Chapter Thirty

Extract from the diary of Winokur Otter, apprentice Recorder of Redwall Abbey:

Psst! Don't tell anybeast, but it's the Spring of Many Wanderers!

Okay, I know that was silly, but what's the use of keeping this practice journal if I can't have a little fun with it now and then? It's not like this is Brother Geoff's official history. I mean, nobeast generations from now is going to be reading these scribblings of mine, will they?

But back to the season. Abbess Vanessa very nearly had decided upon "the Spring of the Wandering Shrews," since that species has definitely made up the badger's share of the journeybeasts that have been drifting down from the Northlands past Redwall. Last night, however, the Abbess changed her mind at the last minute and settled upon the new name, to honor the freed slaves who have made their way across the Western Plains to live at our fair Abbey. They are due today or tomorrow, according to our Sparra scouts, so Vanessa's change of heart truly was a last moment affair.

I believe Arlyn and Geoff are the only Abbeybeasts Vanessa has told. Geoff let it slip to me in a moment of excited weakness; that fussy mouse has never been good at keeping secrets. But I shall do a better job at keeping my lips sealed. The Abbess will announce the season's name to the rest of Redwall at our Nameday feast, no doubt in the form of another of her prayer/poems that have become her fancy and her custom. Wonder what she'll get to rhyme with "wanderers?" It's a point worth pondering ...

Most of us never would have guessed there were as many shrews in all the lands as we've seen passing by our Abbey in the past score or so of days. The number must easily be in the hundreds; some of us have joked that Urthblood must have given orders for every shrew in the Northlands to leave its home and come down to Mossflower! What's really strange is that none of their travelling groups have stopped here for longer than overnight. Considering how hard that journey must be at this time of year, it is surprising that they were not more eager to take advantage of Redwall's hospitality.

This was probably for the best, though, given the frictions that sprang up between the Guosim and the Northlanders. One would naturally assume - at least I did, and many others with whom I've spoken tend to concur - that, as much as they argue, shrews would find a certain camaraderie to enjoy in the presence of their own. But Log-a-Log's tribe and Urthblood's forces were like oil and water, not mixing at all - and we could have used a little oil to spread on those waters, believe you me! For all their roughness, the Northerners were very quick to look down their snouts at the Guosim, as if the shrews of Mossflower were lesser beasts for not having had the benefit of the Badger Lord's stringent training, or taken part in the campaigns to tame the lawless lands up there. This attitude surely did rub some fur the wrong way; one surefire means of antagonizing a shrew is to imply that it's a second-class citizen of its own lands, even if it's another shrew doing the implying ... or perhaps especially if this is the case. One thing I think we can safely say is that the Guosim and the Northland shrews won't be getting together for an all-shrew jamboree anytime soon!

Fortunately, a great many of these shrews seem to have bypassed us altogether, coming down by boat rather than on foot. Highwing's sparrow patrols have been keeping an eye on the activity around the quarry. There must be a couple hundred shrews there at least, using their wide log rafts to ferry the cut stone without cease to the site where Foxguard is to be erected. It seems as if Andrus is in a great hurry to have this swordfox stronghold completed, whether under Urthblood's orders to do so or by his own design is anybeast's guess.

There have been no more visits by any of the swordfoxes to Redwall, nor any invitations issued to us to visit them at the quarry. Andrus remains unfailingly polite to any of our Sparra who drop in on them, and does not behave as if he is hiding anything. The night horizon does not glow there so brightly these days; it seems the work of mining and cutting the stone is winding down, and the main task has shifted to the transport of the blocks to the construction site. Andrus has repeated his offer that we will be welcome to visit Foxguard once it is finished, and his gates will always be open to Redwallers. Perhaps we were being overly suspicious when Tolar and Roxroy came to show us the plans back in midwinter. Our own ferry barge, it should be said, does still lie on the opposite bank of the River Moss, but this may just have been a careless oversight on Tolar's part, and one that is easily enough corrected. Perhaps once the hustle and bustle of Nameday and getting our newest arrivals settled in is behind us, and the weather grows a little more pleasant, some of us otters will take a stroll out that way and swim our raft back to its proper side. And maybe, since we'd be in the vicinity anyway, we might just drop in on the quarry ourselves, and stick our snouts into everything that's going on there.

