Late summer 707
“Have at thee!”
The feline snarled and thrust his blade to where it was easily deflected.
“No.” He said bluntly, “That’s the thousandth time... I’m done.”
The other feline sheathed his sword, yet to show sign of fatigue though not so much from stamina but the fact he’d been exerting next to no effort at all. His sparring partner burned himself out trying to attack and for most of that time he’d met with limited success.
“How did you do that?” Stealth panted and slumped down by a tree.
The feline knight grinned and straightened out the follower cross on his tunic, “I only used your strength against you.”
The cheetah nodded, “I know that trick.” He gulped in exhaustion, “Ed... Ed taught you well, Roderick.”
The tree ocelot nodded and offered his hand, “You could learn much, if you followed the same path.”
“I’m no soldier.” He grunted as he grasped the margay’s hand, “just enough training to defend myself...” He was quickly hefted up, “the street effective fighting I learned in recent times.”
“Street fighting is well and good for dealing with some desperate hoard but we are living in a war zone,” Roderick countered solemnly, “Yet after several patrols with us you are still out done by some tricky sword play.”
Stealth grumbled under his breath, “Living in a war zone means our lives revolve around conflict more then enough already and I want to do other things with my time then training and doing drills...” The cheetah silenced the margay’s retort with a claw tip, “You brought me out here because you were looking for wood, remember?”
“Ah, yes!” He said with perked ears, “The Hainwood you saw out this way, Stealth, show me where it is, now that we’ve had a rest.”
“Some rest.” He mumbled, “Up this way, I believe, past the boulder... and then the deadwood and... I think there was a big mushroom somewhere there after.”
Roderick nodded, “Here, I’ll carry your pack till you recover, lead me towards the corpse.”
“I still don’t see the big deal but sure, I’ll find it.” The cat shrugged and began up a small slope.
“If I’m right, they were planted here in Suleiman times. And according to the maps this area used to host a villa.”
“A villa!” Stealth exclaimed with renewed interest, “Now that’s a place where I can see myself.”
It took a few minutes but they reached the top after a short hike. The pair had already travelled some ways up the slopes but the walkable terrain extended ever higher. The region was surprisingly accessible – an ancient stairwell led up the mountain. In some places there was nothing more then a steep hunk of earth or stone, possibly where had once been wooden steps but in other places the steps were carved into the stone and had endured.
Stealth travelled these steps just a few days earlier but out of fatigue he didn’t climb any higher. It pained him to find out now what he’d missed... but he was here, now, a true Suleiman villa! The cheetah left Roderick to his tasks down below. He could hear the wildcat doing something, not sawing branches but something, some sort of ritual.
The cheetah didn’t care what sound his fellow feline made just so long as he did make a sound and Stealth made sure to keep him in ear shot and in the corner of his eye, down below. Stealth eventually got bored at the peek of the stairway, wanting to explore the ruins he returned to Roderick with the hope of pestering him to hurry with whatever task he was doing.
It irked Stealth that something so simple as cutting a tree for wood required some sort of whatever... but he waited patently for the margay to finish.
“What’s so special about this tree?” The cheetah asked to make conversation, it’s not like Roderick told him to remain silent.
It took a moment in which Stealth thought the knight would ignore him but Roderick eventually answered, “Hainwood is rare because it only grows in the mountains far to the south.”
Stealth shook his head about to remove the wood chips that fell on his ears.
“The Seuilmans used to plant it for its beautiful flowers.” He finished.
“You think they planted these when they built the villa?” Stealth asked and stepped out of reach from the falling wood chips. He now had one stuck in his inner ear and it itched like hell.
“Most likely... There! This branch is free; I’ll tie a rope around it and ease it down to you.” He said excitedly.
Stealth groaned and waited. First a sparing session and now carting lumber down a mountain.
“Stealth!” The margay called out in alarm, “Can you hear me?!”
“...Aye.” Came the answer from deep down in the darkness.
“Hold on, I’ll tie up a rope and send a line down.”
