The sea was angry, a perfect match for the Searat King's mood.
Tratton stood upon his private balcony, paws clasped behind his back as his violet and green eyes gazed out toward the southern horizon. The calm of spring may have come to Mossflower, but out here around the forbidding isle of Terramort, far from any mainland, it might as well have still been the depths of winter for all that the ocean roiled, the winds whipped and the clouds and sea mists obscured the sun. Terramort was a place of desolation that knew harsh cold for half the year and blistering heat for the other half. The moderating climes of spring and autumn would never touch the surf-pounded cliffs or barren crags of Tratton's fortress island.
But if the sun did not shine often here, the pirate king's stronghold did. Once, long ago, a crude castle called Fort Bladegirt had dominated the island's south tip, perched atop the sheerest and deadliest cliffs on the isle. Bladegirt had been a typical vermin palace - dark, dank, festooned with a richness of plundered wealth that did little to mask the underlying wretchedness of the place. It was a crucible of wickedness that crushed the soul of anybeast with a shred of decency in its heart who was forced to dwell there. Bladegirt was long gone, and in its place stood an abomination that would not so much crush a beast's spirit as suck it dry.
This was Terramort of Terramort, the seat of the most powerful searat empire there had ever been. If the average bastion of tyranny was dark and brooding, this edifice was as different as could be. Terramort resembled nothing so much as a stack of immense rectangular slabs which had been piled one atop the other, slightly offcenter so that some levels stuck out from others at unexpected junctures. Nowhere in its sterile architecture was there a curve, dome, tower or battlement to be seen - just an antiseptic assortment of flat planes, sharp lines and even sharper corners that screamed "unnatural" in its artificiality. But the most striking thing about Terramort was its color. Countless tons of virgin marble had been excavated from the island of Karnavat and shipped here for the construction of Tratton's fortress. Whiter than the whitest bone, the flawless stone lent a surreal air to the angular structure, making it look like something that had been dropped onto the clifftop from another world. On those rare days when the sun forced its way through the everpresent clouds that blanketed these skies, Terramort gleamed so brightly that the eye could scarcely tolerate to gaze upon it.
The most remarkable aspect of Terramort's construction, however, was neither its color nor its layout but an array of hidden features built into the design by a certain ingenious ferret and otherwise known only to the Searat King himself. But these were not to play any part in the events at paw.
The top floor of Terramort - Tratton's private retreat and sanctum - stuck out over the levels below on all sides so that nobeast could spy on the pirate king in his personal moments ... or have a clear shot at him. Except for Tratton and his queen Regelline, no other creature was allowed up here or on the roof under pain of death, unless accompanied by a pair of Tratton's most trustworthy palace guardrats. Those loyal sentries stood watch over the stairways up to the royal chambers at all times, day and night.
Two of those guards now maintained stiff poses of attention by the door leading out onto the terrace where Tratton stood. Before them shuffled and fidgeted a third rat, clearly nervous at being in the presence of his ruthless and all-powerful ruler. The nature of the news he'd just delivered did little to put him at ease.
The balcony deck was as regally spacious as befitted a monarch; an entire merchant ship could have been placed upon the open-air gallery with room to spare. Many paces separated the anxious visitor from where Tratton stood with his back to the others, motionlessly glowering at the turbulent sea, but the message-bearing rat still felt close enough to the dangerous sealord that he imagined Tratton might lash out and take his head at any moment. And when that neat-furred visage turned to glance back his way, he supposed it might as easily have been to issue an execution order as anything.
Instead, Tratton merely said, "And you did not see how the Sharktail was set afire, Thapa?"
"N-no, Yer Majesty," the Butcher Buoy's senior weapons officer stammered. "She was already fully ablaze an' sinkin' when we surfaced. T'was th' explosion o' her stormpowder stores that alerted us. She musta been burnin' fer quite some time 'fore we came up."
"And you didn't notice before then that your mothership was aflame?"
"Um, er ... no topside windows in th' Butcher Buoy, M'Lord. We was so busy watchin' fer otters, since they'd already tried t' hole us once. Musta been them planktailed ruffians what sneaked back aboard an' set her on fire."
"Did you see any otters? That's what you were patrolling for."
