THE CRIMSON BADGER - Chapter Twenty-Six

With the last echoes of the Matthias and Methuselah bells fading over the woodlands, Vanessa stood at the entrance to the main Abbey building with Machus and Mina. The fifty extra troops of Urthblood's had been posted at various points along the walltop, more to get them out of the way for the moment than anything else, and now the Abbess had the matter of Hanchett to discuss with Redwaller's two newest temporary defenders.

The two Northlanders were standing firm about keeping the hare confined to the cellars. Mina did most of the talking, but it was clear that she and Machus shared common views on the issue.

"Abbess," the Gawtrybe squirrel was saying, "the resourcefulness and fighting spirit of the Long Patrol are legendary. If Hanchett is placed in a room with windows - any room, even three stories off the ground - he will try to escape. And that will place us in the awkward position of having to forcibly restrain a skilled warrior who might be willing to fight to the death. I doubt he would seriously harm a Redwaller, but I wouldn't put it past him to raise a few bruises and lumps among your defenders if that was the price of his freedom. As for Lord Urthblood's troops, those Hanchett would slay without a second thought, given the chance. He has already demonstrated that. Now, I know how it grieves you to hold any creature here against its will, and I can understand why you would want to make Hanchett as comfortable as possible, but in this case you surely can see why he must be held under maximum security?"

"No, I don't think you can possibly know how much it grieves me," Vanessa retorted. "Which is why I want to go speak with him right now. Maybe if he has a chance to address the Abbess of Redwall herself, I can convince him to pledge me his good behavior. I will not keep him cooped up in that dank cell if there is a satisfactory alternative."

Mina looked dubious. "This is not an area in which we can take any chances, Abbess. Remember Lord Urthblood's vision of last night. Things at Salamandastron may have grown dangerous. Hanchett might not be trustworthy."

Vanessa decided it was time to voice what had been on her mind since that morning. "I find it somewhat ... coincidental ... that Urthblood had this latest vision on the very same night that an owl came to visit him on the battlements. I don't suppose either of you can enlighten me as to what that was all about?"

Mina put on a distasteful face. "My dear Abbess, you have agreed to take Lord Urthblood's forces into your midst, in a clear showing of trust and, I might add, good sense. I had thought we were well past such suspicions."

"Nevertheless, that owl must have been carrying news of some import, since Urthblood came right down from that meeting to immediately rouse his troops for mobilization. Do either of you know what they discussed?"

"I assume," Machus answered, "that it was merely a routine scouting report on the presence of any enemies on the move within Mossflower."

"And are there?" Vanessa asked. "Enemies abroad in Mossflower?"

"I gather not," said the swordfox, "since he did not inform me of such a thing."

"Lord Urthblood gathers reports from his birds all the time," Mina asserted. "It's nothing at all unusual. In fact, an all-clear report from Captain Saugus might have been just the thing to convince him to follow this course of action, since I doubt he would have departed Redwall if there was any kind of threat near this Abbey."

"Hmm. I would have liked to hear for myself what this Captain Saugus had to say. But, both he and Urthblood are gone now, and I can only hope it is not to war." Vanessa heaved a sigh. "What happens with them is out of our paws now. We must concern ourselves with what is going on here at Redwall. And that means Hanchett, first and foremost. Now, I would speak with that hare. Do you two wish to accompany me, or not?"

Mina and Machus exchanged glances, then motioned as one for Vanessa to lead the way into the Abbey.

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With two and a half score foxes, rats and weasels (and a few shrews) up on the walltop, all the Abbeybeasts who'd been there to see off Urthblood's army made a quick descent down the nearest wall stairs they could find. Soon the only creatures on the ramparts were the armed Northlanders, along with a dozen or so of Alexander's squirrels. The two factions stood alongside each other in an uneasy silence, warily regarding each other without mingling or exchanging more than the curtest of nods or words.

When he had finished pulling the bellropes to sound the farewell travelers' toll, Cyril went up to the south walltop himself. Finding a spot that was relatively free and clear of sentries - Redwallers or Northlanders - the novice mouse took up a position leaning against the battlements, gazing out at the meadow beyond the wall. He still wore the gray travel cloak and green headband given to him by Urthblood's mice. The field below, which for many days had been covered by an encampment of over half a thousand warriors, now stood pitted, grass-trampled and empty. The presence of thirty score fighting beasts had left its mark, here where they had drilled and eaten and rested, and it would be a season or more before this small patch of Mossflower recovered some semblence of normalcy.

