The crimson badger did not sleep.
Day and night, the hulking armored figure pushed forward with an unvarying and purposeful stride. After leaving the quarry, the badger had followed the course of the River Moss along its eastern banks until the broadstream crossed paths with the north-south road. The warlord forded the chill waters at their shallowest point here, bludgeoning senseless a probing pike that ventured too close, then set out across the winter-bleak Western Plains at the same measured, relentless pace.
Under lifeless skies of gray, the badger approached the line of mountains that separated the Plains from the coastlands. He knew where to find the hidden pass that traversed the backbone of the range and saved many days' travel by allowing a surefooted beast to cross over the mountains rather than having to go around them. The badger picked up the trail right where previous knowledge and prophetic sight told him it would be, and commenced his climb.
No sane beast would dare tackle the treacherous high mountain pass at night, especially on such a dark and moonless night as fell as the badger ascended the scree-littered slopes. No snow lay on the ground here, but that was only because it was too cold to snow where the naked wind howled without cease and scoured the bare rock crags clear of any and all vestiges of life. Here were narrow ledges and perilous crevasses that would doom a beast at the slightest misstep. But the badger pressed on, straight through the night and straight over the pass. Never had he set foot upon this trail before now, but there was no doubt in his mind that he could tread here safely, even in the depths of this brutally cold black night. He closed the eye that showed him the ordinary world of light and shadows in which most creatures dwelt, and concentrated instead on the other eye, which had been opened twenty-two seasons earlier - the eye that allowed him to see events of the past as if they were happening today, events of the future as if they'd already come to pass, and events of the here and now that were happening in far distant places. This was the eye that showed him the world as it really was, not just as it appeared to ordinary vision. It was this perception into the very substance of existence which enabled him to set one footpaw in front of the other with absolute confidence that he would neither slip, stumble nor fall.
Besides, the badger had not foreseen his own death on this night, so he knew it would not come to pass.
Dawn was breaking as the mighty creature descended the western slopes, the broad expanse of the coastlands and endless waters of the choppy winter sea spread out below him in a bleak and nearly colorless panorama. But directly ahead and below lay a sight which lifted his spirits and gladdened his heart as much as any such heart as his could be cheered: the flat-topped mountain stronghold of Salamandastron. His home.
Most of his journey had been made in total solitude, with not another living creature to be seen stirring in the drab winter landscapes of forest, plain and mountain. But now a majestic companion waited to meet him, gliding down out of the sullen sky to alight on the ground where the gravelly mountain scree met with the sandy soil of the upper coastal plain.
Urthblood stopped before the giant golden eagle. Altidor was the supreme commander of the Badger Lord's bird forces and a positively immense avian, larger even than the kite Halpryn who'd been slain in the battle of Salamandastron the summer before.
"What news, Commodore?" the badger inquired.
"All is going according to the schedule you left me, Lord. Trelayne the glassmaker arrived with his assistants some days ago, and his workshop is all set up. Captain Mattoon is providing him with everything he asks for."
"Excellent. What else?"
"My birds and I have been keeping close watch over the sea lanes and the coast," Altidor said. "Tratton's forces are more active than ever before."
"Have they threatened Salamandastron directly?"
"They are not so foolish, Lord. But they land repeatedly all up and down the coast, away from the mountain. Their timber mill to the north has recently been expanded and fortified, and they have established new lumber and mining sites to the south, halfway between here and Southsward. So far this season, five Gawtrybe have been slain in skirmishes with the searats."
"Tratton has archers of his own. And the Gawtrybe are rather headstrong, and not ones to shy away from a fight. When their patrols see rats on our territory, even an entire shipload, they are reluctant to leave them be. But squirrels are not hares, Lord. They cannot fight on these sandy shores as the Long Patrol could. The Gawtrybe are beasts of the forest, and they are at a disadvantage here."
"And Tratton has now seen enough of them to know what a weakness of mine they are," said Urthblood. "He will be emboldened to send more and more of his ships closer and closer to Salamandastron. He will be wholly unprepared for our shift in strategy. Of course, that will all hinge upon one thing. Have you made contact with the seagull king yet?"
Altidor nodded. "King Grullon awaits you at Salamandastron. We are keeping him and his consorts very well fed, as you ordered. As have his gulls been keeping Tratton's searats - Grullon has lost many of his comrades and kin to the pirate hordes, who feast upon seagull constantly."
"Then he should be most receptive to my proposal." Urthblood waved the stump of his right paw, encased in a heavy iron cap that was perfect for rendering pike and other menaces unconscious, or worse. "Go, tell Captains Mattoon, Saybrook and Matowick that I should be there by midday. And kindly inform King Grullon I will meet with him this afternoon, and thank him again for his forbearance."