"Aye, Yer Majesty. Um, I mean, no, we didn't see a one of 'em, an' we didn't drop our guard fer a heartbeat. That's what we can't figger ... "
Tratton turned all the way around to fully face Thapa. "Is it possible that those squirrel archers ashore might have done this with flaming arrows?"
"I s'pose so, Sire. Th' Sharktail was pretty close t' shore when this happened. Thing is, Cap'n Rindosh had sent ashore over a hunnerd fighters t' engage them woodlanders. Can't see how they'd o' been free to shoot so many arrers right then ... or how our shipmates wouldn'ta been able t' put out th' flames 'fore it got too bad."
"Yes, that is a mystery. Most unfortunate that there is no other rat who could answer this question for us. I find it somewhat hard to believe that there were no other survivors - none at all."
Thapa withered under Tratton's unwavering two-tone gaze. "Uh ... it's like I said, M'Lord! Them murderous squirrels 'n' otters 'n' shrews weren't leavin' any o' us alive! You shoulda seen th' look in th' eyes o' th' shore party who came back from investergatin' th' lumber mill site. They said t'was like lookin' at th' world's end! Urthblood's beasts burned ev'ry building, ripped apart most o' th' dock, an' sank th' Wavehauler an' Scorpiontail both! An' they was just as merciless toward th' Sharktail - why, I'm sure they woulda figgered out some way t' overwhelm us too, if we hadn't got outta there when we did."
"Ah. So you left in quite a hurry, did you?"
A chill ran down Thapa's spine, causing his fur to ripple from ear to ankle. But the weapons officer had been anticipating this line of questioning, and had his answers ready.
"Yer Majesty, they coulda captured th' Butcher Buoy, an' that'd be a disaster! We couldn't let that happen!"
"The woodlanders already saw that craft in action. I doubt there's much more they could have learned from a closer inspection of the Butcher Buoy."
"Aye, but, but, then they woulda had it, an' we wouldn't! Besides, t'was vital that somerat make it back 'ere t' tell you what happened!"
"What happened?" Tratton echoed. "It sounds to me as if you can't even tell me that with any certainty, despite the fact that you were there. Can you even assure me that it was Urthblood behind this treachery?"
"Well, whatbeast else could it be?"
"It is most impolite to answer one question with another, Thapa."
The rat officer visibly quailed. "Uh, a thousand apologies, Yer Highness! But, it's like I told you: them squirrels was holdin' up th' banner o' Urthblood, an' not being shy 'bout it neither. Can't think why any other beasts would wanna give credit fer sumpthin' like this t' that bloody badger if they wasn't part o' his forces ... "
"I have captains and strategists to do the thinking on such matters," Tratton said levelly. "Your duty is to report what you observed, as faithfully and without bias as you are able to recall." The Searat King stared at Thapa for several long moments, his expression unreadable. "I may wish to speak with you further," he said at last. "My guards will escort you back to your room. You are dismissed."
The relief was plain on Thapa's face. As he bowed and turned to leave, Tratton flashed a paw signal to the two royal guards, indicating that they were to return Thapa to the chambers where he and the rest of the Butcher Buoy's crew had been held in isolation since their return to Terramort. The sealord and his personal guard had worked out an entire vocabulary of gestures whereby they could wordlessly communicate a wide range of commands. Tratton could just as easily have signalled for Thapa's execution, torture or expulsion from the island, or had him placed under surveillance. But since in his view the situation called for none of these, mere sequestering would suffice for now. There was already enough gossip amongst the crewrats of the other vessels and the island soldiers, and Tratton didn't need details of these losses to be confirmed among the rank and file.
Thapa was ushered away by the guards. Tratton waited until he heard the self-locking door to his suite shut with a definite slam, then turned to face the restless sea once more. It didn't take long for him to hear the softly shuffling pawsteps of the only other creature who could be up here with him, padding their graceful way across the smooth tiled deck toward him.
"So, the fearless tyrant's cowardice comes back to bite him in the tail, eh?" came the mocking voice from behind him.
"You were listening?" Tratton asked the sea, not turning to face his queen.
"Naturally. I knew this day would come, when you failed to act last summer at Salamandastron. You could have defeated him then!"
"We don't know that!" he snapped.