Cyril squinted and sniffed, whiskers and ears atwitch. If he really concentrated, he almost imagined he could still smell the smokey tang of the army's small cookfires, hear the clack of wood and the clang of steel as they fought their mock battles, and see the riot of motion as they drilled furiously in one vast seething mass of military maneuvers. It was hard to believe that such an incredible force had actually ever been here at Redwall, in spite of the evidence before him, or the presence of fifty Northlanders farther along the ramparts.

Hunger gnawed at his burbling stomach. In the excitement of all that had happened that morning, starting with the frantic preparations for his clandestine getaway and ending with his ignominious discovery by Urthblood himself, he'd eaten no more than a few nibbles of breakfast, and nothing at all for lunch. But he was in no mood to partake of food now. Perhaps by suppertime, when Friar Hugh had the evening meal prepared. But not yet.

The approaching clip-clop of sandals against the walkway stone drew Cyril's attention away from the meadow. His brother Cyrus was walking toward him, with Cyril's rolled-up habit in one paw and Cyril's sandals dangling by their thongs from the other. The younger mouse picked his way around a knot of rats and weasels with undisguised trepidation, then held out the clothes to his sibling. "Here, Cyr. Thought you might want these back."

Cyril took them, but set them down by his feet. "Maybe later. I'm not gonna change right up here on the ramparts."

"Oh." Cyrus stood for a moment looking at his older brother in uncertainty. "Cyr, what's wrong?" he asked at length, in a pleading, childlike tone. "Why did you try to run away?"

"I wasn't running away," Cyril protested, then realized that that was exactly what he'd been doing - running away from Redwall, from his life as an orphan bellringer, and from all the creatures here who seemed incapable of believing he could ever be anything else. Even though his fellow Abbeydwellers were the only real family he'd ever had, and part of him loved Redwall dearly, their blissful way of life was now as restrictive to him as the small room he'd always shared with Cyrus.

"You shouldn't've run off without telling me first," Cyrus complained. "I would've gone with you."

This made Cyril jerk up straight. "You ... gone with me? Ha!"

His caustic bark of laughter made the nearest rats glance their way. Cyrus scowled. "Well, I would have! What's so funny?"

"Cy, you're - you're just a child! Where I was going there might be war, creatures killing and dying. You couldn't have come with me."

"But, we've always done everything together! What's happened to you? Don't you want to be my brother anymore?"

"Of course - " Cyril was about to explain to Cyrus what he was feeling and how Cyrus wasn't old enough to understand. But then, looking at his younger sibling through the eyes of the protective older brother, the one who always led the way to make sure it was safe for Cyrus to follow, it dawned on him that Abbess Vanessa and Maura and the other adults might see him the same way he saw Cyrus. Realizing how terrible he would feel if something awful happened to Cyrus that he might have been able to prevent, he could more fully appreciate the responsibility that his elders felt toward him.

Cyril placed both his paws on Cyrus's shoulders. "Listen. We'll always be brothers. So don't worry about something silly, like whether I still like you. But the fact is, I'm gonna grow up before you do, Cy. I'm not content to be just a bellringer anymore. And where I go from here, you might not be able to follow. Not yet, anyway, not until you're older. That's just the way things are. I'm almost done with being a child, but you still have a season or two to go."

"But ... I don't want it to be that way! Why can't you just stay here at Redwall, so we can stay together?"

Cyril picked petulently at his borrowed cloak. "Looks like that's exactly what'll be happening, for now. They won't let me out of their sight for awhile, I bet."

"Good. I'm glad." Cyrus forced a smile. "So we'll always be friends, right?"

Cyril returned the smile, ruffling his sibling's headfur with one paw. "More than friends, Cy. Brothers." An enormous yawn escaped him then, making him realize how tired he was. "Y'know, I got hardly any sleep last night. I'm gonna go inside and nap for a bit. Do me a favor, Cy, and wake me for supper if I'm not up by then, huh?"

"Sure will, Cyr!"

