Down the Bridge - Part I

When Charles awoke the next morning, he felt as if he’d been sleeping for several years. Where he had fallen into his blankets upon the pile of hay sore and bruised, he rose from them feeling rejuvenated, and without any sign of the wear the previous two days had lent him. Opening his eyes, he stared down at the portion of his tail that Wessex’s spell had scalded, only to find that the skin was well, and that the pink tint had faded. Apart from his memories, there was nothing left to remind him of that battle.

Turning his eyes about the shallow chamber, he saw that Zagrosek and Jerome were both still huddled tightly in their blankets, black Sondeckis robes beneath their heads as they rested. The hay was fresh, and was the only thing between them and the rock of the cave floor. The accommodations in Lars’ brewery were hardly desirable, but they would have to do until it was safe to venture out in the open once more. Staring at the thick lines of granite and other more colourful veins that he did not recognize, he realized that he was secretly glad Garigan had insisted upon coming here. It was as if a part of the rat had been left behind in the Glen when Misha and he had returned to Metamor last April.

There was not much light to see by in the caves of course. A torch hung in a sconce outside the chamber entranceway – he refused to acknowledge the open passage as a door – but its flickering illumination was enough for his rodent eyes to notice most details. Yet his ears and his nose had become just as important to him as his sight in the past six years, and with them he knew that they were alone, and that no Glenner was moving about nearby.

Of course, as he shook the sleep from his head, Charles was given to wonder just what time it was. It felt like morning, and as he had lived the last six years of his life in a room with no window, and until recently no clock, he trusted his instincts. It was surely before dawn though, but as it was only a few days past the Solstice, that could mean it was as late as nine o’clock, though he knew it to be far earlier. A moment later, as he heard Jerome shifting to his side, he knew that he was right.

Throwing back the blankets, Charles stretched, and slipped on his garments, pulling the Sondeckis robe tightly about his small frame. Zagrosek yawned behind him, even while Jerome began to wipe the sleep from his eyes. They were Sondeckis, and their training still forced them to wake at the same time. Matthias smiled at that, imagining that Garigan was probably rising from his bed of hay and straw, surrounded by all his old friends, many of whom doubtless would have found his early rising contemptible. At the thought of their groaning, the rat nearly laughed, but he kept his peace, and did not disturb the rough walls beneath Lars’ brewery.

“Good morning,” he whispered instead to his fellows, even as he began to fold the blankets Lady Avery had procured for them. “I see we still get up at the same time.”

Zagrosek let out a throaty chuckle, but softly. “And you are the first up, not surprising either.”

Matthias smiled and then stood up, stretching again. “When do you suppose it is?”

Zagrosek shrugged, and stretched, his joints popping one by one as he did so. “I’m not sure, though it couldn’t be late enough for my liking, I can assure you. For once, I wish my body would let me sleep past the sun. Just once would be nice.”

The rat grinned then, his whiskers set to twitching furiously on his muzzle. “Oh, then you should be here for the Summer Solstice. Dawn comes very early then, much earlier than it ever did back at Sondeshara.”

Jerome rubbed the back of his head with one hand as he stared vacantly at the walls, tracing down the lines of granite. “By now, Ladero would have been praying.”

Charles nodded, a sullen moue stilling his whiskers. “Yes, he would have been. I wish he were here. We could use his devotion now.”

“But he isn’t,” Zagrosek murmured, his own face morose, and his voice gravely. “Even so, we are four, with young Garigan at least.”

The slim-shouldered Sondeckis rose and gazed back at them, “Speaking of Garigan, there is one thing I have been thinking about ever since our fight with the Shrieker.”

“Yes,” Jerome muttered, stepping across the room to the open passageway. He glanced out both sides and then turned back to the rat and the other man. “We’re alone, so we can safely discuss it.”

Charles pointed to his nose and his ears with one paw. “I could have told you that. These do work much better than they use to, you know.”

Jerome blinked, and then grinned slightly. “I had forgotten how much better your senses are like that. Too bad we all can’t be rats, eh?”

