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The Darkblades

Note: Please read Of Warriors and Corsairs before you read this story. Thank you!

Book One- The Rising Darkness

Chapter 1

A full moon shone over northern Mossflower Woods, it's pale light dancing softly over the treetops. The forest was quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken only by three young rabbits playing in a field. They tussled and jumped on each other until a voice called to them from their den, “Dillery! Pendo! Manitha! Come home this instant, it's getting late!” A plump, motherly-looking rabbit came out of the den, holding a ladle.

Dillery, the oldest young rabbit, pouted, “But mum, we want to play more!”

The mother rabbit, whose name was Bloombell, said in a no-nonsense voice, “You had better come home this instant young bunnies, or your father will get quite upset!”

The father rabbit, Weldron, had already come to the door. He called out, “Come in now or you'll be sent right to bed with no supper!”

The young rabbits sighed and went in. Bloombell noticed that there were only two of her children present. She asked the others, “Where is Manitha?”

Pendo shrugged, “I don't know. She went off into the woods when we were playing.”

Weldron got up and went outside. “Manitha! Where are you?” There was no answer. He sighed and picked up a thick, oaken staff. “I'll go out and find her.” he said.

Weldron went off into the woods of Mossflower. It could be dangerous out in Mossflower at night. Vermin, snakes, birds of prey, or marshlands could mean death for a careless wanderer. He kept calling out his daughter's name every now and then, hoping to get an answer.

Suddenly he heard a frightened squeal from over to his right, and he whirled around. He saw his daughter, Manitha, on the ground, with a dark shape looming above her. Weldron charged at the black thing, but something whacked him across the back of his head, and he went sprawling. He looked up to see at least five dark shadowy creatures that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

He reached for his staff, but a dagger hissed down and buried itself right next to his paw. An accented voice snarled, “You try dat again and you be a deadbeazt!” Weldron lay motionless on the ground as the dark creature retrieved its dagger.

An evil-sounding female voice spoke, “Which way is it to the Abbey of Redwall?”

Weldron trembled. “I-it is just due s-south. Now p-please, will you give me back my daughter?”

The female voice hissed, “That is for Bloodskull to decide!”

The father rabbit was about to ask who that was, when a thick, rasping voice came out from the trees, “What is this creature, Skarva?”

The female voice answered, “It is two rabbits, master. They told us where the Abbey is.”

A tall dark figure materialized out of the trees, and Weldron gasped in horror. It wore a black-hooded cloak that completely covered its body and shadowed most of its head, so that only its face was visible. And that was what terrified the rabbit. Bright crimson paint was smeared on the beast's face, in a pattern so as to make it look like a blood-stained skull. The creature brought it's left arm out of it's cloak and Weldron saw that instead of a paw, it had a vicious three-pronged hook, with two longer hooks on the top and a smaller one on the bottom.

The hook flashed down, and grabbed the rabbit by his tunic. Weldron stared up in terror at the evil, red-streaked face. The beast's harsh voice was barely a whisper, “So, you know where the Abbey is?”

The rabbit nodded. The dark figure smiled, it's face breaking into a ghastly skull-like grin. “Then you must know of it's weaknesses? The places in the walls where there are no thick barriers?”

Weldron gulped and stuttered, “W-well, s-sir, I have not actually been there for a long time. S-so I don't r-really know of a-any weaknesses.”

The dark creature gave a nod, and two of the black figures grabbed Manitha by her ears. They lifted her off of the ground, and a pair of saw-edged swords were held at her throat.

Weldron struggled to get to his daughter, but the black creature threw him to the ground and placed a footpaw on him. A long, black sword slid out of its cloak, and was pointed right between Weldron's eyes. The black figure hissed, “If you do not tell me every detail of the Abbey, and what the creatures there are like, then I will slay your daughter. If you still do not comply, then I shall be forced to, well....” the evil face broke into its ghastly smile, “use a little..... persuasion!”

He pressed the sword lightly into the rabbit's forehead and Weldron gave a whimper. The creature rubbed the triple-hook on its cloak and said, “So now, tell me all that there is to know about Redwall Abbey....”

Chapter 2

The otter peered around the wall, ready for anything. The coast was clear. He sneaked across the grass and over behind a tree, always aware of his enemy. He held his long, beautiful sword tight as he looked and listened for any sign of his opponent.

The early morning light shone through the trees of the small copse that he hid in and reflected off of his sword. He sighed and was about to relax, when he heard a rustle from some bushes by a nearby pond. The otter smiled and crept stealthily over towards the noise. He kept his sword ready for defense, and pulled aside the bushes.

Suddenly something leaped out of the shrubs and swung a curved blade at him. The otter blocked his opponent's every move as he tried to get into an attacking position. Then he dropped to the ground and rolled under his enemy's legs, tripping him. The otter leaped up and quickly disarmed his opponent. He held his sword at the defeated creature's chest and said in a firm voice, “Any last words, vermin?”

The creature grappled on the ground and pleaded, “Please sir, let me go! I'm a cowardly, spineless toad!”

Wengle Brookrudder laughed, “Alright you cowardly, spineless toad, get up!”

Riddy the shrew got up and grinned at him. “Wow! No wonder that you're the Warrior of Redwall Abbey, mate!”

Wengle picked up the shrew's fallen sword and handed it to him. “Well look at you, you're not that bad of a fighter yourself!”

Riddy sheathed his sword and sighed. “It just doesn't seem that long ago when you and I first came here, Wengle,” he rubbed the scar on his right shoulder. “And it doesn't feel that long either!”

The otter laughed and sheathed the sword of Martin the Warrior. “Yeah, ever since we fought off all of those corsairs and pine martens, we've lived a pretty peaceful life.”

Riddy grinned. “And it's all thanks to me coming and saving you all.”

Wengle shoved his friend playfully. “Huh, you saved us all? Spruce, Corkly and I could have taken out those vermin easily! We just wanted to see if you cared!”

Suddenly they heard a loud noise from inside the Abbey and the two friends looked at each other and smiled.

Corkly G. Battlescut came racing out of the Abbey. The lanky hare carried three scones in one paw, and a large hunk of cheese in the other. He ran over to the them, gulped down a piece of cheese, and whispered, “Beg pardon chaps, but I need to hide for a moment.”

Wengle shook his head in mock sympathy. “What did you do this time?”

The hare took a bite of scone and said, “You're mater is flippin' well in a huff! And all I did was pinch a few scones and a small piece of cheese!”

Riddy chuckled. “Small piece? That chunk is big enough for three badgers to share!”

Just then, Wengle's mother, Nela Brookrudder, came storming out of the Abbey door, a ladle in one paw. She glared at Corkly in mock anger. “Mister Battlescut, how dare you steal food from the kitchens! And just before breakfast too!”

Wengle and Riddy stifled their laughter as Corkly stammered, “W-well marm, I don't really make the decision to take, er, borrow the tucker. Me old stomach couldn't wait for breakfast and so I just popped in and helped meself to your prime vittles. You should be jolly well proud that a chap would risk his blinkin' hide to get some of your tucker, wot!”

Mrs. Brookrudder stood glaring at the hare for a moment, then she broke out into laughter along with Wengle and Riddy.

Corkly sniffed, “Humph! I don't see what's so funny about a chap being hungry!”

Just then, Friar Dobble, the fat old mouse cook, came out and rang a small bell. “Breakfast is ready! Mrs. Brookrudder, did you catch that ruffian hare?”

When the Friar saw Corkly he started fuming, “You... you... rapscallion! Stealing from our kitchens! You shouldn't be allowed to have any breakfast!”

Nela placed a paw on the enraged cook's shoulder. “Don't get in a tizzy, Friar. I already told Mr. Battlescut off.”

Corkly stuffed the last scone down his mouth and saluted. “Never again will I steal from your jolly old kitchens again, O' Ruler of the Ovens and Lord of the Vittles!”

The mouse friar stared at the hare as Nela, Wengle and Riddy fell about laughing. Dobble snorted and muttered, “Well, come on in to breakfast!”

Chapter 3

Weldron the rabbit told the dark creatures everything that he knew about Redwall Abbey. When he had finished, the dark leader stood silently staring at Weldron. The rabbit whimpered, “N-now s-sir, w-will you p-please let me and my daughter go?”

The creature smiled and said, “Alright. You have told me what you know and you will have your reward.”

He made as if to turn away, but he suddenly spun around and drove his black sword into the rabbit's midriff, pinning him to the ground. Weldron gurgled and stared up at the dark creature with a look of shock on his face.

The beast grinned again, his blood-red face cracking into an evil grimace. “You know too much about Morfelg Bloodskull and his Darkblades! But your daughter will live. I am in need of her.”

Weldron glanced despairingly over at his young daughter, his eyes misted over, and he fell back dead.

Morfelg Bloodskull yanked his sword out of the rabbit's body and nodded to the creatures that held Manitha, and they dropped her in front of him. Morfelg loomed over the young rabbit, his skull-like features inches away from her trembling face.

The Darkblade leader whispered soothingly as he stroked her ears with his triple-hook, “Now now my dear, I won't hurt you. But I will if you do not do as I say. Will you do that for me?” T

ears ran down the young rabbit's face as she nodded. Bloodskull smiled again. “Good! Now all that you must do is to go to the Abbey of Redwall. Do you know where that is?”

Manitha thought for a moment. She had never been there and all that she knew was that it was south, but she was too afraid to say no, so she nodded again.

Bloodskull let her up and she went racing south into the woodlands. Bloodskull watched her go and then spoke to three of his Darkblades, “Kyvar, Zelkor, and Vandak, follow her and see that she goes to the Abbey. And when she gets there...” He slid his swordblade through his hook. “you know what to do.”

The three creatures nodded and went silently off into the forest.

The female Darkblade, Skarva, went over to where Morfelg stood. She spoke in a questioning voice to him, “Why send her to the Abbey? Then the creatures there will know of our presence.”

Bloodskull slid his arms back into his long, black cloak. “Because, my dear sister, the three that I sent out know to slay the rabbit when she gets near the Abbey. Then they will never know of us, but I will know of them!”

Skarva smiled. “And I assume that Zelkor is to be doing the slaying?”

Bloodskull shrugged. “I don't care who does it, as long as the Redwallers never hear of us. Now, let us go and see if we can find...” He glanced over at Weldron's body and grinned cruelly. “any more 'playthings' to pass the time!”

Manitha ran as she never had before. The early morning sun shone through the treetops, and the birds sang cheerily, but she paid little attention. The young rabbit was still traumatized by the cold-blooded slaying of her father and she had no idea where she was going.

A few yard behind, the three creatures sent to follow her strode along the forest floor. As they passed by, the birds stopped singing and the grass seemed to wither underneath them.

One of the Darkblades, a female named Vandak, spoke softly to the other two, “Do you think that the rabbit is going in the right direction?”

The one called Zelkor pulled a long blow-dart pipe from out of his black cloak and hissed, “Well, if she is not, then I can take care of that!”

Vandak nodded and they slid quietly along, darkening the beauty of the morning woodlands.

High up in a tall elm tree, two squirrels watched the young rabbit come stumbling through the woods. One of the squirrels, a pretty young female, turned to the other squirrel and asked, “What do you think that young rabbit is running from, father?”

The older squirrel, a strong creature who seemed to have many battles under his belt, peered down through the foliage. “She looks quite fearful, Oakflower. I wonder what's scared her so....?”

Oakflower gasped and pointed. “Look!”

Spruce Longbrush looked down into the forest and stared for a moment, trying to catch a glimpse of what his daughter had seen. When he saw the dark shadowy beasts below, he bit his lip and nodded. “Aye, there's something there alright. Maybe...three of them? My, you have eyes almost as good as Keekag's if you can see those!”

Oakflower notched an arrow to her small bow. “Shouldn't we take them out, father?”

Spruce drew a long arrow from his quiver and loaded it into his bow, but he didn't pull back the string. “Not yet. We need to find out what they are and why they are following that rabbit. But don't shoot just yet, Oakflower. They may also have arrows.”

She sighed and put her bow down. “I suppose your right daddy. But shouldn't we at least help the poor rabbit?”

Spruce nodded. “Yes, and....” He blinked and looked around the forest floor. “Where are they? They seem to have vanished into thin air.”

Oakflower looked down too. Manitha and the three Darkblades were nowhere in sight.

Spruce turned to his daughter. “Go back to the Longbrush Glen and get Rockshaft. I'll see if I can pick up these mysterious stranger's trail.”

She nodded and leaped silently off into the trees. Spruce Longbrush held his bow loaded as he climbed swiftly through the branches. He was very worried, because the direction that he was following the black creatures was the way to Redwall Abbey.

Chapter 4

Manitha finally stumbled out of the edge of Mossflower and onto a path. She figured that it must lead to Redwall, so she followed along it.

The three Darklades, Vandak, Zelkor, and Kyvar, followed her from on the outskirts of the trees, careful to not be seen by anybeast that happened along the path.

Behind them, leaping swiftly and silently from tree to tree, was Spruce Longbrush. The big squirrel was ready for anything, and he kept an eye on both the rabbit and the three shadowy figures.

Suddenly they came to the path right outside of Redwall Abbey. Manitha gave a cry of joy and ran towards the huge sandstone building.

The three Darkblades stared impassively up at the Abbey. It's weather-beaten but sturdy walls rose high above the pathway and the bell-tower in the center of the grounds rose even higher.

Spruce stopped in a tall sycamore and watched as Manitha ran forward to the Abbey gates. Then he saw one of the Darkblades raise a blow-dart pipe to it's mouth and the squirrel instantly knew what was going to happen. Quick as lightning, he pulled back the string of his already loaded bow and let the shaft fly.

The arrow hissed downward and would have struck the blow-dart creature, when a dagger flew through the air and pinned the arrow against a tree.

As Spruce sat staring in stunned amazement at the swiftness of the dagger, and the three creatures below looked up and saw him.

Vandak pulled a long, spear-like weapon from her cloak and twirled it around. Kyvar retrieved his dagger and drew another from his belt. Vandak called up, “What are you doing here squirrel?”

Spruce loaded another arrow to his bow and shouted back, “Just protecting an innocent young creature! What are you doing, vermin?”

Vandak pointed her weapon at him and snarled, “It is not your business to know of the doings of the Darkblades!”

The squirrel glanced over along the path and saw Manitha frantically pounding on the main-gate. He growled down, “Leave that young rabbit alone and get out of Mossflower or I'll have my whole tribe of warriors on you and leave your carcasses for the ants!”

Vandak laughed, “Hah! Threats do not scare us, squirrel! Besides, even if you did get your pathetic little army here, we would destroy them all, as we have other armies and hordes!”

Spruce noticed that Zelkor was silently sneaking off towards Redwall's gates, and he shouted, “Don't go near there, scum!”

Zelkor turned and sneered up at him, “Or what? You know that threats cannot scare us, and even if you tried to kill me, Kyvar here would knock your silly little arrow right out of the air!”

Spruce looked at the one called Kyvar and aimed his shaft at him. Vandak sneered, “Go ahead and try, fool!”

Spruce's warrior spirit rose up in him and he let the shaft go with a yell.

Vandak twirled her weapon through the air and it snapped the arrow in mid-flight. Her eyes narrowed. “Now leave us be!”

Spruce knew that these beasts were expert fighters and that they were not to be messed with. He glanced across the path and saw that Manitha was inside the walls. With a frown he turned and leaped back off through the trees.

Zelkor smirked, “Like always. They think that they are great warriors but they are all put to shame in front of the Darkblades!”

Vandak nodded. “Aye. Now let us go and finish this business.”

Kyvar pointed. “De rabbit iz gone.”

They all looked and saw no sign of their quarry. Vandak frowned. “Oh Hellgates, she's gone! Well no matter, we can still report back to Lord Bloodskull.”

The three creatures turned and slid off into the woodlands like dark phantoms.

Spruce had not gone back to the Longbrush Glen. Instead he had circled around and came to the other side of the Abbey. He must warn the Redwallers of these dangerous new foes.

Wengle, Riddy, and Corkly came out of the Abbey to enjoy the warm morning sunshine. The hare groaned, “Oh what a blinkin big stomachache I've got!”

Riddy winked at Wengle. “That's probably because you ate five bowls of honeyed oatmeal and four mugs of mint tea!”

Wengle chuckled. “Plus the scones and that hunk of cheese before breakfast!”

Corkly sniffed. “Please don't mention any sort of tucker again, old chaps! At least not until lunchtime, wot!”

Riddy slapped a paw to his forehead. “Oh great seasons! I forgot that I was supposed to take over the gatekeeper job from Brother Gerant while he was helping Foremole in the orchard!”

He ran to the homely little Gatehouse, followed by Wengle and Corkly. They went inside and Corkly exclaimed, “My, what a bally nice little place this is! Quite comfy, wot!”

Riddy was about to reply, when they heard a sudden knocking at the door. The shrew went out of the Gatehouse and over to the big, wooden doors, calling, “Who's there?”

A small, frightened voice answered, “Please sir, let me in! I need help!”

Riddy glanced over at Wengle and Corkly and whispered to them, “What should I do?”

Corkly snorted, “Well, let the poor creature in, you bounder! What else?”

Riddy opened to door and Manitha came stumbling in. The young rabbit was in tears as she threw herself on the shrew and sobbed, “Oh, please sir, they killed my father! I don't know if they'll kill mummy and by brothers too! Oh, please help me! Boohoohoo!”

Riddy stared down at her in surprise and glanced up at Wengle and Corkly. The otter warrior drew the sword of Martin from its sheath and asked, “Who killed your father? What happened? Where?”

Manitha pointed out the door. “I don't know what they were, but they were scary! They were all dark and they killed daddy! Ohhhh!”

She collapsed in a heap and Corkly picked her up. He looked worriedly at Wengle. “This seems flippin' well serious! I'll take the poor little maid to the infirmary and you two go outside and look around. I'll join you in a tick.”

After they had left, Riddy raised and eyebrow and looked at Wengle. “Well, what do you make of that story, eh mate?”

Wengle frowned. “I think Corkly's right. This sounds very real!”

“Oh, it's real alright, warrior!” They looked up at the wall-top above them to see Spruce Longbrush leap down near them. “It's good that she got here safely, poor thing.” he said.

Wengle shook Spruce's paw. “Mr. Longbrush, it's good to see you again! So what happened?”

The squirrel shook his head slowly. “I'm not sure really. I was out on patrol in Mossflower with Oakflower, when we spotted three dark creatures following that young rabbit. I told Oakflower to go back to Longbrush Glen and I followed the creatures from behind. When they got to the path outside of here, one of them was about to shoot the rabbit with a blow-dart, when I stopped them. I learned that they are called the Darkblades, and that there are more then three of them roaming Mossflower.”

Wengle frowned. “But why were they chasing that young rabbit?”

Spruce shrugged. “I have no idea. They said that it was their 'business'.”

Riddy drew his blade. “Oh, we'll show them our business sure enough!”

Spruce grabbed the shrew by the shoulder and spoke sharply, “No! These creatures are not as easy to fight as you may think. Twice they cut down my shafts that were in mid-flight! They are very skilled and deadly beasts!”

Wengle gripped the sword-hilt tight. “Whether they are good fighters or not, we can't let them harm innocent creatures! We must stop them!”

Just then, Corkly came back. He shook his head sadly as he spoke, “The poor thing! It seems as though those vermin cads forced her father to tell them where Redwall was, then they killed him and told her to go here. Oh, how are you Spruce old chap, have you heard about...”

The squirrel nodded. “Yes, I have. I fact I was telling Wengle and Riddy about what I saw and heard. These black creatures, the Darkblades they call themselves, are very deadly. We need to be careful in Mossflower if they are stalking around out there!”

Riddy growled, “I think that we need to go out there and find those three beasts that Spruce saw and make them tell us more of what is going on!”

Spruce was about to interject, when Corkly said, “Agreed. Need to put out the little flame before the whole blinkin' forest catches on fire!”

Wengle nodded. “We can't let them destroy the peacefulness of Mossflower Woods and Redwall Abbey!”

Spruce shrugged. “Very well. Just be sure to tell the Abbot about what we are going to do.” Wengle took off. “I'll go ask him now!”

Riddy felt the edge of his blade. “I'll go sharpen my sword.”

Corkly grinned. “And I shall go and gather some jolly old provisions for the trip, wot!”

As they all went off to their tasks, Spruce rubbed his temples and sighed. “Oh, I sure hope that we don't regret this....”

Chapter 5

The four warriors, Wengle, Riddy, Corkly, and Spruce were ready for their search. They split up into pairs, Wengle and Corkly going south, and Riddy and Spruce going north. They set off into the Mossflower, not knowing if the deadly Darkblades were hiding behind the next tree.

Wengle held the sword of Martin the Warrior tight as he stalked carefully through the forest. Corkly peered around bushes and trees, his tall, hard stave at the ready. The hare pulled aside a large branch and looked behind it. Seeing nothing, he snorted, “I think that this is a bloomin' waste of time! Even if we do find those Darksomthingrather blighters, how are we supposed to fight them? From Spruce's account, they seemed to be some flippin' powerful warriors.”

Wengle was about to reply, when a sudden commotion sounded from a little ways off. He glanced at Corkly. “Well, do you think...”

The hare held his stave in a fighting stance and narrowed his eyes. “Aye, let's first see what is going on, then we pop in and settle the matter, wot!”

They crept along in the shadows, going towards the noises that echoed around the woodlands. Then they got behind a clump of thick bushes and peered at the scene.

There were five vermin: two stoats, a weasel, a rat, and a fox. The fox seemed to be the leader, as he was the biggest and toughest-looking of the group. He sat by a small fire with one of the stoats and the weasel. The rat and the other stoat were trying to hold a struggling ottermaid down to a tree. The otter bit into the stoat's paw and he screeched. The stoat glared at her and smacked her with a piece of rope, snarling, “Don't you try that again, waterdog! You stay 'ere nice and snug now so's we can get to have some brekkist!”

They finally tied the otter down tight to the tree and then joined their companions by the fire. The weasel snickered, “Too much of a pawful for ye, eh, Veddle?”

The stoat, Veddle, sneered at the weasel, “Well why don't you try tyin' down a mad ottermaid, Argroo? Or are you just too much of a coward?”

Argroo stood and picked up a javelin from beside him. “Nobeast calls Argroo a coward!”

Veddle smirked, “Well then, if'n you're not a coward, then let's see you go up to the otter and put your paw near 'er mouth!”

The rat snickered, “Go on Argroo, let's see 'ow brave you are!”

The weasel glared at the rat. “Oh shaddup Bilur, I'm no coward! I'll go do it!”

He strode up to the ottermaid, who stood glaring at the him. Argroo held the point of his javelin at the otter's throat and sneered, “Go on, waterdog, let's see ye bite me paw off!”

“That's my javelin you're holding, vermin!” the ottermaid growled.

The weasel grinned mockingly. “Oooh! So what are you gonna do about it?”

The otter just glared at him.

From behind the bushes, Wengle ground his teeth and started to rise, but Corkly pulled him down and whispered, “Stay down ol' chap! We don't want them to spot us just yet. We'll just see what the cads do...”

Argroo turned to the other vermin. “See? She wouldn't dare to-Arragghh!” He pulled his paw back and hopped around while the other vermin hooted with laughter.

The ottermaid spat out blood and grinned at the weasel. “What a brave vermin you are! Just try it again snotnose, and I'll bite your whole arm off!”

Argroo glared at her, then he picked up the javelin sat down by the fire, nursing his wound. He muttered, “Somebeast needs to put a gag on 'er mouth!”

Bilur the rat cackled, “Heeheehee! Well, it ain't gonna be you, hero!”

Argroo sniffed. “Well do any of you brave buckoes want to do it, eh?” The other vermin sat silent.

The ottermaid laughed, “Aye, try and come near me, scum!”

The fox, who had been sitting silently by the fire roasting a thrush on his cutlass the whole time, stood and ripped the carcass off of his blade. He strode over to the otter and quickly pulled the rope up over her mouth. The other vermin stared in awe at the fox as he came back and sat down again. He smirked, “See? That's why the Chief made me in charge of this slave-hunt. Because you're all a bunch o' mangy cowards!”

Wengle sat staring at the ottermaid. She was a strong-looking creature and was quite pretty, and he was amazed by her courage.

Corkly nudged him and broke him out of his trance. “You go and untie the little warrior over there. I'll create a diversion for these yahoos.”

Wengle nodded and started off, when he stepped on a dry twig and it snapped under his paw. Both he and Corkly froze.

The vermin looked over their way, and one of them said, “What was that?” Another whispered, “Do you think it's those other otters that the ottermaid was talking about?”

The fox stood up, brandishing his cutlass. “I don't care who it is, I'll slice 'em to ribbons if they try to take our prize away!” He slashed at the bushes with his cutlass, and turned to the other vermin. “See? There's nothin' there, or they'd have been takin' off by now.”

Suddenly Corkly came out from behind the bushes and staggered about, with a pleading look on his face. “Excuse me for intruding on your wonderful little party, but could you spare a few measly crusts for a poor starving wanderer?” He gave a nod to Wengle, who slid off into the woods.

The vermin stared in shock at the hare for a moment, then the fox snarled, “Who are you? What are you doing 'ere?”

The hare smirked, “I believe that I just stated that, sah. I'm begging for some blinkin' vittles!”

The fox licked his blade. “You'll be begging for mercy before I'm done with you!” He swung his cutlass at Corkly, but the hare ducked it and leaped around and behind the fox. Before the vermin could move, Corkly gave him a strong blow to the back of his head and the fox fell senseless to the ground.

The other four vermin stared at the hare in awe. They did not notice Wengle sneaking up behind the tree that the ottermaid was tied to. He whispered, “Don't worry, I'm a friend!”

With one slash of his sword, the ropes fell to the ground. The ottermaid leaped forward at the vermin, but Wengle grabbed her and pulled her behind the tree. The ottermaid stared at Wengle, “Who are you?”

He peered around the tree-trunk and replied, “I'm Wengle, the Warrior of Redwall Abbey. Now be quiet!”

She clenched her paws. “Those scummy vermin stole my javelin! I need to get it back!”

Wengle grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back, hissing, “Sshhh! Let my friend Corkly take care of them!”

The vermin swung out their weapons at Corkly, who easily dodged every one and mocked the vermin each time he did, “Missed me again, you blighter! How'd you yahoos ever even get weapons anyway?”

Veddle stabbed out at the hare with his spear, but Corkly leaped over the stoat's head, knocked the spear out of Veddle's paw and kicked him head over tail into the bushes. The other three vermin suddenly turned and ran, fleeing the scene in all haste.

Corkly snorted and twirled the spear, “Hmph! No, those chaps aren't the flippin' Darkblades sure enough!”

When Wengle and the ottermaid came out from behind the tree, Corkly turned to them. “Well, it seems as if we've got another recruit! What's your name m'gel?”

The ottermaid glared towards the unconscious form of the fox, and growled, “I'm Rodala, daughter of the Skipper of the North Stream Otters. Those vermin stole me javelin! Me prize javelin that I got from my ol' grampa! They took it!”

Corkly stayed her. “Steady on, lassie, don't get in a rage just yet!”

Suddenly Veddle the stoat came staggering out of the bushes and fell flat onto the ground. Rodala leaped over to him and held him up, snarling, “Where is my javelin that you stole? Where is it?!”

Veddle gulped and stammered, “I-I don't know! The last I saw, Argroo had it! He's the one that took it! I didn't have anything to do with it, honest!”

Corkly pulled Rodala back and grabbed Veddle by the scruff of his neck. “Now speak up you rotter, do you know of anybeasts called the Darkblades?”

Veddle shook his head. "I've never heard of anybeast called Darkblades, sir! Now please let me go!"

Corkly dragged him over to the tree and, using the ropes that had once bound Rodala, he tied the stoat to the trunk. The hare wagged a paw under Veddle's nose. “After your foxy friend over there wakes up, move your stinkin' tails and leave Mossflower! Understand?”

Veddle nodded unhappily and Corkly went back over to Rodala and Wengle. “Well, that's taken care of, so let's go back to the blinkin' Abbey, wot!”

Rodala's eyes widened. “Really? I always wanted to go to Redwall! Let's go...” She turned and looked in the direction that the other vermin had fled and growled, “But I need to get my javelin back!”

Wengle went over to the bound Veddle and asked, “Where did your pals go?”

“Probably back to the Chief's camp,” the stoat replied. “I dunno.”

Wengle exchanged glances with Corkly. “And... what is your Chief's name?”

Veddle glanced back and forth nervously. “Er, his name is Borskan the Ruthless. But please don't tell him about what I told you all, please!”

Wengle nodded. “Don't worry, we won't.” He turned back to Corkly and Rodala. “So now we know who to look for to find your javelin. Come on, let's go back to Redwall for now.”

Rodala gave one last glare at Veddle and followed Wengle and Corkly back through the woods towards Redwall.

They did not notice the evil, glistening eyes watching from above, and the dark shapes moving silently through the trees after them.

Chapter 6

Further north in Mossflower, Riddy and Spruce were not having much luck either. They had not seen any sign of the Darkblades, and Spruce was getting worried. He leaped up into a tall beech tree and looked around the view of the forest.

Riddy called up to him, “See anything?”

The squirrel shook his head. “Nothing but some birds. Now I wonder where those creatures went?”

Riddy sighed. “I wonder if Wengle and Corkly are faring any better.”

Suddenly Spruce froze. He motioned to Riddy and the shrew froze as well. The squirrel mouthed the words: “I heard something!”

Riddy nodded and held his sword ready. Then quick as a flash, Spruce turned and leaped into the brush behind him, an arrow notched in his bow. But instead of an enemy, he saw that Spruce had pinned a hefty-looking squirrel to the ground. The squirrel gasped, “Alright I give! You don't have to squash me!”

The battlelight faded from Spruce's eyes and he grinned. “Rockshaft! What are you doing here?”

The big squirrel got up and dusted himself off. “I was looking for you, Spruce. Your daughter told me about what you saw and I came right away.”

Spruce nodded. “Aye, and I had another run-in with the same creatures later. They call themselves the Darkblades and there seems to be more than three of them. They're also deadly fighters. They knocked two of my arrows out in mid-flight!”

Rockshaft groaned and muttered, “As if things could get any worse....”

Spruce glanced at him, alarmed. “Why? What's wrong?”

Rockshaft sighed. “While you and your daughter were out on that patrol, there were reports that the Pineshadows have returned.”

Spruce's mouth dropped open. “What?! But we drove them all out of this part of Mossflower after the battle!”

Rockshaft shrugged. “Well it seems as though they have come back! They've been sniping at the squirrels on the edge of the Glen. I saw with my own eyes the bodies of two of our guards.”

Riddy spoke, “But couldn't it be the Darkblades that are killing them?”

Spruce shook his head. “No, the Darkblades didn't seem like the kind that would slay creatures from the outskirts. Besides, what do they have against the Longbrush Glen?”

The shrew narrowed his eyes. “Maybe those pine martens and the Darkblades are working together!”

Rockshaft shrugged. “Well at any rate, we have a lot of enemies right now.”

Spruce Longbrush nodded and said, “Riddy and I will go back to Redwall. Rockshaft, you go back to the Glen and get everybeast ready. And keep an eye out for three dark, shadowy figures.”

The hefty squirrel nodded and leaped off into the trees. Riddy and Spruce started back for Redwall, now extra aware of danger since they now knew that the Pineshadows had returned.

Back south in Mossflower, the fox that Corkly had knocked unconscious, groaned and pushed himself up. He rubbed his head and growled, “Ohhh.... what happened?”

“You got yourself knocked out, Garak, that's what happened. Now untie me!”

Garak looked up to see Veddle the stoat glaring at him. The fox grinned. “An' I see that you didn't fare any better!”

He picked up his cutlass and went over to Veddle. The stoat sneered, “Well at least I didn't go braggin' about how brave I was and then get knocked out by a big funny rabbit!”

The fox was about to slash the ropes that held the stoat, but he pulled his blade away when he heard the last remark. He held the cutlass point at Veddle's throat and snarled, “Are you gonna take that back, stoat? Or am I gonna slit yer neck?”

Veddle growled, “Fine, I take it back! But the only reason is so I'd get untied.”

Garak sliced the roped with a few swings of his cutlass and said, “And the only reason I'm getting you out of this mess is because I don't want to have to tell the Chief that I ignored my responsibilities.”

Veddle went by the bushes and picked up his spear, saying, “Then why don't you just desert?”

The fox stared at him as though he were crazy. “Desert the Chief? Nobeast in their right mind would do that!”

The stoat taunted, “Ooohhh! A few moments ago you were braggin' about how brave you were!”

Garak spat on the ground. “Are you joking? Nobeast in all of Mossflower is as good of a fighter as the Chief!”

“You want to bet on that, fox?” Both vermin jumped and turned around to see three dark figures standing in front of them.

Vandak smiled. “Now, who is this Chief that you were talking about?”

“Who a-are y-you?” Veddle stuttered.

Vandak's long spear-like weapon suddenly appeared, pricking Veddle's throat. She whispered, “Did I tell you to ask who we were, stoat?”

Veddle was shaking all over as he gulped, “N-n-no m-m-marm!”

Vandak pulled the weapon back and grinned to the other two Darkblades. “Did you hear that? He called me marm!”

Zelkor sniggered. “Pretty proper for a common vermin if you ask me!”

Garak was starting to sneak off, when a dagger hissed though the air and stuck right in-between his footpaws. Kyvar smiled. “Dun't even t'ink about it!”

Vandak felt the edge of her blade. "So, are you going to answer my question? Or is my weapon going to do it for you?”

Veddle was so terrified that he could hardly speak. Garak gulped and stammered, “W-well his name is B-Borskan the Ruthless.”

Vandak twirled her weapon around and winked at her companions. “Oh, he sounds like a mighty warlord alright! But you may have different thoughts when we take you to our Chief.”

Zelkor smiled. “Then you shall see the real meaning of ruthless!”

Vandak nodded and started to issue orders, “Zelkor, take their weapons. Now you two bold buckoes, get going north. But don't worry, we'll be right behind you! Kyvar, if either of them makes a funny move, give him a taste of your daggers. Now get going!”

The two vermin stumbled along, with their own weapons pointed at their backs. They did not relish meeting this other 'Chief'.

Chapter 7

Further north, in a cave by a river, a big male otter stood. He looked out through the trees, trying to catch a glimpse of the search party that he had sent out. If they had not found his daughter, then he would go out himself. He sighed and limped back into the cave.

His wife stood over a cooking pot, stirring and adding ingredients into it. She looked up at him and asked, “Have they found Rodala yet?”

The otter, Skipper Roral, sat down in a chair and shook his head sadly. “No, I'm afraid not. Abrog and his searching party have been out for nearly four days and they haven't returned. I just wish that I hadn't been so hard on her...”

His wife, Hara, came over and patted his paw. “You were only trying to help her, Roral. She is just young and stubborn and she needs to learn.”

Skipper sighed. “I guess you're right, Hara. I just wish that I could go out and help to find her!”

His wife smiled. “If wishes were fishes there would be no room in the river to swim!”

Roral grinned and said, “Right again, as always, me lovely! Now, where's my supper? A beast can't live on only air and water!”

She dished up a bowl of soup to him. “Your favorite! Shrimp an' hotroot!”

Skipper licked his lips and laughed, “What otter doesn't like hotroot soup?”

Hara sighed. “Our Rodala, that's who!”

Skipper blew on the hot soup and shook his head, “Somebeast has got to teach that girl about how to be an otter!"”

Suddenly, a young male otter burst into the cave shouting, “The searchers have returned, Skip! have to come quickly!”

Skipper Roral and Hara both leaped up and dashed out of the cave. They stared in shock at what they saw. A female otter staggered forward, with a long slash running down her cheek. Tears poured down her face and she tried to smile. “Hi Skip....”

Skipper looked about. “What happened? Where's the rest of the search party? Where's Abrog?”

The female otter sat down and nursed her wound. She pointed at four other wounded otters who sat on the ground, being attended to. She shook her head. “This is all that's left Skip. The rest are all slain!”

Roral clenched his paws tight, “What happened?”

The otter answered, “Well, we had split up into two groups. I lead one of 'em and Abrog lead the other. Well, my group was going through the woods, looking for any sign of Rodala, when suddenly a bunch of savage creatures dropped from the trees! They looked to me like some kind of bushy-tailed weasels. Well, we were taken completely by surprise and we had nowhere to go. I had about eight of the crew with me, and there were about two score o' the savages! We didn't stand a chance. Only me and three others escaped alive.”

Skipper placed a paw over his eyes and growled, “Pine martens! That's what they were! I remember my old pal Spruce Longbrush had some trouble with some kind o' pine martens. I hope that those filthy scum didn't kill off all of Spruce's squirrels! They were good beasts.”

Hara asked, “But what about Abrog's group? What happened to them?”

The female otter sighed and pointed at one of the other wounded otters. “Ask Thorg. He's the only one left alive from his group.”

The otter Thorg lay on a cot made from reeds. Two otters were bathing his wounds, and he winced every time they touched his injuries. Skipper knelt by Thorg and asked him, “What happened mate?” The wounded otter looked at him with horrified eyes. “It was horrible Skip! Just horrible! They were screaming! Dying! And only four of 'em!”

Roral could not explain the shudder that ran through his body. He asked again, “What happened? Who was screaming?”

Thorg suddenly sat up and looked at Skipper as if he had just noticed him. “We were going through the woods an' looking for young Rodala, when we stumbled upon 'em.” A terrified, faraway look came into his eyes.

Skipper nodded. “Who? Stumbled upon who?”

Thorg shook his head as if to clear his mind of an awful picture. “There were only four of 'em. Black, hooded creatures. At first I didn't see them, but then one of 'em held a saw-edged blade to my throat. The tallest one was their leader, and he looked like Vulpuz himself!”

Skipper heard his wife gasp. Thorg continued, “He was all black, but with red markings on his face. I swear that at first I thought that it's head was a blood-stained skull! It brought it's arm out it's cloak and I saw that it had three metal claws were it's paw was! It grabbed Abrog and asked him what we were doing. Abrog told him and the creature just smiled and said that we were not worthy to stand in the presence of the Darkblades. Then Abrog, you know how he's a brave creature, he just said that we weren't going to bow to anybeast and he smacked the black creature across the legs with his rudder. Well, it didn't even seem to hurt the dark creature and he just smiled again and threw Abrog to the ground. That was when we attacked them. I swung my javelin at the creature with the saw blades, but he sliced my javelin in two and ripped across my arm.”

He pointed to a long, jagged gash on his arm that had been bandaged up. Then he closed his eyes and said, “I don't know what happened next because I ran. I've never run from an enemy before, you know that Skip, but these were not ordinary enemies! As I ran, I looked back and for the rest of my life I will regret looking back at that scene.”

He shuddered, closed his eyes, and fell silent. Roral was gritting his teeth together and tears formed in his eyes. He was about to ask for more of the story, when Hara placed a paw on his shoulder and spoke softly, “I don't think that Thorg should tell any more. He needs to rest.”

Suddenly Thorg's eyes came open and he said, “One more thing that you need to know Skip. Those dark creatures, don't try to go and fight them. We had a dozen or more otters with us and there were only four of those.... Darkblades. They completely ripped apart everybeast in the group. Everybeast...dead...” Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Skipper Roral sighed deeply and Hara started to cry. She sobbed brokenly, “What if those monsters have killed or captured our Rodala?”

Skipper clenched his paws and pulled a sling from his belt. “Then I'll go and rescue or avenge her. I don't care if they have a hundred creatures, I will stop them!”

Chapter 8

A strange stillness hung in the air, and Garak and Veddle did not like it. All was quiet as they marched through Mossflower, followed closely by their three Darkblade captors.

Veddle whispered to Garak, “I don't like it here mate. 'Tis too quiet. I wish we could just get out of here.”

The fox gulped as he glanced back at the Darkblades. “I don't like it either, but we don't got much choice about it do we?”

Zelkor prodded him with the cutlass. “Shut up and keep moving.” They went on silently, stepping over rocks and branches to avoid making a noise and getting berated or worse by the Darkblades.

Finally Vandak halted them. She went forward, listening carefully and peering around trees and bushes. Then she turned and said to them, “Come. We have reached our destination.”

They came forward and were lead behind a thick oak. What the two vermin captives saw gave them a sickening pain in their stomachs and a chill down their spines. Both of them had seen death before and were not strangers to violence, but what they saw was different.

The carcasses of slain otters littered the ground. Many of them had jagged cuts in their throats or chests. Some had their heads bent at a disgusting angle; if they even had a head. Three dark figures hovered in the background. Skarva came forward, drawing a pair of round blades with paw-holds, into her cloak. She glanced at the two vermin and asked, “Who are they?”

Vandak answered, “They are prisoners for Bloodskull to question. They have valuable information.”

Skarva smiled evilly and pointed to a group of trees. The two vermin watched pensively for a moment. Then Morfelg Bloodskull appeared from behind the trees.

On his triple-hook hung the body of the otter, Abrog. Almost all of his fur had been ripped off and his eyes were gouged out. Bloodskull threw the mangled carcass away and stared at the two vermin. “What information do they have?”

Zelkor pushed the trembling vermin to the ground and Morfelg stepped closer. His drew a black-bladed, single-headed ax from his cloak and felt the blood-stained edge with his hook.

It was too much for Veddle. The stoat fell with his face on the ground, sobbing, “Please sire! We wasn't doing anything I swear it!”

The hook flashed down and grabbed the stoat by his tattered jerkin. Veddle stared in horror at the red-stained face before his eyes. Bloodskull brought their faces so close together, that their noses touched. The Darkblade leader whispered, “I did not ask what you were doing, stoat.... I asked what information do you have?”

Veddle suddenly gave a moan and fainted dead away. Bloodskull sighed and tossed aside the senseless stoat. Then he turned to Garak. “Well? How about you?”

Vandak spoke for him, “Master, we have found out that these two serve another warlord by the name of Borskan the Ruthless.”

Morfelg gave his skull-like grin. “Ruthless eh?” He turned back to Garak. “Your chieftain calls himself ruthless?” The fox gave a small, nervous nod.

Bloodskull laughed, “Ha! That fool thinks that he is ruthless!” He grabbed Garak with his hook and pointed his ax-blade at the carnage that was strewn about the ground. “That, is ruthless! I am ruthless! And you will learn that I am the most ruthless and vicious warlord in all of history! Me, Morfelg Bloodskull and my Darkblades warriors!”

Garak was completely speechless with terror.

Bloodskull dropped him and strode over to the body of one of the otters. He deftly sliced off it's head in one stroke of his axe, hissing, “How many creatures are in your chieftain's horde?”

The fox did a quick estimate in his head. “Er, well, about three hundred. Maybe more.”

Bloodskull continued, “And where is this Borskan and his mighty horde of three hundred located?”

Garak knew the answer right away, “Just south, sire. Straight south and to the east a bit.” Morfelg turned to Skarva. “We march south and east. Go with Torkan and scout ahead. And get that stoat too, we might need some more information if this one's luck runs out.” Garak knew what he meant by that.

Vandak came over to Bloodskull and reported, “Master, we have found exactly where the Abbey is.”

He nodded, “Good. What sort of creatures live there?”

Vandak answered, “Well, we met with a big, strong-looking squirrel who asked us who we were and what we were doing.”


“We told him that the business of the Darkblades is nothing he should know.”

Bloodskull toyed with his ax. “And I presume that you slew the rabbit?”

Vandak bit her lip. “Uh, well, we...”

Morfelg knew that if they had, she would have said so right away. He grabbed Vandak with his hook and hissed into her face, “You fools! Now those Redwallers are going to know of our presence! How could you let one puny little rabbit get away from you?!”

Vandak stammered, “W-well master, t-the squirrel, he stopped us!”

Bloodskull let her go and slammed his ax-blade into the ground. “Three of my Darkblades stopped by a single squirrel?! If you were not such valuable fighters I would make all three of you curse the day that you were born! Idiots!”

He turned away and nodded to Skarva. She and the creature with the saw-edged blades, Torkan, went silently off through the woodlands.

Morfelg pointed out after them. “Now let us go and meet this Borskan. He may prove helpful in my conquest.”

One of the Darkblades, a huge beast named Bulgor, lifted the unconscious Veddle like he was a leaf and carried him after the procession. Garak was pulled up and dragged along with them. He groaned and wondered what his fate would be when they reached his chieftain.

Chapter 9

Wengle, Corkly, and Rodala went through Mossflower back to Redwall Abbey. Along the way, Rodala told them about herself and her clan.

Wengle stared at her. “So you ran away from your family and took your grandfather's javelin?”

She nodded. “Aye, but I ran away because my old dad, the Skipper, is too hard on me! It's always, 'Do this if you want to be a real otter' and 'you've got to be like this to be a real warrior'. Hah! I'll show them that someday I can do whatever I want and act however I please!”

Wengle was taken aback by her confession. He had never before met any creature who disliked their own parents.

Corkly quickly changed the subject, “Well, what's so blinkin special about your grampa's old hide-skewer anyhow?”

