The fourth Running With The Pack story is out today.
Running With The Pack: Aid
Luna pressed on as quickly as she could manage through the woods. Her wounded side shot sharp pains through her ribcage with every step she took. She felt like a burden, slowing everyone down. It was worse because she knew they had to get a move on; Constable Mingan might even now be regrouping, assembling another posse. This thought spurred Luna to move faster. Big mistake. Another stabbing pain ripped through her side, and she winced, trying to hold back her cry of pain.
Red looked over at her with that compassionate expression that Luna could not stand. He probably meant well, but it was so annoying. She didn’t need his pity. “Slow down.”, he said. “It’s okay.” She didn’t respond.
After a few minutes of painful walking, the trees began to thin out. Before her Luna saw a long, wide, grassy expanse. It stretched almost as far as the eye could see before giving way to rougher grasses and eventually an arid desert.
A little ways before the group reached the edge of the forest, Andreas stopped his pony and dismounted. “Why are we stopping?”, asked Luna. “Because we won’t be able to stop again by daylight until we reach the desert.”, answered Andreas, “and because you need to rest a while.” “This is really getting on my nerves.”, Luna replied. “We need to get moving. And I’m fine, really!”
Andreas and Red both rolled their eyes. “We’re taking a rest,” said Andreas with an air of finality.
Red moved through the woods as quietly as he could manage. He wasn’t quite sure why he had volunteered to hunt while Andreas got a fire going. He had never really learned how to hunt on his own, which was quite different than hunting as part of a pack. Still, he had to bring back something.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Red spotted movement. He quickly jerked his head in that direction. He saw nothing, so he slowly began to scan back toward the left. Then, just as suddenly, he swung back to the right, this time seeing the moving rabbit quite clearly.
The foolish leporid had fallen for the classic hunting trick, and the chase was on. The smaller animal bounded under a bush; Red crashed through. The rabbit slipped through a tangle of thorny vines; Red tore them apart. Red was cut in places, and tiring, but he was also gaining ground on the rabbit. Soon he was upon it. It turned around to face him. Knowing it was trapped, it stoically stood to face its fate. And in the moment of Red’s hesitation, it ran between his legs and the chase was on once more.
Now he was mad. Back and forth, through the jungle the angry Golden Retriever chased the aggravating small prey animal. After about a minute of giving chase, the rabbit led Red into a small clearing where several large mounds of dirt stood. There were holes around the sides, and Red quickly recognized the structure as being that of a rabbit burrow. I’ve hit the jackpot now, he thought. As his original prey squirmed its way into the burrow, he chased after it, snapping at the rabbit with his teeth. But finally it got beyond his grasp.
Pulling back in frustration, Red shook his fist for a moment, then began to think. After a moment’s consideration, he began to stomp on the top of the burrow. Sure enough, he broke through quickly, and the rabbits began to scatter in all directions.
They moved quickly, but by leaning down and grabbing a few, while crushing the necks of others with his hindpaws, Red was able to successfully take his prey. It wasn’t a very well thought out plan, but fortune was with our hero, and he killed four rabbits this way. Plump, fat ones, they were, too.
There is no way I’m telling anybody how I actually did it, Red thought to himself. Still, he had them. Four large, fat rabbits. No one had to know what a fool he had looked like getting them. Satisfied with his evening’s work, Red began his trek back to camp, bearing on his shoulders the fruits of his labor.
Mingan, crouched in the bushes, watched as the idiot of a Retriever smashed the rabbit burrow with his hindpaws. Amazingly, he came away with a rabbit or two and seemed satisfied with his work. He was so smug. Mingan would have liked so much to kill him there, but he couldn’t, for then he would lose track of the tigress and the Pekingese. It had been a lucky break that the Golden had happened to come back this way, or Mingan might never have caught up to the threesome until they were far beyond the reach of the law, in one of the cities of the desert.
The constable felt something brushing up against his side. It was the spaniel, Ace. “So, am I gonna get my reward or what? I don’t work for free, you know.” Mingan placed a paw over Ace’s mouth. “Silence,” he said in a low tone. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”
Turning back to his small assembled posse, Mingan gave them the signal to follow at a distance. “And,” he added verbally, “take the spy.” He pointed Ace in their direction. Ace didn’t look pleased, but was even less pleased about the prospect of earning Mingan’s displeasure, so he went back with the deputies.
