CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

When Redwall woke up that morning, it was not like any other awakening in the Abbey's long history. From the Guosim up on the walltop to the Gawtrybe down on the lawns, from the Northland shrews in the orchard to the liberated slaves sleeping on the floor of Cavern Hole, and of course all throughout the Abbey's dormitories and bedchambers and the roof spaces of Warbeak Loft as well, it was almost as if the very structures and grounds came astir with the dense carpet of living creatures packed within their confines.

For a change, the enticing aromas of baking bread and other breakfast treats failed to greet the newly-awakened noses of the Redwallers and their guests. Friar Hugh and his staff, having worked through one night, one day and then a second night almost without cease, finally turned in halfway between midnight and dawn, once the travel provisions for the Guosim had all been prepared. Only the most skeletal of skeleton crews remained to coordinate a simple breakfast of dried fruits and nuts and cheese, with Balla's fruit cordials, cool teas and mild ales to wash it all down.

As the permanent residents of Redwall made their way down to Great Hall to break their fast, everybeast else was pretty much served where they were. Log-a-Log appointed Guosim to run down to the kitchens and help bring food and drink up to the walltop for all their fellows there. Lieutenant Custis and Captain Choock, seeing this, followed the shrew chieftain's example, dispatching squirrels and more shrews to lend a paw at distributing breakfast to so many hungry mouths. Even the former slaves in Cavern Hole pitched in for their own sake as well; the overcrowding at the Abbey might have denied them proper beds, but most were well accustomed to labors, and expending such an effort here amongst their new family gladdened their hearts in a way that performing chores for their old searat masters never could.

Once all mouths were fed and bellies satisfied, the Guosim filed down the east wall stairs and out the small gate facing into the thick of Mossflower, assembling under the trees there. They'd be striking out for the River Moss, following familiar forest trails, so this was as logical a staging area as anywhere.

Willing helpers carried out packs and sacks of travel-worthy fare from the Abbey larders to help see their shrew allies on their way. Lieutenant Custis joined the assemblage, along with the twoscore and a half Gawtrybe he'd chosen to accompany the advance raft-building expedition.

"Ye're sure gracin' us with enuff extra paws there, mate," Log-a-Log observed. "Sure you c'n spare 'em all?"

"It's not like the rest of us won't be following along in another day or two," Custis reminded him.

"Y' might wanna make it two rather than one. Even with all this muscle, it'll still take some doin' to make all th' vessels we'll be needin', both t' ferry you lot across an' fer our own quarry work as well."

"All the more reason for us to join you in good time. Far be it from me to suggest that the legendary Guosim can't handle their axes fit to meet any boat-building challenge, but we Gawtrybe know a thing or three about woodcrafting ourselves. In fact, I'll be lending you more than just these squirrels and their muscles."

More Gawtrybe emerged from the wallgate, bearing with them canvas-wrapped bundles which they handled with meticulous care. Laying them upon the forest floor, they pulled back the cloth wrappings with a flourish to reveal a splendid assortment of single- and dual-pawed wood saws, hatchets, chisels and hammers, files, awls, and every other manner of portable timber-working and carpentry tool imaginable. It was a veritable workshop, packed and ready for easy travel.

Log-a-Log's eyes widened at the array of implements on display before him. "Got yer own movable lumber mill there, don'tcher? You lugged that all th' way with you from Salamandastron?"

"The carts made it easier," Custis admitted.

"I'll bet they did. From th' look o' this inventory, I'd say you was lookin' t' build another whole fort, just like Doublegate."

"Er, um, well, we knew that when we were finished with them at the Moss, they'd likely come in useful at Foxguard, where we'll be staying after Redwall. Matter of fact, we'll probably have to build some lodgings of our own, since the stone fortress itself will never fit us all. So, in a sense, we might well be building a fortress for ourselves - it will just be within the walls of Foxguard."

"There's room 'nuff on their enclosed grounds fer barracks to house you all?"

"I am given to understand that there is. Although Tolar will no doubt consider such a thing to be a blemish and eyesore upon his magnificent red stone stronghold! I've heard that my fox comrades have grown quite proud of their new home. But they'll just have to swallow their pride and put up with us for as long as we're assigned there!"

As shrew and squirrel shared a chuckle over this, another procession of creatures exited through the open wallgate - not the sendoff committee of Abbey leaders the departing beasts might have expected, but a gaggle of otters, led by the hulking Kurdyla who drew after him Redwall's sole large wheeled cart.

