By Brian Jacques
PHILOMEL BOOKS Copyright © 2003 The Redwall La Dita Co., Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0399237240
Lashing rain, driven by harsh biting winds from the sea, scoured the land from the bleak salt marshes to the stunted scrub forest. Abruc the sea otter bent against the strain of a loaded rush basket. It was tied to his shoulders and belted across his brow to stop it from spilling backward.
Holding on to his father's paw, young Stugg trotted alongside, plying his parent with interminable questions, which Abruc did his best to answer.
"H'are you veddy veddy strong?" Scrunching his eyes against the wind, Abruc could not help smiling at his inquisitive little son. "I have t'be strong. I've got to feed you, your mamma an' the whole family. That's my job, I'm a father."
Stugg sucked his free paw, digesting this information whilst he thought up another question. "Den why can't Stugg sit atop of your basket no more?"
Abruc adjusted the belt to ease the strain on his neck. "Because you've growed since last season. Yore gettin' to be a big feller now, a fine lump of an otter. Soon you'll be carryin' yore ole dad an' the basket. Let's put a move on, Stugg, so we can make it into the woods by dark. It'll be good to take a rest out o' this weather."
With the sound of the grey northeast sea pounding in their ears, both the sea otters squelched through the desolate salt marshes toward the weather-bent scrub forest.
Daylight ebbed into early evening as they entered the shelter of the trees. With a grunt of relief, Abruc swung his basket to the ground. It was brimfull of edible seaweed, scallops, mussels and shrimp-a full two days' work, gleaned from the coast of the barren northeast waters. Abruc sat on a fallen pine. Sensing his father's weariness, Stugg climbed up behind him and began gently rubbing his brow.
Abruc relaxed, sighing gratefully. "Hmmmm, that's nice. I was beginnin' to think that strap'd cut the top off me skull. Huh, where'd I be then?"
Stugg giggled. "Wiv a half offa head, silly ole farder!" The sea otter cautioned his son. "Hush now, not so loud. There might be Coast Raiders about. Huh, they'd cut the tops off'n our skulls, just to watch us die."
Wide-eyed, Stugg crouched down against his father, speaking in a hushed whisper. "Mamma says Coaster Raiders be's naughty vermints!"
His father pushed dry pine needles into a small heap, shaking his head grimly. "Naughty ain't the word for that scum. They're evil, cold-blooded murderers. Cruelty is just fun to the likes o' them. Right, young 'un, I suppose yore hungry now?"
Nodding eagerly, Stugg whispered, "I'm starfished!" Abruc chuckled. Starfished was a word all the young ones used, a cross twixt starving and famished.
He patted Stugg's head fondly. "Nothin' worse'n a starfished otter. You stay here, keep yore eyes'n'ears open, an' lay low. I'll go an' find us a snug berth for the night."
He pulled a sack from under his cloak, tossing it to his son. "Sort through the rest of those rations an' see wot you want for supper. I'll be back soon."
Abruc knew the woods well, he recalled a spot not too far off. It was a good dry place, sheltered by a rock ledge. Silent as a night breeze, he weaved his way through the dark, twisted trees, straight to the exact location. He had camped there before. Halting slightly short of his destination, he paused. Something did not feel quite right about the area. Abruc sniffed the air and listened carefully, his animal instinct aroused. He caught the faint sound of ragged breathing. Drawing his long dagger, he crept forward, peering keenly into the shadows, his neck hairs bristling.
For supper Stugg had selected two flat loaves, some of his mamma's apple and blackberry preserve and their last flask of plum cordial. If his father lit a fire, they could make toasted preserve sandwiches and warm cordial. The young otter was a pretty fair cook, often having helped his mamma to prepare meals. There was not much else to do but wait in silence for his father's return. Stugg set out the food and sat next to the basket of supplies.
Abruc came speeding out of the darkness to his son's side. Crouching beside Stugg, he gripped his paws tightly. The sea otter's voice was urgent and breathless from running.
"Listen carefully, little mate. Could you find yore way back home to our holt on yore own?" Stugg was taken aback by the unusual request. "Er, I fink so, what's a matter, farder?" Abruc gripped his son's paws tighter. His voice sounded harsh. "Answer me-yes or no! Could you find yore way back home?" Stugg had never seen his father like this. He nodded, his own voice sounding small and scared. "Yes, Stugg know d'way!" Abruc released the young otter's paws. "Good, now here's wot y'must do, son. Find Shoredog. Tell him to bring the crew to the spot by the rock ledge, he'll know where I mean. Say that they best bring rope, canvas an' poles. Enough t'make a stretcher to carry a wounded, giant stripedog. That's if'n he's still alive when they reach here."
