A male otter stood before the badger and his hare entourage, his paws resting on his hips. The fellow shook his head when the badger spoke. Jazzin and Foremole sided with Lord Brisson, which angered the villagers.
"These raiders know how to fight, best we exercise a little caution while trailing them," said Lord Brisson.
"With all due respect," the otter replied, "it's not your people held captive. You can 'exercise a little caution,' while we free our friends."
The otter then rushed down the indicated trail; a dozen armed villagers followed. The hares started down the same path, but at a slower pace. An hour later, the villagers staggered back. Several of them nursed a sore shoulder, or held an injured arm close to their chest. None acknowledged the badger as they retreated.
Lord Brisson called Lieutenant Snellzen to his side. "It seems these raiders made a stand against the villagers. Though their numbers would be welcomed, we just might have a better chance at freeing the prisoners without them."
Lieutenant Snellzen nodded. "Those hot-headed villagers may have done us a favor. Since we were not there when the slavers attacked, I'll wager those vermin scum think nobody will follow. My unit will give 'em a good taste of steel when we cross swords."
"I suggest you curb your enthusiasm for battle, lieutenant. Our primary goal is freeing the captives. It will do no good if the vermin use the prisoners as hostages or kill them in their rush to escape."
Jazzin overheard the two discussing tactics and stepped forward. "Foremole and I are warriors; we can help."
Lord Brisson glanced over to the young mouse and the older mole as they continued down the trail. Both had a determined expression on their face that dared him to dismiss them. They kept their paws close to their sheathed weapon while each scanned the forest for unexpected trouble.
"Your blade may have been blooded and yon elder has every reason for charging into the fray, but I doubt you have the skill these hares have. This squad is a well-trained team of professionals. Though your help is appreciated, it isn't needed."
Foremole spoke before Jazzin could voice a retort. "We have our reasons for going into this fight, but we also have the wisdom to follow orders. Two more such warriors can only increase our chances at success. Are you so petty that you fear we will steal the thunder of your victory?"
Lord Brisson recoiled from the mole's words as if they were a physical blow. He cleared his throat and glanced at the hare lieutenant standing behind the mouse and mole. He caught the slight head bob. "My only concern is for the hostages. If you can follow orders, I'll welcome your help."
With that issue settled, the warriors continued down the trail at a faster gait. When they came to the site of the skirmish between the villagers and the slavers, everyone slowed as they scanned the immediate area. Several hares examined the numerous tracks while others reconstructed the battle.
"It appears they ran into two fighters who were more interested in scaring their opponent than a sustained engagement. I'll wager they waited here a few minutes before they rejoined the others." Lord Brisson nodded as he listened to Lieutenant Snellzen's calm summation.
The hares dispersed so each could cover the advance of the hare to his left or right as they trotted down the wide forest trail. Jazzin and Foremole flanked him as they followed behind the hares. Weapons remained sheathed to facilitate travel but paws always remained close. Every ear swiveled in an attempt at detecting the presence of vermin or their unfortunate prisoners.
An hour passed and the soldiers exited the woods. On the other side of the glade, they found the severed head of a squirrel staked on a tree branch. The hares disbursed until they discovered the body. Two of the hares carried it to where the head had been mounted like a grizzly trophy.
"We can bury the body later" said Lord Brisson. "Best we move out on the double and catch up with these fiends before they make good on their escape."
Everyone moved forward at a fast trot through the heavy forest. Around another bend in the trail, the hares came to a meadow. As the vanguard reached the halfway point, one hare let out a loud scream. Another hare snagged his injured comrade by the shoulder and retreated. Several more sling stones whizzed past the hares forcing them to seek cover.
"Jolly good thing those vermin didn't have any archers," quipped Lieutenant Snellzen. "A broken shoulder can mend. Don't think that chap would have survived an arrow in the same spot."
Lord Brisson surveyed the area. "Those vermin are dug in pretty solid. Any chance we can go around them?"
"We'll lose too much time circling them instead of taking the direct route through this forest. What bothers me is why they would hold here when they could push to the sea and be there by sunset." The hare stroked his chin as he stared at the vermin's fortifications. "Unless those blokes knew we were coming this way. If it were me, I would have a unit in the forest and hit us from the rear when we attack."
Jazzin tapped the hare's shoulder. "Foremole and I can scout these woods. If we find anything, we'll report back."
