Earning His Stripes

by Oberon Snowcat

Chapter I

It was still dark outside when the clock on my desk began to ring at me. I pulled myself out of bed and slowly began to stretch before I got dressed in my full battle gear.

On my back I wore the quiver that I had won in the summer archery contest and crammed it with fifty spear-darts and fifty long arrows.

Once I was sure that I was fully ready for the coming couple of weeks I put on my hooded mottled cloak and headed out into the hall and locked the door. I quickly headed to the mess hall where I grabbed some breakfast and all of the rations that I would need for the next two weeks or so. As soon as I took care of that I made my way to the armoury where I knew that I would meet Misha for my first mission out deep beyond the Giant’s Dike.

When I arrived in the armoury I found Misha looking over a selection of short pole-arms.

He looked up at me asked, “How are you feeling this morning Oberon?”

“I’m feeling ok Misha. Before I got here I grabbed something to eat. I also had to grab some rations.”

“Why don’t you put your pack on the floor? I would like to check it out before we leave.”

I lifted the heavy pack off of my shoulders and set it on the floor along with my enchanted quiver.

Misha looked through my pack’s contents before he said, “You seem to have packed everything.”

“Well Misha I have far too much experience no to know how to pack a long range patrol pack.”

“I see. But do you always have to carry so much? This pack here weighs more than I do.”

“Misha most of the weight of my pack is made up of food. After all I eat a lot more than you do.” I pointed out.

“Good point. Of course you can always hunt for some food you know. Cuts down on the need for trail rations.”

“That may be true Misha, but how plentiful is the large game, which I require, out north of the Giant’s Dike?”

“Very.” The fox answered. “It is a wilderness up there, lots of game.”

“Then perhaps I should leave some of this stuff behind and take a slightly lighter pack.”

Misha shook his head. “Better to be over-prepared till you get a few more missions under your belt.”

“Yes sir.” I picked up the pack and my quiver before I replaced them on my back making sure they were properly settled. I grabbed my monster of a longbow and flipped it over my head. “How do you think I look now?”

“Scary,” Misha answered in a tone of voice that conveyed his honesty. “Just your sheer size will scare most lutins.”

“That is the image that I want to project Misha.” I told him as I adjusted one of the belts in my double baldric. “Are you almost finished looking at that weapon Misha?”

The dark camouflaged fox nodded his head and handed the weapon that he had been examining to me. “This is a fine weapon. In the future I hope that I get a chance to use it at some point.”

“Well this weapon here is a Shedatz War-staff that comes from my homeland. However, I think that I should leave it behind this time. After all don’t you think I have enough weapons with me right now?”

“You do have a lot of weapons Oberon. We’re going on a mission not besieging a city.” Misha answered.

I laughed for a moment before I said, “Well I really like my weapons but if you think that I am carrying too many what do you think I should leave behind? One of my swords, or maybe a couple of my throwing knives?”

“Personally I believe that you don’t need all of those knives. A sword is much more useful then a dozen knives.”

“I only carry eight knives, ten if you count my by-knife and long dagger.”

“The swords, and your projectile weapons are enough really.” Misha said. “There won’t be any real knife work on this mission.”

“Well personally I like to have my options open in a fight.”

“I understand that Oberon, but I prefer to travel light. My bow and axe are all I really need.”

I nodded my head and placed the shedatz on the rack on the wall. “Well let’s’ get going Misha, unless you want to stand around here discussing weapons for the next hour.”

“Fair enough,” the fox answered. “Time enough for chatting when we come back.”

“Yes sir.” I replied as I ensured that my bow was properly strung and ready before I slung it over my shoulder.

At that moment a large silver-black wolf came up to us and looked up to me and gave a low whining bark.

“It seems that your friend wants to come along for the trip.”

“I know what you mean Misha, but you are the one who makes the decisions around here around here.”

Tcukendra turned his head and looked up at Misha and gave another one of his whining barks at the fox. The question in the bark was very easy to understand.

