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Mossflower

Mossflower


    Late autumn winds sighed fitfully around the open gatehouse door, rustling
    brown gold leaves in the fading afternoon.
    Bella of Brockhall snuggled deeper into her old armchair by the fire. Through
    half-closed eyes she watched the small mouse peering around the doorway at
    her.
    "Come in, little one, and close the door."
    The small mouse did as he was bidden. Encouraged by the badger's friendly
    smile, he clambered up onto the arm of the chair and settled himself against a
    cushion.
    "You said that you would tell me a story, Miz Bella."
    The badger nodded slowly.
    "Everything you see about you, the harvest that has been gathered, from the
    russet apples to the golden honey, is yours to enjoy in freedom. Listen now,
    as the breeze sweeps the last autumn leaves off into the world of winter. I
    will tell you of the time long ago before Redwall Abbey was built in
    Mossflower. In those days there was no freedom for wood-landers; we were
    oppressed cruelly under the harsh rule of Verdauga Greeneyes and his daughter
    Tsarmina. It was a mouse like yourself who saved Mossflower. His name is known
    to all: Martin the Warrior.
    "Ah, my little friend, I am grown old. So are my comrades; their sons and
    daughters are fathers and mothers now. But that is life. The seasons still
    look new to young eyes, the food tastes fresher in the mouths of the young
    ones than it does in my own. As I sit here in the warmth and peace it all
    lives again in my memory, a strange tale of love and war, friend and foe,
    great happenings and mighty deeds.
    "Gaze into the fire, young one. Listen to me and I will tell you the story.''
    BOOK ONE
    Kotir
    Mossflower lay deep in the grip of midwinter beneath a sky of leaden gray that
    showed tinges of scarlet and orange on the horizon. A cold mantle of snow
    draped the landscape, covering the flatlands to the west. Snow was everywhere,
    filling ditches, drifting high against hedgerows, making paths invisible,
    smoothing the contours of earth in its white embrace. The gaunt, leafless
    ceiling of Mossflower Wood was penetrated by constant snowfall, which carpeted
    the sprawling woodland floor, building canopies on evergreen shrubs and
    bushes. Winter had muted the earth; the muffled stillness was broken only by a
    traveler's paws.
    A sturdily built young mouse with quick dark eyes was moving confidently
    across the snowbound country. Looking back, he could see his tracks
    disappearing northward into the distance. Farther south the flatlands rolled
    off endlessly, flanked to the west by the faint shape of distant hills, while
    to the east stood the long ragged fringe marking the marches of Mossflower.
    His nose twitched at the elusive smell of burning wood and turf from some
    hearthfire. Cold wind soughed from the treetops, causing whorls of snow to
    dance in icy spirals. The traveler gathered his ragged cloak tighter, adjusted
    an old rusting sword that was slung across his back, and trudged steadily
    forward, away from the wilderness, to where other creatures lived.
    It was a forbidding place made mean by poverty. Here and
    5
    there he saw signs of habitation. The dwellings, ravaged and demolished, made
    pitiful shapes under snow drifts. Rearing high against the forest, a curious
    building dominated die ruined settlement. A fortress, crumbling, dark and
    brooding, it was symbol of fear to the woodland creatures of Mossflower.
    This was how Martin the Warrior first came to Kotir, place of the wildcats.
    In a mean hovel on the south side of Kotir, the Stickle family crouched around
    a low turf fire. It gusted fitfully as the night winds pierced the slatted
    timbers where mud chinking had not been replaced. A timid scratch at the door
    caused them to jump nervously. Ben Stickle picked up a billet of firewood,
    motioning his wife Goody to keep their four little ones well back in the
    shadows.
    As the Goodwife Stickle covered her brood widi coarse burlap blankets, Ben
    took a firmer grip on the wood and called out harshly in his gruffest voice,
    "Be off with you and leave us alone. There's not enough food in here to go
    around a decent hedgehog family. You've already taken half of all we have to
    swell the larders in Kotir."
    "Ben, Ben, 'tis oi, Urthclaw! Open up, burr. 'Tis freezen out yurr."
    As Ben Stickle opened the door, a homely-faced mole trundled by him and
    hurried across to the fire, where he stood rubbing his digging claws together
    in front of the flames.
    The little ones peeped out from the blankets. Ben and Goody turned anxious
    faces toward their visitor.
    Urthclaw rubbed warmth into his cold nose as he talked in the curious rustic
    molespeech.
    "Vurmin patrols be out, burr, weasels V stoats an* the loik. They'm a lukken
    fer more vittles."
    Goody shook her head as she wiped a little one's snout on her apron. "I knew
    it! We should have run off and left this place, like the others. Where in the
    name of spikes'll we find food to pay their tolls?"
    Ben Stickle threw down the piece of firewood despairingly. ' 'Where can we run
    in midwinter with four little 'uns? They'd perish long afore spring."
    Urthclaw produced a narrow strip of silver birch bark and held a paw to his
    mouth, indicating silence. Scratched on the
    6
    bark in charcoal was a single word: Corim. Beneath it was a simple picture map
    showing a route into Mossflower Woods, far from Kotir.
    Ben studied the map, torn between the chance of escape and his family's
    predicament. The frustration was clear on his face.
    Bang! Bang!
    "Open up in there! Come on, get this door open. This is an official Kotir
    patrol."
    Soldiers!
    Ben took one last hasty glance at die strip of bark and threw it on the fire.
    As Goody lifted the latch the door was thrust forcefully inward. She was swept
    to one side as the soldiers packed into the room, out of the winter night
    chill. They pushed and shoved at each other roughly. A ferret named Blacktooth
    and a stoat called Splitnose seemed to be in charge of the patrol. Ben Stickle
    signed with relief as they turned away from the burning strip of bark and
    stood with their backs to the fire.
    "Well now, dozyspikes, where are you hiding all the bread and cheese and
    October ale?"
    Ben could scarce keep the hatred from his voice as he answered the sneering
    Blacktooth. "It's many a long season since I tasted cheese or October ale.
    There's bread on the shelf, but only enough for my family."
    Splitnose spat into the fire and reached for the bread. Ben Stickle was
    blocked from stopping the stoat by a barrier of spear hafts as he tried to
    push forward.
    Goody placed a restraining paw on her husband's spikes. "Please, Ben, don't
    fight 'em, the great bullies."
    Urthclaw chimed in, "Yurr, baint much 'ee c'n do agin spears, Ben."
    Blacktooth turned to the mole as if seeing him for the first time. "Huh,
    what're you doing here, blinkeye?"
    One of the little hedgehogs threw the sacking aside and faced the stoat
    boldly. "He came in for a warm by our fire. You leave him alone!" Splitnose
    burst out laughing, spraying crumbs from the bread he was eating. "Look out,
    Blackie. There's more of 'em under that blanket. I'd watch 'em, if I were
    you."
    A nearby weasel threw back the covering, exposing the other three young ones.
    Blacktooth sized them up. "Hmm, they look big enough to do a day's work."
    Goodwife Stickle sprang fiercely in front of them.
    "You let my liddle ones be. They ain't harmed nobody.'*
    Blacktooth seemed to ignore her. He knocked the loaves from Splitnose's paws,
    then turning to a weasel he issued orders. "Pick that bread up, and no sly
    munching. Deliver it to the stores when we get back to the garrison."
    Waving his spear he signaled the patrol out of the hut. As Blacktooth left he
    called back to Ben and Goody, "I want to see those four hogs out in the fields
    tomorrow. Either that, or you can all spend the rest of the winter safe and
    warm in Kotir dungeons."
    Urthclaw kept an eye to a crack in the door, watching the patrol make its way
    toward Kotir. Ben wasted no time; he began wrapping the young ones in all the
    blankets they possessed. "Right, that's it! Enough is enough. We go tonight.
    You're right, old girl, we should have left to live in the woods with the rest
    long ago. What d'you say, Urthclaw?"
    The mole stood with his eye pressed against the crack in the door. "Yurr, cumm
    'ere, lookit thiz!"
    While Ben shared the crack with his friend, Goody continued swathing her young
    ones with blankets. "What is it, Ben? They're not comin' back, are they?"
    "No, wife. Hohoho, lookit that, by hokey! See the punch he landed on that
    weasel's nose? Go on, give it to 'em, laddo!"
    Ferdy, the little one who had spoken up, scuttled over and tugged at Ben's
    paw. "Punch? Who punched a weasel? What's happening?"
    Ben described the scene as he watched it. "It's a mouse-big strong feller too,
    he is. They're tryhT to capture him . , . That's it! Now kick him again,
    mouse. Go on! Hahaha, you'd think a full patrol of soldiers could handle a
    mouse, but not this one. He must be a real trained warrior. Phew! Lookit that,
    he's knocked Blacktooth flat on his back. Pity they're hangin' on to his sword
    like that. By the spikes, he'd cause
    8
    some damage if he had that blade between his paws, rusty as it is."
    Ferdy jumped up and down. "Let me see, I want a look!"
    Urthclaw turned slowly away from the door. "Baint much
    use, liddle 'edgepig. They'ra gorrim down now, aye, an*
    roped up too. Hurt, worra pity, they be too many fer 'im to
    foight, ee'm a gurt brave wurrier tho."
    Ben was momentarily crestfallen, then he clapped his paws together. "Now is
    the time, while the patrol's busy with the fighter. They Ve got a job on their
    paws, draggin' him back to the cats' castle. Come on, let^s get a-goin' while
    the goin's good."
    A short while later, the fire was burning to embers in an empty hut as the
    little band trudged into the vast woodland sprawl of Mossflower, blinking
    water from their eyes as they kept their heads down against the keen wind.
    Urthclaw followed up the rear, obliterating the pawtracks from the snowy
    ground.
    Gonff the mousethief padded silently along the passage from the larder and
    storeroom of Kotir. He was a plump little creature, clad in a green jerkin
    with a broad buckled belt. He was a ducker and a weaver of life, a marvelous
    mimic, ballad writer, singer, and lockpick, and very jovial with it all. The
    woodlanders were immensely fond of the little thief. Gonff shrugged it ail
    off, calling every creature his matey in imitation of the otters, whom he
    greatly admired. Chuckling quietly to himself, he drew the small dagger from
    his belt and cut off a wedge from the cheese he was carrying. Slung around his
    shoulder was a large flask of elderberry wine which he had also stolen from
    the larder. Gonff ate and drank, singing quietly to himself in a deep bass
    voice between mouthfuls of cheese and wine.
    The Prince of Mousethieves honors you,
    To visit here this day.
    So keep your larder door shut tight,
    Lock all your food away.
    O foolish ones, go check your store
    Of food so rich and fine.
    Be sure that I'll be back for more,
    Especially this wine.
    At the sound of heavy paws Gonff fell silent. Melting back into the shadows,
    he huddled down and held his breath. Two
    10
    weasels dressed in armor and carrying spears trudged past.
    They were arguing heatedly.
    "Listen, I'm not taking the blame for your stealing from
    the larder."
    "Who, me? Be careful what you say, mate. I'm no thief.'* "Well, you're looking
    very fat lately, that's all I say." "Huh, not half as podgy as you, lard
    barrel." "Lard barrel yourself. You'll be accusing me next." "Ha, you're in
    charge of the key, so who else could it be?" "It could be you. You're always
    down there when I am." "I only go to keep an eye on you, mate." "And I only go
    to keep an eye on you, so there." "Right, we'll keep an eye on each other,
    then." Gonff stuffed a paw in his mouth to stifle a giggle. The
    weasels stopped and looked at each other. "What was that?"
    "Oho, I know what it was—you're laughing at me." "Arr, don't talk stupid."
    "Talking stupid, am I?" Indignantly, the weasel turned
    away from his companion.
    Gonff quickly called out in a passable weasel-voice imitation, "Big fat
    robber!"
    The two weasels turned furiously upon each other. "Big fat robber, eh. Take
    that!" "Ouch! You sneaky toad, you take this!" The weasels thwacked away madly
    at each other with their
    spearhandles. Gonff sneaked out of hiding and crept off in the opposite
    direction, leaving the two guards rolling upon the passage
    floor, their spears forgotten as they bit and scratched at each
    other.
    "Owow, leggo. Grr, take that!"
    "I'll give you robber! Have some of this. Ooh, you bit my
    ear!"
    Sheathing his dagger and shaking with mirth, Gonff unlatched a window shutter,
    and slipped away through the snow toward the woodlands.
    Oh fight, lads, fight, Scratch, lads, bite, 11
    Gonff will dine on cheese and wine, When he gets home tonight.
    Martin dug his heels into the snow, skidding as he was dragged bodily through
    the outer wallgates of the forbidding heap he had sighted earlier that day.
    Armored soldiers clanked and clattered together as they were dragged inward by
    the ropes that restrained the prisoner, none of them wanting to get too close
    to the fighting mouse.
    Blacktooth and Splitnose closed the main gates with much bad-tempered
    slamming. Powdery snow blew down on them from the top of the perimeter walls.
    The parade ground snow was hammered flat and slippery by soldiers dashing
    hither and thither, some carrying lighted torches—ferrets, weasels and stoats.
    One of them called out to Splitnose, "Hoi, Split-tie, any sign of the fox out
    there?"
    The stoat shook his head. "What, you mean the healer? No, not a whisker. We
    caught a mouse, though. Look at this thing he was carrying."
    Splitnose waved Martin's rusted sword aloft. Blacktooth ducked. "Stop playing
    with that thing, you'll slash somebody twirling it around like that. So,
    they're waiting on the fox again, eh. Old Greeneyes doesn't seem to be getting
    any better lately. Hey, you there, keep those ropes tight! Hold him still, you
    blockheads."
    The entrance hall door proved doubly difficult as the warrior mouse managed to
    cling to one of the timber doorposts. The soldiers had practically to pry him
    loose with their spears. The weasel who had been given charge of the bread
    kept well out of it, heading directly for the storeroom and larder. As he
    passed through the entrance hall, he was challenged by others who cast
    covetous eyes upon the brown home-baked loaves. It had been a hard winter,
    since many creatures had deserted the settlement around Kotir after the early
    autumn harvest, taking with them as much produce as they could carry to the
    woodlands. There was not a great deal of toll or levy coming in. The weasel
    clutched the bread close as he padded along.
    The hall was hostile and damp, with wooden shutters across the low windows.
    The floor was made from a dark granite-like rock, very cold to the paws. Here
    and there the nighttime
    12
    guards had lit small fires in corners, which stained the walls black with
    smoke and ashes. Only captains were allowed to wear long cloaks as a mark of
    rank, but several soldiers had draped themselves in old sacks and blankets
    purloined from the settlement. The stairs down to the lower levels were a
    jumble of worn spirals and flights of straight stone steps in no particular
    sequence. Half the wall torches had burned away and not been replaced, leaving
    large areas of stairs dark and dangerous. Moss and fungus grew on most of the
    lower-level walls and stairs.
    Hurrying along a narrow passage, the weasel banged on the storeroom door. A
    key turned in the lock.
    "WhatVe you got there? Loaves, eh. Bring 'em in."
    The two guards who had been fighting were sitting on flour sacks. One of them
    eyed the bread hungrily. "Huh, is that all you got tonight? I tell you, mate,
    things are getting from bad to worse around here. Who sent you down with
    them?"
    "Blacktooth."
    "Oh, him. Did he count them?"
    "Er, no, I don't think so."
    "Good. There's five loaves. We'll have half a loaf each— that'll leave three
    and a half. Nobody'11 notice the difference."
    They tore hungrily at Goody Stickle's brown oven loaves.
    Upstairs, Martin had managed to wrap one of the ropes around a stone column.
    Soldiers were jeering at the efforts of the patrol to get him away and up the
    stairs. "Yah, what's the matter, lads, are you scared of him?"
    Blacktooth turned on the mocking group. "Any of you lot fancy having a go at
    him? No, I thought not."
    The door opened behind them, and snow blew in with a cold, draughty gust. A
    fox wearing a ragged cloak trotted past mem and up the broad flat stairs to
    their first floor. The soldiers found a new target for their remarks.
    "Hoho, just you wait, fox. You're late."
    "Aye, old Greeneyes doesn't like to be kept waiting."
    "I'd keep out of Lady Tsarmina's way, if I were you."
    Ignoring them, the fox swept quickly up the stairs.
    Martin tried to make a dash for the half-open door to the parade ground but he
    was carried to the floor by weight of numbers. Still he fought gamely on.
    13
    The jeering soldiers started shouting and calling humorous advice again.
    Blacktooth tried freezing them into silence with a stera glance, but they took
    no notice of him this time.
    Splitnose sniffed in disgust. "Discipline has gone to the wall since Lord
    Verdauga's been sick,''
    Fortunata the vixen waited nervously in the draughty antehall of Kotir. A low
    fire cast its guttering light around the damp sandstone walls. Slimy green
    algae and fungus grew between sodden banners as they slowly disintegrated into
    threadbare tatters suspended from rusty iron holders. The vixen could not
    suppress a shudder. Presently she was joined by two ferrets dressed in
    cumbersome chain mail. Both bore shields emblazoned with the device of their
    masters, a myriad of evil green eyes watching in all directions. The guards
    pointed with their spears, indicating that the fox should follow them, and
    Fortunata fell in step, marching off down the long dank hall. They halted in
    front of two huge oaken doors, which swung open as the ferrets banged their
    spearbutts against the floor. The vixen was confronted by a scene of ruined
    grandeur.
    Candles and torches scarcely illuminated the room; the crossbeams above were
    practically lost in darkness. At one end there were three ornate chairs
    occupied by two wildcats and a pine marten. Behind these stood a four-poster
    bed, complete with tight-drawn curtains of musty green velvet, its footboard
    carved with the same device as the shields of the guards.
    The marten hobbled across and searched the satchel Fortunata carried. The
    vixen shrank from contact with the badly disfigured creature. Ashleg the
    marten had a wooden leg and his entire body was twisted on one side as if it
    had been badly maimed. To disguise this, he wore an overiong red cloak trimmed
    with woodpigeon feathers. With an expert flick, he turned the contents of the
    satchel out onto the floor. It was the usual jumble of herbs, roots, leaves
    and mosses carried by a healer fox.
    Approaching the bed, Ashleg called out in an eerie singsong dirge, "O mighty
    Verdauga, Lord of Mossflower, Master of the Thousand Eyes, Slayer of Enemies,
    Ruler of Kotir—"
    14
    "Ah, give your whining tongue a rest, Ashleg. Is the fox here? Get these
    suffocating curtains out of my way." The imperious voice from behind the
    curtains sounded hoarse but full of snarling menace.
    Tsarmina, the larger of the two seated wildcats, sprang forward, sweeping back
    the dusty bedcurtains in a single move. "Fortunata's here. Don't exert
    yourself, father."
    The vixen slid to the bedside with practiced ease and examined her savage
    patient. Verdauga of the Thousand Eyes had once been the mightiest warlord in
    all the land . . . once. Now his muscle and sinew lay wasted under the tawny
    fur that covered his big, tired body. The face was that of a wildcat who had
    survived many battles: the pointed ears stood above a tracery of old scars
    that ran from crown to whiskers. Fortunata looked at the fearsome yellowed
    teeth, and the green barbarian eyes still alight with strange fires.
    "My Lord looks better today, yes?"
    "None the better for your worthless mumbo jumbo, fox."
    The smaller of the two seated wildcats rose from his chair with an expression
    of concern upon his gentle face. "Father, stay calm. Fortunata is trying hard
    to get you well again."
    Tsarmina pushed him aside scornfully. "Oh, shut up, Gin-givere, you
    mealy-mouthed—"
    "Tsarmina!" Verdauga pulled himself into a sitting position and pointed a claw
    at his headstrong daughter. "Don't talk to your brother in that way, do you
    hear me?"
    The Lord of a Thousand Eyes turned wearily to his only son. "Gingivere, don't
    let her bully you. Stand up to her, son."
    Gingivere shrugged and stood by silently as Fortunata ground herbs with a
    pestle, mixing diem with dark liquid in a horn beaker.
    Verdauga eyed the vixen suspiciously. "No more leeches, fox. I won't have
    those filthy slugs sucking my blood. I'd sooner have an enemy's sword cut me
    than those foul things. What's that rubbish you're concocting?"
    Fortunata smiled winningly. "Sire, this is a harmless potion made from the
    herb motherwort. It will help you to sleep. Squire Gingivere, would you give
    this to your father, please?"
    As Gingivere administered the medicine to Verdauga, nei-
    15
    ther of them noticed the look of slyness or the wink that passed between
    Fortunate and Tsarmina.
    Verdauga settled back in bed and waited for the draught to take effect.
    Suddenly the peace was broken by a loud commotion from outside. The double
    doors burst open wide.
    16
    Ben Stickle nearly jumped out of his spikes as Gontf bounded out from behind a
    snow-laden bush in the nighttime forest.
    "Boo! Guess who? Hahaha, Ben* me old matey, you should have seen your face
    just then. What are you doing trekking round here in the snow?"
    Ben recovered himself quickly. "GonfF, I might have known! Listen, young
    feller me mouse, I haven't got time to stop and gossip with you. WeVe left the
    settlement at last and I'm lookin' for the little hut that the Corim keep for
    the likes of us."
    The mousethief winked at Urthclaw and kissed Goody cheekily. "Ha, that place,
    follow me, matey. I'll have you there in two shakes of a cat's whisker."
    Goody shuddered. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that, you little rogue."
    , But Gonif was not listening, he was skipping ahead with die little ones, who
    thought it was all a huge adventure.
    **Is it a nice place, Mr. Gonff?"
    "Oh, passable. Better than the last place you were in."
    "What's that under your jerkin, Mr. Gonff?"
    "Never you mind now, young Spike. It's a secret."
    "Is it very far, Mr. Gonff? I'm tired."
    "Not far now, Posy me little dear. I'd carry you if it weren't for your
    spikes."
    17
    Goody Stickle shook her head and smiled. She had always had a special soft
    spot for Gonff.
    The Corim hut was well hidden, deep enough into the forest to avoid immediate
    discovery. Urthclaw said his goodbyes and trundled off to find his own kind.
    Ben watched him go as Gonff lit the fire. He nodded fondly. "Good old
    Urthclaw, he only stayed at the settlement because of us, I'm sure of it."
    When the fire was burning red, Goody sat around it with Gonff and Ben. The
    four baby hedgehogs poked their snouts from under the blankets to one side of
    the hearth.
    "Have you been stealing from Kotir again, Gonff? What did you pinch this
    time?"
    The mousethief laughed at Goody's shocked expression. He threw a wedge of
    cheese over to the little ones. "It's not pinching or stealing if it comes out
    of Kotir, mateys. It's called liberating. Here, get your whiskers around that
    lot and get some sleep, the four of you."
    Ben Stickle sucked on an empty pipe and stirred the burning logs with a
    branch. "Gonff, I do wish you'd be careful. We can live on what we have until
    spring arrives, Goody and I would never forgive ourselves if you got caught
    taking cheese and wine inside that cat's castle."
    Goodwife Stickle wiped her eyes on her flowery pinafore. "No more we wouldn't,
    you young scallawag. Oh my spikes, I dread to think what'd "appen if those
    varmin catchered you, Gonff."
    Gonff patted her very carefully. "There, there, Goody. What's a bite of food
    and a warm drink between mateys? The young uns need their nourishment.
    Besides, how could I ever forget the way that you and Ben brought me up and
    cared for me when I was only a little woodland orphan?"
    Ben took a sip of the wine and shook his head. "You be careful, all the same,
    and remember what the Corim rule is; bide your time and don't let 'em catch
    you. One day we'll win old Mossflower back."
    Goody sighed as she went about making porridge for the next morning's
    breakfast. "Fine words, but we're peaceable creatures. How we're ever goin* to
    win our land back against all those trained soldiers is beyond me."
    Gonff topped up Ben Stickle's beaker with elderberry wine
    18
    and gazed into the flickering flames, his normally cheerful face grim. "I'll
    tell you this, mateys: the day will come when something will happen to change
    all this, you wait and see. Some creature who isn't afraid of anything will
    arrive in Mossflower, and when that day arrives we'll be ready. We'll pay that
    filthy gang of vermin and their wildcat masters back so hard that they'll
    think the sky has fallen on them."
    Ben rubbed his-eyes tiredly. "A hero, eh. Funny you should say that. I thought
    I saw just such a one earlier tonight. Ah, but he's probably dead or in the
    dungeons by now. Let's get some sleep. I'm bone weary."
    The little hut was an island of warmth and safety in the night, as the howling
    north wind drove snowflakes before it, whining and keening around the gaunt
    trees of winter-stricken Mossflower.
    19
    4
    Struggling wildly between two stoats, the captive mouse was dragged into the
    bedchamber. He was secured by a long rope, which the guards tried to keep taut
    as he dodged and jumped, scratched and bit, first letting the rope go slack,
    then dashing forward so the two guards were pulled together, as they collided
    he leaped upon them, biting and kicking despite the rope that pinned his paws
    to his sides. A ferret guard from the door came running in to help. Between
    the three of them they managed to pin the warlike mouse upon the floor. They
    lay on top of him, trying to avoid the butting head and nipping teeth. The
    mouse was breathing heavily, his eyes flashing reckless defiance at his
    captors.
    Verdauga sat up straight, sleep forgotten as he questioned the two stoats.
    "Make your report. What have we got here?"
    One of the stoats freed his paw and threw a quick salute. "Lord, this one was
    caught within the bounds of your lands. He is a stranger, and goes armed."
    A weasel marched in and placed the traveler's ancient rusty sword at the foot
    of the bed.
    Verdauga looked from under hooded lids at the sword and the sturdy young mouse
    upon the floor. "It is against my law to carry arms or to trespass upon my
    domain."
    The mouse struggled against his captors, shouting out in a loud, angry voice,
    "I didn't know it was your land, cat. Tell
    20
    your guards to take their claws off and release me. You have no right to
    imprison a freeborn creature."
    Verdauga could not help but admire the obvious courage of the prisoner. He was
    about to speak, when Tsarmina grasped the battered sword and stood over the
    captive with the point at his throat. "You insolent scum! Quick now, what is
    your name? Where did you steal this rusty relic?"
    As the guards pinned the struggling mouse down, his voice shook with fury. "My
    name is Martin the Warrior. That sword was once my father's, now it is mine. I
    come and go as I please, cat. Is this the welcome you show travelers?"
    Tsarmina forced Martin's head back with the sword-point. "For a mouse, you
    have far too much to say to your betters," die said contemptuously. "You are
    in Mossflower country now; all the land you can see on a clear day's march
    belongs tp us by right of conquest. My father's law says that none are allowed
    to go armed save his soldiers. The penalty for those who break the law is
    death."
    She beckoned the guards with a sleek catlike movement. "Take him away and
    execute him."
    Lord Greeneyes' voice halted the guards as he turned to his son. "Gingivere,
    have you nothing to say? What shall we do with this mouse?"
    ^ "Some say that ignorance of the law is no excuse," Gingivere answered
    without raising his voice. "Even so, it would be unjust to punish Martin; he
    is a stranger and could not be expected to know of us or our laws. Also, it
    would be too easy for us to slay him. He seems an honest creature to me. If &
    were my decision I would have him escorted from our territory, then given his
    weapon. He would know better than to come back again."
    Verdauga looked from son to daughter. "Now I will give yon my decision. There
    are enough cowards in the world Wftfiout killing a brave creature for so
    little reason. This Martin is a true warrior. On the other side of the scales,
    if we to allow him to roam free as the wind on our land, this be read as a
    sign of our weakness. It is my judgment he be put in the cells to coot his
    paws awhile. After a he can be set free, provided he is never again so rash
    trespass in my domain."
    21
    Snap!
    Everyone present heard the sharp report. Furious at being overruled, Tsarmina
    had set the sword between the jamb of the door and the stone doorway. With a
    huge burst of energy she threw her weight against the venerable weapon.
    Suddenly it broke; the old blade rang upon the floor, leaving her holding the
    shorn-off handle, which she tossed to a guard.
    "Here, throw him in the cells with this tied around his neck. If ever we do
    release him, then others will see him and realize how merciful we can be. Take
    the wretch away—the sight of him offends my eyes."
    As the guards tugged on the rope, Martin stood firm resisting them. For a
    moment his eyes met those of Tsarmina's. His voice was clear and unafraid.
    "Your father made a just decision, but yours was the right one. You should
    have killed me when you had the chance, because I vow that I will slay you one
    day."
    The spell was broken. The guards hauled on the ropes, dragging Martin off to
    the cells. In the silence that followed, Tsarmina slumped in her chair and
    sniggered. "A mouse kill me, indeed! He's not even worth worrying about."
    Verdauga coughed painfully. He lay back on the pillows. "If you think that,
    daughter, then you have made a grave mistake. I have seen courage before; it
    comes in all shapes and sizes. Just because he is a mouse does not make him
    less of a warrior than me. He has a fighter's heart—I saw it in his eyes."
    Tsarmina ignored her father and called to Fortunata. "Vixen, mix Lord
    Greeneyes a stronger portion. He needs sleep after all the excitement.
    Gingivere, give father his medicine. You are the only one he will take it
    from."
    Fortunata gave Gingivere the beaker containing the prepared draught. Tsarmina
    nodded to her, and they left the room together. Outside in the corridor the
    wildcat gripped the fox's paw in her powerful claws. "Welt, did you fix the
    medicine?"
    Fortunata winced in pain as the claws sank in. "Twice. Once before the mouse
    came in, and just now before we left. He's taken enough poison to lay half the
    garrison low."
    Tsarmina pulled the vixen close, her cruel eyes burning.
    22
    "Good, but if he's still alive in the morning you had better prepare some for
    yourself. It would be a lot easier than facing me if you fail."
    The cells were deep beneath Kotir. They were ancient, smelly, dark, and dank.
    Martin the Warrior was hurled into his prison by the two guards who had
    dragged him down passage and stairway. He had fought every inch of the way and
    they were glad to be rid of him. Martin lay with his cheek testing on the cold
    stone floor where he had been flung. As (lie door clanged shut behind him, one
    of the stoats peered through the door grating, turning the key in the lock.
    "Thank your lucky stars, mouse. If Lady Tsarmina had had her way, you'd be in
    the darkest wettest cells further down the passage. ft was Lord Greeneyes'
    wish that you should be put in a good cell, aye, and given bread and water to
    eat and some dry straw to lie on. Huh, he must have taken a shine to you. He's
    a strange one, old Verdauga is."
    Martin lay still, listening until the sounds of the guards' heavy paws receded
    and he was alone. Standing up, he took stock of his new surroundings. At least
    there was light com-m% in from a torch that burned on the far corridor wall.
    Feeling a slight draught, he looked up. There was a high aarrow grille slitted
    into the wall near the ceiling. Martin Changed position, still looking upward,
    until he could see a •tor shining outside in the night sky. It was his only
    link with freedom and the outside world. He sat, resting his back against the
    wall, huddling down in his ragged cloak to gain ft little warmth. The rest of
    his cell was just the same as any prison: four bare walls and precious little
    else, no comfort or ebeer to be gained from anything here. He was a prisoner,
    in a strange place.
    warrior mouse slept, overcome by weariness. Sometime Jjefore dawn he was
    wakened by paws thrusting something Over his head and around his neck. Still
    half-asleep, Martin tffed to grab hold of his assailants. He was roughly
    kicked 10 one side, then the door clanged shut as the key turned in lock
    again. Leaping up, Martin ran to the door. The stoat peered through the
    grating, chuckling and wagging a at him. "You nearly had me that time, mouse."
    23
    The warrior mouse gave an angry snarl and leapt at the grating, but the stoat
    backed off, grinning at his futile attempt. "Listen, mouse, if I were you I'd
    keep pretty quiet down here, otherwise you might attract Lady Tsarmina's
    attention—and I don't think you'd like that. You just sit tight and behave
    yourself, then maybe in time somebody like Gin-givere will remember you're
    here and have you released."
    As the guards trooped off, Martin saw they had left a load of clean straw in
    one corner, also some bread and water. Instinctively he moved towards it, and
    felt something clunk against his chest. It was the sword handle dangling from
    a piece of rope around his neck. Martin held it in front of his eyes, staring
    at it hard and long. He would wear it, not because he had been sentenced to as
    a mark of shame, but to remind himself that one day he would slay the evil cat
    who had broken his father's blade.
    Settling down in the dry straw, he drank water and gnawed upon the stale bread
    hungrily. He was about to fell asleep again when shouts and commotion broke
    out upstairs. Pulling himself level with the door grille, Martin listened to
    the sounds that echoed in the silence of the cells.
    "My Lord Greeneyes is dead!"
    "Lady Tsarmina, come quick, it's your father."
    There was loud stamping of spearbutts and die sounds of mailed paws dashing
    hither and thither, coupled with the slamming of doors.
    Tsarmina's voice could be heard in an anguished wail. "Murder, murder. My
    father is slain!"
    Ashleg and Fortunata took up the cry. "Murder, Gingivere has poisoned
    Verdauga!"
    A tremendous hubbub had broken out. Martin could not hear clearly what was
    going on. A moment later there was a sound of heavy pawsteps on the stairs; it
    sounded like a great number of creatures. Martin pulled to one side of the
    grille and saw it all. Led by Tsarmina, a mob of soldiers carrying torches
    marched down the corridor, Ashleg and Fortunata visible among them. As they
    passed the cell door, Martin glimpsed the stunned face of the gentle wildcat
    Gingivere. He was bound in chains. Blood trickled from a wound on his head.
    Their eyes met for a second, then he was swept by in the surge of angry
    soldiers, their faces distorted by the flick-
    24
    ering torchlight as they chanted, "Murderer, murderer! Kill the murderer!"
    Martin could no longer see them, owing to the limited range of his vision
    through the grille, but he could still hear all that went on. Some distance
    down the corridor a cell door slammed and a key turned. Tsarmina's voice rose
    above the noise. "Silence! I will say what is to be done here. Even though my
    brother is a murderer, I cannot harm him. He will stay locked up here until he
    lives out his days. He is now dead to me; I never want to hear his name spoken
    again within the walls of Kotir."
    Martin heard Gingivere's voice trying to say something, but it was immediately
    drowned out by Ashleg and Fortunata starting a chant that the soldiers took up
    at full pitch. "Long live Queen Tsarmina. Long live Queen Tsarmina!"
    As the mob passed by Martin's cell again, he drew back. Above the roars he
    heard Tsarmina, close by the door, speaking to Ashleg. "Bring October ale and
    elderberry wine from the storerooms. See that there is plenty for everyone."
    Shutting his ears against the sounds of the revelers, Martin lay upon the
    straw with the sword handle pressing against his chest. Now that his last
    hopes were gone, it looked like being • long hard winter.
    25
    Across the lea, beneath the leaves,
    When countrylands wake up to spring,
    Hurrah here comes the Prince of Thieves,
    Hear every small bird sing.
    So daring and so handsome too,
    He makes a wondrous sight,
    But if he comes to visit you,
    Lock up your treasures tight.
    Sunlight sparkled on the chuckling stream that had lain iced over and silent
    all winter. Snowdrops nodded agreeably to crocus on the warm southerly breeze.
    Spring was everywhere. Golden daffodils and their paler narcissus relatives
    stood guard between the budding trees of Mossfiower Woods; evergreens that had
    endured the dark winter took on a new fresh life.
    Gonff was returning from another successful visit to Kotir. The wine flasks
    bumped and banged against his broad belt as he skipped nimbly through the
    flowering woodlands, singing aloud with the heady intoxication of springtime.
    Cuckoo, cuckoo, good day, my friend, to you. O sly one you know best. To lay
    in others' nest, Is a trick you often do. 26
    But I am smarter, sir, than you, Cuckoo, my friend cuckoo.
    The blood coursed madly through GonfF's young veins like the waters of a
    brook, gurgling happily and generally making him so light-headed that he
    turned somersaults. Every so often he would pull a reed flute from his tunic
    and twiddle away with the sheer joy of being alive on such a morning as this.
    With a great whoop Gonff threw himself into a thick tussock of grass and lay
    with the perspiration rising from him in a small column of steam. Overhead the
    sky was a delicate blue with small white clouds scudding on the breeze. Gonff
    imagined what it would be like to lie upon a small fluffy white cloud and
    allow himself to be buffeted about in the sunny sky.
    "Whooooaaa, look out, zoom, bump, whoof! Out of the way you big clouds." The
    little mousethief held tight to the grass, swaying from side to side as he
    played out his game of makebelieve.
    He did not notice the two weasels dressed in Kotir armor until too late. They
    stood over him looking grim and officious.
    Gonff7 smiled impudently, aware of his clunking wine flasks. "Er, aha ha.
    Hello, mateys, I was flying my cloud, you see . . ."
    The larger of the two prodded him with a spearbutt. "Come pa you, on your
    paws. You're wanted at Kotir."
    Gonff winked at him cheerily. "Kotir? You don't say! Well, bow nice! Listen,
    you two good chaps, nip along and tell them I'm busy today but I'll pop in
    early tomorrow."
    The spearpoint at Gonff's throat discouraged further light banter. The smaller
    of the two weasels kicked GonfF. "Up you come, thief. Now we know where the
    best cheeses and elderberry wine have been going all winter. You'll pay for
    Stealing from Kotir."
    Gonff stood slowly. Placing a paw on his plump little stomach he looked from
    one guard to the other with an air of innocence. "Me, steal? I beg your
    pardon, sirs, did you know the head cook has given me permission to borrow
    what I please from his larder? Actually, I was going to return the
    27
    favor by sending him some good recipes. I understand his cooking leaves
    something to be desired."
    The large weasel laughed mirthlessly. "Shall I tell you something, thief? The
    head cook has personally vowed to skin you with a rusty knife and roast what's
    left of you for supper.''
    Gonff nodded appreciatively. "Oh good, I do hope he saves some for me ...
    ouch!"
    Prodded between two spears, he marched off with the guards in the direction of
    Kotir.
    A pale shaft of sunlight penetrated between the iron bars of the high window
    slit. The walls of the cell dripped moisture, and sometimes the faint trill of
    a skylark on the fiatlands reached the prisoner. Martin knew that this was the
    onset of full, burgeoning springtime. His face was haggard, his body much
    thinner, but his eyes still shone with the warrior's angry brightness.
    Martin rose and paced the cell with the sword handle about his neck; it seemed
    to grow heavier with time. Fifteen paces, whichever way he went—from door to
    wall or from wall to wall, it was always fifteen paces. He had paced it many
    times as the days and weeks grew into months. Gingivere was too iar away to
    converse with, besides, it only made the guards angry. They stopped his bread
    and water for attempting to speak to the one whose name it was forbidden to
    mention. Now Martin believed that he really had been forgotten and left here
    to die under the new regime of Tsarmina. He stood in the shaft of weak
    sunlight, trying not to think of the world of blue skies and flowers outside.
    "Get the little devil in there quick. It'll be less trouble to feed two at
    once. Ouch, my shin!"
    Lost in thought, Martin had failed to hear the approach of guards bringing a
    prisoner to his cell door.
    "Aargh, leggo my ear, you fiend. Hurry up with that door before he bites my
    lug clean off."
    "Ouch. Ow. He nipped me! Keep him still while I find my key."
    There was more shouting and scuffling as the key turned in the lock. Martin
    ran to the door but was immediately bowled over by another figure, which shot
    through the door-
    28
    way straight in on top of him. Together they fell over backward, as the cell
    door slammed shut again. The two prisoners lay still until the pawsteps of the
    guards retreated down the corridor.
    Martin moved gingerly, easing aside the body that had fallen on top of him. It
    giggled. He pulled his cellmate into the shaft of sunlight where he could view
    him more clearly.
    Gonff winked broadly at him, played a short jig on his reed flute, then began
    singing,
    I knew a mouse in prison here,
    More than a hundred years.
    His whiskers grew along the ground,
    And right back to his ears.
    His eyes grew dim, his teeth fell out,
    His fur went silver-gray.
    "If my grandad were here," he said,
    "I wonder what he'd say?"
    Martin leaned against the wall. He could not help smiling at bis odd little
    cellmate.
    *'Silly, how could the grandfather of a hundred-year-old mouse say anything?
    Sorry, my name's Martin the Warrior. What's yours?"
    Gonff extended a paw. "Martin the Warrior, eh. By gum, Martin, you're a fine,
    strong-looking fellow, even though you could do with a bit of fattening up. My
    name's Gonff the Thief, or Prince of Mousethieves to you, matey."
    Martin shook Gonff warmly by the paw. "Prince of Mousethieves, by the fur. You
    could be the King of the Sky, as long as I've got a cellmate to speak to. What
    did they throw you in here for?"
    Gonff winced. "Stop squeezing my paw to bits and I'll tell
    you."
    They sat down on the straw together, Gonff massaging his jpaw. "They caught me
    running down the larder stocks of jvine and cheese, you see. But don't you
    worry, matey, I can Open any lock in Kotir. We won't be here for too long,
    you'll •ee. Leave it to Gonff."
    X "You mean you can—we can—escape from here? How,
    29
    when, where to?" Martin's voice tumbled out, shaky with excitement.
    Gonff fell back against the wall, laughing. "Whoa, matey, not so fast! Don't
    worry, as soon as I get things organized we'll say byebye to this dump. But
    first, let's get you fed. They should be ashamed of themselves, keeping a
    great lump like you on bread and water.''
    Martin shrugged and rubbed his hollow stomach. "Huh, what else is there? I was
    lucky to get bread and water sometimes. What do you suggest, fresh milk and
    oatcakes?"
    "Sorry, matey. I haven't got milk or oatcakes. Would cheese and elderberry
    wine do you?" he asked seriously.
    Martin was lost for words as GonfF opened his tunic and spilled out a wedge of
    cheese and a flat canteen of wine.
    "Always keep this for emergencies or trading. Here, you may as well have it.
    I've had enough of cheese and wine for a bit."
    Martin needed to second bidding. He wolfed away at the cheese, slopping wine
    as he gulped it into a full mouth. Gonff shook his head in wonder as the wine
    and cheese vanished rapidly. "Go easy, matey. You'll make yourself ill. Take
    your time."
    Martin tried hard to take the good advice, but it was difficult after so long
    on starvation rations. As he ate he questioned Gonff. "Tell me, what have I
    walked into around here, Gonff? I'm only a lone warrior passing through; I
    know nothing of Mossflower and wildcats."
    The mousethief scratched his whiskers reflectively. "Now, let me see, where to
    begin. Since long before I was born the old tyrant Verdauga Greeneyes, Lord of
    the Thousand thin-gummies and so on, has ruled over Mossflower. One day long
    ago, he swept in here at the head of his army. They came down from the north,
    of course. The fortress must have been what attracted him. To woodlanders it
    was nothing but an old ruin that had always been there; Verdauga saw it
    differently, though. This was a place of plenty where he could settle, so he
    moved straight in, repaired it as best as he could, called the place Kotir and
    set himself up as a tyrant. There were none to oppose him; the woodlanders are
    peaceable creatures—-they had never seen a full army of trained soldiers, nor
    wildcats. Verdauga could do just as he pleased, but he
    30
    was clever: he allowed our creatures to live within his shadow and farm the
    land. Half of everything they produced was taken as a tax to feed him and his
    vermin:"
    "Didn't anyone fight back?" Martin interrupted.
    Gonff nodded sadly. "Oh yes, even now there are old ones who are still too
    frightened to tell of how Verdauga and his cruel daughter put down the poorly
    organized rebellion. Those who were not massacred were thrown into this very
    prison and left to rot. I'm told my own parents were among them, but I don't
    know the truth of it. When the rebellion was broken, Verdauga proved what a
    clever general he was. He actually made a kind of peace with the woodlanders.
    They were allowed to live within Kotir's shadow and farm the land. He said he
    would protect us from further attacks by bands wandering down from the north.
    We were partly enslaved then and very much disorganized. Not having any proper
    fighting strength and with all the rebellious fighters out of the way, most
    creatures seemed just to accept their lot. Then last summer Verdauga became
    ill. Since he has been sick, he has left the running of the settlement to his
    daughter, Tsarmina. Unlike her father, she is cruel and evil. Woodlanders have
    been driven too hard out on the fields and not allowed enough |o live on.
    Hedgehogs like Ben Stickle and his family dare not run away; where could they
    go, with young ones to care fw? However, things became so bad that a lot of
    them took the chance and escaped from the settlement. As the numbers grew
    less, Tsarmina demanded more and more from the few. I tell you, matey, it's a
    sad tale."
    , They sat side by side, watching the shaft of sunlight striking the cell
    floor. Martin passed the wine to Gonff. "What do you know about the wildcat
    called Gingivere?" - Gonff took a sip of the wine and passed it back. "I know
    he never took part in any killing. Woodlanders always hoped that Verdauga
    would pass the reins to him. He's supposed to be a good sort, for a wildcat,
    that is. Now you take the sister, Tsarmina. She is pure evil—they say that she
    is far more Savage than Verdauga. I've heard the gossip around Kotir when IVe
    been visiting here, matey—do you know, they say $M Greeneyes is dead and his
    son in prison here, so that peans Tsarmina must be the new ruler now.' * v
    Martin nodded. "It's true. I saw and heard it myself. Gin-31
    givere is in a cell far down the corridor. I tried to speak to him but it's
    too far away." The warrior mouse banged his paw against the wall in
    frustration. "Why doesn't somebody do something, Gonff?"
    The mousethief tapped the side of his nose and lowered his voice. "Sit still
    and listen, matey. Now the last families have left the settlement, we're
    making plans. All the scattered families and woodlanders have banded together
    out there in Mossfiower Woods. They're learning to become strong once more,
    and the old spirit of defeat is gone now. We have real fighters training,
    otters and squirrels, besides hedgehogs and moles and the likes of me. WeVe
    even got a badger, Bella of Brock hall; her family used to rule Mossflower in
    the good old days. You'll like her. Together we form the Council of Resistance
    in Mossflower—Corim, see, take the first letter of each word. Ha, we're
    getting stronger every day."
    Martin felt the excitement rising within him again. "Do you think that the
    Corim know we're locked up here. Will they help us to escape?"
    Gonff winked broadly, a sly grin on his face. "Sssshhhhh, not so loud, matey.
    Wait and see."
    He passed the wine flask across to Martin. "Tell me something, matey. Why do
    they call you warrior? Where are you from? Did you live in a place like
    Mossflower? Was it nice?"
    Martin put the wine to one side and lay back, staring at the ceiling. "Where I
    come from, Gonff, there are no forests, only rocks, grass, and hills. Aye,
    that's the northland. I never knew a mother. I was brought up by my father,
    Luke the Warrior—my family have always been warriors. We lived in caves,
    constantly under attack by roaming bands of sea rats who came inland. You were
    forced to defend your cave, your piece of land, or be overrun. There were
    other families like us, I had lots of friends—there was Thrugg the Strong,
    Ar-rowtail, Felldoh the Wrestler, Timballisto."
    Martin smiled at the memory of his companions. "Ah, it wasn't so bad, I
    suppose. All we seemed to do was eat, sleep and fight in those days. As soon
    as I was tall enough I learned to lift my father's sword and practice with
    it."
    He touched the broken weapon strung about his neck. "Many's the enemy learned
    his lesson at the point of this sword—sea rats, mercenary foxes too. One time
    my father
    32
    was wounded and had to stay in our cave. Ha, I remembei all that summer,
    fighting off foes while he lay at the cave entrance preparing our food and
    calling advice to me. Then one day he took off with a band of older warriors
    to meet the jea rats on the shores of the waters far away. They were •opposed
    to make an end to all invading rats forever. It was t brave idea. Before he
    went he gave me his trusty old sword, then he left carrying spear and shield.
    My father said that I should stay behind and defend our cave and land, but if
    he did not return by late autumn then I was to do as I felt fit."
    Gonff nodded. "And he never returned?"
    Martin closed his eyes. "No, he never came back. I defended our land alone,
    against all comers. That was when they started calling me Martin the Warrior
    instead of Son of Luke the Warrior. I left it as late as I could that autumn;
    then there seemed no point in defending a cave and land just for myself. I
    started to march south alone. Who knows how far I would have got if I hadn't
    been stopped at Kotir."
    Gonff stood up and stretched. "I'm glad you did stop here, matey. I'd hate to
    be sitting in this cell talking to myself. I'd sooner talk to a warrior like
    you."
    Martin passed the wine back. "Aye, and I'd sooner be locked up with a thief
    like yourself than wandering about alone, matey."
    33
    It was strange that at the very moment Gonff and Martin were discussing Corim,
    the council of that name was talking of them. Ben Stickle's humble home was
    crammed with woodland creatures, the largest of whom was a badger, Bella of
    Brockhall. She presided over the meeting. Also present were the Skipper of
    otters, Lady Amber the squirrel Chief, Ben Stickle and Billum, a dependable
    mole who was deputizing for his leader. Seated by the fire, Beech the squirrel
    answered council questions.
    "Where did you see Gonif captured?" "Westerly, over near the fringe by Kotir."
    "Whatever was Gonif doing to let himself get captured?" "Oh the usual,
    skylarkin' and foolin' about." "You say it was two of Verdauga's soldiers."
    "Aye, no doubt o' that. In uniform and carryin' spears." "Where were you when
    all this took place, Beech?" "Sittin* up an old oak not far off." "Did you
    hear what they said?"
    "Heard 'em say they was takin* him off to Kotir, Of course, you know Gonff.
    Treated it like a big joke, he did. No doubt they'll have wiped the silly grin
    off his whiskers by now down in old Greeneyes' cells."
    Lady Amber nodded at Beech. "Well done. Anything else to report?"
    "No, marm. I followed them as far as I could, then I
    34
    spotted Argulor perched in a spruce. Couldn't say if he was awake, so I
    decided to come back here, knowin' there was a gatherin' of Corim."
    Ben Stickle winked at Beech. "Aye, it's late noon, too. There's a pot of
    spring vegetable soup, cheese, and nutbread. D'you think you could manage
    some, Beech?"
    The squirrel winked back at Ben, bobbed his head respectfully to the Corim
    leaders and was gone before further questions could be thought up.
    Bella rubbed huge paws across her eyes and sat back with a grunt of despair.
    "Well, here's another pretty pickle our mousethief has got himself into. Any
    suggestions?"
    Amber clucked disapprovingly. ' 'If I had my way, I 'd leave the silly
    creature to stew his paws in Kotir awhile. That'd teach him a lesson."
    There were murmurs of agreement.
    The Skipper of otters whacked his rudderlike tail against the hearth. "Belay
    that kind o' talk, mates. You all know that the little uns would have gone
    hungry many a time, 'cept for the thief." Skipper gave a good-natured chuckle.
    "That Gonff is my kind of mouse, a true messmate. A bit light of paw, but
    good-hearted and an able-bodied shanty singer.''
    Ben Stickle raised a paw. "I vote we rescue GonrT. We'd be ashamed to call
    ourselves true woodlanders, leaving one of our own in Kotir prison."
    Billum lifted a velvety paw. "Hurr, do moi vote count whoil gaffer Foremole's
    not yurr?"
    Bella thought for a moment while they all digested the meaning of the rustic
    molespeech. "Of course, Billum. After all, you are Foremole's deputy and the
    Corim respect your judgment as a sensible mole."
    Billum squinted his round eyes with pleasure at the compliment.
    By a show of paws the vote to rescue Gonff was unanimous. Then there was a
    temporary respite for refreshment, while the assembly helped themselves to
    bowls of Goodwife Stickle's famed spring vegetable soup, farls of warm
    nutbread and ripe yellow cheese.
    Lady Amber smiled fondly at two little hedgehogs who were trying to look very
    fierce and brave, knowing that she
    35
    was always ready to recruit warriors into her band. She dealt with them as if
    they were two bold squirrels.
    "Shows me your paws. Hram, you'd probably make good climbers after some
    training. You certainly look tough enough. Goody, are these two young villains
    very strong?"
    Goodwife put down her ladle and wiped her paws on her apron. "Ho my, yes.
    Ferdy and Coggs are two of the strongest. Why, you wouldn't believe your eyes
    if you saw these two a-gatherin* up all those great heavy dishes and washin'
    pots. There's no two hogs more powerful."
    Much smiling and winking was in evidence as Ferdy and Coggs gathered bowls,
    grunting with exertion as they proved their strength by scouring a large
    cauldron between them.
    Buckling down to the business of Gonff, the Corim set about planning his
    escape.
    Argulor had returned to Mossflower. No creature could say why he had deserted
    his mountain stronghold hi the far West; maybe it was that he enjoyed the
    comfort of woodlands where prey was far more plentiful. Argulor was a golden
    eagle of great age. He had grown too slow and short-sighted to pursue small
    creatures, so staying within handy range of Kotir and Verdauga's troops suited
    him. But the frightening strength and savagery of an eagle had not deserted
    Argulor, and if the chance of a larger animal came his way he took it, with
    curving talons and fierce hooked beak. Ferrets, rats, weasels and stoats made
    good eating, and besides, there was a pine marten living in Kotir. Admittedly
    it was a bit battered and bent, but Argulor had never tasted pine marten
    before and was determined that one day he would do so. The eagle and the
    wildcats had crossed trails many times over the years. Each had a healthy
    respect for the other. With the exception of Tsarmina. Whenever Argulor was
    sighted circling the sky over Kotir, Verdauga's daughter incited the soldiers
    to fire arrows and throw stones at the great bird, offering rewards to the
    creature that could bring him down. Argulor was not unduly worried by a mob of
    vermin loosing missiles at him, as he could outdistance anything they chose to
    throw. Sometimes he would hover on a thermal, slightly out of range, trying
    with his failing eyesight to catch a glimpse of the de-
    36
    sired marten, or Tsarmina, whom he hated. Bright spring sunlight warmed his
    wings as he wheeled above the fortress.
    Ashleg cringed behind his wildcat mistress as she stood glaring upward at the
    soaring eagle. "Shoot, you fools! Not over there, idiots! There, see, right
    above your thick heads."
    The soldiers continued firing without success. Tsarmina grabbed a particularly
    slow ferret and cuffed him soundly about the head. Hurling the smarting
    creature to one side, she picked up his bow and notched an arrow to the
    string. Taking careful aim, she paused a moment as the eagle swooped lower.
    Swiftly she loosed the barbed shaft with a powerful hiss of flighted feathers.
    To the surprise of the watchers, Argulor wheeled to one side then shot upward
    in pursuit of the arrow. Up he went until the shaft had reached its peak of
    flight, then wheeling quickly inward the eagle caught the arrow in his talon
    and contemptuously snapped it. Zooming downward, he flew low enough to stare
    for a second at Tsarmina, then he beat the air with massive wing-strokes,
    flying away into the blue yonder.
    Tsarmina would have vented her rage upon Ashleg, but he had vanished inside
    when he saw the eagle diving.
    "Get out of my sight, you useless lot of buffoons!"
    The soldiers followed Ashleg with all speed, each trying not to be last as
    Tsarmina was in the mood for making examples.
    The wildcat stood alone pondering a question: where had she seen that same
    look of vengeance and fearlessness before? The mouse, that was it! She could
    not even recall his name; anyhow, he probably hadn't lasted the winter down in
    the cells.
    Tsarmina watched a furtive figure coming across the parade ground, ducking and
    weaving, flattening itself in the shadows. She snorted scornfully; it was only
    Fortunata. "Frightened of a blind old eagle, vixen?"
    "Milady, I was ducking the arrows and stones of your soldiers as they came
    down, but that was a good shot of yours," Fortunata said in a fawning voice.
    "A pity that the eagle caught it in midair."
    The vixen jumped sharply to one side as Tsarmina fired an arrow from the
    ferret's bow. It landed where her paw had been a moment before.
    37
    Tsarmina notched another arrow, her eyes glinting cruelly. "Right, let's see
    what you're best at, fox—catching arrows or getting inside with a civil tongue
    in your head."
    She bent the bow back and giggled wickedly at the sight of Fortunata beating a
    hopskip retreat.
    Sooner or later the Queen of the Thousand Eyes had the final say in all
    things.
    Something rattled though the slit window above Martin and Gonff. In the
    semigloom they groped about in the straw until Gonff found the object.
    Martin could not conceal his disappointment. ' 'Goodness me, a stick. How
    helpful. We could take this place single-pawed with a stick. What a useful
    thing to send us."
    It was not a stick. Gonff ignored his cellmate and set about undoing the thin
    wire that bound the bark parchment to the slim blade. He unfolded the
    parchment and moved into the light, where he read aloud the message it
    contained.
    Gonff.
    Here are your tools. Leave by the woodland side of Kotir at the first light of
    dawn. We will be waiting to cover for you.
    Corim
    Gonff laughed quietly as he destroyed the message. "This is what weVe been
    waiting for, matey. Of course they don't know about you. The plan is only
    supposed to cover my escape, but don't worry, we'll sort it out. The council
    will be glad to have a real trained warrior on their side. Now, d'you see this
    silly old bit of wire and this little knifeblade? Well, they're going to get
    us out of here, matey. These are the tools of an honorable thief.''
    Martin clasped Gonff's paw warmly. "I'm sorry, Gonff. All I did was stand here
    making stupid remarks. You are the expert. From now on you have an assistant
    who is willing to leam from your experience. In fact, you've got a real mate,
    matey.'*
    Gonff laughed and winced at the same time. "Righto, matey, the first lesson is
    not to break the expert's paw by
    38
    crushing it 'cos you don't know your own strength. Let's settle down now. When
    is the next guard patrol due?"
    "In about an hour's time, regular as clockwork since I've been here. After
    that, there'll be nobody by until two hours after dawn when they bring the
    bread and water."
    "Good, that gives us time for a little rest," Gonff said, stretching out
    comfortably on the straw.
    Martin lay down, willing himself to relax against the flood-tide of excitement
    building inside him. Gonff played on his flute awhile, then he began singing
    softly.
    Pickalock pickalock, you'll regret the day,
    When you took a mousethief and locked him away.
    Sillycat, look at that, it's two for one,
    The thief and the warrior
    By dawn will be gone.
    Martin lay with his eyes closed, listening. "Who taught you that song?"
    Gonff shrugged as he packed his flute away. "Nobody. Songs just spring into my
    head. Silly, isn't it. Sometimes old Goody Stickle says that it's Mossfiower
    singing through me. Now and then she'll say it's a sight of seasons the sun
    hasn't yet shone upon."
    Martin savored the phrase as they lay in the straw.
    "A sight of seasons the sun hasn't yet shone upon, eh. I like that, matey,
    your friends sound like nice creatures."
    Gonff chewed on a straw. "You'll like Goody Stickle. If I did have a mother
    one time, then she couldn't be any nicer than Goody. Wait till you taste her
    spring vegetable soup, or her oat and honey scones, piping hot and oozing
    butter, or her apple and blackberry pudding with spices and fresh cream, or
    just her new yellow cheese with hot oven bread and a stick of fresh celery,
    aye, and a bowl of milk with nutmeg grated on top of it ..."
    The straw slipped from Gonff's lips. Martin was glad that he had dozed off.
    All that delicious mention of food had set his mouth watering like a stream.
    He was positive that he would like Goody Stickle. In fact, she would never be
    short of a constant admirer if her cooking was half as good as Gonff described
    it.
    39
    It was still three hours to dawn as the rescue party headed by Amber and
    Skipper left the Stickle dwelling. Goody pressed parcels of food upon them,
    clucking worriedly, "Now I don't want to hear of anyone a-gettin' theirselves
    catchered by those madcats. They'll eat you for sure."
    Amber the squirrel Chief smiled as she hefted a pack of food. "Don't fret your
    spines, Goody. We're more likely to be laid low by the amount of rations
    you're making us take than by an enemy."
    Skipper peeked inside his pack. "Marm, my old sturn-mick'd sink in a stream if
    I ate half o' this. I'd be down at the bows for a week."
    The small band of tough, capable woodlanders were paw-picked from Amber's
    squirrel archers and Skipper's otter crew. They stood about checking weapons.
    The otters twirled slings and selected stones, some of them balancing light
    throwing javelins. The squirrels waxed bowstrings and belted on full quivers.
    Ben Stickle remarked to his wife, "As fine a body o' woodlanders as I've seen.
    Let's hope they can be of help to our little Gonff."
    Ferdy and Coggs strolled out to join the band. The two small hedgehogs wore
    cooking pot helmets and blanket cloaks, each carried a piece of firewood, and
    they scowled in a warlike manner as they stood among the squirrels and otters.
    40
    The Skipper of otters clapped a paw to his brow and staggered about in mock
    fright. "Strike me colors, if it ain't two bloodthirsty savages. One glance at
    these two'd put a wildcat off his skilly an' duff for life!"
    Ferdy and Coggs strutted about, tripping on their blankets but still managing
    to maintain fierce grimaces. Concealing a smile, Lady Amber took the two
    would-be warriors by their paws and positioned them outside the Stickle house.
    She placed one on either side of the doorway, where they stood scowling and
    stabbing the air with their firewood weapons. The otter and squirrel band
    dutifully scowled back in recognition of two fellow fighters.
    Skipper gave them a broad wink and waved his muscular tail for silence. "Belay
    the gab and listen to me now. These here rough-lookin' coves has offered to
    spill some blood V guts over at Kotir, but what I say is, leave the easy work
    to us, we'll manage that. What we need is two ruffians who'll stop at nothin'
    to patrol round this cottage and guard it while we're gone. I'll tell you
    otters 'n' squirrels, 'tis hard and dangerous work, so I'll leave my packet of
    tuck to keep you two villains alive while you're on watch here. That's if you
    mink you can manage the job."
    Ferdy and Coggs stood to attention, spikes bristling, cheeks puffed out with
    authority, practically bursting with enthusiasm. They saluted officiously as
    the rescue party moved off in the direction of Kotir.
    Amber sniffed the light breeze. "Not more than two hours to daybreak now.''
    Skipper wound a slingshot about his paw. "Aye, marm. That'll give us enough
    time if we move along handy."
    On the fringe of Mossfiower, Kotir stood dark and forbidding, the very
    embodiment of evil and tyranny, awaiting the dawn.
    Martin sat bolt upright at the sound of a bird on the outside. He shook Gonff
    soundly. "Wake up, sleepyhead. It'll be dawn in less than an hour."
    The mousethief sat up. Rubbing his paws into half-opened eyes, he looked
    upward to the narrow strip of sky through the barred window slit. "Time to go,
    matey."
    Gonff took out his slim knifeblade. Sliding it into the key-
    41
    hole of the cell door, he twitched it back and forth. "Oh good, an easy one."
    With both eyes closed and a smile of pleasure on his chubby face, he jiggled
    the blade until there was a metallic click. "That's it, matey. Give it a
    shove."
    Marten pushed the door, but it refused to open. "It's still shut. What's gone
    wrong?"
    Gonff tested it carefully, pushing until he heard a slight rattle. "Bolts.
    I'll need a boost—can you hold me up, matey?"
    Martin braced his back against the door, cupped his paws and squared his
    shoulders. "Try me."
    The mousethief climbed up and balanced on his friend's shoulders.
    Martin bore his weight patiently, hoping that GonfFs talents would do the
    trick. "How does it look up there?" he asked anxiously.
    Gonff's voice came back punctuated by odd grunts of concentration. "No real
    problems, matey. Leastways, nothing that a Prince of thieves can't handle. Ha,
    rusty old bolts, shove a bit of greasy cheese on 'em with my knifeblade, loop
    the wire round the bolt handle, then it's just a matter of wiggle and jiggle
    and tug until it comes loose, like this one. Ha, got it!"
    Martin squared his shoulders once more as Gonff sought a new position. "Now
    for the other lock. Hee-hee, this beats scrabbling and climbing up doors, a
    good strong matey to stand on. Martin, you're as solid as a rock."
    "Maybe," Martin grunted. "But I'm not as thick as one, so stop prancing about
    on the back of my neck like that. I Ve been standing here for ages."
    Gonff was never short of an answer. "Ages, huh? YouVe not been there ten
    seconds, and the job's near done. I've known clumsy thieves and burglars who'd
    keep you there until you grew gray whiskers. Just thank your lucky stars
    you've got an honest thief like me to look after you, matey. Look out, here it
    goes!"
    Suddenly the door swung open, and they both tumbled in a heap out into the
    passage. Gonff was laughing uproariously. Martin clapped a paw across his
    noisy friend's mouth. "Sssshhh! You'll have the guards coming down to check on
    the din."
    Martin closed the door carefully and rebolted it.
    Gonff was halfway along the passage when he noticed Mar-42
    tin was not with him. Glancing back, he saw his friend standing by a cell far
    down the corridor. It was Gingivere's cell, and Martin was speaking to the
    wildcat.
    "Gingivere, do you remember me? I'm Martin the Warrior. When I was taken
    prisoner you were the only one who tried to help me. I've not forgotten that,
    even though we're on opposite sides. I've got to go now, but if there's a way
    that I can help you when I'm free, then I will."
    Gingivere's voice reached Martin. He sounded weak and despairing. "Save
    yourself, Martin. Get far away from this place and my sister.''
    Gonff pulled Martin away, calling as he went, "I'm Gonff, the Prince of
    Mousethieves. WeVe got to go now, but if you've helped my friend then I'll try
    and help you someday."
    As they hurried along the corridor, Gingivere's voice echoed behind. "Thank
    you. Good fortune go with both of you friends."
    They reached the end of the passage and mounted the stairs. Gonff was panting
    slightly, so Martin waited while he regained his breath. The stairs were built
    in a spiral. At the top was a wooden door. Gonff held up a paw for silence as
    he eased it open. It was all clear. They stepped out into a broad hallway
    which stretched away to the left and right of them.