Abbess Vanessa has invited Andrus to our Nameday celebration, along with as many of his foxes and workerbeasts as he would care to bring with him. He has yet to respond to our message. The Abbess insisted that it was the neighborly thing to do, but I overheard her saying that this will also be a good way to take measure of what kind of future relations we may expect to have with Foxguard. Either way, we will be sure to have enough food prepared to feed everybeast who might show up at our gates ... even if Andrus shows up with several hundred shrews following in his pawsteps! (Although, for reasons previously stated, it would probably be a good thing if those Northland shrews stayed away ... )

The preparations have already begun - and what preparations they are! Even without the former slaves who are on their way here, even without the prospect of possible guests from the swordfox camp, this would still be a most special occasion. For the first time in living memory, our Nameday feast is to be a wedding feast as well! Brother Geoff assures us that this has seldom if ever happened in Redwall's history; it seems most betrothed couples prefer not to share their wedding day with a Nameday celebration, to keep the occasions separate ... and so that everybeast gets to enjoy an extra feast, or course!

But the conjunction of circumstances this time around is just too special to ignore. Not one marriage ceremony, not even two, but three, all on the same day! The blissful union of Alexander and Lady Mina would be cause enough for remarking all by itself, but when Colonel Clewiston announced a fortnight ago that there would be two Long Patrol weddings as well, we were all floored. Apparently the Colonel has decided that he must increase Redwall's stock of hares - seasons preserve our larders! - and encouraged his Long Patrols to start marrying and having families. And so it is that Alex will be joined on the groom side of things by Lieutenant Gallatin, who'll be taking the haremaid Florissant for his wife, and the young runner Baxley, who'll be wedding Melanie's older daughter Givadon. For now, the other three eligible Long Patrol bachelorettes - Starhanna, Kynnelle and Givadon's sister Mizagelle - remain unattached, although I would be very surprised if we don't see at least one more wedding by midsummer. I've even heard rumors that Melanie and Clewiston himself may be kicking around the idea of tying the knot, but I will say no more on THAT for now; we historians-in-training dare not go about engaging in gossip, now do we?

And what's this now? As I sit here in the classroom, waiting for all our young students to arrive and get settled into their places so that I can help Geoff present his lessons, I learn that our sparrows have sighted yet another group of creatures journeying down the north path toward Redwall! Will this parade of travellers never end? This new bunch should arrive around the same time as the slaves ... just in time for Nameday! I just hope there aren't too many shrews with them - or if there are, that they keep on going past our gates without stopping. I know that's not a very Redwallish thing to say, but I can't think of anything that could possibly spoil our festivities more than a brawl between argumentative shrews!

Vanessa certainly did pick the appropriate name for this season - many wanderers indeed! I can't remember a more exciting time at the Abbey. Excepting last summer, of course, when Urthblood and Urthfist were fighting over Salamandastron, but that kind of excitement we don't need ever again if Redwall stands for another thousand generations. But for now ... the flurry of activity getting tables and tablecloths and Nameday best garments ready, and the smells of every imaginable type of pie and entree wafting up from the chaotic kitchens, not to mention the splendid sunshine slanting in through these windows ... I honestly don't see how Geoff expects to teach these youngsters a single blessed thing under these conditions! Why, I'm half-tempted to shuck my novice's habit and join my fellow otters for a quick gambol around our Abbey pond! But the ways of an apprentice Recorder are not so frivolous and carefree, alas!

Oh, well! One saying of which our dear Abbess is fond is that nobeast can say what any new season will bring. Perhaps some of these matters which so occupy our minds now will fade to insignificance as new events transpire to demand our attention. I have certainly seen enough with my own eyes these past four seasons to appreciate such wisdom. Who indeed can venture to predict what this Spring of Many Wanderers will bring to us?

00000000000

"Ow! Watch it down there, Sister Orellana! I'm rather attached to all my parts, don'tcha know, an' I'd rather not lose any of 'em ... especially with my bally honeymoon comin' up, wot?"

"Oh, stop being such a big baby!" the seamstress mouse clucked as she worked on the front hem of Gallatin's fine dress tunic. "I thought you Long Patrol hares were supposed to be the toughest things on two paws. You'd never know it from the way you're acting!"

Gallatin raised a solemn paw of pledge. "On an honest field of battle, ma'am, I'd look death in th' face an' laugh. But bein' nibbled away one pinprick at a time like this is more torture than a noble beast can stand!"

"Then stand still and stop fidgeting, and we'll be done here all the sooner!" Sister Orellana retorted. "You don't see Alex over there jerking and twitching, and he must be just as excited by his upcoming wedding as you are. And as for the damage I'm inflicting on you, I'm using my smallest needles and finest thread. If this were a coarse fabric I was working with, then you'd really be feeling my pricks, believe me!"