“What do you think?” Misha asked me. “If you want him to come along he can.”

I looked down into Tcukendra’s golden eyes and finally nodded my head and gave him a subtle signal that he could take up a position beside me right heel.

As soon as Tcukendra had taken up his position at my side Misha took the lead on his way out of the Long House.

It was still pitch black outside though on the horizon I could see that it was just beginning to lighten up in an indication that dawn was coming. I was very comfortable with the lack of light because my night vision was superb, though at night my colour vision faded down to not much more than dark and light. As we reached the main gate of the Keep two guards came out of the gatehouse and came up to us.

“Three for patrol,” Misha, said to the senior guard as he came towards us.

The guard looked at Misha for a moment and asked, “Morning Misha. Who do you have going out with you this time?”

“Oberon and a large friend heading out to cause a little mayhem,” the fox explained.

“Good luck Misha, and I hope to see you when you get back here in a couple of weeks.”

Misha grinned to reveal a set of long sharp vulpine teeth. “Thank you.”

I gave one of my more vicious grins that revealed my own impressive set of teeth. “I hope that I can add to my collection of souvenirs when we get back here.”

Misha nodded. “That is a certainty where we are going Oberon. There is an excellent chance that we will end up killing a lot of the enemy out there.”

The guard also nodded and then opened a small door in the gate that let us out down onto the road to Euper.

The three of us made our way down the road. Leaving the Keep behind us as we turned north down the road to Glen Avery.

“From here on we always have to stay alert Oberon. Expect trouble at any time.”

“Yes sir. I know that now is the time when I have to earn my pay.” With that said I shut my mouth and began to pay more attention to my keen senses of sight, smell, and hearing.

The trip went quickly as we moved silently through the farmland north of the Keep towards Glen Avery. Tcukendra left us behind and began scouting out the countryside ahead of us with his nose.

Finally after more than half of the day had gone by we cam upon a tower that was stuck up in a tree, by this time Tcukendra had rejoined us and was walking by my side once more.

“We’re near Glen Avery,” Misha said softly. “That up there is one of their guard stations for the town.”

“Would they be aware that Tcukendra here is from the Keep?”

“No,” Misha answered. “No they wouldn’t, so he needs to remain close to us.”

I nodded my head slightly before I placed my hand gently on the massive wolf’s neck. I looked around the grove of trees that we were entering with a professional warrior’s eyes. “This place is beautiful Misha, but where is everything?”

Misha gave a low chuckle. “You’re looking at the town now,” He said before he stood up in plain sight. “Misha and friends coming for visit.” He announced to several unseen watchers.

I looked around up at the trees and surrounding brush, this time using all of my keen senses. Finally I gave a small grin and pointed to five different places in the trees. “Those trees are where the people that you were talking to are positioned”

He looked at me for a moment, “I am surprised that you were able to spot them at all. They are very good at hiding.” Misha commented. “And it isn’t’ just the hiding places that are in the trees.”

“When I looked this time Misha I didn’t just look with my eyes. I used all of my senses in order to locate them. Any good warrior and scout knows better than to trust just one of their senses when they are looking for anything.”

“I understand that Oberon, but a lot of people have to get used to the enhanced senses of their new animal form.”

“Well I am getting used to my new senses. After all I have had them for the past six months.” I told him before I looked around and asked, “So what now Misha? Are we just going to move on, or are we going to stay here for a short time? Perhaps get something to eat?”

“We’re here to look over the town’s defences, but that won’t take long. We can certainly afford the time for a warm meal.”

“Well it would keep me from having to eat my trail rations until later. I would prefer to put off having to eat them for as long as possible. They taste…well pretty tasteless.”

Misha laughed. “Rations are food for keeping up your health, not for enjoying. But in any case they do have a fine inn here in town.”

“I agree with you there Misha. Even fresh wild game is preferable to these blasted things.” I indicated the pack that I was wearing on my back with a wave of my hand.

