Declarations of Allegiance - Part V
t wasn't until midmorning of the next day that Charles was able to find the time to visit the Tailor. Misha and Angus were busying themselves with inspections and other military affairs. The timbersman, with the help of Shelly and Garigan, were busy repairing bows and arrows as well as other weapons. Lord Avery was spending some time with his kids and his wife. All of which left the rat with nothing to do.
So, he decided to get around to fixing up his tunic. To his pleasant surprise, the tailor, Walter, lived with Mrs. Levins. So he followed his nose, needing nothing else, till he came to a nice brown thatch hut between the bases of a few trees. The scent of sweet delight filled his nostrils as he drew closer.
When he knocked on the door, he was met by the bubbly hedgehog. She had a bowl filled with batter under one arm, and a spoon in the other. "Oh my, Mr. Matthias! So good to see you. Would you like to try some of my latest batch of cookies?"
Charles grinned, his whiskers twitching. "I would love to have some. Is Walter in?"
She turned about on her little feet, waddling back inside. Charles closed the door behind him, taking stock of the room about him. Unlike many, this one had a real roof with several oaken crossbeams. The front room was dominated by Mrs. Levins's kitchen. Pots and pans hung from the crossbeams of all shapes and sizes. A large pile of coals rested in a bucket in one corner next to the large stove. Resting on a counter top were a small batch of cooked dough that smelled quite enticing.
Mrs. Levins picked up a few of the little treats, and placed them in the rat's paws. "There you go! Do tell me what you think, they are a new recipe."
Charles bit into one of them, and his eye lit up. He chewed the morsel about his mouth for a few moments before swallowing and declaring, "Those are some of the best I've ever tasted!"
Her face puckered up in delight, and her spines shook in merriment. "Oh good. Walter! Somebody's here to see you!"
"Who is it?" a decidedly feminine voice called back. Charles blinked for a moment before mentally kicking himself for not even thinking of that possibility.
"Charles Matthias. He wants to see you."
"Send him back!" Charles heard echo form the back room.
Mrs. Levins turned back to the rat and patted him on the shoulder with one paw. "In you go!"
Charles grinned and followed the narrow hallway back to a room of similar proportions. A moderately sized loom filled one corner, and several rugs were piled along the wall. There were two workbenches that he could see, one of them filled with spools of cloth. At the other sat a tall woman with. Her black hair had been cropped short at the neck, but that was all he could see of her face as she bent down furiously threading a needle in and out of a garment.
"Walter?" Charles asked as he stepped into the room.
"What do you want?"
"I need this tunic repaired. Can you do it?" Charles slipped off the bright blue vest and held it out.
Walter reached out with one slender hand and took thee cloth. She turned about in her chair just enough for him to see one side of her face. There was certainly a striking beauty there, an almost regal countenance. Her long, stiff features carried well. Yet there was a broken malice behind them that made the rat's breath catch in his throat.
She handed it back almost negligently. "Two gold."
"Two gold?" Charles spluttered reflexively.
"Yes. That thread is hard to come by here. I only have a very small supply of it. Metamor may have it in droves, but I don't. Two gold."
Charles reached into his pocket and pulled out what change he had. He was not rich by any means, but neither was he poor. With a monthly stipend of five gold for his work for the Writer's Guild, he was able to pay for most things without much effort. This would be his greatest expense in quite some time.
He plunked the two Gold Crowns upon the edge of the desk. For the first time, Walter seemed surprised, staring at the wealth with her calloused brown eyes. She took them into the palm of her hand and inspected them for a moment, before slipping them into the pockets of her pantaloons.
"You must be wealthy, to spend two gold on a bit of cloth."
"I would have rather spent less," Charles replied, handing over the tunic, "but that was best price I was going to get."
"Oh, you mean you weren't going to try haggling?" she asked in some surprise.
"I thought about it, but figured that you were not the sort who would take well to having her price questioned."
"And what does that mean?" Walter asked as she picked searched through her spools for just the right color cloth.
"It means that I was quite willing to pay your asking price," Charles replied, not liking her hostile tone.
She didn't say anything more then, sitting back down in her chair, and threading her needle with a bright blue piece of string. Charles grabbed one of the other chairs, and sat down in it sideways, as there was no tail hole.
