Disclaimer: The Shadow Jester is not a cheerful story (as I am bad at writing those); many will die, and the vermin will actually be evil; if they threaten to torture children, they will do just that, in all of its horror, and so on. Grey characters will also be prevalent throughout the tale, so if you like everything black and white, I'm sorry. Just a little heads-up.
Salamandastron had been at siege from corsairs for years upon years. The bravest and the mightiest from both ends had fallen, warriors renowned and unheard of both, spies uncovered, plots revealed, as the war dragged on and on. Respite would not come; the corsair hordes were endless, but they could not breach the halls of the mighty mountain fortress, so zealously guarded by the battle hares and their Badger Lord. Finally, after twenty years of useless conflict, peace terms were agreed upon, and the war resolved. The leaders of the corsairs were invited to Salamandastron to feast and drink on the terms of peace; friendship had sprung up between the recent enemies, and hares and vermin alike found companions in the other sort as they found the "bad guys" weren't all that bad. It was a day to be merry, a day of feasting and joy and happiness. Or so it would seem.
The sun was setting, the feast almost over. A few minutes ago, the cooks had brought the last course, and then sat down themselves with the revelers for a chance to join in the party. All day the feast had lasted, as vermin clashed cups with hares with whom only a week ago they would have been clashing swords; a notable improvement, no doubt. Laughter and joy filled the halls of Salamandastron for the first time in twenty years, and yet something was not right to the Badger Lord’s scarred bodyguard; Jack. The braziers flickered merrily, illuminating the mess hall in light from the dancing flames. He glanced over to his ruler, but as many, he was peacefully snoring, his head tilted to one side. Dozens slept across the room, both vermin and hares; some passed out in a drunken stupor, others simply tired from the both the revelry and the war that had raged on for the past years. They slept happily in the knowledge that, for some the first time in their lives, they could go to sleep without worrying about midnight bloodshed.
Few remained in the main hall; most of the celebrators had gone outside to watch the sunset. Jack could hear them, still boisterous, laughing loudly and telling jokes and cheering, calling for toasts and celebration. He alone refrained from reveling or drinking, staying at his lord’s side like a faithful bodyguard should. Old and scarred, his muscles were still strong, and he could fight as well as he could back when he was young and quick, before this war started; the hare had always been renowned with the blade. Jack supposed he should be glad to see the war over, and yet something was not right. Something was not right at all. The latest corsair warlord, Bloodfang, had not arrived, putting his issues on a bad stomach, but Jack wondered; perhaps this was some scheme, some sort of trap or plot? It would not be the first time the corsairs tried to take Salamandastron with treachery.
Suddenly, a cough sounded behind the hare's back, and Jack whirled around, paw dashing to the hilt of his saber. Flinching away, the fox in front of him raised his paws to indicate he was harmless, and Jack relaxed. It was only the magician; the vermin had brought him along, saying he knew all sorts of tricks that they swore were magic, and he had not disappointed, showing such expertise with sleight of hand even Jack could not see his paws moving. He was a black fox, clad in a blue cloak with a collage of golden stars. His eyes twinkled mysteriously in the torchlight, his lips curled in an amused smile.
“My dear, dear friend Jack,” said the fox, in a soft, silky sweet tone, “I have heard much about you, and seen you on the battlefield. My friends, those still alive from meeting you, described you as a monster on the battlefield, laying out dozens in your efforts to protect your Badger Lord. Is this true?”
“It is,” cautiously replied Jack, “but why do you ask?”
Smiling, the fox said, “Simply a conversation starter, dear friend. It seems to have worked, no?” For the next half an hour or so, they talked. The fox was an excellent conversing partner, waiting his turn to speak, laughing at the right times and adding jokes of his own, showing off magic tricks such as pulling sweets from the hare’s ear and presenting them to him, and Jack slowly began to relax. He decided that his foreboding was simply caution from after the war; twenty years of fighting could make the most naive of mice paranoid, and Jack was never naive, or, for that matter, resembling a mouse.
Suddenly, the fox said, “Did you know? I’m not only a magician, but also a storyteller. I bet you I can make up a story from anything.”
Grinning, Jack replied, “Well, go on then. Show me your silver tongue.”
“Ah, but you must suggest a theme first. Perhaps cards?”
“Cards it is, then.”
As if by magic, a deck appeared in the fox’s paw, and he spread it out with both paws.
“Pick a card; any card, any card at all, then set it on the table. I will tell you a story about it.”
Jack drew one at random, and laid it out on the table.
“Ah, the mighty king of hearts. Ruling over his kingdom with wisdom and justice; all prosper under his rule, for he is fair and kind, and his realm is strong and mighty. Not only that; he is a peerless warrior on the battlefield as well, and no evil-hearted vermin can stand before him. Pick another card, another card, my dear friend; set it out as well.”
Bemused, the hare drew another card, laying it down next to the king.
“The Jack of Diamonds! A valiant warrior, the king’s most loyal companion, his eternal shadow, guarding the king from evil. A bodyguard, you could say; heroic, brave, and above all, endlessly loyal.”
“I say,” interrupted the hare, chuckling, “that sounds a lot like me, eh?”
Smiling mysteriously, the fox murmured, “Another card, dear friend, another card.”
Outside, the toasts and celebrations had died down, the sun had set, the steady pounding of the waves a familiar and calming rhythm, the air absent of the roars of the siege engines that had almost always been there for twenty years. A few of the braziers had gone out inside, and the room was darker, more mysterious. The few who had stayed inside trickled on out to watch the sunset, and, save for the sleeping hares and vermin, and of course the badger, the two were alone. The fox’s cloak shimmered mysteriously in the flickering torchlight, the stars seeming to dance on his cloak. “Another card, my friend.”
Snapping back to reality, the hare drew a third card; the Ace of Spades. The fox grew silent, then began to whisper, so quietly that the hare had to lean forward to hear.
“Ah… the Ace of Spades. A mysterious fellow, shifty, untrustworthy, but deadly. Silent, in the deepest darkness of the night, he creeps toward… the king! He is no simple Ace, but an Aceassin!”
Jack gave a dutiful chuckle at the joke, one that was a touch mirthless; it was hard for him to laugh at death, especially of the one he was in charge of protecting.
“But there is one, in this assassin’s way, one who has sworn to protect the king…”
“…the Jack.” replied the hare, in an uneasy tone.
Suddenly, all of the hare’s foreboding was back, and he glanced around wildly. Everything seemed normal, except… was that just a trick of the light? That shadow creeping toward the king? Was that just a shadow? The magician was watching him, a half-smile around his lips, then, he continued, even quieter than before, the steady beat of the waves making the hare strain to hear.
“He is in the palace now, the guards helpless to stop him; you cannot stop a shadow, can you? After all, it can slip past you, around walls in places you would never think of checking... It creeps closer and closer, knife out, ready to end the king and his mighty rule…”
Jack’s heart was pounding, sweat trickled down his face. His eyes wildly flicked towards the throne, and saw a shadow standing next to the king. He dashed up, paw grabbing the hilt of his sword, but it was tangled up, and he cursed, trying desperately to draw it in time.
“The Jack leaps forward, trying to stop the Ace in time…” murmured the fox, as the hare managed to untangle his blade, “But wait!” cried the magician, throwing a card straight up, and the hare stopped dead, swiveling toward the fox in confusion.
“It is nothing more than a trick of the light!” cried the fox, tone full of surprise.
Indeed, the figure had disappeared, and Jack relaxed, sword dropping out of his shaking paws and clanging on the ground, heart wildly thumping. Then, everything happened in slow motion. As the card fell back downward, still vertically, the hare's eyes caught a gleam of something metal, and a blade thudded into his neck, through the card, pinning it to the hare's body. He sat down with a thump, staring in disbelief at the magician, not even feeling the pain.
Sneering contemptuously, the fox pulled the knife out of Jack’s neck, and the card fluttered down, to rest face-up, its eyes accusingly fixed to the hare. It was the jack of diamonds, with a hole through his neck.
“The distraction has worked,” murmured the fox, mockingly, “and the jack lies dead. The Ace makes his way to the slumbering king, and there is no one to stop him, my dear, dear, Jack of Diamonds.”
The fox stood up with a scrape of his chair, slowly walking toward the Badger Lord. Jack tried to rise, tried to call out for him, but the only sound was the gurgle of the onrushing wave of blood in his throat, and he slumped back, helpless. Jack’s last sight was the same knife that ended his life sinking into the Badger Lord’s heart, and the gargantuan ruler falling to the ground with a thud, accompanied by the never-ending, pounding rhythm of the waves.
A red sun rises; Skipper darkly remarks, “Blood has been spilled this night.”
I do not doubt it, I think blood is being spilled every night, or close to it. Only a few days ago a stoat jogged up to our gates holding a sack; we put an arrow through his eye and pulled his body in Redwall, and opened up the sack. Inside were three rotten heads of otterbabes! I had not known it possible to retch and cry as the same time until that day; who would do such a thing? Along with the heads was a note, that simply said, “Surrender.”
The heads were given a dutiful burial, the stoat's body unceremoniously burned, and the matter forgotten about. But I digress. Redwall Abbey is perhaps one of the only strongholds left in the land; the vermin empire in the south controls Salamandastron and its surrounding lands, and the steadily advancing horde from the north has taken everything in its path. I fear that soon we too shall fall. I gaze upon our defense force, and cannot help but feel that we have been run ragged. Two dozen otters, weary and wounded, a third of them refugees from the Northlands, troubled by the horrors they saw; a few Guosim shrews, a few squirrels, and some rag-tag Redwallers, most of whom are woefully inept with weaponry. Perhaps a few more bands roam the wilderness, but they shall soon be wiped out as well. We must keep a constant eye on the sky, as magpies and ravens patrol the air in dozens, looking for a chance to dive down and snatch a woodlander; rats and stoats hide in the forest, clutching longbows and just waiting to shoot anyone who peers over the wall. We rarely appear on the battlements at all anymore, save to scout, and even then heavily armored and only for a second.
-Your Sorrowful Recorder, Melony Songswood
Melony closed her worn-out blue diary with a thump, and carefully tucked it into the pocket of her blouse. Then, she capped the bottle of ink, wiped clean the feather, and stuck them both in her pocket as well. She stood up, taking a quick look of the scenery to make sure nothing was amiss, before dejectedly heading back inside. Empty and abandoned, the entrance hall was devoid of anyone save for herself; a lone halberd and a rusty sword were propped up in a corner, and the legendary Redwall tapestry hanging in its place, covered in filth and dust. As usual, the squirrel strode over to it, and hopefully stared into the eyes of the mouse warrior, willing for him to speak.
Perhaps five minutes had passed, as her hazel and gold eyes bored into the tapestry for a hint of something, anything, to save Redwall, but nothing appeared. As usual, with a sigh, she turned away, dejected. And jumped back with a squeal as a cane whacked her on the nose; rather, an angry-looking old hare with comical spectacles, one ear drooping low, almost cut off, scars covering every inch of his face… whacked Melony on the nose.
“Well, wot have we here? A young lass moping and doping? I say she needs a job to do, wot! Squirrel, why aren't are you snapping to attention? I expect nothing less than instant reaction from-”
“Not now, sergeant. I’m not in the mood,” tiredly replied the squirrel, trying to go around him.
“Not in the mood? Not in the mood?! Why I’ll have your guts for garters, wot, you see if I don’t, you insolent little-”
When the hare saw that his antics, which normally made Melony at the very least grin, weren't causing a reaction, he stopped himself abruptly and strode over to her, cane under one arm.
“What’s wrong, little lass?” he asked, gently. “What happened?”