Stealth groaned and made himself comfortable in the cave. He insisted on exploring the ruins before their departure after securing the log (Roderick called it a branch but the cheetah thought of it as a log). Roderick complied since the cheetah was very eager to see the ruins. A little too eager as it turns out, how he fell down that crevice he had no idea and here he was. Huh, it smelt like rats lived there.
He could hear something up above – Roderick got to work securing a rope line, probably to a pillar.
“Roderick, send down a- Ooof!” The cat exclaimed when something heavy thumped his muzzle.
“The rope is down, tie yourself up.” He ordered from above.
“Hold up! Moron...” Stealth mumbled and rubbed his nose. “Pull it back up, attach a lamp to it and lower it... I can’t possibly tie myself up in this dark place.”
It took a few fearful minutes in which the cheetah wondered if a ‘thing’ would take him away or if the margay would ever return but a dim orange glow began to creep into the passage from above. The journey hadn’t been easy on the oil lamp though; it slid and rolled down much of the slope until it reached a short vertical drop. In contrast sliding down for Stealth had been much nicer, still uncomfortable but not as bad as falling straight down, had that been the case he’d most likely be dead right now.
“Oh...” The cheetah murred as the area continued to fill with light, “Roderick! Roderick! Roderick!”
“Are you in trouble or what?” The wildcat asked in mild irritation.
“It’s a vault! There are artefacts!”
Roderick’s ears perked, “Treasure?”
Stealth became silent, eventually he answered, “No. I... no.” The disappointment was clear to hear in his voice, “Looks like we’ve been beaten...” He rummaged through the rocks and ancient rubble however it was clear that anything of real value had long since been stripped away. “There’s some loose stone and clay with writing and pictures... I see no gold.”
“Tie the rope around yourself, we’ve lingered here long enough.” The margay ordered.
Stealth silently complied. It was all well and good for the knight to be so dismissive; he got his valuable... wood.
To say the climb back up pained and exhausted them was an understatement but they were back in the remains of the villa and the air and view were beautiful. Stealth grinned broadly, he was almost happy to have fallen down that crevice as it gave him an excuse to linger while catching his breath.
“We’re loosing daylight.” Roderick said in a firm tone, “I’m sorry we couldn’t see more my friend but if we don’t leave now we’ll miss the light needed to return safely.”
The cheetah nodded, “I prefer a warm bed to cold rubble, let’s go.”
The margay nodded, “A good thing we’ve already secured the branch, now it’s just a downhill ride home.”
They made their way back down the ancient steps, past the corpse of Hainwood and then to the foot where their horses waited patently. In this area the terrain was so steep that from virtually anywhere higher that the steps lead to, one could see down and have a clear, direct view of the mounts. It gave the felines piece of mind knowing that they could see and at anytime fend off an attack on their horses with bow and arrow or even sticks and stones.
Suddenly Stealth’s ears perked, “Did you hear that?”
Roderick looked around, “I can but it’s an echo. I can’t tell where it came from.”
The cheetah motioned in a direction further along the cliff face, “Up there. I’m certain of it, hurry!”
“Stealth! Stop!” Roderick called out in exasperation, “I can’t lead the horses down that way. It’s far too remote.”
The cheetah balanced on a steep precipice, his ears twitching to the screams he could hear deep within the mountain, sounds that no ordinary human could hope to hear, “There’s not much further I can go but I can still hear something up there.”
Roderick tied up the horses and approached carefully, “Allow me; mayhap I can climb to get a better look.”
“The cliff face is too featureless to scale.” The cheetah argued.
“Perhaps, but there are trees here... this one.” He said and motioned with his nose. “I can scale this.”
“I don’t think even that can be climbed.” Stealth said, brushing his palm across the bark. When he turned back around the margay had disrobed.
“I’m a Tree Ocelot.” He said before shifting and shrinking down.
Quickly the cat leaped up the trunk. He hugged the bark with his forelegs, grappled firmly and then kicked away with his hind legs where his claws gripped a spot higher up then he pushed away with his forelegs and then repeated the process.
It reminded the cheetah of something Edmund told him not too long ago. People in the far south would climb in such a way up trees but a different type of tree that only grew far to the south – a palm tree. They’d climb up the featureless trunk of the palm to remove the coconuts at the very top.
