Declarations of Allegiance - Part IV

Angus had promised to wake them both before dawn, but it was unnecessary. Their night's sleep had been restless and after he rose, Charles had a bit of trouble turning his head to the right at first. The soreness ebbed after massaging the crick with one paw for a few minutes. Still, the badger held up the lantern while the fox and rat scoured over the map that Lord Avery had supplied them.

Wordlessly, they traced out their path into the mountain ravine. There was something about the morning before battle that leaves the blood cold. The very air held its breath in expectation of the death that would follow. All three felt it, as none of them spoke, for fear their words would carry across the still winds to the very heart of their enemy.

Finally, the rat and fox nodded, folding the map up slowly, lest it crinkle and break the moment. Charles and Misha removed their clothes, each folding them up neatly and placing them upon the beds Angus had provided. Even the metamorphosis from morph to full animal seemed somehow subdued, as if the oppressiveness was choking it.

Once upon all fours, they carefully padded to the door, each looking from one to the other. Matthias was a rather large rat, as he needed to be to keep up with the swift-footed fox. He gnawed momentarily at an itch in his nice bark brown fur before looking up to their host. Angus silently took the handle, and swung wide the door, letting in the morning fog and chill.

As they passed the threshold, they each looked about, sniffing at the air. The village was still and dark, only the lofty branches far overhead dared sway about. All either Charles or Misha could smell was the forest itself; even the scents of Avery's inhabitants were muted. It was as if the entire grove were shrouded with a thick blanket.

The two Keepers gazed momentarily into each other's eyes, and then both nodded, and started off towards the far end of town. The leaves and pine needles crunched softly beneath their paws. Yet neither of them left a print behind. Charles gazed at the many structures as he went. There, into the side of that hill with trees growing up from it was the brewery. Back to his right, high in the tree tops was Lord Avery's home. Between the trees he could catch rippling glimpses of the silvery moon reflected off the surface of the lake. In the far clearing were makeshift tents surrounded by several wagons, where Lance, Michael, and the other timbersman would still be sleeping off their ale.

And then they left all of it behind never even seeing where the guards were hidden up in the trees. They were there though, and that was what was important. The trees quickly became dense, and the ground rougher as outcropping roots snagged at their paws and damp earth muddied their fur. Still, they had a lot of ground to travel before morning. It would be an hour's walk to the mountain pass itself, and then another negotiating the ravine.

They kept a reasonable pace as they went along. Misha continuously loped ahead, stopped, and turned around, licking his jowls as he waited for the rat to catch up. Yet Charles did not feel in the least bit winded at all by this little jaunt. He'd run harder and for far longer than he would have to today.

Still, the forest about them seemed to forebode ill for them both. The gnarled branches seemed to reach out and snag at their fur. The vegetation in many places seemed to be rotting or smelled of the dead. The foliage was tight in many places, so tight in fact that they could not even be sure of their way. Yet they moved on.

It wasn't for some time before they heard the first bird song to announce the new day. It was still very dark down at the base of the trees, and both were following their noses more than their eyesight anyway. However, that gentle melody made both fox and rat stop and stare up into the boughs far above them, and at the purple sky that was just visible beyond the uppermost branches. The fog that had lain over everything had receded, and the oppressive feel was gone. It was as if that single voice had shattered the inevitability of the day, giving it new promise.

Charles and Misha resumed their trek, both feeling more confidant and sure of their eventual success. It was not too much further before the ground became very rocky, and they were both scrambling up and down steep slopes of shifting gravel. As the fox scrambled up one sheer climb, a sheet of slate broke free, and tumbled down the hillside, shattering below into hundreds of fragments. It nearly landed on the rat, who jumped back out of the way and into the branches of a tree that the wind had angled against the hill.

However, they both managed to keep going as they climbed higher and higher into the hills before finally the treeline broke briefly enough for them to get their first good glimpse of the mountains. With the sun rising to their backs, the light made the snow-topped peaks seem almost iridescent. There was a short rise, and then the hill dipped back again down to the base of the western range. The ravine was on the other side, and most easily accessible from the pass between the two nearest peaks. Trees flocked the sides of the base like barnacles, hugging tightly against the rock face as they yearned for the sun's rays.

