Making Plans - Part II

Baron Calephas did not need to touch the back of his head to know that there was a large lump there. As he blinked groggily, dark images flashed before his eyes, a subtle play of light cast in lines before him, showing the rings of hollowed out wood. Memories swirled through his skull, despite the prodigious bruise, flashes of the scene before the bridge crossing the chasm to the South. Vaguely he recalled that the Metamorian had been trying to torch it, but then, all went black. Had he been struck by a missile he hadn’t seen?

More importantly, where was he now? Calephas raised his head slowly up, trying to rub the sleep from his eyes with one hand. Only, his hand did not want to come to his face. With a start, he realized that his hands were bound tightly behind him as he lay on one side. Rolling over on the flat wood, he pushed himself into a sitting position, stretching his shoulders as far as they’d dare go. Rubbing his fingers along the thick rope, he tried to hide his smile. These would not take him terribly long to undo.

Gazing up and about the tree’s interior, he saw that there was only a single exit, the rest of the sides shrouded in deep shadow. The iron door was set firmly into the base of the tree, and no hinges were visible from that side. He secretly smiled at that, but remained otherwise silent. It was clear to him now that somehow the Keepers had captured him and were holding him prisoner. Most likely they would try to discern what he knew of the attack on the Keep itself, and he hoped that they asked him.

It was terribly cold though, and as he shifted about in his thick woolen jacket, he could feel the iciness of the weather sink through his bones. The cell was obviously somewhere outside, even though he could not make out any details beyond the door. Given that he was imprisoned within a tree though, he decided that he was probably at Glen Avery, for those folks had made the forest their home in more ways than one. That was good as well, for he knew the land around Glen Avery fairly decently.

Shadows passed before the narrow grate set in the iron door, and Calephas straightened his back. He heard a metallic bolt shift about, and soon, the door swung outwards, allowing the meagre light to spill into the cell. Without a word, two figures walked inside, and the door was slammed shut with a loud ringing, as if to emphasize his imprisonment. Garadan Calephas was unconcerned with that of course, instead turning his attention to the two figures who had joined him in the shadow.

They were an interesting pair, one large and swarthy, while the other was lithe and narrow. They sat down before him, the larger of the two resting a black-furred paw on the pommel of the great sword resting in his lap. The other had a long tail that flitted back and forth behind his head, almost like a billowing cape. It only took the Baron a few moments to realise just who they were, despite the feeble light.

“Good to see you again, Lord Avery,” he said, doing his best to sound cordial. “How are your children?”

The squirrel started at that, and the badger sitting at his side drew his claws along the length of the blade, sending a strident squeal lancing about the dim prison. Calephas kept his face level though, knowing that his barb had stung as he’d hoped. Lord Avery was quick to muster his own reserve though. “Safe, now that monsters like you have been caged. I suppose you know why you are still alive.”

Calephas stretched his back rather nonchalantly, fingering the knot behind him deftly, tracing along it. It would take him sometime to untie of course, and it was a long way back to his forces at the Dike. “Of course, you wish to interrogate me.”

The badger gripped the pommel of his sword, the leather creaking under his crushing grip. “I was thinking first we might rid the world of your filthy plaything first.” Calephas actually blinked at that, and said nothing else. The last thing he wanted to do was to anger them enough to follow through on that threat.

Lord Avery let out a soft chuckle. “I see that we have your attention now, good.”

“Hardly,” Calephas countered, narrowing his gaze. “Before I say anything, I want your assurance that my two human sergeants will not be held here or interrogated any further. They know noting of the plans and the arrangement of the forces. The only one who did was me, so if you want to know any of that, you will have to ask me. And I will say nothing until you let them go.”

Both the Glenners looked at each other for a moment in surprise, just as he’d hoped. The more he kept them off-balance, the more they could reveal to him. A silent communication passed between them for a few moments while Calephas fiddled with the ropes that bound him. He had no desire to get them too loose while that badger sat there with his sword in his lap, so did so as discreetly as possible, only tugging on them enough to see how they moved in and out of each other.