Those trees had no branches, this one did and Roderick scurried onto one half way up where he rested and balanced on his haunches, trying to peer into the gaps high up in the rock.
No sooner had he done so, a small, white creature popped out of the cliff face. Roderick positioned himself in the split second he had and then opened his mouth!
The small animal fell into the margay’s maw.
Stealth cringed and shivered while he wondered, ‘did he just... just...’
The wild cat quickly leaped down from the tree branch and scampered down the trunk, the creature still held in his mouth. Rod gently placed it down on the grass almost like it were a prize...
“That’s a rat!” Stealth squealed, “Don’t they carry the plague?”
The tree ocelot quickly shifted and examined the rodent at his feet with a gentle paw, “If I’m right this is... a keeper.” He continued to stroke the white fur of the animal’s head.
“Oh” Stealth whispered, “Those voices you mean...”
The margay nodded.
“How hard did you bite him?”
Roderick’s eyes darted up at the feline, “Bite? I caught him in my mouth! Just caught him.” He glowered, “What was I to do? I had no hands.”
Stealth kneeled down to get a better look at the rat. Roderick hadn’t replaced his pantaloons yet as he had no time and his mind was elsewhere, absent of modesty.
“What’s wrong with him then? Is he okay?”
“I think he’s passed out.” The knight said, hopeful, “I can feel a pulse and breathing...”
The cats jumped back, startled when the rodent began to grow. Almost as if inflating with each breath, the white rat began to grow bigger and bigger until a small humanoid creature lay on the steep slope yet he was still unconscious. The felines hastened to grab his arms and keep him from sliding down the hill.
Stealth cringed, “You know what? I was worried about him, now I’m worried about you... but aye, he is breathing.”
The wild cat nodded, “Worried about me?”
“If you did what I thought you did then you’d likely be dead right now... I’ve heard stories about things that people have consumed, then their guts burst open like they were giving birth to it or something.”
“Yes, Thank you, I really needed to know that.” Roderick remarked and stood up, “Help me carry him back to the horses and then make him comfortable. It’s too late to return to the keep at this time of day. We’ll head back to camp in the ruins of the villa; it will shelter us from the wind.”
“But he could need help.” The cheetah countered.
“All the more reason not to move him.” The margay answered as he donned his clothing, “But I doubt there’s any such concern. Just keep him warm and have a water skin on hand. Our friend will wake sooner or later and then there’ll be some questions and hopefully answers.”
‘But who will have more to explain?’ The cheetah pondered.
His ears twitched to the sound of a crackling fire. Slowly his eyes opened. It took time but eventually Toby realised he’d woken up in a camp. Had it all just been a bad dream?
“He’s awake!” Stealth said, “Well met, Are you okay? Can you hear me?”
The rat pondered and nodded, “I think so... what happened?”
“We found you.” The cheetah said and shifted his eyes to the other feline.
“Found me? How?” The rat asked and then noticed an obstruction on his left hand. His hand had been bandaged.
“You had a cut on your hand so we tended to it.” Stealth explained as he watched the rodent examine himself.
‘Of course, so it was no dream’ he grimaced. Yet it made no sense – he’d been eaten in the dream... “How did you find me?” Toby asked in a firm tone that made the cats stiffen.
“I caught you in my mouth.” Roderick answered bluntly, “It was either that or let you fall to the ground.”
The rodent nodded slowly.
“Forgive me,” The margay bowed slightly, “I meant you no harm or distress I didn’t even have time to react.”
“I understand. I just... need time.” The white rat said with a slight tremble, “But thanks.”
“I’m Stealth.” The cheetah said, “This is Roderick, we were searching this area for, well, wood.”
“Wood?” The rat asked, confused.
“Timber of high quality for crafting.” Stealth continued, “Then we heard someone, sounded like they were in trouble so we followed.”
“We were hoping you could inform us of what happened to you.” Roderick added.
Toby stiffened and trembled, “I... I don’t know... Something chased me... I couldn’t see it, it kept coming and then...” A mug was shoved in front of his snout.