    Martin scratched his head. "Which way? Left or right?"
    Gonff placed his slim blade on the floor and spun it. They stood watching
    until it stopped. "Left. Come on, matey."
    Continuing down the hallway, they saw a high window with the morning sunlight
    streaming through onto the top of a flat wide stairway. Gonff groaned. "Oh no,
    we're late. We've mistimed it because of that dark cell. Ah well, if we hurry
    they may still be waiting outside for us. Which way now?"
    As the steps took a turn they were in a smaller hall with a door at either
    end. The sound of Tsarmina's voice could be heard. They froze. "If one word of
    this ever gets out, just one, you vixen and you Ashleg, I'll see you both
    hanged in chains over a roasting pit. The army will only follow the rightful
    leader, and now that my brother is in the cells, that's me. I am Queen of the
    Thousand Eyes. I rule Kotir and Mossflower."
    The escapers backed down onto the stairway they had just
    43
    ascended, the echoes of Tsarmina's voice all around them as they ran round the
    turn of the steps.
    Martin and Gonff crashed straight into Tsarmina, Ashleg and Fortunata, who had
    unknowingly been walking up the stairs behind them!
    In the shrubs and small trees that bordered the woodland edge of Kotir the
    otters and squirrels lay low. It was full bright morning, long past the dawn.
    Birds were singing. The sun beamed over bright greenery dotted with daphne,
    spurge laurel and late winter jasmine.
    Oblivious to the beauty around him, Skipper lay whispering to Amber. "We can't
    hang the anchor round her much longer, marm."
    Amber stared at Kotir's gloomy walls. "You're right, Skip. We could be spotted
    in broad daylight from those walls quite easily. Where in the name of the fur
    has that little thief got to?''
    "We can only give him a little longer," Skipper shrugged resignedly. "Then
    we'll have to push off and try another day."
    A young dark-colored otter came wriggling through the grass on his stomach and
    saluted them. "Huh, you're never goin' to believe this, Skip, but there's a
    whole fleet of mice dressed in funny-lookin' robes comin' this way through the
    woods. Never seen ought like it in all me bom days."
    Skipper and Amber looked quizzically at the scout. "Where?"
    "Sort of circling from the south. Look, there!"
    Sure enough, he had spoken truly. Through the trees a band of mice were
    marching, all dressed in green-brown robes, complete with cowls and rope ties
    about the middle.
    Amber shook her head in amazement. She signaled a squirrel in a nearby tree.
    "Quickly, take this otter with you. Get over and tell that bunch of ninnies to
    get down flat. Don't they know where they are?"
    Before the pair dashed off, Skipper spoke. ' 'Stay with 'em. Soon as it's
    safe, take 'em in tow. Go to Brockhall—that should be large enough. Get in
    touch with Bella, and tell her about them. Say that me and Lady Amber will be
    in touch afore nightfall. OfFy'go."
    Amber watched them bound away, ducking and weaving. Beside the army of Kotir,
    there was always Argulor to watch out for. She turned to Skipper. "What a
    prize bunch of boo-
    44
    bies! Imagine parading around Kotir in broad daylight. Where d'you suppose
    they've come from?"
    The otter snorted. "Search me. Bella will probably know as she's done a fair
    bit of roaming in her time. Huh, talkin* of time, I think it's nearly run out
    for young Gonff if he doesn't show himself soon."
    Even at this early morning hour the warmth from the sun had lulled old Argulor
    into a drowsy sleep. The eagle perched high in a spruce, partially leaning
    against the trunk. In his sleep he groaned pleasurably, ruffling his plumage
    slightly to let the glorious warmth seep through to his ancient flesh and cold
    bones. If only there was a place that had no cold winter or damp windy autumn,
    just eternal spring followed by summer. Life passed Argulor by as he slept the
    day through on his perch. It passed by more importantly in the forms of an
    otter and a squirrel leading a band of robed mice directly beneath the very
    tree where he slumbered.
    It would have been hard to tell who was more surprised, the escaping prisoners
    or the wildcat and her minions.
    Immediately they collided, Tsarmina gave a yowl of rage and more by luck than
    judgment seized Gonff's leg. This was followed by a more anguished yowl as
    Martin whipped the blade from GonfF's belt and stabbed Tsarmina sharply in the
    paw, forcing her to release his friend.
    "Follow me!" Martin grabbed Gonff and ran back up the stairs, giving Fortunata
    a good slash across the rump with the blade as he went. The vixen collided
    with Ashleg, and they fell in a jumble. Tsarmina tripped over them. She
    struggled to extricate herself, screaming curses and raking the un-- lucky
    pair with her claws.
    "Blockheads, idiots, out of my way."
    Martin and Gonff dashed headlong down the hall. Taking die door to the right,
    they dived inside, slamming it shut behind them.
    It was the late Lord Greeneyes' bedchamber. With the shouts of their pursuers
    ringing closer the escapers scuttled for cover beneath the large canopied bed.
    "We cant stay here long!" Martin panted as he felt about In the darkness and
    found Gonff's paw.
    U'
    " 45
    "Don't worry, matey. Get ready to make a bolt when I shout."
    There was no further opportunity for conversation, as the door banged open.
    Tsarmina pushed her creatures before her and closed the door. She was licking
    her wounded paw. Fortu-nata, who had suffered a loss of dignity, tried not to
    rub at her wounded rump. Ashleg stumped about, trying to sound helpful.
    "At least we know we've got them cornered in here somewhere."
    "Somewhere," echoed Fortunata. "But where?"
    Tsarmina lowered her voice as she called the other two close. "We don't know
    how much those mice overheard. They must not leave this room alive. Let us
    search every corner thoroughly.''
    Stretched out flat beneath the bed, Martin could see the paws of their
    pursuers. He watched as they dispersed in separate directions, then turned
    toward Gonff.
    In the name of mice! That little thief was the absolute limit. Gonff had
    actually closed his eyes and appeared to be napping. Martin prodded him
    urgently. The three hunters were getting closer to the bed as other hiding
    places were discounted.
    "Ashleg, have you checked those wall hangings properly?"
    "Yes, Milady. Maybe they're up on top of the bed canopy."
    The pine marten was actually leaning against the side of the bed now. Gonff
    patted Martin reassuringly as he wriggled silently past him. The warrior mouse
    could only watch in dumb suspense as his daring little friend went to work.
    Gonff carefully pulled the end of Ashleg's long cloak beneath the bed, slitted
    it expertly with his blade and crawled a short way toward the bedhead, where a
    tall, heavy folding screen stood to one side. Working quickly, he tied the
    slit ends of the unsuspecting marten's cloak around one leg of the screen.
    Gonff did three things almost in one movement. He pricked Ashleg's good paw
    viciously with his blade, grabbed Martin and shot from beneath the bed,
    roaring as they went.
    "There they go! Stop 'em!"
    Pandemonium ensued. Ashleg screamed and lurched for-
    46
    ward. The heavy screen went with him; it tottered and fell. Tsarmina managed
    to leap out of the way, but the vixen was not so lucky, she was struck by the
    screen. Half-stunned, she pushed it away. The cumbersome screen toppled
    sideways into the fireplace, falling directly into the grate, which held the
    embers of a previous night's fire. In a trice the room was a thick choking
    mess of ashes, cinders, dust and smoldering embers.
    Martin and Gonff pushed the door open. Two weasel guards who had heard the
    noise in passing came thundering into the room as Martin and Gonff hurried
    past them out into the hall. Behind them the shouts reached a crescendo as
    unprotected paws came in contact with a floor strewn with red-hot embers.
    This time Martin took the lead as they went straight down the hall and through
    the door at the opposite end.
    They found themselves in an upper messroom full of soldiers, stoats, ferrets,
    and weasels, all eating breakfast at a long trestle table with a window at one
    end. Taken completely by surprise, the soldiers sat gaping at the two
    fugitives.
    "Stop those mice! Kill them!" Tsarmina's enraged shouts reached them as she
    ran toward the mess.
    Gonff sized up the situation at a glance: the unexpected was called for.
    Without a second thought he pulled Martin with him. They ran across the room,
    bounded from a vacant seat up onto the tabletop and dashed madly along it,
    scattering food, drink and vessels everywhere as they went. Together the thief
    and the warrior leaped through the open window into empty space with a loud
    defiant shout.
    ' * Yaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!''
    Skipper and Amber both heard the cry.
    So did Argulor.
    It came from the north side of Kotir, not far from where the woodlander
    squirrel scout stood perched in a tree. He bounded down and made his report to
    Amber. "It's Gonff, but there's another mouse with him. They jumped from the
    upper barracks window."
    "We'd better get round there. Are they hurt?"
    "No, but talk about lucky, they landed right in the foliage of a big old yew
    growing on that side."
    Amber leaped up. "Get Beech and the others. We'll have
    47
    to get them out of there double quick. Skipper, you bring the crew and give us
    cover."
    Argulor launched himself from his spruce, flapping ponderously. Once he was
    airborne his natural grace and ability took over. Circling to gain height, he
    squinted over to where the sounds had come from. The yew's upper foliage was
    shaking. The eagle soared downward to see if it was anything edible.
    Inside the messroom, Tsarmina laid about herself with a sturdy wooden ladle.
    "Don't stand gawping, you dimwitted toads! Someone get out there and capture
    them!"
    There was an immediate stampede to grab weapons and buckle armor on. Nobody
    seemed disposed to leap out of the window, though they all tried to look as if
    they were helping in some way.
    Tsarmina Hailed the ladle about in a fury. Suddenly a bright young stoat, more
    reckless than his comrades, saw a chance to distinguish himself in the eyes of
    his mistress. He bounded up onto the table.
    "Leave it to me, Milady. I'll stop them." Striking a gallant pose, the stoat
    ran to the window ledge and stood nerving himself for the leap.
    Argulor soared low, close to the yew. His rheumy eyes could not distinguish
    much between the crisscross branches. He was about to abandon hope of a quick
    meal and turning away on his huge wing span, when suddenly a fat juicy stoat
    with an expression of heroic duty upon its face jumped out into midair,
    straight into the talons of the wheeling eagle.
    Argulor gave a screech of delight, which contrasted jarringly with the stoat's
    ragged squeal of dismay. The old eagle flapped joyfully off to his spruce
    branch with the tasty burden.
    Gonff wiped perspiration from his whiskers. "In the name of mice and crab
    apples, that big feller nearly had us there, matey!"
    Martin pointed to the open window. "It's not over yet. Look!"
    Tsarmina stood glaring at them. The mess was crowded with frightened
    creatures, none of whom would venture near the window.
    Ashleg shuddered and clutched at his clammy fur.
    "Did you see those claws, ugh, the size of its beak!"
    48
    Tsarmina swung him round by his cloak. "Shut your blathering face and get me
    my bow and arrows. Just look at that for a prize piece of impudence."
    Gonff was pulling faces at the wildcat Queen. He blew out his cheeks, stuck a
    paw to his nose and rolled his eyes in the most ridiculous manner.
    Tsarmina snatched up a spear and flung it, but the weapon was deflected by the
    close-knit yew branches. A well-aimed arrow would do the trick, she thought.
    "Where's that dithering woodenleg with my bow and arrows?"
    Eight sturdy red squirrels came bounding through the yew branches as easily as
    walking a paved path. They split into two groups of four, each taking charge
    of the two escapers.
    Lady Amber came swinging in. She spoke sternly to Gonff. **Now none of your
    shenanigans, young thief. You, whoever you are, just relax and leave the rest
    to us. You're in safe
    Before he could say a word, Martin was seized by paws and tail. He felt
    himself tossed about like a shuttlecock. Never in his life had he descended
    from a height so swiftly, or with such ease; it was like being a flower petal
    on a gentle breeze. In a trice he and Gonff were on firm ground.
    A horde of armed soldiers poured out of Kotir. Martin sought about for a
    weapon, anything to defend himself with. There was a whirring sound, and the
    first four soldiers running forward seemed to relax, lying down upon the grass
    as if they were taking a nap. Two more went down. Martin saw a line of otters
    swinging slings; they were hurling large river pebbles with deadly accuracy.
    A big burly otter came running to them. GonfF clasped his strong tattooed
    paws. "Skipper, I knew me old messmate wouldn't leave his favorite thief in
    the lurch. Oh, by the way, this is Martin the Warrior. He's my friend,
    y'know."
    Skipper signaled his crew to retreat, waving to Lady Amber as he lifted
    another stone to his slingshot. "Ha, welcome aboard, Martin. Though how an
    honest fellow like you came to be mixed up with this little buccaneer, I don't
    know."
    Skipper introduced Martin to Lady Amber, who said rapidly, glancing anxiously
    about her, "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure, Martin. Skipper, I don't like this,
    they're planning something ..."
    49
    As Amber spoke, a horde of soldiers bearing Thousand Eye shields came
    streaming out of the main door with Tsar-mina leading them. There were far too
    many to contend with.
    Amber muttered to Skipper, "Take Martin and Gonff. Break and run for it. We'll
    cover you."
    Tsarmina was furious. She guessed what was happening: the squirrels were
    taking a stand while the otters slipped off into Mossflower with the
    fugitives. She issued orders to a ferret Captain named Raker. * 'Stop here
    with a platoon and face the squirrels. I'll take the rest and circle around
    them, and we'll cut them off. They won't realize I'm following, so they'll
    slow down a bit when they think they're in the clear."
    Raker saluted. "As you say, Milady. Here you, Scratch, and you, ThicktaU, take
    your squads and follow the Queen."
    The two weasel Captains saluted with their spears, then detailed their
    creatures to follow Tsarmina. The wildcat had bounded off alone, taking a wide
    loop south and back east.
    Nothing aggravated Raker more than squirrel resistance fighters; they were
    like smoke in a breeze, here and gone. He took aim and heaved his spear at
    their leader, but it was a complete waste of time. Amber stood back drily,
    twirling her sling, and ducking as she let the spear graze harmlessly past.
    Directing her troops back across the open ground, she loosed a heavy pebble at
    tremendous speed. Raker threw his shield up in the nick of time, staggering
    backward as the stone struck his shield and bounced off. When the ferret
    lowered his shield it was as if there had never been a squirrel inside Kotir's
    grounds.
    They were gone into Mossflower.
    High in the branches of the trees that fringed the woodland, squirrels shook
    with silent laughter at the dumbfounded expression on Raker's face. He shook a
    mailed paw at the trees. "Come out and fight, you cowards!"
    One last thunderous hail of stones, arrows and javelins sent the Kotir
    soldiery scurrying for cover.
    The treetops rustled and swayed. Distant laughter told the enemy that the
    squirrels were swinging away through the sunlit upper terraces of leafy
    Mossflower.
    50
    Bella of Brockhall's huge striped face lit up with pleasure. "Well, this is a
    rare and unexpected pleasure, Abbess Ger-maine. Come in, all of you, welcome
    to Brockhall."
    Abbess Germaine led me Brothers and Sisters of Loam-hedge into Bella's
    ancestral home, down the long twisting passage into the massive cavelike main
    hall, whose ceiling was the arched roots of the great oak above Brockhall.
    They made themselves at home around the wide hearth, whilst Bula die otter and
    Pear the squirrel, who had acted as their guides, explained to Bella what had
    taken place.
    The badger listened carefully, settling back in her old armchair. "I had an
    idea something like this would happen. That's why I left Goody Stickle's and
    came home here. Nothing ever goes as planned with Gonff. Still, not to worry,
    that young
    •lip will be as right as rain, you'll see. First things first. Let's 'get you
    all fed. You must be famished. I was baking a batch of chestnut bread. It'll
    be ready soon. I'll make some celery and fennel stew with hazelnut dumplings
    and get a cheese up from the storeroom. Now stop looking noble, the pair of
    you. I know what growing otters and squirrels are like. You can
    *ait here after you've eaten until the rest get back. Fetch bowls from the
    shelf for our guests. That's it, make yourselves useful."
    Eagerly the woodlanders did as they were bid, then they Sat with the Loamhedge
    Brothers and Sisters.
    51
    Bella rose and embraced Abbess Germaine. "My old friend, we were many summers
    younger when last we ate together."
    The Abbess placed a thin, worn paw over Bella's hoary pad. "Yes, the seasons
    are born anew, but alas we grow older, my friend."
    "But not you, Germaine," Bella chuckled. "You look as young as ever. What news
    of Loamhedge?"
    The Abbess could not prevent a tear trickling onto her gray whiskers.
    "Loamhedge, what magic in that name. But the happy times there are gone like
    leaves down a stream. You heard of the great sickness?"
    Bella nodded. "I had heard something from travelers, but I thought it was far
    south. I did not think it had found its way to your home."
    Germaine shook and closed her eyes as if trying to ward off the memory. "Only
    those you see here escaped. It was horrible. Everything it touched withered
    and died, I could not . . ."
    Bella patted the old mouse gently. "There, there, no need to say more. Try to
    forget it. You can call my home your own, for you and your mice, as long as
    you like, and please don't thank me—you'd do exactly the same if I needed
    shelter. In feet you did, many years ago, when I was young and liked to
    travel.''
    The two old friends went to the kitchen and began preparing the meal. Bella
    told Germaine of all that had taken place in Mossflower. "This is a sad and
    oppressed place you have come to, though once it was happy under the rule of
    my father, Boar the Fighter. I was still young then. I returned from my
    wanderings with Barkstripe—he was my mate; we met far to the southeast and
    returned to stay with my father at Brockhall. I think that rather was waiting
    for this to happen. My mother was long ago gone to the gates of Dark Forest;
    she died when I was a cub. Boar the Fighter was a good lather, but a restless
    spirit. He had tired of ruling Moss-flower and wanted to go questing, just as
    his father, Old Lord Brocktree, did before him. One day he left here and
    Bark-stripe ruled in his stead. Those were good seasons. We had a cub, a
    little male called Sunflash because of his forestripe, which had an odd golden
    tinge. He was a sturdy little fellow.
    52
    "In the autumn of that year the wildcats arrived. Verdauga and his brood took
    over that old ruin of a fortress. There was no one to oppose him, and he
    brought with him a vast horde of wicked vermin. At first we tried to fight
    back, but they were so cruel and merciless that they completely crushed us.
    Barkstripe led a great attack upon Kotir, but he was slain, along with many
    others. Those who did not escape into Mossflower were caught and left to rot
    in Verdauga's prisons. Alas, that was all long ago. We have learned to keep
    ourselves safe here in the thick woodlands now."
    Germaine drew loaves from the oven on a long paddle. "Where is your son,
    Sunflash? He must be quite big now."
    Bella paused as she laid the bread to cool. "While I was ill and grieving for
    Barkstripe, our son stole out of here one night. They say he went to Kotir to
    avenge his father's death, but he was far too young. Sunflash has never been
    seen or heard of since. Many, many seasons have gone by since then, 90 I think
    that one way or another my son ended up at the gates of Dark Forest with his
    father."
    Outside in Mossflower the afternoon shadows began to lengthen over the trees
    that were budding and leafing, promising a thick emerald foliage for the
    summer. In another part of Mossflower not far from Kotir, a mailed tunic and
    tabard bearing the Thousand Eye device slipped carelessly from a high spruce
    branch and landed in a crumpled heap on the forest floor. Argulor shifted from
    claw to claw as he preened his pinions, carefully arranging his long wing
    feathers. A good fat stoat would be extremely welcome, but pine marten ... ah,
    that was a delight he had yet to savor. Argulor would wait. His time would
    come; a marten with a wooden leg could only run so fast in any direction. The
    eagle snuggled down into his plumage, glad that the spring nights were kind to
    young and old alike. It was good to visit old hunting grounds again.
    53
    The evening chorus of birdsong fell sweetly upon Martin's ears as he strolled
    along through the woodlands with Skipper and Gonff, reveling in his new-found
    freedom after the long winter in Kotir prison. The otters were never still;
    they were playful as puppies, bounding and cavorting through the trees and
    bushes. Skipper was instructing Martin in the art of the slingshot. He was
    delighted to have such a keen pupil and took every opportunity of amazing the
    warrior mouse with his expertise. Casting a pebble high into the air, Skipper
    re-slung a second pebble and shot it, hitting the first one before it had time
    to fall to earth. The otter shrugged modestly. "It's only tricks, me hearty. I
    can teach you them anytime. Ha, I'll bet afore the summer's through you'll be
    able to sling a pebble across any villain's bows."
    Gonff was great friends with the otters. He wholeheartedly shared their
    recklessness and sense of madcap fun. The little thief imitated their nautical
    mode of speech perfectly, telling Martin that he was, "As likely a cove as
    ever pirated vittles from Kotir's galley."
    Martin enjoyed himself. Having been a solitary warrior for so long, he found
    it a pleasant change to be in the company of such gregarious friends. Skipper
    presented him with his own personal sling and pouch of throwing pebbles. He
    accepted the gift gratefully. The otters were naturally curious about the
    broken sword hilt Martin kept strung about his
    54
    neck, so he told them the story, and was taken aback by their hatred of
    Tsarmina. Though, as Skipper remarked, "Wildcats never bothered us. Once our
    crew is together, there ain't nothin' on land or afloat that'll trouble
    otterfblk."
    Looking about, Martin could quite believe it. Gonff danced on ahead with two
    otters who did a hornpipe as he sang.
    I'm a mouse with a very long tail,
    With a heart and voice to match,
    I've escaped from the pussycats gaol.
    They'll find me hard to catch.
    So, away, through the grass, the flow'rs and leaves,
    Like smoke on the breeze, the Prince of Thieves.
    Let's cheer for the day when we will see
    The Mossflower country safe and free.
    Martin was tapping the happy tune from paw to paw when be saw that Skipper had
    dropped back a few paces. The otter was standing with an air of intense
    concentration, swaying from side to side, sniffing the breeze. At a sign from
    him, Gonff stopped singing and the entire crew grew silent.
    Skipper said in a gruff whisper, "Some beast's a-comin', mates. Not from
    astern, mind. Over yonder there. Birds stopped singin' over that way first.
    Ha, I'll wager it's the cat." Skipper pointed. They could soon make out shapes
    moving from tree to tree. As the intruders drew nearer, it was plain to see
    they were Kotir soldiers in full armor, led by Tsarmina, a barbaric figure
    wearing a splendid cloak and a helmet that covered her head completely except
    for slitted eye, ear and mouth apertures.
    At Skipper's growl of command, the otter crew spread themselves out in
    fighting formation, faces grim, weapons at the ready. Skipper stood fearlessly
    out in the open where l&armina could see him, paws folded across his chest, a
    sling hanging from the right one, loaded and ready. Tsarmina halted a short
    distance away. She stretched out a paw, letting a wickedly sharp claw spring
    dramatically forth to point at Martin and/Gonff.
    "The mice are mine, otter. I will take them from you."
    Skipper's voice was hard as flint. "Back off, cat. You're pn my quarterdeck
    now. This is Mossflower, not Kotir."
    55
    "All the land belongs to me," Tsarmina said imperiously. "I am Tsarmina, Queen
    of Kotir and Mossflower. These mice are escaped prisoners. Give them to me
    now, and I will not punish you. Yonr creatures will be allowed to go
    unharmed/'
    A thin smile played about Skipper's mouth. "Go and chase your mangy tail,
    pussycat!"
    The breath hissed from between Tsarmina's teeth at the otter's fearless
    impudence. She raised a paw to her soldiers, who began fitting arrows to
    bowstrings. As they did, some sixth sense tingled through the wildcat and she
    looked up. Lady Amber stood in a tall elm, in her paw a light javelin poised
    for throwing. Reacting instinctively, Tsarmina grabbed the nearest soldier to
    her—a ferret.
    There was a swish and a thud. She felt the impact as the luckless soldier took
    the javelin that was intended for her.
    The squirrel Queen concealed her disappointment at the lost opportunity by
    aiming another javelin and calling out, "Unstring those bows quick, all of
    you. She can't hold him in front of her for long, and this next one will get
    her between the eyes if you don't obey me right now!"
    Tsarmina, still holding the ferret with the spear protruding from his lifeless
    form, said urgently out of the side of her mouth, "Do as the squirrel says."
    They obeyed instantly.
    Tsarmina let the ferret fall, twisting the body as she let go of it. Skipper
    was backing off into the bushes with his crew. He waved up to Amber. "Thankee
    kindly, marm. D'you mind keepin' a weather eye clapped on 'em while we push
    off?"
    Suddenly the wildcat plucked the javelin from the fallen soldier and flung it
    up at Lady Amber.
    "Cut and run crew!" Skipper shouted as he bolted off with the rest. Amber had
    momentarily relaxed the javelin in her paw; she ducked in the nick of time as
    her weapon came hurtling back at her. Tsarmina did not wait to see if she had
    scored a hit but took off after Skipper and the crew, yelling, "This way! Cut
    them off through die bushes!"
    Martin and Gonff ran with the otters, Skipper urging them on as they pounded
    through the undergrowth. "Hurry now, crew. Amber can't hold 'em off
    forever—there's too many of 'em. Hark, they're back on to us."
    Tsarmina was no fool; she had sensed the direction they
    56
    would take. Accordingly, she retreated then came back at a tangent to cut down
    the distance on an angle. Suddenly Martin and Gonff found themselves on the
    banks of a broad fast-flowing river with steep grassy sides. Skipper stamped
    his paws and sighed. "Belay, we nearly made it. Too late, here Ihey come!"
    Tsarmina and her troops broke through the trees and came hurrying along the
    bank toward them.
    Martin could see there would be no talking this time. He drew his sling, as
    did the otters around him. They let fly the first volley before their foes had
    time to notch arrows or raise spears. The hail of stone caught the enemy
    head-on. Rock clattered on armor as Tsarmina threw herself flat yelling at her
    soldiers, "Down, get down and return fire!"
    Martin saw two otters felled by heavy spears. Now Skipper's crew was trapped
    between the open stretch of bank and the river. The otter crew rattled off
    another salvo of rocks.
    This time Tsarmina had anticipated it; she had the front rank take the stones
    on their shields, while another rank behind hurled their spears over the tops
    of the shield-bearers. Some of the spears went too far, but one found its
    mark: an
    • otter standing up with a whirling sling dropped back, killed
    •by a well-aimed throw.
    Reinforcements arrived, with Lady Amber bringing squirrel archers through the
    trees to fire at the Kotir troops from behind.
    Skipper saw Tsarmina's forces turn to face the new foe. He seized his chance.
    Martin found himself grabbed by the otter leader, while Gonff was clasped by a
    big otter named Root. .'Take a good breath, messmate. We're goin' for a swim!"
    The entire otter crew took a short bounding run and dived into the river with
    a loud splash.
    r Tsarmina was facing the squirrels with an arrow notched to a bow. She spun
    round and loosed the shaft, catching the last otter in the back before it hit
    the water. Despite this, the otter still managed to submerge and get away.
    Lady Amber found that she was losing troops. She decided on a quick withdrawal
    now that the otters had escaped. Ducking the arrows and spears, the squirrels
    took off through the bees.
    Tsarmina howled her victory to the sky. Running to the
    57
    water's edge, she called a halt to those soldiers who were aiming weapons into
    the river. "Enough! Cease fire! They're gone. Stand still, everyone."
    The troops stood fast as the wildcat peered into the depths. They watched
    Tsarmina draw back from the river's edge. She was scratching at her fur as if
    trying to dry herself, shuddering as she muttered, "Urgh! Dark, damp,
    wet—water everywhere, swirling, swirling. Ugh!" When she was away from the
    water, Tsarmina recovered her composure. Throwing off her helmet and cloak,
    she slumped moodily at the foot of a beech tree. Night had crept up unawares.
    The soldiers stood watching, puzzled at their Queen's strange behavior.
    Tsarmina stared back. "Well, what are you all gawping at? Brogg, Scratt,
    listen carefully. I want you to go back to Kotir, see Fortunate, and tell her
    to bring the Gloomer to me. I want you back before dawn. Get going, the pair
    of you!"
    Brogg and Scratt stood rooted; terror loosened their tongues. "The Gloomer,
    Milady? Surely you don't mean ..."
    "Lady, he's completely mad!"
    Tsarmina rolled herself in her cloak and settled down beneath the tree. "I
    know he is, idiots. But I'll get a sight madder if you don't move yourselves.
    Now be off! Guards, set up a sentry on river watch. If anything happens, let
    me know straightaway. Otherwise I'm not to be disturbed until Fortunata
    arrives with the Gloomer. If Brogg and Scratt are still here, give them a good
    whipping with bowstrings for idling." Tsarmina settled down to sleep, lulled
    by the sounds of the two ferrets crashing and blundering off through the
    undergrowth.
    Nothing could escape the Gloomer in the water. The wildcat Queen had tasted
    victory that day. She was not about to let it all slip away because of
    incompetent soldiers. The Gloomer must be brought here quickly to consolidate
    her triumph.
    1O
    58
    The whole world was black, icy cold, airless, and wet.
    Martin concentrated on holding his breath. When he ventured to open his eyes,
    it became a murky dark gray, but he could sometimes make out shapes moving
    around him. He began to wish he were anywhere but beneath a river—even back in
    his cell at Kotir. At least there had been air to breathe there.
    Skipper's strong paws gripped him relentlessly by the scruff of his neck.
    Water rushed by them, roaring in his ears as the powerful swimming otter
    dragged him along.
    Fresh air, just one breath, he wished, one lungful of good clean air.
    Skipper held Martin tighter as he began to wriggle in panic. Bubbles of air
    were escaping from his mouth, an iron band was crushing his skull. Why was
    Skipper drowning him?
    Martin opened his mouth to shout, but the water came pouring in. With a huge
    rush accompanied by much barking and shouting, the otters broke the surface,
    shaking their coats.
    Skipper hefted Martin's body and tossed him out upon the bank. The warrior
    mouse lay coughing and gasping, gulping in vast quantities of clean fresh air.
    Never again would he take such a wondrous gift for granted.
    All around him otters were whooshing playfully in and out of the water,
    ducking one another and generally behaving as if the whole thing were a great
    lark. Martin looked about
    59
    until he sighted Gonff. Immediately he dashed across to his friend. Gonff had
    not fared as well as he on the underwater journey; the little thief lay face
    down on the bank, his body looked forbiddingly limp and still. Root, the big
    otter who had borne Gonff underwater, began pushing and pumping at Gonff's
    inert form with his strong forepaws.
    Martin felt a surge of panic. "Is he all right? He's not drowned? He'll live,
    won't he?"
    Root laughed and gave Martin a huge wink. "Bless yer life, matey, he's fine.
    Little thief, stealin' our riverwater like that. Here, he's comin' around
    now."
    A moment later Gonff was spluttering and shaking indignantly. "Root, you great
    clodhopping water monster, I'm sure you took the long way around to get here.
    Have I coughed all that water back? Yuk! Bet I lowered the river level by a
    foot or two, matey. Oh, hello Martin. Well, how d'you like Camp Willow?"
    Martin had not looked at his surroundings. Now that the danger was past, he
    took stock of where they had beached. It was a large, sandy, shelf like area,
    the roof of which was a mass of gnarled willow roots. Phosphorescence from the
    swift-flowing water palely illuminated the cave system of the underground
    bank. A canal ran through the middle of Camp Willow, emanating out of the
    gloomy darkness of hidden caves and bolt holes in the rear.
    Skipper watched proudly as Martin gazed about. "You won't find no better
    'ccommodation for an otter anywhere, Martin. Camp Willow was built by otter
    paws."
    Martin nodded shrewdly. "A right fine job they did of it, too, Skipper."
    The Skipper of otters swelled out his barrel-like chest.
    "Andsome of you to say so, mate, but belay awhile and I'll call muster."
    It soon became apparent that three of the crew were dead, possibly four;
    nobody could account for the fact that a young female called Spring was
    missing. Skipper's face was grim as he called two young males, Duckweed and
    Streamer, to search the river for the missing one. With barely a ripple, the
    two plunged back into the water and were gone.
    Martin and Gonff were given rough barkcloths to dry themselves. They sat upon
    the bank with the otters around a bright
    60
    fire, eating thick wedges of carrot and parsley bread, which they dunked in a
    steaming bowl of river shrimp and bulrush soup, seasoned with fiery
    ditchnettle pepper. It was delicious, but extremely hot.
    The otters munched away happily, laughing at the two mice and calling out old
    river proverbs.
    *'Haha, don't taste no 'otter to an otter, matey."
    "The more 'otter it is, the more 'otter otters likes it."
    Martin and Gonff swigged cold water and laughed along with the crew.
    Not long before they settled down to sleep, Duckweed and Streamer returned.
    They emerged, dripping, into Camp Willow. Between them they were supporting
    young Spring. Streamer had removed the arrow from Spring's back. Fortunately,
    she was not badly hurt.
    Skipper was delighted to see her, and he dressed the wound carefully. "Ho,
    'tis me, little matey Spring. Never you fear, young un. If they gave you an
    arrow, we'll pay 'em back with a shower of javelins. You get some vittles and
    a good rest. \bu'll be right as a river rock tomorrow."
    Spring told them what had happened.
    "When I got hit I didn't swim away for fear of leavin' a blood trail in the
    water, so I swam a little ways then laid under a bush hangin' over the bank. I
    slapped a good pawful o' mud on my wound to stop the bleedin' and lay waiting.
    I knew Skip wouldn't leave me long afore he sent help. I was that close to
    some of those vermin sittin' on the bank that I could have reached out and
    laid a flipper on 'em. They were all talkin' about somethin' called a
    Gloomer—said that the cat had sent messengers to Kotir to fetch this Gloomer
    thing."
    Skipper patted Spring. "Well done, matey. You get some sleep now, and don't
    fret your 'ead about nothin'. Old Skip'11 take care of it."
    Root struck his thigh with a heavy paw. "Ha! The Gloomer—I might've knowed it,
    Skip. What'll we do now?"
    The fire burned low in the Stickle dwelling as Goody tidied around before
    going to join Ben outside. It was a peaceful Spring night. Ben knocked his
    pipe out on the gatepost. "Should be a fair day on the morrow, old girl." ;
    They both stood nodding. Suddenly Goody threw up her
    61
    paws. "Well, in the name of Stickles, will you just look at those two liddle
    'ogs a layin' there."
    Ferdy and Coggs had really taken their sentry duty to heart. They had rigged
    up a tent from a blanket and branches. Nearby lay a jug of strawberry cordial
    and a half-finished apple pie which they had requisitioned from Goody's
    cupboard. The two little hedgehogs lay with their arms about each other,
    snoring uproariously, cooking pot helmets askew, mouths wide open.
    Ben chuckled fondly. "I do believe we'll sleep sounder in our beds, Goody, k
    no win' we've got these two terrors to guard us through the night."
    As Goody folded the blanket away, Ben carried Ferdy and Coggs inside.
    Still asleep, Ferdy waved his stick. "Who goes there? I'll fight the six of
    you!"
    11
    62
    At Kotir, Fortunata was also sleeping peacefully, until the banging of
    spearbutts against her chamber door brought her yawning and shuffling from her
    bed.
    "Who's there? Go away and see Ashleg about it, whatever it is."
    Brogg and Scrait stood aside as Cludd, the weasel Captain of the guard, kicked
    the door open. "Come on, fox. You're Granted by Queen Tsarmina. She's camped
    by the River Moss."
    Fortunata rubbed her injured rump. "Couldn't Ashleg go? Fin injured."
    * Cludd's stolid face was expressionless. "No, the Queen wants you there by
    dawn. You're to bring the Gloomer with you. Brogg and Sc rat I'll lend a paw."
    ' Fortunata recoiled with fright and distaste. "The Gloomer! 1 thought that
    horror had died years ago or gone away." Cludd pointed his spear at the vixen.
    "Come on now, no nonsense. Ifou know what Milady's like if you disobey her
    orders. We'll make sure Gloomer's well secured."
    -'• Fortunata had no choice. In a foul temper, she followed the three soldiers
    down corridors and flights of stairs to the «ery bowels of the fortress.
    *• Far beneath the cells there was an underground cavern and
    • great lake. The only one who ever went down to the lake Was the guard who
    was detailed to feed the Gloomer. Once
    63
    a week he would take down the refuse from the barracks, leaving it a
    respectable distance from the post to which Gloomer's long chain was attached
    at the lake's edge.
    Verdauga had captured Gloomer and brought him to Kotir long ago. The monster
    water rat was robbed of normal sight after years of swimming in the dark murky
    waters of the lake. It had little hearing and no speech at all. None of this
    mattered while it still possessed the instincts of touch and smell; the
    Gloomer was a killer, savage and mindless, particularly when there was fresh
    meat to be had.
    Fortunata was frightened; this was no place to be in the night hours. Gingerly
    she picked up the chain. The rattling iron links echoed eerily around the cold
    musty cavern, and what little courage the fox had failed her. She dropped the
    chain, looking imploringly toward Cludd. "I'm only a vixen. This will take a
    creature strong and brave as a Captain of the Guard."
    The obvious slyness of the remark did not escape Cludd, yet he swelled
    slightly at the flattery. Taking the chain firmly, he nodded at the others.
    "Right. Stay out of the way and leave this to me. I know how to deal with
    Gloomer."
    Tugging hard on the rusty chain, Cludd splashed it up and down in the water as
    he pulled. The underground lake rippled, and there was an audible gasp of
    shock from the three onlookers as the Gloomer's monstrous head appeared from
    the depths like the worst kind of vision from a bad dream. The eyes were
    staring, sightless white marbles veined with blood-red streaks, the snout
    ribbed and scarred like a wet black patch of leather. What little fur there
    was on the head was plastered flat. Water ran off it as the mouth opened wide.
    Even Cludd felt his paws shaking as the Gloomer swam toward land. The
    sightless eyes were fixed upon the weasel Captain as if they could actually
    see him. The mouth worked hungrily open and shut, purple blubbery lips drawn
    back to reveal curving greeny-yellow fangs spread this way and that, the very
    oddness of them adding to their revolting appearance.
    Cludd dropped the chain and picked up his spear, his voice snaking noticeably.
    "Here, Brogg, Scratt, grab your spears and do as I do. Keep driving that thing
    in a circle around the post."
    64
    Gloomer paused for a moment in the shallows, water dripping from its ugly
    bulk, the hideous head moving to and fro as it scented the soldiers and
    pinpointed them by their sound and movement. Then in a sudden rush Gloomer
    charged with an awesome turn of speed.
    - The trio were highly nervous but ready. Dodging and prodding Gloomer
    with spearpoints, they kept the monster pursuing them clockwise around the
    post, Cludd bawling instructions as he ran.
    "Don't stop, whatever you do. Keep it moving!" Fortunata was impressed; the
    plan was simple but effective.
    The trio skipped, jumped and ran as Gloomer pursued them mindlessly. It was
    not until the entire chain had been wound around the post that Gloomer was
    forced to stop. The post shook with the beast's maddened efforts to push
    forward. Brogg and Scratt kept their spearpoints at its back, so it conld not
    unwind the chain by going in the reverse direction. Cludd leaned his weight
    against the chain to keep it tight, and called to Fortunata, "Get the leads
    attached to the collar, quickly!" With icy fear coursing through her veins and
    an expression of extreme distaste on her face, Fortunata obeyed. Cludd
    strained at the chain, watching Fortunata impatiently. "Stop dabbing and
    primping, fox. Get those leads fastened, or I'll loosen this chain."
    Fortunata secured the last of the three heavy greased leather
    ;; halters around the short, powerful neck, which already bore
    ''•-. a studded iron collar. Detaching the chain, she jumped back-
    . ward and made for the stairs. "There. It's done! I know which
    way to go. You three get hold of the leads and follow me."
    V Cludd called out sternly, "Get back here, lily liver, I'm
    ':, Dot going anywhere. Captain of the Guard's my job. If the
    •-[ Queen had wanted me, she would have said. Come on, take i one of these
    leads."
    £; Immediately Fortunata picked up the lead; Gloomer moved "•(toward her.
    She hurried swiftly ahead to keep Gloomer from fier. Brogg and Scratt stood on
    either side and slightly back, pulling their leads tight, straining to control
    Gloomer. Cludd pwatched them go, glad he had completed his distasteful task.
    Fortunata led the way. Having lived in Mossflower all her fe, she was familiar
    with the area. She increased her pace
    65
    to keep the maximum distance between herself and the huge gray and black
    beast. Gloomer snuffled and tugged, this way and that; Brogg and Scratt
    strained on the leads to keep it going the right way. The moon over the
    woodlands shone through the trees on the reluctant trio and their monstrous
    charge as they blundered and crashed through Mossflower, disturbing the
    peaceful night, tainting it with evil.
    12
    66
    Martin was awake before dawn. He fed the fire and sat by .it. Skipper came and
    sat with him. "Now then, messmate. YouVe got a face on you like a wet
    water-beetle's grandad. Why so worried?"
    Martin smiled half-heartedly. "Oh, it's listening to those stories that the
    crew were telling about the Gloomer, I suppose. It's all my fault for coming
    here and causing trouble for you, Skipper."
    The big otter gave Martin a hearty clap on the back that nearly sent him head
    over tail. "Ha harr. Bless your little *eart, me old warrior. You don't want
    to listen to that scuttlebutt. Was that all you was afeared of? You come with
    me .and I'll introduce you to our Stormfin." V "Stormfin?"
    , "Aye, Stormfin, matey. Come 'ere to the back of the cave."
    In the darkness of the cavern recess, Skipper showed Mar-- tin a sluicegate
    the blocked the canal across its middle. There :swere narrow spaces in the
    gate, allowing the water to flow '.through. At one side was a hollow log. :v£.
    Skipper picked up a cudgel and passed it to Martin. "Us-S;ien, mate, that big
    pussycat may 'ave a Gloomer, but us ot-iillws got a Stormfin. You start
    thumpin' that there log and I'll )a|Baise the sluicegate. Stay clear of the
    water's edge, though." Mystified, Martin began banging the log. The eerie
    sounds
    67
    bounced off the cavern walls as Skipper raised the gate clear of the water.
    The otter nodded sagely. "That'll warn anyone who's in the water to get out,
    Stormfin's comin'. Watch the canal, now, and don't forget to stay clear."
    Far back in the darkness something was beginning to come forward. A smooth
    wave rose; it slopped over the sides as the water was pushed along by some
    tremendous force. Martin was about to question Skipper when the otter lowered
    the gate slightly, and the water began roiling and bubbling. A long shape,
    like a section of tree trunk, smooth, with a many-spiked dorsal fin emerged.
    Martin gasped and jumped back. "That's Stormfin?"
    "Aye, this is Stormfin, matey. Me and my brother trapped him long ago."
    Skipper leaned forward and patted the giant pike's fin, causing it to lash its
    tail. The water boiled into a white foam as the otter leaped back laughing.
    "Hohoho! Take a look, Martin. You wouldn't like to cross mat cove's path if
    you was out a swimmin', now would you?"
    Martin leaned forward. He saw the powerful bony head with its muddy eyes and
    long hooking underjaw. The mouth opened slightly. He had never seen so many
    teeth in one mouth; there were row upon row of jagged backward curving
    rippers, needle-sharp and milky white. Stormfin seemed to be smiling in
    anticipation. With a flick of his mighty silver-and-black-banded bulk he
    butted his head against the lowered sluicegate, anxious to be freed into open
    water.
    Skipper stood with both paws on the gate lever. "Right then, you old
    buccaneer. Don't eat him too quick, now; you'll make yourself sick."
    Martin helped Skipper to weigh down upon the lever. The sluicegate lifted.
    Stormfin rushed through, creating a miniature tidal wave as he traveled.
    Skipper left the gate open.
    "He'll be back in a few days. We coax him in with tidbits. Pity there ain't
    more'n one Gloomer. That pike has a terrible appetite."
    Panting and rasping, the Gloomer dragged on the leads. The trio looked toward
    Tsarmina as they dug their paws into the turf and were dragged helplessly
    toward the River Moss.
    68
    Fortunata began to panic. "Milady, quick, give the word, 0r it will have us in
    the water!"
    Tsarmina extended her paws and raised them as if starting 8 race. "Right, you
    three, when I let my paws drop the—"
    Too late. Gloomer snapped the lead Fortunata was holding «ad the two guards
    were pulled over on their faces. Immediately they let their leads go; Gloomer
    sploshed noisily into the water.
    The monster water rat swam about in slow circles, scenting apd feeling
    vibrations in the river current. Without warning it dived, heading in the
    direction of Camp Willow.
    The soldiers of Kotir ran alongside the bank, following Gloomcr's progress and
    shouting excitedly.
    *'Look, he's after something. Hey, Gloomer, eat an otter 'forme!"
    "Don't eat 'em, kill 'em all, Gloomer! Rip them to bits!"
    A ferret who had run ahead of the rest called back to his comrades,
    "Something's coming! I think it's the otters. No, wait, it's a big fish of
    some sort."
    Swift chevrons of water rippled out to both sides of the bank as Stormfin sped
    downstream like a great arrow. : Gloomer thrashed the water as he swam
    upstream, feeling his prey getting near.
    , Closer and closer the leviathans came toward each other. Oloomer lifted his
    snout clear of the water, sucking in a huge gasp of air. He submerged again
    and waited, facing the oncoming foe, mouth slightly agape, claws at the ready.
    Stormfin looked as if he was smiling. The underslung jaw clamped shut,
    pointing at his adversary like a battering ram, he piled on extra speed, drew
    his fins in tight and came at Oloomer like an arrow from a bow. The onlookers
    on the bank saw a spout of water shoot high like a geyser as the combatants
    crashed together.
    K;> Gloomer had the breath driven from him as Stormfin struck IBS ribs.
    Disregarding the pain, the rat sought the pike with
    •ISs teeth, feeling his heavy claws rake searingly through its
    Kales.
    P With the madness of battle upon him, Stormfin rose clear
    *Jlthe river, swishing his tail in a mighty leap; then twisting ^midair, he
    launched himself back into the water like a nward torpedo with gaping teeth.
    Gloomer was waiting.
    69
    He pushed his head clear of the river, sucked in a quick breath and locked
    jaws with the descending pike. The surface boiled in a welter of cascading
    water, shimmering scales and ragged far, the whole scene streaked with blood.
    They snapped and bit at each other, locking jaws, rolling over and over, now
    letting go, now seeking another hold, contorting madly. Gloomer had the pike
    by the tail. He chewed voraciously. Pain seared through the big fish, but
    Stormfin had his enemy by the stomach, and ripped viciously.
    Tsarmina dashed up and down the bank with a spear at the ready. She could not
    throw it for tear of hitting her destroyer. Mud boiled up from the bottom to
    mix with the floatsam of combat. Silver scales and gray black far became
    indistinguishable in the melee.
    Now Gloomer had latched his claws into Stormfin's side and bitten deep into
    the pike's dorsal fin. Stormfin thwacked away at Gloomer's injured side with
    his heavy tail like a stout paddle. He had severed Gloomer's tail and was
    tearing ferociously at the rat's hindquarters.
    The need for breath forced Gloomer to relinquish his hold momentarily, and
    Stormfin slid off like a wraith, following the current. Gloomer surfaced and
    gulped in several grateful breaths.
    Dementedly Tsarmina shouted from the bank, "Gloomer's won! Where's the pike?
    Is it dead?"
    Fortunata was caught up in the excitement. "It must be, Milady. Nothing could
    stand against the Gloomer for long."
    The soldiers raised a ragged cheer. It was immediately stifled as Stormfin
    came back to the attack!
    Driving low, hard and fast, the big pike crashed into Gloomer with staggering
    force, catching him unawares. The huge rat had the breath smashed from his
    lungs as he was battered swiftly up against the far bank. Falling back into
    the water, he swallowed liquid instead of air. Still lashing out with tooth
    and claw, Gloomer was unconsciously inflicting injuries on the pike, but the
    damage was done.
    Stormfin knew every inch of his river. He slid into a deep pit beneath the
    bank and attacked the rat's soft underbelly with the mad power of one who
    feels victory in sight. Gloomer scratched blindly at the rock either side of
    the un-
    70
    derwater hole, missing his adversary's head completely. Baffled, he tried to
    turn away.
    Stormfin's jaws clamped tight on Gloomer's back legs. The monster pike backed
    water as he dragged the rat backward down the pit with him. The watchers on
    the bank saw Gloomer's front claws emerge wildly from the water, grasping at
    thin air before they vanished beneath the surface.
    The destroyer from Kotir was beaten. Stormfin had finally won!
    Tsarmina shot several arrows into the area where the pike had pulled her rat
    down. The soldiers stood about on the bank, shuffling awkwardly and fidgeting.
    A sense of foreboding hung over them after the defeat of Gloomer. Fortunata
    tried to stroll casually out of sight, knowing the wildcat Queen would be
    looking for a scapegoat to vent her wrath upon.
    "Get back here, fox. Don't try to slink away." Holding out her paw, the
    wildcat Queen snapped at a stoat close by, "Give me your spear."
    Keeping her eyes fixed on the quaking vixen, Tsarmina accepted the spear. She
    swung it around until the point was at Fortunata's throat. "So, nothing could
    stand against the Gloomer, eh, fox?"
    The terrified fox could think of nothing to say. She merely gulped.
    Tsarmina swung the spear away and dipped it into the river. She fished about
    for a moment then whipped the point out of the water. Looped over the
    spearpoint was the collar once worn by the Gloomer. Tsarmina hurled the
    weapon. It whizzed past Fortunata and buried itself in an ash trunk, quivering
    with bright droplets of water shaking from it.
    From somewhere along the river came the deep, barking laugh of an otter.
    The wildcat's cloak swirled about her as she tore the spear from the tree and
    ran to the water's edge brandishing it.
    "Laugh, yes laugh all you like, but stay hidden while you value your miserable
    lives. I am Tsarmina, Queen of the Thousand Eyes. Before I am finished with
    Mossflower, every creature who defies me will wish mat its mother had never
    given birth to it. The crying and the dying will be loud and long. Now let me
    hear you laugh at that!"
    As Tsarmina finished her speech, Fortunata leaped for-
    71
    ward. The vixen was thinking of ingratiating herself with her Queen by adding
    a few words to the speech.
    "Thus speaks the mighty Tsarmina, ruler of all Mossfl—" As Brogg turned from
    die river's edge he collided with the leaping fox. Their heads clashed
    painfully. The weasel staggered back a step and trod on the hem of the vixen's
    cloak. They tripped, landing ungraciously in the mud of the shallows.
    The otters' laughter was mingled with the chuckling of squirrels.
    72
    The sun was at its zenith in the woodlands. Young bees droned fuzzily around
    the flowers in anticipation of their first summer. A venerable oak of massive
    girth and height towered above the surrounding trees. Beneath its spring
    foliage of small green leaves and below its aged trunk was Brockhall, the
    ancestral home of badgers. The solid, intricate root structure of the oak
    provided ceiling beams, wall columns, shelves and in some places flooring for
    the beautiful old dwelling. A door was set between the fork of two roots at
    ground level. From there a long passage ran downward with rooms leading off
    it—Bella's private study, small sitting rooms, a nursery and small infirmary.
    At the other end the passage opened out into the main hall. This was large and
    well-appointed, with a hearth, fireplace, full dining board and small seated
    alcoves around its walls. Several doors led off the main hall; to the left was
    the master bedroom and dormitories, while off to the light was the larder,
    kitchens and storerooms, behind which lay the bolt hole or escape door,
    constructed with typical woodland common sense.
    Brockhall had been built by badgers in the dim past, and they had taken great
    pains that everything should be just the way woodland badgers like it to be.
    Great care and the skill of many craftbeasts had provided every conceivable
    comfort in the underground mansion; there were elaborate wall torches and
    beautifully carved furniture (again, much of this cut into
    73
    the living root to blend with the surroundings). The walls were lined with
    fawn- and pink-colored clay, baked to give it a fine rustic atmosphere. Here
    and there throughout the chambers were large overstaffed armchairs of the type
    badgers prefer, each with a fuzzy old velveteen pawstool, often used by young
    ones in preference to the small polished maple chairs made specially for them.
    Overall it was an admirable country seat which could easily accommodate the
    entire Corim membership.
    All the woodlanders were gathered to meet the mice who had journeyed from Loam
    hedge; it was an occasion for feasting. The Council of Resistance in
    Mossflower leaders sat in the main hall, infants were taken to the nursery,
    and friends went to help with the cooking and preparation of food in Bella's
    much admired kitchen. Though the badger was not short of provisions, she
    always welcomed the addition of otter, squirrel and mole food. All had arrived
    well burdened. Bella liked tasting other dishes, after cooking for herself all
    the time.
    Gonff introduced her to Martin. She greeted him warmly.
    "Martin, welcome, friend. We have heard of you already from Ben Stickle. I
    believe you gave a Kotir patrol a taste of your warrior skills single-pawed,
    before they managed to capture you. We shall be grateful if you would share
    your talents with us in the times that lie ahead. Tell me, did you come from
    the northlands?"
    Martin nodded as he shook Bella's big paw. The badger smiled knowingly. "Ah, I
    thought so. You probably cut your eyeteeth on rats and foxes. I've heard all
    about the warrior mice from up north. Come and meet some friends of mine from
    the south."
    Bella took them to the kitchen, where they were introduced to Abbess Germaine,
    who was presiding over the preparations. From there Gonff took Martin to be
    introduced to Ben and Goody Stickle.
    The two hedgehogs were overjoyed to see Gonff back safe. They patted him
    furiously on the head, as their spines prevented them hugging anyone other
    than fellow hedgehogs.
    Goody patted and scolded Gonff at the same time. "Oh, my goodness, thank mice
    you're back, you Hddle rip. Don't
    74
    go evergettin* yourself locked up like that again. Me 'n Ben was plain worried
    for you, Gonff."
    Ben was patting Martin's head enthusiastically. "Heed what Goody tells you,
    Gonff. "Tis for your own good. Be more like young Martin here—only get
    yourself caught when there's nought else for it."
    Goody nodded in agreement, trying to look severe, but Gonff caught her by the
    paws and danced her about.
    YouVe been more than a mum to me, And you brought me up very well I'm a little
    mousehog to thee. My Goody, no words can tell, When I see your old prickle
    face—
    "Get on with you, thievin' fiddle fibber!" Goody shooed Gonff off, wiping her
    eyes on her old flowery apron.
    Gonff flung a paw across Martin's shoulder. As they strolled away smiling, Ben
    sniffed loudly. "Can't fail to like that little rogue, some'ow."
    "Silence, woodlanders, please." Bella called out, "Could you all find a seat?
    The food will be served after the talking has been done."
    The hall was full, creatures occupying seats, shelves, hearth and floor.
    Skipper banged his tail. The hubbub subsided, and he nodded for Bella to
    continue.
    "Thank you. Welcome, one and all. As you can see, there are many new friends
    in our midst, not the least of whom is Martin the Warrior. He and Gonff
    recently escaped from Kotir prison in a very brave and daring manner."
    Heads turned to look at Martin. There were winks, nods and pawshakes.
    "Also I have great pleasure in introducing some mice that you may not know of
    yet," Bella continued, "Abbess Germaine with her Brothers and Sisters of
    Loamhedge. I am sure the Abbess would like to say a word."
    There was general applause as the old mouse stood up.
    "My mice and I wish to thank you from the bottom of our hearts for allowing us
    to settle in your beautiful Mossflower country. We are a peaceful order of
    builders and healers; in our own tradition we are wise in the ways of mother
    nature.
    75
    Please feel free to come to us with your families, the sick, injured, or just
    fretful little ones. We will do all we can to help. The only price we ask is
    the gift of your friendship. Perhaps one day when this land is free of the
    tyranny which shadows it, we can work together to raise a mighty building,
    giving settlement and security to all who wish to dwell peacefully within its
    walls."
    The Abbess sat down amid loud cheering and many offers of help from decent,
    hardworking family creatures. Order was nearly restored when a young squirrel
    voice piped up, "Caw, is that roast chestnut with cream and honey I can
    smell?"
    "Indeed it is, made to an old Loamhedge recipe, too." Abbess Germaine called
    back, "Is the talking finished, Bella?"
    "It certainly is, Abbess. I haven't had Loamhedge roasted chestnuts in many a
    season. Stay where you are, everyone. The food is ready."
    Suddenly a fat dormouse leaped up with a squeak of fright. "Ooh, the floor's
    moving!"
    "Don't be afeared, matey," Skipper laughed. "That'll be Foremole arrivin*.
    He's smelled the vittles, too."
    Willing paws united to lift a floorstone. There was a moment's silence, the
    earth trembled slightly, then a huge pair of paws with powerful digging claws
    broke through. Seconds later they were followed by a dark velvety head with
    tiny bright black eyes, a moist snout, and a gruff whiskery mouth.
    "Boy urr, a mornin' to 'ee, do be sorry bouten tunnel. Cooken smells roight
    noice." Foremole popped out like a black furry cannonball, followed by a score
    and a half of grinning moles. Like their leader they all spoke in heavy rural
    molespeech.
    "Ho urr, 'lo Bella stroip'ead."
    "Yurr, be that chesknutters oi smell?"
    "Hoo arr, oi gets powerful 'ungered a-tunellen."
    "Harr, morrow to 'ee, Skip. 'Ow do 'ee do."
    The industrious moles were loved by all the woodlanders. Infants shrieked with
    laughter at their quaint speech, and the moles would smile, speaking more
    broadly, if that were possible.
    Exclamations of admiration and delight greeted the food
    76
    as it was served. After all, who could resist roast chestnuts served in cream
    and honey, or clover oatcakes dipped in hot ledcurrant sauce, celery and herb
    cheese on acorn bread with chopped radishes, or a huge home-baked seed and
    sweet barley cake with mint icing, all washed down with either October ale,
    pear cordial, strawberry juice or good fresh milk.
    Martin muttered through a mouthful of cake and milk, "In the name of mice, I'd
    have been a cook and not a warrior if I knew food could taste this good."
    Gonff grinned, trying to answer through a face crammed with chestnut, honey
    and strawberry juice. "Mmmfff, shoulden talk wiff y'mouff full."
    Bella sat with the Corim leaders. As they ate they talked. *'I think for the
    future we should all live together here in Brockhall—at least all those that
    can't climb trees and swim rivers. They'd be caught by Tsarmina and her army
    sooner or later."
    "Aye, marm, good idea." Skipper agreed. "They can't be found out here; the cat
    knows nothing of Brockhall. But that doesn't mean my crew and Lady Amber's
    band. We don't strike our colors and run at the first sign of trouble."
    "Nobody doubts your courage, Skipper," Abbess Germaine interrupted. "But maybe
    we're jumping ahead a bit. With all the woodlanders hiding out here, the cat
    will have little to do except sit on her tail. Why not form a good spy network
    and see what she is up to? Maybe then we can form a plan of action. What do
    you think, Martin? You're a seasoned warrior?"
    Martin had been listening. He cleared his mouth. "I think all your ideas are
    good and sensible. Let's try them. But peace is not found like a pawful of
    nuts or an apple. The wildcat is here, and Kotir won't go away if we close our
    eyes. Sooner or later we will have to fight to rid the land of them. Only then
    can we talk of building and peace."
    Skipper and Amber both clapped him on the back.
    "Let us attend to one thing at a time," Bella advised. "First, we need a good
    spy to keep us informed. If we know , our enemies, we will know their
    weaknesses."
    Ferdy and Coggs marched up, trying to look warlike yet ^secretive at the same
    time. "We've heard you're looking for >two good spies, Miss Bella."
    I-
    77
    Before any laughter could start, Skipper was up and marching around inspecting
    them. They stood stiffly to attention, knowing a good officer when they saw
    ohe. Skipper eyed them up and down.
    ' 'Ho yes, I remember you coves—two of the fiercest fellers as ever stood
    guard at the Stickle place. I heard weasels and ferrets was a-shakin' in their
    skins at the thought you might attack Kotir. Shall we let 'em be spies, Lady
    Amber?"
    The squirrel looked serious, shaking her head. "Spying is too tame for these
    old wardogs. I think that with the good job they did at Stickle's we should
    promote them to Captains of the Home Guard at Brockhall."
    The two little hedgehogs nearly burst with pride. They set off to make
    themselves badges of office.
    Gonff threw in a suggestion. "The best spy I know is Chibb."
    Objections flooded in.
    " Chibb's not one of us."
    "He's a bird."
    "He'll want payment."
    "I wouldn't trust a robin."
    "Why not one of our own?"
    Bella pounded her chair until a heavy dust cloud arose and silence was
    restored.
    "Gonff is right. No one could get closer to Kotir than Chibb. If he wants
    payment, then so be it, we'll pay him. I think it's a good idea."
    "Hurr, a burd 'tis, we'ns say let Chebb be a spoiy. Save us'ns doin' the job.
    Asoides, we doant 'ave wingers to floiy wiV
    The Foremole's logic was irrefutable. Unanimous agreement was given by a show
    of paws.
    Chibb it was to be.
    Ben Stickle had the final word. Being one of the last to leave the shadow of
    Kotir, he received a sympathetic hearing.
    "I don't know much about fightirT and spyin' but I still think it's a good
    idea. One thing I do know, me an my missus an our liddle family won't be goin'
    back to slave for no cat and her soldiers. We'd be as well off dead as havin'
    to do that again. But we'd all best listen to the good Abbess here. Let's not
    jump too hasty; war means creatures gettin' theyselves
    78
    killed. If it must come to that, then so be it, but meanwhiles let's keep
    level heads about us, concentrate on safety for now. Aye, that an keepin'
    ourselves an' our families safe. I want to see my little ones grow to farm
    their own food and not have soldiers comin' around to tell us that our land is
    theirs an' takin' toll and tax of over half the vittles we have. That ain't
    fair nor right. Mind, though, weVe got time on our side. I know that Kotir
    larders must be run down considerable since we all left. Huh, the cat and her
    soldiers can march about all season, but there's no one left to order about
    and they ain't no farmers, that's sure. They'll starve without others to do
    their labor."
    79
    The sun beat down on the soldiers of Kotir as they stood in serried ranks upon
    the parade ground. Each creature stood stiff as a ramrod, and all wore every
    available piece of equipment, including heavy spears, shields and full packs
    stuffed with rocks strapped to their backs.
    Black tooth licked a drop of sweat that rolled past his lip. He muttered to
    Splitnose, "Huh, what's all this about? It was the Gloomer lost the battle,
    not us. As far as I can see, we didn't do too badly against those river
    wallopers and tree jumpers."
    Splitnose twitched his eyelid against an inquisitive fly. "You're right there,
    Blackie. Sometimes I think I'd like to pack in all this soldierin' lark at
    Kotir."
    Behind them in the next rank, Brogg could not resist a titter. "Heehee, just
    you try it, stoat. Where would you go on your own, eh? Nan, she'd have you
    dragged back and made an example of.' *
    Scratt in the rank behind Brogg agreed. "Aye, you're right there, Brogg, but
    there's not many would pass up a chance of sliding off from here and starting
    up somewhere else. Perhaps we might form a little group sometime and try it."
    Blacktooth was skeptical. "Oh yes? Let me tell you something, Scratt. That'd
    be worse than going off on your own, it'd be mutiny or mass desertion—and you
    know how Tsar-mina'd punish that little lot."
    80
    Scratt knew only too well. "Death!"
    Blacktooth chuckled humorlessly. "Right. Deader than a fallen log. Huh, you'd
    be glad to be so when she finished with you, bucko."
    Cludd's heavy voice bellowed out across the parade ground, "Silence in the
    ranks! No talking back mere!"
    Scratt muttered under his breath, "Oh dry up, slobber-chops. You weren't even
    out in the forest when we had to fight."
    "No, he was back here with his nightie on, snoring like a dead dog," Splitnose
    sniggered.
    "I won't tell you again. I said, silence in the ranks!"
    From the rear of the army a complaining voice called out, **I reckon we've
    been stood here nearly two hours now. What for?"
    Other voices began complaining before Cludd could silence them.
    "Aye and why the full uniform and rock packs? Are we supposed to roast alive?"
    "Pretty daft, if you ask me. I'm only a storeroom guard."
    Tsarmina prowled silently out of the main door onto the sunlit parade ground.
    An immediate deafening silence fell overall.
    She signaled to Cludd.
    The Captain of the Guard bellowed to the sweating troops, "Tribute to the
    Queen followed by twelve circuits of the square at the double. Begin!"
    With a loud shout, ferrets, stoats and weasels roared in unison.
    "Tsarmina, Queen of Mossflower!"
    * 'Slayer of enemies!''
    "Lady of the Thousand Eyes!"
    "Conqueror of all creatures!"
    "Ruler of Kotir!"
    "Daughter of Lord Greeneyes!"
    Breaking off, they commenced running in a swift trot around the parade
    grounds, paws punished by the harsh gravel, muscles aching with the strain of
    the heavy packs and cumbersome weapons.
    Tsarmina watched impassively, remarking to Ashleg,
    81
    "Daughter of Lord Greeneyes. Who said that was to be kept among my list of
    titles?"
    Behind her back, Ashleg looked at Fortunata and shrugged.
    The wildcat Queen stared fixedly ahead as her troops lumbered by on their
    second circuit. "Well, I'm still waiting for an answer. Who said that my
    troops should be shouting about my dead father instead of me? Am I not capable
    of ruling Kotir alone?"
    Fortunata got in ahead of Ashleg. "There has never been a more capable ruler
    than you, MUady. On my oath as a healer, it was not I who arranged your title
    list."
    Tsarmina rubbed her injured paw thoughtfully. Behind her, Ashleg's wooden limb
    made nervous little shifting noises.
    "What have you got to say for yourself, marten?"
    "Your Majesty, I thought that—"
    Tsarmina's snarl overrode Ashleg's nervous muttering. "Thought? Who gave you
    permission to think? Get out on that parade ground this instant!"
