Condemned to a self-imposed exile from Redwall Abbey, Dann Reguba wanders south where he discovers woodlanders held in slavery by wicked pine martens. However, the pine marten Regolith’s cruel green eyes are not only focused on his Castle, he also yearns to venture into Mossflower Country. Dann is forced to venture back to a home he swore never to return and to embroil his friend Thalweg, a ferret, into a nail-biting cat and mouse game with the devil himself. Immerse yourself in Dann’s fantastic adventures together with a group of Long Patrol Hares lead by Major Peony Laminar, an otter named Cinnabar Shellhound and the ferret Thalweg as they all discover the true meaning of duty and loyalty.
From the South
A Redwall Fanfiction
A History Better Forgotten
BOOK ONE: The CastleEdit
“You shouldn’t have come so far south. There’s
nothing but suffering and slavery here now.”
The deep white snowdrifts were piled high on the sides of the paths to the gatehouse and the front gate. Skipper and his otters had toiled long into the night just the day before to fight the quickly falling snow. Swathed in a warm scarlet cloak that the Abbess had given him, Dann Reguba stood at the front gate with his arms crossed over his chest. He was waiting for the Skipper of Otters to open and rebolt the front door of the Abbey for him.
The otter hurried over to him with an ice spade in one paw and a bag of scones from Brother Jerome in the other. He studied the Abbey Warrior intently with his dark eyes. "How long do you think you'll be gone this time, Dann?"
Dann sighed irritably and retied the white scarf around his neck. "Not long, no more than a day and a night."
Dragging open the large wooden gates to Redwall Abbey with a groan, Skipper eyed the squirrel warrior and whispered, "You know the Abbess worries when you're gone."
Dann raised an eyebrow at the otter. "What's the whispering for, mate?"
The otter chieftain opened his mouth to reply but another voice cut him off, Abbess Song's voice. She was standing in the open doorway of the gatehouse with her mother, Rimrose, the Abbey recorder.
The Abbess looked through her snow-tickled eyelashes at the Abbey Warrior and Skipper. She smiled at them kindly and said, "Come back soon, Dann."
The cold breeze stung his eyes as he gazed at her. "I will."
It was not long after Dannflor Reguba had settled into his role as Abbey Champion that he started to notice a change within himself. All his life he had lived at Redwall Abbey and its safety would always be paramount to him, but new circumstances and feelings were surfacing that created an almost audible dissonance within him between what others expected and what he wanted for himself. He felt himself pulled in all directions by the rules of his position, the loyalty he owed his home, and the feelings quietly suppressed deep within his heart.
So the Abbey Warrior would find solace in wandering the verdant greens of Mossflower Woods. Occasionally he would visit with his friend Log-a-Log Dippler or Chief Burble. Together with Abbess Songbreeze Swifteye they had all shared a grand adventure in the southern lands – four chieftains going forth – and it was always great fun reminiscing. However, the shrew and watervole had very little trouble settling into their own respective leadership roles, and Dann felt awkward discussing with them his own very personal troubles.
It was only last season that he had discovered a wonderful little copse of trees a little more than a day's walk from Redwall. That was where he was heading this winter afternoon. Looking over his shoulder at the Abbey, he smiled to himself thinking of Brother Jerome whipping up a batch of chestnut scones just for him. He reached into the bag Skipper gave him and bit into a scone with a sigh. They were still warm from the oven!
His ears pricked up at the sound of another creature stumbling about in the snow. From the sound, Dann was able to deduce that there was only one creature, moving about with stumbling steps. But this creature was dangerously close to Redwall. Unsure of what sort of creature it was, the squirrel warrior stood very still and unsheathed Martin's great sword from behind his back. Treading carefully through the deep snowdrifts, he peered from behind a tree and saw him. It was a red squirrel about his own age, covered in grievous wounds.
His own paws slipping in the icy snow, Dannflor Reguba sheathed the sword and ran towards the other squirrel, catching the stranger just as the beast's knees buckled. The warrior felt himself pulled down by the other's limp weight. Resting the other squirrel's head in his lap, he looked in horror at the red squirrel's dreadful condition. Dann tried to hold back the sick feeling twisting in his stomach when he realized that the large crimson splotches on the other squirrel's thin blue tunic were blood. The squirrel's eyes shot open to stare back at him unfocused.
"What happened?" Dann demanded, grasping the tattered ends of the other squirrel's sleeves. "Who did this to you?"
"The raven. I didn't think…" the stranger's weak voice faded.
"Don't speak," Dann said in alarm. "Don't strain yourself. I'll take you to the Abbey."
"Thank you," the squirrel said with a feeble smile. "My name is Sinon." With what little energy he had left, he gazed with his bloodshot eyes at the beautiful red gem in the sword hilt visible over Dann's shoulder.
"Come on," Dann grunted, pulling the other beast up and putting him over his shoulders. The poor beast was out cold.
Dann thanked his lucky stars had he was still so close to the Abbey. Nevertheless it seemed as if hours had passed before he staggered up to the front doors and beat weakly on them. He prayed that some beast would hear him. Perhaps Skipper had not wandered too far.
Almost as if anticipating his request, Skipper himself peered over the wall tops leaning on the spade. He gasped when he saw Dann and the stranger. Dann could hear the otter's voice calling loudly for a stretcher and someone to open the gates.
It was Abbess Song who finally opened the gates. Her father Janglur and his own father Rusval dashed out from the Great Hall with a stretcher to help the unfortunate newcomer. Dann, with his father's help, moved the injured squirrel onto the stretcher. Thoroughly unconscious, the squirrel didn't even stir.
Abbess Song gasped when she saw the bloodstains on Dann's cloak. She grabbed his paw as he turned away towards the Abbey. "Dann, are you alright? Is that your blood?"
Dann looked surprised that she considered him first. "No," he said,"It's his."
The Abbess sighed in relief. She hastened beside him as their fathers carried the injured squirrel to the Great Hall. Dann looked ahead at them and said half to himself, "He said his name was Sinon."
Dann jolted out of his dream. He supposed it couldn't really be called a dream, not if it was part of his own history. For three seasons now, he found himself constantly rehashing the events the led up to his expulsion from Redwall, self-imposed or not. The event that directly determined his exodus couldn't be disputed, but the circumstances that lead up to it were less cut and dry. When did it all start to fall apart? What was the point of no return? It had been so long since he had left, but he couldn't bear to go back. Not yet. How could he face her after what he had done?
Trying to remember what had awakened him from his dozing, Dann shifted his weight between two tree branches. The sun was now directly overhead and the oppressive heat of a southern summer still hung in the air. Dann kicked lazily at a bee tasting the nectar of the pink and white flowers all around him. He chuckled at his own half-hearted attempt to get rid of the insect, his mind wandering again before he realized…
The birds had stopped singing. He readied an arrow on his bow as he heard the shouts and the pounding of rapidly approaching footpaws growing louder.
A young red squirrel in ragged clothes burst from the undergrowth, flying past the tree Dann was lounging in. An arrow embedded itself into the ground near inches from the youngster's footpaw. Barely halting to take another gasping breath, the young squirrel leapt into the next tree and scurried up surprisingly fast. His frayed brown tunic camouflaged him nicely against the trunk of the oak.
It didn't take long for the squirrel warrior to piece together what was happening – especially as the vermin came bumbling through the trees and bushes. He sized them up quickly. There were six in all.
Dann noticed first that the vermin were surprisingly well organized. They all wore the same gray tunic and pants over sloppily-crafted mail. Their helmets, all of different designs, appeared to have had the same hurried craftsmanship as their mail. However, a stoat stood out from among their ranks. His uniform showed much more care in its making. His garb was supplemented by a resplendent blue cloak attached to each of his shoulders which fell down his back.
Dann took a moment to count the arrows in his quiver; he didn't have enough to waste multiple arrows on multiple vermin. It would be a close skirmish. He prayed he wouldn't have to bring the battle to the forest floor.
The young squirrel was hiding in the upper boughs, cowering behind the trunk. His ears pricked up when he heard the stoat captain issuing orders.
"Saw the blighter run up that tree," spat the stoat. "Go get 'im." He pushed one of his fellows, a ferret towards the tree. The unfortunate ferret had not yet climbed onto the first bough before he was cut down, an arrow sticking out of his throat.
"Halfear, the damn bushtail's shootin' at us. 'Ow'd 'e get…" the rat didn't get a chance to finish his sentence before another well-aimed arrow silenced him forever.
The other three soldiers gulped and looked to their captain for guidance.
"Rush 'im, you lily-livered scum. 'E's just a slave!" shouted the stoat Halfear, trying to encourage his nervous band. He took out a long daggar and twirled it expertly at his three remaining troops as they tried to back away from the tree. "Trust me when I say Regolith'll do much worse t' ya if you don't."
His three remaining followers fearfully approached the oak. A ferret whimpered in despair as he stared transfixed at another of his species lying in a pool of blood. However, he didn't have the chance to stare for long before he himself was transfixed by a brown fletched arrow.
A third ferret, bolder than the rest, began climbing the tree. However, the tree was slick with the first victim's blood. Slipping, the ferret landed hard on his backside, an arrow embedding itself in the tree above his head. A moment sooner and it would have gone clear through his neck.
The second arrow didn't miss.
The last soldier, a rat nearly jumped out of his skin as the last of his companions fell lifeless. Not sparing even a moment for hesitation, he turned and ran towards the stoat captain, Halfear.
"I can't do it, capt'n!"
The stoat captain kept up his bravado. Pointing his daggar at the rat running towards him, Halfear growled, "Get up that tree now!"
"I ain't gonna end up like …" An arrow grew out of the rat's neck, silencing him forever.
Wide-eyed, the stoat dropped the long dagger in fright and ran at a dead sprint away from the slaughter. A final arrow embedded itself in the ground where he had stood but a moment before.
The red squirrel jumped over to Dann's tree, staring over at his rescuer as the young squirrel struggled to regain his breath. The archer only appeared to be several seasons his senior and certainly didn't seem like much. If anything, he dressed like a common wanderer. A simple brown short-sleeved tunic with some insignia or other and a dark green undershirt – nothing worthy of a warrior. But there was the entirety of the search party dead at their feet. Whoever this beast was, he had taken them all on with hardly any effort.
Dann slipped a last arrow back into his quiver and raised an eyebrow at the newcomer. "Alright there?" he inquired kindly.
The young squirrel nodded, staring. "T-That was amazing, sir! I couldn't believe you've did it, but….ya did! Who would have thought. Help's finally come! 'S that why yer here? To save everyone at the Castle? Where'd you get that nifty…"
The warrior cut the other squirrel off decisively. Seeking to redirect the conversation, he said, "My name is Dannflor Reguba. What's yer name?"
"Beech," said the squirrel now gaping open-mouthed at the golden furred squirrel. The squirrel warrior was beginning to feel uncomfortable under the younger squirrel's worshipful stare. He cleared his throat, eager to break the silence with some much-needed answers.
But before he could, the younger squirrel blurted out unthinkingly, "Do you have any food?"
Dann blinked, and then realized his inhospitable, though reasonable, manner. "Of course," he smiled. "We need to put some meat on those bones. I have some rations in my pack, but I suggest we head elsewhere for lunch." As he spoke, the warrior's keen eyes scanned the forest floor for movement. "It's not safe to linger here if that stoat brings reinforcements."
Beech caught on quickly to Dann Reguba's suggestion. Halfear would easily recognize the place of this carnage. He looked up at the golden furred squirrel and gestured to the bodies littered below. "Should we…"
Dann wrinkled his nose, "We shouldn't waste our time on the likes of them. Let the vermin bury their own dead."
"But, it doesn't seem right to just…"
"Are you coming or not?" asked Dann impatiently.
Dann considered Beech with an upturned eyebrow. "Enough of the 'sirs.' I'm not that much older than you. Please call me Dann."
"Right, sorry, si--- I mean, Dann."
Dann laughed, patting Beech on the back before waving him on as they darted gracefully through the trees to find a nice spot for lunch and further conversation.
In no time they were sitting together in the upper boughs of a hickory tree a little bit away. Beech watched in open mouthed astonishment as the squirrel warrior took out all manner of deadly weapons from the fastenings across his back in order to take out his haversack and riffle through it. A short sword, two knives and a scimitar were hidden beneath his quiver, not counting all the weapons hanging from the squirrel warrior's broad belt. This creature was a living, breathing armory!
Dann pulled out some peaches he had scavenged the day before as well as scones and cheese. "Got these from a lovely mole family. I stayed with them over the winter after I chased away some foxes from their settlement," Dann said. "I'm mostly a wanderer by nature. Just go where the mood takes me. And I guess on this beautiful summer morn it carried me here."
"A wandering warrior?" said Beech in wonder. "I like the way that sounds. What are you doing over here?"
"Dunno. I've never been this far south before. Thought I'd see what 'tis like," Dann shrugged. "Who were you running from?"
Beech glared down at his scone. "Halfear and some of Lord Regolith's filthy vermin. You shouldn't have come so far south. There's nothing but suffering and slavery here now."
"What do you mean? Who's Lord Regolith?"
Beech puffed up with righteous indignation. "That ruthless green-eyed vermin! He's the pine marten who rules the Castle. He came to our settlement seven seasons ago with a horde of vermin. He said he merely wanted to coexist in peace," Beech snorted. "I don't know why anyone believed him. I didn't for a second. He commissioned Willow's father to draft plans for a grand castle."
"Who's Willow?" Dann asked.
Beech blushed and murmured, "A squirrelmaid."
Dann raised his eyebrows amusedly at the young squirrel's obvious crush. "So Regolith commissioned her father to make the plans for the castle?" asked Dann.
"Yes," said Beech, pausing as he regained his train of thought. "And when he completed them, Regolith immediately started the construction, hewing vast rocks from the nearby quarries and felling trees like daisies. In no time he had enlisted the help of all the woodlanders. Slavery, I mean."
"Yes," Dann replied in wonder. "This was seven seasons ago?"
Beech nodded, taking another bite of his scone. "It's a huge project. We've almost completed it. Regolith crushed every semblance of resistance. My parents died in the first rebellion. After that he didn't waste any time dallying and burnt down Willow's house so that no woodlander would possess the blueprints to his fortress. Her father and brother were locked inside." Beech frowned at the memory but allowed himself a little smile as he recounted what happened next. "But Regolith wasn't quite quick enough. Willow and I hid a copy of the final plans in a gnarled beech near the southern marshes. In case we ever needed them, ya know?"
Dann nodded, nibbling on a piece of scone. Beech leaned back relaxing. "So what's it like being a nomad warrior? I bet it'd be lovely. Have you ever wandered over to Redwall Abbey in Mossflower?"
Dann almost choked on a piece of his scone. "Why do you ask?" he wheezed coughing.
"Dunno." Beech shrugged. He popped the rest of the scone in his mouth before lying on his back and folding his paws behind his head. His dark eyes gazed intently up at the clouds drifting overhead. "It's all we talk about in the slave compound. Sounds like a lovely place. Overflowing with delicious food, safe warm beds, kind creatures everywhere, the heir of Martin the Warrior protecting the Abbey and bearing Martin's own magnificent sword." He sat up and looked at Dann with a glimmer in his eyes. "I've heard tales of huge Badgerlords even visiting. How big do you think a Badgerlord would be? At least as big as this tree, right!"
"Don't forget Badgerladies as well," Dann teased. "Wouldn't want to get on their bad side. It might be the last thing you ever do."
Beech laughed so hard he almost fell out of the tree. "So, Dann. You look like a veritable one creature armory. What are all those weapons? Could you show me how to use some of them?"
Willow was a squirrel. She had always found it a wonderful blessing to be such a swift nimble creature. She was able to climb quickly and with ease, whether it was a tree or a rampart. Her bushy red tail was perfect for balance and her tenacious claws gripped even the sheerest surface. However, in times like this, she wished she were a mole.
Such a shame. Gorgeous summer afternoons were meant for basking in the sun or in the drifting scent of linen as clothes hung out to dry- or at least, that's what it meant before Regolith. Willow crouched in the ditch, pressing her ears against the walls while her best friend Galena kept watch, though such attention wasn't quite necessary at the moment.
The little dug-out was barely even a speck on the blue-prints and had gone unnoticed and unattended for nearly three seasons before they had discovered it. How something so crucial could be forgotten, Willow was at a loss. But of course, she herself used to pass its way daily, dismissing it for another grimy mud hole until she realized that it was level with the officer's quarters. It took a lot of effort, secretly widening the ditch and boring a hole into the wooden walls.
Lean in, pray for silence, concentrate, and she could hear just about every little thing passing through their lips.
Forgotten but useful. The moles who had been "commissioned" to build the tunnel system had sunk the portion to Regolith's quarters at this very spot. However, they didn't have the opportunity to level the area to that of the parade grounds before they were cut down by Regolith's soldiers.
The marten didn't particularly like moles. He didn't like particularly like any beast for that matter, and he certainly didn't appreciate the structural masterpiece at paw.
It was just like her father to design such a complex building – a building with an ingenious tunnel system that connected the main building, kitchens, Barracks, and Regolith's quarters. Nobeast could deny her father's attention to detail, his brilliance and passion for his art. Nobeast else could possibly make his designs possible. But while he had a remarkably keen eye for walls and pillars, it was poor compensation for his judge of character.
Willow inhaled deeply. Whatever mistake her father made trusting that vermin, he's paid dearly for it.
Galena poked her brown head out of the hole, her dark eyes gleaning the area for the slightest bit of movement. She was sure the frantic beating of her heart could be heard for miles.
"I dunno, Willow," said her otter friend, nervously rubbing the wooden pendent hanging around her neck. "Are you sure you saw Halfear comin' back alone?"
"Yes, I'm sure," the squirrel hissed back.
Galena crouched down further into the hole. Being an otter, she was much bigger than Willow and therefore she was much less comfortable than her squirrel friend. "How can you be so relaxed, Willow?"
Willow's bright blue eyes sparkled as she glanced at her friend. "What's the worse thing that could happen?"
"You always say that," Galena sighed.
Willow shifted away from the hole so her friend could try her luck. She elbowed the otter in the head as she did so.
"I'm sorry!" she gasped.
Willow moved her arm aside and allowed more space for Galena.
"I couldn't hear a thing, just a lot of yelling," the squirrel complained. She slouched down farther all the while looking across at her otter friend. "Beech must have gotten away! But what happened to all the other guards? Halfear was alone when he …"
Galena cut her off with a whisper, "Shh! I think I can hear something."
They both moved their ears to the hole in the wall and bumped heads again. Galena rubbed a paw to her head and looked at the squirrel with a sour expression before making more room.
Lord Regolith had finally stopped shouting and his drawling voice could now be heard clearly. "Halfear, my friend. I simply can't comprehend how five of my soldiers could be killed by a runaway squirrel. It seems to defy logic. Don't you agree?"
The next words were spoken in a softer, submissive voice. The stoat's voice was all boom and thunder everywhere else, but not here.
"…sorry m'lord… send more after him…?"
"Surely you know I wouldn't tolerate such a nonsensical proposition. I can't spare another group of soldiers. Besides, what can one squirrel do? If you are so keen on the idea, go by yourself. Though keep in mind that if you don't have different results, I'll … but we really must think of more important matters. Send in Captain Zigor. I want to know how our preparations are coming for the expedition. I want to be gone from here by the end of the week."
"We've stayed too long," whispered Galena to Willow. "I don't want to run into that black fox. Hurry, back to the compound."
Galena climbed out of the ditch and grabbed Willow's paw to haul her out. Willow brushed dirt off her blue dress and followed behind Galena as they slunk back to their holding area. Two ferrets peered at them suspiciously before opening the huge padlock on the wooden door to the slave compound.
The other slaves had finished their morning shifts and had all gathered in their "rest area" to wait for their lunches. They sat on their flimsy bunks piled two or three on top of the other and waited for the thin gruel to arrive.
As soon as Willow and Galena returned, they were accosted by the questions of the other slaves. What had happened to Beech? Did he get away? What happened to the other guards?
"Quiet down everyone! We don't want to attract unwanted attention," Galena whispered.
She motioned for everyone to sit down again, her eyes never straying from the ferrets standing guard outside. The slaves were expecting rats carrying vittles to enter at any moment.
Content that she had a moment to relay her information, Galena continued quietly. "We heard Regolith talking with Halfear in the officer's mess. Beech got away and the five vermin sent after 'im were killed. The soldiers aren't gonna track Beech 'cause they've got other plans. Regolith said 'e plans to leave 'ere by the end of the week!"
Whispers of excitement ran rampant at this development. One young mouse named Phillip actually jumped up and started to dance. Galena looked at Willow apprehensively.
Willow nodded at her and began to speak her piece, "Let's not pack our bags so quickly. We don't know anything about the pine marten's plans. He might be goin' to recruit more vermin. Mayhap he's not pleased with our productivity and'll be going to enslave more creatures."
Galena nodded at her friend and joined in, "Let's all just keep our 'eads. We know they won't just free us. I want everybeast t' start stealin' as many weapons as they can lay their paws on. That way we can protect ourselves if'n somethin' happens."
The creatures nodded at the ottermaid's wise words and whispered back and forth about what the two young maids had discovered. Finally the door in the compound to the main building creaked open and the rats walked in, heaving the steaming cauldron between themselves.
Willow turned to Galena, "I've gotta serve Regolith his lunch. I'll tell ya if I hear anythin' else."
Willow walked past the rats and into the main building. The stoat captain Halfear was waiting just outside the door and grabbed her roughly by the back of her dress, pushing her towards the staircase to the basement.
Lord Regolith paced his quarters as two rats hauled a large chair throughout the room, eagerly awaiting the word of satisfaction so that they could relieve themselves of their burden. But their lord was a picky one. He prided himself in his tastes – his collection of all fine and beautiful things. And he was just as selective in arrangement as he was of quality.
"Right there." The rats sighed, lowering the furniture as carefully as possible. They barely got their claws from under it before Regolith seated himself on his throne.
In his mind's eye, Regolith found that the seat was fitting of his status. The delicate inlays of mahogany and cherry wood complimented the rich fabrics and valuable paintings on his walls. A seat this comfortable and this handsome was surely meant for nothing lower than a king. He said that much to its creator and the old squirrel had grinned like a fool for such praise. For a split second, the marten actually regretted burning the architect alive. He could have been of more use, but no matter. There were other issues to worry about. Upcoming plans.
The possibilities were endless, boundless. They'd kept him up at night, meddling with his concentration, anticipation putting him on edge and driving him to distraction. He scowled down at the rats, enjoying how his silky crimson sleeves seemed to flutter as he waved them off. Their exit was nothing graceful as they stumbled to get out of his way. But as usual, he was constantly surrounded by idiots.
He turned with a sigh as Halfear hurried in with another captain, Bloodnose. Regolith hadn't yet determined why he kept the stoat captain around. Halfear was as dumb as a stump, though he did followed orders very well for a creature so simple-minded. The only thing the stoat could say for himself was his skill with a blade.
Regolith's weasel captain Bloodnose was the exact reverse of Halfear. He was surprisingly clever for a creature that was so clumsy and inept with a sword. With Halfear and Bloodnose together, Regolith had one passable captain. Thank goodness for Zigor, the black fox.
Bloodnose was in such a haste that he tripped over one of the rats on its way out. He sat up nursing a bloody nose. The weasel captain shrugged the setback off and continued behind Halfear. Regolith rolled his eyes. It was quite astonishing how many bloody noses the weasel captain got. Maybe he could have that pretty squirrelmaid who served him start counting.
"Milord, ya called us in for a meetin?'" Bloodnose asked, making an awkward bow and wiping the blood on his yellow tunic. The weasel always made an effort not to dirty his blue captain's cloak.
Behind the two captains, a third captain hastened in; this time it was a rat. The rat's chainmail clinked together discordantly. Regolith's green eyes shone with malice at the rat's entrance.
"Please sit down," the marten announced smoothly. He made sure to lean back in his seat, just to establish who it belonged to. "I want to discuss our food supplies in preparation for the journey."
The pretty squirrelmaid walked in with a beaker of wine. Her blue eyes were downcast. It was her fool of a father who had designed his throne and his castle. She used to smile and laugh with the other beasts way back then. But that was when she and the others were free. Now she was nothing but a reminder of his cunning and deception. A nice little trophy to have at paw while he spit upon the architect's grave and unbeknownst to her she would soon become a keen bargaining tool. He waved her over to refill his cup and then seized her by her narrow waist and tossed her on his lap before she could slip away.
"Milord," said Bloodnose, the weasel captain. He saluted awkwardly. "Zigor is directing the collection of our food stores for the journey. We have four carts piled high with supplies, enough to last us a season: vegetables, grain, bread, water, rum. I have the slaves cookin' extra rations fer us."
"Beggin' yer parden milord," began Deekeye, the rat captain, "but the troops are havin' trouble understandin' why we're leavin' the Castle. Your fortress is nearly complete and we have food and slaves aplenty. It seems madness to leave it undefended while you're wanderin' the countryside."
"Madness, eh?" Regolith narrowed his eyes dangerously. He pushed the squirrelmaid from his lap and onto the floor. Taken by surprise, she collapsed into a pile at his feet before clambering up and running to stand in safety by the door.
Deekeye seemed unsure of himself for a moment, but he was taken with the passion of his argument. "Yessir. Madness. 'Tis madness to travel en masse during the harvest season, to leave the Castle completely undefended, and to besiege an impregnable fortress in the dead of winter. Everyone's heard the stories. Damung Warfang and Cluny the Scourge with greater hordes than ours were defeated there. We'll all be killed to fuel your lust, your madness, and your greed. Can't you see that you've already won? What need do you have to prove it? It's madness!"
Regolith stood up regally from his throne and selected an ornate knife from his leather belt. "Madness you say?"
Deekeye gulped. "Aye, madness. Think of your troops, milord."
"Deekeye, my friend," the pine marten drawled, strolling over and draping an elegant paw around the trembling rat's shoulders. "I see now what you've been murmurin' in the darkness, plans of mutiny and treason. You're tryin' to turn my troops against me."
"Insurrection will not be tolerated," Regolith purred, holding the knife close to the rat's throat. A drop of blood dripped down Deekeye's neck.
"This is madness," Deekeye whispered before a ruthless flick of the wrists cut him off.
Regolith tossed the rat's body aside dispassionately and glared at the other captains. They gaped down at their colleague, whose blood was now staining the floor. Regolith looked over at the squirrelmaid. "Get someone to clean this up."
"Yessir," she whispered before hurrying out.
All beasts had their weaknesses: Vanity, Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Mortality. Her father was kind, loving, and more than intelligent. Yet it was his undying pride that had been his undoing. If there was justice in the world – any at all – then she would see Regolith fall from his so-called accomplishments. Let his vanity and pride consume him, just like the fires had done to her family. It would happen someday. She knew it. She swore it.
Chapter ThreeEditWritings from the records of Recorder Rimrose Swifteye:
The whole abbey is aquiver with excitement. We are swiftly nearing the anniversary of my daughter Abbess Songbreeze's tenth season as Abbess. She is always loath to have celebrations in her honor, our modest Abbess, so we are organizing a surprise feast!
All of the chefs in the kitchen have been baking and cooking up a storm! Brother Jerome, our jolly cook, is in his element, ordering his helpers around to organize a grand feast. Song's good friend, Log-a-Log Dippler, as well as Chief Burble of the Rivervoles will be joining us in the festivities with their tribes. Our Badger Mother Cregga's former protégé, Lord Russano the Wise, is also visiting with a very small contingent of his Long Patrol, lead by Colonel Basil Nymium. It's suffice to say that all the hares are eagerly anticipating the upcoming feast. Although Brother Jerome bemoans the extra "famine faced gobs" of the hares that he will have to feed, secretly you can tell he is flattered by their near worship of his culinary skills.
My daughter is visiting our friends Hawthorne and Cypress who live in Mossflower Glade; they will also be coming to the great feast. We didn't know what to make of them, a pine marten and a vixen, at first when they arrived in Redwall and in the ensuing tension several seasons later when they decided to build their homes outside the Abbey. However, when we got to know them better, we realized their kind hearts. Our Abbey Warrior himself suggested a site for their little paradise in a pleasant copse of trees a little more than a day's march from Redwall.
They have settled down to a peaceful and plentiful life in the shadow of our abbey, Hawthorne, Cypress, and the vixen's twin sons. We are very fond them, our Badgermum Cregga especially. She gets along with the old vixen Cypress surprisingly well.
The squirrel Sinon is accompanying the Abbess to Mossflower Glade to visit with our two friends. We've taken this event as the opportunity for us to prepare the feast for the Abbess. Though there are fewer hostile vermin bands lately, Sinon is bringing the sword of Martin the Warrior with him just in case. To our knowledge, it is the first time a creature who is not the Warrior of Redwall has carried the blade. However, seeing him hold it with such reverence puts no doubt in our minds that he will treat it with the utmost care and respect.
