It was a bright morning in early June, and after his daily rituals, Charles found himself in Prince Phil's office. The irascible rabbit was busying himself over a few papers, the special writing device gripped firmly between his teeth, while the rat waited patiently for a few moments. Only a minute or so later, the great ape Rupert let in a casually dressed fox, and they quickly had his Highness's attention.
"Ah, Misha, Charles, good to see you both here," Phil said after pulling his pen from his lips. "I have an assignment for the two of you."
"What sort of assignment?" Misha asked, his tail wagging slightly beneath the layers of cloth.
Rupert came over and helped Phil spread out a map of Metamor and the surrounding valley affected by the curse. Placing a few round markers on the parchment, he pushed them about with his paws. "I recently have received word that an advance party of Nasoj's forces has been collecting in the ravines northwest of the Keep. They would be well protected by the mountains, and could easily spill out into the valley to strike at our forces unawares. We need to stop them before they get a chance to solidify their position."
Matthias chewed on his stick a moment. "Wouldn't that require a bit more than two people?"
Phil nodded. "We could attack them directly, before they get things organized. But it would be very costly in terms of life. Those ravines are treacherous and provide good defensive cover. I would prefer if we can avoid any actual combat."
"So what do you need us to do?" Misha asked.
Phil placed one of the markers over the ravines, and a second over a small town in the woods nearby. "I need the two of you to go to Avery's Glen. You will spend a week there standing around, and securing the defenses."
Misha smiled, patting his chest proudly. "They'll never know we were there."
"No, I want them to know you two are there."
Charles grimaced incredulously. "What will that accomplish?"
"Both of you will wear the Metamorian seal upon your tunics. The enemy will certainly be scouting out the area. If they see us with a visible presence in Avery's Glen, then they will know that we know about their men in the ravine. It should be enough to force them to pull out."
"But why us?" Charles asked. "Anybody could do that."
Phil rocked his ears a moment. "Because I know you two are good in a fight in case things don't go well. Also, the Lutins know Misha is dangerous, and well, according to the information I received, Nasoj's lieutenant that was sent to oversee this project would know you, Charles."
"Oh?" the rat bit a chunk of wood free.
"Apparently, Nasoj is still bitter about losing that amulet a month back. He's sent Calephas to make sure this plan works."
"That monster?" Misha reflexively grabbed for a weapon.
"He may be a monster, but he's very smart and very cautious. That's why I think this plan will work. If they haven't left in a week, then we'll be forced to move in and destroy them. I have forces standing by ready to do just that as soon as you give the word."
Matthias tapped the parchment near the forest town. "And who do we coordinate with at Glen Avery?"
"I've already sent a dispatch to Lord Avery. He'll be waiting for the both of you. I'm sure you will enjoy the accommodations he will supply."
Misha chuckled. "I've been to the Glen before. Nice place, and nice people. I know the brewer quite well. He can play a mean hand of cards, let me tell you!"
Phil rocked his ears again, but his voice was serious. "Now, no getting drunk on this mission either. I know how you two can get with some good wine!"
Charles chuckled, and nodded his assent to Phil. "Guilty as charged!"
"It was just that one time, honest!" Misha added, his eyes bright and his tail wagging in mirth.
"So, when do we leave?" the rat asked as he scratched at a patch of his brownish fur on his chest.
"I have a carriage waiting for the both of you in the courtyard. Only bring what you can carry on you. It is a five hour ride to the Glen by carriage - I didn't know whether you could ride a horse anymore, Charles - so if you want to make it before nightfall, I suggest you let your loved ones know you will be leaving, collect your gear, and then be off by lunchtime."
"That's in an hour," Misha pointed out.
"I know it is not much time, but that is the best I can do. I only heard of Nasoj's plans this morning. We need to keep the northern forests secure, otherwise the timber crews will likely be massacred by raiding Lutins, and that will destroy quite a bit of our infrastructure. We cannot afford to let this happen."
"We'll take care of it, don't worry," Misha grinned, rising from his seat, his muscles tensed with a bit of excitement.
"You can count on us," Charles assured the hare of white.
Phil smiled as Rupert disappeared into the back room. "I'm glad to hear it, I know the both of you will do a fine job. We'll lick that old wizard yet!"
Rupert returned with a pair of bright blue tunics, with the Metamorian Seal emblazoned across the left breast. One was very large, the other very small. "These are for the two of you to wear while on the trip. I recommend putting them on before you go."
Misha pulled the smaller of the two from Rupert's long arms, and glanced at it speculatively. "It seems a bit small for me," the fox remarked mischievously.
Charles took the larger tunic, held it up to his chest, and watched it dangle on the floor. "I think I'd get lost in this one."
Phil rocked his ears back and forth, and Rupert shook his head in simian delight. "I think you have them mixed up," the rabbit suggested.
The two exchanged tunics and then compared. "Oh my, this is much better!" Charles commented at the more appropriately sized tunic.
Misha wagged his tail some more as he chuckled lightly. "I agree." He then folded it across one arm, and looked back to the Prince of Whales. "I guess we shall see you when we return."
"Good luck to the both of you! I have a feeling that we are in good hands," Phil added as he returned to the piles of papers upon his desk.
"I'll never get caught up with the Writer's Guild at this rate!" Charles lamented whimsically as he made his way towards the door. However, despite his proclamation, he found that he didn't really mind at all.
The carriage only had two seats and a little bit of space for them to lay their meager belongings. The horse leading the carriage moved at a steady trot, long since accustomed to the smell of foxes and rats and other animal creatures. The sun was high in the sky, though mostly behind the freshly budding leaves that rustled in the wind.
All about them, the forest was growing with life. Flowers were bright and blossoming, bushes were rich and full of their green luster, and the mighty trees no longer had empty branches. The air was fresh with the scents of passing deer and other game, as well as the aromas of various plants and the clear flavor of the river streams that flowed from the mountains to the west.
The call of birds was clear in the air, but mostly they just heard the soft clatter of hooves upon the tightly packed earth. The road between Metamor and Avery's Glen was not large, and at times seemed nearly overgrown with vines and weeds. Yet it did appear to be traveled.
And of course, they could hear each other's voices as they spoke. "And that was the last time I participated in a siege," Misha concluded his tale with a breath of relief.
"That's some story. I can see why you don't like sieges!"
"Well, I guess if I was a pig morph it wouldn't be too bad. Pigs like the mud."
Matthias chuckled. "I guess not!"
Misha grinned and then glanced along the foliage overhead. They crossed a small wooden bridge over a gentle brook. There were some carvings scrawled into the woodworking, but only one of which Charles could make out. "The men of Avery fought and fell here against the forces of Nasoj."
Chewing thoughtfully on his stick, the rat asked, "What is Glen Avery like?"
"Well, before the curse it was a lot like Metamor, only much smaller. The Glen was sacked by Nasoj when he came down through here, and most of the buildings were leveled completely. After the curses, they began to rebuild, but found it safer to stay hidden. So a lot of the houses are built right into the trees. Lord Avery lives up in the branches."
"Well, he is a squirrel now, I guess it feels safest to him."
Charles chuckled. "Isn't it interesting how we each have adopted the ways of our animal guises? Most of the rats live in the cellars, and this Avery fellow lives up in the trees."
Misha nodded a bit. "I guess so. It is the price of the curse. But we live with it, and we prosper, and we fight back. That is what is important after all. We are still people."
The carriage jolted a bit after one of the wheels ran over a rock, and Charles fell into the fox's arms. Misha righted him back up again, and the rat brushed the dust from his bright blue tunic. Crossing his paws over the insignia, Charles wavered a moment.
"Out of curiosity, is it true that you and Habakkuk aren't speaking to each other right now?"
"Well, sort of," Charles grimaced, his paws falling back to his sides, his eyes returning to the horse's rear and the road ahead. "We're just avoiding each other for now. I'm sure this will pass."
"Can I ask why?"
"We just got into an argument, that is all."
"Nothing you need to worry about."
Misha shifted about on his seat. "That kind of response only makes me more curious you know."
The rat sat silently for a moment before adding morosely, "It is between him and I."
"Of course, I'm sorry to pry."
Charles smiled and patted the large fox on the back. "It's no problem at all! How is Caroline?"
Misha's tail wagged at the mention of the otter's name. "She is well, not happy that I am going to be gone for a week, but she's been without me for longer than that. The Hardy's are a tough folk and she'll survive. I asked George not to send her anywhere near Avery's Glen while we were there."
"Afraid she'll get into trouble?"
Misha smirked mischievously again. "No, I'm afraid she'll catch me getting into trouble."
Charles laughed at that, a loud hearty sound. "Planning on visiting this brewer friend of yours?"
"Well, you know what Phil said."
Charles nodded, snapping the reins against the horse's flanks. "So what sort of trouble do you think is going to happen?"
Misha grimaced uncomfortably. "I don't think this mission is going to be as easy as Phil says it will be. They never are."
"I can attest to that. You've seen my doublet and hose haven't you?"
"Yes, very attractive."
"Well, that's an unintended result from my last mission for Phil!" Matthias remarked whimsically. "Wouldn't mind if all of my missions ended up in me gaining a pair of nice clothes." He tugged at the bright blue tunic. "So far, the pattern seems to be holding."
Misha erupted into laughter that time, and slapped his thighs with one paw. "Charles, my friend, I think we are going to enjoy ourselves this next week."
The rat grinned as he chewed on the pleasant tasting bountifruit wood that Phil supplied him. "I think you're right."
The sun had passed behind the western mountains by the time they had reached the outskirts of Avery's Glen. Many of the trees in this grove nestled against the mountains were wider than their carriage, and their highest branches threatened to snatch the very stars from the sky. As they neared the edge of the province, they were met by a few guards wearing the symbol of the Glen upon their breasts, a large tree between two towering peaks.
"What are you two ruffians doing at the Glen?" the larger of the two figures asked, a wide-shouldered badger carrying a mace in one paw. The other, a young man of about seventeen stood with a short sword at his side, was trying not to laugh.
"Angus!" Misha chortled in glee. "It is just Charles and I, coming to pay you all a visit. We'll be perfect ruffians, never fear!"
Angus beamed at that, hung the mace from his buckler, and patted the horse on the flank as he approached. "It's been a few months since we've seen you up this way."
"I've had trouble getting away from the chaos," Misha admitted blandly.
Charles chuckled a moment. "The chaos? I think you cause most of the chaos!"
Angus laughed, as did the human. "So you know him too then?" The badger held out his black furred paw and grinned. "I'm Angus, and this is Shelly."
"Charles, pleased to meet the both of you." The rat extended his paw and shook with both of them, already feeling welcomed in this place.
"Okay, they're safe!" Shelly called out in a light baritone. Suddenly, from the branches over head appeared four more figures, each bearing crossbows or long bows.
Charles stared at them a moment, and then smiled. "I didn't even see them."
Angus nodded, ruffling the white diamond of fur on his head with one paw. "You're not suppose to see them. That's the whole point."
Misha then interrupted, his voice losing the whimsical quality. "Unfortunately we are here on orders."
The badger nodded, as Shelly took the reins in his hands. "I know. Lord Avery told us to expect you. Shelly will take care of your horse if the two of you will follow me."
Charles grabbed his knapsack, and slung it over one shoulder as he stepped off the carriage. It was good to stretch his legs after the long journey. His toe claws dug into the earth and pine needles a moment, and then he followed after their burly companion. The road continued onward, and they followed it as it past through a few sloping hills till they came upon a cluster of small openings. Charles's first view of Glen Avery was that. All about were small huts built out of the very trees, some of them up in the branches themselves. Small garden beds occupied most of the cleared fields, though there was a small herd of sheep gathered down by the nearby lake. The lake was fed by a stream flowing down from the mountains, and emptied into one of the tributaries that would eventually flow into the Metamor River.
Angus headed towards one side of the clearing, and motioned for Charles to follow. Misha was quick on the badger's heels of course, since he knew where to go. The rat however was new to this place, and could not help but watch the little children playing, and some of the bigger kids fighting with sticks and staves. There was even a pair of rather small squirrels joining in the fun. It took Charles a moment to realize that they were not small, but that they were children!
After catching up with the badger and the fox, Charles looked to see where they were headed. All he could see was a dark cluster of the large trees. "So where is Lord Avery?"
Angus grinned and pointed upwards, even as a rope ladder fell from above. Charles stared up and to his surprise saw a large building constructed right out of the branches. It was not ostentatious in the least, but it was higher than any other edifice in this little Glen. Misha grabbed the thick hemp and began climbing, chuckling slightly at the way Charles gawked. The rat quickly followed him up, with the badger only a few feet behind.
As Charles climbed inside the building, he quickly looked about, even as Misha helped Angus up through the portal. The first thing he noted was that there was no roof to speak of except for the trees overhead. Also, no torches, only a few lanterns here and there. The scent was rich and ligneous, covered over with animal musks. There was a single door set against the trunk of one of the adjoining trees. Along each wall, there were many narrow windows. Charles could imagine archers standing at each one in times of battle.
Misha and Angus were already at the door, and Charles skittered over to catch up. Angus knocked on the door and called out, "My Lord Avery! The envoys from Metamor Keep are here!"
A chirping pleasant voice called back, "Send them in! Send them in!"
Angus opened the door made from bark, and the three of them passed within the hollowed out core of the tree itself to a small room with a single large table and benches, all seemingly carved from the wood itself. Sitting down at the table was a lightly dressed squirrel. "Ah, Misha! It is good to see you again!" He stood and shook hands with the fox. "And you must be Matthias?"
Charles shook paws with the noble. "Yes, My Lord."
"Excellent, sit down the both of you! You are welcome to stay if you wish, Angus."
The badger shook his head, snuffling slightly. "No thank you, my lord. I must return to my duties."
The squirrel's long fluffy tail twitched as he walked and talked. "All right then, don't get yourself killed."
"I'll try not to, My Lord," Angus chuckled, inclining his head respectfully before giving Misha a mischievous wink. He closed the door as he left.
Avery turned back to face his two guests, and in an almost exasperated tone of voice said, "Please, sit down! My home is your home. You two must have had a long journey. We don't get many visits from the Keep as I'm sure you know."
Charles and Misha sat down at the table. The rat ran his claws over the texture, noting each of the rings of the tree itself. Indeed, it was if the entire room were made from the tree itself. He glanced about and noticed two other doors from the room. One was quite visible, the other was tucked back into an alcove at one side. The Lord of Avery's Glen was busying himself over a metal stove where a delicious fragrance seemed to be flowing. It was probably the only thing that Avery had not made from wood.
"Would you two like some tea? My wife made it this morning."
Misha grinned. "Of course, I've had her tea before."
Charles nodded as well. "I'd love some. I haven't had good tea in quite some time."
The squirrel returned with three cups of hot tea. The rat sniffed it, and found that it smelled almost like sasafras. Taking a small sip, Charles felt his whiskers stand on end, and his eyes brightened up. "That is good tea!"
Lord Avery grinned, his nose wiggling slightly. "Be sure to tell Angela that. She always loves to hear compliments about her tea. Don't inquire too much though, she just might try to teach you the recipe."
Misha chuckled slightly, lapping at his own cup. "I can't see why that would be a problem."
Charles took another drink, and then finally asked. "How did you build this place? I would think that carving this much out of a tree would kill it."
"Burris carved it out for me shortly after the invasion. He was my father's wizard, and is very good with trees. He's even better now. I don't know how he does it, but the trees stay healthy and strong, and my home seems to grow with them. Of course, he can't seem to do anything else quite right. You remember the time we got him drunk at New Year's." He was speaking to Misha, who shook his head in mirth at the mention of that.
