INTERLUDE, WITH HARES
Far from Redwall Abbey, across the Western Plains and over the mountains beyond, stood the natural fortress of Salamandastron. The flat-topped mountain stronghold stood well apart from the range to its east, dominating the middle coastlands. Rearing up from a region of rolling dunes and scattered swamplands like a fist of rock punched through from deep inside the earth, Salamandastron was as alone in its solitary majesty as were the Badger Lords who had ruled the mountain for more generations than anybeast could remember. Through war and peace, plenty and famine, good times and bad, always there were the Badger Lords of Salamandastron and their fighting hares of the Long Patrol, who could be counted on to protect the western shores from any enemy who would disrupt the peace of the inner lands. Forever vigilant, and forever ready ...
Three hares sat hunkered at the foot of a grassy dune, trying to find shade from the fierce afternoon sun. They weren't having much success.
Melanie, the Patrol leader, took a rather unfeminie swig from her canteen. Her daughters Givadon and Mizagelle followed their superior's example and quenched their own thirsts in similar fashion.
"Whew! It's a right scorcher today, or I ain't a hare!" Melanie recapped her canteen and hung it back on her belt. "An' it don't help that we're too far from the shoreline to get any sea breeze, and too far west of the mountains to be in their shadow. Might's well be movin' on, gels, 'cos we ain't doing any good here, and here ain't doing us any good!"
Mizagelle shaded her eyes with one paw as she gave the sun a quick glance. "Maybe if we move around to the east side of this dune, Mum, it might be cooler there."
Givadon stood and stretched her legs. "Fat chance, Sis. Bally ol' Mr. Sun's almost directly overhead any way you look at it. No shade here or there for another couple hours." She looked toward Melanie. "Mum, this detail's a rotter. Nobeast has ever attacked Salamandastron from the east, over the mountains. No decent path up there, no way t' bring any horde through those peaks. All we're doing out here is practicing getting roasted so we can serve as main course at the next feast."
"Then the next feast must be serving grouse, from the way you're grousing." Melanie athletically flexed her long hindlimbs. "You know the standing orders: cover all approaches to the mountain. An army attacking from north or south could send a flank out this way to open a front on the east side of Salamandastron. Besides, we're not just on the lookout for enemies. Many times in the past we hares of the Long Patrols have rendered aid to some goodbeast or other who's gone and gotten itself stranded in these wastes. Remember, it's our job to help as well as to fight. But most of all, we've got to watch. An' that means less workin' your jawbone and more usin' your eyes an' ears!"
"Yeah, but Givvie's right, Mum," Mizagelle said, sticking up for her sibling. "We been out here three days an' seen nobeast but those blightin' gulls and a nasty toad or three."
"Then we report to Colonel Clewiston and Lord Urthfist that we saw blightin' gulls and a nasty toad or three. You know His Lordship wants to be appraised of the movements of everybeast within a day's march of Salamandastron. Even harmless-seeming pests might be serving as the eyes and ears of our enemies." Melanie lowered her voice. "Both of our enemies." She gave a quick sprint out several yards on the flat stretch alongside the dune, kicking up sand with each powerful push of her feet, then made her way leisurely back to her daughters. "Ahh, that felt good! Can't let a little heat get the best of us, wot? Now come on, m'gels, up an' at 'em! I know a nice little spring half a day's march south of here where we can refill our canteens and grab some fresh tucker right off the bush."
The two young female hares perked up at the mention of fresh fruit. As they geared up for the southward march, Givadon noticed a number of the bothersome gulls swooping down low toward the east side of the dune. The birds were crying loudly in their aggressive fashion, and the hare trio assumed that they were the target of the seagulls' wrath. The gulls had never been friendly with the forces of Salamandastron, for they saw the Badger Lords and the hares of the Long Patrol as rivals for their mastery of the seashore. Melanie's patrol had already been harassed by them more than once on this detail.
"Oooo, those pests!" Givadon loaded her sling with several sharp-edged rocks from her pouch and started climbing the side of the dune. "Lookit how low they're coming! No proper respect for the law, I'd say. Betcha I can scar a few of 'em. Give me just a moment, Mum, an' then we can be on our way."
Melanie readied her own javelin, while Mizagelle notched an arrow to her yew longbow. "Be careful, Givvie. Those blighters know how to swoop 'n' peck. Get down from there in a hurry if they attack in force."
Givadon gained the top of the dune and began twirling her sling, then let it fall to her side, still loaded. The gulls weren't after them at all; they were swooping down toward a lone figure racing in from the east. Givadon made a visor of one paw and squinted to get a better look. "Hare!" she yelled down to her mother and sister below. "There's a hare out there!"
Melanie and Mizagelle were up the dune and at her side in a trice. "Where the fur did he come from?' Melanie asked of nobeast in particular.
"From the east," Mizagelle answered, stating the obvious. "He must've come over the mountains!"
"Don't be daft," Givadon said scornfully. "Only bats can get over those mountains. There are no paths."
"Well, he came from somewhere!" Mizagelle said defensively. "He wasn't anywhere to be seen a few minutes ago when we stopped for our rest and took a quick survey from up here. We would've seen him if he'd been traveling in the open parallel to us. And he's moving due west, straight toward us from the range."
Melanie held up a paw to forestall any further bickering. "At the rate he's moving, he could have come from anywhere. North, south ... or down from the mountains. The immediate question is, does he need our help?"
"The gulls are definitely harrying him," said Givadon, "but he's putting on a smashing show of weaving and ducking them, in spite of his speed. I don't think they've scored a hit on him yet - at least not while I've been watching. Wot'cha say, Mum?"
Melanie ran the cool steel of her javelin thoughtfully across her pursed lips. "Normally, I'd say let's go lend a paw, but that chap's making such tracks, he'll be here any moment. Might's well stand at the ready right where we are, and prepare a proper reception for our visitor and his newfound friends."
"Oh, I think he's seen us!" Mizagelle held up her longbow by one end as high as she could and waved it frantically over her head. "Hey, over here!"
Fortunately - or unfortunately, since Melanie and her girls were never hares to shrink from a good fight - the seagulls broke off their swooping runs at the stranger when they spied the well-armed trio awaiting them at the crest of the dune.
The newcomer skidded to an abrupt halt at the eastern base of the dune, just below the three females. "I say, am I glad to see you!" he said between gasps for breath. "You are hares of the Long Patrols, aren't you?"
"That we are," Melanie answered. "And you would be?"
"Name's Browder, Ma'am. And I'd love to tell you all about myself, but I've got to get to Salamandastron, toot sweet. I've got urgent news for Lord Urthfist. I trust you can take me to him?"
"That we can." Melanie bounded down the east slope of the dune to get a closer look at Browder. He was an unexceptional-looking hare, neither old nor young, dressed more for forest and woodlands than the open expanses of the coastlands. "But first, are you hurt? Do you need food or drink?"
"I can sip while we walk," Browder said, brushing off her concern for his condition. "Please, we must make all haste. I've run all the way from Mossflower, across the plains and over the mountains. There's no time to spare!"
"Over the mountains?" Mizagelle looked at her sister. "See, Givvie, I told you!"
Melanie's attention remained focused on the strange hare. This Browder must be more than he appeared, if he truly had come over the treacherous mountain range. "Tell us, friend, what is this urgent news, that could make you undertake such a journey?"
Browder accepted the canteen she held out to him, took a quick swallow and returned it. Staring her in the eyes he answered her simply and directly, although it would take some moments for his words to fully register upon the three of them.
"Urthblood has captured Redwall Abbey!"
Long ago, when the world was still in its youth, the mountain of Salamandastron had been a great volcano, spewing forth mighty plumes of vapor and ash and sending rivers of molten rock in vast cascades down its flanks. Those magma fires had long since died, leaving the rock to cool into a dense basalt monolith that was impenetrable to all but the hardest digging tools.
It was with such tools that the first Badger Lords had come to Salamandastron and tunneled out interior levels and living spaces, converting the mountain into a fortress from which the coastlands could be defended. Succeeding generations added to the labyrinthine passages, until the entire mountain was honeycombed with chambers, stairs, corridors and concealed entrances, all carved from the living rock itself. But for all the changes that had been wrought upon it through the ages, the true shape of its origins could never be masked. The terraced slopes that supported sparse gardens and groves were still recognizably the slopes of an extinct volcano, and the rimmed flat top stood out plainly as the solidified crater bowl.
