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Here is the second of the ten planned stories in the Running with the Pack series. I hope you enjoy it. All comments appreciated.

Running With The Pack: Morning

It was a fine summer day. The streets were full of bustle and activity. Merchants were peddling their wares; beggars rattled tin cans, and a Golden Retriever named Red pulled open the door and stepped into a pub called the Bone and Hound.

He looked around for the group of dogs wearing silver spear necklaces. They were sitting around a table on the left side of the room, speaking in hushed tones. Red did as he had been instructed, and passed his eyes right over them so as not to look like he had noticed.

Red walked up to the bar and sat down on a stool. Behind the bar stood a giant Schnauzer who spoke with a thick Lower Eastern accent. “Vot kan I get fur ye?” “Brown ale”, Red responded, then added the code words, “in a clean glass.”

The bartender turned to pour the ale, and nodded his head almost imperceptibly. When Red’s glass was full, he turned back, laid it down, and said quietly, “Over there.” With a jerk of his head he indicated the table where Red had already seen the group wearing the silver spears. He then turned away and walked in the other direction, ostensibly to serve an impatient-looking group of bulldogs that had waited longer than they were accustomed to to have their mugs refilled.

Red turned casually toward the table where the group wearing the spear necklaces sat, and, true to the plan, his girlfriend Cider, sitting among them, pretended to have just noticed him, and called out to him to come on over and sit down.

This he did, assuming the empty seat nearest the door. He laid his mug down on the table and pretended he hadn’t known Cider was there all the time. “So, Cider, what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” He cocked his head to the right, indicating the bulldogs, who had now commenced to fighting. Perhaps the bartender should not have served them quite so readily. “And who are your friends?”

One by one, the dogs sitting around the table wearing silver spears introduced themselves. There was Arvid and Axel, Anika and Elof, Erik and Markku, Rasmus and Svana, Alton and Allen, and Constance. Together with Cider, and now Red, they made up just one of the many clandestine anti-war groups scattered around the Confederacy.

“All right,” said Red to Cider, “I came, now what? And why all the secrecy? Graywolf’s alpha hasn’t clamped down on our liberty as much as all that.” The other dogs sitting around the table looked at Cider as if to say “I hope you know what you’re doing.” “It’s okay.”, she said to them. “We can trust him.” She then turned and addressed Red. “Red,” she began, “the reason for all the secrecy is that we’re not just a protest group. We’re part of a large network called the Underground. That’s why we wear the silver spears. We have fronts all over the Confederacy, and the Felid Lands. We’re growing by the day, and it’s not for nothing neither army is out campaigning this year.”

Red lifted his eyebrows. He was glad he was coming of age soon; explaining these kinds of activities to his parents might be tricky.

“So what do you guys do, precisely?” It was Arvid who answered. Arvid was a bespectacled young Basset Hound with a rather scholarly appearance. “Whatever we can. Publicly, we protest and try to convince pack alphas to join our cause. Secretly, we hide possible recruits from the draft-gangs, cut off roads, whatever we can do to convince both sides it’s best to stay home.”

Red considered this for a moment. “All right,” he said at last, “count me in.” “I was hoping you’d say that.”, said Cider, and she produced a small necklace in the shape of a silver spear. She handed it to Red, and he placed it around his neck. As he tied the back, all the others sitting around the table spoke as one: “Wear it well, for by this we are known and hidden.” And Red answered: “I will.”

*******

About nine months had passed since we last saw Luna. She had left her mother’s home and now had her own territory, deep in the jungle. It was not far from her mother’s, and they crossed paths occasionally, but for the most part, Luna was on her own. This suited her fine. She was quite active in the Underground anyway. In fact, she had been instrumental in the infamous Torena Incident, in which the entire city of Torena barred its doors and refused to allow the army recruiters in. In this time, the Underground (on the cats’ side of the river, at least) had grown far bolder. They now marched in the streets, and though nobody could prove that any of the ostensibly peaceful anti-war groups were behind it, weapons were disappearing from military storehouses, roads were being blocked by systematically felled trees, and the felid war effort was grinding to a halt, if indeed it had not already.

It was in the midst of this turmoil that the ruling Sambar Rock Pride met to determine a course of action. And the Underground was not ignorant of their activity, for a certain young tigress had been sent to observe, and now she was grown, few dared challenge her.

So it came to pass that among the crowd of lionesses, cubs, and House Cats, one stood taller and more imposing than the rest; the quiet, watchful tigress named Luna.

Her presence had not gone unnoticed by the lions of the Pride and the House Cats of the nearby City of Sambar Rock. She took no small satisfaction in seeing even the regal and intimidating lions somewhat agitated by her sudden appearance, and by her silent stare; though she doubted they would have been more comfortable had she spoke.

Soon the meeting was called to order, and the coalition began to speak from their rocks, placed a distance apart from each other in front of the great circular clearing that was the meeting-place for the Pride. The foremost lion of the coalition, evidently its most senior member, one named Jabari, began: “Lions of the Coalition, felids of the Pride and the City of Sambar Rock, our plight is most grievous. The canine scum on the western side of the Great River continues to blight our fair continent; and our war effort is blocked at every turn. Have we offended the gods? I think not; this is a yahadaa, a holy war. The gods have commanded the eradication of the canines. No, it is from inside that these treasonous attacks have come. So called “peaceful protest groups” bar entire cities to our recruiters. I say it has gone on long enough.”

The lion laying on the rock to Luna’s far right, older though newer to this coalition, casually sharpened his claws as he asked, “And what would you propose we do about it, Jabari?” The crowd hushed as they waited for the answer. One could have heard a pin drop in that place; even the sound of the woods around them seemed to cease in that tense moment.

“I propose,” answered Jabari, “that the coalition declare a state of emergency, and outlaw all unpatriotic groups and gatherings.” A murmur passed through the cats in the crowd.

“Silence.”, came the voice of another of the lions, the heretofore silent one sitting immediately to the right of Jabari. “Jabari, what you are proposing requires the approval of all the prides, as you well know.”

“Then we’ll get it. The Torena Incident was the last straw. I am confident the other prides will agree. What say the coalition?”

All the lions of the Sambar Rock coalition nodded. “We will do what must be done, Jabari.” Jabari now stood on his hind legs, his arms lifted in the air, and faced the crowd. “And the rest of you?” The crowd cheered as Luna quietly slipped away into the forest.