Rodala stared at him, confused.

Wengle sighed and grinned. “He means the javelin.”

She laughed. “Oh, then why didn't he just say so?”

The hare muttered as he marched, “Why does everybeast have to be so flippin straight-forward? Quite cheeky if you ask me, wot!”

Wengle nodded to Rodala and she continued, “Well, it belonged to my grandsire and his father before him and his father and so-on. They were all Skippers and it's a special weapon that was just designed for them. They say that it was made at the badger fortress on the Western Sea, by a Badger Lord for a Skipper that had helped him in battle.”

Corkly nodded. “The old mountain of Salamandastron, eh? If it was flippin' well made there, then it's sure to be good! After all, the frog-sticker that Wengle here's got was made there too, wot!”

Rodala looked over at the sword of Martin that was strapped to Wengle's back. She grinned at him and wikned. “I'll bet that only a strong beast like you could wield that thing, eh?”

Wengle blushed and cleared his throat. Once again Corkly saved him from further embarrassment. “Well, we should be getting almost to the jolly old Abbey wot!”

Suddenly a dozen dark shapes dropped from the trees and surrounded them. Wengle drew his sword, Rodala loaded her sing, and Corkly held his stave ready.

One of the creatures came forward. He was a big and wicked-looking pine marten, and he held a bone club topped with adder's fangs. He spoke, “You are trezpazzing on ze land of ze Pinezhadowz! And trezpazzers muzt die!”

Wengle's mouth dropped open. “The Pineshadows?!”

Corkly pointed his stave at the leader. “I thought that we cleared all of you yahoos out of here ages ago!”

The pine marten smiled. “Do you zink zat Lord Valkarano waz ztupid? Of courze he did not bring everybeazt among uz to ze battle! Zome ztayed back and waited for it to end. When we heard zat you had been the victorz, we hid ourzelvez to make you all zink zat we had dizzapeered! Ha! Foolz!” He spat at them and sneered, “You have undereztimated ze power of ze Pinezhadowz!”

Wengle held his sword level with the leader's chest. “Let us pass through, and you won't get hurt, scum!”

The Pineshadow smirked, “We won't get hurt? Of courze not! It iz you who zhall be ze onez getting hurt!” The pine martens came forward, and Wengle slew the first two with one stroke of the sword. “I'm warning you!” he challenged, “Let us pass through now!”

Corkly whacked one that was sneaking up behind the otter, and he sniffed, “I think that you cads had best be listening to master Wengle now and scoot! Unless you want us to beat you're flea-ridden bottoms again, wot!”

The leader Pineshadow grinned. “Again you undereztimate ze power of ze Pinezhadowz!”

He drew a bone whistle from his vine belt and was about to blow it, when a stone from Rodala's sling sent it spinning. She growled, “Aye, get out o' here, scum!”

The leader pointed his club at them and roared, “Attack!”

The Pineshadows leapt on top of them, screaming and waving their spears, clubs, and daggers.

Wengle slashed out with the sword and spoke to Corkly, “Remember when we fought those lizards awhile back?”

The hare whacked one of the vermin in the chest and nodded, “Sure do old sport, same plan, eh?”

Rodala smashed the skull of one of the Pineshadows as she asked, “What lizards? What are you planning?”

Corkly snorted and turned to her, at the same moment, belting one of the Pineshadows in the jaw. “Does she have to know every flippin' thing that we say?”

But Wengle didn't answer. He had launched himself on the leader marten, hacking and battering away at him. But his opponent was no weakling. The pine marten blocked the lighter swings with his club and dodged the stronger ones while swinging his own weapon out at the otter. Wengle staggered back as the club caught him in the face, but he shook himself and ran over again.

Suddenly he heard a scream and turned to see Rodala fallen on the ground, trying to block a pine marten's spear. Wengle raced over to help her, but the leader marten knocked him down and raised his club. “I warned you, ztreamdog!” he hissed.

Suddenly Corkly came bounding up and socked the Pineshadow in the jaw. The vermin tottered back and collapsed in a heap on the ground.

Wengle leaped up. “Thanks Corkly!” He fought his way over to where Rodala lay, battling the marten that had pinned her. The sword flashed and the vermin lay dead on the ground. Then they heard a sharp whistle.

They whirled around to see that one of the Pineshadows had picked up the bone whistle and had blown it. They heard from afar off, the sounds of yelling vermin and bending tree branches.

Corkly was suddenly right next to them. He kicked a pine marten down and shouted, “Can't fight 'em if reinforcements come! Run!” They took off, just as the incoming crowd of vermin leaped in to where they had been. Then the chase was on.

The three companions ran as fast as they could, trying to dodge flying spears and arrows. Suddenly Corkly went down with a spear in his leg. He yanked it out and winced. Tossing aside the weapon, he yelled to the two young otters, “Get back to the Abbey! I'll hold the blighters off!”

Wengle grit his teeth and started to help Corkly up, but the hare was adamant, “Don't worry about me, just go!”

Wengle ducked a flying spear and raced off with Rodala, a tear falling down his face. He gave one last glance back to see the Pineshadows falling on top of Corkly and beating him to the ground.

Chapter 10

Borskan the Ruthless was a fox; a big, sinewy vermin and a skilled warlord. He came from the southwest, gathering vermin in his horde along the way. Now he had about four hundred at his command. His weapons of choice were two cutlasses, and he could use them with skill and ease. In fact, he was known and feared as the most powerful and vicious warlord in all the southwest lands since Ferahgo the Assassin. And now he was coming north into Mossflower region, with his savage horde!

Borskan stood in a clearing in southern Mossflower, on the edge of his camp. He watched as a skinny stoat came up to him. “Has Garak and his group returned yet?” he asked in his harsh, yet cunning voice.

The stoat replied, “Not yet Chief. We've not seen a hair of 'em since they left four days back.”

Borskan growled, drew his swords, and started sharpening their blades on each other. “I was expecting that fool Garak to be back sooner. Now I'll have to go without a personal slave for a few days, seeing as how I killed my old one.” He pointed one of his blades at two vermin who were dragging off the carcass of a young mouse. Borskan spat. “Gah! But at least I got to have some fun with 'im afore he died.”

Suddenly the stoat lookout pointed. “Look Chief! Isn't that Argroo and some others?”

The big fox turned to see Argroo the weasel, Bilur the rat, and the stoat Ragtail come panting out of the trees. They fell onto the ground, gasping.

Borskan stalked over to the weasel and held up his head with his cutlass. “So Argroo, where's Garak and that idiot Veddle, eh? I hope that you didn't leave 'em out to die in the woods now.”

Argroo gulped and answered, “I-it was a big rabbit Chief. We had captured a streamdog, but then a big rabbit came and knocked out Garak and threw Veddle in the bushes. We tried to fight 'em, honest!”

Borskan shook his head in mock sympathy. “Aye, you must have had a long, hard fight, trying to protect your poor mates! I'll give youse all a reward for your courage!”

Argroo brightened up. “Really, Chief?”

The fox sneered, “Really! Vagar, take these three morons and lock 'em up without food or water for three days! That'll teach 'em not to be stupid cowards!”

A smaller, wicked-looking fox came over with some vermin and dragged the three unfortunates away. As they passed by, Borskan stabbed one of his swords in the ground and grabbed the javelin from out of Argroo's paw and inspected it. The weasel had an idea of how he thought he could get out of his predicament. “That's for you Chief! A real beauty, eh? I fought off three badgers for it!”

The fox nodded. “Why, thank you mate. How very kind an' thoughtful of ye. You get an extra day locked up for thinking me a fool!”

The weasel moaned as he was dragged away.

Borskan the Ruthless sheathed one of his blades and held the javelin in it's place, remarking to himself, “This is a real, sturdy weapon sure enough! Fit for one such as meself!” He twirled it around and turned to his camp. He knew not what lay in his horde's way, but one thing was for certain: He would surely conquer it!

It was a few hours later when Garak the fox, followed by Morfelg Bloodskull and the Darkblades, spotted his Chief's camp. He stopped and pointed through the trees towards Borskan's camp. “See, sire, there it is.”

Bloodskull looked and smiled. “Good! In the morning we shall pay this Borskan a little visit!”

Garak gulped and asked nervously, “So, eh, sire... um, would you please not make us go into the camp with you? Ye see, our Chief might get really mad at us for getting captured and all, so....would you let us go? Please?”

To Garak's surprise, the Darkblade leader nodded and stroked the fox's ears with his hook. “Yes, I shall let you go off where you wish. And don't worry, I won't try to stop you.”

Garak bowed. “Oh thank you sire! Thank you so much!” Veddle, who had awakened from his faint now, bowed a quick thanks as well, and then they took off into the woodlands.

Bloodskull grinned and gave a nod. Zelkor and Kyvar drew out their weapons and slid silently off after the two vermin.

Then Morfelg Bloodskull turned back to face the camp of Borskan and he drew his right arm out of his cloak, saying, “Skarva, get me my mace-and-chain.”

His sister went over to a small iron chest that Bulgor had carried, and opened the lid. She took out a mace-and-chain and went over to Bloodskull. He gave her his ax and took the deadly, spiked weapon. The dark warlord gave it a few skilled twirls above his head and then leaned back against a tree and smiled.

Garak and Veddle raced through Mossflower as though the devil were at their heels. They didn't dare to look back as they plowed headlong through bushes and branches. After awhile they slowed to a jog, and then to a walk. Veddle gasped, “ you think we got away from 'em?”

Garak leaned against a tree, panting, “I sure hope so. Those beasts were something I'd never want to face even if I had a score o' badgers on my side!”

The stoat nodded. “Aye! Now let's try to find some vittles and water.” He started to walk off, but suddenly stopped, gave a little grunt and fell over.

Garak went over to him, puzzled. “Veddle, are you al-” He gasped and stumbled backwards when he saw the poisoned dart sticking out of the stoat's neck. He whirled around and the last thing that he saw was Kyvar standing behind him, a dagger raised back to throw.

Later that night, Argroo, Bilur, and Ragtail sat in a wooden cage that was normally used to keep any slaves that the horde captured. A few vermin guards stood around the cage, their heads drooping.

A small figure crept carefully by them and over to the cage. It tossed a pebble at Bilur and whispered, “Hey, Bilur, wake up.”

The rat rubbed his eyes and looked up to see a smaller rat kneeling by the cage, and holding a small basket. Bilur growled, “Wot are you doin' here Gurry?”

The little rat took a few pieces of stale bread from out of the basket and handed them to Bilur. “I came to give you and your mates some food. I thought that you might be hungry.”

Bilur grabbed the bread and wolfed it down. “Hungry? Of course we are! But you're an idiot Gurry! What if the Chief finds out that you were giving us food? He'd keep you locked up in here for twice as long as us, if not slay ye!”

Gurry sighed. “I know. But I just wanted to help; with you being me brother and all.”

Bilur sneered, “Ah, shaddup with all of the goody-goody stuff! We got put in this army and here we stay. And the Chief has no room for little goody-two-paws like you, so if he finds out...”

The other two vermin had woken up and they rubbed their eyes and muttered, “What's going on? Who's that?”

Bilur tossed them a few pieces of bread. “It's only me liddle brother. Now keep quiet!”

Ragtail the stoat gulped down the bread greedily, winking at Gurry. “Thanks matey! You got any meat?”

The little rat nodded and pulled out a few scraps of meat from the basket. “Aye, it's not much; but I don't get a lot anyway.”

Argroo grabbed a somewhat large piece from Ragtail and Gurry frowned. “Now don't fight o'er it! You need to share it out fairly!”

The weasel grinned mockingly. “Ooh! Alright little nicey-nice! Why don't you go and get us some lace napkins so's that we can wipe our paws! Heeheehee!”

Bilur snarled, “Shaddup Argroo! 'E's my liddle brother and only I can talk to 'im that way!”

Suddenly one of the guards snuffled and moved around in his sleep. Bilur whispered, “Better get going, or the guards'll get yer. Now scram!” Gurry nodded and scurried off.

Ragtail belched softly and lay down on the rough, wood floor of the cage. “We're lucky that you've got a liddle goody-goody brother or we'd be starving in here.”

The rat sighed and curled up. “Aye. But he'll never be a real vermin sure enough. Leastways, not like me. Though sometimes I can't help but feel sorry for him, 'cause the Chief's gonna find out sooner or later.”

Gurry took a few bites of what little food was left as he scurried back to his small makeshift tent. Suddenly a footpaw stuck out in his path and tripped him. He fell flat on his face and looked up.

Vagar, the gaunt fox that had taken Argroo and his cronies to the cage, stood over him, grinning. “So, where have you been off to, eh?”

Gurry gulped and tried to get up, but the fox knocked him down and placed a footpaw on his chest. “I said, where have you been off to?” he repeated.

The little rat shrugged. “Just going out for a little stroll, you know.... patrolling.”

Vagar's grin broadened. “Really now? And did yew have a picnic while you were at it?”

Gurry glanced at the basket that lay a few feet away. “What? Oh, that. Eh, hehe, that was, er...”

Vagar did not let him finish. The fox grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and held his spear to his throat, snarling, “You were feeding the prisoners, weren't you?”

Gurry stammered, “I-I won't do it again, sir, honest!”

The fox threw him to the ground and spat at him. “Well you'd better not! Cause if I catch you doing that again, you'll be in there for twice as long as the are! And I may even put little spikes on the floor! How would you like that, eh?”

Gurry gulped. “N-no sir!”

Vagar kicked him and curled his lip. “Then get back to your tent, pipsqueak!”

Gurry scrambled off over to the small tent that he shared with several other young vermin. He lay down and sobbed. Why did this Borskan have to come and raid his family's home? Why? He cried himself to sleep, knowing that he would never be able to fit in to this horde and be a real vermin.

Chapter 11

Wengle and Rodala arrived back at Redwall about the same time that Spruce and Riddy did. Spruce sighed and asked them, “Any luck?”

Tears trickled down Wengle's face and he shook his head.

“What's wrong, mate?” the squirrel asked, his eyes showing concern. “And where's Corkly?”

The otter could not bear to look Spruce in the face. He had shamed the role of the Abbey Warrior by letting Corkly die at the paws of the ruthless Pineshadows. He put his head in his paws and sat down, whispering, “I let Corkly die in the woods.”

Riddy and Spruce stared at him in disbelief. The shrew stuttered, “Y-you mean Mr. Corkly? Dead?”

Wengle nodded and wept openly. “It was the Pineshadows, they've come back. They attacked us and we fought them off for awhile but then their numbers grew and we had to run. Mr. Corkly told us to go back to Redwall while he fought them off. I was so scared that I went without even questioning him. I'm a coward!”

Rodala went over to him and stroked his head. “No your not. Remember when you saved me from those vermin? That was brave.”

Riddy stood silently staring at the ground. Suddenly he looked up. “Do you know for certain that Corkly was killed?”

Wengle looked up at him. “Well, the last thing that I saw was all of those vermin jumping on him and knocking him to the ground.”

The shrew questioned further, “But did you actually see him get slain?”

Wengle thought for a moment. “No, we didn't....”

Spruce Longbrush nodded. “Corkly is a hare, and they are perilous creatures. I doubt that he would have given up without a fight. But I know the Pineshadows, and they are savage and brutal vermin. Most likely they took him back to wherever they live and are going to have some 'fun' with him. The barbarians!”

Wengle stood up. “Then we have to go and rescue him!”

Spruce nodded. “Aye but first we need to get inside the Abbey and take care of your wounds.”

The otter winced and nodded. “That would be a good idea...”

They went up to the main gates and Spruce knocked on the door. Brother Gerant, the old mouse gatekeeper, opened it and smiled, “Back from your quest are you? Did you find anything?”

Spruce sighed, “No sign of those Darkblades, but we did discover that the Pineshadows have returned to Mossflower.”

Gerant shook his head sadly. “It is sorrowful indeed that some creatures can't just settle down in peace.”

Then he looked around. “Where is that rascal Mr. Corkly?”

Wengle hung his head and Spruce said quickly, “It's a long story, Brother. Now we need to get some provisions and some wounds bound.”

As they walked up to the Abbey, Rodala looked around in wonder. She whispered to Wengle, “No wonder you like it here! This place is beautiful!”

Wengle smiled weakly and glanced around. “Yes, Redwall is a wonderful place sure enough!” He remembered the first time that he had seen the high sandstone walls, and how amazed he was of it's strength and beauty.

Just then, Nela Brookrudder came out of the Abbey doors, along with Abbot Fernald, the dormouse Father of Redwall. The otterwife's eyes lit up when she saw her son and his companions coming down the pathway to the Abbey. She ran out and hugged Wengle. “Oh, Wengle I'm so glad that you're back! Did you find anything?”

Wengle buried his face in his mother's arms and start to cry. She looked up at Spruce and Riddy in alarm. “What's wrong?”

Spruce sighed. “We'll tell you when we get inside. Oh, and Father Abbot, I need to have a word with you privately.”

Fernald nodded. “Certainly my son. Now let us go inside the Abbey and take care of any injuries.”

Wengle lay on the sickbay bed as he told Riddy, Spruce, the Abbot, and his mother all of the details about the rescue of Rodala, and the battle with the Pineshadows. The Abbot sighed. “I do hope that Corkly is alright! And those other vermin, where were they from?”

Spruce took him aside. “Well, Father, that's what I've been wanting to talk to you about...”

Just then, Foremole, the leader of the Abbey moles, came into the room and spoke in his curious mole dialect, “Burr, there be's sum skwirruls at um door for e, Zurr Longbrush! It'n be's your daughter arnd some other uns.”

Spruce raised his eyebrows. “Oh yes! I told Rockshaft to bring some of the clan here!” He went down the stairs, followed by the Abbot and Foremole.

Nela patted her son's head and kissed him. “I've got to be going and helping Friar Dobble with lunch. Take care now Wengle!” Then she walked down the stairs to the kitchens.

Rodala smiled. “Your mother is very nice, Wengle.”

The young otter nodded and muttered, “Aye, she is...”

The ottermaid looked at him. “Where's your father?”

Wengle sighed. “He was slain by corsair vermin a long time ago. You see, I come from a land across the eastern sea, and I only came here to Mossflower a few seasons ago.”

Rodala looked at the ground and whispered, “Oh... I'm sorry.”

There was a moment's awkward silence, then Rodala asked, “So tell me about that sword of your's.”

Wengle reached down for the sword at his bedside. “The sword of Martin the Warrior is a weapon that can be bested by no other. It was made at Salamandastron, just like your javelin. It has been wielded by many great warriors over time, defending Redwall from vermin invaders and other enemies. Names like Matthias, Dandin, Deyna, Samkim, and of course, Martin the Warrior, champion and founder of Redwall Abbey. I hope that one day, I will become like one of them.”

Rodala had been staring into Wengle's eyes as he spoke. A light burned in them like a wildfire. She smiled at him, “I think that you will.” They stared at each other, each with their own thoughts.

Riddy glanced back and forth between the two young otters several times, grinning cheekily.

Wengle noticed, and glared at him. “What's so funny?”

The shrew leaned back in his chair. “Oh, nothing...”

Rodala had noticed him too. “Of course it's something! Tell us and stop grinning like a drunken frog!”

Riddy stood and started moving slowly for the door. “Well, I should be going! I'll leave you two for some 'quiet time' together! Heeheehee!” Before they could grab him, he bolted down the hallway.

Wengle frowned and muttered, “Little nuisance!”

Rodala giggled, “Or as Corkly would say, 'Cheeky young blighter'!”

They both laughed at this, then Wengle sighed. “I have to go and rescue Corkly!”

Rodala patted his paw. “Don't worry about him, he'll probably have those vermin confused to death when he talks to them!”

Wengle couldn't help smiling, and he lay back on the bed. “Hah, I sure hope that you're right!”

Chapter 12

It was finally morning. Morfelg Bloodskull sat on a stump near the edge of the woods, watching the going ons of the horde of Borskan the Ruthless. A few vermin tottered about sleepily, lighting campfires and searching for food.

Bloodskull stood and turned to his Darkblades, who all stood behind him, ready for anything. Bloodskull nodded to them. “When the leader awakens, that is when we move. Remember, I shall go out first. And when I give the signal, all of you are to come out, with your weapons ready for use. Understood?”

They all nodded silently. Morfelg Bloodskull turned back to the camp. “We shall see if they are willing to comply with me. And if they don't....” He swung his vicious mace-and-chain down and shattered the stump into splinters with one stroke. “they will regret ever meeting Morfelg Bloodskull!”

Borskan the Ruthless strode out of his tent and looked around at his horde. Today was the day that they would march further north. His army had rested long enough. He turned and suddenly saw a tall, dark figure hovering near the edge of the woods.

The fox drew one of his cutlasses and narrowed his eyes. He motioned to his fox captain Vagar. “Who is that?” he asked, pointing at the figure with his blade.

Vagar shrugged. “Don't know Chief. Never seen it afore.”

Borskan strode over to the dark creature, and asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing here, eh?”

The creature smiled under its hood. “I am Morfelg Bloodskull, and I came to ask if you and your horde would like to join me and my warriors in my conquest.”

The fox licked the edge of his blade. “Conquest for what?”

Bloodskull causally leaned up against a tree. “For the Abbey of Redwall.”

“You mean the famous Redwall is around here?” Borskan asked in an incredulous voice.

Bloodskull nodded. “Aye, just up the road. And I am going to conquer it!”

Borskan laughed. “You mean the Abbey? You've got to be mad! Many powerful warlords have tried to conquer that place, and they all lie dead at its gates. No ordinary warlord could ever defeat those creatures!”

Morfelg Bloodskull smiled evilly. “Well then, you will see that I am no ordinary warlord!”

He turned and gave a swift nod. Skarva and the rest of the Darkblades came out of the woods, their weapons in paw.

Borskan stroked his chin. “A pretty good looking force you got there, Bloodskull. But is that all? Just seven?”

The Darkblade leader smiled and drew out his triple-hook. “It does not matter the number, but the power!”

Many vermin from the horde had gathered around at this point, curious about the strange, dark creatures. Gurry, the little rat, tried to look over the heads of the bigger vermin for a closer look. But they shoved and kicked him out of the way.

Borskan leaned on his cutlass, glancing at the other warlord's hook-paw. “Then let's see your power!”

Bloodskull nodded to his Darkblades, and they came forward. He spoke to Borskan, “Send out any number of your best fighters, and I will show you our power!”

The fox was hesitant at first. “Er, are you going to kill 'em?”

Bloodskull did not reply, only smiled broader and more evilly.

Borskan shrugged, he had many creatures, and he could afford to lose a few in gaining some more powerful ones. He called out, “Vagar! Get twelve of me best fighters and send 'em out here!”

Soon twelve strong-looking vermin came out. They had vicious-looking scars, and they carried deadly weapons of different kinds. They all looked like seasoned fighters. Bloodskull stepped back and spoke, “I shall introduce my warriors one at a time.”

First out came Torkan, with his saw-edged blades. Two vermin came out to meet him, a big stoat with a battle-ax, and a sly-looking rat with a scimitar. Torkan stood silently as the two vermin circled him. The rat jabbed out with his scimitar, and Torkan dodged it and ripped out, with his saw-blades criss-crossing each other. The rat fell headless to the ground just as the stoat came up behind the Darkblade and swung down with his ax. Torkan blocked it and, with one blade locked onto the ax, swung his other one around. It ripped though the stoat's side, and he fell mortally wounded. Torkan stood over the injured vermin with a cold look in his eyes, and with one slash, finished him off. Everybeast watched in shocked silence as the Darkblade slid calmly back to his group.

Borskan bit his lip. These creatures were good fighters sure enough! But he feigned boredom. “Huh! I've seen babes fight better than that! Show me more!”

Bloodskull knew that the fox was really impressed and simply wanted some entertainment. “Very well, you shall see more.”

Bulgor, the huge beast that carried no weapon, came out and flexed his muscles under his dark cloak. Two more vermin came up; a strong-looking fox with a spiked mace, and a weasel with a long sword. The fox swung his mace, and Bulgor caught it in his paw and twisted it from out of the fox's grasp. The weasel slashed out with his sword, ducking instinctively for a blow from the mace, but none came. Instead the fox's carcass crashed down on top of him. Bulgor smashed the struggling weasel's head with the mace and then snapped the weapon like a twig.

Borskan stood open-mouthed, as did everybeast in his horde that had witnessed the short-lived battle. Morfelg Bloodskull still stood leaning against the tree and smiling. The fox warlord toyed with his cutlass nervously. Never had he seen such skill and brutality before.

Bloodskull asked, “Now what do you think?”

Borskan growled and glanced at the carcases of the two vermin. “I've seen enough. I know that you're probably all powerful fighters. Give me until tomorrow morning to decide.”

Bloodskull nodded. “Very well. But just keep in mind that I will always be watching your horde from the woods. A good day to you.” And as quickly as they had come, the Darkblades were gone.

Borskan the Ruthless still stood staring at the spot where the Darkblades had been a moment before. He sighed and turned to the speechless crowd of vermin behind him. “Well?” he growled, “Don't just stand there gawking, you stupid toadbrains! Give me room to think!” He turned and swept back to his tent.

The vermin had all gone off, muttering about the events that had just taken place. Gurry, the little rat, stood staring in horror at the spot where the two bloody battles had taken place. If Borskan was going to allow such violent and evil creatures into the horde, then he would not stay here any longer. He turned and made sure that nobeast was looking in his direction, then sped off into the woods, the opposite way that the Darkblades had went.

But there was one beast that saw him leave. The sadistic fox captain Vagar, watched as the rat scurried off into Mossflower. He picked up his spear and smiled wickedly. Now was the time when he could get rid of that little goody-goody rat forever! He licked the edge of his spear-blade and went into the woods after Gurry.

Chapter 13

Spruce Longbrush came out of the Abbey to see his daughter Oakflower, Rockshaft, and about two dozen Longbrush squirrels out on the Abbey grounds. He went over to them. “Rockshaft, I'm glad you came!”

The hefty squirrel shook his leader's paw. “Did you find any of those beasts that you were looking for?”

Spruce sighed. “Unfortunately, no. But I know for certain that the Pineshadows have returned to Mossflower. Wengle, Corkly and a friend of theirs ran into them on their way back here.”

Rockshaft frowned. “Those vermin must be stopped! They'll try to take back Mossflower!”

Spruce nodded sadly. “Aye, and we also found out a few other things....”

Riddy had come down out of the Abbey and he ran over to where the squirrels stood. He shook paws with Oakflower. “Hello there miss! It's good to see you again!”

She smiled. “Yes it is! Where's Wengle and Mr. Corkly? I want to ask them about their adventure.”

The shrew bit his lip and said, “Well, er, Wengle's up in the infirmary, and Corkly is, er...” He stopped as he overheard Spruce talking about the same subject with Rockshaft. “And Corkly was either killed or captured by those savages.” Riddy said sadly, “He told Wengle and his friend to run back here while he fought them off. We're not sure what happened to him.”

Oakflower looked at Riddy in horror. “You mean...”

The young shrew nodded. “Aye, it's true.” Then he glanced around and whispered, “But I've been planning on going and rescuing him! Would you like to help me?”

The squirrelmaid drew an arrow from her quiver “Sure thing, mate! But my father wouldn't like the idea of us going out alone, so we need to sneak away quietly.”

Riddy looked over at the squirrels, who were busy talking and planning. He nodded. “Aye, let's leave now!” They readied their weapons and slid quietly out the main door and into Mossflower.

Skipper Roral had been wandering through Mossflower Woods for a long time. He was an excellent pathfinder, but he had rarely come this south before. His left footpaw, which had been wounded in a recent battle, sent fiery pains up his leg, but he still kept on going. His wife had pleaded with him not to go, but he was determined to get back his daughter; especially with all of the savage vermin abroad in Mossflower. He stumbled on a small log and muttered, “Got to find someplace to rest soon! Oh Rodala where are you?” Suddenly he heard noises coming from a little ways in front of him. He crept over behind a tree and peered up at the strange, yet spine-chilling scene....

Corkly groaned and tried to clear his dry throat, but he couldn't seem to swallow. He opened his swollen eyes to see the world upside-down. He hung from a tree branch by his foot-paws and all around him pine martens watched his every move.

A tall female marten sat on a carved wooden throne on a platform in front of him. She was a powerful-looking beast, and was quite beautiful for a barbarian vermin. She held a scepter made of bone, on top of which was mounted a crow's skull. She smiled evilly when she saw the hare moan and move about.

Corkly looked over at her and muttered, “Oh my bloomin' head! What's the matter, what are you bounders staring at?”

The female Pineshadow nodded, and the marten who had first halted Wengle and his companions, came forward. He pointed his club at the hare and growled, “You have been brought here before ze mighty Queen Zaravral for fighting againzt her armiez. You are to be given a death which zhe zinkz fit for zuch az you!”

Corkly, ever the optimist, replied, “Very well then, does old age seem like a good enough death for you, wot?”

The Chief Guard marten turned to his queen. Zaravral gave a wicked smile and said, “You zhall die ze death of a zouzand clubz for your dizrezpect of ze ruler of ze Pinezhadowz! I, Queen Zaravral, daughter of ze mighty Lord Valkarano, have zpoken!”

Dozens of Pineshadows dropped down in front of Corkly, all screeching and waving their weapons. Clubs, spears, and daggers were pointed at the hare and Zaravral raised her bone scepter.

Corkly shut his eyes tight and struggled in the ropes that bound him, yelling, “I'll go down fighting, you flippin' cads! Eeulaaaaliiiiiaaaaaa!”

The scepter came down and all of the Pineshadows rushed forward, swinging their weapons.

Suddenly something crashed into them, roaring, “Whupperyhoo! Ssss death!” Skipper Roral battled through the hordes of surprised vermin, with a javelin in one paw and a loaded sling in the other.

Queen Zaravral stood up and screamed, “Kill zat creature!” The Pineshadows leaped on top of the big otter, trying to bring him down. But he batted them aside and rushed over to the struggling hare. A few clubs and spears had already hit Corkly, and he swayed back and forth on his branch.

Grabbing a dagger from a dead pine marten, Skipper sliced the ropes that bound the hare. He fell in heap on the ground and shook himself, muttering, “Thanks a ton old chap! Although you didn't have to make me land on me blinkin' head! It hurts bad enough!”

The otter handed him a dagger and spear, shouting, “Don't just stand there yakking! Fight and find a way out o' here!”

They battled through the masses of Pineshadows, searching for a way of escape. Suddenly Corkly grabbed Skipper's paw and pulled him over behind a large branch. The vermin ran at them, and Corkly dropped his weapons and grabbed onto the branch. Skipper stared in shock at the hare, after clobbering a pine marten with his sling. “What are ye doing?”

The hare started pulling back on the branch, ducking a flying spear at the same time. “Using a bit of strategy! Fling the blighters back on their flea-bitten tails, wot!”

Skipper caught on to the plan and grabbed the branch. They pulled it back, and although several vermin got past them, they let it go and it sweeped into the Pineshadows, knocking them a down like bowling pins. Corkly kicked down a marten that got behind him and sped off, followed by Skipper Roral.

Queen Zaravral leaped on top of the branch and screamed at her vermin, “Do not let zem ezcape!” But Skipper silenced her by knocking her off the branch with a well-placed slingstone.

The two warriors leaped down to the forest floor below, seeing as how they were not too far up in the trees. They landed with a thud on the ground and Corkly shook himself. “Whew! Thanks again, old chap! I thought that those blighters were going to fix me hash then, wot wot!”

Skipper stared at him. “What did you say?”

The hare muttered, “You streamwallopers are all the same! Can't understand a chap when he's say things flippin' well clear!”

The otter sighed and held out his paw. “I'm Roral, Skipper o' the North Stream Otters.”

Corkly's ears shot up. “Did you say, 'North Stream Otters'?”

Skipper nodded. “Aye, but what of it?”

The hare scratched his chin. “Hmm.... I seem to have heard that name before. But all that banging to me head must have jolly well blotted it out, wot!” Then he tried to bow, but winced and stood up straight. “Me name is Corkly G. Battlescut, at your service! Defender of the weak and rescuer of maids and young 'uns, that's me!”

Skipper chuckled, “Defender of the weak an' rescuer of maids and young 'uns, eh? Looks like you were the one that needed the rescuing back there!”

Corkly winced and rubbed a wound on his arm. “Aye, but I did it in defending some young beasts. Otters like yourself.”

Skipper suddenly grabbed him by the shoulders. “Otters? Was one of 'em a young maid named Rodala?”

The hare pushed him back and thought for a moment. “Hm, yes, I believe that there was a young 'un by that name that me and Wengle rescued from some blinkin' vermin. Why?”

Skipper smiled with relief. “Cause she's me daughter! Oh seasons be thanked, she's alive!”

“And hopefuly back at the Abbey by now, wot!” Corkly said.

Skipper's eyes widened. “You mean Redwall Abbey? My Rodala, there?!”

The hare nodded again. “Of course! I come from there meself!”

Skipper started off through the woodlands. “Would you be so kind as to show me the way there?”

The hare saluted and then winced and stumbled over. “Of course! And the food there is absobalutaly top-hole too! Perfect for a couple of wounded warriors like us, wot!”

Chapter 14

Riddy and Oakflower crept through Mossflower Woods. They both now regretted not taking Wengle or Rodala with them to show them where the Pineshadows had been. And although Oakflower knew Mossflower like the back of her paw, she was somewhat lost.

Riddy slashed at some ferns with his short, curved sword, muttering, “It's no use, we have no idea where those vermin are or even where we are. We might as well go back to Redwall.”

Oakflower sighed and nodded. “Aye, we should have told my father about it and asked Wengle where they were.”

Suddenly Riddy stood stock still. “Wait! Did you hear that?”

The squirrelmaid froze, an arrow notched in her bow. “Yes I did! It sounds like somebeast running through the bushes.” She gave a nod to Riddy and leaped up into a nearby oak. The shrew held his sword ready and hid behind another tree across from the oak.

Gurry panted hard as he ran through Mossflower. The little rat was very tired, but he knew that he had to get as far away from the camp of Borskan as possible. He leaned against a big log and gasped for breath. He hoped that some kind beast would find him and give him some food and water. He took a deep breath and kept on jogging through the woods.

Vagar was hot on his quarry's trail. The rat had left a clear path of bent branches and flattened ferns, and his paw-marks were unmistakable. The fox's tongue hung out of his mouth and he wiped sweat from his eyes. He was beginning to wonder if he should just let Gurry go, when he spotted the little rat leaning against the log a little ways off. Vagar grinned evilly and held ready his spear. He slowed to a walk and crept silently towards his prey.

Up in her tree, Oakflower had seen both hunter and hunted. She was not sure what to do about the situation, though. A vermin following another vermin was none of her business and who cared if they killed each other. But there was something about this little rat that seemed odd. There was a strange, fearful look in his eyes, and his face was not cruel and sneering like most vermin.

She looked up at the fox and instantly knew that that one was a real evil vermin. She looked back at the rat and she knew what to do. She held her bow ready and aimed her arrow at the path ahead of Vagar.

Riddy had also seen Gurry, but he did not notice Vagar. The shrew frowned and kept still as the little rat ran by him. Riddy looked up into the tree that Oakflower was in and gave a soft bird-call. She looked down and he pointed at Gurry. The squirrelmaid nodded and motioned toward the fox coming closer.

Riddy peered around the tree and his eyes widened. He looked back up at Oakflower, who pointed at herself, then Vagar, and moved a paw across her throat. Riddy nodded and followed after Gurry, keeping to the shadows.

Vagar growled softly to himself and smiled. Gurry had stopped again with fatigue, and now had sat down on a stump. The fox crept forward a little bit and raised his spear back. It was a throw he could not miss.

As soon as Oakflower saw the fox raise back his spear, she went into action. She wrapped her legs around the branch she was on, just in front of Vagar, and pulled back her bowstring, hoping that Riddy would do the right thing.

Riddy stood watching Gurry sitting on the stump, panting. He too had a feeling that this rat was not a normal vermin. He glanced back and nearly jumped when he saw Vagar standing with his spear drawn back. The shrew sheathed his sword and, glancing back at the fox just as he flung the spear, burst out of the bushes and slammed into Gurry, knocking them both over the stump and into the brush. The spear thudded into the stump just moments after.

Vagar ground his teeth and cursed. Then, drawing a dagger from his belt, he ran towards Gurry and Riddy, who lay on the ground.

Suddenly Oakflower swung upside-down in front of him, her legs wrapped around the branch and an arrow in her bow.

Vagar growled, “What in the name of Hellgat-” But he got no further as the squirrelmaid let fly, and the arrow went right down his open mouth.

Gurry stared in shock at Riddy, and struggled to get away. “W-what happened? Who are you?” he stammered.

The shrew was not sure whether to be friendly or gruff with the rat, so he said, “I just saved you from that fox back there.” They looked back and saw the carcass of Vagar on the ground, the arrow sticking out of his skull.

Gurry gasped and stood up. He went over to his former tormentor's body and asked shakily, “B-but why?”

Oakflower had dropped from the tree and she placed a comforting paw on the little rat's shoulder. “Why did we save you or why was this fox trying to kill you?”

Gurry turned to them. “Why did ye save me?”

Riddy had come over and he sighed. “I'm not really sure. I guess something just told me that you were not like other vermin.”

Oakflower nodded. “I felt the same thing. What's your name and where are you from?”

The rat hesitated. “Er, you're not goin' to take me back are you?”

The squirrelmaid stared at him. “Take you back where?”

Gurry sighed and explained, “My name is Gurry and I have an older brother named Bilur. When we were younger we lived with our mother and father in the southwest lands. We lived a good, honest life, and we didn't harm anybeast. My father used to be a searat, but he gave it up and went to farming. He was gruff and sometimes beat us, but I think that it was because he saw many terrible things while at sea. Anyway, me and my brother were out in the fields picking some vegetables, when some creatures came up. They were lead by that fox over there,” he pointed to Vagar's carcass. “his name is Vagar. He came over and held a dagger to my throat and asked us where our parents were. We showed him our cottage, and he went in there with some more vermin. They left us outside with some guards. Then sounds of screaming and fighting came from the cottage and Vagar came out soon after with a blood-stained spear. He leered at us and said, 'Your parents were kind enough to give permission for you to join the horde of Borskan the Ruthless!' We knew what that meant, and I started to cry at the thought of our poor parents dead, but Vagar knocked me out with his spear and they dragged us away. I don't know if Bilur put up a fight, as he had always hated farm life and wanted to join some searat ship or vermin band. Well, we were brought to the horde and have lived in it ever since. I tried to run away several times, but they always caught me and beat me.” he pointed to several scars and bruises on his body. “And after those black beasts offered to join the horde, I had had enough and I ran away.”

Riddy and Oakflower had stood with rapt attention, listening to every word in the rat's story. But at the mention of the words, 'black beasts', Riddy nearly jumped. He grabbed Gurry by the arm and asked him, “Were those black beasts called, 'the Darkblades'?”

Gurry thought for a moment and then nodded. “Aye, they were. And they were the most evil and powerful creatures I have ever seen!”

The shrew let him go and slapped a paw to his forehead. “Oh, no!” he moaned.

“What's wrong?” Oakflower asked.

Riddy shook his head sadly. “Remember those dark creatures that you and your dad saw in the woods?”

She nodded. “Yes I do! Are they....”

“Yes. Those are the Darkblades, and they are going to join a vermin horde to attack Redwall!”

Gurry's mouth dropped. “You mean the famous Redwall Abbey? Where the great warriors live?”

Riddy nodded. “Aye, that's where I live too. And those evil Darkblades are going to attack it!”

Oakflower gasped, “Then we had better get to the Abbey fast and tell them!”

“Can... can I go to?” Gurry asked timidly.

They both nodded. “Of course!”

He smiled and wiped a tear from his eye. “I've always dreamed of seeing Redwall! Don't they have a magic sword? And walls as high as the sky?”

Riddy chuckled, “It sounds like you've been hearing too many vermin stories! Come on mateys, let's go back to Redwall.”

Chapter 15

Borskan the Ruthless paced about his camp, muttering darkly to himself and glancing at the surrounding woods every now and then. The vermin in his horde stayed well away from him, knowing what sort of moods the fox could get into.

The skinny stoat lookout came up to him and asked timidly, “Er, Chief?”

Borskan turned to him and growled, “What?”

The stoat gulped and shuffled his footpaws. “Did ye send for me?”

The fox nodded. “Aye, I did. Find all of my captains and tell them to meet me in my tent. I need to discuss this problem with 'em.”

The stoat nodded and left to do his chieftain's bidding.

A little while later, the captains in the horde of Borskan the Ruthless met in their leader's tent. They were all foxes, as Borskan thought his species to be more intelligent and dependable than other vermin. The warlord sat on a chair, drinking a beaker of blackberry ale. His three captains came in, followed by the stoat lookout.

Borskan poured each of them a mug of ale and then looked around as he prepared a fourth. “Where in the name of the fang is Vagar?” he asked the stoat.

The lookout shrugged. “Don't know Chief. Nobeast's seen him since those Darkblade creatures came.”

Borskan sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Well, who cares where that moron is anyway.” Then he addressed his captains, “So, as the trusted captains in my horde, what do you three think that I should do about these Darkblades?”

One of the captains, a tall, thin fox named Darang, answered, “I think that you should let 'em join, Chief. You heard what they said about that Abbey. In a couple o' days we could be sittin' in there like kings!”

Another fox, a hefty vermin named Varlod, snarled, “I don't trust 'em! How do we know that they won't take over the horde once they get the chance? And who says that we can't take over the Redwall place by ourselves, eh?”

Darang snorted. “You idiot! Don't you know that the bones of many warlords rot at Redwall's gates? The Chief himself said so today. But these Darkblades are different. They could give those warriors in there a hard time!”

Another captain named Grevrun spoke, “I think that we should get some more information from these beasts before we join with 'em.”

Varlod growled, “We shouldn't join 'em at all!”

Soon it broke out into a heated argument, and captains with opposing viewpoints started to draw their blades on each other. Finally Borskan drew one of his cutlasses, and shouted, “Shut up! All of ye! The next one that speaks will find himself spitted on my cutlass! Now shut up and give me some peace!”

They all fell silent, although they still glared at one another. Borskan pointed his blade at Grevrun. “You had a good point there, Grevrun. I'll ask Bloodskull or whatever his name is to show us what he and his warriors really are. It'll give me some peace of mind, knowing that I haven't made a deal with ghosts or something. Now get out o' here and somebeast go find that moron Vagar!”

They all beat a hasty retreat and Borskan sighed and leaned back in his chair, toying with his cutlass. He knew that all of his captains had good points, but he still did not know what decision he would make until he found out what the Darkblades really were.

On the edge of Mossflower, just near the horde's camp, the Darkblades themselves were having their own problems about the pact. Morfelg Bloodskull stood leaning against a tree with his eyes closed. It was impossible to tell if he was awake or asleep.

His sister Skarva sat nearby, sharpening her round paw-blades and listening in on her fellow warrior's conversation.

The other five Darkblades stood around, discussing the recent events. Torkan ran a paw down the sawed edge of one of his swords. “I hope that that fox will ask for more duels. That was great fun!”

Zelkor sneered, “Even if he does, you won't be doing it, because you already had your chance!”

Torkan snarled and slammed his blade into the ground. “Aye, but I just love the sound of my blades ripping through flesh!”

Vandak nodded. “Indeed. Those battles are good practice, but I think that this alliance is not necessary. After all, we are the Darkblades, and we can take that Abbey easily!”

Zelkor looked at her. “Of course we can! But Bloodskull has his ways of doing things. I'm sure that he's up to something.”

Vandak glanced over at their leader. “But does he have all of our interests in it, or is he just doing it for himself?”

At this last remark, Skarva stood and came over to them. She glared at Vandak. “Is this mutiny?”

Vandak shook her head. “Of course not! I'm just saying that Bloodskull isn't making a very good decision.”

Suddenly Skarva's round paw-blades were at Vandak's throat. The sister of Bloodskull hissed up into her face, “So you think that my brother is an incapable leader?”

Vandak pushed the blades down with her spear-like weapon. “No. I just don't think that he really cares about us. But you don't have to worry, after all, you're his sister, and you'll get most of the glory!”

Skarva snarled and was about to attack the other female Darkblade, when a voice was heard from behind them: “Enough.”

They all turned to see Morfelg Bloodskull still leaning against the tree with his eyes still closed. He spoke again, “It is of no use to fight amongst ourselves. Indeed, Vandak is right, we can with just our force attack and conquer the Abbey. But how many of you would be slain? I try to take the easy way into it. Let the creatures in this horde get slain for us. Then we alone shall have the glory and power inside Redwall.”

He opened his eyes and strode over to Vandak. Throwing a paw over her shoulder, he whispered, “So I do have all of your interests in mind. For I am Morfelg Bloodskull, and I never let my warriors down!” He turned and smiled at them all. “And do not worry, Torkan, for your blades shall rip through much flesh in the coming days. As shall all of ours.” He strode back over to his tree and leaned up against it. “For the Darkblades shall crush all of their enemies!”

