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Okay. So I'm Varkanax39, and this is my first Redwall fanfic ever. I've been a fan of the series for more than six years, and I've read every single one of the books multiple times. The inspiration for this came to me a few weeks ago, and I've decided to post this here. If you read it, hope you enjoy the novel. If you take the time to read this, please tell me what you think in a review/comment. I welcome all types of feedback, especially constructive criticism.
Disclaimer: I do not own Redwall. All Redwall characters, locations, etc., were created by Brian Jacques. All of the original characters in this fanfic are my own creation.
The Last Champion: A Novel of Redwall
There are many legends of Redwall Abbey, tales that hold both beauty and kindness, fear and tragedy- and are filled with both goodbeasts and with fearsome creatures that have stepped from nightmares. The legends of seasons long past, of tyrants who attacked Redwall and yet were turned back by the might of our Abbey Warrior Martin, who even now helps us through our dreams in times of need.
But never was Redwall Abbey so threatened than during the Summer of the Twisting Flame. It was then that we faced what we had feared for so long once again- a war against an enemy incalculably cold, merciless, and insidious. An enemy powerful, who held the weapons of fear and hatred in both hands. Without the aid of a powerful champion or outside aid, we fought on.
You wish to hear how it happened, you say? How the Twisting Flame came, bringing with it fire and death to Mossflower? I shall tell you, though be warned it is both a tale of triumph and tragedy. Perhaps when it is done all that has happened in the past seasons will make sense to you, young one.
Hah! You say you are not young. Compared to me you are young indeed, my friend. I have seen more seasons than your mother's mother. I have seen Redwall undergo many tribulations in my lifetime. But no season was worse than the Summer of the Twisting Flame.
Now, journey back with me, young one, into the Land of Dreams, where all time is held together as one. Where the Weavers of Dreams abide, those tellers of long-forgotten seasons. Listen to me, and I will tell you the tale. The tale of Redwall Abbey, and those who wished to conquer it.
It was during the Summer of the Twisting Flame that the worst fate we could have thought happen befell our beautiful abbey…
Part I: Fireclaw Rising
Dawn was breaking over Mossflower Wood in a gorgeous cascade of colored light. The newly risen sun beat down upon the massive sandstone walls of Redwall Abbey, where upon the ramparts an elderly Badger lady stood, watching the sunrise. For a moment, the sunlight illuminated her features. She was tall, though age had bent her body slightly forward. Still, age had not brought weakness to this badger. She still looked strong, imposing, and fearsome, as she had years ago when she had ruled Salamandastron, the mountain of the Badger Lords.
Upon the rampart with her sat several of Redwalls abbeybabes, affectionately called Dibbuns by all Redwallers. All of them were listening intently to the elderly badger, their eyes staring at her with wide-eyed fascination as she recounted her tale.
"And then, when the Last Champion vanished during the Summer of the Lark's Song, he took the Sword of Martin the Warrior with him," she said. "His reasons for doing this are unclear, but evidently they were good enough for the Mother Abbess at the time, Abbess Kara, to let him go with the Sword. And since then, the squirrel known as Arken has never been seen since."
"But 'e left one thing, didn't 'e, mother Maia?" said one of the Dibbuns, a small mousebabe named Traye, excitedly. "The Riddle!"
"Yes, Arken left the Riddle," agreed Maia. "One day he was there, the next he was gone, leaving behind only the garbled riddle he claimed to have received from Martin. Not a riddle, he called it, he said it was the Riddle. A prophecy he'd received from Martin, along with the direction to take his sword and leave Redwall. And every good abbeybabe knows Arken's Riddle by heart. Do you?"
"Of course!" burst out the hedgehog maid sitting next to Traye, whose name was Turi. "In seasons far, when darkness and flame, falls upon Redwall-"
Now a molebabe took over "Ze h'abbey bluestone must be 'ound, or h'all ze wood shall fall."
"My Last secret lies in the second, in the words I wrote and gave, I have seen," said Turi.
Two abbey squirrels, one light, one dark, will save or end all hope."
"If the green-black eyes join-"began Traye, but Maia cut him off.
"That's enough," said the Badger Mother. "So you do know Arken's riddle. And that is the story of how the champion of Redwall vanished. And we have not had an Abbey Warrior since."
"Except Martin!" said Turi. "Martin protects us, doesn't he, mother?"
"Of course," said Maia. "Martin always watches over our abbey."
"But what about all of the bad stuff in the Riddle?" asked Traye, a hint of fear in his voice. "About the fires and everything. Will that ever happen to Redwall?"
Maia shook her head quietly, wishing that Arken's mysterious prophecy had never become such common knowledge. It was all fine and well that the older abbeybeasts should try to interpret it, but for Dibbuns to be worried about Redwall simply because of some mysterious words set down years ago by a squirrel probably long dead…well, it was contrary to her nature. She wondered now if she should have told them the story in the first place.
"No, it won't happen to us," said Maia, with far less confidence than she felt. "Martin would warn us if something as terrible as what is described in the Riddle will come to Redwall. Don't worry, Redwall is perfectly safe. Do you have any idea how many warlords have died trying to take this Abbey?"
"Oh, probably hundreds!" said the irrepressible Traye. "Cluny the Scourge, Slagar the Cruel, Gulo the Savage, Ublaz Mad-Eyes, Damaug Warfang…all of them defeated and slain!"
"Yes," said Maia. "But those are all stories for another time."
Turning away from the Dibbuns, Maia's face creased with anxiety as she saw the elderly infirmary keeper, the mouse Sister Marian, motion toward her with one paw. Ordering the Dibbuns to remain where they were, Maia stepped over to Marian. The mouse sister looked distressed and fearful.
"What's wrong? Has the situation below worsened?" asked Maia.
"Follow me," said Marian. "I'll take the Dibbuns and put them to bed. You need to meet with Abbot Tyrn and the others. There's been a…development."
Anxiety making her heart throb, Maia walked down the staircase leading from the rampart and into the main abbey building, scattering early morning dew around her. The big badger stepped into the Great Hall, where two elderly mice clad in Redwall habits were waiting for them. Abbot Tyrn, the elder of the two, had taken over from old Abbess Kara, who had in turn taken over from old Abbot Thibb. He was a wise old mouse, so the obvious distress on the Abbot's face worried Maia. Looking to Brother Alfin, she saw the Abbot's anxiety mirrored on his own face.
"What's happened? Has one of the squirrelbabes died?" asked Maia. Sister Marian had been working all night to keep both of the mother squirrels healthy. The sister was optimistic both of them would survive. Surely one of them couldn't have died.
"No," said Abbot Tyrn. "Both of them are healthy. Indeed, both of the mothers are healthy as well. It's just that…well, you'll have to see for yourself."
Maia stepped over the threshold and into the Abbey. All around her, the Abbeybeasts were trying to act as normally as possible, but Maia could feel the tension in the air.
The father Abbot led her to the edge of a small cot, where two small squirrelbabes, a male and a female, lay, helpless. Their eyes were still half closed. Both looked healthy and well, and both of the mothers were resting, oblivious to the tension around them. Several brothers and sisters were caring for the two squirrelbabes, but Maia could feel their anxiety as well.
"What's wrong?" asked Maia quietly. "They're both healthy. They'll both live."
In answer, Abbot Tyrn pointed at the cot. Maia followed his hand and peered over at the female squirrelbabe. For a moment, the squirrel's eyes opened, and Maia almost gasped aloud in shock. Now she understood the Abbot's anxiety.
The female squirrelbabe's eyes did not match. One was the color of dark almond, but the other was almost jade green.
The sun rising over the Northern Mountains shone down upon the ferret warlord Rivan Fireclaw, ruler of the Twisting Flame horde. Standing in the ransacked, pitifully small fortress that had once belonged to the badger known as Gorseclaw, Rivan gave a smile colder than the ice of a Northern Winter. His horde of skilled warriors had easily breached the ancient building, ransacked it, and killed Gorseclaw and his defenders, about twoscore fighting hares.
Now Rivan Fireclaw stood over the corpse of the dead badger, his knife still buried in Gorseclaw's heart. Reaching down, the ferret pulled the blade free from the corpse of the badger lord. His bloodwrath had proven to be no match for the Twisting Flame Horde.
Despite his youth, Rivan was perhaps the most dangerous commander the horde had ever possessed. Before Rivan had taken command, the Twisting Flame had been little more than a fairly large clan of Northern Mountain vermin, powerful and with a reputation for savagery, but nothing extremely powerful. His father had conquered many of the vermin tribes which surrounded him; Rivan had completed the job, and wiped out several clans to the last surviving being.
After that, no one dared resist the might of Rivan Fireclaw. The warlord had united every one of the clans of the Northern Mountains into a single horde, whose name was spoken of in fear throughout all of north Mossflower. The Twisting Flame horde!
The ferret chieftain was armored in ornate armor emblazoned with his personal insignia: a column of fire which spiraled and twisted upward, as though trying to burn the heavens themselves. His eyes were dark, but they burned with a cold, malevolent smoldering red intensity, like twin shards of icy glass.
Standing beside Rivan, his second in command, Icecloak, an ermine who wore a cloak as white as his fur and carried the personal standard of the Twisting Flame, stood beside him, followed by several of the horde's senior commanders. The ermine's black eyes flashed with triumph as he reported to his warlord.
"Every one of the defenders has been wiped out to a man, my lord," said Icecloak. While the sight of the ermine would have been enough to chill must beings into submission, even Icecloak feared the cold, icy aura of power that surrounded Rivan Fireclaw. "We lost a little over a score of soldiers, as well as several of our mole allies."
"Those losses are negligible," said Rivan. His voice was cold and slightly high-pitched and nasal, rasping. "The horde will be fit for travel by tomorrow."
Icecloak nodded once, and turned to relay Rivan's order to the horde. However, he was stopped at once as Rivan reached out a single hand and touched his shoulder. "I will speak to them," he said quietly. Stepping forth from the shadows, Rivan Fireclaw strode outside the building and stood out in front of his horde. The ferret removed his demonic lacquered helmet, revealing a handsome, if coldly drawn, face beneath.
The ferret spoke softly, but with undeniable authority. The moment the horde, which was composed of over one thousand vermin, saw their ruler, they grew quiet, staring up at Rivan with anticipation. Beside him, several of his commanders took their places behind him, including Icecloak and the powerfully built weasel general known as Scythe and his seer, the vixen Shale.
"The time is close," Rivan began. "We are drawing near to our greatest prize. Devastating the northlands is a start. Unifying all of us into one tribe solidified our control over this region.
"But we will gain far more than that," said Rivan. "I have been to Mossflower Wood, if only to lead scouting forays. And we have all heard tales of the riches and glory that awaits any who can take it.
"But it is so much more," Rivan said, voice lowering still softer. The vermin leaned closer, their eyes widening with anticipation. "I know secrets so great that it will make this place a domain worthy of the Twisting Flame. Tales of a mountain fortress ruled by Badgers and guarded by hares. They will all fall as easily before our might as these did. And nothing stands in our path except a small fortress defended only by mice, shrews, and other weak woodland creatures. We shall conquer the Abbey of Redwall!"
And Riven Fireclaw smiled down upon his soldiers as dawn broke, impassive and uncaring, overhead. The ferret warlord's smile was as cold as the ice which froze entire lakes, and promised nothing but death or servitude for the creatures of Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Wood.
Every one of Redwall Abbey’s senior elders had gathered in the Cavern Hole for council. Abbot Tyrn looked around him, seeing his own solemn, worried expression mirrored on the faces of all of those around him. Brother Rall and Brother Alfin took position on either side of Abbot Tyrn, while Sister Nara and Foremole Bario took up positions on the opposite side of the table. Next to Foremole sat the dependable Skipper of Otters, a veteran of many battles, and then Maia, the venerable badger mother. The other sisters and brothers, including Sister Marian and Sister Kae, were gathered around them.
As the Father Abbot was about to speak, the whispered conversations died to an immediate halt. Abbot Tyrn readjusted his glasses to better make out the parchment before him, the paper that Arken, the last champion of Redwall, had left behind him before he took the sword of Martin the Warrior with him and departed the Abbey forever.
“Friends, brothers, and sisters, thank you for coming. I realize this may seem trivial, as it merely regards one of the squirrelbabes born this morning. But I feel that since many of you believe that this squirrel is one of the beings mentioned in Arken’s Riddle we must have this discussion now.”
“Arken’s Riddle!” said Sister Kae the mouse with slight disdain. “I think that squirrel had one too many knocks on the head from his battles with vermin. There’s nothing wrong with young Raya; or Rodan either!”
“Still, we must always hold the possibility that Arken actually received a message from Martin,” said the Abbot solemnly. “I knew Arken in my youth; he was a dependable and worthy champion. He would not have departed Redwall unless he was sure he’d received an authentic message from Martin the Warrior. This message did predict the coming of two squirrels who would seek the Abbey ‘blue stone’, whatever that means, and like it or not, we must consider the possibility that Raya and Rodan are the squirrels mentioned in the Riddle.”
Abbot Tyrn knew that Melania and Oakan, the parents of Rodan, were not present, nor was Raya’s mother and only surviving parent, the squirrel mother Nalia. Tyrn felt terrible, going behind their back like this, but he knew the idea that there was some problem with both their children would wound all three of the parents deeply. Still, it was a topic that needed discussing.
“I say that we read the Riddle aloud. I am sure that all of you are familiar with it, but it doesn’t hurt for us to hear it again.”
Maia and Brother Alfin both nodded, and Tyrn lifted the faded scrap of parchment and read aloud,
The Abbey blue stone must be found or all Mossflower Wood shall fall.
My Last secret lies in the second, in the words I wrote and gave, I have seen
Two Abbey squirrels, one light, one dark, will save the abbey brave
Warrior Must take up the sword, most powerful a tool
But Alas when the green-black eyed joins flame, the fire king shall rule
And No that while all hope seems lost,
Ask Do as the seekers still fight?
If Answer is yes, a chance remains toEnd Strong rule of darkness, fire and night.
“There are several irregularities in the original copy of the Riddle,” said Tyrn, as he finished. “It seems that many words are capitalized that should not be, and there’s one grammatical error where the word ‘no’ is used in place of ‘know.’”
“Arken,” Sister Kae sniffed. “Could never spell properly.”
“Perhaps not,” said Tyrn. “That is not for me to judge. But I’d like to know why some letters are capitalized and others are not. It seems odd.”
“Still, while we may not be able to understand Arken’s spelling errors,” Maia interjected, “Perhaps we should look at the message he’s trying to tell us, instead. It’s clear that Martin is saying through Arken that some threat is approaching, though what exactly, I’m not sure. Have you ever heard of something called the ‘twisted flame’, Abbot?”
“Never,” said Tyrn at once. “Perhaps Skipper has, or Foremole?”
“No,” said Skipper of Otters. “I’ve never heard of anything or anyone known as the ‘twisted flame’. I’ll ask my otters, but I doubt they know anything. If the twisted flame was ever in Mossflower before, then my ottercrew would know about it.”
Foremole wordlessly shook his head. Obviously none of the Abbeybeasts had ever heard of anything known that called itself the twisted flame before. Abbot Tyrn hesitated for a moment and then asked. “Okay. So if no one has heard of the Twisted Flame, has anyone heard of a being who calls himself the Fire King?” Again, there was silence as beings thought, but Tyrn could tell that the title wasn’t familiar to the Redwallers.
“Well, we would have told you a long time ago had we heard of either,” said Kae.
“We’ve only been trying to interpret the meaning of the Riddle for the past fifteen seasons.”
“Kae’s right,” said Tyrn. “Besides, the young squirrels, both Raya and Rodan, can’t even talk yet.”
“Indeed, it’s foolish to get worked up about this,” Brother Alfin said. “However, I feel as though some nameless, formless danger is approaching. I can feel it, somehow.”
“If there was danger, then surely Martin would have spoken by now,” said Sister Kae.
Foremole was the next to offer a piece of good old mole logic, “Burr, if Marthen ‘e Wurrier ‘asn’t spoke, but ‘you ‘eel danger, I’d stay ‘n alert, but not panic, aye.”
“Yes indeed,” said Skipper of Otters. “I’ll get some of my otters together; send a few of them out to scout out Mossflower. If there’s a being who calls himself the fire king out there, and he wants Redwall, then we’ll give him fire!”
A small cheer greeted his words as the tension in the room seemed to relax visibly. Abbot Tyrn gave a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. He, too, could feel the tension that Maia and Alfin had described. It was as though, despite the sunlight that streamed down upon Redwall, a palpable feeling of gloom had settled upon the abbey, as though warning was calling out from far away, in the distance.
Above, in the infirmary, a small crowd of Redwallers had gathered around Oakan and Melania, the young squirrel Rodan’s parents, along with Naila, Raya’s mother. Naila’s husband had been killed in a raid by a group of wandering stoats only a few weeks ago, her gaze was sad as she stared at the young squirrel, who resembled her closely. However, her jawline structure was more high-boned, closer to her father in that respect.
If only you had survived to see your daughter, she thought quietly. She smiled slightly as Rodan, held in his mother’s arms, tried to pull away momentarily before the effort caused him to fall still. For a moment, Raya opened her eyes, one almond as a squirrel’s should be, the other jade green, and Naila suddenly thought of the words of the Riddle.
But alas when the green-black eyed joins flame, the fire king shall rule.
“That will never happen,” she whispered quietly, staring into Raya’s innocent, open eyes. “I promise. We’re at Redwall, and we’re safe.”
That night, as Abbot Tyrn slept, he dreamed of a mouse warrior he recognized as Martin, carrying the famed lost sword. The mouse warrior’s outline seemed blurred, as though he was calling out across a great distance for his voice to reach them.
And darkness rises up once more,
Defend the Abbey of Redwall,For soon shall come the storm of war.
Rivan Fireclaw and the Twisting Flame Horde had arrived in Mossflower Wood. Since their arrival, Rivan had been meticulous in his attempts to conceal his horde’s arrival; he’d sent them into Mossflower in small groups, while his main army waited over the ridges of a few small hills. Rivan himself, Icecloak, a small group of about twenty of his elite warriors including Scythe, and the seer known as Shale were encamped on the outskirts of the wood, waiting for the three trackers he’d sent out two hours previously.
Rivan was adept at reading the mood of his horde. Many vermin were a superstitious lot, he knew, Shale’s predictions of the coming triumph over Redwall Abbey, the only fortress that stood in his way of dominion over all Mossflower, had whipped many of them into a fanatical frenzy. Even his more disciplined, hardened inner core of followers, who had no care for the foolishness of omens, were filled with anticipation for the coming triumph.
But Rivan could sense that he had not quite converted one being here to his cause. One being here, one of Icecloak’s ermine, seemed not fearful- Rivan had never seen the ermine shrink from any challenge- but slightly apprehensive as he watched Rivan’s guards, weapons drawn and camouflaged by their armor, standing amidst the lengthening shadows.
Rivan Fireclaw walked over to the ermine, who lowered his head in deference to Fireclaw. Icecloak simply met his gaze. His deputy respected, if not completely feared the ferret warlord, and that made him the perfect second-in-command. Rivan valued his opinion highly and wanted to know what it was that made one of his soldiers so apprehensive of this venture, which would be their greatest triumph.
“Why so tense, Frostclaw?” Rivan asked the ermine casually. Even now, his voice was a low whisper. “Do you fear the coming battle?”
“I fear nobeast that walks upon this earth, Lord Fireclaw,” said the ermine known as Frostclaw. It was only somewhat true. While Frostclaw had faced many beings in his lifetime, none had been like Rivan. The young ferret warlord had a fierce, dark charisma about him, and an aura of palpable ice colder than the bleakest winter hung about him. He hesitated to share his opinion with the warlord. Seeing him hesitate, Rivan said, “Go on, Frostclaw. I would like your opinion. What makes you so tentative about this, which will be our greatest triumph?”
“So many beings have failed to take Redwall Abbey, my Lord,” said Frostclaw. “Everybeast knows their names, Slagar the Cruel, Cluny the Scourge, Razzid Wearat, Vizka Longtooth- every one of them are now dead, all killed by the Abbey warriors within those walls. They must be great warriors if so many warlords have been killed in combat with them."
Rivan was ready to speak even before Frostclaw had finished. He’d guessed that it was the Abbey’s fearsome reputation that caused Frostclaw to shrink in fear.
“Yes, many beings have tried and failed to take Redwall, it is true. No doubt the creatures within Redwall Abbey are dangerous, intelligent combatants.
“But it is not any of these things that makes them so dangerous, Frostclaw,” said Rivan. “Warriors live and die by their reputation, by the aura of fear they create around them. Those who believe they cannot take Redwall Abbey will fail because they believed they could not. Tactical strategy is a second priority compared to a simple question- why? Why do beings fight? The creatures of Redwall Abbey fight to defend their homeland. A few beings with a cause they believe is right and noble are far more dangerous than an army who follows their leader out of fear alone. In some cases, love is more powerful than fear. A being that fights out of love for something or someone will destroy a being whose only motivation is fear, which is why Redwall has never been taken.”
Rivan gestured downward to a thicket of bushes, where a tall laburnum sapling was slowing growing taller. Meanwhile, the smaller oak sapling next to it, shaded by the laburnum’s far taller trunk and its roots and soil stifled by the invasive laburnum, was far smaller and weaker.
“See that tree there, the oak sapling?” Rivan asked. “That oak could have grown to become a king of the forest. But instead it will be stifled and destroyed by the laburnum, which has cut all of its survival lines off. The tree has lost hope for survival. It is dying. Oh, it still fights because it cannot understand it has lost, but it fights hopelessly, because the laburnum tree has destroyed its last hope.
“In order to break Redwall, we must break their fighting spirit,” said Rivan. “We must stifle and choke their hope, as the laburnum has done to the oak. Like the laburnum, we must win the war before the creatures of Redwall have realized they have lost. None of the other attackers of the Abbey ever managed to do that. Do you know why?”
Frostclaw wordlessly shook his head, and Rivan gestured again to the laburnum and the oak. “Positioning,” said the ferret to the ermine. “Positioning is everything when it comes to battle. Had that laburnum seed not grown before the oak had, or instead landed further away from the oak, in the end the oak tree would live far longer than the laburnum, who would not endure long competing against a grown oak.
“None of the attackers of Redwall were prepared enough to position their forces in ways to counter every one of the strategies Redwall has to offer. And I have seen Redwall, Frostclaw. I understand what motivates them, what drives them to fight. And, as the laburnum has done to the oak, we will strangle and choke their hope for survival. Redwall must be defeated before they even know they are under attack, and I will be the one to do it.”
Frostclaw simply stared at his leader, understanding beginning to dawn on his features. Rivan saw to his satisfaction that all of his patrol had been listening to what he’d said, and he could feel that he had quelled any remaining doubts any of his allies had held about this venture.
“Yes, my Lord,” said Frostclaw. Rivan could read the anticipation on his features like an open book, and smiled inwardly. His elite had been ready to fight for him before, now he knew with certainty they would be willing to die for him. And the rest of his forces would follow the example of their commanders.
But only he, Icecloak, and Shale knew the true reason for the invasion of Redwall Abbey. The rest of the horde thought that Redwall was merely a convenient fortress for Rivan to bring the rest of Mossflower and eventually the mountain fortress Salamandastron under his control. But while what Rivan had told the horde was the truth, it was not the whole truth.
