"All hell shall stir for this." -- Shakespeare
In the complex of rooms and halls in Metamor Keep known as Long House, things were still and silent. The large open room known as Long Hall was the heart of the complex. It was a place where people gathered, where children played and laughed, while their parents relaxed. It was a place of warmth, life and laughter, but not today. This morning the bright carpets and brilliant tapestries had been rolled up and stored. Black cloth covered the paintings and mosaics that remained, and the color from the stained glass seemed muted and somber. The usually laughter filled hall was still and silent in spite of the many people who filled it. The people were sitting or standing in small groups, talking in quiet whispers.
Sitting in the center of the first row of seats was a tall antelope and two girls, the oldest no more then twelve. Occasionally a person would walk up to the trio, hug and talk for a time. Some would stand and uncomfortably shift as they talked. Others would sit and talk for a while. Never were the three alone, if someone left, another would take their place.
The low murmur of the group hushed to silence. The somber crowd watched quietly as Father Hough made his way through their midst. He stopped at the eland and the two girls, Emily, Amanda, and Mina; Craig's wife and two daughters. He hugged and blessed all three. The boy priest moved forward again towards Misha. The vulpine was standing at one end of the hall. Behind him a black wooden coffin rested upon a stone dais with its lid closed.
The fox presented a strange and frightening sight. Misha was colored black from muzzle to tail, even his fur had been dyed black. It made the fox look like some sort of dark angel. He shifted uneasily for a few moments and then looked at Hough. The boy touched him on the arm and nodded.
"Are you alright?" the priest asked.
"I guess so," Misha answered. He held up his hands and all eyes turned to him. The crowd settled quickly, but his stomach wasn't as quick to follow.
"We've come together to honor the memory of a fine person who's been taken from us, Craig Latoner," he said in a soft, tired voice. "We..." his voice trailed off.
All eyes turned and looked in the direction the fox was staring. Two figures moved slowly through the door and towards him. A stout badger was helping a bandaged and battered female otter as she hobbled forward.
"Caroline," Misha whispered and moved toward her. The small hand of Hough on his arm stopped him.
"She needs to do this without you," the boy said.
Slowly Caroline and her father made their way past her fellow scouts and friends, till they stood in front of the widow and her children. Widow and survivor stared at each other for long moments without moving or speaking. Then Caroline uttered a sob and dropped to her knees at Emily's feet and sobbed uncontrollably. "I'm sorry," she wailed. "I should be dead, not Craig. I tried to help him but there was just too many of them. I . . ." her voice trailed off into sobbing.
Emily sat there impassive, looking down at the pitiful otter at her feet. Caroline's lithe frame was still being shaken by her sobbing, and the entire front of her face and muzzle was wet from the tears. But still the doe just looked at her. After what seemed like an eternity, the widow held out her hand, leaving it hovering a few inches over Carol's head. Then she lowered it and pulled the otter to her. Caroline almost fell into the black dress and clung to it as she weeped. The new widow just patted the otter on the back but didn't speak.
Father Hough moved quickly to the pair and put his arms around both. "Be at ease, he's with Eli now, and beyond sadness and pain."
Caroline looked at the priest and through sobs asked, "Why am I alive and he's dead? WHY?"
"Because Eli decided it was time," Hough replied to both widow and survivor. The holy man sat down on a chair next to Emily and then put the otter in the empty seat next to him. He took the hands of both and then nodded for Misha to continue.
Misha stared at the priest flanked by widow and survivor. He looked back to the rest of the people present. Most were Long Scouts or family of scouts, but he recognized many who weren't. Andre and Jenn, the two wolverines sat close to Emily. He spotted Madog and Omega seated at the back of the hall. The fox was as still as stone and had none of his usual joy. Standing at the very back of the hall was a short, canine, whose tan fur was sprinkled with black and silver. It was George the patrol master. He was surprised, as the tough, hard bitten, ex-bandit was the last person he'd expected to see. Still, knowing that his old friend was here eased the pain. Rickkter was there, dressed in his usual black attire. He noted the Duke, standing off to one side, dressed in black robes, and accompanied by his daughter Malisa. Standing next to them was Phil, and Clover. Misha was surprised to see the Rabbit here, he usually avoided crowds. It was a shame that poor Clover's first meeting with the Longs was a funeral. At first he couldn't find Matthias or Kimberly, then he looked back to Caroline and saw Kimberly seated next to her. The rat had her arm around her friend's shoulder. Matthias was seated beside his true love looking solemn and dignified.
