As it turned out, Tolar ultimately decided to decline Vanessa's offer to spend the night at Redwall. The senior fox took another turn in front of the fireplace in Cavern Hole, sitting apart from the slumbering Roxroy so that he could engage in small talk with some of the Abbeybeasts without disturbing his young protege.
By midafternoon, however, Tolar deemed it was time to rouse Roxroy and be on their way back to the quarry. Accepting only the smallest token offering of travel provisions from the Abbess and Friar Hugh, the two foxes profusely thanked Vanessa for the hospitality they'd been shown, and they were soon out the east wallgate and tramping their way back toward the River Moss, steering their steps around any scattered patches of snow that they could easily avoid and tromping straight through the rest.
The swordfox duo were quickly lost to sight among the trees, leafless though they were.
Most of the Abbey leaders had gathered on the walltop to see them off. "Certainly in a hurry to get back to their own kind, wot?" Clewiston observed dryly.
"I'd think you'd be happy about that, Colonel," Mina said to him with equal dryness.
"All in all, I think that went quite well," said Arlyn. "Tolar was most gracious with the majority of points we raised, and we now have many answers that we didn't have this morning."
"Along with a few new questions," Vanessa added. "Such as why an empty courtyard needs such a heavily-reinforced foundation under it."
"Pity Tolar didn't bring along one of their Foremoles," Geoff lamented. "I'm sure they would have had no problem understanding those plans and explaining them to us. But of course they were too busy and couldn't be spared for a trip to Redwall ... "
"Most convenient, that," Clewiston snorted.
"Now, Colonel," Montybank said, "it makes sense. Moles ain't as fast on their feet as foxes, so it would've slowed up those two brushtails shore 'nuff. An' if they're too busy at th' quarry ... "
"For now I'll be content to let Lorr and our own Foremole puzzle over those plans," said Vanessa. "Perhaps given time to ponder what they saw, an explanation will occur to them. Although I'm sure they would both have dearly loved to have held onto those diagrams for further study. It's never as easy working from memory."
"At least that young fox Roxroy seemed pretty genuine," Alexander told his fellow Redwallers. "I never would have guessed he was only fifteen seasons old - that makes him about the same age, in fox terms, as our Cyril. The uniform sure made him look more mature."
"To become skilled enough to deserve a place in Lord Urthblood's swordfox brigade, formal training must begin at an early age," Mina stated. "I'd be surprised if Roxroy is the youngest cadet Andrus has."
"Well, he'd clearly never seen anything like our Abbey," Alex went on. "I don't know if Tolar was keeping anything from us, but I don't think Roxroy could have deceived us if he'd wanted to. He's just too young and inexperienced. And he clearly doesn't think there's anything improper going on with Foxguard. If he'd felt otherwise, Monty and I would have been able to tell."
"Aye, that's true 'nuff," Monty nodded. "That lad t'was about as open-faced as any woodlander his age t'would be. Seemed right proud 'bout this fine new home he 'n' his fellow foxes're gettin'."
"And they'll have that home by summer's eve, if Tolar's optimistic forecast holds true," said Vanessa. "I can't help but wonder what our future relationship with Foxguard will hold ... "
Clewiston cocked an ear. "Wot, you're gonna let those redfurred fleabags go ahead an' build their rummy fortress, dungeons an' all?"
"I'm no happier than anybeast here about those 'detention cells' that were revealed in those plans, Colonel," Vanessa assured the veteran hare. "But how would you propose we go about stopping them, even if I agreed that such a course of action would be appropriate?"
"Why, just send us Long Patrol over there, with mebbe a few o' Alex's squirrels an' Monty's otters fer support. We'd break up their party an' move 'em along nice 'n' neat, by my bobtail we would."
"And if they resisted, many could die." The Abbess shook her head. "I'm sorry, Colonel. I know you're totally dedicated to the protection of Redwall, but the Long Patrol has recently fought a war that cost you over half its members, and I cannot condone anything which might provoke further loss of life. Besides, what right do we have to tell them they cannot build a home for themselves here in Mossflower?"