Lord Brisson nodded. As the older mole and his young mouse friend melted into the forest, the hare warriors remained vigilant. They moved closer to the dug-in vermin, but kept under cover.
Each hare awaited the start of the assault. Snellzen raised his paw. Before he could lower it, Jazzin returned. Crouching by Lord Brisson, the mouse made his report. "Nothing, absolutely nothing has been in this forest other than us for at least a month. If this is a trap, there's nobody waiting to spring it from our rear."
Lieutenant Snellzen considered Jazzin's words; then rubbed his paws together in anticipation. He relayed orders for the attack. Ears flattened and whiskers twitched as each soldier awaited the command.
"Give 'em blood and vinegar," shouted the officer.
The hares initiated their frontal assault. Steel met steel. The vermin held and Lord Brisson ordered a retreat. Four hares nursed injuries that left them unable to rejoin the fight.
The Lieutenant rallied the others as they prepared for another charge against the slaver's fortifications. Before Snellzen could issue his command, Lord Brisson called out to the vermin, asking for a parley. Several hares grumbled, but complied with his orders.
A large stoat stood, though he kept close to a wide tree trunk. "There's nothing to discuss badger. If you retreat, we will not pursue. That's our best offer."
Brisson's laughter shattered the silence that followed the stoat's audacious offer. "I'm thinking you expected another force to hit us from behind while you entertained my hares. You've been deceived; nobody is hiding in this forest. If there was such a force, they would have attacked us by now."
The stoat's muzzle pointed down for several moments. When he raised it, the bravado had disappeared. "We know the fate of slavers; better to die taking as many of you as possible."
"I am Lord Brisson, heir to the throne of the Northern Alliance," he shouted. "Surrender and I will have you sent to a penal colony. Ten years if we don't recover the prisoners, three if they are freed. You have my word on it. Decide. Do you prefer death or a chance at life?"
The forest stood in total silence, even the leaves seemed to stop rustling. Lord Brisson stared at the vermin's barricade, waiting for some reaction to his offer. As time passed, Snellzen prepared for his next assault. The hares moved as close as they dared; weapons shifted, catching the waning sunlight.
Three sheathed swords flew from the barrier. Another six weapons fell onto the path separating the two sides. The stoat who had addressed him stood, his paws held away from his body. Eight others followed his example.
Leaving the prisoners guarded by the injured hares, the others moved out at double time. Once again the warriors jogged down the trail as they raced towards the ocean. Darkness deepened with the setting sun and still the soldiers pressed forward.
The lead scout charged across a deserted beach. He splashed into the ocean until the water reached his chest. The hare lifted his metal studded club and smashed it into the waves that pressed him backward. With every splash the hare cursed the shadowy outline of the launches floating beyond his reach.
Close behind their scout, the hares reached the beach. Lord Brisson's paws snatched the bow another hare carried in a backpack. He strung it in one motion while preparing an arrow. He drew the bow until it threatened to snap in two. He sighted along the shaft at the withdrawing boats. A paw knocked the arrow off the string and he glared at the hare officer.
"They might be in your range sire, but there is as much chance of you hitting one of the captives as there is of you killing a raider."
Lord Brisson threw the useless bow onto the beach and bellowed in frustration. He added his taunts to the insults hurled by the partially immersed scout. Lord Brisson stared into the inky darkness. Just as his labored breathing slackened, lights flared to life. The vessel remained an indistinct silhouette to those standing on the beach.
Though he knew their mission was doomed to failure, he could not give the order to stand down. A glance at the other soldiers confirmed their reluctance at withdrawing. As long as the vermin ship could be discerned, everyone remained rooted to the spot.
A light arched high into the sky and landed on the water. There a fiery flower bloomed that illuminated the nearby waters. Three more such fires flared to life. Just as the fourth one faded, the high-pitched wail of some beast shattered the silence. The flames shifted to another part of the blackened ocean.
"What in bloody blazes is going on out there?" one hare said in a hushed voice.
"Some beast must have gone overboard and is making a swim for it," another hare answered.
Foremole, who stood furthest from the water, spoke. "The merchant caravan had a family of otters carving jewelry. Maybe they dove overboard."
"If they did, there's no way we can help them." Frustration tinted his words as another scream echoed over the waters.
One flaming arrow arched high into the sky where it burst into a new sun that showed those standing on shore the raider's ship. In the brief light, all saw the distinctive blood-red sails and the two high masts that divided the ship. Even as the light faded, the name of the raiding ship, The Red Sharkeye, appeared in bold lettering along the bow.
