A trail of paw prints led from the crashing waves by the sea, through sandy dunes, to the fringes of a woody cliff. A lone, black traveller turns around casting piercing black eyes over her hidden home. Somehow she knew she wasn't ever going to return the sands of the Eastern Lands. She hadn't told anyone of that feeling inside of her, but there it was. She would not be going back. She would not ever see those sands and wavelets in which she had played when she was little. The black hare turned away without any emotion on her face, although, inside, emotions were bubbling like boiling water . . .
In a swirl of green and black, the hare vanished into the cliffs, never to return.
Patchrunner nestled back into a tussock on the top of a large dune, brown eyes scanning the sandy world around him. It was sunny, but a breeze from the sea cooled the land and stirred the dune grass. Patchrunner tasted salt on his lips and thought back to the cool mess hall in the mountain war fort, Salamandastron, where his buddies would probably be eating.
She oughta be appearing sometime soon . . . The mountain hare had been recently promoted, and was now in charge of organizing the Gallopers rotations and locations. He dusted off sand from his green Galloper's tunic, and stood up. There she is. Thought so. His newest Galloper ever, a surprise recruit, had just breasted a far off dune. She was unmistakable, with the most striking black fur and swirling emerald scarves around her wrists, which complimented her lighter green tunic. Patchrunner waved, and clapped his long ears together. The black figure halted, waved one of her green scarves, then continued forward. Patchrunner allowed himself a small smile. Vaylayna had only arrived at Salamandastron two seasons ago, traveling from, she claimed, the Eastern Shores. She had risen through the ranks with surprising speed, and, despite her small build, she had made the Gallopers. Perhaps it was due to her traveling experiences, but Patchrunner had found her one of the most enduring runners yet. He watched her with judging eyes as she lopped up, throwing a smart salute and accidentally shaking some sand on him from inside one of the green scarves around her wrists.
"Season one, Galloper three reporting from duty, Officer." Patchrunner surveyed the smooth black fur, un-wrinkled tunic and the three belts looped around her waist and over her shoulder. Sheathed in these belts were numerous knives of different shapes, sizes and styles. She was panting slightly, but she was smaller than normal hares, and couldn't be blamed for that. He allowed himself a brief smile.
"Good turn out, Galloper. You Galloped up t'wards the blinkin' North Shores I see? What's the report, wot?" Vaylayna replied with an impassive voice.
"Spotted several pirate ships on the horizons, but they didn't land. Also saw a group of sea otters, who all looked very tough. They'll probably take care of the searats if they do land. Got a touch colder and rather more rocky as I went up, took a turn in eastwards and cut down. Spotted a group of lizards, and a Juska tribe, as well as a smaller rat gang. Didn't confront or anything, just got away." Patchrunner shelved the information in his head, before reaching out and patting the small black hare's arm."Good work, Galloper, wot wot! See ya in the mess hall later. Galloper four, Shella's gonna be comin' around soon, and she'll take the rest of the round, wot! I'll stay here 'til then." Vaylayna threw another salute and lopped off, leaving the tall brown hare on the top of the dune, and heading for the rising cone-shaped mountain in the distance. The sea wind rippled through her fur and the two scarves, and behind her she left a trail of paw prints in the dry sand.
It is common knowledge that hares are always bottomless pits. It is also common knowledge that situations at dinner tables can get quite fierce around them, especially if no one else is there to restrain them. And so it was at Salamandastron, the home to many mountain hares, and the legendary Long Patrol. Even the presence of their Badger Lord, Mandoral Highpeak, could not stop the rowdy, food-related ballads and the occasional food fights. A rainbow of colors spread through the dining hall, from green-clothed Gallopers grouped at the end of the hall, to sand-covered, camouflage-clothed guards in the center, to the pink mess jackets officers wore. A fierce array of weapons also sprang throughout the rom, for it was common knowledge that the Badger Lords were the most prominent black-smiths of them all.
Lord Mandoral's eyes swept down the hall, watching the young bucks and doe-eyed females exchanging banter with their peers. The hares attacked the dining board before them with vigor, but lost no time in trying to out-do each other in shouting competitions. Sea vegetation was common, since Salamandastron was next to the ocean, but there were also other staples, such as oats. Mandoral ducked a piece of dried seaweed, which was accompanied by a shout.
"That's what I think of ya rotten ol' seaweed, wot wot!" Mandoral glared in the general direction of the shout, but that did nothing to deter the seaweed being thrown back. Mandoral allowed himself a sigh of long-suffering, desperately thinking of his refuge concealed next to his forge. Brantalis Skyfurrow had been very wise not to join them here, although Lord Mandoral knew his own duty, and he had news to deliver to his hares. He decided to wait until after the meal ended, which would probably only be when all the food was eaten up. Mandoral took a sip of his mountain water, raspberry cordial and watched the hares as they tucked in with gusto.
Almost immediately, his eyes were drawn to one single hare. She stood out almost like a black patch in a white dress. She sat in between all the Gallopers, but, unlike them, was not talking or throwing food. She looked rather dwarfed by all the long-legged bucks and does next to her, but Mandoral remembered what she could do.
She had come from the Eastern Shores, traveling all the way up to the Western. He recalled the black hare leaving Colour Sergeant O'Cragg speechless in a display of knife throwing, and her enduring spirit prompting Mandoral to promote her several times, up to the rank of Galloper, in less than a season. Despite being so small, and surprisingly quiet, she could still match up with all her fellow Gallopers. Mandoral watched the small, black hare, Vaylayna, exchange a few words with the hare next to her, and reach for a scone. Her green Galloper's tunic was almost covered by the belts and knives, and the two, emerald, gauzy scarves around her wrists fluttered behind her. Mandoral sighed as a piece of food flew over head, and he muttered towards Captain Raphael Granden next to him.
"See if you can get them to move with the eating a bit more." Raphael threw a salute and jogged off, quelling several fights and turning general attention back to food.
At long last, the meal was over and kitchen helpers carted the rest of the empty plates back to the kitchen. Finally, Lord Mandoral stood up, clearing his throat loudly. Several hares who had gotten up sat back down, and talk quieted.
"Attention everyone! Brantalis Skyfurrow, our messenger goose, who normally brings news from Green Isle and Redwall Abbey has arrived today at Salamandastron. Abbess Lycian has sent her greetings to you all. Along the way, Brantalis met up with an old acquaintance of mine." There was a pause, before Mandoral spoke again. "Rosebrush the Foxmaid is coming to Salamandastron to stay for a week, in a week."
There was silence for a minute, then whispers broke out like hissing snakes.
"Rosebrush the fox?"
"Rosebrush is coming to Salamandastron??"
"For a week?"
Hares who had heard of the legendary figure quickly informed in their fellows who had not, and those who had actually met her let out a long sigh. Mandoral allowed the whispers to go on until he thought it was long enough. He cleared his throat again, and the noise stopped.
"Rosebrush has informed me through Brantalis that she is going to be coming back to Salamandastron for a week, as I said, and then she will be leaving. But she wants a companion to take with her as she goes. She doesn't like traveling alone, and this would be a perfect opportunity to allow one Long Patrol Hare to see other parts of the world."
At the phrase, 'traveling alone' Vaylayna had heard several coughs from nearby veterans. She was rather surprised to hear a fox was coming to Salamandastron, much less one who was being treated like an honored guest. She knew from general gossip that Rosebrush had once saved Lord Mandoral's life, and she was interested to know the details. Mandoral cut across her thoughts with another note.
"Those who wish to travel with Rosebrush the Foxmaid, until at least she returns to Salamandastron, will need to put their names with Sergeant O'Cragg. But I warn you. Traveling out in the open world is not an easy thing. I caution you to think carefully before you put your names with the Sergeant, and once it's in, there's no taking it out." Silence fell, and then Mandoral gave the dismiss call. Hares rose, and almost immediately talking broke out.
Far, far away from the sunny world of the Western Shores and Salamandastron, was a region of ice and snow. The Northern Mountains. Ice and Sleet chased each other around the rocks, and nothing could be seen for the unrelenting blizzards. The Northern Mountains. It was unbearably cold, windy, and frozen. The only living things that could be seen were the great Falcons and Eagles of the Northern Mountain, the strange and magical Flowers of Icetor . . . and the Wolverine.
A low growl rose from the dark creature's throat as it watched a group of Falcons shaking snow off their plumage and blending shrieking cries with the wind. Long shaggy fur protected the thick muscles from the raging blizzards, and long claws scraped patterns in the ice. He was hungry, but he wouldn't have time to attack and eat the Falcons. Besides, he had more important things to do.
The dark creature vanished into the whirling whiteness, leaving a set of huge paw prints, which quickly filled in with snow. He was there and gone. And he was gone for a reason.
A ghostly white figure in swirling, gray robes sensed that the evil had finally left her home. She did not know why it had gone, and where it would go to next, but at least it was gone from her home for now. She let out a deep sigh of relief, and then turned her mind towards other things. The Future.
One ragged crow fluttered across the sky like a piece of ragged black cloth. His flight was not smooth, and he was missing feathers in several places. With a feeling of relief, the crow spotted the red sandstone tower rising up high in the distance.
A short caw of triumph was stifled by a cry of pain. The crow pushed himself relentlessly onwards, knowing he had only one chance of survival. If the healers at the Abbey couldn't save him, nothing could.
Many thoughts chased each other through the crow's head. His kind were not on good terms with the creatures of the Abbey, but maybe they would allow him a chance. He had heard of their unusual kindness, and he desperately hoped it was true. Somehow, the crow wished his kind had never hurt the Abbey dwellers, but that was only because right now his life was in danger, and the Abbey was his only hope. At last, the crow began homing in on the wall tops, looking for a place to land. But his ragged flight caused him to tumble and crash-right into Abbess Lycian's tea trolley.
Banjon Wildlough was older now, but that didn't stop him from being Skipper. The otter missed his daughter, but he knew she was where she needed to be. At any rate, his crew was time consuming enough, especially with a new lot of otter pups.
"Stay away from the big ol' trout!" Skipper roared. A chubby, fat otter pup made a face but swam away from the home of a bad-tempered fish, which was about twice the size of the pup. Skipper splashed through the shallows, and up onto the bank, dripping. As he was blowing water off his nose, Skipper heard several shrieks. In a flash, he remembered old Molemum Burbee and Abbess Lycian taking tea, as always, on the west wall-top . . . where the screams were coming from.
"Hold hard maties! I'm coming!" Skipper charged up the steps leading to the top of the wall, but when he got there, he paused. Flapping feebly on the ground was a crow. One wing was tattered and shredded, and the crow's leg was broken. Next to the black bird was an overturned tea-trolley. Next to that, was the petrified Abbess Lycian and Molemum Burbee.
"What happened?" asked Skipper, looking from the crow, to the trolley, to the abbess.
"It just flew out of the sky!" exclaimed Lycian. Burbee looked too shocked to say anything. "And it crashed into the trolley and that fell over, and well . . ." The crow made a hoarse croak and went limp. "It's dreadfully injured!" Lycian said, running forward. "I think it was just an accident. Skipper help me." Skipper didn't look so sure.
"Remember that injured gannet that was forced into Sister Geminya's ol' room two seasons ago?" Abbess Lycian paused in trying to lift the crow's head up.
"But crow's don't eat creatures like us, do they?"
"No," admitted Skipper. "But it could be another case like that."
"Well that gannet only really ate those rats because it was completely starving, poor creature. I think this crow's just injured, and maybe it won't hurt us if we heal it." Skipper began to say something, but Lycian held up a paw.
"Our Abbey Charter states that we comfort the sick, nurse the injured and help the wounded. This crow does not look like much of a threat to our Abbey." Burbee managed to find her tongue, and spoke up.
"Hurr, I do believe 'twas an arksidunt." Skipper blew his nose but walked over and hefted the crow in his paws.
"We can take it to Brother Perant," he muttered.
As Skipper walked through the lawns with a large crow in his paws, he attracted quite a crowd of onlookers.
"Wot are it?" asked an eager otter pup.
"'Tis a crone!" exclaimed a tiny mousemaid.
"Why do it have bludd?" asked a chubby mole. Banjon ignored the questions and called over to Grudd Longtunnel.
"See if ye can fix up the Abbess's tea cart!" Grudd waved a heavy digging claw and waddled off. Burbee allowed herself a faint smile.
Up in the infirmary, the trio found Perant busy working over the same fat otter pup, who had returned to the fish's lair and got himself a black eye from a tail-whack. Perant busily dabbed an ointment on the swelling, as the door banged open.
"We've got an injured crow here!" exclaimed Skipper. Perant looked up and hurried over, sweeping an elegant bow in Lycian's direction before attending to the bird.
"Put it out on here! No, pull the wing out! And careful with that leg!" Skipper lay the bird out on one of the clean, white-sheeted infirmary beds. Immediately, Perant began attending it efficiently. Skipper blocked the escapade of the small otter pup, picked him up and put him on his shoulder, turning to the Abbess and Molemum.
"Well, I got him up here. I'm going to see Girry and see if he has any inf'mation on crows. Return this bundle of joy to his mum while at it." Lycian smiled graciously.
"Thank you for your help and support. Perant and I can take care of the rest." Snorting, Skipper left the infirmary and deposited the otter pup safely with his mother before climbing upwards to the Library.
Girry the squirrel was bent over a writing desk, scratching away with a quill. He looked up when Skipper entered.
"No spectacles yet?" joked Skipper, looking around at the shelves of books and scrolls. Girry snorted and made a final flourish of the quill before getting up.
"Nope, but when I do, Sister Snowdrop wants me to use square ones, so she won't be the only one looking through 'windows.'" Skipper briefly recalled the poem the scholars had solved two seasons ago, while his daughter was off becoming High Rhulain.
"Er," he said, suddenly remembering why he had come there in the first place. "Do you have any records on crows?" Girry paced over to a shelf, and began pulling out manuscripts.
"All here. Any particular reason why you want them?"
"I just rescued a crow, and I want to know more," Skipper replied, picking up the first scroll. The library door banged open and Sister Snowdrop pattered in, waving her paws.
"Skipper! Oh Girry! Perant has an injured crow and he needs the records on feather growth we have somewhere!" Snowdrop, although an old mouse, snatched the scroll out of Skipper's paw and ran off. Skipper looked at Girry, and the two laughed.
"Well let me get reading here," Skipper grinned. He picked up the first book and began flipping through. Having spent the majority of his life swimming, Skipper was not very good at reading, but he managed to make out the letters and string them together. What he read did not sit well with him.
Six days later, and the big day was almost there. Salamandastron had been full of gossip the days of patient waiting for the honored guest to arrive. Hares split off into friend/sibling groups, all talking only about two subjects. Rosebrush the Foxmaid and whether or not to put their name in. Mysteriously, those who had actually met the legendary figure, veterans and older hares, had not been seen around Sergeant O'Cragg at all. Most of the younger hares did not seem to notice this, and went right ahead, eager to see the outside world and travel with a creature who had saved Lord Mandoral's life. Surely she would be an amazing role-model and heroine!
Vaylayna was in the target ring, a sandy piece of land marked off by ropes close to Salamandastron. Painted wooden targets stood on one side of the ring, while the groups of hares stood at the other, with standing marks set at different levels in front of them. Slings, blow darts, knives, bows and arrows and every other possible weapon that could hit the center of a target were held by eager, waiting hares. Vaylayna's black eyes watched an arrow fly towards the target, thudding seconds later inches away from the bullseye. Lieutenant Sagetip, the hare in charge of training the target practice, stepped forward and began coaching the young hare who had shot the arrow. Other archers listened intently, eager to learn more on how to improve their art. Vaylayna waited patiently for Sagetip to finish, watching the proceedings. Suddenly, a hare beside her whispered loudly.
"I jolly well wonder what happened with Rosebrush the Foxthingummy and blinkin Sah Mandoral." Vaylayna's ears twitched, she hadn't known too much about that either, having only arrived two seasons ago, right after the departure of the Purloined Petunia to Green Isle. From what she had heard, the Saving of Lord Mandoral's Life by Rosebrush had happened a season before that. A brawny buck on the other side of her replied to the inquiry, and Vaylayna listened in.
"Pretty fascinating story, wot! 'Parently, she was part of an ol' group of blinkin' vermin from down south, and they were plannin' to flippin' well assassinate m'Lord Mandoral, wot wot." There were several gasps from nearby eavesdroppers. "'Parently, they got so far as climbin' up the mountain side, and the Foxgel was the first to go in through m'Lord's window." More gasps, and Vaylayna couldn't help a flicker of a smile cross her face. "But she had a flippin' change of heart and woke m'Lord up, and he managed to knock the rest out of the window. She said she never wanted to be part of the blinkin' gang, but h'it was needed for jolly well survivin'. Protection, see, and she Lord Mandoral and the other officers decided she could stay, and she's been a 'good' vermin ever since, travelin' around." Vaylayna's ears twitched forward again, and one of them dropped downwards. Rosebrush's tale sounded interesting, but that didn't press Vaylayna to leave Salamandastron. After all, she, for one, had noticed that the only hares putting their names in hadn't actually met the fox. Although very silent, Vaylayna was rather observant of those little details.
She stepped forward as Sagetip beckoned for the next hare, unsheathing six of her many knives. For once, the Lieutenant didn't have anything to say, as Vaylayna threw them one after another, looking like throwing knives was as normal as drinking water. Each knife thudded carefully into the target to form a 'V' shape. Lieutenant Sagetip allowed himself a smile for the sheer cheek as the black hare tugged the knives out, the gaps in the target echoing the 'V' figure. Vaylayna left the ring with many an admiring glance, heading for the entrance to Salamandastron. Although Galloper duties had been postponed for the arrival of the legendary Rosebrush, Patchrunner probably wanted to see her.