Words poured from Stugg's mouth like running water. "A giant, a stripedog, a wounded one? I never see'd a giant stripedog afore! What happened? Will he get deaded ..." Abruc grabbed Stugg and shook him, something he had ever done before. He hissed at him through clenched teeth. "Shut yore mouth, son! Don't stand here askin' questions! Go now, run, don't stop for anythin'. The life of another creature depends on you. Go!"
Young Stugg took off like a madbeast, pine needles scattering from under his paws as he tore homeward through the nighttime forest. Abruc watched until his son was out of sight, then gathered up their belongings and dashed back to the camp beneath the ledge.
Swiftly he heaped dry pine needles and cones with a few twigs. Using the steel of his knife blade against a chunk of flint, he soon had a small fire burning. It was sheltered by the overhanging rock and could not be seen from a reasonable distance. Abruc viewed the scene around him. Two badgers, one very old, the other about two seasons into his adult growth, lay stretched out, side by side. Small and grizzled, the oldest of the pair was obviously dead, slain by various weapon thrusts. As he turned to the younger badger, a brief glance at the churned-up ground and the blood-flecked rock confirmed the sea otter's suspicions. His jaw clenched angrily. "Dirty murderin' Raiders!"
The younger badger was still alive. Abruc had seen one or two badgers in his lifetime, but not as big as this fellow. He was truly a giant-tall, deep of chest and broadbacked with massive paws and powerfully muscled limbs.
The sea otter winced as he inspected the fearsome wound to the badger's head. A long jagged slash, from eartip to neck, had ripped across the badger's face. Narrowly missing the eye, it had ploughed across the brow, through the wide-striped muzzle, across the jaw line to the side of the creature's throat.
Abruc, with only a limited knowledge of healing, staunched the blood with his cloak. Lifting the badger's head, he cradled it in his lap, dabbing away at the dreadful rift and murmuring to the unconscious beast.
"Seasons o' salt, matey, 'tis a miracle yore still alive! Y'must have a skull made o' rock. I know you can't hear me, but don't worry, big feller, our crew will do the best we can for ye. There's one or two good healers at our holt."
Abruc sat rambling away to the senseless badger, knowing he could do little else until help arrived.
It was close to midnight. Rainladen wind hissed through the scrub forest, carrying with it salt spray from the thundering seas. Beside the guttering embers of his little fire, Abruc had dozed off, still holding the badger's head.
At the front of the otter crew, Shoredog pointed with his lantern, hurrying forward. "There they are, mates!"
Little Stugg reached his father first. "I bringed them, farder!"
Abruc patted the youngster's paw. "Yore a good ole scout. Unnh, somebeast get me out from under this giant's head. Me limbs have gone asleep on me from holdin' his weight."
Willing paws assisted him upright. Shoredog shook his head as he viewed the injured badger. "Great seasons, lookit the mess the pore creature's in. I fears there ain't much hope for 'im. I never set eyes on a wound bad as that 'un!"
Stugg caught sight of his mother and tugged at her paw. "Issa giant stripedog goin' to die, mamma?"
Abruc's wife Marinu nodded at Shoredog's grandma, Sork. "Not if'n we can help it, Stugg. Come on, crew, get some warm blankets around that badger an' strap him to a stretcher. Easy now, don't jolt the pore beast too much."
Everybeast knew that Marinu and Sork were the best healers in all the southeast.
Stugg grinned broadly. Now that he had succeeded in his mission, he proceeded to take charge of the situation, striding about and issuing orders. "You all hear my mamma, pick dat stripedog up careful!"
Marinu was about to pull her son to one side when Abruc murmured to her, "Let the young 'un be, he did well tonight."
As the otter crew manoeuvred the huge badger onto the huge stretcher, Shoredog gave a surprised bark. "Blood'n'thunder, lookit that!"
Beneath the injured creature a mighty bow and a quiver of long arrows lay half covered in the loose sand and pine needles. The badger had fallen backward upon the bow, his hefty bulk breaking the weapon in two pieces. One jagged half was stuck into his hip. Marinu halted the bearers until she and Sork had extracted the splintered yew wood. The big fellow grunted faintly as they padded and dressed the wound.
Stugg jumped up and down triumphantly. "He be's alive, d'stripedog maked noise!"
Old Sork looped the birchbark quiver over Stugg's head. It scraped the ground, the arrows were taller than he. Sork shooed the young one aside. "Aye, mayhap he is. Now you carry those an' stay out the way."