Just before total blackness again engulfed the sea, a third scream rent the air. The sound of synchronized oars rising and falling drifted to shore. Even as the frustrated hares stood helpless to intercede, the vessel receded. When the ship moved beyond the range of the sharpest ears, everyone prepared to withdraw.
Lord Brisson retreated from the water's edge. Their defeat had each beast dragging their paws, reluctant to leave even when staying would accomplish nothing. Then the lone doe froze in place while her ears swiveled. Soon two more mimicked her actions. The soldiers advanced to the water's edge while the others watched with growing anticipation.
Jumping up and down, the doe exclaimed "There! There! There!" With every hop she held her arm straight out pointing with her sword. "A voice. I hear a voice."
Lord Brisson never hesitated. He plunged into the dark waters. From the beach, several hares shouted out directions. With powerful strokes, he cut through the water. Then he too heard the voice. Lord Brisson homed in on the mournful cry and discovered a struggling female mole. Without the hare's exceptional hearing, the sea would soon have claimed this one.
Grasping the lady's blouse in his teeth, Lord Brisson fought the tide as he towed the mole towards the safety of shore. Her low moans gave him all the encouragement he needed. Desperation gave him strength as he raced for shore battling both the tide and the frigid waters. Once his paws touched bottom, he cradled the female in his arms. Even in the darkness, he knew the seriousness of her injuries.
When Lord Brisson shouted to those on shore that he held an injured female mole, Foremole pushed through the crowd to the water's edge. "Terra, Terra, you're safe now," he shouted. Foremole clicked his sharp digging claws together as he awaited the arrival of his daughter.
The injured mole stirred. Her eyes widened as she stared into the face of her savior. She reached up, pulling hard on his ear. Lord Brisson felt the girl's muzzle caress his ear. He remained standing in waist deep water as the mole spoke. So weak was the girl that her voice came out as a mere whisper. Had she not placed her muzzle so close, he would have missed much of what she imparted. Then she shuddered as a bloody cough wracked her frail form.
Lord Brisson lowered the still warm body of Terranoir onto the beach. The hare medic approached, but stopped when he saw him. No doubt the medic knew the girl's fate by his expression. Foremole pushed every beast aside as he dashed to his prone daughter's side.
"Wake up girl. This be no time for sleep" moaned Foremole.
Lord Brisson placed a paw on the grieving father's shoulder. Foremole's tear-streaked face turned towards him. "Be off with you," he snarled. "I saw her speak with you and now she plays at sleep. She will speak to me, not you stripedog. Not you."
"Your daughter has departed for DarkForest."
"No. She lives. She fakes sleep to anger me," sobbed Foremole. "Give me a stout switch and see how fast she awakens."
Foremole clung to the lifeless body of his daughter and wailed as he rocked back and forth. Every so often, he would plead, threaten, or entice the girl.
Lord Brisson again approached Foremole. "We will help you bury your daughter, sir. She has done us a great service. I will honor her in whatever manner you wish."
"Then permit me to return her body to Redwall," Foremole sobbed, his voice still filled with anger and contempt. "There my wife and I can visit her grave; for our lives ended as well when she left for Dark Forest. So keep your bloody honor, badger, and I will try to forget my daughter thought it far more important to speak to a stranger than her kin."
Lieutenant Snellzen followed Lord Brisson a few paces from the others. "Sire, that fellow had no right growling at you. Your position as heir to the throne demands respect."
Lord Brisson watched the other warriors consoling Foremole. He kept his voice low as he spoke to his officer. "Grief has a father speak in anger; I can forgive that."
He then pointed to the others standing on the beach. "Send our fastest runner back to that dead squirrel we passed, Lieutenant. According to . . . ."
"Her name was Terranoir," said the hare.
Lord Brisson nodded. "Terranoir, the squirrel's purse holds valuable information. If we are lucky, we may learn something useful. All we need is confirmation from those prisoners."
"There wasn't an officer among them," Lieutenant Snellzen said. "Even their commander was a lowly grunt ordered to hold at all cost. I doubt they know anything useful."
Lord Brisson glanced back at the distraught father who still pleaded with his dead daughter. "Our chances are slim, but I'll not let her death be in vain. I have every intention of pursuing her clues and finding that ship. This I swear."