Dominic sighed in dismay and for a moment looked crestfallen at Skarlath's unhelpful and overall discouraging words.
"One riddle leads to another riddle; solve one, there's always a second. But, nobody said it would be easy, and if it was, I'd not be sitting here, now, would I? Anyway…" He thoughtfully twirled his pen between his fingers, taking great care not to splatter ink on his parchment and notes.
"All right, we're about done, aren't we?"
'Now take you the thorn,
And go forward, not back.
Hidden in a rose,
The field shall not lack.'
"We've already identified the bee and the tree, so...
'''Tis two yet is one,
Is this thing you seek,
And then it is done,
To embolden the meek.'"
Dominic stared cluelessly at Skarlath again, carefully suppressing his obvious skepticism with clear stoicism. That being said, the bird was a ghost, and could see right through him.
"The Thorn is the Sword of Martin, and the Rose must refer to the Abbey in which the legendary blade is kept. The Field, also the Abbey, shall not be in need of a defense, a Champion, for Fernleaf has embraced his calling. We are all saved by the grace of Fernleaf, and by those who support and fight with him!"
Dominic dropped his pen in the inkwell and crossed his arms over each other, raising one palm to cup his chin in it, a habit of his when thinking.
"'Two yet is one'...That makes little sense. It is the thing Fernleaf, or perhaps all of us seek, 'to embolden the meek'. How should I interpret this?"
"Well, he seems to like it," Divan observed bluntly from the side while the ferret perused the educational tome. "But he isn't speed-reading, is he?"
"Nobeast can speed read that fast," Jared dared to note, scratching his head. "He's just browsing it."
"Don't tell me he's going to…!" Edoran inhaled frightfully and his eyes grew wide as Fernleaf reached the end of the book.
"He is!" Dane gaped open-mouthed and his face turning white.
"Fernleaf!" Jared reached out after him as he went towards the training dummy. "That's not a good idea right now! Don't do it, brother-!"
A wave of Chi energy exploded, and straw rained down upon the warriors. Jared and Divan crouched on the ground and folded their paws defensively over their heads while the rush of Chi knocked them onto their tails. Edoran, Dane, and Tokal simply looked on blankly at the hailing twigs, totally nonchalant as they fell through, around, over and under them.
"Oh, come on!" Jared got up from his crouch and shook himself violently to rid his fur of its grass-like perpetrators. "We spent two-and-a-half months putting those together! That work for nothing! They're made for hitting with a sword, not with supernatural magic!"
"ONLY TO BE USED IN DIRE NEED!" Divan picked up the book that had flown out of Fernleaf's grip during the burst and subsequent launch backwards, pointing to the cautionary statement purposefully bolded for more than just emphasis. "We may have to set a restriction on that thing. If you use it on a living enemy, like a vermin, well…you won't like the result."
"How will we put this back together?" Jared stared mournfully at the bare wooden post where the dunmy once proudly stood.
"So quick, are you, dear son, to forget about us ghosts?" Dane placed a comforting kiss on his child's face. "There is more to us than simply intangilbiity and immortality. Watch, my boy." Dane pointed his paws toward what remained of the training dummy and tutted his ten fingers articulately. Jared looked on as the pieces, shreds, and scraps reformed themselves magically from a messy circle omnidirectional meters wide into their previous form. There the new dummy reappeared, good as new, reborn and remade.
Dane winked smugly at his speechless second son, kissed him one last time and roughed his hair.
"There! All set to be blown up again!"
"Well, Fernleaf," Jared shrugged at the ferret regretfully. "I hope you've learned your lesson. I say you should just focus on the sword for now and worry about learning about natural magic later. Do you understand? None of us can afford another accident here like that one."
Dominic slapped a relieved mild paw to his forehead. "Thank Martin Jared Sandeye is not our enemy! Praise be to him and to the son of the East!" He put ink into his pen and wrote down Skarlath's explanations, but narrowed his eyes somewhat dubiously at the kestrel.
"Does it make it any clearer? Somewhat, I'd say. Your mysteriousness baffles me, or are all spirits from the Dark Forest like this? You and Sunflash must've had quite the riot together in life, and it seems no less enjoyable in the hereafter. Nonetheless, I will go along with you on this quest, as I promised, and as you promised to do with me."
He finished writing and mulled over his thoughts.
"What kind of monsters would attempt to steal Martin's Sword? It has happened before, everyone at the Abbey knows that. But whom, what, and why? Just what motives, if any, would they have to attempt thievery of such a relic? I cannot imagine it. But I'll do my part to protect the Sword. I know Fernleaf will appreciate it.
