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High Rhulain: A Novel of Redwall (Redwall)by Brian Jacques
In the woodlands south of Redwall Abbey, other young creatures were abroad that day: a small gang of water rats, eight in all, headed by one Groffgut. Leaving the larger vermin bands, they had wandered up country, seeking any opportunity to plunder, kill or cause terror. This was done in the hope of establishing themselves as a feared vermin band. Thus far they had made patchy progress, but Groffgut’s confidence was growing daily.
Warm noontide sun slanted through the trees onto a quiet streambank. Some of the rats lay about by the shallows, fishing the limpid waters, whilst others foraged for nests with eggs in. Groffgut disdained such menial tasks, letting the others do all the chores. By virtue of his size, strength and quick temper, he was the chief. Stretched flat out, he gazed over the bump of his paunchy gut, idly watching the blue-grey campfire smoke blending amid sun shafts.
One of his minions, Hangpaw, limped up from the shallows, displaying a small perch dangling from a line. “Yeherr, Chief, lookit, I gorra fish!”
Groffgut was not impressed. “Yarr, s’only a likkle ’un. Stick it onna fire, an’ go an’ catcher some big ’uns.”
An excited whoop rang out from farther up the bank. “Yaggoo! Cumm an’ see dis, mates, I gorra h’eagle!”
Groffgut heaved his bulk up irately. “Wot’s dat Frogeye shoutin’ about now?” Plugtail, another of the gang, came scurrying up. “Chief, Chief, Frogeye’s catchered a h’eagle!”
Groffgut shoved him to one side. The rest followed him as he went to investigate, grumbling all the way. “Huh, shupid! Rats don’t catcher h’eagles, don’t dat ijjit know? It’s h’eagles wot catchers rats!”
None of the gang had ever seen an eagle before, but there was no doubt that Frogeye had captured a big, fierce bird. It looked a lot like they imagined an eagle should look. Frogeye’s lazy eye, the one that normally remained lidded over, was blinking up and down, exposing the milky-hued pupil, as the rat danced around, prodding and tripping his find with a crude, homemade spear. The wounded and exhausted bird stumbled forward, desperately trying to get at the life-sustaining streamwater.
Frogeye slammed his spearbutt into its body, toppling it backward, tail over crest. He laughed callously. “Yeeheehe! See, I told ya, didden’t I? I catched a real live h’eagle all by meself!”
Groffgut drew his sword, which was in reality a broken scythe blade with a rope handle. Approaching the big bird, he stood on one of its half-spread wings, pinning the other with his blade as he inspected it. Had the bird not been injured or fatigued, any rat would have rushed for cover at the sight of it. Groffgut saw clearly that it was unable to resist. The bird’s savage golden eyes were clouded and flickering shut, a stream of dried blood apparently having sealed its lethally hooked beak. The magnificent dark brown and white plumage stuck out willy-nilly after being battered for leagues across stormbound seas.
Groffgut gave the gang his verdict. “Aye, it’s a h’eagle, shore enuff!”
Nobeast took the trouble to argue, though Hangpaw, a thin rat with a withered limb, ventured to enquire, “Wot’s we s’posed ter do wid h’eagles?” Threetooth, who lacked all but three fangs, cackled. “Yer eats ’em, I think.” His companion, Rashback, so named because of an unsightly mange, scratched vigourously at his scraggy tail. “I didden know ye could eat h’eagles!” Groffgut eyed him contemptuously. “Ye can eat anybeast once it’s dead, turnep’ead!” Frogeye became huffy at not being consulted. “Hoi! Dis is my h’eagle, I catchered it. S’pose I duzzen’t wanner eat it, eh?”
Groffgut pointed at Frogeye with his sword. “Tern around willyer, mate.” Frogeye turned obediently, and Groffgut dealt him an enormous kick to the bottom, which knocked him flat. The breath whooshed out of Frogeye as Groffgut stamped a footpaw down on his back, sneering, “I’m the chief round ’ere! Who asked yew, malletnose? Plug, git yore rope round dis h’eagle’s claws, lash ’im tight.” Plugtail flung his rope around the big bird’s legs and noosed them securely. The bird could only flap its wings feebly in protest.
Groffgut issued his orders to the gang. “We’ll eat the h’eagle later. Let’s ’ave a bit o’ fun wid it first. T’ain’t every day yer gits a h’eagle ter play wid. Tow it back ter camp, mates!”
The wood-gathering expedition had been a success. Tiria and her three friends had worked diligently, filling the cart with a selection of long branches and straight, thick limbs. It was mainly good yew staves, some pieces of ash and a selection of lesser but useful bits of willow and birch. The four companions were following the course of a stream, which they knew flowed close to the south path at one point. Once they reached the path, Redwall would be within easy walking distance. Tiria estimated they would reach the Abbey by early evening.