Blood dripped off of his fur, turning the black to red. But it was not his own. Lifeless eyes stared blankly at the ground, from a disembodied head. But they were not his. The solitary black beast prowled away from the carnage, the wrecked house of a vole and his family. Their remains lay on the ground in front of the destroyed building. The huge, black creature moved away, without any shade of pity or remorse in his mind. The trail of ruin and misery left behind him was leading ever closer to Redwall.
Lycian turned as she heard a knock on the door. Perant had done as much as he could for the crow, binding and splinting the leg and fixing the wing as best as he knew how to. Lycian had acted as nurse, for she felt some interest in the bird and she wanted to stay around it. She set down a bowl of herbs and glided towards the door, to find Skipper there.
"Well hello Skipper," she said mildly. "We're almost finished with the bird. He should, at the very least, be able to walk again and possibly fly. He did a lot of damage to the wing, by flying with it over here, but I guess he knew we would help him. He ought to be waking up soon." Skipper shuffled his paws before holding up some notes he had made in his scrawling handwriting.
"I researched crows . . ." Lycian raised an eyebrow. It was very unusual for the Skipper of Otters to do any research. ". . . And it seems that, well, lessee." Skipper flipped through his notes, before taking a deep breath.
"Durin' the time of Matthias the Warrior, his son and several other dibbuns were captured by Slagar the Cruel. While he went off huntin' for the babes, Redwall was attacked by ravens, rooks, and a crow. Remember?" Lycian's eyebrow rose higher. "Also durin' the time of the great Dryditch Fever, an otter such as m'self went off huntin' for the cure, and he was attacked by crows. Also h'durin' the time or Rakkety Tam, he and his creatures were attacked by crows." Lycian made no comment, and Skipper tried to explain himself further. "Basically, what h'I'm tryin' to say, is that I don't trust that crow. I feel it in me bones that he's just not . . ." Lycian's expression cleared.
"I understand you, Skipper, but you must understand that all those things you mentioned were armies of crows, not a single one like this, and it is in our charter that we heal and help the injured. So I'm afraid to say that I can't possibly just abandon him, but I will keep an eye on him if you wish. You can come and see, we're already close to finishing dressing his wounds." Skipper gritted his teeth. He knew there was something strange about that crow. Maybe how it smelled or something, it just felt weird and he didn't want anything like that around him. He had felt similar when they had met that gannet, but Lycian didn't seem to notice anything. He did consent to follow her over to the bed the crow was resting on, however.
It was at that precise moment the crow woke up. His eyes were strangely yellow as they looked from Perant, to Lycian, to Skipper. A hoarse, rattling croak issued from its beak.
"Ah can't feel m' leg." Perant hurried forward speaking softly to the large black bird.
"My dear bird, your leg was almost completely broken in two, and we gave it a painkiller so you shouldn't be able to feel anything. Your wing, on the other hand, was almost completely shredded. We had to remove some feathers from your tail and so forth to fill in gaps, and you may not be able to fly for a long time or forever. How did you get such an injury?" A frightened face came over the crow's face, as it weekly lifted its head up.
"We of the Pine Crows have only seen one like it ah lawng time ago. Crawwk, but we had managed to kill many of them, but this time it was the other way around." The crow let out a hard croak, before speaking again.
"M'name's Blackwind. Ah've heard tales passed to me from mah mother when I was nought but an egg-chick. Ahrrk, she said an army of hares came through our grove, and killed many of us. Then an army of white vermin followed, with a huge beast at their head . . . we killed many back, she told me, but we lost many ourselves. Crawwk, then it came back." The face became more frightened. "The huge creature, he came into ahr grove and killed every last one of us, except for me." A tear dripped down Blackwind's face. "Last time, m' mother told us, we'd been able to kill many of them, but this time there was only one . . . and he killed us all! M' brothers and sisters egg-chicks, mah mother . . ." Skipper, after his recent research, knew the old tale of how Gulo the Savage had led his white vermin into a crow-filled pine-grove, and had come out with much depleted ranks. But now, it sounded like another creature like Gulo had come, and had killed all the crows. Was it true? Or was, as Skipper suspected, Blackwind faking? The crow feebly flapped his good wing, before Perant poured out a beaker of a dark liquid and fed it to the bird.
"There, you should be able to sleep now and heal up. Don't exert yourself." Skipper watched the crow's eyes close, before turning to Lycian.
"Don't say you think he's lying," she said, calmly cutting across him right when he opened his mouth. "I, for one, believe him, although I must admit that one creature killing all of those crows sounds very illogical. That may just be his own fears magnifying everything for him. At any rate, we ought to be more careful if another creature like Gulo the Savage has arrived." Skipper let out a long sigh.
"He isn't trustworthy," the otter stated, leaving the infirmary before the Abbess could say anything else.
The big day had arrived, and the entire Long Patrol had been turned out. Vaylayna wasn't incredibly excited, as some of the other hares seemed to be, but she was rather interested in seeing the foxmaid. It would be the first 'good' creature she had ever met that was of a kind originally considered 'bad.' At the very least, risking her life to wake a Badger Lord to warn him about others coming in through the window right there and then was, to say the least, interesting and rather recklessly brave of a creature.
Vaylayna stood with the ranks of the Gallopers, just able to see about where the foxmaid would be approaching through a gap between ears and heads. The sun was blaring downwards but she ignored it. She spotted several officers pacing in front of their squads, and Lord Mandoral stood out in the front. Vaylayna flicked a drop of sweat off her head with her left ear, her right ear, as always, erect. The hare in front of her gave a murmur, but quieted as Patchrunner gave him a glare. Next to the green ranks of the Gallopers were rows of the sand-covered Sleepers. Beyond those were blue-clothed duelers, and further along were varying ranks of different colors. Vaylayna blew out of her nostrils, welcoming the sea-breeze that was wafting over the hares. At long last, a speck appeared on the shimmering horizon, and a ripple of excited murmurs spread through the hares.
Rosebrush the Foxmaid was coming.
Mandoral strode out several paces, blocking Vaylayna's view of the speck. She cursed silently in her mind and tilted her head to the side. Although she couldn't mark the exact progress of the fox, she would be able to see her when the fox came a couple hundred-feet closer. An officer shouted at the ranks to be silent, and they did, until Mandoral chuckled and spoke.
"I think Rosebrush wouldn't mind being welcomed with a song. What do you say to that, lads?" Almost immediately, choruses of different songs were sung out by several hares, until Captain Raphael Granden gave them a hard stare.
"Right foot forward, chin up, chest out, shoulders back, the Salamandastron Home in fine style, wot wot! Sing 'er out lads!" Vaylayna felt her voice get lost in the roar as the hares sang out.
"We're coming to Salamandastron!
Where brave hares and badger lords call home!
There we protect these western shores!
And here we 'Eulalia' roars!
Where brave hares and badger lords call home!
We're coming to Salamandastron!
Where we learn how to fight and roam!
Here we play and here we stay,
Scoffing hard as much as we may!
Where brave hares and badger lords call home!
We're coming to Salamandastron!
Where live the best fighters ever known,
We fight, we scoff, we slay, we feast,
From Salamandastron comes this perilous beast!
Where brave hares and badger lords call home!"
They had just come to the fourth verse, when Vaylayna noticed that some front-singers were looking more subdued. They had reached the fourth chorus, when Rosebrush the Foxmaid finally made it into her line of vision. Vaylayna closed her mouth instantly, suppressing a gasp. She had not expected this.
Rosebrush had to be no older than she was herself! The foxmaid reminded Vaylayna instantly of a Seer she had seen on her travels. The black hare had nearly walked into a vermin gang camp, but had managed to duck out, unnoticed, due to some strange ritual the vermin were performing. The Seer, this time a stoat, had been dressed in a black bodice and a black skirt with chunks of crystals sewn in, along with a lot of gold jewelry. The only difference with Rosebrush's costume was that the Foxmaid was wearing a purple bodice and skirt. To Vaylayna, it didn't come as too much of a surprise, but to those who had not seen the vermin world of superstition, the outfit would probably be a major shock. Slung over her shoulder was a satchel, and peeping out from under her skirt was the most elaborate tail Vaylayna had ever seen. Rosebrush had gorgeous brown eyes, which surveyed the Long Patrol from under a flat, wide-brimmed straw hat with the most lurid feathers stuck in. A long rapier was stuck, naked, in a braided, black, leather belt. The fox drew this with a flourish and saluted Lord Mandoral, closing in the gap with a few more paces. Captain Raphael Granden quieted the hares at the final chorus, and, for the first time, Vaylayna heard Rosebrush speak.
"Ah, I see I am back at Salamandastron, where brave hares and badger lords call home!" Her voice had a sweet, but husky quality that Vaylayna had only heard once on her travels, from a mouse from Southsward. There was dead silence until Lord Mandoral spoke.
"Welcome, Lady Rosebrush, back to Salamandastron! Hares, let us greet her with our loud war cry!"
As Vaylayna was deafened by the roar of 'Eulalia!' she secretly felt relieved she had not put her name in to travel with this fox.
Dinner time in Salamandastron was unusually subdued, and Vaylayna found herself somehow enjoying it much more. The absence of the normal food fights was a blessing in itself, and somehow she could tell Mandoral was thinking along the same lines. With an honored, albeit shocking guest in their midsts, the hares became very well-behaved, passing food politely and talking quieter. However, as always, they ate a lot. There was no stopping that.
Up at the head of the table, Rosebrush was sitting next to Lord Mandoral. She had left off her lurid hat, but the rest of her outfit was the same. Her skirt tinkled as she shifted her position, chewing thoughtfully at a scone before turning to Lord Mandoral.
"I believe that barnacle goose told ya about me wantin' a hare to travel with, f' company?" Lord Mandoral nodded, taking a bite out of a homely, wheat roll.
"Well I forgot ta mention, that I want one that don't eat too much. See, although my foraging skills are legendary . . ." Sergeant O'Cragg let out a very large cough at this. Rosebrush turned to him sweetly, showing her fangs in a grin. "Ah yes, I do believe they are. As I was saying, before being so rudely interrupted, I ain't gonna forage me paws out from under me for one of those hulkin' buckos, and I don't know how y'all at Salamandastron survive it, but I just ain't. So if ya got any ones who signed up who don't eat too much, well yeah." She leaned back and rested two elegantly shod foot-paws on the table, taking a sip from some lemon-grass cordial. Mandoral sighed and turned to Sergeant O'Cragg, replying to the fox.
"I do believe we have some 'normal eaters' here, as you might say, Rosebrush my dear. Sergeant, you have the lists. Have any of them signed up?" O'Cragg threw a salute and whipped out a long paper. Rosebrush watched idly, picking her teeth with one long claw.
"Lessee, Lieutenant Ripbob . . . nope, Colonel Sandsharp . . . nope . . ." Rosebrush's face fell as O'Cragg's did. She removed her paws from the table as Sergeant O'Cragg let out a sigh.
"H'I'm afraid none of them did, Sah!" Lord Mandoral raised an eyebrow. Sergeant O'Cragg continued. "Lieutenant Ripbob, m'guess is that he has too many recruits to train up, which is true, and Colonel Sandsharp, well he's getting along in his age at the moment, wot wot! And Major Pummel is um . . . out of commission, h'I'm afraid, and well the new gel, Vaylayna, she just didn't sign up, sah . . ." Lord Mandoral's eyes wandered down the hall before alighting on the small, black hare, who was starting on some seaweed broth. He let out a long sigh.
"Sure you can't take one of the others? So many of them were excited!"
"Cost ya a Flower of Icetor for that," replied Rosebrush, running her claws through her bushy tail. "An' I know ya don't have none of those, so ya. Guess it won't work out." She let out a large yawn. Lord Mandoral looked uncomfortable. It was common knowledge that Badger Lords lead a strict code of honor, and not being able to pay back someone for saving their life was rather below it.
"I could ask Vaylayna if she'd be willing to. After all, she has been traveling already quite a bit, to come up here, you know." Rosebrush's eyebrows shot up.
"Already been travelin' before, ya say? Sounds perfect! Where's she from if she's not a mountain hare from here?" Rosebrush followed Lord Mandoral's gaze and spotted the black hare.
"Ah," she whispered. "An Eastern Shore Nightshadow Hare . . . lovely." This time it was Lord Mandoral's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"You know of them? I didn't until she showed up." Rosebrush suddenly looked frightened.
"Well, ya see, if'n she don't know the old tales of it all, I guess I could still take her, but if otherwise, she'd probably murder me in me bed, so ya . . ." Lord Mandoral's eyebrows shot even higher.
"You aren't telling everything, Rosebrush," he said, allowing a faint smile to cross his face. She never told everything if she could help it, which improved an air of mystery about her and made creatures want to know more, meaning she got a lot of admirers for a longer amount of time. Rosebrush squirmed uncomfortably.
"Well ya see, it's like this . . . no it ain't it's like . . ." Rosebrush squirmed even more and looked down towards the black hare. She was loosing her composure.
"C'n I not answer? It's just . . . look, I'll take her and bring her up so she won't know, so it'll all be fine. Um, how long has she been here?" Mandoral's eyebrows rose, if possible, higher.
"Two seasons." Rosebrush let out a long sigh of relief, it seemed.
"Ya sure, I'll take her."
"But she hasn't even agreed," Sergeant O'Cragg sniffed. Rosebrush's expression was unreadable.
"Well, if she don't, then we can leave it at that." Lord Mandoral tried to read through Rosebrush's mask.
"Rosebrush, what is it?"
"Never you mind!" she exclaimed, suddenly defensive. Lord Mandoral decided not to press it much further. Through experience, he knew she could probably hold her own for at least ten minutes against the entire Long Patrol. He turned to Lieutenant Sagetip.
"Lieutenant, see if you can go over there and convince her on it. Rosebrush'd like it." Lieutenant Sagetip nodded and stood up, wandering over to the black hare. Lord Mandoral turned once more to Rosebrush.
"Rosebrush, if you do anything to one of my hares, then I'm afraid you're off of my good side for the rest of your life." Rosebrush raised an eyebrow higher than the Badger Lord ever could.
"Course I ain't gonna hurt her, I'm just going ta have her . . . where she won't know, or wanna know."
"What?" exclaimed Lord Mandoral, a low growl rising in his throat. Despite how skilled Rosebrush might be in dueling, she was getting on his nerves, and not knowing something was making him mad. Rosebrush turned away and took a decisive bite of fish.
"It ain't anything bad, promise. It's for both of ours own good, got it?" Mandoral tried to control the boiling emotions inside of him.
"Rosebrush, I won't let you take her unless you tell me what you're hiding." Rosebrush let out a big sigh and set down her plate. She looked over her shoulders, before leaning in close and whispering hurriedly.
"It's just a small feud thingy between us Southswardian Foxes and Nightshadow Hares. Just that. Kay? Us foxes kicked the Nightshadows out of Southsward and forced them up towards the Eastern Shores, and we've been 'at odds' ever since. Happy?" Lord Mandoral sighed.
"Okay. You can bring her if she agrees."
It did not occur to him until days after she had left that Rosebrush still might not have been telling everything.
"Did you hear?"
"A crow's been brought into Redwall Abbey!"
"Apparently so! Injured up and everything too!"
General gossip ran throughout the Abbey the next day concerning the arrival of Blackwind. The main source of the rumors were the dibbuns, who enthusiastically informed their peers with wide tales about the crow.
"And den he attacked Skippa Banjon, like dat!" exclaimed Rilla, a tiny mousemaid with the most adorable brown eyes that won many a Sister's heart. Her wide eyed audience watched as she waved her paws around, continuing onwards. "And den Skippa had ta punch him, powwo! In the face, like dis!" Rilla aimed a tiny fist at Geod, a young otterbabe, who ducked out of the way just in time. Rilla ended up swinging herself around with the force and flopping over onto her back. All the dibbuns watched with their jaws hanging open.
"Skippa fell on his back like dat?" Rilla glared at Geod.
"No, not like dat, dat 'twas an arksident. He puncha crow in the eye and the crow died!" The dibbuns gasped, until one raised his paw.
"But I thought Brudder P'rant was takin' care h'of him in the 'firmary. Why'd he do that if da crow was dead?"
"Because they gotta measure him for da grave, silly," tutted Rilla. The small mole persevered.
"But Geod went up dere today and saw him, and he was alibe." Rilla glared at Geod.
"Ya ruined my story!" she exclaimed. The other dibbuns began murmuring mutinously. She had admitted it had been a story. Rilla attempted to reconcile with herself, but was cut off as Sister Verra entered into their group.
"It's dinner time dibbuns! And the crow said he'd be coming! Won't that be exciting?" Rilla threw a murderous glare at Sister Verra, who evidently did not realize that Rilla had been trying to convince everyone that the crow was dead, and definitely not coming to dinner. The rest of the dibbuns forgot this however, and ran forward, tugging on Verra's apron strings.
"He's comin' to dinner?"
"What do crones eat?"
"Can we touch h'it?"
Redwall's meals were famous around the world. The kitchens were a bustling, hot place full of sumptuous smells that wafted out of the window where pies cooled. Ovens were opened and closed, stews simmered on the stoves and cooks worked busily rolling out pastries, slicing vegetables and cheese, and mixing ingredients in bolls. Friar Bibble wiped his head on a dishcloth, attending to several things at once.
"Seaspray! Stop scoffin' those berries and load them into the cake batter, now!" Seaspray, the young otter who had received the bad-end of a grumpy fish's tail, pulled a long face and scrunched his black eye. He promptly stuffed a pawfull of berries into his mouth, ducked a swipe from Bibble's dishcloth and ran for it. Seaspray crashed straight into Rilla. The mousemaid had evaded Sister Verra at the dinner table with a combination of adorable looks and whimpering, to enter the real source of the food. Rilla cannoned backwards into a trolley with several trays of warm scones on it. Several scones fell out of the tray and onto their heads, and the two gathered the food up, giggling. Rilla suddenly spotted a cutting board with several slices of cheese and a knife on it. Gesturing wildly, she brought Seaspray's attention to it. The two chortled together as they reached up to purloin the pieces, but both received a smack across their paws.
