Killing Time - Part I

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
shall be my brother.

-- William Shakespeare

Up by the clerestory windows, Charles found the young Father Hough. It was dark in the chapel, only the vagrant sparking embers of the lantern the boy priest held in one hand illuminated the windows. Dawn was still a couple of hours away, and Matthias knew that by the rise of the sun he would be upon the road, heading north into the woods towards the Giant's Dike. Given the events of the past few days, and the missive he had been handed only half-an-hour before, there was no question in the rat's mind what was about to transpire.

Father Francis Hough appeared to be haggard, his alb stained with dust and grime as he cleaned the stained windows on this high terrace. He also looked to be rather tired, wearing a face older than his own by a score or more years. There was a haunted expression in his eyes as he chipped away the debris and murk discolouring the glass. As he entered the main aisle, Charles could hear the monotonous chiselling as his friend worked absently. While climbing the marble staircase to the triforium, the rat accidentally kicked a colonnade with one paw and let out a sharp report of surprise.

The boy priest turned, and shone the lantern down the steps to the lower balcony. "Charles? What are you doing up at this hour? It is just past four; morning services won't be for many hours yet."

The rat nodded, and grimacing at his bruised toes, he continued on up the steps to the clerestory. "I could ask you the same question. Why are you up at this hour of the night?"

Father Hough set the lantern upon a basalt stanchion, illuminating his dirty features. His blonde hair was ruffled, some of it spilling across his face and eyes. He set down the small chisel and shrugged. "I couldn't sleep, so came here. The windows appreciate my efforts at least. I don't have anyone to clean them for me, and I don't wish to ask the Keep for anymore of her help. I'm still not sure what to make of Kyia, but everything she has done for me so far has been wonderful."

Nodding thoughtfully, Charles peered at the window illuminated in the light from the lantern. It was a depiction of some scriptural scene, exactly which one, he was not sure. Though he could tell that the Keep had a sense of humour, as one of the figures had fur and a tail. "It is beautiful. I think the Lightbringers claim her as one of their own."

"Would a Lightbringer build this?" Hough asked, gesturing to the dim pews and altar below.

"I suppose not," the rat muttered, flexing his toes again, the pain nearly gone already. In another few minutes, it would be like it had never been stubbed. "How is Emily?"

"As well as can be expected," Hough replied tersely, his face grim once more. The thin line of his mouth drew tight into a rictus, and he turned back to the window, wiping his hands upon the alb. "She asked me to have prayers said for Craig at Service this coming Sunday."

Charles could not hold back his sigh. Craig Latoner had been one of the Long's whom he'd come to know in the past few months. Though he was not a friend the same way as Misha was, his death still brought for the Long in training a pang of remorse. The prairie dog had left behind a wife and two daughters, as well as stunned friends and a sorrowful Keep. Even after all these years, a new death still brought forth tears from most of the Keepers. The fact that he had been killed on a mission only made matters worse.

"How are you taking it?" Hough interjected suddenly. "You did not say much at the memorial service yesterday."

The rat stammered, "I didn't have much to say. I try not to think about the death of friends."

"And why not? It will happen someday."

"It already has," Charles murmured without explanation.

Hough nodded knowingly, though for the wrong reasons. "Craig is someplace better you know."

"I know that, that is not what bothers me right now. And it is not why I am here," Matthias finally found the voice to say what he needed to. Misha's note had been explicit, butt he chapel was not far from the Long House, and so he'd made this slight detour, on the hopes that its tenant was awake.

"Why are you here then?" Hough turned back to face him, his eyes searching the rat's countenance. Charles was dressed in a slight outfit, browns and greens dominating its surface. His whiskers drooped, and the fur upon his face was uncombed.

"You remember what Misha did to his arms? What he said at the funeral?" Charles indicated the palms of his paws, and the forearms. Misha had slashed each lengthwise, and wiped his blood across Craig's sarcophagus in his declaration of fealty towards the Latoner family. Neither of them had ever seen the fox do anything quite like that.

From the sudden moue crossing the boy's face, Matthias could tell indeed that Hough had not forgotten. Perhaps even that was all he could remember. "He shouldn't have done that. I don't think he knows how to deal with death."

"What would you rather him do?"

"Accept it and move on. Death is a natural part of life. We are born, we live through joy and suffering, and then we die, taken into the arms of our Abba," Hough turned back to the stained-glass windows, and chipped away a bit more of the dirt clutching the sides of the cast iron supports. "I cannot fault him for wanting to support Emily and her children, but the letting of blood will not bring back his friend."