"Fine, make yourself at home. See if I care," Walter blistered as she began working her craft. Before his eyes, the tears and the gashes in his tunic were gradually sealed up.
"How long have you been a Tailor?" Charles asked just to break the silence and to hopefully quell her hostility.
"Since I was ten, my father taught me how to sew and mend clothes, boots, anything that I might need to do." Her hands worked over the cloth with the practiced ease of a master.
"I notice that you've quilted several rugs. May I look at them?" Charles pointed towards the one corner.
"Go ahead," she remarked blandly with a wave of her hand.
Charles walked across the room, his toe-claws clicking against the hardwood floor. Throwing back the rugs, he noted the intricate geometric designs wove into the material. All of them felt warm to the touch. He traced a claw along the patterns, noting how jagged and rough they appeared.
Glancing up at the loom, he could see another rug in work. As he neared the machine, Walter's voice called out, "Don't touch it."
"I'm just looking," Charles replied, holding his paws behind his back. This rug was different from the others. It didn't seem to be comprised of geometric patterns at all. It more looked like a mural or a fresco with people and places depicted in the cloth. Charles could see the foundations of a castle, and a horde of green figures assaulting the walls. Though he had not been there, he knew it was the Battle of Three Gates.
"This is some very beautiful work."
"I'm glad you have a sense of art," she replied caustically.
Charles grimaced, returning to his seat, with a burning desire to slap this woman, or at least something. Still, he resisted the urge, and asked instead, "Is that supposed to commemorate the Battle?"
She nodded after a moment. "After a fashion."
"Were you there?" Charles asked.
She set down the vest, sighing a bit. Walter then turned on the rat, her whole face glaring at him. Charles stared at it and was rather surprised by the untouched beauty that was there. "Yes, I was there. I was helping with the wounded, since I was never good with a sword. Most of the town was helping defend the second gate, as there weren't many of us left after Nasoj's forces crushed the Glen. They all were turned into animals."
"I'd noticed most everybody here had fur or feathers."
"Well now you know why."
"There aren't any age regressed here though. There are a few who've changed sex. Why is that?"
She bit her lip a moment. "There were a few of us that were turned into children at the Battle. Most either died or were hurt too badly to leave the Keep for weeks. Those that did recover, stayed there."
The rat nodded, noting the way her voiced seemed softer, yet still harsh. "Was Mrs. Levins your wife?"
Walter nodded after a moment's pause. "For thirty years."
"You had a child didn't you?"
Her eyes were already growing wet. "Twins."
Charles grimaced. "They were both at the Battle of Three Gates weren't they?" She nodded, biting her knuckles. "I'm sorry," was all he could say. "I'm very sorry."
"It's not your fault," Walter chocked back a sob, trying to move the needle in her quaking hands. The rat put his own paw on her hand to steady it. "Please, I can do it."
Charles shook his head. "Do you ever talk about it?"
"What's there to talk about? They were turned to infants and killed." The tears were beginning to flow, streaking down her long face. She wiped them with the back of her hand, turning away so as not to be seen.
"I'm sorry," Charles muttered beneath his breath, and offering up his prayers for this poor woman.
The sounds of hoofbeats in the distance heralded the arrival of the troops later that afternoon. The august clamour of swords and armor carried through the trees and bushes to their ears long before they actually saw any of them. Charles and Misha were helping Michael and the other timbersmen with their construction when they first heard their approach. The fox's pointed ears twitched as he listened, and then a slight growl of disgust escaped his throat.
"I take it you were expecting something a little less conspicuous?" Charles asked as he scooped out a pile of dirt with his shovel. He then dumped it into the back of a wagon which once full would be carted across town.
"We don't need an army, we needed more scouts like us, and them," Misha gestured towards a few passing Glen's folk.
The rat nodded, watching the pit take shape. "We'll just have to make do, somehow."
Misha grumbled in assent.
Despite all of that though, when the forces finally diud show up, their fears were quickly allieved. It was a full contingent of Metamorian troops, but it was also a ruse. A good portion of them were dressed in full armor and mounted horseback, some even leading supply wagons with enough munitions to last them for weeks. Yet, it was all for show.
"So why are you wearing all of that?" Misha asked as the leader of the troops, a thick-boned mamalute with a nasty scar along one of his jowls.
"Prince Phil's instructions. We were to make as much noise as possible coming here."