"What have we here?" Custis asked, looking on in mild surprise. "Even more aspiring boat builders come to join our party?"

"Nay, matey," Skipper Montybank answered, hooking a webbed thumb toward the cart's bed, "although joining yore party these lads will be. See them drums an' barrels loaded up there? Well, they're empty now, but they shore won't be this time t'morrow! Since we got such a large gang headed t' th' Moss anyways, figgered this'd be as good a time as any t' send some of me riverdogs along on a fishin' an' restockin' run - 'specially with so many stayin' with us these days! We're like t' run clean outta pond shrimp 'fore season's end, way things're goin'. So, we'll net up a few barrels of them water flitters from th' Moss t' bring back as breedin' stock, an' mebbe if we're lucky, me crew'll snag a nice grayling or trout t' grace our tables fer t'morrow's dinner! They'll be comin' back heavily laden if they come back at all, an' you c'n bet me rudder on it!"

"Will you be accompanying them, then?"

Monty's face fell a bit. "Nay, wish I was, but as Skipper hereabouts, my duty's to stay here at the Abbey, along with about half me crew. Never know when our flippers or rudders're gonna be needed at Redwall!"

The otter Skipper turned to Kurdyla, who stood between the parallel pulling rods of the Abbey cart. "Shore yore up to this, Kurdy? Haulin' this land barge halfway through Mossflower won't be any paddle in th' pond. You've not exerted yoreself like that since you were wounded last spring."

The bigger otter waved off Monty's concerns as trivial. "Not t' worry, matey. Only reason I still use a cane at all these days is 'cos I get a liddle wobbly sometimes, an' now I've got these to keep me on an even keel!" Kurdyla slapped at the cart hafts on either side of him. "When it comes t' simple feats o' brute strength, I barely feel it anymore where that mad bunny sliced me up b'hind my knees. I'm in fine fettle fer a job like this. 'Course, on the outward leg o' this journey, this cart'll be empty. It's the return, when we'll be weighted down with watershrimp 'n' mebbe fish too, that I'll be needin' an extra flipper or three t' help me pull this along!"

"An' we'll make shore he gets it, Skip!" Rumter assured Monty with a jaunty grin. "We've not stood by these past three seasons watchin' his sinews heal up an' knit back together proper, only t' have 'em pop on account of some finned critters!"

"I'll hold you you to that, you young scallywag. 'Specially since Kurdy here does as much work 'round the Abbey, even with his limp, than any three of the rest of ye put t'gether!"

Finally came the rest of the farewell contingent, led by Geoff and Arlyn but also including Winokur, Colonel Clewiston, Alex, Mina and Foremole. Winokur stepped out ahead of the others at the last moment, coming to stand between the departing otters and the Abbey leaders. Everybeast present looked at him in surprise.

"I've decided I'm going too," the otter Recorder announced. "The reopening of the quarry for the first time since Redwall's founding - well, by Redwallers, at any rate - marks a truly historic occasion, and it's only fitting that the Abbey's historian be there to witness the reopening firstpaw."

"This is rather ... unexpected," Geoff said, not entirely approvingly. "Have you given any thought as to who'll be running your classes while you're away?"

"Cyrus is quite capable of filling in with some undemanding lessons if he had to," Winokur replied, "although honestly, I had it in mind to just give my students a bit of a break from classes. They all worked so hard to put together that pageant. And let's face it, with everything that's going to be going on in the days ahead with all these new arrivals, I very much doubt they'd be able to concentrate on lessons anyway!"

"Hmmph. Be that as it may, it seems to me that this is the kind of thing any conscientious Redwaller would ask his Abbot's permission for, rather than going off half-cocked and making such a decision for himself. Especially one with responsibilities such as yours."

Winokur's shoulders slumped and his tail fell to the ground. He opened his mouth to protest, but Arlyn cut him off firmly.

"Yes, you should indeed get your Abbot's permission on this, Wink - and I'm not talking about Geoff." This statement drew a surprised look from the current Abbot, but Arlyn was already pushing on. "I'm thinking more of your paw than your teaching responsibilities. That was quite a gash you took to your flipper yesterday, and on your writing paw, no less. Even if you did go with the Guosim, it would likely be several more days before you'll be healed up enough to put pen to parchment. But the fact remains, Metellus and I are Redwall's healers now, and we have final say over what our patients can and can't do. And after the way we had to stitch you up, I don't even need to inspect your dressings to know that you're currently in no shape for such an adventure. I'm sorry, Wink, but it will have to wait."

