Even as Salamandastron prepared for a wedding, Redwall was just putting its latest one behind it.
Colonel Clewiston's private quarters were already some of the largest in the Long Patrol warren, so Melanie simply moved in with him, the two newlyweds declining Vanessa's offer of a private dorm room up in the Abbey itself. The Abbey's carpenters, knowing of the marriage well in advance, secretly wrought a king-sized double bed as Redwall's wedding gift to the two hares. With the help of the other Long Patrols, the bed was snuck down to the Colonel's room while Sister Orellana distracted him and Melanie with fabricated, last-moment adjustments to their matrimonial finery. The expressions of surprise on their faces when they went to turn in after the festivities were worth all the work and planning that had gone into the conspiracy. Unfortunately, only Clewiston's and Melanie's fellow hares could be on paw to enjoy the unveiling, otherwise the bride and groom would have suspected something was afoot. As it was, the Colonel grew suspicious when so many of his comrades insisted upon seeing him and his new wife right to the door of their honeymoon sanctuary.
The day-long wedding celebration was the first experience of an all-out, no-holds-barred Redwall feast for the orphans Metellus and Budsock. The young badger and squirrel's eyes stayed wide that entire day as one delectable culinary treat after another was brought out from the kitchens in a nonstop cavalcade of edible riches. The wedding was held out on the lawns, naturally, since not even Great Hall could have contained the degree of revelry seen that day. Fortunately, the mild spring weather cooperated fully, providing abundant sunshine under a dome of perfect blue sky, with only the faintest of breezes to ripple the fur and quiver the whiskers.
In memory of Sister Aurelia, no drink more potent than the mildest of October ale was served. And with no pushy shrews around to insist otherwise, everybeast was quite happy with these beverage arrangements.
With the marriage feast behind them, the Redwallers turned their attention to other matters. On the second morning after the wedding, Grayfoot and his entourage of mole and otter helpers set out along the south path, bearing with them a full complement of woodworking and masonry tools. The retired ferret captain clutched in his paw the plans Urthblood had drawn up for him, and if all went well, Grayfoot's Inn would soon be open for travellers upon the spot where St. Ninian's had once stood.
Judelka and her son remained behind at Redwall, where they would enjoy the Abbey's hospitality until the tavern's private quarters were ready for habitation. Both Grayfoot and his former hosts were amenable to this, knowing that mother and babe would benefit most from the continued support and nurturing to be found within this community of woodlanders. The ferret officer felt secure that he had left his wife with creatures who would look after her, and also felt fulfilled that he had at last given his son a name before leaving ...
"Well, I think it'sa silly name!"
During his short time at Redwall so far, young Budsock had proven he had no trouble saying what was on his mind. Except, of course, when he and Droge were planning some of their devilish mischief. Then, he could be as tight-lipped as the very stones of the Abbey itself.
Now the incorrigible squirrel and hedgehog duo trailed along the east walltop after Granholm as he performed his afternoon sentry duty. The former slave was happy to stand a lookout rotation for his new home - it was, after all, one of the more pleasant and less strenuous ways a beast could earn its keep at Redwall - and happy to have the company of the two youngsters. Not only did he find their lively banter constantly amusing, but as long as those rascals were up here in plain sight, it would keep them from causing trouble elsewhere.
"Why do you say that, Bud?" the older squirrel asked. "I think it's a perfectly fine name."
"Percival?" Budsock burst out. "What kinda name's that for a ferret?"
"Well, how many ferrets have you ever known, you young snip?" Granholm shot back with a grin, toussling the fur between Budsock's ears.
"'nuff t' know Percival's a stupid name for one! I mean, I can see a mouse named Percival, or even a hedgehog named Percival, but a ferret? That's like ... like ... "
"A mole named Bloodfang!" Droge helpfully supplied.
"Yeah, that!" Budsock agreed.
Droge playfully nudged his pal in the side. "I'm gonna call m'self Percival fromma now on!"
"Okay ... Percy!" Budsock giggled, and soon both youngbeasts were falling about themselves with laughter.