"How could I forget that? Lars was pulling his hair out after Burris pecked all those holes in the wine barrel!"
"Who's Lars?" Charles asked.
"The town brewer," Avery replied. "Phil said in his letter that you two aren't to be patronizing his establishment while you are here."
Misha chuckled. "Yes, in case something happens, we're supposed to be sober enough to do something about it. I can't imagine why the rabbit would feel that he'd need to remind us of that."
"Well, there was that one time," Charles prodded the fox slightly, and then the three of them laughed. Charles took another drink of the delicious tea, and then gave Lord Avery a curious glance. "You aren't like most nobles I've met, Lord Avery. I've never seen one get up and serve somebody else like you did."
"Well, my father was killed in the invasion, along with over half the town. I can't afford to be aloof and noble and all that rot. Everybody knows everybody in this town, Charles. I wouldn't change that for anything."
Charles held up his glass and saluted the lord. "Neither would I." He then drank the last of the refreshing concoction and licked his jowls clean. "I suppose we should get to the reason we are here."
"Yes, Phil was not very clear in his letter. He only said that you were coming, and left a few instructions on how to meet your needs."
Misha chimed in then, his paws encircling the earthenware cup. "Do you have a map of the area with you?"
"Of course," Lord Avery said as he reached into a drawer in the table, and pulled out a thick parchment. Unrolling it, he set his cup on one corner while the rat and fox did the same.
Misha leaned over the table and pointed with one claw along the mountain ravines to the west. "As you may already know, our scouts have spotted a significant Lutin buildup in these ravines. Phil wants us to get things ready in case the build up continues. Basically, we're here to be visible and be seen by the Lutins."
"The theory is," Charles added, "if they know we know, then they'll pull out and not risk getting attacked before they're ready."
Avery rubbed his chin thoughtfully with one paw, his cheeks puffing in and out. "We don't have enough men right now to send anybody out into the mountains to scout. Usually Metamor takes care of that. We patrol around the mountains, but not in the mountains. But a few of my men have discovered that Lutins are in the area. What would you like for us to do?"
Charles tapped his mug on the parchment thoughtfully. "We need to make the Lutins think we are preparing for an attack. I think we should inspect your troops and scouts. Also, set up some mock defensive positions."
"And let us make a token gesture to taking out all of their scouts. We only want to get two or three, they need to be able to watch us after all," Misha added. "If you could capture one alive, that would be great."
Lord Avery nodded, taking a sip of his holly tea. "You can begin inspections tomorrow morning. I'll give the orders to my patrolmen." He ruffled his greyish red fur with one paw as he sat there on the wooden bench. His tail danced about behind him for a moment as he looked thoughtfully at the map. "This ravine provides pretty good defensive cover. In fact most of the mountains do! They are just notoriously hard to navigate. Really, the only open places are along the paths into the mountains. So if you have to go in there, be careful."
Before either could add anything else, the door set back in the alcove opened up, and in scrambled another squirrel. Charles peered out it and saw that it led directly out into the forest itself. This other squirrel had climbed the tree like any animal to get inside! "Angela!" Avery called out and got up form his seat.
"I'm back from the blueberry bushes. Oh hello, Misha!"
Misha grinned. "It is good to see you again, Lady Avery."
The female squirrel's attention was drawn to the pot of tea sitting on the iron stove. "How many times do I have to tell you to leave the windows open if you are going to heat up the tea?" She immediately pushed her paws against what seemed solid wood, only to have round portals fold outwards, letting in the forest air.
"Yes dear," Brian Avery inclined his head. "Angela, I'd like you to meet, Charles Matthias, a friend of Misha's."
She smiled at him, and inclined her head daintily. "Good to meet you, Mr. Matthias."
"And you, my Lady," Charles found her quite infectious, and could not help but wiggle his whiskers. "Your tea is quite delicious. Probably the best I've ever had."
She perked up at that, her grey tail darting about behind her. "Why thank you! He told you to say it didn't he?"
Matthias chuckled slightly, inclining his head to the embarrassed lord. "That he did, but I would have said so anyway."
Angela grinned, and gently pinched Lord Avery's furry cheek. "He certainly knows what is good for him, then!"
Brian Avery leaned over and gave his wife a quick hug and then looked back to his two guests. "Do either of you have anything else you need to discuss?"
The fox glanced back at the map, taking one last sip from his tea, and then shook his head. "No, I think that is everything for now."
"Angus agreed to put the two of you up while you were here. He did tell you that, didn't he?"
"No, he never mentioned it," Charles replied.
"Knowing Angus, he probably wanted to surprise you," Angela added while she began cleaning up the mess Brian had made on the stove.
Misha groaned, "I've seen his surprises before. We should definitely be careful!"
"Careful?" Matthias asked incredulously.
"Angus has a dangerous sense of humor at times," Misha remarked as he shook his head. "But I suppose we should leave you two to yourselves."
"Oh, why hurry? Our kids should be coming home soon," Brian pointed out. Angela gave him a steady look, and then Lord Avery promptly changed his mind. "On second thought, that can wait till tomorrow. I shall see you both in the morning."
Charles could not help blushing as he and the fox left the two squirrels alone together in the hollowed out tree. They both climbed down the rope ladder in silence. As soon as they were on the ground again, the rope magically pulled back up into the high branches. "What a remarkable place!"
"The old Avery's Glen was a town like any other. The curse has really improved this place I think. Nothing else quite like it," Misha mused as he began walking over the pine needles and moss. They headed towards a small hillock with an oval shaped doorway hidden behind some brush. "And this here is Angus's place. The door doesn't look trapped, but you never can tell."
Charles chuckled, watchful and on guard as the fox reached out to try the handle.
Contrary to Misha's assurances, nothing but a pleasant home awaited them inside Angus's burrow. Though their host had not yet arrived, a small handwritten note informed them that they were welcome to eat or drink what they pleased, and the beds had been prepared for them. So, as the last embers of the day waned, both Charles and Misha laid down to get their needed rest.
Charles awoke shortly before dawn, and saw that the badger was already up and about. Peering over the lumpy cushions and covers, the rat watched as Agnus whittled away at a piece of wood. As the badger turned it over in his paws, Matthias noticed that there was a definite shape emerging.
"Do you like to carve?" Charles asked, wiping a bit of sleep from one eye.
Agnus looked up from where he sat, and nodded quietly. "It keeps me focused."
Matthias pushed the covers aside, and slid from the mattress to the wooden planks that served as a floor. "I have a friend who likes to carve. His sculptures are quite popular back at the Keep. I haven't seen any carvings here; what do you do with them?"
Agnus set the stick and knife down on the small table, glancing at the restless fox who was turning in his sheets still. "I have kept a few, but I usually carve the rest away when I'm done. It's just something I do when I'm alone."
Charles nodded, stretching a bit. His eyes were drawn to the single lamp in the room. "I notice that you all seem to use lamps here."
"We have to," the badger replied. "Almost everything in Avery's Glen is made from wood or thatch. A torch or candle could cause a fire."
"But you are so close to the mountains."
"We don't have the manpower to mine. What stone we do have comes from trading with the other lands in the Valley."
"But isn't Barnhardt's land just south of here? They are reasonably prosperous; don't they help you out?"
"Lord Barnhardt is not as generous with his goods as some would like. Apparently he and Lord Avery are not on best of terms."
Matthias nodded. "I see. Sorry to hear that."
Agnus smiled, and patted the rat on the back with a thick paw. "Don't be. Most of us here enjoy our way of life. I certainly do." A sudden groaning from behind them made the badger grin even wider. "Sounds like our mutual friend is awake."
Charles turned to see Misha rubbing the back of his head with one paw, ruffling the bright scarlet fur. "Good morning, Misha!"
Misha looked at the rat and glared sullenly. "Charles, do you realize how loud you snore?"
Dressed in their bright blue tunics, emblazed with the seal of Metamor across their chest's, Misha and Charles began their inspection of the Avery troops. Lord Avery himself was there with his men, carrying a small rapier, and standing proud. They were in the most open and visible spot they could find within the Glen.
The troops were not very professional looking, but they were determined, and they were certainly a fine collection of men and a few women. Each proudly displayed the heraldry of Glen Avery upon their breast. Their dedication to duty certainly impressed the rat and fox.
Yet there were only twenty of them, including Lord Avery himself. The inspection proceeded without incident till Charles noticed one particular ferret grumbling discontentedly. "What's wrong?"
The ferret seemed quite aggressive in his mannerisms, something that gave the rat pause. "I don't mean any offense, but I'd rather be out there protecting my home than standing here like a target."
"What's your name?"
"Garigan," the ferret replied. He was a tall figure, slender in build, with black and grey fur. His whiskers twitched as he talked, his whole appearance of one holding something back.
Charles looked to Misha, who nodded after a moment. "Well, Garigan, feel free to go. We're finished for now. Keep your home safe."
"Thank you," Garigan nodded respectfully, and then broke ranks along with the other troops.
Lord Avery approached them, one paw upon the sword hilt at his side. "So, what do you think of them?"
"They look to be very good men. I'd want them on my side," Misha patted the squirrel on the back as his tail wagged.
Charles nodded. "Especially that Garigan fellow. He seems to be very tough."
Brian chuckled. "He's one of our strongest men."
"Really? I've never seen him do much," Misha admitted.
"He usually is sitting up a tree waiting to ambush invading Lutin parties along with most of the others. He gets very surly when he isn't out there."
"I can understand that!" Misha laughed, turning his head slightly, his nose in the air. He blinked a few times, taking a deep breath. "I know that smell! It's delicious!"
Charles sniffed at the air too, and found himself salivating from the rich flavor. The scent of hot fruits and baked bread passed through him, and he turned to see where it was coming from as well. Coming up the path towards them was a plump hedgehog carrying a pie on a platter.
"Ah, Mrs. Levins!" Lord Avery called out in a delighted tone of voice. "We smelled your blackberry pie coming, I figured it was you."
She approached, holding out the delightful treasure to each of them. Her spines twitched in merriment as all three eagerly scooped the delightful crust into their paws. "I heard you had guests Lord Avery, and well, I knew that is would be a special occasion, so I cooked this up as soon as I could! I hope you like it."
"It's delicious!" Misha reiterated as he gulped down a mouthful.
Charles licked a bit of the berry from his nose. "I could eat this all day!"
She smiled, her bright brown eyes glittering in the praise. "Well, I'm making up a few more if you boys want some. Come down anytime!"
"Thank you, Mrs. Levins! This is a real treat!"
"Now don't tell Angela, she'll think I'm trying to fatten you up again," Levins chided the Lord of the land in her bubbly voice.
"She'll find out anyway!" Brian remarked between bites as well, the blackberries already smearing his reddish fur.
"Well, I better hurry back with this before the children find out. I can't have them raiding my kitchen again, now an I?" She smiled, and then waddled off back down the path, humming a little tune. Misha was still licking the last of the crumbs from his paws while Charles was patting his warm belly with one paw.
"I must have that recipe!" Misha declared.
"This wouldn't be the first time you've tried to weasel it out of her, you know!"
Misha licked his jowls again. "I know! She can be a stubborn woman."
Charles chuckled as Mrs. Levins disappeared behind the trees. "Well, I suppose we should inspect the defenses now. We do have a fašade to maintain."
Lord Avery wiped his paws on his trousers, his long tail squirming behind him. "Of course, I'll show you myself!"
For the sake of preserving the illusion, Charles and Misha went about the small hamlet and investigated the rather visible fortifications. Most of them included old city walls that had tumbled during the last conflict, and small watchtowers which were generally unmanned. The real defenses involved a ring of scouts high up in the trees. Armed with an assortment of bows and slings, they were capable of repelling a significant force. According to Misha, they had traps spread about all over the place, and many times he grabbed the rat's shoulder and yanked him from a certain spot to prevent him from springing one of the nefarious devices.
Still, the survey took most of the day, as they had quite a bit of area to cover. As they were heading back towards Lord Avery's treehouse, they heard a gruff voice from behind them. "Lord Avery!"
"What is it?" the squirrel turned about, his bushy tail nearly smacking Charles in the face. The rat and the fox turned about to see Garigan dragging a green-skinned shape behind him. Angus and Shelly were not far behind him, their weapons drawn.
"We found this Lutin snooping about," Angus reported. "We figured we'd bring him to you two."
"He figured," Garigan shot back. "I wanted to end his pathetic life right there."
"Take him to the holding cell," Avery pointed towards the other end of town, and the three guards walked off. Charles watched the ferret dragging the stumbling creature behind him as he chewed upon his stick.
"I suppose we should question the Lutin?" Misha suggested.
Charles shook his head, "Not right now, let's wait a bit." He turned to the lord of the realm. "Just what is your holding cell?"
"It's made out of one of the larger trees, why?" Brian Avery replied.
"Well, he's probably not going to like being here, and I don't think torturing him will do any good."
"I wouldn't stand for it anyway!" Misha declared.
"I didn't think you would," Charles added, nodding to the fox. "But there might be something we could do. You said your mage Burris could reshape wood?"
"Yes, that is his specialty."
"Well, I recommend we leave this Lutin in that cell for a full day, and let the only thing he can smell be one of Mrs. Levins's pies. Nobody feed him anything, either. I want him to be very hungry for this pie tomorrow evening." As Charles unfolded his plan, smiles crept across both Misha and Lord Avery's faces. "We just need Burris to shape the tree so that we can put the pie just out of his reach, but so that nobody else can get at it either."
Avery nodded, "I'll go see what tree Burris is pounding his head into." The squirrel then scampered off down the trail, leaving the rat mystified.
"Pounding his head into?"
Misha chuckled. "Burris is a woodpecker."
Matthias blinked. "Oh!"
Following after Misha, Charles tried to spot the scouts he knew were hiding up in the trees. They were very good, as he did not see a single one. Though the trees were gigantically large, and their boughs could hold homes. Some of them did in fact! How he wished that he could have spent his youth in a place such as this. A desert was fine and all, but there was something almost magical about trees this tall and wide. He would have to climb one tomorrow, just for the sheer joy of it.
"Ah, Angus, I was hoping you'd be here." Misha called out to the black-furred badger.
"I had Shelly take Garigan to Lars's place to cool him down. He was just too cranky to leave him around this thing." Angus jerked his paw over his shoulder pointing at the cell door. The tree was at least twice as wide as Charles was tall, and the single metal door in one side bespoke its purpose. The door was inset into the bark, just over a thick twisting root that acted as a stepping stone.
"So where did you catch him?" Misha asked.
"Towards the mountains a bit. He was hiding pretty well, and nearly got away too, but he ran right into Garigan. We were able to catch up in time to keep him alive. He hasn't said anything except a few curses."
"He didn't seem talkative when you three brought him in."
"Well, our ferret friend taught him that silence means he gets to keep his teeth in his mouth," Angus actually chuckled at that.
Misha looked a bit concerned. "I don't remember him being this violent."
Angus shook his head. "He's just changed."
"Any idea why?" Charles asked suddenly.
Angus shook his head, before his eyes settled on something behind them. They both could hear that sound of pine needles crunching beneath feet. The scent of Lord Avery was strong, as was some sort of fowl. But what made the two of them turn was the alluring aroma of one of Mrs. Levins's blackberry pies!