“First we meet with the locals and tour the defences. Then we can eat lunch.”

“That sounds good to me.” Though my stomach chose that moment to give a loud grumble to put the lie to what I had just said.

Misha laughed. “This won’t take long. These people are always well prepared here.”

“Yes sir. Now where to first?”

Misha stayed quiet but he led the way through the heart of the strange village.

Every so often I would see a door or a window tucked into the roots of some large tree. In other places I noticed a set of stairs wrapping around the trunks of several other trees. “This is an interesting way to build a town Misha.”

“The town was burnt down so many times that the residents here got tired of rebuilding, so they went underground, and up into the trees.”

“I see.” I commented as I looked around the small town at the unusual architecture.

At that point a stout, tough, looking badger morph walked up to us. “Welcome Misha. Who are these two that you are bringing with you today?”

I looked at the badger and tried to see if I could recall him from my last visit to Glen Avery, but he escaped my memory. I guess that I had been too out of it at that time for even my superb memory to work.

Misha indicated me with a hand. “The tiger is Oberon, the newest member of the Long Scouts. The wolf is also a good friend of ours.”

I held out my large hand and said, “I am honoured sir…”

“Angus.” He introduced himself as he shook my hand. “Any Long Scout is welcome here.”

I smiled at the badger with my body language before Tcukendra looked up at me and gave a small bark that definitely had a questioning tone to it.

“Your little pet here had best not try and eat anyone here,” the badger warned us

“No need to worry Angus, they’ve been living at the Keep since the Yuletide and they know not to eat any Keepers.”

I made my own comment at that point. “Sir I really don’t view Tcukendra here as a pet, he is more of a comrade to me.”

“I don’t care what he is, as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone. If he minds his manners here then he is welcome.”

Tcukendra looked up at the badger morph and gave an affirmative woof before he walked over and cast puppy eyes at the old badger. He reinforced the appearance with a low whine.

Angus laughed before he said to Tcukendra. “Don’t give me the puppy dog eyes. You are welcome here. Any friend of Misha’s is welcome.”

Tcukendra woofed again and inserted his head under the badger’s right hand and whined again.

Angus gave Tcukendra a pet on the top of his domed head. “You’re pretty friendly for a huge killer wolf.” He joked.

I laughed before I said, “He really likes to have his ears scratched. And yes I have seen him in action before, though not against the lutins. It was against a deer, while we were out hunting together a couple of weeks ago.”

“I can believe that he’s a good hunter.” The badger said before he turned to Misha. “You’re here for a reason? Or just a visit?”

I chuckled at the comment about Tcukendra before the large wolf came back over to me and sat down by my heel.

Misha looked at the badger standing in front of us and said, “Just checking the town’s defences as usual Angus. Anything happen around here lately?” Any attacks?”

“We lost some sheep to a gryphon last month, but that always happen this time of year. We were also attacked three times last month. No one was killed but we lost a lot of sheep and Bryan’s barn was burned to the ground.”

I looked at the badger before I asked in a purely professional tone of voice, “Did your attackers leave any signs of who they were?”

“We did see signs of ogres and we found some troll tracks.” Angus answered. “A caravan headed here was ambushed by lutins and trolls two weeks ago.”

“I know about that ambush,” Misha said. “Were you able to find any clues on who they were loyal to? What tribe were they part of?”

“I am sorry Misha but this is the only relic that we managed to find at the ambush site.”

“That’s all?” The fox asked in surprise as he took the medallion from Angus and examined it closely. “This is an interesting emblem.” Misha pronounced when he finished looking at it and handed the object to me.

I looked at the medallion and the emblem on it. The emblem the medallion was of a black star on a field of sickly green enamel with two golden claws holding up dripping red swords. “Are you familiar with this emblem Misha?”

