To where will they go,
This is a secret nobeast may know.
Plundering murdering vulpine thieves,
Who blend with stone,
Or meld with leaves.
See the pale eyes and swirling cloak,
Appear like nightmare,
Vanish like smoke.
What steals upon the silent air,
Gleaming fangs, mottled fur,
A deadly axblade lying there.
Nobeast living can hide from thee,
O thou who treads invisibly,
Cross hill and vale, through woods and rocks.
Who are we but strolling players,
Wand'ring through the long ago,
Joys and sadness, hopes and longings,
Keep us traveling onward though
The laughter and applause of others,
Who view the passing cavalcade,
Leave echoes hovering some far summer,
Floating round a woodland glade.
'Twas but a tale for your amusement,
Like my small unworthy rhyme,
Gone, alas, into those realms,
The land of once upon a time.
Enter the Players
Eternally serene, the moon ruled over star-strewn vaults of cloudless sable night, like a round shield of flecked amber, casting pale light to the earth below. Vagrant breezes from the distant sea drifted idly through Mossflower Wood's southwest margins, cooling the heavy warmth a bright summer day had left in its wake.
Janglur Swifteye sat at the edge of a well-worn trail, his back against the broad trunk of a fallen elm, savoring the calm summer night. He was an unusual squirrel, half as tall again as most of his species, with dark terra-cotta fur, untypically long and thick. A huge bush of tail added to the impression of his size. Beneath the fur Janglur's limbs were hefty and robust, with a stomach of considerable girth, which his mother constantly chided him about. His eyes were hooded and long-lashed, giving the impression he was always half asleep. However, anybeast who knew Janglur Swifteye was careful not to be fooled by his air of easygoing idleness. He was renowned as a quick and dangerous warrior, immensely strong and wise in the ways of battle. But there was another side to him: he was also an obedient son, a dutiful husband and a fond father. In the woodlands behind him his family slept in their little traveling tent, his mother Ellayo, his wife Rimrose and Songbreeze, the daughter who was the apple of her father's eye.
From beneath half-closed lids Janglur Swifteye watched, missing nothing. Clusters of flowering dock nodded lightly against gnarled oak trunks, orange-berried arums and spiking flowered sedge swayed lazily between elder, chestnut and sycamore trees, nocturnal insects trundled or winged their various ways through the darkened forest. From somewhere deep in the thickets a nightingale warbled its short rich trill. Janglur whistled a reply to it on his reed flute, aware that somebeast was creeping up behind him. The only move he made was to blink away a midge from his eyelashes. He knew who the intruder was by the way she approached. Janglur chuckled.
"I hear ye, missie. Couldn't sleep, eh?"
His daughter Songbreeze climbed slowly over the elm trunk and slid down beside him.
"Nobeast could ever surprise you, old Swifteye. Phew! It's far too hot t'sleep and Grandma's snoring like a score of hedgehogs after a feast."
Janglur winked lazily at her. "Huh, listen who's talkin'. Y'should hear yourself snorin' some nights, drowns yore grandma's poor efforts out completely."
She shoved her father playfully. "I do not! Young squirrelmaids don't snore, ask Mum."
Janglur snorted softly. "Y'mother's worse'n both of you put together."
The nightingale warbled its short melody again. Janglur picked up his reed flute. "Listen t'that feller, thinks he can sing. Come on, Song, show him." No creature who knew the tall pretty squirrel ever used her full name.
Janglur played a brief introduction, then Song's voice r.ing out with such sweetness and clarity that a tear coursed its way down her father's cheek. Her voice never tailed to move him.
"Flow'rs of the forest
Are bright in the spring,
Wake with the dawn
Hear a lone skylark sing.
Brooks gaily babble
O'er hillsides so green,
Streams ripple secrets
Of what they have seen,
Small birds give voice
Mid the leaves of great trees,
Which rustle softly
In time with the breeze.
I'll add my music
For what it is worth,
And sing just for you, love,
The song of the earth."
As the last plaintive notes died away, Janglur put aside his flute and wiped a paw quickly across his eyes. Song nudged him gently.
"Big tough warrior, eh, crying again."
Her father sniffed aloud, looking away from her. "Don't be silly. 'Twas just a midge went in me eye, but I couldn't play for you an' wipe it out at the same time, had to wait till you were finished singin'."
In another part of the woodland two foxes ceased their prowl through the undergrowth and listened to the sweet, plaintive melody floating faintly on the night air. Both beasts were identical; apart from the fact they were brother and sister they were alike in every other aspect. Ascrod and his sister Vannan were Marlfoxes, pale-eyed, with strange silver-white coats heavily mottled with patches of black and bluey gray. They wore swirling cloaks of drab brown and green weave. Ascrod's lips scarcely moved as he muttered to his sister: "That singer warbles more sweetly than any bird I ever heard!"