Back at camp, Red was pleased to discover that Luna and Andreas already had a fire going. He sat down on a nearby log, and placed the rabbits beside him. Andreas picked them up, and, pulling a knife out of one of his many packs, swiftly cleaned away the skin and fur. Then, he instructed Red and Luna to grab two nearby logs and roll them into position on opposite sides of the fire. Reaching into another pack, he pulled out a set of long metal rods. Onto each of them he placed a rabbit, then rested one end of each rod on each of the logs.
When the rabbits were placed on their spits and cooking, Red sat back down on his log. “Andreas,” he asked, “how much stuff you got in those pony packs?” “Oh, a little of this, a little of that,” replied Andreas. “I’m running low, actually. Another reason why we need to get down to the desert land soon. I know a few people there, and we’ll be able to restock our supplies.”
“You know people in the southern desert? Not a lot of people from as far north as us have ever been down there.” “I think you’ll find I’m better-traveled than most.”, said Andreas. “Oh, better turn the rabbits.”
Mingan’s stomach was growling. The smell of those lovely fat rabbits roasting over an open fire didn’t help, either. But, on the brighter side, he had found them. He wondered if he should summon his posse and attack now, kill them in their sleep tonight, or continue to follow them and see if he couldn’t net a bigger fish.
Patience is a virtue. For now, Mingan would bide his time…
After a few minutes, the rabbits were cooked to perfection. Well, not perfection, really. Red didn’t really like rabbit to begin with, and it was hard to cook evenly over an open fire. Still, by this time Red was hungry, and he devoured his rabbit.
Luna observed him for a moment, then tore her meal apart too. Andreas, however, always one to be concerned with niceties, reached into one of his bags(which Red was now convinced were all much bigger than they appeared to be), and withdrew a knife, fork, and napkin. He then proceeded to consume his victuals in a civilized fashion.
When they had all eaten their portions, yet one rabbit remained. Red looked at it hungrily. He looked up. He saw that Luna too was eyeing the leporid. This would take some finesse. First, Red redoubled his hungry look, and shifted around nervously. Then he said, “Luna, do you want the last rabbit?” His expectation was that Luna would politely decline and offer it to him. He would of course have to insist that she take it. And this would go back and forth until Red suspected that Luna was about to break down and accept. Then he would finally stop insisting and so maintain face and get the rabbit.
But Luna did not play along according to plan. Instead, she said, “Hmmm. All right.”, and reached out to take the rabbit. As she pulled it back toward her, Red gave it a longing look, then sighed and said, “Yes. You can have it. Take it.” “All right, thank you.”, she replied, and, as if completely oblivious to Red’s maneuverings, swallowed the second, smaller rabbit in two bites. Andreas looked over at Red, and, smirking, shrugged and climbed into his tent.
“I think I’d better turn in too,” said Red, as a convenient excuse to cut off the conversation, and crawled inside a nearby hollow log. Luna nodded, said “Goodnight,” and leapt onto a tree branch. In a moment, Red lost sight of her, then rolled over on his back.
From the uppermost reaches of the canopy Red heard Luna’s voice. “I’ll take the first watch.” “How high are you?”, was Red’s reply. “Near the top. Why?” “I guess I didn’t imagine the branches that high were strong enough to support..er, strong enough to sit on.”
“What are you saying?”, demanded the voice from the treetops. Oops., thought Red. I’ve done it now. “Never mind,” he tried. A lame attempt to avoid the subject. “Oh no,” said Luna, “You’re not getting out that easy. Just what are you suggesting?”, she asked again. “Only that the branches near the tops of trees are thin and weak. They are unlikely to support the weight of any animal larger than, say, a rat.”
“Listen, you worry about yourself, and I’ll worry about the branches and my weight.” “Now,” countered Red, “I didn’t mean to imply that–” “Of course you didn’t. Perhaps you’d better get some rest. Go on. I said I’d take the first watch.” Oh boy. Here we go. “All right. Goodnight.” “Goodnight,” snapped the voice from the canopy.
The nerve. First they act so patronizing before over a few scratches, and now this! Luna turned her head back and looked down her body toward her tail, which was at this very moment held erect and twitching with rage. I am not fat, she thought indignantly. Never did it occur to the tigress that no one had suggested anything of the kind. For a few moments she fidgeted on the high branches. Her weight of course had to be spread between them, no matter how insubstantial it might be. Finally she found a comfortable position. Her anger slowly cooled, replaced with the monotony of staring down at the camp for hours on end with no change.