The Commander of Blood…could that be? A vermin chieftain, I dare not speak his name aloud lest he appear here before me in this Gatehouse. It's impossible to see what plans he has for Redwall....or worse yet, for Jared Sandeye."
Dominic lay back in his chair, scratching his puzzled brow. He looked to the bird helplessly, hoping for some words of comfort, some measure of elaboration, some emotional aid of whatever sort. Then again, what could a bird give?
Outside, Jared was also scratching his head cluelessy. "Well, what do we do now? Fernleaf has only dented the surface of Shii-Cho training. While there is still much he could learn, if you're that needy to carry on and study the other six Forms, then I suppose I can hurry to my bedroom and get you that book, if you like, Fernleaf."
"I believe that would be best, Jared." Tikal advised. "What say you, Anithralith?"
Not waiting for even a breath of an answer, Jared bolted back inside the Abbey, weaving and slipping past Abbeydwellers going the other way to his dormitory. He dug into the drawer of his end table and removed a bronze-brown hardcover book with paper pages, fancily but well-technically titled, Ways of the Eastern Blades: Personal Explorations and Philosophies of the Seven Forms of Sword Combat, by Jarvis Richings.
Faster than an arrow, Jared practically sped himself out of his bedroom, through the halls, and out to the Lawn again, where he showed the tome to the warrior ferret.
"I'd not call it required reading, but it's highly education regardless. Every Island has a copy of this book, and even the most seasoned of warriors across the East still read it. This is all yours if you plan to read it; it's just that I'll need it back after you're finished."
Samwise hurried frantically around and around an endless field of corn, walls flanking him on both sides for miles and miles across. The summer had yielded and blessed the field of Farmer Maggot with a plentiful mass of crops. One admittedly had to stop every now and then and admire the diligence of the Shire's most determined mouse. There was truly no garden and farm greater than that of Maggot, and Sam as a passionate gardener found himself deeply humbled by it all. But that didn't stop him from spinning on his own mouse heels in desperation, calling out a name over and over again.
"Mr. Frodo? Frodo?! Frodo!!"
The brown mouse materialized down the road, and Sam heaved a sigh of relief. "Mr. Frodo! I thought I'd lost you."
"What are you talking about?" The young Duggins asked in concern.
"It's just something Gandalf said," Sam fearfully confessed as he walked closer into Frodo's eyeline, his walking stick thumping in the thick farm dirt. "'Don't you lose him, Samwise Gimgee.' And…and I don't mean to."
Frodo snorted and laughed innocently. "Sam, we're still in the Shire. What could possibly happen?"
From the walls of corn came running - or falling, rather - two mice, landing on Frodo and Sam and knocking them to the ground. Sam groaned under the weight and shot his eyes open to see whom had run into them.
Of course: Meriadoc Brundyback and Peregrin Rook, bloody dimwits.
"Frodo!" He heard Pippin say in surprise. "Merry! It's Frodo Duggins!"
The weight of Merry lifted from Sam's chest as the former got to his feet. "Hello, Frodo!"
Sam was faster than both of them. He grabbed Pippin forcibly by the waist and hurled him off of Frodo. "Get off him! Come on, Mr. Frodo!"
Frodo stared wide-eyed and horrified at the vegetable litter before him. "What's the meaning of this?!"
But he and Sam were cut off by their fellow mice forcing heaps of carrots, cabbages, and potatoes into their unwilling arms.
"Hold these, and these!" Merry begged.
Sam realized the truth before he held it. "You've been into Farmer Maggot's crop!"
Any reasonable debate was cut off by the sound of a dog barking, and the foursome watched in terror as a long tall scythe appeared over the corn, accompanied by a furious and gruff voice.
"Hoi! You get back here! Wait till I get this through you! Stay out of my field! You'll know the devil when I get to you!"
They were already running before he'd finished his last sentence. Sam dropped the vegetables and sprinted after them, as fast as his legs would carry him.
"Don't know why he's so upset!" Merry cried out in front of him. "It was only a couple of carrots!"
"And some cabbages!" Pippin reminded from the head of the straight line, clearly not helpful in the current situation. "And those few bags of potatoes that we lifted last week! And then the mushrooms the week before!"
"Yes, Pippin, but my point is…he's clearly overreacting! Run!"
Suddenly they reached a cliff top, where Pippin stopped dead in his tracks, only to be bumped into by Merry, Frodo, and then Sam. Before they could decide what to do, they were already tumbling down the hill, landing one on top of another in a humiliating heap.
"Oh, that was close!" Pippin noted, relieved as he looked at an obvious pile of horse manure that he would've landed in had he fallen a meter closer.
