Chapter One Hundred and Thirteen
"My Lord, I think you'd better come see this ... "
Tratton let Korba's rather informal and inappropriately familiar summons pass without comment or reprimand, since only the two royal guards out in the passage outside his stateroom seemed to have heard it, and Tratton had indeed requested that the intelligence officer keep him appraised of any noteworthy developments on shore. So, the Searat King wordlessly followed Korba up to the top deck of the Wedge, his pair of ever-present protectors tagging along behind them.
Tratton quickly saw that the focus of activity ashore lay not directly opposite the ironclad at the base of Salamandastron but rather a short way to the south, around the woodlander trader vessel the Goodwill. Producing his long glass, the sea tyrant studied the large assemblage of creatures gathered there, waiting their turn to be ferried aboard by the cargo craft's two rowboats.
"That is Urthblood, isn't it?" Korba asked his master.
"Aye," Tratton replied absently, slipping unconsciously into the more nautical jargon of his younger days. That bulky suit of red armor was hard to miss, especially when it was surrounded by shrews who barely came up past the badger's waist. "Looks like he's got that entire tribe of Mossflower shrews loading into that merchant ship, along with a score or so of his otters and about that many more of his squirrels. They're loading provisions aboard, too. Definitely gearing up for a voyage."
"Only a score of squirrels?" Korba fretted. "That'll leave nearly their entire strength in the mountain! We would never be able t' overcome defenses like that ... "
"Urthblood is sending us a message. Several, in fact. Leaving so many of his squirrel archers behind to defend his home is his way of telling me, 'Look but don't touch.' But the fact that he is taking his otters with him is undoubtedly meant to reassure us that no attempt will be made to hole or board our vessels while we wait here for his return. An inducement for our patience, if you will. But the biggest message is that ship itself. I assumed he would lead his force overland, down the coast and then inland on foot. But taking that boat will allow him to reach the scene of the battle in a fraction of the time. He might even use it to block Kothar's escape, if he can reach the mouth of that river before Kothar makes it to the open sea in our recovered submersible."
"Assuming he was even successful in seizing that craft at all," Korba said. "For all we know, it might still be in the paws of Urthblood's shrews."
"True. And since we have no idea how soon Urthblood will return, or when our next Fleetrunner might pass this way again, it ties our paws as far as trying to summon reinforcements from Terramort for an assault on Salamandastron, since they almost certainly would not arrive in time. And thus that demon badger again orchestrates events so that all beasts must dance to his tune and no other ... "
"But, if he's keepin' so many of his troops here," Korba wondered, "will he have enough of a force with him to battle Kothar's rats and those rebel shrews?"
"What do you think?" Tratton asked sarcastically. "When has Urthblood ever walked into a situation with less than he needed to prevail? He has yet to make such a misstep, and I very much doubt this will be his first time to do so. He is clearly counting on his shrews to do the bulk of any fighting he encounters - the Mossflower allies you see there on the beach, and his Northland troops who have undoubtedly already engaged our rats. Those twoscore otters and squirrels alone might be enough to wipe out Kothar's team ... which would leave all of his shrews to go after the forces of this renegade Snoga. It will be shrew against shrew - practically a shrew war."
"So, what are we to do, Majesty?"
Tratton swung his spyglass upward to take in the plateau of the mountain fortress. Sure enough, dozens of the gulls sat lined up along the seaward edge of the crater rim, overlooking the three searat ships riding at anchor below them. A show of force as unmistakable as any Tratton had ever beheld. Those seabirds could unleash total destruction upon the Darksky and Wavestrike at a moment's notice ... but, if Tratton went against Urthblood's bidding and broke from these negotiations to return to Terramort, those same gulls could carry this war to him at sea, burning more of his ships and perhaps someday even appearing over his island stronghold and dropping something far worse than mere flaming oil and flesh-searing corrosive. Urthblood had him by the tail, and he knew exactly how to play the Searat King.
"We will play the badger's game, Korba. We will wait, and see what comes of this situation."
