THE CRIMSON BADGER - Chapter Twenty-Seven

A day and a half of marching had brought Urthfist and his eighty Long Patrol hares to the banks of a wide, shallow, gently-flowing stream, rippling its way across the beach sands on its slow and lazy way to the sea.

With Colonel Clewiston left behind to hold Salamandastron secure, Major Safford was the commanding hare of this small army. The Major stood now at the forefront of the group, surveying the broad stream with Traveller and their badger master. The woodland hare Browder was with them also, since Urthfist was still not sure he completely trusted the stranger and sought to test Browder at every opportunity.

"Doesn't look too deep," Safford observed. "Don't think we'll 'ave any trouble crossin' it. The shorter hares can swim if the middle's over their heads, tho' I doubt it comes to your shoulder even at its deepest, My Lord."

"I hope you are right, Major. I won't be doing any swimming myself in this armor." Urthfist looked down at Browder. "What can you tell us about this stream, friend?"

Browder shook his head, looking confused. "Me, Lord? I'm from Mossflower country. I've never been to the coastlands before ... I know nothing of this stream. This is my first time settin' eyes upon it."

Traveller stepped in. "But, if you're from the south of Mossflower, you must know of the various watercourses that run through the woods and out across the Western Plains."

Browder shrugged. "I'm a hare, not an otter, or a logboat shrew. Never 'ad much t' do with the waterways. Truth to tell, I'm not even much lookin' forward to crossin' this trickle here. Much rather keep me stompers on dry land, thank you very much."

"Then let me educate you." Traveller turned to Urthfist. "Unless I'm mistaken, My Lord, this is a stream that starts east of Mossflower and winds its way through the woodlands and across the plains, then drops below the mountains. I've heard it said that there's a lake deep under the earth, maybe even a system of underground rivers, that draws off a lot of the water. That's why this stretch of it is so shallow. Crossing here may not be a problem, but we'll have to cross it again on the other side of the mountains to get to Redwall, which lies well north of it. That won't be so easy; there, it's still a true river, fast-running and deep enough to carry boating traffic. We'll have to try to find some ferry shrews or a bridge, 'cos we won't be gettin' across otherwise."

"Maybe we should have gone north instead," Major Safford ventured. "We could have rounded the mountains up there, then gone south to Redwall."

Traveller shook his head. "This way is still shorter. There are a lot of boating shrews living in the Western Plains, assuming His Bloodiness hasn't killed or captured them, or chased them all away. We should be able to find some willing to help us without too much trouble."

"And perhaps make some allies among them," Urthfist added. "Traveller is right: my brother has been north, we are less likely to find friends and more likely to run into his vermin up that way. South was the only real choice for us."

The Badger Lord glanced to his left, at the line of mountains reared up along their east flank. Behind them to the north, the flat peak of Salamandastron wavered on the horizon, still visible even though they had left it a day and a half before. The noontide sun beat down upon the coastlands, washing the sandy terrain in a shimmering summer glare that made distant objects dance before a beast's vision. As much as these hares normally shied away from water and swimming, nearly all were relishing the chance to cool off while crossing this stream. For Urthfist, suited up in full armor, the midday heat was stifling. But far from wanting to rest, he desired only to push on, to meet his brother ... and his destiny.

"I had hoped to make better time than this," he heaved a deep sigh. "At this rate, we won't reach Redwall until summer's end."

"Oh, it's not that bad, M'Lord," said Traveller. "It's the blinkin' sand wot's been slowing us down. Once we cross this bally stream, I figure another day an' then we'll be far enough south to leave the coast an' start rounding the lower reach of the mountains. Another day after that should get us into the plains, where the going will be a lot easier. Then we'll make good speed to Redwall, 'specially if we hit up with some shrews right off."

"And if we don't?"

"Then march north 'til we get to the river, an' follow it east until we find somebeasts to help us cross. Keep in mind, that river may seem like a pain of a nuisance to us, but it's an obstacle for the other side as well. Not as likely to find our enemy to the south of it, which could be a big help to us in gettin' to Redwall."

"A good point, old friend." Urthfist stared at the stream before them. "Major, give the order to get us underway again. We'll stop for lunch a little later. For now, let's find out if this water is as cool and refreshing as it looks."

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It was late in the afternoon when the army of Urthblood neared the empty meadow where once had stood the old church of St. Ninian's.