"I think I've broken something!" Merry groaned, and he pulled out from behind his back a broken carrot, which he pitifully whined over.
"Trust a Brundyback and a Rook!" Sam grumbled in irritation as he sat up.
"What?" Merry tried to reason blamelessly. "That was just a detour! A shortcut!"
"Shortcut to what?" Sam growled at his friend.
Pippin pointed at something sitting on the ground, and the quartet's faces immediately brightened.
Dominic slumped back in his seat, his mind in a dazed whirl. He couldn't help but smile and laugh at himself, at the sheer yet believable ridiculousness of it all.
"And to think, that just yesterday, I was standing up on a tall ladder, trimming the branches of a tree that had grown over the ramparts of the Abbey wall on the western side. The day before that, I was writing reports on the progress of the war. Pardon me, Skarlath, but I'm still trying to get my head around this. Greybeast, that's me!" The grey-furred Dominic slapped a palm to his forehead. "How extraordinary! How amazing!"
He wrenched himself back from his marveling before he got carried away, and sat up straight, picking up his pen again. But his brow furrowed slightly at the kestrel.
"That still doesn't answer everything. There are more verses with more answers yet to be uncovered. Like these…" He indicated them with the point of his quill. "'Beware of the troupe, So greedy, so wise, May take what is yours, To the one so despised.' 'But the deed is so fated, And shall do unseen good, Cause doom to the recipient, The commander of blood.'"
"The commander of blood, the Troupe,' does that refer to...er, whatever his name is. And the one so despised, is that...Jared Sandeye? I shudder at the possibilities of what terrible outcomes might occur if and when the new enemy arrives in Mossflower. But what say you, Skarlath?"
Tinarandel moved at an impressive speed for his species, practically half-sliding half-walking to fill the new orders. A small scoop of vanilla and a cup of almonds for good measure, asked for by the coyote. He stuffed the rainbow-colored spoon into the cream and placed it up on the counter. The sound of the silver bell had barely finished resonating before Tinarandel was starting on the special requested by the Tasmanian Devil.
"The special is fantastic, sir, I agree." Tinarandel gave the Devil both his treat and a sunny smile, and rang the bell a second time. "Anything I can get you to drink? Water, soda, juice, iced tea?"
His listing of the available beverages was cut abruptly short by the notice popping up on the screen concerning the attack on Senator Crest, seen in his peripheral vision, though the spoken report proper was easily drowned out by that blasted Pharrell Williams blaring over the jukebox. The squirrel dashed over to the colorful and makeshift music player and turned down the volume. He hated the darned song anyway.
"Sorry, girls, but we've gotta hear this," he sincerely apologized to the human young ladies sitting down to eat. "Gosh, does anybeast know if he's going to be okay? If the gunman is still at large, on the run, won't the violence only escalate?"
He shook his head, pulling himself out of his depressing train of thought before it went too far. "No, no, I can't think about that now." In the blink of an eye, he was behind the counter again after slightly turning the music back up. He waited patiently and with a tiny growing grudge for Pharrell to finish, before returning to it and cycling through the main music selection, eventually settling on one of his classic favorites, Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights".
"Southern Nights! Have you ever felt a southern night? Free as the breeze, Not to mention the trees, Whistling tunes that you know and love so?~!…"
The squirrel sang softly to it, not wanting anyone to hear him, but in time he came to raise his voice, singing in a moderate time and hitting every note with accuracy while taking care to manage his breath. After all, he'd studied it in college, and he never forgot what he learned. Though the song was an octave higher than he liked, he did his best to keep up in his best imitation of Campbell. He wanted to entertain his guests, as well as keep his spirits up, to lighten the mood and keep the atmosphere positive. And he was darn sure that the human girls could hear him. He'd do whatever it took to keep everyone happy.
"Southern Nights! Feels so good even when closed your eyes! I apologize to anyone who can truly say, That he has found a better way~..."
Azroel seized the lead through the grounds of the Inn into Mossflower Forest, taking a few seconds to turn over his shoulder and wave a final goodbye to the remaining vermin who'd gathered on the doorstep to see them off. Gajiron, Nivort, and Ravirak also bade farewell, in words and actions, to their formerly fellow Horde vermin, and the foxes, wildcat, squirrelmaid, rat, and hedgehog vanished into the shadows of the Wood. But, they could be trusted, and the Inn would still exist upon their untold return.
Azem took Arries' paw in his own, slowly wrapping his fingers around hers and following on the heels of his brother. None in the group could debate whom was blushing harder than the other. Azroel hid his chuckles behind his paws and gestured to Grundlink and Cockleburr.
