This is my first fan-fic, which I hope to update frequently. It is set between the books Eulalia and Doomwyte, and is (I will admit) very long. Because of my extremely slow computer/Internet, I doubt I can post the whole thing on one page, though I will give it a try. Please read and comment; I would appreciate all the feedback I can get!

God Bless,


Gingiverian: A Tale of RedwallEdit

From far away, we marched to lands

We had not ever known before;

Never again to return home

To bitter, cold, forsaken shores.

New friends we found; old foes as well,

Upon our first arrival there.

Would you like to hear the story?

Come, then, friends! Pull up a chair

And listen to our family's tale

Of friendship, sadness, love and woe,

Of battles, songs, feasts and fights;

That happened not so long ago.

Dibbun, Elder, Young one, Old one,

All you Redwall friends draw near;

I'll tell you tales of the descendants

Of the famed prince Gingivere.

Book 1: The CatEdit

Few earthly entities are more wild, more merciless, and more terrifying than a summer storm at night. This is especially the case if the storm happens to hit in Mossflower Country; the opressive darkness of the trees, crashing thunder and crackling chains of lightning overhead, overflowing riverbanks, and howling gales ripping the woodland foliage apart are enough to strike fear into the hearts of even the stoutest warrior. Any creature with a grain of sense would have sought immediate shelter at the first sign of the approaching typhoon; only the bravest, or possibly the most insane, would venture out into a night like this.

Like pellets of iron, enormous, wind-driven droplets of rain sheeted down remorselessly upon what appeared to be a slowly moving heap of black on the woodland floor. The traveler's clothes and voluminous dark cloak were in tatters; she was gaunt and emaciated, and wounded in dozens of places. With the wind blowing directly against her she could barely manage to put one paw in front of the other as she staggered onward, onward, ever onward.

Several times, due to the storm, she had been reduced to crawling on all fours, or inching along on her stomach; still she never ceased her progression towards her destination. Many times it had seemed wise to halt, or to find a hidden place to ride out the weather. But still she continued, knowing that there was no time to be lost. Onward, onward....the memories of the barren northern islands, viciously destroyed by ruthless enemies were burned into her brain. These same foes were sure to be following; failure was never an option in the Ranks of the Shadow. The mission had been total destruction; to them the mere thought of any escapees was simply intolerable.

Onward, ever onward, the determined creature staggered feebly against the mighty force of the weather. Two long seasons of traveling, losing her way, finding it again, fighting countless bands of robbers and thieves, sometimes going days without food or water, were beginning to take their toll. But she could not give up; there was a mission to be completed, and she, too, had left no room for failure. Resolutely determined not to rest until the goal was acheived, the traveler limped, crawled, struggled her way through Mossflower; onward, ever onward, to the safe haven of Redwall Abbey.

Chapter OneEdit

Extract from the writings of Sister Flim Woodmouse, Recorder of Redwall Abbey

"Dearie me, that storm last night was indisputably the worst I can remember in all my long seasons as Recorder; I can say with some authority that not a creature in Redwall slept a wink last night. The wind and thunder shook the building so much, Abbess Saffron feared some of the ancient roofing or windowpanes would give way and had all the elders and young ones moved to the cellars for their safety. Let me tell you, an overcrowded cellar full of terrified, squealing babes and frantic elders trying to restore order is not a pleasant place to be in the middle of the night. Those few Dibbuns who had not the sense to be terrified by the storm caused us even more trouble; tiring of the noise in the cellars, they attempted several times to escape to the upper floors so they could look out the windows at the lightning. Jorty the Cellarkeeper and her husband Bumbill tried to solve the problem by blocking the staircase with barrels, but we learned soon enough that this was more a hindrance to us than to the babes so we were forced to take the whole thing down again and take turns standing guard. Add to this the perpetual nuisance of our Abbey Librarian, Brother Willow (who indefatigably tried to boss everyone about, spouting off historical references to past storms the whole way), and there you have our long and wearying evening in a nutshell.

I have yet to tell the worst though; the storm is still raging! It is almost midday now, and there is no sign of its slowing in the slightest. Friar Dimp and a few of his kitchen helpers managed to make us a light breakfast, but all other chores have been suspended by the Abbess until this veritable hurricane finally blows through. I shudder to think of the damage that will be left in the wake of this storm. The orchards and gardens are probably a wreck; furthermore, the building has been struck by lightning at least thrice, to my knowledge. Fortunately, as the majority of our beautiful home is red sandstone, it would be difficult for it to completely burn down, especially in this strong a rain; however, Skipper and his crew of able-bodied Redwallers are busy making sure the flames are completely extinguished. Goodness, I think we've been hit again; that bang was too close for my liking! I certainly hope none of the creatures on the roof with Skipper have been hurt.

Confound that Brother Willow; does he never cease talking? I suppose I should not be so quick to judge him; he's probably just as nervy and frightened as I am. But I do wish he'd keep himself occupied with his own business, not everyone else's. Oh, dear, there goes that hogbabe again; I shall have to postpone recording for now."

"Biddee, you little nuisance; come back here this minute!" Casting her parchment and charcoal aside, Sister Flim rose to chase after the infant hedgehog maiden, who was surprisingly speedy for one of her age and had already made it to the top of the cellar stairs. Knowing she could easily outpace the old, overweight mouse, Biddee paused to wave at her impudently.

"Heehee! Nevernever catchee me Sissyflim! Biddee go to watch lightning; go Boom bangybang!" The Dibbun fled, shreiking with laughter. Sister Flim pursued her for a short distance before becoming out of breath; turning back, she implored the other weary creatures slumped about the cellars, most of whom were trying to catch a few minutes' doze after the long, sleepless night.

"Someone, please go catch that infernal rascal before she gets outside!"

Brother Willow, a tall, thin, dour-looking shrew, chastised the Sister. "You were supposed to be standing guard, you know; if you had been paying attention, you might have headed her off. It's your own fault!"

The good Sister's temper finally snapped. "And, tell me, pray; how does insulting an Abbey Recorder help to catch a runaway Dibbun? If you can't think of anything helpful to do or say, will you please stay out of this?!"

Brother Willow was taken aback by Sister Flim's ferocity; he stammered angrily, searching for a reply. "Why!"

Grandmum Dawbil, the Abbey Healer, placed herself between the two irate creatures, rumbling in her deep mole accent. "Stop ee this foightin' roight away; it be a bad day enuff wi'out you two gurt foozles makin' it even worserer, burr aye! Yurr, Shurmee, goo ee arter ee liddle 'un."

The young leveret Shermy was the fastest creature in the Abbey; this was the seventh time in the last few hours that he had been sent to round up a stray Dibbun. Though he was red-eyed and weary, as were all the other creatures in the cellar, he saluted obediently and darted up the stairs. "Righty-ho, marm! Be back in a tick, wot! I say, come back here, you spiny little cad!"

Biddee had, by this time, made it to the Great Hall of Redwall Abbey, and was hiding behind a column. The Great Hall was normally used for feasts and celebrations, when it would be decorated with huge banquet tables and rows of brightly lit lanterns. In these instances, the tall stone columns, stained glass windows, and great tapestry depicting the first Abbey Warrior, Martin, would seem to dance gaily in the bright lights. However, in the gloom of the storm, punctuated every now and then with flickering flashes of lightning, the huge chamber looked positively eerie. Shermy tried hard to keep his voice from trembling as he scooted across the back wall of the room, searching for the missing Dibbun. "You fiend, just you wait until I get you back in the cellars! I wouldn't want to be in your fur, let me tell you! Come out from wherever you're hiding this instant; this INSTANT, I say!"

He yelped involuntarialy as lightning struck the abbey building yet again; the accompanying crash of thunder shook the room, knocking out several small windowpanes, which shattered on the stone floor. Throwing himself flat, Shermy covered his ears with his paws until the deafening vibrations ceased.

Biddee, unmoved by the terror of the storm, had now reached the main door of the Abbey, but the door handle was far too high for her to reach. She, too, threw herself on the floor, and began to pitch a horrible tantrum. "Waaaaaaaaahaaaahaaa, Wanna go play in the raaaaaaaaaiiin!"

Shermy stood, sighing with releif. "Oh, there you are, wot." He glanced at the tapestry above him; noticing the two empty brackets above it, he furrowed his brow in confusion. He shouted across the hall to the hedgehog maid. "I say, you rotter, what did you do with Martin's Sword? It was hanging here a bally moment ago!"

Biddee ceased wailing, pouting sulkily. "I never take Ma'tin sword. It dere in da floor."

The bang of thunder had shaken the legendary weapon loose from its holders above the tapestry; it had fallen point first, embedding itself in a chink between two floorstones, directly behind where Shermy had been lying. It was a simple weapon; the only ornament was the bright red pommel stone in the leather-bound hilt. The blade, though countless seasons old, still shone as if it were newly polished. The young hare grasped the hilt and began to tug, addressing the figure of the warrior mouse on the tapestry. "Well, that nearly took off my tailbob, didn't it? Next time I need to hide, I jolly well won't do it under here. I say, this sword of yours is really something, Martin, old lad; it cut this stone like a bally cake, wot! Whoops!"

The blade popped free, sending the young hare stumbling backwards. He started to replace the sword, then thought better of it, propping it up in a corner. "I'll just leave this here, then; we'll put it back after the storm desists. Save other innocent beast's tails, doncha know..."

He stopped rigid and stared. In the dim light of the one lit lantern in Great Hall, Shermy had been watching his reflection in the blade as he talked. The reflection however, had seemed to take a shape of its own, until it was not the leveret's own face, but that of the mouse in the tapestry, staring back at him. Martin pointed at the young hare, then at the hedgehog babe. He spoke but a single word, in an unmistakable voice of command. "Outside!"

Having been brought up at Redwall, Shermy knew from old tales that creatures sometimes saw Martin in dreams when there was a great need. He nodded, being the obedient young creature he was. "Righto, old chap. Hi, you there, Biddee. You wanted to go outside, did you?"

The young hedgehog brightened up; she nodded. Shermy bounded across the room and grasped her paw, warning her sternly. "Well, one quick stroll then. But you do hold my paw and do exactly as I say, understood? One false move and I'll tan your spiky little behind with a big stick, missy!"

Opening the door against the driving wind was no easy task, but between them, the two managed to push it wide enough to nip outside. Together, the leveret and the hedgehog Dibbun plowed their way through the abbey grounds, which were covered with broken branches and turned soppingly muddy with the downpour. His ears and fur plastered flat with water, Shermy took a quick look about, and announced to empty air. "Well, we're outside, wot! What's so jolly well important about outside? We already knew it was a bloomin' mess out here, if that's the case! Oh, lackaday, we're in for it now if we get caught out here in this muck!" He started to turn back. "That's enough for now, little one, we're going back in."

But Biddee pulled her paw free, dashing away, her face a picture of alarm. "Lookee, lookee! Onna path, Shermeeee!"

The leveret started to pursue the little one again, but pulled up with a halt, his mouth hanging open in shock. A bolt of lightning had blasted the huge main gate of the abbey, competely shattering one of the two immense wooden doors. Through the wreckage and pelting rain, the woodland path that led up to the abbey was plain to see; so was the biggest, blackest, most intimidating looking creature that Shermy had ever seen, which was lying in a pathetic, huddled heap just outside the gate.

Chapter TwoEdit

Skipper Windryder was markedly tough and brawny, and had a reputation for stoutheartedness; however, he was none too happy about being so high off the ground in such bad weather, as perilously leaping slippery roof tiles to beat at flames and sparks was not his strong point. A score or so of other creatures, mostly squirrels and other otters, scurried around with him, trying desperately to stop the lightning-induced blazes before they got out of hand, whilst avoiding being struck themselves. Every single one of them was tied to a roof column, and each other, by huge lengths of rope, sturdily knotted by the skillfull otter cheiftain. This was to ensure that, should anybeast lose their footing, they would not plummet all the way down to the abbey grounds, hidden from sight in the wet darkness below.

The one exeption to this rule was Dippertail, the abbey's resident falcon. He fluttered about the rooftoops, yelling instructions and acting as a sort of lifeguard to the less experienced climbers. Being a bird with unusually sharp eyes, he also had the ability to tell, from watching the clouds, when lightning was about to strike. This proved to be an invaluable aid to the fire-fighters, struggling in the dangerous heights. He zipped by the otter cheiftain, screeching the alarm.

"Hyeeeeeeeeeee! Ryder, strike coming!"

Skipper saluted the bird, bellowing the order. "Aye, aye, Dip. Take cover, mates!!!!"


The whole rooftop shook and the world lit up bright white as a bright bolt connected with the giant Abbey weathervane, high overhead. Dippertail circled the structure, then landed beside Skipper, fluffing his drenched feathers in a futile attempt to dry them out. "Yeeeeeeeark! It only hit metal; no damage was done."

"Ahoy, Skip, Abbess overboard!" one of the otters shouted, some distance off.

Windryder spoted the small figure swinging from a rope about her waist some distance below and groaned. "Dip, get her up again, quick!"

The falcon took off again, but there was no need; the sprightly, middle-aged squirrel who was Abbess of Redwall Abbey was an excellent climber. Within moments, she had shinned her way back up the rope and onto the roof tiles. Skipper gently berated her, rasing his voice to be heard over the storm. "Beggin' yore pardon, marm, but you really ought not to be up here! Why don't you let us handle this?"

Saffron shook her head resolutely. She was small for a squirrel, with beautiful golden-red fur and fierce, dark eyes; these bored into the otter cheiftain as she spoke. "Please, Skipper, don't worry about me. I know you mean well, but my leaving is not an option. I said every able-bodied Redwaller who knows how to climb should be up here helping preserve our home and that includes myself. Quick, help me put out that rafter!"

One particularly large blast had made a hole in the roof and had lit some of the girders inside; the flames had not been noticed, however, until they were already starting a fine blaze. Saffron had dropped her wet sack when she fell; she whipped the cowl off her habit and began beating the rafter with it. Skipper joined her, shouting across the expanse of roof. "Tings, Raggle, get us a bucket, sharpish!"

The mouse and the black squirrel were both very young and very frightened; almost too young and frightened to be of much good on the roof. They were stoutly fastened to a shorter rope, right by a gargoyle water chute; from it, they filled an assortment of buckets and passed them along to the more experienced firefighters. Raggle tossed a full bucket to Dippertail, who caught the handle neatly as he swooped by. "One bucket, comin' up! Tings, fill another, just in case!"

Through the coordinated efforts of the brave Abbeybeasts, the blazing rafters were soon extinguished. Dippertail announced the fact to the two young creatures on bucket duty, then flew off to inspect other areas of the roof for flames that might have been missed. Tings, the young mousemaiden, sat down with a sigh. "Thank goodness for that. I sure hope that's the last of it! If I have to lean out over that edge and fill a bucket again, I swear I'll faint dead away!"

Raggle the black squirrel joined her, holding his bushy tail over his head like a rain hat. "Aye, that'd be a long drop for sure, if the rope were to break. And to think we volunteered for this!"

Tings snorted bitterly. "Well, what else could we do? It was either come up here or stay in the cellars with Brother Willow and all those screaming babes! How Shermy puts up with it, I don't know."

Raggle's tail was becoming waterlogged and heavy; he was forced to let it drop. "I'd sooner be in a noisy cellar than up here right now. It'll take us two seasons to dry off after this lot!"

Abbess Saffron joined them, slumping in a most un-Abbess-like manner beside them. "Phew! Thank you for your hard work with the bucket brigade, you two; some of those fires took root so quickly we couldn't have put them out without your help."

Tings forced a smile. " you. All in the line of duty, I suppose."

The Abbess nodded her head. "You're quite right, young one. It is every Redwaller's duty to make sure our home and friends are free of danger; be it from vermin, weather, or any other issue."

Raggle felt a bit ashamed for complaining earlier. He looked away, trying to change the subject. "Seems the wind has finally died down. Maybe that means the storm's almost over, eh, Abbess marm?"

Saffron wiped rainwater from her eyes. "I certainly hope so! It'll take my fur ten seasons to dry out after this downpour!"

Tings quickly turned away, stifling a giggle at the look on Raggle's face.

Dippertail appeared suddenly out of the darkness, landing in a flurry of feathers to join the trio. Tings was nearly knocked off the roof with the force of the falcon's descent; she sloshed a half-full bucket over him. "Watch what you're doing, Dip! You nearly cannoned me right over the edge!"

The falcon ignored her, dancing agitatedly in front of the Abbess. "Kyeeeek! There be a injured beast at the gate!"

Abbess Saffron leapt up, staring off into the gloom. "Where?"

A flicker of lightning briefly lit up the tableau far below; Saffron spotted the dark smudge on the path below and began issuing orders. "Never mind, I see them. Tings, Raggle, you two are excused from bucket duty as of now. Go down to the cellars and get Grandmum Dawbil and her helpers at once! Dippertail, you stand by the poor beast until help arrives, understood?"

The falcon saluted, leaping off the roof and going into a steep dive. "Aye aye, Abbess! Hyeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

The mousemaid and the black squirrel also saluted. "We'll take care of it, don't worry!"

Slicing through their holding ropes with a knife she had borrowed from the kitches, the Abbess pushed them towards the trap door that led from the attics to the roof. "Go then, but be careful!"

Chapter ThreeEdit

Shermy had never seen anything like the beast on the path in all his born days. What manner of creature it was, he could not tell; it seemed to be almost entirely obscured by a tattered and flapping black cloak, which spread out in folds around it on the ground. What little of the actual creature was visible was plastered with mud until it was unrecognizable. He and Biddee had halted within ten paces of the intruder, unsure if they should draw any nearer.

The Dibbun stared at the unmoving mass. "What do it be, Shermee?"

The leveret twitched his nose and ears (his way of showing nervousness). "You're guess is as jolly well good as mine, old scout. I wonder if it's still alive?"

From beneath the cloak came a mewling, whimpering sound; Biddee nodded. "It alive, Biddee heard it. What we do?"

The question was answered for them when Dippertail soared in for a squelchy landing in the path mud beside them. He spread his wings aggressively. "Yiiiiiieeeeeeeeek! What are you doing here? Young ones should not be out in weather like this!"

Shermy started to explain. "Well, sah, the little one escaped the cellars so I...."

Another moan from the injured beast interrupted them. Dippertail clacked his beak dismissively. "Yeek! Go inside, now, before you catch a chill; and tell the old mole we need her help!"

Gathering up the infant hedgehog in his arms, Shermy flew across the lawn, into the building, and down the stairs to the cellar. Sister Flim shook her head at the bedraggled, muddy pair, addressing the young hare. "I take it you had to go outside. How did that little one get the door open? Or did she use a window?"

Shermy did not feel like explaining; he waved a paw. "Never mind that. There's some poor beast on the ground outside, and it's badly wounded, by the look of it."

There was an immediate clamor of questions and speculations; Grandmum Dawbil held up a digging claw for silence. "Shoutin' won't get us'ns nowhere. Oi'll go tend to ee sichewation direkly. Yurr, Aggit, bring thoi molecrew."

Foremole Aggit, who was Grandmum Dawbil's nephew and the leader of the abbey's mole population, nodded his velvety head. "Roight, Marm. Jorty, you'm and thoi husband stay here wi' ee uthers. The rest of you'm moles follow Oi!"

The rescue party left the cellars in a rush; Shermy collapsed wearily to the floor. "Whew! If you lot don't mind, I'll not be going after any more bloomin' young ones at the moment. Wake me next season, wot!"

Foremole Aggit poked his snout back into the cellars. "Yurr, Shurmee, coom ee and show moi crew whurr the crittur bee. We'm dont much feel loike wunderin' ee entoire grounds in ee rainwet!"

Pulling a wry face, the young hare rose to accompany the molecrew.

Up on the roof, Tings and Raggle were having a hard time negotiating the wet and slippery tiles. Without the ropes about their waists, both young creatures had almost no confidence left. Raggle, being a squirrel, was slightly better off than his companion; after much struggles, he had finally made it over to the trapdoor to the attics. "Come on, Tings, hurry up!"

The mousemaiden was lying flat on her stomach, clinging desperately to the top edge of the roof, and sobbing piteously. "It's no good, I can't go on!"

Raggle, striving desperately to keep himself from panicking, scooted back over to her. "Here, take my paw; we'll go together!"

Tings shook her head firmly, wailing, "No, no! I can't...I can't do it. I'll fall!"

Raggle grabbed her sleeve, pulling her firmly along with him. She still refused to release her grip. The young squirrel fairly screamed at his mousemaid friend. "You've GOT to let go; come on!"

BLAM! A cloud-to-cloud lightning strike directly overhead caused a deafening reverberation of thunder. Tings screamed and let go her hold on the roof, involuntarialy jumping out into space. Raggle stared in dumb shock at the ripped habit sleeve, dangling uselessly from his paw; and the rapidly diminishing figure of Tings, plummeting towards the earth far below.

Dippertail had managed to coax the weary beast onto its feet; staggering almost drunkenly, it followed the waddling falcon towards the main abbey door. The bird had noticed the strange animal was carrying a large traveling sack on its back; relieving the burden to carry it himself, the falcon held a one-sided conversation with the beast, trying to keep its spirits up.

"Yeeee! You've come to a good place, friend. There are healers here; you'll be all right soon. There's no hurry, don't over-exert yourself. Hyeeeear, we'll have you a nice soft bed soon enough. Good food, too. Yieeak, don't worry, this bird will keep your bag safe."

A thunderclap, followed by a scream from above caused both falcon and visitor to look upwards. Dippertail spotted the falling mousemaid; dropping the sack, he spread his wings, preparing to launch into flight.

But the beast in the cloak reacted swifter.

With a sudden, powerful bound, it sprang through the air, catching Tings neatly in its paws. Performing a barrell roll in mid-air, it came crashing down to the muddy earth back first, with the young one on top of its stomach.

Shermy, Grandmum Dawbil, and the crew of Foremole Aggit emerged into the drenched lawns just in time to witness the rescue; joining Dippertail, they hurried over to where the two now-unconscious creatures lay. Shermy was the first to find his voice. " I say, that was awfully decent of the chap, wot! I wonder what poor rotter it was that fell off the roof."

Foremole prised the creature's paws from the limp form they held. "It bee liddle mizzy Tings!"

Shermy cried out in alarm as he recognized his friend. "Is she hurt? Oh, say she's not hurt!"

Aggit chuckled. "Nay, zurr, she'm a tough liddle mouseymaiden; she bees roight as rain."

The leveret looked around at the storm damage, which was more visible now that the rain was slowing to a drizzle. "Huh, don't bloomin' well see what's jolly well right about rain, old chap."

Grandmum Dawbil inspected Tings' rescuer. "Yurr, Aggit, this beast'n be bad hurt; goo ee and get oi a stretcherer!"

The Foremole repeated the order to several of his moles, who scurried back inside to do his bidding. Shermy turned to Dippertail. "I say, old thing, don't you think you'd better nip back up to the rooftop and let the others know Tings isn't hurt? Poor Raggle's probably in a fine tizzy right now."

Dippertail passed the bag to the young hare. "Yieeeer! You're right. Take this thing inside, will you?"

Without further ado, the falcon took to the skies, sailing back up to the rooftop. Shermy dragged the large sack across the grounds; it was very heavy. In fact, it was extremely heavy; almost too heavy for a mere travelers' pack. Overcome with curiosity, the young hare looked inside one of the many holes that pocked the sack.

Releasing it with a cry, he shouted over to the moles. "Miz Dawbil, I think you should see this!"

Chapter FourEdit

In the woodlands, some distance away from Redwall Abbey, the rain-swollen River Moss thundered along its winding course to the sea, carrying a substantial amount of mud and woodland undergrowth with it. The shrews of the Guosim had been on their way to Redwall for a long-overdue visit; knowing it would be foolish to attempt to shoot the storm-induced rapids, they had pulled their logboats ashore, and pitched camp in a large bankside cave until the weather died down. The Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower were small, fierce, spiky-furred creatures, who followed a cheiftain they designated as the Log-a-Log. They were stout warriors all, renowned for both their bravery and their tendecy to bicker and squabble amongst themselves in their spare time; however, there was not a shrew among them who felt like arguing now, as they viewed the terrible scene about them.

Log-a-log Yik, the long-bearded chieftain of the Guosim, was still in a state of shock, as were many of his tribe. Some little while back, two tall strangers bearing swords had marched boldly into the shrews' cave. They were obviously some type of vermin, but, as they wore hooded blue cloaks and masks made of adder skulls, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what manner of creature they were. They had imperiously demanded that the shrews surrender all of their provisions and one of their logboats, saying that they would be needed by the Ranks of the Shadow. As he had no idea what the Ranks of the Shadow were, and it was still a good three days' journey to Redwall, the dutiful Log-a-log had refused point blank. When the creatures repeated their demand with a threat to use force, he had ordered his shrews to take the two beasts prisoner.

That was the last thing Yik remembered clearly; everything afterwards was a jumble of teeth, claws, blades and screams, followed by total blackness as one of the vermin knocked him unconscious with its sword hilt. Now, almost a score of his creatures lay dead, and a dozen more wounded. All their supplies had been looted, and every boat but the one the villains had taken was smashed to pieces.

Ringo, a much older shrew, tended the bump on his chieftain's skull, making a report as he did so. "There were more of 'em in hidin', Yik; four of those vermin in masks and two full-growed snakes. We never stood a chance; they fought like demons!"

Yik's face blanched; he, like most shrews, had a horror of serpents. "Were the snakes adders?"

Ringo shook his grey head. "No, they were blacksnakes; big 'uns, too. One of 'em crushed pore Dribble's footpaw with just th' end of its tail!"

Dribble, the shrew in question, was Yik's second in command; he hobbled over on a makeshift crutch, cut from a tree limb. "I sent some scouts upriver, Chief; they went as far as they deemed safe, given the circumstances. No sign of the vermin; they're well away. What do we do now?"

Log-a-log Yik gazed once more at the sorry state the Guosim were in, and made a pronouncement. "Nothin' much we can do, mate; not until this storm lets up. As soon as the weather clears a bit, we'll make for Redwall, on foot. There should be enough forage in the woodlands for us t'get by. Ringo, ye'd better see about getting some carrying litters made for any beast too bad hurt t'walk well; we need t'get there as soon as we can!"

The old shrew passed the instructions along to to the other shrews, who began immediately to lash broken logboat timbers together with the now-useless mooring ropes. Dribble sat painfully down beside his chieftain. "I agree with ye there, Log-a-log; I gotta feelin' they'll be needin' us at Redwall, with them Shadow creatures roamin' Mossflower!"

Back at Redwall Abbey, the storm had slowed to a misty drizzle. The fire brigade on the roof, deeming their work finished, had descended to the dormitories to dry off; several of them stopping by the sickbay on the way, to be treated for chills and sniffles. Abbess Saffron had allowed the rest of the Abbey Population to leave the cellars and return to their everyday tasks, or to their beds, if they so desired. Now, she was presiding over a council of Redwallers in Cavern Hole. This was the room used for gatherings when the Great Hall was not being utilized for that purpose; it was smaller and cosier than Great Hall, and a good deal warmer, due to the lit fireplace in one wall.

Tings had been placed upon a moss-covered ledge in Cavern Hole until she recovered from her faint; she awoke to the sound of Abbess Saffron's voice. "Raggle, do sit down; pacing back and forth won't make Tings wake up any faster. That's better, thank you. Skipper, what's your assessment of the damage?"

Windryder tapped the floor with his rudder pensively. "Well, marm, there's at least two holes in the roof, an' a few fire-damaged tiles 'n girders to replace. A good crew workin' in shifts should take care of that in not too much time. The windowpanes didn't break as bad as we feared, either; only about 'arf a dozen of 'em need work. The orchard's no worse than it usually is after a big 'ole storm, either. What really is worryin' me is that gate; havin' a busted main gate's just askin' fer trouble with vermin and such like. If you'll take my advice, we should concentrate on that first thing."

The Abbess adjusted the large towel she had wrapped about her shoulders, nodding her head. "That sounds sensible. Tomorrow, when we've all rested up a bit, you, Foremole, and Dippertail take as many creatures as you'll need into the woodlands and search for some timber; preferably good, strong oak beams, if possible. While you're at it, you could have a scout round for materials to repair the roof. Jorty Cellarmole, could you and Bumbill see to the woodcutting tools?"

Bumbill, a jolly, perpetually-smiling mole, answered for his wife. "Burr, we'm could doo et awright, Missus. Leave it to us'ns!"

Tings sat up a bit, interested in the conversation; Dippertail spotted her, and alerted the others. "Yieeeeek! The young one has awakened, I believe."

Raggle and Shermy, who had attended the council, were immediately at the mousemaid's side. The young squirrel grasped his friend's paw, nearly sobbing with relief. "Tings! Thank goodness you're all right. I'm sorry I couldn't catch you; the fabric just ripped off in my paw!"

Shermy was grinning from long ear to long ear; he patted Tings on the shoulder. "Well, good afternoon to you, miss. Feeling better, wot?"

The mousemaid nodded gingerly, as her neck was a bit sore from the impact. "Much better, thank you, though I doubt I'll be going on the roof again anytime soon. You don't have to apologize, Raggle; it wasn't your fault I fell. Frankly, I'm surprised I'm still here, myself. What happened?"

Shermy explained in detail - as he had already to the council - about his vision of Martin, the creature at the gate, and how the mousemaid had been rescued. His face showed great admiration for Tings' preserver as he wrapped up the narrative. "Leapt up like a bloomin' frog on a cinder soon as she saw you falling, wot! Must be a rare creature, that one, risking life and limb for a total stranger. Grandmum Dawbil says the strain might've done her in, even without the rough landing. Whoever she is, she's no wiltin' lily, that's for certain; a few weeks' rest and good feedin' should have her tip-top again, if you ask me!"

Brother Willow's harsh, derisory voice interjected from across the room. "We all would like to hope that's the case, young 'un, but it is a fact the poor beast's half starved, and badly wounded in several places. No one knows what's going to happen, really. Grandmum Dawbil doesn't even know, and you only recently became an infirmary assistant so you couldn't possibly have the experience to... "

"Thank you, Brother, that's quite enough of that!" Abbess Saffron interrupted firmly. "We appreciate your input, but now is not the time for lectures."

Tings stood; somewhat shakily, as her head was still a bit fuzzy. Raggle threw a paw about her shoulders to support her. "Don't worry, I won't let you fall again. Where to?"

The mousemaid smiled. "Thanks, Rag. I'd like to go thank my rescuer; would that be possible?"

Shermy supported his friend on the other side. "I certainly don't see why not; I'm due back in the infirmary, anyhow. I say, might we be excused from the council, Abbess Marm?"

Saffron gave them her permission. "I believe you've told us all you can for now. Go on, friends."

With Tings between them, the leveret and the black squirrel made their way upstairs to the sickbay.

By the time they reached the infirmary, the mousemaid had regained her balance enough to totter a few paces on her own. The door the the sickbay was bolted and locked, as Grandmum Dawbil wished to discourage the horde of curious Abbeybeasts from suffocating her patient. Raggle rapped noisily on the door; a gruff mole voice answered.

"Goo ee away, oi need et quoiett round yurr!"

Shermy looked offended. "I say, steady on, miz Dawbil, marm! It's only myself and two others; Tings wants to offer her thanks to the beast that saved her life, y'see."

There was a pause, then the door slid open a fraction to reveal the old mole healer. She wrinkled her velvety nose in a smile. "Of course ee can enter, young'uns. Furgive moi bad mannurrs; oi thought you'm bee more o' they pesky Dibbuns, nosey likkle villyuns!"

Timidly, the trio entered the infirmary. Grandmum Dawbil shut the door behind Raggle, the last to enter, and gestured to the back room of the infirmary. "Roight thiz way, doan't ee be afeared."

As Shermy had helped to clean the mud off of the patient, he knew what to expect; the other two young creatures stopped dead, drawing in their breath sharply. Sprawled across two beds pushed together was a scrawny, full-grown female wildcat. Her fur was a smoky grey, with dark flecks here and there; the spots converged into black rings on her tail and to black stripes on her head. The tip of her tail and her ears were black; her paws, however, were snowy white. She wore a shredded and tattered tunic of sharksin, the only ornaments being a fishbone necklace and a braided scarf headband. There was also a single gold hoop earring through her left ear; a rip in the right ear showed where the other ring had been wrenched off, some time ago. Countless scars and raggedly healed wounds showed through the fur, all over her body; one particularly large, curved scar ran from her left ear to her chin, right over a permanantly closed eyelid. She was a barbaric and terrifying sight; yet, at the same time, curiously pathetic.

Grandmum Dawbil lowered her voice to a whisper. "B'ain't a purdy soight, burr no; but she'm bain't as bad 'urted as oi furst thought. Goo on, mizzy Tings, she'm woan't 'urt ee. Oi've a'ready had ee wurd or two wi' ee gurt catbeast, moiself."

Swallowing hard, the mousemaid approached the prone wildcat. She lay so still at first that Tings thought she might be asleep; however, as soon as the mousemaid stopped beside the bed, the beast's one good eye snapped open. There was a tense silence as the cat stared rigidly and appraisingly at the newcomer; it lasted so long, Tings thought she might scream.

Finally, the wildcat sighed, relaxing again. Her voice, when it came, was feeble and rasping. "I suppose you're one of the healer's assistants, but I don't remember seeing you before."

Tings was caught off guard; she stammered a bit, staring at the other creatures for help. "Er...ah...n-no, I don't work in, infirmary..."

Shermy, sensing a rescue was in order, rose to the occasion. "This, madam, is none other than the famous Tings, who fell of the rooftops earlier today."

The cat's smile showed a row of needle-sharp teeth, but it was friendly. "So it is; thank you, Shermy. Well, how do you do, miss? Good to see you up and about so soon."

Tings found her voice. "Yes, I'm all right, thanks to you. You saved my life, you know; I'll not lightly forget that. You must be either a very brave or a very stupid creature, sticking your neck out like that for a total stranger."

The wildcat smiled again, chuckling softly. "I suppose I should take that as a compliment; thank you, Tings. It really was no trouble, though."

"No trouble?!" Raggle blurted out. "How can you say that, when you nearly broke your spine?"

"And who might you be?" The cat's friendly gaze turned upon the speaker.

The young squirrel's bushy black tail drooped over his eyes in embarrassment. "Er, Raggle, marm; I'm a friend of Tings and Shermy."

The cat proffered a scarred and calloused paw, which the young squirrel accepted; his paw was completely enveloped by the huge white mitt as they shook. "Nice to meet you, Raggle; and you, too, Tings. My name's Siyuzin Stoneclaw. Now, Raggle, let us suppose you were seeking shelter in a strange place. Say, just as you got there, you saw one of the inhabitants in deadly peril, and you were possibly the only one who could do anything about it. Now tell me, what would you do?"

Raggle was nonplussed; he thought for a moment. "Well...I suppose the same thing you did, miz Stoneclaw. That is, if I were brave enough."

"I think you would be; you seem a heroic sort to me." The wildcat chuckled again, closing her eyes. "Oh, and please, call me Sy. Everyone does."

Sensing that her patient wished to rest, Grandmum Dawbil whispered in Tings' ear. "Oi think we'm best be a-goin naow."

The mousemaid began heading for the door, with her two friends and the molewife following. "I think we'll be heading to supper now; we'll be sure to have Friar Dimp send you up something. How does watershrimp-and-hotroot soup with mushroom pastie sound to you, Sy?"

Siyuzin Stoneclaw waved goodbye feebly. "As long as it's vittles and I can eat it, it sounds just fine, missy. Come back and see me again sometime. Oh, Shermy, if you see Rivereye or Speedwell, tell them not to worry about me; I should be fine after a few weeks' rest."

"Will do, marm." Shermy threw a lazy salute, then muttered conspiritorially to Raggle. "See? What did I jolly well tell you?"

Once Grandmum Dawbil had shut the trio outside in the corridor, Tings turned to her hare friend. "We don't know any Rivereye, or Speedwell. Who on earth was she talking about?"

The leveret threw a paw dramatically across his brow. "Oh, fiddlesticks, I completely forgot to tell you about that, wot! I had a word with old Siyu-what-her-whiskers earlier; was wondering why old Martin thought she should come here, y'see. She didn't tell me much, but it seems some particularly brutal vermin coves raided her tribe's home. Goodness knows how many leagues from here that is, we've not had wildcats around here for nigh on a squillion seasons, y'know. Anyway, Sy and her aunt's two babes were the only beasts to escape. They're certainly in far better health than their cousin; were just about terrified into a bloomin' stupor by the time we got 'em inside the good old Abbey, though."

Tings, like most young Abbey females, adored babes of any sort; she was immediately sympathetic. "Poor little mites, they must have been through a lot. Well, at least they'll be safe here...provided, of course, that the other Dibbuns don't pester them to death!"

Chapter FiveEdit

Dankfur Clawhook was a born leader. The tall, fearsome pine marten with the gold hook replacing his left paw had an unmistakable air of command, a deadly skill with his saber, and a ruthless determination to succeed unrivaled by any other. In the unlikely event that, after all this, he still had trouble enforcing his will, he had his two enormous blacksnakes, Jettcoil and Whiptail; these he had raised from hatchlings, bullying and torturing them until they were completely under his sway and would obey his orders without question.

Many long seasons ago, Dankfur had been the Captain of the Redclaw, a ship crewed entirely by pine martens like himself. Roaming the seas, they pillaged many unsuspecting merchant ships and coast dwellings. However, Dankfur had begun to tire of the sea, as the life of a marauding corsair did not present to him many challenging opponents to vanquish. One day, messengers had come to the ship, offering the marten, who had already made quite a name for himself, a position as a Captain in the feared Ranks of the Shadow. His whole crew could join if they so wished, as could the two snakes; for, as the messenger explained, there were many serpents in the ranks already and a couple more would be more than welcome. Dankfur had leapt at the chance; within the space of a week he and his creatures were part of the cloaked and masked horde.

As time went by, the former sea raider acquired quite a reputation for his brutal, relentless drive to succeed; almost inevitably, he found himself rising in rank, until he had gained a new title - The Voice of the Shadow, second in command only to the mysterious and tyrannical Black Shade himself, Ruler of the Northern Isles. His two snakes, who far outdid all the others in size, equally inevitably became the rulers of the reptile section of the Ranks and gathered quite a reputation of their own. Soon, nobeast on the northern shores would speak the name of Dankfur without a shudder of terror; even the closest creatures to him looked upon him with horrified awe.

There was not a single vermin in the Ranks suprised when Dankfur was selected for the special mission, nearly three seasons back; it was a well-known fact that when he led a raid, it did not fail. Thus it was, on that fateful day, the marten had led a special, hand-picked band mostly consisting of his own crewbeasts away from the Black Shade's lair. They had set sail in his old ship for an offshore clump of tiny islands, where a tribe of wildcats had lived for countless generations. The basic instructions were simple; destroy the villiage, allowing none to escape. Dankfur knew there would be little resistance; the cats were mostly fisherbeasts, not fighters. However, the Black Shade had specifically ordered that those few cats who were strong warriors not to be slain, but to be captured and delivered to him alive. This was a highly unusual command, and a difficult one to carry out; but nobeast dared to argue with the Black Shade.

Dankfur came up with a fiendishly ingenious plan of campaign. First, he and his crewbeasts had hid themselves for nearly half a season, while the two blacksnakes scouted the villiage to determine which cats were fighters and which were not. Then, one night, he had ordered his crew to set fire to the entire villiage, casting buckets of special herbs on the conflagration. The sick, bewildered wildcats stood no chance against the vermin, who had plugged their nostrils with rancid-smelling plants to avoid the poisoned fumes; it was all over in a matter of minutes. Yet, for all this cunning, something still managed to go awry.

It was just as the horde were celebrating their evil victory that Dankfur spotted the Redclaw, sailing away from the islands towards the mainland. For an instant, the marten thought the three creatures he had left to guard the ship were inexplicably deserting him; the truth dawned on him, however, when the same trio staggered from the island foliage, all of them in a sorry state. Two of them, both weasels, had claw slashes across their bodies; the other, a rat, had his adderskull facemask shattered, and a horrendously ugly purple swelling on the side of his face. The rat explained that a huge female wildcat, accompanied by two kittens, had jumped aboard the ship. The guards had done their best to stop her - he, the rat, had even slashed her face with his cutlass. However, the cat struck him such a blow to the head that it had sent him hurtling overboard; she then proceeded to slam the two weasels into the deckrailing, snapping the timbers and sending them crashing back-first into the sea.

Dankfur had been beside himself with fury; not only had this creature escaped, but she had stolen his ship and stranded him to boot! Then and there he had sworn revenge, promising he would not return to the lair until he had finished the mission and paid back the wildcat for her deeds. Lashing together rafts, the group returned to the mainland; but they were too late to catch the wildcat, who had run the ship aground and abandoned it some time ago. Sending the majority of his group back to the lair with the prisoners, the Voice of the Shadow had taken an only an elite force (ten of his martens and the two blacksnakes) with him; this, he reasoned, would be a logical course of action, as he knew he could keep better control of a smaller group, and that the brunt of the Black Shade's wrath would fall upon the other creatures and not himself.

Now, it was nearly two seasons later, and the group was still tracking, though not with any great relish. None of the crew had forseen the hunt lasting this long, or taking them so deep into strange territory, or being such tough and hungry going. The force had now dwindled from thirteen beasts to seven; yet, they continued the search, for their relentless leader would allow no margin for surrender or failure.

Some distance away from the site of the attack on the shrews, Dankfur and his first mate, Gronk, huddled miserably under a willow tree, watching the other martens' failed attempts to get a fire going in the drizzle. They, like the Guosim, had found the storm-swollen River Moss too dangerous to sail at the moment, so they had pulled the logboat into a concealed sidestream until the weather cleared. Drawing patterns in the dirt with his hook, Dankfur muttered darkly. "Well, that's another good crewbeast lost."

Gronk, not as well-spoken as his captain, flung his mask and saber into the mud, venting his frustration. "First it was Burmin an' Dunpaw, inna swamp. Then Gribby got 'erself et up by pikefishes, an' Ridgeback an' Kordun both got th' fever, an' now pore ol' Greyfleck gits hisself drownded inna rapids! How long we gotta keep this up, cap'n? We ain't never gonna find 'em; even if we did, we'd still haveta take 'em all the way back to..."

He stopped, his head forced back by the saber at his neck. Dankfur growled through clenched teeth, "We don't surrender until the mission is finished. How many times do I have to pound that into your thick skull before it sinks in?!"

Gronk babbled hastily, "Aye, Cap'n, sorry, Cap'n, I'll keep me gob shut, Cap'n!"

He yelped in pain as a deft flick of the saber sliced the tip of his ear. Dankfur sat back down. "You'd better; I'd hate for us to be six in number instead of seven. Get your mask back on, and help the others."

Gronk scurried off; Dankfur signalled his two serpents to attend him. "Jettcoil, find the cats' trail again. Figure out which direction they're headed in and report back to me. Whiptail, bring us something to eat; and don't you dare come back with just roots and berries this time."

Neither blacksnake was much of a talker; nodding their heads in salute, they slithered silently off to do their master's bidding. Dankfur sat back against the willow trunk to wait, the whole of his mind occupied with nothing but the desire to exact vengeance on the one creature who had dared to make him look foolish.

Chapter SixEdit

Back at Redwall Abbey, a delicious and much-anticipated supper had been laid out in Cavern Hole. Friar Dimp and the Kitchen staff were obviously trying to make up for the missed luncheon and afternoon tea; from end to end the tables were lined with a bewildering variety of delicacies. There were apple, pear, and cherry flans, all topped with honey and meadowcream; fresh scones, piping hot from the oven, with every conceivable type of jam or preserve alongside; at least a dozen puddings, all of different sizes and consistencies; roasted chestnuts, with melted cheese for dipping; three kinds of soup (spring vegetable, watershrimp-and-hotroot, and wild onion); an enormous Deeper'n'Ever Turnip'n'Tater'n'Beetroot Pie for the moles; and, as Tings had predicted, some of Friar Dimp's secret-recipe mushroom pasties, which had been a Redwall dinner staple ever since the tubby squirrel had accepted the position as head cook. Thoughtfully, Jorty Cellarmole had warmed some mint tea and apple cider to serve alongside the meal; several creatures were still sniffling and sneezing a bit after the ordeal on the rooftops. It was a feast fit to tempt even the most picky of eaters; however, none of the creatures sitting around had started eating yet, as they were politely waiting for the last empty places at table to be filled. Unfortunately, the ones missing were the Dibbuns, who were in the process of being bathed by Sister Flim and the Abbess; depending upon how rowdy a mood the abbeybabes were in, this task could quite easily last over an hour.

Shermy wiped a paw across his mouth hurriedly, hoping his friends hadn't noticed him drooling; he, like most hares, was possessed of a mighty appetite. "I say, that giant hazelnut pudd looks scrumptious, wot!"

Raggle nodded. "Aye, and I'd wager you could eat the entire thing yoreself, given the chance."

Shermy did not argue the point. "There's a wager you'd most definitely win, old chap. I'm flippin' famished!"

Tings stifled a giggle, whispering in the hare's ear. "You're not the only one. Look at Skipper; he can't keep his paws and rudder still, he's so impatient." She stole a glance at the doorway. "I wonder how much longer we've got to wait?"

This question was answered by a shrill squealing noise as the room was suddenly invaded by a horde of freshly bathed and clean-smocked Dibbuns, every last one of them screaming in delight at the long-awaited sight of food. Brother Willow covered his ears, raising his voice to a shout to be heard over the din. "Why doesn't someone control those little nuisances? This is worse than being in the cellars!"

Foremole Aggit muttered under his breath. "Burr, as oi rekkeleck, you'm made more noise than ee likkle 'uns doawn thurr."

Abbess Saffron and Sister Flim entered the room. The Sister was gently ushering a wide-eyed, bewildered kitten in front of her; the Abbess had a much younger one cradled fast-asleep in her paws. As if by magic, all noise ceased, as every head turned to look upon the newcomers. Many Redwallers, especially the young ones, had never seen so much as a picture of a wildcat before. There was an awkward silence for a few moments; Brother Willow, as per usual, broke it.

"I suppose the bigbeast in the infirmary is a cat, too?" Upon seeing a few otherbeasts nod the affirmative, Willow huffed irritably. Well, this is certainly a fine state of affairs. Somebeast could have told me our 'guests' were vermin!"

Immediate cries of reproach rang out from the other beasts in the room. Sister Flim was frankly mortified; she covered her charge's ears. "Brother Willow! How dare you say a thing like that to a babe!"

Willow did not seem to think he had said anything wrong; he attempted to justify his remark. "Wildcats have always been classified as enemies, our historical records state that quite clearly." He adressed the company about him. "Those who've been to Abbey School should recall the dreaded names- Ungatt Trunn, who attempted to conquer the southern shores long before the Abbey was built; Verdauga Greeneyes, who ruled and oppressed Mossflower for many seasons; Tsarmina Greeneyes, his daughter, who nearly slew Martin the Warrior; Riggu Felis, whom the famed otterqueen Tiria Wildloughsailed away from the Abbey to battle. I stand by what I've said; babes they may be, but they're vermin, all right - just like the big 'un upstairs!"

Further cries of recrimination broke out. Tings and Shermy had to restrain Raggle from leaping across the table and attacking Brother Willow with his claws; the young squirrel was almost chattering with rage. "Liar! Sy nearly got killed saving Tings' life, and you call her a vermin!"

Shermy agreed with him. "I say, that is a bit strong, Willow, old chap. You don't even know the creature, and you've already judged her, wot!"

Dippertail contributed his opinion; he had been to Abbey School when he was a chick. "Yieeeer, what about Gingivere Greeneyes, Tsarmina's Brother? He and his wife Sandingomm were friends of the Abbey, as I recall."

Brother Willow looked as if he had been waiting for somebeast to say this; he wagged a claw, smiling condescendingly at the falcon. "Ah, but they were unusual beasts, and the only of their kind, I should say. Besides, their line died out with Squire Julian Gingivere, in the time of Matthias the Warrior."

Fresh arguments arose, filling the room with ill-humoured clamor. Abbess Saffron had taken quite enough; passing the infant kitten to Sister Flim, she leapt nimbly upon the largest dining table, holding up both paws for silence and addressing the astonished company sternly. "Please, friends! This is no way for decent creatures to behave; especially not at mealtimes!" A hush fell over the room; Saffron addressed Brother Willow. "I cannot force you to change your opinion, friend, but, as Shermy said, it is not just or fair to judge a creature - ANY creature - before giving them a chance. Please bear his advice in mind in the future. "

Brother Willow would never admit that any creature, especially a youngbeast, could be right where he was wrong. He shrugged sulkily. "As you wish, Abbess."

"Thank you, Brother." Saffron turned to the rest of her creatures. "As for the rest of you, I wish this discussion to be closed at once. We are here to welcome our two new Dibbuns and to have a good time, not to argue amongst ourselves or cause bad feeling." She descended from the table, all eyes watching her in guilty silence. Accepting the slumbering babe back from Sister Flim, she settled herself into a chair. There was a pause, then the Abbess grinned, gesturing to Friar Dimp and his assistants. "Well, what are you waiting for, friends? Serve the soup! I'm practically starving!"

There was an outburst of laughter from the creatures present, then the meal progressed full-swing. Friar Dimp winked cheerily at the Abbess as he ladled her a serving of her favorite wild onion broth. "Well done, Ronny; that cleared the matter up nicely, I think."

Saffron smiled. Dimp was her brother, and five seasons her senior; he always referred to her by the pet name Ronny. "It would certainly seem so. Oh dear, all the Dibbuns are trying to feed Speedwell at once. Silly little things, I suppose they mean well."

Dimp chuckled. "He certainly doesn't seem too put out, does he?"

Speedwell, a ginger tabby kitten, was vigorously attacking a serving of hazelnut pudding, whilst appraising with his eyes the various dishes pressed upon him by the eager abbeybabes.

"Yurr, troi summ veggibul zoop, it bees vurry tasty!"

"Biddee favorite be scones an' blackerbee jam, you try it!"

"Eat up alla dat puddin, make y'grow big n' strong."

"Unka Dimp allus make 'shroomy pasty, it yummy delisheeus!"

Skipper noticed that the other kitten, Rivereye, had awakened and was trying to get at the food. He fished a watershrimp from his bowl of soup, passing it to the babe. "Eat hearty, liddle matey, there's plenny where that came from."

The kitten, an albino with blue eyes, practically inhaled the morsel. Skipper chuckled, passing him another shrimp. "Nothin' wrong with that 'uns appetite, that's fer sure. I think he'll settle right in here, won't ye, matey? Yeowch! Eat the shrimp, not me paw!"

Laughter echoed round Cavern Hole yet again. Only Brother Willow remained silent, sulkily and resentfully glaring at the two young cats recieving such a warm welcome from his fellow Abbeybeasts.

Chapter SevenEdit

By the time the darkness of night had fallen on Mossflower Woods, the rain had completely stopped; the clouds still lingered overhead, rumbling quietly with distant thunder. Water continued to drip from the saturated leaves of the trees, creating a monotonous, musical plinking noise as the droplets splashed into the countless puddles on the ground. It was a gloomy place to be at midnight, the woodlands after a rainstorm; however, there were few creatures about to remark upon this fact, as most of the wooddwellers were safely abed.

There was one creature, at least, who was awake to observe the unnerving darkness. Jettcoil, the mighty blacksnake, was not in the best of moods as he half-slithered, half-swam his way through the deluged woodlands. Though he had been raised on board a ship, and was an excellent swimmer, the enormous reptile was not very fond of water and was becoming increasingly annoyed as his search turned up nothing but more puddles and mud holes to fight through. His annoyance, however, was focused on the cats and not on his master Dankfur, whose cruel treatment had almost hypnotized the serpent into believing he could not disobey the marten.

His mate, the even larger blacksnake Whiptail, met up with him as he transversed a fallen log. Dropping the woodpigeon carcass she carried in her mouth, she flicked her tongue lazily. "Ssssssssssso, my husssssband, how goessss your sssssssearch?"

Jettcoil flailed the end of his body angrily, snapping several low bush branches. "It isssssss no good. The trailssssss, they are all falsssssse! No ssssssign or sssssscent at all in these accursssssed woodsssssss, none!" He collapsed limpy, panting with the exertion.

Whiptail nosed the woodpigeon across the log. "Eat, I have already delivered the mate and eggsssss of this one to the masssster. He sssssssent me to assssssissssst you." As her mate devoured his grisly meal, Whiptail flicked her blue-black tounge out again, smelling the damp woodland air. Her shining yellow eyes lit up with an evil gleam. "Miccccccce, I sssssmell many miccccce and sssssquirrels!"

Jettcoil mumbled grumpily around a full mouth, "Mmmmmffff, the entire woodsssss sssssstink of thossssse hereaboutssssss. We ssssshould sssseek catsssssss, not rodent sssssscum!"

Whiptail sniffed the air again. "Yessssss, but consssssider, the catsssss were injured lassssst we sssscented them. Perhapssssss they have sssssought sssshelter with the wood-dwellerssssss."

Swallowing the rest of the woodpigeon whole, Jettcoil pondered her words for a moment. "It isssss a thought, that." He descended from the log, beckoning to his mate with his head. "Come! Let ussss ssssee where the ssscent will lead, if for no other reasssson than to ssssssatisfy our curiosssssssity. Mayhapsssss we will find the trail of the catsssss, asssss well."

Furze Pinspikes and his wife, Teezl, had been the Abbey Gatekeepers longer than anybeast cared to recall. They also had the largest family in Redwall Abbey; thirteen little ones total, with one more on the way. Though the Dibbun-aged members of the brood slept inside the dormitories, the majority of the Pinspikes family spent their evenings in the gatehouse, a small but comfy dwelling that jutted from the inside of the wall next to the main doors of the Abbey. It was a tight squeeze, but the hogfamily did not seem to mind; in fact, the youngest ones dreamed of the day when they would be cosidered mature enough to be promoted to join their parents and older siblings on guard duty.

The system the Pinspikes family had worked out was simple; every night, a different one of them kept watch on the walltops over the gate, while the others slept in the many armchairs, hammocks, and couches in the gatehouse. There had not been a threat of vermin invasion for many seasons now, but, as the Pinspikeses figured, there was no point in taking chances. This night, watch duty had fallen to the eldest Pinspikes daughter, a burly hog by the name of Ayeriss. Every Pinspikes took his or her duty very seriously; especially so tonight, with one of the gates hanging shattered and useless by just one hinge. Gripping a stout window pole, Ayeriss stared grimly at the bleak path beneath her, watching for signs of foes; gruffly muttering dire threats to potential invaders under her breath, as was her wont.

"Cummon, yew robbers, jus' yew try an' get in here, I dares yeh. Ho boy, would I like t'see yeh try. I'd give yew sech a drummin' wi' me stave ye'd weep 'til autumn come, by 'eck I would. Then I'd yell 'til the Abbey shook so's Skipper'd cummout an' beat yeh s'more. Cummon, show your lousy faces, I dares yeh...."

At that moment, the moon broke free of the clouds; as if rejoicing in its freedom, it shone a bright beam of light on the scene below, illuminating it in rich blues and purples. Ayeriss caught her breath; something large was moving in the deep, weed-filled ditch that ran parallell to the wall some distance off. She gripped her pole even tighter, swallowing hard. Putting on a brave swagger, she called gruffly into the night. "Who goes there? If yeh be friends, cummon out, I won't harm ye. Woe be it to ye if yore foes, though. Cummon, quit sneakin' in that muddy hole and walk on the path like a beast witha grain o' sense!"

The enormous, ugly black head of Jettcoil arose from the ditch; Ayeriss blanched, suddenly turned speechless with fright, as the serpent unhurriedly wound his way onto the path. Coil after seemingly endless coil, the gigantic reptile emerged into full view in the patch of moonlight. Rearing nearly a third of his long body off the ground, until he stood nearly twice the height of a grown badger, Jettcoil hissed savagely at the sentry hog. "Where are the catsssss? We have followed their ssssscent to thisssss redssssstone housssssse; tell usssssss!"

Ayeriss could no more answer the hideous apparition than fly to the moon; with a groan, she swooned backwards onto the parapet stairs, bouncing all the way down to the grounds, where she lay, out cold.

Whiptail, still concealed in the ditch, bit her mate savagely on the tail. "Fool! You have frightened the ssssssspikedog, you sssssshould not have left the ditch! Now the wood-dwellersssss know of our presenssssssssse!”

Jettcoil knew his haste had been untimely; he slid back into the mud with an angry hiss. “Never mind, it isssss too late now; we musssst report back to masssster that we have found the catsssss at lasssssst!”

Shermy, Raggle and Tings had decided not to sleep in the dormitories, wishing to keep Siyuzin Stoneclaw company, and to be on hand should she need anything. Grandmum Dawbil had agreed, reasoning that there were plenty of empty beds in the sickbay at present. Rivereye, the younger kitten, had been taken to the Dibbuns’ dormitory; his older brother Speedwell, however, had refused to go, and had accompanied the trio of young ones to his cousin’s room. Though it was well after midnight, and they were all weary, none of the four could seem to get to sleep after the day’s excitement. Accordingly, they sat awake, conversing in hushed tones so as not to awaken the resting giant wildcat; or Grandmum Dawbil, snoring in the chair beside her.

Yawning, Shermy addressed the younger cat. “I say, Speedwell old thing, why don’t you tell us a bedtime story, wot? Help us to get some shuteye, doncha know.”

The cat Dibbun shook his head. “Not know bedtime stories. Sy tell alla bedtime stories.”

Raggle shook his head. “Shame on you, asking the babe to do all the work. You tell the story, Shermy.”

The leveret drooped his ears comically. “That’s a bit of a tall order, sir; I’m more a singer than a storyteller, y’know.”

Raggle lobbed a pillow at his friend. “So sing us a lullabye then, puddenhead!”

The young hare threw the pillow back halfheartedly: Raggle easily ducked it. “Shan’t! I asked for the blinkin’ entertainment first, old chap.”

Speedwell giggled as Tings intercepted Raggle’s return throw. “Oh, stop it, you sillies. Here, I’ll sing the song.

She launched into an old Abbey lullabye, being careful not to raise her voice.

“When sunset tinges woodlands gold,

Find me there, my friend.

We’ll walk along the path together

As the day doth end.

We’ll follow trails the moonbeams mark,

O come with me, my friend,

We’ll follow streams turned liquid silver,

As the day doth end.

For I, the sprite of Slumber deep,

Will keep you safe, my friend,

As we transverse the realm of Dreamland,

As the day doth end.

And when the sun shall rise again,

Our ways will part, my friend;

But you shall meet me every evening,

As the day doth end.

Then, once again, we’ll roam together,

Just you and I, my friend,

By paths of gold and streams of silver

As the the day doth end.”

The haunting, gentle melody had its effect; even Tings drifted off to sleep as the song ended. As Shermy slept, he was visited once again by Martin the Warrior. Seeing the heroic figure appear in his dream, the young hare smiled. “Hello again, wot.”

Martin smiled as well, a gentle, fatherly smile. “The Abbey is a place of peace, but in the days to come you must be brave, for strong warriors will be needed. Tell your friends this.”

Shermy was suprised. “Certainly I will, but might I ask why, old chap?”

But the vision of Martin had already faded; as Tings had described in the lullabye, Shermy found himself walking pleasantly through the peaceful forest of dreams, beside a silver river.

Chapter EightEdit

Darker than the sky on a clouded, moonless night; darker than Raggle's fur, or Jettcoil's scales; darker than the smoke wreathing from an oily fire; darker than the bottom of the deepest crater on earth were the mind, the heart, the very being of Enzi Grexx, the sable-furred wolf known as the infamous Black Shade.

