Wagging Tongues Will - Part XI

Arla and Lisa stood by the main gate as they watched Misha’s group return from the terrible battles up North. They had been there since the rise of the sun, waiting in their thick wool, the foxhead emblem of the Long Scouts emblazoned across their chests. They huddled close together near the wall, their breath misting before them, a testament to the chill of the early day. Fresh snow lined the sloping ridge that the Keep rested upon, while the grind of wagon wheels turned that snow to sludge along the winding road down into the valley.

It was an army, from the weary riders seated upon equally weary horses, to the infantryman whose shuffling gait held them to a crawl. Even the wagons crept up the hill, wagons that would hold the dead and the injured. How many were there, the two Longs wondered curiously as they gazed across the long procession. Though their armour was caked in mud, and sometimes even stained red from blood, it was clear that they had been victorious. There was a proud gleam to their eyes, and their heads were held tall, despite their exhaustion. At that their hearts flared with hope, though they could not see any of their fellow Longs amongst those at the head of the army.

In fact, as they scanned the faces, they realized a most wonderful fact. While this army had left Metamor as two armies, troops from their own fabled home, and those who had come up from the Midlands to the South, they now walked home as one. As only a battle could do, it had united them, making each soldier a brother with every other. They were brothers in blood and spirit, for they had fought at each other’s side lived to speak of it and those who had died in it. As they looked over those faces, both Arla and Lisa knew well their feelings. They smiled to each other a moment, though it was a quick glance. The terrors that would await their friends within the walls of the Keep far too distressing to banish for long.

As the procession began to move past them into the main gate, many other Keepers gathered to greet them as well, they began to note friends and relatives who had been able to join in the fight that they had missed. They breathed a sigh of relief at each they saw walking, and winced in agony at the sight of several laying peacefully on the dead carts. Yet it was not until they spotted the familiar poise that marked Sir Delacot that any sign of the other Longs was made apparent. The paladin’s finely polished armour still bore its shine, though there was now a large dent that ran across the entire breastplate. He was leading his mighty warhorse, who was favouring its right foreleg, by the reins.

Cupping one hand against her mouth, Lisa shouted, “Sir Delacot!”

The paladin had been rather intent on leading his steed, but he scanned about to see who had summoned him. Spotting the two Long Scouts, he waved his free hand, cestus still in place, though continued along the road. He did not speak, but nodded to them as he approached. Finally, as he came to stand beneath the main gates, he pointed backwards beyond a group of pikemen roughly forty in number. “They’re all in the wagon,” he said, his voice hard, answering their unspoken question.

Arla and Lisa gave him their thanks and then began to jog at a steady pace down the road towards the wagon. It did not take them long to pass the column of pikemen, only a small portion of whose faces were muzzles. The wagon was a simple farmer’s cart, the front axle hitched to a thin and gaunt pony. Her grey legs were covered in dirt, though she had been otherwise well groomed. Yet even from a distance they could see their fellow Longs.

Jotham and Georgette were sitting at the front with their backs to the pony. Jotham’s shirt was gone, replaced completely by wrappings and bandages holding him in place. Georgette still had on her shirt, though its bulk spoke of many bandages as well, perhaps broken ribs and lacerations. In the rear, Danielle and Finbar were sitting upon the tailgate. The ferret’s left arm was bandaged, while the pine marten fussed over it, even though her own right hand was wrapped in thick linens. Next to them sat Padraic, his back against the side of the cart, and his leg hoisted upon a pack, bandaged all the way up to the hip.

Misha and Caroline sat opposite the lapine, as close to each other as they could be. Thankfully, though she was quite dirty, the otter appeared to be unhurt. Both of them remembered far too well the last time that she had been out on a mission, and its disastrous end. Misha was still dressed in his armour though, the great black axe stretched out beside him. Though there was a large bandage covering most of his right hand, Arla could still see that he was missing at least one finger. Further, the left side of his face was covered with wrappings, and most of his left ear was gone, leaving a small linen-covered stump.

Despite this, their commander still had both eyes and brightened visibly when he finally caught sight of Lisa and Arla as they came to stand next to the cart. “Lisa! Arla! You are a pleasant sight! I’m glad to see you both doing so well. Finbar, Georgette, lower the tailgate so that they can climb up and ride with us back to Metamor.”