Indeed, it is the first time is had been carried, since Dann Reguba relinquished it. It's now almost four seasons to the day he left us. I fear that we may never know the true reason for his departure. Rusval was very saddened to see him go. He moped around for a full season before Cregga spoke some sense to him. She tells anyone who speaks ill of our champion that many warriors are wanders by nature and fate deals them strange destinies. She is sure that if he is ever needed, Martin will guide him home to our beloved abbey.
My daughter is also very sad that Dann left, though she tries not to let any beast see. I can tell by the look in her eyes whenever she sees the sword hanging above the tapestry. They were such good friends who went on such grand adventures together.
Well I must be going to wash this ink from my paws before I go to help Brother Jerome in the kitchens! Please visit us at Redwall anytime! Any travelers on the North Path are always welcome to cool their heels with us before continuing their journeys. And of course "to scoff as many mouthwaterin' munchies they can bally well get their paws on," as says Colonel Basil Nymium.
Rimrose pushed her chair back and stretched her arms over her head, the sleeves of her summer habit falling down past her elbows. She sneezed again and rubbed a paw over her eyes. The afternoon light had not yet penetrated the small high windows of the gatehouse. It was still content to light the upper shelves of the bookcases, teasing the tomes and scrolls in a soft golden light.
She jumped slightly when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," she called.
Her husband poked his head around the door. Unlike his wife, he had never taken to donning the Redwall habit. He preferred to wear a green and brown traveling tunic as he had in his younger years. He sidled in and gave her a quick peck on the cheek and looked at her last entry. "Goin' to the kitchens, eh. Do ya mind if a handsome young warrior accompanies you, my fair young maiden?"
Rimrose swatted at her husband playfully. "You know as well as I do that neither of us are 'young' anymore. You can come with me to the kitchens if you promise not to eat too much food from under poor Jerome's nose. The beast must be at 'is wits end with all those ravenous wolves on his threshold."
"I thought hares were bad enough, mates. Now poor Jerome needs to fight off wolves," said a voice from behind them. Janglur turned and winked at his friend Skipper. The otter was leaning casually in the threshold. His red tunic nearly dry from his dip in the pond.
"Aye," said Janglur, resting his paws on his belt buckle. "Come with us to help fight 'em off. Mayhap Brother Jerome will reward us with some vittles."
Skipper's dark eyes lit up dreamily. "Maybe 'e'll even make a great ole' pot of hotroot soup for a brave otter, matey."
"Hello, Rimrose, Janglur, Skipper," said a little white mouse as she skipped by with a few large tomes held against her chest.
"Doin' some more studyin' I see, Sister Bianca," said Janglur as the little Sister ran by.
She halted and jumped from one footpaw to the other in excitement, almost tripping on her light green habit. "Yes, Mother Cregga gave me this book she found in her room. She had it supporting the uneven leg of a desk, can you believe it! What a waste of a beautiful book! It describes Abbot Arven's Battle at the Ridge of a Thousand. I can't wait to finish it. Isn't our history fascinating? Arven seems like such an interesting fellow. I wish I was alive when he was Abbot all those years ago. Have you ever heard of a beast being both Abbey Warrior and Abbot? Amazing!" said Bianca without once taking a breath between sentences.
Skipper seemed amazed that she was able to say it all without any breaths. "Yer lung capacity's amazing, marm. Have you ever thought 'bout bein' one of my divers?" asked Skipper.
Bianca blushed and shook him away with an ink stained paw.
"Nothin' more 'bout Martin the Warrior, eh?" asked Janglur. It was well known by all that Bianca had a fascination with the Abbey founder, possibly bordering on an unhealthy obsession.
The little sister pouted. "Unfortunately not, I haven't been able to find any more books. I want to have a peek in the lower attics. I've been meaning to ask the Abbess for permission. Perhaps she or Sinon could help me up there and root around a bit." She paused wide-eyed for a moment. "Mister Swifteye, you're a squirrel as well! Would you like to help me?"
Janglur was about to promise the sky to the mousemaid, but Rimrose proclaimed sadly, "Alas, Bianca. We aren't as young as we used to be and I'm afraid Janglur might not be able to squeeze through some of those tight places as well as he might have in his earlier seasons." She patted her husband's stomach with a paw. "Well we must be off," Rimrose said pulling her husband past Skipper and out the door with her.
The mouse waved goodbye with one arm, the other paw holding the books tight to her chest.
Skipper shook his head. "Wot a funny gel, eh Janglur."
Janglur looked down at his stomach in dismay. "Yer right of course."
"Shall we head off those hares?" said Rimrose. She picked up her skirts and harried off, calling behind her. "I'll race you."
"Sink my rudder and call me a frog, your wife sure is quick, mate. Let's catch 'er up and make her regret callin' a freebooter like you chubby, eh."
"Sounds good to me, Skip. Though she might have a point."
The otter and the squirrel raced across the grounds. Some of the Long patrol hares that were helping Skipper's otters set up tables for the feast among the trees in the orchard paused to watch the otter chieftain and his squirrel friend try to catch Rimrose.
"I say, they have the right idea, wot," said one of the hares starting to drift towards the kitchen.
"Not yet, mate," said a big otter putting a paw on the hare's shoulder and effectively tripping with his rudder another hare racing to the kitchen. "Yer not finished with the tables."
The unfortunate hare, brushing grass stains off his formal red jacket, muttered to himself, "Steady on, you pirate. S'nothin' wrong with a chap stealin' a bit o' sustenance."
Beech looked over at the squirrel warrior sleeping fitfully on the branch beside him. He was mumbling something about music. Smiling to himself, Beech stared into the night. They had moved deeper into the forest during the day so as to put as much distance between themselves and the Castle as possible. On the highest branches of a tall elm, Beech lay on his back staring up at the thin sliver of the moon. The cool night breeze ruffled his fur and the crickets had begun to play a symphony to the stars. However, the sliver of the moon offered little light to the young squirrel's musings. To think this was only the first night that he had been free from the castle. It seemed as if so much had happened.
Yesterday afternoon, Dann had taught him all manner of techniques of sword play and tricks to improve his accuracy in slinging and javelin throwing. The warrior was forever correcting him on his stance and parries and wanted to know everything about the surrounding area and Beech's place in it. Yet, the other squirrel was mum when it came to his own past. As much as Beech pressed him, Dann would shake his head and change the subject.
Beech could feel his eyes drift close, seemingly through some other power. A vision came in front of his eyes, a mouse. He was dressed in gleaming armor, wearing a red cloak and a kind smile. He unsheathed a magnificent sword and pointed its keen tip at Beech.
"Don't fear, Beech. You have an inner strength that you will soon discover. The key to the liberation of your friends lies under the earth. Strike north with your new companions and bring my warrior to his beleaguered home. Those warrior born will finally be one."
His footpaws hanging down from the tree, Dann inspected the new buds that had begun blooming in the orchard that early spring. Abbess Song was on the bough above him, her head resting in her paws as she gazed out unseeingly out towards the walls and the swaying trees of Mossflower wood.
He swung up to join her. "What's wrong?" he asked.
She sighed and glanced over at him, the spell broken. "I just don't know what to think. Cypress and Hawthorne have been here for so long, three seasons! Why would they want to move out of the Abbey? And why would they leave it up to me to choose? Either way I'll make creatures in and out of the Abbey unhappy."
"You're the Abbess. This is your Abbey."
Song pouted and put her paws into her wide sleeves. She wrinkled her nose at him. "That's the same thing mum and Cregga said." She leaned back against the trunk of the tree with a sigh. "Still, I don't see why they want to leave. Have we done something to offend them?"
Dann plucked one of the flowers and twirled it between his fingers. "You've been more than welcoming towards them! You've allowed them to become truly contributing members of the Abbey. But blood is thicker than water. The story and history of this place has always made it uncomfortable for creatures of their species to live here. We tell scary stories to the dibbuns about Marlfoxes and pine martens with hypnotic eyes. You can see how they'd start to feel a little…awkward." Dann made a funny face at her. "Cypress's twins Milkwort and Mugwort are always asking me to play Marlfox with them!"
Song tried to hold in her merriment, but burst out laughing. "Those two are little devils. They always know what to do to make me laugh!"
He followed her previous gaze out into Mossflower wood. "But things aren't always as black and white as we might wish them to be. You don't have to exile them from the Abbey. They can live on their own outside the Abbey and still visit very often."
Song beamed at him. "That's a wonderful idea."
"I even know a lovely quiet glade only about a days walk west of here that would be a great place for them. We could help them build two little cottages. Maybe…"
He realized then how close they were and leaned towards her. She closed her eyes…
"Do you need some help up there?" said a voice approaching them. Song's eyes snapped open. Looking horrified with herself, she muttered an apology and then jumped down into a lower bough just as another squirrel climbed up to join them. It was Sinon. Song didn't waste any time. She scurried off to the kitchen. The red squirrel looked at Song's quickly retreating form and frowned at Dann accusingly. "What did you do to her? She looks really upset."
Dann looked at Song running away as well and spoke to hopefully distract Sinon from the true reason of the Abbess' distress. "She's just doesn't know what to do about our guests. She's having trouble reconciling a way that they can be part of the Abbey while not being in the Abbey."
Sinon's blue eyes were ice cold, tainted by a memory of his past that he was never comfortable to discuss. "It's dangerous keeping them too close to us. They volunteered to leave. I say we should just kick them out of the Abbey and be done with it. They bring danger to all of us just by being here. As the Abbey Warrior, you should be the first to show them the boot. Vermin don't understand anything but evil and don't enjoy anything but other creatures' suffering. Nothing can change that fact. We should kill them before they have a chance to do the same to us."
"Just because you get to wear Martin's sword doesn't make you better than me, Reguba!" he spat. "I'm just as capable and I bet if I was here before you that…"
Dann rolled his eyes when he sensed the familiar tirade about to ensue. "O stuff it, you windbag," he grumbled, pushing Sinon off the branch.
He jumped down himself and stormed back to the Abbey. He could still hear Sinon's belligerent voice yelling, "Don't walk away from me, Reguba!"
Dann shot up and looked around. It was only a dream, a memory. Rubbing his head, he looked around a second time for Beech. He finally noticed his friend hanging from a lower branch as he tried to regain his balance and swing onto the branch.
"What are you doing hanging there, mate?" Dann teased.
Beech huffed and jumped up next to Dann. "Some creature pushed me out of the tree! Do you always push creatures trying to wake you from trees?"
Dann laughed and pushed Beech off the branch again. "Only the annoying ones!"
After breakfast they climbed to the ground and Dann put aside all his accoutrements and weapons from his thick leather belt and from the fastenings across his back. A short sword, two knives and a scimitar were hidden beneath his quiver. He put aside his haversack which was strung across his chest in the same manner as his long bow.
The squirrel warrior unsheathed the broad sword from his belt and tossed it to Beech. He then picked up the scimitar which he had tossed at the base of the elm and tested its balance.
"Let's fence," announced Dann.
The lesson was quick; Beech believed this was because he was rubbish at swordplay.
"That's rubbish! Your swordplay is first rate. But your real strength is archery. You're much better than I am. You can see your target very clearly."
"Thank you," Beech exclaimed. "What would you like me to hit?"
"How about those chestnuts on the high braches." Dann squinted up at the tree and indicated them with a paw. "They'll go nicely in a salad for lunch."
The squirrel warrior was also increasingly impressed at how far his new friend could throw a javelin or sling a stone. There was a sort of burning intensity in Beech's eyes whenever he held a weapon. After Beech finally disarmed Dann as they fought with short swords, Dann announced they should take a break. Beech moved to give back the short sword.
"You can keep that one," the squirrel warrior said. "It's about time you had your own anyway. So what do you plan to do with your new freedom?"
"I'm going to use it to free my friends from the Castle and make Regolith regret taking us captive."
"Ah," said Dann solemnly. "This should bring about the most important aspect of your training as a warrior. You must always remember to fight for justice, never revenge or jealousy. Protect the weak and the helpless and never fight in anger. In losing control, you will also lose all that is dear to you. "
"I want to free all those in slavery and prevent Regolith and his vermin from ever making another creature suffer so."
"Good." Dann patted Beech on the shoulder. He looked around and shrugged. "So I see two squirrel warriors. What's your plan, general?"
Beech looked uncomfortable. "Promise you won't laugh? I had a strange dream last night. A mouse in armor spoke to me and instructed me to free everyone by going underground and then going north to save someone's home."
"A mouse in armor you say? That is strange. Did he have a sword with a red pommel stone on the top?" Dann pointed to the top of Beech's sword. Beech nodded at him looking confused. Dann continued, "You spoke to Martin the Warrior last night."
"I spoke to…What? How is that even possible? I thought he only spoke to the warrior of Redwall."
Dann shrugged, not saying a word about it. Beech tried to question him again, but the warrior cut him off saying, "Well I think we should go find those blueprints you've hidden away. And it's about time I returned to see Hamath."
"It's not a person, it's a place. Remember that settlement where I got those delicious scones? It's about a week's walk or a two day run from here."
Shaking dirt from her fur, Galena looked in displeasure at the great hole she was digging. The little excitable mouse named Philip was digging energetically next to her. So energetically that he was tossing an equal amount of dirt on her as he was outside the hole. It was very hot this morning, so the dirt stuck to the sweat dripping down her face. Galena wiped her face on the sleeve of her ragged light green tunic.
"Can you believe they have us diggin' another foundation, Galena? I thought we had finished all the buildings. I wonder what this will be." He paused and laughed gleefully. "Ha! I don't care; I won't be here to see it! We're getting away from here in a few days!"
Galena looked over at him. She closed her eyes as he threw more dirt in her face. "I'm sorry, Galena!" he whispered apologetically.
"Not so loud, we don't want the vermin to know wot we're thinkin,'" the otter whispered.
Philip pouted and whispered back, "They don't care what we're thinkin.' I wish I was a warrior like Martin the Warrior. He would have grabbed old Bilgetail's whip and started hitting him with it like this and this!" The little mouse punctuated each remark by hurling large shovelfuls of dirt over his shoulder and incidentally on Galena.
Galena smiled wryly as she pawed the dirt out of her eyes. Changing the subject back to their previous discussion, hoping it would induce less dirt slinging, she remarked, "I do wonder what this building will be. I wonder if Regolith himself knows. You know how these vermin are. Can't make up their minds 'bout anythin.' Maybe Regolith needs a special room for his lady friend to keep all of her beautiful gowns."
Philip laughed. "She would probably need a whole building! She wears a new dress every day!"
"What's all that talkin' for!" yelled a voice from above them. "Shuttup and keep diggin'!" yelled the rat Bilgetail before he swung his whip at Philip. A rat on the other side of the great hole laughed at Phillip. "Hey Bilgetail, I bet you can't snap off that mouse's ear with your whip."
"Shut up, Lousewort," the other rat growled.
"I bet you two pieces of silver," Lousewort taunted.
In dismay, Philip looked up between the two rats cursing at each other. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, submissive and ready for the blow. Galena felt such a rage curse through her veins that just as Bilgetail swung his whip, Galena held up her shovel to block the blow.
The whip coiled around it.
Lousewort roared with laughter.
"Damned waterdog. I'll whip the fur from your bones for this!" the rat Bilgetail hollered. He pulled forcefully at the whip, almost dragging Galena bodily from the hole.
Amazingly it was the advent of the Captain Bloodnose that saved the ottermaid. The weasel looked down his broken nose at the rats with displeasure. "How's yer productivity?"
"Er?" Bilgetail scratched his head, his ire forgotten in his confusion.
Bloodnose rolled his eyes. "Progress? How are you progressing? I see you're dragging that ottermaid from the hole. All done?"
"Er," repeated Bilgetail. The rat was not very smart.
Captain Bloodnose sighed at the rat and looked over at Lousewort. "Get those slaves out of the hole."
"Yessir," said Lousewort.
"That's enough, you lazy lay-a-bouts!" yelled Lousewort, his voice cracking. "Get outta that hole!"
Galena tossed Philip up out of it. She looked around at the other creatures trying to scramble up before she did so herself. She slipped down the first time, with the loose dirt crumbling in her paws. Captain Bloodnose rolled his eyes and grabbed her wrist roughly, pulling her out of the hole.
She grabbed Philip's paw and ran back to the compound. A squirrel walked past them, winking as he tucked a small knife he had found in a pocket.
While they finally returned to compound to be assigned another task, Galena saw Willow hurrying towards Regolith's quarters. Willow paused momentarily and whispered to Galena, "There was no building there on my father's blueprints. There should be nothing between the slave compound and the west gate. I got a good look at it when Beech and I hid it in that tree."
"I thought as much, matey," Galena whispered back. "Though I don't want to think 'bout what it must be. It's much to shallow to be a foundation. Don't tell anyone. They might panic if'n they discover they're diggin' their own graves."
Willow nodded sadly in understanding and hurried off to complete her next task.
The Castle's buildings were arranged in a very simple pattern. The main building, a tall square building made of wood and stone, was in the center of the grounds, with three floors: the first floor with separate mess halls for officers and enlisted creatures, the second floor with the infirmary and war room, and the third floor for the officer's quarters. The slave compound was attached to the main building almost as an afterthought, composed of thick wooden bars creating a lattice pattern. There were only two entrances in or out of the slave compound, one onto the parade ground and another into the main building. A long gray one story building spanned the entire length of the south wall, doubling as the armory and soldier's barracks.
There was a vast open space between the main building and the barracks, which was used as the parade ground for the soldiers to practice drills. Regolith's quarters were completely separate from those of his officers and enlisted creatures. They were in the northeast corner of the grounds, where he would not be disturbed. The kitchen with its unpainted wooden walls and stone foundation was separate from the other buildings in case of fire, in the northwest corner of the grounds.
This was where Willow scurried off to. Skidding to a stop in front of the kitchen, she opened the door and walked inside. She coughed against the smoke of the ovens and hurried over to the old dormouse Acrey. The heat from the stoves was truly oppressive in the summer heat, but Acrey suffered it good naturedly.
"How are you today, darlin?'" the kindly dormouse asked.
"Well, thank you. And you?"
Acrey wiped a floured paw over her forehead and sighed, "I'm doing alright, I suppose. What news of your friend Beech?"
"He's fine!" said Willow excited to be bringing good news for a change. "Galena and I were listening in on Regolith's conversation with Halfear and we heard that somehow Beech escaped and dispatched the five guards chasing him."
"Beech did all that by himself!" Acrey gasped in astonishment. "That's wonderful news."
Willow smiled happily. "What's on the menu for the pine martens today?"
"Regolith's favorite roasted woodpigeon and a spring salad today. Vermilion likes these biscuits well enough, I suppose."
The dormouse piled the platter high with three plates of dinner. Willow felt her heart sink. Regolith must be expecting Zigor for lunch. Acrey gave the platter to the young squirrelmaid and smiled at her. "Take care of yourself, my dear. Thank you for telling me the good news. I always liked your friend Beech."
Willow climbed down the staircase on the east side of the kitchen into the basement. Standing with her head bowed, she looked through her lashes as the ferret guards at the doors into the tunnels heaved aside the iron bars. She watched her feet carefully as she danced down the steep steps, light from the torches dancing over her leather anklet.
It was a gift from her father the season before Regolith came. He had braided together and studded pieces of leather around a final piece of leather that had her name embossed into it. A smile would always come to her face when she thought of her father sitting with her by the fire as he wove together the anklet for her and the wristband for her brother.
The light from the wall torches flickered over the metal tray she carried. The torches were attached to the wall at the point where the huge oak cross beams supporting the walls intersected.
She always hated going into the tunnels. They were so hot and close in the summer. She felt like she was breathing dirt and death. The ceilings were very high and the entirety of the tunnel system was well buttressed. After all, her father had designed it.
She shifted the tray and raised a paw to rap on the door for the guards' attention on the other side. All the tunnels meet at the Main Building, so she waited there before she could take the tunnel to Regolith's quarters. An irritated looking stoat opened the door before ushering her into the more carefully protected entrance to Regolith's private tunnel. The guards all looked at the covered trays hungrily.
Standing in the bare servants' passage on the west edge of Regolith's quarters, she set down the large platter down on the flimsy wooden table before removing the extra plate and adding the decanter of Regolith's favorite wine. She waited in front of the door to the marten's chambers, taking a deep breath trying to steady her nerves. From inside she could hear the imperious voice of Regolith drawl: "I wonder where that damned squirrelmaid has gone off to. I'm hungry."
Willow waited until her paws had ceased shaking before she glided gracefully and quietly into the chamber. Placing the platter down on the massive mahogany table, she tried not to look at Vermilion's paws.
Vermilion was a fatally beautiful pine marten. The soldiers said that she had betrayed her fiancé to Regolith, who was his own brother, forcing the other pine marten from the area. Her paws were a bright crimson from her claws to up past her wrists. Some said that it was merely a birth mark, but others said that she had participated in so much slaughter that the blood of her now dead enemies had dyed her paws a permanent blood red.
Vermilion barely looked at he squirrelmaid. Her nature was ice cold, barely acknowledging those around her. Regolith looked at his mate and said, "That green dress is very fetching."
Vermilion merely stared at him, making no reply.
Willow moved silently into the shadows of the room standing with her back to the luxurious jewel-toned wall hangings. Willow shivered. Regolith raised his voice and said, "Squirrelmaid, I would like some more wine."
Grasping the decanter in one paw, Willow leaned over to pour into his glass. As she tried to slip away, Regolith tried to grab her around the waist. This was his game. However, this time she was too fast. Regolith leaned back and laughed. Vermilion merely looked at Willow with her chilly gaze.
There was a knock on the outside door and Zigor, the black fox, walked in, his blue cloak trailing behind him. Of all of Regolith's troops, Willow hated him the most. He was the cruelest, whipping the slaves just to revel in their screams of agony. And he was sly. He seemed to be hiding in every shadow, hearing everything the slaves and the hordebeasts said. Regolith trusted him implicitly because he had a way of sniffing out malcontents and their machinations.
Vermilion stared down at her plate as her mate smiled over at his favorite officer. "Pull up a chair, Zigor."
Willow danced out of his way as the black fox dragged a stool over to the table and sat at Regolith's right paw. The fox's voice was deep and silky. "Preparations are going well. The crops are doing much better than I had anticipated so we should have excess supplies."
"Wonderful," Regolith praised his captain. "Get us another glass of wine, squirrelmaid." He turned back to Zigor. "Thank you for warning me of Deekeye. You were right that he was planning to mutiny."
"I live only to serve you, milord," the black fox proclaimed. "The rebellion was only in his thoughts for the present, but how long must we wait for it to coalesce into something more tangible, to twist into something more sinister?"
Willow left the room, closing the inside door behind her. She put a trembling paw to her breast. Each time she was near the pine marten or his most trusted lieutenant, she was never sure if she would leave the room alive. When she returned with victuals for the black fox, the conversation had become more technical.
"Mortys will be arriving in the next few days with news from the north," said the pine marten.
"The winds are very favorable; he might arrive as early as tomorrow."
Regolith glanced over at Willow, his green eyes piercing into hers. "His past report from our friend up north seemed very positive. He presented us with a definitive time frame to stage our conquest."
"Indeed," said the black fox. He smiled up at Willow as she put down his plate. Leaning back, he picked up his fork. "The woodpigeon looks excellent." His creepy obsidian eyes beamed malicously at her.
Beech had never seen a place quite like Hamath. Since Dann had spoken of it so casually, Beech assumed it was merely a home or two in a small clearing, not a bustling town. There had to be at least ten wood and stone structures built around a main square and many more creating several wide avenues. Most were single level, but a few climbed two or three stories into the sky. Fascinated, he studied the cleverly painted wooden signs hanging above some of the doors: Hamath Inn, The Tipsy Seagull Tavern, Loampaw's General Store, The Warrior's Armory.
It seemed this afternoon most of the creatures were standing in the square, buying goods from some sort of market. Around a statue in the middle of the square, there were many carts and booths set up so that a path was created between the inside and outside rings of carts.
Beech looked over at Dann perplexed. Dann indicated the creatures laughing and trading with each other. "They have a market day once a week. You see not everyone lives in town. Many of the farmers live on the outskirts and bring in their produce to sell on market day." Dann looked at Beech's ragged and torn brown tunic. He picked at the sleeve. "We'll get you some new clothes too. Can't have you wandering around like this!"
As they got nearer, Beech noticed that it was not only moles, hedgehogs, mice, squirrels and otters. There were also vermin! Ferrets were carrying baskets of brown bread, two stoats were leading their little ones by the paw, a group of rats were throwing dice, even three foxes were trying to trick an otter into giving them a discount.
Beech took a step back in alarm.
Suddenly the stoat family seemed to notice them approaching. The mother did a double take and elbowed her mate roughly. "Would you look at wot the wind blew in, Blacktooth!"
"Great seasons of slaughter! Is that Dann Reguba?" said Blacktooth in surprise.
His announcement instilled a sudden quiet into the market place. Every beast turned to look at Dann and Beech. Beech took another step back in alarm, his paw going for the hilt of the sword. Then there was a chorus of cheers and all ran up encircling Dann, trying to shake his paws.
"Dann, me old messmate, I thought you were heading out for good. Where 'ave you been these last two weeks?" laughed an otter shaking his paws.
"Far away from you. Didn't want to eat your spicy food anymore!"
"So did you finally make up with your pretty lass, eh, mate?" asked a ferret, shaking his paw and offering him a piece of bread.
"If I did, would I be here lookin' at yer ugly mug, eh?" quipped Dann.
"Did ya see the statue, Dann?" asked one of the rats. "Me and me mate finally finished it."
"Is that supposed to be me?" laughed Dann. "I think you took too much artistic license, mate. You made me look like a fat frog."
Beech watched on from the edge of the crowd, constantly being pushed back by all those striving to shake the squirrel warrior's paw. Puzzled, he let himself be pushed away from the gold furred squirrel warrior. He turned around when he felt a paw tap his shoulder.
"Ahoy there, matey. I've never seen you afore. What've you'n'Dann been doin' lately?"
He turned to look at a big and brawny sea otter smiling at him. He was a handsome creature, sinewy built and powerful looking, but with a roguish air with a red bandana across his forehead and two silver hoop earrings on his right ear. He wore a simple but well made green tunic with brown thread embellishing the sides and the collar. A broad brown belt was loose around his hips with a fearsome curved blade thrust through it.
The otter's warm brown eyes twinkled as he held his paw out to Beech in friendship. Beech was astounded; he only came about up to the otter's broad shoulders. Beech could only remember meeting one creature as tall as the otter, Regolith the Ruthless.
"Well I've only been traveling with Dann for a few days. I came from a place called the Castle about a week's walk away. My name's Beech."
The otter smiled and said, "The name's Cinnabar Shellhound, pleasure to meet you, Beech. I guess Dann must 'ave taken a shining to you. I didn't think he tolerated company on the march."
"Well slap me thrice and hand me to me mater. I say, Cinnabar, you otter chap, that bally squirrel over there isn't Dannflor Reguba?" boomed a deep carrying voice from behind them. Beech turned to see an older hare approaching them with a great smile on his face and a few pasties in his paws. He was wearing a dashing crimson jacket lined with beautiful gold thread. A myriad of metals fought each other for space upon it and its well polished brass buttons strained over his large stomach.
"Aye, 'tis, Sax," said the otter smiling. He turned to Beech. "This hare calls himself Sergeant Saxifrage."
Cinnabar stole a pasty from the hare's paw as Sergeant Saxifrage shook Beech's paw.
The Sergeant's large mustachios bristled in indignation as he made as if to unsheathe his saber. "That's bloomin' bad manners. Imagine stealin' a mate's scoff right from his paws, wot! I should have you flogged for your impudence!" The Sergeant turned to the astonished squirrel and winked. "By the left, it must be three blinkin' seasons since I last saw that Dann Reguba. And wot do you call yoreself, old chap?"
"My name's Beech, sir."
"Pleasure to meet you," said the Sergeant. He pulled at the shoulder of Beech's tunic just as Dann had. One of his long ears scratched his head. "I say, old bean! This is a very strange getup. Where did you say you came from?"
"I didn't. I'm from the castle. Just escaped a few days ago."
"Escaped?" gasped the Sergeant.
"Yeah, I used to be a slave in a great fortress called the Castle,"
"Well this is bally well awkward," the hare stage-whispered to the otter. "Imagine givin' an escaped slave a hard time over his uniform."
The sergeant looked over at another pair of hares walking toward them. They were a handsome pair. One was a tall, powerfully built male, just as tall as Cinnabar the otter. Strangely though, the hare didn't appear to be carrying any weapon other than a sling around his lean waist. His crimson jacket had even more metals than that of Sergeant Saxifrage. The other hare was a slight creature, with rich dark fur and bright grey eyes. The top of her head only reached her companion's collarbone. Yet she strolled confidently by the male hare's side, with one paw held comfortably on her rapier.
The Sergeant waved them over and explained, "Major, this squirrel just escaped from a blinkin' fortress holdin' woodlanders prisoner. Dann Reguba brought him here."
The female spoke first, "I say, sounds like awfully bad manners, eh. Image holdin' woodlanders in slavery, wot."
