Killing Time - Part III

The sun had not yet peaked the Eastern mountains when Charles crawled from the blankets and peered out at the rest of their camp snug against the cliff face. The willow was damp with the rains that frequented late August, and the morose clouds far overhead heralded only more of the same. He saw Lisa rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she quietly ate a small piece of bread and some fruit while reclining upon an oak root. There were a few other faces he recognized, but neither Rickkter nor Misha appeared to be about.

Quietly pushing aside the nestles, Charles slipped out from under the willow and brought his pack with him. The dye was still coated into his fur, despite the moisture, and caught him by surprise as he saw it again in the dim blues of the morning air. The slick coating of mud and grime that clutched the forest filled his nose with its putrid scent. It reminded him of that cloistered grove between Nuln and Kalegris that Misha and he had scouted on their mission to Glen Avery. It was full of the scent of decaying matter and things already dead, as well as the luscious life growing in its place.

That valley had barely seen the sun, and so it was expected to stagnate. Here though, in the upper hills of Metamor Valley, it was the first signs of the changing seasons. Autumn would be upon them soon. It had come so fast, he'd barely had time to notice. He wondered what his friends at the Writer's Guild were doing. Were they preparing another writing contest? He certainly hoped so, as it was always one of his favourite events at the Festivals.

Reaching into his backpack, he pulled out a slice of bread and cheese, and began to nibble upon them, not letting any of the crumbs fall to the ground. He had not eaten since before they'd left the Keep. Misha had wanted them to travel light and fast, so he'd only packed few meals. They would probably not return with the same urgency that they had come, so had only allowed himself this one breaking of his fast before the battle.

The bread was dry, but at the very least it was still fresh. To date, he had managed to avoid any food quite as bad as when he'd been sailing on the Arrow. He shuddered at the memory of those worm-infested crusts. With thanks, he bit deep into the soft portion of cheese, and savoured its sweet flavour. It was not much, but at least it did not turn his stomach.

When he peered up at the rest of the camp, he saw Rickkter scrambling out from beneath one of the other willows spaced along on the upraised ledge. The raccoon was already dressed in the dark cassock, the cloth drawn tightly about his frame. The tip of his striped tail poked out from beneath it as he made his way across the stones. Just as he was about to sit upon another of the oak roots, he noticed the rat idly watching him.

Rickkter walked over then, his voice low, and again in the Southern tongue, "I've been wondering about something for a while now. Isn't it against your clan's rules to enact a totzesond for one not of the Sondeckis?"

Charles finished the last of his bread, and maintained his calm demeanor. It was too early in the morning to let himself be bothered by the Kankoran. They had a truce, and he intended to honour it. "Yes, it is."

"So why are you here?" Rickkter asked, bending over slightly, but refusing to sit upon the same outcropping as the rat.

Matthias didn't see any harm in being open about this, since the reasons were rather visible. "I'm not just a Sondeckis anymore, Rickkter. I'm joining the Longs, and I owe an obligation to each and every one of them as well. From what I have heard, you've belonged to more than just the Kankoran yourself. You've served in armies, and now you serve in the patrols and the Metamorian Army. Surely you know that you are indebted to each of them as well."

Rickkter snorted once, though the usual contempt was not in it. "I'm a mercenary; I'm not going to risk my neck just because some idiot managed to get themselves killed. My obligation to them ends when they pay me." Then his eyes hardened a moment. "You still haven't answered me. Why did you break your own clan's rules?"

Charles favoured him with a lop-sided grin. "But I have not. I've not called the totzesond. I do not need to in order to avenge those I care about."

The raccoon appeared to be lost in thought for a moment. But it was a very brief moment, for soon he was upon his hind paws again, his arms bundled in the cloak. "So you do not feel there has been a death of justice?" he asked incredulously.

"Oh, there has, but it is not my place to call that. That is Misha's, and I think you very well know how he feels."

Again, the Kankoran snorted, and then shook his head. "Ask him what happened if you really want to know how much your justice has died in these lands. There he comes now."

Charles followed the pointing claw and saw the fox surpassing the rise followed by another Long. When he turned around, he saw the back of Rickkter's head as the raccoon moved away, leaving the rat to his own devices. Matthias grimaced, closed the drawstring on his pack and hefted it over his shoulder.

It only took him a few steps to catch up with Misha, whose face was devoid of anything but intent. True to the raccoon's word, their was a slight discolouration and swelling on the left side of his muzzle."Misha, can I talk to you alone for a moment?" Charles asked in his softest whisper.

