The Sable Quean (Redwall, Book 21)
To Billy Maker, Maestro Di Musica and My Good Friend
A View of Mossflower Country [map removed]
One day when our hearts were young, we went roving with right good will, side by side two comrades to find what lay o'er the hill.
Our spirits never wearied then, in those high old times gone by.
What friends we made, what perils we faced, together you and I.
Now eyes grow dim, and paws feel stiff, even vittles don't taste the same.
You wake one day, with your whiskers grey, what price then, medals an' fame?
Alas, all we have are memories, to take out, dust off, and share.
But, oh, my friend, the pride we feel, just to know that we were there!
We travelled an' fought an' feasted, we triumphed, we marched and songs were sung, we faced death, saw life and adventure!
One day when our hearts were young.
The Ballad of Colonel Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite (Retired)
BOOK ONE Travel Is An Adventure!
Wreathing slowly through the foliage of a white willow, smoke spiralled into the warm summer noon. Below on the riverbank, two rats and a burly stoat squatted around the fire, roasting roots and wild turnips on sharpened sticks. Scraping away ashes and burnt soil, the stoat inspected his half-raw turnip. He spat sourly into the fire.
"Wot sorta vittles is this fer a warrior? Stinkin' roots an' turnips 'ard as rocks!"
One of the rats remarked hopefully, "If'n ye don't fancy it, then I'll eat it for ye."
Baring his snaggled teeth, the stoat whipped forth a dagger. "Put a paw near my vittles an' I'll gut yer!"
The other rat nibbled at a ramson root, wincing with disgust. He was in agreement with the stoat. "Aye mate, meat's wot we need, a brace o' plump woodpigeons, or even a fish. I like fishes."
The stoat flung his turnip into the fire, scowling. "We don't have ter put up wid this muck. I thought we was Ravagers, not scavengers. Any'ow, wot are we supposed t'be doin', that's wot I'd like t'know?"
The first rat retrieved the turnip from the hot ashes, wiping it off on his tattered sleeve. "Zwilt the Shade sez Sable Quean wants woodlanders, young uns. So we've got t'stay
hid in the area an' capture any we sees. That's our orders, mate."
Testing the edge of his blade on a grimy paw, the stoat grinned wickedly. "Young uns would make good meat. Just let me git me paws on a fat dormouse or a chubby liddle squirrel. I'd let Zwilt 'ave the bones to give to the Sable Quean!"
The smaller of the two rats looked fearful. "You'd do that? I wouldn't like t'be you if Zwilt found out."
The burly stoat tossed his dagger into the air, catching it skilfully. "So, wot if'n he did, eh? Lissen, I ain't scared of Zwilt, or 'is Sable Quean. They don't bother me!"
The larger rat whispered nervously, "Be careful wot ye say. They don't call 'im Zwilt the Shade for nothin'--some say 'e's magic!"
The stoat scoffed. "Rubbish! Wot sort o' magic, eh?"
The rat took swift glances up and down the bank. "Nobeast sees Zwilt, unless 'e wants 'em to. They say 'e can come an' go secretly, just as 'e pleases."
The big stoat shook his head pityingly. "Yer a right ole frogwife if'n ye believe that. Shade or no Shade, Zwilt's just a beast like any other. Y'see this dagger o' mine? Well, one good stab of it'd make Zwilt vanish forever!"
The voice came out of nowhere. "How can you do that when you're already dead, fool?"
Brandishing his weapon, the stoat bounded upright. "Who said that--who's there?"
From behind his back, a cloaked figure emerged through the smoky willow foliage. With lightning speed and savage strength, it wrenched the stoat's paw backward, sending the dagger spinning. Dust rose as the stoat's back slammed against the ground. He lay there, staring up into the face of Zwilt the Shade.
The sable was a sight to instil fear into most creatures. Behind the natural mask of dark fur, his eyes were totally black, dead and inscrutable. Zwilt was lean, wiry and very tall for one of his species. Beneath a flowing cloak of dull
purple, he wore a snakeskin belt with a broadsword thrust through it. His teeth showed small, white and sharply pointed as he hissed at the hapless stoat.
"You should have believed the rats. They spoke truly."
The burly stoat gulped. "Sire, I was only jestin'..."
Zwilt held a paw to his lips. "Silence. You should not be speaking--I've already told you that you're dead."
In desperation, the stoat tried to rise. "No I ain't--"
The broadsword appeared suddenly in Zwilt's paws; he swung it like lightning. As the severed head rolled into the river, Zwilt addressed it.
"Oh, yes you are. Perhaps you'll believe me now?" Without raising his voice, Zwilt the Shade turned his unblinking stare on the two rats. "You believe me, don't you?"
They both nodded wordlessly, in stunned silence.
The tall killer wiped his blade on the headless carcass. "Get this thing out of my sight. Throw it in the river."
The rats scrambled to obey his order. When they turned back again, he had gone. There was only the fire, dying to embers in the bright summer afternoon. The remains of their former comrade drifted slowly away on the current.
None of the vermin band known as the Ravagers dared to disobey Zwilt the Shade. His orders came directly from Vilaya, the one they called the Sable Quean.
Waves broke endlessly on the sands of Mossflower's western shore, with the lonely hissing sigh that is the music of the sea. Late noon sun was still warming the beach above the tideline, where the mountain of Salamandastron towered over all. Brang the Badger Lord and his trusty companion, General Flackbuth, sat watching a young hare drilling a group of leverets in the use of the sword. Brang nodded in admiration of the Blademaster.
"I tell ye, Flack, that young Buckler Kordyne is by far the best we've seen here since his grandsire, Feryn. What d'ye think, eh?"
The old officer brushed a paw over his drooping military mustachio. "Hmmph, I don't doubt y'word, sah, not bein' old enough to remember Feryn, wot!"
Brang gave a deep rumbling chuckle. "No, of course not. I'm the only one on this mountain still alive to tell the tale. That's the trouble with living several life spans more than most beasts. Hoho--see that, Flack. Well parried, young un!"
Buckler had just returned the stroke of another hare's lunge. With an expert flick, he sent his opponent's sabre whirling in the air. The blade flashed in the sunlight, landing point first in the damp sand.
Executing a swift half turn, the Blademaster disarmed an attacker who had been stealing up on him. He shook his head at the culprit.
"Never hesitate when you see an opening, Tormy. I felt you behind me before I saw you. Remember, a slowbeast is a deadbeast. You'll have to move faster."
Tormy picked up his blade ruefully. "I say, Buck old thing, d'ye think I'll ever be as jolly good as you are, wot?"
Buckler shrugged. "That's up to you, mate. Keep practising. Also, if I were you, I'd choose a lighter blade. You lack the paw power to wield a sabre. Try a long rapier."
The leveret cast a longing glance at Buckler's blade. "Like that blinkin' beauty of yours?"
The Blademaster cleaved air with his own special sword. It was a peculiar hybrid, longer than other rapiers, honed razor-sharp on both edges, with a cross-basketed hilt. The blade was thicker than that of a rapier but superbly tempered, to give it flexibility. Buckler winked good-naturedly at his pupil.
"There's not another sword anywhere like this un. I designed it myself, but he made it. Isn't that right, Brang?"
A flicker of annoyance showed in the Badger Lord's dark eyes. He beckoned Buckler to attend him.
Saluting the leverets with his blade, Buckler dismissed them. "That's enough for today, thank you."