THE CRIMSON BADGER - Chapter Thirteen
Winokur and his father Warnokur were already waiting outside the south wallgate when Maura, Arlyn, Alexander, Montybank and Highwing came out to review Urthblood's army. Warnokur had wanted to rejoin his squad as soon as lunch was over, but it was not just a matter of duty; he was also eager to show his son around this new enormous and heavily-armed family which had adopted him. Warnokur seemed to get along extremely well with the Northlands otters, and wanted to introduce Winokur to his newfound friends and comrades-in-arms.
Lady Mina was also waiting outside the gate. She'd left the Abbey after lunch along with Machus and Urthblood. She had no fellow squirrels with which to mingle, and seemed more than just officially pleased to see Alexander once more. She joined the entourage as they wandered over to where Urthblood was meeting with his captains.
As vast as the badger's host had appeared from the walltop, his forces seemed positively unending while walking through them. "How many beasts do you reckon Lord Urthblood has here?" Alexander asked as their small group wended its way through a veritable sea of otters, rats, weasels, hedgehogs, mice, moles, shrews and foxes. While most of the Northlanders tended to stay with others of their kind, a few lounged and conversed with members of other species. It was strange to see shrews and rats sharing a laugh, weasels and otters trading tales.
"Oh, no need fer a reckonin'," Warnokur said in answer to the squirrel's idle speculation. "Exact number's just shy o' six hundreds. 'Bout two-thirds are vermin 'n' foxes, but that still leaves plenny o' room fer decent beasts. 'Tho, some o' these rats 'n' weasels ain't bad sorts, gotten t' know a few o' them meself. Tend to squabble a bit 'mongst theirselves, but no worse'n shrews do. I ne'er seen 'em raise paw nor claw 'gainst decent folk durin' th' season I been with 'em. 'Tween Lord Urthblood an' those swordfoxes of his, keeps th' ranks obedient an' in line. Don't think that badger'd be able t' keep this mess together very long wi'out Machus an' his crew."
"You sound quite impressed by that fox," Maura said to Warnokur. "Is he really so good with his weapon that he deserves the title 'Sword?'"
"Aye, he is. I'd wager Machus could whip most anybeast else at swordplay with one paw tied b'hind 'is back. Fact, only one beast I e'er seen who could best him."
"Lord Urthblood?" Arlyn ventured.
"You guessed it, Abbot. Only seen 'im swing 'is blade once, but t'were like seein' a demon o' war unleashed. Machus may be a very good student, but Urthblood's the master, an' I don't reckon anybeast alive could overcome that badger when he gets to real fightin'."
This gave the Redwallers pause. They'd known all along, of course, that Urthblood was a warrior who must have had long experience on the battlefield. But to be reminded of it by a friend of the Abbey's who'd actually seen the red-armored badger in action was something else. And Warnokur's choice of words didn't help.
Lady Mina, walking alongside Alexander, nodded at the otter's assessment of Urthblood's fighting skills. "No other beast could possibly have tamed the Northlands as Lord Urthblood has. The first time we of the Gawtrybe saw him swinging his sword, shield and axe against the villainous slavers and warlords who plagued us, we knew that here was a creature who could win any battle, and never be defeated by the forces of evil. Even then, we were skeptical about his plans to put vermin under his own command. But once he began to succeed at this unlikely goal, it became clear that he truly was going to change the destiny of our lands. We swore to support him, and have never wavered in all the seasons since."
"Loyalty is good and admirable," Arlyn remarked. "But have you no doubts about his putting so many vermin and foxes under arms?"
"At one time, perhaps. But not now. Lord Urthblood possesses a power of prophecy beyond the understanding of ordinary creatures. Sometimes, it is as if he knows of things before they happen. It is not so much his skills with blade and battle that hold his enemies at bay, but his vision into them. He can anticipate the moves of any foe, and knows when a beast within his own ranks is going to cause trouble before it happens. This is the thing which makes him indomitable."