Icecloak walked over to him, smiling thinly. “Darkfur and his patrol have returned, Lord Fireclaw,” the ermine said, lifting the twisting flame staff that was Rivan’s personal standard. “They bring with them two captives, otters, I believe they are called.”
Rivan’s interest was piqued at once. “Otters? Did they say where they came from?”
“No,” said Icecloak. “But one of them wore a Redwall habit beneath his armor.” Rivan gave no sign of his satisfaction at the news, merely beckoned with one gloved finger. “Bring them before me, but make sure they do not learn my name. I have a use for them.”
Icecloak nodded. Rivan had instructed all of his commanders not to give word of any information to the captives, whether it was names, troop numbers, or plans.
Every one of his commanders knew of the plan that Rivan had for any captives that were taken from Redwall, there was no reason for him to give any more orders. Silently Rivan slipped into the shadows, his black studded leather armor half-hiding him. He pulled his helmet, over his features, giving him a demonic appearance in the darkness and the light from the vermin campfires.
Now let us see what our captives know about the Abbey of Redwall.
The weasel Darkfur and two stoats led the two otter captives, who were bound but not gagged, before what appeared to be their commander, an ermine garbed in fine silk and carrying a staff that resembled a burning torch.
No, thought the ottermaid, whose name was Ravenna. She couldn’t believe they’d been captured so easily. The vermin had sprung from nowhere and subdued them both, dragging them back here despite their protests. All of them, including their captor, Darkfur, were skilled warriors.
“Bow!” ordered Darkfur, giving the ottermaid Ravenna a sharp kick in the side.
“Never!” snarled the male otter, Sarrow. “We do not bow to any vermin leaders, or to you, weasel!”
Then a ferret stepped from the shadows. As he materialized seemingly from nowhere, both of the otters gave a small gasp of fear. They could feel the ferret leader’s icy presence, and both of them shivered in apprehension.
The ferret in black armor lifted his demonic, lacquered helmet, revealing his handsome features beneath. He gave a charming smile, and his eyes grew warm.
“Greetings, otters. May I ask your names?” His voice had a pleasant quality to it, like a brook running smoothly across rocks.
Sarrow was about to speak when all at once he bit his tongue. The warlord’s elegant charm was so at odds with the horrifying darkness he’d felt at first that he’d almost answered the ferret warlord. He glanced Ravenna, and knew she’d been about to do the same.
“Why should we answer you? Your scummy vermin servants hauled us here as captives!”
“I apologize,” said the ferret leader, his voice still calm. Perfect. “It was an unfortunate necessity. Please share your names with me. If nothing else, I think I should call you something other than ‘otters’, do you not?”
In the half light and the almost hypnotic stare of the ferret lord’s sparkling dark eyes, Sarrow felt his self-control beginning to give way. What harm could it do? It wasn’t like that told the ferret anything about where they came from.
“I am Sarrow,” he said.
“And I am Ravenna,” said the female otter. “What do they call you?”
“My name is not important,” said the ferret with a lazy, perfect smile. “All you need to know is that I can interpret more from your answer than you think. Let’s talk about you for now. I see you come from Redwall Abbey,” he said, gesturing to Sarrow’s habit.
“Yes!” said Sarrow savagely before Ravenna could stop him. “And we have more warriors than you can gather! When they find out what you’ve done to us they’ll kill you all!”
Ravenna squeezed his paw tightly in warning. Not only had Sarrow confirmed the ferret warlord’s question, he’d given the ferret leverage for still more questions, while they still knew nothing about him.
“Really?” asked the warlord calmly. “How many?”
“More than-“ Sarrow began, but Ravenna cut him off.
“No!” she yelled. “We will not tell you!”
Immediately freed from the ferret warlord’s influence, Sarrow shook his head, momentarily confused. He’d been about to volunteer more information to him. How could that be? How had the warlord managed to gain so much information from them so quickly?
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Yes!” said both of the otters simultaneously.
“Very well,” said the ferret lord calmly. “Perhaps you will be more open to persuasion after spending a night in Mossflower Wood.”
Rivan Fireclaw turned to the two beings standing beside him. “Darkfur, Shale, bind these two Redwall otters and appoint two guards to watch over them through the night. You know what to do.”
Darkfur nodded once, and then he and Shale led the otters into the darkness. Once Rivan was sure they were out of earshot, he turned to Scythe and Icecloak.
“Fortune favors the bold,” he said.
“It does indeed,” said Icecloak.
“Scythe, take three of your guards and prepare the army for travel.” Rivan ordered. “We are bringing them into Mossflower. Be sure that both siege towers and the catapults are ready.”
“Yes, Lord Fireclaw.”
Rivan smiled with satisfaction, staring back at the laburnum and the oak. So much could be learned simply by studying nature around them. It was filled with so many examples and strategies to be gained and used against your foes. It had taught him how to win, time and time again.
He had studied Redwall. He knew how they thought, what their responses would be. And Riven had already laid the first step in his plan to bring the Abbey under his control.
Both of the stoat guards had long since fallen asleep by midnight, but both Sarrow and Ravenna were still wide awake. Bound and gagged, they could barely move and could not speak.
Ravenna could see the fear in Sarrow’s eyes, and knew it was reflected in her own. In vain she strove against her bonds, trying desperately to break free-
One small segment of the rope burst as she pulled against it. Just one small piece of rope.
But it was enough.
Colonel Tirian Redblade of the Long Patrol was up early. Dressed rather simply for a Long Patrol hare of his stature, with only a small medal to proclaim his status, he knocked quietly on the door to the private chambers of Badger Lord Rawn Wildstripe.
“Come in,” Rawn said, raising his voice slightly. Tirian stepped silently through the open doors and stood before the youthful Badger Lord. He’d only recently succeeded his mother, Maia Wildstripe, as ruler of the mountain, and, like Tirian, he was still rather youthful. Tirian Redblade was slightly older than the Badger Lord, and had only recently won his promotion to Colonel during the battles against the Searat Captain Naaxt Whitespear.
“What do you wish to tell me, my friend? Have the searats returned?” Rawn asked Tirian, his voice calm. But Tirian knew the badger Lord well enough to understand that he knew something was wrong if Redblade would bother him so early in the morning.
“No, sah, the searats won’t come anywhere near our mountain if they know what’s good for them,” he said. “Ah think we gave Whitespear and his bally chaps a run for their money for once. Nah, the reason I’m here is because of this dream I had last night. It was of a mouse warrior, wielding a sword, and he called to me from the distance, warning me of some danger. Then I saw the walls of Redwall Abbey, and a dark shadow falling over the ramparts. I’m not sure, sah, but I think Redwall’s in trouble!”
“Redwall? In danger?” Rawn asked. “Well, the mouse from your dream is obviously Martin the Warrior, the long dead hero of Redwall who still helps them in times of need. In any event, it bears checking out. I have heard tales of a vermin leader from the northlands who leads a horde called the Twisting Flame. At the very least, it may be wise if we send some Long Patrol hares, if only to make sure Redwall is safe.”
“I shall take one hundred of my best,” said Tirian Redblade. “And if any vermin or danger threatens Redwall- be it these Twisting Flame buckoes or something completely different- will be given the Long Patrol welcome. Blood ‘n’ vinegar!”
Ravenna cut the last of the bonds which held Sarrow and helped the otter to his feet. “There,” she said. “We have to get out of here now, before the vermin come back to investigate.”
Sarrow could only nod wordlessly as he and Ravenna slipped into the shadows, away from the two sleeping stoats. They didn’t dare look back.
When Ravenna judged they were a safe distance away and her eyes had adjusted to the gloom of the nighttime Mossflower, she looked around her. No moon shown in the sky, and dark clouds hid the stars from view. Still, Ravenna, though young, was one of Skipper’s more accomplished trackers. She could find the way back to Redwall from here.
Looking back in the direction of the sleeping stoats, Ravenna couldn’t help but smile. She wished she could have seen the expression on the ferret leader’s face when he realized that both of his captives had escaped!
From his position, concealed in the shadows of the tall, shady grove, Rivan Fireclaw watched as Ravenna and Sarrow slipped away into the shadows. He smiled in satisfaction. Not only had they thought they’d escaped on their own, they were giving his horde a trail to follow directly into Mossflower Wood to Redwall Abbey. And they had set the stage for the next piece of his plan.
“Success,” he said to Darkfur, the weasel captain’s face twisted into a smirk. “The prisoners have escaped.”
Rivan’s hypnotic eyes flashed momentarily with triumph as he saw the rest of his patrol approaching him, fully armed. He saw at once the look on Shale’s face and knew at once that the horde was on the move.
“Gather the horde,” ordered Rivan. “Tonight we march into Mossflower Wood!”
The fifth day after the birth of the two young squirrels Rodan and Raya dawned clear and cold, a throwback to the cold days of spring before summer had arrived. Abbot Tyrn and Brother Alfin sat in Cavern Hole. Brother Alfin smiled, watching the Dibbuns run circles around Maia, dancing along with the badger mother.
“They certainly know how to have fun, don’t they?” said Brother Alfin. “Even on days like these, when winter’s chill comes back to bite us in the middle of summer, they’re still playing outside happily.”
“We should get out there,” said Tyrn. Alfin looked at him. “I’m getting far too old to go out there in this weather,” he said. “But let’s round up Sister Marian and Brother Robin. Maybe we can enjoy some tea together upon the walls while we watch the Dibbuns play.”
“Sounds like a grand old plan,” said Tyrn, clapping the older mouse on the back conspiratorially. “Let’s go, it’ll take our mind off the Riddle for a few hours, I hope.”
The two mice walked quietly through the hall and out of Cavern Hole, passing by the kitchens as they went. Friar Tura Sickleback, the brother of the Cellarhog Drogg Sickleback, waved to them from inside the kitchen, were the delicious aroma of pies wafted through the air to Tyrn and Alfin.
At the door of Cavern Hole, Brother Robin was holding a hushed conversation with Skipper. The Otter seemed agitated, and seeing Tyrn and Alfin, met their eyes.
“One of Skipper’s otter patrols just returned. They were captured by a vermin band, but escaped. There are nearly thirty warlike vermin loose in Mossflower!”
“Thirty?” asked the Abbot, rather alarmed. Immediately Skipper and Robin recounted the entire tale that Ravenna and Sarrow had told them, including how they’d escaped. The Abbot’s face grew more and more alarmed as they described Rivan Fireclaw to them.
“We have to find a way to stop them before they reach Redwall. While I doubt thirty vermin could conquer the Abbey, they could cause the deaths of many Redwallers. Do whatever you can to prevent the vermin from reaching the Abbey!”
“Permission to take our otter patrols out to take down this vermin threat?” Skipper asked the Abbot. “By all accounts they’re still a few days’ march from Redwall. Hopefully we’ll be able to overtake and finish the vermin scum before they knew what hit them.”
“Very well,” said Tyrn. “But be careful. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Perhaps we should contact our old allies, the Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower. The Guosim would be more than happy to help out against a vermin band.”
“Ah, we have nearly fifty otters on hand right now, more when we’re assembled at full strength,” said Skipper. “A band of thirty vermin won’t be a problem. We’ll mop this threat up before they come within a day’s march from Redwall.”
The stoat messenger known as Grimfang was panting slightly from his running charge through the woodlands. As he stood before the dark, hypnotic eyes of Rivan Fireclaw he spoke again, “Otters, a little more than threescore of them, along with several squirrel archers!”
Rivan nodded, and then turned to the twenty or so vermin he had with him. The ferret was garbed, as usual, in the traditional garb of a Twisting Flame soldier. Only his helmet proclaimed his status as a commander, but otherwise he did not identify himself as leader of the horde. Most were ferrets or weasels, Rivan’s elite rulers, but a few were lower-ranking stoats or rats. Though they were hard to see, however, Rivan knew they were not as solitary and defenseless as they seemed. His plan was working perfectly.
Since the two otter prisoners had escaped, Scythe and his advance strike team had been making raids against the common people of Mossflower, to antagonize the Redwallers enough to come to them rather than the other way around. Rivan Fireclaw, Icecloak, and the ermine rarely showed their faces. They didn’t want anyone who had a chance to recognize them as the powerful beings they were and warn the Redwallers. As far as they knew, the Twisting Flame Horde was a small gang of around twenty vermin. Dangerous, yes, but nothing to be overly concerned about.
And it was the front of around twenty vermin who would confront the woodland army head-on. However, the lack of numbers was nothing more than an illusion. Rivan had nearly one hundred battle-hardened vermin soldiers in the woodlands around him. They would close the trap around the otters and crush them completely. Even now, Icecloak and nine hundred Twisting Flame soldiers were on their way to Redwall Abbey, following the trail left by Saren and Ravenna. Then Redwall would be his for the taking.
Rivan dismissed Grimfang, then turned to Scythe. “Gather together your best front-line warriors. We will confront the Redwallers head-on while the rest of our force will ambush them. Be alert for their Skipper. Try to cut apart their chain of command if you can. I will be leading you personally.”
“Is that wise?” Scythe asked. “We’ll be outnumbered three to one before the ambush. You could be killed.”
“I will not be killed,” Rivan promised. “But how can I ask my soldiers to take risks for me when I do not put myself in the same danger?”
“Very well,” Scythe nodded. Rivan dismissed him, and raising his curved sickle, Scythe went to rally the rest of his troops.
Rivan turned to another of his skilled warriors, the ferret archer Vask Annax. Though young, she could hit the wing of an insect with her bow, and she was, along with her mentor, the weasel Snakepaw, the most skilled among Rivan’s archers. “You know what you must do,” he whispered to her. Vask nodded and knocked an arrow to her bow. In the distance, Rivan could hear the sounds of beings approaching.
Now this was the crucial moment. The moment when Rivan’s ambush would either be spotted by the Redwallers, or pass without a hitch. Now, Rivan knew, the time had come for his small group of guards to make their attack. If they delayed, the otters would spot the rest of the vermin concealed in the wood around them, and if that happened Rivan’s greatest advantage would be lost.
Signaling to Vask Annax to remain in position ahead of the archers, Rivan strode among the group of warriors Scythe had handpicked for the most dangerous part of the plan. Seeing their chieftain with them emboldened the vermin, and Rivan was satisfied to see the gleam of greed in their eyes.
“Now,” said Rivan quietly. Immediately the twenty vermin slipped through the shadows, moving silently toward the otter patrol. Seeing them appear from the darkness a squirrel yelled from the tree above. Rivan looked up momentarily, and saw an arrow headed toward them, skewering one of his stoats through the heart even as Scythe’s sickle buried itself in a large otter’s chest.
Rivan Fireclaw knew at once that they’d lost the element of surprise. Immediately, as shafts of death from the two squirrel archers rained down on the vermin and the otters weighed in, Rivan and around ten of the vermin began to fall back, leaving Scythe and the rest leading the charge against the otters.
“Keep fighting,” Rivan hissed, and the rest of his soldiers, emboldened by their leader’s presence, continued to hold off the otters.
Rivan threw a glance in the direction of Vask Annax, who was concealed in the foliage. She raised the bow and let the arrow fly. A large, brawny otter was charging straight at Scythe when Vask’s arrow buried itself in his back. Rivan saw the otter go down and knew at once he was a goner. Seeing another fall to a second arrow, Skipper began to pull back the attack force.
Then Rivan’s force of about one hundred vermin closed the trap around them. The otters, still recovering from the fall of two of their warriors at the hands of Vask, had no time to retreat, flee, or organize a battle plan.
The otters tried valiantly to fight the vermin attackers, but the vermin barred their way, using the tactics that had made them so feared in the northlands. Each of them carried a shield along with their stabbing spears. While using the shields to deflect the arrows from the two squirrels as well as the otter javelins, they stabbed through the opening between the shields with stabbing spears. This system was easy to learn and drill and Rivan could tell that, with the otters surrounded, their victory was inevitable. It would not have work in the tangled forest, but it was Rivan who had manipulated the Redwallers into choosing this battlefield, a clearing.
Rivan watched as the coordinated movement, with its wall of shields and thrusting spears slowly overwhelmed the otters. In a battle that was fought on one-on-one terms, the otters were easily superior, but against Rivan’s system, it was impossible for them to triumph against the masses.
“Retreat!” Skipper yelled, as he dispatched a powerful-looking ferret with his scimitar.
The otters began to scatter, and the remainder of Rivan’s force weighed in against them, the numbers beginning to overwhelm the attackers. Rivan Fireclaw saw to his satisfaction that they had no way to defend against his tactics. The wall of shields provided an impenetrable barrier, and every time an otter came up against the wall, spears thrust out from behind, wounding, stabbing, and killing. And as the otters fell back, Rivan’s soldiers continued to press forward, several arrows fired from Vask, Snakepaw, and the small cadre of archers put an end to more of them. Rivan’s second division of forces was approaching from the right, blocking off the easiest escape route. Rivan knew that the chance of many of them escaping without wounds was unlikely.
“Run!” the leader of the otters called. “Get out of here!” For the briefest moment, he was visible above the throng of otters. Rivan shot a quick glance at Vask Annax, who lifted her bow and fired. However, at the last minute Skipper sank out of view, and the otter directly behind him, Skipper’s brother Waterstrike, took an arrow to the throat. He collapsed, and the otters fled into the woodlands, Scythe racing after them. Soon most of the otters had vanished, and those who did not lay wounded on the ground.
Skipper was the last of the otters that vanished into the night. He stared at Vask Annax with hatred, “You’ll pay for killing my brother with that arrow, coward!” Then he disappeared into the shadows after his surviving otters.
“After them!” Scythe yelled, but Rivan cut him off as the surviving vermin readied their weapons to race after the otters.
“Let them go,” he ordered. “We’re still a day’s march from Redwall, and we can’t waste any more time pursuing otters. A shame Annax missed their chieftain, but we killed enough of them to make sure that there won’t be as many Redwall defenders.”
Vask Annax hissed her frustration. “There’s nowhere that otter can run that my arrows won’t find him,” The young ferret vowed.
"So I am sure," said Rivan. "Now we must rendezvous with Icecloak at Redwall Abbey while the otters are still scattered and cut them off from returning to their precious Abbey."
Rivan actually wasn't overly annoyed that Vask Annax had failed to kill Skipper. His strategy would have the double effect of cutting off the otters and the Redwaller's other famous allies, the Gousim shrews, while simultaneously pinning the Redwallers in. Everything was proceeding according to the plan.
Darkness had fallen over Redwall Abbey. Most of the adult Redwallers had gathered in Cavern Hole, but Brother Alfin couldn't sleep. He was surprised that Skipper and his otters had not yet returned from their expedition, and was more worried than he let on. Had the vermin band staged an ambush? Had there been more of them than Skipper had calculated? Alfin didn't know, and couldn't guess. But he'd resolved to wait for Skipper until morning, and if he did not return then he was going to round up a search party and send them into Mossflower.
So it was that the father of the young squirrel Oakan found Brother Alfin at the foot of the stairway up to the infirmary when he came rushing into the Great Hall. "Come quickly, Brother Alfin, Abbot Tyrn," he spoke through the open doorway of Cavern Hole. "There's something you need to see. Vermin at the gates!"
Immediately Abbot Tyrn rose to his feet with surprising agility for such and old mouse. He and Alfin raced to the main gate at once after Oakan, Maia lumbering behind. Standing at the gates of the Abbey were about twoscore creatures, all wearing black armor inscribed with an insignia that appeared to be a claw clutching a spear of fire which spiraled upward. The beings at the forefront of the vermin were a being wearing a sinister-looking hood and a brawny, brutal-looking weasel.
"Who are you, and what do you want at Redwall Abbey?" asked Tyrn, trying to keep his voice steady. "Why have you come to Mossflower Wood?"
The brutish weasel didn't speak, but the sinister, nightmarish specter wearing the hooded cloak did, his voice quiet. Alfin saw a staff seem to materialize in his hand, inscribed with the same flame insignia. "We are the Twisting Flame Horde, the masters of the earth. My master has allowed me to deliver an ultimatum to you. We, the conquerors of the Northlands, demand your unconditional surrender and complete turnover of all arms. This land belongs to the Twisting Flame by right."
"I am sorry," said Abbot Tyrn. "We are peaceful creatures, and do not wish to engage in war against you. But if you demand ownership of Redwall Abbey, I am afraid we cannot give this to you. Redwall Abbey belongs to peaceful creatures."
The hooded being lowered his hood, to reveal an ermine beneath, sleek with white fur and dead killer eyes. "I was afraid you might wish to defy the Twisting Flame Horde," he said quietly. "Nor did I think you would surrender without a fight. In that case, my master demands that you meet with him tomorrow evening, at this time. If you are not there, we shall treat this as a declaration of war and you will be expelled from Redwall Abbey by force.
Maia had had enough of this ermine. She was usually a peaceful creature, but she'd not been ruler of Salamandastron for nothing. Her eyes glowed crimson as she snarled, "Your master can have our answer now, ermine," she hissed. "Tell him that if it's a fight you want, the creatures of Redwall are willing to give it to him! We are peaceful creatures, except when scum like you decide to threaten us. Tell that to whoever you serve."
"Very well," said the ermine. He was not at all fazed by Maia's outburst, and simply returned the gaze with his cold, dead eyes. "I hope for your sake, and the sake of all in Redwall Abbey, that you will change your mind when you meet my master tomorrow evening."
Back at the Twisting Flame encampment, Icecloak delivered the report to Rivan. When he finished, Rivan let out a quiet, cold laugh. "I knew they would say that," he said quietly. "Woodlanders are so predictable."
As darkness began to fall over Redwall Abbey, Abbot Tyrn knew that the meeting with the enemy commander was drawing nearer. If he chose not to meet with whatever wicked beast the ermine had said he served, then he knew he risked open war with the vermin. Tyrn knew what Skipper would have done, he’d have simply charged into battle at once, saying that these vermin would not surrender. But Tyrn and Brother Alfin both agreed that if there was any chance of keeping what had to be a formidable force of Northlander vermin away from their peaceful, mostly undefended Abbey they had to try to speak with the enemy commander. If they did not, Redwall Abbey could fall.
“They might not be that large a group of vermin,” said Alfin, but his own words were filled with doubt. Any force that was able to bypass Skipper and his ottercrew were obviously dangerous beasts in large numbers. “Still, whatever their number, we need to try every avenue before war.”
“Indeed,” agreed Tyrn. “I have made up my mind. I will go, along with you and Maia.”
Maia the Badger mother looked apprehensive. “Really, Father Abbot?” she asked. Any other creature but Maia who questioned the Abbot that directly would have been reprimanded, but Maia and Brother Alfin were among his closest friends in the Abbey and the Abbot was eager to know what made Maia think that this operation was too dangerous for them.
“My badger senses tell me that these vermin will not give up until Redwall, which they have come to conquer, has fallen. They probably outnumber us by far, and vermin never fight fairly. If we all go down at once to meet them, we could be surrounded and captured.”
“I know,” Abbot Tyrn sighed. “Do you think that thought has not occurred to be as well? But we must-“
Oakan, the father of Rodan, burst into the room, his face a mask of grim urgency. “Sir, mother, Father Abbot, there’s a contingent of vermin at the gates. They’re calling to the defenders on the walls for you to meet with them.