No wolf had ever before inhabited the area near Northern Shores; indeed, their kind lived even farther to the north, in the bitter, harsh uncharted territories where snow stayed on the ground the majority of the year. They were, as a rule, social creatures; living in large, barbaric, cooperative communities under the leadership of the strongest and wisest of the group. Some seasons back, when he was little more than a pup, Enzi Grexx had wished to be that leader, and had done all in his power to wrest the position from its current owner, up to the point of a direct physical attack. This had proved to be an awful, near-fatal mistake. The other wolf, though a female and long in years, had been an expert fighter with a mace and chain; even after disarming the younger wolf, she had cruelly beaten her opponent within an inch of his life before granting his frantic pleas for mercy. Shunned and ridiculed by his clan, and many others, Enzi Grexx had fled southward in disgrace.

Lone wolves, especially young and injured ones, often do not survive in strange territory; but hate, and the desire for power, often can drive a creature on in the most desperate of situations. Knowing he could not return to the frigid lands from whence he came, Enzi Grexx had made up his mind then and there to establish himself as ruler of the strange, new country he found himself in, gathering a huge army for himself and making his name one spoken only in total terror; no creature would dare to ridicule and humiliate him then. It might very well take scores of seasons, but he would do it; this he promised himself. Keeping himself going with this growing obsession, he wandered the Northern Shores and the mountains nearby, watching and waiting for his chance.

When he had stumbled into the coastal cavern teeming with adders and other snakes, his first reaction had been to flee for his life; but then, as he later watched them from a distance, the great idea struck the wolf; why not use them? Few creatures were as terrifying, as horrific as serpents, especially poisonous ones; furthermore, this group seemed to have learned to live and hunt as a community, much like his old clan. With time, and the right methods, he could knock them into a regular war machine! But, the problem still remained; how to take over a dangerous clan of snakes, many of which could kill him with a single bite?

The chance arrived one bitterly stormy morning, some weeks later. The obvious leader of the snakes, a huge, ancient adder, had exited the cave alone. Usually, he traveled with two smaller adders as sort of a bodyguard; the formidible creature really had no need of them, but he was not the sort to take chances. However, for reasons best known to himself, he had decided to hunt solo this particular morning.

The young wolf never hesitated; the opportunity was not one to be missed. Using the darkness of the storm as extra cover, he had run ahead of the monster up the path to the clifftops, the fertile area where the snakes usually did their hunting. He had then crouched by a large rock on an outcrop ledge, where he knew the adder would have to pass to get to the hunting grounds; gripping his long spear (the only weapon he had brought with him on his journey), he had waited for his opponent to arrive.

As soon as the huge head had passed the boulder, Enzi Grexx had struck, ramming his spear into the ugly neck with both paws. It was over in an instant; the snake gave one horrific whiplash of its body, then lay still. Howling his victory to the rainy skies, the wolf proceeded with his cunning plan.

Great had been the consternation in the snake community two days later, when a huge, black-furred creature had marched boldly into their den. None of the serpents had ever seen a wolf before; the tallest furred creatures they knew of were badgers, and this strange beast was half as tall again as the largest of these. To add to the shock, the dark behemoth was wearing the upper part of the skull of their chieftain as a mask, and a tunic and cloak made from his hide. The two largest fangs were still in the skull, and hung down the sides of the beast's muzzle like a grisly decoration; the pin of the cloak, and the belt of the tunic, were fashioned from the remaining, smaller teeth. All of the serpents knew of their chieftain's reputation as a battler; any beast who could totally defeat him must have been invincible, and possibly even magic! Without even a whisper of dissent, they had capitulated to the conqueror. Thus it was that Enzi Grexx, a discraced young wolf banished from his home, became the Black Shade, feared ruler of the Northern Shores.

As seasons ran on, the Black Shade gathered other beasts to his army; these he trained in the art of war, and the art of controlling serpents. Any beast he thought could serve his purpose was recruited into the Ranks of the Shadow - rats, stoats, weasels, foxes, ferrets, martens, even a raven. Though the Black Shade always sent messengers to try to peaceably convince the vermin to join him first, he had no qualms about using force on the obstinate and unwilling; hence, his attack on the wildcat colony, creatures who had dared to refuse being under his rule. Now, he had well over five hundred vermin, and untold thousands of serpents, in his command; he had also matured to his full growth, and attained superior skill with his spear, the two ends of which he had replaced with the fangs of another large adder. His pride, skill, and cruelty made him a beast not to be trifled with; several unfortunates had found that out, to their cost.

This thought was running through the mind of Scraggback, a ferret captain in the ranks, as he entered the inner sanctum of the Black Shade's dwelling. Though most of the serpents still dwelt in their seaside cavern, about a hundred of them, and just about all of the other beasts in the Ranks of the Shadow, lived with their leader in the Shadelair. In his travels, Grexx had found a mass of monolithic stone columns sticking out from the sea, some little distance offshore from the serpent's cave. Between two of these columns, suspended high in the air, the wreck of what had once been the biggest pirate ship to sail the seas was permanantly fixed, her huge iron prowspike driven into one of the monoliths. The ship, whose name was the Goreleech, had four decks counting the topmost, giving her plenty of room to house the Black Shade and his followers. As time went by, a massive rope and plank bridge had been constructed from the clifftops above the snakes' cave to the rock island the ship's stern rested against; many smaller ones ran between ledges on the rock islands, where several stone hut lookout posts had been built for extra housing. The Black Shade himself spent most of his time in what had been the captain's cabin of the ship; he had refurbished and decorated it with grisly snake-carcass trophies and special, green-flamed fire brasiers to give it an eerie air.

Scraggback gulped visibly as the great wolf's pale, flat eyes bored into him from behind the eye sockets of the adder skull. The Black Shade was not a creature of many words; he spat out a single, commanding question. "Well?"

The ferret tried to keep his paws from shaking as he made his report. "Master, please do not be angry with me. My patrol and I have continued to beat, starve, and torture those wildcats in exactly the manner you instructed. Two more of them have perished under the treatment, yet the rest still refuse to join our Ranks. The eldest male tried to do battle with us again; several of my patrol were badly injured." He gestured to a painful swelling over his right eye to confirm this statement.

The wolf's growl was low, but menacing. "What of the Voice of the Shadow, and his crew?"

Scraggback's voice quavered with fear. Dankfur had been the closest thing to a friend and kindred spirit the Black Shade had; the ferret knew his news was not going to be recieved well. "The fivescore scouts you sent out returned this morning, Master. They searched as far as a good fortnight's journey from here, scouring the land, but there were no tracks to be seen anywhere. However, Captain Yirta found these..."

The ferret yelped in alarm as the wolf ripped the proffered satchel from his paws. Upending it, the Black Shade dumped the contents unceremoniously on the floor; the tattered remains of an embroidered blue hooded cloak, a rusted saber, and the skull and a few other bones of a marten. Enzi Grexx glared first at the pitiful remains, then at his minion, his voice tight with fury as he demanded, "How did this happen?"

Scraggfur gulped again, edging towards the door. "Master, believe me, I do not know. Yirta says one of his soldiers found these about the twelfth day of their search."

The wolf was silent for a moment, breathing hard through his nostrils in an attempt to keep his temper in check. Scraggback stifled a moan as he watched his master's paw tighten on the double-headed spear. Then, the Black Shade spat out a command. "Send Yirta to me."

Realizing that he was not going to be slain, Scraggback knelt, sighing in relief. "Master, I thank you for sparing my...yeeek!"

He leapt to his paws and fled, nearly tripping over the spear that was embedded in the deck timbers where he had been kneeling a second earlier. The wolf's roaring shout rang through his ears. "Get out of my sight, you pathetic, useless worm! Get out! Out! OUT!!!"

Enzi Grexx listened to the ferret's receding footsteps until they were no longer audible. His jaw tightened grimly as he stared again at what had once been a pine marten. Dankfur had been his most loyal follower, his closest ally, and the beast he relied on to carry out his most difficult commands. His loss would be a terrible blow to the Ranks of the Shadow; especially now, with the time for carrying out the Black Shade's newest master plan fast approaching. Only Dankfur and his blacksnakes had known of the plot, as the Black Shade felt he could trust no other creature with the information at present.

Yirta was the only raven in the Ranks; as such, he wore a embroidered blue cowl instead of a cloak and mask. He poked his beak nervously around the door frame. "Yaaark! You wished to see me, sire?"

The Black Shade snapped tersely. "Stop dithering in the doorway and get in here."

Yirta complied, bowing low. "Kraaaak! As you say, sire. Might I ask the reason for this summons? We have completed your mission."

He squawked in terror as the wolf bulled him into the cabin wall, shouting into his startled face. "Two seasons ago my strong right paw left in search of three escaped prisoners, taking the two largest serpents of my army with him. He did not return, and none of you useless rabble could find any trace of him. Now you dare to return with this bundle of rags, and say the mission is completed?!!! Where did you find these, and why did you not trace the beast responsible?!"

The raven could hardly speak for being throttled; he managed to choke out his message. "Eeeaark...riverbank, near swamp, twelve days from here....gggaaak, lots of pikefishes...urk...these washed up on the bank!"

The Black Shade released his victim, who fell to the floor, gasping and coughing. His voice dropped to a more reasonable tone. "You'd better be telling me the truth."

"Haaaaark, nobeast would lie to you, sire." The raven feebly rasped. "There were other bones, ripped by the pikefishes' teeth. This one was eaten, sure enough. Rraaak!"

"Was there a gold hook in the remains?"

"Kraark, no. Why would there be, sire?"

The wolf's voice dropped dangerously low; his eyes narrowed. "You dare to ask me that question?"

The raven had regained his composure; he gestured with a wing at the body. "Rrraark, it is not Dankfur, if that is what you were thinking, sire. I would know the bones of a female beast anywhere; this is a she-marten."

He backed up to the wall again as the Black Shade advanced on him threateningly, hissing through clenched teeth. "Are you sure of this?"

Yirta's throat bobbed as he swallowed several times. "Kkkaaaak, sire, nobeast knows more about carrion and bones than a raven."

Grexx knew this was true; he concealed a sigh of relief, gesturing to the door. "That will be all, Yirta. Go, now. I need to think."

The raven obeyed with alacrity, fleeing at top speed as Scraggback had done. Prising his spear loose from the deck timbers, and seating himself in a carved wooden chair, the Black Shade thought furiously. So, these were not Dankfur's bones; they were the remains of Gribby, the only female pine marten in Dankfur's crew. Then where was Dankfur, and the rest of his band? Had they, too, perished in the pike-infested waters, or had they managed a crossing? The wolf smote the arm of his throne in frustration. He needed his Voice back; and soon, before his whole grand scheme came crashing down in failure.

Suddenly, an idea struck him; leaping to his paws, he marched out of the door. Throttling a rat sentry, who was unlucky enough to be within pawreach, the Black Shade rapped out an order. "Get Scaleflier."

He dropped the unfortunate, who scuttled off, pawing his throat. The black wolf allowed the ghost of a smile to cross his features. No creature under his rule would disobey him; his first obsession and goal had been, for all intents and purposes, acheived. Now, all that was needed to carry out his second, grander scheme was his second-in-command, whom he had no doubts of finding now. All of the snakes were excellent trackers, and could travel many times faster than a vermin at full-tilt run; but Scaleflier was the fastest and best hunter by far. If he were sent to the place where Gribby's remains were found, he would soon pick up the trail, and bring the marten crew back. Of course, this would mean leaving a wildcat and her two kittens unpunished, but what were a pawful of escaped prisoners to the Black Shade? They couldn't possibly do him any damage at this point, he reasoned; let them be forgotten as casualties of war.

And it was with this decision that Enzi Grexx, the Black Shade, made his second huge mistake.

Chapter NineEdit

Though the clouds had finally blown away, the air was still quite damp from the storm of the night before. Like swirling seas of gold, sunrise-tinged puffs of mist practically obscured the woodlands. Here and there, a beam of sunlight was broken into countless shining shards by the branches of a tree they were forced to shine through, creating harlequin patterns of light and dark through the fog. It was a beautiful, and breathtaking sight; yet it meant little to Dankfur and his four remaining martens, crouched miserably in the mud by a damp, smoking fire as they waited on the return of the blacksnackes. Aside from a roasted woodpigeon and her clutch, which they had divided amongst themselves, the group had eaten nothing all evening; all of their looted supplies from the Guosim had washed overboard when they had tried to shoot the rapids in the previous day's storm.

Gronk, the first mate, had learned his lesson about complaining outright, and had the dock-leaf bandage about his ear to prove it. He tried to stay conversational as he posed his captain a question. "So, when do ye think them two snakes is gonna come back, Cap'n?"

A smallish, stunted marten named Scruffgutt beat Dankfur to the answer. "When they's ready to, addlebrain! Huh, of alla shoopid questions...oooooffff!"

Gronk kicked him savagely in the stomach, sending him flat on his back. "I ain't talkin' ter ye, Shorty, keep outa this."

Gronk suddenly found himself sprawling beside his victim; he looked up into the eyes of Scruffgutt's hefty brother Uja. The giant was shaking a clenched paw threateningly. "Ye had no call ter do that!"

Not a bit short of nerve, or strength, Gronk leapt upright, catching Uja a belt in the nose with his sword hilt; knocked off-balance, the big clumsy marten stumbled backwards into the stream with a booming splash. Gronk shook his saber threateningly at his spluttering comrade. "Yew lay a paw on me again, Fatty, an' ye ain't gonna live ter remember it. Git outta there afore ye catches fever. What the....Gerroff!"

Scruffgutt had leapt upon the first mate's unprotected back, knocking the saber from his paws and pulling him backwards to the ground. Gronk retaliated by rolling over and punching his assailant in the eye; not to be outdone, Scruffgutt grabbed the first mate's injured ear and bit, hard. Ignoring a bloodied nose, Uja scrambled from the streambank and joined the fray, booting Gronk in the behind. Ringgob, the only member of Dankfur's crew who had not participated up to this point, decided to help Gronk out; he flung himself upon the giant's footpaws, sending Uja crashing to earth. Roaring and screeching at each other, the four martens scuffled paw to paw, careening up and down the sludgy riverbank. Dankfur dropped his head into his paws in despair, not even bothering to intervene. "Idiots, I've got idiots for a crew!"

The two blacksnakes slid silently into camp, a bit out of breath from the dash; they had covered an amazing distance that night. Whiptail made her report, then gestured with her blunt snout at the now-unrecognizable muddy blobs still fighting each other tooth and nail. "What issss thissss about, Massssster?"

The Voice of the Shadow shot a disgusted glare at the continuing scuffle. "Just squabbles, brought about from too much hardship and not enough feeding." He pointed his hook at Jettcoil. "Well, what are you waiting for? You know what to do."

For a creature of his monstrous size, the blacksnake could be very stealthy when he wished to. Slithering, undetected, up to the squabblers, he sent the lot of them into the water with one powerful flick of his neck. Spluttering and hawking water, the four looked up into the steely eyes of their captain. Dankfur gestured with his hook dramatically. "Just look at you. You call yourselves servants of the Black Shade, or even mere pirates? You're nothing but a pack of babes fighting over trifles. Now get out of there and gather your things. The serpents have run our quarry to earth at last, about three days travel from here at our speed. We'll have enough enemies to fight then, without bickering amongst ourselves."

Abashed, but still glaring resentfully at one another, the martens exited the stream, gathering up swords, daggers, cloaks and masks from where they had fallen on the bank during the melee. As the logboat began to sail down the sidestream towards the still-rough River Moss, Dankfur questioned the blacksnakes again. "You're sure the cats are still inside the building you told me about?"

Jettcoil, who was traveling on the bankside with his mate, answered. "Yesssss, Masssster. The tracksssssss ended at the gate; there were no otherssssssss."

"And the directions again, in case we become separated?"

"Follow the great ssssssstream until it reachessssss a ford, then follow the path from the ford to the redssssssstone fortressssss."

Gronk, now in better spirits at the thought of immenent victory, gave his captain a lopsided grin. "Ain't too difficult, eh, Cap'n? We'll have 'em back in no time, now."

Dankfur shot him a withering look. "You don't realize what we're up against, do you?"

The first mate was puzzled. "A big redrock buildin', I thought."

Ringgob, a marten with an unusually large mouth, had caught on. "Idjit! That's Redwall H'abbey! It ain't gunna be no easy job git'n them cats outta there; I heard lotsa bad tales 'bout that accursed place."

Horrorstruck, the other three martens looked towards their captain for confirmation. Dankfur nodded, driving his message home by repeatedly pounding his hook into his good paw. "He speaks the truth. Countless warlords have been done to death by the inhabitants of Redwall. This job is going to take every ounce of cunning I possess, and complete, unquestioning obedience from you lot. Anybeast who's got any objections may as well throw himself overboard right now; there will be no room for loose ends once we reach that Abbey. Understood?"

The four former corsairs nodded furiously; they knew, by the look in their captain's eyes and the way he pawed his long saber, that he meant every word.

Friar Dimp, as befits a ruler of Redwall's kitchens, always rose before the sun was fully up to begin preparing breakfast. This morning, the good squirrel had decided the main course would be oatmeal, served with strawberries, honey, and almonds; thinking it would be nicer to use fresh strawberries instead of preserved ones, Dimp gathered up a few baskets and made his way to the main door. Normally, he would have awakened his kitchen assistants to have them help with the task, but, after yesterday's ordeal, the kind-hearted Friar had decided to let the younger beasts sleep in a little.

Out on the lawns, the main abbey building and its surrounding walls rose majestically out of the mists, tinged a pale, dusty rose in the soft, pre-dawn light; but there, any suggestion of beauty ended. The grounds and orchards were a soppy, muddied mess, covered in fallen fruits and branches. Now that it could be seen more clearly, the useless main gate was a sobering, horrific sight. Friar Dimp was a meticulously tidy creature; squelching his way through the mud with a grimace of distaste upon his face, he sighed heavily, announcing to empty air, "This wreckage will take ages to repair!"

Fumbling and dropping some of his baskets, the Friar sighed again; attempting to hold a berry-picking expedition by oneself was no easy task. He turned his pawsteps to the Gatehouse, deciding he would ask Furze or Teezl to give him some assistance.

Suddenly, he broke into a run; disregarding baskets and muddied clothes, he dashed to the side of the fallen Ayeriss, kneeling and taking her in his paws. A quick glance showed that she had suffered a terrible concussion; a bit of blood from where a sharp staircorner had caught her head was congealed in her spikes. Assuring himself that the hogmaid was still breathing, the Friar leapt to his paws again, and barged noisily into the Gatehouse.

Some little time later, Shermy and his friends were awakened by a frantic pounding on the door of the infirmary, followed by Grandmum Dawbil's gruff shout. "A'roight, oi'm a-cummin, keep ee shurt on!"

She opened the door to reveal a disheveled and muddied Friar Dimp; the pudgy squirrel was panting and weeping so hard that he only articulate nonsense syllables. After a short moment of staring at the rare spectacle of a dirty Friar Dimp, Grandmum Dawbil threw a hefty digging claw about his shoulders, ushering him gently into the sickbay. "Thurr, naow, take ee deep breather'n tell oi all about et, zurr."

Shermy, Raggle, Tings, and Speedwell all leapt from their beds, crowding round the distraught Friar as he sobbed out his message. "Found her outside...Ayeriss Pinspikes...her parents are tending to her now...oh, it's horrible, friends, just awful!"

He burst into fresh tears, unable to continue. The old mole healer immediately took charge of the situation, her voice ringing out authoritatively. "Shurmee, Raggle, goo ee an' foind out what happun'd. Oi'll stop hurr wi' ee Froir till you'uns get back."

"Aye, Miz Dawbil, marm!" The hare and black squirrel charged out the door and down the stairs. The big wildcat, Siyuzin Stoneclaw, had come awake more slowly than the other beasts in the infirmary; her voice came from the back room. "What's going on, what's wrong?"

Tings came to the cat's side, her face drawn and anxious as she explained, "Friar Dimp says one of our gatekeepers has been hurt."

Immediately, Sy heaved herself into a sitting position. Tings became seriously alarmed. "No, no, it's all right, Shermy and Raggle already went downstairs. Wait here, they'll come back and tell us what happened."

The wildcat smiled at the agitated mousemaid. "Don't worry, missy, I'm not getting up. I just want to look out the window here."

There was a large, shuttered window beside the cat's bed; she threw it open with one swipe of her mighty paw. Tings and Speedwell joined her; together, they gazed through the rapidly clearing mist at the scene below.

The entirely of the Pinspikes family and a large percentage of the Abbey population were out on the lawn; some crowding around a huddled figure on the ground, others milling about as if unsure what to do. News of Ayeriss' injury had traveled fast, in the strange way that all news seemed to find its way around the Abbey with no real effort on the part of anybeast. Dippertail, spotting the open infirmary window, soared up to it and landed on the sill. He bowed politely to the bigger wildcat. "Yiieer! Nice to see you feeling a bit better."

Sy gestured to the mass of creatures. "What's this all about?"

The falcon shook his head sadly. "Heeeeek, the night sentry fell down the stairs last night; probably fainted with exhaustion after the hard night and day before. Yeeeeak, she has injured her head very badly; she does not look well at all."

He took off again, sailing back down to help Skipper Windryder and his otters to take charge of the situation. The crowd dispersed as two of the otters carried the burly hogmaid into the abbey, while the rest helped Abbess Saffron to shepherd the curious Abbeybeasts back to their normal daily chores. Tings stifled a sob. "No wonder the Friar was so upset, finding her like that. Poor Ayeriss, she was always such a tough beast."

Grandmum Dawbil had managed to calm Dimp, and send him off to his room to clean himself up; she addressed the mousemaid firmly. "Naow, thurr be no use in a-talkin' like ee pore hogmaid be dead'n a'ready, Miz Tings. You'm probl'y upsettin' ee babe."

Sy stroked her cousin on the head, her face grim. "Believe me, he's seen and heard far worse. Though it wouldn't be a bad idea to get him out of here before they bring the poor beast in."

Taking the hint, Tings took the kitten's paw, forcing a cheerful smile. "Come on, little one. Let's see if we can help clean up the orchard."

Taking the back way down from the dormitories, so as not to pass Windryder's otters carrying the unconscious Ayeriss, the duo descended to the lower levels of the Abbey. Raggle met them as they crossed the Great Hall; the young squirrel's paws and limbs were trembling with shock. Tings, motioning meaningfully with her eyes at the Dibbun beside her, addressed him brightly. "We're going to ask Abbess Saffron if there's any room on cleanup detail for two more. Want to come with us and make it three?"

Raggle seemed to come out of his stupor. "Huh...oh, er, right." He took the kitten's other paw, giving a shuddering sigh. "I've never really seen a bloody wound before. Turned my stomach a bit."

Tings shook her head at him reprovingly as they turned towards the kitchens, where the Abbess could be heard trying to motivate the cooking assistants in the absence of the Friar. "Let's not talk of it, please. Watch that step, Speedwell; here, we'll swing you over. One, two, hup!"

For the first time since his arrival at Redwall, the kitten giggled, allowing his footpaws to leave the floor. "Wheeee, again, again!"

Raggle smiled, too, as he and Tings swung their charge over another step. "Good to see him happy, after what he's been through. One, two, hup!"

A sound of pattering footsteps caused Tings to look over her shoulder; she groaned, lowering her voice to a murmur. "Oh, no, here comes Brother Furze, right at us."

Raggle also glanced at the Pinspikes patriarch approaching, whispering back, "He sure looks upset. Well, it can't be helped; probably just needs somebeast to talk to."

They stopped and turned, waiting for Furze Pinspikes to catch up. Tings took his paw as he reached her, adopting her most soothing tone. "Poor fellow, rushing about isn't going to help matters much. Why don't you come with us to the kitchens for a nice cup of tea, to help calm your nerves while we wait for news of Ayeriss?"

The hedgehog pulled his paw free. "Not worried about Ayeriss; that rabbet who helps in the 'firmary sez she wuz startin' t'come round when 'e took 'er up. Where's Muther H'Abbess?"

Raggle gestured ahead of him. "In the kitchens, why?"

But Furze was off again, shambling at a trot (the fastest pace he could manage) down the passage. Still swinging the chuckling Speedwell between them, Raggle and Tings followed, their youthful curiosity aroused.

Just as the trio reached the kitchen, Furze and Abbess Saffron emerged, deep in conversation. Raggle hailed the latter. "Excuse me, marm, but we were wondering if there were any chores for us to do? You know, helping with the storm damage and such like."

Saffron waved a paw; she looked rather flustered. "Skipper and Foremole Aggit are in the orchard, organizing that sort of thing. I really must get on. Great seasons, it never rains but it pours... "

The two young ones and the kitten fell in step with the Abbess, following her and Furze to the door; Tings voiced the question that was in their minds. "What's wrong now?"

The Abbess patted the mousemaid's head gently. "Nothing for you to be alarmed about, young one. Teezl Pinspikes is going to have her new baby - wonderful news, really - but with all that's been going on, it's a complication we really have no need of at the moment."

She and Furze Pinspikes separated from the group, heading towards the Gatehouse while the rest turned toward the orchard. Raggle shook his head in bewilderment as he addressed Tings. "First the storm, and you falling off the roof. Then Shermy sees Martin, and we wind up with two badly injured beasts in the infirmary; and now this! What next?"

Tings laughed nervously, helping Speedwell skirt a large puddle. "I'm almost afraid to ask that question, myself."

Chapter TenEdit

Ayeriss floated back and forth between unconsciousness and half-consciousness all throughout the day; Grandmum Dawbil, judging this to be the worst case of the three patients she had on paw, had left Teezl (who had been relocated to the sickbay) and Sy to the other infirmary assistants while she tended to the injured hogmaid. Shermy had taken complete control of the care of the wildcat; nobeast disagreed with this, as he had been the one led to find her by Martin the Warrior. Bathing the dirt crust and blood from a re-opened wound on his patient's tail, the young hare kept up a lively conversation with his new friend, interspersed here and there with commands to his fellow healers.

"Jolly bad wound, this; how'd you come by it? Twigga, bring us a clean basin of water, there's a good lass."

Sy tilted her head so her good eye could see the wound in question. "Oh, that. No interesting story to that one, I'm afraid; one of my scimitars slipped its sheath and I sat on it."

"HAW-hahaha...whoops, sorry, old thing. No offense intended. Bit amusin' though, wot?"

The cat ruffled the hare's ears. "Of course it is, laugh away, friend. Better to smile at your misfortunes than to weep, I always say."

Shermy disengaged his head from the heavy paw. "Steady on, miss, d'you want to snap me blinkin' bonce off? Hi, Twigga! Hurry up with that water, will you!"

The harvest mouse swept into the room, plonking the refilled basin onto a side table. She was older than Shermy, but, like the rest of the healers, respected his fast-growing skills highly. "There you are, sorry for the delay. The sickbay water barrel was a bit low, so I stopped to send for a refill. I'd best go attend to miz Teezl now; call me if you need anything else."

She exited the back room again; Shermy washed off his cleaning rag in the fresh water. "After we bandage this up, I'll nip down to the kitchens and see about getting us some tucker; all this healer work makes a bod jolly hungry, wot! I say, this is a deeper wound than I thought; if you'd sat on that blade a fraction harder, you might only have half a blinkin' tail now."

Sy grinned. "Well, at any rate, I'd still have more than your fuzzy little stub, friend." Before Shermy could offer an indignant rejoinder, she added, "By the way, whatever happened to my two scimitars, and my cloak?"

"I'm afraid miz Dawbil lent the cloak to a group of Dibbuns. It's probably a tent or sailing ship's mast now, wot! Hang on a tick..." Shermy called to the old mouse passing by the back room entrance at that moment. "Sister Jerrabeau, what'd we do with those whackin' great blades of hers?"

The Sister shrugged, not halting her progress. "Oh, you mean the two we found out on the lawn? They're with the rest of the armory, in the cellars."

The young hare nodded. "Well, there you are. Shall I fetch them?"

The wildcat waved a paw. "No, it's all right, just so long as they aren't lost. They're family heirlooms, you see." A quick spasm of grief crossed Sy's barbaric features, but only for a moment; she was her cheerful self again in a matter of seconds. "And you may tell the little ones they may keep my old rags; I really have no need of them."

Shermy wrung the excess water from his cloth and reached for a roll of bandages, glancing at the shredded tunic the cat wore. "Yes, and we'll have to see about finding you some decent togs, wot. Though I certainly don't know where we'll get anything your size; begging your pardon, marm." He coughed, a bit embarrassed. "Oh, er, by the way, a little rotter by the name of Biddee asked me to give this to you, though I really don't know if you'll like it. She and some of the other Dibbuns made it, y'see; typical silly toddler's play."

Almost guiltily, he pressed something into Sy's paw. It was a crude eyepatch, made from a length of garden twine and a large freshwater musselshell. A tear escaped the wildcat's good eye, and she hastily wiped it off; seeing Shermy's almost scarlet face, she burst into a roar of laughter. "Hohohohahahaha, you should see yourself. You're pinker than a cooked shrimp, hahaha!"

The hare grinned sheepishly. "Well, it's always a tad embarrasin' bringin' up a facial disfigurement, doncha know. I saw that tear, too."

The cat patted his paw reassuringly. "This shell's my cousin Rivereye's favorite toy; odds are he probably came up with the idea and got your Dibbuns to help out. I was just a bit moved, that's all. Here, help me put it on, will you?"

Shermy complied, tying the string behind her head while she held the patch in place over her scar-sealed blind eye. The young hare sat back to view the effect in the afternoon sunlight, which was streaming through the open window. "Doesn't look to bad, really. First thing the small terrors of the Abbey have done right in a while, wot!"

The unmistakable wail of a babe interrupted the conversation; Twigga the harvest mouse dashed into the back room, her face wreathed in smiles. "Come quick, Shermy, the new Pinspikes babes have arrived!"

Tying off his bandage, the hare grinned. "Well, what do you know. Be there in a moment, wot..." Something suddenly struck him; he cast a quizzical glance at his fellow healer. "Babes? Don't you mean babe?"

Twigga disappeared from view, her voice carrying back into the room as she called over her shoulder. "No, babes; it's twins again."

Shermy rolled his eyes in mock exasperation, explaining to a confused Sy, "This marks the fourth set of twins that bloomin' hogwife's had, not to mention a set of triplets about eight seasons back."

The wildcat's eye widened. "Goodness, how many children are in that family?"

Shermy began reciting names, finishing off the bandage knot with a twirl. "Well, lets see, first there's Kavvin and Ruddtipp, twin brothers, both about your age. Then poor Ayeriss, followed by her brother Eethian and her sister Dahleeah, all some seasons older than me. After that come the twin sisters, Jazppur and Buttrycupp (the Pinspikes h'ain't the most educated in matters of spelling, y'see); they're around the same age as my goodself."

The wildcat shook her head as the hare went on, washing his paws as he continued down the long list. "Let's see, whose next? oh, yes, the triplets, Veera, Frinjjy and Jonjon. That's two sisters and a brother, all some four or five seasons my junior. Then comes the next set of twin sisters, Harrbuckll and Kwinsee, both older Dibbuns, y'know; then, their terrible toddler sister, the infamous Biddee."

Sy counted on her paws, astonished. "So that's five...ten...thirteen of them!"

Shermy headed to the door. "Actually, fifteen now, miss. New twins, remember? I'll be back in a tick, wot."

To his great suprise, the wildcat stood, slowly and painfully, grasping a large crutch that had been left by her bed. "I'd like to see the babes, too. Don't argue; I know I can walk that short a distance."

Teezl Pinspikes had yet to get a good look at the big wildcat; she suppressed a cry of alarm, sitting up in her bed. "What's she doin' up?"

Siyuzin Stoneclaw flashed her bright smile, offering a paw. "Shermy and I just wanted to offer our congratulations to you for your new babes, ma'am." She cast her eye over the tiny, adorable bundles being tended to by Sister Jerrabeau. "And what lovely babes they are; they take after you tremendously."

The hogwife's suspicious glare vanished; she shook paws with the newcomer. "Well, my thanks t'yeh, miss, tho' yeh had no need t'get up on my 'umble account."

Shermy stroked the soft, unformed spikes of one of the babes. "Handsome little fellers, wot! Er, that is...they are fellers, I assume?"

Teezl nodded. "That'n is; t'other's a gel. Oh dear, yew got company, young'un."

Grandmum Dawbil's glare would have curdled cream; she advanced on Shermy threateningly. "Oi thot oi tol' ee to keep ee gurt catbeast abed!"

Sy intervened on her friend's behalf. "It's all right, miz Dawbil, he had nothing to do with it; I just wished to see the new arrivals."

The old mole thought for a moment, then shook her claw sternly under the wildcat's nose. "Well, a'roight then, but ee goo barck abed roight after. You'm bain't well enuff t'be oop yet; bo urr, no."

"Speakin' of well 'nuff, how's my older gel?" Teezl interrupted.

Dawbil turned her attention to the hogwife. "She'm betterer, tho' still bad hurted. She'm probly bee a-comin' round in full late t'noight; oi've leaved 'er sleep furr naow."

Teezl gave a sigh of relief. "As long as she be gettin' better, yew do whatever yeh want." Noticing Sy stumble a bit, the motherly hog took pity on her. "Ye'd better do as the old 'un sez an' git back t'bed, miss. Thank yeh f'r yore visit, tho'."

Leaning on both the crutch and a struggling Shermy, the wildcat did as she was bidden. Puffing and grunting from the exertion, Shermy gently helped his patient back into the bed. "Better never to argue with miz Dawbil, y'know; bloomin' mole's got a flamin' temper, wot!"

Outside, over half the abbey population had been recruited by Skipper and Foremole to tidy up the grounds. The woodcutting trip to Mossflower Woods had been postponed, as a quick reconnaissance by Dippertail had shown the forest floor to be far too swampy at the moment. Taking Foremole Aggit's advice, most the creatures split into groups of four; three to clean up debris and the other to carry a basket for salvagable material. The rest of the abbeydwellers had formed a long chain out the main gate to the ditch; any creature overburdened with unsavable debris passed their findings to this chain, who in turn carried the trash to the ditch and dumped it in. Tings and Raggle had been assigned to work the chain, and were actually the first two links in it; Speedwell, like many of the other Dibbuns, had been put to work with the cleaning crews.

Raggle chuckled as he watched the hogmaid Kwinsee and the tiny kitten Rivereye stumbling along with a basket of windfall fruit between them. "They're never going to make it to the door; those pears are going right back on the ground in a minute."

Tings stifled a titter, passing a piece of broken gatepost to her friend. "You're probably right, though they won't mind; it's an excuse to play in the mud. I wonder how Shermy's doing upstairs, with three beasts in the sickbay?"

Raggle accepted the gatepost, passing it along to the next in line. He shuddered, remembering how the sight of blood had affected him earlier. "I'm sure he's probably enjoying himself, though I don't envy him his job. I bet he's learned a lot, talking to Sy; we'll have to ask him what she's said when he comes down."

A squeak of dismay followed by a squelchy thud proclaimed that Raggle's earlier prediction had come true; the two now-muddied dibbuns returned the way they had come, toddling towards the abbey pond with pawfuls of dirty pears to wash. Brother Willow, next to Raggle on the chain, shook his head disparagingly. "None of the Dibbuns should be out here, really; they're getting terribly underpaw, and just look at the state their clothes are in!"

Raggle had not quite forgiven the Librarian-cum-Abbey Schoolteacher for his remarks of the night before; he was hard put to keep calm as he replied, "Well, they aren't under our paws, and none of the otherbeasts seem to be complaining. Besides, clothes can always be washed, can't they?"

Brother Willow clipped his ear smartly. "Mind your manners when you speak to an elder, smartmouth!"

The young black squirrel opened his mouth to reply, but Tings caught his paw, whispering, "Let it be, Raggle, don't start a fight."

The fight, however, had already broken out; not between Raggle and Brother Willow, but between Brother Willow and Raggle's mother Sedgebrush, who was standing on the Librarian's other side. "How dare you strike another beast within the abbey walls, and my son at that?"

"You heard what he said, the disrespectful little..."

" 'E wuz right, yew big bully!" Brother Furze chimed in from beyond Sister Sedgebrush. "Yew sh'd be ashamed, raisin' a paw t' a young'un like that!"

"Right or wrong, he had no need to speak to me in that tone, sir. Would you kindly stay out of this?"

"Let him talk, if he has a mind to. Just because you've read every scroll and book in the abbey doesn't make you the ruler of it, old one." Sedgebrush pointed out.

Having no ready answer, Brother Willow stomped off across the lawn, nose in the air. "I came out here to offer my assistance, not to be insulted for exercising proper discipline. I bid you all good day!"

Raggle sighed as the Librarian dissapeared into the main abbey building, pulling the door to with a bang. "I suppose we'll all get a lecture from Abbess Saffron now, after he's reported this and changed it to make out he's the victim. Why on earth was he ever promoted to Librarian, mum?"

The thin, grey squirrel and the rest of the chain spaced themselves out to make up for Brother Willow's absense. "He wasn't, really; he just sort of assumed the empty position, long afore you were born. He used to be just Head Teacher; now that he's got two positions, and the power's gone to his head, he gets more insufferable every day."

Tings shook her head. "You're right there. Something's going to have to be done about it, though I can't imagine what."

An otter Dibbun by the name of Squirt had been dragging a stricken branch to the debris chain; he giggled. "Choppa h'ole sh'ew tail off, dat show 'im!"

Taking the branch, Tings playfully flicked some mud at the otterbabe, who fled, squealing with laughter. "Away, you bloodthirsty little rogue. Chop the old shrew's tail off, indeed!"

Sister Sedgebrush grinned fiendishly. "You know, he might not have a bad idea, at that. Perhaps we should ask the Abbess if her brother will lend us a knife?"

Brother Furze laughed so hard he fell to the ground and had to be helped up again.

Book 2: The TragedyEdit

Chapter ElevenEdit

Scaleflier was a racer, a smallish, dull green snake with a thin body and tapered head. It was said that no reptile within a thousand leagues of the Northern Shores could outdo him for sheer, untiring speed; it was also said that no creature in the world could follow a trail as easily as he. Unlike some of the Ranks of the Shadow, Scaleflier had heard of Redwall Abbey, and it had struck the clever reptile that the obvious place for anybeast fleeing from vermin to seek would be that legendary building; as he had followed the nearly imperceptible signs onward, he soon became assured beyond a doubt that this was indeed the case. By avoiding the confused meanderings and wanderings of the wildcats and the crew that hunted them, and heading straight for the Abbey, Scaleflier had already covered more than a quarter of the distance, even though it had only been one day and night since he set out from the Shadelair. He had crossed the pike stream unharmed when it was dark, and the big fish were resting; now, with the sun beginning to rise, he was already approaching the hills that preceded Mossflower Woods to the north.

Resting on a sunwarmed rock, the small snake took the moment to turn his mind from the task at hand to more bitter, personal thoughts. Being much more intelligent than the average serpent, Scaleflier had been the only resident of the coastside cave to not be fooled by Enzi Grexx's apparent triumph in battle with the chief of adders many long seasons ago; he had deduced, quite correctly, that the only way the wolf had survived the encounter was if he had treacherously attacked the monster from behind, slaying him before he had a chance to defend himself. Unfortunately, the other snakes were of a much more superstitious nature, and were mostly larger, bulkier, and more poisonous than the racer; none would really listen to his assessment of the situation, and the few that even took the time to hear it would probably slay him for speaking dissent about the Black Shade, whom they almost idolized. True, he had helped them to become more feared than ever before, and made sure their needs were provided as well as he could, but the fact still remained that the Black Shade was a mountebank, a lying imposter; and Scaleflier highly resented the fact that he was forced to follow him.

The serpent coiled and uncoiled himself, stretching in the rising sunlight; he shot a glare of sheer hatred at a fluttering, dark shape in the pale sky above him. Imposter though he was, the Black Shade was no fool; in order to ensure that Scaleflier would obey his commands, Enzi Grexx had commanded Yirta, his loyal raven Captain, to follow the serpent on his quest. Yirta was not a very bright creature, but he was totally ruthless; also, he was certainly large and strong enough to seriously injure Scaleflier if he thought he was disobeying. Furthermore, when not having to accomodate his speed to the furred members of the Ranks that often followed him, Captain Yirta was a formidably fast flier, and could easily keep pace with his reptilian subordinate.

Seeing the serpent had halted, Yirta swooped down to a low tree branch, nibbling some berries off an undergrowth bush. "Haaaaark! Rest is good, but we must not tarry long. The Black Shade will not be pleased at unnecessesary delays."

Scaleflier stuck his tounge out insolently at the raven. "It isssss a full sssssunrise and sssssunssset ssssince we left the Ssssshadelair. Do not pretend you do not need sssssssssleep assss much asssss I do."

Yirta was indeed beginning to feel fatigued, but he tried not to show it. "Rrrrak! I will not sleep with you about, I am not a fool. Small snakes are just as bad as a strangling noose."

The snake nodded pensively, as if the thought had only just struck him. "Yessssss, I could ssssssneak up on you no matter where you perched, and ssssssmell you out wherever you fly to resssssssst." Suddenly aggressive, he reared as much of his body as he could off the ground, pointing his snout warningly at the raven. "Beware of me, winged one; I am a dangeroussssss enemy indeed!"

For an answer, Yirta dropped like a stone from his perch, cruelly embedding his talons in Scaleflier's head and striking his body several times with his rock-hard beak. "Krrrrraaaaah! How dare you threaten a Captain of the Ranks? Insolent reptile, no one talks to Yirta like that!"

"Sssssssssss, mercccccccy, sssssspare me!" The wretched, writhing Scaleflier was forced to cry out as the raven pressed home his attack.

Administering a few more pecks to drive his point home, Yirta released his squirming victim, fluttering back up to the high peak of a fir tree and closing his eyes complacently. "Rrrrraaaak, remember which of us is the strongest, my creeping comrade!"

Scaleflier could feel the blood trickling down the side of his face from where the raven's claws had raked; curling miserably under a bush, he muttered darkly to himself. "You may be the sssssstrongessssst, but we sssshall ssssoon sssssee who isss sssssmartesssst, my feathered foe."

Confirming Grandmum Dawbil'sexpectations, Ayeriss Pinspikes did not come round until near midnight; when she did, she was in such an incoherent, panicked state that the old mole had felt compelled to administer a strong sedative and send the hogmaid back to sleep again, hoping that when she awakened a second time she would be able to communicate clearly what it was that had so badly frightened her.

Sy Stoneclaw, the wildcat, was making such a rapid recovery that she could now hobble quite easily around the sickbay with the aid of the long crutch Skipper's ottercrew had made for her; she had also shed her dirty ragged tunic and donned an ornate badger's robe, which Dippertail had found in a closet somewhere in an obscure part of the dormitories. Having never before been in such a huge building; or around many other creatures besides wildcats, seabirds, and marauding vermin; or even in the company of a healer, for that matter; the curious wildcat wandered ceaselessly around the room, totally captivated. Ever since shortly before dawn she had been up, exploring here, peeking there, sniffing this, touching that, opening cupboards, asking questions, and generally making a thorough nuisance of herself. Finally, Grandmum Dawbil had taken enough; she threw her digging claws up in exasperation, addressing Shermy. "If ee doan't get ee gurt catbeast to set'n daown, oi moight just chain ee both oop so' oi c'd have ee bit o' peace!"

Too absorbed with curiousty to have heard the remark, Sy apprached Shermy with a jar of candied chestnuts. "These smell nice, what do they cure?"

The young hare, ever hungry, grabbed a pawful and shoved it into his mouth, spraying bits of shell as he spoke. "Mmmff, s'good. No medicinal value here, old chum, just treats for the little ones, wot! Been wonderin' where that jar got to, though."

Dawbil swiped the jar from Sy's paw, shaking a claw under Shermy's crumb-festooned whiskers. "Oi hid et from ee a-purpose, gurt feedbag hurrbeast! Goo ee an' take that'n with ee afore oi goes mad wi' dustrackashun!"

Taking the hint, Shermy led Sy to the door. "Let's go, wot. Poor miz Dawbil's worried sick over that Pinspikes gel; she's not really angry at us, y'know. Come on, I'll show you around the jolly old Abbey, if you feel up to it."

Sy responded with a grin and a very accurate mimiking of Shermy's mode of speech. "I say, that's a spiffin' idea, old chap, though perhaps we should get a spot of brekkers first, wot?"

The young hare was momentarily taken aback; recovering his composure, he laughed. "Took the words right out of my mouth, by the fur! I suppose you've taken to being a hare now, eh, miss?"

The wildcat relapsed into her normal voice. "Not really, just fun with imitations. Speedwell says I'm pretty good at it."

Taking Sy's free paw, Shermy helped her descend a short flight of stairs to the dormitory floor. "I wouldn't argue with him there, that sounded just like me then. Let's here you do Grandmum Dawbil, go on!"

The wildcat thought for a moment, then rumbled hesitantly, "Oi a-dunno if oi c'n be a moler better'n a catbeast'n; et be a vurry hard voice, bo urr."

Foremole Aggit had emerged from his dormitory just as Sy made the remark; chuckling, he fell in step with the duo, joking good naturedly. "Hurr hurr hurr, oi argree wi' ee, missus; if oi a-sounded loik that oi'd take t'bein' a catbeast moiself, hurr hurr!"

Friar Dimp, fully recovered from the shock of his discovery, was once more the absolute ruler of Redwall's kitchens. Donning his spotless white apron and oven mitt, he issued instructions to the busy beasts in his domain.

"Kavvin, Ruddtipp, see to the bread, make sure it doesn't burn!"

The twin brothers, eldest of the Pinspikes brood, plied their wooden bread paddles skillfully, lifting the nut-filled loaves from the ovens onto waiting trolleys to be carted to the breakfast table. Dimp turned his attention to the otter in charge of one of the carts. "Now, you remember what I said about running with the trolley, Squirt."

The otter Dibbun grinned cheekily. "S'far's I know, you said t'not to."

Dimp wagged a paw severly at him before continuing his rounds. "And I mean that, you young scamp! Go on with you now; slowly! Veera, find where the damson preserve's got to, it's been misplaced. Sister Sedgebrush, could you lend her a paw with that? Thank you, that's better.

"Oh, goodness me, would you just look at this mess! Spread the honey on those loaves, Raggle, don't sling it on! Brother Marc, get a mop, would you?

"Yes, Speedwell, I'll teach you how to make toasted apples in a minute; go ahead and gather some russets from that barrel there and I'll come as soon as I can. Oh, and see if you can get Sister Tracy to refill that honeypot while you're at it, there's a good little fellow.

"Honestly, Eethian, if I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, use potholders when you're making the mint tea. Grandmum Dawbil has enough on her paws without having to tend to your burnt ones. Oh, great seasons...Ronny, please stop Leeam volebabe from climbing up the fruit shelves before he falls and injures himself!"

Abandoning the cauldron of porridge she was stirring, the Abbess bounded agily onto a counter and retrieved the miscreant, who promptly set up a wail. "But I on'y wanna get bilbees f'the cake!"

Saffron looked at the infant vole strangely. "What cake? We don't eat cake for breakfast!"

Harrbuckll Pinspikes and another Dibbun (a mole) looked up from a huge mixing bowl they had been playing with; both were so covered in batter as to be unrecognizable. Huffy the molebabe waved a wooden spoon at the Abbess, scattering blobs of batter everywhere. "Hurr, ee gurt silly, acourse we'm eat'n cake."

Harrbuckll nodded her dripping head. "That right, Muvva H'abbess. We be makin' pannycakes wi' bilbees onna top."

At that moment, Sy, Shermy, and Aggit entered the kitchen; their arrival caused little sensation, as the creatures preparing the breakfast were too busy to look up at the door. Speedwell, the ginger tabby kitten, was the exception; allowing a double pawful of apples to crash to the floor, he rushed over to hug his cousin. "You better, you better!"

Unable to bend down because of the crutch, Sy gently ruffled the young ones ears. "I told you it wouldn't take long; I'll be completely better before the week's out, probably."

"Just like yours truly said all along, wot!" Shermy grinned, helping himself to an apple.

Foremole slipped on a patch of batter the Dibbuns had left on the floor; he grabbed a countertop to steady himself, glaring at the bespattered molebabe. "Burr, what bees a-goin' on in yurr, Huffy?"

Before the Dibbun could answer, Saffron interrupted, addressing the wildcat. "Welcome to Redwall Abbey, friend; I certainly hope you are enjoying your stay here. I am Abbess Saffron; Teezl told me all about you when she brought her babes down to the gatehouse. You seem to be a rare and fine creature, indeed, Miss Stoneclaw."

Sy shook paws with the Abbess, and with the volebabe she was carrying. "Thank you, Abbess, but please, call me Sy; no need to be formal on my account. Goodness, little one, your paw is bleeding!"

Leeam opened his clenched paw to reveal a squashed bilberry. "No t'aint, I makin' bilbee juice to put onna cake!"

Noticing the wildcat's bewildered expression, Saffron explained. "He means pancakes."

Huffy flung more batter about as he gestured with his spoon at the cat. "That's roight, we'm made ee pannycakers an' now we'm a-putten bilbees onna top."

Sy stiffled a titter, looking at the three serious-faced Dibbuns and the mess they had created. "That certainly sounds tasty, but don't you think you'd better cook the pancakes before you put the berries on?"

Harrbuckll, Leeam, and Huffy looked the picture of dismay; the Hogmaid clapped a hand to her brow, making a sticky splodge. "Mercy me, we nevva t'oughta that."

The wildcat had a soft spot for young ones; shaking and nearly purple from trying not to burst out laughing, she took pity on the trio. "Why don't we see if there's any way a young healer and a poor, lost traveler could help three skilled cooks like yourself? Here, let me have the mixing bowl. Say, does anyone have a chair I can borrow?"

A curious Raggle had been edging closer during the whole conversation; he dashed off, returning in a flash with a tall kitchen stool. "How's this?"

Sy accepted it, positioning herself in front of a freshly warmed stovetop with a few empty iron pans atop it. Allowing the three Dibbuns to climb into her lap, she dipped a claw in the batter, tasting it. "Mmmmmm, you certainly knew what ingredients to use; though maybe we should add a bit more almond flour and some cider, to increase the mixture before we start cooking. Shermy?"

The hare sprinted across towards the flour barrels. "Righty-ho, friend! I say, Bumbill old thing, could you nip down to the cellars and have your wife bring us a firkin of apple cider?"

The jolly mole tossed a jar-sized barrel to Shermy. "We'm a'ready brought quoite a lot o' ee cider oop, yurr ee go."

Being unprepared for the throw, Shermy missed the catch entirely. The firkin crashed to the floorstones and burst, sending sweet cider trickling and oozing across the floor. Sister Tracy and Brother Marc slipped on the wet patch and cannoned into one another; Brother Marc's mop and Sister Tracy's honeypot hit the floor the same time the two mice did. Trying to avoid sliding on the cider or sticking to the honey, Shermy bent to help the pair up. "Beg pardon, sir, and madam; confounded mole doesn't give a chap enough warning when he chucks stuff about, wot!"

Alerted from across the room by the crash, Brother Willow had left the special pot of herbal tea he was brewing for himself and sped over, his face a mask of wrath. "What in thunder is going on here...whoo-hhooo-oops!"

The mop handle had landed at an angle, supported against the burst firkin; tripping over it, Brother Willow went head over heels, landing on Shermy's bent back and sending both himself and the hare crashing to the floor amid the debris. The old shrew leapt up, pointing first at the messy Dibbuns and their culinary efforts, then at the three other creatures floundering in shards of wood, pottery, and the rapidly spreading sticky mess of cider and honey. "Friar Dimp, just take a look at this, will you! Total disruption, it's a disgrace!"

If Brother Willow had been expecting the Friar to be upset over the mess, he was sadly mistaken. Dimp, though a bit of a tyrant in his kitchens, had a bit of a mischevious streak in him; some creatures maintained that he had never fully grown out of his Dibbun seasons. Helping the fallen beasts up, the Friar bent and scooped a pawful of honey from the otherwise spotless kitchen floor, sticking it in his mouth. "Mmmmm, this certainly tastes good with cider mixed in." He scooped another glob, winking as he held it under the Librarian's nose. "Try a bit, Brother?"

Flabbergasted, Willow was about to make a wrathful reply when a shrill whistle recalled him to his teapot; he hurried off, unknowingly leaving one of his sandals behind, still stuck in the honey.

Chapter TwelveEdit

Rain sheeted steadily down and wind gusted, moaning eerily as it was forced to blow around the Tall Rocks that housed the Shadelair; the dwindling remnant of the storm that had hit Mossflower had made its way up to the Northern Shores. Waves, swollen larger than normal with the weather, beat heavily against the immovable monoliths, each whack of contact and receding splash sounding like the labored breathing of some primeval sea beast; oily fire braziers that marked the doors to many sentry huts flickered eerily as the downpour sought to extinguish them. The storm posed no real danger to the Ranks of the Shadow; much worse downpours, gusts, and waves had been and gone in seasons past, and had done no damage to the Shadelair. However, inclement weather nearly always brings with it a lowering of morale, even in the best of times; when things are already a bit difficult, even the smallest rainstorm can prove to be downright depressing.

Through what had once been an oarport in the great ship Goreleech, two young martens, an old rat, and a ferret gazed dully out at the deluge. These were the guards the Black Shade had commanded to watch over the prison deck entrance, which was the lowest of the four decks of the ship. Zalbu, one of the martens, spat through the hole in disgust. "Rotten weather, eh, mateys?"

Dedribb, the elderly rat, nodded painfully; his neck and jaw had never been totally free of pain since Sy Stoneclaw had knocked him overboard two seasons back. "Aye, jus' like everythin' else around here. Rotten job, rotten rules, rotten ship, rotten boss..."

Scraggback the ferret trod heavily on the rat's tail, hissing between clenched fangs, "Keep your voice down, idjit, you wanna get us all killed?"

Gatlak, the other marten, agreed with Scraggback. "Yer never know when wunna them snakes is listnin'; with whatta bad mood th' Black Shade's bin in, yer don' wanner take no chances, matey."

Dedribb lowered his voice, muttering sulkily. "That's jus' what I mean, mate. Tweren't so bad when we Shadow creatures had a proper job, wanderin' the land, takin' prisoners an' loot an' so on. Now we've took over pretty much the whole north coast, we ain't got nuthin' t'do c'ept sit here, sit there, watch this, watch' if we so much as move we get fed t'the fishes! I ask ye, what's the point?"

This time it was Zalbu who trod on Dedribb's tail. "It ain't our bizness what th' point is, yer shoopid oldbeast. I ain't gunna get meself killed fer talkin' bad about th' Black Shade, or listnen' ter yer doin' it, either. Besides, 'e made us the best band o' vermin fighters t'ever wuz, didn't 'e? So shuddup!"

Dedribb shot the young marten a withering glare, mocking him. "Oh ho, listen to 'im. 'Don't insult the great Black Shade! Don't insult the great Black Shade!' Ye make me sick, young'un; ain't it yore pa that's missin' off on some fool errand for that crazy wolfdog, an' yore ma whose skull ole Yirta brought back from the pike ford? Ye drivelin' idjit, ye don't even care!"

Zalbu screeched angrily; Gatlak's saber zinged out in unison with his brothers'. Before Dedribb could draw his cutlass, both young martens had the old rat backed up to the wall of the ship. What they would have done next, nobeast ever knew; an expertly thrown spear, the ends made from long adder fangs, flew between the heads of the two martens and embedded itself in the ship timbers, piercing a squealing Dedribb's ear. Scraggback the ferret threw himself face-down upon the floor, whining piteously. "Master, I had nought to to with this affair, please believe me..."

"SILENCE!!!" Enzi Grexx's roar cut short further babbling. Zalbu and Gatlak's sabers dropped from nerveless paws; they, too, sank to the floor, kneeling with bowed heads in front of the irate wolf.

For several moments, complete silence reigned, broken only by the sounds of the rainstorm outside; then, the Black Shade strode foward, flanked by several snakes and members of the Ranks who had followed him. Dedribb tried not to scream as the wolf yanked his weapon loose; as soon as he was freed, the rat immediately groveled at the Black Shade's footpaws, weeping and begging forgiveness, as he knew that denying his words would be useless. Totally ignoring the oldbeast, Enzi Grexx gently lifted Gatlak's bowed head with the spearpoint. The young marten was suprised to see that his chief was actually smiling. When he spoke, his voice was much calmer and friendlier then was his wont.

"You and that one are the sons of Dankfur, are you not?"

The young marten gulped as he stammered out his answer. "Y-y-es Sire, Zalbu 'ere is me liddle bruther."

Enzi Grexx glanced at the other young marten, who nodded a furious affirmative. The wolf's smile was gentle, almost fatherly. "And the unfortunate Gribby, she was Dankfur's mate?"

Gatlak swallowed hard again. "Yes, Sire, she wuz me muther."

The dark wolf removed the spear, gesturing to the two marten's with it. "Very well, then. Rise, sons of Dankfur."

The brothers leapt to their paws and stood to rigid attention; The Black Shade still towered over them as he circled the duo, gazing them up and down appraisingly, and addressing the assembled company. "I have watched these two; they have qualities which I value highly - loyalty and obedience. You all were hidden with me, and witnessed their attempts to silence the whispers and rumors of dissent. They know full well that I will accept no dissent or treachery within the Ranks, nor will I condone disobedience to my orders." He looked Dedribb directly in the eye as he added, "Is that clear?"

Every beast but the wretched rat responded with a shout of "Yes, Sire!"

Stopping his pacing directly behind the brothers, Enzi Grexx placed his paws about their shoulders. "Henceforth, the sons of Dankfur are the High Captains of the Ranks; be sure everybeast knows this. Anyone who dares to disrespect them will be treated in the same manner as anybeast who disrespects me is treated." He gestured first to Gatlak, then to Zalbu. "Ranks of the Shadow, bow before the Right and Left paws of the Black Shade!"

Obediently, every other vermin and snake present did; the two young pine martens, overcome with delight, puffed out their narrow chests and saluted with their sabers. The wolf grinned as he watched them; he knew from experience how the taste of power could affect a youngbeast. He nudged his new captains, whispering, "Go on, let's see you command them to stand."

As if with one voice, the duo chorused, "Rise, Ranks of the Shadow!"

When everybeast but the still-groveling Dedribb sprang into an upright position, the two martens could hardly contain their glee. Enzi Grexx approached the prostrate rat, his voice suddenly harsh. "My captains just commanded you to stand, old one. I already told you the penalty for disobedience."

He nodded to the two young martens. "Deal with him, and avenge your honor. His words against your loyalty to your mother were heard by all present. When you've done, see me in my cabin."

The Black Shade turned and strode majestically away, not bothering to look back as the two martens lifted a screaming Dedribb and forced him through an oarport into the sea far below. The wolf had decided it was time to take another beast into his confidence about the new master plan, in case Dankfur had been slain; he smiled grimly, certain that he had made the right choice.

Huddled pathetically together in small groups, the many creatures who were slaves and prisoners of the Black Shade tried to keep warm, conversing with one another in hushed tones. Aside from more than twoscore wildcats, there were several other creatures, all taken for different offences - many families of hedgehogs, voles, and mice who had refused to allow their crops and gardens to supply the Ranks without a fight; two or three groups of Guosim shrews, who had been separated from the main band and did not pay the Black Shade's toll for tresspassing; about a dozen nomadic squirrels, all fierce fighters who would not be recruited into the ranks and were being starved and tortured like the wildcats; and an entire holt of otters, who reportedly had a hidden treasure but either would not or could not divulge the information. The bottomost deck of what had been the Goreleech was the most structurally rotten part of the wreck; many floorboards had fallen out, and what was left was moldy and damp with seaspray.