"Then let's hope his prophetic vision never fails him," said Highwing, "or else we're all in big trouble."
"In case you'd failed to notice, my good bird," Lady Mina motioned to the left and to the right, where beasts of all kinds milled around, "many goodbeasts have joined Lord Urthblood's cause, and they would never let evil prevail. And I'm convinced that many of the rats, weasels and foxes you see before you have started to forget their bad old ways. They still need guidance and a strong paw of discipline, but I would not have marched all the way to Mossflower with them if they were hopelessly evil."
"Noble vermin, eh?" Alexander said, echoing Urthblood's earlier statements.
"I wouldn't go that far," said Mina. "But they've been given a dignity and sense of purpose they never had before. The changes that I've seen in some of them are remarkable. Perhaps they were dishonest, disreputable beasts at the start, but by the time Lord Urthblood finished with them, they are now soldiers I would trust to have at my side in any battle."
"Take a lot fer this otter to serve wi' vermin an' foxes," Montybank said. "Havin' this lot at my back would make me a touch more nervous than facing 'em head-on, where I could see 'em."
"I understand your suspicions," Mina granted. "But most of the Northlands woodlanders were just as dubious. Yet if you look around you now, you'll see that many of them have risen above their first suspicions, just as the Gawtrybe have. I'm confident that you Redwallers will too, in time, if you keep your minds open and make the effort to get to know some of these fighters." She glanced over at Warnokur. "At least one of your family already has. At least, I assume you consider Warnokur to be a Redwaller. He does have a son here."
"That he does," Monty snorted, "an' he spends all of three days each season here with Wink. Rest o' th' time, 'ee's out cavorting whatbeast knows where."
Warnokur was about to challenge Montybank, then thought better of it, remembering the company he was in. His son Winokur looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Arlyn stepped in to change the subject. "Yes, I'm sure Warnokur has some stories to tell us about his past season with Lord Urthblood. But I must agree with Highwing's point: if Urthblood's will and strength and vision are all that's keeping his vermin in line, what's to stop terrible chaos if he should lose his life in battle or otherwise become incapable of commanding this army of his?"
"That is a concern," Mina admitted. "But you must understand what Lord Urthblood is trying to achieve. He knows full well that he cannot live forever, even if badgers do live longer than most other creatures. And he is aware that his life may be cut short by war. He seeks to forge a change among all beasts, a change that will survive long after he leaves this world. This is the legacy he wants to give us: a realm in which all creatures live together in peace. He has already made great strides toward this goal. If he can do in Mossflower what he has done in the north, we may see this vision fulfilled in our own lifetimes." She glanced at Arlyn. "Well, perhaps not all of us, I'm afraid. But our children may well enjoy a peace of a kind these lands have never known."
"Seems to me peace is what we've had here in Mossflower since I was a child," Arlyn told the squirrel Lady. "We've had no enemy of any size outside our walls since before I was born. It's having our peace end that concerns us now."
"Lord Urthblood has told you of his prophecy?" Mina asked.
"He has," replied Arlyn. "About a great crisis soon to come."
"Then you should know that the peace of today cannot last, unless perhaps we take steps to preserve it and avert the crisis. I have been with Lord Urthblood long enough to see that his gift of prophecy is for real. He has made great great sacrifices and fought hard to achieve what he has so far. If he says there is a crisis coming, you must not doubt him. And if he says this is what must be done to meet it, then we must do it."
"You sound very certain that Lord Urthblood is right in this," said Arlyn.
"I have never been more certain about anything in my life."
The eight of them drew up to where Urthblood was taking reports from his captains. The badger held up a paw, silencing a weasel officer in midsentence, and turned to the Redwallers.
"I am glad you could finally join me. I thought the Abbess might come too."
Arlyn glanced back toward the Abbey. By this time they'd walked quite some distance from the high outer wall. "She would not have liked to be taken so far from the Abbey when there is so much to be done. There will be time for her to meet some more of your troops later."
"Of course. Is she perchance making arrangements for my soldiers to be brought into Redwall?"