“This is it,” said Tyrn to Maia, Oakan, and Alfin.”The moment we either meet with the vermin, or risk open war.”
Alfin nodded. “We have to go, sir,” he said. “The vermin will go to war with us otherwise.”
Silently Tyrn, followed by Maia and Alfin, descended the stairs and into Cavern Hole, where they strode into the Great Hall and out the door and toward the Gatehouse. Outside the walls, they knew, the Northlander vermin were waiting. Opening the gate and walking out into the cold night, Tyrn shivered. He couldn’t help thinking that the Northlanders had chosen this rendezvous time on purpose to intimidate them.
Tyrn had been raised in the northern fringes of Mossflower before coming to Redwall as a young Dibbun, he was no stranger to violence. Still, the way most of Skipper’s ottercrew had simply disappeared without a trace was ominous and the ermine messenger’s complete lack of fear in front of Maia was outright startling.
Tyrn stepped across the gate, followed by Maia and Alfin. Both of the mice and the badger stared into the face of their foe, the being that was flanked on one side by a brutish-looking weasel and a young ferret carrying a bow.
He was a ferret, lean and fit, and younger than Tyrn would have suspected. He was dressed simply in the chainmail and helm of a common soldier, but beneath the helmet Tyrn could see his black eyes, which were twin fragments of volcanic obsidian, the almost hypnotic eyes of a true conqueror. His face was darkly handsome, and a half-smile played at the corners of his mouth. His entire being radiated dark charisma. He appeared to be unarmed.
“Hello, and welcome to Redwall Abbey,” said Tyrn, trying to keep his voice steady. He could see that the three beings were flanked on all sides by about a score of vermin soldiers, including weasels, ferrets, stoats, minks, and ermine.
“I am Tyrn, Father Abbot of Redwall. What do they call you?”
“Greetings,” said the ferret warlord. His voice was rich and perfectly modulated, and sounded to Tyrn like smooth water running over rocks. “I am Rivan Fireclaw, ruler of the Twisted Flame. It is pleasing to meet the ruler of Redwall Abbey at last.”
The fire king, ruler of the Twisting Flame, Tyrn thought. Unconsciously the words of Arken’s Riddle came back to him, and he shivered slightly. Was the Riddle correct? Was the Abbey destined to fall into the hands of this ferret, Rivan Fireclaw?
The warlord’s eyes were fixed on Tyrn without a sliver of fear, and already the Abbot felt himself falling under Rivan’s influence. He slowly, unconsciously, began to relax, but then said, “What do you want from Redwall Abbey? We are peaceful creatures here, and would be more than willing to supply you shelter.”
Rivan smiled, his eyes sparkling. “No, I do not wish to overburden you with my massive horde. I don’t think that even the renowned Redwall cooks could supply enough food for my entire army. No, I have other things that I wish to discuss with you.”
“What do you want, ferret?” Maia snapped, beginning to lose patience with Rivan and the Abbott’s exchange. “Your messenger, the ermine, said that if we were to avoid death we should meet with you.”
“Temper, temper,” Rivan chided, “You should be more patient, Badger Mother. You see, the Abbot and I have important matters to discuss, which we do not need interrupted. While I am most certainly eager to hear your opinion on the matter, I think I should answer Abbot Tyrn’s question first. Namely, what I want with your Abbey.”
“And what do you want from us, Fireclaw?” asked Tyrn, respectfully. But inwardly he was worried. Rivan had introduced
“I have come to deliver you an ultimatum. No doubt you have realized that your ottercrew, the main defenders of the Abbey, have disappeared. No doubt you have also realized that I have not come to Mossflower with the intent of peace. I have come to conquer the undefeated Abbey of Redwall.” Rivan’s sudden bluntness took the Abbot aback. He froze for a moment, and then spluttered, “You cannot! There is no more than a score of you! You may have ambushed Skipper and his crew, but how do you expect to defeat and entire Abbey of defenders?”
“I see,” said Rivan Fireclaw. “Perhaps, then, a demonstration of my complete commitment to my goals would be in order.”
All at once, the brutish general standing beside Rivan gave a signal, and all at once torches were lit directly below the Abbey walls. Tyrn gave a small gasp of shock as more than a hundred, then two hundred, then five hundred torches were lit within the span of a single heartbeat as hundreds of beings stepped from the shadows around Redwall Abbey. Every one of them carried a single torch in one hand, a weapon in the other, and Tyrn could see that the vermin had the entire Abbey surrounded.
“No!” he gasped, shock making his voice grow silent. Maia and Alfin regarded the soldiers which had appeared seemingly out of nowhere with the same looks of shock on their faces.
Next to Rivan, the hooded ermine began chanting quietly, “This is the Twisting Flame Horde of Rivan Fireclaw, conqueror of the Northlands. Know that fire and death come to those who resist the Horde. Know that you stand in the presence of the future conqueror of all Mossflower Wood.”
“Never!” Tyrn gasped. “We will not allow you to conquer our Abbey!”
“Normally, this is when I would ask you to surrender, and leave the Abbey behind and be spared. But I know of your reputation. I know you will never surrender to me, will you, Abbot Tyrn?”
“No!” It was Maia, not Tyrn, who spoke. “We will never submit to you, Fireclaw. Redwallers are peaceful creatures, until attacked! Then we will fight you the end!”
“And you are agreed with her on this?” Rivan asked Tyrn. Both he and Brother Alfin nodded silently, but still they stared in fear of what had to be at least a thousand vermin soldiers surrounding their Abbey. Their Abbey, which was mostly undefended. Their Abbey, whose last champion had vanished without a trace, but not before predicting the coming of the Twisting Flame Horde.
The Abbey of Redwall, which was now threatened with destruction. Tyrn spoke at last, “No matter the odds, we cannot bow to a tyrant’s demands. We are bound to fight you to the end.”
“I would not respect you as the fearsome warriors you are called by many if you said otherwise,” said Rivan. There was a note of genuine respect in his voice at their open defiance of his surrender. “Nor did I expect anything less from the infamous warriors of Redwall. The might of my horde shall win renown forever for conquering the unconquered Abbey. But know that while you have earned my respect for chosing to resist me, I shall have no mercy on those who fight my horde. This is not said out of malice, but is a practical necessity of war. I am sure you understand.”
“Go to Hellgates, ferret!” snarled Maia, her eyes blazing slightly with a dim light, the first sign of the bloodwrath. “Redwall will never fall to you!”
“Forgive me if I think otherwise,” said Rivan Fireclaw, meeting her gaze without a hint of fear despite the fact he was completely unarmed. “You all may return to your Abbey. This audience is at an end.”
Followed by Maia and Alfin, Tyrn strode quietly back to Redwall Abbey, his heart heavy as he joined the lookouts on the ramparts. As far as he could see, surrounding his Abbey, the lights of a thousand torches shone with flickering, twisting light in the darkness.
Not only had his worst fears been realized, Rivan had confronted the three leaders of Redwall and emerged the complete victor in that confrontation. Tyrn realized now that their Resistance was likely doomed without outside aid. Despair began to engulf him as he stared at the massed soldiers below, every one of them armed to the teeth with weaponry.
The Twisting Flame Horde had come to Redwall Abbey.
Inside Redwall Abbey, plans were being made for defense. All morning nothing had been heard from Rivan Fireclaw or the Twisting Flame horde, but as noon drew near the Abbot knew it would grow increasingly likely they'd suffer an all-out attack from Rivan Fireclaw.
Apart from the young otters Sarrow and Ravenna, who were still in Redwall Abbey, none of the creatures had war skills. What was more, while numbers were low, morale was lower. Everyone in Redwall, from Dibbun to the oldest brother or sister, knew of Arken's Riddle set down all those years ago and what it foretold for Mossflower Wood.
"We have the squirrels that we believe will save us, but they're nothing but Dibbuns!" Sister Kae fretted. "What can they do? What if the Twisting Flame conquers Redwall in the meantime and we're all killed! Then the Prophecy can't come true, can it?"
Nevertheless, Abbot Tyrn had summoned Foremole and his crew, the Cellarhog Drogg Sickleback, both otters, and the rest of the Redwall order of mice, squirrels, and hedgehogs. The Dibbuns were playing with Maia inside, who was distracting them from the fact that a thousand or so vermin were encamped directly outside Redwall Abbey.
"We need as many archers and slingers as we can get on the battlements," Abbot Tyrn instructed. "And guards to block off an assault by ground in case they punch through the gates. With these numbers, Rivan can simply punch through our gates if he wants to, and it's vital that we keep him out of Redwall."
"Against a thousand vermin or more? What chance do we have?" Sister Kae fretted, "They'll slaughter us all!"
"If we cannot secure outside help, I agree, our long-term prospects are grim. But taking Redwall by siege is quite impossible. Redwall is virtually self-supporting; the chances of Rivan taking us down by siege are slim. But I warn you all to be on the lookout for possibilities of our survival. While Rivan may have us pinned in here tightly, he can't keep a thousand vermin a secret forever. Eventually the survivors from Skipper's ottercrew or the Guosim shrews will notice that something's wrong. They'll come to help us. While we may be forced to fight, we must not lose hope, creatures of Redwall!"
As he said this, a colossal bang seemed to shake the walls of the Abbey. The Abbot, followed closely by Kae, Sarrow, Drogg, and Ravenna, raced to the ramparts, where the defenders were pointing and shouting.
"The vermin have a battering ram, sir! They're attempting to break through the gates!" Immediately, Abbot Tyrn saw Maia and the Dibbuns were racing toward the sound of the banging on the gate. Tyrn was the first to spot the danger and whispered an order to Sarrow. Then he hissed, "I'm going to grab Friar Tura. Command the wall defenders, and give Ravenna command of the ground. As of today, you're about the only beasts in this Abbey with fighting skill."
"To arms, mateys!" shouted Sarrow, grabbing an otter javelin. "We've got yore backs!"
Immediately the defenders of Redwall, caught unprepared, grabbed their slings and joined the rooftop guards, who were hurling stones down at the thirty-odd vermin manning the battering ram. Behind them stood around three hundred soldiers, every one of them armed heavily. The moment the gates fell, all of them would be inside Redwall Abbey. It was only a matter of time before the battering ram knocked the gate from its hinges.
"It is a dangerous weapon, to be sure, but where is the rest of the horde?" asked Abbot Tyrn, staring into the distance. He could see the others were massed around the back of Redwall Abbey, but there were still less than he'd seen last night. He wondered vaguely what they were up to.
"First rank, reload!" ordered Sarrow, who raised a javelin and hurled it into the midst of the vermin attackers. It caught a stoat through the chest and he fell back with a gurgling gasp of pain. Sarrow smiled in satisfaction as the Redwallers rained stones and shafts down on the vermin assailants.
Then the second rank of vermin who stood behind the battering ram raised their weapons. This time, it was Ravenna who noticed the danger first. "Get down!" the young female otter yelled, and immediately the Redwallers fell flat as shafts whizzed over their heads, falling harmlessly into the Abbey courtyard below.
Rising to their feet, the Abbeybeasts managed to get out another volley. But before they could duck down again both the second rank and the third rank of vermin soldiers fired arrows at the walls. Three of the defenders were too slow to duck down and three fell transfixed, two slain, one wounded in the shoulder.
Sarrow quickly realized that if they stood up, the Northlander vermin would continue to put pressure on the entire span of the wall, where they were easy targets for the vermin archers. "Cover yoreselves as best you can!" he called to them. "Wait until Friar Tura arrives, then we'll give Fireclaw and his mates a bit o' the Redwall greeting, aye!"
Below, in Cavern Hole, the Abbot could hear the sound of the battering ram continuing in spite of the archers and sling throwers on the rooftops. The Abbot quietly whispered his plan to Friar Tura, whose face broke out into a mischievous smile.
"Send for Foremole and his crew immediately," said Tura, his face breaking into a grim smile. "This might just work."
Rivan Fireclaw had split his forces. He had plenty to conquer Redwall with sheer numbers, but attacking a fortress all-out at once could have disastrous consequences and cause losses he couldn't accept while the rest of Mossflower still lay free from his grasp. Rivan didn't expect the war to last long, he could already see that most of Redwall's defenders had been vanquished the moment he'd scattered the ottercrew, the chances of them putting up a fight for a long period of time looked slim.
"Shadowfang, Snakepaw, lead the main attack on the Abbey with three hundred soldiers," he'd ordered. "Scythe, take five hundred around to the right wall of the Abbey, where the defenders are thin, and begin the attack the moment Shadowfang's forces let up."
Scythe went off in one direction, his sickle clenched in one hand. Shadowfang, a fox with dead white eyes and all black fur, followed Vask Annax, Snakepaw the weasel, and the rest of the archers. Shadowfang was another of Rivan's trusted captains, and the warlord trusted him to command the first siege effectively.
While Scythe attended to the second part of his plan, Rivan turned to Darkfur. The captain looked at him in askance for orders. "Take three hundred soldiers and ready the catapults for action. Do not let the Redwall beasts discover them, or our plan could go disastrously awry. Make sure that they do not find out about the catapults or the two siege towers before it is too late. Tomorrow night we will use them once we withdraw."
"Why should we withdraw?" asked Darkfur before he could stop himself. "Wouldn't it be simpler to go all-out with our full strength on the Abbey? There are a thousand of us, and only a few of them. We could take the fortress."
"And lose how many of our own soldiers, with no guarantee of victory?" asked Rivan. "Imagine if they used fire on our catapults, or our siege towers? Or another ploy like they used against the even larger horde of Cluny the Scourge countless seasons ago? We'd still be stuck out here, with far fewer soldiers and an Abbey filled with beasts who have now gained back some hope of victory.
"No," said Rivan. "Trust me when I tell you, Darkfur, if we attacked now we would take unacceptable losses. Just because there are far fewer soldiers under their command does not mean we are invulnerable. Now, see to it that the catapults are ready."
Darkfur strode off, issuing Rivan's orders to the remaining hordebeasts. Once he and the others had gone, Rivan and less than two hundred soldiers remained guarding the tents, the rest were off on their respective missions.
Turning his gaze back to the tents, Rivan ordered Icecloak, "Send for Urgar," he ordered the ermine. "I have a task for him and his clan."
Icecloak nodded wordlessly. When the white ermine returned, he was followed by a mole that, though blind, seemed to stare at Rivan Fireclaw fearlessly. Urgar's reputation as a killer was fearsome, and his claws, like vicious spades, were longer than that of the average mole. His tribe of northern moles, unlike their peaceful kin in the south, had been more than happy to join up with the fearsome Rivan Fireclaw. Now his entire tribe followed the horde.
Urgar stared at Rivan and hissed in heavily accented molespeak. Unlike the southern moles, he hissed more frequently, "Burr, why doess my 'ord Rivan Fiorclaw want uss, eh?"
"I have a plan for you and your forces in the coming siege," said Rivan Fireclaw. Unlike with all of his vermin subordinates, Urgar was blind and thus Rivan's hypnotic stare had no effect on him. Rather than waste time explaining the complete plan, Rivan said, "I want you to leave tonight and take twoscore of your kinsmen with you. No creature can tunnel faster than a mole, and I'd like a tunnel beneath Redwall Abbey, a tunnel that only other moles can travel through. If we hold their cellars in addition to the grounds outside Redwall, we will be able to deprive them of some of their seemingly endless food supply."
"Doess Lord Fiorclaw want us to use the poisun, burr?" asked Urgar.
"No," said Rivan. "It would be pointless to poison the food supply to a food source we ourselves would want once we've conquered the Abbey. No, merely holding the cellars is perfect. Once you have widened the tunnel enough for the rest of your mole brethren to pass through, I will send twoscore of your kinsmen to take control of Redwall's cellars."
Urgar nodded obediently, but Rivan was not fooled. The mole chieftain's first loyalty would always be to his clan, not to the Twisting Flame. Still, he trusted Urgar to complete the tunnel within two days.
Two days, when his plan to conquer Redwall Abbey would come to completion.
As the day dragged on, Shadowfang's force had still not let up their unrelenting pressure on Redwall's north wall. Defenders had been called from other areas along the rampart in order to defend against the battering ram, which was threatening to break through the main gate. Sarrow had almost taxed the defenders to the limit, and with darkness approaching and with the assault showing no signs of stopping, Sarrow could only hope that the Abbot and Friar Tura's plan below would be successful.
Their plan had taken some setbacks as it grew more and more likely that the vermin soldiers would take down the gate, and more and more of the Abbeydwellers had been called to defend the main gate with Ravenna, Oakan, and the few other trained warriors that the Abbey had at its disposal. Sarrow and his slingers were forcing the vermin to be wary, but while both sides had been fighting since the early afternoon neither had taken a great amount of losses. A little less than a score of vermin lay dead beneath the ramparts, slain by a combination of Sarrow's ranged support and Ravenna's close range defenders, and several others had suffered injuries. Sarrow's Abbey defenders had lost six brave defenders to the vermin archers, and three others were wounded.
"We can't keep these scum off us for much longer, mate!" called Ravenna from below. "Yore defenders are taking losses too, an' I think it's only a matter of time before they break through!"
"Keep holding them off, yore doing a good job, but Tura, the Abbot, and their mates should be here any minute!" Indeed, Sarrow could see the Abbot, Brother Tura, and twelve of Foremole's molecrew approaching, lifting two cauldrons filled to the brim. Sarrow grinned wickedly as he realized what they had in mind.
"If you say so," said Ravenna. "But I only hope we're able to keep these vermin down long enough for them to scale the rampart!"
Sarrow turned to Brother Robin, who, for a peaceful harvest mouse was quite a skilled archer and none of the few Redwallers to possess a bow. "Keep command of this section of the rampart and the battering ram," he ordered. "I've got to check something out. I've a sneaking suspicion the vermin are up to somethin'."
Robin nodded, and Sarrow raced across the rampart. The young otter, though fearful of the Twisting Flame, felt a thrill of elation at the chance to at last command a full group of Redwall defenders. He'd gone from one of the youngest of Skipper's ottercrew, barely old enough to be counted among the full warriors, to being a commander in the Redwall Abbey defense force. The otter sprinted across the rooftops, feeling rather self-important. He didn't really have much to check, of course. Most of the slingers were doing their job, while those who didn't have ranged weapons were armed with makeshift pole-spears or wooden staves. But when Sarrow reached a mostly undefended section of the rampart, he saw a sight that froze his heart momentarily with fear.
About five hundred vermin, led by Scythe, were moving into position with a second, more powerful battering ram. Sarrow saw that this was studded with sheer metal and not designed to break gates or weak walls, but was powerful enough to damage the very sturdy sandstone walls of Redwall Abbey itself. As it slammed into the wall, Sarrow could gear the awful sound of stone giving way slightly.
Sarrow bit back a string of otter insults. Had he not noticed them there, enough of them to man the ram could have ducked below the rampart and not been noticed until it was too late. He was lucky to catch them while their supervisors were still directly behind them.
The otter could see Friar Tura and twelve moles, carrying the first cauldron, was approaching the midway section of the rampart. Sarrow saw that the cauldron was filled with boiling water and it must have taken many more moles than just twelve to have lifted two of these onto the ramparts.
Beckoning to Tura urgently, Sarrow watched as the Friar led the moles for what seemed like a painfully long few seconds across the rampart and to the edge. The vermin, unaware that they'd been spotted, were somewhat concealed beneath the rampart, and had Sarrow not known that they would have been there, he was almost sure he'd have missed them.
"Pour!" Sarrow hissed to Tura as they neared the edge of the rampart. Seeing them, several of the defenders raced to help them lift.
At the last minute, Scythe saw the cauldron on the rooftop above them. From the back row of his troops the general yelled urgently, "Pull back! Pull back!"
The vermin didn't move until it was too late. The entire contents of the cauldron rained down on them, drenching the attackers in scalding water. Nearly thirty vermin died in an instant, the rest fell, many badly wounded. The battering ram fell from the paws of the creatures that held it, crushing several wounded beasts beneath its metal and wooden body.
Foremole gave a thin smile of satisfaction from the ramparts, "Seems 'e gave 'e twisty foire varmints some gurt water to cool 'em down a little, aye!"
Immediately after the first pouring, Snakepaw and the rest of the force attacking the main gate and defending against the Redwall slingers withdrew, and the second cauldron was wasted and missed every one of the vermin warriors.
Friar Tura, Abbot Tyrn, and Sarrow stared out over the ramparts, where Rivan Fireclaw stood conferring his commanders, clearly visible but out of range of even the strongest bow Redwall possessed. For a moment, Rivan and Tyrn's gaze locked. Then Rivan Fireclaw gave a brief nod to the Abbot of Redwall, as though congratulating him for his success.
Then he was gone, melting back amidst his soldiers, just another ferret among the massed pale foxes, ermine, weasels, stoats, minks, and other soldiers who made up his horde.
Inside Redwall Abbey, Naila and Melania, the mothers of Raya and Rodan, waited anxiously for night to fall. Outside the battle seemed to rage on and on, with no sign of halting. Maia waited with them, along with a small crowd of Redwall's Dibbuns. Even the irrepressible Traye seemed stunned into silence as he listened to the sounds of battle which rang out from the distance.
"Are the vermin gonna break into our Abbey, marm?" Turi whispered to Maia.
The Badger Mother shook her head, "Not now, not today. Sarrow and the Abbot tell me that the battle's odds are in our favor."
"I wish we could solve the Riddle!" Melania almost thumped her tail against the ground in frustration, and would have if she wasn't carrying the sleeping squirrelbabe Rodan. "This is supposed to provide the key to the whole thing, but all it tells us seems to be hard to understand prophecy. And yet he called it his riddle, as though there was a secret message in there that we could solve."
"If we could crack the Riddle, then maybe we'd understand what role…our children…will play," Maia said, hesitating. She already knew the Dibbuns were scared enough knowing that a vermin horde were encamped outside Redwall, they didn't need to know that they called themselves the Twisting Flame and that they all suspected that Rodan and Raya were the squirrels in the Riddle. The Dibbuns were already fearful enough without that added pressure.
"Can we, can we try to solve the Riddle?" asked Traye, at once awake, his eyes shining. Maia sighed slightly.
"What if-" Melania began, but Maia, seeing her worried expression, cut her off. "It's plain that none of these Dibbuns will sleep, other than Rodan. Even young Raya's still awake. I don't think that trying to solve a Riddle that no one has been able to solve since the disappearance of Arken will cause any harm."
"Very well," said Melania, relaxing slightly. She smiled. "It will give us something to do while…" she let the sentence trail off. Maia knew she worried about both the future of her child and the safety of her husband, Oakan, who was working with the defenders. Hopefully puzzling over the Riddle would take the war off their minds for a time.
Maia unfurled the ancient scrap of parchment that held Arken's Riddle. And she began to read aloud.
Within Cavern Hole, Maia, Traye, Turi, the mole Dibbun Ayela, Naila, and Melania bent over the scrap of parchment, trying to puzzle out the meaning of Arken's Riddle. Maia didn't say it aloud, but she felt rather daunted by the prospect of actually solving the puzzle, and she could tell Naila and Melania felt the same. Two generations of Redwall's finest minds had tried and failed to solve the puzzle, could they solve something that had stumped the finest minds of Redwall for years.