Two creatures stood upon the crater rim, gazing out to sea. One was immense, the other lanky and wiry. Despite this contrast in their physiques, anybeast could have told at a glance that they were companions of long standing, merely by the way their comfortable stances complemented each other's.
Lord Urthfist, the current master of Salamandastron, had lately taken to wearing partial armor, even while going about his most routine tasks deep within the mountain stronghold. Always there were the searat pirates to guard against, and they'd been growing bolder in recent seasons. More often than not these days, the sails of one of their slave galleons - and sometimes more than one - were to be seen on the horizon from this vantage atop Salamandastron, tantalizingly close yet impossibly out of reach. Tales came to Urthfist of the horrors these vermin were visiting all up and down the coast, yet they always managed to avoid the heavy paw of justice that Urthfist yearned to administer to them. King Tratton was smart for a rat, the first truly capable leader the searats had had in many generations. He knew the limitations of his badger adversary all too well, and flaunted his unchallenged sea power constantly. He might never be able to confront Urthfist directly, but he could taunt the Badger Lord by keeping a high profile within sight of Salamandastron ... and so he did.
Searats to the west ... and that other enemy, the one Lord Urthfist preferred not to speak of, who might attack at any time, from any direction. This second foe was far more dangerous than any rat, and recent reports indicated that his battle-hardened horde might be preparing to move south and threaten the good creatures of Mossflower country. One of the fastest hares of the Long Patrol had been dispatched as a messenger to Redwall to warn them of this threat, and ought to reach the Abbey any day now, if he hadn't already. Urthfist wanted to be ready for battle himself at a moment's notice, whoever the foe, and had traded his heavy forge smock for the armored raiment of war.
"Yaahs, none of the blighters in sight this day, sah, wot?" Colonel Clewiston, supreme commander of Urthfist's Long Patrol hares, turned to his badger master. Except for a self-mocking medal upon his left breast - presented to him seasons ago as an affectionate joke by his troops - the colonel wore the same drab and simple uniform tunic that all his hares wore. "Know they're still out there, even if we can't see 'em. Still 'n' all, nice to be able to look out at the sea once in awhile an' not see it polluted by searat ships, eh?"
"Your eyesight is better than mine, Colonel," Urthfist said. "If you say you can't see any sails, then I'm confident none are there to be seen. But the day will come ... " The badger left his statement unfinished. "The day will come."
"Aye, an' when it does, sah, I'll be at your side, along with every other hare of the Patrols. One of these days that wretch of a rat will venture too close to Salamandastron for 'is own good. Then we'll trounce 'im an' throw 'im back into the sea where he belongs ... only this time, to be eaten by the fishes."
Urthfist could not share Clewiston's confident enthusiasm. "Do not forget, my old friend, that Tratton has had help in the past. Terramort was not rebuilt by rats' paws alone."
Clewiston pondered this unsettling reminder. "That particular trouble was well to the north last we heard, sah. Don't see how Tratton could link up with 'im. They've parted ways, an' each have their own concerns these days."
"They are both our mortal enemies ... and parted ways have a way of joining together again. Maybe not today, or tomorrow ... but if either one wants to take Salamandastron badly enough, they will not hesitate to form an alliance against us. That is the greatest danger we face. It doesn't mean Tratton won't take it upon himself to test us on his own. He might send an expeditionary force against Salamandastron at any time, if he feels he has grown strong enough, just to gauge our strength. He is a searat, remember, and would not think twice about wasting an entire shipload of his brethren if he thought it would serve his larger plans."
"One shipload of those vermin wouldn't stand a chance against us, sah. We'd dispatch 'em in two shakes."
"Which would tell Tratton exactly what he wants to know ... and how many of your hares would lose their lives in repulsing the assault?"
"Our hares," said Clewiston, reminding Urthfist that the Badger Lord commanded all the Long Patrol, including Clewiston himself. "Maybe one or two, sah, but not if I have anything to say 'bout it. Besides, we're here to fight, sah. Not much use havin' us about if we can't make ourselves useful, wot?"
"Even one or two hares would be too many to lose fighting scum like that." Urthfist ground his teeth. "Too many vermin in the world, that's the problem. You can keep killing them until the sea runs red, and still there will always be more."
"It's not just the vermin, but who's in charge of 'em that's the problem."
Clewiston could tell immediately that this was not the best thing he could have said to improve his master's mood, and the hare self-consciously shifted away from Urthfist's side to look out over the crater rim in other directions. His scanning gaze caught some movement to the east, away from the sea where the Badger Lord's sight still lingered. "Hey, wot's this? Sah! One of the patrols is coming back in, ahead of schedule."
Urthfist tore himself away from the ocean vista to look to the east. "Who is it?"
Clewiston strained his eyes. "Must be Melanie's patrol ... they had the detail out that way."
"They must have something out of the ordinary to report, or else they've run into trouble." Concern edged its way into the badger's voice. "Are all three of them there?"
Clewiston squinted hard. "Uh, no, sah. I mean, yes ... uh, there are four hares in the group. Thought I was seein' things, but there's definitely four."
"Four?" Urthfist stood up on the crater rim as high as he could. "Are you sure they're ours?"
"Three of them are. Melanie's girls, just as I thought. But the fourth one isn't one of ours. Not dressed right." Clewiston taxed his vision to its limit. "Looks like ... woodlander garb, unless I miss my guess."
"Woodlander?" Urthfist followed his hare colonel's gaze, but he could barely tell how many figures were approaching, much less what they were wearing. "What would a woodlander hare be doing out on the coastlands?"
"One way to find out, sah. The gels are bringing him straight here, by the look of it. I highly recommend we go down to greet them out on the slope."
"Of course, Colonel. We must find out about this."
Casting one last glance westward, toward the glinting aqua expanse of the open sea, Urthfist followed Clewiston toward the crater bowl's central stairway that led down into the heart of Salamandastron.
If Browder didn't like being the center of attention, then Salamandastron was exactly the wrong place for him to be.
Nearly ninety hares were assembled in the main dining hall of the mountain fortress to hear what their woodland visitor had to say. A few were still out on patrol, but this was nevertheless the fullest assemblage of the Long Patrol in several seasons.
As many as could fit were seated around the long table at the chamber's center. The rest - well over a score of them - stood off to the side along the walls, positioning themselves so they had a clear view of the stranger.
Browder had been given the oversized chair at the head of the table - Lord Urthfist's traditional spot - so that he would be placed at the focus of everybeast's attention. The Badger Lord himself stood to Browder's left and somewhat away from the table, his two seniormost hares Colonel Clewiston and Major Safford at either paw: the perfect arrangement for an interrogation.
A simple supper was laid out upon the table, but nobeast was thinking of food at this gathering. Word of Browder's news had spread through the ranks, and the mood within Salamandastron was dire and anxious. Tension filled the air of the dining hall, and more than one of the Long Patrol hoped Browder could sense what a dangerous mood gripped Lord Urthfist now.
"Tell me what has happened at Redwall," Urthfist demanded of the woodland hare, without preamble or introduction. "And I warn you now, if I suspect you of being false, I will slay you without hesitation."
Browder swallowed nervously. "My Lord, why would I lie about a thing like this? I've come straight from Mossflower as fast as I could to deliver this news to you. Many creatures are depending upon you."
"Depending upon me? To do what?"
Browder seemed confused by this question. "Why ... to help us, of course!"
Urthfist's gaze at the woodlander was as cold as death. "I've heard it said that my brother can tell whether a beast is lying merely by staring into its eyes and listening hard to its voice. I possess no such talent, and must use the judgement of my own experience. I would hate to kill an honest creature. Speak, and speak true!"
"Uh ... it happened three days ago," Browder began, "or maybe it was four. The way I've been traveling, I've lost count of the days. Anyway, Urthblood's horde came sweeping down from the north upon Mossflower, some along the road, some through the woods. The poor folk at Redwall didn't stand a chance!"
"Redwall is well-defended, and has a long history of turning away attackers. How did my brother capture it so easily?"