Altidor dipped his head in a nodded salute, even though he considered Urthblood his equal rather than his lord, superior or commander. Altidor's raptors, like the Gawtrybe, placed themselves at the badger's bidding in a spirit of cooperation, for the betterment of all the lands.
The golden eagle took to the wing once more, flapping up off the ground and toward the truncated peak of Salamandastron.
And the crimson badger once more put his head down and resumed his determined pace toward his seat of power.
It was not so much that a special meal had been prepared for Urthblood's arrival as that the badger was able to share in the ongoing feast being lavished upon his seagull guests.
King Grullon and the gull escort who'd accompanied him to Salamandastron had never known such a richness and variety of food and drink. And to have it all provided in a nonstop gastronomical parade by lowly landbeasts, who for a change were utterly subservient to the seabirds and seemed intent upon waiting on the gulls paw and tail ... well, that made the treats and beverages taste all the sweeter. There was a long history of animosity between the gulls of the seacoast and the beasts of Salamandastron, with each vying for supremacy and control over the tidal zones. Grullon would neither have trusted nor accepted Urthblood's invitation if it hadn't been delivered by an eagle, an owl and a falcon. Even then, it had been touch and go; the gulls hated other birds violating their airspace even more than they hated the furred species who challenged their authority on the ground. But one did not argue with an eagle, an owl and a falcon at the same time - or at least no sensible gull did - and the proposition they'd carried with them was undeniably intriguing. And so King Grullon had puffed out his chest feathers, chosen an appropriate entourage, and flown to the big rock on the shore to see whether these winged strangers and their furry allies could possibly be as good as their word.
They were even better, as it turned out.
Urthblood strode into the main dining hall of Salamandastron, and was greeted by a spectacle of disorder such as had rarely been seen within the mountain stronghold, long the traditional home of the officious hares of the Long Patrol and their exacting Badger Lord and Lady masters. Now, no fewer than a score of raucous, squabbling seagulls stood and sat on the benches lining either side of the long central table, stabbing at the various plates of foodstuffs with their beaks and scattering crumbs and scraps unheeding over tabletop, benches and floor. And from the scale of the mess, they'd evidently been at it for days.
In the large badger's chair at the head of the table sat King Grullon himself, revelling in the newfound dominion he'd been granted over creatures who normally would not have given him the time of day.
Saybrook, Urthblood's captain of otters, met the Badger Lord by the doorway with a smart salute over a sour grimace. "Welcome back, M'Lord. Trust yer travels went well?"
"They were largely uneventful, Captain. How are our guests faring?"
Saybrook's expression twisted anew. "They say ev'ry picture tells a thousand words, M'Lord, so take a look fer yerself."
"You sound less than pleased, Captain."
"Ain't exactly been th' handsomest assignment you've ever given me, sir. Those birds behave like savages! Not t'all like Halpryn 'n' Klystra 'n' Altidor 'n' th' rest o' yers. An' th' greediest bunch o' featherbags you'd ever wanna meet, too! They'll gobble up anything y' put in front of 'em, but they're 'specially partial to anything comes from th' sea - fish, shrimp, squid, clams, even th' insides o' them spiny li'l pincushiony things. Me 'n' me crew've had a full-time job just keepin' their plates full! We really coulda used our full squad 'ere, since us otters are the only ones who can fish fer these gulls."
"I appreciate that you are operating under reduced beastpower," Urthblood acknowledged, "but your fellow otters' brawn was needed at the quarry. The moles cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting and shifting on their own, nor can Andrus and his foxes. And since I do not have a squad of badgers at my disposal ... "
"Aye," Saybrook nodded, "we otters're th' brawniest beasts y' got, I know. But we're also th' only ones at home in th' sea, an' if Tratton comes a'knockin' on our door, my crew should be at full strength."
"That will not be an issue, if things today go as planned."
The otter captain glanced over his shoulder at the ill-refined seagulls. "You mean them? With all due respect, M'Lord, th' way they've been gorging themselves these past couple o' days, I'm thinkin' they might have trouble just gettin' themselves off th' ground."
"We shall see." Urthblood strode the rest of the way into the cavernous dining chamber, coming around to stand alongside his chair where the seagull ruler sat. "Greetings to you, King Grullon. Welcome to Salamandastron."
The gull eyed him indifferently; if Grullon was impressed or intimidated by Urthblood's presence, he didn't show it. "You stripedog ruler here?"