    The unhappy Ashleg stumped out, knowing it was useless to plead or argue.
    Tsarmina halted the march on its next circuit. They ground to a halt in front
    of the marten. She called out to Cludd, "Keep Ashleg in front of the army.
    First rank, point your spears at that marten. All of you, remember this: I am
    no longer called Daughter of Lord Greeneyes. That title is dead. It will be
    replaced by the name Tsarmina the Magnificent."
    At a wave of Cludd's spear the army chanted aloud,' 'Tsarmina the
    Magnificent!"
    Ashleg looked around nervously. He was standing out in front of a rank of
    gleaming spearpoints, all pointed at his body. The marten gathered his cloak
    up, knowing the cruel command that was imminent. Tsarmina's snarl cut cross
    his thoughts. "At the double. Carry on!"
    Fortunata stood to one side, knowing that a careless word could have placed
    her alongside the hapless marten.
    Ashleg tried not to think. Desperately he dragged himself along in a frantic
    hop cum hobble, in front of the lethal spears. Madly he tried to gain a little
    ground, only to realize that he was hard put to keep what lead he had from the
    relentlessly double-marching soldiers.
    Tsarmina laughed mockingly and she dug Fortunata in the
    82
    ribs. "Ha, thumpitty clump, eh, fox. How long d'you reckon he'll last?"
    "Not long at that rate, MUady. Look at him trying to keep ahead of those
    spears. Ashleg mightn't be too bright, but at least he's obedient and loyal."
    Tsarmina sighed moodily; her fun had been spoiled. "Hmm, you're right, I
    suppose. Tell Cludd to call a halt."
    Fortunata waved a signal to the stolid weasel Captain. Cludd halted the troops
    at the very moment Ashleg fell face forward on the gravel, his tortured body
    unable to travel another pace. He was sobbing pitifully for breath.
    Tsarmina prowled purposefully out in front of the ranks, ignoring Ashleg, who
    was dragging himself painfully toward the indoor coolness of the entrance
    hall. The wildcat Queen faced her command as they stood in the gravel dust
    with heaving chests.
    "Look at you. See how you have grown fat and lazy, slugs, worms! As from
    today, all of this will change. Believe me, or die. Mice, two silly little
    mice, have escaped my prison. Together with a rabble of woodlanders, they have
    made fools of you all."
    Nervous paws crunched the gravel as Tsarmina's fury and scorn lashed them.
    "I'll take revenge for the insult to my majesty. Mossfiower will be drenched
    in the blood of any creature who will not obey me, whether it be a woodlander
    or a soldier of Kotir!"
    Fortunata shuddered inwardly at the mad light that shone in Tsarmina's eyes as
    her voice rose in the sunlit stillness.
    "Cludd, Ashleg, Fortunata, you will split the army four ways. Take a group
    each. I will stay here to guard Kotir with •flic remainder. You will go into
    the forest and hunt out every last woodlander. Take them prisoners. Any that
    resist, kill. Kotir will grow strong again with prisoners to serve it. We will
    enslave them. The flatlands to the west will be cultivated and farmed. My
    father was too soft with those creatures. They took advantage of his good
    nature in letting them live outside the walls in a settlement. That's what
    encouraged them to desert: too much freedom. Well, I'll tell you all right
    now, no more settlements. It'll be the cells for them this time; separate
    cells, punishment, that's what they'll be here ;for. We will hold their young
    as hostages. To stop any upris-
    ?'
    83
    ing, they will toil from dawn to dusk—or their families will starve. Go now,
    and remember, this time there will be no failure."
    There was a hurried clanking and stamping from the already armored and kitted
    troops. Orders were called amid wheeling and marching. In a short time
    Tsarmina stood alone on the empty parade ground, staring at a single fallen
    spear.
    Whoever had dropped it would be far too scared to come back and retrieve it.
    She stooped and picked up the weapon as something whooshed by close overhead.
    Argulor!
    As big and powerful as she was, Tsarmina did not wait around to challenge the
    eagle. Taking a swift run, she vaulted through a ground-floor window, using
    the spear shaft as a pole. Peering out, she saw Argulor circle away to his
    perch, well out of arrow range.
    The wildcat Queen was glad that no one had witnessed her retreat.
    84
    Chibb the robin watched the little procession of woodlanders marching
    southward. He had no doubt that they were coming to visit him. They were
    carrying food. If they were not coming to see him, then what right did they
    have wandering about Mossfiower carrying bags of candied chestnuts? . He was
    different from other birds. For the sake of his little fat stomach, Chibb had
    overcome all barriers. Greed was the ooe motive that drove him to sell his
    spying skills to others— greed, tempered with wisdom. Chibb would never sell
    his services to Kotir, as he had narrowly escaped being eaten by weasels and
    such on more than one occasion.
    The woodlanders used Chibb whenever they had cause to, Sometimes to locate a
    missing young one, more often than nott to find out what was going on in other
    parts of the forest. Chibb did not come cheaply, however. The fat robin had a
    fondness amounting to a passion for candied chestnuts.
    He watched the party below him: Martin, Lady Amber and
    a young Loamhedge mouse called Columbine were in the lead; Gonif and Billum
    the mole trailed behind, both carrying small barkcloth bags of candied
    chestnuts. Chibb could not take his bright eyes off the bag that Gonif was
    bouncing play-fully in his paws.
    "Ha, candied chestnuts, eh, Billum. What's the good of giving these to old
    Chibb, just for a skinny bit of spyin'?
    85
    I'll bet me and you could scoff these between us and get their spyin' done for
    *em easy enough."
    The trusty mole caught the bag in midair as Gonff tossed it. He crinkled his
    velvet face in a deep chuckle.
    "Ho hurr hurr! Liddle wunner they send oi t'keep watch on 'ee, you'm a
    villyen, Maister Gonff. Keepen 'ee paws outten 'ee chesknutters, or oi tells
    Miz Bell offen 'ee."
    Gonff threw up his paws in mock horror and ran to catch up with Martin,
    complaining aloud. "The nerve of Billum! Fancy not trusting honest old
    Gonff—me, that was sent on this mission specially to keep an eye out for
    greedy moles. I'll bet I end up getting scragged by you lot, trying to keep
    those chestnuts safe. There's no room for an honest thief these days."
    Martin chuckled as he watched Columbine from the corner of his eye. The pretty
    young fieldmouse was laughing merrily, obviously taken by Gonff's roguish
    charm. Martin encouraged her by putting in the odd word or two on his friend's
    behalf.
    "Be careful of that fellow, Columbine. He's not one of your Loamhedge order.
    If you don't watch Gonff, he'll steal the whiskers from under your nose."
    Columbine's eyes went wide with amazement. "Would he really?"
    Gonff winked at Martin. Cartwheeling suddenly, he shot across Columbine's path
    so close that he brushed by her face. With a squeak of shock she put up her
    paws. Martin shook his head seriously.
    "You see, they don't call Gonff the Prince of Mouse-thieves for nothing. Have
    you counted your whiskers?"
    Columbine put her paws up then dropped them smiling. "Oh really, you two!"
    Gonff bowed and produced two thin strands. "What do you think these are, O
    wise beauty?"
    Columbine's mouth fell open. "But, I didn't feel a thing."
    Billum had caught up. He chuckled and scratched his snout. "Nor oi wagers you
    didden, missie. They whiskers is offen Gonff. Tha's 'ow you'm never feeled
    owt."
    Lady Amber pointed at a long-dead elm covered in ivy. She held up her paw for
    silence. "Hush now. This is Chibb's
    86
    *s home. We don't want to frighten him off. Gonff, you do the
    * talking."
    Gonff rapped upon the trunk of the elm and shouted up toward a hole left by a
    broken branch, "Hey, Chibb! Come out, you old redbreast. It's me, Gonff."
    There was no response, Gonff tried again. "Come on, matey. We know you're in
    there. What's up? Don't you want to earn some candied chestnuts?"
    Billum opened one of the bags and selected a large nut.
    **Harr, may'aps you'm roight, Gonffen. Us'ns could ate chesknutters an' do 'ee
    jobs ourselfs."
    The mole popped the dark sugar-glazed nut into his mouth, licked the sweetness
    from his digging claws and chomped away with an expression of rapture on his
    homely face.
    **Umff, gurr, oo arr, mmmmm!"
    Much to Columbine's amusement, Gonff did likewise, imitating perfectly the
    mole speech and gesture.
    *'Hurr, oo air, Billum, these yurr be fiirst-clarss chesknutters. Hoo arr,
    that they be."
    They had eaten a nut apiece when a bout of nervous coughing erupted from the
    branches of a nearby rowan. "Err, harrumph, ahem hem!"
    Chibb puffed out his chest importantly, ruffling his feathers to increase his
    stature. He paced a branch with wings folded behind him in a businesslike
    attitude. Politely he cleared his . throat once more before speaking.
    "Harrumph, ahem, 'scuse me. Let me warn you before we proceed any
    further, if anyone eats another nut I will judge it an insult, then of course
    you will have to take your business elsewhere, ahem."
    "Please consider what I say before answering." Martin
    responded in an equally formal tone. ' 'I have been authorized
    to make you an offer. Here are our terms: you, Chibb, will
    'Spy on Kotir and find out what plans are being made by Tsar-
    mina against the woodlanders of Mossflower. The Corim wish
    to know all details of any reprisals or attacks directed at our
    Creatures. For this you will be paid two bags of candied chest-
    nuts now and a further two bags upon bringing back your
    Information. Is that agreed?"
    Chibb cocked his head on one side. His bright eye watched
    87
    Gonff as he picked crumbs of chestnut from his whiskers with his tongue. The
    robin coughed nervously.
    Columbine had assessed the situation correctly. She interrupted in a more
    friendly tone. "Of course the nuts will be carefully counted, Mr. Chibb. The
    bags will be completely filled. I will see that four more nuts be added as an
    interest for the two that have just been eaten, and another four added as
    evidence of our good faith in your well-known skills."
    Chibb shifted his claws and fixed Columbine with a quizzical stare. "Ahem,
    hem, you are the one from Loamhedge they call Columbine. I shall do business
    with you, harrumph, 'scuse me. These others are not required for our
    dealings."
    Lady Amber breathed a sign of relief. Chibb could be incredibly pompous and
    stubborn; thank the fur for the good sense and initiative shown by Columbine.
    The robin flew down and bowed courteously to the Loam-hedge mouse. "Aherrahem!
    There is, however, one small matter that may cost an extra nut or two ..."
    Billum nudged Gonff. "Oi 'spected thurr moight be, hurr hurr."
    Chibb ignored the mole. "Harrumph, yes, there's the question of the eagle,
    Argulor. Ahem, as you know, he is back in the area of Kotir. This puts an,
    ahem, element of risk upon my espionage activities."
    Columbine nodded in agreement. "Indeed it does, Mr. Chibb. I appreciate this.
    Should you be attacked or injured in any way by large birds, we propose in
    doubling your fee. Do we have a bargain, sir?"
    Chibb was almost dumbfounded by this generous offer. He held out a claw to
    Columbine. "Er ahem, a bargain, Miss Columbine. A bargain indeed!"
    Paw shook claw. Lady Amber interrupted to give details of the spying mission
    to the robin, Gonff tossed the two bags expertly up into Chibb's home hi the
    elm, and goodbyes were made all around as the friends departed. A few paces
    into the undergrowth Lady Amber held up a paw.
    "Hush! Listen!"
    Silently they tried to stifle their laughter as the sounds of Chibb reached
    them. The robin was stuffing himself with his fee, coughing with excitement as
    he crammed candied chestnuts into an already overflowing beak.
    88
    '' Ahemcawscrunffmmmharrumphcrunch!'' Martin held his sides as tears from
    stifled laughter ran down his cheeks. "Hahaha, oh dear, listen to that. Oh,
    the little glutton! Columbine, whatever possessed you to offer him a double
    fee like that?"
    Columbine leaned up against a tree, helpless with mirth. "Well I, oh,
    heeheehee, I could have offered him ten times the fee, if I'd have thought,
    ohahaha. Imagine a robin coming back to claim a fee after being attacked by a
    golden eagle, - hahaheeheee. There wouldn't be enough of him left to make a
    smear on Argulor's beak. That eagle could scoff Chibb in a half-mouthful,
    hahahaha!"
    Tsarmina stood at a barred window in full view of Argulor's perch.
    "I'm here, you great feathered blindworm," she called.
    Argulor took the bait; the fierce instinct of his ancestors would not allow
    him to do otherwise. The eagle launched from his perch with a blood-chilling
    screech, diving like a great winged missile at his insolent tormentor.
    Tsarmina danced triumphantly and laughed aloud at the sight of the half-blind
    eagle smashing against the barred window. "Haha, you blundering old feather
    mattress. Dozy farmyard fowl."
    Argulor struggled awkwardly on the narrow window ledge, trying to marshal his
    wings into a proper flying position to regain what was left of his dignity.
    The great eagle slipped from the sill, landing on the ground. He had to resort
    to an 'ungainly lopsided shuffling run to attain flight.
    Tsarmina purred aloud and dug her claws into a rug, open-Ing and closing them,
    reveling in the pretense of pinioning lietpless woodlanders in her needlelike
    grip, puncturing imaginary hides. Suddenly she whirled over, tossing the rug
    Tiigh in the air. Leaping upon it, she rent it fiercely with her savage
    strength. Fragments of the flayed rug flew about the toom as she ripped and
    slashed. Hairs and fibers floated in fine sunlit shafts from the bars, dancing
    with golden dust
    •^inotes on their way to the floor.
    * Filled with exuberance, the big cat paced restlessly. Soon ;% bunch of
    woodlanders would be marched in, sniveling and bound, to await her pleasure.
    89
    And what pleasure! Some she would deal with personally; otters, yes, she would
    take them down to the Gloomer's lake and see how well they would swim bound up
    and weighted with stones—that would teach them manners. There were one or two
    squirrels that could do with jumping lessons from the battlemented roof of
    Kotir. As for the rest, well, there were always plenty of good hard work and
    cells.
    Tsarmina sprang down the stairways and the dripping passages of her fortress,
    heading for the cells, where sunlight seldom penetrated. Two stoat guards
    tried hastily to come to attention as their Queen hurtled past, but they were
    knocked spinning sideways.
    Picking himself up from a pool of slimy water, one of the stoats rubbed his
    head where it had banged against the walls.
    "By the fang! What d'you suppose is wrong with her, this time?"
    His companion felt gingerly at the sore beginnings of a lump on his snout.
    "Huh, your guess is as good as mine. One thing I do know, she's not down here
    for the good of our health. We'd better get straightened up before she comes
    back this way."
    Tsarmina ran from cell to cell, peering through the bars at the hostile
    interiors as she muttered aloud, "Yes, good, this is ideal. They'll soon learn
    obedience down here. Males in one cell, females in another and young ones in a
    special prison all of their own, where they can be heard but not seen by their
    parents. Haha, I must remember that: heard but not seen. Well, what have we
    here, all alone in the darkness?" > Gingivere was fading into a gaunt
    skeleton. The once glossy coat was ragged and graying, his whole body had an
    air of neglect and decay about it, except the eyes. They fixed Tsarmina with
    such a burning intensity that she was forced to look away.
    "Well, well, my one-time brother, I thought perhaps that you had perished by
    now in this unhealthy atmosphere, dark, cold, damp, with little to eat. But
    cheer up, I'll find you an even darker and deeper prison when you move out to
    make room for the new lodgers I'm planning. How would that suit you?"
    90
    Gingivere stood clasping the cell bars. He stared at his sister.
    Tsarmina shifted nervously. Her previous mood of euphoria rapidly
    disintegrating, she became irritable.
    "Never fear, my silent, staring brother. I can soon fix up other arrangements
    for you. A sword, perhaps. Or a spear during the night to deepen your sleep."
    Gingivere's eyes burned into Tsarmina, and his voice was like a knell.
    "Murderer!"
    Tsarmina broke and ran, pursued by the voice of her brother like a spear at
    her back.
    "Murderer! You killed our father! Murderer! Murderer!"
    When the sounds of Tsarmina's flight had died away, Gingivere let go of the
    bars and slumped to the floor, hot tears pouring from his fevered eyes.
    After their trek through Mossflower to find Chibb, the little party were ready
    for food. Now that all the woodlanders were billeted at Brockhall, mealtimes
    were like a constant feast, so many different dishes were contributed. A
    pretty posy lay in the middle of the festive board symbolizing the coming
    together in springtime to oppose the reign of Kotir.
    Gonff was conscious of Columbine watching him. Bella had given the little
    mousethief permission to sing grace, and he stood up boldly and sang aloud,
    >i
    Squirrels, otters, hedgehogs, mice, '• Moles with
    fur like sable,
    Gathered in good spirits all,
    Round this festive table.
    Sit we down to eat and drink.
    Friends, before we do, let's think.
    Fruit.of forest, field and banks,
    To the springtime we give thanks.
    ; The woodlanders began passing food. As Gonff sat down, s he winked at
    Columbine, showing no sign of modesty. '"<•'- "Good, eh? That's an ancient
    chant that has been sung Jr through the ages. I composed it a moment ago for
    today." V Gonff was so pleased with himself that Columbine could **«* help
    laughing with him at his outrageous statement.
    91
    Martin had sat at many tables—farm tables, inn tables, and, more often than
    not, any handy flat piece of rock where he could lay his food. Now he sat back
    and surveyed the board before him with wonder. Bulrush and water-shrimp soup
    provided by the otters; a large flagon of Skipper's famous hot root punch;
    hazel nut truffle; blackberry apple crumble; baked sweet chestnuts; honeyed
    toffee pears; and maple tree cordial, a joint effort by hedgehogs and
    squirrels. The Loamhedge and Mossflower mice had combined to provide a number
    of currant and berry pies, seedcake and potato scones, and a cask of October
    ale. By far the biggest single offering was a colossal turnip 'n' later 'n'
    beetroot 'n' bean deeper 'n' ever pie with tomato chutney baked by the
    Fore-mole and his team.
    Normally a solid trenchermouse, Martin would have stuck to deeper 'n* ever
    pie, but Gonff encouraged him and Columbine to sample some of everything.
    "Here, matey, how's that for October ale? Columbine, try some of this hot root
    punch. How d'you like seedcake? Try some of this, both of you. Come on, have a
    wedge.
    "Hey, Martin, d'you reckon you'd get the better of one of these toffee pears?
    Come on, get stuck in, stuck in, hahaha.
    "Put that hot root punch down, Columbine. You look as if your face is on fire.
    Try some of the maple tree cordial."
    Ferdy and Coggs sat nearby, hero-worshipping Martin and Gonff.
    "Tell you what, Coggs. If ever I come across a broken sword I'm going to hang
    it round my neck, just like Martin the Warrior."
    "Huh, fancy trying to keep old Gonff locked up in Kotir! I'll bet he could
    come and go with both paws tied. You know, I think I look a bit like Gonff."
    "Of course you do. I look like Martin—pretty quiet and very brave—or I will be
    when I'm older. Just wait and see."
    "Come on, matey. We've eaten enough. Let's go off together and invade Kotir
    before we get sent to bed. We can slip away quietlike."
    In the hubbub and confusion of the feast, nobody noticed the two baby
    hedgehogs take their leave.
    92
    A crescent moon hung over the warm spring night, casting its cloak over the
    light early foliage of Mossflower Woods. Indifferent to the woodland floor
    carpeted with dark green grass, dotted with bluebell and narcissus, Fortunate
    stopped in her tracks and held up a paw for silence. Immediately she was
    bumped by Brogg and Scratt, two weasels who did not stop fast enough. Ferrets
    and weasels in their turn blundered sleepily into each other.
    Fortunata bared her teeth impatiently. "Stand still, can't you. I think I hear
    something."
    The patrol held its collective breath and listened intently. | Scratt dropped
    his shield with a clang. They all jumped with '• fright. Fortunata cursed at
    the hapless weasel, but he was tired and weary of listening to pointless
    orders.
    *'Ahh, what's the difference, fox? We're on a right fool's
    errand in this jungle, I can tell you. Huh, tramping about all
    day in full kit and armor, without anything to eat, and not a
    sight or sound of a living thing, except the sign of our own
    pawtracks that we keep coming across. What are we sup-
    1 posed to be doing out here, anyhow? That's what I'd like to
    : know."
    ' There were murmurs of agreement. Fortunata cut in quickly to stem any ideas
    of mutiny. ' 'All of you, get the soil out of your ears and listen to me. Can
    you imagine what will happen if we march back to Kotir empty-pawed? Well, can
    93
    you? By the claw, it doesn't bear thinking about. Imagine the Queen—d'you
    think she'll say: 'Oh, you poor creatures. Didn't you find any of those
    naughty woodlanders? Well, never mind, come in and take off your armor, sit by
    the fire and have a bite to eat.' "
    One particularly stupid ferret grinned hopefully. "Oh, that would be nice."
    Fortunate was about to give him something painful to think about when she
    heard the noise once more.
    "Ssshhh! There it is again, coming right toward us. Right, this is your chance
    to carry out the mission properly. I want you all out of sight. You lot, get
    behind those trees. You others, hide in the bushes. When I give the signal,
    come out whacking. Use your spear handles, shields, branches— anything. I want
    them taken alive. Here they come! Hide quickly."
    As the soldiers dropped out of sight, a cloud obscured the moonlight. At that
    moment a band of dark shapes came into view.
    The vixen ran out shouting, "Now, up and at 'em, troops!"
    Spurred on by Fortunata, the soldiers dashed from hiding. They charged with a
    roar into the midst of the intruders, dealing out heavy blows, kicking,
    biting, scratching and pounding away at the enemy. The air was rent with
    blows, screams, thuds and yells of pain.
    Exulting in the chaos of the ambush, Fortunata seized the nearest figure and
    thrashed it unmercifully with her staff.
    Thwack, bang, crack!
    "Yeeow, aargh, oo mercy, help!"
    It was only when she kicked out savagely and splintered the wooden leg that
    the vixen realized she was close to slaying Ashleg.
    "Stoppit! Halt! Pack it in, you fools. We're fighting our own!" Fortunata
    yelled at the top of her lungs.
    When the clouds moved, moonlight illuminated a sorry scene. The soldiers of
    Kotir sat about on the grass, moaning pitifully. Broken and fractured limbs,
    collective bumps, bruises, sprains, missing teeth, blackened eyes, contusions
    and some very nasty scratches were much in evidence.
    Ashleg sat on the ground, nursing his wrecked wooden
    94
    leg. "You booby, you knothead, you nincompoop of a fox, you, you . . . !"
    "Er, sorry, Ashleg. But how were we to know? Why didn't you signal that you
    were coming?"
    "Signal, you brush-tailed blockhead! I'll give you a signal!" The marten flung
    his broken wooden leg, catching Fortunata square on the top of her nose.
    "Yowch! You twisted little monster, there was no call for that. We thought you
    were woodlanders; it was a genuine mistake."
    Ashleg rubbed a swollen ear. "Woodlanders! Don't talk to me about mat lot!
    We've patrolled this forest until our paws are sore. Not a solitary mouse, not
    so much as the hair off a squirrel's tail or the damp from an otter's back."
    The vixen slumped down glumly beside him. "Same here. Where d'you suppose
    they've vanished to?"
    "Huh, search me. Tsarmina will skin us alive when we get back."
    Scratt threw down his spear and sat with them. "Aye, you're right there. Ah
    well, maybe we'll have more luck when it gets light. We may as well camp here.
    At least we can search around for roots and berries."
    Fortunata and Ashleg looked at each other.
    "Roots and berries . . . Yuk!"
    Chibb the robin circled the crenellations of Kotir in the dawn light. There
    was not a lot to interest the little spy; the garrison was still asleep. He
    noted each window and what was inside: snoring ferrets, slumbering weasels,
    dozy stoats, even Tsarmina in her upper chamber, stretched out in splendor
    upon a heap of furs. The wildcat Queen was dreaming troubled dreams of water,
    muttering to herself, pushing the air as if it were water enveloping her.
    Chibb flew down and lighted on the parade ground near the wall. Keeping a
    watch for the eagle, he set about breakfast. From a small bag slung about his
    neck he selected a candied chestnut; not one of the big smooth ones, but a
    small wrinkled nut that had lots of sugar in the cracks. Chibb liked them
    better that way.
    Chibb noted that he was near something which looked like a drain outlet, a
    hole cut into the wall at floor level. He bopped inside, peering about
    curiously. It went slanting
    95
    downward as far as he could see. Nibbling the nut daintily, the tat robin
    explored the tunnel. It was quite dry underclaw.
    Chibb cocked his head to one side, listening to the sounds of ragged breathing
    from farther down the tunnel. "Ahem, hem, must be somebody still asleep."
    Working his way further down, he found his progress arrested by three vertical
    iron bars set into the tunnel. This was no drain; it was the upper window of a
    cell. Chibb edged up to the bars and peeped down. He was looking into the
    burning eyes of an emaciated wildcat seated below upon the damp stones.
    "Humph, harrumph, hem, 'scuse me."
    Gingivere shaded his eyes, staring upward at his strange visitor. "Please
    don't fly away. I won't harm you. My name is Gingivere."
    The robin cocked his head airily on one side. "Ahem, humph. You'll excuse my
    saying so, but you don't appear to be in any position to harm me. Er, ahem,
    must go now. I'll •drop by and see you another time."
    Chibb beat a hasty retreat back up the tunnel. The wildcat with the staring
    eyes had quite unsettled him. At the edge of the tunnel the robin ate the last
    of his nut, then flew off back to Brockhall to report his findings.
    The day promised to be fine and sunny. Chibb flew high, knowing that the sun
    in the east would shine in the eyes of predators looking west. He took not the
    slightest interest in the woodland floor far below. Had he flown lower, he
    would have noticed Ferdy and Coggs lying in a patch of open sward, fast
    asleep, their paws about each other, blissfully unaware that a short distance
    away Cludd was making an early start at the head of his patrol.
    Bella was up and about early that morning, being a light sleeper. She received
    Chibb's information about Gingivere being imprisoned. This was already known
    to the Corim through Martin and Gonff, yet it gave Bella pause for thought;
    Kotir was now definitely ruled totally by the cruel Tsarmina.
    Martin joined her for an early morning stroll in the woodland before
    breakfast. The badger had matters to discuss with the warrior mouse.
    "War is coming to Mossflower, Martin. I can feel it. Now
    96
    mat we are all at Brockhall, the defenceless ones are safer, but I listen to
    the voices at Corim meetings. The squirrels and otters are not satisfied with
    merely resisting Kotir's rule— they want to challenge it."
    Martin felt the broken sword hanging about his neck. "Maybe that is no bad
    thing, Bella. Mossflower rightfully belongs to the woodlanders. I will do all
    I can to help my friends live without fear."
    "I know you will, little warrior, but we are not strong enough. We have few
    who are trained in the art of war. If Boar the Fighter, my father, were still
    ruling here, there would be no question he would fight and lead us to certain
    victory."
    . Martin noted the sad, faraway look in the badger's eyes. "He must have been
    a mighty warrior. Does he still live?"
    Bella shrugged. "Who knows? He followed his father, old Lord Brocktree, to go
    off questing. This was before Verdauga and his army arrived in Mossfiower. My
    mate Barkstripe was slain in the first battle against Kotir and my son
    Sunflash lost to me forever. Barkstripe was more farmer than warrior. Had it
    been Boar the Fighter that faced Kotir, we would have won, lam certain of it."
    Martin turned his steps back to Brockhall.
    Goody Stickle was standing in the doorway, rubbing her paws together
    anxiously. As they approached, Bella spoke to Martin in a whisper. "Tell
    nobody of our conversation. I must talk to you further about certain important
    matters, maybe later."
    Martin nodded. "I will look forward to it, Bella. You have aroused my
    curiosity. Hey, Goody, why are you looking so worried?"
    Goody fussed with her apron. "Mornin' Miz Bella. Mornin', Martin, 'Ave you
    seen ought of those two liddle ?ogs of mine in the woods?"
    "Ferdy and Coggs?" Bella shook her head. "No, Goody, I'm afraid we haven't.
    Is anything wrong?"
    The hedgehog gnawed her lip. "Well, they ain't slept in their beds last night.
    Asides that, there's two oatfaris, a good wedge o' cheese and some of my best
    black-currant cordial missin' from the larder." Martin could not help smiling
    at the thought of the two
    97
    little would-be warriors. "All that for breakfast! They'll go bang one of
    these days. I wouldn't worry too much, Mrs. Stickle. Knowing those two
    rascals, they'll be back by lunch-time for more food."
    Ben Stickle emerged into the sunlight. "Aye, Martin's right, m'dear. Don't you
    go a-botherin' your old 'ead. Ferdy and Coggs is like new button
    mushrooms—they always turn up at a good meal."
    Ben sat against a tree, chuckling as he filled his pipe.
    Gonff and Columbine came out to join them, the mouse-thief patting his
    stomach.
    "Better hurry up, mateys. There'll be no breakfast left soon. Hey, Goody, I
    hear that Ferdy and Coggs are missing. We'll help you to look for them. Don't
    worry, they're probably somewhere nearby playing soldiers."
    Goody knotted her apron strings anxiously. "Thank you, Gonff. Oh, I do 'ope
    they've come to no 'arm, Ben. Get up now and 'elp Gonff *n' Columbine. I won't
    be 'appy until I see their mucky liddle snouts agin."
    Ben stood up and stretched. "So be it, Goody. Come on, you two."
    Bella assured her. "Now don't start getting upset, Goody. I'll send all the
    woodlanders out looking. They'll find them. Martin and I will stop here at
    Brockhall in case they come back while everyone's out searching."
    Goody smiled gratefully, although she was close to tears. "Thank you kindly,
    Miz Bella. I'll go and start cookin' the lunch."
    Shortly thereafter, Bella addressed a large party of willing helpers.
    "Listen now, friends. Ferdy and Coggs must be found before nightfall. Split up
    into small groups, search everywhere, and pay particular attention to small
    dens and possible hiding places—they may be lying asleep somewhere. Above all,
    be careful. There may be Kotir vermin abroad in Mossflower. Don't shout too
    loud or make unnecessary noise. Report back to me or to Martin. Off you go
    now, and good luck."
    The woodlanders dispersed, eager to begin. Each creature searched in the best
    way it knew; squirrels swung off into treetops where they could scan the
    ground below, otters made
    98
    their way to the water to scour the banks and creeks, mice and hedgehogs
    ploughed into the undergrowth. Moles trundled through last autumn's deep loam.
    The search was on.
    A blackbird in a sycamore raised its amber beak in a hymn of joy to the sun.
    Ashleg blundered into wakefulness. Shivering from the damp, he hopped into the
    sunlight and leaned against a tree. Scratt joined him, but not before he had
    aimed a sly kick at the sleeping Fortunate.
    "Oi! Are you going to lie there all day, lazybones?"
    The weasel drew his paw swiftly back from the vixen's snapping jaws. Far more
    used to sleeping in the open than the Kotir soldiers, she had dug herself into
    the soft loam of the forest floor.
    "Mind who you call lazybones, fathead. I've been lying awake here for the past
    two hours listening to you snore like an ailing toad."
    Ashleg closed his eyes, letting the warmth of the sun seep through his damp
    cloak. With a sigh of resignation he remembered the quandary they faced.
    "Can't you two stop squabbling long enough to give a thought to the mess we're
    in? We've beaten each other up, slept through the whole night without posting
    a single sentry, and now we've got to go back to face Tsarmina sometime today.
    Look, if we must argue, at least let's argue about something useful. What's to
    be done about this whole fiasco?"
    Fortunata shook loose loam from her cloak, showering them. "Well, there were
    three patrols sent out to search this forest. Where have Cludd and his lot got
    to?"
    As if in answer to the vixen's question, Cludd came marching through the
    undergrowth at the head of his column. Scratt was the first to notice him.
    "Oi, Cludd, over here. Where in hell's teeth did you get to? We haven't seen
    you since we left the fortress."
    The weasel Captain stuck a paw in his belt and leaned upon his spear, smirking
    knowingly.
    "Oh, we've been doing our job, don't you worry, Scratt. Huh, what happened to
    you lot? Did a pile of trees fall down on you?"
    "It was nothing, really—a little mistake, could have hap-
    99
    pened to anybeast." Ashleg tried to sound casual. "Let me tell you, though, we
    haven't seen hide nor hair of a living creature in this rotten maze of trees.
    We're rightly in for it when the Queen sees us."
    Cludd smiled confidently. "Speak for yourself, Ashleg. We won't be returning
    empty-pawed. Oh no, not us."
    "Why, what d'you mean?" Fortunata interrupted eagerly. "Who have you captured?
    Where?"
    Cludd sneered at the fox. "Oh hello, vixen. You look as if you've been
    enjoying yourself. By the way, what happened to the old wooden leg, Ashy?"
    The marten was using a forked branch as a crutch, and he stamped it down
    bad-temperedly.
    "Listen, weasel, will you stop waffling around and tell us what you've got,
    instead of standing there looking pleased with yourself?"
    Cludd beckoned with his spear. "Right. Show *em lads."
    The ranks of the patrol parted, revealing two small hedgehogs. They were
    gagged and trussed upside down, slung upon poles carried by four soldiers.
    Ferdy and Coggs were well and truly captured!
    100
    Bella paused, gazing at the run of the grain on the tabletop. She was
    remembering times long gone.
    "Where did old Lord Brocktree and Boar the Fighter go questing?" Martin asked
    softly. The badger gave her answer in a single word: "Salamandastron."
    "Salamandastron?" Martin repeated the strange-sounding word.
    , Bella nodded slowly. "Aye, the fire mountain, secret place of the
    dragons."
    Martin's eyes went wide with wonderment. "Bella, don't stop now. Carry on,
    please."
    The badger smiled wistfully. "Ah, little Martin the Warrior, I see that same
    strange fire kindled in your eyes, just as it was with my father and his
    father before him. Why must Salamandastron always weave its spell upon the
    brave? I can see your desire to travel there; that is as I wanted it to be."
    Martin furrowed his brows. "You want me to travel to Salamandastron? But why?"
    Bella leaned close, emphasizing each word with a tap of •her paw on the table.
    "Since Boar left Mossflower, we have 3 lived under virtual siege. First there
    was the rebellion, when many brave woodlanders lost their lives; then there
    was the Settlement with its slummy hovels and tolls, and soldiers ha-fjassing
    the creatures that had to endure living there. I know it seems fairly safe out
    here in Brockhall, but will it always
    ?
    101
    be so? Now that Tsarmina rules Kotir, we can never be sure what she will do
    next. Ben Stickle hit the nail on the head when he said Kotir could not last
    without creatures to supply it with rations. Will the cat start to search
    Mossflower for us? She will have to do something before next winter; she has a
    full army to feed. Martin, I feel that we are living on a knife's edge here.
    Ben Stickle wants peace, Skipper wants war, the Abbess wants peace, Lady Amber
    wants war. Boar the Fighter is the rightful ruler of Mossflower. I cannot
    leave here; I have responsibilities to our friends the woodlanders and the
    Corim. Who could I send? Martin, there is only you. You have traveled, you are
    an experienced warrior, you are the one I will stake my trust on. Don't rush
    to give me your answer now. I want you to think about it. This is a very
    dangerous mission, and I will understand if you wish to stay here. My home is
    your home!
    "I believe that my father still lives. You must bring him back to Mossflower
    to break Tsarmina's regime. Together under the leadership of Boar the Fighter
    we will defeat Tsarmina."
    The spell was broken by Lady Amber, who came striding in with a face that was
    so grim it heralded bad news.
    "Ferdy and Coggs are lost for sure. We've scoured high and low, all of us.
    It's as if the forest has swallowed them up."
    Bella scratched her stripes reflectively. "Have you seen Chibb?"
    "Yes. He's been around Kotir. Nothing to report, really. I sent hun on a wide
    patrol of the woods. Maybe he'll bring news before nightfall."
    The searchers returned at noon. Goody had busied herself setting out a salad
    luncheon on the sward outside Brockhall. Woodlanders ate in silence, avoiding
    any mention of the lost young ones while Goody was about. Shortly they set off
    again to resume searching. It was not a happy day in Mossflower. Martin was
    torn with a desire to help the searchers and curious to find out more about
    the mysterious place called Sal-amandastron. The former won; by early noon he
    was out searching with the others, knowing that Bella would tell him more that
    night.
    102
    Tsarmina stood at her high chamber window, watching the perimeter of the
    woodland where the trees thinned out into shrubs and bushes. There they were,
    at last!
    The ragged columns tramped out of the woodlands with Cludd bawling orders at
    them.
    "Come on, you sloppy mob, smarten yourselves up into proper ranks. Right
    markers, lead off. Tidy that pace up there. . I'll not have you lolloping into
    the garrison like a load of hedgehogs on daisychain day. You there! Yes, you!
    Liven your ideas up, me laddo, or I'll liven them up for you with my spear."
    The Captain's voice drifted up to Tsarmina. She could see plainly that there
    had been no losses among her troops. Neither had there been any mass of
    captives taken. In a sudden outburst of vicious temper, she slashed a wall
    curtain from top to bottom with her wicked claws, before storming out down the
    stairs to the parade ground.
    The three platoons staggered to an untidy halt in the courtyard. Wearily they
    bumbled their way into formation, shouldering weapons and showing Thousand Eye
    shields front and center. Tsarmina checked her rush in the doorway and strode
    gracefully out with sinuously waving tail and baleful eye. A tremor rippled
    the ranks as they stood stiffly to attention, all eyes front. They saluted
    jointly.
    "Hail, Tsarmina, Wildcat Queen of the Thousand Eyes, ; Ruler of al! Mossfl—"
    "Save your breath, fools. You'll get your chance to speak when I say and not
    before." Tsarmina prowled between the : ranks, missing nothing, not even the
    two pitiful forms that • lay bound on the gravel.
    Fortunata stood rooted to the spot, feeling the Queen's " feral breath raising
    the hairs on the nape of her neck. v,1 "Well, fox, it seems that you all had a
    cheery spring outing fv in the woods. I notice that half the patrols are
    injured in one ;;•;; .way or another. Tell me, did those two small woodlanders
    ^J; put up such a ferocious battle?"
    JL;. Tsarmina continued circling Fortunata, her voice at a level ;&£ of
    dangerous calm. "No need to worry now, eh, fox? WeVe
    103
    caught their two champion warriors this time. What, if I make ask, was your
    heroic part in all this?"
    Fortunata's limbs trembled with the effort of standing motionless. "It was
    Cludd who caught them, Milady. He found them asleep in a tent made from a
    blanket. Ashleg and I helped to bring them in.' *
    Tsarmina repeated the phrase slowly. ' 'You helped to bring them in. I see.
    Good work!"
    The pine marten was next to receive Tsannina's attention.
    *'Ah, my fearless friend Ashleg, you must be in great pain. Did one of those
    two bold rogues nibble through your wooden
    leg?"
    "No, Majesty. That happened when my patrol was attacked by Fortunata's command
    in the night," Ashleg blurted out, surprised at the shrillness of his own
    voice.
    Tsarmina widened her eyes in mock horror. "How awful! We attacked ourselves in
    the dark. No doubt it was all a little mistake."
    "That's right Milady, just a bit of a mistake, it could have happened to
    anyone, really." Fortunata's protest sounded hollow.
    The wildcat turned her back on the whole scene. Paws akimbo, she stood staring
    out toward Mossflower. When she eventually spoke her tones dripped sarcasm and
    controlled rage.
    "Get out of my sight, all of you idiotic scum. Down on your bellies and crawl
    back into the barracks like the worms you are. That way I won't have to look
    at your thick gormless faces slobbering excuses at me. Go on, clear off, the
    lot of you! Fortunata, Ashleg, Cludd—bring the prisoners up to my chamber."
    Less than a minute later, Argulor stirred on his spruce branch and blinked
    owlishly, unaware that he had missed the chance of snatching a quick meal from
    the parade ground. He dozed off again in the hot afternoon sun as Chibb shot
    across the front of him, bound for BrockhaU and safety. The tiny red-breasted
    spy had not missed a single word or movement of
    what took place on the parade ground.
    * * *
    104
    A group of sad-faced creatures sat in the main hall of Bella's home.
    Gonff tossed the blanket and empty cordial jar on the table in front of the
    Corim leaders. "Found 'em over to the west, about halfway between here and
    Kotir. The place stank of weasel and ferret. Lots of tracks—a big party, I'd
    say. Anyone got more news?"
    Bella looked around the searchers who had returned, checking that the Stickles
    were not present. She kept her voice low. ' 'Chibb saw them trussed up on the
    parade ground at Kotir earlier today. There's no doubt about it: Ferdy and
    Coggs have been taken prisoner. They were carried off to the wildcat's chamber
    for probable questioning."
    Skipper slammed a paw against the hearth. "Mates, it doesn't bear thin kin'
    about, those two pore little fellers in the vermins' brig."
    Columbine's voice had a sob in it. "What'll we tell Ben and Goody, poor
    creatures."
    Gonff was in no doubt at all. "Tell 'em we'll rescue little Ferdy and Coggs
    back straightaway. That's what we'll do, mateys!"
    There was a roar of approval.
    Bella called for silence. "Please, Gonff, be sensible. I'm certain that the
    Corim will agree to mount a rescue operation as soon as possible. But let us
    not run off or do anything reckless in the meanwhile. It would only end up in
    more prisoners being taken, or lives being lost."
    "Bella is right." Abbess Germaine put in. "I suggest that you let me preside
    over the rescue operation. We can use all of you, especially Chibb; he will be
    of more value to us now man ever before. Meanwhile, let us keep our hopes high
    and tempers in check. Bella is very busy working on something else for our
    benefit with Martin, and they must be excluded from the rescue attempt."
    Bella was astonished. She looked blankly at Germaine.
    The old Abbess smiled back at her. "I too was out taking the air in the woods
    early this morning."
    Bella bowed to the Abbess. "Thank you for offering your help, old friend."
    Bella and Martin retired to the study. Immediately Bella closed the door,
    Martin turned to her.
    105
    "Bella, I have decided. I will find Boar the Fighter—I will undertake the
    journey to Salamandastron."
    Bella took hold of the warrior's paws. "Are you sure you want to do this
    thing, Martin?"
    Martin nodded firmly. "For you and all my friends in Mossflower, I will find
    this strange place, even if it is at the world's end. And I will bring back
    your father Boar the Fighter."
    The door swung open. Gonff entered, rubbing a paw to his ear.
    "Funny things, doors. Sometimes it's as if they're not there, and you can hear
    everything. By the way, Miss Bella, I'm surprised at you. Fancy sending my
    matey off on a quest without an able-bodied assistant."
    Martin hesitated. He looked at Bella. "I'd feel a lot safer with a good thief
    along."
    The kindly badger smiled. "Of course. Careless of me. Welcome, GonfF. We may
    need a brain as sharp as yours."
    They sat on the edge of a scroll-littered desk, while Bella settled
    comfortably into a dusty old armchair. She sighed and looked from one to the
    other.
    "Well, I wish I knew where to begin. Fighting badgers have been going off
    questing for Salamandastron as far back as memory goes. My grandfather, old
    Lord Brocktree, went off when I was very small, then later he was followed by
    my father, Boar the Fighter."
    "Is there any record of whether they ever found it, or are there any maps of
    the way to Salamandastron?" Martin interrupted.
    Bella stroked her stripes thoughtfully. "There must be a map somewhere. Both
    Lord Brocktree and Boar seemed to know where they were going. One thing I do
    know, it would be far too difficult to find the place of dragons without some
    form of key or map. You would need directions."
    Gonff smiled disarmingly. He picked up a bundle of scrolls from the desktop.
    "Well, mateys, the solution is simple. Let's find the map!"
    It had been a confused and frightening day for the two little hedgehogs. Since
    they had been taken by Cludd's patrol, not a word had passed between them.
    Both lay on the floor of
    106
    Tsarmina's room, trying to forget the pains that shot through their bound-up
    paws and the filthy-tasting gags tied roughly across their mouths. Ferdy
    snuffled through his nostrils for breath and exchanged glances with Coggs.
    What must Goody and Ben be doing?
    Would the Corim leaders organize a search and a rescue?
    What lay ahead they could only guess, but it wasn't going to be very pleasant.
    Tsarmina sat watching impassively as Ashleg cut the captives' bonds and
    relieved them of their gags. Ferdy and Coggs lay quite still, fighting back
    tears as the circulation was painfully restored to their swollen limbs.
    Cludd stirred the inert forms with his spearpoint. "Huh, they're fit enough,
    Milady. Wait'11 their tongues loosen up, and we'll see what they've got to say
    for themselves."
    Coggs rolled closer to Ferdy. "Don't tell the villains a thing, matey. Let's
    be like Martin and Gonff: brave and silent. '' His voice was barely above a
    whisper.
    Fortunata kicked out cruelly at Coggs. She regretted it immediately as her paw
    came into contact with his sharp little spines.
    "Silence, prisoner. Don't you know you're in the presence of Her Majesty Queen
    Tsarmina?''
    Ferdy curled his lip rebelliously at the vixen. "She's not our Majesty—we're
    woodlanders."
    Tsarmina leaned forward to the two little creatures lying at the foot of her
    chair. Bringing her face near them she slitted her eyes venomously. Baring her
    great yellowed fangs and extending her fearsome claws she gave vent to a
    sudden wild growl.
    ' ' Yeeeggaarroooorrr!''
    Ferdy and Coggs clutched at each other, their eyes wide with terror.
    Tsarmina laughed and leaned back in her chair. "Now, my two tiny woodland
    heroes, let's begin, shall we?"
    The wildcat's expression became almost benevolent as she took a tray of food
    from a table and sat with it in her lap.
    "You, Ferdy—or is it Coggs? Wouldn't you like some milk and biscuits? A rosy
    autumn apple, perhaps? Or maybe you prefer dried fruit and nuts? Look, they
    won't hurt you."
    107
    Tsarmina bit into an apple, washing it down with a draught of milk.
    The two small hedgehogs gazed longingly as she ate. They had not tasted food
    since dawn that morning.
    Tsarmina selected a biscuit. Tossing the apple aside, she nibbled daintily,
    flicking crumbs from her whiskers.
    Ferdy licked his lips. Coggs nudged him warningly. "It's probably all
    poisoned. Don't touch it."
    Tsarmina placed the platter on the floor close to them. "Silly, if it were
    poison I'd be ill by now. Try it yourself, it's all from my special store. All
    I want is that you tell me about your woodland friends."
    Coggs yawned and muttered wearily, "Don't tell her anything, matey. Not a
    word."
    Ferdy yawned.
    Tsarmina sat watching the two young captives. Their eyelids were beginning to
    droop, so she decided to try another angle. Stretching luxuriously, she yawned
    and snuggled deep in the big cushioned chair.
    "I'll bet you two are tired. Mmmm, wouldn't it be nice to lie down on a bed of
    clean fresh straw and sleep for as long as you please? You can, too. It's
    quite simple, really. Just tell me about your friends—who they are, where they
    live, and so on. I won't harm them, you have my word. They'll thank you for it
    later when they are truly free. What do you say?"
    Ferdy blinked hard, fighting back sleep. "Our friends are already free from
    you."
    Tsarmina controlled her mounting temper by burying her claws in a russet
    apple. "That's as may be. But consider your own position. You two aren't free,
    and you're not likely to be, until you get some sense into your heads and
    answer my questions. D'you hear me?"
    The wildcat's threats fell upon deaf ears. Ferdy and Coggs lay with their
    heads resting against each other, nodding slightly as they snored. They were
    both fast asleep.
    Cludd touched them gently with his spearbutt. "Huh, it beats me why you don't
    string 'em both up and give 'em a taste of your claws, Milady. That'd soon
    make them talk."
    Tsarmina's voice was tinged with heavy sarcasm. "You would think that,
    thickhead. How long d'you suppose they'd last with that treatment? These two
    are valuable hostages.
    108
    Carry them down to the cells and lock them up for the night. We'll see if they
    are hungry enough to talk business tomorrow."
    Gingivere heard the sound of an upstairs door opening. Someone was coming.
    It was Cludd, accompanied by Ashleg and Fortunata. A key turned in the lock of
    the cell to the wildcat's immediate left. He heard Cludd's voice giving
    orders.
    "Right. One in here, and one in the cell on the other side of the prisoner
    whose name must not be mentioned by Milady's order. They must be kept apart."
    When the trio had departed, Gingivere reflected upon this new development.
    Whoever the prisoners were, he knew that Chibb the robin would be interested
    next time he visited Ko-tir.
    109
    Young Dinny the mole knocked upon Bella's study door with his heavy digging
    claw.
    "Hello, who is it?" Gonff's voice rang out from within.
    "Hurr, it be Young Din. Miz Goody sent oi with these yurr viddles furr 'ee."
    Martin opened the door and admitted the mole balancing a tray of food. Young
    Dinny blinked. The inside of the study was a mass of dust, scrolls, open
    drawers and general confusion. As Bella took the tray from the mole, Gonff
    leaped upon him from the desktop. They rolled about together on the floor,
    wrestling and hugging each other at the same time. Gonff laughed joyfully.
    "Young Din, whereVe you been keeping yourself, me old dtggin' mate?"
    Dinny gained the upper paw and sat on Gonff. "Wurr you'm been, zurr GonfFen?
    You'm a-gettin' fatter, hurr."
    Gonff introduced his mole friend to Martin while struggling to heave Dinny
    off. "Matey, this is Young Dinny, the strongest mole in Mossflower."
    The young mole allowed Gonff to get up. He smiled modestly as he shook paws
    with Martin.
    "Naw, oi baint the strongest. Moi owd granfer Dinny, 'ee be the moightiest
    mole in these yurr parts, even tho' 'ee seen many summers. Oi be 'onored to
    meet 'ee, Marthen."
    Martin took an instant liking to the friendly mole. They
    110
    sat and shared the food while Bella explained the nature of the search.
    Dinny gazed around at the masses of dusty scrolls littering the room. "Oi'd
    best lend a paw or winter'11 be upon uz afore *ee foinds owt."
    The search was proving long and fruitless. Cupboards were turned out, the desk
    emptied, shelves were scoured without success. The bulk of the scrolls were
    mainly old Brockhall records. Some were Bella's recipes, others dealt with
    woodland lore—none of them filed in any system. Bella brushed dust from her
    coat and sighed.
    "I'm afraid it's all a bit higgledy-piggledy. I Ve been meaning to put them in
    order for some seasons now, but I never had time to get around to it."
    Martin banged his paw on the desktop in frustration. "If only we knew ex ...
    oof!"
    A secret drawer shot out from the desk, catching the warrior mouse heavily in
    his stomach. He sat down, surprised and winded.
    Bella took the single yellowed parchment from the drawer and read its contents
    aloud.
    To the mountain of fire where badgers go,
    The path is fraught with danger.
    The way is long and hard and slow,
    Through foe and hostile stranger.
    The warrior's heart must never fail,
    Or falter on his quest.
    Those who live to tell the tale,
    First must turn the crest.
    Gonff looked bemused. "Is that all?"
    Martin took the parchment and scanned it carefully on both sides. "Yes, that
    seems to be it."
    Bella sat in her chair with an air of resignation. "Well, there doesn't appear
    to be much to go on."
    Dinny tapped the parchment with his digging claws. "Hurr, It be a start, tho'.
    This yurr's a clue may'aps." ;- Martin brightened up. "Of course, it tells us
    how to start. Look: "Those who live to tell the tale, first must turn the >'
    111
    crest.' Bella, you would know, what does it mean by, "turn the crest'?"
    The badger pondered awhile. "I think it refers to the Brockhall shield—that's
    the badger family crest. It takes the form of a shield with the great oak of
    Brockhall on one half and the stripes of a badger on the other. Beneath it is
    a scroll bearing our family motto: To serve at home or afar."
    "But where is this crest and how do we turn it?" GonfF asked, scratching his
    whiskers.
    Bella stood up. "I know of at least two places where it may be seen. The first
    is on the door knocker of Brockhall, and the second over the hearth in the
    main hall. Come on, let's try them both."
    The four friends trooped out to the front door, where Bella seized the rusty
    iron door knocker and twisted it sharply. The old metal snapped under the
    considerable strength of the badger, who stood holding it in her paw with a
    slightly guilty expression.
    "Oops! I think I've broken it."
    Young Dinny shrugged. "Never moind, Miz Bell, moi granfer'll fix it for 'ee.
    Whurr's t'other un?"
    The crest over the hearth was carved into the top lintel of the wide
    fireplace. Martin turned to Bella.
    "I think I'd better try this one. My paws aren't as heavy as yours. Could you
    lift me up there, please?"
    Bella obliged by picking the warrior mouse up as if he was a feather and
    placing him on the broad lintel.
    Martin leaned over, gripping the protruding crest that had been carved on the
    fire-blackened oak-root beam. He tried turning it without success. Gonff
    climbed nimbly up beside him.
    "Here, matey, let me try. Maybe you haven't got the magic touch." From his
    pouch the mousethief drew a piece of cheese and rubbed it around the edges of
    the crest.
    * 'Give it a moment for the grease to work its way into the cracks. It
    shouldn't take long—this mantel's quite warm from the fire."
    GonfTs talents had not been wasted. After a short interval he wiped his paws
    upon his jerkin and gave the crest a skillful twist. It moved!
    112
    "Here, matey, lend a paw. Jiggle it from side to side with me, like this. Pull
    outward as you do."
    Martin assisted Gonff. The entire crest started to move outward. Bella stood
    ready to catch the hollow wooden cylinder—it dropped into her waiting paws.
    Martin and Gonff eagerly clambered down from the lintel.
    Dinny danced about excitedly. "Gurr, do 'urry, Miz Bell. Is it the map of
    Sammerlandersturm?"
    The badger looked gravely at the young mole. "Haste will only put us on the
    wrong track, Dinny. Let us take each step carefully.' *
    Bella upended the cylinder and peered into its open end. "Here, Gonff, there's
    a scroll inside. Your paws are a lot more nimble than mine—see if you can get
    it out without damaging it."
    The clever mousethief had the parchment out and opened in a twinkling. They
    studied the writing; it was a bold and heavy old-fashioned style. Bella
    smiled.
    "The paw of my grandsire old Lord Brocktree did this. You must understand that
    only male badgers went to Sala-mandastron. Each one left clues for his son to
    follow. This was written for my father Boar to solve. Unfortunately, Boar had
    no son to leave a map for, so after he had solved Lord Brocktree's riddles he
    carefully replaced everything in the hope that one day another young son of
    our house would find mem."
    Bella sniffed and looked away. "Alas, maybe my little one Sunflash might have
    followed these clues, had he been here today."
    Young Dinny rubbed the back of his velvety paw against Bella's coat. "Hurr,
    doant fret 'eeself Miz Bell, us'ns foind it furr 'ee."
    Martin had been toying with the wooden cylinder. He shook it and tapped the
    sides. Some leaves fell out.
    "Look, Bella. What do you suppose this means?"
    The badger shrugged. "They're just old leaves. Let's see what the parchment
    says,"
    Boar is badger, named after wood,
    Not after forest but trees.
    Where did you play on a rainy day?
    113
    Where did I eat bread and cheese?
    Search inside, stay indoors,
    Look up and find the secret is yours.
    Your castle your fort,
    Or so you thought.
    The way is in four trees.
    The way is in Boar in Brockhall
    Under ale, under bread, under cheese.
    Martin leaned back against the fireplace. "Phew! That's a right old riddle and
    no mistake."
    Back in Bella's study, they sat pondering the evidence. A long time passed and
    still they could not even begin to unravel the complicated thread of the poem.
    Gonff was becoming disgruntled. He lay on the floor, drumming his paws against
    the armchair.
    "Huh, woods and trees and bread and cheese, rainy days and castles and forts.
    What a load of old twaddle!"
    Dinny had commandeered the armchair again. He sat back with eyes closed
    lightly as if taking a nap.
    "Keep 'ee paws still, Gonffen, oi be a-thinken."
    Bella pursed her lips and crinkled her brow. " 'Boar is badger named after
    wood.' I never knew my father was named after a wood."
    Gonff rolled over onto his back. "If he was named after the wood, he'd be
    called Mossboar or Boarflower or Moss-boarflower ..."
    Martin silenced the mousethief with a stern look. "Please, Gonff, we're
    supposed to be solving the riddle, not fooling about. The second line tells
    you that Boar is not named after the forest, but after the trees."
    "Oi baint never 'card of no Boartrees, nor oi 'spect 'as moi granfer," Dinny
    chuckled.
    Bella agreed. "Neither have I, there's elm and birch and sycamore and all
    kinds of trees, but no Boartree. I wonder if that's an old nickname for some
    type of tree?"
    Gonff sat up. "Say that again, Bella."
    The badger looked at him, puzzled. "What, you mean about Boar being a nickname
    for some kind of tree?"
    "No, I think I see what Gonff means," Martin interrupted.
    114
    "You said there were all kinds of trees, like elm, birch, sycamore, and so on.
    Dinny, where d'you think you're off to? I thought you were helping us to solve
    this riddle."
    The young mole trundled out of the study, calling over his shoulder. "Burr,
    that be 'zackly wot oi'm a-doen, goen t'get they owd leafs wot you'm founden
    afor."
    "Of course! The leaves!" Gonff leapfrogged over Dinny's back before he was out
    of the door. Dashing back into the main hall, he scrabbled about collecting
    the leaves while Dinny followed up, berating him.
    "Yurr, that be moi idea, zurr Gonffen, 'ee gurt mouse-bag."
    They brought the leaves back to the study between them. All four looked at the
    dried, withered specimens despondently.
    "They're only dead leaves, many seasons old, but what are they supposed to
    mean?"
    Bella touched them lightly with her paw. "Well, let's see. There's four leaves
    here—an ash, an oak, a rowan, and a beech. There's nothing written or sketched
    on them. What do you make of it, Martin?''
    The warrior mouse inspected the leaves. He arranged them in patterns, turned
    them over and rearranged them, shaking his head.
    "I don't know. Ash, beech, rowan, oak; rowan, oak, , beech, ash. Search me."
    : Gonff smiled in a highly superior way. "Listen, matey, it's [ a good job I'm
    a Prince of leaf-puzzle solvers. Try this: beech, '•: oak, ash, rowan!"
    !. "Is this another one of your jokes, Gonff?" Bella asked, ;' eyeing him
    sternly.
    :s Gonff placed the leaves in order, still smiling. "If it is a r joke, then
    it's a very clever one, you'll admit. Beech, oak, I ash and rowan in that
    order, can't you see, it's the first letter ; of each one. B then o then a
    then r, spells Boar." iji, Bella shook her paw warmly. "You're right. Boar is
    badger, k;named after wood. And look at this line lower down: The ^:way is in
    four trees.' "
    !/ Dinny clapped his paws together with excitement. "O joy, Uiow we'm
    agetten sumwheres. Roight, thinken carps on." H' "Yes. Look at this line:
    'Search inside, stay indoors.* At
    115
    least we know the map is somewhere in Brockhall; we don't have to go out
    scouring the woods."
    "But where indoors?"
    "Where Boar played on rainy days."
    "Boar the Fighter, playing?"
    "Ho aye, 'ee mustVe played when he'm a liddle un."
    "Good thinking, Din!"
    "Now, 'where did I eat bread and cheese?' D'you think that'd be Boar having
    his lunch?"
    "Nay, that'd be thy granfer, Miz Bell."
    "Of course. Boar was very close to old Lord Brocktree. It's quite probable
    he'd be playing around near him while Brocktree was eating."
    "Aye, but there's the difficult bit: 'Your castle your fort.' Where's there a
    castle or a fort inside Brockhall?"
    "No no, look at the next line; 'Or so you thought.' Didn't you ever play
    make-believe with something when you were little?"
    "Haha, I still do, matey."
    "Hurr, we'm know that, zurr. Coom on, Miz Bell. Show us'ns whurr Bowar did
    play when 'ee wurr a liddle un."
    They wandered haphazardly from room to room. Every so often Bella would stop,
    look about and shake her head, muttering, "I'm not too sure, my father never
    talked too much about playing when he was little. Besides, I wasn't even born
    then."
    Martin paused between the passage and the main hall. "Then think for a minute.
    Did your father ever say where Lord Brocktree went to eat his bread and
    cheese?"
    "Hmm, not really. I expect he ate it at the table like any civilized creature
    would do indoors."
    "The table!"
    They hurried into the main hall to where the huge dining table stood.
    Gonff rapped it with his claws. "Well, a good stout table, looks like it's
    made from elmwood. What do you do now?"
    Bella had a faraway look in her eyes. "Wait, I remember now. Lord Brocktree
    was a crusty old soul. I recall my father telling me that he refused to eat at
    this big table, said he needed a spear to reach for things from the other end.
    So one day he made a table of his own, just big enough for him to
    116
    sit at and handy, so that his bread and cheese and ale were all close to paw.
    It's out in the kitchen. Grandfather loved the beat from the oven. Besides, he
    used to dip his bread into any pans of sauce that were cooking. He liked it
    out there."
    Standing in the kitchen was the very table Bella had told diem about. Gonff
    climbed on top of it and stood looking upward.
    "Doesn't make sense, matey. All I can see is the ceiling. The riddle says:
    'Look up and find the secret is yours.' "
    Bella sat in the chair, spreading her paws across the table. "This is it. The
    answer is in this table somewhere. Look, my grandfather made it from beech,
    oak, ash and trimmed it with rowan wood. Do you know, I can picture my father
    sitting at this table just as his father did before him, eating bread and
    cheese and drinking October ale."
    Martin had not spoken. He was staring at Bella as she sat at the table. It
    came to him like a flash.
    "While you played underneath it. It probably had a table cloth on it then."
    Bella smiled at fond memories. "Yes, a big white one. I would pretend it was
    my tent."
    The warrior mouse scrambled underneath the table,
    "Not Boar the Fighter, though. He'd probably pretend it was a fort or a
    castle. Ha, here's an odd thing. Underneath here is covered with a few pieces
    of chestnut bark. Pass me your knife, Gonff."
    Martin worked away underneath the table, cutting the chestnut bark and tossing
    it out. The other three inspected each piece of bark for clues without
    success. Dinny sniffed |t and raked it with his claws.
    "O foozlum! Thurr baint nuthen yurr."
    "There's something here though. It's the map!" Martin's
    TOice could not conceal his delight. He came tumbling out
    with a pale bark scroll in his paws. "It was laid between the
    bark and the table. Look, it's covered with strange writing."
    ,. Bella took the scroll. "Haha, this is ancient badger script.
    'Right, back to my study. I'll have to translate it. Thank you,
    'k my friends. This is the route to Salamandastron, Once weVe
    * solved it, you are on your way!"
    117
    Gingiverc hacked away at the cell wall. As soon as the guards had gone, he set
    about trying to communicate with the prisoners on either side of him. From the
    damp mortar between the stones of his cell he had prised loose a spike that
    had a ring attached to it for securing unruly prisoners. Armed with the spike,
    the wildcat selected a damp patch on one adjoining cell wall, and worked
    furiously at the mortar around a stone which was not quite so big as the
    others forming the barrier. Soon he had it loose. Digging and jiggling, he
    pulled and pushed alternately until the rock slid out, aided by a shove from
    the prisoner on the other side. A small wet snout poked through.
    "Hello, Ferdy. It's me, Coggs."
    Gingivere smiled, glad to hear the sound of a friendly voice. He patted the
    snout encouragingly.
    "Sorry, old fellow, it's not Coggs. I'm Gingivere—a friend. Coggs is in the
    cell on the other side of me. You stay quiet and I'll see if I can Bet through
    to him."
    "Thank you, Mr. Gingivere. Are you a wildcat?"
    "Yes I am, but no need to worry. I won't harm you. Hush now, little one, let
    me get on with my work.' *
    Ferdy stayed silent, peering through the hole at Gingivere, who was hacking
    stolidly at the opposite wall. It took a long time. Gingivere's paws were sore
    from grappling with the stone, chipping the mortar, and pulling this way and
    that until
    118
    the rock finally gave and shifted. With Gingivere pulling from one side and
    Coggs pushing from the other, the wallstone plopped out onto the floor.
    "Hello, Mr. Gingivere. I'm Coggs. Is Ferdy there?"
    The wildcat shook the paw which protruded from the hole. "Yes, Coggs. If you
    look you'll see him through the hole from his cell."
    The two little hedgehogs looked through at each other.
    "Hi, Coggs."
    "Hi, Ferdy."
    "The guards will be coming shortly with bread and water for me," Gingivere
    interrupted. "I'll share it with you. Go back into your cells now and stay
    quiet. When Chibb arrives tomorrow I'll let him know you two are here."
    Gingivere replaced the stone without much difficulty. He saw awaiting the
    guards with his daily ration of bread and water, realizing for the first time
    in a long and unhappy period that he was able to smile again.
    A questing-o the friends did go,
    Companions brave and bold,
    O'er forest, field and flowing stream,
    Cross mountains high and old.
    These brave young creatures journeying
    Along the road together,
    While birds did sing throughout the spring,
    Into the summer weather.
    "Gonff, will you stop prancing about and caterwauling while we're trying to
    solve this chart? Dinny, chuck some-tiling at that fat little nuisance, will
    you, please?"
    Martin scratched his head as he and Bella turned back to die scroll. Young
    Dinny obliged by hurling an armchair cushion that knocked the mousethief flat
    upon his bottom.
    "Thurr, thad'll keep *ee soilent apiece, zurr Gonffen. You'm a roight liddle
    noisebag, stan' on moi tunnel, you'm arr."