"'By five trees that stand horizontal to form a wall, the first an oak, the second a maple, the third yew, the fourth ash, and the fifth evergreen. Before these the house stands, and by them is it guarded.' That's the directions Starly gave us in a letter to find our home. Don't worry about trying to figure it out yourselves; it's too stressful for a simple mind to decipher. Let us lead the way; we'll know it when we see it."
Grundlink snapped two claws in front of Cockleburr to get him moving. "Come on, hedgehog brother. Let's be there by teatime. Time t' leave th' Inn behin', forever."
As morning eased into noon, the sextet emerged from the forest into a square clearing, where smack dab in its center stood a humble cottage of wood, stone, and straw. Behind it proudly towered a wall of oak, maple, ash, yew, and evergreen trees all in a horizontal row.
"Home," Azem whispered aloud, his eyes tearing up. "Home sweet home."
Azroel wiped his brother's eyes and kissed him comfortingly on the forehead. "At long last. Starlight will be so overjoyed to see us again."
Grundlink adjusted his bag over his shoulder. "Will she accept us as guests?"
Azem unconsciously stroked Arries' paw with his thumb, but smiled benignly at the black-white rat. "Of course she will! She loves guests, and there'll be plenty of lemon-honey tea to go around! No more lollygagging, let's get on our doorstep!" He led Arries and her sister down a small flight of wooden stairs down to the doorstep, where he bade them wipe their feet on the welcome mat. Grundlink and Cockleburr came abreast of the foxes and did the same. Moving ahead, Azroel knocked thrice on the wooden door.
Creak! The door opened inwards, and there on the threshold a beautiful slender-bodied wide-eyed thin black vixen, just a head shorter than her twin fox brothers, half-hiding herself shyly behind the door.
Dominic listened intently to the new rhyme Skarlath recited to him for elaboration and translation. The squirrel Recorder quickly wrapped up his thoughts on the original riddle and Soliburr's song, taking great care to ensure that his writing was legible - to both mortal and spirit - then placed his quill pen in the inkwell and began pacing back and forth along the table.
"This may sound like a stupid question, but…Is it odd that I find this more intriguing than stressful?"
Skarlath, without a moment's hesitation, shook his head dismissively, an amused but reassuring smile on his beak. "When it comes to destiny, Brother Dominic, there is no such thing as a stupid question. Every question you ask is indicative of your intelligence and insight, and it shows you truly want to learn what is being taught here. Go right ahead. Perhaps this is your destiny as well, for you to play this vital part in history. I mean to say, that your work just might save Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Forest."
Dominic smiled gratefully at the kestrel and resumed his thoughtful pacing.
"Words can be a double-edged sword, Bound together by a twisted cord.'…Words can mean countless things, with limitless interpretations. When strung together into sentences, who knows the possibilities? No two writers and literary thinkers are the same, after all. Meanings can become lost either by time or by translations of the uneducated and unlearned, the 'twisted cord'." He paused and looked to the kestrel for elaboration. "Am I getting this right? Am I on the right track?"
Much to his annoyance, Skarlath's only reply was another click of his ghostly beak, neither approving nor denying. Dominic bit his lip impatiently but did not comment, lest he accidentally slip something shameful or regrettable. He began again.
"One who would rather stay behind, but can bring sight to the blind...This creature must be greatly reluctant to take part in the conflict, probably a peacebeast of some sort. But he harbors an ability to interpret things in ways no ordinary creature can...bringing sight to the blind."
He fell back into his chair, seized a clean roll of parchment, and wrote down all his thoughts on the first stanza. Skarlath looked it over and nodded encouragingly. Dominic stood and resumed his pacing.
"'Depth of thought...Who shall awaken the sleeper of time? A wise one to unravel the knot'...Who could do all that? A creature who can see the details beneath the surface -"
He stopped, turning in place and twisting his body to gape in astonishment at Skarlath.
"Me? I...am the Greybeast?"
OOC: I'm really really praying that I've done this right! Not my best or most thoughtful.
As his pine marten friend flipped through the channels of the TV mounted on the wall above her tables, Tinarandel voiced his own commentary on the reports that each one presented. One ear was flexibly turned to listening to the girls giving their orders, the other straight to the audio. He quickly snapped open the cash register took the girls' pay, pulled his ears back together, then opened up the ice cream counter to prepare the special sundae.
"Storm across the eastern front, huh? Pray it doesn't devolve into a hurricane. Whatever higher powers we believe in, if any at all, we must hope they will make it only a small passing rainstorm or something like that."