Brian held the prize aloft, as a red-feathered bird with a long narrow beak accompanied him. Burris had his wings folded over his back, and like all the other bird morphs, he had no arms. His eyes were so large against his face that it made him appear to gawk at everything. "Ah, good, the two of you are here. Burris, I want you to meet Charles Matthias, an envoy from the Keep. You already know Misha Brightleaf."
"It's a pleasure," Burris replied spritely as his head bobbed up and down. Charles returned the pleasantries, and soon the bird was walking about the tree, tapping the bark with his beak almost reflexively. Finally he stopped at one section, lifting one of his legs, and scratching at the wood with his talons. "This will do."
He closed his eyes and began chanting softly, his beak hanging open the entire time. A slight brownish glow began to spread forth from his leg and into the tree itself. The wood shimmered, and pulled back as if to get away from the woodpecker. He held his talons there for a moment more, and then pulled them back, the glow fading.
"Okay, give me the pie." Avery handed it over, and the bird slipped it into the opening. Putting one leg upon the tree again, he chanted softly, and dragged the bark back in place, sealing up the hole, and the pie. Within moments, the entire spell was complete, and only a small slash mark remained to designate that anything had happened at all. Burris stood straight, preened out his tail feathers with his beak, and then breathed deeply. "It is done. One of the more interesting jobs I've had to do, I must confess."
"Thanks for your help, Burris!"
"Anytime, my lord," Burris inclined his head, his beak slicing neatly through the air. "I must be off, duties call!" The woodpecker unfolded his wings, pumped a few times, and was quickly rising in the sky, ducking and weaving between the trees with a graceful ease that astounded the rat.
Lord Avery looked at the three standing there and clapped his paws together. "Well, why don't you three join my wife and I for dinner?"
"Can't, I have to watch this clown till Shelly gets back," the badger pointed at the cell door.
"And you two?" Avery looked at the fox and rat, his tail twitching still.
Charles and Misha looked at each other, before the fox nodded. "Of course, we'd love to." He grinned mischievously. "Angus's cooking could kill a whole legion."
"I thought you said you liked my eggs?" Angus asked, a wry grin on his checkerboard face.
"Just because I didn't upchuck that one batch!" the fox retorted, his tail wagging in merriment.
Angus waved his paws at the fox. "Get out of here, you rascals!" The three of them chuckled as they left the badger to his duties.
One of the things that Metamor Keep did to anybody was irrevocably change their diet. This was clearly evident when they saw what Lady Avery was cooking on her stove. In the large pot was a huge batch of assorted nuts and berries collected from the trees and bushes about town. However, neither Misha nor Charles shied away at the sight, but eagerly dug into their servings when it was presented to them.
"So, when do you intend to question that Lutin?" Lord Avery finally asked as he took a drink of the sassafras tea.
"Tomorrow afternoon probably," Misha said between filling his mouth with the stew.
"By that point he'll be dying for a taste of that pie," Charles added. "I'm sure he'll be willing to answer any question we ask."
"What do you think he'll know?"
Charles shrugged, as did the fox. "Whatever he can tell us will probably be new information. I really don't know."
Lady Angela Avery seemed perturbed by something. "What do you intend to do with this Lutin once you are finished with him?" She was sitting next to her husband as she ate. Her tail skittered to and fro, as did her eyes and ears. Yet she seemed completely at ease with talk of interrogations, prisoners, and battle plans.
Both Misha and Charles looked at each other for a moment. It was obvious that the question had never crossed either of their minds. "I guess we will send him back to the Keep if we can, once we're finished here."
"Either that or we have to kill him," Misha replied glumly.
The rat stuffed a bit more of the nut stew in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. The fresh blueberries were a bit strong against the varieties of nut, but Charles gnawed slowly anyway. "Depending on what he knows, and how cooperative he is, will determine what we do next. We can't just stand around and look important, we need to do something!"
"Charles is right. Phil told us we needed to be visible, but he never told us how to be visible aside from wearing these." Misha tugged on the collar of his tunic with a claw. "Do you have any scouts moving through the mountain areas?"
Lord Avery shook his head. "It is too dangerous, especially when they already have the ravine. We don't have enough men to do a proper search anyway."
Before Charles could add in his say, the back door that led outside to the tree bark exploded inward with two bundles of fur wrestling about the floor. Charles jumped from his seat, the power deep inside his paws, but Misha put a reassuring paw upon his own shoulder. "Christopher, Darien! Will you two stop it!" Angela scolded at the two young boys.
The two figures stood upright, both nodding their furry heads emphatically. "Yes, Mom." Charles stared at the two in shock. They were both young squirrel morphs. There was no way either of them could have reached puberty yet, they were both too child-like.
"We have guests here, where are you manners?" Angela continued scolding her sons in a stern voice which, coming from a squirrel, sounded slightly ridiculous.
The both bowed their heads in shame, their long bushy tails hanging low. "We're sorry."
"Now get cleaned up, dinner is waiting for you," Angela pointed them towards the other door, which Charles presumed led to their rooms. The two dirty squirrels left the room walking slowly, but once their mother's back was turned, they darted after each other, racing wildly along the woody walls.
"Those are your kids?" Charles asked, still a bit stunned.
Lord Avery nodded, a big smile on his muzzle. "Christopher and Darien, my little twin boys. I don't think they ever walk anywhere!"
"How old are they?"
"Only five," Brian remarked. "It seems that they are growing up faster than normal children."
"Too fast!" Angela sighed disconsolately. "Before you know it they will be all grown up."
"I thought all children were born human?"
Misha scooped some more of the stew into his muzzle. "Usually, but sometimes when the parents are cursed in the same way, their children are born with that particular curse."
"Interesting!" Charles said as the two young squirrels scampered back into the room and found their way over to the stove. Their tails twitched as they sniffed at the brewing concoction. They both pushed at each other slightly as they tried to be the closest.
Angela Avery scooted the both of them away, and pointed them towards the table. "Go sit down, I'll have your food ready in a moment!"
Charles wiggled his whiskers as the two children sat down next to him and Misha. "Hello, Misha!" they both chimed, their bright brown eyes twinkling in the lamplight.
"Hello, you two. What mischief have you been up to today?"
As the two children regaled the fox with their misadventures, Charles listened in, smiling at the two precocious youngsters. They didn't seem to have a care in the world, only to play and to frolic. Nobody should ever have to take that away from these two.
As Christopher and Darien were busy filling their mouths, Lord Avery took the time to cut into the conversation. "Okay, I'd like you two to greet Mr. Charles Matthias here. He is our guest too."
"Hello, Mr. Matthias!" both chimed together in an almost sing-song fashion.
"Charles will be fine," the rat said as he grinned from ear to ear. "You two sound like you've had quite a lot of exercise today!"
They both chuckled, but then one, the rat suspected it was Christopher, taunted Charles. "I bet you couldn't keep up with us!"
Charles leaned across the table towards them. "Oh really?"
Misha shook his head, "Charles, don't do it!"
"Yeah," Darien added. "I bet you couldn't even climb our tree!"
Charles smiled slightly, as he finished the last of the stew. "We'll see about that."
The two tried to get up from their seats to rush off, but Angela slapped the table with one paw. "Not tonight you don't! You two need your baths!"
"Aw, mom!" the both whined.
"You finish up your stew and I'll take you down to the lake. And I don't want either of you trying to sneak off again!" Angela wagged her claw in front of the two youngsters, a sight that almost made Charles laugh. It had been so long since he'd been around kids, he'd almost forgotten how much he enjoyed it.
The two little squirrels finished up their meal, and walked as if to the gallows towards the door to the tree bark. Angela followed after them, carrying a small wicker basket. After they said their goodbyes and left, Lord Avery turned back to his guests, and sighed contentedly. "They are such darlings aren't they?"
Charles chuckled. "That they are!"
Misha laughed, and then smiled sadistically at the rat. "You're doomed! Those little ones are going kill you!"
"I can think of worse ways to go," Charles replied as he leaned back to stretch. "Besides, we don't have anything to do till tomorrow afternoon anyway. This will be as good a distraction as any."
"Well when you come crawling back to Angus's place tomorrow night, we'll see who was right," Misha chortled as he shoved the last of the stew in his muzzle and chewed upon the nuts.
"Want to make it a bet?"
"Depends on what we're betting."
"Well, after this is all over, the loser has to buy the winner a drink from your friend, Lars. I definitely want to see his selection."
"You're on!" Misha held ut his paw, and the rat shook it to seal the bet. "That's the easiest drink I've ever had."
"Don't count it too quickly," the rat said as he picked up his chewstick in one paw. "I outran an army of Lutins; what can two kids do that is worse?"
Shortly after noon on the third day, Charles fell onto the makeshift bed that Angus had made for him. Misha was sitting in one corner sharpening his axe blade, while Angus was busying himself over lunch. The rat moaned softly, while Misha looked up briefly to see him drape one arm over his head. The bright blue tunic was torn in three places.
"I guess I'm going to get one of Lars's blackberry wines for free," Misha remarked as he returned to sharpening his axe. Both the fox and the badger tried to suppress a bit of laughter.
Charles just stared at the tree roots above him that crisscrossed the ceiling. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody jump between trees that fast before in my life."
Angus chuckled. "Would you like some soup? That was all Misha could eat when he tried keeping up with those two."
"Hey, I thought we agreed not to mention that!" Misha barked in embarrassment.
The rat chuckled a bit. "Sure; soup sounds great."
Angus ruffled the white diamond atop his forehead with one paw a moment as he surveyed his two guests. He then turned back to the stove while calling out over his shoulder. "Don't you ever believe anything that there fox says about me. The truth is much more humorous."
They both chuckled at that, though Charles was still quite sore. Misha laid down his axe and whetstone and slipped on his bright blue tunic. "Well, I'm going to go and be visible. You should have Mrs. Fowler sew up your shirt when you get the chance. I'll see you sometime this midafternoon at the cell, okay?"
"Yeah sure. Don't forget to bring some of Mrs. Levins's pie," Matthias groaned.
"I'll see if I can get us some of Lady Avery's tea as well. It'll add a nice touch." Misha patted Charles on one shoulder, and then promptly left.
"You really shouldn't have tried keeping up with the Avery boys, you know," the badger admonished as he brought over a bowl of thick smelling soup in a clay bowl.
"Oh, shut up!" Charles grumbled in embarrassment as he took the soup and began to eat.
When Charles did show up later that afternoon at the prison tree, Misha was already there chatting away with the otherwise quiet Shelly. In his arms, the long patrolmen carried the scrumptious pie and the quite aromatic tea. The fox repressed a chuckle as Matthias sorely made his way up to the pair of them. "Feeling any better?"
The rat nodded. "Yeah, I should be fine. How's our guest?"
Shelly shrugged. "Pretty quiet actually. He hasn't said much of anything since we put him here."
"I suppose we are ready to begin, then?"
"Just a moment, hold this. Be careful, it's hot." Misha handed Charles the tea pot, and indeed it was quite warm. Charles held it gingerly in one paw as the fox fished out two cups from his pockets. "Here, take these too." The rat held them in his other paw, clinking them together.
"Shelly?" Misha pointed at the door with his free paw. The guard flipped up the iron bolt, and swung the door inwards. Misha stepped inside the dark interior which was filled with the scent of the pie. Charles followed him in, and then the door swung shut behind them.
"Ah, this is a wonderful spot to have our dinner, don't you think?" Misha asked loudly as he set the pie down upon the floor. The figure of the Lutin crouching in one corner was very clear.
Charles sat down across from the fox, the Lutin always in his sight. "Oh definitely, let me pour you some of this delicious tea."
"I just love this pie, everybody should have some." Then the fox glared at the Lutin. "Would you like some pie?" The Lutin stirred, and then moved closer, a frown etched into his gnarled face. "I bet you are very hungry by now."
"Give me food!" the Lutin growled softly.
Charles shrugged, sipping at his tea. It was a bit lukewarm, but it still tasted quite good. "That depends on how much you cooperate with us."
"What were you doing in the forest?" Misha asked as he licked a bit of the blackberry pie from his claws.
"I was scouting," the creature glumly replied, casting its black eyes to the ground. Charles stared at the figure, noting the way it shook and quivered. It was frightened, that much he could tell.
"For whom and why?" Charles asked.
"Baron Calephas. He wants to take this place. All of you will die at his hands!"
"Oh, you mean that force down in the valley?" Misha took a bite of the pie and licked his chops for effect. "And how are they going to do that?"
The Lutin scooted a little closer, his eye on the food that the fox and rat were sharing. "Once we have enough men in place, we'll sweep out of the valley and crush this village!"
"And then what?"
The creature actually looked surprised at the question. He shook his head meekly. "I don't know that. They didn't tell me that."
Misha patted the rat on the shoulder and looked at the door. Charles nodded and then scooted the half-full pie plate over to the prisoner. "Eat up! You've earned it." As the Lutin dug obliviously into the meal, Charles and Misha collected the cups and tea pot, and knocked on the iron door to be let out. The Lutin never looked up.
Once they were outside, Misha gave Charles a very somber look. Charles shook his head. "I have never seen somebody come clean that fast," the fox pointed out.
"Neither have I. Maybe my plan worked really well?"
The fox wagged his tail abruptly. "No, that's not it. There's something else going on. I don't know what though."
Shelly coughed, catching their attention. "Lord Avery stopped by while you two were in there. He said that if you needed him he would be with Lars."
Misha shook his head. "He's tempting me, I know it!"
Charles chuckled. "You're not the only one!" He then gestured to the cups. "What should we do with these?"
Misha gestured in the direction of the tree house. "Return them to Lady Avery of course. I'm afraid Mrs. Levins will need a new pie plate though."
Lars's brewery was more like a bar than anything else. Situated inside a large cavern in the hills alongside the Glen, it was secure from any attackers, and had multiple exits. Thus, it also ended up being the fall back point in the event of another invasion. The entrances could be completely sealed, and there were several obscured smoke holes that emptied out into the air. If absolutely necessary, there were two weeks worth of provisions for the entire town.
The caves themselves were extensive, though the townsfolk only used the first few levels. The bar itself was quite cleverly built inside the hill just before the caves proper, so it was made of wood and plaster instead of stone. There were several tables and benches, as well as an unlit fireplace. Lanterns hung from the walls, as well as from roots overhead. Barrels of Lars's finest lined half of one wall, while the black bear himself was busily mixing ingredients for another batch.
In many ways, it reminded Charles of the Deaf Mule on a much smaller scale. There were many folk whom he'd seen about the town sitting at the tables and sharing a good drink. The familiar scent of oil and ale permeated the air. Yet there was no pool table or dart board. The familiar figures of Copernicus, Michael, and the rest were not here. Still, the rat knew that this was his sort of establishment the moment he walked in.
Misha pointed to a table in the back where Angus and Garigan were talking. Before either of them could take a step, the badger waved his black paws to them while the ferret just stared placidly at his drink. As they sat down in two of the other chairs, Angus smirked. "If you are looking for Lord Avery, he just left."
"Really?" Misha asked a bit astonished. "Too bad, we just got through with the Lutin."
"He had to go take care of something," Garigan remarked. "Something just came up."
"Oh, what would that be?" Charles asked, his eyes straying to the mugs of ale that the two guards each held.
"He didn't say," the ferret replied in annoyance.
Before anybody else could say anything, a large bear walked up to their table and guffawed as he loomed over them. "Misha Brightleaf! I'd heard you were in town. Why haven't you come to see your old pal, Lars Hasgkenn?"
Misha chortled, stood up, and shook paws with the black bear. "Sorry, I'm on orders not to get drunk for now."
"Oh surely you can have just one!"