After the rest had said their greetings, the ferret and pine marten managed to get the tailgate lowered, and they both with some help climbed in. Misha lifted his axe into his lap to make room for them, and they nestled down amongst their friends. “It’s good to see you all so well,” Lisa smiled then, cradling her own missing hand as she glanced at Misha’s missing fingers.

“And it is good to see you both up and about,” Misha said, to which the rest chorused their agreement, Padraic going so far as to give Lisa a small pat on the back. “How are the others?”

“Meredith is doing well,” Arla said, her voice guarded. They would have to tell them at some point, they just wished that they did not have to. “He is still in bed, but he is looking stronger with each passing day.”

“And bored out of his mind,” Lisa added.

“How's Kershaw doing?” Misha asked.

“Getting better,” the dog said, smiling slightly at that.. “Though not nearly as quickly. At least he's awake and moving around a bit.”

“He's lucky to be alive at all,” Caroline said gravely, a testament to just how closely he had come to dying during the battle. Misha just nodded in agreement, no other gesture necessary to convey his sense of responsibility.

“How did the battle go? Did you kill Calephas?” Lisa asked, deftly changing the subject. She did not feel too guilty about it though, as she was genuinely curious to hear their news.

Yet not one of them said anything for a moment, the silence hovering over the cart carrying its own dread weight. Whatever news they carried would not be good. Finbar broke the silence though, his voice sullen, though clear. “We survived,” the ferret said. Then, glancing around at the wounded, especially his fellow Longs, he added “I think.”

“Well,” Misha cut in bitterly. “I almost got all of us killed.” He slammed his fist into the side of the cart, the wood creaking under his blow. “And that bastard escaped without so much as a scratch.”

“It wasn't your fault,” Caroline said, her voice soothing. “It was just bad luck that we got ambushed.”

“NO!” he shouted, his voice audible to nearly all in the column. “It is my fault. I deliberately took a big risk to try and get him. Instead all we got was surrounded and almost wiped out.”

“The important thing is we all survived,” Padraic countered, though the tremble in his voice spoke of how uncertain he was of his own words. “Wounds heal with time.”

“We would have all been killed if it hadn't been for my friend,” the fox said in a subdued voice as he patted the blade of his axe with his bandaged hand. By itself, the sudden change of timbre in the reynard’s speech would have given them pause, but the pregnant breath that each in the cart held caused them no end of unease. Her eyes sweeping them in an instant, Arla noticed that everyone in the cart was shifting nervously, even Caroline, as if reminded of something that they had wished had remained buried in the Northern hills.

Yet it was Caroline who broke the silence, her eyes lifting back to them, a slight smile creeping along the edges of her muzzle. “Where's Charles?” the otter asked. “Knowing him he must be up and about already. No matter what Coe told him.”

Lisa and Arla glanced at each other, as if deciding who would break the terrible news. Lisa finally took the plunge, her words measured, and slow to come. “The last time I saw him he looked very well, was bitterly complaining about being confined to his bed.”

Some of the other Longs laughed slightly at that, knowing the feeling all too well. Misha had noted the reluctance in their voice though, and his single ear folded back anxiously. “When was that?”

“Two days ago. But I know he is definitely out of bed now.”

“I see that you managed to keep Delacot from getting himself killed stupidly,” Arla interjected in a rather transparent attempt to change the subject.

“Where is he now?” the fox asked in a cold tone. It was clear he had seen through the question, and would not stand for it.

“How did he get that dent in his armour?” Lisa asked, looking to some of the other Longs, unable to meet the fox’s gaze. Every precious moment she could squeeze she felt she needed to. Her whole body writhed in the agony of it.

“Where is he now?” Misha repeated, the anger plain in his tone.

“He's doing fine,” Arla answered evasively, knowing though that it would be of no use. Like Lisa, she could not look at her leader. Instead she let her gaze fall down to the ground. “He's a quick healer,” she added, her voice trailing into silence.

“Arla Samantha Darlington,” the fox said in a cold, angry tone that sent shivers down the dog’s spine. “Look at me,” he ordered, knowing that it would be obeyed. Reluctantly, a sigh upon her lips, she looked up at the vulpine and found his gaze fixed upon her. His left hand was wound tight about the haft of Whisper. “I asked you a question. Don't make me repeat myself.”