Matthias felt a bit of pride at the implication that being a rat was something to be hoped and yearned for. After so many years living with his fur and his tail and everything else, it felt as if he always had been a rat, and he had no desire to change back anymore. With a wistful smile, he considered the loveliest part about being a rat, that of being with his Lady Kimberly, cuddled close, not saying anything, but just being together. And then he remembered that she was bak at Metamor, hopefully safe in the Chapel, and his smile vanished. What if the Chapel had been overrun? Those filthy Lutins could be raping her violently, before they killed her in any hundreds of horrible ways. The thought of those abominable creatures desecrating her holy flesh made his own quiver with sudden rage. The Sondeck nourished that rage, turning his heart into a cauldron of boiling oil ready to spill forth and flay the skin off the next Lutin he should see.

“Charles?” Zagrosek asked, waving his hand in front of the rat’s face. “Are you even listening?”

Matthias turned at the sight of his friend, the unquenched desire still smouldering inside his chest. With terrible reluctance, he sought to find his Calm, assuring himself that Kimberly was safe, and that they would be together again after this was over. He banished all thoughts of Lutins even coming near her, seeking only to think about them by that espaliered tree, snuggled close, bodies touching in a most pleasant fashion.

“I’m sorry, my mind started to wander,” Charles said, drawing the blanket close to him and around his waist, to hide the visible signs of his emotional wavering.

“We noticed,” Zagrosek said, though his voice was dry. “We asked you what sort of techniques you’ve been teaching Garigan.”

“Only the standard methods to calm his mind and heart, and to reach a balance with his Sondeck. Why?”

Jerome and Zagrosek glanced at each other for a moment before the larger man said, his voice cautious, “Do you remember what Garigan did to the Shrieker when it charged at him?”

“Yes, he–“ Charles stopped speaking, his mouth hanging open in mid-sentence. He did indeed recall the scene, with that black mass hurtling towards his student, and the ferret reaching out with his arms, as if to draw it towards him. Instead, the abomination was sent sprawling back as the Sondeck’s intent was turned backwards upon it. He’d almost forgotten it in the nearly two days since then. So much had happened that he’d not given it much thought. Alone in the morning with lifelong friends, the implications of that moment were becoming rather clear.

“That technique is not taught until a Sondecki attains the blue,” Jerome added. “How did he learn it?”

“I don’t know,” Charles said, his voice filled with the frightened curiosity that the rest of them shared. “He might have picked it up watching me, but that is all I can think of.”

Zagrosek let out a throaty chuckle. “I remember trying to do the same sorts of things that I saw the higher Sondeckis doing when I was a yellow. I couldn’t even push sand, let alone a creature of the Underworld. Do you realize what this means?”

Charles sat staring vacantly at the floor, and the blanket draped before him as he sat on the hay. Jerome finished the thought that was going through all of their minds, his voice level, but certain, “He is a powerful Sondeckis indeed, more powerful than any of us.”

The three said nothing for some time as they sat in the vague light, the flickering torch casting the shadows this way and that as it shone outside the small room. Charles had known that Garigan possessed a very strong Sondeck, as it had taken him very little time at all to master the techniques of the yellow. He’d been able to find his Calm within weeks of searching, a feat that had taken Charles and his friends several months to duplicate. And he’d risen to the green after barely seven months of training. Charles had chalked that up to Garigan’s age, but as he considered it, he knew that had been a self-deception, for even the Sondeckis he had known at Sondeshara that had started late, still spent two or three years wearing the yellow robes of a novice.

“How old is he?” Zagrosek asked, drawing his thumb down his chin speculatively.

Mathias’s voice was hollow when he answered. “He just turned seventeen two months ago.”

“Had he been born in the Southlands and started his training at the same age we had, by now he would undoubtedly be a purple.”

“If not a black,” Jerome added.