"Not only does the Riddle seem tangled and complex, but there are so many grammatical errors I wonder if Arken wrote them in on purpose. Every first word on each stanza is capitalized as it should be, but every second word is also capitalized," commented Melania.
"It has occurred to us before that the capital letters hold the answer to the Riddle," said Maia. "I remember the days of our old Abbess, when several of Redwall's greatest minds tried to dissect the Riddle. But putting all of the capital letters together simply creates nonsense. Many different combinations have been tried, but it's fairly clear to me now that this is no anagram."
"There's another seeming error here too," commented Melania. "'And No That while all hope seems lost.' It should be and know that while all hope seems lost."
"Perhaps we should read it over again," said Maia. "Maybe we're losing some of the meaning here."
Maia began to read, "'In Seasons far, when twisting flame falls upon redwall, the Abbey blue stone must be found, or all Mossflower Wood shall fall.' Well, that seems pretty self-explanatory.
"'The Abbey blue stone must be found, or all Mossflower Wood shall fall.' This, to me, is more unclear. What is a blue stone? I don't think he means a literal blue stone, but never in all my years have I heard of an Abbey blue stone."
At that moment, Brother Alfin was passing through Cavern Hole, carrying a book under one arm. Brother Alfin was Redwall's official recorder. Traye raced over to the old mouse and blurted out, "Does you knows wha' the h'abbey blue stone is, bruvver?"
"The Abbey blue stone," Alfin mused. "I know why you ask, but never in all my years have I heard of something called the Abbey blue stone. I remember my predecessor as recorder, old Brother Descon, while pour over the Riddle for hours, looking for a reference to the blue stone in our oldest recordings. But never was anything known as the Abbey blue stone mentioned to the best of my- or his- knowledge. I could check the recordings again, if you'd like, but I doubt I'll find anything more. Melen was very thorough."
"No, that's okay," said Maia. "We're trying to solve the Riddle, but so far it hasn't yielded any hints to us."
"I'm sure that old squirrel, Arken, did it on purpose," said Alfin. "I wish he hadn't taken Martin's sword, however. Ever since then none of us have been able to receive a clear vision of Martin. Tyrn saw him, foretelling the coming war against Fireclaw, but he was calling as though from a distance, beyond mist. This, more than anything else, worries me."
"I know," said Maia quietly. I, too, saw him in the mist, but could not hear him. We must unravel the Riddle if Martin's spirit- and hopefully, one day, the sword, is to return to Redwall."
Alfin nodded, "Have you made any progress at all?"
"None, yet," said Maia, a sigh faintly audible in her voice. She bent over and read the Riddle aloud.
"On the face of it, the Riddle seems to make sense. When the Twisting Flame attacks, two Abbey squirrels, one with one green eye and the other black, shall save or end all hope. The only other detail is that they are called 'seekers' by Arken, and that if the green-black eyed squirrel joins the fire king, who we must assume is Rivan, all hope is lost. But there has to be some coded message in there. Arken says as much. My last secret lies in the second."
"But we need help now!" said Maia. "Fireclaw is at our gates, and against a thousand soldiers, we stand not a chance!"
"I know," sighed Alfin. "But the only phrase that holds a single clue to what the message he's trying to give is the line, "My last secret lies in second, in the words I wrote and gave. I have no idea what that might mean, though."
"No idea what what might mean?" asked a voice. The squirrelmaid Arulan seemed to appear from nowhere, followed by the mousemaid Sye. They'd obviously climbed down the stairs from their dormitory above while they'd all been fixated on the Riddle. Both the young maids were far too young to do any fighting, and were among the oldest Redwall Dibbuns, either. Alfin turned to regard them, adjusting his spectacles.
"We were looking over the Riddle," said the old mouse recorder.
"The Riddle again?" Arulan asked. For a young squirrel of about four seasons she had an excellent vocabulary already. "Can we help? I'm not sure it's possible to solve, but then again, Descon and his predecessors had plenty of time to look it over. With the fire king at our gates, we have little time left and need to solve it now if Redwall is to be saved. It sort of puts things in perspective."
"Of course you can," said Maia. "We were just trying to unravel the only phrase that seems to contain a puzzle: My last secret lies in second, in the words I wrote and gave. We've ruled out that the capital letters form an anagram, though, didn't we, Alfin?"
"Erm, yes," said the mouse recorder, more to himself than Maia. "Anagram…second…that's it!" he said all at once speaking loudly and causing the quiet mousemaid Sye to take a step back. "I've solved the 'last secret in second,'" he said, his voice jubilant. "No wonder old Descon never solved the puzzle. Maia, had you not mentioned anagrams I would never have thought of it, but 'second' is an anagram for Descon's name!"
For a moment, all of the Redwallers were stunned into silence. "Descon was young when Arken left," Maia mused after a moment of complete quiet. "But is it possible he was in on it as well? That it's the real reason no one was ever able to solve the Riddle? Because Descon was working with Arken?"
"Maybe. It seems likely," said Alfin. "But we know where to search now, don't we? The old records from Descon's time at Redwall!"
Maia was as elated by the breakthrough as they all were, but felt that she had to be the voice of reason now. "Maybe so, but I believe it's time for bed now. All of you are up way later than you should be, and even Alfin and I should be asleep, and would be if it weren't for Fireclaw and his horde."
"But marm, me like solvin' riddlels," protested Traye.
"It be gurt fun fer moi," agreed Ayela the molebabe. "Can 'e stay up, muvver?"
Maia sighed. It looked as though settling down Traye, Turi, Arulan and the others would prove harder to solve than the Riddle!
By midnight, three of the Redwall sentries were still on duty, suspicious at the lack of activity from the vermin horde since they'd used the boiling water tactic. Oakan was on sentry duty, along with Brothers Robin and Gan. All were armed with bows, in case the vermin tried a nighttime assault. Oakan could see that Gan and Robin were beginning to relax, but his entire body was tense, alert for danger. Despite the half-moon in the sky it was difficult to make out the details of the vermin horde in the distance. Unlike the previous night, none of them seemed to have torches.
No, the Twisting Flame was up to something, Oakan could just feel it. The very air seemed to vibrate with tension around him.
Suddenly, as Oakan slowly began to convince himself he'd not had any forewarning of danger, something massively large hit the walls with a colossal bang!
Immediately Oakan was off his feet like a shot toward where he'd heard the sound, both of the Brothers following him. Before Oakan had even reached the highest point of the rampart he saw a massive boulder slam against the walls of Redwall, causing a colossal clang. However, neither the sandstone walls of Redwall nor the boulder were badly damaged.
Oakan saw below in the flickering torchlight that the devices firing the boulders were catapults, manned by powerful, brutish-looking rats. He shouted, and immediately around a score of Redwall beasts, all carrying slings or bows, fired down upon the catapults. A rat fell transfixed.
Sarrow was one of the first up the battlements. He took one look at the catapults and gave a grimace. Rivan Fireclaw had obviously come prepared to conquer.
"Try to take out as many rats as we can with the arrows," Sarrow ordered Oakan. The squirrel nodded. "I'll go see what we can do to take out those catapults more permanently."
Oakan knocked an arrow to his bow, and he and Brother Robin fired down into the fray. However, before Oakan could register that his arrows had struck any of the enemy, a hail of hissing shafts fired from below forced him to take cover. Silently cursing Rivan Fireclaw as a Redwall defender fell wounded, Oakan fired downward into the throng once again, hitting a rat manning one of the catapults on the shoulder. The Redwallers fired down into the throng, but Snakepaw and his archers returned fire with even more ferocity.
Good thing Fireclaw's not aiming for Redwall's main gate, thought Oakan. He can pound away with the catapults at the sandstone walls all he likes. Soon he'll realize it's futile.
But even as he thought this screams rang out from the battlements as a massive boulder slammed into the ramparts, killing three mice and causing their bodies to plummet into the Abbey courtyard below. Oakan took one look at the damage and hissed in rage, firing still more arrows down on Rivan's forces. Oakan could see that the catapults were still in the process of being reloaded, but the moment the rats were able to fire again, they would.
Suddenly, shouts rang out from below, louder than the hissing arrows which flew over Oakan's head. "They're at the east wall gate with the battering ram!" It was Ravenna who was speaking, and Oakan at once heard the sickening sound of the metal-shod ram biting through the metal gate.
The catapults are a diversion, Oakan thought grimly. To decoy us away from the main gate while more of Fireclaw's soldiers attack there.
"There's no point in losing more of us to these catapults," he said. "I'll wait here with half the defenders; the rest of you must go help Ravenna. We have far fewer soldiers than the enemy; they're obviously fighting a losing battle at the east wall gate."
Brother Gan nodded and turned away, racing down the rampart stair and toward the commotion below. In the darkness Oakan couldn't tell how many beings were attacking Ravenna and her gallant defenders, but he knew they were all untrained in the art of war and it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed.
Below, Rivan Fireclaw watched the battle, eying the catapult's performance critically. "They're not doing much to either the defenders or the ramparts," he observed, speaking to Icecloak. "Still, they've served their purpose. They, along with the one hundred soldiers at the east gate, are the perfect diversion."
Rivan knew he could still afford to split his forces. With fourscore archers defending the catapults and a group of about the same number of shield-bearers protecting them from the defenders on the walltops, he still had enough soldiers to place guards around the entire parameter of the Abbey. Still, since the attack earlier today with the battering ram, Rivan had withdrawn most of those troops. He knew that in the blackness numbers were easy to miscalculate, and that the Redwallers would have no way of predicting his latest plan.
Rivan, seeing four of his able spearguard approaching him, three weasels and a fox, turned to face them.
"We are ready, Lord Fireclaw," said the fox, a stealthy looking silver beast known as Veelu.
"Good," hissed the warlord. "Follow me."
While his catapults were performing their distraction, Rivan Fireclaw had been scouting around Redwall Abbey. Their defenses were dangerous, to be sure, and the chance of him bringing his horde into the Abbey by simply charging against the main gate was next to nothing. He could batter all day at the reinforced, powerful iron gate and simply lose soldiers while the Redwall archers and swordfighters picked them off using tactics such as the boiling water. He could eventually break it down, to be sure, but at a cost Rivan wasn't willing to accept.
But he did have one advantage. While Redwall was heavily fortified and the main gate well defended, Rivan had spotted a critical flaw. The front gate of Redwall was only supported by one powerful beam. Four able-bodied beasts with spears would easily be able to slide the block out of the way, and they would be in in seconds. The entire Abbey, then, would be theirs for the taking.
All that remained then would be diverting the attention away from the main gate. Rivan knew that while the Redwallers had many slingers at their disposal, along with a few powerful archers, their fighting force upon the ground was far smaller, composed mostly of moles, squirrels, and mice. Rivan had seen several otters around Redwall, but not nearly enough to defeat a force of one hundred soldiers. Rivan knew that while the east wall gate might not be overwhelmed by such a force, it was an adequate distraction.
Rivan and his four spear-bearers had arrived at the front of Redwall Abbey. Though they were concealed in the shadows, Rivan could see Scythe and four hundred soldiers concealed in the trees around them, ready for the attack. He could see that Shadowfang, Snakepaw, and Vask Annax were still keeping the Redwallers busy fending off the catapults, while Darkfur, the captain he'd placed in charge of the attackers against the east gate, was still faring well. Darkfur didn't know this, but the shield-bearers who guarded the catapults had orders to attack as soon as Scythe's force was brought inside Redwall Abbey.
And of course, if all else failed, Rivan had the siege tower. He'd given Icecloak specific orders on what to do with it the moment this attack had ended. Rivan trusted him to complete the job if Scythe and Shale failed.
"Lift the gate," Rivan whispered, and the three rats immediately lifted their lance, the fox Veelu aiding them. Slowly, they slid the block away from the gates, and the gate swung open silently.
Veelu bared his teeth in a triumphant smile. Not a single Redwall sentry was on duty there, they'd all been called away to help the defenders either with the catapults or the main gate. Silently Rivan stepped into the courtyard of Redwall Abbey, the four soldiers directly behind him. He lifted a fist in an easy, obvious signal, knowing Scythe would see it.
All at once, Rivan was surrounded by his soldiers, many of whom wore triumphant grins. "Spread out. Veelu, take a hundred soldiers to go aid Darkfur. The rest of you, follow me to Redwall."
The Dibbun Traye was still wide awake, and was peering outside his dormitory window. For a moment, light shone down upon the figures in the courtyard. Traye screamed in terror as the features of a brutal-looking weasel stared greedily at the Abbey before him. He screamed, and immediately there was a clatter from within Redwall Abbey. Maia was racing down the stairs, yelling to the defenders. "Vermin in the courtyard! They're inside Redwall!"
Immediately Rivan Fireclaw knew that the element of surprise was blown. "Go!" he yelled. "Go quickly! Attack the main building now, before the Redwallers arrive! To Scythe and Shale he hissed quietly, "Go. You know what to do."
Shale nodded, and the vixen seer and Scythe disappeared into the darkness.
One of Rivan's rat soldiers, Redspear, bared his teeth and charged toward the building. Several defenders, three mice with clubs, charged at him, desperate to halt the onslaught, but three of Rivan's soldiers simply cut two of them to the ground. Redspear disarmed the third mouse, and he fell to the ground, staring up at the rat's brutal visage.
The warcry startled Redspear for an instant. In that moment, he immediately fell transfixed by a double-pointed otter javelin. Suddenly otters were all around the soldiers, and Rivan saw Skipper in the lead. More were charging through the west gate from the side, cutting off their retreat. Rivan's hand strayed to his sword as his forces engaged the otters. They only needed to hold off the vicious woodlanders until his seer and his general returned with what he'd sent them to take.
Shale, two ratguards, and Scythe wrenched open the door of Redwall Abbey roughly, causing splinters to scatter in all directions. They'd been fortunate to slay the sentries quickly and slip by before the otters cut off their retreat, and now they were inside the Abbey of Redwall itself. Quietly, Shale and her vermin escort slipped through the shadows and into Redwall Abbey, where they ran directly into Maia, Alfin, and Friar Tura, who'd all come out of the kitchens and into Cavern Hole. Tura still held a ladle in one hand.
For a few moments, Redwaller and vermin soldier stared at each other blankly; then Maia gave a cry of warning to Friar Tura and Alfin before charging at the vermin, who scattered before her. One rat wasn't quick enough and the badger's claws grabbed him and lifted him bodily into the air, slamming him into the wall and knocking him unconscious at once. Alfin staggered backward, out of the way, as a brutish rat lept at him.
Friar Tura acted purely reflexively. Lifting the ladle, he brought it down on a rat's skull with all of his strength. There was a horrible snapping noise and the rat fell to the ground.
The remaining three vermin had scattered, Shale and Scythe racing in opposite directions. The remaining rat guard simply blundered up the stairs, away from the carnage. Maia raced after him, giving Shale time to slip by Alfin and Tura and into the Great Hall, where she saw what her master sought lying upon the table, left there by Alfin.
The Riddle of Arken.
Shale snatched it from the table, hastily staring at the Riddle to confirm its authenticity. Then she turned and raced away, toward the sounds of clatter. Scythe was nowhere in sight, but Shale could hear, above on the stairs, the unfortunate rat guard begging for mercy, and she saw Brother Alfin lying, moaning, on the floor.
Shale had no time to wait for either of her allies. She had to deliver this to Rivan at once. The main door to the Abbey was still somewhat ajar, and Shale raced out into the battlefield, where she saw Scythe amidst the fray. The general had slipped out of the east wall gate, which hung ajar, damaged by the iron-shod battering ram. The tide had turned against Rivan's forces, and Shale could see that Rivan's army was withdrawing now that they'd seen her race out the door.
Unfortunately, the otters had seen her too. As fast as she could run, Shale raced toward the open east gate and toward freedom, the ancient, weathered scrap of parchment containing the Riddle clenched in one paw.
The otters were racing toward her, trying to stop her from escaping, but Shale knew as she reached the catapults and now had Snakepaw's archers covering her, she'd escaped with Redwall's greatest prize.
Icecloak looked from Rivan Fireclaw to the battle which was drawing to a close. The ermine watched his master, whose face was set in an inscrutable mask. "Still everything proceeds according to plan," he whispered.
"Shall I bring in the siege tower, Lord Fireclaw?" Icecloak asked.
"No," said Rivan. "We have what we came for. It would have been better had my forces slowed down the otters a bit longer, but Shale and Scythe have completed the task I assigned them. Let the horde rest, we will renew the attack tomorrow."
Icecloak nodded. They'd lost fewer soldiers than he'd expected, and not only this, but Scythe's slight modifications to the Redwaller's defenses would make the attack tomorrow a success. Already Rivan had won two victories against the Redwallers, victories that his warlord had allowed the Redwallers to perceive as temporary victories.
Redwall was already conquered, Icecloak knew. Their last hope had been severed, and still they didn't even know it.
Arulan stared in disbelief at the carnage in Cavern Hole. The young squirrelmaid was standing with her best friend, the mouse Sye, watching Brother Alfin's wounds being tended to by Sisters Marian and Kae. A table had been overturned, the Riddle was gone, and Alfin was wounded.
"Will Brother Alfin recover?" Sye asked in a tremulous voice.
"I…must," gasped the wounded brother. He winced in pain as Marian wrapped a bandage around his leg. "We still have to solve the mystery behind the Riddle. Descon's somehow involved."
"The Riddle was stolen," Maia reported, her face set in a grim mask. "But we got three of the attackers sent to steal it. One's still alive and is bound for questioning…if he ever wakes up. Friar Tura brained him pretty hard with the ladle."
From her chair on the other side of them room, Melania gave a small laugh. "Who knew that the Friar was such a fearsome warrior? First the boiling water, now the ladle!"
"And he brings food to the defenders," said Maia.
The mention of the defenders immediately reminded Arulan of where she'd rather be now: on the ramparts, defending Redwall from the vermin attack. But they'd all told her she was too young, and she'd been forced to remain inside with the rest of the noncombatants. Inwardly Arulan knew she was too young to be anything other than a nuisance to the defenders, but to her the thought of battle was a two-edged sword of fear and exhilaration. This was in complete contrast to her friend Sye, who abhorred the thought of fighting. Arulan, if given the choice, would rather be a Redwall warrior like Martin than a sister in the Redwall order.
"We still must try," groaned Alfin, tearing Arulan from her thoughts of the war. "There's not much time. Fireclaw's last assault nearly brought us down, and now we have double the chance of defeat. Arulan, Sye…most of the records are in the gatehouse. Bring the section I organized last week, all of the records written by Descon, and bring them to me. I'm looking for one in section in particular, from the Summer of the Riddle. Maia, if you wouldn't mind, could you search the old study? If we can't find what we're looking for in the gatehouse, then we'll find it there. I doubt Descon was trying to keep the Riddle so well hidden that none of us would ever find it."
Maia nodded, and set off on her task. Sye followed Arulan out the battered door and toward the gatehouse, both mousemaid and squirrelmaid staring up at the battlements, Sye with fear, Arulan with awed fascination at both Fireclaw's massive horde and the defenders on the ramparts. Neither side was fighting at the moment, most of Fireclaw's army was resting, while the Redwall defenders treated their wounded and kept a sharp lookout. The return of Skipper and his crew had given the Redwall defenders new hope. They'd already buried the Redwallers who'd fallen in defense of their Abbey, and hauled the vermin corpses from the battlefield. Skipper had said that the Twisting Flame would have to bury their own dead.
Sye and Arulan stepped into the gatehouse and retrieved the set of scrolls that Alfin had specified, and returned to the main Abbey building, passing the otter warriors as they did. Every one of them carried a spear or a bow and a quiver of arrows. They were obviously ready for Rivan Fireclaw's next attack, whenever it came.
Arulan handed the scrolls to Alfin, who gingerly unrolled them, staring at the writings of Descon, his predecessor as recorder. He glanced over it quickly, and then read aloud.
It is the Summer of the Riddle.
I refer, of course, to the Riddle of Arken, the mysterious puzzle that our Abbey warrior left behind when he vanished. Of today, this marks almost a full season since our Abbey warrior vanished, and only time will tell if he will ever return. Arken's words are what I puzzle over even as I write this. What a mysterious puzzle it is! I believe this could take seasons of study to solve, but I will not stop until I have cracked the code.
But enough on such matters for now. Reeve Gurdy, our Cellardog, has recently gone to his rest in the lands beyond, and his successor Cellarhog, Trask Sickleback, plans to host a feast in his honor. He and his friend, the mouse Friar Davin, are hard at work in the kitchens below. This feast will hopefully offset any worries that we have now that the Sword of Martin, which Arken took with him, no longer hangs beside our tapestry.
It is our tapestry that I stare at as I write this. Our Abbey is experiencing a time of tranquil peace, but I sense a storm ahead. Our sword cannot remain absent from our Abbey for so long. I pray that Arken is safe and that he will return, but whatever the reason for his disappearance, I only hope that it is a good reason, one worthy of Martin the Warrior. Redwall must forever remain free, whatever the odds. I only hope that we can stay strong in the coming months.
Descon, recorder of Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country.
"No secret messages here," said Alfin. "I've read this document many times over myself. This was one of the first recordings that Descon did. The first of many."
"Who was Descon?" asked Arulan. "I know we wouldn't remember him, but the Summer of the Riddle wasn't that long ago. Did Descon die young?"
"Descon and I were young'uns together," answered Alfin. "He was my elder by six seasons. I remember his father, though not well. Descon was quite a kind mouse, quiet though. He was obsessed with solving the Riddle, but died tragically before he could complete it. We found his charred body in a fire at the foot of the rampart. It was determined that he'd been spattered with lamp oil, then fell over the rampart and, when his lantern smashed, was burned to death. It was a terrible, terrible thing. But yes, it is likely that were it not for the accident, Descon could still be alive."
Arulan nodded. "But is it possible that Descon did solve it? It seems, I'm not sure…unlikely, that no one solved it at all in all the years it has been at Redwall. Maybe Descon did find the answer, but kept it to himself."
"I'm not sure," said Maia. "Could I look through the rest of the recordings?"
Alfin nodded. "But I've been through them many times. It's nothing but a record of long-bygone seasons. There are a few blank sheets of parchment in there as well."
Nevertheless, he passed it to Maia, who ruffled through the old papers. She held up several blank pieces of parchment, weighing them in her hands. At once Sye noticed a slight, almost unnoticeable, difference, in the last piece of parchment in Maia's hands.
"Can I see that?" she asked in her tremulous, reaching for the paper. Maia handed it to her, and Arulan watched with interest as Sye held the paper in both hands. Then, to her surprise, Sye ripped open the lower corner of the parchment. Immediately Arulan noticed that what she'd taken to be a single piece of recording paper was actually two extremely fine and delicate sections of parchment sown together with an extremely fine thread so delicate and invisible and breakable that Arulan wouldn't have noticed it had Sye not ripped the parchment.
The mousemaid reached inside, and pulled out a thin scroll of paper that had been hidden inside. "It was heavier than the others, and felt different," she explained. "I shook it, and that was the final proof. There's something inside."
All of the Redwallers crowded around eagerly to see what Sye had found. Arulan listened intently, following along as Maia read aloud.
"Here there's a break," Maia announced. "It resumes on the opposite side of the parchment."
