Killing Time - Part II
uiet ranged throughout the forest like a cloak. Charles could feel it wrapping tighter and tighter about his throat, threatening to stifle even his very breath. Each overhanging limb, full with the green leaves of the season, appeared to be reaching down to smother them. The ground, soft with the August rains, threatened to give way at each footfall, sucking them down into a quagmire to silence the beat of their hearts. Though it was only shortly past noon, not even the sun could penetrate this self-made tomb of death and degradation, for barely glimmer's of that radiant disc shone upon the soporific landscape.
They had been travelling for just over an hour, and of course by this time in his training, Charles was once again accustomed to long journeys on foot - or in his case paw. Yet they were a group of Longs with only a few others, most of which were experienced in the ways of the tracker and scout. So, only once in a while did somebody snap a twig, or ruffle a branch, or shake a few leaves loose. Even rarer, a voice could be heard, usually a muffled grunt as they'd stubbed their toe, or nearly tripped upon an unseen root. Every once in a while, Misha would whisper instructions to the leaders, and the message would slowly trickle back to the rear, where Charles found himself along with Lisa Ringe, one of the age-regressed Longs.
Otherwise, it was the silence. The forest itself felt like it knew what was to come on the morrow. The songs of birds did not fill the air, nor could the scattering of deer and elk be heard about them. They waited in the quiet, their bodies frozen in repose as the bringers of death passed them by. Matthias knew he was not alone in his trepidations. Lisa's brow was contorted uncomfortably at the sheer oddity of it. Many times she would cup a hand to her ear, and simply listen. As always, nary a sound returned to her.
Charles, whose hearing had improved greatly since he had become a rat, would have assured her that he would inform her if he'd heard anything, but decided against it. Misha had once told him that as long as you can hear the sounds of the forest, you should be safe - worry most when there is nothing about. Well, there was nothing about, and Matthias was indeed worried.
Taking a moment to peer back at Lisa, he saw that his concern was parallelled in her face. This short a distance north of Metamor they should have seen the woods full of activity. That was the reason Misha had sent them to cover the rear for now, since it was supposed to be relatively safe. Not that the fox would have need to fear them being negligent in their duties should something arise, as both were well trained. Yet, neither wished to be forced to demonstrate that.
They continued on past the green brambles of bush and fern, between thickets slick with mud and into the pines with nary a disturbance. Charles noticed that they were climbing ever so slightly into the hills. They had left the main road even while in sight from Metamor, and had taken the harder path through the forest. The terrain grew increasingly rocky, and they meandered their way around some of the larger formations. The rat fancied that children used to climb upon these stones and play in the days before Nasoj's invasion. Perhaps one day they would again.
A few short minutes later, while Matthias was helping Lisa scramble up one particularly slick rock face, coated in mica and lichen, Finbar turned back to whisper to them both. The ferret looked a bit agitated, his short, blunt claws tracing over the hilt of his dagger. "There is a small Lutin encampment a short ways ahead. It's being taken care of. We're supposed to wait up ahead so we can reconnoitre."
Charles nodded, and then the three of them continued on into the rocks. Finally, they descended down the other side of one particularly steep formation into a little crescent shape depression between the hills. Elms grew out of the side of the mound, leaning slightly over the depression, shading it and casting it into a deep gloom. There were a few others there, including Rickkter who had a scowl across his features - obviously put out at having been left behind when there was some killing to do.
At Lisa's direction, Matthias crouched down low beneath the overhanging precipice. It was mostly soft, wet loam clinging to the hard granite, with moss covering every spare piece of earth. Dark, ghastly things crept in the cracks and fissures down near where Charles huddled. He tried not to lean against the stone, as he did not wish to drench his garments with whatever wetness glistened back there.
Much to his dismay, he was soon joined by Rickkter, who bore a bizarre grin upon his face. Like the rat, the raccoon kept his body away from the back of the crescent wall, while the Longs kept watch over the top of the ridge. He took position beneath the overhang next to Charles, closing his full-length cloak with a single flick of his wrists. "So what injustice is the great Sondeckis going to right?" Rickkter's tone was mocking as usual, but at the very least he had spoken softly, and in the language of the Southlands. It was inconceivable that anyone else in the depression understood him.