Charles scowled a moment, the cool air of the morning barely brushing past his fur. "I believe he knows this already. No, you are right, he does not know how to deal well with death. At least not like this. But he is handling it in the way he thinks is best. The only way he can at this point. That's why I'm here, because I too know of the rage that swelters within his heart of Craig's murder, and Caroline's rape."

There was a sudden intake of breath, and Hough's chisel stopped in mid strike. Craig and Caroline had been on a mission together towards the north woods, investigating a small fortress that was rumoured to be a staging point for Nasoj's scouts. They'd been captured, tortured, and finally, Craig had been executed. Caroline however was used as meat, chattel for their carnal desires. They beat and raped her, sometimes several Lutins participating at once, till all that was left was the whimpering and weak shell of the woman that had been rescued in the last week.

When Matthias thought of Caroline suffering at the depraved hands of the Lutins, he could also se the same abominations being perpetrated upon his love. That spurred a rage that he could not control, nor did he wish too. It was the sort of rage that the Sondeck only fuelled the more time went on.

"So, what did you want from me?" Hough finally manages to ask, the chisel once again returning to work.

"Your blessing, Father," Matthias said simply, his face empty of all but the single plea. "It will not be too long before my paws are coated in the blood of Lutins and their allies. I want your blessing on our venture."

"Misha and you seek revenge for Craig's death?"

"And for Caroline's rape."

Hough continued to chisel, his eyes barely illuminated in the pale light coming from the lantern. After a moment, he did turn to face the rat and nodded once, his eyes completely inscrutable . "Who are you going to kill?"

"Hopefully those who did this atrocity."

"So you seek justice for what has happened?"

Charles felt the Sondeck within him flare brightly for a moment. "Yes, we seek to exact justice for what has been done."

"And are you certain that those whom you will kill are the same ones who caused this tragedy?" Hough's voice, though still a contralto, was quite firm.

"Misha appears to be so. I do not think he would act unless he were sure."

"Then I will bless you and those going with you." Hough motioned towards the colonnade beneath them, and Charles descended to one knee. The boy's fingers traced out the symbol of their faith upon his forehead, directly between his wide-set eyes. "I grant you Eli's blessing, child. May Yahshua go with you on your quest."

"Thank you, Father," Charles inclined his head, and then rose to his paws once more. "I must be going now, Misha will be expecting me soon."

"Go then, and watch after our friend. I have come to like seeing him at Service in the mornings. I would miss him were something to happen."

"I shall do my very best, Father." And with that, Charles turned upon his paws, and walked back down the clerestory stairs towards the chapel floor. He could hear the sound of chiselling recommence behind him. From somewhere outside the great stained-glass windows, he thought he even heard a bird sing into the early morning air. How could a sparrow know what death would follow this evening?

The guards long since familiar with his rodential features, allowed Matthias to pass into the Long House without comment. Their expressions were grave, like that of men watching a storm rip through the landscape turn and head their way. Charles wondered if he too bore such a demeanor, but upon seeing the faces of the others already gathered in the main hall, assembling gear and munitions, he knew that it would not be noticed. And even if it was, nobody would consider it remarkable.

Most of the people assemble din the main hall were Long scouts, some he knew, others were only a name still. The rest were various soldiers and friends of Craig and Caroline. There was even a badger clumsily handling a short sword in one large paw that he recognized instantly. It was Will Hardy, Caroline's father.

The rat made his way past the commotion to the distracted man, and called out, "Will, I'm glad you are coming along on this venture."

The Jeweller turned about on his heels, his breeches rumpled from lack of sleep. "Charles, I had wondered if you were going to be here." His eyes then gazed past the rat, smoldering chartreuse orbs that burned with a profound inner need, and towards something undefinable. "I couldn't not be here, after what they did to her."

And he did not have to elaborate further, for Charles understood all too well what had happened. He had seen Caroline, crumpled, dishevelled, and in emotional agony when brought back. Gone was the confidant and playful Caroline who he'd come to know and appreciate. Would she ever return? Matthias hoped so, but at this point that was all he could do.

Suddenly, Misha's head popped out of the Long office, and he looked at the badger with determines eyes. "Will, I'm about to start the briefing. I want you to hear this." His vulpine expression turned to the rat, and with that same forceful expression, he added, "Charles, why don't you come in too. This won't take long."

