1. Prologue: May the Road Rise Up to Meet You
For countless seasons, the town of Yew has lived in peace and prosperity. Nestled just below the southern foothills of the mountains north of the fabled Redwall Abbey, Yew stands as one of the last havens before Mossflower Country fades into the wild and lawless Northlands. The northern mountains have generally done their part in restraining the tide of wickedness threatening to spill into Mossflower.
However, several seasons ago, as if from nowhere, a mysterious settlement sprang up on the northern side of the mountains. Nobeast knew much of it, but then a name surfaced: Carrigul. It was a name borne over the mountain range upon the lips of terrified travelers, a name not spoken but whispered, as if in fear it might perhaps answer back.
Carrigul. Once a small settlement, but now rumored to be growing, spreading, plague-like. The tides may soon be turning for all of Mossflower.
"And that is why Lord Aster is sending us over the mountain pass, Miss Dewhurst. That is why we would like you to join us."
Pyracantha Dewhurst was, first and foremost, a professional. The vixen couldn't say the same about the rest of her troupe, but she expected that. And she certainly expected a bit more from the vole who stood before her brightly painted cart now, paws folded across his thrust out chest, straying every now and then to flick imaginary dust from the perfectly polished captain's pin affixed to his immaculate powder blue cloak.
"Pretty words," she crooned from her perch on the open back of the cart, "but I get the feeling there's something you're not being entirely honest about, my dear Captain Flax. Can't say as I'm not a teensy bit disappointed, really."
Flax's steely grey eyes narrowed. "I don't think I can make it any plainer for you. We know for a fact that you and your...actors...performed at Carrigul two seasons back. You know the lay of the land, so to speak. And you're the only ones who have ever gone there more than once, so you're the only ones who will go back. We would like you to help us scout out the land and see exactly what it is we're up against."
Pyracantha's smile did not meet her dramatically lined and painted eyes. "You would like, or you need?"
"Does it matter, really?" Flax asked with a sigh. "We're prepared to pay you. We knew you wouldn't do this-or anything noble, for that matter-for free. Here."
He tossed her a small pouch. Her paw snatched it up, and she nodded in approval at the telltale jangle.
"Half now, half later."
"That's all well and good, but I believe there's something you're still not telling me, dear."
She enjoyed the look of annoyance that crossed the captain's face. "It's the weather, I know. I told Lord Aster the stormy season will be upon us soon, but he was insistent that we make haste. I've since thought about it, and I believe if we leave within the next two days, we will be fine."
Pyracantha's enjoyment was waning. She only liked games when she was certain she was winning. "No, not that. Anybeast knows it's stupid to cross the mountain pass this time of year."
Flax sized her up. "Look, if it's about meals, we'll make sure you're well fed."
The vixen had heard one too many snide comments about her slightly plump figure to waste any time being offended by the vole's ignorance. "While you were fed with a silver spoon as a child, I was begging for scraps and sleeping in hedgerows. I think I'll manage," she said frostily.
"Then I don't know what you're getting at."
It was Pyracantha's turn to sigh. "What I'm getting at, Captain dear, is why you're not telling me what will happen if I refuse to come with you."
"Oh. I see. Yes, sorry, I had thought that was obvious."
Flax snapped his claws. A dozen armed guards rounded the corner of the building opposite the cart and had the pair of them surrounded in a trice.
Pyracantha hopped down from the cart and curtsied. "Thank you. If I am to be your prisoner, I would appreciate if you could at least be honest with me."
Flax waved a paw. "Oh, 'prisoner' is such an ugly word. I'd prefer to think of you more as...contractually obligated."
"Well played, Captain." Pyracantha giggled wickedly. Maybe this vole wasn't as boring as she'd initially thought. She might well make a game of this yet.
Two days later, the small contingent of guards headed by Captain Flax, Pyracantha and her small acting troupe, and several merchants being escorted over the mountain pass set off on their journey. On the first day or two, they made good time on the winding mountain road, laden down as they were with the actors' cart and several smaller merchant carts. But none of them could ignore the ominous clouds steadily rolling in. And then, in the evening of the second day of the journey, the already cool temperature dropped until they shivered, their laboring breaths coming out in misty puffs. Then snowflakes began to flutter down, slowly at first, but as night began to swallow them up the way ahead was nigh invisible, and it was all anybeast could do to blink the dratted snowflakes out of their eyes.
"Captain, we need to find shelter," a mouse guard advised Flax.
"I know that," the vole snapped. "There should be a small cave in about a half a mile. Those who don't have carts can shelter in that. Tell those merchants to pick up the pace, will you, Kephart? This bit of road worries me even in the best of conditions."
The mouse nodded and turned to go, just as a shriek rent the air. Flax whirled about, spear at the ready, but the danger was from no enemy. The actors' cart had slid sideways in the slick snow. The two burly stoats pulling the cart lost their footing and fell heavily into each other.
"Marm!" one of the actors yelled.
Pyracantha lunged at one of the wheels and tried to pull it back away from the edge of the narrow road, but the damage was done. With a groan and an ugly scraping sound, the old cart slid over the edge and toppled out into nothingness, the two stoats bellowing and howling as their harnesses took them with it. Before Flax even had a chance to react, the cart was gone.
"No..." Pyracantha sank to her knees in the snow.
Flax made to go to her, to see if she and the other actors were all right, but he also fell to his knees. Perplexed, he tried to rise, but the ground rumbled and shook so badly that he couldn't.
"Everybeast, move!" he shouted uselessly.
The road was beneath him one moment, and then it wasn't. His heart leapt to his throat, muting him as they all fell into blackness.
The first thing Flax felt was something tugging at his belt. He lay still for a moment, waiting as the events of the night before trickled back into his sluggish mind. He opened an eye, wincing at the way the morning light made his head throb even harder, and was not surprised to see it was Pyracantha searching his belt.
"I don't have the other half on me, Miss Dewhurst," he growled, "Lord Aster does."
The vixen drew back with a pout. "Some thanks I get for pulling you out of the rubble."
Flax sat up. It had stopped snowing for the moment at least, though it looked as though it could again at any moment. They had fallen into an unfamiliar valley. High above them, the road had crumbled. Flax knew something like this would happen eventually. That was why Lord Aster was always having them accompany merchants and travelers nowadays.
The vole spied the shaft of his spear sticking out of the snow and rubble and reached for it. He tugged it free, surprised it was undamaged, and turned to find Pyracantha brandishing his dagger.
"Crafty wench," he snarled.
"Such an ugly term," she chided. "I much prefer to think of myself as 'opportunistic.' Besides, you're not really in a place to be exercising authority over me anymore. I mean, look around."
The both rose, slowly, eyeing each other warily. Then the full weight of the situation suckerpunched the vole, and he groaned. Rubble and snow stretched before them in the valley as far as he could see. He was amazed the two of them were even alive after a slide like that.
"Are there any other survivors?" he asked.
"Not sure. I was going to check after collecting my fee. My cart's smashed to bits back there and Korteg and Garrick are both dead. Not exactly what I signed up for, you know."
"You think this is my fault?" Flax growled. "It's...no, never mind, I'm not even going to get into that. I'm still trying to wrap my head around more important things, like getting everyone else out of this alive. Now come on."
He set off through the rubble, Pyracantha following in his wake.
"So what's the plan, anyway? Supposing we do find anyone else, how are we going to get out of this mess?"
Flax straightened his now damp and muddy uniform and cloak. There would be no washing it now, but there were more important things to worry about. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it, Miss Dewhurst."