Cyril collected his habit and sandals and headed for the wall stairs. Cyrus threw a glance at the gruff rats, who returned his gaze with sour and surly looks of their own. That was enough to make the young mouse hurry after his brother, almost stepping on Cyril's tail in his haste to be away from the Northlands rodents.

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Urthblood's five shrews were still helping the Redwall otters guard Hanchett's inprovised cell. Everybeast in the tunnel stood to attention at the approach of Vanessa and Machus. The swordfox returned the salute from his shrews, while the otters merely nodded more informally to their Abbess. "I'm here to see the hare," Vanessa announced. "Please open the door and let us in."

The otters immediately moved to obey. The Northland shrews looked to Machus for confirmation, and he won their cooperation with a slight nod. The shrews stood aside, but kept their paws on the hilts of their shortswords as Vanessa and Machus entered the hare's chamber.

Hanchett sat against the far wall, holding perfectly still in the spare illumination of his cell's single lamp, much as he had the previous night when Montybank had visited him. His penetrating and appraising gaze traveled from mouse to fox, and lingered on the latter. "Wot, time for my bally execution?"

"Don't be silly," Vanessa admonished. "I'm the Abbess, in case you'd forgotten me from our brief encounter yesterday on the north lawn. Nobeast is going to harm you; I have guaranteed your safety, and my word is law here. You invoked the sanctuary of Redwall yesterday, and you shall have it."

"Hmm. Never asked to be put in this blinkin' dungeon, tho'."

The Abbess bristled at this. "Redwall does not have dungeons. This is just an old cellar room. It is not normally our way to hold anybeast against its will."

"But I guess ol' Urthblood's convinced you t' make an exception in my case, wot? So, time fer me to get dragged before His Bloodiness an' pumped for intelligence?"

"Lord Urthblood is gone," Vanessa informed the hare. "He and his army left for Salamandastron a short time ago."

Hanchett's face fell. For several moments a tumolt of emotions played across his features, making it impossible to tell what thoughts were racing through his mind. Clearly his confidence had been shaken by this revelation. "Wot? Gone?"

Machus nodded. "After hearing your story yesterday, he became convinced he must journey to Salamandastron at once, to find out what has made Lord Urthfist view him as an enemy."

Hanchett ground his teeth as he regarded the fox. "Obviously he didn't take all his stinkin' vermin with him."

"Some of us were left here to help guard you, and to help protect these good creatures from anybeast seeking to do them harm," said Machus. "But you are in the care of the Redwallers now, just as I and my soldiers are guests of this Abbey."

Hanchett set his paws dejectedly upon his knees, head bowed. "We knew it had to come someday. I should be there."

"My own feelings exactly," echoed Machus. "But Lord Urthblood ordered me to remain at Redwall, and I do not disobey my master."

Hanchett glanced up at the fox. He seemed surprised to be hearing this kind of loyalty from such a creature.

"We don't know for a fact that there's going to be war," Vanessa said hopefully. "Maybe - "

"Oh, there'll be war," Hanchett grumbled. "You can bet on it. That monster Urthblood's been preparin' fer seasons. Won't rest until he's well an' truly taken Salamandastron for his own ... or until he's well an' truly dead."

"Lord Urthblood has had other things to occupy his attention in the Northlands, I can assure you," Machus said curtly. "And he's the rightful ruler of Salamandastron. There's no reason for war, unless Lord Urthfist wants it that way."

"Oh, that's rich, comin' from the likes o' you!" Hanchett barked, and turned to Vanessa. "Mebbe he's got you fooled into believin' he's some kinda goodbeast - you folk wouldn't be the first to be deceived by His Bloodiness - but don't you fall fer it. Urthblood's pure evil, through an' through."

"Prove it," Machus challenged.

"Well, he's got vermin like you under arms. That about says it all, don't it?"

"No, it doesn't," the Abbess said. "For many days, we have been able to speak with Lord Urthblood's followers - mice, moles, otters and hedgehogs, mind you - and they all swear that he has achieved great things in the north. Such abundant testimony is not easily ignored. His troops behaved themselves while they stayed at Redwall, and we have forged friendships among many of them. He has helped us strengthen our defenses, and promised future help if we should need it. How are we to now regard him as an enemy?"