*******

Permit me now to gloss over approximately the same amount of time in Red’s life that I have in Luna’s, and merely to say that he came of age on his sixteenth birthday, after the customs of his people, and soon left his parents’ home, and he, with the aid of his parents and all the rest of his pack, had constructed for himself a small house on the edge of his hometown of Dramstad, and was now living there.

He was able now to be a far more active member of the Underground, since he no longer needed to make up excuses for where he was going, nor was he answerable to anyone for how long he stayed. He had, for instance, helped in the destruction of several military storehouses, and his home was a popular place to hide Underground members from the draft-gangs, due to the hidden room he had built in his basement for that very purpose.

Though to tell of all the exploits of the Underground and its fronts in those nine months would take up far more space and time than I can afford, there is one particular adventure that I feel I must recount, primarily because I believe it is representative of the typical behavior of the Underground.

It began where most of the activities of Red and Cider’s particular front began; back at the familiar table in the barroom of the Bone and Hound. This particular meeting had been called because it was heard that several companies were being marched eastward across the river to raid the builders of a new cat city.

A messenger had arrived at Red’s home and told him that he was wanted by an Axel, who asked Red to meet him at the Bone and Hound. Red tipped the fox the customary “privacy tip”; if one did not want the message repeated, one gave the messenger a little extra, and if asked, he would never remember delivering it.

Then, with the messenger gone, Red strolled down to the Bone and Hound, where he ordered his usual, adding the code phrase as he always did, then sat down at the table next to the poodle Anika, and opposite Axel, who had called the meeting.

Red mentally took stock of all in attendance. Almost everyone was here, but one was missing. “Where’s Cider?”, asked Red, trying to sound unconcerned. It was Markku, the Red Fox, who answered this one. “We don’t know. Sometimes she’s late. I wouldn’t be too concerned about it.”

Red shrugged. Markku was right; Cider was sometimes a little late. Perhaps the messenger didn’t get to her as swiftly as he got to the rest of them; perhaps Cider had taken the scenic route.

But as the minutes wore on, Red grew more and more suspicious that something out of the ordinary had happened. He was just about to suggest that the group go out and look for her, when it became apparent that his worry was unfounded, and Cider walked in the door of the pub.

She went up to the bar, ordered her drink, using the code words again, then Red greeted her as if he had just noticed, according to the rules of their group. Then she sat down. She looked back at Red, then looked past him and noticed Anika sitting on the other side of him. Coolly, she returned her gaze to the center of the table.

Axel was anxious to start, and rapped the table with his paw to get everyone’s attention. “Now that we’re all present and accounted for,” began the Collie, “we can begin. I have called this meeting because I have received intelligence from another front in the nearby village of Goldberg that several companies of the Confederacy’s army are on the move, planning to raid the city of Treefall, currently under construction on the other side of the river.”

“Obviously, this cannot be allowed.” He pulled a map from under the table and laid it out, pointing to a spot on the edge of the forest. “This is where Treefall is under construction. The river is too deep to ford, so our task is fairly simple. The army is keeping a supply of boats here”–he indicated a spot a little ways north of Treefall–”and they plan to cross the river, then attack the city from the north side.”

Cider looked at Axel with a mischievous grin. “We’re going to sink the boats?” Anika hushed her from across Red. “Not so loud! There are spies everywhere.” Cider returned the poodle’s gaze. If looks could kill, thought Red.

“Now the army is coming up early tomorrow morning, so we have to strike tonight, as soon as it’s dark.”, said Axel.

And so sundown found Red, purebred Retriever, scion of a good family, hiding behind a disreputable tavern in the company of several hooligans, all wearing masks and waiting for the darkness to set in.

When the last rays of the setting sun fell below the horizon, the warriors of peace began their trek north.

Half a mile and many nervous looks about themselves later, thirteen members of the Dramstad front of the Underground approached a fleet of river boats. They checked to make sure no one was watching. They had agreed on their plan of attack beforehand. It was a fairly simple one. While Arvid, Anika, and Cider kept watch, the others would jump into the river, capsize the boats, and swim to safety. There were ten boats, and ten of them, so it seemed like a simple job.

After one last sweep of the perimeter, the watchdogs took up their posts, and the remaining warriors of peace leapt into the river boats. They were dinghies, fairly simple in construction, and after a small effort, each capsized his boat and swam to shore. Each, that is, except one. When all the boats had sunk, and a head count was taken of the dogs, one was missing. It was the German Shepherd, Elof.

“Where’s Elof?”, demanded Anika nervously. “I don’t know.”, answered Markku. “Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know. No, no, don’t know.” Axel shot him a look. “Enough. This is serious. Did anybody see where he went?” Just then, they heard a voice from several dozen yards downstream. “Help! Help!” “That’s him!”, yelled Anika. “We’re coming! Hold on!”

They moved down the riverbank slowly; the rocks were slippery and dangerous enough in the daylight. As they advanced farther, it became clear that Elof had lost control in the current when capsizing his boat, and was now hanging desperately to a rock in the middle of the river.

Immediately, Axel took charge. “All right,” he said, “form a chain going out into the water. Largest dogs on the shore, grabbing the hind paws of the dog in front of you.” In a flash, everyone leapt into action, with Axel completely on shore, grabbing Red’s legs, who grabbed Arvid’s legs, with a chain running all the way to the center of the river, and ending with Markku, the fox and the smallest among the canids.

They struggled against the current. Axel had it the toughest, really; though he wasn’t getting wet, for he had the full weight of all of them to support. He, and the rest of them, did an admirable job, however. With Markku, the only one who had a free paw, to control the navigation, they carefully maneuvered the chain out to the rock, where Elof was still struggling to hold on. “Hurry,” he cried, “I’m slipping!” “We’re coming,” said Markku as he grabbed onto the rock. “Give me some more slack back there, Alton!” Alton, a terrier, did as instructed, giving Markku just enough room to grab Elof’s front paws. When he had done so, he called back to Axel: “Reel ‘em in!”

Axel pulled mightily, and got Red onto the shore. Red then pulled, and got Arvid on dry land, and so it went until all were present and accounted for, safe and sound on the riverbank. After shaking themselves dry, as dogs often do, they wrung out their masks and began to move as silently as they could back south toward Dramstad.