“From what I’ve heard this is the emblem of a one of Nasoj’s remaining generals. From the rumours that I have been hearing he has been organizing things in his sector of the Giantdowns recently. One of our comrades recently overheard a conversation out there where this general was mentioned as increasing his activities.”

I chuckled and gave a particularly nasty grin before I asked, “How about we go pay this misguided general a visit and make him regret his actions, permanently.”

“Sounds like fun,” Misha answered. “His fortress is about two days walk north of the Giant’s Dike.”

“Does this particular general have a name?” Angus asked.

“High General Rakunder Stretnaz,” the fox answered. “A human – whose been in Nasoj’s pay for a very long time.”

“Then he’s a mercenary then, like I used to be.”

Misha shook his head vehemently. “Not like you at all. You have morals Oberon. While that monster of a human has none what-so-ever.”

I growled deep in my chest before I spotted something that bothered me deeply. After a moment of watching the thing that was causing me some concern I moved in a blur of motion as I pulled one of my throwing knives from its sheath on the front of my double baldric and threw it at a large rancid looking black bird that was sitting on a tree branch near our heads. “Misha that bird was looking at us too closely to simply have been curious.”

Misha looked over at the bird, which had fallen from the tree and was making a final, feeble attempt to fly again before it expired with my knife in its breast. “Was that one of your people Angus?’

The badger went over and knelt by the dying bird just as it gave a final shudder and lay still. “No sir, this isn’t anyone that I know from the Glen, or any of the hamlets in this area.”

Misha walked over to where Angus was knelt over the dead bird and looked at it. “That doesn’t look like any species of bird that I’ve ever seen before.” Misha commented. “It’s not a shape-shifter either, or it would’ve changed form when it died.”

I gave nothing more than a cursory glance at the dead thing before I pronounced. “Well I believe that it may have been a spy of some type and I firmly believe that a dead spy is a good thing.”

“Well whatever it was doesn’t matter anymore because it’s dead now,” Misha said. “Just to be safe we had best burn the body.”

“Can I please have my knife back before you do burn it Misha?”

Misha knelt down a pulled my throwing knife from the body of the bird and handed it to me. “Be sure to clean that off.”

I took a small black rag from one of my belt pouches and began to wipe the black blood of the bird from the blade of my weapon. “Misha I am no amateur, I know better than to sheath a bloody blade.” I told him as I finished cleaning off the weapon before returning it to its sheath. “Misha can you see now why I like to carry these handy little knives around?”

“A good bow can do the same thing, but yes those knives are handy. Finbar is good with a knife but he prefers to use it close up.”

I nodded. “As I have already told you before Misha, I like to keep my options open when it comes to my weapons.”

“All right. Let’s not start that argument again.” He replied holding up his hands. “Right now we need to survey the town’s defences. In light of that little airborne spy I would suggest that you move your guard posts and change the patrol schedules Angus.”

The badger nodded in ascent. “That would be a wise precaution Misha, after all who knows what that thing told its masters before Oberon killed it.”

“Now I know that we need to kill this general that has taken up command of Nasoj’s forces in this area. He is far too skilled for us to be secure for any length of time.”

Angus nodded his head. “I would agree with you there Misha. We must do something about this general before he becomes more of a threat to us then he already is.”

Misha grinned a little. “Right now though we should do things in this order. Tour first, lunch second, then after that Oberon and I can go and see what we can do about taking care of this general.” Misha ordered.

As he said that my stomach growled to underline my own need for something to eat.

Misha laughed. “Let’s get this tour started Angus.”

Three quarters an hour later after looking at the town’s north wall and all of the hidden guard posts we returned to where we had first met with Angus and I asked him. “Now where is this inn that Misha has been telling me about?”

“We had best feed him,” Angus joked. “Before he eats us all.”

Misha pointed to a door that was tucked into the roots of a massive tree. Over the door there was a sign with an image of a flying green duck on it. “It is right over there.”

“Let’s hope that they have enough warm meat to fill the cave that I call a stomach. Or at least fill it for a few hours.”

