Declarations of Allegiance - Part II

Contrary to Misha's assurances, nothing but a pleasant home awaited them inside Angus's burrow. Though their host had not yet arrived, a small handwritten note informed them that they were welcome to eat or drink what they pleased, and the beds had been prepared for them. So, as the last embers of the day waned, both Charles and Misha laid down to get their needed rest.

Charles awoke shortly before dawn, and saw that the badger was already up and about. Peering over the lumpy cushions and covers, the rat watched as Agnus whittled away at a piece of wood. As the badger turned it over in his paws, Matthias noticed that there was a definite shape emerging.

"Do you like to carve?" Charles asked, wiping a bit of sleep from one eye.

Agnus looked up from where he sat, and nodded quietly. "It keeps me focused."

Matthias pushed the covers aside, and slid from the mattress to the wooden planks that served as a floor. "I have a friend who likes to carve. His sculptures are quite popular back at the Keep. I haven't seen any carvings here; what do you do with them?"

Agnus set the stick and knife down on the small table, glancing at the restless fox who was turning in his sheets still. "I have kept a few, but I usually carve the rest away when I'm done. It's just something I do when I'm alone."

Charles nodded, stretching a bit. His eyes were drawn to the single lamp in the room. "I notice that you all seem to use lamps here."

"We have to," the badger replied. "Almost everything in Avery's Glen is made from wood or thatch. A torch or candle could cause a fire."

"But you are so close to the mountains."

"We don't have the manpower to mine. What stone we do have comes from trading with the other lands in the Valley."

"But isn't Barnhardt's land just south of here? They are reasonably prosperous; don't they help you out?"

"Lord Barnhardt is not as generous with his goods as some would like. Apparently he and Lord Avery are not on best of terms."

Matthias nodded. "I see. Sorry to hear that."

Agnus smiled, and patted the rat on the back with a thick paw. "Don't be. Most of us here enjoy our way of life. I certainly do." A sudden groaning from behind them made the badger grin even wider. "Sounds like our mutual friend is awake."

Charles turned to see Misha rubbing the back of his head with one paw, ruffling the bright scarlet fur. "Good morning, Misha!"

Misha looked at the rat and glared sullenly. "Charles, do you realize how loud you snore?"

Dressed in their bright blue tunics, emblazed with the seal of Metamor across their chest's, Misha and Charles began their inspection of the Avery troops. Lord Avery himself was there with his men, carrying a small rapier, and standing proud. They were in the most open and visible spot they could find within the Glen.

The troops were not very professional looking, but they were determined, and they were certainly a fine collection of men and a few women. Each proudly displayed the heraldry of Glen Avery upon their breast. Their dedication to duty certainly impressed the rat and fox.

Yet there were only twenty of them, including Lord Avery himself. The inspection proceeded without incident till Charles noticed one particular ferret grumbling discontentedly. "What's wrong?"

The ferret seemed quite aggressive in his mannerisms, something that gave the rat pause. "I don't mean any offense, but I'd rather be out there protecting my home than standing here like a target."

"What's your name?"

"Garigan," the ferret replied. He was a tall figure, slender in build, with black and grey fur. His whiskers twitched as he talked, his whole appearance of one holding something back.

Charles looked to Misha, who nodded after a moment. "Well, Garigan, feel free to go. We're finished for now. Keep your home safe."

"Thank you," Garigan nodded respectfully, and then broke ranks along with the other troops.

Lord Avery approached them, one paw upon the sword hilt at his side. "So, what do you think of them?"

"They look to be very good men. I'd want them on my side," Misha patted the squirrel on the back as his tail wagged.

Charles nodded. "Especially that Garigan fellow. He seems to be very tough."

Brian chuckled. "He's one of our strongest men."

"Really? I've never seen him do much," Misha admitted.

"He usually is sitting up a tree waiting to ambush invading Lutin parties along with most of the others. He gets very surly when he isn't out there."

"I can understand that!" Misha laughed, turning his head slightly, his nose in the air. He blinked a few times, taking a deep breath. "I know that smell! It's delicious!"

Charles sniffed at the air too, and found himself salivating from the rich flavor. The scent of hot fruits and baked bread passed through him, and he turned to see where it was coming from as well. Coming up the path towards them was a plump hedgehog carrying a pie on a platter.

"Ah, Mrs. Levins!" Lord Avery called out in a delighted tone of voice. "We smelled your blackberry pie coming, I figured it was you."

She approached, holding out the delightful treasure to each of them. Her spines twitched in merriment as all three eagerly scooped the delightful crust into their paws. "I heard you had guests Lord Avery, and well, I knew that is would be a special occasion, so I cooked this up as soon as I could! I hope you like it."