A score of otters bore the badger off on a litter of pine poles, sailcloth and rope, padded with dead grass and soft moss. Stugg stayed behind with his father and Shoredog to bury the dead badger. It was only a shallow grave, but they found slabs of rock to top it off with. Abruc wedged the two pieces of broken bow, with the string still joining them, into the foot of the grave. They would serve as a marker. All three sea otters gazed down at the sad resting place.
Abruc shook his head. "Pore old beast, we don't even know wot name he went by. He looked weak, an' small. A badger that age should've spent out his seasons restin' in the sun. I wonder wot kin he was t'the big 'un. Mebbe his father?"
Stugg pressed his face against Abruc and wept. He could not imagine anybeast losing a father. He sobbed brokenly. "Who would kill someone's farder like that?"
Shoredog looked up from smoothing the earth around the stones. "Only beast I knows who kills like that is Raga Bol." The name struck fear into Abruc. "Raga Bol! Has he been here?" Shoredog stood upright, dusting off his paws. "While you an' Stugg were gone, Rurff the grey seal visited our holt. He saw the Searats' ship wrecked on the rocks, further north up the coast. Raga Bol an' about fifty vermin crew came ashore. They headed down this way, but pickin's are scarce on this northeast coast, so they've probably marched inland. They ain't got a ship anymore. I was just rousin' our crew to search for you an' Stugg, when the young 'un comes runnin' to tell me you need help."
Shoredog took one of the straps on Abruc's basket. "Let me help ye with this, mate, 'tis a good haul."
They set off back to their holt, with Stugg stumbling over the quiver of long arrows. Abruc shrugged philosophically. "It's a bad spring, cold an' stormy. Let's hope summer's a bit better when it comes. At least we won't have Raga Bol an' his villains to worry about. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky, really."
Young Stugg hitched the arrows higher on his back. They still dragged along the ground as he muttered aloud. "More luckier than d'poor stripedogs, I appose."
A brief smile crossed Shoredog's weathered face. "That young 'un of yores is growin' up quick mate!"
Dawn glimmered chili and blustery over the heathlands some two leagues west of the northeast sea. Wet, hungry and dispirited, Raga Bol's crew of Searats huddled round a smoking fire down a ravine. They stared miserably at a deep, rain-swollen stream running nearby. From further up the bank the vermin could hear their captain's shrieks and curses rending the air.
Rinj, a sly-faced female, gnawed at a filthy clawnail, glancing from one to the other. "Ye t'ink Bol's lost the paw? It'ought Wirga cudda sewed it back on, she's a good 'ealer."
A lanky, gaunt rat named Ferron picked something from his teeth and spat it into the stream. "Sewed it back on! Have ye gone soft in the skull? Last I saw, Cap'n Bol's paw was 'angin' on by a string o' skin. We should've stayed well clear o' those two stripedogs!"
Rinj wiped firesmoke from her blearing eyes. "The little ole one wuz no trouble, he didn't know wot 'it 'im, gone afore ye could wink."
Ferron winced as Raga Bol's screeches and curses redoubled. "Aye, but wot about the big 'un, eh? I thought Cap'n Bol killed him wid the first blow of his big sword!"
Glimbo, the captain's first mate, pushed Rinj away from the fire and installed his fat, greasy bulk close to the flames. One of his eyes was a milky sightless orb; the other roved around the crew as he warmed his paws.
"Never in me days seen Bol 'ave to strike a beast twice wid that blade. But that big stripedog came back after the first whack an' got his teeth in good. Just as well that Bol struck again, or he would've lost more'n one paw. Mark my words, stripedogs are powerful dangerous beasts!"
The heathland was a barren region, made drearier by the day's unabated rain. Down in the ravine a huge bonfire blazed to dispel the harsh weather. Every Searat of the crew sat watching their captain. Tall and sinewy, with a restless energy that could be glimpsed in his fiery green eyes, Raga Bol was an impressive rat by any measure. He sat wrapped in a fur cloak, his left pawstump hidden from view. The Searat's right paw rested on the carved bone hilt of a heavy, wide-bladed scimitar, protruding from his waistband. The crewbeasts could feel Raga Bol's eyes on them. Rain sizzling on the fire and wind fanning the flames were the only sounds to be heard as they waited on their captain's word.
Finally, Raga Bol rose and snarled bad-temperedly at them, firelight reflecting from his hooped brass earrings and gold-plated fangs. "We march west at dawn. Anybeast who don' want to go, let 'im speak now, an' I'll bury 'im right'ere!"
Not one of the Searat crew said a word. Raga Bol nodded. "West it is then. Blowfly, get me two runners."
Excerpted from Loamhedge by Brian Jacques Copyright © 2003 by The Redwall La Dita Co., Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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