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?!” Melony turned on him angrily, and he took a step back. “What isn't wrong?! Everything is wrong! Goodbeasts die every day, while vermin get off scot-free, no doubt jeering and mocking us! What’s wrong?! We get a sack of heads at our doorstep and all we can do is throw them in the ground and hope it doesn't happen again! We can’t even go up on our own walls, for fear we’ll be killed! Tell me sergeant, tell me, why can’t you see it? Why do you just play your little games?! “Oh, a young lass moping and doping”, don’t you see, there is nothing else left to do! There is no hope! And my nose hurts where you whacked it!” Melony had tears in her eyes at the end of her rant, and she sat down with a thump, dejectedly staring into the window.
The hare gently sat down next to her, and tenderly put his arm around her.
“Well, first of all, I’m sorry about your nose. And dear, I know how you feel. And I understand completely, and I agree. About everything but one thing. There is always hope, Melony, always. In the darkest night, when the moon is covered in clouds and rain lashes in sheets, I will always go on, knowing that dawn will come afterward, and the sun will shine as brightly as it did before. Now, dry up those tears, and do something you can get immersed in, that will keep you going. Perhaps help the Friar cook, and steal a scone or two while you’re at it, perhaps go to the library and read a book about happier times, perhaps play with the Dibbuns for a little. You’ll be fine, my dear... I guarantee it.”
Patting her on the back, the old hare stood up and limped outside, using his cane as a staff. Wiping away her tears, Melony looked again at the tapestry, and silently thought, “Why won’t you help us Martin? In our greatest hour of need, why are you not there to help us? Why, Martin?”
As usual, no answer came, only the unreadable stare of the Warrior. With a heavy sigh, the squirrel stood up, and went off to the kitchen. Melony did tend to get engrossed in cooking; the hare was right about that. With luck, she should be able to pass a few hours in happiness.
As usual, the noonday sun was scorching hot; the vast expanses of the desert seemed to ripple and shimmer and become water; servants sweated profusely in their light, silken outfits, to say nothing about the poor guards in their gray or even black plate armor. However, as usual the emperor noticed none of it; he gazed out to the sea, with a dreamy look fixed on his face, drool pooling out of the corner of his mouth. The years had certainly not been kind to the old warlord, once the fearsome conqueror and corsair known as Bloodfang; his mind deteriorated even as his empire expanded; it seemed for every victory his troops won, he would get a little bit duller. In the beginning, he personally led forays into the desert, allying with neighboring tribes of toads, hunting survivors of the fall of Salamandastron, conquering villages and small towns. But then, as he aged, he let his second-in-command be in charge of some of these expeditions, then his sons when they came of age, and before anyone knew it, Bloodfang commanded no army at all.
He was an old stoat; ragged and battle-scarred, a bandanna covered his left eye, one of his ears was torn nearly in half. Before, this only made him intimidating, as he was a striking figure, powerful, muscular, and tall, with a cruel look in his eyes. But his muscles had too disappeared, just like his wits, and now he was no more than skin and bones, frail and weak.
“Tell me, my dear fox,” he murmured, “ weren't you older than me when we first met? Or is my memory betraying me again?”
“I was a year older, Your Grace,” respectfully replied the black fox standing at his side, known as none other than the Shadow Jester. Serving under the corsair since he first became one, the fox was always his loyal companion after Bloodfang freed him from having to be a jester to a cruel warlord; soon after, the warlord mysteriously died, and the fox became known as the Shadow Jester. His last, and perhaps most infamous mission, was killing the mighty Badger Lord of Salamandastron and his faithful bodyguard, known simply as Jack. Ever since then, he had not the opportunity to assassinate anyone, as the emperor preferred to keep his adviser around him at all times, letting him be the emperor’s voice and power.
The fox did not enjoy his new job; there was little do to in this time of peace, and he was relatively ill-suited to being an adviser, much preferring the job of an assassin. Most days, Bloodfang would simply sit on the balcony hewn out of stone from the Badger Lord’s forge, and stare out to sea; there was, admittedly, plenty to watch. After capturing Salamandastron, the stoat had made it a corsair haven, building docks and a whole city next to the mountain, with taverns, shops, armories, smithies, and countless other things. The wood was imported from the south, and soon the city was thriving, full of corsairs and pirates ready and willing to swear their allegiance to the infamous Bloodfang, the conqueror of Salamandastron.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the wooden door connecting to the balcony; without turning his head, Bloodfang murmured, “Open the door.”
Turning, the fox narrowed his eyes as the door creaked open and a weasel stepped through; his eyes darting to and fro, absorbing every detail, his mouth thin and sly, paws toying with the hilt of a knife. Leather armor covered his chest and legs, and in the center of his torso was an insignia; a wolf’s paw.
A stocky, well-built stoat stepped forward, paw on the hilt of his sword, and aggressively called out, “What business does a northerner have with the emperor Bloodfang?”
“I am not just a “northerner”, pal, but a diplomat for the main clan of our horde, the Wolf’s Paw. I have come to confer with the emperor Bloodfang about the future of both our empires and whether an alliance can be made,” replied the weasel haughtily. “Now, direct me to His Grace.”
The stoat spluttered and would have spat out a reply, but Bloodfang turned his head so the weasel could see him, and replied, a strange gleam in his eyes, “Do you have any commanding power in your horde?”
“Well, not really, I’m just a diplomat, I’m supposed to read these terms here-”
Interrupting, Bloodfang said, “Then I’m too lazy to deal with you.” He turned back in his throne and resumed studying the sea.
The weasel blinked in surprise, mouth slightly open in shock. Then, shaking his head, he said in a confused tone, “So I just… go right back where I came from? Skip merrily to the Northlands?”
“No!” exclaimed Bloodfang. “Of course not! Page, get me some parchment, a quill and ink, will you? Be fast about it!”
The weasel looked around, confused, but no one leapt forward to offer him any sort of explanation. After the page hurriedly brought the materials, Bloodfang dipped his quill into the ink and began writing, muttering out loud as he went. “The bearer of this parchment, will be free, that’s two e’s, right? Right, will be free to act in the mighty emperor Bloodfang’s stead and anything he says or agrees, two e’s, to will be considered the same as me, only one e this time, the emperor, saying or agreeing.”
He then handed it back to the page and declared, “Here you go old friend, take it.”
Looking around to make sure he was being addressed, the Shadow Jester took it, and stood there, a touch confused, unsure of what his ruler wanted from him. The northerner turned toward him with interest, greed glinting in his eyes, as he fully understood the power this piece of parchment possessed.
“Now, my dear fox,” called out the emperor from his throne, “you shall journey to the Northlands, meet with the leaders of this “Wolf’s Paw”, come to an agreement, and, as this weasel delightfully said, skip merrily back home! Shouldn't take too long, eh?”
“Wait, what?” asked the fox, surprised despite himself. “Are you being serious?”
“Of course I’m being serious! I’m always serious! I expect to see you out of this mountain by first light, or else I’ll cut off your left paw and have you escorted all the way to Mossflower Wood! Now, out of my throne room, you and that weasel! Out, out, out!”
The sudden tirade left the warlord’s mouth foaming and his eyes bulging as he waved the fox and the weasel out furiously, for reasons known only to him. Shutting the door, they strode through the empty forge and down the stone steps, still trying to figure out what just happened.
Finally, the weasel cleared his throat and said, “So. I’m with the infamous Shadow Jester; supposedly the greatest assassin to have ever lived. Don’t suppose I’ll be sleeping well the next few nights, eh?” When the fox didn't reply, the diplomat shrugged and continued.
“Anyway, Shadow Jester is a heck of a mouthful to say, and calling you fox all the time is just an overused cliche and it sounds stupid. So, um, do you have a name?”
“No,” the fox replied, bluntly, as his mind already raced away to think about the upcoming trip, which would undoubtedly be a long and rather irritating journey.
“No name, eh? I’ll have to make you one, then. How about… Martin? It’s a nice name, easy to pronounce, but kind of mysterious-”
“You won’t call me Martin. You won’t call me anything.”
“Sorry, buddy, but unless you plan to cut my tongue out, I’m not sure how you’ll stop me. Anyway, I’ll find myself a place to rest for the night; meet me outside the city at first light, all right? I’ll see you then, Martin!” The fox stood in the empty corridor as the weasel jogged away, and muttered, “Why did you have to turn out so senile in your old age?”
Tobey stared westward, toward the ancient mountain of Salamandastron; his home. All hares felt the pull toward home, and all knew that going home meant death. Tim, Josh, and Alex had thought different; thought they could disguise themselves and make a living as fishermen under the shadow of the mountain. They had promised to send letters about their success once they got settled in; none of the Band ever heard from them again.
But then they had always been day-dreaming and trying to concoct some impossible scheme; hares like that had no place in the Band. What the Band needed was strong, willing, down-to-earth hares were ready to get their paws dirty and fight to the death, but who were also smart and did not take undue risks. Grand schemes were all fine on paper, but if one ever went the slightest bit wrong, there was no one left. The Band was undoubtedly the one true force of resistance that the woodlanders had left; the Redwallers were trapped in their abbey and their armed strength was pitiful, while the rebellious bursts in the south were quickly extinguished, the leaders beheaded, or tortured to death. No, the Band was the only hope left in this world.
An elite fighting force consisting primarily of hares, the Band modeled itself as the reborn Long Patrol; what hares had survived the massacre of Salamandastron and the years that followed ended up with the Band. Likewise, the mountain hares who had managed to escape the slaughterhouses that their once mighty fortresses became, fled southward and met their brothers from the west. Otters and squirrels from Mossflower or the southern forests peppered the ranks, serving as scouts or skirmishers, while the occasional shrew was used to build boats, and the odd mole for digging tunnels or underground homes.
The fighting force of the Band was always moving, raiding and striking at vermin outposts or trade routes, while the wives and children stayed in a previously abandoned island castle located in the center of a lake. For now, the vermin had not paid too much attention to the Band, but that could all change if the raid they were planning was successful. Tobey did not particularly approve of it, as he deemed it too risky, but his opinion on such matters was rarely regarded.
“Hey Tobey! What’s up, pal? You want to go home?”
Tobey turned his head toward, Ruck, another hare; he had come from the mountains, luckily without the horrendous northern accent, and he and Tobey pretty much instantly became best friends. Although young, scars defaced Ruck's otherwise handsome features, a particularly gruesome one gouged into his cheek. However, he was vibrant and full of energy, and an excellent swordsman; no doubt a valuable addition to the Band. He loved to get into the thick of battle and win his honor through blood and tears; much unlike Tobey, who preferred planning from a strategic position, or, at the very worst, guarding a location away from the main engagement. The few battles he had been in left him with nightmares for weeks, and he had no desire to experience such a bloodbath again.
“Yes. You know me, Ruck, I always want to go home.”
“Aye, me too, buddy. But those northerners are nested in deep into the mountains; hope the old fortress collapses on their cursed heads,” replied the northern hare, and spat.
“You’re lucky,” Ruck continued, “that we’re heading for your home. Hope we’ll get to stay there a while, maybe even permanently. What do you say, mate?” Tobey hoped so dearly; Salamandastron was indeed the object of their raid. Hopefully, the attack would shatter the southern vermin empire and send it into chaos; if they could kill Bloodfang, the war of succession would no doubt claim many vermin lives and the chase after the Band would be forgotten. But if they failed, they would no doubt be hunted down and killed to the last hare, and then there truly would be no hope.
“Anyway, pointless small talk aside, the real reason I showed up was to call you to the mess; the lieutenant says he wants to have words with everyone, even the likes of us.”