"We'd received reports of vermin enslavin' woodlanders down in the South. Then we came upon this jolly place. Couldn't believe the jolly old peepers when we saw how creatures treated one another here. Whoever heard of vermin and woodlanders livin' together in harmony! Thought our informants got their blinkin' facts wrong. Aren't we a load of bounders!" said the male.
Beech looked towards the bigger hare and asked, "Major, do you know any moles in Hamath. I thought we'd try to free the slaves somehow by digging a tunnel." He made as if to remove the haversack that Dann had given him. "I have blueprints of the Castle, to help determine where to dig."
The hare that Beech had addressed looked over at the female hare with something akin to embarrassment. "I say, old gel. Ain't this embarrassing. That squirrel type thinks I'm the leader of this patrol, wot!" he turned to Beech and offered his paw. "The name's Captain Darcy Turnsol. This is Major Peony Laminar."
Beech felt himself redden all the way up to his ear tips. Completely mortified, he tried to stammer out an apology. Wagging her ears at him, Major Peony said, "Don't fret, young 'un. It happens all the time."
"Indeed 'tis baffling that such a rare beauty as Peony Laminar would be a Major, wot," Sergeant Saxifrage intoned in his deep loud voice. "She a bally prodigy of sorts, you know."
"Indeed she is, Sax," Turnsol added teasingly as he threw a paw around Saxifrage's shoulders. "And a bloomin' paradigm of strategic intelligence. The youngest hare to ever be a Major, doncha know."
"Enough of that, you silver tongued rascals. Yer only sayin' that so I'll buy you another bloomin' pint at the Tipsy Seagull," Peony snorted waving her paw at them. She smiled over at Beech. "'Tis a pleasure to meet you."
Cinnabar chuckled and patted Beech on the back. In his deep cheerful voice he laughed, "Well, mateys. Seems that Beech's got most of the plannin' done afore we came. Wonder if 'e needs us at all!"
Peony laughed as well before saying, "Why don't we head over to the Tipsy Seagull to discuss our plans? We can hunt down Foremole Loamsnout and ask his advice. Besides, I'm famished!" she took the last pastie from Sargeant Saxifrage as he was about to stuff it in his mouth.
"I say, Peony. That's my last one, wot!"
"Privilege of rank, doncha know," she said. Winking at Beech, she patted the Sergeant's large stomach.
They had taken a detour on their way to the Tipsy Seagull to buy some new clothing for Beech while Captain Turnsol ran a few errands. Cinnabar told them that Loampaw's General Store sold ready made tunics, so they made their way to the gaily painted front windows of the store. Cinnabar opened the door for the others.
The otter winked roguishly at the mole, "Good afternoon, shipmate. This young 'un would like some new garments."
The little old mole scuttled over, leaning on a walking stick. He peered at Beech through his glasses and said, "You'm a rarscal, Cinnabar, that young 'un surpently ain't a varmint. Eet's just a squirrel beast."
Cinnabar looked shocked. "Well shiver me barnacles, so it is a squirrel!"
Major Peony clamped a paw to her mouth to keep from laughing.
Beech looked at them like they were mad beasts. "I'm sorry, sir. I just want a new tunic."
The mole poked Beech in the stomach with his walking stick. "Boi okey, naow why din't 'ee sez so in ee furrst place?"
"Lead the way, sir mole," said Cinnabar with an elaborate gesture.
The little mole hobbled towards the back of his shop with the others walking behind him. Beech was starting to wonder if he was going to regret escaping from the Castle after all. These otters and hares were mad beasts!
The mole waved at the tunics set out on the back table with his digging claws. " 'Elp yerselves. Oi'll bee waitten furr 'ee boi ee frunt." He teetered away and Beech would hear him muttering, "wretched otter villans," to himself.
Sergeant Saxifrage picked out a simple but well made tunic for Beech and held it up against the squirrel's front.
Major Peony, who was leaning against the back shelves with her paws crossed over her chest dissolved into fits of laughter. "That's much too big for that little squirrel fellow, Sax!"
The sergeant glared at his superior officer. Shrugging, he held the same tunic up to his front. Just right. "It's a nice color, don't you think, Cinnabar? Complements my eyes, eh, mate?"
"Shut it, Sax and keep looking." Peony said.
The otter peeked his head over the tall shelves of another aisle. He started laughing along with Major Peony. "I thought we were getting new clothes for Beech."
"Bunch o' rotters." Saxifrage put the tunic back down.
"I found a nice belt for Beech," said Cinnabar, walking up and putting the belt around Beech. He stepped back and put a paw to his chin. He glanced back at Peony. "Nice right?"
The belt was studded with iron barbs and much too large for the squirrel. It stayed on for a moment before falling to the squirrel's footpaws. Beech stood stalk still in utter confusion. Peony sighed and shook her head. She unhitched herself from the shelves and walked over to the squirrel. Leaning down, she picked up the belt and put it around Cinnabar's waist. Just right.
"I always wanted a stubbed belt. Reminds me of my Uncle Laon. What a crazy old bat! Tried to go fishing on a shark, you know. Good idea, but poorly executed. The shark scared all the fish away and then, of course, ate Laon. Still, this belt looks dashingly debonair."
Peony sighed heavily before hitting both Saxifrage and Cinnabar over the head with her paws. "You're supposed to be lookin' for the squirrel. Not fer yerselves!"
She eyed a light green tunic and plain brown belt. Handing them to Beech, she winked at him. "Try 'em on."
Beech smiled at the new clothes. "They're perfect. Thank you, Major."
"You're welcome," the hare muttered as she pushed Cinnabar and Saxifrage towards the front of the shop. She dropped a few coins on the desk in front of the old mole and then hurried them back into the main square.
"Bunch o' rotters," Saxifrage and Cinnabar muttered together.
The Tipsy Seagull was a bustling tavern an avenue down from the main square. It was both below and behind the Hamath Inn, and to the right of the Hamath Armory. The tavern had wide bay windows set around the open front door. The brown shingled outside was brightened up with a fresh coat of green paint on the door and the molding around the windows. Above the door hung a sign with the likeness of a seagull having quite a difficult time getting off the ground.
Beech peered at it curiously. Sergeant Saxifrage noticed the squirrel's amused smile and put an arm around his shoulder. "This is the best bar in Hamath, old bean."
Major Peony, walking behind them with Cinnabar Shellhound, chuckled to herself and announced rather loudly. "Sergeant Saxifrage would be the one to know, he's frequented every bar in town since we arrived here two nights ago."
Captain Turnsol had left the others before they went into Loampaw's General Store to bring the remainder of the patrol to meet them at the tavern. Dann Reguba had been notified of their plans, but was still shaking paws in the square and promised to meet them later.
Beech strolled in side by side with Sergeant Saxifrage and gazed around in wonder. The tavern looked rather small from the street, but appearances were deceiving. The room was not rather wide, but it was perhaps twice as long as it was wide. It was surprisingly dark inside, the tavern windows faced full north, but the wall scones and mirrors lent enough light to the room.
Turnsol had wasted no time; he and the other hares were pulling together two heavy oak tables in the far corner of the bar by the fireplace. For the summer, the bar owners had moved aside the grate and placed several bright potted plants inside. A mole walked over to the tables with trays of ale.
Beech felt a thrill of anticipation course through him. Never in a million seasons, could he have ever thought to be so close to freeing his friends from the castle and Regolith's clutches. He could just imagine Willow's smile of awe and appreciation as she congratulated him on the escape effort he organized. He could die happy if she smiled at him like that.
The mole was talking to Captain Turnsol as Beech walked in with the others. "Oi duzz loike a gudd pint o' 'tober Ale." The mole turned to the squirrel with a smile tugging at the corner of his snout as Beech stopped in front of them. Captain Turnsol introduced the mole as Foremole Loamsnout.
"Boi okey, et's vurry noice t' meet 'ee."
"Er, it's a pleasure to meet you, sir," Beech mumbled embarrassed. He couldn't understand a word of what the mole was saying.
Turnsol motioned for the newcomers to take a seat, so the Major sat first at the head of the table and Turnsol sat next to her also at the head of the table. Loamsnout sat to their right as Beech, Cinnabar and Sergeant Saxifrage sat to their left. The other hares filled in the remaining chairs with the youngest ones farthest from the Major.
The hares were all dressed similarly to their officers, in red jackets all bearing different types of weapons at their waists. All the hares had metals on their splendid red jackets, most just one or two. Several hares had insignias of stars or stripes on their shoulders. Beech would have to ask later what they meant.
Major Peony had them all introduce themselves. In addition to Major Peony Laminar, Captain Darcy Turnsol and Sergeant Saxifrage there were also: Lieutenants Oswego and Tobias sitting next to the mole; Borage the healer who sat next to the Sergeant; Jonquil their weapons specialist who sat next to the Lieutenant named Tobias; and five younger hares sitting together at the end of the table.
The younger hares were very excited to be sitting in this impromptu council of war. They had been sitting outside with Lieutenant Oswego for a sort of lesson, a tradition that Major Peony had started with their patrol. Beech couldn't catch all the younger hare's names; the Major said them very quickly.
Beech was astounded that there were so few hares in the patrol. Major Peony explained. "Quality not quantity, old bean. We're a scouting party, doncha know. Scoutin' out the theoretical slave compound thing-a-me for ourselves to determine if we need to send word to the Badger Lord to bring in the jolly ole' reinforcements, wot."
As Cinnabar turned his head to listen to the Major, Beech saw Sergeant Saxifrage take a drink from the otter's ale. The hare wagged an ear at Beech and winked.
Cinnabar picked up his beaker and was surprised to see it empty. He glared over at Saxifrage. "You great feedbag! Ya drank all me ale!"
Saxifrage feigned surprised. "Did I? I took merely a sip, just a little taste. So as to wet my whistle, wot. Imagine accusing a chap of such a thing, wot!"
Cinnabar didn't get a chance to respond because Dann burst in, with a ferret at his side. The ferret's face was rent asunder by fearsome looking scars. Beech couldn't bear to look at him for long. Dann sat down between Peony and Beech and took the half-filled beaker of ale Captain Turnsol offered. He took it, looking surprised there was still ale remaining. The ferret went to get more drinks. "Thanks for leaving me at the mercy of the crowd!"
"Anytime, old boy," said Turnsol.
"So I guess Beech has already told you all about what's going on," Dann announced. "Thanks, mate," he said as the ferret handed him a mug of ale and put down a tray with more for everyone. He pulled up a stool and sat next to Dann. Beech offered Major Peony a mug of ale, but she declined, saying she needed to finish her Blackcurrant Cordial first.
Beech took out the blueprints and spread them across the table. The sour looking Lieutenant Oswego moved his drink aside with a huff as the paper unraveled near it. Beech pointed to a black path on the grid. "The black paths are the tunnel systems. This tunnel connects the kitchens to the basement of the main compound. There are the fewest soldiers guarding this tunnel. Here are the stairs up to the main floor and the door opening into the slave compound. I was thinking that if Foremole Loamsnout and his moles could dig a hole that intersects this one, we can lead all the other slaves out this way."
Captain Turnsol looked down at the drawing. "I say, sounds a bit complicated to me, wot! We'd better get started soon. Don't want the blinkin' winter to set in before we finish the subaerial labyrinth, wot."
Dann looked at Turnsol amusedly. He pointed to the neat markings on the map and commented. "I dunno if you noticed, but there's a small wicker gate set into the walls on the west walls of the fortress. It's right in front of the slave compound. Instead of havin' to deal with dangerous subaerial labyrinths, I propose that Beech and I scale the wall, open the wicker gate and help the slaves escape through the gate."
"I suppose that could create a smaller distance to traverse so weaker slaves won't be at as much of a disadvantage and less bloomin' time for the jolly old vermin to notice our presence," observed Turnsol.
The Long Patrol Major was silent in thought, her head resting on one of her paws as her keen grey eyes watched the creatures conversing. Beech looked over as the Lieutenant Oswego spoke challengingly at the Major, "I agree with Dann's proposition. A tunnel may be bally well dangerous if the bloomin' thing caves in on us while we're escapin.' And it's hard to make have a swift retreat whilst in a tunnel."
"Burr aye, Wotever yoo'n's feel bee best. Us'n's molers'll 'elp yoo'm, Dann zurr. Oi'm glad oi bee not cloiming thee walls," said Foremole Loamsnout holding up a heafty digging claw.
"Are you sure you don't want us to dig a tunnel. I had a dream and…" Beech began.
"I know, young'n," Dann interrupted condescendingly, "But Martin doesn't always know best. I've heard his story how he escaped from slavery. He used a tunnel. That's why he told you that."
Major Peony finally spoke, "No need to criticize the young 'un, Dann. I've made my decision. We're going to scale the wall rather than building the tunnel. Too many variables we can't control with tunnel digging," she checked them off on her paws, "Might get the wrong tunnel, might take too long. The tunnels are bolted with sturdy doors so we might not be able to go any farther once we get into the tunnel. Scaling walls is cut and dry. Easy to scamper down in a dark cloak and whisk away all the slaves before the soldiers even notice we're there."
"Oh," said Beech disheartened.
"Don't worry, old thing. We'll get your friends out safe'n'sound. We're not all puddenheads. These officers do know wot their doin,' " said the healer Borage wagging his ears at Beech. He smiled over at Turnsol. "Some more than others."
Lieutenant Oswego snorted at the healer's joke, his narrow shoulders shaking with mirth.
Beech could feel his face warming in embarrassment at all the attention and the quick dismissal of his plans. "So when do we leave?"
"I say, you chaps. As soon as I finish this cordial, wot," said Major Peony. She lifted it to her lips only to have it promptly taken away and drained by Sergeant Saxifrage. She looked over at him in dismay. "You're a right bounder, Sax. Wot's a chapess to do when her misbegotten muddlebrained excuses for recruits start to scoff her scoff!"
"Why get on the march or course, Majoress," said Captain Turnsol teasingly.
Mossflower wood was surprisingly quiet as the squirrels trekked along on the well-worn trail. Up in the verdant canopies, a few birds trilled melodies to each other, sounding as lazy as the air itself. The dusky red sandstone of Redwall's battlements was no longer visible behind them; the trees and thick undergrowth had long since hidden it from view. Though Sinon thought he could still hear the dull clanging of the Matthias and Mortimer bells tolling the hour.
The trail was well made, and recently so. Here and there the faint smudges of the red paint Foremole had used to mark the route for the trailblazers could still be seen on the odd tree or stone. It was a well made path, serving as an easy route between Redwall and Mossflower Glade. It intersected the North Path about half a day's march south of Redwall, and many creatures now made use of it. Not only did it connect the homes of Cypress and Hawthorne to the Abbey, but served as an easy route for all the creatures living in Mossflower.
Sinon merely stared ahead as he and the Abbess walked on in companionable silence. She didn't seem inclined to conversation at the present. She merely hummed softly to herself, her voice rising and falling in a tune he didn't recognize. It was a melancholy haunting melody. He stole a glance sideways at her as was his habit. The summer sun stealing through the trees sparkled on her long lashes as she blinked off a particularly bothersome gnat.
As they walked along, the Abbess and friend, many beasts on the way stopped them to talk or to shake Abbess Song's paws. Sinon was always proud of the devotion and awe his Abbess inspired in all the creatures around him. Indeed he was sure that he often had the same reaction every day since the first he ever meet her.
Ever since the day he came to Redwall, as a wounded vagabond, Abbess Song was forever kind and thoughtful towards him, even when her friend the Redwall Champion treated him in quite the opposite manner. But Dann had been gone for several seasons now, and frankly Sinon saw it as no fur off his tail.
A hedgehog family was pushing a small cart from the direction of the Mossflower Glade piled high with all manner of herbs and spices from the area. Certain days during the week, creatures would come with their wears to the Glade and set up a sort of market.
The hedgehog family stopped as they neared the two squirrels. "Abbess, it is such a pleasure to see you, marm!" said the mother.
Song laughed musically, shaking their paws, carefully avoiding the spikes. "How are you, Daisy Quill? It's been at least a season at least! You look so fine! How are all the little hogs?"
As if on cue, two little hogs popped their heads out from the cart and jumped down. Their mouths were stained purple, presumably because the little hedgehogs had gorged themselves on the blackberries that grew wild along the path. The little ones ran over to Song; the little male hedgehog tripped on his footpaws and jumped up to catch his older sister.
Pulling at the Abbess' skirts, they assailed her in their high voices, "Abbess marm, Abbess!"
"Abbess, Abbess! Do you want to see my rock? I found it in the woods. It looks like a leaf!" the little maid trilled, twirling in a circle so her light green dress twirled with her.
"Abbess, don't look at Dagelet's rock, look at what I got first," cried the little male hog trying to slip in front of his older sister.
Song laughed and made a face at them. Swinging Dagelet around and avoiding her spikes, she said, "Did you get a pretty dress to wear for the season day feast at Redwall? It's coming very soon, you know! Autumn is almost here after all. We have to name the summer before autumn arrives."
Dagelet scratched her muzzle and said, "Is it tomorrow?" Her father shook his head at his daughter. Song didn't notice a chuckle and wink that Daisy Quill gave her small daughter.
Song laughed heartily. "Not quite that soon, silly. There are still a few days left in this season after all!"
Ned Quill spoke to Sinon in his gruff baritone. "How are you, mate?"
"Fine, thank…" All the hedgehogs seemed to notice the pommel stone and the sword hanging across his back at the same time.
"Bless my spikes!" said Goody Quill. "Is that Martin the Warrior's great sword?"
"Marthen's sword? Are you da warrior 'a Redwall, sir?" asked the little male hedgehog, peeking his head from behind the Abbess' skirts.
Sinon looked indignant that he would have to say he was not, so Song answered for him. "No, Dann is still off questing. Sinon is merely carrying Martin's sword in case he needs to protect me from any fierce hedgehog babes." Her voice took on a sinister note and she picked up the little male hedgehog up and tickled him mercilessly.
The whole company laughed. The hedgehogs gave Song several hugs and said their goodbyes to Sinon before heading off in the opposite direction.
The squirrels pressed forward, taking a break for lunch on a bridge built over a stream that crossed the path. Sinon clambered down the banks to fill their canteens as Song stood on the bridge, nibbling on a few candy chestnuts. She looked out into the forest with a faraway look in her eyes.
"What are you thinking about?"
Song started and looked down at the red squirrel standing in the creek; he was trying to keep his leather bracelet dry as he filled their canteens. "Nothing of importance. The mention of the season day feast was just reminding me of something. It's not important. We'd better hurry along."
The shadows eventually lengthened as the sun sank in the West. They sat down to dine in the fading light, not noticing the pairs of eyes staring at them from the shadows.
They continued the journey until the darkness became oppressive. Sinon sighed and looked over at the Abbess who had started to hum again quietly to herself.
"It looks like we are getting pretty close. We could make camp here tonight and arrive there tomorrow morning," he suggested
"That sounds like a good idea," said the Abbess. "I guess we started a bit too late this morning."
Sinon took off his haversack and was about to search in the woods for some firewood when suddenly wraithlike figures glided towards them from the shadows. Song let out a little gasp of surprise and ran to stand by Sinon's side, holding a small knife he didn't realize she had been carrying. He eased down the haversack and slowly drew Martin's sword.
The foremost wraith spoke in a deep hollow sounding voice. "Put down your weapons, squirrels, you are now the captives of the corpse makers."
The Abbey was in chaos. The Abbess would be returning soon and nothing seemed to be going right. While Skipper and his otter crew were setting up tables in the shadow of the orchard for the feast, a gang of dibbuns had snuck up on the old cellarhog Tragglo Spearback and cut loose the barrels of ale he was moving towards the orchard. They careened down the slope at an astonishing velocity, almost pinning down little Sister Bianca and Brother Melius as they brought out plates and beakers. Grimacing ferociously at the babes, Tragglo sent them scurrying off while Skipper and his otters tried to fish the great barrels out of the pond.
Janglur was sitting in the grass a little ways away with his wife and the Long Patrol Colonel Basil Nymium, working on making paper lanterns to hang in the trees above the tables. The Long Patrol Colonel was squinting through his monocle at the small hole in the needle as he tried to rethread it.
The Badgermother Cregga had supervised her dibbuns in cutting the colored pieces of paper into the correct shapes, now the squirrels and hare were sewing the pieces together and cutting the string to suspend them from cords strung between the boughs of the trees. Cregga was taking a break from the crafts, talking inside with Russano.
Janglur glanced up as Rusval Reguba strolled over with a tray of ice cold raspberry tea. The drink was refreshing on such a warm summer afternoon. Rusval sat down and stretched back in the grass with a sigh. He stole a glance over at the dibbuns playing in the pond with the otters. "Those dibbuns are awfully rowdy today."
"I say, wot! 'Tis probably the prospect of a Redwall feast," replied the Colonel. "My patrol's gettin' rather ecstatic and rather erratic as well." He eyed two hares helping Skipper with the barrels. They wiggled their ears at each other and then pushed Skipper into the pond. The otter submerged sputtering before pulling the hares in as well with a hearty chuckle.
As Janglur handed Rusval a grouping of green papers, a little squirrel babe jumped onto Rusval's back, hanging from his ears. The squirrel's partner in crime, a little molemaid, snuck up and pulled on Colonel Nymium's tunic.
"When's da feast, Misser Reguba? When's da feast?" The little squirrel squeaked.
Rimrose pulled the squirrel babe from Rusval's ears. "When my daughter returns of course!"
"Oi's be hopin' she'm comes zoon. Oi's be gurtly 'ungered," the little molemaid complained to Colonel Nymium.
"By the left, missie, you've got the flippin' problem solved. We need the Abbess before we can jolly well start scoffin' all the vittles, eh, wot!"
"She should be here soon. She's probably arrived at the Mossflower Trading Post by now, or will tomorrow morning," said a voice from above them. It was their friend Brother Melius, the hedgehog. He stood above them with an amused smile on his craggy face.
"Unless somebeast gets in their way." Rimrose frowned. "I hope my Song is safe in Mossflower."
"Well she and Sinon have Martin's sword. I feel bad for anyone who tries to get their way. Sinon has a warrior's spirit, and Song is as much of a warrior as her father," Brother Melius assured them.
Colonel Nymium winked at the little molemaid pulling on his tunic. "I say, why don't you chaps take first watch on the battlements. Keep your peepers peeled for the Abbess, eh? Mention in dispatches and all that, wot wot."
"Oi say, zurr are. You'm be a ball gud caramel," the little molemaid intoned in her best hare impression.
The elders laughed as the little squirrel and molemaid saluted the Long Patrol Colonel and raced off.
Colonel Nymium shook his head. "By the left, I can't understand a word those mole chaps say. I'm a ball of caramel. Sounds a bit dodgy doncha think?"
The hedgehog Brother Melius laughed and corrected the Colonel, "I think she was trying to say that you were a bally good colonel." He sat down next to the Long Patrol Colonel.
The colonel shrugged, the metals jingling on his tunic. "Then why didn't she bally well say that?"
Rimrose eyed the dibbuns pushing aside creatures as the mounted the battlements. She put down a pink lantern she had just completed and turned to the Long Patrol Colonel. "Those dibbuns look very determined in lookout duty. I hope you haven't created a monster, Colonel."
"Not at all, not at all, milady. 'Tis always beneficial to give the young 'uns a bit of responsibility, eh, wot?"
Brother Melius picked up the pink lantern that Rimrose had just finished sewing. "Can you believe it's been ten seasons that Song has been Abbess! It seems like only yesterday that she and her friends were off rescuing Martin's tapestry."
"And at least three seasons now since I've seen my son," Rusval hissed harshly. He tugged ferociously at the twine of his lantern and it snapped under his paws.
Rimrose laid a paw on his arm. "Don't fret, Rusval. Dann is a great warrior. I'm sure wherever he is, he is fine."
"It's strange. I had a dream about him last night," said Rusval with a note of hesitation in his voice about sharing such a personal thought. "He looked older than I remembered. He was coming to Redwall with a group of friends. It was like he was trying to tell me…" Embarrassed at his moment of weakness, Rusval stopped in mid-sentence.
Janglur glanced up through his long eyelashes and saw the otter leader approaching. Skipper leaned on the window pole that he had been using to fish out barrels of October Ale and looked down at the squirrels, hare and hedgehog making lanterns. "Ahoy there mates, why the long faces?"
"Rusval was just telling us about a dream he had last night," Rimrose replied.
"Was it important? In mine last night, I was fishin' in the pond fer blackberry crumble," Skipper said scratching his rudder.
"By the left, I'd love to try my paws at a bit of crumble fishing, wot!" exclaimed the Long Patrol Colonel.
"Did you catch any crumble, mate?" teased Janglur.
"No, just a couple o'graylings," the otter chieftain deadpanned. He glanced at the other squirrel warrior. "What 'bout yore dream, Rusval?"
The others turned to Rusval as he spoke. "I dreamt of my son. He was on the march with a group of companions, a group of hares, and a pair each of otters and squirrels. He was marching next to a mouse wearing a splendid red cloak. The mouse said something about how Dann was coming to protect Redwall again. Something about the Abbess and some beast betraying us and the warrior born finally being one."
"Strange," Janglur answered for all his companions. "I wonder wot it all means."
Galena ran a paw over her eyes. The sun was surprisingly hot today. Heaving on the line, she kept pace with the drum as she and the others watched the large oak beam slowly ascend into the sky. She peered up in hopes of seeing Willow's lithe form dancing about the roof, helping to put down the beams. Even though she was a squirrel, for some reason, Willow usually didn't work the nosebleed shift. However, now they were short on squirrels because Beech had escaped.
It wasn't called the nosebleed shift for nothing. The ten unlucky souls assigned to it had the dangerous task of laying the beams on the roof of the buildings, without any cables to anchor them, or any guards to oversee them. She would never forget that spring day last season when Beech had almost fallen from the roof of the Barracks as they were laying the last beams. She had watched transfixed by horror as he hung by one claw to the roof. Luckily, he had found some strength to haul himself back onto the roof. Even still, the cruel slave drivers had forced Beech to continue his task.
Though, today the four – no, now it was three – horde captains seemed to be in a rush, pushing the slaves longer and harder than usual. The twenty or so slave drivers on the ground were pushing the slaves to their breaking point. Something new was on the horizon. Yet no one seemed to know what it would bring for them, neither the horde nor the slaves.
As she stared up, she noticed a dark mass descending from behind the forest. It was that fierce looking raven. She was sure she hadn't seen the accursed bird for at least a season. It glided effortlessly above them, watching their attempts to reach into the sky with a sort of amused incredulity. Glaring when it noticed her staring, it stalked straight into Regolith's chambers.
Galena looked up at Willow again. Too bad she was on nosebleed duty. Phillip the overly excitable mouse was serving Regolith today. He wasn't quite as adept as her friend at eavesdropping. She'd have to question him later.
Her wooden pendent hit against her chest. It was a beautiful ancient piece. Probably worth no more than the memories of all the creatures before her that had worn it. Her parents had told her that their ancestors had been great Skippers of Holts in the north. She had no other information about them than the wooden pendent with the likeness of a willow tree on it.
She always teased her squirrel friend that this pendent proved that they were related. Galena glanced up again at the squirrels working on the roof. She hoped her friend came down from her dangerous shift safely.
Their claws made loud scratching noises on the wood and they scurried about shifting the beams and making room for the last piece of the roof to the upper rooms of the officer barracks. They were tempted to leave a few holes so that rainwater would pour in occasionally, but the knowledge that they would be beaten was a slight deterrent.
An elderly squirrel looked over at the squirrelmaid as she stared wistfully at the forest. The branches were always trimmed meticulously so no squirrel could jump to freedom from the ramparts without first breaking his or her neck on the fall. The tall trees swayed teasingly at her as the warm summer breeze ruffled through their branches. Of all the things she missed about freedom, Willow would probably say that it was the freedom of the woodlands. There were no trees or flowers inside the Castle, only dirt and blood. The Castle could not sustain life.
"Don't worry, Willow. We won't be here much longer. Beech is a good creature and he'll bring help to us," the old squirrel said in a hoarse voice.
She tried not to shake her head in frustration. "Beech is young and inexperienced. What can he do?"
The old squirrel smiled. "You'd be surprised, my dear."
At that very moment, Beech was crouching outside the castle with Dann on one side and Cinnabar on the other as they looked at the sentries on the battlements.
The more time Beech spent with Cinnabar the more surprised he became at hearing Cinnabar's history. Beech had seen a far share of river otters in the castle and the woodlands – after all, his friend Galena was one – but he had never seen a sea otter. Beech had assumed that Cinnabar had to be an adult because he was so tall, but Cinnabar was only two seasons older than him, even younger than Dann! Dann and Cinnabar had met two times before. They had meet in the past fall and spring on the shores south of Salamandastron.
Beech wrinkled his nose as a gnat settled on it. The two squirrels and the sea otter were crouched at the beginning of the tree line in a small ditch Foremole Loamsnout and his moles had dug out for them – they were so happy to oblige Major Peony and Dann.