Occasionally, she detected some small sound; a rustle of leaves or, once, what she thought was the sound of breathing in one of the bushes just outside the camp. But then it stopped, and Luna decided it was probably a mere figment of her imagination.
Mingan stopped and froze. He could sense that he was being watched, though he knew not by whom. So he held his breath, kept all his muscles perfectly still, and waited for the feeling to pass. Only his eyes moved, darting around the camp as he looked to see who might be watching him. But no one seemed to be awake. The tigress was missing. He wondered where she might have gone. For all he knew, she was out hunting, or had taken a walk. She could be right behind him at that very moment… But no. He would have heard her. Still, being ignorant of her whereabouts made Mingan uneasy.
His eyes began to droop, and he soon had to fight to stay awake. How long has it been since I slept?, he asked himself wearily. No, don’t figure it out. I don’t want to know. Got to stay awake. Got to watch until…until…until. Then, nothing.
It’s been about four hours. Time to wake Red up. Luna leapt deftly from the tree, not stopping along the way. At each successive branch she twisted slightly to avoid striking it. Once at the bottom, she quickly jerked up her head in the involuntary motion that cats use without noticing it to right their bodies, then landed silently on her feet.
Slowly, casually, silently, Luna approached Red’s hollow log and tapped his side. He rolled over about halfway and groaned, “Five more minutes?” Whack! Luna struck him sharply. He immediately jerked awake, bumping his head against the top of the log.
Luna went down quickly, his sudden lash-out taking her by surprise. “I’m up, I’m up.”, he said. Luna, looking skyward at him, replied wittily, “I’m not.” “I guess it’s my watch,” said Red with some annoyance. “You’ve guessed correctly,” answered Luna. Without further comment, she rose and leapt silently back up into her tree.
And Red hunkered down and began his long four-hour vigil.
At first it was quite uneventful. Nothing but the occasional sound of crickets chirping broke the silence. As the hours ticked by, Red began to imagine he heard things. He was not an insomniac. But tonight, each and every tiny noise was magnified until he thought he would lose his mind.
One time, he heard, or thought he heard, quite a loud rustling in a bush around a dozen yards from the camp. When he looked in that direction, for just a moment he though he saw the glint of two eyes spaced at an uncomfortably familiar distance.
He looked away, then back, hoping to tease whatever–or whoever–he had seen into reappearing, but it–or they–knew better. Red decided it was probably just his imagination, and went back to keeping watch over the whole area.
Still, he couldn’t help occasionally looking back at the bush.
That was a close one. Mingan had almost been spotted. Mentally cursing like a sailor, he tried to hold as still as possible until the Retriever looked away. He could not afford to fall asleep like that again. Mingan’s first thought was, Good thing none of my deputies were here to see that. Second came Actually, if my deputies had been here, I probably wouldn’t have fallen asleep. And third was the rather pragmatic It doesn’t matter. I was here, my deputies weren’t, I did fall asleep, they didn’t see it, and the quarry didn’t move. No harm done and no one has to know.
But his sleepiness was still cause for concern. He would have to call his deputies to the fore and take a rest. There were only two he would have trusted with this before, but with Ptolemy out of commission permanently and Hector badly wounded, he would have to take his chances with a few patrol officers.
Stepping out of the bush, he began to walk slowly away from the camp. The further he got from his quarry, the faster he moved. Within about two minutes, he had gotten far enough away not to be heard, and let out a low howl. It didn’t need to be much; his nearest deputy picked it up and relayed it down the line.
Within a few minutes, they were all assembled in one place, awaiting their instructions.
At the end of Red’s watch, day broke. Slowly the sun rose over the horizon. After but a moment of its red rays penetrating the canopy, Luna dropped from the trees, as alert as ever in the daytime, and began to pace around the perimeter of the camp slowly.
Another minute or so found Andreas crawling out of his tent. “Good morning,” he said, his amicable, high-pitched voice alleviating slightly the annoyance that came with Red’s weariness after having been up all night. But it was Andreas’s coffee, far more than his charisma, that was really the cure for tiredness.