Wordlessly, Tobey turned and began the path to the mess hall through the deserted camp; everyone had already gone to dinner. Ruck stared at him for a moment with some bemusement, perhaps expecting a reply. Their relationship was like that, a bit formal and awkward at times, but they trusted each other with their lives despite having met only several months ago.
The Band was camped on a small island in a river between two mountain ranges; the river looped and fell its way through the mountains, all the way down to Salamandastron and into the ocean. The ground was mostly sandy, with occasional tufts of grass peeking through here and there. Although the nearby mountains were not short, none were as tall as the colossal Salamandastron, which, even though it was still hundreds of miles away, was clearly visible and already looked as tall as the nearby peaks.
Two wooden bridges connected the island to both shorelines of the river; normally occupied by vermin, the island’s inhabitants experienced an unpleasant surprise a few nights ago; none had escaped. They soon made their way to the center of camp, where a few tables had been hastily set up; Tobey wasn't really sure where they came from, as there were only enough tables to seat the officers before tonight. Most of the Band preferred to eat in their own groups of friends, or simply alone, and the lieutenant addressing all of them was rare indeed. Eight long, oaken tables were set up in two rows of four; all of them were full. Hares crammed food into their mouths, talked, joked and laughed; a head of an occasional otter rose above the hares, or the bushy tail of a squirrel peeked out among the crowd. Off to the side were two other tables, where the officers sat; grizzled and scarred, most were missing some part of their body, whether it was an ear, an eye, a paw, or some combination.
Tobey and Ruck sat down at the first empty spot they saw, nodding to the hares nearby in greeting, and dug in. The first ten minutes of a meal were always silent for hares; they were far too busy gorging themselves to have time to talk. Just as Tobey leaned back, satisfied (though not full-hares are never full) the lieutenant stood up, along with a cloaked figure that Tobey had not previously noticed, carrying a sack of some sort, and they made their way to the front of the tables. Slowly, the talk died down, but the lieutenant waited until it was completely silent before speaking.
“As you all know, in recent times, our Band has taken bolder and bolder moves, with greater and greater risks, to try and stop the expansion of these cursed vermin. But never before have we attempted anything on this scale; attack Salamandastron, the very heart of the vermin empire, the stronghold which is nigh-impossible to take. If we are successful, the southern empire will collapse, and a huge burden will be lifted off the Band’s shoulders; the southern forests will be liberated, along with the hundreds, if not thousands of slaves who dwell there, and the Redwallers will be able to flee south, to this stronghold. Together, we will be able to deal with the threat of the Northerners.”
He picked up a tankard and took a long drought of whatever was inside it, probably water-he was not particularly fond of ale. After setting it down and clearing his throat, the hare continued.
“However, some of you are probably wonder how this will be done; we have a smaller army, we are trying to take a fortress that has been taken by force only twice before, we have no siege engines nor nearly enough supplies to last a siege… Drastic times, ladies, gentlemen, call for drastic measures. I present to you - Captain Zarik.”
The cloaked figure next to him moved forward and cast off his hood; underneath was a sly-faced beast, with an amused smile on his lips. As one, the Band erupted into chaos; for that beast was not a hare, nor otter, nor squirrel; but a weasel.
It has been written in accounts of history that, on more than one occasion, in fact in seemingly every one, vermin had outnumbered the woodlanders by a great margin, none greater than the Blue Hordes of Ungatt Trunn. This was always conveyed by some method, whether it was woodlanders' scouts reporting the numbers or vermin warlords showing off their armed strength. Again, Trunn performed the greatest here, making the ground shake when his army jumped and showing that if each soldier in his army held a torch, they clouded out the stars. But I think even he is surpassed here.
I sit in the center of the camp, on a medium sized hill. Behind me is my tent; drab and grey, with the banner of the Wolf's Paw fluttering over it. The design is one I am proud of, it-another time. To the south, I face the great expanse of Mossflower Wood, brilliantly illuminated by the setting sun. To the north lie the the Highlands and the low, brooding Mountains of the North (could they not have thought of a better name). And to the east and west lies the camp of our horde.
I cannot see either end of it; that alone should speak of how large it is. It is organized haphazardly, randomly, chaotically. Tents are arrayed with no order or meaning; the whole camp reminds one of a battlefield strewn with corpses after the fighting is done. The only system of organization is the divisions between the clans; though we are all united in one large horde, each clan wishes to be separate; all the tents are different colors, and little fences have been erected marking the border between them. In the future, this could present a problem, but for now, the clans are united. United in my name.
"My lord?" grunted a familiar voice behind him. The wolf carefully picked up the quill, dried off its end and put it back into its own little box, which he carefully shut. He closed the glass bottle filled with ink as well, gently blew on the page to make sure the ink dried, and tenderly closed his journal.
Only then did he reply, "What is it, Sergeant?"
"A hare wishes to give you a message. He said he would only speak to you personally, my lord. He's said it in front of the whole crowd, so killing him-"
"I understand, Sergeant. What type of message? Who is this hare anyway?"
"Some old crazy. He's completely nuts. He keeps going on about rebellion to the other prisoners in the cart loudly enough for me to hear him thirty feet away-no joke."
"Those are the worst. He'll probably give me some sort of self-righteous speech about how I'm a horrible tyrant, and how I'm terribly cruel and treat everyone like mud on my boot and that I torture and kill and get insane pleasure from doing so. Like I don't already know that. It annoys me that after all the escape attempts have died down and I think I'll finally get a moment of peace, there is always someone who will try to make a martyr out of himself with a heroic speech and even more heroic death. So boring, and such a waste of my time."
His companion nodded in agreement, though the wolf doubted the sergeant really understood what he was agreeing to. A burly, stocky weasel, with a beer gut that seemed to have come along with his sergeant's stripes, he was little use for anything save a jailer. He was not particularly clever, but had an odd sort of common sense you could not trick your way around, and was decent enough with a club. To be honest, what more could you ask?
They silently walked through camp, the wolf not responding to the bows vermin gave them as they passed, stopping whatever they were doing to show their respect for their ruler. He towered above them all, looming like a mountain. Muscular and scarred, his fur was dark grey, his eyes deep blue; he wore a thick set of armor, plate mail on the shoulders and legs, chain mail on the arms. A long blue cape fluttered in the wind behind him, emblazoned with the insignia of the Wolf's Paw, which, rather obviously, was a wolf's paw.
They reached their destination quickly enough; the prison wagons were only a short walk away. About a dozen of them stood in a small clearing; basically, they were just large cages mounted on wheels. Inside sat woodlanders, half-starved, eyes open wide with fear as they saw who approached them, bodies defaced by recent injuries. These were the regular, "innocent" prisoners, who did not fight back and did not try to rebel. Those who did were left behind, imprisoned in the mountain fortresses of the north. These wagons were arranged in a circle; in its center stood four guards, two of them firmly holding an old hare.
The sergeant was right when he said the beast was crazy; his eyes whirled madly in his sockets, drool pooled at the corner of his mouth. Scars covered the poor creature, most of them recent and not yet faded away. When he saw the wolf, he gave an exclamation of delight.
"AHA! He approaches! The cowardly tyrant is among us!! Look at him, how scared he is! He comes to us, weaponless, weak, sick prisoners, clad in plate and chain mail! What a coward! Ha! Pathetic!" He paused for dramatic effect-the wolf was not even watching him. His eyes roved the prisoners, looking for a hint of defiance. But he saw only fear in those eyes who dared meet his gaze, before quickly dropping it. It seemed the hare had no support.
"He does not even reply!" screamed the hare, "he does not even have the courage to defend himself! How pathetic is that, huh? Well, I'll let you know, coward, that there will always be those who will fight those against you, those who will oppose you, so long as you live, and-"
"Really?" the wolf asked, whipping around toward the captive, who flinched and snapped his mouth shut.
"Is that so?" he whispered, but the whisper carried across the clearing, and every beast there heard it. "There will always be those who oppose me? Well, let's see them now, hmm? Anyone who wishes to "oppose me" stand up in your cage, give a wave. No? No one? Call out-I may not be able to see you... Still no one?" He turned his gaze onto the hare, sneering, who audibly gulped, despite his bravado moments earlier.
"It seems to me, my dear hare, that after you are gone, there will be no one else left to oppose me. No?"
"I-I-" the hare did not know how to reply to this, obviously unprepared for such a surprising event as the wolf actually coming up with an intelligent answer.
"At any rate, I have no interest in the remainder of your little "speech". You will proceed to blabber on about how I am a coward a few more times, then how someone will eventually throw me of my throne, a hero no doubt worthy of songs and tales. Then you will give some "bloodcurdling" war cry that will make the cowardly warlord and his wicked servants quail in fear, as you are accompanied by the wild cheers of your fellow prisoners. No?" He smiled then, a taunting, wicked smile. The hare could not find a reply.
"Take him to Rex," the wolf said to the guardsman. "I imagine Rex should enjoy this runt's company." The warlord had the satisfaction of seeing the hare's face pale before the guards dragged him away.
“Now then.” The wolf’s eyes roved the wagons, and he began to walk toward the nearest one.
“Does anyone else have a message to give? I would hate having to walk here two times. It would… irritate me.” He slowly walked past the wagons, his gaze stabbing into the prisoners. Trembling, they scooted backwards, eyes filled with fear. Stopping in front of one of the wagons, he beckoned to a haremaid. A pretty, slender little thing, her face was blotched and her eyes were red from crying. She stood up, trembling like a lone blade of grass in the breeze, and slowly shuffled over to the wolf. His paw slowly, delicately coiled around her throat, and she gave a small whimper and tensed up, as if preparing for a blow.
“Tell me, my dear,” said the wolf, whispering, but once more loudly enough for the whole clearing to hear, “do you wish to give a message to me?
“N-n-no, my lord,” she replied, shaking worse than ever.
“Louder, my dear, louder. We must make sure everyone hears.”
“N-no, m-my lord,” she called out, her voice breaking.
“Good. Very good.” He let her throat go, and she collapsed, panting and shaking with fear, tears trickling down her cheeks. The wolf strode on, savagely grinning with delight, and before long he had finished a complete circuit. Then, he noticed a mother hedgehog, shushing her daughter, who was trying to ask her something.
The warlord strode over there, smiling evilly. Only when he stood in front of the wagon for several seconds did the mother realize he was there, and she froze in fear.
“Why do you keep shushing that little girl? Perhaps ‘’she’’ wants to give me a message.”
“Oh, I-I assure y-you, my lord, it is n-nothing of the sort,” quickly replied the mother, shaking with fear.
“Nevertheless. Go on, little girl, what is it you wished to say?”
She looked towards him, hesitantly, and quietly said, “I-I was just wondering, w-who is Rex?”
“Oh, my dear, I’m glad you asked. Rex isn't much to look at; he’ll be the first to admit it. A fat weasel with a bad leg and a nasal, high pitched voice, poor Rex isn't very intimidating. Perhaps one might even call him funny. But when he has you chained up, naked if he thinks you're pretty, and he smiles that smile of his with his sharp, sharp teeth, and his eyes glow that awful, awful red, and he softly strokes your face,” the wolf reached through the bars and stroked the girl’s face, and she flinched back in horror, “then you find he’s not funny at all. Does that answer your question, my dear?” the wolf asked, giving one of his terrifying smiles, and the girl buried her face in her mother's arms, shaking; the mother herself looked close to tears. With that delightful message, he strode back to his tent, having satisfied his want of torturing little children for the day.
The weasel did not understand how Martin could be so cool and calm in this cursed heat. He had been extremely fortunate on his trip southward, as the skies were cloudy the entire way through, with even the occasional drizzle sprinkling the parched desert sands. But now, after half a day of non-stop trudging along the coast through moist sand, the sun rose higher and higher, and now, at midday, even a little cool breeze from the ocean could not do anything to cut through the dry desert heat. Certainly the weasel, in his thick coat of fur and leather armor felt like he was about to die; he was panting, his mouth halfway open, even though they were walking at a calm pace. Sweat trickled down his face, into his mouth; the weasel did not try to stop it, being almost too tired to even spit it out.