"I can only tell you what I heard, My Lord. I'm not a Redwaller myself, but some of the Abbeydwellers who escaped told us what happened. Seems Urthblood showed up first, alone, and used his reputation as a Badger Lord of Salamandastron to win his way inside. Those poor Redwall mice and their friends never thought to question his truthfulness. He called a meeting of the Abbey defenders and leaders, saying he had urgent matters to discuss, and then ... then he slew or maimed them before any fighting beast could raise a paw in defense! It must have been horrible! The Abbess, their arms masters, their teachers and scholars ... "
"Their Abbess is dead then?" Urthfist interrupted.
"That's what I heard from the creatures who were inside when it all happened. The council must have been behind closed doors, because Urthblood was able to go and unlock all the Abbey gates before the slaughter was discovered. By the time the others at Redwall could stir themselves against Urthblood, his horde was upon them! Without their leaders they were helpless. A few did manage to escape into Mossflower in the confusion, but all the rest were either killed or taken prisoner."
Urthfist clenched his massive jaws in a controlled fury, his deadly paws balled tightly at his sides. It was several moments before he could speak. "My ... brother ... would indeed use such treachery. It fits with what we know of his past atrocities, up north. But, how could he have moved his horde so far south, so quickly, without word spreading before him? He must have been preparing this for a season or more ... "
"I couldn't say, Lord. I only know he's there now, and the goodbeasts of Mossflower are suffering under his terror. No woodlander can possibly stand against Urthblood. You're our only hope!"
Urthfist stared hard at Browder. "If you are but a simple woodland hare, how did you know to come here, to ask my help?"
"Uh ... a falcon, sir."
"A falcon," Browder repeated. "It came to us in the woods, and told us that the true master of Salamandastron still dwelt here by the sea, and that your power alone of all beasts' would be enough to contest your brother's. It was widely traveled and knew of such things, although it refused to help us any more than that ... said this was the business of us groundcrawlers and it was above getting involved in such things. Guess we should feel lucky it didn't try to eat any of us. Anyway, we decided somebeast had better get word to you of what had happened. And since I was the only hare about, the job of runner went to me. We assumed you'd want to know about this, and do something about it. Uh ... were we wrong to assume this, My Lord?"
Urthfist remained silent for a long time, thinking thoughts that could only be guessed at. Finally he asked, "And you came all this way yourself, over the mountains? In three days?"
Browder nodded. "A day and a night to cross the Western Plains, running all the way, then a quick sleep at the foot of the mountains, and then ... well, the falcon had told us about a pass that would take a beast over to the coastlands, but it sure wasn't easy to find. Guess things look different from way up in the sky. But at last I found it and made my way over the peaks as fast as I could without breaking my blinkin' neck. Almost froze to death the one night I had to spend up in those crags. Couldn't sleep, an' too dark to travel on, so I had to walk around in tiny circles and stamp a lot to keep my juices flowing until morning. That was this morning, when I came down and met your patrol, and then, well, you know the rest. So that'd make it three days of traveling, and Urthblood took Redwall the day before I left, so four days altogether."
"And you were the only hare to be found for this assignment? You have no wife or children, no family?"
"I'm something of a free spirit, Lord. Spent my youth criss-crossing all of southern Mossflower before settling down just south of Redwall. That's how I came to be close at paw when this terrible thing happened. I live alone, come an' go as I please. Bachelorhood suits me just fine." Browder glanced around at the faces of all the hares who were gazing at him so raptly. "With all due respect, what has all this to do with anything? I mean, I'll answer anything you want to ask me, but Urthblood is sitting in Redwall right now, and we've got to do something about that!"
"And what would you have me do?" Urthfist demanded angrily. "Assemble all my fighting hares and depart this very day for Redwall, leaving Salamandastron empty to be overrun by Tratton?"
"Tratton? Wot's a Tratton?"
"The King of the searats. A particularly vile and cunning vermin, who would love nothing better than to take this mountain for himself and gain control of the coastlands as well as the open seas. If I journey to Mossflower, there is no guarantee that I could succeed in liberating Redwall. But Salamandastron would certainly be lost. Do you see now how much it is you ask of me? Even if you are being truthful, I must think hard before I can consent to give you my help. If I make the wrong decision, we could lose everything."
Browder rose from his seat and came to stand before Urthfist. Many members of the Long Patrols tensed; it was dangerous to so approach the Badger Lord in his present mood.
But Browder lowered himself onto one knee and bowed his head respectfully toward Urthfist, until his ears flopped forward and nearly brushed the stone floor. "My Lord, I swear to you that I am an honest woodland creature, a humble hare who has come to ask for your help because there was nowhere else to turn. Our need is great. I beseech you, do not reject our request out of paw. I understand now that you must consider other things of which we were unaware before you can make a decision, but ... if you cannot help us, then nobeast can. Please do not turn me away, My Lord. Many creatures have placed all their hope in my mission. If I am to return to Mossflower empty-pawed, at least let me be able to tell the goodbeasts there that you dwelt long and hard on this matter before I was dismissed. Please ... that is all I ask."
Nearly every hare present was moved by Browder's impassioned plea. Even Colonel Clewiston had all he could do to keep from speaking out on the woodlander's behalf. But in the end this must be Urthfist's decision and his alone. If the badger wanted or required the counsel of his hare commanders, he would ask for it.
Urthfist reached out a paw as if to touch Browder on his bowed head, then withdrew it. His face was unreadable. "Get up," he said hollowly. "I demand supplication from nobeast. It is demeaning ... the kind of thing my brother would insist upon."
Browder stood as instructed, meeting Urthfist's gaze with a look of absolute earnesty but saying nothing.
Urthfist stepped back from between Clewiston and Safford, turning toward the opposite end of the dining hall. "Colonel, Major, there is sufficient food laid out for all. See that every hare has its fill ... especially our guest here."
"Uh, won't you be eating with us, sah?" Clewiston asked.
Urthfist shook his head. "No. I am going up to my private chambers. I need to be alone this night."
Late into that night, Urthfist stood in the throne room of Salamandastron, staring at a prophecy that had been carved into the rock walls twenty seasons before.
Although it was called the throne room, this chamber was actually something much more. It did indeed house a giant stone seat at its far end, simple in design and yet worthy of any Badger Lord who would care to sit upon it. It was there that the remains of Lord Brocktree, one of the greatest of the early Lords of the mountain, had rested for generations. Brocktree's skeleton had long ago been cleared away, honorably interred with his illustrious successors. But the throne stayed empty, and this chamber was usually sealed by an immense boulder rolled across its threshold that only Urthfist was strong enough to shift. The hares of the Long Patrol rarely ventured even to the entrance, and never set foot inside.
That was because this was a place meant for Badger Lords alone. More important than any throne were the carvings upon the walls, testaments and prophecies that had carried on unbroken through the long history of Slalamandastron. The living history of this mountain - all its rulers, every battle, every foe and every triumph - was to be found here, a chronicle every bit as complete as the tapestry of Redwall. The writing was all Badgerscript, unreadable by any other creature, but there were pictures as well, where words alone would have taken up too much wallspace. This was the heart of Salalmandastron, past, present ... and future.
The last entry in this continuing saga had been inscribed there twenty seasons earlier, by Urthfist's brother Urthblood. It was a prophecy of things yet to come, and the main reason Urthfist considered his older brother to be his enemy.
The Badger Lord ran his clawtips lightly over the carved verse, dropping down to the last lines as he so often did. Was it possible that a single creature could unleash so much destruction upon the lands?
And was he wrong to have kept this shameful secret to himself all these years, hoping that the prophecy might prove false and his brother might never return from the Northlands? Should he have warned the goodbeasts of Mossflower about Urthblood before now, so that they would not have succumbed so easily to his treachery? Redwall, lost! This was the most terrible thing that could have happened ... and he might have been able to prevent it, if only he had not waited so long to send his message of warning to the leaders of Redwall and made them his allies. He was partly to blame for this calamity.
Urthfist became aware of a presence at the mouth of the chamber. Turning, he saw Colonel Clewiston standing expectantly at half-attention. "It wasn't your fault, sah," the hare said, as if reading his master's mind.
"I knew." Urthfist's voice was dull and tired. "I knew that my brother might be getting ready to move south, after I heard Traveller's latest reports. And still I delayed in alerting Redwall, ashamed to admit that my own flesh and blood could be the kind of monster that he is. If I'd dispatched Hanchett even a week earlier, it might have made the difference. Now, when he arrives at Redwall, he'll find it captured by Urthblood, its leaders slain ... He'll likely be slain himself. A noble hare, lost on a fool's errand."