Vannan's pale eyes glimmered in the moonlight. "Aye, brother, and would trill even better at the court of our mother Queen Silth. Come on!"
In the space of a breath both Marlfoxes were gone, melted back into the night-shaded forest like tendrils of smoke on the wind.
Song plucked a blade of grass and tickled her father's eartip. "Big old softie. Come on, play a lively tune and I'll put a smile back on your face, eh?"
But Janglur was not paying attention to her. He stiffened, both ears twitching as he sniffed the breeze. Song caught the urgency of his mood.
"What is it? Can you hear something?"
Janglur's hooded eyes flicked. He watched the trees on the opposite side of the path, talking quietly, not looking at his daughter as he continued scanning the woodlands. "Go quick t'yore mamma, Song, an' tell 'em t'be silent. An' stay put! Hurry now!"
Song had seen her father like this before. She knew better than to stop and argue with him. Wordlessly, she slipped away to the tent.
Janglur took a dangerous-looking thorn dart, tufted with dried grass, from his belt pouch. Placing the missile in his mouth, he tucked it against one cheek, then sat back against the elm trunk. Idly he began playing his reed flute. Outwardly the big squirrel appeared calm, but inside he was poised like lightning ready to strike. In a short while he made out the two foxes moving expertly from a patch of fern to the cover of some bushes, coming closer to him by the moment. Janglur took the flute from his lips, calling out sternly, "Quit sneakin' about an' walk on the path like decent creatures!"
Ascrod and Vannan had thought the squirrel was unaware of their approach. They hid their surprise by putting on a bold front, swaggering up to where Janglur s.it. Ascrod kicked the squirrel's footpaw, just hard enough to warn him that he and his sister were well in charge of the situation.
"You there, who was that singing a short while ago?"
Janglur did not bother to look up at Ascrod, though his voice was menacingly low. "None o' yore business, snipenose. Now get goin', an' take that other one with ye!"
Vannan winked at her brother and smiled nastily as her paw began to stray toward the single-bladed ax she carried beneath her cloak. Janglur appeared to ignore them, and went back to playing his flute. Ascrod leaned close to the squirrel, baring his teeth.
"You're very insolent for a fat lazy squirrel. Shall I show you what we do to beasts with insulting tongues?"
Janglur Swifteye shot the dart from his flute, burying it deep in the tip of Ascrod's nose. As the fox shrieked out in agony, Janglur sprang upright. Whipping forth a loaded sling from around his waist, he hurled himself upon Vannan, who had her ax halfway out. She went down in an unconscious heap as the hard oval river pebble in the sling's tongue thwacked heavily across her skull. Ascrod was hopskipping about wildly, both paws clapped across his muzzle as he screeched with pain.
"Tails'n'scuts preserve us all! Who's kickin' up that awful din?"
Shaking with anger, Janglur turned to see his family dashing toward him, with Ellayo in the lead, brandishing a blackthorn stick.
Janglur stared accusingly at his daughter. "Song, I thought I told you to stay put an' keep 'em quiet?"
Rimrose placed herself between them. " 'Tweren't no fault o' Song's. You jus' try stoppin' that ole mamma of yours when she starts swingin' that stick!"
Janglur's paw shot out. He caught the tip of his mother's stick and held it tight.
Heaving on the blackthorn and stumbling on her long apron hem, the old squirrelwife berated her son. "Leggo o' me stick, y'great boulder-bellied tree-walloper, leggo or I'll spank ten seasons' daylights out of ye!"
Song giggled and clapped her paws. "That's the stuff, Grandma. You give him a good spankin'!"
Rimrose wagged a paw at her daughter. "That'll be quite enough o' that, missie. Show some proper respect for yore elders!" Then, unable to prevent herself, she fell against Song, laughing helplessly. "Oh, heeheehee! It'd be a funny sight to see yore grandma givin' that great lump a spank or two! Heehee!"
Grandma Ellayo let go of the stick and turned on Song and Rimrose, attempting to look fierce as she hid a smile. "Hah! Don't you two think I couldn't tan his tail if'n I took a mind to do it. I'm still his mother, y'know!"
Janglur lifted his mother clear of the ground, hugging her fondly. "You can skelp the fur off'n me anytime ye wants to, my lovely ole barkbelter. Why, I'll bet y'could"
Song interrupted suddenly. "Look! The foxes are gone."
All that remained of the Marlfoxes' visit was a few drops of blood from Ascrod's muzzle, glistening darkly amid the disturbed dust of the path. Janglur peered into the dark woodlands. "Aye, they've got away somehow. Won't catch 'em now, they've vanished." He put a paw about his daughter's shoulders. "Mark what I say, Song. They're Marlfoxes, strange blood runs in their veins. They can disappear like no other livin' creature."
