Desperate Measures

April 18, 2011

The lonely halls of the mountain rang with the sound of that hammer. The forge was red-hot, a pan for even the most resistant tempered steel. Its surface had shaped many a blade, ready and able for the most gallant Lord of the Mountain. 

The master of the fire mountain struck with his mighty hammer again and again, molding the resistant metal with sheer brute force. He grunted, wiping what felt like an ocean’s worth of sweat from his brow. His creation was almost finished, the ultimate masterpiece of Salamandastron. 

The blades from this forge were formidable indeed, able to withstand even the most fearsome battle with scarcely a crack. The Mace, Ratdeath, even the fabled Sword of Martin had all come from the forge. 

Rare, indeed, were the times in the storied history of the mountain that the Badger Lord had forged a blade for another. To have lived in those days when the mountain was prosperous and rich, when the Badger had commanded the coasts. 

Lord Baxter checked himself even as he swung. Too much force and he could dismantle hours of hard work.
His whiskers were graying already, the seasons betraying his eyesight. Yet, he still maintained some of the vigor of his younger days, those moments when he had a second-long spring in his step. 

Ages ago, his predecessors had made this forge hot enough to be seen in ‘lands across the sea’. Had they known what lay beyond that horizon then? Surely not even the most fantastic imagination could have dreamed of the cold reality.

Cities. Shining, sparkling cities across the ocean, thriving even as Mossflower squatted in mud huts. The wonders of those far off countries, their grandeur… How could a lowly field mouse or rat or fox or badger even fathom that? Beasts came and went from those shores, speaking strange tongues, with their own customs and ideas. 

Lord Baxter was never certain exactly when in the history of the mountain it had stopped being a respected force in Mossflower country. Perhaps it had been the misadventure of Evankt, ages and ages ago. Or maybe it was when the dreadful truth regarding a certain ‘Professor Faliss’ had come to light. 

The mountain had failed beasts then, its reputation smeared with the worst slander in its long history. Whispers persisted in dark corners of the land… the Badger Lords had failed, lost their ability to protect the common beast.

The hammer struck again, this time with more force than before. The steel glowed with heat and force of hours. 

It was a small comfort, this hard-fought din. So often, the halls of the mountain stood silent, barren of the chipper, cheerful calls and shouts of past seasons. The Long Patrol had long since eased their requirements, first allowing rabbits into their ranks, and shortly afterward, any species. 

The badger recalled those distant days when he had started out as a sergeant in the Long Patrol. It had seemed so simple. The old Badger Lord already had two sons, both vying for their father’s title. Skinny and weak, Baxter had been completely overlooked.

The hammer clanged yet again, the brutal echoes refusing to stop ringing in his ears. The metal was ready now, the shape perfection. 

Now it was time to let it cool. Carefully, Lord Baxter grasped the tongs in his paws, and extracted the red-hot metal from the forge. 

He almost had it when his grasp slipped and he nearly cut himself on razor-sharp, red-hot iron. Cursing, He fell back, his massive bulk nearly toppling the forge as he did so. Just a minor burn, nothing too serious. But even as Lord Baxter bent to pick the fallen metal up, his paws were still trembling.

Such a commotion he’d made in the armory, and yet there was no noise from the halls. Not that he expected any, of course. With all the excitement going on in the world, who wanted to stay to guard a mountain?

Even when he was in the Long Patrol, enlistment had been dwindling. They were promoting beasts to officer every other day, until it got to the point where there were barely any enlisted beasts left. 

It was chaos. The organization had been falling apart at the seams before, but after those changes, everything collapsed. 

Lord Baxter had never made a sword, or any kind of weapon before. Beasts assumed that because he was a Badger Lord, he must be extraordinarily skilled at the art. Truth to tell, this was the first time he had ever used his hammer or his forge.

In seasons past, as in the present, the mountain had been running low on funds. The previous Badger Lord had to sell the entire horde of treasure just to procure enough food and drink for the inhabitants of the mountain. It still wasn’t enough. Half of the Long Patrollers were working more than one job around the mountain to feed their families.

Now, there were only five beasts in the whole mountain. So, no one heard Lord Baxter grunt as his back gave out while bending over. No one was there to help him as he struggled to regain his footpaws in a most undignified manner. No one even noticed that it took every last ounce of will-power to shove the wretched metal into the water to quench it before laying it aside. He would temper it later… much later. Hellgates, he needed a drink.

Last week, the heavens had lit up with an unnatural glare. Lord Baxter had woken from his sleep and looked out the window to see what the disturbance was about. There on the beach, was a huge indentation in the sand, a smoldering rock sticking out. Slick and shiny, the surface of the rock was like no other he’d ever seen.