Misha stopped his musing and returned to the task at hand. "We come together to remember a friend. We come to put his spirit at rest, and to honor the pain of his passing," Misha said solemnly.
From his belt he drew a long dagger and held it over his head. "We remember the pain of his death," the fox said and drew the sharp edge across the palm of his right hand. He heard Hough gasp as the blood started to flow from the wound. He switched the dagger to his other hand.
"We remember the pain of his widow," and he laid open his left palm. He switched the blade back to his left hand. "I ask his spirit to forgive me for failing him and letting him die," the blade opened a wound on his right arm.
Again he switched hands, and starting at the wrist laid open his arm in a spiral pattern all the way up to his elbow. Then he turned and faced the coffin. "I Misha Brightleaf do swear to Craig Latoner, that never shall your family go cold. Never shall your family want for food or clothing. I declare Emily Latoner, Amanda Latoner, Mina Latoner, Blood kin. This I swear with my own blood as true witness," he said and held up his bleeding arms. The room was deathly silent as he laid his bleeding hands on the coffin. "All this I swear to you," he said out loud. "I'll never forget you, my friend," he whispered to the spirit he hoped was listening.
Something touched his side and he turned to find Father Hough standing there, concern written all over his face. The boy turned to the crowd. "Lord Thomas wishes to say something."
The Duke stepped up and turned to the audience. "Of all the duties of being a Duke, this is the one I dread the most. Morning the passing of a brave soldier who has died in the defense of Metamor . . ."
Duke Thomas continued his eulogy but Misha didn't hear it; his thoughts were elsewhere. He looked at the coffin that contained the remains of a good friend who had died a terrible death. Grief overwhelmed him and he started to sob uncontrollably. He felt the soft touch Father Hough's arm on his shoulders and without a word the priest helped Misha from the room.
"So was this your first time?"
Misha turned to see who would be asking such a thing, only to find the grinning visage of a raccoon staring back at him. Rick held out a glass of light amber liquid that was pinched in his claws to Misha. "For you."
The fox sniffed at the glass, the heavy tang of alcohol reaching his nose. He smiled and took a long pull on it. "How did you know?" he asked afterwards.
"It wasn't that hard to tell. The beginning mostly. Though you did recover nicely for that blood letting ceremony. Quite poignant, if a little disturbing."
"Thanks," was the only thing Misha could muster before taking another long sip on his drink.
"How long have you been doing this?"
"About four years now. Why?"
"And you haven't lost anyone before this? That's remarkable." The raccoon commented. "But I wouldn't get used to it. War is an ugly thing, Misha. People die and sometimes we can't help it. Do you know what's one of the only things worse than having someone under your command die?"
Rickkter drained most of his drink, sticking his long muzzle into the glass to lap up the remainder. "It's when you order someone into a situation that you know they'll die in. And sooner or later, I guarantee that you will have to do it."
Misha thought about it, blinked once, and then looked away. "Maybe."
"Oh you will, that's beyond a doubt. If you command soldiers one day you will order one to his death."
"I've lost friends before, Rickkter, just never because of one of my own orders," Misha answered. "We've always been comrades following someone else's orders."
"Just remember, Craig and Caroline both knew the risks and went willingly."
Misha sighed, and realized the truth in what Rickkter had said, and that eased the pain. "I know, but I can't help feeling responsible. I keep thinking I did something wrong."
"You didn't do anything wrong." The mage replied forcefully. "Sometimes you just run into bad luck. A king once asked me, 'Yes, I know you're brave, and smart but are you lucky?"
"So training, and preparedness mean nothing. It's all a matter of luck?" the fox replied caustically.
"Of course they matter. Being well trained and well equipped weighs the odds in your favor, but there is always the factor of chance." The raccoon waved his glass around as he emphasized his point with his hands. "Battles have been won or lost because chance put forward an opportunity to one side or took it away from another. It's like magic; a mage, no matter power or subtlety, can truly have their style cramped by a knife between the shoulder blades."
Misha took a long drink from his glass. "I guess it was just their bad luck to be spotted by that patrol. I know I've had plenty of close calls in the past."
The raccoon looked around the room, at all the people laughing and drinking and joking. At how they celebrated the life of Craig, and not his death. "I've had opportunity in my work to see death and its rituals all over this part of the world, and I can honestly say that this is the way I prefer it. Here you remember the person's life, what they did while they were still with you."
"We always do this when we lose one of our own," came the vulpine's answer as he drained his glass. "As a matter of fact Craig left enough money in his will to pay for all of this."
"Good," Rickkter said and took another sip of his drink.