“A black?” The thought made the rat shudder. He’d never even heard of a Sondeckis ascending to the penultimate rank in less than fifteen years. It had taken sixteen years for Charles to do so, and he and his friends had been among the most talented at Sondeshara. It was thought that one day, one of the three of them, or Ladero, would have become the new white. But the thought that the ferret had more raw power within him than the three of them combined was most unsettling.

“I’ve read more of the history of our clan than either of you two have,” Jerome pointed out, crossing his arms and pacing a moment. “There have been figures in the past that have possessed the Sondeck to the same degree as I believe Garigan does. Every one of them ascended to the white within ten to fifteen years. Every last one of them. Our greatest and worst times have been when our clan has been ruled by ones such as they, and your Garigan.”

Suddenly, a stray thought came back to the rat, and he exclaimed, “That can’t be what he means!”

“What who means?” Zagrosek asked, even while Jerome continued to pace, scouring his own thoughts, surely on the annals of the Sondeckis history.

“Remember that kangaroo, Habakkuk, I told you about?”

“Yes, I remember. The one who told you to give the Sondeshike back, the one who is a Felikaush.”

“Well, I’ve heard that he’s introduced a new character in his story. This one a white weasel.”

Both Jerome and Zagrosek looked to each other, then back at Charles, their eyes saying all that was required. Licking his lips, the black-haired Sondeckis finally gave voice to what they all knew, “So, how long before he becomes the next white?”

“And how?” Jerome muttered. “He’s a ferret. The Council of blacks is not likely to accept an animal as their leader. No offence.”

Charles shrugged. “I’m used to it, and I agree. I don’t see how they would tolerate having an animal that parades about like a man as their leader. I cannot imagine anything but dissension being formed in their ranks if he does fulfil this pseudo-prophecy. I’m going to have to find Habakkuk’s story when all this is over to see just exactly what he’s written.”

Suddenly though, even as the words finished leaving his mouth, he heard the sound of footsteps echoing faintly off the cavern walls. His nose rose into the air, drawing in the various scents that mingled in the dry caves, seeking to identify the trespasser. Both Jerome and Zagrosek looked at him oddly for a moment, then their ears heard the clinking of claws against stone, and they turned to face the open passage, no longer speaking of matters only for the Sondeckis. Whatever thoughts they still had would have to wait for another opportunity.

As the footsteps grew closer, Charles tried to turn his mind away from things that might be, and away from that kangaroo. He wished Habakkuk would stay out of his life, and not keep trying to interfere. Yet with each passing moment, the rat knew that he would have to entrust himself to the Felikaush’s guidance eventually, and the thought angered him, though not to the same extent that the Lutin’s harming Kimberly had. He still wished to see Habakkuk pay for breaking his arm, but so far, he’d not thought up a suitable bit of revenge he could exact, at least not without being caught. And he’d had a lot of time to think while scrubbing all the armour in the Long House the previous month.

When their visitor finally arrived a few moments later, they saw Angus’s angular head with the familiar diamond-shaped white blotch of fur amidst the black on his forehead peer around the corner. “Ah, you are awake. Good.” He stepped full into the room, a thick jerkin pulled tightly about his chest, while his leggings threatened to engulf his paws. “The scouts returned a few hours ago, and we’ve begun planning our counterstrike. I thought you might like to participate. And get a little breakfast in you besides.”

“Certainly!” Charles said, leaping to his paws and dropping the blanket. “What time is it anyway? We’ve been wondering about that.”

Angus shrugged, his massive shoulders wider than Jerome’s. “I’d say nearly seven. The scouts are getting their sleep after a long hard night, while most everybody else is heading back to the common room. Lord Avery is already there trying to decide what we should do. It is a good thing that you stumbled across that supply wagon yesterday, we’ve been able to track it back to its source.”

Jerome and Zagrosek grabbed their Sondeckis robes and began to pull them over their heads, while Charles continued to ask questions. “Where is it?”

“Up at the Dike. It is almost a day’s journey that far, so I doubt we’ll be attacking there unless there is nothing else we can do.” Angus then shook his head, eyes gazing past the wall at something distant. “You are not going to believe who is overseeing the supply lines, at least if our information is correct, which I am certain it is.”