The column of fighting beasts had settled into a brisk pace as the sun slipped toward the golden plains to their right. Young Winokur found the going hard on his unaccustomed legs and footpaws. His rigorous practice jousts with Montybank and frequent swims in the Abbey pond had kept him in fine shape, but a forced march used different muscles than the ones Wink usually exercised. He was glad their first day of the journey had commenced at noon, so that he would be able to rest after just a few hours.

The marchers' bobbing shadows stretched out toward the trees of Mossflower on their left. A short way ahead the treeline retreated from the roadside, yielding to the empty meadow and charred foundation of the demolished church. The steady drone of summer insects, punctuated by the intermittent trill and chirp of birdsong, provided a lulling backdrop to the grim parade and cast an almost trancelike mood over the column. Winokur felt a peaceful drowsiness tugging at his eyelids, in spite of the aching tightness in his legs.

A shadow from overhead, distorted into misshapen grotesquery by the low sun, suddenly grew large as a winged creature swooped down upon the lead marchers. Weasels and otters scattered, snatching at their slings and blades and javelins. Behind them, the rest of the ranks came to a surprised halt, bumped forward as their comrades ran into them. Within moments the entire column had come to a shuffling and somewhat confused stop. "Attack! We're under attack!"

The bird, a solitary sparrow, fluttered and hopped about in the road before them, apparently surprised at the commotion it had caused.

Winokur ran out to greet his Sparra friend. "Rafter! What are you doing here?"

Warnokur turned upon the bristling vanguard of his startled fellow soldiers. "Hold, hold! Down with your weapons! This bird's a friend!"

The wary Northlanders slowly lowered their arms. Urthblood strode forward to the Sparra, and Warnokur jogged along after him.

The sparrow bobbed and ducked appreciatively as Winokur playfully ruffled his neck feathers. "Me out catchum wormfood when fighterbeasts leave Abbey, wanna say goodbye to waterdogpal Winkker."

Urthblood towered over Rafter, glowering down at the bird with a scowl. "That was a very foolish thing to do. My forces have only recently fought a pitched battle with crows and ravens. You could easily have been mistaken for an enemy and slain."

Winokur stood by his winged friend. "He was only being courteous, My Lord!"

"Yes, and we would have been the last goodbeasts to ever receive the blessings of his thoughtfulness." The Badger Lord appraised Rafter with a long, critical gaze. "Will you be walking with us awhile, or heading right back to Redwall?"

"Rafter flylong, flyfast, wings muchtired. Not fly alla thisway for littlespeak. Me stay forwhile with Winkpal."

"Very well." Urthblood surveyed the terrain ahead of them. "What is that?" he asked the two Redwall otters, pointing to the delapidated foundation by the roadside.

"That's where old St. Ninian's used to be," answered Winokur, who knew his Mossflower history better than his father. "It was abandoned and rundown for most of the time Redwall has been standing, and was used for shelter by a number of our enemies, including Cluny the Scourge. Several generations back it was burned down so that it could never be used by evil beasts again."

"A sound strategic move," Urthblood mused. "But that clearing is still a good spot for an army to rest. The sun is nearly down, and I think we have covered enough distance for one afternoon. We will camp here for the night, and make an early start in the morning."

Winokur tried to hide his relief at this announcement. He felt he was just about done in for one day, although he wasn't about to admit to such a thing with his father and Lord Urthblood standing right there. The young otter turned to Rafter, his paw around the bird's wing-shoulders. "Well, Rafter matey, looks like you'll be nesting with us tonight, since you birdfolk don't like flying in the dark. Hope you like marching rations!"

Rafter's beak curved down in distaste. "Nothanks. Me forage for good wormfood from woods'n'plains, gobble up tasty groundcrawlers!"

Warnokur glanced from the sparrow to his son and back again, then shook his head. "The tastes of some creatures!" he muttered.

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Winokur enjoyed his first night sleeping outdoors. It reminded him a little of summer nights he'd slept out on the lawns or in the orchard of the Abbey, or during one of the shrimping expeditions he'd made to the River Moss. Abbess Mhera's old habit served double duty as bedding, and was perfect for that purpose. And, with a chance to get off his paws and relax during a dinner of fresh Redwall fare, he found that the knots and kinks in his muscles weren't nearly as bad as he'd thought. With two shrimp and vegetable pasties rumbling contentedly in his stomach and the sonorous snores of Urthblood's bivouacked otter platoon all around him, Winokur was soon adding snores of his own to the chorus.