"Don't sell Hanchett short, sah. He's not only our fastest runner - except maybe for Traveller himself - but he's got a good head on 'is shoulders. Quick thinker, that one. I bet he gives 'em some right old grief, then heads straight back here to report what he's found."
Urthfist remained morose. "He probably won't even reach Redwall for several more days. He wasn't about to attempt the mountain passes, as our visitor claims to have done. Taking the long way around to the south of the range is a journey of many days, even for a hare." The badger clenched his paws in frustration. "If only there were some way to get word to Hanchett and recall him before he reveals himself to my brother."
"And what good would that do, sah?" Clewiston asked. "Unless I'm much mistaken, we all may soon be on our way to Redwall." He cocked his head. "Are we going to go help them, sah?"
Urthfist gave his colonel an imploring look. "What do you make of this Browder? You're a hare - I was hoping you could read him better than I. Do you think he's being truthful?"
"If he's lyin', sah, I've never seen a beast wot could lie so well. In a way I hope he is, because that would mean Redwall is still safe."
"Or that Redwall has indeed fallen, and my brother wants to make sure I know it."
"There is that possibility, sah."
"Either way, then, Browder could be working for my brother, trying to draw me out of Salamandastron." Urthfist shook his head slowly. "I could tell that you and the others were moved by his plea, Colonel. I nearly was myself. But with Tratton threatening us the way he is these days, I cannot leave Salamandastron short-pawed. The risk is too great. As much as I would like to aid the creatures of Mossflower if they are in need, I cannot make such a decision based on the story of one hare we do not know. If there were some way to verify Browder's story, then things might be different. But as it is now ... "
"So we're stayin' put?"
"At least until tomorrow, until the rest of the patrols report back," Urthfist said. "After that ... I just don't know. We haven't heard from Traveller in over a season. He probably would know if my brother were moving his horde south."
"If he's still alive," Clewiston added.
"You fear the worst for our old friend, Colonel?"
"Lemme put it this way, sah. Either Browder's tellin' the truth, in which case Urthblood's sittin' in Redwall right now, or else he's lyin', which he'd only be doing if Urthblood's tryin' to lure you out of Salalmandastron ... and there'd be no point to that unless Urthblood were somewhere nearby, where he could know when you've left the mountain so he could move in himself. Either way, he's come south, and faster than we anticipated. If Traveller could've let us know, he would've."
"Provided he knew of the movement," said Urthfist.
"Traveller? No way he could've missed a mobilization this big. Not that hare."
"He could have been fed false information. Traveller has been a good spy for us for twenty seasons. It would be naive of us to suppose my brother doesn't have spies of his own. Misinformation can be as effective as murder in a case like this. Just look at Browder: here we are, you and I, at an hour when we should both be fast asleep, wondering instead whether Browder is an agent or an honest beast. My brother could not have sent a more effective weapon against us ... and Browder may not even be his agent."
"Well, you're right about one thing, sah. We should both be asleep. Does a beast good, keeps the mind sharp an' alert. I'm gonna tuck in myself, an' I really recommend you do so too, sah."
"I suppose you're right, Colonel. Nothing to be done until tomorrow, and perhaps not then either, so no point in straining myself to stay awake ... although I doubt sleep will come easily to me tonight." Urthfist tore himself away from the wall carvings and took up the small lantern which had provided his only light in the somber stone chamber. Clweiston held it while Urthfist heaved the huge boulder back into place over the entrance. The badger was panting by the time he finished this task. "You do have Browder under guard, don't you?"
"Discreetly," answered Clewiston. "But don't worry; if he sets one paw outside his room, we'll know it. No danger of 'im wandering the corridors during the night, causing mischief if that's his intent."
"I've trained you well, old friend. You could probably run Salamandastron quite well yourself without me."
"Hope it never comes to that, sah." Leading the way with the lantern, Clewiston went with Urthfist down the corridor toward the sleeping chambers. "Y'know, sah, this Browder's got me in a real fix, personally."
"I mean, I hope he's not tellin' the truth about Redwall, an' that all those fine creatures turn out to be okay when Hanchett gets there. On the other paw, I can't abide the thought of a hare bein' dishonest, or working for a blighter like Urthblood. Just not proper hare behavior, wot?"
By the next evening all of the remaining patrols had returned to Salamandastron, bringing the mountain fortress up to its full complement of one hundred fighting hares. Rather than sending new teams out immediately to take their places as was customary (for Urthfist seldom dared to leave the near coast unpatrolled), the Badger Lord convened an extraordinary council of his five senior officers to discuss what their next move should be. Much to her surprise, Melanie was told to attend as well. While she was in charge of her own Patrol, which consisted of herself and her two daughters, her own modest rank was far below that of the other hares attending this session.
There was a special chamber deep in the lowest levels of the mountain that Urthfist had designed as a strategy room where he could conduct war councils. The oval table of polished granite could seat him and as many as twelve hares, although only half that number occupied it now. A detailed map of the coastlands, carved into a separate stone slab and overlaid by a thick sheet of bevelled glass, took up most of the tabletop and could be rotated on its recessed turntable to face anybeast seated at a council. Mirror-backed lanterns directed their beams from the ceiling down onto the table, creating a majestic effect that never failed to impress anew even the most seasoned and jaded hares who entered the chamber.
Urthfist ran his gaze around the circle of faces: Colonel Clewiston, Major Safford, Captains Taywood, Longmeadow and Polifly, and Patrol Leader Melanie. Six good hares, every one a veteran of countless coastal runs. Normally Urthfist would start such a council by asking their advice. But he had thought long and hard over the dilemma that faced them, and had settled upon the necessary course of action. This meeting was for him to give orders, not seek advice.
"We have been told by a stranger that Redwall has fallen to my brother," he began. "This is the story of one hare none of us knows, unverified and unsupported by any other creature. He asks that we abandon Salamandastron in order to aid the woodlanders of Mossflower. This I will not do. Not yet, not until I know more than I do now."
Urthfist glanced toward his supreme commander. "The Colonel and I were speaking well into the night. It is obvious that my brother has come south at last, as we all knew he someday must, whether Browder speaks true or false. The question facing us is simple: does Urthblood now sit in Redwall, as this stranger claims, or does he lurk somewhere near Salalmandastron, waiting to see whether his spy Browder can lure us out with a false report of slaughter in Mossflower? I mean to find out, if I can."
The badger's gaze fell to the map of stone at the center of the table. "If Browder is a spy, my brother cannot be more than a day's march to the north or south of us. Nothing else would make sense, if he means to capture Salamandastron for himself. Very well ... if he and his horde are out there, we will find them. An army is not easily hidden."
Urthfist raised his eyes. "You hares can travel faster and farther than any creature my brother commands, and you can hide yourselves from all but the most skilled eyes, even on the barren coastlands. The time has come to put these abilities to their supreme test. We shall use double Patrols, six instead of three, and they will be organized for speed and stealth. I want to know about every creature within two day's forced march of this spot, and I want these reports back by tomorrow evening at the latest. Doubling the size of the patrols will help ensure that word gets back from any group that might encounter trouble. If we discover that my brother is lying in wait for us, he will have a long wait indeed, for I will not walk into his trap. We will stay here inside Salamandastron and fortify our positions. And if he is fool enough to attack, he will find no entrance open to him even if he has a thousand creatures battering themselves against our rock stronghold."
"Double Patrols, eh?" Clewiston mused. "Most unconventional, sah. How many d'you want?"
"Five should do it." Urthfist traced his claw over the glass-topped stone map. "Three to cover the north approaches, which are the most likely avenues of attack, and two for the south, where the curve of the mountains and coast reduces the territory we have to cover. Pick the fastest, strongest and most experienced hares for this mission ... but none above the rank of lieutenant. The five of you must remain here to coordinate defenses in case we are attacked. I cannot afford to risk any of you."
Urthfist had organized the hundred hares of the Long Patrols into five platoons of twenty each. Colonel Clewiston, in addition to being the ranking commander of all the Patrols, also headed a platoon of his own. Likewise, Major Safford and each of the three captains were also platoon heads. The five lieutenants served directly under these five platoon leaders, helping to coordinate larger operations in the field. This organization gave the hares within each platoon a closeness that was like family.