When he pulled out several mugs and a large jar of coffee beans, Red’s spirits at least were lifted dramatically. Soon afterward, piping hot mugs of the expensive, exotic, coveted beverage were being lifted to the lips of weary travelers. Well, two weary travelers at least. Luna did not appear the slightest bit weary, although Red suspected she was faking.
As Luna sipped her coffee, she found herself wondering just how different the dog’s tastes were from the cat’s. For the sake of being polite, she said nothing, since she could think of nothing positive to say about the beverage. Red and Andreas both acted like it was some kind of miracle drink, able to rouse the dazed and sleepy to full alertness.
But to Luna, the beverage had no appreciable effect other than to taste bitter and unpleasant. Furthermore, it was her opinion that the problem it claimed to solve would never exist if people would simply train themselves to get up in the morning. Soon enough they would get used to it, and there would be no need for the narcotic effects of the “miracle drink.”
Still, she held her peace. There was little to be accomplished by pointing out these obvious facts. Instead, Luna continued pretending to enjoy her coffee. After a few minutes, each finished his drink, and Luna surreptitiously got rid of what was left of hers. I’ll probably feel bad about that later., she thought.
But Luna had little time to think about it for a while. Soon all three of our heroes were packing up and moving out. Luna and Red traveled light. Very light. Since they had never expected they would be on their own for long, they had quite literally brought nothing with them. Andreas, on the other hand, had brought a great deal, but never expected to be traveling with two others. As a result, he had many bags but little left to put in them.
With that being the case, packing did not take long. What did take a while, however, was the deconstruction of Andreas’s tent. First, the scholar had to double and triple check to make sure that he had left nothing inside. That done, the ropes had to be untied, and the tent poles removed.
The job had to be done carefully, so the tent would come down neatly, and not be difficult to fold up and put away. It took them some time, but finally, the threesome got the tent down and packed it away in Andreas’s bags.
With the campsite mostly cleared, only the ashes from their campfire remained. “We don’t want to leave such a clear sign of our presence behind,” Andreas pointed out, and Red and Luna began to sweep it away. When the last cinder had been ground into the earth and the last remnants of the ashes scattered among bushes, our heroes at last began the long trek across the plains.
Red had been walking for hours, and the grassy plain seemed to be getting no shorter. On the horizon, Red could see the rougher desert grasses and even the desert sands themselves, but they seemed to grow no closer, however far he walked.
Red looked about him. Where’s Luna? “Luna?”, he asked hesitantly. Suddenly, from the grass beside him, Luna rose to walk on her hind legs. “Yes?” “Aah!” Red jumped. “Don’t do that,” he said. “What?”, Luna asked. “Disappear like that, and then show up suddenly and startle me,” Red replied.
Luna smiled slightly. “You didn’t know I was there?” “No,” Red said somewhat absently, now looking past her at a tiny, amorphous gray shape far to his left, in the western part of the plain. Pointing at it, he asked, “Do you see that?”
Luna looked over for a moment, her keen eyes scanning the vast grassland. “Yes,” she replied, “what is it?” “I’m not sure,” answered Red, “but it seems to be moving along with us. I think we should keep an eye on it.” “Good idea.”, said Luna.
“Athanasios, you fool! Get down!”, yelled Mingan. “They noticed you, I can tell.” Then, half to himself, he muttered, “Greenhorns. Always think they’re immortal.” The new deputy, Athanasios, dutifully obeyed the order.
Mingan began to look around. Now that his posse and he had been spotted, he would have to change positions. That could be risky. He needed to stay some distance away to avoid being recognized, but he couldn’t lag too far behind or he might lose his prey. This would become especially true when they reached the cities of the desert. Those were lawless places where his status as constable would not be respected. Claws, teeth, and sheer numbers, however, would allow him to overcome the fugitives. But only if he could find them.
“Halt!”, he called out to his posse. The entire company stopped immediately. Mingan gestured to them with one forepaw to get down, and they quickly laid themselves flat on their stomachs. Mingan looked around the group. With him were two Dobermans, a single Rottweiler, and a motley group of about ten German Shepherds. Ace was there too, but he didn’t count. “All right,” he said, “You Dobermans will each lead one squad. Take five deputies apiece. You”, he said, turning to the Rottweiler, “will come with me.”
“What about me?”, demanded Ace. “You,” said Mingan with a sigh, “may follow whichever squad you choose, but stay away from me.”
He then addressed his two squad leaders, detailing the plan by which the targets would be traced and hemmed in.
