Grey-black had clouded Mossflower's skies, and everywhere, treetops were performing a madly festive dance - swaying to and fro, tossing branches, now and again bracing themselves against the crash of the rain, scattering leaves all around.
There was nothing that Salome dreaded more than a nighttime excursion into the Woods, alone, when it was storming.
Against the surrounding forest, the young ferret was a tiny figure - swathed in her brother's cloak, which now clung, rain-sodden, to her fur; the water-pail tucked beneath one arm. Every whip-crack of lightning goaded her to haste, and she splashed on recklessky, complaining all the while, as if her voice could be heard above the rain's leaf-battering music.
"Oh, Hellgates - I can't wait till autumn! One moment it's sunny, th' next moment it's pourin' rain!"
She leapt in fright at the sound of a snapping branch; the cloak's hood, overlarge as it was, fell before her eyes, and, after stumbling sightlessly for a few moments, she landed into a sizable puddle of mudwater. It was with difficulty that she managed to haul herself upright, spitting bits of mud and sodden leaf between coughs.
Salome glanced down the front of the cloak - the black-dyed fabric had been soaked through, and she doubted that any amount of scrubbing and wringing would remove the filth.
Salome swore aloud. She knew that if not for the cold, Samuel , her brother, would never have entrusted it to her, seeing as she had ruined her own cloak not long before.
Salome stooped to retrieve the now-empty pail. Thunder struck the earth like a massive gavel, and, to Salome, all of Mossflower seemed to quake. The young ferretmaid realized that she was shaking, as well.
"I'll just fill th' thing with rainwater an' then try t' find my way home," she told herself. "Samuel probably won't know th' difference . . . Hellgates, why'd I 'ave t' go an' get lost . . . ."
"Aye, its likely yore right there, missie. I wouldnt notice a thing!"
A lightning bolt, at its best, could never have frightened Salome asbadly as the sound of that voice did.
This weasel's face might have been mistaken for a mask - a mask that was decorated, it could be said, with ink-black bumps and purple-edged bruises. The whiskers were grey with filth; beneath them, rows of jagged, cheese-colored teeth formed a grinning zipper.
"Aye, I dont suppose I'd notice a thing if I was in yore big brother's place, missie." Each word sent a gust of hot, damp, foul-smelling breath into Salome's face. "After all, there was days I was so weak I'd thank my lucky stars if I could make it to the barrel the rainwater dripped into. Nearly perished of thirst, I did. But you and yore brother couldnt've known about that - ye'd never allow an old friend to suffer if ye could 'elp it, now would ye? "
His paw shot out, before Salome could flinch, and caught her by the scruff. Now Salome dared not move, for the cloak's collar was closing in, yoke-like, about her throat.
"Whats the matter, me lovely? Don't favor me mug, do ye?"
Her silence only seemed to give him even greater amusement; he sniggered delightedly. "Now, now, dont ye worry, me darlin', ye ain't th' first one. Most every beast as ever laid eyes on me was struck with dread- 'specially by these 'ere bumps. Black ugly things, aint they?"
Now, his free paw shot out, just as suddenly as the first paw had, to anchor itself -claw-first - into Salome's shoulder. Salome screamed.
"Aye – an' ye would've 'ad the same as meself and me fine cronies if'n ye'd stayed. Oh, I knows who ye are – the pretty little wench who reckoned as she was too good to stay be'ind and die with th' rest o' us. Now that ain't a nice way t' think, is it?"
Having enjoyed the sight of the young ferret maid, shrieking and writhing like a tormented insect, the weasel seemed to decide that he had had enough of this game. When his claws unhooked themselves from her shoulder, it must have resembled a sheet of stapled paper. Blood might have filled those holes, but missiles of rain were battering her shoulder. By rights, Salome ought to have been in agony. But she could pay no more mind to a wounded shoulder, while a dagger was hovering inches from her throat. The weasel chuckled again.