He scooped two helpings of vanilla ice cream into a plastic bowl, then peeled a banana, sliced a cherry into pieces, and spread thick hot chocolate fudge over the bunch, all in the space of one minute. Sticking the creamery's trademark rainbow-colored spoon into the bowl, he put it down beside the cash register and pounded the silver bell to indicate the prepared meal.
"Ylan, order up! …Sharptooth, as in Devran Sharptooth? He's my apartment neighbor, lives right next door to my family and me! Good to know that he'll be all right after the appeal of an unfair court decision. Devran is a great wolf, a skilled honorable sword fencer and an overall highly moral beast! He'd never do any harm to anybeast!"
Tinarandel swiftly set to gathering three more scoops of vanilla together in a new bowl, then added a pinch of colorful sprinkles to them for decoration. He placed that order beside the first and rang the bell a second time.
"Thanks for letting me keep the change, young ladies," Tinarandel winked gratefully at them. But he then sighed and shook his head disgracefully at the contents of the third channel.
"Crest, Rook, and Ruben again? Will their controversy ever end? That's, what, the fourth time this month they've been in trouble? Did the humans have any choice but to move here to New Yak from their war-torn homeland? See, this is why I hate politics so much!
By the way, would you two like anything to drink?' He posed to the two human girls, leaning tiredly again on the counter. "Water, fruit juice, soda, iced tea?"
As the report on yet another anti-beast extremist video came on, Tinarandel couldn't help but feel crestfallen, sadness twinging at his heart, but daring not to let it show on his face.
"Why can't they just stop? Next thing you know, there's riots in the streets. Beast and human alike will be hurt. Innocent blood shed - the government needs to take action to stop this now! I haven't even been on my Facebook or Tumblr in almost nine months!"
The squirrel walked out from behind the counter through the half-door and sat on one of the spinning bar stools to get a better view of the TV. A salvation sounded through the parlor as a classic rock song boomed through the speakers. Tinarandel's despondent expression was effortlessly replaced by a brightly shining cheerfulness.
"Now that's better! Give me music any day! What a relief!"
Spinning to his right, he saw the coyote approaching the counter as Star and Ylan took their food and cleared the line. Tinarandel slid off his stool and hurried back to his place, prepared to serve. He bit his lip disapprovingly at the canine barely paying attention except to the music in his earbuds. Instinctively, Tinarandel shot a paw forward and pulled the left earbud out of the coyote's ear, leaving it to dangling lazily on the collar of his dress shirt.
"Food first, entertainment later, buddy. Or I can turn on the jukebox, if you just ask. Whatever you were listening to, we might have it. The box gets updated with the times and trends, you know, but it tries to remain as comprehensive as possible. How can I serve you today? The sundae special or something basic?"
Grundlink hurried back to his room and picked up his pack, taking a minute to check that everything was still inside and intact. After confirming it, he slung it over his shoulders and returned to his friends.
"We're takin' an awfully huge risk, you two comin' alon'," He noted to the squirrelmaid and wildcat. "But if ye say that it is safe in your vermins' paws, then I won't argue against it. Let's move!"
The two beasts who'd been left in charge of the Inn appeared from the kitchens, joining another behind the bar counter.
"You can count on us!" assured a white rat, holding a steaming frying pan with sauteed onions, garlic, and tomatoes. The chestnut pine marten beside him sprinkled a small pinch of salt into said mixture. "Myself and Ravirak here will protect the Inn with our lives!"
"No monsters would dare steal the Inn from Mossflower's fledgling vermin cooks, Nivort and Ravirak!" Azem laughed as he too picked up his travel bag and chugged the last of the cognac straight from the pitcher, which his brother couldn't help but snicker at.
"Come on, one last drink?" A brown ermine offered a bunch of empty tankards to the departing group. "It's on th' 'ouse, mates!"
Azroel waved a paw in polite refusal. "Sorry, Gajiron, we've really got to move. Besides, I'm sure everyone has had enough to drink. Thank you, though."
Gajiron shrugged it off, not in any way offended. "Aye, if ye say so! But all o' ye are welcome 'ere anytime an' everytime. Madames Arries," The ermine and his Horde brothers bowed elegantly before their former masters. "We swear on our lives an' in th' name o' th' former Fierce 'Orde that we shall guard th' Inn in your absences. May your journeys be safe, your 'earts ligh', an' your bellies full!"
"Where's Ragclaw?" Azem took a sweeping glance around the main room, but the stoat was nowhere to be found.