Misha sat back down shaking his head. "With you, Lars, just one means a barrel, not a mug!"
The bear laughed at that, and then patted his friend on the shoulder. "Well, in case you change your mind, I'll be over at the bar."
Misha was still shaking his head when the bear left them, his paunch bobbing up and down as he walked. "He never changes!"
Angus chuckled, drinking a bit more. "Nope. I think he wants to see if you'll ever try singing again."
The fox nudged the badger's shoulder in annoyance. "Would you stop talking about those things! You'll ruin my reputation."
Charles tapped his teeth with one claw. "At least Caroline isn't here to hear about it."
"Caroline?" Angus asked, his eyes lighting up with curiosity. "Something you haven't told me, my good friend, Misha?"
Misha grinned, licking his nose slightly. He leaned back in the chair, and put his footpaws on the table. "I'm just a lucky fox!"
Garigan shook his head, stuffing his muzzle down his mug, while Angus stared contemplatively at the fox's pads as the toes twitched. "Lucky, eh?" The badger reached out with one paw and began to tickle at the pads with his claws. Misha jerked his legs back at the touch, nearly falling over backwards in his chair as he did so. "So who is this Caroline?"
Misha leaned forward on the table and glared impishly at his friend. "A lucky otter!"
"Oh my, she's musteline!" Angus elbowed Garigan, but the ferret kept his muzzle in the beer mug.
Before the badger could press Misha for more details, Charles saw Lord Avery come back into the brewery followed by a large moose wearing a chain mail vest as well as a bright blue tunic with the seal of Metamor emblazoned on one breast. It only took them moments to spot the four, and soon they made their way to the table.
"I trust you two know Lance?" the squirrel gestured at the figure beside him.
Charles smiled at the slightly familiar figure who was scratching at the fuzzy velvet covering his small set of antlers. "We've met once or twice, good to see you again. What are you doing here?"
The moose slipped into a seat, blinking a moment to get used to the lighting. "Well, I'm with the timber crews now. The newest member in fact. Well, the Chief thought that I should go with Lord Avery here to meet you two while they bivouacked."
"I take it from your uniform that you have orders to stay?" Misha pointed at the emblem.
"That is what the Chief says," Lance looked over at the bar, and held up one hoof-like hand. "How's the ale here?"
"The best ale you'll find in the Glen!" Angus declared proudly.
"The only ale you'll find in the Glen," Garigan remarked caustically.
Lance chuckled a bit, and then turned about in his chair while Lars stepped up to his side. Paws on both hips, the brewer looked down at the newest patron. "What can I get you?"
"Just a tap of ale, please," the moose asked in a friendly tone.
Lars looked over the fox and rat again. "Are you two sure you don't want anything?"
"Quite sure!" Misha replied, showing great restraint. Charles shook his head as well.
As the black bear turned back to the bar, the rat gave Lance a penetrating gaze. "So why are you here?"
Lance put both of his forehooves on the table. "We're here as backup. Also, Phil gave us orders to help rebuild Glen Avery's fortifications. I don't know all the orders, but I do know that after tonight, we aren't suppose to be drinking either." He said the last even as Lars returned with a mug of bright foaming ale.
"Why after tonight?"
Lance looked a bit embarrassed. "We weren't supposed to arrive till tomorrow, but the Chief said that if we wanted to drink, we had to get here today."
Angus slapped his thigh as he laughed. Even Garigan was chuckling slightly at the moose's embarrassing revelations. Charles shook his head, "I bet Lindsey was leading the pack too."
Lance took a quick sip, the foam sticking to his long dark nose. "Actually, he was wasn't walking too fast."
"Well, we're glad to have you all here, " Lord Avery broke into the conversation, handing the Lance a handkerchief for his nose. "Not sure if we'll need you, but we are glad to have you."
Misha tapped the table with one claw. "It is very possible that we could need you. We just got finished interrogating a Lutin that had been scouting out the area. I've never seen anybody talk that easily. He confirmed everything that we had heard from Phil without any pressure whatsoever. I don't like it."
Angus shook his head. "Who could resist Mrs. Levins's pies?" After the chuckling died down again, the badger continued in a more serious tone. "It sounds like he is either very stupid, or...."
"Or?" Charles prompted after the other trailed off.
"Or he was told to say that and no more if he got caught," Angus finished, rubbing the white diamond of fur on his head with his paw again.
Lord Avery sucked in his breath, and Lance looked quite uncomfortable. "Well," Charles muttered. "If that's the case, then we need to scout around that area. See what their forces are like first hand."
"No, that's too dangerous. We don't have the manpower to risk anybody anyway!" Brian objected.
Misha leaned forward and pointed at the moose. Lance blinked in surprise and pointed at himself questioningly. The fox then looked at the squirrel and waggle his ears. "Well, if the timber crews are here now, then you have plenty of men to go around. Charles and I can do the scouting tomorrow."
"After certain individuals sober up of course," Charles added.
Garigan growled, "What makes you two think that you would be better scouts than our own people? We've lived here a lot longer than you have, and we are much more familiar with the territory."
Charles stared curiously at the ferret while Misha kept his tongue in check. "He didn't mean nothing by it, Garigan," Angus assured his friend. "Would you like me to get you another ale?"
The ferret shook his head, turning away from the others, "No that is all right."
"Besides," the moose added, pointing towards the table, "you'd have to get it away from those two." They each turned and saw two small squirrels accosting Lars from the front of the bar. Lord Avery bolted up in his chair, his large tail slapping Charles in the face. The rat spat out hairs as he ducked away, but the noble did not notice.
"Christopher, Darien!" Brian shouted in his piping voice. "What are you two doing in here?"
The two boys looked like they'd been stabbed. "We were just trying to be big men!" one of them, Darien probably called out. The two then began flexing their nonexistent muscles, causing quite a few patrons to turn away and snicker. "We can do it, Dad, we're old enough!"
"You're not old enough till I say you're old enough," Lord Avery shot back, leaving the table to stand by his children's side. He looked over at the ursine man behind the bar. "Don't give these little rascals anything but milk!'
Lars chuckled. "I had no intention of doing anything but."
"Aw, but Dad!" Christopher whined.
"You two heard me! Don't you be causing any trouble, you hear?"
They both hung their heads, but the glint of mischief was still in their eyes. "Yes, Dad."
"Good, be home in time for supper now." Lord Avery then turned back around and headed back to the table, shaking his head slightly. When he finally met the eyes of the others at the table, their was an ornery glint to them. Charles, who had by now gotten the last of the fur from his mouth, tried to suppress a chuckle.
"So," Lord Avery asked as he sat back in his seat, "what are your plans for tomorrow?"
Misha folded his paws on the table. "Like I said, Charles and I will scout out the ravine to see if anything is going on. Once we have more information, we'll be able to decide what our next move is."
"You'll have to be careful going through that pass, you'll be exposed to them," Angus warned between drinks.
"We'll go in our animal guises through that part. They won't notice that," Charles pointed out.
"And we'll begin rebuilding the fortifications here, or at least make a show of it," Lance added. "I bet the others are almost finished by now. I hope you bartender has enough ale to quench the thirst of fifteen tired timbersmen!"
"Lars? He has enough to satisfy a whole army!" Angus declared with quite a bit of pride.
The remainder of their evening was spent in the company of the timbersman and a few of the Glen folk. Shortly after sunset, Charles and Misha excused themselves from the merrymaking and retired to Angus's home. Even Angus stayed at the brewery into the night. Snuggling up beneath their own covers, they lay there staring up at the roots crawling across the tunneled out roof. The rat could heard the sounds of his companion rolling about on the lumpy mattress.
Taking a deep breath, Matthias spoke out into the darkness, "What do you think we'll find out there tomorrow?"
"A bit nervous?" Misha asked, his voice muffled by the pillow he was lying against.
"Well, as nervous as anybody gets the night before they do something really dangerous."
The fox chuckled as he rolled over again. "I have no idea, which is why we're going out there."
Charles licked the back of his incisors as he lay there. His eyes blinked a few times as they adjusted to the somber blackness. "Was Garigan always this aggressive?"
"The ferret? No, he was a lot calmer when I first met him. I'm sure it's just a matter of growing up. He's still a bit young after all."
Charles rolled over in his bed, his tail curling up next to his hindpaws. His eyes found the circular doorway that led out to the night air. Any moment now Angus would come in quietly and retire to his own bed. Turning back over to face the fox, he said, "Something has been bothering me ever since we got here."
"What is it?"
"Do I really snore?"
Misha rolled away from Matthias, leaving the rat staring at the fox's backside. "Go to sleep, Charles."
Angus had promised to wake them both before dawn, but it was unnecessary. Their night's sleep had been restless and Charles had a bit of trouble turning his head to the right at first. The soreness ebbed after massaging the crick with one paw for a few minutes. Still, the badger held up the lantern while the fox and rat scoured over the map that Lord Avery had supplied them.
Wordlessly, they traced out their path into the mountain ravine. There was something about the morning before battle that leaves the blood cold. The very air held its breath in expectation of the death that would follow. All three felt it, as none of them spoke, for fear their words would carry across the still winds to the very heart of their enemy.
Finally, the rat and fox nodded, folding the map up slowly, lest it crinkle and break the moment. Charles and Misha removed their clothes, each folding them up neatly and placing them upon the beds Angus had provided. Even the metamorphosis from morph to full animal seemed somehow subdued, as if the oppressiveness was choking it.
Once upon all fours, they carefully padded to the door, each looking from one to the other. Matthias was a rather large rat, as he needed to be to keep up with the swift-footed fox. He gnawed momentarily at an itch in his nice bark brown fur before looking up to their host. Angus silently took the handle, and swung wide the door, letting in the morning fog and chill.
As they passed the threshold, they each looked about, sniffing at the air. The village was still and dark, only the lofty branches far overhead dared sway about. All either Charles or Misha could smell was the forest itself; even the scents of Avery's inhabitants were muted. It was as if the entire grove were shrouded with a thick blanket.
The two Keepers gazed momentarily into each other's eyes, and then both nodded, and started off towards the far end of town. The leaves and pine needles crunched softly beneath their paws. Yet neither of them left a print behind. Charles gazed at the many structures as he went. There, into the side of that hill with trees growing up from it was the brewery. Back to his right, high in the tree tops was Lord Avery's home. Between the trees he could catch rippling glimpses of the silvery moon reflected off the surface of the lake. In the far clearing were makeshift tents surrounded by several wagons, where Lance, Michael, and the other timbersman would still be sleeping off their ale.
And then they left all of it behind never even seeing where the guards were hidden up in the trees. They were there though, and that was what was important. The trees quickly became dense, and the ground rougher as outcropping roots snagged at their paws and damp earth muddied their fur. Still, they had a lot of ground to travel before morning. It would be an hour's walk to the mountain pass itself, and then another negotiating the ravine.
They kept a reasonable pace as they went along. Misha continuously loped ahead, stopped, and turned around, licking his jowls as he waited for the rat to catch up. Yet Charles did not feel in the least bit winded at all by this little jaunt. He'd run harder and for far longer than he would have to today.
Still, the forest about them seemed to forebode ill for them both. The gnarled branches seemed to reach out and snag at their fur. The vegetation in many places seemed to be rotting or smelled of the dead. The foliage was tight in many places, so tight in fact that they could not even be sure of their way. Yet they moved on.
It wasn't for some time before they heard the first bird song to announce the new day. It was still very dark down at the base of the trees, and both were following their noses more than their eyesight anyway. However, that gentle melody made both fox and rat stop and stare up into the boughs far above them, and at the purple sky that was just visible beyond the uppermost branches. The fog that had lain over everything had receded, and the oppressive feel was gone. It was as if that single voice had shattered the inevitability of the day, giving it new promise.
Charles and Misha resumed their trek, both feeling more confidant and sure of their eventual success. It was not too much further before the ground became very rocky, and they were both scrambling up and down steep slopes of shifting gravel. As the fox scrambled up one sheer climb, a sheet of slate broke free, and tumbled down the hillside, shattering below into hundreds of fragments. It nearly landed on the rat, who jumped back out of the way and into the branches of a tree that the wind had angled against the hill.
However, they both managed to keep going as they climbed higher and higher into the hills before finally the treeline broke briefly enough for them to get their first good glimpse of the mountains. With the sun rising to their backs, the light made the snow-topped peaks seem almost iridescent. There was a short rise, and then the hill dipped back again down to the base of the western range. The ravine was on the other side, and most easily accessible from the pass between the two nearest peaks. Trees flocked the sides of the base like barnacles, hugging tightly against the rock face as they yearned for the sun's rays.
As his eyes followed the treeline up the cliffs, he could see where they petered out, leaving sheer faces of stone, or as in a few places, small grassy outcroppings. There seemed to be a white smudge on one face of the nearest mountain, and it took Charles's myopic eyes a moment to discern any features. With a bit of a surprise, he recognized them as rams, and let out a tiny squeak of delight. Misha glanced over at the rat, his ears perched inquisitively, but then turned back and began loping up the hillside.
The scent of animal life grew stronger as they passed over the rise and down into the gully and back beneath the cover of the trees. Misha even spotted a rabbit, nearly darting off to chase the fleet-footed lapine, but stopped after only a few feet, and resumed the trek towards the ravine. Charles snickered slightly as he scrambled over the rocks and tree roots. There was something to be said for traveling about in his animal guise, as all of his senses were so attuned to everything about him. True, the colors were quite muted, but still, the overwhelming closeness from the subtle scents and unobvious sounds that he felt was very comforting.
By the time they were clear of the woods again and facing the junction of these two great peaks, the air was filled with the songs of birds, and the cautious movement of the native wildlife. The sky was bright as the sun continued to rise above the Eastern mountains. Misha and Charles chased their shadows as they went, glancing up along the pleasant slopes and gentle inclines. The grass was thick and wet with dew, tickling the rat's paws and belly. Yet, despite the sanguine beauty of the countryside, the pungent taint of Lutins lingered in the air.
Stepping through the bushes, Misha and the rat made their way up through the pass, and found themselves staring out over a narrow valley, thick with treetops and rock piles scattered about. From this vantage point, the Lutin encampment was not visible. They stayed underneath the scant foliage and out of sight as they wormed their way down the sloping hillside, being careful not to cause a clatter by knocking over loose stones or snapping any small branches.
Charles gazed up along either cliff face against the ravine, and saw high plateaus on either side. Crumbling stone and granite lined the walls, with bushes and grasses filling up every exposed nook and cranny. There was a certain almost ancient atmosphere to the land as their paws carried them over the moss and the weeds. They both felt like invaders, spoiling a place that had not been seen by any man for thousands of years. Mushrooms climbed upon the trees in massive folds, while the frogs and lizards chirped as they sat upon those fungal shelves striving for what little sunlight came through the mountain tops.
The hillside quickly leveled off, and soon the scent of their enemies became quite overwhelming. They crouched low in the underbrush as they watched and listened at the air. The sound of harsh voices barking orders and snarling foreign obscenities was clear through the trees. As they approached on silent pads, they began to see the fortifications that were being erected in the heart of the ravine. The treetops gave way in small places, and there, under a green patchwork fabric, Lutins were busy building several long range weapons. Charles and Misha stared in wonder as they saw the impish figures chopping wood, smoothing it out with adze and knife. Ropes were lashed and gears assembled to the makeshift catapult. They could hear the stress of the beams as they bent it backwards into position.
