THE CRIMSON BADGER - Chapter Sixty-Three

Urthblood's rumbling tones of command preceded him as he strode along the rock-carved corridor. "Captain Lorsch!"

The rat commander snapped to attention as his badger master approached. "Yes, M'Lord?"

Urthblood motioned with a paw at the other rat troops around the tunnel. "I have dispatched Captain Cermak's rat platoon to the eastern foothills on a foraging expedition. I expect they will not return until after nightfall. I want you to move your own squad up to the crater top to occupy it in their absence."

"Yes, sir. Um, what about guardin' this level?"

"The hares are gone, Captain. We no longer need to guard every part of the mountain's interior. Any threat to us now will come from outside Salamandastron ... which is why I want your brigade up on the plateau, where you can guard that entrance and keep an eye on the surrounding coastlands."

"Yessir! Right on it, M'Lord!" Even as Lorsch began rounding up his rats for their new assignment, Urthblood marched down to the level below and sought through the chambers and passages until he found Captain Abellon, drilling with some of his fellow mice in one of the larger Long Patrol dormitories. The previous tenants had left the stronghold very well fortified in anticipation of his arrival, or an assault from Tratton's searats, so his own troops now had little to do to make Salamandastron battle ready. All the larger window slits that could be easily accessed from the outside had been sealed up, and the rest all had plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition piled under them so that an enemy horde could be instantly engaged in any direction. This left plenty of time for his soldiers to practice, tend to their weapons of choice, familiarize themselves with the layout of the fortress, or just rest up after their long march from Redwall.

The mouse captain looked up as Urthblood entered. "Hail, My Lord!" Abellon greeted, sheathing his shortsword. "Just keepin' these mice of mine in their best fighting form!"

"And a good job you're making of it, Captain, judging from what I see. But then, I have come to expect such professionalism from my mouse brigade. You have never disappointed me so far."

"And we don't intend to start anytime soon!" Abellon said with gusto. There was nothing like a little military exercise to stir up a warrior beast's enthusiasm.

"Good. Now, I have just cleared Captain Lorsch's platoon out of the level above us. They will hold the roof position for the remainder of the day. I will be engaged in activities upon the next level for some time to come. I would prefer not to be interrupted. You may wish to mention this to Captains Mattoon, Perrett and Bandon, although I do not think any of their troops will be venturing up this way."

"I'll make sure they know, sir."

"Fine. Carry on, Captain." Urthblood left Abellon saluting after him.

Up on the now-deserted level above, the Badger Lord went to a passage that seemed to come to a dead end. Urthblood knew all the secrets of his old home, including this one. He knew how to manipulate the stone slab, using his badger's strength to wedge open and labor aside the false ending to reveal the hidden chamber beyond. This was the heart of the mountain, far from any window or tunnel leading to the outside. Bearing a lit lantern in each paw, Urthblood stepped forward into the throne room of Salamandastron.

There, upon his left, was his dreaded prophecy, just as he had last seen it some twenty seasons before. His brother had added no carvings in the intervening time; the curve of the chamber wall beyond his chiseled words of doom remained smooth and unmarked.

Urthblood stared at the dire verse for a long time. He did not need to read the characters of high ancient Badger Script hewn skillfully into the rock face; he knew every character and pictogram of the prophecy. It was burned into his mind and would never leave him in peace. But read it he did, several times, his unblinking eyes scanning every line from top to bottom and then back again. Seeing these carven images was indeed different from simply knowing them. Urthblood reached out and traced along the engravings with a pawtip. Here, the prophecy became real. And now that he knew how horribly his own sibling had misunderstood this cautionary warning, had even turned the Long Patrol against their rightful master in his false belief, Urthblood wanted to see how Urthfist could have so badly misinterpreted the portent of their shared destiny.

He could not see it. No matter how many times he read the prophecy, no matter how he dissected each line and tried to imagine how they must appear to other eyes ... Urthfist was simply wrong. And that was all there was to it. Urthblood must be allowed the freedom to take any action he deemed necessary for the protection of the lands, and that meant uniting all creatures under his strong paw. Anybeast who stood against him was an enemy of peace, and could quite possibly be the undoing of all the lands.

Even his own brother.