Granholm left them to their merriment. They both knew full well that Grayfoot had settled upon that name because it sounded like "peace" - at least to the ferret's ear, since the retired captain's Northlands accent made that word sound a little like "pearce" when he said it. Grayfoot had explained to the Abbey leaders that he'd spent his entire adult life as a soldier, and knew fully the horrors of war, even when he was on the winning side. This was something he wanted to spare his son; he wished for Percival to be as successful in peace as Grayfoot had been in war, and to bear a name which would embody that ideal.
"Hey," Budsock said, changing the subject once his laughter had subsided, "why do Browder 'n' Mizzy sleep up on th' top floor when alla other hares sleep in th' tunnels?"
"Her proper name's Mizagelle," Granholm corrected. "Have the proper respect for your elders, Budsock."
"Oh, okay ... Granny!"
Granholm mock-swatted at the younger squirrel, but it was impossible not to smile at the child's innocent roguishness.
"So, why do they live apart from the other hares?" Budsock pressed.
"It's ... a long story," Granholm sighed as he leaned his elbows on the battlements and gazed out over the sun-tipped fastness of east Mossflower. "It goes back to last summer, when you would've been just a paw-sucking babe yourself. There was a war between two badgers. Browder was on the side of one, and the Long Patrol was on the side of the other."
"Which side won?"
Granholm grimaced. "Neither, some beasts would say. But the one who commanded the Long Patrols was slain, which is why they all came to live here after the war."
"Kinda like me comin' t' live here after my parents were slain?" Budsock asked.
"Um, not really, but ... yeah, come to think of it, I guess it must've been kinda like that for them. Redwall is a home for goodbeasts who don't have any home of their own, and I guess it doesn't matter whether you're a lone squirrel lad, a band of freed slaves or a regiment of fighting hares. This Abbey's gates are open to all ... and thank the seasons for that!"
"So, if Browder an' th' Long Patrols're enemies, why'd he get married to one of 'em?"
"Sometimes these things just happen, I guess ... hey, wait a minute! What's that?"
The two youngsters followed the direction of Granholm's gaze, almost due east of where they stood. "What's what?"
"I ... I think I see something. Just above the treetops ... but I can't tell for sure ... "
"Well, what is it?" Droge demanded impatiently.
"If I knew that, I'd say so, wouldn't I?"
Budsock casually hopped up onto the battlement stone and sat there, letting his footpaws dangle without a care over the considerable drop of the outer wall. "I don't see nuthin'."
"It's 'anything,' not 'nuthin,'" Granholm said as he hoisted Budsock back down to the rampart walkway. "And don't fool around up here. It's not safe."
"Aw, I'm a squirrel! Squirrels never fall!"
"With my luck, you'd be the first. I'm the one who's got walltop duty today, an' what I say goes. Now, no more horseplay like that, or - "
Granholm was cut off by the sound of the Matthias and Methuselah bells tolling out to call everybeast to table for the evening meal. Budsock and Droge were off like a shot without so much as a by-your-leave addressed to the elder squirrel, racing each other toward the wall stairs like a mismatched pair of red-furred and spiked speed demons.
Granholm threw his sharp gaze eastward again. The late afternoon sun lit up the green treetops of Mossflower in a blaze of jade and emerald, making it hard to discern any details in the shimmering distance. As he stared, eyes alternately wide and squinted, he sometimes thought he could and sometimes honestly couldn't tell whether there really was something to be seen out there on the forest horizon. If not a mirage, then it was about level with the treetops (which didn't make establishing its reality any easier) and seemed to be staying in one place.
At length Granholm shrugged it off and returned his attention to the nearer reaches of Mossflower. His main responsibility was to keep watch for any creatures, friend or foe, who approached the Abbey, not to dwell upon distant phantoms which flickered on the edge of existence. Besides, if he could not even tell with his keen squirrel vision whether there was anything there, then surely nobeast else at Redwall would have any better luck scoping it out. If it was anything at all, they'd find out about it in good time.
Cyrus and Maura released the bellropes after tolling the dinner signal. "See?" the young mouse beamed at Metellus, who stood back a ways from them in the bell tower, paws only just coming down from his ears. "That's how you do it!"