He closed his eyes as a red butterfly flitted past him. Quick as lightning, his hook-paw shot out and pinned the insect to the tree. He turned his head and watched as the butterfly wriggled the last bits of its life away, then he smiled and let it fall to the ground. He crushed it beneath his paw and whispered, “Just like that!”

Riddy, Gurry, and Oakflower walked quickly through Mossflower; they had to get to the Abbey as soon as possible. All the way Gurry asked questions about Redwall, many of which made the shrew and the squirrelmaid smile. The little rat was thrilled at the chance of actually going inside the famous building. “So what about the magic sword? Is there a huge mouse warrior that wields it?”

Riddy had to stifle a laugh at the thought of Wengle being a huge mouse warrior, but Oakflower smiled and said, “Actually the sword isn't magic. But it is very strong and has been passed down from warrior to warrior through the seasons.”

“And don't they have great treasures inside?” Gurry asked again.

Riddy shrugged. “Well, it's just the sword, and the tapestry of Martin, but not really anything else.”

The little rat smiled grimly. “Then all of these big warlords are attacking Redwall for no reason?”

“Well, some are,” Riddy explained, “but others just want to rule it, or they want us out of the way for their conquests 'cause Redwallers have always protected Mossflower from invaders. I think that those Darkblades are doing just that.”

Suddenly Oakflower froze. “Sshh! Do you hear that?”

“What?” Riddy whispered.

The squirrelmaid shot up a tree and peered around the woodland. “I thought I heard somebeasts talking and moving through foliage.”

Riddy drew his short, curved sword and Gurry wrung his paws. “Ohhhh! What if it's some more vermin from my horde coming to get me?”

Riddy whispered to him, “Then we'll fight 'em off!”

Oakflower called down to them, “Don't worry, it's not vermin!”

Just then two figures came into view. Riddy gasped, “Corkly?!”

The hare turned and saw the shrew waving. “Well stamp me ears, if it isn't young Riddy! Hello old chap! Just takin' a stroll through the woods, eh?”

Gurry quickly hid behind a tree, but not without Skipper's notice. “Is that a vermin prisoner?”

Oakflower pulled the rat back from behind the tree and said, “No, Gurry's a friend! He's not like other vermin.”

The big otter scratched his chin and looked at the little rat, who stood trembling. “How can you be sure?”

Riddy answered, “I wasn't so sure myself, but then I just got a feeling that this one was different. He doesn't want to be bad like other vermin.”

Corkly shook Gurry's paw. “Well pleased to hear that old chap, allow me to introduce meself, I am Corkly G. Battlescut, formally of Salamandastron, wot!”

Gurry's eyes widened. “You mean the big mountain with the badgers?” The hare nodded. “Exactly the place my good rat. In fact-” Skipper cleared his throat and Riddy and Oakflower stifled laughter.

Corkly turned and apologized, “Oh, so sorry, this is Skipper Roral, he's looking for his daughter, Rodala, whom we all know, wot!”

Riddy winked cheekily. “Especially Wengle!”

Oakflower shoved him. “Oh Riddy, be nice!”

Skipper looked back and forth between them, an eyebrow raised. “Who's Wengle?”

Riddy coughed and peered up at the trees and Oakflower shuffled her footpaws nervously. Corkly saved the day by saying, “Well you'll never find out if'n we don't get moving, wot!”

They all went off together, but Gurry stayed purposefully in the rear. He had doubts about whether or not the Redwallers would accept him.

Chapter 16

Queen Zaravral of the Pineshadows sat on her throne deep in Mossflower Woods. Several pine marten healers stood around her, offering poultices and herbs to help with her bruised head. Zaravral shoved them away and snarled, “Get away you foolz! I don't need herbz and potionz to heal me, I need revenge! Zoze two beaztz, ze big rabbit and ze ztreamdog, they zhall pay for what zey have done to ze daughter of Valkarano!” She called out, “Karzad! Come here.”

The Chief Guard of the Pineshadows came over to her and bowed. “Yez, my queen?”

Zaravral paced back and forth in front of her throne. “Do you zink zat ze two beaztz that ezcaped from uz were from zat Abbey?”

Karzad shrugged. “I do not know for zure milady, but zey may have gone zere.”

Zaravral slammed her crow-skull club into a branch and hissed, “Zen we zhall go to ze Redwall place and have revenge for what zey did to me! Zere deathz zhall be zlow onez indeed!”

Borskan the Ruthless stood on the edge of his camp, with most of his horde behind, awaiting the arrival of the Darkblades. The fox warlord wiped cold sweat from his brow and tapped his cutlass on the ground. He had made his decision; but was it the right one? He stood under the morning sun and waited.

Morfelg Bloodskull had stood leaning against the tree and watching the vermin horde for some time. Finally he smiled and drew his arms into his black cloak. “Come. We shall see if these poor creatures are in need of our assistance.”

His Darkblades followed him out of the woods and into the clearing.

Borskan nearly jumped when he saw the seven dark figures emerge from the trees. He stood tall and tried to look powerful and alert.

Bloodskull came over and spoke, “Greetings Borskan, have you made your decision yet?”

The fox nodded. “Aye, I have.”

After a few awkward moments, Bloodskull said, “And....”

Borskan gulped and replied, “I have decided to let you join my horde.”

The vermin broke into a murmur of excitement. Several of them booed or cheered, and the captains started to argue again. Borskan glared over at his horde and they all went silent.

He turned back to see Bloodskull smiling broadly. The fox spoke, “But before you do.... I want to see what you and your Darkblade warriors really are.”

The smile disappeared from Bloodskull's face and the Darkblades all looked at him, waiting for his reply. Everything was silent for a few minutes as Morfelg Bloodskull stared coldly at Borskan the Ruthless. The fox shuffled nervously under the Darkblade leader's gaze.

Then Bloodskull smiled again and spoke, “Yes. You shall see something that very few creatures on earth have seen.” He slipped his arms under his cloak and threw it back. “Behold, Morfelg Bloodskull.”

Everybeast stared at the beast that stood before them. He was a tall, powerfully built ferret with pure black fur from his ears, down his sinewy back, to the tip of his sleek tail. His dark, evil eyes glittered savagely from behind the crimson red that streaked his skull-like face. But the most shocking thing about him, was that he had no front paws. His left arm was topped with the vicious triple-hook. But his right was capped with a metal stump.

Borskan stared in amazement at the black ferret, then he stammered, “B-but how do you hold weapons?”

Bloodskull gave a nod and Skarva came forward, holding the chest that contained the three weapons. Bloodskull opened it with his hook and grabbed the mace-and-chain. It was all pure black metal, and the end of the chain was attached to a metal cap. Bloodskull attached it to the end of his right arm and screwed the cap onto it. He swung the flailing mace up in the air and twirled it deftly, the black metal a deadly blur. He smiled and said, “That is how. And as you can see, I cannot lose my weapon in battle. It is a part of my body!” He swung it down and it thudded against the ground. He grinned up at the shocked Borskan. “Anything else you want me to show you?”

The fox warlord glanced back at his horde, who were now in a frenzy of excitement. He pointed his cutlass at the other Darkblade. “Aye. Have them reveal themselves too.”

Bloodskull knew that Borskan was being very bold to ask such questions, but what did it matter if these vermin knew what his warriors were; as long as his enemies did not know. Besides, they would all be captains soon, and Borskan would be taken out of leadership one way or another. The black ferret turned to his Darkblades and nodded. They too threw back their cloak hoods.

Skarva was naturally a ferret like her brother, Zelkor was a small fox, Vandak a weasel, Bulgor a huge, brawny stoat, and Kyvar and Torkan both rats; and they, like their leader, all had pure black fur. Also of notice was that all of their weapons were made of the same black metal.

Borskan nodded approvingly, and the Darkblades donned their cloaks.

Bloodskull twirled his mace-and-chain around lazily. “Soooo....”

Borskan spat on his paw and was about to hold it out, when, with a glance at the lethal hook, he thought better of it. He nodded. “Aye. You may join my horde, but only if I am still in a leading position.”

Bloodskull smiled. “Oh, don't worry, you will be. Now, show me around your- I mean my- camp.”

“Y-yours?” Borskan was nearly speechless with shock.

The black ferret's blood-red face was suddenly a hairsbreadth away from the fox's own face. The hook pricked Borskan's throat and Bloodskull hissed, “Aye, my camp! My horde! My conquest! If you have any complaints, then we can settle it right now with a duel. Is that what you want?”

The vermin horde had never seen their leader back down from a challenge before, and the fox wanted to keep his reputation, but he knew that in a one-on-one duel with this new ally, he would surely lose. So he muttered, “It's no use fighting amongst ourselves.”

Morfelg Bloodskull let him go and smiled. “Good, now we have that settled. Now, where are your former captains of the horde?”

Borskan pointed at the four foxes that served as his captains. They all stood trembling as Bloodskull came over to them. He raised his mace-and-chain and asked softly, “Do any of you wish to file a complaint with me about your demotion?” He looked directly at Varlod, the captain that had not wanted to join with the Darkblades.

The big fox gulped and shook his head along with the rest of the ex-captains. Bloodskull grinned. “Good! My warriors and your former chief shall take your places!”

Borskan stared in shock. “Can't we share the leadership of the horde?”

The black ferret turned to him. “So you want a duel, eh?”

Borskan fell silent and stared at the ground. Bloodskull looked over at his new horde and shouted out to them, “I am your new chieftain now! Whatever I say, goes, and anybeast that defies me, will die a long, slow death! And believe me, I know how to do it!”

The other Darkblades sniggered evilly and nudged each other. Bloodskull continued, his voice rising to a scream, “I shall lead you to victory over Redwall Abbey! We will conquer it and those that help me shall have great reward!”

The horde started cheering and waving their weapons. Morfelg Bloodskull leaped up on top of a stump and swung his mace around until it was a blur. “I, Morfelg Bloodskull, shall conquer!”

Chapter 17

Spruce Longbrush peered through the foliage of a big willow as he and a dozen other Longbrush squirrel searched for his daughter and Riddy. Suddenly a squirrel called out from a nearby oak, “They're over here, Spruce! And they've got Corkly and some others with 'em!”

Spruce leaped down and saw the five creatures coming towards them. As soon as Gurry saw the big squirrel coming, he hid behind a clump of bushes. Spruce raced forward and embraced his daughter. “Oakflower, why did you run off? Who knows what could have happened to you with Darkblades and Pineshadows roaming about!”

Then he saw Corkly and smiled broadly. “Corkly G. Battlescut, you old fighter! I knew that some filthy pinescum couldn't take you down!”

The hare struck a noble pose and winced. “All in the line of duty, wot! I say, can we please get inside the bloomin' Abbey instead of chattin' like a bunch of old mousewives! I'm parched!”

As they went along, Spruce and Skipper Roral shook paws and traded banter. “Why, Skip, I heard that you got killed four seasons ago!”

“Not true in the least, you old treewholloper! I'm fit as a fiddle and ready to smack some vermin!”

Oakflower looked around. “Where's Gurry?”

Riddy spotted him in the brush and pulled him out. “It's okay, mate, we'll explain everything!”

Spruce chuckled. “Is that a vermin prisoner you got?”

The shrew grinned and shook his head. “No, this is Gurry. He was with a vermin horde, but he ran away from them. He's really a good creature, you'll see!”

Spruce narrowed his eyes. “Well, we'll have to see pretty soon! You never know if he could be a spy.”

Oakflower grabbed her father's paw. “Oh, but he's not father! Gurry's a nice creature, and he hates killing and fighting! He wants to farm and live peacefully!”

Spruce stared at the little rat for awhile, then he sighed and smiled, “Alright. But if he betrays us to any enemies then-”

Corkly cut him off, “I say, that's what we jolly well came to tell you. Some vermin blighter named Borskum the Somethingrather, has joined forces with those Darkblade creatures and is coming this way to attack the flippin' Abbey!”

Spruce Longbrush stared in shock for a moment, then took off running. “Come on! We need to tell the Abbot right away!”

A few minutes later they were inside Redwall Abbey. Nela Brookrudder, Abbot Fernald, and Foremole stood waiting for them out on the Abbey grounds. They all smiled when they saw Corkly alive and well. Introductions were made and although they were hesitant at first, the good-hearted Redwallers accepted Gurry into their home.

Spruce went over to the Abbot and had a few words. The dormouse shook his head. “Grievous news indeed. Another vermin leader thinks that he can defeat us. Skipper, your daughter is up in the infirmary. Foremole will show you the way. Corkly, you may go with them, seeing as how you look like you were in a war!”

The hare rubbed his bruised ribs. “Well actually I sort-of was. But may I please nip over to the kitchens to pay me good friend Friar Dobbles a visit? Bet he'll be surprised to see me, wot!”

Nela laughed, “Yes, surprised and outraged! I actually heard him say that he wished those vermin would eat you! Ays you'll be getting a taste of your own medicine.”

Corkly sniffed. “The blighter's probably just mourning over me. Ah well, I'll skip the kitchens for now just in case.” He followed Foremole and Skipper up to the Infirmary.

They then turned their attention to Gurry. The little rat stood staring around at the vast Abbey and it's grounds. Nela spoke to him, “Well Gurry, you can stay here if you'd like. We'll find you a bed in the dormitory and we'll give you some food. How does that sound?”

Gurry was lost in amazement for a moment, then he started and stuttered, “What? Oh, er, well.... sure I'll stay! That is if you'll let me Mr. Abbot sir, with me bein' a vermin and all....”

The Abbot smiled. “Of course you can stay here my son. Redwall is open to all good beasts who wish for rest and comfort!”

Spruce turned to his daughter. “Oakflower, go get Rockshaft and tell him to gather the Longbrush Clan together by the orchard. Riddy, you can go tell Skipper, Corkly, and Wengle about the meeting. We are facing a war.”

Up in the Infirmary, Wengle slept peacefully on his bed and Rodala dozed in a chair beside it. Sister Patia, the Infirmary keeper, was mixing some herbs when there was a knock on the door. It awakened the two sleeping otters and the Sister called out, “Who is it?”

Foremole's gruff, base voice answered, “Tis only Oi, Sister, arnd sum friends too.”

She opened the door and Foremole and Skipper walked in, followed by Corkly. Rodala nearly jumped out of her chair when she saw her father. “Daddy? What are you doing here?!”

Skipper ran over to her and gave her a smothering hug. “Rodala, my dear! I'm so glad that you're safe! Where have you been? Me and your mother have been worried sick over you!”

The ottermaid broke out of her father's embrace and stammered, “I'm so sorry about the javelin, daddy, I didn't mean to get caught! I...I...”

Roral stared at her. “What about the javelin? Get caught by who?”

Suddenly he noticed Wengle sitting up in his bed and staring at the floor. The big otter asked, “Is this....”

Rodala smiled. “Oh yes, this is Wengle Brookrudder, he's the Warrior of Redwall!”

Skipper raised an eyebrow. “Really now? That's a big privilege! Pleased to meet you Wengle mate!”

The young otter suddenly looked up at him and gulped, “Er, uh...pleased to meet you too, sir.” Rodala giggled, and Wengle blushed and sunk down into his blankets. Skipper eyed them both suspiciously, but then, as always, Corkly came to the rescue.

The hare had been put in a bed next to Wengle and now Sister Patia was trying to bandage his wounds. The hare winced and complained, “Take it easy there Sister- Ouch! That smarts so it does! You see that wound right there, that was from when I knocked the head off a blinkin' pine marten while saving jolly old Skipper here. Yowch! Enough with the potions and such, I'm hurt enough as it is! Owww!”

The Infirmary keeper chided him, “Ohh, Mr. Corkly, you're worse than some of the Dibbuns! Hold still now you hooligan!”

The three otters and the mole tried hard not to burst out laughing. Wengle stuck a pillow in his mouth to keep from laughing aloud, and Foremole was rolling on the ground alongside Rodala as the battle continued.

“I say, don't touch that bruise, it hurts like the dickens! Owww!”

“Stop moaning, you big baby and hold still!”

“I can't hold still with you throwing bandages and potions on me like I was ready for burial, wot!”

“Huh, if only! Sit still you rouge!”

“Bloomin' torturess that's what you are. Yow!”

A few minutes later, Riddy came up. He spoke urgently, “There's gonna be a counsel o' war down by the orchard. Hurry!”

Chapter 18

Bilur the rat was awakened by a sharp pain in his footpaw. He winced and looked up. A weasel stood outside the cage, poking him with a spear. “The Chief wants ter see you.”

Bilur sighed and shook his two companions awake. “Get up you sleepyheads. The chief's comin'!”

Ragtail the stoat moaned, “Ohhh, he's probably gonna execute us or somethin'....”

The weasel guard smirked. “You'll be lucky if you even get to die quickly. There's a new Chief around 'ere!”

The three vermin watched as two figures came towards them. One of them was their former Chief, Borskan, and the other was Morfelg Bloodskull. The black ferret stared coldly at the three prisoners, who sat trembling at the sight of him.

Borskan spoke, “.... And these three I have imprisoned for not obeyin' my orders.”

Bloodskull paced around the cage, watching the terrified vermin like a hawk. Then he spat on the ground and hissed, “Imprisoned? You weakling! They should have been made an example off in front of the whole horde. Skin them alive or something; that's what I would do!”

The fox shrugged and Bloodskull grinned as the three unfortunate vermin started to quiver and sob. Suddenly Argroo fell down and sobbed, “Please yer honor! We'll be good soldiers from now on! We'll do whatever you tell us, honest!”

Bloodskull flicked his hook out and grabbed one of the wooden bars with it. With one expert twist, he snapped it in two. The black ferret stared hard at the trembling weasel. “I could easily do that to your spine! But since the offense was not against me, and I need every creature I can get, I will let you live.”

The vermin gave a sigh of relief, and Bloodskull turned from them. “Release them.”

The guard came over and unlocked the cage. Bilur, Ragtail, and Argroo came out and hurridly saluted their new chieftain.

As they walked away, Argroo sneered at Borskan. The fox growled and clenched his paws. He never should have joined with Bloodskull, that much was certain. And even though he did still have a prominent position, being a captain of the horde, how long would it last?

Bilur searched around the camp frantically. He had to find Gurry and get out of the horde. This new leader, Bloodskull, was too dangerous and unpredictable to serve under. Oh, why did he and his brother have to get put in this horde? He had always wanted to be a tough, mean vermin in a mighty horde, but now he knew that is wasn't just robbing helpless beasts and burning down cottages. This was life or death. One wrong move and you would be a carcass rotting on the ground. He had to find Gurry.

Ragtail noticed the frantic look on the rat's face and he asked, “What's the matter, matey?”

Bilur growled and tried to sound annoyed rather than concerned. “I can't find that pesky brother o' mine!”

Ragtail shrugged. “Maybe he's run off. Little feller like him wouldn't survive a minute with this Bloodskull as Chief.”

Suddenly he felt a prick of cold metal on the back of his neck. “Is anything the matter, eh me buckoes?”

They both turned to see Skarva and Torkan standing behind them. The black rat leaned on one of his swords, while holding the other at Ragtail's neck. Skarva asked again, “What's the problem with Bloodskull?”

The stoat gulped and replied, “Nothing! Nothing at all a problem! We was just, er, talkin' 'bout how powerful a Chief Bloodskull is! Hehe...”

Torkan glanced at Skarva and the ferret pointed to Bilur. “Really now? And what was it about this brother of yours?”

The rat stood to attention and saluted. “Well, marm, I was, eh, just um...”

Skarva came closer and smacked him across the face, her paw-blade cutting into Bilur's cheek. “As second-in-command of this horde, you are to address me as High Captain! Understood?”

Bilur staggered back and nursed his sliced cheek, nodding weakly. The black ferret turned to Ragtail. “That goes for you too, stoat!”

Ragtail saluted and the two Darkblades glided off. Ragtail turned to Bilur, grinning nervously. “Maybe we won't survive this new Chief either...”

Suddenly drums boomed and the horde gathered towards the center of the camp. Argroo the weasel came running up. “Come on yew lot; the new Chief's gonna speak!”

Once again Morfelg Bloodskull stood on the big stump in the middle of the camp, flanked by the six other Darkblades. Everybeast watched him in silence. The warlord's dark cloak swirled around him in the breeze, giving him a fearsome, wraith-like appearance. Suddenly he shouted, “Today we shall go march on Redwall Abbey!”

The horde cheered and chanted, “Bloodskull! Bloodskull! Conqueeeerrrrr!”

He waved his hook for silence. “I have given orders to my captains on what they are to do. You must obey them or face my wrath! Now break down this camp, all of it! For you shall never need to camp and travel like before once we conquer Redwall!”

The horde chanted more and pounded their weapons on the ground. Bloodskull pointed north, in the direction of the Abbey. “Then come my mighty horde! Come and we shall make war on Redwall Abbey!”

Bilur tried to get away from the masses of vermin that surged northward, but he was caught up in the savage crowd and pulled forward to Redwall Abbey.

The council of war that took place inside Redwall Abbey consisted of Spruce Longbrush, Rockshaft, Skipper Roral, Corkly, Wengle, Riddy, Abbot Fernald, Rodala, Foremole, and Gurry.

Spruce stood in front of them along with the Abbot. The squirrel took a deep breath and spoke, “As you all probably know, we are facing what may become a war for the safety of Redwall Abbey and all of surrounding Mossflower. From some reliable sources,” he nodded to Corkly and Gurry, “we have learned that the beasts known as the Darkblades have joined forces with the vermin horde of Borskan the fox, from which our friend Gurry was formally from. We also know that the Pineshadows have returned to Mossflower Woods, but we do not yet know what they are planning or if they know of the presence of the Darkblades. Now, we need to figure how many fighters we have among us. My squirrels will all be here, ready to fight to the death.”

Skipper raised a paw. “My ottercrew would gladly help, but they're all far up north; it'll take awhile to reach 'em. Plus with all o' these vermin hauntin' the woods, it'd be pretty dangerous.”

Spruce nodded. “Aye, it would indeed. It's too bad Keekag is away up in the northern mountains, then we could send her to them.”

Foremole spoke up with a gem of mole logic, “Well, since usn's carn't do anythin' about that now, we'm needs to figger out what we'm can do, hurr!”

Spruce smiled and nodded to Wengle. “Right. Wengle, as Redwall's Champion you can organize a defense. Corkly, Skip, and I will gladly help of course, but it's in your paws, matey.”

Wengle could feel the heat rising in his cheeks as well as pride in his heart as every face turned to him. Rodala smiled at him and he gulped, then said, “W-well, I suppose that we should figure out our adversaries' weaknesses and build up again that.”

Corkly winked at Gurry, who was sitting next to him. “Well Gurry me good rat, why don't you tell us what you know about the cads that we're facin' wot!”

Gurry bit his lip and looked around nervously. “Um.... well I don't know much about the Darkblades beasts, except'n that they're very powerful and skilled fighters.”

Spruce nodded. “Aye, I've seen 'em too. They're like nobeasts I've ever seen. Sorry mate, go on.”

The little rat continued, “Well, my Chief, Borskan, he's a good fighter too, but not as good as them. The horde is about three- or four-hundred strong with many savage fighters and some just there because they had to be. Aside from that, I really don't know much else. Sorry....”

Corkly patted his back. “No need to be sorry old chap. You helped us well!”

“Aye,” Spruce agreed, “thank you Gurry. Now, Father Abbot, this is your Abbey after all, so is there anything you wish us to do?”

Abbot Fernald spread his paws wide. “I trust my Abbey is in capable paws. Nothing else could be better than having all you brave warriors to defend us.”

Rodala sneaked up close to Wengle and whispered, “Especially you....”

Wengle blushed deeply and was saved again, not by Corkly, but by a cry from the western wall-top: “Vermin horde coming up the path!”

Chapter 19

Morfelg Bloodskull strode up the path to Redwall at the head of his new horde. His Darkblades slunk on both sides of the horde, keeping them in line. Bloodskull kept his black hood over his head, his evil eyes shining out from beneath it, burning for the desire of his inevitable victory.

Borskan walked alongside the other captains, fuming at his foolishness and at the humiliation of marching among the regular hordebeasts. What was once his servant was now his equal; and all because he trusted that black spawn of Hellgates. His hatred for Morfelg Bloodskull was only rivaled by his fear of him.

Skarva slid up to her brother and pointed ahead as she whispered, “There it is!”

Bloodskull gazed slowly upward at the huge red sandstone fortress that lay before him. Within three days at most, it would be his. He smiled and turned to his horde. “Skarva, form the horde into ranks; we want to strike both fear and awe into our enemies. Then come, and let us pay the good creatures of Redwall Abbey a little visit!”

The council of war was broken up as everybeast dashed for the west wall-top. When they reached it, they all stared down in horror at the huge mass of vermin that lay before the Abbey, faces staring hungrily for loot, and weapons thirsting for blood.

Morfelg Bloodskull came forward, backed by his six Darkblades and Borskan. He pointed his sword-arm up at at the Redwallers and spoke, loud enough for them all to hear, “Attention creatures of Redwall Abbey! I am Morfelg Bloodskull, Lord of the Darkblades and of this mighty horde that you see before you! And I make a proposal; surrender your Abbey now, or die slowly and painfully at my claw!”

Skipper answered, “How about you die scum? Did ye consider that option?”

Bloodskull laughed outright. “Ha! You are fools! Morfelg Bloodskull cannot, will not, die! Ever! Especially to a bunch of weakling woodlanders!”

Spruce shouted down, “Nobeast lives forever; it is you who is the fool! We know that you are just a creature of flesh and blood like everybeast else! So don't try and scare us with threats of black phantom warriors and such; we aren't stupid!”

The Darkblades all looked at their leader to see what his reaction would be; nobeast had ever spoken to him like that before! Morfelg Bloodskull continued smiling. “Well well, I see that you are an intelligent squirrel. Well then, if you aren't scared of the Darkblades, then you are either incredibly foolish or incredibly brave!”

Nobeast expected Rodala to speak next, but she did, “Try brave, vermin! And our Champion, Wengle the Warrior, is braver than you'll ever be! Brave enough to fight you!”

The eerie silence that followed seemed to Wengle to last forever. He stared in complete shock at first Rodala, then Bloodskull. When the ottermaid realized what she had said, tears started to run down her cheeks and he broke down weeping in her father's arms.

After awhile, Bloodskull called up, a hint of amusement in his voice, “Well then, if this 'Wengle the Warrior' is so brave and skillful, let him fight me in a duel; one-on-one, winner take all!”

Wengle's mind went numb at the though of fighting this dark nightmare alone, and his voice stuck in his throat.

Spruce spoke for him, slightly shakily, “No, Wengle will not fight you; but I will. If Redwall is at stake, then I will gladly give my life to save it! I-”

Suddenly Wengle interrupted him, “No, Mister Longbrush; I have to do it. He challenged me, and I must fulfill my job as Redwall's defender and fight him.” He leaped up onto the battlements, shouting, “I, Wengle Brookrudder, the Warrior of Redwall Abbey accept your challenge Morfelg Bloodskull! I will fight you!”

Excited murmurs broke out from both the vermin horde and the Redwallers. Riddy ran up to Wengle and grabbed his paw. “Please mate, don't do this! You'll lose, I know it! He's just too strong! Please, Wengle matey, don't!”

The young otter looked firmly at his friend. “I have to Riddy, there's no other way.”

Bloodskull's grin broadened. “Good! We will meet here at sunset, right before your Abbey's gates so that your friends can watch from the wall as you die screaming!”

Wengle's heart shuddered at the sinister words, but he stood strong. He turned to his friend's shocked faces and smiled sadly.

Rodala ran over to him and hugged him in a grip of iron. “I'm sorry....” she whispered broken-heartedly, “so, so sorry.....”

Wengle blinked back tears and gulped. “It's not your fault, Rodala. You had faith in me and I thank you for that. But now, I have a fight to win and an Abbey to save.”

The vermin horde had camped out along the flatlands west of Redwall as well as along the fringes of south-western Mossflower, waiting for the arrival of sunset. They sat about, gathering firewood, sharpening weapons, and preparing food. Many of them were disappointed that there had not been an immediate battle. But if they could get into the Abbey by letting their chief do all the work, then it was worth it.

Bilur the rat sat on a log at the edge of the woods along with his messmate Ragtail the stoat. They were both quite upset with the recent events, and something that Bilur had seen just made their lives worse.

“Are ye sure t'was him?” Ragtail asked again.

Bilur nodded amazedly. “Aye, I'd stake me oath on it. T'was me liddle brother Gurry up there hiding on the walls! He musta went inside the Abbey an' joined with 'em! I would say 'e's a traitor, but I really don't blame him for doin' it.”

Ragtail shuddered. “Right there mate, this Bloodskull gives me da creeps!”

The rat sighed. “But he's also the best fighter in the land, an' his Darkblade beasts are everywhere so we better be careful o' what we says, mate.”

Ragtail changed the subject. “So what are ye goin' ter do about yer brudder?”

Bilur traced his spear-head around in the dirt. “That's the problem. I ain't sure what I'm gonna do. I sure don't want him ter get killed, and if'n the Chief finds out about 'im.... Ah, if only there was some way I could warn 'im....”

Ragtail shrugged. “Ye could go an try ter get in.”

Bilur snorted with derision. “Are yew jokin'? Those Redwallers would never let one of us in there!”

The stoat replied matter-of-factually, “They let in Gurry. Why wouldn't they let in you?”

Bilur thought for a moment. “Well..... alright, but we'll do it tonight, during the duel. Bloodskull's sure to win, an' if he finds out that Gurry switched sides....”

He suddenly shot up from the log, looking nervously about. He looked at Ragtail and whispered, “We should go now!”

The stoat raised an eyebrow. “We?”

“Aye, we. You're comin' too, ter watch me back. Come on, let's sneak off inter the woods, if anybeasts stops us, tell 'em we're going ter gather some stream water. Let's go!”

The pair sneaked off through the woodlands, making sure that nobeast was watching them. But somebeast was.

Argroo the weasel stood leaning against a tree, glaring daggers of hatred at Borskan, who stood aways off. The fox still bore all of his usual weapons; the twin cutlasses as well as the javelin. Argroo ground his teeth. That javelin is his by right of conquest! First come, first serve! Thoughts raced through his mind on how to get his former chieftain in trouble with Bloodskull.

Then out of the corner of his eye he saw two figures sneaking off through the trees to his left. He turned and saw Bilur and Ragtail slinking away. The weasel narrowed his eyes. They were going in the direction of the Abbey. What were they up to? He had never trusted Bilur because of his goody-two-paws brother, and Ragtail would go along with his friend. Well, there was nothing else to do.... Argroo glanced around before going off after the two other vermin. Lord Bloodskull might want to know about this.....

Wengle breathed in deep as he stepped into the Redwall kitchens to tell his mother of the fateful news. He was sure that his mother would never let him do it, but there was no choice. It was fight and die, or dishonor the title of Abbey Warrior. The young otter smelled the food baking in the kitchen and wondered if it would be his last meal. Friar Dobble came bustling by with some dough on a bread paddle.

When he saw Wengle's dejected face, he asked, “What's the matter Wengle? Need anything?”

Wengle gulped and said, “Well, I needed to see my mother, Friar.”

Just then, Nela Brookrudder came over, having heard Wengle's voice. She smiled at first, but then when she saw her son's palled look, she new that something was wrong. “What is it dear?” she asked anxiously.

Wengle glanced behind him to see Spruce standing there, watching solemnly. The young otter ran to his mother and embraced her tightly. “Oh mother, I-I.... I need to tell you something.... something very important that will change our lives....” He had to swallow his tears back to keep his voice.

Nela's eyes grew wide and she looked up at Spruce. The squirrel sighed and spoke softly. “Mrs. Brookrudder, you may want to have some time alone with your son.”

The two otters went off to a quiet place, and Dobble turned to Spruce. “What happened?”

The squirrel explained it to him in a calm way, but his voice betrayed the enormity of the situation.

The mouse Friar was shocked. “B-but... our Wengle, fighting a... a vermin warlord?”

Spruce placed a paw on his shoulder. “It's nothing to panic about, Friar. I have faith in Wengle that he is able to win this. And with Martin's help, I know he will.”

As all of Redwall Abbey awaited the terrifyingly solemn event that was to take place that evening, two figures sneaked up to the south wall-gate and rapped softly on the door.

Oakflower, Rodala, and Riddy sat together in the orchard, though none of them spoke. Each had their own thoughts about their friend who in a few hours was going out to face death. They each had a different relationship with Wengle.

Riddy was his best friend; they had both been born in the same land across the eastern sea; they had been together through thick and thin and had both survived an attack by corsair vermin a few seasons back, and they were always there for each other.

Oakflower thought of Wengle as a hero. The young otter had rescued her and her late brother, Garrow, back in the days of the Pineshadow wars, and the squirrelmaid had come to respect and honor Wengle for it.

And Rodala.... she had only met him a few days ago, but already she felt something different for him, something....

All thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the south wall-gate a few yards away. Riddy got up and tip-pawed over to the door. He looked back at the two maids, and saw Oakflower notch an arrow to her bow. He nodded to her and then asked, “Who is there?”

There was a moment of small noises and whispers from outside and finally a rough, but youngish voice said, “It's eh, me, Bilur, an' me matey Ragtail. My brother Gurry is inside your gates an' I wants to see if'n he's okay.”

None of them had expected this answer. Oakflower shook her head slightly at Riddy, and the shrew replied to Bilur, “We don't have a Gurry in here. You're probably just a spy for Bloodskull! Go away, vermin!”

There were a few whispers and mutters from outside: “See? I told ye, Raggy! They'd never let us in!”

“Aw, come on Bilur, they're bluffing! Just ask to talk to Gurry, ye don't have ter see him.”

Bilur spoke again, “Er, just let us talk to my brother, 'cause I know he's in there! I saw him on the wall-top earlier today. Just let me talk ter him, we ain't spyin' or anything, on me oath we ain't!”

Rodala growled, “Don't trust 'em!”

But Oakflower lowered her bow and whispered, “What if he's telling the truth? Shouldn't we go and get Gurry? He'll know if this Bilur is speaking truthfully.”

Riddy nodded and the squirrelmaid was off into the Abbey.

Argroo hid behind a thick elm trunk, watching Bilur and Ragtail as they knocked upon the door and conversed with the creatures inside. He knew it. They were trying to make a truce or something with the Redwallers! If only he could hear what they were saying....

Oakflower found Gurry asleep in the dormitories; he had had a long, hard day and Oakflower felt bad about waking him, but this seemed important. She shook him gently and said, “Gurry, wake up.” The young rat groaned and muttered sadly, “Ooohh, mum, what happened to you....? Where's dad? Oh... blood, horde, Bilur.... No, no! It's Vagar and Borskan! They're coming for me, they're...”

He suddenly woke up and looked at the squirrelmaid bending over him. His eyes were wide with fear. “What happened? Where am I?”

Oakflower's heart broke at the little rat's terrified expression, and she spoke softly, “It's okay, Gurry, you're safe here in Redwall. I need to take you down to the grounds; there someone who wants to talk to you....”

Riddy and Rodala stood with their ears against the door, listening closely to the vermin outside. Sometimes they had to muffle laughter at Bilur and Ragtail's petty arguments, but mostly they listened for any information about the Darkblades or the horde.

Then Oakflower came up to them, followed by a very shaky Gurry. The squirrelmaid spoke to Bilur and Ragtail, “Alright, he's here. But don't try anything funny or you're dead! Understand?”

Bilur replied swiftly, “We won't, we won't! Hoi, Gurry liddle mate, is that you?”

Gurry bit his lip and stammered, “Uh, y-yes... it's me. What are you doin' here Bilur?”

“I came ter see if'n you was safe. Ragtail's here too.”

“Oh, hi Raggy.”

“Hi there mate. How's the food in there?”

“Shaddup Ragtail! Now, listen to me Gurry, I want you to do somethin' for me. This new chief, Bloodskull, he's an evil beast; the very spawn of darkness itself! An' we, Raggy an' I, don't want ter be in a horde led by a crazy, evil monster. So we want you ter either convince yer friends to let me an' Ragtail in there, or come out an' run away with us. I want's ter make sure that you're safe, matey....”

Riddy, Rodala, and Oakflower were at a loss for words as they looked at Gurry and waited for his answer. They had never witnessed vermin family love before and had not even known it had existed. Gurry stood staring at the ground. He was at a loss for words as well. Never had he truly known if his older brother had cared for him. Until now.

The little rat gulped and said, “ don't know Bilur..... I like it here, and I don't know if they would let you two in here. After all, three vermin inside their Abbey would be kinda suspicious. I'm sorry Bilur, but you'll have to run away on your own or something. I'm sorry....”

Bilur stood glaring at the ground, biting his lip until it bled. Ragtail wrung his paws and glanced around nervously. “It's almost sundown.” he said, “We should get back....”

Bilur clenched his paws and banged his fist against the door, ignoring the stoat and speaking to his brother, “Fine. Have it your way. If you won't let me help you, then I won't. No, Ragtail an' I won't desert; not without you. But now that you've rejected me, I'm gonna reject you. Good-bye Gurry. You'll see me and Raggy out on the flatland at sunset.”

Argroo had sneaked up closer to the door so that he could hear the conversation. He was lying uncomfortably in the mud and ferns, but he had to find out what that rat and stoat were doing. He caught a few words every now and then: “” He should have known. Gurry was inside of the Abbey, a traitor, and Bilur wanted to desert with him because he thought that Bloodskull was crazy!

The weasel sniggered evilly; now he had them! All he had to do was tell one of the Darkblades, who would report to Bloodskull, and then Bilur and Ragtail would be deadbeasts and he would be given a special reward for catching some deserters. Served them right, the sneaks! Argroo got up and slunk off, still chuckling at his wicked scheme.

Chapter 20

Gurry sat weeping by the wall-gate, unsure of what to do. Rodala, Riddy, and Oakflower stood nearby, trying to comfort him. Oakflower put a paw on the little rat's shoulder. “There there,” she said, “it's alright. Your brother will come back, you'll see.”

Gurry sobbed out, “No, he won't! He's gonna leave an' forget about me! I care for 'im, and.... I don't know what Bloodskull would do if'n he finds out about it. Ohhhh....” He stood up and ran off into the Abbey.

Riddy sighed. “I really feel sorry for the little guy.... and his brother too actually.”

Oakflower nodded agreement. “Yes, I know. We should talk to Father Abbot about this; he would make the best decision.”

Riddy agreed and they both went off to find Abbot Fernald.

Rodala stayed behind, many thoughts running through her head. Thoughts about family, war, friendships, and..... she looked up at the western wall-top where Wengle stood with his still-weeping mother. The ottermaid gulped back tears and tried to forget what was happening. What she had caused.

Argroo would never dare to approach Bloodskull alone. But he could get to him through one of his Darkblades; and he knew which one. Vandak was a fellow weasel. A female weasel.

Argroo puffed up his chest and grinned as he came up behind her. He cleared his throat and said, “So, Miz Captain Vandak, I was wondering if-”

The dark weasel suddenly spun around and held her spear-like weapon to his throat. Her reply was curt and ominous, “Don't you dare speak to one of the Darkblades like that again, scum!”

Argroo was completely cowed. He bowed nervously and gulped, “Well, er, I have some, uh, important information for Lord Bloodskull. Very important....”

Vandak stared at him for awhile, then she said, “Alright. You stay here and I shall report to Lord Bloodskull.” Then she turned on her heel and swept off.

At that moment Morfelg Bloodskull was preparing for his battle, which was drawing near as the sun set over the western plain. He stood in a small clearing in the south woods with Skarva, trying out the feel of each weapon. He unscrewed his ax-blade and said to Skarva, “I shall use the sword.”

His sister nodded and took out the long, black sword. It had wicked, serrated spikes on the sides and a deep, red-stained blood-channel. It was the ultimate duelers weapon.

Bloodskull screwed the blade onto his paw and, after taking a few expert slices in the air, drew his arms into his cloak and smiled at his sister. “I am going to enjoy this fight greatly. It has been long since I've had a real challenge. Not that this one will be any more difficult....”

Just then, Vandak came up and saluted with his weapon. “Lord Bloodskull, there is a certain weasel among your horde that wishes to speak with you. He says that it is important.”

Morfelg dismissed her with a wave of his hook. “Tell that weasel that I shall speak with him later. He must not interfere with his Chieftain's business.”

Vandak saluted and glided off.

Bloodskull turned and went out towards Redwall, remarking to Skarva, “Come sister, and see how Morfelg Bloodskull deals with those who dare to challenge him!”

The setting sunlight fell upon Wengle who stood on the western battlements, looking down at the path in front of Redwall Abbey. Morfelg Bloodskull glided up along it like a dark phantom, followed by his six Darkblade warriors and Borskan. The young otter shuddered and placed a paw on the sword strapped to his back. It felt cold and sturdy, yet full of a beautiful power.

He closed his eyes and whispered, “Please Martin, help me to win this battle, if only for my friends...” Then he turned and walked down the steps to the Abbey grounds.

He was met by his mother, Spruce, Skipper, Corkly, Foremole, Riddy, and Oakflower. Wengle smiled at them and winked. “Lovely evening for a duel to the death, eh?”

Corkly chuckled, “That's the spirit Wengle old lad! Show 'em that Redwallers can't be beat down, wot!”

Spruce placed a firm paw on Wengle's shoulder. “Listen mate, I just want to tell you that you are the bravest creature I have ever met. Not many beasts can face death and still smile.”

The otter sighed and smiled sadly at him. “Thank you sir. I owe it all to you and my many friends.” Wengle turned to his mother and the tears started to spring from his eyes once again.

Nela Brookrudder hugged her son tight and whispered, “You have your father's warrior spirit in you Wengle. He would've done the same thing in your place.”

Wengle blinked back his tears and kissed his mother. “I love you mum. Thank you.”

Riddy looked around at all the melancholy faces and he smirked, “What's matter with you all? It's not like Wengle is going to lose for sure! We need to have faith in our warrior! Three cheers for our friend Wengle!”

The ever optimistic Corkly seconded. “Of course! I'll bet that you can easily beat the stuffing out of that vile cad any day! Hip, hip, hurrah, wot wot!”

Just then Rodala came running up. She threw herself into Wengle's arms and sobbed, “I just need to tell you Wengle, that I....I....”

Suddenly a deep, evil voice roared from outside: “I am here Wengle the Warrior! Come and meet your fate at the blade of Morfelg Bloodskull! Or are you too cowardly to face your death?”

Wengle's blood boiled as he released Rodala and whirled around. Skipper and Foremole opened the gate and the young otter stepped out onto the path.

Most of the vermin horde had gathered around behind their master, and they all stood watching in silent tension.

Morfelg Bloodskull stood before Wengle, his dark cloak swirling in the evening wind and the setting sun glittering off his black eyes and painted face. He was backed by his Darkblades, who stood in a semi-circle around him. The dark ferret warlord smiled in evil anticipation. “So, Wengle the Warrior of Redwall.... are you ready to die?”

Wengle stood a few yards away from his opponent, his head held high. “If it is to protect my friends and my Abbey, then yes, I am!”

Bloodskull smirked, “Well then, how unfortunate for you. Because right before I kill you, after many long hours of your screaming in agony, the last thing that you will see is you precious friends and your Abbey being conquered by me!”

Wengle ground his teeth and drew the Sword of Martin from his back. “We'll see about that, spawn of Hellgates!”

Bloodskull's smile widened and he drew forth his own black sword. “I'll take that as a compliment.”

They circled each other for a moment, their eyes locked. Then with a roar, they both charged forward. There was a clash of cold steel, and the duel that held the fate of Redwall Abbey, began.

The blows rained back and forth for awhile, each combatant parrying, blocking, and thrusting with expert accuracy. Bloodskull was mildly surprised at the skill of his opponent, but the dark ferret knew that he was clearly the superior when it came to battle. For the moment he used only his sword to fight; he would bring his vicious hook into play when the time was right.

Wengle's mind burned as he tried to remember every battle tactic that Spruce and Corkly had taught him over the seasons. All of that training came down to this.

The sword of Martin caught on one of the points that protruded from Bloodskull's sword and the ferret gave an expert twist, causing Wengle to fall off-balance. The young otter caught himself just in time and he pulled his sword from Bloodskull's grasp, slashing down at his opponent's legs. Bloodskull slid back and swung his left arm out, the back of the hook striking Wengle a blow to his head. The otter fell to the ground, but was up in a flash. Bloodskull held his sword out and plunged it forward.

Wengle whirled out of the way, but the blade pierced his tail and pinned him to the ground. He grunted in pain and spun around, striking out with his sword so that he could block or thrust. Bloodskull's blade was stuck in the ground and he could not pull it out in time. With a flick of his shoulder, the sleeve of his left arm came off and the deadly triple-hook flashed dully in the fading sunlight.