"Never said he wasn't good at strategy," Hanchett sniffed. "His aim this time was to win your trust, and he's bally well succeeded at that by the look of things. Never woulda imagined he'd chose this tactic to take Redwall, but then he always was a crafty one. Sly as any fox, an' ten times as dangerous."

"I am standing right here," Machus reminded the rude hare.

"An' don't think I haven't forgotten it, chap."

"I didn't come down here so you two could trade insults," Vanessa said. "Hanchett, Lord Urthblood has requested that you be kept at Redwall for ten days. After that, you will be free to go. How you spend this time is up to you. Machus here thinks you should be restricted to this cell, for the safety of everybeast involved. I am inclined to offer you more comfortable accommodations ... but only if you promise me that you will agree to abide by the terms of your detainment, and cause no trouble for those who are guarding you, be they Redwallers or Northlanders in the service of Lord Urthblood. Pledge to me your good behavior for the next ten days here at this Abbey, and you may enjoy all the benefits we have to offer any guest who stays with us. What say you?"

"I say it would still be a prison, ma'am, even with all the bally fresh air an' grass an' flowers an' sunshine ... " Hanchett shook his head. "Couldn't make any such promise anyhow. Duty, don'tcha know. If I can find a way to report back to Lord Urthfist, I'll hafta take it, first chance that comes my way."

Vanessa's lips turned down at the corners. "Well, at least you're an honest beast, but then I wouldn't expect anything less from a hare of the Long Patrol. But if you will not promise your good behavior, then I have no choice but to keep you down here. As Abbess, my first concern must be the safety of my fellow Redwallers. You will be kept as comfortable as may be allowed, until the ten days are up. Then you will be free to leave and to go where you may."

"Assumin', of course, that no villain sneaks down here in the dead of night an' draws a blade across my throat." Hanchett shot Machus a deadly glare. "Although I invite anybeast to try."

"No such thing will happen," Vanessa said severely. "Not while I am Abbess. Now, is there anything else you require? I take it our food and drink has been satisfactory?"

Hanchett's ears flopped forward in chagrin. "Pardon me if I seem ungracious, ma'am. It's been quite fine. Top hole, in fact - everything I'd always heard to expect from Redwall fare. Too bad I'm not in much of a mood to properly enjoy it. Bein' denied your freedom does have that effect, wot?"

Vanessa glanced at the bed of straw that had been hastily provided for the hare when he was first brought down here. "I'll see about having a real mattress and blankets brought down to you. I want you to be as comfortable as possible, whether you're in any mood to appreciate it or not."

"No offense, Abbess, but I'd rather be sleepin' in a muddy ditch, if that was where the rest o' my platoon was. A soldier belongs with his comrades in times of war."

"Then, hopefully, these will not be such times," Vanessa said. "There is a Redwaller travelling to Salamandastron with Lord Urthblood. An otter, who is a full novice of the Redwall order. His mission is one of peace and diplomacy. If there is any way to prevent bloodshed between Urthblood and Urthfist, he is duty-bound to find it. I advise you to place your hopes on that young one, because we all have."

"Wishful thinking," Hanchett said sadly. "I'm afraid your otter lad has only gone an' put 'imself in the middle of a bally big mess. There's gonna be war. Urthblood's own prophecy says so, or so I've always heard. That beast's gotta be stopped, or else we're all in for it. This ends on the battlefield, not at the negotiatin' table. An' if I were you, I'd root hard for Lord Urthfist. Otherwise," he waved a paw toward Machus, "you'll hafta get used to takin' your orders from beasts like him."

"I'm rooting for peace, above anything else," Vanessa replied. "Although, if all the Long Patrol are as intractable as you, I have reason to despair. But if it comes to war, we will deal with that when we must. Until then ... " Vanessa shrugged. "Let your guards know if there is anything else you would like, and we will do our best to provide it for you."

"Only thing I'm needin' right now is my bally freedom."

"In ten days you'll have it. Come, Machus. We've done all we can here."

"Yes, I agree." Casting one last baleful glance at the hare, Machus followed Vanessa out of the cell. The door slammed shut with a bang, and Hanchett heard the lockbolt slide home. Alone once more, the brave hare allowed a single tear of frustration to roll down his cheek.

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Walking alongside Vanessa back up the tunnel, Machus said, "It's as I feared, Abbess. That hare will not listen to reason. He is too unquestioningly dedicated to his master."