"Sah, I take it you mean we should each select a double Patrol of our own - one from each platoon, wot?"
"Correct, Colonel ... although if any of you can think of a better way to set up this assignment, I'll leave it to you to work out the details between yourselves. But I want the Patrols ready to leave by sunrise, if not sooner."
"Yes, sah. If there's nothing else, we'll go get right on this."
"One moment." Urthfist turned to Melanie. The female hare had been wondering more and more as the council proceeded just why she had been ordered to attend this meeting. She was about to find out.
"Melanie, it was you and your girls who first encountered Browder and brought him here. You know the lands east of Salamandastron as well as anybeast. I have a special assignment for your Patrol."
"Yes, My Lord?"
"Browder claims to have come over the mountains. This gives us another way to check his veracity. Tomorrow you will return with him to the range. If he found his way through those passes to get here, he should be able to show you how he came. You and your daughters are to climb with him as high into the mountains as you can in one day, provided he can even show you this path of his. There are two reasons I want this done."
"To check his story," Melanie ventured, "and ... ?"
"If he turns out to be honest and I do eventually decide to go to Redwall, I will want to take the quickest route possible. Assume there is a trail through the mountains, one that a lone hare can traverse. Would it be safe for me to attempt to travel? For that matter, could an entire column of hares pass safely along this route? These are things I must know, and I trust your judgement in this matter."
"I understand, Lord Urthfist."
"I want your daughters along in case Browder should prove treacherous. He does not seem much of a fighter, and would be no match for a full Patrol. That should ensure your safety. Just in case war with my brother is looming on the horizon, I do not want to lose a single hare if I can help it."
The Badger Lord stood, signaling the end of the council. The hare officers were so quick to follow that an outsider looking on would have sworn they all rose with Urthfist. Only Melanie was a heartbeat behind, still overwhelmed by these events that had caught her up.
"We all have our work to do, then. I'm afraid there won't be much sleep for any of us this night ... except for you, Melanie. You and your daughters must be well-rested for your climb tomorrow. I want you to get a full night's sleep. And that's an order!"
"Um ... yes, sir!"
The five double Patrols were off and running by the time the first rosy tinge of a clear summer morning had begun to light the eastern horizon. Urthfist had wanted to keep all knowledge of the special Patrols from their visitor; he and Clewiston made sure that all preparations were carried out between the time Browder went to bed and the time he got up the next morning. The visitor's room was an interior chamber with no windows, and the discreet watch that Clewiston had placed on Browder saw to it that the woodland hare did not leave his room that night. If Browder was a spy, they were taking no chances.
They need not have worried overmuch; for the second straight day, Browder slept until well past sunrise, and might not have stirred himself until noon if it hadn't been for the wake-up knock at his door. If the hare were an enemy agent, he was surely the laziest spy that any of the Long Patrol had ever seen.
When Browder answered the knock, he was unclothed, sleepy-eyed and fur-dishelveled, obviously having just crawled out of bed. "Oh ... Melanie, isn't it? G'morning." He yawned, rubbing paws into his sleep-rimmed eyes. "Time t'rise 'n' shine, I guess. Wot time is it, anyways?"
"Time for breakfast," Melanie answered, "and it's all laid out in the dining hall f'you. Most of us got an early start this morning, so it'll just be you, me 'n' my gels chowin' down. Hope you feel like a good run today, Browder, 'cos Lord Urthfist has ordered us on a little excursion."
"Oh?" This seemed to wake Browder up in a hurry. "Wot, some military mission? Sorry, I'm no fighter, so if it's anything like that ... "
"Not at all," Melanie assured him. "In fact, this'll be something we already know you're good at. A little runnin', a little climbin' ... and since you've 'ad a couple o' days to get good an' rested after your journey here, it should be a piece o' cake. Speakin' of which, there's hotcakes waitin' for us." Melanie took a deep sniff. "Mmm ... well, don't just stand there, chap! Get some clothes on and shake a paw! We don't have all day!"
When it became apparent that Melanie wasn't going anywhere until he was ready to accompany her, Browder splashed some water onto his face, slicked his fur down as neatly as he could, and pulled on his jerkin and travel belts. Then, together, they went down to the dining hall.
Browder was slightly amazed by the sight of the enormous chamber being nearly empty; every other time he'd been here for a meal it had been packed with hares. Now it was just him, Melanie, Mizagelle and Givadon. The two younger hares greeted him with a bright and cheerful chorus of "Good Morning!" and then all three females tucked into their hotcakes like a four-season famine was coming their way. Filled with uncertainty as to what was wanted of him after he finished eating, Browder approached his plate with a good deal more hesitancy.
"Eat up, old timer," Mizagelle chirped upon seeing how their guest was picking at his breakfast. "You'll need all the energy you can scoff for our run today."
This hardly raised Browder's spirits, nor did the rather rough texture of the pancakes, typical of the spartan fare at Salamandastron. He drowned his helping in as much sweet berry syrup as he could without seeming gluttonous, and washed it down with a flagon of cool spring water.
Four pouches of dried food and four canteens were arrayed at the far end of the table. When breakfast was finished, Melanie thrust a set of these provisions at Browder, who eyed them quizzically. "Wot're these for?"
"We won't be back 'til nightfall," Melanie explained. "This is our lunch, and maybe dinner too."
"Ah ha." Browder attached them to his belt. "Now will one of you please tell me where we're goin', an' wot we're up to?"
Melanie hesitated a moment. Should she wait to tell Browder their destination until they were well underway, so that he'd have less time to raise objections or fabricate an excuse for bowing out of this scouting mission? But she decided to trust the woodland hare ... to a point.
"We're going back to the pass in the mountains where you came through," she said. "Just to have a look around."
Browder's expression was blank. "A look around? For wot?"
"Lord Urthfist wants to know whether the pass would be suitable for him and a large detachment of the Patrols to travel ... in case he wants to use that as a route to Redwall." There - just enough of the truth to satisfy his curiosity.
"Oh, is that all?" Browder laughed. "Why, we don't have to go all the way back there. I can tell you myself. That pass is no good for a badger or a column of troops. Believe me, I've been over it, an' I know. I'm glad you told me this now ... saves us havin' to make that long trip." He started to remove the pouch and canteen from his belt.
"Not so fast," Melanie said, an edge of warning in her voice. "I'm a better judge than you as to what His Lordship is capable of doing. He wants - he's ordered - that you show me this pass and let me see it for myself."
"Well, where is Lord Urthfist? I'll just have a word with him, explain to him what a waste of time this would be. I can tell him everything he needs to know about the mountain pass, and he can cancel this useless excursion."
"You don't understand, Browder: Lord Urthfist has ordered us to escort you to the mountains for you to show us where you came over. We do not disobey his orders."
"But ... " Browder glanced over his shoulder, realizing that the two younger hares had edged around behind him and had their paws on their weapons. Their friendliness had been replaced by the intent gazes of battle-readiness.
He looked back at Melanie. "You don't believe me!" he cried, incredulous. "You don't believe that I came over the mountains!"
"I didn't say that."
"You didn't jolly well have to!" Browder's indignation was full-blown now, without being threatening. "The greatest thing I ever did in my life, comin' over that mountain!" The woodlander gestured extravagantly for them to proceed. "Lead the way, ma'am ... we're goin' to that mountain pass, an' I'll climb it again if that's what it takes to prove to you that I'm no liar!"
Melanie breathed a sigh of relief, and her daughters also relaxed, shifting their paws away from their weapons. Browder's huffy manner suggested nothing of danger or treachery. But they did not lower their guard altogether; Browder might very well be acting. If that was the case, then they would just act right along with him, and let the events of this day show whether he was being genuine in his words and actions.
Pasting a smile upon her face, Melanie turned and headed for the passage that would take them out onto Salamandastron's lower slopes. "Come along, gels! This gentlehare must be in a hurry to prove his point. If we travel at a decent jog we should reach the mountains in an hour or so. Then, after a quick rest, we'll see if you lazyshanks can climb rocks as well as our guest here."
Browder needed no prodding, seemingly as eager to leave as any of them. Givadon and Mizagelle brought up the rear, trading comments on their mother's name-calling.
"Lazyshanks, huh? I'll show Mum, soon as we get to that mountain. I'll eat up that trail like it was all downhill."