Will followed after the fox, slipping the short sword into the scabbard, the ring of steel a strident cry into the night. Charles ambled along behind them both, finding a small corner of the table to sit at while the briefing went underway. There were a few other Longs in the room, but thankfully the Kankoran was not here. Perhaps Misha had not invited him on this venture? It was probably too much to hope for.

Andre stood just behind him as Misha gathered their attention. The wolverine was already dressed in a thick selection of chain mail, nearly a hauberk as it covered most of his fur. Charles resisted the temptation to say anything to the knight. This was not an occasion for light discourse. What they were about to go through was deadly serious.

The fox's voice was tight, like a man crossing a suspended rope. "You all know why we are here. Nasoj's forces have gone too far this time. I will not tolerate the murder of one of my own, and most especially the degradation of somebody who has become very special to me. We are going to send Nasoj a message. You do not trifle with the Longs."

Charles stifled a sudden mutter as he saw Rickkter come in through the door, his dark mask creased with lines of what was obviously concern. It was clear that he had yet to notice Matthias, or at the very least, he gave no sign if he did. This venture would certainly be more complicated if they had to work together.

There was an unfurled map already laid out upon the desk, and Misha traced out a path towards the Giant's Dike with one claw. "This is Stepping Rock castle. From there his subordinates bully and control the Lutins. Plus, his soldiers have staged countless raids against us. These are the people who staged that brutal raid on Mycransburg last month.

"We estimate the garrison to be about forty humans, and around two hundred Lutins. The castle itself is on a short, low hill and the main defenses consist of a ditch about twenty feet wide and forty feet deep and a stone wall about twenty feet tall. All located on the top of the hill, meaning it's a long, hard climb to reach the walls."

"You plan on taking it?" Rickkter asked, his eyes narrowing upon the map.

Without so much as acknowledging the raccoon's inquiry, Misha continued, his paws laid out against the parchment. "Stepping Rock was built as a manor house about three hundred years ago and it isn't a formidable place."

Before Misha could go on, another voice interrupted. Charles did not see who. "Stepping is twenty miles from Metamor. Who would be dumb enough to build a manor that deep in Lutin territory?"

"It was built at a time of expansion for Metamor and all the Lutins within forty miles of the Keep had been wiped out. Things around Stepping were supposed to be very peaceful back then. When Duke Sedgewick died the expansion stopped and the Lutins began to retake their territory. About thirty years after it was built the manor house was fortified but to no avail. The castle fell after a ten day siege."

A tall weasel then asked, "What does the inside look like? I don't see any towers on the wall or any mention of a central keep."

"The wall has no towers," Misha replied, his voice as emotionless as ever Charles had heard it. "The original human builders threw it up in haste, and the Lutins never bothered to add any. The only tower is the gatehouse. As to the interior structures, we can only guess. The main hall itself was fortified to some degree, and there were the usual buildings near it; barns, stables, granaries. No telling how many are left. The hall we know still exists and is the home of Hurd, the castle's commander and his personal guard.

"Here is the basic plan. The Longs will infiltrate the castle on the south side, farthest from the only gatehouse. We'll move across the courtyard to the gatehouse and take it. Laura, your team along with Matthias will clear the gatehouse and let Andre's force in. Meanwhile, Lisa, Will and myself will move to the central building and kill the castle's commander along with the human troops. With the commander dead, organized resistance should fall apart."

The raccoon interjected yet again. "And what do I do?"

Misha's reply was terse, almost insulting it was so cold. "You do whatever you want. I'm sure you'll make yourself useful." He then turned to the rest of them, his grey eyes frigid. "Let me make this perfectly clear. This isn't a hack and slash raid. We're going to destroy this place. I want nothing left behind when we leave but rubble and dead bodies. Kill everything that moves."

Charles, already dismayed by the frosty tone of the meeting, felt obliged to ask a question he already knew the answer to. "What about prisoners?" His voice was like the summer sun after Misha's icy discourse.

He felt his friend's dead eyes pass over him for a moment, as if in disbelief for what was said. Emotionlessly, they returned to the rest of the group, the fox's lips never even parting once to utter a syllable. "Any other questions?" was all that he said. And the silence hung in the room for several seconds. The rat peeked over at Rickkter, and saw that his enemy's face was distorted oddly by the cold-blooded nature of the declaration. Misha's voice did not break the unearthly silence so much as echo it. "All right. The Longs leave at noon today. Andre's unit leaves tomorrow morning."