Seasons before, Regolith and his soldiers had cleared away a vast expanse of the woods to clear space for his grand Castle and then later to create a wide perimeter to ensure that no creature could try to leap from the battlements and into the boughs of a tree to freedom. The empty plain was about half as wide as the width of the Castle grounds!
Cinnabar's dark eyes took in the west walls of the Castle and the two guards marching back and forth on patrol. The sea otter looked at the squirrel warrior with uncertainty. "Are you sure that you'll be able to scale that wall, mate? It's not like climbing the rigging? It looks dangerous."
Dann Reguba eyed his friend with raised eyebrows. "Don't worry, mate, I do this stuff all the time. Beech may have been a slave, but he's in fine health. He's probably a better climber than I."
Beech looked offended at the very idea that Dann wasn't good at something.
Major Peony and Captain Turnsol were sitting not far off, just out of everyone's range, avidly discussing the plans. All the long patrol hares had discarded their bright scarlet uniforms in preparation for the assault. Beech was glad. He was afraid the red would attract unwanted attention from the foebeasts. When Beech had asked Dann why the Long Patrol had changed into their dark green tunics, Dann explained that the scarlet jackets were their dress uniforms and the dark green tunics were better suited for this kind of work.
Lieutenant Oswego was inspecting the weapons of all the creatures that had come to free the slaves and occasionally glancing over at Peony and Turnsol with disapproval. There were the twelve hares of the Long Patrol, about as many otters and five moles. None of the vermin had decided to come, only Dann's ferret friend. The others had considered it too dangerous to invade the pine marten's fortress. Beech couldn't blame them.
Dann's ferret friend came over to where Dann, Beech and Cinnabar were huddling. He sat down next to Cinnabar and nodded at the otter. "All are well armed and ready. Wot's the plan, Dann?" he said.
The ferret looked over at Beech and held out his paw. The ferret tried to smile at the squirrel, but the fearsome gashes across his face marred the gesture. Beech looked at the ferret's paw for a minute considering and then against his better judgment shook it. How could Dann be so friendly with such a creature! "Nice to meet ya, mate," the ferret said, "the name's Thalweg."
"Beech," said the young squirrel quietly.
Dann looked over at Beech and said, "We'll wait 'til dark. At the changing of the guards we'll scale the west wall."
Beech nodded and glanced sideways at the Long Patrol commanders again who were whispering intensely back and forth to each other. Beech couldn't imagine what they were arguing about. They struck an interesting appearance, Major Peony with her bright grey eyes and Captain Turnsol with his powerful frame. If he didn't know that they would soon be entering into an important battle, Beech might have thought they were discussing a torrid love affair. He laughed silently to himself at the silly notion. Though he wondered what could spark such discussion. He thought that the plans had been almost unanimously voted upon.
Song yelped and took a step backward as the wraith-like figures materialized from the shadows. Sinon unsheathed Martin’s sword and held it in front of him, edging closer to Song. “Imagine the booty we’ll get by capturing an Abbess.” “Though not until after we’ve a little fun with her first,” another sneered. Song cocked her ears and shook her head as she recognized her assailants’ voices. “If it isn’t Mugwort and Milkwort!” Song exclaimed with a laugh. The two figures stepped closer and Sinon could see from the shadows that they were two evil looking foxes, spitting images of each other. Song laughed joyously and threw herself at them. Sinon blanched. “You rogues, I ought to tell your mother the mischief you are getting into! Scaring travelers as the corpse makers? Wherever did you think of such a name?” The foxes laughed and patted Song’s head fondly. “We weren’t going to hurt you, Mother Abbess. We just wanted to play a little trick,” said Milkwort. “And it seems to ‘ve worked,” replied Mugwort wryly. “Your squirrel friend is still waving his sword at us.” The twin foxes shared a laugh. Song rolled her eyes at them and smiled over at Sinon apologetically. “Don’t worry, Sinon. These are friends. They’re Cypress’ twin sons.” Sinon put away Martin’s sword, but it did little to hold sway over his worries. If anything, he looked more alarmed. “How did you know we were coming?” asked Song. The twins looked at each other and said together, waving their paws eerily, “Mother said that she saw you coming.” They drew out the word and waved their paws around outrageously. Song smiled, she wasn’t sure how much she believed the old vixen’s powers as a seer. Cregga, however, was a great believer, but badgers were a breed unto their own. Cregga had told Song that she had heard of Badger rulers with the gift of foresight. Song took one fox by each paw and said, “Then let us hasten to the Glade. Perhaps we will arrive by morning. I have all these splendid guardians now after all.”
They reached the Mossflower Glade by dawn. It was hushed in the growing light of day. Song noticed a couple of creatures sleeping on the benches which Skipper and his otters had arranged in the Green just last season. There were no lights on Hawthorne’s home but there was a small light shinning from another home down a path lined by cypress trees.
Song took out the blanket from her haversack she had packed in case they stopped to sleep on the way and draped it softly over a sleeping rat. The summer nights could be surprisingly chilly. Sinon looked over at her with a soft smile on his face.
Grinning at each other, the twin foxes nodded their heads to the path home. The way was bordered by tall cypress trees that gave a pleasant shade to the cobblestones. Song was humming again, this time the tune was more upbeat, not that slightly depressing melody she had been humming earlier.
Mugwort and Milkwort led the way. The house was a small one story cottage with ivy crawling up the dark shingles and a colorful garden with all sorts of herbs and flowers. Cypress had told Song that the herbs were specifically chosen because they aided her as she looked into the future. Song wasn’t sure about the plants’ mystical powers, but they sure smelled nice!
Song could remember nailing down the roof tiles with Dann and their fathers. She could count on two paws the number of times she had almost fallen off, but Dann was always there to catch her. Sinon had stayed in the Abbey that season, not wishing to help with the construction. This may have been the first time Sinon had even visited the vixen.
When they walked into the house, an old vixen sat up from her rocking chair by the window. Her pelt had turned to a beautiful silver with age. She said in a voice like a creaky door, “It’s so nice to see you, my dears. I knew you would be coming soon, Song. I’ve some iced raspberry tea brewing. Had my sons out picking the raspberries just yesterday.” She glanced up at the twins and barked out, “Don’t just stand there! Fetch the tea and scones for the Abbess!”
Song giggled as the “corpse makers” ran off to do their mother’s bidding. She walked over and picked up the vixen’s paws, rubbing them warmly against her cheek. “It’s so good to see you, Cypress. You are looking very well.”
The old vixen cackled, “The old bones are still holding together if that’s what you mean.”
Ignoring the exchange, Sinon looked around at the house while Cypress and Song were talking. The old vixen had always made his fur stand on end and besides, he didn’t really care about what she had to say.
There was a rather odd collection of mementos cluttering the house, strange woven circlets hanging from the walls, dusty books piled precariously on shelves or holding up uneven legs of tables, a horrifyingly diverse assortment of animal bones and sticks of seemingly perpetual burning incense. Sinon wondered if most of this was a show, a front for the seer.
Cypress offered him a seat and he sat down next to Song. Cypress said, “I had such a nice conversation with Martin last week. My inner eye has never been so clear since I lived near your Abbey, Song.”
Sinon hid his snort. Song glanced at him in disapproval before she asked the vixen eagerly, “What did he say?”
Cypress sat back breathing in the incense and rocking in her chair. Her sons walked in putting the pitcher of iced tea and scones on the table in front of their guests. They sat down between their mother and the Abbess.
Cypress closed her eyes as she intoned in an eerie voice:
Danger comes to Mossflower
As Warriors arrive from the south,
Bringing death in their wake.
The death bird flies with a bloody mouth,
Warning all to fear the green-eyed one.
But the one sent before must betray
To preserve a familial bond.
He poses as one like you to this day,
though still obedient to the Ruthless one.
The Abbess, resolute, will protect all,
Though she will never again rule her Abbey.
By a warrior’s paw will the Ruthless one fall.
Danger comes to Mossflower.
Everyone sat in shocked silence for a moment and Sinon felt a shiver run down his spine. He felt like the very blood in his veins had turned to ice. He felt like the sickly sweet smell of the incense was assailing his very sensibilities.
Cypress spoke again, seemingly unperturbed by the death sentence she had just given the Abbess. “It was a rather strange prophecy. I will like to stand by and watch it unfold.” The vixen glanced at her son, Milkwort, who looked perplexed. “Were you going to say something, my dear?”
The fox shrugged. “I was just wondering what the death bird was.”
“Oh, that’s a raven. I saw one in the woods a few weeks back while I was collecting herbs for a poultice. It was strange. At first I thought the great black bird was speaking to some creature, but when I was able to get close enough, he was flying away, completely alone.”
Mugwort scratched his tail before he spoke. It seemed to Sinon as if none of the foxes were as affected by the prophecy as he was. “I wonder what the part about the betrayer means. Posing like one of us, protecting a familial bond?”
Cypress smiled over at her sons. “I asked Martin the same thing when he was finished speaking. He said that it would be the last person we expected, but someone we trusted.”
Sinon stared at the vixen, shocked by the way she treated their fates with such nonchalance.
Milkwort spoke up again. “I’m not sure what Martin means about the Abbess though. What does it really mean that you’ll never rule your abbey again, Song?”
Song started at the direct question the fox asked. It was about the precise thing in the prophecy that she was trying hard to forget. “I’m sure I’ll never know,” she stammered. “Though it was nice of the warrior to warn us.”
“Yes,” announced the vixen in a voice like crackling fire. “I don’t think we’ll know what that last part means until it’s fulfilled.”
“Don’t you see!” Sinon hollered standing up outraged. “It means you’re going to die! Though I’ll die first if I can protect you in anyway!” he vowed.
Song patted Sinon’s paw. With a singularly unhappy smile, she said, “Thank you, my friend. Though hopefully it won’t come to that.”
Song closed her eyes and leaned back. The incense in the room was starting to make her head spin. Sinon was pacing by the door, still worked up over Martin the Warrior’s riddle. The riddle did sound rather dire, but she was sure that Martin would watch over her. He had never led her too far astray in the past and seemed to know what was best for all.
Milkwort and Mugwort, the terrible twins, were chuckling at Sinon as he paced. No doubt planning some prank on the poor squirrel.
Cypress eyed them suspiciously from her rocking chair, “Why don’t you two sit down for a moment. Yore drivin’ me out of my mind. Besides Hawthorne’s comin’ soon.”
The words had barely left her mouth when the door creaked open. Sinon jumped aside to allow Hawthorne to enter. The pine marten was dressed in a resplendent green cloak dragged across his broad shoulders. He smiled at them with friendly green eyes.
It was impossible to jump from a branch onto the ramparts, so Dann and Beech had agreed that it would be best for them to climb the walls and open the gate for the others. Beech and Dann stood on the edge of the trees with Cinnabar and the hares. Dann has two of his small knives on the front of his belt and one of the Long Patrol hares had given Beech a pair of knives as well. It was the one with the thin mustache who wore the floppy black beret with his ears sticking out of the top of it. Beech thought his name was John something. John feather? No it was Jonquill.
Dann crouched down and coated his paws with some loose dirt as he looked up at the high fortifications. Beech rubbed his own paws together in anticipation. It had seemed like hours before the sky became dark enough for their mission, and now that it had come, Beech could think of nothing but how his stomach was tying itself into knots.
Major Peony had given them both dark green cloaks to help disguise themselves, and Beech hoped it would be enough to help them escape the guard’s notice. They would be totally vulnerable until they reached the top of the walls.
Foremole Loamsnout patted Beech on the back. “Gudd luck, zurr squirrel.”
Silent as wraiths, Beech crept with Dann to the foot of the wall and began to climb. He could remember the season when he laid these very bricks one on top of the other. The mortar they had used was poorly mixed and hurriedly assembled; it crumbled easily under the squirrel’s claws.
Taking out one of the knives in his left paw, Dann skillfully used it to help steady himself. Beech followed his example. Beech could feel the warm night breeze rustling his fur and dancing with his dark green cloak. There was no sound except for the symphony of crickets and leaves.
Peeking their heads over the ramparts, the squirrels saw that the unfortunate stoat on guard was fast asleep. He stood looking out into the forest, leaning on his spear. He snorted slightly as a lightning bug tickled his nose.
Dann eased himself over the battlements and Beech held his breath, hoping none of the guards would notice. The squirrel warrior laid the stoat low with a hard whack from the butt of his knife. Leaning down, the squirrel warrior took the spear from the senseless vermin and checked his pockets for a set of keys.
Empty. The squirrel warrior cursed colorfully under his breath.
Beech pulled himself up as well and put away his knife and unsheathed the short sword that Dann had given him a few days ago. “What now?” Beech whispered.
Dann glanced at him, surprised by the simple question. He waved his knives at the younger squirrel. “You go and open the gate for the others. I’ll try to find a set of keys to the slave compound.”
Dann slunk off in the direction of the southwest gatehouse, unsheathing the broad sword from his side. A fire flickered from over there in the darkness.
Beech readied his sword and also melted into the darkness. Hunching his shoulders and bowing his head, he climbed down the stairs. As he shuffled over to the two guards watching the small wicker gate, he prayed that his bushy squirrel’s tail wasn’t too obvious. The guards were two rats dressed in chain mail and metal helmets. Sitting on the ground in the flickering light of the wall torch, they were playing a dice game. They glanced up briefly when they saw Beech approaching and immediately turned their greedy eyes back to the game.
“Another game to me,” said one of the rats tauntingly. “Do ya want to see if ya can lose another week of rations to me, snotnose?”
The other rat was obviously a bit more slow-headed than his friend. “I dunno. What do ya think, Lousewort?”
Beech said in a gruff voice. “I think yer mate’s got a trick dice.”
“Wot?” asked the rat scratching his head. “Do ya, Lousewort?” he grabbed his spear and made as if to rise.
But Lousewort was too fast for him. The smarter rat struck him hard over the head and turned to Beech enraged. He tossed out the weighted dice and brandished his sword, trying to look ferocious. “Wot was that, mate? I was winnin.’ But after I’m through, ya won’t be as lucky,” he licked the blade of his sword and leered at Beech savagely. “I’m gonna gut ya and then I’m gonna…”
Closing his eyes, Beech hit him hard over the head with the spear. He looked down at the stunned rat, amazed that it had been so easy. “I guess I was lucky you were as dim as your friend. What kind of vermin wastes time taunting his victim?”
Smiling to himself, he opened the gate. Cinnabar and the hares hurried in. The moles had stayed behind in the woods to help all the slaves after they escaped. Major Peony told two of the young hares to guard the gate and swept off into the darkness with the others.
Dann jumped down in front of them suddenly waving a pair of keys. Turnsol only just stopped himself from laying out Dann with a swift blow from his paws.
“Look what I found!” said Dann excitedly.
"Well stop waving the bloomin’ keys around like a manic and open the bloody door!” hissed Lieutenant Oswego.
Willow jumped as she was prodded awake. The stoat captain jostled her with his spear again and said, “Hurry, bushtail, the Lord Regolith’ll be wantin’ his breakfast soon! He needs you to clean up his dining room too. That raven made a mess when ‘e was eatin’.”
Willow rubbed sleep from her eyes and followed the sour-looking captain through the other bunks and waited as he unlocked the door leading directly from the slave compound to the main building. He pushed her ahead of him and walked her to the stairs. She went down and he went up yawning, presumably to go back to sleep now that his task was finished.
The stoat captain Halfear’s comment reminded her that she would have to ask Phillip about what he had heard in of the conversation between the pine marten and the Raven. She and Galena had intended to question him last night; however, Philip must have returned rather late because they had both fallen asleep while they were waiting. She had forgotten to check with him this morning.
Willow walked down to the storage quarters and grabbed some flour for Acrey in the kitchen. Regolith claimed that his fortress was designed with tunnels to be used by his slaves so that he wouldn’t have see their grubby faces any more than he needed to.
She opened the door that lead to the kitchen passage. This passage was typically left unguarded early in the morning. The only night shift for guards in the tunnels was those connecting Regolith’s chambers to the main building. Willow hated the tunnels, especially in the early hours of the morning. She felt like she was being buried alive. All she could breathe was dirt. The tunnels smelled like death.
She visited her friend Acrey the dormouse, Lord Regolith’s Chef. Willow held a rag over an arm as the dormouse gave her a jar of honey and a platter with tea and fruit.
Back through the tunnel, a nod to the guard as he searched through his ring of keys for the set to the door. This tunnel was locked for purposes of security, so creatures could not enter Regolith’s quarters without his express permission.
Climbing up the steep steps into the tyrant’s quarters, she almost tripped on the bottom of her dress, but righted herself just in time.
She surveyed the dining room with a quick glace. It wasn’t as dirty as the stoat captain had implied. In the dim light she couldn’t see anything out of place, especially not the dark puddle of fresh blood.
Her legs flew out from under her. Her paws full of food, tried in vain to find any purchase on the wall. She had only time for a small cry of shock before she hit her head hard against the wall and slumped against it. The hot tea soaked her dress and mingled with the little mouse Philip’s blood on the floor…
She would never know what it was that had shocked her into wakefulness. Perhaps it was the fleeting dread brought upon by the advent of the raven, perhaps it was the hushed whispers from outside the compound or perhaps it was the hedgehog Quin poking her with one of his quills as he shifted in slumber.
She rubbed her footpaw. Yes, it was definitely Quin.
However, as she tried to go back to sleep, she could hear voices whispering from outside the compound, although she couldn’t at all identify what sort of beast was making them.
“Hurry up, you blighter!” one of them, a male voice, growled in anger. “We don’t have all bloomin night, wot!”
“I say, Lieutenant. Why’s this takin’ so bally long? I thought any ole fool could open a flippin’ door?” asked a second male voice, with an edge of frustration and urgency.
“Sorry, Cap’n,” said a third male voice with a twinge of embarrassment. “This’s harder than it looks, wot! It’s bloomin’ dark out here. Can hardly see my blinkin’ paw in front o’ me.”
“I say, you chaps! Would you two cease hovering over Jon’s shoulder like that, wot wot. It won’t make the blighter open the bloomin’ door any faster. And Captain, your confidence in our troops is bally well inspirational,” a fourth voice, a female voice, laced with sarcasm whispered at the others.
“Sorry, Major,” said one of the hushed voices.
Galena shifted and swung her legs over her cot. She rubbed the wooden pendent around her neck nervously. The guards had finally decided to finish all the slaves off. And to add insult to injury, they would do it with funny voices. She glared at the door savagely. Well if they were so inclined, she would take a few vermin down with her! She shook several of the other slaves awake. They all seemed a bit dazed at being roused so, but quickly understood her whispered explanation. The sturdy hedgehog Quin smiled comfortingly at her and held a rusty bar like a club.
When she went to shake the bundle in Phillip’s cot, she was surprised to find it empty and cold, as if no one had slept in it that night. She forgot to check Willow’s cot, close to the door to the main building.
The other slaves gathered behind her, holding weapons in shaking paws. It was a motley supply of weapons, kitchen knives, rusty daggers and the like. Galena unstrung her sling from her waist; she had taken it from one of the guards. She fixed a stone on it. The door finally creaked open. She heard one of the voices berating another harshly and a slap before several dark figures glided into the compound as swiftly and silently as Death.
“We're dead beasts,” moaned a hedgehog behind her.
She felt a rage filling her body at the terror in her companion’s voice. The raised her sling to hurl a rock at the closest attacker. However, she had miscalculated in the dark. She was in much too close range.
Her adversary merely grabbed the sling from her paw. “Sorry, miss, but we’ve got to ‘urry from ‘ere.” She stared into the kind dark eyes of another otter. He was half a head taller than her and very handsome. Galena felt the breath halt in her chest and her heart start to beat rather quickly. For a fleeting moment she almost wished that it was a vermin and not a handsome stranger. She knew how to react around the former but not the latter. He gallantly offered her his paw and pulled her none too gently from the compound.
“The name’s Cinnabar,” he whispered softly to her.
“Galena,” she whispered back, her dark eyes gleaming.
“And I’m Peony. I say, it’s a blinkin’ pleasure to meet you and all that, but we’ve got to get away from this jolly ole prison sharpish,” said an annoyed voice from her left. It was the female voice who had berated the other voices breaking into the compound.
Galena turned and saw in the darkness a creature with two long ears. When the figure got closer, Galena could distinguish it as a hare.
“Hey there, you jolly otter. You seem to be the bossess in here, wot,” the hare said wiggling her ears. “Are these all the creatures enslaved in this gloomy whatchamacallit? How many are unfit for travelin’?”
Galena smiled at the hare. “I think everyone’s ‘ere. We’re mostly fit. We’d ‘ave died long afore this if we weren’t.”
The hare shook her ears at Galena in understanding, a sad smile reflected in her grey eyes. “Well quick’s the word and sharp’s the jolly ole action, wot!”
The motley group hastened from the compound silently and slunk towards the little wall gate.
The stoat that Dann had brained when he had first scaled the wall groaned. Natural selection must have blessed him with a very thick skull and remarkable powers of recuperation, because he was soon sitting up and rubbing the back of his head. Memories flew back to him in an instant. He stood up and roared out, “Attack! Attack! The slaves are escaping! Rouse the army! Attack!”
His stentorian voice carried easily in the quiet darkness. The wall guards on the other side of the ramparts were jolted out of sleep. Still disorientated at being woken so unexpectedly, they ran helter skelter along the ramparts. In short time, soldiers soon came pouring out of the barracks in a flood. Some were fighting to put on their chain mail; others hadn’t bothered at all with their mail and were instead drawing their blades; others realized quickly that they had forgotten both their blades and chain mail and ran back into the barracks to retrieve them.
“Oh corks, mates,” Lieutenant Tobias hissed as he draw his twin long knives.
One of the younger hares crouched into a warrior’s stance ready to give battle, his claymore at the ready, but Sergeant Saxifrage grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and dragged him towards the gate along with the others.
Captain Turnsol ran in step with Major Peony. He tested the balance of a wickedly curved scimitar he had snatched from the trembling paws of a stoat. “It looks like the wheeze is blown.”
“Give ‘em blood’n’vinegar, chaps!” yelled Major Peony to encourage the others.
The weasel Bloodnose rushed out onto the lawn and took in the situation at a glance. He roared to his command giving orders and encouragement. “Surround them, they’re just slaves. Cut ‘em off from the wall gate!”
Guards, now armed and awake, poured out in droves surrounding the small group of escapees. Major Peony’s rapier flashed in the darkness of the coming dawn, delivering swift death to all in her path. Turnsol bobbed and weaved nearby, laying low a hulking ferret with a hard left. He shook his paw. “By the flippin’ left, that bounder had a bonce like a bloomin’ boulder.”
Peony stabbed a rat trying to behead her with a scimitar and growled through her teeth, “Cease your alliterative prattle, Turnsol, and start knocking out some of those rotters, wot!” She caught sight of a stoat trying to stab Turnsol from behind and neatly dispatched the vermin, sending his saber flying.
The hares roared out their bloodcurdling battle cry: “Eulaliaaaaa! ‘Tis death on the wind! Eulaliaaaaa!”
The hairs on the back of Galena’s neck stood out at the eerie sound as she ran behind the hares, impressed by how they kept their heads in the heat of battle.
Tearing a spear from the limp paws of a ferret laid low by a stone from Galena's whirling sling, Cinnabar sprang into the melee and began dealing sound blows to foebeasts left and right. His eyes flashed in the heat of the battle as he charged two weasels, his war cry resounding off the stone walls. “Shellhound!”
The flustered guards on the walls were shooting arrows at the slaves. In their panic, barely half even managed to reach the parade ground. Jonquil was doing his best to keep the guards’ heads pinned down by firing at them with his bow.
The black fox had made his way onto the southern walltops.
Sighing in frustration, he pushed into empty space a rat that had lingered a second too long in his path. Smiling amusedly, Zigor grabbed the bow from the unfortunate creature’s paw. The rat fell with a bloodcurdling scream before landing with a sickening crunch.
Unperturbed, the black fox narrowed one obsidian eye and grinned showing all his teeth as he aimed an arrow at the heart of the female hare waving her rapier in the air, directing the troops.
Alerted as if by some sixth sense, Captain Turnsol grabbed the Major roughly and pulled her to him. He twisted her out of the way and took the arrow meant for her clear through his shoulder. Groaning in pain, he hesitated in his stride. Peony looked up at him with bright eyes. She slipped from his grasp, instead putting his paw over her own shoulders and dashing now in a full out sprint towards the gate and freedom.
Galena stumbled forward with Cinnabar at her side, taken aback for a second at Major Peony’s quick pace. The ottermaid took a knife from Cinnabar’s broad brown belt in her now trembling paws and hurled it with all her might at Zigor. The smiling sadist was aiming a javelin at Cinnbar’s chest. Zigor dropped the javelin as he backpedaled to avoid Galena’s knife. His black eyes narrowed at her.
Cinnabar smiled down softly at her and winked. “Thanks, matey.”
Her eyes opened wide when she saw Beech running towards her yelling something. Her brain was full to bursting with the screams and war cries and flying arrows and the very blood pounding in her head that she hadn’t noticed Beech until he was almost upon her. Finally she realized what he was yelling. “Where’s Willow?”
Galena gasped and looked around in horror. Thoroughly ashamed at herself, she realized that she had been so caught up with Cinnabar and with escaping that she had forgotten all about Willow. Willow, all alone somewhere in Regolith’s quarters preparing the tyrant’s breakfast.
But no one could escape on their own when separated from the crowd.
Galena shouted at Beech. “Willow’s supposed to be on serving duty in Regolith’s quarters.”
A hedgehog overtook them as they hesitated in their stride. He gave a burst of speed and broke slightly ahead of her group. His rush for the gate and freedom but was cut down just short of the door by a well aimed arrow from the black fox.
Bloodnose’s voice could be heard over the din. “Stop shooting arrows, you rotten rabble! We want slaves to work, not dead meat! Knock them over the head, don’t kill them!”
As Sergeant Saxifrage ran by the weasel shouting orders, he dealt him a hard rap over the head with the butt of his saber. “Take that, you wretched whipsnouted weasel!” he shouted.
A golden furred squirrel ran up to them and grabbed Beech by the scruff as he started to run off in the other direction. Beech yelled at the older squirrel. “Dann, Willow’s still in there somewhere!”
Dann looked at Cinnabar in dismay, his paw still tight on Beech to keep the younger squirrel running in line with them. “It’s hopeless, Beech. We can’t be separated now. You won’t survive if you try to look for her. We’ll come back, I promise. We’ll come back!”
Galena felt her own heart break at the expression on Beech’s face. It was devoid of any hope. In his heart, he knew that he would never see the squirrelmaid again. It was too much for Galena to bear. Recklessly, she slipped from Cinnabar’s grasp and ran off towards Regolith’s quarters. She could barely hear Cinnabar’s frantic shouts over the pounding of blood in her veins.
Cinnabar was about to give chase, when Dann yelled at him. “Leave her, Cinnabar. There’s nothing we can do. We need to get out of here and re…” he cut himself off with a grunt of pain and pulled out a feather-tipped arrow from his upper arm.
Galena flew through the crowds of vermin pressing forward, taking them all completely by surprise. What was this mad ottermaid doing rushing away from freedom? She raced towards Regolith’s quarters, knocking down a ferret guarding the door.
Galena had only time to see the pine marten looking in dismay at the shattered plates that once held his breakfast and the pretty squirrelmaid lying on the ground in a pool of blood before darkness engulfed her vision and the ground came up to meet her surprisingly fast.
“By the left, Peony old gel,” said Captain Turnsol skipping aside as a pile of dirt flew up near his footpaws. “That mole chap really knows what he’s doin.’ I’ve never clapped eyes on a fellow who could chuck quite so much dirt around.”
“You’m roit, zurr ‘are. Us’ns molers dig gurtly well,” said Grumbee, one of Loamsnout’s moles, as he climbed out of the hole with a pail of dirt.
“Yes, they do dig so jolly well,” agreed Peony.
The Long Patrol Major and Captain were standing in the woods north of the castle, a ways from where the forest started. The two squirrels, Dann and Beech, were hiding in the upper boughs of the trees nearby to keep a lookout for Regolith’s soldiers. Major Peony was surprised that they had not yet come upon a single soldier. Borage the Healer and Sergeant Saxifrage were organizing and seeing to the medical needs of the escaped slaves. The Long Patrol planned to lead all the slaves to Hamath after the remaining ones were saved from the pine martens.
The two officers stood in the shadow of the entrance to the escape tunnel. Foremole and his moles were cleverly using the plans the young squirrel Beech had brought with him to connect their escape tunnel to that underground passage which ran between the kitchens and main building.
“I wonder how Dann’s pal, Scallywag-a-thing, is doing,” mused Peony.
“He’ll look the part at least. It was mighty clever of you dragging that ferret out of the Castle with you, Major,” said Turnsol.
“Hm, he probably didn’t think so, the blighter,” laughed the Major. “But when I saw Beech, Dann and Cinnabar arguing about those two maids, I thought we might like to have a spare uniform.”