After another hour or so of walking, Red finally began to notice some progress toward the desert. He was not hopeful that they would arrive that day, but now at least he could tell they were heading that way.
It wasn’t long before Red began to feel hungry. “Andreas,” he said, “have you got anything to eat in those magic deep packs of yours?” “Actually,” Andreas answered, “I have enough for one more good meal. We’ll stop in a little bit. We’re actually closer to the desert than it seems. We should get there tonight.”
“Really?”, Red asked. “Yes,” Andreas answered. “Look on the horizon. The buildings seem a lot bigger than when we started, don’t they?” “Buildings?” Red asked. “I didn’t see any buildings when we started.” “Exactly,” was the scholar’s answer, “but now look.”
And look Red did. Lo and behold, what did he see but a clearly visible and discernible city. There were indeed buildings, and Red thought he could even make out the difference in height between the one- and two-story buildings.
“Ah, we are getting closer,” said Red, and made his periodic glance about to locate the gray beast they supposed had been following them. He couldn’t find it. He looked about the plain a bit more carefully, but still could see no trace. “Luna.”, he said. “What is it?”, she replied. “Look around. I can’t see our shadow.” Luna’s sharp eyes cast about the plain, seeking any sign of their follower.
“I can’t find him either. Do you think he stopped following us?” “Maybe. But where could he have gone?” “I suppose,” answered Luna, “he might have gone ahead to the desert, or, failing that, may have stopped to rest. If he’s lying down and not moving, we’d likely not see him in the tall grass. It may be nothing to worry about.” “I’m not so confident. What if he caught on we were watching him?” “Then he may have hidden from view. If that be the case, he’s obviously intending to follow us all the way to the desert, and doesn’t want us to know it.” “So what should we do?” “I say we meet him there.”
Luna gazed about her at the dusty road and the street merchants. Most were canines of one kind or another, often very small ones that looked as if they would make a tasty morsel. They shouted across the street in high-pitched yaps, “Fish! Fresh fish! Fresh river fish!” “Your fish are no fresh, you two-faced illegitimate son of a jackal!” “What did you call me, you stubby-legged little foreigner?” “Never mind what I called you. My fish are the only fresh fish this side of the Canal! Come here for your really fresh fish…”
And on it went. But Luna heard no more of the two vendors’ argument, for she had moved on. Still, the character of the conversation was much the same everywhere. “Watermelons! Watermelons! Quite affordable!” “Get away from my stand, dirty rat!” Here, a small Southern-breed dog; Luna didn’t know the breed’s name, went flying through the air and landed on the other side of the street, upsetting a rather large House Cat’s grape-cart.
Patriotism was evidently rather at a low in this area of the Canid Confederacy, for the House Cat was allowed to ply his wares on the street, and even to exchange insults with the best of the dogs. Make no mistake, prejudice here was alive and well, and cats didn’t tend to be liked. But without a real law to keep them out, those cats who had bought friends in the right places generally did all right.
“Where are we going?”, Luna asked. She had to shout just to make Andreas hear her in the noisy marketplace. “Well,” the scholar replied, “first, we’ll visit a Chihuahua I know to be sympathetic to our cause. He’ll give us a place to stay. Then, tomorrow, we’ll get you some supplies, and you’ll be on your way.”
“We’ll be on our way? What about you, Andreas?” “Unfortunately, Luna, this desert city is where we part ways. When you leave, you must go south, to the jungle. But I must go west. I have likely already missed much of the gathering I was seeking to attend.” “I’m sorry.” “Don’t be. I probably missed nothing of importance. I’ll get what I need. But look! Here we are.”
And there they were. But the pressing question to Luna was, “Where precisely is here?” “Why, the home of our host, of course,” replied Andreas. The building wasn’t much to look at, but Luna kept that to herself. It was a small, two-story, square building, made of the southern desert clay known as adobe. The door was wooden, and of simple construction. There was a metal knocker near the top, but no knob.
“Quickly, don the silver spear, both of you.”, Andreas commanded. Luna had already been wearing hers. “I’m wearing it.” However, Red had taken his off and put it in one of Andreas’s packs, saying it chafed his neck. He rummaged through the bags for a moment. “Where is it?” “I don’t know,” said Andreas, “Where’d you put it?” “I don’t know!”, Red nearly shouted. “Oh, wait, here it is.” Luna breathed a sigh of relief and dropped an inch or two. Oh. I must have been standing on my toes. Best not let on I did that.