"It's delicious!" Misha reiterated as he gulped down a mouthful.

Charles licked a bit of the berry from his nose. "I could eat this all day!"

She smiled, her bright brown eyes glittering in the praise. "Well, I'm making up a few more if you boys want some. Come down anytime!"

"Thank you, Mrs. Levins! This is a real treat!"

"Now don't tell Angela, she'll think I'm trying to fatten you up again," Levins chided the Lord of the land in her bubbly voice.

"She'll find out anyway!" Brian remarked between bites as well, the blackberries already smearing his reddish fur.

"Well, I better hurry back with this before the children find out. I can't have them raiding my kitchen again, now an I?" She smiled, and then waddled off back down the path, humming a little tune. Misha was still licking the last of the crumbs from his paws while Charles was patting his warm belly with one paw.

"I must have that recipe!" Misha declared.

"This wouldn't be the first time you've tried to weasel it out of her, you know!"

Misha licked his jowls again. "I know! She can be a stubborn woman."

Charles chuckled as Mrs. Levins disappeared behind the trees. "Well, I suppose we should inspect the defenses now. We do have a fašade to maintain."

Lord Avery wiped his paws on his trousers, his long tail squirming behind him. "Of course, I'll show you myself!"

For the sake of preserving the illusion, Charles and Misha went about the small hamlet and investigated the rather visible fortifications. Most of them included old city walls that had tumbled during the last conflict, and small watchtowers which were generally unmanned. The real defenses involved a ring of scouts high up in the trees. Armed with an assortment of bows and slings, they were capable of repelling a significant force. According to Misha, they had traps spread about all over the place, and many times he grabbed the rat's shoulder and yanked him from a certain spot to prevent him from springing one of the nefarious devices.

Still, the survey took most of the day, as they had quite a bit of area to cover. As they were heading back towards Lord Avery's treehouse, they heard a gruff voice from behind them. "Lord Avery!"

"What is it?" the squirrel turned about, his bushy tail nearly smacking Charles in the face. The rat and the fox turned about to see Garigan dragging a green-skinned shape behind him. Angus and Shelly were not far behind him, their weapons drawn.

"We found this Lutin snooping about," Angus reported. "We figured we'd bring him to you two."

"He figured," Garigan shot back. "I wanted to end his pathetic life right there."

"Take him to the holding cell," Avery pointed towards the other end of town, and the three guards walked off. Charles watched the ferret dragging the stumbling creature behind him as he chewed upon his stick.

"I suppose we should question the Lutin?" Misha suggested.

Charles shook his head, "Not right now, let's wait a bit." He turned to the lord of the realm. "Just what is your holding cell?"

"It's made out of one of the larger trees, why?" Brian Avery replied.

"Well, he's probably not going to like being here, and I don't think torturing him will do any good."

"I wouldn't stand for it anyway!" Misha declared.

"I didn't think you would," Charles added, nodding to the fox. "But there might be something we could do. You said your mage Burris could reshape wood?"

"Yes, that is his specialty."

"Well, I recommend we leave this Lutin in that cell for a full day, and let the only thing he can smell be one of Mrs. Levins's pies. Nobody feed him anything, either. I want him to be very hungry for this pie tomorrow evening." As Charles unfolded his plan, smiles crept across both Misha and Lord Avery's faces. "We just need Burris to shape the tree so that we can put the pie just out of his reach, but so that nobody else can get at it either."

Avery nodded, "I'll go see what tree Burris is pounding his head into." The squirrel then scampered off down the trail, leaving the rat mystified.

"Pounding his head into?"

Misha chuckled. "Burris is a woodpecker."

Matthias blinked. "Oh!"

Following after Misha, Charles tried to spot the scouts he knew were hiding up in the trees. They were very good, as he did not see a single one. Though the trees were gigantically large, and their boughs could hold homes. Some of them did in fact! How he wished that he could have spent his youth in a place such as this. A desert was fine and all, but there was something almost magical about trees this tall and wide. He would have to climb one tomorrow, just for the sheer joy of it.

"Ah, Angus, I was hoping you'd be here." Misha called out to the black-furred badger.

"I had Shelly take Garigan to Lars's place to cool him down. He was just too cranky to leave him around this thing." Angus jerked his paw over his shoulder pointing at the cell door. The tree was at least twice as wide as Charles was tall, and the single metal door in one side bespoke its purpose. The door was inset into the bark, just over a thick twisting root that acted as a stepping stone.

"So where did you catch him?" Misha asked.

"Towards the mountains a bit. He was hiding pretty well, and nearly got away too, but he ran right into Garigan. We were able to catch up in time to keep him alive. He hasn't said anything except a few curses."

