Three days after departing from the riverside settlement of Deakyne's mice and Neblett's voles, the Guosim reached the site where the searat submarine was moored. The vista that met their astonished eyes there was one they could scarcely believe.
The very nature of the landscape along the streambank had been transformed since Log-a-Log had left the searat vessel in the care of the Toor otters. The wandering shrews could scarcely accept that this was the same place. Hundreds of trees had been felled, turning this area of the forest into a vast open clearing. All the stumps and surface roots had been dug up, along with all shrubs, vines, moss and even most of the grass, leaving a wide expanse of bare, sun-baked earth. The very ground itself had not escaped alteration, the terrain levelled so that every rise and hillock had been torn down and every dip and depression filled in. A huge artificial plain, nearly as big as Redwall and all of its grounds, lay where forest had once stood, the flat foundation upon which a fortress was being built.
As impressive as it was to think that this drastic alteration in the natural shape of the land had been wrought by the paws of their fellow creatures, the Guosim were more shocked than anything. They were denizens of wood and stream, long accustomed to living with nature rather than in defiance of it ... and this denuding of the forest almost struck them as a slap to the face of Mossflower Woods.
Of course, the space before them was hardly bare and empty. A veritable army of Northland shrews - more shrews than there were in the total company of the Guosim itself, to judge at a glance - bustled and toiled around the timber skeleton of an immense, multistory structure, one that amazingly enough looked like it would accommodate every shrew present and many more besides, once it was finished.
"Great seasons!" Log-a-Log muttered to himself, paused at the head of his column at the clearing's edge. "'Tween that fort Urthblood's buildin' fer his foxes up near Redwall an' this shrew mansion 'ere, that badger's turnin' all of Mossflower inta his own pers'nal army reservation!"
"You c'n say that again, matey!"
It was not one of the multitude of Northland shrews who stepped out of the trees to officially greet the Guosim, but a rather tall and sturdy otter dressed in a simple woodland jerkin. Log-a-Log broke into a huge grin at the sight of the waterbeast. "Neskyn, ya ol' riverwalloper! So y' didn't let all these nasty liddle bossywhiskers drive you off, eh?"
"Hah, you got them tagged right, so ye do!" the Toor otter chief laughed as he stooped down to embrace his shrew counterpart. "They marched right in here when spring was but a few days old, givin' all us riverdogs a great big 'thanks fer keepin' this spot warm fer us and see ya later.' Told us t' get lost in so many words. Now that they was 'ere they didn't need us 'round anymore, an' they wasn't shy 'bout tellin' us so. An' only after we'd relocated from our home upriver an' froze our rudders off lookin' after that ratboat all winter, those ungrateful liddle martinets!"
"Aye, they could use a lesson or three in graciousness," Log-a-Log readily agreed. "We been gettin' a bellyful o' their attitude from th' ones who came by the Abbey ... all of who made it 'ere, by th' look of it. But, did I hear y' say th' first of 'em only arrived 'round the start of th' season?"
"That they did," Neskyn confirmed. "Around two or three score of 'em, in logboats from th' sea. Th' rest all straggled down in dribs 'n' drabs in the days that followed. Why? You sound surprised ... "
The shrew chieftain shook his head in amazement. "I just can't get over all these woods gettin' cleared an' levelled since th' start o' spring. How'd they get it done so fast?"
"Well, fer one thing, there's a lot o' th' liddle buggers, in case you ain't noticed. When that many shrews get t' doin' something with a sense o' purpose, not much they can't get done, I reckon. Why, jus' look at that fancy bridge you was tellin' me you got built last spring - that took you, what, less'n a fortnight, from th' time you first set blade t' wood to bein' able t' stump across its span? An' speakin' o' which, is that crazy bankvole travellin' with you this year? Ho, yes, I sees him now. Ahoy there, Lorr matey!"
"Hello, Skipper Neskyn! How are you? Fine, I hope, yes?"
"Fine as yore coat is long!" Neskyn turned back to face the rising shrew structure in the middle of the deforested clearing. "Kinda saddens me heart, seein' so many healthy trees chopped down in their prime."
"Most squirrels I know would call it a crime," said Log-a-Log, "an' I knows a fair share o' squirrels."
"Yup - lotsa good wood came down here. Well, at least it ain't goin' t' waste, as ye can see. Come on, an' I'll introduce you to th' head honcho hereabouts ... "
The Guosim received many stares as Neskyn led their column out into the clearing - mostly curious, but a few mildly resentful, as if this was a place meant only for some shrews and not others.
Log-a-Log could not help but notice that the diminutive Northlanders were the only creatures to be seen. "You th' only otter here, Nesk?"