"That cheese is for the guests! Be gone you two!" The duo shot glares at Bibble, but obeyed, leaving the room full of tantalizing smells."We attack da pies next!" As the two made their way through the dusk-covered lawns, little did they know that the aromas wafting from the window was also attracting far more sinister visitors . . .
Two large nostrils contracted and expanded, scenting something on the wind. Forest smells and smells of animals covered it, but yet it was there. It smelled strangely familiar, and it definitely smelled good. The dark figure began tracing the smell, and, fortunately, it was leading him in the direction he was already going. The injured crow was leading him well. He had been wise to let it live, out of all those birds he had killed. It had flapped away, and the great beast new it would go where others who could help it would be. And so he had followed, sure to find some easy prey somewhere . . .
The smell of crow and baking bread led the giant wolverine onwards. Lust for blood took the wolverine forwards, and soon the scents began growing stronger. Rising above the trees, was a far away, red-stoned tower-top. Distantly the wolverine heard a bell ringing out.
This would be his next stop, his next calling card at another place, before he reached his destination.
"Why? Why?" A brown-clad figured massaged his forehead. She had not warned him about this new evil at all when it left her cold realm. She knew it would come towards him next, but she had not told him. Why? And so he had to deal with it all on his own, without any warning whatsoever. How to . . . just how to . . . At the very least, however, he would not repeat her mistake. He would warn the Others.
Three red-tailed hawks flew high into the sky, giving shrieking cries to the wind. They separated, heading for different points of the compass, flying with the wind.
Breakfast the next day and Vaylayna still hadn’t decided. She didn’t really want to, but then again, she was the only one who really could. She had thought her destination for the rest of her life would be Salamandastron . . . but then she didn’t mind that much if she went traveling once again. After all, surely Rosebrush would come back to visit, wouldn’t she? And maybe that time she’d take some other hares, and Vaylayna still could live her seasons out at Salamandastron Galloping. What was a couple seasons out wandering to her? She still had plenty of her life left and . . .
Vaylayna froze as she felt Rosebrush sweep past her. Good thing she can’t read minds . . . She squirmed uncomfortably. For some strange reason Rosebrush really seemed to be wanting someone to accompany her as she continued wandering, more than Lieutenant Sagetip had made it out, at any rate. Maybe it was for own selfish motives of someone to talk to, or maybe, as Vaylayna seemed to feel, it was a bit more than that. It didn’t help her decide. Maybe she could just go, to please and help the foxmaid, and gain some more experience and wisdom on traveling . . . After all, Mandoral seemed to really want to repay the foxmaid somehow, but Vaylayna couldn’t shake off that feeling of something still unknown that was hovering over Rosebrush. It always seemed to be that way around the fox, and if she was going to be traveling for a few seasons with the creature, then she didn’t know if she wanted to always have that itching feeling of wanting to know something more, that you knew was there, but you didn’t know what.
Vaylayna blew a long sigh and looked over at the fox. Vaylayna couldn’t eat her breakfast, not with this weighty question hanging over her, and the hares around her were not helping.
“Come on Laney, wot wot! We all wanted to go so bad and then she had to blinkin’ well say she didn’t want some bally hare who ate a lot, huh!”
“Vaylaaaaa! Just jolly well do it! It’ll be fun, wot!”
“We all wanted to go so flippin’ well bad and here ya are! Not going, wot wot! Bad form, I say!”
But none of them seemed to notice the feeling of something hidden around Rosebrush, and it was precisely that which made Vaylayna feel uneasy. Something was missing somehow. But yet . . . how could it hurt her?
Vaylayna gritted her teeth. There was no solid, physical reason to not go, just an unknown problem hanging over. She decided to shelve it in her brain. Forget it. She would go, purely for her own and Lord Mandoral’s sake. She would do it.
Little did she know how much that decision would benefit her . . . and hurt her.
“She’ll do it?” exclaimed Rosebrush. She clapped her paws together and squealed. Mandoral had his brawny arms crossed.
“I still don’t think you’re telling everything Rosebrush, and you better be kind to her. Be warned, I have eyes and ears everywhere.” Rosebrush waved an airy paw.
“Let me see . . . Brantalis for the Abbey and Green Isle, Iglarra for the North Coasts, someone in Southsward, psh I know them all, Mandoral, ya can’t hold that one over me.” Mandoral let out a long, angry sigh.
“Promise me you won’t hurt her.” Just like Vaylayna, he felt the aura of unknown hanging around, and he desperately wanted to learn it, yet he had no proof that it was even there. Shaking himself, Mandoral decided to just push it away.
“Promise,” yawned Rosebrush, twirling her rapier. “Never dreamed of hurting her once, just protecting her, so ya!” She skipped off, bushy tail swirling through the air and wafting perfume around. Several young leverets ran up to gawk at her, but she didn’t look at them, intent on heading to the Duelers ring.
The crow was doing well, according to Brother Perant. He had not lost as much blood as could be expected, and his leg had been mended very carefully, and it was set for normal. The only problem was the wing, which Brother Perant applied to long claws raking down and shredding it.
“I don’t know how you ever got hurt like that but it’s possible you won’t be able to fly again, so go very careful.” Blackwind was used to being free in a sense, and he did not like being confined to the Infirmary. As such, he had been begging Brother Perant and Abbess Lycian, when she entered the room, to let him out. At long last, Perant allowed him out for dinner. Only.
A hoarse caw and Blackwind was gone. His leg was splinted and he had a specially made crutch under his un-injured wing. However, his injured wing was folded somewhat awkwardly to his side with a large bandage and poultices applied. Just as he made it several feet away from the Infirmary, Abbess Lycian burst back out waving her paws.
“Blackwind wait! We need to get someone to help you down the stairs, and, frankly, you ought not to be walking like that without more support. Blackwind allowed a hoarse groan to escape his beak, but he dipped his head and struggled back a bit. Abbess Lycian rang a little bell, and the two waited.
He was at least a head taller than her, and his glossy black plumage was rival to her soft tan fur. As the two stood side by side, they made a rather comical image. The Abbess in her green habit, and a black crow with a crutch, splinted leg and a bound up wing. At last, there were heard several pattering paws.
Rilla and Seaspray stood guiltily in front of the Abbess, with all too conspicuous crumbs and berry smears on their mouths, and messy paws behind their backs. The Abbess didn’t notice at first, as she was addressing the large crow.
“I’ve been training some dibbuns to help out with catering to guests. Rilla, Seaspray, meet Mr Bla . . .” Seaspray dropped his paw from scrubbing his mouth. Rilla poked him.
“Why you two! Have you been raiding the pies again?” The two looked at the floor with shuffling paws and paws behind their backs. Suddenly Rilla looked back up again, with a hopeful expression.
“Wot bees ‘reding’?”
“Raiding, Rilla, raiding. It means you were stealing from the pies on the kitchen windows!”
“Oh.” Seaspray didn’t say a word. Blackwind let out a caw of laughter and the two dibbuns looked up, hopeful again. However, Lycian was far from done with them.
“You two are to go to Friar Bibble, apologize to him, and ask if he needs any work whatsoever done. In the meantime, send for Geod and Cubra.” The two dibbuns shuffled guiltily off.
“I do hope you don’t mind the wait,” Lycian said nervously to the large crow. “But we have got to teach them that stealing is wrong.” The crow nodded. For once in his life, he was really feeling welcome in a place that normally did not welcome most of his kind . . . Maybe, for once, he would have a real home here. The walls looked protective against the huge beast that had killed his family, and maybe, maybe he would be able to live the rest of his seasons here in peace and plenty. The roofs looked ideal to Blackwind, but he still hadn’t forgotten why he had left his beloved pine trees, and why his family were dead.
As another chubby otter pup and a tiny squirrel babe helped him hop-skip down the stairs, Blackwind swore he would get revenge for his mother’s death. His mother, and every other crow he had ever known in his old home.
But afterwards, maybe, just maybe, he could stay at Redwall Abbey.
He hadn’t quite expected this. Towering walls of red sandstone rose up above him as he crossed the final gap before entering the shadows of the walls. It was nighttime, and he would explore around the walls then go back to sleep in the forest. The huge black creature moved along the rough sandstone, and encountered a small door in the wall. It was only wooden, and the huge beast gave it an experimental push. It shuddered, but held. Fairly strong, but it wouldn’t hold up against him in the slightest if he tried. Moving forwards, the beast noticed gargoyles sticking out above him, and cubed battlements. He eyed the rough walls, taking in every detail, turning the corner. Further on he encountered another door, and then a huge main door. This one would not give away if he pushed his best, but he still had others at his disposal.
Silently, the huge beast moved onwards. Little did the Abbey know that they were being shadowed.
If she were going to be spending a few seasons of her life with this creature, she might as well get to know her now.
Vaylayna watched the dueler’s ring. The blue-clothed hares disarmed each other one after another, coming from different sides of the ring and clashing at the middle. One arm behind their backs, ears waving and sweat dripping from their eyes, the hares moved in almost a dance as they fought against each other. Vaylayna cooly watched as a saber went sailing over her head. One hare from the ring went diving after it, while the other, chest heaving, flexed his arms and waved his sword in a salute.
“Well done, Hawkeye,” exclaimed Captain Raphael, who was in charge of the duelers. Hawkeye, the handsome, young buck smiled, and twirled his broadsword. He caught Vaylayna’s cool, indifferent eye and gave her a grin. Vaylayna didn’t change her expression one bit as Rosebrush entered the ring, still in her Seer outfit and lurid hat. She twirled the long rapier with a flourish. “Challenge you, young, um . . .” “Hawkeye. Challenge accepted,” Hawkeye replied, saluting her with his saber and taking up his dueler’s stance. Rosebrush hadn’t learned, it, but she didn’t need to. The two met with a clash in the middle and Rosebrush’s rapier caught Hawkeye’s saber. Vaylayna’s eyes widened as the intricate sword dance commenced.
Rosebrush allowed Hawkeye to pressure her rapier down with his saber, but right when Hawkeye brought her sword close to the ground, she flicked it out, took a hop-step back and brought it up in a dangerous cut near his face. Hawkeye barely had time to block it, then the second jab she took at his stomach. Soon, Rosebrush was the only one making offensive moves, and Hawkeye was fighting desperately to block each slash she made.
Rosebrush aimed a brilliant cut at his eye, taking several steps forward with it. Hawkeye whipped out his saber, just managing to stop it before it hit his eye. Rosebrush’s blade caught his and forced it to the side, twisting his thumb. Hawkeye let out a cry of pain and whipped his saber up in an arc. Rosebrush brought her rapier down in an arc, and with a clang the two blades caught each other in the center, sending vibrations down the dueler’s paws. Rosebrush stepped back a bit, as if to allow Hawkeye time to recover. As Hawkeye straightened up, she moved forward stepping, side-stepping, ducking, dodging. She wasn’t even using her blade, but Hawkeye could not ward her off as she avoided each slash he made in her direction. Within a minute, Rosebrush’s blade was at his throat, and she was too close for him to do anything.
“Never!” choked Hawkeye. He did the last desperate move he knew. Kicking up with his strong hind legs, he sent her hurtling from him to the other side of the ring. Halfway through, however, Rosebrush began twirling and she came back like a thunderstorm, despite being winded. The two swords clashed once more, and this time Rosebrush didn’t draw it out. There was a cry of pain from Hawkeye as the pressure on his thumb increased, and he released the sword. It went flying over to the edge, and Vaylayna caught it, eyeing the two duelers. Hawkeye panted, empty-pawed as Rosebrush brought her rapier up, aiming straight for his eyes.
“Halt!” shouted Captain Raphael, running into the ring as Hawkeye stumbled backwards to avoid the rapier point, tripping on a stone. With another clang, Raphael stopped Rosebrush’s rapier.
“Once they’re disarmed, that’s enough,” he glared at the fox. The beautiful brown eyes stared level with him.
“That’s not the way the real world works,” she said quietly. The hare glared at her as she turned away, sheathing her rapier. Hawkeye stood up, clutching his throat.
“Y-you were going to kill me!” Rosebrush watched him levelly.
“Not really, considering I don’t like blood on my blade, but what else do you expect from a vermin?” She left the ring twirling her hat on her finger. Hawkeye watched her, mouth slightly agape, before going over to the black hare.
“Uh thanks,” he said, as Vaylayna held out his rapier. He took it and eyed her.
“You’re the one going with the fox, aren’t you?” he asked quietly. Vaylayna nodded.
“I couldn’t . . .” Hawkeye whispered, lounging against the railing around the ring next to her. “Not after that.” Vaylayna allowed herself a grim smile.
“I don’t know how you’re going to fair,” he continued, eyes traveling down the array of belts full of knives over her shoulders. “She’d get you before you could draw one of those.” Vaylayna’s eyes flashed. Unknowingly, Hawkeye had touched upon one of her touchy subjects.
“Sometimes a knife can reach further than a sword,” she said quietly. She drew one of her knives. It was gone from her paw faster than Hawkeye could think.
“Wha-where did it go?” he asked, bewildered.
The sparkling pommel stone on the hilt of the knife was flashing exactly across the ring from them. Vaylayna allowed herself another smile, before she stepped forward and crossed the ring, avoiding a second bout of fighters. She drew the knife out of the wood with a heave and then strode over to the exit of the ring, green scarves fluttering from her wrists. Surprisingly, Hawkeye walked over to join her.
"How come you don't talk like . . . 'the others'?" he asked, sheathing his saber. Vaylayna raised an eyebrow.
"You don't either."
"I wasn't born here," Hawkeye said, with pride in his voice.
"Neither was I," Vaylayna replied. Hawkeye looked at her, as if for the first time.
"You're that Nightshadow Hare!" he exclaimed. Vaylayna nodded cooly.
"Problem with that?"
"No," replied Hawkeye. "I'm from the Northern Mountains, but I lost the accent." He winked at her. Vaylayna nodded and veered away from the handsome buck, but, too late, realized she was heading right towards Rosebrush.
"Lovely," the foxmaid said, flashing a sharp-fanged smile. "We can take a walk together! Cause we ain't a'fore, and we're going to be." She winked just like Hawkeye and steered Vaylayna to the ocean-side. The view from Salamandastron was breathtaking, but Vaylayna didn't notice it.
"That was a handsome young hare," Rosebrush said cheekily, whipping out her rapier and swinging it through the air. "Although not as good a sword fighter as me." Vaylayna nodded absently, not exactly paying attention. She was feeling, once again, slightly put off by that feeling of unknowing.
"He seemed to like talking to you," Rosebrush continued. Vaylayna didn't change her expression one bit. "Or maybe more than that," Rosebrush added. Vaylayna's left ear twitched.
"How could you say that? That's outrageous! We've never talked before in our life and . . ."
"He's very handsome," Rosebrush steamrollered her. Vaylayna was affronted.
"Well now that I'm going with you I won't have time to find out," Vaylayna retorted. Rosebrush's eyes twinkled.
"Sure . . . sure . . ." She whirled off back to Salamandastron, huge, bushy, red tail waving. "See ya tonight!" the fox shouted over her shoulder.
Vaylayna was still speechless at the idea of Hawkeye, when they had never met before that day. She shrugged it off though, and continued walking in the small wavelets of the ocean. She wouldn't be doing this again any time soon if she were leaving Salamandastron. She sniffed suddenly at the thought but shook it off. It was okay, she would only be gone for a few seasons, and Rosebrush didn't sound like a bad creature . . . maybe.
Then once again Vaylayna felt overwhelmed by that strange feeling. Rosebrush was hiding something, but there wasn't any proof. She only felt it. Vaylayna shuddered and, once again, tried to push it off. It would be okay. She herself didn't tell everyone everything, but the stuff she hid had nothing to do with them so they shouldn't be worried about it . . . Then Vaylayna understood. Rosebrush was hiding something, and it involved her. That's what the feeling was. Something about her was being hidden from her, and by Rosebrush. But she couldn't prove it, and that was what frustrated her most. Vaylayna blew a long sigh through her nose and splashed off back to Salamandastron.
As she entered the cool, rock fortress, she dismissed the feeling she had with Rosebrush. She'd already decided to go, let it be left at that.
Tribsy winced as he was spattered with crumbs. Blackwind certainly was enjoying himself. The mole scooted away, down the bench, murmuring to his friend Girry.
"Hurr, us'n's gonna be etten out a house 'n' home," he mumbled, watching several scones vanish into the hard beak.
"Speak f' y'self," said Girry with his mouth full. He swallowed. "How many sandwiches have you eaten today? Um . . . twenty?" Tribsy patted his round stomach.
"Hurr, I et . . ." Tribsy counted it off on his big digging claws. "Noine, ten, eleventy . . . Oi think I et fif'een today."
"Huh, some Foremole," snorted Girry. Tribsy scowled and picked up a farl of bread. He packed it with cheese and forced it into his mouth, chewing away.
"Oi can't help it, sangwiches are moi fav'rite foods," Tribsy chortled. Girry watched the large crow clumsily try a trifle, beak smeared with cream, his odd crutch held askew. The dinner festivities continued with much joy as the Abbey members ate with gusto. No one gave a thought to the dark night outside. None of them noticed a small dark shape sliding over the top of the walls and into the Abbey grounds.
Searching brown eyes surveyed the golden windows. Ears twitched as they took in the sound of laughter and chattering. A tail waved behind him as he padded silently down the stairs. A small, pointed iron rod was drawn out of the draping sleeve. The dark figure's eyes scanned the lawns. A faint smile flickered across the face, and the figure paced towards the wall. Slowly, a message was carved into the red sandstone as the sounds of merriment continued from the Abbey. A final dot was gouged out of the wall, then a dark shape vanished.