Colonel Clewiston stood back, revelling in his Lieutenant's discomfort a bit more than he perhaps should have. Gallatin stood on one fitting box by one window, while Alexander held his own pose in a similar arrangement across the room. Orella and her assistants worked in a flurry around both grooms, putting the finishing touches on their wedding outfits. Most clothing at Redwall was simple, comfortable and practical, hardly anything that could be called royal finery. But, when the occasion called for it, the Abbey's garmenteers could produce raiments that were the equal of that displayed in any ruling court.

Gallatin's tunic was a splendid work of maroon velvet trimmed with white silk, while Alex had opted for a jerkin of deep blue fine linen, accented with green to symbolize his leadership of the Mossflower Patrol. Against his red fur, the effect was striking.

"Must say, Galt, that's the handsomest I've ever seen you," Clewiston said, stroking his whiskers appraisingly. "Sure beats that grubby gardener's smock you've been sportin' lately."

"Hey, Foremole needs all th' jolly help he can get, now that we've expanded our gardens!" Gallatin protested. "Lotsa soil t' turn 'n' fertilize 'fore we can get to th' spring planting! Never knew earth so rich was t' be found anywhere. Much better'n that sandy stuff I hadta work with back at Salamandastron."

"If memory serves me correctly, Lieutenant, you still managed t' coax a decent crop or three outta th' mountain slopes. We always did eat well there, an' you kept th' fare fresh 'n' tasty. Not quite up t' Redwall standards, o' course, but as fine as any hare coulda done."

"Gallatin was your gardener at Salamandastron?" Orellana asked. "I never knew that. So many new faces and names that I've had to learn since last fall ... "

"Well, there's more on th' bloomin' way," Clewiston warned the seamstress, "if our birdfriends are t' be believed. A gaggle o' slaves from th' west, an' a bunch more from th' north who may or may not be stayin' on. An' let's not forget - " he winked knowingly at Gallatin, " - hopefully more'n a few harebabes in th' seasons to come!"

The inside of the Lieutenant's ears turned a shade very similar to his maroon dress jacket.

"Well, well, well," came a jaunty female voice from the doorway, "if it isn't the parade of Redwall's prettiest malebeasts!"

Alexander's head snapped around. "Mina! You're not supposed to see my outfit until the wedding! It's bad luck!"

"It's only bad luck if the groom sees the bride in her dress before the wedding, you silly squirrel." Mina wove her way between the bustling mice to stand alongside her future husband's fitting box. "And besides, the Gawtrybe never believed in that superstition anyway. We believe in making our own luck with whatever fate gives you." She examined Alex from head to toe to tailtip. "And fate has been very, very kind to me. You look absolutely dashing, Alex. You should wear blue more often. It really becomes you."

"Wouldn't really work for camouflage, though, would it?"

"Nonsense. In the deep summer shadows, it would hide you as well as any color. And it would be a fitting uniform for the chief of the Forest Patrol."

Across the room, Sister Orellana put the finishing touches on Gallatin's wedding tunic with a flourish. "There, all done! Now, just don't go doing any gardening in that, and you'll be fine for your big day! Okay, let's get Baxley up here so we can get him looking properly groomlike!"

While Clewiston helped Gallatin out of his dress jacket and back into his regular Long Patrol tunic, Orellana crossed to the two squirrels. "M'Lady, you're the only one of the brides and grooms who hasn't given us their designs for wedding attire. Nameday could be as soon as tomorrow. You'll have nothing to wear!"

"I intend to wear clothes," the squirrel Lady answered primly, then glanced toward her fiance once more. "Although, now that I've seen what Alex will be wearing, maybe I'll have you throw me together a little something that complements his outfit."

"Oh, yes," Orellana perked up. "Maybe a nice taffeta gown of pale blue, with silver highlights, or maybe gold silk ribbons ... "

Mina laid a paw on the mouse's lips. "Shush, now, Sister. I have my own ideas, and they're not nearly so extravagant. But we dare not discuss this in front of Alexander. Bad luck, you know!"

00000000000

Droge was the first one out of the classroom ... naturally.

The impetuous young hedgehog led his laughing, singing and hollering classmates out into the corridor in a happily stampeding pack. Behind them they left Brother Geoff seated at his desk, head cradled in his paws.

"Honestly, sir," Winokur said to his mentor as he stooped to right a fallen chair, "I don't know why you even tried. Those youngsters, after being cooped up indoors all winter, would be hard enough to handle on a beautiful sunny spring day like this even without everything else we have going on around here at the moment. Nameday, the weddings, all the wanderers we've had coming through here, with more on the way ... "

"Wanderers?" Geoff looked up sharply. "Have a care with your tongue, Wink! You don't want to go spilling the name Vanessa's chosen for this season, and spoil the surprise for everybeast!"

