mystical tones.
“See if yew can get anything out of these two with your sorcery.” Then Zartho say down and began honing his skinning knife while listening to his seer’s mutterings.
Shavant lit a small fire near where Arbuc and Awavian lay. By its light she examined their faces and paws, noting how the firelight cast flickering shadows across their faces. First she examined Awavian. “Not much for your use here, m’lord.” She commented, “Only things I can see is that he’s quick with a bow and has the potential to become a swordsbeast with enough talent to now be an easy match ever for you, m’lord.”
Zartho began pawing his knife blade. “Yes, yes, now what about th’ other ‘un?”
Shavant moved over to Arbuc, who kept his eyes fixed on the ground, wondering if that would throw off her talent.
Shavant gazed at the young otter’s head. Something was lurking on the edge of her inner eye’s vision. It could be something important…Shavant grasped Arbuc’s chin and lifted his face up. His eyes met hers and all of a sudden the unmarked face in front of her was transformed. This new face was slightly older, with an orange stripe running down its muzzle. Twin black dots decorated the ridge above each eye, and two identical lightning bolts flashed across each cheek. The blue-gray eyes stared at her penetratingly, as if the creature who owned the face knew she was looking at him. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the face was gone.
Shavant straightened up and motioned to one of Zartho’s guards, “Go and get the weasel Fishbreath. Bring him here.” The guard glanced at Zartho, who nodded his consent.
Zartho wondered briefly what could be so important that his seer decided not to consult him before sending for somebeast. He opened his mouth to ask what she had seen but she spoke first.
“M’lord, with your permission I will not share what I have seen until I have a little more information.”
Zartho nodded and leaned back, content to wait a few minutes. Shavant had helped him win many battles and even when she could not see her visions, she always gave wise advice. Unlike many of the seers he had had, she always told him the truth of what she saw, or didn’t see, as the case may be.
The tent flap parted and Zartho’s guard stepped smartly in, followed by a pudgy weasel with indolent brown eyes. Purple and red stripes slashed diagonally across his face. A Juska! thought Zartho, I wonder what she saw?
Shavant beckoned the weasel over impatiently, “Get over here you lazy, no-good spawn of a louse!”
Fishbreath plodded over, “Yis ma’am?”
“You haven’t been in the Commander’s service long, right?” Fishbreath nodded but before he could elaborate Shavant had moved on. Pointing to Arbuc she demanded, “Have you seen somebeast that looks like this one?”
Fishbreath stared hard at Arbuc, “I think so. If th’ Commander would give me a few minutes?”
Zartho nodded wordlessly, beginning to get annoyed with all these waits. This better be good. He thought sourly.
Just as Zartho was about to throw his skinning knife at the weasel’s footpaw, to hurry him up, Fishbreath smiled and looked up. “I got it! I saw an h’otter like ‘im wid th’ Juskaron two seasons back. ‘E had th’ regular Juskaron tattoos, an orange stripe an’ two black dots, but ‘e also ‘ad two lightnin’ bolts on ‘is cheeks ‘cause ‘e was their Taggerung.”
At this Shavant frowned and tossed a collection of stones, shells, feathers, and bark into the air. She examined their pattern of landing and shook her head. “Are you sure that ‘e was the Taggerung?”
Fishbreath nodded, “Yep, dat’s what ther were all sayin’. ‘E ‘ad the skills to back it up too. ‘Im an’ ‘is best mate, a fox ‘is age, beat up ten o’ our best warriors an’ theys was only fourteen seasons.”
“Well vixen,” Zartho asked as he stood up, “what does this have to do with what yew saw?”
Shavant continued to study her collection of objects on the ground as she gave her answer. “When I looked at this otter’s face, I saw instead the face of a Juska. Fishbreath’s account confirms the fact that there is an h’otter livin’ with the Juska, but all the signs say that there is one Taggerung and one otter destined to be the Taggerung.” The vixen turned to Fishbreath, “Who is their seer?”
“Er…their seer’s name was Mist.”
Shavant laughed, a dreadful cackle that didn’t fit with her voice at all. “That ‘un can barely tell a shell from a bone!” She has some talent but misreads the signs. That Taggerung is no more than a well-trained fighter right now.”
Zartho thrust his knife back into his belt, “What does this have to do with this otter ‘ere?”
“Much.” Shavant pointed at Arbuc, “Both of the Taggerungs are related to this h’otter. What happens t’ this ‘un could change the outcome of this war that you intend to start. He’s heard enough that if yew let him go, he’ll warn the Redwallers that you’re coming.”
Zartho drew his shining longsword, “Then I’ll make sure they don’t talk.”
Shavant shook her head slowly, “That would not be a good idea, Commander.”
Zartho thrust the point of his sword into Awavian’s footpaw, “Why not?”
“Because one of his is a Taggerung and another is destined to be a Taggerung after him. It is not a good idea to anger a Taggerung, much less two Taggerungs.”
Zartho twisted his sword, relishing the moans of agony that escaped the squirrel. “I could kill this ‘un.”
The black-furred vixen again warned him against it. “And then the otter won’t rest until his friend is avenged. No, keep them both alive, but captives, to prevent any trouble.”
Zartho yanked his sword out of Awavian’s footpaw and slammed it into the post beside Arbuc’s head. He turned and snarled at Shavant, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you’ve turned against me, Shavant.” Then he stormed out of the tent, leaving one of his guards to yank the sword out of the thick post.
Shavant snapped at Fishbreath as he started to leave, “You stay here, weasel. Guard these prisoners or Commander Zartho will have a new toy.” She ducked out of the tent. Arbuc could hear her shouting and then she reappeared with a ferret. “Scaleback, yore on guard with Fishbreath ‘ere. Don’t let these prisoners out of your sight.” Then she swept off, the jangling of her pawrings could be heard long after she had left the tent.
Arbuc bent over to examine Awavian’s footpaw, his breath catching at the sight. Responding to Awavian’s query he said, “I…I think I can fix it. It’ll take no less than a season before you can walk easily on it though. If you ever can that is.”
“Ah can’t believe I’m stuck ‘ere tonight.” Fishbreath moaned, “Th’ Captain was havin’ a party t’night t’ celebrate ‘is promotion. There was gonna be lotsa good drinks!”
Scaleback reached into his pack that he had been carrying. “Aye, I was lookin’ forward to a good sleep, was just out on patrol fer th’ last week.” He pulled out a flask and uncorked it, offering it to Fishbreath. “Grog?”
Pearl walked into the Great Hall, immediately making a beeline to Deyna, who was buckling Martin’s sword across his back.
“Deyna, I’m worried about Arbuc. He should’ve been back two days ago.”
Deyna kissed her soundly on the cheek, “I’m way ahead of yew, hon. I’m jes’ about to leave with a search party right now.”
Pearl put her hands on her hips and glared at him, “And you didn’t tell me?”
Deyna grinned sheepishly, “I was goin’ to accompany Skipper on a routine patrol with his crew an’ if we just 'appened to bump into Arbuc an’ Awavian, well, it would be a bonus. I didn’t want you to start thinking that I thought there would be trouble.”
Deyna grinned as he dodged a swipe from Pearl’s rudder as she berated him. “You, sir, seem to forget that I grew up on a sea otter pirate ship. I was chasin’ vermin all over th’ seas from when I was a pup ‘till yew came. Stop tryin’ to hide what yore doin’ from me! Now shoo mister!” So saying, Pearl grabbed a ladle from a nearby kitchen crewbeast and chased Deyna out the abbey doors, across the lawns, and out the main gates onto the path, much to the merriment of Skipper and the ottercrew that was gathered there.
“Rorc.” Gasped Rubah, “Ah don’t think ah can do this much longer.”
They had been swimming for hours, by Rorc’s reckoning they should be about halfway to shore. The Challenger had long since disappeared over the horizon, with a new owner and his vastly diminished crew. The only thing the corsairs got for having almost half their crew eliminated was a galley stocked with Salamandastron food. Not even the satisfaction of killing the beasts that had killed so many of their crewmates. Not that they cared much as they guzzled October ale and elderberry wine.
Rorc treaded water as he supported Rubah, “It’s all that armor yore wearing mate. That an’ yore giant hatchet.”
Rubah rolled his eyes, “Rorc now is not the time t’ start teasin’ me.”’
“Right.” Rorc sank beneath he waves and resurfaced under Rubah, buoying him up. “‘Ere, I think yew can make it if I take most o’ the weight.”
They began swimming on their backs, Rorc underneath Rubah, keeping him afloat.
Captain Mangefur trod lightly on the soft loam of Mossflower woods. He had traced the two Redwaller’s trail back a ways, hoping that he had gone far enough. If a search party got to the encampment…he shuddered. He had noticed Blacktail trailing him awhile back. He knew the weasel from the few archery contests he had bothered to watch. His skill with the bow was unparalleled in the entire horde. Maybe a little farther. He thought as he bent to brush some flattened grass back to its former position. He walked forward carefully, wiping out any traces he could see, while being careful to make none of his own. Mangefur carefully placed a leaf over a pawprint in the soft mud of a streambank. He began to look up for any more tracks but froze, staring at two wet, grey-furred footpaws in front of him.
“Aagh!” Awavian bit down hard on the cloth-covered wooden down that Arbuc had given him to bite on while his footpaw was dressed.
“Hold still ‘Wave, this is hard enough without you wiggling.” Arbuc said as he tended to Awavian’s footpaw as best he could. His stomach churned at the sight of Awavian’s lacerated paw. The sharp point of Zartho’s sword had cut through skin and flesh, exposing the bones of Awavian’s footpaw. Tendons and ligaments had been cut, the bone itself scratched. It was going to be a long recovery for Awavian, if he recovered at all. All Arbuc could do was stitch together the correct ligaments and sew it all up, allowing nature to do the rest.
Arbuc finished and settled back, cleaning off his tools. Awavian began to do the same when he shot back up. Glaring at Scaleback he said, “Hoy, that’s my claymore bucko.”
Scaleback nodded, “Aye, so it was. General Deatheye allowed me to keep it since I wus th’ one that knocked yew out.”
Awavian began to stand up, then yelped in pain and fell back muttering vows that he would get his claymore back. Scaleback, who had had a few flasks of grog already, went back to talking with Fishbreath. Arbuc listened intently, hoping for some information that could get them out of their predicament. Fishbreath tossed an old flask of grog aside and accepted a new one from Scaleback. “So I ‘aven’t been ‘ere long an’ t’night wus th’ fis’ time I’ve seen the Commander. Does ‘e have a wife? ‘Ow ‘bout a kid?”
Scaleback took a swig of grog before replying. “‘E ‘ad a wife an’ kid once…not anymore.”
“Well ‘e ‘ad his wife even before he became th’ commander of the Five Armies.” Scaleback tapped the table, trying to remember. “She was a pretty vixen, slender with a thin muzzle. Don’t let the fact that she was thin fool yew though. She could beat most hordebeasts hollow. ‘Bout a season after th’ Commander became th’ Commander she bore ‘im a son. A day later th’ Commander’s wife was dead, a dagger in her heart, and th’ babe was gone, along with th’ Commander’s bes’ friend, a ferret named Kern. Kern ‘ad always been a shifty type, an’ Zartho ‘ad insulted him a few days b’fore.” Scaleback took a deep breath, “Commander Zartho declared Kern a traitor and sent patrols after him, with orders to bring him back alive. He hasn’t been brought back yet, but if he is…” Scaleback shuddered, “I’d rather be th’ servant of Vulpuz than go through the stuff th’ Commander ‘as prepared for ‘im.”
Scaleback looked up at the end of his story to see Fishbreath snoring on the other side of the table. The snoring was contagious for soon Scaleback was snoring as well, a half-full flask held limply in his paw. Arbuc waited a moment to be sure that they were sleeping before examining the rope that tied them to the post. His heart leapt at the sight of a slice in the rope fibers. Zartho’s sword must ‘ave cut it when ‘e jammed it into th’ post. He realized. He pulled apart the fibers of the rope and soon he was free. Arbuc slipped over to Scaleback and drew a black-handled dagger form the ferret’s belt. After cutting the remains of the rope halter from his neck he cut Awavian free. Kneeling by Awavian’s footpaw he said, “I ‘ope I can do this right.”
Awavian eyed him suspiciously, “Do what ri-” A strange feeling stopped him before he could finish. “Ah can’t feel my footpaw!”
“Good.” Arbuc breathed, “It was either that or the pain doubled. Now, against my better judgement as your healer, you need to run on that paw to get out of ‘ere.”
“But…what did you do?”
Arbuc shook his head impatiently, “Nerve endings, pressure points, you wouldn’t understand and we don’t have the time for me t’ explain.”
“Wait.” Awavian unbuckled his claymore from around Scaleback’s waist and strapped it across his back. “Okay, ah’m ready.”
Arbuc peeked out the tent flap, “Why does it have to be midday?”
Awavian stuck his head out next to Arbuc’s. “Hmm, this horde has an interestin’ setup. It looks like all the cookin’ fires are over there.” He said, nodding to their left. “So we go this way.” Awavian slipped out of the tent and hobbled as fast as he could to the right.
“I ‘ope their cookin’ fires aren’t on th’ outside of their camp.” Muttered Arbuc as he followed the squirrel, who was moving fast despite his injured footpaw.
They walked past row upon row of grey tents, each meticulously aligned with the rest. The tents were laid out in a strict grid pattern, each square containing four tents, each facing its respective alley. Even in the short time they had been walking, Arbuc realized that there must be hundreds, no, thousands of vermin camped here. He glanced down a side lane as they passed, to see if there was an end to this beehive. The brush was trampled down and cleared away, saplings had been cut, the forest was considerably thinner than in most places but the trees still obscured the tents before they ended. Let’s be careful not to disturb this beehive. Arbuc thought dryly.
Awavian called hoarsely back to him, “Arbuc, ah can see th’ end of the tents!”
Arbuc hurridly caught up with Awavian. “Quiet ‘Wave, they might hear and-”
“Hoy, prisoner’s ‘scapin’!”
Awavian started off with a bound as the stoat’s bass shout cut through the air. “C’mon Arbuc, keep up! It’s a sprint for Redwall now!”
Arrows began to zip through the air like angry wasps as the two friends disappeared into the woodlands.
Trembling, Mangefur’s eyes followed the footpaws up the legs, noting the heavy rudder, then to the powerful chest and the equally powerful arms crossed above it. The stoat forced his eyes up across the otter’s face, with its set jaw and gleaming white teeth, to the eyes blazing with anger. Skipper reached down and pulled the stoat up by the scruff of his neck.
“Where’s Arbuc and Awavian?” Skipper roared in his face, “The young otter an’ squirrel that passed by ‘ere five days ago?”
Captain Mangefur glanced past Skipper to the group of grim otters behind him. One of the nearest held a shining sword, the like of which he had never before seen, even in Commander Zartho’s longsword. The stream behind them flowed over rocks, the sunlight playing across the water. The smooth rushing sound of the river filled his ears, along with the scent of wildflowers. Strange. Thought Mangefur, I would never have noticed those things before.
“Well?” Asked Skipper.
Mangefur gave a sigh, his eyes rolling back in his head and his head lolling to the side. Skipper dropped him and he fell on his face, an arrow sticking out of his back.
Skipper’s keen eyes swept over the woodlands, quickly locating Blacktail. “Quick, catch that ferret! ‘E knows somthin’!”
Blacktail took off running. Two otters began to chase after him but stopped as a tremendous din began coming from the opposite direction. All heads turned in the direction of the commotion and most paws checked their weapons. Suddenly, a cry rang out from the ottercrew. It was Pike, who was reputed to have one of the best pairs of eyes in all Mossflower.
“It’s Arbuc an’ Awavian!”
The two exhausted young ones stumbled onto the bankside. Arbuc managed to gasp out, “Awavian’s hurt an’ there’s a horde of vermin after us.” Then he collapsed.
Skipper sprang into action. “You and you, carry th’ young ‘uns. Rest form a guard. March to Redwall on th’ double!” It was more of a sprint than march as they made their way back to Redwall, doubling their speed as they reached the path.
Pearl was taking afternoon tea on the ramparts with Abbess Mhera and fending off Boorab and Nimbalo when the ottercrew poured out of the trees and onto the north path. She started up and stared.
“Look Mother Abbess, there they are! But why are they running? It looks like a horde of vermin-oh!”
Before Pearl could finish her sentence the mob of vermin scrambled onto the path, hard on the heels of the retreating otters.
Mhera took the situation in at a glance. Calling down to the nearest available beast, which happened to be Nimbalo (who was sneaking toward the wallsteps to try and swipe some more vittles), she said, “Get the gates open, our search party’s back and they’re being attacked!”
Nimbalo rushed over the green lawn and threw open the gates, admitting a steady stream of otters. Skipper and Deyna were the last through and they slammed the gates shut just as the first arrows began to bounce off the walls of the abbey.
The ottercrew lay about on the ground, panting and gasping for air. Arbuc stumbled over to Awavian, who was clutching his leg, tears streaming down his cheeks. The effect of Arbuc’s pressure therapy had long since worn off and now the pain had returned; redoubled after the rough treatment the wound had taken. Arbuc called over Sister Floburt who was tending to some of the ottercrew, giving them water and checking for injuries.
“Sister, ‘Wave needs to be carried to the infirmary. His paw is badly cut up.”
Sister Floburt turned and called to a mole, “Dinny, get some good stout beasts to carry these two up to the infirmary.”
Dinny tugged his snout, “Oi’ll do thart, missus Floburt.”
Arbuc propped himself up on one paw, “I don’t need to go to th’ infirmary, Sister.”
Floburt pushed him back down, “Which goes to show how bad you are. You should be able to tell better than the rest of us. You have a fever, you’re dehydrated and starved, and on top of all that, you’ve run ‘till you’re complete exhausted. Don’t need the infirmary indeed!”
As Arbuc and Awavian were hauled away by a troop of moles, Deyna made his way to up onto the walltops. When he reached the top there was no sign of the vermin that had chased them. The empty brown packed-dirt path stretched north and south, the trees eventually obscuring it. There was no sign of vermin in the muddy ditches on either side of the path, nor could any be seen among the trees. It was as if they had never been there. Pearl pressed against his side, anxiety written all over her face.
“What was that?”
Deyna took a deep breath, “Redwall has a new enemy.” He strove to keep an optimistic demeanor as inside his feelings swirled in a violent hurricane of emotion. These don’t look like the vermin bands we’ve dealt with before. These were more organized, more disciplined. Will we at Redwall rise to the challenge?
The cold waves crashed against the brown sand of the beach. The sea rushed up the beach and down the beach in an endless territorial battle against the land. It was on this beach that Rorc and Rubah were washed up upon. Soaked and bedraggled, they dragged themselves above the tideline and lay, half-dead, both from water and fatigue. The hot noonday sun glared down at them from the cloudless blue sky, warming their chilled bones and drying them off. Rorc was first to recover. He sat up and looked around. Salamandastron was long gone over the horizon and there was no discernable difference between going north or south anymore. Inland, to the east, there was a large dune, blocking their view of what lay in that direction. Beside him, Rubah gave a groan as he sat up, more of complaint than of actual pain.
Rorc glanced around once more. “Well Rubah, I think we have two choices. We c’n either go back to Salamandastron or go east and hope that we get to someplace with vittles b’fore we starve or die of thirst.”
Rubah furrowed his brows. “We’ve traveled too long nex’ to th’ sea. Ah want t’see some trees again. Let’s go east!”
Rorc nodded, “Aye, for trees an’ freshwater streams.”
They started off across the burning sand, up the dunes, intent on crossing them, no matter how much energy it took.
The oakwood door of the infirmary flew open and slammed into the wall with a loud crash. Brother Egburt looked up from mixing herbs as Dinny and his moles carried Awavian in, followed by Arbuc and Sister Floburt. After removing his claymore, the moles set Awavian down carefully on one of the many cots in the infirmary, choosing one near the window so he could look out during his stay. Arbuc staggered over to where Awavian lay and began pulling needles and thread out of his pouches. More poppyseeds and a special sleeping concoction quickly sent the agonized squirrel to sleep. Arbuc painstakingly cut the stitches he had sewn before and re-sewed the stitching that had torn while they were running.
Dinny turned pale at the sight of Awavian’s wound and began shuffling backwards. “Oi think that moi job ‘ere is done, marm.”
Sister Floburt nodded understandingly, “Of course my good friend, you don’t have to stay if you don’t want to. Thank you for your help.”
Dinny tugged his nose and hurried out, the rest of the moles close behind.
Arbuc finished with the last stitch and stumbled over to the adjacent bed and collapsed on it. Brother Egburt hurried to his side and checked him over. “A cool mint compress, that’s what this ‘un needs. Floburt, will you go down to the kitchens and tell Broggle to keep a tray for two always ready for when these two wake up? They’ll need the sustenance as soon as they wake.”
Floburt nodded and made her way out the infirmary door. After quietly closing the door she turned around and was confronted by a group of otters who had come up behind her. Deyna, Pearl, Filorn, and Mhera stepped aside to let her pass, obviously meaning to enter the infirmary. The hedgehog planted herself firmly in front of the doorway.
“Arbuc and Awavian are not well enough to receive visitors.”
Pearl immediately began pleading with the infirmary sister. “Floburt, please, I need to see my son. I need to look at him and see that he’s alright.”
Floburt’s countenance began to soften. Deyna put a word in, hoping that the sister would relent. “Sister Floburt, I need to ask him some questions. We need to know who it was that attacked us.”
Wham! Floburt’s fortifications were back up to full strength. However, they were now only trained on one beast not setting paw into the infirmary. “Pearl, you, Filorn and Abbess Mhera may enter the infirmary, provided you do not talk to my patients until I say you can. If they ask you a question, then answer it and tell them they are not to speak. If they ask another, don’t answer.” She turned her attention to Deyna, “You are not allowed in my infirmary until I say so.”
“B-b-but-” Stammered Deyna.
Floburt shook her head, “No Deyna, you’d be too tempted to press them with questions as soon as they woke up. Come with me, Friar Broggle is sure to have something that will cheer you up.”
When they got to the kitchens Floburt quickly placed her request and bustled off, spikes rattling, to help tend to her patients. Deyna sat glumly at a table in the corner of the kitchens with only the Abbey Recorder, Rosabel, for company, but the squirrelmaid was engrossed in her writing and didn’t notice him, which was fine for Deyna at the moment. Curiosity got the better of him and he peeked over Rosabel’s shoulder and read what she was writing.
Today we had an incident that shocked us at Redwall. Deyna’s son Arbuc and the borderlands squirrel Awavian had gone into the Mossflower alone for Arbuc’s fourteenth seasonday gift. They had been gone overly long so Deyna went out with Skip’s crew as a search party. Much to our astonishment they returned at a run with a great army of ferrets and stoats on their tails (or rudders as I should say as they were all otters). At this moment we still know nothing as Arbuc and Awavian are still recovering. I fear that the long peace we have enjoyed is at its end. What will become of us? We at Redwall are not warriors by nature; most have never held a weapon before, much less harmed another creature. There are few trained warriors among here; Deyna, Awavian, and Skipper’s ottercrew are all we have. From what I hear we can count Awavian out with that footpaw of his.