Roan, the eldest of the captive wildcats, had been crouched precariously at the edge of the largest hole in the floor, gauging for the umpteenth the distance down to the sea; he drew back, shaking his scraggly-furred head with a sigh. "Even with the seas up its still too far a drop. Besides, we'd be washed away in the storm swells, or dashed against the rocks."

Flipp, one of the shrews, also hazarded a peek. "Yore right there. I just saw some pore rat fall off the ship; he's long gone now."

Roan slumped down, snorting. "Fell probably isn't the right word, friend. I'd wager that one got pushed over, or thrown. Didn't you hear them arguing out there a minute ago?"

Flipp skirted the gap, seating himself beside his friend. "Yep, I heard 'em. Wonder what they were fightin' about, new ways t'make us miserable?"

Roan flexed his claws angrily. Though beaten, half-starved and bony, the big male cat was still a formidable creature; it was he he who had damaged Scraggback's eye earlier. "Aye, that might not be what they call it, but that's what it always boils down to. We've got to get out of here, get away from this place. Look at all these poor brave creatures, some with families and little ones. They deserve better than confinement, starvation, and slaving away at new constructions on these cursed stones!"

A hefty female vole joined them, cradling a young one in her paws. She frowned sternly at Roan and Flipp. "You've got to get these ideas of escape out of your heads, you two; all that does is heap even worse trouble on us, and get innocent beasts killed. You remember what happened to Curbie, don't you?"

Roan did; the powerful otter had quietly tried to instigate a prisoners' revolt about a season back. The plan had been a simple one; wait for a stormy enough day, when huge waves buffeted the Shadelair and caused consternation among the Ranks, then make a break for it, dashing across the huge bridge to the mainland before an alarm could be given. In preperation for this, many beasts had broken and sharpened spars from the rotting timbers of the boat, hoping to use them as weapons against the sentries. Unfortunately, a small rat had disguised himself as a mouse and hidden among the prisoners; he had witnessed their plans and reported them to the Black Shade. Every captive had it burned into his memory how, one wild and stormy day, Curbie and his followers were about to make their move when the door had been flung open by none other than Enzi Grexx himself, and a dozen huge adders. Curbie, his wife, and several others who tried to fight were horribly dragged off, never to be seen again.

Flipp, like all shrews, was petrified of adders. He shuddered violently. "Uuuugggh, that was awful. I hopes I never see anythin' so horrible again!"

The wildcat was forced to agree. "But that just goes to show, doesn't it, what's eventually in store for all of us if we stay here. That big wolf's planning something, I'm sure of it. He wouldn't try so hard to force every fighting beast he could find into following him if he weren't. Somehow, there's just got to be a way to get out of here on the quiet, without causing a big revolt."

The volewife nodded, cradling her little one closer. "Aye, I guess you're right. I don't wan't my little Guffle eaten up by snakes."

The three beasts, and several others who had been listening in, fell into a dejected silence. All of them agreed, every prisoner should escape the Black Shade's clutches before he exercised some new devilment upon them. The problem lay in a simple question...

How could they possibly pull it off?

Chapter ThirteenEdit

With hot noonday sun beating mercilessly down upon his back, Dippertail circled high overhead, watching a group of Abbeydwellers gathered on the path outside the main gate below. This was the supply-gathering detail the Abbess had ordered Skipper Windryder and Foremole Aggit to organize; the group consisted of nearly every otter and mole in the Abbey, plus a few other strong creatures and young volunteers who had determined to come along. Skipper gave his final instructions to the eager party, raising his voice so all could hear. "Don't wander no farther than ye have to. Remember, the main thing to search for right now is strong timbers to repair the gate, preferably from storm-felled trees if you can find 'em. If you spot possible materials to repair the windows or roof, leave some kind of mark near the spot so we can come back later for 'em. Now, listen well, because Mother Abbess has a few words to say to ye."

Saffron was standing in the gateway; she raised her paws. "First of all, I would like to thank everybeast who has helped to protect the abbey from (or repair) storm damage so far; some of you have done so at the risk of your own lives." She smiled at the mousemaid Tings before continuing. "Secondly, I wish to remind all older or experienced creatures that the younger beasts are your responsibility; watch them carefully and teach them all you know. Finally and most importantly, let me say this - young ones, this is the first time some of you have been in Mossflower Woods; it is not a very safe place to be, especially so after a storm. You must obey every order you are given immediately and without question. Any reports of disobedience to elders will result in a loss of supper and a long detail of chores that Brother Willow has helped me to compile." She paused to let this intimidating prospect sink in. "Have I made myself clear?"

"Yes ma'am!" Every beast chorused as one, saluting furiously.

Saffron turned to Skipper, smiling. "I think they have the message; you may move out whenever you are ready."

The brawny otter signaled with his rudder; screeching like a banshee, Dippertail dropped into a dive, swooping low into the woods with the entire column of Redwallers setting off after him. Some of Skipper's crew began singing a comic otter marching ballad; soon, everybeast was roaring the chorus at the tops of their lungs.

Left! Right! Up! Down! Don't ye never whine nor frown!

Down! Up! Left! Right! Soon the end'll come in sight!"

On an' on an' on an' on! March until the journey's done!

"Ahoy there, Skip! Seem's all ye say

Is march 'n march' yore paws away.

We've passed this hornbeam three times now;

We think ye might have lost yore way!"

"Get back in line and shut yore gobs!

I ain't never lost, ye swabs.

I know's exackly where we are;

Now foller me, ye lazy mobs!"

Left! Right! Up! Down! Don't ye never whine nor frown!

Down! Up! Left! Right! Soon the end'll come in sight!"

On an' on an' on an' on! March until the journey's done!

"Hi, Skip! This sure don't look like 'ome;

'Tis full o' swampy mud an' loam.

The sun 'as long since set an' gone;

You sure you know just where t'roam?"

"Get back in line and shut yore gobs!

I ain't never lost, ye swabs.

I know's exackly where we are;

Now foller me, ye lazy mobs!"

Left! Right! Up! Down! Don't ye never whine nor frown!

Down! Up! Left! Right! Soon the end'll come in sight!"

On an' on an' on an' on! March until the journey's done!

"O Skip, the sun 'as rose agin,

An' our patience 'as wore thin!

This new land's desert, dust, and dirt;

T'is where no otter's ever been!"

"Get back in line and shut yore gobs!

I ain't never lost, ye swabs.

I know's exackly where we are;

Now foller me, ye lazy mobs!"

Left! Right! Up! Down! Don't ye never whine nor frown!

Down! Up! Left! Right! Soon the end'll come in sight!"

On an' on an' on an' on! March until the journey's done!

" All right, Skip, now what do we do?

We're back 'ome now, that much is true,

But not because we follered you;

We follered the smell o' yore wife's stew!"

"What'd I tell ye lazy mobs?

I weren't never lost, ye swabs!

We drill again at dawn's first light;

Now get t'bed an' shut yore gobs!"

Left! Right! Up! Down! Don't ye never whine nor frown!

Down! Up! Left! Right! Soon the end'll come in sight!"

On an' on an' on an' on! March until the journey's done!

Shermy's job of giving Sy a tour of Redwall had been usurped by a band of eager Dibbuns; this had left the young hare free to join the woodcutting party. Tings and Raggle caught up to him, eager to ask questions about what had been going on in the infirmary; the mousemaid gave her friend a playful shove. "Well, look whose finally decided to come out of the infirmary. Save at mealtimes, we haven't seen you for nearly a full day, you know. So, what can you tell us about that wildcat? I watched her at breakfast today; for a beast who's been driven from her home by vermin and lost her family, she seems remarkably cheerful and unaffected."

The hare shrugged his shoulders. "I thought the same thing, old chap, but apart from what she told me the first day, I haven't got a bloomin' clue about her past; confounded curious cat asks so many questions a bod forgets to ask his own. She ain't a vermin, though; I'd stake me reputation on it. True blue and a heart of gold, that's what I'd say, wot!"

Raggle nodded, his dark face grim. "Aye, so would I. Do you know, I overheard Brother Willow talking to the Abbess this morning? He was trying to convince her that we should turn Sy and the kittens out to fend for themselves as soon as they were strong enough; said that having her kind here could only bring us trouble and grief."

Tings was horrified at the suggestion. "How could he even contemplate such a thing? Redwallers welcome travelers; we don't turn them out without very good cause, especially not when one of us owes her life to them!"

Shermy agreed whole-heartedly. "One can't argue with that, wot! I say, Raggle old thing, what exactly did the Abbess say to the proposition?"

The black squirrel shruggged. "I don't know; Formole showed up right about then and said I should stop eavesdropping and go help Jorty Cellarmole gather tools. But I can't imagine for one minute that Abbess Saffron would agree with anything like that; it's ludicrous!"

Dippertail, by this time, had led the woodcutting party to a predominantly oak-filled part of the woods, not very far from the Abbey; immediately, the Redwallers scattered, searching the area for timber. In the rush, Tings dropped the long saw she was carrying; she halted to retrieve it, murmuring to Raggle, "You're right there, friend, the Abbess would never do such a mean thing. Those cats are Redwallers just like we are, now; I just hope Brother Willow isn't so mean to them that they decide to leave."

Sy Stoneclaw and her cousins, Speedwell and Rivereye, certainly had no intentions of leaving Redwall any time soon. Having seen the extent of the kitchens, cellars, larders, Great Hall and Cavern Hole the three wildcats were now being led by a rowdy and voluable escort of Dibbuns up the staircase to the dormitories and upper galleries. It seemed as if every little one wished to ask as many questions as the the trio of newcomers did; the cacophony of sound cound be heard the whole length of the stairwell.

"So, young ones, who was that heroic looking mouse on the tapestry back there?"

"Ho, dat be Ma'tin da Worria!"

"He be very, very brave, but 'e die long time ago."

Sy nodded. "I've seen him before, but you wouldn't believe me if I told you where."

A flurry of new questions came from the Dibbuns.

"Burr, whoi do ee babby catbeast stay so quoiett?"

"Can't you talk, likkle kitten?"

"All 'e ever does is point wiv 'is paws, why?"

"Is the baby to young to talk?"

Sy managed to get a word in edgewise. "Rivereye, you mean? He's actually quite mature for his age; he understands everything we say. But he hasn't talked since those nasty mean beasts I told you about chased us away from our old home; I guess he'll start talking again when he's ready. Oh dear, looks like someone spilled some wine on the stairs here, watch your step!"

Shreiks of laughter and fresh babbling broke out from the Dibbuns.

"That no spill, silly!"

"Hurr hurr, et be a shoiny spot in ee rock!"

"That's allus been there, miz Sy."

The wildcat knelt down. "Hmm, must be a lump of quartz in the stone of the stair. I've not seen anything like that before, though."

Squirt the young otter, and self-proclaimed leader of the Dibbun gang, let out a snicker. "T'hee hee hee, you lot haven't seen a lotta things before, it looks like. Foller me!"

The procession continued upward and down the second level corridor, occasionally halting to explore a dormitory or side closet off the hallway. Quite suddenly, all the Dibbuns grew deathly silent, scuttling as quickly as they could past a heavy, ornate pinewood door. Speedwell halted, gazing at the imposing structure. "What room do this be?"

Huffy the molebabe ran back, pulling the ginger kitten's paw. "Coom on, quick loike!"

Kwinsee Pinspikes shook her head fearfully. "Bruvva Willa don' like noisee dibbuns inna Lib'ree."

Sy accurately translated this sentence. "Oh, this is the Library, is it? We used to have a little library back home, didn't we, cousins? Not much, just a few fishing tallies and old catwive's tales, with one or two historical scrolls thrown in."

She placed her paw upon the carved handle; several Dibbuns stifled squeaks of alarm, whispering urgently.

"Nonono, don't go in dere!"

"The h'ole sh'ew's verrrrry grumpy!"

"Burr, Ee'm don't loik no noises."

The wildcat laughed, slowly turning the handle to keep it as quiet as she could. "Your library keeper sounds a fierce creature, indeed. I think I met him at breakfast; he was the old shrew who grumbled under his breath a lot. Don't worry, I know how to deal with grumpy oldbeasts; he won't hurt us."

Chapter FourteenEdit

A rather sulky Brother Willow was, at that moment, teaching a small class of youngbeasts (those who had not managed to escape to the woodgathering party) on the proper orginization and compilation of written materials. His temper, already inflamed by the embarrassing incident in the kitchens, had not been abated by the Abbess's rather stern rebuttal of his suggestions earlier, and her orders to forthwith cease his campaign to create bad feeling against the wildcats, whom he still firmly believed were dangerous vermin. Still refusing to even consider whether he was in the wrong, Brother Willow slumped in his armchair amid the many shelves of books, sternly watching a group of busily writing creatures compilating excerpts from certain old manuscripts into small textbooks. Accordingly with his mood, the tall shrew had selected writings about old wildcat enemies for his pupils to copy, which they obediently did, though with no great relish.

The oppressive silence of the Library was broken by the creak of the heavy door slowly swinging open; every head turned to see Siyuzin Stoneclaw, ringed by a bevy of curious but nervous Dibbuns, hobbling into the room. After an instant of panic, Brother Willow regained his composure and glared venemously at the intruders; misinterpreting his meaning, Sy smiled disarmingly, holding a claw to her lips and winking to gesture that she and the Dibbuns would keep their silence.

Brother Willow, in his turn, misinterpreted the wildcat's gesture as a command to keep his mouth shut. He sprang to his paws, hissing through bared teeth. "How dare you interrupt my class! I must ask you to leave at once, all of you. The Abbess will hear of this intrusion, believe me!"

For the first time in his life, Brother Willow's derogatory remarks were not greeted with a reaction of anger, or with fear. Sy smiled indulgently, as she might do to a troublesome babe. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize there was a class going on. I only wished to visit for a bit, and maybe borrow a story to read."

A hastily stifled gasp arose from the students. Nobeast touched the Abbey writings unless the Abbess or Willow commanded them to do so; the few who had done so without asking had been forced to endure enough learned criticism and browbeating from Willow to wither a full-grown tree. The Teacher-cum-Librarian spluttered angrily. "Borrow?...story?!! What do you think these are, a collection of old wive's tales and Dibbun's bedtime drivel? These, Cat, are thousands of seasons worth of recordings; all historically signifigant writings, and information dating all the way back to before the times of the founders of this Abbey. How could you even think of looking for a story, as you so crassly put it, in here?"

Sy gazed innocently at the shrew. "Well, with as many hundreds of works you seem to have, I'm sure I could find something entertaining."

Several titters and giggles broke out; for a moment the flabbergasted shrew was transfixed, totally unable to articulate in his indignation. Sy seized the moment to address one of the students. "What's that you're copying, friend?"

Frinjjy Pinspikes, glad of an excuse to stop working, passed the Wildcat the scroll she was copying from. "Summat 'bout sumbeast" She pronounced the name with an effort, "Varr-dagg-uh, I think 'is name wuz. 'E had a gel, I think 'er name wuz Tizarrameen or summat like it. "

Sy skimmed over the shriveled parchment, and grinned. "Well, what do you know. Speedwell, Rivereye, look at this, it's all about our infamous ancestors."

Willow's jaw fell slackly open. "You mean to say you are descended from Tsarmina and her father Verdauga Greeneyes?"

Sy shrugged. "Well, they were unfortunately related to us through Tsarmina's brother, yes. We're Gingiverians, you see; I myself am directly descended from his line."

Now that the conversation had become historical, Willow immediately regained his composure; he snorted contemptuously. "Rubbish. That line died out ages ago and that's final."

The wildcat still did not seem perturbed; she smiled. "I'm afraid I must disagree with you there, friend; I know why you would think that, though."

By now, every other creature in the library save Brother Willow himself was keenly interested. Squirt hopped eagerly onto a small table, nearly upsetting a bottle of ink. "Oh goody, we gonna hear a story, h'ain't we?"

Twigga the harvest mouse called from another corner of the room. "Oh, please, do! We can get back to copying this old stuff later. Come on, tell us a story!"

Brother Willow started to protest, but was drowned out by cheers; clearly, his self-assumed authority had drifted away from him for the moment. Sy sat painfully down upon the table, next to Squirt. "Well, seeing as the librarian claims there's nothing entertaining to read around here, I suppose I shall. Oh, with your permission, sir?"

Willow was too dumbfounded at the disruption of his controlled environment to respond; Sy shrugged. "Well, if he decides I should stop, I suppose he'll let me know. Right, where to begin...."

A crowd of youngbeasts and Dibbuns gathered about her footpaws as she began. Sister Flim, who had been working on her daily recordings in another part of the room, waddled over, charcoal and parchment in paw to take down the wildcat's recital of the strange family history she had learned long ago.

"Gingivere and his wife Sandingomm were peaceful creatures, much like you, but because of the bad history of their controlling, tyrannical family, vermin bands kept attempting to get them to help with despicable things no decent wildcat would ever dream of doing, such as robbing travelers, or enslaving the group of beasts building this very Abbey; friends of the two cats, in fact. In the end, some gangs of vermin became downright nasty about the matter, threatening violence; however, they were not too eager to attack two large wildcats, peaceful though they seemed. Still, life became a bit uncomfortable for the duo, whose only goal in life was to be peaceful farmers.

"All farmers need children to help carry on the work as they grow older; Gingivere and Sandingomm had three, as a matter of fact - two sons and a daughter. The two wildcats kept their offspring as safe as they could from marauders, who they knew would be only too happy to kidnap and torture the kittens in order to take control of their parents. However, when the three had matured into young adults, and were allowed to go out alone, a pair of particularly brazen nomad weasels tried to use flattery and wheedling to turn the daughter, Muranda, over to the side of evil. They found out that it is not a wise idea to bandy words with a young female cat who has a garden hoe, especially when her brothers are nearby with hoes of their own; the pair of weasels were driven off after a savage beating. After this fiasco, enough rumors spread to convince the vermin to leave the farm alone for many, many seasons.

"Time went on, and Gingivere and his wife grew older. Then, one winter, their two sons Kiddle and Asah went off to the unknown lands from which Sandingomm had come in order to seek adventures, and possibly wives, for themselves. Muranda had already wed a wandering healer cat by the name of Snowtail the Wise; he had settled down with her at the farm. By this time, a savage horde of river rats had wandered its way into Mossflower. Their leader was one Scratchnekk Bluddaxe; it is said a nastier, dirtier, fouler-mouthed rodent never lived. He and his crew took up residence near the farm, but did not attempt to talk to the wildcats or even show interest in them.

"Later that same winter, a particularly cold and bitter one, Muranda gave birth to twins, a son and a daughter. Gingivere named his grandchildren Feliks and Shingul, ancient wildcat toungue names for 'Happy' and 'Secure', as this is what he hoped the babes would grow up to be. Unfortunately, this did not immediately come to pass.

"As soon as the last snow had melted away into spring, Scratchnekk and his horde invaded the farm, carrying off the two little ones. He then sent an illiteraly scrawled ultimatum, threatening to slay the twins unless all four of the grown wildcats joined the horde, and helped them attack the unfinished Redwall Abbey. They had three days in which make their decision.

"Immediately, Gingivere sent Chirripp, a robin who was a friend of the family, to get help from Kiddle and Asah, if they were anywhere nearby. Fortunately, they were on their way home at the time, both with wives and their wives' extended families. Chirripp's ancient father Chibb also flew off, right here to Redwall Abbey, and told them help would be needed. A force of otter and squirrel archers came to the aid of the wildcats; with the help of the new arrivals, Gingivere's now augmented family completely wiped out the band of river rats and rescued the young ones. Gingivere then begged the returning Abbey warriors to say nothing of the incident, or existence of the wildcats, to anybeast, fearing that other vermin might attempt a similiar maneuver.

"After the Redwallers left, the large family of Wildcats had a conference, with the elderly and patriarchal Gingivere at its head. Clearly, for such a group of cats to stay so near Redwall would be a disadvantage and a danger to the goodbeasts, especially if vermin kept trying to use them as sort of war-machines-cum-slaves as they had through the years. The question was, could there be any way they could change this situation?

"Finally, Sandingomm and Snowtail came up with the suggestion that they move far away, and start a new life somewhere remote, where neither vermin nor goodbeast would be bothered by them. Most of the cats agreed to this, and packed up to move out the next day. Kiddle and his wife Berrycane did not go with them; the eldest son of Gingivere was loath to leave the farm his father had built after just returning home, so he and his wife stayed. I imagine it was their line that the good Librarian here mentioned as dying out.

"Gingivere and Sandingomm led their family northwest for so many seasons they lost track of time, constantly searching for their new home. Finally, they found it; an atoll of smallish, wooded islands just visible from a deserted shoreline. The cats made crude pine rafts and sailed to the islands; upon their arrival, they discovered the fishing and plant growth was fairly plentiful in that region. So it was that the Gingiverian villiage of cats came to be established; it stood, untouched, for thousands of seasons, just like this abbey. Now, it no longer exists; the villiage and everything on the islands were destroyed by a marauding vermin band who finally managed to find us. And here we three are, the last of the Gingiverians...and every bit as friendly to Redwallers as our fathers before us."

Laughter and applause broke out from the Dibbuns and youngbeasts at the conclusion of the story. Brother Willow had been shaking his head and snorting in a derisive, superior manner the whole time the wildcat was talking; he muttered under his breath, trying to convince himself he was still right. "Utter balderdash, the whole thing; word of mouth legends are not to be trusted, they become warped and fantasized upon. How some of her anscestors heard of us, or Gingivere, I don't know, but it's obvious they created this story to bring undeserved honor to the family name. Balderdash, rubbish, that's all it is."

The other beasts completely ignored him; Sy beamed upon her audience. "So, does anybeast have any questions?"

Leeam volebabe raised a paw. "Worra happen to Jinnyveere, did he get slayed by d'vermins too?"

Sy shook her head. "No, he and Sandingomm lived to a ripe old age; some say they were the oldest cats who ever walked the earth."

Twigga also raised a paw. "You said Muranda and Kiddle both had descendants. What about the other son, Asah?"

Speedwell answered this time. "A course 'e did, lotsa kittens. Me from that line, my dadda said so."

Brother Willow, a sudden malicious grin appearing on his face, finally managed to gain a note of attention. "I have a question, Cat."

"Yes sir?" Sy's innocent gaze was trasnferred to the old shrew.

The shrew's face was suddenly harsh. "If your ancestors dubbed it safer for us for you to stay away, what in the name of seasons did you come here for?"

Sy's imperturbable cheerfulness nearly drove the old shrew mad. "Hmm, I wonder how to explain this. You see, I recieved implicit instructions from two beasts to come here. The first was my aunt..."

Speedwell again interrupted. "When d'vermin's come, mama tol' Sy to run, and take us to Red Walls."

"And the other?" Twigga ventured to ask.

Sy's response caused nearly every jaw to drop. "A mouse I dreamed about, who said he was the guardian of this place. Harrbuckll here told me his name was Martin the Warrior, didn't you, little one?"

The hogbabe, and several others, nodded assent. Deflated for the moment, a stunned Brother Willow sank back into his armchair, his face a picture of blank bewilderment. Before anybeast could comment further, a highly agitated Sister Jerrabeau came bustling into the room. "Beg pardon, I'm sure, but Ayeriss Pinspikes has just come round. She won't talk to us, except to insist that she needs to see the cats right away."

Sy heaved herself upright. "Well, this is interesting. No one's told her about us yet, so I wonder how she knew we were here."

Speedwell thought. "Maybe that Ma'tan mouse tol' her."

Sy began to hobble after the retreating infirmary sister. "Well, if that's the case, something strange is definitely going on here. Come on, Rivereye, and you too, Speedwell; we'd better see what the poor creature wants."

Chapter FifteenEdit

The burly hogmaiden, despite Grandmum Dawbil's protests, had risen from her bed and was pacing the room in agitation when Sy and the two kittens entered the infirmary. The taller wildcat extended a friendly paw. "Good afternoon to you! The elder mouse Sister..."

She got no further; Ayeriss had flung herself across the room and clasped the wildcat's paw tightly, staring into her face with haunted eyes as she gabbled, "We gotta hide yer, quick! Y'ain't safe here, they know where y'are! Them pore kittens, it don't bear thinkin' about...!" She broke down weeping.

Sy was suprised to find that, though she was bigger and presumably stronger than the hogmaid, she could not pull her paw away from Ayeriss' grip. She raised her voice to be heard over the sobbing. "Whoa, hold on there, friend; there's no need for hysterics!" She managed to maneuver Ayeriss to a chair, gently pushing her onto it and adopting the tone of a mother to a child. "There, now, just relax, and take a few deep breaths. Now, stop crushing my paw, and tell me all about it, from the beginning."

Ayeriss, as if realizing for the first time that she was acting strangely, cleared her throat several times, scrubbing a paw across her eyes. Her voice dropped back to its usual gruff register. "Errr-'hem! Sorry 'bout that, t'wasn't thinkin' straight. But we do gotta hide yer, an' fast, afore the giant snake gits back."

The Abbess, who had entered the room at that moment, looked strangely at the hogmaid. "What giant snake? There's not been any large snakes around here for quite a while."

Ayeriss' eyes regained their haunted expression. "I ain't nivver seen nothin' like it all me born days, I swear I ain't. The moon'd jus' cummout, an' that thing wuz in the ditch. I didn't see what it wuz, so I tells it t'get outta the mud an' git where I c'd see 'im. An' 'e did."

She paused, to take a deep breath "Now, I know what I'm about t'say ain't gonna sound real, but I gives yer me solemn promise that's what I seen that night. 'E wuz jet black, wid dirty great yeller eyes an'a blue tung. 'E comes outta that ditch, and just keeps comin'... and comin', ...and comin'..." She groaned, burying her face in her paws.

Saffron had been about to dismiss the story as a nightmare brought about by lack of sleep and a bump on the head, until she noticed the way the three wildcats looked; all of them had wide eyes and clenched jaws - the picture of apprehension and terror. Sy's voice was tight with fear as she addressed the hogmaid. "Did he say anything to you? Any messages, anything at all?"

Ayeriss nodded. "Oh aye, 'e spoke t'me right enuff. 'Where are the catsssssssss', 'E sez, jus' like that, with all 'is ess's drawn out. 'We track'd 'em t'thissssss redssssssstone housssssse,' 'E sez. " She cleared her throat again, her voice sinking to a low, highly embarrassed mumble. "That's t'last thing I 'amembers; er, must've fainted, or summat."

There was a long pause, as the horror of the situation dawned on all present. Speedwell grasped his cousin's leg fearfully. "What we gonna do, Sy?"

Siyuzin Stoneclaw turned to the Abbess. "If that snake comes back he'll do so with a tracking force of fighters from the Ranks of the Shadow, the most dangerous vermin on earth. They're the ones that drove us from our home, and if they think we're here they'll probably slay you all for fraterenizing with creatures they consider their prisoners. I've got to go intercept them before they get here."

Grandmum Dawbil looked horrified. "Burr, you'm get'n yoreself killed if you'm troi that; you b'aint bettered yet!"

Sy shook her head stubbornly, hobbling for the door. "I've seen what those monsters can do; I don't want anything to happen to this place like what happened to my home. The two kittens can stay here, but I've got to go before they storm this place."

Saffron blocked the doorway. "Let us send an army with you. Skipper and his crew would be glad to help, and so would many more of our younger creatures."

Sister Jerrabeau nodded. "Aye, and the Guosim shrews are due for a visit any day now; they're always armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight. I'm sure they'd want to be in on the battle, as well."

But Sy would not be convinced. "No, if any of them were slain it would be on my head for coming here in the first place. I thank you for your hospitality, but I really must go."

"You will not go." Saffron could be quite firm when she wished to be. "As ruler of this Abbey, I forbid you to leave until you are sufficiently healed. What sort of creatures would we be if we let a friend go out alone, and unhealthy, to face a band of vermin? Besides, our Abbey has had many, many bands of vermin attack it, and yet has never fallen. Therefore, you will stay for now; that is an order."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence as the two creatures stared at one another; then, Sy took a deep breath. "So be it, Mother Abbess. But I must warn you, the Ranks of the Shadow are more ruthless and pitiless than you would imagine in your darkest nightmare; they will slay oldbeasts, youngbeasts, even Dibbuns, if their orders are to do so. You'll need much more than one sentry, and be constantly on the alert. If they once take you by suprise, you're done for."

Saffron smiled gently. "I'm glad you see sense, finally. As soon as Skipper Windryder gets back, we'll hold a council of war."

Ayeriss stood. "I wanner be in on that. Them murderin' scum ain't gonna git me by surprize agin', no sir. I been practicin' my boxin' a lot; I'd give 'em this, and this, an this..."

Sy stifled a chuckle at the comical sight of the burly hogmaiden, head swathed in flapping bandages, dancing about and directing jabs and punches at the empty air. "That's all well and good, but have you ever boxed a live creature before?"

Indignantly, the hogmaiden stopped her dancing. "Boxed a live...I'll 'ave yer know I beat Sammerlasderdron trained boxin' hares at t'Great Springtime Jubilee las' season! Twice!"

Sister Jerrabeau nodded, smiling at the memory. "She did, really. The badger Lady Rowanbloom brought some of her army from Salamandastron fortress for a visit this spring. Some of the youngest fighting hares staged a boxing contest outside on the path, and Ayeriss won. Then the silly young things demanded a rematch the next day, so she beat them all again. Their Brigadier took them to task rather properly for losing twice to a Redwall hogmaiden, let me tell you."

The wildcat laughed. "I'll bet he did! We've heard of the regiments of Salamandastron where I come from." She addressed the Abbess. "When do you supposed the woodcutters will get back?"

Saffron shrugged elegantly. "They packed an afternoon tea, so they'll probably be gone a while yet. But I can't imagine Skipper'd keep them out after dark, when vermin could ambush them; especially when he took youngbeasts with him. Provided nothing goes wrong, they should be back before supper."

Kaiah Greenhide was a cross fox, or, as he would put it, "wunna da Krozfoxx."; his fur was mottled with black, slate, and rust patches, instead of being the usual red with black paws and ears. His surname, Greenhide, came from the fact that he wore a shirt and pantaloons made from an old fishnet, stuffed with fern leaves, giving him the appearance of a shaggy green pelt; he also wore a willow withe tied about his brow like a bandanna. The Krozfoxx people were selfish, lazy, independent robbers and murderers with no permanant home; they wandered the woodlands as a desultory group, each beast answering to no one and acting as he saw fit, and only working together or helping each other when there was something for each beast to get out of it. Even so, Kaiah was semi-respected as sort of a lordly prescence among the Krozzfox, for he was, aside from an ancient seer that no one really paid much attention to, the eldest of them. He also was the father or grandfather to most of them, even though he was only middle-aged: his wife and he had so many cubs and grandcubs that they had lost count long ago.

Crouched behind a bush, his strange garb making him almost invisible, Kaiah watched the group of about twoscore beasts chopping away at stormfelled trees, singing and chattering cheerfully as they did so. Nearly three-quarters of them, all older and stronger beasts, had stopped a moment back to take their afternoon tea; the smell of the amazing food had nearly driven the stunted dogfox mad with hunger, but there was no way he could possibly steal from such sturdy-looking otters, squirrels, and moles. However, the time for the elder beasts to resume work and the younger beasts to take their tea break was soon approaching; Kaiah had heard the big falcon, who seemed to be superintending the whole strange proceedings, announce the fact not too long ago. Backing out of the bush, he joined a small group of fellow Krozfoxx who had left their current camp to come with him, more out of curiosity than desire to be in on a robbery. Kaiah idly twirled his crude mace and chain, made from a boulder, a tarred rope, and a stick, addressing the group in the strange, shrill Krozfoxx dialect. "Weel, ol' Zaikee's seein' troo feer wunce; dey gottee vittles, lotsee vittles, jus' likee sez."

Zaikee, the blind old seer, was a fat, hunched over dogfox; his patched coat had turned almost entirely grey, though it could hardly be seen under the countless multitude of shells, bones, feathers, beads, and fishscales he wore in strings wrapped and draped on his body and magpie-tail kilt. He shook his staff, round the top half of which was affixed the coiling skeleton of an eel.; the skull of the eel had been filled with pebbles to make it rattle. The seer's milky eyes and nearly toothless mouth were fixed in a permanant, ghoulish smile as he chanted and swayed. "Ol' Zaikee sees trooooo, I tellee yoooooo, don'ee go steeeeeeeel, or otherbeasts keeeeeeeel!"

The old one was sent sprawling by a pitiless blow from a stringy young vixen carrying a bow and arrow. "Shuddee up, ol' doomeegloom, yee allus sayee dat, or sommee likeet. Go on, Kaiah, whatee plan?"

Kaiah related how the creatures were working in shifts, and how the younger, less experieced ones would be retiring to the edge of the worksite to rest against trees and eat their afternoon tea. He waved his mace and chain again. "We sneakee up, knockee outta likee dis; Bop! Bop! Den we steelee allee vittles 'foree udder's see. Ifee creatures see, we grabee vittles muchfast an' runnee 'way. I go now, who commee wid me?"

Zaikee, from his prone position, continued to grin and chant. "Don'ee gooooooo, don'ee gooooo, ol' Zaikee see troooo, dey killee yooooooooo!"

Kaiah's mate Layka put a footpaw over the old one's mouth to silence him. "I go widee, I hungree plenny."

Zyxxa, the young vixen with the bow and arrows, shrugged. "I go, but iffee real fight start, I goee back. Not gettin' killee over vittles, hoo no."

Several others agreed with her. Kaiah shrugged. "Fine wid me. But nono noise, unnerstandee? Wun noiseefox means we all deddeefox; dey gotta hawkeeburd an lotsee otterdog, too, so be quieet!"

Nodding to show this sober warning had sunk in, the small band of robbers set off on their mission.

Back at the oak grove, the younger Redwallers had relinquished their jobs to sit against the border trees and eat their tea, some distance away from the other beasts. Shermy dug eagerly into his pack, chortling happily. "I say, pals, look at this. Cold mushroom pasty, a wedge of cheese, honeyed scones, toasted apples, and a flagon of strawberry cordial to boot! Haw haw, Old Friar Dimp certainly knows how to pamper a bod, wot!"

Tings reached into her own satchel, which was similiarly filled. "He certainly does. Oh look, I've got some pancakes, too."

Raggle laughed. "I know where those came from. Those poor Dibbuns, I think they had more batter on themselves than in the pan by the time they were finished."

Euodia, one of Foremole Aggit's crew, and Huffy's elder sister, chuckled gruffly as she bit into an apple. "Hurr hurr hurr, they'm surpintly did, zurr, burr aye. Hushen, did ee hear that?"

All of the young creatures listened intently. At first, there was only silence, then a second stifled yelp came from behind them, followed by a hissed "Shuddee up, idjit!"

Shermy, having the best hearing and peripheral vision of the group, whispered urgently out of the corner of his mouth. "Now, don't panic, chaps, but there's about a dozen stunty little foxes in the briar bushes behind us."

Raggle nodded, "Aye, I spotted them, too; I think they're after our vittles."

The other youngbeasts stared at each other worriedly. Eethian Pinspikes fidgeted with his specatacles; he was a scholarly hog of nervous disposition, unused to critical situations. "Er, er, what do we do, er, call for help?"

Tings shook her head. "No, pretend like we haven't seen them; keep eating. I'll see if I can unobtrusively get Dippertail's attention; he'll see them as soon as he looks over here."

Eethian swallowed nervously. "Er, right, but, er, supposing they attack before then?"

As if in answer to his question, a boulder attached to a tarred rope snaked out of the bushes, missing his head by a hairsbreadth and knocking his spectacles off his nose. Reacting swiftly, Euodia grabbed the rope in her hefty digging claws, yanking hard. Knocked off balance, Kaiah tumbled head over tail into the grove, screeching, "Kilee quick, steelee food!"

Tings saw Zyxxa stand, aiming an arrow straight at her; thinking swiftly, the mousemaid threw her haversack into the vixen's face, knocking her backwards. In an instant, the rest of the foxes leapt from the bushes, flinging themselves upon the young Redwallers, hoping to silence them before help could arrive; Tings shouted as loud as she could before Layka flattened her to the ground, stunning her.


Chapter SixteenEdit

"NOW what're we gunna do, Cap'n? Huh, this izza fine mess, ain't it...yeeeek!"

Dankfur landed a hefty kick on the backside of Scruffgutt, who had made the remark. "I know it's a mess, stupid!" He guestured with his hook to the rest of his crew, breathing heavily through his nose as he tried to keep his temper down. "All of you, shut up and let me think. So help me, the next one who so much as opens his mouth without my telling him to is going to lose his tongue; that's a promise!"

All had seemed to go well with the five martens' journey to Redwall Abbey at first. The River Moss had still been a bit rough, but not unduly; with a moderate amount of difficulty, they had managed to sail the logboat down to the ford over the span of the last day and a half, pulling in to the bank to rest when necessary. During one such rest, Jettcoil and Whiptail had found a small colony of magpies, complete with nests; Ringgob, who always carried a quiver and bow, had assisted the two serpents in raiding the area, bringing back enough meat and eggs to satisfy the whole crew. As the quicker current of the River Moss had caused them to make much better time than they had thought they would take, Dankfur reasoned there was no point in wearing his crew out rushing them on towards the Abbey. He and his martens had therefore strolled in a leisurely manner down the path, letting the blacksnakes go on ahead to scout out their position.

That was when disaster struck.

Jettcoil and Whiptail had just gotten out of sight of Dankfur's crew when a patch-coated, burly vixen, practically bristling with over a dozen knives and swords, had marched boldy out in front of the two monsters, and demanded their buisiness. Jettcoil had been too taken aback to react at first; Whiptail, however, was quicker than her mate, and lunged at the intruder. The vixen had nimbly avoided the strike, putting a forepaw in her mouth and whistling loudly around it. Dankfur and his four martens had come round the bend in the path just in time to see about twoscore patched foxes leap out of the cover of the foliage, beat the two blacksnakes unconscious with cudgels, and drag them off into the woodlands.

Dankfur could hardly believe his eyes; nobeast had ever before been brazen enough to attack his precious pets, let alone stand up to them. Yet the indisputable fact remained that the two giants had been kidnapped, right when he needed them most, and by a group of armed fighting beasts more than eight times his crew's number.

After a long, uncomfortable silence, Danfur finally shrugged resignedly. "Well, one things for certain; we can't go on unless we steal my blacksnakes back. How we'll do it, I don't know. Let's track those foxes and see where they went, for a start."

He set off, bent double, following the drag marks left by the two unconscious snakes. The other four martens followed behind, though not with any great relish. The same thought had occured to all of them; if the band of foxes hadn't been frightened by the blacksnakes, they wouldn't be afraid of a small group of pine martens, even those from the Ranks of the Shadow. For the first time, it would be they who had the disadvantage, and even their captain wasn't sure of how to proceed in those circumstances.

What in the world were they going to do?

Unaware of the spectacular capture effected by the rest of his band, which had stayed behind in the camp, Kaiah Greenhide struggled desperately to free his crude mace and chain from Euodia's dogged grip. As he fought a tug-of-war with the molemaid, the patched fox continued to screech, "Hurree, stealee food, quick!"

Skipper and the other Redwallers, some hundred yards away in the oak grove, had been singing and chopping wood too loud to hear what was going on at first; however, the unaided young ones were putting up quite a fight on their own. Raggle had armed himself with Tings' saw; he beat Layka with the flat of it, forcing her to stop throttling the mousemaiden. "Gettoff, you filthy robber! Redwaaaaaaa - Ungk!"

Zyxxa stole Zaikee's scepter and swung it into the side of Raggle's face, stunning him. Shermy, seeing what had happened, leapt into the air, kicking out hard with both of his strong hindpaws, striking the vixen full-force in the stomach. He stood over his winded foe, berating her. "I say, that was rather unsporting, foxy old thing. Hope you can't eat a bite for a week, wot!" He got no further, as a pair of dogfoxes leapt upon his back, tackling him low.

Eethian, unable to see properly without his spectacles, had absentmindedly grabbed Ting's saw from where the unconscious Raggle had dropped it. He waved it about, causing friend and foe alike to duck to avoid the freshly sharpened blade. "Er, take that, and this, and, er, take that...."

Back in the oak grove, Skipper Windryder had halted chopping for a moment to help some of his otters load the cart the Redwallers had brought along with them. He blew sweat from his nosetip, sighing heavily. "Phew! I tell ye, mates, I never thought it could git this hot'n one day."

Barbatus, one of Skipper's ottercrew, agreed with him. "Yore right there, Skip. An' it ain't even the 'ottest part o' the arternoon, yet. What say we take a break an' get somethin' t'drink?"

Formole Aggit stumped over to join them, puffing and blowing with the exertion of lugging a piece of wood far to large for him. He grinned. "Burr, Oi sekkin's the motion, zurrs. Oi'm furr wore out'n, burr aye."

Skipper shook his head, relieving Foremole of the burden. "We jus' took a break, mate. Let's give the young un's a chance t'relax afore puttin' 'em t'work agin."

During the conversation, Dippertail had flown down to perch on the cart; he glanced casually over towards the young ones as Skipper made his remark. Seeing what was going on, he shreiked an alarm. "Hyeeeeeeeee, Ryder, trouble, look!"

One look was indeed all it took; grabbing the javelin he always kept nearby, Skipper raised his voice. "Robbers, attackin' the young 'uns! Redwallers, CHAAAAAAAAAAAAARGE!!!!!!!!!!"

Arming themselves with hatchets, saws, pieces of wood, and whatever other implements came to paw, the woodcutting party broke into a headlong run, with Dippertail soaring in the lead.

Kaiah saw the game was up; relinquishing his mace, he turned to flee. "Runee 'way, dey see us, dey see us!"

Those foxes who were still conscious did the same; one of them collided with Eethian, causing the young hedgehog to fall directly on top of Kaiah. The Krozfoxx shreiked in pain; the blade of the saw, still clutched tightly in Eethian's paw, had landed directly on the root of his tail, chopping it clean off.

For a second, all the other foxes halted, staring in dumb shock at the tail-less Kaiah, rolling around on the ground in agony. The moment's hesitation was all it took: some distance ahead of the other Redwallers, Dippertail flung himself into the foebeasts ranks, raking with talons and beak. Taken aback by the falcon's ferocity, the foxes tried again to flee, but Skipper and the rest arrived on the scene, encircling the band of robbers completely. Windryder's voice was a harsh bark. "Drop yore weapons, all o' ye! NOW!"

Immediately, there was a loud clatter as daggers, cudgels, bows, quivers, spears, and all manner of weaponry fell to the ground. Skipper motioned with his javelin. "Now siddown, an' keep yore paws in yore laps where I kin see 'em."

Every conscious dogfox and vixen plonked themselves down into a sitting position, staring dull-eyed at the big, tattooed otter, expecting no mercy. Skipper nodded. "That's better. Don't ye dare move from that spot til I sez so. All right, Sedgebrush, ye may tend t'yore son now. Some of the rest of ye check on the other wounded."

The anxious mother squirrel needed no second bidding; she fairly ran to her son's side, cradling his head in her paws. "Raggle, can you hear me? Speak to me, son!"

The young squirrel opened one eye; the other was swollen shut. He managed a feeble grin. "Do y'have to shout, ma? My poor head feels like it's going to explode already, without you yelling down my ear."

Foremole took a quick look at Tings, who was conscious but still prone, gulping air greedily. "Burr, wun o' they vurmints troid to strangle 'ee maid, but she'm bees mostly a'roight."

Dippertail noticed Eethian sobbing; he waddled over to the young hedgehog's side, putting a comforting wing gingerly round the spiky shoulders. "Kyeek, are you injured, friend?"

Eethian's reply caused much hilarity. "I broke my spectacles. Dad's going to flay me alive; they're the only pair I've got!"

Barbatus and another otter named Alyssum had managed to hold Kaiah still and inspect his wound; Alyssum motioned to Shermy. "This wound needs attention, mate, afore the pore beast bleeds t'death."

The young hare had brought a few rolls of bandages with him, figuring, with all the saws about, that they might come in handy. Pulling them from his pack, he knelt by the moaning fox's side. "Poor chap, it's your own fault, really. You should thank your lucky stars we're decent beasts, wot!"

By now, the unconscious foxes had been awakened, and were herded by Skipper to join their companions sitting in a group. Shermy tied his bandage off, signalling to the two otters to let Kaiah rise. "Better not ask this chap to sit down for a while; rather tactless, doncha know."

Standing in front of his seated comerades, Kaiah glared sullenly at Skipper. "Well, wottee ya doee wid us, huh? Gonnee killee us, or jus' stanee dere?"

Windryder pointed his javelin at the fox's throat, about to tell him to mind his tounge, when a strange, whining chant broke out. "What I tell yoooooooooou? Ol' Zaikee see troooooooooo, you shouldn' steeeeeeeeeeeeel'd, or you get keeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeled!"

Old blind Zaikee wandered out from where he had been concealed in the bushes, retrieving his scepter. He broke into a shuffling dance, singing a whining, monotonous little song as he did so.

"Zaikee seer sees allee things,

Knows whattee others do;

Iffee doubt, I say to you.

Zaikee allus see what's troo!"

The Redwallers broke into hoots of laughter at the comical sight of the fat old dogfox, his countless strings of ornaments jingling as he jigged about, grinning oafishly and repeating his song. Kaiah's face nearly purpled with wrath and embarrasment; he hissed angrily. "Shuddee up, idjit! Jus' shuddee up, willya?"

More laughter broke out from the Redwallers. Tings had recovered sufficiently to rise; she looked to Skipper. "What are we going to do with these vagabonds?"

Skipper leaned on his javelin. "Well, Mossflower'd be better off without their scum, but, seein' as how we've healed one of'm, we can't jus' slay 'em; t'ain't the Redwall way."

Zaikee halted his dance, still smiling; he turned his sightless eyes to Kaiah. "See, see? I see dat ifee we steel, dey killee. But, we didn' steel, dey stop us. So dey no keel. I allus see troooooooooo!" Triumphantly, he broke into his jig again, but tripped on his scepter and stumbled heavily.

Sedgebrush reached out to catch the falling fox, stifling a giggle. "Poor funny oldbeast, his brain's gone soft with age. It'd be a shame to hurt him, really."

Dippertail preened his feathers pensively. "Heeeer, she's right, that one's blind and harmless. Might I suggest we tie the rest together tightly, and send them on their way? Kyeeee, that should teach them a lesson."

Skipper nodded. "Aye, good plan, Dip. Somebeast get a towing rope off one o' them trees over there."

Several ropes soon made an appearance; taking two long spars of wood, Skipper had the foxes stand in single file, placing the poles across all their shoulders. He then tied each fox's neck to both poles, forcing them to have to stay in a straight line, and put rope hobbles on each fox's forepaws and footpaws, standing back to observe the effect. "Right, you lot, when I count to three, I don't wanner see anythin' but yore backs disappearin' into the distance, if that much. We're lettin' ye off easy this time; if'n we sees ye 'round here again, yore deadbeasts - ye've got my oath on that. Right! One...Two...."

Stumbling and tripping, the humiliated Krozfoxx trotted as quickly as they could into the woodlands. Kaiah, the last in line, muttered darkly under his breath as he was almost dragged along with the others. "I fixee ya, otterdog. Wunee day, I fixee ya, an' you friends, jus' ya wait!"

Back in the grove, Shermy patted Zaikee on the shoulder. "Well, you're free to go now, old one. Take care of yourself, wot! Between ourselves, I'd watch what company I keep, if I were you. Staying with the likes of those beasts we ran off, you might come to harm, doncha know."

Zaikee turned to face the young hare, his milky-white eyes seeming to stare straight at Shermy, scrutinizing him. There was an uncomfortable pause, then the fox nodded. "You see troo, too. Donee forget! I go now."

And, with that cryptic message, the fat fox stumbled off into the woodlands, humming tunelessly to himself.

Chapter SeventeenEdit

Late that night, Jettcoil came to his senses, hissing feebly as he slowly regained conciousness. The outsized blacksnake's body, from snout to tailtip, had been badly bruised by the cudgels of the Krozfoxx; his head, which had taken the worst beating, ached abominably and was swollen out of all recognition. The serpent had no recollection of how he had lost consciousness; the last thing he recalled before blacking out had been seeing a strange beast step out onto the woodland path in front of him. Now, as he looked about, Jettcoil found himself at the outskirts of a bowl-like depression in the woodland floor, which, though surrounded by trees, had no foliage actually in it save grass and low scrub plants. A large amount of hastily-constructed huts and lean-tos were dotted about the glen in various places, as were two or three small campfires. Nearly twoscore hairy beasts, indistinguishable in the failing light, milled about, calling to each other in shrill voices. They appeared to be arguing about something, but the big blacksnake could not tell what.

Still a bit woozy from his painful ordeal, Jettcoil gave up trying to figure out where he was, sighing heavily. Feebly, and unsucessfully, he tried to stretch himself, for his spine felt unusually cramped and uncomfortable. He attempted to move his head, but also failed. Wondering why he was unable to move, and appeared to be suspended off the ground, Jettcoil took a glance about.

The realization that his body had been knotted about a tree caused the giant reptile to come fully awake with a jolt. He tried again to move, and made a muffled sound of alarm; not only was his great length knotted about the tree, but many lengths of vine rope had been tied about the tree with him, to hold him in place. Furthermore, his neck was in a thick vine noose, which was tied about a tree branch above his head to keep him from lowering it and biting through his bonds. A dirty, ragged scarf was tied about his snout as double insurance, should the tree branch happen to break. Another quick glance served to show him that Whiptail had been trussed up in a similar manner to the tree next to him, and was also awake, fighting to get free.

Hearing Jettcoil's cry of alarm, one of the hairy beasts, which the serpent could now distinguish as foxes, broke out into fresh shrieks, "Lookee, lookee, dat bigbeast wakeeuppee now. Ya sure dey won'ee getee 'way, Uxee?"

Another fox, taller and heftier than the rest, walloped the speaker so hard she went head over brush backwards into one of the poorly-built lean-tos, collapsing it entirely. Unsympathetic sniggers broke out from the group of patched foxes as the bigger one barked gruffly, "Don'ee be daft, dey nono getee 'way. I ropee 'im up good! An' nono callee me Uxee, dat not my name; I bee Ux Boulderpaw, strongee Krozfoxx dat ever bee!"

The speaker, a grossly flabby vixen, emerged from the rubble of the lean-to. She pointed a crude flint-topped spear at Ux Boulderpaw, snarling angrily. "'Oo gavee ya da right t'doee dat t'me? I killee ya if ya doee dat again, Uxee Bigmouth!"

The powerfully built dogfox, who far outdid all the other Krozfoxx in height and bulk, sneered contemptuously, turning his back and walking away. "Yeeee, ya not scaree me. Ya killee me? Hah! You an' whatee armee, I likee t'know?"

With a roar of rage, the fat vixen hurled her spear at the unprotected back. Not even bothering to turn around, Ux dropped to all fours, allowing the spear to sail over his head and embed itself in the ground. Undeterred by her failure, the vixen leapt upon her foe's back, thinking her tremendous weight would flatten him to the ground. Suddenly, to her great suprise, the vixen found herself the one flattened, as Ux neatly rolled over, leapt upright, and placed a footpaw on her neck, pressing down threatentingly. He brought his eyes close to those of the gasping vixen, grating through clenched teeth at her. "Nono tryee dat again, Lumpa, or I fixee ya f'good." He backed off, giving her a hefty kick to drive his point home. "Goee 'way now, I tiree of ya."

"What's going on over here?" A tough-looking vixen carrying a torch joined the group that had congregated to watch the fight betweeen Ux and Lumpa. Jettcoil made a mental note of the fact that, though her coat was patched, this fox did not speak with a Krozfoxx accent. He also made a note of the fact that this was the beast who had accosted him and his mate on the path earlier.

As none of the Krozfoxx seemed disposed to asnwer her, the vixen, who sported over a doxen knives and a long rapier, repeated the question. "I said, what's going on over here? Who started this fight?"

"Dat'n startee it, Akalle. I jus' finish it." Ux Boulderpaw stepped foward into the torch's glow, becoming more visible. Jettcoil gasped sharply; the big dogfox was wearing a Ranks of the Shadow adderskull mask! Had these savage beasts defeated his master and crew, too? The serpent fervently hoped not.

Hearing the noise, Akalle turned to face the big snake, smiling mockingly at him. "Well, well, you woke up after all. I was sort of hoping you wouldn't; save me the trouble of having to execute you again. What have you to say for yourself, eh?"

Jettcoil's dirty yellow eyes blazed hatred at the vixen as he hissed viciously, unable to speak. The vixen drew her rapier, still grinning mockingly, obviously enjoying herself. "Dearie me, I forgot. I suppose I should cut your gag so you can answer me, shouldn't I?"

She made as if to do so, when several shrieks of fear broke out from the other Krozfoxx.

"Nononono, don'ee let'm go, 'ee killee us!"

"We shouldee never catchee dose monsters, itee baaaaaad idee!"

"Why we doee it anyway Akalle? If dey gettee 'way, dey eatee all us up!"

Sighing with exasperation, the vixen turned to face her more primitive comerades. Akalle Bladewhip was not an official member of the Krozfoxx; a hired assassin by trade, she came and went as she pleased, sometimes traveling with other vermin bands, sometimes alone, depending on where the gain seemed highest. When she did join with the Krozfoxx, she was treated almost as a cheiftain, for every fox knew that she was a pitiless beast, having hundreds of victims to her name; furthermore, every one of her blades was coated with a deadly poision, which Akalle had spent several seasons working up an immunity to, so that she could not be harmed by it. Though the naturally impudent beasts might argue and grumble a bit against her authority, there was not a single member of the cowardly Krozfoxx who would dare to openly challenge it. They had, perforce, gone along with her scheme of capturing the two blacksnakes, but had then spent the remainder of the day begging Akalle to hurry up and slay the duo, fearing what the giant serpents might do if they managed to get loose. The fact that Kaiah and his group had returned, bound and minus their weapons, some time back, had not helped the morale of the band.

Akalle pointed her rapier in a wide arc at the gathering of Krozfoxx. "If you're so scared, back off. But I know what I'm doing; he won't get away. We captured 'em for information, like I've said a dozen times. Now stay out of my way and leave this to me."

Ignoring her cringing fellow foxes, she turned back to Jettcoil, slicing the bonds from his mouth with a single swipe. The vixen then leveled her rapier blade at Jettcoil's eye, dropping her voice menacingly. "I can tell you ain't poisonous, big fella, but this sword is. Can you two understand me? Don't speak, just nod."

Having nothing else for it, the blacksnakes did so. Akalle smiled briefly, slicing the bonds from Whiptail's mouth as well. "Good. Now, I'm gonna ask you two oversized worms some questions, and I wouldn't like to be in your skin if you don't answer to my liking. Who are you, and where do you come from?"

The two serpents looked at one another, unsure of what to do. Akalle nodded. "All right, have it your way. That silence just signed your death warrent, big fella. Maybe your mate'll talk after you've gone."

She drew back her rapier, preparing to cut Jettcoil's head off.

PING! A finely-aimed arrow struck the rapier blade, causing it to vibrate hard. With a yelp, Akalle released her weapon, sucking on her completely numbed sword paw. A heavily-tattooed pine marten with an adderskull mask and blue cape stepped into the firelight, another barbed arrow drawn back on his bow. His ususually large mouth showed a row of dangerously sharp teeth as he shouted at the gathering. "I ain't alone, an' I'm only gunna tell yer once; release them snakes. Now!"

Like lightning, Akalle dropped her torch and reached for her favorite throwing dagger; but Ringgob was faster. His second arrow thudded into her paw, fixing it to the knife's carved wooden hilt. Gritting her teeth in pain, the patched fox assasin glared angrily at the intruder. "You idjit, you've ruined my paw for life!"

Ringgob had already notched a third arrow to his bow, and aimed it directly at the vixen. "Next wun goes 'tween yer eyes, fox. I never miss!"

Akalle glared at her fellow patched foxes, some of whom were edging away from the scene of conflict. "Are you lot just gonna stand there? He's only one beast, kill him!"

Several bolder Krozfoxx sprang foward; Ringgob stopped them with a snarl, drawing the arrow back further. "First wun t'move closer dies! I tell yer, I ain't alone, an' the others have slings!"

Ux Boulderpaw, one of the more foolish members of the group, snarled back at the marten. "Prove it!"

An instant later, he wished he had not spoken; a veritable rain of rocks sailed without warning into the camp. Dankfur and Gronk had spent the majority of the day amassing a rather substantial stack of stones, and were slinging them from their capes in large amounts from the cover of the night-darkened woods. Panicked into believing a huge army was after them, the Krozfoxx fled, but were met by rocks thrown by Uja and Scruffgutt from the other end of the camp. During the confusion, Gronk and Dankfur leapt into the glen, drawing their sabres and freeing the two blacksnakes. In an instant, all became total chaos in the Krozfoxx camp; seeking revenge for their loss of dignity, the two serpents flung themselves upon the foxes, attacking without mercy. Scruffgutt halted Uja, who was about to sling another cape-full of stones. "Ye'll hit our crew if'n yer do that, shoopid! We jus' need ter stay here an' slay any who try t'escape, now."

After the battle had gone on for some time, Dankfur leapt upon one of the more sturdy lean-tos. He raised his saber to the sky, shouting at the top of his lungs to his two pets. "HAAAAAAAALLLTTTT!!!!!!!"

Obediently, the two serpents ceased attacking, herding the remainder of the foxes into a small group. Aside from the moans of the wounded, total silence fell upon the woodlands. Having put his cape back on, and looking every inch the regal Voice of the Shadow, the pine marten glared imperiously at the miserable group of about two dozen Krozfoxx, all that was left after the serpents' revenge.

"In normal circumstances, you would all have been slain for daring to attack the leaders of the reptilian Ranks of the Shadow; however, I am prepared to offer you a choice. My crew and I are seeking escaped prisoners of ours, a wildcat and two kittens. My two serpents have tracked them to Redwall Abbey, where, to the best of our belief, they still reside. These are your options. You may join the Ranks of the Shadow, help us to regain our prisoners, and return with us to the Shadelair to become properly introduced to our band. If you agree, I shall personally see that, upon our arrival back home, you are well rewarded. If you do not agree, your lives are forfeit. What is it to be?"

There was a pause; then, painfully, Kaiah stepped foward. "I goee widee ya, skulleebeast. I gottee score t'fixee wid dat Abbee."

More Krozfoxx joined their eldest member.

"Aye, we widee ya, allee way."

"As long as snakeebeasts keepee 'way, I doee whatever ya say!"

"We fightee foree Skulleebeasts!"

Dankfur stifled a snort of derision, muttering to Gronk. "Skulleebeasts? Huh, primitive little savages, they probably won't be much help, but at least some reinforcements will make us look more impressive when we get to the Abbey." He turned to his newest crewmembers. "Everybeast who is with the Ranks of the Shadow, shout our warcry." He raised his sabre again, screeching to the skies. "Black Shade! Black Shade! Fight! Fight! Yaaaahaaaaaaarrrrrrrrr!!!!"

The concerted reply came back at such a piercing register and loud volume the pine marten nearly fell from his perch. "Blackee Shade! Fightee fightee Yeeeeeeehaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!'

Dankfur uncovered his ears with a grimace. "That's close enough. Now pack up camp; we move out as soon as we can."

The new Ranks of the Shadow obeyed with alacrity, gathering up weapons and possessions, dousing fires, and taking down lean-tos. Only Akalle remained behind, nursing her maimed throwing paw with the still-tingling sword paw, the light of cold fury in her pale blue eyes. Dankfur pointed his saber at her. "I said pack up camp, vixen; that's an order!"

Through teeth still clenched in pain, she hissed up at him. "Akalle Bladewhip follows nobeast, marten. I'll help you fight those Redwallers; never liked the scum, anyhow. But I don't have to obey you, understand? You try to stop me doin' what I want to do, and you'll pay for it. I've traveled about, an' I know all about you Ranks beasts. I ain't afeared of you, or your pet snakes; remember that!"