"Only thing you'll be eating, Sis, is my dust, since I'm gonna be first up that pass."
"Oh, yeah? Bet you my next kitchen duty that I reach the top before you do."
"You're on. Hope you like dishpan paws!"
"Patrol comin' in, sah!"
Urthfist turned. "Already? It's barely past midday. I wonder what this can bode."
"We'll find out pretty soon, sah. They're makin' tracks, an' that's no understatement."
Colonel Clewiston and the Badger Lord stood once more high upon the crater rim atop Salamandastron, surveying the expanses of land and sea around the mountain. They hadn't really expected to see anything of note for quite some time, since Urthfist had given the double Patrols until sundown to fully scope out their assigned territories to the north and south, and most likely it would take Melanie's Patrol at least that long to complete the inspection of the mountain pass with Browder. But the badger had not been able to sit still within the fastness of his mountain stronghold, waiting for news to reach him, and had at last ambled up to the lookout plateau, Clewiston at his heel. He could at least enjoy some sunshine and fresh air while he surveyed his domain.
Now he moved to his chief hare's side, gazing to the north. As always, Clewiston's keen eyesight had caught the movement long before Urthfist would have. "Tell me what you see, Colonel."
"Looks like Larrity's group, from Captain Taywood's platoon. I ... don't see any signs of pursuit, but they're movin' as if the devil 'imself was on their bobtails."
"Perhaps they have something vital to report," Urthfist ventured. "Are they all there? Do any of them seem injured?"
"I think ... " Clewiston leaned out over the crater rim until Urthfist was afraid his senior hare might topple over the edge and plummet down the mountainside. "There's an extra hare with them, sah."
Again? First Browder, and now this? Was it going to become standard for Patrols to return with an extra hare? Urthfist's surprise gave way to the realization of a hope, and his heart beat faint and fast in his breast.
"It's ... it's Traveller, sah! Traveller's with 'em!"
Urthfist clamped an anxious claw around Clewiston's shoulder. "Are you sure, Colonel?"
"Sure as I'm seein' it, sah!" Clewiston's face was split by a grin so broad it threatened to make the top of his head fall off. He almost laughed as he spoke, a rare departure from his usual decorum. "It's Traveller, all right!"
"Colonel, come with me. I want to hear what he has to say, the moment he arrives."
"You an' every hare in the Patrols, sah." Clewiston hopped down from the rim wall and fell into step behind Urthfist, who was already making for the central stairs. "Looks like they'll come in by the northeast entrance. We can receive them there, or go out to meet them on the slope."
"On the slope," Urthfist decided. "I don't want to wait even a moment longer than necessary to hear his report."
"Yassah." They hastened down through the winding stairways of Salamandastron, attracting the attention of every hare that they passed on their way, many of whom dropped what they were doing and fell into step behind them, thinking the mountain might be under attack. By the time they exited out onto the lower northern slope, nearly half the Long Patrol was with them.
A mighty cheer arose from the gathering on the slope when the identity of the new arrival became clear. Despite having spent most of his adult life away from Salamandastron, Traveller was one of the most respected and beloved hares among the Patrols, truly a living legend. He wasn't even officially included among the hundred of the Long Patrols, long ago having been promoted to the special rank of Field Marshal (the only hare ever to carry the title) and given symbolic command of his own platoon, which consisted solely of himself. In real terms his rank was equal to Clewiston's, and Traveller took his orders directly from Urthfist and no other.
The six hares of Lieutenant Larrity's oversized Patrol came to a halt a dozen paces from their awaiting Lord, allowing their newfound comrade to approach Urthfist alone; this was Traveller's moment. The returned hero, gray in the fur but still quick and limber in his movements, came forward and snapped off a smart salute to his badger master, as if his appearance was a routine occurance. "Field Marshal Traveller reporting, M'Lord!"
Urthfist fought to reign in his emotions, seriously afraid that his voice might break when he spoke. "Traveller, old friend, never in twenty seasons of your comings and goings have I been as overjoyed to see you as I am this day. I had feared the worst for you."
"I'm afraid you'll be less than overjoyed by what I have to tell you, sir. The news isn't good."
"I believe I've already heard whatever it is you might have to tell me. I know that my brother has come south, but I do not know for sure where he is now. More than anything else, what I need from you is confirmation. Has Redwall Abbey truly fallen to my brother?"
A look of shock came to Traveller's grizzled features. "Wot ... Redwall, fallen to Urthblood?"
"You have not heard this?"
"No. But it's quite possible, given what I do know."
Urthfist forced himself to remain patient. "Tell me your news, then, and let us see what to make of it."
Traveller began his tale. "As you know, when I was last here a season ago, I told you I saw signs that Urthblood might be getting ready to expand southward with his conquests, perhaps even across the wastelands and all the way to north Mossflower. But I was thinking it'd be something gradual, over the course of a season or two. Then, a few weeks ago, it became clear he was making his horde ready for a mass mobilization. In three days, he'd crossed nearly all the wastes and was less than half a day's march from the northern fringes of Mossflower. I kept them under surveillance as best I could. Kinda hard to lose sight of an entire army in a barren place like that, without much in the way of trees or rises. On the other paw, that made it hard for me to find enough cover to keep myself unobtrusive while I was following them. Turns out I needn't really have bothered, 'cos the blighters must've known I was shadowing them all along."
"Oh? What makes you say that?"
"Happened on the fourth day of their march ... or rather the third night, which was the tipoff. Up 'til then they'd only been marching during the day, an' sleeping at night. I confess, I've only myself to blame. Keeping on their heels at that pace, along with the extra effort of tryin' to keep myself hid, got me kinda tuckered out, an' I thought I could rest easy until morning. But when I woke up, they'd moved on, fast, under cover of darkness. By the time I caught on to what was up, they were all the way to north Mossflower. Or at least that was where their tracks led, 'cos there was no sign of the horde itself. The tracks veered off to the west at that point, an' since it was still far 'nuff north to be above the western mountains, it looked for sure like they were makin' straight for Salamandastron. But when I caught up with them, turned out it was a small diversionary detachment, an' the main force had kept south after all, right into Mossflower. They covered their tracks well enough to fool me, which meant they knew there'd be somebeast to fool comin' up behind 'em. Anyway, the diversionary force turned on me, driving me back toward the main horde. By this time northern Mossflower was crawling thick with the rotters, an' they knew enough about my technique to prevent me goin' to ground. They had more'n one chance to pin my hide to their lances, so I can only guess they were more interested in driving me away than in killing me. One thing for sure, I couldn't keep up my surveillance under those conditions - they wouldn't let me. So I broke through their line first chance I had an' headed west. I waited a day and night at the northern foot of the western mountain range to make sure they weren't gonna try an' come through to Salamandastron after all. But it was Mossflower they seemed to be after, so I got here as fast as I could to let you know what had happened."
"The report we have from Redwall," said Urthfist, "was that my brother showed up there alone and tricked his way in, ahead of the main horde. Do you know anything at all of this?"
Traveller looked thoughtful. "Y'know, the last few days that I could make any sort of reliable observations, His Bloodiness did seem to have vanished ... at least I didn't see hide nor claw of 'im. I'd say that's as good an explanation as any for where he went to."
"But you don't know for certain that he captured Redwall?"
"I'll put it this way, sir. From where they were when I broke off my surveillance, that horde could've got to Redwall in less than a day. An' since they didn't seem to be followin' me out to the coastlands, that's probably where they were headed."
Clewiston looked over at Urthfist. "That story of Browder's is startin' to look pretty clean, sah. No vermin on the coast, an' Urthblood goin' ahead of his horde south into Mossflower."
Traveller cocked his head. "Browder?"
"A woodland hare," Urthfist explained. "He brought us the news of my brother's capture of Redwall."
"The bloke must've run pretty fast, to've gotten here from Mossflower so quickly," Traveller observed.
"He claims to have come over the mountains," Clewiston wryly informed the other hare.
Traveller's eyebrows shot up. "Over the mountains, y'say? Flop my ears, that's a trick I've never even tried myself. I've got to meet this super trooper."
"Oh, I'm sure you will," said Urthfist. "Melanie's Patrol is out with him now - I wanted to verify his story about a pass through the mountains, and see if it might be something we could use for ourselves. They should be back this evening, if all goes well. In the meantime, my oldest friend, go on inside and rest after your long journeying. If you wish anything to eat, the best of what we have in our larders is yours for the asking ... although even our best is none too lavish, I'm afraid."