For a cargo ship, the Goodwill was only of a medium size. As a troop transport, however, it was more than spacious enough for Urthblood's purposes.
By packing themselves not quite shoulder-to-shoulder, the entire force of the Guosim was able to fit down in the cargo hold belowdecks. It was only a slightly tighter squeeze than Cavern Hole where they spent their winters, and since Ramjohn's last delivery had consisted of a wide variety of foodstuffs as well as a shipment of spices and perfume, the hold carried a lingering fragrance more appealing than it often did.
"Mmm ... I c'n smell fresh pears an' cinnamon, Dad!" Pirkko said to Log-a-Log after one particularly huge inhalation. "Makin' me hungry!"
The Guosim leader grinned in the steamy dimness and ruffled his son's headfur. "Yeah, it's almost as tantalizin' as a Redwall breakfast, ain't it? Too bad a beast can't eat an aroma, eh? Unfortunately, th' way we're all crammed in here, I'm afraid you'll be smellin' naught but shrews 'fore too much longer. Kinda makes y' wish it weren't high summer, don't it? But not t' worry - with a fresh wind fillin' our sails an' a capable seamaster like Ramjohn at th' helm, Lord Urthblood'll have us where we're goin' 'fore ya know it!"
Pirkko's expression of childlike wonder turned more somber. "Are we goin' t' war, Dad?"
Log-a-Log laid an earnest paw on the youth's shoulder. "Yah, that we may be, lad. But it ain't t' fight Lord Urthblood's battle for 'im. Searats're bad 'nuff, no denyin', an' I do owe that badger a debt fer rescuin' you from those seavermin last summer. It's Snoga that makes this our fight too. After what he did at Foxguard, an' now this attack on Urthblood's shrews, that rabble-rouser's proven himself a menace to all th' lands. Assaultin' Redwallers, even! He came from our own ranks, him an' most o' his followers, so that makes this Guosim business. This'll be settled when that villain tastes a little shrew-style justice!"
"Am I gonna hafta fight too?"
Log-a-Log heard the hesitance in the shrewchild's voice. He knew Pirkko worshipped him as a father, and would pick up a sword to stand at his side in battle if the shrew chieftain encouraged him to do so. But Pirkko was still too much of a youngling to take part in what could be a messy war, lacking any real military training outside of clacking wooden swords with Droge on Redwall's lawns. He hadn't even been presented with his own shortsword yet, and probably wouldn't for another few seasons. Then again, war sometimes made youngbeasts grow up faster than they should.
"Don't reckon it'll come t' that, Pirk," Log-a-Log reassured him. "Let's see what's waitin' fer us when we get t' Doublegate. Lord Urthblood'll decide what's to be done then."
"I hope Mista Lorr's all right," Pirkko worried. "I like him. He's zany."
"I'm sure that genius loon's just fine, son. Aloof beasts like Lorr don't often find trouble. Bet he could stroll right through a latrine an' not get a bit o' muck on 'im!"
Up on the wheeldeck, meanwhile, Urthblood stood alongside Ramjohn as the seasoned nautical mouse piloted his vessel south along the coast. A stiff breeze blew in off the ocean, but Ramjohn's sailing expertise told him how to set his canvases to capture those winds and let him tack swiftly perpendicular to those brisk air currents. Under his skilled paw, the Goodwill practically skipped along the wavetops, making swift headway toward her destination.
"I appreciate your cooperation and your assistance, Captain," the badger rumbled over the slap of surf against the hull and the creak of mast and rigging. "It was vital that I reach the scene of this battle as quickly as I may. My otter captain Saybrook knows his way around sails and rudders quite well himself, but nobeast can get the most out of a vessel like the creature who has been her master for many seasons."
"I wasn't gonna let the Goodwill go off without me," Ramjohn replied. "She's been my livelihood nearly all my adult life, an' the only home I've known during most of that time too. Wish I coulda brought along th' rest of my crew too, but we couldn'ta squeezed 'em in with a prybar! Do you reckon they'll be alright back at Salamandastron?"