Now would be an opportune time to come back Rorc! I’ve heard Deyna say that Rorc had…has more warrior’s spirit in him than he and Skip combined! I’m not sure if that’s true, but that’s the kind of warrior we need. Maybe-
Deyna tore himself away, his eyes misting over with tears. Those few written words had released the flood of anxiety and sorrow that he had kept under lock and key for so long. Images of Rorc looking through the window at him as he practiced, pleading to be allowed to try to lift Martin’s sword, and running around with a twig fighting invisible foes filled his mind. The images changed to more laughable ones. Deyna was standing on the walltop overlooking the pond, and laughing fit to burst as Pearl searched for Rorc. He could see Rosabel and Dinny sitting to the side under an apple tree, not daring to move under the wrathful eye of Sister Alkanet. They were being held under the charge of pilfering the kitchens and ladling hotroot pepper into Broggle’s scone dough. Pearl was searching around the pond for Rorc, calling him to come out. From his vantage point, Deyna could see little Rorc under the water, breathing through a hollow reed but Pearl couldn’t because of the reflection of the sun on the water.
Deyna’s thoughts were interrupted by Skipper, who barged into the kitchens. “Deyna, have you seen Pike? I can’t find him anywhere.”
“Relax Skip.” Deyna leaned back, “Pike’s over twenty seasons old. He’s not goin’ to run away like a naughty dibbun.”
Skipper shook his head, “I took a head count an’ Pike’s missin’. Nobeast ‘as seen ‘im since we got back.”
Deyna started up, “Oh no…”
Pike woke up, then wished he hadn’t. He had a massive headache. The last thing he could remember was tripping as he ran. Oww, I must’ve ‘it me ‘ead on a rock. He thought as he glanced around his makeshift cell.
His cell was nothing more than a hole dug in the ground with a guard at the top. The dirt walls were soft and loose, he could easily dig out of here if he had been a mole. The bottom of this pit was mud; even now it caked his fur, cracking as he moved.
The guard looked down, “Harrharr, so I sees yew awake, riverdog. ‘Ow ya feelin’? A bit groggy I’ll warrant!”
Pike straightened up, doing his best to hide the pain that lanced through his head with every movement. He roared back up at the guard, “Why don’t ya come down an’ find out mudbrain? What d’ya want me for anyway?”
The rat sat down into the pit. “I don’t want ya fer anythin’ waterdog. Commander Zartho wants a hostage, I tink, an if yew outlive your uses there…” The guard nodded behind Pike. “Fishbreath didn’t live long after ‘e allowed th’ prisoners to escape, so th’ Commander needs a new subject.”
Pike turned around slowly. What he was turned his heart to ice. Fishbreath the weasel had been tortured to death. His face was unmarked, but contorted beyond recognition from the pain. Only his face had been left unmarked though. In other places his hide was falling off in long strips. Arms and legs were arranged in grotesque positions, the sharp points of shattered bone thrusting out of his flesh. Pike swayed, his vision darkening as he turned away.
If this happened to one of their own, what will happen to me, an enemy?
The hot sun glared down on yet another blistering day in the dunes. Drown sand was heated by the hot sun until it burned to put a paw down. The sea had long ago retreated across the horizon, and their destination was yet to be sighted. Rorc and Rubah seemed to be waking in a globe of sand, sun, and cloudless blue sky. Between the two, Rorc was the worst off. Otters bear great affinity to water and prolonged lack of it harms them before most other creatures.
Rorc staggered to the top of yet another dune and collapsed, allowing himself to roll down the dune unchecked. His rolling came to a stop at Rubah’s feet as the fox began scaling the next dune.
“Rubah, it’s been two days since we’ve had a drink of water an’ there’s no sign of these dunes ever ending.”
Rubah stopped, then scraped away the hot sand on the top of the dune, exposing the cooler sand underneath. He sat down, “Well, we can’t go back, we have no idea how far north or south we’d ‘ave to go b’fore we get water.”
Rorc pushed himself up and crawled to where Rubah was sitting on the dune. It was the largest dune they had climbed yet, towering over its neighbors. “I don’t think I’ll make it Rubah, I’m too thirsty.”
Rubah pulled him up, “Of course you’ll make it Rorc. Yore th’ Taggerung! You succeed where otherbeasts fail. It would be yore shame if yew didn’t make it!”
Rorc smiled as he took another step forward, “Rubah, I never knew that yew had a way with words.”
Rubah grinned back, “Neither did I.”
Rorc toiled up the dune, his mind taking refuge in memories. Seasons with the Juskaron passed before his eyes, swimming in streams, fighting enemies, both other Juska clans and tribes of shrews wearing colorful headbands. Suddenly a voice flowed through his thoughts, the warm baritone seeming to give him new strength. Rorc, a true warrior remains strong in spirit even when his body fails him.
Rorc grasped the warm tones of the voice, the message that it brought, and used them to boost his reserve.
Yes, He thought, we will make it.
Arbuc had recovered from his exhaustion and was up and about, once again tending to the infirmary when he wasn’t being grilled by Deyna and Skipper on the strengths and weaknesses of their new enemy. In truth, they never left him, even when he was tending to Awavian’s footpaw, changing the dressing; they were sitting on a nearby bed, firing questions at him like a score of archers.
Awavian was doing better, the inflammation of his footpaw had gone down and he was in less pain, but he was still confined to the bed. Sister Floburt had said that if he stayed still for a week they might be able to secure his paw in a way that he could get around on crutches.
Deyna fiddled with the pommel of Martin’s sword, which he had kept strapped to his back ever since he had returned to Redwall after rescuing Arbuc and Awavian. “Arbuc, how large is this horde?”
Arbuc sighed, “Dad, you’ve asked me this already. I told you that the one part of th’ horde I saw looked well over a thousand.”
Deyna shook his head and Skipper stood up and began pacing. “At Redwall we have ‘ow many creatures? Twenty-five score?” Deyna said, “We’re outnumbered two to one even with that one part of the horde. And to think that there’s four more of maybe equal size…will we be able to even defend Redwall against twenty-five to one odds?”
Skipper paved the red stone floor. “The odds are worse than that. In yore twenty-five score yew included th’ dibbuns an’ th’ older beasts. They can’t fight.” He thought for a moment. “I ‘ave a voice in many of the other Mossflower ottercrews, if this Zartho does attack they’ll help.”
Deyna smiled, grasping at any chance to even the odds, even the slightest bit. “The Guosim will help as well.” He stood up and made his way to the door. “Skip, we should organize a watch on all the walls so there are no sneak attacks.”
The sun was reddening the sky as it sank into the dunes behind Rubah as he toiled up yet another dune. His legs burned from the ceaseless climbing and descending, climbing and descending, like waves in the ocean, except the waves were stationary and he had to climb up and down them. His paws felt as if there was no skin left on them, pain lanced through his footpaws at each step. Behind him he could hear Rorc forcing himself along. The otter hadn’t said anything since midday, both because it was a waste of energy and their throats were too parched. He crested the dune and let out a hoarse shout of happiness. The dunes ended here and the southern stretch of Mossflower began. At the bottom of this dune there was a little spring that began a stream which ran into the trees. With shouts of joy they tumbled down the hill and stumbled to the spring. Dunking their heads in the cool water, they drank greedily. Rubah remembered Bloodpaw’s lesson on recovering from lack of water though and reluctantly pulled away from the water, pulling Rorc back as well.
Rorc sighed and starched out on the grass. “I’m stayin’ ‘ere for awhile Rubah. Yew c’n do what yew want, but I’m not movin’.”
It was a fine spring day at Redwall. The sun was shining, not a cloud could be seen in the bright blue sky. A light wind danced across the abbey lawns and through the orchard, caressing fur and blowing the sweet scent of the blossoms toward the pond where Broggle had set out a picnic. Abbess Mhera had readily agreed to the proposal, conscious of the fact that soon there would be no more picnics. An arrow could all too easily fly over the wall and strike an abbeybeast if it came to war.
Tables were laid out, laden with all types of good food. Trifles, scones, salads, soups, cheese, all was set out in plenty for everybeast. Watershrimp and hotroot soup, beloved of the otters, was brought out by the cauldronful. Its dark red color and spicy aroma warned adventurous abbeydwellers to have a drink ready, or leave the spicy concoction to Skipper’s crew.
Cheeses of all kinds were present. Some were filled with all kinds of nuts, hazelnuts, beechnuts, and acorns being chief among them. The mice gathered around the cheeses swapping soft yellow cheese for white with hazelnuts and acorns.
The beverages were another point of congregation. Most beasts gathered around the barrels, kegs, and firkins that had been brewed more than fifteen seasons ago, avoiding the ones that had been brewed by Sister Alkanet.
Abbess Mhera was smiling at everybeast who looked at her, hiding her fears for Redwall’s peace behind a glittering smile. Around her sat Fwirl, Filorn, and Pearl. They were talking about past feasts and festivities, laying aside their fears for now. Boorab was hidden behind a mountain of pasties, pies, salads, and trifles. Only his ears could be seen, wiggling with delight as he devoured each new morsel.
“Oh, you’re a handsome liddle pastie, mmph! I say! Are you really one of miz Filorn’s famous woodland trifles? She’s such a kind otterlady, mmph gulp!”
Nimbalo sat near the hare, fending off his greedy paws while wolfing down his food. It seemed that, between the two of them, they would consume every crumb on the table. Pies, salads, flans, pasties, all disappeared one after another into the bottomless pits they called stomachs.
Next to Nimbalo, Awavian lounged on a cot. Skipper’s otters had carried him down to the grounds so that he could enjoy the festivities. Arbuc sat near Awavian’s foot so it wouldn’t be bumped. He talked as he made a few changes to the dressing.
“As soon as Brother Hoben finishes with those crutches I asked for you can use them as long as you put no weight on that footpaw. I’ve secured it so that you may use the crutches but if I see that paw on the ground once ‘Wave, just once, it’ll be back to the infirmary for you an’ no coming out until that’s healed.”
Just then Brother Hoben, the assistant gatekeeper, walked up and handed Arbuc a pair of crutches. “Here’s the crutches you asked for young’n. Hope Awavian finds them the right size.”
“They look right.” Said Awavian as he grabbed the crutches from Arbuc. He gingerly turned until he was sitting on the edge of the cot. After placing his good paw on the soft grass and planting the ends of the crutches into the loam Awavian heaved himself up. He swayed for a moment, then steadied himself. There were cheers from nearby woodlanders as Awavian, grinning with delight, swung himself over to a table bear the pond. He began sampling food strait from the table, amid congratulations on his mobility.
A little ways away Deyna and Skipper say together, seeming to enjoy themselves. But glances at the sentries on the walltops and the fact that Deyna had the sword of Martin strapped to his back and Skipper had an otter javelin lying next to him betrayed their seeming ease. Skipper was downing a bowl of Watershrimp and Hotroot soup with extra hotroot. Deyna’s gaze wandered thoughtfully from one happy abbeybeast to another as he sipped a tankard of October ale. Suddenly a throb of noise, like a beat of a gigantic heart, caused all activity on the abbey grounds to stop. Everybeast froze, glancing at one another as they tried to figure out what the noise had been. Skipper picked up his javelin and Deyna checked his sword.
The noise came again. Suddenly Deyna realized what the noise was. “Drums.” He said as he began racing to the wallsteps as the sentry began shouting.
“They’re comin’ down th’ path and across th’ flatlands! There must be thousands of them!”
Boorab exploded, sending food flying in all directions as he raced to the walltops with all the other abbeybeasts.
Zartho smiled as the walltops began to fill with woodlanders. Shavant was at his side, decked out in her costume as a seer. She wore a long robe covered in strange symbols with bones and glittering crystal shards. An oakwood staff topped with the fangs of the former Commander completed her costume. Zartho allowed himself a quick glance over his armies. He had spread out his advance for maximum impact. Halfear and his rats marched up from the south, along with Deatheye and his mix of ferrets and stoats. Dagger and Sawtooth approached from the flatlands with their mixed group of weasels and cats. He, Zartho, led the foxes down the path from the north, the regular general, Smoke, close behind him. He reached a spot directly in from of the abbey gates and stopped. The horde continued to pour in behind him, spreading out to maximize perceived size.
Halfear swaggered up. Saluting, he said, “The rats ‘ave secured th’ south path Commander.”
“Good.” Zartho continued to stare at the Redwallers, focusing on the group above the gate. These would be the ringleaders. The group consisted of one sea otter, three river otters, two squirrels, a hare, a mouse, and a mole. The sea otter was a female, as was one of the river otters and a squirrel. The mouse perched on the edge of the battlements, an axe in his paws. The male squirrel was rather fat; he looked like he spent a lot of time around food. Shavant spoke from beside his elbow.
“There is the Taggerung.”
Zartho’s eyes snapped to the top of her head, “Where?”
Shavant pointed a claw, “There, the one standing between the sea otter and the female river otter. He has a sword strapped across his back.”
Zartho turned his gaze to the otter in question. He was a large, strong-looking fellow, taller than anybeast there except for the hare, but only because the hare’s ears were standing straight up. “He doesn’t have Juska tattoos. How can he be the Taggerung if he isn’t a Juska?”
Shavant answered smoothly, “Tattoos can be taken off, he may not want to be recognized as the Taggerung.”
Zartho grunted, convinced. Then he turned back to Halfear. “Halfear, you go an’ negotiate with those woodland bumpkins. Be careful around th’ big otter with the sword though, he’s the Taggerung.”
Halfear saluted, “Yessir Commander. Th’ normal terms?”
Zartho nodded, “Dissmissed.”
Halfear turned and tore the dirty white rag of a shirt of a nearby horderat’s back. Tying it to the end of a spear he advanced toward the abbey with this makeshift parley flag fluttering in the light breeze.
Most Redwallers gazed in open-mouthed amazement and fear at the horde arrayed against them. They seemed to come from every direction and fill the entire path and the flatlands as well. Deyna quickly located the leader, a large dog fox, the largest he had ever seen. This fox would’ve dwarfed Ruggan Bor, the last fox that had tried to attack Redwall. The fur on this fox was flame-red, making his easy to see even from this distance. A burly rat approached the fox and said something. The fox said something back, never taking his eyes off Redwall, or so Deyna presumed, given that his head never moved. Now another fox approached, a seer by the looks of her garment. She said something and the dog fox stiffened in surprise. He looked at her and said something back. She pointed toward Redwall and they began conversing. Deyna grew uneasy, did they know something? Suddenly Nimbalo began speaking, bringing him back to the situation at paw.
“Look, they’re comin’ to parley!”
Deyna looked and sure enough, the rat that had first spoken was advancing with a dirty white thing tied to a spear, making a makeshift white flag. He advanced to within a score of paves of the gates and called up to the walltops.
“Zartho, Commander of the Five Armies, Defeater of the Wolf, and Conqueror of the East, commands me to parley with the residents of the building known as Redwall Abbey.”
Nimbalo began muttering, “We should chop off ‘is ears an’ send ‘im back covered in kitchen scraps. Wait, no, kitchen scraps are too good for th’ likes of him.”
Abbess Mhera pulled him off the battlements and reprimanded him. “Shh, Nimbalo. That would make us no better than them. Besides, we may be able to talk our way out of this.” Looking down at Halfear she said, “Throw aside any weapons you are carrying and then we will let you in to talk.”
Halfear tossed aside the spear he had used for a flagpole. He had left all other weapons behind before he came, knowing that he would have to enter weaponless anyway. “I’m done.”
“Wait there.” Abbess Mhera turned and began to descend the wallsteps, along with many of the Redwallers.
Skipper quickly split his crew into two groups. “Group one, stay up ‘ere an’ keep yer slings out. If they try a charge, hold them off as best you can until we get those gates closed. Rest follow me.” He turned and raced down the wallsteps, leaving half his crew unwinding slings and fitting stones.
The gates opened and Halfear began to walk toward the entrance. Two otters, armed with javelins, walked out to meet him. After glancing about to check if there were any vermin lying in wait they escorted him in. As he passed through the gates he marveled at the thickness of the watts. He measured his paces and found, to his amazement, that the walls were a full ten paces thick. Then he entered the enclosed grounds of the abbey. A row of otters waited for him, one on each side of the path. Redwallers eyed him as he passed, some with curiosity, some with anger, and some with hatred burning in their eyes. Halfear was quickly ushered into the gatehouse, Deyna trying to keep him from seeing as much as possible.
Halfear winked at Deyna as he was escorted to the gatehouse. “Hello, Taggerung.”
Deyna nearly stopped breathing, his left paw reflexively reaching to where the lightning tattoo had been. How did they know? He had had those marks removed, even Gruven hadn’t recognized him. He shook himself; he would puzzle this out later.
As soon as the few Redwall representatives had entered, the gatehouse door was locked. Only a few creatures had been allowed in, including Abbess Mhera, Deyna, Skipper, Foremole Gundil, and Rosabel as Recorder.
Halfear stood, “These are the conditions of peace that Commander Zartho offers. One: All creatures under five seasons and over forty will leave the Abbey an’ take nothin’ with them. Two: All creatures over five seasons an’ under forty will remain as slaves. Three: No creature will organize an attack on th’ abbey while it is in th’ possession of it’s new owner. Four: The-ooff!”
Halfear suddenly found himself flat on his back, the sword of Martin pressed against his throat. Deyna growled into his face. “How dare you offer us slavery. This parley is at an end.”
Halfear found himself flung head over heels out of the gate. Deyna stood in the gateway, “you have recognized me as the Taggerung, rat. I don’t know how you did but know this: If you pit yourself against Redwall you will lose.”
Halfear picked himself up, “You have defied the generous terms of Commander Zartho. This means war.” Halfear began to walk back to the horde, his retreat quickening as Skipper’s javelin buried itself near his footpaw.
As Halfear reached the spot where Zartho stood two weasels detached themselves from the ranks and approached Redwall carrying a canvas bag. They advanced within fifteen pages, then set the bag down and ran away, followed by a salvo of slingstones.
Nimbalo spoke what they were all thinking. “What’s in th’ bag?”
Skipper began unbolting the gates, “I need t’get me javelin anyways so let’s see.”
Skipper emerged from Redwall with a young otter in his twenty-fourth season named Thorne. They advanced slowly toward the canvas sack, keeping a watchful eye on the horde standing a short distance away.
This is nuts. Thought Skipper, It could so easily be a trap.
They reached Skip’s javelin and Skipper strapped it to his back. Thorne kept his eyes on the horde as they moved on to the sack. Lifting it by the handles, they began to march back to Redwall, Thorne glancing over his shoulder frequently at the silent horde.
“I don’t like ‘ow they just watch us, Skipper.”
Skipper nodded, “Aye, they’re givin’ me th’ creeps.”
As the gates of Redwall slammed shut, Zartho gave the order. “Back to camp! Halfear, Deatheye, go south an’ roundabout. Rest o’ yew, up t’the ford an’ then cut back to camp. Now!”
As Zartho began marching up the path Shavant spoke softly, “Does that sack contain what I think it does?”
Zartho smiled, “Aye, that should give them a healthy fear of me!”
Skipper and Thorne carried the sack a little ways away from the wallsteps, so as to not block abbeydwellers from ascending and descending the wall. Arbuc was following them when he happened to glance over toward the feast. There was Boorab, back eating again now that the enemy was leaving. Arbuc’s eyes fell on the empty cot. Awavian! He had completely forgotten about the injured squirrel in the commotion. Arbuc rushed over to the cot frantically looking around for his friend. Then he calmed himself, Awavian wasn’t in mortal danger. He took a deep breath and looked around. He couldn’t see the squirrel anywhere. He was about to ask Boorab if he had seen Awavian when he heard a whistle.
“Hoy, Arbuc, I’m over here!”
Arbuc turned, his mouth dropping open at what he saw. There was Awavian, floating on his back in the abbey pond! His crutches were floating nearby, a plate of scones on one of them.
“Awavian why are you in th’ pond?” Arbuc shouted, “Yew were supposed to stay off that paw!”
“I’m not moving it,” Awavian countered, “an’ the water takes all the weight. As t’ why I’m in here, Boorab pushed me in.”
The hare spluttered in his glass of elderberry wine. “I never did anythin’! The blinkin’ nerve of the flippin’ squirrel, wot!”
Awavian grinned at him from the water. “Ye did when ye flew out of the chair to go an’ see the vermin.”
Arbuc motioned him over, “Well get out o’ the water so I can see th’ damage yew did t’ that paw.”
Skipper and Thorne wet the sack down on the grass and immediately Redwallers began crowding around, anxious to see what was inside.
“Go back t’ th’ feast now everybeast,” Said Thorne, “No sense crowdin’ in.”
Skipper immediately saw the sense of this idea. “Yes,” he agreed, “We ‘ave no idea what’s in th’ thing an’ if it’s dangerous we don’t need a ton o’ beasts injured.”
Redwallers obediently backed away, resuming the feast, but continually glancing toward Skip, Deyna, and Thorne, who stood alone near the bag.
“Well,” said Thorne, drawing a dagger and holding it out, “Who wants t’ open th’ thing?”
Skipper took a deep breath, “I’ll do it.” He said, taking the dagger from Thorne. He knelt next to the bag, taking another steadying breath. Then he slid the dagger underneath the stitching. The knife cut through the threads smoothly, the top of the bag gliding open. Skipper dropped the knife, blood draining from his face as he let loose a keening wail, like that of a wounded animal.
Thorne took one look at what was in the bag and turned away, retching. Deyna felt his legs go out from under him and he sank to the ground. “No.” he moaned. The Redwallers were running toward the commotion, Deyna quickly shouted to the ottercrew that was milling about nearby. “Keep all abbeybeasts away from th’ bag! Get everybeast inside except for th’ sentries an’ the beasts Abbess Mhera chooses!”
The ottercrew sprang into action, barricading the sack and asking abbeydwellers to go inside. In a few minutes there was only the ottercrew, Skipper, Deyna, Mhera, and a few others left.
“Well?” Said Filorn, “What’s in the bag?”
Skipper looked up from where he knelt, “Pike.” He moaned.
Mhera peeked into the sack. Indeed, it contained what was left of the body of Pike, the otter that had searched for Rorc when he went missing and for Arbuc fourteen seasons later. Only his closest friends among the ottercrew could recognize him though. His body had been viciously slashed and cut almost beyond recognition as an otter. The wounds were so numerous it was hard to tell that this was once a living creature. His hide looked like it had been drawn on by a knife, one continuous cut spiraling and criss-crossing across his body. The bones of his rudder could easily be seen. Deyna blocked her vision before she could register any more of the wounds.
Deyna turned back around, carefully obscuring the body. In his paw was a piece of paper. He unfolded it and read aloud, “This is what happens to those who defy Commander Zartho of the Five Armies.” He crumpled the paper up and crushed it under his foot. Then he added in a growl, “It was written in blood.”
Pike was buried at sunset under an ash tree near the pond. The sun stained the sky blood-red as it set, a crier for the terrible secret revealed that day. Redwallers gathered as the canvas containing Pike’s body was lowered into the grave. Nearly all of them had never seen the remains of the playful otter in his prime, the sack had been sewn up so as to not upset the dibbuns.
There was a heavy silence in the air as the grave was filled. It was oppressive, and everybeast seemed to bend under its weight. Abbess Mhera felt she had to say something. She stepped into the clearing that was around Pike’s grave.