"A couple others lazin' about here somewheres. Most o' Clan Toor headed back upriver once it came clear we wasn't wanted 'round here, but I felt there oughta be one or two o' us stationed 'ere t' keep an otterly eye on things. Ah, there's th' Cap'n over yonder, unless me own otterly eye deceives me. A lot o' these Northland shrews all look alike t' me - 'specially when there's so many of 'em millin' about like this." Neskyn raised a flipper to hail one of the Northlanders. "Ahoy there, Cap'n Tardo!"
The shrew who turned at the call did indeed resemble most of his fellows to an uncanny degree. Log-a-Log had to silently agree with Neskyn; without colored headbands or distinctive clothing to distinguish them, even he would have some trouble telling all these shrews from the north apart.
The one Neskyn had addressed as Tardo marched over to greet the otter and the Guosim. "Well, what 'ave we 'ere? Come t' lend a paw?"
"Nay, friend, we're just passin' through. Looks to me like you don't need any help. I'm Log-a-Log, an' these're my Guosim - the Guerilla Union of Shrews in Mossflower."
"Cap'n Tardo, o' Lord Urthblood's forces. I'm th' one in charge o' this whole rigamarole!" The two shrew leaders shook paws briskly. "Been hearin' 'bout you woodland rogues. Wondered whether we might see you by this way sometime this season or next."
"Well, wonder no more. So, whatcha buildin' here?"
Captain Tardo swept an arm out and back to indicate the massive framework rearing into the sky behind him. "Log, 'tis my pleasure t' present to you ... Doublegate!"
"Doublegate?" The Guosim chieftain raised his eyebrow, as much at being called "Log" as at the fortress name. "I don't see any gates."
"Well, give it time, matey! We ain't been workin' on th' structure itself fer but a few days! Hadta get th' ground all cleared an' th' timber cut first."
"Yeah, ya sure did that right 'nuff," Log-a-Log muttered.
Tardo ignored the other's grumbling. "What ye're lookin' at now is just th' main structure, or th' frame of it anyways. When it's done, there'll be three barracks levels able t' sleep upta five hunnerd shrews at a time, along with a mess hall, an armory, kitchens, storerooms an' workshops, all under one roof! No company o' shrews has ever had a garrison like this'll be! Good thing we're smallbeasts - if we hadta scale this fer otters or even squirrels, we wouldn't have it finished 'til winter!"
"Impressive," Log-a-Log admitted. "But I still don't see where th' name Doublegate comes in."
"Well, once we get th' main building itself finished, or mostly finished at any rate, we'll be puttin' up not one but two outer stockade walls, one inside th' other. The main gate of one'll face inland while th' second will face th' river, so anybeast who wants in will hafta pass through one, walk around to th' opposite side o' th' fort an' come in that way. Needless t' say, both walls will have ramparts fer lookouts, archers an' slingers. Even if an enemy did somehow manage t' breach th' outer gate, they'd find themselves pinned 'tween th' outer an' inner walls, where we could pick 'em off at our leisure. It's Lord Urthblood's design, y' know."
"Yeah, that figgers. The design's kinda got that badger's pawprints all over it, based on some o' his other plans I've seen ... "
"We may hafta cut some more trees t' finish th' walls," Tardo continued. "That's what all them pines're doin' stacked up an' set aside over yonder. Their tall, straight trunks make th' best timber fer a high wall. Don't think that's enuff t' circle th' compound twice, tho'."
Various grumbles arose from within the Guosim ranks at this announcement. "Don'tcha think ye've cut down quite 'nuff of 'em already?" Log-a-Log asked sourly.
Tardo scowled. "We'll cut down as many's as needed. This land's been designated as a military reservation by His Lordship, an' we'll do what we hafta t' make his garrison battle-ready by summer. We're at war, in case ye ain't've heard."
"Yah, well, all I can say is I'm glad I don't hafta live 'round here. The scenery ain't what it used t' be ... "
Lorr had wandered away from the Guosim column to take a look at the architectural plans for Doublegate, which lay spread out over a large rock. The Northland shrews in the vicinity shuffled aside curiously and watched as the eccentric bankvole pored over the diagrams, his snout almost touching the vellum and his spectacles perched precariously on the tip of his nose. "Fascinating ... ingenious ... clever, very clever, yes yes ... "
Tardo hooked a pawthumb over his shoulder toward Lorr. "What's his story?"
"Oh, he's somebeast we picked up on our journeying last year. Real inventor type, always dreamin' up things in that big head o' his. We brought 'im this way so he could poke around inside that searat contraption some more, an' get a gander at what ye're buildin' here. He was plannin' on stayin' even after we move on, if'n y' don't mind havin' him 'round. Wouldn't surprise me t'all if he ends up improvin' yer designs, or helpin' you figger things out as y' go along."
"Sure, we could put 'im up, I s'pose," said Tardo. "But the searat craft's off-limits. It's restricted."