Charles reached down and snatched the black cloak from the hay and began to shimmy into it. “Who?”

“Our old friend Baron Calephas. At the very least he was seen at the Lutin camp by the Dike. I’m surprised he’s still alive even after all the failures he’s overseen for Nasoj.”

The rat shrugged, not too terribly surprised to hear this bit of news. “He’s overseen quite a few successful ventures as well. If nothing else, he maintains order in Nasoj’s holdings west of the Dragon mountains better than any of his other minions probably could.”

“Who’s Baron Calephas?” Jerome asked finally, staring at the two animals.

“One of Nasoj’s lieutenants who has some very sick tastes,” Angus spat, and then waved them on out the passage. Jerome’s brow furrowed slightly, but he said nothing. They followed the badger up the slanting corridor a short distance, until it met the intersection with the main passage into the mount’s heart. A long staircase had been chiselled into the floor, and it twisted this way and that up the natural corridor, with only the torches spaced every few metres to guide them.

The light of course was something that the rat relied on to steady himself as they headed back towards Lars’ brewery and the surface. It would be comforting to be out from underneath the tonnes of rock that were surely overhead. The only thing that Charles could think about as he moved along that passage was the weight of all that stone being placed atop his shoulders, crushing him flat. Shuddering, he pushed that image from his mind, and focussed instead on the badger’s back.

Soon though, the sound of other voices rang down the corridor, and the rat felt safe. Stepping out into the main room of the brewery again was comforting, as so many familiar faces were clustered about the tables, spooning the culinary efforts of Mrs. Levins into their muzzles. There were eggs, and some lovely stew cooking, Charles’s nose told him, and he found himself drawn towards it, his stomach churning in anxious delight.

However, his eyes caught sight of the grey squirrel Lord Avery sitting at a table, with a piece of parchment spread before him. Garigan was there as well, pointing to it and saying a few words that they could not hear to the lord of the Glen. Angus led them to that large oak table, the two’s eyes rising to meet them as they approached.

“Ah, good to see that you are awake at last. Garigan and I have been discussing some ideas while you slept.” Lord Avery pointed to the chairs about the table, and the four of them sat, gazing at the unfurled map before them. The parchment was yellowing at the edges, curling up from lack of proper care, but otherwise, it appeared to be in reasonably good shape.

“Can we get something to eat first?” Charles asked, even as he leaned forward, his nose drawn by that irresistible smell.

“Of course. Christopher! Darien!” Lord Avery called out, and suddenly, the two young squirrels who had been hiding behind the counter bounded out across the floor and stood by their father’s side, their faces eager.

“Yes, Dad?” they both chimed, their high pipping voices well formed from out of their rodential snouts.

“Would you get these three gentleman something to eat. And don’t fight over who gets to carry the extra plate this time.” His voice carried that weariness only a father with mischievous sons could have.

Both of the young squirrel’s tails twitched as they looked at each other and then back at the three Sondeckis. Their eyes settled on the rat and then grew very large, nearly popping out of their head. “Charles!” one of them shouted in delight, skittering over, almost on all fours to be at the scout’s side. “You came back!” the other added as he joined his brother.

Charles looked at them both, trying to decide which was which and failing completely of course, and then smiled affectionately, giving them both a pat on the head. “Good to see you two as well. Are you being good little helpers for your Father?”

One of them, Darien he thought, nodded and wrapped his tail about one of the table legs. “We’re helping to make the arrows!”

“Oh really?” Charles said, letting his eyes widen in amazement. “That takes a lot of skill, why you two must be very talented.” He could hear Brian stifle a laugh over his shoulder. Both the other two Sondeckis were grinning as they watched. Angus and Garigan nodded in agreement with Charles though, congratulating the two young squirrels for their efforts.

“Mr. Berchem says in another year we’ll be making them for the whole Glen!” Christopher proclaimed proudly, or was it Darien? They’d both grown several inches since the last time Charles had seen them, he could not even guess which was which!