With hand signals, the fox pointed to a small alcove in the cliff face, and he bade the other Keeper continue on without him. Once they passed the Giant's Dike, none of them would speak aloud, only in hand signals. In his two months of training so far, Charles had learned most of them, but he was not nearly as quick with them as the rest of the Longs were.

Like everything else on this mountainside, the alcove was wet and sticky. Mica coated the underside of the rocks, and moss clung to every bit of damp earth that the rat could see. A distant rolling thunder sounded just over the hills to the South.

"What is it?" Misha asked, his paws quicker than words.

The rat tried to speak with hand signals, but was not completely sure how to convey his meaning, so switched back to spoken language, albeit spoken very softly. "What happened to the side of your face?"

"It was bruised in a fight, nothing more." Misha replied, his own voice low. The grey eyes were nearly lifeless with his glacial desire for revenge. Yet they twitched uncomfortably at the question, traitorous pariahs revealing the fox's duplicity.

"I think there's more to it than that. I deserve to know."

The fox glowered downwards, the shade falling across his face, giving him a ghastly countenance. "We do not have the time for this."

"Yes, we do," Charles assured him. "Most of the men here are still waking up. And we will have to wait for Andre anyway. You might as well tell me now. I'm not going to let you walk away without telling me."

Misha grunted, and folded his arms across his chest. One tip of his claw thumbed a dagger sheathed there. "You and Rickkter are more alike than you know. He said much the same thing to me that night."

"What night?" The comparison slightly irked the rat, but he did his best to ignore it.

"The night they brought Caroline back," Misha's voice turned soft then, unable to gaze at Charles anymore. "I was so mad, I wanted to head straight out into the woods and just kill anything I found. I would have walked to my own death had Rickkter not stopped me."

"How did he do that?"

"You do know that it was Rickkter who found Caroline?"

Charles swallowed the bile in his throat. "No, I had not."

"She'd been tied down to a bed, her fingers broken, her body bruised and beaten repeatedly. And then they had raped her, one right after another. She would have died in another day or so had Rickkter's team not found them. It was a sweep and clean operation, so those responsible were already dead. I just could not stand the fact that my chance at revenge had been snatched away."

Again, the rat blanched. The single thought flowing through his mind was the image of that being done to Lady Kimberly. A fire kindled inside of his heart at the prospect, the same one that Misha must have been feeling that night; only for the fox it was real. "Rickkter stopped me though, he found me at the main armoury. I did not use the one in the Long House because I did not want to be discovered. When words did not succeed in changing my mind, he used force. Rickkter gave me this to save my life that night."

Charles wanted to say something, anything, but his tongue would not work. Instead, Misha continued his soliloquy."His intervention has allowed us this chance to strike at Nasoj, and to deal a deadly blow. Those who hurt Caroline and killed Craig are already dead. Now, I will exact my price for their pain. Is this what you wanted to know?"

Numb, the rat nodded, finally finding his voice again. "Yes, that is it. Thank you." He stumbled from the alcove, and leaned over his pack. Misha walked over towards the other Longs, no longer even noticing the rat. Rickkter was nowhere to be seen, and for that, Charles was glad. Turning back to alcove, he vomited his meal in one spasm, tears of anger fresh in his eyes.

His first sight of Stepping Rock Castle was that of an old mouldy wall stretching up from the forest floor. A light drizzle soaked their fur, pelting off their armour. It was too dark to see anything else of the castle, but Misha assured them all that this was the place. Charles, being a rat, could see rather well in the darkness, but the rest of the battlements simply drifted into a lulling haze past the first set of cardizans.

Of course, like all castles, there was an open stretch of ground between them and the wall. Kneeling down in the brush just within the trees, each of the Longs held ready their bows. Charles had never been much for archery in his younger days, but was finding the practice of it quite invigorating. His claws held the nock of the arrow gently against the thick cord, as he scanned the roof of the crenellated wall. It wasn't even his bow, but Finbar's. The ferret would have no use for it though until they began the descent into the courtyard beyond the wall.

Lisa and Finbar scampered out into the darkness, crossing the short distance with no alarum sounded. There had been a guard atop the battlements, but in the dim illumination, it appeared that he'd continued on his rounds. With her two short swords slapping gently against her thighs, Lisa began the ascent, Finbar right along side of her. It was clearly obvious to Charles that while the ferret scampered up the length of the crusty wall, Lisa had a bit of trouble. He wondered if the handholds were too slick for her to grip tightly enough, only being fourteen years old and with smaller than normal hands.

Yet he tried not to watch them too closely, but instead upon the top of that wall. A bit of rain splattered down his face and roll into his eyes. Grunting to himself, he brushed it out with his shoulder, but kept his bow aimed. If something did happen, he knew that he would not be the first to release his arrow. He simply did not want to be the last.