They did not return to the Bone and Hound, but split off one by one to go directly to their homes. To be completely sure they would not be caught, each dropped his mask where he left the group.

Finally, only Red and Cider were left; they both lived on the south side of the town. When they arrived at the fork in the road where Red had to go left, and Cider right, they looked at each other.

And then turned away, each to their own home. Red wondered if perhaps he ought to have said something.

*******

With a glance up and down the street to confirm that it was deserted, Luna slipped into the Rice Grain, where she found several wearers of the silver spear she had never before seen, together with her group. She darted over to their table. Among them were several House Cats, full-grown though they only stood about as high as Luna’s waist, and two or three leopards. But one caught her eye. He was a lion. She had never seen him before, though he wore the silver spear, and he was visibly intimidated at the sight of her, for she stood a full head taller than him.

“What news?”, asked the leader of their particular front, a cheetah named Fleta. “None good.”, answered Luna. “Jabari wishes to shut down all protest groups, peaceful and otherwise. I am sure the prides will approve.” “Don’t be too sure, Luna. Remember, the pride of Torena is yet on our side.”, said the new lion. “They will be coerced.”, snapped Luna. “No pride can stand against all the others, even if our laws are with them.”

Fleta nodded gravely. “I believe it is time we sent for help from the People of the Southern Jungle.” The group murmured their assent. “But to convince them of our sincerity,” Fleta continued, “we must send both a cat and a dog. I have recently been in correspondence with Axel, the leader of a front on the other side of the river, in a town called Dramstad. Luna, I have decided to send you to meet them. They will send one of their dogs, and together you will go to the Jungle Folk.”

Luna nodded. “Where is this town? And, of equal importance, where am I to stay while I’m there?” “It’s roughly a mile north of here, the first town in. When you arrive, wait until midnight to approach within sight of the townsfolk. When you have, you will see but one lantern lit; there is the house which shall receive you.” Luna nodded again. “Said and done.” With that, she silently slipped out of the Rice Grain, and returned to her own wild hunting grounds.

Luna lived several miles from the river, and would have to pass through town, or go well out of her way, to get to it. She decided she would remain in her territory till dark, when she would sneak down and cross the river.

But now, the tigress was hungry. To eat, she had to hunt. So she began to silently stalk through the forest, seeking prey. Soon, her patience and stealth were rewarded. There, a stone’s throw away, a herd of sambar stood at the watering hole, quenching their thirst. Luna’s eyes narrowed as she stalked forward. Still they were oblivious. The tigress leaned back on her haunches, then leapt forward with a mighty roar.

The herd scattered. All save one. Her target was petrified by her imminent approach, and she pounced upon him. He struggled for a moment, then she broke his neck with one jerk of her teeth, and he was dead.

As it happened, the watering hole was one of Luna’s favorite places to hunt, not only because it was one of the few places in the forest where all the animals must come, sometime or another, but because she was often thirsty herself after a kill, and drank deep when she had eaten her fill.

And by the time the tigress had sated her hunger and quenched her thirst, it was beginning to get dark. And so she began to walk leisurely down to the city. There she found that most of the inhabitants had already turned in for the night, and she had no trouble slipping through to reach the river.

When Luna had reached the riverbank, she looked north across the fairly flat ground at the edge of the Great River, and saw the beginnings of the city of Treefall, two miles away.

As Dramstad was a mile from her, she guessed that she should travel halfway to Treefall, then cross the river, for she wished to spend as little time on the western side of the water as possible prior to meeting with the Dramstad Underground.

Luna did not worry that she would be stopped or bothered while on the cats’ side of the river, for felids will go out of their way not to anger a tiger. The canines, however, were unlikely to be so hospitable, and so she kept to her side of the river for as long as she could.

Luna was a swift runner, and as midnight approached, she picked up the pace. Judging by the position of the moon, she arrived where she was to cross at precisely midnight.

Luna looked across the water with some apprehension. Though tigers are naturally aquatic, much to the bewilderment of some of their feline cousins, Luna could not help feeling a tinge of hesitation as she prepared to plunge into a wide, icy river at midnight. If she made the slightest mistake, lost concentration even for a moment, she could be carried off by the river, and there was no one to help her.

On the other hand, if she succeeded in crossing the river, she would be a tiger in dog territory, unlikely to be met with a warm welcome if any but the Underground found her. But these concerns did not hold Luna back for long. Into the frigid water she plunged, and paddled slowly but resolutely across the river, and into the canine lands.

Before her, she saw the small village of Dramstad. At least she hoped that was what it was. It was midnight, and she saw no lantern. So she approached slowly closer, always keeping to the shadows. As she neared the center of the town, she saw a light off to the south. So she turned back toward her own home, and slowly approached what she hoped was her host’s dwelling.

Sure enough, when she went right at a fork in the road, she saw a lit lantern in the window of a small house. Casting about for a stone, she found one and threw it at the wall, right next to the window. Luna’s aim was true, and the rock struck the brick wall with a sharp plink. A rustle from inside the house told her she had made the inhabitants aware of her presence, and she rolled swiftly and silently, catching the stone on its way down to prevent it from making any further noise.

A moment later, the door opened, and a young female Golden Retriever beckoned Luna to come inside.

*******

The Bone and Hound front was once again meeting, but this time, they did it in Cider’s home; Luna could not leave by daylight, for fear of being spotted; even at night she had to be most cautious.

The meeting took place in the basement, for in the basement there were no windows, and Cider would thus arouse no suspicion by drawing the curtains on a beautiful summer day.

There, in Cider’s basement, many of the dogs in the group got their first close look at a cat. It was not a sight for the faint-hearted. The largest of the canids were the wolves, and had any been present, Luna would have stood easily a head and a half taller than them. As it was, Markku the fox barely stood as tall as her waist, and Axel, fairly large as dogs went, stood roughly as high as her neck, with his snout pointed up.

Nevertheless, the meeting progressed without incident; Luna was used to intimidating people. Far more aggravating was that her height prevented her from standing erect in the room designed for far smaller Folk; she had to stoop over.

Finally, everyone found a seat, and Axel called the meeting to order. “Luna,” he began, “is a tigress from the Rice Grain front, on the cat side of the river.” He inclined his head toward Luna. “What news, Luna?” Luna rose to answer, bending over to avoid banging her head on the ceiling.