Impassively, he turned and walked farther into the chamber. The far inside wall bowed to form a large alcove, in the center of which was an immense stone throne. The royal seat stood empty now, although according to Badger Lord lore, the remains of Lord Brocktree had sat there in its ceremonial war armor for many generations. Brocktree was one of the first of the Mossflower badgers to assume Lordship of the mountain. What had become of the remains, Urthblood had no idea. The throne had been empty when Urthblood and Urthfist had first come to Salamandastron in their youth. An inscription at its base declared the vacant throne stand as a symbol of the solitary dedication and sacrifice required of every Badger Lord.

One side of the throne alcove bulged out due to a large boulder which sat on the floor. The boulder too bore an inscription, one far more ancient than the one at the foot of the throne. Urthblood walked over to its curved side, snout almost touching the stony surface, and held up one lamp.

rollme

Roll me. And that's exactly what he and his brother had done, long ago, before the spectre of prophecies had driven him from his home and made Urthfist see him as an enemy. They'd been exploring the mountain together one day soon after their installment as the rulers here, exposing every secret the stronghold had to offer. The throne room was nothing new to them; Urthblood had stumbled upon it only their second or third day there. But on this day, after they had dwelt within the mountain for the better part of a season, their inspection was more thorough, and one of them noticed for the very first time this faint inscription carved upon the boulder. Following the two-words-as-one instruction, they had stuggled and strained to roll the boulder out of its depression in the floor, and at last they'd succeeded. And thus was one of the most precious mysteries of Salamandastron yielded up to them.

Urthblood had no fellow badger to help him now, but he was older and more well-developed in his bones and muscles. And the fire of his prophecy burned within him, demanding constant attention. That unceasing drive had impelled him to greater feats than the one required of him now. He positioned himself against one flank of the boulder and leaned into it, legs braced against the floor like steel pylons. Recalling from his youth the manner in which it had rolled when he and Urthfist had dislodged it, he spread his paws wide around it to guide it in the direction that would make the effort easiest. And then he pushed for all he was worth.

At first it did not budge. Urthblood ignored this preliminary result. For him, failure was not an option. He would move the boulder, he must move it, and there was no doubt in his mind whatsoever that he would do so. Redoubling his efforts, he pushed harder, and harder still, his strength and living will pitted against the uncaring rock. His muscles bunched and corded until they threatened to break through the skin, his pulse pounded in his ears like thunder, and his breath came in ragged gasps. Fighting to keep himself from crying out, for he did not wish to be disturbed by other beasts who would be summoned by such a roar, he ground his teeth together and held himself to a muted, gutteral growl of exertion. Finally, the boulder shifted and tilted, rolling just the slightest bit from its former position. Once it was moving, there was no doubt of the outcome ... not that there ever had been any in Urthblood's mind. A few moments later, the boulder lay several paces from its starting point, coming to rest right alongside the empty throne.

Chest heaving and throat raw, Urthblood scooped up one of the lanterns and lowered it into the wide hole that had been revealed by the boulder's removal.

Here, in the secret pit-like chamber beneath the throne room, lay the ages-old treasure of the Badger Lords of Salamandastron. And since it was the trove of noble warriors, the bulk of the prizes contained within were of the military variety. Surely, there were plates and vessels of gold and silver, along with gems and jewels and pearls. But these merely decorative items were vastly outnumbered by weaponry of unmatched fineness: swords, shields, spears, battle axes, maces, pikes and lances, knives and daggers. All forged by the Badger Lords over the course of many generations, and therefore all representing the very pinnacle of armscraft. There too were complete sets of full-sized badger armor, as if it had been expected that someday a score or more of mountain Lords at once might all have to suit up in defense of Salamandastron.

One suit lay atop all the other treasure. Within that armor was the intact skeleton of a badger, its eyeless sockets now staring up through the hole at Urthblood. When he and Urthfist had beheld this ghastly sentinel all those seasons ago, they'd received an awful fright. They'd assumed they had found the remains of Brocktree at last, moved here from the throne. They later learned, from reading some of the histories carved into the walls, that it was actually the corpse of a later Badger Lord, Urthstripe the Strong, who'd died while defending Salamandastron from a conquering horde and, as his dying request, had been lain down amongst the treasure to play the part of its eternal guardian in the ages to come. No doubt other Lords had added their treasures to this hoard since Urthstripe's interment, but they had been careful to place their new offerings off to the sides so that Urthstripe would always lie atop all the rest, as he was meant to. Lord Brocktree's bones might be a vanished mystery, but Urthstripe remained to this very day where he'd been laid to rest after his death.