It's the rest of the Riddle!" gasped Arulan, recognizing Arken's writing at one. "Why did Descon have it hidden here? Was this part of Arken's plan? Or did Descon take a section of the Riddle and hide it?"
"It has to have been part of Arken's plan," said Alfin. "But how could he have known that one day Descon would be the recorder of Redwall?"
"The Spirit of Martin, perhaps?" asked Sye. Everybeast had to strain to hear her quiet whisper.
"Perhaps," agreed Alfin. For a moment he tried to stand, but the effort made him wince in pain and he fell back onto his chair. "Again, the second letter of each phrase is capitalized."
Naila, laying Raya in Melania's arms next to Rodan, walked over to them, peering over at the second half of the Riddle. "Good," she said. "At least without the second half of the Riddle, the first will be useless to Fireclaw."
"Though I wonder why he wanted it in the first place," asked Maia. Unconsciously her eyes flicked to Rodan, who slept on, and Raya, who was regarding them innocently with her mismatched eyes. The momentary glance wasn't lost on either Melania or Naila, though.
"Perhaps he believes the Riddle is an omen for success?" suggested Melania.
"Maybe," Maia sounded doubtful. "He doesn't really strike me as the type to believe in omens. Then again, I could be wrong."
"Morale?" suggested Arulan.
"Perhaps," said Alfin. Seeing the worried expressions on the faces of Both Naila and Melania, he said at once, "Anyway, the rest of the Abbey needs to be informed of this turn of events. Arulan, Sye, why don't you run along and inform the Abbot of our discovery?"
Both of the young maids were off like a shot. Alfin gave a small chuckle at their eagerness. "What I would give to be their age again," he said.
As soon as they were out of hearing range, Naila spoke, her voice quivering, "Brother, I'm really worried now. This Riddle seems to only predict death and suffering for Redwall, and suggests my daughter will somehow aid in this destruction! I've already lost her father; I have to keep her safe? What can I do, though? Fireclaw's got us under siege, and it grows more likely each day he'll take the Abbey! And somehow, my daughter might help him!"
Alfin's heart was stirred with sympathy for both squirrel mothers. He could see a similar fear echoed in Melania's eyes. Since their children had been born, everything had changed. Redwall was under siege by a vermin horde, a second piece of the Riddle was found, and now it seemed likely that Rivan Fireclaw would conquer the Abbey…and somehow Raya's destiny was bound up in it.
"Her destiny is what we make of it," he said gently. "How can Raya help Fireclaw conquer our Abbey? She's the youngest Dibbun in Redwall, too young to even speak. I recognize your fear, but even if Rodan and Raya are the seekers, that means we'll just have to keep them safe inside Redwall, like we've been doing. Raya's fate- both of their fates- are what we make of them."
Both of the squirrel mothers nodded, but Alfin could still see the worry in their eyes. "But…" Melania began, "If our children are these seekers, then what that mean for Redwall? The Riddle predicts Redwall's doom!"
"Again, our future is what we make of it," said Alfin. "The Riddle may predict Redwall's fall, but I do not believe that this is the end of all hope for our Abbey. Nor do I think that just because Arken believed Redwall would fall to the Twisting Flame that Raya will somehow help Fireclaw conquer our Abbey. Both of you must continue to do what you have done, and keep both of your children safe. The fate of Redwall Abbey may well depend upon it."
But inwardly, as he stared into Raya's mismatched eyes, one dark almond, the other an unearthly jade green, Alfin felt himself almost unnerved by the young squirrelbabe's innocent stare.
What will you do, child? He thought. What is your fate? How could you help Fireclaw? And what could make you want to?
There were no good answers to any of those questions.
By noon Rivan Fireclaw had renewed his attack upon Redwall Abbey. Oakan, Brother Robin, Skipper, Sarrow, and the other sentries stationed on the ramparts immediately saw the danger as at least five hundred vermin charged directly at the main gate, a group with the battering ram in the lead, followed by archers and a catapult. After the retreat, a group of Skipper's otters had worked on reinforcing the main gate, but it was still very delicate in comparison to Redwall's other defenses. From his position on the rampart surrounded by Redwall slingers, Oakan knew at once that the main gate would not hold for long against both a catapult and the ram.
Oakan could see Rivan Fireclaw standing well out of range next to the ermine leader Icecloak. He stared in hatred at the warlord.
"To arms, defenders!" Skipper yelled. "Let's give 'em Redwaaaaaaal!"
The otter's battle cry rang out just as shafts of death from the otter archers rained down on the vermin. But at the same time, Oakan could hear a battering at the other side of the Abbey. He raced over and saw to his surprise that another division of about a hundred vermin soldiers.
Oakan saw to his surprise a ferret in ornate battle armor was standing at the forefront of them, directing the battering ram crew. From this distance, he was unable to quite make out his facial features, but even then he recognized the ornate armor, the sword. It was Rivan Fireclaw.
"There!" Oakan yelled. "Fireclaw! He's at the west gate! Take him out!"
Sarrow lifted a javelin, but all at once Fireclaw was surrounded once again by his forces and the javelin ran a lanky stoat through instead. Oakan could still see him, but he'd dropped back to confer with Scythe, the powerfully built Twisting Flame weasel general who'd led the attack the previous night.
"Let them batter away," said Sarrow, joining Oakan at the rampart. "That gate's reinforced, and they have no way of opening it easily. They're not even using their metal-shod battering ram!"
But what Sarrow didn't know, and couldn't know, was that Scythe had made modifications to the west gate, sabotaging it from the inside with a few swings of his massive scythe. All at once the gate gave way completely and fell open, and the one hundred vermin soldiers streamed in. There were only two otters on duty there at the moment, along with three Redwall mice armed with staves, and Oakan knew that any moment the gallant group would be overwhelmed. What was worse, the rest of the otters were on guard at the main gate, fighting the vermin who were trying to break in from that direction. They'd be hit from two sides and would have no warning of it at all.
Oakan was about to shout a warning, but all at once heard a shout from Skipper. "Over here!" he yelled. "The vermin have brought a siege tower! They're using it, along with one catapult, to attack the east wall! The defenders will be overwhelmed!"
Oakan immediately raced toward the east wall rampart, where he saw to his shock that a siege tower had appeared from the woods and vermin soldiers- rats, weasels , ferrets, and stoats among them but far outnumbered by white foxes, minks, and ermine- were charging at the defenders, regardless of the casualties they took from Skipper and his otter warriors. Oakan saw Brother Robin among them, firing arrows at the attacking vermin.
Brother Gan was among those fighting in the thick of the fray. He managed to knock a single weasel from the rampart with his club, then was run through with blinding speed by a mink carrying a scimitar.
It's no use. The walls will be overwhelmed, Oakan realized.
But every Redwaller here would sell their lives dearly.
At the main gate, Ravenna lifted a double-pointed otter javelin, listening to the sounds of the vermin battering away at the gates. She could see a group of vicious-looking rats holding the battering ram tightly, slamming down again and again.
Suddenly Ravenna saw something that made her heart freeze momentarily. A ferret in armor that she recognized was standing at the front gate, shouting orders to his soldiers. She recognized him at once by the armor, even though she couldn't quite make out his features.
Rivan Fireclaw, she thought. But how'd he get there so quickly? Last I saw of him, he was standing back along with the ermine commander.
Suddenly shouts rang out across the Abbey yard. "Vermin have breached the west gate! They're inside Redwall! Help!"
Ravenna spun around, all thoughts of Rivan Fireclaw forgotten momentarily. She saw at once that at least a hundred vermin soldiers were pouring into the Abbey, and only an otter and a Redwall brother stood against them.
"Ravenna, take a score and go help 'em!" yelled Skipper's second in command, Streamrunner.
"On it now, mate!" Ravenna hissed, lifting her javelin and feeling it sink into the body of a ferret wielding a cutlass. All around her the otters charged toward the west gate, which Ravenna saw had fallen completely. They were still outnumbered by vermin, but Ravenna was of the opinion that one otter was worth three vermin soldiers at least.
But then, as Ravenna looked up from the chaotic mêlée for a moment, scanning the vermin for a sign of their commander, she saw two beings surrounded by a small guard. One was the brutish general known as Scythe, the other was a ferret dressed in black armor. Rivan Fireclaw!
But…he's over at the main gate! Ravenna thought, unconsciously turning her gaze toward the vermin with the battering ram. For a moment, she caught a glimpse of the other Rivan, who was conferring with the archer leader Snakepaw.
Then she realized the truth. A decoy! One of them was the real Rivan, the other a hoax. Why Rivan had disguised another ferret as himself, Ravenna couldn't guess, but she knew it had to be the case.
The trick will be finding out which one is the decoy, thought Ravenna.
She and her otters were beginning to gain the edge over the vermin soldiers. But Ravenna could see that Rivan- or was it the decoy? - was repositioning his soldiers. The attack on the south gate had halted all at once, and Ravenna saw a siege tower, followed by the second catapult, approaching the Abbey. The north gate was still under attack, and the east would soon be by the siege tower and the other catapult. Suddenly, the vermin attacking the west gate were flooded by perhaps another hundred of Rivan's vermin soldiers.
Ravenna could still make out the armor of Rivan Fireclaw among them, standing beside Scythe. We'll see in a moment if yore really who you say you are, mate, she promised as she fought desperately to stem the tide of oncoming vermin soldiers…
Above, on the rampart, Oakan and his allies were still under heavy attack, and the east rampart defenders had been completely overwhelmed. Now he, Brother Robin, Skipper, and Sarrow were in retreat, slinging stones and firing arrows at the approaching vermin.
Oakan looked down at the main gate, hoping to see the defenders faring better there. The main gate still held against both catapult and ram, but Oakan knew it was only a matter of time before they were overwhelmed completely by vermin soldiers. Oakan saw Rivan Fireclaw standing among his forces, shouting orders as the battering ram slammed against the main gate again and again.
Strange, Oakan thought. Wasn't he at the west gate just a moment ago?
He looked over to where a large group of otters were locked in combat with the vermin attackers, and saw, standing next to Scythe, another figure. Rivan Fireclaw!
Now, Oakan was truly suspicious. Now that he thought of it, he realized, he'd seen Rivan also standing with the ermine leader, watching that battlefield well away from the main battle. He shaded his eyes against the sun and stared into the distance, where he saw a third Rivan Fireclaw standing amidst the remainder of his forces.
"Decoys," he breathed. Beside him, Skipper stared in bafflement at him.
"What's that, matey?" he asked.
"Rivan's got two decoys, look! There's one Rivan Fireclaw outside the main gate, another inside Redwall, and a third standing guard with the rest of his army!"
"Decoys?" Maia breathed. Oakan had been so intent on the sight of the three Rivan Fireclaws that he hadn't noticed the badger approach behind him.
"Yore right!" Skipper exclaimed as his eyes scanned each front of the battle.
"There are three!" said Maia at the same time.
"We have to find out which is which," said Oakan. "If we can cut off the head of the horde, perhaps Redwall may yet be saved."
Sarrow stared at his ottercrew, which was slowly being overwhelmed by the soldiers from the siege tower. "It all depends on what type of leader Rivan Fireclaw is. Is he bold? A crafty coward? Or a mix of both? Personally I think it's most likely that he's back there with his ermine guards, but it could be that he's with the battering ram attackers as well."
"I think yore overthinkin' this a little, mate," said Skipper. "Oh, ah know where Fireclaw is. It's like that old otter game, remember, Sarrow? The game with the three shells, which all the young'uns try at the otter gatherings at the sea?"
Sarrow gave a small smile. "Ah, yes. That old game where you have to guess which shell the pebble is under. But what's that got to do with it, Skip?"
"Not so much that it has to do with it, but how we all play it," said Skipper. "The only way to ensure victory is by cheating, otherwise there's always a one in three probability you'll pick the shell with the pebble beneath it. But the way we young'uns ran it in the day, the way that you still run it, is by not sticking the pebble under any shell.
"I see now!" Sarrow exclaimed. "The pebble won't be beneath the first shell, or the second, or the third. It's-"
"It's in the cheater's hand the whole time."
Skipper, Sarrow, Maia, Oakan, and Robin all whirled around to see a single figure coming up behind them. Despite the fact he was dressed simply, in common soldier garb as he had been the first night rather than his more ornate commander's armor, all five Redwallers instantly recognized him.
"Fireclaw," Maia growled, one claw raised. As the warlord approached them- the real warlord, this was no decoy- Brother Robin knocked an arrow to his bow, Oakan drew his makeshift spear, and the otters lifted their javelins.
"So the warlord himself has come to us," Skipper snarled, for the first time his eyes filled with hate. "Let's bring him down now, while his army's still delayed by my otters. Redwaaaaal!"
"Magnificent," whispered Rivan Fireclaw under his breath as all five Redwallers charged toward him, weapons drawn.
Quicker than a flash of lightning, Skipper lunged forward, his javelin aimed downward at Rivan's heart. But as fast as the brawny otter chieftain was, Rivan was even faster, and leapt out of range of the otter's spear moments before it would have impaled him. For a moment, Skipper hesitated, caught off-balance, and Rivan swung his heavy scimitar around and struck the otter chieftain on the helm. Skipper staggered backward, his blood dripping into his eyes, and Rivan lunged forward, two quick slashes of his sword causing Skipper to stagger backward and lose his balance at the edge of the rampart stair. Skipper tumbled over the edge, the stairs breaking his fall below.
At the same time, Oakan had knocked an arrow to his bow and aimed at the ferret warlord even as Sarrow raced at him, weapon drawn. All of the Redwallers knew that killing Rivan would end the war and turn tide of the battle completely. Brother Robin lifted a trembling hand to his bow and readied an arrow.
Oakan's arrow was released from the bowstring just as Sarrow charged toward Rivan. Oakan's arrow glanced off Rivan's helmet. As Sarrow's sword slashed down at Rivan, Brother Robin's arrow slipped through the air like a blur, and Oakan saw sword and arrow about to strike the ferret warlord.
Rivan moved like chain lightning, leaping out of reach of Sarrow's blade and snatching the arrow from the sky as it descended toward him. As Sarrow looked around, momentarily confused, Rivan lunged forward, and Sarrow only narrowly avoided being impaled by the arrow the warlord held in his hand. As the otter stumbled, disoriented, Rivan brought his scimitar around and struck Sarrow a heavy blow to the skull only softened by his helmet. Sarrow crumpled to the ground like a Dibbun's plaything, unconscious.
But Rivan didn't get a moment's respite, for even as Sarrow fell Maia took his place. The old badger's eyes still blazed with red rage, and Rivan took a step back to avoid her lethal claws. As Maia drew closer, her claws ready to snap the ferret warlord's throat, Rivan lunged forward, casting aside the broken arrow he held in his hand. Wielding his weapon in both hands, the ferret warlord managed to deflect the attacks of the unarmed badger, who swiped at him in annoyance. Even though Rivan was the enemy of all Redwall, Oakan couldn't help feeling a grudging admiration for the warlord's courage. One hit from Maia's claws and he'd be wounded or killed. But Rivan was a dangerous combatant, simply slipping out of the way at every turn and causing another round of arrows to miss him entirely. Robin and Oakan fired again, but either the shafts glanced off his armor or they missed entirely.
"I'm going to help Maia," Oakan hissed, drawing his sword. "Cover us."
Robin nodded, and Oakan leapt at the ferret warlord, who'd just dodged a swipe from Maia's claw. His sword glanced off Rivan's armor, and for a moment he was knocked off balance. Rivan took advantage of this, his sword flashing in a wide arc and striking both Maia and Oakan in a single swipe. Oakan staggered back, his arm bleeding badly, but the wound hardly seemed to faze Maia, who threw herself at the warlord in a raging fury. For a moment, it looked as though she might actually wound the untouchable warlord, but then she was driven back by several quick swipes of Rivan's scimitar.
At the same moment, however, a shadow had crept up behind Rivan. Neither Maia nor Oakan spoke, but merely continued to batter at Fireclaw's defenses. Skipper lifted a javelin, and in that moment Oakan thought for sure Rivan would be slain.
Then he saw Rivan's grip switch on his sword and, as he slashed at Oakan with the sword held in his left paw, he grabbed the shaft of Skipper's otter javelin, pulling the otter toward him, caught by his own weapon, Skipper was caught unprepared as Rivan struck him a heavy blow to the stomach with the hilt of his own javelin. Skipper staggered backward, his face contorted in pain, and accidently stumbled into Oakan. Both the wounded otter and the squirrel felt to the ground.
Now Rivan stood facing Maia alone. The badger growled in frustration as she stared at her foe, who none of the other Redwallers had managed to kill or even wound. Rivan readied his scimitar as she charged at him again. Her paw swiped downward at him, but Rivan was ready. Maia winced in pain as his sword bit deep into her paw. She could Skipper and Oakan wounded on the floor of the rampart, and Rivan, moving in for the coup de grace.
Suddenly, from behind her, Maia heard shouts, as a second wave of vermin soldiers, thinking they were coming to their warlord's rescue, raced toward them, their weapons raised. At the same time, the remainder of Redwall's rampart defenders, who had been engaged with the vermin from the siege tower, had momentarily gained the upper hand and about ten otters raced to engage the vermin soldiers. Maia looked to see how suddenly the vermin were approaching from both sides and saw to her horror that they'd breached the west gate. It would only be a matter of time before the ramparts felt to the Twisting Flame.
Maia looked around wildly through the chaos for any sign of Rivan, who had only spared the Redwallers through the ill-timed arrival of his own reinforcements. The ferret warlord stood among his troops from the siege tower, a lone ferret amidst a score of arctic foxes, minks, stoats, weasels, and rats. Maia saw that he was smiling.
As though he wasn't even annoyed in the slightest that their duel had been interrupted, Rivan lifted his scimitar to his helm and raised it in a salute to her, Skipper, and Oakan. The message could not be clearer. Until next time. Then Rivan was gone, lost among the battling soldiers and Redwallers.
A faint growl rumbled in her throat. "He was playing with us," she said quietly. "Delaying us while his horde took the rest of the ramparts."
"We're lucky none of us were killed," said Oakan, wincing from the wounds on his arm and side.
"But we will all be if we can't defeat the horde," said Maia grimly. "We have to help Ravenna and the others hold the rest of the Abbey at all costs. Otherwise we have lost the war."
Below, the battle was quickly becoming a slaughter. Rivan Fireclaw had broken down Redwall's main gate, and the entire horde was pouring into Redwall. The ottercrew fought bravely and boldly, but Redwall Abbey's walls had almost fallen completely, and those defenders who fought on below against the vermin horde were being pinned against the walls, where they lacked the maneuverability to continue fighting, and were slain systematically by the spearbearers, archers, and shieldbearers in the lead. Few Redwallers ever reached the ranks of the sword-wielding vermin; most were cut down by the spearfighters. The mechanical way the vermin fought, like a machine as opposed to an individual like the otters, aided them immensely, and while many corpses of dead Northlander vermin were scattered across the battlefield, every single woodlander that fell was a beast who couldn't be replaced.
Ravenna and four other otters were still fighting near the gatehouse. All five of them were covered in wounds, but still they fought on, maniacal strength and fear for the Abbey keeping them going. But the sheer numbers of the vermin slowly overwhelmed them.
Ravenna saw, out of the corner of her eye, Maia thundering down the staircase. Despite the fact she was quite elderly; every foebeast she passed ran from her claws. Close behind her came Skipper, who was wounded quite badly, and Brother Robin and Oakan. Suddenly, as Robin had nearly reached the foot of the steps, Ravenna saw a mink grab an otter javelin from a fallen defender. Before she could cry a warning, the blade struck Robin and he fell, transfixed by the spear.
"No!" yelled Ravenna, but her voice was lost among the sounds of the clash of steel on steel. She cut a rat to the ground, suddenly aware that only two otters remained with her rather than four.
Then she saw one of the Rivan Fireclaw decoys approaching, followed closely by Snakepaw and Darkfur. Ravenna could make out three Rivan Fireclaws standing amidst their horde, one fighting at the west wall, one at the heart of the enemy horde, and one standing guard with the ermine deputy at the walls. She wondered momentarily which one was which.
Then the ferret's sword slashed down at her face. Ravenna only narrowly blocked it, and thrust out with the javelin, goring the Rivan decoy through the shoulder. The decoy staggered backward, and Ravenna drew a curved sword from her belt and hacked at its shoulder. Before she could finish it off, Darkfur's blade flicked between them, cutting open her side. Ravenna pulled back, expecting to be finished by the decoy completely, but the killing blow never landed. Instead, Ravenna saw Snakepaw knock an arrow to his bow.
Abbot Tyrn and Sister Kae were helping several wounded otters off the battlefield. For a moment, as though Tyrn had seen the Rivan decoy out of the corner of his eye, he turned, just as Snakepaw released the arrow and Ravenna leapt at his throat. Snakepaw fell to the ground, an otter javelin buried in his back, just as the Father Abbot of Redwall crumpled to the ground, an arrow in his throat. The Rivan decoy and Darkfur screamed in triumph.
"No! Tyrn!" Ravenna screamed, racing toward him. But vermin were cutting off her retreat on all sides, and she saw a second decoy- clearly she could see now that it wasn't Rivan- was approaching her. Beside her, Maia and Oakan still fought on, red fury at the fall of their Abbot blazing in Maia's eyes. Ravenna had heard of this phenomenon before, a condition that came over fighting badgers called the Bloodwrath. No Northlander vermin dared stand against her. Ravenna saw the door to Cavern Hole, where the remnants of the ottercrew led by Skipper were still guarding the door, and realized in that moment they might just make it to safety despite their wounds.
They had nearly reached the gate when Oakan, who was fighting two stoats at once, was struck in the side by a vermin spear. He fell, and immediately the arctic fox who had thrown the spear leapt at him to finish the brave squirrel off.
He'd only raised his sword halfway above his head before Maia snapped it in two with her claw and brought a crushing blow down on the fox's skull with a club. The fox collapsed, and Oakan staggered to his feet, his eyes staring wildly at Maia, who grabbed him and pulled him toward the otters. The three of them staggered past the otter barricade, all of them covered in wounds. The defenses were in a complete disarray, and with Tyrn dead, Redwall was in a state of mass panic.
Suddenly, as Skipper walked over to the three of them, Oakan collapsed, and Ravenna saw the spear was still buried in his side. "We have to get him to Sister Marian! Now!" she shouted urgently, but Oakan quietly shook his head.
"No…use," gasped Oakan. "They got me this time. Maia, Ravenna…tell Melania and Rodan that I love them."
"Oakan, you-"Ravenna began, but Maia laid a hand on her shoulder. Oakan smiled slightly, then his eyes misted over and he spoke no more.
"Another Redwaller slain," said Skipper, his voice filled with pain and fury. The vermin horde's charge through the gates had been deadly, disciplined, and had slain so many of the Redwallers. The army was already regrouping for a charge into Cavern Hole, and soon that last building of Redwall would fall to the horde. The defenders on the walltop had, in the same manner, been wiped out. "This is a battle we cannot win. Abbot Tyrn is dead, and we risk being slaughtered completely."
"But we cannot abandon Redwall!" Ravenna vowed. "I will defend it to my last breath!"