“I’m sure they do,” Misha said as we made our way through the door of the inn and into the warm dry common room. “The food here is great.”

I inhaled and smelled the odours in the air before my tail twitched and I smiled. At that moment I began to salivate at the smells of the food in the room. “I need some food soon, or I will begin to drip saliva on the tables and floor here.”

“Food!” Misha ordered. “Well cooked please. My large feline friends here want his meat just slightly warmed, not cooked. Before he makes a mess on the floor.”

“Misha when I am this hungry I can’t really help it if I salivate a little.”

“We’ll need some wine as well, and a mop and bucket too.” The fox told the waiter.

I rolled my eyes went over to a table in the corner of the common room and removed my gear I sat down on the bench behind the table. All the while my mouth was dripping like a leaky clay pipe.

Five minutes later the waiter that Misha had ordered from returned with two large platter in his arms. For Misha there was a large bowl of stew, full to the brim with lamb chunks and vegetables. For me there was a large platter with a slightly warm full rack of lamb on it. I pulled out my by-knife and cut a large slab of meat away from the rack and began to pull it apart with my large teeth.

Misha dug into his stew, eating the meal with relish. “Delicious as always!”

I finished my first slab of meat. “You’re right Misha this tastes great. What did they do to this meat to make it taste so good?”

Misha shrugged his shoulders and twitched one of his ears. “No telling. A good chef never reveals his secrets.”

“I have got to learn how he, or she managed to season this meat like this.”

The fox shook his head. “Some secrets are never going to be revealed.”

“Maybe I should spend some time at home trying to figure out how to make my food taste like this. Whoever this chef is; he or she has even managed to make what you’re eating smell remotely edible.”

Misha let out a yip of laughter. “I can see you as a chef someday!”

I managed to get the whole rack cleaned of in short order before I began to crack the ribs open with my powerful molars to get at the marrow inside the bones.

Misha ignored my eating as he quickly finished his stew. Once he was finished his meal he lingered over his wine, sipping it slowly, savouring the flavour of it.

I finally finished my meal and took a sip of my wine before I asked, “Well Misha I guess we had better get moving soon?”

“All too true. We have a long trip ahead of us.” The fox answered.

I heaved myself out of my seat and began to put all of my equipment back on before I looked back at the camouflaged fox who was still relaxing in his chair.

“There’s no need to hurry Oberon. I prefer we leave after nightfall. When we have the darkness to keep us unseen.”

I smiled and then said, “In that case I am going to find a tree and take a little nap in its shade. This huge meal that I just ate is making this cat a little sleepy.”

“Stay inside my friend – out of sight of spying eyes.” The fox ordered. “We’ll start out an hour after dark.”

“Well in that case do you know where I can get some rack time?”

“This is an inn.” The fox explained. “They have a few rooms where we could rest. Then after dark we’ll sneak out and head north.”

“Ok sir.” I answered. Before I went over and asked the innkeeper where I could shack up for a few hours.

Several hours later I felt something shaking my shoulder and a voice said.

“Time,” I heard the voice order. “Time to wake up. We’ve got to get going.”

I opened my eyes and looked up into the green eyes of my commander and said, “Give me a few minutes Misha.”

“No. We have a long way to go and we might as well get started now.”

“Can’t I at least get dressed?”

“Yes, unless you want to go naked for the next week or so.”

I can do that, but I would prefer to have my armour and weapons with me.” I replied as I got out of bed, wearing only my fur.

“You are a tiger Oberon. You already have a nice set of weapons built in.”

I simply nodded as I went through the quick procedure of getting dressed and armed. I had learned, long ago the importance of dressing and get equipped quickly. For many warriors like me speed was life in getting prepared for battle.

Five minutes later the three of us walked to the edge of the Glen, to the old town wall where the people had tried to defend the town back before the battle that had caused this spell to be cast upon the Keep.