"After the hardtack rations that got me through a lot of this last outing, anything fresh from Salamandastron's larders will taste like ambrosia to me, My Lord." Traveller saluted again, just as smartly and perfectly as before, and took his leave of Lord Urthfist. It never occured to him to ask his master what was to be done next about the situation; he'd made his report, and it was up to the Badger Lord to make the decisions based upon the information Traveller had brought him. When he was needed again, Urthfist would let him know.
"Colonel, stay a moment." Clewiston lingered on the slope by Urthfist's side as all the other hares filed into the mountain after Traveller and Larrity's Patrol.
"See to it that Traveller is well attended, and don't let the others pester him too much. I'm sure they're all dying to hear everything about his latest mission, but he'll need his rest as well. His bedchamber has been kept up for him, and I'm sure he'll want to make use of it before long."
"I'll see to it, sah."
"I'm going to stay out here for awhile ... perhaps wait for the other Patrols to report back. From what Traveller says, I'm sure they'll all return by sundown, with no word of any enemy in sight. Please arrange to have some supper brought down to me, if I'm not back inside by evening."
"As you wish. Sah ... are we going to Redwall?"
"It's beginning to look that way, Colonel. After all the Patrols are back, and after I've heard from Melanie ... then I will have to make the most difficult decision of my life."
Clewiston turned to go inside, then paused. "Sah ... why didn't they kill Traveller when they had the chance? By all logic he should be dead right now. And we'd be in the dark about where your brother is."
"Exactly, Colonel. It is as I have said before: it may be that my brother has indeed captured Redwall, and wants to make sure I know it."
Sunset that evening was as splendid as any ever seen on the western shore. The crimson globe of the sun turned the sea to a sheet of rippling liquid fire, a countless myriad of molton iron droplets dancing upon the ocean's surface. The ruddy hues grew deeper and then faded altogether as the twilight-reddened orb finally disappeared below the far curve of the watery horizon.
Urthfist saw none of it. Stationed by the eastern entrance, the vast bulk of Salamandastron reared up behind him, cutting off his view of the sea. His thoughts dwelt far from things of beauty, and he was in no mood to appreciate the fiery spectacle nature had arranged. As the long afterglow of a summer's evening settled in, transforming the coastlands into a region of deepening gray shadows, Urthfist kept his attention focused on the mountain range to the east.
Two hours after supper, Colonel Clewiston came down to stand with his master for awhile. The hare brought another covered dish of food with him, in case their vigil should last well into the night, for Urthfist gave no sign that he'd be budging from his spot anytime soon. The Badger Lord greeted his commander with a preoccupied grunt, and did not acknowledge the food at all.
"Nice night for a breather out of doors, wot?" Clewiston set his plate aside with the empty dishes of Urthfist's earlier meal.
"Peaceful," Urthfist said. "One of the quietest and most peaceful nights I can ever remember. Almost as if the very land itself knows something terrible is on its way, and is holding its breath in dread and anticipation."
Clewiston refrained from making a glib comment. When Urthfist began to wax poetical, that was a sure sign that the situation was dire indeed.
The hare officer settled back onto his haunches. "With your permission, sah ... Been a long day, standing watch an' runnin' around debriefing all the returning Patrols, an' gettin' good ol' Traveller settled in. By the way, I finally got that speedster to bed 'bout an hour ago ... though to tell the truth, I think he was so happy bein' back with his own kind, he could've stayed up the whole night through, spinning yarns to the others. But he's no fool, an' knows he's got to keep well rested for the rough times that may be ahead. Right proper influence to have around for the younger chaps."
"He is that." Urthfist waved a claw. "You don't have to stay out here with me, Colonel ... but if you insist, you may as well make yourself comfortable."
"Thank you, sah. The vittles can keep for later, n'case some pangs start plucking at the old stomach bag."
They stood and sat for a long time in silence after that, as the waning day gave way to full night around them and the three-quarter moon rose to cast its wan illumination over the dunes and swamps to the east. It wasn't necessary to speak; both knew what they were waiting for.
At last it came, the ghost of movement. Shadows against the brighter landscape, bobbing and weaving slightly as they drew nearer Salamandastron. After some minutes the phantoms resolved into four distinct hare-shapes, making straight for the eastern slope. Urthfist leaned forward in anticipation, and Clewiston stood to greet the newcomers.
Melanie skidded to a halt, panting hard, surprised to see Urthfist and Clewiston waiting for them at this place. She tried to mask her exhaustion as she stiffened and saluted. "My Lord ... Patrol reporting back, sir!"
"Did it go well?" Urthfist asked anxiously.
Melanie wasn't sure how to answer. "There were no problems, sir." Her two daughters came up behind her. Givadon and Mizagelle stifled their heavy breathing and came to attention as best they could; Browder didn't even try, and seemed on the verge of passing out from his exertions.
Urthfist nodded. "I understand. Colonel, escort the others inside. I'll hear Melanie's report right here."
"Yes, sah!" Clewiston ushered Browder, Givadon and Mizagelle through the entrance. The three of them were so grateful to be on their way to a good meal and rest that none showed surprise at Urthfist's decision to question Melanie out on the slope.
When they were alone, the Badger Lord said, "The fact that Browder has returned with you suggests that he displayed no treachery. Tell me what you found."
"There's a pass, all right, sir," Melanie began. "Right where he said it would be, and just as he described it. He knew it so well, he had to have been over it before. We climbed as high up as we could before the light failed, because some stretches were treacherous and we would've had trouble getting back down in the dark. And that's not all, My Lord. Before the path gave way to solid rock, we found pawprints. His pawprints. Coming down, but none leading up. Unless that hare can fly, he came over the mountains just like he said he did."
"You feel sure of this?"
"I'd stake my reputation on it," Melanie said, and then felt like a complete fool. Of course more than her reputation was at stake here. Much more.
"So, tell me about the pass. Could I get through it?"
"Well ... um ... "
"By the fur, soldier, don't worry about bruising my feelings! I need your objective assessment on this!"
"In that case ... no," Melanie answered. "We climbed almost to the top before we started down again. It was tricky enough just for the four of us. For an entire column of hares, or for a larger creature such as yourself, I think that trail would prove impassable."
Urthfist sighed. "Thank you, Melanie. That was what I needed to know."
"One odd thing, sir."
"You'd think a hare who could make a journey like Browder did would have the stamina of ... well, of a badger, sir. But he ran out of steam long before me an' my gels. You saw him just now. I'll admit, that was a hard day's run for any hare, but we thought his heart was gonna burst. Would've been back sooner, but we rested twice on the way back just so he could catch his breath."
"And your conclusion from this?"
"Well ... I don't know, sir. Just that he's no wonder beast. Could be he's just what he appears to be: a simple woodlander, a bachelor hare who was pressed into service in a time of need, to help his fellow creatures. Before we left this morning, he seemed awfully proud of making it over the mountains. Said it was the greatest thing he'd ever done. Well, from seeing how he likes to sleep, and how tired he got on today's run, I'd say that's probably true. I don't think Browder's a beast accustomed to doing great deeds. Probably took everything he had in him to make it here from Mossflower in three days. A case of needful times bringin' out the best in a chap, I s'pose."
Urthfist pondered this. "So, all the evidence I have heard today supports his story, about his journey over the mountains and about my brother moving south into Mossflower."
Melanie's ears twitched forward. "You've heard back from the other Patrols, My Lord?"
Urthfist nodded. "And Traveller has returned."
Melanie's face lit up. "Traveller! How is he? Wot did he have to say?"
"He did not witness the fall of Redwall, but he confirms that my brother's horde has indeed come south, and was last seen headed into the heart of Mossflower. Also, that my brother was not with the main horde for the last several days Traveller had them under observation, which bears out Browder's story that Urthblood arrived at Redwall first, ahead of his army. And all the double Patrols returned without incident, and without report of any enemy to be seen within two day's march of Salamandastron. You were the last one I was waiting to hear from ... and now that I have, I still am not sure what I should do."
"Well, um ... " Melanie realized there was no counsel she could offer to make his decision easier, no reassurance that would lighten the burden of responsibility that was now his alone.