Charles reached down and pulled out his chewstick, and gnawed at the tip. "The same one you were, I thought."
The Kankoran appeared to have been taken by surprise by the answer, the contempt turning to a curious frown. "Oh? I'm here at the behest of a friend, two in fact. I do not need some injustice to happen for me to lift a finger to do that."
"Oh, you mean you weren't being paid for this?" Charles asked, his tone angry. Why did he always let this raccoon dig into his fur like that? It never accomplished anything. They were both going to be on this mission for a while longer. Misha certainly didn't need them snipping at each other like this.
"A friend is one of the most precious things one can have. They are different." Rickkter's grin turned to that mocking self-conceit once again, and he folded his arms in front of himself beneath his cloak. "You really don't know full reasons for your being here, do you? You don't even know the real reason I'm here."
Charles so wanted to yawn from boredom, anything to show his contempt for the mercenary. Yet, his own thoughts were turning down a different path. This was not about their disagreements and ancestral hatred. This was about their mutual friend, Misha Brightleaf.
"Rickkter, as much fun as it would be to harangue you, I don't want to do that right now."
"Is the great Sondecki giving up?"
Matthias stifled the glare that he knew was trying to surface. "No, I just think that we are wasting our energies on each other, and not our mutual enemy. Misha asked us both along on this foray so we could help him avenge the death of Craig, and the brutal rape of Caroline. Obviously, they are important to you, just as they are to me. For once, we have something in common aside from our hatred for each other."
Rickkter still appeared arrogant, but it was laced with bemusement. "I suppose not all Sondeckis are irreparably reactionary then."
The rat ignored the remark and went on. "I propose a truce between us, at least for the duration of this mission. We both want to help our friend Misha. We are not helping him by sniping at each other. We may have to fight side by side, Rickkter. As much as I'd rather not, it may come to pass. If so, I think it would be helpful to Misha if we agreed to work together, at least until we return to the Keep.
"This isn't about me, and this isn't about you. This is about Misha, Caroline, and Craig. If they mean anything to you at all, will you not put aside our feud so that we can help them?"
The raccoon's arrogance had left his face, his eyes searching the rat for some hint of duplicity. His striped tail twitched in agitation, but never once did it touch the back of the rock wall. Finally, a sort of bemused grin crossed his features. "You really don't know why I'm here, do you?" The grin broke into a smile. "Why not! We will not be enemies again until we have returned to the Keep."
Rickkter held out his paw from beneath his cloak, palm towards himself. Charles took a look at it before giving it a light swat with one of his claws. "Get rid of the knife first."
With an amused chuckle, the raccoon turned his empty palm towards the rat. "If this is to work, we both have to be more trusting of each other."
Swiftly, Charles took it in a firm shake. He could feel the power of the Kankoran flowing beneath the pads, and it almost made him pull away with nausea. He was sure that Rickkter felt a similar revulsion to his Sondeck. Yet they both held it there for a few moments, their eyes locked upon each other. For the first time since he had met him that one day in the halls of the Keep, the animosity was not in those orbs. He tried to give his clan's mortal enemy a friendly grin, though he was not sure with how much success.
"You may take satisfaction in a bit of ironic history, Rickkter," Charles then remarked, almost affably.
"The last time any from either of our clans cooperated was five hundred years ago when the Southlands were under threat from an army of Shriekers. If so simple a thing as friendship can bring us together, albeit temporarily, then perhaps we are not totally irredeemable."
The raccoon frowned a moment, unsure if the words were meant as mockery. Then, an amused grin crossed his snout. "If either of our old friends heard us speaking like this, they would kill us for treason."
"I won't tell them if you won't."