By all accounts, the fox should have had it even harder. His black fur was even thicker than the weasel’s, as well as being a worse color, and he was dressed in a thick greenish grey cloak. Yet the Shadow Jester showed no signs of exhaustion, walking with the same brisk pace he had when they set out, eyes staring straight ahead, one paw always resting on the pommel of his knife, and also close to the pouch where he kept the paper that would allow its bearer to do whatever he wanted. When they had set out at first, the weasel had tried to make conversation, introducing himself, saying how nice it was down south, talking about the weather… but the fox replied with as few words as possible, and soon enough they had descended into an awkward silence, which was but rarely breached by an offhand remark from the weasel.
“Perhaps,” the weasel panted, “we might stop for a rest? Just a quick break, mate, that’s all I need..”
“Hang on,” replied the fox, “we’ll be at a resting place soon, just over this dune.”
The fox spoke true; over the dune, a large building made out of thick, solid oak that must have been brought from leagues away stood on the coastline, a set of piers emerging into the ocean, trading vessels and pirate ships both lining up at their sides. Bustling with activity, the place seemed lively and filled to the brim with creatures; there was no lack of vermin. Slavers and slaves, workers, soldiers, mercenaries, farmers, fishermen, pirates, and more, dozens more, all talking and moving and haggling and arguing, forming one great throng, making a strong contrast to the vast isolation of the desert.
The two of them slowly made their way through the crowd, to the building itself; the broad set of double doors swallowed up the never-ending gush of vermin, in which the two companions were of course in. They found themselves in a tightly packed tavern, filled with as many creatures as outside, if not more. Noise pounded against the weasel’s ears; raucous laughter, yells, rolling dice, the clash of tankards, toasts… everyone seemed to be here and everything seemed to be happening here. Making his way after the fox, looking left and right, he almost bumped into Martin when he suddenly stopped.
“Sir, welcome to the Oaken Oaf! A messenger showed up barely at dawn with word that you’d be coming; we are too honored by your presence!” said a fat weasel clad in what appeared to be an innkeeper’s garment.
“We've prepared a table for you upstairs, sir, if you would care to follow me…”
He escorted them up two flights of stairs, and they emerged on a quiet, spacious, and overall more luxurious dining area. All but a few tables were unoccupied; in one corner sat a muscular, thick-furred stoat, smoking a pipe thoughtfully, his feet resting on the table. The stoat looked up and nodded to the Shadow Jester in greeting, who replied in kind. Leading them to a table right next to the window, the innkeeper motioned for them to sit down, and the weasel gratefully complied. Martin remained standing. Instead of rushing off as the northerner expected, the innkeeper himself took a seat, leaned forward and eagerly said, “So, a northerner, eh? I haven’t seen one of your sort ever since I got this establishment started! What’s your name, mate?”
Slightly startled by the innkeeper's forward approach, the weasel responded automatically, "It's Jurl... And yours?"
"Grimclaw, mate, but you can call me whatever you want. And I can already see we're going to be friends, right?" he said, winking theatricality.
"Um, sure. I guess so." replied the weasel, his tongue still going on automatic as his brain struggled to keep up. Innkeepers weren't supposed to act like this, were they? He had not been to many inns, but he knew that normally those who served you drinks didn't sit down and strike up friendly conversations. Just then, a pretty weasel maid bustled over, holding a tray with two stout tankards filled to the brim with ale. She was petite, a tiny little thing; Grimclaw was taller than her sitting down, and he was not particularly tall. She wore a thin cotton blouse and a short skirt that exposed a lot of leg and left little to imagination. Two little hoops pierced her right ear; her eyes were a pretty green color. When she saw him eyeing at her, she smiled prettily and winked, then, a touch slowly, walked away.
"That's my daughter," proudly said the innkeeper as Jurl followed her retreating figure, "and isn't she a pretty thing? You know, I could offer you her hand in marriage; she would like to wed a strong young weasel like you, a proud warrior. She would like that a lot."
Meanwhile, the fox downed his tankard in three long droughts, carefully placed it on the table, and went off without a word to the stoat, who raised his paw in greeting and immediately struck up a conversation.
Trying to get the girl out of his head - she was very pretty, wasn't she - Jurl asked, “Who is that?”
“Who, the stoat? Oh, that’s Bloodfang’s youngest son. The warlord has three sons; Orson, Krull, and Van. Van, the eldest, is a warrior and only a warrior. He leads the armies and eagerly fights anything that moves. Single minded, but a great commander nonetheless. Krull is younger version of Bloodfang himself, drawn to the sea; he leads the navy and regularly sails across the ocean and brings home lots and lots of plunder. And the one over there is Orson. Oddly enough, Orson always hated violence; in fact, it made him physically sick. But he was always very smart, and knew he had to be useful to the empire in some way in order to survive. So he began planning for the greatness of the empire; he envisions a huge country, walled off, connected by roads, even with a proper economy and infrastructure.”
“A what? What’s an inf... what did you say? Infrastructure?”
“I don’t really know myself, but Orson often talks about it to crowds, and everyone seems to understand, so I pretend to do so as well. If you ask me, half of 'em don't have a clue either, but there ain't anybody asking me. Anyway, did you see all the workers down there? They’re going to start building the first road under Orson’s command, from here all the way to Salamandastron, straight down the coastline. This place was finished just a few months ago, and I was offered a post here. I accepted, and I think this may someday be the center of a new city. But enough about me.” He turned his face toward the northerner, and cleared his throat. “I've always been interested in you northern lot, and have always liked learning in general. I haven't really met any of you and had the opportunity to sit down and talk, so you'll excuse me if I seem intrusive. I've always wondered, how does your army even work? I heard something about clans, but I’m not sure I understand…”
The weasel took a drink from his tankard, and, after setting it down, cleared his throat and replied, “Well, you see, the north was always divided into many vermin clans, that were always at war with one another. Occasionally, some warlord would bind them together through conquest and they would go off to try take over Redwall or some other nonsense like that, and would pretty much always fail. Never before, however, did all the clans come together at once, until now. My clan actually leads the pack, but there are many other influential clans, and we've all quarreled and skirmished and have our long and bitter rivalries. For the moment, however, we seem to be cooperating as well as could be expected.”
“Mhmm,” said the innkeeper, “about your clan? Who is the leader of it? He must be a mighty beast to lead the clan that leads all the other clans, right?”
“Oh, he’s mighty all right,” assured the northerner, “a great big wolf, huge thing, deadly with his spear. No one’s ever defeated him in single combat before, or, in fact, any type of combat. He’s also really smart, though; he makes these great speeches that convince everyone to his point of view, and he’s a great commander. The few clans that stood against ours were easily defeated. He also writes in his journal all the time; sometimes he reads poems that I think he wrote himself. I don't mean to brag, but he trusts me quite a bit, we've known each other for a really long time.”
“You are quite the impressive figure, I have no doubt I'd trust you as well, were I a warlord that lead a hundred mighty clans. Oh, and what is this mighty warlord’s name?”
“Scar. Scar the Mighty, though he prefers we call him "my lord."”
“Ah, I see. Well, it’s been nice talking to you,” said the innkeeper, standing up, “but I really must get back to my regular customers. Best of luck on your journey!” And he shook the northerner’s half-outstretched paw before bustling off. Jurl leaned back, relaxing, and took another sip of the cool, sweet ale. Just then, the innkeeper’s daughter appeared again, holding another tankard. She squeezed in next to him - he had been sitting almost on the edge of the bench, and murmured softly, “My father said you thought I was pretty. Do you really think I’m pretty, or was my father just trying to make me happy?”
She fluttered her eyelashes as she spoke, and leaned very close to him despite him nervously scooting inside to give her more room. Her smell was clean and sweet, and yet it somehow made Jurl dizzy.
“I-I... of course I think you’re pretty,” stammered the weasel.
“Aw,” she said, leaning even closer, “that’s so sweet. You’re such a gentleman.”
She stroked his face and, even softer said, “I think a gentleman such as you deserves a kiss. At least... to start out with... No?”
The weasel could feel himself blushing. In the Northlands, it was always the males doing the wooing, and he had never been particularly romantic in any case. “I-I-”
“I hate to interrupt, madam,” spoke a soft, silky, familiar voice, “but my northern friend and I are on a rather important mission and have little time to waste.”
Both weasels turned their heads and looked into the cold, dark eyes of the Shadow Jester. The girl stood up quickly and smoothly, and, giving a polite curtsy, her face respectfully blank, turned and quickly retreated. Without a word, the fox left, and Jurl was forced to quickly get up and jog after him, still struggling to figure out if what Martin did was a rescue or an unwanted intervention.
It took a good five minutes to get the band quiet, and little wonder. The whole dining area was in an uproar over the vermin captain; why would one of those beasts ever help us? He's a spy, don't trust him, off with his head! Hundreds of hares all shouted the same thing, until, finally, the officers got them to quiet down.
"Hear me out, warriors of the Band! If, after what we have to say, you still are not convinced, come out and say so! But let us talk first!" the lieutenant called out, looking completely confident despite the precarious situation. "Let us talk, I say! And make up your mind afterward!"
The silence that struck then seemed to be an entity of its own, so great it was. Not a hare moved or spoke; their eyes were pinned on the officers and the weasel. Then, Captain Zarik stepped forward and began to speak in a soft, silky voice.
“Thee does not trust me, thee says this one is a spy, no? Thee says, why should vermin help us, he is looking to betray us. No?”
Silence was the captain’s only reply, and, after a moment, he untied his sack and upended it. An old rat’s head fell out, with a grotesque look of surprise on its already-rotting face.
“Thee recognizes him, no?” asked Zarik, smiling wickedly.
“I say,” called out one hare, “that’s that blighter, what’s his name, that captain that almost took the island when we were away! The old rat!”
“Right!” another replied, “That blighter has been trying to get us killed forever, wot! Every time we were attacked, he was leading the force! We could never kill the bally old thing!”
“Thee still thinks this one is a traitor?” whispered the captain, his smile stretching wider than ever.
After a few moments of thought, an otter called out in a deep voice, “One rat isn't enough to prove anything! For the annihilation of our band, Bloodfang would sacrifice a lot more than just one rat!”
Shouts of agreements were heard, as the hares searched for reasons not to trust the captain. Tobey watched the scene intently, agreeing with every outcry of doubt proposed. He was increasingly certain that whatever it was, this was a risky idea, and not likely to end well.
Without a word, Zarik returned to his seat. He took from behind it another sack, and another. The silence that came was broken only by the soft thumps of the heads he threw out, each one of them a rat, stoat, weasel or fox. Some turned away, sickened; most watched with a horrified fascination as the weasel pulled out more and more sacks. When he was finally done, there were maybe fifty heads piled on the ground in a grotesque pyramid that was fascinating and revolting all at once.
“Now, does thee trust me?” he murmured, no longer smiling, eyes roving the crowd hungrily.
A few minutes of silence reigned during which nobody said a word, before the lieutenant stood up and called out, “I think everyone is certain of the Captain’s trustworthiness now, yes?”
He waited for someone to reply, but nobody did so.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he continued, “and would ask the non-officers to kindly leave. We still have several questions for Captain Zarik.”
Everyone stood up almost simultaneously, breaking out in to low, murmured conversations, making their way to their tents, as it was getting quite dark now. Tobey and Ruck refrained from talking, each sunk deep in thought; Tobey had a heavy heart - this would not end well. Nobody looked at the sickening spectacle left by Captain Zarik, and nobody offered to clean it up. Once everyone had left, the officers turned their heads to the weasel.