"Disappeared!" Ravirak vouched, coming back out from the kitchens to return the pan to the stove; Nivort watched over it while the rat explained. "Probably took after tracking Kradilus and his brothers. Nothing we can do about him. What's worse, though, is that he swiped four of the raisin cinnamon oatcakes from the larders, too! But, he's long gone, like a shadow." Ravirak shrugged hopelessly. " Shame, he'd have been a huge help to the Inn. He chose the path of darkness instead, while we all remain in the light. Nevertheless, farewell, brothers and sisters! May we, all of us, meet again! Farewell, farewell!"
With shared cries of farewell, Grundlink, Cockleburr, Azem and Azroel, and the two Arries departed the Inn, exiting the building into the golden sunlight. Gajiron locked the door loudly behind them.
Grundlink shielded his eyes from the morning sun and looked to the northeast. "Ye said ye knew th' shortcuts, aye, foxes?"
"Aye!" Azroel pointed in the same direction. "Just stay close together and we'll be there in no time, early or just in time for tea! Not to brag, but Starlight makes the best - and we mean, the best! lemon-honey tea in Mossflower!"
Azem adjusted his pack over his back and held out a paw to Arries the wildcat. "Well, my lady? Shall we?"
Azroel smirked at Grundlink and Cockleburr. "I was right, my brother's gone a little crazy. Not too much, but enough."
A hot pink blush decorated Azem's cheeks, and he stumbled over his words. "S-shut up, Azro! I'm just…just being rice - er, NICE! Just...showing r-respect to the daughter of Sinom the Fierce, the crown princess...of the Empire and heir to the throne! I'm being a gentlebeast, nothing more! Anyway," He did not take back his paw and selflessly extended it towards Arries. "Does my lady require an escort?"
Regardless of her reaction, the company set off down the northeast road, their hearts light, spirits high, and minds open, and bellies most definitely full.
The adult squirrel Tinarandel leaned over the ice cream counter in total boredom, only stopping to adjust the oversized employee's hat that had for the fourth time today fallen over his eyes. An occupational hazard for working at Hackerson's Cream and Bakery for the past month, unfortunately. Luckily, Tinarandel was an optimistic creature. While the work was slow, this day in particular, he truly enjoyed doing it. Decent pay notwithstanding, the squirrel just outright loved serving the humans and creatures; the selfless service to hungry and thirsty beings who desired a relief from this annoying summer heat brought a joyful warmth to his heart and spirit greater than the season and that could melt all the cream in the parlor.
Speaking of which…
The shrill silver ringing of the bell hanging from the front door heralded the arrival of the humans Star and Ylan, and which shattered the plague of monotony from over the past half hour or so. He speedily reset his hat for the fifth time and felt himself genuinely smile as the teenagers inspected the selection of desserts.
These two troublemakers again?
Well, perhaps 'troublemakers' was the wrong word, and Tinarandel only meant it endearingly. Nevertheless, these two young ladies, regulars at the parlor that he knew personally, did have somewhat of a questionable track record of doing wacky things when off school. But he'd have to brave it and serve them what they wanted. It was his job, after all, and he needed the money.
"Hey, girls!" He greeted them in a cordial and amiable tone. "What can I get you two? Today's special is the vanilla chocolate fudge sundae with banana slices and cherries. Or would you just like to play it simple today?"
Azem and Azroel repeated the evil word bitterly. As he stood up and nearly knocked over his tankard of cognac, Azroel's paw almost flew to the hilt of his saber, but Azem seized his brother's wrist at the last second, showing that they did not wish to harm the wildcat. He took his other paw from Arries' face, cleared his throat innocently, and with his brother, looked her steadfastly in the eyes once again.
"Our younger sister is not cursed. She is in fact the gentlest, sweetest, and smartest vixen you'll ever meet. Think of her what you may, Arries, but I expect you to leave whatever judgments you form here at the Inn. You'll understand when we get there. What Starly lacks in physical strength and combat knowledge, she makes up for in mental wit and her spiritual connections to the essences of nature and life. We may not have been the leaders of your Horde, Arries, but I declare here and now that you shall never speak ill of our sweetheart sister ever again!"
Azroel took several deep breaths and composed himself. "That is exactly the reason why we never told you. Our blood relation and our statements concerning it speak for themselves. We couldn't risk putting her in any danger. We never told you from the beginning when we first joined the Horde, just so we could ensure her protection. Rugthort, Kullek, Kradilus, and Ragclaw - even they knew nothing! We just wanted to protect our beloved dear sister!"
The saving grace from further argument possibly devolving into hostility came from the squirrelmaid shutting up her wildcat counterpart. Both foxes and Grundlink - who had felt no need to interject - breathed giant signs of relief.
"All right," Azem decided. "Let's get going. If we move now, we'll get there in time for tea."