Abashed but not yet ready to fully give in, not even in the face of resistance from both Abbots, Winokur stood unconsciously rubbing at his bandaged paw. "Don't you agree that Redwall's Recorder ought to be present for such a momentous occasion?"

"Of course that's reasonable," Arlyn answered, "but it's ultimately Geoff's decision to make. And as for my own medical mandate, that's only until you've had another day or two to recover from your injury. Now, in case it's escaped your notice, this current expedition here is only going as far as the River Moss until the rest of the Gawtrybe and Captain Choock's shrews follow along - by which time I might reverse my standing on your physical condition. But if you left now, you'd only spend the next couple of days sitting around watching shrews and squirrels chopping down trees and shaping wood. Hardly the dull manual labor demanding a Recorder's rapt attention, eh?"

"No, I guess not ... "

"My esteemed predecessor makes very good points," said Geoff. "And as to 'momentous occasions' for you to witness, I'd say what's happening here at the Abbey qualifies as that, on a continuous and unfolding basis. Trying to get so many new arrivals settled in and properly looked after will present a challenge unlike any faced by Redwall before. Not only should you be here to document it, but as one of the Abbey leaders now, our new friends will be looking to you for guidance and encouragement every bit as much as they'll be looking to me, or Arlyn, or Maura, or Alex, or anybeast else. So, while you're restricted to our grounds while you fully heal, I'm sure you'll find plenty going on that's of historical significance, if only you approach it with the right perspective."

Winokur sighed. "You're right, of course. But I still think my place is at the quarry, at least for the reopening, and the days immediately following. I'll expect you to seriously consider my request, once my paw is no longer an issue."

"We'll see," Geoff said, not at all sure he cared for the traces of defiance still lingering in the otter Recorder's tone. "Give it a day or two more to see how the situation develops, and then I'll render my decision based on my best wisdom and counsel."

"Well, that's one bally waterdog who'll not be going." Colonel Clewiston turned to Monty. "So, are all these planktails o' yours here departin' on this jolly stroll?"

Monty nodded. "All but me, matey!"

"Hmm. Sure it's a good idea, sendin' half your troop away like this?"

The otter Skipper gave Clewiston a curious look. "Why shore, why wouldn't it be?"

"Oh, nothin', nothin' ... "

Alex regarded the Colonel with crossed arms and a knowing smirk. "Did you and your hares get any sleep at all last night?"

"Oh, pish an' tosh! Lovely night for long an' relaxin' constitutionals all about th' place, wot? Plenty of time t' catch a snooze or forty winks whilst everyballybeast else has it all well in paw."

Log-a-Log strode over to Geoff, extending a paw. "Well, Abbot, even without Wink, it looks like we'll still have our share of waterdogs on this march, t' go with all our helpful new squirrel friends. As always, it's been a wonderful boon to alla us Guosim, an' our ladyfolk an' young 'specially, bein' able t' winter at Redwall. Tho', given th' way things're lookin' now, I'm wonderin' whether this winter may've been our last at the Abbey."

"Perish such a thought, old friend! Space will always be found for you at Redwall - you need only ask! But don't forget why you're going to the quarry for us in the first place. By next winter, Freetown should be well established, with the first several buildings completed and occupied. That should relieve some of our present overcrowding. I suspect Cavern Hole will be yours for many winters to come!"

"Only if we shift our tails t' get this goin'! Thanks again fer ev'rything, Abbots, an' all th' rest o' you too! We're off t' build some boats t' ferry beasts an' stone, an' we'll be lookin' fer th' rest o' these bushtails an' Foremole's crew whenever they care t' follow along! An' if ye're not sure which way we went, just stay to th' trail of crushed undergrowth we'll be leavin' in our wake - t'will be impossible t' miss!"

The Redwallers stood back and watched their fellows and allies tramp their way into the think of Mossflower. The Guosim parted to let the Abbey otters pass through and take the lead, since Kurdyla would need to set the pace for everybeast else as he drew the cart, and also keep to the clearer forest paths which could most easily accommodate the large-wheeled wagon. The Guosim, tenscore strong, filled in the gap once the otters were past, trooping after the larger waterbeasts. Finally the fifty Gawtrybe fell into step behind the shrews as the rearguard, their red bushtails receding into the trees until even this last flamboyant aspect of the departing company was lost to sight.