Continuing on further into their camp, they noticed several guards milling about the perimeter, as well as others removing supply bags from wagons as well as sharpening their blades. Tents were erected between the trees, but no banners were flying from any of them. A trail of thin blue smoke was emerging from the top of the largest tent that they could see. Very low humming and chanting came from there as well. The two spies took one look at each other, and both knew that neither wanted to have anything to do with what lay in that tent.
They stayed low, hiding in the bushes and behind trees as they wove in and out of the Lutin encampment. As they watched, one of the wagons was led away by a team of slightly unsettled horses along a forest trail leading out the other side of the ravine. After its passage they quickly ran across the opening and continued to circle the series of clearings. The guard on the rear side was next to nonexistent, and they were able to freely move about, noting the number of catapults that were under construction - twelve - as well as the three already finished. By the time they made it back around to the near side of the pass, they had seen almost the entire camp.
Charles pointed with his nose towards one mountainside where trees grew up from the dense rockfall. The two quietly trotted up around to the far side away from the camp, and nestled down in the darkness. Charles started shifting back towards a more human guise, but not going all the way, just enough to make communicating easier. Misha saw what the rat did, and changed likewise.
"What do you think?" Charles whispered beneath his breath, his mostly rodent throat giving him a bit of a lisp.
"They're never going to move those catapults. Those are for defense only," Misha mused, looking over the rocks, scratching at a bit of lichen with one claw. "Come to think of it, I didn't see much in the way of a fighting force there yet."
"And they certainly don't look like they are about ready to leave. It looks like they plan to stay here a while."
"I didn't see or smell a cook though," the fox pointed out. "They need to have foodstuffs with them; they can't depend on their supply lines for every meal."
"Did you see any sign of Calephas?" Charles asked.
Misha shook his head once, his yellow eyes narrowing. "No, which leads me to believe that not all here is as it seems. He's probably waiting in the vanguard for this area to be secured before moving in. However, they don't need fifteen catapults to secure this area. Five would be sufficient, as long as they had a good number of troops to protect them."
"That is odd," Charles agreed. "If we want to attack them, we'll have to move quickly. It won't take them long to get the rest of those finished, a few days at best."
The fox nodded, but glared out at the forest below. "Still, there is something about this whole set up which doesn't seem right to me. I just can't put my paw on what."
Charles rubbed his paws together, wishing that he had a chewstick with him; his teeth ached horribly! "So, do you want to head back?"
Misha was gazing out at the far mountain, looking up and down the cliff face to the high plateau. "I suppose so. I don't think there's anything else for us to see." He started to turn away, and then his head snapped back, eyes peering at the edge of the cliff, blinking in disbelief.
"What is it?" Charles asked, staring at the blurry lines. Before he'd become a rat, his vision had been perfect, but ever since, great distances were just a mesh of colors and shapes.
Misha kept staring for a moment. Finally he hung his head in disgust. "I thought I saw something up there."
"It was probably a ram, there was a whole flock of them on the other face."
The fox nodded, but didn't sound convinced. "That's probably what it was."
Charles looked at the imposing cliff walls, and then licked his lips together. "Do you want to investigate?"
The fox shook his head. "We'll be horribly exposed if we try to climb those peaks. No, it's better if we return back for today." Misha suddenly ducked low at the sound of a stone falling down, cracking against the rocks. They both wordlessly shifted back to their animal guises, even as the scent of a Lutin hit them. Charles slipped in among the rocks, while Misha stood over him, looking back and forth at the ends of the pile.
Suddenly up over the rise appeared one of the Lutin guards. Misha looked up at the figure impassively, his body alert, and tail upright. The Lutin picked up a rock, and threw it at the vulpine. Misha jumped back out of the way, the stone clattering against the cliff face and bouncing away. The creature picked up another and cast it after the first, but Misha began to lope around the rocks and towards the forest, getting out of sight. The Lutin grumbled something inaudible, and then sat down right on top of the rock Charles was hiding under.
The rat watched as the green-skinned legs hung freely before him. He couldn't see much else, and most certainly not where his friend had run off to. He waited a few moments, trying to catch his breath and to calm himself. Matthias hoped that the Lutin would leave if he waited long enough, but several minutes ticked by, and still the legs were there. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Charles darted out from under the rock, his body close to the ground.
However, the Lutin was not as slow as he'd hoped, and he felt its dirty hands grasp his tail and yank him backwards.
"Good rat! You will make me a nice dinner," the Lutin muttered, licking his lips and small tusks. Charles stared back at those red eyes filled with avarice, and hissed angrily. The Lutin shook him slightly, and act that completely disoriented him. Before he was able to even regain his bearings, he found himself stuffed into a foul smelling sack, and the drawstring was pulled taut. He tried to bite into the leather, but found not only was it tanned well, but it tasted horrible and of rotting flesh. Obviously he wasn't the first animal to find his way into this sack.
Charles's next instinct was to just return to normal morph size, but quickly decided against that, since he didn't want to give away his presence. As long as the Lutin thought of him as a normal rat, there was no harm done. However, if he didn't get out of this sack fast, he might not have a choice. He was going to sleep in Angus's home tonight, not this beast's stomach!
However, he soon discovered that the Lutin was walking back towards the camp as the sack bounced to and fro, making the rat a bit ill. He tried to clear his thoughts, but they were terribly jumbled with the tight, confining darkness, and the foul stench that inhabited it. Charles found only one solace, one place of refuge in his predicament. Focusing his mind and his strength, he let himself dwell in the power of the Sondeck within him. Soon, all distractions were gone, and his thoughts were clear once more.
It did not take him too long to claw a small hole in the sack. From the sounds about him, he could tell that they were already in the Lutin camp. His fur stood on end at the shrill tones. Still, he was part of the Sondeck, and nothing could touch him now. He pushed himself out from the sack, and landed with a small squeal on the hard ground. The Lutin turned about and saw his meal scurrying into the bushes, and shouted in anger. The other Lutins laughed at their fellow's antics as he stomped and ripped apart the underbrush to find Charles.
Yet Matthias was already long since gone. He had not stopped moving since he'd fallen from the pouch, and had scrambled all the way back up to the outcropping of rocks where he'd been caught. He sniffed about in the air, standing on his hind legs, and then turned about at the sound of crunching leaves. A familiar vermilion fox emerged from the bushes and came over to his friend, his yellow eyes concerned. Charles pawed at Misha's nose, while the vulpine gave the rat a long lick with his tongue.
The two stared at each other for another moment, gazed back towards the encampment, and then scurried off towards the pass, ducking and weaving through the bushes and the brambles till they once again left the ravine behind. Metamor Valley stood dazzling in the midmorning daylight, with birds flying through the tops of the trees and far overhead. In the far off distance, the tallest peak of the Keep, Channing's Tower, could just barely be seen above the hills and the treetops. There, two ladies waited for the return of their men.
Staring back down the hill, each let out a sigh and began the trek back towards Glen Avery.
The scouts and timbersmen had started up a little entertainment for themselves late that afternoon. While Misha was discussing affairs with Lord Avery, Charles sat out on the clearing with the others. His vest was still scratched up, but he planned to take care of that soon. For now he was content to watch his fellow Keepers beat each other with sticks in mock combat.
He sat between Lance and Michael, the latter of which was furiously gnawing away at a piece of bark. In the center Angus and Lindsey were knocking each other around. Angus was lighter, surprisingly for a badger, and was darting in and out, while Lindsey continuously assailed him with a mix of overhead and underhand blows. While they were only sticks, they still could hurt. A few of the participants were nursing cuts and bruises.
Finally Angus managed to put his stick right in the center of Lindsey's chest. "You're dead!" The badger crowed to the cheers of the other Glen scouts.
Lindsey looked at the staff pointed right at his heart, and then dropped his own stick and laughed heartily, his red braids flapping up and down. "That was some fight! I bet you could tell some good stories after a few bottles of wine."
Angus grinned, his fangs gleaming in the dappled sunlight. "I'm sure you have quite a collection yourself."
Lindsey grinned with quite a gleam in his eye. "We must share them sometime!"
"Oh, yes, definitely!" Angus smiled as the big man left the ring. The badger's eyes searched the crowd till they landed on the rat. "Charles, care to try your paw?"
Charles shook his head. "I'm not that good with a sword."
"Ah, you are probably better than you think you are, come on, I'd love to spar against you."
Charles grimaced, but Michael and Lance were urging him on. Finally, a bit reluctantly, he stepped into the ring, and wrapped his paws around the large stick that Lindsey had been using. He swung it about experimentally, and quickly realized that it was quite unbalanced for one of his size. "Can I have a shorter staff?"
"Of course!" One of the scouts handed Charles a two-and-a-half foot long stick in place of the four foot monstrosity that he'd been hefting. He swung it about in smooth arcs and then nodded to his opponent. "Ready?" the badger asked.
"Oh yes," Charles stood in a defensive position, holding out the short staff before him.
Angus stood at the ready, watching the rat as he slowly began to circle him, the staff kept close to his chest. Charles began to circle about the badger, throwing him off balance for only a moment. Charles was not quick enough to take advantage of it however, and so the two combatants stared at each other.
Charles was the first to make a thrust, a quick jab towards the badger's exposed front knee. The staff came down immediately, deflecting the strike. Matthias stepped back, breathing slowly, his face calm. Angus moved the tip of his mock-sword in slow circles, mirroring the dance of his paws.
Suddenly the badger made a lightning strike, the tip of his staff slicing across the rat's chest. Charles jumped back, his sword slapping the other one away. The rat did a quick step backwards as well, his mock weapon before him. Angus calmly followed after him, driving the rat in a backwards spiral.
Because he was walking backwards, Charles was not able to see where he was going. Thus when he tripped over the root, and flailed his arms to right his balance, everybody knew that he was finished. Angus lunged in for the kill, but without warning Charles snapped up his staff, breaking the rod that the badger carried in two. Angus stopped while the rat righted himself, staring at the broken shaft in wonder.
However the moment was short-lived, as the badger attacked Charles with a series of quick strokes that put the rat on the defensive again. Even with the broken staff, Angus's superior ability shined clearly as Charles continued to back away, scuttling from side to side, and generally exerting a lot more energy than his opponent.
Finally, the rat dived to one side, and then sprang right back at his opponent, striking from the side with a quick thrust. Angus adroitly deflected the attack with a swing of his remaining staff, but the thrust had been a ruse, as Charles yanked it back just as Angus started to swing, and then stabbed just a bit lower, the tip making the barest contact with the badger's hip.
Angus put one paw over the mock wound, but was not in the least deterred from his fight. His smile was that of a man who knew victory, and sure enough, a few brief seconds later, his sword tip landed squarely on the rat's head. Charles had been unable to get back to his defensive position before the badger's riposte had struck him dead.
"You're dead," Angus announced to the excited crowd.
Charles chuckled and stood up, "At least I tasted some blood."
The badger patted his black fur on his thigh. "That you did! Good fight."
"I want to fence the rat," a combative ferret declared as he drew forth a long staff. Charles watched the way the muscles tenses beneath Garigan's grey fur. He didn't really look to be very strong, but from all the accounts that others had made of him, he was almost without peer in this grove.
Angus stepped aside, returning to his place in the circle. "He's all yours!"
Charles looked back at his friends, noting that almost all the timber crews were rooting for him, while the scouts for Glen Avery were cheering on his opponent. The rat stepped back a bit, trying to catch his breath, even though the ferret still advanced slowly on him. His pinkish nose flared, and his soft brown eyes grew hard. Charles knew that look all too well.
It seemed like time slowed down as the two came closer together in the center of the field. Charles held his small staff out defiantly, letting only the calm of his innermost self stand against Garigan's bubbling ferocity. Each spectator held their breath as they leaned forward.
Then, the first strike came, and it seemed it would be the last. Garigan jabbed his staff at the stationary weapon in Matthias's paws, and broke it at the hilt. The rat negligently dropped the remnants of his weapon, and stood there, while Garigan put his sword tip beneath the rat's muzzle. "Aren't you even going to try?"
The rat looked placidly up into the face of his opponent, noting the confusion that had slipped into his eyes. Then he moved. Charles slipped out from underneath the blade, grabbed both of the ferret's forearms, and pushed forwards, folding them up on eachother with such force that the weapon in Garigan's hands slapped him right between the eyes.
The stunned loser stubbled back a few paces, his paws feeling his forehead where he'd been hit, and then looking at the little rat who'd done it. "How did you do that?"
Charles grinned, picking up the dropped sword. "I distracted you, that's all. Even an unarmed opponent can be a dangerous one. Sometimes they are the most dangerous."
"I bet we can stop you!" He heard two piping voices shout from the treetops. Charles looked up and say Lord Avery's two young boys dangling from the branches, hitting each other with sticks. "We're really good too!" Christopher said as he scrambled on down to the forest floor.
The crowd chuckled at the youngster's antics as they continued to beat each other up with the small sticks. "You two are probably too much for me!" Charles declared as he walked back to his place between Lance and Michael.
"Besides, I need him right now," a new voice added. Charles turned his head and saw Misha and Lord Avery walking up to the group.
"I hate to spoil the fun, but it is time for the patrol change anyway," Lord Avery pointed out. He then looked at his two boys who were furiously trying to hide their sticks. "And would you two stop trying to kill each other! What would your mother say if she saw you out here doing that?"
"Probably, 'Brian, get out here and get your kids!' " Darien remarked, causing most of the crowd to erupt in laughter.
Lord Avery stared at his son for a moment in shock, and then chuckled in merriment. "You're right, that is probably what she'd say." After shaking his head in the delight of the moment, he pointed back towards the treetops of their home. "Now go get washed up, it's nearly supper time." Once again, the two squirrels began a death-march towards the tree, until they were past the eye of their watchful father, when they darted about on all fours, jumping and scampering over each other to get there first. Avery shook his head, chuckling beneath his breath.
As the crowd began to disperse, Charles walked over to the fox who was grinning from ear to ear. "So what is it?"
"I just sent a letter back to Phil, it should arrive later tonight. Hopefully by tomorrow afternoon we'll have some more reinforcements."
"What sort of reinforcements?"
"Well, a contingent of troops hopefully, because we'll need just that much to dislodge those catapults before they get them all built. Also, a dragon."
Misha nodded proudly. "I want to know what is at the top of those plateau's. Burris is a woodpecker, and can't fly that high. A dragon can reach that height though. By tomorrow evening, we can start making our plans of attack."
It wasn't until midmorning of the next day that Charles was able to find the time to visit the Tailor. Misha and Angus were busying themselves with inspections and other military affairs. The timbersman, with the help of Shelly and Garigan, were busy repairing bows and arrows as well as other weapons. Lord Avery was spending some time with his kids and his wife. All of which left the rat with nothing to do.
So, he decided to get around to fixing up his tunic. To his pleasant surprise, the tailor, Walter, lived with Mrs. Levins. So he followed his nose, needing nothing else, till he came to a nice brown thatch hut between the bases of a few trees. The scent of sweet delight filled his nostrils as he drew closer.
When he knocked on the door, he was met by the bubbly hedgehog. She had a bowl filled with batter under one arm, and a spoon in the other. "Oh my, Mr. Matthias! So good to see you. Would you like to try some of my latest batch of cookies?"
Charles grinned, his whiskers twitching. "I would love to have some. Is Walter in?"
She turned about on her little feet, waddling back inside. Charles closed the door behind him, taking stock of the room about him. Unlike many, this one had a real roof with several oaken crossbeams. The front room was dominated by Mrs. Levins's kitchen. Pots and pans hung from the crossbeams of all shapes and sizes. A large pile of coals rested in a bucket in one corner next to the large stove. Resting on a counter top were a small batch of cooked dough that smelled quite enticing.
