Arra's claw tips scoured the inner edges of the clay pot, smearing the cold ochre paint across his paw pads. With his now red-coloured paw, he beckoned the young weasel to kneel in front of him, as he sat on an old tree stump. The soldier obeyed, his chain mail clinking and mingling with the rustle of the leaves at the edge of the forest clearing. The sunless dawn sky grew brighter, lending light to Arra's work. Arra gently drew his claws along the weasel's cheek, leaving wavy trails of paint.
"The mark matches your inner fire," Arra intoned softly, letting his paw stroke across the other cheek, giving the weasel matching fire patterns of the red ochre. "If you harness it in battle today, the spirits of the ancient weasels will guide your sword."
The weasel shivered. He was young and weak, perhaps only a season or two out of adolescence. Arra already knew his story; the weasel's real name was Falmere, but his horde nickname was Pike. He had run away from a crowded family home, and journeyed south for warmth and easier times. He wasn't here for his family, and he didn't have many in the horde he could call friend. He was here for himself, because he wanted more. Arra liked that in a fellow vermin. Self-preservation and just a touch of greed, enough to convince a beast to join a horde for the spoils of war.
"And if I fall?" Asked Falmere, or Pike as he preferred to be called. The weasel was shivering inside his cold armour, his ragged old green cloak useless against the cool morning breeze. Arra stood, and motioned for Pike to do the same. The fox led the weasel to a patch of grass where the sun, low and orange on the horizon, shone through a gap in the trees. The horde had camped on a hill, a good defensible location in case of an attack.
The two beasts stood and warmed themselves in the sun. Arra breathed deeply, contemplating Pike's question. The weasel was a cautious fighter, he had already proven himself in a couple of skirmishes. From what Arra had heard from Ulath, the majority of the hares were having some celebration further south. It didn't seem likely that Pike would die today. He patted the weasel's shoulder with his non-painted paw. "I see no such thing happening today."
"Oi! Pike!" A harsh voice crowed. Arra sighed and turned with a sneer to face one of the horde's sergeants tromping up to them. "Not listenin' to Arra's nonsense, are ye?"
Pike looked shocked, and gave Arra a look as if to say 'I'm not with her!'
"Sergeant Shale, these sessions are private," Arra growled, folding his arms and giving the ferret a hard look. The burly sergeant was not as tall as Arra, almost nobeast was, but she had a way of making everybeast feel smaller in her presence. She also never let her real name slip, instead going by 'Shale'. Everybeast in the horde had a nickname, but Arra very rarely failed to find out what their real names were.
Shale gave him a smug grin. "Go on then, Seer. Predict me somethin', ye loony."
The corners of Arra's mouth twitched. He knew this game. Shale could never resist provoking him. He closed his eyes and thought for a moment, then opened them, grinning. "You will soon face great humiliation."
Shale snorted. "Oh, aye? Well, if ye're such a great Seer, how come ye didn't predict… this!"
Shale's paw was about halfway to colliding with Arra's nose when the fox deflected it with one paw, his other paw quickly pressing a knife to the ferret's throat. The two froze for a moment, before Shale shook the fox off her, giving a loud guffaw.
"As I said. Humiliation," Arra said lightly. Scoring points off Shale was easy; the ferret was rather predictable when it came to trying to prove Arra wasn't a Seer.
"Ah, go boil yer head, foxy. Pike, if ye're done with yer face paintin' class, it's time to report fer vittles," Shale continued. Pike saluted obediently and trotted off back through the rows of horde tents. Arra watched him go, smiling faintly. He almost forgot Shale was still standing beside him, till she lightly punched him on the shoulder. He winced, rubbing the sore spot and giving the ferret a hurt look.
"So, today's the day. Our big conquest, aye." Shale said, her scornful tone turning serious for a moment. "Arra, takin' Sal'n'astron is one thing, but I'm worried discipline'll break down amongst the horde, once we're sittin' pretty on good food and shiny treasure. We'll be vulnerable to a siege. The badger won't abandon his mountain so lightly."
Arra nodded, faintly amused at the sergeant's nickname for Salamandastron. Finding the whole word far too long, she had converted it to "Salam And Astron." Nobeast seemed to know who Salam or Astron were, and the nickname had become 'Sal'n'astron', in the sergeant's rough, inarticulate tongue. The nickname was catching on, most other beasts were using it as well.
"I'll do my best to keep the horde alert. If we can keep the mountain till winter, the hares will be so hungry and cold they'll have to run back to Redwall. They're soft, unused to living without all their comforts." Arra replied. He wasn't sure if he himself believed his words, he had read many histories of the tenacity of the Long Patrol. But his answer seemed to satisfy Shale. She nodded, oddly polite for the ferret, and left.
Arra stretched, groaning. He would have to go see Ulath soon, to see the plan started smoothly. He swaggered lazily back to his tent and dipped his painted paw in a bowl of water, washing clear the dried ochre. Then, he headed through the camp, flicking his paws to dry them of the water.
Hordebeasts let him pass freely. He did look rather impressive, if he did think so himself. A fancy ruffled silk shirt, if a bit ripped here and there, with a black waistcoat, lined with silver thread. A tattered, blue-grey cloak over his shoulders, and once-red breeches down to his knees, though rain had run the dye till they were a pale shade of pink.
To another Falsson, Arra would have looked shameful, with his fur dirty and mussed up and his clothes torn and bleached by the sun. But to the hordebeasts, his clothes were fine, rich and mysterious, giving the fox seer an air of power amongst them. Except for the less credulous of them, like Shale. She was a smart ferret, Arra had to admit. Smart, a good fighter and very good at keeping the beasts under her command alive. Despite their rivalry, she was one of the only friends the fox Seer had.
Ulath's tent was the largest, with the wolverine's standard flapping in the morning breeze. There was only one guard at the tent flap - nobeast was foolish enough to try and assassinate the enormous wolverine in broad daylight. The guard saw Arra approaching and politely tapped on the tent flap. "The Seer's here, sir."
Arra waited patiently, smoothing down his waistcoat. The basic plan was getting somebeast inside the mountain, then opening the gates wide for the horde to attack. Viper had been an obvious choice, she was a young mouse, the sort of beasts the dull-witted hares left behind would trust. But Arra had learnt early on that Viper was cunning, remarkably intelligent and a brilliant infiltrator. He could hardly wait to see her in action in their biggest conquest yet.