Winokur straightened and glanced around. "But, there's nobeast else here, Brother Geoff."

"You can never tell when the walls will sprout ears, especially with those rambunctious tykes on the loose now."

"I strongly suspect those children have fled as far from this spot as their little legs can take them," the novice otter chuckled. "And, if you don't mind my saying, I think your reaction just now would have been far more of a giveaway to the season's name than anything I said. Or are you suggesting I should strike the word 'wanderer' from my vocabulary altogether for the next day or two?"

"Yes, yes, you're probably right." Geoff sighed. "I just thought it was important to try to squeeze one last class in today. There certainly won't be any lessons on Nameday, and probably not for a day or two afterwards, especially if this gorgeous weather holds. I welcome winter's end as much as anybeast, but spring can make my job here just so much more difficult."

"Not as difficult as in the summer," Winokur put in, "if my own schoolday memories serve me right. Don't fret, Brother Geoff - those young ones will turn out just fine, even if they do fidget and snooze their way through a few lessons. They always do."

"Yes, I suppose ... " Geoff glanced up to see Highwing appear in the doorway. The Sparra leader looked somewhat disheveled, his feathers and his green half-cape slightly askew. "Oh, hello there, Highwing. Is anything the matter?"

"Nothing more than usual for these hectic days," the eloquent sparrow replied, strutting into the classroom with vaguely unsteady steps. "I was just almost bowled over and swept away by a rushing tide of squealing youngbeasts. I'd not expected you to have dismissed them so early ... "

"They were not in much of a learning mood today," said Geoff, "as I'm sure you observed yourself just now."

"Who can blame them? Days like these, I almost pity you creatures who are without wings. Nearly every Sparra in Warbeak Loft is out for a fly today, just for the sheer joy of it. It always seems so much easier to slip the bonds of earth when the sun shines bright and the fresh breeze of spring is chasing away the cold of winter."

A smile lit Geoff's face. "I always enjoy listening to your poetical way of putting things, Highwing. Such a treat for these old ears of mine."

"Oh, you're not old!" the sparrow laughed. "You've probably lived less than half your allotment of seasons. I, on the other wing ... but that is the reason that brings me here. I am glad I caught you both here, and that your lessons are concluded, so that I am not interrupting."

"Not at all! I will always have time for you, my old friend." Geoff came out from behind his desk and took a chair closer to the bird. Winokur did likewise, while Highwing settled onto his tailfeathers on the stone floor before them. "What is it that's on your mind?"

"I almost hate to bring up such matters before all these festivities we have planned," Highwing began, "but I have already put this off longer than I should have. As you know, we Sparra are not the longest-lived of species. Different creatures have different lifespans, and just as a badger can be expected to live up to four times as long as a mouse or most other woodlanders, so a Sparra lives not quite so long as a mouse. I know I was but an eggchick when you and Vanessa first found me, a fledgling birdbabe in down even as you two stood on the threshold of adulthood. But alas, I am now older than either of you, in terms of the total number of seasons given me. These days I often awake with a stiffness in my joints that wasn't even there last fall. Sadly, I am forced to face the undeniable fact that I will not be around forever."

Geoff and Winokur regarded the Sparra leader with furrowed brows. The bird's words seemed to have chased away the bright spring day still visible through the windows, and replaced it with a pall of gloom over their tight trio.

"Oh, don't be silly!" Geoff said at last, trying to sound more confident and lighthearted than he felt. "I'm sure you still have many seasons ahead of you."

"A fair number, perhaps." Highwing shrugged his wing blades. "But nobeast lives forever, and I even less so than you. This I can accept; it is simply the way of things, and to rail against it would be futile and childish and a positive waste of living moments better devoted to happier pursuits. But, while I am still relatively hale and hearty, there is something I would like to do that will benefit all of Redwall after I am gone."

"Yes?" Geoff prompted.

"As you know, I am far better-spoken than the rest of my wingfolk. Indeed, thanks to the Abbey upbringing I had amongst you mice and otters and squirrels and so forth, I may perhaps be the most eloquent Sparra who has ever lived. I do not mean to boast, but the inescapable fact is that most of my fellow sparrows are somewhat difficult for you ground creatures to understand. Ever since I rejoined my fellows in Warbeak Loft and became their leader, I have been acting not only as the intermediary between the Sparra and our friends down here, but also as translator. I mean, be honest, how many times over the seasons has one of the other Sparra come to report something to you, and you have summoned me to find out what they're talking about?"