"Now, should I stab ye quick-like, or should I gag ye with this 'ere belt and make yore death slow for ye, eh? Then again, missie, ye couldnt tell me yore big brother's whereabouts with a gag across yore mouth, could you? Course, if ye spill it t' me quick enough, I'll consider endin' you just as quick!"
His lips parted, as if he was about to laugh at his own cleverness. After a few moments, however, his jaw slackened - hung open, allowing a river of clotted blood and saliva to gush forth.
Before Salome realized it, she was being hauled upright. She made a few shaky, staggering efforts, and, at last, managed to stand. The weasel lay in the mud, lifeless, soaking up the rain like a sponge.
Samuel stood near his head, holding his dagger so that the rain could rinse the blood from his blade. When it was clean, he returned it to its sheath. He spoke through gritted teeth.
"Come on, Salome! Never mind the God-blasted water."
Inside of the log den, Salome retired to the back, where the embers of the neglected fire were still giving out some warmth. When her paws regained their steadiness, she peeled the cloak from her fur; it fell in a crumpled heap about her feet. Rainwater, mud, and a bellyful of blood had ensured that neither the cloak, nor its fabric, would ever again be of use to any beast.
As Salome tried to toast some feeling into her cold-stiffened paws, Samuel stalked over to her.
"Salome! What in Hellgates is the matter with you? " Salome could tell, without turning to face Samuel, that his teeth were still clenched."You know where th' stream is, an' how t' get back to th' den - how in Satan's name did you manage t' get lost? Are you just plain stupid or somethin'? "
Salome flinched. She continued her efforts to warm her paws - and those glowing embers might have fulfilled their purpose, had she been able to feel any warmth.
"Sorry, Samuel." Her voice was just barely audible." Don't come bawlin' at me - it started stormin' an' I got so scared I lost my way . . . I didn't go t' do it . . ."
Without warning, Samuel lashed out and cracked her hard across the head; Salome toppled backwards, though it was too late to dodge.
"You didn't go t' do it? Well, in God's name - thanks for tellin' me! I thought for sure you'd bumbled about, got lost an' run into th' paws of a crazy killer weasel on purpose! Don't you 'ave any good sense, Salome? "
For several moments, neither Salome nor Samuel spoke. Salome, massaging her smarting ear with one paw, stooped over the fire's embers and pretended to fan them with the other. Samuel knew that she was fighting back tears. And it was just as well that she did - Samuel didn't want to see those tears any more than he enjoyed staring at the blood spatterings on his cloak.
Then, Samuel, after a moment of hesitation, reached over and placed a paw upon Salome's shoulder.
"Look at me, Baby Sister. I know you didn't go t' do it - nobeast but an idiot would go t' do it. I know you're no idiot. You've got good sense. I just want you t' use it. Please?"
Salome hugged herself - Samuel could see that she was still quivering a little. Wordlessly, he began to stroke his younger sister's ears.
Where in all Mossflower had that scrawny, sniggering misfortune of a creature come from? Certainly, he had been some species of vermin - though it had fallen face forward into the mud after it had been knifed, Samuel had taken a glance at the ears and tail. The creature might have been a ferret or a weasel.
For seasons now, this stretch of the Woods had been almost uninhabited. But now, for the second time in their lives, Samuel and Salome would be forced to evacuate.
About seven seasons ago, Samuel, nothing but a youngster, and Salome had evacuated for the first time -had escaped the settlement at night, when even the most fretful, restless creatures had succumbed to sleep. They had left behind scores of creatures, perishing of the Black Death; the corpses of rats, whose lives the Chief himself had taken when the plague's outbreak had been discovered; the emaciated remains of the creatures who were too badly weakened, too young and bewildered, or too afraid, to make an attempt at flight and risk being caught. The privacy of the settlement had been, to the Chief and his officials, what this spot's privacy, its stream and its fruit trees were to Samuel - only even more so.