“Friends, today we have lost a valuable ally. But more than that, we have lost a dear friend.” She paused, “He was killed, no, murdered by our new enemies. We will always remember his laughter, stories, and most of all his warm friendship. As we stand and defy the might of an army that far outnumbers us, let us remember Pike and his brave defiance to the end. Let us remember also that we at Redwall do not stand alone. Zartho and his armies can only rely on themselves and trust no one. But we at Redwall do not stand alone! No, we have our friends the Guosim and the ottercrews of Mossflower to help us. Indeed, all Mossflower country is for us, and willing to help. We will remember Pike as we defend Redwall against all odds.”
Heads nodded in agreement as Mhera stepped back into the crowd and the mood lightened, if only a little. The Abbess sat next to the abbey warrior. Deyna sat watching skipper. Mhera turned her gaze to the otter chieftain as well. Skipper stood near the grace, Thorne at his side. His face was set, looking on impassively. Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes, betraying his true emotions. As she watched Thorne fell to his knees, great sobs racking his body as he hid his face in his paws. Skipper continued to stare at the grave.
“Pike was the closest thing Skipper ever had to a son.” began Deyna, “I rarely found Skipper without Pike and Thorne, they were like sons to him. To lose one in this way…” Deyna shook his head, “They were close, Skip an’ Pike.”
The sounds of singing birds and splashing water woke Rubah. Keeping his eyes closed he took stock of his surroundings. His axe was lying next to him, his paw resting on it. He had been using a beech root for his headrest and now his neck was cramped from the awkward position. There was a slight rustle to his right and his ears swiveled to focus in on the sound against his will. Suddenly there was a swishing noise. What was tha-? Cold spring water drenched him. He shot up with lightning speed and turned to confront Rorc, who was rolling on the ground a short distance away, and empty wooden bucket nearby. Tears of merriment rolled down his cheeks as he struggled to maintain control.
“Why you…” Rubah threw himself at Rorc, and they were soon rolling about on the bankside. Rubah rolled and got Rorc on the ground, a triumphant grin on his face. His victory was short-lived however. Rorc pulled his footpaws under and kicked, sending the fox over his head. Rubah landed on his back, the wind rushing from his lungs. Rorc was on him like a bolt of lightning, pinning his arms to his sides and placing a paw on both the front and back of Rubah’s neck. One twitch would leave him with a broken neck, Rubah knew from watching the otter deal with enemies in this way before. Reluctantly, he gasped out.
“Awlright, yew win. Gerrof me yew great lump!” Rorc laughed and rolled off into a series of pawsprings and somersaults. “Showoff.” Muttered Rubah. Spotting the bucket he called over to the energetic otter. “Hoy, Rorc, where’d yew git this?”
Rorc bounded over, his ever-present lopsided-grin extending into a smile. “I found that in a camp a little downriver. Looked like on o’ those shrew camps t’me. Smelled good, though we’ll have to watch out step, they might be still around. I’d rather not go up against them with ten t’ one odds.”
Rubah agreed heartily, “Aye, they’re like liddle wasps wid those thin blade o’ theirs.”
“Bye the way,” added Rorc, “yew think yore ready to travel again?”
“Yore th’ one that called for th’ stop in th’ firs’ place.” Rubah said as he lazily flicked a riverpebble at Rorc. The otter whacked it with his rudder and sent it zinging off, neatly slicing a new leaf off a nearby ash. Rubah watched it drift lazily down as Rorc answered.
“Right, now when do we leave?”
Rubah stood up. “Now I guess.”
The sun was high overhead when Rubah and Rorc happened upon a path. They had both enjoyed their trek, happy to back in Mossflower again. Although there had been a spring in their step they had traveled quietly, the thought of the shrew camp heavy on their minds. It wasn’t that they were afraid of the shrews, but there was a long-standing enmity between the shrew tribes and the Juskaron. Both groups would usually kill each other on sight.
Rubah stepped out onto the path, looking up and down the path. His flame-red tail swayed, brushing off a fly that had landed on his leg. He shifted slightly, sunlight glinting off the axe that was strapped across his back. Rorc walked up next to him and after hesitating for a second he began walking south.
Rubah started after him, “Rorc, where are you goin’?”
“It’s my turn t’ choose where we go.” Rorc called back over his shoulder. “Let’s continue south.”
Rubah glanced almost wistfully north, then sighed and turned to follow Rorc.
There were many tear-streaked faces around the abbey the day after Pike’s funeral. The ottercrew set about making arrows and gathering slingstones with renewed purpose, each vowing that they would personally kill Zartho to pay him back for the pain he had caused them. Skipper now sat dry-eyed at a table in a remote corner of Cavern Hole, Thorne at his side. Deyna and Boorab sat near them, discussing defense plans for the abbey.
Fwirl approached the grim-faced group. “Would our defense coordinators like something to drink?” she asked with a weak smile. They all nodded silently. Fwirl gave them another small smile before hurrying off.
Fwirl walked lightly down the stone stairs into the cellars. Pausing at the bottom, she took a deep breath of the cool cellar air. As she slowly breathed out, Fwirl heard a muffled sob. Quietly setting down the tray she followed the sound. In a small sidechamber a young otterlady was sobbing, used handkerchiefs scattered about.
Fwirl dashed over and began comforting the crying otterlady, who looked about twenty-eight seasons old. “Resah, what’s the matter?”
Resah took a deep breath, “W-W-We were g-going t’ a-announce it r-right after h-he got b-b-back!” This was all she was able to say before a new wave of sobs racked her body.
Fwirl stroked her head and patted her back as she tried to calm Resah down enough so that she could clarify. “Who’s we? Announce what?”
“P-Pike!” Resah stammered out between sobs, “W-We were g-going to get married!”
Fwirl sat back, stunned. Now that she looked back she noticed many things she hadn’t before. Pike, happier than usual as he left on the search party to go look for Arbuc and Awavian, smiling back over his shoulder at somebeast she couldn’t see as they set off up the path. Resah, humming contentedly as she went about her duties, sometimes caught staring dreamily out the window, little knowing that her dreams would never come true. How many other lives must’ve been ripped apart by Zartho? He’ll die for the pain he’s caused out Abbey in this short span of time!
“Huh,” said Rubah as they walked down yet another stretch of the path “ah wonder who keeps this path clear?”
“Mebbe th’ ants do.” Said Rorc jokingly as he stepped over an anthill.
Rubah laughed imagining the tiny creatures cutting down saplings that had grown in the middle of the path and dragging them off to the side. “Ah think yore right.” He paused as a glint of color caught his eye.
Rorc noticed him staring into a group of bushes a score of paces away. “Wha’ didja see?”
Rubah shook his head, “Ah’m not sure if ah was anythin’, but it looked otta place.”
“We’ll keep our keep our eyes peeled.”
Fwirl wiped her eyes as she re-entered Cavern Hole, carrying a tray with four mugs of October ale. She had taken Resah to an empty dorm, away from the main bustle of the abbey to get some rest. The melancholy otterlady had quickly fallen asleep on the soft white cot after drinking a cup of soothing tea provided by Arbuc. The young otter’s eyes had shone with sympathy as he handed them the herbs to soak. Fwirl knew that he partially blamed himself for Pike’s death, because he had been the object of the search. She had tried to abolish this idea, but it seemed to have only sunk in more.
Deyna noticed her saddened features as she handed him a mug. “What happened Fwirl?” He gestured toward the door, “You were fine just a little while ago.”
Fwirl sighed, “I found Resah and learned that she and Pike were going to get married.”
Skipper nodded sadly, and Thorne stared straight ahead, his face like granite. Suddenly there was a splashing noise mixed with the tinkle of broken pottery falling to the floor. The brown earthenware mug in Thorne’s paw had shattered under the pressure of his angry grip. Apparently both he and Skipper had known about the engagement, but they must’ve been two of the few. Deyna’s shoulders drooped at the news, as did Boorab’s long ears.
Boorab’s ears did not stay down for long though. They soon sprang up as he began speaking. “Right laddie bucks, look sharp now!” He glared from one otter to the next in fine military style. “Th’ vermin blighter’s gone and murdered Miss Resah’s dearly beloved. That young otterlady did me many a wonderful favor when she was young,” here he smacked his lips, remembering those favors, “and now I have a chance to pay her back. Let’s get together such a defense plans that we’ll give the flippin’ vermin blighters a good spankin’!”
Thorne banged a paw on the table, “Aye, let’s start already! I propose that we ask Foremole Gundil to get together his molecrew and clean up those tunnels that they found in the abbey grounds a few weeks ago.”
Skipper furrowed his brows. “What tunnels?”
Thorne waved a paw dismissively, “Oh, jes’ some tunnels that Dinny ‘appened upon when ‘e was diggin’ around. Sister Rosabel says that they were made when Matthias was out lookin’ for his son, Mattimeo, t’ allow th’ Redwallers t’ get around while they were being besieged by General Ironbeak.”
Skipper’s eyebrows shot up and his mouth dropped open. “You actually listened t’ a Redwall history lesson?” He exclaimed as he stared at Thorne.
Thorne smiled cheekily, “I do occasionally.”
Fwirl smiled and shook her head as she walked away, listening to the energized ideas flash back and forth in the group. If anybeast can come up with a good plan of defense, it’s them.
Outside a black cloth tent five sentries, a fox, rat, ferret, weasel, and cat stood guard. Leaves crunched as the rat shifted position, leaning on his oiled spear. He sight wistfully as another rat strolled past, carrying a flask of nettle beer. The cat’s ears flicked in annoyance.
“That’s all you rats can think about, beer! That and sleeping. I’m surprised the Commander keeps your type around.”
The rat deftly spun the spear and pointed it at the cat’s throat. “Huh, yore type’s jes’ a bunch of bumblin’ pussies.” He began menacing the cat with the speartip.
The tent flap burst open as Commander Zartho strode out, paw on the hilt of his longsword. All five of his bodyguard snapped to attention, backs ramrod straight, weapons perpendicular to the ground.
Zartho glanced at each one of them. “Go get the Generals. Tell them that I wish to see them here.” All five sentries nodded furiously. The ferret took off in the direction of his camp. There was a humming sound and he fell screaming with a knife in his shoulder. The weasel stood staring stupidly at the place on his belt where the knife was supposed to be. Zartho strode over and kicked the ferret face up, mercilessly stepping on the wounded shoulder with the blade still embedded in it.
“Now you are dismissed.”
Zartho turned and strode back into his tent. The weasel hurried over to the sobbing ferret and roughly kicked him over. Ripping the dagger out of the hordebeast’s shoulder, he cleaned it on the back of the ferret’s tunic. Returning the dagger to its sheath, he began to run off toward his camp, calling over his shoulder at the moaning hordebeast. “Yew shoulda waited ‘til ‘e dismissed yew.”
Zartho allowed himself a nod of satisfaction as Deatheye entered the tent, still panting from his all-out sprint to get to the Commander’s tent faster. The ferret general pulled himself to attention and glanced fervently at his Commander, nervous at being so obviously late.
Zartho leaned forward on his carved oak chair, more like a throne really, and rested his chin on his paws. He noticed Deatheye’s unease. “General Deatheye, I will pardon your tardiness considering the circumstances.” Deatheye let out an audible sigh of relief. Zartho say back in his chair and continued. “Smoke, what is the current strength of your army?”
The fox thought for a moment, “Oh, probably ‘bout twenty-five score now.”
“About the same Commander.” The wildcat purred, “Twenty-five score.”
The black weasel replied swiftly, “Forty-eight score m’lord.”
The ferret tapped the sword at his side for a moment before answering. “Er…thirty-five score, give or take a few.”
Zartho looked at his last General. “Halfear, how many score in your command?”
“A full fifty score Commander.”
Zartho did some quick figuring, muttering aloud, “Hmm, that makes somewhere around one hundred eighty-three score at full strength…they’d have a hard time matching that number even if they could get all the woodlanders in Mossflower to help…” He suddenly stood up, his generals snapping to attention as he barked out orders. “Halfear, Deatheye, your armies will guard the north path. Don’t let anybeast pass.” He turned to the other three generals. “Gather your armies, we’re moving. I can’t have an army come to reinforce Redwall from the south. Leave now.” The Generals scrambled for the exit and ran toward their respective camps, already shouting orders.
Zartho drew his longsword and sat down, the naked blade across his knees. From a drawer in the table before him he drew forth a rag and a vial. After carefully polishing the sword he held it up, gazing at his reflection. Yes, he thought, Redwall will fall, Shavant has already seen me standing over the dead body of that abbey warrior, the Taggerung, raising my sword to strike off his head. I am coming and those Redwallers can do nothing about it!
Just as Rorc and Rubah began to calm down a long undulating cry broke the stillness.
“Ah thought ah saw one o’ their headbands!” Rubah moaned, “Ah ‘oped that ah was wrong, but ah guess ah wasn’t”
Rorc hit the ground and swung a footpaw, knocking Rubah flat as a storm of arrows zipped over them. “Well, there’s nothin’ for it but t’ fight now mate.”
Rubah leapt up, pulling his axe from its shoulder strap. “Aye, an’ here they come!”
A full score of shrews poured in from various directions, all shouting as they charged, waving their deadly rapiers. It was obviously a planned ambush. Rorc drew his daggers and twirled them expertly. “C’mon then! Yew think yew can best the Taggerung? Ee aye eeeh!”
One shrew, faster than the rest, distanced himself from the group. Rorc charged him, flinging himself into the air before he got to the shrew. He landed with both forepaws on the shrew’s shoulders, stabbing his neck with one of his daggers. Using the body as a springboard he completed his pawspring, slamming his footpaws into another shrew’s chest and bringing him down. Several somethings cracked as the otter transferred smoothly into a roll, knocking down several opponents. He then began a series of acrobatic attacks; constant motion is what kept him alive against the odds.
Rubah slammed into a group of shrews like a runaway boulder, smashing them with his axe. Adversaries went tumbling like ninepins as he charged among them, swinging the badger-forged axe. Swinging hard he shattered a rapier that darted forward, leaving the owner with stinging hand. The backswing snuffed the shrew’s life out.
After fifteen minutes of intense fighting there only three shrews left. One took a look at the circumstances and took off down the path, running with all his remaining strength. Rubah and Rorc were both bleeding profusely form numerous wounds, none critical, but enough to weaken them.
Rorc glanced at Rubah, who was engaged in a fight with a shrew who was very skillful with his rapier. Satisfied that he was in no danger from that quarter he turned back to his foe. The shrew had nocked an arrow on an abandoned bow. Rorc dove to the side as the shrew fired, hurling his dagger as the arrow streaked toward him. He felt the fletchings of the arrow as it zipped under his side. He thrust his paw out to complete a cartwheel and land on his footpaws, but his paw hit a pool of blood and he slipped. His head smashed against a boulder half-embedded in the ground and everything went black.
Rubah leaned to the side as the shrew’s rapier stabbed the air where he had just been. Then he noticed a scar across the shrew’s right eye. Rubah eye opened wide as he recognized the shrew.
“Yore th’ shrew that killed ol’ Halfback three seasons ago! Yew stuck ‘im wid that liddle blade o’ yores till he died from blood loss!”
The shrew snorted, “He got what all vermin deserve.”
Rubah was indignant. “‘E had a mate an’ a son! ‘Is son’s name was Zorr, ah trained with ‘im a lot.”
The shrew wasn’t moved by this insight into Halfback’s family life. “Huh, I woulda done the same to ‘is mate an kid too.”
Furry filled Rubah as he swung his axe, smashing the thin rapier out of the shrew’s paws. He continued in a full circle, using building his momentum. The shrew was still staring dumbly at his empty paw as the axe sliced through him, killing him instantly.
Rubah cleaned his axe off on the dead shrew and looked up. He let out a cry of shocked surprise as he saw Rorc lying still upon the ground. A shrew lay slumped against a tree a short distance away, Rorc’s amber-handled dagger in his heart. A bow lay near the dead shrew’s side. Rubah slid to a stop next to Rorc, quickly checking for a heartbeat. He heaved a sigh of relief as he felt Rorc’s pulse, strong and steady. He quickly checked for any serious wounds and was relived to find none.
Rorc groaned, slowly sitting up and blinking his eyes open and closed. Rubah gave a shout of joy, “Rorc, I thought that fate had been against you today!”
Rorc cautiously touched his head, “Oww, what time is it?”
Rubah glanced up at the sun, “Oh about mid-afternoon.” Rorc froze, his paws shaking as he carefully felt the ground. Rubah looked at him concernedly, “What’s wrong Rorc?”
Rorc shuddered “I-I can’t see anythin’. I think I’ve gone blind!”
Abbess Mhera stood with Deyna on the steps leading up to the great oaken doors of the abbey. The ancient stone steps were worn from countless treading paws and the wind and rain of many seasons. Boorab walked past, giving orders like he had been commanding creatures all his life.
“I say you mole chaps, that load of rubble there is needed on the north walltop over the gate. Look sharp now, laddos!”
Mhera chuckled as Dinny and his molefriends tugged their snouts and winked at each other. “Burr, aye zurr!” They all said as they carried on toward their destination, which was, in fact, the north walltop.
The Abbess of Redwall turned to her brother. “Are you going to tell me the plan that you and the rest of your defense committee thought up, or are you going to keep me guessing?”
Deyna pretended to think on it. “Well…I dunno…Keepin’ ya in the dark sounds kinda fun.”
“Humph, I thought age would teach you a little dignity.” Mhera folded her arms. “Fine then, by my authority as your Abbess, I demand that you tell me what you’re doing.”
Deyna held up his paws. “Fine, fine, I’ll tell you!” Lowering his voice so Mhera could barely hear him, he muttered darkly. “Abuse of power, makin’ otherbeasts reveal their secrets. Should be thrown out o’ the abbey, she should!”
Mhera stifled a smile as she raised an eyebrow at her brother. “Well?”
Deyna began outlining the plan of defense. “As you have seen, some o’ th’ moles are bringin’ rubble onto the walltops, makin’ piles above the wallgates. These will be pused down on attackers an’ will also stop any attempts to set fire to the gates.
The rest of the moles are split into two groups. The first group is cleanin’ out and fixin’ up the recently re-discovered tunnels. The second and last group is searching below the south wall, tryin’ to find the remains of Kotir, found about th’ time Russano came here, or so the Recorder’s annuals tell us.”
Mhera looked confused, “Kotir, isn’t that the home of the wildcat that Martin killed? Why would we want to find that place?”
Deyna nodded understandingly, “Aye, I had the same reaction when Rosabel told me this. Her reasons are solid though. She told me that the records say that there is a tunnel down there, made from an underground river over countless seasons. They also say that the castle sunk, but didn’t fall apart completely. If Foremole and his crew could find and shore up these tunnels, we would have a perfect hiding spot for the young’uns and the old ones as well.”
Mhera gestured toward the busy mice, squirrels, otters, and various other woodland creatures that busily bustled from one place to the next. “What are the rest doing? So far you’ve only talked about moles.”
“That’s because they have the more notable assignments.” Deyna pointed to a group of squirrels. “The squirrels over there are making arrows, and the otters near them are using the larger pieces of wood to make javelins. Oh,” he added as an afterthought, “the squirrels are also making bows.” He made a sweeping gesture with his paw. “The rest are either gathering stones or weaving bowstrings and bandages.” Deyna sighed, “I hope we won’t need many.” Deyna smacked his forehead as Skipper hurried past. “Excuse me, I just remembered somthin’.” Mhera nodded and walked off with Fwirl, who was passing with her paws full of materials for cloth.
Deyna caught up with Skipper as he began inspecting finished javelins and arrows. “Skip, did you send somebeast to ask your mates for help?”
Skipper hefted a javelin experimentally, “Aye, I sent a few out. I told ‘im t’ stay off th’ paths and be as quiet as possible until they got a couple o’ day’s march from Redwall.”
“Who’s comin’?” Deyna asked as Thorne entered with a load of finished javelins, adding them to the ever-increasing pile.
Skipper checked them off on his paw. “Well, there’s Skipper Alcor o’ the northern river otters, an’ ‘is cousin Skipper Aethor o’ the southern ‘uns. The Three Guosim tribes will come, and I’ve instructed the messengers to tell any woodlander that they meet that Redwall asks for help.”
Deyna frowned, “Three Guosim tribes? I know Log-a-log Balor, he comes here often, but I don’t know the other two, who are they?”
Skipper tossed another javelin into the “checked” pile. “Log-a-log Orren is from the north and Log-a-log Radew is from the south. They’ll come, nothin’ can keep a Guosim shrew away from a fight.”
Zartho sat on his throne-like chair, glaring at the table in front of him. A map or Mossflower was spread out on the table, pinned down at the corners by daggers. Pins designated the placement and strength of his forces, mostly spread out guarding the north and south paths. A small force of fivescore rats were positioned out on the plains as a weak guard should the Redwallers try to contact Salamandastron. That cursed mountain… Zartho’s insides roiled with hate. Those stripedogs and hares could throw a loop in my entire plan. He smiled, As soon as I’m finished with Redwall, Salamandastron will fall next.
The crash of a spear on a shield brought him back to the present. A fox’s voice called from outside the tent. “A rat scout sir! ‘E says ‘e ‘as somthin’ to report sir!”
“Send him in.”
An out-of-breath rat stumbled into the tent. Straightening himself up, he cleared his throat nervously and began. “S-Sir, early this morning an otter snuck through our lines, sir. We saw him and gave chase, but he disappeared into the river.”
Zartho kept his voice even, “Did you look up and down the bank for tracks?”
The scout nodded furiously, “There’s a score of trackers lookin’ right now, sir.”
Zartho was surprised; they actually carried through with a good idea. “Good, now go get some rest. When you get back to camp, give General Halfear this.” He handed the rat a sheet of paper with something written on it, and a seal. “This is a promotion, so don’t be dimwitted and lose it.” He waved a paw, dismissing the scout.
The rat’s face brightened at his good luck. Wait ‘till Syrin hears what I get for pullin’ th’ short twig! Won’t she be jealous!
Zartho watched the rat scurry out of the tent, pondering what this move by the Redwallers could mean. If it even was the Redwallers…It could just be a lone otter, although he doubted it. He glanced at the map spread out before him. There wasn’t any large group of woodlanders in that direction, so who were they sending for? He’d have to ask when they brought the otter to him.
Ross took a steadying breath as the trackers passed below his perch. He was halfway up a tall willow tree that was overhanging the river. The fools! he thought smugly, They think otters always stick to water! He crept out on a branch on the north side and eyed the distance between him and the next tree, a large elm. He took a deep breath and jumped. For a moment he hung, suspended in air, then he crashed into the branches of the elm. His paws frantically grasped at the branches as they rushed by, finally snagging one. He pulled himself up and breathed a sigh of relief. Only a few more jumps like that and he’d be far enough away from the river that they’d never find him. There weren’t even any tracks to show that he had left the river, he had jumped out of the water and grabbed an overhanging branch. Now, off to find Skipper Alcor.
Mhera stood above the main gate, on the very threshold of her abbey, and watched the gathering darkness of night. The sun was setting, day was ending in Mossflower, and the tension in the abbey was rising. It was an almost audible hum in the air. Zartho and his armies had not been sighted for days, and an attack was expected soon. The moles had finished shoring up the tunnels in the abbey grounds and had gone to help the rest make the cavern under Redwall livable.