She limped off to join the others. Gronk assisted his captain down from his perch, casting a worried glance at the vixen. "Yer want 'er executed, Cap'n? She could be dangerous!"

Dankfur shook his head. "No, not now. Later, yes, but not now. She's about the only proper fighter in this lot; that may come in useful when we get to the Abbey. We'd better keep her away from Ringgob, though; I didn't like the way she looked at him when she said not to stop her doing what she wanted to do, and I can't afford to lose our only archer."

Gronk saluted. "Don't worry, cap'n, Ringgob's me matey. I'll keep an eye on that Kally Bladewhip for yer, see she don't 'urt 'im."

He winced as Dankfur's hook prodded his stomach. "You'd better, or you just might get hurt yourself."

Within a very short space of time, the two dozen Krozfoxx had packed and prepared for a march. Dankfur nodded approvingly. "Well done. Follow me, but keep it quiet. We'd much rather take the Abbey by suprise, so not one word!"

Nodding to show they had understood, the augmented band set off at a slow march towards the path leading to the Abbey.

From the cover of a tall alder tree, a pair of dark eyes had seen it all. Scrambling almost as quickly as a squirrel from branch to branch, a golden-furred creature made its way to the Abbey as fast as it could, hoping to reach Redwall before the vermin, and warn his friends there of the danger.

Chapter EighteenEdit

Back at the Abbey, dinner was a much quieter affair than usual; nearly all the older Pinspikeses and half a score of Skipper's ottercrew had stationed themselves as sentries per the Abbess' instructions. Furthermore, Sy Stoneclaw, the Dibbuns, and a few otherbeasts had, for some strange reason, stayed in the dormitories throughout dinner thus far, telling the otherbeasts to start without them. The rest of the Abbey Population were gathered in the orchard; the night had been so fine that Abbess Saffron had ordered lanterns to be hung and blankets spread for a moonlight picnic. The Abbess had already announced her plans to hold a council of war following the meal, but at the moment she wished her creatures to enjoy themselves, which they did with gusto.

There were no set rules to the spread; each beast ate as much as he wanted, in whichever order he so wished. Skipper Windryder sat beside Dippertail; the pair were demolishing an immense almond-topped cherry pie between them. The otter passed a bowl of shrimp-and-hotroot soup to the falcon. "Here, matey, leave th' rest of the pie t'me an' git some o' this down yore famine-faced gob. T'will give ye a shine t'yore eye an' a spring t'yore step!"

Dippertail, who had always secretly wanted to be like an otter, accepted the soup, causing much hilarity among the other beasts as he tried bravely to cope with the fiery substance without complaining.

Friar Dimp plopped down between Brother Marc and Grandmum Dawbil, helping himself to a pastry filled with fruit and dripping with honey and damson juice; this was what was known as a Nunnymoler, a traditional favorite of Abbeybabes (and some elders as well). Munching on the sticky treat, the plump squirrel winked roguishly at Dawbil. "Well, well, well, look who's here. You know, Marc, I believe I know this good beast, but she's been away from meals so long I can't recall her name!"

Amid giggles from his neighbors gathered about the spread, Dimp fled to another place, pursued by several well-aimed windfall pears thrown by the old molewife. "You'm gurt fatbeast'n, you'm nought but a rascally villyun!"

Formole Aggit and Euodia had both grabbed the biggest roasted potato within their reach at the same time; they winced in pain as their digging claws were burned by the hot vegetable, neither one wishing to relinquish their prize to the other. "Burr, leggoo, Aggit, Oi 'ad ett furst!"

"Oi let goo furr nobeast, hurr aye. You'm young uns, b'ain't you'm got any respek furr elders?"

Veera Pinspikes, one of Dimp's young kitchen helpers, solved the problem by plonking a huge dish of deeper'n'ever turnip'n'tater'n'beetroot pie in front of the pair of moles. As the duo released the spud and let it roll away, their attention captivated solely by their favorite food, Alyssum the ottermaid snatched the scorching hot tuber up and downed it in one gulp, steam emanating from her mouth as she grinned at the astonished company. "No sense in lettin' good food go t'waste, mates!"

Dippertail had bravely forgone remedies thus far, but the spice of the hotroot had finally proved too much for him. Skipper swatted his friend's talons away as he reached for the otter's tankard of ale. "Belay, there, Dip; go an' find yore own drink!"

His beak feeling as if it were aflame, he falcon did so, soaring past the place where Jorty Cellarmole had rigged several barrels to spigots and trestles, and immersing his head in the Abbey Pond; giggles and good-natured ribbing broke out among the otters as the falcon noisily guzzled the water.

Any further conversation and merriment was halted by Brother Syzygus, the Abbey Beekeper, who had only just entered the grounds. His oversize habit flapping, the the tiny, middle-aged harvest mouse made his way to an overturned wheelbarrow and stood upon it, clearing his throat noisily. "Ahemahemahem! Your attention please, friends, your attention, please!"

Every beast turned to face the little fellow; Shermy raised a tankard of dandelion fizz in salute. "What ho, Brother Gus, got a message for us, old chap?"

Gus (nobeast ever used his full name) shot the young hare a disapproving glance before continuing. "As you creatures may know, we are honored to have three guests in our Abbey today; Lady Siyuzin Stoneclaw and her cousins Speedwell and Rivereye. Their prescence here is indeed a treat."

Brother Willow was heard to snort in derision; ignoring him, Brother Gus continued. "As you also may know, Lady Stoneclaw and her cousins came from lands far away to be with us; to show their gratitude for our welcoming them and caring for them, they have been practicing with our Dibbuns and Abbey musicians a traditional Wildcat song, which we now present to you."

Again, Brother Willow snorted. "Some bloody vermin ballad, no doubt."

Nobeast dignified the remark with a reply; with a flourishing bow, Brother Gus gestured dramatically to the main door of the Abbey, which he had left open. "Gentlebeasts, I give you.....The Tambourine Dance!"

There was a smattering of applause, though most of the Abbey creatures looked a bit confused, having never heard the word "tambourine" before. A brief silence followed; a couple curious Dibbuns poked their heads around the door frame, then ducked back again. Realizing they had missed their cue, Brother Gus raised his voice. "I said, I give you the Tambourine Dance!!!"

The wail of an expertly-played fiddle filled the air, sounding out a slow, sad-sounding song. Limping ever so slightly, but minus her crutches, Sy Stoneclaw made her way across the lawns to the orchard, scraping away at an old violin sombeast had lent her. Her voice, deep for a female but resounding, sang out plaintively over the gathering.

" It is a cruel, hard, sadd'ning life;

Filled with woe, and pain, and strife,

I tell you, friends, it's quite a sight to seee-hee-heeeee;

This world has many, many troubles,

But they'll vanish on the double

If you'll all just sing and dance with meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...."

She paused, then raised her voice. "ONE, TWO THREE, FOUR!"

Suddenly, the bow was flying across the srings, the fiddle singing out one of the liveliest jigs anybeast had ever heard. Whooping and shouting, a veritable horde of whirling, quick-stepping Abbeybabes stormed the grounds, each one holding a small wooden barrel ring studded with jingling pieces of metal. Friar Dimp nodded sagely. "Ah, so that's what she wanted all those old, broken spoons I threw out for."

Behind the Dibbuns, Sister Tracy and Sister Jerrabeau appeared, the former playing a flute and the later a mandolin; Brother Gus produced a small hand-drum, which he began to beat in time to the music. Without breaking their stride, the Dibbuns began clapping their strange instruments along with him, the cheery jingling noise ringing out over the lawns. After a brief interlude, some of the dibbuns sang along with Sy in enthusiastic, if a bit untuneful, voices; the chourus was soon picked up by the other Abbeybeasts, who sang and clapped along with the musicians.

" Whirl round n' round and clap your paws!

Slap your tail upon the ground!

Don't smash my toes, or I'll smash yours!

Always smile; don't wear a frown;

Jing-jing-jing, ring-ring-ring,

Sing, Tambourine, Sing!

Jump o'er your partner; one, two THREE!

Do a cartwheel, if you can;

Watch where you're going; don't hit me!

Just keep in time with the band;

Jing-jing-jing, ring-ring-ring,

Sing, Tambourine, Sing!

Jing-jing-jing, ring-ring-ring,

Sing, Tambourine, Sing!

I may not be the brightest beast,

But I sure know this much, at least,

It's not so hard to forget all your troubles;

Just sing and dance along with friends,

And, long before the music ends,

You'll find your worries disappeared like bubbles!

Spin your partner! Take a bow!

Hop on one paw, then on two!

Come dance with me, I'll show you how!

Jig 'n whirl 'til you turn blue!

Jing-jing-jing, Ring-ring-ring,

Sing, Tambourine, Sing!

Jing-jing-jing, Ring-ring-ring,

Sing, Tambourine, Sing!

Jing-jing-jing, Ring-ring-ring,


Ring-a-ling, Jing-ding-riiiiiiiiing...

Sing, Tambourine, Sing! HEY!"

The applause broke out at fever pitch; even Brother Willow had to admit the show had been remarkable (to himself, of course, not out loud). The musicians and Abbeybabes were compelled to take a bow as almost every creature present leapt to their paws to give a standing ovation. A loud voice rang out from just behind the crowd. "Sure, an' wasn't that the fine performance; must have taken a goodly ould time t'practice. I tip me hat t'ye!"

Everybeast whirled around to see an athletic-looking, golden-furred dormouse clad in a green-and-sage striped tunic with black sleeves. A long black scarf was wrapped about his head like a hood, leaving only his dark eyes visible, and he wielded a bow and a quiver of arrows.

Sedgebrush and Raggle sprang over to the creature as quick as lightning, embracing him. Sedgebrush was grinning from ear to ear. "Walldoh Branchbounder, you old scoundrel! What brings you here?"

The dormouse pushed back his hood to reveal the rest of his face; he was still in his prime, though there was just a smattering of grey in his bristly whiskers. He grinned delightedly at his two friends, patting them heavily on the back. "Sure, an' would ye look at what the cat dragged in (beggin' your pardon, madam). Good to see ye, truly it is. Faith n' fur, Raggle, have ye taken to wearin' a hood again, or did ye happen to fall down a tree?"

Raggle sported a large bandage at a rakish angle about his head; he laughed. "We had a skirmish today with some foxes, Walldoh, but we took care of them. What news from the Branchbounders?"

Walldoh looked about. "Well, I would tell ye, but 'tis unpleasant an' not fit for the ears of babes, ye understand."

By now Saffron had joined the gathering; she nodded. "We understand perfectly friend. Come, dine with us; we were planning on having a Council of War after the meal so you may make your report then. You are hungry, I trust?"

Walldoh's eyes lit up. "Well, and aren't you ever the wise one, me darlin'. 'Tis true, me humble self and Shay haven't had one measely bite since we left the Colony. T'would be a pleasure, so it would!"

Raggle looked confused. "Who's Shay?"

A tiny, black-hooded head appeared over Walldoh's shoulder; a baby Dormouse, the spitting image of her father, scrambled out of the quiver on Walldoh's back. "I Shay, an' I hungry! Where's all the food, daddy?"

Walldoh assisted his little daughter to the ground, giving her a gentle, playful kick to the rump. "Go on with ye, liddle rogue, eat until ye bust for all I care." He smiled at Raggle. "'Tis me newest liddle 'un; goes with me everywhere, so she does."

As Shay ran off to join the other Dibbuns, who were digging in to the remainder of the feast as if they were facing a famine, Walldoh shook paws with Sy. "An' ye'll be the beastie who taught the liddle darlin's that luvverly song. T'is a fair change to meet a cat what's on our side, so 'tis."

Sy flashed her cheerful grin. "Thank you very much, sir. Er, I was wondering, how exactly did you get in?"

The golden-furred dormouse did a comical double take. "Faith, are ye blind in t'other eye, too, missy? T'is plain as the nose on me face that Redwall don't have a gate, or haven't ye noticed?"

Sy stifled a giggle. "Yes, I noticed. But we have sentries posted all over the wall; how'd you get past them?"

Walldoh replaced his hood, winking conspiritorially at the wildcat. "Sure, an' tis a fact nobeast sees a Branchbounder when we don't want 'em to. T'is our motto, Climb like lighnin', vanish like breeze, Branchbounders won't be caught with ease!"

Removing his hood again, he applied himself to a large blueberry cake, stemming further conversation. Sy limped over to join Raggle, Shermy, Ayeriss and Tings, who had an entire picnic blanket to themselves. Shermy congratulated her as she sat down. "Top hole performance, old gel. Didn't know you could play the fiddle, wot!"

The big, scarred wildcat shrugged, placing the instrument to one side. "I haven't done it in a long while; not since a season or so before we left the isles. I'm suprised I still remember how, really."

Raggle tossed her a Nunnymoler, biting into one himself. "Mmmmmm, I don't think anybeast ever grows out of these. Look at Walldoh, he's eating them, too!"

The mention of Walldoh brought Sy back to a question she had been meaning to ask the young black squirrel. "Raggle, I noticed you also wear a green striped tunic, like Walldoh and Shay, instead of a robe or a habit like most of the other male beasts about here. Are you one of the Branchbounders?"

Raggle laughed. "I like to think so, but that's just a fancy of mine. The Branchbounders are a colony of dormice who live out near the marshes in Mossflower Woods, about a day's march from here. Anyhow, when I was a tiny babe we - that is, my mother, my father, and I - lived in Mossflower, too. Then Father came off for the worse in a fight with a adder and was killed; mum and I were about to be snake meat, too, when Walldoh and his wife Wardah showed up, and filled the horrid thing full of arrows. They took us back to their colony, which is hidden up in the marsh trees; we lived there for about four or five seasons, until I was an old enough Dibbun to travel, then we came to Redwall. I do like it here better than the swamp treehouses, but I respect those dormice highly. I mean, can you imagine, standing within striking distance of a serpent and firing arrows at it? I doubt I could do that with any snake, let alone an adder. Anyway, that's why I dress like a Branchbounder, minus the hood."

Sy gave him a playful shove. "And I suppose the camouflage comes in handy when you want to skip out on chores, eh?"

Raggle looked the picture of righteous indignation. "I'd never do that!"

Tings couldn't resist adding. "Well, there was the one time when Brother Gus needed help with the bees..."

Raggle waved a paw. "I was a Dibbun then, that doesn't count."

Shermy grinned fiendishly. "And the time the Abbess wanted you to pick raspberries...."

"There was a big anthill in there!" Raggle protested. "And I apologized!"

Sy had to work hard to control her laughter; she patted Raggle's head affectionately. "I'm sure you did, friend, I'm sure you did. Pass me another one of those pastry things, will you?"

Later that evening, after the Abbeybabes had gone to bed, Saffron and the rest of the able-bodied Redwallers gathered in front of the fire in Cavern Hole, to listen to Walldoh's report. He had a roundabout way of storytelling, maddening to the less patient of Abbeybeasts; however, Saffron would not allow any interruptions, wanting to get the whole of the information the strong dormouse had to offer.

"T'was about three days back, I believe it was, when the most turrible storm one could ever hope to see blew through me humble home; it'd be the same one wot knocked down your big ould gates, so it would. The Colony treehouses were damaged up, but not too turribly, bein' inside the trunks instead of exposed; but there's still a grand amount o' work to be done to get them sharp n' shiny again.

"Well, we pore branchbounders, we're good at hidin' and archery, but we've nivver been the best at repairin' so ye see. So me good wife, Wardah, says to me, 'Walldoh,' She says, "Sure an' you c'd do worse than to run over to the dear ould Abbey an' ask if a good carpenter could be spared to help us out o' this predicament.' An' says meself, 'Faith, what a grand plan, me darlin.'. So , me 'n Shay bundles up, and starts to get ready to make our way here. Then who should show up but Log-a-Log Yik an' his Guosim, or what's left o' the pore beasts, really.

"Ah, dearie me, I recall when they passed us on the way here last summer; there were nearly threescore of the ould shrews then, but there's only a score now healthy, an' fourteen or so more sore wounded. So I says to Yik, "Log-a-log, me ould friend, what has become of yore other shrews?" an' e says to me that some weeks back the pore shrews got caught in a turrible ould current, an' some of the logboats were swept away down a sidestream, while the others sailed over a big ould waterfall. Now, all the beasts with the cheif survived, but what happened to the ones separated down the sidestream they dunno; they searched and searched but nivver so much as a trace did they find. So, they were comin' on for the summer Abbey visit, an' to ask for yore wise advice, when some strange beasts with skulls for heids an' a cloak full o' snaky patterns sewn in demanded their boats, an' Yik, bein' the stubborn beast he is, refused. E' says that they brought in more o' the boneheads (beg pardon, no pun intended), an' a couple o' huge serpents, takin' all the boats an' killin' near a score o' the shrews.

Well, me good wife Wardah, she tells me, "Walldoh, creatures less suited for travel than these pore shrews are hard to imagine. They'll stay here with meself, while you haul yore ould carcase over to the grand Abbey; I'll bring 'em meself when they're better, so I will." So Shay an' I, we makes our way here; only we left in such a hurry we forgot to bring any vittles. By the way, Abbess, me darlin', another scone would do nicely to tide me ould bones over 'til brekkist.

"Sure, but ain't I the turrible one for wanderin' from the point. So, I come a runnin' through the trees, when I hear a noise; sounded like a beast arguin' with another. So I follows the noise, tellin' Shay to hide in the quiver out o' sight until I says; for her own safety, it was. Then I sees the foxes, about twoscore an' a half of them. Runty liddle things they were, all raggedy an' dressed in plants and otherbeasts pelts. They had captured two o' the biggest, blackest serpents I nivver hoped to see, an' were fightin' about what to do with 'em, I imagine; I couldn't hear proper with me hood up, so you see. Then this mangy ould pine marten, all tattooed up, with a blue cloak an' a mask made of a skull, shows up an' starts fightin' some burly vixen carryin' more knives than any one beast needs. An' I says to meself, ho ho, Mister Marten, you'll be one o' the bold buckoes who hurt my friends the Guosim. So, I thinks whether or not it'd be a good plan to shoot the beast, when all terror broke loose, so it did. There were four more skull-faced pine martens, an' they fought like a score of beasts, slingin' stones at the foxes, an' slayin' any that tried to run away...and then they let the snakes loose. It was a terrible slaughter, friends; horrible!

"Any'ow, one o' the martens, a big feller with a hook, shouts at the survivors that if they join him an' attack yore Abbey, 'e'll call off the snakes. So the foxes 'ave joined the snakes and martens, they have, an' they're headin' this way, even as I speak. So I ran as fast as me ould paws could carry me, an' beat the scum here; they should be arrivin' within the hour, though, an' you don't have a gate, so yore in trouble, if ye ask me."

Aprehensive cries and shouts of alarm broke out; Dippertail restored order with a piercing shriek. Skipper addressed at the dormouse. "How big a force are we talkin', Walldoh?"

The dormouse shrugged. "T'was very dark, me lad. A score, a score and a half, maybe; I dunno. But never mind the vermin; 'tis them serpents that's got me worried. I nivver seen even a full-growed adder could compare to 'em in size."

Sy had remained unobtrusively in the background thus far; she raised her voice. "He's right, believe me. They've got a much depleted force, but from his description I can tell you that it's the same band that destroyed my home. The big marten with a hook, that can only be Dankfur; his name's another word for horror where I come from. Rest assured, he won't rest until he's found a way to get what he wants. Surrender is not an option with him; he'll either win the fight or die trying. And those snakes are his two pets; whatever he tells them to do, they do it."

Raggle piped up. "You know, from what you said, Walldoh, that sounds like a bigger band of the same foxes that came after us earlier today. They're awful cowards, though; shouldn't be much trouble to beat them. But the snakes....I don't know what we can do against that. Anybeast have an idea?"

There was a long pause as everbeast racked their brains for a solution. Shermy noticed the fire dying down; he went to stoke it up with more wood.

Everybeast heard the cry of suprise which the young hare gave; Tings leapt to her paws. "Shermy, what's wrong, are you burnt?"

The young hare was standing rigid, staring into the fire, which had blazed up brightly once more with the wood he had thrown on. He remained like that for some little time; then, he began speaking, sounding like a pupil reciting to a teacher. Sister Flim, ever the quick thinker, grabbed quill and parchment and transcribed the verse.

"Vermin turn against each other;

Divided houses cannot stand.

T'was a snake killed Ublaz Mad Eyes,

In a far, forgotten land.

Tragedy will strike this Abbey,

Be brave, good creatures, and faint not.

Remember these words I have told you

To defeat the villian's plot.

Remember also, those in terror,

Chained away in Daskar's Glory,

Those I name must free these poor ones;

He who tells a wand'ring story,

Oldest daughter of the Guards,

One-Eye, Two Eyes faking One,

Mouse who should not be alive,

And Son of the Mad Boxer's son.

Finally, the one who slays

A threat'ning horror with my blade

Must bring it with him when he goes

On this quest which must be made.

Nothing can be done tonight;

Rest your eyes, my Abbey friends.

But be alert at dawn tomorrow,

That is when the fight begins!

Shermy's next words caused everybeast considerable suprise. "Did I forget anything, sah?"

He smiled at the flames. "Well, what do you know, right first try...hullo, he's gone now." He stared at the company. "I say, you chaps, I've just had another visit from Martin the Warrior, wot! Want to hear what he said?"

Sister Flim shook her head, waving her parchment. "No thank you, we've already got it written down. Seems like some kind of riddle to me; I can't make head nor tail of it."

Brother Willow snorted from across the table. "That's because you've neglected your studies. Allow me; I'll have it solved quicker than anybeast here."

Saffron shook her head, taking the parchment from Flim and folding it up. "No solving riddles tonight; Martin made it plain we need to be rested for the morrow. To bed, all of you; we'll put our heads together and think this out in the morning."

Concealed from the eyes of the sentries by the thick undergrowth of Mossflower, out of firing age from the Abbey, the augmented deputation of the Ranks of the Shadow crouched, waiting for a command from their leader. Gronk nodded to the body of Lumpa, whom Dankfur had sent out to make an announcement to the Redwallers as a sort of test. The body had two longbow shafts in it.

"Did yer see that, Cap'n? Them riverdogs didn't even let 'er ask questions; soon as she said she wuz with the Ranks, they made 'er into a pincusion!"

Ringgob made a suggestion. "There's only three riverdogs and a hedgepig on this wall; Me an' that archer vixen, Zyxxa, we could take 'em out for yer, Cap'n. Then the broken Gate's all ours!"

Dankfur shook his head. "And if one of them gets away, what then? We'd have the whole place come down on our heads. Give me a chance to think this out, and rest up. I should have come up with something by dawn."

Chapter NineteenEdit

Far to the north, across the world's longest plank and rope bridge, the The Shadelair sat in its evil glory. The wreck of the Goreleech had undergone a bit of a change since Zalbu and Gatlak had been promoted to the positions of Right and Left Paws of the Black Shade; Enzi Grexx, in one of his more magnanimous moods, had allowed his new advisors to celebrate their ascencion to captaincy however they saw fit. The two pine martens, being inexperienced youngbeasts, had marked the occasion with a huge party aboard the wrecked ship, allowing every member of the Ranks of the Shadow to attend. Sentries were called in from outposts; prison guards came up from the belly of the lair to join the fun; Gatlak and Zalbu had even felt generous enough to allow the multitude of serpents to cross the bridge and party with the rest of the Ranks (this served a double purpose; nobeast would be foolish enough to attack a stronghold full of snakes). It was definitely a party for the vermin to remember; the ship had been filled to bursting point, the sounds of feasting, jigging, shouting, singing, and drunken merriment shaking it for nearly two days straight. Now, the majority of vermin lay slumped about the decks, some still mumbling happily in an intoxicated state, others snoring uproarously in the sleep of total exhaustion and indigestion.

The fact that the prison decks were empty of guards had not escaped the mass of creatures penned there; now that the ship lay quiet, Roan, Flipp, and a few others had quietly ascended to the deck above to investigate. The powerful tomcat shook his head in disbelief at the sight; he hissed through his teeth. "Look at all of them. You could walk from this side of the deck to the other without stepping on the floor."

Behind him, the other members of the reconnaissance party craned over each other's shoulders to see what he was talking about. The refuse of the feast and celebration filled the deck above the prison from end to end; seabird bones, rotting fish, half-eaten and unidentifiable food scraps, empty ale barrels, spilled tankards, sprawled vermin and monstrous coiling snakes covered every inch of available floor space. Snoring, mumbling creatures also decorated all the benches, tables, and chairs; some were even hanging halfway out of open portholes! All of them, both conscious and unconscious ones, seemed to be so drunk or ill to their stomachs as to be completely out to the world.

Flipp, his fear of serpents somewhat abated by the disgraceful spectacle, waved his paw in front of the filmed-over eyes of a nearby adder. When it didn't respond, he proddded its head with a footpaw; gingerly at first, then rather roughly. The dangerous serpent merely snorted and rolled over to a more comfortable position; the shrew whipered to his wildcat comerade. "Stupid sots. I think we could jump on their heads and they wouldn't bother us!"

Donnabel, the heftily-built volewife, hugged her baby close to her. "Maybe you could with that fellow, but they may not all be as drunk as he is. One might be just sober enough to shout an alarm, and then where would we be?"

Several others muttered in agreement. Urthswimmer, a young mole with one eye, raised a digging claw. "Burr, we'm cud cloimb down through yon gurt hole in 'ee floor, naow. B'ain't nobeast to spot'n uz."

Flipp agreed. "Now would be our chance to put the escape plan into action. The sea's have gone down, so that's an extra help."

Roan beckoned to a slender otter with unusualy silvery fur. "Starburst, have you and the others finished the raft?"

The ottermaid nodded her head. "Aye, we've finished it, though the wood's so waterlogged I can't be sure it'll float."

Roan began herding the reconnaissance party back down to the prison deck. "Well, it only needs to carry those who can't swim a short distance. With you and all the other otters pushing, it should be no trouble."

They disappeared back down the stairwell. From about the middle of the deck, a big weasel who was only slightly less intoxicated than the others staggered to his paws, murmuring drowsily as he lurched his way out of the galley deck. "Mush tell 'der Shack Blade...prish'ner's 'shapin....big reward f'me, heheheee!"

Inside Enzi Grexx's personal chambers, the Black Shade sat with his two new captains. They had been discussing serious plans for the future at first; now that this task was over, the three were relaxed, chatting like old friends. The sable-furred wolf had to admit he was impressed; Gatlak and Zalbu had partied nearly as hard as the other creatures, yet, apart from slight headaches, the pair were wide-eyed and sobered up from the ordeal, ready for orders. He remarked upon this to Gatlak, the elder brother, who laughed.

"We wuz brought up suppin' strong wine since we wuz liddle un's; dad used ter trade creatures summa 'is loot fer it. Best stock ever 'board a ship, we 'ad; Damson n' Blackberry, Musselshell Brew, Apple n' Rhubarb, Aged name it, we 'ad it. Ain't that right, bruther?"

Zalbu was content to let Gatlak do most of the talking, as he figured he would be less likely to say something that might cost him his position if he kept quiet; he merely nodded in agreement.

Enzi Grexx brought out a flagon and some dainty bone chalices from the recesses of his adderskin cloak. "I'm a fancier of wine, myself; always keep some of this with me. It's just simple Kelp n' Sea Ice brew. Go on, try a glass, it's not poisoned."

The two young martens eagerly poured the clear, sparkling liquid into their respective chalices; the black wolf did the same, raising his in a toast. "To the Ranks of the Shadow, who are never defeated or outsmarted!"

Zalbu decided to speak up. "Aye, an' to the Black Shade, bes' cap'n t'ever wuz!"

It was at the exact moment the three conspirators had raised their glasses to their lips that the door was bashed open by a big, young weasel, giggling and exhaling a strong odour of nettle ale. Slamming his chalice down, Enzi Grexx vaulted over the table, pointing one end of his double-headed adderfang spear at the weasel's paunchy gut. "How dare you come to my chambers without a summons! Get out, you drunken fool, before you lose your head!"

The weasel raised a paw as if calling a halt, leaning heavily against the doorframe to steady himself. "I wudden do tha, Bosh, no' jush yet. Got shumpin' t'tell ye, veddyveddyveddy 'portant."

The wolf prodded him with the spear. "Make it quick, then."

The weasel, however, had spotted the flagon of Kelp and Sea Ice brew. He pointed a grimy claw at it. "Er, shupposin' I tells yer, get a nish bit o' grog fer tellin, eh?"

The wolf prodded him so hard with the spear he drew blood. "If you don't tell me within the next two seconds, all you'll get is a spear through your mangy hide."

The big weasel nodded sagely. "Veddyveddy shmart, good thinking, Bosh. Er, lemmeshee if I c'n 'member....ho yesh, the Prish'ners 'shaping, dat's what 't'was. Shaw em' with me own eyesh, walking on the dally, galley deksh. Sh'ewsh, h'otterdogsh, whole lot of'm."

The spear haft crashed into the drunkard's face; the wolf's voice raised to a panicked screech as he berated the stunned weasel. "Why didn't you wake the others and stop them, idiot? Gatlak, Zalbu, come with me! Rouse the Ranks!"

He grabbed the unfortunate weasel in a headlock, dragging him along as he charged to the galley deck. The two martens ran after him, bawling at the top of their lungs. "Wake up, yer swabs, git up! Hurry, to the Prison deck!"

Roan heard the shouting and the pounding of paws heading towards the prison; he groaned. "We must have been spotted!"

Cries of alarm broke out amognst the goodbeasts; Flip called them to order with a sharp whistle. "Just sit tight, and act like we never left. They'll think the one who saw us was drunk."

"What about the raft?" Starburst ventured to ask, gesturing to the mass of deckwood lashed together with washed-up kelp.

For an answer, Roan and another wildcat slung the lot out of the now enlarged hole in the floor. "We can make another one; plenty of wood and trailing kelp left stuck to the shipside."

There was time for no more words; dragging an asphyxiating weasel with him, Enzi Grexx thundered into the prison deck. Behind him were two young martens with sabers, at the head of a rather surly-looking, hungover crew of Ranks vermin and snakes. Seeing the confused, apparently intact band of prisoners staring back at him, the Black Shade pointed to Scraggback, the cheif prison guard. "Ferret, are there any prisoners missing?"

Scraggback, who kept a careful count of the beasts in his charge, saluted. "None, lord."

Enzi Grexx flung the bugm young weasel to the floor, allowing him to regain his breath. "Well, scum, what have you to say for yourself?"

The weasel had considerably sobered up by now, due to the beatings he had recieved; he pointed at Roan, gasping, "That one, he was there, I'm sure of it!"

He wailed in pain as the wolf kicked him repeatedly with his heavy, clawed footpaw. "Scum, you saw nothing of the kind! Drunken oaf, you reported a dream to me!"

"Waaaghhheee, I swear, I saw them! They were there, I really did see them! Whooaaaarrrgg!"

The Black Shade continued his onslaught, adding a few whacks with the spear haft to drive his point home. "It was a dream brought on by ale. Say it. SAY IT!"

"Owwwowwwarrrrghhh, it was a dream, it was a dream! Mercy, spare me, spare me! Aiiggeeee!"

The wolf grabbed the weasel bodily, flinging him through the air to crash into the far wall of the prison chamber. He then addressed the weeping unfortunate. "I spare your miserable life. You can stay the night with these beasts for your stupidity." He raised his voice to address the prisoners. "As for you lot, you have my permission to torture that weasel how you see fit. Oh, and here's something for you to think about; if I treat my own soldiers this way for a stupid mistake, how do you think you'll be treated if you do decide to try to escape?"

Leaving the question unanswered, he marched out, followed by his army. "Scraggback, get two soldiers and an adder and post a guard on the stairs. The rest of you come with me."

The door to the prison deck slammed shut. Bruised, bleeding, and sobbing, the unlucky weasel cowered in his corner. Staring hopelessly at the crowd of beasts closing in on him, he gave a pitiful whimper. "Mercy!"

Passing her infant to Urthswimmer, Donnabel the volewife marched up to the weasel, paw raised. He cringed, sobbing fitfully; however, Donnabel did not strike him, but instead pulled a tiny fragment of wolfclaw from where it had embedded in the weasel's ear. The vermin watched in astonishment as several otherbeasts came foward; some with water from their meager stores, others with rags, all of them washing and healing his bleeding wounds.

Roan unsheathed his claws, pointing one at the vermin. "You, there, what's your name?"

"V...v...v...Vaccar." The weasel stammered.

Roan leaned foward, until the claw was underneath Vaccar's chin. "We are not evil beasts; however, if you play us false, you're a dead weasel, understand? We're escaping tonight, all of us, and we'll give you the chance to do the same. Now tell me, before we go any further, are you with us, or against us?"

Vaccar nodded. "I'm with ye, mate. My gang never wanted to join the Ranks anyway. Whaddaya need me t'do?"

Roan sheathed his claws again. "First off, don't shout for help when we sail off tonight. Once we reach the mainland, you are free to go where you wish."

Vaccar was confused. "Sail? You ain't got no ship, mate."

Roan smiled dangerously. "That's the second thing; we'll need your help to steal a ship. Which one is the best of the corsair rigs the Black Shade confiscated?"

Vaccar was none too happy about the prospect of stealing a ship; but, he reasoned, he was probably a deadbeast no matter what he did at this point, so he might as well go along with the scheme. He counted off the ships in the Black Shade's fleet on his claws. "Well, Redclaw is a good ship, but she's a bit on the liddle side. Crestgrub, she's big enough, but she's full o' leaks. Bowbolt, me old ship, has holes in 'er aft sail. Wormrigg now, she looked pretty sharp and shiny last I saw 'er, an' so did Stormdog..."

Flipp raised a paw. "Which is the fastest?"

Vaccar answered without hesitation. "Oh, that'll be Bowbolt, for sure."

Roan nodded addressing the company. "That's the one we'll take, then. Somebeast get the raft; we'll come down when you do."

It was a long way down to the now-calm ocean; only the otters were brave (or foolhardy) enough to dive the distance. After a short search, they found the raft, washed up against the kelp-covered base of one of the Tall Rocks. Pushing it back until it was situated directly under the Shadelair, Starburst made a sharp whistling noise, not unlike that of a gull's cry.

Roan nodded. "That's the signal; lower the cables!"

Several long strands of kelp had been braided together to make two rather long ropes. Roan manned one rope, while a pair of otters who had stayed behind handled the other; two by two, they lowered creatures into the sea or onto the raft until the entire ship had been emptied. Vaccar was the last to be lowered; he slipped his hold about halfway down, falling headfirst into the ocean with a wail. The two otters who had lowered him dropped their cable and dove in after him, pulling him onto the raft. "Silly feller, you're lucky you didn't hit the raft an' knock yore brains in. Ahoy up there Roan, that's the last of them!"

The wildcat, not having anything to fasten his cable to so he could climb down, dropped it into the sea, leaping in after it. Cries of alarm broke out from the other beasts; however, Roan surfaced a short distance away, completely unharmed. He grinned. "Must have some otter in me somewhere. Come on, you lot, let's go!"

It was a very short distance to the cove where the ships were moored; even the wildcats, who were a bit afraid of water, could swim there. Vaccar sat with the weakest members of the party on the raft, hissing directions to the otters who were steering it through the anchored ships. "Starboard a bit, there's a liddle rock there. No, not that far, ye'll hit the Redclaw. Watch that anchor cable, mate! Phew, ye'll capsize us if'n ye keep that up. There, that's the one ye want!"

Starburst looked over the sleek, black-sailed Bowbolt approvingly. "Good choice, mates. Well, all aboard!"

Roan, who, like the other swimmers, was holding on to the side of the ship while treading water, signalled to Vaccar. "You first, mate. See if they put any sentries on the ship."

In company with two otters who came along to ensure there was no funny business, the weasel climbed the anchor cable to the bow rails. He took a quick look about. "Don't see nobeast, not on Bowbolt or any other ship here."

Lilybud, one of the otters, confirmed this. "Aye, not a sight, smell, nor sound of vermin or snake."

The announcement was greeted with cries of relief; eagerly, the prisoners swarmed up the sides of the ship, some via the anchor cable, others via various pawholds and portholes. Donnabel led a party of beasts below to search for provisions; several big wildcats wound the anchor up, while Starburst took the ship's wheel. "Next stop, freedom!"

Though everybeast knew that quiet was essential, quite a few raised a hastily stifled cheer anyway. Piloted skillfully away from the Tall Rocks, the Bowbolt dissapeared into the black, trackless nightime seas; soon, she was lost to view, a tiny slip of a thing compared to the giant Shadelair half-ship wreck, which stayed immovably between the two rocks like some beacon of ill omen.

Watching from a nearby sentry hut, Enzi Grexx smiled his evil smile. "Well, there they go; I figured they would try something like that. There aren't any provisions on the ship so they'll have to sail for land." He turned to Zalbu. "You have everything ready, I trust?"

The young marten saluted. "Aye, me bruther took a force across the bridge like yer said, Cap'n."

"Good, now you and I will take the snakes and follow him. Remember, I want no mistakes!"

Though the wolf sounded nonchalant, the marten knew only too well the penalty if he failed. He forced a smile. "Don't worry, we'll gettem, Cap'n."

Together, the pair headed across the various small rope bridges to the long one; this led to the mainland, where the thousands of deadly serpents were awaiting their orders.

Chapter TwentyEdit

Morning dawned rather unpleasantly for Scaleflier, the stunted racer serpent sent out to summon Dankfur and his crew back. The sky was completely overcast, with another layer of thick cloud forming a fog across the ground, swirling about and obscuring nearly the entirety of Mossflower; however, this was the least of the tiny serpent's worries. The whole of his body ached and stung, scored by countless wounds, some of which were still bleeding; he also sported a fine black eye, which showed up rather drastically against his greenish scales. Unable to treat his injuries, Scaleflier curled miserably in a muddy patch of ground, racking his brains for means of revenge against Captain Yirta, who had deserted him the night before.

After the first time the raven had attacked him, Scaleflier had become sulky, and refused to travel as fast as he really could, hoping to buy some time and think out a means of escape. Yirta, however, was not a captain for nothing; he had figured out what was going on, and began diving at the serpent, pecking and scratching him, hoping to drive him to move faster. He had even knocked the little serpent unconcious at one point, lifting him bodily and flying with him as far as the border of Mossflower Woods; this was as far as Yirta knew to go, as he had never been to the Abbey before. Upon being placed on the ground again, Scaleflier had defiantly continued to go slower and slower. This infuriated the Raven enormously; in fact, he would have gladly slain Scaleflier and delivered the message himself, had the snake not been his only guide to point him to Redwall.

Things had finally come to a head the previous evening. The pair had been arguing verbally for some time, with Scaleflier hissing derisory remarks towards both the Raven and his wolf master, and an enraged Yirta shrieking, squawking, and heaping all sorts of colorful insults upon all reptiles in general. Then, Scaleflier made the big mistake of calling Yirta "a cowardly ffffeatherbag, too affffraid of getting losssssst or ssssslain in ssssstrange territory to ffffend for himssssself". The little serpent had correctly predicted that this remark would cause Yirta to fly off and leave him alone, intent on proving his worth; unfortunately, Yirta had not departed until he had ferociously raked and beaten Scaleflier and left him for dead, flinging his limp form into the bankmud bordering the River Moss. The raven had then flown off to a secluded spot to sleep, planning to continue his search for Dankfur in the morning.

Though horribly stunted in size, the little serpent was made of tough stuff; ignoring his wounds, Scaleflier set his unusually educated mind to work. It was true, he could have easily just slithered quietly off, and made a new life for himself in the woods; however, being an evil beast, Scaleflier was not going to let all the seasons of deception on Enzi Grexx's part, distrust and beatings from his fellow serpents, forced labor from the Ranks of the Shadow, and this final straw of Yirta's trying to kill him to go unpunished. But, what could a little shrimp of a snake do against all these creatures bigger than himself? Strength was not going to be an aid here; he needed to use all of his serpent's cunning to figure this problem out.

As he lay there, regaining his strength, a noise from the woodlands caused him to start. Two patched, raggedy-clothed foxes and the monster serpent Whiptail materialized out of the gloomy, swirling fog, all carrying food supplies gathered from the wood. The pair of foxes were some distance ahead of the blacksnake, who was merely following to ensure they didn't escape; thus, the duo were able to converse in quiet tones.

Ux Boulderpaw hissed out of the side of his mouth to Layka, Kaiah Greenhide's mate. "Wottee rotten day. An' we gonee attackee dat Abee today, Skulleebeast sez."

The vixen shook her head. "We noteenuff to killee dose abbeebeasts, Hook Skulleebeast mustee bee crazybrained. An' why you dressee likee dem, Uxee?"

The big fox glared at her. "Dissee my plunder, I findee dedd skulleebeast innee river. 'E not wanee mask back. An' nono callee me Uxee, or I pullee bushtail off!"

" 'Oo you callee bushtail, bigmouth?"

They passed on. If a serpent could smile, Scaleflier was doing his level best; it was not a pleasant sight. He had seen in an instant how he could be revenged upon Yirta, and also the rest of the Ranks. Obviously, Dankfur had recruited these rough-looking foxes as reinforcements, and was planning to attack Redwall Abbey; a foolish venture if there ever was one. The serpent's eyes lit up as more details of his evil scheme leapt into place; divide and conquer, that was the key to success. Pretending to be in more pain than he really was, he crawled pathetically out into Whiptail's line of sight, moaning and hissing as if he were dying. "Sssss, my comerade, help me! I bring newssssss from Black Ssssssshade!" He then swooned most convincingly.

The blacksnake pulled up, hissing a halt to the two foxes in front of her. "Sssstop, come back thissss inssstant." Too terrified to do anything else, the pair of Krozfoxx returned; Whiptail gestured to her little companion. "Thisss beassst isssss hurt; you will carry him to the masssssster. Ssssssstay ssssstill now..."

She lifted the limp form of Scaleflier with her huge head, flicking it skillfully so it was draped across both foxes' shoulders. She then getured foward. "Continue to camp at oncccccee. Do not let him sssssssslip, or you die. Foward March!"

Their faces showing every sign of horror and disgust, Ux and Layka obeyed. Scaleflier suppressed a wicked snigger as they passed by a small bankside cave; to a trained tracker of his experience, it was obvious that Yirta had gone in there to sleep the night before, and had not yet awakened and exited. Settling into a more comfortable position across his bearer's necks, the little serpent thought pleasedly to himself, "I sssssaid sssso to you before, Raven; we'll ssssssooon ssssseeee which of us is ssssssssmartest!"

Back at the Abbey, many creatures were also still abed; the exeptions were Friar Dimp, who had started breakfast; the sentries on the outer wall, who had rotated shifts in the middle of the night; and Rivereye, the mute albino kitten. He had awakened earlier than his fellow Dibbuns, and had begun to explore the babes' dormitory, having nothing better to do. He would have gone further, and explored the upper floors of the Abbey, but he was far to short to reach the doorknob, even with the help of a stool. Not being given much to bawling when he couldn't get his way, the precocious little kitten shrugged the problem off philisophically and continued his silent rounds of the room.

It wasn't long before the other Dibbuns were awakened by a muffled thud and crash; climbing up a linen cabinet to reach a jar of candied chestnuts that was atop it, Rivereye had knocked one of the slat shelves loose and and sent himself, the shelf, the pilfered jar, and a fair amount of pillowcases straight to the floor. Pringill, a very tiny squirrelmaid, shook her head reprovingly at Rivereye as he fought to exricate himself from the entangling pillowcases. "You shouldn've done dat, we get in big trubble now!"

However, the noise had not been loud enough to penetrate to the other dormitories, or alert any otherbeast. Shaking himself free of the pillowcases, Rivereye carefully picked the chestnuts from the debris of broken glass, splitting them up most fairly between his fellow Abbeybabes. Little Biddee Pinspikes giggled as she accepted her share, and whispered conspiratorially, "Heehee, Sissyflim an' Muvver H'abbess be verry upset if they find out!"

Huffy the molebabe agreed. "B'ain't no larfin' matter. Hurr, they'm say, 'Wot naughty likkle villyuns, you'm go abed wi'out no brekkist, hurr aye!' An' they'm gonna baff us'ns, too, boi okey they'm will."

There was a pause as the Dibbuns thought on this ominous prospect. Speedwell ventured a tentative opinion. "Maybees we can fix it?"

Biddee and her older sisters Harrbuckll and Kwinsee all snorted this suggestion aside. "Sillybeast, we not fix a broked jar!"

"You must be daft, thinkin' like dat."

"We nevva get dat shelf put back, either!"

Squirt had an idea; he raised a flipper. "I know, we run away, farfarfar away, where they never find us!"

This suggestion was greeted with much enthusiasm. Trying to work to fix something was no fun; however, the prospect of doing something really naughty, to the mischeivious abbeybabes, was. Only Rivereye shook his head, pointing at the door. Kwinsee Pinspikes looked at him strangely. "What be wrong now, likkle kitten?"

Speedwell translated. "He wanna know how we get a door open, it too tall."

This time it was Pringill's turn to snort. "Why we need dat door, huh? We gotta window! We climb down, like dis!"

Without further ado, the squirrelbabe leapt from her bed to the nearby windowsill, flung the shutters open, and shinned down a vine climbing the wall at that point, disappearing into the thick white gloom. The rest of the Dibbuns hung back, murmuring nervously. Planning a naughty escape was one thing; vaulting out an open window to climb a very long way down to the grounds in horrible fog was something else entirely. Furthermore, to use that particular vine was something strictly forbidden to the abbeybabes; many little tails, Pringill's especially, had been tanned for trying to attempt the climb before.

Shay Branchbounder was the exception; she had spent her entire life climbing and, as a visitor to the Abbey, did not know the rules. The little dormouse followed her new squirrel friend with alacrity, giggling. "Shay not afraid like you sillybeasts. You a bunch of fraidy frogs!"

That did it. With a roar of rage, Biddee Pinspikes leapt onto the sill. "Biddee not a fraidy frog, fuzzytail! Watch dis!"

As a general rule, hedgehogs are not the best of climbers; in her haste to get down, Biddee lost her grip and fell with a wail, taking Shay with her. Fortunately, they landed in a small bush at the bottom, and emerged unhurt. Biddee grinned, a bit out of breath. "See, I tol'ja me not scared!"

Kwinsee and Harrbuckll, anxious to see that their sister was not harmed, made their way to the ground in much a similiar fashion, losing their grip in their haste and slipping off about halfway down. Speedwell and Rivereye climbed out next, the older kitten carrying his much smaller brother on his back; Squirt came after the duo, followed by Leeam. The volebabe was the last down; none of the other Abbeybabes could find the nerve to attempt the descent after seeing four of their number fall off into the gloom. The little band of miscreants sat about for a moment, catching their breath, and trying to work up the courage to continue their venture. This last named task was the hardest; the fog was so intese that the white-nightgowned Dibbuns could hardly see one another, even though they were standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. Rivereye was especially hard to see, having white fur as well as a white nightgown.

Kwinsee spoke up first, taking hold of Pringill's bushy tail. "We better hold onna each udder, or we get losted."

Pringill nodded, taking the paw that Harrbuckll proffered her. "Good idea, we make a chain, den we find da open gate. Dey never find us then!"

Clutched paw to tail to nightshirt, and giggling naughtily, the little group of Dibbuns vanished into the thick white fog.

For the sentries up on the walltops, the view was rather an odd one. The fog cloud did not reach higher than the battlements, so the group of able-bodied Redwallers could see across the smooth, white top of it, thorugh which the tips of many treetops protruded. However, as the sky overhead was completely grey and overcast, the impression was not unlike being trapped inside some sort of box. It was a rather unsettling feeling, knowing that anything could be going on above or below one without one's knowledge.

These thoughts had occured more than once to Skipper Windryder, who had taken the other half of his otters and some other abbeybeasts to the walltops about halfway through the night, to relieve those already there. Dippertail perched on a battlement beside him, his keen eyes ever alert; the otter chieftain addressed his friend with a sigh. "I figgered after the hot day yesterday we'd be in fer a storm, but no, we get this liddle lot. Can ye see anything down there?"

The falcon nodded, not even straining his eyes. "Heeeeeek, it is hard to say, Ryder. Even my eyes cannot see straight through fog, though I can make out the vermin's campfire light off down the ditch, and a large black shape nearby that I take to be one of the serpents. Yieee, there are also a few shadows that look like little tents or lean-tos, some distance back from the ditch edge."

Skipper laughed mirthlessly. "Huh, I can't even see the blamed ground, let alone the ditch. That's what worries me, Dip. Ye can sort of see them from here, bein' a falcon, but the rest of the sentries see only what I see; fog above an' cloud below. If they mount an attack from the back we'll never stop 'em in time."

Dippertail preened himself pensively. "Kyeeer, that is a problem. Suppose I fly up and circle the Abbey, watching the vermin? If I spot the shadows moving, I will shriek as loud as I can."

Skipper patted the falcon's back. "Haharr, yore a smart one. Go on then, but keep safe, all right?"

Without a further word, Dippertail took to the skies, soaring up just beneath the upper cloud bank in a steady circle round the top of the Abbey building.

Dankfur made no attempt to disguise his suprise at seeing Scaleflier so far from the Shadelair, and in such a pitiable state. After hearing Whiptail's report, he lifted the snake from the two fox's shoulders with his hook. "Well, this is not what I expected from the forage, certainly. Come over here where we will not be overheard, and you can tell me your news."

Scaleflier waved secrecy aside with a shake of his head, having his little speech ready. "All of you ssssshould know thisssss, great Dankfur, Voicccce of the Sssssshadow. The Black Sssssshade hassss ssssent me with a dire warning. Captain Yirta hassssss turned traitor!"

Now the pine marten was really suprised. "Traitor, Yirta? That seems highly unlikely."

Scaleflier shook his head. "It isssss the truttthhh. In your abssssenccce, Yirta thought the Black Sssshade might assssssume you were dead, and that he might be chosssssen as the new Voiccccce. When it became clear thissss wassss not sssssso, he began plotting with sssssome othersssss to find and kill you!"

An audible gasp arose from the other martens. "He what?"

Dankfur silenced them with a glare, and Scaleflier continued with his lies. "Yessss, he planned to ssssssslay you, I sssssswear it. Ssssomehow, the Black Sssssshade found out; he executed the followers of Yirta, but the bird had ffffflown. I wasss ssssent to warn you, mighty Dankfur, that the Raven issss coming, even asss we ssssspeak! He found me, beat me, leffffft me ffffor dead, but I sssssurvived, and came with thissss messsssssssage!"

The other martens and the two blacksnakes all growled and grumbled angrily, muttering dire threats against Yirta. Dankfur nodded decisively. "Good work, for a worm. One of you foxes, heal his wounds, we may have need of him later."

Scaleflier shook his head, diving into one of the lean-tos to hide. "Too late, he issss here! Do not let him ssssssee me, he will ssssssslay me!"

With a happy squawk, Yirta soared through the fog to land in front of the pine marten. "Rrrrrak! I have found you at last!"

Dankfur leapt foward, his saber at Yirta's throat. "Oh yes you have, you traitor! Hold him, don't let him escape!"

The poor raven was completely suprised; whatever welcome he had expected, it was not this. He tried to back off, but was suddenly wrapped in Whiptail's coils, and held helpless before the oncoming saber. He cried out in alarm. "Haaaaark, there is some mistake, the Black Shade sent me with a message, you are to return to the Shadelair at once!"

Dankfur was past listening, "Oh, he did, did he? You think I can't see through your ruse to get me killed for disobedience to the wolf? You shall die for your crimes, ex-Captain Yirta!"

Yirta panicked then, saying the first thing that came to his mind. "No, no! Rrrawk, I swear on my life, I am not trying to kill you! Yakyak, I shall prove it, I shall help you to conquer the Abbey!"

Dankfur paused mid-charge, as if a sudden idea had struck him. He thought for a moment, then sheathed his saber. "Oh, will you now? Very well then, fly over the back wall and capture a Redwaller for me to interrogate. Ringgob is a dead shot, so you know what will happen if you try to flee. Whiptail, release him."

Too thankful at having his life spared at that instant to realize the obvious death sentence, Yirta took off like an arrow from a bow. "Haaark, You'll see, I'll do it, I won't fail!"

Dankfur watched him go, then signalled his troops. "That will provide a distraction while we invade the main gate. As soon as we hear the commotion, run for all you're worth behind me. But not one sound out of any of you; we don't want to give the game away!"

The little army pawed their weapons eagerly, spoiling for the fighting and slaying that was about to come.

Chapter Twenty-OneEdit

Brother Willow had fallen prey to a consuming restlessness, and could not stay asleep; after about three hours of tossing, turning, and fitful dozing, he gave up the attempt and climbed out of bed to pore over ancient tomes and scrolls in attempt to calm his nerves. Normally a matter-of-fact, incurious beast, the elderly shrew could not explain why certain words of the rhyme entrusted to the young hare Shermy had refused to leave his mind and had robbed him of his slumber. The first and formost was the ominous warning; "Tragedy will strike this Abbey!" Though Willow had made many gloomy predictions of the three wildcats bringing trouble, he by no means wished to actually see any harm befall his beloved home, or his fellow creatures. It was a sensation hitherto unknown to the shrew, that of NOT wanting to be right; the conflicting emotions were enough to reduce even the most hardened know-it-all to a state of nervous tension.

To keep his mind from dwelling upon the first problem, Willow focused on the second, which involved the two proper names mentioned; Ublaz Mad Eyes and Daskar's Glory. The scholar had known the first name as that of a pine marten emperor of corsairs, who had a poisonous water serpent as a pet; he had held a Redwall Abbot hostage hundreds of seasons past, but had been slain by his own serpent when he trodden upon it whilst fighting the warrior who had come to free the Abbot. The second name, Daskar's Glory, was also familiar to the Librarian; however, though it pained the old shrew to admit it, he could not recall specifically where he had seen it before. A fine thing, this; a Redwall Scholar forgetting his lessons! Consoling himself with the thought that the lack of sleep was probably the reason for his memory loss, Willow continued to look through his volumes, becoming more and more worried and upset with himself as the night wore on into the wee hours of the morning.

There was a muffled thud from the direction of the Dibbun's dormitory; Willow waved it aside, concluding one of the Abbeybabes must have fallen out of bed. Suddenly, he saw it, the word Daskar! It was in the table of contents of a tome so ancient it was falling to pieces; carefully, Willow turned to the chapter indicated and began a frantic search through it for what a "Daskar's Glory" could possibly be. So aborbed was he in what he was reading that he completely failed to notice when the Library door swung quietly open and Sy Stoneclaw came in; when she padded up and tapped him on the shoulder, he gave a shriek most unbecoming a shrew of his age, flinging a sheaf of loose pages into the air to flutter like streamers to the floor all around. He held a paw to his heart, glaring venemously at the intruder. "What is the meaning of this? Don't you cats know better than to frighten an oldbeast to death?"

Sy held a paw to her lips. "Shhhhh, brother, don't wake the Dibbuns. The Abbess sent me to come get you, and tell you to meet us in the Great Hall to continue our council of war. She also said to bring any books or scrolls you thought useful."

Angrily, Willow stooped to gather his papers; still limping slightly, Sy did the same. The shrew was too worn out to try to drive the wildcat from his sanctuary; he shook a page under her nose, murmurming. "Don't you dare touch those, you might get them all out of order. If you want to make yourself useful, carry that tome I was reading downstairs. Be careful with it, half the pages are loose."

The wildcat took one look at the book and decided that to carry it down the stairs without it completely falling apart would be impossible; pulling a blanket from Willow's little bed in the far corner of the room, she wrapped the precious volume in it to ensure she would not lose anything. Willow hastily organized his stack of pages, and made for the door, with Sy following behind. For about thirty paces, they proceeded in absolute silence, both occupied by their own thoughts. Then, Willow was startled again as the Wilcat addressed him, her voice abnormally devoid of cheerfulness. "Just so you know, I have no more desire to see tragedy befall this place than you do, Brother. In fact, I offered to leave and draw the enemy away, but your Abbess refused to let me do so."

Willow had fumbled two or three of his pages; he bent to retrieve them, still in stoic silence. Sy continued. "I won't be here to offend you too much longer, though; it's rather obvious that 'One-eye' in Shermy's rhyme last night meant me, so I'll be leaving to free my kin from the Ranks of the Shadow as soon as this business with Dankfur is over. Would it be too much to ask that we be friends for that short time, or would you prefer I avoid contact with you? I won't be offended, just let me know whichever you prefer."

Willow was completely bewildered; this was the first time anybeast had carried the war against his snobbery and prejudices into his own camp like this. To be 'friends' with a vermin went against every grain in the old shrew's body; to say outright, "No, I don't ever want to see, speak, or deal with you again, and the sooner you leave the better" would be....would be...well, Willow wasn't sure what the problem was there. It was the truth, he supposed; since she had arrived, he had been as hostile as he could be to her, hoping to put her in her place. But, now that it came down to it, something was holding him back from letting his feelings rip, and getting rid of the problem once as for all.

It came as a shock for the old shrew to suddenly realize that the problem was, he wasn't as sure of his own emotions as he thought he had been. The objections otherbeasts had made to his theories of Sy being a villian came back; he tried to argue against them, as he had always done. After all, Wildcats were vermin, weren't they? And had he not a right to hate this one, after she had dared to invade his library, make him look a fool in front of his students, disrupt the order of everyday Abbey life? Yet, she had been an imperturbably gentle and friendly beast, and risked her life to save a mousemaid and bring her two little cousins to the Abbey; that was indisputable. On and on through the old shrews mind, the battle raged; between his own pride, arrogance, hatred, and the true facts that he as a scholar so dearly loved.

Sy noticed by Willow's expression, which betrayed the extreme mental tension he was going through, that he was not going to respond to her question any time soon. She sighed. "You don't have to answer right away; until you do, I'll stay out of your way as much as is possible. Deal?"

Automatically, Willow took her outstretched paw and shook it. They continued the rest of the way to the Great Hall in silence, the wildcat with her own saddened thoughts, and the shrew with his maddeningly conflicting ones.

The Great Hall was lit by torches, lighting up the skillfully done tapestry of Martin the Warrior; there, however, all semblance of beauty ended. Due to the possiblility of late night summer drizzles rusting the tools, Skipper and Formole had told their crews to move them, and all the gathered wood, into the Great Hall, where the new gate would be contructed. Into this wreckage, Friar Dimp had ventured, rather gingerly, to bring an early breakfast to the very early risers gathered there; a large cauldron of honeyed oatmeal on a trestle sent thick wafts of steam about the room, further adding to the impression of destruction and mess.

Seated upon a segment of tree trunk in the center of the room, Shermy greeted the newcomers with a cheery grin. "What ho, chaps! Got anything useful from the jolly old book mausoleum?"

Pushing blueprints, wood shavings, and other scraps of carpentry work aside, Sy and Willow laid the pieces of the tattered volume to the floor. Willow, temporarily restored to his normal self, shot a glare at the young hare. "As a matter of fact, we have; in fact, I believe I have solved two of the mysteries of the rhyme, regarding the proper names mentioned. The first, as all scholars should know..."

The group assembled consisted of everybeast who had been present the night before, with the exception of Skipper and Dippertail, who were on wall duty. Walloh Branchbounder smiled affably at the old shrew, interrupting him. "Sure, an' if ye mean ould Ublaz Mad Eyes, we've talked o'er that already. 'Tis a fact young Tings has a goodly ould head on 'her pretty young shoulders, so she does; remembers her schoolin' quite well. But that's neither here nor there with our quest, so it seems."

Robbed of his moment, the much-stressed Willow was about to say something rather nasty; however, one glance at the steely glint in the powerful golden-furred dormouse's eyes caused him to think better of it. Satisfying himself with a snort, the shrew opened his mouth to continue; this time, it was Abbess Saffron who interrupted. "Please make it short and simple brother. If there is to be a battle soon, we won't have much time to discuss these things."