"Admirable, Ravenna, but what will we gain from being slaughtered? These vermin fight in a way I've never seen any other foebeast fight, in rows, columns, with shield-bearers and archers and swordfighters in the middle rows. We have to retreat into Mossflower. We cannot hold this Abbey against an army of this magnitude. There are too many, and they are too prepared. We are too few.
"Our priority, though, will be to get the young'uns and their parents to safety. All of the Dibbuns must be taken by Foremole and the surviving molecrew through the tunnels beneath Redwall at once, along with their parents and the elderly."
Foremole nodded once, and then he and the remainder of his molecrew raced into Cavern Hole, toward the cellars, to gather the Redwallers that remained inside the Abbey.
"Everybeast who can still fight, we'll hold Cavern Hole against the enemy as long as possible," said Skipper. "Our goal is to hold Redwall Abbey long enough to delay pursuit of any vermin soldiers. We will only flee if the complete fall of Redwall seems imminent."
A resounding cheer from every one of the otters and remaining Redwall defenders greeted his words. As the vermin horde descended upon them, Skipper lifted his javelin and yelled out a battlecry.
Inside Redwall Abbey, Melania, Naila, Arulan, and the other beings who had sought the Riddle so long and hard stared down at their work. At last, they had found the answer, and realized that the Riddle of Arken had only just begun.
"Look at each line," Melania had said, holding up Alfin's replication of the original Riddle. "Now look at the second," she held up the remaining half of the Riddle. "Together, the second set of the capital letters, those that shouldn't be there; spell out S-A-L-A-M-A-N-D-A-S-T-R-O-N."
"Salamandastron!" breathed Naila in awe. She had heard, of course, of the mountain of the badger lords, which had once been a mountain of fire and ash. Now it lay dormant, and was a home to the mysterious badger lords and their allies, the hares of the Long Patrol. "Perhaps they know something of the Riddle. Obviously, Arken went there after he left Redwall Abbey."
"But why weren't we told of this a long time ago?" asked Alfin. "If Arken visited, surely we would have heard tell of his visit from Rawn Wildstripe by now?"
"Perhaps," acknowledged Melania. "But I think it's more likely that Arken told the badger lord at the time to keep his visit a secret. Perhaps, though, now that we solved the Riddle, we could persuade the current badger lord to help us."
"How can we?" asked Naila. "We're under siege-"
She broke off all at once as Foremole and five other moles walked over to them. Foremole's face was creased in concern. "Burr, ee varmints 'ave breached ee gate. Redwall in gurt danger now, 'ave to have ee young'uns into ee woods through ze moletunnels."
"Have you seen my husband, Oakan?" asked Melania, fear making her voice quiver. The vermin had taken the walls, and were inside Redwall's walls. Soon the Abbey itself would belong to the enemy.
"No, marm," said Foremole, shaking his head sadly. "Last oi saw 'e was with Maia, on ee rampurts."
Fear throbbed in Melania's heart. She realized it was looking more and more likely that Oakan had been slain. She forced herself to push the worry aside as she held Rodan tightly in her arms. She had to be strong, for him. Naila carried a much heavier load, in addition to Raya, she also carried the few belongings both squirrels had left at Redwall. Her eyes also shone with worry. She'd been a loner before she'd come to Redwall, and now she was about to lose her home again. Melania's heart went out to her.
The squirrels, Brother Alfin, and Foremole stopped near the mole's widest tunnel. A Foremole had crafted this tunnel decades ago in case it was ever needed by the inhabitants of Redwall for escape. It intersected with many other mole tunnels below as well. It was the perfect escape route.
"Hurr, let's go!" Foremole hissed under his breath.
Suddenly, Melania heard a claw scrape against the cellar floor. She, Foremole, and Naila all whirled around to see a hideous-looking mole with pale grey fur haul itself from a newly completed tunnel behind them.
"Zhurr, doi, Redwallers! For Foireclaw!"
Foremole was astonished. "Burr, moler varmints!"
Suddenly the enemy mole pulled a dagger from his cloak. He lunged at Foremole, who only barely staggered out of the way. Unarmed, Melania could only watch as another mole began to pull itself up from the tunnel.
Naila acted quickly. Thrusting Raya into Melania's arms, she grabbed a barrel probably filled to the brim with wine and pushed it directly at the mole tunnel. The mole lifted his club as though to deflect the barrel, but instead smashed open the lid. Strawberry cordial poured from the open bucket and into the mole tunnel, flooding the entire length of the tunnel in the fizzy drink. The mole who'd been about to climb out of the tunnel was knocked unconscious by the impact of the barrel and fell without a sound into the cramped, choked tunnel, which was filled with the bodies of moles and a massive amount of cordial.
Foremole smiled in satisfaction. "Looks loike ee varmint molers wuz drownded, aye."
"Let's go! Now!" said Naila. Now Melania was holding both squirrelbabes in either hand, though Naila still carried the Riddle. But as they were about to enter, Foremole shook his head, prying Raya from her grasp. "Moi moles'll take ee child'uns," he said. "In a tunnel, it be gurt danger for you to carry little'uns. Moi molers are used to it."
Melania handed Rodan to a sturdy young mole she trusted, by the name of Dinka. Foremole himself took Raya. Then they descended into the cold, claustrophobic confines of the tunnel itself, the tunnel that would lead them out of Redwall.
Skipper, Maia, and the remnants of the ottercrew were being forced against the walls of Redwall by the disciplined, mechanical columns of vermin soldiers. The spear-fighting vermin simply continued to advance, covered by shield-bearers and archers. Every time an otter reached over the shield-bearer to finish off a spear-bearer, they were skewered by javelins from all sides. And every time an otter fell the vermin horde simply advanced.
The only reason Redwall hadn't fallen yet was due to two reasons: one was the persistence of the ottercrew, who were skilled, wily fighters who employed many tactics to catch large numbers of their foes unaware. Skipper and the survivors who fought with him took down three vermin for every otter that fell.
The other was Maia. The badger, though elderly, simply crushed the shields beneath her claws and tossed vermin wildly about. No vermin, mink, stoat, fox, or other type, could stand against her. She simply whirled through the battlefield like a destructive whirlwind, her massive club bringing death to countless vermin who had dared invade Redwall.
But Skipper knew that they couldn't hold off the vermin forever. More than half of the otters who had stood with him were already dead, now only around ten were left alive. Among them were Sarrow, who was back on his feet despite his injuries, Ravenna, who fought like a maelstrom at the heart of a dozen vermin swordbeasts, and Skipper's only daughter, Riverpaw. Alongside them was Skipper's grizzled mentor, Rorkan, an otter with a seashell eyepatch over his left eye who had seen years of fighting and battle against sea vermin alongside Skipper. He was no fool, and knew that they were doomed to die here.
Maia and Rorkan were fighting a ferret in black armor, who was surrounded by his mink lackeys. Skipper saw for a moment his helmet and recognized him. Rivan Fireclaw. Their archenemy. Lifting an otter javelin, Skipper tried desperately to score a hit on the enemy leader. However, at the last minute, Rivan ducked to avoid Maia's claws, and the javelin impaled a mink standing behind him.
Skipper lifted a second javelin above his head, spearing a weasel through the throat and racing toward Rivan. However, blocked as he was by the horde, he could only hope desperately that his javelin would score a hit before he was brought down.
As he was locked in combat with a group of vermin soldiers, he saw his javelin take Rivan through the shoulder. Momentarily distracted, Rivan whirled around, and Maia's claws tore open the ferret's chest. The ferret gave a gurgling moan and collapsed, broken, on the ground. There was no doubt in Skipper's mind that he was dead.
Seeing their leader fall had an instantaneous effect on the soldiers. Immediately many of them scattered, and the only thing preventing the battle turning completely in the favor of the otters was Scythe, who shouted out above the cries of shock, "Keep advancing! Keep moving forward!"
The otter soldiers had no time to celebrate their victory before Scythe and his division of vermin was upon them again. Once more Maia, covered in wounds and stuck through by spears, was locked in combat with a large group of vermin. Rorkan, Riverpaw, and Sarrow were all still fighting, along with one other otter, but of Ravenna there was no sign.
Surrounded by vermin soldiers, Skipper realized that Maia was close to death. She'd been speared through countless times by vermin warriors, and her chances of survival were growing bleaker and bleaker each moment. Skipper was pinned down by vermin, and none of the few surviving otters would be able to reach her in time. Skipper gave a gasp of dismay as he saw Scythe approach Maia. The weasel commander had rallied the Twisting Flame around him, and Skipper could see Rivan's other commanders were with him. As he watched, Scythe dealt two blindingly fast blows to Maia, blinding one eye, impaling his sword in the other.
Only luck saved Maia from being gored through by the sword, and she drew back, virtually blinded. The badger mother was immediately swarmed by vermin, and disappeared beneath the swords of a score of vermin. Still she fought, mostly blind and probably insane, and by the time Skipper reached her she was dying, lying amidst the corpses of the vermin she'd slain. Skipper saw she'd been blinded by Scythe's weapon, but she still clung to life desperately.
"There…" she said, pointing at Rivan's fallen corpse. Skipper could see it lying amidst the vermin soldiers. "Look…not- not Fireclaw…"
"What do you mean?" asked Skipper. "What do you mean, it's not Fireclaw?"
Suddenly Skipper understood.
"Surrender!" yelled Skipper into the throng. "Rivan Fireclaw is dead! Your leader is dead! Submit!"
"I'm dead?" asked a voice from the throng of vermin. Skipper's heart sank as the soldier's ranks parted. He saw a ferret in chainmail armor and a helmet step forward from the horde. Lifting his helm, Skipper saw the familiar ice eyes of Rivan Fireclaw staring at him calmly. Despite the carnage all around him, the warlord seemed completely undisturbed.
"How did you survive?" Skipper demanded. "I saw you die!"
"You saw one of my decoys die," Rivan corrected. "I myself am fine. Now, I think, it is time for me to deliver the same ultimatum you gave my soldiers to you. Surrender. Only a few of your defenders still live. The badger is dead. You will be treated with honor, and spared. This I promise you."
"Go to hellgates!" snarled Skipper. "All of this carnage is because of you!"
"A shame," Rivan sighed, and then the Twisting Flame surged forward.
But Skipper couldn't allow any more otters to lose their lives. He could see Ravenna, Riverpaw, Sarrow, and Rorkan all beside him, armed with their javelins, ready to sell their lives dearly. Skipper knew, however, it would merely be a slaughter.
"Get inside," Skipper ordered briskly. He and the other otters raced into Cavern Hole. Turning, Skipper barred the door shut. Any minute, he knew, the vermin would break down the makeshift barricade and they would be inside Redwall.
"There's no time left," said Skipper. "You have to get out of here. Sarrow, Riverpaw, Ravenna- Rorkan will lead you to the mole tunnels beneath Redwall. You can still escape. There's still hope for you."
"We cannot leave you here," Sarrow objected. "You'll be killed!"
"I know," said Skipper. "But I've lived at Redwall for years and years. I cannot bear to see it fall. I will be the last guardian. You must run. . "Be sure, if I don't, do take down the archer that killed my brother, the ferret female."
"Go now!" ordered Skipper. "The moles are down there! They'll be waiting for any survivors!"
Sarrow saw Skipper's face soften. "You have to, mate, or the sacrifice of all yore friends has been for nothin'. Please. You'll be the new Skipper. You can round up the rest of the otters who escaped, build a new ottercrew. Rorkan will help you."
The grizzled veteran nodded, tears pooling in his eyes as he saw Skipper turn to face the doorway.
Then the door broke down and the horde charged into Redwall. Sarrow, Ravenna, Rorkan, and the others raced away, into the darkness, as Skipper lifted his javelin in one hand, his sword in the other. Sarrow saw him give a maniacal, bloodwrath-like laugh as he stared into the faces of the vermin before him.
"Aye, I'm Skipper of Otters, and none of you scum will bring me down! If you want Redwall, you'll have to get through me first!"
Sarrow's last view of Skipper before he entered Redwall's cellars was Skipper of Otters, standing alone before the vermin horde of Rivan Fireclaw.
A lone otter amidst countless vermin. A single figure in a field of drawn spears.
Then he was gone forever from Sarrow's view, and the sounds of battle grew quieter and quieter with each turn down the mole tunnel.
Melania, Naila, and the others emerged from the tunnel and into the light of day to a scene of carnage. Rivan Fireclaw and his horde were fighting the remnants of the ottercrew, and as Foremole and the small group of beings who were with them raced away from the ditch where they'd emerged toward the woods of Mossflower, Melania hoping desperately that the vermin did not spot them.
But as they ran, they caught the eye of a single being standing amidst the horde, the vixen Shale, who waited alongside Icecloak and Rivan while Scythe led the charge into Redwall Abbey.
"There, my lord!" gasped Shale. Icecloak could see she was having one of her moments of vision, where she was seeing something in the future, something to come. "Can you not see? The seeker!"
Rivan whirled around, and saw exactly what she did. He betrayed no emotion, but Icecloak's face twisted into an emotionless grin. Rivan hissed an order to the ermine and he ran off.
Fireclaw could see the being he sought was being held by an older mole. They were already going out of range of all but the most skilled archers. As he watched them run, he realized that Icecloak would not be able to cut them off in time.
Turning to the nearest archer, Vask Annax, he gestured silently to the mole with his claw. Vask nodded, and lifted her longbow. The shaft sang a song of death as it flew through the air and struck its target. Foremole had no time even to scream before he collapsed; the arrow buried in is throat.
Had Melania and the others immediately run, perhaps what happened then could have been stopped. But the moment she saw Foremole fall, Melania gave a gasp and bent over the fallen mole. Immediately after their leader fell, the moles rushed to his aid.
That was when an ermine sent by Icecloak, Frostclaw charged up from the ditch and attacked, the two vermin with him cutting down a mole. Immediately a second mole slashed out with his claw, cutting Frostclaw down the side of his face. Momentarily disoriented, the ermine staggered, and Melania punched him in the face with her fist. Frostclaw collapsed, stunned.
Melania didn't wait for the other vermin to charge her. She saw one go down beneath a mole's claw and the other draw a cutlass and race after them before she turned and ran into the wood, followed closely by Naila and the moles carrying Rodan, the ferret hard on their heels.
Melania could only hope that Raya and the others were safe.
At the edge of the ditch, Vask Annax turned over the body of Foremole with her claw, noting her clean kill with satisfaction. She was surprised to see a small squirrelbabe clutched in his arms, a female. With his last breath, Foremole had saved her from certain death by shielding her from Vask's arrow.
Then the squirrelbabe opened her eyes, and Vask almost gave a gasp of shock. One of her eyes was an unnatural green color, like polished jade. Both were alert, tracking, as they stared into her face.
Turning to Icecloak, Rivan, and Shale, Vask lifted the small squirrelbabe, showing them the green eye. She fully expected for Fireclaw to give a kill order, and was shocked when Rivan turned to address Shale, who she'd never known Rivan to hold in high regard. Vask Annax, like most of Rivan's inner circle, did not believe in omens, they knew Shale was a tool to get the vermin excited about conquest. So she was surprised when Rivan asked the vixen, "Is this the one?"
Shale did not speak at first, simply stared into Raya's green eye. Then when she spoke, it was not in her usual prophetic whisper, but in a cold, almost metallic voice that caused Vask's paw to edge unconsciously toward her quiver.
The fortress conquered shall flames embolden
And fires wide shall sweep all paths
But the seeker's fate is determined
By the die that has been cast.
To the lord who conquers Redwall
A broken promise, the mouse's sword, the Dark Forest Gate,
Know that there the path is chosen
One day to seal your fate.
Shale's eyes snapped open as she finished speaking. She stared down at Raya, who stared, uncomprehendingly back at the vixen.
Rivan thought it odd that still she did not cry, when faced with the destruction of her world. Instead she stared back at the ferret warlord with what many would see as incomprehension.
But Rivan saw something else there as well. Steel. And now that Shale had uttered another genuine prophecy, he knew what must be done.
"She must live," said Shale. "Killing this babe would be a grave error, my lord."
Rivan nodded. Inwardly, a plan had already been formed in his mind. "Annax, take her to be cared for by one of the squirrels we've captured," he ordered. "The rest of you, follow me. It is time for Redwall Abbey to fall."
Turning back to the scene of battle, Rivan winced as a stone hurled from his catapult slammed against the Abbey walls. "Damaging a building this beautiful is a crime, especially a fortress as renowned as this." He remarked to Shale.
Shale cast her gaze over the scattered, dying defenders of Redwall. "And killing other beasts isn't?" the vixen asked.
"Well, other beasts can always be replaced."
Turning to Icecloak, Rivan ordered, "I must oversee the conquest of Redwall. But I do not wish any of the Redwallers to slip through my claws. Many of the otters fled the battle, along with moles and the odd squirrel. I'd like you to take a score of soldiers and go out in search of the escapees. I can't have any of them escape and challenge me later.
"Try to take them alive, if reasonably practical," said Rivan. "If not- well, I suppose I'll understand."
Melania clutched Rodan tightly to her, her arms wrapped around the sleeping squirrelbabe. She couldn't go on running. She simply couldn't. For two days, she'd had no rest as she, Naila, Arulan, Sye, and Dinka had stumbled through Mossflower, searching for a safe haven, the rest of the moles who'd scattered after that terrible ambush in the ditch. Since they'd lost Raya, Naila had said little. Melania could see the hollow look in her eyes. She'd lost her husband, the home that they'd given her, and now her daughter as well. Naila's eyes were hollow. Lost.
Melania realized that their chances of finding the moles or a safe place in Mossflower grew slimmer each day. Rivan's vermin were everywhere, combing Mossflower Wood in search of those who'd escaped the battle at Redwall. They'd had a narrow escape from three arctic foxes only an hour ago. The vermin were everywhere, and Melania felt her hope of escape grow fainter and fainter with each passing hour.
The squirrel mother was resigned to the fact that Oakan was either dead or searching for them; what else could keep him away? But she couldn't think of Oakan now, she reminded herself. She had to take care of all of the young ones and Naila. Dinka was dependable, but he was only one beast, and Naila was helpful, but her mind was elsewhere.
She couldn't do it. Thoughts of the slaughter that had taken place were burned into her memories forever. Worry for Tura, Marian, Skipper, and all of the others who'd remained at Redwall made her almost sick to the stomach. It was as if a low, constant throbbing pain had settled between her ribs, as if the warmth of her heart had broken and cast spears of ice through her.
Twilight was falling over Mossflower, the sky slowly growing rosy and pale red-pink as the sun cast its rays across Mossflower Wood. According to the map she'd taken from Redwall, they'd be nearing the ford at the edge of the River Moss. If they continued on their present course, in less than a week they'd reach the sea.
And then what? Melania wasn't sure. Maybe they could seek shelter at Salamandastron. Or, if they reunited with the remnants of Foremole's mole group or the ottercrew, they could, perhaps, take on Rivan Fireclaw with help from the Long Patrol and take back Redwall Abbey.
But Melania knew it was almost hopeless. Soon Rivan would be entrenched in his fortress, with nearly a thousand vermin soldiers under his command. The Long Patrol could perhaps muster half of that to take him on, and this time he'd have the advantage of defense.
Right now, you just have to think of safety, Melania thought to herself. Safety, nothing more.
She turned to look at Sye, who was near tears, as she had been for two days, and even the bold squirrelmaid Arulan, though she tried to appear brave, looked fearful as well. Naila simply stared into space. The loss of Raya had seemingly broken her.
Suddenly, Melania heard a tramping coming nearer. Her heart caught in her throat. While they'd tried to avoid the main roads, she realized the path was only a few miles from here.
Sye and Arulan immediately raced for cover, and Melania grabbed Naila by the arm and was half-dragging her into the bushes when she heard a voice.
"I say, wot! Too many of these bally blinkin' vermin around here for mah taste. It's worrisome, see'n' the blighters get so close to the h'abbey, no?"
Melania almost fainted from relief. Racing toward the pathway, she suddenly saw herself surrounded by about twenty hares, led by a tall hare in a colonel's uniform. Seeing her Abbey habit, his eyes softened in concern as he regarded the band of fugitives.
"I say, wot do we have 'ere?" the hare in the lead asked. Seeing Melania's expression, he said, "There's no need to fear anything, wot! Ah'm Tirian of the Long Patrol, that's Colonel Redblade to you, and these are mah loyal hares. Wot brings Redwallers here, to this neck 'o the wood?"
All at once, the entire story of Redwall's fall seemed to spill from Melania as she told of the defeat of Redwall at the hands of Rivan Fireclaw. Tirian's face began to shift from surprised to horrified and finally to grim acceptance.
"I have nearly a hundred fighting hares about two day's march from here," said Tirian, his voice filled with grim acceptance at Redwall's fate. "Would these be enough to take on Fireclaw?"
"I don't see how you could," said Melania, despairingly. "Even if Skipper and his ottercrew still hold Redwall, there are vermin scouring the woods for us, and Rivan would have time to prepare a defense. He's got catapults, siege towers, and other weapons. He'd kill all of your hares."
"How many vermin does the blighter 'ave with him?" asked Tirian incredulously. "One Long Patrol hare is usually a match for two vermin."
"I'd say about a thousand, give or take a few," said Melania. "Redwall didn't have a chance."
Tirian's eyes grew so wide he looked almost comical to Melania, as though his eyes were about to burst from his skull. "We'll have to find the other escapees from Redwall you mentioned," he said. "The other moles, mice, and squirrels who fled. You say most of the order were taken?"
"Almost all of the brothers and sisters who didn't evacuate were killed or captured by Rivan," Melania confirmed, her voice thick with despair. Redwall- the Abbey that had endured for countless seasons against the might of vermin warlords- conquered by the ferret Rivan Fireclaw!
Tirian saw the tears pooling in her eyes, as well as those in Sye's and Naila's. Dinka's head was bowed, and Arulan gulped down a sob as they relived the carnage.
"Now, now," the hare said, in a surprisingly comforting tone for such a long-time military member. "You're safe now, and that's what matters. We'll get you back to the rest of our patrol division in no time and round up all of those who escaped Redwall. Then we'll get you back to Salamandastron and give this Rivan Fireclaw the Salamandastron greeting!"
"No one will go anywhere, fugitives."
Melania, Naila, and the others whirled around at once. Tirian cursed under his breath. He shouldn't have allowed the conversation to distract him from the combat. Already he could see vermin emerging from the woodlands around them, every one armed to the teeth with weaponry. Many were arctic foxes and minks, and all bore the insignia of the Twisting Flame, making it clear that they belonged to the horde of Fireclaw.
In their lead was the weasel, the general known as Scythe. The Long Patrol hares were outnumbered nearly two to one. Tirian met Scythe's gaze, and the weasel returned it fearlessly.
Melania's heart froze. She realized this trap had taken hours to set, and was fiendishly cunning. She knew, and Tirian knew, that the only way they'd escape was if they fought their way out. She could hear Rodan give a small whimper.
"Greetings, hares of the Long Patrol," said Scythe, his voice low and almost metallic. "Our quarrel is not with you, but with these fugitives who fled the justice of my master, Rivan Fireclaw. Hand the Redwallers over to us and you are free to go in peace."
Tirian stared deep into Scythe's black eyes. "If you think we'll surrender, you've got the bally wrong impression of the Long Patrol, wot wot! We of the Patrol are old allies of Redwall, and we're not going tah agree to the demands of some upstart warlord Rivan Firewhatishisface. Surely you know that, sah!"