Thankfully though, nothing happened, Lisa and Finbar managed to scale the wall without the tocsin sounding. As Charles waited for the ropes to be dangled over the side, the figure of the Lutin returned. Walking calmly across the causeway, his yellow eyes cast about, though slovenly. And for a brief moment, a second figure appeared behind him, this one sinuous, with a pronounced snout. The Lutin's head snapped back as a knife plunged through the back of his neck. And then, both figures were gone. The ropes fell across the wall shortly thereafter.

Charles slowly released the cord, taking the arrow and replacing it with the others in the quiver just slung over his shoulders. He then draped the bow across one shoulder as did the other Longs and waited for his turn to climb over the wall. Two by two, the Longs and the others Misha had invited made their way across the field, and up that first wall. Patting his side, the rat checked each of his weapons. The short sword that was standard issue was still buckled to his side, though Matthias only intended to use that if he had no other choice. The quarterstaff made from fresh hickory was slung across his back as well, but he preferred the feel of it in his paws. He traced a claw over the brass ferrules at the top of the staff; it would serve to cave in a few chests quite effectively.

When his time came, the rat nodded to the last two waiting behind, and scampered across the field. For some reason, he found himself scaling the wall opposite Rickkter. The raccoon noticed as well, but it was too dark to tell what his expression had been. Charles climbed even faster, determined to outpace his rival. But the raccoon was quite adept at scaling old, mouldy castle walls, and so they came toppling over the parapet at the same time.

The rest of the Keepers were crouched low along the causeway, their mouths frozen into a silent stare, their hands saying everything that was needed. Finbar held his own low to the two, and they intuitively understood. Sitting upon his haunches, the rat cast his eyes about until he found the dead Lutin. The scent of blood was muted in the light drizzle, and was quickly being washed away. He rubbed at the cloth of his robe, pulling it tightly about him. It was already soaked, hanging heavily upon him, and it only chilled him more to have it close. Yet its black fabric was a comfort to him if nothing else.

A tap at his shoulder made him spin about deftly, but silently. It was Finbar, the ferret was pointing at the bow and quiver. Charles unslung the quiver and handed it the Long, as well as the stout bow. Finbar nodded in thanks, and then turned back to the inner bailey. Matthias then drew out the staff, gripping the tight hickory beneath his paws. This was a weapon he was much more comfortable with.

The descent into the courtyard went just as effortlessly, and soon, all of them were huddled next to the wall, the houses buildings inside Stepping Rock castle glowing faintly with torchlight. It slept in the lull of the pitter-patter or rain upon the slate tile roofs, unaware of who had just arrived uninvited. Finally, the ropes were drawn in and Lisa motioned with her hands, "Ready to go, everyone is here."

Misha gathered their attention with his deep grey eyes. Even in the dim light, they appeared to glow with a fierce determination. His palms drew together, and then slow separated, the signal for head out with your teams. Charles swallowed once, digging the ferrules into the ground, trying to obscure their natural shine. The rain had washed away the grime he'd coated it with earlier.

The fox then crossed himself, and Charles thought back to Father Hough's blessing of so long ago. "And Eli go with you," was all that Misha had said, and it was all that needed saying. Turning Charles found the other members of his team already starting on their way to the gatehouse. With one last look over his shoulder, he left Misha behind. He wondered just how long it would take for the killing to begin.

The gatehouse was their main objective, but to gain access to it, they needed to cross a field that was littered with Lutin huts and other ramshackle attempts at buildings. There were very few lights, as the rain had doused most of the torches that were spaced around the camp. The entire field was silent, and no sentries were visible. Charles gripped his staff tighter as he cast his dark eyes around the camp. There was simply nothing there. It felt like they were already dead, but he knew that was nonsense. They were probably just asleep, or hiding.

A quick conference of eyes and a single hand motion from Laura, a tall female whose face was darkened with the paint, indicated that they would pass around the camp. As they moved around in a circle, the rat could feel their team leader's eyes upon him. He did not return the gaze, instead trying not to breathe in the awful stench that encompassed the Lutin village. It reminded him of the streets of Arabarb far to the north. But then he'd been unarmed, and crawling about so close to it as a rat. This was not nearly so bad.

Pulling his robe tighter, he grimaced as it began to fill with rain again. He'd squeezed most of the water from his robe, and it hung much more comfortably from his shoulders now. He had not realized how quickly it could collect the moisture. Of course, growing up in a desert, he had not much experience with rain and this cloth. Squeezing one corner of it, he watched it drip onto the mud. Once they'd secured the gatehouse, he could give it a thorough emptying.