Urthblood and Urthfist had looked long and hard upon the treasure they had uncovered, taking mental stock of nearly every splendid tool of war that lay therein. But, out of reverence to their fallen predecessor, they had touched none of it. It would not have felt right, for this was a tomb as well as a treasury. So, after several hours of caressing this priceless collection with their eyes alone, they'd rolled the boulder back into place, vowing they would not disturb it again until they were near the end of their seasons and ready to make their own worthy additions to the treasure of the mountain.

That had been before the prophecy.

Urthblood lowered himself into the hole, balancing precariously upon the shifting mounds of artifacts alongside Urthstripe's mummy. Gazing at the long-dead badger, he solemnly intoned, "Forgive me for intruding here, Your Majesty, but I am Lord of the Mountain now. And I have need of these things which are rightfully mine."

That said, he began transferring the best and brightest of the armaments up out of the pit and onto the throne room floor. It was a task he stayed at for quite some time.

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"Lord Urthblood? My Lord, are you there?"

Abellon felt his way along the dark tunnel, making for the faint glimmer that shone at its far end. Hours had passed since the badger warrior had asked not to be disturbed and had disappeared into the mazes of Salamandastron. The mouse captain was respectful of his master's wishes, but now there was news to report, and Abellon felt it was his duty to deliver it to Urthblood, no matter what activity occupied him.

The only problem was, the badger was nowhere to be found. He had plainly stated that he would be engaged in a task on this level, but Abellon had searched nearly every corridor and chamber to no avail. It was only out of desperation that he decided to investigate this passage, even though memory told him it was merely a simple cul-de-sac.

Except that now light shone from a room that should not have been there. As he cautiously stepped forward, Abellon saw that a rock slab leaned against the tunnel wall, having been shifted to reveal the hidden chamber beyond.

Before he could cross the threshold, the pattern of light within the room swayed and danced, and then Lord Urthblood was standing before him, a lantern in each paw, blocking the way into the secret place.

The mouse blinked and squinted in the sudden dazzle of the double lamps. Plainly curious, he craned his neck to see past Urthblood. He and his mice had been all through this level on their previous inspections, and they'd all assumed this was just a dead-end tunnel. Now the displaced door slab and dark cave beyond gave lie to that assumption. Abellon could glimpse countless sparkles and glitters reflecting out of the deep shadows behind his master. But since Urthblood had brought out both lamps, leaving the mysterious chamber unlit, Abellon's view into the gloom was limited to those tantalizing gleams from objects unknown.

"What is this place, My Lord?"

"A place meant only for the Lords of the Mountain, Captain. You should not be here."

"I'm ... sorry, Lord. I didn't know."

"I should have told you. But I did ask not to be disturbed."

"Yes, I know, Lord. But Captains Halpryn and Klystra have returned from their latest survey flight. They seem quite excited, and asked to speak with you immediately. I think they may have news of your brother. I thought it best to inform you right away."

Urthblood nodded. "Very well. You are dismissed, Captain." And with that he started to turn back toward the dark chamber.

"Uh, Lord? Should I tell those birds you'll be right up to take their report? They're waiting on the crater top for you."

"Tell them I am presently engaged," Urthblood said curtly. "I will be with them when I am finished here."

"But, sir! Their news could be urgent!"

"Could Captain Lorsch's squad see my brother and his hares from the plateau?"

"Um, no. Not when I last heard ... "

"Then it is nothing urgent enough to call me away from the task at paw. If my brother comes within view of the mountaintop lookouts, then come get me. Otherwise, I will be up when my work here is finished."

"Um ... yes, Lord. Should I tell the other captains to put their squads on a state of alert?"

"They have all been on a state of alert ever since we entered Salamandastron. Colonel Clewiston would not listen to reason, and we cannot expect Urthfist to do otherwise. My brother will return here soon, and when he does we may expect war. Our current state of readiness is adequate. We will have plenty of warning before he arrives. So rest easy, Captain." Urthblood turned to re-enter the secret room of the Badger Lords. "Rest easy ... for now."

Abellon knew better than to follow Urthblood, or even to remain standing where he was, waiting to get a clearer look into the forbidden chamber as Urthblood returned the lamps there. Whatever lay within, it was meant for the eyes of Badger Lords alone, unless Urthblood deigned to share it with the other creatures of his army. Abellon turned and scurried down the tunnel the way he'd come, off to tell the two birds of prey that they must wait upon their master's indulgence.