"I am Lord Urthblood, yes."
"You want me outta your chair?" The gull's harsh, squawking tone suggested he might - or might not - honor such a request.
Urthblood waved his pawstump. "Please, do not shift yourself on my account. I am fine standing."
Grullon's gaze fastened on the badger's iron-capped right wrist. "Stripedog missing paw," he observed rather tactlessly.
"I know you and your gulls were watching the battle that cost me this paw last summer. You have seen the scale of the forces I can command, and what they can do. Surely you can see the advantage of making yourselves my allies."
Grullon paused to gobble up an anchovy. "Craagh! King Grullon and all gulls rule sea skies! No need groundcrawlers!"
"But we do need each other," Urthblood insisted. "We have a common enemy. And I am given to understand that your kind has suffered terribly at the claws of this enemy. Perhaps you yourself, Majesty, have lost friends to the searats. Family, even?"
Grullon sputtered and gacked at this mention, sending a fine spray of anchovy residue over the table in front of him. "Searats kill and eat King Grullon's subjects! They kill and eat King Grullon's brother! Wish all searats die, die, kraww!"
"Then hear me well, Your Majesty. Join forces with me, and I will show you how to kill searats. Many, many searats."
Grullon cocked his head toward the badger warrior. "How many?"
The seagull king squawked an incredulous laugh. "Other stripedog with many longears helpless against searats, you and many brushtailed redfurs helpless too. Searats come and go as they please, nobeast stop them!"
"We will stop them, Your Majesty. You and I together."
"Why you say this?"
"Because Tratton is about to make a very big mistake."
"And stripedog knows this, how?"
"Because I will leave him no choice. Majesty, give me one hundred of your gulls to start. I will train them in ways of fighting that have never been seen by bird or beast before. Together, we will take back these coastlands from Tratton. By summer, we will bring the searat king to his knees."
"Hundred gulls? Too many of my flock. How King Grullon know you not just eat them, like searats do?"
"I have not eaten you, have I?"
Grullon shook his head, feathers ruffled. "Still not believe anybeast, anybird stop searats. Searats too powerful, too many."
"Tratton wants to rule the seas and the coastlands too. He cannot have both. Perhaps if I could show you a demonstration of my resolve, that will convince you of my worth as your ally?"
"What you gonna do, stripedog?"
"Give me until winter's end, and I will strike a blow against the searats that will shake Tratton's maritime empire to its core."
"Where? When? What?" Grullon demanded impatiently.
"There is nothing that happens along the length and breadth of these shores that escapes the eyes of the seagulls," Urthblood said with a degree of subtle flattery. "When I act, you will know of it. And if we are to become allies, as I hope, it will be merely the first step in a campaign that will rid your domain of searats, avenge your kin, and restore you to your rightful place as the uncontested ruler of these skies."
Grullon mulled this over, then nodded. "You punish searats, kill many, then we allies. Give you hundred gulls, and hundred more."
"Just a hundred to start, that will be enough. It will take time to properly train them all."
"And you give us more food too," the seagull king added. "You want King Grullon as ally, you feed us like this, every day."
"What we have is yours to share, of course," said Urthblood. "That is what allies do. But, a word of advice, Majesty. Your gulls will be of no use to me if they cannot fly, or dodge the searats' arrows. You may wish to cut back on your enjoyment of our delicacies. Otherwise, I fear you may only be fattening yourselves up for Tratton's tables."
For the second time in as many days, a lone figure approached Salamandastron.
Two of Mattoon's weasels stood guard at the foot of the northern slopes, where the rough trail up to one of the mountain's entrances began. They were probably not the first of Urthblood's lookouts to spot the newcomer - the Gawtrybe squirrel sentries up on the plateau commanded a view of the flat coastlands for a day's march in every direction - but the weasel pair would be the first to make contact with the stranger.
The hare - a most ordinary specimen of harehood, with nothing particularly distinguished or noteworthy about its physique or clothing - slogged through the sand to a weary stop before the guards. "Mornin', chappies! All well at the bally ol' fortstead?"
The weasels regarded him with narrow-eyed scrutiny. "You one o' the Long Patrol?" one challenged, lance raised.
The hare huffed indignantly, paw placed upon his breast. "Do I look like one of those bloodthirsty, murder-minded, player-pounding warmongers? You slander me, sah!"
The other weasel picked up on the slight Northlands accent in the hare's speech. "Hey, Scroks, ain't this that hare actor from Noonvale?"