"I see. But, don't you ever worry about going deaf?"
Cyrus cocked an exaggerated ear toward the badger orphan, affecting an oldbeast's tone. "Eh? What's that y' say?" The two youngsters shared a healthy laugh at this.
Maura smiled. It did her heart good to see Metellus in high spirits. He had been so somber and taciturn upon his arrival at the Abbey, but the cheerfulness of all the other Abbeybeasts - especially the children - gradually helped pull him out of his shell. And the wedding feast seemed to have done the final trick; ever since, Metellus had been acting as a full-fledged Redwaller, the shadows of his recent tragic past no longer a darkness upon his waking hours. As to his dreams, he was still often to be heard whimpering and uttering stifled cries in his sleep. That would take a little longer, but Maura was confident that in time the young badger's wounded spirit would be completely healed by the greater spirit of Redwall.
Chances were that Metellus harbored no genuine interest in learning how to work the bellropes at all, and was only here because of Maura. Of all the creatures currently living at the Abbey, only Budsock could rival the badger matriarch for the attention and companionship of Metellus. But now that that squirrel had fastened onto Droge - who was closer to his own age - as his favored playmate, that left Maura as the badgerchild's preferred companion. With Cyril away looking after Broggen, Maura was once again helping Cyrus with the bellringing duties, as she'd helped Cyril the previous summer when Cyrus was assisting Brother Geoff down in the archives, and then later when the younger sibling was recovering from his near-fatal injuries. Metellus, wanting to stick by her side, had followed her to the bell tower, where he was treated to an upclose and personal - and very loud - show by Maura and Cyrus.
"Seriously," the bellringer mouse said to Metellus, "do you think you might wanna make this your permanent duty at Redwall? 'Cos me 'n' Cyril are nearly adults now ... "
"Can't grown-up beasts be bellringers too?" Metellus asked.
Cyrus scratched his whiskers. "Well ... yeah, I guess so. It's just that me 'n' Cyril have been the bellringers almost from the time we were first left at Redwall by our parents. An' we were taught by the otters Brydon and Rumter, who were the bellringers when they were children." Cyrus turned to the older badger. "You've lived at Redwall a long time, Mother Maura. Are the bellringers always youngbeasts?"
"They have been for as long as I can remember. But that doesn't mean there are any rules against adults holding that post. Brother Geoff would know for sure. Remember, though, that tolling the Matthias and Methuselah bells is not only a position of great honor, but also a job that many creatures would prefer over other Abbey chores. And not everybeast is cut out for the task; it takes not only a sure pair of paws but also a good ear and sense of rhythm. I think youngbeasts are drawn to bellringing because they'd rather do that than kitchen or garden duty. And when one proves itself capable at the task, they can never go back to more mundane chores."
Cyrus was quick to agree. "I know I'd much rather ring these bells than muck around with dirty pots an' pans, or get my paws all muddy digging in the gardens!"
"I like gardening," said Metellus. "It's nice and quiet ... "
Cyrus snickered. "You've never tried gardening at Redwall, with all the moles jabbering to themselves and each other up and down the crop rows!"
"Can't be as noisy as the kitchens," Metellus countered. "I never knew there could be such a racket anywhere in the world!"
"At least it's a happy racket," said Maura. "And from that confusion comes all the wonderful meals you've been enjoying since you arrived here. With Friar Hugh overseeing things down there, you can always depend on Redwall's kitchens to produce delicious fare out of all that chaos!"
"There's so much going on at this Abbey all the time, it's hard to find any quiet spots at all, I imagine ... "
"Oh, I've seen you sniff out a few," Maura said to Metellus. "Up on the walltop, or around the far side of the pond, or sharing an afternoon nap with old Arlyn down in his gatehouse cottage. I'll admit, it is more crowded around here than usual, what with all the new arrivals we've had recently. Then again, if you'd been here when the Guosim were staying with us, then you'd know what crowded really is!" She studied the younger badger. "If you really want a nice quiet job, I can talk to Geoff about having you help him down in the archives. He's been trying to get that place in order for seasons now, and I honestly don't know whether he's any closer to that goal now than when he started. It doesn't get much quieter than that anywhere in Redwall, and I'm sure Geoff will welcome a strong pair of paws to help him get organized."