“Drink this.” Stealth said, holding out the warm beverage.
He clasped it and drank in the smell of hot tea before taking a small sip and continuing, “What if it finds me? Will it find me?”
“It wont, no.” Roderick said without hesitation, “You’re safe here.”
The rat nodded again, “I hope so...” he took another sip, “My name is Toby.”
“Toby.” The margay nodded, “What were you doing out here by yourself?” He placed more wood on the fire and looked about in the darkness, watching for any threat.
“I came up here to explore the old villa. I’m a solder, I know how to kill things like lutins and such. I can take care of myself.” He answered in a quick, almost chittery tone.
“You should never travel alone.” Stealth said softly. Granted he did just that for a living, but he didn’t choose to do so alone.
“I used to explore with a friend.” The rat mumbled into his cup, “I used to...”
“I see.” Roderick intoned.
Toby said no more. It happened two years ago but he’d never forget – ever. They weren’t serious about their relationship or anything but they grew up together. The town never had anything for kids growing up so they always wandered off, away from the fields and all the depressing monotony. Ugh.
He still dreamed about her, like those green things had never come along and everything was still fine... and he still ventured into the ruins just like old times. But now he did so alone.
“Are you alright?” The cheetah asked.
He shrugged, “Forget it.”
The margay began rummaging through his backpack until he pulled out what to the rat looked like a stick. The stick had holes in it and the rodent soon realised that this was a musical instrument.
“You’re a musician?” Toby asked.
“A craftsman and a soldier.” Roderick answered. “My family has worked with wood for quite some time and the skills have been passed down to me.”
“How has the curse affected you since then?”
The wild cat grinned, “I’m a tree ocelot.”
Stealth mimed the words...
“May I see your instrument?” Toby asked with growing interest.
“Of course.” The feline reached over and handed it out. “Be careful with it.”
“Not to worry,” The rat said as he took it gently in his palm. “I may be a rodent but I promise I won’t gnaw on it.”
Stealth raised his eye ridges, “Rodents gnaw on things?”
Toby laughed, “Aye, they do but I’ve found I have no taste for gnawing on objects, my incisors don’t grow out, at least in my most human form.”
The instrument, a flute, looked an extraordinary work of craftsmanship. It had intricate details running down it’s length and a smooth finish that brought out the wood’s natural grain well.
“You made this?” The rat asked, still looking over each intricate pattern.
“Aye, I hope to craft other things with the Hainwood.”
“This is a beautiful instrument,” Toby said and handed it back, “could you play me a tune?”
Roderick nodded and took it back, “Thank you, and yes, I was about to play.” He took a breath, about to blow a note when he paused and continued, “Be kind – I have a muzzle and I’m still learning how to use it.”
Stealth sat back as the margay started to play. The tune sounded subdued and slow but calming. The cheetah looked over the valley through the window-cavity. He could see the keep from their location and it was lit up with torches, so too the town and surrounding villages and cottages.
Toby yawned and slumped back in the sleeping bag. His anxiety began to slip away. His fear melted and dissolved under a wave of soft notes that flowed through his ears.
By the time Roderick stopped playing Toby was asleep and Stealth wasn’t far behind. The cheetah lay on his side peering out at the valley below, his eyes drooping slightly.
“And now you know why they built the villa up here!” Roderick said. “For the wonderful view!”
Stealth nodded, “You know what? I’ll take the first watch, I’ll wake you when the lights on the battlements shift.”
“I don’t understand.” Roderick commented as he stretched his back and tail.
“The lights are currently solitary,” The cheetah explained, “When they move about in a precession it means the guards are changing their shift.” He pointed out, motioning toward the distant Keep, “And then I’ll wake you.”
The wild cat nodded and yawned. Stealth could see further into the distance then him, the gift of his wild kin from gazing out over the vast veldt in the south.
The past day had been trying but in the end rewarding, Stealth thought, as he perked his ears to listen, sniffed at the air for threats and peered at the illuminated buildings in the distance.
‘For wood...’ he thought with a quiet chuckle.