Charles gnawed away on one of his chewsticks for a moment. "But you are not going to be wearing it while in combat?"
Captain Nyman shook his head, his floppy ears bouncing back and forth even as he loosened the straps to his vest with one paw. "No. I can't even stand this stuff to tell you the truth. I'd rather be naked then fight cooped up in this can." Even as he spoke, the rest of his men were also removing their armor and stowing it away in the wagons.
"The timbersman have prepared quarters for you and your men while you are staying here," Lord Avery declared. "We will want to discuss strategy up in my dining room later this evening after your dragon makes his rounds. You do have a dragon with you, do you not?"
Nyman nodded, waving to some of the men far in the back. "We had to keep him covered the entire trip, Phil was very specific about that."
The three of them, Charles, Misha, and Brian, all strained their necks gazing back to the approaching wagon. The horses snorted indignantly as they were led forward by the reins past their herdmates and through the thick trees. Finally, the Captain threw back the canvas revealing a small blue dragonnette.
"Gornul!" Charles shouted in joy at seeing his silent friend. The small figure lifted his head upon his serpentine neck and broadcasted an image of a dragon and a rat dancing together in bright sunlight to each of them.
"I'm happy to see you too," the rat declared, petting his friend along the side. "Why did they send you?"
The canine interjected brazenly, "Apparently because he's the smallest dragon at Metamor."
Misha grinned. "Well, as long as he can do the job, he's fine by me."
Gornul seemed quite delighted to hear that.
"Can you see him?" Charles asked as he shielded his eyes with one paw. The afternoon sun was getting low again st the western mountains, and unfortunately, that was exactly where they were trying to watch.
Misha shook his head. "He's definitely over the plateau, I just can't make him out anymore."
"We can see him!" the Avery boys declared from their perch in the trees. The four of them had climbed up into the higher boughs of the forest till they had reached a place where they could watch Gornul comfortably. Of course, to find such a spot, they needed the help of Darien and Christopher - the twin squirrels of unlimited energy and enthusiasm.
Misha leaned back against the tree trunk, resting his head. "I really hope you were right, Charles. It would make our lives that much easier."
"Then I must be wrong; life doesn't work that way. If it got too easy, then we'd get lazy. Now you wouldn't want that would you?" Matthias chided his friend.
"I don't think Caroline would let me be lazy!"
"We won't either!" Christopher boisterously announced. "Your dragon friend is circling lower and flying pretty slowly."
"I don't see anything!" Charles lamented, leaning against another nearby tree trunk. "Next time we do this, we get somebody to build a farseeing device."
Misha chuckled. "That would be very nice. Very expensive too. I couldn't afford one."
"We could always bill it to the Duke, claim it as a necessary expense."
The fox grinned. "That might be a bit excessive you know. I thought only us vulpines were supposed to be crafty and conniving."
"Oh, we rodents have our fair share of those wonderful traits too."
The two squirrel's stared back at their companions. "What are you two talking about?"
They both chuckled. "Oh, nothing important. Just keep an eye on Gornul, please?"
The two squirrels turned their heads back to the distant mountains, and the near invisible speck that hovered over top of the two nearest peaks that nestled the Lutin camp between them. Charles leaned back into the tree, scratching at the thick bark with one claw, and trying to ignore the fact that he could not see the forest floor beneath him. Since becoming a rat, he had necessarily developed a bit of acrophobia, and found himself a bit more comfortable with his feet in the soil instead of the boughs of great oaks.
His companion could sense his unease, and in some way shared it, though not as visibly. Misha was carving into the trunk with a slender knife, whistling slightly as he worked. The branches above and below swayed slightly in the gentle breeze, causing both the fox and rat to graps their perches with one paw, but the two squirrel children did not move, only continued their watchful gaze on the distant horizon.
"What are those?" Darien asked as one of his claws traced in the sky.
Charles and Misha both perred at where the young one pointed, but saw nothing. Christopher scratched his shoulder a moment, and then shouted in surprise. "They're arrows!"
Both the rat and the fox stared at each other in shock, and then strained to see what was happening to poor Gornul atop those cliffs, but again, their sight failed them. Darien hopped back and forth form branch to branch in nevous anticipation. "They're shooting the dragon! He's hurt bad!"