"C'mon, ladies, we best break camp an' get travelin'."
Janglur's family had been wanderers since he was in his infancy, and breaking camp was a simple affair to them. Once the canvas they used as a tent had been folded, their few cooking implements were rolled in it to form a backpack. In the predawn light they breakfasted on clear streamwater and a traveling fruit and honey cake that Rimrose had baked two days before.
"Grandma, what's a Marlfox?" asked Song, between mouthfuls.
Ellayo tried to explain. "The story goes back a long ways'tis far too long to tell in a short time. But I'll tell ye this much, missie. Somewhere there's a forgotten lake, a great stretch o' deep water, almost an inland sea somebeasts say. That's where the Marlfoxes live, an' the most cunning of 'em all, if'n she still lives, is Queen Silth. Aye, they call her the most powerful magic creature alive. 'Tis said her island is a place o' great riches an' beauty. I heard all this from a poor creature who was set upon by a bunch of magpies while fishing off the island."
Ellayo fell silent, and Janglur said, "Don't bother your grandma further, Song. If Marlfoxes are loose in the land y'may learn more than you bargained for. Pick up that linen now, we need t'be travelin'. North an' east a touch, I reckon."
Song folded the small tablecloth, which she had embroidered herself. "What lies in that direction, Father?"
Janglur shouldered the tentpack, settling it comfortably on his back. "The Abbey of Redwall."
The young squirrelmaid's eyes grew wide with delight. She had never visited there, though she had heard tales of the fabulous place. "Redwall Abbey! How wonderful! Oh, Mamma, will it be as nice as you told me it was when I was little?"
Rimrose smiled at her daughter's excitement. "Even nicer, I imagine. Words can't fully describe a place like Redwall."
Song took Grandma Ellayo's paw, supporting her as they walked. With Janglur in the lead, they set off as dawn was breaking. It promised to be another hot summer day, but the tree canopy was thick and would shade them as the sun rose higher. Song could not resist a final question to her father. "Why are we going to Redwall?"
Janglur tucked the reed flute into his broad belt. "Because we must warn whoever rules at the Abbey that there are Marlfoxes roaming the land."
Farther south, on the flatlands close to the woodland fringe, a gaily painted cart stood propped straight on its two large wheels. It had a single shaft, crosstreed at the end by a well-worn pushing bar. Stretched over willow hoops a canvas cover was copiously painted in once bright colors, now faded by sun and seasons, though the lettering still read clearly.
"The Sensational Wandering Noonvale Companions Troupe!"
On the nearby streambank a motley collection of creatures were preparing for a rehearsal. One of them, a theatrical-looking hare, stood forward. He was clad in a rumpled frock coat of lilac silk and a wide-brimmed straw hat, through which his enormous ears poked. He wore floppy yellow boots and carried a silver-tipped cane. The hare's outfit had obviously seen better seasons, as had the cart and the entire troupe. Nevertheless, the hare twirled his cane and boomed out in fine dramatic fashion as if addressing a vast audience.
"Good morrow, one an' all. I am Florian Dugglewoof Wilffachop, h'impresario an' h'actor manager. I preesent to you the Sensational Wanderin' Noonvale Companions Troupe! Descendants of a talented tradition! Unrivaled throughout the entire land! Death-defyin' feats! Hilarious comical plays! Music an' magical virtuosity, jocular jigs an' deelightful dancin'! Come one, come all! Witness our mellifluously marvelous, perfectly pleasurable educational entertainment! Entirely free of charge!" He smiled winningly and continued in a loud stage whisper: "Homemade cakes, pasties an' sundry comestibles, purely for the nourishment of the artistes, gladly accepted with profuse thanks. Ahem!"
From the cover of the cart a gruff voice interrupted Florian's speech impatiently. "Oh, gerron wiv it afore us all falls asleep!"
The hare shot an outraged glance at the cart and snorted. Turning back to his imaginary audience, he beamed. "H'anda now, my bucolic friends, goodwives an' rustic spousesnot forgettin' your charmin' young 'unswe reach our fee-nah-lay! The very climax of our prodigious performance! Borrakul Ironchest an' Elachim Oakpaw, the two strongest h'otters h'ever born, will h'attempt a darin' display of muscle power, which H'i meself have seen kill ten h'other lesser beasts. If you are h'of a nervous nature, kindly look away, as swoonin' an' faintin' may distract the h'artistes' attention. These two mighty marvels will lift the h'entire, H'i repeat, the h'entiredisregardin' me goodself, of coursethey will lift the h'entire Wanderin' Noonvale Companions Troupe ... h'off thee gerround!"