The Inn Far Down the Road
The wildcat paused. What the fox had said confused her, but she still felt something. It was soft, fuzzy. Arries sighed, shaking her head clear, the bright blush that had been growing by the second receded. Her breathing got deeper and steadier. The exercises she had been taught, so long ago, kicked in. She must control her emotions.
Even so, the skin around her ears were a light pink.
Arries the squirrel shook her head hard. "There is nothing I have nor need. She will trust you even if you just say I sent you. It was not that I bore the mark so she helped me, but that she is the kindest and helpful beast you would ever meet. She helps everybeast that needs help, even if all she gets back for payment is hate. "
She stood up, and pushed her chair in. "I'm afraid that is all I can do for help. I would ask to accompany you, if not for the fact my sister needs my assist-" She was cut off by a paw covering her mouth.
"You will do of no such thing! If it is just for me you stay, then I will go!" Arries the wildcat announced. She removed her paw and tightened her belt, now carrying her second-best sword. She had just come out her room to hear Arries, and she would not have that! "No arguments! Now, if you are done listening to this beast prattle on, we best be going! If we set a fast pace, we can get to the foxes' den by mid-afternoon! "
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."
(OOC:familar shriek sounds… )
BIC: Arries the squirrel shook her head, "It's fine. I have mostly everything in good order, and the beasts who are helping now know enough to keep this place functioning for weeks, if need be. Besides, it can't hurt to have experts on Djem-So and Makashi with you. Just let me grab something." She smiled, and quickly rushed into the kitchen.
Arries the wildcat lifted her eyebrows at the two foxes.
"While she is busy, would you mind telling me why I hadn't known about your relationship with that cursed beast? I'll assume my sister had known, but-" she was interrupted by the squirrelmaid coming back, with her satchel and sword.
"I've informed the workers about my leave, and the extra they will get. Let us hurry. We mustn't waste daylight!" She grinned, gripping her satchel strap.
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."
Arries the squirrel nodded and grinned. Her counterpart just sighed.
"When I said cursed, I meant no ill will. Why, the most mighty badgers are cursed, yet are they evil? I think not." She strode out of the Inn. Arries the squirrel just sighed.
"She means it. I suspect she greatly admires Starlight, for many reasons. But there is no disputing that Star is completely normal. Just looking at her gorgous eyes almost hypnotize me. Anyway, we best follow her. " She smiled cheekly, "I've been late to tea before. Not an experiance I wish to repeat." She quickly scurried after her sister.
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Cockleburr had finished his breakfast and stood up. "I understand what you mean. I should know. Bloodwrath is both a blessing and a curse, a curse I would rather do without. But what is is what must be if we are to defeat a foe who would destroy all."
He looked to all. "Are we ready to go, or do we have more talking to do?"
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.
Arries the wildcat blushed, the light pink traveling from her ears, and down to her neck. Before she could fumble for words, her sister laughed.
"It is true, Starlight makes the best tea ever brewed! Why, I didn't even like tea till I tasted that lemon goodness!" She giggled, peeking a glance at her sis, who nodded her thanks. The squirrelmaid winked.
"Better hurry up and get to Star's. Drink tea, save Redwall, and get back to the Inn! I'm starting to miss it…" she joked, following the foxes, her wildcat brethern following close behind.
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.
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Cockleburr was elated to be away from the Inn. It was a nice place to visit, but he was getting bored and stir-crazy there. It was time to go and seek adventure. He didn't need Grundlink's encouragement.
He whistled a tune as he shouldered his mace Spiketail and hefted his pack. Soon, they were at the house. "Starly it is," he said, bowing. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
He followed Starlight down the hall.