The three of us were acting differently from when we were on downtime at the Keep. Now we had our game faces on. Beyond this wall we were going to be in hostile territory.

Misha looked up at me and then said, “The person that we want to kill is about two days north of here in a small fortress called Denuth Kir, that means Death’s Tower in Lutin. From this point on we are on patrol. Hand signals only, and please stay alert.

I nodded in affirmation and then communicated as much with my large hands before I plunged into the darkness beyond the old town wall. I moved through the thinning trees with quiet confidence because I could see almost perfectly, even in the dim light of the night.


Chapter II

Five day later in the late evening the three of us came to a halt on a small stone outcropping overlooking a small barren valley. Crouched in the middle of the valley was a foreboding pile of black basalt that seemed to exude and aura of malevolent evil that even I could detect. I turned to Misha and with a quick flurry of gestures told him, “This will not be easy sir.”

He glanced out over the barren valley floor before he concurred. “Easy really isn’t part of our job description Oberon.”

I chuckled quietly and looked at Tcukendra, he could probably slip into there much more easily than either Misha or I could because his species was allied with the lutins. However that wasn’t the cases for either Misha or myself.

We spent the next two hours observing the fortress and its defences before I pointed to a group of wagons coming down the road towards the castle. With my hands I gestured to the wagons. “If we can sneak our way into that place’s supply wagons we should manage to get inside that place.”

“Good thinking Oberon.”

“I’ve done it before Misha, ‘bout ten years ago.”

“Experience is always the best teacher.”

I nodded my head before we shuffled back from the ledge and I said, with my hands, “We might want to wait until after night-fall before we move out.”

He nodded. “For now we should stay here and observe our target to see if we can learn anything more about it.”

I nodded my head and looked out towards the castle again.

More than two hours later Misha turned to me and pointed out a group of wagons that was making its way down the trail towards the castle. “If we could get onto one of those wagon trains then perhaps we could get into the castle without being spotted.”

I nodded my head. “That sounds like a good plan Misha.” I replied “Now we just have to find a good place to sneak aboard.” He nodded and then the three of us slipped away from the outcropping back into the trees behind the ledge.

I turned to Misha and gestured to him. “Perhaps we should leave our projectile weapons here in a cache. They will only get in our way in the castle.”

Misha shook his head “I don’t like to leave anything behind. Besides they might be useful.” The fox gestured in reply

“How will we manage to carry them in that case?”

Misha took his bow, and without unstringing it slung it over his head and shoulders. “Like this.” He answered.

“Well my bow is a good deal larger than yours Misha.”

“All right we can cache your bow and excess gear like my sleeping bag and most of our food. The less we have inside the better.”

I nodded my head and then removed my quiver quickly pulled out the arrows and gently wrapped them up along with my bow. I can keep my atlatl with me since it is not over-sized and it can fling spear-darts without a sound. Other than it I will have to rely on my knives if I need a projectile weapon.”

“In there our best tactic is to avoid a fight as much as possible. Stealth is our best ally.”

“Misha I do have some experience on assassination missions, but being stealthy now is a little bit more challenging for me to pull off now. After all now I am not the easiest person to forget.”

“Those that we can avoid we will avoid. Those who see us we kill, as quickly and quietly as we can. Now how are we going to get inside that place?”

“Well I was thinking that we could use one of those caravans to get us inside. Sneak into the place inside a crate or barrel of some kind.”

Misha nodded and his tail indicated to me that he was a little dubious “How do we get into the caravan? Those caravans are notorious for being well guarded.”

“Well in my experience even the most diligent teamster, or guard has to stop for the night at an inn or a rest stop. At that point in time they tend to get a little in-attentive.”

“That will work! All we will need is one sleepy or drunk guard.”

I grinned at Misha. “We just have to be careful that we don’t kill any of the guards or teamsters. The people in the caravan will notice something like that and become suspicious.”

“Agreed. They can’t even have the slightest suspicion that we are in their caravan.” The fox added.