Log-a-Log couldn't believe his ears. "But ... Lorr was down in it last summer! We were with Urthblood when he found th' waterlogged thing!"
"Can't help what went on here before I was assigned 'ere. I got my orders. An' if you ain't a member of Lord Urthblood's forces, sworn to him as yer commander, then ye ain't gettin' inta that searat boat."
Log-a-Log puffed out his tiny chest. "My son Pirkko was held prisoner on that fur-forsaken scumbucket, an' I'd like t' see th' beast who'd stop me from climbin' aboard if I got it in my mind t' do just that!"
Tardo was beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable, but was not about to yield. All around them his Northland brethren had stopped what they were doing, pausing in their work to watch this verbal confrontation and rush to their captain's aid if it went beyond the merely verbal.
"You challengin' me?" Tardo asked.
"Up to you, friend," Log-a-Log returned. "I know ye're here t' help us against searats, but we Mossflower beasts are freedom-loving creatures, an' we bridle 'gainst anybeast who tries t' tell us where we can an' can't go. An' if you got notions o' gettin' too big fer yer britches, lemme remind you that you're guests in our territory, an' if we don't like yer attitude we can kick yer tails all th' way back to th' Northlands!"
Tardo drew in a deep, slow breath. "I was given t' unnerstand that after Lord Urthblood rescued yer son from th' clutches o' Tratton's searats summer last, you considered each other allies, an' I could count on yer cooperation. Do you still honor th' Lord who saved yer son, or not?"
"Respectin' Lord Urthblood an' respectin' you are two diff'rent things," Log-a-Log said. "An' if y' got a sergeant by name o' Fryc somewhere 'round here, mebbe you could have a word or three with him 'bout how not t' go about earnin' th' respect o' decent creatures. There's a reason he's not welcome at Redwall anymore."
This caught Tardo by surprise. "Fryc? Not welcome at Redwall?"
"Fergot t' tell ya that when 'e got here, did he? Well, if he won't give you th' details o' that sorry incident, I'll be more'n happy t' provide 'em in full."
Tardo turned on his fellow Northlanders. "What're you all starin' at? Nobeast called a rest break! We got a fort t' build! Now get back t' work!"
This instantly defused the situation, as Tardo's berated underlings tore their attention away from the confrontation and returned to their various construction tasks. The shrew captain came forward and put a companionly paw around Log-a-Log's shoulder, leading him a few steps away from the nearest Guosim so they could speak privately.
"Lissen, matey," Tardo said in a conciliatory tone, "I've only been captain fer less'n half a season, 'cos my own cap'n got killed in battle. I just came from a place where I was pickin' up my own dead in bits an' pieces. You know what it's like walkin' along th' beach gatherin' up arms an' legs an' tails - an' heads, even - of beasts who used t' be yer friends an' comrades, just so they can be piled inta a common grave an' given some kind o' decent burial t' keep th' scavenger birds an' sandbugs from pickin' their bones clean?"
Log-a-Log paled at this word picture. "Nay, can't say that I have ... "
"Y'see, I ... ain't ... yer ... enemy. I already got one o' those, one with a weapon that can drop outta th' sky an' pound the earth like a giant hammer, tearin' beasts limb from limb. An' I'm dedercated t' fightin' that enemy however I can. We can't be squabblin' like this, you 'n' me. We're on th' same side. So what say we start over again, an' let those few terse words we traded earlier be water under th' bridge?"
"Lorr's welcome to stay with ye?"
"As welcome as my own brother would be!"
"An' you'll let 'im tinker 'round down in that searat ship all he wants?"
Tardo hesitated. "Tell ya what. Lord Urthblood's falcon captain Klystra flies pretty regular runs 'tween here an' Salamandastron. I can put in a request, an' if His Lordship gives the okay, Lorr can live down there fer all I care ... "
"Well, I s'pose he can keep 'imself occupied with this monstrosity ye're buildin' here until Urthblood gives his go ahead. Once you get used t' his odd manner, you'll enjoy havin' him around. An' he can be a great help with things, sometimes when ye're least expectin' it. Just promise me ye'll watch after 'im. Kinda got t' thinkin' of him as one of our own over these past few seasons ... "
"Oh, he'll be safe with us," Tardo assured Log-a-Log. "There's nearly two hundred shrews here, with more on th' way, an' our main loghouse will be roofed over 'fore you know it. If Lorr can stand us, we can surely stand him!"
Deltus and his two companion Barrenoak squirrels flashed through the treetops on their way back to their home drey. They'd left Redwall that morning after spending the night at the Abbey, enjoying the best hospitality those gentle folk had to offer. Abbess Vanessa had greatly appreciated of the news of Cyril and Broggen, and accepted the orphaned squirrel and badger youths into their community without question or hesitation. Deltus had gotten to know the squirrelchild fairly well on their journey north to Redwall, and had been tempted to invite him to join the Barrenoak clan as an adopted member. But finally Deltus figured that after seeing his parents slain and spending time chained up in a slave line, the youngster was entitled to a few seasons of ease and happiness amongst creatures who could provide greater comfort than the stark living of the Barrenoak tribe.