Sulkily, Willow agreed. "Very well. Daskar's Glory refers, as far as I can deduce, to what was once the largest ship to sail the seas, the Gorleech. Her captain was one Vilu Daskar, a slave master who was immensely proud of his vessel; hence, Daskar's Glory. The ship was wrecked, however, in the midst of some tall islands far to the north. I think it safe to assume that the wreckage is being used as the vermin's new lair. There are no directions to it here save that it is somewhere to the far northwest, so finding it will be no easy matter."

Saffron nodded. "Thank you, Brother Willow. Now, for the rest of the rhyme. Read the last half again for us, Sister Flim."

The recorder obliged, pulling out the parchment from her ever-present satchel of writing goods and declaiming aloud,

"Remember also, those in terror,

Chained away in Daskar's Glory,

Those I name must free these poor ones;

He who tells a wand'ring story,

Oldest daughter of the Guards,

One-Eye, Two Eyes faking One,

Mouse who should not be alive,

And Son of the Mad Boxer's son.

Finally, the one who slays

A threat'ning horror with my blade

Must bring it with him when he goes

On this quest which must be made.

Nothing can be done tonight;

Rest your eyes, my Abbey friends.

But be alert at dawn tomorrow,

That is when the fight begins!

Formole Aggit tapped a digging claw on the dining table. "Burr, Oi appose we'm knows who wun-oi bees, an' Mouseymaiden who shuddent bee aloive."

Tings nodded. "That's Sy and me for sure, though I've never done much long-distance traveling or fighting so I don't know why Martin picked me."

Shermy descended from the log and clapped a paw about her shoulder. "Well, I'm certainly going along, that's plain, wot! Don't you worry, Tings me gel, we two inexperieced ones will look after one another, doncha know."

Sy glanced at the rhyme parchment. "I don't see where it says you must go, friend."

Shermy smiled. "Son of the Mad Boxer's son, old thing, that says Yours Truly all blinkin' over it. My grandmother was Mad Maudie Mugsberry Thropple, known for knockin' a serpent out in one punch, and defeating scads of enemies single-pawed. So, there you have it; Shermwood Whippabonce Thropple-Ffoliot the Second is goin' on this quest, wot!"

Ayeriss Pinspikes, called to attend the council due to her encounter with the giant serpents before, pointed at another row. "Aye, an' yeh ain't leavin' me behind. Looky here, 'Older dotter of t'guards'."

Walldoh nodded sageley. "Sure, an' meself will go with ye, provided ye don't mind the 'one who tells a wun'drin story' lendin' a paw."

There were murmurs of agreement from those who remembered how long Walldoh's report of the night before had taken, though Shermy muttered under his breath that Brother Willow might fit the long-winded category better. Sister Flim ticked off rows with a charcoal stick. "Well, that's all but two of the creatures listed. I wonder who..."

She was was cut short by a series of bloodcurdling shrieks, shouts, and screeches, followed by a panicked voice raised in a piercing yell. "Redwaaaaaaallll! Redwaaaaaaaalllll! Vermin inside the Abbeyyyyyyyyy!!!!"

Like a flash, the council of war party leapt upright, charging for the door, some of them grabbing weapons from the mounds of tools lying about in passing. "Redwaaaaaaalllll! We're coming! Redwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllll!!!!!!!!!"

Some time before, Yirta had flown through the mist to a tree near the wall of the Abbey. Concealed in the fog-shrouded branches, he watched the sentries on the wall of the Abbey, trying to select which one to kidnap. The otters were out of the question; so were the hedgehogs. Most of the squirrels seemed hefty creatures too, especially the big female who straddled the battlements at the easternmost wall corner, javelin poised. About halfway down the wall nearest him, there was a molemaid of dainty figure, but she was between two of the otters and it would be quite a chore getting to her unseen.

Then, the raven's eyes lit up wickedly; he had spotted the harvest mouse. The little fellow was obviously exhausted; he lolled halfway out over the battlements, only just barely balanced by the long rake he was wielding. There were no otherbeasts patrolling near him at the moment; it would be the work of an instant to swoop up from beneath him, concealed by the fog, and pull him away. Stifling a caw of victory, the raven took off, soaring just out of sight towards the wall.

Brother Gus was indeed fast asleep; he had volunteered for sentry work out of a sense of duty, but many years of soft living in the Abbey had not strengthened his endurance. He nodded foward, snoring gently.

With a whoosh, the Raven snatched his prey in cruel talons, ramming his head into the battlement to knock him unconscious further. He had just started to take off again when the shriek reached his ears, and the thunderbolt struck.

Because of the overhead cloud layer, which was pierced by the Abbey weathervane, Dippertail was forced to circle the roof lower than he would have liked, meaning parts of the wall would be out of his sight at times. He had just come around the corner when he saw the big, ugly raven attack Brother Gus. With a shriek of rage, the falcon swooped into an angled dive, aiming straight at the intruder.

Had Yirta not happened to start taking off at that moment, Dippertail's long talons would have been embedded in his head; as it was, the falcon slammed into the jet-feathered chest of the raven, forcing him to release his grip and allow Brother Gus to fall harmlessly to the parapet. Yirta was a fierce fighter; without a second thought he leapt upon Dippertail, using his bulk to force the smaller falcon off the battlements and into the air. He leapt out after him, his own talons outstretched, screeching his challenging warcry. "Rrraaaaaayyyaaaaaaaaarrrrrrkkkk!"

Shreiking his own rapid-fire "Kakakakakeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!", Dippertail turned to face his enemy. Sentries on the walltops watched in awe as, with a clash, the two birds met, wheeling and spiraling upward through the sky in a frenzied fight to the death.

Acrobatically turning head-down in mid-swoop, the falcon again embedded his talons in the feathers of Yirta's chest, drawing blood as his cruel grip pierced the raven's hide. Yirta stabbed with blurring speed at his enemy, his thick, chisel bill scoring several wounds across the falcon's back. Dippertail gave a savage jerk of his talons, ripping them free and pulling out many of the raven's feathers; he then proceeded to sink his sharply curved beak into the side of the neck of the raven.

Screaming in pain, Yirta beat his foe's head savagely with his big wings, forcing him to let go; however, Dippertail merely slammed headlong into the wounded midriff of the raven, bulling him into an awkward head-over-tailfeathers flutter. Before Yirta had a chance to right himself, the falcon was upon him again, this time trying to get his talons into Yirta's neck as they plummeted earthwards. The raven's huge black beak snapped shut upon Dippertail's foot; his smaller but sharp claws raked the underbelly of the falcon as he clawed his way free. This time, it was Dippertail who was hit headlong as Yirta, crazed with the rage that affects male birds in battle, flung himself upon the falcon with such force as to hopefully completely wind him.

Dippertail was made of tough stuff; seemingly unaffected by the wounds he had recieved, he rebounded from the raven's headlong slam, talons and beak moving like lightning to rip feather after feather off, and open wound after wound upon the raven. In a panic, Yirta struck out blindly with his beak, furrowing a long scar between Dippertail's eyes. With a cry of pain, the falcon took off, vanishing upward into the clouds.

Puffing out his chest, Yirta shreiked out a challenge. "Rrraakaaah, none beats Yirta in battle! None!"

He never knew what hit him; Dippertail dropped from an astonishing height, diving nearly vertically downward with tremendous force upon the raven. The falcon did not release his talons from Yirta's head until he had finished his pounce and pinned the raven to the floor of Mossflower Woods, but there was no need; the sheer force of the impact had broken Yirta's neck and slain him long before they hit the ground.

From his vantage point up a tall elm, Scaleflier allowed himself a smirk of satisfaction. "Good Riddancccccce, Ffffeatherbag! Ressssst in Peaccccceeee!"

As soon as Dippertail had struck Yirta, and the sentries had all looked up to watch the fight between the two birds, Dankfur had given the signal to his troops. "Let's go!"

The mist, though still thick, had thinned out enough by this point to allow the dark arch of the Abbey Gateway to show; aiming straight towards it, the band charged silently into the grounds.

Gronk looked about as they entered the famed structure; seeing nobeast about, he giggled nervously. "Heh, we're in, cap'n! What's the plan?"

Dankfur gave his first mate a swift kick, hissing. "Quiet, fool, this is no laughing matter. We've got to get in the main building and capture the little wildcats. The big one should surrender easily enough once we do."

The last of the Krozfoxx filed in, followed by Jettcoil and Whiptail. The male snake slithered up to his commander. "There issss no beasssst following ussssss, Masssssster. What are your orderssssss?"

Danfur repeated what he had told Gronk, adding, "Absolute silence is critical. Relay this to everybeast."

Once it was clear the whispered message had gotten through, Dankfur signalled his troops again. "Right, foward march!"

They had not gotten ten paces when all hope of secrecy was shattered. Akalle Bladewhip, still seething with desire for vengeance against the marten who had ruined her paw, trailed at the back of the group, swinging her rapier irritably at any nearby plants, muttering to herself. "Stupid marten, I hopes all your lot get killed by Redwallers. I am never going to serve some crazy Black Shade wolfdog, not for all the rewards in the world!"

She sliced the top clean off a low bush; without warning, the air was rent with fresh screams, not coming from the two fighting birds overhead. About half a dozen little white-gowned creatures, yelling in terror, scattered from their hiding place under the bush, three of them heading straight towards the Abbey building and screaming "Redwaaaaalllllll!!!!!" at the top of their lungs.

Dankfur did not know what had happened, save that his plans were about to be wrecked. He slapped his first mate and his two serpents with the flat of his saber. "Stop them, stop them! Kill them if you have to!"

Gronk pounded after the nearest spectral little figure, swinging his swordblade; Kwinsee Pinspikes crumpled in a pathetic heap upon the grass. Harrbuckll and Biddee skidded to a halt, staring dumbly at the slain form of their sister; seeing them more clearly now, Gronk laughed wickedly. "'Tis only a buncha liddle spike'ogs, Cap'n! I'll gettem!" He advanced upon the trembling duo, who stared up at him, petrified with fright.

The main door of the Abbey burst open; saw blades and hatchets flashed as the Council of War party came barreling out onto the grounds, led by Ayeriss Pinspikes, who gave a sound like a mortally wounded beast and made straight for the marten. One look at the expression on the big female hedgehog's face told Gronk that he had just made a huge mistake; he turned to face her, sword blade waving, hoping to ward her off. Ayeriss was unarmed, but she charged straight at him, punching the blade of the saber so hard it flew from Gronk's grasp. Losing his nerve completely, the marten fled into the mist, with the sister of the hogmaid he had just slain hard on his heels.

Chapter Twenty-TwoEdit

Dankfur instantly realized the seriousness of his position; his agile mind was working before some of the others had even grasped what was going on. The band charging straight at him from the Abbey gates consisted of mostly older or younger beasts, without a proper weapon between them; furthermore, they were fanning out, some of them ignoring the foe to try to round up the Dibbuns that were fleeing in all directions across the grounds. However, their noise had alerted the big otters and other warriors serving as sentries; without bothering to look, the marten could tell by the sound that these were pounding along the walltops to the stairs, about to charge down and get his group from behind. The sensible option would have been to speedily retreat through the Abbey Gates; however, Dankfur's fanatical dedication to sucess did not allow for retreat. The other option would be to charge the little band in front of him and overwhelm them, and get inside the Abbey before they could react. Then, they could lock themselves in and plan the next move.

Dankfur had thought of this, and figured out his plan of campaign, in less than one second. He raised his saber "Charge! Charge for the door! Slay all that hinder you!!! Quick, before we're hit from the back!"

With a mass roar, the Ranks and Krozfoxx bulled into the oncoming creatures, fueled by the madness of sheer desperation.

To the vermin's surprise, the heavily outnumbered council of war party fought with equal desperation. They had charged in the heat of the moment, without stopping to consider their lack of skill, or that the Abbey door would be left undefended; knowing that to let the foebeast inside where the other Dibbuns and several oldbeasts remained would be a disaster most stupendous, they flung themselves into the fray, yelling the timehonored "Reeeeeedwaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllll!!!!!" warcry as loud as they could.

The Battle For the Abbey had begun!

Sister Flim lost an ear to a dagger slash; she retaliated by sinking her teeth into the wrist of the fox responsible, right down to the bone. Shermy, who had armed himself with an axe, finished the job, then went off after Tings and Raggle, who were hot on the trail of the fleeing Dibbuns. "I say, wait for me, you chaps!"

Foremole Aggit slew two vixens in one swipe of the outsized hammer he had grabbed; Scruffgutt, the smaller of the marten brothers, tripped the mole leader and seized the hammer for himself. "Hahaaaarrr, Tiz yer dyin' day, moley!"

Whhhhoooooosh-CRACK! A broom handle struck the back of the unlucky marten's head with savage force; he dropped like a log. The Abbess stood frozen over the first beast she had ever slain, a look of shock and nausea on her face. Foremole, seeing the danger his ruler was in, struggled out from under the weight of the marten, "Moov thoiself, Missus! Lukk owt!"

Automatically, Saffron sidestepped. Akalle's downward slash with her poisoned rapier sliced off a bit of Saffron's habit; had the squirrel not moved, she would have been sliced down the face. Brought back to reality, The Abbess struck backwards with her broom handle, stunning the vixen; she then began barking out orders to the beasts in her command. "We're too scattered; we need to guard the door. Everybeast, Rally to me! To meeeeeeee!!!!"

But this proved to be an impossible task; some of the Redwallers were too far out of earshot, or had too many foebeasts between them and the Abbess, to heed the command. Seeing the first of the Walltop sentries hit the back of his army, Dankfur pressed his troops harder. "Quickly, while we still can, get inside! Look, there's only one, charge him!"

Walldoh's footpaw had been transfixed to the porch by an arrow as he came out the door; unable to move from the spot, he had fired arrow after arrow into the vermin pressing towards him, as cooly as if he were having a target practice. Ux Boulderpaw, in a flash of inspiration, whipped off his adderskull mask and flung it, laying Walldoh low. Triumphantly, the vermin charged the helpless dormouse en masse, fleeing from the otters and other sentries pursuing their back ranks towards the open door.

"Gggggrrreeeeeiiiiiiaaaaooouuggggh!" The shrieking snarl of an enraged wildcat filled the air as Siyuzin Stoneclaw exploded onto the scene, leaping over the stunned dormouse straight into the packed masses of vermin. The Wildcat had come out in the first charge, but had been sent back inside with the body of Kwinsee Pinspikes, and her two shell-shocked sisters, by the Abbess; now, her one eye streaming with tears for the fallen young one, and her face a twisted mask of heartache and wrath, the Wildcat wreaked her retribution like an avenging fury. As the Abbey Armory had been emptied into the Great Hall along with the woodcutting tools for the benifit of the sentries, Sy had managed to find her two scimitars; both broad, curved blades flashed through the air like windmills as the formidible creature went berserk, roaring out her spine-chilling caterwaul again and again as she went through the enemy like a juggernaut, heading straight at their leader.

For the very first time, Dankfur saw the face of the creature he had pursued through those long seasons. Here she was, the escaped prisoner he had so relentlessley hunted; she was still a good distance away, but coming at him like an arrow from a bow, the intent in her charge only too clear.

By now, Skipper Windryder's full band of sentries had descended to the grounds and was soundly thrashing the vermin army; many of the foxes and other martens scattered into the Abbey grounds in a panic, pursued by the enraged Redwallers. The marten, virtually alone before his oncoming wildcat enemy, felt a chill of fear; he looked wildly about for his two serpents, who had been strangely absent from the fray. Jettcoil was nowehere to be seen, but Whiptail was still visible, not too far off; running an otter who had ventured too close through with his saber, Dankfur raised his voice to a panicked screech. "WHIPTAIL! GET OVER HERE!"

The serpent obeyed; Dankfur grabbed the side of her mouth with his hook. "Where is your husband?! And where have you been?"

"You commanded usssss to pursssssue the littlebeasssssstssss, massssster. I Wasssss ssssearching. Jettcoil isss probably ssssstill ssssearching, too."

Dankfur realized only to clearly his blunder; his hasty command was about to cost him more than any decision he had made in his career. He released his snake with a jerk, snapping at her. "Get Jettcoil back here at once! If he's found the young ones, bring one back alive for a hostage; it's our only chance! Go, NOW!!"

Whiptail shot off across the grounds as fast as she could go, disappearing into the thick white fog in an instant. Dankfur dispatched a nearby squirrel, screaming at his creatures. "Hold them, stand firm! When my serpents get back, we'll pay these creatures back tenfold for their rashness in attacking us!"

The vermin tried, half-heartedly, to rally against the Redwallers again, but to no avail; the outnumbered foe fell before the oncoming goodbeasts like a sand sculpture before the tide. Skipper fought his way through to Sy, shouting at her face. "Leave 'em be, they've got 'em now! Come on, let's get after t'ones that ran off arter t'Dibbuns; I saw that marten send a snake after 'em!"

The otter held his breath as the wildcat turned to face him, wondering if she'd even recognize him in her beserk state; he had seen creatures with battle rage, or Bloodwrath, before, and knew that nobeast, friend or foe, was safe within their vicinity. But the otter had no need to worry; the wildcat was no Bloodwrath creature, just a formidible fighter. Her tone was filled with concern. "Good Heavens, I didn't even notice; they must have been on my blind side! Come on, friend, we'd best get to them before the serpent does!"

Dankfur saw the big wildcat suddenly stop fighting and run off with the tattooed otter into the mist; Realizing what they were after, he shouted to the depleted force of creatures loyal enough to stick near him. "Quickly, after them! Once we capture the Wildcat, we can leave this accursed place!"

It took a moment or two to get organized, but then the group pounded off in the direction Sy and Windryder had taken.

Some distance away from the battle, plowing and blundering through the mist, a small band of scattered beasts wandered the grounds; some were looking for the missing Dibbuns; others were trying to get away from the battle; but one, a marten, was looking for an enemy.

Ayeriss Pinspikes had temporarily given up hunting Gronk down to look for the other missing young ones, unaware that Gronk was also looking for her. The first mate of the Redclaw had never before run from an enemy, and was furious with himself for panicking when Ayeriss knocked the saber from his paws. It was only an unarmed hogmaiden; why in the world had he been so afraid? Well, no matter, he'd get her back for the humiliation.

A sound of a twig snapping caught the marten's ear; there was Ayeriss now, heading right at him! Crouching behind a bush near the western wallsteps, he watched as the hogmaid approached; clasping his adderskull mask in his paws, the marten tensed for a spring.

Some sixth sense told Ayeriss that somebeast was behind the bush nearest her; she halted, loath to walk past it. Gronk stifled a groan of frustration; he needed her to go by him so he could get her from behind! Picking up a small pebble, he lobbed it over the hogmaiden's head.

Hearing the pebble clunk to earth, Ayeriss looked in the direction of the sound. Gronk pounced then, slamming down hard with the mask, hoping to impale the hogmaid with the fangs of the skull.

The large bandage poultice about Ayeriss' head saved her life; the fangs of the adderskull ripped it off, missing her flesh entirely. Suprisingly swiftly for a beast of her girth, the hogmaiden whipped around and crushed her right fist into Gronk's nose, followed by a swift left uppercut to the chin. But the second-in-command of Dankfur was a pretty good paw-to-paw fighter in his own right; blocking Ayeriss' next two punches, he kicked out savagely with both footpaws, catching her in the midriff. Gasping for breath, Ayeriss was forced to back up a pace; seizeing the moment's respite, and nursing a bleeding mouth and nose, Gronk leapt up onto the wallsteps, hoping to take advantage of the highter ground.

With a roar, Ayeriss charged up the staircase after him; Gronk brought both cleched fists down on the back of her head, where he could see she had already been wounded once before. Ignoring the fiery stars of pain, Ayeriss still came onward. Suddenly frightened again, Gronk raised his paws for a second blow; thinking quickly, Ayeriss curled up in a ball at the last possible second, allowing the full force of the marten's blow to come down on her back.

Gronk gave a scream of pain as several hogspikes embedded themselves in his paws; Ayeriss leapt up, inadvertently headbutting her foe and embedding more spikes in his chin. Still howling in agony, Gronk struck wildly with his fists, retreating up the staircase as he did so. Blocking most of his thrusts, Ayeriss pursued him, landing blow after blow in her enemy's stomach and chest, and taking the occasional knock to the chin and face as the pair of fighting beasts ascended higher and higher.

Suddenly, they were on the ramparts. Thinking quickly, Gronk charged Ayeriss, bulling into her chest shoulder-first, trying to shove her down the stairs. The Hogmaid dug her footpaws in, pushing back with all her might; realizing that she was still, slowly but surely, heading backwards, the hogmaid suddenly leapt to one side, allowing Gronk to fall face-first to the battlements. Bruised, bloodied, and winded, The marten scrabbled upright hurriedly, expecting Ayeriss to try to leap on his back or something like that; however, he found himself facing the hogmaiden, who, also ignoring several bleeding wounds, had assumed a boxing stance on the Ramparts in front of him. "Cummon, put up yer fists, vurmint, I dares yeh! I ain't fightin' a downed beast!"

Gronk, still on all fours, made a last, desperate move. Like lightning, he latched his claws into Ayeriss' belt as he leapt upright; then, whirling around as if throwing a discus, the marten slung his foe over the battlements.

Gronk had failed to realize that, just before he had released her, Ayeriss had instinctively grabbed at the nearest object to stop herself falling; Gronk's blue, heavily embroidered cloak. The marten had no way of stopping himself; the momentum of his own throw, and the weight of Ayeriss herself, pulled him over the edge before he knew what was happening. With a piercing wail, he went sailing out into the mist in Ayeriss' wake, plunging earthward, headfirst.

Shermy had managed to round up Pringill and Leeam; he had just put the two Dibbuns back inside the Abbey building through an open kitchen window when he heard the sounds of conflict between Ayeriss and Gronk. Brandishing his axe, the young hare ran towards the noise; he skidded to a halt and hid behind a tree, however, when he saw Whiptail and Jettcoil, returning from the orchard to the main site of battle. This was the first glimpse the young hare had taken of the monsters; he gulped visibly, trying to stop his paws from shaking, and praying he would not be seen.

A terrified squeal suddenly reached Shermy's ears. The serpents, intent on joining their master, had not noticed him, but their captives had. Both Blacksnakes had a terrified Abbeybabe with them; Squirt, held fast in Whiptail's mouth, screamed at the young hare. "Shermeeeeeeeeeee! 'Elp meeeeeeeeeeeee!!!"

Speedwell the kitten, dragged along in a loop of Jettcoil's tail, also set up the plea. "Over heeeeeere, Shermmeeeeeee!"

The hare had not noticed the babes before; upon seeing them, he charged, all fear of serpents forgotten. The warcry of hares and badgers rang out as he swung his axe at Jetcoil's ugly head. "Eeeuulaaaaaliiiiaaaaaaaaaa!!!! Blood and Vinegaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrr!!!!"

The big male blacksnake lunged with the force he had used to break many necks before; dodging, Shermy sliced several scales off Jettcoil's neck. Dropping Speedwell, the blacksnake looped several coils about the young hare, but was repulsed from pulling them tight and strangling his quarry by the flailing axe blade, which scored wound after wound in his black-armored hide. The kitten, now free to move, sank his needle teeth into the tip of the big serpent's tail; with a convuslive jerk, Jettcoil tried to sling him off, at the same time finally managing to pull his coils tight about the hare.

Shermy still had his axe paw free; he struck out blindly, catching Jettcoil's head with the haft, completely stunning him. Unable to disentangle himself form the heavy, limp coils, Shermy raised his axe again, about to slice his foe in half to free himself.

Seeing that her mate was about to lose his life, Whiptail spat out Squirt and clamped her powerful jaws down hard on the hare's foreleg, forcing him to drop the weapon. Shermy gave an agonized yell; Squirt and Speedwell grabbed sticks and began beating at the two snakes with them. Shay and Rivereye came out of their hiding places to do the same, roaring at the two monsters, "Leave mista Shermeee alone, ya big bully!"

Enraged beyond using common sense, Whiptail wrenched her teeth free of Shermy's arm and came after the four babes, mouth wide open as if to swallow them whole.


Out of the mist came a seemingly disembodied sword; the shining blade rammed itself into the open mouth of Whiptail. Raggle, his green tunic and black fur camoflauging him perfectly up until that point, materialized out of the mist, Tings at his side; the pair pulled the Dibbuns out of the way, yelling, "Move, quick, or you'll be slain!"

As is common with dying snakes, the body of Whiptail jerked spasmodically about in a frenzied dance, snapping weaker saplings in half, flattening bushes (slaying several unlucky, cowardly Krozfoxx, who had been hiding under them), and ripping large stones from the earth. Sy and Skipper arrived on the scene then; the otter pulled Shermy free of the coils of Jettcoil, and prepared to stab the serpent with his javelin. However, the blacksnake had regained consciousness; as soon as he saw his slain mate, the big serpent fled for his life, astonishing the watching beasts by actually climbing over the Abbey wall in his headlong flight.

Sy grabbed up her two cousins, weeping uncontrollably as she embraced them. "Thank heavens, you're alive!"

With a roar, Dankfur's force came crashing through the orchard, straight towards them; Skipper pulled the blade free of Whiptail's head and tossed it to Raggle, nodding towards the oncoming enemy. "Let's make a stand, an' allow the little uns t'get away! Shermy, Tings, see they get inside!"

Shermy felt faint from the loss of blood, but he obeyed, helping Tings to herd the last four Dibbuns to the Kitchen Window, locking and bolting it behind him. Sy, Skipper, and Raggle, weapons at the ready, prepared for the clash of foebeasts.

It never came.

As soon as the vermin were close enough to see that Whiptail was dead, they panicked and fled; Dankfur found himself left alone facing three grim-faced creatures, and was forced, for the first time in his life, to flee as well. Yelling the retreat, he charged for the Abbey gates, with the three warriors hot in pursuit.

Totally lost, Brother Willow wandered about in the fog. He had been so caught up in the moment of the charge that he had failed to notice when his spectacles fell off; now, alone, and scarecely able to see, the old shrew had actually managed to wander out the main gates and into Mossflower. Thinking he was in the orchard, the shrew tried to get his bearings, brandishing the wood chunk he had grabbed.

"Lets see, this tree is a hazel, or is it an oak? Well, never mind, the Abbey must be some way to the left. Oh dear, I wish I could see..."

He was nearly knocked flat as a scattered mass of martens and Krozfoxx ran by, fleeing from the Abbey conflict. Reacting insticntively, Willow flung his wooden stave, catching a vixen a blow to the back of the shoulders. The throw was not very hard; Zyxxa, the Krozfoxx archer, turned and loosed an arrow at her assailant.

Willow gasped as the shaft pierced the side of his ribcage; he sank to the ground, his head swimming in pain. The fox laughed contemptuously as she approached the collapsed shrew, casually fitting another arrow to her bow, and aiming for the shrew's head.

Suddenly, she looked up, and fired the arrow to a point behind Willow. There was a spine-chilling screech as something big sailed through the air, smashing headlong into the vixen. Her bow, quiver, and collarbone snapped in two, Zyxxa crawled painfully away from the conflict; ignoring her, and the shaft through its ear, the big shadow made its way back to Willow, lifting him bodily and running full-speed ahead to the Abbey. Just before he completely blacked out, the old shrew glanced up at his preserver...and found himself staring into the anxious, friendly face of Siyuzin Stoneclaw.

Book 3: The QuestEdit

Chapter Twenty-ThreeEdit

Southward over the barren, rocky clifftops the army of a thousand serpents slithered, heading parallel to the coastline down a gradually decreasing slope as the cliffs grew shorter and shorter. They were still suffering from hangovers and indigestion, and had not stopped to rest since leaving the Shadelair; yet, onward they went, driven remorselessly by the Black Shade, whom they still feared as a magic and powerful beast. The sable-furred wolf marched at the rear of the column, barking out alternating threats and encouragements to the somewhat sluggishly moving reptiles.

"All right, let's see some action out of those scaly hides, before I blast them from your bones! There'll be rewards aplenty before this trip is done, let me assure you; just let me catch any of you dawdling, though, and you'll become a cloak for one of my followers, that's a promise. Come on, you sons of slayers, to the fight!"

The Black Shade's satellite, the young marten Zalbu, had run ahead to do some scouting; now, he was waiting, crouched atop a rock, for his leader to catch up. He watched the serpents go by in their massed ranks impassively, looking for the wolf; spotting him at the very rear of the group, Zalbu waved a paw at him.

The Black Shade jogged over to the rock and scaled it, facing his young subordinate. "Well?"

The marten saluted and made his report. "I found Gatlak's crew's tracks an' follered 'em like yer said, Cap'n. Met up wid me bruther inna big valley jus' offshore a liddle ways south o'here. 'E sez no sign o' t'enemy yet, which seems t'be a bit odd ter him. So, e'z waitin' on yer orders, Cap'n."

The wolf was greatly suprised, though he did not show it. "Your brother certainly made good time. I, too, expected the battle to have begun by now; perhaps that ship has blown off-course?"

Zalbu was a seabeast by blood; the snort and correction were out of his mouth before he could stop himself. "Blowed off in what? They can't've bin blowed off, that's shoopid!"

It took merely one glance from the Black Shade to tell Zalbu he was in serious danger; bowing hastily, the young marten added, "Beggin' yore pardon, Cap'n, but there's bin 'ardly so much 's a breeze, let alone a gale...UNNnnnh!"

The wolf slapped his companion upside the head with savage force, knocking him flat. Nursing a bleeding mouth, the young marten looked up from his sprawled position into the merciless features of the Black Shade, who waved a paw in his face. "Let me tell you something, Zalbu. Son of Dankfur and one of my head captains you may be, but if you ever talk to me like that again you'll lose a lot more than just a couple teeth. Up on your paws; go back to Gatlak and tell him to sit tight and stay out of sight until we get there!"

Having thoroughly learned his lesson, Zalbu leapt off the boulder and ran for his life, pushing heedlessly through the mass of serpents as he sped to find his brother. Enzi Grexx and his snakes followed, the wolf no longer barking commands as he mentally went over the problem at hand.

After the death of the searat Dedribb, whom he had commanded his two new captains to execute, the black wolf's spy serpents had detected a secret gathering between old friends of the rat; all of these were former members of the crew of the ship Bowbolt, who had been forced against their will into the service of the Ranks. The main gist of the secret meeting had been attempted desertion; upon hearing this reported, the wolf had immediately set aside his master plan of conquest to focus on the secret uprising. He had laid his plans during the long party following Gatlak and Zalbu's promotion; letting the crew think they were undetected by allowing them to party on without his interference, the wolf had personally stolen down to the Bowbolt and removed all her provisions, tossing them overboard into the ocean. As even his serpents could not tell him the name of every beast who were in on the conspiracy, Enzi Grexx had planned to allow them to sail off, thus revealing their identity as traitiors. His cruel treatment of the weasel Vaccar, who he had known for sure was a crew member, had brought things to a head; Grexx had seen the ship sail off with his own two eyes, swarming with dark figures.

The plan of attack was quite simple. The Black Shade had known that, upon seeing that the ship had no provisions, the deserters would be forced to sail to the Ranks' slave-kept garden and foraging grounds, and get new provisions for their journey; this was the only spot they could gather any substantial amount of food for many miles. There, at the foraging grounds, some distance south of the Shadelair, the entirety of the Black Shade's force would intercept them. Nobeast would ever think of desertion again after this example was made!...if, that is, it were made at all. For, as Zalbu had reported, Gatlak had reached the foraging grounds and had seen no sign of the ship having put in, or the crew being anywhere nearby; this was strange, indeed, and, for some reason unknown, it gave the Black Shade a rather uncomfortable feeling of worry. It was as if some sixth sense was trying to tell him something important; but, for the life of him, the sable-furred wolf could not figure out what it was.

Little did he know that he had just made a blunder to end all blunders, one that would go down in history as the biggest goof a vermin leader had ever committed!

A big, stupid white ferret by the name of Sweatnose was on sentry duty at the foraging grounds; he spotted the approaching column of serpents and ran to Gatlak, shouting, "Hey, Cap'n, the Boss is here!"

The young marten's saber was between his lips before he could say another word, the tip prodding the roof of his mouth. Gatlak snarled at the suddenly terrified ferret. "Quiet, yer fool, the Black Shade said lay low!"

Allowing Sweatnose to run off, back into the Ranks, Gatlak waved his blade at the army advancing upon him. He was answered by a waving adderfang spearpoint; at a gruff command from the wolf, the serpents halted and parted, allowing Enzi Grexx to walk into the valley unhindered. Gatlak and Zalbu both strode foward to meet him, bowing low. The wolf waved them aside with a sweep of his jet-furred paw. "Stand up, there's work to be done. I need scouts to look out for that ship; it hasn't reached here yet, for some reason unknown."

Gatlak raised a paw; he had not been appraised of the situation fully by the wolf yet. "Might I ask, Cap'n, what ship we's supposed ter be lookin' fer, an' why? All me an' my lot know is that we're supposed to meet one o' our own ships here an' slay ev'rybeast aboard."

There were murmurs of assent; the wolf was about to reprimand his subordinates, then thought better of it; his crew would be more likely to obey him if they better knew what was going on in this instance. He raised his voice so everybeast could hear. "Very well. A crew of deserters sailed off in the Bowbolt last night; I saw the ship set off, myself. I have personally seen to it, however, that the ship is devoid of anything edible, so she will have to put in here, eventually, if her crew is to survive. Why they haven't been here yet, I don't know, but when they do arrive, we'll show them just what happens to deserters to my Ranks!" He raised his double-headed spear high. "Death to all who disobey!"

A ragged cheer arose from many of the evil vermin, who loved a good slaughter. Suddenly, Sweatnose the white ferret spoke up. "But, boss, you've got it all wrong. See, I'm one of Bowbolt's crew!"

There was a very long pause as the Black Shade's flat yellow eyes turned to face the one who had spoken; his voice was many octaves deeper than was his wont. "Say that again."

Sweatnose gulped. "I said, I'm one of Bowbolt's crew. So is Flitcher here, an' Twotail, an' Grimskull... We're all here, Cap'n, save Vaccar. It's true, one or two of us did talk about leaving, but we decided it would be bad an' disloyal an' called the whole thing off!"

There were cries of agreement from several other vermin in the army, who had once been on the crew of Bowbolt.

"Aye, we wuz mad that night, boss; we'd never really leave!"

"It was Vaccar's idea, mainly, any'ow!"

"We're still loyal to ye, always will be!"

"SILENCE!!!!!!!" The wolf bounded into the Ranks, grabbing Sweatnose and lifting him bodily. The black Shade roared into the ferret's face, shaking him like a ragdoll. "If you're all here, you snow-hided buffon, then who is sailing off in your ship?!!"

Sweatnose did not answer; it took the Black Shade a moment to realize that he had completely throttled the ferret and slain him. Casting Sweatnose aside, the wolf fairly screamed at his army. "WELL?!!!!! Answer my question; who is it?"

Nobeast dared to move a muscle; you could have heard a leaf drop, the silence was so profound. From behind the carved Adderskull mask, the Black Shade's yellow eyes fairly blazed with wrath as he glared at his army. "You lot of fools, I'll find out the true meaning of this! If anybeast here is sheilding a deserter, he'll consider this slain ferret here a lucky one! And you..." He turned to his serpents. "You scaley, slithering, doddering idiots, giving me the wrong report! Don't you realize the position this puts us in? There will be some spare masks made if you make another mistake, mark my words!"

His tirade was interrupted by a faint shout from somewhere back along the clifftops; somebeast was calling his name. "My Lord, Black Shade! Something terrible has happened!"

Turning, Enzi Grexx saw Scraggback the ferret running towards him, followed by the adder and two rats who were supposed to be guarding the prisoners. Before they had reached him, the terrible truth had dawned on the wolf; slaying the adder sentry with a well-aimed throw of his spear, and grabbing Scraggback and his two rat cronies up in a single swipe, he raised his voice to an enraged shriek. "Get loaded up with provisions as fast as you can, and make for the Shadelair's fleet! Serpents, you go along the coast and follow us. The slaves have escaped; we must get going! NOW!!!"

With amazing rapidity, the army grabbed every edible thing in sight and ran pell-mell back along the clifftops; none of them wanted to be around to see what inevitably would happen next. Scraggback whimpered in fear as the wolf dragged him and the two rats by their necks to the edge of the cliff; the Black Shade gritted into his face. "You've failed me one time too many, ferret; you're relieved of your duties!"

With a mighty shove, the three former guards were sent plummeting downwards, to meet their ends on the sharp rocks below.

Far past the foraging grounds, which she had passed during the night, the Bowbolt lived up to her name, speeding like an arrow through the waves just off the shoreline. Starburst, the pretty ottermaid, had relenquished the tiller to the weasel Vaccar, who had at one time been first mate of the ship and could handle it better than any otherbeast on board; she still sat nearby, however, to keep an eye on the captive vermin lest he try any funny business. The big young weasel was rather a pathetic sight now, having been divested of his sword, his cloak, and adderskull mask, and dripping wet from all the seawater swilled over him to help him recover from his hangover.

Licking salty lips, Vaccar addressed the ottermaid. "Ain't there a drop o' grog or some fresh water on this boat?"

Fiddling with the curved sword she had taken from him, Starburst leaned back against the rails almost lazily, closing her eyes. "Ain't ye got it through yore thick skull yet we're out o' provisions? Just keep steering the boat like we tell ye, an' ye'll taste freshwater soon enough, mate. Careful round these reefs, now!"

The weasel sighed, and focused on the task at hand. "Fair enough, I suppose. Anythin' else, lady?"

The ottermaid opened one eye. "My name's Starburst, an' I'll thank ye to remember that. Just keep steering 'til somebeast relieves ye. Ahoy there, Flipp, what's the good word?"

The shrew, who had just descended the nearby rigging, was smiling for the first time since he had been captured; he plonked down beside Starburst. "Whew, those are some tall masts; makes one quite giddy up there. We're not bein' followed; either they haven't noticed we're gone, or they think we went north or inland."

Vaccar gave an audible sigh of relief, smiling over his shoulder at the pair. "Huh, I might come out of this alive after all."

Starburst addressed him. "Aye, maybe ye will, if ye keep yore eye on what yore doin'! Watch out!"

Vaccar gave the wheel a hard jerk; the ship nearly heeled over as it turned sharply to avoid a large rock column sticking out of the sea. The weasel sighed in relief again, wiping his brow. "Phew! Sorry, mates, ol' Vaccar's a bit out of practice at this!"

Leaving Flipp the sword, and the charge of the captive weasel, Starburst headed across the deck to the bowsprit, smiling as she observed her fellow prisoners. The lack of food did not worry anybeast too terribly; Roan knew the way to his home islands, where there would be enough forage for them to get by until they could sail to the River Moss, which Flipp knew was some distance south down the coastline. The whole ship had about it a sort of carnival atmosphere; beasts sang, danced, told funny stories, and generally enjoyed themselves.

Roan sat on the bowsprit, gazing out to sea intently. Starburst noted the look of seriousness on his face, and clapped a flipper to his shoulder. "Come on, mate, don't sit there with a face like that! We did it, we're as good as free!"

The wildcat turned to face her. "For now, that is. You know as well as I do that the Black Shade isn't going to take this lying down. Mark my words, no matter where we go, he'll hunt us down."

The ottermaid climbed onto the bowsprit and sat next to him. "Then we'll just have t'go somewhere the vermin can't follow! Besides, when we scatter to go back to our respective homes, he won't be able to follow all o' us at once."

Roan nodded. "Aye, I suppose you're right. But I can't shake the feeling that there's trouble ahead, no matter what we do, and that we're going to have to fight for our freedom before this is done."

Starburst gave an elegant shrug. "Well, if'n we do, we do, but don't bring on t'rain dwellin' on it. We're all in this to help each other right now, so we'll face what comes as free beasts together. Right?"

Roan took her proffered flipper and shook it solemnly. "Right!"

Starburst grinned broadly. "Well, now, that that's settled, let's join the party, eh?"

The ottermaid and the wildcat entered a ring of beasts just in time to witness a song performed by the young one-eyed mole Urthswimmer, accompanied by the volewife Donnabel, who played on a small stringed intstrument she had found below decks.

"O Burr Aye an' Lackeeday,

Whatever shall uz doo?

Ee rain 'as stole ee sun away,

Oi tell ee, this be troo!

An' Dearie Grayshuss goodness Oi,

Lukk at ee bumbleebees;

They'm takin' flowers' insoids owt,

Without a-sayin' please!

Ho, moi goodness, lukky here,

Shame on ee burds, sez oi,

Lootin' trees furr froot n' nuts

That Oi'd use fur moi poies!

Seems all ee nature bees ee theif,

Tho' not so bad as you'm;

You'm taken out moi vurry 'eart;

Whatever will Oi doo?"

Before he could continue with his comical romantic ballad, a shout rang out from the lookout in the crows nest. "Land Ho!"

Donnabel the volewife took a look at the shoreline to the east, a faint line which had been visible all day, then shouted up at the one who had spoken. "We knew that already, Fuzztail!"

Fuzztail, the stocky ginger tom wildcat on lookout duty, shouted back down. "Not the shore, the islands, dead ahead!"

The entirety of the group on deck, with the exception of the weasel Vaccar, ran to the bow rails and peered out. Sure enough, the outline of the hilly Gingiverian Tribe islands was just visible on the horizon, not actually dead ahead but slightly to the west of that point. Cheers broke out among the beasts on the Bowbolt; Roan took the tiller from Vaccar, steering towards his former home. "Stand ready to go ashore, friends; we'll need to move fast if we're going to put a good distance between us and the enemy!"

Realizing the justice in his words, the creatures gathered up everything they would need before heading ashore; empty barrels and satchels soon lined the deck, along with the multitude of eager beasts leaning over the side railing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the temporary haven from their foes. None of them thought to look back now; had they done so, they would have realized they were being followed.

Rugg Tornpaw was a searat; big, ugly, and nasty-tempered. He had lost his ship in a storm some days past, and had been forced, along with his last half-a-dozen crewmembers, to sail to shore in the ship's jollyboat, the only intact piece left from the wreck. They had seen, from their camp onshore, the Bowbolt sail for the islands; coveting the sleek black ship, the small gang of searats had put to sea in their longboat, following stealthily in the big ship's wake, and catching up on her, as she was slowing down in order to not run aground in the treacherous reefs.

Rugg waved his cutlass at his six rats. "Row, yer swabs, cummon! Most of'm will go ashore for vittles; that's when we'll slay the sentries, take over the ship an' maroon the rest!"

The six rats rowed obediently onward, most of them grinning happily at the thought of owning a ship again. Rugg smiled as they closed in on Bowbolt, coming to rest underneath her stern, out of sight of the sentries. Patting the sleek black sides, Rugg grinned, settling down to wait for the inevitable. "Yer mine, me beauty, all mine!"

Chapter Twenty-FourEdit

Oblivious to the enemy hidden beneath their prow, the crew of the Bowbolt made preperations to go ashore. Roan, Flipp, and Starburst, who were looked to as sort of the unofficial leaders of the expedition, stopped everybeast from leaping overboard at once. The shrew placed himself between the oncoming charge of beasts and the railing, paws upraised.

"Hold on there, everybody! We can't all go wanderin' willy-nilly about the isles, we'll waste time that way."

Roan agreed with him. "He's right, we'd better split forces and leave half to keep lookout from the ship. How many creatures are we?"

A hasty count was done among groups of certain species; Starburst tallied the results. "Lessee, as far as adults go, that's five mice, one mole, a dozen otters, a score of wildcats, six watervoles, ten hedgehogs, fourteen shrews, an' eleven squirrels...."

She noticed Vaccar looked a bit glum at being left out, so she added, with a sigh, "An' one fat, drunken weasel. That's exactly fourscore creatures, not counting the thirteen babes n' liddle 'uns."

Roan nodded his scraggly-furred head. "Perfect, this makes it easy. All the babes and twoscore of you stay on board ship; the rest of us will go ashore."

The scheme appealed to everybeast; within minutes, half the band had left the ship, small barrels and large foodsacks in tow. One of Rugg's searats, who had gone ashore and was spying from behind a large rock, nodded his ugly head in satisfaction. Unobtrusively, he backed into the sea again, and swam out to where his captain was awaiting his report.

The island Bowbolt was moored against had the least rocky terrain; the rest of them were a network of dunes, stony hillocks, tall conifers, and prickly scrub bushes, all of which had obviously survived a fire in bygone seasons. No island was further than about twenty paces from its neighbors; many of them, at low tide, were connected by narrow strips of sand, making travel easier, if a bit mazelike. Knowing that the majority of the wildcat villiage been located on the furthest island from where Bowbolt had moored, the band of travelers marched as quickly as possible to their destination, ignoring barked shins, stubbed toeclaws, and scraped paws as they toiled onwared.

It had been a long time since Roan and his fellow wildcats had been home; many of them wept openly at the terrible sight which greeted them. Every now and then a lonely dwelling would appear, broken to rubble and scorched beyond recognition by the fires Dankfur's crew had set. Occasionally, a pitiful skeleton would be seen; all that was left of a poor weakling wildcat who could not serve the Ranks' purposes, whatever they might be.

As they approached the main villiage, the ruins of dwellings became more frequent, and the sights became more gruesome and terrible. After the seventh such hut had been passed, a stocky ginger cat named Fuzztail could take it no longer. He turned to Roan, his green eyes filled with tears. "We can't just leave our families lying here like this; they need to be decently buried!"

Roan was about to shake his head, and say that speed was of the essence, until he realized that the nearest destroyed stone hut was the one in which Fuzztail and his family had once lived. He sighed. "Very well. Lilybud, you and your otters go back the way we came and gather up the remains of those poor beasts in those huts we passed. Urthswimmer, go to the villiage square over there and dig a large hole out; you shrews help him. The rest of us will get the beasts in the main town buildings. Yes, Dula?"

The shy young mouse had been pulling on Roan's tunic; he blushed to the eartips, mumbling. "Excuse me, sir, you mind if I penned a few words for your kinbeasts? I'm kind of...well, a poet of sorts."

Roan managed a little smile. "Of course, pen as many words as you wish; we can put them on the grave marker."

Within the hour, Urthswimmer and the shrews had prepared for the burial; gently and respectfully, the many fallen oldbeasts and weak ones were laid to rest. A couple of skilled squirrels had carved Dula's poem into a decent-sized slab of wood, which was half-buried and wedged between several stones to ensure it would stay in place as a monument to the fallen.

Thou wert taken before thy time,

In defending thy homeland, ye fell;

Though seasons shall pass, ye may rest with assurance

That thy kin shall remember thee well.

As the grave was covered over, Donnabel the volewife was called upon to play a soft melody on the stringed instrument she had brought from the ship. Lilybud, a beautiful young ottermaiden, sang the words to the ancient song, moving everybeast present to tears.

Goodbye, my friend; our ways part here today;

I weep tears of pain at your sweet memory.

Seems hard to bear that you have gone away,

And that you won't be coming back to me.

Many seasons we traveled lands together,

Many times we feasted, danced and sang;

But a foe has taken you away from me, now;

And I'm left here, in sorrow and in pain.

Yet I shall not weep forever, for I know, friend,

That nightly I shall see you in my dreams;

And when my life is done, we'll be together,

In the land of quiet fields and sunny streams.

So rest in peace my dear departed comerade;

I must leave you, though it causes me great pain;

I have the rest of my life to live out, now,

But don't you worry; we shall meet again!"

As the last clear note rose to the blue noontide sky, Roan wiped a paw roughly across his eyes; then he stood up straight with a sigh, addressing the company. "That was beautifully done, miss; I believe we've done decently by our kin now. Like the song says, we've got our own lives, and, more importantly, our friends and families to take care of now, so we'd best get a move on and gather up as many edibles as we can. There's a freswater spring over there, to fill the water kegs from, and there should be still some supplies in the huts that weren't damanged. There's a few edible plants growing about, too."

Still sniffling, the band of beasts spread out to do his bidding. Roan noticed that Fuzztail was not present; this surprised him, as the burial service had been his idea in the first place. Roan wandered away from the foragers, searching for signs of his friend.

Because of his fluffy, dragging namesake, and the size of his pawpads, the stocky ginger wildcat was not hard to track across the sandy island soil. Roan found him waist deep in the sea, staring towards the mainland in bewilderment. The older wildcat clapped a hand to Fuzztail's shoulder. "Come on, mate, we've got work to do. Your family is laid to rest, now. What are you looking over there for?"

Fuzztail seemed to come back to the present; he turned to face Roan, his expression one of both excitement and bewilderment. "My sons, Roan, my sons!"

Roan did not understand; Fuzztail went on. "I found my wife and grandparents, but my sons weren't there. You remember my late brother's daugher, the one we raised? Well, she wasn't there either. I found their tracks in the hut; they hadn't been washed off by rain or tide, and they led to the secret passageway I dug when I was young and adventurous."

Now Fuzztail was practically bouncing up and down with joy. "So I followed the tracks into the tunnel, and they led all the way to the end, in that big dune there. Don't you see, Roan? This beach is where those vermin had moored the ship! My sons and my neice must have escaped in it!"

Roan's memory of the attack, like all the other wildcats, was extremely fuzzy, due to the poisonous knockout herbs the Ranks had used. He vaguely remembered the vermin having a ship, though it had drifted off to the mainland and they had had to sail to the shore in rafts to catch up to it. It hadn't occured to the wildcat, until now, that one of his own species might have deliberately sailed off in it. Of course, this was only a theory, and an unlikely one at that; Roan was about to mention the fact to Fuzztail, but thought better of it; he shrugged his shoulders. "Good for them if they did; I hope they found somewhere nice to live, far away from all this vermin mess. Come on, let's get our supplies so we can get to the River Moss. We'll come back here afterwards and build our homes again..."

Fuzztail shook his head. "I won't be coming back. As soon as we've put a good distance between us and that Shadelair I'm going to look for my two sons and my niece. No..." He held up a paw, forstalling any argument. "Don't try to stop me. They're the only family I have now and I'm going to find them no matter what it takes."

"Then let me come with you." Roan insisted. "I have no family at all, and two sets of eyes are better than one."

Fuzztail shook paws with him. "Fair enough. We'll tell the others when we reach Mossflower Woods."

Wading back to shore, the two cats joined the foragers.

Evening shadows were starting to fall, the setting sun like a large red cherry slowly sinking into a keg of wine, it's red rays like dissolving juice scattering across the surface of the waters . At first, everybeast on board the Bowbolt had been nonchalant about the task of guarding; as more time passed, and the foragers did not return, the escaped prisoners began to be seriously worried, staring out towards the north until their eyes hurt. Vaccar the weasel was the most nervous, moaning aloud his thoughts.

"Where have those lubbers got to? We're just a sitting target here if the Black Shade shows up!"

Starburst waved her rudder. "We ain't spotted any sign of foebeasts for miles; for all we know, they might not even know we're gone yet. So stop moanin' an' keep lookin'!"

Vaccar was not to be appeased. "But the longer we sit here the closer them Ranks beasts are gonna get to us if they are comin'! An' it's gettin' dark! What if they come during the night? We'll all be killed!"

Several babes set up a wail of terror; Flipp held his hands to his ears, snarling at the weasel. "Will you shut your yap? Look what ye've done, frightening the babes like that. If'n ye can't say anythin' encouraging, keep your trap closed!"

Vaccar was suitably chastened. He shuffled back a few paces, whining pleadingly. "But, I don't wanna jus' sit here stewin' in my own fear; that drives a body mad! I gotta do somethin'!"

One of the little ones, a shrewbabe, offered his opinion. "Den singasong an dance f'us, varmint!"

His mother shushed him. "Ye don't want to hear any nasty, bloody vermin song, darlin'."

Flipp thought for a moment. "Wait just a second. That might not be a bad idea. Hoi, Vaccar, ye know any fun dancin' jigs fit for a babes ears? Might lighten the mood."

The weasel didn't like the idea of performing, but one look at the shrew with the curved sword told him he had no choice. "S'pose I could sing the ballad of No-Job Jones, if I must."

The song was known to all seagoing beasts, both good and bad; it was an old classic. Flipp nodded to show that Vaccar could go ahead; reluctantly at first, but gaining confidence as he went, the weasel broke out into the first verse, doing a hopskip little dance as he did so. The otherbeasts broke out clapping to the rhythm and singing the well-known chorus, the youngest of them dancing along with the weasel as he sang out. For a vermin, he had a strong tenor voice.

Oooooohhhh, I know a ship with the laziest crew

That ever did sail on the seas,

Her bowsprit is busted, her riggin' is knotted,

Her boards are all mossy, like trees.

Her sails were of purple, an' green, blue, and red,

Her deckrails were made out of bones,

An' since all 'er crew were so dreadfully slack,

They called her the ol' No-Job Jones!

I'll faaaaaaace....

Battles 'n Shipwrecks n' Thunder n' Lightnin'

An' cold winter snow winds that moan,

But, oh, lackaday, jus' keep me away

From that 'orrible ship No-Job Jones!

The Cap's so lazy 'e slumps in his bed,

All day from the dawn til' the night;

Some days he won't even get up for a meal,

For 'is jaws are too tired to bite;

An' the mates always snoring, the tiller forgotten,

The ship driftin' off who-knows-where;

An' the lookout won't look, and the cooky won't cook;

Ain't none of 'em got any care!"

I'll faaaaaaace....

Battles 'n Shipwrecks n' Thunder n' Lightnin'

An' cold winter snow winds that moan,

But, oh, lackaday, jus' keep me away

From that 'orrible ship No-Job Jones!

One day the ol' ship ran afoul of another,

A pirate rig called Jamboree,

'Er cap'n was shoutin' "How dare you ol' ragbags

To ram me, the king of the sea?"

An' 'e sent all his crew to board the ol' Jones,

To teach 'em a lesson that day;

They charged at the lazy ol' bums of a crew,

Preparing their foebeasts to slay.

I'll faaaaaaace....

Battles 'n Shipwrecks n' Thunder n' Lightnin'

An' cold winter snow winds that moan,

But, oh, lackaday, jus' keep me away

From that 'orrible ship No-Job Jones!

Well, the Jamboree's Crew never stood any chance;

Five tripped on the moss-covered boards,

An' a dozen got tangled in that snarled-up riggin',

Suspended high off o' the floor,

Eight of 'em slipped off the old broken bowsprit;

The rest stubbed their paws on the bones;

An' they all fled away; to this day, they all say,

Keep away from the ol' No-Job Jones!

I'll faaaaaaace....

Battles 'n Shipwrecks n' Thunder n' Lightnin'

An' cold winter snow winds that moan,

But, oh, lackaday, jus' keep me away

From that 'orrible ship No-Job Jones!

From that 'orrible, terrible, awful, unbearable,

Nasty ol' ship No-Job Jones!

By popular demand, Vaccar was compelled to sing the last verse and chorus over quite a few times before the little ones had danced themselves to exhaustion. Worn out himself, he too flopped to the deck, out to the world, snoring uproariously.

It was at this moment, when the last rays of the setting sun began to dissapear, that Rugg Tornpaw made his move. Little ones shrieked in terror as he and his six rats leapt out of the darkness to land among them, grabbing several of them up in their paws. The peg-legged rat captain poised his cutlass at the neck of baby Guffle the vole, snarling. "Don't any of ye make a move towards me, or dis one an' 'is liddle pals die! All of you, overboard, now; we'll throw dis lot over when ye do. MOVE!"

The goodbeasts stood defiant, though there was definite worry in their eyes. Rugg knew he was severely outnumbered and pressed for time; he had to get them off his ship as soon as possible before the rest of the band returned. "Come on, you lot, move NOW!" None of them did. Rugg bared his snaggled fangs, raising his cutlass. "Ye have til the count of three; after that, this volebabe's fishbait. WUN!....TWO...."

That was as far as he got; a stone slammed into his nose, stunning him. Whirling slings made from strips torn from their ragged clothes, the forage party boarded the ship, roaring in anger. Rugg's six rats had nowhere to go; they fled the slings only to meet a headlong charge of the beasts on board the ship, waving staves of wood. It was over in an instant; dull splashes sounded as the six crewrats bodies were thrown overboard. Roan grabbed Guffle and passed him to his mother Donnabel, them went over to Rugg. The former captain's braided beard was stained by his bleeding nose; he held up a paw pleadingly. "Spare me, Spare me! I'll go far away, matey, ye've got me solemn oath!"

Roan was past listening; Rugg whimpered as the wildcat raised his unsheathed claws, preparing for a downward swipe; suddenly, a shout from Flipp, who had ascended to the crows nest again, alerted him.

"The Stormdog! The Ranks are after us!"

Roan ran to the edge of the ship; the light was failing, but the green and white Stormdog was unmistakable, bearing down on them from the north with terrible speed. The wildcat could make out the shadow of another ship, probably the brown-sailed Wormrigg, behind it; he shouted to his crew; "Man the oars! Starburst, get the tiller!"

Dula timidly raised a paw. "But we've only got half the food an' water on board...."

Roan shouted into his face. "We don't have time for that! Everybeast, to the oars! Vaccar, wake up, you row too! Hurry, everyone! MOVE!"

With everybeast fueled by the frenzy of abject terror, the Bowbolt shot away from the Gingiverian Tribe Isles, off into the fading night. Starburst dragged Rugg by his ear to an oar, tying his paw to it with a rope before grasping an oar herself. "Paddle, matey, paddle, or we're all dead, yoreself included!"

Back in Mossflower Woods, what was left of Dankfur's crew of martens and Krozfoxx sat well away from Redwall Abbey, nursing their wounds. Jettcoil was still in a state of shock from his mate's death; grief is an emotion unfamiliar to serpents, so the blacksnake did not know why it was that he suddenly felt so alone, so incomplete, without Whiptail there. Scaleflier, the smaller serpent, was hiding out of sight of the camp, and made a note of this. A fiendish plan had entered the stunted racer's mind, one that would both rid him of several enemies and cost the Black Shade dearly; he knew he just had to wait for the opportunity, and keep his eyes open for other useful information.

Nursing a torn footpad, Dankfur vented his spleen on the band. "Idiots! Cowards! You let a bunch of oldbeasts and youngbeasts hold you up!"

None of them dared respond; he continued angrily. "We're still going to get that Abbey, one way or another. If any of you even think of deserting I'll have Jettcoil stop you for good. We've got honor to avenge here, if you beasts understand that concept."

Akalle Bladewhip seemed strangely subdued this afternoon; she agreed with him. "Aye, the Skullbeast is right, mates. We're can't take this lying down."

Dankfur breathed an inward sigh of relief that at least one beast was seeing his reason. What he did not realize, in his exhausted, angry state, was that Akalle had her own reasons for sticking around; namely, the secret slaying of Ringgob, and possibly Dankfur too, if she had the chance. Scaleflier had, however, figured this out to some extent; he catalogued it away in his mind as another possibly useful fact. "Knowledge issssss power!" He hissed complacently to himself, curling back up in his hiding place.

Uja and Ringgob were the only martens besides Dankfur to survive the attack on the Redwallers; the latter was out with the fox Kaiah Greenhide, searching for vittles. The big, tattooed marten was inclined to show disdain for his primitive, tailless companion at first; however, it soon became clear that Kaiah new more about woodland eatables than the former seabeast did. "Disee mushroom, veree good to eat."

"Are ye shore t'ain't pizen, mate?"

For an answer, Kaiah tore off a piece and wolfed it down. "Happee now, skulleebeast?"

Ringgob nodded, trying to keep his temper down. "Aye, yer point's made. Gather up them things. I heard somthin' move back there, I'm gunna see if'n tiz meat!"

The two parted company, Ringgob creeping through the undergrowth like the skilled assasin he was.