Urthfist stared toward the mountains to the east, in the approximate direction of Redwall. "Do I abandon Salamandastron, and let the coastlands fall to Tratton? Or do I stay here to defend these shores, and leave the goodbeasts of Mossflower to suffer under my brother's tyranny? The wrong choice could lead to a disaster from which these lands might never recover."
Melanie realized this was the kind of thing Urthfist might have said to Colonel Clewiston when they were alone, and at first she did not feel worthy of making a reply. But as she considered his words, she felt compelled to speak her mind.
"We're yours to command, My Lord. But, if I may say so, I don't see how we can just sit by and not help Redwall. That Abbey stands for the peace and security of all Mossflower, or so I've always heard. We can't leave it in the paws of a tyrant. Not if there's anything we can do about it."
Urthfist stared down at her. "And what of yourselves? The Long Patrol would undoubtedly suffer heavy losses in a campaign against my brother."
"He started this, sir. Maybe we're meant to finish it. But we will fight for you, and die for you if need be, because that's our duty. Don't let good creatures suffer because of your concern for us, My Lord. If we're not going to the assistance of Redwall, it had better be for some reason other than that."
"I do not doubt your valor, or your loyalty. It is the security of all the lands I must consider now. And that security will be placed in the greatest of jeopardy if the Long Patrol is decimated. If you waste yourselves in a fruitless battle against my brother's horde, who will defend the defenseless?"
"Yah, but if we can liberate Redwall, won't it all be worth it?"
Urthfist was silent for many heartbeats. When he spoke at last, his voice was flat and empty.
"That is the precise thing I must decide."
A heavy morning mist hung over the coastal plains around Salamandastron. The sun had not yet shown its face over the peaks to the east, and no breath of wind stirred the grayness that blanketed the land. The sea was likewise calm, with only the gentlest of breakers lazily lapping the shore. The fog was cool and damp, but still the morning was as oppressive as any humid summer midday.
One hundred and one hares stood out on the southern slopes of the mountain fortress, neatly ranked into five groups of twenty, with Browder standing apart as the odd beast out. Traveller had taken the absent Hanchett's place in Captain Taywood's platoon.
Four of the platoons stood at attention upon the lower slope, almost down to the sandy edge where the foot of the mountain met the wide beach. The fifth, Colonel Clewiston's command, stood farther up toward the entrance, facing their assembled comrades.
Melanie and her daughters Givadon and Mizagelle held their place in the ranks behind the Colonel. The female hare could not help but think that she had somehow influenced the course of these mighty events with the words she'd spoken to her badger master after returning from her run with Browder. She was having grave misgivings now about not holding her tongue.
Lord Urthfist finished reviewing the four mobilized platoons, then strode toward his Colonel. In the day and two nights which had passed since the return of Traveller and the Patrols, Salamandastron had been fortified for a prolonged siege. All but two of the side entrances had been sealed tight with timber, rocks and mortar, and those two doorways could be blocked from within by a single hare at the first sign of trouble. Extra provisions had been harvested from the sparse terraced gardens, while caches of arrows, spears and sling pebbles were piled near every window slit.
Urthfist was going to Redwall. But he was hardly about to leave his home unguarded. The most difficult part of the preparations had been deciding who among the Long Patrols would accompany him into battle ... and who would be ordered to stay behind to safeguard the mountain while their Lord and master marched off to face his ultimate challenge.
Clewiston gave the Badger Lord an impassioned gaze. "Sah, I really should be going with you."
Urthfist was a formidable figure in his full battle armor, the massive iron lance in his paw as tall as a hare. Not exactly a beast to be argued with or second-guessed. Nevertheless, the Colonel felt obligated to protest right to the last.
"We have been through this already, several times, Colonel. There isn't a hare in the Patrols who doesn't feel duty-bound to be at my side on this march. But the defense of Salamandastron must not be ignored. I need my best and most experienced commander here in my absence ... somebeast who can keep Salamandastron from falling into the dirty paws of searats in the event that I do not return."
"Beggin' your pardon, sah, but it's not the searats wot's got me worried. We both know there's only one reason you wouldn't return, and in that event I suspect I'd be gettin' a visit from another badger I'd rather not be seeing in these parts. You can't expect twenty hares to hold off your brother's entire horde if they come knockin'."
"I expect you to do the best you can," Urthfist said, "and your best is nothing to be sneezed at. There have been times in its history that Salamandastron has been held by as few as a dozen of the Long Patrol."
Yeah, but not with the likes of Tratton and Urthblood hanging around, Clewiston wanted to say, but diplomatically held his tongue.
"My immediate concern is Tratton's searats," Urthfist continued, "and I think our preparations are sufficient to fend off any bid he might make to capture Salamandastron for his own. But only if a platoon of stouthearted hares are within to fight off his attacks. As far as my brother goes, I am counting on him basking in his capture of Redwall and taking some time to fortify his position there before he starts thinking about his next conquest. Perhaps he will know I am coming, and perhaps we will catch him by surprise. But I do not think he will immediately threaten Salamandastron ... at least not until he and I have met in battle. After that, only fate knows." The badger placed his paw on Clewiston's shoulder. "I know this will not be easy for you, my old friend, but think how much harder it would be for one of the younger, less experienced commanders. One platoon must stay behind, and I deemed yours to be the best for this task. And that is my final decision, Colonel."
Clewiston swallowed, knowing the last word had been said on this matter. "Yes, sah."
"We will head south and then east, circling the mountains at the first opportunity that the terrain affords, and then head for Redwall along the most direct route. I doubt any of my brother's forces will appear in the coastlands anytime soon, but it might be a different story in the plains beyond the mountains. I can only hope that resistance from the good creatures of Mossflower will occupy his attention enough so that we may cross the better part of the plains without his knowledge, but this might be too much to expect. Still, there is no way to approach Redwall under cover of forest without going many days out of our way, so the open exposure of the plains is a danger we must risk. A proper deployment of our advance Patrols might surprise their outlying sentries and allow us to overpower them before they have a chance to let my brother know I am coming."
"One can hope, sah. But those lands are unknown to us. Even Browder might not be of much help to you on the plains, if he's lived all his life in the woodlands."
"No, although he did cross the plains to get to Salamandastron. But I am counting on meeting other creatures along the way who know those flatlands and who will help us ... goodbeasts who may have heard of my brother's crimes and would not see such horrors spread beyond the woods of Mossflower to their own territory. Some of them may even join our fight. I am leaving today with eighty hares, but our numbers might be much greater by the time we reach Redwall. And, of course, there will be the creatures of Mossflower itself, who will doubtless fight to win back their home. It could be that my brother has made a mistake that will end his days of conquest forever."
"If anybeast can defeat him, sah, it's you. Just like Browder said, you're the only hope those Redwall folk have." Clewiston studied his master's expression, the peculiar gleam in Urthfist's eye. "But that's not the only reason you're going, is it?"
"You know me too well, Colonel. It is my destiny that I am going to meet, as foretold twenty seasons ago." Urthfist was silent a moment. "It's funny ... I always read the prophecy that the final battle would take place here, at Salamandastron. Perhaps this is a good omen, that I will fight my brother in a place unfamiliar to him, where I may have many allies."
"As you say, sah, perhaps his days have come to their end."
"We will know very soon, Colonel. I have never been shown a prophecy of my own, so I have had to interpret my brother's as best I could. There was always room in its wording for the final confrontation to go either way. In a few days we will know for certain, and the prophecy that was cast in rock twenty seasons ago will be resolved for all to see."
The sun cleared the peaks and cast a ghostly glow through the morning mist. In an hour or two the fog would burn away, but for now Salamandastron lay enshrouded around its base, the air of the coastlands as thickly obscured as the future.
Clewiston saluted the Badger Lord. "I'll not fail you, sah. Salamandastron will be kept safe until your return." The hare's tone suggested that Urthfist's return was a certainty.
"I know it will, Colonel." Urthfist turned to join the four platoons that would be going with him to Redwall.
"Sah ... "
"Kill some vermin for us, will you?"
"You can count on it, Colonel."
Moments later, the march was underway. Every hare in Colonel Clewiston's platoon stood stiffly at attention on the mountain slope, paws to brows in formal salute, as Urthfist led his army away to the south. They stood that way for a long time after the departing troops had vanished into the morning mists.