*******

The tigress rose. She would have been an impressive sight outside, or in a building designed for animals of her monstrous size; in a dog’s basement, she seemed awkward and out of her element.

Then she began to speak. She had a natural poise and air of authority despite her unfamiliar surroundings, and Red got the feeling that tigers were rarely taken lightly among the cats.

“The lion-pride of Sambar Rock is the ruling pride of the Felid Kingdoms. No other pride has stood against it, with the notable exception of Torena, for over twenty years. The most senior lion of their coalition, Jabari, has expressed a desire to outlaw all the protest groups, even the peaceful ones. If he succeeds, which he well may, we will have no cover anywhere in the Felid Kingdoms, and anyone who does not support the war will be in grave danger. I have been sent by Fleta, leader of the Rice Grain front. I need a dog to go with me to the Lesser Western Continent and help plead our case before the Jungle Folk. It may be they will help us.”

The enormous tiger sat back down, and Axel nodded. “Thank you, Luna.” He paused, and then, “The trip south will be long and arduous. Nevertheless, Luna’s mission is important. Who will go with her, to plead our case before the King of the Jungle?” Red was reluctant to volunteer for such a task, and squirmed indecisively for a moment.

Then his decision was made for him when he saw Cider beginning to rise. Later, he would claim he did what he then did in a chivalrous attempt to keep her from having to endure the rigors of the journey. Others would say he was just trying to save face. For whatever reason, Red stood up and volunteered, forestalling Cider.

Axel nodded. “Very well then. Red, you and Luna will travel south. Travel by night, on opposite sides of the river if necessary. Stop only at the safe houses of the Underground. You will know the first one by the green cloth hanging out of the upstairs window in the next town south. Each of your hosts will direct you to your next location until you cross the border.”

“Yes, sir.”, said Red. Luna simply nodded.

The next day, Red told everyone in town that he was taking a trip a little ways south to visit a friend in Doberton. And under cover of darkness, he and Luna began to travel southward.

When they met outside Cider’s home, Red noticed again how enormous she was. Red was not a small dog, and stood six feet high when he stood erect. But he was dwarfed next to the monstrous-seeming Luna. She stood perhaps seven and a half feet high, and he wondered how she could possibly be the stealthy hunter tigers were reputed to be.

This question was soon answered for Red as soon as they got out of civilization and into the forest. There Luna moved with silent grace, making Red feel rather clumsy. She never said a word as they moved through the woods, and several times, Red almost lost sight of her, huge though he was.

*******

Luna was struck once more by just how small these dogs were. Though she often dealt with animals smaller than herself, as House Cats were smaller even than the dogs, she had expected the canines to be larger than they were. She wondered how they could have stood against her people for so long.

As they left the town and entered the forest, the Retriever seemed to become clumsy. He made so much noise, Luna almost thought he wanted to be spotted. Almost equally aggravating was the fact that she constantly had to stop, or make some sound, as he kept losing sight of her.

Once the dog attempted to make conversation. “So,” he began lamely, “where’re you from?” Luna lifted a claw to her lips. “Silence. We shall talk when we have reached safety.” Red seemed rather taken aback, but he did not again speak; thank the gods.

Nevertheless, the constant snapping of twigs and rustling of branches would serve nearly as well to anyone tracking them as if the Golden Retriever was lighting signal fires along the way. Luna would be glad when they reached the town.

*******

Gee, what a paranoid sourpuss, thought Red. Pardon the pun. It was as if she actually believed someone knew they were there and was tailing them through the forest. His attempt at friendly conversation had been curtly cut off, and he was beginning to think he might be getting more than he had bargained for, traveling to the jungles of the south with this tigress.

Adding to Red’s growing consternation was the fact that she moved so silently through the woods. How the blazes was he to keep track of her? Red would be glad when they reached the town.

And soon they did. The forest abruptly broke off, and there was another village with an Underground front, or at least a member. Conveniently, the house with the green cloth in the upstairs window was on the north side of town, and they found it quickly. To make sure it was not a trap, Luna leapt up to the roof, where she kept watch while Red knocked on the door.

It was opened by a groggy-looking male Bulldog wearing a silver spear about his neck. Immediately, he recognized Red by the Underground’s distinctive neckwear. “Aren’t there supposed to be two of you?”, he asked. Red looked past him into the house. Seeing no obvious threats, he nodded to Luna, who wordlessly leapt down from the roof, making no sound as her padded paws struck the dirt road.

This understandably made an impression on the Bulldog, who then beckoned them both to come in. Red wiped his feet before entering the house, and tried to subtly clue Luna that she should do the seem, but he could not make her understand. She only looked at him quizzically.

*******

Eh? Luna’s traveling companion, Rover, Rider? Red!, had scraped his paws against some bizarre fibrous mat, and then made unintelligible hand gestures at Luna. Their host either was used to it or pretended not to notice. With a shrug of her shoulders and a stoop of her waist, the great cat stepped into the house.

The bulldog quickly shut the door and ushered them away from the window and into the kitchen. “Sit down,” he said. They did, though Luna felt distinctly cramped in the small chair. “You must be hungry.” Luna allowed Red to make the first move; who knew what bizarre cultural taboos might exist among the canines? But when he accepted a plate of meat and a slice of bread, Luna followed suit.

As they ate, the bulldog struck up a conversation, far more successfully than Red. He seemed to have a sort of irresistible charm; Luna couldn’t help but like him. First he introduced himself. “I’m Duke. You must be the messengers from the Bone and Hound front.”

“Ambassadors,” corrected Luna, rather insulted by being referred to as a “messenger.” Duke laughed. “Sorry, ambassadors.” “So do you ambassadors have names?” “Yes….”, said Luna, raising one eyebrow. Red gave her a bizarre look. “That means he wants to know your name. I’m Red, by the way.”

So they ask you if you have a name to ask you what your name is? Bizarre. “I’m Luna. So you didn’t mean you really thought I might not have a name?” Duke chuckled. “No, tigress. Don’t they have figures of speech where you come from?” “Yes, just not that one. For instance, we often say a dead House Cat has caught his last fish.”

“House Cats do a lot of fishing?”, asked Red. Luna looked at him drily. “Usually the fish is in a bowl when they catch it; they can be far too civilized for their own good.” Red smirked. Duke apparently sensed a lull in the conversation, because he gracefully jumped in to stop it. “So where precisely are you guys going? If you can tell me, that is.”