"Hm. Maybe if I'd gone to see Hanchett with Lady Mina instead of you, he wouldn't have been so put off."

"I have my doubts, Abbess. Mina isn't one to hide her loyalties, or her feelings. If Hanchett found out she was an ally of Lord Urthblood's, he would have acted as frostily toward her as he did toward me, squirrel or not."

"I suppose. Still, I can't help feeling that it might have been more helpful if Lord Urthblood had left behind more woodlanders among your forces here. We'll hardly win Hanchett over with foxes, weasels and rats ... no offense meant to you, Machus. But I'm not the only Redwaller who found Urthblood's choice of troops to remain here somewhat ... well, questionable, if I may say so."

"It is a bit late to harbor second thoughts about whether you can trust us, Abbess," Machus stated matter-of-factly.

"It's not just our trust I am considering, Machus. If Hanchett's attitude toward you is any indication of what we can expect from Lord Urthfist if that badger shows up at Redwall, your presence might make the situation more awkward."

"That badger's attitude is unimportant, as long as we keep him out of this Abbey. And that's what my troops are here to help ensure."

Vanessa shrugged. "At any rate, it seems we have no choice but to keep Hanchett confined down there for now. Maybe he'll change his mind after another day or two of isolation."

"He won't."

She shot the swordfox a questing gaze. "You sound awfully certain. What makes you say that?"

"Because I wouldn't, if I were in the same position."

They emerged into Cavern Hole to find Alex, Mina, Montybank and Maura waiting there. "How did it go?" Mina asked ... not of Vanessa, but of Machus.

The fox shook his head. "About what we expected. Our guest will get to know that cellar room most intimately before he'll promise not to cause us any trouble." Machus turned to Alex and Monty. "You're just the two beasts I wanted to see. Since my troops will be helping to guard this Abbey, they will have to work alongside your squirrels and otters. I think it would be a good idea if we all went up to the ramparts together to address them. If they see us commanders cooperating, I think they'll be more inclined to follow our example. It will be good for morale."

"Yes, I suppose," Alex said somewhat dubiously. "But right now the walltop is too crowded for its own good. And none of your beasts are skilled archers or slingers, Machus. It'd make more sense to bring them down to help guard the wall gates."

"I would agree," Machus looked to the Abbess, "except I do have a suspicion that somebeasts would prefer they stay up there, away from the Abbeyfolk."

Vanessa set her jaw firmly. "Alex and Monty are Redwall's chief defenders at the moment. I'll leave you to work it out with them where your Northlanders would best be stationed, Machus. But I daresay you can hardly blame some of the brothers and sisters for not wanting to brush shoulders with creatures they are not used to having around, and who have traditionally been Redwall's enemies."

Machus stiffened to a more formal pose. "Abbess, Lord Urthblood has given you his word that we will cause you no harm. I now give you my word as well. We are here as friends and allies to help Redwall, and will not cause you any trouble. This I promise."

Lady Mina leaned toward Alex. "Machus does not give his word of honor lightly. Believe what he says."

"This is reassuring," said Vanessa. "If your deeds in the days ahead match your words, then you will indeed be considered fast friends of Redwall by even the most uncertain of Abbeybeasts here. Go now, and straighten out the deployment of your troops. Wherever you, Alex and Monty decide to put them is all right with me."

"Thank you Abbess." Machus gave a formal half bow and ambled up the stairs to Great Hall with Alex, Monty and Lady Mina, leaving Vanessa alone with Maura.

The badger matriarch kept her eyes fastened on the retreating fox until the group had disappeared. "Vanessa, I'm telling you now, if those vermin come down from the walls, I'm going to tether all the young ones together on a single leash and not let them out of my sight for as long as that rabble is at Redwall."

Vanessa looked askance at her big friend. "Maura, I thought you trusted Machus ... "

"Oh, I do. It's not him I'm worried about. Without Lord Urthblood around to keep them in line, will those rats and weasels still be able to bring themselves to act like decent creatures?"

"That we will just have to wait and see," Vanessa said. "But at least now they don't outnumber us. If they cause us any trouble, Monty and Alex will put them in their place ... if Machus and Lady Mina don't do it first."

(To be continued in The Crimson Badger, Book III: Journeys)