"Well, here's hoping that they meet with success," said Geoff, "providing us with barges for our work and fish and shrimp for our dinner tables. We'll find out soon enough, when our otters return. But in the meantime, much work awaits us right here, inside! Let us go and tend to what needs to be done!"

All the Abbey leaders filed back through the open wallgate, into the welcoming if overcrowded sanctuary of their familiar home. Alex found himself one of the last in line, his old friend Monty at his side. On an impulse, he caught the otter with a light paw on the arm. "Hey, Monty ... "

The Skipper looked to his squirrel companion. "What is it, Alex matey?"

Lady Mina, who'd disappeared beneath the wall ahead of them, turned and poked her head back out into the morning sun. "Coming, Alex?"

"Uh, sure." Alexander picked up his pace, saying to Monty, "Never mind. It's nothing that can't wait. I'll catch up with you later."

00000000000

Vanessa had so many new faces to peer at.

The former Abbess enjoyed free run of Redwall, just as she usually did, her erratic behavior and dire fainting episode of the previous day all but forgotten in the novel bustle and hubbub of all these strangers staying within the Abbey. It was certainly novel to Vanessa, who'd long proven remarkably adept at eluding Maura's firm disciplinary paw and escaping from the authority of teachers and healers even in the most sedate of times, when she was the focus of attention. Now, with all the Abbey's leaders taxed to their limits in coping with the massive new influx of visitors and sanctuary seekers, Vanessa had only to give the slip to the apprentice Infirmary keeper Metellus. The adolescent badger was frankly relieved to be rid of his unruly patient, especially since wiser heads than his had determined that nothing was to be done for the stricken mouse by their own paws that could possibly better her plight. Thus, and secure in the knowledge that Monty still wore the sword of Martin to keep it safely out of Vanessa's clutches, Metellus was content to let her believe she'd snuck out from under his care due entirely to her own scheming wiles rather than any laxity or resignation on his part.

And so that morning found Vanessa skipping amongst the lawn-sunning Gawtrybe, poofing fluffy tails and tweaking tufted ears with her typical abandon wherever she could, before growing bored with their decorous and stoic tolerance of her antics and heading off to the orchard to pester Choock's shrews. Those cantankerous beasts revealed themselves as not quite so placid or accepting of this little hellion among them, and more than one responded to her molestations by swatting out at her, thinking to apply a little Northlands-style discipline to this most unRedwall-like rapscallion. But their swinging paws never connected with anything more than empty air, so adroit was Vanessa at dodging these halfhearted punishments, always ducking just beyond range when her latest victim was goaded to the point of physical retaliation.

Frasmo, provoked by an especially robust tail tug, actually rose to his footpaws with a snarl, clearly meaning to pursue his playful tormentor and mete out some well-deserved and long overdue justice to her. But he found himself subjected to a second tail tug, this time from his companion Grice, who sought to restrain him.

"Hey, whaddya think ye're doin', Frazz?"

"Gonna put that liddle harridan in 'er place, that's what! She's been terrorizin' everyshrew here!"

"Ho, that's just fine. Why don'tcher draw yer rapier on 'er too while ye're at it? That'd get us all a fast boot from Redwall. Do you even know who that is?"

"Whaddya mean? Ain't she just some Abbey brat who needs t' be shown how t' properly respect her elders?"

"Her elders, 'e says! Fer yer information, she's prob'ly almost as old as you are. That's th' former Abbess, you idjit - th' one who took a slingstone to 'er head when Snoga attacked Foxguard, an' ain't been right since."

Frasmo's eyes went wide. Of course he'd heard that sad tale - whatbeast hadn't? - but he'd never visited Redwall or met Vanessa before, and since she'd been confined to the Infirmary until that morning, he would never have guessed that the immature troublemaker plaguing their platoon was one and the same.

"Ye're joshin'! That ... that ninny of a bothersome mousemaid ... she used t' be Abbess?! But she's no more'n a youngbeast!"

"Part o' her affliction, from what I hear tell. She honestly berlieves she's a young 'un agin, so she acts like it - an' plays th' part so convincin'ly, it's like she's transformed. Wouldn'ta berlieved it m'self unless I seen it with me own eyes, but it's amazin' what a blow to th' head can cause in a beast."

"Capsized fur! How do these Abbeyfolk put up with 'er?"