In the past, there had been only one such other even comparable. Boar the Fighter, that Badger Lord who had gone to his death still slaying beasts. The finest weapon in the world… and for a complete stranger too….

No beasts would write songs or tell tales about the sword in the rack, though. What need did Mossflower have for distant warriors when each village could conscript an army free of charge?

When he was a sergeant, Baxter hadn’t been prepared for the eventualities that would define his future. Even as a badger who’d happened to be an officer, it was still very difficult to gain influence or respect. There had only been one who asked to confide in him, one beast that had respected him. Sergeant Baxter and Sergeant Carter had been inseparable since their first meeting. 

Carter was a gentlebeast’s officer, ready to fight and die not for his ideas, but for wage and board alone. In fact, in all the times that Lord Baxter had known him, Carter would never go out into the field without first collecting his dues. Needless to say, his former comrade had been respected and admired by his fellow Patrollers. 

He had finally tempered the sword, the heat and hammering not quite as intense as before. Still, he ached, and sharpening the blade a further pain. Now, Lord Baxter was preparing the hilt, a simple affair for a fine blade to let the metalwork shine. It was almost ready, the first and last sword that Baxter would ever forge. It was just too much hassle to bother with again.

In the Patrol, Sergeant Baxter had considered himself something of an artist who was skilled in the use of the rapier. Not that it mattered much, since all of the other beasts brought their sabers to practice. Sometimes, the sons of the Badger Lord would come and practice their skills on the Patrol. Even sabers were no match for the gigantic broadswords that the other badgers were wont to use. 

Broken blades and wounded pride were the order of the day in the ranks. The Badger Lord said nothing though. He was too old and infirmed to stand up to his sons. 

So, the ranks were left to grumble amongst themselves. 

It would be a relief if there were any Patrollers left in the mountain these days. Well… there was one left. Five beasts in all of Salamandastron: two cooks, a healer, the Badger Lord himself, and his Major.

The mountain had fallen on hard times. He’d only agreed upon the contract to keep the larders stocked for another season. They had neither the coin nor the time to refuse offers of help from anybeast, no matter his nature or cause.

So, when the knock had come at the mountain doors, his guard had let them in. Their leader had been a most understanding beast, one that could see quite plainly what kind of situation the Badger Lord was in. Everybeast struggled to put bread on their tables, though the mountain faced a graver challenge than most. They’d see what they could do, but first, they needed a favor. 

In his patrolling days, Lord Baxter had accepted that no good deed went without a payment. It could be either deferred or delayed, but somehow the benefactor must get his due. 

One particular afternoon, the old Badger Lord’s sons grew over eager. Brandishing their blades, they not only hacked every single opposing blade to pieces, they wrapped up the pieces in a cloth jacket and tossed them out into the tide. This was more than a minor annoyance.

Every time a blade broke, each Patroller would have to request a new one at the armory. This time, the cruel antics came to a head. 

The Badger Lord had scheduled a practice march on the beach for the following day, and that night, as the sons beat the weaponless Patrollers, was the most agonizing and painful night of their lives. How Sergeant Baxter got any rest that night he never knew. Three Patrollers died of blood loss.

But the old Badger Lord did nothing.

Lord Baxter had just finished sharpening and polishing the blade when a knock sounded on his chamber door. The hilt now attached, the rapier at least resembled a weapon that a soldier might take into battle. Lifting it, he inspected the craftsmanship before he opened the door. Standing there was his Major, ready at attention. 

“Our guest is ready to leave now, sir. He said he’s only waiting on your lordship to bid him farewell.” 

The fox filled out the Long Patrol uniform better than most of the other soldiers that Baxter had known in his service. The way he stood at attention, the air he comported himself with… Here was the last hope of the Long Patrol; an ironic path indeed, considering the creed those Patrollers had lived for generations.

Generations ago… After the beach incident, Carter had come to him with an intriguing proposal. It made a great deal of sense, especially when the otter stopped to explain how this would make Salamandastron better. They had decided to keep the plot between the two of them. In the meanwhile, they kept up the façade of loyalty and obedience to the old Badger Lord. 

Right now, Lord Baxter was sheathing the rapier in the scabbard he had molded for it. Wrapping the length in cloth. He nodded to the Major that he was ready to go. Together, the badger and the fox walked through the lonely halls, the eerie echo of their pawsteps muffled in the dust of seasons past. 

This short-staffed, there had been too many duties required to spare time on clearing away cobwebs, or discarding useless or broken furniture.