“Therefore we must travel light and fast.”

“Let’s not start that argument again. Let’s get our stuff cached and find ourselves a suitable caravan to join.”

“Certainly sir.”

“Sir?” Misha commented.

“Well you are my commanding officer.”

“Now where can we burry our stuff?”

I pointed to a prominently tall elm tree nearby with a small group of rocks at its base. “Sir how does that look?”

“Perfect! We’ll cache our things under those rocks.”

“Ok so how much do we bring with us? Besides our weapons.”

“Water and two day’s rations. We can’t afford to bring more because space in the barrels and crates will be limited.”

“Understood sir.” I replied with a little flip of my tail.

We quickly dug a deep hole at the base of the tree and carefully wrapped and place the things that we would be leaving behind. Then we refilled the hole and very carefully camouflaged it, removing all traces that we had been here.

When we were finished Misha stood up and brushed his hands off on his breeches and said, “Now let’s go find ourselves a caravan to attach ourselves to.”

I laughed as I carefully brushed the dirt off of my hands and stood up.

Tcukendra looked at the two of us and gave a low whining bark that transmitted his eagerness to be off.

Misha laughed. “Now can you remember this place for me Oberon, just in case I forget.”

I nodded slowly at the other implied meaning in that phrase. “Yes sir. I will not forget this place now.”

He pointed down the hill. “The main road is that way. We can find a caravan there if we wait.”

I simply nodded my head and looked around carefully before I followed my friend down the path towards the road.

Four hours later we approached a small caravan that had pulled up into a clearing by the side of the road for the night.

Misha looked at me and nodded before pointing to a small group of rocks that were perched at the edge of the clearing “We’ll wait till it’s really late and the guards are tired before we sneak in and join the caravan... without them being the wiser.” He gestured to me.

“Yes sir. Now how about having something to snack on while we wait?”

“Misha nodded and settled down with his back against one of the rocks and pulled a trail ration from his pack. “Yummy trail rations!” he exclaimed.

“I can barely contain my enthusiasm.” I gestured to him as I pulled one of my oversized trail rations out of my small assault pack.

Misha suppressed a chuckle and started eating the ration in his hands. “At least its beef and a liberal dose of spices can make it reasonably tasty.”

“Well right now it doesn’t taste anything like fresh meat, and it is nowhere near as good.”

“Maybe it doesn’t taste like meat because its fish.” Misha pointed out, his single remaining ear bobbing slightly in amusement.

The tip of my feline tail twitched in amusement as I asked “Why would I get fish when I ordered venison?”

“Well people do make mistakes Oberon, but it’s a ration and they only occasionally taste the way that they are supposed to.”

I nodded my head “In any case do you have anything that will make this thing taste a little like something that I can eat?”

Misha reached into his pack and pulled out a small leather pouch full of small packets of various spices. “Try adding lots of spices.”

“Thanks my friend.” I said before I sprinkled some spices on top of the ration.

“Beware Oberon. Those are pretty potent spices.” He warned me “A little bit will go a long way.”

I chuckled quietly with my tail getting in on the action. “Oh I could show you hot! Food in my homeland could get decidedly incendiary.”

“These ARE hot. Let me explain – I used a pouch of those spices to temporarily blind a warg once. The poor thing was helpless for several minutes.”

I chuckled again before I commented. “You should try Karmek’Dulong.”

“What is that?” He asked “Sounds dangerous.”

“Oh it is nothing really.” I commented. “It is just a rather mundane looking broth soup that some warriors eat.”

“Oh sounds interesting. What’s in it? Molten lava?”

“Might as well have been lava for all of the flavour that it possessed.”

Misha nodded slowly his ear going back ever so slightly. “I guessed as much when you said that it was rather mundane looking.”

“I only ate it three times.”

“I would never try to eat it to begin with. My father didn’t raise any fool.”

“Well in fact most Kelmar foods were much simpler but a few were exercises in bravery like Karmek’Dulong.”

