Buckler felt the prickle of excitement running through him. He strove to keep his voice level. "Would tomorrow morning after breakfast suit you, Lord?" He winced as the badger shook his paw warmly.
"No better time, I'd say, my friend. Are you going alone? Mayhaps you'd do better to take a companion--always good to travel with a comrade. Might I suggest Subaltern Meliton Gubthorpe Digglethwaite?"
Buckler chuckled. "Of course, good old Diggs. Though I wonder, who's going to pull the cart?"
Lord Brang looked puzzled. "What cart?"
The young hare slotted his sword into the back scabbard he had designed so he could draw steel swiftly. The hilt showed over his left shoulder. "The cart we'll need to carry Diggs's vittles. Have you seen the amount of food that tubby rascal can shift?"
Diggs was waiting for his friend in the crowded Mess Hall. He pointed to a small heap of supper set out close to him. "Wot ho there, Buck! Just about saved you some scoff, wot. Y'have t'be nippy with this famine-faced mob about. Tuck in, old lad. You must be jolly hungry, wot wot!" Buckler felt too exhilarated for food, but he kept calm,
nibbling some salad and cheese. "Hmm. No plum duff tonight. That's strange."
Diggs swiftly wiped crumbs from his tunic. "Er, there was only a smidgeon left, mis'rable little portion. Didn't know you were fond of the bloomin' duff, or I'd have jolly well saved you some, mate."
Buckler surveyed the empty bowls and platters lying about. "What happened to the apple crumble?"
Diggs patted his bulging waistline. "Measly bit left. Had to eat it before it went cold."
Buckler tasted a crumb from an empty dish. "And the mushroom and cauliflower bake?"
Diggs smiled guiltily. "Oh, that. No sense in lettin' the confounded stuff go t'waste. Had to polish it off, I'm afraid. Sorry about that, old stick!"
Buckler nodded as if in agreement with his gluttonous friend. "Hmm. Just as well, old chum. You'll need it to keep your strength up for tomorrow."
Diggs captured a slice of his companion's cheese. "Oh, y'don't say. Why, what's happenin' on the morrow?"
Buckler explained, "We're travelling southeast, to my brother's farm."
Diggs spotted a scone doing nothing; he snatched it. "What? Y'mean the Long Patrol are out on a march?"
Buckler tweaked his ear gently. "No, my old friend. Just you and I."
Diggs frowned as he demolished the scone. "Er, I'm no great shakes at all that trampin' an' marchin' stuff, Buck. P'raps I'd best stay home an' keep my blinkin' eye on things, don'cha know, wot?"
Buckler shook his head firmly. "Sorry, mate. It's a direct order from the great Lord Brang. You've got to accompany me all the way there and back, no excuses. Those were his very words to me."
Diggs stared miserably around. There was no more food to be had. He heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Ah, well,
lackaday, poor young me. Who am I, a mere Diggs of the ranks, to argue with a Badger Lord? He must've known you'd need a cool head, some reliable chap like me, to keep you out of trouble. Well, don't worry, Buck m'laddo, I'll blinkin' well look after you!"
It was difficult for Buckler to keep a straight face. However, he managed to shake his friend's paw solemnly. "Lord Brang said I could rely on you. Thank you, my true and trusty comrade!"
On that shimmering summer noon, a traveller crossing the western plain toward Redwall might have viewed it as a haven of serenity. With Mossflower Wood's verdant foliage as a backdrop, the ancient sandstone Abbey towered over its surroundings. The Belltower stood silent, awaiting eventide chimes as the sloping roofs and timeworn buttresses, old dormitory windows and long, stained-glass panels reflected the sun's rays. Below, flower-bordered lawns and gardens spread from the huge main building, meandering round orchard and Abbey pool to the outer wall. Four high battlemented ramparts protected Redwall and its creatures. At the western threshold, stout oaken gates opened onto the path and ditch fronting the flatlands. Beyond those gates, the vision of tranquillity ground to a halt.