Azroel chuckled heartily. "Starly always hates when we're late for tea. Always."
Dominic leaned an elbow on the table and rested his chin in his other paw, scratching it agreeably. With his quill, he penned his thoughts as he voiced them.
"Longears, a hare who knows his part in the story and whom will soon appear. We must keep our eyes out for him, this identity-less hare. Feathers, a falcon reluctant to join the fray, perhaps afraid to out himself in danger? If it were me, I'd not want to be too vulnerable, either. Greybeast…"
He stopped and met Skarlath's mischievous expression.
"If this is your idea of a joke, it's decently funny but still doesn't answer the riddle. Who is the old Greybeast?"
Skarlath shook his feathery head, still refusing to tell. Dominic bit his lip impatiently, but suppressed the urge to say any regretful words and continued to follow the kestrel's direction.
"Now downwards, now upwards,
The dance of the bee.
So, what is the answer?
Go ask of the tree!"
Dominic shut his eyes for a quick moment, recalling in detail the sounds of the swords clashing against each other as the squirrels and the spirit of the Badger Lord mentored Fernleaf in the ways of the warrior. He remembered the words they said to each other, the laughs, the praises, the step-by-step instructions, the maneuvers, and all in between. He opened his eyes and again looked at Skarlath.
"The art of the sword, some styles are almost dance-like, right? Downwards and upwards refers to movement, the bladework, the techniques, that stuff. Asking of the tree..."
"Soliburr! The molebabe's song, from yesterday!"
Skarlath clicked his beak loudly and approvingly, and felt a smile of amusement and pride as Dominic leaped for joy out of his chair and began prancing around the room ecstatically, singing a refined speech version of the ridiculous yet enigmatic song.
_"I'm a great big bumblebee,
A-buzzing in a sycamore tree.
Don't you wish you was happy and free,
Like a great big bumblebee?
One day a vermin happened to be
A-climbing up the sycamore tree.
And what did the vermin happen to see?
He saw a great big bumblebee!
The vermin said, 'Get away from me.
This here's my own great sycamore tree.'
He fussed and swatted, how mean he be,
At the great big bumblebee!
The bee got mad, you see,
And buzzed, and buzzed around the tree,
And stung the vermin on the footpaw, you see,
The great big bumblebee!
'Ow!', said the vermin, the rat from the sea,
And hopped, and hopped around the tree,
He fell with the crash and banged up his knee,
In the sight of the great big bumblebee!
And from that day, the bumblebee,
Was left alone in his sycamore tree,
Can you know one as happy and free,
As the great big bumblebee!"_
Dominic collapsed in his chair and laughed loud and long at the straightforward brilliance. The ghost of Skarlath waited for him to finish, a delighted smile on his beak.
"The answer was right there all along!" Dominic announced after he'd recovered his wits. "The song is the answer! Fernleaf is the bumblebee and the Sword of Martin is the stinger! The sycamore tree is the Abbey, or even the Forest surrounding it, and the vermin of Kelnris are trying to steal it for their own, but Fernleaf is the protector! Yes, it's been right in front of us, and we never saw it until now! Soliburr gave us the truth! Oh, he deserves the noblest thanks, that sly mole boy!"
Still chuckling, Dominic wrote down these thoughts in his analysis. Eyes twinkling like the bird's, he met his face.
"Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is, don't you agree?"
The mention of the name Starlight brought surprise smiles to the faces of Azem and Azroel. Starlight, a name more special to them than anybeast in the Inn or Horde knew. But before they said anything out loud, the fox brothers turned towards each other and held a whispered conference.
"Should we tell them?" Azroel asked, concerned.
"How much do they know, Arries, I mean, and her squirrelmaid sister? If we tell the truth about knowing her, our relation, it could put her in danger."
"The Horde's gone now, Azro." His younger twin brother Azem comforted him. "Gone and dead. We can trust Grundlink and Cockleburr. Arries and her sister both want to come with us. Those who remain at the Inn can take care of it. This place is in capable paws. It's okay, we can give them the truth. We joined the Horde for her, and nobeast else."
"Everything we've ever done since we joined the Horde was for her," Azroel agreed. "Nothing more or less."
Azem smiled longingly. "Looks like we're going home, then."
Azem matched his smile, his eyes shining fondly. "Aye, Azzy. Home to our girl Starlight."
The foxes turned back to their company. Azem acted as spokesbeast for himself and his brother.
"We know exactly where Starlight lives. The sooner we leave, the better. My bro and I know all the shortcuts."
"Ye know who she is, then?" Grundlink leaned forwards to them, looking brightly hopeful.
"Aye!" Azem affirmed proudly. He shared a heartwarming smile with Azroel, then proudly announced.