Mrs. Levins picked up a few of the little treats, and placed them in the rat's paws. "There you go! Do tell me what you think, they are a new recipe."
Charles bit into one of them, and his eye lit up. He chewed the morsel about his mouth for a few moments before swallowing and declaring, "Those are some of the best I've ever tasted!"
Her face puckered up in delight, and her spines shook in merriment. "Oh good. Walter! Somebody's here to see you!"
"Who is it?" a decidedly feminine voice called back. Charles blinked for a moment before mentally kicking himself for not even thinking of that possibility.
"Charles Matthias. He wants to see you."
"Send him back!" Charles heard echo form the back room.
Mrs. Levins turned back to the rat and patted him on the shoulder with one paw. "In you go!"
Charles grinned and followed the narrow hallway back to a room of similar proportions. A moderately sized loom filled one corner, and several rugs were piled along the wall. There were two workbenches that he could see, one of them filled with spools of cloth. At the other sat a tall woman with. Her black hair had been cropped short at the neck, but that was all he could see of her face as she bent down furiously threading a needle in and out of a garment.
"Walter?" Charles asked as he stepped into the room.
"What do you want?"
"I need this tunic repaired. Can you do it?" Charles slipped off the bright blue vest and held it out.
Walter reached out with one slender hand and took thee cloth. She turned about in her chair just enough for him to see one side of her face. There was certainly a striking beauty there, an almost regal countenance. Her long, stiff features carried well. Yet there was a broken malice behind them that made the rat's breath catch in his throat.
She handed it back almost negligently. "Two gold."
"Two gold?" Charles spluttered reflexively.
"Yes. That thread is hard to come by here. I only have a very small supply of it. Metamor may have it in droves, but I don't. Two gold."
Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out what change he had. He was not rich by any means, but neither was he poor. With a monthly stipend of five gold for his work for the Writer's Guild, he was able to pay for most things without much effort. This would be his greatest expense in quite some time.
He plunked the two Gold Crowns upon the edge of the desk. For the first time, Walter seemed surprised, staring at the wealth with her calloused brown eyes. She took them into the palm of her hand and inspected them for a moment, before slipping them into the pockets of her pantaloons.
"You must be wealthy, to spend two gold on a bit of cloth."
"I would have rather spent less," Charles replied, handing over the tunic, "but that was best price I was going to get."
"Oh, you mean you weren't going to try haggling?" she asked in some surprise.
"I thought about it, but figured that you were not the sort who would take well to having her price questioned."
"And what does that mean?" Walter asked as she picked searched through her spools for just the right color cloth.
"It means that I was quite willing to pay your asking price," Charles replied, not liking her hostile tone.
She didn't say anything more then, sitting back down in her chair, and threading her needle with a bright blue piece of string. Charles grabbed one of the other chairs, and sat down in it sideways, as there was no tail hole.
"Fine, make yourself at home. See if I care," Walter blistered as she began working her craft. Before his eyes, the tears and the gashes in his tunic were gradually sealed up.
"How long have you been a Tailor?" Charles asked just to break the silence and to hopefully quell her hostility.
"Since I was ten, my father taught me how to sew and mend clothes, boots, anything that I might need to do." Her hands worked over the cloth with the practiced ease of a master.
"I notice that you've quilted several rugs. May I look at them?" Charles pointed towards the one corner.
"Go ahead," she remarked blandly with a wave of her hand.
Charles walked across the room, his toe-claws clicking against the hardwood floor. Throwing back the rugs, he noted the intricate geometric designs wove into the material. All of them felt warm to the touch. He traced a claw along the patterns, noting how jagged and rough they appeared.
Glancing up at the loom, he could see another rug in work. As he neared the machine, Walter's voice called out, "Don't touch it."
"I'm just looking," Charles replied, holding his paws behind his back. This rug was different from the others. It didn't seem to be comprised of geometric patterns at all. It more looked like a mural or a fresco with people and places depicted in the cloth. Charles could see the foundations of a castle, and a horde of green figures assaulting the walls. Though he had not been there, he knew it was the Battle of Three Gates.
"This is some very beautiful work."
"I'm glad you have a sense of art," she replied caustically.
Charles grimaced, returning to his seat, with a burning desire to slap this woman, or at least something. Still, he resisted the urge, and asked instead, "Is that supposed to commemorate the Battle?"
She nodded after a moment. "After a fashion."
"Were you there?" Charles asked.
She set down the vest, sighing a bit. Walter then turned on the rat, her whole face glaring at him. Charles stared at it and was rather surprised by the untouched beauty that was there. "Yes, I was there. I was helping with the wounded, since I was never good with a sword. Most of the town was helping defend the second gate, as there weren't many of us left after Nasoj's forces crushed the Glen. They all were turned into animals."
"I'd noticed most everybody here had fur or feathers."
"Well now you know why."
"There aren't any age regressed here though. There are a few who've changed sex. Why is that?"
She bit her lip a moment. "There were a few of us that were turned into children at the Battle. Most either died or were hurt too badly to leave the Keep for weeks. Those that did recover, stayed there."
The rat nodded, noting the way her voiced seemed softer, yet still harsh. "Was Mrs. Levins your wife?"
Walter nodded after a moment's pause. "For thirty years."
"You had a child didn't you?"
Her eyes were already growing wet. "Twins."
Charles grimaced. "They were both at the Battle of Three Gates weren't they?" She nodded, biting her knuckles. "I'm sorry," was all he could say. "I'm very sorry."
"It's not your fault," Walter chocked back a sob, trying to move the needle in her quaking hands. The rat put his own paw on her hand to steady it. "Please, I can do it."
Charles shook his head. "Do you ever talk about it?"
"What's there to talk about? They were turned to infants and killed." The tears were beginning to flow, streaking down her long face. She wiped them with the back of her hand, turning away so as not to be seen.
"I'm sorry," Charles muttered beneath his breath, and offering up his prayers for this poor woman.
The sounds of hoofbeats in the distance heralded the arrival of the troops later that afternoon. The august clamour of swords and armor carried through the trees and bushes to their ears long before they actually saw any of them. Charles and Misha were helping Michael and the other timbersmen with their construction when they first heard their approach. The fox's pointed ears twitched as he listened, and then a slight growl of disgust escaped his throat.
"I take it you were expecting something a little less conspicuous?" Charles asked as he scooped out a pile of dirt with his shovel. He then dumped it into the back of a wagon which once full would be carted across town.
"We don't need an army, we needed more scouts like us, and them," Misha gestured towards a few passing Glen's folk.
The rat nodded, watching the pit take shape. "We'll just have to make do, somehow."
Misha grumbled in assent.
Despite all of that though, when the forces finally diud show up, their fears were quickly allieved. It was a full contingent of Metamorian troops, but it was also a ruse. A good portion of them were dressed in full armor and mounted horseback, some even leading supply wagons with enough munitions to last them for weeks. Yet, it was all for show.
"So why are you wearing all of that?" Misha asked as the leader of the troops, a thick-boned mamalute with a nasty scar along one of his jowls.
"Prince Phil's instructions. We were to make as much noise as possible coming here."
Charles gnawed away on one of his chewsticks for a moment. "But you are not going to be wearing it while in combat?"
Captain Nyman shook his head, his floppy ears bouncing back and forth even as he loosened the straps to his vest with one paw. "No. I can't even stand this stuff to tell you the truth. I'd rather be naked then fight cooped up in this can." Even as he spoke, the rest of his men were also removing their armor and stowing it away in the wagons.
"The timbersman have prepared quarters for you and your men while you are staying here," Lord Avery declared. "We will want to discuss strategy up in my dining room later this evening after your dragon makes his rounds. You do have a dragon with you, do you not?"
Nyman nodded, waving to some of the men far in the back. "We had to keep him covered the entire trip, Phil was very specific about that."
The three of them, Charles, Misha, and Brian, all strained their necks gazing back to the approaching wagon. The horses snorted indignantly as they were led forward by the reins past their herdmates and through the thick trees. Finally, the Captain threw back the canvas revealing a small blue dragonnette.
"Gornul!" Charles shouted in joy at seeing his silent friend. The small figure lifted his head upon his serpentine neck and broadcasted an image of a dragon and a rat dancing together in bright sunlight to each of them.
"I'm happy to see you too," the rat declared, petting his friend along the side. "Why did they send you?"
The canine interjected brazenly, "Apparently because he's the smallest dragon at Metamor."
Misha grinned. "Well, as long as he can do the job, he's fine by me."
Gornul seemed quite delighted to hear that.
"Can you see him?" Charles asked as he shielded his eyes with one paw. The afternoon sun was getting low again st the western mountains, and unfortunately, that was exactly where they were trying to watch.
Misha shook his head. "He's definitely over the plateau, I just can't make him out anymore."
"We can see him!" the Avery boys declared from their perch in the trees. The four of them had climbed up into the higher boughs of the forest till they had reached a place where they could watch Gornul comfortably. Of course, to find such a spot, they needed the help of Darien and Christopher - the twin squirrels of unlimited energy and enthusiasm.
Misha leaned back against the tree trunk, resting his head. "I really hope you were right, Charles. It would make our lives that much easier."
"Then I must be wrong; life doesn't work that way. If it got too easy, then we'd get lazy. Now you wouldn't want that would you?" Matthias chided his friend.
"I don't think Caroline would let me be lazy!"
"We won't either!" Christopher boisterously announced. "Your dragon friend is circling lower and flying pretty slowly."
"I don't see anything!" Charles lamented, leaning against another nearby tree trunk. "Next time we do this, we get somebody to build a farseeing device."
Misha chuckled. "That would be very nice. Very expensive too. I couldn't afford one."
"We could always bill it to the Duke, claim it as a necessary expense."
The fox grinned. "That might be a bit excessive you know. I thought only us vulpines were supposed to be crafty and conniving."
"Oh, we rodents have our fair share of those wonderful traits too."
The two squirrel's stared back at their companions. "What are you two talking about?"
They both chuckled. "Oh, nothing important. Just keep an eye on Gornul, please?"
The two squirrels turned their heads back to the distant mountains, and the near invisible speck that hovered over top of the two nearest peaks that nestled the Lutin camp between them. Charles leaned back into the tree, scratching at the thick bark with one claw, and trying to ignore the fact that he could not see the forest floor beneath him. Since becoming a rat, he had necessarily developed a bit of acrophobia, and found himself a bit more comfortable with his feet in the soil instead of the boughs of great oaks.
His companion could sense his unease, and in some way shared it, though not as visibly. Misha was carving into the trunk with a slender knife, whistling slightly as he worked. The branches above and below swayed slightly in the gentle breeze, causing both the fox and rat to graps their perches with one paw, but the two squirrel children did not move, only continued their watchful gaze on the distant horizon.
"What are those?" Darien asked as one of his claws traced in the sky.
Charles and Misha both perred at where the young one pointed, but saw nothing. Christopher scratched his shoulder a moment, and then shouted in surprise. "They're arrows!"
Both the rat and the fox stared at each other in shock, and then strained to see what was happening to poor Gornul atop those cliffs, but again, their sight failed them. Darien hopped back and forth form branch to branch in nevous anticipation. "They're shooting the dragon! He's hurt bad!"
Charles tightened his grip on the tree, wishing that his power could snatch the dragon from the sky and return him to safety. That was his friend up there! "What's going on? Is he going to make it?"
Christopher shook his head. "I can't tell! The sky is just full of arrows!"
Misha put his knife back in the sheath at his side. "I wish I'd been wrong about those cliffs! Gornul, please make it back!"
However, there was nothing any of them could do for the tiny dragonette who was only a haphazardly flying speck in the eyes of Lord Avery's children. In the moments that followed, all any of them could taste was bile in their throats, and the fear in their hearts. Yet, those moments, as long as they were, ended when Darien exclaimed, "He's past the cliffs! He's coming back!"
Charles stood upon his tree branch, nearly losing his balance on one occassion. "How bad is he hurt?"
"I can't tell, he's too far away still. They've stopped shooting arrows at him though," Christopher said as he pointed at the right mountain.
"I think I can see him," Misha mused, pointing towards the sloping forest floor. Charles tried to follow the fox's claw, but it was a few more moments before he was able to make out the flailing blue body against the lush green vegetation.
"He's got four arrows in him," Darien said, a slight tremor in his voice.
Charles could now see his friend clearly, with his small wings spread out, those at least unmarred. Yet with each beat of those wings, his body seemed to shudder as if it was terribly painful for him to do so. Just before he disappeared beneath the foliage, the rat saw several arrows imbedded into the dragon's underbelly, staining those bright blue scales a scarlet red.
Then his friend was gone from sight, and all four of them scrambled down the tree branches, the two squirrels quickly outpacing the two Metamorians. Charles could not remember a single time in his life when he had been more reckless than that climb down. He jumped across branches, snapping numerous twigs that were in his way, and almost deliberately falling past firm paw-holds. However, when he finally landed on the ground, his eyes quickly found Angus and Captain Nyman who were carrying the wounded figure between them as carefully as possible.
Both the rat and the fox dashed over to the group that was gathering about. Misha called out in a loud voice, "Somebody find Burris!" Almost every single free scout went scurrying into the woods about them to find the elusive woodpecker.
Gornul's snout was hanging limply from his neck, his eyes nearly rolled back inside his head. Charles craddled the reptilian muzzle in his paws, and called out the dragon's name weakly. Misha was soon beside them all, as was Lord Avery and his wife, both twitching in anxiety. Then, the dragon blinked twice, and stared weakly up at them all, and then flashed a single image through their mind.
It took Charles a moment to realize what it was, but the image itself he could not forget. It was the exact placement of troops on top of both plateau's beside the ravine. Baron Calephas's clever trap was then clear to him. However, none of that mattered to the rat at that moment, as he leaned in closer, putting his paw gently on the dragon's chest. With a shudder, Gornul slipped back down to the ground, his breath coming slow and ragged, but it was there.
Leaning back on his haunches, Charles breathed a sigh of relief. "I think he's going to be all right!" He turned to face Misha, who did not look quite as convinced. "I sincerely hope he's going to be all right."
The fox patted his friend on the shoulder as a few of the scouts returned with the woodpecker mage in tow. He then grinned, licking his jowls. "I think he will be too."
Lars's brewery was quite full that evening. Lord Avery and several others were sitting about the central table, with the scouts, the timbersmen, and the Metamorian regulars standing about watching their tomorrow planned. Charles leaned over the table, standing in his seat so he could obtain a better view of the map that was spread out before them. Misha and Captain Nyman sat on the opposite side peering downwards. Chief Tathom was idly rubbing one of his horns with a forehoof.
"But what good is this information anyway?" the mamalute asked. "They saw Gornul scouting, why shouldn't they change their plans?"
Misha shook his head. "The way he had his men arrayed, it is obvious to me that the catapults in the ravine were a deliberate ruse. He wanted us to try to take them out first so his archers could line the cliff walls and massacre us both. If he is going to do anything, he'd pull out, and move his forces back to the fall back point. Of course, if he does that, any advantage he had is wasted. No, if I were him I'd leave my men right where they were. What's the name of this mountain again?" Misha pointed at the peak to the right of the ravine.
"That's Nuln. The other mountain is Kalegris," Lord Avery replied. "The plateau on Nuln is very large. Kalegris has one as well, but it is too small to make a defensive position from."