"What're they gonna do, put 'er out? She used t' be their Abbess. 'Course, mebbe she's just a bit more riled up than usual, what with all us bein' here. But yer belligerence seems to've chased her away fer now. There she goes, makin' fer th' wall ... "

With the Guosim now off to the River Moss, the walltop stood clear for a new rotation of occupants. The freshly-arrived former slaves, having spent nearly all their time at Redwall so far crowded into Cavern Hole, quickly took advantage of the Mossflower shrews' departure to migrate up to the ramparts for a little sightseeing of their own. Most found the views spectacular, and planted themselves upon the walltop walkway for a good portion of the morning. The vantage afforded them a more comprehensive view of the Abbey and its verdant, sprawling grounds than any they'd enjoyed so far, and the elevated pathway also provided plenty of room to amble along and take in their new home from many different angles, each revealing new aspects to the grandeur and splendor that was Redwall Abbey. And if they but turned their heads in the opposite directions to gaze out over the battlements, the entire geography of central Mossflower lay open to their vision: the main north-south road they'd travelled as recently as yesterday, and the Western Plains beyond; the meadows to the south; the forest fastenesses to the east and north; and of course the rearing tower of Foxguard, visible to them for days now on the final stretch of their journey whenever the landscape opened up enough for them to see beyond the immediate woods, but now rising so high above the treeline that it seemed a constant presence as it stood its perpetual, unblinking watch over all reaches of these forests and plains, near and far.

On top of all this visual magnificence was the perfect weather. The warm spring sun, offset by refreshing breezes, seemed to welcome them here as much as any friendly smile or companionly pawshake had the day before. It was a perfect setting for settling in, a feast for the senses that made the whole world seem glorious.

Into this idyllic scene burst Vanessa, clambering up the wallsteps and weaving her way along the walltop in between the relaxing and strolling former slaves, stopping here and there to stare unabashed at an unfamiliar face or to listen in on idle conversation. At one point, right over the threshold of the main west gate, she came upon Lekkas and Clovis, who sat chatting with a few of the newcomers.

"So, you don't think you'll have any issues sharing the Abbey with a weasel?" Clovis was inquiring of them. "Smallert's really not a bad sort at all, and once you get to know him, you'll see he's as harmless and affable as most woodlanders."

"Shouldn't be a problem, marm," answered the otter Lapstone; out here in the bright sunshine, Clovis and Lekkas could see he was actually quite a bit younger than his multitude of scars, not quite concealed by his fur, made him look upon their first meeting down in Cavern Hole. "We jus' came from spendin' two seasons cooped up in a mountain with a whole brigade o' weasels, an' marched here in the company of a fox an' a marten t' boot. We've come t' see that decent beasts is decent beasts, no matter their species. An' if yore weasel friend's been embraced by these gentle Abbeyfolk an' called a goodbeast by 'em, that's good 'nuff fer me!"

"Aye," agreed a hedgehog named Quillion, rustling his sparse spikes in the sunlight, "it ain't like ye're asking us t' share our new homestead with a rat, or aught like that. They're th' one beast we'd prob'ly draw th' line at, as y' can no doubt imagine."

"No need to explain yourself there, friend," said Lekkas. "We've all suffered at the claws of those foul creatures, an' they're not ones any of us would ever wanna see inside these walls!"

"Lotsa ratties at Redwall!" Vanessa burst out, waving her arm to encompass the grounds below. "Allll over!"

While the recent arrivals just stared at her, Clovis gave a chuckle. "Well, I should certainly hope not, Nessa, because if that ever came to pass, that would be the day I'd have to consider moving out of Redwall!"

Lekkas smiled at Clovis. "But aren't we pretty much planning to do that anyway? Once Freetown is well underway, there should be quite a few of us moving outside these walls." Turning to their guests, he went on, "I don't believe any of you have yet had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa here. She's our former Abbess ... "

"Oh, there you go again, silly mousie!" Vanessa admonished Lekkas in her own carefree, childlike way, flicking his ear with her paw while the newcomers started at her agape; like Captain Choock's shrews they'd heard the stories of what had befallen the unfortunate Abbess, but could not have imagined how this once-revered leader of Redwall might be so reduced to what they beheld before them now. "I was never Abbess! I'm still just a schoolmouse! Why does everybeast keep saying otherwise?"