Lisa gulped, her face full of apology. “He’s been placed in the dungeon.”

“The dungeon?” Caroline asked, her voice a mix of disbelief and shock. But all that the collie could do was simply nod in confirmation.

And at that the wagon was shrouded in a brief moment of silence, the Longs too stunned to respond. Some stayed quite because they simply refused to believe what they had just been told. Others simply could not think of anything to say. It was Misha who found his voice first.

“WHAT?” he shouted. “WHO? WHY?” His whole body shook with rage and he slammed his fist repeatedly against the floor of the cart. The wood splintered under the repeated assault, though it still held firm, as if daring him to strike again. Then his remaining ear lay back against his head and he looked at Lisa and Arla with squinted eyes. Leaning forward, he spoke in forced tones, as if holding back his fury for some later exclamation. “The rabbit did it.” It was as much a statement as a question.

“Phil and Duke Thomas ordered it,” Lisa explained.

Caroline placed a paw on Misha’s arm, trying to soothe him, though the anger in her eyes was fierce too. Misha’s claws were tightening upon the axe, and dangerous things began to pass through his bright grey eyes. “When did this occur?”

“Yesterday,” Lisa said then, her voice tight. “He didn't even bother to tell any of us. We only found out when Garigan came asking about where Charles was and we couldn't find him.”

“Kimberly finally clued us in. Told us to talk to Phil,” Arla added. Seeing her leader’s rage at this for some reason comforted her, made her tongue flow easier.

Misha let out a deep guttural snarl and slammed his fist into the floor hard enough to crack the inch thick plank. He muttered something under his breath, too low for anyone else to hear, though it had the sound of a curse. “How is he?” he finally managed to ask, his voice barely holding back the rage that bristled at the tip of every strand of his fur.

“I don't know,” Lisa answered truthfully. She then added in bitter tones, “He wouldn't allow any of us to see him until you came back.”

Arla's voice was gruff. “He yelled at Skylos until he left. Treated him like some sort of vermin.”

“Did he deign to tell you why he had arrested Matthias?” Misha asked in a hoarse whisper.

“No,” Lisa answered with bitter recrimination. “He wouldn't tell us anything. He kept asking about a friend of Charles called Zagrosek.”

“You're good enough to fight, bleed and die for Metamor,” the fox screamed, making several in the cart cringe. “But he can't trust you enough to tell you when he's arrested a friend.” Misha felt as if he would explode from the anger he felt coursing through his flesh. He punched the floor again this time putting his fist completely though the wood, splinters flying across the cart. “I've had enough of his lies and deceptions. I SHOULD HAVE LET THAT BASTARD BURN TO DEATH AT THREE GATES,” he shouted. The soldiers walking near the cart that had pretended they were not listening visibly flinched at that, and stepped away in whatever direction was easiest. Misha’s eyes were no longer smoldered, but roared with a terrible fire that frightened them.

Misha started to rise, though Caroline tried to hold him back, “Please,” she said. But the fox roughly pulled his arm free, his voice from between his clenched teeth descending into a visceral snarl. It grew lower for a moment as he collected himself, gripping the axe firmly in his left paw. And then his snarl became a freakish cry as he stood up, lifting one leg to jump from the wagon. Caroline grabbed the axe with both hands and refused to let go. His head whipped around to meet her, the grey eyes that shone nearly devoid of rational thought. Yet the otter met his gaze resolutely, her paws firmly holding the haft before her.

There was a brief tug of war between them before he relinquished control. Without any further delay, the fox vaulted over the side of the cart and took off at a dead run up the road to the Keep, kicking or punching at everything within reach whether it be snow, debris, walls, or people foolish enough not to flee when he approached.

Caroline hopped out of the cart and pointed to Arla. “Find George. He's the only one who can stop Misha when he's like this.”

Arla nodded and carefully jumped from the cart as well, wondering where she could find the jackal.

“What a homecoming,” Finbar said ruefully. All that Lisa could do was let her face fall into her arms and sigh visibly. Would the Longs never have peace?