“Why? Eating is supposed to be enjoyable. Not something that is to be endured.” The fox asked.

“I think it is because in our culture it was the only way that a commoner could ever be equal to a member of the Warrior Caste.

Misha’s tail twitched a little as he sombrely pointed out. “I see. Well where I grew up we had too many enemies trying to kill us to waste any time confronting each other. In other words we all had to stick together.”

“Different cultures have different idiosyncrasies Misha.”

“Yes. In Marigund we were always being threatened with attack by outsiders who hated and feared us. So the result was that we always had to be ready for an attack...from any direction.”

I nodded slowly before I quietly gestured. “Well my clan was always in the thick of things in the Clanwars back home in my homeland. We always had to keep our eyes open for the slightest hint of treachery or deceit from our enemies as well as our allies.”

“In our case it was religious fanaticism. The followers never wanted to let us live in peace.”

“I growled low in my throat, though not loudly enough to be heard by anyone but my companion and commander. “Those idiots have caused me no end of grief in the past thirty years.”

“Well they want to wipe the country of Marigund off of the map.” The fox answered.

I nodded slowly my tail and ears still displayed my displeasure at thinking about those fools. “Well they tried, on more than a dozen occasions to convert me to their crazy religion. Of course they didn’t understand, and I doubt that they ever will, that I am never going to betray the gods of my people.”

Misha shook his head vehemently. “Oberon you don’t understand. I AM a Follower. It’s just that we do not use the same practices as the regular faithful. My sect of the Followers believes in slightly different things.”

I nodded slowly as I thought the matter through. Finally I gave him a penetrating look and said, “Misha I will never let your faith in your God make me feel about differently about you.”

“I just wish the rest of the world was as open about it as you are.”

“Unfortunately the world we live in is just not that way my friend, even though we are trying to make it so.” I pointed out before I peeked out from behind the boulder that we were hiding behind.

The two guards that were facing us were leaning, with their backs to our boulder. Their helmets were down over their eyes and they were snoring rather loudly.

I slipped back down behind the boulder beside Misha and turned to him before quietly gesturing, “Misha the two guards that we have to be concerned about are currently sleeping like the dead. I suggest that we make the most of this chance and make our way to the wagons so that we can stow away in a container for the ride into that castle.”

Misha nodded and stood up and pointed towards a nearby wagon.

“I hope they have a crate big enough for me in there.”

“We’ll find something.” Misha said.

“I certainly hope so.” I gestured before I landed on my feet between the two sleeping guards. The leather of my harness creaked a little, but neither of them stirred an inch.

Misha moved past the guards slowly and quietly, keeping his eyes on the sleeping figures of the guards until we were both well past them.

I grinned at the fox with my tail before I focussed on the carts that were arrayed in front of us. Some were heavily loaded down with provisions that were destined for the castle. The other carts looked empty and they were headed out to retrieve more goods from the surrounding regions. “Now Misha which one would be most suitable for you?”

Misha moved nimbly among the various boxes and barrels that were stacked on the wagons until he found one that was roughly the right size.

“That looks about right for you Misha, now we have to find one that I can squeeze into.”

“Try the other cart Oberon there might be something that you can squeeze into on that one.”

I nodded my head and looked at the cases on the cart until I found something that looked just barely big enough for me to fit into. “I might fit into this.....but it will be a very tight squeeze for me.”

“Well we've really got no choice Oberon.”

I nodded and transferred the crate to the cart that was going to our destination before I looked at the crate regretfully.

Misha looked at me and said, “Now get inside and close it up, we really haven't got all night to waste.”

I climbed into the crate and looked at Misha before I replied, “Make sure that you cover up this crate properly when I close up.” With that said I contorted my way into the tight box and closed the lid before closing my eyes.

For a few minutes I heard Misha shifting things around before things went quiet again.

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"Earning His Stripes", copyright Oberon Snowcat