As his eyes followed the treeline up the cliffs, he could see where they petered out, leaving sheer faces of stone, or as in a few places, small grassy outcroppings. There seemed to be a white smudge on one face of the nearest mountain, and it took Charles's myopic eyes a moment to discern any features. With a bit of a surprise, he recognized them as rams, and let out a tiny squeak of delight. Misha glanced over at the rat, his ears perched inquisitively, but then turned back and began loping up the hillside.

The scent of animal life grew stronger as they passed over the rise and down into the gully and back beneath the cover of the trees. Misha even spotted a rabbit, nearly darting off to chase the fleet-footed lapine, but stopped after only a few feet, and resumed the trek towards the ravine. Charles snickered slightly as he scrambled over the rocks and tree roots. There was something to be said for traveling about in his animal guise, as all of his senses were so attuned to everything about him. True, the colors were quite muted, but still, the overwhelming closeness from the subtle scents and unobvious sounds that he felt was very comforting.

By the time they were clear of the woods again and facing the junction of these two great peaks, the air was filled with the songs of birds, and the cautious movement of the native wildlife. The sky was bright as the sun continued to rise above the Eastern mountains. Misha and Charles chased their shadows as they went, glancing up along the pleasant slopes and gentle inclines. The grass was thick and wet with dew, tickling the rat's paws and belly. Yet, despite the sanguine beauty of the countryside, the pungent taint of Lutins lingered in the air.

Stepping through the bushes, Misha and the rat made their way up through the pass, and found themselves staring out over a narrow valley, thick with treetops and rock piles scattered about. From this vantage point, the Lutin encampment was not visible. They stayed underneath the scant foliage and out of sight as they wormed their way down the sloping hillside, being careful not to cause a clatter by knocking over loose stones or snapping any small branches.

Charles gazed up along either cliff face against the ravine, and saw high plateaus on either side. Crumbling stone and granite lined the walls, with bushes and grasses filling up every exposed nook and cranny. There was a certain almost ancient atmosphere to the land as their paws carried them over the moss and the weeds. They both felt like invaders, spoiling a place that had not been seen by any man for thousands of years. Mushrooms climbed upon the trees in massive folds, while the frogs and lizards chirped as they sat upon those fungal shelves striving for what little sunlight came through the mountain tops.

The hillside quickly leveled off, and soon the scent of their enemies became quite overwhelming. They crouched low in the underbrush as they watched and listened at the air. The sound of harsh voices barking orders and snarling foreign obscenities was clear through the trees. As they approached on silent pads, they began to see the fortifications that were being erected in the heart of the ravine. The treetops gave way in small places, and there, under a green patchwork fabric, Lutins were busy building several long range weapons. Charles and Misha stared in wonder as they saw the impish figures chopping wood, smoothing it out with adze and knife. Ropes were lashed and gears assembled to the makeshift catapult. They could hear the stress of the beams as they bent it backwards into position.

Continuing on further into their camp, they noticed several guards milling about the perimeter, as well as others removing supply bags from wagons as well as sharpening their blades. Tents were erected between the trees, but no banners were flying from any of them. A trail of thin blue smoke was emerging from the top of the largest tent that they could see. Very low humming and chanting came from there as well. The two spies took one look at each other, and both knew that neither wanted to have anything to do with what lay in that tent.

They stayed low, hiding in the bushes and behind trees as they wove in and out of the Lutin encampment. As they watched, one of the wagons was led away by a team of slightly unsettled horses along a forest trail leading out the other side of the ravine. After its passage they quickly ran across the opening and continued to circle the series of clearings. The guard on the rear side was next to nonexistent, and they were able to freely move about, noting the number of catapults that were under construction - twelve - as well as the three already finished. By the time they made it back around to the near side of the pass, they had seen almost the entire camp.

Charles pointed with his nose towards one mountainside where trees grew up from the dense rockfall. The two quietly trotted up around to the far side away from the camp, and nestled down in the darkness. Charles started shifting back towards a more human guise, but not going all the way, just enough to make communicating easier. Misha saw what the rat did, and changed likewise.

"What do you think?" Charles whispered beneath his breath, his mostly rodent throat giving him a bit of a lisp.

"They're never going to move those catapults. Those are for defense only," Misha mused, looking over the rocks, scratching at a bit of lichen with one claw. "Come to think of it, I didn't see much in the way of a fighting force there yet."

"And they certainly don't look like they are about ready to leave. It looks like they plan to stay here a while."

"I didn't see or smell a cook though," the fox pointed out. "They need to have foodstuffs with them; they can't depend on their supply lines for every meal."