    Gonff lay on the floor, resting his head upon the cushion; he hummed snatches
    of further new verses he was planning. Martin and Bella pored over the writing
    on the scroll, gleaning the information and writing it upon a chart with a
    quill
    119
    pen. The wording was in ancient badger script that only Bella could translate.
    Young Dinny called out from Bella's armchair, where he was ensconced, "Wot we
    gotten so furr, Marthen?"
    Martin read aloud:
    Given to Lady Sable Brock by Olav Skyfurrow the wild-goose, after she found
    him injured in Mossflower and tended his hurts. The beacon that my skein find
    its way to the sea by is called the strange mountain of fire lizard.
    Here Martin had marked a star with the word thus: *Salamandastron.
    We of the free sky do wing our way there. But if you be an earth walker, it
    will be a long hard journey. Here is the way I will tell you to go. I begin as
    I fly over Blackball:
    Twixt earth and sky where birds can fly,
    I look below to see
    A place of wood with plumage green
    That breezes move like sea.
    Behind me as the dawn breaks clear,
    Woodpigeons come awake,
    See brown dust roll, twixt green and gold,
    Unwinding like a snake.
    So fly and sing, the wildgoose is King.
    O'er golden acres far below,
    Our wings beat strong and true,
    Where deep and wet, see flowing yet,
    Another snake of blue.
    Across the earth is changing shape,
    With form and color deep,
    Afar the teeth of land rise up,
    To bite the wool of sheep.
    So fly and sing, the wildgoose is King.
    Beyond this, much is lost in mist,
    But here and there I see
    The treachery of muddy gray,
    Tis no place for the free.
    O feathered brethren of the air,
    120
    >
    Fly straight and do not fall,
    Onward cross the wet gold flat,
    Where seabirds wheel and call.
    So fly and sing, the wildgoose is King.
    The skies are growing darker, see
    Our beacon shining bright.
    Go high across the single fang
    That burns into the night.
    We leave you now as we wing on,
    Our journey then must be
    Where sky and water meet in line,
    And suns drown in the sea.
    So fly and sing, the wildgoose is King.
    Gonff came across and stared at the scroll. "Well, old wotsisname Skyftirrow
    was nearly as good a bard as me. Bet he wasn't half as clever a thief, though,
    matey."
    Martin shook his head. "It's certainly a strange route to . follow, given in
    goose song, written in ancient badger, and translated into common woodland. Do
    you think weVe missed anything, Bella?"
    The badger looked indignant. ' 'Certainly not. It's all there, word for word.
    I'll have you now that female badgers are great scholars, though I must say it
    all looks very cryptic to me."
    Young Dinny clambered out of the armchair and squinted : at Martin's neat
    writing.
    "Urr, triptick, wot be that? Stan' on moi tunnel, it be wurse'n maken 'oles in
    waiter, ho urr."
    Gonff stifled a giggle. "You certainly have a way with words, Din. Ah well,
    let's get our thinking caps on and imagine we're all Sky furrows."
    Martin clicked his paws together. "Right! That's exactly what we have to do.
    Imagine the ground from up above as if f we were birds."
    & Tsarmina stood watching the dawn break over Mossflower |£ from her chamber
    window. Mist rose in wisps from the tree-£.tops as the sun climbed higher in a
    pale blue cloudless sky.
    gThe wildcat Queen was highly pleased with her latest plan;
    f the woodlanders must have realized the two baby hedgehogs
    121
    were missing, and they would send out search parties. Tsar-mina detailed Cludd
    and another weasel named Scratch, acting as his deputy, to patrol the woods,
    along with a picked group of twenty or so. They would travel light, unhampered
    by the usual Kotir armor. They could act as a guerilla force, lying in wait to
    capture any woodlanders they came across and sabotaging resistance wherever
    they encountered it.
    She watched them slip out of the perimeter gate, armed with their own choice
    of weapons and equipped with rations. The wildcat Queen curled her lip in
    satisfaction. There was no need to try interrogating her two prisoners further
    at the moment; let them stay in their cells until they were starving. It was
    always easier to interview creatures who had not eaten for a few days. Two
    small hedgehogs trying to pit their wits against the Queen of the Thousand
    Eyes—what chance did they have?
    Scratch was a fairly observant weasel. He jabbed skyward with his dagger.
    "See that robin, Cludd?"
    Cludd noted that Scratch had omitted to call him Captain. He looked up, but
    Chibb had flown from view.
    "What robin? Where?"
    Scratch sheathed his dagger. "You've missed him now. I could have sworn it was
    the same bird I've noticed hanging about outside the barracks a few times.
    Always ends up somewhere near the ground, hidden."
    Cludd was reluctant to believe that Scratch was more alert than he.
    "Hmm, it might be summat or nothing. Woodlanders don't usually have much to do
    with birds. Still, we'd best be on the safe side. Hoi, Thicktail, make your
    way back to Kotir and tell Milady about that robin. Don't breathe a word to
    anyone else, though. I don't want Ashleg or that fox stealing any of my
    credit."
    Thicktail saluted, and jogged off in the direction of Kotir.
    Scratch looked at the thickly wooded area they were in. "Perhaps we'd better
    lie low here awhile. That way we can have a rest while we keep our eyes and
    ears open, eh, Cludd?"
    122
    Cludd knew the idea was a sensible one, but Scratch was beginning to annoy him
    with his insubordinate manner.
    "Aye, I was just thinking the same thing myself. Right, lads, pick good hiding
    places and keep your eyes and ears open. But just let me catch anyone snoozing
    and I'll have his tail for a bootlace. That goes double for you, Scratch."
    As the special patrol dispersed among the trees, Scratch stuck out his tongue
    at Cludd's back, muttering beneath his breath, "Cludd the clod thick as mud."
    Thicktail did not like being out in Mossfiower alone, even in broad sunny
    daylight. The stoat scurried through the trees looking furtively from left to
    right; as he went he repeated Cludd's instructions aloud to himself, "Tell the
    Queen that there's been a robin redbreast hanging about Kotir grounds. It
    flies down low and vanishes near the floor. Cludd thinks that it might be
    something to do with those woodlanders. Now, I'm to say nothing to Fortunata
    or Ashleg. Huh, if they ask me I'll just tell them that I had to come back
    because I sprained my paw. I'd better practice limping on it just in case."
    Argulor was making a wide sweep from Kotir over the forest; this way he could
    fool anyone at Kotir into thinking he had flown away. He was about to circle
    back when he heard the voice below him and saw a stoat limping about in the
    undergrowth.
    "I must tell the Queen that a robin has seen Cludd hanging about. No, that's
    not right. I must tell the robin that Cludd has been hanging the Queen ..."
    Argulor did not require perfect sight to tell him where his next noisy meal
    was. He dropped like a stone to the forest below.
    A stone with talons and a curving beak.
    Bella's study was still awash in a litter of old documents.
    •They slid from the desk, which still had its secret drawer
    -hanging askew. Several food trays stood balanced here and Jthere amid the
    dust. The scroll and four leaves that had led , the friends to the route lay
    on the arm of the big armchair, i where Dinny sat snuggled in its deep
    cushioned seat. Bella leaned against the desk. She did not mind the young mole
    123
    borrowing her favourite chair, though he did seem to be growing rather fond of
    it. Martin paced up and down. At each turn he had to step over Gonff. The
    little mousethief lay stretched out on a worn carpet that covered the study
    floor. Martin was having trouble imagining himself as a bird. The mere mention
    of heights made the ground-loving Young Dinny feel sick and dizzy. Gonff,
    however, was displaying a fine aptitude for a mousebird.
    "Ha, 'I look below to see a place of wood with plumage green that breezes move
    like sea.' It's as plain as the whiskers on your face, mateys. He means good
    old Mossflower Woods, right where we are."
    Bella closed her eyes, picturing herself in flight. "Hmm, I suppose that our
    woods would look like water moving in the wind from above. Carry on, Gonff.
    What's next?"
    "Er, 'Behind me as the dawn breaks clear, woodpigeons come awake.' "
    "Burr, doant you uns see, dawnbreak, sunroise. Goose-burd be a-tellen us'ns to
    traverse westerly," Young Dinny called out from the armchair.
    Martin shook Dinny's paw. "Good mole! Of course, if the sun rises in the east
    and dawnbreak is behind him, then he must be traveling due west. Well solved,
    Young Dinny."
    The mole gave a huge grin, settling deeper into the armchair. "Ho urr, this
    yurr young mole ain't on'y a digger. Oi seed they woodenpidger waken at
    dawnen, gurr, tumble no-isebags they be, all that cooen. Goo on, wot's next
    bit o' poartee?'"
    Gonff continued, "The poetry says, 'See brown dust roll twist green and gold,
    unwinding like a snake.' "
    Bella nodded knowingly. "Aha, friend Olav gave me an easy one there. I know
    the very place. Between the woods and the fiatlands south of Kotir, the road
    has a twist in it. I've walked down it many times and thought it was just like
    a snake trying to slough its skin."
    Gonff shuddered at the mention of snake. "So, mateys, we walk through the
    woods, heading west, and cross the path below Kotir. Then there's only one way
    we can go. Straight out across the flatlands and the open plains, like the
    poem says, 'O'er the golden acres' to where the 'snake of blue' lies—brr,
    snakes."
    124
    "That's no snake, Gonff," Martin interrupted. "It's the same as Bella's
    winding road, but this one is blue—it's a river. What puzzles me is the teeth
    of land eating the wool of sheep line."
    Bella stretched and yawned. "Whoo! I think we must be going stale sitting
    around this dusty old room. Sheep and land, wool and teeth ... Ah well, maybe
    we can't see the wood for the trees, but whatever it is, you'll know it when
    you see it. What do you want to do? Sit here half a season solving riddles, or
    follow the clues you already have and work the rest out as you go along? The
    supplies are packed and ready, you have your weapons, wits and youth to help
    you along—what more do you want?"
    Gonff supplied the answer. "A good matey to walk by your side through thick
    and thin."
    "You'ns baint leaven this yurr mole behoind."
    Martin and Gonff laughed heartily, Bella bowed apologetically to the mole.
    "Forgive me, Dinny. I did not know you wished to go questing."
    The young mole heaved himself up onto his hind paws. "Burr, you try V stop oi,
    Miz Bell. Tho' oi do 'ate to take leave of yon armchurr."
    125
    2O
    The Corim plan was beautifully simple.
    A party of woodlanders would set out with haversacks of provisions from a
    point near to Kotir, and Chibb was to be given the rations one sack at a time.
    That way he could make short journeys to the cell window, passing the food in
    to Gingivere. Abbess Germaine had reasoned it all out: the woodlanders were
    helping by carrying the food, Chibb would not be overtaxed by making many long
    flights and Gingivere would secretly share the rations with Ferdy and Coggs.
    Later, there would be time to mount a rescue operation, but it needed a great
    deal of careful planning between the Corim leaders.
    In the hour before dawn the two parties sat eating an early breakfast provided
    by Ben and Goody Stickle: hot scones, fresh from the oven, with butter and
    damson preserve and mugs of cold creamy milk.
    "Mmmff, lookit those otters and squirrels packin* it away. You'd think they
    was a-goin' away nigh on three seasons," Ben Stickle mumbled through a
    mouthful of hot scone.
    Goody topped up his beaker with milk. "Listen to the leaf a-callin* the grass
    green. You're worse'n any of 'em, Ben Stickle. Just you mind those two liddle
    'ogs of mine don't go 'ungry. See they gets their rations."
    Skipper tucked a spare scone in his sling pouch. "Don't
    126
    fret your head, marm. They'll both take on a cargo of vittles afore evenin'
    bell."
    Lady Amber raised her tail and waved it. "Righto. Form up, woodlanders
    carrying provisions in the center, squirrels and otters forming guard on
    flanks and scouting ahead. Martin, your party can walk with us part of the
    way."
    The sun was not yet up as they left Brockhall through the still slumbering
    forest. Both parties stole silently into the trees, waving goodbye to Bella,
    Abbess Germaine and Goody Stickle, who stood on the sward outside Brockhall.
    The old Abbess tucked her paws into the long sleeves of her habit. "Let us
    hope that both parties are successful."
    Goody Stickle blinked back a tear. "Let's 'ope my Ferdy and Coggs gets their
    proper nourishment."
    Bella watched the last of the party vanishing into the thicknesses of
    Mossflower.
    "Aye, and let us hope that Martin can bring back my father, Boar the Fighter,
    to save us all and free us from the vermin of Kotir."
    It was close to midday. Scratch and Ciudd lay beneath an old hornbeam. All
    around the troops lay hidden, most of them sleeping soundly. Cludd had spotted
    one or two soldiers and was about to recall them to duty with his spearbutt,
    when Scratch suddenly put a claw to his lips for silence and pointed to a
    break in the trees.
    The woodlanders marched by the sleeping soldiers, unaware that they were being
    watched. Skipper strode boldly in the lead, twirling his sling. Some of the
    otters had relieved the carriers of their loads. They strolled along,
    conversing with the Loarahedge mice. In the middle terraces of sycamore, plane
    and elm, Lady Amber swung from bough to limb with her archers.
    Scratch and Cludd watched the passage of the curious band in silence. Cludd
    hoped that none of the soldiers would waken noisily; he could practically
    taste reward and promotion. Rubbing his paws together in excitement, he nudged
    his companion.
    "By the claw, that lot can only be headed to one place— Rotir. Wait'11 the
    Queen hears about this, eh, Scratch."
    127
    As he rose, Scratch shoved him roughly back down. "Ssshh! Look over there."
    Coming through the trees in a slightly different direction, Martin, Dinny and
    Gonff marched along a path that would take them due west, skirting Kotir on
    its south side. Columbine had walked with Gonff, but now their paths were to
    part and she hurried away to join the others. As Cludd watched he made a
    mental note to pay Scratch back for banging his nose down into the dirt.
    Unaware of his Captain's displeasure, Scratch listened to the strains of Gonff
    singing his farewell to Columbine as she waved to him with a kerchief.
    Goodbye, Columbine.
    Now your path and mine
    Must part in the woods of Mossflow'r.
    Keep a lookout each day,
    For I '11 be back this way,
    In the noontide or cool evening hour.
    Scratch cackled. Fluttering his eyelids, he picked a daisy and sniffed it
    gustily. "Aaahh, isn't that romantic, now? The young mouse singing farewell to
    his sweetnear . . . ouch!"
    Cludd rapped him smartly between the ears with the flat of his spearblade.
    "Shut your trap, nitwit. D'you want the whole forest to hear you? Those three
    aren't going to Kotir. Oh no, they're bound for somewhere else. Now listen,
    greasy ears, here's what I want you to do. Take two others and follow them.
    Don't let them out of your sight. Find out where they're going and why, then
    report back to me."
    Scratch rubbed the top of his head indignantly. "Oh yes. Go off and follow
    those three. Who knows where they're going, or how long it'll take? Huh, you
    must think all the acorns have dropped off my tree, Cludd. I know where you'll
    be, mate—grabbing all the glory for yourself. 'Yes three, Milady, no Milady,
    three bags full Milady. I saw them first. Milady, so IVe sent daft old Scratch
    off chasing the odd three.' Hoho, I'm on to your little game, weasel."
    Cludd seized Scratch roughly by the ear and began twisting savagely. "So! Open
    rebellion, eh, Scratch. Now listen to me, you scruffy half-baked excuse for a
    soldier, if I have to report your disobedience to Her Majesty, she'll have you
    128
    staked out on the parade ground for eagle meat, d'you hear me? Now get going,
    wormbrain. Here, you two, Blacktooth ferret and Splitnose stoat, grab weapons
    and supplies. Go with Scratch. Jump to it, that's a direct order from me." The
    sulky-looking trio skulked off, muttering. "Old bossy boots Cludd, eh."
    "Huh, how he ever got to be Captain, I'll never know." "Take that spear away
    and he'd fall over flat on his nose." "Aye, Tsarmina's pet, the baby-hedgehog
    catcher." Cludd waited until they were gone, then shouldered his spear.
    "Right, me laddos. Up on your paws. We'll take the shortcut north back to the
    garrison, then Milady can arrange a warm welcome for her woodland visitors."
    Cludd put the remainder of his force into a swift jog trot. Soon the spot
    where the three paths had crossed was deserted as the last soldier vanished
    into the bright leafy shades of Mossflower.
    Toward evening, Tsarmina grew restless. She had the two prisoners brought up
    from the cells. The wildcat Queen was reluctant to admit to herself that she
    could not get the better of two little hedgehogs. Hunger, she decided, was a
    great tongue-loosener.
    Ferdy and Coggs stood before her, their eyes riveted to the 1)ig tray of
    crystallized fruit and nuts.
    Tsarmina popped one neatly into her mouth, delicately licking the sticky sugar
    coating from her claws one by one.
    "Mmm, delicious! I'll wager that either one of you two young 'uns could eat
    this entire tray in one go. Come on,
    •BOW. Don't be shy. First to talk a bit of sense gets them all." Coggs licked
    his lips. Ferdy grasped his paw and spoke
    oat for them both.
    "Huh, I'd swap all that lot for just one slice of our mum's
    apple pie."
    Tsarmina smiled winningly. "Of course you would. I sup-
    |X)se your mum makes the best apple pie in all Mossflower?"
    j; Coggs wiped his damp whiskers with the back of a paw.
    ^**Oh, I'll say she does. Hot out of the oven, with fresh cream
    boured on until it floats."
    I Tsarmina nodded agreeably. "Lovely. That's just the way
    | like it. By the way, what do they call your mother?"
    •
    no
    Ferdy was caught completely off guard. "Goody."
    "Goody what?" The wildcat Queen kept up a friendly purr.
    Coggs kicked Ferdy and interrupted, "Goody, goody. We love our mum's apple
    pie, and that's all weVe got to say!"
    Tsarmina scowled irritably and pushed the tray of sweetmeats away. "Guards!
    Take these two little fools and lock them up again. They'll learn what hunger
    is a week from now."
    As they were marched off, Coggs shouted bravely, "Aye, and you'll see how
    woodland warriors can still behave two weeks from now, cat."
    Far below at the prison window bars, Chibb earnestly discussed the new plan
    with Gingivere.
    Gonff was first to complain as evening fell over the woodlands. "Phew, it's a
    while since I trudged this far, mateys. What d'you say, this looks a likely
    place for the night, then we can get a fresh start in the morning?"
    Young Dinny inspected the site. It was a dead chestnut stump, with a small
    hole between the two main roots.
    "Hurr, oi knows this yurr gaff. Slep' yurr many a noight. 'Ee'll do."
    Martin crouched as he made his way into the confined space. "Just about enough
    room for the three of us. We'd better call it a day. Break out some supper,
    Gonff."
    While Gonff set the food out, Dinny scooped loam around the entrance, leaving
    a small space for observation. The mole had no sooner finished his task when
    he held up a paw.
    "Usher now. Cum by 'ere an' lookit."
    Silently they gathered round and watched as Scratch blundered noisily through
    the undergrowth, followed by Splitnose and Blacktooth.
    "Haha, look out. The bogey Cludd's behind you."
    "Fat chance! He'll probably be stuffing his face back at Kotir."
    "Aye, and getting ready to sleep in a dry bed, too,"
    "No sign of the mice and the mole yet, Scratch?"
    "It's getting so dark I can't see my own paws, let alone a mice and a mole.
    Come on, let's get clear of this forest while
    130
    we can. If we reach the road, there's a dry ditch where we can camp the
    night."
    "Hey, Blacktooth, stop scoffing those rations. There'll be none left for us."
    "Aah, there's plenty. Anyhow, I'm starving."
    "You're starving! I haven't had a bite since breakfast myself. Here, give me
    that food."
    "No, I won't. Leggo, you big grabber!"
    "Here, I'll take charge of that, you two. Garr, you greedy nits, it's spilled
    all over the place now. You've dropped it."
    "It wasn't me, it was him. He shoved me, clumsy paws."
    "Clumsy paws yourself, greedy guts. Take that!"
    "Owoo! I'll report you to Cludd when we get back."
    "Oh, go and report your mother."
    In the hole beneath the chestnut tree the three friends held their sides in
    silent mirth, tears running down their whiskers as they watched the antics of
    the searchers, who fumbled and •bungled their way off into the darkness, still
    arguing and fighting.
    "Gurr, moi goodness, us'ns been 'unted by those 'oller'eads. Burr, yon
    vermints cudden 'unt their way outer a shallow 'ole."
    Gonff handed cheese to Martin. "No wonder. Did you bear who their boss is,
    matey? Old Cludd the clod. He couldn't order his own two ears to stand up
    straight."
    Martin put his supper to one side. "Maybe not, but he was
    smart enough to spy on us without our knowing it. I think
    we should treat them as enemies. That way we won't be
    ,j caught off guard. Anyhow, let's get some supper and sleep.
    :\ WeVe got a long day ahead tomorrow."
    5 From the window of her high chamber, Tsarmina's eyes ^pierced the night with
    the keenness of a predator. She saw '•iCludd and his special patrol hurrying
    to Kotir from the north ^'fringes, then sweeping her gaze in an arc she noted
    a move-
    at the south edge of the forest. Woodlanders! Tsarmina rushed to the table and
    rang her little bell vig-
    . A ferret named Raker came scurrying in. _ "Quickly, alert the entire
    garrison. Have them form up
    131
    inside the barracks awaiting my orders. Tell them to be silent. Send Cludd to
    me. He'll be arriving shortly."
    Raker wondered how Tsarmina knew of Cludd's imminent arrival, but he did not
    dare ask her how. He held up his Thousand Eye shield in a smart salute.
    "Right away, Milady."
    Tsarmina peered intently at the band of otters, mice, and hedgehogs. She noted
    the ripple in the treetops—squirrels too. This time she had the element of
    surprise on her side. She did not intend wasting it. Now they would leam the
    meaning of the word fear.
    Halfway down the stairs she bumped into Cludd, who was dashing up to her
    chamber to make his report.
    "Milady, I have gathered some expert knowledge on the movements of the
    woodla—"
    "Yes, I already know. Form your patrol up and get down to the main barracks
    quickly."
    "But, Majesty, there was a robin flying through the woods and I told Thic—"
    Tsarmina whirled upon the slow-witted weasel. "Robin? What rubbish are you
    spouting now? What d'you think I care about a robin? Get out of my sight, you
    useless lump."
    Cludd stood, bewildered, on the stairway as she brushed past. There was no
    point in trying to talk to Tsarmina when she was in one of her moods.
    The highest tree near the south side of Kotir was a stately elm. Chibb was
    perched in its branches when he sighted the woodlanders.
    "Ahem, harrumph! Over here, please, and keep quiet. We don't want any eagles
    waking up."
    Skipper threw a smart nautical salute with his tail. "Ahoy there, mate. Is
    everything shipshape?"
    Chibb paced to and fro upon the branch. "Ahem, well I must say it appears to
    be, harrumph. Though I have my doubts."
    Lady Amber dropped in beside him, and the nervous robin leaped with fright.
    "Madam! Ahem, kindly have the goodness to announce your presence in a less
    startling manner."
    132
    Ben Stickle and the rest were unloading packs of rations at die foot of the
    elm. Columbine looked upward at the robin.
    "D'you know, Ben, for some reason I feel as uneasy as Chibb."
    Ben loaded the packs on the squirrels, who scampered up the trunk as if it
    were level ground.
    "Aye, m'dear, I know 'xactly how you feel. I don't like this place one little
    bit meself."
    As if to punctuate the hedgehog's remark, an arrow whistled out of the
    darkness to stand quivering in the elm bark.
    "Ambush! Everyone take cover!" Lady Amber called aloud from her vantage point.
    Immediately, the mice and hedgehogs were screened by a wall of otters. Skipper
    bounded to the fore, ducking a spear as he swung a sling loaded with several
    stones.
    "Over yonder, crew. By those thickets. Give 'em a rattlin' good broadside,
    mates."
    Ranks of brawny otters made the air rain heavy with hard river stones.
    The dinting and thudding of rock upon armor and pelt was mingled with screams
    and cries from the ambushers.
    When the fusillade slackened, Tsarmina sprang forward, urging her attackers
    onward. "Charge. Rush them now. Up. Charge!"
    The soldiers pounded toward the woodlanders, yelling and shouting threats as
    they waved pikes, spears and javelins.
    •Lady Amber watched coolly. She notched an arrow to her
    •iwwstring as, all around her in the high branches, squirrels L followed her
    example. She laid her tail fiat along the bough Cof the elm.
    "Steady in the trees there. Let them get well into the open, Jfaen watch for
    my signal."
    Though one or two otters were down with spear wounds, "Skipper had heard Amber
    and he backed up her strategy. ;**Otter crew load up. Don't sling until the
    arrows are loosed."
    >w the Kotir army had covered over half the distance, For-lata slacked off,
    dropping back with Ashleg and Cludd.
    133
    Tsarmina alone led the field. Confident that the charge would carry the full
    distance, she turned to yell further encouraging words to her troops.
    Lady Amber decided they had come far enough. Her tail stood up like a banner
    as she called, "Archers, fire!"
    The waspish hiss of arrows halted the advance in its tracks, the back and
    middle ranks colliding with the fallen in front.
    "Slings away hard, crew!" Skipper's wild call boomed out across the melee.
    A second volley of stones flew thick and fast into the confused soldiers.
    Now Tsarmina was forced back into her own ranks. Furiously she began snarling
    out orders.
    "One rank crouching, one rank standing. Give me a wall of shields to the front
    and carry on advancing. Poke spears out between the gaps in the shields.
    Quick, fools. Foitunata, group archers at the rear. Tell them to fire over our
    heads into the woodlanders. Hurry!"
    Realization that they were in danger of being under serious attack galvanized
    the Kotir troops into action.
    Ben Stickle and Columbine were crawling about, whispering to the
    noncombatants,
    "Friends, help the wounded. Go with them quickly and quietly around the back
    of this tree. Foremole has arrived with help."
    They slid away, with Skipper's crew masking their retreat.
    The soldiers were firing arrows now. They rattled off tree trunks and stuck
    into the earth, some finding their mark among the woodlanders. The
    shield-fronted advance moved slowly but steadily forward.
    Skipper and Amber had coordinated their firepower. After the otters loosed
    stone and javelin, the squirrels shot their arrows, each giving the other a
    chance to reload, while keeping up continuous fire.
    "Slings away!"
    "Archers, fire!"
    Brush and Birch were two big competent squirrels. Following Lady Amber's
    directions, they swung off toward Kotir's
    134
    furthest side, carrying as many ration packs between them as possible. Chibb
    flew with them. All three were silent, and unseen by those in the fray below.
    Cludd's bellow urged the soldiers forward. "Come on, you lot. Stir your
    stumps, you laggards. Keep pushing on. We'll have 'em soon. You can have an
    otter apiece shortly."
    A stoat winced as a rock bounced off his spearshaft, sending shocks of pain
    through his claws. "Huh, I'll have a mouse or a wounded hedgehog, mate. Let
    Cludd and the Queen tackle those big otters."
    His companion, a weasel, nodded agreement. "Aye, let them have the glory.
    We'll be satisfied with the pickings."
    Seconds later he was silenced by an arrow.
    Lady Amber was beginning to get worried. She called down to Skipper, "We're
    almost out of arrows up here, Skip. There's too many of 'em. We can't stop
    their advance; it looks as if we've had it."
    Skipper's tongue was lolling as he tore off two large rocks from his sling.
    "There's nothing for it, marm. We'll just have to see how many of 'em we can
    take with us."
    135
    21
    Early morning was enveloped in white mist. It clung to tree and bush like a
    gossamer shawl, sparkling with dewdrops in the promise of a hot sunny day
    ahead.
    Eager to be on their way, the three friends broke fast as they traveled.
    Martin unpacked scones for them, Gonff doled out a russet apple apiece, and
    Dinny vanished into the mist, reappearing with a canteen of fresh spring
    water.
    Limbs loosened as the night stiffness receded. They stepped out at a brisk
    pace to Gonff's latest marching cttant.
    Sala-manda-stron, look out here we come, A thief, a warrior and a mole. Though
    the quest may take its toll, We'll march until we reach our goal,
    Sala-manda-stron.
    The flood of morning sun penetrated the mists, melting them into a yellowy
    haze. Martin and Gonff struggled to keep straight faces, listening to Dinny
    chanting the marching verse in mole tongue.
    "Salad-anna-sconn, lookit yurr'ee come."
    Still in fine fettle, they reached the outskirts of Mossflower Woods. Pushing
    on through the fringes, they found themselves facing a brown dirt road, which
    curved and bent like a snake. Beyond it lay the far dim expanses of the
    flatlands
    136
    shimmering in the heat. Between the path and the flatlands was a deep ditch,
    though because of the dry weather it contained only the merest trickle of
    water.
    The companions kept silent, remembering that Scratch and his aides might well
    be somewhere nearby.
    Gonff went back to the woods and returned with a long stout branch. Taking his
    knife, the mousetnief trimmed off the twigs.
    Martin watched with interest. "What are you up to, matey?" he asked, keeping
    his voice low.
    Young Dinny knew. "Ee'm maken a powl t'jump ditcher. Squirrelbeast do et iffen
    they baint no tree to swing offen."
    Martin took the pole and felt its balance. "Oh, I see. A vaulting pole. Good
    idea, Gonff.''
    Making sure his grip was firm on the pole near its top, Gonff leveled it in
    front of him.
    "Me first, Dinny next, then you, matey. Watch me and see how it's done. I'm a
    prince of vaulters, y'know."
    Gonff broke into a fast trot. With the pole held straight out, he sped across
    the road, then dipping the pole into the ditch he levered upward and out.
    Martin saw the pole bend, carrying Gonff high into the air. The momentum swung
    him easily across the ditch. He landed lightly on his paws and pushed the pole
    back to the mole.
    Dinny held it gingerly, whispering to Martin, "Murrsey, oi 'ates a leaven owd
    earth, 'tis on'y burds be so fool'ardy. Art well, yurr oi goo."
    Dinny performed a waddling little shuffle, jabbed the pole into the ditch and
    rose slowly into the air. The impetus was not sufficient to carry him across;
    he wavered in the air and began dropping back. Martin made a mad dash.
    Catching the pole low down, he thrust against it and whipped back with all his
    force. Dinny was catapulted away from the pole across the ditch. He hit the
    far bank near the top and was grabbed by Gonff, who helped him to scrabble
    out. Dinny lay kissing the grass, thankful to be back on firm ground.
    Martin's strength and fearlessness helped him to make the crossing with ease.
    He quite enjoyed the sensation of flying through the air. When Dinny was fully
    recovered, they commenced their journey into the flatlands.
    137
    They were not long gone when Blacktooth yawned and stretched himself in the
    ditch. The trackers had camped a short distance south of the vaulting area.
    Splitnose rolled over in his sleep and slid from the narrow strip of dry
    bottom into the slimy shallow water.
    "Yaauugghhh! You lousy vermin! Who did that? Come on, own up!"
    "Heeheehee! You did it yourself, puddenhead. It's a wonder you never carried
    on snoring."
    "What, me, snoring? Have you ever heard yourself? Sounds like a goose
    gargling."
    "Rubbish. I never slept a wink. Oh, I dropped off for a moment or two a while
    back. Funny, though. I dreamed I saw a mouse, just up that way apiece. Guess
    what? He flew across the ditch,"
    "Heeheehee oh ahaharr! He wasn't followed by Cludd pretending to be a swallow,
    was he?"
    "Ha, you can laugh, fatty. But it was almost as if I was awake. The mouse
    flew, I tell you."
    "Fatty yourself. That's what you get for hogging all those rations last night.
    It was a nightmare brought on by pure greed."
    "It was not. It was more like a daymare brought on by the hunger. I'm
    starving."
    Scratch ignored their arguing. Pulling himself from the ditch, he took a chunk
    of bread from his pack and began munching it.
    Splitnose and Blacktooth stopped fighting to complain.
    "Oi, that's not fair. You're supposed to be the leader. It's up to you to see
    we're properly fed."
    "That's right. I've only got a stingy little bit of crust and it's sopping wet
    from that stinking ditch water."
    Contemptuously Scratch threw a crust on the bank edge. "There you are. First
    out gets it."
    The ferret and the stoat fought tooth and claw. They kicked each other down in
    an effort to be first out of the ditch. Black-tooth won. He grabbed the crust
    as Splitnose wailed pite-ously, "Give me some, Blackie. Go on. I'd give you
    half if I had bread."
    "No you wouldn't, stoatface."
    "Yes I would."
    138
    "Wouldn't."
    "Would."
    Blacktooth relented with bad grace. "Oh, here, scringe-tail. Don't pig it all
    down in one gobful."
    "Aaahh, that's not fair. You've got the biggest half."
    Scratch had wandered further up the bank. He chewed on a young dandelion,
    pulled a face, spat it out and shouted, "Hoi, you two, stop bellyaching and
    look at this."
    They ambled up, chewing the last of the crust. "What is it?"
    Scratch shook his head in despair. "What do you think it is, loafbrains? Look,
    it's the track of those two mice and the mole. See, here and here, the
    pawprints are as clear as day. They're traveling west."
    Splitnose found the pole and held it up triumphantly. "Aha, another clue. They
    must have used this to climb out of the ditch on."
    "Oh chuck it away, bouldernose," Scratch sneered. "Huh, you'll be telling me
    next that they used it to fly through the air on. Come on, you two. At least
    we're on their trail."
    From the topmost branches of a beech on the south side of Kotir, Chibb checked
    the straps on his pack before flying off to the cells. Brush and Birch watched
    him flying into the thin dawn light, then Brush readied the next pack.
    "Shouldn't take too long, then we can nip back and see how the battle's
    going."
    Birch looked to his quiver. "I'm nearly out of arrows. Bet the others are,
    too. Tell you what—you stay here and see to the robin while I swing back to
    base. I'll gather all the arrows I can lay my paws on from the stores and take
    them to our archers."
    "Good idea. See you later, mate."
    Around the back of the elm, it was only a short distance from the heavy loam
    of the woodlands. Foremole led the little party, Columbine and Ben bringing up
    the rear with Soilflyer, a champion young digging mole. "Hurr on'y a
    liddleways, now gaffers," he chuckled secretively. 'Uz diggers do 'ave a foin
    tunnel awaiten fer *ee to excape thru." Gratefully they were helped into the
    broad tunnel dug by the
    139
    moles. As they progressed along it, Columbine could hear Soi!-flyer filling in
    behind them. Up ahead, Foremole said comfortingly to some mice, "Never 'ee
    fear, liddle guddbeasts. We'm a goen' to Moledeep. None may foind 'ee thurr."
    Tsarmina's determination was unabated. She pushed her forces ruthlessly
    forward.
    "Come on. Can't you see they aren't sending over as many arrows or stones?
    Keep going. We've got them."
    Fortunata's ear throbbed unmercifully. The vixen was lucky that the arrow had
    not struck a bit lower, or it would have been her skull. Clamping a pawful of
    her own herbs to the wound, she looked up dismally as a large squirrel swung
    in laden with quivers of arrows. The fox dropped back a few paces, muttering
    beneath her breath, "If you think you've got 'em, Milady, then go and get them
    yourself."
    Two of Skipper's crew were driving long sharp stakes into the ground at the
    base of the elm trunk. Earth had been piled around the stakes and leafy
    branches scattered on top. From a distance it looked for all the world like a
    crew of otters lying in wait, armed with spears.
    The newly arrived arrows drove the Kotir soldiers back a short distance,
    despite Tsarmina's threats and blandishments. Lady Amber checked to see that
    the moles had got away with their charges.
    "Is it ready, Skip?"
    Skipper held up a paw. "As ready as it'll ever be, marrn." "Good. We'll fire a
    last couple of heavy salvos while you slip off with the crew. See you back at
    Brockhall." "Aye. Good huntin', marm. Come on, crew." Once again Amber's tail
    stood up straight. "Archers, fire!"
    Tsarmina and Cludd heard the command.
    "Down flat, keep your heads down, shields up," Cludd bellowed to the soldiers.
    When the invaders lifted their heads, the otters were gone. There followed an
    eerie silence, broken only by the rustle of the treetops. Tsarmina knew this
    was the squirrels retreating. She straightened up and ventured a pace forward.
    Cludd joined her.
    140
    "Ha, bunch of cowards, eh, Milady. Looks like they've run away."
    Tsarmina peered toward the mound at the base of the elm. "Maybe, maybe not. I
    think they might have set up some sort of trap, or is that a crew of otters
    armed with spears? Take ten soldiers and investigate it, Cludd. Go on, we're
    here to back you up."
    Reluctantly Cludd selected ten creatures and set off gingerly for the enemy
    lines. He ducked once or twice when someone stepped on a twig. Finally he
    arrived at the mound. Knowing the danger had passed, Cludd kicked at a leafy
    bough, and prodded the mound with his spear.
    "All clear, Milady. It was only a stupid trick to make us think they were
    still here."
    "What about the squirrels, Cludd?" Fortunata sounded cautious.
    The weasel Captain peered upward into the elm branches then hurled his spear
    straight up. Several soldiers dodged out of the way as it landed back, point
    up in the mound. A small amount of twigs and leaves fell with it.
    "Not a hide nor hair of the lily-livered bunch!" Cludd puffed his chest out as
    he retrieved his spear.
    Relieved and exultant, the soldiers of Kotir rose up, cheering and stamping
    about in a victory dance.
    "We won, we won!" "Won what?" Tsarmina's voice rose angrily above the
    celebration. "Fools, can't you see it's an empty triumph: no plunder, no
    slaves, no submission. They've vanished completely, and what have we gained? A
    few yards of woodland that belongs to me anyway.''
    The sudden volley of arrows slashed down, taking them unawares. Soldiers threw
    up shields, diving headlong for the undergrowth. Even the wildcat Queen had to
    beat an undignified retreat behind the elm tree she had conquered.
    Once again the chattering derisory laughter of squirrels, as they swung off
    into the fastnesses of Mossflower, was all that remained of the woodlanders. •
    Gingivere had enlarged the two holes so that Ferdy and Coggs were able to
    squeeze through into his cell.
    Gleefully they upturned the contents of the first pack.
    "Good old mum's apple pie!"
    141
    "Ooh, elderberry cordial!"
    "Look, cheese and hazelnuts!"
    "Candied chestnuts, too. Hahaha, bet old Chibb didn't know about *em."
    "Come on, Mr. Gingivere. Here's some seedcake and milk. Let's have a secret
    supper together, then you can tell us the news from Chibb."
    Amidst the laughter, Gingivere brushed away a tear from his eye. He was
    delighted with the company of his two little hedgehog friends, after the long
    lonely confinement following his father's death.
    It was noontide when Martin and Dinny sat down to rest. Gonff stood surveying
    the vastness that surrounded them; undulating plain, flatland and moorland
    stretched away into the distance, the for horizon danced and shimmered in the
    unseasonal heat. Gonff thought he could detect a smudge on the horizon, but he
    could not be sure until they had traveled further. The mousethief turned,
    looking back to where they had come from.
    "Well, mateys, it's certainly a big wide world outside the woodlands and good
    old Mossflower. I can still glimpse it back there."
    Dinny lay back chewing a btade of grass. "Hurr hurr, an' can 'ee still see yon
    liddle mousemaid a-waven to 'ee?"
    Gonff shielded his eyes with his paw and played along. "Why yes, and there's
    someone else too. It looks like your grandad waving his stick. He wants that
    deeper 'n' ever pie that you stole from him."
    "That wasn't Dinny," Martin yawned. "You probably stole it. See anything
    else?"
    GonfFs whiskers twitched. "Aye, those three vermin that are tracking us. Looks
    like they've picked up our trail, matey."
    Martin and Dinny leaped up, staring in the direction Gonff was pointing.
    "There, see—a weasel, a ferret and a stoat. Now they've started to run. Why
    are they in a hurry all of a sudden?"
    "Prob'ly cos they'm soighted us'ns, now we studd up," Dinny suggested.
    "Aye, matey, you're right. Well, what do we do now, warrior? Stand and fight?
    You just say the word."
    142
    Martin gnawed his lip, stopping his paw from straying to die otter sling bound
    about his middle.
    "No, that's not what we're questing for. We'd be losing valuable time. It's
    our duty to find Salamandastron and Boar the Fighter, so that he can return
    with us to save Mossflower. The first thing a warrior must learn is orders and
    duty."
    Gonff strapped his pack back on. Dinny had not removed his. He was away and
    running, small velvety paws pounding the grassland.
    "Coom on, 'ee two,"he called. "Us'ns can lose they vur-min afore eventoid."
    The three friends ran in silence, measuring their stride and conserving
    energy. All that could be heard above the drumming of their paws was a
    descending lark and the chirrup of grasshoppers in the dry grassland warmth.
    The high sun above watched the scene like a great golden eye. The hunted
    jogged steadily on, with the hunters rushing behind to close the gap.
    There was no infirmary for the wounded at Kotir. Soldiers lay about in the
    barracks, licking their hurts and tending to themselves as best as they could.
    Cludd was quite pleased with himself. They had driven off the woodlanders and
    the army had not retreated, so what was all the fuss about?
    He put the question to Ashleg.
    "Try telling her that, weasel. Here she comes." The pine flaarten's cloak
    swirled about as he pointed to the stairs.
    Tsarmina bounded into the barracks, crooking a claw at them. "You two, up to
    my room. Right away!"
    There was little" to be gained by arguing, so with sinking hearts they trooped
    up the stairway.
    Fortunata was already there, her ear painfully swollen from the arrow wound.
    Ashleg could not resist a sly snigger. ' "Heehee, looks like you need a
    healer, fox."
    Tsarmina swept in, just in time to hear the jibe.
    "One more remark like that, woodenpin, and you'll need il new head. Now, what
    happened to my ambush in the ".- woods?" They stood dumbly, waiting for the
    storm to break. 5 It was not long in coming.
    The wildcat Queen cleared the table in one reckless sweep. }- Bell, dishes,
    ornaments, linen and food crashed to the floor.
    "Nothing! That's what we gained from it all."
    $'
    143
    She raged around the chamber, kicking over furniture, tearing at wall hangings
    and bending fire irons out of shape as her voice rose to a maddened howl.
    "1 saw them. Me! I set up the ambush, warned you, marshaled the army, led the
    charge and thought that you buffoons had the brains and courage to assist me.
    What did I receive? Not one original idea or scrap of encouragement."
    Her whole body quivered with dangerous temper, then suddenly she slumped into
    a chair as if temporarily exhausted by her outburst. The quaking trio stood
    staring at the floor for inspiration as she scowled at them.
    "Aahh, what business is it of yours, anyway? You're not supposed to think,
    only to carry out orders. It's my job to do all the brain work around here. I
    suppose nothing will bother you three until the food supplies run out. Oh,
    they won't last forever, you know. I've seen for myself; the stores are
    getting lower, since we were unable to levy tribute from the few that lived
    around our walls. That's the trouble with being a conqueror and having an army
    to feed: soldiers are no good at providing anything unless they can snatch it
    away from the helpless." She stretched and kicked moodily at a fallen goblet.
    "Well, any ideas?"
    "There's always the two prisoners I caught, Milady." Cludd sounded
    half-apologetic.
    Tsarmina sat bolt upright. "Of course, well done, weasel. Maybe you aren't as
    stupid as I thought. Prisoners, hmmm, yes. What do you think the woodlanders
    would pay as ransom for those young hedgehogs?"
    Fortunata narrowed her eyes calculating^. "Well, I've had more dealings with
    woodlanders than most. They're a soft, sentimental lot when it comes to young
    ones. I think that they'd give quite a bit to get them back safe."
    "Safe, that's the key," Tsarmina purred happily. "Imagine if the woodlanders
    saw their babies exposed to real suffering or danger—we could practically name
    our own terms."
    The trio relaxed visibly, now that their Queen was in a saner mood.
    There was one other listener to the conversation who had no cause to rejoice:
    Chibb the robin, perched on the outside window ledge.
    144
    > Split nose was the first to slacken pace. He gradually slowed to
    •;. an easy lope. Blacktooth joined him, leaving Scratch to make
    the running. The weasel stopped and turned. He curled his lip
    / hi disgust at the pair, who were now sitting on the grass panting.
    Scratch ran back energetically, drawing his dagger.
    "Get up, you idle worms. Come on. Up on your paws, both of you."
    Splitnose teased a passing ant with his claws. "Ah what's the point? They're
    well away. We'll never catch 'em now." Scratch kicked out at Blacktooth. "I
    suppose you think the same, lazybones."
    Blacktooth kicked back insolently. "Oh, give it a rest. You can't make us
    run."
    "Right, so it's mutiny, eh!" Scratch looked from one to the other
    disdainfully. "Then here's something for you two buckoes to think about. One,
    if you don't get running, I'll stab the pair of you. Two, unless you decide to
    run, I won't share my rations with you. And three, think about when I : make
    my report. The Queen will be pleased to hear how you two lay down on the
    job.'' Wordlessly they rose and started running again.
    Gonff trotted alongside his friends, his quick eye noting the landscape.
    "It gets a bit hilly further on, mateys. We could drop down 7 and hide in a
    dozen places. What d'you say? Shall we give ; 'em the slip?"
    Martin glanced backward. "I'd rather not risk it. They've got us in plain
    view. No, best keep on until evening, then we can pick a good hiding place
    when it's dark and camp there the night. Are you all right, Dinny?"
    The mole wrinkled his snout. "Doant loik a-runnen. Lucky oi'm stronger'n most.
    You'm keep a-goen, Marthen. Doant , wurry over oi."
    The noon sun gained intensity. Birds soaring on the upper thermals passed over
    the six tiny figures below, hunters and hunted.
    tTo spur themselves on, Splitnose and Blacktooth played a f game, shouting out
    their favorite dishes to each other. Scratch •-ran a length behind them,
    keeping his dagger drawn as an
    f.
    145
    insurance against further rebellion. Despite himself, the weasel had to keep
    licking his lips, not being able to shut his ears against the ferret and the
    stoat.
    ' 'Some of those candy chestnuts and a flagon of cold cider. Could you manage
    that, Blackie?"
    "Oho, could I! How about a baby trout grilled in butter with some of that
    woodland October ale?"
    "Very nice. But have you tried blackberry muffins soaked in warm honey with a
    few beakers of iced strawberry cordial to wash 'em down?' *
    "Gaw! Stoppit, Splittie. You're reminding me of that time when old Lord
    Greeneyes had a plunder feast at Kotir. Those were the days! I had iced
    strawberry cordial in a big drinking bowl, with mint leaves floating on it and
    crushed raspberries too. I remember I sucked it all through a cornstraw. Whew,
    I must have supped enough of it to have a good bath in."
    "Yurghh!" Scratch called out in disgust. "I was enjoying that until I had a
    vision of you, all covered in mud and muck, sitting in a bath of iced
    strawberry cordial with two mint leaves stuck up your snout and a pile of
    crushed raspberries shoved into your ears. Doesn't bear thinking about.
    Anyhow, why don't you two shut your traps and keep your eyes on those three
    ahead?"
    Dinny was first to gain the low hills. He ran up one side and rolled down the
    other. Martin and Gonff joined in until all three were dizzy. They ran onward
    as the shadows began to lengthen. Gonff gradually dropped back. He was
    breathing heavily. When they turned to look he waved his paws.
    "Keep going, mateys. Phew, this is much harder work than thieving."
    Without hurting Gooff's feelings, they slacked their pace to match his. Martin
    noticed that the blob on the horizon they had seen earlier that day was not
    merely a low cloud bank.
    "Look, Gonff. It's a range of mountains. Big ones, too. What d'you think,
    Din?"
    The young mole squinted hard to bring the view into perspective. "Ho boi urr,
    that they be, Oi reckons that be whurr the teeth o'land reaches up to ate
    woolen sheeps, wi' they gurt 'eads in clouds."
    "Clever, Dinny mate," Gonff nodded admiringly. "Ex-146
    «ctly as the poem says: 'Afar the teeth of land rise up to bite the wool of
    sheep.' They look quite close, but don't let that fool you. We've got a fair
    bit of traveling to do before we reach them."
    Dinny risked a backward glance through a fold in the hills. , ,**Hurr, they
    vurminbags be none closer either. 'Spect us'ns be moightier runners."
    Scratch had taken the lead again. He knew the others were hungry and sure to
    follow. Trying to keep their quarry in sight was difficult, as they were often
    hidden by the hills. Descending the first low hill, he stopped to extract a
    burr from his pad. The other two ran slap bang into him from behind.
    "Clodhoppers!" he shouted. "How is it that you have all this open country to
    run in, yet you both manage to crash into me? What d'you think this is, a game
    of leapfrog?"
    More bickering and backbiting ensued. Scratch ended the dispute by banging
    their heads together. "Look, it's nearly dark now and I've gone and lost 'em,
    thanks to you two Oafs!" He gritted his teeth in frustration.
    Martin and Gonff prepared the evening meal while Dinny enlarged a small hole
    on the far side of the final hill. In a short while they were happily
    installed in a superb little cave, pinny had even dug a ledge halfway round
    for them to rest on. The three friends lay on the ledge, eating their supper
    ! and watching the crimson underbellies of purple cloud rolls
    ; as night took over from the long, hot day.
    $cratch and his minions sat out in the open on top of the highest hill, hoping
    that they might catch sight of the others at next daybreak. • Night on the
    open lands was both cold and windy.
    Chibb paced the mantelpiece at Brockhall, relating all he had
    beard at Kotir.
    The Corim were worried by this new theat to Ferdy and ; Coggs. "Hmm, this is
    an unwelcome development." Lady %Amber waved her bushy tail anxiously. ':.:
    The robin ruffled his crimson breast feathers importantly. I**Ahem, harrumph.
    On the surface it would appear to be so.
    147
    However, our wildcat ally in the prison said to tell you that he may be able
    to forestall Tsarmina's plans awhile."
    Bella looked up to the mantelpiece. "How will he manage that, Chibb?"
    The robin folded his wings behind as he explained. "Well, ahem, 'scuse me.
    Gingivere has taken a stone from the walls on each cell, as you know. He
    proposes to hide both Ferdy and Coggs in his own cell, after sealing the
    wallholes up. That way, if the enemy do not think of searching his cell too
    closely, they will naturally suppose that the two prisoners have escaped."
    There was wholesale approval for the clever plan.
    Skipper had an additional idea. "Hark, now. What if we was to pretend that
    Ferdy and Coggs were saie with us? That'd take suspicion off Gingivere."
    "How will we manage that, Skip?" Bella was curious to know.
    "Easy, marm. We'll find two other little hedgehogs and disguise 'em, then let
    'em be seen by someone from Kotir."
    "Good thinking, Skipper," Bella said with approval. "But now we'll ready have
    to think of how we can rescue Ferdy and Coggs. Gingivere's plan is brave and
    daring; however, it puts all three at great risk."
    Lady Amber shook her head. "Where do we get two little ones that look like
    Ferdy and Coggs?" "You may lend my liddle Spike an' Posy," Goody said from the
    doorway. "Long as they don't come to no 'arm. Though I must say, they don't
    look a smidgeon like my Ferdy an' Coggs. I can tell my liddle ones apart like
    apples from nuts."
    Abbess Germaine tapped a paw to her nose. "Two blanket cloaks, two saucepan
    helmets, a piece of stick each, like swords of make-believe warriors. I think
    that would fool anyone from a distance, Goody. But what about a rescue
    attempt? Have we any kind of firm plan?"
    "You leave that to old Skip, marm." Skipper laughed drily. "Bula, you take
    charge of the crew while I'm away. I think I'll pay the Mask a visit."
    "What's the Mask?" Several woodlanders voiced the question.
    "You'll soon see!" Bula winked.
    148
    22
    Consternation reigned at Kotir.
    A luckless stoat had been "volunteered" from the cell guards by Fortunata and
    Cludd, and he was pushed unwillingly into Tsarmina's chamber.
    "Er, your Maj of the green Queenest, er upper of all ruler and lower Moss. Er,
    er . . . The prisoners have gone!"
    "Gone! What do you mean, gone?" The wildcat Queen left her seat in a single
    bound and picked the stoat up by his throat.
    "Yuuurrkkgghhaaaarrr . . . 'Scaped." Tsarmina threw the gurgling heap to the
    floor. Her voice .L-echoed in the stairway as she dashed down to the cells.
    ;,* "Escaped? Impossible! Guards, get down to the cells quickly."
    The cells were searched. The corridors were scoured. The outer walls were
    surrounded. The parade ground was gone over inch by inch. The barracks were
    turned inside out. Not a room, passage, cupboard, chamber, kitchen,
    guard-fcouse, or scullery remained unprobed.
    Gingivere, however, was officially nonexistent. His cell was .',j6ot searched.
    Nobody thought of looking in a prison cell that ~%«s already bolted and
    barred. J Except maybe Tsarmina.
    149
    Columbine sat up, rubbing steep from her eyes.
    Was it night or day? she wondered. How long had she slept in this warm dry
    cavern? Everything seemed so quiet and peaceful after the noise and panic of
    the battle she had witnessed. There was an old patchwork quilt covering her.
    She pushed it to one side as a little molemaid entered.
    "Mawnen to 'ee. Wellcum t'Moledeep. Brekkist be ready."
    She followed the mole into a larger cave, where Ben Stickle and the
    woodlanders who had been injured sat with the Loamhedge mice and the mole
    community.
    Foremole waved her to a place between himself and a grizzled old mole whose
    fur was completely gray.
    "Set ee by yurr, maid. This be Owd Dinny, t'other young rip's granfer."
    Old Dinny nodded and continued spooning honeyed oatmeal.
    Obviously the moles liked a good solid start to the day. There was a variety
    of cooked roots and tubers, most of which Columbine had never seen before. Ail
    of them tasted delicious, whether salted, sugared or dipped in honey and milk.
    (Some of the moles did all four.) The bread was wafer thin and tasted of
    almonds, small cakes patterned with buttercups were served warm. There were
    fluffy napkins and bowls of steaming rosewater to cleanse sticky paws. As
    Columbine nibbled at a rye biscuit and sipped fragrant mint tea, she could not
    help asking Foremole where all the huge deeper V ever pies and solid
    trencherfbod the moles seemed to favor were.
    Foremole chuckled. He gestured at the table with a massive digging claw. "Ho
    urr, Combuliney. This yurr be on'y a loight brekkist for 'ee an' yurr friends.
    We'm fancied it up a bit for 'ee. Moles be only eaten solid vittles at even
    toid when they's 'ungered greatly."
    Columbine nodded and smiled politely, trying to hide her amazement. "Oh, I
    see, just a loight brekkist, er, light breakfast."
    As Columbine ate, she remembered Gonff. If only he were here amid this
    friendly company with her! She mentally wagered with herself that he would
    know the name and taste of
    150
    jgvery dish (and probably be jokingly chided for having stolen gaany of them
    in bygone days). She pictured her mousethief jesting with everybody, imitating
    molespeech and singing ballads as he composed them.
    The young mousemaid heaved a sigh into her mint tea. It dissolved in a small
    cloud of fragrant steam. Where, oh
    • "Where, was Gonff on this beautiful morning? "*. It was nearly midmoming
    when the "light breakfast" leached its conclusion. Then, guarded and guided by
    the mole
    •community, Columbine and her friends made their way back
    •to Brockhall by a secret woodland route.
    Martin, Gonff and Dinny were wide awake by daybreak. They crouched in the
    small cave, eating breakfast as they watched a gray drizzly dawn. Packing the
    food away, the travelers
    .stamped life back into their numbed paws. Surprisingly, Gonff was first to
    step outside.
    \ "Come on, mateys. It'll brighten up by mid-morning. You
    yijvait and see—I'm a Prince of Predictors."
    •;;< Striding out, they left the low hills behind, to face yet more .
    flatlands. Wakened grouse whirred into the damp morning
    •air at their approach.
    •
    Sala-manda-stron,
    ^
    Look where we've come from,
    ;."
    Three of Mossfiower's best,"
    Marching out upon our quest: ^
    Sala-manda-stron.
    J Scratch sighted the three dim forms through the layers of {frizzling rain.
    |^ "There they go. Come on, you two. I've got a feeling that today's die day
    we catch 'em. Come on, move yourselves, sooner it's done, the quicker we'll
    get back to Kotir. good solid food again, a long rest, and maybe a bit of lor
    and glory."
    'Huh, I'm soaked right through!" Splitnose complained, too," grumbled
    Blacktooth. "I never slept a wink Igain. Sitting out on top of a hill, miles
    from anywhere in |pe pouring rain, stiff all over, cold, hungry, shiver—"
    ^'•"Shuttup!" Scratch interrupted bitterly. "Put a button on
    t
    151
    your driveling lip. Look at me, I'm weary, saturated and starved, but do you
    hear me whimpering on about it all the time? Up on your paws, and try to look
    like you're the Queen's soldiers from Kotir."
    They trekked westward, pursuing the travelers.
    Splitnose was muttering as he kicked a pebble along in front of himself.
    "Honor and glory, huh. Cludd'll get all that, and he can keep it, too. Now if
    it was honor cake and a mug of hot glory, that'd be a different thing."
    "Honor cake and hot glory drink? Don't talk such rubbish, soggyhead,"
    Blacktooth laughed.
    "Soggyhead yourself, drippynose."
    "Crinkleclaws!"
    "Greasyfur!"
    "Beetlebottom!"
    "Stow the gab and get marching, both of you!" Scratch told them.
    True to Gonff's prediction, the rain ceased. Above the plains the sun came out
    to watch fluffy clouds sailing about on the breeze across a lake of bright
    blue sky.
    Dinny sniffed the air, wiggling his claws. "Buharr, they's watter nearby,
    likely a pond or tarn. May'ap us'Il catcher a liddlefish. Be gudd eaten,
    hurr."
    Martin looked sideways at Gonff. "How does he know there's water near? I can't
    smell a thing."
    The mousethief shrugged. "Neither can he, matey. Moles probably feel it
    through the earth with their digging claws."
    Dinny nodded wisely. "O air, us'ns do smell lots o' things wi' us claws."
    Gonff winked at the warrior mouse. "That's the nice thing about moles, they
    always have a sensible explanation which we can all understand."
    The three friends laughed aloud. Dinny proved as good at predicting as Gonff.
    Midday found the travelers at the edge of a large pond. Bulrushes and reeds
    surrounded the margin, small water lilies budded on the surface. The glint of
    silver scales beneath the water promised good fishing. At first Martin was
    loath to stop but, realizing the valuable addition a fish would make to their
    supplies, he called a halt. While his
    152
    friends went about fishing, the warrior posted himself on guard to watch for
    their pursuers.
    Dinny sat on the edge of the bank, immersing his paws in the shallows with
    exclamations of delight.
    "Oo arr, oo bliss V joys. Hurr, this be the loif, Gonffen!"
    The mousethief had cast a line baited with a tiny red mud-worm. In seconds it
    was snatched by a voracious stickleback. "Ha, look, matey," he called. "IVe
    got a bite! Come to Gonff, old greedyguts."
    Martin crept up behind them. He placed a paw gently on each of his friends'
    shoulders as he whispered to them, "Ssshhh. Listen to me. We are in great
    danger. Don't make a sound, if you value our lives!"
    153
    Skipper sat inside the curve of a big hollow log. He faced a slim gray otter,
    trying hard not to look where the strange creature's tail had once been.
    "So then, Mask, how are you keeping, my brother?" he asked.
    The Mask nibbled at some otter delicacies that his brother had thoughtfully
    brought along.
    "Oh, I get by, Skip. Sometimes I'm a squirrel, sometimes a fox. Ha, I was even
    a half-grown badger for a while."
    Skipper shook his head in amazement, gazing around the hollow log where the
    master of disguises lived alone. Many curious objects were carefully stowed
    there: make-believe tails, false ears, a selection of various whiskers.
    The Mask watched Skipper with his odd pale eyes. Seizing a few things, he
    turned his back and made some swift secret adjustments. When he turned around,
    Skipper's mouth fell open in disbelief.
    "Look, Skip. I'm a squirrel again!"
    The otter chieftain marveled; this creature in front of him was surely an aged
    squirrel—thin, graying—but undeniably a squirrel, from its bushy tail and
    erect ears, right to the two large front upper teeth.
    "Strike me tops'Is, Mask. How d'you do it?"
    "Oh, it's no great thing," the Mask chuckled quietly. "Actually, I'd look more
    like a treeflyer if I took a little more
    154
    J time and care with this disguise. This is only a quick change "; to amuse
    you."
    ; Skipper whacked his tail against the side of the log. "Well, ' you could
    fool me anytime, shipmate,"
    Mask tossed aside the false tail and ears. Spitting out the two false front
    teeth, he readjusted his body. He was an otter again.
    "Maybe I fooled you, maybe I didn't. But you're not fooling me, Skipper of
    Camp Willow. What do you want me to do?"
    Skipper sat back, folding his paws across his chest. "I have a proposition to
    make to you, brother Mask. Sit still and hear me out."
    Tsarmina glared through the cell aperture at Gingivere. The imprisoned wildcat
    sat in the darkest part of the cell. His fur was tousled, damp from the walls
    dewed his paws, his head dropped despairingly. Now and then his eyes would
    flicker rapidly. The wildcat Queen brought her face close to the bars. "If you
    know what's good for you, you'll tell me all about how those two hedgehogs
    made their escape. Speak up. You must have heard or seen something—they were
    in the cells either side of you."
    Gingivere leaped up, his voice a cracked singsong shout. "Hahaha! You let them
    escape so you can have their bread
    > and water. I knew you wouldn't give me any. You're keeping it all for
    yourself. Oh, I saw you, sneaking along the passage. You let them go so that
    you could have all that bread and water for yourself. Heeheehee."
    .',- Tsarmina turned to Cludd. "Listen to that. He's completely crazy."
    She swept off down the passage. Cludd stayed a moment, looking through the
    bars. He had never seen a completely
    .crazy wildcat before, although he had seen his mistress dan-
    -?gerously close to that condition once or twice.
    \ "No bread, no water, she's keeping it for herself." Gin-
    ^givere continued his insane lament.
    j; Cludd banged the door with his spear. "Quiet in there!"
    JV "Atishoo!"
    3 The sneeze came as Cludd was turning away. He whirled ck. "Who did that?"
    155
    Gingivere grabbed a pawful of straw and sneezed into it. "Atishoo, choo! Oh,
    I'm sick and dying, sir. The cold and damp down here. Please get me extra
    rations of bread and water or I'll die."
    Cludd rapped the door with his spear again. "Enough of that! You get the
    rations Lady Tsarmina allows. So stop moaning, or I'll give you something to
    moan about."
    As the weasel Captain lumbered off down the passage, another sneeze rang out.
    "Atishoo!"
    On the wall above the cell door, two food haversacks hung from a spike driven
    into the rock. Ferdy and Coggs sat, one in each sack, their heads poking out
    like two fledgling house-martins in their respective nests.
    Coggs reached across, trying to stifle Ferdy's snout with his paw, but another
    sneeze rang out.
    "Atishoo!"
    Ferdy blinked and rubbed his snout. "Sorry, sir. This bag has flour in it from
    the scones, and it's tickling my sn . . . sn . . . Ashoo!"
    Reaching up, Gingivere lifted his little cellmates down from their hiding
    place. While there were no guards about, they could play and exercise.
    Chibb flew to the window, dropping the latest supplies in. He caught the empty
    sacks that Gingivere tossed up to him. In the shaft of light the wildcat was
    looking strangely sane and healthy.
    "What news, Chibb?"
    "Ahemhem. The Corim have decided that you must soon be rescued, all three of
    you. How they propose to do it, I don't know yet."
    Gingivere nodded. "I hope they realize that the longer they wait, the more
    dangerous it becomes for Ferdy and Coggs."
    Chibb slung the empty sacks around his neck. "Ahem, I'm sure they do. At
    present the message is, keep on the alert and keep up your courage. You are
    not forgotten."
    Chibb flew off swiftly. Gaining the woodlands, he paused to perch on a spruce
    branch as he adjusted the bags about his neck for easier flight. Argulor
    belched dozily and glanced at the robin perched
    156
    j|' beside him. Chibb gave a jump of surprise, but did not forget I his
    manners.
    *; "Ahem, beg pardon." The fat robin darted from the branch ":'. like a
    flame-tipped arrow.
    Argulor shifted his claws. Wearily he dropped his eyelids back into the
    slumbering position.
    Were the small birds getting faster, or was he getting slower? The eagle
    dismissed the problem, reasoning that there were still plenty of soldiers in
    Kotir who were a lot slower than a single robin redbreast. A lot tastier, too.
    Dinny and Gonff sat quite still at the edge of the pond as Martin whispered to
    them, "Now, very slowly, look to your left. Do you see the female swan over
    there? She's sitting on her nest with her back to us. Right. Don't look, just
    take my word for it, in the open water to the other side there's a big male
    swan—it's her mate. He's not seen us yet, but he's headed this way and bound
    to sight us if we stop here, so let's move away as silently as possible."
    With great care Gonff let the fish slip back into the water. He cut his
    fishing line. The three friends moved speedily, ducking behind the rushes with
    not a second to spare.
    The huge white swan glided by them serenely. He was like a ship in full sail,
    an awesome spectacle, the snowy white body and half-folded wings complementing
    perfectly the muscular serpentine neck column surmounted by a solid orange
    bill and fierce black eyes.
    Martin shuddered. He thought of how close they had been to death. The male
    swan was warlike and fearless, absolute monarch of his pond. Any creature who
    dared trespass upon these waters while his mate sat upon the three new-hatched
    cygnets in their nest was fated never to see the sunset. The white colossus
    swept by, continuing his patrol of the pond.