He had done his job. They were warned. It was up to them and the Lord to take care of the rest.
Rilla mutinously scrubbed at a sticky pot, purposefully not doing a good job. Her adorable brown eyes were narrowed as soapsuds built up around her.
Across the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, Seaspray was supposed to be scrubbing out an oven, but he was only really moving when Friar Bibble sent glances in his direction. At the moment, Friar Bibble was busy rolling out a pastry dough, and Seaspray saw his chance. No one was watching him or Rilla.
Seaspray dropped his rag and went dashing helter-skelter through the legs of kitchen helpers. Rilla turned around, spotted him, hopped off her stool and the two linked paws. Seaspray frantically looked over his shoulder, before taking a running leap. The two went sailing together out of the window, landing, with a crunch, inside a bush.
“Run!” exclaimed Rilla, jerking the otter out of the bush. Ignoring the leaves and twigs stuck in their clothing, and their bruises, the two took off. Just as they managed to get out of the light from the windows, Friar Bibble stuck his head out the window.
The babes held their breaths as they crouched under a large tree. Bibble retreated into the kitchen, shaking his head. Seaspray let out a sigh and scrubbed his paws in the grass.
“Icky, yucky, ubens!” Rilla placed a paw in her mouth but quickly spat it out. She imitated Seaspray and rubbed the soapsuds and dishwater out of her paws.
“What’re us’n’s gonna do?” she asked, sitting up and smoothing her creased pinafore. The young otter’s green eyes looked into her brown ones.
“I dunno, what’choo think?”
“We finda place to hide,” Seaspray nodded wisely.
“Okay.” The two held paws, thick rudder-like tail and thin mouse-tail entwined. The two backs vanished into the shadows as the duo toddled away. The darkness inside the Abbey grounds swallowed them up.
Geod had also evaded the Great Hall, finding it stuffy and oppressive. He still held a bowl full of candied chestnuts, which he stuffed down one after another. It was dark outside, and he giggled, thinking about what the Sisters and Brothers would think if he escaped. He moved away from the golden windows, when he heard a loud giggle. Geod raised an eyebrow and stumbled towards the sound. There was a voice, which he immediately recognized as that mousemaid, Rilla’s.
“It’s’a writin’.” A second voice replied to hers.
“How c’n you tell? I’s all dark!”
“I c’n feel it, can’t you?”
“No, I can’t- oh, I feel it. How d’ya know it’s writin’ though?”
“Shoopid, it feels like writin’.”
“I dunno what it says, though.” Geod reached in front of him in the dark, and his paw encountered fur. There was a shriek.
“Who dere! What happenin’?”
“Who’s dere?” asked Geod, pressing in.
“Seaspray?” The two cousins tried to make each other out, and then the mousemaid.
“Oh, him,” sniffed Rilla.
“What’cha lookin’ at?” Geod asked.
“Dis, feel it.” Geod could barely see anything, but he felt his paw sized and pressed against the warm sandstone. There were gouge marks in it.
“I fink it’s writin’,” the fat otter said. Rilla snorted.
“Dat’s what I said.”
“What’s it say though?”
“How’re us’n’s ‘apposed to know? I can’t read, and i’s all dark!”
“Don’t step on me!”
“It must’a been you, Geod!”
“I c’n’t see though! How’s I apposed to know your foot was dere?”
“Stop pushin’ me!”
“He step on me foot!”
The argument in the dark escalated.
Skipper Banjon flexed his paws and was about to mount the wall steps to do a little voluntary guard work when he heard bickering in the corner. The words made him know instantly that it was dibbuns.
Geod had just accidentally punched Seaspray in the dark when large, strong paws swept all three dibbuns up.
“Harrharr, me maties. What’re you doin’ here?” asked Skipper. He looked from Seaspray, to Geod, to Rilla.
“Well, if it isn’t Droplet’s and her sister’s babe, along with this curmudgeon!”
Rilla kicked out as Skipper turned back to the golden light streaming through the windows.
"Us'n's 'scaping! Don't bring us back dere!"
"Escaping, you say? Well how about we escape to the dormitory, where Sister Verra won't find you?" The trio considered it for a while, then feel into the trap.
"Okay, we escape to the dormit'ry."
In the excitement of escaping, the writing on the wall was forgotten.
Maybe it wasn’t too bad, being with this fox. Vaylayna had strangely found herself with nothing to do in Salamandastron, despite many other busy hares. Rosebrush had, likewise, been lazing around after her time in the dueler’s ring, and the two made an inside truce, and had, already, started hanging out with each other. The more time she spent with the spunky fox, the less Vaylayna noticed the feeling of unrest and hidden knowledge, and the more she started almost enjoying the company of the fox. She, at the very least, was learning a lot from her, despite however she disliked the fox’s costume.
“See that,” Rosebrush said, twirling her soft paws in the direction of a hare walking by, talking with a peer. “Know why he ain’t out on a patrol or sumpin’?” Vaylayna’s eyes scanned his retreating figure.
“Well he had a badge on the front,” Rosebrush said wisely. “Know what it said?”
“Procrastinator. That’s what. Ya officer’s must have a sense of humor to make badges for that, but it’s m’ guess he wasn’t chosen to go on patrol due to the fact he procrastinates so much he don’t show up.” Vaylayna rarely showed any emotion on her face, but she allowed herself a brief smile at the moment. The two were lounging against the stone walls of a large main hallway in the honeycomb of passages in Salamandastron. Rosebrush was twirling her rapier in one paw, and Vaylayna had been polishing one of her knives, although she’d stopped to listen to Rosebrush. She had discovered an uncanny ability of observation inside the foxmaid, and she was learning a lot from it.
“Now see that,” Rosebrush continued, aiming her paw at the blank wall across from them. Vaylayna raised an eyebrow as he black eyes roamed over the walls.
“What about it?”
“See that flowin’ pattern? Well, m’ guess is that this passage was either hollowed out by a river of some sorts. A river of either water or molten lava, considerin’ this was a volcano.” Rosebrush nodded brightly. Vaylayna’s eyebrow rose higher.
“Of course,” Rosebrush added hastily. “You can’t tell very well considerin’ some hares or sumpin’ carved it a bit. But if ya notice . . .” Vaylayna’s black eyes widened as she spotted the flowing pattern. It somewhat reminded her of the pattern the sand made beside the water, yet it was different somehow, and definitely solid rock. Rosebrush nodded, stroking her long curved fangs. Vaylayna picked up her rag, but realized, too late, that it had gone cold. She always washed her knives with steaming, hot water, since the water would evaporate faster and not stay behind to rust. She stood up and weaved over to the kitchens, calling back over her shoulder.
“Getting more hot water!” Rosebrush nodded, flashing her fangs in a grin.
“Be in my room, Laney! Gotcha! See me up there, guest chamber thingy next to the infirmary, or whatever that place is.”
The kitchen was bustling as Vaylayna heated up a kettle of hot water on one of the oven fires.
“Jolly good, Brighteye, now get the blinkin’ scones outa the oven ‘afore they flippin’ well burn!” The kitchen helper, a female leveret, saluted and dashed off. The head cook turned around and spotted Vaylayna.
“Now what c’n I do, fer you, wot wot?”
“Hot water,” Vaylayna replied. The judging brown eyes sized up her knives, green Galloper’s tunic and fluttering, gauzy scarves. He raised an eyebrow.
“So you’re the lucky gel who got off with that blinkin’ foxgel, eh, wot? Well kudos to you.” He whirled around and bawled orders at several helpers stirring different pots. Vaylayna groaned slightly, before wrapping a dishcloth around the iron handle of the kettle and pouring the hot water into a small metal pail. Grabbing her rag and leaving the kitchen, Vaylayna decided to join the foxmaid in her chamber. After all, why not? She might as well get used to Rosebrush now, as she’d be spending several seasons at the least with her. Besides, she didn’t have anything else to do.
Rosebrush’s chambers were significantly more elegant than the normal troop barracks. Positioned next to the infirmary, it was a circular room with an open, bird’s-eye view of the sea. There was a woven bedspread and several stone shelves, with weapons hanging on pegs on the rough walls. Rosebrush was bouncing exuberantly on the bedsprings, her rapier leaning against the wall and her feathered hat hanging off a peg.
“Goody! You’re here!” she exclaimed, bouncing around to face Vaylayna. She eyed the steaming pail.
“Still cleaning those things?” she said in mock surprise. Vaylayna didn’t reply but sat down on a wooden stool, dipping her rag in the hot water.
“How many have ya got? Twenty?” Vaylayna blew a sigh through her nose. She decided to just tell Rosebrush.
“Four behind my back, six in the front on these belts, two on either side of my waist, which is . . . fourteen. Two strapped underneath my feet, two hidden inside my scarves, five hidden in random places of my clothing, one glued to the inside of my ear and I think that’s it.” Rosebrush stopped bouncing and began counting off her claws.
“Twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, wait no, twenty-five, nevermind, make that twenty three, and then with the other one . . .”
“It’s twenty-four,” Vaylayna said cooly. Rosebrush leaned back on her bed and placed her paws behind her head.
“Well you’re certainly prepared, Vayla. So that’s why you never bend your right ear.”
“Be prepared,” Vaylayna echoed softly, as she chose her favorite knife and began cleaning the blade with the hot water. It was a perfect blade, completely straight, keen-edged and narrowed down to a perfect, deadly point. The hilt was bound with a tough form of barkcloth, and the pommel stone was a jet stone.
“That’s a nice knife,” Rosebrush said cheerfully, picking up her rapier and twirling it.
“It was my father’s.”
“Ya, this wasn’t m’ father’s, but it was the one who acted like my father ta me’s.”
“M’ father died in Southsward, where I come from, but the one who mentored me and stuff, asides for the hares here, this was his.” Vaylayna paused her knife-cleaning to look at the rapier. It was a slender blade with a basket-hilt. It was very plain, but yet a beauty shown through the plainness and it was as straight as a die.
“Nice, huh?” Rosebrush said idly. For some reason, the rapier interested Vaylayna. Or maybe it was the one who had borne it . . .
“Who was your mentor?” the black hare asked, pulling out a small jar of pine-oil and dipping the corner of her rag in it.
“Oh,” said Rosebrush airily. “A fox I met who taught me lots of stuff and bequeathed this on me. He vanished, ya know, I don’t know why, but I had to catch up with that band of refugees from Southsward, and then I came here, and ya know.” Vaylayna wasn’t satisfied with that answer, as a creature could rarely be satisfied with knowing everything around Rosebrush. The black hare didn’t press it further, however, as she polished the knife with the oil. Rosebrush licked her rapier blade, gave an evil grin, and then yawned.
“So um, how’s it like where you’re from?” Rosebrush asked Vaylayna.
“Lonely. All my siblings left the Eastern Shores at least once in their life. Usually they’ll come back, but when they do they usually marry off and don’t live in the same house as I do. My older brother left a few weeks before I did, but . . .” And Vaylayna was too overwhelmed for words. All her siblings had come back once to the Eastern Shores, but she, herself, felt, no, knew that she would not be. She couldn’t understand how she knew, and she couldn’t prove it, like she couldn’t prove Rosebrush was hiding anything, but that was that. The knowledge that she would not see her family again was too saddening to Vaylayna, but there it was again. She didn’t know why or how she knew she wasn’t going back.
“But ya got a lot of company here,” Rosebrush continued on.
“Yes,” Vaylayna replied automatically, sheathing her knife and standing up. “Well I’m going back to my quarters. See you . . . later.”
“Bye ya, Layna.”
Back in the female side of the Gallopers’ barracks, Vaylayna tried to grasp that feeling of sorrow. There was absolutely nothing stopping her from going back to her family, but why did she know she wasn’t? Would something happen in the future that would prevent her? But what possibly could?
It was nighttime, and Vaylayna had been detailed on the second seawatch. The breezes were chilling, but she brought a cloak with her. Three other young hares joined her and they built a fire together. One young buck, a lean hare named Jurian, was in charge.
"Alright, wot wot! You two keep an eye on the blinkin' ocean, and we'll relieve you in one jolly ol' hour. An' you, keep the flippin' fire going, f' now, wot." Vaylayna nodded and stood up, making a makeshift torch out of a branch of driftwood.
"I'll get more driftwood for it," she said quietly. Her cloak fluttered behind her as she aimed for the edge of the sea, collecting debris along the way. Behind her, the glow of the fire faded away as she walked along the ocean, although the burning brand she held in one paw lit the way up around her. The crashing waves beat themselves against the shore, determined to crush the sands. A seagull's call was heard in the sky, and a cold wind picked up. Winter would be coming soon. Vaylayna tasted salt on her lips as she picked up different pieces of wood. She only had four days left at Salamandastron, and she would enjoy it here while she could. The familiar sands crunched underneath her boots, and the wind nearly forced her eyelids shut. Her long ears fluttered behind her, and she winced as her right ear bent, pricking itself on the concealed knife. Taking a deep breath of the salt-laden air, Vaylayna paced back to the distant firelight with her armful of driftwood.
That same night, far away, cross sand dunes, marshes and Mossflower woods, a lone black creature sat quietly, plotting. Shaggy, dark fur covered bulging muscles and brawny arms. The blunt face ended in long, jagged, sharp teeth, and the deep black eyes ran over the large red bulk before it. Redwall Abbey wouldn't be too easy to infiltrate, considering he was only one beast, but if he only made one trip then it wouldn't be that bad. Then, his real enemy would know he was coming, and nothing she could do against him would stop it. After all, was he not sent by the great Lord of Hellgates? Her Lord, the Lord of the Dark Forest, could do nothing against him. She would feel the agony of his long claws before he moved on to follow the commands of his Lord. Behind him, he was already leaving a trail of destruction.
In the end, Rilla realized that escaping to the Dormitory was a trick. But it was far too late to do anything, considering Skipper had tied her to her small truckle bed. She struggled against the sheets bound over her, and tried to bite at them. Seaspray had been carried to his parents, but Rilla was an orphan and she slept with other dibbuns in the Dormitory. Unfortunately, they all were still down at dinner. The mousemaid regretted escaping out of the Kitchen window, and she felt her stomach rumble. Skipper would be so in for it when she went after him, which would be after she got out of her bed. Finally, the mousemaid gave up and slumped back against her pillows, brown eyes glaring through the sheet bound across her chest. Moonlight streamed in through a crack in the curtains over a window, and Rilla huffed at it. With nothing to do, and far too wide awake to sleep, Rilla ended up just thinking.
She thought back to her epic re-telling of Skipper Banjon and the Crow, how it went crashing around her ears, and how much she was disliking Geod. Then dinner had come, and she had seen Blackwind. The crow was not how she had imagined him, as she had envisioned the bird as a huge, black, shadow creature of some sorts, with wings and breathing fire. But, as always, her imagination went ahead of her and Blackwind had terribly disappointed the mousemaid. Top that off with having to wash dishes. It wasn't fair! She was only a little dibbun, and she shouldn't be made to wash dishes! But then she had escaped with Seaspray. How fun, except for falling in the bushes. Then that brat Geod just had to show up as they were discovering writing on the wall.
Rilla froze. The moonlight was so strong now, that surely she would be able to read the writing now, wouldn't she? She did mostly pay attention in Abbey School, unlike Seaspray, and she knew fairly well how to read. The curious dibbun wanted to read the message.
As if on cue, Sister Verra opened the Dormitory door, and light flooded in.
"Rilla! How did you ever get tied to the bed like that!"
"Skippa did it," Rilla scowled, as a flood of dibbuns rushed in to their beds. Verra quickly freed Rilla, muttering about the irresponsibility of the otter chieftain, before turning to deal with some pillow fights, which had already started.
Rilla the Mousemaid shot out of the Dormitory door with a giggle, and was gone before Sister Verra could even turn around.
Cavern Hole and the stairs were eerily lit by the moonlight shining through the stain-glass windows. Rilla paused and hid behind a pillar as several kitchen helpers rushed by. She groaned as she remembered that the Elders still would be eating in the Great Hall. But maybe they would be noisy enough that she could get by . . . or maybe she could just go through the closet window!
A broom-closet held several cleaning supplies, which were eerily lit up as the door creaked open. Rilla padded in and looked up at the shuttered window in the back of the closet. Unfortunately, being a dibbun has its limits and she couldn't reach the handle. Looking around, the mousemaid grabbed a broomstick and staggered with it over. She prodded the shutters and they creaked open, allowing a draft inside. Grinning evilly, Rilla pulled a bucket over and placed it upside down, forming a stool. She huffed and pulled, struggling to get herself over the sill. With a squeak, she tumbled headlong outside the Abbey.
Rubbing her head, Rilla stood up and brushed her pinafore down. She looked back over her shoulder and giggled at the open window. She was out. She was free, and none of the Elders would go after her. This had to be one of the first times a dibbun escaped in all history! Maybe . . .
Rilla dabbed a paw on her snout and headed off in the direction of the east corner, where she imagined the writing was. The moon, now fully risen, lit up the path before her with a white light. Rilla giggled and dashed in and out of shadows, until she reached the wall. Clearly illuminated and carved into the red sandstone was the message. Rilla stood on her tiptoes and tried to read it, slowly processing and piecing the letters and words together. Slowly the message came to her as she read it off the sandstone in the moonlight.
She had just finished it when someone grabbed her around the waist and lifted her up. She let out a shrill squeak.
"Lemmee down! I wanna read it!"
"You little curmudgeon! You escaped!" Girry tried to keep a tight hold of the struggling mousebabe, but she popped out of his arms and backed against the wall. Girry crossed his arms and blocked her way from running off.
"If I hadn't been on my way to the gatehouse, you would have caught your death of cold by staying out here!" he said reprovingly.
"I went ta read the writing," Rilla scowled.
“Writing, what writing?” Girry asked distractedly.