"Did you see any sign of Calephas?" Charles asked.

Misha shook his head once, his yellow eyes narrowing. "No, which leads me to believe that not all here is as it seems. He's probably waiting in the vanguard for this area to be secured before moving in. However, they don't need fifteen catapults to secure this area. Five would be sufficient, as long as they had a good number of troops to protect them."

"That is odd," Charles agreed. "If we want to attack them, we'll have to move quickly. It won't take them long to get the rest of those finished, a few days at best."

The fox nodded, but glared out at the forest below. "Still, there is something about this whole set up which doesn't seem right to me. I just can't put my paw on what."

Charles rubbed his paws together, wishing that he had a chewstick with him; his teeth ached horribly! "So, do you want to head back?"

Misha was gazing out at the far mountain, looking up and down the cliff face to the high plateau. "I suppose so. I don't think there's anything else for us to see." He started to turn away, and then his head snapped back, eyes peering at the edge of the cliff, blinking in disbelief.

"What is it?" Charles asked, staring at the blurry lines. Before he'd become a rat, his vision had been perfect, but ever since, great distances were just a mesh of colors and shapes.

Misha kept staring for a moment. Finally he hung his head in disgust. "I thought I saw something up there."

"It was probably a ram, there was a whole flock of them on the other face."

The fox nodded, but didn't sound convinced. "That's probably what it was."

Charles looked at the imposing cliff walls, and then licked his lips together. "Do you want to investigate?"

The fox shook his head. "We'll be horribly exposed if we try to climb those peaks. No, it's better if we return back for today." Misha suddenly ducked low at the sound of a stone falling down, cracking against the rocks. They both wordlessly shifted back to their animal guises, even as the scent of a Lutin hit them. Charles slipped in among the rocks, while Misha stood over him, looking back and forth at the ends of the pile.

Suddenly up over the rise appeared one of the Lutin guards. Misha looked up at the figure impassively, his body alert, and tail upright. The Lutin picked up a rock, and threw it at the vulpine. Misha jumped back out of the way, the stone clattering against the cliff face and bouncing away. The creature picked up another and cast it after the first, but Misha began to lope around the rocks and towards the forest, getting out of sight. The Lutin grumbled something inaudible, and then sat down right on top of the rock Charles was hiding under.

The rat watched as the green-skinned legs hung freely before him. He couldn't see much else, and most certainly not where his friend had run off to. He waited a few moments, trying to catch his breath and to calm himself. Matthias hoped that the Lutin would leave if he waited long enough, but several minutes ticked by, and still the legs were there. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, Charles darted out from under the rock, his body close to the ground.

However, the Lutin was not as slow as he'd hoped, and he felt its dirty hands grasp his tail and yank him backwards.

"Good rat! You will make me a nice dinner," the Lutin muttered, licking his lips and small tusks. Charles stared back at those red eyes filled with avarice, and hissed angrily. The Lutin shook him slightly, and act that completely disoriented him. Before he was able to even regain his bearings, he found himself stuffed into a foul smelling sack, and the drawstring was pulled taut. He tried to bite into the leather, but found not only was it tanned well, but it tasted horrible and of rotting flesh. Obviously he wasn't the first animal to find his way into this sack.

Charles's next instinct was to just return to normal morph size, but quickly decided against that, since he didn't want to give away his presence. As long as the Lutin thought of him as a normal rat, there was no harm done. However, if he didn't get out of this sack fast, he might not have a choice. He was going to sleep in Angus's home tonight, not this beast's stomach!

However, he soon discovered that the Lutin was walking back towards the camp as the sack bounced to and fro, making the rat a bit ill. He tried to clear his thoughts, but they were terribly jumbled with the tight, confining darkness, and the foul stench that inhabited it. Charles found only one solace, one place of refuge in his predicament. Focusing his mind and his strength, he let himself dwell in the power of the Sondeck within him. Soon, all distractions were gone, and his thoughts were clear once more.

It did not take him too long to claw a small hole in the sack. From the sounds about him, he could tell that they were already in the Lutin camp. His fur stood on end at the shrill tones. Still, he was part of the Sondeck, and nothing could touch him now. He pushed himself out from the sack, and landed with a small squeal on the hard ground. The Lutin turned about and saw his meal scurrying into the bushes, and shouted in anger. The other Lutins laughed at their fellow's antics as he stomped and ripped apart the underbrush to find Charles.