"Yes, we do," Regelline sneered. "We had over a thousand fighters ready and willing to go. But no, you worried that there might be two badgers in the mountain, trying to draw you in, despite your intelligence reports and the plain evidence of the mass graves right before your eyes, and even Urthblood's own banner flying above Salamandastron! There were never two badgers there - never two armies! Only Urthblood's, and his was half-dead after the battle with his brother! Now, he has had two seasons to consolidate his power - and it has come to this! If you worried over how you might conquer the mountain when Urthblood was at his most vulnerable, however do you imagine you can do so now that he is confident enough of his strength to strike at us like this?"
Now Tratton did turn to face his mate, slowly and purposefully. "At that time, my dear Regelline, I did not have the stocks of stormpowder that I have today, or the means of delivering them."
"Ahh ... And how many more ships must you lose before you will feel compelled to answer this audacious, bald-faced challenge to your authority?"
Tratton stalked over to his wife until they were practically nose-to-nose. "I will lose no more ships," he said in a smooth, even voice. "That badger will be put in his place ... as will you, my fair queen, if you keep on reminding me so plainly why we maintain separate beds."
The Searat King moved past her, off the balcony and into their private rooms. She waited until she heard the slam of a door, indicating he had either retreated into his own chambers or left the suite altogether.
"And you, my regal husband, had best not lose anymore ships," she hissed into the empty wind sweeping across the deck. "Otherwise, you might just lose everything ... and take me down with you."
A phalanx of his personal royal guards accompanied Tratton as he descended through the tunnels that connected the basement levels of his white fortress to his shipbuilding caves. The walk was a long one, for the seaside caves lay on the opposite end of the island, on Terramort's northernmost tip. But after the news he'd received this day, and the terse confrontation with his wife, Tratton needed a good long stroll to unwind and clear his mind.
The guards voiced no objections. Tratton never went anywhere without an armed escort, not even on his own island. To serve the sealord well meant great rewards, but to displease him could mean instant death ... or a slower, more painful one. And Tratton was very good at remembering the names and faces of those around him who performed well - and those who did not. So it was not pride alone that had this contingent striding uncomplainingly at Tratton's heels as he stretched his legs.
They emerged onto the high observation balcony overlooking the cavernous complex. Tratton took a moment to stuff wadding into his ears to protect his hearing from the pounding, clanging cacophony that filled the space, then started down the rock-carved steps leading to the water level.
Once, legend had it, these caves had been the headquarters for a slave revolt - another reason Tratton didn't trust slaves. Now, however, these caverns had been greatly expanded to house the secret weapon shops and naval iron works of the searat empire. It was here that the steel ships which could sail both above and beneath the waves were assembled, and in the adjacent labs that the stormpowder had been refined and perfected.
Everything here was hewn from the living rock itself, much as it was at Salamandastron. The sea flowed in through an entrance which had been widened to accommodate the passage of large vessels. All along the stone piers toiled welders, riveters, casters and other steelworkers, torches blazing and hammers pounding and forges glowing and molten metal pouring. There was another shipyard on Terramort Island, along the west coast, where the dreadnoughts and other traditional wood sailing ships were constructed. But it was in these underground, noise-filled, ever-bustling caverns that the future of Tratton's empire lay, now more than ever.
Two dreadnoughts, lost! he thought to himself as he roamed amidst the shipbuilding activity. And he wouldn't even have known about this at all if it hadn't been for the escape of the Butcher Buoy's crew, and their fortuitous retrieval by the war galleon Bloodkeel that just happened to be passing their way. Those were ships that would not be replaced anytime this season, not with the main timber camp and all of its lumber burned to ash. It was time to expand his operations elsewhere, in places Urthblood couldn't reach. At least not yet ... and not ever, if Tratton could help it.
For now, the dreadnoughts remained the backbone of his naval power, supported by the smaller frigates and galleons, many of which were left over from the days of Farca and Garwal. But it was the dreadnoughts more than anything else that had allowed Tratton to project his sea power farther and wider than any searat ruler before him. These were the largest ships to ever sail the main, each big enough to carry catapults and other heavy siege weaponry, sizable enough to hold their own defensive submersibles, spacious enough to bear an entire waterborne army. Such unprecedented concentration of military power had proven time and again to be unstoppable.