“There, shoopid!” Girry’s eyes followed the line of Rilla’s paw. It pointed directly to something carved out on the wall that Girry had never seen before, despite how many times he had passed that way. The squirrel stepped forward and his eyes widened. The moonlight lit up the poem perfectly, and slowly Girry read it out.
“An evil filled darkness spreads,
A lone great beast to Redwall treads,
Foll’wing the black-winged stranger.
Who led him, unknowing the danger.
Five will protect the red walls,
Two come straight from the great halls,
Innocent, young, unblemished,
One brown eye and one ocean mist.
Two, from far western shores,
Separated by great wars,
Yes together they remain,
Although that be one’s bane.
One traveller from clan withdrew,
Joining up with warriors two,
Although from a race once hated,
He a good-beast to be was fated.
These five will lift the weight,
Even though the cost is great,
Soon the evil will be gone,
And all shall be over and done.”
Girry gasped, not noticing the flash of tan that announced Rilla’s escape. Girry ran his paw over the message, before standing up and running as fast as he could back to the Abbey building.
Meanwhile, Rilla dashed giggling off in the direction of the east wall door. It was the one door whose handle she could reach, and she had made up her mind to really escape. The moonlight shone so brightly she didn’t need any light as she lifted the bar by reaching as high up as she could and pushing. The door creaked open, and, with a loud giggle, the mousemaid was gone.
But a door is not only a way to exit, it is also a way to enter.
A rust-colored red-tailed hawk fluttered towards a hidden valley. He did not see the dip until he was directly above it, and marveled how no one could see it otherwise. Diving, the bird entered the valley. The wings snapped out, stopping the dive feet from the ground. The hawk glided over the ground, looking for the creature he needed to give his message to. A fierce and beautiful array of flowers covered the floor of the valley as far as eye could see. Small houses were set in the valley, and as he flew through, curious eyes peeked out of the doorways. Then the hawk saw precisely where he wanted to go. A large, stone castle with climbing roses decorating the walls rose out of the valley. Bouquets were set in every window, and gaily colored pennants waved from the tower top. It was the deepest part of the valley, so the highest tower still did not rise above ground level. The hawk saw a wide open window and aimed for it, fluttering between pillars. At last he was there. The hawk's bright eyes took in the sight in front of him. He slowly raised his leg, bearing the brown scroll.
"Wake up wake up wake up we're going now!!" Vaylayna was rudely awoken by Rosebrush, who was almost literally hopping on her.
"Wh-what? How? Why? When?" Vaylayna stuttered as she tried to sit up. Rosebrush roughly pushed a large haversack at her, her brown eyes full of excitement.
"What? We're going. How? We're walking. Why? Because I need to. When? Now! So get up Vaylayna! Get your knives and walking stick and let's go, go go!!" Vaylayna was utterly bewildered as she grabbed her knife-loaded belts from next to her bed. She was surprised to see the Galloper barracks completely empty, as she looped her belt over her shoulder.
"But I haven't prepared anything!" Vaylayna muttered, feeling utterly put out by this sudden change of plan. Rosebrush rapped her on the head with a walking stick, before handing it to her.
"Don't matter! I did for you! Let's go! The Long Patrol's turned out and Mandoral's got every’un on the shore to say farewell!"
"How come no one told me!?" asked Vaylayna desperately, as she grabbed the haversack and walking stick.
“Cause I only knew I had ta leave early this mornin’!” Vaylayna felt her paw sized and she was immediately pulled off in the direction of the front hall.
“But I haven’t eaten breakfast or anything!” Vaylayna panicked, as she saw the Long Patrol, once again, standing in ranks outside of the front door. It felt strange to be the one they were expecting, and not standing among their ranks.
“Stop giving excuses! We have ta go! Let’s move!”
“Go where?” Vaylayna asked.
“Tell ya later let’s get out there!” Rosebrush pulled Vaylayna through the ranks of the staring hares, and Vaylayna felt her cheeks get warm. Her tunic was creased and her scarves were limp and wrinkled, and her fur had not been brushed. Rosebrush didn't seem to notice at all. Rosebrush charged up the ranks until she nearly tripped at the feet of Lord Mandoral, but she stopped herself just in time, skidding to a halt. Vaylayna managed not to crash into Rosebrush as well, panting.
“Sorry f’ leavin’ so early and all,” Rosebrush said breathlessly. “But the news Savazza brought me, well . . .”
“I understand,” Mandoral said calmly.
“Well we’re going,” Rosebrush said brightly, furiously shaking Mandoral’s gauntleted arm. Mandoral evidently hadn’t though Rosebrush was this in a hurry. “Fare thee well!” the fox said, blowing a kiss at the ranks of the Long Patrol. Then she grabbed Vaylayna’s paw, and jogged off in a swirl of purple skirts. Vaylayna turned around and waved at Patchrunner and her fellow Gallopers, allowing a tear to form on her cheek, before she was whisked off by Rosebrush.
“Well, h’I don’t think she was in much of a hurry to say goodbye, wot, sah!” sniffed Sergeant O’Cragg. Mandoral nodded.
“But I could tell Savazza had brought news that was very important to Rosebrush, and so she’s gone. Long Patrol! Dismiss!” The hares broke apart, some of them muttering about the ungratefulness of the fox for leaving so fast, but most seemed glad of life returning to how it had always been.
Vaylayna had to jog to keep up with Rosebrush’s fast pace. Rosebrush seemed very excited and strangely apprehensive about something, and Vaylayna wanted answers.
“Where are we going and why are we leaving this abruptly?” she asked, rolling her shoulders so the haversack would sit better. Rosebrush slowed down her walk.
“Suppose ya oughta know. See, my mentor I told ya about? He’s been sighted again, after spending seasons vanished ta who knows where. I’ve got to find him, I just have to.”
“Who’s Savazza?” asked Vaylayna, thankful for the slower walk.
“She’s m’ pet bird, a mockingbird, but she flies where she will and she only shows up if there’s somethin’ important to tell me.” Vaylayna looked around. Salamandastron was already growing smaller behind them, although she could still make out Patchrunner’s figure and several other officers in front of it. Mandoral was very easy, considering he was the largest of them all. She faced the front again, taking in their surroundings. They were walking through sand-hills which Vaylayna had Galloped around many times. She could faintly hear the sea crashing in the distance, and could still taste salt on her lips, but they were moving in an angle away from the shore, heading eastward.
“Where are we going then? Where was he sighted?” Vaylayna asked as her stomach rumbled.
“Oh sorry,” Rosebrush said, stopping. “You h’ain’t eaten yet, have ya? Well I packed food for several days in that haversack, and while we’re at it, you might as well learn how ta forage.”
“I know how to forage,” Vaylayna said as she swung the haversack down from her shoulder and opened it. The two slowed down as the black hare munched on wheat-bread stuffed with cheese.
“Oh yeah I forgot, you were the one who already went travelin’ afore. Well, let’s see what ya got!”
The sun rose higher as the two showed each other how to forage different foods. Vaylayna knew more about getting food from forests, but Rosebrush was an expert at finding food from the sand.
“See, I come from Southsward,” she explained as the two chewed on some sour-tasting grass Rosebrush had found. “Dry, hot, southern lands, ya know. Lots of sand, although maybe not as much as this.” Vaylayna nodded and cut in as the two trekked onwards.
“But you still haven’t told me where we’re going.” Rosebrush groaned to herself and supplied the answer.
“Yes Redwall Abbey.”
“Why Redwall Abbey?”
“Why are we going to Redwall Abbey?”
“Because that’s near where Savazza saw me ol’ mentor, and we might as well stop there, cause that’s where I was planning to go anyways.”
“Ever heard of the food?” Rosebrush said, a dreamy expression crossing her face. “I’ve heard so much about it, and I really really wanted ta visit someday, but I didn’t dare cause I’m a fox. But now that I got a hare with me, then they’ll know I’m a ‘goodbeast’ and they’ll let me in.” Rosebrush made quotation marks with her claws at the word ‘goodbeast.’
“Mmm.” Vaylayna frowned.
“But if we’re going to an Abbey, why are you wearing . . . that?” Vaylayna gestured at Rosebrush’s outfit. Rosebrush looked down at herself, vaguely amused.
“Simple. If’n we meet up with a vermin of some sorts, I c’n bluff it through as a Seer, and you’ll be my slave. If we meet up with a mouse or sumpin’, you can just tell them everythin’.”
“But I have an extra outfit, if ya’re worried.” Rosebrush flashed her fangs at Vaylayna and patted her bulging satchel.
“I don’t look much like a slave though,” Vaylayna thought out loud.
“Hmm, ya right,” Rosebrush mused. She stopped in the valley between two dunes and picked up a pawfull of damp sand.
“Here,” she said, rubbing it into Vaylayna’s tunic. “Much better. But ya’re gonna have ta do sumpin’ about those knives and scarves.”
“I’m not getting rid of them,” Vaylayna said protectively.
“Shove ‘em inta the haversack. They won’t search us if they think I’m a Seer.” Unwillingly, Vaylayna took off her belts and gently placed them on top of the food, along with her gauzy green scarves.
“Ya, you’re good,” Rosebrush grinned as the two started off again. Vaylayna looked behind her, and saw that Salamandastron was even further away. She couldn’t make out any creatures on the shore at all. Vaylayna sighed and faced the front again, squaring her shoulders and picking up her pace. She’d be back, she consoled herself. I’ll be back . . .
It had taken Seaspray three years of his short life to realize that life wasn’t fair. It had taken him the other, fourth year, to realize that life wasn’t fair in his advantage. Take for instance, this morning. The elders were sitting on one end of the breakfast table, crowding around a long scroll of parchment and talking in excited tones. They were eating hazelnut pudding, while Seaspray, on the other hand, had a salad.
“Come on, eat up before you can have Hotroot Soup,” his mother said. Droplets was a beautiful, slender otter, who was firm, but very kind with her pups. Seaspray’s father, Brinepaw, a warrior in Skipper Banjon’s crew sat on the other side of his wife, Droplets, eating his own bowl of hotroot soup. Seaspray scowled but took a bite of lettuce, his mom keeping a firm, but loving hold behind him to stop him from escaping. Seaspray snuggled against her warm fur as he speed-ate the salad, trying not to have it long enough in his mouth so he could taste it, and looking around for Rilla. Droplets turned and began conversing with Brinepaw on something to do with Skipper's crew. Seaspray took the opportunity to sneak a sip of raspberry cordial, before looking around once again for Rilla. Somehow she was missing from the table. Seaspray shrugged, thumped his tail, and asked his mother for hotroot soup.
As he slurped nosily at the bowl of spicy soup, Sister Verra came worriedly down the stairs into the Great Hall, wringing her paws. Seaspray’s ears caught her words as she spoke to the Elders at the far end, gathered around their paper.
Seaspray's spoon clattered to the floor. It was not the fact that Rilla had gone missing that bothered him, it was the fact that she had gone missing without him. How could she? They'd agreed to do that a long time ago! Droplet's very fine-tuned ears caught the sound of the spoon dropping, and turned around. Her son's jaw was hanging open and he was looking very incredulous.
"Is there a problem?" she asked, wiping his mouth with a dishcloth. The words were on the tip of Seaspray's tongue but he held them back.
"Nope, dere isn't Mama. C'n I go now?" Brinepaw patted his mate on her back and showed his white teeth in a smile.
"I think the rovin' seadog ate enough for now." Droplets winked and took off Seaspray's bib.
"Right you are then! Stay inside the walls now, Seaspray, and don't you get near the pond! Goodness me, Geod got hit by an old fish in there yesterday!"
Scowling at the thought of his cousin, Seaspray left the Abbey building and looked around, intent upon finding Rilla.
But as he skipped to each and every hiding place he knew, and found every one empty, Seaspray began feeling a gnawing sensation in his stomach. Maybe she was really missing . . .
Abbess Lycian wrang her paws as Verra informed the Elders of the details. It wouldn't be the first time Rilla had gone missing, but every time she did, a full-scale search of the Abbey had to commence before she was found, and that would take away time to study the strange poem that had mysteriously appeared on the Abbey wall. She tried to concentrate, when Molemum Burbee tapped her paw.
"Hurr, us'n's who carn't do po-tries vurry good could go a'searchin', leavin' you and t'others to finish the riggle."
"What a splendid idea," Lycian said gratefully, grasping Burbee's heavy claw.
The Abbey split up, forming two groups. One was mainly made up of those interested in the riddle, which strangely included Blackwind, studying the strange poem. The others were not-so-scholarly, but helpful Brothers and Sisters who began a top-to-bottom search of the Abbey for the missing Mousemaid.
Hillyah, the gatekeeper's wife, and Burbee led their group, taking a quick trip up into the attics. Hillyah sneezed in the dust, and peeked into corners. Sister Doral called out for Rilla once or twice before the group hastily decided she wasn't there, and descended to the Library. Hillyah opened the door, to see Sister Snowdrop and Girry hefting a pile of old books each.
"Thanks Hillyah!" Girry called over his shoulder as the pair staggered down the stairs.
"And don't mess up the order of the books!" shouted Snowdrop. After Old Quelt had died, Snowdrop had taken over the Library with Girry as her apprentice. She had become very protective of the shelves of books.
Abbess Lycian was bent over the copy of the words they had made.
"We're taking it from the beginning, line for line," she informed the two scholars. "What's that you got there?" Girry blushed.
"'Twas my idea. We scanned it through and brought all the books we thought would relate somehow."
"Grand idea," Lycian said encouragingly. "But we'll look at each line first." She turned Tribsy, the newly-made Foremole.
"A bit of mole logic does not go amiss," she smiled. "You have the honors of the first line!" Tribsy's face split in a smile and he bent over the parchment.
"Hurr, lessee . . . An evil-filled darkness spreads . . ."
"Well that already sounds foreboding," Girry commented.
"We know that," Snowdrop sniffed, waving her paw at him. "If you're going to say something, say something helpful." Girry waved his tail over his face, but Snowdrop ignored him.
"It appears to be pretty straight forward, stating a fact. The problem is, we don't know what evil, and how it is spreading."
"Correct," said Lycian. "Perhaps the next lines shall explain." Girry raised his paw and read it.
"A lone great beast to Redwall treads . . ."
"Well that's certainly helpful," Snowdrop said. "We know an evil filled darkness is spreading, and it's in the form of a great dark beast. And he's coming to Redwall."
"Roight," said Tribsy. "But this bit hurr, says 'e was follwin' the black-winged stranger." The group automatically turned to Blackwind. The crow clacked his beak uncomfortably.
"Did you know if anyone was following you?" asked Snowdrop.
"Ahhhrrk, Ah know not," Blackwind said, ruffling his feathers on his good wing.
"Oh no," said Snowdrop.
"Hurr hurr. What?" asked Tribsy, helping himself to more hazelnut pudding.
"The one who injured you!" Snowdrop sputtered. "The one who killed your family! He wouldn't be following you here, would he?" Blackwind's eyes widened. Lycian gasped.
"It's possible," said Girry.
"Well that can't be helped," said Lycian hastily, for Blackwind looked distressed. "The next line, well let's see . . ." But it only made the situation worse. "Who led him, unknowing the danger . . ."
"Well that confirms it," said Girry unhelpfully. Blackwind gave a hoarse croak.
"We know it isn't your fault," Lycian said hastily. She quickly read on to the next line.
"Five will protect the red walls . . . Hmm that sounds like we'll be protected, so you won't need to worry, Blackwind." Blackwind nodded. Tribsy continued the poem.
"Two come straight from the gurt halls."
"Which means . . ." Snowdrop said.
"If you're going to say something, say something helpful," Girry whispered into his friend Tribsy's ear. Snowdrop glared over her square glasses at him.
"I heard that. It means that two of the five will come from the Abbey."
"Why of course!" exclaimed Lycian, stowing her paws in her wide sleeves.
"But there are many Abbey Dwellers," Girry pointed out. "It could be you and me, or them or . . ."
"But the next bit narrows this down," Snowdrop pointed out.
"Innocent, young, unblemished," Girry read out.
"That means they are young ones," Lycian nodded.
"Cuts out me," Snowdrop giggled.
"Wun brown oi, and wun ocean mist?" Tribsy said slowly. Tribsy and Girry looked at each other.
"You have brown eyes!" the two said together. Lycian smiled fondly.
"And so do I, and goodness knows how many others. But what about an ocean mist?" Blackwind suddenly let out a hoarse croak.
"Er um," he said as the others looked at him. "Yesterday, when Ah was being led down to dinner, the two first ones who came to escort me, they were a young mouse and otter, Ah'm thinking . . . Ahhrrk, and one had brown eyes, and the other was . . . awk, named Seaspray." Lycian clapped a paw to her mouth.
"Rilla and Seaspray! Sea, ocean, spray, mist! Rilla and her brown eyes! Rilla and Seaspray! But, but, dibbuns?"
"And she just had to go missing today," Snowdrop said drily. The riddle-solvers sat in frozen silence, until Lycian noticed Skipper Banjon shuffling his paws behind Girry.
"Do you need anything, Skipper?" she asked. Skipper cleared his throat.
"Well, ya see, I forgot to tell you this, Abbess Marm, but I'm movin' the otter crew out."
"Out?" Lycian blinked in surprise. "Where?"
"We're going to Green Isle," Skipper said quietly. Lycian gaped.
"I-I received a message from me daughter, and she needs us ASAP, so-"
"Er, but what about the riddle?" Girry cut in.
"Riddle?" asked Skipper.
"It says an evil is coming to Redwall," Snowdrop informed. "And your otter crew is the only warrior group that can protect us." Skipper squirmed.
"But I . . ."
"I didn't even think of that!" exclaimed Lycian, towards Snowdrop's remark. "What did the Rhulain say?" Skipper let out a long sigh.
"War is coming. I need you." There was a moment's silence, then Girry whispered in Lycian's ear.