“It might have been hard to find the right sort of chain mail in Hamath, I suppose,” commented Turnsol. “Well that’s what we count on you for, mah dear, those split second decisions,” he said patting her roughly on the back. Then Turnsol turned wistful. “Though, I do love the old espionage wheeze. A shame it couldn’t be us chaps.”
With a raised eyebrow, Peony looked sideways at him in his smart dark green military uniform and heavily bandaged right shoulder. “I don’t think you could pass for the lousy vermin type, Turnsol.”
“Maybe if I take off these confounded wrappings,” Turnsol mumbled sullenly, tugging at the white bandages.
She grabbed his paws disapprovingly. “Don’t you dare, Darcy Turnsol! How many times do I have to tell you to be careful? That bloomin’ black fox got you right through the shoulder!”
Turnsol shook her paws off, “Well luckily Borage is the best healer either of us has ever met. Besides now we can compare war wounds.” He tugged at her right ear. It was missing a large chunk from the top, a wound from many seasons ago.
Peony hid the top of her ear with a paw in embarrassment. She hated when other creatures commented on her ear. She glared at Turnsol again. “Well that was mighty risky of you trying to take that arrow. You could have been killed!”
“If I hadn’t, you certainly would be!”
Turnsol’s comment rendered her speechless.
Foremole Loamsnout walked out of the tunnel and tugged his snout politely at Peony. “Boi hokey, marm. Us’n’s bee done on yon tunnel boi dusk.”
“Well this is marvelous news, Loam-gob-a-thing!” said Peony excitedly.
Turnsol glanced inside the tunnel from where he could hear the loud echoes of Cinnabar’s voice. The otter was pacing near where the moles were digging, not helping much but being a rather effective nuisance: waylaying the moles as they attempted to exit, demanding to know how they were progressing and ironically exhorting them to tell him how he could help.
Turnsol asked Peony, “Do you think we should help those mole chaps? Save them from ole Cinnabar?”
“Indeed, he is being a rather effective nuisance isn’t he,” replied Peony.
Peony called Cinnabar out of the tunnel and the otter came out with his shoulders slumped, tugging at one of the earrings on his right ear. He smiled at the two hares sheepishly.
“Oh hello, Cinnabar. How nice to see you,” said Peony with a cheeky grin. “Turnsol and I were just talking about Dann’s friend Thalweg. He’s got quite the adventure ahead of him.”
“Where does Dann find these creatures!” said the otter in amazement. He ticked them off on his paws. “A runaway squirrel slave, a chummy well behaved ferret, a shipwretched sea otter!”
“Maybe old Scallywag will share his story sometime,” said Turnsol.
“Sooner than later hopefully,” said Peony. “I’m not sure what to make of him.”
“Major, our two scouts are back with their reports,” said Lieutenant Tobias as he walked over to the hares and otter. Tobias was the younger of the two lieutenants. He was many seasons younger than Lieutenant Oswego who was in fact even older than the Major Peony. Tobias was a rather serious hare and very sensible, but even so he was never happier than sharing a joke with his friend Jonquill, the weapon’s specialist.
Tobias waved over two young hares, a male and female. They stood rigid at attention, with their chests out and arms held stiffly at their sides.
“Excellent, wot!” said Peony cheerily. “At ease, you chaps.”
The two hares relaxed their arms. The first one hesitated and then spoke quickly, her voice soft. The haremaid had gentle dark eyes and a lithe frame, she made even the petite Major Peony appear large in comparison. “We scouted the bloomin’ great perimeter of the place from the woods out’ah the sight of the vermin, wot. The wallguard’s been doubled. Changing of the guard hourly.”
The other hare picked up where his friend had left off. He was almost as tall as the Lieutenant Tobias though still half a head shorter than Turnsol. His voice was a boisterous tenor and he punctuated his remarks with wide sweeping arm gestures. “Just like Lorica said, there’s enough of the brutes to make a good scrap of it, wot! But the bounders aren’t makin’ a move to hunt us or the slaves down. Seems strange to me, wot.”
“Indeed, Blackberry,” said Turnsol impatiently. “Did you see anything of the slaves still in the fortress?”
Cinnabar snorted at the impatience in Turnsol’s voice, but became very intent when the subject of prisoners was addressed.
Blackberry seemed to puff up with pride when being asked a direct question by Captain Turnsol. He gave a mock salute and winked. “I say, Cap’n, the vermin weren’t paradin’ the captives along the ramparts, wot! Tried to climb a tree like that squirrelchap to see what was goin’ on inside the fortress.”
Lieutenant Tobias’s ears shot up in alarm. “You what?”
Cinnabar was only confused. “Which squirrelchap?” he murmered to Turnsol.
Blackberry wiggled his ears at the Lieutenant, “No need to fret, old scout. Lorica was bally well threatenin’ me not to also. Though nothin’ came of it, wot! Didn’t even get onto the first bloomin’ branch.”
Turnsol waved a paw at the younger hare. “That was reckless, you custard-headed curmudgeon! You might ‘ave broken all your limbs and been caught by the enemy! Hares climin’ trees!” Turnsol shook his head in disbelief. Blackberry’s ears seemed to wither in embarrassment.
“Dismissed,” said Peony firmly. She grabbed Lorica’s paw as the younger hare was about to run off. “You did well, young ‘un. But be sure to make your voice heard in the future if Blackberry runs off to do something foolish again.”
“Yes, sir, I mean, marm,” stuttered the young hare.
Turnsol turned his eyes back to Lorica and smiled at her. “Yes, indeed, job jolly well done. You’ve got a good ole head on yer shoulders, missie. Be sure to use it, wot.”
Lorica’s eyes were wide at his praise as she bowed awkwardly and shot off like an arrow from a bow to join Blackberry who was waiting for her just out of hearing range.
Major Peony, Captain Turnsol, Cinnabar Shellhound and Lieutenant Tobias watched them go. They looked at the two young hares whispering back and forth, evaluating their commanders’ praise and censure. Blackberry’s ears were at about half mast and his friend Lorica was whispering something to him, either to chide or to comfort him.
Tobias had an amused smile on his face. “Climbin’ trees, eh! The perilous hares of the Long Patrol can bally well do anything!”
Turnsol rolled his eyes. “What will those blinkin’ leverets think of next!”
“Don’t be so hard on them, Turnsol. If I remember correctly from my first patrolling days with Major Purslane, there was another wild young leveret like Blackberry who tried to climb a tree to get a better lay of the land,” said Peony teasingly to Turnsol, whose ears were turning a delicate shade of pink.
Lieutenant Tobias looked incredulously at his commanding officers. Uncertain as to how far he could pursue the joke at his superior’s expense, he replied, “Er, that must ‘ave been a bad show, wot!”
Cinnabar gaffawed at Turnsol.
“Indeed it was, Toby,” said Peony trying bravely to keep a straight face. She leaned back with her paws clasped behind her back, a silly smile lighting up her grey eyes. “Yours truly suggested that it mightn’t be the best idea. You know how those hot-blooded young bucks can be. As I predicted, he fell out of the bloomin’ tree and right on his scut. Sprained his footpaw, doncha know. Had to limp along in the back with the healer for weeks! I say, Cap’n Turnsol! Why are you standin’ there with a face like flippin’ thunder.”
“I’m goin’ to make myself useful, you rotters. See what those squirrelchaps are up to,” groused Turnsol.
He stalked away mumbling to himself, “A bally wolf in hare’s clothing! I save her life so she can live to tease me.”
"Just make sure you don’t climb one of those trees, Turnsol,” called Peony.
“Aye, they can be quite perilous,” yelled Cinnabar.
Rubbing the back of her head and feeling a good-sized bump, Galena gazed around blearily at her surroundings. Her head was pounding. It was so painful it felt almost as if the ground were swaying beneath her. Bars, a cage, were what greeted her eyes when she was finally able to open them. Groaning, she closed them again and rubbed a shaky paw over her face. What had happened? What was she doing here?
As Galena shifted, she felt the ground tilt crazily. She settled down waiting for her head to stop spinning and trying to ignore her protesting stomach. She closed her eyes and took a moment to focus on nothing but taking deep breaths.
But what had happened? She remembered a handsome otter smiling down at her. Cinnabar. Taking her by the paw and leading her to freedom. He was helping her and the others escape. Escape? Beech had come back. He had with him a group of hares, a squirrel and an otter. It was Beech who noticed that Willow was missing. But it was she who ran off to look for the squirrelmaid.
She sat up in alarm. The world spun around crazily again. This time however, Galena realized it was not the bump on her head that was causing her to feel the ground dancing so. She was suspended high in the air above the tables of the mess hall in a wooden cage.
Oh, how she hated heights.
It was bright in the mess hall; the light poured in from the tall windows. How much time had passed?
Very uneasy, she grabbed onto one of the bars and gazed down at the floor. It was a long way down. She slid back from the edge and grabbed the wooden pendent around her neck, rubbing it nervously.
She glanced around again this time at the wooden cage. She was able to lay down comfortably in it, but it was not tall enough for her to stand in. Where had the cage even come from? She couldn’t remember ever having built or heard about something like this being built. She was afraid of what would happen if she tried to loosen the bars. Would she fall to her death? There was a large wooden padlock on the door to the cage. That seemed like the logical progression for escape, but how would she open it? And where was Willow?
“Galena! Are you awake?” A voice drifted to her from the ground. It was followed by a scraping sound.
Galena kept her eyes tightly shut. “Is that you, Willow?”
“Yes, it’s me. Are you alright? You’ve been out cold for hours. I was starting to worry,” said the voice. Galena thought it sounded much too cheery considering the circumstances.
“I’m alright,” said Galena with her eyes still tightly closed. “I’m just waitin’ for my stomach to be. I’m not a fan of heights. How are you? Were you very hurt? I saw you lyin’ in a pool of blood before.”
“It wasn’t my blood. It was Philip’s blood. He was serving Regolith when the Raven came to visit. He was…” the squirrelmaid’s voice broke. She couldn’t bring herself to say the mouse’s fate. She took a steadying breath and continued, “It was his blood. I slipped in it and hit my head. Ouch!”
“Yeah, that must’a hurt.”
“What?” said Willow’s voice from below. There was that strange scraping noise again. “I’m trying to unlock these manacles. Regolith has me chained to the wall down here. I thought I’d try to pick the lock. My brother taught me many seasons ago. But all I seem to be doing is pricking my arm.”
"What could you possibly be using to pick the locks?"
“I had a little knife hidden in my skirts. Remember how we told the others to steal weapons? I just took our own advice.”
Eyes still tightly closed, Galena shook her head in amazement. She needed to stop underestimating her pretty friend. “But why did they suspend me up in this cage?”
The sound from below ceased for a moment. “It was…well it was Zigor’s idea. The black fox guessed how much you hate heights and is upset with you for throwing a dagger at him during the escape…Did you really throw a dagger at him? That’s amazing. But I’m not sure what they’re planning. I think Zigor just plans to leave you up there.”
The ottermaid shivered thinking about the cruel plans of the black fox. The sadist wanted to entertain himself by watching her starve to death while consumed by fear.
There was a dull metallic thud and then another soon after. Galena perked up. “Did you get your shackles off already?”
“Yes, I did. Be quiet. I’m trying to think of a way to get you down.”
Galena sighed. “I’m not a fan of high places. I’m not sure if I can get down even if you release me. Save yerself, mate.”
Willow chucked from below. “Don’t be so dramatic, Galena. Can you climb down a rope?”
“I suppose. But where will you find a rope?” Galena wondered.
“I suppose it’s more of a curtain than a rope,” was the squirrelmaid’s reply.
“Are we the only ones left in the Castle? Did Cinnabar and Beech help all the others to escape?”
“It’s just us and Acrey left in the Castle. I heard the soldiers talking about it during supper. Who’s Cinnabar?”
“Only the most handsome and debonair otter I’ve ever meet.”
“Love at first sight, eh?” Willow laughed. “You know I don’t believe in that!”
Galena sighed. “I just wish I could see him again.”
“Not to worry! When I get us out of here, you’ll have to promise to introduce him to me.” Willow’s voice was much closer now.
Galena let out a cry as there was a loud bang and the cage began to rock violently. Uncertain, she took a paw from over her eyes and looked at Willow balancing on the cage like a true acrobat and trying to open the padlock. Soon, the door swung open and Willow herself swung in with a broad smile. “Beautiful afternoon for a climb, doncha think?”
Galena looked uncertainly at the dark blue cord coiled up and slung around Willow’s shoulder – it looked suspiciously similar to the floor length curtains donning the walls. “How did you get over ‘ere?”
“Scaled the wall and jumped,” said Willow. Her eyes gleamed. “Did you see me jump onto the cage? I wasn’t sure if I would make it. It’s a bit far. Did you see me leap?”
Galena shook her head apologetically. “Sorry, mate. I was too busy tryin’ not to be sick. Though I did feel when you landed.” Galena groaned and closed her eyes as the cage swayed again. “I don’t care if we escape, I just want to get out of this flyin’ cage.”
“Your wish is my command,” said Willow with a wink. She began to unstring the rope and knotted it firmly to a bar of the cage.
Galena looked at it doubtfully. “Are you sure this’ll work?”
“What could go wrong?”
Thalweg the ferret had his paw tightly grasped on the hilt of his sword as he walked through the front gates of the Castle with the remainder of the troupe into which he had invited himself. He was glad of the uniform the hare Major had given him. It blended in seamlessly. Dann said she had taken it from a ferret that she had dragged out of the Castle during their escape. Those Long Patrol hares sure were resourceful.
He, Dann and the squirrel warrior’s young friend Beech had kept a close watch on the gates both to find a chance for him to enter unnoticed and to discover if any soldiers were making their way to the woods on the northern side of the Castle. That was where the escaped slaves and their saviors were hiding as they licked their wounds and prepared for the next assault.
The chance soon presented itself when a stoat captain, Halfear, marched out at the head of an assorted troupe of weasels, ferrets and rats and selected several trees to be felled for some construction project. Apparently the fox captain needed wood for his project but couldn’t be bothered to fetch it himself. The stoat captain was complaining to a weasel in his band about being assigned all the menial tasks.
The squirrel Beech crouched up in the boughs with Dann as they watched Thalweg put on his helmet and smooth down his tunic nervously. Dann frowned at the ferret. “I can still see the scars on your face a bit though that helmet. Try this one.”
The squirrel tossed a second one down with a wider snout piece. Thalweg put it on and looked up at the squirrels. Dann and Beech glanced at each other and wrinkled their noses. “Better, but not quite,” said the younger squirrel. “Do we have any with just eye slits?”
Thalweg groaned in dismay. “My scars aren’t that bad are they?”
Beech put up his paws in alarm. “No, sir! It’s just that…they’re…they’re not something a creature would be liable to forget. They might wonder where you came from if they notice the scars too soon.”
Thalweg put his paws on his broad belt and glared at the younger squirrel; the expression was quite terrifying. Beech yelped in dismay and hid behind Dann. The squirrel warrior chuckled. He had become immune to Thalweg’s scary looks after some time of traveling together.
“How ‘bout this one,” said the squirrel warrior.
Thalweg caught it and held it out in front of himself to examine. “How many helmets did that Long Patrol captain take with her?”
He put it on and looked up at the squirrel warrior. This one covered his forehead and his mouth, leaving his eyes and nose mostly uncovered, the areas of his face that were the most heavily scarred.
“At least one more,” said Dann, throwing down the last one.
Thalweg put it on and rolled his eyes. “I don’t see what the big deal is over the helmet anyway. You said that the pine marten has an army five hundred strong. Shouldn’t be hard to blend into the masses.”
“But, mate, with the unusual scars you have on your face, the other creatures are going to wonder why they’d never noticed before. If you have a good helmet, they’ll just assume they didn’t notice you before because you were wearing a helmet,” said Dann.
“Hmph,” snorted Thalweg. “You’re right of course.”
The squirrel warrior looked down at his friend considerably. “That helmet works quite well. So, are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be. I still don’t know how you talked me into this, mate.”
Dann winked at the ferret. “If I remember correctly, you volunteered.”
“Oh bother,” said the ferret. He looked up at the other squirrel staring at him from behind Dann. “So what’s the name of the weasel in the blue cloak? Is he someone important?”
Beech peeked out from behind Dann. “That’s Halfear. He’s pretty dim, but mean tempered and good with a sword. He won’t notice if he comes back with one extra creature.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Thalweg.
Thalweg used all his guile to melt into the band. He hurried up from behind, pretending to have lingered a moment too long at the gates. Luckily the other creatures weren’t exactly sure what they were doing there either, so he blended in quite well. He even got a smile from a rat he helped with the sawing and got to hold one of the mallets as they rammed in the last bar to the cage. The other creatures hadn’t noticed the scars on his face yet. The last helmet Dann had thrown at him was well chosen.
He kept his eyes peeled for the pine marten, Lord Regolith, as he followed the others into the Castle. Dann had told him earlier that day to find the two maids and then make it as quickly as reason would allow to the cellars. Foremole Loamsnout and his moles would be digging into the tunnels that led to the kitchen.
The weasels leading the way waved to the weasel captain, Bloodnose, as he walked towards the captain’s quarters rubbing his head. He was still out of sorts from when the Long Patrol Sergeant knocked him unconscious during the skirmish last night. Thalweg could hear him muttering, “damned rabbits,” to himself as he passed.
The rat he had helped with the sawing caught up with him and grabbed his paw. “Hey mate, do you have another task assigned yet?”
Thalweg replied unsurely, “Not yet.”
“Then you wouldn’t mind doing yer old pal Lousewort a favor, would ya?” asked the rat winningly, putting an arm around the ferret.
“Not at all, Lousewort mate. Wot’s on your mind,” Thalweg said delightedly. He was glad to have an ally in the fortress.
“Well I promised one of my mates to help him with his job as a sort of recompense for cheating him at dice last night, but this afternoon I heard a couple ‘o my weasel mates are playing a round o’ poker durin’ their lunch break and didn’t want to miss out, ya know.” Lousewort smiled, showing his broken front tooth. “It’s almost like stealin’ from a baby mouse, weaselin’ money from those fools.”
Thalweg laughed along with the rat, inwardly cringing at making friends with a rat who could read poker faces well.
“Not at all, mate. I’m not so good with betting. Terrible poker face, ya see,” said Thalweg with sheepish smile. “Where’s yer friend?
“See that rat o’er there,” said the rat pointing to another of his species. The poor creature was trying rather unsuccessfully to balance two trays of food precariously on top of the other. He was glancing around the parade ground as if waiting for someone.
Lousewort patted Thalweg on the back and indicated the other rat. “That’s him. He’s got to take lunch to the chief.”
“Oh,” was all Thalweg could say in reply.
“Well see ya around, ferret,” said Lousewort with a wave over his shoulder.
Lousewort walked with a jaunty stride as he chuckled to himself. Not only did he get out of helping that old clod Bilgetail as the simpleton served Regolith, but he also got to win money from a couple of weasels instead! Bilgetail was so stupid, he probably wouldn’t even notice.
“Bloody slaves ‘ad to escape, didn’ they! Now I gots carry the vittles to the chief. And where’s Lousewort got to?” Lousewort’s friend groused out as he struggled along with the trays.
Thalweg sighed to himself unhappily. Well at least he would get to see this Regolith fellow and maybe figure out where the maids were. A little detour wouldn’t hurt. He walked over to the rat just as he dropped one of the platters.
“That was a close one, mate,” said Thalweg, holding the tray in one paw and offering the other to take the tray that looked about ready to fall. “The name’s Thalweg.”
The rat started and stared gaping at the ferret, dropping the other tray as well. Thalweg caught that one as well. The rat took one of the trays and said, “Er. That’s nice, in’it. Oh, sorry.” He slapped a paw to his forehead. “You were introducing yerself. My name’s Bilgetail.”
They shook paws. The rat smiled warily at the ferret. “Sorry ‘bout that, mate. My ma dropped me on my head lots when I was naught but a liddle h’infant. My mate Lousewort says I’m an ignore-mouse. Still don’t know wot it means.”
Thalweg chuckled at the rat. “Do you mean an ignoramus?”
“Nevermind,” Thalweg answered, chuckling again. “It’s too bad the slaves had to run away. Why doesn’ the chief ‘ave the rest of them servin’ his vittles?”
Bilgetail seemed to puff up at knowing the answer to Thalweg’s question. He groused out, “Well sink my whiskers if that ain’t the most dummiest question I ever did ‘ear. Everyone knows that the cook’s chained up in the kitchen. And didn’t ya see the others this morning? The bushtail’s shackled to the wall in the mess and ‘er friend the riverdog’s up in that cage. Didn’t you come in from the woods with the rest of the folks who built it?”
“Yer right of course,” said Thalweg apologetically, hoping that Bilgetail wouldn’t make a scene.
“I’ve ever seen the like. I’m glad I’m not up in a cage like that, hangin’ high above the tables.”
Thalweg was sorry to have met two such dramatic and thoroughly unpleasant characters, the last thing he wanted was to draw too much attention to himself. But all the same, he was glad to have received the information he sought from the rat Bilgetail.
Perhaps Bilgetail was an alright sort to begin with but never had any good influences in his life, instead having that scurvy villain Lousewort using and abusing him for his own ends. Thalweg supposed he really shouldn’t be one to judge considering the sort of life he lead before he came upon his good influence – his friend Dann.
But indeed, it was rather kind of Regolith to put both captives in the same room. It would make Thalweg’s job all the easier. Though he hadn’t a clue how he would free the riverdog from her high cage.
By this time, they had reached Regolith’s quarters. Two weasels opened the doors for them and Thalweg took a deep breath before he walked in with the rat Bilgetail at his side. Regolith frowned at them as they put the food down. Vermilion swept in, garbed in a resplendent crimson cloak. She paid none of them any heed and sat down across from her mate. Thalweg and Bilgetail stood back, not sure of what to do.
“Well are you going to pour the wine or not, you fools?” drawled the voice of the pine marten.
Starting at the smooth voice, Bilgetail scrambled over to Regolith with the bottle, spilling some of the precious wine on Regolith’s paw as he went.
“Fool,” said Regolith.
His disdain painfully apparent, Regolith plucked the bottle from the rat's trembling claws while also plucking a daggar from the terrified creature's belt. Without so much as a second glance, the pine marten plunged the blade into Bilgetail’s chest with a lightening quick swing of his arm. Bilgetail didn’t even have a chance to cry out before the life was snuffed from his body. Regolith pushed the slain rat’s body away with a grimace of distaste. Then the pine marten turned his stony green eyes on Thalweg.
“Well are you going to pour for your mistress?”
Shaken to his very core, Thalweg had no choice but to obey. Taking a shaky breath, Thalweg took the bottle in trembling paws. “Yes, sir,” he stuttered, hoping not to displease or anger the pine marten.
As if entranced, he walked over and very carefully poured a cup for the female pine marten and bowed awkwardly before slipping into the corner. Regolith looked at Thalweg with distaste. He looked over at his mate and asked, “What did you think of the attack last night?”
Vermilion was silent, staring straight ahead over Regolith’s head. The pine marten slammed down his goblet, spilling wine on the tablecloth. He glared over at Thalweg who was standing in the corner unsure of what to do. “What about you, ferret? What did you think of the attack last night?”
Thalweg pulled together some words to say. “Dunno, sir. The woodlanders seemed to know wot they were doin.’ They killed most of the guards. Though ‘twas fortunate one of ours was able to sound the alarm. Some looked like trained warriors. That big otter and those rabbits.”
Regolith and Vermilion both stared aghast at his intelligent response. Regolith nodded, his brows furrowed in mystification.
“Aye,” said Regolith after a few moments of awkward silence. “Those rabbits were strange. They seemed like real fighting beasts and all had the same camouflaged uniforms. I saw one on them lay low one of my soldiers with just a swung of his paw. I wonder what they were doing here. They reminded me of something, but I’m not sure what.”
Gaining more confidence in himself, Thalweg continued, “I’m sure I know why they’re ‘ere. Those woodlanders all seem to be cursed with that pestilence called conscience, milord.” Thalweg made a face. “Never want to leave their kind in slavery and the like.”
Vermilion looked up at Thalweg interestedly. Regolith seemed to notice and looked strangely at the Thalweg. “What’s your name, ferret?”
Thalweg tensed and said, “Thalweg, yer mightiness.”
“Thalweg, eh? Well you seem like a clever beast. I would like you to be one of my captains.”
The pine marten’s smile was colder than ice.
Thalweg looked shocked. A few moments before he had thought that Regolith was going to slay him on the spot like the unfortunate rat. Instead he promoted him. How strange. Apparently, his moods could be as intense and violent as they were swift.
“Sir?” said Thalweg.
“A position has recently been made… available,” was the pine marten’s cryptic response.
Thalweg looked at him blankly.
“Stop being daft, ferret,” growled Regolith. He waved a paw at the ferret. “You are now a captain. You may wear the blue cloak and eat in the officer’s mess and so on.”
“Thank you very much, your mightiness,” said Thalweg bowing stiffly. He looked up unsure of what to do next.
“So what was your take on the woodlanders’ midnight sortie?” asked Regolith. “Come pull up a chair and eat with us.”
Thalweg grabbed a stool from the corner and perched between the two pine martens. He slouched over to make sure he was not sitting up higher than Regolith. The pine marten looked over at him distastefully. “Stop slouching and take off your helmet, ferret!”
“Yes, sir!” said Thalweg. He hesitated for a moment before taking off his helmet. He glanced uncertainly at the pine marten, expecting the usual reaction.
Regolith however seemed delighted by Thalweg’s scars. He leaned forward eagerly and said, “My my, you’re an evil looking beast. You’ll do just fine. Can’t have the troops getting soft. One look at you and…” Regolith burst into laughter.
Thalweg smiled unhappily at the insult and ran a paw along the scars on his face.
Regolith smiled at the ferret with all his teeth. “Well what did you think of the midnight sortie?’
“Er, it seemed relatively well planned. They got most of the slaves freed with few casualties. Though they’ll probably be back to save the others. Woodlanders would not rest it they thought a few of their own were locked up by us evil vermin,” Thalweg said with a chuckle as he warmed up to the conversation. Regolith seemed to appreciate the comment and smirked.
“Indeed. That’s why I’ve posted extra guards,” said Regolith.
“It is a very good plan, milord. Though perhaps it would be even more beneficial to add extra guards on the walls. After all it is the only entrance into the fortress. If we are fortunate, the woodlanders may even try a similar maneuver this second time, if it worked once, why not twice?”
Regolith laughed, “Why not twice, indeed! You’re a ferret after my own heart, Foulleg.”
“Yes, sir,” said Thalweg amused though not entirely surprised that Regolith had spoken his name incorrectly. “Perhaps some could even keep their heads down to make it seem that only few are on guard.”
“You are very clever, Foulleg,” said Regolith. He posed again a question that was perplexing him. “What did you think of those rabbits?”
"Well they were all dressed the same like, in those green tunics. I’d heard stories about big fightin’ rabbits that lived on the western coast inna huge mountain fortress ruled by a fierce stripedog.”
“So have I,” said Vermilion. Thalweg turned to her as did Regolith. He seemed as shocked as the ferret that she had spoken. Her voice was quiet and a bit hoarse, almost as if from lack of use. “Salamandastron. Ruled by a great badger and a host of fighting hares. My…” she paused for a second looking at Regolith. “My father liked to tell stories. I love to hear them.”
"Very good, my love," drawled Regolith smiling at her. He looked over at Thalweg with pleasure.
Willow had finally convinced Galena to climb down the coiled curtain. Volunteering to swing down first, Willow grabbed the rope and wrapped her legs around it before plummeting towards the ground. Willow looked down as she neared the ground and was dismayed to see a ferret in a blue cloak running towards her. A Captain of the Guard! “Hey, you…” the ferret started. Willow swung towards him and shot out at the vermin with her footpaws, laying him flat. He fell heavily onto the ground unconscious.
Landing hard on her scut, she crashed into one of the benches arranged around the long tables. Laying her head on the ground, she closed her eyes and tried to ignore the pains in her back from her hurried and clumsy landing. She laid a paw on her pounding heart and looked up at Galena. “Come on down!”
The otter followed with a strangled yelp as she descended swiftly to the ground. When she had reached the ground, she ran over to Willow and helped her up. “Are you alright. That was a nasty fall.”
“I’ll be alright,” said Willow gritting her teeth in pain. “I’ll need to be. I’m sure I made lots of noise. We’ll have to get out of here quickly.”
Galena looked worriedly at her friend before analyzing the situation. “All the guards are outside on the ramparts on guard. Let’s use the tunnels to get closer to the wall gates. We’ll sneak out from by the kitchens so we can grab Acrey on our way. That’s got to the shortest distance to the gates.”
“Alright,” the squirrelmaid answered, running along with the otter as they dashed for the stairs to the basement. As they passed the unconscious ferret, Willow looked down at him. “I don’t think I’ve seen him before. I didn’t know there was a ferret captain.”