The lieutenant cleared his throat and said, “Would you please tell us your plan in all its details? While you certainly seem trustworthy, Salamandastron is nigh impossible to take, and we will need a masterstroke of a plan to capture it. Not to mention that we, as I understand it, have less troops than the vermin, which is obviously another disadvantage.
“I understand,” the weasel began, “that thee’s fighting strength is around two hundred hares, with a small assortment of otters and squirrels, yes?”
After the lieutenant nodded, Zarik continued, “This plain will require much trust from thee, very much, and much coordination to get right. The first step, is that my men will pretend to capture about fifty of you, and bring you inside the mountain to the prisons. Once in there, they will wait until my signal. Meanwhile, the otters and squirrels will be going onto my personal galley, which has access in the mountain, accessible by water, obviously, to anywhere I wish to go. We will land in the docks, where thee's otters and squirrels, along with my troops and other corsairs loyal to me, will start an attack inside the city. That is when, underground, the hares I captured will receive weapons, and start freeing the prisoners, of whom there is at least three hundred able bodied ones, if not hundreds more; the prisons aree deep and their inhabitants not kept track of.”
He paused, pulling out a leather flask from which he took a quick drought, before continuing. “Then, the main force will attack. The rest of thee’s army, along with three hundred of my troops, will attack the front gate. If all goes well, we will be able to open it from the inside, and the city will be ours. Then, the fighting inside Salamandastron should be enough to let it open to us, and we will capture the mountain. What does the thee say?”
The officers glanced around at each other; nobody could think of any concerns. After making sure no one had anything to say, the lieutenant turned to Zarik and said, “Although we may have to iron out a few details in your plan, as a whole… We accept. Our troops shall be ready in a week.”
Melony awoke to the wail of war horns and dim clash of blades, and she bolted up in her bed, alarmed. This could only mean one thing; the Northerners were attacking! She quickly changed into her clothes, and ran into the corridor, where she screamed as she collided with an otter.
“Melony!” he cried, “My apologies! Could you run up to the Mole Tower and wake up Houdini?!”
Still shocked, Melony nevertheless managed a nod, and he said, “Thanks! No time, gotta fight!” and with a rueful grin and a wink, he rushed off. Melony ran upwards, up the steps, three at a time. The war horns were deafening, overlapping one another as dozens of vermin blasted them around Redwall. She heard the harsh cries of dozens of crows and ravens up above, but her mind was too busy thinking to really pay attention. Suddenly, she tripped over a step, and that saved her life, as something smashed through the window, flying right over her sprawled form. The squirrel jumped up quickly, and was face to face with a snarling rat. Covered in leather armor from head to toe, he had a short sword in his paw and a small leather shield, more to protect himself from the fall then from actually fighting.
These were dubbed aviators; during an attack, birds would drop them through windows, and they would try to cause mayhem inside Redwall. With a savage grin, the rat advanced, and Melony pressed herself against the wall, ready to try and kick out at him. Suddenly, something whirled through the air, and the rat tottered over, knocked out. A mole bustled down the steps, holding a sling; business-like, he took out a knife and cut the rat’s throat in one smooth motion. He nodded to a stunned Melony, and then continued bustling downward.
Shaking off her shock, Melony ran on. The rest of the way to the Mole Tower, nothing occurred, and she made it there safely. When she ran into the main chamber of the tower, a crossbow bolt thudded into the door next to her, and she squealed in surprise, as did the creature who shot it. An old mole lady sat in an armchair, holding a small crossbow in one paw and knitting in the other.
“Goodness me, oi thought you was one of dem varmints! Oi’m sorry, Melony!” the old lady said, reaching for another quarrel from a stack lying on the table next to her.
Still trying to regain her breath, Melony gasped out, “I-It’s fine Grandmum,” everyone called her Grandmum, “just... try to be more careful next time, all right.?”
Without waiting for a reply, she quickly strode to the other side of the room, and heaved open the thick wooden door. A vast room lay before her, filled with designs, weapons, dozens of drawing utensils and papers, and all sorts of machines and parts. Short and squat, a little mole bustled around the room, carrying bolts and rocks and large metal disks as big as himself. Toward the far end of the room, there was a balcony, on which was a giant device. One end of it hurled bags of rocks into the air, over the walls of Redwall, presumably at the vermin. Another part was a giant ballista that thrummed every time it launched a bolt into the air, which coincided with the harsh cry of a bird. And the third part launched metal disks into the woods, which seemed to have no other purpose than to cause pure mayhem.
Manning the device was a huge, jet black mole, clad in simple workmanlike attire, his face calm and composed, yet fixed in concentration. This was Houdini.
“Who’s here?” the mole boomed out, as he carefully manipulated the device, and shot a large crow out of the air with a powerful thrum of the ballista.
“It’s Melony,” squeaked out the other mole, as he quickly put rocks into a little bag before stuffing them into a cylinder.
“Excellent. Melony, you’ll help load the device. The bolts for the ballista go into here,” he said, pointing toward a cylinder with a dozen long holes in it, “and you just fasten the disk onto the weapon. You can put on up to three if you like.”
Nodding, grim and determined, Melony began working. It was a thrilling, yet terrifying job, as the harsh screams of birds were all around her, and vermin were routinely dropped onto the platform; either the short mole would terrifically take them out with his sling, or she would have to fight them with a dirk the mole tossed her; it was hard work, and she was bloodied up rather quickly, long scrapes running up and down her body. Twice, Houdini had to lean over and cave an assailant's head in to save her life. After what seemed like an eternity, the war horns finally stopped blowing, the birds flew away, and the attack had stopped. However, down below, in the Great Hall, the wind still carried sounds of fighting.
Tiredly mopping his forehead with a dirty rag, Houdini said, “I would go investigate what was going on there if I was you. Maggio and I must take count of the inventory.”
Too tired to reply, Melony only nodded, her body throbbing with pain, and began her way down. A dead weasel was sprawled in the main chamber, a crossbow bolt through his throat, and Grandmum cackled wildly when she saw the squirrel’s look of tired surprise, and said, “Oi got one, didn't oi? Oi got one!”
It had been several days since they stopped in the tavern, and little of interest had occurred since then. The Shadow Jester spoke rarely, and said few words when he did speak, leaving Jurl no choice but to gaze at the scenery in silence. They traveled along the sandy coastline, with the gentle lapping of the waves and the harsh cawing of seagulls the only sound they heard for miles at a time. Occasionally, the duo would come across a patrol, or other travelers like themselves; every now and then they saw corsair ships or trading galleys out to sea. Jurl had thought about stealing the parchment for several days now, but decided it was too soon and he would wait until they were closer to camp. With that paper, Scar would be able to do whatever he wanted with Bloodfang's jurisdiction; as a bargaining piece, it was huge.
But when they entered Mossflower Wood, things got interesting. Jurl first noticed something odd about halfway through the day, after they were a good bit into the forest. The fox seemed slightly tense, his eyes roving, one paw hovering near his blade. It was subtly done, hence why it took the weasel so long to notice. However, once he did notice, he started paying attention to other things; the slight rustling continuously behind them that he took to be the wind, the common bird calls that he took to be no more than that, the creaks and groans of the trees that suddenly seemed to come too often…
Jurl tensed up too, nervously putting his paw on the hilt of his sword. Then, the fox whispered, “Relax. You’re too noticeable. They’ll get nervous.”
Without a word, the northerner obeyed. He had no doubt which one of them was more experienced in these matters.
A short while later, they ran upon a stream. Fast-flowing, clean with little foam, it was shallow enough, and the weasel got ready to ford it when Martin put a paw on his shoulder.
“Wait,” the Shadow Jester said, his face twisted in distaste, “are you sure there’s no bridge across nearby?”
“I forded it last time I went through, I don't think there's a bridge,” said Jurl, before adding, “Why? Scared of a little water?” Grimacing, the fox strode into the stream without a word, and with a shrug, Jurl followed him.
When they were about halfway through, a squirrel seemed to materialize out of the woods; in his paws was a bow pointing straight at them. He was covered in scars, his shoulder bandaged. His face was chiseled, hard, his eyes cold and uncompromising; his choice of attire was beaten leather armor, a green cloak, and a quiver slung across his back.
“It'd be lovely,” he snarled in a deep voice, “if you put your paws up, gents. You could of course risk getting skewered by an arrow, if you're into that kind of thing.”
Jurl did so practically without hesitation, but the Shadow Jester looked downstream; there, an otter stood, as badly scarred as the squirrel, an eyepatch adorning his right eye. He had a notched, savage-looking cutlass in his paw, and a red bandanna on his head. He grinned wildly, a hint of madness in his remaining eye. Nonplussed, the fox looked upstream, into the eyes of two shrews, each grimly clutching rapiers. They were bruised and scarred, and one was missing a chunk of his face. Still not putting his paws up, the Shadow Jester turned backwards, where he saw another squirrel, whirling a sling menacingly, her lithe, scarred frame no doubt hiding a frightening amount of strength.
“If that’s done,” the squirrel in front of them called out, “it'd be awful nice if you stuck your paws up.”
Bleakly, Martin did so, his eyes slowly roving the scene, no doubt looking for a way out.
“I suppose you’ll be taking us to Redwall, then?” inquired Jurl, more out of curiosity than of any intent to waste time.
“Redwall? That death trap? Fat chance. No, we’ll take what we want from you, then kill you,” replied the squirrel, before the otter rasped out in a hoarse voice, “Going into Redwall is suicide. We won't be able to leave, there is nothing for us there.”
“Kill us, will you?” The fox had spoken for the first time, his voice soft, yet carrying over the stream.
“Well, first we’ll take your stuff, and then yes, we’ll kill you. A shot through the throat should work nicely for you. Throw your weapons to me, now. Not at me; that will only make me angry.”
When neither of them moved, the squirrel behind them called out in a sweet, musical voice, “Come on, boys, don’t keep us waiting; we don’t have all day!”
Jurl looked questioningly at Martin, who met his gaze for a moment, before doing something nobody expected. He unsheathed a sword and threw it straight up, and everyone's eyes shot toward it, squinting because of the sunlight reflected on the blade. As it was still in the air, the fox had already whirled around and threw a knife at the female squirrel, who nimbly dodged it, and then sent a rock whirling at the fox.
Jurl’s jaw dropped as the fox nonchalantly caught the rock, dropped it, dashed up to the squirrel and stabbed her surprised figure in the throat. By then, the other squirrel had gotten his bearing, and shot an arrow at the fox, before hiding behind a tree. Martin dodged it, and then went into the brush himself. Silence followed, as the band of woodlanders waited, but the Shadow Jester seemed unwilling to make a move. The otter stepped out the stream, cutlass at ready, the shrews stayed planted in the stream, eyes alert, and the squirrel emerged from behind the tree, pointing his bow right at the weasel.
“If you don’t come out, fox, your friend will get an arrow in his back! I’m going to count to three!”
Silence was the squirrel’s only answer. The otter made a few more steps toward the brush, holding his cutlass warily before him.
“Three… Two… One… Your buddy is dead!”
Jurl leapt into the stream an instant before he heard the twang of the bow, and the arrow whistled harmlessly over. When his head broke out of the water, he saw that the otter's body was already slumped on the ground, a surprised look on his face and a knife between his eyes, and the fox was dashing across a river.
Just then, the squirrel knocked his bow again, drawing back as he said in a panicky voice, “D-don’t move, or you’re getting an arrow through your eyes! I won’t miss this time, I swear!”