Charles tightened his grip on the tree, wishing that his power could snatch the dragon from the sky and return him to safety. That was his friend up there! "What's going on? Is he going to make it?"
Christopher shook his head. "I can't tell! The sky is just full of arrows!"
Misha put his knife back in the sheath at his side. "I wish I'd been wrong about those cliffs! Gornul, please make it back!"
However, there was nothing any of them could do for the tiny dragonette who was only a haphazardly flying speck in the eyes of Lord Avery's children. In the moments that followed, all any of them could taste was bile in their throats, and the fear in their hearts. Yet, those moments, as long as they were, ended when Darien exclaimed, "He's past the cliffs! He's coming back!"
Charles stood upon his tree branch, nearly losing his balance on one occassion. "How bad is he hurt?"
"I can't tell, he's too far away still. They've stopped shooting arrows at him though," Christopher said as he pointed at the right mountain.
"I think I can see him," Misha mused, pointing towards the sloping forest floor. Charles tried to follow the fox's claw, but it was a few more moments before he was able to make out the flailing blue body against the lush green vegetation.
"He's got four arrows in him," Darien said, a slight tremor in his voice.
Charles could now see his friend clearly, with his small wings spread out, those at least unmarred. Yet with each beat of those wings, his body seemed to shudder as if it was terribly painful for him to do so. Just before he disappeared beneath the foliage, the rat saw several arrows imbedded into the dragon's underbelly, staining those bright blue scales a scarlet red.
Then his friend was gone from sight, and all four of them scrambled down the tree branches, the two squirrels quickly outpacing the two Metamorians. Charles could not remember a single time in his life when he had been more reckless than that climb down. He jumped across branches, snapping numerous twigs that were in his way, and almost deliberately falling past firm paw-holds. However, when he finally landed on the ground, his eyes quickly found Angus and Captain Nyman who were carrying the wounded figure between them as carefully as possible.
Both the rat and the fox dashed over to the group that was gathering about. Misha called out in a loud voice, "Somebody find Burris!" Almost every single free scout went scurrying into the woods about them to find the elusive woodpecker.
Gornul's snout was hanging limply from his neck, his eyes nearly rolled back inside his head. Charles craddled the reptilian muzzle in his paws, and called out the dragon's name weakly. Misha was soon beside them all, as was Lord Avery and his wife, both twitching in anxiety. Then, the dragon blinked twice, and stared weakly up at them all, and then flashed a single image through their mind.
It took Charles a moment to realize what it was, but the image itself he could not forget. It was the exact placement of troops on top of both plateau's beside the ravine. Baron Calephas's clever trap was then clear to him. However, none of that mattered to the rat at that moment, as he leaned in closer, putting his paw gently on the dragon's chest. With a shudder, Gornul slipped back down to the ground, his breath coming slow and ragged, but it was there.
Leaning back on his haunches, Charles breathed a sigh of relief. "I think he's going to be all right!" He turned to face Misha, who did not look quite as convinced. "I sincerely hope he's going to be all right."
The fox patted his friend on the shoulder as a few of the scouts returned with the woodpecker mage in tow. He then grinned, licking his jowls. "I think he will be too."
Lars's brewery was quite full that evening. Lord Avery and several others were sitting about the central table, with the scouts, the timbersmen, and the Metamorian regulars standing about watching their tomorrow planned. Charles leaned over the table, standing in his seat so he could obtain a better view of the map that was spread out before them. Misha and Captain Nyman sat on the opposite side peering downwards. Chief Tathom was idly rubbing one of his horns with a forehoof.
"But what good is this information anyway?" the mamalute asked. "They saw Gornul scouting, why shouldn't they change their plans?"
Misha shook his head. "The way he had his men arrayed, it is obvious to me that the catapults in the ravine were a deliberate ruse. He wanted us to try to take them out first so his archers could line the cliff walls and massacre us both. If he is going to do anything, he'd pull out, and move his forces back to the fall back point. Of course, if he does that, any advantage he had is wasted. No, if I were him I'd leave my men right where they were. What's the name of this mountain again?" Misha pointed at the peak to the right of the ravine.
"That's Nuln. The other mountain is Kalegris," Lord Avery replied. "The plateau on Nuln is very large. Kalegris has one as well, but it is too small to make a defensive position from."