The dawn broke clear and calm, the gentle kiss of a cool summer morn upon the waking woodlands and meadows of Mossflower. A more perfect day for travel could not have been asked for, if this early promise was fulfilled.

Winokur and Warnokur awoke with savory smoky aromas filling their large nostrils. The two Redwall otters sat up from their grassy roadside beds, Wink stretching and yawning widely.

Brot and Olimpo, two of Urthblood's Northlands otters whom Wink had befriended during the army's time at Redwall, sat nearby, taking in the youngbeast's wakeup ritual. Brot nudged his companion in the ribs. "By me rudder, if that scamps's tryin' t' catch flies, 'ee's opened up wide 'nuff to take in a whole swarm!"

"Must be tired of alla that fine Redwall scoff," Olimpo replied. "Fine by me - let 'im eat his flies, that's more o' the good stuff fer you an' me, matey!"

Winokur caught their conversation. "Hate to disappoint you guys, but no Sparra scoff for this otter. Speaking of which, has anybeast seen Rafter? He was nestled down right here beside me last night ... "

"Oh, 'ee was up 'fore the crack o' dawn," Brot reported. "Them birdfolk gotta sing to th' sunrise, announce th' day an' such, y' know."

As if to prove the point, a raucous trilling and chattering broke out from the lower branches of a nearby ash. Rafter spread his wings and glided over to land nimbly alongside his young otter friend. The two traded playful punches and beak jabs. "Hey, you ol' featherbottom, where you been? Out slurping up worms, I bet."

"Wormfood good inna thismeadow. Lotsa juicyfat worms, crunchy beetlebugs too."

Brot and Olimpo exchanged glances, sticking out their tongues in distaste.

Warnokur stood and stretched, then groaned as his spine audibly cracked. Winokur looked on with concern, reminding himself that his father was more than twice his age.

"Oof! I'm gettin' too old fer sleepin' on th' ground like this."

Olimpo snickered. "Gee, give Warny a nice comfy Redwall bed to sleep in fer a few nights, an' 'ee goes soft on us! What's a matter, y'old fogey - forget wot it's like to be one of us grunts?"

"After a march like yesterday's, everybeast oughta have a nice soft bed fer reward. Don't suppose there's any bed 'n' breakfast inns 'tween here an' Salamandastron?"

"You tell us, Warnky - these're your woods, not ours."

"None that I ever heard tell of, an' I been as far south as the big river - reckon that's still a couple days ahead of us. Fer now, I guess we'll hafta make do with our provisions an' foraged vittles. Speakin' of which, my stomach an' me are lookin' fer breakfast just now. Smells like our cooks have got a good start on that."

"That they have," Captain Saybrook broke in, sauntering over to bid good morning to the two Redwallers. "So, how's the military life agreein' with you, Wink lad?"

"Fine, I suppose, Cap'n," Winokur replied, pulling on his habit robe. "Although, so far it's not much different than many an outing I've done in nearby Mossflower. And please remember, Captain sir, that I'm here as an envoy of Redwall, not as a soldier."

"Oh, I ain't forgotten that," Saybrook said with a friendly smile, "but fighters an' peacemakers alike both hafta eat, eh? Come on, I'll show you what's good, an' what you should skip. Gratch c'n whip up some fine fixin's now 'n' agin, but other dishes of his ain't fit fer a bilge rat. Let's see what's on th' menu this mornin'."

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Saybrook ended up escorting the Redwallers past the main cooking fire tended by the rat Gratch to a smaller side fire presided over by the shrews of Captain Bremo's command, whose tastes were a closer match to those of otters. A good many of the thicktailed beasts were already gathered there, enjoying a breakfast of acorn oatbread and a delicious summer stew that the shrews had thrown together from ingredients gathered from the woods bordering the meadow. Father and son sat down at the base of an ancient sycamore, where they could talk to Brot, Olimpo and Captain Saybrook as they all ate. Rafter settled onto his tailfeathers beside Winokur, having earlier eaten his fill of food that the otters would have found less than savory.

Warnokur made quite a show of chewing his bread. It was from a loaf that had been baked at Redwall the previous morning, part of Friar Hugh's send-off gift for the departing warriors. Warnokur was the only one in the group not dipping his bread into the stew, since he preferred the taste of it dry.

"Uungh!" He worked his jaws strenuously. "Nothing like day-old bakes t' keep the ol' chompers strong."