"Maybe this is why we need the five to come to Redwall to protect us," he said quietly. "Because Skipper's crew won't be here." Lycian nodded and sat meditating for a bit more. Then she made up her mind and turned to Skipper.
"Redwall is at your disposal. We will do our best to help you get off and help your daughter. Send her my love and . . ." She turned back to the others. "We'll be okay."
"Seaspray!" Droplets called anxiously. "We're going! I've got all your things packed up in here for you to carry. Come!" Seaspray ran over, face filled with concern.
"But what 'bout Rilla?" he asked.
"Rilla?" asked Droplets distractedly, hefting a javelin and taking his paw.
"My friend," Seaspray explained. "The mouse."
"I'm sorry, she can't come with us," Droplets smiled sadly. "But we'll be back after we visit our friends and family on Green Isle." She turned to Brinepaw, and concern flitted over both of their faces. If a war was coming to Green Isle, then it would not be a good place for Seaspray to be, but there was nothing else to do. Seaspray opened the bag his mother had made him and looked at all the objects inside of it. Carefully, he pulled out his special blankie, a worn, but loved, blue piece of cloth. He carefully placed it in a small, almost invisible cranny.
"For Rilla," he whispered, before tugging on his father's tail. Brinepaw swung Seaspray up onto his shoulders.
"It'll be fine, Droplets," Brinepaw said confidently. He took out a tiny sling, which he gave to Seaspray. Droplets gave a smile, and hefted her own bag, loaded with food. She picked up their last weapons, and the small family moved out to the Abbey lawns, where the rest of the otter crew were congregating. Along the way, from his vantage point, Seaspray saw Geod riding on his mother's shoulders. Seaspray made a face at him, and then waved his sling at several other dibbuns he had made friends with.
But none of them were as close as Rilla to Seaspray, and Seaspray wished he could at least say goodbye to her. But she would understand, once she found his precious blankie, and she'd know. Seaspray tugged his father's ear as the family stood with the crowd in front of their Skipper.
The sun began beating down on the two travelers as they reached a stream. Rosebrush, however, was the first to flop down and heave a sigh.
"Sun's far too hot," she complained, dappling her paws in the water. Vaylayna dropped her haversack on Rosebrush's stomach.
"Oof!" Rosebrush exclaimed. "Now that isn't nice Vaylay!" Vaylayna allowed herself the faintest hint of a smile as she sat down and cupped her paws. She dipped them in the fast-flowing stream and drank a long draught of the cold, clear water. Rosebrush opened the haversack and pulled out Vaylayna's knives and scarves.
"Y'got so many," she muttered, finally reaching the food underneath. She tossed a cob of cheese at Vaylayna, who caught it. The foxmaid took out a fourth of a loaf and cut it in two pieces.
"Shouldn't eat too much of the rations," she said. "'Cause we may cross a stretch where we don't have other foods. So we'll just have an itty bit of bread and cheese and how 'bout you show what ya got and ya go get foragin' for food?" Vaylayna pulled out one of her knives and sliced the cheese carefully onto one of her scarves.
"Cause I'm too tired to get up on me paws and find some food," Rosebrush yawned, leaning back on a tussock. Vaylayna raised her eyebrows.
"I thought you've been traveling for most of your life!"
"Can't hear ya, Vaylee, I'm sleepin'," Rosebrush said, with her eyes closed. Vaylayna stood up, taking one of her knives and her scarves with her.
"If I forage anything," she called back over her shoulder. "It'll be me who eats it all." Rosebrush made no comment, although Vaylayna noticed her ear twitching. The black hare moved down the stream, eyes roaming the banks for edibles. Several plump fish swam by in the waters, and Vaylayna suddenly had an idea. She found an oddly curved, small piece of wood and carved it into a lopsided, but strong and serviceable, fish hook. She tied the improvised hook on to the edge of one of her green scarves, which had never ripped in all her experience. As she dangled the odd line in the water, she thought about it. Perhaps it was the material of the scarves that made them so strong, but neither of them had shown any sign of tear or wear, despite the fact they had been her mother's. As she looked down at them, Vaylayna could have sworn they were brand new, if she didn't know better. However, she wasn't allowed long to dwell on her scarves, as she heard a scream behind her. Vaylayna snatched up her knife and left the scarf and hook, with a rock weighting them down so they wouldn't be swept away if a fish caught it. Running back along the stream, Vaylayna skidded to their camp, where Rosebrush had been. She gasped.
Rosebrush was dueling two creatures with the most furious and intricate sword-dance Vaylayna had seen yet. They were moving so fast she couldn't tell who the opponents were, only guessing at Rosebrush for the extremely bushy tail. Vaylayna spotted the rest of her knives lying on the ground, and she snatched up her two daggers, dropping the knife in favor of the longer blades. Suddenly, the breath was knocked from her as a creature hit her from behind. Vaylayna twisted around as both of them fell, so she was not on her stomach as they landed with a jolt. A searing pain ran from her elbow to her wrist, but Vaylayna galvanized her other dagger into action, stabbing upwards with all her might. There was a scream of fury from her attacker, who released his hold on her. Vaylayna leapt up, kicking hard at the figure. Her attacker rolled over, revealing a face she knew.
"Vinta!" Vaylayna gasped. There was a yowl from next to her and Vaylayna ducked as a scimitar sailed over her head. Rosebrush batted her eyelashes at the creature she had just disarmed, before turning to her second attacker, who promptly dropped his sword.
"Vinta!" Vaylayna repeated, turning around to stare at her attacker. A small cat with mismatching eyes and a black pelt glared up at her, one paw clasped tightly around a wound in his neck. Vaylayna's dagger had gone right through the scruff, but she had not hit anything vital.
"What, d'ya know these creatures?" Rosebrush asked, whacking one of her attackers over the head. Vaylayna stood back and looked around.
"Ahrra! Sini!" The beautiful otter gave Vaylayna a hard look, before ducking as Rosebrush swiped her rapier blade at her again.
"So ya know them?" asked Rosebrush again, jabbing the point of her rapier at the stoat.
"I do," Vaylayna whispered. Rosebrush paused her sword in mid-air.
"Well? Who are they?" Vaylayna strode forward, pointing her dagger at Vinta, who was still on the ground.
"This is Vinta, the cat. He was third-in-command of the Juskacull, weren't you?" Vinta hissed and pawed at the series of tattoos on his face. A green line ran from his forehead to his nose, what looked like a black chain ran up the side of one of his cheeks, and on the other there was a blue mark that resembled an icicle. Vinta's claws were blood-covered.
"That's Sini, the stoat. He was one of the Juskacull warriors." Sini made a sarcastic bow. The stoat had matching tattoos and was wearing a belt and a kilt.
"And that's Ahrra. The Juskacull Seer." Ahrra flashed a dazzling smile at Vaylayna, before crossing her arms. The sable otter wore an odd green outfit of wispy green fabric that looped around her like a sari, with an amount of gold jewelry that rivaled Rosebrush's. She also bore the same tattoos, but under the strange black chain, there was a blue lightning streak. Vaylayna pointed her dagger at Vinta, who had tried to crawl away.
"What are you doing here and are you or are you not still with the Juskacull?" Ahrra pointed at Rosebrush.
"You are not a Seer." Rosebrush rolled her eyes and shook her gold bangles at Ahrra.
"And you're an otter, so how in Hellgates did you get to be a Seer? Much less, a Juska?? And how do you-" She turned to Vaylayna. "-Know these ragged lot??" Vaylayna crossed her arms, and suddenly realized one of them was bleeding. She staunched it with her other paw and glared at Sini, who had showed his teeth at her.
"I was captured by the Juskacull," she informed Rosebrush. "By Ugarr Cull and his Juska. These three were among them." She gestured at the other three. Suddenly, Vaylayna's eyes widened.
"You three deserted!"
"Maybe she isn't as dumb as I thought," Sini said sarcastically at Vinta. "She's smarter than Cull, at any rate. Finally realized that, huh?" Ahrra gave a rough laugh.
"So that's where I've seen you before! And since when did you get tromped up with a fox posing as a Seer?"
"Since today," snapped Vaylayna. She looked towards Rosebrush, who waved her tail.
"Well listen up you unlucky three! You attacked the wrong fox here, and she ain't happy, so doom on you!" Vaylayna held up her paw.
"Why did you desert?" she asked.
"Simple, really," Sini yawned. "If ya smart enough to know we deserted, ya oughta be smart enough to know why we deserted." Vaylayna twitched one of her ears.
"Tell. Me. Now." Ahrra ran her elegant paw through her tail and made no reply. Vinta spat something out, though.
"If ya let us go we'll tell you." Rosebrush looked at Vaylayna. Vaylayna looked at Rosebrush.
"Yes," said Vaylayna, precisely the same time Rosebrush said, "No."
"Fine, yes," groaned Rosebrush as Vaylayna crossed her paws again. "You're so intimidating!" she complained as Vaylayna went back to get her other scarf. As she found a large trout caught on the end, she once again marveled at how strong it was. But now was not the time to think about it.
She returned to camp to find the three Juskacull and Rosebrush sitting around a small fire, with a space for her. Rosebrush had both Ahrra's elegant scimitar and Sini's long broadsword under her tail, although there was nothing she could do about Vinta's long claws, which he did not sheath.
"Good, you're here, Vaylayna," the fox said, disgruntled. "Now, c'n you tell us how in Hellgates did you get to be captured by this lot, and then we'll get them to tell us why they 'deserted' and how an otter ever got to be a Juska Seer." Ahrra flashed another dazzling smile, as her paw creeped towards her scimitar.
"Don't you dare," Rosebrush sniffed, slapping it away before turning to Vaylayna. Vaylayna sat down by the fire and looked at the sky. It was noon, and they'd loose traveling time, but she guessed it wouldn't matter too much.
"Alright then, but you asked for it Rosebrush." Vaylayna began.
Right as Lycian was returning to the Abbey, after the otter crew had marched out of sight with many a handkerchief fluttering behind them, it hit her.
"Oh no!" she exclaimed, whacking herself on the head with her paw.
"What?" asked Oreal, closing the gates.
"Wait! Gatekeeper! Don't close them yet! I . . . Seaspray! Girry! He's gone off with the otter crew! Ooooh why do these things happen! Rilla's missing and . . ." Lycian turned frantically from Oreal, who was looking bemused, to Girry.
"The riddle! Girry remember?" A look of dawning replaced Girry's blank face, and then a look of horror.
"I'll go after them, mother Abbess! Friar Bibble! Pack me some food I'm off!"
"Wait, Girry not yet!" exclaimed Lycian. Lycian whispered hurriedly with Burbee for a moment.
"There's a dark beast out there! It might be dangerous! Oh why did I let Skipper go off? Oh . . ." Lycian paused. "What kind of war would be coming to Green Isle?" The mouse ran her paws through her fur before leaping up.
"The books you and Snowdrop brought down! Books! Listen we need to go straight to the library Girry!" Girry felt his paw grabbed and he was whisked off. The squirrel was jolted up several flights of stares, before Lycian banged into the Library. Girry didn't even have time to take a breath before Lycian was dumping books into his arms.
"I know I put it somewhere in here! Abbess logs . . . Abbess letters . . . Abbess, yes! Here it is! Oh why did Skipper have to leave so soon!" Girry was utterly bewildered as Lycian swept by him and sat down on the edge of the table in the nook. Her eyes travelled frantically down the page she was holding. Then she let out a gasp.
"Girry get Rilla quick!"
"Rilla? But she's missing!"
"Oh right I forgot." Lycian whacked her paw against her forehead again, before she jumped up and dashed away from the Library. Still bewildered, Girry stepped over and picked up the letter. It was a letter from Tiria Wildlough, High Queen Rhulain of Green Isle. It had been written pretty recently, Girry decided, probably delivered during Brantalis's most recent visit.
It began with salutations and general answering of questions that Girry presumed were from Lycian's letter before then. As he scanned through it, he began wondering if he really was supposed to read it. Since when did Lycian start planning a field day for the Abbey School? Girry, however, didn't stop reading. Then he got to what he wanted to read.
" . . . of course, after Birl Gully learned how to brew October Ale, we wouldn't let him get back to that dreadful punch of his. He sulked a bit when we informed him that we much preferred his Ale, but that was all forgotten when the Green Clan Regiment sighted pirates on the horizon. There is no need to fret, Lycian, as they sailed out of sight almost immediately. However, the Regiment are excited for their first war, and I wonder if they want the pirates to come back . . ."
Girry set the letter down. He could piece the puzzle pieces together pretty well. Then the pirates had come back. But how did this merit Skipper taking the entire crew off? And why did Lycian call for Rilla? At that moment, Tribsy panted in.
"Whurr's the Muvver?" he asked, blowing.
"Abbess Lycian? She left."
"Wull, the east wallgate is open." Girry whacked himself on the forehead with his paw at Tribsy's statement. They had two of the five at the Abbey, and then both of them just have to disappear.
Patchrunner galloped towards Salamandastron with worrying news. He wished that hare, Vaylayna, was still with him, because she knew more about this. But sadly, she had gone. Gritting his teeth, the sandy colored hare ran up the stone passages, before knocking on the forge door. Mandoral's booming voice resounded from inside.
"Who is it?"
"Patchrunner, head Galloper, sah."
"Enter." Patchrunner swallowed and pushed the door open. The forge room was wide and spacious with a window open in the back, with a stunning view of the sea. Mandoral was holding some scrolls, but he put them down as Patchrunner entered.
"What news, Galloper?" Patchrunner took a deep breath.
"Corsairs are on the loose, sah! The hare, Vaylayna, one of the flippin' Gallopers jolly well sighted them 'fore she left with the fox, Rosebrush, though it was apparent they weren't causin' trouble yet, wot wot. Shella, round after Vaylayna, came with the blinkin' news she'd spotted several pirate ships sailin' in fairly close ta land, before going off, wot." Patchrunner paused. Mandoral nodded for him to continue.
"Well, sah, if I ain't gone and just sighted them landing f' real myself . . ." Mandoral stared.
"Where was this, young hare? Where did they land?" Patchrunner threw a salute, more out of habit than anything else.
"Just beyond the south point up the beach a touch, sah! Two flippin' ships f' coastal raidin', flat bottomed and all, docked. The ship was full of flippin' foxes and ferrets, with a couple other vermin here 'n' there. Up to no good, sah, parties went out and around until I scarpered." Mandoral's eyes were judging as he scanned the hare's straight face before him.
"Where did the search parties go?"
"Even more southern, sah! But," Patchrunner added hesitantly, "just between you and me, they were also talking about sailin' west'ard . . . and several of them mentioned the foxgel's name. Rosebrush." Mandoral took a sharp breath.
"Dismissed, Galloper. Speak of this to no one except the higher officers, and I will think of something to do." Patchrunner threw another salute before dashing out of the forge room. Mandoral sat down heavily, clenching his paws.
Sailing westward could only mean two seas. They were either going to the deserted island, Sampetra, or they were, most likely, going for Green Isle.
Mandoral let out a long breath, before pacing out of the forge room. They would need to beat the corsairs to Green Isle, and warn them of the danger. Captain Quartle and Captain Portan had recently sailed in to dock close to Salamandastron. After stocking them back up, Mandoral would take his soldiers to go for the High Queen Rhulain's island.
Mandoral set off to the Officer's Lounge, mind closing down loopholes to his plan, tying up the ends and detailing it. As he opened the door, he was satisfied with it. The badger Lord allowed himself one, grim smile, before addressing his officers.
It was definitely not comfortable, sleeping out in the forest, but Rilla had done fairly well for one night. After all, she, unlike Seaspray, did know a bit about surviving in the forest. She had gathered herself a soft bed of moss and dead leaves, and fallen asleep with dreamy thoughts of getting and staying mucky. As she finally dozed off, Rilla faintly remembered Seaspray and her's promise to tell each other when the other ran off, but as sleep closed her eyes, she didn't care . . . after all, it was too late for that now anyways.
The lone dark shape sharpened its claws against a rock. Deep, judging eyes assessed the great red building before him. He couldn't believe his own luck. All the fighting otters had just left, and although that delayed him for the day, it meant the building was even more open to him than ever before. This would be a piece of cake. There was no one to oppose him, for who could stand against these long teeth and claws? No one, that's who. And especially not a bunch of peaceful abbey dwellers.
Oh sure, they could fight back when their blood was roused, but with this plan of his . . . They wouldn't know he'd hit them before he'd gone.
A smile of pure evil spread across the great beast's face.
"I was traveling up from the Eastern Shores," Vaylayna began. She glared at Rosebrush, who had winced. Rosebrush muttered 'Sorry.' Vaylayna picked up her thread.
“From the Eastern Shores towards the Western. I was entering the forest when I got ambushed by the Juskacull-" Vaylayna stopped, as Sini had broken out in uncontrollable sniggers. The stoat took several guttering sighs before giving the black hare a go-ahead sign. Vaylayna allowed a small sigh to escape her, before she continued.
“I got hit from behind and they trapped me in a net-"
“That was my idea,” Vinta whispered. Vaylayna steamrollered him.
“-and there were too many of them, so I couldn’t fight back. Ugarr Cull is probably a larger Juska tribe. He had a huge camp, and I was tied to a tree in the center.” Vaylayna glared at Ahrra, who had, once again, reached for the blades under Rosebrush’s tail.
“Don’t you dare,” she snorted. “After being tied up and having most of my knives confiscated by Vinta, I was left alone. However I could tell there were some meetings between Ugarr and his cronies, probably about what to do with me.” Vinta stretched his claws out, and pulled them back in. Rosebrush raised the rapier tip threateningly. Vaylayna continued on, impatiently.
“I managed to get a knife from inside my scarf-"
“Oh that’s where you hid them!” Ahrra said interestedly, avoiding another smack from Rosebrush’s paw as she tried to get her scimitar again. Vaylayna glared at them.