"He didn't seem talkative when you three brought him in."

"Well, our ferret friend taught him that silence means he gets to keep his teeth in his mouth," Angus actually chuckled at that.

Misha looked a bit concerned. "I don't remember him being this violent."

Angus shook his head. "He's just changed."

"Any idea why?" Charles asked suddenly.

Angus shook his head, before his eyes settled on something behind them. They both could hear that sound of pine needles crunching beneath feet. The scent of Lord Avery was strong, as was some sort of fowl. But what made the two of them turn was the alluring aroma of one of Mrs. Levins's blackberry pies!

Brian held the prize aloft, as a red-feathered bird with a long narrow beak accompanied him. Burris had his wings folded over his back, and like all the other bird morphs, he had no arms. His eyes were so large against his face that it made him appear to gawk at everything. "Ah, good, the two of you are here. Burris, I want you to meet Charles Matthias, an envoy from the Keep. You already know Misha Brightleaf."

"It's a pleasure," Burris replied spritely as his head bobbed up and down. Charles returned the pleasantries, and soon the bird was walking about the tree, tapping the bark with his beak almost reflexively. Finally he stopped at one section, lifting one of his legs, and scratching at the wood with his talons. "This will do."

He closed his eyes and began chanting softly, his beak hanging open the entire time. A slight brownish glow began to spread forth from his leg and into the tree itself. The wood shimmered, and pulled back as if to get away from the woodpecker. He held his talons there for a moment more, and then pulled them back, the glow fading.

"Okay, give me the pie." Avery handed it over, and the bird slipped it into the opening. Putting one leg upon the tree again, he chanted softly, and dragged the bark back in place, sealing up the hole, and the pie. Within moments, the entire spell was complete, and only a small slash mark remained to designate that anything had happened at all. Burris stood straight, preened out his tail feathers with his beak, and then breathed deeply. "It is done. One of the more interesting jobs I've had to do, I must confess."

"Thanks for your help, Burris!"

"Anytime, my lord," Burris inclined his head, his beak slicing neatly through the air. "I must be off, duties call!" The woodpecker unfolded his wings, pumped a few times, and was quickly rising in the sky, ducking and weaving between the trees with a graceful ease that astounded the rat.

Lord Avery looked at the three standing there and clapped his paws together. "Well, why don't you three join my wife and I for dinner?"

"Can't, I have to watch this clown till Shelly gets back," the badger pointed at the cell door.

"And you two?" Avery looked at the fox and rat, his tail twitching still.

Charles and Misha looked at each other, before the fox nodded. "Of course, we'd love to." He grinned mischievously. "Angus's cooking could kill a whole legion."

"I thought you said you liked my eggs?" Angus asked, a wry grin on his checkerboard face.

"Just because I didn't upchuck that one batch!" the fox retorted, his tail wagging in merriment.

Angus waved his paws at the fox. "Get out of here, you rascals!" The three of them chuckled as they left the badger to his duties.

One of the things that Metamor Keep did to anybody was irrevocably change their diet. This was clearly evident when they saw what Lady Avery was cooking on her stove. In the large pot was a huge batch of assorted nuts and berries collected from the trees and bushes about town. However, neither Misha nor Charles shied away at the sight, but eagerly dug into their servings when it was presented to them.

"So, when do you intend to question that Lutin?" Lord Avery finally asked as he took a drink of the sassafras tea.

"Tomorrow afternoon probably," Misha said between filling his mouth with the stew.

"By that point he'll be dying for a taste of that pie," Charles added. "I'm sure he'll be willing to answer any question we ask."

"What do you think he'll know?"

Charles shrugged, as did the fox. "Whatever he can tell us will probably be new information. I really don't know."

Lady Angela Avery seemed perturbed by something. "What do you intend to do with this Lutin once you are finished with him?" She was sitting next to her husband as she ate. Her tail skittered to and fro, as did her eyes and ears. Yet she seemed completely at ease with talk of interrogations, prisoners, and battle plans.

Both Misha and Charles looked at each other for a moment. It was obvious that the question had never crossed either of their minds. "I guess we will send him back to the Keep if we can, once we're finished here."

"Either that or we have to kill him," Misha replied glumly.

The rat stuffed a bit more of the nut stew in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. The fresh blueberries were a bit strong against the varieties of nut, but Charles gnawed slowly anyway. "Depending on what he knows, and how cooperative he is, will determine what we do next. We can't just stand around and look important, we need to do something!"

"Charles is right. Phil told us we needed to be visible, but he never told us how to be visible aside from wearing these." Misha tugged on the collar of his tunic with a claw. "Do you have any scouts moving through the mountain areas?"