The animal morphs returned their gazes upon the Baron, the look of distaste mollified slightly, though now more uncertain than anything else. “We have already seen to that. They are being taken care of currently, and we will see to it that they are put outside the boundaries of the curse once we have what we need from you.”

Calephas nodded, though he had expected them to haggle the point for a few moments first. It wasn’t important anyway, as he could find equally competent sergeants when he returned to the Dike. Considering the two Glenners before him, he leaned back slightly, shivering as a blast of cold air filtered through the grate. It was even worse in Arabarb, but at least then he could sit beside a roaring fire, or lay beneath thick quilts while one of the local boys saw to his needs. “So, what do you wish to know?”

“How many enclaves have you set up in the Valley? We know your supply line began at the Dike, where you have considerable force. Where else do you have troops stationed?”

As he saw no point in lying about this, Calephas shrugged. “Most of the rest are at Metamor. There was no need to subjugate the northern villages as we had done the last time. Metamor is the nexus of this Valley’s defence. If it falls, the Valley falls as well.”

“So the only other troops that Nasoj has are at the Dike?” Avery pressed.

“That’s where I left them, yes. Though there are two other outposts we’ve taken and garrisoned.”

“And where are they?” Avery asked, leaning forward slightly, his claws scratching against the circles of wood.

Calephas drummed his fingers on his chin. If they were to do as he wanted, they would need incentive. Making a quick decision, he said in a droll tone, “We have troops stationed at the first watchtower on the North side of the Keep, just to make sure that none of the other villages attempt to outflank us. The second is another relay station along the road, a few hours South from this point.”

“What are they doing there?” the badger prodded.

“They receive the supplies and send them on. As I said, a relay point to freshen our horses and to keep the lines of communication open.”

Avery crossed his arms. “Then why haven’t they sent troops North to see why the supply shipments have stopped?”

Calephas laughed bitterly at that.”Lutins are not terribly bright as a race. Their orders were to stay there in case our forces at Metamor needed to get word to the North, regardless of all else. They’re not likely to disobey that.”

“How many troops are at the relay station?”

“As many as held the bridge, about three dozen, with half that number scouting the perimeter.”

The badger and squirrel held another silent conference between their eyes, and then, some decision was reached between them. Turning back to the Baron, Lord Avery asked, “How many troops does Nasoj have at Metamor?”

Calephas rolled his eyes back slightly as he resurrected the numbers in his head. After a moment, his light tenor began to rattle of the figures, “Several thousand Lutins, with a few hounds per squadron of Lutins, at least a hundred human mercenaries, assassins, and the like, and about a dozen mages.”

“Is Nasoj himself at Metamor?” the badger then asked, his thumb trailing along the thick leather wrapped tightly about the hilt of his blade.

Calephas closed his mouth tightly, eyes firmly set upon the dark tree rings before him, and upon neither the badger nor the squirrel. Depending on how affairs were working out at Metamor, Nasoj was either going to be handing down rewards, or punishing those who had survived. Inevitably, his ordeal here would be revealed, and the truth strained through some particularly vile magic. He had to know what the Glenners intended to do with his information, so that he might slant it and use it against them later.

Sensing an ambuscade in the making, Calephas ground his teeth together, waiting for the Glenners to react to his silence. Lord Avery was quick to appease him, turning to the badger and giving him a meaningful look. Angus began to rise to his feet, the sword point levelled towards the Baron’s chest. Calephas continued to look away, until the point pressed tightly against his shirt. A trickle of blood began to soak the wool against his skin.

“I’ll ask again,” Lord Avery said, his voice calm, though there was a slight burr to it. “Is Nasoj himself at Metamor?”

“Yes,” he barked out bitterly, and the sword point left his chest. He glared up at the badger, his eyes smouldering, though inside, he could only laugh. Nasoj was quite a ways north of the Dike, letting his generals and mages do his own fighting for him. “I don’t know where in the Keep though. It depends on if Metamor has been taken or not.”

Angus snarled then. “I don’t believe that for a minute. You’ve been sending supplies back and forth. Surely you’ve heard something.”

Calephas glared indignantly at the irate badger, but kept his calm. “And the last I heard was that Metamor had not completely fallen yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Avery demanded.