    When he was past, the three friends slipped away. Gonff whispered a silent
    goodbye to the silver fish in the shallows. "We were both lucky that time,
    matey. Swim free."
    A respectable distance from the water, Dinny untangled a streamer of duckweed
    from his paw.
    , "Boi okey, this'n's owd granfer near losed a dear liddle /: 157
    mole back thurr. Oi never see'd a skwon afore, gurt feathery burdbag they be,
    stan* on moi tunnel."
    They lunched on apples and bread, supplemented with some cow parsley that
    Dinny had discovered.
    Blacktooth and Splitnose sighted the pond. They had been running ahead of
    Scratch after a particularly nasty bout of name-calling. The stoat and ferret
    had called Scratch a frog-walloper; this seemed to touch some hidden nerve in
    the weasel, and he took strong objection to the insult. The pair ran off,
    cackling gleefully as the weasel threw pebbles and earth clods after them.
    "Come back here and say that, you cowardly custards. I'll give you frog
    wallopers when I get you!"
    Running wide, they approached the pond at a different angle from that of the
    travelers. Blacktooth and Splitnose whooped with delight.
    "Look, a river, a river! Truce, Scratch!"
    Scratch joined them, the quarrel temporarily forgotten at the sight of the
    watery expanse.
    "That's not a river, it's a pond," he pointed out. "This is more like it, a
    good fresh drink, a nice bath for our paws. Look, a swan sitting on a nest.
    Swan eggs—what a tasty idea!"
    Splitnose was not so sure. "Er, don't you think that bird looks a bit big,
    Scratch?"
    "So what?" the weasel snorted. "There's three of us and we've got spears. I
    bet swan eggs are lovely."
    "Have you ever eaten one?" Splitnose asked.
    "No, I've never even seen one, but I bet they're very big and good to eat."
    "Well, all right, we'll back you up. How do you get the eggs?"
    "Easy, just stand in the shallows and chuck our spears at the swan until it's
    forced to fly away, then we rob the eggs."
    Buoyed by Scratch's confidence, they waded into the shallows. The female swan
    watched them fearlessly. She issued a warning hiss.
    The would-be plunderers were enjoying themselves immensely.
    158
    "Ooh aahh. Hey, Blackie, doesn't this mud feel great when you squelch it with
    your paws?" Splitnose called.
    "Aye, 'specially after all that running, mate. Just watch this." Blacktooth
    flung his spear. It fell far short of the tar-
    Splitnose laughed scornfully, then threw his. It went a little further, but
    still far short of the swan.
    Scratch sneered contemptuously at their efforts. "Huh, you two couldn't throw
    a frozen worm and hit the earth. Go and get some stones to fling at her. I can
    probably wade out that fer and stab the bird."
    The ferret and the stoat waded back to the bank, and ran off to search for
    missiles.
    Scratch ventured recklessly on until the water was around . his middle. There
    was a crackle of parting rushes behind him. Scratch turned in the water. The
    giant male swan blotted out everything in his vision; he did not even get a
    chance to cry out or lift his spear.
    Scratch was dead before he knew it!
    Splitnose and Blacktooth returned to the water's edge, their paws full of
    rocks and earth clods.
    "How'11 this little lot do, Scratch?"
    "Scratch, where are you?"
    "Scratchy-watchy, you old frogwalloper, come out. We know you're hiding, we
    can see the rushes moving."
    The male swan came thundering out of the rushes in half-flight, churning up a
    bow wave as it hissed like a nest of serpents.
    ' * Yooooaaaaggggghhhh!''
    Only the speed of raw terror and the fact that they were .racing away from the
    pond and its nest saved the lives of the panic-stricken pair.
    "Owoowoowoo helpelpelp!"
    The male swan webbed its way up onto the bank, beating its wings wide to the
    blue sky, hissing out its victory cry—a savage challenge to the distant
    runners.
    The female settled securely on her babes in the nest. She j-preened her neck
    feathers, smiling with just a touch of smug-Bess. Swans never laugh aloud.
    K
    * * *
    159
    Though they were a fair distance from the pond, Martin and his friends heard
    the anguished shouts on the breeze.
    "Sounds like our followers from Kotir have ruffled someone's feathers, eh,
    Din," Martin remarked. The mole looked grave. "Skwons etted 'em, oi uxpect."
    Gonff placed a paw on his heart and sang slowly,
    A weasel, ferret and a stoat, Found a pond but had no boat. Now they can't see
    the waters from The inside of a swan.
    Tsarmina stood at her high window, watching the squirrels. They had descended
    from the trees at the woodland edge. With them were two small hedgehogs clad
    in cooking-pot helmets and blanket cloaks.
    Fortunata rapped lightly at the chamber door and entered.
    "Milady, oh, you've already seen them."
    Tsarmina did not even turn to look at Fortunata. She continued peering
    intently at the two little figures in the middle of the squirrel group.
    "Are they taunting us, do you think?" she asked.
    Fortunata joined her at the window. "No, woodlanders don't go in for that sort
    of display, Milady."
    To her surprise, Fortunata found Tsarmina patting her approvingly. "Good
    thinking, fox. Shall I send out a party to try and capture them?"
    Fortunata shook her head. "I'd advise against it, Milady. They'd only sweep
    off into the trees, making our soldiers look foolish. Squirrels always do."
    Tsarmina smiled. She sat up on the window ledge, winking at the vixen.
    "Clever, very clever, Fortunata. You aren't as dull or slow-witted as Cludd
    and Ashleg. Listen how, I have better eyesight than you or any creature in
    Mossflower. I Ve been watching those two little hedgehogs, and there's
    something not quite right about them."
    "Not quite right, Milady?" Fortunata was baffled, but she tried her best to
    look intelligent.
    Tsarmina tapped a paw to her nose. "Exactly. They're playing little games with
    me, those woodlanders. But I have a game or two of my own to play. Tell me,
    you know these
    160
    woods and their creatures better than anyone in Kotir, don't you?"
    Fortunata was pleased that Tsarmina was confiding in her, but she began to
    feel uneasy. There was often an unpleasant sting in the tail of her Queen's
    schemes.
    "I was bom and brought up in Mossflower country, Milady. What is it that you
    require from me?"
    "Fortunata, we are surrounded by blunderers." Tsar-mina's tone was that of an
    old and trusting friend. "You are the only one I can really rely on. I never
    forget those who serve me well. I haven't forgotten that you helped me to be
    Queen with your knowledge of herbs. This is a big area to rule, and it becomes
    lonely. I could do with someone as wise and clever as yourself to share that
    rule. But first I am going to ask you to do me a favor. Think carefully before
    you answer, because on that answer rests our friendship. Will you do me this
    favor?"
    The greedy fox fell headlong into the trap. "I am yours to command, Queen
    Tsarmina."
    The wildcat ruler smiled like a cat with a bird. "Well said, friend. Now, what
    I want you to do is this . . ."
    161
    The Corim were startled.
    Skipper strolled into Brockhall followed by a ferret. Before Lady Amber could
    fit arrow to bow, or Bella pick up a poker to strike the foe, Skipper
    addressed them heartily.
    "Mates, don't get your ropes in a tangle. This 'ere ferret is an otter. Meet
    my brother, the Mask."
    The Mask bowed low. Stripping the bindings from his ears, he removed the bark
    slivers that sharpened his muzzle, pulled out the wicked eyeteeth and undid
    his imitation tail.
    Bella pounded the sides of her chair with a heavy paw. "Wonderful, he is
    indeed an otter. Welcome to Brockhall, Mr. Mask."
    Abbess Germaine seated the otter, placing food and drink before him. "So you
    are the Mask. I have lived long and seen strange things, but never one as
    strange as you, though I hope you will forgive me for saying so, sir."
    Mask shook the Abbess warmly by the paw. "It is a strange world marm, you will
    forgive me saying, but never have I seen such friendly and gentle mice as you
    and your oddly dressed followers."
    Skipper patted Mask on the back. "Friends, you wouldn't believe your eyes if
    you saw old Mask in some of the getups I've seen him in."
    "Oh, tell us, Skip." Columbine leaned forward eagerly.
    Skipper took a draught of cider from Mask's cup. "I
    162
    couldn't begin to tell you all this one's disguises, but just as an instance,
    he gave me the slip coming through the forest. i looked high and low for him.
    Ha, there was the old deceiver stood right next to me, up against a tree, got
    up as a piece of bark, would you believe!"
    Spike and Posy clung to Columbine's habit, staring wide-eyed at the strange
    otter.
    "Did you really, Mr. Mask, sir?" Spike asked.
    Mask chuckled as he fed them a slice of apple each. "Oh,
    - aye. That's an easy one. All you need is an old piece of bark as big as
    yourself and the right tree. You just stand there and think the same thoughts
    as the tree, and presto!"
    "What others can you do, sir?" Posy wanted to know.
    "Oh, a fox, a squirrel, a hedgehog like you, even—you name it. Haha, otters
    are pretty hard to do, though. Funny tails, you see."
    "Could you be a bird?" Spike inquired.
    "Well, er, let's say I'm practicing that one, shall we?"
    "A stoat or a rat, then?" Posy persisted.
    "No trouble. They're the easiest to do. It's all a question of studying shape,
    really."
    Abbess Germaine was impressed. "You say you could look like a stoat, weasel or
    even a fox?"
    The Mask winked. "Indeed I can, marm. That's why I'm here."
    Early evening shadows were beginning to lengthen across the plain. Dinny
    looked to the mountains on the horizon, and judged the distance shrewdly.
    "We'm be vurry close to yon mountings on t'morrer, Mar-;~then."
    The warrior mouse glanced toward the massed rock. "So we will, Din. As to how
    we'll cross them, I'm at a loss. Look at the size of them. They almost
    disappear into the
    . sky."
    ; "Don't you worry, mateys," Gonffsaid confidently. "We
    •^ haven't come this far to be beaten by an old stone hill. Be-jOrides, we
    don't have to worry about those vermin following ^;BS. The swans probably
    dealt with them." ¥f^> Dinny's snout rose into the air. "Oi'm a-smellen' more
    ^Walter thru 'ee paws agin."
    163
    "What, more water, Din?" Martin asked. "Burr aye. Runnen waiter thiz toim."
    "Best keep our eyes skinned for swans, eh, mateys," Gonff warned.
    "Hoo arr, doant wanna see skwons no more."
    Gonff was first to find the broad stream. It was not quite wide enough to be
    classed as a river. The mousethief strode down the bank and recited aloud to
    the flowing waters,
    O'er golden acres far below, Our wings beat strong and true, Where deep and
    wet, see flowing yet, Another snake of blue.
    Martin looked to the opposite bank. "It seems peaceful enough, but it's far
    too wide to cross here. We'll camp here tonight and scout the bank for an
    easier crossing in the morning."
    The mild spring evening was very pleasant by the water. Dinny scooped out a
    circle while Martin set flint to the steel of his broken sword and started a
    small fire. Gonff repaired his fishing line. Within a short time he landed a
    plump young bream.
    The three travelers sat around the fire, watching the fish grilling in a
    cradle of green reeds over the flames. Firelight flickered and danced in
    Dinny's buttonlike eyes.
    "Warmff, hurr hurr. Oi do likes warmff."
    Gonff tested the fish with his knifepoint. "It'll be ready soon, mateys. A
    little loaf apiece toasted up, some cress from the water's edge, a beaker of
    fresh streamwater, and we're snug for the night."
    The stream gurgled and eddied ceaselessly toward the distant mountains as they
    enjoyed a spell of rest on its soft mossy bank.
    Splitnose and Blacktooth had wandered aimlessly. Without Scratch to direct
    them they were lost. Night found the pair out upon the open plain, hungry,
    tired and thirsty. Splitnose lay down, snuggling sleepily against the grass.
    Blacktooth was restless.
    164
    "Huh, I'm not sleeping out in the open again. There must be a hole or a cave
    hereabouts. Might be a bite of grub, too.''
    "Oh lie down and get some rest," Splitnose murmured sleepily. "You're as bad
    as Cludd or Scratch. Get some sleep, ^.and we'll see what it's like around
    here in the morning. I'm not moving. Might even sleep late, too."
    Blacktooth moved off. "Right. You stay here. I'll be back if I can't find
    something better. I could swear there's water running nearby. I'll go and take
    a look."
    "Mind the swans don't eat you," Splitnose called out, his eyes already closed.
    Blacktooth was back sooner than expected. He danced about, giggling quietly to
    himself.
    "Splittie. Hey, come on, snoreface. Wake up! Heeheehee, guess what I've
    found?"
    The stoat grumbled as his companion shook him awake. "Two frogs and a
    dandelion. Now beat it, will you? I need sleep."
    The ferret could not contain his excitement. "I found a big stream, a camp, a
    fire and food—and those two mice and the mole!"
    Splitnose came awake. "Where?"
    "Not far. Over that way a bit. Listen, if we're quick and quiet we can take
    them prisoner.''
    The stoat leaped up. "Great. You say they've got food and afire?"
    "Yes, half a roast fish, packs too, full of goodies," Black-tooth told him.
    "You know those woodlanders—they love '- their rations."
    "We could march 'em back to Kotir."
    "Heehee. Aye, could you imagine old Cludd's face when we walk in with three
    prisoners? The Queen'd prob'ly make us Generals. Oho, I'd give that Cludd a
    few dirty jobs to do.
    - I'd make him jump!"
    "Right, Blackie mate, lead me to "em." ." They sneaked silently across to
    the river bank armed with
    - their spears.
    $
    i The three friends lay asleep around the fire, unaware of the
    |> eyes that watched them from the top of the bank.
    165
    Fortunate struck deeper into Mossflower, aware that Tsar-mina was watching her
    from the high chamber window.
    The vixen had cast off her borrowed finery from Kotir, reverting to the frayed
    old healer's cloak and bag of herbal remedies. She leaned heavily upon an ash
    staff. Fortunata was more suited to this type of work; she preferred
    subterfuge to warfare. Besides, the rewards promised were greater.
    Tsarmina moved from the window to ring her table bell. Cludd entered, saluting
    with shield and spear.
    "Yes, Your Majesty."
    "Get somebody to clean this room up, it's filthy. Drill the troops and keep
    them on the alert. They're not here to eat me out of house and home. Oh, get a
    foraging party together. We must keep something in the larders if we want to
    outlast the woodlanders."
    Cludd saluted again. "It shall be done, Milady."
    The wildcat Queen settled back in her chair. Now was the time to play the
    waiting game.
    Columbine lay behind a screen of bushes, nibbling a green hazelnut. The
    mousemaid often volunteered to go on watch outside Brockhall, imagining
    herself to be the first to sight the travelers' return. That GonfF! He would
    probably come back singing at the top of his voice,
    I'm back, Columbine. Yes, now is the hour My good friends and I Will be saving
    Mossflower,
    or some such cheery air. Columbine lay watching sunmotes dancing through
    dappled patterns of green leaves, dreaming of her thief.
    Then she sighted the fox.
    It was a vixen, dressed like a journeying healer. The fox cast about, sniffing
    here, inspecting a scuffed leaf there, obviously searching for somebody or
    something.
    Columbine slid silently away from her hiding place. Once
    166
    she was out of the fox's vision she took to her paws, dashing headlong back to
    Brockhall.
    Shooing some little ones inside, she shut the door and bolted it. It was
    lunchtime, Loamhedge mice were serving up hazelnut cloister pudding with
    willowherb sauce. Columbine made straight for Bella.
    "Fox, fox, coming this way!" she panted. Skipper put a restraining paw on her.
    "Whoa there. What fox coming from where?"
    "Out in the woods, coming from the northwest, sniffing and probing. It's a
    vixen. She'll find her way here soon unless we stop her.''
    Lady Amber mopped up sauce with a crust. "A vixen eh, did you recognize her,
    Columbine?"
    "Oh yes, it's the one they call Fortunata, though she's dis-guised herself up
    a bit. I recognized her at the ambush."
    "An old raggedy cloak and hood," Bella interrupted, "together with a bag of
    herbs and a staff?" Columbine nodded.
    "The old pilgrim healer disguise. Wearing a bit thin, eh, Mask,'' the badger
    chuckled drily.
    The otter looked up from his pudding. "What are you going to do about her?''
    Lady Amber reached for her quiver. "A swift arrow in the right place should
    save any argument.'' - Skipper pawed his sling. "Either that or a sharp rock
    on her stem."
    Mask stood up, patting a full stomach. "Miz badger, why don't you let me deal
    with this? It may help with our escape plans for the prisoners."
    Bella pushed food toward Columbine. "Here, little one, ; have some lunch. Go
    on, Mask, tell us the plan." >••' The otter had his back to them, he was
    selecting disguises. i_"I say, let her come, see what she wants, but don't let
    her |know who I am. Pretend that I'm a newcomer." *;;.' When he turned to
    face the Corim, Mask was indeed a ^newcomer. He was transformed into the most
    evil slim gray s:ipid fox they had ever seen.
    The Mask slid into Bella's study to complete his disguise. |**Find the right
    tail, rub a little brown dust into my coat and
    167
    see to the finer bits. Ha, she won't be able to tell me from her own grandpa
    when I 'm finished.''
    "Right. We've got you. Don't try anything funny or we'll skewer this mole!"
    Martin opened his eyes. The ferret and the stoat were standing over Dinny,
    their spearpoints at his throat. The warrior mouse was about to jump
    instinctively for them, but Gonff discouraged him.
    "Do as he says, matey. TheyVe taken us by surprise."
    All three lay quite still. Blacknose smirked with satisfaction.
    "I'll keep the mole pinned down, Splittie. Look through that pack over there,
    and see if you can find some cord."
    Splitnose scuttled off and rummaged in the pack.
    "Even better, mate. Look, a rope," he called.
    *'Give it here and keep your spear on the mole, stick him if he moves."
    Blacktooth wound the rope round the travellers. Binding them together, he
    tugged the end to make sure it was tightly secured.
    Picking up his spear, he strutted around them. "Ha, you're our prisoners now.
    You'll pay for breaking the laws of Kotir and leading us on a wild-goose
    chase. Be still!"
    Splitnose was emptying the supply packs out. "Heehee. Look, apples, bread,
    cheese, mmfff. Pie!"
    Blacktooth threw extra fuel on the fire and crammed food wolfishly into his
    mouth, while menacing them with his spear.
    "Hey, this is more like it, Splittie," he enthused. "Come and get warm by the
    fire.''
    Gonff winked at Martin and whispered, "Leave it to me, matey. I'll settle
    these two idiots."
    Blacktooth yanked sharply on the rope's end. "No talking there. One more peep
    out of you and you'll be sorry, d'you hear me?"
    Gonff shrugged as best as he could. "Don't worry, Captain. You've got us, all
    right. But please don't eat all our supplies, we'll have nothing left to keep
    alive on."
    Splitnose threw an apple core at Gonff and bit into a cheese. "Ah, stop
    moaning, mouse. Look at us, weVe lived on one skinny crust and grass for the
    last few days. Mmmm, this is
    168
    good cheese. Hey, a fruitcake! By the claw, that'll do for me."
    "Come on greedyguts, half for me." Blacktooth prodded Splitnose with his
    spear.
    "Get your own, fatbelly," Splitnose retorted.
    "Why, you gluttonous worm!"
    "Ouch! You keep that spearpoint away from me, rotten-gums." -
    "That's the stuff, matey," Gonff called out encouragingly. "You show him that
    stoats are the bosses."
    Blacktooth was about to stab Gonff with his spear when Splitnose jabbed him in
    the bottom with his spearpoint.
    Martin took Blacktooth's side. "Don't let him do that to you, ierret. Get
    him."
    Dinny supported Splitnose. " 'Ee be nowt but a gurt bully. Jump on furret's
    tunnel, skoat."
    Blacktooth cracked Splitnose across the head with his spearshaft. Splitnose
    retaliated by stabbing Blacktooth in the paw.
    The three friends egged them on with loud shouts.
    "YouVe got him now. Stab!"
    "That's it. Keep him pinned down!"
    "Get his throat with your teeth!"
    "Shove him in the fire, quick!"
    Filled with blind rage, the stoat and ferret battled all over the camp site,
    rolling through the fire, splashing in the shallows, stumbling against the
    captives, oblivious of all except the desire to win.
    "Grr, take that, stoatswine!"
    "Aarghh, you won't push me around any more, ferret-face. Get this!"
    Blacktooth fell, pierced by his opponent's spear. Splitnose backed off,
    dropping his spear, and stumbling further into the shallows. Blacktooth pulled
    himself upright and staggered toward his foe, spear held outright. Splitnose
    blundered into deeper water, unarmed, holding his paws out pleadingly.
    "Blackie, no. I didn't mean it!"
    The ferret tottered unsteadily into the water, lifted the spear to throw and
    fell dead into the shallows.
    Splitnose kept backing off as if in a daze. "I didn't mean to, Blackie.
    Honest. You can have half the c—"
    169
    Suddenly he was gone! All that remained was Blacktooth the ferret, face down
    in the shallows of the swirling stream.
    The three friends had fallen over. They lay, bound, gazing at the water where
    Splitnose had been a moment before.
    "Pitholes, matey, full of bottom mud," Gonff explained. "We'll have to
    remember that when we cross."
    Dinny wriggled. "Us'H 'ave to set about thinken *ow to free usselfs."
    Martin wrenched round to face Gonff. "Any ideas?"
    The mousethief smiled in the darkness. "Stay still. I can reach my dagger.
    Didn't I ever tell you, matey, I'm a prince of escapers."
    Martin felt the blade sawing at their bonds. "Aye, I seem to remember you
    saying something of the sort in the cells at Kotir, matey."
    The ropes fell away under Gonff's keen blade. He stood upright.
    "I was right that time too, if you remember," Gonff pointed out.
    Dinny straightened up. "Hurr, tho' you'm 'ate to boast about et."
    They took stock of the damage. Martin threw a trampled cheese to one side.
    "Huh, they've ruined our supplies," he said with disgust. "Most of the food
    rolled into the water with them. Look, even the fish fell in the fire." He
    held up a smoking relic.
    Gonff pushed Blacktooth's carcass into the fast-flowing water. "It couldVe
    been worse, matey. At least we're alive."
    Dinny blew on the embers, adding dry reeds and wood. "Ho aye, Marthen. Us'll
    make out awright, 'ee'll see."
    170
    Fortunata followed a trail that led to a dead end. Some creature had
    skillfully covered most traces, but the vixen knew that there had been
    woodlanders here. The camouflagers had not been entirely successful in
    covering everything; there was still scent and the odd broken twig. She
    scratched about in the undergrowth, trying to reveal further clues.
    "Lost something?"
    The vixen was startled by the voice. She whirled around, attempting to
    discover its owner. All she saw was the silent woodland. Quite suddenly there
    was another fox standing alongside her.
    "I said, have you lost something?" he repeated.
    Fortunata weighed up the newcomer carefully. He was an old fox, patched gray
    and dusty brown, slim built and slightly stooped. But it was the eyes that
    caused her to shudder-weird, flat, shifting eyes. This was the most
    evil-looking of her species that the vixen had ever encountered.
    "No, it's not something IVe lost," she said, trying to sound unconcerned.
    "Actually, I was merely passing through here."
    "Aye, me too. Maybe we can help each other," the old fox suggested.
    "Yes, maybe we can. My name is Besomtail, the wandering healer, what are you
    called?" Fortunata asked.
    "I'm Patchcoat. I come from far away to the east," he replied.
    171
    Fortunata nodded. He certainly looked like a patched coat. "Well, I come from
    the ... er, southwest. Maybe that's why we've never met. I'm really hungry,
    though, Patchcoat. I expect you've seen tracks around here. Maybe there's a
    camp of woodlanders nearby. They usually give me food in return for my healing
    skills."
    Patchcoat rubbed his lean stomach. "Aye, I'm hungry too. There's not much
    future in eating grass and drinking dew. Listen, Besomtail, maybe I can travel
    along as your assistant. I passed a place earlier today that might be just
    what we're looking for."
    Fortunata's ears stood up. "You did? Where?"
    The strange fox waved a paw. "Oh, round and about, you know. I didn't stop
    because those woodlanders always drive me off, for some reason. Huh, you'd
    think I was out to steal their young. It looked like a well-stocked hideaway.
    I expect I could find it again."
    "I can't blame them driving you off, friend Patchcoat," Fortunata sniggered.
    "You certainly don't look anything like a baby fieldmouse on posy day.''
    Patchcoat threw back his head and laughed wickedly. "Ha-haha, look at
    yourself, you raggedy-bottomed tramp. Any honest woodlander would run a mile
    from you. Let's join forces. Come on, how about it? You won't find the place
    without me."
    Fortunata rubbed her whiskers as if she was giving the matter some earnest
    thought. Finally she thrust out a paw. "All right, Patchcoat," she agreed.
    "We'd better stick together, I suppose. Shake paws, fox."
    "Aye. Shake paws, fox."
    Left paw met left paw as they intoned the ritual of villains,
    Shake paws, count your claws. You steal mine, I'll borrow yours. Watch my
    whiskers, check both ears. Robber foxes have no fears.
    Ben Stickle was observing the scene from the cover of a humped loam bank. He
    scurried off to report to the Corim that the Mask, alias Patchcoat, had made
    contact with Fortunata, alias Besomtail.
    172
    The Mask would lead Fortunata a merry dance through £ Mossftower before
    evening fell over the woodlands.
    V
    It was mid-afternoon when Chibb left the cell window at Kotir. Gingivere sat
    in the straw with his two little friends, patiently explaining the message
    sent by the Corim.
    "Now, if a ferret looks like a ferret, or a stoat like a stoat, or a weasel
    looks like a weasel, don't trust them. But if a fox that looks like a fox says
    that his name is Mask and he's been sent by the Corim, we must do exactly as
    he says, quickly and without question."
    Ferdy scratched his spiky head. "Supposing it's a stoat that looks like a
    weasel with a ferret's nose and a fox's tail, Mr. Gingivere?"
    Gingivere pushed him playfully backward into the straw. "Then don't trust him,
    even if it's a Ferdy that looks like a Coggs with a Gingivere's fur, you
    little rascal. Hush now, there's somebody coming. I 'd better get you back
    into your bags. *'
    Two weasel guards passed along the corridor, chatting animatedly.
    "So what did the foraging party bring back?" "Not a single acorn. The Queen's
    not too happy, either." "Well, that's only to be expected." "Aye, but it made
    things worse when Cludd reported that one of our soldiers had been taken by
    that big old eagle." I, "Who was it?*' • "A stoat, they say." !:
    "Ah well, as long as it wasn't a weasel." '• "Aye. Can't stand stoats
    myself. Nasty sly creatures."
    "Right. Not like us, mate. Anyhow, I'll bet if the eagle at-\ tacked one of
    our lads he 'd weasel his way out of it somehow. *' t "Hahaha. That's a good
    one. Weasel his way out of it!"
    ':'
    X The waters of the fast-flowing stream glittered in the after-fi noon sun.
    All day the three travelers had wandered along the I bank, looking for a
    shallow fording place. Martin gazed up at the mountains. They were much closer
    now. He could see the green of vegetation at the base changing to basalt and
    slate-colored rock which soared upward to snow-covered peaks that seemed to
    support the sky like mythical columns. Gonff was singing as he trailed his
    fishing line along.
    173
    O the day is fair and blue, The mountains He ahead. Companions good and true,
    Our enemies are dead. I 'm longing for the day, O for that happy time, When
    I'll return to say, Sweet Columbine, you're mine.
    As they trekked, Young Dinny dug up edible plants and roots to add to their
    supplies.
    Martin sighted a bend ahead with steep sloping banks. "Come on, mates. The
    stream looks narrower there. Perhaps there's a way to cross."
    He was right; just around the bend was a sight that gladdened their hearts.
    A rope stretched across the water, attached at either end by a deep stake
    driven into the earth. On the opposite bank a white willow trunk lay in the
    shallows. GonfF twanged the tautened fibers of the rope.
    "It's a ferry, mateys," he told them. "See on the other bank? Pity it isn't on
    mis side of the water. Never mind, even if it means getting wet we'll cross on
    this rope."
    Two pairs of unwinking eyes watched them from behind the log on the opposite
    shore.
    Martin waded into the river, holding the rope as a guideline.
    "Come on, it's not too bad," he called. "Stay on this side of the rope, then
    the current won't sweep you downstream."
    Dinny and GonfF followed his example. The going was not too difficult. Paw by
    paw, they began pulling themselves through the stream. Halfway across, it
    deepened. They were floating now, but still going forward, aided by the rope.
    A shout rang out from the far bank, "Stop right there, strangers!"
    A snake and a lizard emerged from behind the willow trunk.
    "Looks like trouble, eh, Din," GonfF whispered.
    Martin ignored the warning, continuing to pull himself forward.
    Dinny called out a friendly hail. "Goo' day to 'ee. Us'n's on'y a crossen, no
    need t'be afeared."
    The snake reared up, flickering a slim tongue. "Hssss. No-174
    body crosses without paying us. I'm Deathcoil and this is Whip-scale. We are
    the ford guardians. Pay us, or pay with your lives."
    Gonflf caught up with Martin. "I don't like the look of those two. Has that
    snake got adder markings?"
    Martin's warrior nature rose. Tightening his grip on the rope with one paw, he
    unslung the broken sword from around his neck.
    "Looks a bit skinny and undersized to be a true adder, Gonff," he reassured
    his friend. "I'm pretty certain that the other one is only some kind of newt.
    Leave it to me. We'll soon find out."
    It was now apparent to the ford guardians that the travelers were coming
    across.
    "WhatVe you got for us?" the lizard asked, his voice harsh and aggressive.
    "Come on, move yourselves. Up on the bank here, and empty those packs out.
    Quick, now!"
    Martin's fece was grim. "Listen, you two. You dont frighten us. We're
    travelers and we aren't carrying anything of value, but we'll fight if we nave
    to, so you'd better stand clear."
    The snake lowered his head onto the rope, glaring wickedly at them. "Hsss,
    fools, one bite from my fangs means death. If you have no valuables, then go
    back and get some-tiling to pay our toll with."
    Martin yanked down on the taut rope, letting it go with a twang. The line
    sprang upward, vibrating. The snake was hammered on the lower jaw several
    times before he was tossed flat on the bank. "How's that for starters, worm,"
    GonfF laughed. "Stand up straight, and I'll give you a taste of my dagger when
    I get ashore. Come on, Din."
    The mole waved a hefty digging paw. "Oi'll make knots . in *ee, then oi'll
    teach yon glizzard sum manners." ' The three friends bounded up on the bank,
    dripping but de-'termined. Martin advanced, wielding his broken sword; Gonff
    ;drew his dagger as he and Dinny spread in a pincer movement; ; (he mole
    whirled a pack loaded with plants and roots.
    As they closed for combat, the snake flicked his coils at Martin. "Hsss,
    you'll leave your bones on this bank, mouse!"
    175
    Fortunate was becoming irate with her traveling partner. "By the fang,
    Patchcoat, I'm certain we've passed this same yew thicket three times today.
    What are you playing at, in the name of foxes?"
    Patchcoat whirled upon the vixen, pulling out a long rusty knife. "Are you
    calling me a liar, Besomtail? Think I don't know where I'm going?"
    The vixen backed off, licking dry, nervous lips. "Of course not, friend. I'm
    sorry, this forest looks all the same to me. I'm a healer, not a pathfinder,
    you know."
    Patchcoat grunted, as he sheathed his knife. "Huh, I'm no trailmaster myself.
    I'm a mercenary by trade. I'd swap a good barracks for this lot any day. Never
    mind, not far to go now.''
    Fortunata pushed aside an overhanging branch. "A mercenary, eh? Soldier for
    hire. Well, you do right by me and I might be able to find you a good
    barracks. I could have you made into a Captain."
    "A Captain, you say. Where at?"
    The vixen winked. "Tell you some other time. Are we nearly there?"
    "See that big oak?" Patchcoat asked, pointing. "It's got a hidden door between
    the main roots. Follow me."
    At the sound of knocking, Bella opened the door of Brock-hall the merest
    crack. Skipper and Amber craned their necks
    176
    to see the visitors as the badger called out gruffly, "Who are you? What do
    you want?"
    Fortunata made a fawning bow. "My name is Besomtail. This is my assistant,
    Patchcoat. Are there any among you who require the services of a healer?"
    Lady Amber showed her teeth. "We don't need your mumbo-jumbo, fox. Now clear
    off, quick!"
    "Oh, please have pity on us," Mask whined pitifully. "WeVe fallen upon hard
    times. Foxes are always driven off, even when they have traveled far, seeking
    honest work. We do not mean harm to any creature. We are starving."
    Skipper winked at the badger. "Oh, let em in, Miz Bella. Surely we can manage
    a bite and a sup for these two cruising fleabags?"
    Bella opened the door wide. "Come in, foxes. But mind you behave, otherwise
    you may find yourselves hanging by the tails from a high branch."
    Once inside, Fortunata's eyes roved ceaselessly, noting every detail of her
    surroundings. Abbess Germaine entered the room, accompanied by two small
    hedgehogs dressed in blanket cloaks and cooking-pot helmets.
    "Ferdy, Coggs, take these two travelers to the kitchen," she ordered them.
    "Ask Goody to feed them, please."
    Goody Stickle fed the unsavory duo some leftover spring vegetable soup with
    bread and cheese. They ate ravenously.
    "Dearie me, it looks like you two ain't eaten since last harvest," Goody
    remarked. "I'll cut more bread V cheese, then you can earn your keep by
    scouring some pots and pans before you eat us out of house and home
    altogether. That'll save my old paws a job."
    Reluctantly the foxes finished their meal. Afterwards they faced the
    formidable stack of dirty kitchenware heaped in bowls of water.
    The vixen curled her lip in disgust. "You wash and I'll ;wipe."
    Mask shook his head. "Oh no. A healer needs clean paws. : You wash, and I'll
    do the wiping."
    As they worked, Mask whispered to Fortunata, "What jd'you make of this place,
    Besomtail?"
    "Well, they've certainly got a comfy den here," she re-
    177
    plied. "Well-stocked, too. But hark, Patchcoat, they're soft and innocent as
    new bread. Look how easily we got in here."
    Mask tapped his nose knowingly. "A right bunch of woodland bumpkins, eh? One
    good squad of soldiers could tie their whiskers in knots."
    Fortunata passed a large pan to be wiped. "How would you like to be in charge
    of that squad, Patchcoat?"
    "Would this have anything to do with that Captain's job you mentioned
    earlier?" Mask whispered out the side of his mouth.
    Fortunata wiped her paws on a towel. "Aye, it would. I've been watching you,
    Patchcoat. You're a fox after my own heart. Now listen carefully and stick by
    me. We can both come out of this as two rich and powerful foxes if we play
    both ends against the middle."
    A fraction before both sides joined in combat there was a deep gruff shout
    from the reeds. "Wnoooaaahhh, gerroutofit!"
    A small, ferocious shrew, armed with a heavy hornbeam club, hurled himself
    roaring onto Deathcoil and Whipscale. He belabored them mercilessly with swift
    hard blows.
    "WhatVe I told you two filthy reptiles?" he shouted. "Gerroff my bank. Here,
    take this with you, and this, and this too!"
    The snake and the lizard were thrashed into the stream.
    "Ouch, ow, no, please, owoo, ooff!" they cried.
    The bad-tempered shrew slammed his club down hard on Whipscale's tail. It flew
    off into the air, and he batted it into midstream with an expert flick.
    In the water, a pattern of dirt floated away from Deathcoil, showing that
    under the dark bruises he was only a common grass snake.
    The shrew turned to Martin and his friends, gesturing toward the unlucky pair
    in the stream. "See, a grass snake and a newt. Pair of nuisances, I've warned
    'em before about threatening honest travelers. Go on, clear off you snotty
    vermin. Just let me catch you around here again, and I'll make you eat each
    other's tails!"
    The snake and the newt were carried off by the current, hissing dire threats
    now they were out of reach of the shrew and his club. "You wait, you'll pay
    for this, you haven't seen the last of us."
    178
    A well-aimed stone from Gonff's sling bounced off the snake's head; another
    from Martin stung the newt's severed tail stump.
    The shrew nodded approvingly. "Slingmice, eh? Good shots. This club's my
    weapon. They won't be back for another dose of this."
    Martin smiled. He liked the shrew's truculent manner. "Thank you, sir," he
    said warmly. "I am Martin the Warrior. This is Gonff the thief, and this Young
    Dinny, our mole friend. We are travelers, as you see, bound on a quest to
    Salamandastron."
    The shrew shouldered his club. "Sala what? Oh, you mean that big place t'other
    side of the mountains. Well, I'm called Log-a-Log Big Club. I own the ferry
    round here. You should have given me a shout, like this."
    Log-a-Log cupped his paws around his mouth, bellowing out in a deep voice
    which echoed off the mountains. '' Logalogalogalogalog!''
    Gonff put his sling away. "We would have if we'd known, matey. Do you live
    around here?"
    Log-a-Log parted the reeds, revealing a cave hewn into the bank. "Aye. I live
    alone. I expect you're hungry; travelers always are. Come inside. I'll tell
    you all about it."
    Inside the cave was a nest of untidy odds and ends. Fishing nets draped the
    walls, a fire smoldered in one corner, many tools lay all about a large,
    skillfully made boat that dominated , the living area. An old black water
    beetle sat by the fire.
    The travelers found seats amid the jumble, and Log-a-Log served them steaming
    bowls of freshwater shrimp soup with .arrowhead bread and spring radishes. He
    sat stroking the bee-|'tie's back.
    •j-- "I call this fellow Grubwhacker. He lives nearby, comes in .;-.' and out
    of here for his food, just like a pet. That there is my | boat. It's about
    finished. I was going to try it soon in the stream.'' / Martin felt the sturdy
    polished hull. "It's beautifully |£rafted, Log-a-Log. You know about boats,
    then?" I?': The shrew picked up a spokeshave. He took a sliver off the |'«ern.
    "Ships, friend, ships. Though I'm a ferry-puller, like SAll. my family, we
    used to live with our tribe on the banks of ||the River Moss, far to the north
    of here. One day, several isons ago, we were invaded by sea rats who sailed
    inland.
    179
    They took many of us captive and put us to the oars of their galley. Some died
    there, but I escaped. One night I slipped my chains and went overboard, just
    south of Salamandastron. I swam ashore. Do you see those mountains? Well, I
    couldn't cross them, so I walked around them. Ha, that took a season or two, I
    can tell you. Eventually- I found my way to this place—the Great South Stream,
    I call it. One day I'll go back to my village, where the shores and flatlands
    meet the woods on the River Moss. Until then, well, here I am."
    Martin put down his bowl. "Then you've seen Salamandastron?"
    "Oh aye, passed it a few times when I was in the galleys," Log-a-Log agreed.
    "Big mountain, fiery at night. Sea rats don't like it, though."
    Martin nodded. "Yes, I've heard about the sea rats. My father went oif to
    fight them up north. He was never heard of again. Tell me, Log-a-Log, do you
    know the way to Salamandastron?"
    The shrew pointed with a ladle. "Over those mountains and due west."
    Dinny was stroking Grubwhacker. "Hurt, can 'ee go thurr by stream, Gloglog?"
    The shrew paced the cave with his lips pursed. Silently they watched him.
    Finally he stopped alongside Dinny and the beetle. Taking a loaf and a piece
    of cooked fish, he placed them upon Grubwhacker's back, where they could be
    carried without falling off. Log-a-Log patted his pet affectionately.
    "Go on Grubwhacker," he told him. "Back to your missus and the little uns."
    The beetle trundled oif obediently.
    The shrew turned to Martin and his friends. "Right. Load the boat up with
    supplies. I'll get the mast and sail ready to rig up."
    Gonff stood up. "Why, matey, what are we supposed to be doing?"
    Log-a-Log grunted as he heaved a heavy mast timber from the back of the cave.
    "We're going to see if that old stream will take us under the mountain. That's
    the shortest route to Salamandastron. I wouldn't chance it on my own, but now
    that I *ve got a crew ..."
    BOOK TWO
    Salamandastron
    180
    Skipper hobbled into the dining room at Brockhali. He sat down with a sigh of
    relief, rubbing his tail and paws.
    Fortunata and Mask were clearing away the lunchtime dishes. The sly vixen
    nodded toward Skipper and winked at her companion. Mask looked slightly
    bemused, but Fortunata winked again as she sauntered over to the otter.
    "What seems to be the trouble, sir?" she asked solicitously. "Is it an old
    injury?"
    Skipper shook his head and continued rubbing. "No, it's these pains I get in
    me paws and tail. The minute I come out of the water, or even after a
    rainshower these days, it starts throbbing right into me old bones. Ooh, the
    pains, matey. It's agony!"
    Fortunata crouched in front of Skipper. "Here, allow me to take a look, sir.
    I'm a healer of pains.''
    First she stroked the fur on Skipper's paws, then she probed , and tested with
    her claws. The otter put on a fine display of anguish.
    "Ow, ooch," he exclaimed. "That's it, right there. You touched the very spot."
    The vixen stroked her whiskers, looking very professional. *'Hmm, yes, I think
    you've got a touch of the stiffeners," she told him.
    Skipper expressed concern. "The stiffeners? Float me tail, is that bad?"
    183
    Fortunata shook her head gravely. "It will be, if you let it get any worse.
    I've seen otters bent double with the stiffen-ers. Very, very, painful
    indeed.'*
    "Can you cure me, Besomtail?" he asked.
    Fortunata leaned against the table. "Feverfew, wormwood, extract of nightshade
    leaf to stop the pain, that's what you need. Plus, of course, a few other
    items that I don't normally carry with me."
    "But you can get them?" Skipper asked hopefully.
    Fortunata smiled at Mask. "Well, I suppose so. Though I'll have to go out into
    the woods to gather them. What d'you say, Patchcoat?"
    Mask had caught on to the scheme. "Right, Besomtail," he said. "We'd better go
    out into the woodlands and hunt for the stuff. After all they Ve done for us
    here, it'd be a shame to watch this poor otter suffer when we can help him."
    Fortunata kept her voice light and casual. "Of course we'd need a couple of
    helpers, creatures that aren't needed for other duties. What about those two
    little hedgehogs? I'll bet they'd love a romp in the woods."
    Spike and Posy (disguised as Ferdy and Coggs) were eager to help. Goody
    Stickle wiped their snouts with her apron corner.
    "Now mind you, don't go a botherin* the healers," she warned them. "Behave
    yourselves like two liddle gen-tle'ogs."
    Fortunata patted them gingerly on their heads. "Oh, they'll be just fine with
    old Patchcoat and me, marm."
    The healer and her assistant strode off, in the wake of the two small
    hedgehogs who scampered playfully ahead. Mask hitched the medicine bag around
    his neck as he trudged along with the vixen.
    "Here, Besomtail, what are you up to now?" he asked. "I thought we were
    supposed to escape back to Kotir and tell this Queen of yours where the
    woodlanders are hiding out."
    Fortunata ducked an overhanging branch. "That's exactly what we're going to
    do, Patchcoat, but there's no harm in bringing back a couple of escaped
    prisoners while we're about it. You wait and see. It'll be an extra feather in
    both our caps,
    184
    though I'd hate to be one of those young hedgehogs when Tsarmina has them back
    under her claws."
    Mask felt a cold hatred for the cruel vixen, but long practice had taught him
    to keep a straight face.
    Fortunata watched the two little ones tussling happily in the loam. "We'll get
    the credit for them, eh, mate."
    "You'll get what's coming to you today." Mask's voice had sunk to a grim
    whisper.
    Fortunata only half-heard her strange companion. "Eh, what's that?"
    Mask looked around him. "I said, I'm not sure if this is the way."
    "Oh no, don't tell me we're lost," Fortunata groaned.
    Mask pointed to a fork in the trail. "No, wait a moment, it's one of these two
    paths. Listen, I'll take this path to the right and keep an eye on these
    hedgehogs. You take the one to the left. If it's the real trail, you'll come
    across a fallen beech. Give me a call. If I find the beech on my trail, I'll
    give you a yelp."
    Fortunata parted from them, calling out to the hedgehogs, "Be good, little
    ones. Stay with Uncle Patchcoat. I'll see you later."
    When the vixen was gone, Mask sat on a chestnut stump. He gave Spike and Posy
    a sugared hazelnut each.
    "You're not really our Uncle Patchcoat, are you?" Posy giggled.
    Mask patted her gently. "No, I'm not. And Besomtail isn't your aunt. But I
    don't think we'll be seeing her again."
    Spike stared gravely at the otter. "Can we call you Mr. Mask again?"
    Mask gave them his canteen to drink from. He wiped nut fragments from their
    faces with his false tail.
    "Not until we're saie back at Brockhall tonight," he said firmly. "Pretend for
    now that I really am your Uncle Patch-coat."
    Posy hugged the false tail to her comfortingly. "You're a nice old Uncle
    Patchcoat."
    Beneath his disguise Mask blushed with pleasure.
    Fortunata spotted the fallen beech ahead. She leaned against it with a sigh of
    relief.
    185
    "Phew! Thank the fang this is the right trail," she said aloud. "Soon as I get
    my breath back, I'll give Patchcoat a call."
    "You've done all the calling you're going to do, traitor!" Lady Amber and ten
    squirrels dropped from the trees and stood blocking the vixen's path, each
    with an arrow notched on a drawn bowstring.
    Instinctively Fortunata knew her plans had gone badly astray. She cowered down
    with drooping ears.
    "It was Patchcoat," she whined. "I wasn't going to harm the little ones. He
    forced me to go along with his wicked plans. He said that—"
    "Silence, fox!"
    Lady Amber dropped her bushy tail flat along the ground.
    Ten bowstrings strained tighter.
    The squirrel leader pointed an accusing paw at the trapped spy. "We knew who
    you were from the moment you entered these woods," she rasped. "When you left
    Brockhall today I was only a treetop away from you. I heard every word that
    passed between you and Mask.''
    Fortunata crouched low, trying to offer as small a target as possible.
    "No, you've got it wrong, he's Patchcoat the mercenary," she argued. "I don't
    know any creature called Mask. Wait, yes I do, there's another fox named Mask.
    He lives over by Kotir—a real evil creature. He's the one you want. I'll take
    you to him."
    "Spare me your lies, fox." Amber's voice was flat and harsh. "You have lived
    the life of a traitor and earned the reward of treachery. Tell your deceitful
    tales to whoever meets you at the gates of Dark Forest."
    Amber's tail flicked upright like a banner.
    Ten arrows flew straight and true!
    O for the life of a sailormouse,
    It's better than Kotir gaol,
    A rest for the weary traveling paws,
    With the wind to drive our sail.
    There's a shrew for skipper
    Two mice for mates,
    And a mole for a cabin boy.
    186
    t
    When we sight Salamandastron,
    •
    We'll shout out loud, Ahoy!
    Midafternoon on the waters of the Great South Stream saw the friends learning
    to handle the boat that Log-a-Log had named Waterwing. Martin was taking a
    turn at the tiller under the shrew's guiding paw, while Gonff charged about
    playfully trying to air his new-found nautical knowledge.
    "Keep her downwind, me lads. Steady at the tiller there. Watch your larboard
    side, Cap'n Log-a-Log. Bring the helm a point to starboard. Steady as she
    goes!"
    Dinny was definitely not cut out for a sailor's life. The young mole lay
    amidships clutching his stomach.
    "Burr oo, 'ush 'ee, Gonffen. This yurr pore mole be a-dyen. Yurr, c 'n oi goo
    ashore an' walk apiece, 'twould stopp *ee wurld goen round."
    Log-a-Log produced some herbs for Dinny to chew upon. After a while he felt
    better, but he kept up a steady stream of comments.
    "Oi'd as soon be a gurt burdbag flyen in 'ee sky than sailen on this yurr
    streamer."
    Martin watched the stream carefully. The mountains towered right over them
    now, blocking out the sky ahead.
    "Log-a-Log, have you noticed the current? It's very swift here and getting
    heavier. We're moving along a bit too fast for my liking."
    "Aye, I've noticed the stream is starting to take a steep downward course,
    Martin.'* The shrew looked worried yet Spoke calmly. "Here, Gonff. Let's see
    you take the sail in and drop the mast. Better lend a paw, Martin and Dinny.
    I'll take the tiller."
    -. As they worked, the water began to get very choppy. Crested foamheads
    began appearing around rocks which stuck up like jagged teeth in the swirling
    flow. Log-a-Log was
    ; stretched to his limit holding the tiller and maneuvering Wa~
    I terwing. The little craft began to buck and tilt; water was
    ; Splashing in heavily over the forward end.
    "Leave the mast." The shrew's voice boomed out above
    , the roar of water. "As long as the sail's down, bale her out
    £ before we're swamped. Hurry!"
    § Waterwing leaped about like a frenzied salmon. The thun-
    187
    der of the stream rose, echoing from the mouth of a dark tunnel forming
    overhead. Hanging bushes and vegetation clawed at the small crew, while rocks
    pounded dangerously at the sides of the boat. Without warning, they were swept
    deep into the tunnel. The stream became a waterfall.
    In a mad torrent of boiling white water they were hurled over the brink of the
    chasm. Waterwing hung for a second in space, then plunged into the abyss. The
    mast struck the mountainside. It snapped with a resounding crack and came
    crashing down onto them.
    Tsarmina stood in her usual position at the high chamber window, Cludd waiting
    dutifully at one side.
    "Spring vegetables aren't much use, Cludd. Find out what the birds like to
    eat, and scatter some of it about. Set some traps and get the archers out. Fat
    woodpigeons, a juicy thrush or two—that's the sort of thing we need."
    "Yes, Milady, I'll see to it right away." The weasel Captain trudged oif
    obediently.
    Tsarmina leaned farther out the window, scanning the wood fringe. "No, wait!"
    A strange-looking fox emerged from the undergrowth, tugging two little
    hedgehogs along on a rope. It was plain to see he was in a hurry. Behind the
    trio, a band of otters and squirrels came dashing in pursuit. Looking backward
    at his pursuers, the fox tripped over the rope. The woodlanders dashed forward
    and pounced upon him.
    Tsarmina shoved Cludd to the door. "Quick, quick. Get down there and grab the
    nearest troops. Help the fox. Hurry!"
    The wildcat Queen raced back to the window yelling aloud, "Hold on, fox. We're
    getting help out to you. Keep hold of those hedgehogs!"
    The stranger put up what appeared to be a good fight. Unfortunately, he was
    outnumbered. One group of woodlanders kept him busy defending himself, while
    several squirrels slashed the rope from the captive hedgehogs, bearing them
    oif into the trees, away into thick wooded Mossflower.
    Late again! Tsarmina slammed her paw hard against the windowsill.
    Down below, Cludd and a party of soldiers raced toward
    188
    die melee. The woodlanders broke off the attack, vanishing like smoke into the
    undergrowth.
    Tsarmina was standing in the entrance hall as Cludd escorted the newcomer in.
    She peered closely at the odd-looking stranger.
    Mask panted heavily, slumping down on his haunches. "Whew, those squirrels and
    otters fight like madbeasts!"
    Tsarmina circled him. "You didn't do too badly yourself." There was grudging
    admiration in her voice. "What's your name? How did you come here?"
    Mask looked up at the wildcat. "I'm called Patchcoat. You must be Queen
    Tsarmina of the Thousand Eyes. Fortunata told me about you."
    "So, you've met the vixen. Where is Fortunata now?"
    Mask shrugged. "Probably lying in the woods, full of squirrel arrows. She was
    too slow to keep up. I could have beaten those woodlanders to here easily if
    it hadn't been for that great dozy lump."
    Stupidly, Cludd stepped forward. He prodded the strange fox with his spear.
    "You still haven't told Milady why you're here, fox."
    With a deft movement, Mask grabbed the spear, thudded the butt into Cludd's
    midriff, bowled him over, and was standing on his chest with his dagger
    pressed against the weasel's throat.
    "Listen, fatguts," he growled dangerously. "I'll make you eat that spear if
    you ever poke it at me again. Remember that. My name's Patchcoat the
    mercenary, see. I sell my blade to the highest bidder."
    Mask stood on Cludd's nose with one paw and executed a neat turn to teach the
    weasel a painful lesson. Without even looking to see the result he turned to
    Tsarmina.
    "Ha, you could do with some proper fighters, Queen. Es-'pecially if that oaf
    and Fortunata are a specimen of what you keep around here."
    Tsarmina showed her great fangs in an approving smile.
    "Well, at last a real warrior. Welcome to Kotir, Patchcoat.
    Ita sure you'll do well here. Cludd, get up off the floor and
    give this fox your Captain's cloak to wear. From now on
    /you'll take orders from him."
    189
    Sullenly Cludd undid his cloak, flinging it to Mask.
    Ashleg stumped in with a band of soldiers. He threw a healer's bag upon the
    floor.
    "We tried tracking those woodlanders, Milady," he reported sadly. "But they're
    well away. I found Fortunata east of here, full of arrows. Her body is out on
    the parade ground."
    "Dead?"
    "As a doornail, Milady."
    • ' 'Then what do I want with a slain fox?'' Tsarmina asked impatiently.
    "Throw it out in the woods for the eagle."
    Tsarmina started back up the staircase. "Patchcoat, I'll be up in my chamber.
    Come up later. I'm sure we have plenty to discuss together.' *
    Mask fastened on the cloak of Captaincy. ' 'Aye, later, Milady. First I want
    to inspect these cells Fortunata told me about. Maybe I can discover how two
    young hedgehogs escaped from them so easily.''
    Tsarmina climbed the stairs pensively. This strange fox was certainly a lucky
    find.
    190
    Time stood still. Martin imagined he was back under the river in Mossflower
    being towed along by an otter. Everything was pitch-black and ice-cold. A
    million thoughts rushed through his brain, bringing memories flooding back:
    his father leaving to fight the sea rats . . . Tsarmina snarling at him ...
    the kind face of Bella at Brockhall. . . Dinny chuckling as he wrestled with
    Gonff . . . Everything whirled together into one great maelstrom of crashing
    water, then there was silence.
    Martin felt mossy ground against his wet back.
    "Not dead, bring medicine, medicine," a sibilant voice was saying somewhere
    close.
    The warrior mouse felt some vile-tasting liquid being poured between his lips.
    He opened his eyes.
    He was lying on a broad ledge, which was covered in velvety moss. Soft light
    cast flickering luminous water patterns around the rock face. A mouse was
    standing over him, another crouched nearby. Martin took a second look. Surely
    these creatures could not be mice? They had very little fur, black leathery
    skin and, oddest of all, wings!
    The one nearest pushed the bowl toward Martin with a black claw.
    Martin smelt the putrid medicine and pushed it away. "No more, thank you. I'm
    all right now. Where am I? Who are you?"
    191
    "Lie still, lie still. We are the tribe of Lord Cayvear who is ruler of Bat
    Mountpit. You will not be harmed, not be harmed," the creature assured him.
    Martin sat up, he felt wet but unhurt. "My name is Martin the Warrior. There
    "were three others with me—a shrew, a mouse and a mole. Where are they? Have
    they been rescued from the water?"
    The other bat shuffled over. "I am Rockhanger. This is Wingfold. We have found
    the angry one and the strong tun-neller, but no other creature, no other
    creature."
    Martin stood and leaned against the rocks. His head was aching and he felt a
    large bump between his ears.
    "The other mouse is called Gonff. You'll know him easily. He's a cheeky little
    thief who loves to sing. He's my friend, and we must find him," he said
    anxiously.
    Rockhanger felt with the edge of his wing across Martin's face and body.
    Martin recoiled and then stood still. Rock-hanger was blind.
    The bat chuckled; it came out like a dry hiss.
    "No creature is blind who sees by touch. If I tried hard enough I would see
    you with my eyes, but the tribe of Bat Mountpit gave up the use of eyesight
    long ago. We can feel in the dark, feel in the dark."
    The bats led Martin away from the ledge with its constant sound of falling
    water. They made their way along a network of caves connected by a series of
    passages. In the first cave they entered Martin found Log-a-Log and Young
    Dinny.
    "Yurr, Marthen. Woip wet ofF'n 'ee." The mole tossed him a heap of soft dried
    moss.
    The warrior mouse dried himself vigorously, bringing the warmth back to his
    body.
    "Has there been any news of Gonff?" he asked his friends.
    Log-a-Log squinted in the pale light that diffused throughout the regions of
    Bat Mountpit.
    "None at all," he said sadly. "We've lost Waterwing too, after all the work I
    put in on that boat."
    Dinny wrinkled his snout. "Ho urr, c'n allus make 'nother bowt, but thurr be
    on'y one Gonffen."
    A bat came in carrying food for them. "I am Darkfur. Eat, eat. Our tribe are
    searching for your friend, for your friend.''
    The three companions took the edge off their hunger with
    192
    the food of the bats. There was hot mushroom soup and a drink made from some
    salty-tasting waterweed. The rest was not easy to identify, though it was
    quite palatable.
    Martin ate automatically. A great weight hung upon his spirit. He could not
    imagine life without his mousethief friend at his side.
    After the meal they rested awhile to recover from their ordeal. When Martin
    awoke, Log-a-Log and Dinny were still sleeping. There was an enormous bat
    standing over them. The stranger touched him lightly with a wingclaw.
    "You are Martin the Warrior. I am Lord Cayvear, High Chief of the dark places.
    Welcome, welcome."
    Martin stood up and bowed. "Thank you for looking after our safety, Lord
    Cayvear. Is there any news of our friend Gonff?"
    "Not yet, not yet, but sometimes no news is good news," Lord Cayvear said
    reassuringly. "My scouts are searching, searching."
    Martin paced the cave anxiously.' 'Lord Cayvear, I cannot stay here feeling
    helpless while my friend may be in great danger.''
    The great bat folded his wings. "I know, I know. You would not be a true
    friend if you did, Martin. Come with me. We will search together. Let these
    two sleep on; it will do them good, do them good."
    Mask strode down to the cells with a businesslike air, his Captain's cloak
    swirling splendidly.
    "Hey, where d'you think you're off to?" a weasel on sen-•; try duty in the
    corridor challenged him insolently.
    The disguised otter rounded on the unfortunate guard, stamping his paw down
    hard in fine military fashion.
    "Stand to attention when you address a Captain, you .scruffy idle mud-brained
    scum."
    The weasel gulped, coming swiftly to attention. "Sorry, Captain. I didn't
    realize ..."
    ; Mask stood, paws akimbo, sneering contemptuously. "Chin in, chest out,
    eyes front, spear straight, shield up. Up, SI said. So, you didn't realize. It
    strikes me there's been quite &a bit of 'not realizing* going on down here.
    You probably didn't realize it when the prisoners escaped. Well, let me tell
    I, my mangy-furred laddo, things are going to be different
    193
    around here. You'll learn to jump when you hear the name of Captain Patchcoat
    in future. Either that, or you and your cronies will find out what double
    duties in full pack on half-rations mean. Do I make myself clear?"
    The weasel banged his spearbutt resoundingly against the floor. "Very clear,
    sah!"
    "Right. Lead me to the wildcat's cell, then get back about your duties," Mask
    ordered sternly.
    "Follow me, sah!"
    Gingivere heard the rapid paws marching down the passage. With practiced ease
    he slung Ferdy and Coggs up into their haversacks and sat on the floor,
    looking forlorn.
    The wildcat gaped vacantly through the bars at the evil-looking fox on the
    other side of the door grille.
    When the sentry departed, Mask held up a paw to forestall questions. "I am the
    Mask. The Corim sent me to free you. Are the hedgehogs with you?"
    "Yes."
    "Good. Then be ready tonight."
    "You mean we're getting out tonight?" Gingivere asked incredulously.
    "Aye, if I can swing it. Tell Chibb there must be a good force of woodlanders
    waiting in the thickets on the east side. I Ve got to go now. Be ready
    tonight." Mask strode off down the passage, every inch the Captain of Kotir.
    Ferdy and Coggs made the haversacks dance and wriggle.
    "Hooray, we're going home tonight!"
    "Who was that, Mr. Gingivere? Was it a fox?"
    "You tell me, little Coggs. How the Corim could employ any creature so
    evil-looking, is beyond me."
    "Look at me, Mr. Gingivere. Do I look evil?" Ferdy called, sticking his snout
    out of the haversack. "I can, you know. All I do is shut one eye and pull my
    snout to the left, like this."
    "By the fur, you're frightening the life out of me, Ferdy. Best leave your
    snout alone or it'll stick like that."
    "Can we come down to play, Mr. Gingivere, please," Coggs pleaded.
    "Not right now. Try and get some sleep up there. I'll call you when Mr. Mask
    gets back tonight. We'll need to be
    194
    bright and alert if we're to make it back to your friends and family in
    Mossflower."
    Martin was astonished by the size of Lord Cayvear's domain. Bat Mountpit was
    vast and impressive, with chasms, tunnels, streams, caves, waterfalls, and
    underground lakes. Lord Cay-vear pointed out his tribe. Those not searching
    for Gonff were farming great areas of edible roots, mushrooms and subterranean
    plants, while others fished the lakes.
    But there was still no trace of Gonff the mousethief. Having climbed upward in
    the search, they spanned the high cave galleries, leading off a central
    pathway that rose steeply. At the top Lord Cayvear stopped. He turned, barring
    the path with outstretched wings.
    "We go no further, no further," he stated.
    Martin pointed upward. "But, Lord Cayvear, I'm certain I can see the glimmer
    of daylight up ahead.''
    The great bat was unmoved. "So you can, Martin. So you can. The outside world
    may be reached from up there, but none may venture further. There is a large
    bird of prey roosting higher up, far bigger than any bat. It is a killer. Many
    of my bats who went up that way were never seen again, never seen again."
    • Martin gave one last dejected look at the slim shaft of light and
    turned back.
    The little bats were curious and delighted with Dinny. They were under the
    impression that the mole was a fat bat without wings. Dinny liked the idea.
    "Ho urr, batmousen. Oi do fly under 'ee soil. That's as *ow oi wore moi wings
    out wi' all that diggen."
    The little bats laughed. "Mr. Dinny, you are funny, ftmny!"
    Martin called Dinny and Log-a-Log together to discuss . their position.
    "As I see it, there's one way into Bat Mountpit, and that's the way we came
    in. As for the way out, it's a high passage with an opening, but it's barred
    by some large bird of prey. Even Lord Cayvear fears to go up there."
    "Burr, do 'ee say wot sort of burdbag it be?" Dinny asked.
    -. Martin shrugged. "That I don't know, Din. I only hope
    I
    195
    poor Gonff wasn't taken by it. Listen, we must find a way past that bird to
    continue the quest. Gonff would have wished it."
    Log-a-Log was not optimistic. "If the big bird could kill Lord Cayvear, what
    chance would we have?"
    Martin unwound his sling. "Still, we've got to give it a try."
    "You'm caint do it wi* slings, Marthen. But if yon burdbag is 'igh up, then oi
    knows an ole mole trick to cave 'im out," Dinny promised.
    Lord Cayvear materialized out of the gloom. "How would you do it? What is your
    plan, your plan?"
    "Urr, oi get'n b'neath *im an* dig away 'ee nest, then push so it fall
    out'ards down 'ee mounting," the mole explained.
    Lord Cayvear flapped his wings and flew upward, hanging upside down by his
    claws.
    "Can you do it, do it?" His voice was an excited hiss.
    Martin patted Dinny on the back. "Lord Cayvear, if this mole says he can do
    it, then rest assured, he can. Come on, we can given him some assistance."
    Darkness had scarcely fallen over the woodlands. Treetops were touched by the
    fires of the setting sun, and evening birdsong was thinning out to the last
    few warblers. The thickets at the east side of Kotir were packed with
    squirrels and otters, each one personally paw-picked by Skipper and Lady
    Amber. The two leaders listened to reports coming in.
    "Squirrels ready, marm; archers in the low branches. Beech and Pear along with
    Barklad and Springpaw, waiting to whirl the young uns off through the treetops
    to Brockhall."
    "Full crew standing by, Skip. Bula and Root to one side in case we need
    decoys. All otters fully loaded—slings and javelins. We'll give 'em plenty to
    think about if it comes to a fight."
    They lay in wait, watching the night grow older.
    Bella and the Stickles, plus the Loam hedge mice, had stayed behind at
    Brockhall, the Co rim decision being that this was a mission for the swiftest
    and most warlike.
    Inside Kotir, Mask made his way down to the cell areas. Inwardly, the otter
    shuddered after his interview with the
    196
    v wildcat Queen. Tsarmina's grisly plan for victory over the woodlanders did
    not bear thinking about: enslavement, death and imprisonment. Nor did the
    expression of fiendish delight upon her face every time she talked of
    separating woodland families, locking infants in cells as hostages, wreaking a
    murderous revenge on otters and squirrels, putting the old and infirm out to
    the fields as enforced labor.
    Mask went about his perilous game with a new determination.
    Torches glittered in the brackets on the walls of the dismal cell passages.
    The stoat on sentry duty had been warned of the bad-tempered Captain
    Patchcoat. He had prepared himself well, even sweeping his part of the passage
    with a broom.
    At the sound of the Captain's approach, the stoat came smartly to attention,
    awaiting orders. Mask came briskly along the passage.
    "Hmmm, that's a bit more like it. Straighten that spear up " a touch," he
    said, inspecting the sentry. "Good, anything to report?''
    "All in order, Cap'n."
    "Right. Get your keys out. The Queen wants a word with the traitor Gingivere."
    "But Cap'n," the sentry gulped nervously, "Her Majesty gave strict orders that
    he was never to be mentioned again, only fed and kept under lock and key.
    That's what she said."