It took Misha quite some time to make the run all the way to the Keep itself. Startled Metamorians ducked from his path as he hurtled along the snow-laden cobblestone streets, the chill wind wiping through his fur and coats. It cooled his flesh as well as tempering his anger, though it did not quell it. Instead of the blind rage pouring through his flesh he felt a simmering fury. Though he was no longer striking at all nearby, that would be saved for the rabbit, the look in his eyes, a cold deathly gaze was enough to clear the path for him. He stalked silently through those narrow streets, the citadel ever before him, growing larger with each step. He moved with the cold efficiency of the hunting carnivore that he had become.

Even when he finally entered that ancient castle, and began to continue his resolute march to the rabbit’s chambers, he maintained that grim façade. Keepers who saw him pressed themselves back against the walls to allow him passage, none wished to interfere. It was only when he came upon the crocodilian Steward, walking down the hall with a cane in one hand did another speak to him. At first Thalberg’s eyes lit up when he caught sight of the fox, but then they became grim as they saw his condition and his uncompromising visage.

“Misha, it is good to see you,” Thalberg said, cautiously. He did not move to stand in the fox’s way though.

But the fox did not respond with words, merely growling through clenched teeth, his voice nothing more than a snarl.

“Where are you going?” the alligator insisted, pulling his red robes close to his chest, as if to ward off the chill that the fox’s eyes left him with.

Yet Misha did not answer him, only continued on his march, the rabbit’s quarters just around the bend, this he knew. He could hear the reptile’s hurried steps, and the clack of the cane as the Steward rushed off, perhaps to the Duke. But the head of the Long Scouts cared not one whit what Thalberg did, for his mind was focused upon the hunt, and this was one in which he would not shy from drawing blood.

When he came around the bend, his claws clicking against the masonry, the two pages that were stationed outside Phil’s door saw the anger in his eyes and scattered like leaves in the wind. Misha paid them scant notice before he lashed out with both fists against the door, barely noticing the pain lancing through his paws from the missing finger. The wood splintered beneath his assault, shards flying in every direction. “PHIL,” he shrieked, his voice rising several octaves. “YOU STINKING MONSTER!” With his next blow the door caved inwards, collapsing completely, remnants hanging loosely from the hinges.

He leapt over the remains of the door and into the brightly lit room beyond. Scanning about, he saw that the rabbit’s desk was full of papers, but the chair before it had tipped over onto the floor amidst several scattered sheets. Crossing the space in a few short steps, his claws tearing at the carpet, he gave the chair a solid kick, sending it against the wall next to the bureau. It shattered, the legs snapping off and tumbling to the ground while the back remained mostly intact. He slammed both fists into the centre of the table, cracking it down the middle. Papers flittered to either side, while the ink bottle spilled across several parchments, obscuring whatever he’d been writing.

“Where are you Rabbit?” he said in a cold tone barely above a whisper. His voice had once again dropped back to its normal baritone, though it still held that barely breathed growl. Faint scratching echoed from behind him, and he whirled about on his paws, eyes turning on the source of the noise. It was the rabbit, huddled in a corner frantically trying to dig his way through solid stone. All traces of intelligence were once more banished from that lapine body, leaving the panic stricken animal that was before him. Before the rage of Misha, the rabbit was a helpless animal.

Though Misha wished to let loose his anger upon that rabbit and pound him into a bloody pulp, there was that other part of him that could speak reason even in the wildest flashes of fury. He raised his paws above his head and brought his fists firmly down into the desk once more. That bit of wood exploded into thousands of splinters that spread across the room, while the papers and writing equipment were flung against the walls and floors, many dashed to pieces.

Turning around he found Rupert rushing at him. Though the great ape had served as a marine for Whales, a highly decorated one in fact, his large size proved to be his own undoing. The fox stepped to one side, even as the simian’s momentum carried him forward, though he tried to turn and meet his master’s assailant. Misha however took that moment to hit him hard on the back with both fists. The force of the blow sent the ape to his knees, and then another slammed him into the floor in a collapsed heap. Misha dropped upon Rupert’s back, pinning his ponderous arms to the floor with his legs.

Grabbing the fur on the back of the ape’s head, Misha pulled it off the floor, caring not whether he tore any of the fur loose. Holding his muzzle mere inches from Rupert’s face he spoke in a low growl, each word crackling with his fury. “When that thing recovers,” he pointed at the rabbit with his free hand, “we’re going to have a long talk.” He then pushed the ape’s head back against the floor and jumped to his feet. Without another word he stalked from the room, his gait once more that of the predator.