"The right to defend ourselves, that's wot right!" Clewiston sputtered. "Surely you don't believe they won't end up being a threat to us, th' way they're beefin' up their numbers?"
"Colonel," Vanessa replied, "they are swordsbeasts, and healers, not archers, or slingbeasts, or javelineers. Even if Urthblood were to build his swordfox brigade up to a hundred, I can't see them posing any direct threat to this Abbey."
Clewiston stubbornly crossed his paws over his chest. "You might not say that, Abbess, if you'd seen 'em in action at Salamandastron. Even half a hundred of those sword demons might be enough t' conquer Redwall."
"Except that they wouldn't," Mina cut in. "Their mission is to help maintain peace and order in Mossflower, not to attack the only ally they have in that goal."
"The plain truth," said Vanessa, "is that, while Redwall has always helped defend Mossflower from oppressors, we do not own these woods, any more than its various creatures own us. If Urthblood and Andrus see fit to build a fortress somewhere off on the other side of the River Moss, there is very little we can do about it. At least, not without going to great lengths to alienate potential allies, and running the risk of causing ourselves far more trouble than we bargained for."
"Sensible words, Abbess," Mina commended her.
Clewiston remained steadfast. "Yah, well, I'm thinkin' a little trouble now might just save us a lot more later on ... "
"Vanessa," said Arlyn, "do you suppose we ought to send out some of the Sparra to see our departed guests back to the quarry?"
The Abbess glanced up at the iron-tinted sky; the dismal mantle of low clouds had not released its grip on the skies of Mossflower for even a fleeting moment that day.
"I don't see any need, Arlyn. It will be full dark long before Tolar and Roxroy reach the river, and sparrows can't see or fly at night very well. Perhaps in the morning they can fly out and see whether those foxes have made it back across the river all right ... "
"Too bad there aren't any bally owls livin' at Redwall," Clewiston grumbled.
Day faded to night and thence back to day once more. The excitement caused by the foxes' visit and the news of Foxguard kept many of the Abbeybeasts chatting well into the night, but eventually all but the most keyed-up speculators went up to their bedrooms or snuggled down onto their sleeping mats in Cavern Hole, tired eyes closing as they drifted off to blissfully dream their way through another winter's night.
In the morning, Vanessa had Cyril and Cyrus summon Highwing again to fly out and check on the foxes' progress. The Sparra chief returned very shortly, while Vanessa and a few others waited for him on the walltop beneath the steely gloom of the cold gray morning.
"No sign of them, Abbess," Highwing reported. "I even flew over to the other side of the river. They must have travelled through the night, and gotten back to the quarry by now."
"Not like they had t' do it entirely in the dark," Colonel Clewiston said. "That quarry was lit up just as bright last night as on th' two previous. Makes a nice navigatin' beacon ... "
"Well, we'll assume they made it back safely," said Vanessa.
"A safe assumption," Highwing nodded, "considering that our raft is now moored on the opposite bank."
"Not very courteous of them, was it?" Arlyn stroked his whiskers. "Now we'll have to send some of our otters if we want to fetch it back ... "
"Pretty much says t' me they don't want us droppin' in on 'em," the Colonel remarked. "Couldn't make it much clearer if they tried, wot? So much for th' welcome mat that devious sack o' fur extended us yesterday - it's been pulled back in pretty quick, an' no mistake!"
"Tolar said we'd be welcome at Foxguard, once it was completed," Mina reminded Clewiston. "The quarry is an active work site, and they're keeping to a very tight schedule. It's only logical that they wouldn't want any further interruptions or delays."
"Still, it is a rather mixed signal they're sending us," Vanessa admitted. "If they didn't want us visiting them while they're working at the quarry, Tolar could have simply told us as much."
"They're foxes," Clewiston stated flatly. "Can't jolly well expect 'em t' act like anything else, wot? This just proves it."
"Abbess, I wouldn't read too much into this," Mina implored.