"Are you sure?" asked Scythe. "We are the new rulers of Redwall Abbey, you know. It would be wise to accede to our demands."
"Perhaps you didn't get the blinkin' message the first time, weaselface," said Tirian, anger for the plight of the trapped hares and Redwallers caused by his own oversight rising within him. "Maybe this'll make it clearer to you."
Drawing his scimitar and charging at Scythe, Tirian Redblade yelled out the time-honored cry of badgers and hares as his blade slammed against Scythe's with the force of a thunderbolt.
Scythe only narrowly managed to deflect the blow. The weasel commander was fast, but Tirian was faster. The weasel's curved sickle-sword only narrowly fended off two strikes from Tirian's sabre as the rest of his vermin charged into the battle.
Melania looked around wildly, clutching Rodan tightly to her. The entire clearing had exploded into battle, but all she could hear was his quiet cries of fear. She had to get him out of here, quickly.
Meanwhile, Tirian and Scythe were locked in mortal combat, Scythe fighting with a shield in one hand, his sickle in the other. Tirian only had a buckler and his sword, but nevertheless he seemed to be prevailing against the weasel captain. Finally, Tirian managed to bring down his blade in a cutting arc which tore the sickle from Scythe's hands.
Tirian stared at the weasel contemptuously. Then he charged, ready to deal a finishing blow.
But Scythe was ready. As Melania was about to shout a warning, Scythe grabbed a sword from a fallen rat, hurling it at Tirian. Tirian leapt aside, and a ferret fell instead, the sword striking him on the side of the head. Scythe snatched a second weapon, a wicked-looking spear, and staggered backward, away from Tirian's ferocious onslaught.
Tirian charged at Scythe, but all at once the weasel was surrounded by several vermin. As Tirian charged toward the vermin guards, hacking them apart with easy strokes from his long curved sabre, Naila suddenly spotted the danger. A warning was torn from the throats of all the beasts as Scythe lifted his javelin, aiming for Tirian.
"Watch out!" Melania yelled, and suddenly Scythe seemed to notice her.
Seeing Rodan held tightly in her hands, Scythe snarled, "The Seeker!"
Suddenly Melania felt as though she'd been stuck by a heavy weight, and the next thing she knew she was on the ground. She didn't feel hurt- that was what surprised her the most. Instead she merely felt numb, and her breath came in short gasps. Thus she was almost surprised to see Scythe's javelin protruding from her body. Rodan was safe, but she could hear his startled scream as they fell.
Melania could already feel the world slipping away. She knew that Scythe's javelin had passed almost through her, and that she held no hope of survival. But, as she held the crying form of Rodan tightly in her arms, she knew she had to make sure of one last thing. One thing, before she was free to go.
She opened her eyes. The world was blurred all around her, and her breath was ragged, barely there. She could make out the forms of Naila and Tirian Redblade standing over her prone body, their faces swimming before her eyes. It was like staring at them from beneath a well.
"My son…" Melania whispered. With the last of her strength, she managed a final breath. "Take him to Salamandastron. Take care of him."
Then she closed her eyes, and eternity claimed her.
Part II: The Quest for Bluestone
Morning sunlight washed over Salamandastron, the ancestral home of the badger lords. The waves of the great sea lapped at the sandy shore, and a faint breeze blew small whitecaps against the shores. It stirred the fur of the young squirrel standing on the seashore, and the light flashed in his eyes.
Momentarily blinded, he leapt aside, and his opponent, a ferret of the same age, moved in for the kill. Before he could close with the squirrel, however, he lifted his own blunted sword and blocked the ferret's narrowly. However, it had turned out to be only a feint, and the young ferret managed to slip his sword past the young squirrel's guard and knick him on the shoulder.
"Hah!" the ferret exclaimed. "Got you there, Rodan!"
Rodan stared into the face of his friend and gave a small laugh. "Not bad, Shard," he conceded. "But I'm not finished yet!"
Even before he'd finished, Rodan leapt at Shard, his sword outstretched. The young ferret moved in to block Rodan's furious attack, but the blow never landed. Instead, Rodan ducked to one side as Shard's sword flew harmlessly past his head and thrust beneath the ferret's guard, poking him in the ribs. Shard fell to the ground, the breath knocked out of him.
"You win that one, Rodan," gasped Shard, when he'd recovered enough to speak.
"As per usual," Rodan teased. "You know-"
"Rodan! Shard! What are you doing?"
At the sound of the familiar voice, Rodan and Shard immediately spun around, identical expressions of guilt on the faces. "Yes, Colonel Redblade?"
The hare before them was past his prime but not quite at the edge of his decline. He had a stern expression on his face as he stared at the two youngbeasts, Rodan with anger and Shard with complete contempt.
"What are you doing, Rodan?" Tirian asked. "I've told you a thousand times. Playing with blunt swords on the shore is completely forbidden! What if one of the Twisting Flame ships spotted you? They have huge harpoons on their prows, you know. You could have been killed!" he turned on Shard. "You could have both been killed!"
"Yes, sir," said Rodan sheepishly, his voice filled with shame. But Tirian wasn't finished yet. "You're lucky most of the ships seem to be gone! They'll be back with an army, you know! What will you do then, eh? You could have been easily killed. These soldiers tried to take Salamandstron once, and they won't rest until they have this mountain under their boot! Don't let me catch you near the shore again."
He turned on Shard, "And you, ferret! Don't encourage his misbehavior. You know the rules- obey them!"
"Yes, Colonel Redblade," said Shard, averting his eyes. Tirian grasped the end of his sword, and then spun around, turning his back on Shard. Without a second glance, Tirian beckoned Rodan with one hand. "Come with me, Rodan. We need to talk."
Rodan turned to Shard, an expression of humiliation plastered on his features. "I'm sorry," he mouthed. Then he turned and followed Tirian back to the mountain.
Inside a palpable atmosphere of grim determination hung, as it always did in wartime. Despite this, the hares still seemed relaxed, laughing and joking with their friends- all except for Tirian. The taciturn hare never laughed and rarely smiled. Rodan saw several hares his own age that had just gotten into the patrol were talking enthusiastically of the coming battles. Several nodded or spoke greeting to Tirian, but the angered hare breezed past them in a rush, sweeping his hand to indicate he wished to be left alone.
Rodan saw several Redwallers who were also defenders of Salamandastron there as well. The Foremole, Dann, armed with his wicked-looking pike, stood next to the Skipper of Otters, Sarrow, and his sister, Ravenna. Rodan saw the pretty squirrelmaid Arulan was there as well, talking to another squirrel warrior who'd survived and escaped the battle of Redwall. As he and Tirian passed, Rodan saw Arulan watching them. His face burned with embarrassment, and he was glad when he and Tirian passed out of sight of the gathered warriors.
Once they were in a small, private barracks room alone and the doors locked, Tirian let loose the full force of his anger. "Rodan, what were you thinking! Playing with wooden swords alone, outside, with that ferret! I've told you again and again not to disobey my orders, which are for your own safety, and yet you throw them back in my face every time!"
Rodan was beginning to lose his temper. Tirian's callous dismissal of Shard only added to his anger, and when he spoke, the note of anger in his voice was palpable. "Shard's my friend!"
"Shard is a ferret. Ferrets have always been the enemy, and I can't trust a ferret we found left on a battlefield during the final push on Salamandastron eight seasons ago! From the lowly soldiers who came in their ships to us yesterday to the warlord Rivan Fireclaw on his throne at Redspire, ferrets are among the most despicable of all vermin. You of all people should know that."
"But Shard's not like that!" Rodan protested. "His family was killed by Fireclaw's soldiers, too. He hates them and wants to help Salamandastron just as much as I do!"
Tirian was still unconvinced, but he waved it aside. "That's hardly the point. You and Shard should not have been there in the first place. Neither of you have any right to fight on shore, especially not after what happened two days ago, when Fireclaw's ships sailed into the bay!"
"They're long gone and won't be back for a good while," countered Rodan. "And if they do come, we'll stop them. Salamandastron completely and utterly crushed the last army Fireclaw sent at us, and pushed the borders as far back as west Mossflower! He won't be keen to try again."
"Yes, he will," said Tirian. "Fireclaw will not be content until all Salamandastron is under his claw. You know this, Rodan!"
"Then why won't you let me fight with the others!" Rodan exploded. "All of the other hares, squirrels, and other Redwall survivors and Long Patrollers my age are going to fight Fireclaw's army, why not me? Am I too weak? Shard, Isak Redspore, and Arulan don't think so! Why do you?"
To Rodan's surprise, Tirian did not shout back. Instead his shoulders sagged, and he looked suddenly old and tired to Rodan. "Look, Rodan, I promised your mother-"
"Yes, you've told me this before!" Rodan cut off Tirian before he'd even finished speaking. "You told me how you saved me from Fireclaw at Redwall! But why does that matter?"
Tirian sighed, then looked around for a few moments, before finally turning back to stare at Rodan once again, a decision made.
"Naila," he called, turning toward the door. "It's time. Rodan needs to learn about the Riddle."
Pennants emblazoned with the Twisting Flame seal streamed from the towers of Redspire Castle, the seat of Lord Fireclaw's power. The dawn was breaking over the ancient sandstone walls, and all of Mossflower wood would come to life in the span of an hour. The walls of Redspire were bathed in the light of the sun that was slowly creeping up over the horizon, which set off the majestic red of the building clearly.
All of this beauty was lost on the shifty-looking stoat that stood outside the farthest gate of the fortress, clutching a sack close to his body as though his life depended upon it. He shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot as the heat from the sun intensified, lifting a paw to shield his eyes from the glare.
Where is Grav? What's keeping him? The stoat, Mange, thought, annoyed. There had never been an opportunity as perfect as this, and now Grav couldn't even be bothered to show up on time.
Mange and his friend Grav had long been mere hordebeasts in Fireclaw's armies, and for the past fifteen seasons, throughout the long summers and winters when Fireclaw had transformed Redwall into Redspire, they'd remained loyal. But Mange had never been truly satisfied with his lot, and now, despite the fact he was based at Redspire and not with the main armies that served Rivan, he and Grav, a rat, had formed a plan to betray Fireclaw- and escape with some of his treasure in the bargain.
It had not been difficult to get away with some of his treasure. Indeed, Mange and Grav had been suspicious at first of how easy it had been to slip past the elite guards Fireclaw employed to guard the interior of Redspire and steal from one of the many treasure rooms within. Mange and Grav had made off with a small supply of gold coins- enough to buy passage on a searat ship and more- and planned to set sail for the southern kingdoms, where Fireclaw's long arm of vengeance could not find them. Today was their last day at Redspire before they planned to depart completely; Mange was only waiting for Grav, who served as a guard at Redspire's southern turrets, to arrive.
Mange looked around again. Despite the fact that Redspire was usually bustling with activity at this hour, due to its proximity to Mossflower Wood, the fortress and the barracks all remained eerily silent. The sentries were on duty as usual, but none paid any attention to the stoat who loitered at the gate. Again, Mange looked around him uneasily. Grav should have shown up long before now.
As though conjured into existence by his thought, a shadow crept closer, and for a moment Mange's hand reached for his knife. For a moment, he stood tense, then relaxed, relief momentarily making him dizzy. Mange let out a long sigh of relief.
"Grav!" he hissed.
Grav, the rat, nodded once. "It's time to go. I had to evade several guards on my way. Fireclaw's elite suspect nothing."
Grav and Mange, evading the sentinels posted across the walltower, slipped into the shadows. Redspire acted not only as a fortress to keep foes out, but it also kept beings in as well. The sentries on the walltower did not appear to notice, and Grav was able to exhale a silent sigh of relief as he and Mange slipped out of a small, dilapidated side gate and step onto the path beyond. Before any sentries noticed anything, Mange and Grav were below cover, safely concealed in a ditch.
"Hah!" Mange hissed, confident they were out of hearing range. "Staying secure in a fortress has made them grow soft!"
"Not soft," Grav corrected. "Weak. With Fireclaw's best commanders tied up across Mossflower, bringing more villages into the growing empire, they've lost all sense of duty."
Mange and Grav rested only a short time, concealed in the ditch at the side of the road that led toward the villages. They would take the path to the nearest coastal sea otter village, evading Fireclaw's soldiers along the way. Mange allowed himself a small smile at his cleverness. He'd managed to escape all of them, and not Rivan or his son had managed to keep them at bay. Mange and Grav walked the first few miles into Mossflower, then when they were certain they'd evaded all of Rivan's watchtowers and other guards, they broke into a run.
Mange trekked alongside Grav through Mossflower Wood for a few hours at a brisk pace, the sun continuing its climb into the sky above them. It was almost midmorning before they began to slow, and became wary, on the lookout for Fireclaw's patrols. Insofar they'd proven easy to evade, but Mange knew Rivan's reputation for cunning, though he'd begun to realize it might be undeserved. Hadn't he completely outmaneuvered Fireclaw at every turn?
Evening found the two vermin still trekking through the far western reaches of Mossflower Wood. Things had gone badly for them. Though Fireclaw's patrols had been haphazard and it was clear none of them had learned of the theft, they seemed to be everywhere throughout the Wood, guarding various outposts and on the lookout for danger. Mange wasn't nervous yet, but he could tell Grav was, and the mood was infectious. Mange's hand was sweaty, and wrapped tightly around the treasure bag.
"You think we're safer now, mate?" asked Grav, shivering in spite of himself. As hot as the day had been, as night crept inexorably closer, the weather grew colder and colder.
"Not yet…" hissed Mange. "Could be more patrols coming this way. We'd better be on the lookout for a place to spend the night."
Grav nodded. "I think we're-"suddenly he broke off, whirling around. "What was that?"
Mange immediately whirled around to face the encroaching darkness, then looked all around. Suddenly he relaxed as he realized the truth.
"You stepped on a branch, idiot," sneered the stoat.
"Idiot, am I?" asked Grav. "I managed to escape with some of Fireclaw's treasure, and you call me an idiot, thickheaded beast?"
"Who 're you callin' thick'eaded, mate?" asked Mange, reaching down for his dagger. For a moment, everything seemed to freeze. Then Grav took a step forward, perhaps intending reconciliation.
His foot hit a twig. Immediately, Mange turned and ran, screaming into the woods. He barely made it five steps before he slammed against a tangle of vines and into what seemed to be a wall of rock and dirt. Mange sprawled backward, lights flashing all around him.
Grav's face appeared oddly distorted to Mange as it appeared above him. "Clumsy oaf, look what you've-"immediately Grav broke off. "Well, would you believe it! For once your idiocy has done us good!"
"What 'ave you found, matey?" asked Mange, hauling himself to his feet.
"Come and look," said Grav, the exultation obvious in his voice. "This is no rock wall. It's a cave! We've found shelter!"
Mange smiled, the pain his skull suddenly a thing of the past. They'd done it! Against all odds, they'd managed to find somewhere safe to spend the night.
"We've managed to evade all of their patrols!" Mange spoke, exultantly. "No one would ever look for us here."
"And escaped ole' Fireclaw and that idiot son of his!" laughed Grav unpleasantly. "It seems it was worth putting up with you, mate!"
Mange was so full of relief that he didn't even process the fact that Grav had insulted him. "The same to you, matey, the same to you. Now we must-"
Suddenly Mange saw Grav's eyes widen, felt cold steel touch the back of his neck. Immediately both Mange and Grav whipped around to be confronted by a shadowy specter holding a knife.
"R-r-r-un, matey…" said Grav, his teeth chattering in fear as he backed away from the apparition. "It's a g-g-g-ghost!"
"Spare us!" gasped Mange. "We never did you-"
"Unfortunately for you, I am not a ghost," said the figure, lowering its hood. Both Mange and Grav gave a gasp of shock as they recognized the squirrelmaid beneath the hooded cloak. She was young, a mere fifteen seasons, and her fur was a dark russet. Mange and Grav had never seen her up close, but they recognized her easily by her most striking feature: while one eye was dark almond, the other was dark green, almost jade in color.
"Lyrian Fireclaw?" gasped Grav, backing away from the figure in a state of pure terror. This was worse than any ghost. Immediately Mange let out an involuntary whimper of fear. This squirrel girl's reputation was well known throughout the ranks of Fireclaw's hordes.
The squirrelmaid gave a small nod of acknowledgement at her name. "You really thought you'd escaped, didn't you?" she asked. Her voice was quiet, but firm. Grav and Mange could only nod in terror as he imagined the fate that would await him.
"None escape the hand of Fireclaw," said Lyrian, lifting her dagger to the light. The fading sun made the blade's mirrorlike surface shine with the striking colors of the sunset. "Indeed, I only let you get this far because it amused me for a time."
Mange finally snapped. He fell to his knees, tossing away his dagger. The sack of loot fell from nerveless fingers. "P-p-p-lease," he begged. "Don't kill me!"
For a moment, Lyrian's mismatched eyes regarded the stoat with a look of bottomless contempt. Then silently she lowered the blade.
"That is not my privilege," she said. "Your punishment will be decided by the lord you betrayed, Rivan Fireclaw."
Grav gave a low whimper of fear. Mange simply stared, too shocked at the direction events had taken to speak. They knew they had played a dangerous game, and now they would pay the price.
Lyrian's hand tightened around her dagger as she smiled coldly. "Now, are you going to come willingly, or do I have to make you?"
To Rodan's surprise, as soon as his mother, the squirrel known as Naila, entered the room, Tirian, after nodding a greeting to the older squirrel who had raised Rodan from birth along with Tirian himself, left the room, to confer with Arulan, Isak Redspore, and the other commanders of Salamandastron's defense force. Rodan was puzzled. Tirian looked almost anxious as his eyes met Rodan's. No trace of the anger that had been there before was still present.
"Rodan," he said as he left. "What they tell you now…just don't hate me for it. I tried to prevent this."
Rodan was more puzzled than angry. One moment his adoptive father had looked like he'd wanted to strangle him, now he was begging for his forgiveness? This was completely uncharacteristic of the tough, grizzled veteran warrior, and Rodan was mystified by this change in behavior. There was something else going on here, something that he didn't understand but that he felt, somehow, he should know. Perhaps it had something to with the dream he'd had three nights ago.
In his dream he was standing on the walls of a large fortress crafted from slate grey, almost blue stone, a sword which gleamed in the sun like a brand of starlight held in one hand. He looked around, catching a glimpse of his face in the hilt, set into a grim line. On his right stood a wizened old mouse carrying a gnarled wooden staff, and on his right a pretty squirrelmaid, one of her eyes a disconcerting, jade green. Then the vision would fade and a mouse appeared, carrying the sword he'd been holding on the battlements. The mouse seemed far away, as though calling across a great distance, and translucent, fading away into a white void of light.
"Take on the quest, Seeker. The quest for blue stone," the mouse had said. Then he'd melted away, becoming insubstantial. Rodan tried to call for him, and soon found himself running after him, but the distance was too great. He ran until every drop of life had been taken from his limbs, and then he awoke.
He'd mentioned it to Shard, who had traveled far further into Mossflower Wood than any other dweller of Salamandastron would dare to, and asked her if he'd seen either, the wizened old mouse or the squirrel with mismatched eyes. But Shard had simply scoffed when Rodan had mentioned he'd seen them in a dream.
"You think it was a vision?" asked Shard, with a look of playful incredulity. "No, I've never heard of this old mouse, or the mouse warrior, or of anything or anyone called blue stone, or of a squirrelmaid with mismatched eyes. Are you sure you weren't imagining all of this, especially the last one?" he smirked.
Rodan was too caught up with what he'd seen to form a retort to his ferret friend's teasing. "The mouse called me "seeker". And the two others seemed to be following me, maybe into battle! I'm sure this was no dream. It was so vivid. So…real. The Redwall brothers often mention someone known as Martin the Warrior, Redwall's spiritual defender. Do you think the mouse could have been him? That it might have been a real vision?"
But Shard had merely laughed it off and changed the subject quickly, and Rodan had dropped it. Since then, he'd never mentioned the dream to any living beast.
Until now, when Rodan blurted to Naila, "Does this have something to do with someone called a Seeker? Or with a mouse warrior and a squirrelmaid with mismatched eyes?"
Naila's expression immediately morphed into one of complete shock. "Where did you-"she began.
"A dream," said Rodan. Or a vision?
He described every detail to Naila, from the sword he and the mouse warrior had both been carrying to the way he'd seemed to be calling from a distance. But Naila seemed only slightly interested the description of the mouse warrior, asking at once, "This squirrelmaid, the one with the mismatched eyes. Was she very young?"
"No, about my age," said Rodan. "With dark russet fur. Her other eye was almond, and she was carrying a silver sword in one hand. She was-"
Rodan broke off at that moment because Nalia looked as though Rodan had told her he'd seen a ghost. She whispered a name under her breath, too quiet for Rodan to catch. "It could have easily been just a dream," she said, seeming to pull herself together all at once.
Naila and Rodan had been close when the young squirrel was little more than a babe. But as Rodan grew older and began spending more time with the Long Patrol and his friends, such as Shard, Naila had faded somewhat from Rodan's everyday life. They still spoke often, and were cordial to one another, but, like with Tirian, there was something missing from their relationship now that they'd once had, a closeness that Rodan had always been aware of but now couldn't pin down. Rodan couldn't help thinking she was dodging the question, but she looked so sorrowful and so hopeful in that one moment that Rodan shouldn't continue to pry.
"Is there something wrong?" he asked her. But his mother looked almost fearful, as though something secret even she didn't completely understand was about to be revealed to him. "Does this have something to do with the "riddle" Tirian mentioned?"
"It does," said Naila, seeming to pull herself together. "But it isn't my place to tell you of this."
"Then whose is it?" demanded Rodan. If she couldn't tell him, then who could?
"It is mine," said a new voice, and both Rodan and Naila turned in surprise to see an ancient mouse clad in a Redwall habit step through the door and into the room, adjusting his spectacles. Rodan recognized him instantly, for this old mouse had been more of a parent to him than Tirian or even Naila in recent years. The elderly mouse became almost like a surrogate grandfather to Rodan, a mouse who was obviously from Redwall of old and was a world apart from the strictly regimented, tightly controlled lifestyle the rest of those at Salamandastron held to closely.
"Brother Alfin?" he asked. "You know of the fall of Redwall?"
The moment those words left his mouth Rodan knew it was a stupid question. While Alfin had never spoken of Redwall to Rodan, not even when Rodan asked him, Alfin was obviously a Redwall mouse. He bore the title of brother, which no one at Salamandastron other than the Redwallers used. Alfin's elderly face crinkled into a kind smile. "Of course, young one. I was there."
"Can you tell me about my father?"
Alfin smiled sadly. "I can do all that you ask. Indeed, I must, for Tirian, Naila, and I have decided it is time you know the truth about what happened at Redwall, and about whom you really are."
Rodan was more mystified than anxious at Alfin's surprising reticence. "Tell me everything."
Alfin sighed. "Very well. But before I begin, I must say that the truth, while liberating, is also more painful than any other thing, beast or otherwise, that you will have to face in your life. Accept and coming to terms with truth is something that everybeast struggles with, be they ten seasons or a hundred."