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The sun had set by the time Urthblood finally appeared on the plateau to take Halpryn and Klystra's report. Their majestic plumage was ruffled in indignation at being made to wait so long; loyal servants to the Badger Lord they might have been, but they were also noble creatures in their own right, and not so intimidated by Urthblood that they would bother to hide their impatience.

Lorsch's rats, by contrast, were equally intimidated by both their badger master and his skyhunter captains. It had always been so. Under other circumstances, the kite and falcon would have preyed upon the rat soldiers for food without a second thought. And rats, being the suspicious and nervous beasts that they were, would never feel fully at ease in their presence, no matter how long they worked together under Urthblood's command.

For that reason, no rat had ventured over to inquire about the nature of the news the birds bore. It must have been quite important, considering how urgently they'd asked to have Urthblood summoned. Why the badger had not appeared immediately was another mystery altogether, but the visionary warlord had always acted according to his own set of rules. As the delay grew longer, and the two mighty raptors grew increasingly agitated, so the circle of Lorsch's platoon had receded farther from their perch on the crater rim. By the time Urthblood did at last show up, the rats were all crowded together on one side of the plateau, leaving a respectable distance between themselves and the waiting birds. Burning curiosity was not nearly enough to overcome their instinctive fear of their natural enemies, who each could have lifted a rat in one talon and flown off with a pair of the rodents apiece.

Urthblood paid the rats no heed as he climbed the stairs to the crater top and strode across to where Halpryn and Klystra awaited. Badger and birds went into one of their typical rapid-fire exchanges. Lorsch strained to hear what was said, but the imposing trio kept their voices to a murmur that was lost to the light evening breezes blowing in off the ocean. And the rat captain dared not intrude upon their conversation without an invitation. If Urthblood wanted Lorsch to be included, he would have said so.

Urthblood turned from Halpryn and Klystra and crossed the plateau to the rat commander. "Captain, as soon as Cermak returns with his squad from their foraging excursion, I want a full assembly of all the captains down in the main dining hall. There is news to share."

"Uh, is the enemy approachin', M'Lord?" That had been the favored speculation amongst the rooftop rats.

"All in good time, Captain."

"Yes, sir. Um, Cap'n Cermak'll prob'ly come in through the south entrance. Should I have somebeast meet 'im there?"

"Yes, with orders to report straight to the meeting. Go now and inform all the other squad commanders of the council."

"Aye aye. Uh, also me rats haven't had naught t' eat since midday, an' they're gettin' purty hungered. Can I send 'em down so's they can grab some grub?"

"Yes, that would work out well. They can eat now and be finished before the meeting of the captains, so that the dining hall will be clear for us."

"D'you want Mattoon or one o' the others to send their troops up t' spell us, M'Lord?"

"No, Captain, that won't be necessary. There is no enemy close to Salamandastron at the moment. Klystra and Halpryn can watch the roof stairs well enough on their own."

Lorsch turned to his underlings. "You heard 'is Lordship! Down to th' mess hall, double quick! Gotta be finished feedin' yer faces 'fore he needs th' place!"

With both Lorsch and Urthblood present, the rats obeyed without question. The plateau was quickly cleared of everybeast except Lorsch, the badger and the two birds. The rat captain went over to the east rim and gazed out toward the line of mountains. The bright gray of twlight lay over the coastlands, the silvery evenness of a summer day just after the sun has set and taken its long shadows with it. A large troop of creatures, travelling in an oblong knot, was approaching them from the foothills. They would not arrive until Lorsch's rats had had time to help themselves to a good supper.

Lorsch narrowed his eyes. That had to be Cermak's platoon, but even from this distance and in this light, Lorsch could tell something was not as it should be. "M'Lord, that's too big to be Cap'n Cermak's group!"

Urthblood came up alongside the rat. His eyesight was better than any vermin's. "I believe you are right, Captain. But those most certainly are not hares either. They are marching with purpose, as I would expect from any of my troops. They are not approaching as enemies would."

Lorsch scratched at his jaw in bewilderment. "Well, Cermak's squad should be returnin' 'bout now, an' that's th' way they'd be comin' from. I jus' can't figger it, sir."

"Captain Halpryn," Urthblood called out, pointing toward the marchers in the distance, "please fly down to find out why that group is larger than it should be, and then fly back to report."