"It's where we live, too. Starlight is our sister."
Now genuinely interested, Grundlink leaned in further. The foxes happily elaborated.
"Starlight is the reason why we joined the Horde," Azroel explained, refilling his tankard from a jug of cognac. "We're not exactly a poor family, but not quite rich, either. We're also orphans: our parents were killed many seasons ago when Simon's Empire fell. Every fund we acquired, every coin and treasure went to her. No matter how busy my brother and I became while serving Arries, we always kept Starlight at the forefront of our minds and hearts. She mattered the world to us and still does. Let's get going as soon as possible. Azzy and I are longing to at last go home, the doorstep of which we've not stepped on for a month and a half. We miss our sweetheart girl Starly."
Azem stood up and approached the wildcat and squirrel sisters. "Why are you coming with us? It's not necessary. Someone has to manage the Inn. Some of our brothers might stay, but they can't take care of this place on their own. All the cleaning, the inventories, the maintenance, the cooking and drinking, the whatever stuff! You can't abandon this place; we can take care of ourselves, you know it! Azro and I are - er, were - the Horde's best Makashi wielders! Grundlink uses the most extraordinary variations of Soresu ever seen in this world, and Cockleburr can switch styles on a whim! We'll be just fine."
He bent down and kissed the squirrelmaid's paw affectionately and then took the wildcat's face in his paws, stroking her fur with her thumbs.
"Stay here with your sister. She and the other vermin need you. Don't worry about us. We're going to the legendary Redwall Abbey! Please, for your own sake, Arries, remain here and wait for us. If, when, after the war ends…we'll come back here. I'll come back for you, Arries...I promise."
Divan and Jared held back their laughter at Fernleaf's honest confusion, the Knight of the Wind biting his lip, and the Dawn-Bringer stuffing his tail in his mouth. The Sandeyes on the other paw laughed anyway, not needing to hold their sides or breathe through their invisible lungs. Tokal shook his head disapprovingly at their antics but was displaying a clear amused smugness unfitting for a Badger Lord.
"Don't overthink this, Fernleaf," Divan advised the ferret Champion calmly, granting himself a genuine chuckle. "We'll draw up a diagram for you, right down to the tiniest detail. The Marks of Contact are not memorized overnight, and only the truest and humble of warriors pursue Shii-Cho to mastery, as I am doing. But with a visual reference, you'll never have any problems again."
"Now what?" Jared scratched his chin thoughtfully. "We'd discuss Makashi, but we happen to have no practitioners of it here, need real professionals to tell it. Sorry we can't be of better help, Fernleaf."
Divan snapped his fingers in a sudden conjured idea in his brain. "Why don't we give him that book on the Seven Forms, something to educate hinself with for now? It'll be a fantastic reference for Fernleaf to draw knowledge from. Who's got it?"
"I have it," Jared raised his paw in confirmation. "It was written by Jarvis Richings, son of Phineas, and as such, it's been passed down through the generations of both my parents' sides of the family. While it's not exactly required reading for fledgling warriors, it makes for deep intellectual stimulation and enlightening reading nonetheless. It's in my room, and Fernleaf can have it later, or now, if you wish. What do you say, my ferret brother?"
The sudden startling appearance of the kestrel materializing on his desk, standing like a phantom with folded wings, talons pressing intangibly into his best parchment…nearly made Dominic fall out of his chair.
No. It totally made Dominic fall out of his chair.
Hurrying to his feet, smoothing out his robe to put on a humble and dignified display for the legendary bird, and clearing his throat politely, he shook his paws out of his sleeves and retook his seat.
"Must you ghosts always be so unpredictable? That said, I appreciate your appearance. Skarlath, as the Recorder of Redwall and personal Scribe of Abbot Michael...I need your help."
He reloaded his pen of ink and pointed a finger to the poem.
"I've seen many baffling verses such as these in my time, but never anything like this one. This stanza in particular is impeding my progress of deciphering and translation." Dominic seized a quick gulp of mint tea, cleared his throat again, and read aloud.
"Longears, feather, and greybeast
Are going with you.
To be good companions
In this quest so true.
I wish to know what this means. I won't jump to conclusions without your enlightening immortal truth, Skarlath. Also, could you please check my analyses on the previous stanzas, so to see if I've done so in the contexts of your original intentions?"
Dominic leaned back in his chair and folded his arms in slight disbelief, but he let his faith in the kestral show brilliantly.
"Not every day a writer is visited by the ghost of a bird. I am humbled in your presence, Skarlath, companion of Sunflash the Mace. I hope we will write miracles together."