"We, uh, are still deciding where would be best for them to stay," Arlyn said. "We don't have enough spare rooms or beds for even one tenth this number. No use bringing them all in if they'll only have to sleep out on the grounds anyway."
"Kill off all th' grass," Montybank added.
"Hmm. I suspect it is not trampled lawns which concerns you most. I have just been conferring with my captains about the food situation. I realize Redwall would have difficulty supporting such numbers for very long. Fortunately, my beasts are skilled and experienced foragers, and Mossflower offers a bounteous wealth richer than any land in the north, so that problem should solve itself. In fact, with a little help from your squirrel patrols who know these woods best, we may actually be able to increase your stocks, and leave Redwall better supplied than before we came."
"Um ... yes, that would be good," Alexander agreed. "I'm sure that would have been a concern."
"Now that my captains are all assembled here, I may as well introduce them." Urthblood pointed around the semicircle of creatures before him. "I was just hearing from Mattoon, captain of my weasels. Next to him is Bandon of the stoats, and Perrett of the ferrets."
"Perrett the ferret?" Alexander muttered under his breath in a half-giggle.
"Nice li'l rhyme," Monty whispered back. "Bet it helps him remember his name, eh?"
Urthblood continued, "And there we have Lorsch and Cermak of the rats."
"Why two captains for them?" Maura asked.
"Because I have as many rats in this force as weasels, stoats and ferrets combined. A single captain would have too many troops to manage, so I split my rats into two squads, each with its own captain." Urthblood moved on. "This is my otter captain Saybrook, best sling and javelin fighter in the north."
"Um, wouldn't that be yer otter Skipper?" Monty inquired.
"All of my commanders carry the rank of captain," Urthblood said. "For the sake of conformity. Next to Saybrook is Bremo of the shortsword shrews, and beside him is my Foremole. On Saybrook's other paw is Tillamook, clubmaster of my hedgehog division. Last but by no means least is Abellon, captain of the mice. Many beasts have been fooled by Abellon's small size, and paid the price for underestimating him. This should be no surprise to you Redwallers, since your own Martin the Warrior was a Northlands mouse. Size is no measure of bravery, or fighting skills."
The mouse Abellon gave a half-bow to the Redwallers. "An honor, gentlebeasts. The name of Martin is well know to the mouse fighters of the north. It is a privilege for me to be here, at the place he helped to build so many generations ago after he came south. There's not a mouse in Lord Urthblood's service who wouldn't long to trade places with those of us who were chosen for this march."
"Well, welcome to Redwall then," Arlyn said. "Welcome, all of you." There was no way to extend this welcome to the otter, hedgehog, mole and shrew chiefs without also including the vermin captains who stood with them.
"And of course you have already met Machus, captain of my swordfox brigade and second-in-command among my present forces. These beasts comprise the commanders of the army you see around you."
"Why no squirrels?" Alexander asked the Badger Lord, but it was Lady Mina who answered.
"Just about every squirrel in the Northlands who has a fighting spirit eventually joins up with the Gawtrybe. Lord Urthblood and my brother Marinus decided that the Gawtrybe should keep all its strength up north while we came to Mossflower. They will keep order in our absence."
"Makes sense, I suppose," Alex had to admit.
"I assume," Urthblood asked of Arlyn, "there will be no problem with having at least my captains staying inside Redwall?"
"Um ... " Arlyn felt awkward. There was no way he could refuse with all the captains standing right there, looking at him, unless he had some very good reason. And he was the Abbot, after all, even if he was retired. There was no way he could easily sidestep the issue.
"I will have to consult with Abbess Vanessa, of course, but I don't think it will be a problem, My Lord."
"Very good," the badger nodded in satisfaction. "That way, the Abbess will be able to meet all my captains personally, without having to come all the way out here. Now, I expect you'll want a closer inspection of my troops. Since the captains are all here to answer any questions you may have, it may as well be now. I've cancelled the regular training drills in view of their long march during the night, giving them the rest of the day off. They tend to be more sociable when they're not on active duty." Urthblood started off, beckoning for everybeast to follow.