Seated at a long table on the front lawn, a group of elders tried to withstand the noise and chaos raging about them. That good mouse, Marjoram, Mother Abbess of Redwall, had to yell to make herself heard above the din. She cast a pleading glance at her friend Ruark Boldstream, Skipper of Otters.
"Please, can you not do something to stem this dreadful row, Skipper? I'm being driven out of my senses!"
The trusty otter saluted. "Leave it t'me, marm!"
Borrowing a hefty bung mallet from Cellarmole Gurjee, Skipper used the top of an empty October Ale barrel as a drum. Boom! Boom! Buboom!
The thunderous alarm stopped everybeast instantly. Fiddle-scraping hedgehogs, flute-twiddling squirrels, a choir of mousemaids, a group of moles twanging banjo-like instruments and numerous solo performers practising their singing. Every Red waller involved ceased all activities. In the sudden silence that followed, Skipper dealt the barrel one more good whack. Boom! The brawny otter launched straight into his announcement.
"All rehearsals, an' all ructious rows, will stop forthwith. D'ye hear me? If'n the noise starts up agin, then Abbess Marj will cancel the contest for the Bard o' Redwall. Is that unnerstood? Now, sit down quietly, all of ye!"
The Redwallers obeyed dutifully, everybeast turning to glare at a little vole, who, by accident, plumped himself down on the inflated bag of a bagpipe, causing it to wail. He lowered his eyes, muttering a hasty apology. With echoes still ringing in her ears, the Abbess stood up to speak.
"Friends, we must get this event underway. So if you sit quietly, we'll call the first contestant. Er, Granvy, do you have the list, please?"
Granvy Shtuckle, an elderly hedgehog who served as Abbey Scribe and Recorder, began unrolling a long birch-bark parchment. He coughed importantly.
"Ahem! Aye, marm, here 'tis. Right, it says here that Foremole Darbee will be first to sing!"
Darbee was not expecting to be called first. Burying his snout in his big digging claws, he retreated behind the other contestants, complaining in the quaint mole accent, "Burr nay, ho no, not oi, zurr. Oi never did be a wishen t'sing in ee furst place. Oi bee's too gurtly 'umble furr such ee thing, ho burr aye!"
Irately, Granvy scratched Foremole's name from the list.
"I just knew something like this'd happen! Well, who's going to perform first, eh? Speak up!"
Noisy uproar broke out afresh, until Skipper got order by whacking the ale barrel again. Bubbooom!
The Recorder consulted his list. "Sister Fumbril, please!"
The Dibbuns (a name bestowed on all Redwall babes) set up a rousing cheer, drowning out any objections. Fumbril, a big, jolly otter, Redwall's Infirmary nurse and Herbalist, was a huge favourite of all littlebeasts. As she tuned her small fiddle, the Dibbuns were already jigging about, shouting to her.
"Sing us a good un, Sis Fum--a dancey song!"
The good Sister happily obliged them. "Righto, me dearies. Here goes ... one, two ..."
She launched into the liveliest of ditties.
"When you an' me go out to tea, oh, dear me, fiddle deedee, we'll be the ones who scoff the scones, an' slurp the soup with a whoopiddy doop.
We'll nibble the pies, surprise surprise, sing pudden an' plum, rumbledy dum, pastie an' pie, oh my, oh my.
We'll swig the cider an' chomp the cheese, oh, give us more, you'll hear us roar, such merry beasts are we, you see, when we go out to tea!"
By popular Dibbun demand, she was obliged to play it again, this time at a quicker pace. The little dancers whooped and twirled joyfully. Even the elders clapped their paws in time with the music. Sister Fumbril did one more encore. She ended up flat on the lawn, mobbed by adoring Abbeybabes.
"Hurr, that'n bee's moi fayverrut, marm!"
"Sing it again, Sista, more, more!"