Enjoying the freedom of the outdoors, and being in no great hurry, they opted to take a break for an afternoon snack on the streambank. Girry unpacked the last of their food, whilst Tiria checked the ropes which bound the cargo of wood to the cart. Brinty and Tribsy skimmed flat pebbles over the slow-flowing stream. The ottermaid felt quietly proud of herself; she had completed her task without any untoward incident. Cooling her footpaws in the shallows, she watched the noon shadows start to lengthen over the tranquil waters. Two green- and black-banded dragonflies patrolled the far reed margin, their wings iridescent in the sunlight. Bees droned drowsily around some water crowfoot blossoms, and birdsong echoed amid the trees.
Tribsy left off skimming and sat down to eat. “Froo’ corjul an’ hunny sangwiches, moi fayverrit!”
Tiria smiled. “Good old Friar Bibble, he knows how to look after hungry workers, eh Tribsy?”
The young mole smiled from ear to ear. “Hurr, an’ us’ll be back at ee Red’all in gudd toime furr supper. Oi dearly loikes a noice supper, so oi doo’s!”
Brinty took a long swig of the fruit cordial. “Don’t you ever think of anything but eating, old famine face?”
Tribsy patted his stomach. “Whut’s to think abowt, maister? Oi bee’s nought but ee pore choild needin’ vittles aplenty to grow.”
Brinty watched the young mole demolish a sandwich in two bites. “You’re growing sideways instead of upwards.”
Girry gestured his friends to be quiet as his ears stood up straight. “Ssshh! Listen, did you hear that?”
They listened for a moment, then Tiria shrugged. “Hear what?”
Girry pointed upstream. “Over that way, sounded like somebeasts enjoying themselves, laughing and shouting.”
Tribsy wrinkled his snout. “Oi doan’t yurrs nuthin’. You’m squirrels can yurr better’n uz moles, burr aye.”
Brinty shook his head. “I don’t hear anything, either.”
Girry began climbing a nearby elm. “Well, I can hear it, there’s something going on up yonder. You three stay here, I’ll go and take a peep.”
Tiria cautioned her friend, “Stay in the treetops, Girry. Don’t go getting yourself into any trouble. I don’t want to face my dad back at the Abbey and have to tell him something happened to you!”
The agile young squirrel threw her a curt salute. “Yes marm, don’t fret marm, I’ll be fine marm!”
The ottermaid watched him ascend into the upper foliage. “Well, just be careful, and less of the marm, please! I’m only one season older than you, cheekybrush!” Tribsy commandeered another sandwich. “Oi’ll just finish off ee vittles whoile us’ns bee’s waitin’. Ho joy, this ’un’s gotten cheese on it, moi fayverite!” Brinty looked at his molefriend in amazement. “Is there any sandwich that isn’t your favourite?”
Tribsy shook his head solemnly. “Oi b’aint found one as yet, zurr.”
After a while they went back to skimming stones. Tiria was by far the best skimmer, making one flat chip of bankrock jump nine times as it bounced over the water. It was rather pleasant passing an afternoon in this fashion, the ottermaid thought. She began to wonder what the fuss and stern warnings from her father had been all about. Just then, Girry dropped down out of the elm in a rush of leaves and twig ends. The young squirrel, breathless with indignation and urgency, gabbled out, “They’ve got a big bird hanging upside down from a tree and they’re lighting a fire under it, hitting it with spearpoles. We’ve got to stop them, Tiria, oh, the poor bird!”
Grabbing her friend, the ottermaid shook him soundly. “Make sense, Girry! What big bird, where, and who’s hitting it? Now take a deep breath and start again, properly!” Girry obeyed, taking several breaths before he recovered. “I went upstream. I was up in a beech when I saw them. There’s about eight water rats, nasty-looking scum. Anyhow, these rats, they’ve got a big bird strung upside down from a bough, and they’re torturing it to death, I swear they are. Please, Tiria, we must do something to help the bird!” Unwinding the sling Wuppit from about her waist, Tiria took charge swiftly.“Take an axe, Girry. Go on ahead of us and get close to the bird without being seen. Then wait for us. Tribsy, Brinty, take two good yew staves from the cart and follow behind me!” Plugtail and Hangpaw were trying to set light to a heap of twigs, leaves and moss beneath where the big bird was hanging upside down. They had to keep ducking as the other gang rats swung the hawk back and forth by prodding and striking at it with their spears. The bird’s wings hung limply outspread. Though it hissed feebly at its tormentors, there was no way it could stop them.
Groffgut was enjoying himself immensely at the expense of his helpless victim. He swung his crude sword at the bird, clipping a few of its throat feathers, while taunting it cruelly. “Once dat fire’s ablaze, we’ll roast yer nice’n’slow, birdy. May’ap it’ll be suppertime afore yore dead an’ ready, eh?”