His head shot up at the sound of a dog barking. Gazing ahead, a small mangy dog had let up an alarm, its eyes looking at them in some fright. Arla crept forward, her canine form suiting her best to this situation. The arrows that had so quickly shot up, lowered again as the collie bared her fangs and wagged her tail in greeting at the other dog. The first stopped barking, and meekly rolled onto his back, exposing his belly in submission.

Charles let a small grin cross his features as Arla patted the dog's belly with one paw, gently massaging it and soothing the disturbed creature. The six of them walked on past the prostrate animal, who began to trail after them as they went. Digging his claw into the wood, the rat tried not to think about their new companion, hoping that it would not betray them at just the wrong moment. Arla appeared to be slightly pleased at its company, but the other Longs gave no indication.

Circling the camp did take time though, and once again, Charles found himself smearing the ends of his staff in the mud. This whole adventure had been one dreary day followed by another. The rat would be glad when it was over, or at least he hoped he would. From what he understood, this was the first time in many years that so many of the Longs were on the same mission together.

They found a long road stretching out of the camp in their path. It was abutted on both sides by low lying stone walls. They crouched behind the first, taking a few moments to glance over the edges and then back to each other. The dog appeared to have laid down somewhere back behind them, for which the rat was secretly glad.

"Can we go around it?" Matthias signed. If it were his choice, he would never expose himself so openly as that road. Of course, that could have something to do with his being a rat, but he did not dwell on what instinct told him was best.

Laura took one look and then shook her head. Her hands signed just as quickly, "No, there's no telling how long it is and besides we don't have the time. We'll cross it one at a time. I will go first."

The girl stepped over the wall, glancing to both sides. The road was as empty as the sky was of stars that night. Charles held tight his staff and his breath as she quickly darted across the dirt road, finally diving behind the other wall. He sighed in relief, even as the next Long began their trek.

Charles waited in silence as the Long crossed the road one by one. Ralls followed swiftly after Laura, sweeping the street with his gaze before joining the girl on the other side. Arla, Meredith, and Allart were soon to join them. As soon as the young boy scrambled over the loose masonry, the sound of singing could be heard coming down the road. Charles crouched lower, a shiver running up his spine and down to the tip of his tail.

A group of what appeared to be forty Lutins were cavorting down the street, singing, laughing, and occasionally striking each other and swearing foul obscenities. They stopped just in the middle of the road, their eyes dulled by drink. The rat grimaced, peering across the open space at the blackened face of Laura. He signed, "Now what?"

"We wait," came the response.

There was a brief fight, and the rat ducked his head beneath the stone wall, all alone in the vast emptiness of the courtyard. The sounds of the scuffle started to die down, and the singing returned once again. Peering over top of the stonework, he saw that the Lutins had broken out several wineskins and were merrily inebriating themselves.

"How long?" Charles signalled with his paws, trying his best to keep his motions muted, so as not to attract the attention of the Lutins. Drunk or not, they could sound the alarm, and that would complicate matters. "It looks like they are going to be here a while."

After a moment's pause, Laura signed, "Can you circle around?"

The rat scanned the area, trying to gauge the Lutins position, and what brush would make good cover. He might as well circle around the other side of the Lutin village for all the good it would do him! Still, in their drunken state, he doubted they'd notice one extra shadow. If he drew the robe about him even tighter, he'd be nothing but a shadow, and in this blackness, he would cast none himself.

Finally, he motioned with his paws, "Yes, but it will take me a while." He was improving with these hand signals, a fact that lifted his spirits slightly.

"We don't have the time," Laura responded urgently. He could see the frustration in her countenance. They'd not even made it to the gatehouse and already they'd been waylaid.

Though he was loathe to do it, he knew it was for the best. "Go ahead without me, I'll meet you at the gatehouse."

"No. We don't leave anyone behind."

"I can take care of myself," he sent back, glancing briefly at the quarterstaff resting between his knees. "I'll be right behind." L:aura did not appear to be convinced. "Go!" he signed one last time, an urgent motion that he was half afraid he'd made too large. Grimacing to himself, Charles dropped back behind the wall, ending the argument. He drew the staff up in his paws, the stout hickory firm beneath his fingers. It felt good to hold. The moue vanished from his face as he realized that he was now surrounded by a hundred Lutins and no help would come. He rather liked those odds.

Slipping out from behind the crumbling wall, he began to slink down its length. In the distance, he could see the decrepit stone monolith that was the main hall of Stepping Rock castle. He would be there soon. Charles sincerely hoped that Laura and his other new friends would be all right.

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