“We can tell you,” said Red. “We’re going to the Southern Jungle, where we’ll try and convince the many refugees from the dog and cat wars living there to help us. Additionally, we may recruit the help of some of the Jungle’s other people.”

Duke looked curiously at Red. “Other people? Such as?” “We have considered enlisting the aid of the wisest of the Jungle Folk, the elephants.”

“Really,” said Duke. “The elephants are mysterious, that’s for sure. Not certain they’d want to get involved in a flesh-eater’s conflict.” Red shrugged. “It’s worth a try. We don’t eat them, after all.”

Luna, finished with her meal, pushed her plate toward the center of the table and yawned. “Well,” she said, “I’m rather tired. I think I’ll turn in. Duke, could you show me where I’ll be sleeping?” “Certainly.”, replied Duke, and he led her down the hall, leaving Red alone for a moment to finish his repast. Red noticed Luna had not eaten any of the vegetables served to her, though there was not a trace of meat left. Red decided it was best to let this go, given that he did not really know anything of tigers’ dietary habits in their own lands.

Nevertheless, Red finished up his own meal, plant matter and all, and waited for Duke to return so he could be shown to his room.

*******

Luna and her host walked down the hall and made a right turn around a corner. There were two doors on the left side. Duke opened the far one, and gestured for Luna to enter. As she did, she noted the simple furnishings. There was a bed in one corner; plain white drapes over the windows, and a simple wood-framed clock on the far wall.

“Keep your windows draped at all times,” Duke instructed her, “and never come into the living room or the kitchen unless you first make sure either myself or Red has draped all the windows. A tigress would not be well received among my people.” Luna nodded. “Understood.” “Good,” said Duke. “I’ll let you get some rest.” And with that, the bulldog left.

Luna quietly shut the door and lay down in the bed. She was asleep practically before her head touched the pillow.

*******

Red was beginning to wonder where Duke had gone. It seemed as if he should have been back by now. Red was just considering getting up and investigating, when his host returned. Noticing that Red too was finished with his meal, he placed both dishes in the sink. “You must be tired,”, said Duke. “Would you like me to show you to your room.” “Yes, please.”

Down the hall and around the corner they went, and the bulldog opened the near door on the left side. “Your tiger friend’s in the next room.” Red entered his bedroom, and found it adequate, though it was nothing like what he had at home. A simple wooden bed on the left side, a small closet on the right, and nothing in the middle but bare wood floor.

Nevertheless, Red too quickly fell asleep, but not before hearing Duke shuffle away, evidently not a little tired himself.

The next morning, Red awoke late and wandered out to the kitchen, where he saw Duke and Luna sitting at the table, waiting for him, drinking coffee. There was one empty chair remaining, and one extra mug sitting on the table. Red sat down and began to sip his coffee. “Well, well,” said Luna, “look who’s finally awake.”

Red looked back at her skeptically. “Was I supposed to be up earlier?” “You could hardly have slept in later.”, responded Luna. “Well, we’re not leaving till tonight. I didn’t figure it mattered.”, said Red. “Well, you missed breakfast,” said Duke, “so that’s one reason to get up earlier. But don’t worry, we saved you some bread, cheese, and a little bacon. Let me heat them up a little.” With that, Duke rose and lit the stove, putting the portion of breakfast they had saved for Red into several pans and beginning to reheat it for him.

“What were you discussing before I came in?”, Red asked Luna. “We were actually discussing our cultures. I was surprised to find, for example, that almost all canids are monogamous.”

Red gave her a bizarre look. “You aren’t?” Luna shook her head. “Of all the felids, only the House Cats are. For tigers at least, it’s just not practical. We all have our own territories, and if we were monogamous, families would all have to live together.” Red’s face assumed a confused expression. “Really?”, he asked sarcastically. “Yes.”, said Luna, totally seriously.

Red sighed, and looked over at Duke, who had just finished heating up breakfast. He set it before Red, who began to eat. It was all right, but he made a mental note to get up earlier and eat breakfast fresh next time. Meanwhile, Luna and Duke resumed their conversation.

“So, Luna,”, Duke began, “How are the Felid Kingdoms governed?” “Well,” said Luna, “the name ‘Felid Kingdoms’ is a bit of a prideful misnomer. Truth is, it’s more like the Felid City-States. There is a lot of diversity, especially as you go further east, but where I live, there are tigers, who usually ignore other cats as much as possible, lions, and House Cats. The House Cats live in cities, and for every four or five cities there is a pride of lions that act as sort of judges. Generally, though, responsibility is delegated out to a mayor. There is one dominant lion pride, but their role is primarily ceremonial. We don’t have many laws. How do your people manage their affairs?”

“The Canid Confederacy is loosely governed,” answered Duke, “with several wolf packs, all led by a dominant pack, administering the important affairs of state and delegating–did you hear that?”

Red’s ears immediately perked up, but he heard nothing. “No.” “Keep listening,” said Duke. Luna too froze in place and became alert. Red soon heard a scuffling of paws on the ground, and what sounded like two or three deep, guttural voices muttering.

Red looked over at Duke in alarm. “Wolves.”, he said, almost under his breath. “Are they locals?” “No.”, answered Duke. “There isn’t a wolf pack within a dozen miles of here.” “Then what are they doing here?” demanded Red angrily. He had begun to suspect their seemingly trustworthy host of somehow tipping off a lupine patrol. “I don’t know.”, said Duke. “Really,” said Red, leaning across the table. “Who else could have tipped them off, huh? Was it the cockroaches that infest your pitiful dwelling? Perhaps it was a nosy squirrel. Or maybe, just maybe, someone in Dramstad called the wolf patrols a few miles south!”

“Fine!”, yelled Duke. “Look, I didn’t want to do it. I’m as sincere a member of the Underground as the next dog. But I was found out. Somehow, I don’t know how, someone told Graywolf Pack that I was part of the resistance. They kidnapped my mate and two pups–said they’d kill them if I didn’t go along with their demands. I’m sorry.”

Red looked at Luna. “That’s it then. We have to get out of here.” He turned back to Duke and gave him a vicious glare that made the older dog lower his head and pull back his ears in spite of himself. “Is there a back door?” Duke nodded. Red and Luna ran for the back of the house, just as the wolves outside began knocking on the door.