Maura hung back with the Abbot. "Arlyn, are you sure that was a wise thing to do, inviting this lot into the Abbey? I mean, Machus was bad enough, but now we'll also have two rats, a stoat, a weasel and a ferret."
"And they'll all be in one place, where we can keep an eye on them," Arlyn replied. "What was it Urthblood himself said earlier, about keeping your enemies close? Time to follow some of his counsel. The horde outside won't be able to do very much without its commanders. Perhaps keeping them separated is the precise thing we should be trying to do."
"Ah, very crafty of you," Maura said. "But they'll see everything about the inside of the Abbey ... its layout, its defenses ... "
"Urthblood knows all of that already," Arlyn reminded her. "He's been studying our blueprints, for goodness sake. If he decides to share this knowledge with his captains, we can't keep it a secret."
Urthblood noticed the two of them lagging behind. "Is there a problem?" he casually called back to them.
Thinking quickly, Arlyn yelled, "Not so fast, My Lord, if you please. It's been many a season since these old legs of mine have seen so much walking."
"Forgive me. We'll go more slowly." Urthblood slackened his pace to a leisurely stroll; the others did the same.
Arlyn surpressed a chuckle. "Turns out old age is good for something after all!"
As it turned out, Arlyn and the others didn't learn very much from the tour of Urthblood's army, except to be impressed anew by the sheer number and variety of creatures the Badger Lord had under arms. The vermin commanders had little to say as they showed the Redwallers through their ranks. It seemed they were as uncomfortable and self-conscious around the Abbeydwellers as the Redwallers were around them. It was hard to tell whether they were being just plain unfriendly, or if they were scared to death of making some diplomatic blunder in the hulking presence of their badger master. Whatever the reason, no rat, weasel, stoat or ferret of this horde proved to be as openly courteous or well-spoken as Machus. His foxes were the only ones who snapped to attention when the touring party came near, standing ramrod straight until Urthblood was well past them. Even though all the troops had been given the afternoon off, the swordfoxes apparently never considered themselves off duty.
Afterwards, the various captains wandered back to rejoin their respective squads. Monty, Winokur and Warnokur went off with Captain Saybrook and the other Northland otters, while the remaining Redwallers decided to stick with Abellon and the mouse division. Mina stayed with them, since there was no squirrel regiment ... and since that was where Alexander was.
Arlyn leaned toward Maura as they trailed behind Abellon and muttered, "Well, we sure didn't learn much from all of that ... except maybe that Urthblood's vermin aren't all that outgoing."
"Not outgoing? Frosty is more like it. I got the impression they're not too happy about being here. They did seem rather orderly and well-behaved from what I could see, at least for vermin. But I'm not ready to count them as friends or allies, not until I've seen a lot more of them."
"We'll probably get that chance soon, for better or worse, since I've all but given leave for their captains to enter the Abbey. Perhaps they'll be more relaxed and forthcoming away from their troops ... especially if we can get one or two of them away from Urthblood. I suspect they're intimidated by him, afraid of doing or saying something improper. Maybe they'll open up more if we can speak with them on their own."
"On the other paw, Arlyn, maybe Urthblood's presence is the only thing stopping them from acting like the vile vermin they are."
There were nearly threescore mice in Abellon's division, and the captain knew each one of them by name. The Redwallers were mostly unaccustomed to meeting so many new beasts at once, and their heads were swimming before the introductions were halfway over. But every mouse in the squad wanted to personally shake paws with the retired Father Abbot of Redwall, and seemed honored to do so. For the first time that day, the Arlyn found himself enjoying his role as host for the visitors. The attention and respect Abellon's troops gave him was downright flattering.
"Goodness, these are enough new names and faces to keep this old mouse awake for a fortnight, trying to keep them all straight!" Arlyn laughed.
"Yes," said Alexander, who was also popular with the Northlands mice, "when we saw this army approaching from the walltop, we couldn't tell there were so many mice with it."
