Extract from the diary of Brother Geoff, Recorder of Redwall Abbey:

One thing at which Redwall excels is honoring the new members of our family. The Autumn of the Fighting Hares has given way to the Winter of the White Stoat!

Nobeast among us would have supposed that Broggen was in truth an ermine stoat. The loveable oaf never thought to mention it at all until his fur started to turn. Now he's pure white from ears to tail, and quite a handsome beast to behold. Yesterday we got our first snowfall of the young season - not much, just an ankle-deep coating - so first thing this morning, there was Broggs (as he likes to be called) cavorting in the snow with the young ones, wearing nothing but his beret and a smile! His paws were quite frozen by the time they came inside, but he sure did have fun! I had nearly as much myself just watching. It really is amazing what nature can do; once or twice during their play, Broggen's beret fell off, and until he would put it back on, he truly was almost invisible against the white snow. Such camouflage must have been most useful during his winters in the Northlands.

It is still too early to tell how severe this winter will be. The pond has yet to freeze over, and might not at all if the season is a mild one. We'd all just as soon it did; the fish and shrimp are all in hibernation until the spring anyway, and skating and sliding on the ice can be great fun.

Log-a-Log and the Guosim arrived just ahead of the winter, right on schedule. The ranks of the Guosim have grown great in recent seasons, although there are fewer staying with us this winter than anticipated. It seems the divisions between Log-a-Log's followers and those of Snoga have grown deep and hostile. Nearly a hundred of those shrews refused to come to Redwall, based on Snoga's say so. I don't know how they plan to survive the winter, but I can't say I'm altogether sorry for their absence. From what Winokur and Log-a-Log have told us about Snoga, that shrew is nothing but trouble, and I don't think he'd be very welcome at Redwall. Their assessment was shared by Lorr, the designer of that marvelous bridge that figured so prominently in Urthblood's march to Salamandastron. That bankvole truly is one of the most interesting and entertaining characters I've ever met. From almost his first moment inside our gates, he was feverishly poking his nose into every corner of our Abbey. I don't believe Lorr ever imagined any place such as Redwall existed, and he still works himself into a state of near-delirium sometimes when he sets his mind to figuring out exactly how all the different parts of Redwall were constructed. I've given him the original architectural plans for the Abbey, and I swear he reads them the way the rest of us would read a gripping adventure tale. Truly a unique and talented mind.

With all the Long Patrols living here now, it's crowded enough even without Snoga's gang. Those hares have proven to be true and valuable friends. I had as many reservations as anybeast about them becoming Redwallers, but I am happy that my fears were unfounded. Warriors they might be, but they have adjusted to life here at the Abbey without any problem. They get along with everybeast, including Smallert and Broggs, and have developed a special bond with our otters. Hares and otters do have more in common than I'd realized. Both are boisterous, funloving, flamboyant, and not above the occasional practical joke or imaginative insult. It is sometimes easy to forget the tragedy that these cheerful creatures endured not two seasons ago. Most of the time they seem so happy and content with life here, but deep down they all bear scars upon their souls from their loss of Lord Urthfist and so many of their beloved comrades. You can see it in their eyes sometimes during their more pensive moments - especially in Hanchett's. That hare is the grimmest of the Long Patrols, and seldom laughs or smiles. Sometimes I worry about him; sometimes he almost scares me.

Urthblood visited Redwall two days after our winter Nameday feast. Colonel Clewiston tried very hard to be civil and courteous to that badger, but in the end it was just too much for him, so he and the Long Patrols made themselves very scarce during the three days of Urthblood's stay. (The hares' dorm tunnel connects directly with the wine cellars, so they can come and go for food and drink as they please without having to enter any other part of the Abbey.) I think they might have preferred to leave Redwall altogether and go into the woods rather than share the same Abbey with that beast, but I believe it was more than the winter cold that kept them within our warm home. They do not trust Urthblood, plain and simple, and they are convinced he is a danger to Redwall. They wanted to be on paw in case Urthblood caused any trouble or mischief of a bad sort. I suspect they were watching him more closely than anybeast realized, even though they did not seem to be around at all. It is comforting to have such dilligent defenders looking out for our safety, whether they are right about Urthblood or not.