"Will you be down there a lot, Mother Maura?"
"Me?" She laughed. "My job's looking after the little ones, as you well know, and that doesn't bring me down to the tunnels much ... "
"Then I don't wanna work down there." Metellus reached out and took a bunched-up fistful of Maura's smock in his paw, refusing to relinquish it. "I wanna be where you'll be ... "
Cyrus rolled his eyes. Metellus already stood as tall and broad as most adult mice, so it was easy to forget sometimes that he was far more a child than Cyrus was. Badgers lived up to four times as long as most other woodland species, with extended childhoods to match. The bellringer mouse realized he might well have gray in his fur by the time Metellus became a full adult. Still, to see a creature bigger than he was, clinging to Maura's apronstrings like a lost babe ...
"Let's go have dinner," Cyrus suggested, "before those hares eat it all!"
Cyrus needn't have worried; Friar Hugh made more than enough for everybeast, so there was plenty of mushroom and onion cheese fondue, fresh acorn bread, dandelion salad and thick vegetable stew with dumplings to go around. Hugh had gotten into the habit of turning out oversized portions of his dishes ever since the Long Patrol had come to live at Redwall the autumn before, and was forced to kick that routine up to the next level when the Guosim shrews had added their numbers to the Abbey population for the winter. Those warm-weather wanderers were gone now, but it still required an all-out effort from the Friar and his kitchen staff each and every day to provide the required three meals plus snacks and desserts for all the hungry creatures currently living at Redwall.
Tonight, since the Sparra had spotted possible storm clouds on the horizon, dinner was held in Great Hall. Everybeast checked their chairs and benches before seating themselves, and even checked under the tables where they would be putting their footpaws, making sure Droge and Budsock had not left any surprises for them. Such diligence had become common practice ever since that squirrel and hedgehog had hooked up, and anybeast who grew lax ran the risk of ending up like Elmwood, with his bush stuck to the honey those two rogues had spread on a trestle to snare an unsuspecting posterior, or Sister Orellana or Brother Geoff, whose feet had found, respectively, a large pan of molasses and a pile of moldering mulch left under their places. Droge and Budsock had quickly realized that mealtimes provided the best opportunity for their prankishness, since nearly every Redwaller was present for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even some of the Long Patrols had been caught up in this barrage of practical jokes, and in spite of the punishments imposed on the scheming pair by Vanessa and Maura, it looked as if this torrent of pranks would not be abating anytime soon.
On this night, however, it turned out that the adults of Redwall had nothing to fear. Budsock, in his haste to race Droge down the wall stairs on their headlong rush to the dinner tables, had twisted his ankle and taken a fall on the bottom step. He now sat with Droge and Metellus, nursing a sore nose, bruises and scrapes on paws and elbows, and a foot that ruined his usually-unflappable appetite with twinges of pain shooting up his shin. For reasons of his own, he suffered in silence rather than advertise his ailments.
Maura did not immediately pick up on the squirrelchild's distress, being mostly concerned with getting the troublesome duo settled in without incident. Seeing that Metellus had apparently exerted his usual calming influence upon Budsock (and not suspecting the real reason for his mellow demeanor), the badger mother took her leave of the table of little ones and ambled over to the head table as unobtrusively as she could.
Vanessa, Arlyn and Geoff sat together enjoying the flavorful repast. All three looked up at Maura's approach. "Can I have a moment, Abbess?"
"Certainly, Maura. What is it?"
"I was speaking with Metellus a little more today about what he wants to do at Redwall, and I must say I'm stymied! He seems to desire peace and quiet, and yet he doesn't want to do anything that takes him from my side. And as you know, keeping tabs on all these lovely little terrors is hardly the most calming and relaxing of existences ... "
Vanessa laid a paw on Maura's arm. "Don't fret yourself over this. He's still a child, and will be for some seasons yet. There's no hurry. Metellus has plenty of time to find his place among us. For now, let him live one day at a time, and enjoy the new friends he's made here."