    "Well, she's the Queen, mate," Mask chuckled, patting
    the stoat's paw. "If she decides to change her mind, who are
    you and I to say different? We're only common soldiers. But
    I like your style; you've a lot more sense than the buffoon
    who was on duty here earlier. You take your orders from me,
    i soldier, and I'll see to it that you wear a Captain's cloak
    before long. Tell you what: you give me the keys. That way
    I'll take all the responsibility. You go and get your supper
    and have a game of shove acorn with your mates."
    ; The stoat surrendered the keys willingly to Mask. Who
    - said this new Captain was a bad-tempered fox? He saluted
    smartly.
    "Thanks, Cap'n. Give me a call if you need help."
    Mask marched off down the passage, calling over his .£ shoulder, "No need,
    mate. You carry on. I can take care of I
    197
    a crazy half-starved cat anytime, or my name ain't Patch-coat."
    Gingivere was ready with Ferdy and Coggs as the key grated in the lock. The
    door swung open to reveal the strange fox with the evil countenance.
    "Quickly, now," he whispered, holding a paw to his muzzle. "There's no time to
    lose. Gingivere, you walk in front of me, I'll have my dagger out as if I'm
    marching you up to the Queen's chamber. Ferdy, Coggs, get behind me, under my
    cloak, and keep as close to me as possible. Don't make a sound; your lives
    depend upon it."
    To the casual observer, it looked as if there were only two creatures walking
    along the passage, Gingivere and Captain Patchcoat. Ferdy and Coggs were
    completely hidden beneath the Captain's cloak. They negotiated the cell area
    successfully. Twice they passed guards who, knowing Captain Patch-coat's
    reputation, saluted smartly, keeping their eyes to the front. Mask nodded
    curtly to them. The escapers carried on up two flights of stairs and into the
    main entrance passage.
    Cludd strode out of the mess hall with another weasel named Brogg just as Mask
    and Gingivere were passing. Cludd was still smarting from his demotion. "Watch
    this, matey," he winked cunningly at Brogg. "I'll make old cleverwhiskers jump
    through the roof. You'll see."
    Mask's bushy imitation tail protruded from the bottom of the cloak that had
    once been Cludd's pride and joy. Sneaking up behind Mask, Cludd stamped his
    paw down hard and heavy on the tail, expecting to see Mask leap in the air and
    roar with pain. Instead, Mask carried on walking. The tail had fiallen off; it
    lay trapped under Cludd's paw. The weasel stared open-mouthed at the false
    tail, its end covered with pine resin and two cunning twine fasteners.
    It took the slow-witted Cludd a moment to catch on.
    "Hey, you, Patchcoat! Stop! Stop him. He's no fox!"
    Cludd ran forward. Mask tore down a wall hanging, throwing it over the head of
    his charging enemy. Cludd fell, stumbling and wriggling to unhamper himself.
    Gingivere swept up the two small hedgehogs and dashed for the main door, with
    Mask close behind. Together they charged the main
    198
    door, both creatures slamming their weight against it. The door flew open,
    bowling Ashleg over as he stumped in.
    The fugitives sped across the parade ground as the hue and cry was raised
    behind them.
    "Escape! Escape! Stop them quickly. Kill them if you have to!"
    The upper galleries were crowded with the tribe of Lord Cay-vear. Martin stood
    ready with a heap of rocks and his sling. Log-a-Log was beside him, his shrew
    dagger drawn.
    It was a tense moment as Dinny went up silently, paw by paw, until he was
    directly under the crack of light.
    "What is your friend doing now?" Lord Cayvear whispered to Martin. "There is
    soil and moss up there, but many rocks, many rocks."
    Martin watched the soft earth and small rocks beginning to slide down the
    incline. "He's digging inward then downward. That way, whatever is above will
    collapse and hopefully fall outward."
    More moss, rock and earth came down in a moving scree. Dinny came with it,
    sliding on his back and keeping an eye on the light shaft. The young mole
    dusted his coat off.
    "Hurr, hurr, clever oi. Marthen, see if 'ee c'n get summat to lever your 'ole
    with."
    Martin turned to Lord Cayvear. "Have you got a long stout timber we could use
    as a lever?"
    The bat chieftain conversed quietly with a band of his followers. They saluted
    and winged off from the high galleries.
    "Be lot quicker an more suproisful wi' a gurt lever," Dinny explained to Lord
    Cayvear.
    There was not long to wait before the bats returned bearing a stout piece of
    wood.
    Log-a-Log fondled it, with tears in his eyes. "It's the keel of Waterwing, my
    lovely boat!"
    Sure enough, the stout curving timber was the original birchwood keel of
    Waterwing; the bats had salvaged it from the falls.
    On Dinny's instructions, it was borne upward by an army of bats. They waited
    until he had clambered up and positioned himself at the hole, then slowly they
    fed the strong timber in, under the mole's guidance. When the timber was
    199
    fixed to Dinny's satisfaction, he wedged it on either side and underneath with
    three rocks. Then the mole slid back down to his friends. Martin looked up;
    what Dinny had accomplished was a deep hole beneath the light shaft, with the
    boat keel sticking out of the excavation at a slightly upward angle.
    Log-a-Log scratched his chin. "What happens now, Dinny?"
    "Hurr, now 'ee baths fly oop thurr soilent loik and perch on yon lever's end."
    Lord Cayvear began signaling his legions. Two by two the bats flew silently as
    cloud shadows, then perched on the end of the lever.
    When eight of them were perched securely, the keel grated, moving fractionally
    downward. They shifted and tightened clawholds.
    Two more bats landed on the keel. It stayed still.
    Yet another two landed. This time it moved visibly.
    Dinny turned to the assembly. "Hoo arr, arf duzzen more'll do *ee. Best coom
    out o* way whurr it be safer."
    Another two bats had landed, then another two. There was more shale and rock
    sliding down as the final two bats landed on the end of the overcrowded keel,
    proving Dinny's calculation totally accurate.
    Suddenly the hole gave way and collapsed, pushed outward by the keel bearing
    down. The entire rock face shifted under the leverage. Bats flew in all
    directions. Through the dust the small shaft of light widened into a hole as
    big as a fair-sized cave entrance.
    There was a screeching and hooting, and through the debris Martin glimpsed a
    huge tawny owl winging its way west then south.
    Amid the rubble of the landslide, the bats raised a sibilant cheer. Dinny was
    carried above them up the scree to the opening, Martin and Log-a-Log helping
    to bear their friend.
    The three travelers were breathing deeply in the cool sweet evening air when
    Lord Cayvear flapped up gracefully. He bowed deeply.
    "My thanks to you and your friends, Martin. Against the bigeyes we were
    totally helpless, totally helpless."
    "I know, Lord Cayvear," Martin nodded understandingly.
    200
    "Even we could not have fought off a tawny owt that size-he was a real
    monster. Well, thanks to our Dinny, we can continue the quest and your tribe
    can live in peace and safety."
    Log-a-Log offered some good advice. "What you must do is to bar the entrance
    with wood and make a door. Leave some small holes in it, and station sentries
    night and day. Then if any large birds try to roost, you can push them off
    with spears and long poles. I will tell you how this door can be made."
    For the first time Martin and Dinny looked over the edge to the outside world
    below. There was nothing to see except heavy gray evening mist in layers on
    the ground.
    Martin stepped back from the edge. "We couldn't attempt to climb down there at
    night, Din. Let's stop here with our friends tonight and continue the quest
    tomorrow. Oh, Dinny, if only Gonff had been here to see this."
    201
    The escapers ran toward the outer gates in the perimeter walls, hotly pursued
    by Cludd, Ashleg and a band of soldiers.
    Tsarmina, keeping her usual vigil at the upstairs window, had armed herself
    with bow and arrow in the hope that she might spot Argulor disposing of
    Fortunata's remains.
    When the hubbub broke out down on the parade ground; without hesitation she
    fitted an arrow to her bow and took aim at Gingivere's back. Coggs slipped
    from Gingivere's pawhold. He rolled into a ball, hitting the parade ground
    harmlessly. Gingivere bent to pick him up, as Mask dashed up behind to see if
    he could help.
    The Queen of the Thousand Eyes had already loosed the deadly shaft. As
    Gingivere picked Coggs up, he heard Mask grunt behind him. Thinking the otter
    was urging him to hurry, the wildcat dashed for the gates with his precious
    burden. He knocked the bar aside and pushed one gate open.
    The woodlanders flooded in. Ferdy and Coggs were passed from paw to paw until
    they were out of the danger zone. Freed of his burden, Gingivere turned to see
    his rescuer staggering slowly across the parade ground as the Kotir soldiers
    closed in on him. With a fearsome cry and a bound, Gingivere was at Mask's
    side. Holding him up, he supported the injured creature through the gate,
    while the otters and squirrels stood fearlessly in line on the open parade
    ground, driv-
    202
    ing Cludd, Ashleg and the soldiers back to the barracks under a hail of
    arrows, javelins and rocks.
    Tsarmina joined Cludd in the main hallway with a band of reinforcements at her
    back.
    "Come on," she shouted furiously. "They're easily outnumbered. We're not going
    to retreat from our own parade ground. Get out there!"
    Cludd was enraged at being taken by surprise on his own territory. With a
    bellow he dashed, recklessly out into the open.
    Encouraged by Queen and Captain, the forces of Kotir flooded out across the
    open ground. Madly Tsarmina raced ahead of them, spurred on by her own fury.
    Skipper and Lady Amber decided it was time to make a tactical withdrawal.
    Their mission was accomplished as far as getting the escape party out of Kotir
    was concerned; besides, the woodland troops were far outnumbered by the hordes
    of Tsarmina's soldiery. The far side of the parade ground was black with
    soldiers who swarmed forward regardless of missiles. The woodlanders fired a
    parting volley then ducked out behind the doors.
    "Lively now, mates," Skipper roared. "Follow Gingivere and Mask. Make sure
    they get home safe. Amber and me'll slow 'em up a bit here."
    As the gates opened outward, it was but the work of a moment for the otter and
    the squirrel to place two sizeable wooden wedges beneath each gate and bang
    them home firmly with rocks.
    Thinking ahead, Tsarmina guessed that the gates would have been barred to slow
    her progress. Standing on the backs of several soldiers, she sprang up, gained
    a clawhold on top of the gates and vaulted over with great agility. Tearing
    out the wedges with feverish energy, she pulled the doors open.
    The woodlanders had had no time to cover their tracks, so it was plain to see
    which route they had taken. Tsarmina pointed east into Mossflower. "Follow me,
    stay together and obey my commands. We might not catch them, but there's an
    even chance these tracks may lead to their hideout!"
    203
    Deep in the woodland shade, Mask and Gingivere were traveling slowly. The
    otter was breathing, laboriously, often halting to lean against trees, but he
    insisted on walking unaided.
    Gingivere was puzzled and concerned for his rescuer. "Mask, what's the matter,
    friend? Are you hurt?"
    The strange otter gave a wry grin and shook his head. "I'm all right. Listen,
    that must be Skipper and the crew coming this way."
    The otters were boisterously recounting their victory over Kotir.
    "Ha, soldiers! Vermin, more like."
    "Aye, it took two score our number to make us back oif, eh, Skip."
    "I must have used two pouches of rocks on their thick skulls."
    "Hoho, I could throw one of 'em further than they could hurl their own
    spears."
    "What a bunch of blunderers! Good job they've got the cat to lead 'em, or
    they'd be lost in their own headquarters."
    "Hey, you two. What are you doing hanging about here?" Skipper bounded up,
    twirling his sling. "Mask, me old ship.-mate. You did us proud back there."
    "I think he's been hurt," Gingivere whispered in Skipper's ear.
    Mask straightened up and began walking doggedly forward. "Leave me alone, I'll
    be all right."
    "Look, Skip, it's his back!" Bula pointed to the wet patch spreading across
    Mask's cloak.
    Mask staggered a few paces, then fell heavily.
    Skipper dashed across and knelt by Mask. Gently, he drew back the cloak to
    reveal the broken arrow shaft protruding from the otter's gray fur. Tsarmina's
    arrow had found its mark, not in Gingivere as she intended, but deep in the
    back of Mask.
    Skipper supported the wounded otter's head as he said encouragingly, "Hold on,
    matey. We'll get you back home atid patch you up in a brace of shakes. Strike
    me colors, one measly arrow isn't going to stop a freebooter like you."
    Mask shook his head, a slow smile playing on his lips. "Someone at the gates
    of Dark Forest must have put my name on that arrow. At least I made it back
    into Mossflower.''
    204
    Hot tears sprang into Skipper's brown eyes. "Don't say that, messmate. It
    wouldn't be the same without you."
    Mask leaned close to Skipper's ear. "Do me one last favor, Skip."
    "Anything. You just name it."
    "Promise me that you won't tell little Spike and Posy about this. Say that
    Uncle Mask has gone to live far away."
    Skipper wiped Mask's brow gently with his paw. "On my affidavit, brother."
    The gray otter nodded slowly. His curious eyes clouded over as he lay back
    peacefully and went limp.
    Skipper stood up. He sniffed, grubbing grimy paws against his eyes. "Listen,
    crew. We're taking him back to the River Moss. He liked it there. We'll stow
    him under a willow on the bank, and that way he'll always be near the sound of
    the water he loved. Tie some slings together and make a stretcher, mates."
    Gingivere stepped forward. He picked Mask up from the earth, holding him
    firmly in his strong paws.
    "Please let me have the honor of carrying him. He rescued us from Kotir
    prison. Ferdy, Coggs and myself, we owe him our lives."
    Skipper turned away. "So be it."
    Thus passed the Mask, the strange one who lived alone in Mossflower, the otter
    who was master of many disguises.
    205
    Dawn had scarcely broken when Log-a-Log put the finishing touches to the main
    frame of the gate. Martin peered down from the edge of the hole in the
    mountainside, holding tight to Dinny beside him.
    "So, this is what the other side of the mountain looks like, eh, Din."
    "Ho urr, baint much to be seen tho, Marthen."
    The sloping side of the mountain was visible, but beyond that the bottomland
    was a bed of thick white mist, as far as the eye could see.
    Lord Cayvear joined them.
    "What lies below, I do not know," he told them. "Thank you, Log-a-Log. Thank
    you for your good work. Soon my tribe will be safe once more. We will be
    complete masters of all Bat Mountpit, Bat Mountpit."
    Log-a-Log patted the heavy timber frame, made mainly from the wreckage of
    Waterwing.
    "Aye, no sign of that owl now, though this gate should keep it away. That, and
    a few sharp prods in its feathery bottom. Don't like owls myself."
    The sun was up and shining brightly within an hour, but instead of clearing
    the mist it seemed to make it thicker. Martin and his friends were eager to
    continue the quest. Politely they refused entreaties from the bats to stay as
    long as
    206
    they wished, though with a tinge of regret because of the kindness and
    hospitality shown them by the tribe of Bat Mountpit.
    Lord Cayvear presented them with haversacks of fresh food and drink. The great
    bat stayed inside the darkness of the exit hole with his tribe, away from the
    glaring sunlight.
    Martin shook him heartily by the paw. "Now, put that barrier up as soon as we
    leave. Better safe than sorry, my friend."
    The little bats clung to Dinny. "Fly back through the earth and visit us one
    day, visit us one day," they begged.
    The mole was visibly moved. "Doant 'ee fret, little bat uns. Thiz yurr mole'll
    see 'ee sumtime."
    Log-a-Log gave final instructions as to the care and main" tenance of the
    gate. All three then stood for a moment in the awkward silence that often
    marks the parting of friends. Martin was about to say that Gonff would have
    composed a ballad for the occasion, but he turned away with a sigh. Adjusting
    the sword hilt about his neck, he faced the outer world.
    They began the sloping descent with Lord Cayvear's whispered farewell in their
    ears.
    "Our spirit flies with you. May you find what you quest for, what you quest
    for."
    The going proved not too difficult. They dug their paws into the loose scree
    and shale, half-walking, half-sliding.
    "If only Gonff were here," Martin could not help remarking. "He'd remember the
    exact words of the Skyfurrow poem. Let me see, now. 'Land lost in mist and
    gray-brown treachery1—or something like that. I can't recall it properly."
    Dinny braked himself against a boulder. "Nay, nor do oi. Proper owd pudden
    'eads us be, hurr hurr."
    Log-a-Log took a chunk of rock and tossed it outward. It fell down into the
    mist, vanishing completely.
    "Usually some kind of swamp or marshland under mist like that. We'd best keep
    our wits about us down there," he warned.
    It was midday when they finally reached the bottomland. The mist was dense and
    high above their heads. It blocked out the sky, leaving the travelers in a
    world of swirling fog. Dark squelchy moss and slimy weeds carpeted the ground,
    207
    dotted with wide areas of evil-smelling fungus. Here and there rivulets ran,
    as if trying to find a way out of this oppressive region.
    Dinny gazed into the mist. "Yurr, be that summat moven over yon?"
    They stopped to peer. Log-a-Log rubbed his eyes. "It might be. Then again, it
    might be the mist playing tricks. If you let your imagination run away with
    you, ail sorts of shapes start popping up."
    The travelers leaned against a large humped rock to take their noon meal.
    Martin broke off some bread. "I've got the strangest feeling that we're being
    watched," he said, chewing as he spoke.
    Dinny tapped the rock. "Diggen claw be a-tellen oi that too, Marthen."
    Suddenly, behind them, six huge toads bearing the ends of a twisted reed net
    leaped from the top of the rock. Passing right over the travelers' heads, they
    landed square on the ground, neatly trapping the three friends tightly
    underneath the net.
    One toad poked a trident at them.
    "Krryoik glogflugg glumbatt. Catchincaught threehere!"
    Tsarmina pushed her party hard into the fastnesses of Moss-flower. She halted
    frequently to sniff the earth or trace the pawprints in soft ground.
    "No mistake, this is them, all right. Look here: my traitor brother, carrying
    something heavy, by these deep prints. Keep going. Dawn can't be too far off;
    we'll give those woodland-ers a breakfast they won't forget.''
    High in a tree above Tsarmina's force, Barklad the squirrel sat muttering to
    himself, "Too many heads to count. Looks like most of Kotir has been mobilized
    to track us down."
    He_ vaulted off across the high green terraces to make his report.
    Cludd pointed with his spear. "Blood spots, Milady." The wildcat Queen
    inspected sticky dark red flecks brushed
    off on the leaves of a lilac bush.
    ' 'Otter. That must be the one who tricked us into thinking
    208
    he was a fox—Patchcoat. He took the arrow that was meant for Gingivere."
    Cludd ground his teeth. "Patchcoat, eh? I want that one myself, wounded or
    not. He's wearing my Captain's cloak."
    Tsarmina pushed onward. "Take who you please, but Gingivere's mine. Leave him
    to me," she ordered.
    The soldiers marched forward confidently, made brave by sheer weight of
    numbers.
    Not far from Camp Willow, the ancient gnarled tree that was its namesake bent
    lithe boughs over the clear flowing river. Beneath its branches the dawn light
    filtered through onto the party who had gathered round the last resting place
    of the Mask. Smooth river boulders in a cairn marked the spot; flowers and
    decorated otter slings were laid on the grave in tribute to a fallen comrade.
    Skipper sighed heavily, turning away to join Lady Amber, who was listening to
    Barklad's report. Cold fury had overtaken the otter leader's grief; at his
    insistence there would be none but otters to face the oncoming hordes of
    Kotir. Lady Amber wisely acceded to her friend's wishes, but not before she
    had outlined a few plans of her own.
    "Do what you have to, Skipper, and good luck to you. The whole of Kotir is
    abroad in Mossflower, so be careful. However, this is an opportunity we must
    not miss. I have sent messengers to Brockhall. No doubt the Foremole and his
    crew would welcome a chance to inspect Kotir while the cat's away. I will take
    my force to make sure they get there and back in safety. Agreed?"
    Skipper greased his sling with slippery bark and checked the rows of
    dangerous-looking otter javelins sticking point down into the bank.
    "Agreed!"
    Ashleg was first to sight the river, heavily swathed in morning mist from bank
    to bank.
    "We've been here before, Milady," he reminded her. "This is where we lost
    Gloomer. Surely this isn't where they have their headquarters?''
    The Queen of the Thousand Eyes peered into the mists
    209
    ahead. "No matter. This is where the trail leads; here is where they'll be.
    What's that?"
    Cludd stood forward brandishing his spear. "It's that otter, Milady. Look, the
    insolent hound is still wearing my cloak. Let me at him!"
    Tsarmina nodded toward the spectral figure that stood wreathed in the mists.
    "Get to it, Cludd," she commanded. "Obviously they know we've been following.
    I'll check around for surprises. We won't be fooled a second time. Oh and
    Cludd—"
    "Yes, Milady?"
    "See you finish the job properly, if you want to wear that cloak as a Captain
    again."
    Hefting his spear Cludd advanced on the cloaked figure. "You just leave it to
    me, Majesty. Right, Patchcoat, let's settle this once and for all," he
    challenged.
    Skipper stepped out of the tendrils of mist, shedding the cloak. "I'm ready
    for you, weasel. The one you called Patch-coat was my brother. You're not fit
    to lick his paws. I will give you your cloak back to take with you to the
    gates of Dark Forest; they have a special place for cowards there."
    Stung by the insult, Cludd bellowed with rage as he charged.
    Skipper allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. Flexing his powerful
    limbs, he hurled himself like an uncoiling spring at the oncoming weasel.
    Disregarding weapons, the two creatures locked together on the ground,
    snarling and tearing at each other like savage beasts.
    Martin, Dinny and Log-a-Log struggled helplessly, floundering about in the net
    like fish out of water. The more they moved, the tighter they were entwined.
    Martin realized this, and lay still.
    "I am Martin the Warrior," he called out. "These are my friends Dinny and
    Log-a-Log. Why have you done this to us? We mean you no harm. We are only
    travelers passing through. Turn us loose, please."
    The toads turned to each other. They made unintelligible clicking and
    golloping noises, seeming to find the whole business highly amusing. Their
    leader jabbed warningly at
    210
    the captives. "Krrglug, yukyuk! Quietnow, furmouse. Dampwatchsay comenow.''
    The prisoners were dragged unceremoniously along the muddy ground. Other toads
    came out of the mist to join the procession. When they finally reached their
    destination, the captives were surrounded by a veritable army of the
    creatures.
    The leader threw the net ends over a stake driven into the ground. He spread
    his webbed claw membranes. "Krrplok! Seehere, onemole twomouse, Marshgreen say
    what?"
    Seated on a huge fungus carved into the likeness of a high throne was a toad
    bigger than the rest. Far more repulsive, too. It had no warts and was a slimy
    wet green color. Its great translucent eyes filmed over as it blinked at the
    captives. Fireflies danced in opaque plant-holders, and four more toads stood
    guard around the throne with tridents. The big toad gave an ungainly hop down
    to the ground and stood in front of the trio, blinking ceaselessly, its great
    wobbly throat pulsating.
    "Krrklok! Goodfind, Dampwatch. Furmouse makehappy Marshgreen."
    Martin decided that politeness was at an end. They were being treated like
    trophies. The warrior mouse's voice was loud and angry. "See here Marshgreen,
    or whatever they call you. You've no right to treat us like this. Now set us
    free, this instant!" he demanded.
    The assembly of toads gave a bubbly cry of shock at the blatant disrespect to
    their ruler.
    Marshgreen inflated his throat until it swelled like a balloon. His eyes
    bulged like button mushrooms.
    "Splakkafrott! Mouthshut mousefur. Cheekybeast. Take-three, throwin
    Screamhole."
    The company of toads waddled and hopped excitedly, brandishing their tridents.
    "Krrplakoggle! Screamhole, throwin Screamhole!"
    "Look over there," Log-a-Log whispered to Martin. "I might have known it
    wouldn't be spring without those two weeds sprouting again."
    It was the newt and the grass snake, Whipscale and Death-coil. The unsavory
    pair saw they were noticed and grinned wickedly.
    211
    "D'you fancy standing on my tail again, shrew?"
    "Oho, you three are in for it now."
    Dinny shook the net. "Goo boil yurr 'eads, sloibeasts."
    Deathcoil stood almost on the tip of his tail. "Not until we've seen you
    thrown into the Screamhole with the Snake-fish."
    Before they had a chance to find out what Deathcoil was talking about, the
    trio were dragged along in the net once more. The journey was not so long this
    time; it was far speedier because the net was hauled by many more toads.
    They halted at what appeared to be an overgrown well. Its large circular bore
    disappeared deep into the earth. Thick ferns drooped about the edges, growing
    down into the pit.
    Marshgreen came waddling up with the snake and the newt. They were flanked by
    toads carrying firefly lanterns on their trident forks.
    "Krrpook! Snakefish feedwell, Marshgreen bringyou fur-mouse," the toad ruler
    called down the dark wellhole.
    A toad presented Marshgreen with an elaborately carved trident. He jabbed it
    ceremoniously at the captives in the net, then jabbed it three times toward
    the well. The assembled toads flattened themselves against the ground,
    chanting, "Snakefish mightyone, stayin Screamhole, eatup furmouse, leavealone
    Dampwatch!"
    Martin and his friends lay apprehensively listening as the chant grew louder.
    Suddenly it stopped. The toads holding the net spilled it open, tugging it
    backward vigorously.
    Martin, Dinny and Log-a-Log were shot forward through the tracery of
    overhanging fems. Deep into the Screamhole.
    Tsarmina had detailed her archers to scatter volleys into the trees and brush
    in case of concealed woodlanders. They fired off a desultory salvo, then all
    else was forgotten as they broke off to watch the battle between Skipper and
    Cludd at the water's edge.
    Jaws locked, the combatants rolled over and over. Loam and sand flew in all
    directions as they bit, grappled and kicked, raking each other with heavy
    claws. The very ground shook
    212
    at their wildness. Fur hung on the dawn air. Blood spattered into the river.
    It was not too long before Cludd realized he was outmatched by the power and
    fury of Skipper; now he was fighting for his life. The weasel tried to pull
    free from the maddened otter, but to no avail. His breath sobbed raggedly in
    his throat as he strained to reach the spear he had dropped in the first
    charge.
    Skipper, aware of what Cludd was up to, squirmed over, rolling him in the
    opposite direction to the weapon. Suddenly Cludd grabbed a pawful of sand and
    ground it into his opponent's eyes. Temporarily blinded, Skipper furiously
    tried to clear his vision, unwittingly freeing Cludd. Seizing his chance,
    Cludd bounded up and snatched the spear. With a savage scream he charged at
    his floored adversary, leveling the point at Skipper's unprotected neck.
    Through a sandy haze, Skipper saw the weasel coming. He rolled to one side. As
    he did, his paw came in contact with the Captain's cloak he had shed upon the
    bank. Sweeping it up and over in one continuous movement, the otter netted
    Cludd, head and haunches. Falling over backward, Skipper felt the breeze of
    the spearpoint pass his ear.
    He thrust upward mightily. All four paws connected squarely with Cludd's body.
    The weasel shot high in the air, enveloped by the cloak, landing with a cry of
    shock. His fall had been broken upon the otter javelins that stood fixed in
    the ground.
    Otter javelins are pointed at both ends!
    Chaos broke loose. Tsarmina hurled her troops forward at Skipper. A band of
    otters broke cover, stopping them with javelins and slingstones. Skipper
    bounded gracefully tail over ears into the river, followed by his crew, who
    took the liberty of rattling a last furious salvo at the soldiers of Kotir.
    Pushed on by those behind, several of the front ranks spilled into the water.
    Tsarmina was among the first to go headlong into the river. Panic overtook the
    wildcat as she floundered in the water. "Out, get me out," she screamed.
    "Quick, before they loose the pike!"
    Hurriedly she was dragged up onto the bank.
    213
    Further upstream, there was a barking laugh of victory as Skipper's head broke
    the surface. "The weasel got his cloak back, cat. It's pinned to him."
    The river closed with a swirl on the last of the otters. Tsarmina raced up and
    down the bank, snatching spears from her soldiers, hurling them vindictively
    at the water.
    "Come out, woodlanders, stand and fight!" she challenged.
    Brogg, the weasel companion of Cludd, had taken the opportunity of extracting
    the cloak from the javelins and his friend's body. He squatted at the river's
    edge, washing it through.
    Few rips, bit of blood; still, it should clean up nicely, he thought.
    Suddenly the cloak was being pulled into the water, dragging Brogg along with
    it. Ashleg kicked him soundly on the bottom.
    "Leggo, fool. TheyVe got the pike out."
    Brogg had never let anything go so quickly.
    Bella appeared on the opposite bank. "Stay out of our woods, cat," she said,
    pointing a blunt claw at Tfcarmina. "lake your vermin away from Mossflower and
    leave us alone, or you will be defeated someday.' *
    Tsarmina ran to the water's edge, but halted at the sight of a dorsal fin
    patrolling the river. Her voice was a hoarse scream.
    "I am the Queen of the Thousand Eyes. I rule all Moss-flower. One time I might
    have shown you mercy, but not now. This is war to the death—your death,
    badger! Archers!"
    Before an arrow could be strung, Bella had gone.
    214
    The Screamhole was dark and slimy. Martin, Dinny and Log-a-Log landed with a
    splash in muddy water. The mole slipped upon a smooth bulky object.
    "Yurr, wot be that?" he wondered aloud, as he spat out fetid water.
    "Don't hang about down there, matey. Here, reach up and I'll give you a lift."
    The voice belonged to Gonff!
    Martin and his friends looked up. They could not see daylight or hear the
    toads. Above them was a hole in the pit wall; Gonff stood at its entrance,
    holding a firefly lantern in his paw. The little mousethief looked dirty and
    wet, but as cheerful as ever.
    Martin was overjoyed. "Gonff, you old thief, is that really you?"
    Their long-lost companion shook with silent mirth as he held up a cautionary
    paw. "Shush, matey. Not so loud. You'll wake up the big feller. Here, grab
    this vine and I'll pull you up."
    Gonff hauled Martin up; together they pulled Log-a-Log and Dinny to safety.
    All three shook water from their coats and warmly hugged the little
    mousethief.
    "Bring any rations with you, matey?" Gonff was hungry.
    "Nay, 'ee toaden took'm all."
    215
    Gonff looked disgusted. "Oh, that warty lot. I might've known."
    Log-a-Log sat in the dryest spot he could find.
    "But how did you come to get down here?" he asked curiously. "We thought you
    were dead for sure when we lost you at the waterfall."
    Gonff puffed his chest out indignantly. "Me, dead! Not likely. When I went
    over the falls I must have been washed right underneath the mountain by the
    currents. Next thing I knew, I woke up with the snake and the lizard standing
    over me. Foul reptiles, they'd bound me tail and paw. I was taken up in front
    of old Greenfrog, or whatever they call him. Huh, the filthy old swamphopper,
    he'd been listening to the snake and the lizard, and wanted to know where I'd
    hidden you three. Of course I told him to go and roast his fat green behind.
    That was when he lost his temper and had me chucked in here with old
    Snakefish."
    "What's this Snakefish thing supposed to be?" Martin interrupted.
    "Be? He's not supposed to be anything, matey. Snakefish is a giant eel. Big,
    you never saw the like. He's like a wriggling tree trunk. Here, watch this."
    Gonff prised a rock loose from the clay. Leaning out, he hurled it at what
    looked like a smooth boulder sticking out of the water. In the dim light, the
    brown muddy mess churned; boiling, as thick coils looped and weaved; thrashing
    about with untold might.
    Gonff shuddered. "That rascal nearly had me. I was saved by the vine hanging
    from this cave. Good job I'm a prince of climbers. I still keep checking the
    tip of my tail to make sure it's there—that's how close it was. Still, he's
    not a bad old sort, providing he keeps his distance. Oh yes, we've even had a
    conversation, Snakefish and me. He was the champion toadscoffer in mis part of
    the country, until they laid a trap for him and he fell in here. Poor old
    Snakefish can't get out now. Still, they keep him happy enough by slinging the
    odd enemy in here—the occasional fish, maybe a dead bird, passing travelers
    too, of course. Old Snakefish wallops the lot down, doesn't bother him."
    Gonff leaned out, calling to the eel, "I said, it doesn't bother you, does it,
    big matey?"
    216
    The surface of the dim water parted with a whooshing upheaval and the head of
    Snakefish appeared. It was something out of a nightmare: thick, wide,
    silver-black, and the color of yellow ivory beneath. A massive slablike head
    hissed and swayed, revealing countless teeth, pure white and needlelike. Two
    savage jet eyes watched them with unblinking intensity. Coils of flexible
    steely muscle rippled and undulated with a life of their own.
    Snakefish spoke.
    . "One day I will find my way out of here, then I will taste the toadflesh
    again."
    Dinny saluted with his digging claw. "Let's "ope 'ee do, zurr. You'm scoff a
    few for uz. 'Spect you'm passen fond of 'ee toaden."
    Snakefish clouded his eyes dreamily. "Aaaaahhhh meeeee. There's nothing so
    tasty as a brace of plump toads. Unless it's two brace.''
    Log-a-Log shifted his paws nervously. * 'Er, right first time, sir. Look at
    us, all string and fur. Ugh! Why don't you slip out for a toad supper?"
    Snakefish reared up, pushing his coils against the smooth walls of Screamhole.
    There was no purchase for the great eel. He slid back into the water.
    "See, I have given up trying," he said sadly. "Each attempt only makes these
    walls more smooth and slippery. Strength alone is useless down here."
    Martin had the glimmer of an idea forming in his mind. He decided to risk
    broaching the matter.
    "Listen, Snakefish, I have a proposition to put to you. Suppose we helped you
    out of here, would you leave us to go our way in peace without harming us?"
    The great head submerged momentarily, emerging again beneath the hole. Martin
    felt that if Snakefish really tried he could reach them. The eel slid back a
    little to reassure them.
    "If you could free me, I would leave you to go at liberty where you will," the
    eel promised. "I would rather eat toad than mouse. Besides, I need to take my
    revenge on the tribe of Marshgreen. But you had better decide quickly; before
    the passing of another day I will need to eat. Do you understand me?"
    The warrior mouse replied for them all.
    217
    "We understand perfectly, Snakefish. Now, will you leave us alone while we
    formulate a plan. I'll give you a call the moment we are ready."
    The sinister giant slid noiselessly back into the murky waters.
    Gonff giggled nervously, "Right, mateys. Thinking caps on, or it's mouse,
    shrew and mole pie for dinner tomorrow."
    Kotir was deserted. The entire garrison had been .mobilized to pursue the
    woodlanders.
    Abbess Germaine and Foremole stood at the window of Tsarmina's high chamber,
    looking out over the forest.
    They had discovered little. Kotir was as grim and mean as any self-respecting
    woodlander could imagine it—damp and oppressive, riddled with dank crumbling
    rooms and passages where feeble torches guttered fitfully against fungus and
    moss-clad masonry. As to supplies, it was useful to know that they were at a
    low ebb in the fortress.
    Foremole tugged his snout reflectively. "Hurr, marm. Baint even wurth
    a-carryen off they mangeful vittles."
    Moles and mice had searched the stronghold thoroughly; it was a empty carrion
    nest.
    Columbine wandered through the deserted armory with Old Dinny. All the weapons
    had been taken off by the soldiers of Tsarmina.
    The Loamhedge mouse curled her lip in disgust. "Oh, what's the point of
    wandering around a filthy evil jumble like this?"
    The venerable grandsire of Young Dinny was too busy carrying out his own
    research to answer. He sniffed the floor between paving cracks, tapped upon
    walls, dug his claws into rotten beams, all the while muttering to himself,
    "Burr, oi'm getten a feelen in moi diggen claws 'bout this yurr fort'ica-tion.
    Oi'm bound to 'ave a sniff round yon cells."
    Columbine went up to join the Abbess in Tsarmina's apartments. She could not
    help noticing the vast difference between the luxurious trappings of the
    Queen's quarters in contrast to the squalor of the barracks.
    "Abbess, I think I'd sooner live wild in the woods than
    218
    endure this dreadful place. Have you seen the way she treats her soldiers?"
    The Abbess ran a thin paw over the tawdry hangings and stained rugs, which
    Tsarmina had spoiled in her rages. "Yes, child. Now you know the difference
    between the way these animals live in comparison to honest woodlanders."
    Foremole had only one word to express his disgust: "Durt-bags!"
    The Abbess looked pensive; an idea was forming in her mind.
    "Columbine, this place is deserted. Why couldn't we take it?"
    "Goodness, is this our peaceful Abbess speaking?" the young Loamhedge mouse
    replied, with a twinkle in her eye. "Actually, I was thinking the same thing
    myself earlier. The answer is that we are not warriors, and our forces are
    split; the otters and squirrels are out in the woodlands. Besides, we would
    find ourselves in the position of being unarmed and without food supplies. How
    long could a little party like ours last out?"
    The old mouse shook her head wonderingly. "Goodness, is this our little
    Columbine speaking? Strategies, supplies, lack of weapons, divided forces . .
    . Maybe you missed your true vocation, young maid. Perhaps you would have
    fared better as an army commander. I bow to your superior military knowledge,
    General Columbine."
    The young mouse laughed heartily and curtsied.
    Old Dinny came shuffling in. The Abbess noticed he was looking highly pleased
    about something.
    "Hullo, Old Din. My, my, youVe got a light in your eyes."
    Columbine clapped her paws. "Oh, youVe found something. Do tell us, please!"
    The old mole tapped a paw in his snout, winking broadly.
    "Do you'ns foller oi now. Oi'll show 'ee a gurt new way outten thiz stink."
    Mystified, they followed him. As they walked, they talked, and Old Dinny
    imparted a plan to Columbine and the Abbess.
    Lady Amber stood in the thickets with Barklad. Together they watched the east
    gate.
    219
    Amber tapped the ground impatiently. ' 'Where in the name of acorns have they
    got to?"
    "Shall I take a party in and bring 'em out, marm?" Bark-lad asked, noting her
    anxiety.
    Amber looked up to the high chamber window. "No, give it a little while yet.
    But I tell you, Bark, I don't like hanging about this place. Look, they've not
    even posted sentries or lookouts at the window. How are we supposed to let
    them know if the cat and her troops are on their way back? Oh, where have they
    got to?"
    "Roight yurr be'ind 'ee, marm!"
    Startled, the squirrel swung round. There was Foremole, the Abbess too, and
    Columbine—everyone that had gone into Kotir, down to the last mole and mouse.
    "By the fur, where did you lot spring from?"
    Columbine stroked her friend's gray head. "It was Old Dinny—he found a secret
    way out. We went beneath the cells. It's a sort of cavern with a lake in it.
    We, or should I say Grandpa Dinny, found a moving slab, and underneath it was
    a tunnel that traveled along for a while then went up. We followed it and came
    up into a hollow oak stump—that one right behind you."
    Lady Amber curled her tail in amazement. "Well, I'll be treebound!"
    The Abbess gave a wry chuckle. "If we put your discovery together with Old
    Dinny's plan, we may have a final solution to the problem of Kotir.''
    Columbine could not help interrupting. "I'll bet Gonff, Young Dinny and Martin
    will have the solution too when they return from their quest with Boar the
    Fighter."
    "No doubt they will, child," the Abbess nodded. "But they have been long gone.
    Who knows when they will return. Bella has said that it is a long journey
    fraught witfi danger. Besides, how do we know that Boar the Fighter still
    lives? I do not wish to alarm you by saying this, but, all things being equal,
    we must have plans of our own. Merely sitting waiting on Boar's return will
    not help Mossflower; we must all act to the best of our abilities. Wherever
    your Gonff is at this moment with Martin and the young mole, you can wager
    that they will be giving of their utmost. Let us hope that they will be both
    safe and successful in their quest."
    220
    They made their way back to Brockhall that fine spring noon, unaware that they
    were passing on a parallel course to Tsarmina and her returning army.
    The wildcat Queen was in a foul temper. "I wouldn't give a pawful of mouldy
    bread for the lot of you, standing gawping while your Captain gets slain by an
    otter."
    From somewhere in the jumbled ranks a voice murmured impudently, "Huh, I
    noticed you didn't leap forward to help Cludd."
    Tsarmina whirled on the troops in a fury. "Just let me catch the one who said
    that! You bunch of buffoons couldn't even get a single arrow off at that
    badger. Oh no, you stood there like a load of frogs catching flies."
    As she turned to press on, the voice continued muttering, "Well, youVe got the
    biggest bow. Why didn't you use it?"
    Tsarmina grabbed her unstrung bow from the pine marten and flailed
    indiscriminately about her.
    "Ashleg, I want that cheeky beggar found," she shrieked.
    **Ita the Queen, d'you hear? I'll make an example of whoever it is."
    The pine marten dropped back. Marching at the rear, he bobbed up and down to
    see if he could catch the cheeky one unawares.
    When the army straggled wearily back into Kotir at midday, Tsarmina's temper
    had not improved.
    "Ashleg," she commanded. "Dismiss this load of nincompoops. Send them to their
    barracks. I'll be up in my chambers."
    Ashleg was stumping his way round to the front when the voice was heard again.
    *'Oh, that's nice, lads. Wish I had comfy chambers instead of a damp
    barracks.''
    Tsarmina turned to confront the sea of blank faces, but she stifled her reply
    and contented herself by elbowing her way savagely through the ranks to the
    main door.
    *'Dinny, I was thinking—could you burrow upward through the side of this
    cave?"
    The mole tested the walls with his digging claws.
    221
    "Loik as not, Marthen. But 'ee'd need diggen claws loik oi to foller upp'ard
    if we'n all t'get outten 'ere."
    Martin patted his friend's velvety back. "Good mole, Din. We only need you to
    reach the surface, then you can lower something down so we can all climb out."
    Dinny wiped his paws. "Stan' outten this yurr mole's way. Yurrgooi!"
    With a mole's undoubted digging skills, Dinny was soon burrowing inward and
    upward.
    Martin reported the plan to Snakefish as Log-a-Log and Gonff backpawed the
    freshly dug earth out of the way into the pit below.
    Night and day were of little consequence in the misty world of the marshes.
    The toads had lingered awhile on the edge of Screamhole, but there was little
    to see, and their enjoyment was marred by the fact that no screams issued from
    the well. One by one they drifted off, back to the Court of Marshgreen.
    Deathcoil and Whipscale stayed, however. They sat by the Screamhole, waiting
    to hear the cries of their foes as Snake-fish did his grisly work.
    The newt felt the stump of his new growing tail.
    "What's happening down there? Has the Snakefish gone to sleep?" he snarled.
    Deathcoil stretched leisurely on the ground. "Patience! Have you ever known
    any -creature to escape what happens in the Screamhole? Snakefish is probably
    feeling sluggish from lying in that muddy water for so long. He'll liven up
    when the hunger drives him. You'll see. Sit down here and wait a bit."
    The unsavory pair stretched out side by side.
    They had been dozing for some considerable time when the earth beneath them
    began trembling.
    Deathcoil pulled to one side, rearing up. "Did you feel that? The ground's
    shaking."
    The newt scampered out of the trembling area. "Quick, let's get out of here."
    His companion slithered behind. "No, wait, it's only in that one spot," he
    called out. "The ground is quite still over here. Let's get behind that rock
    and see what happens."
    In a short while, two digging claws and a moist snout broke
    222
    through the ground surface. Young Dinny emerged from the earth, shaking soil
    from his coat. Going to the edge of the Screamhole well, he called down,
    "Doant wurry, soon 'ave ee outen thurr, ho urr."
    The spies behind the rock slithered away to inform Marsh-green and his toads
    of what they had seen.
    Tsarmina slept heavily after the night spent in Mossflower Woods. The
    nightmare visited her dreams again; once more she was engulfed by cold, dark,
    rushing water. It flooded her senses as she fought feebly against the muddy
    engulfing tide that filled nostrils, ears and eyes. At the very moment when
    she felt all was lost and drowning was inevitable, she came awake with a
    start. Stumbling heavily, she slumped on the floor, pawing the solid stones to
    reassure herself. Stone was real; it was good. These stones belonged to her,
    Queen of the Thousand Eyes. She looked gratefully at the floor.
    That was when she saw the pawprints in the dust.
    Two mice and two moles!
    Fortunately, Ashleg was halfway up the chamber stairs when he heard the Queen
    screeching his name. As quickly as his wooden limb would allow, he hop-skipped
    the remainder of the distance. Bursting into the chamber, Ashleg found himself
    confronting a Tsarmina he had not encountered before. The wildcat sat on the
    floor, hunched up in a cloak that had once belonged to her father. She was
    rocking back and forth, gazing intently at the stone floor.
    Ashleg closed the door and bowed apprehensively.
    "Your Majesty?"
    Tsarmina did not look up. "Mice and moles. Search this room for mice and
    moles."
    "Immediately, Milady."
    Ashleg did not stop to question the order. Knowing how dangerous Tsarmina's
    mood could become, he set about the task. Peering into the cupboards, looking
    beneath the table, behind the wall hangings and drapes, the pine marten
    searched the entire room thoroughly.
    *'No mice or moles here, Milady," he reported.
    Tsarmina sprang up, pointing imperiously at the door. *'Then go. Search the
    whole of Kotir!"
    223
    Ashleg saluted and hobbled swiftly to the door.
    "No, wait!"
    He halted, not sure of which way to turn next. Tsarmina was smiling at him.
    Ashleg gulped visibly as she put a paw about his shoulders.
    "Ashleg, where is Gingivere?"
    "He escaped, Majesty. You followed him yourself," he replied, puzzled.
    "Oh, come now, you don't fool me," Tsarmina chuckled, almost good-naturedly.
    "First it was those two hedgehogs that escaped—but they didn't really, they
    were here ail the time. Then there was the fox who was really an otter. Now my
    very own room is covered in the tracks of woodlanders. Come on, out with it,
    old friend, you can tell me."
    Ashleg began to be very frightened. "Milady, I'm sorry, but I don't know what
    you're talking about. I'm only Ashleg. I served your father faithfully and now
    I obey and serve only you."
    Tsarmina smiled knowingly. "Completely loyal to all my family, eh, Ashleg?"
    "Oh yes, indeed, Milady."
    The murderous claws shot out, burying themselves into the pine marten's
    shoulder through the feathered cape he wore. Tsarmina's whiskers brushed
    against his face as she snarled, "So, that's it. You're helping my brother
    now. Gingivere never really escaped, did he? It was all a trick. He's still
    here with those woodlanders. They're turning my army against me. Maybe he was
    with me all the time I was in the forest looking for him. Ha, he's a sly one,
    that brother of mine. I'll bet it was him who pushed me into the water when
    the otters loosed the big pike . . . Ugh!"
    Ashleg's face was a mask of frozen agony. The claws dug deeply in him, blood
    was staining his cloak.
    Suddenly Tsarmina released him and scrubbed furiously at herself with the
    cloak she was wearing.
    "Uuuuuhhhh, deep, cold, slimy, dark water," she muttered incoherently.
    Ashleg backed quietly out of the chamber. The wildcat was oblivious to his
    departure; she was battling the watery torrents in her imagination.
    224
    As the pine marten hobbled swiftly down the stairs, his Queen's ravings echoed
    about the spiral stairwell.
    "Stay away! Stay away! You won't get me. I won't come near the water.''
    Ashleg's mind was made up: he could not stop a moment longer. Tsarmina was a
    mad Queen. Kotir was a place of danger to those who stayed there.
    The late afternoon sun poured down over the ramparts of Kotir. Silence made it
    frightening to the departing Ashleg; the large areas of dark shadow and sunlit
    stillness unnerved him. He had cast aside the plumed scarlet cape, exchanging
    it for a dull brown homespun cloak. Hurrying across the deserted parade
    ground, Ashleg slipped through the gates and began walking south—away from
    Tsarmina, Mossflower and dreams of ambitious conquest. Maybe there was
    somewhere under a different sky where he could find a new way of life; maybe
    somewhere there were friends waiting who knew how to live simply, without
    delusions of grandeur.
    Perched in his high spruce, Argulor opened one eye. Never too proud to
    scavenge, the eagle had satisfied his hunger with the results of the
    confrontation at the river. Argufor's eye closed again lazily. Feeling full
    and tired, he slept on in the mistaken hope that everything comes to him who
    waits.
    Ashleg had flown the coop; that is, if a pine marten with a wooden leg does
    ever fly.
    Dinny counted himself lucky. He had found the woven rush net that had carried
    them to Screamhole. Securing one end to a tree root, he pushed the remainder
    over the edge of the pit.
    "Yurr below, grab'n old of 'ee net, Marthen."
    Unfortunately the net fell short of the travelers' grasp.
    From above, the mole's voice was calling urgently, "Burr, 'asten now. Oi 'ears
    they toadbags a-cummen."
    Gonff jumped up and down with frustration. "Think of something quick, mateys!"
    Snakefish poked his massive head up. "Sit on my head. I think I can reach it!"
    "What? Not likely!" Log-a-Log backed into the cave.
    225
    "Urry, they'm nearly yurr!" Dinny called.
    Sitting at the edge of the cave, Martin placed his paws on the huge reptilian
    head and braced himself against the skull ridge beneath the smooth skin.
    "Push me up, SnakefishE"
    The great eel thrust upward, slid back slightly, then with a colossal effort
    reared out of the water and shot up like a bolt. Martin grasped the net,
    keeping his purchase on the eel's head.
    "Quick, bite!"
    Snakefish's teeth clamped onto the bottom of the net. He hung there a moment,
    then began bunching his coils, the rough underskin finding contact with the
    fibers as he weaved his sinuous body into the meshes of the net.
    Martin pulled upward. Snakefish secured himself, and called, "I can make it
    easily. Show yourselves, you two below. I'll loop my bottom coils around you
    and lift you up with me."
    Log-a-Log and Gonff stood clutching each other, their eyes shut tightly as
    they felt themselves enveloped in steely coils and lifted effortlessly.
    Marshgreen and his toads loomed out of the cottony mists. Three of them
    waddled forward, trying to capture Dinny as the mole flayed about with heavy'
    digging claws.
    "Gurr, 'ee doant cum near oi, sloimy toadbags," he warned.
    Deathcoil and Whipscale noticed too late the net fastened at the edge of the
    Screamhole. Martin came leaping over the edge, loosing stones from his sling,
    fast and accurate. He bounced a rock off Marshgreen *s head, knocking him
    flat.
    Gurgling screams of horror greeted the next arrival from the pit. The head of
    Snakefish appeared, dripping like some primeval monster from the abyss,
    slitted eyes and white rows of teeth confronting the terrified assembly.
    "Toadflesh!" With a bunching serpentine motion, the slayer of the swamps
    pulled himself clear of the pit, shedding his passengers in the same movement.
    Gonff and Log-a-Log sprang up, battling despite their bruised ribs.
    Pandemonium took over as Snakefish struck like a thunderbolt into the nearest
    group of toads. Regardless of
    226
    tridents and firefly lanterns, the giant eel went about the business of
    satisfying his immense hunger.
    Martin turned away, sickened by the grisly spectacle.
    "Are you all right, Din?" he called anxiously. "Quick, Gonff, Log-a-Log. Let's
    get out of here right now."
    Gonff stared wildly into the mists. "Aye, but which way, matey?''
    "Hoo arr, this'n '11 show 'ee." Young Dinny had a fierce headlock on the
    groggy Marshgreen.
    Martin grabbed a trident and poked the toad Chief.
    "Good mole, Din. Come on, you. Lead the way due west, or I'll stick you on
    this oversized dinner fork and feed you to Snakefish."
    Marsfigreen waddled off pleading mournfully, "Krrgloik! Mousefur notkill
    Marshgreen, showyou waytogo."
    In a short space of time they were blanketed on all sides by a mist so heavy
    it drowned out even the far-off squeals of Snakefish's victims.
    Log-a-Log watched the green bulk of the toad waddling ahead. "Well, at least
    he seems to know which way to go. What's next in your rhyme, Gonff?"
    Without hesitation, Gonff reeled off Olav Skyfurrow's lines,
    O feathered brethen of the air, Fly straight and do not fall, Onward cross the
    wet gold flat, Where seabirds wheel and call.
    Martin prodded Marshgreen lightly with the trident. "Do you know that place?"
    The defeated toad Chief turned, blinking his eyefilms. "Krrploik! Notfar
    notfar, shorebad, seabird eatyou eatme."
    Martin leaned on the trident. "Oh, stop moaning, Green-bottom. We'll let you
    go when we're free of this mist. Though it's more than you deserve."
    Eventually they reached a clear running stream. They drank
    some water while Dinny dug up edible roots.
    "Gurr, rooten. They baint no deeper'n ever pie, no zurr." Gonff perched on a
    rock. "Don't worry, matey. If we ever
    227
    come out of all this in one piece I'll steal the biggest pie in all
    Mossflower, just for you."
    Dinny closed his eyes dreamily. "Urr, a roight big'n an' all furr this yurr
    mole."
    Gonff broke into song.
    It will be great, I'll watch you, mate,
    And you can dive right in.
    But don't sing with your mouth full,
    "This pie is all for Din."
    A crust as light as thistledown,
    And filled with all you dream:
    Fresh vegetables, the best of fruit,
    All floating round in cream.
    Dinny lay upon his back, waving stubby paws. "O joy, 0 arpiness, an' all
    furoi, 'ee say."
    The trek was long and wearisome; time stood still in the land of the mists.
    Martin longed to see natural daylight again, be it bright and sunny, or
    clouded and rainy.
    They were negotiating a particularly soggy stretch of ground when Log-a-Log
    remarked to Gonff, "Here, d'you reckon things have gone a bit darkish?"
    Gonff jumped onto a tussock of dry reeds. "That's prob'ly because nighttime's
    coming on, matey."
    Martin pointed. "Look, I can see the sky."
    Sure enough, the mists were beginning to thin. Pale evening sky was plainly
    visible from where they stood.
    Gonff made a further discovery. "See, on the other side of this grass, there's
    sand. Looks like miles of the stuff."
    Hurriedly they jumped onto the tussock to confirm Gonff's sighting. Behind
    them, Marshgreen picked up the trident and waddled off, back into his domain
    of swamp and mist.
    The questors gazed in wonder at the scene before them. On the horizon the sun
    was sinking in a sheen of pearl gray and dusty crimson. Martin's paw shot up,
    pointing northwest. "Look, the flames of Salamandastron!"
    228
    That same evening, the Corim assembled in the main room of Brockhall. There
    was much to be discussed. Goody Stickle bustled about laying the table, with
    Coggs firmly attached to her apron strings. The little hedgehog did not
    complain; besides, speaking through a mouthful of hot acorn scone dripping
    with fresh butter and damson jam was not quite the form for budding warriors
    and daring escapers. He waved in passing to Ferdy, who was seated in a deep
    armchair with Ben Stickle.
    Between bites of his scone, Ferdy related a highly colored version of their
    adventures.
    "So me and Coggs broke the door down and pounced on these three weasels—or was
    it stoats? No, they were weasels. Anyhow, there was six of them, great ugly
    vermin. Hoho, did we ever give them what for! The wildcat Queen was there, but
    she took one look at us and ran away. Good job, too! D'you know, Ben, me and
    old Coggs there, we had to carry four squirrels off through the trees—or was
    it otters? No, it was squirrels, I'm sure. Saved them from those Kotir
    soldiers, though."
    Ben Stickle wiped jam and crumbs from Ferdy's mouth.
    "Must have made the pair of you powerful hungry. You haven't done anything but
    eat since you got back, except talk, that is. Are you sure you never chattered
    any of those stoats to death?"
    229
    When the table was laid, silence fell as Bella entered the room.
    "My hall is your home," she said. "Please fill your platters and eat the
    excellent food. Thank you, Goody Stickle, for this splendid table."
    There was an immediate clatter of serving and good humor.
    "Pass that deeper V ever pie. Mind you don't fall in."
    "Hoho, is that leek and onion broth I smell?"
    "Mmm, fruit pie. Ouch, it's hot!"
    "Here, cool it down with some of this cream."
    "Pass the butter, please."
    "Nut pudding! My old mum used to make this."
    "Aye, I remember Gonff pinching it from her oven."
    "Hahaha. Here, have a go at this quince and apple crumble."
    "Hey, who's used all the cream?"
    ' 'I say, Goody, you must give me the recipe for your plum pudding."
    "Ask your gran—she gave it to me."
    "Now, which will I have, October ale, cider or buttermilk?"
    "None. You're fat enough, Ben Stickle."
    A pleasant time was passing eating the celebratory supper.
    When the dishes were cleared away, Abbess Germaine stood up.
    "Pray silence for our host," she called.
    Bella took the floor. "Where are Ferdy, Coggs, Spike and Posy?"
    Ben pointed in the direction of the dormitory. "Well abed and snorin' like
    champions, marm."
    Bella bowed her head. "Then let us give a moment of silence and thought to the
    memory of a very brave otter, the Mask, without whom none of tonight's joy
    would have been possible."
    A respectful silence followed, broken only by an audible sniff from Skipper.
    Bella took a sip of buttermilk, then she wiped her eyes on the back of a heavy
    paw.
    "Now to business. First let me say it has been a good day
    230
    in many ways, mainly because Ferdy and Coggs are back safe with us. Also
    because we have a new friend in our midst—-Gingivere. I am sure you will all
    join me in saying that our home is his for as long as he chooses to stay
    here."
    "Thank you, Bella, and you too, my friends. But this cannot be," he said
    sadly. "Tsarmina is a very dangerous creature; my presence here would only
    endanger you all. I would never forgive myself if any of you suffered because
    of me. Tonight I will stay with you, but tomorrow I will leave at first light
    to go eastward through Mossflower, far away from Kotir and all it stands for.
    I could not stay here, knowing that I would be adding to your problems. If
    Tsarmina knew that I was here with you, she would go mad for revenge on us
    all, and who knows what evils her dark mind could think up. Somewhere beyond
    Mossflower I will make a fresh start. Thank you for all your help and
    kindness. All my life, wherever I am, I will carry the memory of my woodland
    friends deep in my heart. If the time should arrive when I can return the good
    treatment you have shown me, then rest assured, you will not even have to ask.
    I will help in any way possible, for I owe the woodlanders of Mossflower a
    deep debt of gratitude."
    The wildcat sat down amid silence, which suddenly gave way to loud applause
    for his noble words.
    Ben Stickle shook him firmly by the paw.
    "Mr. Gingivere, sir, it'll break Ferdy an' Coggs' liddle 'earts to know you've
    gone away. But one day I'll tell 'em when they're old enough to understand.
    Thankee for looking after my liddle 'ogs, sir."
    Bella banged upon the table.
    "As you are aware," she continued, "our friends from Loamhedge and the
    Foremole's crew risked life and limb to find out about Kotir. Old Dinny, I
    believe you have something to tell us?''
    The ancient mole tugged his snout to Bella, then spread a barkcloth scroll
    across the table.
    "Hurr, now this yurr's Koateer, see. We'm been a commen an' goen all the wrong
    ways. See yurr, this'n's a map of b'low cells. They's a gurt cave an* lake
    under Koateer, also a tunnel wot'll lead 'ee out into an 'ollow stump in
    woods."
    231
    There were murmurs of wonderment from the onlookers. Old Dinny rapped a
    digging claw on the tabletop.
    "Foremole an' oi bin a-plannen.'Ee'll tell about it; oi baint one furr
    speechen."
    Foremole threw up his paws and announced in a clear no-nonsense tone, "Fludd
    'er out. Charmania woant stay in no floaten 'ouse."
    Hubbub broke out. Columbine rushed to Foremole's side, waving the scroll
    aloft.
    "Please, listen to what I have to say," she shouted over the noise.
    Abbess Germaine looked proudly at her ward as she began to speak.
    "I was with Foremole and Old Dinny when we made the plan. Let me explain.
    First, it relies on the fact that Kotir lies in a land depression. Mossflower
    Woods itself is actually on much higher ground. The moles have studied the
    landfall."
    Columbine laid the scroll out, pointing at two areas of the table as if
    referring to a larger map.
    "Over here and over here, the River Moss runs on a northeast course through
    the woods, then takes a sharp bend to the west. Sometime in the past there
    must have been a large lake where Kotir now stands, but this dried up when the
    river changed its course. We have since found the remains of that lake in the
    cave beneath Kotir."
    Lady Amber did not see the point. "But how does that help us, Columbine?"
    "Let the maid tell it," Skipper whispered in her ear. "I think I've guessed
    the plan, though."
    "If the moles were to dig from where the river is closest to Kotir," Columbine
    continued, "they could make flood tunnels from the banks of the River Moss
    down to the lowland and straight into the cave beneath Kotir.''
    Realization dawned upon Lady Amber. ' "Then the old lake bed would fill up
    again!"
    Excited shouts rang out.
    "They'd be flooded!"
    "Kotir would sink beneath the lake!"
    "Good riddance too, I say!"
    Skipper bounded up onto the table. "If we can make
    232
    sluicegates, me and my crew will sink them on the riverbank to hold the water
    back until the tunnels are complete,"
    Lady Amber leaped up beside him. "Leave it to the squirrels, Skip. We'll build
    your floodgates. You just see to it that they're sunk properly into the
    banks."
    Foremole was not the greatest of leapers, but he clambered up on the table
    besides Amber and Skipper.
    "Ho urr, an' us moles'll dig 'oles. We'll tunnel for 'ee, boi 'okey, us will!"
    Columbine thought the cheering and paw-thumping would never stop. All around
    her, woodlanders were dancing, hugging each other and whooping at the top of
    their lungs.
    Bella had to pound the table for a long time until order was restored.
    "Congratulations, Corim. I think it is a good plan," she announced. "Best of
    all, it will save open warfare and loss of life. Now, does every creature
    present agree to the plan?"
    There was a mass shout of approval. Every paw in the room shot up.
    "Aye!" "Then we shall carry out this plan. We must, for I fear that Martin and
    his friends are long overdue on their return. Having said that, I do not wish
    any of you to feel downhearted, for who can calculate the journey to and from
    Salamandastron? We must hope and keep the faith in our friends' promise to
    carry out their mission. Maybe one day not too far from now I will see my
    father, Boar the Fighter, come striding through Mossflower Woods—along with
    Martin, Young Dinny, and Gonff—to lead us to victory. Wherever the questers
    and my father are this day, let us wish them good fortune."
    A rousing cheer rang through Brockhall as Bella sat down and crossed paws with
    the Corim leaders.
    Abbess Germaine had the final word at this meeting.
    "Yes, friends, good fortune to those who traverse afar and good fortune to us
    all. I think the plan is a good one," the frail old mouse told the assembly.
    "Even I and my brothers and Loamhedge, unused to fighting and war, can see
    that this will avoid unnecessary bloodshed on both sides, for friend and foe
    alike. A death is always a death. Bloodshed is an awful thing. What we are
    striving for is peace—keep this thought uppermost in your minds. If I had a
    wish, it would
    233
    be that we lived in harmony with those at Kotir. But this cannot be. So let me
    say again, good fortune to the lovers of peace and right. Let liberty and
    freedom be the legacy that we leave to those who follow us in the seasons to
    come. May they find true peace in Mossflower."
    There was a reverent silence for what was, indeed, a heartfelt prayer.
    The four travelers were hungry.
    They had risen before dawn and were on their way through the low sand dunes
    where little else grew but tough sand grass. Belts were tightened after the
    previous night's meager supper'of a few roots which Dinny had managed to
    forage. The mole tried digging in the sand for edible material. He rubbed grit
    from his eyes with weary paws.
    "Gurr, baint no gudd diggen in this sloidy sarnd. Moight as well try diggen
    'oles in a river.''
    Gonff wiped a dry paw across his mouth. "I'm thirsty more than anything,
    mateys. What I wouldn't give for a good old beaker of cold cider right now."
    Martin trekked on doggedly. "Look, it's no good going on about what we haven't
    got. We'll just have to keep our eyes peeled until food comes along. Here, let
    me show you an old warrior trick my father taught me." He rummaged some smooth
    pebbles from his sling pouch. "Try sucking one of these. I know it isn't as
    good as a drink, but a pebble will keep your mouth moist and stop you drying
    up."
    Being woodlanders, they were not used to traveling through soft sand. Even
    Log-a-Log, who had made such a journey before, found the constant sinking of
    paws into dry shifting grit very tiring. All four soon sat exhausted on top of
    a dune. Martin picked up some sand. Letting it run through his paws, he
    scanned the distance to where the mass of rock stood, but there was no light
    issuing from it in daytime.
    Gonff spoke his thoughts aloud. "There stands Salaman-dastron, mateys. And
    here we sit, as far away from it as ever. Not a crust nor a drink between us,
    and sand all around. It's certainly hard going."
    Log-a-Log stood up, brushing his fur free of sand.
    "Wait here. IVe traveled in sand before, I may be able to help."
    234
    He scrambled off among the dunes.
    Dinny scooped a small hole. He watched it fill up again. "Moi oP granfer
    Dinny'd never b'lieve thiz, stan* on moi tunnel."
    Martin stretched out upon the dune. "Well, at least we've come this far. Don't
    worry, mates. We'll make it somehow."
    Log-a-Log returned carrying four thick pieces of wood-branches he had found at
    the edge of the dunes.
    "Here, trim these up," he told diem. "They'll make good walking staves to help
    us through the sand."
    They set about trimming the branches with teeth, claws and knives.
    Then they set off again. With the staves, the going was slightly better. Every
    once in a while they spotted a small toad or a frilled newt from a distance,
    but the creatures would either ignore them or scuttle off among the sandhills.
    There was also the odd small bird, which had to be shooed off with staves when
    it became too inquisitive.
    Log-a-Log found some soft grass with a milky sap, and they chewed it as he
    conjectured what lay ahead.