They had gathered a good supply of range weapons, there was now no shortage of bows, slings, and javelins, in fact there was some to spare. Now all they had to do was sit and wait. Six sentries were posted on each wall, spaced evenly apart. Four additional sentries were posted at each corner. The sentries were rotated regularly, but the constant guard duty was making the normally buoyant abbeydwellers somber. Even the dibbuns felt the change of mood in the abbey, the long halls of the abbey now rarely echoed with their peals of laughter. Even after only a few days, Mhera found she missed the sound.
Mhera looked at the moon rising round a full over the woodlands. Sometimes she thought she saw Martin’s face in the moon, and the thought that he was up there, watching over them, seeing everything, comforted her.
“Mhera, you shouldn’t be up here.” said a gentle voice from behind her. “What would Redwall do if some vermin were to get a lucky shot off?”
Mhera jumped, startled, and spun around. “Mother!”
Filorn smiled, “I’m sorry I surprised you, you looked quite pretty standing there against the moon.” Mother and daughter began walking toward the north wall, paws padding against the rough stone.
“Mother…” Mhera began, then paused as they neared a sentry. After asking him how he felt and if he had seen anything they moved on, leaving the squirrel to his duties. “Mother,” began Mhera once more as soon as they were out of earshot, “I’m scared.”
Filorn stroked a paw across her daughter’s head, “We all are, Mhera.” She said, “But it makes everybeast around us feel better if we don’t show it.”
Mhera took a deep breath, “Look brave? I can do that.” She gestured toward the abbey, “We’d better go inside and get some rest while we can though.” Filorn nodded and took a step, her footpaw striding something the shadows, sending it skittering across the stones. Mhera stooped and picked it up. It was a dagger, black as night and razor-sharp. Mhera had seen this kind before, it was an assassin’s dagger, like the one her brother Deyna has—had, she corrected herself mentally. Rorc took it. Mhera pulled her mind back from that path, despite all his pranks she had loved her mischievous little nephew and reflecting on his fate only brought grief.
“It must’ve been lying there for awhile, se, it’s quite rusty.” Observed Filorn, pointing to the brown splotches that covered the blade.
Mhera shrugged and threw the dagger at the trees and turned toward the abbey with her mother, already being reprimanded for her waste of a good weapon.
Blacktail the weasel could not believe his good fortune. He had been gone from the horde for weeks, which was in itself a treat. But then he had met this beautiful female weasel named Lynch who had agreed to be his mate. On top of all that, the Abbess of Redwall was strolling along the walltops, a perfect target. He hadn’t actually seen her with his own eyes before, but this otter matched the descriptions he had heard. There were two otters, they were probably related, if he was fast enough he could possible kill them both. Blacktail kneeled and strung his bow. He nocked one arrow and stuck another in the loam. He was the best archer in the five armies, if he couldn’t make this shot, nobeast could. Now the two otters were examining something that the Abbess was holding. As Blacktail drew back, a puff of wind blew through the trees. Blacktail frowned and glanced at the sky. A black assassin’s blade, propelled by the fated throw of Mhera, sank into his forehead, killing him instantly. Blacktail sprawled on the ground, felled by his general’s own blade.
Zartho’s knife buried itself into the scarred wooden tabletop. The fox commander had the undivided attention of his generals as he leisurely twisted the blade out of the wood. The sun had set, night had fallen. Darkness settled around the camp, campfires secluding it in corners around the camp. Zartho had summoned all his generals to his tent, including Halfear and Deatheye from north of Redwall. Shadows flickered and jumped on the canvas walls of the tent, cast by the pale flames that danced on the wicks of the numerous candles that lighted the interior of the tent. Shavant the seer stirred in the dark corner where she had secluded herself. She turned her pale gold eyes on her Commander and waited for what he was going to say.
“I had meant to wait awhile longer,” began Zartho, “but because my generals allowed a woodlander to slip through their ranks…” Here he paused and looked pointedly at Halfear and Deatheye. Both the ferret and the rat shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Zartho continued, “I can delay the assault no longer. Since you failed to catch this slippery otter, I am forced to attack. I must conquer Redwall before the reinforcements they sent for arrive.” Beckoning his generals closer, Zartho unrolled a map of Mossflower on the table. Taking four knives from his belt, he pinned down the corners. Looking around the table he stated firmly. “I want Redwall taken intact and with as little bloodshed as possible.” Here some of the generals glanced at each other. Had the Commander gone soft?
Zartho noticed their questioning glances. “No, I’m not goin’ soft, but we do need slaves, for the gardens and kitchens.” His generals nodded in understanding, looking relieved. Who wanted to be led by a soft-hearted fool?
“Listen up!” Zartho said, direction their attention to the map that was spread out over the table.
The generals drew close around the table, making sure they could see the plans he would be outlining. Only Shavant remained where she was, crouching silently in her dark corner. She hadn’t been much use lately. Zartho made a mental note to question her later on why she hadn’t been disclosing her visions to him.
Pointing with his knife to the map, he began. “Dagger, you will organize a group of yore most skilled assassins to scale those walls. They must be silent and invisible; the Redwallers must not notice their presence. I don’t care how you do it, but you must get in there and open those gates.”
“Deatheye,” Zartho pointed the knife in the ferret’s direction, “When those gates open, you must be ready with yore army to storm through the opening. Hide some in the ditch and the rest at the woodland’s edge. Make sure that those you fill the ditch with are fast as well as good fighters. If all goes well, they’ll hold the gates until the rest arrive.”
Deatheye nodded his acceptance of the plans as Zartho turned his gaze to Smoke. The fox was staring at the map, visualizing the commands that had been given. Good. He liked when his generals showed some tactical capabilities. What was the use of incompetent generals?
“Smoke, you will attack the abbey from the east. The rising sun will blind their archers, and make the arrows we shoot impossible to see. Once you attack, make as much noise as possible. I want the Redwallers to concentrate on the back of the abbey.” Zartho gestured to the remaining generals, “The rest of you, split up yore troops in the other armies. Concentrate mostly on strengthening the western force.”
Ah, it felt good to be organizing an attack again. He could almost feel the battle already, the blood rushing through his veins like liquid fire. The screams of the dying…he shuddered with delight at the thought.
Deatheye watched his master, waiting for the dismissal so he could prepare. Zartho was smiling, a sure sign of an impending battle. The Commander shuddered, a wild light in his eyes. Yes, there would be destruction and death soon. Zartho returned his knife to his belt and smiled broadly.
“Go and prepare. We attack on the second dawn.”
Rubah watched Rorc stir nervously in the early morning light. He cursed as he nicked himself on the knife he was using to clean the fish before him. It was a grayling he had caught in a nearby stream during the hours just before and after dawn. It had taken a painfully long time, lying at the edge of the stream through the dawn hours to catch a fish that would’ve taken the otter a fraction of the time. But Rorc couldn’t fish, not anymore. In fact, he had hardly moved from the spot that Rubah had shown him to when the fox decided to make camp. That was days ago, and neither of them knew what to do now.
Rorc’s reluctance to move by himself worried Rubah. They couldn’t stay here forever and Rorc blindly stumbling around would make them and easy target for roaming bands of vermin and woodlanders.
Rubah picked up the cleaned fish and walked over to the fire. He laid them carefully on the embers and they began sizzling and popping. At the sudden noise Rorc spun around, knife in paw, and hurled it in the direction of the sound. The blade flew a foot high, something that would’ve made Rorc wince if he could’ve seen it.
Rubah yelped and dove away from the fire. “Watch it! It’s only me!”
Rorc felt next to him and slumped down against the smooth bark of an ash tree, despair and stress written on his face. “It’s this darkness, I can’t take it. Every sound echoes through me head, growin’ ‘til th’ crack o’ a twig signals an army’s approach, an’ the sizzlin’ o’ fryin’ fish, th’ hiss of an adder!” Rorc took a deep breath and continued in a more subdued tone, “Remember when ol’ Bloodpaw told us t’ find our worst fear, an’ then we wouldn’t be so afraid of it? ‘Find yore fear, then admit that yore afraid of it.’ That’s what he said.”
Rubah smiled, “Ah remember. Ah thought mah fear was dyin’ o’ starvation.”
Rorc began plucking grass and running the strands through his paws. “Well it took me a long time to decide. Weeks in fact. But I finally decided that what I feared the most was the loss of my sight or hearin’. I thought it would be safe to be afraid o’ that, I thought it would never happen to me.” Rorc gave a short bark of laughter, devoid of any humor, the grim kind that mocks the presumptions of the one who used it. “How wrong I was. I’m good for nothing now, no longer a pathfinder, warrior or sentinel. Even the menial tasks that were done by the babes an’ young’uns in the Juska camp, the gatherin’ and cleanin’, all are beyond me. Taggerung, ha!” Rorc’s tone was bitter, “The undefeatable warrior, the bane of entire armies, the pride of the Juskaron, reduced to a helpless babe because he couldn’t stay on his feet. Defeated by a stone I was! If Scar or Bloodpaw could see me now, they’d kill me for the shame I brought upon the clan.”
“Nevertheless,” said Rubah, placing a firm paw on Rorc’s shoulder, “putting all that aside, yer my matey, an’ that always count for somthin’. An’ yore not ever completely useless. I’ve ‘eard that when somebeast loses one o’ their senses, the rest improve to make up for the lack of, in yore case, sight.”
Rorc knew that Rubah was trying to console him, but wasn’t convinced that that fact helped him at all. He sniffed the air and growled, “Rubah, the fish is burning. Would ya get me knife as well?”
Rubah shook his head as he rose and retrieved the fish from the flames, he hadn’t smelled anything. He wasn’t sure if the senses were supposed to improve that fast, or if he just missed the faint smell. He pulled the black-handled dagger from the sturdy oak it had sank into when Rorc missed and returned to his spot next to Rorc, placing both the dagger and the fish in front of the otter, Rubah sat down and tucked into his own portion.
“See? Yore still useful.”
“Humph.” Was all Rorc had to say as he plucked a sprig of wild parsley from the ground near his footpaw and shredded it to go with his grayling. Rubah could tell that Rorc wasn’t completely convinced, but he had relaxed. “Well, I’ll focus on recognizing sounds and smells, then we’ll see if yore theory is correct.”
Log-a-log Radew settled back on his seat in the rear of his logboat, manning the steering oar. His small flotilla of logboats were traveling north up a tributary of the Great South Stream. He hadn’t been this far north in seasons, and a change of scenery always went over well with the roving tribe of shrews. The sentries were keeping a relaxed lookout on the shore, concerning themselves more with the danger of submerged rocks and trees. They hadn’t had any trouble with vermin, besides for two a little further south. They had taken out a whole patrol without a scratch. Normally Radew would’ve tracked the vermin with a larger force and rid southern Mossflower of the scum, but from the outcome of that battle, the losses would be too heavy to make the battle worthwhile.
Log-a-log pushed that matter out of his mind; it was in the past, no reason to think on it any more. Yes, they were morning the deaths of a score of shrews, but they realized there would be a lot more deaths if they tried to avenge the fallen. He began to settle back, watching his shrews paddle in time to the rowing song they were singing. Yes, everything was fine now…A paw, cold and dripping from the river, grabbed his arm. Radew wrenched himself away and whipped out his rapier, bringing the deadly edge down before he even realized who his attacker was. Then his eyes registered the “attacker” and he brought the blade to a halt.
A strong, fit river otter in his prime hung from the back of the logboat, grinning mischievously. Log-a-log Radew’s rapier blade was a hairsbreadth from the side of his muzzle. The otter blew on it, as if it were a mere feather that could be blown away by the slightest puff of wind. Then he filled his lungs and bellowed.
“Ahoy, Guosim shrews! Redwall otter with a message from Skipper, requesting permission to board!”
Log-a-log sheathed his blade, “Now you tell me! Y’ could’ve gotten yerself killed! Permission granted by the way.”
The otter pulled himself aboard, “I had complete confidence in yore abilities Log-a-log. Y’ wouldn’t be Log-a-log if ya couldn’t stop that blade in a split second.”
Radew waved a paw, “Enough chit-chat, which Skipper does this message come from?” Then he asked, as an afterthought, “What’s yore name anyway?”
The otter shrugged, “Me name’s Codden, as for Skipper, I don’t know his. He’s always just been Skipper t’ anyone I know.”
Radew nodded, “I know the one yer talkin’ about. Now what’s the message?”
Codden smiled grimly, “Yer warriors’ll love this. Redwall’s under attack by a fox named Zartho. ‘E has over one hundred fifty score beasts at his command. Redwall requests yore aid. Here’s the part you’ll like. If Zartho is defeated, you’ll be treated to a feast, the likes of which have never before been produced. Also, you’ll have a free meal anytime yew stop by.”
All rowing had stopped. Everybeast present had heard the call for aid, and the reward that followed. Log-a-log Radew looked over at each of his logboats, making eye contact with each shrew. They all nodded their heads almost imperceptibly. Radew broke into a grin.
“Well, we were headin’ north anyways. Might as well rid the land o’ some filth!”
The sun was beginning to rise, sending streaks of blood-red light across the sky. A few early risers, such as Skipper and Deyna, were up and about, but most of Redwall’s residents remained in their beds. The sentries on the walls shifted impatiently, soon their shift would be over and they could get some rest before the day truly started.
Just yesterday Redwall’s forces had been strengthened by the arrival of Log-a-log Balor’s shrews. They had been passing through the Redwall area anyway, coming back from a jaunt to the southeast, so they hadn’t heard anything about Zartho or his armies. One of Skipper’s crew found them and brought them safely to Redwall.
Log-a-log Balor and his shrews were ecstatic when they heard that they were to have a meal at Redwall whenever they wanted if Zartho was defeated. In fact, Skipper had to convince them that it was a better idea to let Zartho’s armies break on Redwall’s stone walls like waves on rock instead of charging out and attacking them. Mhera also refrained from mentioning that they always had a free meal at Redwall in the first place.
One of Log-a-log Balor’s shrews leaned on the battlements, his gaze sweeping lazily over the woodlands. Behind him, he could hear the next shift approaching, but didn’t bother to look. Then the sun crested the trees, catching him full in the face with its radiant brightness. He blinked away the tears caused by the sudden assault of light on his eyes and turned away, shielding himself from it’s rays.
A humm filled the air, like a swarm of bees around an apple tree in full blossom. The shrew barely had time to wonder what it was before the peaceful morning was plunged into chaos. Agonized screams filled the air as sentries, both the fresh and the weary; fell to the deadly shafts that hummed over the wall.
In a daze, the shrew could hear himself screaming, although if anyone heard him in the chaos he couldn’t tell.
“They’re attacking! To arms Redwall, they’re attacking!”
Smoke grinned maliciously, his fangs glistening. He had timed his attack perfectly, Redwall was in utter confusion. He signaled to his forces and they swept forward, yelling and whooping. They began to bang on the gate and throw grappling hooks and ladders up against the wall, the archers keeping up a steady fire to keep any defender’s heads down.
Smoke turned and faced one of his seconds. “What is it Banefur?”
Banefur opened his mouth to speak and there was a dull thud. His eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the ground, unconscious. Smoke ducked and called two foxes over. “You an’ you, get Captain Banefur otta here!” The two soldiers reluctantly left the battle and carried their unconscious captain away from the battle. Smoke ducked as an arrow thudded into the tree beside his head. For peaceful woodlanders, they sure retaliated fast.
Dagger had deliberately excluded himself from the infiltration mission. He still remembered the words of that mouse: “If you set a paw in my abbey again, you will die.” Dagger wasn’t sure if the mouse was bluffing or not, but he wasn’t taking any chances. His best assassins were going to scale the walls with grapple hooks, protected by a few initial climbers. The whole plan hinged of the sentries’ attention being diverted. He listened with satisfaction as the screaming started. Smoke had done a great job, he could see the sentries of the west wall turning and motioning toward the back of the abbey. Dagger motioned to his infiltration group, and they began to creep forward, keeping an eye on the sentries who had their backs turned to them. After a few nervous minutes, they reached the wall. A few immediately started scaling it, using the few handholds they could find in the weather-worn stones. The rest began to check that their weapons were within easy reach. They would wait for the climbers to take out the sentries before throwing up grappling hooks.
Deyna was exercising in the orchard when the screaming started. Grabbing Martin’s sword from the tree he had lain it against when he started the acrobatics, he raced toward the sound. As he approached the east wall, he could see the confusion reigning on the walltop. At least four sentries lay crumpled on the walltop and on the ground, black-fletched arrows sticking from them, their eyes wide open n horror, their mouths open in silent screams. Another shrew was on his knees, clutching an arrow in his arm. He spotted Deyna and stood up, waving his paws in the air, spraying crimson blood from his paws. He was shouting “They’re attacking! To arms Redwall, they’re attacking!”
As Deyna watched, the shrew swayed, took an unsteady step, and fell off the walltop. He tumbled through the air and landed on him back. Deyna wasn’t sure if he survived, but right now there was no time to check. He leapt up the wallsteps, taking them two at a time, and slid to a crouch underneath one of the battlements. He could see the sentries from the other walls coming to help, but he waved them back, shouting over the confusion.
“Guard yore walls! They may attack in more than one spot!” Actually, he was certain of it, but he didn’t know how they were going to carry out the second attack. He peeked over the wall. The majority of the attackers were foxes, with a good amount on cats and rats mixed in. Deyna ducked as an arrow zipped toward him. He hadn’t seen Zartho, which seemed to confirm his suspicions that a secondary attack was planned, or Zartho just might want him to think that…there were so many possibilities.
Deyna slipped down the wallsteps and joined Skipper, who was already organizing the defense. He immediately caught Foremole Gundil by the arm.
“Gundil, would you get some of yore moles to push the load of rubble down over the east wallgate? If they start using a battering ram they could break through.”
Foremole began hurrying off, “Burr, aye zurr! Mebbe oi’ll slayer summ narsty varmints!”
The dibbuns and the aged Redwallers such as the retired Gatekeeper Horag, were making their way into the tunnel entrance by the Great Hall. From there they would descend into the ruins of Kotir. Fwirl, Filorn, and Pearl went along to keep the dibbuns in line. Abbess Mhera absolutely refused to leave her abbey, and Deyna had to admit it would do the defender’s morale good if they saw that their Abbess hadn’t left them.
By now the remaining Redwallers were pouring onto the battlements, armed with slings a bows. They had even had the yew to make a few Long Patrol-style longbows. Only the stronger beast could use these, but they were extremely deadly. Now that the initial surprise was over, Deyna recognized a few faces he thought he wouldn’t see among the defenders. He could see Awavian up on the southeast corner of the walltops, balancing on his good footpaw as he poured arrow after arrow into the ranks of the vermin below, smiling grimly as each arrow found its target. Deyna started as Sister Alkanet swept past him, a determined look in her flashing eyes and a bow in paw. He heard shouts from the walltop that rose above the rest and he turned to look. Resah was standing on the walltop; one of the longbows in paw. He couldn’t see, but her eyes blazed with fury as she carefully chose her targets and meticulously sighted down the arrow and fired, oblivious to the arrows that zipped around her as she found her target. After she fired, she ducked down behind the walltop and snuck along the wall, changing position to stand up and loose another arrow. Each time she loosed an arrow, she let the vermin know it was coming.
“This is for Pike, you filth! You don’t even deserve to place a paw where he walked!” Soon after there would be a scream as a hordebeast felt her wrath.
Deyna glanced at where the shrew fell, wondering if he could see the beast from where he stood. To his surprise, he recognized Arbuc crouched over the wounded figure, his paws working steadily to bind up the wounds. Apparently, thought Deyna, Arbuc’s dislike of fighting doesn’t come from the sight of blood. Boorab strode up beside him and started chatting as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“...sneakin’ in the main gate!”
Deyna spun around to face the hare. “What did you just say?”
Boorab shook his head. “I said, “They’re makin’ so much noise that you’d think that the bounders are sendin’ a party behind our backs to sneak in the main gate!”
Deyna shood the hare’s paw. “Boorab yer a genius!” He picked a bow and quiver of arrows and set off at a sprint for the west wall. He could head Boorab muttering behind him.
“Finally somebeast noticed!”
The sentries saw Deyna sprinting toward them and they turned and looked out over the path. Seeing nothing, they turned back to Deyna, who had just made it up the wallsteps. The warrior crept over to the wall and peeked over. Boorab was right. There were beasts scaling this wall, and they were halfway up. Motioning to the sentries to stay down, he beckoned one over. “Go an’ gather a score of good archers an’ slingers.” He murmered, “Bring them back here, we need to nip this plan in the bud.”
The mouse nodded and quietly darted off.
Smoke smiled grimly as the chaos continued. He had spotted the pile of rubble above the door and knew that as soon as he assaulted the little wicker gate, hundreds of pounds of rocks and dirt would come crashing down. So he kept his forces away from it. There wasn’t any reason to attack it anyway, his job wasn’t to gain entrance into Redwall, only keep their attention. If they got in by the ladders and grapple hooks that was fine, but Smoke didn’t think Zartho would want his wallgate damaged unnecessarily. The sun was higher in the sky now, it wasn’t inhibiting the Redwallers as much. Smoke winced as another one of his star archers went down. He glared at the southeast corner where a squirrel, borderland by his attire, was picking off his more adept archers. Curse that squirrel and his bow! Any arrows directed at him seemed to zip by harmlessly. If he wasn’t mistaken, that was the squirrel that had been Zartho’s guest for a few days. He hadn’t personally seen him, but he had descriptions from Deatheye and others. Wasn’t he supposed to be laid up with a mangled footpaw? This abbey was getting stranger by the minute. “Peaceful” woodlanders fighting like trained warriors, arrows miraculously missing, grievously wounded beasts fighting…for the first time ever, a worm of doubt threaded itself into his mind, would they actually conquer this abbey?
Deyna glanced up and down the line of archers, checking to see that everybeast was in their place. Satisfied, he held up his paw and everybeast tensed. Three…two…one, his paw went down and soundlessly they rose up and leaned over the battlements, bows drawn. A hail of arrows sent the climbers back to earth from three-fourths of the way up the towering abbey walls. Everybeast quickly reloaded and sent a second storm of shafts down on the rest of the vermin. Redwallers whooped and cheered as the weasels beast a hasty retreat, chased by more barbed shafts.
Zartho watched in stunned amazement as the Redwallers found and neutralized his secret attack. These weren’t the ignorant woodland bumpkins they appeared to be. Should he continue and throw his entire horde at them in a full-out assault? He’d win, but he’d lose much of his forces, and most or all of the slaves that were to be taken. Or, he could retreat and think up a better plan. After a few minutes of internal debate, he made his decision. Zartho motioned a ferret forward, “Go tell General Smoke to abandon his assault and return to camp, they aren’t as inexperienced as they first seemed. We will need a new plan.” The scout nodded and began to turn, then froze. “Oh go on!” Zartho snarled and the ferret rusted off. Zartho turned his back on the abbey and began walking back to camp, his blood pounding with frustration. He hadn’t even unsheathed his sword! Taking Redwall would take more planning than he had expected.
Rorc escaped to the only place he could still see, the world of dreams. Here, his blindness was gone, colors were vivid again, movements clear and defined. It was an escape from the darkness of his waking life, if it could be balled an escape. For the realm of dreams was as fickle as a slope of scree, at times holding him up, at others sending him sliding and bumping down into the depths of his most miserable memories. At other times the dreams were neither happy nor sad, but vague and mysterious, as if they were from another life that drifted just outside his memory.