The Shadow Jester smiled as he slowly raised his paws in defeat. In the instance, Jurl straightened up, and in one fluid motion, threw a knife right at the squirrel. His arrow only grazed the Shadow Jester’s rib, such was the speed of the fox’s leap, and in exchange, the woodlander got a knife embedded in his chest. The weasel then turned toward the two shrews, both who were watching in shock as their band was massacred, unable to do a thing.
“If you know what’s good for you, run,” Jurl flatly said, and without a word, the two shrews speedily emerged from the stream and ran away; they were gone in the blink of an eye. Martin stood up in the river, with a disappointed look on his face.
Jurl looked at him in question, and the fox explained, “I got cut on my rib. Embarrassing, really. Hardly the performance one would expect from an elite assassin, right?”
The weasel could only look at Martin in disbelief as he strode out of the stream, unsure of he was joking or not. With a shake of his head, Jurl followed him, tugging his knife out of the squirrel’s chest on his way.
Scar sat himself at the council table, putting some parchment and a tankard of sweet smelling liquid on the table. It was circular, so as to not offend any of the council leaders; however, the wolf had gone out of his way to proclaim his authority by having a throne carved and richly decorated with gold and silver. Vain and arrogant, yes, but Scar enjoyed those little gestures. Most others had to do with a simple wooden chair. The room, for now, was empty. He was always the first one to meetings, liking to get himself settled in and ready, make sure he was on his game that day.
In front of him was a pile of reports; taking a sip of his honeyed ale, Scar began studying them. A slave rebellion in the mountains, quickly crushed, trouble from the Painted Ones and the commander there questioning what to do, reports of dissent in the ranks…
For the next fifteen minutes or so, Scar engrossed himself in these reports, occasionally making a mental note but mostly scrapping the paper, the information being nothing more than a matter of protocol and not actually important. He reached for his tankard, and, to his surprise, discovered it gone. The wolf turned, and saw a pretty fox standing next to him, a cheeky smile on her lips as her blue eyes sparkled with amusement. She raised his tankard, as if toasting him, before taking a long draught.
She was slim, but muscular, with orange reddish fur that always brought Scar thoughts of autumn. Dressed in a light tunic, plain white, with dark brown leggings and boots, she did not look like the clan leader she was. At her side hung an ornate sword, its scabbard richly decorated with a hunting scene. In annoyance, the wolf said, “I would appreciate it, Lyona, if you were to find your own drink rather than pilfering mine. It takes quite a while to make, and I do not enjoy the thought of tasting your spit. Yet to waste it would be quite a shame…”
“I would gladly solve your dilemma,” replied the fox in her annoyingly wonderful, beautiful voice, “by drinking all of this ale for you, so you do not have to ponder whether to drink it and taste my spit or to throw it out. We may disagree on many things, but I must say that you have the most delightful alcohol. Sweet, yet fiery as it goes down your throat, brings heat to your face yet cooling your body at the same time. Valentine, would you care to take a sip?”
The last part was addressed to her bodyguard, another fox, with red fur, a perpetual sneer coupled with a narrow face; he had a bow and quiver slung over his back, and was widely regarded as one of the best archers in all of the Northlands.
Taking a look at Scar’s face, he replied, “I must pass, my lady. Perhaps next time. I’m sure his lordship will be most excited to share his drink at some other opportunity.”
With a shrug and another smile, she set the tankard down, before leaning over, her breath smelling of honey as she said, “Did you hear? Flake launched another attack on Redwall yesterday. I heard he bungled it.”
“You sound surprised, Lyona. Rather odd, that, considering how you’ve been saying Flake is an impotent commander for months now. As I heard, there were many casualties for the Redwallers, and they will not last long.”
“That message was no doubt delivered by Flake himself, then,” replied the fox, sneering, “I heard that the number of casualties the Redwallers suffered was nowhere near that of our troops.”
“We shall see,” Scar said, not willing to continue the conversation.
Just then, the perfect diversion ended, in the form of Big Belly Grunk. Certainly a curious creature, Grunk. Though his strength was all but unparalleled and him charging at you often being the last thing you saw, he preferred to be carried in a litter by four strong weasels. A weasel himself, he was not named Big Belly for nothing, as the tent, which had seemed empty a short while ago, was now occupied by his voluminous bulk. Massive to the point of taking part in a grotesquerie, his chair was two times the size of the wolf’s throne, and Scar was not exactly small.
Grunk’s face was set in a perpetual bored expression; he was, however, easy to anger and quick to smile, an emotional creature in other words. Tattoos adorned his shoulders, from the times when he had waged war as opposed to reclining in a litter with a pretty maiden serving him food. He had become lazy, no doubt, but that did not make him any less dangerous. His clan was far more numerous than any other, a tribe of naturally large weasels much like himself, they were all fiercely loyal to Grunk and presented quite a danger to Scar’s leadership.
Even here, the weasel liked to flaunt his power; numerous attendants were in his presence. In addition to his litter-bearers, he had a hulking bodyguard looming behind his chair, a slip of a girl smiling and simpering and whispering to him, several captains and even his eight year old son trailing in his wake. On most days, Scar let them stay until the meeting actually begun. Other clan chiefs were beginning to trickle in; here, the cunning but cowardly Vike, there, the ferocious stoat from the far north whose heads claimed in battle was exceeded only by the number of scars on his body, and many more.
Most were of no import, contributing to the side but not seriously impacting which way the war would turn, but there were a few who had say in what Scar, and consequently the horde, decided. One of such was Flake. He had entered quietly, without much of a fuss, and calmly sat down at his chair, some parchment in his paw. Currently in charge of the campaign against Redwall, he had brought much valor to his name when the war against the mountain hares was waged, his skills with a blade and his intelligence impressing many. A reddish fox, there was little that could be said about him; without knowing who he was, one would think he was just another soldier.
As of late, however, his tactics had disappointed, Redwall holding strong despite his repeated assaults, and, according to Lyona, Flake’s incompetence was exceeded only by his ineptitude, though the wolf did not see the difference between the two. An important point to be brought up in today’s meeting, to be sure.
He stood up in all of his intimidating height, and, almost instantly, the background chatter ceased as all eyes were turned to his figure. Attendants scuttled out of the room, and, soon enough, the clan leaders were all alone.
Scar began immediately, saying, “I think we have no need of small talk, so we shall begin at once. Lyona, you may go first; you had told me you had something of import to say.”
She stood up, smiling prettily, and said, “I have several things to say. First off, one of my ships experienced a clash on the River Mossflower with a gang of shrews. There were casualties on both sides, but our force were the victors, and almost the entire band of marauders was wiped out. To the east, one of my patrols had a confrontation with soldiers from Salamandastron; though it came to nothing, the situation was reportedly tense, as both sides believed the other was past its boundaries.”
Scar replied, “Give the shrews choice between death and slavery, if you have not already done so. Spread the word to continue not engaging in combat with the southerners; I had sent an ambassador several weeks ago and he shall soon be able to get back about the situation. Now, I have here a report from Captain Drake about the situation in our fortress to the north. Captain?”
A rat stood up, and, saluting smartly, said, “Reliable sources say that the mountain hares are planning to orchestrate a rebellion once more; additionally, it is believed that a band of Snowy Owls will assist in this endeavor, besieging the castle in an attempt to distract our troops. I suggest, if you do not mind me doing so, sending some more troops back; perhaps a hundred foot soldiers, and maybe a dozen crows to better combat the owls.”
Nodding graciously, the wolf replied, “I concur that that is a wise course of action. Order it to be done. Let us see, here, what else? This is not important, nor this, this either… ah, Lord Flake. I believe your report is to be the last.”
Flake stood up, and, baring his teeth, he began his report, “We had mounted an offensive effort on Redwall Abbey two days ago. Though we were not successful in capturing it, ” here scoffs of derision and muttered remarks were heard, “we did manage to kill as many as a dozen Redwallers. Additionally, the front gate is destroyed completely, and the west and east ones are damaged as well. We have also realized that the missiles which were taking out our birds were being launched from a tower located near the western wall; our climbers believe it may be possible to reach from swinging from the nearby oak.”
“You speak of positives,” called out Lyona, “but what of our own losses?”
“Compared to those of the enemy, they are insignificant. Around a hundred, perhaps slightly more soldiers were lost, as well as twelve birds. Another hundred were wounded, about a third severely, and twenty bird injured as well.”
“It appears our definitions of insignificant differ then, my friend, ” said Scar, to the titters of the other clan chiefs, “I do not want this war carrying on for long. You shall continuing mounting assaults, and if Redwall Abbey is not ours within two months, we shall have to look for another commander. Are there any other matters of import which need to be brought in front of us? No? In that case, this meeting is over.”
Ruck paced nervously, trembling a bit in anticipation; next to him, Tobey calmly sat, leaning back against a rock, eyes closed. Around fifty more hares stood in the small clearing, murmuring quietly among themselves or simply grabbing a quick nap before the mission. All fifty of them were volunteers, as they would have arguably the most dangerous job; trust Zarik’s soldiers in safely getting them into the prison and supplying them with weapons without getting them killed. It was early morning, and the sun had not even risen yet, although light was coming from the east.
They had been sitting there for some fifteen minutes when the vermin finally arrived; about a hundred and fifty of them, holding ropes, weapons, and strange kits. Setting down their equipment, they opened their kits, revealing paints and powders and old bandages inside them. One of the hares, the commander of the operation Sergeant Roy, strode up and said, “What is ‘tis for, bonnie lads? Why ye be painting your faces?”
A long-snouted rat replied to him, at the same time carefully trailing red paint down his face, “Yew lot don’t think we’s can saunter over with nary an injury and expect ‘em to believe we captured fifty hares just like that, eh?”
Indeed, as the hares looked around, they saw a lot of the vermin looked like they had taken wounds in battle; dark blue powder for bruises, bandages wrapped around paws and faces, long red gashes decorating their bodies… The rat then said, “Now come on, yew lot; we got to git some of you fixed up as well.”
Although a few hares protested, most let the vermin dab paint and powder on their bodies, and before long they looked every bit as wounded as the vermin did. About thirty minutes later, the process was finally done. Next, they ordered the hares to line up in two rows, and proceeded to tie them up. Any weapons the hares had on them were taken away, and put onto wooden carts. When all was done, the sun had risen, and they were ready to begin their march.
Tobey had to admit, the vermin had done a good job; the hares had the weary, wounded look of defeated soldiers, and it actually looked as if they had been captured. Large stoats and rats walked up and down near the rows, snarling and cracking their whips, frequently shouting at them to move faster; their other guards talked among themselves, frequently spitting at the direction of the hares, and Tobey had to convince himself they weren’t actually being captured. The next few hours passed this way as they trudged through the sand, Salamandastron looming ever larger, the day growing hotter by the minute.
When they finally reached the city under the shadow of the mountain, they were actually tired, their feet sore from the hot sand. Tobey couldn’t imagine fighting right now; hopefully they would get a little break. The city was entirely walled off, most of the walls being wooden although there were quite a few stone parts; importing all of this material must have taken months. They strode up to the gate, which was quite large, built solidly out of stone with what looked like strong oaken doors.
Up on the battlements, a fox called out, “What be yer business?! What are all des hares for?”
The long-nosed rat replied, “Are you blind?! We’ve captured ‘em, you idjit-now let us in!”
“Captured them? You and yer ragtag band of beggars? I doubt you could ‘apture half a dozen moles!”
“We lost ‘alf our number, you slimy worm, to get des hares here! We ain’t done this to have you and your dumb band of thugs stop us and call us beggars! Let us in, or we’ll put arrows in yer throat!”