Galena grabbed the squirrelmaid’s paw and dragged her towards the door. “He must be Deekeye’s replacement. Of course Regolith would chose the most evil looking beast as his new captain. Let’s hurry, mate. Some beast is sure to have heard us.” She whispered a thought that had been consuming her for the past few moments, “I was afraid he was gonna get you for a minute.”
“Me too,” said Willow hard eyed.
They hastened down the staircase, listening keenly for any sound of another creature’s footpaws. They went to the door to the underground passage, silent as shadows.
“It’s awfully quiet down here, Galena,” whispered the squirrelmaid.
“Too quiet,” the ottermaid agreed. “But we can’t leave Acrey.”
Wrenching open the iron bars to the door, the squirrelmaid moved aside for her friend to heave on the heavy oak doors. Galena was about to heave the door open when it swung open unexpectedly, bowling her over.
Willow barely had time to take a breath to scream when dark figure clamped his paw over her mouth.
“Oops! Sorry, miss,” a voice whispered from the doorway. She looked up at the creature holding a paw over her mouth and saw a handsome golden furred squirrel standing in the doorway. He let her go and reached down to help the ottermaid.
Another squirrel ran in from behind the newcomer. It was Beech. He pulled Willow into a tight embrace. Willow grabbed onto him dazedly, still gaping at the squirrel warrior. Beech let her go and moved onto Galena. The dashing squirrel turned to look at another creature approaching from the tunnel. The golden furred squirrel had such strong broad shoulders and a beautiful thick bushy tail!
“It’s good to see you, matey,” said Galena patting Beech on the back.
“You too, mate,” said Beech laughing.
The squirrel warrior smiled at the reunion of the younger creatures. A long-eared creature peeked her head over his shoulder and ran over to Galena, patting her on the back. “It’s nice to see you again, Galley-a-thing.”
“It’s nice to see you too, Peony mate.”
“I say, there’s an otter perishin’ out of a desire to see you, wot!” said Peony. She pulled the others into the tunnel with her. “But we really should have our reunion later, we can’t waste that much time dawdling. Somebeast might hear us and sound the alarm.”
Beech looked over at Dann as they hurried down the tunnel toward the kitchens. “Dann, where’s your ferret friend?”
“Dunno,” replied Dann. He looked over at Willow. “Do you know where Thalweg is? Didn’t he bring you two down here?”
“What?” asked Willow gaping. She was so confounded by the current state of affairs that she barely had the remaining brain power to put one footpaw in front of the other. Who is that handsome squirrel warrior? Where did Beech and the others come from? Where were they going?
“No,” replied Galena and she rushed by to find Cinnabar. “We came by ourselves. No creature helped us.”
“You know we can only wait so long, Dann. After that we’ve got to shift from these flippin’ foundations sharpish!” replied Major Peony.
“Yes,” replied Dann. “He knows where to find us.”
Little did the squirrel warrior know that his friend was lying unconscious on the floor of the mess hall, knocked unconscious unknowingly by the very creatures he was trying to save.
“By the bloomin’ left. Where are those wretched tubbucketed hares? I knew I shouldn’t have sent them to save the chef in the kitchen. She’ll need savin’ now from those famine faced blighters!” Major Peony mumbled angrily to herself as they ran back to the escape tunnel.
But luckily, as they reached the entrance to the escape tunnel, they saw Major Peony’s patrol standing next to Foremole Loamsnout who was gallantly holding onto a lantern and his laughter.
Peony was right, they were alternately finishing pawfulls of vittles and complementing Acrey the cook. The little dormouse tossed her apron over her burning face, not used to such complements.
“Acrey my darling, your trifle is heavenly,” said Jonquil, stuffing some of the aforementioned food in his mouth.
“How say you come cater to the poor blighters who’ve never tasted your meadowcream at the old fire mountain, eh!” Captain Turnsol said with a winning smile.
“I guess everything went alright, Captain Turnsol,” replied Peony darkly. “I suppose all you all had to fight your way through was some bloomin’ scoff, you silver-tongued rogues!”
Turnsol scoffed, “also a few guards and a blinkin’ load of ravenous hares, Major.”
“They were very brave, miss,” said the dormouse, now peeking out from behind her apron.
“Into the tunnel, you rogues. I can’t for the life of my figure out why you would all be standing and chatting in these bloomin’ tunnels when you should be escaping!” raged Peony as she shooed them all into the tunnel
“Not to worry, Peony darling,” Turnsol said before he climbed into the tunnel. “We just arrived a moment before you did.”
Major Peony waited for all the others to pass and then climbed in behind Willow and Beech. Foremole Loamsnout looked around for Dann’s ferret friend and then piled some dirt behind them to cover the entrance to the escape tunnel.
Thalweg had a rather rude awakening when he finally regained consciousness. He sat up rubbing his head and flexing his paw as he strove to return consciousness to it. When he was bowled over by the little squirrelmaid, he had fallen so his weight had pinned the paw to the ground. It was all pins and needles. The first sight that greeted his dizzy eyes were the barred teeth and blazing green eyes of Lord Regolith, Regolith the pine marten, Regolith the slaver, Regolith the ruthless.
A chilly fear ran through his bones, freezing all the blood in his veins. He had been left behind. Dann wasn’t able come back to find him. It was much too dangerous. Trying to push aside the frustration and anger of being left behind so lightly by his so called friends, he strove fiercely to come up with a story that Regolith would believe and value. His very life depended on it.
“Explain.” The pine marten drawled out the single word slowly.
The black fox grabbed Thalweg by the scruff of his neck and pulled him to his feet. With a grin, he selected his sharpest skinning knife. His dark eyes seemed to swallow what little light there was in the room and what little hope remained in Thalweg’s heart.
“The slaves have escaped,” Thalweg stated outright.
“I can see they escaped, you corpse,” Regolith howled as he ripped out his sword and swung at the ferret.
Thalweg ducked instinctively. Regolith missed the ferret and stumbled with the force of his motion. Even more enraged, he whirled back to the unfortunate ferret, green eyes blazing, and took the knife Zigor offered him. This time he stopped himself only a millimeter from Thalweg’s trembling neck. A trickle of blood pooled from a small prick.
“It was those rabbits again, sire. That big one hit me over the head before I was even able to see he was here. They were covered in dirt, probably from a tunnel. They must have dug into our tunnels. But how could they have known about them?”
“Dirt, you say!” growled the pine marten in a soft voice, his nose almost touching Thalweg’s. His green eyes were lit with a poisonous fire. He spat out very slowly, “Then why is there no dirt on the ground.”
Thalweg had trouble speaking while the dagger was so close to his neck. “Their fur was… so matted in it…it didn’t fall onto the ground. That squirrel used that rope to get the riverdog out of ‘er cage, sir?”
“What squirrel?” asked Regolith.
Thalweg glanced over at the empty shackles. Regolith rolled his eyes. “Don’t you dare say it was the squirrelmaid. That pretty little thing could never manage that.”
“It was the squirrel warrior who attacked us last night, the one with the golden fur. I just barely saw him hurling up the rope before the big rabbit hit me over the head.”
“And you said that they came in from the tunnels?” the pine marten drawled. “That’s impossible. Bloodnose, Halfear!” he barked. “Go look down the tunnel to the kitchens.”
Bloodnose stumbled and fell on his face before running off behind the stoat captain.
It was surely the longest five minutes of the ferret’s life. He hoped his death would be swift. The two breathless captains ran over and Bloodnose gasped out, “There was an escape tunnel, Lord Regolith. The ferret spoke truly.”
“Indeed,” said Regolith straightening and striding down to the tunnels, his cape billowing behind him. Zigor dropped Thalweg in a heap before following behind Regolith like the very shadow of death. Thalweg stood and walked down to the tunnels in their wake, curious to see Dann’s escape tunnel.
They stopped in front of an excavation that was clumsily filled in. Regolith kicked the middle of the hole in hard with his footpaw and frowned as it fell forward into a tunnel. He looked at Thalweg in amazement, who by now was shaking in terror.
“A tunnel. I am impressed, Foulleg. You spoke truly. ”
Thalweg had no words left.
Regolith pointed his paw at two rats and said, “Find out where this tunnel ends.” Then he indicated Thalweg dramatically. “And I’ll be seeing you at dinner, ferret.” And with that he stormed off, leaving a group of stunned horde beasts in his wake.
Zigor looked at Thalweg intently, his black eyes seemed also hypnotic. Thalweg hoped the black fox could not see the lies in his eyes. The black fox seemed content with his study of the ferret and walked off after the pine marten. Halfear hesitated then followed a few steps behind the fox. Bloodnose, the weasel captain, walked over to Thalweg who was still trembling slightly. As usual, Bloodnose was nursing a bloody nose. “You were right lucky, mate,” said Bloodnose. “I was afraid you were a goner for a few minutes there.”
“Aye, me too,” Thalweg said with a timid smile.
Bloodnose patted him on the back with a bloody paw. “Don’t worry about dinner mate, he won’t kill you there. If he wanted ta kill ya for this, he’d make an example of you right now in front of the horde.”
“That’s comforting,” Thalweg quipped.
Bloodnose chuckled a bit. “I’m sorry mate. I wish I had some good words for you.”
The weasel nodded to him and then walked off. Thalweg watched him go in surprise. Had he just made a friend?
The dibbuns had long since commandeered the ramparts and wallsteps up to the main gate after the Colonel of the Long Patrol had suggested that they go on watch. They were persistent little tyrants, scolding any creature who wished to pass into their guard territory. In fact, when Skipper walked up to bring them down for tea, two little molemaids ran him off with half of a broken window pole, whacking the poor otter on the bottom as they did so.
Janglur and Rimrose walked up to the ramparts with Skipper treading unsurely behind them, afraid of getting his bottom hit again by the little molemaids. They grinned mischievously at him.
“Hello, my lovely dibbuns,” said Rimrose politely. She winked at the molemaid brandishing the broken pole at Skipper. “Would you mind lending a paw to an old creature?”
The little molemaid Rosemoyne looked sheepish. “Oi’s bee sorry marm. Usn’s’ll ‘elp you.”
Putting down her weapon, Rosemoyne took Rimrose’s paw and walked the squirrel mother to the battlements. Skipper snatched the pole and lobbed it over the gate and into Mossflower woods. Then yelling his war cry, he chased after the babes. They scattered laughing and begging Skipper to capture them.
Janglur walked over to a little mouse sitting looking out into Mossflower wood. “Whatcha lookin’ at, mate?”
“Them shrews and volers are comin’ to Redwall now, Mr. Strangular.”
“Wonderful.” Janglur leaned down and yelled at Brother Melius who was lingering by the wallgate. “Let in Log-a-Log Dippler and Chief Burble, Melius mate.”
The Hedgehog Brother opened the gate as the shrews and voles raced in, excited about the feast for the Abbess’ tenth anniversary. The shrews, about three score in all of males, females and young ones, had left their short swords at home and instead had donned colorful tunics and headbands. Renowned as excellent cooks, several were carrying desserts for the tables and beautiful loaves of shrew bread.
Janglur ran down the steps to greet Dipper. Skipper followed close after, a troop of dibbuns riding on his shoulders. Log-a-Log Dippler thrust a loaf of shrew bread into Skipper’s paws and pulled Janglur into a crushing hug.
Chief Burble swaggered up behind them in a splendid crimson robe, making the shrew leader look particularly shabby even in his fine blue tunic. The watervole put his leafwood stick to his forehead almost as if in a salute. “Yiss, yiss. Nice to see you, Janglur, Skipper. When’re we expecting the Abbess?”
“Soon,” said Skipper wincing as the molemaid pulled on his ears and a little squirrel tried to stick his paw up the otter’s nose.
“Come ‘ere, me lovelies,” said Log-a-Log Dippler’s mate Cadence as she pulled the molemaid down from the otter’s shoulders. “Show Cadence the pretty lanterns that Brother Melius told me you were making.”
Skipper watched in admiration as Cadence lead the babes over to the tables in the orchard. The otters had done an excellent job. The curved tables were arrayed in a circle for all the creatures to sit at and a few long tables stood in a line off to the side for the platters of food to be arranged on. Cadence lifted the little molemaid up as the mole showed the shrew the pink lantern that she had cut out.
“Lovely gel,” said Janglur to Dippler.
Rimrose looked down from the walltop as she tried to urge a little mole away from the ramparts and down the stairs.
"Come on little one. It’s time to go down and see our friends the shrews and voles. What are you looking at?”
“Zurr, oi be lookin’ at ee gurt clud comin’ to da H’abbey.”
Rimrose followed the little one’s gaze. “Isn’t that…O my goodness! It’s Song and the others!” she yelled to Janglur and the others loitering around the gate.
The squirrel mother squealed with joy and ran down the steps, with the little mole crawling down the steps behind her.
All the creatures of the Abbey creatures rushed to the gate where they gathered excitedly for their Mother Abbess. Lord Russano held Mother Cregga’s paw as the badgers hurried over. Little Sister Bianca peeked her head from the dusty gatehouse and danced over to the others.
The doors were flung open and a confused Abbess was pulled inside by Janglur and Rimrose. Old friends were reunited and new friends were made. Dippler gave his old friend the Abbess a great hug while Russano the Wise and laughed and patted her on the back. Cregga and Cypress the fox embraced. The two badgers and the old vixen spoke like old friends as Cypress lead Cregga towards the tables.
Hawthorne the pine marten and Janglur were congratulating each other and themselves for a cleverly and successfully executed plan to surprise the Abbess. Sinon and Skipper were chatting as they walked back to the Great Hall to return Martin’s sword to its rightful place above the tapestry.
The little molemaid Rossmoyne was tugging on Mugwort’s and Milkwort’s capes. The little dibbun was amazed that the foxes were mirror images of each other.
When Song had sufficiently gotten over the surprise of their greeting, she invited all the creatures to sit down for the feast. Brother Jerome’s helpers rushed about loading the back and front tables with all the delicacies Redwall had to offer.
Brother Jerome, a middle-aged mouse, waved his wooden spoon like a baton as he directed the monstrous Deeper’n ever turnip’n’tater’n’beetroot pie to be placed in front of the Foremole and his crew.
Skipper and his crew had started to sing lustily about their favorite watershrimp an’ ‘otroot soup until Brother Jerome had his servers rush to bring it to them. Jerome hit Skipper over the head playfully with his spoon as he admonished the otter leader, “You sound like a naughty dibbun. You should know better, you great puddenhead riverdog.”
At that announcement, the dibbuns -- lead by the naughty squirrelbabe and the molemaid Rossmoyne – took up Skipper’s chant. Brother Jerome threw up his paws in despair. Song suppressed a giggle and rang the little bell next to her chair. Amazingly all the chatter stopped as the Abbess stood to intone the grace. A little hedgehog babe didn’t realize that the chanting was over and finished his verse in a squeaky voice.
“Give me a spoon and fetch it soon, Brother Jerome,
A bowl of good ole hotroot for….oops!”
Skipper laughed sheepishly as he put a paw over the hedgehog’s mouth and another on the little one’s head. “Ouch.” He said, plucking out a quill from his paw. “Shh, little matey. ‘Tis time fer the Abbess’ grace.”
The abbey creatures and their guests laughed at the otter's antics and soon quieted, glancing at their Abbess. She smiled and intoned the grace.
“Behold our family here assembled.
We thank you for our wonderful home and friends.
Bless us, if it may be, in all our peaceful endeavors,
If it may not, give us strength to persevere in what is to come.
And most importantly, let’s get on with the feast.
There was a brief confused silence after the last few lines, but it didn’t last long. The long patrol hares in particular, could not be distracted from their food for too long by a veiled warning.
“I say, chaps! Give me m’bally nosebag or give me death!” called one of the hares to break the awkward silence.
Every beast went at it with a will. Dessert was as good as salad to begin, and strong ales as good as mint tea. Skipper put a heaping portion of hotroot soup on a hare’s plate, who ate it all indiscriminately.
“I say, milord, have you tried these rosemary popovers, they’re lovely.”
“Try some of the yellow cheese studded with those little hazelnuts.”
“Tragglo’s Dandelion and Burdock cordial is simply divine.”
“Pass me some of that Carrot and Celery Flan.”
“I say, old thing, would you like to share one of those spiffin’ Maple and Mint Cream Pies?”
“No thank you, zurr ‘are. Oi wun’t bee’s abul to eat it, hurr.”
Song smiled out at all the friends in her beloved abbey chatting good-naturedly and enjoying the fruit of their labors.
“You’d better hurry and eat something, Song, before all those hares do. That one looks about ready to steal your Candied Fruit Sponge right from your plate,” said Sinon sitting on her left.
The afore mentioned hare waggled his ears at Sinon. “By the flippin’ left, you squirrel-chap. I had not the slightest intention of swippin’ food from the chappess of the hour, wot! The very idea of such an accusation. Unpardonable!” He paused in his tirade and smiled winningly at the Abbess, “unless you didn’t want it, Abbess?”
Everyone laughed at the hare and in the confusion, Song was able to steal a rosemary popover from his plate with a mischievous smile.
Belts and Tongues were beginning to loosen as the Feast continued well into the night. Skipper and his otters raced around using window poles to light the paper lanterns hanging in the trees above the tables and on lines strung between the trees in the orchard.
When an otter cub, sitting on his father’s shoulders as he helped to light the lanterns, fell into the hotroot soup, everyone cried out in dismay. But the shocked faces quickly turned to cries of delight as the otter poked its head out licking his lips. Russano the Wise ladled the little one out and put him on Colonel Basil Nymium’s plate.
The long patrol hare was perplexed. “What am I supposed to do with this little chap, milord?” He peered through his monocle at the laughing otter cub. Picking up his fork, he inquired. “Should I scoff the bugger?”
The little otter squealed and ran into the pond away from the hare colonel. The little one’s mother fished the babe out and scolded her husband for causing such mischief.
Log-a-Log Dippler and Abbess Song were watching aghast as a tubby rivervole challenged a lanky hare to a scoffing contest. They tried to dissuade the shrew but watched in horror as the two creatures downed mushroom and leek pasties with gravy at an alarming rate.
Chief Burble was eventually called an end to the contest. “Yiss, yiss. You two boyos both won. Take a bow.”
Foremole and Brother Melius were having great fun sampling Tragglo Spearback’s entire selection of brews with the Cellarhog. They clinked their mugs together and made outrageous toasts.
“To Abbess Song!”
“To October Ale!”
“To Jubilee Feasts!” Little Sister Bianca looked across the table at the Abbess and cleared her throat a few times before Song was able to hear her. “My dear Mother Abbess, I was hoping I could speak with to you later about exploring the upper attics,”
“The upper attics? Have you found a way inside?”
Sister Bianca looked down at her paws and after a pause said, “Well no. But I thought we could climb up from the lower attics into that window. I wouldn’t be able to undertake such a perilous climb myself but I was thinking with your help and perhaps yours, Sinon, I might be able to have a look around to see if there are any valuable papers or manuscripts about early life at the Abbey.”
The Abbess took a sip of Damson Cordial and nodded her head. “Of course, Bianca. That would be lovely. I’ve always wondered myself what sort of manuscripts we might find up there.” She turned to Sinon sitting on her left. “Sinon, would you like to…”
“Of course, Song,” said the other squirrel eagerly. “I’d love to help you out searching the attics. It should be a great adventure.”
Log-a-Log Dippler, who was sitting on Song’s right with his wife Cadence, had been listening in on the whole conversation very intently. He patted the Abbess’s paw to get her attention. “I hope you won’t leave an old shrew friend out of your adventure. “
Skipper who had been lighting the lanterns above them with a window pole had come to a dead stop behind them as he shamelessly eavesdropped as well. He now interrupted, “Beggin’ your pardon, Mother Abbess. Would you mind if an old riverdog tags along too?"
“Not at all Skipper,” said Song smiling. “I’d be glad to have you. Who knows what sort of things we might discover up in the attics. It’ll be a fun adventure for the lot of us. “
“Anyone else want to join in?” Sinon groused.
The hare who was inspecting the food on Song’s plate again with a greedy eye replied, “Not to worry, old thing. For my part, I wouldn’t want to miss the leftovers tomorrow. Ouch!” he cried when Skipper tapped his over the head with the window pole.
With Willow and Galena, Beech was finally walking back to Hamath. It was so nice to be reunited with his friends. Cinnabar was at Galena’s side, as they had been since their reunion.
But not everyone was as happy as the two otters. Dann hadn’t wanted to leave just yet. He wanted to wait and see what happened to his ferret friend Thalweg, but the Long Patrol officers reasoned with the squirrel warrior that it was much too dangerous to leave almost two score escaped slaves in the shadow of their prison for any length of time. How easy it would be for the whole group to be recaptured and enslaved again, rescuers and all! And how on earth could they feed and clothe and tend to the emancipated slaves’ medical needs without attracting too much attention. Hamath was an easy but safe distance from the Castle where they would reconvene and determine the best course of action.
It was difficult to argue with the keen logic of Major Peony.
Even the birds had started singing again as they got farther away from the Castle and it seemed as if the sun shone brighter and with renewed vigor now that they admired it with the eyes of free creatures.
The other escaped slaves frolicked at the very front of the column, picking fruits off the trees and skipping ahead enraptured in their newfound freedom. Foremole Loamsnout’s moles and Dann Reguba led the column from the front and helped to keep an eye on the escaped slaves and take them on the shortest paths back to Hamath. Dann was impatient to return so that they could start planning for Thalweg’s escape.
The older hares marched in the middle of the column, congratulating each other on their victory and discussing how they would proceed. The younger hares were marching in the back of the column with Beech and his friends. They had all taken time to introduce themselves. There were five in total, all wearing the same long green tunics as their officers with broad belts at their waists and various weapons bristling from them.
Their young galloper, Fleepaw Charpentier, was a tall, lanky hare with sandy colored fur and a jolly personality. He was swift, as all gallopers typically were, and took great pride in his speed. Several times he even sprinted a short way up the trail ahead of the group to show off for the squirrels and otters.
He carried a sling tied around his waist in a similar manner to that of Galena. He explained that he didn’t want a weapon that would get in his way when he would be running ahead on scouting missions in which speed was crucial. However, he had no trouble getting his paws on a sword if he needed one. Jonquill, the beret-wearing weapons specialist, was a walking armory and always had weapons for the others to use.
In his own humble opinion, Fleetpaw explained that he was a good chef, and proclaimed proudly that his great desire in life was "to be cook at the flippin' fire mountain!"
This of course inspired a great deal of snickering and laughing among the other hares.
Blackberry Nymium introduced himself next. He was shorter than Fleetpaw but with a more muscular frame. Beech wasn’t really sure what to make of his boisterous and slightly obnoxious behavior. He told them that “my pater’s a Colonel of the Long Patrol, Basil Nymium, doncha know” before he scrunched his face up as if he were wearing a monocle and did an impression of his father that was perhaps not very complementary, but very funny nonetheless.
Cinnabar asked him, “Wot weapon do you carry, mate?”
Blackberry took out his basket-hilted claymore and showed it off to the otter. He sheathed it and then struck out at Cinnabar, a quick left and right with his paws. Cinnabar backpedaled in alarm.
“But I’m learnin’ how to be a boxing hare like Captain Turnsol, wot!”
Fleetpaw laughed and said with a wink at Cinnabar, “Like Cap’n Turnsol, eh! Blackberry bally well idolizes the Cap’n. He’d jolly well like to be ole Cap’n Turnsol, wot!”
Another hare that they were introduced to as Lorica De Fformelo Tussock sighed dreamily and said in her soft voice, “Ole Cap’n Turnsol’s a handsome blighter alright.”
The other female hare laughed uproariously at this. She was half a head taller than Lorica – and probably taller than Peony as well. She had a rather prominent nose and dark eyes that seemed to dance with mischief.
She elbowed the squirrelmaid Willow roughly in the side and said. “Let me tell you, chaps, Lorica’s bally well perishin’ with love for the Cap’n.”
Lorica blushed and tried to cover her red face with her ears. She looked up ahead where Captain Turnsol was marching with Major Peony as the commanders congratulated themselves on their successful rescue mission. She whispered heatedly, “Oh! Please be quiet, Alma, he might hear you.”
“Leave Lorica alone, Alma De Langle, I’ve seen how you look at Cap’n Turnsol too,” remarked the other hare who hadn’t yet spoken.
He was shorter than the other two male hares and the tufts of brown hair between his ears stuck up a little bit. He raised an eyebrow at Alma who grinned sheepishly.
Alma laughed uneasily. “Point taken, Sage. Sometimes you can be a bally sage, old scout. But a gel would have to be flippin’ well blind and as bad tempered as ole’ Oswego not to appreciate a hare like that, wot! He doesn’t need those strong paws of his to knock me out!” She pretended to swoon dramatically onto Beech.
Laughing he caught her and tossed her back up.
Willow seemed to appreciate the level head on Sage’s shoulder and remarked, “That’s a beautiful blade you carry, Sage.”
“Aye, messmate,” replied Cinnabar as the hare took out his rapier. “Very well crafted, could ‘ave been an officer’s weapon afore.”
Sage Sinistra looked at it with a smile. “It was. ‘Tis my mother’s. She gave it to me before I went on this patrol. My uncle offered his saber as well but the rapier seemed to fit me better.” He stared at it pensively. “I wonder how they’re doin’ back at the fire mountain. My mother was a Cap’n in the Long Patrol like Cap’n Turnsol.”
Alma laughed at this remark and nudged Lorica, saying, “Not like ole’ Cap’n Turnsol.”
By now, Willow was sure that Lorica would faint from embarrassment. She was glad that Beech saved Lorica by remarking: “Doesn’t Major Peony carry a rapier too?”
Lorica took out her dirk and fenced Alma with it, rather more fiercely than necessary. “And she bally well knows how to use it, wot!”
“Major Peony, the prettiest hare ever to slay vermin,” remarked Fleetpaw as Sage, Alma and Lorica put away their weapons.
“I can’t wait for our next lesson!” said Blackberry excitedly. “I wonder when it’ll be. We haven’t had one in blinkin’ ages!”
“Lessons?” asked Beech in confusion.
“Yep, strategy with Peony, diplomacy with Toby, military history with Oswego, figurin’ with Turnsol, fencin’ with Peony, healin’ with Borage, boxin’ with Turnsol, archery with Jonquil,” said Sage counting off on his paws.
“And scoffin’ with Saxifrage,” interrupted Alma laughing.
“He also does fencing sometimes,” said Sage with a smile.
“If we have to have another military history lesson with Lietunant Oswego, I think I’ll flippin’ well desert!” Blackberry intoned dramatically, pulling his ears down over his eyes in a most pitiful fashion.
“As will Oswego,” quipped Sage.
“We have suffered through quite a few of Oswego’s lessons lately,” pondered Fleetpaw. “I guess it’s because Cap’n Turnsol and Major Peony were a bit busy with breakin’ out the slave chaps from the Castle-a-thingamy.”
“Or mayhap he annoyed our fearless leader,” Alma chortled. “I’m sure jolly old Peony knows as well as we do that Oswego enjoys givin’ lessons about as much as he bally well enjoys lookin’ in a bloomin’ mirror!” She made a horrendous grimacing face.
“I wonder if we could sit in with you,” said Willow thinking out loud. “I’d love to learn how to fence.”
Beech looked at her in alarm. “You would?”
Willow crossed her paws over her chest. “I would,” she snapped, cowering him with a glare.
“Me too,” replied Beech. “Though I’d really like to learn more about archery. Dann said I was quite good at it. He even gave me his longbow and quiver. Said I could use them better than he could!”
Willow looked at the bow. “That’s Dann’s? He gave you a sword and bow. Wow!” She pawed one of the arrows in the quiver.
“Do any o’ yer leaders teach slingin?’ I’d very much like to learn more ‘bout it,” Galena asked.
“Borage teaches us slingin’ sometimes,” remarked Fleetpaw tugging at the sling he had tied around his waist.
“That I do, chaps,” said a jolly voice from behind the hare. Fleetpaw started in alarm and almost dashed away. They turned and gaped into the smiling face of Borage the healer himself.
“Oh corks!” said Sage wisely.
“I say, ‘tis bloomin’ bad manners droppin’ eaves on us like that!” Blackberry cried out in dismay.
Borage looked over at his friend Sergeant Saxifrage who was marching beside him. Willow was sure that the craggy old Sergeant winked at her before barking out in his best parade ground manner, “Eyes front, you stinky, slop-pawed, snaggletoothed excuses for soldiers!”
Perplexed Captain Turnsol and Major Peony glanced back to see what was going on. Lorica blushed deeply again.
Sergeant Saxifrage roared, “You had a good home and ya Left, yer Right, ya Left, yer Right, ya Left, yer Right. Pick up those footpaws you lanky lopsided lettuce leaves! Your mums might‘ve loved you, but I don’t!”
Sergeant Saxifrage marched past them with Borage, remarking to Alma out of the corner of his mouth, “Teach you scoffin,’ eh? I don’t think ya need any bloomin’ lessons, Miss De Langle.”
As they passed, Willow was sure that Borage coughed, disguising a laugh.