Rorc found himself in a world of white. The first sensation he felt was something cold, hard, and slippery underpaw. Ice, he thought, must be winter. Then a snowball came sailing past. Yep, defiantly winter. Rorc heard himself chuckling, and somebeast laughing fit to burst beside him. Rorc’s memory-self glanced sideways and he saw Rubah carrying a sword in its sheath. Rorc looked over his shoulder at the shore and saw a black-furred ferret standing on the bank. That’s Zorr. Rorc thought, Ah, I know what we’re doin’.
Rorc heard Rubah calling to Zorr, who was gathering another snowball. “Zorr, why don’t ya come out ‘ere? The pond’s covered in ice, ya can’t fall through.” There was a slight pause. “Here, we’ll put it right here for ya. Y’can come an’ get it whenever ya like!” Rubah put the sword down and moved off to the side.
Zorr reached behind an aspen near him and pulled out a bow and some arrows. “You bring it back you bullies! My Da gave that to me, an’ jes’ ‘cause yer th’ Taggerung an’ th’ Chief’s son doesn’t mean y’ can take what ya want!”
“Actually,” said a voice from the trees, “it does.” The weapons master Bloodpaw stepped out of a grove of trees where he had been hidden. “Even if they were taking the sword to keep it, the law of the Juska says that if you aren’t strong enough to keep yore possessions, you lose them.”
“Fine,” said Zorr, “I’ll take it then.” He raised the bow and took aim.
Rorc and Rubah were in a tight spot, they were on a flat, open pond with no cover. The ice would prevent them from any fast moving. In short, they were sitting ducks to any respectable archer. Rorc’s memory-self only laughed though. There was a whirr and a snap as Rorc’s blade traversed the distance between them and cut through the bowstring, cutting a few of Zorr’s whiskers as it zipped off and buried itself in a gnarled tree beyond. With no more resistance, the bow sprang apart and the loss of tension was so sudden that Zorr lost his balance and fell flat on his back.
Rorc heard himself calling out, “You’ll ‘ave t’be quicker than that if ya want t’ stick an arrow in me.” Zorr sat up and began nursing his paw, which he had cut on the arrow as his paw had spring forward when the bowstring was cut.
Suddenly there was a cracking noise, followed by a yelp and a splash. Rorc’s view spun around, making him slightly dizzy. Rubah was nowhere to be seen, only a broken hole in the ice. Rorc waited for a few seconds, and when Rubah didn’t appear, he dove in.
In an instant, all sounds were gone. The creak of trees laden with snow, the cursing of Zorr as he sucked the blood from his paw, the crunch of snow underpaw, all vanished to be replaced by only the creaking of ice. Dim light filtered through the ice, and Rorc was thankful that it was early winter and the ice was still translucent. He looked around and saw Rubah floating below him, the shock of the cold water had left him completely disorientated. Rorc grabbed him and pushed upward through the water. He broke the surface and heaved Rubah onto solid ice. Rorc then took a deep breath and pushed off the bottom of the ice. About ten feet down he turned around and rocketed toward the surface, leaping clear of the water and onto the ice. Rorc picked Rubah up, throwing him over his shoulder, and started for camp and a warm fire, retrieving his dagger along the way. Rorc knew he was fine, with his waterproof coat, but he wasn’t sure about Rubah. The fox’s wet fur could be the death of him if he didn’t get some warmth.
From over his shoulder, Rubah coughed, ridding himself of the water he had swallowed. “Did ya get yer dagger?” he asked. Rorc laughed and set the fox down, he would be fine.
Rubah looked sideways at Rorc, “Remind me to be wary th’ next time ya want t’ ‘ave some ‘fun’.”
The sound of snow crunching underpaw faded and was replaced by the rustle of dry leaves. The humid head of summer settled over everything, slowing life to a lazy crawl.
“Ya hear that?”
Rorc looked sideways at a younger version of Rubah. He looked about ten or eleven seasons old. “No what is it?” Rorc heard himself say.
Rubah’s ears swivled as he tried to pinpoint the location of the sound. “I can’t hear it anymore…” Then he froze, “There it is again!”
This time, Rorc heard it as well. It was this keening scream of somebeast in indescribably pain, mixed with what sounded like pleading. In unspoken consent, both Rorc and Rubah rushed toward the sound.
Rorc burst into a large clearing, Rubah close behind him, and saw a sight that he immediately wished he wouldn’t have to see ever again. A shrew, rapier in paw, was standing over a ferret. The ferret was screaming and pleading with the shrew to have mercy as he tried to drag himself away by his forepaws, his legs dragging uselessly behind him. A crimson trail showed that he had been by the bushes on the far side of the clearing when the shrew jumped him. Now he had made it to the middle, dragging himself the entire way by the looks of his trail.
The shrew looked up as Rorc and Rubah burst into the clearing. He considered the two figures for a second, then kicked the ferret savagely. “I’ll finish you later.” He turned to face the two young ones, who weren’t as old as him combined.
Rorc felt himself throw his dagger, sending it zipping toward the shrew. The shrew dodged to one side, but not fast enough. The blade slashed across his right eye as it flashed past. Through his dream, Rorc winced. Nowadays, he could throw faster, that shrew would’ve been dead.
The shrew capped a paw to his eye, then stared at his own blood that decorated it. He looked at the two Juska rushing at him with a new emotion in his eyes: apprehension.
Rorc had already grabbed a second dagger from Rubah’s belt, and the fox drew the shortsword he had been training with. He had wanted to use a battleaxe, but all the ones the clan owned were too big for him.
The shrew decided that despite their youth, he didn’t want to take any chances. He took to his paws and fled, disappearing into the bushes at the edge of the clearing as Rorc and Rubah arrived by the wounded ferret. Rorc swallowed hard at the horrible wounds that covered the ferret’s body. Both hamstrings were cut, explaining why he hadn’t been able to escape. Hundreds of small puncture wounds covered the ferret’s body, it looked like the shrew had stabbed the ferret over and over with the tip of his rapier, every once in awhile slashing diagonally across the legs, arms, and back.
The ferret’s blood-covered eyelids cracked open, and his bloodied mouth spread into a small smile.
“Taggerung, Rubah, I should’ve known it’d be yew two when that lily-livered, worm-spined, son of frog-spawn took off runnin’.”
“Halfback!” Rubah whispered in horror, “What did ‘e do t’ yew?”
“Jumped me, he did. The sneakin’ spawn of frogfood jumped me while I ‘ad me back turned.” He opened one clenched paw and stared at the forget-me-not that lay in his palm. “It was me mate Thryn’s seasonday today. Strange that I should pick this flower, out of all the blossoms around this season. Give it to ‘er for me, will yew?”
Rorc felt himself kneel next to the dying ferret. “Halfback, you’ll give it to ‘er yoreself. We’ll get you there.”
Halfback gave a rasping laugh and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. “I don’t have time enough, Taggerung. I can see the gates of th’ dark forest approaching. Now my question will be answered: What ‘appens t’ vermin beyond those gates? Woodlanders think we are all evil, and they hope we are tortured forever beyond the gates of death. What is the truth though? I’ve never killed for fun, only when attacked an’ to provide fer Thryn an’ Zorr. Does that make me evil?”
Rorc stared at Halfback and realized with a start just how much blood the ferret had lost. He was visibly thinner, and what skin showed through the blood-soaked fur was as white as the clouds. His gums had lost even a tinge of red, they were a sickly yellow-white color. Halfback began speaking again. “Here comes Vulpuz, the Lord of death himself. His fur is as dark as a cloudy night, his eyes glow like twin embers! He’s opening his mouth to announce my fate…” Halfback gave a shuddering gasp and lay still.
Rorc shot up into a sitting position, drenched with sweat and gasping for air. Only a dream, a memory. He told himself. Gradually, he slumped back down and re-entered his memories.
Rorc was standing on a blood-soaked field. Bodies littered the ground around him, some with the same tattoos that marked his and Rubah’s faces. He was standing over a golden-furred fox, dagger raised threateningly.
“Don’t kill me!” the fox was pleading.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Rorc heard himself ask.
The fox started, “I know you,” he muttered, “or somebeast very like you.”
“Where, when?” Rorc heard himself say. “Tell me an’ I won’t kill you.”
The fox though for a moment. “No, I won’t tell you.”
No, I won’t tell you.
The words echoed through Rorc’s head, drowning out anything else that was said. Rorc saw his dagger come down and plunge into the fox’s heart. A red mist swirled from the body and envelop him, blocking out everything but those words.
No, I won’t tell you.
Now new voices were entering his mind, voices he didn’t recognize.
“Filorn, have you seen that pastie that my Broggle baked earlier today? I left it to cool on the windowsill.”
“No, I haven’t. Although I know where to find it.”
“Yes, you’re probably right.”
There was a short pause, and then the sound of choking, and somebeast being thumped on the back.
“You alright Boorab?”
“Alright? Certainly not sah! Your flippin’ rouge of a son just loaded this confounded drink with blinkin’ hotroot pepper!”
Filorn, Broggle, Boorab, why did all these names and voices sound familiar? The answer seemed to be lurking outside his grasp.
“What are you doin’ me little fish?”
Rorc started as a voice, obviously his, although younger, answered.
“I bees watchen Faver practice.”
These were memories from his life before he became a Juska! Rorc frantically tried to seize the memories, to use them as a key to unlock the rest. Big mistake, he realized as his efforts to hold onto the memories sent them scattering out of his grasp.
Suddenly a paw touched him on the shoulder. He whirled around, dagger in paw; to face the fiercest warrior he had ever seen. His dagger dropped from his paw as his eyes registered this warrior. He was a strong-looking mouse dressing in fine battle armor and carrying a magnificent sword. The fierceness of this warrior didn’t come from his countenance, or from the battle gear he wore, but rather from the steel glint of determination and fearlessness that resided in his eyes. All the same though, his face was kind. The warrior picked up Rorc’s blade and held it out. Rorc reached out and took it, and as he did, the strange warrior opened his mouth and spoke. Rorc listened, knowing that this mouse wouldn’t speak unless it was important.
Then the mysterious warrior turned to leave.
“Wait!” called Rorc. “I don’t understand! What does it mean? Who are you?”
The mouse turned, “You don’t know me Rorc?” He smiled kindly. “No matter, all that is to be known will be made known in time. Now sleep Rorc, sleep without dreams. When you wake, you will begin to see what you must do.”
Then all faded to black, and Rorc slept in peace for the rest of the night.
Rubah had decided that since Rorc was blind, they’d probably end up staying here. As much as his wandering streak hated it, Rorc couldn’t go anywhere, and Rubah wasn’t about to leave him to fend for himself. Making sure the area was clear, the fire doused, and Rorc more or less hidden, Rubah had gone off in search of some small hovel or cave that would make a good home for them. Rubah preferred caves to erected dwellings, they had many advantages. A nice, dry cave would keep out the elements, and if he disguised the entrance, he could keep most unwanted visitors from stumbling in. As an added bonus, the temperature would stay pretty much the same year-round.
After a couple of hours searching, Rubah decided he should probably return to camp. Rorc would be up now, and besides, he was getting hungry. As he neared the camp, Rubah slowed down. If anybeast had arrived since he left, there was no reason to announce that he was coming. Also, it’d be fun to see if he could sneak up on Rorc. He had done so successfully a few times yesterday, which was more than he used to. Rubah slowed and crept quietly toward the camp. Parting some brush, he looked upon the camp. All was how he left it, except for Rorc, who was sitting with his back against a beech tree. He had his eyes closed and was twirling his amber-handled dagger in one paw absentmindedly. His rudder was tapping itself against his leg of its own accord, as it always did when he was deep in thought.
Rubah slipped out of the bushes, ears and whiskers twitching, and snuck behind a large oak trunk. The tree was so large that if Rubah had stood against it, paws outstretched, he wouldn’t have made it halfway around the massive trunk. Why am ah hidin’? he thought, ‘E can’t see me in th’ firs’ place. Rubah crept around the trunk of the great oak and began to silently creep forward toward Rorc.
Rorc’s rudder-tapping stopped. The amber-handled blade stopped spinning, Rorc grasping it by the tip of the blade. A slow smile spread across his tattooed features. He laughed quietly. “Yew can’t sneak up on me anymore, Rubah.” His eyes lazily opened and stared at someplace beyond Rubah’s shoulder.
The fox took a step back in surprise, then relaxed. “ ‘Ow did yew—”
Two blades slammed into the oak a hairsbreadth from either side of Rubah’s head. Rubah froze, “Rorc ya gotta be careful with those blades, ya can’t see what yer…can’t see what yer…what yer…can see…Flames, Rorc! Ya coulda told me ya could see again instead of scarin’ th’ fur offa me!”
Rorc smiled, a happy, joyful smile that he hadn’t used much lately. “I had a dream last night, Rubah. I heard fragments of memories of my life before the Juska, but I can’t remember any of them know, I just know I had them. What happened after, though, is seared into my mind. I don’t think any length of time could wipe it away.”
“Well, what was it?”
A faraway look came into Rorc’s eyes. “I was surrounded by a red mist, an’ then this mouse warrior appeared out of the fog. “I was a real tough-lookin’ warrior, he looked like he could beat both o’ us single-pawed. ‘E spoke to me, an’ I was never good at rememberin’ rhymin’ stuff, as y’know, but this stuck in me ‘ead.
“I asked what it meant,” Rorc continued, “But all ‘e said was when I woke, I’ll begin to see what I must do.”
“So he cured yore eyes?” Rubah asked, “He ‘as my thanks for that.” He though a moment, “So what’re ya gonna do ‘bout this riddle?”
“Sounds more like some kind of prophecy to me.” Rorc retrieved his daggers and retuned them to his belt. “Follow it, what else? Th’ beginning is real clear, ‘Go north’ it says. Well, that’s not hard.”
Rubah swung his axe over his shoulder, then buckled the rest of his gear on. “More walkin’!” He moaned in mock horror, but inside he was joyful. Rorc was back to his normal self. The only thing that could make this better is if ah find me family. He thought jokingly.
Book 3: Choices
Life is full of voices,
Offering you different choices.
Choose carefully my friend,They will affect you ‘till the end.
The mood at Redwall had lightened considerably since Zartho’s retreat. Once again the laughter of the dibbuns filled the corridors of the abbey, and everybeast went about their chores with a light heart. It didn’t seem so tedious now to have a constant sentry duty.
There were, however, some dark places in the abbey, where the laughter and lightheartedness of the kitchens or orchards seemed foreign. The infirmary was filled with wounded defenders, and Egburt and Floburt were worried about the state of their stores. Redwall hadn’t had a crisis for some seasons, so the stores of herbs were large, but if the war lasted too long, there could be shortages. Then there were the small patches of overturned earth on the abbey grounds, the final resting place for the fallen. Flowers were scattered in abundance upon the fresh earth, the last gifts of the living to the dead.
In spite of these things, most beasts seemed optimistic. Filorn had commented that Kotir was very dry and surprisingly comfortable when she and the Dibbuns returned. There was even a rumor that Zartho wouldn’t return, that he had been seen traveling back the way he had come, taking his armies with him. Redwall’s defense leaders knew better though. They were gathered around a table in Cavern Hole, discussing further defense options. The small group consisted of Deyna, Abbess Mhera, Foremole Gundil, Skipper, Boorab, who attended because he was the only hare, and knew a surprising amount about warfare, Log-a-log Balor, and Log-a-log Radew, who had arrived the day before. Thorne, as Skipper’s second for all practical purposes, attended as well.
Deyna shook his head wearily. “Zartho won’t just pack up and leave after one battle. As many warlords, he sees Redwall as a trophy, a place nobeast has ever conquered and held for more than a day.”
Foremole raised a heavy digging claw, “Oi think thart ee varmit wants to take Reedwull whole, burr aye!”
“Why do you say that, Gundil?” asked Mhera.
“Wull Miz Mhera, oi dinnent need to block ee east wallgater, th’ varmints leeft et alone.”
“So Zartho wants Redwall undamaged,” Skipper mused, “That could work in our favor, he won’t try t’ burn ‘is way in at least.”
“That’s beside the point.” said Log-a-log Radew, “We need more beasts. Is there anybeast you ‘aven’t sent to?”
Mhera’s eyes wandered around the room as she thought along with everybeast else. They landed on Boorab, who was chewing on his right eartip in concentration. “Of course!” she cried, banging her paw on the table, “Why didn’t we think of that before? We should ask Salamandastron for help! Russano could surely spare a few hares to help us out.”
“Aye!” Said Skipper, “Russano will ‘elp us. I say we send somebeast b’fore sunset.”
Heads nodded around the table. “Well then,” said Mhera, “I say we send Boorab. One, he’s a hare, and can get there faster than anybeast else. Two, because he’s fast, he should be able to evade any patrols Zartho has out.”
Boorab stood up and waved a paw about. “From my exalted position as assistant cook, I very humbly accept this all-important mission that couldn’t be entrusted to anybeast else besides this ever-humble hare. I will not return until my mission is complete!” Boorab spun on his heel, nearly fell, and shot off to pack.
As he disappeared out the door that led to the kitchens, a mouse entered. Throwing a brief salute, he gave his report. “There’s a crew of otters and threescore squirrels at the east wallgate, Abbess.”
“Thank you.” Mhera told him as everybeast rose.
Outside on the abbey grounds, a mixed group of otters and squirrels milled around the east wallgate, drinking in the sights and sounds of the abbey. A brawny otter stood slightly apart from the rest, looking around expectantly. He wore a rough tunic, belted around his waist with a large brown belt. A scabbard hung crossways along his back containing a double-edged sword. The hilt was a simple affair, with a straight crossguard and black-bound grip. He also wore three gold tailrings and an earring in his right ear. A thick white scar stretched down over his left eye and across his throat, giving his a fearsome appearance.
“Ahoy, Skipper Alcor!” Skipper hailed the battlescarred otter.
The other Skipper turned and spied Skipper, his face breaking into a grin. “Well, if it isn’t ole Skipper Rothun! Yew’ve gone grey since I saw ya last.” Everybeast looked at Skipper curiously, wondering how far back the two otters went that Alcor knew Skipper’s name. Thorne looked slightly gratified, as if he had asked Skipper that question many times before and it hadn’t been answered.
“Yore a naughty young pike, Alcor.” Said Skipper, then winced as if he had touched a painful memory. Pushing it away, he continued. “Yes missed the Hullaballo las’ summer, so that would make it what? Nineteen seasons since I saw ya last? That’s a long time.”
“Aye, I remember the las’ time I saw ya.” Alcor leaned against a nearby tree. “It was my first season as Skipper, an’ yew gave me some pretty good tips.” Then he spotted Thorne, who was standing a little behind Skipper. He stood in front of the younger otter and looked him up and down. “Don’t tell me.” Said Alcor, “Is this mound of otterflesh that I see b’fore me the same Thorne that was just a little kit when I saw ‘im last? My, my, yew were only eleven seasons old then, and always gettin’ into trouble with yer mate. Pike, wasn’t it? Where is ‘e by the way?”
Thorne tuned away, tears springing into his eyes. Rothun took Skipper Alcor by the shoulder. “We need to talk.” He murmured, and drew the bewildered otterchief off. Thorne wandered off towards the abbey pond and the ash tree. Mhera stared after him and shook her head sadly.
“He shouldn’t have to go through this.” She murmured sadly.
Deyna tapped a red-furred squirrel on the shoulder. “Who are you with?” He asked as the squirrel turned towards him.
“We’re with Rowan.” The squirrel said, pointing at an older brown-furred squirrel. Deyna nodded his thanks and approached the squirrel. Grey hairs speckled his brown fur, but he carried himself with the grace of somebeast who extruded energy. Something about this squirrel seems familiar. Thought Deyna as he approached. The squirrel noticed him and stepped forward to meet him, paw outstretched in greeting.
“Hello, I’m Rowan. I heard that Redwall could use some help, so I gathered some friends and came as soon as I could. I met up with Skipper Alcor during the last leg of the journey, so I joined him. You could say I’m the leader of these squirrels, but they only follow me voluntarily.” He paused for a moment, “Who are you?” he asked finally.
Deyna smiled, the squirrel was obviously not completely at ease yet. “I’m Deyna, the Redwall champion. We’re grateful that you came, we’re a little outnumbered.” Deyna felt Mhera nudge him in the ribs. “Okay, so we are really outnumbered.” He amended.
“Well, we couldn’t stand by and watch while Redwall is overrun. You may not realize it, but Redwall acts as a sort of filter for the rest of Mossflower. The big hordes attack Redwall and get broken into tiny bands, which the rest of Mossflower can deal with more easily. As long as Redwall stands, Mossflower is pretty safe.” He looked around in wonder. “I used to live near here with my wife and our little maid, but we never visited.”
“You have a wife and little one?” Asked Mhera, looking around, “Where are they?”
Tears filled the old warrior’s eyes. “They left for the dark forest many seasons ago, may they rest on those green-leafed trees in peace.” His eyes hardened as he fingered the hilt over his shoulder. “Attacked by a vermin band we were, we fought well, but there were too many. They were mostly foxes, with a weasel or two sprinkled in. They knocked me out and dragged me away. I can only assume that they killed my family, they weren’t with me when I woke, and the vermin gave no sign that they had gotten away. Fourteen seasons I was their slave, cleaning up after their brawls and drunken rampages. They took many more slaves, which they sold to other vermin bands in exchange for nettle beer and weapons. Then one night I stole the Chieftain’s blade and slew them all.” Mhera looked slightly sickened at the thought, but she didn’t say anything, nor did Rowan seem to notice. He continued without pause, his eyes staring, his voice shaking with emotion. “I slew them because they slew my wife. I slew them because they slew my child. I slew them for all the slaves they took. I slew them for all the beatings and cuts and bruises I endured for the fourteen seasons I was at their non-existent mercy!” Rowan stopped, breathing heavily. “After that,” he continued in a calmer tone, “I considered coming back to look for them, but what would I find? Any bones would’ve been covered long ago, and if they survived, Kiera would’ve found a new husband by now. So I traveled north, away from all that would remind me of them. I found these squirrels living in a loose colony and I’ve lived with them ever since. I’ve tried to forget about my life down here, but when your otter, whats-his-name, Ross, wandered through and told us of your request I couldn’t refuse to come.”
“It’s very noble of you to endure painful memories to come to our aid.” Said Mhera. Deyna noticed the kitchen crew handing out drinks to the newcomers and wondered if he could get one as well, or if Fwirl would tell him to go and get himself one. “I hope you time spent here will put your heart at rest.” Mhera concluded. Rowan looked down at his footpaws, hiding whatever emotion was in his eyes from everybeast.
Deyna felt a tap on the shoulder and gratefully accepted a beaker of cold mint tea from Fwirl, smiling his thanks. He drained it in one draught, rolling his eyes with satisfaction as he cold liquid ran down his throat. Fwirl moved over to Rowan and gently laid a paw on his shoulder. Rowan glanced up and accepted the beaker without a word, returning his gaze to the ground below. Then he did a doubletake. The beaker went smashing to the ground as Rowan held Fwirl at arm’s length. “Kiera, is that you?” he gasped. “But…how?”
Fwirl, slightly shaken, reached up to remove his paws from her shoulders. “I’m afraid you mistook me for somebeast else, sir. My name isn’t Kiera, it’s Fwirl.”