Frogeye took a lunge at the bird with his spear but missed. “Kin I ’ave one of its legs, Chief? It was me wot catchered it.”
Groffgut snarled and aimed a kick at him. “I’ll ’ave one of yore legs if’n ye slays that h’eagle too quick. Stop stabbin’ at it like that, snottynose!”
Parraaaang! A hard river pebble shot out of the trees, striking the swordblade and knocking it from Groffgut’s grasp. He went immediately into an agonised dance, sucking at the paw which was stinging from the reverberation of the strike.
“Yeeeeek! Who did that? Heeeyaaagh!”
Tiria sped onto the streambank, whirling another stone in her sling as she shouted, “Get away from that bird, rat!”
Groffgut stopped dancing, tears beading in his squinched eyes. He saw that it was a lone otter. Waving his numbed paw at the gang, he screeched, “Kill dat riverdog t’bits. Slay ’er!”
Frogeye leaped forward, thrusting with his spear. Tiria sidestepped it. Swinging the stone-loaded sling, she brought it crashing into the rat’s jaw as she roared, “Redwaaaaallll!”
Brinty and Tribsy charged out of the bushes, laying about heftily with their long staves. Girry dropped down onto the bough which held the big bird. Leaping from there to the ground, he scattered the smouldering fire with his axe. Tribsy gave Plugtail a crack across both legs with his staff, which sent the rat hurtling into the stream. Brinty brought the butt of his staff straight into Groffgut’s belly as he reached with his good paw for the sword. Then he began lambasting the gang chief mercilessly. Tiria was everywhere at once, flailing with her loaded sling, cracking the rats’ paws, ribs, tails and heads. Whilst all this was going on, Girry placed his back beneath the bird’s head and supported it. Taken aback by the ambush, most of the rats fled for their lives, leaving only three of their number at the scene. Threetooth and Frogeye were stretched out senseless; Groffgut, unfortunately, was still conscious, wailing and pleading as Brinty whacked on at him in a frenzy, yelling at him with each blow he delivered. “Dirty! Filthy! Torturer!” Tiria seized the young mouse, lifting him clear of his target. “Enough, he’s had enough! Do you want to kill him?”
Brinty was still waving his staff at empty air, roaring, “Aye, I’ll kill the scum sure enough. Rotten, murdering torturer. He’s not fit to stay alive!”
Tiria squeezed Brinty hard. “Now stop that, this instant!”
The young mouse suddenly calmed down. He dropped his staff at the realisation of the wild way he had been behaving. “Sorry, mate, I must have got carried away!” Tribsy chuckled. “Hurr, you’m surrpintly did, zurr, boi okey, Miz Tiria. Coom on, let’s get ee pore burd daown!”
Tiria relieved Girry by holding the weight of the limp hawk. The young squirrel took his axe, clambered up into the tree and cut the rope with a single stroke.
The ottermaid lowered the bird gently to the ground, murmuring softly to it, even though it was unconscious. “There there, easy now. You’re among friends. We’ll get you back to Redwall Abbey. You’ll be taken care of there, I promise.”
Girry bounded out of the tree, calling to Tribsy, “Come on, we’ll get the cart to carry the big bird on.”
Tiria stayed by the hawk’s side. “Good idea, mates. Brinty, you keep an eye on that rat, he looks like their leader.”
The young mouse strode over to Groffgut, issuing a harsh warning. “One move out of you, lardbelly, and I’ll break your skull!” Then he picked up Groffgut’s sword and flung it into the stream as the rat gang chief lay there helplessly, glaring hatred at Brinty through his swollen eyes. When they returned with the cart, it took three of them to lift the big bird on. It lay limp atop the wood cargo.
Tribsy stroked its head. “Do ee bee’s still naow, burd. We’m friends, acumm to ’elp ee.” The bird’s golden eyes opened for a brief moment before it passed out again. Tribsy patted it gently. “Thurr naow, ee pore creetur, you’m sleep well. Us’ll watch o’er ee ’til you’m gets to ee h’Abbey!”
Tiria settled the bird more comfortably on the cart and went to Brinty. The young mouse was wielding his staff, standing guard over Groffgut. The ottermaid nodded approvingly. “Well done, mate. I think you knocked all the fight out of that one!” She turned the rat over with her footpaw. “Listen carefully, vermin. We’re not murderers like you, that’s why you’re still alive. But I warn you, stay out of Mossflower, or you won’t get off so lightly next time.”
Groffgut made as if to snarl, but Brinty jabbed him sharply. “Listen, scumface. If you ever cross my path again, I’ll break your skull. Do I make myself clear?” The gang leader never answered. He lay there, his whole body one throbbing pulse of pain from the beating Brinty had given him. Then he spat contemptuously, still glaring at the young mouse. Brinty took a step forward, but Tiria pulled him away. “Come on, leave him. We’ve got to get the poor bird back to Redwall. I think that vermin’s learned his lesson.”