"Yes, Lord." The kite lifted from the crater rim and majestically soared across the landscape toward the oncoming company, making the kind of speed which only the great creatures of the air could attain. It was not clear what happened when she reached the troop, but the waiting badger, rat and falcon were not kept in suspence for long. Halpryn returned mere minutes after her departure. "More news, Lord."

"Yes?"

"Machus comes. From over the mountains. His company returns with Cermak. They were ordered out of Redwall by the Abbess."

"Well," Urthblood mused, "this is an interesting development. And not an altogether unfortunate one, although I shall want to hear why the Abbess saw fit to send him away. But it puts our forces here at full strength just when that is most to our advantage. Machus and Mina can join us at the meeting of the captains. I am most interested to hear the tidings from Redwall."

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Winokur and Warnokur were overjoyed to learn that another Redwaller was among the group headed by Machus and Mina, and would be joining them here at Salamandastron. The two otters met up with Alexander at the entrance to the dining hall, embracing heartily and pounding each other on the back.

"Alex, matey!" Warnokur exclaimed. "What in th' name of seven seasons are you doin' here?"

"Just along for the ride, Warny," the squirrel replied. "I figured Machus might appreciate having a decent archerbeast in his company if Urthfist and those hares caught up with him."

"You mean ANOTHER decent archerbeast, don't you?" Lady Mina teased, coming up alongside Alex and nodding her greeting at the two otters.

Alexander glanced aside at her. "Well, two heads are always better than one, it's said, so I figured the same must be true of bowbeasts. My shafts added to yours might just stop an army in its tracks!"

"Guess it never came to that, huh?" Warnokur asked.

"Thankfully not," Alex said. "But before we left the Abbey, I got a good taste of Lord Urthfist's attitude, and quite frankly it stuck in my throat. He's wholly convinced his brother is totally evil, and he's out for war, no two ways about it."

Winokur's brow furrowed. "There hasn't been any bad trouble at Redwall, has there?"

"Well, not from Urthfist," said Alex. "There was a very unfortunate incident that almost turned into a tragedy, but it turned out all right, pretty much. I'll tell you all about it later. But it had nothing to do with Urthfist. He didn't even arrive until a few days later - and that's when we all got to see what an obstinate, unreasonable bully he was. His hares weren't much better. Not the ones he had with him, or the other twenty we ran into yesterday up in the mountain pass. You know them; they're the ones you rousted out of this place."

Winokur's eyebrows shot up. "You met them?"

"That we did. They're headin' to Redwall the short way, straight over the mountains, same as we took to get here. Gonna hook up with Urthfist's main force at Redwall, then I suppose they'll be headed back this way again. They're as stuck on war with Urthblood as Urthfist is ... but then, I guess I don't have to tell you that, if you'd had any chance to talk to them yourselves. We narrowly escaped coming to blows up on the high passes. That would've been the end of us all, I'm afraid - we were alongside a treacherous drop, and more of us would've been killed being pushed off the narrow cliff ledge than from battle wounds. Pretty scary."

"I can imagine," agreed Warnokur, who like most otters was not overly fond of high places himself. "Fer a bushytailed treescamper like you to admit to such a thing, must've been a true fright!"

"Let's just say I wouldn't want to have to do it all over again!" Alex laughed a little nervously. He looked to Winokur. "So, I guess your efforts of playing peacemaker were lost on those hares, huh?"

Wink shrugged sadly. "Like you said, Alexander sir, they've got their minds made up, and they're set on war with Urthblood, come what may. I really thought I could make a difference, but I've been about as much use here as fins on a mole!"

"Well, don't let it get you down. I'm sure you did your best."

"That 'ee did!" Warnokur beamed, throwing his fatherly paw around Winokur's shoulders. "I'm right proud o' ye, Wink. T'wasn't yer fault them chum-headed bunnies wouldn't lissen to yer good Redwall sense. You did yer best, an' the Abbes was right t' send you."

Winokur looked abashed and shuffled his footpaws at this praise from his father.

By this time, all of Lorsch's rats had eaten their fill and filed out of the dining hall, leaving it clear for the conference Urthblood had called. Some of the captains were already seating themselves around the head of the table to either side of the oversized badger chair.

"Looks like we're almost ready to start," Mina observed. "Here comes Lord Urthblood now. Alex, why don't you sit in with us? I'm sure he will want a full report on everything that happened at Redwall, and you can help with that. Two heads are better than one, remember?"