Rowan gulped, “F-Fwirl? My Fwirly-Whirly?”
Fwirl took a step back, recognition dawning across her features. “Daddy? Daddy!” She threw herself wholeheartedly into his arms, both of their voices choked with joy. “Daddy, I thought I’d never see you again!”
Rowan hugged her close. “All these seasons I thought you were dead, what a fool I was to try to forget you in hopes of forgetting my pain.”
Surprised murmurs began spreading, and Deyna watched in amazement as the laughing, crying, joyous duo moved away, everybeast else completely forgotten.
“You have to meet my husband Broggle. Oh, and you didn’t know, but you’re a grandfather!”
“I am? Goodness, this is almost too much to take in!”
A long-overdue family reunion can make dibbuns out of all of us. Thought Deyna, grinning.
“Here comes Boorab, we’d better see him off before we go celebrate with Fwirl.” Mhera said as a figure stumbled towards them, an enormous pack strapped across its back.
Deyna raised his eyebrows as Boorab staggered closer. “Boorab, how do you expect to get to Salamandastron when yer carrying twice your weight in vittles?”
There was a muffled thump as the hare shrugged the sack off. “How d’ya expect me t’get all th’ flippin’ way to the mountain if I don’t have proper vittles? A chap gets a tad hungry runnin’ t’ Salamandastron and back!” Boorab heaved the pack up again and began to stagger toward the wallgate. “Huh, flippin’ waterwhalloper pro’bly wants t’ eat all th’ food hisself, blinkin’ hog.”
The hare began frantically tugging the sack (which had dropped to the ground) toward the eastern wallgate as Broggle came around the corner of the abbey, carrying a much smaller sack.
“Boorab, apple turnovers and strawberry tarts are not travel food!” The rather fat abbey cook grabbed the panicking hare. Removing the heavy sack, he replaced it with a lighter one. “Here’s some food that’ll actually keep. Off y’go now, don’t forget your mission.”
Boorab stared glumly at the sack in his paw. “But it’s blinkin’ tiny. How am I supposed to get to Salamandastron on a few measly crumbs?”
Mhera blinked at him flatteringly, “Oh, but Boorab you have to. The whole abbey’s depending on you. You were the only beast that could possibly perform this daring and dangerous task. You’ll nearly be saving Redwall single-pawed.” Then she played her trump card, “Besides, there’s a feast if we defeat Zartho and I don’t see how we possibly can if nobeast goes to Salamandastron.”
Boorab swung the lighter pack onto his shoulder. “Don’t worry, m’gel. I won’t let you down!”
“Boorab?” Mhera said as the hare bounded toward the open wallgate.
“Take a rest break along the way.”
Today is a joyous day for my family, and one of the best I have ever experienced. My mother has found a father she though dead, I have gained a grandfather, and even now my father is talking to the first beast that has the title “Father” in their relationship.
Abbess Mhera immediately urged my father to concoct a feast for the special occasion, but he put it off, saying that he needs a few days to prepare, but I know better. He could have a feast ready by suppertime, but he wants to impress Grandpa Rowan (It still feels strange calling somebeast my grandfather) with his cooking skills. He’ll take those few days to make sure that everything is absolutely perfect. But now it’s time to have tea with my grandfather, isn’t that exiting?
Rosabel set the quill aside and washed her paws off in the washbasin alongside the recorder’s desk. Even after the four seasons she had been Redwall’s recorder, it still came back and surprised her every once in awhile that Abbess Mhera had chosen her to be the recorder. It was tiring sometimes, the writing was sometimes tedious, but even with the messy ink, the dusty old records, even with those things she wouldn’t trade her job for anything.
The bedroom-turned-recorder’s office’s door creaked open as Fwirl poked her head in. “You finished Rosabel?”
Rosabel pushed the ashwood chair back from the desk and stood up. “Yes, I just finished.”
Arbuc and Awavian sat in the corner of Cavern Hole, scanning the crowd of Redwaller and other woodlanders enjoying their mid-afternoon repast. Awavian’s crutches leaned against the wall and his footpaw rested across an unused chair. Arbuc had commented that it was healing well, and he should be able to walk without the crutches by the beginning of summer. Awavian spread a scone with blackberry jam and took a huge bite. Oblivious to the roar of the many voices in the hall, he closed his eyes and chewed slowly, savoring the sweet tartness of the jam. Arbuc stole the rest of his friend’s scone and promptly ate it, a mischievous grin on his face. Awavian sat bolt upright, glaring at Arbuc. Opening his mouth to say something, he paused. Shrugging, he grabbed another scone and began spreading more jam.
“Everybeast looks too relaxed in here. Ye’d think they’d forgotten all about Zartho and his ilk.”
“Ilk?” Arbuc raised an eyebrow, “Where’d that come from?”
Awavain waved it off. “Father used it every once in awhile, but that’s beside the point. He’s waiting for us to let our guard down, I know it.”
Arbuc nodded slowly, his tongue probing his teeth for any stray crumbs. “I know, but what can we do besides wait for Boorab to return with the Long Patrol? We can’t leave Redwall to attack, his horde would squash us like gnats.”
Awavian sighed as he leaned back, “So it’s a waiting game?”
“I hate waiting games.”
Even though it was broad daylight outside, it was dark in the tent; the main source of light was candles. The thick fabric of the tent blocked out most of the sunlight, and only a thin beam slipped between the closed flaps of the tent.
Zartho glared at the table in front of him. Reconfiguring the pins that represented his forces for the thousandth time, he glared at the map they were pinned to. He just couldn’t seem to hit upon a foolproof plan. He shifted his gaze to his seer, who sat on the floor, staring once again at the jumble of objects before her.
“What do you see, vixen?”
Shavant shook her head and massaged her right ear. “The omens are behaving oddly, as are my visions. It’s as if somebeast is only allowing me to see the part, and not the whole. As far as I can make out, there are two great warriors approaching this area from the south. I do not know of their location, nor when they will arrive. What I do know is that one has a connection to the Redwall champion, and the other has a connection to somebeast within this very camp.”
Zartho waved a paw dismissively, “I heard all that yesterday, is there anything new?” The seer shook her head uncertainly. The larger fox sighed and returned to glaring at the map.
A bright beam of sunlight burst into the dim tent, dazzling the eyes of those inside. Zartho looked up irritably as a wildcat stalked in, moving with the coiled grace common to his kind. Saluting respectfully, he cleared his throat and spoke, his voice a low purr.
“Commander, General Dagger wishes to speak with you. He has a fox and a riverdog with him. He says they are his prisoners, but they walk freely.”
Zartho drew his knife and pawed the blade ill-temperedly, “Go and bring him in.” The cat nodded and exited hastily, recognizing his commander’s ill-temper. After a few moments, the flaps of the tent parted again, this time to admit the sable-furred General.
“Dagger.” Zartho whispered, glaring at the weasel as he fiddled with this knife. “I remember giving certain instructions that I was not to be disturbed unless the woodlanders were within bowshot of this tent. Are they?” He asked, roaring the question at the nervous General.
Dagger swallowed before answering, and the two hordebeasts from his patrol looked at him in alarm. It was largely thought among the horde that nothing could faze the weasel General, even though that had been proven wrong once already, but it was still disturbing to them to see.
“No Commander, but—”
Zartho cut him off. “Then why are you here? You know what to do, the fox reports to General Smoke, and the riverdog is disposed of.”
Rorc heard this from his position between two of the larger weasels, and his paw dropped to his dagger reflexively. The weasel on his left noted this movement and half-drew his sword threateningly. Rorc stared at his guard challengingly and the weasel replaced the blade, some inner sense warning him that it wouldn’t be a good idea to draw his sword.
“I was going to, Commander.” Dagger replied, “But he made an interesting claim. He says he is the Juskaron’s Taggerung.”
Zartho’s eyes flickered over to Shavant; the seer was eyeing the otter with interest. He motioned Dagger aside to look at this “Taggerung” himself. This otter was taller than any other he had seen, with the possible exception of Redwall’s champion, but he had only seen the one called Deyna from a distance, so it was hard to tell. His gaze momentarily flickered over to the fox, and he felt a stir of recognition, but he pushed it aside, it could wait. The riverdog’s sole article of clothing was a pair of shorts, along with a dark belt that held twin daggers of exceptional quality. The otter seemed perfectly at ease, his muscles loose and relaxed. Zartho realized Dagger was speaking.
“…am inclined to believe him. The one Juska I had on my patrol, a tough beast I haven’t ever seen run from a battle, ran from him. Him and the fox.”
Rorc stared at the large dog fox in front of him. He looked familiar, but Rorc was sure he hadn’t seen him before. The clink of chain mail shifted his gaze to Rubah. Performing a double-take, he looked between Zartho and Rubah. Stepping forward, he looked at Zartho inquisitively. “Sir,” he said, making sure he had the fox’s attention, “do you have any offspring?”
Shavant started forward, “You should not speak unless spoken to, riverdog.” She hissed.
Zartho waver her away, interested as to why the otter would ask such a question. “I had one son, but he disappeared as a kit.”
“I thought so.” Rorc laughed, “Rubah, it seems we’ve found yore family b’fore mine.”
This statement drew gasps of surprise from almost everybeast in the room, and even Dagger’s normal composure slipped for a moment as his eyes widened. But the General never showed any emotion for long and his undisturbed mask was replaced almost immediately.
Rorc watched Zartho intently, trying to gauge what was going on inside the fox’s head. He was fighting with some emotion; Rorc was certain of it, but what emotion was it? Joy? Disbelief? Maybe apprehension, worried that Rubah would try to unseat his authority? Whatever it was, it didn’t take Zartho long to quell it.
Zartho looked Rubah over, finally recognizing a younger version of himself behind the facial tattoos. He wasn’t about to readily accept the notion of some Juska riverdog yet though. “If you’re supposed to be my son, how did you end up with the Juska?”
Rubah knew the answer to that one. “A ferret sold me to the Juskaron when I was a few weeks old for a flask of grog. “‘E told Scar to keep me hidden unless he had a death wish. Then he left, nervously looking around as if he was afraid of being followed. At least that’s what Scar, the chieftain of the Juskaron and my adopted father, told me.”
“Kern.” Muttered Zartho in a voice so soaked with hate it made the fur on Rorc’s back stand on end. “He’d do anything for a drop of grog.” Zartho put those thoughts away and held out his paw. “Welcome home.”
Rubah took the paw and shook it. “It’s good to be back.”
Then something happened that shattered even Dagger’s reserve. Zartho pulled Rubah toward him and embraced him. For a moment Rorc watched with indifference, he had seen plenty of fathers embrace their children, especially after they did well in a round of practice duels. But as he looked at the amazed faces around him, he realized this was an unheard-of show of affection.
A mystical voice whispered at his elbow, “So, the old Zartho is back.”
Rorc looked at the vixen with interest. “What do you mean?”
Shavant continued, “The Commander wasn’t always so sadistic. In fact, seventeen seasons ago any kills he made were quick compared to what he does now. Then he and his second, Kern, had a fight, and Zartho won. They had been friends for life, so Zartho didn’t kill him. Instead, after bruising him up quite a bit, he demoted the ferret to a common soldier and left it at that. In revenge, Kern killed Zartho’s mate, a pretty, but deadly, vixen by the name of Jentha. She had just given birth their firstborn and was in no shape to defend herself. Then Kern fled, taking the kit with him. Commander Zartho began practicing torture techniques then, no doubt in preparation for Kern when he’s finally captured.
Zartho held his son at arm’s length and looked him over. Finally noticing the stunned faces of the guards and Dagger he let go of Rubah and stepped toward them. “Out! Don’t jes’ stand there gawkin’, get out b’fore I get my sword!”
There was a frantic scramble for the door and within moments the only creatures left in the tent were the three foxes and Rorc. Zartho pointed to the tent flap. “Only Rubah stays.”
Shavant got up obediently and left, but Rorc remained where he was. Zartho raised and eyebrow, “Are you sure you want to disobey me?”
“I’m not disobeyin’ you.” Rorc replied. “I’m not in yer horde.”
“True enough, you can stay.” Zartho turned back to Rubah. “So, tell me what you’ve done for the last sixteen seasons.”
Zartho listened intently to the story of his son’s life, looking bored at the descriptions of gathering food and digging dens for the winter, laughing at their pranks. His eyes shone with excitement as Rubah recounted their raids and battles, with Rorc’s assistance on some parts. Zartho praised Rubah lavishly after he heard the Juskaron battle, then went back to boredom as Rubah recounted the trek. He was silent as Rubah told him of the crazed ferret, and how he died.
“So,” Zartho mused, sitting back in his chair. “Kern is dead. I would’ve liked to do it myself, but can’t help that now.” He motioned for Rubah to continue. Although he chuckled at their fight to commandeer the searat vessel, and shifted with unease as they described their stay at the mountain of Salamandastron. The hours flew by as he asked them more questions. The crack of light coming into the tent had dimmed by the time Rubah finished their tale. Zartho thought the story over. He has a few soft spots, nothing I can’t knock out of ‘im. He glanced at the axe that hung across his son’s back. They’re gonna have to be good fighters if they’re gonna hang onto those weapons. Badger-made weapons are hard to come across.
The rustle of cloth caught Rorc’s attention and he looked over his shoulder just as two more foxes entered. On was slightly younger-looking than Zartho, and the other was young enough to be a daughter. They stopped, the tent flap pulled aside, and whispered furiously at each other. The young vixen glanced toward where Zartho and Rubah were talking, obviously wishing to enter, but the dog fox pointed out the door of the tent forcefully. Eyes flashing, she left.
General Smoke drew near and bowed. “Congratulations Commander. I heard that you found your son and you have recruited the Taggerung. I came to greet this Lordship,” he bowed to Rubah, “and to tell you that a tent has been set up beside yours for him.”
“So they are common knowledge now?” Zartho asked.
There was a ghost of a smile on Smoke’s lips as he answered, “Sir, they were common knowledge b’fore they got to your tent.”
“Why? They don’t take notice of every prisoner.”
“No.” Smoke agreed, “But any former Juska recognized the Taggerung and were either following him, tellin’ everybeast about it, or hidin’ in terror.”
Zartho laughed at this last comment, but as he glanced at Rorc the otter saw suspicion in those eyes. He doesn’t trust me; he thinks I might try to take his place. Rorc thought, aloud he said, “I don’t know why they’re hidin’, I can’t ‘ave attacked any of ‘em.”
Smoke raised an eyebrow, “How do you know that?”
Rorc shrugged, “If I attacked them, they’d be dead.”
Zartho laughed, “Well said. As my General said, there’s a tent next to mine for your use Rubah. Taggerung,” the title was laced with a hint of sarcasm, “you will have to sleep with Rubah until we can get a tent for you.” As they turned to leave Zartho added, “Look around the camp tomorrow, but don’t interrupt me.”
The stars were bright in the dark sky when they stepped out of the tent. Rubah walked over to the only tent within twenty paces and was about to enter when the sight of an unlit torch made him pause. “It’ll be dark inside.” He muttered as he grabbed the torch and made for the nearest campfire. “Let’s have a little light.”
Rorc hung back as Rubah stepped into the circle of light and walked up to the campfire. Best we should watch each other’s backs for the first few days, at least until everybeast recognizes Rubah as Zartho’s son. As Rubah lit the torch, the weasels around the campfire began to mutter. One stood up and leveled his spear at Rubah.
“Hey Foxie, this is our campfire. What’re ya doin’ in this camp anyway, huh?” Emboldened by the chorus of agreement from this mates he continued. “What’re ya doin’ out alone anyways? Y’know, foxies out alone get spitted.” He began to move toward Rubah, jabbing with his spear. As Rubah reached for his axe, an amber-handled dagger whizzed out of the darkness and thudded into the spearshaft just above the weasel’s paw. Rorc stepped into the firelight, spinning his other dagger lazily.
“Who says he’s alone?”
General dagger appeared next to the spear-wielding weasel, causing more unease. Usually, the Generals didn’t interfere with minor scraps between a few hordebeasts, even if a few died. He whispered silkily into the weasel’s ear, loud enough for the rest of the group to hear. “That “foxie” is the Commander’s son. I would apologize before he tells the Commander, don’t you think?”
The spear dropped from the weasel’s nerveless paws and he scrambled back to pick it up. Standing at attention, sweat broke out on his forehead as he stammered, “S-sorry yer lordship, won’t do it again.”
Rubah grabbed the spear and the weasel fell to the ground in terror. But Rubah only removed the dagger from the shaft and dropped the spear back on the cringing hordesbeast. “Make sure you know the rank of yore victim next time, right? Oh, and remember this face, that can’t be so hard.” Then Rubah left, the weasel hardly daring to believe his good fortune.
When they were out of the firelight, Rubah handed the dagger back to Rorc. “Nice throw.”
Rorc chuckled as he replaced the dagger, “He’ll be remembering yore mug for awhile, it’s too scary to forget.”
“Speak for yourself! Nobeast recognizes yew as an otter at first glance.”
Rorc grinned and held the tent flap aside, then followed Rubah in. “Not bad.” He commented as he looked around the tent, furnished with a bed and a table.
“Are you talking about my comment or the tent?”
Rubah looked at the single bed. “Who gets the bed, for the first time since we left Salamandastron?”
Rorc made a mock bow, “Oh, you do, yore Lordship.”
Rubah laughed, “Quite a change, now ah have a thousand beasts to do whatever ah want.”
“More than the Juskaron anyway.” Rorc laughed, then paused as he heard a sound that he had grown to know in his seasons with the Juska, the whisper of a blade being drawn from a leather sheath. “Down!” He shouted, his rudder taking Rubah’s footpaws out from under him. Dropping to a low crouch, he felt the wind brush him as a dagger zipped over his head. From the flickering light of the torch, he saw a weasel launch himself at them from behind the bed, a long knife in paw. He felt Rubah roll away and relaxed. Rubah knew he liked to deal with his assassins himself, and he usually was good at staying out of the way. Rorc rolled to the left as the weasel landed. He felt the world begin to slide away and let it go, welcoming the rage. Rubah seemed to disappear, as did most of the tent. Only the weasel remained, and Rorc’s mind highlighted vulnerable areas. Wrists, neck, eyes, Rorc knew exactly when and how he could hit those weak spots. But he held himself back, testing his opponent’s strength.
The weasel circled in, and Rorc bared his teeth in a feral grin. Like lightning, the weasel struck at his wrist, but Rorc avoided the slash and tapped the weasel’s wrist with the flat of his dagger. Deciding to end the battle, Rorc flew into motion. Deflecting the next slash upwards, he ducked behind the weasel, slicing the inside of his elbow as he passed. Deciding that a stab at the heart would be too difficult, given the thick jerkin the assassin was wearing, he kicked the back of the weasel’s knees. As the weasel collapsed, he moved to the side and spun, slamming his rudder into the weasel’s stomach. As his opponent bent, gasping, Rorc stabbed his dagger into the base of the weasel’s skull.
Shaking his head, Rorc strove to drive away the rage that sharpened his senses, but made it almost impossible to separate friend from foe. Eventually he regained the ability to hear the normal sounds of the night, and his muscles relaxed as he heard the chirping of crickets and the crackle of nearby campfires.
Rubah returned, wiping his paws. “Clean kill, that ‘un.”
Rorc looked surprised, “You got rid o’ ‘im already?”
Rubah nodded, “Told some weasel to get rid o’ the body.”
Rorc snorted, laying down to sleep with a dagger in paw. “Jes’ like visitin’ a Juska clan. Firs’ night here, one assassin disposed of.”
Rorc opened his eyes to the sun streaming into the tent from the open doorway. “Flames,” he muttered, “I forgot to clean off my daggers.”
Rorc laughed from where he sat, “You must’ve been far gone that time if ya don’t remember cleanin’ them off on that jerkin.”
Rorc stared at the dagger clenched in his paw, “I guess I did.” As he replaced the shining blade he noticed that Rubah was eating. “What’s that?”
“Bread.” Rubah replied, popping the last piece into his mouth. “Good too.”
“You ate it all?” Rorc’s voice rose with indignation. “Yer worse than a hare!”
Rubah pulled half a loaf from behind him and tossed it to his friend, “Relax, ah saved some for ya.”
Rorc caught it a stood up. “I’ll eat it as we walk.”
They stepped outside and Rubah turned toward where the foxes seemed to congregate. “I’ve had enough weasels for awhile.” Rorc laughed and followed him.
The morning passed quickly, full of whispers and awkward silences as they passed groups of hordebeasts. They practiced awhile in the training area, but after the first few spars, nobeast accepted a challenge. So they ended up spending most of the morning wandering around, watching the daily happenings of the camp.
Soon Rorc’s stomach announced that it was time for lunch. Rubah looked around, “Ah think ah saw a quartermaster around here somewhere.”
“Don’t ya remember what Smoke said?” Rorc gestured back toward the middle of the camp. “We’re supposed to go back to the tent for meals.”
“So are you coming?”
Rubah didn’t move. “Uh-huh.”
Rorc looked at him quizzically, “Are you listening to me?”
Rorc stared at him for a moment, head cocked, then followed Rubah’s gaze down a few tents. His head swiveled between Rubah and the object of his attention. A slow smile spread across his face. Well, well, who would’ve guessed?
It was the young vixen of last night, the daughter of General Smoke, who held Rubah spellbound. Rorc did have to admit that she looked pretty in her long sweeping dress, dyed a light green and tied around the waist by a soft cord. A small dagger hung at her side in a simple sheath. Her dark red fur lay flat and smooth, the sunlight radiating off the clean surface. Rubah’s movement beside him made Rorc look over, nearly choking on his laughter as he watched Rubah self-consciously smooth his ruffled fur. Rorc glanced back to the vixen and his face began turning red with concealed laughter as he noticed that one she knew she had Rubah’s attention, she was batting her eyelashes furiously.
Rorc coughed to compose himself. “You can, ah, stay here and do what you want. I’ll meet up with you later. Just watch yourself, alright?”
Rubah began moving off, “Uh-huh.”
Rorc moved quickly in the opposite direction, then when he judged he was out of earshot he burst into laughter. When he finally wiped his eyes, he noticed an old grey-furred fox leaning on a notched axe nearby. He was heavily battle-scarred, missing a chunk of his right ear and a patch over one eye. He smiled and Rorc noticed he was missing a canine.
“Reyna’s a pretty one alright, yer friend could live a hundred seasons and not find a prettier vixen, but ya might want to warn him that Captain Banefur, General Smoke’s second, has his eye on ‘er as a mate. He won’t hesitate to kill yore mucker if he finds ‘im hangin’ around with Reyna.”
“Rubah can take care of himself, but I’ll warn him.” Rorc watched the old fox limp away, gave one more laugh, and went to find lunch.
A storm fell across Mossflower that night, a big one, the likes of which nobeast could remember. It continued for four days. It wasn’t just the rain, everybeast had been through a few storms that lasted a couple of days, but the rain wasn’t even thick. The element that kept everybeast inside was the wind. It howled ferociously, ripping tents from the ground and blowing tree limbs into others. To add to that, Clouds covered the sky, thick as a winter blanket, blocking out the sun. Noon was like dusk, and that was the brightest part of the day.