“Stop interrupting. As I was saying, I broke free using one of the knives that hadn’t been taken, and slipped out of the camp.” Sini made a low snarl. Vaylayna felt her temper going at all the interruptions.
“But I was not leaving all those knives of mine with the Juskacull and I hung around, watching them.” Ahrra’s eyebrow shot up, and a smirk replaced her frown.
“Well, I did,” Vaylayna said quietly, glaring at the otter. “And it was rather satisfying to see the commotion when they found out I had disappeared.” A long hiss escaped through Vinta’s teeth.
“I slid in while they were arranging search parties and located Vinta, here, who had my knives.” Vinta’s long claws extended forwards. Vaylayna jabbed his paw none-too-lightly with the tip of her knife.
“Once I got hold of him, I managed to knock him out with a stick on the ground.” Vinta muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, ‘liar’ but Vaylayna ignored him.
“I collected my knives off him and ran off, and it was then I crashed into-"
“Me,” said Ahrra very sweetly. “And for the first ten minutes spent with me, I almost convinced you to go back and join the Juskacull . . .”
“You did not,” exclaimed Vaylayna exasperatedly. “You just had me wondering if you were trustworthy or not. And you weren’t, not after you tried to poison me.”
“Oh, did she try to poison you?” asked Rosebrush, raising her eyebrow. Vaylayna ground her teeth together.
“I just said that, didn’t I? Yes she did, but I managed to escape her and she just went and returned to the Juskacull camp and gave the alarm that I went in the direction I did.” Ahrra smiled serenely. Vaylayna felt like stabbing the lot of them, but she continued on through the story.
“I might nearly have been captured and killed again, but I was rescued by the Foeseeker tribe . . .” Sini’s paws clenched.
“The who?” asked Rosebrush.
“The Foeseeker tribe, a tribe of black squirrels in the trees,” snapped Vaylayna.
“They fought the Juskacull off, and I was pretty sure I had seen Sini shot down . . .” Sini’s eyebrow shot up.
“Oh did you?” he muttered, dripping sarcasm.
“Yes, I did! Happy? And afterwards the Foeseeker’s brought me off to their base and after a few days there, I set off for Salamandastron again. Okay I’m done and I’m never going to tell you all a story again if you keep interrupting like you did, and now it’s you three’s turn to tell your end of the deal.” Vaylayna settled back with her arms crossed. The sun was beginning to set behind her long black ears. Ahrra yawned. Rosebrush poked her with the end of her own scimitar.
“Vinta, you do it,” Ahrra said, jangling her jewelry.
“Sini knows the most,” Vinta hissed. Sini snorted.
“Yeah right, you were the one who got us involved.”
“Do it,” Vinta spat. Sini, apparently used to taking commands from the third-in-command, blew a sigh and began.
“Afta’ we heard there was a giant wolverin’ on the loose,” he began. Rosebrush cut in.
“A giant wolverine,” Sini said through gritted teeth, trying to ignore a highly satisfied look from Vaylayna.
“There was one on the loose, understood??? Well we heard he was on the loose, right? But dear me, Ugarr refused to move his fat behind and get out of the way, said the Juskacull were a match for one single beast, and we scarpered. Couldn’t stand staying behind and getting killed.”
“That’s it?” Vaylayna asked.
“No, it isn’t,” Ahrra yawned. “My voices told me nothing would go well for the Juskacull, so we three left.”
“Simple as that?” Rosebrush said, eyebrow raised.
“No, simple as drugging Ugarr, several guards, and bribing some layabouts so they wouldn’t squeal on us,” snorted Sini. Ahrra pouted at her gold-covered arms.
“My finest bangle too . . .”
Rosebrush sniffed, and ran her paws through her tail, momentarily putting down her rapier. It was a mistake. Ahrra, Vinta and Sini moved so fast the foxmaid didn’t have time to blink. Within seconds, the scimitar and sword were gone from under her tail, and the foxmaid was backed up against a rock. Vinta’s long claws were inches from Vaylayna’s eyeballs, and the two weapon points were centimeters away from Rosebrush’s throat.
Seaspray and his family had fallen to the back of the otter holt. His father had twisted his ankle and was limping somewhat, while Droplets fished in her bag for something. Seaspray, now down from his father's shoulder, was observing the surrounding shrubbery with a curious eye.
"Hold it a sec," Droplets muttered, reaching in the bag. "I almost got the splint and salve." Brinepaw grinned, although his face was twisted with pain and stopped, keeping ahold of one of Seaspray's paws.
"They're gettin' ahead, Lets," Brinepaw muttered as Droplets sat him down on a rock and tied a splint over his ankle.
"We can catch up," she said, as the marching otters vanished along the path. "Seaspray, go find a dock leaf, quick. If we hurry we'll reach them easily, they've only just disappeared." Seaspray hadn't the faintest clue what a dock leaf was; apparently Droplets hadn't been keeping up with the reports the Abbey School teachers had been giving her about him. However, he toddled off into the foliage, keeping his parents in sight and searching for a 'dock leaf.' He had just stepped past a tree, when huge, black, shaggy paws grabbed him around his middle. Seaspray didn't even have time to yell before he was lifted in the air, and thrown down a long, dark hole.
Droplets patted her husband's paw and helped him up. His ankle felt much more secure and less painful to walk upon.
"Thanks, Lets! Now where's Seaspray?" Droplets looked around. There was no sign of the little otter searching for leaves.
"Seaspray?" she called. There was a crack of a twig behind a tree.
"Come out here now, you liddle curmudgeon!" Brinepaw shouted. Droplets froze as a dark shape swept between two trees and vanished.
"Seaspray!" she shouted, grasping her javelin. There was dead silence, and then a rustle. Then Brinepaw let out a shout of alarm. A giant limb, ripped straight off a tree, came hurtling through the air towards the couple. It was too late. Both otters were hit soundly over their heads and they fell back.
The hole wasn't very deep--Seaspray tumbled down for a few seconds before landing on something soft. And that something gave a high yip of annoyance that turned into joy.
"Gerroff--Seaspray!" Shaking his head, Seaspray turned and stared at the creature underneath him.
"Rilla?" Rilla shoved him off. The hole was new and the earth had not hardened yet, so dirt that had been dislodged by Seaspray's fall now fell upon both of their heads. In the tiny space at the bottom of the hole, the two were squished against each other, unable to avoid the sliding sand. Then it stopped.
"What're ya doin' here?" Seaspray asked. Rilla shook her head and pouted.
"I ran away, an' it ain't my fault. Dere was dis bist, like huger and huger, and he grab me when I sleepin' and he chuck me down here. Not fair. I's hungry too." Seaspray raised his eyebrow.
"You said that you'd tell me if ya ran away, so we cwood go together."
"Yes but ya was sleepin', and I didn' want ta go back inna abbey an everythin' since I was already out." Seaspray sighed.
"How're we gonna get outta here?" he asked, looking at the circle of light above them.
"I dunno, but we gotta get out of here soon, cause the great huger bist will come an' eat us!" Giggling at the notion, and blissfully unaware that it could be true, the two dibbuns plotted ways to get out of their hole.
Cherowna Redfang sat back in a lounge-seat chewing reflectively on a grape--only the best was afforded to the Corsair Captain. Twirling a mace and chain in one paw, and holding a lemonade in the other, Cherowna cut a curious figure. She was a red fox with brown eyes, and was dressed in fine, purple silks, that clashed with her fur. Yes, the captain of the Redsmoke was very well off in life.
"And that, my friends, is how life should be," Cherowna said aloud, a smile on her face, showing deadly, red fangs. Her first mate, Gorran, a weasel, jumped, although he was used to Cherowna randomly speaking her thoughts to the air.
The Redsmoke was not sailing on the open seas at the moment. It was, in fact, riding on the swells and anchored close to shore--with the rest of the fleet. Under the High Captain Bloed, the corsair fleet had left off attacking islands of the west, picked up fifty or so recruits from the marooning island of Sampetra and had decided to sail towards Salamandastron. Captain Cherowna had been in with Bloed from the beginning, manipulating, twisting, turning everything in her favor. She had a little business at Salamandastron to complete. And however smart the searat High Captain had been to come up with an attack plan, she was the one profiting the most from the little raid. Grinning to herself hugely, Cherowna ordered Gorran to find some wine for herself. She could relax all she wanted until Captain Bloed called her and the other captains aboard his ship. They didn't need to do anything, until their little stunt of sailing into shore close to Salamandastron began showing its results.
Salamandastron was gearing up for war. Every hare that had been trained for sea-voyages was dashing around frantically, preparing the two ships, the Fearless Frunk and the Purloined Petunia to sail. Every other hare who was not trained for sea-voyage was still running around frantically--most for entirely no reason whatsoever. Officers dashed through the honeycomb of passages in Salamandastron shouting orders. Those staying behind in Salamandastron were heightening the mountain's defenses, and those going after the corsairs were readying the ships. Mandoral was hard-put to keep anything under order, but the Badger Lord did his best.
Lord Mandoral would be riding on the Fearless Frunk with Captain Portan, while Captain Quartle commandeered the Purloined Petunia. The youngest, most inexperienced hares, who would be sailing, were highly excited for what they imagined was their first sea-battle. Indeed, it would be the first use of the two ships other than to sail to Green Isle or back. However, veterans who had heard or seen of the damage Corsairs could create were more grim in the whole matter, something that did not carry over to the younger generation. Food and supplies were carted out to the two ships and loaded on. Hares were everywhere.
Two glowing red eyes peeped over the edge of a sand dune. The creature shook its head, watching the flurry of activity. Then, waving a bushy black tail, the creature vanished over the sands. The squirrel had heard several disturbances next to a stream--it probably couldn't compare with what was going on at Salamandastron, but it'd still be interesting to see.
Although she wasn't in exactly the best place to state it, being tied back-to-back with Vaylayna herself, Rosebrush was gaining much admiration for her traveling companion.
Vinta had immediately removed Vaylayna's three knife-ful belts. Then he'd pulled off her two scarves, shaken them soundly, and two smaller knives fell out. Vaylayna had given a sigh, as if that was all there was to find, but Vinta wasn't done. He'd removed two knives from inside Vaylayna's boots, and had nearly gone before he turned around and ripped a knife out from the inside of Vaylayna's ear. It had been coated with dust and soot to match Vaylayna's fur. At this Vaylayna's head had drooped. The cat was satisfied and went to join the others, throwing the black hare's weapons on top of Rosebrush's rapier, which lay well out of the prisoner's reach. The trio of deserted Juskacull then moved to sit around the fire and whisper in hushed tones. Apparently, they hadn't expected having two prisoners on their paws as they fled from Cull.
Rosebrush's ear twitched, and she tried to ignore the numbing pains in her paws where the rope cut into them. Sini had miraculously revealed a whole pile of supplies from under a rock. Apparently, the three had been at the camping place before then. Rosebrush sighed and muttered to Vaylayna out of the side of her mouth.
"Too bad they took all ya knives."
Rosebrush raised an eyebrow and tried to look over her shoulder at the black hare. Tied as she was, Vaylayna's head drooped lower . . . and lower . . .
"What're ya doing?" Rosebrush muttered. All the foxmaid could feel was a tugging on her bonds as Vaylayna slumped forward.
Vaylayna felt the rope around her neck press against her windpipe as she leaned forward. But she could still breathe, and it would only be a matter of seconds before the laws of gravity went into work. Ah ha. Three ornamental pins--or so they seemed--fell from her black fur on her head. Two fell into her lap, but one dropped right on target--Vaylayna's paw. They weren't ornamental pins, but three tiny, bejeweled, knives.
Rosebrush couldn't see what was going on, but she could feel Vaylayna shifting behind her.
"What's going on?" she muttered out of the side of her mouth. She twisted her head, trying to see over her shoulder, but Vaylayna hissed:
"Ow! Don't do that I can't get the rope then!"
"Get? What d'ya mean by that?"
"I've got a knife . . . but it isn't very sharp, I didn't want to shave my fur off or something, did I? But it'll cut if I just . . . get . . . it . . . ah ha!" Rosebrush jumped at the exclamation. There was more shifting behind her, and then a jubilant hiss.
"I've got it! They're off my paws! Wait I'll try to cut the one around our shoulders . . ."
It was at that precise moment that Ahrra chose the moment to look around at the prisoners. Both of them froze.
"Can I get my rapier now?" Rosebrush hissed out of the corner of her mouth. Ahrra looked at the two, suddenly noticing both were exceptionally stiff.
"Sssshh!" Vaylayna muttered.
"Now?" Rosebrush asked as Ahrra stood up, moving closer.
"FINE!" Vaylayna shouted, leaping into the air and charging. Ahrra froze in shock, as both Sini and Vinta leapt up. Rosebrush darted forward after her weapon, as Vaylayna collided with the otter. The two fell to the floor, kicking and pummeling each other. Rosebrush turned and parried a blow from Sini, jabbing Vinta square in the back as she did so. The foxmaid neatly tripped the cat, but paid as Vinta latched onto her tail and dragged at her as she tried to turn and get at Sini. Ahrra was gaining the upper paw below, being somewhat larger than the young hare, who was giving her best.
Suddenly, a high, sweet voice echoed out over the battling beasts, all of whom froze.
"Put up your little weapons, darlings, you could get hurt playing with them!" Rosebrush immediately raised her rapier, elbowing Sini in the face and turning wildly this way and that. There was a flash of black and yellow, and a squirrel landed in front of her. Vaylayna leapt up, avoiding Ahrra's snapping teeth, and flashed an uncommonly brilliant smile.
The squirrel before them was equally as black as Vaylayna, but with the most startling red eyes, which somehow glowed. She wore a golden tunic, and carried a long pike, which she jabbed at Rosebrush.
"Somehow I got the impression that this gurly chick here was fighting for you, Vaylayna darling." Rosebrush made a strangled choking noise.
"She's a friend of Salamandastron's," Vaylayna nodded.
"Darling, but you didn't say she was your friend," simpered the squirrel, waving her tail. "So that means I'm above her level, right?"
"Not exactly . . ." Saravar raised her paw, cutting off the hare, and walking over to kick Ahrra lightly.
"Cover those two, will you?" she asked Rosebrush, who immediately turned and batted her eyelashes at Sini and Vinta before pointing her rapier at them. "Well well," said the squirrel, observing the three Juskacull. "Have I seen you three before. Hmm?"
Vinta swallowed hard and Sini growled as Saravar primly stepped around them and approached Ahrra.
"Darling otter, you need to be careful! What if you fell overboard? Tsk tsk you could go under and drown carrying all that weight." Saravar daintily removed some of Ahrra's gold jewelry and tossed it into the stream, before turning, simpering, to Vaylayna.
"I've been waiting for a visit from you, guurrll, you said you'd come back."
"I'm not sure I said that . . ."
"No matter, darling, I officially invite you to my palace today! With your pretty little fox and your prisoners." Saravar beamed and flicked a paw over her face. Rosebrush pretended to retch.
Girry left the Abbey quickly, after Lycian blew a fuse. She was extremely distraught and after panicking when the open door was revealed, rushed upstairs to peruse the poem and told Girry to get out quick. The dibbuns were both out in Mossflower somehow, and the dark beast was out there as well. The crow had joined the squirrel in his quick trip to catch up with the otter crew. Girry hurtled through the leaves and branches of the trees as Blackwind fluttered like a dark cloth above him.
"Come on! They can't have gone too far! Not when we're moving at this speed . . . Unless . . ." Girry frowned as he jumped onto another branch. Would Skipper and his crew take to the water? If so, there might be no chance of catching up with them. Still, he had to try, for the sake of the Abbey. The two rushed onwards and passed the dark shadow below without noticing it.
After a period of time, Girry felt deep relief as he spotted the backs of otters materializing through the gloom ahead of him.
"Hoi!! Skipper!!" Some of the otters turned as he leapt, panting into their midsts. Skipper Banjon jumped forward.
"Girry! What're you doing here, mate?"
"SKipper! I need to talk to one of your crew . . . where's that young dibbun otter, Seaspray?" Skipper blinked and then closed his eyes, as if rifling through names in his brain.
"Oh, you mean Droplet's liddle son. Hey! Brinepaw, Droplets! Where are you two?" There was a ripple as the otters turned their heads. Suddenly Girry felt a rush of fear as mutters broke out. Skipper pushed his way through, to one of the otters who had been at the back. They had a muttered conversation, before Skipper turned, looking troubled, back to Girry. Blackwind landed above there heads as Skipper broke the news.
"They're missing . . ." Girry clapped his paw to his face.
"OW!" Rilla ducked as Seaspray kicked her in the face again. Standing on each others' heads, the two had unsuccessfully tried to get out of the hole, something Rilla pointed out after sustaining a black eye.
"It ain't gonna work," she pouted, as Seaspray tried to scramble to the opening.
"So we trapped," Seaspray sighed.
"What're us'n's gonna do?" Rilla thought on this question for a while.
"We be smart!" Rilla replied, feeling pleased with her own answer.
"How 'bout we wait for some'un to get us?" Seaspray suggested.
The two dibbuns sat together staring at the small round circle of light above them.
Rosebrush was feeling sulky, something that wasn’t too hard to bring about. Vaylayna was chatting animatedly with Saravar in a way Rosebrush had never, ever heard her do so before. Meanwhile, Rosebrush was stuck poking her rapier point at the three vermin to keep them moving. Worse yet, she was carrying their weapons. Seriously bothered, Rosebrush had retreated into a huffy shell, throwing burning looks at the two black creatures, who could have been twins if they were the same species. All of a sudden, Rosebrush, despite how she was turning her ear against the conversation, heard something.
“Salamandastron is going up for war? Today??” It was Vaylayna, and she had slowed her pace, her mouth agape. Rosebrush glared. Vaylayna hadn’t shown so much as an ounce of emotion in her presence.