Yet Matthias was already long since gone. He had not stopped moving since he'd fallen from the pouch, and had scrambled all the way back up to the outcropping of rocks where he'd been caught. He sniffed about in the air, standing on his hind legs, and then turned about at the sound of crunching leaves. A familiar vermilion fox emerged from the bushes and came over to his friend, his yellow eyes concerned. Charles pawed at Misha's nose, while the vulpine gave the rat a long lick with his tongue.

The two stared at each other for another moment, gazed back towards the encampment, and then scurried off towards the pass, ducking and weaving through the bushes and the brambles till they once again left the ravine behind. Metamor Valley stood dazzling in the midmorning daylight, with birds flying through the tops of the trees and far overhead. In the far off distance, the tallest peak of the Keep, Channing's Tower, could just barely be seen above the hills and the treetops. There, two ladies waited for the return of their men.

Staring back down the hill, each let out a sigh and began the trek back towards Glen Avery.

The scouts and timbersmen had started up a little entertainment for themselves late that afternoon. While Misha was discussing affairs with Lord Avery, Charles sat out on the clearing with the others. His vest was still scratched up, but he planned to take care of that soon. For now he was content to watch his fellow Keepers beat each other with sticks in mock combat.

He sat between Lance and Michael, the latter of which was furiously gnawing away at a piece of bark. In the center Angus and Lindsey were knocking each other around. Angus was lighter, surprisingly for a badger, and was darting in and out, while Lindsey continuously assailed him with a mix of overhead and underhand blows. While they were only sticks, they still could hurt. A few of the participants were nursing cuts and bruises.

Finally Angus managed to put his stick right in the center of Lindsey's chest. "You're dead!" The badger crowed to the cheers of the other Glen scouts.

Lindsey looked at the staff pointed right at his heart, and then dropped his own stick and laughed heartily, his red braids flapping up and down. "That was some fight! I bet you could tell some good stories after a few bottles of wine."

Angus grinned, his fangs gleaming in the dappled sunlight. "I'm sure you have quite a collection yourself."

Lindsey grinned with quite a gleam in his eye. "We must share them sometime!"

"Oh, yes, definitely!" Angus smiled as the big man left the ring. The badger's eyes searched the crowd till they landed on the rat. "Charles, care to try your paw?"

Charles shook his head. "I'm not that good with a sword."

"Ah, you are probably better than you think you are, come on, I'd love to spar against you."

Charles grimaced, but Michael and Lance were urging him on. Finally, a bit reluctantly, he stepped into the ring, and wrapped his paws around the large stick that Lindsey had been using. He swung it about experimentally, and quickly realized that it was quite unbalanced for one of his size. "Can I have a shorter staff?"

"Of course!" One of the scouts handed Charles a two-and-a-half foot long stick in place of the four foot monstrosity that he'd been hefting. He swung it about in smooth arcs and then nodded to his opponent. "Ready?" the badger asked.

"Oh yes," Charles stood in a defensive position, holding out the short staff before him.

Angus stood at the ready, watching the rat as he slowly began to circle him, the staff kept close to his chest. Charles began to circle about the badger, throwing him off balance for only a moment. Charles was not quick enough to take advantage of it however, and so the two combatants stared at each other.

Charles was the first to make a thrust, a quick jab towards the badger's exposed front knee. The staff came down immediately, deflecting the strike. Matthias stepped back, breathing slowly, his face calm. Angus moved the tip of his mock-sword in slow circles, mirroring the dance of his paws.

Suddenly the badger made a lightning strike, the tip of his staff slicing across the rat's chest. Charles jumped back, his sword slapping the other one away. The rat did a quick step backwards as well, his mock weapon before him. Angus calmly followed after him, driving the rat in a backwards spiral.

Because he was walking backwards, Charles was not able to see where he was going. Thus when he tripped over the root, and flailed his arms to right his balance, everybody knew that he was finished. Angus lunged in for the kill, but without warning Charles snapped up his staff, breaking the rod that the badger carried in two. Angus stopped while the rat righted himself, staring at the broken shaft in wonder.

However the moment was short-lived, as the badger attacked Charles with a series of quick strokes that put the rat on the defensive again. Even with the broken staff, Angus's superior ability shined clearly as Charles continued to back away, scuttling from side to side, and generally exerting a lot more energy than his opponent.