Andreas half-dismounted, half-fell from his pony, and put on his own identifying necklace. Then he reached upward and knocked the knocker.
A high-pitched voice could be heard from inside. “Coming!” There was a crash, and a sound like furniture moving, and a tiny dog, tall enough perhaps to reach Red’s waist, opened the door. He had enormous ears and short hair. “Andreas!”, he shouted. “So good to see you again! And who is this you have with you? A tiger in the Confederacy?” “You call this the Confederacy?”, interjected Red. “Too true, too true,” said the tiny dog, who Luna had now deduced must be called a Chihuahua, “And who are you, who speak so boldly, young Retriever?”
“There will be time enough later to explain who we all are,” interrupted Andreas, “but for now, we must get inside. Cortez, if I may impose upon your hospitality for but a short time–” he jingled his silver spear. “Certainly,” said the small dog quickly. “Come in, by all means.”
“Cortez” led the way inside. Luna had to stoop over to fit through the door of his small house. Her head nearly bumped the ceiling even after she had passed the threshold.
Everything in the house seemed diminutive, as if some kind of spell had been cast on normal furniture and home items and caused them to shrink to half or so their usual size.
Cortez jabbered rapidly, enthusiastically giving his new visitors the tour of his home. Luna quickly lost all ability to concentrate on his babble, and instead blankly followed the Chihuahua around, playing with the silver spear about her neck.
Red sighed inwardly. This canine evidently thought a great deal of his home, as he insisted on showing them everything he owned. First his kitchen, then his dining room, then a dozen other unimportant and boring locales that Red was surprised to find could all fit within the one small building.
Occasionally Cortez would stop somewhere, pick up some old family heirloom or other, gaze at it fondly, and then launch into some tale about the history of the object and the family member who he inherited it from. “This locket belonged to my great-great-grandmother. She belonged to Howler Pack, one of the last Southern packs to join the Confederacy, when they still had some real power down here…”, “This is one of the original 150 copies of The Epic of Lokat…” “This statue of the mighty god Domitor was forged by the hand of my uncle’s second cousin’s brother’s wife’s grandfather…”, and on and on and on it went, with no end in sight.
Red was visibly relieved when the little dog said “Well, that concludes the tour. I hope you enjoyed it.” Cortez glanced out the window at the sundial that sat in his yard. “Oh dear!”, he said. “I am quite late! I must get immediately to the local Underground meeting! Would you like to join me?”
Red looked at Andreas, who gave the answer, “I’m sure it would be quite enjoyable, but my companions and I–my companions especially–must get supplied for the final push south to the jungle.” “I understand, my friend,” Cortez replied, though he sounded rather disappointed. “And whatever you three need, you put on old Cortez’s tab, you understand?” Andreas nodded to Cortez, but turned and winked at Red. “Toodle-oo!”, yelled Cortez as he rushed out the door.
So many scents. So little time. Mingan and his companion Brutus approached the edge of the city. The constable hoped the other squads were in position. His authority would be worth nothing here. Still, most respected the claws. Almost nobody defied the teeth.
Mingan lifted his nose and sniffed the air. “Whatcha doin’, boss?”, asked his dimwitted deputy. “Silence, fool.”, snapped Mingan. “Can’t you see I’m trying to pick up a scent?” Mingan sniffed again. “Sorry, boss.” “SHUT UP!” Mingan applied his mind completely to his sense of smell. He closed his eyes, ignored his hearing, tried to mentally eliminate his awareness of any sensation in his paws. Ignoring all sensory input save the scents of the air, the marketplace, the city…the tiger. There it was.
“Follow me,” he commanded, addressing Brutus. He raced through the city, growling a warning ahead of him in case any should happen to be in his way. The scent trail turned here, then there. Finally, it led him to a small adobe building. Here Mingan picked up a new scent. “Stay here,” he commanded Brutus, and began to follow it.
“Here we are”, said Andreas. “Where exactly is here?”, asked Red. They stood in front of a very small building. “There is more to it than meets the eye,” said Andreas. He knocked on the door. A deep, throaty voice issued from inside. “Who goes there?” “One in need of your goods, and unattached to his money,” replied Andreas. “Password correct, Andreas. Come on in.” Red turned to his scholar friend. “You have friends everywhere, don’t you, Andreas?”, he asked. “Almost,” said Andreas rather sadly.