On the fifth day, the storm passed and everybeast vacated their tents in the highest spirits. Rorc and Rubah left their tent as well, laughing and exchanging jibes as they stood in the clearing around their tent. In the middle of their laughter, a voice called to Rubah and he looked around, he loved that voice, it was sweet and melodic.
Soon he spotted her. Reyna, her fur meticulously combed as usual and wearing a brown dress, much like the one he had first seen her in, was running across the clearing towards them, every other fox staring dreamily at her as she passed. Rubah looked at Rorc to see if he’d noticed, but the otter was busy looking off in a different direction.
“Hmm,” he muttered, “the ole fox wasn’t kiddin’.”
“Huh?” Said Rubah as Reyna drew closer.
“In other words, mate.” Rorc said. “Yew better ‘ave yore axe ‘cause here comes Smoke’s second, and ‘e doesn’t look ‘appy to see ya.”
Rubah glanced at the heavyset fox storming across the clearing towards them and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. If ‘e’s lookin’ for a fight, he’ll get one.” Reyna ran straight into his arms and they embraced, Rorc rolling his eyes as she brushed Rubah’s cheek with her lips.
“I though that storm was never going to end.” Reyna said as they drew apart.
“Aye, it feels like forever since I saw you last.” Rubah whispered as he stared into her eyes.
“Forever must’ve gotten shorter since I last checked.” Rorc muttered, “Now it’s the same as yesterday.”
Reyna smiled, amused, “What makes you think I saw him yesterday?”
Rorc groaned, “B’cause when I come back to the tent it takes me five minutes to get him to do anything other than stare off into space and grunt answers.”
Reyna giggled, “Where do you go on your little jaunts?”
“Oh, here and there.” Rorc replied evasively. “Who knows?” He elbowed Rubah in the side, “I might ‘ave found a new friend, since this ‘un is preoccupied.”
Rubah tore his gaze away from Reyna and looked at Rorc. “Wha? What did yew say?”
A rough paw spun Rubah until he was staring into Captain Banefur’s bared fangs. “That’s my vixen yer talkin’ to, pup.” He snarled. “I’d leave ‘er alone if ya don’t want t’ get hurt.”
Rubah shrugged the paw off his shoulder. “I can talk to who I want.”
Banefur went for his sword, but Rubah punched his snout and backed off, slipping his axe off his shoulder. Banefur yelped and held his snout, then he took his paw away, staring at the blood dripping from it. Roaring, he yanked his sword out and charged.
His roar attracted the attention of everybeast within earshot, and soon there was a ring around the two combatants. Reyna sat on a nearby rock, looking on impassively. Rorc cocked his head at her, trying to discern her emotions but found he couldn’t tell whether she cared about the outcome or not. He opened his mouth to say something, but the clash of steel brought his attention back to the battle.
Rubah had deflected Banefur’s first charge easily, and now the two foxes were circling warily, Banefur making short feints, looking for a weakness in Rubah’s defense. Suddenly he struck, feinting to Rubah’s right, then whipping the sword up and over towards his left side. Rubah caught the sword on his axe blade, then returned with a stroke of his own. Banefur dropped to one knee as the axe whistled over his head, and thrust his shortsword forward. Rubah stepped to the side and brought his axe down, shearing through the swordblade.
Banefur tossed the useless hilt aside and drew a wicked-looking dagger. Rolling underneath Rubah’s next swipe, he sprang up and stabbed. Rubah blocked the downward motion of the blade with the axehaft to Banefur’s forearm, but just barely. The axe was useless in such tight quarters, so he tossed it aside and jumped on Banefur, sending them both tumbling to the ground.
Rorc held his breath as he watched the whirling mass of claw, fang and fur with the occasional glint of steel. This indeed was an experienced opponent. Suddenly there was a cry of anguish, and both foxes lay still. The entire camp was silent, not even the cry of a bird could be heard. The only noise was a breeze rustling the new leaves on the trees. Slowly, the body of Banefur was pushed aside and Rubah stood up, bloodstained dagger in paw. Wiping it on the dead fox’s tunic, he slid it through his belt.
A cry of joy broke the silence, and Reyna flew to Rubah. Ignoring the blood that stained his clothes, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I knew you could do it, Rubah! But I was so scared, I though you might slip and he’d kill you!”
Rorc furrowed his brows in confusion. She certainly didn’t look like she feared for Rubah’s life when he was fighting. She’d looked fine with his fight to the death then.
“What’s goin’ on here?” General Smoke’s voice called from the edge of the crowd. A gap opened as he pushed his way to the front. “Now—” He broke off as he saw Banefur’s body. He glanced from the dead fox to Rubah, and from him to Reyna. “Sir,” he said tersely, “You killed my right-paw beast.”
Rubah shrugged, “He provoked me.”
Smoke gritted his teeth, still thoroughly nettled that his second had been killed. “Back to my tent, Reyna.” He snapped. “I want a word with you.”
Rubah stared after her nervously, but she turned and gave him a reassuring smile. Rubah smiled back weakly, not fully content with the situation.
“I don’t think she loves you.” Rorc said quietly as they stared after the General and his daughter.
“Of course she does!” Rubah said, irritated.
Rorc could see that any though path down that way would lead only to a dead end, so he changed the subject. “Y’ wanna ‘ave some fun tonight? I’be noticed the sentries could use somethin’ t’ keep ‘em on their toes.”
Rubah strapped his axe across his back, “Aye, bet they ‘aven’t heard ‘bout the ghosts that haunt these woods.”
It was dark when the duo slipped past the pair of guards set outside the tent. The guards were there, presumably, to stem the tide of beasts seeking to become the Taggerung, though Rorc didn’t see how much good they did.
Slipping among the shadows like wraiths, they skirted campfires, passing close to groups of rowdy hordebeasts who swung their empty mugs as they bellowed out coarse songs of battle and plunder, with a few about chance meetings at taverns thrown in. Rubah and Rorc ignored these drunken beasts, they weren’t the target of their mischief tonight.
Rorc paused as they neared the edge of the encampment. “We should probably tell yore father what we’re up to so their reports don’t get ‘im worked up.”
Rubah shook his head. “Nah, that ruins the fun.”
Rorc shrugged. “Aye, yore right.”
The first sentry came into sight, and they stopped. Donning the black cloaks Rorc had “borrowed” from somebeast’s tent earlier that day, they crept forward.
Falon the weasel longed for his watch to be over. He could hear his mates laughing and singing in the distance…all without him. He shifted impatiently and looked up at the moon, only to find it hidden behind a layer of cloud. Falon had the uneasy sensation that somebeast was watching him, but when he spun around, nobeast was there. The fur on the back of his neck prickling, he turned back to scan the woodland. He let out a yelp as a spectral figure seemed to melt from the darkness and approach him. He stumbled backwards, groping for his dagger—the figure was still far enough away for a good knife throw—but his dagger was missing. Pulling out his sword, he swiped at the figure.
“B-Back!” he stammered, “Y-Yew aren’t welcome ‘ere!”
From where he watched in the shadows, Rubah chuckled. Rorc was playing this perfectly. Falon backing into a large oak, an unforeseen but welcome development. The weasel was still waving his sword and stammering out commands.
“H-Halt! Yew ‘ave no authority to—” A dagger seemed to grow out of the tree beside Falon’s head. He blinked, struck dumb with fear.
“Silent.” Hissed the cloaked figure. “I am the Blade of the Night. I was once a mighty warrior, but now I am only a phantom, doomed to stalk these woods.” The figure darted in and drew a dagger, pressing it against Falon’s throat. The sword dropped from the weasel’s nerveless fingers as the phantom continued. “You know how I died?” Falon shook his head, eyes closed, conscious of the razor-sharp blade at his throat. “It was because a sentry was dozing off on duty.” The figure snarled. “I’ll let you off easy this time, but beware; I’ll be looking for slackers.” With that, the specter sheathed the dagger and melted into the darkness, leaving one stunned and frightened sentry behind.
Rubah was choking with laughter as they hurried outside the sentry’s earshot. “Ha, didja see the look on his face when ya stuck his dagger into the tree? Pure terror.”
Rorc lowered his hood, “Aye, and th’ only reason he was terrified was because of your idea to bring these cloaks. In his mind, we probably look like ghosts.” Rorc made a face and pulled at the fabric. “Though now I remember why I don’t like lots of cloths, too itchy. Y’ can’t feel the wind through yer fur.”
The next sentry was slumped against a tree, snoring to wake the dead. Rubah claimed the role of the awakened dead and took his axe from its shoulder strap. “Mah turn.”
Ayin woke as he was kicked in the side, his empty flagon tumbling from his lap. The fox immediately played the framed soldier. “Ooh, me ‘ead! Ah tink somebeast put somethin’ in me flagon.”
Beer perhaps? Thought Rorc from a branch he was occupying ten feet up in a sturdy maple.
“Silence.” Said a deep grating voice, and Ayin looked up, startled. His mouth went dry with fear. A black-cloaked figure stood before him, a double-bladed axe in paw. Ayin couldn’t see the face of this specter, nor did he want to. The voice continued. “The sentinels of the forest do not take kindly to those who sleep while on duty, they tend to end up dead. In fact,” It took a step closer, hefting the axe, “I should remove your head right now for your stupidity.”
Ayin fell to his knees in terror, his vice deserting him except for the words “no” and “please”.
The cloaked figure considered him for a moment, then relented. “I will spare you once, but do not become distracted again. Our patience is wearing thin.” He turned and strode into the darkness, leaving the fox to resume his post with nervous energy.
Rorc laughed when he rejoined Rubah. “That ‘un won’t blink the rest of his watch, he might be accused of being distracted.”
Rubah laughed, but his laugh was cut short by a chorus of yowls. He glanced at Rorc, and they both sprinted towards the sound. Sliding to a halt a short distance away from the battle, they crept forward.
It was two wildcats, snarling and tumbling about, their swords forgotten on the sidelines. The larger one got the upper paw and pinned the smaller cat underneath. Drawing a dagger, he stabbed his foes heart. “Taunt me now, will yer?” he snarled. As he lifted the dagger and made to lick the blood off—something that made both Juska look disgusted—the cat made his last move, knocking into the dagger handle. The victor screeched once, then lay still, the dagger sunk up to the hilt in his eye.
“They overreacted a little, doncha think?” Said Rubah as they approached.
“I didn’t notice.” Replied Rorc sarcastically as he surveyed the scene. “But we could take this prank to a whole new level. He grinned as he knelt near the larger wildcat, “This is what we need to do…”
Soon after the change of the watch, a wildcat ran into the camp, shouting about what he had seen. The last sentry, dead, with his sword stuck at his side. His tunic hung over the sword with the words “The Blade of the Night has run out of patience” written in blood. Two sentries from the last watch stepped forward with their own tales, and the sleeper was awarded fifty lashes for his lazyness, but the tale as out, nobeast wanted to go near the sentry posts. Eventually General Sawtooth took matters into his own paws.
“Yew heard their stories, the ghosts only attack slackers.” Shouted the large wildcat. “Remain vigilant and you’re alright. Doze off and yore a deadbeast.” When nobeast moved he roared out. “And if ya don’t get back to your posts yore a deadbeast as well!”
As everybeast scattered Sawtooth though over the situation with satisfaction. The sentries will be brilliant now; perhaps he’d make a few rounds and kill any dozers to keep up the belief in these ghosts. That is, unless the ghosts did it themselves.
Arbuc groaned with relief as he stacked the final armful of wood in the cellar. They had been cleaning up after the storm all day. Mhera said that just because there was a war didn’t mean that they should leave the orchard looking a disaster. So anybeast not on guard duty or catching up on sleep was organized to help clean up. Everyone, that is, except Broggle’s kitchen crew. Broggle had decided that his feast would be tomorrow night, and it was the thought of that feast that kept the atmosphere cheerful.
Broggle had locked himself and his helpers in the kitchen, opening the door only a crack at lunchtime to permit some of his helpers to push a tray of food out. The helpers, a mouse and a squirrel, had been immediately bombarded with questions about Broggle’s plans for the feast, but they only pinched their lips together and shook their heads. All the helpers were loyal to Broggle and wouldn’t give out a word he told them not to say, even when Skipper picked them up and made to throw them in the pond, roaring that they’d better tell him if Broggle was serving watershrimp an’ hotroot soup. They didn’t tell him, and promptly got a soaking. When Skipper said something, he meant it.
Arbuc stepped back and looked over the woodpile. It covered the entire back wall of their scrapwood storage area. A lot of limbs had been blown down during the storm and while most of them were useless for arrows and spears, they could always be used as firewood for the winter season. Turning, he made his way out of the cellar.
He found Awavian in the orchard, hopping back from a pile of branches. “More?” he complained as the squirrel motioned him over.
“Sorry Arbuc.” Said Awavian as he loaded the young otter up. “I spotted another broken branch at the top of this pear.” He patted the rough trunk beside him. “There’s a lot more yet.”
Arbuc nodded. “Some of the trees in Mossflower dropped a few big branches on the edge of the woodlands.” He nodded towards the walltop. “Some of the sentries are nervous, the new leaves are great cover for vermin.”
“Wherever they are I hope a big branch fell on Zartho, or at least broke his footpaw.” Awavian muttered as he reached for the crutches leaning against an apple tree. “I think I’m gonna go for a swim, the water always feels nice on my footpaw.” He began hopping along next to Arbuc. “Besides, there’s a few branches from that ash in the water.”
Arbuc laughed. “I think you’re the only squirrel that ever looks forward to getting wet. Even If that footpaw didn’t heal well, you’d just join Skip’s crew.”
Awavian stopped, “No way! Then I’d have to eat hotroot soup.”
“When I was just a regular ‘ordebeast there was this rat, see? An’ ‘e wasn’t all that bright. Well, one day ‘e was walkin’ ‘round camp an’ ‘e trips. He falls in the fire an’ jumps up, yelpin’ like th’ world’s gonna end, then ‘e stops an’ sniffs th’ air. Turnin’ t’ me, ‘e asked, “ ‘O caught th’ bird?” Halfear laughed, “ ‘E thought th’ smell o’ ‘is burnin’ tail was a bird cookin’!”
Halfear’s audience, the rest of the generals and Rubah, laughed. Dagger chuckled, but restrained himself from any further merriment. Rubah laughed along with them, wondering what was so funny. As the Commander’s son he had been accepted into the General’s circle. He supposed he was some sort of honorary general of the horde, since any orders he gave were obeyed.
Halfear and Deatheye had been called down from their posts north of Redwall to greet the Commander’s son. They were two of Zartho’s oldest generals, he had appointed them as soon as he claimed command. The fact that this young fox—who barely knew the commander—had been placed above them bruised their egos. They hid it well, and only a hint of resentment showed on the surface.
Rubah looked around, noticing for the first time that Rorc wasn’t sitting next to him. Scanning around the edge of the clearing, he saw Rorc at the very edge of it. Rubah stood up, accidentally bumping Halfear’s elbow, spilling some of this nettle beer. He forestalled the rat’s complaint by handing him his full mug. Leaving the General’s company, he walked over to Rorc. Leaning back against the tree next to his friend, Rubah looked at him quizzically.
Rorc sighed. “Being in the camp reminds me of why I wasn’t eager to join another Juska tribe. The Juskaron were alright, they all knew they’d die if they tried to kill me, but it’s not like that ‘ere. They think that being the Taggerung is a magic charm, that automatically nobeast can harm you. I have to be on me guard day and night, sleeping with one eye open. Y’ know, all those trips I’ve taken every day? Those were for food, I can’t trust anything served to me here. It’d only take a little wolfbane an’ I’d be a goner. Even with the fish I catch, I need to take it away from camp and cook it out there. I can’t stop anyplace for long if I don’t have something hard like a tree at my back.” He patted rough bark of the oak tree behind him. “I’d get an arrow between me shoulder blades if I stood in the open for too long.” He shifted uneasily, his gaze darting around a bit before returning to Rubah. “I won’t stay here Rubah.” He whispered, “I don’t want to live out my life being attacked every day.” He hesitated, “Will…Will you come with me?”
Rubah looked away, troubled. The choice he had long dreaded seeing Rorc make had been raised…on him. He stared off across the sunny clearing. His heartbeat quickened as he saw Reyna approach the general’s ring. He closed his eyes.
“No.” He said finally. “I’m sorry Rorc, if it were just about Zartho I’d come but…” he trailed off. Turning back to Rorc he asked, “You’ll come visit, right?” He started as he realized Rorc wasn’t there.
“Aye.” Came Rorc’s voice. “I’ll do that.”
There was a faint rustle, and Rubah knew Rorc was gone.
As Rubah re-entered the ring of Generals, Halfear bumped Deatheye’s elbow and nodded out towards the tents. Standing and stretching, the rat walked off towards them. Deatheye waited for a minute, looking at Rubah curiously, who was staring into space broodingly. Soon he got up and followed Halfear.
“What?” He asked as he met up with the rat behind the first row of tents. Halfear hushed him and motioned for Deatheye to follow him. The ferret loosened his dagger in its sheath and started after the rat.
When they had walked some distance, Halfear turned and began speaking. “It’s hard to stomach that that wet-behind-th’-ears pup is able to order us around.” He paused to see if Deatheye knew who he was talking about.
“Aye.” Said the ferret, gesturing for him to continue.
“He’s young enough to be any of your sons, an’ ‘e jes’ go ‘ere a week ago.” Halfear complained, “Besides that, ‘e hasn’t done anythin’ t’ deserve th’ command! I don’t argue wid th’ Commander ‘cause I know ‘e can beat me like pup any time ‘e wants to, but th’ best ‘e’s done is kill a measly cap’n.”
Deatheye nodded, “Aye, ‘e needs to be taken down a peg or two, or even better, driven off. I don’t think we can get Zartho to kill ‘im, ‘e reminds th’ Commander too much o’ ‘is mate, but we should be able to get ‘im to disgrace ‘imself enough that th’ Commander’ll chase ‘im off.” Deatheye scratched his ear for a moment. “Smoke’s daughter, th’ pretty thing, Reyna, she’s after ‘im now, maybe we can use her.”
Halfear snorted, “That vixen would go after th’ Commander ‘imself if ‘e hadn’t made it clear that ‘e wouldn’t take another mate. Didn’t ‘e draw the rays of the sun on th’ las’ un’s mug?”
Deatheye chuckled, “Aye, she didn’t look so pretty then.
Hmm… thought Rorc from where he stood in the shadows, a sack in paw. So Reyna isn’t what she seems. He considered going back and telling Rubah, but decided not to. I’ll tell ‘im next time I see ‘im.
Rorc stepped back and surveyed his work. Satisfied that not even he could track himself, he settled down to a peaceful meal. Leaning back against the smooth bark of a beech tree, he pulled a loaf of coarse bread out of the sack. He was reasonably sure it wasn’t poisoned, as he had taken it from the Commander’s tent when he had stepped outside to give his guards a few orders.
Taking a bite, he savored the heavy taste of the bread. He had been living off fish for the last week, and it was good to taste something with a different texture. He took a swig from the flagon and grimaced as he swallowed it. In his estimation, nettle beer was only a notch higher than seaweed grog. He’d rather have water anyday.
As he ate he thought over the situation. He was reasonably certain that Zartho would send a couple of scouts after him, since the fox wasn’t sure of his allegiance. That’s why instead of continuing north on the rather the army had been blockading he had turned east, covering this tracks. To all but the most experienced trackers it would seem as if he had simply disappeared, and though the experienced ones could see that he had left the path, they would have no idea where to go from there. Rorc himself wasn’t sure where to go from here. He could go anyplace he wanted to, but the world seemed empty without Rubah next to him. They had been through so much together, both in and out of the Juskaron, that it seemed wrong not to have the glint of chain mail at his side.
Even through all his mixed emotions, Rorc felt that he hadn’t done what the dream mouse had said. True, he had traveled north and found an army, but it didn’t fit the words. This wasn’t anyplace he had been before. It could qualify loosely for Rubah, since his father was there, but the words had been directed at him.
Well, thought Rorc, I guess it’s back to trekking north.
Filorn paused outside one of the dormitories, listening intently to the sounds within. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there wasn’t a vermin in sight. It was enough to make a creature heart soar, and most everybeast was tidying the abbey up with a cheerful countenance. Bur from inside this dormitory came the sounds of quiet weeping.
Filorn turned the knob and opened the door slowly, an inch at a time. She didn’t want to startle whoever was in there, but she did want to know who it was. She knew most everybeast’s favorite drink, and she was sure Broggle could spare some for whatever poor creature was in here.
She abandoned this intention and instead entered the room when she saw it was Pearl. “My dear, what’s the matter?” Filorn asked as she rushed to Pearl’s side.
“I m-miss R-Rorc.” She sobbed out. “I-I k-know it’s silly o-of m-me, after a-all these s-seasons an’ u-under t-the circ-cumstances, b-but I can’t h-help it!” This confession brought on a fresh wave of sobs.
“There, there.” Filorn rubbed the younger otter’s back soothingly. “It’s alright to miss your son, I had the same feelings when Deyna was missing. I would gladly have the rogue back, even if I did get soaked every time I entered Cavern Hole.”
Pearl smiled through her tears, but quickly darkened again. “I wonder if Deyna ever misses him.” She sighed, “I don’t think he even thinks about him.”
“Don’t say that!” Filorn exclaimed. “Of course he misses him! It’s just harder to tell with some male beasts, they like to keep the pain hidden. But I can see it in his eyes every time he sees a bowl of hotroot soup; it’s the same look his father got whenever he was a sling. It reminded him of his Uncle Buck, who went down swinging his sling, holding off a band of rats for Rillflag to escape.”
Filorn settled into a seat next to Pearl. “I’ll tell you a little story I’ve kept in my heart for all these seasons. It’s about Rorc when he was, oh, two seasons old. We were out berrypicking by that old burned-out building to the south and it was getting late. I told Rorc that it was time to go back to Redwall and boy, did he ever take off! What make me laugh was that he was still proportioned like a cub, so his chubby little rudder was swinging back and for wildly as he tottered up the path.” Filorn paused, smiling and shaking her head at the memory.
“Well, it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened with his clumsy walk. He lost his balance and fell, skinning his knee on a sharp rock. He absolutely refused to walk after that so I had to carry him. As you know, it’s not minute’s walk from here to that berry patch, so I was right tired by the time Redwall came into sight. He was having a wonderful time on my shoulders, roaring out directions and pretending to be my lookout.” Pearl gave a short hiccup of a laugh at the thought.
Filorn smiled as she continued. “I told him that I was getting tired and that he would walk the rest of the way, but I don’t think he got it. Y’ know, what he said?” Filorn raised her eyes to the ceiling and mimicked an ottercub’s voice. “Yew’ll bees alwright, Granmuver.”
Pearl chuckled as she dabbed away her tears with her habit, “That’s him alright.”
Filorn patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t lose hope. I’m still waiting for him to come through those gates. He’s only a season older than his father was when he came back. Martin won’t let him stay lost forever. Now, will you come down and help in the kitchen? I’ll have no paws left by the end of this feast!”