As Wengle's sword came down, Bloodskull caught it in the hook and twisted. The sword went flying out of Wengle's paws and landed on the ground a few feet away. Bloodskull grinned and raised his hook again, but Wengle turned and kicked out at the ferret's right arm, which was still stuck in the otter's tail. The blow knocked Bloodskull back and freed Wengle's tail.

The otter winced as the blood flowed out of the wound, but he had to recover fast. Bloodskull came charging in, swinging and hacking with savage expertise. Wengle fell to the ground as he dodged a strike, and he felt a hard bump press into his side. It was his sling which he always kept tied around his waist! He whipped it out, loaded it with a stone from the ground, and whirled it in front of him.

Bloodskull was taken aback for a moment, but he smiled and said, “How wise of you to have a secondary weapon. But unfortunately it will not be of any help!” He slashed out his hook and Wengle swung the loaded sling down.

There was a metallic ping when the rock struck Bloodskull's hook-paw. The ferret screeched as streaks of lightning pain shot up his arm. Wengle swung out again, aiming for his opponent's head. Bloodskull put his sword up and the sling wrapped the blade. With one flick, the sword-blade sliced the leather sling in two. Wengle's eyes grew wide when he realized that he was without any weapon.

Bloodskull smiled and advanced on him, his sword and hook held ready. Wengle peered over the ferret's shoulder and saw the sword of Martin lying on the ground behind his adversary. If only he could get to it.

Bloodskull knew what the young otter was thinking and he hissed mockingly, “Oh, poor Wengle, did he lose his little sword? Well you're going to lose a lot more than that when I'm done with you!” He ripped out with both hook and sword, coming in from both sides.

Wengle ducked and reached up at his enemy's arms. He grabbed on tight to the ferret's arms, just below the metal of each weapon. Bloodskull ground his teeth as he struggled to pull his arms back, but Wengle's battle fury had made him stronger. He drew his face in close to Bloodskull's, whispering through grit teeth, “You will not take over my Abbey, scum! I will kill you!”

Morfelg Bloodskull stood glaring into the otter's hard face. Then he smiled and said in a low voice, “Well well, aren't we a little bold now, eh? Listen otter, you're in no position to kill anybody! But.... I am.” He bared his fangs and snapped at Wengle's face. The otter ducked back with a yelp and Bloodskull twisted his arms free. The warlord then went at Wengle with a fury. It was all the young otter could do to avoid the deadly swings of both hook and sword as Bloodskull attacked him furiously.

All this time both vermin and Redwallers stood watching in silent awe. Several times the Redwallers gasped as Wengle fell or was hit, and sometimes the Darkblades looked at each other in surprise when their leader faltered. But needless to say, the two most surprised beasts were the combatants themselves.

Wengle tripped on a rock behind him and Bloodskull's blade hissed over his head. Wengle lashed out with his heavy tail and knocked Bloodskull down. There was an audible gasp from some of the vermin as this happened, but the black ferret was not about to be deterred from his victory. He pushed himself up with his hook and slashed his sword out at Wengle, who had now gotten to his feet. The otter fell heavily and Bloodskull stood up, looming over him. Wengle scrabbled to get up, but the hook flashed down and struck his cheek, knocking him a few paces away. Luckily the prongs had barely scratched him and most of the blow was from the back, but it was still a hard hit.

Wengle lay on the ground, gasping and holding his bruised head. Morfelg Bloodskull gave a low evil chuckle as he glided over to his fallen opponent and raised his sword high.

Suddenly something cannoned into him and he staggered back. A hard blow smashed into his neck and he gave a gasp of pain and surprise.

It was Rodala. The ottermaid could not stand seeing Wengle being put through such pain and trial, and her fury rose within her. She stood behind the warlord, teeth bared and paws clenched.

Bloodskull's sword sliced out at her head, and, if it were not for her father, Rodala would have been decapitated on the spot. Roral had bounded into the ring as soon as his daughter had attacked Bloodskull, and he slammed into her, knocking them both to the ground.

Wengle held himself up with his paws and stared in appalled amazement at Rodala.

Morfelg Bloodskull stood a few feet away, panting and glaring at Rodala. He pointed his hook at the ottermaid and rasped, “There was to be no interference from either side! This was a one-on-one fight only!”

He turned to Wengle. “I thought that your friends had more honor than this. Huh, some warrior! This duel is to be called a draw on account of interference, but this war is not over; I will continue to attack and conquer Redwall Abbey!”

Then he turned and swept off, followed by his Darkblades and the rest of the horde.

Wengle lay on the ground, glaring at Rodala and gasping in pain and fatigue. The ottermaid could not bear to look at him. Skipper Roral held his daughter tight as she wept into his arm. The Redwallers all walked over to Wengle in silence. Spruce and Riddy helped Wengle up to his feet, but the young warrior was still glaring at Rodala. Finally he could not hold it in. He burst out at her, tears of rage coming from his eyes. “How could you do something so foolish?! I thought that I could trust you all to be fair!”

She looked out at him and glared back. “I thought I could help you...” she said weakly.

“Help me?!” he yelled.

Corkly held his shoulder. “I say Wengle old lad, calm down! No need to get in a tizzy!”

Wengle continued to upbraid Rodala, “I'd rather die with honor than live being branded as a weak coward! I don't want to speak to you Rodala.... I just...I....” He sighed and went limp in his friend's arms.

Spruce shook his head sadly and said, “It's just the stress on both body and mind that this battle did to him. Don't take it personal Rodala, he doesn't mean it.”

The ottermaid sobbed out, “Yes he does; and he should! I don't deserve to be with warriors! I'm.... I'm too cowardly and dishonorable for him!” Then she broke out of her father's arms and ran into the Abbey, weeping.

Skipper sighed deeply and gulped, “She's a sensitive young 'un, and she means well. I'll go have a talk with her while you all take care of Wengle.”

The young otter's weak voice then spoke, “Ohhhh, I hate myself..... I can't believe I said that.....”

Riddy said gently, “It's okay mate, we all get tempers at times. Come on, we need to get you inside.”

They were going off towards the Abbey gates when Wengle suddenly raised his head, eyes wide. “We need to get my sword!”

Riddy turned and started off to get it, when he stopped. The others turned to him and Wengle asked, “Riddy, what's-” He stopped short and they all stared in horror at the empty flatland.

The sword of Martin the Warrior, which had lain on the ground a few yards away, was gone.

Book Two- The Fateful Quest

Chapter 21

Morfelg Bloodskull was equally furious. He paced around the small clearing near his camp in southern Mossflower, snarling and cursing aloud. Skavra stood silently nearby, calmly watching her brother's tirade. Bloodskull slashed viciously at some bushes as he fumed, “Oh, Hellgates! I can't believe that I, Morfelg Bloodskull, who is destined to be the greatest warrior in the land, lost to a puny little otter who's not even half my size! Curses of Hellgates upon them all!”

Skarva reassured him. “You did not lose to him lord, you yourself called it a draw because the Redwallers interfered in the duel. It was no defeat.”

Bloodskull sneered, “Aye, but I didn't win either! It's humiliating for me, the most savage fighter ever, the great-”

Skarva interrupted him, “Maybe this will make you feel more victorious....” She drew something out of her cloak and revealed to him the sword of Martin the Warrior.

Karzad the marten, Chief Guard for the Pineshadows, had watched the whole duel from the woods. He frowned in thought and raced off through the trees to report to his queen.

When he reached the Pineshadow's lair deep in Mossflower, he saw Queen Zaravral standing atop her throne and yelling out orders to her followers. The Pineshadows were preparing for war.

Karzad went over to his queen and bowed. Zaravral noticed him with a nod. “What iz it Karzad?”

The Chief Guard stood and reported, “It zeemz zat zere iz anozer army attacking ze red-houze; a horde of many creaturez. Ze leaderz of both zidez juzt had a duel, alzough I do not know who won. Zat iz all, my queen.”

Zaravral stood staring at him for awhile with narrowed eyes. Then she spoke, “If zere iz anozer horde attacking ze Abbey, zen ze Abbey creaturez will be diztracted by zem. Hmm.... zis iz good....”

Karzad ventured a suggestion, “Maybe we could join forcez with ze ozer horde?”

The Pineshadow Queen snarled, “No! My fazer made ze miztake of joining wiz anozer army to attack ze Abbey, and it did not go well. No, I zhall do ziz alone! Ze Pinezhadowz will deztroy zose Abbeybeaztz wiz our own forze!” She turned and called out to her Pineshadows, “Prepare for battle! Tomorrow we zhall attack ze Abbeybeaztz and have our revenge upon ze Longbruzh zquirrelz!”

The barbaric vermin screamed and chanted wildly. The Pineshadows were preparing for war.

Borskan was quite pleased that Bloodskull had not won the duel. The fox reveled at any time his hated enemy did not have victory; and that wasn't often. But Borskan was not a beast who would sit back and let other creatures control his fate. He was going to take his horde back one way or another.

Morfelg Bloodskull stared in awe at the long, beautifully-crafted sword that his sister held out before him. He took it in his hook and held it up, looking over every inch of it in apparent admiration. “Whoever forged this weapon must have been a master. This metal is even more powerful than Binesteel!” He clanged the sword against the blade of his own weapon and smirked, “Yessss..... even more powerful than Binesteel.....”

He suddenly swung the two swords around and held them to Skarva's throat. The warlord's voice was rasping with evil pleasure, “This blade is now mine, by right of conquest! But as you know, I cannot use it properly in battle the way it is. And we do know somebeast who can fix that little problem....”

Skarva's eyes widened. “You don't mean....?”

Bloodskull nodded. “Yes, our old friend Vythran Smythfang is the only creature on earth who can forge a metal as strong as Binesteel. And if he can manipulate that..... then he can do the same with this one!”

Skarva's voice was incredulous, “We shouldn't even dare show our faces around Vythran! You know what he can do....” The black sword-blade suddenly pressed lightly into her chin.

Bloodskull's voice was dangerously calm, “Never ever speak about that to anybeast! I have a reputation to keep..... as do you. No, we are not going to Smythfang ourselves....” He lowered the blades and said, “Go and get my three most trusted Darkblades; Vandak, Kyvar, and Zelkor. They shall be the ones to do it. Oh, and while you're at it, get that weasel who wished to speak with me; Vandak should know who he is.”

Skarva nodded and slid off.

Morfelg Bloodskull looked down at the sword of Martin and turned it around in his hook, whispering, “Soon my beautiful blade, you will be mine and mine alone to use! Hah! I can't wait to see those Redwaller's faces when they see their precious sword used against them! Ohhh..... my revenge will be sweet indeed!”

In the vermin camp the only talk that circulated was of the duel that had just taken place. Many of the vermin were surprised that their leader had not won, but others thought that he did it on purpose and he was only prolonging the war against Redwall so that he would make the Redwallers suffer more. Some vermin, however, were doubtful about the true skills of Bloodskull.

Three such creatures sat around a small fire, talking amongst themselves. One of them, a tough-looking weasel, sneered to his companions, a rat and a fox, “So our mighty leader was almost taken down by a little ottermaid! Huh, some warlord! He couldn't beat a dead toad in battle!”

The other two vermin muttered and nodded in agreement. The weasel continued, “And then he says that the duel is a draw because the Redwall beasts interfered. Bah! He was just gettin' tired an' scared o' fighting. He was ready to drop out, that cowardly-”

The weasel suddenly stopped and sat staring straight ahead with an anguished expression stamped on his face. The rat and the fox stared with wide, horrified eyes as the weasel's severed head slowly flopped down from his body, still partially attached to the neck.

A dark figure materialized from behind the corpse and glared coldly at the two remaining vermin. Skavra's arms were crossed over her chest, and her razor-sharp paw-blades dripped blood. Her voice was ominously casual, “Now now, what's this I hear? Complaining and muttering about our powerful leader? I don't think that should be let off without punishment, eh?”

Suddenly the fox gave a dying gurgle as a pair of sword-blades protruded from his neck and chest.

The rat leaped up and turned to run, but he was caught by his neck in a grip of steel and raised up from the ground. The rat stared in horror at the cold, expressionless face of Bulgor. There was a muffled snap as the huge stoat twisted his paws and broke the rat's neck.

Bulgor dropped the body and Torkan pulled his saw-edged blades from the fox's carcass. Skarva placed one footpaw upon the dead weasel's body and shouted out to all the surrounding vermin, “This is to be a reminder of what happens to those who speak of Morfelg Bloodskull as weak and cowardly! And these three got off lightly; their deaths were quick!”

She stepped down and nodded to the other Darkblades. “Bulgor, dispose of these carcasses. I have some important business to finish....”

Ragtail the stoat had heard Skarva's deadly warning, and he was more than terrified. He gulped and ran off to find Bilur. If Bloodskull found out about their plans of desertion, they were in big trouble....

Wengle's paws scrabbled against the ground as he struggled to get out of Spruce and Corkly's grasp. “I have to get my sword back!” he shouted desperately, “Those vermin took my sword! I need to get it back!”

Spruce grabbed the frantic otter's face and looked him straight in the eyes, speaking in a low, firm voice, “Listen to me Wengle, if you were to go out there to get the sword, it would be like putting your head in an adder's mouth. There is a whole horde of vermin plus the Darkblades to deal with, and even if we went with you we would probably not succeed. We will get the sword back sooner or later, but to try now would be suicide. Do you understand me?”

Wengle lowered his eyes and sighed. “Yes. I understand.”

Spruce let him go and nodded. “Good. Now, we need to get you inside to the Abbey infirmary, fast. Come on.”

The three Darkblades, Vandak, Kyvar, and Zelkor, glided up to Morfelg Bloodskull, followed by a very nervous Argroo. The Darkblades nodded their respect to their master, then Vandak said, “You wished to see us lord?”

Bloodskull stabbed the sword of Martin into the ground in front of him. “Yes. I have a very important job for you three. But first, keep that weasel out of hearing range. He is not to know of my business.”

Kyvar ushered Argroo away from the clearing at dagger point. When he returned, Bloodskull told them their orders, “You are to take this sword up north to the lower parts of the Northern Mountains. There at the top of a cliff is a very large cave. In that cave dwells an old 'friend' of ours, Vythran Smythfang; you should remember him. You are to give the sword to him and tell him that, on request from his friend Morfelg, he is to fashion the hilt of this sword so that it is like the one I have now; make it so that only Morfelg Bloodskull has the full ability to use it in battle. You three must stay up there in the mountains until he is finished. By the time you return, I should be inside Redwall Abbey, but the sword will still come in useful for future battles... and as a blow to those Redwallers' pride. Is this all understood?”

Vandak, Kyvar, and Zelkor all nodded and spoke together, “Yes, master. We will do as you command.”

Bloodskull motioned to the sword in the ground. “Of course you will. You will go now under cover of night. Do not return without the sword or you shall pay the penalty of death. Now go!”

Vandak picked up the sword and drew it under her cloak. The three dark figures nodded and then turned north and vanished into the night.

Bloodskull watched them go, then he turned and called out, “You wished to speak to your leader? Then come out and speak!”

Argroo crept out of the trees and came closer to his chieftain. The weasel gave a gasp and stopped when he saw that he was alone with Morfelg Bloodskull. He would have even preferred having one of the other Darkblades there as well; but alone, face-to-face with this hooded nightmare of a beast? It was too much for the cowardly weasel. He fell down on his knees and groveled on the ground sobbing, “Oh please great lord, don't hurt me! Please!”

Bloodskull's hook flashed down and grabbed Argroo by his dirty tunic. The dark ferret snarled angrily, “I will hurt you if you don't shut up with your wailing and sniveling! Now this had better be important, cause if it isn't, I'll really give you something to cry about!”

Argroo gulped and tried to speak through his chattering teeth, “W-we-well, l-lord....'s about thi-this rat named Bilur see....”

Once again Wengle lay on an infirmary bed. But this time he did not have Corkly next to him to cheer him up. The young otter lay under the blankets with bandages and poultices on his wounds. His heart ached at the thought of how he had treated Rodala and at the lost sword. He closed his eyes and groaned; some warrior he was! He had lost the great sword of Martin to the enemy, and had almost lost his life. He wished that he could be back at his old home, on the island far across the eastern ocean. These thoughts faded into his mind as the warm embrace of sleep overtook him.

Downstairs in Cavern Hole, Abbot Fernald sat with Spruce, Skipper, Riddy, Oakflower, and Gurry. The Abbot listened intently to the stories of both the duel and of Bilur's visit.

When the reports were given, Fernald sighed and rubbed at his tired eyes. “Well I am certainly glad that our Wengle was not slain in the duel; that would have been a tragedy indeed. But now the problem of the shadow of war has once again come upon us. And I trust all of that into Sir Longbrush, Mr. Battlescut, and our new friend Skipper's capable paws. Now, about young Gurry's dilemma. Your brother and his friend came over to the south wall-gate to talk with you before the battle occurred, correct?” Gurry nodded. The Abbot continued, “Do you think that they were trying to get in so as to infiltrate the Abbey for their leader?”

The young rat scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Well Abbot sir, I don't really know. They were talkin' about desertin' the horde and they wanted me to go with 'em. An' I don't think that they would've said that if'n there was a group of vermin soldiers behind 'em.”

Riddy nodded his agreement. “Aye, they sounded sincere enough. But you still can't trust vermin; especially those under the command of that diabolical creep Bloodskull.”

Fernald thought for a moment, then said, “Do you think that your brother will come back again to talk with you?”

Gurry bit his lip. “Er, he said that he wasn't.... but I don't really know. He could change his mind.”

The old dormouse folded his paws into his wide sleeves. “Well if he does, I want you to open the door for him....”

Spruce's mouth dropped open in astonishment. “But Father Abbot, they-”

The Abbot held up a paw for silence. “I also want to have some of the Longbrush squirrel archers behind you, just in case there are more hordebeasts with them.”

Gurry gasped, “But what if'n they kill Bilur an' Ragtail?!”

Spruce replied, “I'll have one of two of my squirrels up on the wall to look over and see if there really is more vermin with them. If there is, I want you to tell your brother to duck into the door as it is opened. I or somebeast else I can trust will be right next to you to pull you out of the way.”

Gurry thought about the plan for awhile before saying, “Um.... alright. And if they're alone...”

Spruce looked to Fernald. The Abbot said, “Then we will let them into our Abbey as long as they come peacefully. But they will not be let out again until this war is over; not in any circumstance!”

Gurry nodded. “Well I think 'tis a good plan. I hope he does come back though...”

Abbot Fernald placed a paw on his shoulder. “I'm sure he will, my son. If he really cares that much for you, he will.” Then he stood and yawned. “Well it's quite late now, and we should be getting to bed. Spruce and Skipper, you may stay awake as long as you like to plan and to post guards.”

Spruce touched his brow in respect. “Thank you Father Abbot.”

Spruce kissed Oakflower good-night and the young creatures left for bed, along with Abbot Fernald.

Spruce and Skipper sat alone in the dim light of Cavern Hole. The squirrel chieftain turned to Skipper. “So Skip, how is Rodala faring?”

The big otter sighed. “She's sleeping up in the dormitories right now. I think that she went there as soon as she came back. I'll talk with her tomorrow morning, poor thing...”

Spruce nodded his sympathy. “Well, let's hope that she is okay. Now, we need to prepare for this war....”

Chapter 22

It was very late into the night down in southern Mossflower Woods as Bilur sat on a log, thinking. No matter how hard he tried, he could not sleep. What Ragtail had reported to him was very disturbing. He had already known that they would be punished if they deserted, but now that fact was made very real from what Ragtail had witnessed. Bilur shuddered and tried to think of other things. His mind wandered back to his childhood and his parent's farm, before Borskan had 'recruited' him and his brother. The rat wiped away a tear that threatened to run down his face as he remembered Gurry.

Suddenly a sibilant voice from nearby cut through his train of thought. “Are you the rat they call Bilur?”

He looked up quickly to see a pair of dark figures hovering a few feet before him. He caught a glimpse of Argroo as the weasel tried to hide behind the shadowy forms.

Bilur fell off the log and scrabbled on the ground, pleading hoarsely, “Oh please, sire, don't kill me! I wasn't doin' anything, honest!”

Skarva spoke again, “We were not sent to kill you, but to bring you before our master, Morfelg Bloodskull. He wishes to speak with you and your friend, the stoat Ragtail.”

Bilur's face blanched at the announcement. Skarva didn't wait for him to answer before asking, “Where is Ragtail?”

Bilur could not find his voice as he tried to answer. Argroo spoke for him, “He's probably sleepin' in his tent nearby. I can find 'im for ya.”

Bilur glared with sheer hatred at Argroo. Skarva turned to her dark companion and said, “Torkan, take our friend Argroo with you and find that stoat.”

Torkan nodded and slid off, followed by a still slightly nervous Argroo.

Bilur glared after the weasel, but quickly turned and saluted as Skarva spoke, “Stand up and come with me, rat.”

Bilur gulped and stood shakily then he followed the black ferret into the woods towards Morfelg Bloodskull.

A few minutes later, Skarva and Bilur came into the small clearing that served as Bloodskull's base. The rat could not help but shake with fear as he approached his dark leader.

Morfelg Bloodskull stood leaning against a tree, his mace-and-chain slowly swinging back and forth above the ground like a deadly pendulum. The warlord's face was totally concealed in his black hood, but Bilur could feel the dark, evil eyes watching his every move.

Nobeast spoke until Torkan and Argroo arrived, dragging along a half-awake Ragtail. They threw the stoat down next to Bilur and forced them both to kneel before their chieftain. Then Bloodskull spoke, his voice was soft and almost had a hint of friendliness about it, “So, you are Bilur and Ragtail, is that correct?” The two terrified vermin answered with a small, silent nod.

Bloodskull continued, “And you are both loyal to my horde?” They nodded again.

The black ferret pointed his hook at Bilur. “And I understand that you have a younger brother by the name of....Gurry. Is this also true?”

Bilur mentally cursed Argroo and replied, “Aye, lord.”

“And he is currently within the gates of Redwall Abbey? Is this true as well?”

Bilur knew that something horribly wrong was going to happen, but he answered the same as before, “Aye, lord.”

Bloodskull still stared at the petrified rat and asked, “Now, is he there as a prisoner, or of his own free will?”

This time Bilur cursed Argroo aloud under his breath before replying, “He is there on his own free will, lord.”

Bloodskull smiled and stood, silently gliding over to the two kneeling vermin. Bilur and Ragtail stared up in terror as the demonic-looking red-streaked face stared down at them. Suddenly the triple-hook flashed down and grabbed Bilur by his belt. The rat started to plead, “No, sire! I didn't do-”

The mace-and-chain was lightly pressed to Bilur's mouth as Bloodskull gently shushed the terrified rat. “Now, now, there's no need to be afraid. I have called you here because I have a special job for you. Now pay very close attention...”

Bloodskull whispered a few words into Bilur's ear and the other vermin watched in silence. When he was done, Bloodskull set Bilur down and said, “You are to do exactly as I said, or....” The mace-and-chain lashed out and the metal chain wrapped around Ragtail's neck. Bloodskull drew the stoat in near to him and held his hook under the hapless vermin's chin. “or your pal Ragtail here will be dead as a doornail! Is this understood?”

Bilur's lip quivered as he looked into Ragtail's terrified eyes. Then the rat said, “Aye, master. I will do exactly as you command.”

Bloodskull smiled broadly. “Very good! I am certainly pleased to have such loyal hordebeasts as yourself in my army....”

Bilur gulped and Bloodskull spoke to Skarva, “You and Torkan are to take at least a score of creatures with you and accompany our friend Bilur to do his job.”

Skarva nodded and she departed from the scene, followed by Torkan, who ushered Bilur out with his blades.

Argroo sneaked away for the moment, but made a mental note to return for his promised reward.

Bloodskull released Ragtail from the chain, but still held his hook to the stoat's neck. Ragtail whimpered, “Can....can I go with 'em too, lord?”

The dark ferret warlord smiled down at him and soothingly stroked the stoat's chin with the sharp prongs of the hook. “Not yet, my friend. For now you will stay here with me and pray to the fates that your matey Bilur does exactly as he has been told!”

A squirrel sentry up on the southern wall leaned against the battlements and yawned. It was late at night when Spruce had ordered at least three of his squirrels on each wall-top as guards. They were given special instructions to watch the south wall closely. The squirrel yawned again but some movement down below caught his eye. He stood up straight and peered down, notching an arrow to his bow. There was nothing but blackness sprinkled by moonlight below. The squirrel sighed and rubbed his eyes, leaning back against the wall.

Bilur slid out from between the dark cloaks of Skarva and Torkan. By hiding between them he could reach the door without notice, for the Darkblades were masters of stealth in darkness. The rat knocked nervously upon the door, glancing back at the score of armed vermin that lay waiting in the trees. Skarva and Torkan stood on either side of the door, their weapons drawn. Bilur knocked again, hoping that some sentry or guard would hear him.

The squirrel up on the wall heard the soft rapping and he looked down over the wall-top. All that he saw was Bilur, standing by the door and waiting. The guard drew back his bow and asked in a soft shout, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

Bilur nearly jumped when he heard the voice, and he looked up. “I-I'm Bilur. Y'know, Gurry's older brother. He should've told yous about me. I want to, er, talk ter him.”

The squirrel frowned and asked, “Are there any other beasts with you?”

Bilur felt the serrated edge of one of Torkan's blades press softly into his back. “Er... no. It's just me.”

The squirrel nodded. “Alright. I shall go and tell my leader of you.” The guard motioned for another squirrel sentry to come over as he ran down the wall-steps to alert Spruce.

Bilur bit his lip and shuffled his footpaws anxiously. A few tense minutes later he heard Gurry's tired voice at the door, “Bilur? Is that you?”

The rat gulped and answered, “Aye, 'tis me Gurry. I came back.”

Behind the door, Gurry glanced back at Spruce, who stood next to him, and the ten squirrel archers who stood behind them, their loaded bows aimed at the door. Gurry spoke again to his brother, “Oh, thanks matey. Is Ragtail with you?”

Bilur grit his teeth and said, “Uh, no. He, um.... couldn't come; he's sleepin' too deep. You know how ol' Raggy is, mate.”

“Well, what do you want?” Gurry asked.

Bilur tried to concentrate on keeping his body from shaking as he felt the saw-blades press a bit harder. “Um, er, well..... I wanted ter see you, Gurry. And I mean really see you. I've grown very lonely, and, um.... I just want ter see your friendly face. So.... could you please open the door for yer ol' brother?”

Gurry wrung his paws and glanced at Spruce, who nodded. The little rat took a deep breath and said, “Alright. But no tricks now, okay?”

Bilur was now shaking uncontrollably. “A-aye.... n-no t-t-tr-tricks; on m-me o-oath!” Gurry tensed his body to move as he reached up and pulled aside the large bolt in the door.

When they heard the bolt move, Skarva turned and nodded to the vermin behind them. The hordebeasts crept up as silently as they could. Spruce raised his paw as a signal to his archers and they pulled back their bows tight. There was a long squeaking sound as the door rasped slowly open..... then everything happened with lightning speed.

Bilur launched himself through the doorway and slammed into Gurry, knocking them both to the ground. The score of vermin charged in, but Spruce brought his paw down and the archers let fly, taking out the first row of vermin.

Skarva and Torkan stood to the side, waiting until all of the vermin went through. But the second row of vermin tripped over the bodies of their fallen comrades and most of them fell in a heap. A few of the more agile and tougher vermin leaped over the bodies and attacked the squirrel archers.

Spruce drew his dagger and slew a stoat that ran by him. Several of the squirrel archers were wounded and one or two were slain, but the first assault on the vermin had taken out more than half of the attackers.

Skarva and Torkan peered around the door and saw that most of the vermin were down. The two Darkblades looked at each other in silent agreement and slid away from the door and back into the woods.

The outcome of the battle was that four squirrels had been killed, and a few of the vermin escaped out the door, although most of them had been slain. Bilur had remained on top of his brother through the whole short battle.

When it was over, he stood up and helped his brother to his feet. Gurry got up and stared at Bilur in horrified astonishment. “Bilur! lied! You said that there was nobeast with you!”

The older rat frowned and growled, “Well, I couldn't very well say the truth with a sword at me back and poor Ragtail in the claws of Bloodskull now could I?”

Gurry sighed and said, “I'm sorry Bilur, I-”

Bilur grabbed him by the shoulders, “No, liddle matey, I'm sorry. I should've done it when it was just me'n Raggy...” He suddenly stopped and whirled around, “Oh blood an' fur! Raggy! He's back with Bloodskull in the woods! I have to go an' save him!” Bilur started racing out the door.

Gurry ran after him, shouting, “No, Bilur! Come back!” But it was too late. Bilur ran off into the woods and disappeared into the night.


Skarva and Torkan stood with bowed heads as Morfelg Bloodskull berated them savagely, “I didn't tell you to turn and run back to me like cowardly worms if it didn't go well! I told you to attack them and enter the bloody Abbey!!” The ferret warlord's voice was almost hoarse with his enraged screaming. “Agh! If only I had a hundred Darkblades then you would both be dead where you stand!”

Suddenly he stopped and leaned back against a tree, closing his eyes and breathing heavily. “No.... I mustn't let my fury rule my mind. I still need you.... yes.....”

His eyes snapped open and he slid forward towards the two still bowed Darkblades. His hook flashed out and latched onto his sister's cloak. He glared directly into her eyes and said in a soft, deadly voice, “But there is also somebeast who can take the punishment for this.....” He let go of Skarva's cloak and shoved her back. “Bring me that rat, Bilur. I want to have a 'talk' with him.”

Gurry stood staring out into the nighttime woodlands, tears brimming his eyes. Spruce came over to him and said gently, “It was his choice Gurry. We tried to help him.”

The little rat rubbed his face with his arm and whispered, “It's just not that he ran away; It's that he would betray me like that. I can't trust him anymore....” Then Gurry turned and walked dejectedly back into the Abbey.

Spruce sighed and looked out after him. He nodded to Rockshaft, who stood nearby, helping the injured archers. “Let's take the vermin bodies and throw them outside. Tomorrow we will have a proper burial for our fallen friends.”

After this had been done, Spruce Longbrush stood by the doorway, sadly gazing out into the woods. Then he sighed deeply and closed the door.

Bilur stumbled back into the sleeping vermin camp, desperately searching for Ragtail. Suddenly three shadowy figures stood in front of him. The rat gasped in fright and turned to run, but a pair of iron paws grabbed him by the shoulders and yanked him into the air. He hung there, staring down in terror as Skarva looked up at him from behind Bulgor and said, “Morfelg Bloodskull wishes to see you, rat.”

Bulgor threw Bilur down on the ground before Morfelg Bloodskull. The rat lay there, trembling even more than he had when he had first met his chieftain. The dark ferret stood back, swinging his mace-and-chain around almost causally.

Suddenly the warlord sprang forward and wrapped the chain around Bilur's throat. The rat struggled wildly, but he was raised high and forced to look into Bloodskull's terrifying face. The ferret's voice was barely a whisper, “You have failed me, rat. And the punishment for failure in my horde is instant death. Do you not think that is fair?”

Bilur gasped in pain and nodded weakly as Bloodskull pulled the chain tighter.

Bloodskull smiled deviously, “Then you agree that your fate should be just that?” The chain pulled even tighter and Bilur's eyes started to roll back in their sockets.

Suddenly a trembling voice came from behind them, “Please don't kill him sire! 'Tis not his fault!”

Everybeast turned to see Ragtail, kneeling down on the ground and looking up pleadingly at Bloodskull.

The warlord snorted. “And why should I listen to you?”

The stoat gulped and said shakily, “Be-because I.... I'm his matey an'.... an' I don't want yer to kill him lord. We'll serve ye well from now on, but please don't kill 'im!”

Bloodskull stood staring at Ragtail for a few moments, then he laughed and said, “Very well. I won't kill him.” With a flick of his arm he dropped the choking Bilur and the rat fell to the ground, gasping painfully.

Bloodskull turned and loomed over Ragtail. “I will not kill either of you. But you're soon going to wish I had.” He turned to Skarva. “Lock them in that cage without food or water until I command you to release them. Ha, yes.... they'll wish that I had killed them after a few weeks in there!”

Bilur and Ragtail were dragged off and thrown into the strong wooden cage yet again. Ragtail sobbed himself to sleep and Bilur sat staring out into the darkness with horrified unbelief and wondered why fate was so cruel to them.

Chapter 23

It was early the next morning when Wengle awoke. He groaned and stretched, expecting to feel lancing pain shoot through his body. But all that he felt was a dull throbbing in his head. The pain from all of his wounds was almost nonexistent. The young otter looked over at Sister Patia, the Infirmary Keeper, who sat sleeping in her armchair. Wengle smiled and quietly whispered his thanks to her before leaping out of bed and walking briskly down the stairs.

He stopped by the kitchens and saw Friar Dobble bustling about in preparation for breakfast. Wengle grinned mischievously as he nabbed a warm scone and ducked out of sight.

He strode down through Great Hall, nodding his respect to Martin's tapestry on the wall before opening the doors of the Abbey and going outside into the crisp morning air.

He breathed in the smells of Mossflower Woods that came over the wall and he sighed deeply. Mixed in with the scents of leaves, flowers, and loam, was the smell of vermin campfires, reminding him of the new ever-present danger of Morfelg Bloodskull and his horde.

Wengle climbed up the stairs to the northern wall and peered out at the tents and fires that dotted the plains and woods to the west. He shook his head as if to temporarily rid himself of the horrible reality of war. He took a bite of scone and gazed out into the distance over Mossflower Woods and far up towards the great Northern Mountains that loomed on the horizon.

Some movement in the sky from that direction caught his eye and the otter peered intently out at it. As the figure drew nearer, he saw what it was. It was definitely a predatory bird of some kind, and a smaller one at that. Finally he recognized it with a smile. “Keekag!”

The sparrowhawk came diving down onto the wall and gave a low screech of greeting. She landed and Wengle ran over to her. “Hi there Keekag! How have you been?”

The hawk nodded her head and said, “Kraak! Hello Wengle otter, I be fine. But I have message for squirrel Longbrush.”

Wengle nodded and led her down the stairs. “I think he might be still sleeping, but I'm not sure. We're under attack from a vermin horde right now, so he might have been up all night planning.”

Keekag frowned. “Yes, I see verminbeasts from above. They badbeasts. But that what I tell you about. I see three darkbeasts go north, where I come from. They go quickly and silently. They badbeasts sure enough; dark and evilbeasts.”

Wengle snarled, “The Darkblades! That's what those creatures are! But why would they leave the horde and go north?”

Just then, Riddy and Corkly came out of the Abbey doors, talking with each other and munching on scones. Riddy turned and hailed Wengle, “Hi there mate! How are you feeli- Oh!” His voice faded when he saw the fierce-looking sparrowhawk standing in the courtyard next to Wengle.

Corkly recognized her instantly. “What ho, if it isn't ol' Keebeak or whatever your flippin' name is! How're you doing you old featherbag?”

Keekag glared at him and snapped her beak threateningly. “My name Keekag! Not Keebeak! I 'amember you too, bigrabbit!”

Corkly snorted, “Big rabbit? Why I-”

Wengle interrupted them, “She has a message for us that could be very important. She saw three of those Darkblades creatures traveling north on her way here.”

Riddy scratched his chin. “Now why would they do that?” Wengle shrugged. “I don't know, but we need to call a meeting to figure it out. Is Mr. Longbrush still asleep?”

“Not sure,” Riddy said, “but why don't we all go down to Cavern Hole and wait for everybeast to wake up.”

Within the next hour, Wengle, Riddy, Corkly, and Keekag all sat around the table in Cavern Hole, along with Spruce, Skipper, Oakflower, and Nela. The ottermum smiled and and ran over to embrace her son when she saw him. “Oh Wengle, I'm so glad that you're alright!”

Wengle smiled and hugged her back. “I am too mum. And I'm glad that I can see you again!” He turned to Skipper Roral. “Is Rodala coming down?”

Skipper shrugged. “She's still sleepin' up in her bed I think. She'll come down eventually.”

Spruce went over to Keekag and shook her claw. “It's good to see you again Keekag! What news do you bring?”

The hawk nodded in greeting and said, “I see three darkbeasts going up north path when I fly here. They be very bad and evilbeasts I could tell. They stay silent and dark on path.”

Wengle added in, “We think that they are three of those Darkblades. Though why they would leave the horde is the question.”

“Maybe they're going for reinforcements?” suggested Riddy.

Spruce frowned in thought and nodded slowly. “Maybe. But they already have a large horde, and I don't think that Bloodskull would send for more. There's got to be another reason...”

Corkly ventured his opinion, “Do you think it has to do with the fact that the cads have the blinkin' sword?”

Wengle's eyes grew wide. Spruce bit his lip. “That is a possibility....” he said. “But why would they take it somewhere?”

Skipper asked, “Why wouldn't that Bloodskull keep it here for himself?”

Spruce rubbed his chin. “Hm.... that's the question....”

Suddenly Wengle stood up. “Well if they have the sword, then I'm going after them to get it back!”

Nela grabbed his paw. “No Wengle, please! I can't let you risk your life again!”

The young otter looked down sadly at the floor. “I know mother..... but it's my duty as the Champion of Redwall to get back my sword.”

Spruce leaned forward and said, “Wengle mate, if you had a tough time dealing with Bloodskull, then how are you going to get the sword from three of the Darkblades?”

Riddy stood alongside Wengle. “Because somebeast be going with him. I'll go too.”

Spruce sighed. “I thank you for your loyalty Riddy, but this means that you will be going who-knows-how far from Redwall and face those Darkblades by yourselves. It's very dangerous.”

Wengle stood up straight and said, “Remember the stories from long ago? About that mouse named Matthias? When the sword was stolen by enemies, he braved rivers, canyons, a vermin horde, and even a giant adder to get it back. I will do the same if necessary.”

The squirrel looked at the young warrior for a few moments, then he said with a slight smile, “Very well. You and Riddy can go north after those vermin to bring back the sword. But I suggest that more creatures go with you. There are three of them plus whoever or whatever they're taking the sword to.”

Corkly volunteered. “I'll go sah! I'd never miss a chance at jolly old quest, wot!”

Spruce shook his head. “We need you back here to help command the defenses. You and Skipper both.”

“Then I'll go, sir.”

They all turned towards the voice from behind them. Gurry stood in the doorway, holding a spear and saluting smartly.

Keekag ruffled her feathers and screeched, but Spruce reassured her, “It's alright, he's one of us.”

Wengle looked at Gurry in disbelief. “But Gurry.... why do you want to come?”

The little rat smiled nervously. “Because I feel that I haven't really been doin' much to help around here; only causin' problems for me friends. But I'll go with you and help you get back your sword; I'll even die for it.”

Spruce smiled. “Then you may go Gurry! Thank you for your courage.”

Gurry smiled and took his place next to Wengle and Riddy. Spruce looked over them and then said, “Of course, we'll have to get permission from Father Abbot first-”

“Yes, of course I'll give my permission!” Father Abbot Fernald came down the stairway, smiling.

Wengle touched his brow in respect. “Thank you Father, we won't let you down.”

Nela hugged Wengle again. “And I give my permission as well. Make us proud Wengle dear! I have faith that you can do it!”

Wengle smiled and sniffed back tears. “I will mum.”

Corkly then asked the question that they were all thinking, “So when will you jolly well be leaving?”

“Today.” was Wengle's firm reply. “If we're to catch up with the Darkblades or at least reach the destination before they leave it, then we should depart as soon as possible.”

Spruce nodded his approval. “I'll have some of my archers to watch your back as you go.”

Some minutes later, the three travelers were packed with provisions and all held weapons. Wengle had his sling and a hard oaken staff, Riddy had his short curved sword, and Gurry carried his spear and a dagger.

After some tearful good-byes and some huzzahs from Corkly, they went out through the main gate. Longbrush squirrel archers stood on the walls with loaded bowstrings, but no vermin appeared to have seen the questers, and the way was safe. Wengle, Riddy, and Gurry all looked back up at their beloved Abbey and waved good-bye before setting out up the path on their quest to bring back the sword of Martin the Warrior.

That same morning, Bilur lay sleeping fitfully on the hard wood floor of the cage. He was awakened by a sharp pain in his side. He opened his eyes, half-expecting to see the guards coming to release him again. But it was not to be so.

A mocking voice came from above him, “Aw, poor Bilur an' Ragtail... did the big bad Lord Bloodskull lock you up in the cold 'ard cage? How sad! Heeheeheehee!”

Bilur looked up to see Argroo the weasel standing by the cage and poking at the rat with his sword. Bilur lunged out at him, snarling, “If'n I gets out o' here, I'm gonna tear you apart!”

The weasel stepped back and sniggered wickedly, “Oh yeah, if! Lord Bloodskull's gonna keep yous two in there until ya rot an' starve t'death! Hahahaha!”

“Oh shut up Argroo!” came Ragtail's angry voice. “It weren't too long ago that you were locked in here as well!”

Argroo spat at them and sneered, “Aye, but I ain't locked up no more! Lord Bloodskull sees in me what Borskan didn't. I'm his liddle spy now, so you'd better watch what ye say or he might be merciful an' end yer pitiful lives sooner! Heeheehee!”

The rat and the stoat just sat there, silently glaring at their tormentor. Argroo spat at them again and turned to leave, but he suddenly stopped and turned back to them, a cruel, sadistic smile creeping over his face. “Oh, an' before I leave, I wants to tell you somethin'. When Lord Bloodskull gets inter the Abbey, I'm gonna be lookin' for one certain liddle traitorous rat, an' when I find 'im I'm gonna kill him nice an' slow like! But of course, you won't be there ter help him cause you'll be dead an' in Hellgates! Ahahahaha!”

Suddenly Bilur's temper snapped. He threw himself at the cage bars, foaming and snarling like a beast gone mad. “You filthy vile scumface!!” he screamed, “If you even touch him I'll shred your carcass to pieces! I'll-”

“What's all this now?”

Argroo whirled around to see Skavra standing behind him. The weasel tried to sound innocent, “Oh, I wasn't doin' anything Captain, honest! But this mad prisoner tried ter attack me! We should put him out o' his misery.”

Skarva glared at him. “Shut up weasel! Now...” she turned to the enraged Bilur and the shocked Ragtail. “what's all this about, eh?”

Bilur's breath rasped as he replied, “That treacherous scum was tormentin' an' mockin' us!”

The ferret's reply was impassive. “And...?”

Bilur wiped saliva from his mouth and looked down at the ground. “Well I thought that, eh, well....”

Skarva sniffed. “I do not care if he torments you, but if he is the cause of chaos and disorder in the horde, then he shall be punished.” She whirled on Argroo, who stood smirking in the background. Her paw snatched out and grabbed him by the throat. “Do you understand me?!”

The weasel gulped and nodded frantically. Skarva let him go and said, “Now, there is to be no more of this shouting and screaming, understand?” All three vermin nodded solemnly. “Good.”

The black ferret turned and slid off into the trees.

Argroo turned to Bilur and whispered maliciously, “But I'm still gonna get your liddle goody-goody brother! You'll see!” Then he turned and crept off, chuckling evilly.

Bilur sighed and leaned against the bars of the cage, thinking of some way that he could break free from his prison and get his revenge on the sadistic Argroo.

Soon after the questers had left, Rodala awoke and came down the stairs to Great Hall. When she saw her father she said, “Good morning daddy! Um... where's Wengle?”

Skipper Roral hugged her. “Good morning to ye too Rodala. How are ye feeling?”

The ottermaid shrugged. “Fine I suppose. But where's Wengle?”

Skipper bit his lip nervously. “Well.... er, he, um....”

Rodala grabbed his paw and stared at him anxiously. “Oh no, please tell me he isn't dead! Please say he isn't!”

Skipper freed himself from her grip and scratched the back of his head. “No, no, of course he ain't dead!”

Rodala put her paws on hips and glared at him. “Then what happened?”

Skipper sighed and said, almost apologetically, “Well.... um... he left the Abbey with Riddy an' Gurry to go get back Martin's sword from some vermin who took it up north.”

Rodala stared in shock at her father for a moment, then she turned and ran back up the stairs.

Skipper sighed again and Corkly, who had been listening, asked, “What's the flippin' matter with her?”

The big otter shrugged. “Oh she's an emotional creature, so she probably went up to her room to cry or something....”

Just then Rodala came striding down the stairway with a haversack on her back and her sling in paw.

Skipper raised an eyebrow and asked her, “What are you doing missy?” But she strode right past him and out the Abbey door. Skipper and Corkly went after her, calling, “Hoi, where are you going Rodala?”

The ottermaid turned to them when she reached the front gate and said plainly, “I'm going to help Wengle on his quest.”

Skipper placed a paw on her shoulder and said, “Now wait dear, you can't go out there alone!” Rodala frowned. “I'll have to. I need to help Wengle get back the sword, because I'm the reason why he lost it. I'm going no matter what!”

As she turned to go out the door, Skipper leaped in front of her. “Rodala please, I can't lose you again!”

Rodala stamped her paw down. “But I must father! I have to help Wengle!”