“What I said, Metamor has not fallen completely yet. The town outside the castle is ours, but the castle itself is unclaimed.” He truly did not feel in the least bit traitorous for saying these things, for he doubted that the Glenners would be alive for much longer, at least not after he set his plan in motion. He simply had to satisfy them enough to get them to move, a tricky proposition at best.

Angus and Lord Avery shared another conference, gazing back at each other, their faces waxing between determination and uncertainty, gullibility and suspicion. Calephas said nothing more, for there was little need to at this point. Instead, he watched them, noting the play of the feeble light upon their eyes and snouts, how it shined in the former, and cast the latter into vague shadows.

“How can we be sure what you are telling is the truth?” Angus declared suddenly, placing the tip of his sword beneath the startled Baron’s chin. The badger’s voice was full of disgust and loathing, and his eyes only betrayed his contempt for the man sitting before him.

“What reason do I have to lie?”

“Every reason in the world,” Angus snarled, pressing the tip against his neck. “You side with Nasoj, that makes you the enemy of every living being in this Valley, and in the world. What reason do you have to lie? Every damn one that a person can name, that’s what!”

Calephas stared stony faced back at the badger, noting the darkness of his face as he interposed himself between the Baron and the light. When the master of Arabarb finally spoke, he did so softly, but harshly. “If you are so convinced that everything I tell you is a lie, then why are you bothering to interrogate me? Do whatever you planned to do with me and get it over with.”

Lord Avery stood up then and placed a paw on the badger’s shoulder. Angus still had his sword pressed firmly against Calephas’s neck. “There is nothing more we can gain here. I think he has told us enough already.” Turning then to face the bound man, he spoke in tones that broached no argument. “I have no desire to kill you, Calephas. You will stay here, in this cell, until Metamor is freed, and you can stand trial for your crimes. I imagine the curse will give you a new form by then.”

Calephas nodded. ‘I’ll probably become a little boy, it would be fitting after all considering the hundreds I’ve taken to bed with me. It will be nice to feel that smooth flesh upon my own body, I’ve always thought one of the most alluring aspects of young boys is their sweet tenderness. Don’t you agree?” His tenor contained not a hint of mockery, but instead veiled itself behind a mask of honesty and simple-mindedness. The questions and statements were so frank though that they could do nothing but enrage the Lord further, after all, he had two young boys himself.

And, it had the desired effect. Lord Avery stormed from the cell without another word, his tail flitting behind him in terrible fury. Angus, however, sheathed his sword at his side, and stared down at the bound noble, eyes cold. Then, he brought his paw to one side, and smacked Calephas across the cheek with the front of his palm. The claws dug into the man’s ear, rending it in two. Then, the badger left as well, slamming the iron door shut behind him. The bolt clicked in place only seconds later.

Calephas lay face down on the ground, feeling the sting of that blow throughout his entire head. He supposed it was fortunate he came out with only a torn ear. His healers in Arabarb were more than adequate at repairing the damage, but he would be left with a scar. It would not be his first though, the slap had not been too great as he was only bleeding from the gash in his ear, and so he put the wound from his mind.

He waited, laying there on one side for a few moments. There would surely be a guard at the door. Even so, he wished to stay safe in his prison until he was certain that Avery and the others had gone back to formulate their plans. He had his own to arrange, but they would have to wait a short while. So he lay there limply, closing his eyes to rest for a moment.

His own spies had learned a great deal about the Glen during his mission last April. Though it had been a disaster, and they suffered near total casualties, the information he’d discovered about Lord Avery and his subjects had been invaluable. He could never have taunted Avery into storming off had he not known of his twin sons. With a bit of a grin, he recalled that they were already squirrels too, like their parents. As he drifted off into light slumber, he wondered just what it would be like to caress a soft furry rump than the smooth ones he was used to. Dreams of young squirrels brought a smile to his face.

Charles was finishing off the stew that Baerle had brought for him when a trio of figures collected outside the doorway. The opossum was still sitting in her chair next to him, holding onto his mazer of mead while he spooned the beef and potatoes into his muzzle, heartily enjoying the warm flavours of both. At first he objected to Baerle’s assistance in holding his mazer while he ate, but she pointed out that he had nowhere to set it down, and might spill it, so he begrudgingly took her help.