Lord Avery shook his head. "It is too dangerous, especially when they already have the ravine. We don't have enough men to do a proper search anyway."

Before Charles could add in his say, the back door that led outside to the tree bark exploded inward with two bundles of fur wrestling about the floor. Charles jumped from his seat, the power deep inside his paws, but Misha put a reassuring paw upon his own shoulder. "Christopher, Darien! Will you two stop it!" Angela scolded at the two young boys.

The two figures stood upright, both nodding their furry heads emphatically. "Yes, Mom." Charles stared at the two in shock. They were both young squirrel morphs. There was no way either of them could have reached puberty yet, they were both too child-like.

"We have guests here, where are you manners?" Angela continued scolding her sons in a stern voice which, coming from a squirrel, sounded slightly ridiculous.

The both bowed their heads in shame, their long bushy tails hanging low. "We're sorry."

"Now get cleaned up, dinner is waiting for you," Angela pointed them towards the other door, which Charles presumed led to their rooms. The two dirty squirrels left the room walking slowly, but once their mother's back was turned, they darted after each other, racing wildly along the woody walls.

"Those are your kids?" Charles asked, still a bit stunned.

Lord Avery nodded, a big smile on his muzzle. "Christopher and Darien, my little twin boys. I don't think they ever walk anywhere!"

"How old are they?"

"Only five," Brian remarked. "It seems that they are growing up faster than normal children."

"Too fast!" Angela sighed disconsolately. "Before you know it they will be all grown up."

"I thought all children were born human?"

Misha scooped some more of the stew into his muzzle. "Usually, but sometimes when the parents are cursed in the same way, their children are born with that particular curse."

"Interesting!" Charles said as the two young squirrels scampered back into the room and found their way over to the stove. Their tails twitched as they sniffed at the brewing concoction. They both pushed at each other slightly as they tried to be the closest.

Angela Avery scooted the both of them away, and pointed them towards the table. "Go sit down, I'll have your food ready in a moment!"

Charles wiggled his whiskers as the two children sat down next to him and Misha. "Hello, Misha!" they both chimed, their bright brown eyes twinkling in the lamplight.

"Hello, you two. What mischief have you been up to today?"

As the two children regaled the fox with their misadventures, Charles listened in, smiling at the two precocious youngsters. They didn't seem to have a care in the world, only to play and to frolic. Nobody should ever have to take that away from these two.

As Christopher and Darien were busy filling their mouths, Lord Avery took the time to cut into the conversation. "Okay, I'd like you two to greet Mr. Charles Matthias here. He is our guest too."

"Hello, Mr. Matthias!" both chimed together in an almost sing-song fashion.

"Charles will be fine," the rat said as he grinned from ear to ear. "You two sound like you've had quite a lot of exercise today!"

They both chuckled, but then one, the rat suspected it was Christopher, taunted Charles. "I bet you couldn't keep up with us!"

Charles leaned across the table towards them. "Oh really?"

Misha shook his head, "Charles, don't do it!"

"Yeah," Darien added. "I bet you couldn't even climb our tree!"

Charles smiled slightly, as he finished the last of the stew. "We'll see about that."

The two tried to get up from their seats to rush off, but Angela slapped the table with one paw. "Not tonight you don't! You two need your baths!"

"Aw, mom!" the both whined.

"You finish up your stew and I'll take you down to the lake. And I don't want either of you trying to sneak off again!" Angela wagged her claw in front of the two youngsters, a sight that almost made Charles laugh. It had been so long since he'd been around kids, he'd almost forgotten how much he enjoyed it.

The two little squirrels finished up their meal, and walked as if to the gallows towards the door to the tree bark. Angela followed after them, carrying a small wicker basket. After they said their goodbyes and left, Lord Avery turned back to his guests, and sighed contentedly. "They are such darlings aren't they?"

Charles chuckled. "That they are!"

Misha laughed, and then smiled sadistically at the rat. "You're doomed! Those little ones are going kill you!"

"I can think of worse ways to go," Charles replied as he leaned back to stretch. "Besides, we don't have anything to do till tomorrow afternoon anyway. This will be as good a distraction as any."

"Well when you come crawling back to Angus's place tomorrow night, we'll see who was right," Misha chortled as he shoved the last of the stew in his muzzle and chewed upon the nuts.

"Want to make it a bet?"

"Depends on what we're betting."

"Well, after this is all over, the loser has to buy the winner a drink from your friend, Lars. I definitely want to see his selection."

"You're on!" Misha held ut his paw, and the rat shook it to seal the bet. "That's the easiest drink I've ever had."

"Don't count it too quickly," the rat said as he picked up his chewstick in one paw. "I outran an army of Lutins; what can two kids do that is worse?"

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