"Yes, but he's big enough and strong enough to start helping out around here. More to the point, I think he wants to, now that he's had a chance to see for himself how Redwall works. I don't want to discourage him if he feels he's ready to lend a paw with Abbey chores. It's just a matter of finding out what suits him best. And quite frankly, the pieces just don't fit!"
"Well, hasn't he been a great help to you in controlling Budsock?" Arlyn asked. "It seems to me that would more than earn him his keep right there!"
"Controlling him?" Geoff snorted to Vanessa. "He wouldn't say that if he was the one who'd stuck his footpaws into a heap of gardening compost! Took me three days to get all the dirt out from under my toeclaws, and my sandals still reek of leaf mold! If that's keeping that disrespectful little bushtail in line, I'd hate to see him when he's out of control!"
Maura heard but chose to ignore Geoff. "That's all very well and good, Arlyn, except that there's no such post as Assistant Redwall Mother!"
"Maybe there should be," Geoff muttered, unconsciously rubbing his sandal soles together under the table.
"Yes ... maybe there should be." Vanessa looked up at Maura. "Even with Cyril and Cyrus nearly grown, we still have more children living at the Abbey now than at any other time in memory ... or at least we will, once all those expecting harewives start giving birth. Perhaps an assistant will be just what you'll need, Maura."
"A male badgerchild, looking after the other children?" Maura mulled this over. "That's not a position you'd expect such a creature to take ... "
"Well, it wouldn't be his adult occupation," said Vanessa, "but he won't be an adult anyway for some seasons to come. If he's already proven he can have a calming effect on our most rambunctious youngsters, and it's something he is in fact already doing without complaint, and it will allow him to remain close to you, why not make it official? I can simply declare that to be his responsibility from now on, and that should ease any qualms he might have about feeling like he's freeloading off our hospitality. Don't you agree that this would be the best solution?"
"Yes ... yes, I imagine it would." Maura nodded slowly. "If the arrangement carries your authority as Abbess with it, I'm sure he'll accept it without question. Thank you, Vanessa."
As the big badger shuffled away toward the children's table, Geoff remarked, "I'd have thought she'd be overjoyed by the prospect of having Metellus by her side all the time. She looked like she accepted your decision almost grudgingly, Vanessa."
"I suspect she's a lot happier than she's letting on," the Abbess replied with a knowing smile. "She just doesn't want to be too obvious about how attached she's become to him. Has to keep up appearances as the dignified badgermum, you know!"
"Whatever it takes to help that orphan badger adjust to becoming a Redwaller, we should support it," added Arlyn. "We must always do what is best for our young ones."
"And if it also happens to be what's best for the matriarch who looks after them," Vanessa said, "all the better."
"I'm sure Metellus will be fine," said Geoff. "Right now it's Cyrus I'm more worried about. This is the first time in his young life that he's been separated from Cyril for any length of time. And it's not like Cyril's away on some picnic outing - he's taken on quite a responsibility in volunteering to look after so troubled a beast as Broggen, and we know from Deltus that they've already had at least one spot of bother with those slaver foxes. Quite frankly, I think he may have very good reason to be worried about Cyril, since I share some of those concerns myself. But that's not my brother and only blood relative out there. I've seen it when Cyrus has been helping me and Winokur with our classes, in some of his quieter moments. He's not saying much about it, but I can tell it's on his mind constantly."
"I can well understand his trepidations," Vanessa nodded, "but I don't see what's to be done about it. Cyril was adamant about going with Broggen, and I agreed to allow him to do so. I suppose we could have had some of our Sparra flying out to keep an eye on them, but it's too late for that now since Cyril and Broggen could be anywhere in south Mossflower by this time, and the tree cover would hide them from the air. Perhaps I was remiss in not thinking of this earlier, but the plain fact is that those two are on their own now, and the best we can do for them is send them our heartfelt prayers and all the good will that we may."
"That's fine for us," Geoff sighed, "but somehow I think Cyrus will be looking for something more than that ... "