Rupert jumped to his feet as soon as Misha had released him. Glancing once over at Phil, he saw that his charge was still far too frightened to have any sense. The fox had already extricated himself from the broken door. He then ran out the door, poking his head out, and them began to stand sentinel at the door, waiting for the pages to return.

The rabbit’s ears lifted in sudden curiosity, his scratching forgotten when he heard a faint chuckling. And then it was gone and the animal continued its fruitless burrowing into the stone wall, the scent of predator still far too fresh.

The streets of Ellcaran were mostly swept clean of snow by noon. Though in the wagon yards where Marin and Thulin were overseeing the loading of the furs for transport to their proctor in Kelewair, it still lingered along the cobblestones. The salty tang in the air continued to blow in from the West, though they were on the far side of the city from the Ocean. Marin pulled his coat a little tighter, grimacing as he glanced at the sky. Clouds were drawing in from the Sea, would it snow again?

Thulin snorted at him and the younger merchant snapped his eyes back to the task at hand. Kaleas was overseeing the financial transaction for the purchase of the furs that they would trade for Kelewairian rugs on the return voyage. But he and Thulin, the other member of their triumvirate, had to make sure that the workers loaded all the furs they had contracted, and that they were in good condition. They’d been taken somewhere to the North, Brathas perhaps, maybe from Metamor itself, but certainly much too far North for his skin.

Bear and wolf pelts the vast majority of course, though there were several varieties of each. He counted himself fortunate enough to have never seen either up close; they always kept their distance from their campfires when they travelled, and would never be found in the cities he preferred to stay in. Yet he could not help but wonder at what they must think of him and his companions. Were they potential meals to those animals? Or were they merely curious about their two-legged brethren?

Marin shook his head, rubbing at his temples while he watched the furs piled upon stacks in the wagons. He was not usually so distracted as this. He ran his fingers across his forehead, feeling a strange heat there. Was he coming down with a fever? This thrice-damned weather was likely the cause. He wished that he could go back to the Inn and sit by the fire, sharing some of the mead they served there. He remembered fondly the warm stew that he’d had the previous evening, the way it had taken the edge off of the Season with every bite. Somehow they’d managed to make it all taste fresh even this late in the Winter.

Blinking once more, he scanned the furs, and the faces of the men putting them into the wagons. Fever or not, he would finish his job. After all, this was fairly lucrative business that they were involved in. Hopefully, the three of them would be able to earn enough on this venture that they’d be able to buy their own warehouse to store goods, and never have to leave Kelewair again. The thought of money led his hand to reach down and pat the bulging pouch at his side. He’d done quite well with the cards that morning.

Yet, his eyes snapped as he watched the faces of the workers. For a second he could have sworn that one of them was their gambling companion, the man with black hair, Krabbe was his name. But no, it was just some young lad, even younger than himself. Grimacing, he walked over to the wagon, while Thulin stayed by the warehouse doors. His companion watched him a moment, but then returned his attention to the moving line.

He leaned against the tailgate, the wheels groaning as they pressed along the snow-slick stones of the courtyard. Lifting his hand to his face again, Marin idly stroked the small goatee. It had only been a few years since he’d shown his manly whiskers, but he was proud of them. Their gambling partner had not had any facial hair, his face clean shaven. It was a solid face, narrow but sure. As he glanced into the wagon he could almost see Krabbe sitting there upon the furs, shrouded in a regal black robe, while Marin sat before him on his knees, head bowed low in submission.

Marin snapped his head back, shaking it several times while he blinked repeatedly. Where had those thoughts come from? He rubbed his hand along his forehead, the heat still there, slowly building as if he were truly coming down with a fever. Breathing heavily, he rested his hand against the side of the wagon, nodding and trying to smile to the workers who gave him queer looks as they loaded the furs. Glancing back up at the sky, he could watch the trail of smoke from the chimneys nearby all drifting upwards. He fancied that they were all collecting far in the sky above him, their essence forming the storm clouds that were collecting.

And as he gazed into those clouds, for a brief moment he thought he could see their curving lines trace out the figure of that man standing before him, while he was there kneeling. Blinking in shock, and looking again, it was gone, and just those same churning wisps of air hovered in the grey sky. Shivering, Marin pulled his coat tighter and kept his eyes firmly fixed upon the ground. What was wrong with him?

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