His speech over, Misha turned and strolled out of the room like a man walking across the clouds. Matthias could not even be sure the fox's paws touched the masonry as they were so quiet. The others in the room gazed uncomfortably at each other, but the determination had rubbed off upon them. Charles paid none of them any heed, slipping from the room nearly as silently as his instructor.

Preparations continued on in the main hall of the Long House. Armour was being sorted and tested with cudgels and spears. The sheering squeal of swords being sharpened drowned out most of the conversation. Occasionally, a metallic twang would resound as the archers inspected the bows. In one corner, Charles could see a few Longs having their fur dyed brown and green to camouflage them on the mission. The rat would not need a great deal of dye, as his fur was brown already. Still, in an hour or so, he would wait patiently under the careful claws of the Longs while they masked him even further.

The object of his interest though had just disappeared into the armoury. Matthias darted after him, politely refusing a sudden offer to assist him with his armaments from a fellow Keeper. The scent of oil combatting rust filled his nose as he passed beneath the doorway. Misha was already struggling into a chain mail shirt, not even noticing that a small patch of his fur had been caught between two of the links.

"Misha, can we talk?" Charles asked, his voice sounding so small against the cacophony just outside.

"About what?" the fox replied curtly. His attention was wholly given over to lacing the mail up, and freeing the kink of fur, pushing it back beneath his undershirt.

"Why are we doing this? For revenge?" Though he knew the answers all to well, he simply had to ask and be sure.

The fox's head glanced up, the grey eyes as cold as the mortar they stood upon. "Is that what you think?"

Charles did not balk for a moment. "Yes."

"You're right," Misha nodded simply, turning back to the rack, slipping on a pair of heavy gauntlets. His eyes trailed to the rat again. "Part of it is to gain revenge for what they did to Craig and Caroline."

"Part of it? Are you sure that's not all of it?"

The fox's head slipped down to his paws again, flexing them, stretching the armoured gloves a few times to ensure their protection. His voice, though Charles had not imagined it possible, was even colder than before, and caused a sudden chill to race through the rat's fur. "I want to make those bastards suffer for what they did. I also have to show Nasoj and the Lutins that you don't kill a Long Scout and not get punished. Nasoj has a hefty reward for killing or capturing a Long, that's a very big incentive for them to hunt us. If the Lutins learn that taking a Long will earn them swift, brutal punishment, then maybe they won't be so eager to go scout hunting.

"Also, one Long Scout is dead, another has been raped and tortured, and the rest are in shock. My people are angry, horrified, and confused. Soon they'll start to think about what happened to Craig and Caroline, then they'll start to doubt themselves as well. After all, if it happened to those two, it could happen to anyone. I need to stop that train of thought before it starts. What I have to do is distract them, keep them busy, and to remove any doubt about themselves."

Charles licked the back of his incisors, instinctively reaching for his chewstick. "And a revenge raid is your answer?"

"Yes, besides..." Misha's voice finally broke, the chill turning to heat, the death in his eyes to passion. Even so, his words were barely a whisper as he gazed into the floor, through it and to the Keepers that must live beneath it. "There's a rage building in me I can't control for much longer. I need to vent it before it consumes me."

Lowering the chewstick, his own agitation passed, Charles crossed the threshold between them and laid one of his paws across the great fox's shoulder. The cold demeanor was simply his helplessness. "I understand," Charles intoned softly, wishing to say more, but his tongue would not cooperate.

"The party's about to begin, and you two aren't ready yet," a third voice called out into the armoury. They both looked up, and saw Rickkter standing beneath the transom. Charles did his best to hide his sneer.

"Almost ready. I just need to pick out some weapons," Misha replied, shaking the rat's paw from his shoulder, the moment of weakness passed.

Matthias turned to his instructor and nodded. "I'll be waiting in the Hall when you are ready." He then turned and walked past the Kankoran. Rickkter did not stand out of the way, and so their shoulders nearly touched. The sick power of his clan's enemies flowed beneath the fur and skin of the raccoon, almost enough to make him recoil in horror. He had the first time they'd clasped paws, and he was not eager for a second.

Leaving the two behind, the rat sucked in his breath, and walked across the Hall towards the far corner. It was still many hours before they would leave the Keep, but Charles was not going to dilly-dally. With a sour grimace upon his brow, he waited with a few of the Longs to have his fur dyed.

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