Yet, as he gazed up and saw his fellow Sondeckis standing there, white powder washed clean from their faces, he could not help but set his plate down upon the quilts before him and call out in delight, “Jerome! Krenek! Garigan! I’m so glad to see you all, and well! Please, come in, I’m just finishing my breakfast.”

Jerome laughed slightly, as he passed beneath the aperture. “It’s actually closer to dusk than dawn, but we just heard that you’ve come to, so thought to welcome you back to the world of the living.”

Charles then turned to the opossum, her eyes watching his companions with a bit of uncertainty, as if she was about to order them out and insist that the rat need rest. Yet, his gaze caught her attention, and she held out the mazer for him, thinking, or hoping, that he wanted another drink. His request caused her face to droop slightly, but only slightly. “Baerle, do you mind excusing us while we talk? I’ll be fine, I assure you.”

She nodded then and set the mazer on the floor next to his robes and other belongings. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little bit though.” Her eyes then went to Garigan, the only other animal morph in the room. “Be sure that he doesn’t get out of that bed. He is very weak right now, and should not be moved. Don’t let him tell you he is fine, because he isn’t.”

Garigan nodded at that, offering the flustered opossum his word that he would keep Charles in bed. Baerle looked back at Matthias with her hazel eyes once as she rose from the chair, patting his shoulder with one calming paw, and then lithely walked from the room, the click of her toe claws upon the stone receding into the distance. Zagrosek watched her leave, his own eyes curious, though he did not immediately speak. Instead he came and dragged two more chairs into the room with him, setting them down beside the bed.

When they were all sitting around their friend, Charles said again, even as he leaned back up on his pillow, grimacing at the ache in his chest, “I’m very glad to see you three here. Baerle told me that you made it out unharmed, but it is still nice to know it with my own eyes.”

Garigan whistled between the gap in his front teeth as he chuckled. “I imagine Baerle has told you a good number of things recently. I hadn’t believed it at first when these two told me what you and she had been doing together on that trek.”

Matthias blinked, his cheeks growing hot. “I don’t know what you are talking about!”

Zagrosek shook his head as he suppressed a chuckle. “Oh come now, Charles, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the way she is flirting with you. She obviously has her eyes set on you, and is trying to woo you. And you’ve been making it very easy for her.”

“Oh come now,” the rat groused. “I already have my Lady Kimberly, why in the world would I be interested in this opossum?”

“I didn’t say you were, but she is very much interested in you,” Zagrosek winked back at him. “She insisted that she be assigned to watch over you while you recover you know.”

Though he didn’t want to admit it, he could see that mischievous grin as Lady Avery consented to let her sit at his side. But, as he’d known her for barely a day, she was probably just the flirtatious sort, hardly worth worrying about. “Never mind about Baerle,” Charles finally said, putting the last few bites of the meat into his mouth, before he handed his plate to Jerome, who set it on the floor. After chewing down the luscious morsels, he added, “I want to know what’s been going on.”

“We have Calephas as a prisoner,” Garigan said, quite elated. “Turned in by his own men too, if you can believe that.”

Charles nodded then, even as Jerome handed him his mazer. Drinking the last of the warm mead, he wiped his muzzle upon the fur of his upper arm, and handed the wooden decanter back to his friend. “Yes, Baerle told me all of that. Has he been interrogated yet?”

“Just recently,” Garigan continued, his tongue pressing at the place where his two front teeth had once been, only to find the scarred gums. “We didn’t get much out of him though. But it looks like Nasoj may be at Metamor himself.”

Charles blinked in surprise. “Now that is important! If it’s true–”

“If it’s true,” Garigan finished, “we may be able to end our troubles once and for all. Lord Avery and the rest are discussing the particulars of it all now. We don’t have the forces to single-handedly destroy the flanks, but we certainly can harass them.”

The rat nodded approvingly at that, and then looked over at the two humans. “And so do you plan to stay for this final fight? I don’t know just how many days you have been with us already yet, my accident has made me lose count.”

