Declarations of Allegiance - Part I

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."

"He does?"

"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."

"About what?"

"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.

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