Mattias nodded. "According to Gornul, he didn't have anything but a token force up there either. I think a few of us could retake Mount Kalegris easily. Most of Baron Calephas's army is on top of Mount Nuln. That's where we need to attack."
"But how?" Tathom asked. "The slopes are too treacherous on three sides. They must have the rear guarded."
"Gornul also spotted a wagon coming up along a path from behind the mountain," Misha mused. "It looks like the same wagons that were at the bottom of the ravine. I'd wager that they are shipping supplies back and forth between the ravine, their vanguard back behind the mountain, and the top of Mount Nuln. We might be able to slip in that way. How is Gornul, by the way?"
Lord Avery smiled briefly. "Burris says he's going to be all right, but that he shouldn't fly for another week at least so his muscles can heal." The squirrel then traced out the path along the backside of the mountain. "Still, only a few could sneak aboard the wagons, and even then, only the smallest of us could go. Most of us here are quite large in animal form."
Charles leaned back a moment. "I can do it. We should have at least five or six, but no more."
"I'll go as well," Garigan muttered. "I think I'm the smallest of the Glen scouts as an animal."
They soon had three more volunteers from the Metamorian regulars, and then Lord Avery smiled. "Then we six shall sneak aboard the wagon to reach the top of the cliff. Once there we can move about the camp and wreak all sorts of harm."
"You're coming as well?" Charles asked in surprise.
"Of course! I am a capable fighter, and I will do whatever it takes to keep my family safe." Lord Avery spoke with such conviction that nobody else dared question his decision.
"That still only gets a few of us into the area," Misha pointed out. "Most of his men on the plateau are archers, so they aren't going to be very effective in close combat or if they are in motion. If we try to ascend the rear face, he'll just move his men into position to shoot us as we climb."
"We use to be able to wander about in animal form to get by their sentries, but of late, that tactic has backfired," Nyman mused, scratching between his ears with one forepaw. "They don't take well to animals that aren't supposed to be there."
"What about animals that are already there?" Misha asked. "We did see a flock of rams up on those cliffs. Perhaps they could be useful to us somehow?"
"If there were a way to drive them through the Lutin ranks on the plateau, that could cause quite a bit of commotion. It would give us the time we need to take out their leaders. I'm sure the Lutins would be quite demoralized if Baron Calephas were to die suddenly," Matthias mentioned, pointing at the slopes with one claw.
"But then again, how do we get men up there to drive the sheep?" Nyman asked.
Misha was staring at the map thougtfully, even as voices among the onlooking crowd began to whisper amongst themselves. The fox looked up at Angus who stood just behind him. "Is it true that three of the four faces of Mount Nuln are impossible to climb?"
The badger shook his head. "The ravine face is, but the other three faces are all more or less scalable if you are careful enough. I've never done it myself, since there isn't anything up there worth climbing for."
"Until now that is. But you are saying it is possible?"
"Under cover of the night even?" Misha pressed.
Angus did not look surprised at all. "It would be much harder, but I suppose it would still be possible."
"What are you proposing, Misha?" Lord Avery asked.
"I'll lead another team up along the reverse side of the mountain. We can then make the rams charge while it is still dark, and thus disrupt the camp. If we do a good enough job, and Matthias's team does likewise, we should be able to force them into a retreat down the mountain side where the rest of our troops will lay."
"How do you hope to manage that?" Tathom asked.
"We'll have to convince them that there are a whole lot more of us than there really are. It will be dark, almost any shadow could fool them, as long as we make enough noise. And if the Baron is dead, then they will have no one to rally around."
Charles tapped the map thoughtfully, rubbing the Metamorian seal upon his chest with his other paw. "I think that Calephas will be of more good to us alive. If we can capture him and take him back to Metamor, we stand to gain a good bit of vital information. A man in his position certainly will know a good deal of Nasoj's future plans. Perhaps even enough to help us destroy that wizard."
It took them only a few moments to digest what that could mean for each and everyone of them. Lord Avery was the first to speak, his short whiskers wiggling in delight. "Charles, I think that should be our objective then. Rout the Lutins, and capture Calephas. When do you think we should begin?"
"Tonight," Charles said breathlessly. "The sooner the better. Now, let's just figure out our timetable for everything. We are only going to have one chance, so let's do this right." They each nodded in agreement, and they began to sketch out the exact order of their plan. Nobody, not even Lars, had anything to drink that night.
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