“I’m sure he’s right,” Charles said, smiling that huge grin which encompassed his thick set of whiskers. His stomach then offered an indignant growl, and he had to chuckle. “Now, would you do us three a favour and bring us something good to eat?”

“I’ll do it!” one of the two shouted, darting off towards the kitchen behind the counter. However, his brother was following right after him, protesting that he’d be the one to get their food. Lord Avery sighed, shaking his head, his tail laying against the floor in defeat, but laughing lightly with the others around the table.

Jerome watched their long tails dart behind the counter and out of view and then looked at Brian whimsically. “Those are your children? They’re adorable, and slightly incorrigible too, I might add.”

“And they’re a bit taller than I remember them,” Charles added, looking back to the exasperated father.

Brian nodded a bit, leaning back in his chair slightly. “Yes, they’ve grown nearly half a foot since April. They don’t even go around in clothes during the summer, because they keep outgrowing them! I think Walter stitches them new outfits every four months.”

“Why are they growing so fast?” Zagrosek asked, even as he drew his cloak tighter about himself, as if the mention of heat had left him chilled.

Lord Avery turned to the black-haired Sondeckis, his face gone curious. “Aren’t you from Metamor?”

Zagrosek shook his head, “No, Charles is an old friend who we’re visiting. You’ll have to bear with our ignorance, I’m afraid.”

Angus and Brian looked at each other quickly, their faces suddenly very serious. “You do realize that if you stay here for long you may end up like us? We are still inside the radius of the curse here at Glen Avery.”

“We know,” Jerome said, glancing back at the kitchen door once before turning his wide face to look at the three Glenners seated across from him. “We are willing to take that risk.”

“We’ll help you in anyway we can, and stay for as long as we are needed,” Zagrosek added, favouring them a tight grin.

Angus nodded approvingly, while Lord Avery smiled. “I’m very glad to hear that. We can use all the help that we can muster up here. What can you do? Are you good fighters, scouts? Can you use a bow, staff, sword? What are your specialties? We’re going to be making our plans soon, and I’d like to know what you are capable of.”

The two Sondeckis flashed glances at each other, smiling slightly, while Charles just chuckled to himself. Jerome, then spoke, his voice certain, “Whatever Charles is capable of, we can match it. Our strong suit though is close combat. We could wield bows if necessary, but I’m afraid our accuracy leaves much to be desired.”

Lord Avery shook his head then. “We have more than enough archers. What weapons do you use?”

Zagrosek set the retracted Sondeshike on the table and gave them a rather amused smile. Jerome held out his hands and favoured them with a similar smirk. “We don’t need much, Charles can tell you.”

Angus reached out and plucked the small cylinder from the table, and examined it in his paws. He traced two thick, hairy claws across the smooth surface, twisting it about, but he did not press the catch set in the middle. Setting it back down before the black-haired Sondeckis, he gave the man a very dubious stare. “Show me what you can do with that.”

Zagrosek took the Sondeshike and extended it with a flick of his wrist, spinning it over his head in a graceful arc before stashing beneath his arm and shoulder. “Something along those lines.”

The badger laughed quite loudly, while Lord Avery just stared in disbelief at the large staff that had suddenly appeared in the Sondecki’s hand. “If we had the time, and Nasoj’s army wasn’t marching over top of our home, I’d take you out to the fields and spar with you a bit, just to see how good you really are with that thing. What do you call it?”

“A staff usually,” Zagrosek said, returning it to its compact form and slipping it beneath his robes once more. A plate suddenly found itself in front of him, as the two young squirrels returned with their breakfast. Charles grinned at the two boys, but they quickly ran off back behind the counter, probably to work on more arrows. They’d been served a large helping of eggs, with a biscuit on one side, and a small portion of warm oats.

“I see Mrs. Levins has taken over all the cooking for you.” Charles spooned some of the eggs into his muzzle, and knew instantly he’d been right. There was some flavour to them that he’d never known in simple scrambled eggs before.