They both stood staring at each other, then Skipper laughed, “Hah, you have your grandfather's stubbornness young 'un! You may go with them, but I'll go out with you until we reach them. Understood?”

Rodala smiled and hugged her father. “Yes daddy! Thank you so much!”

Corkly stood in the doorway, waving to them as they set off down the path. “Have a jolly good trip Rodala!” he called, “And take good care of young Wengle, cause he'll bloomin' well need it, wot!”

The three travelers hiked down the dirt path through Mossflower Woods, enjoying the fresh mid-morning sunshine. Gurry inspected the ground and nodded. “Aye, these are vermin tracks alright. Fresh too. They look to me like a fox, a rat, an' either a stoat or a weasel.”

Riddy smirked, “Huh, I always knew that those Darkblades were just regular ol' vermin dressed up! Dark phantom warriors my eye!”

Wengle nodded. “They may just be regular vermin, but they're not normal in how they fight. They're more skilled, tough, and stealthy than anybeast I've ever encountered, so we need to be careful.”

They all stopped still when they heard a noise from behind them. Riddy glanced back and whispered, “Do'ya think it could be the vermin horde followin' us?”

Wengle pulled out his sling. “Could be. Come on, get to the sides of the road and watch closely with your weapons ready.”

The otter crept over to the left side of the path while Riddy and Gurry took the right. They all silently watched the path toward the south and heard the pawsteps and voices coming closer. Presently two figures came into view.

Wengle peered closer and breathed a sigh of relief calling to his two companions, “Don't worry, it's just Skipper and Rodala!”

When the ottermaid caught sight of Wengle, she flew towards him and caught him in a powerful embrace, crying, “Oh Wengle I'm so sorry about what happen!”

Wengle gasped and tried to free himself from her vice-like grip. “I forgive you Rodala, and I'm sorry as well for how I acted towards you. But... why are you here?”

Rodala let him go and smiled. “I feel that it's mostly my fault that you lost your sword, so I think that I should come with you!”

Riddy looked at Skipper. “Skipper sir, are you coming too?”

The otter chieftain smiled and shook his head. “No, I just came along to escort Rodala to ye. I would love to come, but my help is needed back at Redwall.” He then kissed his daughter and nodded to Wengle. “Do Redwall proud young 'uns. Stick to the path and to each other and never underestimate your enemies. Good fortune be with you and farewell!” Then he turned and went back down the path towards the Abbey, waving behind him.

The four young creatures waved their good-byes and then turned to each other. Wengle grinned. “Well, we best be off! Can't waste daylight.”

Riddy raised his sword high. “For Redwall Abbey and for Martin the Warrior!” They all raised their weapons with him and shouted, “For Redwall Abbey and for Martin the Warrior!”

Then the four travelers set off up the north road after the three Darkblades and the stolen sword.

Chapter 24

Later that day, outside in the Abbey grounds, Corkly and Skipper told Spruce Longbrush and Abbot Fernald about Rodala's departure with the questers. The Abbot smiled. “Well it's good that Wengle and his companions now have somebeast else to go along with them.”

Spruce frowned thoughtfully. “Aye, but I hope that they can handle themselves with those Darkblades.”

Corkly waved a paw. “I'm sure they jolly well can. But right now we need to focus on the blighters that we're dealing with.”

Spruce nodded. “Right. Skipper, is there any way that you can contact your crew and tell them to come to the Abbey?”

The otter chieftain scratched his head. “Well.... we could send that hawk of yours out, but I'm not sure how much they'd trust a bird. I could go if needed....”

Spruce noticed some movement out of the corner of his eye. He glanced back and saw his daughter Oakflower duck behind a wall. Spruce held up a paw. “Excuse me a moment.” He followed after Oakflower and watched her closely.

She had her bow and quiver strapped to her back, and she was making her way over to the south wall-gate. She glanced around and started to open up the door, when Spruce came up behind her and said, “Are you going off to get the sword too missy?”

She whirled around and wrung her paws apologetically. “Um... no daddy, I uh.... I was going somewhere else.”

Spruce raised an eyebrow. “And that somewhere else is...?”

The squirrelmaid gulped and shuffled her footpaws. “Well I heard you and Mr. Skipper talking about going to fetch help from his ottercrew, and I had been planning to do it for some time, but I didn't know when I should go, and....” She threw herself at her father and cried, “Oh daddy, I'm sorry! All of my friends went off on a mission and I want to help too! I sorry....”

Spruce patted her paw. “It's okay Oakflower. That's a brave and smart decision you made, but you shouldn't go out alone. I would go with you, but, like I said to Wengle, I need to stay here and help organize defenses. But I'll find somebeast dependable who can help you.” he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And I think I know who can do it....”

Oakflower looked at him with wide eyes. “Who?”

A smile played about Spruce's mouth. “There's a young squirrel by the name of Barktail who I think would make an excellent traveling companion for you....”

Oakflower blushed and curled her tail in embarrassment, whispering, “Um.... why did you choose him?”

Spruce hugged his daughter tight. “Because he is strong, smart, dependable, and I know that he will give his life to protect you.”

Oakflower beamed. “Oh thank you daddy!”

The squirrel chieftain started off back towards the Abbey. “I'll go and get him, and I'll bring Skipper along too, since you'll need directions to his home.”

A few minutes later, Spruce came back with Skipper and a tall, handsome young squirrel carrying a bow and quiver of arrows on his back. The young squirrel's eyes lit up when he saw Oakflower and he smiled.

Spruce nodded to him. “Barktail, you will be going with my daughter to bring reinforcements from Skipper Roral's tribe here to Redwall. It's going to be somewhat dangerous, but I trust that both of you will keep your wits about and that you will protect each other.”

Barktail saluted him. “With my very life sir!”

Oakflower nodded in agreement, still looking at Barktail. “Of course daddy!”

Spruce folded his paws. “Good. Skipper will give you a simple map of where you are to go. I will escort you out past the area where the vermin horde is.”

Skipper had been drawing on a piece of parchment and he showed it to them. “I'm no artist, but this is basically it. My tribe is north-by-northeast of here. Just keep going in that direction, avoid the swamp, and one of my crew will probably see you.” He gave the map to Barktail and said, “There ye go mateys. Be careful now.”

The two young squirrels thanked him, then they started out the door, talking earnestly with each other.

Skipper chuckled, “Ah for the joys o' youth, eh?”

Spruce smiled and shouldered his bow. “Aye, mate. Well I'll be out there watching their back for a short while, so I'll see you later.” The squirrel chieftain strode out the doorway, glanced around, and followed the two young travelers up into the trees.

Chief Guard Karzad sat in a large oak near the east side of Redwall Abbey. With him was about a score of Pineshadows, all awaiting nightfall to attack. Karzad shifted on his branch and watched the Abbey walls, thinking. Some movement caught his eye and he looked over to his right.

Two squirrels were climbing and leaping through the trees in a northeast direction. The pine marten narrowed his eyes. They had most likely come from the Abbey; but where were they going? To get reinforcements perhaps? Karzad grinned and felt the deadly sharp adder fangs that topped his bone club. He called to another Pineshadow nearby, “Yazrak, you are in charge until I return. I have zomezing important to attend to....”

Then the Chief Guard of the Pineshadows silently leaped off through the trees, following the two young squirrels.

Borskan the Ruthless sat on a stump by the edge of the woods. Even though he had been ousted from his position as chieftain, he still had his fertile mind and his ruthless nature.

Borskan had called to him two of his former captains, Varlod and Grevrun. The three foxes sat together, always watching and listening for anybeast that might spy on them. Varlod growled, “Things would've gone a whole lot better if'n we never joined with them Darkblades!”

Borskan rolled his eyes and said sarcastically, “Oh did ye just figure that out now? You moron, o' course it would! But that ain't how it is now, so we've got ter deal with it. Now listen close mates, and I'll tell you of a plan I've been thinking about. What if we goes around and spreads rumors about how once we get inside the Abbey, Bloodskull's gonna get rid of all o' the horde, cause he don't need 'em anymore. He's just using 'em ter get inside. Now do'ya think that the horde's gonna be happy 'bout that?”

The two foxes shook their heads, but Grevrun said, “But what can they do about it? You've seen what them Darkblades did to those beasts they fought when they first came! An' what they did to those three creatures who were complainin' about Lord Bloodskull.”

Borskan snorted. “Aye, but those were only a few creatures. What could Bloodskull an' his cronies do if'n the whole horde turned against him? They couldn't kill a whole army o' four-hundred! An' there's three of 'em gone too, so that's worse off for them. Think about it mates.... once Bloodskull an' his lot are gone, then we can take Redwall for ourselves an' not have to worry about some creepy dark creature watchin' us!”

The two other foxes sat silently thinking for a few moments, then Varlod grinned and said, “I'm with ye Borskan! You'll be the Chief again afore that ol' ferret knows what hit 'im!”

Borskan and Varlod spat on their paws and held them out. They turned to Grevrun. “Well?” Borskan asked, “are you in it too Grevrun? Cause if you ain't with me you're against me.”

Grevrun sighed and spat on his paw. “Sure, I'm with ye too.” The three foxes clasped paws and grinned deviously.

But somebeast was watching them. Argroo stood nearby, listening in on their conversation. The treacherous weasel sniggered wickedly to himself and sneaked off. First Bilur and Ragtail, and now Borskan! Life was good indeed....

Oakflower and Barktail climbed and jumped along through the trees, talking casually as if they were sitting by the Abbey pond instead of on a life-or-death mission. Barktail called across to Oakflower, “So do you think that we can get back with the ottercrew by tonight?”

The squirrelmaid stopped on a large bough and looked at the map. “It doesn't seem to far away, but the otters might need to get themselves ready, so it may take some time.”

Barktail came up alongside her and looked at the map. “Hm... yes, if we keep going this way then we'll hit it probably before nightfall. Maybe before. And as for that swamp that Skipper talked about, if we keep going up here in the trees then we'll be fine.”

Oakflower leaned her head against his shoulder and whispered, “I'm glad you came along....”

Barktail blushed and fiddled with his bow. “I... I am too, Oakflower.”

Karzad watched them as they sat on the bough, catching their breath. The pine marten tapped his club against his paw, hoping that they would drift off to sleep. Then he would put them in the eternal sleep of death.

Spruce had lost sight of the two young squirrels. They were very fast and agile in the trees, and their young energy was too much for Spruce. The squirrel chieftain sat down on a branch and looked about for any sign of them. When he saw that he was alone, he sighed and decided that it was time to go back to Redwall. Now that they were past the vermin horde's camp they were probably safe. He turned and leaped back off through the trees.

Morfelg Bloodskull listened to Argroo's report. When the weasel had finished, Bloodskull leaned back against a tree and rubbed his hook on his cloak, smiling slightly.

Argroo stood waiting for a moment, then he asked timidly, “So, eh, are ye gonna go an' punish 'em now, lord?”

Bloodskull smiled down at him. “Not just yet. I want to see how far that fox gets in his foolish little plan. I can easily squash him like a bug anytime I please, but for now I just want to see what he does..... It might be entertaining!”

Chapter 25

Wengle, Rodala, Riddy, and Gurry had been traveling all day. They had not run into very many dangers, although Riddy had spotted a pike when they crossed the ford up the path. Now it was late afternoon, and they could see the trees breaking up far up ahead on the path.

Riddy blew out a deep breath and leaned up against a tree, commenting, “Whew! I haven't done this much walkin' in all me life!”

Wengle grinned at him. “Well we're going to do more in the next couple of days.”

They all stopped to rest, but Gurry kept on walking. Wengle called to him, “Hey mate, come on back! Us old beasts need to rest!”

The young rat turned around and smiled sheepishly. “Oh, sorry. I'm just used to marching in a horde. They hardly ever let you stop an' rest.”

Wengle handed him a canteen. “Well you can rest more often here. Although we do need to go on as much as we can in a day.”

Rodala whistled as she looked up at the Northern Mountains which rose high in the distance. “By the fur! Do we have to climb up those things?”

Wengle shaded his eyes and peered up. “Possibly. It depends on where the vermin tracks lead. They could go off to the right of left anytime, so keep a close eye on them.”

Gurry saluted smartly. “That'll be my job! I learned a few things about trackin' while in the horde.”

Wengle nodded. “Alright Gurry, that's fine! Well, come on, we need to get as far as we can before dark.”

The four got up and kept on hiking down the trail, closer and closer to the huge monolithic mountains that loomed ahead.

Oakflower and Barktail did not waste any time either. Barktail stood up and said, “Come on, we need to get to the ottercrew ASAP.” Oakflower got up and the two were again leaping off through the woodland canopy.

Karzad cursed under his breath when he saw them continue on. But it was no great matter; he would catch them sooner or later. They had to sleep eventually. The Pineshadow put his club between his teeth and made his way stealthily after them.

It was almost nightfall, and Queen Zaravral made her way over to her troops, who sat scattered about the trees that surrounded Redwall Abbey, waiting for the word to attack. Zaravral glared about and asked, “Where iz Karzad?”

Yazrak, the pine marten who had been put in charge in the Chief Guard's absence, replied, “He went off to do zomezing important. He went zat way.” Yazrak pointed towards the northeast.

Zaravral sighed in frustration. “Zat ztupid fool! He had better get back here before we attack or I'll zkin him alive! Well we won't put off ze attack becauze of him. Yazrak, you are my zecond-in-command now. Zpread ze word zat we will begin ze invazion az zoon az ze zun zetz completely.”

Yazrak nodded and sped off to do his queen's bidding.

Zaravral tapped the beak of her crow-skull club on a branch and whispered menacingly, “Tonight Zpruce Longbruzh, you will pay for what you did to my fazer! You and all of your friendz will pay wiz your livez!”

Oakflower was dead tired. She slowed to a halt on a thick branch and lay down on it, gasping for breath. Barktail turned and saw her. “What's the matter?” he asked.

The squirrelmaid shrugged and said, “Oh it's nothing... I'm just quite tired. I need to rest.”

Barktail climbed over and sat down next to her. “Alright, you can take a rest. I'll keep watch.”

Oakflower smiled weakly. “Thanks....” Then she drifted off to sleep.

Barktail leapt up onto a branch just above and sat watching the surrounding woodlands. He looked down at the sleeping squirrelmaid and then looked up at the moon and sighed. The responsibility of caring for both himself and Oakflower as well as possibly having the fate of Redwall on his shoulders was great.

He again looked down at Oakflower, who lay smiling softly while she slept. Barktail grinned to himself. But the rewards were great too. After a few minutes of watching the silent and peaceful forest, his eyelids drooped and he went to sleep.

Karzad was tired as well, but not for sleep. His tongue lolled as he climbed between branches and boughs, searching for his prey. Then he saw them. The two young squirrels lay sleeping soundly within the branches of a tree not too far away. The Pineshadow's eyes glinted wickedly in the moonlight and he sneaked forward, his fang-topped club now in his paw.

Several miles away to the west, the four questers also slept in a small hummock of a hill, a few yards off the path. All except Wengle. The young otter sighed as he watched the stars and moon high in the dark blue sky, thoughts about friends and foes, swords and quests all running through his mind. He looked down at his sleeping friends.

Riddy, who he had known ever since he was a babe, was his best pal through thick and thin.

Gurry, the little rat who had escaped an evil horde and had never wanted to be a bad creature, who everybeast now came to know and love.

And Rodala, a fiercely independent creature, who acted as though she doesn't need help, but deep down inside was a lonely soul. But she was more than a friend, she was something different... something.... He shook his head to keep himself awake. You never knew who or what could be nearby, and a true warrior should keep alert at all times.

Spruce stood on guard of the south wall with Rockshaft. The squirrel chieftain sighed and leaned on his bow. Rockshaft yawned and asked, “Do you think that the vermin will be attackin' tonight?”

Spruce shrugged. “Who knows? Right now they don't seem to be doing much. But Bloodskull is an unpredictable beast; he may be planning something right now.”

Morfelg Bloodskull was indeed planning something. He stood with his three remaining Darkblades, listening to their ideas on what should be their next move.

Skarva suggested, “I don't think that we can get in just by shooting arrows up at the walls. We need a cunning strategy to sneak in there.”

Torkan snorted. “But we already tried that and it didn't work. We need to intimidate them by laying a real siege to the Abbey; shoot some arrows and sling-stones over the walls to keep them down. Sooner or later they'll have to give in.”

But Skarva was adamant. “That's what all of the other warlords and chieftains do! We are different. We have brains as well as brawn and stealth as well as skill. It takes cunning to win wars.”

Torkan was about to disagree, when Bloodskull finally spoke, “What you are both saying is true. We do indeed need stealth and power to conquer. That is why my idea will work; it combines the strength and the cunning that we have in one fell swoop. Listen closely now.... Bulgor, you are going to be especially helpful in this....”

Barktail rolled over and mumbled in his sleep. He felt something sharp poke into his chest and he awoke, holding up a paw to shield his tired eyes from the bright moonlight. But a shadow had strangely blocked the light and he opened his eyes wide. His gasped and nearly fell off the branch when he saw Karzad standing over him and grinning evilly.

The pine marten pressed the fangs on his club deeper into the squirrel's chest and hissed, “Go to zleep now little one! I will help you zleep deep!”

With a yell, Barktail kicked out at Karzad's legs and grabbed tight onto the club. The Pineshadow snarled and pulled back on his weapon, kicking and scratching at Barktail's legs.

The noise had awakened Oakflower and she got up dazedly. She looked up and saw the two figures above her, wrestling for control of the club. The breath caught in her throat and she reached for her bow.

Barktail was no match for the pine marten's strength and ferocity, but he was smart and quick. With one fluid movement he rolled over the side of the branch and let go of the club. Karzad stumbled back on the bough as he yanked the weapon, but he quickly recovered and leaped at Barktail, who was hanging over the side of the branch.

Suddenly an arrow zoomed upward and thudded in the Pineshadow's leg. Karzad snarled in pain and jumped onto the side of the tree trunk, glaring down at the squirrelmaid who had fired the shaft. Barktail dropped to the branch below and loaded his bow, but Karzad came crashing down on top of him. The young squirrel and the pine marten grappled savagely, rolling and leaping off branches and into clumps of leaves.

Oakflower tried to sight her next arrow on Karzad, but the two combatants moved too fast for her to get a good target.

Suddenly Karzad gave a strong upper-cut with his club and it struck Barktail on his chin. The young squirrel fell down senseless to the ground, and Karzad turned up to Oakflower, smiling viciously. The squirrelmaid fired her arrow, but the marten dodged behind a tree and climbed up around her. Oakflower had no idea where the Pineshadow was, but she could hear his claws scraping the bark as he crept up towards her. She peered over the edge of the branch she was on, her loaded bow ready. Suddenly Karzad came leaping out from behind her, his club raised. Oakflower whirled around, but it was too late......

The pine marten suddenly stopped in midair, his eyes wide open in pained surprise, and dropped like a stone to the ground far below. Oakflower stared in astonishment at the place where Karzad had been a moment before.

She looked down and saw, to her joy and amazement, about a dozen otters, all wielding slings, javelins, or longbows. Oakflower leaped down and ran over to the unconscious Barktail. She knelt by him and when she saw that he was still alive, she looked up at the otters and smiled. “Thank you!”

One of the otters, a strong male with a jagged scar on his arm, nodded politely. “Good evenin' to ye miss. Looks like you were in quite a scrap there, eh?”

Oakflower glanced back at the motionless form of Karzad. “What happened to him?” she asked. The otter chuckled. “Heh, that was Rildog's doing. He's a killer shot with the sling he is!”

Oakflower got up and went over to the vermin body. Sure enough, lodged right between the pine marten's eyes was a small, hard stone. The squirrelmaid turned and curtsied to the otter named Rildog. “Thank you for saving me and my friend, sir!”

Rildog smiled and nodded in reply. The scarred otter shrugged and grinned. “He's a silent one, Rildog. Anyway, my name's Thorg. We're from Skipper Roral's tribe a little way's up north. But he and 'is daughter Rodala 'ave gone missin', and we've been searching for 'em.”

Oakflower's eyes lit up. “Oh! You're just who we were looking for! Skipper and Rodala are at Redwall Abbey! Well.... Rodala was there...”

Thorg suddenly gave a whoop of joy, “Whupperyhoo mates! We found out where they are!” All of the otters cheered excitedly.

Just then, Barktail awoke. He groaned, “Ohhh! What happened? What's all the noise?”

Oakflower hugged him. “We found Skipper's tribe! We can go back now!” Thorg scratched his head. “Now why were ye lookin' for us?”

Oakflower bit her lip. “Well.... Redwall's under attack by a vermin horde, and we need some reinforcements. Skipper requested you.”

Thorg gripped his javelin. “Then we'll all go an' help you. Come on mates, let's get ready to reinforce our friends the Redwallers! Norbo, you go back to the holt an' get everybeast in the loop about what's goin' on. The rest o' you prepare to fight. Whupperyhoo!” All of the otters shouted their battlecry in response, “Whupperyhoo!!”

Chapter 26

The sun had set completely. Queen Zaravral raised her scepter and hissed loudly, “We have waited long enough! Come my warriorz! Let uz have our vengeance upon ze Longbruzh zquirrelz! Attack!”

Pineshadows screeched and yelled warcries as they all charged forward, slashing their weapons and swinging make-shift grappling hooks over the walls of the Abbey.

The cry for alarm within Redwall came too late. “To arms! To arms! We're under attack!”

Spruce came hurdling across the wall, followed by Rockshaft. Corkly, Skipper, and Keekag were already out on the grounds, making their way up to the wall. Keekag screeched and soared up to the battlements.

Some of the Pineshadows had already gotten on top of the wall, and they leaped forward at the defending squirrels. Keekag came diving in on them a thunderbolt. Pine martens fell screaming over the side of the wall as the sparrowhawk ripped at them with her lethal talons and beak.

A sudden realization hit Spruce Longbrush like a blast of freezing water. The Pineshadows were out in Mossflower, where he had just sent his daughter and her friend. Tears of rage at his folly blurred the squirrel's vision as he fired arrow after arrow into the oncoming crowd of Pineshadows.

Morfelg Bloodskull and his horde had heard the unearthly screaming and shouting of the Pineshadows. The black ferret looked up into the trees. “What in Hellgates is that?!”

Suddenly a few horde-vermin came running towards them with news. “There's a whole tribe o' savage beasts attackin' the Abbey!”

Bloodskull and his three Darkblades glided out to the edge of the woods. All around on the eastern, northern, and southern walls of Redwall Abbey, the Pineshadows invaded. Skarva and Torkan looked at their leader in question.

Bloodskull's face and reply were impassive, “Let them attack the Abbey. A bunch of stupid savages won't be able to conquer a place like that. We shall wait and see what is the outcome of this unexpected battle....”

The Pineshadows swarmed all over the Abbey walls. Skipper and Corkly lashed out wildly with stave and sling, but the vermin came in thick. Some of the Pineshadows had even climbed down into the Abbey grounds.

Corkly kicked a marten off the wall and smashed another's ribs with his stave, commenting to Skipper, “Not quite fair of these blighters, dropping in on a surprise visit, wot?”

Skipper grit his teeth as he shattered a spear haft and a vermin skull with a powerful lash of his loaded sling. “Aye mate. But we need to hold 'em off as long as we can!”

Corkly spat out a tooth that had been broken by a Pineshadow club. “Now would be a jolly good time for your otterchaps to come in and save the day, wot!”

Queen Zaravral stood on the bough of a nearby tree, smiling evilly as she watched her troops fall upon the defending force. When she caught sight of Skipper and Corkly, she narrowed her eyes and snarled. She had sworn that she would slay them one day, and now here they were. The Pineshadow Queen leaped onto a vine rope that was hooked onto the wall and deftly climbed across it.

Spruce had seen her coming, and he knew instantly who it was. He sighted his bow at the figure racing towards the wall, and fired.

Zaravral was almost to the battlements when an arrow came whizzing out of nowhere. It struck her footpaw and she growled in pain, struggling to stay on the rope. The next arrow came hissing down after it, but she was ready. With a powerful leap she sprang up and launched out to grab the rope closer to the wall. But the second arrow, instead of striking her, hit the vine rope, snapping it in two. The Pineshadow Queen missed the wall and fell screaming to the ground below.

Spruce gave a nod of grim satisfaction when he saw Zaravral plunge down to the ground. Several of the Pineshadows had seen their leader fall, and they all ran to the edge of the wall to see what had happened. The ones that did though, were themselves knocked off by Keekag's talons or Corkly's powerful kick.

Luckily for Queen Zaravral, she had landed not on the hard earth, but on the slain bodies of her followers. The pine marten lay there, the wind knocked from her lungs and a dazed expression on her face.

The Pineshadows, when they saw that their Queen was not dead, fought with an even greater ferocity. Spruce's bow was knocked from his grasp and fell down the side of the wall. The squirrel drew his dagger and threw himself into the crowd of vermin, yelling, “Loooongbruuuuussssshhh!”

Skipper, Corkly, and Rockshaft too were almost covered by the masses of Pineshadows. Suddenly a loud cry was heard from the woods, “Whupperyhoo!”

The Pineshadows and the Redwallers all turned to see more than two score of otters, along with Oakflower and Barktail, come racing out from the woods, whirling slings and javelins as they shouted their warcry. Skipper laughed out loud as he smashed down a vermin with his heavy tail. “Hahaharr! It's me crew! Ahoy there mateys! Whupperyhoo!”

Bloodskull and his warriors watched with relative surprise as the ottercrew came charging out through the trees. Torkan snarled, “Curses! Now those Redwallers have more help!”

Bloodskull held up his hook for silence and watched as the otters stormed into and around the Abbey. “That may very well be,” he said calmly, “but we could soon also add to our force....”

The three Darkblades turned to him. “What do you mean?”

The black ferret smiled slyly. “Those barbarians will be hurting from their defeat. They'll jump at a chance to join my horde and be a part of the winning side. Come, when this little fight is over I'll need one of you to introduce us to them. Those Redwallers may think that they've got the upper-paw now, but I still have a few tricks up my sleeve....”

There was no doubt about it; the Pineshadows were defeated. Many of them lay dead, but quite a number of them had retreated when the ottercrew came, taking with them their still-dazed leader.

Spruce ran over and hugged his daughter tight, tears squeezing from his eyes. “Oh Oakflower, I'm so sorry! I was a fool to send you two out into the woods with the Pineshadows about! I'm so sorry!”

Oakflower smiled and hugged her father back. “It's okay daddy. We found Skipper's crew, or actually, they found us!”

Spruce smiled at her through his tears. “You can tell me all about it later. Right now, we need to get everything back in order. We weren't expecting an attack so soon; and from the Pineshadows no less!”

Down below, Skipper Roral laughed and talked endlessly with his crew. None of the otters had been slain in the fight, but several were wounded. Skipper slapped Thorg on the back and said, “So how've you been you ol' riverdog?”

Thorg grinned and shook his leader's paw. “Right as rain ever since my war-wound healed up. Oakflower and Barktail told us about the horde attackin' Redwall. Is it those stinkin' savages we just chased off?”

Skipper sighed. “Huh, if only. No, we're under threat by an even worse gang o' vermin. Remember that group of dark Hell-spawn that slaughtered our poor mates?”

Thorg's eyes grew wide and his breath caught in his throat. “No.... you don't mean...”

Skipper nodded sadly. “Aye, tis the very same. And they even stole the sword of Martin the Warrior. Redwall's champion, Wengle, and my Rodala, along with others, are going after the scum who stole it. They're travelin' up north.”

Thorg grit his teeth. “Then we'll give 'em blood an' guts for our departed mateys! We'll fight with Redwall to the last!”

Deep in Mossflower Woods, the Pineshadows grouped around their injured leader, who lay on one of the Pineshadow's tree platforms. Several healers came over and tried to examine her, but she kicked them away, snarling, “Foolz! Get away from me! Agh! I almozt had my revenge! We were zis cloze to deztroying zoze Redwall beaztz!”

Yazrak, the new Chief Guard, came over to his Queen and suggested, “Perhapz we can now join forzez wiz zat ozer horde. Wiz zem we can zurely win.”

Everybeast was silent as they waited for Zaravral to reply. Most of them had expected their Queen to lash out in anger, but instead she nodded. “Yez.... zat would be a good plan.... if we join wiz zem zen we can take our revenge more eazily! Yez....”

She suddenly sat up and grabbed Yazrak by the throat and brought him down close to her face, hissing, “You will go wiz a zcore of my troopz and arrange a meeting wiz ze leader of zat horde! Now!” She released him and lay back down, with a long sigh.

Yazrak rubbed his throat and nodded to the surrounding vermin. “You heard your Queen; a zcore of you muzt come wiz me. Now!” The group of Pineshadows leaped off through the trees towards the camp of Morfelg Bloodskull.

Chapter 27

Wengle awoke the next morning to a stream of sunlight shining down on his face. He yawned and opened his eyes. Riddy stood over him, grinning. “Well it looks like our faithful sentry is finally waking up!”

Wengle rubbed at his eyes and groaned, “Ohhh, did I fall asleep on sentry duty? Oh I really sorry mate, I-”

The shrew gave him a playful shove. “Ah, I'm just horsin' around! I woke up in the middle of the night, just when you were about to fall asleep, and I took over for you.”

Wengle smiled at him. “Thanks mate! I'm glad I can depend on you!” He looked around. “Where's Rodala and Gurry?”

Riddy motioned over his shoulder. “Rodala's makin' breakfast for us and Gurry went ahead aways to do some trackin'. They'll be here soon.”

Just then Rodala came over the hillock, holding a small pot with some type of food in it. “Here you are!” she said cheerily, “Some nice hot haversack stew for breakfast!”

She dished them up bowls of the food and Wengle asked, “What's haversack stew?”

The ottermaid shrugged. “Whatever's in the haversack. Probably some berries, scone pieces, vegetables, an' who knows what else.”

Riddy tried the stew and nodded approvingly. “Mmm... yep, it's good alright! Try it Wengle!”

The otter took a bite and grinned. “Sure is! But you didn't use up the whole haversack of food did you?”

Rodala shook her head. “No, of course not! I only took out the stuff that'd be good for brekkist.”

That was when Gurry came tramping up. “Mmmm! Is that food I smell? I'm near starved!”

Rodala dished him up and Wengle asked him, “So what'd you find up ahead?”

The rat stirred his stew around and said, “Well, the path keeps going on for quite awhile. But the trees thin out eventually and I could see that the road goes up into those mountains, or at least the foothills.”

Rodala looked at Wengle. “Does that mean we're going up to the mountains?”

The otter shrugged. “If that's where the Darkblades and the sword went, then yes.”

Riddy licked his bowl and sighed. “Ah well, then we best get moving on soon. We need all day to travel and it'll get pretty hot at noon.” A few minutes later they were up and on the move again.

Gurry was indeed correct. The woods were beginning to thin out. Soon they came out upon a small flatland. In the far distance they could see the tall mountains rising up. But before that, was a large clump of thick pine trees. Riddy peered out at the forest. “Are we goin' through there?”

Wengle nodded slowly. “Yep. Unless there's a way around it.”

They walked on for about half a mile before they came to the edge of the dark pine grove. It was filled with many firs, spruces, pines, and other conifer trees, all of them grown thick and black.

Riddy glanced back and forth along it's edge. “Great seasons, it seems to go on forever!”

They all looked down the front of the grove, both ways, and it did seem to be a continuous line of dark foliage.

Wengle sighed. “Then it looks like we're goin' in.”

Gurry bit his lip. “I don't know.... it looks kinda spooky...”

Rodala agreed. “Aye, why don't we at least try to find away around it?”

Wengle shrugged. “Alright, it's worth a try. Oh but wait, Gurry, do the vermin tracks lead in there?”

The rat checked along the ground, then stood up and nodded grimly. “Aye. They just keep going straight forward ten get lost in all the pine needles covering the ground.”

Riddy smirked, “Those Darkblades probably feel right at home in a place like this!”

Wengle frowned. “Not necessarily.... evil comes in many forms, and some forms aren't too friendly with others.”

Rodala straighted the haversack on her back and held her loaded sling ready. “Well what're we waiting for? Let's go after those vermin!”

The four friends gazed up at the dark foreboding forest one last time, then they slowly crept onward and were enveloped in it's black embrace.

Rodala walked close beside Wengle as they went silently into the dark forest. Riddy whispered softly, “What do you think is in here?”

Wengle looked warily around up at the shadowy trees. “Who knows. Could be something like the Pineshadows or something worse....” They were all completely silent as they stalked onward.

Suddenly a harsh cry rent the air and they all stood stock still. They looked up to see a group of black birds -crows, rooks, and a few ravens- perched in the branches all around them.

Rodala whispered shakily, “What do we do?”

Wengle grit his teeth and watched as the carrion birds hopped down closer to them from branch to branch, cawing loudly. “Get ready to either fight for your lives, or run like the wind...”

They waited for a few tense moments, Riddy said, “They're not attacking us. Only sitting there, cawing. Wonder why?”

Gurry gulped and pointed up ahead. “I think that's why....”

All around the forest floor lay dozens of black-feathered carcasses. Blood was smeared on the tree trunks and the ground like somebeast had splashed red paint across it. Wengle struggled to hold back the sickening feeling that came over him.

Riddy commented with disgust, “Well we know that the Darkblades were here sure enough! Only beasts as violent and evil as them could cause so much slaughter!”

Rodala looked up at the black birds, who had gathered around them, cawing and screeching wildly. “No wonder they won't attack us,” she said, “they probably think that we might be the same creatures as the ones that came through here before!”

Wengle sighed and grimaced. “Well then you could say that the vermin did us a favor. Hopefully the birds at least wounded them though. Come on mates, we're going through this blood-strewn place whether we like it or not...”

So the four questers kept onward, carefully avoiding stepping on bloodied bird corpses. The group of living birds followed them, cawing and screaming harshly. Every once in awhile a crow would swoop down at them, but they had to simply raise up their weapons and the birds would back off.

After what seemed like forever, Gurry pointed up ahead and cried joyfully, “There's some light! I can see the sunlight!”

Sure enough, down the pine needle littered path, they could see a beam of sunlight breaking through. They all laughed triumphantly and raced forward, glad to be almost out of the dark, vile pine forest.

When they finally broke out of the trees, they smiled at each other and whooped joyfully. But their gaiety was halted when they saw what stood right before them. Contrary to what Gurry had predicted, these mountains did not have foothills. The Great Northern Mountain range went directly from flat, pine covered plains, to steep, rocky ledges and slopes.

Wengle looked up at the gray rock that seemed to stretch up to the heavens. He turned to Gurry. “Do the vermin tracks go up there?”

The rat shrugged. “I can't tell. The ground goes from pine needles to rock, so tis impossible to find any tracks here.”

Riddy suggested, “Should we split up?”

Wengle shook his head adamantly. “No! Skipper told us to stick to the path and to each other, and that's what we'll do. We're all in this together, so we don't split apart.”

Rodala looked at him worriedly. “So we have to climb up those mountains?”

Wengle sighed and nodded. “I suppose so. Does anybeast have any rope?”

Rodala took off her haversack. “Oh let me check...” She dug around in the bag for awhile, then brought out a short, but strong-looking rope. “I hope that this'll do.” she said.

She handed it to Wengle, who walked over to the rock-face and looked all around it. “Try to find any place that might come in handy as a paw hold.” he said.

They all searched around the base of the mountain, then Gurry called, “Here's a group o' boulders here that we can climb up without the rope.”

They went over to where Gurry was and saw the narrow, boulder-filled ridge that went all the way up the cliff-face. Wengle grinned. “Good work Gurry! Alright, Riddy you go up first. Gurry second, and Rodala next. I'll bring up the rear.”

Riddy nodded and placed his sword between his teeth. Then he dusted his paws and started the ascent. Gurry came up next, carrying his spear across his back. Then Rodala went up, followed by Wengle.

They climbed up and up through the mid-afternoon sun, scrambling over boulders and in between crevasses. Every once and a while Gurry would point out a scratch of metal on the rock or a drop of blood, indicating that somebeast had come by there recently. They were indeed hot on the trail of Vandak, Kyvar, and Zelkor.

Soon they came to a small, flat cliff-top, and they all clambered up onto it. Riddy peered over the side and whistled. “Whew! We sure are high up! Look, you can even see both sides of the pine forest from here!” They all gazed out in wonder at the majestic view.

Then Wengle sighed and looked upward at the cliff-face that still rose high above. “And we're gonna be going higher too. Wait...” he shaded his eyes from the sun and backed up a few paces.

Riddy grabbed him. “Careful there mate, you almost stepped off the cliff!”

The young otter pointed up at the cliff-face above. “Look up there! See that dark patch at the top? I do believe that that's a cave!”

The others peered up as well. Gurry nodded. “Aye, it is! An' a big one too. Should we go up there?”

Wengle took a deep breath and nodded. “Yep. That seems to be the only way to go. Any good paths you can find?”

They all looked around for a safe way up, but there didn't seem to be any.

Riddy scratched his head. “Do'ya think that they went up this way?”

Wengle searched around the base of the cliff. “Do you see any other place to go? They had to get up there somehow...”

Suddenly the large rock that he was leaning on gave way and fell to the side, revealing a sort of tunnel that led up the cliff-side. Riddy laughed, “Well that's one way to do it!”

Wengle peered up the tunnel, which was actually a chute that had some steps crudely cut into it. He held his paws wide at the entrance. “Huh, I guess so! Come on mateys; we're almost there!”

They all climbed up the chute, carefully testing each step before they put their full weight on it. Before long, they reached their destination. All four of them stood on the high cliff, looking down at the rocky slopes below and the tree-covered plains beyond. Then they all turned and faced the large cave that lay before them.

Gurry knelt down and pointed to some prints on the ground. “The rock up here is covered in sand, so I can see the paw-prints now. Yep, it's them alright. And they lead right into.... that....cave.....”

His voice trailed off and he stood, staring wide-eyed into the yawning mouth of the cave. Riddy voiced what they were all thinking, “Those three Darkblades could be in there right now.”

They all stood still and silent at the ominous words. Then Wengle said firmly, “I'm going in.”

“What?!” his three friends said simultaneously in a hoarse whisper. Riddy stuttered, “B-but... those fiends could be in there now!”

The young warrior's voice was hard, “I'm still going in. I need to get back my sword.” Rodala stood alongside him. “Then we're going too!”

He turned on her, his eyes glinting dangerously. “No! I need to go in alone! It's my sword, and my quest! You three can stay out here and guard the entrance. I'll call you if I need you.”

Then before any of them could say or do a thing, he strode forward and disappeared into the blackness of the cave.

Rodala, Riddy, and Gurry all stood staring in horrified awe at the spot where Wengle disappeared. The shrew sighed. “Well I don't care what he says, I'm going in with him!”

Rodala pulled out her sling. “Me too!” Gurry shrugged. “I guess I might as well too. We're all in this together.” Then they all crept forward toward the mouth of the cave.

They did not notice the three dark figures coming out from the surrounding rocks and closing in on them from behind.

Wengle crept stealthily through the cave on tip-paw, always on the alert. It was pitch black inside, and the darkness seemed endless. Finally he saw a small ray of light up ahead and he strode forward, sling and stave at the ready. He stopped in surprise and awe at what he saw. The light came from two or three small jugs filled with flaming oil that sat near the sides of each wall. And on the walls, illuminated by the lantern light, hung weapons, armor and shields of all types and sizes.

Wengle was still admiring the armory, when suddenly a huge paw came out of nowhere and grabbed him by the front of his tunic. He felt strong, sharp claws scrape his chest as he was raised high off the ground and into the air.

The otter had dropped his stave as he was pulled up, but he swung out with his loaded sling. He felt a cold prong of metal catch his arm, pinning it back. Wengle hung there, helplessly staring into a pair of deadly, piercing green eyes.

Chapter 28

Earlier that morning, Borskan sat around a campfire with his two henchbeasts, roasting a woodpigeon for their breakfast. Varlod looked up at Borskan. “So when're we gonna start our liddle plan?”

Borskan ripped some feathers off the roasted carcass with his teeth before replying, “We'll do it sometime today, when most o' the horde is just lyin' around an' talkin'. But keep it anonymous, we don't want anybeast to know that it was us who started it.”

A few vermin walked by and Borskan stopped speaking. He motioned to his cronies. “Come on, inter the woods.”

The three got up and slunk off into the trees. When they thought they were alone, Borskan continued, “Alright, Grevrun you go an'-”

Suddenly figure dropped down in front of them. “Who iz ze leader of ziz horde?”

The three foxes looked up to see Yazrak and his score of Pineshadows, sitting all around them on branches and boughs, watching them with savage eyes.

Yazrak had, unknown to his Queen, waited until morning to approach the horde. He knew that the Pineshadows needed to rest from the battle, so they did. But now he would carry out his leader's command. Yazrak repeated to the shocked vermin, “Who iz your leader?”

Borskan got a hold of himself. He narrowed his eyes. “Why d'you want to know?”

The Chief Guard frowned. “Becauze my Queen commanded me to azk you.”

Borskan smiled slyly and winked at his cronies. “Well why doesn't her highness come and speak for herself, eh?”

Yarzak bared his fangs. “Zhe haz been injured and cannot come! Now tell me, who iz your leader?” The surrounding pine martens started to close in, raising their weapons.

Varlod and Grevrun were starting to get nervous, but Borskan kept his cool. “I'll only tell you if'n you brings your Queen here. That's where I stay.”

Yazrak stared at him for awhile, then he shrugged. “Az you wizh. But be warned, if zhe doez not want to come, then we will forze you to tell uz ze name of your leader! We zhall be back zoon!”

Then as quick and they had appeared, they were gone. Borskan rubbed his paws together and winked at the two other foxes. “Mates, I think we found the answer to our liddle problem....”

The Pineshadows did return soon. And with them was Queen Zaravral. The regal pine marten was not so injured as she couldn't walk, but she was still aching from her fall, and had to be carried on a litter. Borskan, Varlod, and Grevrun had all stayed at the same area where they had met the Pineshadows the first time, conversing and scheming with each other.

When the Pineshadows arrived, they stood and watched as the four martens carrying their Queen's litter came striding up. Zaravral pointed her skull-scepter at Borskan. “I have come, fox. Now tell me, who iz your leader?”

Borskan touched his brow in respect and replied with an answer that he had carefully planned out, “Well yer highness, I am the leader of this horde. At least I should be.”

Zaravral raised an eyebrow. “Zhould be?”

The fox sighed and put on an air of righteous anger. “I was thrown out by some usurpers who hated me. There was nothing I could do to stop them! They had tricked my horde into joining with them!”

Zaravral sniffed. “Zo? Why zhould I be concerned about you're leaderzhip? All I want iz to meet with ze leader of ziz horde and make termz wiz him.”

Borskan suspected that this was the reason behind the Pineshadow's sudden appearance, and he was right. The wily fox had his next answer prepared. “Well it's just this; if you help me to get back into the leadership of this horde, then I will give you anything you want! Treasure, booty, provisions...”

Zaravral grinned evilly. “Revenge on a certain creature?”

Borskan shrugged. “Why not? With our combined forces we can overthrow those usurpers and take over Redwall Abbey! My hordebeasts will have whoever you want caught and strung up to do whatever you please with.”

The Queen of the Pineshadows thought for a moment, then she nodded. “Aye.... I will join wiz you if you promize to do az you zaid!”

Borskan spat on his paw and held it out. “On me solemn oath I do.”

Zaravral spat on her paw and they clasped them together, each one smiling. “We'll meet again tonight,” Borskan said, “and that's when we can strike!”

Argroo the weasel had watched the whole meeting. Although he didn't dare go close enough to hear what was said, he had an idea of what was happening. Borskan had made a deal with those savages to help him overthrow Bloodskull. The weasel rubbed his paws together in wicked glee and went off to his chieftain. Bloodskull wouldn't dare to let this one go by....

All that day the horde sat about, waiting for their leader to order an attack. But Morfelg Bloodskull was busy with other matters. He was planning his next move against both Redwall and Borskan together. With the information brought to him by Argroo, the black ferret warlord was already including another party in his battle-plans against the Abbey. The Pineshadows would come in helpful for his next nighttime attack....

It was early evening, and Borskan and the few vermin that he could secretly muster to his side met with Queen Zaravral and most of her Pineshadows. The two leaders stood talking and planning with one another, their followers silently watching and waiting to make a move.

Borskan twirled his javelin around lazily. “So when I gives the signal, you send some of your martens to surround and attack the little area that the usurpers use as a camp. While they're fightin' off your troops, we can rally my horde to us and storm in around them. They'll have nowhere to go and we can finish 'em off! Then we'll easily be able to infiltrate the Abbey.”

Zaravral nodded slowly, thinking. “Yez.... a good plan.... But why do my creaturez have to go in firzt? Mozt of zem zhall be zlain on ze firzt wave.”

Borskan waved a paw dismissively. “Ah, don't worry 'bout them! You've got lots of beasts at your command! An' my followers are few, so that's why I can't spare 'em.”

Zaravral frowned thoughtfully, then nodded. “Yez, zat iz true....” Then she grinned wickedly. “Zis plan zhall work perfectly!”