“By dawn tomorrow we will have been here in the Valley for four full days,” Jerome replied, certain. “We are going to stay the duration, though it is our hope that this siege is resolved in the next two days, otherwise, we will most likely be stuck here with the two of you.”

Zagrosek shifted in his seat a bit, leaning forward ever so slightly. “I can think of worse fates than to be ever at the side of friends.” His eyes then strayed down to the white bandages wrapped firmly about the rat’s chest. “Did you really manage to break four of your ribs?”

Charles nodded then, resisting the temptation to feel his chest, as that always filled him with an intense throbbing. “They’re mending now at least. I’m glad to see that you three came out unscathed.”

Jerome rubbed the back of his head slightly. “Well, not completely unscathed. I woke up several hours after the fight with the worst headache ever. Here, look at this bruise.” The broad man turned around, showing him a swollen scalp, and purplish lines all across the back of his neck. “You’d think I’d dyed it, it’s so colourful.”

Wincing, Matthias turned to the other two, “And how did you fare?”

Garigan shrugged, “I wasn’t down in the chasm, remember? All I got was Lutin blood on my fur. That stuff is such a pain sometimes to wash out.”

“Just a few minor bruises,” Zagrosek added, shrugging. “How long do you think you’ll be in bed?”

“Well, I’m not moving today,” Charles said, grunting as his chest drove the point home, his ribs creaking beneath the bandages. “I don’t want to be kept here in this bed like an invalid while the rest of you risk your lives for Metamor.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have much choice,” Zagrosek pointed out, rifling his fingers through his black hair. “Breaking four ribs is not the sort of thing you just walk away from, even with the help of magic.”

“But, I–” Charles stopped and sighed, leaning back against the pillow, one ear pinned beneath him. “I don’t want to be helpless.”

Jerome chuckled softly, and gave him a warm smile. “You aren’t helpless, Charles. You never have been. I’m willing to wager that you can still punch anybody sneaking into this room while lying in that bed.”

The rat nodded sourly as he lay there, breathing shallowly, to keep his chest from groaning against the bandages. “It just doesn’t feel right for me to be stuck here, while you are fighting for my home. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

The three of them shook their heads as if in unison, though Garigan spoke for them. “You don’t have to, Charles. We know precisely what you mean. I felt exactly the same way when I first heard about the attack, I was willing to walk into the face of death to save my own people, my home. Metamor Keep is your home, just as Glen Avery is mine, and you have every right to wish that you could be there to drive out those Lutins and plunge a dagger in Nasoj’s black heart.”

Garigan smiled then, a lopsided grin that showed off his missing teeth. “Besides, in another few days, you will be right as rain again. And then you can go back to your love, and everything will be all right once more.”

Charles smiled weakly at that, though stronger than before. “I do miss her. I hope she is all right.”

“You said yourself she was in the Chapel, and there are many competent fighters there. I’m sure she’s safe,” Garigan assured him, his voice confidant.

“I just don’t know,” Charles admitted. The thought of her being hurt, and possibly dead, was a frighteningly real one to him. He did not wish to imagine what they could have done to her, for he also feared the rage it would unleash in his chest. Yet the shame that burgeoned there instead came from the fact that no matter what had happened, if anything, there was nothing that he could do about! He could not protect her, he could not soothe her wounds and her heart, nor could he avenge her should the terrible occur. That was the true source of his woe.

“Look,” Zagrosek cut in, “we’ve all been injured at one time or another, have we not? It happens to the best of us, and when it does, we just have to live with it. I would rather have you at my side than a hundred men, Charles, but the truth is, you can barely sit up in that bed, let alone wield your Sondeshike.”

The rat sighed disconsolately then, slipping back within the warm covers, resting his paws on the lip of the quilt. No matter how much he hated to admit it, they were right, all of them, Zagrosek, Baerle, Garigan, Jerome, they all knew that he had to rest in this bed until he was well enough to leave. And, much to his chagrin, he knew it too, no matter how much he wished to deny it, or worm his way around it. No circumlocution would mend his bones and restore his muscles. Only time could bring back his health and his strength.

“Well, then, I just hope that you three can fill my place adequately in the coming battles. My thoughts will be with you.”