“By the left, at least it wasn’t Lieutenant Oswego. I was sure that my heart was gonna bally well…” began Blackberry.
“Less gabbin’ n’ more marchin!’ “ yelled Sergeant Saxifrage from in front of them.
“That ‘are sure has a pair a lungs, eh, Galena,” said Cinnabar with a wink. Galena just laughed that the dismayed faces of the young hares.
“Wot was that all about?” Peony wondered as Saxifrage and Borage came to march next to her.
“Nothin’ important, marm. Just showin’ the recruits the ropes and all that.”
“They were actually hopin’ for another lesson of all things,” said the healer Borage to Turnsol and Peony.
“Yes, I suppose we haven’t had one in while,” agreed the Major. She looked behind her at Oswego who was talking with Foremole Loamsnout.
Noticing her gaze, his thick eyebrows -- shot through with coarse gray hair – gathered above his eyes in a fierce scowl. He ranted, “Don’t even think ‘bout it, Peony. That would be my fourth in a row! I’ll roast those leverets for supper before I give them another lesson.”
“Jolly good, I hope you save some for me. Ouch!” Turnsol skipped aside as Peony punched him in the ribs while carefully avoiding his bandaged shoulder.
“Not at all, Oswego,” said Peony agreeably. “I thought that because you’ve had to teach so many lessons that you could choose the next victim – I mean officer – to teach a lesson.”
Oswego smiled nastily at Turnsol. He pointed at the hare captain with his javelin. “Turnsol. ‘Ow do you like those apples, mate?”
“Fine enough, wot,” said Turnsol, shrugging with his bandaged shoulder. “Besides it’ll be nice to get another chance to buffet the bloomin’ daylights out of those rotters.” At Peony’s sideways glance he corrected himself. “Er. I mean, it’ll be nice to share my knowledge with the young ‘uns.”
Thalweg had been a wreck all day, dreading the dinner he would have with Regolith. As he walked around the Castle with his traitorous blue cloak floating behind him, he heard whispers as he passed. The rat Lousewort was taking bets on which of his extremities would be severed by the end of the meal. Thalweg didn’t have the heart to hear what the odds were. A weasel was whispering sorrowfully to a stoat about the loss of this new captain. Three ferrets were arguing about who would have his sword when he was dead. However, the time soon arrived and the whisperings intensified as he strolled into Regolith’s chambers.
Walking into the dinning room, Thalweg noticed that a few more candles had been lit tonight than he had remembered from his previous visit. They flickered, casting eerie shadows across the pine marten’s face. Zigor, sat at the pine marten’s right, his obsidian eyes observing Thalweg intently, always watching.
Vermilion swept in. Tonight her gown was a gleaming white, softened to gold in the candlelight. She sat down and nodded to Thalweg.
Regolith commented, “You look beautiful, my darling.”
She looked over at him and said nothing.
Regolith turned to Thalweg and drawled sarcastically, “Would you like to serve us today, Thalweg. We’re a bit short on servers tonight you must understand.”
Thalweg smiled uncomfortably as he went to the side table and poured red wine for everyone at the table. He looked at the four dishes sitting on the table – badly burned pigeon. The ferret captain felt a shred of pity for the unfortunate pair of rats who had been assigned the task of preparing dinner for the pine marten tyrant. This must have been their best attempt. If he wasn’t dead by morning, he was sure they would be.
The ferret walked to the table and asked, “Do you like your pigeon well-done sir?”
Regolith laughed and took the plate Thalweg offered with the least burned of the birds. After he had served the others, the ferret sat down again, poised on the stool again, rigid with fear and anticipation.
“Tell us another story, Foulleg,” mumbled the pine marten through his pigeon.
“A story, sir?”
“Zigor didn’t hear your story the last time,” said the marten nodding to his favorite confederate.
“Like the one you told about Salamandastron to us last time, Thalweg,” said Vermilion’s hoarse whisper.
Regolith looked over at his mate appreciatively. “We would like to hear another one. How do you discover such tales, Foulleg?”
“When I was a wandering and thieving for my livelihood afore I joined your band, I would make woodlanders tell me tales before I skinned ‘em for caps. You wouldn’t think lookin’ at ‘em, but moles have very soft fur.”
“Did you hear any interesting mole stories, Thalweg?” asked Vermilion.
“Heavens no! I can’t understand a word they say.”
Regolith laughed uproariously at this comment, patting Zigor on the back heartily. The black fox did not laugh along with the others. He just stared at Thalweg. Watching, always watching.
Regolith waved his paw for the ferret to continue. Thalweg scratched his head and said, “I heard a story from a squirrel once about a mouse with a magic sword.”
“Magic sword?” said Vermilion in her quiet voice.
“Yes. This mouse was a warrior and a powerful mage. He had supernatural powers and was cursed with the rage of a Badger berserker – a sight to behold.”
“Supernatural powers, you say.” Regolith took a sip of his wine and leaned back closing his eyes. “Sounds like an entertaining story.”
“Yes. This squirrel said that he was from an Abbey up north called Redwall.”
Zigor shifted impatiently in his seat. “Redwall?”
Regolith opened his eyes and watched the exchange between the captains on his right and left.
“Yes. It was founded by this warrior mouse. His name was Martin the Warrior. Strangely though, the Abbey was built like a stronghold, a fortress impregnable to any attack. This warrior watches over the abbey from beyond the grave. His magical powers are awesome to behold. He had even invaded the minds of warlords intent on capturing the place and drove them into madness.”
“Drove them mad? Who? How?” asked Regolith.
“Through dreams and visions, haunting them day and night. Cluny the Scourge and Tsarmina the Queen of the Thousand Eyes.”
“What of this magic sword? Surely such a thing cannot exist,” said Vermilion in wonder. Regolith looked at his mate with interest. Her head was resting in her blood red paws as she looked over at the ferret captain, her eyes shining in wonder. One of the black fox’s eyebrows was raised.
“Indeed. So the squirrel claimed. He said that he had once lived at Redwall in the past and the Abbey creatures there had even entrusted him to wield the sword for a time. It is a marvelous blade made from a falling star with a red stone of great beauty and value on its hilt. ‘Tis said that the wielder of such a sword is invincible.”
Vermilion smiled wryly and said with a giggle, “Then why would the squirrel ever give it up?”
“Yes, Foulleg. Why did the squirrel surrender such a powerful weapon?”
Thalweg scratched his head. “You know the ways of peace loving woodlanders. At the Abbey of Redwall, they are unaccustomed to war. Yet, they often have a Redwall Warrior protecting them in peaceful times. This squirrel was once the Redwall Warrior but had to forsake his title when he attacked another creature at the Abbey.”
“He had to turn in his sword for attacking someone?” Regolith asked in wonder. “What nonsense.”
Zigor snorted derisively at the remark. He too was unable to comprehend the values of the Redwall creatures.
Vermilion shrugged, “I guess they do not condone violence in this Abbey our friend Thalweg speaks of.”
“Then how do the creatures solve any arguments?” Regolith said turning to the black fox who chuckled with him. The pine marten slammed a dagger deep into the wood of the table. The table shook and Thalweg’s goblet of wine tipped over, the red wine staining the tablecloth and dripping onto his blue cloak. Regolith roared with laughter at the strange Abbey customs and Thalweg’s distressed face when he saw the red stain on his captain’s cloak.
“Do you know any more about this place, Foulleg?” asked Regolith leaning towards Thalweg menacingly.
Zigor looked on unblinkingly. Always watching.
Thalweg bowed and said, “No, milord. ‘Tis only things I’ve heard second hand. I’ve never seen these things and places for meself.”
Regolith sighed and sat back, dissatisfied to have the story end so abruptly.
Thalweg looked worriedly at the knife Regolith was unconsciously playing with as he sat in silence. The ferret added one more comment, hoping to keep the pine marten’s interest, lest he be killed by the tyrant merely for sport. “The last thing the squirrel mentioned before I spit him was rather interesting. He said that there were creatures like us who lived in a little glade near Redwall.”
Now the ferret had Regolith’s full attention. “What sort of creatures?” he asked leaning forward eagerly.
However, the conversation could not be allowed to continue because Vermilion interrupted Thalweg before he could respond. “Perhaps we should let Thalweg go and take his rest and we can speak in private, Regolith. And perhaps next time you can tell us about your scars, Thalweg.” Vermilion’s soft voice carried across the tense silence.
Regolith sat back and Thalweg took a deep breath in relief. “As you wish, my love. Leave us, Thalweg.”
Thalweg bowed stiffly and scurried out. He heard Vermilion’s soft voice say to her mate before he left. “I like your new captain, Regolith. He has such interesting stories to tell.”
“I’m glad you like him, my dear. I will keep him close and alive then for your sake.”
“More wine, Zigor?”
The other captains Halfear and Bloodnose came up to Thalweg’s rooms in the Captain’s sleeping quarters. Halfear stood there awkwardly, waiting for Bloodnose to speak.
“How did yore dinner go, mate?”
“Fine,” said Thalweg in wonder. “I’m still alive and surprisingly unharmed.”
“I can see that,” said Halfear impatiently. “What happened?”
“Vermilion asked me to tell her another story. She had enjoyed the one I told yesterday. The pine martens seemed in good spirits. Zigor was there too, but he just sat across from me and didn’t speak two words together.”
“He does that sometimes,” said Halfear. “Just likes to stare at you and try to ‘figure you out.’ Must be some kind of fox powers.”
“Foxes don’t have powers, Halfear,” Bloodnose corrected.
“Well what about that old vixen that was friendly with Regolith’s brother. She definitely had magical powers. Chills the blood in my veins just thinking about ‘er,” Halfear countered.
“Let’s not talk about ‘er. She and her mirror-image sons give me the creeps, even after they’ve been gone from here for seasons,” said the weasel.
Changing the subject, the weasel captain, Bloodnose, looked over at Thalweg. “You said that you spoke to Vermilion? I’m surprised by that. She’s usually very quiet. I’ve been with Regolith for seven seasons now and I don’t think I’ve once heard her speak. I can’t even imagine what her voice sounds like.”
“Of course you’ve heard her speak! Every beast has got to speak sometime, right?” Halfear spat condescendingly at his compatriot. “But what did you talk about with Regolith and Zigor, Foulleg?”
“A lot about a place called Redwall.”
“Redwall? Bloodnose, that’s the place we’re going innit,” said Halfear.
Bloodnose shook his head in frustration at Halfear’s dim wit. “Yes.”
“There’s a whole bunch of treasure there,” said Halfear knowingly.
“And creatures there that Regolith’s got a personal vendetta against,” said Bloodnose. “We heard from Mortys a few days ago that our spy in Redwall is prepared and that the time is ripe for invasion.”
“While ‘e wasn’t scoffin’ that mouse slave. Disgusting,” said Halfear.
“So wot’s gonna happen to me? Should I expect execution at any moment?” interrupted Thalweg.
“No. Yer lucky that Vermilion’s taken a shinin’ to you. Regolith’ll do most anything to please ‘er. So he’s goin’ make sure you are always nearby and in good health. He’ll probably never have you out of his sights.” Bloodnose grinned. “Yer probably in the best shape outta the three of us. Regolith’ll be sure not to kill you or let another do so.”
Bloodnose patted Thalweg heartily on the back and then walked out with Halfear trailing a few paces behind. “Goodnight, mate.”
Thalweg sat down heavily on his bed again. If what the other captains had to say was correct, he might not be able to escape from the Castle as easily as the slaves. Regolith had unknowingly locked Thalweg into his own tightly bared cage, much more secure but much less tangible than the one Zigor built for the ottermaid Galena.
The Long Patrol officers were lounging in the Tipsy Seagull as they waited for the others to return from their various errands. Beech and Cinnabar had taken Willow and Galena to Loampaw’s General Store to find the maids new clothing. Willow wasn’t sure how much longer she could bear to wear her blue gown stained with another creature’s blood. Dann was showing the escaped slaves around Hamath, as the local celebrity, he was able to hold a great deal of sway with the locals who offered new clothing and food for the refugees. The slaves felt awkward around the vermin species living in town, but with the Reguba warrior as an intercessor, they began to develop a sort of camaraderie with the other creatures, who had also suffered under the tyranny of creatures like Regolith. The younger hares were picking up supplies for the long patrol – food and medicine mostly. Major Peony was planning on leaving tomorrow morning to return to the Castle for Regolith. Captain Turnsol had unfortunately picked the short straw and had been sent with them to make sure they didn’t misbehave. When they had been unsupervised last time, Blackberry had tried to fit a whole blackcurrant and meadowcream cake in Lieutenant Tobias’s haversack whether because of some malicious purpose or because of general ignorance it hadn’t yet been determined.
The young hares bounded in, dispelling all the quiet around them. Captain Turnsol plopped down next to Major Peony and said with a sigh, “Those young ‘uns will be the death of me someday.”
“Mmhmm,” Peony murmured.
Lieutenant Tobias looked at Blackberry suspiciously before he restarted the conversation. “So do you think we should try going through that tunnel again to save old Thalweg? Maybe the vermin haven’t discovered it.”
“But then there’s also the chance that they have found it,” challenged Oswego. “And why should we risk our necks for that vermin. He may very well be dead now anyway.”
Cinnabar shifted from where he was sitting next to Galena and Willow, “Dann’s friend risked his life to help those maids. It’s a poor way to repay his sacrifice, Oswego.”
Oswego glared at the otter and was silent.
Beech glanced at Peony who was also frowning at Lieutenant Oswego and asked her, “How do we even know that Thalweg wants rescuing? He might be just where he wants to be.”
“I say, it looks like we need some sort of plan, idea, stratagem, or a combination of all three, wot,” said Blackberrry.
Peony looked over at the young hare with an amused smile. “Yes indeed, Blackberry, old scout.”
Next to her, Turnsol leaned forward and put his elbows on the table resting his chin in his paws. He proposed an idea before Blackberry could come up with another clever one. “We should try to exchange a few quick words with old Scallywag to discover his intentions.”
Oswego scoffed at Turnsol’s idea, “So you will just walk up to the fortress, talk yer way in with that silver-tongue of yours and ask the ferret what his plans are over a pot of bloomin’ tea?”
“Maybe not tea, I prefer elderberry wine,” Turnsol quipped back.
“Be quiet, you two. Let’s focus on our common enemy,” said Major Peony.
The Major then became thoughtful. She looked at Turnsol and said, “I think Turnsol had the right idea basically. Of course we can’t go inside the fortress unnoticed, but if we could have one of those other friendly vermin chaps slip in and out after talking to our friend Scallywag.”
Oswego rolled his eyes.
Lieutenant Tobias piped up. “But if Thalweg can’t get out by himself, what help would it be if we sent another rat or weasel to find out his plans. Wouldn’t they both just be trapped in the fortress?”
“Good point,” said Peony. “I propose that we give Thalweg a day to try to get out on his jolly lonesome. He seems like a clever beast. Then if we hear nothin’ from him, we could send some of those other vermin chaps to talk to him and we can arrange a rendezvous point for their escape. Those rats and weasels seem like able beasts to get the job done, eh.”
Lieutenant Oswego shrugged and stood up. “I’m parched.” He turned his back on the others and walked over to the bar.
Blackberry and Alma made horrible grimacing faces at each other as the Lieutenant left the group. “Why don’t you two go to the bar and get us some drinks, my dears,” said Major Peony when she noticed their expressions. “I’ll have a cup of apple’n’spice tea.”
“How nice of you to volunteer, chaps,” said Borage agreeably.
Blackberry looked like he was about to protest when Sergeant Saxifrage said in his loud voice, “Yes! Top hole, me lovelies! Mention in dispatches and all that, wot. I’ll have a pint of October ale.”
Blackberry and Alma stood and took all the orders and went to the counter. They stood uneasily next to Lieutenant Oswego who was also ordering a pint of October ale.
“By the left, isn’t Major Peony silly? Only ordering a bloomin’ cup ‘o apple’n’spice tea,” said Blackberry.
“She probably just wants to be alert in case of any problems, Blackberry,” said Alma, defending the Major.
They stood by Lieutenant Oswego uneasily. He smiled at them and wiggled his ears saying, “I thought you two young ‘uns bally well knew that Peony’s a lightweight. She can’t drink as much ale as the rest of her h’officers and retain her senses.”
“Thanks, mate,” Oswego said to the bartender before tossing several gleaming coins into the rat’s outstretched paw with a wink.
Blackberry and Alma looked at each other with almost identical fiendish grins. “You aren’t thinkin’ what I’m bally well thinkin’ are you, Blackberry old chap.”
“By the flippin’ left, If involves spikin’ the Major’s drink than I bally well am!”
They brought over the drinks looking innocent as newborn babes and handed them out very courteously to their superiors. Major Peony was amazed by the treatment and wiggled her ears at them approvingly. “Thank you very much,” she said with a smile. Taking a sip, she remarked, “This tastes very good. How did you know that I liked iced tea?”
“Er, it was just a…” Blackberry squeaked when Peony drained the tall glass in one swig. “Steady on, Major, no need to imbibe so quickly.”
Alma and Blackberry looked at each other in alarm, worried that their prank was taking perhaps a dangerous turn. Oswego turned to look over at their table from where he was now sitting at the bar talking to a tough looking sea otter. The mastermind glanced over at the table to see the culmination of his prank.
“Can you refill my glass, Blackberry?” asked the Major holding out her drink before turning to Cinnabar. “Now that we’ve had business mostly solved for the night, I don’t suppose you could entertain us with your story of how you meet Dann? I bet the young ones would love to hear it, Cinnabar.”
The sea otter chuckled merrily in his deep baritone and took a swig of October Ale. “Well you see I was born on the most beautiful liddle isle you could ever wish to see, Green Isle. But when I was naught but a little otter cub, I was taken from its shores by a group of slavers…”
Blackberry stood up from the table with Peony’s cup and walked over to the bar. He glanced over at Alma, who was worrying her lip between her teeth, not paying much attention to Cinnabar’s story.
“…and that was the first time I was shipwrecked on the Western Shores. This time it was in the lee of yer great fire mountain. When Dann was heading over there last fall, he stumbled upon me. Literally stumbled, I might add. Stepped on me head! Muttered some lame excuse and then took me into Salamandastron to get cleaned up…”
Alma stood up as well and hastened to join Blackberry by the bar. She hissed, “What do we do? The Major wasn’t supposed to drink it that fast!”
Blackberry glanced back at the table and at Major Peony who was facing the bar from her seat at the table. One elbow on the table, she was resting her head on her paw as she tried to focus on Cinnabar, her grey eyes unfocused.
“…after I had finally found the port city in the south, I sought out a ship that would be going back to my home. There weren’t very many ships at all embarking because it was storm season and sea voyages were very dangerous in the winter months. But in the end I was able to sign up as a deck hand on a merchant vessel that would be sailing near Green Isle. And believe it or not, that ship was attacked by pirates as well and I became a galley slave again! Not for long though. The pirate vessel was caught up in a terrible storm, and we were tossed about…
Alma tugged at Blackberry’s paw. “What did you get for the Major?”
The rat bartender looked over at the two anxious hares. “What can I get ya this time mates?”
“Our friend wanted another of whatever it was you gave her last time,” said Blackberry offering the Major’s glass to the rat.
The bartender furrowed his brow, “Another harbor ice tea? Are you sure, young uns? Those things are quite strong.”
“Er, could you mix one up again but without any alcohol in it, sir,” asked Alma.
The bartender raised his eyebrows. “There’s naught but alcohol in it.”
“…the second time I was shipwrecked was just last season not at all far from here. And just like the last time it was Dann who found me and this time he brought me to Hamath to get batched up. Had a splinter in my bum, very unpleasant business…”
Alma and Blackberry looked at each other. “Nothing but alcohol? But she didn’t taste anything.”
The rat bartender looked at them strangely. “That’s harbor iced tea. All the different kinds cancel out the tastes of the other. Tastes like iced tea, not liquor.”
Alma could feel the dread slowly bubbling up within her. “That glass was really tall, wasn’t it, Blackberry.”
As one they looked back at the table. By now, Peony had her head resting in both paws on the table. Captain Turnsol and Sergeant Saxifrage who were sitting next to her, nudged her worriedly.
“Peony? Are you alright? What’s the matter. Borage, could you take a look at her?” Saxifrage called worriedly.
Borage the Healer got up from his seat and walked over to Peony. He looked into her eyes and shook his head in amazement. “I think she’s drunk.”
Turnsol’s ears shot up in surprise. “But how could that have…”
The rat bartender looked over at the table with a funny expression on his face and the two young hares staring at him with worry. He picked up another glass and filled it with water. “Why don’t you give this to your friend. It should help.”
Alma and Blackberry stared at the tall glass of water the bartender placed on the table, neither making any motion to pick it up. By now, the others had realized what happened and were staring at Alma and Blackberry disapprovingly.
Turnsol stood up and cowered them with a ferocious glare. “Peony might have a bad headache on the morrow, but ‘twill be nothin’ compared to the one I’ll give you tonight!”
He bounded up from his chair and chased after the two young hares who squealed in dismay as he raised his clenched fists. They bolted away fast enough to put any galloper to shame. Borage headed over to the bar and picked up the glass of water the rat bartender had prepared.
Fleetpaw was impressed at the speed and pace that Alma and Blackberry were able to maintain while overcome by such a consuming fear. “By the left, those two can sure shift dust when certain death’s on the horizon, wot!”
Peony merely groaned at this remark, which brought back Turnsol’s attention. He glanced out the door at the two still fleeing hares and walked back to the table shaking his head. “We’ll probably be safe from those rotters for a little longer.”
Sergeant Saxifrage looked over at Borage, “How do you think the poor gel’ll be in the morning,’ eh?”
“Probably not very good. Sedgepaw mixes up a mean harbor iced tea. The one you had at the beginning of the week threw you for a real loop. The water should help though. Why don’t you take her up to her room so she can be more comfortable.”
Turnsol nodded and helped Peony up from the table. She muttered in dismay as he tried to support her with his injured shoulder. “Not that bloomin’ shoulder, Turnsol. It’s still injured.”
Turnsol let out a little chuckle. “She’s drunk out of her mind and still worried about my bloomin’ shoulder. Figures she won’t leave off teasing me about it.”
Almost the moment after Turnsol had disappeared upstairs, Alma and Blackberry burst back into the Tipsy Seagull. They ran to the table, out of breath and agitated.
“We ran near the river that meanders outside town and saw vermin from the castle congregatin’ there,” panted Alma.
As he tried to catch his breath, Blackberry continued, “They looked like they were fillin’ up canteens with water.”
“Why on earth would they be doing that?” wondered Oswego as she wandered over. “Don’t they have a well in their Castle?”
Blackberry shrugged, still out of breath.
“We thought we saw Dann’s friend Thalweg there. What should we do?”
“O corks!” said Lieutenant Tobias. “This would’ve been the perfect opportunity to communicate with Thalweg. Too bad Peony’s out’ah commission.”
“Indeed,” groused Sergeant Saxifrage. He gave Alma and Blackberry a horrible scowl. ‘Tis a bloomin’ shame that you rotters had to drug the poor gel.”
Thalweg sighed. He was about waist deep in the cold river water. The other horde beasts had not dared to go quite as far as he did into the water. One said to his neighbor that he admired Cap’n Thalweg for his fearlessness. It wasn’t a lack of fear that urged him to walk into the river. Under the moon, the river gleamed and twinkled as it reflected the thousand diamonds in the sky. The cold running water soothed some of the aches from the stress and helped to numb his weary limbs, although his mind already felt numb from the recent events.
As they prepared for their trip north, Regolith’s army had completely exhausted the well in their fortress. Thus Thalweg was out today filling up vast cisterns that they would be taking on their journey.
Thalweg had been surrounded by a sort of guard night and day to “protect” him. He wasn’t sure if it was because Regolith was keeping Thalweg close because he amused his mate or because he wanted to keep an eye on Thalweg because he had said something wrong while he was telling one of his stories.
He pulled the stopper from his canteen and emptied it into the river. Not really caring, he watched the water sweep off downstream. He leaned down and submerged his canteen in the life-giving water.
He almost jumped out of his skin when a furry head appeared out of the lake not a breath from his canteen. It was the otter Cinnabar that he had met at Hamath, another old friend of Dann Reguba. Thalweg leaned down more to hide the head of the otter from the view of those on the shore.
“Hey, mate,” said the otter smiling at him. “How ya holdin’ up?”
“About as well as one would expect considering the circumstances. Are you mad! This river’s crawlin’ with soldiers. You could get killed comin’ ‘ere to chat with me!”
The brawny otter seemed to shrug even though only his head was above water. “We must be quick. ‘Tis the least I can do fer wot you did to help those maids. I wanna thank you again for savin’ ‘em like you did. “Twas a very brave thing. Galena, the ottermaid wanted to send her blessing to you and her ‘eartfelt thanks. She wanted me to give you this bracelet. She said ‘tis her good luck charm.”
Thalweg took the small string of beads and looped it around his wrist. “Well tell ‘er thank ye kindly. I only wish I could’ve been more help. That little squirrelmaid was much too quick fer me. She’s got quite a powerful kick.”
“Yeah, she wanted to apologize for knockin’ you out and Dann sends his regards as well. He wanted me to tell you to hold on and he’ll help you in any way he can. So where’d ya get that nifty blue cloak from?”
“I’m a captain of the horde now.”
“Well slap me thrice and hand me to my mamma. Congrats, mate.”
“The pine marten Regolith took a shinin’ to me. Not sure why. His mate Vermilion’s likes the stories that I tell. Regolith keeps me alive mostly to amuse ‘er. But I’ve found out somethin’ very important. You must tell Dann. They’re goin’ to Redwall. That’s where Regolith’s takin’ the horde. Redwall.”
“Dunno. You must tell Dann. Promise me you’ll tell Dann.”
“I will, I promise. Do you want us to ‘elp you escape from the Castle?”
“Maybe later. While we’re on the march it should be easier. Maybe I could stage my death or somethin’ and escape with you guys. But don’t worry ‘bout me too much. I’m not a babe. I can take after meself. Besides, you fellas don’t seem to have havin’ any trouble communicatin’ with me.”
“Stay safe, mate. I should get goin.’ Don’t want you to be standin’ out ‘ere talking to yerself for too long mate. Might seem strange to the others. Take care of yerself.”
Thalweg was about to wish the brave otter the same when his head disappeared from sight and with hardly a ripple he was gone.
Book Two: A History Better ForgottenEdit
"I don’t like discussin’ the troubled pasts of others.
The past will be revealed at our own discretion.”
Thalweg fastened the clasp to his blue cloak as he walked over to Regolith and Vermilion’s tent. It was set away from the main camp to provide the leaders with a bit of privacy. He didn’t realize until he came very close that the pine martens were arguing inside. Regolith’s voice was deathly quiet and Vermilion’s voice was always soft from lack of use.