"I cannot imagine anyplace they would be safer. Tratton knows it would be both foolish and futile to try anything. He would need several times his current forces to seriously challenge my defenses, and even then my gulls could probably burn their ships out from under them before they could get anywhere near shore to land their fighters. But, it is my hope to return well before he has any opportunity to summon such additional naval support."
"You must be very optimistic about how quickly you'll be able to handle this trouble with your shrews," Ramjohn commented.
"It is not my shrews which must be handled. Snoga will soon learn that he has committed one transgression too many against me, and what it means to be my enemy."
"Yeah, I've no doubt his band of troublemakers'll be no match for your forces an' the Guosim together. But what about Tratton? If his rats were part of this attack on your shrew fort, surely that puts an end to any peace talks between you an' the searats?"
"On the contrary, Captain. I have no way of knowing whether Tratton was in communication with his forces so far to the south, or if he was even aware of what they were planning. If they acted on their own, their actions need not impact these negotiations. Indeed, they may even give me greater leverage than I had before. We shall just have to wait and see what transpires from all of this."
For the rest of that day, it almost seemed Urthblood had the command of the winds and weather and tides at his beck and call. The Goodwill found a coastal current flowing southward as strongly as the Roaringburn ever did, delivering them by midafternoon to the mouth of the river they sought. Turning from the oceanic stream, Ramjohn aimed his ship straight inland and up the river. It was here that the prevailing easterly breezes blowing in off the sea fully caught the cargo vessel's sails back-on, billowing the canvas outward to strain every line and propel the Goodwill up the broadstream as if the opposing flow was not even there. If these waters had been perfectly still, their party could not have made better time.
Even as they gained the river, the incredible smoke column rising from Doublegate's wreckage was clearly visible from the Goodwill's deck. "By the fates!" Ramjohn muttered, minding the wheel to keep the craft centered upon the watercourse as best he could. "It must be like all the forests of the lands are burning in one spot!"
Urthblood nodded. "A vast amount of wood went into Doublegate's construction. I suspect it may burn well into tomorrow."
"Looks like it's still a fair distance away too. Don't know how much further inland I'll be able t' take you 'fore we scrape bottom or the river narrows too much for us to get through ... "
"This river is deeper than it looks," Urthblood responded. "The searat ship I captured last summer can hold over a score of beasts, and it was able to penetrate far upstream while staying completely underwater. The Goodwill might not be able to deliver us to Doublegate's doorstep, but she should get us most of the way there. If you should run aground, there is more than enough muscle power here to pull you free. But I suspect we will be halted by overhanging trees long before that becomes a danger. The deeper woods of south Mossflower were never meant to accommodate tall-masted boating traffic."
The badger's words proved almost prophetic. By late afternoon, they'd put behind them the open plains and entered the shadowy realm of Mossflower's fastness. After the third major snag of the trimmed sails on protruding branches, Ramjohn called for anchor to be dropped.
"I'm sorry, M'Lord," the mouse captain said to Urthblood, "but if I trim the sails back any more'n I already have I might as well not have any canvas up at all. The Goodwill's an oceangoin' sailing vessel, with no rowing galley, an' she's way too big to be poled upstream. Looks like this's as far as I can take you."
"Then it shall have to be good enough." Urthblood gazed eastward, but the dense woodlands now hid the smoke column that marked their destination. "You have done well, Captain, and you shall henceforth have the gratitude of Salamandastron."
One of the longer gangplanks was extended from the Goodwill's port side to the north riverbank, and Urthblood led ten of his Gawtrybe archers and the entire body of the Guosim across the walkway onto dry land. The Badger Lord paused there, calling back to the trader mouse.
"I would ask that you remain here, Captain. I have my reasons. I have left you my otters and half my squirrels for protection, in case any enemy forces should remain in the area. I expect to return by midmorning. I will see you then."
And with that, Urthblood and the Guosim disappeared into the evening forest, snaking their way along the riverbank toward Doublegate ... or what was left of it.