Leaping and racing from branch to branch in the leaf-mottled midday sun, Deltus was not so preoccupied with his progress that he failed to keep a watchful eye out on the forest floor below them. Living in the wilder depths of Mossflower had taught him to be forever vigilant, both in defense of the drey itself and while out on patrol. And so it was that Deltus saw Mayk hobbling his way through the forest before the slaver fox noticed him.
The squirrel chieftain instantly flattened himself against the wide limb beneath him, throwing up a paw to halt his two fellows and emitting a sharp whistle of alert that was sufficiently birdlike that it would blend into the background woodland noise without attracting the attention of the fox. Sure enough, Mayk passed directly under the trio of stilled squirrels seemingly oblivious to their presence.
Deltus stealthily turned about on his branch, following the slaver with his anger-narrowed gaze. "Did you see that?" he hissed to his comrades. "That villain was wearin' the shrew shortsword young Cyril was carryin'. He must've murdered that poor mouse an' stolen it!"
"But, he was with that stoat, an' all those shrews," said one of the others. "How'd a crippled fox overcome all of 'em an' make off with that blade?"
"Dunno. Maybe he lured Cyril away from the others, slew him an' hid the body." Deltus scanned the woods in the direction from which Mayk had come. "No signs of pursuit ... an' that brushtail didn't look like he was worried 'bout anybeast on his heels. Must figure he's given them the slip. Looks like it's up to us to bring this vermin to justice, fellas!"
"Are we gonna interrogate him?"
"To what purpose? A beast like that probably couldn't tell th' truth if he tried! No, we have to assume the worst ... and make sure that his days of terrorizing innocent goodbeasts end today!" With jaw grimly set in determination and a cold light in his eye, Deltus crept off through the treetops after the fox.
Moments later, Mayk drew to a halt, aware of a rustling in the forest canopy somewhere above him. He paused, leaning upon his stoat-built crutch and searching through the leafy branches as he reached for his stolen sword.
Three of Deltus's throwing knives flashed out of the arboreal cover in lightning succession, each finding its mark with expert precision. Mayk never knew what hit him. He fell to the ground, stilled forever.
The other two Barrenoak squirrels arrived to find their chief standing over the slain fox, the shrew shortsword in his paw. "Aye," he nodded sadly as he examined the weapon, "this is indeed Cyril's sword, as I feared. I do not favor the chances that he lives still. No warrior, or aspiring warrior, would allow his blade to be taken without a fight. For all we know, this blackheart might've killed Cyril and Broggen both, ransacked their supplies an' run off laughin' about it."
"Doesn't look like he had time to grab much of anything," one of the others observed. "This beast was travellin' as light as any creature could in the deep wood. Well, whatever his tale was, he's taken it to Dark Forest with him."
Deltus gazed southward. Since he'd parted ways with Cyril, Broggen and the Guosim before they'd embarked to return Pryle and the others to their families, he naturally could not know that the shrews had continued on their way south while the mouse and stoat had settled into the abandoned badger cottage with Mayk. Deltus didn't even know about that homestead, since it lay well outside Barrenoak territory.
"So, do we return to Redwall and report the discouraging find to them?" Deltus mused aloud. "My first visit to that Abbey was a happy one, the memory of which I will cherish forever. I would hate to go there for the second time in as many days bearing ominous news to dispel all the glad tidings I gave them yesterday. They are such a kind and happy folk, and I would not darken their hearts unnecessarily."
"What could we tell them anyway, sir? We don't really know ourselves what happened ... "
That seemed to decide the senior squirrel. Deltus slipped the shortsword into his own belt. "I'll just hang onto this for now, then, in case fortune proves my fears wrong and I do meet Cyril again someday, and have the opportunity to return this blade to its rightful owner. Failing that, I could always give it back to the Guosim if our paths and theirs ever cross again. But at least it's no longer in the paws o' this vile child thief!"
Deltus extracted his knives from the corpse, wiped them clean on some nearby leaves and replaced them in their respective harness sheaths. Then the three squirrels flung Mayk's lifeless form into some bushes, dragging enough forest debris over him to mostly hide the body. By the time they were finished, no casual passerby would ever guess that swift and violent death had stained this spot.
The squirrel trio climbed into the upper branches and resumed their homeward journey through the treetops. If the worst had indeed befallen Cyril, Deltus reasoned with himself, he supposed the Redwallers would learn of it sooner or later. There was no need to hurry news like that.