“Actually, I don't think it will.”

They both whirled around to see Morfelg Bloodskull and his three Darkblades standing behind them, backed by about two dozen vermin.

Bloodskull gave his ghastly smile. “Ah, Borskan! I was wondering when you were finally going to do something like this. Well, it came later than I had expected, but that's all fine with me....” He waved his hook at the two caught conspirators, issuing one simple command to his hordebeasts, “Kill them.”

The vermin behind him started forward, with the three Darkblades at their head. Varlod and Grevrun turned to flee, but they were quickly brought down by the serrated blades of Torkan and the massive strength of Bulgor.

Borskan was truly scared as well. He had half-expected that something like this would happen, but he never imagined it would come so soon. Suddenly he bolted and ran off into the woods, and with a nod from Bloodskull, several vermin gave chase.

Zaravral screamed to her Pineshadows, “Fight zem! Defend your Queen!”

Some of the Pineshadows leaped forward, but they were met by another group of Pineshadows, who stood if front of Bloodskull.

The warlord gave a mocking bow. “I am sorry your highness, but it looks like you have divided forces! Oh, I wonder how that could've happened? Might you know, Yazrak my friend?”

Zaravral stared in shock as Yazrak, her Chief Guard, stepped out from behind Bloodskull.

The black ferret smiled. “You see, Yazrak here didn't want to go along with your foolish ideas of joining forces with a silly fox who made up stories about overthrowing his leader and conquering Redwall. So he joined with me; a real leader! Not some crazy barbarian or daydreaming rebel!”

The Pineshadow Queen snarled at Yazrak, “Traitor! You dezerted your ruler!”

Bloodskull smiled. “No actually he didn't; because I am his ruler now. And the ruler of your tribe.”

Zaravral clenched her paws. “I zwear Yazrak! I will kill you one day!”

Yazrak grinned. “If you zurvive anozer day.... your highnezz!”

The remaining vermin, as well as the Pineshadows who had sided with Bloodskull, advanced upon Zaravral. The pine marten turned and ran off after Borskan into the woods.

Bloodskull gave nod to his sister, and Skarva took off one of her round paw-blades, sighted on the retreating figure, and hurled the weapon like a discus. The round blade zipped through the air and buried itself deep into Zaravral's back, right between the shoulders. The former Queen of the Pineshadows stood swaying for a moment, then she fell dead to the ground.

Borskan ran on through the woods, easily out-pacing the pursuing vermin. As he tired though, he slowed down, and a few of the vermin came in on him closer. He stopped and stood leaning against and tree, panting. Then he turned around and hurled his javelin right into the body of an oncoming vermin. The vermin fell back slain and more came running up. Borskan felled one with a cutlass slash, but he soon saw that there were too many beasts to deal with, and he kept on running off into the woods, leaving behind the pursuing vermin and Rodala's javelin. As the fox ran, he made a vow to himself that he would one day return and have his revenge.

Skarva plucked the round blade from the dead Zaravral's back and wiped it clean on the body. Bloodskull stood nearby, watching as the vermin that had given chase on Borskan came panting up. Bloodskull pointed his sword at one rat. “Well? Did you slay the fox?”

The unfortunate rat stuttered as he tried to think of a good reply, “Er, uh, um... er.... yes.”

With one stroke of his sword, Bloodskull clove the rat in two. He then pointed the bloodied blade at the other vermin. “Now are you going to tell me the truth, or lie like that fool did?”

The gasping vermin all replied as one, “No sire, we did not slay him!”

Bloodskull drew his sword back into his cloak. “Very well. I'll find him sooner or later. But right now I have an Abbey to conquer. Skarva, Bulgor, and Yazrak, you come with me. Torkan, get the rest of my horde ready for a full-on attack. With my plan and the resources I now possess, we will be within Redwall by midnight!”

Chapter 29

Wengle stared in terror at the burning green eyes that glared savagely into his face. Then the beast that the eyes belonged to, spoke, in a gravelly, hissing voice, “Who are you and what business do you have with Vythran Smythfang?”

The young otter gulped and tried to speak, but found that he was lost for words. Finally he took a deep breath and replied, in as firm a voice as he could manage, “I am Wengle Brookrudder, the Warrior of Redwall Abbey! And I have come to get my sword which was stolen from me!”

The beast narrowed it's eyes and asked, “And what makes you think that it is here?”

Wengle answered firmly, “Because I and my friends tracked down the vermin who stole my blade and they lead to here! And I will do anything in my power to get it back!”

The creature continued to stare intently at Wengle, as thought he could read his thoughts. Then the beast gave a small laugh. “Very well then, Wengle the Warrior of Redwall. If that is what you wish, then so be it.”

He set the otter down on the ground, and Wengle stepped back, getting a full view of the creature from the dim lamplight.

Vythran Smythfang was a wildcat. Tall and powerfully built, with reddish-brown fur and black stripes. On his head was set a round helmet with chain mail that came down around his ears and the back of his neck. He wore a breastplate on which was emblazoned the image of a rampant wildcat holding a spear. Chain mail also covered his upper legs and arms. In his powerful paws he held a tall, two-pronged trident, and thrust in his snake-skin belt was a curved scimitar and a long dirk. Flowing down over his back was a long, burgundy-colored cape. All of the metal that he wore -weapons, armor, and chain mail- was pure black in color.

The piercing green eyes gazed down at Wengle with something that wasn't friendliness, yet wasn't menace either. Then Vythran spoke again, “So Wengle the Warrior, your sword was stolen from you and you assume it was brought here. Am I correct?”

The otter nodded. “That is correct, sir. Those Darkblades vermin took it from me during a battle, and I firmly believe that they brought it here.”

Vythran raised an eyebrow. “So you've had dealings with the Darkblades, eh? Well then you must also know their leader, Morfelg Bloodskull.”

Wengle's eyes went wide. “You know him?” The wildcat gave a slight smile. “Indeed I do. In fact, I trained him and his sister in the arts of warfare.”

Wengle nearly stumbled over in shock when he heard this. He stammered, “Y-you trained Bloodskull?! B-but that would mean....”

“That I am more skilled a fighter than he? Yes, you could say that.”

Wengle gulped and tried to keep himself from toppling over in a faint. The dim lights in the cave, along with the startling fact that he was face-to-face with beast more powerful than Morfelg Bloodskull, made him feel woozy. He leaned against the wall and took in several deep breaths.

Vythran stared impassively at the young otter until he recovered, then said, “Now, I will describe a certain sword that has recently come into my possession and you will tell me if it is yours.”

Wengle nodded slowly. Vythran continued, “Does it have a long, shining blade with a deep blood-channel?”

“Yes sir.”

The wildcat still spoke as he started over to one wall, where many swords hung on pegs and racks. “Does it have a golden cross-tree and a black-bound hilt?”

Wengle nodded again. “Yes sir, it does.”

“And does it have a beautiful ruby-red pommel-stone?”

Wengle started to smile. “Indeed it does, sir.”

“Then it wouldn't happen to be this one, would it?” Vythran took one blade down from some wall-pegs and held it out for Wengle to see. It was indeed the sword of Martin the Warrior, its blade glinting in the lamplight.

Wengle smiled and nodded fervently. “Yes! That is the sword that belongs to me and to Redwall Abbey!”

The wildcat smiled and placed the weapon back on it's wall-pegs. “I thought so.”

Wengle stared in shock at Vythran, gasping, “But sir! That's my sword!”

Vythran stood with his back to the otter, his voice low and calm, “You said that you would do anything to get back your sword, am I not correct?”

Wengle narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Yes.... I said that and I will stick to it on my word of honor.”

Suddenly Vythran Smythfang whirled around and faced Wengle, his green eyes burning with an evil, savage light. He bounded forward and loomed up in front of the astonished young otter, his trident pointed at Wengle's chest. What Wengle heard the wildcat say next made the blood freeze in his veins:

“The only way that I will give you back your sword is if you defeat me in single combat!”

Rodala, Riddy, and Gurry were almost to the entrance of the cave, when they heard the echoing sound of loud voices from inside. Rodala ran faster. “Come on mates! Wengle might need help!”

“Now now, where do you think you're going?”

The three friends whirled around to see Vandak, Kyvar, and Zelkor standing behind them, their weapons drawn and ready. Vandak smiled evilly. “Why go off into that dark old cave when you can stay outside in the sunshine and play with us?”

Rodala gave one word: “Run!”

The three young creatures raced for the mouth of the cave, but Vandak leaped forward with fluid agility and swung out her spear-like weapon, catching the haft around Rodala's throat. The black weasel yanked the ottermaid back, and they grappled together desperately.

Riddy hurled himself at Vandak, but a dagger ripped through the air and sliced into his arm. The shrew turned and charged into Kyvar, who drew two more daggers from his belt. Riddy slammed into the black rat, sending them both crashing to the ground.

Gurry stood watching in horror as his friends fought. Then he turned to the one remaining Darkblade, Zelkor. The fox grinned and pulled out his blow-dart pipe. Gurry hefted his spear and charged at Zelkor. The spear clashed against the blow-pipe and Gurry growled into Zelkor's face, trying to sound fierce, “Not too good at close range with that, huh?”

The black fox smiled and flicked a small lever in the middle of the pipe. A long, thin blade slid out from one end, and Gurry's eyes grew wide in astonishment. Zelkor slashed out with the blade and Gurry desperately tried to block each strike. The little rat had never been a good fighter, and he knew that if he tried paw-to-paw combat with one of the Darkblades, he would come off for the worse. Gurry ducked another slash and looked about for a place to hide. Up on the side of the cave was a small slope with a group of boulders near the top. Gurry knocked out at his opponent's legs with his spear and dashed off up towards the ridge. When Zelkor regained his balance, he took a small feathered dart from a pouch on his belt, loaded it into his blow-pipe, aimed at the retreating rat, and fired.

Rodala gasped for breath as she struggled to push away the spear-haft that was constricting her throat. Vandak laughed cruelly and pulled back tighter. Through the stars and colors that burst in Rodala's brain, she got an idea. She reached down to her belt, whipped out her always-loaded sling, and swung in out at her enemy. The stone struck Vandak hard on her paw and she let go of her hold with a scream of pain. Rodala dropped to the ground, gasping for air and rubbing her throat, before leaping up and charging at Vandak with full force.

Riddy and Kyvar rolled back and forth along the ground, their blades clashing against each other. Suddenly Kyvar struck out at Riddy and knocked the shrew off of him. They both jumped up to their feet and held their weapons out. Then Kyvar did something unexpected. He clicked the hilts of his two daggers together and twisted them, forming a double-bladed dagger. He spun it around and drew another dagger from his belt, grinning wickedly.

Riddy charged at him, and the shrew's sword clanged against the rat's double-ended blade. Kyvar slashed out with his other dagger and Riddy dropped low to avoid the slice. Kyvar kicked at him and he fell back a few paces. Riddy looked up just in time to see Kyvar raised his double-bladed dagger back to throw. The shrew rolled to the side just as the blade hissed down and buried itself in the ground right where Riddy's head had been a moment before. Kyvar stared in shock at the dagger-blade protruding from the ground. Never in all his life had he missed such an easy target.

The rat was snapped back to his senses as Riddy charged him. Kyvar drew yet another dagger from his belt and attached it to his remaining blade. The two combatants were once again fighting it out, parrying, slashing, and stabbing back and forth, the sound of their clanging blades echoing around the cliff-top.

Suddenly Riddy felt a hard surface behind him, and he knew that his opponent had driven him up against the cliff-face. The shrew still battled furiously, hoping to get around Kyvar and back into the open. Kyvar grinned when he cornered his enemy, blocking and slashing at each of the shrew's blows. Riddy barely dodged a slice that went at his head and the dagger cut across the rock-face. As Riddy tried to sneak around the side of the cliff, his paw felt something. It was a piece of rock that protruded from the wall. One last hopeful idea sparked into his mind and he grabbed onto the protruding bit if rock, heaved himself up against the cliff-face, and kicked out hard at his opponent. Kyvar's dagger slashed deep across Riddy's leg as the shrew's footpaws connected with his midriff and the Darkblade went sailing back a few paces before hitting the ground with a dull thud.

Riddy dropped to the ground and winced, holding his injured leg. He whipped out his sword, ready to continue the battle, but saw that his opponent did not move. Riddy limped over to the still form of Kyvar, always ready to fight in case it was a trick. But it was not. Riddy poked at the rat's body with his paw, but he still did not stir. The puzzled shrew tipped the rat's hood back with his sword and he saw the look of pained shock stamped on his face. Then Riddy knelt down and heaved the body over, revealing what had caused Kyvar's death. The double-bladed dagger that he had missed Riddy with, lay buried in both the ground and in the Darkblade's back, right through his heart. Riddy shuddered and stepped back from the carcass. Morfelg Bloodskull had one less Darkblade under his command.

As Gurry ran forward, he tripped on a rock and fell to the ground. He heard the hiss of the dart as it flew above his head. Without even glancing back, he knew of the danger he was in. The rat scrabbled up the slope and started to zig-zag his way up when he heard another dart slide down the pipe. There was a sharp clicking noise as the dart once again struck rock instead of flesh. Zelkor cursed under his breath and loaded his pipe again, coming in closer for a better shot.

Gurry reached the small boulder that lay at the top of the slope and jumped behind it. He felt the small whoosh of air as another dart barely missed his leg. Gurry sat behind the rock, panting and listening for any sound. Then he heard the scraping of claws on stone and he knew that Zelkor was now on his way up the ridge. The little rat held his spear tight, not even daring to peer over the rock. He had to think of something before it was too late. He leaned back against the boulder and felt it wobble slightly. Then the idea hit him. He stuck his spear-head into the earth beneath the boulder and levered in up. The rock started to shake loose from it's hold and Gurry pushed harder.

Zelkor saw the boulder starting to give way and he wisely moved to the other side of the slope. Suddenly the boulder gave loose and tumbled down the ridge, widely missing Zelkor. Gurry sat staring in horror when he realized that his plan had failed. Zelkor chuckled wickedly and aimed his blow-pipe at the exposed rat.

Just then the earth and rocks on the slope started to give way. Gurry stabbed into the side of the slope with his spear and hung on for dear life as the ground crumbled around him. Zelkor lost his balance and dropped his weapon, tottering to keep upright. Then the rocky soil of the slope fell away and rolled crashing down the ridge. Zelkor gave a yelp of alarm and tried to run back down the slope, but the avalanche of rocks and dirt crumbled down over him.

Gurry still held on to the spear as it fell out, and he rolled and bumped down the slope, landing with thud at the bottom. He looked over in breathless amazement at the pile of rubble that he had sent tumbling down the slope. Zelkor was nowhere to be seen. Gurry's heart skipped a beat as the realization of what he had just done came upon him. He, Gurry, a lowly little rat, had just slain one of the mighty Darkblades.

Rodala and Vandak were battling furiously. Each of them had dealt savage blows to the other, and although Vandak was a far better fighter, Rodala's rage made her stronger. Her loaded sling lashed down repeatedly, striking at Vandak's weapon and paws. The weasel spun her staff around like a deadly windmill, deflecting each blow with expertise. Then the ottermaid's sling wrapped around the weasel's weapon haft. Rodala tried to pull her sling off of the staff, but it was wrapped tight. Vandak grinned and yanked back hard, ripping the sling from Rodala's grasp and sending it flying off a few yards away. Rodala snarled and bulled into Vandak, sending them back a few paces, closer to the cliff's edge. The weasel struck down at Rodala's body with the blunt end of her weapon, knocking the ottermaid to the ground. Vandak then spun the weapon around and stabbed down at Rodala like a spear fisher. Rodala rolled back and forth, barely avoiding each strike. But she moved too far.

The ottermaid gave a shriek as she rolled over the side of the cliff, and grabbed onto the edge at the last second. Vandak's eyes lite up with evil joy as she stood above Rodala, who clung terrified to the cliff's edge. “Looks like you're in a fix, eh?” the weasel mocked, “Bit of a cliffhanger isn't it? Hahahaha!” Then she raised her spear high to give the final blow.

Chapter 30

Wengle was speechless with shock; both at Vythran's sudden change of character and his ominous challenge. The young otter stood frozen in sheer dread while the wildcat's maddened eyes burned into him. Finally Wengle got a hold of himself. He took a deep breath and said in a firm voice, “Then as the Warrior of Redwall Abbey and true owner of that sword, I accept your challenge!”

Vythran gave a broad, evil smile. Wengle had to suppress a shudder when he saw the wildcat's long, sharp fangs. Vythran nodded slowly. “Good... very good....”

Wengle looked down at his stave and sling, and then at Vythran's full armament. The otter frowned hard. “If I may, sir, can I have another weapon to use?”

The wildcat stared at him for a few moments, then he chuckled wickedly, “Heheheh! I would refuse, but I enjoy a challenge, no matter how small. You may take any weapon from my armory besides your sword. Although I don't think that it will make this fight any harder for me!”

Wengle ignored the biting remark as he looked along the cave walls for the right weapons. His muscles tensed when he saw the sword of Martin, and he longed to take it and race out of the cave. But he knew that Vythran would catch him and probably slay him. Besides, it wasn't what Martin would do. Wengle noticed that many of the weapons were made of that strange black metal. Finally he chose a small broadsword and a round buckler shield in addition to his sling. The sword felt much lighter in his paw than the sword of Martin did, but he found that he could maneuver this even better. When he had fully armed himself, Wengle turned and faced his opponent, his eyes hard and his voice strong, “I am ready Vythran Smythfang!”

Before had he even finished speaking, the wildcat charged. Vythran's trident slammed into Wengle, but the otter held his shield out and the two prongs caught around it. With a strong tug, Vythran ripped the buckler from Wengle's grasp and sent it flying. Wengle grit his teeth as he dealt a powerful blow of his sword on the trident. Vythran drew his dirk out and it clashed against Wengle's sword, driving his arm back. The trident was thrust forward again, and Wengle tried to dodge it, but it shoved him back and pinned him to the cave wall. Wengle tried to push out against it, but it was no use. Vythran's dirk-blade clanged against Wengle's sword again, and the otter tensed his arm muscles to hold the blow. The wildcat pushed down hard with his dirk, his piercing eyes staring right into Wengle's. Even though he had both paws on his sword-hilt, Wengle could feel his strength waning as the wildcat's black-metaled blade slowly pushed his sword back until it was almost touching his face.

Then Wengle remembered his sling. Fast as lightning he reached down with one paw, whipped his sling out and swung it full into Vythran's face. But Wengle had missed one slight detail; his sling was empty. The leather straps smacked Vythran across the face, but the wildcat barely even blinked. Wengle was now frantic. He dropped his sling and once again grabbed onto his sword with both paws. But Vythran was faster. With a flick of his wrist, the wildcat sent the otter's sword flying from his paw. Wengle was now completely disarmed.

Vythran smirked and held his dirk-blade at Wengle's throat, hissing, “Well it looks like I've won! Now, are you going to beg for the mercy you'll never get?”

As terrified as he was, Wengle raised his head high and spoke, loud and clear, “I will never surrender to my enemy! I have been defeated fairly and I will take the punishment for it! Go ahead and slay me; I am not afraid to die with honor!”

Vythran Smythfang stared hard into the courageous young otter's defiant face for a few moments, then he smiled. But it was not an evil, menacing smile; it was one of admiration and approval. To Wengle's astonishment, Vythran pulled his trident from the wall and stepped back, chuckling, “You are a determined opponent, Wengle, and you have proven yourself worthy to wield your sword. Now go, take your blade, and help your friends.”

Wengle was so shocked that at first he almost didn't hear the wildcat's words. Then he leaped up, went over to his sword, and reverently picked it up. When his paws touched the hilt, he felt a flame of power course through his body. Then he turned and looked questioningly at Vythran. “Wait... why do my friends need help?”

Vythran nodded to the cave entrance. “The Darkblades are outside waiting for me to return the sword to them. If they saw your friends....”

Before he could finish, Wengle was pounding towards the mouth of the cave, yelling, “Riddy! Gurry! Rodala! I'm coming!”

Rodala closed her eyes tight as Vandak raised her weapon to strike. Wengle came charging out of the cave entrance like a streak of lightning, roaring like a Bloodwrathed Badger Lord.

Riddy and Gurry leaped up and shouted together in surprise, “Wengle!?”

Vandak was starting to turn around when Wengle slammed into her, sending them both flying off the edge of the cliff. The black weasel's last screams echoed around the mountain as she fell down, down, down to the rocks below.

Rodala screamed in horror and closed her eyes tight, not daring to look down. Then she heard a scraping sound below her and she opened her tear-filled eyes, expecting to see Wengle's body far below.

Instead she saw the young warrior, hanging onto his sword-hilt which was buried in the side of the cliff. Wengle smiled up at her. “Hey there Rodala. I got the sword!”

Suddenly the earth that Rodala was holding onto crumbled, and she dropped, screaming. Wengle reached out and grabbed her paw just in time. They both hung there over the cliff, staring at each other in fear. Riddy limped over to the cliff-edge as fast as he could, and Gurry ran with all speed, both terrified that their friends had fallen to their deaths. When they reached the edge, they looked down and, to both their relief and anxiety, found the two otters still alive, but barely hanging on.

Riddy called to them, “Don't worry mates! We'll get you up!”

Gurry reached down with his spear. “Grab onto this!”

Wengle spoke to Rodala, “Grab onto my legs. I need to reach higher up!” The ottermaid clutched onto Wengle's legs and the warrior otter reached up as best he could, but the spear was just out of his grasp. “It's too short!” he shouted.

Gurry turned to Riddy. “Grab onto my tail and lower me down. Then I'll reach out again.” The shrew normally would have questioned the idea, but this was a matter of life-or-death, so there was no time to argue. He grabbed tight onto Gurry's long tail and slowly lowered the rat down the side. Gurry held onto the side of the cliff with his footpaws and reached down as far as he could with the spear. This time Wengle grabbed it. The otter nodded. “I have it!”

Gurry shouted up to Riddy, “Pull us up!” The shrew pulled with all his strength, but the weight of the three bodies, plus his wound, hampered him. He gasped in pain and said, “I can't! You're all too heavy!”

Wengle bit his lip and desperately tried to think of something. Then he looked down at Rodala. “Climb up me and grab onto the spear!”

The ottermaid's eyes widened. “But Wengle-”

“Do it now!” he roared. “I can't hold on much longer!”

Rodala started to climb up Wengle's body and soon she came within reach of the spear. She grabbed it and shouted to Riddy, “Now pull!”

The shrew grit his teeth as he pulled back hard. Gurry winced in pain as he was dragged over the side of the cliff, followed by Rodala, who hung onto the spear like a leech. When they were all three up, they peered over the edge and Riddy called down, “Alright Wengle mate, we're comin'! Just hang on!”

Wengle growled, “What d'you think I'm gonna do? Fly away?!”

Gurry held his spear tight as Rodala, who was a bit stronger than Riddy and not as injured, grasped his tail and lowered him down once more. Riddy held onto Rodala's body, ready to help her pull. Wengle heaved his arms up onto the sword hilt and reached up. He grabbed tight onto the spear and yelled, “Got it!”

Rodala and Riddy pulled with all of their might, and Wengle yanked his sword out from the side of the cliff as he was dragged upward. Suddenly the ground under the shrew and the ottermaid started to give way, and they all four went crashing down over the side.

Two powerful paws suddenly shot down and grabbed Riddy and Rodala by their shoulders. All four were heaved up onto the cliff and set down. They all clung tight to their weapons and to each other for a moment, then they looked around to see that they were once again on solid ground.

Wengle looked up to see Vythran Smythfang standing over them. The wildcat's face was indiscernible of any emotion as he stood silently watching them. Wengle smiled weakly up at him. “Thank you sir.”

Riddy, Gurry, and Rodala all looked up to see who had saved them, and they gasped in surprise and fear. Wengle stood up and assured them, “Don't worry, he's a frien- He can help us.” It was hard for Wengle to think of Vythran as a friend when he had just been battling to the death with him a few minutes before.

The wildcat smiled slightly. “Yes, I very well can. And I will. I see that you have defeated three of the Darkblades; that's quite a feat.”

Riddy raised an eyebrow. “You.... you know about the Darkblades?”

Vythran smiled. “Yes, I do. And I will tell you the story of Morfelg Bloodskull and his black warriors. But first, come into my cave and I'll bandage your wounds and give you something to eat. Come!”

The wildcat turned and strode back into his cave. Wengle sighed and helped his friends up. “I'm still not sure if we can trust him completely yet.”

“He just saved all our lives!” Gurry stated, “Why shouldn't we trust him?”

The otter frowned. “Well.... alright. Come on, let's go in. But I want you all to be prepared for anything to happen, understand?”

They all nodded in agreement, then got up and walked into Vythran Smythfang's cave.

Outside the cave, near the rocky slope that Gurry had collapsed, something moved. Some rocks and dirt were pushed to the side as a paw stretched up through the rubble, followed by a black, soil-crusted body.

Zelkor heaved himself out of the rocks and sand, panting and gasping in pain. The black fox had miraculously survived the rockslide, having rolled into a small indent in the ridge-face. He had not been crushed by the falling rock and soil, but was badly bruised and smothered under it. Zelkor sat on top of the rubble, and looked about. He had lost his blow-pipe in the fall and it lay buried somewhere under the debris. The fox would not bother searching for it; he could take care of himself. He peered around the cliff as the evening sunlight fell upon it. There was nobeast anywhere to be seen.

Zelkor stood up and limped closer over to the cliff-edge. Something caught his eye and he saw the body of Kyvar lying some yards away. He crept over to it, making sure to keep in the shadows as he passed the cave entrance. He prodded the slain rat's body with his footpaw, and soon realized that Kyvar was stone dead. Zelkor smirked and spat at the carcass. He had never really liked that strange, foreign-accented rat much anyway!

He walked over past the cave again and glanced inside. He could hear voices coming from within and he knew that they were from those four young creatures who had followed them. He hoped that Vythran would 'take care' of them. Then the black fox turned and limped off to the narrow stone stairway that led down from the cliff. When he finally stumbled to the bottom, he found the body of Vandak lying stretched out on a boulder, her limbs bent at unnatural angles and her head twisted back sickeningly, mouth lolling open.

Zelkor cursed under his breath and continued down the mountain. With both of his companions dead and the Redwall warriors with the sword, there was nowhere else to go but back to the camp of his leader, Morfelg Bloodskull.

Chapter 31

Argroo crept up nervously towards the clearing where Bloodskull was planning his next attack with his captains. The weasel gulped and stood back, waiting until the meeting was over.

Morfelg Bloodskull had just finished relating his scheme to Skarva, Bulgor, and Yazrak, who all listened intently. The warlord folded his arms into his cloak and smiled at them. “Well? What do you think?”

Skarva answered, a touch of awe in her voice, “I think that this plan will work perfectly if everybeast does exactly as they are told.”

Her brother nodded. “Of course it will. And they will do as they are told, or die. Is that not correct, Yazrak?”

The pine marten saluted. “My troopz will do exactly az you zay, lord.”

Bloodskull smiled and leaned back against a tree. “Then go, all of you, and prepare for our ultimate victory!” The two Darkblades slid off and the Pineshadow leaped up into the trees.

After they had gone, Argroo came out of his hiding place, slowly creping up towards his chieftain. “Er... my lord?”

Bloodskull glanced at him. “What do you want?”

Argroo scratched his tail and said nervously, “Uh, well... um...”

Bloodskull suddenly leaped forward and grabbed him by the front of his jerkin with the deadly hook, snarling, “Well spit it out or I'll spit you on my blade!”

The terrified weasel gulped and stammered, “W-w-well, lo-lord... I eh, I wanted ter know if I was gonna g-get a reward for my sp-spying s-services?”

Bloodskull stared at him for awhile, then laughed, “Of course you can, my friend! What is it that you want?”

Argroo had not expected Bloodskull to give him an option, but he had an answer prepared already. “I would like the javelin that Borskan once had, sire.”

The ferret warlord stared at the weasel as though Argroo had just spoken in another language. “A javelin?” Bloodskull hissed flatly, “A javelin?”

Argroo was surprised at his leader's reaction, and he glanced around before replying, “Eh... yes, lord.”

Then Bloodskull threw him to the ground and laughed out loud, “Hahaha! A javelin? You could've had anything you wanted; the position as a captain in my horde, loads of treasure once we conquer Redwall, any number of slaves, or many other things, and you ask for a simple weapon that can be found anywhere?!”

The thought had never struck Argroo that Bloodskull would ever offer him those things, and he gulped, “Well, I, um.... I changed my mind, lord. I don't want the javelin anymore.”

Bloodskull's voice suddenly became hard and cold. “It's too late, weasel. That's what you chose, and that's what you'll get. But luckily for you my hordebeasts brought back the weapon that the fox had so foolishly thrown away. And I have it right here....”

He drew the javelin out of his cloak and handed it to Argroo. The weasel stood holding it, frowning angrily.

Bloodskull chuckled again, “You can have your little toy to play with if you want. And once we get inside Redwall Abbey you will no longer be my spy, for I will have no more use for one. Now get out of my sight!” Argroo walked away, fuming inwardly at his stupidity.

Bloodskull watched him storm off, and the warlord smiled to himself. Typical ignorant horde-vermin!

Just then Skarva came back and reported, “Everybeast is ready to attack, sire.”

Morfelg Bloodskull drew out the battle-ax that was attached to his arm and whipped it above his head. “Very good! When I give the signal, tell those Pineshadows to do their part of the attack. Ha! Those Redwallers won't know what hit them!”

The Tapestry of Martin the Warrior in Great Hall stared down at the council of war that was taking place below. Spruce, Skipper and Corkly were unanimously the leaders of the defenses, and they each had their own group that they led. Spruce had his Longbrush squirrels, Skipper Roral had his ottercrew, and Corkly organized the Redwallers that chose to be a part of it. They all sat at a table along with Rockshaft, Thorg, and Foremole, the second-in-commands. Keekag was also present.

Spruce folded his paws across the table and spoke, “Well we probably won't have to worry about the Pineshadows attacking again anytime soon. But Bloodskull's horde however...”

Skipper frowned. “Aye, an' they might even attack tonight. Unless o' course they somehow made a deal with those martens.”

Rockshaft snorted. “The Pineshadows are independent beasts. They don't make truces very easily.”

Corkly spoke up, “Well they jolly well did with those corsair blighters! You never can tell with these vermin types...”

Spruce nodded. “Yes, we still need to be careful that we don't underestimate either of our enemies.”

Foremole tapped his claws on the table. “Hurr, woi don't we'm figger out a way to defend again' them vermints 'stead o' talkin' 'bout 'em, burr!”

Spruce chuckled. “Saved yet again by the wonders of mole logic! Thank you Foremole. Now, we need to keep guards posted on every wall-top night and day, especially at night. We have some already but we can't take chances. We also need to post guards at each door, just in case. Keekag, you can keep a watch from the Abbey roof during the day. But don't fly to close to the vermin camp or some archers might take you down.”

The sparrowhawk nodded. “Kraak! Me watch verminbeasts good! Me killslay them!”

Corkly stood up. “Righto then! Why don't we go and do what we've been jawin' about before it's flippin' well too late!”

He winked at Foremole. “How's that for some hare logic, wot?”

The mole smiled and shook his head. “Burr, it bain't nothin' like moler logik, ho no!”

Corkly sniffed. “And I thought that you mole chaps were supposed to be humble creatures!”

Rockshaft snickered, “Aye, unlike hares!”

Corkly glared at him. “We hares are flippin' humble too! We're just proud about it!”

Spruce chuckled and said, “Alright, enough! We need to get busy with our defending. Skipper, you see to the door guards. Rockshaft, you come with me and we'll organize the wall sentries. Corkly, you get everybeast else ready.”

The meeting broke up and they all left to do their assigned duties. Spruce Longbrush stayed behind a few moments, looking up at the tapestry that hung above him, the image of Martin the Warrior standing like an eternal sentry. The squirrel whispered, “Martin, if you can, help Wengle and his friends return safely with your sword. Because right now, we're going to need all the help we can get.”

Argroo stomped about the vermin camp, fuming. He blamed his foolishness on everyone but himself. He blamed Borskan, Bloodskull, even Bilur and Ragtail. Suddenly a wicked idea came in to his mind. He stormed over to the cage that the rat and stoat still sat in.

The pair had been in their prison for almost two days now, and, even though it was only the beginning of their suffering, they were terribly hungry and thirsty. Ragtail lay moaning on the floor and Bilur sat miserably in the back of the cage, listening to his stomach scream for food.

Argroo strode up to them and snarled, “Hoi there low-lives! What're you moanin' and groanin' for, eh?”

Ragtail stretched out a shaky paw, pleading hoarsely, “Please.... water.... food....water....”

Argroo growled and raised his javelin. “You want something ter eat, eh? Well how about a taste o' javelin?”

He struck down through the bars with his weapon, striking the hapless Ragtail on the side of his head. The stoat moaned louder in pain and Bilur got up, glaring daggers of hatred at the cruel weasel. His voice was raspy with thirst, but angry, “Get away from poor ol' Ragtail, you stinkin' coward!”

Argroo bared his fangs at the rat. “Or what? You still can't do nothin' ter me, rat! Hm.... ye know, I could right easily put you out for good. All it'll take is one... good... stab!”

He drew his javelin back to thrust forward, but found that he could not move it. He turned around and gave a surprised gurgle as a powerful paw grabbed him by the throat.

Bulgor held him up in front of the glaring Skarva. There was a deadly rasp as the ferret drew her round blades forth and held them to Argroo's chest. Her voice was low, “This is the last straw, weasel. If I find you messing with the prisoners again, I'll make sure you scream long before you die! Understand?”

Argroo nodded frantically, his eyes bulging. Skarva gave a nod. “Bulgor, you may release him. Oh, and break his weapon while you're at it.”

Argroo scrabbled for his javelin, which the huge stoat held firmly. “Oh please Cap'n!” he begged, “Don't break me javelin, please!”

Bulgor gave a smile that looked more like a grimace, then he brought the weapon down hard across his knee. But to everybeast's amazement, the javelin did not break. Bulgor stared in confusion at it, then tried again. It still did not even bend.

Skarva grabbed it from the stoat's paw. “Give me that!” She tried snapping it with her blades, but it did not work. She spun around and grasped Argroo by the throat, hissing, “What games are you trying to play with me, weasel?!”

Argroo gasped weakly, “I... I don't know, Cap'n....!”

Skarva threw him to the ground, along with the javelin, and nodded to Bulgor. “Release the prisoners.”

The burly stoat strode over to the cage and snapped the bars off, then he dragged the half-conscious Ragtail and the surprised Bilur out. The rat stammered, “B-but... why did ye release us?”

Skarva sniffed. “It was Lord Bloodskull's orders. You are to accompany us in our attack on Redwall. The Redwallers do know who you are, correct?”

Bilur nodded dumbly.

Skarva gave wicked smile. “Well then, you two will be the first to go into the Abbey grounds. And the first to be slain by your so-called friends! Hah! Your brother may even be one of the creatures who kills you! Hehe... that's what I call irony!”

Bilur and Ragtail were dragged away, speechless at their coming fate.

The sun had set and the moon shone bright above Mossflower when Morfelg Bloodskull and his horde began their assault upon Redwall. The warlord stood out on the edge of the woods, watching the guards upon the south wall.

Yazrak the pine marten clung to the side of a tree nearby, waiting for his new chieftain to give the signal.

Bloodskull raised his ax-blade high, carefully watching the four or so sentries that patrolled the wall-tops. In the split-second that all of the guards had turned their faces away from the woodlands, the ax dropped.

Yazrak nodded up to a pair of Pineshadows, who sat on two long tree limbs near the trunks. Vine ropes were tied about the waists of each of them, as well as to the boughs. At Yazrak's signal, they bunched up their muscles and took off along the thick branches on all fours. When they reached the end, they simultaneously leaped across the gap that spanned between the trees and the wall, landing on the battlements with cat-like agility.

A squirrel guard spotted them and was about to sound the alarm, when the Pineshadow's clubs silenced him forever.

One of the martens pulled the rope from his waist and tied it to the battlements, while the other charged silently across the wall like a streak, leaping upon the other sentries and taking them out with his weapon. But one of the guards had called out right before he went down. “We're under attack! We're- uhnh!”

Bloodskull cursed under his breath when he heard the sentry's cry, and he glided over to where Bulgor and more than four score of vermin lay waiting. “Blood and fire, they've seen us! But no matter, it's your cue Bulgor. Go, go!”

The huge stoat grunted as he hefted up a large tree trunk and charged out towards the south wall-door, followed by the four score of vermin, with the unfortunate Bilur and Ragtail stumbling in the lead.

Spruce Longbrush, who was down below patrolling the grounds, had also heard the guard's shout and he roared aloud as he raced to the south wall, an arrow already notched in his bow, “We're under attack! Redwall to arms! To arms!” Corkly, Skipper, Rockshaft, and Keekag came hurdling out from nowhere and pounded out after Spruce.

Inside the Abbey building, Oakflower, Barktail, Foremole, and the rest had heard Spruce's cry as well and they leaped up, grabbed their weapons, and charged out the Abbey door.

As he approached the wall-gate, Bulgor lowered his head and held the log out as a one-beast battering ram. When he hit the door, it was sent flying off its hinges with a loud crack, and the gargantuan stoat came smashing in after it. Several otters who guarded the door were crushed under the huge log as Bulgor swung it out in their midst.

Spruce fired an arrow at the huge black stoat, and it struck the Darkblade in the chest, but it didn't even seem to hurt. Bulgor ripped it out and charged forward like a maddened bull.

Then the crowd of vermin hordebeasts came pouring in behind Bulgor, slashing out with their weapons and screaming warcries.

Bilur and Ragtail, hoping against hope, plunged through them and up to the Abbey building, shouting, “Don't kill us! It's Bilur an' Ragtail, Gurry's mateys! Don't kill us please!”

Spruce ignored the two terrified vermin as they pushed past him and up to the Abbey door. They banged on it frantically, yelling, “Let us in, please! We're friends! Oh please let us in mates!”

The Pineshadows had entered the Abbey a different way. Similar to their first attack, they had leaped and climbed across the ropes that linked to the Abbey wall. But now there were no guards left to contend with. The vicious pine martens streaked across the walls like shadows, slaying anybeast they came across.

The two armies clashed together with a roar and the sound of metal striking metal. The warcries of both sides echoed around the sandstone walls:




“Eulaaaaaliaaaaaa! Give 'em blood and vinegaaaaar!”

“Bloooooodskuuuuuullllll! Conquuueeeeeeerrrrrr!”

The first few ranks of Redwall defenders were taken down by the seemingly indestructible Bulgor. The giant black stoat had received many wounds, yet he still smashed and crushed his enemies like twigs.

Spruce rammed his dagger into the face of a leering fox and leaped high into the enemy forces, firing arrows out into the crowd.

Skipper and his ottercrew whirled their slings and javelins about, taking down vermin like a whirlwind.

Suddenly, without warning, a horde of more vermin came charging in from the other side. The Pineshadows had opened the main gates, where Torkan and Skarva stood waiting with the other half of the vermin horde.

Spruce's mind reeled as he battled furiously. Where had they all come from?

Oakflower and Barktail fought back-to-back, firing their shafts off like lightning. Suddenly Oakflower was yanked up screaming into the air by a powerful paw. Bulgor had the squirrelmaid by the tail and his whirled her around, ready to smash her against the ground. With a scream of rage, Barktail leaped out at the stoat, but the other mighty paw swung out, connecting with the squirrel's stomach and sending him crashing to the ground with the wind knocked out of him.

Spruce had seen his daughter's peril and he charged forward, roaring. But before he could even get close, Rockshaft blasted through the air and leaped up onto Bulgor's chest. The stoat tried to rid himself of the hefty squirrel, but Rockshaft was not one to be shaken off. Like a flash he stabbed his dagger out at Bulgor's face, driving it deep into the stoat's open mouth. Bulgor dropped Oakflower and his huge paws shot out and clutched Rockshaft by the neck, crushing hard. The brave squirrel didn't even have time for a last warcry. He shoved the dagger deeper into Bulgor's head just as the stoat fell back crashing to the ground and gave one final hard twist. Rockshaft went limp on the dead body of the giant Darkblade.

Spruce fought back tears as he saw his friend go down, but he still fought on until he reached his daughter and helped her up. As he looked around in horror at the Abbey grounds, he knew that there was little hope for the defending forces. The Pineshadows were leaping and screaming along the walls like savage demons, and the three-hundred vermin were causing widespread chaos across the grounds. And then there were the Darkblades; Torkan and Skarva were like reapers of death within the battle.

Then Morfelg Bloodskull strode through the doorway, smiling with diabolical pleasure. Spruce knew that there was no choice but to retreat back to the Abbey. He roared out to Corkly and Skipper, “We need to fall back! We can't hold 'em off!”

Corkly ducked a sword slash and then gave a hard upper-cut to its owner's jaw before replying, “I agree old chap; the vile cads are everywhere! You hear that Redwallers? Fall back to the Abbey!”

Skipper rallied his remaining ottercrew around him, “Come on mates! Retreat back to the Abbey, but take down as many as you can on the way!” The Redwall defenders started back for the Abbey building, fighting back as much as they could against the horde that closed in around them.

Keekag however, would not retreat. The vicious sparrowhawk had been busy battling the hated Pineshadows up on the walls. Spruce shouted up to her, “Keekag! We need to fall back! Come on!” The hawk's eyes blazed madly as she looked down at Spruce, screeching defiantly, “Keekag never retreat! Me killslay vermin! Killslaaaaayyy!” Then she dove through the masses of vermin, her wicked talons and beak shredding any enemy that she came across.

Bloodskull was slowly striding after his horde, casually slaying anybeast within his reach. The black ferret's eyes were fixed upon the squirrel chieftain, who was obviously the opposing leader, and he slid along the blood-strewn ground towards him.

Bilur and Ragtail had been nearly mowed down when the door was opened, but they leaped inside, followed by the retreating defenders.

Spruce had stayed behind to help get the last of the Redwallers inside. The squirrel had suffered many wounds, but he still fought on, shooting off arrows into the crowd with all the speed and accuracy of a machine. He shoved a wounded young otter through the door, shouting, “Get inside, hurry!” Then he roared to Keekag again, “Keekag! Get over here now!”

But the sparrowhawk paid no heed. Blood streamed from her feathers as she ripped and slashed at screaming vermin. Then she saw something that Spruce did not.

Morfelg Bloodskull had slipped his way through the crowd of vermin and was looming up behind Spruce. Keekag gave a screech of rage and tore through the air straight at the warlord. Bloodskull had heard her screeching and he turned at the last second. The sparrowhawk collided with the ferret, sending him staggering back. Bloodskull slashed up with his ax and Keekag grabbed onto the blade with her talons and held on tight. Her powerful wings beat against Bloodskull's head and shoulders, and her sharp beak slashed at his face. The black ferret snarled and lashed upward with his lethal hook, plunging it deep into Keekag's chest. The hawk gave one last death screech and fell back, her claws releasing from the ax-blade and raking the air.

Spruce whirled around at her enraged screaming and witnessed the whole short battle. Bloodskull hacked and chopped furiously at the slowly-flapping body with his ax.

Spruce's anger welled up inside him and he leaped at the ferret with a roar of rage. But two pairs of strong paws grabbed him and dragged him towards the Abbey door. “Come on Spruce old lad! Don't do foolish things! Get inside!” Skipper and Corkly dropped the squirrel on the steps just in front of the partially-open door. They were the last living Redwallers left outside. Spruce unleashed one last arrow into the coming horde before ducking inside the door with his two companions and slamming it shut.

Morfelg Bloodskull stepped over the body of Keekag, blood dripping from his ax. He held up his hook to the horde, roaring, “Stop! Do not attack further now! Let them hide in there, we'll get them out eventually!”

The horde subsided and backed off to the rest of the grounds when they realized that the battle was over, and they sat back to lick their wounds. The Pineshadows still hung about the walls, ripping and clubbing savagely at the already-dead bodies of their enemies.

Skarva folded her blood-stained blades into her cloak and spoke to her brother, “Bulgor is slain, lord.”

Bloodskull snarled. “I know that, fool! But we don't need him anymore. I have the Redwallers right where I want them. They're trapped inside their own Abbey like fish in a barrel! Aaahhhh.... We might as well count this war a victory for us, for I have finally gained control of the Redwall Abbey grounds! They're all as good as dead now! Ahahahahahahaha!”

Chapter 32

Wengle, Rodala, Riddy, and Gurry were totally oblivious to the horrifying defeat that their friends had suffered back home as they sat around a fire near the back of Vythran's cave that night. All of their wounds had been bandaged and they were served some delicious supper; roasted trout stuffed with apples and mountain sorrel.

Vythran watched them in silence while they ate. Riddy nodded approvingly as he chewed. “Mmm! This supper is super, sir Vythran! Thank you!”