One of the hares leaned over to the rat and began to say, “Are you sure this is-” but bowled over as the rat slapped him in the face and screamed, “Silence! Nobody told yew to speak!”
Up top, the fox thought for a bit longer and then shouted, “Let ‘em in!”
There was silence for a moment, and then the oaken doors began to groan and creak as they opened outward. Chains rattled as the portcullis behind the doors was raised, and before it was even all the way up they began going through, the rat leading the way. Dozens of vermin stood behind the opening, watchful eyes peering to make sure nothing was amiss. Without a word, they strode past the checkpoint, into the city.
The normal citizens were already up and about their day; all of the trade stalls were open, and there was tons of vermin, haggling, shouting, all in a throng of creatures. Children ran around, mothers held up mewling babes, squadrons of guards patrolled the marketplace… and all of them turned to look as the procession marched by. Jeers and laughter began to sound, the vermin pointing at the hares, some goggling, others mocking them. It took only a little time for the first thing to be thrown; soon, the whole crowd was pitching in, throwing pebbles, fruits, sand at the hares.
They stoically bared the abuse, though as time went by more and more of them began giving dirty looks to the crowd, snarling at the throng of jeering commoners. In response, the vermin began cracking their whips more often, urging the hares on; at the front, the rat shouted, “If the line breaks every last one of yew worms is getting whipped ‘till they can’t walk!”
Getting more and more brave, some vermin actually strode up to the line, spitting in the hares’ faces, hitting them, mocking them the whole time. Finally, one hare had enough; he dashed to the left, pulling the entire line back, and jumped on the mocker, who screamed in fear. Instantly, the guards dashed over, pulling him off as he fought and bit at them, but with the help of their whips he was subdued. Ruck was watching, wide eyed, and Tobey leaned over and said, “They’re just acting-” right before a whip cracked him on the back and a rat screamed, “No talking, little worm, or I’ll rip out yer eyes and gut you!”
Tobey snarled at him, but kept quiet, his back burning in pain. For now, the common vermin stayed back, still jeering, but no longer brave enough to come close to them. It mattered little, as they were almost at Salamandastron; the gate into the mountain loomed right over them. They were about to go through, but a big weasel stopped them, and said, “We’re taking o’er now, yew’ve done yer part. If yew’d step away now me and my boys ‘ll do the rest.”
More vermin strode over, easily enough to keep them under control. They were all clad in dark armor, with the insignia of a burning mountain drawn right in the center of their breastplates. Tobey began to worry but the rat seemed unfazed. He pulled out a piece of parchment and handed it to the weasel, sneering in contempt. The weasel stared at it, his forehead wrinkling in concentration. After a few minutes, the rat leaned over and said contemptuously, “If yew could actually read, yew fat useless slime, yew’d see it says Bloodfang at the bottom. Bloodfang. Yew ain’t wanting to disobey him, are yew?”
The weasel snarled at the insult and replied, “And what does dis order say den, yew skinny worm?”
“Clear as day here, illiterate scum, is wrote-“These guards are in complete control of this group of hares and are allowed to escort them wherever they please. Signed, Bloodfang the Mighty”. ”
The weasel looked around, scowling, but saw nobody he trusted who could read. Instead he turned back to the rat and said, “Why in the Hellgates would he give an order like dat?”
Laughing, Zarik’s soldier replied, “Now dat’s a different story. Who knows, I’ve heard he’s a gone a bit crazy, if yew know what I mean.”
Clouting him on the head, the weasel replied, “Shut up. You ain’t gonna speak about his lordship like dat.”
However, he and his soldiers did step aside, reluctantly letting them through. The mighty gates into the mountain opened, and they strode through. Archers silently watched them on the battlements as they passed, holding bows at the ready. The tunnel they were in was huge, the walls arching higher and higher, filled with crevices and ledges for archers. Bats flitted around near the top of the cavern, a huge number of them hanging from the ceiling. They walked quietly, and relatively quickly, soon entering a smaller tunnel.
For about fifteen minutes they journeyed the tunnel system, steadily going down deeper and deeper into the mountain. Torches lit every inch of the passageway, and they passed guards and soldiers everywhere they went. Soon, they reached the prison levels; cells extended seemingly endlessly into either direction, filled with prisoners of all sorts. They turned toward the procession, sadly and silently staring at the hares; a few even began to cry. Without a word, they went deeper, down two more levels, each one of them the same, filled with sad, tired prisoners. Guards were stationed everywhere, watching them with keen eyes.
When they reached the third lowest level, rather than attempting to go lower, they went into a separate cavern, which was quite large. Five or six guards were in it, playing cards; another sat away from them, stroking a crossbow. The cavern was fairly well lit, though most of the top half of it was hidden in shadows, but contained little save for two tables and a cabinet in the corner. There was a tunnel on the far end of the room, leading downward, but it was blocked by a fat stoat sitting at a desk. The rat strode over to him, and clearing his throat, said, “Fifty hares for the unoccupied chamber down below. Should be in the arena tomorrow.”
The stoat leaned forward ponderously, scribbled something on a piece of paper, and nodded, moving himself and his desk aside and handing them a key. They went down the tunnel, which was quite steep and short. What they ended up in was a separate prison section; two small cells were near a huge one; in one small cell there were four or five otters, in another about the same amount of shrews and two squirrels. There were no guards in this separate chamber.
All of the hares were ushered into the big cell, their ropes getting cut as they went in. When all of them had entered, the guards shuffled back up. Last to go was the rat; before leaving, he held up one finger, as if telling them to wait. They sat in the gloom, as the chamber only had two torches near the front; they were silent, as the prisoners nearby did not feel like starting a conversation and they had no inclination of talking themselves. After a little while, they heard the rat above returning, saying, “We have blankets for ‘em. Orders from the very top. Bloodfang wants ‘em to be nice and fresh for the arena.”
Silence greeted his words, but then they came down again. There was about a dozen of guards this time, along with the rat, each holding a bundle of blankets. They carefully set them inside the cell, gesturing for the hares to unwrap them. Inside were weapons, easily enough to equip the entire group of hares as well as the prisoners beside them, who sat up, eyes narrow as they watched what was going on. The rat handed them a note before leaving.
Gathering around the Sergeant, they quietly read the note; those who could not read were forced to wait for someone to quietly explain it to them.
Wait for five minutes upon receiving your weapons. We have left your cell door unlocked, but the others will have to wait. The weasel up top has the keys to the cells nearby; kill him and his guards without making a fuss. Once you have done that, free the prisoners next to you. There is a secret passageway in your cell; it will lead down into the mountain. Go as far down as possible; you will be on the lowest level of prison cells. Try and find the arena; it's somewhere in the tunnel system. There's a bunch of warriors there, some who will surely be willing to fight for us, and the main guard has a master key for all the cells in the mountain. Go in and wreak havoc. May your swords strike hard and true.
Signed, Captain Zarik
Melony walked into the yard, panting due to having run down all the way from the Mole Tower. After every conflict, all Redwallers were required to meet in the yard; a few, like Houdini and Badgermum Donna chose not to show up, or couldn't, and so someone would have to check on them. The rest, however, were all outside. Most were clustered near the entrance, so if there was another attack they could quickly run inside, but the otters were walking around, picking up dead bodies of vermin and birds and unceremoniously dumping them in one spot.
Skipper noticed her and called out, “Ah, Melony, there you are. Where are you hailing from?”
“From the Mole Tower. I was helping Houdini during the attack,” replied the squirrel.
“You all right?” After she nodded, he said, “Listen, have you seen Ocho? He’s a tough guy, I’m sure he’s fine, but he’s my cousin and I gotta take care of him.”
Just as Melony was about to reply that she hadn't seen him, an otter from the other side of the yard called out, “Hey, Skipper!”
The otters at Redwall were divided about halfway between the southern holts, those part of Skipper’s crew in other words, and those who fled the northerners. Those who flew were typically taller, skinnier, and had darker fur; they slurred their words a bit, though most talked like the other otters did now.
“I say, this… Ocho, he wouldn't happen to be young, with a silver helmet and a pair of knives?”
His face furrowed in worry, Skipper strode forward, replying, “That’s his friend, Les. What about him?”
“It’s just that he has a spear in his-”
Another otter interrupted, his voice heavy, “And there’s Ocho. Under five bodies he was; can’t have gone more honorably than that.”
Eyes wide open, Skipper pushed the first otter out of the way, and stared in dismay at the two bodies, before recoiling, his face twisting in anger as he choked back a sob. Nobody spoke in the yard, as everyone keenly felt Skipper’s sadness. Melony bowed her head, a tear trickling down her face. She felt bad for not feeling more, but she hadn't known Ocho too well and she had honestly run out of tears to cry.
“We can’t just… sit here anymore!” Skipper said angrily, “We’re getting picked off one at a time, as they throw their soldiers at us! They don’t care about their losses, they’ll sacrifice a hundred of their soldiers for one of ours!”
“Well what can we do then? They have sentries all around Redwall, we can’t leave,” replied the northern otter.
“I don’t know, do something! Dig tunnels, shoot at them, attack them from behind, do something!”
“We’ll all die if we try that, Skipper. You know that. Killing yourself for nothing wouldn't be a good sacrifice for Ocho’s sake.”
Skipper snarled and turned toward him, whipping out a javelin, “You are an insensitive scumbag, Campbell! Let them kill your cousin and see how that feels!”
The northerner’s face remained calm, but his voice became ice cold, “Let them kill your cousin? Let them kill your cousin? Skipper, you know nothing of pain. They killed my entire family, one by one. Three cousins, two brothers, my mother and father, my grandparents. And then they killed my daughter in front of my eyes, three giggling stoats slobbering all over her as they cut her into pieces. They killed my daughter!”
His eyes glistening with tears and he turned and went inside; his fellow northerners followed him. Skipper glowered, his face miserable, and strode off toward Ocho’s body, snarling over his shoulder, “I need some time alone.” The group stood silently for a moment, but slowly began to disperse, murmuring quietly among themselves. Quite a few were crying softly, and being comforted by the others. The otters, too, began to trundle in, when Melony stopped one of them and said, “Have you seen the sergeant? He’s normally here.”
The otter only pointed towards the wall, a look of deep sympathy on his face as a tear escaped the corner of his eye. Melony turned, already despairing, and saw the hare’s body laying peacefully next to a nameless otter; it may have been Ryan. Tears flowing freely now, Melony stumbled to his body, collapsing upon it when she got there. His face looked so peaceful now, but he was dead; for all his talk of hope and happiness and the light at the end of the tunnel, he was dead. Melony’s sobs and wails lasted for several hours, before someone came out and took her inside.
It was the Friar, who gently held her shaking body and whispered, “There, there now. I’m sure he’s in a better place. Don’t cry anymore, please don’t cry anymore.”
He took out a rag and gently wiped her eyes, but she could not stop crying, her entire body trembling and shaking.
“Come on, the Badgermother wants to talk with you.”
Upon entering Redwall, they went downstairs, into a room right above the cellars. Small and cozy, it was warm to the point of hot; a fire burned cheerfully crackled in the corner, unaware that the world it was in was anything but cheerful. The room was cluttered with bookshelves, tables, and drawers; there were no windows, and the floor was covered in a thick carpet, the walls hardwood. Right in the middle of a room was a table, upon which were two cups of tea; one right next to the seat where the Friar ushered Melony, the other in the Badgermum’s paws.
Older than many trees around Redwall, the Badgermum was ancient; both her eyes were blind, thin scars covered her old, leathered paws, and her entire frame seemed old and weak. Even so, she towered over the table, her formidable size still impressive even though it had deteriorated with age.
“Thank you, good Friar,” she said softly, her voice gentle, “Could you leave us please?”