Rickkter snorted once and then gave the rat a very serious glare. "Understand that our truce is only good until we return to the Keep. I only give this because of Misha. Do not think I will ever again accept such an offer." With that he turned and stood from his seat, his tail swirling behind him. He made it a few paces before turning back to Charles. "If you're interested at all in some of the facts of this mission, about Misha, Carol, and what I'm doing here, then I suggest you go ask the fox about it. Ask him where he got that bruising around the left side of his face." Rickkter gave the rat one more self-satisfied smirk before he returned to the other side of the crescent, his cloak wrapped tightly around himself.
Charles had to suppress a light chuckle as the raccoon returned to the other side of the crescent. That had gone better than he'd expected, although what he had said about Misha was troubling. Just then, all of their heads turned towards the west, from where a muffled scream was sounded, and then silenced. It had been a Lutin. Misha had done as promised with the encampment. Sighing, Charles turned to examine his toes, waiting for them to return.
Of course, it was then that water started to dribble on his head from the overhang.
At least the night held the sounds of the forest within its grasp. Charles laid out on the single blanket nestled underneath the grove of willows, their long branches nearly covering them completely, staring up at the small leaves as they rustled in the wind. Though he could not hear them, he knew that at least four Longs were waling the perimeter and would be all night. They were still south of the Dike, but Misha had insisted that only the Long's be allowed to watch the encampment. Rickkter had objected briefly, then grumbled as he bedded down for the evening beneath an adjoining willow.
The grove abutted a sudden cliff to the north, affording them protection on that side. Small rivulets in the wall of stone served for escape routes should the camp be discovered, as well as mud several mud slides down each side of the hills about them. Apparently, this was one of the few camps that the Longs had ever used before. It was remote enough to prevent discovery form being likely, plus the escarpment prevented scents from being blown northward.
Still, beneath the willow tree, Charles could see nothing. The sound of owls crying out into the night was a comfort though, as were the crickets. In another month, the latter would be gone. As he gazed up at the lazily swinging branches - as a rat, his night vision was fairly astute - he wondered if the stars were shining. He could imagine them flickering in the cold night air, so far away, utterly unreachable. Or were they muted as well, just like everything else had been this day? Were they so aware of the death to come that they refused to shine with their usual glamour?
Matthias tried not to dwell on what had happened. Idly thumbing the tail of his shirt as he lay there on his back, he wished that he could get some sleep. It had been so many months since he had abandoned his vow against killing others and he had changed so much since then. Yet still it gnawed at him like some old wound.
Yet his concern for it was not so much that he would have to kill. It was more a worry about his friend Misha. Was this raid the best thing in the world for him? There was no question in the rat's mind that the fox would go through with it to the very end. But afterwards, once it was all over, what would he do then? Charles grimaced, wishing that he could put the question out of his mind and just find the elusive sleep he yearned for, but like an unwelcome guest, the question remained.
Charles turned over on his side, firmly closing his eyes to the world. His tail circled about the base of his paws in the damp cold. With one forepaw, he pulled the blanket tight against his frame, the woolen fabric thankfully dry. That damp taste in the back of his throat was a sign that more rain was still to come this soggy August.
For some reason, he couldn't help but remember back to the very first time he had slept before battle. It had rained then too. Over ten years ago now, nearly fifteen in fact. They had been on a foray past the DarkŁndlicht mountains into hills east of Makor. There had been only ten of them, Charles, Krenek, Jerome, Ladero, as well as four other Sondeckis of the red, plus two blacks. The four of them slept together in a cramped tent with their sandals for pillows, and their red robes for blankets. Despite how uncomfortable it had been, Matthias remembered how much fun they'd had on that journey.
That was until they realized that they were being watched and followed by an unseen group. There was always a danger of being attacked while on such a training mission, but it was rare that it ever happened. Matthias remembered his friends's reactions so well that night the blacks had sat the eight of them down to inform them of the threat. Krenek had been contemplative, his dark black hair falling repeatedly in his face. Jerome had been eager for the fight, still bristling with the vitality of youth. Ladero had listened and prayed as was his custom - Charles had adopted most of his religious feelings from his fellow Sondeckis. Matthias himself had been pensive, worried that they might not return to beloved Sondeshara.