Back in the day of the old Badger Lord, the mountain’s halls had buzzed with talk of a revival. He and his sons were to travel to the north, to try to enact a Long Patrol enlistment program. There was great fanfare as they had boarded the ship, ready for its epic journey. How could anybeast refuse the Badger Lord himself when offered a commission?

A few well-placed coins and bottles of wine had ensured a spot loading the ship for Baxter and Carter. When the time came, simply switching a few labels disguised the true nature of the packages. It would be a tragic accident on the high seas. The criers would scream, the haremums would weep, and nobeast would ever know the truth save two. 

In the present, Lord Baxter waited as his Major opened the front door for him. Handing over the cloth bundle, he saluted the fox. His sergeant would take care of it. 

Lord Baxter balked at meeting the client this final time. Their last meeting had been… uncomfortable to say the least. It had been the longest tea of his life that day. The client’s circumstances had been most unusual, and his motivations stranger still. He could at least appreciate some motivations. Carter’s plan, for instance….

The otter’s plan had involved only one thing, the mislabeling of one particular item. A powder was a powder to the naked eye. Was it a common kitchen ingredient, then, or a key accessory to one of the most dangerous new weapons yet devised from across the far seas?

That was where the future lay, though no beast had yet been willing to admit it. There was no profit in domestic projects, anymore. Funds needed to come from abroad. Unless the self-proclaimed ‘lords of the western coasts’ took part, they would be left behind in the rush.

Lord Baxter was now back in the armory, facing the window. The curtains were spread apart, and blowing gently in the breeze. The first things that the badger noticed were the various papers on the table where there had been none before.

He smiled as he walked over to the table and broke the seal on the topmost one. Just reading the headline brought back memories…

There had been a double parade to mark the departure of the old Badger Lord on his recruitment trip. Every Patroller stood at attention in full regalia on the beach, watching the passengers bid Salamandastron farewell. 

Carter and Baxter had cheered louder than the rest when the badgers had finally boarded the ship. Baxter himself handed the old Badger Lord the ceremonial torch with which he was to inspect the ship as it sailed off into the horizon.

Carter had given Baxter a meaningful slap on the back when the ship set its sails and prepared to weigh anchor. They saw the figure of the old Badger Lord waving from the deck of the ship, the torch clasped in one wizened paw.

With a curt nod, he retreated below decks. Inspecting the stores was the great and meaningless ceremony that accompanied many an ocean voyage chartered by the mountain. It was, after all, the right and proper duty of the Lord to determine if anything of value was missing from the supposed manifest.

As Carter and Baxter had calculated so long ago, this involved the physical lifting of lids to check if the labels matched up with the items inside. To protect the mountain, that was all they had ever really wanted. To protect it from decline and decay, any measures had to be taken, no matter how extreme.

In the present, the papers on the table were all trade agreements and contracts to all the known lands. A five season’s deed to grain shipments from Noonvale, a license for five ships from Southsward, mercenary agreements with the Vulpine Imperium and Evankt. For the first time in so long, things were looking up for the Badger Lord.

He replaced the documents, and walked over to the window. There on the beach he could see his Major just standing, rapier at his side.

Approaching him was the client, not hurrying or rushing, but calmly strolling towards the fox.

As Lord Baxter looked out the window, the client had removed his hood, revealing his spiked head. As the exchange took place, the Badger Lord could not help smirking on the grand and bitter irony of it all.

The client had told him many things at that tea, especially interesting was the current state of affairs at Redwall. 

“In a few days,” the client had said, “Redwall will send you a message by sparrow-post. They will require your assistance on removing a threat to their well being.”

“And what threat would that be?” Lord Baxter had inquired.

“Me,” the middle-aged hedgehog had replied with a casual rustle of his graying quills, “I’m the threat.”

To think Carter would consider this beast a threat at all… It had been easier to believe that the former Patroller had dreamed up another plot so ingenious as to avoid detection. That day on the beach as the ship had sailed away…

The beasts assembled on the beach were treated to the greatest fireworks display of their lives. The shrapnel rained down, fires lighting on fur and clothing alike, even as chunks of wood and metal blinded and gored. Carter and Baxter watched from a distance in horrified fascination as their plan came to fruition.

There had only been one badger at the mountain after that.

How different Carter and Baxter’s fortunes had turned out as a result of the incident. Lord Baxter wondered vaguely what exactly that hedgehog – Julian Case thought – he was going to do with the rapier. The hedgehog was looking up at him, and even from this distance, Lord Baxter could feel those eyes. 

This was a beast that had been wronged, who would obtain satisfaction by any means necessary. He hadn’t said much about him, but in a letter from Carter, the otter had instructed Baxter to kill Julian Case on sight.

The letter came three days too late.

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