That Badger Lord was full of news. He finally felt it was safe for him to leave Salamandastron because his reinforcements have at last come down from the Northlands: three hundred Gawtrybe squirrel archers! They are fanatically devoted to him, and were willing to leave their home to come to a strange region as soon as his request reached them. Lady Mina assured us that they are all nearly her equal in shooting skill. I have tried in my mind to picture such a force and keep coming up short; it is simply beyond my imagining. But I would like to see Tratton try to attack Salamandastron now! Of course the Gawtrybe are also assigned to the patrolling of the coastlands as well - that's why Urthblood summoned so many of them - but they are woefully inadequate for the task. Squirrels are at home in trees, not running up and down sandy shores for leagues at a stretch. Urthblood tried to talk Colonel Clewiston into bringing the Patrols back to Salamandastron, but his attempts were, shall we say, less than successful. It was shortly after that conversation that the hares dropped out of sight, and didn't resurface until Urthblood's departure two days later.

Yes, as I just indicated, Lady Mina was indeed with Urthblood when he appeared here, as were the eleven swordfoxes who survived the battle. I would have thought Mina would remain at Salamandastron to oversee the Gawtrybe there, but she and Urthblood were content to leave that fortress under the joint command of the otter captain Saybrook and the weasel captain Mattoon. Redwall's hospitality was extended to all our visitors. Alex was so happy to see Mina again that he literally did somersaults across the lawns! What's more, the squirrel Lady stayed with us even after Urthblood and the foxes departed for parts unknown, and dwells here still. I truly believe (and Vanessa and Arlyn agree) that she is as smitten with Alex as he is with her. No wedding has been announced yet, but I should be very surprised if they are not married by the end of spring. That is when beasts are feeling their most romantic, and the pull of nature is hard to ignore.

But back to Urthblood. He still insists a terrible crisis lies ahead of us, and still wishes to strengthen ties between Salamandastron and Redwall. His latest plan for achieving this is intriguing, and has some merit. He thinks our Sparra could make one-day trips between Redwall and the coastlands, if they did not have to fly the distance all at once. He proposes a series of "way stations" - one on either side of the mountains and a third halfway across the Western Plains - all in a line, so the Sparra messengers could stop for food, drink and rest along the way. This way, a regular line of communication could be opened between Mossflower and Salamandastron. It remains to be seen whether a sparrow could make it over the high mountains, but Highwing seemed enthused, so we shall see. If only we'd had such a system in place when those two badgers were at loggerheads, we might have known more than we did. Of course, it could be argued that Urthblood was indeed using his falcons and kites and owls for such purposes, but he was rather keeping them for himself ...

If anything at all encouraging came out of Urthblood's latest visit, it was that he openly admitted to using Browder to lure his brother out of Salamandastron, and formally apologized to Vanessa for invoking the name of our Abbey in his scheme. He still insists he was only trying to save lives, and genuinely regrets the deaths of Urthfist and so many of the Long Patrols. As for his use of the weapons from the Badger Lords' treasure, that was a rather interesting conversation Vanessa had with him. It went something like this (I am recalling the words as exactly as my admittedly imperfect memory allows):

"Did you intend to provoke Urthfist into attacking you?"

"Abbess, I had to defend my front lines as best I could."

"Yes, but were you trying to provoke an attack?"

"Abbess, I am Lord of the Mountain. Those weapons were mine to use as I saw fit."

"Yes, but did you seek to provoke an attack?"

"Abbess, the safety of the lands was at stake."

"Yes, but did you not foresee that you would provoke an attack?"

"Abbess, my prophetic vision does have its limits."

"My Lord, it is a simple question: did you or did you not intend to provoke an attack?"

"These matters are more complicated than that, Abbess ... "

And so it went. No matter how directly he was asked, Urthblood would not supply a yes or no answer to the question. Whenever Vanessa grew exasperated at his evasiveness, he would simply sit patiently waiting for her to calm down, saying nothing, a look of no particular emotion on his face. The whole scene was quite bizarre, and I still do not know what it signifies. A deceptive liar would simply have denied it, giving us the answer that would placate us. But Urthblood never did deny it. Perhaps it is a riddle that will never be answered.

All is well with the other brothers and sisters of our beloved Abbey. Arlyn only seems to be growing younger with the passing of each season; I saw him just yesterday, up on the walltop catching the early snowflakes on his outstretched tongue like a youngbeast, and I would swear he's more hale and hearty than he was this summer! Together, Arlyn and Vanessa provide the strong leadership Redwall needs in these uncertain times, and they are both greatly bouyed by the fact that our Long Patrol friends have settled in so well.