They had slowly continued on their trek, the two blacks always double-checking the rear, always finding their pursuers no more than a few leagues behind. They slept only an hour or two each night as they tried to outdistance whoever it was that was tracking them. Charles could remember one morning where he had to be dragged from the confines of his cloak and doused with a pail of cold mountain water before he could rise from the sleep he so desperately yearned for.
Yet no matter how long they walked each day, their pursuers were able to keep pace. Finally, just as they were only one day's ride from the mountains, the blacks came to a decision. One of them, Soud, would stay behind in the rocky crags along their path, and wait for whoever trailed them. If it was innocent, he would do his best to catch up with them in the mountain passes. If not, he would do his best to slow them down. They never did see Soud again, but as they climbed into the mountains, a distant clamour could be heard.
It was then by the fire that night that Krenek made his suggestion. He felt an obligation to Soud, and wished to invoke the Totzesond in his name. The other black, a man named Brothus, for whom Charles lost a good deal of respect that night, urged them to continue on through the pass. But Krenek cajoled and pleaded with the others. Charles was the first to stand by his side that night, as he had always been throughout their childhood.
So, against Brothus's wishes, the eight red Sondeckis decided to seek Totzesond for Soud. They backtracked to a small precipice along the pass and scattered ashes from their fire across the ground. They also used what knowledge they had to design an ambuscade in those rocks. It was not much, but with each of them working together they were all hidden and ready for the morrow. That night had been the first night that Charles had ever really wondered if he would survive the morrow.
They had been Kankoran, all of the purple in fact. Five of them entered that pass in the early hours of the morning, one of them, a rather stolid individual standing at least a fathom in height, held Soud's Sondeshike. The battle though did not last long. Brothus had shown up only a few hours earlier that morning to inform them that they were going to get them all killed, but he stayed to fight alongside them anyway. However, the black was wrong.
One of the Kankoran was thrown from the ledge before he'd realized the attack had begun. The other four found themselves outnumbered, but fought with every fiber of their strength. Krenek though was wild with rage, making his way straight for the man who bore the Sondeshike. Charles had wanted to watch his friend fight, but had been struggling near that precipice with one of the others, a series of fast strikes to his chest, nearly toppling him over.
Ladero had saved him though, with a sudden strike to the back of the Kankoran's knee, brought the purple to the ground. The next strike at the man's neck killed him. Even so, Charles could only vaguely recall that moment when his life had nearly been snuffed. What he did remember was the look of triumph on Zagrosek's face as he wrested Soud's Sondeshike from the Kankoran's dying hands.
After the fight, and they had buried one of the other red Sondeckis who had been slain, Brothus tried to take the artifact from Krenek's hands. Zagrosek pushed the black away with glare. His voice had been hot with contempt, and the words floated up from the pages of memory to fill the rat's mind. "This belonged to Soud, and he died to save us. You would have let that death go unavenged. I called the Totzesond, and I reclaimed justice for Soud. The Sondeshike is mine."
When they had returned to Sondeshara a few weeks later, the rank of purple had been bestowed upon each of them, and the Sondeshike was indeed given to Zagrosek. Brothus ascended to the white a few years later, and began the campaign to destroy the honour their clan had throughout the Southlands. And yet they spent months in mourning for the two Sondeckis who did not return with them.
Charles opened his eyes yet again and peered at the swaying branches over him. Brothus was now dead, and apparently so was Ladero. Jerome was hiding somewhere in the Midlands, and the reports he'd heard about Zagrosek were too fantastic to be true. And he, Charles Matthias, was a rat on a quest with his new clan to avenge another death.
The faint crunching of pine needles echoed outside of the tree. He climbed up to his haunches and peered out between the overhanging branches, and saw the silhouette of a Keeper walking by. It had just been a Long. Sighing to himself, he laid back down on his warm blanket, and curled tightly inside. His mind exhausted, he only managed one last thought before slumber finally took hold of him. What would Misha do should one of the Longs die on this mission? Sleep thankfully silenced the answer.
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