"Parts east o' Noonvale, actually," the hare corrected. "Don't know how welcome I'd be in that village these days ... "
"What're you doin' down here?" the weasel Scrocca asked, lowering his spear. "Word had it you was back up north ... "
"So I was, for awhile. Wanted t' keep as much bloomin' distance 'tween my precious self an' those bobtailed bullies as I could. But Lord Urthblood summoned me back here, so ... here I am!" The hare's gaze went above and past the two weasels. "And here comes my bally welcomin' committee now!"
A single squirrel was descending the slope from the north entrance, hopping and bounding down the escarpment with all the alacrity of his kind. Within moments the smartly-uniformed, red-furred creature had reached the spot where the three beasts stood.
The weasels stiffened to attention and saluted Captain Matowick, commander of Urthblood's Gawtrybe at Salamandastron. Matowick snapped off a cursory answering salute, then turned to the hare. "Hello, Browder. You made good time."
"Winter'll do that to ya, wot? Encourages a body to jolly well keep his stompers stompin' over hill 'n' dale. Least there wasn't much snow lyin' about th' plains an' coastlands. An' none of those bothersome gulls pesterin' me, either. Last time I was here, they were swoopin' an' divin' down at me like they thought I was a bally bluefin! I was afraid they'd stab out my eyes an' snap off my ears! Only my superior bobbin', duckin' an' weavin' skills kept my flesh 'n' fur intact on that occasion."
"The seagulls shouldn't be a problem for us anymore," Matowick said as he escorted Browder up the trail. "Lord Urthblood has made arrangements to settle that matter."
"Ho, wot? Wot's he doin', eradicatin' those winged vermin, burnin' out their nests an' poachin' their eggs, chasin' 'em away an' banishin' 'em to parts unknown?"
"Nothing so dramatic. And it should give us the upper paw against Tratton. Now that the Long Patrol are gone, the searats are landing all up and down the coast with impunity. We Gawtrybe can hold Salamandastron all right, but we can't cover territory like you hares can."
"Us hares? Please, Captain, be so kind as not to lump me in with those flopeared felons, wot? Meetin' up with 'em was my biggest bally fear comin' down here. They make th' gulls look like buzzin' mosquitoes by comparison. I do believe they'd stick my handsome head on a pike, given half a bally chance."
"You worried yourself needlessly, then. They're all at Redwall, and now that Foxguard is underway, I suspect they'll find quite enough to keep themselves occupied there."
"Eh, Foxguard? Wot's that?"
"Another of Lord Urthblood's projects. But I think it's a safe bet that we won't be seeing them around here anytime soon."
"Yah, well, I wasn't takin' any bally chances. I crossed over to th' coast north of th' wastelands, then hoofed it down here that way. Wanted to keep as much distance 'tween m'self and those lethal bunnies as was harely possible. You've never seen 'em in action yourself. They can pop up outta thin air, an' fashion weapons outta any ol' thing that's lyin' 'round. Wouldn't surprise me if there's a patrol of 'em keepin' tabs on this mountain right now, even as we flap our tongues."
"Browder, you're paranoid. And for an ever-cautious captain of the Gawtrybe to be saying that, that's really saying something."
"They're my bones would've got broke an' my blood would've been spilled. A chap's entitled to a little healthy paranoia when there's a small army after his hide, wot?"
"Well, we might not be hares, but we Gawtrybe can certainly keep all the immediate approaches to Salamandastron patrolled well enough. We know a thing or two about tracking, and we would have discovered any beasts lying low out there keeping us under surveillance. And Lord Urthblood's birds make pretty regular overflights of land and sea. Not much escapes their eagle eyes."
"Hey, speakin' of those feathered fellows, I thought I saw a couple of 'em flappin' their way north when I was up the beach a bit. They were too high for me t' tell for sure, but they didn't look like gulls ... "
Matowick nodded. "Lord Urthblood dispatched them on a special detail up the coast - his eagle and owl captains. He wants them to take a closer look at some of the searat activity there."
"Well, they won't hafta look too jolly hard. Even though I stuck as close to th' shoreline as I could on my way down here, a few times I had to steer my steps well inland to avoid those salty skintails. You're right smack on the dab when you say they're puttin' ashore wherever they jolly well like. Why, there's one compound they have, 'bout halfway 'tween here an' the Northlands, gotta be almost as big as all Noonvale!"
Matowick glanced aside at the thespian hare, momentarily lifting his gaze from the rock-strewn concourse they followed. "Lord Urthblood will want to hear all about that."
Browder shuddered. "Killer Long Patrol to th' left of me, killer searats to th' right ... wot's this world comin' to?"