"Maybe," Lekkas teased, "because you keep saying silly things like there's lots of rats at Redwall! Or were you talking about those shrews down in the orchard? That's not very nice, branding decent, hardworking soldierbeasts with a vermin name."

Vanessa cast her gaze down to where she'd just come from, although from this position the main Abbey building mostly blocked the view of the fruit grove and the shrews lounging there. "Oh, them? They're not rats - just halfmice!"

"Halfmice?" Quillion snorted. "Not sure they'd take much more kindly to that moniker. But, I guess it beats gettin' called rats ... "

"Ooo, I see somebeast!" Vanessa cried out, and shot off along the walltop to the south, dodging amidst the other creatures there with the combined speed of a hare and the alacrity of a squirrel, heedless of her wild conduct and with no thought in her head other than to be where she suddenly wished to go.

Clovis craned her neck to glance along the ramparts. "Funny, I don't see Cyril anywhere up here, and he's the only one she usually goes after like that!"

"Cyril?" Lapstone asked.

"He and his younger brother Cyrus are our Abbey bellringers. Have been, for many seasons. They both used to be novices, but Cyril decided the Redwall order wasn't for him, and left it. Cyrus stayed in, and now he's Brother Winokur's assistant teacher and apprentice Recorder. And as for Cyril, he's settled into a routine as an Abbey handymouse, helping out with whatever tasks need doing. Ever since Vanessa's injury, she's taken a special interest in him - much to his chagrin, and the amusement of the rest of us!"

"Yes," Lekkas added more somberly, "it's about the only amusing thing to come out of that whole sad affair."

"Well, it must keep things interstin' 'round here, if nothin' else," Quillion surmised.

"Oh, we have lots more than just Vanessa to keep things interesting here at Redwall!" Clovis replied brightly. "As you'll see for yourselves in the days ahead!"

Near the southwest corner of the walltop, Winokur stood with some of the slaves who'd brought young sons and daughters with them. The otter Recorder was no less surprised than anybeast by the notion of slaves having families, and since he now stood as the Abbey's schoolmaster, he reasoned it made sense for him to introduce himself to the youngbeasts who were almost certain to become his pupils.

"So, that's what's expected at Redwall," he finished explaining, wrapping up what he hoped had come across as a friendly and casual presentation. "Everybeast is expected to attend Abbey classes until they come of age. They'll be taught basic reading and writing - and a good deal more than just the basics, if they show an aptitude for letters - and be thoroughly versed in Abbey history, including our ways and values. We feel it's important, no matter what vocation or calling they pursue in adulthood, that they enter maturity well-rounded and firmly grounded in these areas of learning, which can form a foundation to success in whatever they choose to do!"

An ottermum, bouncing her toddler on her knee, asked, "Don't you teach 'em anything, uh, practical? Like cookin', or tailorin', or how t' clean?"

"Um ... " Winokur scratched behind his ear with his good paw, unaccustomed to having his scholarly endeavors belittled in any way. "Well, anybeast learning to cook would apprentice with Friar Hugh's staff, and anybeast learning to tailor would apprentice with Sister Gretchen, Sister Grace or Sister Orellana. And gardeners would apprentice with Brother Jerome, and carpenters would apprentice with Brother Sethburr, and masons would apprentice with Foremole, and so on. And as for cleaning, that's something anybeast can do."

"Not if'n ye want it done right," the ottermum countered, her tone suggesting that she might have received some very stern tutelage under her searat masters as to which were the acceptable and unacceptable ways to clean.

"Yes, well, the point is, Abbey classes aren't for anything like that. They're not meant to teach trades or vocations; they're not the same as apprenticeships. We concentrate on reading, writing, history, and other lessons which will help our youngsters all grow up to be responsible members of our community ... or decent goodbeasts in the wider world, if they should decide to dwell elsewhere."

The ottermum shrugged. "Oh well, I guess it'll do no harm. Leastways it'll get 'em out of our fur fer part of each day."

"Um, yes, there is that," Winokur stammered, at a loss from this lukewarm reception to his normally esteemed place in Redwall life.

A mouse father, leaning against the battlements with his two preadolescent sons, put forth, "Not sure I cotton to th' idea of my lads bein' taught t' read an' write when I can't ... "

Winokur perked up at this. "Why, that's no problem at all! Education isn't just for youngbeasts here at Redwall! If you'd like to learn how to read and write yourself, you'll find many Abbeybeasts more than willing to tutor you in this area!"