"Oh, that's an old ploy of Lord Urthblood's," Abellon explained. "Almost a tradition. He always puts us mice about two-thirds of the way back along his marching columns. Looks a lot more intimidating, having the bigger beasts like foxes, weasels and otters heading the march. Not that we can't handle ourselves in a fight, mind you."
"Oh, I've no doubt about that." Arlyn took in all the mouse soldiers around him. "I must say I'm impressed, and not just by the size of your little regiment here. Everymouse among you looks like a fighter who can battle with the best of them."
"Why, thank you," Abellon bowed in gratitude. "You have no idea how much those words mean to us, coming from you."
"It's plain you all have a very high opinion of me," Arlyn said, "but I'm just an old retired Abbot."
"But the Abbot of Redwall," said Abellon. "As I said earlier, this place holds a special significance for us, since it was built by Martin the Warrior, who is almost as great a hero and legend to us Northlands mice as he must be to you folk. To finally be here, to see Redwall with our own eyes, and to shake the paw of an Abbot - retired or not - is truly an honor. The only thing that could have thrilled us more would be to have met one of the actual Abbey champions, bearing the sword of Martin. But, I understand you are currently without a champion mouse."
"A champion mouse, yes," confirmed Alexander, "but the sword of Martin is not without a bearer. Would you like to see it?"
"Oh, yes, please!"
"Then wait here a moment." Alexander dashed off, returning a minute later with Montybank, who still had the legendary sword strapped to his waist. The otter savored being the center of attention as he drew the sword from its scabbard and held it out for the Northland mice to see, all of whom gaped openly. Monty offered it to Abellon, who took it reverently, as if he might be unworthy to handle it.
The mouse captain blew out a deep breath around his whiskers as he hefted the blade. "We heard earlier how similar this was to the blade Lord Urthblood made for Machus, but I would not have believed it without seeing it. Although, I think this weapon is even finer, despite its great age. And this is truly the same sword that Martin the Warrior carried with him in the Northlands?"
"It is the one he used in the Wildcat War here in Mossflower, before Redwall was built," said Arlyn. "According to our histories, the original blade was broken, and recast by a Badger Lord of Salamandastron using the strongest metal known to him. It is that blade you hold now."
"Truly amazing." Abellon stood back and took a few swings at the air, while the other Northlanders looked on enviously. He seemed a little uncomfortable with the strange weapon, but wielded it with obvious skill nevertheless.
"Almost too big for a mouse," he concluded, gracefully returning the sword hilt-first to Montybank. "Although I daresay I could get used to a blade such as that mighty quickly. No mouse of mine carries anything like that. We stick mostly to the short shrew swords, although some of us prefer other weapons. Most of Lord Urthblood's divisions specialize in one type - squirrels are archers, otters are slingers and javelin-throwers, hedgehogs use spiked clubs. We're pretty much allowed the choice of whatever suits us best, since we make up the general infantry along with the rats and weasel-types."
Monty resheathed the sword of Martin. "Guess that means ye work pretty close with Urthblood's vermin?"
"Close as anybeast in this army," Abellon shrugged. "In battle, we mice usually form a second line behind the front, since we're smaller. Lord Urthblood will often send us, the shrews and the 'hogs around on flanking maneuvers while the bigger creatures keep the enemy occupied. We've caught more than one foe by surprise that way, and it helps keep casualties low. An enemy's more likely to flee or surrender when they see themselves getting boxed in."
Alexander commented, "Such tactics require a lot of cooperation, I should imagine. Are the vermin really that dependable?"
"Oh, they do what they're ordered to, or they catch hell an' then some from Lord Urthblood. I take it from your tone you're still not sure you can trust them, eh?"
"Well ... do you?" Alex retorted.
"They're not what you'd expect." Abellon scanned the field around them. "Tell you what - there's still one mouse of mine you haven't met yet, and I think you'll find him most educational. Follow me, and I'll introduce you."