Jerome and Zagrosek were too busy feeding their faces to add to the rat’s peroration, but Brian Avery nodded emphatically. “She has a way of making even the simplest of meals taste like a banquet.” His dark eyes trailed after his sons, and then his face lit up with a forgotten question. “Oh, you wondered why they are growing so fast. Because they were born as squirrels, they age faster than normal children would. It is a burden that Angela and I are happy to bear, except that it makes them twice as hyper as normal children too.”

Zagrosek chuckled between mouthfuls, and grinned, “Well, they are adorable.” Then, he paused a moment and swallowed the last of his eggs. “Now, you said you’ve been discussing what you are going to do about this supply line. What have you thought of so far?”

Angus, Garigan, and Brian Avery leaned over the table further. A few of the other Glenners that had been mired in their own conversations stopped and turned to watch them as well. Charles chewed down a bit of the oats as he gazed down at the map of the northern Valley before them. He recognized the ravine between Mount Nuln and Kalegris that Misha and he had scouted last April, where the Lutins had been building catapults. However, where the squirrel’s paws were was atop the forests near the Giant’s Dike.

“Our scouts have found that Baron Calephas is making his camp just south of the Dike. They’ve got provisions there to last at least a month, and every few hours or so, a wagon is loaded and sent south to Metamor along the old North Road. As Garigan has informed us, and our scouts have confirmed, there are about twenty Lutins guarding each transport, with ten covering each flank.”

“Yes, we found that out the hard way,” Jerome muttered as pushed his plate aside.

“Now, Calephas’s camp appears to be well guarded, and there are several hundred Lutins stationed there. They’re going to Metamor piecemeal, but as it stands, we do not have the manpower to assault his camp. But we do need to stop those supplies from reaching Metamor.”

“So what are we going to hit instead?” the skunk named Berchem asked.

“I think we should try to destroy the bridge.” There was a bit of a gasp from several around the room. “It is the easiest way to cross the gorge in the hills without going to the eastern side of the Valley. Without that bridge, Calephas won’t be able to get the supplies to Nasoj’s troops for some time, hopefully long enough for the Metamorians to turn back the assault. Now, it is being guarded, several squadrons of Lutins on both sides, and several hounds with them, so we’ll have to be cautious in our approach. We cannot be certain how many patrols they have circling the area either.”

Angus tapped the line of the gorge that drew up into the Western mountains. “Perhaps we could come in from below? Torch the bridge, let it burn. It is made from wood after all.”

“We’d need an awfully hot fire in this weather,” Berchem pointed out, his monochromatic tail circling behind his head.

Avery glanced over his shoulder at the woodpecker who was hopping from one foot to the other so he could see. “Burris, do you think you could help there?”

“I think so yes, I’d just need a few moments free from distraction to convince the wood to burn hot enough.”

“Good, then we’ll definitely have to send a team down into that ravine. Unfortunately, that means they’ll need to leave several hours before the rest. We’ll have to have an attack up above as well, to keep the Lutins occupied while Burris destroys the bridge. Bercham, I would like you to take several of your archers and accompany Burris in the ravine. Charles, why don’t you and your friends accompany them, you may run into some unpleasant company on the way.”

Charles nodded and then glanced at the skunk, who was grinning slightly, “We’d be delighted to do so. When are you planning to attack?”

Brian Avery gazed at him, his face set in a firm moue. “As soon as you can reach the bridge. It takes three hours to walk there via the road. You’ll have to take the long way around, so you had best leave within the hour. Once we are finished making our plans, we’ll get you powdered up and then you can be off.”

“Powdered?” Jerome asked suddenly, noting the amused grin that had crossed the skunk’s face. Angus wore a similar one, and as he looked about, he noticed that almost every Glenner wore that mischievous smirk.

“Of course, you’ll need to blend in, and you are not quite white enough to do that yet,” Lord Avery said, his own smile quite large.

Jerome and Zagrosek looked at each other uncertainly, but then shrugged, and turned back to the map. Charles had to stuff his biscuit into his mouth to keep from laughing.

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