The others nodded in agreement. The wildcat smiled, but did not reply. After they were finished, Vythran took the clay plates and set them in a small pool of water nearby. Riddy, Gurry, and Rodala were still awed at the sight of all the many weapons that lined the walls of hooks, racks, and pegs. When Vythran returned, he commented on their amazement, “Never seen so many weapons in one place have you?” They all shook their heads in wonder.

Wengle had found himself staring at Vythran for some time. He still did not know what to make of the wildcat. Was he friend or foe? Earlier he had seemed harsh and wicked, yet now he had fed and bandaged them. There had to be more to this creature than he thought....

After a few minutes, Wengle finally asked, “Sir? Could you please tell us the story of Bloodskull and his Darkblades?”

Vythran turned to the otter and stared at him for a few moments before saying, slowly, “Yes. I will indeed tell you what you wish to know about them.”

The wildcat sat down next to the fire and looked across at the four young faces who stared intently at him, ready to listen. Vythran smiled slightly and then said, “Well, let me first start at the beginning...”

Riddy stifled a giggle. “That's a good place to start!”

Wengle glared at him. “Riddy don't be rude!”

Vythran chuckled. “It's alright. You may ask as many questions as you need to. Now, the ferret known as Morfelg Bloodskull, or Morfelg as is his real name, and his sister, Skarva-”

Riddy interrupted again, “He has a sister?!”

The other three listeners shushed him. Vythran nodded. “Yes, he does. She is his second-in-command and one of the Darkblades. Anyway, they were born to a tribe of creatures called Juska, who lived just west of here, on the coast. Do you know what the Juska are?”

Gurry raised a paw. “I do sir. There were a few beasts who used to be Juskas in Borskan, er, Bloodskull's horde. Aren't they those vermin who paint themselves up an' have all o' those strange superstitions and customs?”

Vythran nodded again. “That is correct Gurry. Now, they were born as twins, with Morfelg being slightly older. And they both were also born with pure black fur. Now, one of the superstitions in Juska clans is, that if a creature is born with black fur, it means an ill omen upon that clan. Normally they would've been killed right then and there, but they weren't, and for a very important reason. You see, every Juska clan has a seer, normally a vixen. And this seer had pronounced at their birth, that they were indeed both Taggerungs!”

Vythran looked over at the blank faces and asked, “You don't know what a Taggerung is, do you?” They all shook their heads. The wildcat explained. “A Taggerung is a beast that is born into a Juska tribe and is said to become the greatest warrior in the land. They are faster than the wind, stronger than an oak, more deadly and silent than a serpent, and the most skilled fighters to ever be born!”

Wengle grimaced. “Well that fits Bloodskull alright!”

Vythran continued, “Indeed. Now, the clan chieftain believed that if he killed beasts that were to destined to become Taggerungs, then their spirits would haunt him for the rest of his days.”

Riddy shuddered. “Bloodskull in the flesh is bad enough, but imagine having his ghost followin' you around! Ugh! That'd be horrible!”

“The chieftain thought so too,” said Vythran, “and now he was at a loss on what to do with them. He couldn't keep them, and he couldn't kill them either. So his seer came up with an idea. When the two got to the age where they could take care of themselves, (for the chieftain knew that if he sent them away as babes, and they died, it would still count as his slaying them), and then he would drive them off. During that time however, they were both trained as Taggerungs. Morfelg, as I forgot to mention, was also born with a deformity: his left paw was missing, having only a stump in its place. Well, he still learned how to fight with only his right paw, and soon enough they were both deadly fierce fighters. Morfelg was the more skilled of the two, but his sister was still a savage warrior, better than everybeast within the horde, excluding the chieftain.

“When they were both about fourteen seasons old, they were finally sent away. They traveled around for a few seasons before coming upon me. I took them in and they told me their story. When I learned that they were Taggerungs, I decided to train them more. After some months of training and teaching, they became two of the most powerful and merciless fighters I have ever known. I saw true strength in them, and I knew that the time I had invested in them was worthwhile. I even taught them blacksmithing, for as you should have guessed, that is my trade.” He motioned to the back of the cave, where a great anvil and forge lay. “Then one day, I awoke to find them both gone. They had departed from the mountain and where they went, I do now know. But a few seasons later they returned, and with them were five other creatures...”

Wengle gasped, “The Darkblades!”

Vythran nodded. “Yes, that is what they would soon become. But I also found that Morfelg had changed. He had painted his face red, and whether it was with red dyes or actual blood I still do not know. And he had also given himself a second name: Bloodskull. He had convinced himself, his sister, and the five beasts with him, that he was to be the greatest warlord in all history. The five creatures that he had brought with him all shared something in common with him and Skarva: They were all black-furred. Morfelg ordered that I both train his followers the way he was, and also supply them with weapons. Now, I tested each one of them, just as I did today with you, Wengle...”

Wengle's frowned in thought at this, but remained silent.

“And,” continued Vythran, “they all passed my tests. They were indeed very strong creatures, and they possessed the will to be powerful fighters. I gave them all custom weapons made of Binesteel, just as I had given Morfelg and Skarva.” 

Rodala asked, “What's Binesteel, sir?”

Vythran held up a paw. “I'll tell you all about it later. But what you should know for now is that this...” he tapped his claws on his breastplate, “is made of Binesteel, the black metal. Anyway, I gave them all their weapons and their training. Morfelg then named his small band of black warriors the Darkblades, after their Binesteel weaponry.”

“Did you make that vicious hook that Bloodskull has?” Riddy asked.

Vythran nodded. “Yes I did. And I made the three weapons that Morfelg uses as well.”

Wengle started. “He has three weapons?!”

“Yes he does indeed. Oh, and one other thing. While they were with me the first time, Morfelg was practicing at the forge, when he burned his right paw badly. He was so furious at his clumsiness, that he severed his own paw off with one of the weapons of the wall.”

The four listeners winced at this, but Riddy smirked, “Huh, serves him right!”

Vythran stared deeply into the fire. “I first cauterized the wound, and then I fashioned two hooks for him, since he now had neither paw for use in battle. But he refused them, saying that he wanted only real weapons. So I made him three of his favorite types of weapons specially for his use: A sword, a battle-ax, and a mace-and-chain. Later on however, he decided to keep the hooks as well, so I melded them together and formed a triple-pronged hook for Morfelg's left arm. And I truly believe that that hook is more deadly and lethal than any of his other weapons.”

Wengle stared at Vythran, confused thoughts swimming in his brain. Why were he and his friends sitting here and talking with the beast who had trained Morfelg Bloodskull and made his weapons? The weapons that he had almost been slain by. And if Vythran was an ally of Bloodskull, then why was he feeding and caring for them? Wengle looked down into the fire and thought deeply as Vythran continued.

“After the Darkblades received their weapons, they went off. This time though, I decided to follow them. And I could tell by the powerful, vengeful light that had been burning in Morfelg's eyes over the past few months, where they were going.”

Riddy's eyes grew wide. “The Juska clan?”

Vythran sighed and nodded. “Aye, the very Juska that Morfelg and Skarva had come from. When I reached the Juska camp, I saw something that will burn into my memory for all of my life.” He took a deep breath, then said, “Everywhere the slain bodies of Juska vermin lay. Not one single creature was left alive in that camp.”

Gurry's mouth dropped open. “You mean, sir, that they slew an entire horde?!”

The wildcat continued staring into the flames. “Even some of the beasts who had tried to run away were hunted down and killed by Morfelg and his Darkblades. I knew that he was seeking revenge. This was completely confirmed when I saw the corpse of the Juska chieftain. He hung from a tree by his throat, and his eyes were gouged out. His fur was almost completely shredded from his body and his midriff was slashed wide open. I knew that Morfelg had put his hook to good use. I did not continue after them, and I never saw any of them again until today.” He looked up at the four horrified young faces staring at him.

Finally Rodala asked, “Is that all, sir?”

Vythran stood up and kindled the dying fire. “Unless you want to know about Binesteel.” The four heads nodded vigorously. The wildcat sat down again and began, “The metal known as Binesteel is said to be the strongest metal on earth...”

Riddy piped up, “That's not true! Wengle's sword is far stronger than anything!”

Vythran nodded. “Indeed it is. But that metal is made from a fallen star or meteorite; it is not from earth.”

Wengle looked up at him. “How did you know that, sir?”

Vythran smiled. “I am a blacksmith; I know every kind of metal there is. Now, in addition to Binesteel being extremely strong, it is, as you can see, pure black in color. That is what makes it different from all other metals.” He drew his dirk and showed them all the shining black blade. Riddy touched it carefully and asked, “But if it's so strong, then how do you forge it?”

Vythran sheathed his dirk and said, “That is a secret that only wildcat blacksmiths know now. But many seasons back there was a tribe of badgers that lived up in these mountains. They too had discovered the secret to forge Binesteel, although they knew it by a different name.”

“How so?” asked Wengle.

“In the ancient wildcat language the word 'bine' means 'night' or 'dark', and it's fairly obvious why it was called that. Now these badgers had a mine just a few miles from here, and they guarded it with their very lives, supplying weapons and armor to those they only knew as friends. Then one day, a great rat warlord by the name of Cluny the Scourge heard about the famed metal and craved it for himself and his horde. So he took his horde up to the mine and demanded that the badgers give him some of the metal. Of course, the badgers drove him away, being stubborn creatures who naturally hate vermin. Cluny was so enraged that he had his horde chew and hack away at the wooden posts of the mine and it collapsed, killing most of the badgers. Then Cluny went south to Redwall and you should know that story.”

Wengle and Riddy nodded. “Well it turns out,” Vythran went on, “that those badgers were not the only beasts to know the secret of Binesteel. Further north of here there ruled a wildcat lord named King Mortspear, of whom I am descended. His blacksmiths also knew of Binesteel forging, but they kept it secret from the outside world. Then one winter long after Mortspear's reign, there was a terrible blizzard that swept across all of the northern mountains and plains. Even the thick-furred wildcats and pine martens that lived there were forced to leave, and they traveled down to this area, where they discovered the collapsed mine of the badgers. In order to get to the Binesteel, however, they built this tunnel that we are in right now. They made a small mine in the back where I now have my forge.”

At the sound of soft snoring, Vythran looked down and saw Riddy and Gurry lying curled up on the cave floor, and Rodala sat with her head resting on Wengle's shoulder. The young otter warrior however, sat wide awake, listening intently to the story of Bloodskull and the history of Binesteel.

Vythran smiled and stood up, speaking to Wengle, “I think it's time you went to sleep, young warrior. You have a long days traveling tomorrow.”

Wengle nodded drowsily and his eyelids drooped. Before long he was sound asleep, his head falling over onto Rodala's.

Vythran put out the dying fire and crept off, watching the four sleepers. He smiled slightly when he saw that each of Wengle's paws were gripped firmly onto the hilt of his sword, and Rodala's paw.

The wildcat stepped outside the cave and stood out on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the vast forests and plains below. In a soft, ominous voice, he whispered, “Beware Morfelg, for as strong as you are, there is one young warrior coming with a strength to match and even defeat yours. Yes Morfelg, the day of your reckoning is drawing nearer....”

Book Three- The Final Conflict

Chapter 33

The wounded Redwallers were taken up to the infirmary and dormitories, while the rest of the defenders held a solemn meeting to decide what to do next. Spruce was too injured to attend, so Skipper, Corkly, and Abbot Fernald were the leaders.

The Abbot sighed deeply and looked out at the scarred and concerned faces that looked pleadingly up at him. “My fellow Redwallers and allies of Redwall, this night a tragic and horrifying event has taken place. The enemy is now within our walls and they will stop at nothing to control the entire Abbey. But apart from that, we have also lost two of our dear and brave friends. Rockshaft, the close friend of our Spruce Longbrush, was slain in battle, as well as the fiercely loyal hawk, Keekag. Both of these comrades will be greatly missed, but their sacrifice is for us so that we can continue to keep Redwall safe, as did all of our friends who have perished this day.”

There was a long pause as the crowd of warriors and Redwallers bowed their heads in silent respect for those fallen. The Abbot spoke again, this time in a more hopeful tone, “But we have gained two new friends as well. Bilur and Ragtail are the brother and friend of young Gurry, whom we all know. They do not want to be with the enemy and have firmly joined with us.”

A murmur ran through the crowd, some beasts suspiciously saying that the two vermin were spies, while others said that if they were friends of Gurry, they couldn't be all that bad. When arguments started to break out, Fernald desperately tried to calm them, but to no avail.

Then Skipper banged his hefty tail against the stone floor and roared, “Enough o' this! Why do we need to fight amongst ourselves when there's foes right at our doorstep?! Now, can we please have some peace and quiet while our Father Abbot is speaking?”

When silence was established, he nodded to Fernald. “Go on Father.”

The dormouse held his paws out. “I was going to ask you to speak next Skipper.”

The big otter took a deep breath and looked around at the now quieted room. Then he said, “Well now mates, it looks as though Bloodskull an' his cronies have trapped us in here, and they may think that they did, but we Redwallers and woodlanders are never enslaved nor trapped as long as we have hope and courage! Right mates? Let's hear a good ol' Redwall warcry to let those vermin out there know that you can't beat a good Redwaller down!”

Everybeast raised their paws and weapons, shouting, “Reeeeeedwaaaaaaaaaalllll!”

Bloodskull and his horde did indeed hear the defiant warcry from within the Abbey. The warlord was sitting in the Gatehouse with his captains when they heard it, loud and clear. Bloodskull looked up. “What in Hellgates was that?” Skarva peered out the window. “I think that those Redwallers are trying to scare us with their battlecries.” Bloodskull laughed, “Hah! Let them yell all they want; no help will come! Now, we shall continue my plan of attack. It begins first thing tomorrow morning. For now, keep archers and slingers posted to watch the windows. If they even see something as small as a moth's shadow, they are to fire. I'll show those impudent woodlanders that they cannot win this one!”

All through the night the Redwallers were forced to stay low by the arrows and slingstones of the vermin horde. Skipper and Corkly had posted guards at every opening, but they stayed away from the windows, as some had been struck by shafts or stones. It was a long night for the Redwall defenders, who had to rack their brains for plans of defenses in their dire situation.

Finally the night ended. But the vermin attacks did not. Instead, they increased as Bloodskull's plans were put to work. The Pineshadows were busy making grappling hooks while the archers kept on pinning back the Redwall sentries.

Oakflower peered out a window from behind a table. Barktail and Corkly crouched beside her, holding the table up and ducking any arrows that happened to get past it. The squirrelmaid's keen eyes gazed down at the vermin below and she related their activity to the two others, “Some of the Pineshadows are making something with ropes and... sharp, curved things. Some of them are coming this way, swinging the ropes around.”

Corkly nodded. “Ah, I see what the blighters are up to. They're making flippin' grappling hooks so they can get up into the windows.”

Barktail looked at the hare. “But won't the table keep them back from this window?”

Corkly shook his head. “Probably not. Those Pinethingies could break right through it or climb over us. We need something else that'll keep the cads at bay....”

They sat thinking for a few moments, then Oakflower gasped, “They just threw the grappling hook up here!” As soon as she had finished speaking, they heard the sharp clank of metal on stone as it struck the windowsill.

Corkly bit his lip. “Can't risk knockin' it off cause those bloomin' archers'll take us out. Wait, I've got a super wheeze! Barktail old lad, nip off to the infirmary and get as many pillows and blankets as Sister Patia can spare, get knives, javelins, and spears or any other sharp stuff if you see any extras!”

The young squirrel nodded and took off. Oakflower raised an eyebrow at the hare. “What do we need with pillows?”

Corkly winked at her. “You'll soon see m'gel! We'll make those vermin blighters cry for a season, wot!”

Down below, Yazrak, the Chief Guard of the Pineshadows, stood issuing orders to his vermin. The Pinshadows had finished making their grappling hooks, and, according to Bloodskull's plan of attack, they began their ascent up to the Abbey windows, with vermin archers covering them.

One rat archer spotted a figure that hovered into view at Corkly and Oakflower's window. He fired at it and watched it sag to the ground. The rat grinned and called to the waiting Pineshadows, “I got 'im! You're clear ter go up!”

The pine martens placed their weapons between their teeth and started up the vine ropes.

Corkly picked up the fallen clump of pillows and blankets with the rat's arrow protruding from it. He gave a nod to Barktail. “Now hand me some o' those sharp thingies and help me stick them into this.”

They quickly stuck as many knives, spears, window poles, forks, and other sharp objects as they could into the lump of pillows. Then Corkly propped it up just under the windowsill, with the sharp points sticking out towards the open window. “Now, when I give the signal, we shove it up at them. Alright, one....two....”

The first Pineshadow leaped through the window, shrieking warcries and swinging his club. But he suddenly stopped as he was struck by the lump of deadly spiked pillows and was instantly slain. The second vermin came up to the windowsill but never got any farther as the body of the first pine marten, still impaled on the lethal decoy, hit into him and sent him tumbling down, taking several other vermin with them.

The remaining Pineshadows looked up in confusion, and they last thing some of them saw were the points of Oakflower and Barktail's arrows.

Corkly gave whoop of victory, “Wahoo! We did it chaps! We stopped the blighters here, now we need to help Skipper and the rest at their windows.”

Yazrak watched in surprise as the dead bodies of his Pineshadows gathered at the bottom of the Abbey under the window. The Chief Guard raced over and grabbed an injured marten by the neck, screaming, “What happened?! Why are you not in zere?”

The Pineshadow spat out a broken tooth and groaned, “It waz a trap, zir, we did not expect zem to do zat to uz.”

Yazrak threw the vermin down and wrung his paws, looking about frantically to make sure that Morfelg Bloodskull or any of his Darkblades had not seen the embarrassing defeat.

Bloodskull sat in the Gatehouse alone, inspecting his weapons and thinking up diabolical ways of how he would kill the Redwall leaders. Suddenly he heard a knock at the door. The warlord snarled, “Who is it?”

Skarva answered, “It is only I, Skarva. I have some important news for you. Zelkor has returned, but he is alone.” Skarva had to leap to the side as her brother smashed out through the door.

Over by the broken south wall-gate, Zelkor lay on the ground, panting, with Torkan standing nearby.

Bloodskull strode over to the fox and grabbed him roughly by his cloak, the ax-blade held at Zelkor's throat. The black ferret's hissing voice extenuated each word, “Where is my sword and where are Vandak and Kyvar? Answer me!”

Zelkor gulped and said in a slightly shaky voice, “Well lord, we did as you said and delivered the sword to Vythran. We waited outside the cave, but it turns out that we were followed by some Redwall creatures. One of them, the otter that you fought in the duel, went inside the cave to get the sword, and we fought with the other three outside. Kyvar and Vandak were somehow slain, sire, but I escaped to tell you.”

Bloodskull stared down at the trembling fox for some time, then he smiled. It was a broad evil grin that was obviously covering the fury that welled up inside him.

Zelkor knew that smile and he pleaded, “Oh please sire, don't slay me! There was no other choice, and I thought that you should know!”

Bloodskull gently stroked Zelkor's head with his hook, still smiling. “Of course, my friend.... And I am very glad that you came back to tell me. Well done!”

Zelkor's eyes grew wide in surprise. “Really?”

Bloodskull rose up to his full height, the smile still fixed on his face. “Really.”

Faster than lightning, the ax flashed down and Zelkor's body slumped to the ground, his head cloven in two.

Morfelg Bloodskull wiped the blade on his cloak and hissed, “Throw that carcass outside the walls! I shall be in my chamber alone. The first beast that comes in without my permission will die like this fool did!” Then the warlord turned and strode off back to the Gatehouse and slammed the door shut.

Skarva and Torkan looked at each other. Already three of the Darkblades were dead, and now Bloodskull kills another when he could have easily let him live. Although they did not speak, both of the Darkblades were thinking the same thing: Had Morfelg Bloodskull finally gone insane?

Skipper and his ottercrew stood at the other Abbey windows, defending them as best they could. Corkly came running up, wielding a window pole. “Do any of you chaps need assistance, wot?”

Skipper dodged an arrow and gave a nod to the hare. “Of course we do matey! But what d'ya think we can do? Those vermin archers take out anybeast who even casts a shadow on the window.”

Corkly grinned. “Well me and some others took care of some vermin blighters who came up on another window. But the decoy we used fell down with 'em.”

Skipper looked at him. “Decoy?”

The hare nodded. “Aye, a bunch of old pillows and such stuffed with all sorts of sharp thingies. Worked quite well actually. Really surprised the cads, wot!”

Skipper hurled a slingstone out the window and frowned in thought. “We could do somethin' like that...”

Suddenly a grappling hook appeared in the windowsill. One otter tried to shove it off, but he was hit with an arrow. Skipper roared, “Stay out o' the window! We'll deal with the scum once they get up here!”

Corkly smirked. “Or we could jolly well do it now...” He ducked low and thrust the window pole forward. It hooked onto the grapnel just as a Pineshadow came up over the sill. With a hard tug, Corkly loosened the hook and threw it over the side. The confused screams of the invading vermin sounded below as they crashed to the ground.

The first Pineshadow however, had leaped up into the window. But he didn't get very far. Skipper's loaded sling whirled and smashed the pine marten off the window. The otter chieftain smiled grimly at Corkly. “Well it looks like you're the hero of the day mate!”

The hare waved a paw and tried to act modest. “Oh, it was nothing really. Just some quick thinking and good training at the jolly ol' badger mountain, wot wot!”

Yazrak nervously crept up to the Gatehouse door and was about to knock, when he heard Skarva's voice, “I wouldn't do that if I were you.”

He turned to face the two remaining Darkblades. “Why not?”

Torkan smirked. “Unless you want to lose your head, you need to keep out of there.”

Yazrak looked at the door again, then back at the two captains. “Zo what do we do now? Ze grappling hook attack did not work, and I lozt many of my Pinezhadowz.”

Skarva shrugged. “For now keep the archers and slingers at the windows. I'm sure the Lord Bloodskull is coming up with something in there.”

Morfelg Bloodskull paced around the Gatehouse, snarling and muttering to himself, “They lost the sword.... ah, I don't need it! I will get into Redwall with or without it!”

Then he heard the voices of his three captains outside. He listened at the door for a moment, and when he heard Yazrak's report of defeat, he flung it open, knocking the Pineshadow down flat. Skarva and Torkan leaped out of the way and Yazrak quickly got up and scrabbled out of reach.

Bloodskull glared at him. “Did I hear you say that your creatures failed?”

Yazrak gulped and nodded slowly.

Bloodskull growled and cursed under his breath. “Oh hell's teeth! I need to think of something else... something that will truly bring my wrath upon those bloody Redwallers.... Aragh! I'll bring all the wrath of Hellgates upon them, I'll-”

Suddenly he stopped and turned to the three astonished vermin, an eerie smile cracking his face. “Yeeeessss..... haha! I'll truly bring the wrath of all Hellgates upon them! You three come here and I'll tell you my scheme!”

Bilur groaned and opened his eyes. He found that he was on a bed in Redwall's Infirmary. He looked around and saw Ragtail on a nearby bed, sitting up. The stoat had a tray of food in front of him and he was too busy stuffing his face to notice Bilur's awakening.

The rat snarled, “Hoi Raggy! Why don't you share some o' those vittles instead of gobblin' it down like a hog in a famine?”

Ragtail swallowed a lump of hazelnut cheese and grinned. “Oh, hey there Bilur. By the fang, they've got some nice vittles here! Try some!”

He tossed Bilur a raspberry tart and a small loaf of nutbread. The rat took a large bite of the bread and nodded. “Aye, tis great stuff! Gimme some o' that salad you greedy lump of a stoat!”

Just then an exasperated sigh came from the door and two figures walked in. Sister Patia frowned and held her paws out at the two vermin. “Just look at them, Father; Sloppy, dirty vermin ruining my nice clean sheets! They should never have been let in here!”

The Abbot smiled. “Don't worry Sister, they are the friends of young Gurry that he told us about. Besides dirtying up your sheets they won't do any harm if Gurry is correct.”

Bilur gulped down some burdock cordial and asked, as politely as he could, “Er, Abbot sire, could I, eh, see me brother Gurry for awhile?”

The Abbot sighed and folded his paws into his wide sleeves. “I'm sorry my son, but you cannot at this time. He and some other young warriors from our Abbey went to recover the sword of Martin the Warrior that was stolen from us by your former leader and taken up north.”

Bilur jumped out of the bed and started for the door. “What?! Gurry's out there in the woods? I have to go an' find him afore he gets hurt!”

Fernald placed a gentle paw on the frantic rat's shoulder. “Not right now, my friend. It would only endanger you and your brother more. I trust that our warrior Wengle will bring them all home safe.”

Bilur sighed sadly and sat back down. “Alright, sir Abbot. I'll wait for him. But I do hope that he gets home safely....”

The day wore on and the vermin attacks lessened. The archers still covered the windows, but not much else went on.

It was early evening and Spruce had recovered enough to walk around the Abbey. He listened as Oakflower and Barktail related to him what had happened at their window and how Corkly had saved the day with his brilliant defensive tactics.

Spruce smiled and patted the hare on the back. “Good job Corkly! I knew that we could depend on you!”

Corkly sniffed and said, “Oh pish tush, old lad, like I told Skipper, it's all in the line of duty, wot!”

Oakflower grinned. “I say we have a small feast for mister Corkly! He deserves it for being so brave!”

The hare's ears stood up like flagpoles. “A feast you say? Well bring it on- er, I mean, no, you jolly well don't have to; your praise is food enough, wot!”

Spruce winked at the two young squirrels and said, “Alright then, if you insist. We'll have a meager ration for the humble warrior's supper tonight. Oakflower, go and tell Friar Dobble that mister Battlescut will only be having dry bread and water for supper. I'm sure he'll be thankful for Corkly's modesty as well!”

Oakflower and Barktail giggled helplessly at the expression on Corkly's face. “Well, er, not so fast Spruce old lad, a brave chap like me does deserve a victory feast once and a while, wot!”

Just then Skipper came racing towards them. His face was hard with concern as he said, “Spruce matey, you'd better come quick. That Bloodskull vermin wants ter talk with you. Hurry!” They all ran up to the window and looked down at the scene below.

Morfelg Bloodskull stood out in the open, flanked by his two Darkblades and Yazrak. Surrounding the Abbey were two rows of vermin. The front row stood holding lighted torches and in the back row were the archers, their arrows held to pots of flaming oil.

Bloodskull shouted up to the Redwallers, “So are you ready to surrender yet?!”

Spruce called back firmly, “We will never surrender to you, vermin, and you know it!”

Bloodskull smiled. “Very well then. I have given you many chances and now you leave me no choice. If you do not surrender immediately.... then I will burn your precious Abbey to the ground!”

The archers raised their fire arrows and the front vermin held their torches high, ready to throw. There were a few moments of stunned silence as all of the Redwallers looked desperately at Spruce. The squirrel chieftain stared in silent horror at the hundreds of bright flames that lit up the Abbey grounds.

Skipper whispered frantically to him, “He's bluffing Spruce; don't listen to him!”

Spruce continued to stare down at the fires. “No, he's not bluffing.”

The big otter clenched his paws. “But why would he destroy what he's after? Why would he burn down the Abbey if that's what he wants?”

Spruce took a deep breath before replying. His voice was shaky, “Bloodskull is no longer after the Abbey. For him this has become solely a vengeance quest. The only thing he wants is all of us dead.”

“I grow weary of your indecision squirrel!” Bloodskull roared, “If you don't make a choice soon, then I will make it for you!”

Spruce decided to call it a bluff. “You're lying vermin! You'd never burn down the Abbey if it's what you're after!”

The warlord's reply was tinged with evil glee, “Wouldn't I?”

Spruce now knew for sure that Bloodskull was not playing any games here; this was for real.

The black ferret spoke again, “Oh how ironic it would be if the big, safe, impenetrable walls of your dear Abbey became the big, safe, impenetrable walls of your roasting oven!”

Skipper turned to Corkly. “Get everybeast down to the cellars; it'll probably be the only safe place. Hurry!” The hare saluted and took off.

Bloodskull continued his taunting, “And what about the babes and young ones and the elderly? You don't want to see them all roasted alive because of your stubbornness, do you?”

Spruce's anger grew. He shouted back, “No, but if we do surrender then they'll all be slain by your stinking vermin! We know your tricks!”

Bloodskull laughed. “But of course! So it's a win-win situation for me. But for you on the other claw... it's death or death! Now choose!”

Spruce turned to Skipper. The big otter gripped his sling tight. “We have no choice but to rush them head on. Many of us'll be slain, but we can't give up Redwall or let it be burned!”

Spruce Longbrush took a deep breath and shouted down, “Alright Bloodskull, you win! We'll come down to give our surrender to you!”

Morfelg Bloodskull snarled, “Come down? What makes you think that I'll let you come down? If you truly surrender then throw your weapons out of that window and open your doors, but stay up there! I know what you're trying to do; I'm not stupid!”

Skipper growled under his breath, “He called our bluff...”

Spruce's mind was racing. His eyes were fixed on the rows of flickering flames that surrounded the Abbey. Corkly came running up. “Everybeast is down in the cellars sah!” Abbot Fernald followed behind the hare.

Spruce looked pleadingly at him and, with one glance out the window, the old dormouse knew the situation. He gave a sad nod and said, rather shakily, “Do what you must Spruce, but I will not have my Abbey taken over by those evil ones. I would rather it be destroyed. I leave the rest to you.”

The squirrel turned to his fellow defenders. By the look in his eyes they all knew what he was going to do. Skipper's face was grim as he gave a slight nod of agreement. Corkly saluted smartly with his window pole and stood tall, like an officer of the Long Patrol. Spruce looked down at his young daughter and her friend. “Go down into the cellars, both of you.” he said firmly. Tears streamed down Oakflower's face as she replied, “No father, I will stay here with Redwall to the last.” Barktail nodded and wrapped an arm around the squirrelmaid.

Spruce gave a deep sigh and turned out again to the window. He glared down at the waiting vermin horde and shouted, “We will never let murdering scum like you take control of our Abbey! We would rather have it be destroyed than let it be a refuge of evil!”

Morfelg Bloodskull narrowed his eyes and nodded, as though he had expected this answer. Then he turned his back to the Abbey building and strode a few paces away. With a wave of his hook he said, loud enough for everybeast within the walls to hear: “Burn it to the ground!”

Chapter 34

Wengle yawned and stretched as he awoke early that morning. He rubbed his eyes and wondered why his dormitory bedroom was so dark, when he remembered all that had taken place. He looked down and saw that his three friends were all still asleep, although Rodala had fallen off of him and lay curled up on the floor. Wengle looked around. Vythran was nowhere to be seen.

The otter's first thoughts were that the wildcat had betrayed them and was sending word about them to Bloodskull or some hidden army. But all of this was banished when he heard Vythran's voice from near the back of the cave, “Ah, I see that you have awakened.”

Wengle stood up, careful not to stir his companions, and walked over to where Vythran Smythfang sat at a stool, stirring some sort of food over an open stove.

Wengle sighed and nodded. When his eyes fell upon the huge wildcat, the story that had been related the night before came back to him, as did the many questions that Wengle longed to ask. The young otter waited a few moments as Vythran poured his mixture onto a flat pan and let it settle. “Fresh hotcakes. There's nothing like them.” Vythran said, “Now,” he turned to Wengle, “what is it that you wanted to ask of me?”

Wengle could feel the piercing eyes bore into him as he stammered his surprise, “How- how did you know, sir?”

Vythran gave a glimmer of a smile. “I could tell by the way that you stood by me. I did not think that you wanted to know my recipe for hotcakes.”

Wengle smiled a little and took a deep breath before asking the question that he been burning into his mind all through his wakened hours of the night, “Sir Vythran, um, well... I wanted to know why you did it.”

Vythran stared at him, his eyes devoid of emotion. “Why I did what?”

The otter gulped and stroked his sword nervously. “Why did you help him? Bloodskull I mean.”

There was a long, tense pause that followed. Vythran continued to stare at Wengle, much to the latter's discomfort. Finally the wildcat spoke, “I have met many beasts in my life. Some strong, others weak; be that of mind, body, or soul. I have also seen that it is the strong that survive. The ones strong of soul may help the weak to survive, but that is not often. Strength is something to be admired, something to be attained. Morfelg Bloodskull is one such strong individual.”

Wengle blurted out, “But he is evil! He slaughters innocent creatures and doesn't care at all for other's lives! You call that admirable?!” Wengle was surprised at his own outburst.

Vythran frowned. “It is not my job to judge a creature's heart. I have seen both good and evil prevail back and forth, but only strength wins the battles. Whether a creature uses that strength for good will, or evil, is up to them.”

Wengle could hardly believe his ears. Couldn't Vythran see that what he did by helping Bloodskull had caused endless amounts of pain and suffering for many creatures? The young warrior's face hardened as he said firmly, “I mean no disrespect sir, but you are wrong. Good will always prevail. I have seen it in my life and in the lives of many others. Evil may win battles, but good always wins the ultimate war.”

Vythran's unblinking eyes stared hard at Wengle for a moment, then the wildcat shrugged. “Very well Wengle the Warrior. You may believe what you want to. But if you want to win this war I suggest that you get your friends up and going. Morfelg isn't going to wait for your return.”

Wengle took a deep breath and nodded. He turned and strode over to his friends who were slowly waking up. Riddy smiled groggily up at him. “Hey there Wengle mate. Is that food I smell?”

Wengle ignored him as his brain pounded with thoughts. Could he really trust Vythran anymore? Why was the wildcat so flippant about evil creatures? His train of thought was broken with Riddy shaking him by the shoulders. “Wengle, what's the matter?”

The otter shook his head as if to brush away a dream and said, “Uh... nothing Riddy. I'm just still a little tired.”

After a few minutes they were all awake and eating a breakfast of hotcakes with honey and blackberries. Wengle remained silent throughout the meal, trying to avoid eye contact with Vythran, but the wildcat acted as though nothing had occurred; although it was hard to tell, as he was normally impassive about most things.

After they had finished, Rodala said, “That was a fine meal Mister Vythran!”

Riddy and Gurry agreed and Vythran merely gave a small nod in reply. Gurry turned to Wengle. “Are we goin' to leave today?”

The young otter nodded. “Yes. This morning actually. We want to get back to Redwall as fast as possible.”

Riddy frowned in thought. “It'll be a long way down the mountain. Probably harder than coming up.”

Vythran spoke, “I have a solution to that, but I'll show you it later. Right now I want you to all be fully equipped for your journey and inevitable battle ahead.”

He led them to his armory and motioned to the walls lined with weapons and armor. “You may choose anything on these walls. Show me your choices and I'll approve of them. Go on, take as many weapons as you please.”

Riddy, Rodala, and Gurry stepped forward in awe, but Wengle stayed back. Vythran glanced at him and asked, “You do not want anything else?”

The otter smiled slightly and patted the sword of Martin. “No thank you sir. This is all that I need.”

Riddy had traded his small, curved sword for a pair of short, but deadly, rapiers. Gurry dropped his old spear and took a small pike and a long dagger with an ornately crafted hilt. Rodala found a jar of small metal balls and held it up to Vythran. “What is this, sir?” she asked.

Vythran looked down at it. “Ah, those are tiny balls of Binesteel that I made specially for a sling. They are smaller than an average pebble, but their strength and power makes them lethal weapons.”

Rodala opened the jar and was going to pick some out, but the wildcat said, “You may take the entire jar if you'd like.”

The ottermaid smiled at him. “Thank you sir!” She poured the black metal balls into a leather pouch at her side and said in a surprised voice, “These feel lighter than pebbles!” V

ythran stroked a Binesteel ax-head on the wall as he replied, “That is the beauty of Binesteel. It is stronger than iron, but as light as wood.”

Rodala also chose a light lance to add to her weaponry and the three stepped back to admire their new armament. Riddy turned to Wengle. “Don't you want something Wengle matey?”

The otter shook his head. “No, I prefer my sword. I just got it back after all and I can't wait to use it once again!”

After a few moments of silence, Vythran said, “I'll get you some provisions and then I'll show you the easier exit from my mountain.”

After they had been loaded up with food and supplies enough for two days journey, Vythran brought them to the back of his cave. They walked past the great forge, which blazed continually. The huge anvil and bellows awed the four young friends as they went by. They went further down along the cave and they saw that it seemed to go out forever. Vythran lit a torch and they stepped carefully into the darkness of the tunnel. The four friends could see tools and other implements lying along the walls.

Vythran spoke the answer to their unspoken questions. “As you can see this is a mine and I do some of the mining myself. Sometimes I hire workers, but right now I have all the metal I need. Now, that door should be around here somewhere... Ah ha!”

They came upon an old iron door in the wall face and Vythran pushed on the rusty handle. It creaked open and they peered into the cobweb-filled gloom. The wildcat turned to them. “I recently discovered this tunnel. It leads all the way down the mountains and out near the pine grove. I think that the badgers might have built it as an escape tunnel. I have been through here several times so I know the way. Just follow me.” Then he bent through the doorway and crept down the black tunnel.

After a nod of approval from Wengle, Riddy and Gurry followed. Wengle took a deep breath and went in with Rodala clinging close beside him.

They traveled along the dark, stony tunnel, always keeping an eye on the flickering light ahead. Occasionally they saw spiders, crickets, and other crawlies along the walls and floor, but other than that there was no sign of life.

After a long descent, they finally came out of the tunnel and out into the open sunlight, just a few yards away from where they started their ascent. Their eyes burned as the blazing light of the late morning sun shone down through the pines and rocks.

Vythran stood to the side of the exit and impassively watched as Wengle and his companions breathed in the fresh air, laughing and sighing in joy.

Wengle turned to Vythran and saluted. “Vythran sir, we thank you for your kindness and hospitality to us.”

The wildcat gave a nod as though dismissing the thanks and said, “Those crows shouldn't harm you. They're still nervous about the Darkblades coming through again.”

Wengle nodded and turned to his friends. “Well mates,” he said, “are you ready to go save Redwall?”

Riddy whipped his new blades in the air and shouted, “We're with you Wengle! For Redwaaaaall!”

Gurry and Rodala raised their weapons and repeated, “For Redwaaaaaall!”

Wengle turned back to Vythran to see his reaction, but the mysterious wildcat was gone, back into the gloomy tunnel that lead up to his cavern forge. Wengle sighed and started of through the pine grove with his three friends.

They got through the forest with little trouble, for Vythran was correct, the black birds were still skittish about the Darkblades' slaughtering. After they emerged from the pine forest, they looked back up at the high gray mountains behind them, and then back at the road ahead that led into Mossflower Woods..... and to Redwall Abbey.

High atop the cliff near his cave, Vythran Smythfang watched as the four minute figures trekked down the path far below. The wildcat gave a slight smile and whispered, “Good luck Wengle the Warrior. You're going to need it.” Then he turned and strode back into his dark cave.

“Aw, Wengle, can't we rest for even one little bit?” Gurry groaned, “Me legs are killin' me!”

The four travelers had been going for hours, and now the hot noon sun beat mercilessly down on them.

Wengle growled back to the rat but kept his face forward. “We will not stop until we reach Redwall.”

Rodala came panting up alongside Wengle and glared at him. “Listen Wengle, we need to stop. Riddy and Gurry are really tired and so am I. Besides, what're we gonna do when we get back there all dead tired and moaning? How're we gonna get through the vermin, eh?”

Wengle saw her reasoning and he nodded reluctantly. “Alright. We'll stop and rest for a little bit, but not too long. We need to get to Redwall as soon as we can.”

They stopped and sat down under the shade of a large oak, guzzling their water and nibbling a bit of food. But the noonday heat took it's toll and soon they we all four fast asleep.

Images flashed through Wengle's head as he traveled through the realm of slumber. He saw his family living happily on his old island home; he saw his victory over the enemies of seasons past, and his coming to be a Redwall Champion. Then he saw Morfelg Bloodskull and his savage horde smashing, slaughtering, and burning their way through Mossflower.... burning.... burning.... Suddenly the image of a powerful-looking mouse in armor appeared in his mind. It was Martin the Warrior. His voice was strong and commanding, yet filled with grief and urgency: “Wengle, awaken from your sleep and continue your journey, for Redwall Abbey is in great danger....” Then Martin was gone, and in his place was Bloodskull, laughing maniacally as he stood high above the smoldering ruins of Redwall.

Wengle's eyes snapped open and he leaped up, his eyes wide with horror. A scream of rage almost tore itself from his throat but he held it back. He looked down at his sleeping friends and shook them awake, shouting hoarsely, “Riddy, Gurry, Rodala! Get up now! We need to go fast; Redwall is in great danger!”

As soon as they heard those words, they were all wide awake. Riddy stared at him. “How do you know mate?” Wengle gulped and quickly put on his haversack. “Martin the Warrior spoke to me in a dream. Bloodskull is closer to conquering Redwall than we think! He might even be inside the grounds!”

They all took off at a fast trot down the path, not stopping for anything. Soon they came to the small hillock where they had spent the night on their journey out. Gurry cried hopefully, “We're more than halfway there!”

Then Wengle broke into a run. His three companions tried to catch up to him, but they were left behind. The young otter ground his teeth together as he charged forward recklessly, trying to draw his sword as he ran. Finally he caught sight of the high bell-tower of Redwall Abbey far off in the distance. Wengle stumbled on an exposed root and fell crashing to the ground. He lay there, panting, as his friends came running up.

Riddy and Rodala helped him up and the shrew frowned at him. “Why'd you leave us behind mate?”

Wengle's body was convulsing with fatigue and fury. He stood up and clenched his paws tight, gasping, “I can't let those filthy vermin conquer my Abbey!”

Rodala grabbed his paw. “You mean we can't. Listen Wengle, we're all in this together, and I don't care if you are the Warrior of Redwall; you need our help!”

Wengle sighed and bowed his head. “I'm sorry mates. But it is my duty to protect Redwall and I feel that I should be doing that as soon as I can.”

Riddy patted the otter's shoulder. “That's alright matey; we understand. Now, we need to get going, but slower now. We don't want the vermin to know we're here!” They started off down the road again at a slower pace. But all four of them had their weapons drawn and ready for use.

It was in the early evening, right about the time when Bloodskull issued his terms of surrender, when the four travelers reached the path just outside of the Abbey. Gurry's eyes widened as he looked around at the deserted plain and forest. “By the fur! The horde is gone!”

Riddy gulped and turned towards the Abbey. “Then that means....” Suddenly he grabbed Gurry and Rodala by the arms and dove into the ditch by the road. He hissed to Wengle, “Get down! There's vermin on the walls!”

Wengle leaped into the ditch and peered over the edge. Sure enough, several vermin, mostly Pineshadows, were patrolling the western wall-top, although they seemed to be focusing their attention towards the Abbey.

Rodala looked at Wengle in fear. “Those vermin took over Redwall!”

Wengle ground his teeth together and silently glared up at the vermin on the walls. Suddenly he turned to his friends. “We need to get in there.”

Gurry stammered, “B-but the whole horde is in there! They took over the Abbey!”

Before Wengle could reply, he was interrupted by a loud hissing noise that came from the Abbey. They all turned and saw bits of flames shoot up into the air. Wengle growled and said to Rodala. “Take out those guards with your sling. After that we go in, so listen closely to me....”

Chapter 35

Sheets of flame licked up the red-stone walls of the Abbey as the torch-bearing vermin made their move. Spruce yelled to his fellow defenders, “Everybeast duck!”

They all dropped low to the floor as fiery arrows hissed up into the window. Several creatures were hit, but most of the missiles struck the floor, walls, and furniture.

Spruce roared, “Run down to the kitchens and get some water or flour or something to help put it out! Now!” Several squirrels and otters raced out the door to do as they were bidden. Spruce threw himself in front of Abbot Fernald as a new rain of arrows streaked in through the window. “Father Abbot,” the squirrel said frantically, “we need to get you out of here!”

Fernald grasped Spruce's paw and said firmly, “No, my friend, I will stay with my Abbey to the last!” Spruce turned to Skipper, and by the look in the otter's eyes, he could tell that they were thinking the same thing.

The flickering firelight glinted off of Morfelg Bloodskull's dark eyes as he watched the attack with glee. Skarva spoke a question that she had been wondering about for some time, “Lord, why are we attacking a stone fortress with fire? Stone does not burn.”

Bloodskull lashed out at her with his hook, but she was wisely out of reach. He snarled, “Didn't you hear me before? Those stones will act as an oven, heating up until they're all cooked to a crisp inside their own Abbey! They only have two choices: Be roasted to death, or come out and fight. And my archers will be ready and waiting for them if they do!”

The creatures sent to get the flour came racing back carrying buckets and bowls filled with it. At Spruce's command, they flung the white powder over the largest flames, but it did little good. More arrows came flying up through the window, and the heat from the fires was too much. Spruce roared, “Everybeast out of the room!”

They all dashed out the door and slammed it shut as they left. Spruce found that almost every window in the Abbey was filled with flaming arrows. Smoke poured down the stairway and they choked and coughed as they ran hither and thither, trying to figure out a way of defense.