Nodding, he quietly slipped out, softly closing the wooden door behind him. The Badgermum silently drank her tea, gently rocking in her chair; Melony began drinking too. The drink was right at the point between hot and warm; not scalding, but not yet lukewarm. She leaned back in her chair, the tea warming her entire body, and despite her sadness making her feel better. Finally her tears dried up, and before too long she was feeling much better.
“The sergeant lived a good life, Melony. He served well at Salamandastron for what quite a while, and has always been a loyal companion to me. A brave hare, he always spoke of hope and the triumph of good over evil, and, despite our dire situation, his voice still resonates deeper within me than any of the horrors that have happened over the past years.”
Melony chose not to reply to this, for fear she might start crying again; instead, she drank her tea. They sat in silence for a while longer, before she asked, “Mother, why do some react less to losses than others? For example, Houdini. He never lets it affect him, he just always goes on with his life. How does he do it?” “My dear, Houdini is as bad of an example for that as you could provide; the only reason he doesn't react is because he refuses to establish ties, for fear of what it might do to him. I first met him back when I stayed in Skipper’s holt, when the influence of vermin was not anywhere as great. He had a wife, then, a lovely mole-maid, pretty and kind and loving. They had their child, Maggio, but he did not love him too much; Houdini loved his wife much more.”
With a sigh, the Badgermum continued, “It was only a month after the birth that disaster struck; none of us had expected it. A raiding party snuck past Skipper’s sentries and attacked the holt; during the battle, Houdini’s wife was kidnapped. He and Skipper gave chase; they returned, a week later, Houdini shattered, carrying his wife’s mangled body in his paws. He turned worse and worse from then; fits of rage occurred more and more often, and soon, he developed Bloodwrath. Houdini would disappear for days on end, and when he’d return, his claws were coated with blood, his body covered in scratches that he did not notice.”
Melony was pale and silent, for she had never heard this story; her paw silently covered her mouth, which was open slightly in horror.
“I don’t know how, but somehow, I cured him; I spent days upon days, went with him on his massacres, every step of the day trying to bring him out of this madness. With my help, he attached himself to Maggio as a replacement for his wife; his one love is his son, his one tether to sanity. I fear if Maggio were to somehow die, Houdini would become consumed by Bloodwrath completely, and not stop until everything was dead, be it friend or foe. It would be most horrible.”
Somehow, Melony knew the conversation was over even without the Badgermum saying anything; she stood up, thanked her for the tea, and quietly left. She was already unnerved enough by the shocking story, but what the Badgermum quietly murmured next chilled her to the core. “Then again, perhaps someone consumed by Bloodwrath is exactly what we need.”
The Shadow Jester had warmed to Jurl after their encounter with the woodlanders. Though he still spoke little, he lost the cold, unfriendly look he had before, and replaced it with a neutral one, even smiling at times. Jurl had heaped praise on him for the first day after the fight, but soon he realized there were only so many ways he could exclaim, “How do you throw knives so well?!” and dropped the subject.
Although he had been instructed to inquire about the southern empire’s political and military status and such, he could glean little from the guarded answers the fox presented him and soon grew bored of asking. Personal details the Shadow Jester kept even closer to him, answering few questions, and none at all about his past. So Jurl decided to talk about his own.
He grew up in a large clan, one of the northernmost ones; life was hard and cruel for kids, even in the summer. They grew sick easily, and in the winter dozens froze to death. Their mothers made sure to care for them until they were old enough to run around, and gave them a place to sleep and a hot bowl of broth, but throughout the day, they were expected not to get underfoot and find their own entertainment.
The clan was a nomad clan; there were no other ways to survive in the north. After staying at site for a week or two, they would leave, often walking for a few weeks to reach their next resting place. In the summer, the snow was light and easy to walk on, but in the winter blizzards were a weekly occurrence and the trek was long and hard, as many dying as living through it. They moved from place to place in one big host, a line of weary travelers. When the weather was good, the children ran around, off to the side or simply round and round the clan, the decision made based on the game they were playing.
The two genders stayed, for the most part, separate; there was always an occasional girl who played as rough as the boys, and an occasional boy who was unusually gentle or weak and drifted toward the girls(those were mercilessly mocked and hated), but in general they stayed separate. While the boys ran around and played, the girls tended to stay by their mothers sides, talking to them, learning, or simply walking in silence.
After they reached a certain age, the boys were taken to begin learning how to hunt and fish and things of the sort from the men, but until then they were free to do whatever they wanted. The day’s activities were decided by the most powerful children; typically sons, or in two or three very unpleasant cases (from Jurl’s perspective) daughters of the better warriors or the war chiefs or seers or the clan leader himself. Children died frequently, whether from illness or hunger or cold, so they were born just as commonly, and there were always more chiefs’ sons to replace the ones who grew old or died.
The chiefs' kids were bigger, meaner, faster, stronger, and more intelligent than the others, so they decided what the day’s games were. And in the north, Jurl oddly had a hint of pride in his voice as he said this, you played rough. The favorite game was perhaps the simplest one; the leaders picked two unlucky kids and made them fight each other, or one of the leaders.
The first to yield was the loser, though the cowardly kids who tried to yield after one small bruise were sometimes beaten to unconsciousness and near death. Once defeated, you would either be humiliated or simply “out” for day, depending on how savage the leaders were feeling, and watched as others fought until a daily champion, typically the eldest son of the clan leader was crowned in bloody glory.
Though this was the favorite game, it was by no means the only one; ranging in simplicity where games from everyone beats everyone to a bloody pulp and the last one standing wins, to complex gang wars were teams were picked by a number of different variables and lasted for days.
Jurl was somewhere in the middle of the pack; he was not picked first, nor last, he went out around the middle of the tournament or the melee they partook in.... Average, in other words. His mother, too, was like any other, if sadder; though she had a child in her stomach for most of the time Jurl knew her, no siblings were born for Jurl save for one sickly child who died two weeks after the birth. It was an odd, rare sort of luck that an only child survived to become an adult. The sadness and lack of other children to care for made his mother gentler than most vermin mothers, though, and she often had kind words to say, made sure he was well-fed and cleaned his cuts and bruises.
He did not often meet his father, but when he did his dad was intoxicated; the few memories Jurl had of him consisted of him staggering around, the stink of grog heavy in the air as he belched and drunkenly demanded whatever whim beseeched him. His temper was ferocious, and he lashed out frequently at both his wife and son, beating them for very little reasons. Luckily, he stayed with the other men most of the time, and died in a raid just a few short months before he would have begun teaching Jurl how to be a hunter and a warrior.
Jurl’s life proceeded with few surprises; he grew up, hunted, fought, wed (though his wife died just a day after they wedded, Jurl said, before quickly going on to say he had just met her a day before that. Their marriage had been arranged by the clan leader) and he was just another average clan beast. Then, after one raid, everything changed. A peculiar prisoner was taken; a wolf, from the far north. Wolves were a rare sight in the south (even this was the south to them); the few that did come were old and weak and thin, barely larger than a large stoat or rat. Never before had they seen a wolf in his all-mighty prime, taller than the clan chief leaning down, even taller than him when kneeling.
It took seven warriors to subdue him, after he had killed a dozen or so beforehand. He had been taken to the clan chief, and would have been given the standard question of yielding or dying if not for Crook. Crook was the name of a crow who had taken to following the clan and aiding them with raids in exchange for free food and fire; on that day, he had fought long, and hard, and was covered in blood, him being too savage or perhaps uncaring to clean himself.
The wolf, who introduced himself as Scar, spoke in ringing tones of a land of endless blizzards and war and blood and a prophecy spoken to him. This prophecy told him that when he saw the red bird, he would rise to glory if he defeated both its master and its comrades, though in words more poetic than that. Laughter was the only reply from the clan leader, and the words, “Behead him,” but a seer stepped forth, and called upon him to stop. They spoke their own prophecy, one of a warrior clad in black and white (the garb given to prisoners was white, the wolf’s fur jet black), deadly with a spear, would defeat all their best warriors and the clan leader himself in single combat and elevate the clan to such power as it had never experienced before.
Although the clan leader sneered, even as a child he was superstitious (though he only believed our superstitions), muttering about omens, and so he bade the warriors to come and face this wolf, who was given back his spear. Jurl was in one of the first rows, and he claims he remembers that day as clear as yesterday. The wolf stood in the thin snow that lay on the ground in early autumn and waited as the warriors came to him one by one, and one by one they died. Those who preferred to outmuscle their opponents died the quickest, never standing a chance against the terrifying strength of the wolf; those who used their speed and agility danced around for a little while, but found the wolf to be lightning quick as well, and having an impossibly long reach; those who used their skill were all outclassed by the wolf’s prowess with a spear.
The clan leader sat and watched and honed a battleaxe as thirty of his best warriors were slain before his eyes; his expression never changed but Jurl could swear his eyes sunk and he aged a year after each death. After the final one had fallen, the bloody wolf turned tiredly toward the dais, upon which his final adversary sat. He contemplated for one long, silent moment, than ponderously rose from his throne, holding his battleaxe in his right arm, and slowly descended down, toward the wolf. Bigger, faster, stronger than any warrior in the clan, his axe bore hundreds of notches from foes he had defeated, ones as great or greater than the ones that lay in front of the wolf. Surely he would best this newcomer?
He walked until he was about twice his own length from the wolf, and stopped, standing there and looking right at Scar, who met his gaze evenly. They stood there for perhaps thirty seconds, the wolf never moving, a silence descending on the crowd, before the clan leader scornfully spat (it landed just shy of Scar’s feet) and charged. The wolf danced forward, batted aside the ax with contemptuous ease and thrust right through the clan leader's chest, the spear emerging on the far side.
As his last opponent toppled over, the crowd completely silent, Scar spread his arms and shouted, “None have defeated me, and none ever will! I fulfill your prophecy, I fulfill my prophecy, and I shall lead this clan to such glory as it has never known before! So your seers say, so I say! Who is with me?”
And everyone cheered and whooped and shouted out their fealty, because you do not argue with one who bested thirty one of your champions before your eyes.
“And now he leads the armies of the north,” mused the Shadow Jester, as he swept aside a low-hanging branch. To the distance, the tip top of Redwall's tallest tower peeked through the woods; the fox had wanted to give it a wide girth in fear of attracting unwanted attention, both from woodlanders and from northerners.
“Aye, that he does,” replied Jurl.
“How many more did he have to best to earn this title?”
“Well, against the first few clans we fought, he basically had to do everything, given how he slew thirty of our mightiest warriors. It was then that he was really at his best, I think, slaying a score or more of common soldiers each day and another batch of champions sent out to best him. Word spread quickly, and the clan leaders were more reasonable, opting to negotiate with Scar instead of just fighting. He made demands from them; those who did not accept were killed, those who did joined our rapidly growing clan.”
“Ah, I see,” replied the Shadow Jester, his tone neutral with a touch of curiosity, “And what part did you play in this rise to glory?”
“After the whole killing of thirty warriors, I was actually one of the best ones left, and he promoted me to lieutenant (after having installed a host of new ranks). I fought by his side, and killed many for him, growing to be (I would say) his right-hand. Though I am nowhere near the most important in the horde, or the best warrior, he trusts me like no one else, which is mostly why he sent me to be a diplomat. He taught me much of what I know about diplomacy, and educated me so I wasn’t just a simple clan member.”
Martin nodded, and said, “I don’t say this very often, but thank you. You’ve given me much to think about; more than you think you have in truth. I’d say it’s time to look for a campsite, by the way.”
Jurl suddenly realized that it was rapidly growing dark and that it had taken him most of the afternoon to tell his tale. Somewhat shocked by this, he turned and followed the fox, who was already searching for a place to stay the night.