Mattias nodded. "According to Gornul, he didn't have anything but a token force up there either. I think a few of us could retake Mount Kalegris easily. Most of Baron Calephas's army is on top of Mount Nuln. That's where we need to attack."
"But how?" Tathom asked. "The slopes are too treacherous on three sides. They must have the rear guarded."
"Gornul also spotted a wagon coming up along a path from behind the mountain," Misha mused. "It looks like the same wagons that were at the bottom of the ravine. I'd wager that they are shipping supplies back and forth between the ravine, their vanguard back behind the mountain, and the top of Mount Nuln. We might be able to slip in that way. How is Gornul, by the way?"
Lord Avery smiled briefly. "Burris says he's going to be all right, but that he shouldn't fly for another week at least so his muscles can heal." The squirrel then traced out the path along the backside of the mountain. "Still, only a few could sneak aboard the wagons, and even then, only the smallest of us could go. Most of us here are quite large in animal form."
Charles leaned back a moment. "I can do it. We should have at least five or six, but no more."
"I'll go as well," Garigan muttered. "I think I'm the smallest of the Glen scouts as an animal."
They soon had three more volunteers from the Metamorian regulars, and then Lord Avery smiled. "Then we six shall sneak aboard the wagon to reach the top of the cliff. Once there we can move about the camp and wreak all sorts of harm."
"You're coming as well?" Charles asked in surprise.
"Of course! I am a capable fighter, and I will do whatever it takes to keep my family safe." Lord Avery spoke with such conviction that nobody else dared question his decision.
"That still only gets a few of us into the area," Misha pointed out. "Most of his men on the plateau are archers, so they aren't going to be very effective in close combat or if they are in motion. If we try to ascend the rear face, he'll just move his men into position to shoot us as we climb."
"We use to be able to wander about in animal form to get by their sentries, but of late, that tactic has backfired," Nyman mused, scratching between his ears with one forepaw. "They don't take well to animals that aren't supposed to be there."
"What about animals that are already there?" Misha asked. "We did see a flock of rams up on those cliffs. Perhaps they could be useful to us somehow?"
"If there were a way to drive them through the Lutin ranks on the plateau, that could cause quite a bit of commotion. It would give us the time we need to take out their leaders. I'm sure the Lutins would be quite demoralized if Baron Calephas were to die suddenly," Matthias mentioned, pointing at the slopes with one claw.
"But then again, how do we get men up there to drive the sheep?" Nyman asked.
Misha was staring at the map thougtfully, even as voices among the onlooking crowd began to whisper amongst themselves. The fox looked up at Angus who stood just behind him. "Is it true that three of the four faces of Mount Nuln are impossible to climb?"
The badger shook his head. "The ravine face is, but the other three faces are all more or less scalable if you are careful enough. I've never done it myself, since there isn't anything up there worth climbing for."
"Until now that is. But you are saying it is possible?"
"Under cover of the night even?" Misha pressed.
Angus did not look surprised at all. "It would be much harder, but I suppose it would still be possible."
"What are you proposing, Misha?" Lord Avery asked.
"I'll lead another team up along the reverse side of the mountain. We can then make the rams charge while it is still dark, and thus disrupt the camp. If we do a good enough job, and Matthias's team does likewise, we should be able to force them into a retreat down the mountain side where the rest of our troops will lay."
"How do you hope to manage that?" Tathom asked.
"We'll have to convince them that there are a whole lot more of us than there really are. It will be dark, almost any shadow could fool them, as long as we make enough noise. And if the Baron is dead, then they will have no one to rally around."
Charles tapped the map thoughtfully, rubbing the Metamorian seal upon his chest with his other paw. "I think that Calephas will be of more good to us alive. If we can capture him and take him back to Metamor, we stand to gain a good bit of vital information. A man in his position certainly will know a good deal of Nasoj's future plans. Perhaps even enough to help us destroy that wizard."
It took them only a few moments to digest what that could mean for each and everyone of them. Lord Avery was the first to speak, his short whiskers wiggling in delight. "Charles, I think that should be our objective then. Rout the Lutins, and capture Calephas. When do you think we should begin?"
"Tonight," Charles said breathlessly. "The sooner the better. Now, let's just figure out our timetable for everything. We are only going to have one chance, so let's do this right." They each nodded in agreement, and they began to sketch out the exact order of their plan. Nobody, not even Lars, had anything to drink that night.
The first time he had been this way, the sun was still rising in the sky. Now Charles could only see vague shadows of the high peaks as the purplish sky beyond filled with low clouds. The small group he led consited of Garigan, Lord Avery, and two other mustelines as well as one siamese cat. They each scampered along the low hills, moving separately so as not to attract too much attention. Until they had reached the gully before the mountains they had moved as swiftly as possible in their morph forms. Now, stealth was key, and they could not change back till they were on top of the plateau.
Misha, Angus, and the four others accompanying them would already be scaling the far side of the mountain by this time. Captain Nyman would be leading the rest of the troops the long way around to the opposite side of the Mount Nuln to intercept Calephas's troops when they fled. A small contingent of the Avery scouts were watching over the town with a portion of the troops and the timbersmen. Chief Tathom had volunteered to manage that group. Probably because on slopes as steep as these, his hooves did not give him the best of traction. The forces atop Mount Kalegris were too insignificant to worry about; once the rest broke, they would as well.
Staring across the wide hill, Charles noted the way that Lord Avery kept looking back over his shoulder. The liege of this land had left behind a quite worried wife and two children. Charles could see them all now sitting up in their treehouse drinking some of Angela's delicious sassafras tea. She would probably trying to keep the incorrigible youngsters from trying to run out and join their adventurous father in his battle.
The others in their little troop did not seem as concerned. Garigan appeared to be more impatient than anxious. Had they let him lead, they would probably have taken full advantage of the darkness by scampering heedlessly towards the ridge and the ravine that lay beyond. Charles however wanted to proceed with utmost caution. Certainly Calephas would know that they knew at least a part of his plan. Surely he would be expecting them to strike. Though catapults are inaccurate at best, even a glancing blow would kill any one of them should the Lutins attack.
Though each held their breath as they surmounted the pass and gazed down into the dark ravine nestled betwixt the mountainous peaks, not a single shot was fired in their direction. There was a visible sense of relief in each of their eyes. The siamese even had the gall to groom himself for a moment before they continued onwards into the vegetation below.
The pungeunt scent of the Lutins was still in the air, but none of them recoiled from it. Instead, Charles led them deeper into the forest, retracing his steps from a few days ago. The Lutin camp was mostly quiet, though a few bawdy voices could be heard off in the distance. Suddenly, one voice sounded only a few feet away. They each nestled underneath the bushes and grasses, watching as a lone sentry walked by, quietly grumbling something unintelligent to himself. Within moments, he too was gone into the blackness of the night.
They moved cautiously past the array of catapults towards the rear of the encampment. Charles took a momentary glance along the line, noting that at least seven were now complete. There was something odd about the way they were positioned, but he could not see what. As he listened, he saw one of the Lutins break off from the main group and start walking towards them. One of the others shouted after him, "Go tell the Baron we need more ropes!"
With a bit of a shock, they each realized that their ride was already planning to leave. Charles scampered back as quickly as possible towards where he remembered the wagon being stowed. As a rat, he could see very well in the darkness, but still, shadows danced before his eyes, and strange shapes confused him in the swell of tree trunks and bushes. However, despite any of that, they still found the wagon just as the Lutin was climbing onboard.
The rear of the wagon was open, with a bit of tanned hide hanging across the back. Charles jumped and gripped the material with his claws, hefting himself into the empty wagon. The other five followed suit as quickly as possible, though Garigan almost didn't make it as the Lutin started the carriage just as he was jumping. Still, once all six were inside, it soon became obvious that they could only hide directly underneath the seat up front. Crowding up beneath it, Charles found himself stuck facing the skunk's tail, while somebody else's paw was standing on his own scaly tail! However, their subterfuge had been successful, as the Lutin continued on his way, the carriage rumbling through the forest, slowly rising into the hills.
Misha held back his tongue as the sharp rock bit into his pads. Still, he held on, pulling himself further up the cliffside. The night had gone on for so long already, and it appeared as if it would never end. The cliff face disappeared into the blackness above him. Below him, those few who could climb were barely visible. Angus was at the rear of their group, and he was completely indistinguishable against the harsh mountain face.
As he stretched up to the next pawhold, he could feel the absence at his back. Though Misha had intended to bring his axe with him, almost everybody else agreed that it would be a bad idea, and could quite possibly unbalance him in the climb. Still, he missed it terribly! To his surprise, he could not think of any other battle he'd gone into without it! Had he gone by himself, he would have disregarded their words, and brought the axe with him. But, out of respect for his friends whose lives he was fighting for this day, he left it back at Glen Avery.
The fox did not like to think of what would happen if they were spotted climbing the northern slopes of Mount Nuln. They would be easy targets for Lutin archers as they clung to the mountain side like this. The image of them each one by one being shot and then falling the rest of the way to their deaths was not a pleasant one. Yet it kept coming back to him the further and furthe up they went.
All of them were animal morphs of course, and each possessed good night eyes. Anybody else would be contemplating suicide by attempting to climb this peak in the darkness of a summer evening. Still, at times it was next to impossible to even see the pawholds. And even then, as Misha had just discovered, not all of them were even smooth.
Grimacing, he reached up to what seemed a likely canadite. The starry sky was just above that, stretching out behind him and to the northern horizon. Pulling himslef up the next bit, the sky suddenly grew very large indeed, and with a sudden flash in his heart, he realized that he had climbed to the top of Mount Nuln! He fell to the grassy slopes, hugging it tightly between his arms and paws. The sweet smell filled his nostrils, but with it came the foul scent of Lutins.
Sitting back on his haunches, he scanned the area, but saw only a few rams sleeping against the rocks. Smiling to himself, he leaned slightly over the edge to peer down at his companions; he saw each of them climbing as quickly as possible. Biting back a chortle, the fox waited for the rest to join him.
As they bounced along underneath the Lutin driver, Charles noted the way they kept swinging back and forth along the trail. Nuln was too high a peak for there to be a straight path up one side, and so the wagon had to weave back and forth through the trees and the hills. However, soon even those gave way and all that was left was the grasses and the short bushes upon those high hills.
The trip up had taken quite a long time, but they each knew that it was over, and the really dangerous work began when the carriage came to a stop and the sound of Lutin voices could be heard. Charles poked his head up and looked out the front of the wagon. The horse's rear blocked most of his view, but he could see the distant tents and the formation of troops just as Gornul had showed them.
Slipping out the back again and down the animal hide, the six of them circled past the Lutin sentries and quickly found their way into Baron Calephas's encampment. Unlike what Gornul showed him, there were a lot more human troops patrolling the grounds now. It seemed that the pedaster had mobilized his defense in response to the dragonette's spying.
However, they each split off into pairs and made their way among the tents. Charles and Lord Avery poked their heads beneath the fabric to see who was in each, but, as they had expected, it was not till they reached the central tend that they found Baron Calephas. The rat had hoped to find the man asleep so they could quickly dispatch him, but he was walking about a central table in his wool nightrobes talking with another man, this one dressed in a chain hauberk.
"So what do you have to report?" Calephas asked in his light tenor.
The other man shook his hea. "The Keepers have amassed a sizable force at Glen Avery, but they have not yet made a move to attack."
"So we can asusme that the dragon was theirs?"
"I think so."
"It is just as well," the Baron said, tapping the table thoughtfully. "Had we killed it, they would have known that something was up here."
"But they would not have known our defenses then," the other man pointed out.
"True, but these are the Keepers we are talking about. How long do you really think it would have taken them to find out?"
The man shook his head again, yet remained stiff. "I do not know, my lord."
Calephas leaned out over the table, his eyes tracing over what must have been a map. "Have you ever been to Metamor before, Captain? Before the Battle of Three Gates, I mean."
"No, my lord, I've only seen it that one time."
"Well, I was there once; when I was a young man. The people there are proud of their homeland. The city itself was the light of the north for so long. Sometimes I wonder what life there is like now. They still seem to be a proud people, no matter what they look like. They are the kind of people my Father ruled, but there is a fire in them that never existed in my own homeland. I often find myself wondering what I would become should I go there again."
"You better not let Nasoj hear you talk like that," the Captain warned. "He's killed others for such thinking."
"Have no fear of that, my good Ignacy. I am a monster in my own right. My practices have made me a pariah everywhere except with Nasoj. I am not welcome in a place where a third of all men become boys." Calephas turned about, nearly staring right at Charles and Lord Avery as he did so. "Don't tell me you have never wondered about such things yourself?"
"I want money, and I want all the women I can have. Nasoj gives me both. Why should I ever wonder about what those freaks do?" Ignacy spat in disgust.
Calephas chuckled, looking back at the man draped in rings of iron. "Why indeed?" he picked up what appeared to be some sort of pellet and placed it in the man's open palm. "In case things do not go so well for us, eat this. It is our means of escape."
"Don't you have one?"
Calephas flashed another similar pellet. "Of course. Now go back and check on our sentries. No need to let the Keepers sneak up on us."
"Yes, my lord."
And then Captain Ignacy was gone from the tent, leaving the two Keepers alone with the Baron. Charles slipped into the room, as did Lord Avery. He crept under the bedding, and watched the man who he'd already defeated once step back towards the table and gaze at what must have been a map. Suddenly, a deafening crash could be heard outside, as well as the bleating of a herd of ram. Shouts echoed back and forth across the plateau, as well as a few screams as frightened Lutins took one too many steps and plummeted off the cliff towards the ravine far below.
Calephas dashed to the entrance of his tent, gazing out into the chaos that was ensuing as Misha and the others drove the herd throgh the camp. Charles then slipped back out into the open, and returned to his full size, as did Lord Avery. He grabbed the Baron from behind, and yanked him back inside the tent, putting a single paw over the man's mouth, silencing his cry of terror.
"Don't try anything, and I won't kill you," Charles warned him, his body tense with the Sondeck. This man was truly a monster, debasing and corrupting so many boys in his time, just as dead Loriod had done to Father Hough. The image of the child priest crying out at the rat's touch ached him. Francis had recovered now, but those scars still remained upon him, and in the minds of his friends.
Lord Avery grabbed a knife from the table, and lay it across the Baron's throat. "You wanted to hurt my people? I'm not going to let you get away with it."
Charles nodded. "Neither will I. Now I'm going to lift my hand up, and if you scream for help, Lord Avery here will cut your throat. Understand?" The silent man nodded slowly, his eyes unreadable in the lamp light. It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway, since there was so much noise outside, the Baron could have screamed his head off, and nobody would have noticed.
Still, Calephas did not take a chance, and only spoke softly. "What do you want with me?"
"Right now? We want you to tell your troops to surrender. Get up!" Charles grabbed his arm and dragged him to his feet. Lord Avery was not tall enough to keep the knife at his neck, so settled for his stomach. "I can break your arm if you try to get away from me," the rat warned him. "Don't tempt me."
Calephas let himself be led forward and into the chaos about the encampment. The hauberk clad soldiers ran about in the chaos as the rams still charged about madly, with Misha and another Keeper snapping at their heels. Angus had found a mace and was beating in the heads of any Lutin or human who came near. Garigan was tossing weapons off the side of the cliff as well as knocking down any who approached him. So many were already demoralized that they had run down the path along the western slopes of Mount Nuln and right into Captain Nyman's forces.
Suddenly out of the mess ran Captain Ignacy, with an irate badger in close pursuit. "Baron Calephas! We must withdraw!" the man shouted before Angus tackled him, and wrestled him to the ground.