"Tomorrow it'll be two-day-old bread," Brot said. "An' twice as hard."

Captain Saybrook shook his head. "Uh-uh. Come tomorrow, it'll be gone. This gang o' ours knows a good thing when they taste it. Slightly stale Redwall bread's still better'n the hard biscuits this lot's used to. It'll all be scoffed by lunchtime, you see if it ain't."

"Pity there's no way to keep bread fresh for more than a day or two," Winokur lamented.

"Actshully, lad, there is," Brot informed him. "Up north, somebeasts use specially-made sealed tins. Like long metal boxes. Stick a loaf in one o' those, keeps soft fer days."

Olimpo nodded to confirm his friend's words. "Too heavy to lug along on a march like this, tho'."

"Too bad," said Warnokur. "At least our shrew pals here were able t' pack up a good supply of flour from Redwall. Should be 'nuff to keep us in hot oatcakes and shrewbread fer most o' the way to Salamandastron. If anybeasts can whip up good grub from nearly nuthin', it's shrews."

"Hear hear, matey," Brot and Olimpo agreed heartily.

Winokur polished off his morning stew, sopping up the last remnants from the bottom of his bowl with a smidgen of bread. He started to rise. "Anybeast for seconds?"

The two Northlanders guffawed. "Harr harr! You might's well sit yore rudder right back down, Wink - you'll get no seconds from those shrews."

"Huh? There were for dinner last night ... "

Warnokur tossed a crust to Rafter, who caught it deftly in his bill and swallowed it greedily. "Only 'cos there was so much fresh Abbey food to be used up, son. Startin' t'day, we're on marchin' rations, so get used to one servin' per meal, an' no more'n that."

Winokur fell back onto his tail, as disheartened as any youngbeast would be to hear such news. "No more second helpings? None at all?"

"Takes some gettin' used to," Warnokur admitted, "'specially when you been hangin' 'round creatures who're used to three or four, like some Abbey otters I could name!"

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While most of the Northlands soldiers relaxed and ate their fill for the day's march ahead of them, Urthblood called a brief conference with a pawful of his moles, hedgehogs and shrews across the roadside ditch out on the edge of the Western Plains. When the army finally assembled in the road to resume its southward march, those woodlanders who'd met with Urthblood broke away from the main column, setting off on a direct westward course straight across the plains.

The sun was well up by this time, lighting the upper forest canopy in a clear blaze of green and throwing deep shadows across the road to the south, where the woods grew up to the path's edge once more. The air was fresh and crisp, and it would be many hours yet before the sun could make the day uncomfortably warm for the marchers.

As the official envoy of Redwall, Winokur took his place alongside Urthblood at the head of the column. Warnokur and Rafter went with him there, the sparrow hop-skipping to match the pace of the ground beasts. The deserters did not escape the young otter's notice; he gazed their way as they dispersed into the Western Plains. "I say, My Lord, what was that about? Did you just dismiss some of your troops?"

"Scouts," Urthblood replied. "If my brother has indeed departed from Salamandastron to come to Redwall, he will approach from the west. He is unfamiliar with these lands, and may cross the plains well to the north or south of the Abbey ... which means that we may still meet up with him on this road. If so, I will want to have plenty of warning."

"Makes sense." Winokur thought about it a moment. "But why shrews, moles and 'hogs, then? They're the slowest creatures in your whole army. Any of your rats or weasels would be able to report back faster."

"My brother would instantly slay any vermin he met. Those scouts I sent might not be very fast, but they can pass themselves off as simple woodlanders if my brother and his hares confront them. Armed vermin lookouts would only alert Urthfist to my presence in Mossflower. The creatures I sent can make their way back to me in their own good time without arousing suspicion."

"Ah. Good strategic thinking ... "

"Tactical, actually," Urthblood corrected. "There is a difference."

"Oh." Winokur didn't ask what the difference was. "But I'd have thought you'd be using your birds for scouting the lands. Seems to me they'd do the best job, wouldn't they?"

"They will be helping, of course. But beasts on the ground can catch things that would escape a bird flying high, and the other way around. That is why I am using both."

Rafter, who'd been following the conversation, chipped in with his opinion. "Big stripey badgerdog thoughta everything!"

"Sure," Warnokur said. "That's why Lord Urthblood is the greatest fighting beast who's ever lived."

Urthblood seemed to come close to smiling upon hearing these words. Close, but not quite.