Dippertail was in trouble. The falcon had injured his wing when he pounced on and slew Yirta, and had tried to walk back to the Abbey. However, he had not gone two paces before he managed to step into a sinkhole, and was now stuck tight like a cork in a bottle. Flapping and kicking desperately, he had tried to free himself all that day and the next, until his strength had given out, and he had collapsed, panting, his tail and rump still firmly jammed in the hole.

He saw Ringgob approaching, but could not do a thing about it; the marten grinned and slacked off his arrow when he recognized the falcon sitting on the ground before him. "Well, looky here; hey, fox! Cummere an' give me a hand, we gotta prisoner!"

The marten picked up a rock; Dippertail sank into unconsciousness as the missile struck him in the head.

Back at camp, Dankfur was delighted with the turn of events, though he tried not to show it. Prodding the sleeping falcon, who was trussed up, gagged, and slung between two poles, he addressed the company. "Jettcoil, track us the speediest path back to the Shadelair. I left the Redwallers a message that we have one of their own; the cat will follow us, I'm sure, though she'll probably have other warriors with her. If we get a good head start, we can meet up with the other ranks and have a full army to face them. Let's go!"

With a still somewhat muddle-headed Jettcoil in the lead, the vermin set off at a fast trot. Scaleflier followed behind at his own pace, knowing he could easily catch up. Behind them, on a tree near the edge of the woodlands, Dankfur's sabre had carved the terrible message.

We have one of your youngbeasts; a falcon. Do not try to follow us or he dies!

An open invitation for virtuous goodbeasts, as the crafty marten captain knew only too well.

Chapter Twenty-FiveEdit

Thrice, the sun had set over Redwall Abbey since the day of the tragic battle; now, it was morning again, with bright summer sun shining down upon the rose-hued bulk of the Abbey, warming the stones after two solid days of steady rain. The interior of the Abbey had seemed to be one vast chamber of gloom during those two days, for more reasons than just the weather. The deaths of several Abbeybeasts, especially that of baby Kwinsee Pinspikes, had hung over everybeasts minds like the dark rainclounds; furthermore, many beasts had suffered hurts in the battle, and the infirmary was packed almost to bursting point, with not only the wounded and healers but also the many anxious family members and friends of the injured beasts. Grandmum Dawbil, atypical to her usual preferences, had allowed these last named to stay under the condition that they not interfere, only assisting in the healing if specifically called upon to do so. The sickbay had, in fact, become the place for Abbeydwellers to meet and chat of late; as it helped to somewhat dispel the gloomy atmosphere, nobeast raised any complaint.

Standing by the infirmary window, Abbess Saffron and Jorty Cellarmole watched the bright rays of sunlight streaming in, conversing together in hushed tones. The molewife gestured with her digging claws. "Burr, Oi think ev'rybeast bees quoiter 'n usual this mawnin', missuz; they'm a-thinkin' ee fooneral shudd bee t'day, ho urr."

Saffron nodded, her voice tight with emotion. "I had already come to that decision myself when I saw the rain had stopped this morning, though I had to order Skipper to bring back his search party before we lay our fallen ones to rest. Poor fellow, he's so worried about Dippertail not coming back."

Jorty shrugged. "Hurr, Oi don't blame ee Skipper furr that, bein' the wunn what raised Dip when ee'm bee nought but ee 'bandunned eggchickur. Whurr doo ee think ee'm gone, missuz?"

The Abbess shrugged. "Who can tell? We can only hope he hasn't been hurt. But if two days worth of searching has brought us neither hide nor feather of him, that seems unlikely. Maybe he suddenly felt the longing to return to the northern mountains where his kind usually live; birds of prey do do that occasionally."

Shermy joined the pair, bringing with him a heavily laden trolley of food. He used his uninjured paw to swing up into a seated position on the broad windowsill; sensing his companions' gloom, he tried to lighten up the situation, smiling broadly. "Hello, ladies! Beautiful morning, wot?"

The Abbess smiled back; she, along with just about every other beast in Redwall, had been hugely impressed by the young hare lately. Shermy's right forepaw was completely gone, lost forever to the fangs of the late blacksnake Whiptail; however, he had neither grieved this loss, nor been angered by it. Instead, inspired by a memory of the sight of Dankfur, the hare had instructed Bumbill the Abbey Forgemaster to make him a simple metal hookpaw. Jorty's husband had finished the task the previous morning; now, with his new appendage attached skillfully by Grandmum Dawbil to his pawstump, the hare went about his business just as calmly and obediently as usual, totally unaffected. What impressed everybeast more than his philosophical handling of the situation, however, was that his skill as a healer had not diminished. True, he had needed a bit of assistance when he had only a stump of his right paw to work with; now that he had a hook to hang bandage rolls on, or tie stitching thread to, Shermy could (and did) continue his tasks unaided, bringing help to many sorely wounded creatures.

Off-duty for the moment, the young hare washed his paw and hook in a nearby water basin, addressing the Abbess. "Well, things are taking a turn for the better, marm, ain't they? Bloomin' weather's finally clearin' up, beasts we were worried might not make it are starting to recover, and so on. Oh, and that Foremole chap says his team's made quite the progress on the new main gate, marm."

Saffron patted his back. "That is definitely good news, young sir. Pray tell me, are you planning to eat all this breakfast yourself, or could you spare a bite for a hungry Abbess and Cellarmole?"

Shermy threw a strawberry in the air and caught it skillfully in his mouth. "I believe so; help yourself, wot!"

The base of Sy Stoneclaw's ear had been punctured clean through by an arrow; she sat on the floor while Sister Jerrabeau checked the dressing about her wound. Hearing food mentioned, she made as if to rise. "Save some for me; I'd like some breakfast too...YEOW!"

The elderly mouse had given the bandage a hard yank. "Sit still, miss, or I'll never get this on!"

Shermy filled a small tray with eatables and brought it to his wildcat friend; noticing that her good eye was red with recent weeping, he patted her paw gently. "Now, what's all this, then? I thought you said 'tis better to smile during troubles than to weep."

The wildcat sighed, shaking her head. "It seems all of my kind are doomed to bring trouble wherever they encounter goodbeasts, even when someone as wise as your warrior mouse commands them. I don't know that the Pinspikes family will ever forgive me after what's happened; I tried to speak to Ayeriss today and nearly got my head bit off."

The hare shook his head. "She's like that most of the time anyway. Besides, she's still grieving, and in great pain, doncha know. After all, she fell flat on her back and drove a good deal of her spikes inwards; we must have removed enough to fill two buckets. She'll come round, don't worry." Seeing that Sy was still trying to hold back tears, Shermy adopted a firmer tone. "Now, you stop this right this minute, miss. No one could say Kwinsee's death was your fault; nothing you did induced her to climb out the window, or caused that marten to decide to slay her. In fact, you saved many of our lives charging into the vermin like you did; besides, the scum who killed our Dibbun got what he deserved, wot!"

Sy shuddered. "I actually feel rather sorry for the marten. I'm glad we already buried him and his lot in the ditch."

Shermy nodded, his face grim. "Aye, the drop from the battlements isn't fatal, usually, but landing headfirst on a stone..." He, too, shuddered. "Anyway, that's over and done with, thank goodness."

Sister Jerrabeau finished tying off Sy's bandage, moving on to attend Walldoh Branchbounder's wounded footpaw; Sy stood, smiling weakly. "I'd better go check on my cousins. Thank you for your kind words, friend; I'll be glad to have you by my side when I go to free the rest of my kin from the Black Shade."

Shermy offered her his intact paw (his hookpaw was still rather sore), which the wildcat shook. "I share the sentiment. When do you think we should move out?"

Sy shrugged. "Well, we can't go until Ayeriss and Walldoh are fit for travel. Besides, we still don't...hello, Skip, what's your hurry?"

Windryder and his search party had just returned, and stormed into the infirmary without waiting for permission to enter. Shoving his way past Sy without even looking at her, the otter chief marched right up to Abbess Saffron. The squirrel could tell by the expression on Skipper's face that something was badly wrong; she tried to remain calm. "I take it you found something. Speak!"

Skipper bowed, making his report. "As ye know, we 'ad no way of knowin' where Dippertail might've landed in that fog, so we've been coverin' the points of the compass. We've searched south an' west for signs of that falcon; today, we went north. We found the body of that raven in a clearin' not too far off, an' a good deal of Dip's feathers. Alyssum found this writ onna tree trunk nearby an' took a copy."

Skipper handed a parchment to the Abbess, who read it aloud. "We have one of your youngbeasts; a falcon. Do not try to follow us or he dies!" Her face paled, and she glanced at Skipper, who nodded grimly.

"We also found a shred o' blue cloak on a thorn bush by that dead raven. Ain't no doubt about it; Dippertail's been kidnapped by them Ranks beasts, and they're usin' 'im as hostage while they make their getaway!"

There was a complete storm of murmurs of shock, indignation, and alarm from the beasts in the infirmary; Saffron waved her paws for silence. "Please, friends, this is no time to panic, or threaten enemies that are not here to hear you. Skipper, what do you propose we do?"

The otter chieftain shrugged his shoulders sadly. "Not much we can do. The rain washed out the villain's tracks; we don't have the foggiest idea where they're going."

Sy decided it was time to speak up. "Yes, we do; at least, I do. They'll probably be heading back to the Shadelair, to gather reinforcements. Dankfur's not stupid; he knows we're bound to follow him and free our comerade."

Everybeast turned to look at her; Ayeriss, who had been huddled miserably on a bed in a corner, sat up, demanding, "What do yeh think we should do about it?"

The wildcat laid out her scheme. "Martin instructed seven of us to seek out the Shadelair; Myself, Ayeriss, Tings, Shermy, Walldoh, Raggle, and one other we haven't figured out yet."

Sister Sedgebrush interrupted. "Hold hard there, miss; I don't see where that rhyme said my son must go."

Sister Flim the Recorder rummaged through her parchment pouch, finding the scroll where she had written down the rhyme. "It says here,

Finally, the one who slays

A threat'ning horror with my blade

Must bring it with him when he goes

On this quest which must be made."

She pointed at the young black squirrel, who was, somewhat green-facedly, helping to bandage Walldoh's bloody footpaw. "Your son saved several Dibbuns' lives by slaying one of those blacksnakes, and he used the Sword of Martin. Therefore, he goes!"

Raggle agreed, somewhat weakly. "I don't know what possessed me to grab Martin's sword, when there was a perfectly good pile of weapons in the room already. But, there it is; can't change what's happened, can I?"

Walldoh grinned at him. "Sure, an' why would you want to? A little adventure'll do ye the world of good, so it will. Why, I remember when I was yore age..."

The Abbess noticed that several beasts were getting a bit impatient; she cleared her throat. "If we could get back to the matter at hand, please?"

Sy elaborated her scheme. "Right. As I was saying, we don't know who the seventh beast is, but in the light of Skipper's news, we may have to go ahead and leave, and trust it's sombeast we'll meet on the way, instead of a Redwaller. Anyway, Brother Willow was good enough to find the directions to the Shadelair in his studies. I know where he put them, so we may use these as a guide. Dankfur is just about as lost as I am, of that I am sure; he and his crew may know the general direction to take, but they will be a while in getting there. If we start soon, we can probably use the directions to overtake them; then, we can form a plan of campaign to sneak Dippertail away from them without things coming to a direct battle. Any questions?"

Ayeriss shrugged, gingerly. "Anythin's better than sittin' here mopin'. It all seems a bit risky, tho'."

The Abbess agreed. "That it is, but I doubt anybeast could come up with a better plan. All those in favor, raise their right paws."

Immediately, a mass of paws shot up; Sy smiled. "Well, that seems to be unanimous...Sister Sedgebrush, are you raising your paw? I can't tell."

The squirrelwife's paw had flicked halfheartedly up, then down again; she fidgeted with her habit cord. " don't know that I really want my son to go marching off who-knows-where. But, if Martin said he must go, then he must go, I suppose."

Raggle looked relieved; for a minute, he had feared his mother would panic and force him to stay. Hoping to change the subject before she had second thoughts, the young squirrel piped up, "When should we leave? I don't think that Ayeriss or Walldoh are fit to travel yet."

Ayeriss leapt to her paws, ignoring the pain of her wounds. "Sez who? I dunno 'bout you lot, but as soon's my sister's put to rest, I'm out of 'ere. I don't never wanna see this place agin!"

In the aghast silence that followed, she made an ungainly dash from the room, hoping nobeast had noticed the tears suddenly beading in her eyes.

Walldoh was the first to recover; he, too, stood, testing the poultice about his footpaw. "Poor lass, the grief's still too near for her to think clearly. Sure, an' I should be able to walk on this whenever we're ready; feel's like a new paw, so it does."

Sy looked about her group of comerades, all looking ready and willing to go. "Very well; with your permission, Abbess, we'll move out at sunset, after the ceremony and funeral dinner. That should give us time to study the route, and pack for the trip. I wish we knew who 'Two eyes faking one' was, but we'll just have to do without him, or her for now."

"That seems the best course of action to me, friend." The Abbess took Sy's paw. "May blessing follow you wherever you go, all of you. Go now, and make ready to leave; I will send for you when the burial is to take place."

The small party made as if to depart from the infirmary, when Twigga the harvest mouse came dashing in from the back room, where the most seriously injured patients had been kept. "Miz Sy, there's a patient who wants to speak to you; he says it's urgent. He says he wants you, too, Raggle."

The wildcat and the black squirrel turned to follow her, their curiosity aroused.

Brother Willow's wound was the worst any of the creatures still living had recieved; it was, as Shermy had put it, "a bloomin' miracle the old chap wasn't slain, though I couldn't say how long he'll hold out with a gash like that." The old shrew had been unconscious when Sy had rescued him and brought him in, and had remained that way until a few minutes previously. Twigga halted the two beasts following her, cautioning, "Whatever you do, don't excite him in any way. I think he might be delirious, so just let him say his piece and don't contradict him."

Sy took a look at the thin, wan, pitiful figure dwarfed by the large bed he was in, lowering her voice to a whisper. "Is he going to die?"

Twigga nodded sadly. "He might live for a few days more, or a few minutes; it's difficult to say. But we're trying to keep him as comfortable as we can, so please don't antagonize him, no matter how ornery and disagreeable he chooses to be."

Raggle, realizing the remarks were aimed at him, waved his bushy black tail impatiently. "All right, all right, I get the message. I won't say a thing if he doesn't ask me too. Let's get this over with, shall we?"

Twigga led the pair over to the old shrew's bedside, gently tapping him on his shoulder. "Brother Willow, here are the creatures you sent for."

The shrew's eyes did not open; feebly, he rasped, "Are you there, cat?"

Sy knelt down close to the bed. "I'm here, Brother."

The shrew paused to draw breath before continuing. "And you, young Raggle?"

"Here, sir."

"Good." A short silence followed, broken only by the sound of Willow's labored breathing. Sy was about to ask Willow why he had called her there, when the old shrew spoke again, his cracked voice barely audible. "You saved me...stopped that fox shooting my head...Why, cat?"

Sy was taken aback by the question. "Why would I not?"

Willow seemed to be struggling with emotion, as well as to breathe. "Nasty...I've been nasty, everybeast...I've been a complete savage. Don't be a fool... asking me why not. You should have left me...but you didn't. Why?"

Sy took his paw. "How you behaved doesn't matter, Brother. You were a goodbeast in danger, that's all that mattered."

Willow's face formed a grimace. "You could have taken the risked your think I'm a good beast? Hah!"

Sy stroked his forehead to calm him. "Good beasts can sometimes make mistakes and behave badly, brother. I never held anything against you, never."

Willow coughed, wincing again. "I still say..You..are vermin..."

"Now wait just a min..." Raggle was about to speak out, but a glance from Twigga silenced him.

Willow continued. "You are a are a vermin...but you are...a good vermin. You have a good heart...Never...never let anybeast tell you different. Never...never let old fools like me...tell you different." He made as if to move his paws, then went into another fit of coughing. Sy waited patiently for him to continue; but when he did, his thoughts were on a different track. "All my work....all my good to anybeast, one to keep the life's work...gone now." The shrew's eyes snapped open, a look of sadness and fear stamped on his features.

Sy clasped his paw tightly. "Don't worry, brother; this Abbey is full of good beasts who love history as much as you do. The library's in good paws, I promise you." Brother Willow still looked upset; Sy stroked his head again, whispering. "I promise you, Brother, you have no need to worry. I promise."

Raggle suddenly chimed in, his voice strangley choked. "Aye, an' I promise, too."

Willow seemed to accept this assurance; he settled into his pillow, closing his eyes again. He drew a deep breath, his voice barely above a hissing whisper. "I wish...I wish I could have been remembered as a goodbeast...that I could have been your friend and not your enemy...Lady Stoneclaw."

It was the last thing the old scholar ever said; his paw slid limply from the wildcat's grasp. With tears raining unchecked down her face, Sy embraced the old shrew for the first and last time. "You were never my enemy, Brother Willow; rest in peace, my ancient friend."

Down in Great Hall, Abbess Saffron and Formole Aggit studied a parchment that contained a diagram of the part of the lawns used for seasons as a cemetery; the pair were discussing plans for the funeral ceremony. The Abbess pointed at various spots. "We had better bury Brother Gus here, next to his wife. Barbatus and the other two otters we lost can go on the area nearest the pond, where most of our lost otters lie. I suppose Brother Furze and his family will tell us where they want Kwinsee's marker to be, though I'd imagine it would probably be somewhere near a patch of flowers; she loved flowers."

The mole leader shook his head sadly. "B'ain't roight, havin' to bury thoi young'un. Poor Furze an' Teezl, Ho urr."

Sy and Raggle came downstairs, both wiping tears from their eyes. The big wildcat walked on by without a word, going over to the weapons pile, grabbing her scimitars, and polishing them furiously. Raggle halted at the table, trying in vain to keep his voice from trembling. "Regret to say it, Mother Abbess, but there will need to be one more grave dug; Brother Willow has passed on. I think everybeast should know that, before he died, he apologized for his actions and requested to be forgiven."

The Abbess smiled. "Thank you, Raggle. You may go now and gather your provisions."

The young squirrel made as if to do so, then halted. "There's one thing more. Brother Willow expressed concern that his library would not be kept up and organized after he passed on. When I return to Redwall, I plan to see to it that it is. That's all."

Bowing, he went off after the wildcat. Foremole nodded in admiration. "Hurr, ee young maister bees a-growin' up, burr aye."

Saffron nodded her head in acknowledgement; there was no need for more words.

Chapter Twenty-SixEdit

As the sun finished setting over the western woods, like a ball of molten ruby descending into a pit of jagged emeralds, the last feeble pink-hued rays shed their soft light upon the funeral procession wending its sombre way through Redwall Abbey's fast-darkening grounds. Each body, duly shrouded, had already been consigned to a grave and buried by Foremole's crew some time earlier; now, the long procession of creatures moved on a zig-zag path from grave to grave, to pay their last respects to their brave comerades fallen in battle. Alyssum the ottermaid, too overcome with emotion at her brother Barbatus' death to attend, had stationed herself in the belltower; the Abbey's twin bells, Matthaias and Methuselah, tolled out a slow cadence for the march of saddened beasts in the cemetery far below.

Saffron, Grandmum Dawbil, and Friar Dimp headed the procession, all in their finest clothes; each of them bore a special lantern made of stained glass hung on a gilded pole. The Abbey Brothers and Sisters, all in their best black dress habits, came next, followed by the white-robed remaining members of the Pinspikes family; all these carried candlesticks in silver holders. Behind them came the otter and mole crews, armed to the teeth with the best-looking ceremonial weapons available; Shermy, Raggle, Walldoh and Tings marched with them, similarly armed. Towards the back of the procession came the Dibbuns, bathed, green-smocked, and burdened with oversized bouquets of flowers; finally, bringing up the rear and bearing the standard of Redwall (a red "R" on a green background) upon a large pole, came Siyuzin Stoneclaw. Sy had requested to be towards the back of the procession to keep an eye on the little ones, and to avoid distressing the Pinspikes family further; thus, Saffron had conferred this special honor upon her.

At each gravesite they paused for a moment of silence. Then, a short prayer was sung by somebeast the Abbess had already delegated for that task, and anybeast who had anything to say was allowed to say it. When the procession continued, creatures left flowers, small weapons, candles, colored pebbles, and other mementos upon the mounds as they filed by them. Now, the group was proceeding to the last grave, that of Kwinsee Pinspikes; afterwards, they were to head to the the orchard, where a basic sandwich and soup dinner had already been laid out by Friar Dimp. The Dibbuns, stuck in the back of the line, had managed to keep quiet and out of trouble so far; however, their growling tummies and youthful impatience were beginning to cause some dissent among the ranks.

"Why we stay so long a' bruvva Willa's spot? I t'ot we nevva leave!"

Squirt, being the eldest Dibbun there, shot a glare at Leeam Volebabe, who had made the remark. "A course we stay long; Formole plant a likkle tree dere!"

Shay Branchbounder chimed in. "It not nice to say t'ing like dat at a foonr'l, silly!"

Baby Pringill took Leeam's side. "But why we havta plant a tree? It take sooooo long. We nevva plant one f'anyone else!"

Shay promptly whacked her across the nose with her bouquet of flowers. "Husha, you too loud; we get in big trubble!"

Spluttering flower petals, Pringill set up a wail. "YaghSpflutsh! Why you do dat for?! Wahaaa, I not do nuffink!"

This time it was Speedwell who reacted, covering Pringill's mouth with his oversize fuzzy paw. "SHHHHHHHHH, you wanna get us all baffed an' sent t'bed?"

Pringill chomped down hard with her powerful buck teeth, drawing blood. Speedwell drew back with a yelp of pain; Squirt, who had seen the altercation, decided enough was enough. "Ooooo, you hurt a guest! You in big trubble now; I tell Muvva h'Abbess!"

Pringill was in no mood to discuss the matter; she flung her bouquet at Squirt with all the vehemence she could muster, striking him hard in the stomach. The otter retaliated by charging full on at her, roaring in anger; Sy leapt between them just before they came to blows. "Stop this right now, do you hear me? There is no fighting friends inside the Abbey walls."

Both babes began shouting at once. "But he gonna tattle-tale on me...she bite Speedwell...he hurt fuss too much...I do not, we jus' take too long at..."

"Quiet!" The tone of the wildcat's voice was not angry, but it was just firm enough to let them know she meant buisiness. "All of you, get your flowers and get back in line; don't ever let me catch you behaving this way again. I know you are better creatures than this; you know this is no way to show respect at a funeral. Now, I won't tell the Abbess that you were fighting, but if any of you start a second fight I will personally see to it that you are put on pot-cleaning duty in the kitchens for the next three days. Is that clear?"

Leeam Volebabe raised a timid paw. "But why we stay so long at Bruvva Willa's...."

"Ssshhhhhhhh, don' start dat again!" The entire crowd of Dibbuns hissed at him.

Sy was forced to smile. "No, it's all right, you're entitled to know. We stayed at Brother Willow's grave so Foremole could plant a baby weeping willow there. We did that to show everybeast that we forgave Brother Willow and were proud of him for his actions in battle; the tree will grow and grow and always remind us of that through the seasons. Do you understand now?"

A silent group of Dibbuns nodded furiously; Sy smiled again. "Good. We'd best get back in line, before they notice we're not there."

There was a slight scramble as the Dibbuns gathered up their flowers and hurried to catch up with the funeral procession, which had stopped at Kwinsee's grave. The prayer had already been sung, and the Abbess was making a short speech, to the effect of how Kwinsee had lived up to her Pinspikes heritage by trying to warn the Abbey when it was in great peril. Sy caught up just as Saffron concluded. "....even though her life was tragically cut short, Kwinsee Pinspikes did not live in vain. Her family and friends will remember her courage for many, many seasons to come." She looked about the assembly. "If anybeast has anything to add, now is the time. Yes, Sister Teezl?"

The Pinspikes matriarch passed her newborn twins to her husband and stepped foward, fidgeting with her robe cord. "Well, I know there's wun of us here wot thinks t'iz 'er fault my Kwinsee got killed, an' I wanner let 'er know we don't 'old a thing against 'er, and that t'wasn't 'er fault a'tall." The rest of the family murmured in agreement; Teezl addressed the wildcat. "Yew don' have t'hide back there, miz Sy; we forgives yeh. In fact, we decided t'name our new liddle 'uns Feliks an' Shingul, after yore ancestors wot ye told the Abbey School about. That all right with you?"

There were more murmurs of agreement; Sy nodded gratefully from the back of the line, not wishing to have to shout over the heads of the other creatures. Saffron smiled upon the Pinspikes family. "Thank you, Sister Teezl. Has anyone else anything to say?"

There was a slight pause; then, Biddee Pinkspikes stepped out of the Dibbun ranks and came foward, waving a small pebble. "S'cuse me, muvva h'Abbess; I find a seed, an' plant it here so Kwinsee get a baby tree like Bruvva Willa, maybe."

Several other Dibbuns hissed urgently at her. "Burr, coom back hurr!"

"Dat notta seed, t'is a rock!"

"You gonna get laffed at; dat not grow!"

Sy cleared her throat rather noisily; immediate silence fell among the babes. Saffron, noticing the defiant look on Biddee's face, decided it would be best to humor her now and explain the truth to her later. "Go right ahead, little one, if that's what you want to do."

Friar Dimp chimed in. "Aye, you never know; it might just become a tree after all." Catching several exhasperated glares from the assembled crowd, he shrugged. "Well, it might!"

Solemnly, Biddee planted the pebble by the head of the grave; Foremole lent her the watering can he had brought with him to plant Brother Willow's tree, so she could properly finish the task. As no other beast seemed inclined to speak, Saffron adressed the company again. "Thank you all for showing your respects today. Dinner has been laid out in the orchard for us; however, not all of us will be attending. Lady Stoneclaw and her party have already eaten, and are leaving now to rescue our Abbey Falcon, and free the rest of Lady Stoneclaw's family from the clutches of the Ranks of the Shadow. I believe I speak for everybeast here when I say that we hope and pray for your safe return to us, and that good fortune should follow you wherever you tread."

Ayeriss shed her robe to reveal the traveling clothes she wore under it. "Aye, I don't doubt yore right, but we're wastin' time yammerin' here. Let's go!"

She set off towards the main gate, where the provision packs had been left; the others followed, though at a much slower pace, as they were swamped by well-wishing Abbeybeasts. Suddenly, it seemed everybeast was talking at once, as if breaking free of the solemnity of the funeral with a rush.

"Well, so long, mate; but don't you dare come back without my matey Dip!"

"Burr, doan't ee young'un's goo disobeyin' miz Sy; She'm travelled more than you'm, ho aye."

"Be safe, my son, please!"

"I can't promise that, Ma; we're going off to war, you know. I'll try my best, though."

"Belay, you ain't leavin' without a lucky pebble, are ye? Here, take mine."

"Now, you watch yourself out there, dearie. Don't talk to strangers!"

"Be careful with that knife, miz Tings, I just had Bumbill sharpen it yesterday!"

"Wahaaaaaa, don' wan' mista Shermee to gooooooooooooooo!!!!!"

"What's all this? Dry your eyes, little one, I'll bring back a trinket for you, wot!"

"Daddee, I go too! I go too!"

"Sure, an' I think not. Better stay here this time, darlin'."

"Great seasons, look at THAT!"

Friar Dimp had not joined the group until then; it was he who had spoken. The other creatures turned to look where he was pointing; where Biddee had buried her "seed", a tiny green plant was sprouting upwards. The Abbeybeasts crowded around, mystified.

"How in the world....plants don't grow that fast!"

"But, it wurr a rock; hurr aye, it wurr!"

"It's a miracle, that's what it is!"

"Yay, I gotta baby tree! I gotta baby treeeee!"

Saffron shot a sidelong look at her brother; she had not fallen for the trick. "And I suppose you wouldn't happen to know anything about this, would you?"

Hiding his soil-stained paws behind his back, the mischevious Friar looked the picture of innocence. "What, me? I didn't see anything."

In the new commotion, Sy and the others had managed to slip away through the main Abbey gates. As Ayeriss already had a considerable head start, they were forced to break into a trot to catch up with her before she completely disappeared into Mossflower. Shermy was the first to reach her, dashing past the hogmaid and planting himself in the middle of the path directly in front of her. "Hold hard there, miss! You don't want to get lost, y'know; deucedly hard to find one's way back when one loses oneself, wot!"

Ayeriss glared fiercely, trying to get around him. "Well, I ain't about to jus' stand there while they gets away, th' murderin' scum!"

The rest had caught up by this time. Walldoh took charge of the situation; the dormouse was out of breath, and rather angry. "Faith, missy, if'n ye want t'get yourself killed, by all means keep runnin' off like that. Ye can't charge in alone against a full army o' vermin, no indeed ye can't. From now on, you take orders from meself an' miss Stoneclaw; is that understood, me darlin'?"

Ayeriss nodded, biting her lip to try to stop the frustrated tears falling from her eyes. Sy took pity on her, carfully putting a paw about the hogmaid's shoulders. "I lost my grandparents and many of my friends to the Ranks; I understand why you want to protect other creatures from the same fate. So long as we all respect one another and work together, we should succeed. Here, dry your eyes."

The hogmaid accepted the proffered handkerchief, scrubbing vigorously at her face. Allowing Ayeriss a moment to compose herself, Sy addressed Tings. "Now, let's have a look at those directions."

As the mousemaid pulled a scroll from her haversack, Raggle looked strangely at her. "I thought Brother Willow said there weren't any directions."

"There weren't, in the chapter he was reading." Tings unrolled the parchment, where she had copied down the route. "Sy and I read through the rest of the book, though, and found this "Ballad of Trimp", about some traveler who'd gone to the Shadelair long ago. Listen to this.

"From Redwall Abbey's stony walls,

Through Mossflow'r woodland's leafy halls,

The Rover went a-rovin'.

Down the river broad and cold,

To the sea, so I've been told,

The Rover went a-rovin'.

Past sandhills filled with ghostly wails,

Beneath the sky's blue canvas sails,

A ship was northward hovin';

To the cliffs an' tow'ring stones,

Where lie the unskilled sailor's bones,

The Rover went a-rovin'.

Find the broad path, lose your life;

T'is the narrow the ship took,

T'will prove to not be frought with strife;

As long as sharply do you look.

At last, the ship reached rocky shore,

Put in the anchor, sailed no more;

These words to you I've spoken;

To find the half-ship, Daskar's Glory,

And to hear it's tragic story,

The Rover went a-rovin'."

Raggle nodded. "Seems clear enough; follow the River Moss to the sea, then sail along the coast northward until you reach the cliffs and towering stones, whatever they may be. We'll need a ship, though; any ideas where to get one?"

Walldoh had regained his good humour. "Sure, an' why not cross that bridge when we find it. Right now, let's make for Branchbounder territory an' tell me goodwife Wardah where we're off to; we can restock supplies there, so we can. Faith, I just remembered, I should tell me family what your Abbess said about sending some carpenters as soon as your main gate's up; t'was what I was sent to Redwall to ask in the first place, so it was."

Raggle piped up again. "Well that's in the direction of the River Moss, anyhow. I suppose..."

Anything else he would have said was cut short by Shermy. "Hush a moment, old chap, thought I heard something."

The six travelers waited in silence, listening hard; however, they knew that Shermy, being a hare, could probably hear things much farther away than they could. After a while, Ayeriss interrupted. "Well? What is it?"

Shermy lowered his voice. "Sounded like somebeast in trouble, over to the west a short way. Heard yelping noises and vermin laughing, y'see."

Slowly, the group left the path and began creeping softly westward; after a short while, the muted sounds of somebeast antagonizing another reached them. Walldoh covered his nose with a grimace. "Phew! Sure, an' t'is vermin, all right; no mistaking that 'orrible smell."

Sy pointed to a tall tree. "Raggle, climb up there and see if you can spot what's making the noise. There's a full moon, the view should be clear enough."

Strapping Martin's Sword to his back, the young black squirrel obliged, leaping up into the foliage. He was back down even quicker than he had gone up, a look of urgency stamped on his face. "We've got to do something quick, they're going to kill him!"

Sy grabbed his tail to stop him dashing off. "Wait a minute, slow down. Who's being killed, who's doing the killing, and where are they?"

Raggle pulled himself free. "That funny blind fox, the senile one - he's caught in a briar tangle back near where we were woodcutting a few days ago, and there's three skinny ol' stoats torturin' him t'death with spears, the cowards!"

The wildcat's teeth suddenly showed; her ears went back flat in anger. "Does one of them have her claws dyed red?" Upon seeing Raggle nodd the affirmative, she took immediate charge, padding quickly but silently westward. "Let me handle this; I've met this robber band before. The rest of you, follow behind me quietly; don't charge until I say so."

Without so much as a footfall to betray their prescence, the others sped towards the oak grove in her wake, grim determination on their faces.

Chapter Twenty-SevenEdit

Oh sing of the fate of Solomon's Ship

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

The Lady Artemis on her final trip

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Through uncharted seas, when it came to pass

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

On Josiah's territory she did tresspass

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Arrows of flame sang out through the sky

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Josiah's crew sang out their battle cry

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

The ship was sinkin', sinkin' fast

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Solomon saw it would not last

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Josiah surrender did demand;

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

"Git yore crew offa my ol' land!

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Solomon dueled bravely that day

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

But Josiah him did slay

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

The sad tale now I tell is true

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Keep off seas unknown to you!

Haul hup, way up! Haul up, way hup!

Lilybud the ottermaid, laboring heavily at an oar, glared at her benchmate. "Wot'd ye stop singin' for, mate? Keep goin'!"

Vaccar the weasel, puffing and blowing furiously, shook sweat from his nose, despair shining in his eyes. "But I've sung the blamed thing three times now!"

Donnabel and Fuzztail were across the aisle on the other bench; the wildcat called across to Lilybud. "Give him a rest, he's earned it; I think we've got the paddle rhythm now. Good job with that shanty, friend!"

Vaccar was unused to compliments; he blushed to the eartips. ", thankee kindly, mate."

The fugitives, having been freshly fed, had found a new strength; they had paddled the Bowbolt wildly, sending her flying across the waves. A stiff breeze had blown up, propelling them faster and faster southward; it had been a full night and morning since the pursuit had begun, but, under full sail, they had covered an amazing distance, rapidly nearing the place where a river formed an inlet running across the beach. Yet, for all their work, the two ships under Enzi Grexx's command were still behind them, closing the gap with ruthless efficiency; the few beasts not rowing scurried about the top deck, working hard at the tiller and crow's nest, keeping an eye on the approaching Stormdog and Wormrigg. Very soon, they would be within arrow range; that was why Vaccar had been ordered to sing a paddle shanty, to try to regulate the efforts of the beasts at oars to make better time; however, it was proving to be of no avail.

Flipp ran down from the top deck to make a report; he waved his paws urgently at the crew. "Save yore breath for paddlin' mates; they're gaining on us, an' fast!"

Vaccar jumped so violently he nearly released his oar. "Ain't no way; no ship c'n outrun ol' Bowbolt, specially not one o' them ol' tubs weighted down with Ranks beasts! You lot must be handlin' 'er wrong."

Flipp shot him a look that would have wilted a tree. "And you know this how?"

Vaccar shrugged. "Didn' I tell ye I was 'er bosun? Ain't nobeast alive knows this ship better than I do!"

There was a pause as the words sank in; Flipp ran to Vaccar's side. "Do you mean to tell me you could make her outrun those beasts trying to kill us?"

Vaccar snorted. "'Course I could!"

"And you'd be willing to take the risk of being shot down to steer the ship?"

The weasel shrugged. "Better than dyin' fer sure when them Ranks beasts get to us!"

Flipp grabbed him by the tunic collar. "Then get up on top deck! Go, I'll take your place. Tell Roan I sent you!"

The weasel was shocked; he had always been the ignored, bullied one, and his advice had never before been actually heeded. Flipp pulled the dumbfounded weasel upright and gave him an almighty shove in the back. "Go, varmint, yore in charge now! We're all behind you, right mates?"

The wearied beasts at the oars raised a feeble cheer as Vaccar, filled with a sense of duty he had never before felt, charged up the stairs.

Roan dug his claws into the rigging, spreadeagled head-down like a spider in its web, glaring hatred at the approaching vermin galleys. Below him on the deck, two otters fought the frothing seaspray and the tiller; which, owing to the gusty winds blowing the waves into a froth, was not cooperating with them. The sails, one of them with a fast widening hole in it, were stretched taught in the gust; Dula the mouse called down from his post in the crow's nest. "Roan, we're going as fast as we can but they're still gaining! What do we do?"

The wildcat was about to reply when Vaccar made his way onto the deck; immediately, he jumped into space, dropping from the rigging to land squarely in front of the weasel, paws akimbo. "And where do you think you're going?"

Vaccar pushed by him. "Yore friend the shrew sent me; I'm to take over here." Before anybeast could react, he began bellowing out orders. "Get offa that tiller, lemme have it; ye'll swamp us the way yore goin'. You, wotsyorename, Roan, is it? Git up that riggin' agin an' furl that holed sail; she's only slowin' us down. An' fer goodness' sake, somebeast quit lookin' back at them Ranks ships an' tell me where River Moss is! Go on, move!"

The otherbeasts hesitated, looking at Roan, their unofficial leader; Vaccar fairly did a dance of rage. "What is this, a starin' contest? I don't wanna die t'day, d' you? Cummon, move; MOVE!"

There was a screech; a squirrel who had been alongside Dula in the crows nest fell to the deck, an arrow in his chest. Roan ducked as two more arrows whizzed by and buried themselves in Bowbolt's timbers; he made up his mind in an instant. "You heard him, come on! Dula, get down from there before you get shot! I'll furl the sail. Any other orders, Vac?"

The weasel pushed the two dumbfounded otters out of the way and grabbed the tiller, muttering to himself. "Shouldn't have even let them get this close. Ahoy, Roan, have somebeast sling somethin' at them Ranks beasts while I get us good and started."

As the upper deck became a buzzing hive of activity, the weasel patted the ship's wheel lovingly. "Come on, old lady, let's show 'em what y'can do."

Balancing expertly on the long, needle-like prow of the former otter fishing trawler Stormdog, blue cloak flapping and saber drawn, Gatlak son of Dankfur made quite an impressive sight. The young marten waved across to the Wormrigg, which was sailing parallel to them. "Hahaharrr, buckoes, we'll be in arrer range inna minnit. Permission t'fire, Cap'n?" The Black Shade, having never before been on board ship, was feeling extremely seasick and trying his best not to show it; however, seeing Gatlak swaying perilously on the Stormdog's prow was too much for him. Keeping a death grip on the side rail of the Wormrigg, the wolf bellowed back to his Strong Right Paw. "Get off of there before you fall in; you can fire whenever you're in range!"

Gatlak was about to argue when he saw that Enzi Grexx had a subordinate pointing an arrow at him; reluctantly, he clambered back down to the deck, grumbling the whole way.

Taking a deep breath to steady his heaving stomach, the Black Shade addressed Zalbu, who was hovering nearby. "Get down below and tell them to row faster. And get my wine flask!"

The younger marten brother saluted and scurried off; Enzi Grexx, feeling the ship buck and pitch as it contacted the Bowbolt's wake, gripped the side rails tighter. Mentally, he cursed himself for a fool; in his haste to set an example of a mutinous crew, who turned out to not be mutinous after all, he had allowed the keystone of his marvelous plan to escape through his fingers. How on earth was he going to overthrow the southern lands now, when the slaves he needed as hostages would probably be slain trying to battle for their freedom? Trying to set his ill mind at ease, the wolf wracked his brains for a solution to the problem, wincing as the crew of the Stormdog pulled ahead and began firing arrows at the Bowbolt and one of the fugitives fell transfixed.

The vixen Twotail, so named because of an unsightly bald scarred patch down the left side of that appendage, had been posted as lookout; being a former member of Bowbolt's crew, she immediately recognized the creature coming out on the sleek black ship's top deck. Climbing down from the crow's nest, she made her way to the wolf's side, fidgeting with her paws anxiously. Grexx pointed his spear at her, snarling. "Don't stand there dithering, what is it?"

Backing out of thrust range, Twotail gulped nervously. "'ve put Vaccar on as steersbeast, Cap'n."

Grexx was suprised. "I thought they'd have killed that scum by now. But why is this a problem worthy of deserting your post?"

The vixen gulped again. "Well, y'see, Vaccar's 'er old bosun, Cap'n; 'e knows just how to make 'er go as fast as she c'n go."

In his seasick state, the Black Shade did not comprehend the meaning of this statement right away. It was just beginning to dawn on him when a rat up in the rigging squeaked in dismay; a hard turnip had hit him in the eye. Several other missiles - unripe foodstuffs, pieces of broken barrel, even necklaces other jewelry - were slung with amazing accuracy from the Bowbolt, finding targets among the Ranks beasts. Gatlak, who had ascended into the rigging of the Stormdog, roared into the gusting wind. "She's pullin' out, she's gainin' speed!"

In the urgency of the situation, the Black Shade forgot his illness; he charged to the foward rail of his ship and glared into the seaspray. Sure enough, Bowbolt had turned slightly westward to catch the wind full on; under the skillful piloting of Vaccar and the studious rowing of the escapees, she had maximized her resorces and was now living up to her name, skimming across the sea with a speed no over-packed Ranks ship could match. The Black Shade screamed in rage, flinging his spear and taking out a ferret at random; withdrawing it from the body, he laid about his crew with the haft. "Dolts! Idiots! Halfwits! You're letting a bunch of ragbags make fools of you! Anybeast not in the rigging, downstairs and row! Row as if your life depends on it....believe me, it does!"

His onslaught was halted by a sea-soaked sling, with a hard bone necklace in it, striking his muzzle; one of the fugitives had not been able to hold on to his weapon. Seizing the respite, and scrambling to get away from the enraged Enzi Grexx, the panicked masses ran down to the oar deck and began paddling so crazily they got their oars tangled. Under orders from the wolf, Zalbu flogged the group of rowers mercilessly with a wet knotted rope with one paw, while beating a small hollow firkin with the other to set a rowing pace. "Cummon, slackers, git organized! Hup, two, hup, two, hup, two...."

Gatlak saw Wormrigg pulling ahead and issued orders to cease fire and row to his crew; soon, Stormdog was also flying through the waters, hot in pursuit of Bowbolt.

The great chase was on!

Seaspray and wavecaps drenched Bowbolt's heaving deck; under Vaccar's orders, the slinging had stopped, and any creature not able to keep their balance on the slippery boards had either gone down to row or ascended the rigging to keep a lookout for the River Moss.

Flipp the shrew had been replaced at his rowing station by anotherbeast; he joined Vaccar at the tiller, shouting to be heard over the whistling wind in the rigging and the enless hiss of the waves. "What are you doing, are you crazy? We're sailing away from the coast, west!"

Vaccar spat a mouthful of salt water out, shrugging again. "You lot let Bowbolt get too close to those Ranks ships; I'm travelin' direct with the wind until we get a fair distance between us! When we see River Moss, I'll sail upriver; they'll catch up to us when we go against the wind inland an' I don't wanna let 'em get too close again. Once we're in River Moss, them big tubs won't be able t'follow."

The shrew stared, horrified . "Wot, y'mean sail through that inlet? The ship can't make it up that, we'll run aground!"

Vaccar shook his head. "Maybe, maybe not. The ol' lady's got a flat keel f'coast raiding, we might just make it. Unless ye've got a better idea?"

The shrew sighed and shook his head. "Can't think of one. Carry on, varmint."

Vaccar grinned;. "I intend t'do that, mate. An' ye kin get up on the bowsprit, keep yore eye out for the inlet."

It was then that Flipp did something that suprised both himself and the weasel; he saluted and said, "Aye aye, Cap'n!", before running across the deck to the bowsprit.

Vaccar's narrow chest swelled with pride; for the first time in his life, he was the captain. For the first time, he was the one in charge of a crew. And, for the first time, he had an entire shipful of beasts at his command, trusting his judgement as to what to do, and, above all, treating him with common decency and respect. He resolved then and there that he would not let them down, no matter what happened next.

From his perch in the crows nest, where he had refused to leave, Dula the young mouse had to shriek to make himself heard. "Roan, Roan! The inlet's just ahead, but theres a group of snakes coming straight down the coast towards it!"

Nobeast had expected this turn of events; Roan relayed the message down to Vaccar, who shouted back up. "Where away, mate?"

Flipp had spotted it now; he shuddered. "About half a league due southwest; if we hurry we might just make it before they do!"

Vaccar gritted his teeth. "Right, then, let's go! I'll take 'er in, you lot furl the sails!"

As the beasts up in the rigging hurridly carried out his orders, the weasel yanked on the wheel with all his might; Bowbolt turned so sharply she nearly heeled over, making straight for the inlet.

From aboard the Wormrigg, now a large blot in the distance behind the Bowbolt, Twotail the lookout could not see the inlet; she shouted down to the Black Shade. "The serpents have caught up with us, Cap'n'; Bowbolt is makin' for land, but them slaves won't be able to outrun yore adders!"

The wolf allowed himself a sigh of relief; he addressed Zalbu, who had left the drumming and whipping to a rat and had returned to the top deck. "Thank the seasons for that. They know their orders, they'll not kill them all. We'll swoop in and take them captive as soon as my serpents catch them. As for that traitor Vaccar, leave him to me. I've a sharp lesson to teach that one about siding with the enemy!"

The serpents had traveled day and night as fast as they could go down the coastline, and were beginning to feel exhausted; at the sight of the approaching Bowbolt, they put on a burst of speed. Sisserah, a massive female adder acting as deputy for the reptiles in Jettcoil and Whiptail's absence, hissed a warning to her comerades.

"No killing, jussssssst capture. The Masssster will give usssssss fressssssh meat when he arrivessssssss!"

"To hear isssssss to obey!" The mass of snakes hissed back in reply, quickening to the attack.

Flipp was trembling in terror at the sight of the hundreds of serpents; forcing himself to stay alert, the shrew called back to Vaccar, who was fighting the strong wind and currents with every ounce of strength in his body. "Look, they're almost there; if we run aground, we're done for!"

Vaccar could see the serpents now; he felt his old panicky nature began to surface. He screamed at Roan, who had just descended the rigging. "Tie me paws to the wheel stand, now!"

The wildcat stared at him as if he had lost his mind. "What on earth..."

"DO IT!" Vaccar bellowed into his face. "I'm scared stiff; I might turn coward an' run from the snakes if'n ye don't!"

The wildcat put a paw on Vaccar's shoulder. "We're in this together, mate; I wouldn't do that to you and leave you helpless if we're overrun!"

Vaccar shook his head; becoming increasingly panicked as they neared the inlet, he admitted his greatest secret to the wildcat. "You don't understand, I'm a skulkin' coward! I've never even fought in any battles; I ain't even killed a beast afore! Oh mercy, tie me quick before I change my mind!"

Realizing there was nothing else for it, Roan obeyed, using his sling to tie the weasel's footpaws to the wheel stand. "All right, suit yourself."

Sweat, tears, and seaspray mingled on Vaccar's face as they entered the mouth of the river. "Thankee, tho' I might regret this. Cummon, ol' lady, let's gooooooo!"

For one short instant, Bowbolt came to a stop as she made contact with a sandbar; then, with the concerted efforts of the beasts poling the mass of oars, the ship broke free and sailed against the current upstream, crushing several of the faster serpents in the shallows. The rest of the snakes pulled up at the banks of the inlet, and began scrambling for purchase on the steep dunes heading inland, trying not to lose their quarry.

Enzi Grexx, still leaning over Wormrigg's foward rail, stared in disbelief. "They're sailing across the beach! How are they doing that?"

Twotail knew. "There must be an inlet, Cap'n! Look, the snakes've stopped, they're havin' trubble climbin' them soft dunes!"

Ripping a chunk of wood from the rail with his bare paws, the wolf turned on his crew, roaring, "Well, don't just stand there, put in to shore! They can't sail upriver for long; we'll outrun them on foot. Zalbu, tell your brother to do the same!"

With much creaking and groaning of timbers, the two Ranks ships sailed for land, though with no great speed, as their weight and the wind made going against the current a difficult task.

Two or three of the smaller adders had gained the dunetops, hot in pursuit of Bowbolt; several beasts hurled missiles at them from the stern. The ship was having considerable difficulty going against the rain-swollen river; Dula, up in the crows nest, made a further bleak announcement. "Roan, Vaccar, there's a waterfall ahead, and the water gets shallower!"

For the first time since taking over the ship, Vaccar really did go into a panic. "What do we do? I can't take 'er up a waterfall!"

Flipp saw the waterfall from his perch, too; recognizing it, he grinned and descended the bowsprit, running up to the bridge with Vaccar and Roan. "Do you think you could sail a rapids, Vaccar? In the dark?"

The weasel was trembling from head to foot. "As long as we're getting away from them snakes, I don't care!"

Flipp pointed at the approaching waterfall. "All right, then, listen good because we've only got time for me to tell you once. You'd never see it no matter how hard you looked but there's a huge hole behind that waterfall; the pool's so shallow at the base because half the water goes down the hole backwards into another river. If we hit the falls dead center, we'll just be able to squeeze through; the ship's going to be badly damaged but if you can keep her steady we'll fall straight through the middle into the underground rapids and shoot them to the Whisperers' caves. Can you sail straight through the middle of the falls?"

Vaccar nodded eargerly, now that he was on familiar ground again. "If you lot don't stop rowing, we'll go right through; I give ye me affidavit on it!"

Roan had caught on. "And the Black Shade won't have a clue where we dissapeared to! Brilliant! But what's a Whisperer?"

The shrew was heading down to the oar banks to warn the creatures there of the impending crash; he shouted over his shoulder. "I'll tell ye later, just make sure nobeast is up in the rigging when we hit!"

The message traveled like wildfire about the ship; as the waterfall neared, the beasts in the masts and rigging scuttled to the deck as fast as they could. All the babes and little ones, who had been locked in the galley to keep them out of the way, had been brought out and huddled in a small group in the center Aisle of the oar decks, where Flipp and their parents deemed it safest for them to be. Vaccar, nearly hysterical with the stress of the moment, laughed insanely as they began sailing through the falls. "Haharrrrhahaharrr, Black Shade, let's see ye get me now!"

The front deck dipped perilously and the stern lifted clear of the river as the waterfall began dumping its load on the decks; a terrible rending sound heralded the masts snapping like matchwood on the rock; splinters of wood flew as the oars and sides of the ship were dragged through the narrow opening; the beasts on top deck were knocked flat by the countless gallons of water; then, the broken hulk of a ship plunged downward nearly vertically, crashing with a sickening noise of rending wood in a fast flowing underground river and shooting off down the wide stream.

Struggling wildly with the wheel, Vaccar strove madly to keep the disintegrating Bowbolt on course; a near impossible task in the pitch dark. Creatures screamed and yelled in terror; babes cried , the noise of cracking wood grew louder....


With a resounding splash, the ordeal ended; the river flowed into a massive underground pond, lit by a hole hundreds of feet up in the cave ceiling. The wreck of the Bowbolt came to rest in the shallows, heeling over crazily; ignoring wounds, the fugitives charged onto the deck, dancing and laughing in delight when they saw they were safe. Vaccar, gasping wearily for air, was freed of his bonds and carried in triumph on the shoulders of otherbeasts to shore, his already ringing ears filled with the sounds of applause.

From across the expanse of lake, several pairs of dark eyes had witnessed the whole thing; one of the watchers hissed to his comerade. "Come, come. We must tell the emperor of this news, this news!"

They retreated into the tunnel behind them, disappearing into the darkness.

Chapter Twenty-EightEdit

Owing to the length of her stride, and the natural catlike stealth she possessed, Siyuzin Stoneclaw had soon gotten far ahead of her friends; the other five searchers were having great difficulty in keeping up with her without betraying their presence to the enemy. When she finally halted at the edge of a small clearing, holding up a paw to signal the others to do the same, Shermy breathed a huge sigh of relief, hissing to the wildcat. "Whooof! I say, madam, could you possibly set a slower bloomin' pace the next time we're jolly well sneaking up on the bally enemy, wot? D'ye know, I stepped on a flippin' briar back there; haste makes waste, y'know..."

Sy's big, scarred mitt covered the gabby young hare's mouth, effectively stifling further remarks. She beckoned silently to Raggle, who made his way to her side; the wildcat lowered her mouth to his ear, her voice barely audible. "I think there's more than just three, by the sound of it; climb up and count them. Do not let yourself be seen."

Walldoh, who had been listening in, forestalled the young squirrel. "Better let me, young 'un; t'is more my type of job, so t'is."

Before anybeast could react, he had wound his headscarf about his ears and muzzle and ascended into the leafage of a nearby alder. A short moment passed; then Walldoh dropped from the hieghts to land in front of them, wincing slightly. "Sure, an' me ol' footpaw t'isn't quite shipshape yet. Countin' the pore ol' fox, t'is twenty-t'ree of 'em all t'gether, so there are. T'ree of 'em torturin' the fox, the rest of 'em flopped around the clearin' edge, the lazy bums! Sure, an' one has her claws red like ye said, missy, t'is true. Oh, by the way, I be knowin' this band of stoats; allies wid the Painted Ones, I seems to recall. An' they've no clue we're here."

Sy nodded decisively. "All right then, let's move. I'll go in first; you come when I call; we'll have to strike quick before they call up the Painted Ones. And please, young 'uns, be careful; don't be ashamed to run for it if everything goes wrong."

Without waiting to explain exactly what Painted Ones were, and pulling up the hood of her cloak to where her features were completely masked, the wildcat left the shade of the trees and strode boldly into the firelit clearing.

Tikah Guttro was a stoat; she was the self-appointed leader of the Guttro Clan. The band of stoats were all members of the same family, mostly distant cousins of one another, with a few closer relations. They were lazy, argumentative, and rather stupid, yet brutally cruel to any helpless beast unlucky enough to fall into their clutches; looting was second only to torture in their favorite pastimes.

When she had stumbled upon the old blind Krozfoxx Zaikee, wandering helplessly lost about Mossflower, and practically coated in trinkets, baubles, and other things vermin consider loot, Tikah's wicked little heart had exulted. This was a robber's dream come true! She had called the whole clan in to the attack; within a very short time, the old one had been divested of everything he owned save his magpie-tail kilt; not being content with a mere easy looting job, Tikah and her two brothers had then tied up the unfortunate, and began slowly torturing him with their spears while the others looked on. He yelped, squealed, and shreiked as the spearpoints prodded, scratched, and tickled, never fully stabbing him.

Yaghoo, a scrawny young stoat, hopped about and giggled naugtily as his elder sister tickled Zaikee's nose with her speartip. "Go on, stick 'im, sis!"

The spearpoint was suddenly at his nose; Tikah's small teeth showed in a viscous snarl. "I'll stick yew, or sumfin worse, if'n yew dare t'call me sis agin."

Yaghoo seemed loth to believe this until Frisz, the other brother, gestured to the long scar he sported along his jawline. "Ho believe me, she will at that. Where d'yew fink I got dis liddle beauty, eh?"

Zaikee, given the moment's respite, began shreiking at the top of his lungs. "Hurt me an' dey commee f'you, you nottee gettee 'way; you see!"

Frisz slapped the fox, who squealed loudly. "Ain't nobeast comin' for us, shoopid!"

Though he was bound paw and tail to a thorn bush, and bleeding from several shallow stab wounds, the old fox had not lost his trademark oafish grin. He broke into a little singsong chant.

Wun you lettee gettee 'way,

Live to fightee 'nother day!

He let out another yelp as Tikah prodded his nosetip so forcefully she drew blood. "Yew shuddup, miserymouf. I never lef' an enemy livin' yet, see!"

From the ring of lounging stoats, a hag-like female broke into a cackle, pointing at the trio. "Heeheehee! Wot about dat bigbeast, eh? Yew looked a proper fool den!"

Tikah's neck hair stood up stiff with anger; without any hesitation, she whipped around and flung the spear, which puctured the speaker through her upraised paw. A younger male stoat immediately leapt up, brandishing a dagger. "Yew had no call t'do dat to my muther!"

Tikah was shaking with rage; grabbing her brother Yaghoo's spear, she knocked the dagger away. "Nobeast makes sport of me, Raiderfang; an' that goes f'yew too, Mirka!" She made a sweeping gesture about the ring. "Alla yew, remember dis; nobeast I ever killed came back to life, see! If dat giant cat crawled off t'die affer I got frough wid it, t'ain't no laughin' matter, see!"

"Oh, I think they see, though I doubt you do."

At the sound of the cultured voice, Tikah whirled around. "Who said dat?"

A tall beast totally enveloped in a long, black cloak stepped forth from the ring of stoats, were it had stood unnoticed for a considerable length of time. Tikah immediately went into a fighting crouch, teeth and red-dyed claws bared. "Dis is my territory, see! Geroff unless yew wanna spear in y..."

Her jaw, and those of every member of her clan, dropped wide open as the creature flung its cloak aside, revealing a huge grey and black wildcat. The Guttro Clan stoats could only stare in horror; though the clothes were different, and there were more scars than before, this was undoubtedly the same cat that they had just been talking about. Tikah backed up as Sy advanced, her face a mask of terror. "No, no! Go away! Yew were dead; yore a ghost..yeeeeeeeeeee!"

Swatting away the spear, and snapping it like a twig in the process, Sy grabbed the stoat by the tunic collar, lifting her bodily. The wildcat's lips drew back from her teeth in a fearsome snarl. "Oh, I'm no ghost, believe me." She addressed the stunned vermin about her. "Now, tell me, are you vermin going to release my fox friend, or am I going to throw you to the top of that oak tree over there, one by one? It's your choice!"

Upon realizing she was not going to be immidiately slain, some of Tikah's boldness returned; she chomped down hard, biting Sy's paw to the bone. Sy roared with rage, flipping her prisoner over to grab her by her tail and whirl her about her head. Tikah screamed like a banshee as the world around her became a spinning blur. "Brudders, 'elp meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

Suddenly galvanized into action, the vermin attacked, grabbing up their weapons to charge the lone wildcat. Releasing Tikah, who sailed in a poetic arch upward and outward to crash to earth some distance away, Sy threw back her head and bellowed, "NOW!"

Walldoh, Shermy, Ayeriss, Raggle, and Tings leapt into the firelight, hitting the vermin from the back; they fled, only to be met by Sy, who was making good on her threats by grabbing any stoat within reach and flinging them as high as she could make them go.

Mirka, the haglike female stoat, leapt upon Shermy from the back and tried to strangle him. "Heehee, gotcha, rabbet!"

Her son Raiderfang suddenly descended from the heights to land upon both her and the hare, flattening them to the ground. Tings helped Shermy out from beneath the unconscious pair; he grumbled moodily. "I say, you'd think that cat'd have the decency to watch where she's chuckin' the bally vermin, wot!"

Frisz and Yaghoo were still guarding Zaikee when Raggle charged them, yelling and waving Martin's sword wildly. As it was obvious the young squirrel was an inexperienced swordsbeast, they didn't even bother to run, but mocked him as he danced about in front of them. Yaghoo giggled nastily. "Lookit the liddle 'un wid the shiny toy sword. O lack a day, e'll slay me an'...wot the blazes?"

Raggle, in his wild dance, had accidentally sliced both Yaghoo's spear and his belt, causing his billowy pantaloons to descend about his ankles. The stoat grabbed up the pointed half of his spear and charged. "I'll kill yew for that!"

Raggle screamed as the spearpoint found his ear; dodging the second spear thrust, he lunged, running the vermin through. Unfortunately, the body of the dead stoat toppled foward, causing the squirrel to stagger under the weight. Frisz, seeing his brother fall, let out a howl of rage and came at the helpless Raggle; he had not gotten more than two paces before Ayeriss' fists found him, striking him a viscious one-two on the jaw and laying him out flat. The burly hogmaiden whirled about and caught another approaching stoat a fierce uppercut to the neck, sending him sailing backwards. "Take that, vurmint!"