Salome had ceased her trembling now; she seemed to have relaxed somewhat. Those big, dark eyes sought to meet Samuel's. Samuel had forgotten her, as well as the weasel and his dagger; he was staring at the wall before him, as if he was reading between the fibers of that splintered, worm-bitten wood. This was something that he did often, sometimes for hours on end . . . but this morning, Salome knew that she was the cause of it.
At the sound of her voice, Samuel came back to earth. "What do you want, Salome?"
Salome gazed up at him with eyes full of earnestness. "Th' weasel didn't do nothin' t' me, Samuel. I'm all right."
These words made Samuel feel awkward. He gave her a tiny push. "I never said there was anythin' wrong with you. Here, look behind th' cot an' get that piece o' rolled-up paper for me."
Salome had to climb over the cot and its untidy clothing of quilts, before rummaging through the heap of belongings that lay behind it. It was a meager pile, and, after just a few moments, she drew out a slender stick, about which a scroll of papyrus had been rolled up and fastened.
"What's this? Has it got some sort o' writin' on it? You ain't never told me you could read an' write."
Samuel held out his paw for the bundle. "Aye, I can read an' write a bit, but I didn't write that. Now stop meddlin' with it, you nosy little pest, and give it t' me before you tear it."
As he unfolded the script, he half-smiled, remembering the old dormouse who had sold the map to him - just days after his and Salome's arrival into Mossflower. Samuel had given the old ninny a silver brooch in exchange for food supplies, had received the map as a bonus, and, to compensate for the bonus, had listened while he slavered on about compensate him for the bonus, had listened while he had slavered on about the virtues of Redwall Abbeydwellers - their kindheartedness, the generosity they extended to any needy creature who should come grovelling at their feet; the honey-sweet sermons that dripped from the lips of their wise, benevolent, hoary-headed old Abbots and Abbesses; the heavenly food, and, greatest of all, the aura of peace and contentment that perfumed every idyllic, red sandstone corner.
Thinking of it,Samuel half-expected a mouse to drop from the sky and land before him, garbed in a green habit, and beaming angelically upon him, as he relieved the young ferret of his dagger and proceeded to lecture him on how violent and unpeaceable it had been to snuff the weasel / ferret attacker out with it. Aye - Redwall Abbey was quite the utopia - until some Cluny the Scourge or some Raga Bol stormed his way in through the gates, as villains were forever doing there, according to the old mouse. Then , most likely, all of the Redwallers ran whimpering for help - usually demanding the bravery of some warlike creature, such as Martin.
Martin son of Luke, the Warrior - woodlanders were constantly bawling songs all over the Woods about him.
But, in the center of that map lay Redwall Abbey - on paper, it was nothing but a tiny square, with a peak of a tower jutting out on top. But that tiny square towered above the nearby trees - figures that resembled forked sticks - and its walls formed a protective ring around it, like a motherly embrace.
Samuel happened to glance up, and found that Salome was peering over his shoulder. He snorted. "Salome, yore nosier than a giddy squirrel, an' you can't even read."
Salome pointed to the building. "What's that - a castle?"
Samuel folded the script once more. "Aye, somethin' like that. Look, that drizzle's startin' to let up. You might as well take that pail outside and fill it up with rainwater - on second thought, I'll do it myself."
This last remark stung Salome.
She watched as Samuel took the pail to the opening of the den. "Th' water's for you to scrub yoreself with. And dont go whingin' about how cold it is, I've no time to stand about heatin' it. When yore finished, change out of that hand-me-down tunic - yore pinafore's as raggedy as an old dishcloth, but it's likely it'll look a bit more presentable to the woodlanders."
Salome stared at him, bewildered. "Woodlanders? What woodlanders?"
"We're leavin' this place," Samuel informed her brusquely. "Well, don't just sit there with yore mouth hangin' open, an' don't start askin' me a bookful o' questions. 'Urry up, wash yoreself an' leave me some of that water."