“You’ll go where I lead.” “But why must we go to Redwall? You promised me that we wouldn’t…” “Are you afraid to see him again? Afraid of what he’ll think of you?” came Regolith’s acidic response. “But I… You said…You gave me your word…” “I did nothing of the kind.” “You’re a monster, going back on your word like that!” “I may be many things, my dear. But one thing I am not is a creature who goes back on their word.” Thalweg tiptoed closer to the tent. Consumed by morbid curiosity, he didn’t notice where his footpaws were treading. The branch he stepped on broke loudly under his footpaw. He cursed and lifted his footpaw, trying to pull out a splinter. The arguing stopped abruptly. When he looked up from his injury, he fell directly into the distrustful gaze of the black fox. “Spinter,” the ferret stuttered. “Indeed,” was the sarcastic reply. Regolith wrenched open the tent and glared down at his two captains. “What do you two want?” “Ask him,” was Zigor’s cryptic reply. "Well, Foulleg? Why are you disturbing my and the Lady Vermilion’s peace?” Regolith growled belligerently. Thalweg had trouble looking into the pine marten’s dangerous green-eyes, but it would be death to look elsewhere. “Milord, I meant no offense. Please give my apologies to the Lady Vermilion. I thought I was to dine with you and the lady tonight, but I see I was mistaken.” Regolith showed his teeth and was about to spit out an acerbic reply when another voice called pleadingly from inside the tent. “Regolith, please let him come in. I did ask him to come for dinner tonight.” Regolith considered his mate’s plea before staring at the ferret considering. “Well don’t just stand there, gaping ferret. Come in. You too, Zigor. I’m in the mood for another story.” Thalweg was sure he was getting whiplash from the pine marten’s swift and intense changes of mood. The strong oak posts, secured the four corners of the tent and the linen walls stretched over the pliable saplings which served to both buttress and also to create the shape of the tent. A pile of rich burgundy pillows were heaped up in one corner of the tent where a large cot that had been moved to the side to make way for the dinner table. The dinner table was very much smaller than the table at the pine marten’s chambers in the castle. There the two ends of the table seemed almost miles apart. This was a blessing for Thalweg in that he hadn’t had to sit that close to the deadly pine martens. Sure he was within an arms’s length of Regolith on the off chance the pine marten wanted to slay him on the spot or grab his chin to examine his heavily scarred face. However, here Thalweg’s elbows rubbed against those of Regolith and Vermilion. A rat walked in with a large platter of steaming fish. Thalweg realized with a jolt that he recognized the unfortunate creature. It was Lousewort the rat. "Tonight we ‘ave Perch with a parsley sauce, milord. Fresh from the river. The fish is quite tender this season.” “Thanks, mate,” said Thalweg when the rat put his plate down last. Lousewort just looked down at him without any emotion. No doubt he was jealous to be serving a wonderful dinner to the creature he had been working side-by-side with just days before. “Wine, sir?” continued the rat, his words dripping with sugar. The rat filled everyone’s glasses, without any incident, and slipped out of the tent. Thalweg looked down at his plate, taking in the delicious aroma. These cooks had done a much better job than the ones the night before. Vermilion said so herself after tasting the fish. “These chefs did an excellent job. I hope you won’t kill these ones too, Regolith. I won’t mind eating their food again.” Regolith nodded, picking out a bone. “Though I would have preferred if they picked a fish with less bones.” “Do you have a story for us tonight, Thalweg?” asked Vermilion. “Perhaps about your scars?” “You wouldn’t like to hear about that,” replied the ferret as he wrestled a piece of fish bone from his teeth. “Humor me,” said Regolith, smiling with all his teeth. Thalweg put down his fork and looked around at the others before beginning to weave the tale with words. “These scars are all that remain of my youth.” The ferret ran his paw along the torn up ridges on his face. "I was born in the forests of the far north into a tribe of ferrets. Our leader’s name was Eryngo. He was the most feared and loved of all the creatures in our tribe and he was the best warrior. Warriors were crucial to our tribe and very well respected. For generations we had been engaged in a blood feud with one of the neighboring tribe; the bad blood between us stretched back generations. Indeed it had been so many seasons since the feud had begun that the reason for it was not truly known – perhaps it had started over land or food or general dislike or misunderstanding of the other -- no one could be certain. My father was Eryngo’s second in command and was killed in one such skirmish, sacrificing his life for Eryngo’s. My mother died in the night raid on our camp that immediately followed, so I, barely one season old, was left parentless. To honor my father’s sacrifice, Eryngo adopted me and raised me as his own son. First and foremost, I was taught to fight." “And what caused you to fight for yourself? You’re a mercenary now. Why did you betray your adopted father and the leader of your tribe?” interrupted Vermilion. “Yes, why?” asked Regolith with his eyes narrowed. “I was young and impetuous. My downfall proved to be a beautiful dark eyed maid.” “Isn’t it always,” said Regolith laughing. He elbowed Zigor in the side good naturedly. “She betrayed you? Rejected you when she saw your ugly mug?” Thalweg hesitated and touched the scars again. “You’re right of course, milord. "Sylvia was the jewel of our tribe, beloved by everyone. Fatally beautiful and just as cruel. I gave her everything I had and she rejected me, couldn’t bare to look at the scars I obtained protecting our tribe and bringing honor to our leader Eryngo. I ran away in shame, making my living selling my sword to the highest bidder. I’ve always been searching for a true cause or creature to serve. It took many seasons, but I’ve finally found it." Regolith leaned back and rested his paws behind his head. “You are a very good story teller, Foulleg. The Lady Vermilion and I look forward to hearing more of your yarns. And Zigor as well, naturally.” “Naturally,” was the sarcastic reply. The black fox didn’t seem to take pleasure in anything. “Thank you, milord,” was Thalweg’s reply. Taking the pine marten’s words for a dismissal, Thalweg stood up and bowed before hurrying off to sit by Bloodnose at one of the fires. “Didn’t you like the story, Zigor?” “Well enough, I suppose. I just felt like something was missing from it.” “I enjoyed it immensely, my dear. Don’t let that wretched black fox ruin your appreciation of our ferret captain’s tales,” whispered Vermilion.
Chapter TwentyEditAs the younger patrollers were loathe discovering, Major Peony was not happy when she finally awoke the next morning with a splitting headache.
They had returned to the Tipsy Seagull for breakfast. The rat bartender put a foul-smelling concoction in front of the hare major with a wink. She pinched her nose and tossed it back, grimacing from the taste. “This is supposed to help? Yuck!” she complained before putting her head back on the table. Alma and Blackberry looked over at Peony guiltily from where sat with her head down on the table between Borage and Captain Turnsol. “I can’t believe I bally well missed the secret rendezvous!” Peony moaned while keeping her head down on the table. “At least Cinnabar was able to talk to Thalweg.” Cinnabar and Galena were sitting across from the two hares, keeping an eye on Peony. “The horde is going to Redwall of all places. We should warn them no doubt,” declared Galena. Turnsol looked across at Dann. He was glaring furiously at his own paws from where he was sitting next to Cinnabar. The squirrel warrior had been stubbornly silent since Cinnabar had revealed the pine marten’s plans. “What do you think, Dann old chap? ‘Bout time to return to yer old stompin’ grounds?” Galena stared. “Old stompin’ grounds? You’ve been to Redwall?” “Yes. I passed much of my youth there.” As one, the whole table turned to gape at him. “Then why did you leave?” Galena asked aghast that anyone would want to leave such an idyllic haven. Peony lifted her head off the table and looked over at Dann. The warrior blenched for a moment before schooling his face into a blank expression. Peony said loudly. “Can we stop talking?” before dropping her head back down on the table.
Many of the slaves, now that they were free, wished to live at Hamath. They were not in a hurry to travel and fight Regolith again. So in the end it was only the long patrol, Dann, Beech, Willow, Galena and Cinnabar who wished to travel and fight the tyrant. By the time Major Peony was finally feeling like her self again, the sun had risen directly overhead. So in the end, they marched off northward in the early afternoon. The creatures of Hamath gathered in the main square under the statue of their squirrel warrior founded and waved their goodbyes. Beech had hastened to the front of the column where Dann was marching with Turnsol and Peony. The young squirrel tried to ask Dann more about Redwall, but the squirrel warrior didn’t utter a word to the other squirrel. It was almost as if he didn’t hear the younger squirrel’s pleas. So in the end, Beech fell behind, past Cinnabar and Galena, past the Long Patrol captains to where he finally joined Willow toward the very end of the line where she was marching by some of the younger hares. Willow particularly enjoyed their company. She was vastly curious about Dann’s past as well, but either hadn’t possessed the courage to ask him, or recognized a lost cause when she saw one. Marching the patrol was more difficult than Beech had expected. He felt foolish as he tripped over his footpaws for the thousandth time that day. Willow smiled at him kindly and grabbed his paw to steady him as he almost tripped yet again. Unfortunately, this caused her to fail to notice a large tree root at her feet. So both squirrels ended up falling ears over scut and landing in a pile of tangled limbs at the feet of two of the young hares. Lorica De Fformelo Tussock had a paw over her mouth to try to hide her giggles at the squirrel’s foolish appearance. Sage Sinistra looked at her disapprovingly. He offered his paws to the two squirrels and pulled them to their feet, offering a bit of advice. “It’s easier if you march in step. Left, right, left and all that, doesn’t make your footpaws so sore and makes you less likely to trip.” “I like to watch Sergeant Saxifrage’s footpaws’ at first,” added Lorica. “Helps me to figure out the pace.” "That’s a great idea!” Willow exclaimed. She smiled at the two hares and followed their advice. “What are you bounders talkin’ about?” came Blackberry’s loud voice from behind them. He was marching alongside Alma. Fleetpaw was scouting up ahead. “We were just showing Beech and Willow the best way to march,” explained Sage to Blackberry. “Oh,” said Blackberry. “I thought it was something more exciting.” “I heard that it’s Cap’n Turnsol who’ll be giving the lesson tonight after dinner,” Lorica told to Alma. “Jonquil and Toby were talkin’ about it. They said everyone is welcome to come and see.” "Great!" Willow exclaimed with enthusiasm. "I've been hoping that we'd get to see some of his boxing talents that you told us about! Will he box for us?” “You can bet your blinkin’ bushy tail on it, old gel.” Blackberry winked. “Won’t it be a problem with his injured shoulder?” wondered Beech. “Not to worry. Cap’n Turnsol’s great with this stuff. He’ll probably show us moves you can do with one arm or something,” replied Blackberry. “Right you are; Major Peony wouldn’t allow him to have the lesson if it means he’ll reopen his wound. I’m sure they know what they’re doing,” agreed Sage. They marched gamely on for most of the day, enjoying each others’ company. Beech found that the hares’ advice was very effective. Neither he nor Willow had tripped again once and their footpaws weren’t feeling very sore. Beech had been certain he would be in much worse shape by the end of the day. It was great fun marching with the younger hares. Beech hadn’t been sure what to make of them the night they had meet as the marched from the Castle to Hamath. He had thought them a little wild and wasn’t sure he understood their sense of humor. But now that he had more time to understand them, he began to appreciate their humor more and saw them indeed as reckless and perilous warriors to the foebeasts but also as good and loyal friends to each other By the time the sun had finally stared to set, they had reached the edge of a large swamp. Sage said, “I don’t very much like swamps, everything’s so absoballylutely damp.” “By the left, have you ever been to a flippin’ dry swamp,” Blackberry scoffed. “No need to quarrel, chaps,” said Lorica wiggling her ears reprovingly at them. “Major Peony’ll knows what she’s doin.’ So there’s no need to look like a frog in a blinkin’ bucket, Sage. “
"That’s probably not the best metaphor, Lorica.” “You’ll see. Peony’ll find a nice dry, frog-free place for us to rest the old footpaws and have some scoff.” Interestingly enough, Major Peony did find just a spot in the middle of the swamp. They didn’t bother scavenging for vittles for dinner tonight. It was starting to get rather dark and besides, swamps can be dangerous with sink holes and the like. In the end, the company dined on a little bread and cheese which they washed down with a pale elderberry wine. Everyone ate quickly, partly in excitement for the lesson after dinner and partly because frankly, most of them were hares. Beech felt completely safe in such an illustrious company even in a strange and dangerous country. After dinner, they gathered around leaving a wide circle in the middle for Turnsol. Blackberry was pouting because where he was sitting didn’t afford the best view of Turnsol. He glanced around at the eager eyes of his friends, oblivious to the bright eyes also watching them from the darkness of the swamp. Turnsol rubbed his paws together nervously looking at Peony. “I’m not accustomed to such a large audience.” “Don’t be shy, Turnsol. Why don’t you just do a demonstration tonight. You can teach the young ‘uns next time.” Turnsol nodded. He looked over at Cinnabar. “Would you like to be my assistant tonight, mate?” The otter shrugged his shoulders. Galena shifted so he could stand up to stand next to the boxing hare. “Oh, and Turnsol, Cinnabar, don’t even think about reopening that wounded shoulder or I’ll have both your guts for garters!” “Right you are, mam.” Winked Turnsol. Turnsol turned to the younger hares and said, “We’ve mostly been boxin’ each other. Things always are jolly well more interesting when you battle with a creature from a different species such as our friend Cinnabar here. Keep an eye on how he uses his rudder for balance and as a weapon.” That seemed to be all the introduction necessary for the bout. Immediately, Turnsol and Cinnabar each took steps back and circled each other. Peony, noting Beech and Willow’s confused expressions, explained that Turnsol and Cinnabar were searching for openings. Apparently it didn’t take long. Turnsol shot out a quick left at Cinnabar’s jaw, but the otter blocked it swiftly and aimed a flying kick at Turnsol, almost catching the hare with a powerful swing from his rudder. Then Turnsol caught him in the jaw with a grazing blow of his left paw. They backed off and circled each other again, Cinnabar rubbing his chin and tasting blood as he smiled ruthlessly at Turnsol. Dann and Peony, sitting next to one another, were providing a running commentary. Peony remarked approvingly, “Turnsol typically leads with his right paw, but I’ve told him not to jostle his injured right shoulder too much, so he’s been leading primarily with the left. Nice to see that his left hook is still just as effective as his right one. He made that move famous in the Battle of the Dunes: fifteen single hit knockouts.” “That’s quite remarkable,” Dann commented approvingly. “Cinnabar tried to teach me that flying kick move once, though bushy tails are not quite as effective weapons as rudders.” The other creatures around the fire watched the combatants in avid silence, enthralled by the contest between the two well matched warriors. Willow bit her lip as Turnsol scored another blow this time on Cinnabar’s stomach with his powerful hind legs. She heard Peony’s sharp intake of breath when Cinnabar slipped under Turnsol’s defenses and caught him in the jaw with a quick right paw. “Not his injured shoulder!” the major exclaimed. The match ended after a little when Turnsol tripped up Cinnabar with a kick from his hind legs. He stepped on the otter’s chest, then leaned down to give Cinnabar his left paw. Turnsol stepped aside and pulled the otter up. They patted each other on the back and turned to the audience. They bowed to rousing applause. Willow leaned over Beech and tried to ask Peony over the din, “Do you box with Captain Turnsol? Are you the next demonstrator?” Willow must have spoken louder than she had expected because she received a reply from Blackbarry instead of Peony. “Major Peony box Cap’n Turnsol? Those matches are always rubbish. He always lets her win.” Lieutenant Oswego laughed and agreed with Blackberry. Turnsol looked over at them all laughing and Peony fuming and said, “Wot’s wrong?” “Those rotten recruits said when I fight you, Turnsol, you always let me win!” Turnsol’s ears shot up in indignation. “Nothing of the sort, Peony.” He spared a glance over at the younger hares. The captain had a feeling they had started this line of thought. Blackberry was made guilty by trying to look innocent. Peony stood up. “Then I can be your next demonstrator.” Peony made to put down her rapier, but Turnsol said quickly, “Why don’t we fence instead.” He nodded to Jonquil, who tossed him a saber. He pointed it at his enraged superior. Peony kissed her blade and pointed it at Turnsol, holding it in her left paw. “Alright then, Turnsol. Defend yourself. I’ll use my left paw as well.” Then she struck. The jarring sound of metal on metal echoed through the camp. The duel sped up as the fenced back and forth, alternately parrying and attacking. It almost looked like an elaborate dance as they two hares swayed back and forth on their light footpaws. Lorica grabbed Sage’s paw as Peony’s blade came within an inch of severing Turnsol’s left ear. Dann and Cinnabar whispered to each other as they watched the contest remarking on the skills of the combatants. “It almost looks like Peony’s just playing with him,” remarked Cinnabar. “She is using unnecessarily showy moves,” agreed Dann. “But it’s working nonetheless,” agreed Cinnabar. “That’s Peony for you,” said Sergeant Saxifrage. “I’ve seen her do this on the battlefield before too. When she feels like she’s under matched, she’ll doesn’t focus on beating the opponent – she always wins anyway – she just focuses on embarrassingly them.” “She does this on the battlefield too!” Beech asked with concerned. “Couldn’t that be dangerous?” “She doesn’t do it often. Not when it’s melee fighting and such. When we were going through a heavily forested area last season, we were ambushed by a savage stoat tribe. She faced off with their leader in a one-on-one, fencing battle to the death. After embarrassing their leader immensely, she thoroughly trounced him.” Saxifrage explained in defense of Peony. Unfortunately, the duel ended much too soon when Peony neatly disarmed Turnsol, sending the saber spinning off into the swamp. Peony bowed to the applause and Turnsol sat down looking peeved. Peony tossed her blade from one paw to the other. “Who’s next? What about you, Dann. Let’s see what the AWOL Redwall champion can do.” Everyone turned to gape at the squirrel. Willow echoed everyone’s thoughts when he whispered. “AWOL Redwall champion? Dann chose to ignore the whispers. Shrugging, he stood up. “I guess so. I hope I don’t have to use the saber that’s sitting buried in the swamp.” “Not at all,” said Peony agreeably with a toothy smile. She nodded to Jonquil who produced another sword, a cutlass this time and looked uneasily at Peony. “Beggin’ your pardon, marm. But could you please try not to destroy this one? I lose more swords this way than anything else.” He then tipped his beret at Dann and handed the cutlass to him. “I’m sorry, sah. ‘Tis no Martin’s sword.” Willow and Beech, sitting next to each other now, gaped at the Dann. Willow whispered in Beech’s ear, “Did you know that…” “No,” Beech whispered back in wonder. Peony began this fight much as she had begun her last with Turnsol. Using her left paw, she battled Dann first testing his strengths and then manipulating her style to properly combat his. “She’s still using some fancy moves,” said Cinnabar to Turnsol. “Though not as many as she did with you, mate. Is her left paw her sword paw? She’s used it in both battles.” “No, she’s best with her right paw,” answered Turnsol. “Dann’s using his left paw too, that’s his weaker paw too,” said Cinnabar. The fight did not last very long: not because of a large difference in skill of the combatants, but because of a large difference in strength from their weapons. Dann’s sea rat cutlass stood no chance against the officer’s rapier. A particularly powerful swing from the badger-wrought sword managed to slice the cutlass in half. Everyone looked disappointed at the premature end of the battle. Jonquil was especially disappointed by the destruction of another weapon in his collection at Peony’s hand. Peony sheathed her rapier and shook Dann’s paw. “That was quite enjoyable. Though I fear I turned it more into a fencing exhibition than a boxing one. I hope you’ll forgive me, Darcy.” “No need to apologize,” was the amused reply. “Does anyone want to tell us a story before we go to bed?” asked Borage. This pastime of Major Peony’s long patrol had been explained to the squirrels by the younger hares as they marched this morning. Some evenings, when they were too excited to fall asleep, one of the hares would share a story with the others. Any sort of tale, before they went to sleep. “I could tell you the story about General Dotti and her defeat of King Bucko at his court again,” suggested Peony. “Er,” said Turnsol as the whole Long Patrol seemed to moan in unison. It seemed as if they had heard that particular story many times before. “Why don’t we hear a new story instead?” “I say, you’ve told that one to us ad nauseam, majoress,” was Blackberry’s cheeky reply. “We could probably all quote it with you.” Peony pouted. “No appreciation for culture and history these young’uns. General Dotti is one of my role models, you custard-headed curmudgeons, and a distant relative.” “A very distant relative,” remarked Turnsol, who seemed to know the whole story. “Let’s keep it that way,” Blackberry quipped. Dann Reguba put an end to the arguing by volunteering to tell a story himself. He explained that, “With so much riding on my friend Thalweg at the moment. I thought you all might want to know more about him.” “That sounds like a wonderful idea, Dann,” said Peony. “If you don’t mind telling us.” “That way we don’t have to hear any more stories about Peony’s distant relatives.” Peony bopped Blackberry over the head with the butt of her saber. “I’m shuttin’ up, marm.” “Very good, Private Blackberry,” was the sarcastic reply. Without further ado, Dann began the tale. "I meet Thalweg last winter. We spent a few weeks traveling together, so we had a chance to share out stories with each other. I’ll relate to you what he told me about himself over our campfires.’’ ‘’“He was born to the North’’ – no, his tribe was from even farther north than Redwall. How much farther? I’m not sure, Beech. ‘’ His tribe was one of warriors. Fighters were especially valuable because his tribe had been fighting a blood feud with their neighbors for generations.’’ ‘’“Both of his parents died in one such skirmish, so the leader of the tribe adopted and cultivated Thalweg as one of their warriors. During a raid on their camp, Thalweg’s sweetheart was murdered. The leader of the tribe was unsympathetic. In the next skirmish Thalweg used all his rage and frustration on the enemy, but was reckless and received those terrible cuts on his face, barely missing his eyes.’’ ‘’“After that, Thalweg got fed up fighting other creature’s battles and deserted the tribe to venture off on his own. He didn’t have much with him in terms of clothing or supplies, so he asked all the travelers he encountered for aid, but they all rejected him.’’ “He would make it his practice of asking first and then just taking. He was always rejected, so he eventually stopped even bothering to ask.’’ “Then came the day I finally met him.’’ ‘’“He had seen two rats roasting a sparrow over a campfire, so he snuck up on them and killed them for their meal. While he was taking his ease by the fire and enjoying the dead rats’ wine, two mangy looking foxes came to his camp and asked to join him. He refused and sent them off with veiled threats.’’ ‘’“Not to be so easily cast aside, the foxes beat him to within and inch of his life, stole the sparrow and even his cloak of fur that he wore on his back’’ -- trust me, Cinnabar, you don’t want to know where he got the fur coat from! ‘’“I had just made a campfire and was roasting vegetables for supper and drinking ale when he stumbled into my camp. He was quite a sight to behold: shivering madly in his ragged clothes, scars disfiguring his face and fresh wounds that the foxes had inflicted.’’ ‘’“I invited him to join me and dressed his wounds and shared my ale and supper with him. He was surprised by my behavior and I told him that I was originally from Redwall and that was how we treated other creatures.’’ ‘’“We slept around the campfire each with one eye open, not sure what to make of the other. The next morning as we were about to part ways, he attacked me and tried to steal my haversack.’’ ‘’“We fenced and I won by a hair.’’ – not a hare, Turnsol – ‘’ I scolded him and told him that I would have given him some supplies anyway. Then we parted ways.’’ ‘’“But not for long, I stumbled upon him later that day when he was being set upon by the foxes that had attacked him just the evening before. I came to his aid and we defeated the two foxes together.’’ ‘’“We traveled together for a few weeks, swapping stories and looking out for one another before I left him on the outskirts of Hamath last spring. I didn’t realize I’d be seeing him in just the following season.”’’ “What a wonderful tale,” said Cinnabar. “I had always wondered about those scars but thought it would be rude to ask.” “Yeah. Old Scallywag sure sounds like an interesting fellow,” replied Turnsol. “Yes, he does. Well it’s been a long day,” said Peony. “Why don’t we all hit the jolly old sack? You can take first watch, Saxifrage. Then you can wake Blackberry.” Saxifrage took an apple turnover from Peony’s haversack and winked at the Major. “A little sustenance to keep an old body awake for sentry duty, eh, wot.” Peony laughed and patted his tummy. “Carry on, Sax.”
Slipping out from under the blanket and grabbing his short sword, Beech tip-pawed over to where Peony was sitting at the edge of camp. As he stepped over Dann, Beech glanced down at the squirrel warrior who was shifting and muttering to himself again. Beech smiled at his friend sadly. He could not remember a single night when the squirrel warrior had slept peacefully. Knees pulled up to her chin and her paws wrapped around them, the Major was staring out into the dark woodlands, the light of the flighty moon occasionally gleaming on the rapier lying at her side. She didn’t turn when she heard Beech approach. “Couldn’t sleep, eh Beech?” asked the Major. She leaned her head back to look at him and shifted over, patting a patch of ground with her paw. “Come join me. I’ve just started my watch.” “How did you know it was me?” he asked in wonderment. He sat down placing his sword next to Peony’s. “You have a rather distinctive walk. There’s interesting mix of confidence and insecurity in your stride. I can’t explain it. Couldn’t sleep?” she repeated. “I’m tired, but my mind isn’t. So many thoughts are revolving around in my head,” he remarked with a sigh, “that I can’t put it down to rest,” “Funny thing, the mind. I find my own doin’ the same bloomin’ thing. Old Major Purslane said it was just all the brilliant thoughts wantin’ my attention.” Beech gazed into the wood allowing his eyes to adjust to the consuming darkness and taking in all the night sounds so as to discover any unusual ones. Peony smiled over at the young squirrel. “I see you’re on alert now too. I always find it a bit tricky to hear the important nighttime sounds when old Borage and Saxifrage are competin’ in a snorin’ competition.” Beech chuckled and turned to the Major. “What’s it like being a warrior?” She merely winked at him. “I could ask you the same thing, young ‘un.” Beech didn’t answer. He merely looked at her imploring her to answer his question. She shrugged. “Dunno. It’s all I’ve ever known really, all I’ve ever dreamed of.” She waved her paw at the sleeping group behind them. “To have a patrol to my own. To guide and advise younger creatures. To purge the land of malicious malefactors who wish to cause harm to those around me.” Beech looked down at the rapier lying unsheathed at Peony’s hip and his own smaller sword lying beside it. “Does it frighten you?” “What?” “Killin’ other creatures. It frightens me.” Peony laughed. “We long patrol buffs were nursed on blood’n’vinegar as leverets. I love goin’ into battle, but the feelin’ afterwards isn’t go grand. I have trouble sleepin’ at night sometimes thinkin’ about those I’ve slain and those I couldn’t prevent from bein’ slain.” “Do you think you’ll be a warrior forever?” “I dunno,” replied the Major glancing back into the camp. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am today. So many of the high ups never wanted to promote me so far. I feel like they expect any day that I’ll –“ “That you’ll what?” asked Beech curiously. “I dunno,” was her mysterious reply. “But I need to do my best, no matter what. You see, my mother died bringing me into the world so I was raised mostly by my father. He was a Sergeant in the Long Patrol and best friends with Saxifrage, who’s like a second father to me. He died when I was just a leveret,” her voice cracked as she spoke, blinking to hold back tears. “He died to protect me from a group of vermin. It would seem a crime to quit now that I’ve come far up the ranks. I need to make their sacrifice worthwhile.” “For what it’s worth, I think you’re a wonderful leader,” said Beech. “My only experience with officers before I meet you was mostly those vermin officers at the castle. They were either bossy and mean, or just enigmatic. They didn’t inspire others. And then I meet Dann who I thought would be different, but he’s just as enigmatic as them and doesn’t listen to anybody. You’re exactly what I imagined an officer should be: kind and open-minded to the ideas others, but also strong and fearless.” “Stop that! You’re making me blush,” she wagged her ears at him. Suddenly, Peony’s ears shot up in response to a mysterious sound in the wetlands. Beech bounded to his feet in alarm. The Long Patrol Major, on the other hand, stood smoothly and calmly, holding her rapier. Feeling foolish for jumping up without his weapon, Beech reached down and grabbed the short sword that Dann had given him. “Where’d you hear the noise?” Beech asked. “Coming from the east side of camp by where Lorica’s sleeping. Let’s go check it out. It sounded like some twigs breaking, as if some creature was prowling over there watching us.” They crept into the fringes and eventually reached the place where Peony had heard the noise. There was a broken branch but no sign of any creature. “Dash it all,” hissed Peony. “We must have scared the creature away.” “What do we do now? Do we chase after it?” “Not in the dark in unfamiliar territory. We’d be just as likely to get hopelessly lost as find something or someone interesting. It might have been nothing, but we’ll be extra careful just in case.” “This is terribly exciting,” exclaimed Beech turning around and looking into the swamp. “Yes,” replied Peony, though by the tone of her voice it seemed like this was anything but exciting. She took another step forward then cried out. “I feel like something is grabbing onto the edge of my tunic. Can you cut it off? Be careful.” Beech hacked at the thing and when Peony pulled it from her tunic they saw it was a bramble. “How strange,” said Beech. Peony looked to find where the branch had come from and when she tugged on it, it come free into her paw. “That’s strange. It looks like the end was broken off. It broke loose without a struggle when I pulled it. Someone must have broken it earlier.” “Someone or something,” said Beech with a shiver. Suddenly this was becoming less exciting. “But I don’t understand. There aren’t really any bramble bushes around here.” “Very strange, indeed,” said Peony. “Let’s go it down on watch again near the camp. Perhaps someone just dropped the branch over there while we were making dinner.” “But what about the noise and those other broken branches?” asked Beech as they finally approached the camp. Lorica rolled over in her sleep and Beech cried out in shock. “Don’t worry, Beech. There’s no need to jump at shadows. Let’s be reasonable and listen keenly. We can look around in the morning when the sun is out.” “Should we sit down over here?” asked Beech. “Sure,” said Peony. “This was where the noise had come from after all. Though it is a shame we are so much closer to Saxifrage and Borage. How will we be able to hear anything over their snoring?” Beech laughed, feeling a bit less frightened as he sat next to the Long Patrol Major. He looked at Peony’s eyes shinning in the moonlight and finally expressed the thoughts that had been plaguing him since he had met the squirrel warrior. “I’m a bit worried about Dann. I don’t know much about his past. For the time I’ve known him, though, I’ve never seen him sleep well all through the night. He’s forever tossing and turning. As if he’s plagued by some horrible mistreatment.” “Or guilt,” replied Peony. “Guilt?” asked Beech. He looked out into the woodlands. “Guilt. Yes. That seems like a reasonable answer. Do you know the story? You said before that he used to be the Redwall warrior. Why did he leave?” “I don’t like discussin’ the troubled pasts of others. The past will be revealed at our own discretion. I respect his privacy. Though I don’t even know the full of the story. Turnsol, I believe, knows a bit more than I jolly well do.” “I hope Dann can find some solace before he returns to the Abbey. Though the first step to recovery is the hardest: To have the strength to forgive yourself.” Peony looked over at him and shook her head. “Your wisdom is far beyond your years.” She stretched her arms over her head. “Well it’s almost time for the next watch. I have to wake Jonquil.” “I thought you said you just started your watch,” said Beech. “I might have exaggerated.” She sheathed her blade. “Would you like to go back to sleep?” “Yes, I’m suddenly very tired,” replied Beech.