Their deep, throaty voices resounded in Red’s ears. “Open up! Open up, bulldog! Remember whose necks you’re risking here!” Red turned back momentarily to Duke. “If what you have told me is true, then I’m sorry about your family. But I can’t have you letting those wolves in.” And with that, he bashed the older dog solidly over the head with a chair, then ran out through the back door as Luna held it open.

And not a moment too soon, for as soon as they shut the back door and began to run toward the forest, they heard the front door caving in and a group of vicious, probably hungry, likely rabid wolves crash into the house.

They could hear the growls as they bounded into the forest. From the relative safety of a hidden spot in the bushes, they listened to the wolves talking among themselves. “What happened? What’s going on? Where are they?”

“That’s enough.”, said Red. “Let’s go.” Quietly but quickly, they slipped away into the forest. Then they moved eastward, and traveled as near the riverbank as they could without leaving the trees. “It’s going to be a lot harder now, you know.”, said Red.

Luna looked back at him. “Hmmm?” “They’ll be looking for us. And we can’t trust anyone.” “Yeah.”, said Luna halfheartedly. “Do you think he was telling the truth?” Red furrowed his brow and they slowed their pace. “What?” “About his family.”, Luna answered. Red lowered his eyes. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t know. I didn’t have much time to think about that, you know?” “I know,” said Luna. “It’s just…who knows what they’ll do to them now?” “If they were really kidnapped.”, Red responded defensively. “Yes,” said Luna, “if they were, has our cowardice killed them?” Red didn’t answer, but broke into a run.

*******

Luna accelerated to keep up, but stayed a ways behind, afraid she’d pushed Red too far. He was right, of course; Duke could well have been lying. If he was, that meant the Underground was even more compromised, as the silver spear was no longer a secret.

The day wore on, and still Red didn’t say a word. He kept up his brisk pace for most of the day, and as the sun began to sink below the horizon, he walked on still. Finally, Luna stepped up alongside him. She gently pressed her muzzle against his side. His pace slowed, and he met her eyes briefly, then broke away. “We’ll stop here for the night.”

Luna followed Red deep into the forest. When they reached a spot where the trees were thinner, Red turned around several times and laid down. Luna volunteered for the first watch. Red simply said, “All right.”

And so for the first four hours of the long night, Luna sat there in the woods, silent, with her eyes peeled on the forest, her ears attentively listening for any trace of a sound. She heard little beyond the chirping of the insects and the hooting of the owls for a long time, then, finally, as the first watch was drawing to a close, another sound pierced the night.

Luna couldn’t quite tell at first what it was. A bizarre vocalization, it sounded like no language she was familiar with. Yet the way it seemed to come in exchanges from all sides of her made her sure it was speech. She rose from her reclining position and urgently tapped Red with a paw.

*******

Slowly, Red woke up. “Uhhh.” The first thing he saw as he emerged from his slumber was the massive face of a grown tiger. He reeled back, then remembered it was only Luna. Can the first watch be over already?, thought Red. Then he heard it. His ears perked up as the howling grew louder.

Luna looked at him urgently. “Do you understand it?” “Yes,” answered Red. “It is the howling of the wolves. They use it when a messenger would be too slow. It’s entirely different from the common tongue we use; older, more primitive, but rather wordy as a result. They’re calling out our descriptions, a young male Golden Retriever, a large tiger, presumed female, be on the lookout, wanted dead or alive, et cetera, the usual.”

Luna began to look herself over critically, then faced back toward Red, her features betraying a barely masked indignation. “Presumed female?” Red rolled his eyes. “Is that really important right now?” Luna glared at him. “Yes!” “Look, every wolf patrol within a dozen miles is going to be out searching now, and there won’t be a town in the Confederacy where they won’t be on the lookout for us. So, given that, I don’t think it’s important that they couldn’t tell you were female, especially considering they never actually saw you.”

Luna nodded and changed the subject. “So what should we do?” Not exactly an apology, but I’ll not look a gift horse in the mouth. “Well,” said Red, “If so much as a hair was shed in Duke’s house by either of us, they could find us by our scent. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to do this, but it seems we have no choice. We’ll have to travel on your side of the river.”

“The river is deep and wide,” answered Luna, “where can we ford it?” Red grinned. “I thought you tigers were supposed to be strong swimmers.” “It’s not a tiger I’m worried about,” answered Luna grimly. “Oh, don’t worry about me,” said Red. “Haven’t you ever heard of the doggie paddle?”

*******

The “doggie paddle” was, as Luna had expected, far short of impressive in any way. Once, right in the middle of the river, Red lost control. Luna, however, had predicted that this might happen; she had heard of the doggie paddle, and so had placed herself strategically a little ways downstream of him.

When he frantically began to paddle to no avail, Luna simply held still by swimming against the current at just the right speed. The flailing Retriever smashed into her, and she was able to right him. From there, they both swam to shore safely.

Upon ascending from the water onto the dry earth, which contrasted sharply with the rocky shoreline on the west side of the river, both shook themselves off to dry their coats as much as they could, then Luna looked around. “I don’t know this part of the forest,” she said. Red rolled his eyes. “Oh, great.” “Don’t worry,” said Luna. No one bothers a grown tiger unless they have an army with them, and even then, they’d better think twice.”

“True,” said Red, “but I doubt if anyone thinks twice about harming a Golden Retriever.” “They will if you’re with me,” said Luna simply. And with that, she wandered off into the forest, leaving Red to follow as quickly as he could.

He caught up to her momentarily, and found she had already laid herself down. “It’s your turn to watch, I think.”, said Luna as she closed her eyes. And so it was. Red sat in the unfamiliar forests of a strange land, sometimes wondering at the sounds of the fascinating creatures he had never yet seen or heard, but more often fearing them, and whatever might be lurking silently in the shadows.

He was glad when the second watch was up, and Luna again took over. But his sleep was fitful, his dreams troubling, and the next morning, he awoke not much refreshed, as Luna stretched out before a fresh kill. He looked over at it, then started to pick up all the sticks he could find. Luna looked at him curiously. “What are you doing?” “Gathering firewood,” answered Red. “We can’t have a fire,” said Luna, “this is leopard country, I think. We don’t want to be caught by surprise.”