"Keep him alive!" Lord Avery called out. "He might know something."
Ignacy then looked up from his position and saw the two Keepers holding his lord captive. He grabbed for a knife at his side, but Angus knocked it away, pinning his arms behind him. The man cried out from the pain as one of his wrists cracked beneath the badger's paws. Angus yanked off one of the ropes holding the tent down, and tied the man's hands together, and around his neck.
"He's not going anywhere," Angus declared as he rose to his hindpaws. Suddenly he and everybody else was knocked to the ground as the entire plateau shook beneath them. Charles inadvertently let go of Calephas's arm. The Baron got to his feet quickly and ran past them all, popping that pellet into his mouth as he went.
"Stop him!" Lord Avery shouted. Charles was already to his feet and after the fleeing noble though, gaining on him with every step. He pushed the power of the Sondeck through his feet. The last time he had done so he'd been running from this very man. The rat did not take any pleasure in the turnabout.
However, Calephas was not running for the path as Charles had presumed, but for the cliff edge itself. In the darkness, it was hard to see these things sometimes, and with everybody else dashing madly about, it was hard to keep the blurry image of the Baron before him.
Yet just before the man jumped from the precipice, Charles grabbed at his night gown, and pulled backwards. Much to his surprise, the sheet flew backwards revealing a much changed man. Where once was skin now stood bright feathers. The bird continued shrinking even as he plummeted down the cliff, his wings catching the air moments later. Charles stared in shock at his transformed enemy. That had been his escape!
Suddenly, the cliffside rocked again, and this time he saw why. The catapults had been turned to face the southern cliffs, and were even now firing into the rock wall, shaking the very foundation. Charles scampered back to the others till he found Lord Avery, Angus, and Garigan standing over Captain Ignacy. "We need to send Captain Nyman down into the ravine to take out those troops."
Misha ran up behind him with a few bloody ears hanging from a thong of string held in one paw. "Did you catch Baron Clephas?"
Charles shook his head, his whiskers drooping slightly. "No, he flew away." When he turned back around, he saw Garigan bolting off towards the western slopes. "Where is he going?"
"To tell Nyman to destroy those catapults!" Lord Avery shouted even as the ground shook again from the blasts.
"We should get out of here. Is anybody hurt?"
Angus pointed about the field at trampeled Lutins. "They are."
"Then let's catch up with our eager ferret friend!" Charles motioned as Angus and Misha picked up Ignacy. The other Keepers quickly followed after them, taking down the last few remaining Lutins as they went.
By the time they had reached the redezvous, Nyman had already left, and only Garigan and a few other Keepers waited for them. Across his midsection, the ferret had draped a bit of torn cloth, covering his loins. Charles felt a bit embarrassed when he realized that not only himself, but everyone else was completely naked too; but nobody else said anything.
It was not long before the screams began, and the last catapult had been fired. Soon, silence once again filled the night air. Lord Avery led them down into the ravine, where they met up with Captain Nyman, whose men were busily dismantling the last of the catapults. Charles could feel the joy in each of their faces. They were all alive. Not a single one of them had met with death - though quite a few had been injured and needed help to walk from the field of battle - and this terrible scheme that Baron Calephas had launched had failed completely.
The walk back to Glen Avery was filled with merry shouts and good cheer. They all congratulated each other on a job well done, and even playfully harrassed their prisoner on occassion. Charles and Misha were both hugged by so many of the scouts that they lost count! Even though it was early in the next morning, with dawn only an hour or so away, the whole town of Avery's Glen was awake waiting for them to celebrate.
Charles saw each of the faces come out, from Lance, Lindsey, and Michael who had stayed behind to protect these people, to Angela Avery and her two little boys who all rushed up to hug their battle weary father. Matthias watched them holding each other tight, and he felt a bit empty, for the person he most wanted to see was not here now.
Misha noticed it, and felt much the same way, patting his friend on the shoulder. "We'll see them again soon."
"True. I just wish I could see them now." Charles muttered as he watched a few of the scouts take Ignacy away. The rat didn't see where.
Misha nodded himself. "So do I."
Angus was then upon the both of them, Shelley and Garigan by his side. "What are you two doing out here moping? Let's celebrate! You two are heroes of Glen Avery now."
"Besides," Shelley added whimsically, "Lars has declared that the first round of drinks is on the house."
"Now how could you resist that?" Angus laughed loudly, his bright eyes dancing before them.
Charles laughed, "Well, I don't really know!"
"That's because it's impossible, let's go, everybody else seems to be!" Misha pointed to the moving crowd. The brewery looked to be filling up already. Even Lord Avery and his family had disapperead into the bear's cave. The five of them quickly joined the others in the crowded establishment, and squeezed in to be with all their new friends.
Just as they came in, Charles felt somebody grab his arm. "What?" He turned and saw Walter there, the two bright blue tunics with the seal of Metamor emblazoned on the chest in her arms.
"You might want these," she said, her voice quavering slightly.
Charles and Misha took them, and noticed that something was different. On the opposite breast was a new symbol. It was the forest-filled seal of Glen Avery. Charles looked up at the woman, and reached out with his arms and gave her a quick hug. "Thank you, this is beautiful. I am proud to wear this." Misha thanked her as well, and they quickly slipped them on.
Angus nodded his approval. "Glen Avery fits you both."
Walter wiped her eyes with one hand. "Thank you, Charles, for bringing them all back."
"I would die myself before I let harm come to any here," Charles assured her, placing one paw on her shoulder.
She smiled at that and then waved him on. "Go, be with your friends before I make a scene!"
Matthias chuckled, and nodded. "I am with friends." He then smiled, wiggled his whiskers, and moved into the room proper, while Shelley and Garigan went to get drinks for all of them. They stood near Lord Avery and a few of the timbersmen as the crowd continued its boisterous cheering.
Angus suddenly stood upon one of the tables, drink in hand, and shouted out to the crowd. "Down with Nasoj and his men! We showed them never to mess with Glen Avery and Metamor again!"
The crowd responded with more cheers and raised mugs. Charles and Misha did as well, full of the excitement of the moment. "And a toast to our heroes, Misha Brightleaf and Charles Matthias, who risked their lives for us."
"To Misha and Matthias!" the crowd cheered, embarrassing both of them slightly.
"You may have only been here with us a short time, but in my eyes, you will always be of the Glen!" Angus added proudly, spilling a bit of the ale on the white diamond on his head as he held the mazer aloft.
"I am proud to be here with you all," Misha shouted. "You are the best of us all!"
Charles then called out, "There are very few places that I know of that I would call my home. This place is dear enough to me for me to call it a home. I have only met most of you a week ago, but I feel as if I've known you all my life. A toast to Glen Avery and its people!"
"To Glen Avery!" the crowd shouted.
"And to Lord Avery, father, husband, and a man I am proud to call, my lord!" Charles continued.
"To Lord Avery!" they agreed, though Brian did duck his head slightly.
"And to all the people of Metamor, for we are united, and we will stand against any tyrant. For this is our land, and these are our homes. They can take away our bodies, but they cannot take away who we are. To Metamor!" Misha cried out, holding his mazer high in the sky, his body shaking with pride.
"To Metamor!" They each chanted, drinking from their goblets without reservation. Two small cheers joined theirs as Charles noticed Brian Avery letting his two sons, Darien and Christopher, drink from his glass too. The rat could not hold back his soft chuckle as he gazed at all of the friends he had made in his short time here. He had meant what he said before, he could indeed call this a home if he so wished. The last thing he could think of before the cheering commenced again was how much he wanted to bring Lady Kimberly to this place someday.
The celebration lasted well into the next day. Sometime after midmorning, while the amazingly sober Misha was drinking his blackberry wine that Charles had bought him, the rat saw Garigan leave, an odd look across his face.
Charles patted Lance on the shoulder as he extracted himself from his seat. "Excuse me."
The moose shifted about, his hooves clattering on the stone floor. "Of course! Where are you going?"
"To get some air, I'll be back."
Misha looked a bit disappointed as he indicated his wine. "But I haven't finished telling you about how good this tastes!"
Charles laughed. "I'm sure it is wonderful. I'll be back shortly, and you can tell me then."
Outside the cave is was a bright day, with nary a cloud in sight. Birds chirped and sang in the upper branches, and the boughs themselves swayed back and forth in the gentle winds. Charles could see Garigan standing over by the wagons that the troops had come in. The rat called out, "Hello, my friend! What is wrong?"
Garigan waited for the rat to approach before snapping back. "Nothing's wrong. I just want to be alone."
"Why is that?" Charles leaned against the wagon his paws gently stroking a dull breastplate.
"I said I wanted to be alone!" Garigan snarled at him between his teeth.
Charles calmly appraised him, noting the way the ferret tensed with each word. "Do you really want to be mad at me?"
Garigan's glare dropped for a moment, to be replaced by a look of surprise. "What?"
"You don't like being filled with anger all the time do you?"
The ferret turned away, his sinuous body curling against the wagon side. "No, I don't."
"But you cannot help it can you?"
"What do you want?" Garigan asked stormily, turning to face the rat again, his eyes aflame.
"I just want to help you," Charles replied, holding out his hands meekly. "If I told you a way you might be able to control that anger, would you try it?" The greyish figure sighed pensively for a moment, and then nodded. "Good. Now I want you to close your eyes and think about your heart."
"Yes, now close your eyes and do that. Here, hold my paw," Charles held out one paw, and Garigan took it in his own. Charles could feel the tension in that flesh. And he knew that he was almost certainly right about the ferret as well. "Now, close your eyes and think about your heart."
Garigan did so, his face still twisted with the anger he could not keep down. "Okay, now what?"
"Put everything you know in your heart. Take it all, even the anger, and take it with you to your heart. Imagine that your heart is inside a hand. Once you have everything in there, close up that hand. Now mark the hand. You choose the mark. Once you do that, open the hand again, and release everything you put there. Do you understand?"
Garigan nodded, and a look of intense concentration filled his face. Charles watched him, ignoring all else for what seemed several minutes till all of the anger evaporated at once. Garigan opened his eyes, and looked curiously at Charles. "How did you that?"
"Make my anger go away?"
Charles smiled. "You did that, Garigan. What mark did you chose?"
"A sword, why?"
The rat took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. "I know it is true, but I find it very hard to believe that it could happen this far north."
"What? What are you talking about?" The ferret asked in confusion.
Charles picked up the breast plate and handed it to Garigan. "Can you bend that with your hands?"
Garigan laughed derisively. "Nobody could do that!"
The ferret nodded, and bent at the metal, but of course, it did not even warp slightly. Finally, after a few moments of intense exertion, he handed it back to Matthias. "That is some of the strongest metal we have, of course I cannot bend it!"
Charles calmly took the breast plate in his hands, and without so much as a grunt, pulled the ends of the sheet together. The ferret stared at him in complete shock. "How did you do that?"
"Through much practice. I have an inate magical ability to control physical force. In the Southlands, there is a group of mages who spend their lives learning and utilizing this power for the betterment of all society. I was once a member in good standing before I came to Metamor. We were called Sondeckis." It was the first time Charles could remember saying the word aloud in years.
"Yes. And the only reason I have told you any of this is because you possess the Sondeck too. I'd suspected since I met you, but I wasn't sure till you told me that the mark you used was a sword. A Sondecki will always use either a sword or a shield," Matthias replied proudly.
"I'm a mage?"
"No, you are not. You possess a good bit of power, or your anger would not be so great all the time. That is one of the first lessons a yellow learns, to control that anger," Charles added as he tossed aside the ruined breast plate. "You need to be trained by a Sondecki to make proper use of your powers. I would like to take you on as my pupil."
Garigan turned away from him again. "Why should I agree to that? I'll have to leave Glen Avery if I do. You certainly aren't going to stay."
"Yes, you will have to leave. But unless you get control of your power, your anger will grow and grow, till you do something that you will regret. I've shown you one way to contain it, but it won't always work, and you won't always be able to think clearly enough to employ it. Also, if you come with me and train, you will be that much more capable to protect your homeland when you are finished."
"And when will that be, ten years from now?"
"I would only ask that you stay long enough to control the anger. After that, you may leave whenever you choose to go."
The ferret kept his back to Charles, his mind clearly lost in thought. Matthias felt his whiskers standing on end again as he waited. The sun began to poke its way through the foliage overhead, casting a bit of light on the field in which they stood.
"If I go with you, I want to be able to return to the Glen if they are ever attacked."
Charles nodded quickly. "Of course, I would never dream of taking this place from you. And you must promise never to mention any of this to another. Not a word of it. Swear to me you will never speak of it to any but me."
Garigan nodded. "I swear I will never tell another soul." He then dug his hindpaws into the dirt. "But I'm still not sure about the rest. Let me think about it."
"We're going to be leaving as soon as Gornul is ready to travel. Burris said he should be all right tomorrow. So do not take too long."
Garigan nodded, and then walked off into the forest glen. Charles was left alone by the wagons. He looked at the ruined breast plate, picked it up, and then bent it back into shape again. For some reason, he felt he had to do that. Walking back to the bar to be with his friends, he felt happier than he'd had in a long time.
The ferret was not there when they left tomorrow morning. Gornul was lying in the back of the wagon draped in blankets. He slept most of the way. Misha and Charles exchanged stories about all the good times they had while they were there. Charles did not show it, but he took little joy in the trip back.
Nor did he let Phil know of his disappointment when they reported to the lapine upon arriving back, despite the fact that the prisoners they had taken were reportedly eager to talk. When it became known to him that Lady Kimberly was too busy with her own chores to come out to see him, his spirits dimmed even further. His only consolation was that nobody knew they were returning today, so it was probably just that she hadn't heard news of his arrival yet.
When he finally went back to his little hole in the wall after a week of sleeping underneath a tree, he felt as if he'd lost something special. Charles stepped into the room, and was about ready to pull of the special tunic that had been made and improved for him when he noticed something amiss. There was a door in his room.
Charles curiously walked over to it and opened it up, and saw inside another bedroom, this one of larger proportions than he could use. Looking about the dresser, desk, and bed, he saw a closet at the far end that was slightly ajar. Pulling open the door, his eyes beheld the color yellow. Every garment had yellow sewn into them, and all of them were designed for a musteline.
But the one that grabbed his attention the most was a simple robe of purest yellow, with an emblem upon the sleeve. It was of a red shield with a palm inscribed in the center. In the palm was a white sword.
Charles closed the closet without so much as a squeak, then he dashed outside, climbed to the nearest promenade, and stared wide-eyed out across Metamor. Though his sight was not good, he could see the ferret riding through the center of town upon horseback. He felt his claws dig into the stonework, and his heart was filled with joy at the sight. And then somebody touched his back with a gentle paw, and his tail felt the touch of a furry leg.
He turned about and saw the most beautiful face he could have ever envisioned. "Lady Kimberly!" he cried out as he wrapped her up in his arms, hugging her tightly. "Oh I've missed you so! I am so happy to see you!"
"I missed you too!" she replied in her song-like voice. "How was your trip?"
Charles looked back across the promenade and the fields to the solitary figure that was heading towards the castle. "It was amazing. You must come see Avery's Glen sometime. But first, I'd like to introduce you to a new friend of mine that will be staying with me for sometime. His name is Garigan."
"Well, let's go and meet him then," she smiled, her whiskers tickling the rat beneath his chin. Charles hugged her tight against his bright blue tunic that he wore with pride as he walked down the steps leading to the main courtyard, their tails entwined behind them.