Finally, the rat dived to one side, and then sprang right back at his opponent, striking from the side with a quick thrust. Angus adroitly deflected the attack with a swing of his remaining staff, but the thrust had been a ruse, as Charles yanked it back just as Angus started to swing, and then stabbed just a bit lower, the tip making the barest contact with the badger's hip.

Angus put one paw over the mock wound, but was not in the least deterred from his fight. His smile was that of a man who knew victory, and sure enough, a few brief seconds later, his sword tip landed squarely on the rat's head. Charles had been unable to get back to his defensive position before the badger's riposte had struck him dead.

"You're dead," Angus announced to the excited crowd.

Charles chuckled and stood up, "At least I tasted some blood."

The badger patted his black fur on his thigh. "That you did! Good fight."

"I want to fence the rat," a combative ferret declared as he drew forth a long staff. Charles watched the way the muscles tenses beneath Garigan's grey fur. He didn't really look to be very strong, but from all the accounts that others had made of him, he was almost without peer in this grove.

Angus stepped aside, returning to his place in the circle. "He's all yours!"

Charles looked back at his friends, noting that almost all the timber crews were rooting for him, while the scouts for Glen Avery were cheering on his opponent. The rat stepped back a bit, trying to catch his breath, even though the ferret still advanced slowly on him. His pinkish nose flared, and his soft brown eyes grew hard. Charles knew that look all too well.

It seemed like time slowed down as the two came closer together in the center of the field. Charles held his small staff out defiantly, letting only the calm of his innermost self stand against Garigan's bubbling ferocity. Each spectator held their breath as they leaned forward.

Then, the first strike came, and it seemed it would be the last. Garigan jabbed his staff at the stationary weapon in Matthias's paws, and broke it at the hilt. The rat negligently dropped the remnants of his weapon, and stood there, while Garigan put his sword tip beneath the rat's muzzle. "Aren't you even going to try?"

The rat looked placidly up into the face of his opponent, noting the confusion that had slipped into his eyes. Then he moved. Charles slipped out from underneath the blade, grabbed both of the ferret's forearms, and pushed forwards, folding them up on eachother with such force that the weapon in Garigan's hands slapped him right between the eyes.

The stunned loser stubbled back a few paces, his paws feeling his forehead where he'd been hit, and then looking at the little rat who'd done it. "How did you do that?"

Charles grinned, picking up the dropped sword. "I distracted you, that's all. Even an unarmed opponent can be a dangerous one. Sometimes they are the most dangerous."

"I bet we can stop you!" He heard two piping voices shout from the treetops. Charles looked up and say Lord Avery's two young boys dangling from the branches, hitting each other with sticks. "We're really good too!" Christopher said as he scrambled on down to the forest floor.

The crowd chuckled at the youngster's antics as they continued to beat each other up with the small sticks. "You two are probably too much for me!" Charles declared as he walked back to his place between Lance and Michael.

"Besides, I need him right now," a new voice added. Charles turned his head and saw Misha and Lord Avery walking up to the group.

"I hate to spoil the fun, but it is time for the patrol change anyway," Lord Avery pointed out. He then looked at his two boys who were furiously trying to hide their sticks. "And would you two stop trying to kill each other! What would your mother say if she saw you out here doing that?"

"Probably, 'Brian, get out here and get your kids!' " Darien remarked, causing most of the crowd to erupt in laughter.

Lord Avery stared at his son for a moment in shock, and then chuckled in merriment. "You're right, that is probably what she'd say." After shaking his head in the delight of the moment, he pointed back towards the treetops of their home. "Now go get washed up, it's nearly supper time." Once again, the two squirrels began a death-march towards the tree, until they were past the eye of their watchful father, when they darted about on all fours, jumping and scampering over each other to get there first. Avery shook his head, chuckling beneath his breath.

As the crowd began to disperse, Charles walked over to the fox who was grinning from ear to ear. "So what is it?"

"I just sent a letter back to Phil, it should arrive later tonight. Hopefully by tomorrow afternoon we'll have some more reinforcements."

"What sort of reinforcements?"

"Well, a contingent of troops hopefully, because we'll need just that much to dislodge those catapults before they get them all built. Also, a dragon."

"A dragon?"

Misha nodded proudly. "I want to know what is at the top of those plateau's. Burris is a woodpecker, and can't fly that high. A dragon can reach that height though. By tomorrow evening, we can start making our plans of attack."

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