The velvet mantle of full night had fallen upon the lands by the time Urthblood reached the shattered remnants of his shrews' riverside fort. In contrast to the night before, no clouds obscured the heavens, allowing the moon and stars to shine forth brightly. It was by this pale glow that the badger warrior and his Gawtybe and Guosim followers beheld the ruins that had been Doublegate.
Log-a-Log could not stifle his gasp. Unlike Urthblood and the squirrel archers, he and his shrews had seen the Northland shrews' garrison when it was well along in its construction, and so the Mossflower wanderers could perhaps appreciate the dimensions of what had been lost better than their companions, even if the badger had been the one to design this stronghold. The fires had in all but a few places died down to smoldering piles of charred wood and ash, but the hanging pall of acrid smoke could be smelled almost from the time they'd left the Goodwill. Even with just the moonlight by which to see, its wan shafts shadowed by the occasional billow of rising smoke, Log-a-Log could discern enough of the scene to be appalled by the extent of the destruction that met his watery eyes.
Altidor and Klystra met their badger master at the western edge of the clearing around the collapsed and burning fort. Tardo stood by their side, having been notified by the two raptors to expect Urthblood at any time.
"My Lord, thank fur ye're here! It's ... it's a disaster!"
"So I see. And how was this allowed to happen, Captain?"
"Um ... well, they hit us by surprise, M'Lord! Nobeast could've foreseen an alliance 'tween Snoga an' th' searats!"
"Quite possible, since even I did not foresee such a development. Go on."
"Well, we figgered that if Snoga ever dared show his face in these parts again, he'd pull somethin' like 'ee tried at Foxguard, an' we were more'n ready t' meet that kinda threat, with daily patrols through th' nearer woods on all sides an' walltop lookouts day 'n' night, rain or shine, jus' like you ordered, M'Lord. An' we never figgered on searats comin' this far inland wi' that new weapon o' theirs - we assumed th' otters downriver would give us warning if those seascum ever tried sailin' up this way, even if they used another of them underwater iron ships o' theirs. But, um, it looked like there may've been otters 'mongst th' force that attacked us, so I don't know how much we c'n count on th' waterdogs 'round here fer help."
"Otters, attackin' shrews?" Log-a-Log declared. "Th' Guosim's prob'ly crossed paths with most of the otter holts in Mossflower at one time or 'nother, an' I can't 'magine any of 'em sinkin' so low that they'd team up with Snoga ... an' certainly not with searats!"
"It is a possibility we shall have to keep in mind," said Urthblood, "although at the moment it is neither searats nor otters which concerns me primarily." He looked to Klystra. "What news of Snoga, Captain?"
"Still on river going east when daylight failed," the falcon reported. "Saugus tracks him now. We will relieve him in morning."
"Is there any sign of what his destination might be?"
Altidor answered. "There is a vast body of water farther to the east, My Lord - not the sea, but larger than any lake I have ever seen. Its shimmering filled nearly the entire horizon, and we could not see to its far shore. It appears that Snoga is making for that lake. If he travels straight through the night without stopping for rest, he could reach it as early as tomorrow."
"I've heard stories of that big inland lake," Log-a-Log said to Urthblood, "an' it's as big as those birds say it is, an' then some. If Snoga gets out on it, we'll never catch 'im!"
"On the contrary," the badger begged to differ, "as long as he stays to the water, my birds will be able to track him. It is only if he takes to the land and attempts to lose himself in the wilds of lower Mossflower that he will stand any chance of eluding us. I hope he does not realize this before we are able to confront him."
"Confront 'im how?" the Guosim leader asked. "With no boats of our own, we'll never be able t' catch up with his mangy crew! He's already got a big head start, an' it's only gettin' bigger while we're standin' here!"
"And what would you have me do, friend Log-a-Log? Accept these losses and give up on Snoga as being beyond my reach?"
"Um ... wasn't sayin' that, M'Lord," the shrew chieftain mumbled.
"There are things which must be addressed here before we can press on with our pursuit." Urthblood returned his gaze to Tardo. "What is the status of your dead and wounded, Captain?"