Alfin readjusted his spectacles, his elderly, kind face peering down at Rodan as he began.
"It was during the summer of the Twisting Flame that the Lord known as Fireclaw came to Redwall, bringing his horde with him. And it was during these days, the early days in what could have been Redwall's finest summer in years, a fate worse than any other that could be imagined befell our Abbey…"
It seemed to take Alfin an eternity to finish his tale, a tale of Rivan's struggle against the Redwallers and how both his parents died. It was a tale Rodan had never heard before, one filled with pain as one by one, each of the brave Redwallers met their ends. At last, in hushed tones, Alfin recounted how Melania had met her end at the hands of one of Fireclaw's soldiers.
Rodan felt oddly removed from it all. He felt sadness, yes, when Alfin's eyes misted over as he recounted how each of his old friends met their deaths, but more than anything else, his greatest feeling was one of detachment and…anger. Yes, anger, a flame which seemed to be rising higher with each word Alfin spoke. Anger that Tirian, Naila, and the others had never told him how his parents- his true parents- had died, or the role they'd played in safeguarding the Riddle's second fragment from Lord Fireclaw.
"Who…has the original fragment?" asked Rodan, his throat dry.
"I do," said Alfin, reaching into a pocket on his habit to pull out an ancient piece of parchment, handing it to Rodan. All throughout his tale Alfin had never mentioned once what the actual words of the Riddle were, or why it was important to Fireclaw. Rodan read:
Seek The seekers, if you hope for Redwall to survive,
And Run and flee when fire comes, or none will leave alive.
Search Onward friends, find Riddle and sword,
For Now the first age ends.
What happens now depends not on warriors lost or dead
But on one beast's choice the fate of all Mossflower Wood depends.
Rodan felt sick inside. The fabled Riddle that Alfin had told him of was nothing more than the half-finished ramblings of an insane warrior who'd taken the Abbey's sword and fled with it, nothing more.
"This was discovered in a piece of parchment written by a mouse known as Descon," said Alfin, but Rodan was barely listening. "I have memorized the first half of the Riddle as well, but that is another tale in itself: how it came to be found, and how we interpret it. Here,"
He handed a second, newer piece of parchment to Rodan, but the squirrel was no longer paying attention to him. "So all along…it's all been a lie," he said. "All along, you and Tirian were lying to me about the truth. About the Riddle, my parents…everything." Rodan's voice grew louder as he grew angrier.
"We-" Naila began, but Rodan rounded on her. She had lied far more than Alfin had. Now, for him to stare at the imposter who had pretended to be his mother all of these years made him feel sick inside. "And you!" Rodan yelled, his voice rising to a fever pitch. "Everything you told me was a lie. You said my father had died of sickness! You claimed that you were my parent."
"I have loved you as any mother loves their child," said Naila quietly. At least, Rodan thought, she had the decency to look ashamed at the deception.
"I don't care!" snarled Rodan. "You should have told me the truth! You're not fit to be anyone's mother!"
Naila recoiled as though she'd been slapped in the face, and for a moment, real hurt shone in her eyes, pain far greater than Rodan had expected. Tears welled up, and for a moment Rodan felt truly terrible at what he'd said, and wanted to comfort her.
No, he thought furiously. It was all a lie. She doesn't deserve your sympathy, not now.
Alfin looked calmly on at Rodan, placing a hand on Naila's trembling shoulder. "Misguided anger is self-defeating," he said quietly. "It will do nothing more than eat away at your heart. The spirit of a Redwall brother is not to hate, but to grow love in all things."
"Did you hear me? I don't care!" hissed Rodan through his teeth. "Not about your stupid dreams of me becoming a brother in the Abbey order. I wanted to join the Long Patrol, but obviously you all find me too weak. Or maybe you're worried I'll die like my parents did."
"No," said Alfin. "That's not it at all. I have only told you of your parent's deaths and of the Riddle, nothing more. I have yet to tell you of how we found the second half, or what we believe the Riddle hints at in full. But-"
Rodan no longer could bear to listen to any of them. Stuffing the two pieces of the Riddle into his pocket and turning around, he walked out of his room and into the halls of Salamandastron. It was only once he reached his own small quarters that the tears began to flow.
Naila sighed and turned to Alfin, "We never were able to tell him about the Seekers," she said. "Or of the first half of the Riddle."
"I know," said the old mouse brother. "Do not tell him yet. He needs to learn to cope with this burden first, before another is thrust upon him."
"He mentioned he had a dream," said Naila, her voice quiet. "A dream about a mouse warrior who can only be Martin, and a female squirrel with one green eye. Do you think that maybe it could have been..."
"I am but one brother of a fallen order," said Alfin. "I know not what to believe. But when Martin speaks, all should heed him. I believe it is no coincidence he has spoken to Rodan now, when Lord Fireclaw once again threatens Salamandastron. The ferret lord will not rest until all of Mossflower bows before him."
"I know," said Naila. "It must be a true vision then. How else could he have known? I never mentioned her to him."
"Nor I," concurred Alfin. "What's more, you say he saw himself carrying the sword of Martin? Extraordinary. He must be well protected, in spite of his longings to fight the armies of Fireclaw. The hand of fate falls heavy upon that young one."
"I know," said Naila, her voice barely a whisper. "As it does upon my daughter."
Well outside the confines of Salamandastron, Rodan, his wooden practice sword clenched tightly in one hand, stared at the sandy shores of Salamandastron and let out a pent-up hiss of frustration.
"I take it that it didn't go well?" asked Shard.
Rodan kicked at a pebble in frustration. "Tirian treats me like a child, too weak to handle fighting in the Long Patrol, or even to face one of Fireclaw's soldiers! And today I find out that even the squirrel I thought was my mother was lying to me, to protect her precious Riddle. That's all she and Brother Alfin care about."
Rodan and Shard had always gotten along well. Whenever Rodan seemed sad or dispirited, Shard was usually able to cheer him up. Both Rodan and Shard had grown up not knowing their fathers, and Shard's mother had died young as well. Now both were orphans. In fact, Rodan thought, he had been one for fifteen years, he just hadn't known it.
But now Shard seemed to understand that no amount of talking would be adequate to heal a hurt of the depth that Rodan felt. Instead he asked, "Can I read the Riddle? I'd like to know what it actually says, since I've heard so much about it."
"I read one fragment," said Rodan, keeping his eyes averted from those of his friend's. "It was just nonsense, or, at least, that's what it seemed like to me." Nevertheless, he showed the two fragments to his friend, and this is what they read:
In Seasons far, when twisting flame falls upon Redwall,
The Abbey blue stone must be found or all Mossflower Wood shall fall.
My Last secret lies in the second, in the words I wrote and gave, I have seen
Two Abbey squirrels, one light, one dark, will save the abbey brave
Warrior Must take up the sword, most powerful a tool
But Alas when the green-black eyed joins flame, the fire king shall rule
And No that while all hope seems lost,
Ask Do as the seekers still fight?
If Answer is yes, a chance remains to
End Strong rule of darkness, fire and night.
Seek The seekers, if you hope for Redwall to survive,
And Run and flee when fire comes, or none will leave alive.
Search Onward friends, find Riddle and sword,
For Now the first age ends.
What happens now depends not on warriors, lost or dead,
But on one beast's choice the fate of all Mossflower Wood depends.
"Not one for grammar, is he?" asked Shard. "There are many misspellings, and all but the last stanza is filled with capital letters. Look here, the word 'no'. Shouldn't it be spelled K-N-O-W here?"
But Rodan was barely paying attention to that. He realized, suddenly, the entire answer to his problems. "Arken mentions the 'abbey blue stone.' And the Seekers! That's what the mouse warrior in my dream told me, Shard. 'Take on the quest, Seeker. The quest for blue stone. Do you think blue stone could be some kind of Abbey relic?"
"Maybe," said Shard, unconvinced. "But I'm sure there's someone who knows."
"Obviously Alfin has no idea," said Rodan. He's failed to solve the Riddle for fifteen seasons, and I'm sure others have tried for much longer before that. But it spells out what has to be done clearly enough. The abbey blue stone must be found."
"Or all Mossflower Wood shall fall," Shard murmured. "Maybe, since Redwall fell, it's already too late."
"No," said Rodan. "He says later, 'run and flee when fire comes'. And he mentions Seekers, Shard! Seekers! The mouse warrior called me a seeker, and told me to take on the quest. This can't be a coincidence. What's more, in my vision I carried a sword. Here in the Riddle it says I have to find a sword."
Then, he was suddenly struck by another thought, one with still more extraordinary implications. "What if the sword Arken wants us to find is…the Lost Sword of Martin the Warrior?"
"The one you said Alfin mentioned to you that Arken took with him when he vanished?" asked Shard. "And you don't think the mouse in your dream was Arken himself."
"No, I'm pretty sure Alfin said Arken was a squirrel," said Rodan. "And the Sword made Redwall impenetrable. While the Sword of Martin hung in the Great Hall, Alfin said, Redwall was never taken. Is it coincidence that when the sword is gone, the Abbey falls? I know it's hard to decipher, but if we figure it out I'm sure the Riddle is a map to the blue stone's location. It seems from the Riddle that the blue stone and the Sword are even in the same place."
"What are you suggesting?" asked Shard, beginning to realize what Rodan had in mind.
"I'm sure it was a vision now, not a dream," said Rodan adamantly. "And I'm sure that the mouse warrior means for me to take on the quest. We must, Shard. Maybe you're the other Seeker. It's time I take my fate into my own hands."
"You mean…leave Salamandastron?" asked Shard. "Just us, by ourselves?"
"I'm fifteen seasons now, the same as you," said Rodan. "Tirian, Naila, and Alfin want me to be held in Salamandastron like a helpless babe while the mountain is on the edge of war. Well, I won't stay here any longer. If we find the blue stone we'll be heroes, Shard. The Riddle demands it.
"And the sword of Martin…" said Shard. "Salamandastron would be impenetrable. Invulnerable to the might of Fireclaw. We'd be far, far more than heroes then, Rodan. We'd have saved Salamandastron and maybe even Redwall itself."
For a moment, both of the young beasts were silent as the full implications of what they'd said sank in. "If we completed Arken's quest, Tirian would never doubt your loyalty to Salamandastron again," said Rodan.
"If we find Martin's sword, we can turn the tides of the battle against Fireclaw," said Rodan. "I'm sick of this mountain, Shard. Both my parents died fighting Fireclaw, while I'm fifteen seasons and have done nothing. Will you come with me?"
"Yes," said Shard. "You'll need someone to guide you through Mossflower who knows his way around."
"Our preparations have to remain secret," said Rodan. "We can't let anyone- anyone- know what we're planning. We'll prepare today, and have all of the supplies ready to leave, tomorrow morning. Just think, Shard, of what all of those who ever doubted us will think when we return with the abbey blue stone and the Sword of Martin the Warrior!"
The sentry on duty was a burly weasel, flanked by three ferrets of Rivan Fireclaw's elite guard. He gave Lyrian Fireclaw and two soldiers with her, who had returned with the miserable deserters Grav and Mange held at swordpoint, a dead, cold stare, which she returned fearlessly. However, the two soldiers flinched away. Common soldiers, they feared the power of Fireclaw and his elite circle, whose icy aura pervaded the entire citadel of Redspire.
After a few moments, the weasel and his black-cloaked guards stepped aside, and the double doors that led into Rivan's inner sanctum, made from polished red wood, swung open. Grav and Mange, followed closely by Lyrian, took their first trembling steps inside.
The room was elaborately decorated, with large murals upon the walls and other paintings and even small sculptures where present, trophies from Rivan's conquests. Some of those which stood out the most were a statue formed of pure diamond, and a shield decorated with a runic, ancient inscription and a carving of a weasel standing above a conquered stoat. On the back wall, in full display at the heart of Redspire fortress, hung the tapestry of Martin the Warrior, which Rivan considered his greatest trophy. It was the fearless face of Redwall's mouse warrior, then, that first greeted Lyrian Fireclaw as she led the captive deserters before the warlord.
Like a true conqueror, Rivan had esc hewed an elaborate throne, but sat on a common, if well-polished, chair. On his right, keeping to the shadows behind the "throne", his deputy, Icecloak, stood, and wearing the pure, ice-white robes and hood that hid all of his face save his ebon eyes. On his left stood Shale, the vixen seer.
But all of this each one of the beasts only noticed for a few moments. For neither of the deputies nor any fine piece of work commanded the same attention as did Rivan Fireclaw, the Conqueror.
The ferret warlord was at the prime of his lifespan, his fur dark-red, almost black. He was dressed in black robes, over which he wore his metal chain shirt upon which his insignia was emblazoned. His claws where sharper than the most keen blade, his face darkly handsome, and his eyes smoldered with a fiery, dark charisma. Staring into them was almost painful for Grav and Mange, who trembled in fear. The guards lowered their weapons and bowed before their master. Lyrian lowered her head for a moment in a show of deference as well.
Seeing his daughter approach him, Rivan's smiled icily. "Well done, Lyrian," he congratulated her. "Though, in all honesty, I wasn't expecting much of a show from either of them."
For the first time he turned the full intensity of his gaze on the vermin captives. Grav wimpered, Mange took a step back. "What do you have to say for yourselves, deserters? Why did you try to steal from me?"
Grav opened his mouth, but the words wouldn't form, melting on his tongue as Rivan smiled at them. Mange said nothing at all, simply stared, terrified, at Fireclaw.
"No? You don't have anything to say at all? Well, I can help fix that. Do you'll find your voice if I cut off your right hand?"
Grav still said nothing, but at that, Mange snapped. Blubbering incoherently for a few moments, he gasped out. "Yes! I mean, no, no, I'll talk! Grav and I stole money from you, to buy passage to a southern port! We evaded your sentries and escaped into Mossflower, but then she caught up with us!"
Rivan remained silent for a moment. The tension in the air was palpable. Finally Grav, as the silence continued and not one being spoke a word, gasped out, "Please! We've told you everything, my lord, just, just…DON'T KILL ME!" he screamed, finally snapping.
Rivan regarded the two vermin with detached amusement as they fell to their knees, pleading for their lives. After a few moments, in a harsher tone he said, "Cease your pathetic whining."
Immediately both vermin captives grew silent. Rivan stared at them for a few minutes longer, then turned to one of his guards and asked, "You. Lieutenant Duskfur. You were one of the centuries on duty this morning, on the tower closest to the treasure room. Shouldn't you have easily been able to block their escape?"
"I…I was not at my post, my lord," said Duskfur, his voice suddenly shaking.
"And why not?" asked Rivan, still perfectly calm and smiling outwardly. Of all the beings there, only one truly knew what Rivan felt, and that was Icecloak. Icecloak had been with Rivan from the beginning, and had stood by Fireclaw's father in the last days of his reign over the horde as well. Every hordebeast knew when Rivan smiled he was truly beyond infuriated, but only Icecloak truly understood how terrifying Rivan really was. Now he suspected, and feared, what his cold, calculating lord would do next.
"B-because my captain never expected me to be on sentry duty, my lord. He never ordered me to do otherwise, not for the six months that I was under his command."
"Bring him to us. Now," ordered Rivan. He motioned for Lyrian, Icecloak, a terrified Duskfur, and Lyrian's two captives to follow him as he rose from his seat in one fluid motion and stepped out of his inner sanctum. Seeing Rivan, the guards at the door immediately stepped aside and let him pass. As they traversed the heart of Fireclaw's rising empire, Icecloak continued to theorize what Rivan was planning. Many warleaders would have executed Duskfur then and there. As Icecloak stared at the fearful lieutenant, he knew that doubtlessly Duskfur still believed that would be his fate.
With Duskfur in the lead, they easily found the captain, a swarthy, well-built weasel, who was relaxing with twelve other guards and four officers in what had once been Redwall's Cavern Hole. Seeing Rivan, every one of the guards rose to their feet. Rivan pointed a single dagger-like claw at him as the regal ferret fixed the captain with his ice stare. "You. Captain Sharran, is it not?"
"Yes, my lord," said Sharran.
"You are in charge of this lieutenant?" Rivan asked in a conversational tone, indicating Duskfur with his claw.
"Yes, I am," said Sharran.
"This morning, two traitors were allowed to my rule to escape under the very noses of our guards, after stealing from our treasure room. Duskfur here was meant to be on duty at the treasure room itself. You are his commander. Why was he not at his post?"
"I see you have caught the traitors, anyway" said Sharran, indicating Grav and Mange. "Rest assured, my lord, he will be punished."
"No," said Rivan. "I will be the judge of that. Is it true that you did not order him, for the past six months, to ever visit his post, despite the fact he is young and undoubtedly has no idea what he is guarding?"
"Well, I can't be bothered to help someone-"
"It is your responsibility to ensure that my orders are carried out." Fireclaw cut him off. "If this is true, for the past six months, it would have been easy for anyone to stroll into Duskfur's guardpost and take everything there, would it not? Indeed, none of your twelve subordinates were likely on duty during those hours, am I right?" Rivan's tone was still conversational, and still he smiled, but his voice was laced with icy menace.
"I, well-" Sharran began, but again he broke off as he met Rivan's eyes and saw they were as cold as a glacier in the northlands, the grin on his face curled into the slightest sneer.
"As a commanding officer, it is your responsibility to train and instruct your subordinates to carry out my commands. Anything less is unsatisfactory. Am I right, lieutenant?"
"Yes, my lord," said Duskfur, hesitantly.
"Anything less is called an error, is it not, lieutenant?"
"Y-yes, my lord," said Duskfur, trembling now as Rivan turned to him.
Rivan barely moved, simply made a gesture with one hand so imperceptible none of the creatures there noticed it.
Like a shadow, a dark wraith seemed to materialize behind Sharran. The lieutenant had no time to even turn around, and Grav, Mange, and Duskfur had no time to scream, nor did any one of the beings in the room have time to react, before a stain of blood spread across Sharran's chest. An impossibly slender knife protruded from his chest.
Sharran stared uncomprehendingly at the blade, which had run through his heart. A low moan escaped his lips, and then his eyes grew pain-filled before fading to a dull grey. The dark wraith yanked the knife from the corpse and Sharran toppled to the ground. Then, silently, the shadowy assassin faded into the blackness like a wisp of smoke on the wind.
The only sound now was the continuous drip as the dead weasel's blood flowed onto the flagstones.
Rivan stared dispassionately at Sharran's body. "The error is now corrected, lieutenant," he said calmly.
Duskfur did not respond. He and every other being in the room simply stared in terror at the carcass that lay before them.
"I shall see you in my quarters, Icecloak, Lyrian," said Rivan, turning away from the corpse and stepping into the shadows.
Icecloak took a few moments to watch as the remaining guards hastily appointed their successor according to standard protocol, and then scattered, leaving three to clean up Sharran's carcass. Then he turned and followed Lyrian and the captives.
Halfway down the hall, Mange finally worked up enough courage to ask Rivan, "W-what will you do with us, my lord?"
Rivan hesitated for a moment, pretending to think it over a little. "I think…this means you are no longer fit to serve us at Redspire."
Immediately both vermin broke out into wailing sobs as they thought of the fate that surely awaited them.
"Silence. You will retain your lives- for now. This means now that I have two fewer soldiers at my Redspire garrison- and two more soldiers I can send to fight in the Salamandastron campaign."
Immediately Grav and Mange threw themselves at Rivan's feet, thanking him for sparing their lives.
"However," continued Rivan, smiling. "There is one…small matter to attend to first."
"What is it, my lord?"
"You've seen and heard too much," said Rivan, fixing them with his hypnotic stare. "You must be…repatriated first. Look in to my eyes!"
“Do you have all of the supplies?”
“I think so. Can you go over the list again?”
Backpacks, bedrolls, tons of food from the kitchens, torches, our training swords, your dagger--”
“Yes, yes, I've got it all, Rodan. Anything else?”
“No, I think that's it.” said Rodan whispered. “And keep your voice down! Just because it's dark doesn't mean guards aren't about.”
“Sorry,” Shard said, his voice not a bit quieter. The young ferret threw open his door and walked into the hallway, where Rodan waited. The young squirrel did his best to stifle a laugh and failed. The young ferret was so weighted down by haversacks filled with food that he was almost unrecognizable, and with every step he took closer to Rodan it looked more and more likely he would topple over.
“You all right?” Rodan asked, eying his friend's predicament with amused concern.
“If I'd known traveling with you was this much work, I wouldn't have agreed to this,” Shard groaned.
“When I said 'a ton of food', this really wasn't what I meant,” said Rodan. “How did you even- never mind, I don't want to know.”
“Good answer. Do I really have to carry all of this stuff?”
“No, that wouldn't be a good idea,” Rodan answered, and a relieved Shard set his burden gently on the floor. “You can leave most of it in the closet, I guess. There just isn't enough time to return it to the kitchens if we want to make it far away enough from Salamandastron by dawn.”
Shard nodded. “Did you figure out what Alfin was hiding from you? Do you know where we have to go to find the Blue Stone?”
“I found something,” said Rodan. “It was with Descon's notes, and it looked like it was in his handwriting. A map, and a note. More of the same Riddle gibberish. We can look at it once we're out of here, but I know where we have to go.”
“That's great news!” Shard was unable to keep his voice a whisper. “You'll have to tell me everything after we're out of here.”
For a few moments, Rodan and Shard were both silent. Then their attention turned to the pile of haversacks that lay on the floor in front of them.
“Say, how much of this food do we actually want?” Shard asked.
Rodan had spent his entire childhood in Salamandastron, he knew every secret twist and tunnel that led out of the mountain. Evading the guards, whose attentions were clearly focused seaward, was the easy part. The hard part was actually getting up the courage to say good-bye.
Rodan had liked the idea of leaving, finding the Blue Stone, and returning a hero to Salamandastron. But now he realized just how little he actually had to work with. There was the map he'd stolen from Alfin's quarters, and the note from Descon that he'd also found there. But he had nothing concrete to work with, beyond whatever he'd been able to find out from the Riddle.
Meanwhile, Salamandastron's greatest foe, the ferret emperor at Redspire, seemed determined to mount a second assault. At the very least, the vermin were probing, searching the mountain fortress for some sign of weakness. Everyone Rodan loved was inside Salamandastron, and if the mountain fortress came under attack all of their lives would be in danger.
No, Rodan thought. There's nothing I can gain from staying here. Tirian wouldn't let me fight if it came to a war with Redspire, and I would have to watch Arulan, Rourke, and the Long Patrol all do their duty while I was left baking in the kitchens or something.
If he stayed, he would be trapped forever in this mountain with no hope of doing anything useful against Lord Fireclaw. It was better this way for everyone.
In the day that had gone by since his outburst, Rodan hadn't apologized to Alfin, Tirian, and Naila. He hoped that the note he'd left would be enough for them to understand why he'd had to go, and to dissuade them from attempting pursuit.
Shard's whisper snapped Rodan back to the present. He was standing at the foot of the great mountain, staring up at the fortress. All was still, and as the young squirrel turned to face his friend he could see that the shoreline awaited them. Startlingly, Rodan realized it was already very late, and if they were to have any hope of dodging a Long Patrol search party they had to get moving immediately.
“Sorry. Let's go,” said Rodan. Slowly, the two young beasts turned away from Salamandastron, the mountain that had been their world for their entire lives, and set out into the unknown.