"It does provide some food for thought," said Vanessa, turning from the battlements to the wall stairs. "But now that winter has returned in full, I intend to retire to the warm indoors, and stay there until the weather warms up again. If Urthblood's forces want to work the quarry through the cold of winter, that's their affair. And I very much doubt we'd have any need of our raft before springtime anyway. But when we eventually do send out some otters to retrieve it, I think I'll have them drop by the quarry to invite Andrus to our spring Nameday celebration ... and if Monty has a chance to poke his nose into things there while he's extending our festive invitation to our new neighbors, well, it's only natural otter curiosity, hm?"
"Already thinking of Nameday, Vanessa?" Arlyn said as he clomped down the wallsteps behind her. "Any ideas yet what our Winter of the White Stoat will give way to?"
"Gracious no!" Vanessa threw up her paws. "Winter's only half over, Arlyn. No need to rush things. We'll see what name this coming spring deserves when it gets here. Everything in its own time ... "
"How's about th' bally Spring of th' Lyin' Brushtails?" Clewiston proposed, bringing up the rear.
Mina scowled, and even Vanessa threw an acerbic glance over her shoulder toward the Long Patrol commander. "Now, Colonel. I know the past day's events loom large in our minds now, and I've already said we shall keep an eye on that situation. But one thing about Redwall is that Mossflower Woods around us is constantly changing. Who knows what might come up in the next half season that could make us all but forget about the quarry and Foxguard? We can only wait and see ... "
Even as Highwing was making his reconnaissance flight over the River Moss, Tolar and Roxroy were descending into the underground command center at the quarry.
Tolar quickly passed Roxroy off to Sappakit, one of the other elder swordfoxes, and retreated from the clanking, clinking, hammering din of the main mine into the relative calm of Andrus's private chamber.
The Sword gazed at his trusted underling with somber expectation as Tolar passed the blueprint satchel to Andrus. "Well, how did it go?"
Tolar grimaced. "Fine, until the Abbess got it into her head to show those to her Foremole and some meddlesome vole who knows his way around a schematic diagram."
"They were very curious as to why we needed such massive support columns for an empty courtyard."
"Aha. How curious?"
"I think we should expect more visits this winter, sir."
"Did you leave their boat on our side of the river, as instructed?"
Tolar nodded. "But that won't stop 'em. Those Redwallers are a determined bunch, and they've got plenty of otters of their own. Not to mention birds, and squirrels, and those hares. Even Lady Mina seemed put out that she was not consulted about this. You shouldn't have given me plans to show them that included the basement ... "
"They would have to realize any such structure would naturally have cellars," Andrus countered. "If we'd shown them plans without any basement, they'd wonder what we were hiding."
"And now they are asking questions that are not so easily answered. If they come here and get one of our Foremoles alone - "
"We'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen," Andrus cut Tolar off sharply. "If the Redwallers had any idea what we truly intend to build, they would try to stop us. I am sure of it."
"Even though it is for the good of all Mossflower? Perhaps we should just tell them."
"No. We must not. Redwall has stood for so many generations as the unchallenged stronghold of Mossflower, they would not sit still for this competition. Foxguard will be a blow to their pride - and to their identity - that they will not be able to tolerate."
"They'll find out about it soon enough, once construction begins ... "
"But by then it will be too late for them to do anything about it. All the stone and mortar will be on site, along with the moles to assemble them. Our triumph will rise before their very eyes, at a pace that will leave them immobile with astonishment. Then, and only then, may they be allowed to see the true shape and scope of Foxguard."
"As you say, sir." Tolar nodded once, then withdrew from the Sword's quarters, firmly closing the heavy oak door behind him.
Andrus sank into a crude cushioned chair, idly pawing the satchel in his grasp. The chair, like all the furniture in the quarry, like even the door that separated him from the worst of the mining racket that went on day and night, was a hastily-fashioned affair, thrown together to provide the minimum practical comfort and nothing more. The quarry was just a temporary dwelling for them, after all; soon enough they would be trading this squalor for the permanent splendor of their new home.
Or at least the foxes would. Once Foxguard was completed, the mole corps would undoubtedly move on to the next project Lord Urthblood had lined up for them.
"Redwall ... " he murmured softly, that single word losing itself in the muffled work noises penetrating his closed door. "I am your friend, whether you realize it or not. But on this matter you must not oppose me. You must not."