"We're still gettin' th' graves dug, M'Lord. We got nearly two hundred of our mates t' bury, an' that's not countin' th' ones who got blown t' bits by that searat explodin' stuff. We're still gatherin' up paws 'n' tails 'n' scraps that don't bear thinkin' 'bout. Just one or two pits ain't gonna be enuff. We're all dead on our footpaws an' could sure use some help with that."
"Of course. Log-a-Log, would your Guosim be willing to take over these burial duties in relief of my shrews? It would assist us greatly."
"Aye, M'Lord. Anything we can do t' help. Just show us where t' dig, an' we'll get right to it."
Pirkko stepped forward. "Where's Mista Lorr?"
Tardo turned a sorrowful gaze toward the youngster, remembering how fond the shrewchild was of the eccentric bankvole. "We ain't been able t' find him, lad. Some o' my shrews seemed t' think he might've been out in th' searat ship when the attack started, but nobeast knows fer sure. If Lorr was still in that vessel when Snoga got to it ... " Tardo shook his head.
"Lorr was a Redwaller, working for me here at my request," Urthblood said to his shrew captain. "His safety was charged to you. When the assault began, he was one of the very first things you should have seen to."
Tardo shrugged in resignation. "It all happened too fast, M'Lord."
"I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you did the best you could, under the circumstances. Now, as to your wounded ... "
The Guosim toiled until after midnight getting the Northland shrew casualties laid to their final rest, while Urthblood and his Gawtrybe squirrels (who had been paw-picked by the Badger Lord as much for their healing talents as their archery skills) saw to the most grievously injured of Tardo's shrews. Log-a-Log recognized a few of Snoga's shrews lying amongst the slain, identifying them by their colored headbands and traditional Guosim garb; the few Northlanders still assisting with the burial duties advised that any enemy corpses should simply be cast upon the flames of whatever parts of Doublegate still burned. Log-a-Log had no problem with this, in spite of the fact that most of these "enemy" had once ranked among his own tribe.
The fires had by now found every part of Doublegate's inner wall, and what had not yet collapsed stood engulfed in flames. Not a single stretch of ramparts remained from which to stand watch - not that there was anything left worth standing watch over. Tardo had long since evacuated all of his surviving troops from the courtyard of the burning garrison, and now they lay about in the clearing beyond the wreckage, receiving treatment for their hurts or simply surrendering to exhaustion.
The Guosim soon slumbered right alongside them, with only a token guard posted to take the night's watch, since it seemed their enemies were now on the run. Urthblood, as was his unearthly custom, did not indulge in so much as a wink of sleep, striding to and fro across the site or standing at various points along the perimeter, staring into the summer nighttime forest or down into the dark waters where his prized capture from four seasons earlier now lay in its shallowly-flowing grave.
Come first light, Urthblood called Tardo and Log-a-Log to him. The badger had just taken the overnight report of Captain Saugus, while Altidor and Klystra had flown out to take over the monitoring of Snoga's fleeing forces from the tired owl. Armed with the information he needed to make his next move, Urthblood laid out his plans to the two shrews.
"Snoga remains on the river, and still appears to be making for the big inland lake to the east. However, the possibility exists that he might abandon the waterways before then. If he does, we have no way of knowing whether he will land his fleet on the north banks or the south ... or perhaps even both. Therefore, we have no choice but to keep our own forces divided, to be prepared for every contingency. Captain Tardo, you will lead your remaining able-bodied fighters east along this side of the river. Those who are too badly injured to fight will accompany me and the Guosim back to the Goodwill, where they will stay to recuperate. Litters have already been prepared for the most seriously wounded. Once we have left them in the care of Captain Ramjohn, Log-a-Log and I will cross on the trader ship to the south banks, where most of my squirrels and otters will join the Guosim in accompanying me east on that side of the river. Wait here until you see us on the opposite banks, then we will proceed forward together."
"Aye, but, um ... won't all that backtrackin' an waitin' put us even further b'hind Snoga?" Tardo worried.
"Altidor and Klystra will alert me immediately of any change in Snoga's strategy. In the meantime, this is what we must do. As long as we know where Snoga is, we can catch up to him in our own time. He cannot run forever."