The eldest stoats in the band, led by an ancient male called Korvy, hid at the fringes of the clearing, firing sharp thorns from blowpipes at anybeast near enough to pass by. Sy took one in the cheek, and another in the footpaw, before Walldoh spotted them and volleyed shafts in their direction to drive them off. Shermy grabbed up a dart and licked it, smiling at Sy. "Not poisoned; shouldn't hurt a bigbeast like you, wot!"

He ducked as the oblivious wildcat caught up with Korvy and sent him hurtling through the air, missing the hare's head by a fraction.

Deep in the woods, a force of one hundred fighting beasts were on their way northward when they heard the sounds of battle. The leader of the band broke into a run, geturing to the others with the big crossbow he wielded. "Sound's like trouble over that way; come on!"

Silent as moonshadows, the skilled hunters followed their leader to the battle site.

The stoats, unwilling to relenquish their territory, were still fighting like madbeasts; however, they were severely outmatched. Ayeriss and Tings released Zaikee and tried to lead him away from the conflict; however, the crazy old fox refused to go, struggling madly in their grip. "Nono! Nono takee Zaikee 'way, nonono! Zaikee needee his majee back, nono takee 'way!"

Tings translated to a bewildered Ayeriss. "He said he needs his magic back, whatever that is. Come one, old one, we'll get your magic later; up ye come!"

Tikah had regained consciousness and was trying to sneak away, heading for a large log drum set up at the corner of her territory; Sy saw her and instantly realized what was going on. "Stop her, Walldoh, don't let her get away, or we're sunk!"

Unfortuantely, Tikah had already reached the drum and was beating on it frantically when the dormouse bounded over the campfire and loosed an arrow at her, slaying her on the spot. But the damage was done; a fierce screaming noise filled the air, growing louder and louder by the second. Sy groaned; she shouted to her friends. "Get the fox and run for it; hurry!"

They were halfway through carrying out her order when the woodlands exploded with vine-covered tree rats, their bodies daubed and painted yellow and green colors to camoflauge them in their habitat. Their voices were raised in a loud warcry; "Choohooo, killee killeeee! Yeeeeeeh!"

In no time at all, the six found themselves surrounded by more than fourscore of the beasts; Frisz, who had regained consciousness, shook paws with the biggest of the tree rats. "Welcome, Jigvi, strong cheif of Pain'ed Ones!"

Jigvi, Cheiftain of the tree rats, returned the gesture. "Kakachoo, what for you call us this time?"

Frisz gestured dramatically. "Half a batch o' loot, as usual. Dese beasts slew my sister and bruvver, an' invaded our lands."

Jigvi gave him a look of disdain. "An' dey still alive?"

Frisz seemed to wilt under the glare; he shrugged lamely. "The big 'un fights like ten."

Jigvi shook his head in disgust, and drew a blowpipe from his vine belt, signalling to the others to do the same. The sickly smell of poison rent the air as they opened their dart pouches. "Chookah, you weak. Arrah well, not fight like ten when ten darts hit 'em! Chaharr, ready! Aim!..."

He fell flat suddenly, an arrow between his eyes. A veritable rain of arrows suddenly descended upon the vermin; as it continued, a commanding voice rang out from the trees, clear and sharp. "Drop your weapons, vermin! NOW!"

There was a musical clatter as the multitude of hollow wooden tubes fell to the ground. As suddenly as it had started, the rain of arrows ceased; the voice rang out again. "Now drop all the loot you stole an' run for it, an' don't look back! If anybeast is still here by the count of ten we shoot again! One! Two!..."

Almost instantly, the trinkets stolen from Zaikee were on the grass, and the clearing was emptied of vermin, save for the bodies of the slain. As the sounds of retreating vermin footpaws vanished into the distance, a youngish woodmouse, clad in a black cowled hood and brown striped tunic, appeared in the firelight. Behind him were a hundred Branchbounder archers; mostly dormice like Walldoh, with one or two squirrels in the mix. Raggle's face broke into a delighted grin; he had recognized the leader. "Good old Billeo, perfect timing as usual!"

Billeo grinned and waved cheerily. "Hullo, Raggle! Hullo, Boss! Lady Wardah sent a deputation of us to escort some injured Guosim to Redwall, and the Abbess set us on your trail. When we heard the fighting we came as fast as we could."

Walldoh embraced the mouse, patting him fondly on the head. "Sure, t'was neatly done, Commander, indeed t'was. Faith, nivver the once have I regretted your promotion, so I haven't."

Billeo laughed, disengaging himself from Walldoh's grip. "Away with ye, old 'un; I'm too young to die from suffocation just yet. So, how did you get into this mess, or would it be impudent to ask?"

Sy gestured towards Zaikee. "After saving us from a certain death, I think any impudence could be excused, friend. The stoats and I are old enemies; we had not originally planned to fight them, but when we saw they had captured the poor old one there, we tried to rescue him. We didn't intend to get mixed up with Painted Ones."

Billeo, however, was no longer paying her any attention. In looking where she had pointed, he had spotted the two Redwall maidens, and his attention was especially riveted on the mousemaid. Passing his crossbow to Raggle, he ran to her side, taking the staggering Zaikee's weight on his shoulders. "Allow me, missy; a pretty maid like yourself shouldn't soil her paws on on old misery like this!"

In his haste, he stumbled and nearly fell; both he and Tings burst out laughing. The mousemaid pushed in beside him. "Here, we'll do it together. Nice to meet you, by the way; my name's Tings."

Billeo shook her proffered paw. "And my humble moniker is Billeo, Commander of the Branchbounder Strike force. And what do they call you, my pretty hogmaiden?"

This last remark was to Ayeriss, who growled. "Kin we cease wid the nice t' meetchers an' get this pore beast t'help? 'E ain't a light fella, y'know!"

A scattered laughter broke out among the other Branchbounders and Redwallers. Shermy shouldered his hatchet. "I think she may have a point there, wot!"

Sy nodded, taking the initiative. "Aye, that poor madbeast needs a good healer, Shermy; you'd best see to it. Unless anybeast has an objection, I think setting up camp here wouldn't be a bad idea, after we bury the fallen ones in the woods someplace."

The Branchbounders looked to their Boss; Walldoh was in complete agreement. "Sure, t'is a fact you've a good head on your shoulders, miz. We'll press on to the Swamp t'morrer, so we will."

Within a short time, the fire had been stoked up, the fallen vermin had been cleared away, and the now augmented band of travelers were settled in for a late supper. As nobeasts felt much like cooking, the meal consisted of fruits, nuts, and cheeses donated from everybeast's haversacks.

Shermy, having successfully gotten Zaikee to sleep, flopped down beside Raggle, swiping an apple from the squirrel's outstretched paw and wolfing it down. "By the left, talk about a crazy old fox, wot! Wouldn't let me lay a flippin' paw on him until he was 'magic' again; I've never seen beast with so many bloomin' strings of Seer's tricks. Had to humour him, y'know; best thing t'do in those circumstances, wot."

Raggle stared ruefully at the apple core the gluttonous hare had returned to him. "Does he really believe he's magic?"

Shermy picked his teeth with his hook. "Indeed he does, old thing, with all the bally fervor anybeast could muster. He told me he'd turn me to a flippin' toad if I tried to bandage him up before he was properly dressed, crazy thing. Poor beast, he's very old and ill, really; probably he won't last out another full season."

Tings and Billeo were on Raggle's other side; the mousemaid voiced her opinion. "I think he must have at least a slight gift of fortunetelling, though; most foxes do."

Shermy agreed, settling himself comfortably against a tree root, staring into the flames. "Of course he does, no question there; Sy told me he predicted her appearance well before she made herself known to the stoats. Sometime in his better seasons he took a jolly hard blow to the head; still carries the bloomin' big scar back of his skull, y'see. That explains the insanity, and the blindness, wot!"

Billeo shook his head, chuckling. "It still baffles me why you lot risked your lives for a fox, though. I guess since he's an old madbeast you felt sorry for him?"

Shermy yawned cavernously. "That's about the flippin' size of it, wot!"

One by one, all the beasts about the fire save the posted sentries dropped off to sleep, each one wondering what the next day's adventures would bring.

Chapter Twenty-NineEdit

That same evening, Enzi Grexx and his two shiploads of Ranks beasts caught up with the adders and other serpents, who were gathered in a bewildered huddle on the banks of the shallow pool beneath the waterfall. An intense search of the surrounding area had followed, but it proved utterly fruitless; aside from a few broken wood splinters and a shred or two of ripped black canvas, there was no sign of the Bowbolt's crew ever having passed by. The Black Shade, too enraged and confused to address his crew, stared angrily into the cascading silver ribbons, illuminated by the moonlight, trying to get his thoughts together. As the search parties filed in behind him, settling down around hastily constructed campfires, the frightened vermin and reptiles whispered and speculated amongst themselves, hoping their leader would not overhear.

Twotail the vixen scratched the bald spot on her tail worriedly. "Sombeast's goin' t'get the chop for this, take my word fer it, mates."

A tall ferret kicked moodily at a log. "T'ain't fair; we didn't do anything wrong!"

Twotail shuddered. "T'ain't natural, either, mate; it's like they vanished of th' face of the earth!"

A runty searat agreed with her. "Must've been magic, for sure."

The tall ferret snorted. "Oh, don't be daft..."

"Well, what else could it've been?" The rat demanded. "Nuthin' else makes sense, does it?"

The ferret blustered. "Well....they could've...maybe..." he slumped moodily. "No, I guess not."

This seemed to satisfy the rat. "Then take my word for it, mate; there's some sort of strong enchantment on this place; I can feel it in me bones. Somehow they was spirited off, and if'n we ain't careful, we'll be next!"

Sisserah, one of the two adders deputed to lead in Jettcoil and Whiptail's absence, reared her hideous head from behind the fire. "You know they ssssssay the air is ffffilled with sssssspiritsssss of thosssse lossssst over the fallsssss?"

Several sniggers came from the less imaginative vermin, until a gaunt dogfox voiced his opionion. "Aye, she's right, mates; they comes out on the darkest of moonless nights an' spirits beasts away t'the Shadow realm."

Sisserah was glad that at least somebeast believed her. "You have heard the sssssstory before, yessssss?"

Taking a big swig of nettle grog from a flask on his belt, the fox nodded. "Oh, I ain't only heard it, mate; I've seen it come true!"

Gasps of suprise, cries of fear, sniggers of derision, and snorts of disbelief rang out simultaneously; despite the diverity of reactions, it was obvious the the fox had gotten his audience's attention. Taking another swig, he belched loudly and continued his tale. "Liddle shaver I was, then; got inna fight wid a stoat, right here on this very bank. Would've won, too; had 'im bloodied up pretty good an' flounderin' in the shallows when the air turned black."

The tall ferret gave a roar of disbelieving laughter. "It did what?"

The fox treated him to a glare before continuing. "I gives ye me solemn oath, that's what it did. Starry night it was, but no moon. Then there was no stars; the sky an the air around me was full o' solid black spirits, an' I c'd no more see me paw in front o' me face than go to the moon. An' there was a horrible whistlin' noise all around, like thousands o' shriekin' souls; an' the wind was swirlin' round like a whirlpool, too. They wasn't after me, though; t'was the otherbeast who'd tresspassed in the pool they went for. I c'n still hear 'is screams as the blackness got 'im; it was horrible, mates, horrible!"

The look of real terror in his eyes when he told the story convinced the vermin the fox was speaking the truth. An uneasy quiet had fallen now; everybeast looked a bit worried, some of them actually fidgeting as if they would like to run away. The tall ferret alone tried to keep up a show of bravado, though his voice sounded hollow. "Huh, dreams brought on by too much grog, no doubt."

Another voice rang out from amidst the crowd. "And I suppose you fled from the scene like a lilly-livered coward, hmmm?"

The fox nodded, his bleary eyes scanning the crowd for the speaker. "Aye, I ran for me life, as would you, mate..."

He stopped speaking suddenly, a look of suprise permanantly stamped upon his features. The powerful throw had been dead on target, the adderfang spear passing clean through him.

The Black Shade deliberately trod on the dead fox as he retrieved his weapon. Total silence enveloped the riverbank as the black wolf marched to a large rock and mounted it. For several minutes, his flat yellow eyes scanned the cowering vermin about him; when he spoke, his voice was shrill with pent-up fury.

"Look at you - my mighty warriors, the famed Ranks of the Shadow, scared by a drunk fox's ramblings. Do you see any spirits about? Of course you don't; there's nothing to see. And do you know why?"

Suddenly, he was screaming, fairly dancing with rage. "Because you stupid beasts let a bunch of ragtag runaways make idiots of you! Because you just sat there rowing half-heartedly and let them get away! Because you let them get far enough ahead of us to pull a fast one on us! Oh yes, this is a trick of the woodlanders, all right; and when I get to the bottom of it there's going to be pusishment for the half-wits who failed to see it and let them have time to get further away and hide their traces. You are scum, dolts, pathetic; you're not fit to serve the Ranks! You are a rabble of morons, idiots, and ninnys! I swear to you, there will be nowhere you can hide from my wrath if anything else goes wrong; is that clear?!"

None of the vermin dared to speak; their heads bobbed up and down furiously. Panting with the exertion of his outburst, the Black Shade dropped his voice to a more reasonable level. "Circi, Sisserah, get all of the serpents who can smell out a trail. Scour the countryside far and wide; find where those prisoners went!"

The adders bowed their heads in respect, and slid off to gather their squadrons. The wolf addressed his army again. "We camp here tonight. If I or my snakes discover anybeast missing in the morning, I will not only hunt down and slay the deserter but any mateys of his who might have known about his plan to run. Tomorrow we go hunting; remember, no mistakes!"

Still terrified beyond speech, the Ranks soldiers settled down to go to sleep, or rather attempt to go to sleep; the frightening events of the day made it unlikely anybeast would be able to relax any time soon.

Deep in the slightly phosphorescent caves, far out of earshot of the falls and the vermin gathered around it, the fugitives from the Bowbolt had salvaged what they could from the wreck, laying out thir frugal supplies on the rocky shore. Ribjee, the squirrel who had been slain, had been wrapped in sailcloth and left in a crevice in the cave wall; as the ground was solid rock, and the vast lake far to shallow to sink anything in, there was no way the body could be properly interned. After the small funeral, there had then followed a mass midday snooze, as the weary beasts had practically collapsed with fatigue after their long ordeal.

Flipp, being a light sleeper, was the first awake. He nudged Roan with a footpaw; the wildcat stirred and groaned. "Mmmmhmm, what is it?"

The shrew gestured towards the silver light pouring in through the small hole far above them, a mere pinpoint dot in the vastly high cave roof. "Full moon tonight matey; we've let it get kind of late on us. The Whisperers should be here any minute, if I know them; we'd do best to be awake and wating for them."

At the sound of their voices, several other nearby beasts began to stir. Vaccar rubbed a slightly cramped neck. "Wot's a Whisperer? Ye said ye'd tell us later."

As Roan set about waking the otherbeasts, Flipp assisted his new weasel friend upright, grinning impudently. "Behold, the conquering hero awakens!"

The weasel blushed. "T'weren't nothin'; t'was you who knew the cave was here. Though I thought the River Moss ran straight t'the sea widout a waterfall?"

Lilybud the otter piped up. "The lookout made a mistake; we took the Great North Stream by accident. The inlets look almost identical, right Flipp?"

"Right, mate." The shrew nodded. "Most common mistake inexperienced sailors make around these parts. Cummon, Vac, let's get these otherbeasts awake."

In a short time, all the fugitives were on their feet, most of them still yawning and stretching. Roan mounted an upturned water barrel and held his paws up to gain attention. "Everybeast, please listen to Flipp; he has an important message for all of us."

The shrew clambered up onto his friend's shoulders so he could see over the assembly. "We are currently intruders in the Whisperers' domain; I'm sure they already know we're here and we should be meeting them shortly. Now everybeast must understand this; the Whisperers are bats, a great tribe o' the beasts, who outnumber us by more than three hundred t' one. They are goodbeasts - I would like that to be made quite clear - but they are very strict about who is actually allowed inside their home, an' can be dangerous. Since we have a rat held prisoner, and several wildcats and a weasel in our midst, they will probably regard us with suspicion until I've had a chance to speak with their Empress - she knows me. Until then, everybeast must follow us shrews' example, because we know the customs of the tribe and I'm pretty sure you lot don't. Yes, Urthswimmer?"

The mole lowered the digging claw he had just raised. "Burr, if'n ee batbeastens kno' we'm hurr, whoi ain't they'm a'ready coom t'get uz?"

The former slaves couldn't help but smile as the shrew explained, "Like I said, they have their customs. Any unusual matter not requiring urgent and immediate action is discussed t'death in a council before any action is taken. That's probably where they've been for the past few hours; they might still be there, in fact."

"Hush, what's that?" Donnabel the volewife waved her paws for silence.

Everybeast stopped giggling and listened; a great whirring noise filled the air, growing steadily louder. This was accompanied by a cacophony of whistles, shreiks, and squeaky cries; Flipp shouted to be heard over the din. "Here they come; stay still and don't move! If we run, they'll take it as an admission of guilt!"

His voice was drowned out as the noise reached a crescendo and a torrent of black shapes burst forth from a hole in the wall far on the other end of the vast cave. Well over a thousand bats were there, wheeling and swirling about the vaulted heights of the lake cavern, crying out to each other to keep the squadron in formation. When the last of the party had joined his companions, the bats stopped their noise and spiraled downward, coming to rest in a rough circle around the band of fugitives. In the sudden, eerie silence, the fugitives looked about in considerable suprise. Even in the pale phosphorescent light of the cavern, the spectacle was awesome; as far as the eye could see, the circle of bats strectched back into the gloom, huge and unending. Some hung upside down by crannies in the cave wall, and the wreckage of the Bowbolt; others stood upright on the ground, wings outstretched to keep them balanced. One male, bigger and stronger than the rest, appointed himself spokesbeast, addressing the company at large rather than anybeast directly. His comically imperious and echoing mode of speech caused some hastily stifled giggles among the younger beasts.

"Know thee all that thou art tresspassing on Whisperer Domain; all the lands ye see before thee art ours, art ours. Some of thee art shrewbeasts, but the rest of you knoweth not, knoweth not. Art thou enemies, enemies?"

Flipp stepped foward until he was confronting the huge bat; the shrew's head barely reached the creature's chest. He bowed low. "I, Flipp of the Guosim, can testify as to the goodness of heart all these beasts possess, with the sole exception of our prisoner there, whom we are holding captive for trying to harm our babes." He guestured toward Rugg; the rope-bound searat, who had tried to fight his way free earlier, was muttering curses around the gag that had been thrust in his mouth, glaring hatred at the beasts around him.

The bat signalled to several of his subordinates; wordlessly, they seized the struggling rat and took off, bearing him back down the tunnel they had just left. The speaker turned back to Flipp. "As is part of our alliance contract with thee, we shall hold thy prisoner in our dungeons until ye should deem it fit to release him, release him. I wouldst accept thy word alone about thy comerades, were it up to me, up to me. However, these beasts art of species unfamiliar to us; the council has requested I follow standard procedure, shouldst thee be willing, be willing."

Flipp bowed again, becoming less formal. "Thank ye, kind sir, for yore faith in th' Guosim. Certainly, we will obey the wishes of the council, but please allow me to confer with my friends first."

The bat waved a gracious wing. "Take all the time thee requirest, my friend, my friend."

Flipp turned back to the group, lowering his voice. "This is going well; I had a feeling it would once they saw some of us were shrews. Still, we should tread carefully until we are certain they've accepted us as a non-threat. That's why I agreed to the terms."

Starburst tapped her rudder on the stone pensively. "So wot do we do, mate? None of us know what 'standard procedure' is."

The shrew explained. "We'll pick one of each type of creature present to represent that group; we'll then go before the council and tell our story, swearing that we mean no harm."

Roan nodded. "Sounds easy enough, but let's hurry and pick who's going and get it over with; I hate suspense."

As they were the only ones of their species present, Urthswimmer and Vaccar were automatically included. The rest of the groups held hasty conferences, picking those they deemed the best speakers the ones to go before the council. Flipp announced the final group to the leader of the bats. "These are the ones chosen, kind sir; Fuzztail for the Cats, Lilybud for the Otters, Vaccar for the Weasels, Urthswimmer for the Moles, Gareth for the Squirrels, Donnabel for the Voles, Primrose for the Hedgehogs, Haylon for the Mice, and myself for the Shrews."

The bat surveyed the group. "Hmmmmm, quite a few species represented here, I see; we shall leave now, leave now!"

He gave a piercing squeak. Instantly, the bats descended en masse upon the chosen group; before they had time to react, each creature found themselves lifted up by the claws of several bats, who bore them across the cavern and into the pitch-dark tunnel, which opened into a veritable maze of caves. The passengers felt as if they were being borne by an out-of-control whirlwind; the bats dodged columns and stalagmites, dipped sharply down steep inclines and cliffs, flew through thin underground waterfalls, and performed various other acrobatics on their journey to the depths in an effort to keep from crashing with their precious burdens.

Urthswimmer covered his eyes; moles are no lovers of heights, or flight. "Burr hoo, oi'm gurtly afeared ee batbeastens be droppin' oi!"

Gareth, the representative for the squirrels, laughed aloud; he was thoroughly enjoying himself. "Don't worry; if they wanted to drop you, they'd have done it before now! Hahaha, this is fun, eh, Vac?"

Vaccar had been terrified at first when the bats mobbed him, but now he, too, was enjoying the exhilarating ride through the Whisperer's Domain. "Aye, this is the way to travel, matey; we don't even have to do any work!"

As they rounded the next corner, a bright orange light, as if from a thousand blazing campfires, came into sight. The big bat in the lead called back to his followers. "We are nearly there, nearly there; watch thy passengers, t'is a narrow opening, opening!"

The representatives realized, as they neared the light, that it was coming from a small hole in the base of the sheer cave wall before them, through which flowed one of the many underground rivers. Swooping low, their wingtips and their passengers' feet brushing the water, the bats made their way through the hole in single file. As they emerged into the lit cavern, Vaccar's jaw dropped open. "Great sun an' moon an' stars; I've never seen ought like this in me life!"

Chapter ThirtyEdit

Dankfur Clawhook was in a foul mood; everybeast, from Jettcoil to the least intellegent of the Krozfoxx, could tell that just by looking at him. True, his adderskull mask hid his facial expressions somewhat; however, even his very posture and movements seemed to emenate an almost palpable aura of dangerous temper. Everybeast in his band stayed well away from him for the time being, trying to mind their own buisiness and stick rigidly to orders as they proceeded at a double-march through Mossfower Woods.

Bringing up the rear of his band, watching intently for stragglers, the marten captain was alone with his bitter thoughts and sulking. The truth was, for the first time in his despicable life, Dankfur had been forced up against the reality of failure; however, his obsessive brain was practically unable to accept the fact, or admit he could have been in the wrong. Totally forgetting his hasty commands and bad decisions during the incident, he had firmly convinced himself the failure at Redwall was the fault of one of his martens, or of a Krozfoxx. Accordingly, he brooded on a suitable punishment for the culprit, once he figured out whose fault it was; these vengeful thoughts, however, were overshadowed by the nagging fact that he was going to have to explain to Enzi Grexx the failure of the mission.

Even though the Black Shade had not actually commanded the pine marten to pursue Sy, he would most definitely take a dim view of his Voice's crew being outsmarted and defeated by simple woodlanders, or being forced to ally with primitive, scraggly, stunty foxes who were definitely not real Ranks material. There was no lie Dankfur could concoct that would fool the wolf, nor was there any way he could think of to smooth over this setback. Even should he produce a scapegoat, plus the prize of the captive falcon Dippertail, to the wolf, Dankfur knew that nothing would save him the embarrassment that was sure to come. Even his clever plan of luring Sy to the Shadelair would not save him; Enzi Grexx would want to know what had taken so long, and how it had happened that over half of Dankfur's crew had been slain in the simple task of pursuing an escaped prisoner. Forced to come to grips with this unalterable truth, Dankfur continued to sulk at the back of his crew, angrily wracking his brains for some way out of the unthinkable situation.

From his position at the very front of the group, Jettcoil spotted a good place to camp for the night and called a halt; some of the Krozzfox, not used to watching the leader for orders, ran into each other's backs and tripped on each other's paws while attempting to come to a sudden stop. Dankfur snarled in frustration at the sight of the mass of waving paws and tails, which eventually transformed back into his band's marching column as creatures began to extricate themselves from the pile. "Oafs, dullards! An army of babes would be of more use than these louts."

Trouble broke out at the front of the column when Akalle Bladewhip drew her rapier and began waving it angrily at Ux Boulderpaw, who had trodden upon her tail. "Gerrof, ye big dope! Watch where you're going!"

The big dogfox did so, dodging the poisoned blade with suprising grace and aloofness. "Oh, shuddee up ya mouth, Kallee; I nottee do it a-purpose."

The rapier blade flickered dangerously beneath his muzzle; the vixen glared at her taller adversary. "Impudent bigbeast, you'll pay dearly if ye tell me to shuddup again! Who do you think you are?"

Ux returned her glance calmly, as if he were adressing a creature no more threat to him than a fly. "I nottee scaree of ya, Kallee, nono more I be scaree of ya. I see ya runnee 'way from dat fightee 'fore Hook Skulleebeast callee stop. Ya nono moree danee big cowwid! An dat bigee knife not poison, I callee ya bluff dere; I nono see ya poison nobease widee dat t'ing yet, ya jus' stabee wid it."

Akalle realized that Ux, who had never been particularly fond of her, was lying in hopes of souring the other's opinion of her; this was a typical Krozfoxx method of challenging authority. Angrily, she lunged, making as if to run him through; Ux sidestepped neatly, listening to the whistle of the blade going by. He struck out with his knotty fists, striking her a vicious one-two on the jaw. Undaunted by the sudden loss of a couple of her teeth, the tough little vixen charged, her flashing blade weaving patterns in the air before her adversary.

Ux had hoped to catch her off-guard and knock her out before something like this happened; despite his show of bravado, he was actually very frightened of Akalle, even though he had been beginning to doubt the supposed poison qualities of her weaponry. Ducking and dodging in blind panic, he backed into a rocky outcrop, knocking several large stones loose. Instintively, he grabbed one up and flung it at her; it fell short, but the advancing Akalle tripped on it, crashing to earth face-first. With a howl of triumph, Ux lept at her unprotected back; she rolled over just in time to catch the full of his weight descending upon her stomach and chest. Holding the winded vixen's paws spread-eagled, so that she could not reach the rapier or one of her many knives, Ux grinned at her, relief and elation mingled in his smile. "See wottee I mean, I nono scaree of ya!"

The other Krozfoxx, who had never liked being forced to follow the vixen, were about to raise a cheer for their biggest fighter when Dankfur arrived on the scene. The marten looked about slowly, his lowered voice laden with menace. "What, may I ask, is going on around here?"

Ux, still elated by his unexpected victory, grinned at the marten. "She startee fight, but I showee disee wun who bee da strongest, she nono gonnee scaree me no more."

Dankfur nodded understandingly; he himself was wary of Ux, who far surpassed him in height and girth, though he dared not show it or admit it aloud. Realizing that more unnecessary fights might break out if he challenged the Krozfoxx's new hero on the spot, he decided to act nonchalant for the time being. "I believe it; though I wonder that a runt like her could scare you in the first place. However, we already have a shortage of beasts, so I don't want any fighting amongst ourselves. The next one I catch at it will be severely punished. Did you mark that, Jettcoil?"

The big blacksnake, who was still somewhat shocked by the loss of his mate, shook himself from his stupor and nodded. "Yessss, masssster. If fightssss ssssstart, I ssssshall finisssssh them."

Dankfur smiled; it was not a pretty sight. "Good." He glanced around. "This seems a good spot to stop for the night; we'll camp here and start again as soon as its light. Somebeast start a cooking fire; Ringgob, you scout about for some meat to cook with these accursed plants we have for rations. The rest of you, get some rest."

Grateful that they had been spared, the martens and Krozfoxx scattered to do his bidding. Akalle, who had nearly been suffocated by Ux's sitting upon her, was left lying on her back, gasping for air. Dankfur placed a footpaw on her chest, touching her muzzle with his saber. He lowered his voice so only she could hear. "This is the second time you've caused me trouble; by rights you should be dead. Mark my words, if you once more attack any member of this crew - fox, marten, or serpent - you will not live to gloat about it. I shall see to it personally. Is that clear?"

Akalle nodded, though the look in her clear blue eyes made it plain that the fire of her personality had not been dampened just yet. Stripping her of her knife belt with a deft flick of his hook, and picking up her rapier from where it had fallen, the marten captain signalled to Jettcoil. "Watch her while I bury these. If she moves, kill her." He smiled again at the look of helpless, baffled fury on the humiliated vixen's face. "You can help Jettcoil with sentry duty tonight; I'll sleep on these so you don't get up to any tricks. If you behave yourself, you can have them back in the morning."

He set to work scraping a narrow hole at the base of a nearby laburnum tree, while Jettcoil wrapped a length of his massive body about the vixen to keep her from moving or objecting. Both he and his master, however, were unaware of the spy close at hand.

From his perch high in the laburnum tree, the tiny Scaleflier had seen and heard it all. He, too, smiled; things were going even better than he could have hoped. That night, he would put the start of his plan into action; if everything went as well as it had been going, Dankfur would soon be dead, and most of the hated Ranks with him. For the second time, the clever snake hissed complacently to himself. "Knowledge issssss power, my sssssoon-to-be dead freindsssss!"

Late that evening, after the fire had burned low and the moon had risen, the vermin lay about the rocky riverbank ditch they had found for a campsite. Some twitched in their dreams, whimpering; others snored, some more noisily than others. Jettcoil, the massive blacksnake, also slumbered; he still had Akalle Bladewhip in his unshakeable grip, to ensure she stayed put on sentry duty and did not try to run away. She had orders to wake him when she needed a rest; however, sleep was the farthest thing from the vengeful vixen's mind as she scanned the campsite repeatedly for signs of trouble, or funny business.

Still strung between two poles, now cast aside on the dewy grass, Dippertail sighed wearily, glad of the respite. Gagged and trussed in this manner, he had ridden on the shoulders of several Krozfoxx all the previous night and day, without stopping for rest, food, or water. His head, and the wounds the late Captain Yirta had inflicted upon him, ached umercifully; the ropes, tied tightly about him to prevent his escape, bit into his skin, leaving red weals beneath his feathers. Lack of food and sleep had totally overcome the once-fearsome bird of prey; ill, weak, and exhausted, he had not even the strength of will to open his eyes. He began to weep as he thought of his home at Redwall; of the plenty and peace he could no longer be a part of; of the infirmary, and the skilled healers who could have treated him; of the friends who probably thought he had been slain, and would grieve for his loss but not come looking for him; of Skipper Windryder, his adoptive father, whom he would never see again. Loneliness and sadness like he had never imagined gripped the falcon in their icy talons; he sank into a dull despair, waiting for the inevitable end to come.

Suddenly, his yellow eyes snapped open as a loathsome, dry, scaly touch entered his consciousness. A little snake, barely longer than the falcon's body, was crawling over him. Dippertail twitched and rolled feebly, trying to rid himself of the beast; a forked tounge caressed his eyeball, and a quiet voice whispered to him. "Ssssstill, be sssstill and ssssilent. Ssssscaleflier will not harm you."

Tiny fangs tore the gag from the falcon's beak; he inhaled deeply, glad of the extra air after being stifled for so long. Scaleflier began unhurriedly working on the ropes, stopping every so often to make sure nobeast was watching. Dippertail tried to crane his neck to see the little racer; though he dared not raise his voice, he was still suspicious of a serpent and wanted to know exactly what was going on. Scaleflier berated him in his gentle whisper. "Be ssssstill, I ssssaid. When I finisssssh, you may leave. Fly to wherever you wissssssh before thessssse horrid beasssssts awaken."

Dippertail was suprised, though he kept his voice low. "Hyeee, I thank you, though I fail to see how my escape helps you."

Scaleflier finished biting through the last rope; he descended from Dippertail's back to the earth. "Ssssssshh, no more sssspeaking. Thesssse beassssts are my enemiessss asssss much assss yoursssss; any enemy of theirssss isssss my friend. Go now, make hassssste!"

Dippertail's sprained wing still hurt him, but the effective splint the ropes had made when the vermin carried him had helped to relax it somewhat, to a point where it was usable again. He took off without a backward glance, swooping silently off into the woodlands as fast as he could manage in his weakened state. Satisfied, Scaleflier left the camp as well, returning to a small rock crevice he had found to sleep in.

As he passed Akalle, the vixen hissed to him. "Good job, runt; I didn't think you could do it without waking anybeast. Did ye handle the martens and this big black brute that's got me?"

Scaleflier had made an alliance with the vixen, who was all too eager to accept his assistance, a few minutes previously; he had briefly explained the first stage of his plan of dividing and conquering to her, and she had readily agreed, having no better ideas. Curling up smugly at her footpaws, the little snake whispered back. "Oh yessss, it isss all done. There isss sssometimes no better way to get to a beassst than to messs with hissss dreamssss. They will have heard my voicccce telling them why they ssshould betray their massster, without knowing it wassss I who sssspoke."

Akalle did not seem as pleased. "That's all fine and dandy, then, if they remember their dreams; seems a bit risky, though I guess we'll have to take some risks in this game. Shall I do my part now?"

Scaleflier nodded. "Allow me to get out of ssssssight, then procccceed."

The vixen watched his tail disappear into the crevice. "May good luck come to both of us, mate." She raised her voice to a shrill screech. "Escape! Escape! The prisoner's gone!"

Confusion broke out in the vermin camp; beasts leapt up, ran into one another, shouted, pointed, accused, and scuffled. The noise was so great, Dankfur was forced to beat about with the flat of his saber and shout to be heard. "All of you, quiet! Do you hear me?!! SHUT UP!!!"

An instant silence fell, broken only by whimpers of pain from the wounded. The Voice of the Shadow strode determinedly through his little band of followers to the two poles and broken ropes, his bloodshot eyes fairly blazing with wrath. By his tense, quivering body and heavy snorting breaths through his nose, everybeast present could tell that a momentous punishment was about to befall some unlucky beast; accordingly, they kept silent and still, trying desperately not to attract Dankfur's attention.

Slowly, the marten turned to face Jettcoil, who had a look of pure bafflement upon his features. "Those ropes were cut, not snapped. And how, pray, did this happen?"

The serpent could have made up a dozen lies to save his skin; however, he was so terrified by the look in his master's eyes that he blurted out the truth unthinkingly. "I do not know, I wasssss ssssleeping. T'wasss her turn to watch!"

He gave a cry of pain as Dankfur whacked him with his sword again and again, slicing his hide open in several places. "IDIOT! So you slept on guard duty, eh? You scaly piece of useless rope, you're nothing without your mate; I wish you'd died in her place!"

He left off beating to turn his glare on Akalle. "What happened? Tell me!"

The vixen, whom Jettcoil had released when trying to get away from Dankfur, shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know for sure, but that big fellow, wotsisname, Uja; he was sleepin' right next to the prisoner."

Akalle was a very convincing liar; Dankfur rounded on the giant marten, whacking away with the flat of his blade until he drew blood. "You dolt, somebeast let him go and you slept through the whole thing!!!!"

Uja tried to protest, backing off. "Aaaargh, owwwooo! Cap'n, I weren't anywhere near 'im! Yeowch, ooh, aaagh! I swear, I ain't lyin', I weren't sleepin' o'er there!"

Ringgob had been the one closest to Dippertail; seeing Uja's plight, he opened his mouth as if to say something, but Dankfur whirled round on him, slicing his haunch open. "Keep your oversize jaw shut, you're as bad as these other dolts!" He rounded dramatically on the Krozfoxx, waving his dripping sabre blade about threateningly. "Halfwits, you've all been so foolish as to let the most important part of our scheme escape! Let this be a lesson to you; nobeast, even my own crew, are safe until we find that falcon again; I'll beat you all every night if I have to, until we get him back! Which way did he fly off, did anybeast see?"

Scaleflier now played his part; he slithered into camp, panting as if he had traveled a long distance in a short time. "Voicccce, Great Dankfur! I have newsssss!"

The marten was in no mood for suprises; he snarled at the little racer. "This had better be good! Where did you come from, anyway? I thought you got left behind!"

Scaleflier collapsed limply, as if regaining his breath, before continuing. "I wassss, but I am not the Black Sssshade'sssss persssssonal messssenger for nothing. I have ssssseeen the falcon; he fffflew off that way, northwessssst!"

Dippertail had, in fact, flown in the exact opposite direction, in an attempt to get back to the Abbey, although nobeast but Scaleflier and Akalle knew this. Dankfur, for his part, knew that tracking a falcon in full flight was a task only a great scout like Scaleflier could manage; however, he was by now loath to trust anybeast. He caught the tiny snake under the chin with his hook, pressing the point in threateningly. "Then we make for the Northwest, at once, with you in the lead; but mark my words, shorty - if you play me false, just once, I'll feed you to Jettcoil. I'll feed you to him in little tiny pieces!"

Scaleflier tried his best to look innocent, while lying through his teeth. "I am weak and ssssssmall; what chancccce have I againsssst your might? You may trusssst me; I mean you no ill."

Dankfur was not fully convinced; he released the little snake with a wrench of his wrist. "Go then, now! Find that falcon for me...or else!"

Scaleflier set off on the false trail at once, with the rest of the sore and sleepy army stumbling, limping, and blundering their way in his wake. Akalle hung back to dig up her sword and knives and fasten them back on; as she was no longer in favor, nobeast paid her any attention. She could have wandered off unnoticed, if she wished; however, curiosity, and desire to get even with several beasts, prompted her to catch up to the rear of the band, muttering as she went. "I must be crazy, trustin' a snake. Ah well, things haven't gone so bad so far; I wonder what big schemes that little runt'll think up next!"

On through the moonlight-studded woodlands the vermin blundered; some with thoughts of revenge, but most with sheer terror, fearing for their lives.

In the grey light preceding the dawn, Sy and her augmented band of companions were awakened by Billeo, who had taken over as sentry halfway through the night. The Commander was an adventurous sort, and not gifted with much patience; as soon as the first semblace of light began to show, he began beating on a hollow log with a thick branch, shouting at the top of his lungs. "Are ye lot all going to sleep clean through the morning? T'is a fine day, and not one to be wasted!"

Raggle threw the sackk he'd been using as a pillow at the woodmouse. "Oh, be quiet! I've still got a headache from last night."

But the mouse, eager to be up and going, was undaunted. "Ye weren't hit in the head, ye just had the tip of an ear nicked. Cummon, everyone, up and at 'em, we'll leave right away..."

He faltered when a none-too-pleased Walldoh suddenly appeared before him, paws akimbo. ", that is, whenever you're ready to leave, er, Boss."

Once everybeast was awakened and on their paws, a short conference was held; Sy and Walldoh explained their little band's mission to Billeo and the other Branchbounders, and Shermy quoted the rhyme Martin had entrusted to him, detailing who should go, followed by a short commentary of his own. "So you see, chaps, we've got to go, and rescue the good wildcat lady's kin, wot! But we jolly well don't know who the seventh member of our band - the "two-eyes-faking-one" wotchamacallit - is, if he's anywhere about, wot!"

Billeo nodded understandingly. "Aye, it's a puzzle, sure enough. Tell you what; why don't you lot keep going the way you were, back to our place? We'll discuss this with Log-a-Log Yik; he and the more fit of his Guosim are still there, making ready to pursue the ones that slew their kin. He's a well traveled beast; if any creature in these parts answers the description, he'll know about it."

This seemed like a logical plan of campaign; soon, the entire column was underway, marching off in fine style towards the Branchbounder's swamp. Some beasts began calling for a song to keep the pace; Sy obliged with a skip-rope ditty from her kitten days.

Right paw, left paw;

One step, then two;

We'll go strolling,

Just me and you!

Left paw, right paw;

Three steps, then four;

Don't stop; walk on

Right out that door!

Right paw, left paw;

Five steps, than six;

Keep on walking,

Don't pick up sticks!

Left paw, Right paw;

Seven steps, then eight;

Keep on moving,

Or we'll be late!

Right paw, left paw;

Nine steps, than ten;

What a nice stroll;

Let's go again!

By midmorning, the army of over a hundred had covered a good span of ground. In the very back, Shermy and Ayeriss walked a short distance in front of the old Krozfoxx Zaikee. There had been concern from many beasts whether the eccentric blind fox would put up one of his struggles, and have to be forcibly lead by a rope or collar; nobeast had the heart to leave him to wander alone through Mossflower after the incident of the night before. However, since his "magic" baubles and scepter had been restored to him, the oldbeast had become quite gentle and amiable; in fact, after he had tasted some of the candied chestnuts Shermy had sneaked from the infirmary before leaving the Abbey, the fox had become extremely close to the young hare, practically fawning at his footpaws to do his bidding in hopes of another treat.

Ayeriss hissed in the hare's ear. "That ol' oaf, sumtimes I wish we'd lef' im behind! Look, 'e's dancin' again! Hoi, oldbeast! Catch up, will ye!"

Zaikee ceased his shuffling jig pushed his way between the two of them, grinning stupidly. "Veree nice spikeedog, goodee sense. Nono see troo, tho'." He added as a conspriatorial aside to Shermy, tapping the hare's head. "We see troo. Ya see mouseee ghostee, Zaikee see wotee happen next! Veree majee, us-ee two, veree majee."

Shermy had earlier tried to impress the old fox by telling him of his visits with Martin the Warrior; however, Zaikee's sudden insistence that they were kindred magic beasts annoyed him slightly. "Good greif, old one; how many bloomin' times must I tell you? I'm not magic, just very lucky. Wot!"

The fox nodded sagely. "Veree luckee, very majee. Ya see troo likee me, majee rabbeast!"

"I'm a hare, old thing, not a rabbit; and for the last flippin' time, I'm not....!"

Shermy was cut off by a shout from the head of the column; Walldoh, who had been up in front of everybeast, called back to the mass of beasts behind him. "Husha, all of ye!"

Silence fell; the sound of two beasts laughing and chattering happily came clearly from not too far off. Billeo gestured to a thin black waft above the trees a short way to the east. "Somebeast cookin' somethin' over there, see the smoke?"

Walldoh shouldered his bow. "Faith, I didn't know anybeast lived in these parts of Mossflower."

Sy sniffed the air; however, there was no vermin smell - all scents were obscured by that of the smoky wood fire. "Do you think it's enemies?"

Walldoh shrugged. "Sure, an' I wouldn't be professin' t'know, missy. Mayhap somebeast should..."


The peircing scream rent the morning like a knife cutting through cloth; immediately, Sy ran towards the noise. "It's vermin all right; hurry, everybeast!"

Behind her, the army quickened its pace to a full-tilt charge, shouting their warcries at the top of their lungs. "Reeeeedwaaaallll!!! Mossfloweeeeeeeeeeer!!!"

Like a tidal wave, the army burst into the smoky clearing from whence the scream had emanated; almost as suddenly, they skidded to a halt, completely taken aback by the sight that met their eyes.

Chapter Thirty-OneEdit

Earlier that morning, the sun shone brightly down upon the River Moss, causing dancing flashes of silver and white upon the surface as it flowed placidly along a heavily-reeded bank. From various nests in the small willows about, several kingfishers darted to and fro, catching small minnows and watershrimp to feed their young; other birds, perhaps charmed by the afternoon's idyllic beauty, set up cheery songs and warbles in time with the babbling river.

The peace of the riverbank was not to last; a rustling crunch and a thud heralded Dippertail making an ungainly crash-landing among the reeds, dislodging an abandoned duck's nest there. The wounded falcon felt he could travel no further; the pain in his wing and the several days without sleep had finally overcome him. However, neither of these things bothered Dippertail as much as his current need for food and water; in fact, he was hardly conscious of anything else but a raging thirst and ravenous appetite.

The realization that he had landed by a riverbank lifted the weary young falcon's spirits; rousing himself from his exhausted stupor, he staggered upright, tottering unsteadily towards the water. Upon reaching the river, he practically fell forward into it, totally immersing his head and guzzling away greedily.

A small fish swam by, tickling his beak; Dippertail made a half-hearted lunge for it, but it evaded him with ease. Desperate, he leapt into the shallows, pouncing on the minnow several times; the fish, as if in mockery, evaded his talons and led him a merry dance, nearly causing him to be swept away into the main current. Dippertail struggled back to shore and collapsed with an angry moan, tears of helplessness beading in his dark eyes.

"Beek burt-a hurt, ya?"

Dippertail looked about for the owner of the strange, clipped voice. "Heeeer, who said that?"

A female belted kingfisher, perched on a nearby reed, repeated her question. "Beek burt-a plenty hurt, not go fly, ya?"

Rightly translating the question, Dippertail nodded, forcing a half smile. "Hyee, this big bird has a broken wing, methinks."

The kingfisher fluttered down beside him, inspecting his wing and some of the scabbed wounds he bore with quick jerks of her head. "Not broka, no. Beek burt-a not move vink if broke; it go move little. Beek burt-a fight vermin, hurt vink, get-a scratch, ya?"

Dippertail nodded again, realizing that to speak in clipped sentences would best get his meaning across to his new friend; some birds were like that. "Yiee, this bird fight big raven; raven make scratches, hurt wing."

The kingfisher tutted, preening her chest plumage. "Raven bad-a keelaburt; break ekk, eat chick, scare fish. Beek burt plenty hurt in brain; why fight-a raven?"

The falcon shrugged, as best as his sore wing would allow. "Yeek, raven kill friend of mine. Not kill anymore, though; this bird make sure!"

The kingfisher was duly impressed. "Beek burt-a keel raven, do all fishaburt favor. Fishaburt-a do favor beek burt, if vait."

Without warning, she streaked by him in a blur of shining white and blue, hitting the river with a splash. Seconds later, she returned, bearing a slain fish in her long, spear-like beak. She deposited the fish at Dippertail's talons; seeing his astonished look, she chided him as if he were one of her own eggchicks. "Eet-a fish; gutt fish, just catch!"

Eagerly, Dippertail tore into the morsel. The kingfisher dove into the river several times, pressing more minnows upon him until she was satisfied he had eaten enough. "Rest vink in vater, feel better. Fishaburt go; bye-bye beek burt!"

She winged her way back to her nest; heeding her advice, a full and happy Dippertail settled down for a nap, leaving his hurt wing trailing in the cool shallows, dreaming, as always, of Redwall Abbey and Skipper Windryder.

It was some hours later when the falcon leapt to his feet in shock. The peace of the flowing river and birdsong had been shattered by a shrill, piercing scream; this was followed by a flurry of stampeding footpaws and battlecries. The treatment perscribed by the kingfisher had worked wonders; still sore but now almost fully alert, the falcon took to flight almost instictively, scanning the woods for the source of the noise.

It was as if an avalanche had suddenly been suspended mid-fall. Aside from a distant riversound, and the crackling of a smoky, damp fire, total silence reigned among the Branchbounder army and their Redwaller comerades. Many of the creatures still had weapons drawn, or arrows set to bow; all of them, however, were in a state of total bewildered shock, unsure of what to do next.

In the center of the smoky glen, just in front of the cooking fire he had made, stood the tallest, bulkiest, spikiest young male hedgehog anybeast had ever seen. Clad in a basic grey tunic and tattered green jacket, the creature had about him an air of rustic simplicity and stolidity; he, too, stood frozen to the spot, obviously completely at a loss. In one paw, he weilded a pair of sharp pincers, in the blades of which was trapped a broken hogspike. In the other - making the scene even more ludicrous - he held aloft a quietly sobbing otterbabe, who had a goodly amount of quills embedded in his rear end.

For a few seconds, everybeast stood in blank silence. The hedgehog moved first, looking around at the loaded Branchbounder bows surrounding him, then back over his shoulder, as if wondering whom the arrows were aimed at. Seeing nobeast behind him, he returned his gaze to his would-be assailants. "Er...'ave I missed something?"

Several chuckles and sighs of relief broke out as the attack force lowered their weapons. Sy gestured about the glen. "What was all that screaming about just now?"

From his undignified, upside-down position, the otterbabe set up a fresh wail, pointing at his captor. "'E poked me inna behind widda big scissors..."

The hedgehog gave him a good shake. "No I never, ye liar; ye jumped me! I didn't stick ye with these things!"

The otterbabe stuck out his bottom lip. "Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did TOO!"

"Did NOT!"

"Did TOO!"

"Well, 'ow did ye get yore be'ind full 'o my spikes if ye didn't try t' jump me an' sit on me?" The young hedghog appealed to his audience. "I ask ye, how else could it've 'appened?"

By now, most of the army was somewhere between sniggers and full-blown guffaws, depending on how quickly they had caught on. Something seemed to occur to Ayeriss Pinspikes; bulling her way through the crowd, she faced up to the newcomer, teeth bared in rage. "Yew thief! Yew babe-stealer! Yew sorry sack o' murd'rin' filth!"

For the second time that day, the big hedgehog was at a loss; he dodged the punches Ayeriss threw at him, looking about beseechingly. "Land sakes, wot'd I do NOW?"

Sy, too, suddenly recognized the otterbabe for who he was; she snatched him from the big hog's grasp, giving him a few good shakes of her own. "Squirt! You'd you get outside?!"

Other members of the army, especially the Redwallers, began shouting; some assisting Sy in yelling at Squirt, others joining Ayeriss to angrily berate the newcomer.

"I say, old thing, what's a Redwall Dibbun doing in your custody?"

"Do you know how much trouble you've probably caused back home?"

"Yew quill-bottim'd murd'rin snotnosed thief, I'll show ye..."

"Little scallywag! Skipper's probably losing his rudder in worry!"

"How dare you capture a defenseless babe!"

"Hold it, wait, I don't...yeow!" In trying to gain a basic understanding of what was going on, the big young hog forgot to dodge and took a hard right to the nose; he jutted out his jaw truculently. "Right, that does it!"

Ayeriss aimed for another swipe, only to find her paw trapped mid-swing by the other hedgehog. With a suprisingly quick maneuver, he spun her around and brought her crashing to earth, placing a footpaw on her back to keep her from rising. In the brief pause that followed, he addressed the stunned company at large. "Now! Would somebeast explain t'me wot inna name of seasons is goin' on around here?!"

Calming the others with a look, Sy addressed him in a more reasonable tone, still holding Squirt aloft by his rudder. "This one is a Dibbun from Redwall Abbey. Did you take him, Mister...?"

"Spikkle. Thundro Spikkle." The light of comprehension dawned on the big hog's features. "Now look, I never took nobeast from noplace. T'young 'un found me last night; 'e was wandrin' about the woodlands - lost, I think - cryin' an' weepin' and wailin'. So I let 'im stay. I figgered somebeast'd come lookin' for 'im. Didn't figger on no army, tho'."

Sy waved a paw. "Oh, that was a misunderstanding. Raggle, could you explain it to him, please? As for you..." She began viciously removing the hogspikes from Squirt's rear end with her claws, chiding him the whole way. "What on earth are you doing in Mossflower? Don't you know you could have been killed?"

The otterbabe wailed piteously, tears of pain streaming onto his face. "Wanna go find Dip, wanna fight varmints, jus' like you! I sneaked outta gate, Skipper never see'd me go."

Having finished her task, Sy sat him down with a sigh. "There, that's done. Shermy, get some bandages on this rogue." She glared at the otterbabe. "You do realize Skipper and Mother Abbess and all the others are probably crying their eyes out worrying about you, don't you, Squirt?"

Squirt pulled a pointed stick from the red kercheif he was using as a sash, brandishing it. "I'm not a Squirt, I'm a warrior cat! Gotta sword, too."

Walldoh, who was standing nearby, stifled a giggle as the otterbabe danced around, making Shermy's task of bandaging him even more difficult. "Sure, an' don't he look just like the part, too. Faith, the liddle rascal's even wearing an eyepatch!"

The truth of the matter hit Sy like a thunderbolt. "Shermy, look! Look at this!"

The hare came to her side. "I say, what's all the kerfuffle, marm?"

Sy pointed at at the comically flopping scallop-shell eyepatch the otterbabe habitually wore, ever since his first meeting with the wildcat. "I think we've found our missing companion! Don't you see?"

Shermy caught on immediately. "Of course, it bloomin' well has t'be. Who else has two eyes, faking one?"

Thundro released Ayeriss, nodding. "Aye, 'e's the only one here answerin' that description. But why d'ye need..."

Any further conversation was cut short by a loud, happy screech as a feathered mass bulled through the trees, crashing straight into Shermy. Dippertail was so elated to see a fellow Redwaller he threw all pretense of dignity aside, hopping about excitedly and trying to embrace his flattened, struggling friend. "Hyeer, thank the seasons, I found you!"

Sy hauled the falcon bodily from the suffocating hare. "Here, hold it, let him breathe! Goodness, you don't seem much the worse for wear!"

Ayeriss sullenly spat out a few clods of grass. "And here we was worried t'death about yew. Ain't yew s'posed t'be captured by varmints?"

Dippertail smiled at her. "Yeeek, t'is a long story. Ye don't know just how good it is to see a friendly face again!"

More laughter broke out; at the moment, Ayeriss' muddied face looked anything but friendly. The hogmaden glared at a sniggering Thundro, her eyes smoldering with rage. "Yew think it's funny? Yew won't laugh so hard with no teeth, now will ye?! Cummon, put up y'paws an' fight proper!"

She went into a more professional boxing stance, watching alertly this time instead of flinging punches willy-nilly. Thundro held up his paws. "Now wait a minnut, missy, I ain't fightin' no maid."

Ayerisses paws thudded into his midriff, one after another. "Cummon, fight!"

Horrified, Tings tried to intervene. "Leave him alone, Ayeriss; he'll kill you!"

But Ayeriss was past listening. "Nobeast makes sport o' me, 'specially not a big, fat, shoopid oaf like 'im!"

Thundro sucked in air, straightening to his full height, his voice and eyes bleak. "An' nobeast calls the son of Mammee Spikkle a big, fat, stupid oaf an' gets away with it! Don't worry, I won't kill ye, just teach ye a liddle lesson!"

Dodging Ayeriss' next two punches, Thundro suprised everybeast by dropping into a proper crouch, fists knotted. Sword drawn, Raggle leapt between the two irate hogs before any blows could be struck, keeping them apart. "Wait a minute, friends, there's no call for anybeast to get hurt. Let's just shake paws and drop the matter, can't we?"

But things had already escalated past diplomacy; seeing the two snorting, fuming hogs were irrevocably out for blood, Walldoh offered a suggestion. "Sure, and why should we stop 'em? We should be after makin' it a proper contest, let out some steam."

Sy addressed the young squirrel. "That would probably be best, Raggle; let them fight fair and get it out of their system. We'll stop them if things get too rough."

Raggle took a look at Thundro, who far outdid Ayeriss in bulk. "Might be too late for Ayeriss if ye wait 'till then, Miz Sy."

The hogmaiden growled at him. "Yew quit worryin' about me, I c'n take 'im!"

Selecting a region some distance from the fire, Sy scractched a small ring. "Bring them over here!"

The army of beasts escorted the two combatants to the fighting area, making sure to keep them away from each other until they got there.

Shermy decided, being the only healer present, that he should be the referee. He explained the rules, raising his voice so everybeast could hear. "Now chaps, and chapesses, this is going to be a fair fight, wot! Only use punches an' blocks; no kickin', pokin', scratchin, or jolly well bitin' allowed. Nobeast may leave the ring, except if yours truly calls a halt, wot! Oh, and no punchin' a downed beast. Right, ready....begin!"

Both hogs dropped into a crouch again, the cheers of their audience ringing in their ears.

"Cummon, mista Spikkle, show 'er!"

"Don't let that big windbag scare ye, missy!"

"Fight! Fight! Fight!"

Thundro's massive paw shot out; blocking the punch, Ayeriss countered with two vicious left hooks to the jaw. Thundro knocked her back a few paces with a right uppercut under her chin; bouncing right back, Ayeriss aimed a punch at Thundro's midriff, followed by a smashing blow to the nose.

Dodging the stomach blow but taking the facial one, Thundro staggered back, clapping a paw to his bloodied snout. Ayeriss came at him again; this time, Thundro fiented to the left and smashed a fist into her shoulder as her own momentum carried her too close. Undaunted, Ayeriss shook the life back into her tingling forepaw and lashed out with both paws, catching Thundro in the neck. He fell to the earth with a thud, smiling. "Not bad, not bad at all. But ye should aim more for the collarbone area, like this!"

Bounding back up, he dealt Ayeriss four successive lightning-quick blows to the upper chest area. The first three, Ayeriss managed to block; the fourth knocked her flat, winding her. Thundro gave a crooked grin, as best he could manage with a swollen nose and jaw. "See? Works every time!"

Sucking in air, Ayeriss stood, paws milling in tight circles. "Not yet, it didn't. Cummon!"

Thundro aimed a massive blow at her head, which would have laid her spark out had it connected. Ayeriss dodged the blow, allowing him to spin off-balance past her. The big hedgehog, however, was an experienced fighter; using his own momentum as a bonus, he struck Ayeriss in the back of the neck. Whipping about, a now somewhat groggy Ayeriss caught Thundro off-guard with a fist straight in the center of the ribcage; when he doubled up for air, she uppercut his jaw so hard his eyes crossed.

Thundro lashed out hard, striking the swaying Ayeriss a left hook to the temple. She went down, out for the count. Still doubled over, the big hog grinned at the other beasts, his eyes slowly rolling back and his speech rapidly slurring. "Tol'ja I wudden' kill 'er....uuuughOOF!"

He fell face-first to the turf, out cold.

Shermy inspected the two combatants, then turned to Sy apologetically. "I say, should I have called a halt? I would have, but I was jolly well enjoying the match too much, wot!"

Sy shrugged. "Well, it's too late now. Hopefully this will teach them a lesson. Dippertail, get some water, will you?"

Sluiced down by several canteens of liquid, Ayeriss and Thundro came to. The hogmaid blinked a few times in a futile attemt to open her swollen right eye, then proffered a paw. "Er, sorry about all this, I was bein shoopid. Yew sure c'n fight, mate!"

Staunching his bloodied snout with one paw, Thundro shook Ayeriss' proffered paw with his free one. "No hard feelings, missy, t'was just as much my fault as yours. Never thought a maid 'ud best me, tho'. Who taught you to box?"

Zaikee, who had hitherto stayed out of all the confusion, now wandered his way into view, staring about with his blind white eyes. "Good fightee, veree good fightee, sound like. Who win?"

Each hog pointed at the other one, then dissolved into helpless giggles.

Later that day, after a short lunch of local fruits and berries, a second council was held. While Shermy continued to explain the concept of a tie to the bewildered old fox, the rest of the beasts gathered around to listen to Dippertail's report on the vermin. There was precious little information to go on.

"Heeer, I traveled many days with the vermin, methinks. The trail was always northward, sometimes northwest a touch, so far as I saw. Yeek, the little foxes don't seem to be getting along with the martens, though; methinks trouble is brewing in that quarter, probably even more so since I escaped. The big serpent seems to be losing his mind, too; but that may be just battle shock. But I know not where they have gone now; I flew away as fast as I could when I escaped." He hung his head guiltily.

Sy stroked his feathers. "Don't feel ashamed; you did what most any beast would have done in your place. Well friends, what do you think we should we do now? Personally, I think we should continue to Branchbounder Territory and have a talk with the Guosim before we make any definite plans; besides, the vermin may be coming by there, and a good deal of the tribe warriors are here and not back there protecting the families. They may need our help."