Garigan then gave him yet another lopsided grin, deliberately pulling back his lips to expose the raw, bright red gums where his teeth used to belong. “It could be worse, you could be missing your two front teeth like me!”

Charles found himself laughing, as were the others. “Yes, but at least with you, it isn’t too noticeable! How does your mouth feel by the way?”

“Much better now,” Garigan shrugged, one paw reaching up to feel at the empty space in his muzzle. “It is still sore, but at least it doesn’t hurt to eat any more.”

“Good, I don’t think I want to know how awful that must have hurt.”

“And I think I’d like to keep my ribs in one piece! What ever made you leave yourself so exposed like that?”

Jerome chuckled dryly, shaking his head, at which the rat gave him a dirty look. “Baerle had been standing out in the open watching as the bridge tumbled down. I grabbed her as I ran and forced her into the crevice beneath me. I guess it hadn’t been deep enough for the both of us.”

“And she blames you for getting yourself hurt too, I’d wager,” Zagrosek added in wry amusement.

Charles nodded at that, his face settling into that typical moue of annoyance. “Yes, that is what I’ve gathered. I can only imagine the fit Lady Kimberly is going to throw when she finds out how badly I was hurt. She’ll probably blame it all on me too.”

Zagrosek laughed then, a thick throaty laugh. “That’s a woman for you! They aren’t just satisfied with seeing you in pain, they have to make you feel guilty about it too!”

“And then they hug you really tight and gape at how brave you were,” Jerome added, his smile whimsical. “Remember that night we were walking the streets of Makor, and we ran across the lady being robbed?”

Charles nodded, his own muzzle twitching with the delightful reminisce. “Ladero was on the hooligans before I’d even recovered from my drunken stupor. And they were running as fast as they could only a few moments later. She practically jumped in his arms if I recall, and then fussed over the cut he had on his arm.”

“Of course,” Zagrosek cut in, “ Ladero wouldn’t let her touch it, which only got her more insistent.”

“It wasn’t as amusing as when we found out she was a prostitute and was willing to repay Ladero with her trade!” Jerome put in. Garigan’s eyes went wide at that, his village innocence shining through clearly. The ferret had heard of such people, but had never seen them, not even in Metamor, though he knew they existed in the town.

“I’ll never forget that,” Charles murmured quietly. “His cheeks were so bright when he found out, that you could have used him to light the city block!”

“I think he spent the rest of that night counting his rosary,” Jerome added, laughing at the recollection.

“Ladero sounds like a very good man,” Garigan put in, gazing at the three black Sondeckis, his own eyes wistful.

Charles nodded, his lips set firm. “Yes, he was.” Then shaking the memories from his mind, he peered back at the rest, his eyes curious. Yet, they were also tired, as a sudden sleepiness began to fill the rat. It had given no warning, but as he lay there, head against the pillow, he knew that he must soon rest. “When do you think Lord Avery will want to act on what he takes from Calephas?”

“Probably tomorrow,” Garigan said. “Maybe tonight. The sooner that we can strike at Nasoj, the fewer of us have to die.”

“Well,” Charles said, his throat dry, “then let us sing the Song of the Sondeck one last time while we are together. I know that you two are going to leave if this mission is successful, and you are better off not coming back to visit me again. So, before we part again, let us share in that.”

Zagrosek nodded, even while Jerome began to hum a note. “We shall sing,” the black-haired Sondeckis said, affirming the rat’s plea. And then, the four of them joined in harmony, singing that ancient melody into the walls, and through out every one of their bones. Though his chest ached with each new note, Charles sang on, letting his voice rise in conjunction with theirs, to form that hymn of old, and to once more proclaim his allegiance to their mutual suzerainty.

His eyes trailed over their faces, even as he found his spirit transported upon the waves of song. Their features were already a permanent fixture in his mind, yet the rat studied them nonetheless. As the sound and the Sondeck fill his every crevice, he wondered whether he would ever see any of them ever again. Yet, the somnambulant strains echoing off the walls lulled his eyelids, and soon, as the last harmony resounded, the rat had drifted back into quiet sleep.

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