Morning broke softly over the Five Armies encampment. Not a bird sang, indeed, the only birds within a mile were in the stomachs of the horde. The morning silence was soon broken by the clash of metal on metal and the yelps of hordebeasts. Rubah had gathered together a squad of early risers and was in the process of pounding out his emotions on them. The five hordebeasts who had been unlucky enough to be chosen were no match for Rubah as he pounded away at them, trying to sort out his feelings. Why did he feel as if he had betrayed Rorc? A ferret few sideways as the side of Rubah’s axe slammed into his shoulder. Was it wrong to stay with somebeast he loved? Was it love? If so, did she love him back? She seemed to, but vixens were notoriously sly. Rubah gritted his teeth as he blocked a swordstroke, he couldn’t think. “We’re finished here.” He growled to his opponents, who gladly dropped their weapons and sat back on their haunches to rest. Rubah slung his axe over his shoulder and stormed off.
“What’s with ‘im?” asked a rat as he nursed a swelling lump on the side of his head.
A ferret sheathed his sword, “I ‘aven’t seen th’ Nightblade around lately, mebe they’ve had a fight.”
The rat shuddered, “His lordship ‘ave a fight with a ghost? Yew must ‘ave rocks for brains.”
The ferret snorted, “No, yew do. Yew didn’t ‘appen to go an look where these “ghosts” were seen? Fox an’ otter prints, that’s what yer ghosts are. An’ I only know one duo like that.”
The roar of frustration was followed by the sound of an axe biting into wood. Rubah ripped it out savagely. Why did he feel like such a traitor? He had stayed because he loved Reyna, surely that was reason enough? But then there was that thought in the back of his head…
You don’t love her. It whispered to him. Lust, that’s what it is. If she wasn’t so pretty you wouldn’t look twice at her.
Rubah pushed that thought away. That was not the reason he had stayed, it couldn’t be, wouldn’t be!
He whirled around, axe in paw. “Oh, it’s just you.” He said, relaxing as he saw Reyna walking, slightly hesitantly, towards him. He slung the axe over his shoulder.
Now that he didn’t have a weapon out, Reyna quickly closed the gap between them. “Just me?” She asked softly, trailing a paw across his chest as she moved around behind him. Rubah stiffened, remembering his recent thoughts. Reyna rushed him into a sitting position and draped his arms over his shoulders, clasping her paws across his chest. “What’s the matter with you today, Rubah?” She breathed in his ear, “You’re not yourself.”
Rubah banished his thoughts, they were products of his depressed mind, nothing more. He relaxed and felt a shudder of joy un through him as she began massaging his shoulders. “Rorc left.” He confessed. “He didn’t want to stay and fend off assassins for the rest of his life, so he left. I keep feeling like a traitor that I didn’t go with him.”
The paws never faltered, “Maybe it’s a good thing he’s left for awhile.”
Rubah was startled, “Why?”
Reyna continued softly, almost apologetically. “I don’t think you’ve noticed because you’ve been around him for so long, but he rules every decision you make. He even decides what you do. From what you’ve told me of your past, he’s gotten you into trouble many times, an’ you’ve had to dig yourself out. Getting away from him will allow you some space to think and act for yourself, without him looking over your shoulder, telling you what to do.”
Rubah was stunned. He had never though of Rorc’s suggestions like that before.
“Oh, he’s hidden it well.” Reyna was saying, “Throwing in just enough questions so that you’d think you had a choice. But that’s all in the past now. You have the whole world in front of you, with nobeast to tell you what to do. The land is like a ripe apple, ready to be picked. The wealth of thousands lies at your footpaws, and all you need to do is reach out an grab it.”
Rubah watched the forest with half-lidded eyes as he savored Reyna’s pictures. Even more so he listened to her voice, sweet and smooth, equaled to only by her beauty. He was distantly aware that he was leaning back, back, back until he was laying full length on last autumn’s yellow-gold leaves.
“The Commander is calling for you.”
Rubah opened his eyes reluctantly, sitting up as Zartho entered the clearing. His gaze flickered between his son and Reyna, who was sitting across from him with her back to a tree, but if he had a comment, he didn’t voice it.
“Leave.” He said, pointing at Reyna. He turned to Rubah as Reyna disappeared towards the camp. Rubah stared back at him from where he sat slouched against a beech. Huh, he won’t settle with taking orders for long. He’s got his fair share of arrogance. Zartho didn’t mull this over long. “Where’s your friend?” he asked bluntly.
Rubah affected not to understand, “Which friend?”
Zartho was momentarily stuck for an answer, it wasn’t often somebeast talked back to him. Mentally, he shook himself. Having a son around would be good for him. “The one called the Taggerung, known to the camp as Rorc Nightblade.” Rubah started and Zartho continued, “Oh, I know of your prank, it kept the sentries alert for awhile, something that the Generals loved. But back to the point, where is he?”
Rubah shrugged, “He knows.”
Zartho grabbed his sword hilt, then forced himself to release it. “As long as your allegiance lies with me and not with whoever your friend may ball in with, I don’t care where he goes.”
The ferret looked up from where he sat with the other Generals. He was doing great, the dice had fell well for him every time, he had already amassed a tailring, three bottles of grog, and a dagger. “Yessir?”
“The otter’s gone. Get some of your best trackers an’ check the path, he might have left that way.”
Rorc had risen with the dawn after having the best sleep in weeks. Pressing north at a leisurely pace he trekked onward. The difference between this part of Mossflower and the woods around the encampment was astounding. Birds trilled their songs from every side undisturbed, if anything they seemed to be trying to make up for the lack of song further south. Rorc smiled, yes, this was a life he could live.
Something made him pause, there was something different in the air. He cocked his head and listened. There! The sound of an axe biting wood, mixed with the murmur of voices. The voices weren’t quiet, they were just far away, muffled by the stately trees that surrounded him.
Rorc moved toward the sound slowly. His curiosity wouldn’t let him pass by, but he had no intention of being stuck with another section of the horde. A glimpse of pale rose red showed through the trees. Rorc’s heartbeat quickened inexplicably. He found himself moving faster and forced himself to slow, it wouldn’t do to surprise whoever was making that noise. A tall gable showed through the tops of the trees. Rorc stopped to gaze at it. So he was moving toward a building. Something brushed in the recesses of him mind, but it was too elusive to be grasped. Shrugging, Rorc moved forward, stopping at the edge of the woodlands.
A high red sandstone wall confronted him, illuminated brightly in the noonday sun. With a glance at the sentries atop the wall, Rorc ducked across the open space and flattened against the rough wall. As he walked east along the wall he trailed a paw against it, feeling the stones. There was something here…he nearly groaned aloud with frustration as he strove in vain to lay a paw on it. He turned the corner and began north, still thinking. What was it?
A twang of a bow sounded above him, and an arrow sailed off and neatly sliced a leaf from a tree on the edge of Mossflower. Rorc pressed against the wall again, as if he could sink into it and thus escape notice.
“Awavian! Don’t waste arrows, we have few enough as it is.”
Rorc inched north carefully. Short of arrows…could this be the place Zartho was attacking?
There was a break in the wall, a gate! Rorc narrowed his eyes at the wicker gate, why was it familiar? He looked up at the sun. “East wallgate…” he murmured.
Suddenly it clicked. Rorc sat down heavily under the force of the memories. Skipper, Deyna, Pearl, Filorn, Rosabel, Dinny, all his memories of them came flashing back, along with the memory of the feast he had been forbidden to attend. He jumped up, his mouth open to shout, to tell them he was back, but the memory of where he last saw Rosabel and Dinny made him pause. Had they made their way back to Redwall? His mouth snapped shut; he’d have to find out what had happened before he began shouting. Besides, he still was a Juska, and for some that meant shoot first, ask questions later.
He reached up and fiddled with the wicker gate, smiling as the bolt pulled back. Well, some things never change.
Beginning to push the gate open, he paused. He doubted any otters in there would be as tattooed as him, so he couldn’t go in like this. Picking up some dirt from the ground he spat on it. Rubbing the mud over his tattoos, he pulled out a dagger and examined his reflection. Not a hint of color showed.
Rorc frowned at the amber-handled dagger, he couldn’t stick it in his belt, Deyna would recognize it straight off. Sighing, he stuck it in his pack and tucked it in the grass next to the gate. Taking a deep breath he slowly edged the gate open.
Carefully he peeked around the gate. His heart skipped a beat as he noticed two creatures sitting a short distance away. One, an otter, wore the green habit of an abbeybeast, while the other, a squirrel, wore a kilt. The squirrel was complaining as his companion nodded good-naturedly.
“I mean, one arrow! Just one! And I get stuck down here and Skip takes my place. It was just one lousy arrow. Anyways, a beast’s gotta practice sometime or other, otherwise when Zartho comes I won’t be able to put an arrow through his grimy mug.”
Their backs were to him, so Rorc quickly slid inside and re-bolted the gate. Silently he began to move away from the duo, marveling at how thing had changed, yet stayed the same. Leaning against the wall of the abbey that faced the pond, he looked toward the sparkling water, his vision misty as he thought of how he used to watch Deyna exercise from the window a few feet above him. He felt an urge to join in with his memory, to mimic the movements that he now realized had turned into his morning exercise for the past sixteen seasons.
A paw touched his arm and he turned to see the young otter from the gate looking at him concernedly. “Are you alright?”
Rorc blinked his tears away, “Aye.” He said gruffly, “Was jes’ rememberin’ somthin’.” Now that he had a closer look at the otter, Rorc saw that that he was only a few seasons older than this Redwaller.
The otter nodded, accepting Rorc’s answer without question. “I’m Arbuc, my dad’s Deyna, the Redwall warrior, who’re you?”
Rorc started and looked Arbuc up and down. So he had a brother. Well, he couldn’t have expected time to stand still at Redwall for him. “I didn’t know Deyna had a son.” He said, buying himself some time for the name question. He hadn’t thought of an answer to that one.
Arbuc shrugged, “I’m the youngest of his two sons actually. The first one, Rorc, ran off a couple of weeks before I was born. He’d convinced Sister Rosabel and Dinny to come with him, but he disappeared on them an’ Streambeck only found Rosabel an’ Dinny. Rosabel will tell you the story of Rorc’s departure if you want, but jes’ make sure no grownups are around, they throw a fit if they hear the story. Last time mum heard it she cried for days.” He lowered his voice, “Big brothers disappear as Dibbuns and steal all the fame.” He muttered. He narrowed his eyes. “What did you say your name was?”
“Rubah.” Rorc said automatically.
“Oh.” Said Arbuc as Awavian stamped up behind him on his crutches. Arbuc ducked to the side and bowed as if presenting the borderlands warrior. “This is Awavian, the amazing borderlands squirrel.”
“If ye introduce me like that one more time…” Awavian warned.
Rorc’s eyes were drawn to Awavian’s bandaged footpaw. “How did…” He trailed off as he realized that it probably would be considered impolite to ask about the injury so soon after meeting the squirrel.
Awavian noticed his gaze. “Oh, I stayed at ole Zartho’s camp for a few days. He’s quite a friendly chap, make things nice and personal.” He shrugged, “Still, it could be worse. Compared to Pike I got off free.”
“Pike?” Rorc asked apprehensively. He remembered the otter, he had thought pike was Skipper’s son until Pearl had informed him otherwise.
“Yeah.” Awavian’s voice dropped to a whisper and Arbuc looked around apprehensively. ‘he was returned in a bag, we weren’t allowed to see his body. Deyna went as white as a sheet when he saw Pike, or rather what was left of him.”
“Shh!” Arbuc clapped a paw over Awavian’s mouth. “Y’ know the lecture we’d get if anybeast heard us talkin’ of that? Stow the gab, we need to get back to work anyways.” He waved to Rorc as he hauled Awavian off. “Nice talkin’ to ya, Rubah.”
Rorc managed a wave back, but inside he was outraged. He had heard screams coming from Zartho’s tent some nights, heard the morbid stories, but he had thought it all the product of a warlord instilling fear into his horde to weep them in line. But this…this struck closer to home.
Rorc decided it was time to reveal himself and began to seek Deyna out. As he walked through the orchard he heard a shout.
Rorc look up, then dodged to the side as a branch crashed into the ground where he had been a second before. A squirrel shot down the tree a second later.
“Sorry!” The squirrel moved off towards another tree as a couple of otters moved in to carry the branch away. “if it wasn’t for that feast the Redwall friar’s makin’ I don’t think I’d help even if Rowan told me to.” The squirrel muttered.
Rorc paused in his search for Deyna. Feast? Now that would be interesting…to disappear during a feast and to reappear during another one. Now, how to make it even better…the though hit him. He wasn’t really the Taggerung yet, Deyna was. Nobeast had bested him yet, but it was about time somebeast did.
He paused in his thoughts, remembering all the inflections that the Generals had put into the title “Taggerung” as the addressed him. So they had known, even more proof that Redwall was the object of Zartho’s assault. This could prove a little straining on his friendship with Rubah…but back to the matter at hand.
He had some preparations to make before the feast tonight. Trying to stay out of the way of anybeast that might recognize him, Rorc slipped inside the Great Hall. Glancing around, he crossed the wide hall to an exit. He was pleasantly surprised to find his waterpail still intact, though empty. Grapping an empty pail he headed for the pond.
Wooden bucket bouncing against his leg, Rorc was halfway to the door when he heard Fwirl’s voice. “Rosie, would you go get Mhera for me? Broggle won’t spare me here, and I want to know her acorn’s worth on which drinks to use.”
Rorc ducked behind a pillar just as Rosabel entered the room. Without pause she darted through the room, vanishing out the door with a flick of her bushy tail.
Well, thought Rorc, she seems to be fine.
Padding across the abbey lawn, Rorc stopped at the pond’s edge, pausing to study this reflection. He hadn’t paid much attention to how he looked for a long time, and he was surprised at what he saw. He definitely resembled his father, and with the mud smeared over the tattoos the resemblance was even clearer. True, his fur was longer, but he hadn’t seemed to have inherited many other traits from his mother.
Filling his bucket, he turned around, stopping as he realized he was being watched. A golden-furred harvest mouse returned his gaze, eyes narrowed, searching. Inwardly, Rorc groaned. Of all the creatures he could’ve run into, he had to run into the one who knew Deyna best.
“Will you be staying long?” Asked Nimbalo.
Rorc shrugged, taking a chance, he deepened his voice slightly, assuming he normally sounded like his father. “Aye, at least until Zartho’s gone.”
Nimbalo opened his mouth to say something else when a voice floated over to them.
“Where’s that pie I set out to cool?”
A guilty expression flitted across his face and he darted off to become busy with the cleanup crew. Wondering if Nimbalo had guessed who he was, Rorc quickly darted back to the Great Hall ducking into a passage leading from it, he slid down it. Halfway down the passage he halted next to a carving of a rose in full bloom. Shoving against it, he pushed it aside and entered.
The room beyond was dark and held the damp, musty smell of a place rarely used, if at all. Rorc paused, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Striding to the back of the room, he ducked into a narrow shaft. It was cleverly hidden and unless you looked closely the shaft was easily missed. Gently, he touched a rope that dangled from above, half-smiling as he remembered its use. For a two-season old dibbun it would’ve been impossible to carry a bucket of water up the shaft, he had had difficulty enough getting to the shaft itself. So he had draped a rope over a beam at the top of the shaft and used his body as a counterweight. Rorc smiled, remembering the feel of the wind in his fur as he jumped from the top of the shaft, trusting the weight of the water to slow him down enough so he wouldn’t hit the ground too hard, the moment of doubt, then of pure elation…
Rorc tightened his grip on the bucket and placed his footpaw in the pawholds engraved in the side of the shaft. This shaft is shorter than I remember. Rorc thought as he clambered onto the platform that led to the hallway beyond. He never could figure out what the original use for this hallway and the room at the end was. Even that room below, what use was it really?
Soon he was in the room at the end of the thin hallway. The walls were bare apart from a think slit in one corner. He chuckled as he looked out. Hidden in the corner of a bulge of the wall a narrow trough of stone—part of a wall carving—ran down and ended convienently above the bucket. Rorc poured the water into this trough, watching with satisfaction as it ran into the teetering bucket without a hitch.
Rorc set his bucket down and examined the rope that held the bucket from tipping over. He was surprised to see it in such good condition, although he supposed it couldn’t have gotten wet, lying next to the trough as it did. He looked at where it was hooked just inside the opening, smiling as he remembered the hours he had spent sitting there, waiting for somebeast to pass below.
Setting the bucket on the floor, Rorc walked back through the narrow passage, pausing only momentarily before dropping the distance—double his height—to the floor. Landing with a soft thump, he padded over to the hidden door. Slipping out into the hall, he flitted down it and across the Great Hall like a shadow. Pausing on the threshold, he leaned against the doorframe and gazed at the bustle of the cleaning abbeybeasts, realizing for the first time how lazy his life had been. He and Rubah hadn’t really been required to do anything. Sure, the occasional mission or raid had been assigned, but housekeeping had been nonexistent. When things got too dirty they moved on, simple as that.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught Nimbalo looking at him again. Pretending not to notice, he pushed off the wall and walked into the orchard.
Nimbalo frowned. Could it be? Or was he just overly stressed and assigning characteristics to him that he didn’t have? Nimbalo sighed, if the otter was Rorc, he’d reveal himself. If he wasn’t…then he hadn’t raised a false alarm.
Rorc peered back at Nimbalo through a screen of leaves. Good, he wasn’t following. His plan hinged on nobeast seeing him leave. Chuckling like he had just pilfered one of Filorn’s pasties, Rorc slipped out the east wallgate and darted into the woods, taking his sack with him. He had a few hours before he put his plan into effect.
A few hours later Rorc was approaching Redwall again, but this time he was boldly using the path. He had donned the large cloak he had used for his last prank, it hid his face well. It wouldn’t do for anybeast to see him before due time, as he had washed the mud from his face, exposing his facial tattoos. Both daggers were back in his belt.
The sentries saw him long before he reached the gate. As he turned from the path and began to make his way to the gate Rowan, who was on duty above the gate, buried an arrow in the dirt before him.
“What do you want here?”
Rorc was not fazed, “I wish to stay for the night.”
Rowan readied another arrow. “Redwall is in no position to receive strangers.”
Rorc smiled, not that Rowan could tell. “Perhaps you are not familiar with the abbey’s hospitality rules. Strangers are always welcome, provided they are friendly.” He continued as Rowan began to object. “I at least want to speak to the Abbess.”
Rowan could hardly refuse that. “Awavian.” He called, “Watch him while I get the Abbess.”
Rorc relaxed, everything was going good so far.
Rowan found Mhera in the Great Hall, supervising the setting up of extra tables. Deyna and Thorne stepped back from a large table they had just moved, rubbing their paws together to work the strain off.
“Abbess!” Rowan called as he drew near.
The middle-aged otter started and turned, a smile on her face but apprehension in her eyes. “Rowan! Is something wrong on the walltops?”
Rowan smiled reassuringly as all eyes in the room turned to him. “Yes, all’s well, but there’s somebeast at the gates who insists on talking to you. He wants to stay for the night.”
Deyna straightened and walked over. “What sort of creature is he?”
“I’m not sure.” Rowan frowned, “He has a cloak on so y’ can’t tell. He’s tall though, mebbe an otter or a fox if ‘e’s a vermin.”
“Well,” said Mhera briskly, “I suppose I can’t send him away without talking to him.”
Deyna slapped his paws together. “Well I guess I should come too, since I’m the abbey warrior. Got to keep up good form as the Long Patrol would say.” He glanced around, face brightening as he found the beast he was looking for. “Ah, Arbuc!”
The young otter sheepishly emerged from the shadows where he had been eavesdropping. “Yes Father?”
“Go tell the sentries to be extra alert on the other walltops, this could be a ruse to draw our attention away from the other walls.”
Arbuc nodded and dashed off, followed at a slower pace by Abbess Mhera, along with Deyna, Skipper, and Thorne. Nimbalo walked through the main door, looking back over his shoulder to where Arbuc had dashed off to, and ran smack into Deyna. Nimbalo held the side of his head and staggered, saying in mock pain. “All this time I thought you were me matey, an’ then y’ try t’ knock me ‘ead off!”
Deyna chuckled, “Yore fine, besides, you ran into me.”
Nimbalo blinked and glared at him, “Did not.” Then he glanced at the rest of the group. “Where y’ goin’?”
Skipper shrugged, “There’s somebeast at the gates who wants t’ see Abbess Mhera. Well, really he wants t’ come in for the night but we’re in no position t’ be accepting cloaked strangers.”
Nimbalo looked thoughtful, “Hmm…I think I’ll come too.”
Rorc was slightly uneasy, it was clear that they must be talking the matter over before they arrived. He wasn’t concerned for his welfare, he could take care of himself, but his plan rested on them letting him in, yet being slightly suspicious.
He had recognized the squirrel guarding him with a bow as the one with the crutches…Awavian, that was his name. A good friend of his brother’s presumably.
Now that was a word he had never used to describe anybeast except Rubah. Rorc’s face twisted as he realized how much he missed the fox. The one beast whose company he valued had traded him for a vixen who, he now knew, was only looking for power. Rorc shook his head; he would not let himself become bitter. Rubah was completely ensnared; he wouldn’t hold it against him.
Movement on the walltop caught his attention. Looking up, he swallowed the emotions rising in him as he saw Deyna and Abbess Mhera peering over the walltop along with Skipper, an otter he recognized as Thorne, and Nimbalo. The harvest mouse was looking at him suspiciously, but then they all were.
Deyna looked down at the cloaked figure standing on the path. The light was growing dim, and the creature’s shadow was stretching out, seeming to try to grasp the abbey.
“Who are you?” He shouted down.
The figure looked up, but the shadows cast by the good hid his features. “I am a traveler.” He said simply, in a deep voice.
“What is your name?” Deyna pressed, leaning over the battlements.
The figure didn’t move. “I will tell you at a later time, today if you let me in.”
Deyna stepped back and though a moment. There didn’t seem to be anybeast with this creature, but they could be hiding in the ditch.
“What sort of creature are you?” Asked Skipper.
The figure laughed, “There is entirely too much stock put in what creature you are. You will know that before my name.” He shook his head. “If you must know, I mean nobeast any harm, nor will I betray your trust, should I get it. If ya’ want t’ know my motives for coming here, it’s to fight Zartho. I will not rest until he is dead, it is the least I can do to avenge the deaths he has caused.”
Mhera muttered at her brother, who stooped to catch her words. “If he’s telling the truth he could be a valuable asset, he had to get through Zartho’s patrols for get here, and we can always keep an eye on him.”
Deyna nodded, absently adjusting the sheath across his back. He had taken to carrying the Sword of Martin around recently. He didn’t want to be caught without it again.
Skipper whistled, and a group of squirrels armed with bows began running up the wallsteps. “Cover him,” shouted Skipper, “arrows on strings, but in the name of Filorn’s ‘otroot soup, don’t shoot!”
Deyna glared at the figure below. “Are you armed?”
He could sense the creature grinning, “I couldn’t do much damage to the Five Armies if I was unarmed, now could I? Besides, only a fool would travel Mossflower unarmed these days.” He shifted slightly, “I have two daggers, and one of them was made for me by Lord Russano.” Mhera glanced at Deyna. If that was true, this would be a very valuable ally indeed.
“We’re gonna let you in, just don’t try anything.” Said Deyna as the gates began to open.
Rorc watched as five abbeybeasts hurried out the gap in the gates to surround him. One, a squirrel, reached out to grab him. “Don’t touch.” Rorc snarled and he back off.
Rorc walked forward, escorted by the abbeybeasts. As the gates shut behind him he experienced a thrill of joy. Part one of his plan was complete.