PROLOGUE

Latura simply knew things.

From her earliest seasons, the young ratmaid had perceived the world around her differently from other creatures. Things hidden to most revealed themselves to her with ease. How cold would the coming winter be, how dry the next summer, how severe the impending storm? How long before a certain bit of food was no longer safe to eat? Who would survive this latest outbreak of fever, and who would perish? Would an expecting ratwife bear a male or female, and would the babe be healthy?

Some in her tiny, unnamed village thought Latura a witch, shunning her as they would a pestilence. Many whispered that she could tell whether a creature was speaking truly or false just by listening to their voice or gazing into their eyes. Some even imagined she could read minds, divine the deepest secret yearnings buried in the living heart and decipher the most fleeting of wishes and dreams ... and nightmares.

How much of this might have been true, not even Latura herself could have said. For just as the obscure often seemed plainly apparent to her, so did the obvious frustrate and perplex her. Everybeast of her acquaintance regarded her as simple and slow, unable sometimes to even recognize the faces or summon the names of fellow villagers she'd known all her life. If she was tolerated, it was not only because of the special gifts her kinsfolk and neighbors sometimes called upon for their benefit. Why expend ire and energy toward so sad and pathetic a creature as she?

Lately, however, Latura had been plagued by portents unlike any she'd ever known before. Vaguer than visions but ominous as any omen, these dire phantoms from her waking dreams filled her with a disquiet utterly strange to her. She could not have begun to explain them to anybeast else; indeed, how could she, when she failed to comprehend their meaning herself?

Red Abbey.

Red tower.

Red badger.

Red foxes.

Red squirrels.

Everywhere in her fragmented thoughts, the same color. Something was going to happen, was already happening, but the shape of events remained clouded, presenting themselves to her in a jumble of scattered, isolated images rather than a straight, orderly, forward-moving flow.

Latura saw disaster, but knew not its name.

A crunching of pawsteps in the late-winter snowcrust, scarcely louder than the distant rumble of the Eastern Sea crashing against the base of the cliffs below their settlement, made the ratmaid prick up her ears. Gathering her threadbare shawl more tightly about her, scant protection against the chills from both without and within, Latura glanced over her shoulder at the approaching figure.

Patreese came to stand alongside his daughter, planting his footpaws where a patch of hard, bare earth showed through the snow. Latura regarded him in the early forest twilight with an absent and unfocused gaze, as if trying to fasten on him and make him real with her eyes. Then her concentration seemed to crystalize.

"Hullo, Da."

Patreese favored her with a wan smile. "Ah, good. Y' reckergnize me."

"Course I do. I'll always know you, Da."

"Course you will," Patreese said, although something in his tone hinted that he might not have entirely believed his own reassurance. "It's gettin' late, Lattie. Why're you out here? Come back home, 'fore you catch a chill."

Too late fer that, Latura laughed from somewhere deep inside her. "Da, we gotta go."

"Well, ain't that what I jus' said?"

"No, I don't mean that." She looked past him, back toward the ramshackle collection of patchwork mud-and-thatch huts. "I mean this place. We gotta leave th' village."

"Leave th' village? Why would we go an' do that? Where'd we find a better place fer ourselves than 'ere? High atop a sea cliff, protected from raiders 'n' corsairs, with th' forest at our backs to forage from - why, it's th' best homestead a rat could hope fer!" Patreese pointedly omitted how sparse that forest foraging could be, how bitter the winters when the frigid breezes gusted in from the gray seas to scour their clifftop settlement, or that their occasional fishing excursions typically netted little, and more than once had claimed the life of a fellow villager unaccustomed to the ways of wave and tide. Yes, life here could be harsh ... but for vermin like them, it could be even harsher elsewhere.

"We gotta go, Da. Not safe t' stay."

Patreese narrowed his eyes toward Latura. "You seen somethin', didn'tcha? What'd ya see, Lattie?"

"Forest ... it's gonna turn red. It all turns red."

The older rat stared at his daughter, uncomprehending. "Why, sure it'll turn red. Allers does, come autumn. But that's over two seasons from now."

"Not that kinda red. Not th' leaves. Th' forest. Th' whole world."

"Lattie, y' ain't makin' sense."

"I know. But I know what I seen. An' we hafta go 'way."

The determined finality in her voice struck Patreese as Latura's oft-prophetic pronouncements seldom had before. He knew she was serious, and to ignore or dismiss her warning would be folly. "Well then, here's what we'll do. We'll call a village council t' discuss this. An' mebbe wait 'til spring, if we do decide t' leave, when th' travellin's easier. There's still snow on th' ground, in case y' ain't a noterced. In fact, ye're standin' in some right now."

Latura glanced down, as if she'd forgotten her feet were attached to the rest of her. "Oh. No wonder my footpaws're cold. My tail too. But we can't wait, Da. If we wait 'til spring, we won't make it in time."

"Um, make it where?"

"An' if we wait fer summer, they'll already be here."

"Uh, who'll be here?"

"An' if we wait fer fall, this village won't be here no more."

"Now ye're scarin' me, Lattie."

"Good. It's a time fer bein' scared."

"But, what's gonna happen? War, pestilence, fire? What could be so bad that it'll wipe out th' whole village?"

Latura stared at the forest, at the woodscape of bare limbs receding into the gloaming like a frozen frenzy of tangled talons, or a tableau of arms thrown up in desperation to ward off the encroaching evil.

Red Abbey.

Red tower.

Red badger.

Red foxes.

Red squirrels.

Latura shuddered at the enormity of the spectral phantoms crowding her mind, at the all-encompassing scope of this nameless, formless destiny about to sweep down upon the only home she'd ever known.

The red whirlwind.

"We gotta leave," she repeated, "Tomorrow, or next day. No later'n that."

"Where'll we go?"

After a long pause, she replied, "North, an' west. Inta th' heart o' Mossflower."

"That's it?" Patreese demanded, not with ire or impatience but with the resigned and tremulous tones of the misgivings her words had instilled in him. "Just north an' west, inta th' thick o' th' forest?"

"It'll be safe there, Da."

"Safe where? Lattie, I can't breathe one word o' this to anybeast else in th' village, or they'll think me daft. We can't evacuate ev'ry rat here on th' say so of wisps o' dreams. Not even yers."

"If I told you, it wouldn't make any sense, 'cos I don't even know what it means my own self."

"Well , tell me what y' can."

Latura inhaled deeply of the brisk, crisp air. "To escape the red, go into the red."

It was true that these words made no sense to Patreese. But he argued no further, and demanded no additional explanation, for he now knew that he would follow his daughter's urging, sharing her cryptic warning with all the village rats and doing what he could to convince every one of them to leave. And he knew this for one simple reason.

When Latura had spoken just now, it had not been in her own voice.

Patreese put his arm around his daughter's shoulders, guiding her back toward the village at his side.

"Guess I'd better look inta seein' if I c'n round us up some boots, huh?"