Groffgut watched them go. When they were safely out of earshot, he stared balefully at Brinty’s back, muttering, “I won’t ferget you, mousey, oh no! Next time we meet will be yer dyin’ day. But I’ll make it nice’n’slow for ye!”
As the friends made their way along the streambank, Tiria noticed that Brinty’s paws were shaking and his jaw was trembling. “Are you alright, mate?” she murmured. The young mouse shook his head. “I’ve never raised my paw in anger against another creature before, and I’ve never been in a fight. I don’t know what happened to me back there. That rat was much bigger than me. If he could have reached his sword, he’d have slain me easily. You know me, Tiria, I’m usually the most peaceful of mice. But when I thought of the way that rat had treated the bird, well, I just lost control. I’m sorry.” Tiria winked at her friend. “No need to be sorry, Brinty. Some of the quietest creatures can fight like madbeasts when they’re roused. You did a brave thing, going at the rat like you did.”
Brinty strove to keep his paws from shaking. “Maybe so, but it’s not a very pleasant feeling afterward, remembering what you did. I would have killed him if you hadn’t pulled me off. I don’t think I’d ever like to fight again, it’s too upsetting.” The twin bells of Redwall, Methusaleh and Matthias, were tolling out their evening peal as the cart reached the Abbey gates. Tiria banged at the entrance. Hillyah and her husband, Oreal, two harvest mice, served as the Abbey Gatekeepers. The couple lived in the gatehouse with their twin babes, Irgle and Ralg.
Oreal called out from behind the huge timber gates, “Say who ye are. Do ye come in peace to our Abbey?”
Girry answered the challenge.“It’s the wood gatherers, open up! We’ve got an injured beast here that needs help!”
Unbarring the main gates, the Gatekeepers opened one side, allowing the friends to pass through with the cart.
The little harvest mouse twins squeaked aloud at the sight of the big bird draped on the wooden cargo. “Yeeeek! A hinjerbeast!”
Their mother drew them aside. “It’s not a hinjerbeast, it’s an injured beast, an eagle I think, though I’ve never seen one before.”
Tiria allowed the harvest mouse family to help with pushing the cart up to the Abbey building. “The elders will tell us what type of bird it is, once we get it safely inside.” Abbess Lycian and her friend Burbee awaited them on the Abbey steps, along with Skipper, Foremole Grudd and Brink Greyspoke. Skipper shook his daughter’s paw heartily.
“Stripe me rudder, gel! That’s a fair ole cargo o’ wood, but is that a dead bird you’ve brought us?”
The little twins piped up together, “It’s a hinjerbeast, Skip!” Abbess Lycian hastened forward to inspect the creature. “It’s alive, but only just, poor thing. How did this happen?”
Girry explained eagerly. “A gang of water rats had it tied up, hanging from a tree. They were tormenting it, but we stopped ’em with our staves. Hah, you should’ve seen Tiria, though, she charged right in and battered the bark off those rats with her sling. They soon cleared off, dirty cowards!”
Brink interrupted. “Tell us later, young Girry. Let’s get this pore bird some attention afore ’tis a deadbeast. Tribsy, run an’ fetch Brother Perant, he’ll know wot t’do. Brinty, go an’ get ole Quelt the Recorder. I’ll wager he’ll know wot kind o’ bird this ’un is.” Molemum Burbee hitched up her vast flowery apron. “Hurr, an’ oi’l goo an’ make ee gurt pot o’tea!”
Abbess Lycian smiled appreciatively at her friend. “Good idea, Burbee. Would you be so kind as to bring it up to the Infirmary? A nice cup of tea never goes amiss.” Brother Perant was Redwall’s Infirmary Keeper and Healer. The good mouse’s knowledge of herbs, salves, potions and treatments was without peer in all Mossflower. No sooner was the bird borne into his sickbay than Perant began practising his art. “Hmm, a giant of a bird, not like any hereabouts. Probably some kind of eagle or hawk. There’s an object lodged inside its mouth. Nasty thing, looks like a star made of iron. See how it sticks out from beneath the lower beak? Skipper, get that hardwood pestle, force the beak open and hold it still whilst I work. Huh, wouldn’t like to lose a paw if it snapped shut as I was operating!”
Most of the gentler woodland creatures had to look away as Perant pried at the object with his instruments. He worked swiftly, muttering to himself, “What sort of villain would do this to a living creature? Ah, here it comes . . . dreadful thing, just look at that!” Wiping the barb clean, he passed it to Tiria. She felt the sharp edges of the iron star, her face grim as she dropped it into her pebble pouch. “Someday I may get the chance to pay the scum back with his own weapon!”
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