For all their awesome capability, the dreadnoughts were essentially just oversized versions of the classic pirate ships, at their hearts wood and canvas. And as such, they were still vulnerable to the oldest of countermeasures against them: holing and burning. Urthblood knew this, and had used these tactics to devastating advantage. He probably would have resorted to them the previous summer as well, when Tratton had had four dreadnoughts poised to launch an all-out assault upon Salamandastron. Perhaps the searats would still have won the day as Regelline maintained, drowning the defenders in their overwhelming numbers before Urthblood could fire and sink the craft which had delivered them to that shore. In his heart, however, Tratton doubted it. If he'd unleashed his full power back then, the battle would have been a bloodbath, with much of that blood his own and no guarantee of victory.
Four dreadnoughts. Against anybeast else it would have been overkill. Such a force might still be enough to overcome Urthblood ... now that the stormpowder could be factored into the equation. If Tratton had possessed sufficient stockpiles of that weapon the summer before when he'd faced down the badger warrior, he would not have hesitated to attack. And now that Urthblood had made this a real war with his treacherous sneak attacks, all choice in the matter had been taken out of his paws. There was no question of what must come next.
It would take time. Only two dreadnoughts currently lay at anchor in Terramort Cove - the Whaleslayer and his own flagship the Whiteclaw - and he would require more than that for the challenge ahead of him. There were other warships presently moored in that harbor, but Tratton would not leave his stronghold to face his mortal enemy until more of his greatest of all ships returned from their current voyages.
Yes, the Searat King himself would venture forth from his deadly lair to engage his badger nemesis. But when he did, it would not be within a vessel made of material as insubstantial and uncertain as wood.
Tratton found his chief builder Clucus by the Wedge, overseeing the application of external steel plates to the wood hull. This was a ship unlike any in the searat fleet so far; the basic wood frame was supported by interior steel crossbeams and keel reinforcements, and the entire hull would be encased in metal so that the vessel would be rendered unburnable and virtually unsinkable by any ordinary means. She was larger than any submarine or ironclad to yet emerge from this underground shipyard, and the only one with a rowing galley - which would, of course, be crewed by Tratton's own rats. Some of his lesser captains still insisted upon keeping slaves aboard their frigates and galleons, but woodlanders were strictly prohibited from all dreadnoughts and submersibles, as well as from setting foot on Terramort itself. The sub that had gone missing the previous summer had been on a slave-gathering mission, and its disappearance had fueled the Searat King's distrust of woodlanders. From now on, neither he nor his island nor any of his most prized vessels would have anything to do with those beasts. The vanished sub had been far too valuable for its scouting, infiltration and troop-carrying capability to have been wasted in such a way, and Tratton would never again so squander his assets.
The Wedge also differed in that her wide stern bore not one but three of the giant propulsion screws, and the internal mechanisms to crank them were the most intricate to yet be installed on any searat ship, allowing the work of a dozen rats to be multiplied into many times the equivalent force. Between the rowers and these propellers, the Wedge would be able to cut through the water much faster than her stocky shape would suggest.
As the coterie of guards held back, Tratton took aside Clucus. The blonde-furred ferret mechanic was one of the few non-rats permitted within close proximity of Tratton, and had more than earned the privilege with his nonstop parade of innovations. As long as he was provided the space, materials and rat muscle to pursue his interests, he was more than happy to do the Searat King's bidding faithfully and without question.
Due to the noise level, it was necessary for Tratton to drape a paw around Clucus's shoulder and draw him close. Even so, they practically had to shout into each other's ears to be heard.
"When will she be ready to sail?" Tratton inquired, nodding toward the Wedge.
"Should be another fortnight, Yer Majesty, give or take."
"I will need her before then."
Surprise painted the ferret's beige-and-black face. Of course Tratton always wanted him to produce as quickly as possible, but seldom were such deadlines imposed upon Clucus.
"How much sooner, Sire?"
"You have until the next two dreadnoughts return. We will be leaving the morning after the second arrives."
"And when'll that be?" Clucus asked, seeking clarification.
"When they get here. Just have her ready, Clucus. Use as many rats as you need, in continuous shifts if you have to. Do not disappoint me."
And the smile that accompanied this last utterance was a companionable death threat.
"Uh ... aye, M'Lord! It'll be ready!"
Tratton gave an officious nod and took his leave of his chief engineer. Now he had to inform the captains of the Whiteclaw and the Whaleslayer that their schedules had changed, and they would not be sailing anywhere ... yet.
Such were the ways of war. For make no mistake, war this most certainly was.