“Yes girl, saw the lovelies myself, earlier today, before running up here to help ya darling. Dainty little ships going out and everything,” Saravar simpered. Rosebrush threw another dirty look in her direction, despite how interested she was in the topic. Immediately after they had left, it seemed Salamandastron was already going up for war. Was it a coincidence? And why? Rosebrush secretly willed Vaylayna to ask the questions on her mind.
“That’s weird, I don’t understand . . . oh wait. I do.” One of Vaylayna’s ears started twitching in a different direction. Rosebrush scowled, vented her feelings by jabbing Ahrra really hard, while tuning her ears in the black duo’s direction.
“You’re gorgeous Vaylayna darling. You already knew didn’t you?” Rosebrush was about to gag again, but stopped when Vaylayna replied.
“Corsairs. I saw them, but they sailed off . . . I didn’t think they’d come after Salamandastron!”
“They ain’t, hon, they’re going after Green Isle.” Vaylayna raised an eyebrow.
“You seem well informed . . .”
“Darling, I’m Princess Saravar Foeseeker. I know how to be informed.” Rosebrush did gag behind their backs when she caught a glimpse of Saravar’s expression. However, the news Saravar was a princess interested her very much. The foxmaid was dying for a quiet (or not so much) talk with Vaylayna, but that didn’t seem coming for a while. And it didn’t.
Several hours’ trek later, they had arrived in a misty grove of trees. By this time, Saravar had blindfolded the three Juskacull (much to their protests) and Rosebrush had her paws full keeping them going in the right direction. She didn’t look up until she stepped into a large dark shadow. Rosebrush gasped. Saravar sent a ravishing smile in her direction.
A giant towering corpse of a tree shot up before them. Blackened by a firestorm years ago, it was now completely dead and almost entirely charcoal, or at least on the outside. It went higher than every other tree Rosebrush had seen, and was wide enough to fit a hundred beasts inside, which, Rosebrush guessed, it did. Vaylayna and Saravar seemed to know exactly where they were going. Rosebrush had just begun looking for an entrance in the giant base, but was surprised when the two took a left. Rosebrush sighed, poked Sini, who had started whimpering, and pushed them after the two. All of a sudden, a shout rang out.
Saravar blew a kiss in a random direction, it seemed, and called out after it;
“Loka, sweetheart, get down in point zero zero two seconds, by order of the Princess, et cetera, you know me!” A derisive snort rang out.
“But not them!”
Saravar sighed, glared, and dropped her honeyed tones.
“Hi! This is Vaylayna the Shade, Salamandastron Long Patrol Galloper, and an awesome friend of mine, who, by the way, visited before, and these are three of her prisoners, and um . . . Rosebrush the Foxmaid, friend of Salamandastron. We’re taking the trio to the prison, to be detained, you know.” Saravar shot a deadly glare at a tree trunk and crossed her arms. Rosebrush was trying to locate the speaker of the voice, but Vaylayna seemed unperturbed.
“Okay, okay, the Prison door has been opened, Princess Saravar, and Prince Kakuvar is captaining the guard at the moment.” Saravar hit her head with her paw, composed herself and yelled back.
“Fine Loka!” She marched off muttering, and Rosebrush followed. The first beast they encountered after about a minute’s march was another black squirrel. However, he had a pure red mark on his face, as if a large drop of blood had fallen there. He carried a longbow, taller than himself, and a quiver of giant arrows.
“Hi Saravar,” he said, taking in her retinue without batting an eye lid.
“Hi ‘Kuvar. Get these in a secure cell please and tell Loka to meet me in the ring tomorrow eight AM sharp.” Saravar marched off bristling. Vaylayna smiled vaguely at her retreating back before turning to Rosebrush.
“Come on! Kakuvar can take care of these! I can’t wait to see inside again!” Rosebrush scowled, but followed the enthusiastic black hare.
“Vay, wait up! I gotta talk ta ya! Like now! Like two minutes ago! Stop!” Vaylayna turned. “What, Rosebrush?” For a second, Rosebrush didn’t know what.
“Um . . . whaddya know about these squirrels? I h’ain’t seen them in me life ‘afore, and they’re kinda . . .” Rosebrush struggled for a word to describe Saravar. “Odd . . .” Vaylayna’s eyes clicked up a level brighter as she responded.
“You’ve never fought with her.”
Rosebrush was left staring after the black hare’s retreating back. Shaking it off, she dashed off after her.
Cherowna vaulted into the blue-painted spy-boat. It was small, light, flat-bottomed and rowed by highly-trained oar-beasts. To a casual morning observer of the sea, it would be practically invisible and dead silent. Even the occupants were wearing gray clothes to blend with the oceans. They were off to take a look at Salamandastron. Under orders of Captain Bloed, of course, although Cherowna was mostly doing it for her own intelligence. The fox dusted her fur thoroughly and waved a claw at the oar-beasts. Unlike the normal slaves that rowed for the large ships, these were sinewy ferrets and foxes with the sole purpose to row without a single splash or sound. They began.
Sailing closer in to the two large ships Salamandastron owned, Cherowna immediately began noticing movement. Excellent. They were prepping to go to Green Isle. Which meant Cherowna would have lots of clear space to take over Salamandastron. The fox couldn't even stop snorting at the creatures going on these ships. Mountain hares. Like any of those landlubbers had been on the sea. This would only be too easy. Cherowna grinned to herself, nodded at those paddling, and they moved in closer . . .
Cherowna carefully observed all that was going on on the ships, coming dangerously close to count the hares boarding. She also kept a casual eye on the food sources. Only mentioning them in a whisper to the Ferret next to her after all food baggage had made its way on the ship.
"Gah'Suun, tell me, do you have the skill to make your way onto the ship and return without the hares noticing?" Gah'Suun was one of the oarbeasts behind her, taken for this special mission that Cherowna had twisted into Captain Bloed's head. It was an excellent idea, but it was mostly because Cherowna wanted complete revenge. Gah’Suun was mute, the inside of his mouth having once been set on fire years ago. However, the brilliant gold gaze that shone from his eyes was extinguished for a moment as he blinked once.
“Take this,” Cherowna whispered, flashing red teeth at him again as she handed a beautiful blue vial to him. She spoke two more words. “The food.”
Gah’Suun simply vanished over the edge of the ship.
Redwall was in turmoil. It was said that five creatures would save the abbey, and the abbey had had two of them, but now they had gone lost. It was too cruel. Abbess Lycian tried to stay calm and sent out search parties, but with the experienced otters of Skipper's crew gone, they didn't do much help. Girry sat slouched over the copy of the poem feeling depressed. Abbess Lycian was standing on the wall-tops, keeping an eye out for returning search parties, although there wasn't much hope. Girry fiddled with the piece of paper before him.
They had lost two . . . three were unaccounted for . . . they sounded like travelers . . . so maybe fate and the spirit of Martin the Warrior would lead them here. Maybe . . . It wasn't much of a word. Girry continued fiddling with the paper, trying to think of something--anything--to do that might be of some help. But all his ways were studious and that was the best he could do . . .
Girry slipped into a fitful sleep . . . a fitful sleep full of dreams . . .
"Girry . . . Girry . . . " A voice penetrated his head. It spelt warmth and security and hope.
"Hello?" Girry whispered, his voice sounding weak in comparison.
"Girry . . ." A shape began revolving in his dream, slowly taking on clarity. It was a mouse in armor. Girry's tossing and turning fell silent and still as he smiled.
"Martin . . ."
"Girry . . . find the Queen of Winter . . . and you will find two from far western shores . . . "
The image faded and Girry returned to fitful sleep.
The small hole was full of growing despair despite the generally cheery dispositions of the two dibbuns. They were getting hungry and that was an occasion to get very, very, grumpy. After several fist fights, the two turned to what they did best. Playing tricks on someone.
After some serious tunnel work, Seaspray had excavated a large hole which was large enough for the two to sit in. Using the extra dirt, he built an overhang. And, after much giggling, the two entered their new den.
If any creature from the top looked into the hole, they would think it was empty. Seaspray began to mimic what one such creature might say.
"Oh dearie me dis is empty, hum hum I t'ot dat dere were two cute dibbuns down dere . . . We must have to look somm'er else." After a serious bout of giggling, the two dibbuns fell silent.
This was a serious draw back as the search parties from Redwall missed it entirely.
After some very bored time spent stuck against each other in increasingly oppressive and humid space, the two decided they wanted a bigger area to sit in and continued excavation. Soon, only occasional spurts of sand could be seen from above.
Unfortunately for the dibbuns, they did not know the finest points of digging, and, if they continued further, they would collapse the entire tunnel and hole on top of them.
Ahrra, Sini and Vinta were surrounded within seconds by five moving bushes--or so it seemed. They were herded off at a double-march and were led straight to a hole in between the roots of a tree. One of the squirrels cum bushes grabbed Ahrra and roughly pushed her into the hole, and followed at a crawl behind. The otter seer glared as she tumbled down but managed to right herself before her captor joined her. A long pike was leveled at her neck and Ahrra was forced to march ahead down a tumble. She turned a corner and was faced with a large iron door. Her captor kept his spear at her neck while fumbling for keys with his other paw, before unlocking the door. Ahrra was gestured in and the door slammed shut, and was locked again.
Ahrra crossed her jangling paws and looked around her new quarters. It was a large, spacious, dry and sandy room with absolutely nothing in it. At least she thought there was nothing in it. Ahrra hesitated and looked at the shadowiest corner. Some object seemed to be situated there. The otter moved forward a bit, reaching her paw out tentatively.
"Aiiiyeeee!" A bolt of gray burst out and latched itself to Ahrra's paw with needle-sharp teeth. Ahrra fell down with the force and struggled desperately to free her paw. There was some furious kicking for several minutes before the two combatants separated and retreated to respective corners. Ahrra took in her attacker.
A gray ferret with a blue eye and a green eye.
She was surprisingly dressed in what used to be almost royal clothes. A faded, pink, silk skirt, puff sleeves and a once-beautiful silken band encircling her head.
"What're ya doin' here, otter," the ferret spat, taking a step backwards. There was blood spattered on both of their clothes.
"I'm a prisoner," Ahrra said soothingly. "Just like yourself." The ferret collapsed with a sigh, curling her knees up to herself and swishing her tail around in a protective gesture.
"Vanti ya c'n come out now," the ferret muttered. "'s not some ally of the squirr'ls come ta quest'n us . . ." Ahrra stepped back as there was a rustle from nearby. It looked like part of the wall moved, but as it started shifting towards the ferretmaiden, Ahrra realized it was a cat. A cat coated all over with sand. There was a pause, and then the cat started shaking itself vigorously. As she did so, there was a large clinking noise. As more of the cat was revealed, Ahrra's eyebrows raised. Chains were dangling from her two forepaws and her one footpaw. And her neck. She was scarred all over and there was an iron spike coming down from her knee to replace her missing foot. She wore ragged unidentifiable clothing. And her fur was pure white.
"Wel'c'm ta our liddle world," the ferret muttered. "'s just Vanti an me . . . stuck here mebbe f'ever . . ."
"You haven't tried to get out?" Ahrra said, astounded, sitting down on the sand.
"We did . . . forever. There isn't anywayz out . . . 'S a solid rock cav'ty filled in wid sand. We tried every't'ing . . ." Ahrra blinked.
"Ah . . . and what, may I ask, is your name?"
"Lay'Vex . . . Lay'Vex an' that's Vanti . . . what 'bout you?" Ahrra paused.
"Nice ta meet ya Mossrose . . ." Lay'Vex sighed and retreated back into her dark corner, and Vanti stayed where she was, still patched with sand all over. She had pink eyes, Ahrra noticed. And so many scars and chains. It looked like something the Juskaculls might do, not the squirrels. Very interesting.
"Might I ask where you two came from?" Ahrra pressed, carefully arranging her slightly torn silks.
"Dunno," Lay'Vex muttered dully. "I think somethin' happened ta me. The earliest thing I c'n remember 's findin' meself on the seashore . . . musta been ten seasons old. Stole from ever'where to get food. Got captured by the squirrels and kept in here f' a year. Vanti came in later. She was found in da woods. No 'un could get her ta tell where she was from, so she got threwn in here."
Vanti's pink eyes were as dull as Lay'Vex's voice. Ahrra realized something was going on here . . . and she didn't feel like helping it. Her eyes lit up craftily as she began deciding what to do to use these lonely creatures to get herself out.
The Squirrels had a very interesting life style. Most of them were coal black, although some of them had red undersides. The choice of clothing was immense. From sweeping silks, to puff sleeves, to tunics, to an array of vegetation and paint, the squirrels chose whatever they liked best. Rosebrush and Vaylayna were promptly outfitted from a giant wardrobe that graced the inside of a large oak. Rosebrush was flipped out in a beautiful purple dress that had slightly swishy knee-length skirts, while Vaylayna chose a green slip that she over-layed with vines. Saravar simply grabbed an elegant crown made out of a silver band that had thin dead branches entwined around it with dried berries. Saravar spent thirty minutes giggling and applying face paint to both of them, before she grabbed their paws and dashed them outside to the giant black tree. It was an immense palace. A spiral staircase rose in the middle all the way to the top, and giant circular rooms were stacked on top of each other. They passed through the main floor, which was graced with beautiful carved stools, to the dining hall. There Saravar, evidently very esteemed in the court, got food from the three waitresses that were dressed as sea-faring cooks.
The food was compromised of loaves of various breads. There was one that was exceptionally savory, packed with cheese, chopped vegetables and spices. Another was rich, creamy, with mushrooms, and another was sweet and brim-ful of strawberries. The best part was that they were exactly the same from the outside.
"So Vaylayna darling!" Saravar exclaimed, biting into a loaf. There was a crack and Saravar grabbed her jaw. Rosebrush sniggered to herself while Saravar delicately removed a nutshell. Saravar flashed a grin like nothing had happened and continued. "What shall we do with you?"
"What about me?" asked Vaylayna, chewing some fruit-filled bread.
"Well, let's think." Saravar winked. "First you bring in a fox whom you claim to be perfectly friendly and next you bring in . . . let's see . . . three vermin prisoners? Should we just go the hog and kill them now or not?" Vaylayna blinked.
"Kill them? Isn't that a bit hasty? I thought you'd just keep them prisoner for a bit . . ." Saravar waved a languid paw.
"Vayla Vayla Vayla . . . it's not that simple! Firstly we have to feed them, secondly the cells need to be cleaned, and thirdly, the young bucks around here are raring for a hunt . . ." Saravar batted her eyelashes. "And we're already keeping two prisoners, and they're expensive!"
"Hmm? What two prisoners? I thought you squirrels didn't take prisoners."
"Exactly." Saravar punctuated the word with a wave of her nut farl. "But we have them for political reason . . . all that bother, it drives me to distraction, darling. The first one is to be exchanged as an erm . . ."
Another squirrel, a couple years older than the trio, slid next to Saravar, snatching her bread and shoving it into his mouth.
"'sup, my darling trio of beauties," he said, drawling his words a little. Rosebrush glared at him before choking over something in her loaf.
"Nano . . . gimmee that back!" Saravar snatched the last half of the bread and crammed it into her mouth, grinning. Vaylayna leaned into Rosebrush's ear.
"Nanovar, he's her older brother." Rosebrush scowled in acknowledgment.
"As I was saying, before being so rudely interrupted," Saravar coughed. "The first prisoner is in exchange for . . . erm . . ." Nanovar rolled his eyes.
"The ferret Lay'Vex is in exchange for Marovar."
"Oh right! Yes! Thank you for nothing . . . I already knew that . . ." Vaylayna raised her eyebrow.
"Our older sister, Marovar, got captured by Captain Bloed, the ferret pirate, during a visit to the oceanside. We got his daughter, Lay'Vex, so we're hoping to trade them out."
"Oh." Vaylayna shot a glance at Rosebrush, who had jumped at the name of 'Captain Bloed.' Vaylayna could have sworn Rosebrush was looking guilty under her fur, but she didn't press it.
"And the second prisoner?"
"Vanti? She's somewhat insane. We're hoping we can calm her down but . . . yeah."
Vanti . . . Vaylayna shook her head. She had heard that name somewhere. All of a sudden, she suppressed a yawn.
"Oh right," said Saravar, jumping to her feet. "You darlings haven't slept in ages! What have I been thinking . . ." She clapped her paws thrice.
Five squirrels, just growing out their dark black fur, skittered into the room.
"Yes ma'ams, your bedrooms are dis way." "Let me take your coats, ma'am--oh you don't have one." "Follow me, misses! We made your beds up this way . . ."
Vaylayna and Rosebrush were hustled off. Saravar stayed seated, laughing as the tiny squirrels went about their duties.
The morning brightened the Western shores, casting a cheerful hue over a less-cheerful scene.
"How did this happen?" Mandoral said, tight-jawed. Sergeant O'Cragg was equally tight-faced as he saluted.
"Found him among the food bags, m'Lord. Apparently he was one of the loaders. I'm not sure the details but he apparently tasted something and got to this state."
Mandoral turned his broad back around to check on the unconscious form of Hawkeye.
"Check the rest of the food, I believe we have been sabotaged," Mandoral informed O'Cragg, who marched off. Mandoral turned around, with an indistinct look in his eyes as he rested them upon the poisoned warrior lying in the infirmary.
"The Healer says you'll be all right," Mandoral said to no one in particular. "I wonder what you ate . . ."
He stepped out of the room. The loss of many potential supplies was devastating. They would not be able to set off for Green Isle in a long time--something that had undoubtedly been planned.
Almost dinner time! *whacks head on keyboard* m,mn,lmnjh I'll try try try to write more later but we all know what happens when I do. -Vaylayna Where there is light, there is a shadow. 23:29, January 5, 2016 (UTC)