There were several murmurs of assent; Thundro, having finally succeeded in stopping his nosebleed, raised a paw. "Two questions, please?"

Sy turned to him. "Ask away, friend."

Thundro sniffed loudly, having become congested a bit. "Well, first off, these vermin yore followin', ain't they just headin' home? Ye could find their home an' get 'em there instead of trackin' em; saves time that way."

Walldoh shook his head, answering for Sy. "Sure, an' what about the main vermin army waitin' there? We don't have enough to take them on, yet, no indeed we don't. An' furthermore, the beasts may be just as lost as the liddle 'un there was, or not be headin' home for some other reason. We'd be better off trackin' and capturin' one for information, so we would."

The big hedgehog sniffed again, and shrugged. "Just a thought. Never been much good at plannin' things, meself."

"What's the second question?" Tings ventured to ask.

Thundro looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Well, er...I was wonderin'...could I come with ye?" Seeing the suprised look on Sy's face, he hastened to explain. "I know ye don't know me, an I don't know ye either. But I ain't had a permanant home or a family, not for a long time, an' I get really lonely all by meself. Besides, I like adventures."

Sy put a comforting paw to the big, young hog's lips. "You don't have to explain. There's always room for new friends among goodbeasts."

Before anybeast could voice an objection to this (if any were going to, which was doubtful), Ayeriss Pinspikes was on the defensive. "A course 'e can come. Anybeast sez different answers t'me!"

Squirt put in his two cents worth, waving his stick. "An' me, too! Mista Spikkle play with me, 'e nice!"

Shermy grinned at Thundro. "There you have it, wot; you're officially part of the family now. Well chaps, onward to the swamp, eh?"

Billeo rose from where he was seated. "Aye, the sooner we get back, the better. Branchbounders, form ranks!"

As the army hastened to obey, Sy turned to Dippertail. "You don't have to come along if you don't want to, friend, not if your wing is still hurt."

The falcon was indignant. "Yeeek, ye think a full-grown falcon would stay at Redwall, when a Dibbun can go off on adventures? I am coming, and that's final; even if I have to walk most of the way!"

He took to the air and made his way to the head of the column. Sy picked up her scimitars, sheathing them. "Well, that's that, then. Come on, Squirt, you ride on my back this next bit."

In fine style, the army swung along to their destination, unaware of the masses of dark, vengeful eyes following thier progress.

Rugg Tornpaw was completely lost. The former searat captain who had been captured by the fugitives, and later turned over to the Whisperers, had managed to escape; when the bats cut his bonds before shoving him into the dungeon cell, he had made his move. He had pulled a knife from where it was hidden in his seaboot and fought back, catching the three bats sent to guard him unawares and slaying them. Now fumbling with a guttering torch, the peg-legged rat bumbled his way through the seemingly never-ending maze of underground caverns and tunnels, desperately searching for a way out, cursing his ill fortune.

Turning a corner, Rugg entered a tunnel sloping steeply upwards; realizing that this must lead towards the surface, he practically ran up it, stumbling and bumbling the whole way. When around a bend in the tunnel a white gleam of light appeared, the rat began laughing aloud, redoubling his efforts. His luck had turned; he was home free at last, free to go where he wished, free to do what he pleased!

Pushing thorugh a painful mass of briars, which concealed the entrance completely, Rugg emerged into the clear, bright, warm summer's aftenoon. As it turned out, the briar bushes were none other than blackberry plants, which thickly dotted the slope he had come out upon; the starving searat stuffed his face, the juice dribbling down his chin and beard, staining his paws and clothes a dark, sticky violet. Realizing he was somewhere near the coast by the faint wavesounds nearby, the rat did a dance of joy, yelling through his tasty mouthful. "Stay there, me beautiful sea, I'm comin' when I feels more like it! Haharrr, free at last!"

A cutlass hilt struck him over the head; he fell down, stunned. A vixen in an adderskull mask and blue cloak, with an unsightly bald patch down the side of her tail, was standing over him. Shaking her head in disgust, she called back over her shoulder. "Found an idjit of a searat here; I think he might have information we need!"

It was indeed good fortune that, of the literal thousands of tunnels, Rugg had managed to find one of only three exits from the Whisperer's Domain; however, fickle Lady Luck had now handed him over to even more merciless captors than before. He moaned as the scaly bodies of several adders enveloped him, squeezing him into unconsciousness and dragging him away from his feast.

Chapter Thirty-TwoEdit

From her vantage point high in a fungi-crusted elm, a stout young squirrelmaiden scanned the muddy woodland floor about for signs of life. Her position matained a stillness and rigidity that made her nearly impossible to spot; her keen eyes missed absolutely nothing that went on beneath her. She was highly trained in the skills of steath and observation, and would probably have noticed had a single leaf on a bush been awry; such was the code of the Branchbounders, who believed in always preparing for the worst.

From a small platform set up in the branches some distance below, an impatient voice demanded, "Well? Any sign of them, Kelah?"

Kelah's bushy grey tail flicked angrily as she hissed down at the speaker. "Sure, an' why dontcha let alla woodlands know we're here, bigmouth?"

Another voice joined the first. "Come off it, chubby, we've been here for hours now. There's obviously nobeast around, right?"

The first voice agreed. "Besides, yore Lady Boss never said to stay hidden, just to see if'n they was comin' yet."

Kelah dropped from the heights, swinging acrobatically from bough to bough until she had joined her companions. Both were Guosim in Log-a-Log Yik's crew, and thusly were argumentative beasts unused to patience and silence. The squirrelmaid berated the impudently reclining pair, paws akimbo and tail twitching away. "First off, don't ye nivver call me 'chubby' again! An' maybe not outright, the boss didn't say t'be quiet, but t'is the way we've allus done it! T'is a fact an' a law, no mission is ever, EVER carried out noisy; no indeed it is not!"

This completely foreign concept illicited gruff laughter from the two shrews. The larger of the pair settled himself more comfortably on the platform. "Well, we don't follow Branchbounder rules, mate; Guosim lives by their own codes."

"Aye, and rule number one is 'always follow what the Log-a-Log says'!"

The two shrews and the squirrelmaid swiftly came to attention in the presence of the revered chieftain, who had just ascended to the platform. The older shrew paced about them like a drill seargeant, addressing Kelah in short snaps.

"Any sign of Billeo's patrol yet, missy?"

"Nivver so much as a peep, good sir!"

"An' of the Branchbounder Cheiftain?"

"None at all, sorry to say."

"An' of the vermin?"

"Couldn't say, sir."

Yik stopped his pacing, staring up into the big, stout squirrelmaid's face menacingly. "Then what the blazes are ye down here for? Get back up there an' look again!"

"Yessir, sorry sir!" Kelah bowed and ascended hurriedly to her lookout post. The shrewchief turned his wrath upon his crewmembers. "She's learned to obey orders; something you two obviously need a sharp lesson in! Oakpaw, how many times am I gonna have t'tell ye? When we're guests in anotherbeast's home,follow their rules!"

The larger of the two shrews hung his head guiltily as Yik turned to his companion. "An' you, Sorex; what am I going to do with ye, eh? Bein' loud on a sentry mission, antagonizing allies, making a lookout desert her post...I swear ye've got fluff for brains! Ye both do!"

The two shrews started to mumble apologies; Yik placed his paws on their shoulders, addressing them in a more reasonable tone. "Now, I know we ain't used t'livin' the way these creatures do; they're quieter and more stealthy than we are, by a long way. But (and remember this well) they've stayed alive all these seasons that way. This is a dangerous part of Mossflower, mates, and they know how to survive it better than any otherbeasts livin'. While we're here, we do as they do and obey their laws - NO arguments. Is that clear?"

Oakpaw, like all shrews, was born to debate. "But, cheif, we've been here for almost two weeks now! I know these beasts are allies, but we just can't behave like them; that should be apparent by now, t'aint the Guosim way! We'll be at each other's throats before much longer if this keeps up!"

Yik seemed to appreciate this point. "Ye may be right; not sayin' ye are, but ye might be. What about it, Sorex? Do ye feel the same way?"

Emboldened by being asked his opinion, Sorex drew his rapier and brandished it. "I say we clear out altogether, hunt down the scum an' kill 'em all, make 'em pay for..."

Yik stopped him with a sharp command. "Sheathe that thing afore ye hurt somebeast!" As the abashed Sorex stowed his rapier away, the Log-a-log shook a stern paw under his nose. "I know ye lost yore friend Biggla in that raid, an' ye want t'avenge 'er; ye've told us all often enough. But ye ain't the only one who lost a friend, or family, and ye can't just think about you. Great seasons, have ye forgotten the crash on the falls some weeks ago what killed me wife an' some others? Have ye forgotten half of us, including me son Flipp, have gone missing? An' have ye forgotten Biggla was not just yore friend an' fellow frontrunner scout, but also me own gel?"

Sorex and Oakpaw silently shook their heads. None of the Guosim would ever forget the terrible, haunted look on their cheiftain's face when, en route to the Branchbounder swamp, he had found his daughter's body...or what little was left of it, after Jettcoil and Whiptail had eaten their fill.

Yik continued his lecture, punctuating words with gestures and fist-pounding. "Now, understand this. We all want t' get after the vermin, but we can't with only a pawful of beasts healthy. I've got more reason than most of us, but as much as I'd like t'go meself, I wouldn't be so selfish as t'make the rest of t'Guosim go on a suicide mission. When Walldoh gets back, we'll discuss what we can do about getting some new boats; that's our primary worry. Then we'll hunt about for our missing shrews; and then, and only then, we'll see about attackin' the vermin. Until then, we stay here and keep on the good side of the Branchbounders. And that's an order!"

What Sorex and Oakpaw would have replied was interrupted by a low cry from Kelah, high above their heads. "Beasts approachin', quite the gatherin' by the look of it!"

The three shrews ceased their conversation and scrambled noisly into the foliage to see for themselves. Kelah shook her head in pity as they arrived, dusting leaves from their fur and clothes. "Sure, an' did nobeast teach ye lot anything in the time ye've been here? Ye scared birds from their nests with all that rustlin'!"

Yik waved this aside. "Never mind, where are they?"

Kelah gestured to a dark area of the swamp, where a treacherous path wound between morasses and tree trunks, some distance to the north. Yik shaded his eyes with a paw. "I don't see anything, missy."

"There, cheif!" Oakpaw had keen eyesight; he pointed exitedly. "Good deal of dark shadows some distance back; some of them look too tall to be dormice or squirrels." Oakpaw sniffed the air; his face suddenly went rigid with alarm. "Krozfoxx!"

Kelah stared at him. "Are ye sure, sir? T'is not like them t'come in any great numbers, it isn't."

Yik sniffed, too. "He's sure. I'd know that pungent odour anyplace. Sorex, go for help, bring back archers!"

The young shrew started to back down the tree; Kelah halted him. "Wait, listen!" A loud, sweet note rose on the wind, echoing and thrumming the very air of the swamp before fading gently away. Kelah grinned broadly. "I knew it, t'is only Billeo's patrol. They must have taken a prisoner."

Vastly relieved, the four sentries began waving and shouting, hoping to get the attention of the returning Commander.

Ayeriss uncovered her ears, glaring at Billeo. "Did yew absolutely have t'do that?!"

Thundro was in complete agreement. "Next time ye blow that thing, either stan' in front or watch where it's pointed!"

The young woodmouse ignored them, showing his most prized possession to Tings. "D'ye like it? It was my grandfather's."

The mousemaid, who felt slightly embarrassed at all the attention Billeo gave her, shyly fingered the inricately carved horn. "It's gorgeous!"

Billeo nodded. "Aye, my grandfather was a great craftsbeast. He made it out of the fang of a great serpent, long before I was born. T'is the only thing I have from him, y'know; the Painted Ones burned the rest."

Tings touched the carvings on the horn again. "He certainly knew what he was doing; that's the most beautiful instrument I've ever seen!"

"Here, you have a go." Billeo pressed it into her paws, laughing at the shocked expression on her face. "Well, go on, give it a good blow, let 'em know we're coming!"

This time, everybeast covered their ears as Tings accepted the instrument, placed it to her lips, and inhaled a huge amount of air.

Kelah grimaced as an extremely loud and piercing off-key squeak nearly blasted her from her perch. "Hmm, maybe t'is vermin after all; Billeo never blows it like that, indeed not!"

"Eh, what's that?" Yik and his two Guosim rubbed and swatted at their heads, trying to stop the massive ringing that had erupted in their ears.

The arrival of Billeo's patrol, coupled with the return of Walldoh (with some very unusual companions, at that), caused quite a to-do in the Branchbounder community. Every dormouse, squirrel, and Guosim shrew descended from the platforms and treehouses to welcome the crowd, and catch a glimpse of the "giant wildcat", "wild bird", and "crazy fox" they had reportedly brought with them. Creatures were introduced to one another, old friends shook paws and embraced, all above a steady undercurrent of ceaseless curious questions.

"Ha! What a funny-lookin' ragbag. Where'd ye pick him up?"

"Raggle, t'is me, Kelah!"

"Great seasons, you still remember me? You were a babe-in-arms when I left!"

"Are you really on our side, bigbeast?"

"Hullo, Log-a-thing; how are you, old chap?"

"This is my new friend Tings; be nice to her, she's a lady!"

"Who's the scruffy-lookin' hedgehog gel?"

"I heard that! Yew just step closer and say that again..."

The chatter died down when Wardah, a hansome, no-nonsense figure of a female dormouse, stormed determinely through the crowd. She welcomed back her wandering husband with a harsh, two word demand. "Where's Shay?"

In all the the excitement, Walldoh had nearly forgotten that he'd left his little daughter at Redwall; he hastened to explain the situation. Sy grinned at Raggle. "Looks like Walldoh's cheiftain everywhere except in his own home, eh?"

Once Wardah had been informed how matters stood, she addressed the beasts at large. "T'is a serious matter my husband reports to me. We'll be hearin' the cheiftain out in full when he takes his rightful place at table tonight, so we will. In the meantime, stop the prattling and be after showin' our guests to their quarters. Geraon, Halur, see to it, please!"

Obediently, the dormouse brothers so named stepped foward. Halur, the younger, gestured to Zaikee, who was nodding pleasedly, obviously not following a word of what was going on in the clamor. "Sure, an' what should be be doin' wid that 'un, lock 'im up?"

Shermy seemed scandalised. "Indeed you will not, old scout! The idea! He'd probably do himself a mischeif on his own, wot!"

Halur grinned mischeviously. "Very well; I'll be puttin' him in your quarters then."

"Now see here, that's not what I meant...!" Shermy started to protest, but the two dormice had already walked away, one of them leading Zaikee by the paw. As the rest of the Redwallers followed, the otterbabe Squirt looked quizzically at the hare.

"What d'matter, mista Shermee?"

Shermy gestured to his oversize footpaws. "Take a good look at one of the marvels of the universe, old scout; somehow yours truly just managed to put one of these bloomin' big things right in his mouth!"

Late that night, the newcomers to the colony were treated to the best meal the Branchbounders had to offer. Refreshed and well-rested, the travelers followed their two guides to a dry island in the center of the swamp. Between four ancient elm trees on this island, a massive, multi-leveled platform sprawled, upon which many rows of low, square tables had been placed. There were no chairs; one and all, the creatures sat upon sacks and cushions on the floor. Walldoh and his family had the largest table; it was able to seat a good score of beasts, whereas the rest could at best seat eight or nine. There were no rules for seating; everybeast simply found a place that was comfortable.

As soon as the last beast had arrived and seated themselves (Shermy, forecefully escorting a suddenly argumentative Zaikee), dinner was served. As the kitchens were located underground, in a stone dugout beneath the trees, the food was raised to the platform by means of dumbwaiters, each beast serving themselves from the nearest one. The main course this particular evening was a sort of thick stew made from mushrooms, edible swamp weeds, and some unidentifiable fish or eel; it was delicious, but very salty. Fortunately, there was ample water to drink, raised from a well in the kitchen cellars; there was also nettle ale and dandelion cordial, for those who favored drinks with flavor. The Guosim had made a contribution to the meal with their shrewcake, a thick, sweet concoction made from dried fruit, ground nuts, and honey. This was served alongside the stew, and complimented its taste marvelously.

Being too large to squeeze in with the beasts at most of the other tables, Sy found herself seated with Yik and a few other shrews. Some of them were a bit suspicious of her towering, scarred self at first; however, her friendly and disarming demeanor soon put them at ease. As the night wore on, she suprised them by joined in their joking and debating wholeheartedly, even scoring a point or two in a battle of wits with the Log-a-Log himself. Draining a beaker of ale, Yik smiled at her. "Ye'd make a good shrew, cat; ye've got a way with ye, and no mistake."

The wildcat grinned, helping herself to another slice of cake. "Thank you, sir! If you'll forgive my saying so, you remind me a good deal of my uncle." Asio, one of the shrews at the table, spoke up. "Ye do yore uncle a disservice, I'm sure he's better lookin' than the cheif!"

Ribald laughter broke out from the other shrews seated there; a still-grinning Sy countered boldly. "Well, he's certainly far and away better looking than you! And smarter, I might add!"

More laughter came from the shrews; friendly insult matches were right up their alley. "Well said, miss!" Yik patted the wildcat's big paw. "Ye know, you remind me of me son Flipp; he's got a toungue just as sharp when roused." "Oh does he?" Sy's eye glinted with the prospect of another battle of wits, thinking Yik wished to set up a challenge. "We'll see about that; which one is your son?"

There was a bit of an awkward pause. Yik glared at the other shrews, who seemed apalled by the question. "She wouldn't know, don't think badly of her for it! My son, miss Sy, was one of the ones that went missing back when we were separated."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Had you no idea what happened to him at all?"

Yik shook his head. "All we knew is we searched for their trail for several days, but the only sign we found was vermin tracks everyplace. We were far north at the time, though, near the coast; lots of vermin tribes live up there."

The wildcat's jaw tightened. "Then I think I know what happened to your son, sir. That army I told you about, the ones that burned my villiage, they've assimilated about every vermin band in the north now into their Ranks. I hate to have to say it, sir, but odds are high your shrews were attacked and taken prisoner, just like my kin."

Yik seemed taken aback by the idea. "If yore right - not saying ye are, mind - this means we'll have to make some drastic changes of plan."

A loud clanging interrupted further conversation. Seeing he had everybeast's attention, Walldoh ceased rattling his dirk in his empty beaker and addressed the gathering. "Sure, an' t'is a fact this gathering isn't so we all can chat together. Everybeast knows by now the situation; faith, anybeast who doesn't hasn't got ears, for nobeast has scarcely talked of anythin' else. By now, t'is plain to all these Ranks beasts are posin' a threat far worse than has come to these parts in many a long season. Now, mark me; me goodself has been chosen in a dream by the spirit of a great warrior long dead to fight these vermin; sure, and ain't it the duty of all beasts good of heart to defend their homes anyhow? Now, be thinkin' on that and listen to this young dormouse here. Shander?"

Shander stood next to Walldoh. The pair were almost identical; the likeness between father and son was extraordinary. However, the younger dormouse did not have the Branchbounder accent, which seemed a bit suprising to the guests. He spoke in what seemed to be sort of a controlled frenzy.

"As ye lot may know, myself and a band of rebellious youngbeasts left here some seasons back to seek adventures. I am the only one who was able to return and tell the tale; the first week out we were attacked by a huge band of adders and beasts in cloaks like Yik described. Some of us were slain; I and the rest were dragged away, bound and gagged. Weeks and weeks we traveled, ever northward; I remember that horrid journey blazed in my brain. They talked constantly of meeting up with a main army many times bigger than they were, and having us join their slaves. I collapsed with fatigue about the fourth week; they beat me over the head and left me for dead. It took me all this time to drag myself back.

"We were only a few days north of here when they attacked us; they must be planning to take over a wide area, if they ranged this far just to take prisoners. And father tells me this threat has already come dangerously close to invading Mossflower. If we don't act now, we could very well find ourselves under a tyrannical vermin rule. If we don't act now, our friends may be slaves forever, and so will we!"

A shocked silence followed; Walldoh resumed. "So now ye see the position. I propose we should be stocking ourselves with supplies, and march northward; not for fightin', mind, but to raise a bigger army to have a proper war later. Sure, an' there must be a massive amount of goodbeasts in the lands farther northwards with reason to get back at the Ranks. What say ye? No rush; be after takin' some time to make up yore minds."

The idea of the massive undertaking seemed to stupefy some of the beasts present, all save the quick-minded Guosim. Yik stood and raised his rapier in salute, as did the rest of the shrews.

"I'm with ye, and so are my beasts. I know I wasn't advocating all-out war at first, but I've realized it's likely my beasts are prisoners with the Ranks as well. We'll follow ye anyplace ye ask!"

Billeo and his beasts stood and raised their bows, followed by the rest of the Branchbounders. "You know we're all with you, Chief, to the death!"

It was understood Sy and her companions were already going; however, not wanting to be left out of the dramatic moment, they drew their weapons anyway.

"Foward to honor and glory, wot!"

"We'll stop 'em gettin' any more liddle 'uns hurt!"

"Hyeer, I was not one of the Chosen, but I will fight to help them!"

Walldoh smiled at all of the beasts looking up at him. "T'is settled, then. We'll stock up and move out at once, so we will!"

The treetops rang as each band sounded their warcry at the top of their lungs; Sy joined in with a will, tears of joy in her good eye. The impossible mission did not seem so impossible, now. There would inevitably be a terrible war, and many slain, but she was now certain; with the help of such good friends as she had made, how could the masters of evil stand a chance?

Again and again the trees rang with the cheers, as beasts prepared to set off on the next grand, unknown adventure.






Book 4: The FinaleEdit

Chapter Thirty-ThreeEdit

Dragged unmercifully over the stony ground by his scaly captors, his paws and torso gripped tight by the coils of several serpents, a terrified Rugg Tornpaw struggled wildly to get free. Any common sense the old searat might have posessed was thrown to the winds; heedless of the fact that to stay calm and quiet in the presence of so many adders was the safest bet, he scrabbled, screamed and wailed unmercifully, spurred in his efforts by the all-consuming force of sheer panic. At first, his captors had not minded, laughing and jeering at him as they marched back to camp. However, as the hours crawled on, it was plain the constant stream of shreiks was grating on everybeast's nerves.

"Whooooooooaaaaaaaargh! Yaaaheeeeeeeee! Ayieeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

A massive, blubbery ogre of a ferret began pawing at her spear haft. "If'n that fool don't shuddup, so help me..."

Twotail was leading the patrol; the vixen began passing around pads of moss and grass. "I know how ye feels, mate; don't let it get t'ye. E're, stuff summa 'dis lot in yore ears t'deaden the noise."

Onward, the patrol marched in high bad humor, some of them beginning to groan and moan aloud along with their prisoner. The earplugs proved to be useless against the shrill squeals of the rat, which seemed to purposefully cut through them. Finally, the big, ugly ferret had taken enough; she struck the offender over the head with her spearbutt, readying for a downward thrust with the point.

"Right, let's see how good ye screams wid no head attached!"

Twotail neatly tripped the ferret; she hit the ground with a dull, heavy THUD. As her victim hawked and spluttered up several clods of grass and dirt, the vixen berated her angrily. "Lay a paw on me pris'ner an' yore dead, d'ye hear me? Dead!" She used her cutlass to gesture to the rest of her angry and weary patrol. "An' that goes fer alla ye! The Black Shade put ME in charge, so I gives the orders! Clear?"

Any response was halted by a yell from the hilltop nearby; framed by the setting red sun behind him, a lone, tall figure had appeared. It was Gatlak, and he was hailing them, pink highlights dancing off his sabre as he waved it to get their attention. "Hallooooooooooooo the patrol! Any news?"

Twotail swallowed hard, hoping that her news would be construed as good news. "No tracks, but we gotta old rat who might have sum infermation!"

"Good! I'll tell.." A sudden cacophany of noise, mostly bubbling screams and growls, broke out from the other side of the hill; the marten looked startled, and disappeared from view. In the abrupt silence that followed, the patrol looked from one beast to another nervously. What had just happened, back in the camp?

After a few moments Gatlak reappeared. His former confidence was gone; he seemed to have been badly shaken. His voice was little more than a half-hearted quaver. "Cummon in, t'Black Shade wants a word with ye!"

Unsure whether to be alarmed or relieved, the patrol hastened to obey, hurriedly dragging their unconscious prisoner over the hilltop, down the rocky slope, and into the camp at the base of the falls.

Enzi Grexx sat alone and immobile on a small boulder, half-in and half-out of the shallows. His footpaws dangling idly in the stream, his chin against his gently rising and falling chest, the great beast appeared to be sleeping; however, the rust-stained adderfang spear gripped tight in his forepaws warned that to assume he was asleep would be a gamble of life and death.

As Gatlak escorted Twotail and her patrol to the wolf's side, the beasts stifled gasps of horror. Floating in the edge of the river, kept from washing downstream by various rocks and water weeds, were the remains of three very dead adders, slashed quite literally to pieces by their former commander.

Gatlak nervously addressed the slumped figure. "Here they are, Cap'n, just like ye asked."

Slowly, the wolf turned his head. His yellow eyes practically glowed with bloodshot pink viens; everybeast in the patrol moved back slightly from the piercing gaze. The wolf looked from his army to the captive, then back again. Noticing their appalled expressions, the wolf spoke, his voice a low, strained growl. It was plain he was keeping a rising fury in check, though how long that control would last was anybeast's guess. "This was Circi's patrol. Three days now, they've been wasting my time; the dolt had the effrontery to report a find of "nothing" to me five times in a row. Three days, we've been scouring the countryside. Three days, since those slaves of mine have made fools of you. THREE DAYS, the reports have been the same; nothing. Nothing! NOTHING!!!!"

He lept to his footpaws in a swirl of cloak and tunic, his spearpoint aimed for a thrust at Twotail's head. The wolf screamed so forcefully at her spittle flew from his muzzle. "You'd better pray this rat knows something, fox! If you've hurt him too badly for him to tell me anything, or if this is another dead end, you'll end up just like this last lot of useless scum, all of you! Now get out of my sight, and put this dolt where he can sleep off whatever injury you've given them!"

Terrified beyond words, the whole patrol, including Gatlak, fled the scene. To a beast, their thoughts were identical; the Black Shade was insane, and to be near him in a mood like this was sure death!

Late that evening, Rugg Tornpaw awoke to a world of pain. His head pounded and throbbed horrendously from the two knock-out blows he had earlier recieved, and the countless other bangs and bumps to the skull he had suffered during the long, stony journey. His ribs were cramped and sore from where the serpents had constricted them, as were his limbs. And, to cap it all off, his tail was on fire!

Apparently, as he was rolling about in his sleep, the searat had gotten his rear end too close to one of the campfires. With a yelp, Rugg leapt up, beating and blowing at his blazing appendage; spotting the Great North Stream, he flung himself into the frigid water with a loud splash. His performance caught the attention of the Ranks gathered around; two foxes promptly dove in after him, rescuing him from the depths and flinging him upon the bank. Three more Ranks soldiers seized the half-drowned rat, dragged him away from their main camp, and dumped him uncerimoniously in front of a rocky outcrop in the nearby woods, fleeing the scene to leave him to his fate. Spitting water and bits of riverbed mud, the peg-legged searat found himself looking up into the flat, yellow eyes of the Black Shade.

Enzi Grexx, for now his normal imperious self, was giving the rat the full display of his might and majesty. Framed against the star-studded velvet blue of the night sky, the deep, glossy blackness of his recently groomed fur was even more pronounced. A very nervous Gatlak and Zalbu stood to rigid attention either side of him; each marten bore a torch atop a long pole, which had been treated with chemicals to make the flames glow green. The light flickered patterns across the lighter scales in the wolf's tunic, his bared white fangs, and the sickly grey adderskull masks he and his followers wore. A live adder - the big female Sisserah - completed the barbaric picture; she lounged gracefully abount the wolf's shoulders like a scarf, her ugly head reaching foward and down towards the rat.

Rugg began shivering, not just from the cold. "What d'ye want with me? I ain't harmed nobeast...."

"SSSSSSSILENCE!" Sisserah's nose was suddenly touching his, her venom-dripping fangs an inch from his face. "On your kneessssss, ssssssscum; bow beffffffffore the Great Black Sssssssssshade!"

The terrified rat dropped face-down to the earth with a wail; he had taken all his jangled nerves could stand for one day. His tears flowed down his braided beard as he wept unashamedly. "Mercy, mercy, spare me! I'll do anything, anythin' a'tall, I swear it! Whatever it is, I'll do it, ye've got me solemn oath, highness! Just call off t'snakes, I beg ye!"

"Enough, Sisserah." The Black Shade's voice was soothing, almost friendly. "Leave the poor creature alone."

Obediently, the adder left of terrorizing Rugg. Enzi Grexx shook his head and sighed as the rat groveled thankfully at his footpaws. Reaction to the prospect of death, especially by serpent, separated the fools and cowards from the useful beasts. It never failed to disgust him when creatures were reduced to blubbering wrecks so easily; this rat was an unimpressive specimen, to be sure.

He took on a slightly more commanding tone. "Up on your paws, rat; I need your assistance."

"Anythin', name it!" Rugg's tears flowed even more freely in his relief.

"Oh, it's not much." The wolf smiled thinly. "First, a question. Have you seen any large, black ships about with Wildcats and Woodlanders aboard?"

Rugg nodded furiously; the wolf's smile broadened to reveal every fang in his huge mouth. "Good! Now, you are going to sit here and tell me everything that's happened to you within the last four or five days. And I do mean EVERYTHING, every last detail, down to when you ate and slept. Oh, and don't bother to lie; the serpent knows when a beast lies. She's not too fussy on liars."

Heeding the ominous warning, Rugg started talking as fast as he could. It was as if another beast was in control of his tounge; he spoke longer and with more eloquence than he ever had in his life, unwinding his fascinating tale as if he'd been a storyteller from birth. The wolf waited until he had finished to ask questions, his only reactions during the tale being the occasional nod or "What's that?" to clarify a confusing point.

When Rugg had wound up, it was nearing midnight; the Black Shade went over one or two points again. "You say this cave has thousands of bats in it?"

"Tens o'thousands, accordin' t'that sherrew."

"And it has how many entrances?"

"On'y three I know of; the Waterfall, the one I used, anna big hole in the ceilin' in that main cave. But ye couldn't get in through the waterfall or the ceilin' hole without fallin' t'death."

"That's as may be. And the getaway ship is no longer sailworthy?"

"Firewood's all she's good fer now."

The wolf nodded, the slow smile reappearing. An fiendish plan was beginning to form in his mind. Sensing the interview was over, and feeling a bit more confidence now, Rugg ventured a tentative question. "Er, I wandered about in that cave for nigh on three days, Highness, wid no food an' all. Am I free t'go? I'd like t'find sum grub."

The wolf stared at him very hard before replying. "Every vermin for leagues about belongs in my army. Would you serve?"

Rugg shook his head emphatically. "Never, Yore Highness, not wid so many snakes!"

"Then you're of no more use to me." The Black Shade clapped his paws.

The last thing Rugg saw was the open mouth of Sisserah flying straight at his face at unimaginable speed; he had no time to scream.

Leaving the adder to her grisly meal, the wolf addressed his two subordinates. "Gather all the Ranks. I need to make an announcement immediately!"

Three days had also passed since the escape of Dippertail; the desperate hunt to find him was still in full swing. However, the martens and Krozfoxx were fast beginning to lose patience with Scaleflier, who had been running them ragged by forcing them to attempt to keep up with his speed. Even moving at what to him was average pace, the small green serpent easily outdistanced them. Jettcoil, Dankfur, and Ux were able to plow on in stoic silence fairly close to him; however, the majority of the group lagged farther and farther back, gasping and crying out as their paws and lungs began to ache. Two Krozfoxx had already been left behind; one dead from the strain, another unable to carry on due to a broken footpaw.

When an unfortunate Kaiah blundered into a ravine because he was too tired and running too quickly to see it, the big marten Uja finally decided enough was enough. "Hoi! Slow down, wouldja!"

Others soon took up the cry.

"Disee runnee alla time killee me!"

"Slow down afore some otherbeast gits hurt!"

"My paws hurtee likee blazes!"

Scaleflier treated his followers to a glare, impressing them by slithering backwards while he berated them. "SSSsssss, you lot are weaklingssssss! Don't ye know to catch a fffffalcon one must move quicky? We'll never catch him at thisssssss rate!"

Danfur realized, however, the justice in Uja's train of thought; plus, though he would not admit it, he too was exhausted. "It's late, Scaleflier; we need to rest. Company HALT!"

Gratefully, every beast sank to the ground; some of them flopped onto their backs, gasping for air and wiping slavering mouths. As Jettcoil backtracked a few paces to rescue Kaiah from the ditch, Scaleflier addressed Dankfur. "Ifffff we did not sssssstop or sssssslow so often, we would not have had to run ssssssssso much; we'd have caught him long beffffffore now."

Dankfur's chest was also heaving; it took him a moment to reply. "Are you sure he went this way? Three days we've been charging, and I've seen no signs so far, not even a feather!"

The decietful serpent knew he was on dangerous ground; he realized a rude counterattack was the best method for instilling confidence, knowing that to appear calm and pleasant would arouse Dankfur's suspicions. He huffed angrily. "Iffffff you would like to attempt tracking a ffffffalcon in ffffffull ffffflight, fffffffeel ffffree. It issssssss a tassssssk mossssssst diffffficult. However, I am asssss ssssssure he went thisssss way asssss ifff I sssssaw him with my own eyesssssss!"

It had the desired effect; Dankfur's mood was not improved, but he believed the serpent's words. He stabbed his sabre moodily into the earth. "Well, if we haven't caught up with him by tomorrow night, the hunt is off, as far as myself and my beasts are concerned. For all we know, he may be leading us a merry dance just to watch us all drop dead from exhaustion."

Ringgob, who was nearby, nodded in agreement. "Aye, an' 'e'll succeed if'n we keep this up!"

He recoiled as his captain's sabre flashed by, shearing off one side of his whiskers. "Who said you could speak, bigmouth? Take Jettcoil and get us some food, and keep your trap shut!"

Chastened, the older marten gathered his bow and arrows; he and the blacksnake headed off, with Dankfur's cold eyes watching them. Slithering away from the scene, Scaleflier let out a small sigh of relief. Though he didn't know it, Dankfur had come dangerously close to stumbling upon the truth; that is, the truth of a small part of the serpent's full revenge.

Later that evening, the two hunters returned to camp, burdened with a huge supply of cooked goods, cordials, and a dead family of plump voles, all looted from the same treehouse. For the first time in a long time, Dankfur congratulated his crew. "Well done; we should eat well tonight. Put some to the side for supplies, don't wolf it all down at once!"

The food was being distributed when Akalle Bladewhip strolled nonchalantly into camp. Her arrival caused little comment; she was always the last to arrive, refusing to run and simply following the tracks of the rest of the band to wherever they decided to camp for the night. Dankfur glowered at her. "Half rations for you, fox; maybe that will teach you to keep up next time!"

The killer vixen seemed to be unusally quiet and obedient of late; without a word of complaint, she accepted her meagre share of the food and went off to a boulder some distance away to eat. Scaleflier lay coiled on the opposite side, out of view of the others. Akalle murmured a single word out of the side of her mouth. "Well?"

The serpent flexed his coils. "T'issss going ssssslowly, but sssssuccessssfully. Murmursssss of mutiny are beginning amongssssst the foxesssss; the martensssss still need work, though. Sssssstay awake and watch me work tonight, and ssssssseee my methodssssss, ifffff you like."

The vixen pawed at one of her poisoned knives, glaring at Ringgob. "Ye just let me know when I can kill that skullbeast that ruined my paw, an' that big oaf Ux; their dead bodies are all I need to see!"

The serpent shook his head in mock pity. "You may have need to ssssssoil your blade; have you not realissssed the sssssheme yet? It issss fffar better they ssssshould appear to kill each other offff, than one of ussss should be blamed for it; t'will help ussssss to undermine the main Ranksssssss later!"

"Help you." Akalle corrected. "After Ux an' Ringgob die, I go my own way."

Scaleflier did not seem unduly put out. "Sssssssuit yourssssself. But ssssssstay out of trouble until thissssss isssss over, undersssssstand? One ffffalssssse move and we're both dead!"

As the serpent had planned when he ran them ragged, Dankfur and his crew were far too tired to even post sentries; to a beast, they lay flat out, in the deep sleep of total exhaustion. None of them noticed the small serpent slithering among them, whispering into ears soothingly, disrupting their dreams and planting subconsious thoughts of mutiny. Akalle stayed awake and watched, tail twitching with impatience. This sort of thing seemed to her impatient mind to be foolish; had she her way, she would have stabbed everybeast then and there with her poisoned blade. This reckless plan, of course, involved the gamble that none of them would cry out and alert the big snake before she got a chance to get him; however, to Akalle's mind, this was certainly worth the chance.

Scaleflier was at Uja's ear now; Akalle noticed the serpent was taking a particularly long time with him. When the small racer finally returned to her and curled up at her footpaws for a snooze, the vixen questioned him. "Why'd ye stay so long at the big skullbeast's ear? He's a dunce, he can't help ye."

The serpent allowed his eyes to film over. "He isssss to be my prime mover in the little drama I am creating. Hisssssss brother wasssss slain by the Redwallersssss in the battle; he hasssss more reasssssson to turn on Dankfur than anybeasssssst."

Akalle did not agree with this reasoning, having no familial ties herself; however, it was too late and she was too sleepy to argue the point. Both would-be assassins settled down for the night, each with their own thoughts of vengeance.

Unaware that a third beast had joined them in these thoughts - one whom Scaleflier's suggestions had affected more strongly than the small serpent could have ever imagined!

Chapter Thirty-FourEdit

We're on the one road, sharing the one load!
We're on the road to who-knows-where!
We're on the one road! It may be the wrong road,
But we're together, so who cares?
North, West, South, East -comrades all!
Ev'ry goodbeast answer to the call!
We're on the one road, swinging along,
Singin' a soldier's song!
Though we've argued ev'ry now and then,
Now's the time to make it up again!
Sure, aren't we all Goodbeasts anyhow?
Now's the time! Step together now!
We're on the......(etc.)
Mice an' Hedgehogs, every mother's son,
Hares, Moles, Squirrels - Cummon, ev'ryone!
Shrews an' otters, every beast in line!
All march on, an' we'll do just fine!
We're on the......(etc.)
Night is darkest just before the dawn;
From the battle, Freedom is reborn!
Though we know not what we have in store,
We'll still fight and sing out once more,
We're on the one road, sharing the one load!
We're on the road to who-knows-where!
We're on the one road! It may be the wrong road,
But we're together, so who cares?
North, West, South, East -comrades all!
Ev'ry goodbeast answer to the call!
We're on the one road, swinging along,
Singin' a soldier's song!
North, West, South, East -comrades all!
Ev'ry goodbeast answer to the call!
We're on the one road, swinging along,
Singin' a soldier's song!
Singin' a Soooooooooooooldieeeeeeeeeeeeer's Sooooooooooooooooong!!!"

Raggle was forced to gasp for air, after holding the last loud note for such a long time. He shot a look of exhasperation at Billeo's back; the woodmouse was directing the singing by holding his bow up and waving it about, so the creatures behind him could see. "Whew, I thought he'd never let us stop. Classic or no classic, that bloomin' song goes on for ages!"

The army-cum-recruiting party of Guosim, Branchbounders, and Redwallers had steadily continued to wend its way northward over the last couple days . They had left the northernmost fringe of Mossflower behind some hours since, and were now making their way over the barren Northwestern Flatlands towards the coast. As Walldoh had predicted, there was a fair number of creatures who were more than willing to go to war against the Ranks; so far, they had added to their numbers a large family of moles with clubs, a small holt of otters with javelins, and numerous nomadic or solitary beasts like Thundro who wanted a share in the adventure. It was the otters who had suggested the singing; as the army was still looking for new recruits, Billeo had suggested the traditional but somewhat repetitive call-to-arms that had just been sung.

Shermy was still humming the lively air; he gave Raggle a push. "Oh, come off it, old scout; I thought it was rather fun, actually. Matter of fact, I've just composed me own verse, wot!"

"When we win wars, as we'll surely do,
We'll get medals; scads of ribbons, too!
An' the cook will fix us lots o' scoff,
Er.......Rumpity tumpitty, doodly-doo de

He looked at the other creatures, who had broken into sniggers. "I say, what rhymes with 'Scoff'?"

Before anybeast could answer, a sweet, melodic blast from Billeo's horn called the entire column to a halt. Ayeriss and Thundro were bringing up the rear; the former waggled a paw in her ringing ears. "Dratted thing. Well, what is it this time?"

Squirt was seated atop Thundro's haversack; he could see all the way to the front. The otterbabe pointed. "Dip'tail's comin' back, see?"

The falcon had been sent ahead to pick up Dankfur's trail, along with Sy Stoneclaw and a small band of Guosim shrews. He now returned alone, swooping low over the crowd and pulling up for a landing atop a nearby boulder. Walldoh hailed him. "What news might ye be bringin' us, bird?"

Dippertail, after a few day's proper feeding and Shermy's expert care to his wounds, had almost made a full recovery. He pointed in a northwesterly direction with his wing. "Heeekah, the trail has been found! It heads west, but then veers off sharply to the north. Kyeeeeeeeee, methinks they are running full speed ahead; the trail is such that even a blindbeast.....beg pardon, fox....could follow it."

Walldoh grinned. "Sure, an' t'is good news indeed. Lead the way!"

Dippertail took off again, flying more slowly and closer to the ground than was his wont. The rest of the band followed at a quick jog behind him; as Scaleflier had once said, keeping up with a falcon, even a slow-flying one, was no easy task.

The Northwstern Flatlands were "flat lands" in name only. The area was treeless, and almost entirely devoid of any plant growth save scrub grass, small shrubs, and the occasional flower; however, it was a rippling mass of hillocks and ditches, with several small streams running through it and black boulders of varying sizes dotting it thickly.

It was behind a large specimen of such a boulder, rising like a miniature monotlith from the valley, that the first gruesome discovery of the day was made. The older Krozfoxx who had died from exhaustion was slumped against it, his face and body contorted grotesquely as if he had died in the grip of some plague or malady. Seeing several creatures grimace and shrink back, Dippertail, who had spotted him long since, reassured them. "Kyeeeeeer, ye won't catch anything from him. His heart failed him, I should guess."

Log-a-Log Yik kicked the huddled mass of patched fur, rolling it over. "Aye, an' he must've been running like fury. Lookit the terrible state of 'is paws; an' 'is nose was bleedin', too, if'n 'is clothes speak true. 'E died of runnin', sure enough."

Shermy examined the body, and confirmed Yik's diagnosis. "Right first time, wot! Y'know, I wonder what he was fleein' from; he jolly well must have been goin' like the clappers for hours, t'get himself into this state."

Murmurs of speculation broke out; Billeo, Walldoh, and Yik were forced to shout to restore order. "Silence in the ranks there; enough time for discussion when we hear the scout's report. Foward march!"

Originally, the column of warriors had been marching eight-abreast; however, Dippertail's directions had now led them to a particularly narrow and muddy ravine filled with briars, and the band was forced to disorganize itself as little groups of creatures fended their own way through it. Sy hailed the struggling creatures from a hilltop, just as they emerged out the other end, about an hour or so later. "Up here, friends; up here!"

Wet, sticky, and pulling out embedded thorns, the now unhappy army of goodbeasts trudged wearily up the steep slope. The hilltop posessed a large, round depression, as if some primeval beast had scooped part of it off with a spoon. The now-obvious trail of pawtracks and serpent marks led into it, where it was quite plain a camp had been pitched some little time earlier.

As the shrew trackers cast about for more clues, Sy pointed about with one of her big scimitars, identifying the signs they had already uncovered to the rest of the band. "Scraps of fruit, fish, and vegetables; bloody pawtracks; campfire scars; bits of leaf bandages and a couple small bones - probably off Krozfoxx body ornaments. Also this...."

She held up what looked like a large blanket, badly stained, with several rips in it and quite a lot of food scraps adhering to it. Tings, having helped many times in her life in the Redwall Kitchens, identified it immediately. "How on earth did they get ahold of an old tablecloth out here?"

The wildcat's voice was calm, but concerned. "I don't know, but that's not what really worries me. Look here, and here....." She jabbed a claw at the biggest stains. "These aren't wine or ale."

The stains remarked upon were an ominous rusty color. Raggle drew back a pace; he was not looking well. "Blood?"

Sy nodded grimly. "I'm afraid so. It could be that somebeast tried to staunch bleeding footpaws with it, though I have to say that seems unlikely. There's just too much there. "

A short, worried silence fell; everybeast knew this probably meant something bad, but nobeast felt like saying it aloud. Squirt, not fully grasping the situation because he had been looking elsewhere, tugged on Thundro's ear to get his attention. He had intended to whisper, but babes are not always good judges of volume; almost everybeast heard his question quite clearly.

"Mista T'undro, where da ol' blinded fosker go?"

Sure enough, the ancient Krozfoxx magician was nowhere in sight; somehow, in the hasty, disorganized scramble to get out of the muddy ditch and onto the hillside, the old one had been temporarily forgotten.

Once this fact had been confirmed, Billeo gave a sigh of exhasperation. "Well, that tears it. What do we do; go back an' look for the old feller, or leave 'im?"

Immediately, a dispute broke out, as opinions were rather sharply divided on this issue. Some (mostly Guosim and Otters) considered all vermin no great loss; however, others (mostly Redwallers and Moles) felt that kindness should be shown to all peaceable beasts, whatever the species.

"Ain't like he's one of ours."

"Oh, leave 'im t'rot; why should we care?"

"I say, that's rather harsh, wot!"

"Sure, an' what'd he ever do to ye?"

"I say we go on; he's only a fox after all."

"An' Oi say shutt ee mouf, if ee b'aint got nuthin' noice t'say!"

"Why are we even wastin' time here when we should be..?"

"We gotta find da funny ol' fosker, dat's why, silly!"

"Shuddup, liddle pipsqueak! Why they ever brung ye along..."

"Hoi, otter, ye'd best pick on somebeast yer own size! Cummon, step close an' say that agin, I dare ye!"

Blam! Clang! Blam! Clang!

"Stoppit! Stop this right now!"

A lull fell as most of the creatures, startled by the noise, ceased arguing and looked at Sy Stoneclaw.

The wildcat put down the shield she had been banging on a nearby boulder. Her tail flicked angrily as she pointed an accusing claw at the assembly. "I'm ashamed of you all, I really am. We're supposed to be the goodbeasts, remember?" She gestured nortward. "The enemy is out there; that's who we should be opposing. And, as Log-a-Log said, we're wasting time bickering here. Now cease this stupidity immediately!"

As per usual, nobeast dared oppose the big, scarred hulk of a cat with the two outsized scimitars; especially not when she was in a mood like this. Hasty apologies were muttered as the tribe leaders got their creatures back in line; Sy relaxed her rigid pose, allowing a small smile. "Thank you. Dippertail, you and Shermy go look for Zaikee. The rest of you wait here with me; if they aren't back within the hour, we'll start to march again. Dippertail can track us easily."

It was a sound plan; a few of the more irritable beasts grumbled a bit, but no one had any real objection. As the hare and falcon descended into the ravine again, Sy took Walldoh and Yik aside. "My apologies for usurping your authority there, friends; I got so upset I forgot my place. I hope you'll forgive me."

The Dormouse shrugged. "Sure, an' somebeast had t'stop it afore a proper barney broke out."

Log-a-Log agreed, nodding towards the still-sulking army. "Aye, better yew than me trying t'quiet that lot at once. Don't worry missy, we ain't complainin'."

Dippertail flew ahead of Shermy, scanning the ditch with his powerful eyes. The young hare cupped his intact paw to his mouth. "I say, Zaikee old thing! Give us a shout, wot; we can't find ye in this bloomin mess!"

No response came; Dippertail flew back, perching on a thick briar stem. "Heeeeeekah, methinks he's long gone. Even I cannot trace him, and that's saying something."

Shermy felt terrible; as the only fully-trained healer, he had considered the oldbeast his responsibility. He snapped irriatably at his companion. "Well, we can't jolly well leave him to perish in this foul place, can we? Poor old thing, he's never done anything t'deserve a death like...."


The eerie shriek was undoubtedly Zaikee's; moreover, it sounded very close by. Shermy took off at a sprint towards the noise. "This way!"

Dippertail waddled behind him, muttering in disbelief. "Kyyyaar, t'is not possible, I saw no signs over there!"

Zaikee continued to scream; something must have frightened him badly. Shermy looked back but continued to run, waving his hook over his shoulder. "Hurry up, old thing, we yipe!!!

With a yelp, he disappeared from view, crunching through a briar bush and sliding down a hitherto-concealed muddy tunnel. The thick profusion of broken brambles about the hole had kept even Dippertail from noticing it, for there were many other broken briars from the army's march through the morass earlier.

Shermy came to rest with a bump on a suprisingly solid floor of earth and stone. It was almost pitch black; when the hare could get his bearings, he realized it was a large one-room dwelling of some sort. He could only just barely make out the shape of Zaikee, who had ceased to scream but was backed up against the far wall, muttering and chanting ominous-sounding nonsense syllables to himself.

Dippertail poked his head into the opening, calling down. "Yieeer, did ye find him?"

Shermy, groping along the wall towards the fox, felt his paws come into contact with a torch. "Aye, he's here; must have fallen in, wot! Just a tick while I light this..."

Producing a tinderbox from his traveling pack, the hare set flame to the torch, sliding it through his hook and holding it up. "Now let's see what....OH!" here he stopped, inhaling sharply.

Dippertail's voice again echoed in the gloom. "Kyeee, what is it, are ye hurt?"

Shermy didn't answer. When he did, it was a low, sickly moan of horror. "Oh, corks....."

Unable to contain his curiosity, Dippertail squeezed his bulk through the hole, slithering in an ungainly jumble of feathers to the bottom. Immediately, he too leapt back with a gasp, apalled by the horiffic sight that met his eyes.

The blood-red sunset cast long, black shadows from the hilltops and boulders. Clustered at the edge of the ditch, the army of beasts conversed in hushed tones. Tings leaned over and whispered into Raggle's ear.

"What happened, anybeast know?"

Raggle was honing Martin's sword on a rock; he gestured towards the ditch with it. "It looks like they found another deadbeast t'me."

Tings nodded. "That must be it. I suppose it must have been pretty horrid, to warrant all of us coming back here."

Raggle pointed over his shoulder, where an ashen-faced Shermy was sitting, staring blankly at the sunset. "Well, whatever it was, we'll soon know. I doubt we'll want to; I mean, Shermy's a healer, so he's seen the worst in that last battle already, but it seems to have even upset him badly."

Tings spotted an unusually subdued Dippertail sitting nearby; she hailed him. "Dippertail, what's going on down...."

"Shhh, look!" Raggle stopped her.

Sy had emerged from the hole, carrying a small bundle wrapped in the stained tablecloth. Her expression was blank and ashen, just like Shermy's, as tears rolled unchecked from her good eye. As she slowly paced out into the open, the rest of the army ceased talking and waited expectantly. Walldoh, Yik, Wardah, and Billeo followed behind her; behind them came Granfer Drumm (the leader of the moles), and Skipper Nelumbo (the leader of the otters). Seeing Squirt standing among the assembled beasts, Nelumbo shouted up to them. "Hoi! Somebeast git that liddle 'un out of here!"

Dippertail obliged, offering Squirt a ride on his broad feathered back while he flew off on a new patrol. When they were out of sight, Nelumbo addressed the army at large.

"I suppose ye lot want t'know what's going on. Well, what ol' Zaikee found down there don't bear thinkin' about, but it happened just the same. That there hole was a dwellin' place of bankvoles; at least, it was before the vermin' came through. The place 'ad been ransacked an' looted, an' some of the poor voles wound up as snake or marten food. Ye shrews know what that means; Yik sez ye've seen th' results afore. All the rest of ye need t'know is that, what liddle was left of 'em, we're going t'give a decent burial to in the dry ground. But that ain't the worst part." His voice shook with sudden emotion. "There were two liddle 'uns, one of 'em not even a season old. They must've been too small t'bother feedin' t'the snake, because...because...." The big otter could not bring himself to continue; he shook with stifled sobs.

Ayeriss Pinspikes let out a heart-rending wail. "No! Oh no! Say it ain't true, I beg ye!"

Log-a-Log Yik was made of sterner stuff, though even he seemed to be badly shaken. He went straight to the point, in his usual gruff manner. "Aye, they're dead, both of 'em. Tied up an' used for arrer practice by th' scum. One's got three shafts still in 'im."

A wave of horror and revulsion swept through the army of goodbeasts at the unspeakable cruelty. Many were too shocked to react; others wept openly, and more than a few looked as though they might very soon be sick.

Sy's voice was a low, shaking growl. It was difficult at first to tell if she was talking to the assembly, or to herself. " Kittens, dozens of them, lie dead on the shores of my home; a young hogmaiden, barely of toddling age, lies buried in Redwall's cemetery. Their deaths are inexcusable, but at least they were killed in conquest, or under orders. But this....." She took a deep, shuddering breath before continuing, her words coming faster and louder. "This is an atrocity for which there is no curse or censure strong enough, in any language known to us. Two young lives, one barely even begun, snuffed out to amuse some foodscout's bloodthirsty whim. They were killed for fun. D'ye hear me? FUN!"

She was snarling now; that loud, terrifying, shrieking snarl that is characteristic of the feline species. " Now ye know exactly why they must be stopped; now ye know why the Black Shade and his followers must be wiped from these lands! This is what they do; these atrocities are what they live and breathe and exist for! I swear, if I ever get my paws on the demon that did this, I'll take him and....and I'll......"

She broke down then. Collapsing to her knees, she commenced sobbing her heart out, hugging the little bundle close to her as she rocked back and forth. There was not a single eye in the assembly that was dry; nobeast had ever seen Sy prostrated with grief before.

Yik took charge of the situation; he gestured to a few of his shrews. "Dribble, Ringo, bury that bundle decentlike somewhere out of sight. Granfer Drumm, will ye lend 'em a paw?"

The mole leader scrubbed his eyes with his digging claw. "Surpently, Zurr. Follow Oi, gennelbeasts."

The old mole relieved Sy of her burden and trundled off towards the dry end of the ditch, the two shrews in his wake. Yik pointed to the others. "Group leaders, get everybeast back in line. When Drumm gets back, we march until dawn straight north. No songs or talkin', an' no more recruitin', neither until we gets t'the coast. We ain't wastin' any more time."

Walldoh looked as if he were going to say something in objection; however, after judging the current mood of the creatures about, he decided it would be better to wait until later. As if to emphasize the point, Ayeriss spoke up, her eyes shining red with weeping and rage. "Aye, lets be off afore those murderers git away from us!"

The column was fully formed by the time the burial party came back; they set off without another word, marching silently but relentlessly northward.

Billeo had declined the position of line leader to Sy this time; he and Raggle (who felt a bit ill himself) were supporting an ill and fainting Tings between them at the back of the group. Walldoh and Shermy also hung back, the former because his injured paw was bothering him, and the latter guiding Zaikee - now with a rope halter about his neck - across the more treacherous bits of rocky ground.

After a while, Billeo whispered something to his Chieftain. "Er, Boss, don't you think we should tell them about the Great Marshlands up ahead?"

Walldoh deliberately trod on the woodmouse's tail to shut him up. " It'll keep. There's no use startin' any arguments as t'route at present; we've a ways t'be goin' yet."

Shermy had only caught the last few words of the remark; he muttered, "Hope we bally well get there before some other evilbeast causes havoc!"

Enzi Grexx and his followers were, at that moment, planning to do exactly that. Having been shown the hole in the blackberry thicket by Twotail, the wolf had sent Sisserah down it to investigate, and then called his ranks to assemble near the thicket.

After several hours of waiting, the adder came back out of the caverns. She curled at the Black Shade's paws in a submissive manner. "I bring newssssssss, Massssssssster."

The wolf leaned in eagerly; Sisserah drew back from his fearsome masked face nervously. "Well?"

The adder gestured with her head towards the hole. "It issssss asssss you thought, Masssssssster. The sssssssearat had no sssssssensssse of direction; it needn't have taken three daysssssss at all. I tracked the sssssssssshortesssssst route by following the ssssscent of batbeassssssts; there musssst be a few living in the cavessssss. It will take ussss ssssssserpents about an hour to reach the main cavernssssssss, probably."

Enzi Grexx smiled slowly, showing his great fangs. "Perfect. You know what to do; take your squadron and attack. We'll be waiting up here."

Sisserah bowed her head. "Yessssss, masssssster." To the other serpents, she beckoned with her tail. "Come!"

As the legion of scaly bodies proceeded in single file down the cavern in pursuit of their leader, the wolf addressed the rest of his army, who were by now very curious as to what was going on.

"Listen well, scum! Until this point, my master plan has been known only to four beasts; myself, Dankfur, and his two sons. I am only sharing it with you now to simplify things, in view of the precarious circumstances that have arisen. Not because you need to know, mind; it is your job to obey unto death and not ask questions."

"We did capture those farmbeasts as slaves to work our food fields, and also to try to convert some strongbeasts of their numbers to our side, as I commanded. However, that was not the main purpose I had in mind. Put simply, the Ranks are going to expand their territory into some of the more pleasant southern lands, where the food is plentiful. I have heard many warnings, as have you, of the great strongholds in the south, such as Redwall Abbey and Salamandastron."

Immediate gasps and murmurs broke out at the mention of the feared names; the wolf was forced to shout to be heard. "Stop, shut up! I did not say you could speak; nor did I say we are going to attack those strongholds....yet! What we are going to do, after we have the captives back, is march for the wooded area I believe is called Mossflower. There are various tribes there that need subduing; our adders and serpents can take care of that. We will then march upon whichever stronghold is nearest (I do not know which; we can torture it out of some captive). We can then use our captives as part of an ultimatum; flee while you still have lives, or watch these die, youngest first. I do not mean this as idle threats, either; we will quite literally start slaying captives immediately if they do not surrender. These southern beasts are all offensively loyal and chivalrous; they'll do anything to save a fellow creature, even if it's actually rather stupid. And besides, like I said, we have the advantage of owning a horde of poisonous serpents."

He paused for a moment while this sank in. It was a feasable plan; actually, the first feasable plan to conquer the southlands any of them had ever heard. A few began grinning evilly at the thought of the slaughter; Enzi Grexx, realizing this as a sign that they had caught on, continued. "Now that we have that sorted, back to the business at hand. Gatlak, take one-third of the Ranks back to the waterfall. Zalbu, take another third and scour the area between here and the waterfall for the ceiling hole the rat mentioned. It will probably be a concealed one so look carefully. The rest, remain here with me. When Sisserah goes to capture our slaves back, some will probably try to flee; if they do manage to get out we need to be ready to intercept them. In the unlikely event any bats come flying out, kill them; it'd be a nuisance having a cloud of panicked wingmice flapping around our heads."

Gatlak and Zalbu saluted. "Aye, Cap'n! Company, form ranks! Foward March!"

They went their seperate ways; the wolf and his crew settled down by the blackberry thicket to wait. Moonclaw, the big troll-like ferret, prodded the earth with her spear moodily. "I hates waitin'; t'is shoopid. Ain't we got somethin' t' do?"

She quailed when the adderfang spear pushed beneath her throat. "Perhaps you'd like to wait here for the rest of your life. It can be arranged, you know!"

Moonclaw took the hint, stumping off sulkily. The rest were suprised she had gotten off so easily; however, they held their peace. The Black Shade began polishing the points of his beloved weapon, muttering under his breath to it. "Don't worry, my lovely, you'll get a chance at her later. Don't want to ruin morale right now, do we?"

Chapter Thirty-Five through EpilogueEdit


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