The mouse seemed unenthused by this prospect. "I dunno. Strikes me as easier just t' keep things th' way they are."

"You'd ... you'd rather ... ?"

Winokur was spared from expressing an opinion he surely would have regretted by Vanessa's timely arrival on the scene. "Hey, Greenpup! What're you still doin' here? You were s'posed to be on your way to th' rocks!"

"Greenpup, huh? That's a new one - although it's preferable to some of your other nicknames you've thrown at me in the past." Winokur held up his bandaged flipper. "And as much as I wanted to go to the rocks, I've been forbidden from doing so by both our Abbots, until I heal up more fully from the wound that a certain badly-behaved mousemaid gave me during yesterday's pageant."

Vanessa's fur bristled. "Ooo, who did that to you? Point her out to me, an' I'll thrash her tail!"

Winokur chuckled to himself. "Yes, I'm sure you would. But never you worry - it's all been taken care of."

"Hrmph! Was it any of these?" Vanessa stormed over to stare down and stand nose-to-nose, in turn, with every youngbeast there, not even sparing the males from her wild-eyed, accusatory glare. When she came to Berkkle, the son of Eldrice to whom Clovis had spoken the evening before, the male mouse found himself perplexed by her very presence.

"What ... what are you? I can't tell if you're a youngbeast like me, or a grown-up."

"Well now that's a rather rude thing t say." Vanessa's eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward until she was nearly touching whiskers with Berkkle. "Did you hurt my Greenpup?"

"Of course he didn't!" the normally-reserved Eldrice snapped at Vanessa. "Brother Winokur just said it was a mousemaid, if you'd been listening. And from his tone, I half suspect it was you. So stop terrorizing my Berkkle, and stop bothering the rest of us too. I don't know who you are, but if every Redwaller were as rude and insolent as you, I think I'd rather be back with the searats!"

A momentary, awkward silence settled over the gathering. For her part, Eldrice sat in surprise at her outburst, even if it had been in defense of her badgered son; never would she have dreamed of speaking so to her searat lords, not even their bratty offspring. But this was Redwall, and things were supposed to be different here. She'd been told that over and over during her time at Salamandastron, and during the long journey here, and now by these Abbeybeasts themselves. There weren't supposed to be any bullies here, or even any masters, if the established former slaves here were to be believed. So, while she trembled a bit at her own temerity, she also felt an undeniable satisfaction at asserting herself to this pugnacious upstart, who comported herself as no Redwaller should.

Eldrice was about to find out, however, that while the punishment of the lash and screw did not exist here for any contrary words she might voice, there were other forms of retaliation which had nothing to do with physical threats, and against which she was powerless.

"Oh, yeah?" Vanessa challenged with her childish impudence. "Well, I think Berkkle needs his father to set a better example for him than you are. Where is he, anyway? Why isn't he here? What happened to him, huh? Huh huh huh?"

Eldrice felt the new resolve within her crack and crumble, and buried her face in her paws, sobs wracking her body. Berkkle, tears welling up in his own eyes, ran to his mother and threw his paws around her, more for his own solace than hers. The mouse father with two sons, who knew enough of Eldrice's history to know why one never asked the mousewife about her absent husband, turned a cold stare upon Vanessa. "You're a wicked gel. Wicked, wicked ... "

Although he never stopped to wonder, while issuing this condemnation, exactly how Vanessa could have known to goad Eldrice in this precise manner.

Vanessa walked up to the sobbing mouse, causing Berkkle and his toddler sister Hildreth to shrink from her. But instead of baiting anybeast further, Vanessa simply lay a gentle paw upon the shuddering Eldrice's knee.

"Don't fret. There are a lot of things going on here. Someday you'll understand. After all, the Seer hides the Seer ... "

Winokur's head snapped around at this. "What was that?"

"What was what?" Vanessa gazed up at the otter Recorder with innocent eyes.

"What you just said. About Seers ... "

Vanessa's face lit up. "I'm hungry! Wonder what's for lunch?" And with that she raced off again with no paw raised to stop her, oblivious to the layers of disruption, consternation and bewilderment she'd left in her wake.

"Who in the name of Dark Forest was that?" the ottermum asked. "And is there any way to have her kicked out of the Abbey?"

"'Fraid not," Winokur replied. "That was our former Abbess. And I'm afraid that, if you're to be living here at Redwall, you'll be every bit as stuck with her as the rest of us are!"