Geoff smirked. "It has happened more than once, I must admit."

"Of course it has. And what will happen in the seasons to come, when I am no longer here to help you decipher what my kinfolk have to tell you? There will be less communication between Warbeak Loft and the rest of Redwall ... which will lead to less cooperation and understanding as well. I fear it may eventually reach the point, generations from now, where the Sparra and woodlanders grow apart again, and return to the bad old ways when the two camps were rivals rather than allies."

"Oh, that would never happen!" Winokur declared, slapping one habit-draped knee with a flipper. "Ol' Rafter and I understand each other no problem! I'll admit, it takes awhile t' get used to normal Sparra talk, but once you develop an ear for it, I'm sure almost anybeast would be able to do it."

"Perhaps," said Highwing. "But beasts naturally shy away from what is difficult, and fall back on what is easy. I do not doubt that your friendship with Rafter is deep and genuine, Winokur, but such matters cannot be placed on the shoulders of one beast, or two. This is the future of the relationship between all Sparra and Redwallers we are talking about here. And even though my birds listen to me now when I tell them how wise and beneficial it is to all of us to share this Abbey in peace as allies, there is no guarantee that the Sparra leaders who succeed me will share this view. The lessons of the past can be easily forgotten, especially in turbulent and troubled times such as those Lord Urthblood predicts, if they are not ingrained upon each new generation. My own ties with Redwall and its history are strong, owing to my background, but that cannot be said for the other sparrows who have not shared in my unique Abbey rearing. That schooling was the key to my success, and the thing which brings me here now."

Highwing looked to Brother Geoff. "I propose that we build a bridge to the future, here in this very room. You see, it is not just how we Sparra talk, but how we think, which will determine our future together. Other Sparra must receive the same training I did, so that they can immerse themselves in the Redwall way, learn this Abbey's history and their place in it, and keep the union between us strong. Starting this season, as soon as lessons resume after Nameday, I intend to send down several of our chicks to sit in on your classes, to be schooled as all of Redwall's woodlander children are schooled."

Geoff beamed. "Why, what a wonderful idea! Yes, we can surely find room for a few extra bodies in here. Do you know how many I can expect?"

"Three mothers and fathers have agreed to allow their youngest chicks to attend. None are yet fully fledged, so they will have to dwell down here with you until they are able to fly on their own. Their parents can fly down to visit them so they don't get overly homesick."

"Don'tcha mean 'Loftsick?'" Winokur grinned.

"Teehee. Good one, you impudent young ponddog."

"Hey! That's riverdog, if you don't mind, good sir sparrow!"

"I hardly deem you've earned that title, Wink, since the only thing I ever see you paddling around in is our Abbey pond ... "

"Ahem!" Geoff interrupted their shenanigans. "Highwing, if these chicks can't fly yet, how will they get down here in the first place?'

"Ah, yes, that is another matter I must discuss - but not with you. I am optimistic that Foremole or perhaps Montybank, working with Alexander's squirrels and us Sparra, will be able to rig a basket on ropes and pulleys so that the chicks can be safely lowered to the ground. Hopefully, it will not be necessary for anybeast to climb up to Warbeak Loft ... although I've a feeling several of our more audacious squirrel friends would relish such a challenge."

"I'm sure most of them would jump at the chance," Geoff agreed, "if they weren't all in such a tizzy over Alex and Mina's wedding. This is the biggest thing to happen for the squirrels of Redwall in a very long time. And not just because every unattached male among them wishes they were in Alex's place!"

"Well, let's see if we can't get this done without any Abbey-climbing," said Highwing. "Once the chicks are down, Vanessa can see about finding dorms for them - perhaps a room that they can share together, so they won't be so lonely being away from other birds."

"We'll hafta see what the dorm situation's like after all those slaves get here," Winokur reminded the other two. "Extra beds might be scarce if they all decide to stay on."

"Our chicks wouldn't need beds," Highwing said, "just mats or blankets on the floor that they can nest in. So any spare room up here or even in the cellars will do. It wouldn't even necessarily have to be a dorm."

"Well, whatever arrangements we end up making," said Geoff, "it won't be until after Nameday, so we have some time to get things sorted out. I declare ... a new season, marriages, newcomers, not to mention what's going on with those foxes ... how's a beast to keep it all straight?"

"I'm not sure, Brother Geoff, sir," Winokur agreed, "but one thing's for certain: getting those Sparra chicks down would be a lot easier if we had those stairs up to Warbeak Loft that Urthblood was talking about."

"That it would," Highwing echoed. "Maybe someday. But for now, first things first."