Rickkter took a deep swallow of his drink, looking over all the Keepers gathered at Long Hall. "I've been to too many of these things in my life." He snagged another drink from a passing server and led Misha over to a pair of chairs in an isolated corner of the room. He beckoned Misha with the drink to sit, handing over the glass of rye only when the fox did so. "So tell me, my friend, how long has it been since you got any sleep?"
Misha rubbed his tired eyes then drained half his drink. "I really look that bad, do I?" he asked in a voice made harsh by the potent alcohol.
Rickkter looked at the bags under his friend's eyes, their darkness showing through his black dyed fur. Even the fur itself had lost some of its luster and looked mangy in places. "You look exhausted."
"You saw Carol, Rick. I don't need to explain it to you," Misha answered.
Rick nodded, sipping a little of his whiskey. "I know. Say would you mind if I asked a few questions about you and Carol?"
"I don't see why not," admitted Misha with a half-hearted shrug.
"How old is she?"
"Twenty-seven years old," the fox admitted as he drained the last of his rye. A wave of the hand brought a waiter with two more drinks for the two.
"And you are?"
Misha flicked an ear, batting at a passing fly. "Thirty-eight." Rick smiled to himself and took a drink as he looked over the crowds. "Why are you asking?"
"Oh, just curious. She did seem a little young for you, just that I never knew how young."
"You have a problem with that?" Misha asked in a dark tone.
"Me?" asked Rick, his ears going up in a quizzical manner. "No, of course not. I loved an older woman, once upon a time. She was a wise twenty-six to my brash twenty." He swilled the ice in his glass -- a rare thing at the Keep, ice, but appropriate for today -- and remembered a little. "She was not quite thirty when it ended."
Rick snorted. "You know, I hate that expression. Everyone says they're sorry, but there isn't a damn thing that can be done about it." He sighed and looked once more at his drink. "I'm curious; what's Will's take on his business partner of how many years dating his daughter?"
Misha just chuckled a little and drained both drinks in quick succession. The conversation faded into silence as Misha and Rickkter kept drinking, the raccoon noted that Misha put two drink away for every one of his own.
Finally after a long time Rickkter spoke. "I noticed that Craig's coffin was closed."
"So?" Misha answered, his voiced slurred from too much alcohol.
"So, how little did you find?"
"Enough to identify," came the terse answer.
"Ah," Rickkter answered.
"At least it was a quick death, and he took quite a few of the bastards with him," Misha answered. "That's how I expect to die."
Rickkter laughed and gave a small, weak smile. "We don't always get what we want nor expect, Misha."
"Well, I don't know about you," admitted the fox with a slight slur, "but I don't intend to go that way. I'll fight to the death and take as many of the bastards with me as possible!"
"A heroic last stand against overwhelming odds. I'm sure it will be the stuff of legends."
"I don't care how memorable it is, as long as it's quick and clean."
The raccoon raised his glass in salute. "That's all a warrior can ask for."
Misha touched his glass to his friend's. "Here's to a quick, clean death."
The hallway was cool and dark, two qualities that the three animal morphs appreciated after the hours in the crowded hall. Well, at least the two conscious ones did. The fox that was draped between them was oblivious in his drunken stupor.
"I was wondering what had happened to him," said a voice from behind. The wolverine and raccoon turned to see who it was. George walked up to get a closer look at Misha. "It's been a long time since I saw him this drunk."
"What do you expect?" replied Andre. "Craig was a good friend, one who was there when Misha formed the Longs all those years back. It's his way of dealing with it." The wolverine looked at Misha's arms. They were swathed in hastily applied bandages, which by this point had turned a dark mahogany. The rest of the fur on the fox's arms were covered in caked blood, though it didn't show too well over the black covering. Andre gestured to them. "I've never seen anyone do anything like that before."
"It's an old, old ritual," George answered. "To calm the spirit of the person who was killed."
"I've seen it practiced in different parts of the world still," said Rick as he and Andre recommenced their journey. He gave the patrol master a smirk. "Though it can be a bitch when a commander loses an entire unit."
They found Misha's apartment quickly enough, and Rick held up his unconscious friend while Andre rifled through the fox's pockets for the key. Once inside they lay Misha carefully on his bed.
"Make sure you lay him on his side," George recommended.
"Why?" Andre asked.
"So he won't choke to death if he throws ups in his sleep," the jackal answered.
"So what happens now?" George asked once they were all out in the hall again.
"Now?" repeated Rickkter. "Now we wait until he is sobered up. And then all hell will break loose."