    "Pretty soon we'll be out of these dunes and onto the firm sand. Maybe then
    I'll find something to eat. No water, though. Trouble is that most things on
    the shore taste salty, and that makes you want water even more. Oh, test the
    sand with your staves as we go. Here and mere you may find sinking sands.
    Watch out for those big seabirds too—gulls and such. They'll gobble up
    anything at all. Show them you're not afraid; whack out at them with your
    staves, then they'll leave you alone. Now, if you see any pools of water,
    don't drink from them—it's all seawater, full of salt, tastes very nasty. One
    last thing, stick together and don't wander off."
    "That all, nothing else?" Gonff laughed and waved his staff. "Good, then what
    are we lagging for?"
    To their amazement, the mousethief skipped off singing,
    I mustn't drink the water,
    And there may be nought to eat.
    Those gulls may see a mousethief
    As just a tasty treat.
    I step out bravely on the quest,
    Across this funny land,
    235
    And when I disappear they'll say, "He's found the sinking sand."
    "Nothing keeps our Gonff down for long," Martin laughed. "Come on, let's press
    on,"
    They came out of the dunes at midafternoon. Before them stretched the shore:
    flat solid sand, dotted with small rocky outcrops. The sun glinted like gold
    leaf on the shimmering sea.
    Log-a-Log ignored it and walked on. His three companions, however, could not
    help stopping momentarily to stare in awe at the distant reaches of mighty
    water. It staggered the imagination of woodlanders who had never witnessed
    such a spectacle.
    Dinny could scarce credit his first sight of the sea.
    "Hurr, oi sees it, but oi doant berleeve it. Whurr do it all come from,
    Gloglog?"
    "They say it's always been there," the shrew shrugged. "Like the sky and the
    ground. See this sand here with ridges on it like little waves? Well, that's
    where the tidewater comes up to. You'll probably see it flooding in soon. Keep
    your paws on the smooth sand, here, this side of all these shells and
    suchlike. That's called a tideline."
    Dinny was fascinated with the shells. He picked lots of them up; when he could
    carry no more he would throw them away and start his collection afresh.
    Without warning, a black-headed gull swooped down at them. All four fell flat
    upon the sand. Log-a-Log lashed out with his staff, catching it on the beak,
    and as it soared away, Martin hit it hard on the wing with a sling stone.
    The gull wheeled, screaming angrily, then more seagulls flew in to
    investigate. Soon the four friends were hard-pressed defending themselves
    against aerial invaders.
    Waving his staff at an oystercatcher, Martin called to Log-a-Log, "I thought
    you said they'd go away if we showed 'em we weren't afraid of seabirds?"
    Log-a-Log thwacked a common gull across its webbed claws.
    "You can never tell with these birds. Quick, let's make a run for it. There's
    some rocks over yonder!"
    236
    Waving their staves furiously, they dashed along the beach to where a rocky
    outcrop thrust up from the sand. Finding a fissure between the rocks, they
    huddled in together.
    The gulls wheeled and circled awhile, screeching threateningly, diving toward
    the rocks, but sheering off at the last moment. Finally they gave up and flew
    off in search of other, easier prey.
    Martin poked his head out into the open. "All clear, they've gone now," he
    reported.
    Log-a-Log climbed swiftly to the top of the rocks. "Look, mates—a rock pool.
    Get the fishing tackle out,"
    Locked tightly in by the rocks there was a beautiful miniature lake of deep
    seawater, crystal clear. They sat on the edge, gazing into the colorful
    depths.
    "Look, there's shrimp, just like Skipper and the crew get from the River
    Moss," Gonff exclaimed. "What's that, Log-a-Log?"
    "Where? Oh, that. I think it's called a starfish. Not very good to eat,
    though. See here, attached to the rock? These are limpets. They're a bit chewy
    to eat, but they'll keep us going."
    Dinny shook his head. "Nay, Gloglog, them's shells loik *ee picken up out of
    sarnd."
    The mole was surprised when Log-a-Log managed to prise one lose with his
    knife. He scooped the flesh out and cut it up, giving them each a portion.
    *"Chew on this," he invited them. "Go on, it's not poison."
    Gonff pulled a face at the unappetizing limpet flesh, but bravely he popped it
    into his mouth and began chewing.
    "Tastes very salty," he commented. "I bet you could chew this until next
    harvest came around and it'd still be bouncing off your teeth. Best swallow it
    in one gulp."
    Martin found some seaweed that tasted quite mild.
    "Hey, try some of this! It's like Goody's cabbage with a bit too much salt on.
    Not bad though."
    Between them, they explored the different tastes of rock pool vegetation. The
    shrimp were proving too difficult to catch, though Gonff sat determinedly, his
    line hanging in the water, baited with a piece of limpet. Gradually it was
    taken by something which pulled it beneath an underwater ledge.
    237
    "Haha, mateys, I've got a bite," he shouted excitedly. "Look out, here comes
    supper!"
    Assisted by Martin, he pulled and tugged at the line. Finally they hauled up a
    small spidery object with a soft shell and two tiny claws.
    "Throw it back. It's a crab!" Log-a-Log called urgently to them.
    Martin shook hold of the small crab as Gonff tried to unlatch its claws from
    the segment of bait. There was a scrabbling and clattering noise at the
    poolside, and a huge carapace emerged.
    Log-a-Log slashed the line with his knife, leaving the baby crab to enjoy the
    bait.
    The water splashed away, displaced by a considerable bulk. Four blackish-gray
    armored legs clawed their way over the edge of the rock.
    It was a fully grown crab!
    The monster stood in front of them, its eyes roving hither and thither on long
    stalks. Two large plates opened, revealing a downward-slanting mouth that shed
    water and gaped open at them. But it was the creature's claws that caused the
    most concern. Large powerful pincers, held high, snapping open and shut with a
    noise like steel hitting stone, they were studded with horny nodules that
    resembled teeth.
    "Back off. Don't try to fight it, you'll lose," Log-a-Log said, not taking his
    eyes from the angry crab. "Keep backing off until we're on the sand. Then
    we'll really have to run for it. Crabs can scuttle sideways very fast."
    They retreated carefully. The big crab blew a bubble from its mouth, lowered
    its claws, snapped them viciously at the intruders and charged like lightning.
    Now that Cludd was gone, Tsarmina needed a new Captain of the Guard, so she
    promoted Brogg the weasel.
    At first Brogg enjoyed his position of power. But of late he was sorry he had
    ever donned the cloak of Captaincy, particularly when he was called up to be
    interviewed by the Queen in her chambers.
    "Brogg, I made you Captain. You must find Gingivere. He has kidnapped Ashleg."
    "Yes, Majesty."
    238
    "Find yourself another Captain. That stoat, Ratffank—he'll do," she suggested.
    "I want you to go through the entire army one by one."
    "Go through the army, Milady?" he asked, puzzled.
    "Yes, jellybrains. You and Ratflank take them one by one to the ceils."
    "Yes, Milady."
    "Will you stop interrupting me and listen! All anyone ever says around here is
    'yes, Milady* or 'no, Milady.' "
    "Yes, Milady."
    "Shut up!" Tsannina shouted irritably. "Get them one by one in a cell, pull
    their whiskers, then check their fur. Is their tail their own tail?"
    "Er, is it, Milady?"
    "That's what I want you to find out, nitwit."
    "Oh yes. But why, Milady?"
    Tsarmina paced the room, her voice rising to a cracked crescendo. "Because one
    of them is Gingivere in disguise, you clod. He's here, in my fortress,
    plotting against me. Get out and find him!"
    Later Brogg sat at a barrack room table, joined by Ratflank
    and several other cronies. They were reduced to eating hard
    bread and woodland plants. Brogg sipped from a flagon. "Huh, at least there's
    still a drop of cider left. I tell you,
    mates, the Queen has definitely taken a funny turn."
    "Oh, I don't know," Ratflank smirked. "She's still got
    the sense to recognize a good stoat when she sees one. Look
    at me, I'm a Captain now." One of the ferrets spat out a moldy crust. "Is that
    some kind of ceremony you carried out, Brogg?"
    he asked.
    "What ceremony, what are you talking about, Dogfur?" "Well, the way you took
    Ratflank down to the cells and
    twitched his whiskers, then you pinched his fur and twitched
    his tail before you gave him the Captain's cloak."
    "Oh no. Matter of fact, youVe all got to have it done." "What, you mean we're
    all going to be made Captains?" "Caw, I wish old Lord Greeneyes was here now,
    mates,"
    Brogg sighed gloomily as he cupped his head in his paws.
    **Or even the other one, Gingivere."
    239
    # * *
    Warm sunrays cascading through the leaves mingled in harmony with the peace of
    Mossflower Woods. Somewhere a cuckoo was calling, and young ferns curled their
    tendril tops toward blossom on the bramble.
    Gingivere had traveled east since early morning, never once turning his head
    to look back toward Brockhall. He sat with his back to a sycamore and opened
    the satchel of food given him by the woodlanders. The very sight of a homely
    oatcake brought a lump to his throat at the thought of the good fnends he had
    left behind, especially of little Ferdy and Coggs.
    With unshed tears bright in his eyes, Gingivere wrapped the food up. He
    continued walking east through the peaceful flowering forest.
    240
    33
    Martin leaped to the fore as the crab came charging forward. "Hurry, get down
    to the sands," he shouted urgently. "I'll try to hold this thing off. Go on,
    get going!"
    The three travelers would not run and desert their friend. They backed away
    slowly to the edge of the rocks, while Martin, facing the crab as a rearguard,
    followed them.
    The crab would make a scurrying attack then back off, suddenly changing tack
    to shuffle in sideways. Not having time to use his sling, Martin hurled
    several well-placed stones at the maddened creature. They made a hollow
    clunking noise as they bounced off the tough crabshell. Each time it was hit,
    the crab would halt, pulling its eyes in on their long stalks. Holding one
    claw high and the other out level toward them, it advanced—for all the world
    like a fencer minus his sword. The huge claws opened and shut, clacking
    viciously.
    From the top of the rocky outcrop where they stood to the sand below was a
    forbiddingly long drop. Log-a-Log teetered on the brink, shutting his eyes
    tight at the dizzy height. Without a second thought, GonfF grabbed the shrew's
    scrubby coat with one paw, held tight to Dinny's digging claw with the other,
    and jumped.
    As Dinny felt himself being pulled from the smooth rock surface, he seized
    Martin's tail with his free digging claw.
    The crab dashed forward, only to find its pincers nipping nothing. Clutching
    paw to fur to claw to tail, the travelers
    241
    sailed out into midair and plummeted downward, narrowly missing the jutting
    rocks that projected from the main mass.
    Bump!
    They landed flat upon the beach sand with a dull thud that knocked the breath
    from their bodies.
    Martin was first to recover. He sat up, rubbing his back, feeling as if his
    tail had been dragged out by the roots. Dinny lay facedown. He lifted his
    head, snorted sand, and looked up at the rock face.
    "Hoo arr. Lookout, 'ee commen doawn!" he warned.
    Sure enough, the crab was scrambling and scuttling sideways down the rocks
    toward them with surprising agility.
    Ignoring his injuries, Martin ran to face the armored menace as his friends
    recovered from the fall. Grabbing a stave, he hit out strongly at the
    creature.
    With a loud clack, the crustacean caught the flailing stave between both its
    claws, immediately locking tight onto it, wrenching the weapon from the
    warrior's grasp.
    Martin felt totally helpless as he readied himself for the crab's next move.
    Whirling and prancing about on the sand with its slitlike mouth gaping and
    frothing, the crab clutched madly at the stave. Martin could only stare in
    amazement at the dancing monster as it jigged about, holding the stave high in
    its murderous claws.
    Log-a-Log tugged at the warrior's paw. "Come on, Martin. Let's get going while
    we can. That crab doesn't seem to want to let go of the stave!'*
    "Ha!" Gonff snorted. "It's not a case of wanting. It hasn't got the sense to
    release the stave. Can't you see?"
    As if to prove his point, the little mousethief joined the crab and actually
    began dancing along with it. Round and round they went, Gonff comically
    following his strange partner's every twist and turn. Furiously the crab
    waggled its stalked eyes, opening and closing its mouth as it pranced crazily
    around, still clasping the stave tightly.
    Martin and his friends nursed their arching ribs, trying not to laugh too
    hard. Tears streamed down their cheeks at Gonff's antics.
    "Oh hahahahooohooo. Stoppit, Gonff, please," Martin
    242
    begged. "Heeheeheehahaha. Come away and leave the silly beast alone.
    Hahahaha!"
    Gonff halted; he doffed a courtly bow at the enraged crab, "My thanks to you,
    sir. You truly are a wonderful dancer."
    The crab stood glaring at Gonff, with a mixture of ferocity and bafflement as
    the mousethief continued his polite compliments.
    "Oh, I do hope we meet again at the next annual Rockpool Ball. Those shrimps
    are such clumsy fellows, you know. They tread all over one's paws. They're not
    half as good as you. Incidentally, who taught you to dance so well? Keeping
    all those legs going together, you didn't trip once. My, my. We really must do
    this again sometime."
    The crab stood stock-still with the stave held high. It watched the four
    travelers depart along the shore, their laughter and jesting mingled on the
    breeze.
    "Hahahaha! Wait'111 tell Columbine. Maybe he'll give her dancing lessons if we
    ever chance this way again, hahaha!"
    "Burr, 'ee'm a wunnerful futt tapper."
    "What about you, Din? You could have joined them for a threesome reel."
    It had been an eventful day. Now, as the noon shadows began lengthening, the
    tide flooded in. The friends wended their weary way along the interminable
    shoreline. Saiamandastron stood firm in the distance, never seeming to get any
    closer.
    Tired and dispirited, they trekked onward, feeling the pangs of hunger and
    thirst. Apart from the odd seabird whose curiosity had to be fended off
    forcefully, they were completely isolated.
    Log-a-Log shielded his eyes, pointing ahead. "Look, what are those birds up to
    over yonder?''
    Some distance further on, gulls were wheeling and diving. There were two black
    shapeless objects upon the sand. The birds were concentrating their attack on
    the smaller of these.
    Eager to see what was happening, the travelers broke into a trot. As they drew
    near to the scene, it became apparent that the gulls were harassing a living
    creature. Not far from where it lay there was a ramshackle lean-to.
    Martin whirled his sling as he began running.
    243
    "Come on, mates. Let's drive those scavengers off. Charge!"
    The creature was a thin ragged rat. Gulls pecked and tore ruthlessly at it as
    it lay unprotected on the sand.
    Under the fierce onslaught of stones and staves, the sea-birds took to the
    air, screeching and wheeling above the intruders who had robbed them of their
    prey, and finally flying off to seek easier victims.
    Martin knelt and lifted the rat's head. The creature was very old and
    emaciated.
    "There, there, now, old one," he said, stroking sand out of its watery eyes.
    "We're friends. You're safe now."
    Log-a-Log touched the rat's limp paw. "Save your breath, Martin. This one has
    gone to the gates of Dark Forest."
    "Dead?"
    "Aye. Dead as stone. He must have been on his last legs when the birds found
    him. Let's get him to his hut."
    Between them they bore the rat into the tattered dwelling. Placing it gently
    in a corner, they covered the body with an old piece of sailcloth. Then Gonff
    explored the contents of the hut.
    "Look, mateys, water and supplies," he said triumphantly.
    There was a small quantity of dried shrimp and seaweed and a pouch of broken
    biscuit, but best of all there were two hollow gourds filled with clean fresh
    water. Dinny found a cache of driftwood. He began setting a small fire, using
    a flint from Martin's sling pouch and the steel of GonfTs dagger.
    "Pore beasten. Oi wunder who'm *ee wurr." The mole shook his head sadly.
    Log-a-Log poured water into cockle shells.
    "Sea rat. No question of it. He's been chained to an oar, too. I saw the scars
    on his paws. Mine were like that once."
    Martin found a thick deep shell, blackened by fire on its outside. He began
    shredding shrimp and seaweed into it.
    "But you said they used other creatures as oar slaves, yet this one was a
    rat?"
    Log-a-Log poured water onto the ingredients and set the shell on two stones
    over the flames.
    "Aye, but there's no telling with sea rats. They're savage
    244
    and cruel. Maybe that one did something to offend his Captain. I've seen them
    laughing and drinking together, then suddenly fighting to the death next
    moment over some silly little incident."
    Night fell purple and gray in long rolling clouds; a stiff breeze sprang up
    from seaward as the four companions stood for a moment in silence around the
    pitiful canvas-wrapped figure in the small grave Dinny had dug in the sand.
    After the brief ceremony, they watched as the mole filled in the hole,
    decorating the mound with colored seashells he had found. "Baint much, but far
    better'n sea ratten ud do furr 'ee." Salamandastron flared crimson against the
    dark sky as Gonff began to sing,
    Always the tide comes flowing in. Ever it goes out again. Sleep 'neath the
    shore evermore, Free from hunger and pain. Morning light will bring the sun;
    Seasons go rolling on. Questing ever far from home, For Salamandastron.
    Log-a-Log shivered. He turned to the hut. "Come on, you three. That soup
    should be ready now."
    Martin bowed his farewell to their benefactor and followed the shrew inside.
    "Aye, life must go on," he agreed. "A dry place to sleep, a warm fire, some
    food and a night's rest is what we all need. Tomorrow we go to the fire
    mountain."
    Far to the northwest of Camp Willow, the moles were making ready within sight
    of the river bank. The great tunneling was about to begin.
    Chibb watched them from a plane tree. The feathered spy was now in
    semi-retirement. He had amassed a considerable store of candied chestnuts for
    his services. Still, he thought, there was no harm earning the odd extra nut
    by standing guard here.
    245
    Foremole and Old Dinny paced and measured, mole digging terms were bandied
    about freely.
    "Needen furm ground. Roots t'make shorin's too, urr."
    "Ho urr, good down'ards gradin' t'make waiter flow roight."
    "An* rockmovers, Billum. *Ee be a gurt rockmover."
    "Aye, but moind 'ee doant crossen no owd tunnellen. Doant want fludd goen
    wrongways, hurr."
    Above in the trees, Amber's crew were dropping down timber for the
    sluicegates.
    "Mind out below!"
    "Tip that end up, Barklad."
    "Come out of the way, young un."
    "Right. Let 'ergo!"
    On the ground, Loamhedge mice were stripping, cleaning and jointing the wood.
    Abbess Germaine rolled up her wide sleeves and joined in with a will.
    "Columbine! Here, child, sit on the end of this log and keep it still," she
    called out. "I'll mark it here, where the joint should be."
    " 'Scuse me, Abbess. Where do we put these pine branches?" a strong young
    mouse asked.
    "Take them over there. Mr. Stickle has his little ones pulling the bark and
    twigs oif all the new wood."
    "Hey, Ferdy, I think I might like to be a carpenter instead of a warrior. What
    about you?" Coggs decided.
    "Oh, I'm going to be a warrior carpenter, Coggs. Posy, will you stop carving
    patterns and strip that bark."
    "Ooh, look! Here's Mix Bella with some big stones. My, isn't she strong!" Posy
    exclaimed.
    "Can I put these stones here, Spike? Whew! I'll have to go back for more now.
    I saw Goody coming through the woods—I think it's beechnut crumble and
    elderberry fritters for lunch."
    "Hurray, my favorite!" Ferdy said delightedly.
    "Don't forget to wash those paws in the river before you eat." Bella reminded
    them.
    "But, Miz Bella, all us workbeasts get mucky paws." Coggs protested. "Shows
    weVe been working hard."
    "Oh, and what about littlebeasts? They get mucky paws
    246
    just playing. You scrub 'em with some bank sand, young Coggs."
    The woodlanders stood by after lunch until Old Dinny was brought to the spot
    where the tunnels would begin. Three young champion digging moles were
    there—Billum, Soilflyer and Urthclaw. They stood respectfully to one side as
    Fore-mole escorted Old Dinny forward. Billum presented the ancient one with a
    beakerful of October ale. He quaffed most of it in one gulp. Emptying the rest
    on the ground where the work was to take place, Old Dinny recited,
    Moles a-tunnellen, deep an' far. Moles a diggen, urr that we are.
    Foremole nodded approvingly. Old Dinny was quite a solemn mole versifier. He
    raised a gnarled claw to the three champions. They went to it with a will amid
    loud cheers. Other teams would follow up, widening and shoring in their wake.
    The great tunneling of Mossflower had begun!
    Hidden by a screen of leaves in a high elm, a woodpigeon was witness to a very
    strange scene in the woods south of Kotir. Tsarmina, armed with a bow and
    arrows, was talking to the surrounding foliage.
    "I know you're there, brother. Oh, it's no use hiding. The Queen of the
    Thousand Eyes will find you, you can be sure."
    The woodpigeon remained perfectly still. No point in offering a handy target
    to a wildcat with bow and arrows, he decided, even if she were looking for
    someone else.
    "Come on out, Gingivere. Show yourself. This is between me and you."
    Silence greeted the challenge. Tsarmina smiled slyly.
    "Think you're clever, don't you? Haha, not half as clever as your sister. I
    know your little game. I'll find you!"
    The wildcat Queen continued padding through the still forest, sometimes hiding
    behind a tree, often doubling back on her own tracks, always on the alert.
    247
    Brogg and Ratflank were sitting in the larder. As Captains, they decided it
    was their prerogative to sample some of the remaining rations. The two
    officers stuffed bread and guzzled cider from a half-empty cask.
    There was a knock at the door. Hastily, they swallowed and wiped their
    whiskers. Brogg stamped about kicking sacks and checking casks as he called
    out, "Yes? Who is it?"
    "It's Squint the stoat, Cap'n," a thin reedy voice piped back at him.
    The pair relaxed.
    "Come in, Squint. What d'you want?" Brogg asked.
    The stoat entered. He stood to attention before his superiors. "I followed Her
    Majesty, just like you told me to, Cap'n Brogg."
    "Well, where did she go?"
    "South into Mossfiower. She took a bow and arrows with her. I kept well out of
    sight and watched. Funny though, she kept ducking here and bobbing there,
    hiding behind trees and so on."
    "What for?"
    "Her brother—you know, Gingivere. She kept calling out his name. Went on like
    that for ages. I thought I'd better come back here and report to you."
    Ratflank wiped a crumb from his paw. "You did well Squint," he began.
    Brogg silenced him. "You keep quiet. I'm giving the orders around here."
    He turned on the unfortunate stoat. "You thought you'd better come back and
    report, eh? Who told you that you had permission to think? D'you realize that
    you've left your Queen out there alone in the forest, at the mercy of any
    roving band of woodlanders?''
    "But Cap'n, you told me to—"
    "Silence! Speak when you're spoken to, stoat. Now you get back out there on
    the double, me bucko, and don't come back until Milady does, and that's an
    order!"
    Squint stood bewildered until Ratflank joined in the chastisement.
    "You heard Captain Brogg. On the double now. One-two, one-two, one-two. Step
    lively, Squint!"
    248
    The stoat double-marched backward out of the larder. Brogg and Ratflank fell
    back upon the sacks, laughing.
    "Hohohoho, proper thick'ead, that one. Hey, it's not too bad this officer
    lark, Brogg."
    "I'll say it isn't," Brogg agreed. "Keep the troops on their mettle while I
    inspect the larder, eh?"
    "Righto, Captain Brogg. I'll go up and turn them all out for an arms
    inspection and chuck a few in the guardhouse for having dirty spears. You keep
    checking round here."
    "Heeheehee. That's it, Captain Ratflank. You make 'em jump."
    When his companion had gone, Brogg rooted about under some sacks. He came up
    with a stone jar half-full of strawberry jam. Upending it on his snout, he
    smacked the bottom with his paw to free the sticky sweet. Some of it actually
    went down his mouth; the rest stuck to his nose and whiskers, and he gave a
    jammy giggle.
    "Heehee, hmmmm, mmmmm. Too good for the troops, this stuff!"
    Squint dashed heedlessly through the woods, pushing aside bushes, cracking
    twigs and branches as he followed the trail.
    Tsarmina was not aware that Brogg had ordered her to be followed. Stealthily
    she slipped behind an outcrop of furze, fitting the arrow to the bow as she
    followed her pursuer's noisy progress.
    "Come to me, Gingivere," Tsarmina crooned softly under her breath. "Run
    quickly! Your sister awaits you."
    Squint ploughed headlong past the furze bush. The string twanged mercilessly.
    He lay facedown with the arrow protruding from the back of his neck. Tsarmina
    stood over the fallen stoat, her mad eyes seeing only what they wanted to.
    "There's an end to it, brother. You'll never trick me again!"
    249
    34
    The gourds of water had been lashed to both ends of a stave; any other food
    that could be packed was carried along. The four travelers had a new spring to
    their step, now they were free from hunger and the mountain was much nearer.
    Since early morning they had been on the move, glad to be away from the hut
    and the memory of its dead occupant. The going was easier and lighter; the
    weather stayed fine. Late afternoon found them seated by a shallow rock pool.
    Log-a-Log munched a biscuit, keeping a weather eye on a crab lodged beneath a
    rock.
    "I don't like those things. You never knew when one's going to do a quick
    scuttle at you."
    Gonff wiggled his paws in the sun-warmed shallows. "Oh, I don't know. I quite
    fancy another dancing lesson, if our friend there is in the mood."
    They laughed at the thought of their last encounter with a crab.
    Martin glanced up at Salamandastron. "Look, you can just see the light
    faintly. Whatever it is must burn continuously. D'you suppose it is a fire
    lizard, Din?"
    "Hurr oi doant be a-knowen of such creat'res. Burr, foir dargons, indeed. Wot
    moi owd granfer'd say of 'em oi doant know.' *
    "Nor do I, but one thing I do know," Log-a-Log said,
    250
    nodding toward the mountain. "That place is all that stands between sea rats
    and the land. They fear it and hate it."
    Gonff dried his paws. "Then why don't they go around ft?"
    "Because it's there, I suppose." Log-a-Log shrugged. "It stands as a
    challenge. The ship I was on avoided it like the plague. But not Cap'n
    Ripfang, master of the vessel Blood-wake; he's the most black-hearted sea rat
    of 'em all. Rip-fang's had many battles around Salamandastron. They say he
    swore a mighty oath never to rest until he rules that mountain."
    Martin stood, stretching his limbs. "But what's up there? What do they fight
    against?"
    Log-a-Log shook his head, "Some say one thing, some another. Fire dragons,
    armored monsters or phantoms that can strike a creature down without touching
    it, who knows?"
    "There'll only be us to find the truth," Gonff remarked, shouldering the
    supplies. "What chance do monsters stand against a Prince of Mousethieves, a
    warrior and a champion digger, not forgetting a shrew like yourself, matey.
    Come on. Let's get going."
    Toward evening, with the mountain burning bright above them, Martin first
    noticed they were being watched.
    "Do you see anything, Gonff?" he asked, when he'd told his companions.
    "No, matey, but I know what you mean. I can feel the hairs on my neck rising.
    What about you, Din?"
    "Ho urr, moi diggen claws be a-tellen me summat, tho* wot it be oi doant
    know.''
    Log-a-Log was in agreement, too. "Aye, just a sort of feeling really. D'you
    see that lump of something or other out by the tideline? I could swear it
    moved a moment ago."
    "Don't stare at it," Martin warned them. "Keep going. Shortly we'll make as if
    we're camping down for the night, but we'll He down with paws to weapons,
    keeping our wits about us. Then let them make their move."
    The travelers chose an open spot away from the rocks. They lit a small
    driftwood fire and lay around it, feeling very vulnerable.
    Martin kept his eyes slitted against the guttering fire.
    251
    clutching his sling in one paw and his sword hilt in the other. Agonizing
    moments stretched away; still there was no sign of movement. The friends began
    to think that their suspicions had been groundless. Night had fallen and it
    was quite warm; there was not even a breeze to disturb the loose sand.
    The fire burned lower.
    Despite himself, Martin began to feel sleepy. He fought to keep his eyes open.
    Dinny's soft snores reached his ears, Gonff was lying too still to be fully
    awake.
    "I say, did you fellahs do a bunk from the jolly old sea rats?" a voice said
    softly in Martin's ear.
    "No, we've come all the way from Mossf—" Martin answered in a dozy murmur.
    He sprang up, whirling his sling.
    Lying amongst them by the fire were three hares.
    The warrior mouse was shocked and angry with himself. "Stand up and fight, you
    dirty sneaks!" he challenged them.
    The nearest hare held up his paws to show they were unarmed. His companions
    smiled innocently at the travelers.
    "Hello, chaps. I'm Trubbs."
    "I'm Wother. Capital W and an O, dontcha know."
    "I'm Firing. Double F, no E. Howja do."
    The sling dropped from Martin's paw. "Er, very well, thank you. How did you
    get here?"
    "Oh, this way and that, old chap."
    "Dodge and weave, y'know."
    "How the dickens do we ever get anywhere?"
    Dinny scratched his nose and stared hard at the sand-colored hares. It was
    hard to distinguish them from their background.
    "Drubbs'n'oo, did 'ee say?" he asked sleepily.
    "No, no. It's Trubbs, old sport."
    "Wother, at y'service."
    "Haha, then I've got to be Ffring, I suppose."
    Gonff took the initiative. He saw immediately that the strange trio were
    friendly. He made a deep bow.
    "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure. My name is Gonff, Prince of Mousethieves. This
    is our leader, Martin the Warrior. Here we have Young Dinny, the world's best
    digger, with the latest addition to our little band, Log-a-Log, a shrew and an
    excellent boat builder."
    252
    Paws were shaken warmly, then the three hares were invited to sit by the fire
    with the travelers. It amused Martin and his friends how the hares spoke in
    turn.
    "Well, well. This is comfy. Tell us all about yourselves."
    "Rather! What neck of the old county are you bods from?"
    "Live far from here, do you?"
    Martin explained the nature of their quest. At the mention of Bella's father,
    Boar the Fighter, a twinkle passed between die eyes of the hares. The warrior
    continued the tale up until the time they had found the rat on the shore.
    "Well, that's our story," he concluded. "Now, what's yours? How do you three
    come to be out here in the middle of nowhere next to a fire mountain?"
    "Actually, that'd be telling."
    "Er, haha. I second that, old bean."
    "Oh yes, quite."
    Getting a straight answer from either Trubbs, Wother, or Ffring was difficult,
    to say the least. Gonff tried the casual approach.
    "Well, you can either stay here with us, mateys, or be off about your
    business. WeVe got to get a proper night's sleep so that we can climb that
    mountain tomorrow."
    The three hares shuffled about a bit, then their tone became more
    businesslike.
    "Ah, the mountain . . . Actually, we've been sent down here to you."
    "To lead you to the mountain, y'see."
    "Would you mind awfully coming along with us?"
    Log-a-Log clapped Ms paws in delight. "Haha, now you're talking."
    The hares wiggled their long ears appreciatively.
    "Yes, I suppose we are talking, really."
    "Never alone, though. Always together, you'll notice."
    "Silly, really, I suppose. Do hope you'll forgive us, what?"
    "Mateys," Gonff chuckled, "we'll forgive you anything if you can take us up
    that mountain."
    "Hmm, it's not actually up, don't you see."
    "No, it's sort of under, doncha know."
    "But we are glad you're coming with us, chaps."
    Dinny scratched his head. "Ho air, us'ns be a-commen with *ee awright. But
    who'm sent *ee for uz?"
    253
    "You'll soon see."
    "I'll say you will."
    "Most definitely."
    Martin kicked sand on the fire to extinguish it. "Righto. Lead on, Trubbs,
    Wotherand Ffring."
    "Oh, I say. Good show. Let's all go together."
    "One never leads, triple initiative, what?"
    "Jolly good idea, chums."
    As they started toward the mountain, the three hares produced strangely shaped
    shells. They blew into them simultaneously, making a treble note not unlike
    that of three small trumpets. The sound echoed across the stillness of the
    shore. Immediately the scene lit up like daylight as a huge blast of flame
    rose from, Salamandastron. A voice like thunder on a hot noon boomed out with
    an immense rumble.
    "Come in peace to the mountain of fire lizards!"
    Hearing the gigantic sound effect, Log-a-Log threw himself facedown upon the
    sand with both paws over his ears, but the hares seemed hardly to notice it.
    "Oh, golly. Old Log-a-Thing's fallen over."
    "Must be in a blue funk about the boomer, eh."
    "I expect so. Up you get, old fellah."
    It was a narrow passage between the sand and the rocks; they went in single
    file. At the end was a small cave. Trubbs tugged at a concealed cord. They had
    to jump aside as a stout ladder clattered down from the darkened recesses
    overhead.
    "Right. Up you go, laddie."
    "No, no. After you, old chap."
    "Oh really, I insist."
    Martin jumped up to the rungs of the ladder. "I'll go first, if it'll save you
    three arguing."
    "What a spiffing idea."
    "Sensible chap, what?"
    "Rather. Indeed he is."
    At the top of the ladder they found themselves in a broad upward-running
    passage hewn into the living rock. The ladder was hoisted and they walked up
    the steep incline, lit by torches at regular intervals in wall sconces. From
    somewhere above there was a steady roaring sound.
    254
    "Wot be that gurt noise, maisters?" Dinny asked curiously.
    "Could be the jolly old fire lizards."
    "Then again, it might not be."
    "You'll soon find out, old fellow."
    Five flights of stairs hewn into the rock, one more cave and another steep
    corridor led them to their destination.
    The very heart of Salamandastron!
    Bane the fox came down the dusty road from the north with his band of
    mercenary plunderers.
    They numbered about sixty in all, mainly foxes, with a scattering of rats and
    weasels—a motley group, part tramp, part scavenger, mostly thieves. All were
    well armed and capable, despite their ragged appearance. Food they had in
    plenty: fish, birds, and vegetables to cook with them. By craft, guile and
    murder they had crossed the boundless northern lands, seeking warmer climes
    and easier living.
    Bane was weary of living on his paws, always on the move. He was on the
    lookout for some fat prosperous little community where he could hold sway
    without much argument.
    Then he spotted Kotir. A grand ruin that had seen better days, but the
    possibilities were there. Backed by woodland, fronted by flatland, practically
    skirting a road used by travelers—it was a dream come true.
    Leaving orders for his band to camp in the ditch at the roadside out of sight,
    Bane circled Kotir by himself to spy out the lie of the land. The more he saw
    of Kotir, the more he fancied it. There would be no more winters in the
    freezing northlands once he gained entry to this place.
    Striding purposefully around the woodland edge at the south side, he
    practically bumped into Tsarmina returning from the forest. It would have been
    hard for a bystander to tell who was the more surprised, the fox or the
    wildcat. As Tsarmina quickly nocked an arrow to her bowstring, Bane's paw shot
    down to the curved sword he wore at his side. There was a moment's silence as
    they both stood still, gathering their wits. Finally Bane cocked a paw toward
    the fortress.
    "Whose place is this?"
    "It is mine. Who are you?" Tsarmina demanded haughtily.
    255
    "They call me Bane. I'm a fighter, but if there's an easier way of getting
    what I want I'll always try it."
    "Hmm, a fighter. My name is Tsarmina, Queen of the Thousand Eyes. That is my
    headquarters; it is called Kotir."
    "Thousand Eyes," Bane said thoughtfully. "There was only ever one with that
    name, old Verdauga Greeneyes. He was a wildcat, too."
    "Yes, he was my father."
    "Was?"
    "Verdauga is dead now. I alone rule here. If you want, you may come into my
    service. Kotir is in need of fighters. Are there any with you?''
    "Sixty in all. Trained warriors—foxes, rats and weasels."
    "I don't trust foxes. Why should I trust you?"
    "Ha, who trusts who these days?" Bane snorted. "I'm not particularly fond of
    wildcats. I've fought alongside your father, and against him, too."
    "No doubt you have, but that is in the past now. You say you have threescore
    warriors at your command. What would be your terms if you came to serve
    Kotir?"
    "Make me an offer."
    "I'll do better than that. I'll make you a guarantee, Bane," Tsarmina told the
    fox. "There are certain creatures—otters, squirrels, mice, hedgehogs . . .
    woodlanders. One time they used to serve my family, now they choose to live in
    Moss-flower Woods and resist me. Once we have flushed them out of hiding
    together and enslaved them, then you can have an equal place alongside me. We
    will rule Mossflower jointly."
    Bane's paw left the sword hilt. "Done! I'll take you at your word."
    "And I will take you at yours," Tsarmina replied, clasping the proffered paw.
    Their untruthful eyes smiled falsely at each other.
    Tsarmina saw that at least Bane had told the truth about his followers; ragged
    and unkempt, but fighters to a beast.
    They entered Kotir together.
    Bane felt as if the place had been built for him.
    The uniformed soldiery of Kotir looked askance at the tattered but well-fed
    band of mercenaries.
    Bane's fighters cast scornful eyes over the ill-fed soldiers in their
    cumbersome livery.
    256
    Tsarmina and Bane were closeted together in the Queen's Chamber. She listened
    to his ideas with respect; treachery could come later, but for now she gave
    the fox full credit as an experienced campaigner.
    Bane's plan was simple. "Don't give *em an inch; show them you mean business;
    forget about subterfuge and spies-thai only makes for prolonged war—strike
    hard and be ruthless. We have the superior number of trained fighters. Start
    tomorrow morning, have the full strength out in skirmish line, comb the forest
    thoroughly, kill any who resist and take the rest prisoner. It's the only way
    to get results, believe me."
    "Bold words, Bane," Tsarmina told him approvingly. "But have you tried
    fighting squirrel archers? They can vanish through the treetops as quick as
    you can think."
    "Then burn the trees, or chop them down. I've seen it all before. If small
    creatures scurry off down holes, then block them up, fill every possible exit.
    That's all they understand. You take my word, it works every time. I know, IVe
    done it."
    Tsarmina pointed out of the window at the fastness of Mossflower. "Could you
    do it again out there?"
    "With our combined forces, easily."
    "Then we start tomorrow morning," she said decisively.
    "At first light!"
    Columbine was learning to use one of the smaller squirrel bows. Lady Amber had
    set up a target while they patrolled the digging areas to protect the workers.
    "Pull the string right back," Lady Amber instructed. "Look along the arrow
    shaft with one eye. See the target? Good. Now breathe out and release the
    arrow at the same time . . . Fine shot, Columbine!"
    The shaft stood quivering near the target's center.
    "Haha, I'm getting better at it all the time, Lady Amber."
    "You certainly are. Keep it up and you'll soon be as good as me."
    Foremole and Old Dinny came trundling up. The mole leader tugged his snout to
    Amber.
    257
    "Marm, Dinny an' oi filled up yon holler oak stump whurr 'ee got'n out Kotir
    from,*' he reported.
    Old Dinny plucked the arrow from the target and returned it to Columbine.
    "Hurr, that we'ave," he agreed. "Doant want Sudden com men out thurr. We'm
    gotter fludd cat place, not 'm woodlands."
    Amber sighed. "It's a long dig. Let's hope we can do it before the cat and her
    army make any surprise moves."
    Skipper sprang dripping from the river.
    "Never fear, Amber. My crew and I have done our bit. We've dug from under the
    water clear to the floodgates your crew sunk into the ground, where the moles
    began digging. Mind, I wish we could tunnel as well as Billum, Soilflyer and
    Urthclaw. Strike me colors, you ought to see those lads shift earth."
    Foremole and Old Dinny smiled with pleasure, but Amber slammed her paw against
    the target.
    "I just wish there was more my squirrels and I could do. Oh, I know we're
    patrolling and keeping watch, but we don't seem to be contributing any real
    work." She sighed again.
    "Then why don't you let me and my crew do a bit of guard duty?" Skipper
    suggested. "We could certainly do with the rest after all that underwater
    diggin'. Listen, Billum reckons they'll strike some big rocks soon; why don't
    you see if you could rig up something that'll help the moles to move them?"
    Amber was delighted with the suggestion.
    "Righto. I'll get Barklad and Oakapple onto it. They could rig tree hoists.
    Thanks, Skip."
    Chibb had flown a wide patrol merely for the exercise, but soon he grew weary
    of such energetic practices. Perching on a branch not far from the sleeping
    Argulor, he listened to the eagle talking in its sleep.
    "Hmm, pine marten, one little pine marten, that's all, maybe they taste like
    pine, hmmmmmm."
    35
    258
    Despite the feeling of awe, Gonff could not help smiling to himself. After
    watching Salamandastron from afar, seeing the •column of fire that spouted
    from its top, and recalling the very name meant "mountain of the fire lizard,"
    the little mousethief immediately saw it was a trick worthy of some mind as
    clever and resourceful as his own. There were no fire-breathing dragons here,
    but there was something equally as impressive in this great cave.
    It was more than a cave, he decided. It was a huge mountain hall. At the its
    center was a mighty furnacelike forge. A towering column of rockwork took it
    up to the ceiling, away out of sight. Surrounded by hares, there stood the
    father of badgers. He was pure silver from tip to tail with a double broad
    creamy white stripe on either side of his forehead. Above the thickly muscled
    limbs and barrel chest, a pair of wild eyes surveyed the newcomers. Giving the
    mighty bellows handle a powerful downward swing, he tossed a red-hot
    spearpoint with a quick flick of his bare paws. It landed in a water trough
    with a boiling hiss of bubbles.
    As the badger stumped across to them, Martin could almost feel the
    reverberations through the rock floor. He towered above them, extending a
    calloused paw that resembled a chunk of rock.
    "Welcome to Salamandastron, friends. I am Boar the Fighter," the big voice
    boomed and echoed about the hall.
    259
    His paw enveloped by Boar's, Martin felt very tiny. Now the full impact of
    Bella's words came to him. Here indeed was one to save Mossflower; the silver
    badger looked as if he could tear Kotir to pieces with his paws.
    "I am Martin the Warrior. This is Young Dinny, and these two are Gonff and
    Log-a-Log. I have traveled from Moss-flower with my friends to bring a message
    from your daughter, Bella of Brockhall."
    Boar unfastened his apron and shed it.
    "All this I know. Come, let us go to my cave. It is more comfortable there. My
    hares will bring you food and drink, and you can clean yourselves up.'*
    As they followed Boar, Gonff whispered to Martin.
    "How does he know, matey? Is he a magic badger?"
    "Sshh," Martin silenced the mousethief. "Watch your manners. We'll get to know
    soon enough."
    Boar's cave was indeed comfortable. There were ledges to sit or lie upon
    covered in velvety moss, plants grew around the walls and hung from the
    ceiling. There was a rough rock table and a pool in one corner with steam
    rising from its surface.
    "The pool is heated from my forge," Boar said, noticing their surprise. "You
    may bathe there later. You will observe that it is never cold here, again
    thanks to the forge. But please be seated. Here comes the food."
    The hares brought in new bread, fresh salad, baked fish, mint water and a
    selection of last autumn's fruits crystallized in honey. After the frugal
    seashore meals, the four travelers ate like a regiment many times their
    number.
    Boar watched them with something approaching amusement on his gigantic face.
    Gonff gave him a friendly wink. "So, the flames of the forge carry up that
    rock flue and shoot out the top of Sala-mandastron, eh?"
    Boar winked back at Gonff. "You are a very perceptive little fellow, Gonff the
    thief."
    "Prince of Mousethieves, matey," Gonff corrected him.
    "But how did you know he was a thief?" Martin interrupted.
    Boar leaned his chin on muscular paws, bringing his eyes
    260
    level with Martin. "I know many things, little mouse. Later I will show you
    how. Now, is that young Dinny, grandson of my childhood friend Dinny the
    mole?"
    "Hurr, Zur Bowar, that oi be. You'm know moi granfer Owd Dinny?" . "Of course
    I do. Is that old rascal still going strong?"
    "Ho urr, 'ee be fitter'n a flea an' owder'n twenny 'ogs," Dinny laughed.
    "Good, I'm glad to hear it. And what about you, Log-a-Log?"
    "Sir Boar, I am a boat builder, one-time leader of the Northwest Shrew Tribe."
    "Oh? Why one-time leader?"
    "Because I'm all that's left of my tribe in freedom," Log-a-Log explained. "We
    were captured by sea rats. I was the only one to escape the galleys."
    Boar's eyes hardened to a burning ferocity and the bones in his paws cracked
    audibly as he ground them together.
    "Sea rats! Dirty, treacherous, murdering scum!"
    Martin was shocked at the deep hatred in Boar's voice, he listened intently as
    the badger continued.
    "Not only do they burn and plunder among honest creatures, but they are savage
    to their own kind. Sinking each other's ships, murdering dieir own companions
    for an extra pawful of loot."
    "Log-a-Log has told me of a sea rat called Ripfang of the Bloodwake," Martin
    interrupted. "Do you know him?"
    Boar pointed seaward. "That one, he's out there now—my spies have been
    watching him all spring—sailing from north to south of here, waiting his
    chance to attack Salamandas-tron. Ripfang is the most evil of all sea rats. He
    has fought and sunk all others who sail in these waters, pressing their crews
    as slaves in his service. He is also the cleverest and most cunning of them
    all."
    "In what way is he clever and cunning?" Gonff asked, noting the concern on
    Boar's face.
    "Well, he has never feared Salamandastron, or the legends that surround this
    place. Ripfang is very daring, too. He has personally been here and knows that
    it is only myself and a few hares who keep the myth of the mountain alive.
    Others
    261
    we can scare off, but not Ripfang. It is written that soon he will mount a
    major war against Salamandastron."
    This was the second time that Boar had spoken of things that had not yet
    happened. Martin was curious.
    "You say it is written, Boar?"
    The badger stood tall, pointing at Martin. "What is that broken weapon you
    wear about your neck like a medal?" he asked.
    The warrior mouse took it off and gave it to Boar, who inspected it closely as
    Martin explained.
    "That was once the sword of my father. He was a warrior. How it came to be
    broken I will tell you, because your daughter Bella asked me to inform you
    about all that is going on in Mossflower."
    As they ate and rested, Martin told Boar how he came to Kotir, the plight of
    the woodlanders, and Bella's plea for Boar to return to his birthright and
    free the land. Throughout the narrative, Boar the Fighter said nothing. He
    paced the room, turning the broken sword hilt over in his paws, looking at it
    as if it carried some message for him.
    Martin finished his recitation of the events. "So you see, Mossflower has need
    of its son, Boar," he concluded. "You must come back with us."
    There was silence. When the silver badger spoke, he did not answer the plea.
    "This is a very ancient sword hilt, a good one. I can make it into a new
    weapon. I must give it a blade that will not be broken again by anything."
    Martin saw that Boar would not be pressed for answers; he decided to comply
    until the badger's mood changed.
    "Thank you, Boar. I would dearly like to see my father's old sword forged into
    a new weapon. Since it was broken I have felt like half a warrior carrying
    half a sword."
    Boar shook his massive head. "Your mistake, Martin. You are a real warrior, a
    full and true one. You have the heart— I can see it in you. But when I make
    this sword anew, you must always remember that it is not the weapon but the
    creature that wields it. A sword is a force for good only in the paws of an
    honest warrior. But enough now. You and your friends are tired. I will talk to
    you tomorrow and show you
    262
    many things. Sleep here. If you wish to bathe the dust of travel away, I will
    send my hares with dry towels for you." Boar took his leave of the travelers.
    The hot bath was deep and refreshing. Trubbs, Wother and Ffring turned up with
    huge soft towels.
    "One each, you chaps. No splashing."
    "Wash behind your ears, old sport."
    "Night-night. See you in the morning."
    Dry, full and warm, they lay on the moss-covered ledges.
    "Hoo urr," Dinny yawned, "so we'm come to Samman-dastorat last."
    Log-a-Log stared at the high ceiling.
    "A wonderful place indeed. Strange creature that Boar, eh, Martin?"
    "Oh, he'll tell us what he intends when he's good and ready," Martin said
    airily. "Let's get some sleep. I've a feeling tomorrow's going to be a full
    day."
    Gonff could not resist a rendition of his latest song.
    At last the weary travelers
    Have reached their hearts' desire.
    We quested overland to reach
    The mountain of the fire.
    To meet with Boar the Fighter,
    Who knows secrets dark and deep—
    Gonff sat upright scratching his whiskers, "What rhymes with deep, mateys?"
    Three wet towels knocked him flat. "You'm moight troi sleep!"
    263
    The woodlanders were caught completely unawares in the early morning.
    Led by Bane and Tsarmina, the joint forces hit swiftly. Luckily the little
    ones were still abed at Brock hall and the Loamhedge mice were preparing
    breakfasts. The only creatures at the diggings were moles, otters and a few
    squirrels.
    Bane's mercenaries dashed in, hacking madly, backed by Tsarmina's spears.
    Urthclaw, Billum and Soilflyer were deep underground. The rest were caught in
    the open.
    It was chaos!
    Skipper took an arrow in his side. Lady Amber lost an ear to a fox's sword.
    The woodlands were alive with yelling, slashing animals. There was only one
    thing to do: retreat with all speed. Disregarding his wounds, Skipper stood
    fast with a small band of otters, hurling stones as he roared aloud, "Get
    away, quickly!"
    Amber and her squirrels managed to escape through the treetops, leaving two
    slain on the ground. Skipper and his otters saw to it that the few moles were
    safely carried off across the river, before vanishing into the water
    themselves.
    Tsarmina gave out howls of victory across the now silent woods.
    Bane leaned on his curved sword breathing heavily. "See, I told you they're no
    match for us. Phew! But they can put up a tidy fight, even when they're
    outnumbered."
    264
    Brogg swaggered up and saluted.
    "Two squirrels, three otters and a mole slain, Milady,'* he reported.
    He was about to turn away when Bane tugged on his cloak.
    "How many of ours lost?" he asked tersely.
    "Three ferrets, a stoat and a weasel, four rats and a fox."
    Bane shook his head in amazement. "Good job, we outnumbered them. No
    prisoners?''
    '.'No, sir, not a one."
    "Hmm, pity."
    Ratflank limped up, nursing a cracked paw.
    "We've found three big holes over there by the river," he said.
    The commanders strode across to the spot. Bane bent down and sniffed the earth
    around each hole, while Tsarmina stood watching.
    "What d'you suppose they were up to?" she wondered.
    Bane spat into one of the holes. "Your guess is as good as mine. We didn't get
    time to chop the trees or fire the woodland. Maybe there's some of 'em still
    down these holes."
    "Then we can fill them in." Tsarmina grinned wickedly. "Brogg, get some big
    rocks, fetch that timber lying about there, use the spears, fill them in well
    and press the earth down hard. They'll be imprisoned down there until the air
    runs out."
    Bane wiped his sword and sheathed it.
    "Well, that's that. There's not much my band can do around here. We'll head
    back to Kotir and try another dawn raid tomorrow."
    Tsarmina was right beside the fox leader. She was not about to stop out in the
    woods with her soldiers, leaving Bane to take over Kotir in her absence.
    "Right, Bane. I'll leave Brogg with some of the others to get on with the job.
    The rest of us will go back to Kotir with you."
    As they marched off through the morning brightness of Mossflower, one of
    Bane's foxes sniggered as he trod on the back of Ratflank's cloak.
    "Yah, I think your pussycat Queen's frightened of us locking the fortress door
    on her."
    265
    Ratflank tugged his cloak free, sneering. "Oh yes? Well, you just try calling
    her pussycat to her face, hero!"
    The first Bella knew of the attack was when the Corim leaders re gathered
    their crews at Brockhall. Abbess Germaine and Columbine organized bandages and
    herbs, Loamhedge mice bustled about ministering to the wounded. Skipper
    refused to stand still, and Goody Stickle chased about after him, dabbing at
    his injury, trying to get a bandage around it.
    There were tears of rage in the otter's eyes. "Six lost, by the fur. Where did
    they come from? Who was that fox with all those scruffy murderers? Tsarmina
    could never have done this on her own."
    Lady Amber adjusted the bandage around her head so she could see properly.
    "I heard someone call him Bane," she told him. "Get Chibb. Tell him to go to
    Kotir. He'll have to be very careful, but we've got to find out all we can
    about this other lot."
    Foremole tapped a digging claw upon the table.
    "Us'll avter do summat 'bout Urthclaw, Soilflyer V Bil-lum. They'm stucken
    down 'oles. Oo be a-tellen wot they villyuns do to *ee."
    "Yes," Bella agreed, "it's most important that we rescue the moles from the
    tunnels. Next on the list is to make sure that the area around Brockhall is
    completely hidden. If they don't know where we are, they can't attack us.
    Furthermore, we will need to find a second hideout, somewhere deeper into the
    east of Mossflower. If ever Brockhall is discovered, another refuge will be
    very necessary."
    Messengers were sent out to find Chibb, and the wood-landers set about erasing
    the tracks around Brockhall, while Germaine and her mice tended the wounded
    with dedicated care.
    The memory of the murderous ambush still lingered.
    Lady Amber was not one to forget.
    Neither was Skipper.
    Before noon, Chibb had reported back to the Corim, but the news was not good.
    "Er, ahem. Very serious, very serious. It seems that this fox Bane is an
    expert, a mercenary with a band of about
    266
    sixty. Harrumph. 'Scuse me. Evidently they are planning another ambush, as
    deep as they can get into Mossflower in one early morning march. Tomorrow,
    they plan to set out at dawn in a skirmish line, killing or capturing all
    before them."
    Columbine held up her paw. "Then we must not give them any targets. Everyone
    should stay here, completely out of sight, in case Brockhall is discovered."
    Bella nodded approvingiy. "I second that. Good thinking, Columbine. Are we all
    agreed?"
    There was a low murmur of assent. Nobody noticed the look that passed between
    Amber and Skipper.
    In the early afternoon, Bella left command of Brockhall to the Abbess and
    Columbine. Alone, the badger set out eastward into the woodland depths to find
    a second place of refuge.
    267
    37
    Martin woke feeling pleasantly fresh. He opened his eyes to see Boar
    supervising the laying of a beautiful breakfast table. Hares were wreathing
    flowers across the board; the food they brought had been grown in small
    gardens dotted about the landward side of the mountaintop. Boar had small
    rosebuds and sweet peas twined in his beard, and a garland of ivy leaves sat
    on his head. The huge badger looked like some benevolent spirit come down from
    the mountain, holding a green wand in his paw.
    Pointing to a high arrow window that streamed down golden sunlight on him, he
    boomed out to the waking travelers, "Welcome to Salamandastron on the first
    day of a new summer!"
    Young Dinny's heart leaped at the sight of Boar and the mention of his
    favorite season. "Burrhoourr, oi dearly loiks summertoid, Zurr Bowar!
    During a fabulous meal in which all took part, they were introduced to the
    other hares who lived in the mountain. Besides Trubbs, Wother and Ffring there
    was also Harebell, Honeydew and Willow, three doe-eyed beauties who could
    render Trubbs and company speechless with a single flutter of their eyelashes.
    There were four others, a huge fellow named Buffheart, his wife Lupin and
    their two young ones, Starbuck and Breeze.
    "These hares are my eyes and ears," Boar explained. "I
    266
    can stretch out my paws through them and feel what is going on for miles
    around. They are also fearsome fighters. Yes, every one of them. Don't let
    silly talk and pretty eyes fool you. They'll show you later. As for the
    present, they'll take your friends off and show them something of this
    mountain we live on. Martin, will you come with me? I would talk to you
    alone."
    The warrior mouse followed the silver badger up through many caves, flights of
    rock stairs and long passages. High up die pair went, into the topmost cave.
    It was still warm from the heat of the forge. Martin looked out of a long open
    window to see the beach below and the waters beyond, sparkling and glinting in
    early summer sunlight.
    "This is where you heard my voice when you were down on the shore last night,"
    Boar whispered to him. "I must whisper now because if I were to raise my
    voice, the echoes would deafen you."
    Martin nodded, fearing to speak lest his voice did the same.
    Boar smiled, patting the mouse warrior lightly. "You are wise beyond your
    seasons. Now, do not be surprised by what I am going to show you. This is for
    our eyes alone, Martin— we two warriors."
    The badger went to the left wall between the entrance and the window, where
    there was a long, deep crack that appeared to be a natural seam in the rock.
    Setting his great blunt claws deep into the fissure, he began to pull.
    Martin stood in awe at the frightening brute strength of Boar the Fighter.
    Steely sinews and giant muscles bulged and strained as the badger pulled,
    grunting quietly deep in his chest. Froth appeared on his jaws with the
    exertion; still he pulled with might and main, platelike back paws set flat on
    the rock floor, ponderous claws gouging at the bare stone. With a low rumble,
    the entire wall started to swing outward.
    Martin watched wide-eyed, paws and jaws clenched tight, willing the silver
    badger to perform this great feat of strength. Boar set his shoulders against
    one side and his paws against the other. He pushed hard, and the secret
    doorway stood
    wide open. Without a word they walked inside.
    * * *
    269
    It was a narrow hall. One side of the wall was covered in minute carvings, the
    other was smooth, whilst the far end was a rounded alcove. What Martin saw
    there stopped him in his tracks so fast that Boar stumbled on him.
    A badger in full armor was seated on a throne in the alcove! Martin felt
    Boar's paw upon his back. "No need to be afraid, little friend." The badger's
    voice was calm. "This is my father, Old Lord Brocktree."
    Boar padded silently forward. He touched the armored badger reverently.
    "I went questing for Salamandastron, just as my father did," he explained.
    "When I found this place, he was still alive and well. He ruled here, and we
    were happy together for many seasons. In the end he was called to the gates of
    Dark Forest because of his great age. Now he is part of the legend of the
    mountain, as he wished to be. I did this for him; this is his tomb." Boar gave
    the armor a gentle rub; it glowed dimly. Walking back to the entrance, he
    called Martin over.
    "Let us start at the beginning. See here?" Boar indicated a carved line of
    badger figures. "Our kind have come here since creatures first felt the sun.
    Only warriors, the brave of heart and strong of will, are listed here. See:
    Urthnin the Chipper, Speariady Gorse, Bluestripe the Wild, Ceteruler . . . the
    list goes on and on. Look, here is my father, Lord Brock-tree; here I am, next
    to him. There are the spaces for those to come after us. I see you wish to ask
    me a question. Carry on, Martin. I release you from your silence."
    Martin did not need to speak; he pointed at a block of picture carvings set
    apart from the others.
    "They are good likenesses of you, I think," Boar whispered.
    The scene was a small frieze depicting the activities of four creatures. Three
    were intentionally small, but the fourth was unmistakably Martin, even to the
    broken sword about his neck. Boar looked at Martin with a strange expression
    on his face. "Friend, believe me, I did not carve these pictures here, nor did
    my father. How long they have been here, I do not know. I accept it as part of
    the legend of Salamandastron; you must, too. You are the largest figure, and
    here are your friends. See, here you are leading them toward the mountain.
    Here is Salamandastron, and here are you again, emerging
    270
    from it with your friends. You no longer carry the broken sword about your
    neck; you are holding a bright new sword. As for the rest, well, your guess is
    as good as mine."
    Martin studied the picture closely. ' 'Here is the sea, there is a ship . . .
    Over here looks very faint. It could be a group of trees, a wood or a forest.
    This looks like a whip and an arrow. What does that mean, Boar?**
    "Your eyes are far better than mine, Martin. The whip is the scourge of the
    sea rats, a sign of evil. As for the arrow, which way does it point?"
    "Down the hall to where your father sits."
    Boar indicated the room of echoes. "Martin, you must go out there and wait for
    me."
    Without question, Martin went, glancing backward once, to see Boar stooping in
    the alcove behind Lord Brocktree's throne. He was studying something carved
    low down on the wall.
    Sometime later the badger emerged. He seemed older and tired-looking, and
    Martin felt concern for his friend.
    "Are you all right, Boar? What was written there?"
    The great silver badger whirled upon Martin, his face a mask of tragedy.
    "Silence! Only Boar the Fighter must know that!"
    The sudden shout caused a thousand echoes to boom and bounce off the walls
    with startling intensity. The sound was deafening. Martin threw himself to the
    floor, covering both ears with his paws as he fought against the flooding
    crescendo of noise, Boar's voice reverberated like a thousand cathedral bells.
    Sorrow and contrition ceased the big badger's face; he swept Martin up with a
    single paw, bearing him swiftly from the room.
    When the warrior mouse recovered, he was lying back in the badger's cave. Boar
    was bathing his brow with cool water.
    "Martin, forgive me. I forgot to keep my voice down. Are you hurt?"
    Martin stuck a paw in his ear, wiggling it about.
    "No, I'm all right. Honestly I am. You mustn't blame yourself. It was my
    fault."
    Boar shook his head in admiration. "Spoken like a true
    271
    warrior. Rise up, Martin, and follow me. Now I will give you the means to
    fight like one."
    Trubbs, Wother and Ffring met them at the forge. There was lots of giggling
    and winking between the hares.
    "Well, does he know about you-know-what, eh, Boar?"
    "I say, let's show it to him now, Boar. Be a sport."
    "Yes, otherwise the poor old bean might keel over with suspense."
    There was a twinkle in Boar's eye as he turned to Lupin, the wife of
    ButTheart.
    "What d'you think, Lupin? Is he ready for this?"
    Lupin waggled her long ears humorously as hares do.
    "Oh, I suppose so. Anyhow, we'll soon find out."
    Boar had moved to the edge of the forge and was toying with something wrapped
    in soft barkcloth.
    "While you slept last night, my hares and I worked until after dawn had
    broken," he said at last. "I have made something for you, Martin."
    The warrior mouse felt the hairs rising on the back of his neck. He gulped
    with excitement as Boar continued.
    "One night while out on patrol, our Lupin here saw a star fall from the sky.
    She found the spot where it landed. A lump of hot metal was buried deep in the
    sand. When it cooled she dug it out and brought it back to me. Last night I
    put sea coal and charcoal in my forge; more than ever before, I made
    Salamandastron glow so hot that it could be seen in lands far across the sea.
    I had to—half the night had gone before the metal became soft. I hammered it
    out, oiled it, folded it many times against itself on my anvil, all the time
    reciting the names of every great warrior I had known or could think of. I
    spoke your name on the final hammer blow. Here, Martin. This is yours."
    Everyone gathered round, including the three travelers, who were back from
    their tour of the mountain. They held their breath as Martin carefully
    unwrapped the barkcloth, layer by layer.
    It was the sword!
    Double-edged, keener than a razor, it lay glittering and twinkling, a myriad
    of steely lights. Its tip was pointed like a mountain peak in midwinter, the
    deadly blade had a three-
    272
    quarter blood channel. It was perfectly balanced against the hilt, which had
    been restrapped with hard black leather and finished with a ruby-red pommel
    stone and curving scrolled crosspiece where it joined the marvelous blade.
    Never in his wildest dreams had Martin imagined such a thing. Since they left
    Mossflower on the quest, he had more or less forgotten the broken hilt that
    hung about his neck. Caught up in the adventures and perils they had been
    through, he had used whatever he had to—a sling, a piece of wood as a
    stave—never expecting to see his father's sword restored to a newness that far
    outshone its humble beginnings. Now, suddenly, he felt the warlike blood of
    his ancestors rising at the sight of a fighting weapon few were chosen to look
    upon, let alone own. The feeling of destiny lay strong upon him as he picked
    up the fascinating weapon in one paw. His hackles rose and the blood gorged in
    his face, flashing across his eyes. Now he was the Warrior!
    Everyone moved back to the walls as the warrior mouse took his sword in both
    paws. He held it straight out, letting the point rise slightly to feel the
    heft of the weapon. Suddenly Martin began sweeping it in circles, up, down,
    and around. The steel blade whooshed and sang eerily on its own wind, the
    bystanders followed its every move as if hypnotized. Martin leaped onto Boar's
    anvil, still swinging his sword. There was an audible ping as he sliced the
    tip from the anvil horn. It ricocheted oft the rock walls. They ducked
    instinctively as it hummed past like an angry wasp, leaving the singing blade
    unmarked.
    "Tsarmina, can you hear me?" Martin roared out above the voice of the howling
    blade. "I am Martin the Warrior. I am coming back to Mossflowemrrrrrrr!''
    273
    An hour before dawn, Brogg was rubbing sleep from his eyes. He flopped his
    Thousand Eye Captain's cloak about him and stumbled into the main billet with
    Ratflank. They kicked at prostrate forms, pulling tattered blankets from
    sleeping soldiers.
    "Come on, you lot," they ordered. "Up on your paws. It's invasion time again."
    Grumbling and protesting, the troops sat up, scratching at their fur, wiping
    paws across eyes.
    "Gaw! I was bavin* a lovely dream there."
    "Huh, me too. I dreamed we were getting a proper hot breakfast."
    "You'll be lucky, bucko. Bread and water, and be glad of it."
    "Where's this fat of the land we're all supposed to be living off? That's what
    I'd like to know."
    Ratflank kicked out at a huddled form wrapped in sacking. A rawboned fox
    wearing brass earrings leaped up.
    "Keep your stupid paws off me, lumphead," he snarled. "I'm not one of your
    dimwit soldiers. We only take orders from Bane."
    Ratflank hurried away, narrowly dodging the bared yellow fangs.
    Bane and Tsarmina paced restlessly about in the entrance hall. The fox banged
    his paw against a doorpost.
    274
    "What's keeping them?" he asked impatiently. "It'll be noon by the time we get
    going at this rate."
    Tsarmina gritted her teeth, turning, she screeched toward the barracks,
    "Brogg, Ratfiank, get them out here double quick, or I'll come in there and
    move you myself!"
    The first bunch came tumbling out, adjusting tunics, clattering shields on
    spears.
    "Here's mine. Where's your crew, Bane?" Tsarmina smirked.
    Moments later, Bane's mercenaries strolled casually out in the rear of the
    uniformed soldiers. The fox commander struck his curved sword against a shield
    until he got order.