Sister Aurelia and Maura have grown closer these past two seasons. Our dear Badger Mother has confided in me that she still grieves for Machus, sometimes to the point of heartbreak, and she has taken to seeking out Aurelia at such times for comfort. Our youthful Infirmary keeper also misses that fox, having worked closely with Machus to save Cyrus. Maura and Aurelia can offer each other genuine solace over that loss, sharing a bond of sorrow stronger than exists between any other Redwallers on this matter. I don't think even Cyril and Cyrus mourn for Machus the way they do.

Cyrus is completely recovered from his injury of last summer. He and Cyril are back to ringing the Matthias and Methuselah bells every day, and what a surepawed and joyous sound it is! Maura was an admirable stand-in, but those two young brothers are the true masters of the tolling craft. Cyril has been spending much time with Sister Aurelia of late, and Abbess Vanessa too, learning some of the healing secrets in memory of Machus. But I do not think his heart is really in it. He is picking up some useful knowledge, but I suspect that deep down he has not given up on his warrior's ambition. He shies away from such talk because of what happened at Salamandastron, and what happened to Cyrus. But someday Redwall may need a new Champion to pick up the sword of Martin, and Cyril is as good a candidate as anymouse.

Neither Cyril nor Cyrus are helping me in the archives anymore. I ended my search for clues to these times last summer, and have no plans to resume it. Ever since the discovery of that cryptic verse, suggesting that these days (and perhaps all the days henceforth) were hidden from the foresight of our founders, a certain disquiet has been upon my mind. In one sense, it is exciting to be standing on the cutting edge of history, to be making our own history, one that was not glimpsed or mapped out to past generations. On the other paw, it is daunting to imagine that Urthblood's power is such that he has cut off this entire age, and perhaps all the ages to come, from the past. Daunting, and frankly a little frightening, that such a weight of prophecy would rest within a single creature.

It all comes back to Urthblood. Is he good, or evil? Friend or foe? Honest, or a deceiver? The hares are convinced he is pure evil, but of course they would be; they can hardly be expected to be objective on the matter. Unsettling as he may be himself, questionable as the events surrounding him have been, he is still Lord of Salamandastron, and has done nothing to harm us directly. We know he has many fine beasts serving under him. Can they all be wrong? Vanessa steadfastly refused to join a side while Urthblood and Urthfist were fighting. But that war is over now. Urthfist is dead, and Urthblood controls the coastlands uncontested, except perhaps by Tratton. That badger has great power of arms, perhaps greater than any creature of his kind has ever held before. In my heart, I feel that if such power is ever directed against us, we will surely fall.

Yet I have strong cause for hope. Urthblood has had opportunity to conquer us, but he has not. The false scenario he gave Browder to carry to Urthfist could very well have come to pass, had he been of a mind to commit such an atrocity. He was a Badger Lord, and we let him into our home, trusting him. From the accounts I have heard of the battle of Salamandastron, I have no doubt that Urthblood could indeed have slain us all at that first council meeting down in Cavern Hole, and we'd have been powerless to stop him. And likewise we let his army into Redwall; then too we could have been overrun and conquered, but we were not. And in spite of the near-tragedy with Cyrus, I would go so far as to say we came out of the whole affair for the better. We made friends that we would not have made otherwise.

The Long Patrols speak of Urthblood as if he is the devil himself. I think they are wrong. Many times I have heard those hares refer to the "treacherous" act of Machus. They regard that swordfox as the worst of villains. Winokur, who was there to witness those same events, has told me that what Machus did was perhaps the bravest thing he'd ever seen anybeast do. I guess it all depends on where you're standing. And I was standing right over Cyrus when Machus saved his life, against all odds. I know Machus was a goodbeast. If our hare friends can be so wrong about him, they could be just as wrong about Urthblood.

But more than anything else, I have faith in Redwall. Our home has stood for generations beyond counting (and I should know - I've tried to count them!). Always it has stood as a sanctuary in times of trouble, a bastion against the evil which occasionally breaks out in the lands. Many of our Abbots and Abbesses have stated that evil can never triumph over good. Redwall is a stronghold of goodness. Right has always been on our side. Many times the forces of evil have confronted us; every time we have come out on top. This is the way it has always been, and the way it shall always be. There will be more enemies of peace and freedom and decency in the seasons to come, of that I have no doubt. We will face them down just as we always have, defend ourselves as we have always done, and persevere because we must. As I write these words, I can almost feel sorry for the enemies of Redwall, because they can never win. Their villainous ways will only bring them death and defeat, while we go on, and on.

We are Redwall. We will endure, come what may. And that is the most comforting feeling that a good soul can know.