The sound of the crackling flames, the hissing of arrows, and the moans of the wounded rang in Oakflower's ears and she couldn't bear it any longer. She tripped on the stairwell and fell to the ground, gasping and wiping tears from her face. Barktail bent down to help her, but she suddenly leaped up, grabbed her bow, and dashed down the stairs towards Great Hall.

Spruce pounded after her, shouting, “Oakflower! Come back!” He finally caught up with her in Great Hall and he grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around. Tears of rage and fear streaked down the young squirrelmaid's face as she struggled to reach the door. “Father let me go! I'd rather die fighting the vermin than be burned or choked to death in here!”

Spruce's face was hard as he replied, “Listen Oakflower, we can't open those doors! If we do then those vermin will come in here and we'll be slaughtered! Listen to me daughter! We can't lose hope! We can win this one!”

Oakflower buried her face in his chest, sobbing. Suddenly they both heard the sound of scattered pounding, like rain drops on metal. They both whirled towards the large oaken door that was the only way in and out of the Abbey. Tendrils of smoke seeped in through the cracks and a flickering glow could be seen behind it.

It was at that moment when Skipper, Corkly, and the rest came racing down the stairs. They all stared in horror as some flaming chips of wood flew off the door and more smoke poured in.

Outside the door, Torkan waved his swords, roaring to the attacking vermin, “Keep pounding! We've almost got it!” Archers fired flaming arrows into the door as more vermin pounded on it with pikes and spears.

Bloodskull watched with insane joy as the vermin continued to smash down the door. Ultimate victory was within his grasp!

Spruce looked at Skipper. The big otter held his lance and sling tight and nodded.

Spruce notched an arrow to his bow and aimed in at the doorway. He glanced at his daughter, who had done the same, and he said, “Well Oakflower, it looks like we will fight after all...” Then he yelled, “Don't let one stinking vermin paw get through that door! We'll go down fighting if we have to!”

Corkly whipped his pole out and ordered, “Get to the sides chaps, and form in ranks! They'll have archers at the door to take us out first!” T

hey all formed lines along the sides of the door, every squirrel with a loaded bow and every otter and Redwaller with their weapons held ready.

Suddenly the door splintered open in a shower of sparks and flaming wood. Corkly was indeed correct; this was followed by a hail of arrows that hissed in through the doorway. But none found their mark.

Spruce roared, “Now! Chaaaaarge! For Redwaaaaaaaall!” The band of Redwall defenders charged through the doorway of the Abbey to meet the enemy head-on.

Bloodskull laughed aloud as the Abbey door was finally smashed through, “Ha! I have them now! Even if they come out to fight, we'll butcher them to pieces!”

Just then the defenders came pouring out of the doorway. The attacking vermin were taken by surprise and most of them fell without a fight.

Corkly rammed his window pole into a weasel's throat and shouted, “Form ranks chaps! Archers in back! We'll keep the scummy blighters back all flippin' season if we have to!”

The first two ranks of Redwallers and ottercrew charged forward, their weapons swinging. The Longbrush squirrel dropped back and knelt down, firing arrows over the heads of the first ranks and into the crowds of vermin.

Bloodskull screeched, “Destroy them! Smash them! Kiiiiiillll!”

Then the Pineshadows came onto the scene. Screaming and howling like demons, the savages pine martens leaped over the first two ranks of defenders and fell upon their hated enemies, the Longbrush squirrels.

Spruce released an arrow straight into the mouth of a screeching Pineshadow and leaped back as the body came crashing down. He knew that they couldn't hold their ranks much longer. The Pineshadows were like savage kamikazes as they threw themselves into the weapons of the defenders.

Spruce fired off another shaft and roared to Skipper, “We can't hold them back for long! We need to break up and take them in the open!”

The big otter lashed out with his sling, taking down two vermin in the single blow, and called back, “Keep your squirrels here to guard the door! I'm taking my ottercrew out!” Suddenly he leaped up over the heads of the vermin, roaring, “Whupperyhoo!! Come on ottercrew! Let's send some vermin ter Hellgates! Whupperyhoo!” The otters charged forward and collided with the vermin force.

Bloodskull paced in the background, screaming to his horde and lashing out at them with his weapons. Suddenly he whirled on his two Darkblades. “Go in there, both of you! Rip them to shreds! But bring to me that leader squirrel; I want him alive!”

Skarva and Torkan nodded and swept into the battlefield, their Binesteel blades flashing dully in the firelight.

Spruce Longbrush fought back-to-back with Oakflower and Barktail, all three whirling in circles and firing off arrows like a deadly windmill. Barktail wiped blood from his face and gasped, “We can't hold them off much longer!”

Spruce grabbed a vermin spear that was thrust towards him and drove into the ground before taking out it's owner with a swift arrow. “We must try as best we can,” he said, “We can't let Redwall down!”

Then he saw Torkan and Skarva, ripping their way through the battle towards him. Without regard for his own safety, he shove the two young squirrels back towards the broken Abbey door, shouting, “Get in there! Hurry! Now!”

They took off just as the two Darkblades swooped in on Spruce. The big squirrel lashed out at them with his bow, but with an expert flick of his sword, Torkan sent the bow flying from Spruce's grasp. Spruce kicked and slashed out at them, but Skarva came up behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck, her round blades pressing against his throat. “Don't move,” she hissed, “or I'll slice your throat open!”

Spruce's eyes glinted savagely. “Go ahead and try, vermin!” he snarled, “I'm not scared of you or your leader!”

Skarva pressed the blades deeper into his flesh and whispered, “Oh, you will be!”

Oakflower turned around to see what became of her father, and when she saw the two Darkblades close in on him, she screamed and tore back towards him. Barktail tried to grab her, but she was already gone. He screamed, “Oakflower! NO!” Barktail struggled to reach her, but he was caught in the midst of the raging battle.

The squirrelmaid threw herself through the air and slammed into Skarva, knocking both the ferret and Spruce to the ground. Spruce's quick reflexes saved him as he ducked low out of Skarva's grasp, narrowly missing the blades.

Skarva rolled to the side and leaped up again, snarling. Torkan ripped his saw-edged blades out at Oakflower, but Spruce rammed into him, sending the black rat staggering backward.

Suddenly Skarva roared, “Don't move squirrel, or she's dead!”

Spruce whirled around to see the black ferret with her blades held at Oakflower's throat. Spruce struggled to get at them, but Torkan pulled him back.

Skarva smiled evilly. “Now are you going to come with us, squirrel?”

“There's no need to...” a menacing voice came from behind them.

They turned to see Morfelg Bloodskull standing over the body of a dead otter, his deadly mace-and-chain swinging back and forth. He nodded at Spruce. “So you're the brave leader of the Redwall defenders, eh? Hah! Some defenders!”

Spruce knew that Skipper and Corkly were either too far were out on the battlefield to see the situation.... or dead.

Bloodskull motioned with his hook for Torkan to bring Spruce forward. The Darkblade held the squirrel's head down in front of Bloodskull, still holding the jagged blades at Spruce's throat. The warlord gently stroked the squirrel's head with his hook, hissing softly, “Well it looks like I won. Too bad for you. You were a worthy opponent, squirrel; but now you will be a dead one....” He raised the spiked ball high to give a powerful, killing blow.

Oakflower screamed and struggled to get to her father, but Skarva held her tight. Then, just as Bloodskull was about to swing his weapon down, a loud cry came from the eastern wall: “Reeeeeeeedwaaaaaaaaaaaaalllll!!”

Chapter 36

Time seemed to slow down as everybeast instantly stopped what they were doing and looked towards the wall. Four figures came charging through the broken gateway, roaring in a mighty voice, “Reeeeeedwaaaaaaall!”

Bloodskull's mouth dropped open, and Oakflower gasped, “It's Wengle!”

Over by the southern wall, Corkly shouted, “What ho! It's Wengle the Warrior comin' back to the rescue! You get 'em Wengle old lad! Reeeeeedwaaaaaall!”

Wengle the Warrior pounded through the battlefield, his eyes blazing and the mighty sword of Martin cleaving any enemy in his path.

Riddy's twin rapiers slashed, ripped, and stabbed about like a whirlwind of death.

Rodala's loaded sling crushed bones, skulls, and weapons as the small Binesteel balls did their work.

Even Gurry came charging through the fray and pole-vaulted over the enemy with his pike, slashing down with his dagger and roaring.

But each of the four victorious questers were looking for their own quarries: Gurry searched desperately for his brother, Rodala for her father, Riddy for a fight, and Wengle for Morfelg Bloodskull.

Spruce kicked up at the shocked Torkan and twisted out of his grasp. The squirrel threw himself at Skarva and Oakflower with a burst of renewed energy. Skarva barely had time to recover when Spruce slammed into her, grabbed her arms, and pried them back from his daughter's neck. Oakflower dropped to the ground and raced towards the four oncoming warriors, shouting, “Reeeeedwaaaaaall!”

Bloodskull silently cursed himself for not heeding Zelkor's warning, and slunk back into the shadows. He knew that the warrior otter was looking for him. And Morfelg Bloodskull would be ready and waiting.

Spruce knew that he couldn't fight both Darkblades unarmed, so he dodged out of their reach and raced after his daughter. Skarva and Torkan were at a loss of what to do. These new reinforcements had come out of nowhere, Bloodskull had disappeared, and the Redwall defenders now fought with the knowledge of hope.

Skarva turned to the rat. “Take out the leaders! That is the only way we can stop them right now!” Torkan nodded and slid off. Skarva searched around for her brother, but Bloodskull was nowhere to be seen.

The sword of Martin the Warrior ripped through the vermin like a scythe in a wheat-field. Wengle could feel the blood pounding in his head as the rage of battle overcame him. He had to find Bloodskull. Slaying his arch-enemy was the only thing on the young warrior's mind. He ignored his companions as they charged past him into the fray.

Gurry tried to hold back his tears as he thought of his brother. Had he already been slain? Where was he? The rat saw many faces in the battle that he recognized; fellow horde-vermin not long ago. Now they were his enemies.

Meanwhile, down in the cellars of Redwall Abbey, Bilur and Ragtail sat with the rest of the Redwallers who did not go out to fight. The two vermin were in a state of terror, as they were certain that Bloodskull would win the battle, and they would suffer a horrible death at his claw for being traitors.

Suddenly the battlecry of Wengle and his three companions rent through the air and echoed around the Abbey. Friar Dobble's eyes grew wide as he recognized the voice. “That's Wengle! He's returned!”

Nela Brookrudder cried, “Oh my Wengle! I do hope he's safe...”

Bilur sat straight up. “Wait... is that who Gurry went with?”

The Friar nodded. “Aye, it is-”

Before anybeast had time to think, Bilur was up and racing out the door, yelling, “Gurry! Gurry, liddle matey, don't worry! I'm comin'!”

Ragtail ran after him. “Hoi, wait fer me mate!”

Even though he was pinned back against the southern wall, Corkly G. Battlescut had caused considerable damage on the vermin he was facing. Many of them lay wounded or dead on the ground around him, with broken limbs and fractured skulls. The hare had been injured several times, but he still fought on, his powerful hind legs and expert boxing skills taking a toll on the enemy.

He did not notice Torkan the Darkblade rat sneaking up behind him until it was too late. Corkly socked a weasel in the jaw with a hard upper-cut and kicked it out of the way, mocking and taunting the vermin around him, “Come on you stinky, rotten cads, are you flippin' well thirsty? Cause here's some punch courtesy of Corkly G. Battlescut, wot!”

Suddenly Torkan leaped out at him from behind. The hare heard the cold rasp of the rat's blades and he whirled around. Torkan slashed out at him from the right and Corkly ducked the strike, but the Darkblade's other sword came in on the left and ripped a gash across the hare's shoulder. Corkly winced and took a step back, muttering, “So you want to play, eh? Then come on old Darktrousers, let's play, wot!”

Torkan came onward, his blades flashing. Corkly suddenly leaped into the rat, hind legs first, and roared, “Euuulaaaliiiiaaaaa!”

The hare's strong hind legs connected with the Darkblade's head, and Torkan went sprawling back, his swords flying from his paws. There was a sickening crack as Torkan's head struck the hard stone wall and he slid lifeless to the ground.

Corkly spat out blood and smirked, “Well there's one less Darkthingy to terrorize Mossflower, wot!”

Bilur burst through the broken and smoldering Abbey door, followed by Ragtail. The rat whirled about, desperately looking for his brother. Then he saw him over by the eastern wall. The little rat was grappling with a Pineshadow, and he was losing.

Bilur charged out onto the battlefield and across the blood-strewn lawn to where his brother was, shouting, “Gurry, hang on, I'm comin'!”

Argroo the weasel slunk back in the shadows, trying to avoid being caught in the open. He had seen Gurry come charging into the Abbey, and now he had set his mind on one thing: Slaying the little rat.

At Bilur's cry, the weasel looked up and saw the rat running across the grounds towards Gurry. Argroo grinned wickedly and gripped his javelin tight. A double-killing would be nice too....

When he heard his brother's cry, Gurry peered over his attacker's shoulder and gasped in astonishment, “Bilur?!”

The Pineshadow suddenly knocked him to the ground and was about to finish him off, when Bilur came charging up and slammed into him. Gurry held his pike out and the Pineshadow fell heavily upon it.

Bilur helped his brother to heave the carcass off of him and then Gurry stood up and they stared at each other. The little rat repeated in disbelief, “Bilur?! You're alive!”

Bilur embraced his little brother and sobbed, “Oh Gurry liddle matey, I'm so glad that yer safe!”

“Aw, how sweet! I think I'm gonna cry! Heeheehee!”

They both looked up and saw Argroo standing directly behind them, a smug, evil grin on his face. Bilur snarled in rage and leaped in front of his brother. “Argroo! You filthy scum-brained....”

The weasel waved his javelin and mocked, “Now, now, watch the language! Now that your a goody-goody, you shouldn't talk like that, eh?”

Bilur glared at Argroo with cold hatred. “I swore that I'd kill you someday,” he ground out, “an' that day is now!”

Argroo sneered, “Oh really? Well I've got the weapon don't I? So who's gonna be doin' the killing, eh?”

Before either of the two rats could move, Argroo raised his javelin, hissing, “Maybe I can get ya both in one shot!”

With a scream of rage Bilur sprang forward. In his sudden panic, Argroo hurled the javelin out.

Gurry was struck with speechless horror as he stared at the end of the javelin that protruded from his brother's back.

Bilur gave a painful groan and crumpled to the ground. Argroo yanked the javelin out of the rat's body and raised it again, snarling triumphantly, “You're next, runt!”

Suddenly a voice came from behind the weasel: “Hey there scumbag! Why don't you try pickin' on someone your own size?”

Argroo turned and saw Rodala standing behind him, her loaded sling slowly whirling back and forth. The weasel's eyes widened with recognition, then he narrowed them in contempt. “I remember you! You're that feisty liddle ottermaid that we caught!”

Rodala smirked, “And I remember your ugly face too, weasel! That's my javelin your holding if you remember....”

Argroo held it in a battle stance and snarled, “Try an' take it then, otter!” He charged forward and struck out with it, but Rodala whipped her sling down and wrapped it around the handle. She yanked back and sent the javelin flying from the vermin's paws.

Argroo lunged for it, but Rodala swung down her sling in a wide arc. There was a hollow crunch as the Binesteel ball in the loaded sling smashed down on Argroo's skull. The lifeless weasel slumped to the ground on top of the coveted javelin.

Rodala shoved the body aside and picked up her javelin. She stroked the hardwood handle lovingly, and sighed. “I've finally got you again!”

She was about to rush over and help Gurry, when a sinister voice suddenly sounded from behind her, “Why thankee missy; I've been lookin' for that!”

She spun around just in time as a cutlass slashed down at her. She blocked it with the javelin but another blade swung around and sliced into her leg. She dropped the javelin with a cry of pain and fell to the ground.

Borskan the Ruthless stepped in through the doorway of the eastern wall-gate and snatched up the javelin. He was about to finish off Rodala, when he suddenly looked up and his face blanched in fright. The fox turned and raced off into the woods.

Rodala looked up in surprise to see her father come roaring towards her and race out the door after Borskan.

Tears poured down Gurry's face as he knelt by his dying brother. “Oh Bilur!” he sobbed, “Why'd you have to do it? Why?”

Bilur looked up at his younger brother with cloudy eyes and gasped painfully, “Cause... cause you're me brother.... an' I.... I care for ye...”

Ragtail came panting up and when he saw his mortally wounded friend, his eyes grew wide in horror and he sat down next to Gurry in stunned silence.

Bilur gave a groan of pain and reached up to clasp his little brother's paw. “I... I'm sorry for all the times I was cruel an' harsh to ye... I hope you can forgive me, brother....”

Gurry gulped back tears and nodded. “Of course I will.... I always knew that you were a good beast....”

Bilur gave a weak smile. “Thanks mate...” Suddenly he gasped in pain and, as his eyes started to mist over, he looked directly into Gurry's face and whispered, “I always did like you.... little matey...... I always did....” Then he let out a long sigh. It was his last breath.

Borskan charged through Mossflower Woods, away from Redwall. He had been watching the battle for some time, just waiting for a chance to kill Argroo and take back the javelin. He hadn't expected to be seen though, especially not by a big, maddened otter. He could hear Skipper's deep rasping breath behind him, coming closer and closer, and he ran with further speed. A plan slowly formed in the wily fox's mind. Just a little bit farther and he would be safe....

Skipper pounded along the forest floor after Borskan. The big otter would stop at nothing to slay the fox that had attacked his daughter, and to get back the javelin.... It was too valuable to let some filthy vermin have it.

As he ran, Skipper whirled his loaded sling around and let fly at the fox. Borskan gave a yelp as the missile struck his upper leg and he stumbled. Skipper was on him in an instant. The otter and the fox rolled around in the loam and mud, each trying to gain control of their weapons. Skipper had knocked one of Borskan's cutlasses out of his paw in the fall, and the fox struggled to get at his other blade. Skipper grabbed onto the javelin and pulled back hard, but Borskan was strong. The fox panted as they wrestled and he peered over his shoulder. He grinned wickedly and suddenly leaped up, knocking Skipper away from him, but losing the javelin. The otter went staggering back, and suddenly fell into the ground with a watery schlump! Skipper Roral struggled to free himself as he looked around frantically. Borskan had led him into a swampland.

The fox stood on the edge of the mire, chuckling evilly. He reach out a paw as if to help Skipper out, and said, “Oh, poor otter, looks like yer stuck, eh? Don't worry, I can help ye if'n you hands me the javelin.”

Skipper tried stabbing the weapon into the ground to leaver himself up, but the mud crumbled away.

Borskan smirked and spoke again, “Give me the weapon an' I'll help you out!”

Roral grunted, “Why should I trust a vermin like you?”

The fox laughed. “Good question! Why should you, eh? But it's either you trust me and give me the javelin, or sink in this here swamp! So choose!”

Skipper was now up to his neck in the thick mud, but he held his arms free of it, still gripping the javelin tight. The otter sighed. “Alright. Here ye are...” He held the weapon out and Borskan grabbed onto it.

Quick as lightning, Skipper yanked the javelin back, sending the fox crashing into the swamp next to him. Borskan snarled in anger as he struggled to get out and he jumped at Skipper with a roar. The otter grabbed onto the fox's shoulders and heaved himself higher out of the mud, driving Borskan down further as well. The fox gave a sickening gurgle as he sunk beneath the marsh, still struggling.

Skipper then rammed his javelin into some firm ground and heaved himself out. He was covered from head to tail in the thick, greenish-brown mud, but he was alive.

Suddenly a paw reached up out of the swamp and grabbed tight hold of his rudder-like tail. Skipper whirled around to see Borskan the Ruthless rising out of the swamp like some nightmarish mud-creature and reaching for the javelin. The mud-covered fox screeched, “Give me my javelin!”

Skipper growled, “You want it? Well you can have it!” He thrust it back behind him and felt it stab into the fox's body. Borskan the Ruthless gave a dying gasp and hung limp off the javelin where it protruded from his chest.

Skipper Roral pulled the weapon out and kicked the fox's carcass into the swamp where it slowly sank out of sight. The big otter wiped as much of the hardening mud off of him as he could, and raced back towards Redwall, his treasured javelin in paw.

Spruce Longbrush fought on with renewed strength. He was overjoyed at Wengle's safe return, but the battle still raged on. The vermin horde was being taken out drastically and they were weaking their fight, but it was mostly the Pineshadows that still fought with a savage fervor. From his knowledge of their barbaric ways, Spruce knew that if he slew their leader, the Pineshadows would start to lose their willingness to fight, as they had nothing to fight for.

The squirrel leader then spotted Yazrak, the Chief Guard of the Pineshadows, battling alongside his vermin. At least the Pineshadow leaders aren't cowards, Spruce thought. He notched an arrow in his bow, sighted on Yazrak, and fired.

The Chief Guard had seen him though, and he dodged behind another marten, the arrow that was meant for him burying itself in the unfortunate vermin's throat.

Spruce ground his teeth and ran closer to his target, another arrow in his bow. Yazrak knew that he had to get the squirrel in close-combat, so he leaped towards Spruce as well, ducking and dodging to avoid being hit. Before Spruce knew it, the pine marten was upon him.

Yazrak raised his adder-fang topped club high and jumped at the squirrel, screeching. Spruce raised his bow at the last minute and fired the shaft right between Yazrak's eyes. The Pineshadow dropped to the ground like a stone and Spruce dodged out of its way.

When the Pineshadows saw that their leader was dead, they fought with an even more savage ferocity, trying to get away from the battle and back into Mossflower. Spruce saw this and he rallied his Longbrush squirrels. “Keep them back!” he roared, “Don't let a single one escape these walls alive!”

Skarva had seen both Torkan and Yazrak go down, and she realized that the battle was all up to her now. She slashed her way through, searching out any one of the opposing leaders. Then she saw Riddy.

The young shrew was bleeding from a dozen places, but he still fought on, his twin rapiers whipping back and forth. Skarva slid through the battle towards him, all the while keeping out of sight. When she was directly behind him, she came forward, her round, razor-sharp blades glistening with blood. Riddy didn't see her coming until it was too late. Both round blades flashed down and struck him across the back. He whirled around with a grunt of pain and lashed out with his rapiers. Skarva expertly blocked each one, but the shrew was too fast for her to get a strike in herself.

Suddenly she stepped to the side and let Riddy plunge by her. The twin paw-blades hissed down and ripped deep across the back of the young shrew's neck. Riddy fell to the ground and Skarva kicked his limp body aside and turned to find her next victim.

But before she could move, two arrows came out of nowhere and thudded into her chest and throat. She swayed momentarily, then collapsed dead next to Riddy.

Oakflower and Barktail had seen Riddy fall, and they came charging up. Barktail notched another arrow to his bow and stood over Oakflower as she bent down next to the still form of Riddy. Tears coursed down her face as she gently brushed blood from his eyes.

The shrew's lips started to move slightly as if he was trying to speak. Oakflower leaned over and listened closely. Riddy's eyes flickered as he whispered, “Wengle.... kill..... Bloodskull.... his destiny.... Martin.... help him....”

Then he lay still. Oakflower gave a cry of sorrow and cradled the brave shrew's body as Barktail stood above them, gulping back tears and continually firing arrows into the fray.

Wengle Brookrudder did not see his friend fall, but he did see Rodala leaning against the wall and trying to hold back the bleeding of her leg. Wengle ran over to her, stabbed his bloodied sword into the ground and helped her up. The ottermaid looked up into his eyes and gasped. “Oh Wengle! A big fox, he attacked me and then my father chased him off into Mossflower....”

Suddenly she struggled to get out the door. “I have to go help my father!”

Wengle pulled her back and turned her face so that he stared directly into her eyes. “Your father can take care of himself, Rodala.” he said, “We need to get you inside the Abbey now!”

She nodded weakly and leaned on his shoulder as he picked up his sword and helped her across the battleground. When they reached the eastern wall of the Abbey building, Rodala suddenly gasped in pain and fell. Wengle picked her up and held her close, whispering, “I've got you...”

Rodala looked up into his face and said softly, “You want to know something Wengle the Warrior?”

The young otter stared at her blankly. “What?”

She bent upward and kissed his forehead, saying, “I love you.”

Wengle was taken completely aback. He stared at her for awhile and then stammered, “I... I love you too... Rodala.”

“Ah, young love; there's nothing like it!”

They both whirled around at the evil, mocking voice to see Morfelg Bloodskull standing against the wall behind them. His arms were drawn into his dark cloak and his black hood draped over his head so that his face was almost completely hidden. Resting on the three prongs of his outstretched hook was a large, red rose in full bloom.

He sniffed it lustily and gave a deep sigh of mock-contentment. “Oh for the joys, liberties, and liveliness of youth!” his voice suddenly dropped to a low and sinister tone, “It's just too bad that this sweet budding relationship must end so tragically!” He tossed the rose high into the air and watched it fall. Then faster than lightning he whipped out his deadly mace-and-chain and smashed the flower against the wall before it hit the ground. He pulled the weapon back and watched the mangled rose drop. Then he crushed the flower under his foot-paw, turned towards the two stunned otters, and gave a slow, devious smile.

Wengle had his sword pointing straight out before him and he stepped in front of Rodala. His voice was hard as ice, “Don't you dare touch her....”

Bloodskull smirked, “Oh don't worry Wengle, I won't touch her. Yet. But you on the other claw should be very concerned about saving your own hide.... because very soon I am going to be shredding it off of your body!”

As he spoke, the mace-and-chain started to whirl around, faster and faster, until it was a deadly blur of black metal.

Wengle suddenly charged forward with a scream of rage, his sword held out horizontally. Bloodskull made as if to strike with his mace, but suddenly slashed around with his hook. Wengle blocked it with the sword and the two weapons locked.

Bloodskull bent his head down to Wengle's and hissed, “This one won't end in a draw!”

“You're right about that, deformed outcast!” Wengle snarled back into his face.

Bloodskull grinned. “Ah, I see that my friend Vythran has enlightened you about my past! Well all the better for me I suppose.... since you now know that you face a Taggerung, the mightiest warrior of all!”

Wengle pushed his sword forward, driving Bloodskull's arm back. The black ferret then swung down with his mace, and Wengle brought his sword around to block it. The spiked ball struck the blade hard, sending painful vibrations up both combatant's arms. Then in one fluid motion Bloodskull wrapped the chain around the blade and yanked it upward. Wengle held on tight with both paws, but he was now exposed to the hook. As Bloodskull swung the hook around, Wengle lashed up with his legs and tail, blocking the blow. The hook caught around his footpaw and Bloodskull heaved him high into the air and slammed him hard against the wall.

Rodala gasped in terror and tried to run forward, but her muscles were stiff in fear.

Wengle grunted in pain and whipped his rudder out at his opponent before Bloodskull could smash him against the wall again. The ferret staggered back and the hook ripped away from Wengle's paw, gashing it deep, but freeing him. The otter fell, twisted the sword from Bloodskull's grasp and struck out at him again with a fury. Morfelg Bloodskull snarled viciously as he swung his spiked mace down again and again. But Wengle knocked away each blow as he drove the ferret away from the wall and Rodala. Bloodskull ducked low and lashed out his hook at Wengle's legs. The otter leaped back and that was when Bloodskull charged. He bulled into Wengle, sending him sprawling on the ground. Bloodskull raised the mace to strike again, but Wengle rolled out of the way and sprang up. He slashed out and the flat of his blade struck the ferret's legs. Bloodskull's breath rasped as he staggered back. He glared at Wengle, glanced behind his back, and charged at the otter. As Wengle prepared for the collision, Bloodskull leaped to the side and slashed out at him, forcing Wengle to back away. The young otter didn't realize that he was backing into a trap until it was too late.

Wengle stumbled on a protruding tree root and staggered back, but kept his balance. Then his back hit the wide tree behind him. Bloodskull gave a rasping laugh and charged forward, pinning Wengle against the trunk. The mace-and-chain whirred through the air straight at Wengle, and the otter ducked as fast as his reflexes could. He fully expected to feel it slam into his back, but instead he heard a dull thud as it struck the tree. Bloodskull stared in shock at his stuck weapon and before he could try to pry it lose, Wengle rolled out from under him, sprang up, and slashed down with the sword. Like lightning, Bloodskull gave his arm a small twist and yanked it back, the mace-and-chain detaching from his arm and left dangling from the tree trunk. The force of Wengle's blow caused his blade to slam into the ground where Bloodskull had been a moment before. Wengle looked up in time to see a dark, blunt object smash into his face.

With a muffled cry, Wengle was thrown back and he hit the ground with a thud, the side of his face bruised and bleeding. Bloodskull gave a low, maniacal chuckle as he slipped his metal-blunted right arm into his cloak and raised his hook for the kill. Lights and stars buzzed around in Wengle's head as he tried to stand. He saw the hook flash down at the last moment and instinctively held up his sword.

The triple-hook snagged on the blade and Bloodskull drew it back, pulling the dazed otter up off the ground. Suddenly in a burst of energy, Wengle's footpaws left the ground as he leaped up and slammed them both into Bloodskull's midriff. With a gasping snarl, the black ferret was sent careening backwards and the sword of Martin went flying from both of their grasps.

Wengle fell to the ground and looked up quickly. The sword was too far away for him to get to fast enough. Morfelg Bloodskull lay in a dark heap on the ground a few yards away. His body suddenly convulsed with insane rage as he raised his head. The black hood had fallen away and the ferret's face now fully showed. His dark, evil eyes glinted savagely and his red-streaked face cracked into an enraged snarl, exposing his white, deadly fangs. Then he pushed himself up, raised his lethal triple-hook, and charged, with a scream of pure rage.

Wengle's mind raced in a panic as he looked around for something to use as a weapon. Then he saw the mace-and-chain hanging from the tree. Before he knew what he was doing, the otter leaped up, ran over to the tree, and with one powerful yank, ripped the spiked ball from the bark. As the black ferret charged closer toward him, he raised the weapon and whirled it aloft, roaring, “Reeeeedwaaaaaaaaall!!” Then he let go of the chain and hurled it at his oncoming enemy.

Bloodskull barely had time to react. He raised his hook to block the flying weapon and the chain caught around the side of it and drove it back towards him. The three deadly prongs plunged deep into Bloodskull's face from the chain's force. He stood stock still for a moment, then the spiked metal ball swung around and slammed into the back of his head. Morfelg Bloodskull, Lord of the Darkblades and mighty Taggerung of the north, fell face-first to the ground and lay, pooling in his own blood, never to rise again.

Wengle stood for a few moments, staring in wide-eyed shock at the lifeless body of his seemingly unbeatable adversary, then he crumpled to the ground. The last thing he saw before he slipped into the dark embrace of unconsciousness, was Rodala bending over him and weeping. She knelt down and kissed him again, whispering, “You did it Wengle.... you saved Redwall....”

Chapter 37

Wengle's eyes flickered opened to see three faces staring worriedly down at him. He groaned and tried to rub his aching jaw.

Rodala jumped up and down with joy. “Oh look he's awake! Wengle's woken up!”

Tears flowed freely down Nela Brookrudder's face as she bent over and embraced her son, whispering, “Oh Wengle, I'm so glad that you came home safe and that you are safe now!”

Wengle smiled weakly. “Hello mother... and thanks.... I missed you...”

Spruce Longbrush smiled down at him. “You were fantastic Wengle! You killed Bloodskull with his own weapons; a death he richly deserved. Well done, warrior!”

Wengle looked at him with a puzzled expression. “I did?”

The squirrel nodded. “Sure thing. And that changed the whole battle. We quickly put out the fires once we got access to the pond, and the vermin horde surrendered when they saw that they had no leaders. We took all of their weapons and let them go with a warning to never come around here again. The Pineshadows on the other paw, well... let's just say that they won't be haunting the trees of Mossflower anymore.”

Wengle lay back in the bed and winced. “Well I'm just glad the war is over...” Suddenly he sat up. “Where's Riddy? He would normally be here. Is he wounded or something?”

Nela closed her eyes tight as tears trickled out. Rodala's lower lip started to quiver and she looked down sadly at Wengle.

Spruce took a deep breath before saying slowly, “Um... Wengle mate, there's something we've got to tell you...”

Wengle sat alone in Great Hall, where all of the fallen Redwall defenders lay, covered in sheets as they were prepared for burial. The otter knelt in front of the sheet that lay over the body of his friend Riddy, the brave shrew. Wengle had remained in stone-faced shock when Spruce gave him the horrifying news, and he had not said a word or shed a tear all the way down to Great Hall. Now, as he looked down at the lifeless form of his lifelong friend, he broke out weeping uncontrollably. His body shook with grief and he covered his face with his paws.

Suddenly he heard someone walk up behind him and he turned, expecting to see his mother or Rodala. It was Gurry.

The little rat stood behind him, solemnly staring at the floor. When he saw Wengle notice him he said, “I'm.... I'm very sorry about Riddy... he was my friend too. Not as much as you were but, er, I mean...”

Wengle closed his eyes. “I know Gurry. And thank you.”

The rat came over and sat down next to him. He took a deep breath before saying, “I kinda know how you feel. My brother, Bilur, was slain in the battle too. But he was killed by a coward, not fighting like Riddy was.”

Wengle looked up at him. “Oh Gurry, I'm so sorry...”

The little rat sniffed. “You don't have to be. He was harsh an' mean ter me mostly. But he really did like me as a brother, 'cause he told me that right before he died.”

He heard the sound of Wengle teeth grinding together in sorrow and Gurry looked up and started to apologize, “Oh, Wengle I'm sorry, I... you weren't there when... ohhh... I'm sorry...”

Wengle gulped back his tears and patted the little rat on the shoulder. “It's alright Gurry. Thank you so much for coming to encourage me mate.” Gurry smiled hopefully. “Hey, that's what friends is for.”

Wengle stood and walked out of Great Hall and through the Abbey door, which was still broken down. Before he left, he turned and looked back at the Tapestry of Martin the Warrior which hung over the bodies of the fallen as if it were guarding them. The young otter wondered if Martin had ever felt the loss and sorrow that he felt now. As Wengle stared into the woven eyes of Martin on the tapestry, he almost thought he saw a look of sadness and anguish in them. But a sadness that was tinged with hope. Wengle nodded slowly as the realization hit him. Then he went on through the door and out into the morning sunlight that bathed the charred and blood-stained Abbey grounds in its golden waves.

Wengle sat down by the Abbey pond, watching the sunlight ripple on the still waters. He didn't notice Rodala coming up behind him. She sat down next to him and asked softly, “Are you okay, Wengle?”

The young otter nearly jumped when he heard her voice. “What? Oh, er, yes... I'm... I'm fine.” Rodala sighed and said nothing in reply.

After a few moments silence, Wengle said, “Riddy was a great pal. Always making jokes and playing around. But he knew what to do when things got serious. I'm gonna miss the little rogue...”

Rodala leaned over and laid her head down on Wengle's shoulder. “I'm very sorry Wengle...” she whispered.

Wengle glanced down at her and gulped nervously before saying, “Um... did you really mean what you said... you know, right before... well, um...”

She looked up at him with a look of surprise. “Well why wouldn't I?”

He blushed and looked back down at the water. “Um... well, I'm not sure. I guess the fury of the battle and everything that took place seems like one long, horrible dream to me, and I just wanted to... well...”

Rodala smiled. “I know what you mean. I can just hardly believe that it's all over.”

A voice suddenly came from behind them, “Well hello you two! Enjoying a nice morning are we?”

They both whirled around and Wengle leaped up and started to draw his sword. Skipper Roral put his paws up defensively. “Woah, woah! Sorry about that mates! Didn't mean to startle you!”

Rodala giggled and Wengle grinned apologetically. “Oops! Hehe, sorry sir, I'm just used to vermin sneaking up behind me.”

Skipper chuckled. “That's alright Wengle mate; I understand.” He then looked at his daughter. “Rodala, it's time that you and I had a talk.”

Rodala winced and bowed her head. “Oh, I'm sorry I ran away daddy, I just...”

Roral raised his eyebrows. “Um... well I was goin' to talk to you about that, but I meant something different...” He pulled out from behind him the infamous javelin that so many creatures had lusted for.

Rodala's eyes lit up. “My- I mean the javelin! You got it back!”

Skipper nodded and stroked the long, wooden shaft. “Yep. I was waiting until after he battle to show it to you.”

Just then a small company of creatures walked up. They were Abbot Fernald, Spruce Longbrush, Nela Brookrudder, and Corkly, limping along with his two new pals, Gurry and Ragtail, who, with the Abbot's permission, had decided to stay at the Abbey.

The hare waved a paw to the three otters. “What ho old chaps! Goin' fishing are we? Or is it a picnic of sorts, wot?”

Skipper gave a sigh of mock frustration. “Oh great, just when I was going to have a close father-daughter talk!”

Gurry gave a dejected look. “Oh, I'm sorry, we were just...”

Skipper laughed and patted the little rat's shoulder. “No, it's alright mates! You're all free to listen. I think you'll like it anyway.”

Ragtail suddenly pointed at the weapon in Skipper's paw and gasped, “That's Argroo's javelin!”

Rodala shook her head. “Nope. It's me dad's by right! That vermin just stole it from me-”

Skipper glanced sideways at her, “Who stole it from me...”

Rodala blushed ad shuffled her footpaws. Ragtail stared in awe at the javelin. “That... that javelin is unbreakable isn't it?”

They all looked at him. “What do you flippin' well mean ol' chap?”

The stoat wrung his paws. “Well, back awhile ago, when me an' Bilur were stuck in the cage, Argroo came and taunted us with the javelin. Then the Darkblades showed up and that big, giant one tried to break the javelin, but it wouldn't break! It must me magic or somethin'!”

They all turned to Skipper, who stood by chuckling. He then gave the explanation. “Well I never knew that it was unbreakable, and I'm not sure if it truly is, but it's special sure enough.”

Rodala's eyes were wide. “Tell us daddy!” Skipper launched into the weapon's full story:

“This is a tale that has been passed down through my family for awhile, so it might be true or it might not. Well, long ago there was a squirrel by the name of Russa Nodrey. She and some hares from the Long Patrol saved a badgerbabe from some evil vermin, but Russa died in the process. Her prized weapon was a hardwood stick of medium length that was said to be some driftwood from a faraway island. Anyway, that badgerbabe grew up to become one of the great Badger Lords of Salamandastron: Russano the Wise. He used this same stick as his scepter, and he kept it throughout his life. After he died, the stick was placed in the Salamandastron armory where it stayed for many a season.

“Then later, when another Badger Lord ruled, the mountain was attacked by a vermin horde. A Skipper of Mossflower, my great-great-and-so-on-grandsire, helped him in the battle, and after their victory, the Badger Lord gave the Skipper any weapon of his choice as reward for his services. He chose the hardwood stick that had been sitting in the armory for seasons, and he asked if the Badger Lord could carve it down to form it into a javelin. The badger did, and very skillfully too. It eventually became this...” he held up the javelin for all to see, “and it and its story have been passed down through the ages from Skipper to Skipper, until it got to me.”

He looked around at all of the entranced faces. “And that's why it's so special.” He nodded to Ragtail. “It could very well be unbreakable; I've never tried.”

He handed the fabled weapon to Rodala and she looked down at it reverently and whispered, “So this was in the paws of a Badger Lord, and a courageous warrior, who died giving her life for others...” She looked up at her father with tears in her eyes. “Oh daddy, if I had known how valuable this was, I wouldn't have stolen it!”

Skipper wrapped an arm about her. “You shouldn't have stolen it anyway, Rodala. Why did you run away in the first place, my daughter?”

Wengle looked over at the others and gave a nod. They all understood. Everybeast left, leaving Skipper Roral and Rodala to quietly converse by the Abbey pond.

As the group walked away, Spruce turned to Wengle and Gurry and asked, “So are you going to tell us about your adventures mates?”

Wengle glanced back at Rodala and then said, “Oh, yes, of course! But we'll do it after Rodala and Skipper are done, and after, uh....” He looked sadly over at Abbot Fernald. “after the burial, if that's alright Father Abbot.”

The dormouse nodded solemnly. “Of course it is. We'll have the ceremony for all of our fallen friends later this morning, and then you three can tell us about your travels and adventures during the feast.”

At the word 'feast', Corkly's ears shot up straight. “Er, did I hear you say feast? As in, loads of vittles to stuff your face with?”

Ragtail licked his lips. “Oh boy, a feast! Will their be those delicious liddle pie things? I love those!”

Corkly winked at him. “Course there will be, me good stoat! More than you can shake a stick at, wot!”

Wengle looked up at the Abbot. “We should invite the rest of Skipper's ottercrew to join us!”

Fernald smiled. “Of course we will! Everybeast is welcome to the feast!”

Corkly, Ragtail, and Gurry went off, followed by the Abbot. Spruce gave a nod to Nela. “I'll leave you two alone for awhile. I'll send a messenger squirrel to Skipper's crew up north.”

He walked back into the Abbey, leaving Wengle alone with his mother. Nela Brookrudder held her son's face in her paws and smiled at him. “Oh Wengle, you're so grown up now! A true warrior, just like your father.”

Wengle smiled back as tears started to form in his eyes. “Thank you mother. But I hope that I never have to use this sword again. I'd rather live in peace with you. With all of my friends and fellow Redwallers.”

Nela embraced her son and then they strode back into the Abbey to prepare for the burial ceremony and the feast.

A few hours later everybeast gathered in the Redwall grounds for the burial. Father Abbot Fernald stood in front of them all, his head bowed and his paws folded in his sleeves. The cloth-covered bodies of the fallen lay behind him for everybeast to see. Wengle stood next to Rodala and Gurry, quietly awaiting for the ceremony to begin.

The Abbot took a deep breath and said solemnly, “My friends and fellow Redwall defenders. We are gathered here to put to rest those who have given their lives for us in battle. They gave the greatest sacrifice of all to make sure that our peaceful home was rid of all evil. They will forever be in our memories.” He turned to Foremole, Spruce, and Skipper. “My friends, you may begin the burial.”

The three creatures one-by-one lifted the limp bodies and placed them in the graves dug by Foremole and his crew. Gurry's lip quivered as the body of his brother was laid to rest. Wengle put a comforting paw on his shoulder and Rodala gave him a hug.

When it came to be Riddy's turn, Wengle was surprised at himself that he did not shed a tear. He stood staring stone-faced as Skipper and Foremole carefully laid the young shrew's body in the hole. Finally the ceremony was over and there was a moment of respectful silence.

After a few minutes, Abbot Fernald raised his head and said, “Now we shall celebrate the victories of this battle. A feast has been prepared for all who wish to join us.”

The crowd became a hubbub of excitement as they turned back towards the Abbey for the feast, with Corkly and Ragtail in the lead. A few stayed behind for a moment to pay their personal respects, before following the joyful throng.

Wengle stood looking down at the grave of his friend for some time. He might never have left, but for a soft, yet strong paw he felt on his shoulder. He turned to see Rodala smiling sadly at him. “Come on, matey!” she said, “Let's go to the feast! Riddy wouldn't want us to mourn for him all season would he?”

Wengle smiled and nodded. “Yes... I suppose you're right.”

She grabbed his paw. “Come on warrior, let's celebrate the fruits of our labors!”

The two young otters strode paw-in-paw up into the Abbey, leaving behind the graves of their friends. The sun's rays shone softly down over the patted earth as small buds of flowers began their first growth in the mid-morning light.


Extract from the recordings of Redwall Abbey in Mossflower Country....

It has been nearly a full season since the end of the Great Darkblades War, and much has happened in that time. Well, first of all, Father Abbot Fernald has retired and, upon the word of Martin, gave the Abbey leadership over to Oakflower Longbrush. Father Fernald became the Abbey Recorder, and when I asked if he could teach me how to read and write, he was glad to do so. Now I am his assistant and I like the job very much. My old matey Ragtail has become good friends with Mr. Corkly, and together they raid the kitchens at night, (much to Friar Dobble's frustration). But Raggy seems to have grown fond of cooking and he is now the assistant cook to Mrs. Brookrudder, (as the Friar would have nothing to do with him). Mr. Longbrush has officially named Barktail to be his new second-in-command of the Longbrush Glen. When Mr. Longbrush decides the time is right, Abbess Oakflower shall retire and she and Barktail will be married. In a few days, Wengle the Warrior, Rodala, and I will be going up to the Northern Mountains to visit Vythran Smythfang. Mr. Longbrush, Skipper, and Corkly shall be accompanying us on the journey. I do hope that it turns out alright. Oh dear, can't think of what else to write! I'm new at this, so please forgive me. Hm... I suppose that I'll sign off now. Oh, wait! Wengle told me that his mother and Rodala's parents agreed that when they reach the right age, they will be wed. I am very happy for my best mates! Anyway, you are all welcome to come to Redwall Abbey for peace and shelter. Except if you're an evil vermin warlord, of course. If you are, then I suggest you stay clear, because we have some mighty warriors here! But if you aren't, then may you visit us soon here at Redwall.

Gurry, Assistant Recorder of Redwall Abbey

The End

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