Red turned his nose up high. “You mean…eat it raw?” Luna nodded. “Sure. It won’t kill you.”, she said, then added with a grin, “I don’t think.” “No,” answered Red, “it won’t kill me, but only the wolves eat raw meat where I come from. Among dogs it’s considered quite distasteful.”

“Well,” Luna answered with a mouthful of meat, “You can go hungry if you want, but if I were you, I’d swallow my pride(here she swallowed)…and some of this antelope might help it go down.” “Very funny,” said Red drily, but he commenced to eat all the same.

When they had done with breakfast, they proceeded southward through the ancient forest. More than once, Red thought he saw a feline shape bounding through the treetops, but if he did, they never noticed him. Soon it came to be midday, and Red and Luna were obliged to stop and drink. So they went directly to the edge of the forest, and there, as they leaned to drink, Red saw something a few hundred feet north.

There, drinking from the same river, in the direction from whence they had come, was a spotted yellow cat. While significantly smaller than Luna, he still concerned Red, especially since he had looked north, but not south toward Red and

Luna, though most who live in the forest look in both directions before lowering their head to drink.

Red gently nudged Luna with his shoulder and whispered in her ear “Don’t look to your right.” Equally quietly, she responded, “Why?” “There is a large spotted cat, probably a leopard, not one hundred yards from where we stand, drinking. And he has quite conspicuously not noticed us.”

Luna nodded sagely. “He must not be allowed to follow us.” Red answered, “We can’t just kill him.” “I don’t suggest that,” answered Luna. “Then what are you suggesting?”, asked Red. “Leave it to me, and stay hidden.”, was the tigress’ only reply.

*******

Silently, Luna stalked the leopard. Using all the skills of hunting she had been taught by her mother Rhianna, she came very, very close, hiding in the bush, awaiting the sudden move that would tell her her prey was aware of her presence, that clue that would indicate to her when she need strike.

The leopard turned his head around abruptly. Like greased lightning, Luna rocketed forth from her hiding place. Striking with her paws, she rolled over the leopard till he was pinned on his back. With a sharp snikt, Luna extended one claw on her right forepaw, pressing it up under the leopard’s chin before he could resist.

“No,” he pleaded, “have mercy! I don’t know what I’ve done, but have mercy, avenging spirit!” “Easy now,” answered Luna, “I’m not going to hurt you…much. But I can’t have you following me. So, you have two choices. One: you get up, scamper into the trees, and I don’t see you again. Two: I knock you out and you lay here unconscious until someone finds you.”

“I choose the first, I choose the first!”, cried the leopard desperately. Luna was about to let him go, and then came the moment of decision. Luna had not forgotten that once she had been attacked by several leopards, and she thought she saw the likeness of one of them in this one’s face.

And so that moment stretched on into a seeming eternity. To punish, or to set free? Could she live with herself if he was not who she believed? Was her will strong enough to stay her paw now? Finally, mercy and discretion prevailed over vengeance. And Luna relented.

She lifted her paws and rolled away. “Heed my warning: Do not let me see you again these eleven moons, or feel the wrath of Luna!” This saying was punctuated with a deep roar, and the leopard doubled his pace, leaping into the trees quite frightened. I wish I hadn’t had to do that, thought Luna, but I can’t take any chances.

*******

Red had been hiding in the forest a long time, with no sign of Luna, and he was beginning to grow concerned. What could have taken so long? And what was it she wanted me to “leave to her”? I hope she hasn’t gone and done something stupid. She could have. I don’t know her well enough to say. Maybe I’d better check it out.

And so Red was just on the verge of deciding enough was enough, and he was going to see what was going on, when Luna casually strolled into sight. “It’s taken care of,” she said, “and without a drop of blood shed, upon my honor.” A dubious claim to truth, the honor of a cat, thought Red, and then, No! I guess old habits die hard. But all he said was, “Good. So where to from here?”

“Well,” said Luna, “in light of the little I know about leopards and their trustworthiness, we would be well-advised to return to your side of the river.

*******

So Red and Luna returned to the canine side of the Great River. Though up to this point it had been forested, here the terrain was rocky and mountainous. Snowcapped peaks stretched up to the sky, and Luna could make out the outline of several buildings, doubtless guard-towers of some mountain redoubt of the dogs. Here they sat in the shade of a large, jagged stone, deliberating on their next course of action.

“We must now travel by night again,” said Luna. “True,” said Red, “and we cannot remain here. See, there is a road leading up into that mountain,”and here he pointed to the mountain behind them,“down which one will soon come, and find us out, I have no doubt.” “Indeed,” said Luna. “We must find somewhere to hide until nightfall, and soon. Look there.” She pointed to a cave at the edge of the rock-strewn valley they now occupied. Red nodded. “We can take shelter there and be hidden until nightfall.”

Luna slowly peered over the rock behind which they were hidden. The coast seemed clear, but just to be sure, she plotted a hidden course between the rocks. Nodding to Red to follow her, she darted quickly toward a large round boulder to her left. When he also had hidden behind it, she ran to the right about forty-five degrees to another boulder, in the rough shape of the letter V. From there she darted into the cave, and Red followed her.

When the pair arrived in the cave, they found it less deserted than they had previously thought. For no sooner had Luna stepped across the threshold than she heard from the back of the cave a cautionary bleating. In response, she extended her front claws with a sharp snikt. Red, as he entered the cave, noticed Luna’s extended claws and combative posture. Wordlessly, he closed his mouth, pointed his ears forward, and prepared for a fight. It was not long in coming. Another warning bleat went unheeded by the highly mismatched team of predators, then the attack came. Two large mountain goats charged forward from the back of the cave. The buck came toward Luna, horns lowered, while the nanny attacked Red in like fashion.

Wait, wait…., thought Luna. Time seemed to slow down as the buck approached. Her eyes darted toward Red, who seemed to be standing stock-still waiting for the opportune moment to strike. When her gaze returned to her own opponent, Luna saw that now was the time. With a mighty but silent leap, she flew over the goat, extending her rear claws just in time to dig them into his flank. Meanwhile, he was still charging. Her movement had been so swift it had not yet registered in the bovid’s mind. Just as he began to buck, she sank her front claws into his shoulders. There was no way she was getting off now. In an instant, she had her teeth around the back of his neck, and one swift motion broke it. I guess it’s mountain goat for supper.