    "Right, you lot. Same drill as yesterday—skirmish line, comb the woods, keep
    your eyes peeled and your wits about you. When we find them, remember: no
    mercy!"
    The horde moved out toward the parade ground in the courtyard. As the first
    half-dozen soldiers passed through the doorway into the open, there was a
    harsh shout from the woodland fringe.
    "Fire!"
    A hiss of vicious weaponry cut the air. The six soldiers fell in their tracks,
    cut down by arrows and javelins.
    "Retreat, retreat, get back inside, quick!" Bane ordered hastily.
    There was panic as the back ranks coming forward stumbled into the front ranks
    retreating. More troops fell, transfixed by flying death.
    "What's going on out there?" Tsarmina yelled at Bane.
    Bane stood panting with his back to the wall.
    "They've got us bottled up in here. Wait a moment. Badtail!"
    The rawboned fox came trotting up. "Here Bane."
    "See what the position is out there. Pinpoint where they are and report back
    to me."
    Badtail lay flat upon his belly. Sliding around the doorposts, he scrambled
    out onto the parade ground, tacking and weaving. Halfway across the courtyard,
    he bobbed up and down, checking the trees and scanning the low bushes through
    the open main gates.
    "What d'you see?" Bane's voice rang across the open space.
    275
    Still lying flat, Badtail raised his head as he shouted back, "Squirrels and
    otters. They've got the main gates open and they're shooting from the tr—"
    An otter javelin closed his mouth forever.
    Bane poked his head around the doorpost. An arrow hummed its way viciously
    into the woodwork. He pulled back swiftly as two more buried their points in
    the doorpost where his head had been.
    Skippe. crouched behind a bush and signaled to Lady Amber, who was perched on
    the low branches of an oak.
    "Eleven down and plenty more to go," he reported.
    \mber drew back her bowstring and let an arrow fly. 'Make * the round dozen.
    Skip!"
    Grim-laced and determined, the crews of bo A leaders tightened paws on
    bowstrings, slings and javelins, waiting for the next head to show around the
    doorposts of Kotir fortress.
    Inside the building, confusion followed the panic of the initial attack.
    Tsarmina dashed upstairs to her chamber, dashing back down again when a
    fusillade of arrows greeted her through the open window. Bane sat at the foot
    of the stairs.
    "Fortunes of war," he said philosophically.
    "Oh, burn them out, come down hard on them. I've seen it all before," Tsarmina
    sneered. "Well, fox, what's your next move?"
    "Is there another way out of here?"
    * 'There's the scullery and larder entrance on the north side, but it's only a
    small door."
    "It'll have to do. Let's give it a try."
    At the scullery and larder entrance the door was shut tight with rusted bolts
    which took some considerable time to move. When it was finally opened, the
    troops hung about reluctantly. Nobody seemed very keen on dashing out to do
    battle. Bane prodded a Kotir soldier with his sword.
    "Come on. You lot have got shields. Get out there!"
    The stoat turned sullenly to Brogg. "He's not giving me orders. I've got six
    seasons' service here. Him and his lot only arrived yesterday."
    Tsarmina rushed up the corridor, thrusting creatures aside.
    276
    "Get out there, you and you,*' she ordered. "Form a barrier of shields the way
    youVe been trained to do!"
    Her word was final; there was no arguing with the Queen of the Thousand Eyes.
    Three soldiers pushed their way out into the open, shields held up in front. A
    slingstone cracked the middle ferret on his paw. He yelped with pain,
    automatically dropping the shield. Arrows hissed in once more, reducing the
    ranks by a further three.
    High in a sycamore, Barklad fired off an arrow as he remarked to his
    companion, "How long d'you think we can keep this up, Pear?"
    Pear rubbed beeswax on her bowstring before answering.
    "Lady Amber says until noon, then it'll be too late for them to go invading
    Mossflower. Personally, I think we should encourage them to come out at noon,
    then we could follow them back and pick them off in the evening."
    Another squirrel swung in through the branches. "Are you two all right for
    arrows?" he asked breathlessly. "Here's another quiver full. Give a call if
    you're running low."
    He swung off to the next tree with his supplies.
    Bane tried every possible move, but at each new turn he was frustrated by the
    deadly accuracy of the woodlanders. Every exit tried, be it window or door,
    resulted in further loss of troops. The summer morning wore on, the high sun
    above impervious to the dead that littered the courtyard.
    Tsarmina came up with the most sensible suggestion to date. "Why don't we just
    shut the doors and ignore them? With nothing to shoot at, they'll have to
    leave."
    Bane was glad of the solution. He would have mentioned it earlier, had
    Tsarmina not been in such a towering rage.
    Skipper was no mean climber. He stood on a low bough with Lady Amber. Together
    they considered the problem of the doors that were slammed shut and the
    bolted, wooden tables which had been placed across the open windows.
    "Looks like a stalemate, Amber.*'
    Lady Amber thwacked off an arrow at the closed door. "Cowards! They're very
    brave attacking defenceless wood-
    277
    landers and killing unarmed creatures, but they can't face real warriors when
    it comes to a battle."
    Skipper looked up at the clear blue sky. "Ah well, second day of summer and
    all's well, me old branchjumper. Come on. Let's withdraw and get back to
    Brockhall."
    A mischievous smile spread across the squirrel's face. "Right you are, Skip.
    But not before I've left them with a small token of our regard."
    Tsarmina sat eating woodpigeon with Bane in an inner room with no windows.
    There was a tap on the door.
    "Come in!" she called.
    It was Ratflank.
    "Milady, Brogg says to tell you that the woodlanders are setting fire to us."
    "What?"
    "Er, yes, Milady. Fire arrows. They're shooting them into the doors and window
    shutters. Brogg says it'll be all right, though, 'cos it's a stone building
    and they'll only bum the woodwork."
    Tsarmina sprang up knocking the table sideways. "My chamber! Bane, see if you
    can do something quickly. Organize a bucket chain. Put those fires out. If
    theyVe touched my room I'll, I'll . . . oooooohhh!"
    She dashed from the room, taking the stairs two at a time.,
    The wall hangings were smoldering ruins and the door still blazed
    merrily—Amber's archers had given it special attention.
    "Get those buckets up here. Bring water!" Tsarmina howled down the stairwell.
    "But we're trying to put out the fire at the front door, Milady," a dithering
    voice called up from below.
    *'I don't care what you're trying to put out! Get that water up here on the
    double."
    "What about the door, Milady?"
    "Spit on it, for all I care. This is my room—the Queen's own chamber is on
    fire. Hurry up, idiot."
    "Idiot yourself!"
    "Who said that?" she demanded.
    278
    39
    "Place your paw flat upon the blade, grip the handle tight, hold the sword
    flat above your head."
    Thwang!
    Martin countered Lupin's blade as Boar roared out instructions.
    "That's how to block the downward chop. Now let go of die blade. Sweep it down
    and under. Two paws on the haft, straight up and slice. Quickly, turn in and
    slice again at head height."
    It took Lupin all her skill to duck Martin's blade. She backed off, panting as
    she leaned on her sword.
    "Whew. Golly, there's not a lot you can teach this warrior."
    "Can't I, though." Boar smiled. "Watch this!"
    The badger picked up a fire iron from the forge. Thrusting one paw into his
    blacksmith's apron, he adopted a ready stance.
    "On guard, Martin," he called. "Go for a direct thrust."
    Martin came on guard. Moving in swiftly to take the badger by surprise, he
    lunged and stabbed forward.
    Boar hardly seemed to move. With a flick of his fire iron he disarmed Martin,
    sending the sword spinning and pinning Martin against the wall in the same
    movement, the fire iron hovering a fraction away from the warrior mouse's
    right eye.
    "How did you do that?" Martin gasped with shock.
    279
    Trubbs and company were watching from the sidelines.
    "Oh, he does it easily, old sport."
    "No trouble to the jolly old boss."
    "Quick as a wink, doncha know."
    Boar laughed aloud. "It's only a trick, Martin. Don't get discouraged. I'll
    show you a dozen more like it before this day's through. Pick up your sword,
    on guard again."
    This time the silver badger ducked in under die blade, catching Martin's sword
    paw. Locking the point with the flat of the fire iron, he flattened the
    warrior mouse against the wall with the edge of the sword across his throat.
    "See, just another bit of trickery."
    That second day of summer, Martin learned more of swordplay than in his whole
    life. Nobody was more adept with a blade than Boar the Fighter.
    Dinny, Log-a-Log and Gonff tried jointly to lift Boar's own sword, but they
    could hardly manage to get the big battle blade off the floor. It was immense,
    a real full-grown male badger's war sword, with double crosstrees and a
    ripping edge that had two sets of curved prongs halfway down die length of the
    extra-wide blade.
    Boar performed tricks with it, slicing apples in the air and taking a
    whiskertip from Lupin as she stood stock-still. Martin noticed that the
    badger's mood became more light-hearted and jovial when he was around weapons,
    even allowing himself to be flattered by Harebell, Honeydew and Willow, who
    imitated Trubbs and company by speaking alternately.
    "Ooh, you are clever, Boar old chap."
    "And strong. My word!"
    "We ladies would never be able to lift your big heavy sword."
    Three special daggers had been forged for Gonff, Log-a-Log and Dinny, who wore
    them proudly about their waists. Gonff delighted the occupants of
    Salamandastron with his impromptu ballads.
    Harebell, Honeydew and Willow, Each a pretty thing; Bold, brave and fearless,
    Wother, Trubbs and Ffring; Lupin, Buffheart, Starbuck, Breeze,
    280
    Swift as winds across the trees; Rule o'er land and sea herefrom,
    Sala-manda-stron.
    Harebell and company fluttered their eyelids madly.
    "Oh, Mr. Gonff, you are clever."
    "And so handsome, too."
    "You have a lovely voice."
    Gonff waved a modest paw. "Save it for Trubbs and company, ladies. I'm
    promised to my Columbine."
    "Is she pretty?"
    "Very pretty?"
    "Prettier than us?"
    "Well, she's certainly prettier than Gonff," Martin, Dinny and Log-a-Log
    chimed in impudently.
    "I'd say half as pretty again."
    "Oi'd say twoice as pri'ee, hurr hurr."
    Boar roared with laughter and raised his battle sword. "Cheek, shall I chop
    off their heads, Gonff?"
    The mousethief flushed scarlet beneath his fur. "No, just their legs will do,
    Boar. They need their mouths to eat and make silly remarks with."
    To ease Gonff's embarrassment, Buffheart beckoned the friends.
    "Have you seen our fire lizard?"
    "Fire lizard? No," Gonff chipped in quickly. "Let's go and have a look!"
    They followed Boar and the hares, trooping up more flights of stairs until
    they were somewhere near the echo cave. Buffheart took them into a side cave
    that had a big open window slot. By the side of the window lay a great stone
    carving of a fearsome head, a grotesque parody of what its maker had imagined
    a dragon should look like.
    "Nobody knows how it came here," Starbuck said, stroking it fondly. "Sometimes
    Boar lifts it up to the window at night and lights a fire in its mouth to
    frighten off the sea rats."
    Boar exerted his great strength and picked up the stone head. "Yes, I put it
    about here, facing out to sea."
    He rested the head on the window sill, then went strangely
    281
    quiet. Boar the Fighter stared hard to seaward. The rest joined him at the
    window to see what it was.
    Halfway between the skyline and the shore, a ship was sailing in toward land.
    It was a large black galley with double oarbanks and twin square-rigged sails.
    At the tip of the prow was the bleached skull and fin of some large sea fish,
    standing out like a figurehead.
    Boar whispered a single chilling word.
    ' 'Bloodwake!''
    He was oblivious of all about him, remaining with his gaze riveted on the
    craft in the water.
    Martin turned to Lupin. "Is that Ripfang's ship?" he asked.
    She nodded distractedly, pulling at Boar's heavy paw. "Come away, Boar,
    please. Can't you see he's taunting you again?"
    The silver badger shook her off and dashed through to the echo cave.
    Even though they shielded their ears, they could hear Boar in the other room,
    roaring out like thunder at the vessel, "Ahoy, Bloodwake. Ripfang, are you
    there? This is Boar the Fighter. Why don't you show your rotten hide near my
    mountain again? How about tonight? I'll be waiting, seascum!"
    As they watched, a red flag embellished with a scourge was hauled to the
    foremast peak. It dipped up and down twice.
    Buffheart's teeth ground angrily together. "He'll be here, make no mistake
    about that."
    Boar strode heavily in from the echo cave, stretching himself up until his
    head brushed the ceiling. He gave a huge sigh of satisfaction then recited
    aloud,
    The second night of summer, The second visit since spring, The rat from the
    seas Meets the Lord of the rock, To settle everything.
    Martin saw the wild light of battle in Boar's eye. "Then you're going to fight
    Ripfang tonight?" he surmised.
    Boar departed from the cave, calling as he went, "No, I'm going to kill him!''
    282
    They pursued him down the stairs to the forge hall. Taking a rough file, the
    badger began putting a slashing edge to his war sword.
    The happy time was at an end.
    Martin picked up his own sword. "We're coming with you, Boar."
    The badger shook his head. "No. This is not your fight. This one was written
    long ago on the wall behind my father. It must be."
    Martin was obdurate. "Say what you like. Boar. When night falls, I'll be there
    at your side."
    "Aye, and I."
    "Me too."
    "I'm coming with you."
    "And me, matey." " "Boi 'okey, an' oi too."
    "Count me in, old chap." 'j "Rather, what ho!"
    "Wouldn't miss it for the world, what?" . Boar put the file aside. "So be
    it. Come if you feel you Imust, and thank you, my friends. But you, Buffheart,
    and
    -j you, Lupin—you must remain here with your young ones. '•The fires must be
    kept burning, you understand?"
    Buffheart nodded, biting his lip so fiercely that a trickle of blood coursed
    from the side of his mouth.
    "As you say, Boar," Lupin spoke for both of them.
    *- The silver badger stood with his paws resting on the top crosstree of
    his sword, every inch the commander.
    "The rest of you, listen to me. No matter what happens, you must obey the
    warrior's code. I give the orders, no one else. I know it may be difficult for
    you to understand, but you must trust me completely. If you obey me, then you
    are my true friends; disobey, and you are my enemy. Do you understand what I
    say?"
    The heads nodded in silence. ' Boar hung the great sword back on its wall
    spikes.
    "Good. Now go and rest," Boar told them. "But first see ; to your weapons and
    eat.' * ; When they had gone, Martin lingered awhile with Boar.
    •: "That verse you spoke," he said curiously. "It was writ-.ten on the
    wall. Did you recite it all?"
    V
    283
    Boar shook his head. "Not all. The last lines are only for me to know. Once
    again, Martin, thank you. It will be good to have a real warrior at my side
    tonight."
    They clasped paws, the mouse's dwarfed by the badger's.
    "Good luck, Boar, my friend."
    "Luck has little to do with fate, Martin. You follow the warrior's star. Be
    true to yourself and your friends."
    So the creatures of Salamandastron lay down to rest, each one with their own
    thoughts.
    The second glorious day of summer rolled on toward night.
    The black ship Bloodwake sailed closer with every wave.
    284
    Bane had an idea.
    "Now that the woodlanders have gone," he suggested cunningly, "why don't we
    sneak out of Kotir and hide ourselves in the bushes at the edge of the forest?
    We could hide right behind the position they held this morning. That way,
    we'll be able to turn the ambush on them if they come back tomorrow for
    another dawn attack."
    "Huh huhuhu, good idea, fox," Brogg chuckled encouragingly.
    Tsarmina turned a frosty stare upon the Captain; the chuckle died to a gurgle
    in his throat. Near open enmity was the order of the day now between her and
    Bane. She was sorry she had ever let him and his band inside her gates.
    "Fool, Brogg," she snarled. "Can't you see this fox only wants us out of Kotir
    so that he and his raggedy band can slip in behind our backs?"
    Bane spread his paws wide disarmingly. "Hoho, if that's what you think, lady."
    "Yes, that's exactly what I think, fox!" Tsarmina snapped back.
    "That's a problem easily solved." Bane shrugged. "You stay in here with your
    deadhead Captain; I take the forces out into the woods. In fact, I'll take
    them tonight, so that we can be well hidden by the time the woodlanders
    arrive."
    285
    Tsarmina sniffed. "That's a better idea. I'll agree to that, Bane."
    The fox laughed. He drew his sword and held it out. "Think you can trust me,
    or would you like to confiscate my sword?"
    Tsarmina's eyes slined dangerously. "If I take that sword, 1*11 take your head
    with it, fox."
    Bane sheathed the sword and spat, ' 'If you ever try to take my sword, it'll
    be your head that comes off, cat."
    "We shall see."
    "Aye, we shall see."
    Chibb saw, too. He heard all as well.
    A swift flutter of his wings took him out across Moss-flower, back to
    Brockhall.
    Foremole was pacing around in deep leaf mold with Old Dinny. They were trying
    to remember the exact location of a disused tunnel.
    "Thurr it may be. Moind, oi only sez maybe."
    "No, tis yurr. Oi'd swurr on moi tunnel it's yurr."
    "Nay, may'ap it's midway 'twixt they two."
    "Wo urrhoops, urthenquaker. Look out!"
    The ground beneath them trembled and heaved. Both moles were tipped flat on
    their bottoms in the loam.
    Soilflyer's head popped out of the ground. He blew dead leaves from his snout,
    grinning broadly.
    "Hurr, good morrow to 'ee, zurrs," he called cheerfully. "Us'ns found that
    crossways tunnel as used to be yurr."
    Foremole tried hard to preserve his dignity. "Thurr 'ee be, Owd Din. Oi did
    tell 'ee it wurr thurr."
    "Oo, fer a 'spectable Foremole, 'ee be a gurt fib bag!"
    Soilflyer pulled himself free of the loam, followed by Urth-claw and Billum.
    They tugged their snouts in mock respect to their elders, Billum stifling a
    bass giggle.
    "Ow summ of these owd lads do enjoy loif, a-setten about playen in 'ee leaves
    loik liddle 'ogs, it do surproise oi."
    Foremole shook a stern claw at Billum. "Lessen thoi cheek. Get 'ee over to
    Brocken'all an git 'ee vittles."
    Over at Brockhall, things were running smoothly. The little ones played games
    with Columbine and Goody, while the
    286
    Abbess helped Ben Stickle and her mice to fietch arrows, which they tied into
    bundles. As deputy in Bella's absence, Abbess Germaine was not too pleased
    that Skipper and Amber had disobeyed a Corim decision, but she made allowances
    for the fact that they had lost friends in the ambush at the diggings.
    Nevertheless, she felt it was her duty to upbraid diem.
    "You had no right to go off like that after electing to stay here. Both of you
    might have been killed."
    Skipper was fishing pieces of hazel nut and leek out of a pan of stew that had
    gone cold beside the hearth. Germaine rapped the table sharply with an arrow.
    "Skipper of otters, are you listening to me?"
    "Oh aye, marm, I'm all ears," he said abstractedly. "Are these last season's
    nuts or the one before? Right nice sweet taste theyVe got."
    The Abbess snorted in exasperation. "Now, I want you, both of you, to promise
    me that you'll never do anything so foolish again. I'm surprised at you, Lady
    Amber—you a squirrel Queen, too. That's not setting a very good example to
    others, is it?"
    Amber cocked her severed and bandaged ear stump toward Germaine.
    "Eh, what's that you say?"
    All three dissolved in helpless laughter.
    Chibb arrived with the moles, saving the miscreants further scolding; reports
    were made to the Corim leaders present. Ferdy and Coggs had arrived at a
    decision to become warrior carpenter cooks, so they served refreshments for
    everybody.
    As they ate, the Abbess mulled over the situation. "Well, if the forces of
    Kotir are hiding in the woods, it would be unwise for you two to try a repeat
    performance of today's attack."
    Skipper grinned broadly. "Why, perish the thought, marm. They'll be keeping
    themselves busy, by the sound of it. We'll just let 'em lie uncomfortable like
    out there all night, then they can shiver through the dawn waiting for us not
    to turn up. What a damp squib."
    Foremole banged the tabletop with one of Ferdy's biscuits. **Hurr, an' ifFen
    they varments think us'ns stopped a-diggen,
    287
    burr, they'm doant know moles. Us'll 'ave 'ee tunnels work-en agin afore
    eventoid, mark/1
    Bella of Brockhall had wandered far in search of a second hideout. If ever
    Brockhall were discovered by the army of Tsarmina, it was imperative that the
    woodlanders have a place of safety to flee to. The good badger was always
    conscious of her responsibility to the woodlanders. She felt she must
    undertake this search. Bella enjoyed the solitude of the far Mossflower
    stillness after the close confines of Brockhall in the company of woodlanders.
    By midday she was traveling east through vast tracts of field country. The
    badger knew instinctively that the River Moss would be winding its way
    somewhere near, and her good senses were confirmed in due course.
    Bella seated herself on the bank of the broad swirling water. She did not
    resist taking a short nap in the early summer warmth.
    "Bella. Hey there, Bella of Brockhall!"
    Hie badger sat bolt upright, blinking away her tiredness. Gingivere was
    running towards her, and there was another cat with him, a sleek reddish
    female.
    The badger jumped up waving her paws joyfully.
    "Haha, Gingivere, you old rascal, who's your friend?"
    The female cat smiled and waved back.
    "Oh, you are just as I imagined you, Bella," she said warmly. ' 'Gingivere has
    told me all about you and his woodland friends. I'm Sandingomm."
    They sat on the bank together as Bella brought them up to date with the news
    and explained her mission. As she talked, Bella noticed how strong and happy
    Gingivere looked. The reason why soon became apparent.
    "Look at me, Bella. Would you believe it, I'm a farmer now. Yes, me,
    Gingivere, son of Verdauga. WeVe got a nice little piece of land further up
    the bank and the fishing is good in this river."
    The badger was delighted. "Well, you certainly fell on your paws this time,
    friend. Though you deserve it after all you've been through. Congratulations
    to you both."
    Sandingomm thanked Bella. "Anytime you please, you
    288
    may bring the woodlanders to stay with us. This place is too for away for
    Gingivere's wicked sister to find.''
    Bella stood up. Dusting her coat off, she refused an offer to stay for lunch.
    "I wouldn't dream of intruding on two such happy creatures any longer," she
    said firmly. "Besides, I've got to get back to Brockhall and give them the
    good news. Not only have I found a second hideout, but I have rediscovered our
    friend Gingivere and made yet another new friend in Lady Sandingomm."
    Gingivere smiled understandingly. "As you will, Bella of Brockhall. Give my
    best wishes to all the woodlanders, and don't forget to tell Ferdy and Coggs
    to visit Uncle Gingivere and Aunt Sandingomm sometime."
    "Oh I will, never fear," Bella assured him. "Thank you, ft's good to know that
    we of the Corim have two great friends always ready to help."
    The badger set off westward, back toward the leafy glades , of Mossflower in
    the noonday sun.
    "Goodbye, Bella of Brockhall. Good luck to you," the cats called after her.
    , "Thank you. Take good care of each other now. Goodbye, fcurner Gingivere.
    Goodbye, Lady Sandingomm."
    289
    Night had fallen over Salamandastron.
    The war party climbed down the roof ladder onto the sand. Gonff, Dinny and
    Log-a-Log had been outfitted by the hares. They were helmeted and armed with
    long pointed pikes, smaller versions of the arms carried by fighting hares.
    Martin looked around, checking out the company. There were Trubbs, Wother and
    Ffring, Harebell, Honeydew and Willow, his three traveling companions and Boar
    the Fighter. The silver badger towered above them all, looking fearsome enough
    to chill the blood of any sea rat's veins. He wore heavy spiked armor across
    his back and front, topped off with a shining metal headpiece that came
    forward into a badger war mask.
    Boar pointed his great war sword up at Buffheart as he gave final orders.
    "Make sure you pull that ladder back up safe, slide a rock over the entrance
    hole and don't open it to any creature."
    "But supposing you want to get back in again, Boar?" Starbuck asked, gazing
    down from behind his father.
    The badger chuckled drily. "Don't worry, Star. A short climb and a rock slab
    won't stop me."
    Lupin appeared at the opening. "Breeze is at the forge sobbing herself silly.
    Will you be all right, Boar?"
    The badger did not look up. "I'm fine, Lupin. You're the strong one. You know
    what to do."
    290
    "I do, Boar."
    "Good. Then come on, you lucky lot, follow me. We're going to a party with
    some sea rats."
    As they moved off, Gonff nudged Dinny. "What a happy badger. He seems to get
    merrier when he's closer to a battle."
    "Urr, wishen oi did," Young Dinny gulped. "Moi young paws be all of
    a-trimble."
    "I'm glad I haven't got that trouble, Din," Gonff giggled nervously. "Mine
    froze solid with fright some time ago."
    Iii silent file they made their way out to the shore, keeping close to the
    rock face. The party halted when they stood with their backs to the mountain.
    It was deserted, though Blood-wake bobbed at anchor close to the land.
    Trubbs twitched his whiskers. "Don't like this at all, chums. Not one little
    bit."
    "I'll second that, laddie."
    "Thirds for me, old scout, wot?"
    Gonff peered toward Bloodwake. "Maybe they're still on board."
    Log-a-Log gripped his pike tighter. "No, mate. She's rid--ing too high in the
    water for that."
    "Log-a-Log's right," Martin whispered to Boar. "What do you think?"
    "Oh, they're here, somewhere," Boar chuckled softly. "I Can smell the stink of
    sea rat fouling up my territory. Trubbs, you take the left. Harebell, around
    the mountain to the right. See if you can spot anything."
    The hares slipped off like sand on the breeze. "Look, mere's a small band of
    'em," Boar exclaimed, pointing straight ahead. "Been lying low where the waves
    lap the sand. Ha, they don't fool me. There's some kind of ambush being rigged
    up around here, but don't worry, we'll be ready."
    Trubbs and Harebell arrived back at the same time. "Boar, Ihey're around the
    back of the mountain, hordes of them!"
    "Harebell's right. I saw 'em too, all skulking in the shadows."
    Boar remained calm. "Huh, Ripfang seems to be using his brains more and his
    mouth less these days. They must have dropped off further up the coast and
    come overland, circling
    291
    to get behind us. I told you that band up ahead was only a blind."
    Dinny gave a hoarse shout. "Look out! Yurr they'm a-cummen!"
    From both sides of the mountain they filtered out in a swift pincer movement.
    Trubbs' estimate was right: there were hordes of them. Martin watched in
    silence as they formed a semicircle. He had never seen so many sea rats.
    Villainous faces, wreathed by black headbands and adorned with brass earrings,
    snarled at them. Strange sickle-shaped swords with small round target shields
    were brandished high. Daggers and whips bristled where there were no swords.
    Martin thanked the fates that there were no archers.
    Boar stood forward smiling hugely, leaning idly on his battle blade. "Well,
    well. The gang's all here. Where's old snot-whiskers? ''
    The ranks parted, allowing two standard bearers carrying sea rat banners to
    come through. Standing between them was a rat, half as big again as any of the
    others, carrying a sickle sword and a long whiplash. A single fang grew
    overlong from the left side of his mouth, giving his face a grotesque sneer.
    "Here I am, mountain Lord. We have you surrounded and ready to die."
    Boar did not give the courtesy of a reply. He whirled his giant war sword
    aloft and charged with a thunderous battle-cry.
    " Yoooohaaarrraallaayleeeeee!!!"
    Both sides surged forward, meeting with a crash of steel upon the churning
    sands.
    Martin felt the madness of combat searing through his veins. He leaped and
    struck, hacked and thrust, stabbed and slashed like a flash of hot summer
    lightning. Shields were shorn through by his flying blade, sea rats went down
    before him like corn to a reaper. They crushed inward, swinging their sickle
    swords. Dinny took a gash upon his shoulder. He was about to go down when
    Trubbs heaved a squealing rat high upon his pike, tossing him onto the blades
    that menaced Dinny. Gonff had lost his pike, but he went at them with a dagger
    in each paw, flailing like a windmill, up, down, across, over, his fear
    forgotten in the boiling melee of battle. Firing was hemmed in on all sides,
    his bobtail shorn off; but Wother
    292
    and Log-a-Log came vaulting over the sea rats' heads on their pikes to save
    the beleaguered hare. Jabbing left and right, they were joined by Harebell.
    Foursquare back to back they fought, turning in a ferocious circle, spearing
    and ripping like a carousel of doom.
    The rats on the tideline had begun to move. Boar swung low at the feet of his
    enemies. As they jumped, he carried the sweep high, the immense war sword
    slicing through at head level. Blood-spattered, pierced by steel in a dozen
    different places, he fought on, oblivious to his wounds, trying to reach
    Ripfang, who stood at the back urging on his sea rats.
    "Come to me, Ripfang," the silver badger chanted as he battled. "Meet Boar the
    Fighter. I am the son of Old Lord Brocktree, ruler of Mossflower, Chief of the
    mountain. My blade is singing your deathsong. Let Boar take you and your
    vermin crew to the gates of Dark Forest this night. The summer sun cannot
    stand the sight of you darkening the earth!"
    Now the rats packed in harder at Ripfang's command. The roiling mass of
    enemies seemed endless. Martin and his comrades wiped sweat and blood from
    their eyes as they battered heroically away at the tide of sea rats which
    threatened to engulf them.
    The warrior mouse found himself back to back with Boar. "Boar, we're
    hard-pressed and outnumbered," he yelled over die noise of war. "It'd take us
    all season to slay this pack, even if they stood in line and waited."
    The silver badger made a rat into two half-rats with his sword. "I know,
    little warrior. I told you this was my fight. I'm sorry I got you into it."
    Martin extinguished a spitting face with his blade. "Not your fault, Boar. It
    was written."
    The badger used his sword hilt to pulp a rat who came too near. "Listen,
    Martin. Get the crew around you. I'm going to force a way through, then we'll
    run for it. There's only that single group standing between us and Bloodwake.
    Are you ready?"
    It took a few moments in the battle until Martin had mustered his comrades in
    a group. There was a momentary lull as they stood ringed on all sides by sea
    rats.
    Like chain lightning, Boar made his move with a furious
    293
    charge. The mad onslaught carried them forward to the edge of the horde.
    Hewing ceaselessly, Martin and the rest broke through. They began running
    toward the small advancing band of sea rats.
    Pikes clashed with sickle swords as they met. The astounded vermin were so
    taken aback by the ferocity of the attack that they broke and scattered.
    Rushing onward, the friends made the water's edge.
    Honeydew looked back. "We've left Boar behind!"
    "No, he never came with us."
    "Let's go back."
    "Stay!" Martin's shout was a cold command.
    They turned to stare at the warrior mouse.
    "Remember your orders from Boar. Do as he said; it is the way of the warrior.
    Boar has seen his own fate written, there is nothing we can do to stop it. We
    must capture that ship."
    They slid into the surf with the sounds of battle still ringing in their ears.
    There was only a token watch left aboard to guard the galley slaves. They
    leaped overboard at the sight of the roaring fighters who sprang dripping to
    the deck of Bloodwake.
    Panting with exertion, Martin turned to Log-a-Log, "Get this vessel under way
    with all speed!''
    The shrew rapped out commands to the new crew. "Slash that anchor cable. Hoist
    those sails. Martin, take the tiller-steer her out to deep water. You below,
    row for your lives if you want to taste freedom again.''
    Pushing the tiller over, Martin felt Bloodwake respond. She turned on the
    ebbing tide with a stiff breeze at her stern, riding the waves out toward the
    open sea. The rest of them joined him as he stared over the after end, across
    the smooth wake to the shore.
    The silver badger's voice carried to them on the wind.
    "Sail away, my warriors. Tell Bella and Mossflower of Boar the Fighter. Come
    closer, sea rats. Let my blade kiss you to sleep. Ah, Ripfang, my old enemy,
    got you! Now I embrace you as a friend. See."
    They watched as Boar went down under a mob of sea rats who were howling and
    screaming. The badger wielded his
    294
    sword with a single paw, the other mighty paw held Ripfang close to his
    studded metal armor, crushing him to death.
    Martin turned away, blinded by tears. He could look no more.
    Nor could his companions.
    Before them lay the deep open sea. Behind them, the flames of Salamandastron
    burned bright over a shore piled and littered with dead and wounded sea rats.
    The spirit of Boar the Fighter lingered on the sands, reluctant to leave a
    good battle and travel to the gates of Dark Forest.
    The silver badger had seen the writing on the wall. He had fulfilled the
    legend of the mountain!
    Tsarmina and Bane watched each other like pike eyeing a water beetle, the
    wildcat Queen from her high window, Bane from where he crouched shivering with
    the troops, drenched in morning dew, completely dispirited after a fruitless
    night spent in the forest. The rift was widening between cat and fox.
    Bane squatted in the wet grass beside Brogg.
    "See how your Queen treats us? We shiver out here all night while she lies in
    luxury, warm and snug."
    Brogg squinted dully. "She always has. Milady is a Queen, you know."
    Bane spat at a small insect. "If I ruled Kotir, the troops would get the same
    treatment as me. Ask my crew. We always had plenty to eat. I never hid in
    safety and let them take all the risks."
    "Is that why you pushed them out of doors, in front of all those arrows and
    javelins?" Ratflank sniggered.
    Bane cuffed him soundly across the snout. "Who asked your opinion,
    snivelwhiskers? I didn't notice you volunteering to dash out and fight those
    woodlanders."
    Brogg stood up, brushing dewdrops from his cloak. "Ah well, they won't be
    showing up this morning. Wonder how they knew we'd be lying in wait?"
    Bane winked and tapped his muzzle. "Maybe she got word to them. That way she
    could have Kotir and the rations to herself. There's enough supplies in there
    to keep one cat happy forever."
    295
    Brogg scratched his chin. "Really? Do you think she'd do that?"
    "Well, look at the evidence." Bane laughed mirthlessly. "From what I hear, the
    garrison was in a right old mess before I arrived with reinforcements and
    rations. They say she was acting strange. You should know—she had you pulling
    tails and checking whiskers. What normal creature does things like that?"
    As the force moved back to Kotir, Bane and Brogg were deep in quiet, earnest
    conversation.
    Tsarmina watched them from her high window. She also scanned the surrounding
    treetops for signs that the eagle might be abroad. An idea was forming in the
    wildcat's mind.
    Later that morning, while Bane was supervising a team to replace the burned
    door and window timbers, Tsarmina had Brogg come to her room. She fed him on
    cider and roasted woodpigeon as she wormed information from him.
    The weasel Captain told his Queen all.
    Tsarmina resumed her position at the window, watching the telltale quiver of a
    spruce top. When she turned to Brogg her voice dripped sincerity.
    "You have been a good and loyal Captain, Brogg. Make no mistake, your Queen
    will reward you. This fox forced his way in here while we were distracted by
    the woodlanders. He countermands my orders and whispers lies about me to my
    soldiers. Do you realize that if he had not barged his way in with his ragged
    mob, I was going to promote you to act as Supreme General?"
    "Me, Milady?" Brogg could hardly believe his ears.
    "Yes, you. Say nothing of this to any creature, especially Bane. Let him carry
    on repairing our woodwork. He thinks he will rule Kotir one day. You stick to
    doing your job, Brogg. Keep my Thousand Eye soldiers loyal to me. As for Bane,
    leave him to me. If he speaks to you, tell him that I wish to see him, up here
    in my chamber."
    "I will, Milady. You can trust me."
    "I do, Brogg my good friend. Now go."
    The weasel did not stop backing up and bowing until after he was outside the
    room.
    296
    * * *
    By midafternoon most of the repair work was well under way. Bane strolled up
    to the high chamber and slouched against the table where Tsarmina sat.
    "Well, what d'you want me for now, cat?" he asked insolently.
    Tsarmina pushed a beaker of elderberry wine across the table to Bane, and
    poured one for herself.
    "lb you, Bane. A good job well done on the doors and windows. I could not have
    done better myself."
    The fox watched carefully, not taking a sip of the wine until the wildcat had
    drunk from her beaker.
    "Why this sudden honor, Tsarmina? What are you up to?"
    The wildcat Queen shook her head sadly. "How did we ever come to this mistrust
    and enmity, Bane?" She pointed a dramatic claw to the open window. "Out there
    is where the enemy is. The woodlanders are the ones we should be fighting, not
    each other."
    The fox took a mouthful of the rich dark wine. "I'll agree with that, but
    what's brought about this sudden change? Tell me, if we are to trust each
    other."
    Tsarmina passed a weary paw across her brow. "Until you came, I had not won a
    single victory over the woodlanders. Even when they attacked us yesterday you
    did all you could, but still I did not trust you," she confessed. "I made you
    wait out in the open all night and you never complained once. Today I looked
    from my window and saw you helping your band to repair the damage to Kotir.
    That was when I changed my opinion of you."
    Tsarmina refilled Bane's beaker with wine. When she spoke again there was
    something approaching a sob in her voice.
    "Forgive me. I have misjudged you, Bane. You are a true friend."
    The fox quaffed the wine, then took the liberty of pouring himself some more.
    "You like the work that we are carrying out on the fire damage?"
    Tsarmina pushed the wine jug so that Bane would not have to stretch when
    reaching for it.
    "Indeed I do. It's ten times better than my bumbling lot could have done," she
    assured him.
    297
    Bane nodded agreement. "Aye, my band can turn their paw to most things.
    They're still working round at the larder and scullery entrance."
    "Good," Tsarmina said over her shoulder as she rummaged in a wooden chest.
    "But what I'm worried about is the main gates between the courtyard and the
    woodland edge."
    The fox finished his wine, banging the beaker down decisively. "Right, let's
    go and take a look at 'em, though I don't think they'll need much repair.
    They're a solid old pair of gates."
    Tsarmina produced a cloak from the chest. It was a long trailing garment made
    from bright red velvet trimmed with woodpigeon feathers. Recently it had been
    cleaned and brushed.
    "I want you to take this cloak, friend," she insisted smilingly. "Wear it as a
    token of our new alliance. \s you can see, it is not the plain cloak of a
    Captain; this was made for a Lord."
    Bane took the cloak. Twirling it round, he admired the color and weight of the
    velvet. He swept it up, draping it around his shoulders. Tsarmina fastened the
    clasp at his neck.
    "There! How handsome you look. More like the Ruler of Kotir than I do."
    Bane's paw stroked the feather edged velvet. "Thank you, Queen Tsarrnina. This
    is a splendid cloak. Hoho, wait'll my gang see their leader decked out in his
    finery. Come on, let's take a look at mat gate. '
    There were many admiring and envious glances from Bane's mercenaries as he
    strode across the courtyard.
    "By the fang. Look at old Bane. What a fine cloak!"
    "He certainly cuts a dash in it. I'll bet he's been promoted."
    "Haha, he looks more like the Chief here than the cat does."
    Brogg and Ratflank leaned out of the barrack room window. The weasel Captain
    could not help remarking under his breath, "What d'you suppose the fox is
    doing, wearing Ash-leg's cloak?"
    298
    Dawn brushed pale streaks of pink and gold through the gray mist on the calm
    sea waters.
    Rasping sounds from a file could be heard on deck from the oarbanks below.
    Gonff was freeing the slaves.
    Martin and Dinny assisted the pathetic creatures onto the deck. Some of them
    had not seen daylight in seasons. They were a mixed bunch, ragged shrews and
    emaciated mice, together with some bedraggled hedgehogs and the odd gaunt
    squirrel.
    How could any creature treat another in this cruel manner? Martin wondered. It
    made his blood boil as he tended them.
    Dinny was doling out food from Bloodwake's well-stocked pantry. "Yurr, get sum
    vittles down 'ee, us'ns fatten 'ee up."
    Martin was supporting a tough mouse who seemed on the verge of collapse.
    "Thank you, Martin son of Luke," he said, nodding gratefully at the young
    warrior.
    Martin's paws gave way. He sank to the deck of Blood-wake, taking his burden
    with him. They sat staring at each other. Martin could find only one word to
    say.
    "Timballisto?"
    Tears ran freely down the mouse's whiskers. "Martin, my friend."
    A shrew who was gnawing at a ship's biscuit came and sat
    299
    by them. "Martin, the young warrior mouse, eh? Timballisto here was always
    talking about you." Timballisto threw a paw about his friend's shoulder. "How
    did you know I was aboard this floating rat trap?"
    Martin hugged him. "I didn't, you old wardog. I thought you'd gone to the
    gates of Dark Forest long ago, fighting enemies off outside our caves in the
    northlands."
    As they sat talking, Log-a-Log came from Ripfang's cabin aft. He was studying
    some sailcloth charts. Immediately a great shout went up from the shrews who
    had been freed.
    "Log-a-Log! Chief, it's us, the old gang from the village!"
    Preoccupied with something he had discovered among the maps, the Shrew Chief
    waved distractedly to them. "Ha, hello, you lot. Well, eat up and get fit
    again. The boss is back now. Told you I'd rescue you, didn't I."
    Gonif heaved himself up from the galley banks below. "Whew, matey! It could do
    with a good scrub down there. Hey, Log-a-Log, found some booty?"
    The shrew spread charts upon the deck. "Look, it's all here—the way home."
    Martin could make little of the charts. "Show me."
    "Righto. It's simple really. See here, that's Salamandas-tron," Log-a-Log
    explained. "Keep the setting sun to your left and follow the coastline until
    we sight a river flowing into the sea from the right. It's the River Moss,
    see, flowing from east to west."
    Dinny's digging paw tapped the canvas. "Hurr, well oi never did, stan* on moi
    tunnel! It be our river as flows thru Mossfl'er. Lookit, thurr be 'ee
    woodlands marked up over yon. Burr, 'ee ratbag knowed it all."
    Log-a-Log pinned the canvas down against a breeze mat was springing up.
    "I'll say he did. That's how he came to capture my tribe. There's our village
    marked up on the northeast fringes of Mossfiower. Banksnout, shin up the mast
    and keep your eyes busy for the river flowing in from landward. Gonff, take
    the tiller and hold it seaward a point to bring us closer into shore. Shrews,
    break out all sail so we catch this good breeze."
    Under the eye of the summer sun, Bloodwake scudded across the foaming white
    caps like a great seabird. Timballisto leaned over the deckrail with Martin.
    300
    "I wish I'd had the chance to meet Boar the Fighter," Timballisto sighed. "He
    sounds like a great warrior, from what you say. What a pity he won't be coming
    back to save Mossfiower.''
    Martin drew his sword. He pointed it east toward the land. "It is my duty to
    save Mossflower. I swore it to Boar and I intend keeping that oath."
    Timballisto watched him as he held forth the beautiful blade. "You will,
    Martin. You will!"
    A hedgehog poked his head around the door of the forward cabins. "Ahoy,
    there's a full armory here, lads—swords, spears, knives, everything an army
    could wish for."
    "Gurt loads o' vittles, too." Dinny chuckled. "Oi tell *ee, Gonffen, liddle
    boats make oi sick, hurr, but this'n's a noice big shipper. Oi'll call *er
    Wuddshipp. Harr, that be a foin name."
    Gonff watched the forepeak respond to the tiller.
    "Wuddshipp it is then, Din. Though personally I'd have named her Columbine."
    Trubbs and company chimed in.
    "I say, that's a bit strong, Gonff, old sailor."
    "Has Columbine really got a wooden bottom?"
    "And two ears that stick out like sails?"
    They narrowly ducked the pail of seawater that Gonff hurled.
    Banksnout roared out in a gruff shrew bass from atop the rigging, "Ahoy! River
    in sight up north to landward!"
    Martin climbed the bowsprit. He stood on the bleached fish skull figurehead,
    looking eagerly.
    Sure enough, there was the river, boiling across the shores in the distance.
    He turned to the crowd of eager faces watching him.
    "Take her head up and round the shore, Gonff. We're going home!"
    Shrews, mice, hedgehogs, squirrels, hares and a single mole roared out in one
    voice that rang across the waves,
    "Mossflowerrrrrrr!!!"
    301
    43
    Argulor was awake.
    Shifting on his high spruce perch, he glared down greedily through his old
    watery eyes at the red-cloaked figure crossing the parade ground of Kotir.
    "At last, pine marten!"
    Tsarmina pushed hard against the gates. "See, they're rocking on their
    hinges," she pointed out to Bane. "Those wood-landers have been meddling with
    them, I'm sure of it."
    Bane gave the gates a kick. "Do you think so? They seem solid enough to me.
    Huh, even fire arrows didn't make much impression on these gates."
    Tsarmina unbolted the locks. Opening the gates cautiously, she peered around
    them at the woodlands. It was safe.
    "All clear out here, but I don't like it. I'm sure theyVe done something to
    these hinges from outside. Just think, if these gates blew down during the
    autumn, we'd be at their mercy."
    "Huh, I don't know what you're fussing about," Bane said, swirling his new
    cloak impatiently. "The gates look all right to me."
    Tsarmina gnawed her lip. "Are you really sure, though?"
    The fox sighed in exasperation. "Oh, I suppose I'll have to go and take a look
    to keep you happy."
    He strode briskly outside.
    302
    Tsarmina dodged inside, slamming the gates and bolting them.
    Bane was puzzled momentarily. "Hoi, what's the matter with you, Tsarmina?"
    There was no reply. Tsarmina was racing across the parade ground to watch from
    her high window.
    Suddenly Bane sensed he had been tricked, but it was too late.
    Argulor had already launched himself from his perch. He homed in on the
    red-cloaked figure like a bolt from the blue.
    On the other side of Kotir, Bane's mercenaries worked away on the scullery
    door, blissfully unaware of what was taking place outside.
    Bane did not see the eagle swoop; he was trying to find pawholds as he
    clambered up the oaken gates.
    Argulor struck him hard from behind, burying powerful talons and vicious
    hooked beak in the prey that had eluded him for so long. The fox was
    transfixed, frozen with cruel agony; but as the eagle started to carry him
    off, Bane's fighting instincts took over. Freeing his curved sword, he struck
    upward at the feathered enemy.
    The sword hit Argulor, once, twice!
    Doggedly the great eagle sank talons and beak deeper into his prey. Beating
    the air with his massive wingspread as he did, both hunter and quarry rose
    skyward.
    Tsarmina at her window danced up and down in fiendish glee. Attracted by the
    screams, the occupants of Kotir looked up. Bane slashed wildly with his sword;
    Argulor stabbed madly with his beak. All the while the combatants rose higher,
    and soon they were above the treetops.
    Chibb fluttered in circles some distance away. He watched the amazing sight as
    eagle and fox rose into the sky.
    Far above Mossflower, Argulor won the battle. Bane gave a final shudder and
    went limp, the curved sword falling from his lifeless paws. The ancient eagle
    felt cheated; this was no pine marten, it was a fox. Argulor's heart sank in
    his breast. It did not rise again. The rheumy eyes shut in the same instant as
    the great wings folded in death, and only the talons remained fixed deep into
    the dead fox.
    303
    Tsarmina watched as both creatures plunged earthward. Two enemies defeated in
    a single brilliant stroke.
    Ratflank dashed for the gate. Brogg shouted after him, "Where d'you think
    you're off to?"
    "Ha, to get that cloak, of course. That's a good bit of velvet. It can be
    repaired, y'know."
    "Get back here, frogbrain. See what happened to the fox-he wore the cloak.
    D'you want the same thing happening to you?"
    "Frogbrain yourself, dimwit. Can't you see the eagle's dead? Any creature can
    wear that cloak now."
    "Hoi! Don't you call me dimwit, droopy whiskers."
    "I'll call you what I like, dimwit. Nitears! Fatnose!"
    Tsarmina smiled inwardly, a third victory today. Now that she heard Ratflank
    shouting she could identify the insolent voice that had often insulted her
    from the protection of the ranks or the bottom of a curved stairwell.
    Later that day, she instructed Brogg.
    "Take Ratflank, and find the bodies of the eagle and the fox."
    "Yes, Milady. Shall I bring them back here?"
    "No, Brogg. Bury them."
    "As you say, Milady."
    "Oh, and Brogg ..."
    "Yes, Milady?"
    "How do you feel about that insolent Ratflank these days?"
    "Oh, him. He's a cheekybeast, Milady. Called me lots of nasty names."
    "Yes. Me too. How would you like to bury him with the fox and the eagle?"
    "Huh huhuhuh," Brogg chortled. "Can I, Milady?"
    "Yes, but not a word to any creature about it."
    "Can I have the red cloak too, Milady?"
    "Yes, if you want it."
    "And Bane's curved sword, Milady?" Brogg pressed her.
    "If you can find it."
    "Where d'you think it fell, Milady?"
    Tsarmina turned her eyes upward as if seeking patience. "Brogg, I wouldn't
    know where the sword fell, or the eagle,
    304
    or the fox. Just get out of my sight and don't bother me with details." >
    "But what about—Yes, Milady."
    Urthclaw was first to reach the underground foundations of Kotir. Tunneling
    steadily, he made his way along the under-ground wall until he met up with
    Billum. Together they continued until they linked up with Soilflyer, who was
    waiting for them.
    "Burr, 'day to 'ee moles," he greeted them. "Foremole an' Owd Dinny be along
    wi' tools soon, us'ns can brekk throo *ee rock then."
    Lady Amber had sunk the floodgates at the other end of the tunnels, they were
    to be lifted by rope hoists attached to rock counterweights over high
    branches. Skipper and his crew had dug fresh tunnels from the river, sloping
    down to meet the floodgates which separated them from the main tunnels. All
    the workings had been shorn up with stone and timber. Foremole supervised the
    removal of rocks from the foundations of Kotir. The moles pried away the soft,
    damp stones with bars and chisels until they felt the cold fetid air on their
    snouts. "Burr, oo, durty owd place needen a gurt barth, hur burr."
    Shortly before nightfall, the moles climbed out of the tunnel workings, back
    in Mossflower, where the woodlanders and Corim leaders had assembled. Bella
    rolled three large rocks over the holes from which the moles had emerged.
    Others moved in to pack the bungrocks firmly in with wood and soil.
    Now everything was ready.
    Between the lower depths of Kotir and the distant river in Mossflower Woods,
    all that stood was three timber sluicegates.
    Lady Amber laid her tail flat on the lower branches of a sycamore.
    The woodlanders held their breath.
    Skipper nodded to Foremole.
    Foremole nodded to Bella.
    Bella nodded to Amber.
    The squirrel's tail rose like a starter's flag. There was a creaking of rope
    pulleys as squirrels launched the rocks from
    305
    the high trees, riding down to earth on them, holding to the ropes. The
    counterweights traveled fast, humming across the heavily beeswaxed branches.
    The wooden floodgates made a squelching sound as they were pulled free of the
    earth, then water began rippling through into the tunnels.
    The flooding of Kotir had begun!
    44
    306
    Driving Wuddshipp inland against the flow of the River Moss was a difficult
    task.
    All paws manned the oarbanks, and Martin sat alongside Timballisto.
    "Phew! I never realized rowing was such heavy work," Martin groaned.
    < "Pull, my friend, pull. It's twice as bad when you have to do it on
    half-rations with a sea rat's whip cracking about your ;cars and you chained
    to the oar.''
    The vessel had been built for coast raiding. Though it was a large craft, it
    had a flat bottom for taking shallow draught; fhus it was able to travel
    upriver without a deep keel sticking in the shallows.
    Inland they traveled, sometimes aided by a breeze when the sails were hoisted.
    Other times saw two teams dragging her forward on headropes from the
    riverbanks.
    It took a day and a half of hard work to get across the flat beach and into
    the dunes, where the river was tighter-channelled and flowed faster against
    them. Log-a-Log solved the problem by using the long galley oars from the
    deck. Two crew to each oar, they punted and pushed Wuddshipp through Ae dunes,
    keeping her head upriver with great difficulty. Gradually the dunes gave way
    to hilly scrubland and the sand began to disappear.
    307
    It was a weary crew that sat upon the bank that night, watching the ship
    riding at anchor.
    Gonff hurled a clod of earth at the fast-flowing water. "We'll never make it
    this way, mateys. Why not abandon ship and march the rest of the way?"
    Harebell and company smiled sweetly.
    "Oh, you are a silly, Mr. Gonff. We must take the ship."
    "The river flows back to the sea, you see."
    "And we may need that to make a quick getaway if we are pushed."
    Martin winked at Gonff. "The ladies certainly know their strategy. By the way,
    has anyone seen Log-a-Log Big Club?"
    As if in answer, the shrew strode up out the gathering gloom. "Aye aye. I've
    been scouting ahead. Found the old village, too. Come on, you lucky lot.
    There'll be a hot meal and a warm bed with a rpof overhead tonight. Bank
    snout, you wouldn't recognize your little ones now—they're taller than me. Oh,
    Martin, I forgot to tell you, we've gained another hundred able-furred
    recruits."
    Delight awaited them at the shrew village as families were reunited amidst
    cheering and shouting.
    "Daddy, Daddy, it's me, Emily, your baby shrewlet."
    "Hoho, look at you! You're bigger than your mum."
    "Sharptail, you said you were going for acorns. That was four seasons ago!
    Where have you been?"
    "Sorry, m'dear. Sea rats y'know. What's this, grandshrew babies?"
    "Aye, you're a grandpa shrew now."
    "By the fur! Here, give me a hold of that little fat feller."
    * 'Gluggabuggaluggoo!''
    "Haha. See, he knows me already."
    The hares joined Martin and the others around a fire. Two plump shrews served
    them with hot fruit pie, dandelion salad and bowls of fresh milk. Gonff sang
    around a mouthful of hot pie,
    O the Wuddshipp is a goodship, And we'll sail her anywhere, Rowed by mice,
    crewed by shrews, And often steered by hare. 308
    So hoist the anchor, loose the sails, Give me a wind that never fails, And
    we'll sail the goodship Wuddshipp From here to old Brockhall.
    He had to sing it twice again whilst the shrews danced a s hornpipe with the
    hares.
    As the fires burned low, they settled back with full stomachs and renewed hope
    for the morn.
    Martin and Timballisto slept side by side beneath the stars, each wrapped in a
    colorfully woven shrew blanket.
    Dinny dug a flatfish hole for the hares.
    • "Oh, thank you kindly, Mr. Mole."
    "Such charming manners and swift digging." :; "Ooh, and that beautiful
    velvety fur and strong claws." ;- Dinny wrinkled his face and tugged his
    snout, slightly em-, barrassed. "Burr, bless 'ee, baint nought but an owd
    'ole, : missies."
    The moon rose like a white china plate over the peaceful scene on the banks of
    the River Moss.
    -. Tsarmina faced the troops gathered in the large mess hall. She had
    specially arranged the gathering by sending Bane's former mercenaries in
    first; her own soldiers, led by Brogg >: in his red velvet cloak, ringed the
    mercenaries by jostling them to the center of the floor. Brogg held up Bane's
    curved ? sword for silence as the wildcat Queen addressed the assembly.
    "Bane is dead. Those who served under him have nowhere left to go now. Move
    from here, and you do it without sup-,;(, plies or weapons. Besides, those
    woodlanders out there would take care of you in short order. Any creature want
    to say something?" There was silence.
    "Right," she continued commandingly. "From now on
    ; you take your orders from me. Brogg will see that you get
    ; rations and a billet each. Later I'll see about appointing more
    officers and getting you some proper uniforms. Take over,
    Brogg."
    The weasel Captain stepped up, twirling his new sword. "All together now. Hail
    Tsarmina, Queen of Mossflower!"
    309
    The response was less than enthusiastic.
    Tsarmina made them repeat it until she was satisfied. "That's better. You can
    learn my list of titles later."
    They stood in awkward silence, not knowing what to do next. In the hush that
    followed, Tfcarmina's ears rose visibly. Something was beginning to disturb
    her.
    "Dismiss, all of you. Brogg, you stay with me."
    When the hall was emptied she turned to Brogg with haunted eyes.
    "Listen, can you hear it?" she asked fearfully.
    "I can't hear a thing, Milady."
    "Listen! It's water, flowing, dripping, spilling somewhere. Ugh!"
    Brogg gave careful ear. Suddenly he brightened up. "Haha. Yes, I can hear it
    now, Milady. You're right. There is water about somewhere. Damp d'you think?"
    The sound of water produced so distressing an effect upon Tsarmina that she
    forgot to chide Brogg. She cowered in a corner, paws covering her ears to shut
    out the dreaded noise. Flowing water, seeping water, creeping water, dark,
    icy, swirling water!
    "Brogg, quick, get as many troops together as you can," she ordered
    desperately. "Find out where that water is coming from and stop it. Stop it!"
    Brogg saw the terror on his Queen's face and fled the room.
    The whole of the garrison searched high and low. But not too low; nobody,
    including Brogg, was overkeen to venture beneath the cells. Down there it was
    dark and cold; down there was the lake where Gloomer used to be kept.
    And goodness knows what else!
    That night, as T^armina sat huddled in her chamber, dripping water echoed in
    her imagination, never letting up. When the fear of water was upon her, the
    daughter of Verdauga was no longer Queen of Mossflower, Lady of the Thousand
    Eyes or Ruler of Kotir.
    She was reduced to a crazed, terrified kitten, trembling at the sound of
    dripping water in the darkness, longing for
    morning light to come stealing over the horizon.
    * * *
    310
    Something had gone radically wrong with the flooding. Bella slumped in the
    grass by the river with Skipper. "No joy, marrn?" he asked solicitously. "I'm
    afraid not, Skipper. There seems to be only a trickle going down the tunnels."
    Lady Amber joined the pair. "Aye, it seemed to be going , go well at first.
    D'you think it's because it's summer and we haven't had much rain?" she
    suggested. : Skipper chewed a blade of grass. "Maybe so. There's not .»lot
    we can do about it, anyway."
    ; "Maybe we could dam the river?" Bella offered tentatively.
    - "Impossible, marm," the Skipper of otters snorted. "Dam the River Moss?
    Stow me barnacles, you couldn't hope to r«top a river that size from flowin'
    to the sea." Columbine stopped by to join the discussion. "Perhaps it will
    fill gradually."
    . "Aye, missie," Skipper chuckled drily. "We could all sit there growing
    old and watch it doin' just that. No, we'll give
    -ft a bit more time, then if things are still the same we'll have
    to think of another scheme." v Lady Amber whacked her tail down irritably. f
    "After all that underwater digging and tunneling, then fthere's the lives
    that were lost, too. Huh, it makes me mad!" ;; The river carried on flowing
    its normal course, only a thin
    trickle diverting down the tunnels.
    'it was the evening of the following day. Abbess Germaine imd Columbine were
    helping Ben Stickle to take the little (Ones out for an evening stroll along
    the river bank. Ferdy and fCoggs played with Spike and Posy, together with
    some young ;4aice. They were sailing miniature boats that Ben had made :for
    them.
    Germaine watched fondly as the young ones dashed boisterously up and down the
    bank, bursting with energy after being confined to Brockhall the past few
    days.
    "Be careful, Spike. Watch you don't fall in," she called.
    "See my boat, Abbess. It's faster than Coggs's."
    "Ooh look, Ferdy is cheating. He's pushing his boat with ;«i stick." '; "No,
    I'm not. It's the wind. Mine has a bigger sail."
    ':•
    311
    "Columbine, mine has gone down the hole. Can you get it back for me, please?"
    "Sorry, Spike. It's gone for good now. Never mind, I'm sure Ben will make you
    another."
    Ben Stickle crouched to look down the hole where the boat had vanished. He
    stood up, wiping his paws and shaking his head.
    "Flood tunnels, they're about as much use as an otter in a bird's nest. How
    far d'you suppose they'll have filled up the lake under Kotir? A paw's height?
    A whisker's level?"
    The Abbess watched the rays of the setting sun through the trees. "Who knows,
    Ben. One thing is certain, though: Kotir still stands, dark and evil as ever
    it was. What a shame that Foremole and Old Dinny's plan never worked."
    They turned back to Brockhall.
    "Bella says there's no likelihood of rain; the weather is staying fine," Ben
    added.
    Ferdy tucked the boat under his small spines.
    "Maybe they should have done it in the winter, Ben," the Abbess observed
    unhelpfully.
    Ben ruffled Ferdy's head. "Maybe frogs should have had feathers. Come on,
    young 'uns. Get your boats. Back to Brockhall and wash up for supper.' *
    It was a warm night. As the Corim sat about in the main room, an air of defeat
    hung over the company.
    Bella yawned, stretching in her deep armchair.
    "Well, any more suggestions?"
    There were none. The badger searched one face then another. "Then we must
    explore the possibilities open to us. But let me say this, I do not want to
    hear any more plans of mass attack or open war."
    Skipper and Lady Amber shifted uncomfortably.
    "Foremole and Old Dinny still think that the flooding will work, if they can
    figure out certain alterations to the original plan," Bella continued. "I know
    a lot of us do not agree with this, but personally I think that the flooding
    is our only hope. With this in mind, I propose we visit the site tomorrow
    morning. Maybe with all the Corim there we might come up with a good idea. If
    not, then there is only one other sensible thing to do."
    312
    Goody Stickle wiped her paws on her flowery apron.
    •'What might that be, Mix Bella?"
    "To move all the woodlanders and everything we can carry away from here. We
    would travel east to Gingivere's new borne. I have told you that he and
    Sandingomm will accommodate us. We would find a welcome there, far away from
    Kotir."
    Skipper jumped up, unhappiness written on his tough features. "But that'd mean
    the cat has won."
    Cries of support rang out for the otter leader.
    "Yes, why should we be driven out?"
    "We already left our homes to come to Brockhall."
    • "It wouldn't be the same in a strange place." "I was bora around here.
    I'm not moving!" Abbess Germaine banged a wooden bowl upon the table to
    restore order, but it broke in two.
    "Silence, friends, please. Let Bella speak," she shouted above the din.
    , Bella picked up the two halves of the bowl, and smiled ^Mefiilly at
    Germaine.
    "Thank you, Abbess. Friends, there is more to my plan first meets the eye. If
    we were to make this move I am ^peaking of, then think of its effect upon
    Kotir. Tsarmina would not have won; she would not have chased us through pie
    woods—we would have left of our own free will. Now, what would it accomplish?
    Imagine for a moment if we stayed io the east until next summer, or even
    spring. All the time we were gone the water would continue to run down the
    flood tunnels. In autumn there is more rain and the wind drives the liver
    faster. Winter would see the current run under the ice, and on warm days the
    snow would feed the river and swell it. Finally when the thaw arrived in
    spring, the river waters would flood, mighty and unchecked, then we would
    truly see the lake rise beneath Kotir. One other thing. Between now and next
    spring my father, Boar the Fighter, may arrive. He
    •tone can face Tsarmina and defeat her. That is all; I have spoken my piece."
    >• Foremole rose and came to the table. Taking the two broken halves of the
    wooden bowl, he held them up.
    **We be loik this hobjeck—splitted up we'm baint much >
    313
    use. But if n us sticken t'gether, then we'm useful, hurr." He pressed the two
    halves together for all to see.
    Old Dinny seconded him. "Foremole be roight, Miz Bell. 'Tis wunnerful
    molesense."
    Columbine was allowed her say.
    "Let us do as Bella suggests. Tomorrow we will go to the flood tunnels, then
    if nothing can be done we will follow her plan."
    Immediate agreement followed.
    "See, Columbine," the Abbess said, picking up the broken bowl in her frail
    paws, "old and weak as I am, yet somehow I managed the strength to perform a
    small bit of magic. Let us sleep now. It is late, and tomorrow we can tidy up
    here and wash the dishes—all except this one."
    The Abbess placed the broken halves carefully on the table.
    "Maybe a lesson in mole logic would not be a bad thing for a wildcat Queen to
    learn."
    Log-a-Log was in his element as leader of his tribe once more, he roused the
    entire village an hour before dawn to get the ship under way. With a hundred
    extra shrews to help, Wuddshipp fairly flew along the river. When they were
    not rowing, they were punting, pushing or hauling on ropes.
    "Come on shrews, hoist sail," Log-a-Log commanded. "Two of you on this tiller.
    Make yourselves busy. Double up on the oars there. You two in the crosstrees,
    stir your stumps, the Chief is back. Let's show these bunny rabbits how to
    move a craft up our own River Moss."
    "I beg your pardon, old Log-a-Thing."
    "Steady on with the name-calling there, O Mighty Leader."
    "Indeed, we're hares, not bunny rabbits, d'you mind."
    T. B. sat on the deck sharpening pikes. "Odd lot those hares," he remarked,
    "Seasoned warriors though," Martin said, as he counted swords and daggers.
    "Boar the Fighter taught them personally. Don't let their silly talk fool you.
    I wouldn't have them as an enemy at any price, and I was proud to fight
    alongside them against the sea rats."
    314
    I Gonff sniffed the air. His whiskers twitched in the predawn
    |<Jarkness that shrouded the riverbanks.
    | "Trees, Din. We must be in Mossflower. Dawn will soon
    §*•**
    I: The young mole was painting a crude sign to cover the
    ,,pame Bloodwake. It bore the legend Wuddshipp. He shook "Ibis head
    admiringly, wiping paint from his paws.
    "Hurr, Gonffen, we'm 'ome again, oi'm a-feelen it." The gruff voice of a shrew
    in the crosstrees confirmed Din-'s words. "Sun arising eastward, trees growing
    close, we're n the forest."
    > *'Keep her head straight," shouted Log-a-Log, standing lout for'ard. "Furl
    those sails in before they snag on the 'branches. Lively there!" f Martin
    joined him at the prow.
    | "At this rate we should make Camp Willow around mid-f(Jay. I never noticed
    us navigating the ford that crosses the
    Log-a-Log patted the rail. "I chanced it in the dark. Good ^tailoring, see.
    Old Wuddshipp skimmed the shallows with ii^er flat bottom. Nice and deep here
    th