*******

Meanwhile, Red too had an angry mountain goat to deal with. Don’t think for a minute that because this one was female it was somehow less of a fight; if anything, nannies are more dangerous when a nest with young is involved.

The canine approach to killing prey differs vastly from the feline approach, primarily because of the different ways cats’ and dogs’ bodies are built. The simple fact is that for Red, killing like Luna was not an option. He didn’t have long, curved claws that would allow him a grip on his target’s back, nor did he have the flexibility in his hind legs needed for that kind of a leap.

What Red did have, however, was a powerful bite, a good horizontal jumping ability, and highly developed canine teeth excellent for tearing and ripping flesh. So he followed the age-old hunting techniques used by dogs and wolves since time out of mind.

First, when the goat charged him, he stepped aside. As it passed, it lifted its head slightly. This was Red’s moment. In that instant, he leapt forward, grabbing the animal by its throat. But rather than grabbing and never letting go, relying on pressure and a slight sideways movement to snap the neck, as Luna did, Red tore open the flesh around the jugular vein, viciously moving his teeth as much as possible, raking them against the goat’s throat, all the time bracing his hindpaws against the ground. Finally, the goat fell. The ground was stained with blood, as was Red’s fur. Luna looked over, having killed her goat in a far cleaner manner, and her expression betrayed disdain for Red’s less than aesthetically pleasing hunting techniques. “What?” he asked, “I killed it, didn’t I?” Luna only sighed.

*******

A few hours had passed, and Red and Luna had dragged their kills to the back of the cave. Luna was annoyed at the great mess of blood Red had spilt in the front, and made no secret of it. Red didn’t seem to understand the problem, especially given that they were now moving to the back of the cave. Some Folk simply have no taste, I suppose. Meanwhile, the rain had started in with a vengeance. It had been sudden and unforeseen. Soon after they had dragged the goats to the back of the cave, the clouds had moved in, and the torrential downpour had commenced.

And for an hour now, it had continued. Drops of water fell from the sky, so thick and so fast that Luna could not see anything more than a foot outside the mouth of the cave. Red had taken, in his boredom, to pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…. This put Luna very much on edge very quickly. At first she sat at the mouth of the cave silently, hoping he would relent. She thought she was being very patient, but nevertheless, he continued to pace back and forth, back and forth, with loud footfalls resounding and echoing in the enclosed space.

Finally, she could take it no longer. Suddenly, she turned around quickly and let out a low growl. Red stepped back nervously. Then she lit into him. “Enough with the pacing!”, she yelled. Red took another step back. He apparently had no wish to anger the giantess. She responded aggressively with another step forward. “I endured it patiently for long enough! Now stop!” Red was nodding rapidly and nervously, and Luna was just considering storming back to the mouth of the cave, when her plans were interrupted by a high, squeaky voice, exclaiming “Oh, my! Oh, blithering bloodstones! Oh, dear me!”

********

Red at once recognized the high-pitched voice now heard at the mouth of the cave. Luna turned away from him, and Red looked past her. Into the cave, apparently oblivious to their presence, stepped a small Pekingese leading a donkey. His fur was tan in color, and long. He stopped once to shake it out of his eyes.

Luna immediately, and not unjustifiedly, assumed an aggressive posture, pulling back to pounce and unsheathing her powerful claws. But Red forestalled her. “No!”, he said. Then the newcomer looked across the cave, noticing Red for the first time. He smiled a greeting, then looked at Luna, nonchalantly addressing to Red the question, “Who’s your friend?”, and jingling the silver spear he wore about his neck. Luna rose up, surprised. “Red, do you know this canine?” “Indeed I do,” answered Red, “he is the scholar Andreas, from my hometown of Dramstad. But how do you come to wear the silver spear, Andreas? You were never at any of the meetings of our front.”

“I try to keep a low profile,” Andreas answered, “even lower than the rest of you. I am often in the court of Graywolf Pack, and so to be a known associate of those who hold anti-war sentiments might perchance be frowned upon.” “Of course.”, conceded Red.

“Wait,” said Luna, turning to Red. “How do we know we can trust him? You yourself said he never attended your meetings.” “He wears the silver spear,” answered Red simply. “The rules of the Underground demand that we trust him, unless and until he proves himself unworthy.” Luna drew in a deep breath, paused for a moment, then sighed. “It is true. Very well, Andreas. We will accept you, and travel with you as long as you consent to travel with us.” “It would be my honor.”, answered the sage.

*******

Not long later, all three were sitting around a fire(Andreas, unlike Red or Luna, had the foresight to bring a tinderbox and some firewood in the many packs on his donkey.) Luna was still uneasy, but Red was right. The laws of the Underground required that any who wore the silver spear be accepted as friends until they proved themselves enemies. Nevertheless, Luna couldn’t help thinking that that policy hadn’t served them too well so far. So, subtly, and perhaps without admitting it even to herself, she began to press Andreas for more and more information.

“Where do you come from?”, she asked. “Dramstad, Red’s hometown.”, answered the sage. Some part of Luna, the part that did not totally mistrust strangers, thought it quite gracious of him not to mention that that information had already been given, considering the spirit of the question. But that part was suppressed. “What brings you here?” Again, Andreas answered the question amicably. “I come because I am not just a war protester; I am a chronicler of history. And history, at least in the texts I read, is notably silent on the beginning of the age-old war that separates our peoples from a peaceful coexistence. In short, I come to seek the lost texts of history which may contain the answer. I do not seek alone. There is a council of priests and sages, a council which has not met in a hundred and seventy-five years, convening soon, and I am going to attend it.”

Luna nodded, but said nothing. “And now,” said Andreas, “since I have told you my business freely, perhaps you will consent to inform me on what errand you are found here in the rocky mountain wilderness, alone and with no supplies?” Luna’s eyes narrowed, but Red launched into the tale before she could forestall him.

“Well,” he said, “we were sent by consent of various front leaders to seek the aid of the Jungle Folk on the great southern continent. We were to stay with several different Underground members along the way, traveling by night and moving from town to town. Unfortunately, our first host was compromised. He claimed his family had been kidnapped and threatened. We don’t know if that’s true. He alerted a wolf patrol to our presence, and when we escaped, we couldn’t find out where to go next. Since then, we’ve been making our own way, but it hasn’t been easy.”

“Well,” said Andreas, “If you’re interested, I think I might have an idea….”


#

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