With that, the sage opened the door, revealing for the first time the building’s interior. Or rather, its staircase. For that was what greeted Red’s eyes as he looked into the rather small structure. There was no readily apparent source of light, but the room was filled with a dim red glow. It looked rather like the entrance to Hell.
Andreas led the way down the stairs, moving rapidly for an old dog. The staircase was long, and seemed to stretch down into the very center of the earth with no end in sight. But since they had no real choice, Red and Luna had no difficulty deciding to follow Andreas down the steps.
The staircase was indeed long, but not nearly as interminal as it appeared when seen from the top. In about a minute, the threesome had reached the bottom. Red now saw that what his overactive imagination had cast as the very entrance of the abyss was in fact nothing more than a typical smithy; placed underground to avoid compounding the heat of the Southern sun.
All around the underground smithy were scattered various dogs of a breed Red had never seen in person before, but recognized from paintings and Northern legends as the famous Hairless. They were busy about various tasks, and walking among them, occasionally stopping to correct one’s work, or offer a rare word of encouragement, was another Hairless, skin lighter than the rest, and clearly in charge. It was his deep voice that had beckoned them to come in.
After wandering among his apprentices for a few moments, he turned toward the entrance of his smithy. “Greetings, Andreas,” he said, jingling the silver spear that he, too, wore about his throat. “Who’re your friends?” Andreas, nodding toward the necklaces his friends wore, introduced them.
“And what can I do for you?”, asked the smith, who stood about as tall as Red on his hind legs. “We need swords,” said Andreas preemptively. “Two of them. Basic, run of the mill, personal defense, swords.” He gestured with his hand as if to say, “You know what I mean.”
“Is this, uh…”, here the Hairless inarticulately jingled his necklace again. “If you mean to ask, is it Underground business,” said Andreas in a low voice, “then the answer is yes.” “In that case,” whispered the Hairless, “consider these particular swords complementary.” “Thank you.”, said Andreas. “Yes, thank you,” said Red and Luna, almost but not quite at the same time.
“Now,” said the smith, “ladies first.”
Luna was led over to one of the forges at the far edge of the smithy where another dog, also wearing the familiar silver spear, and appearing at least to Luna’s untrained eye to be older than most of the other apprentices, was hammering away at something Luna did not recognize. Beyond that, there was a rack of swords and daggers of varying size and shape.
“Now, milady,”, said the blacksmith, “my name is Fabrico. I will be your friendly neighborhood blacksmith, eh? Have you used a sword before?” “I have a little training with the blade, but not much. We tigers are taught to rely entirely on ourselves.” “On whom do you rely for assurance that that is wise?”, asked Fabrico, smiling. “On myself.”, replied Luna. “Good answer.”, said Fabrico.
“Now, with what kind of sword were you trained?” “With the jian.”, Luna answered. “The what?” “Sorry.”, said Luna. “It was a two-handed, straight-bladed sword. Double-edged, about four feet in length.” “Ah” replied the blacksmith. “Now you are speaking something closer to my language. What you have described would be called by us a longsword, or at least would be similar to that which we call a longsword.”
Fabrico walked purposefully over to the rack of weapons and withdrew a sword about the length of a jian, but with a much longer guard on the hilt. Also unlike a jian, the blade tapered slightly down its full length. Fabrico offered the sword to Luna, hilt first.
She took it slowly, gently from his hand. Gripping it with both of hers, she lifted it above her head, and began, in slow motion, to execute the kata which she had been taught during her brief training with the sword.
Luna was barely two moves into the form when Fabrico jumped in. “Nope.”, he said. “That blade is no good.” Unceremoniously he took it from her, put it back on the wall, and returned with another, similar weapon.
Cortez looked around him furtively. No one was there. At least, no one he could see. As quickly as he could, Cortez lifted the manhole cover, dropped into the “sewer”, and replaced it.
But of course it was no sewer. It had the appearance of one, to begin with. But if one followed it far enough, and knew the correct paths, as Cortez did, one could find the secret meeting-place of the Underground. If one did not know the correct paths, well, Cortez preferred not to think about that.
It had been established in better days, or worse, depending on your perspective, when the Confederacy still held powerful sway in the region. For members of the Underground, the newfound lawlessness of the region had been a blessing and a curse. When the Graywolf Pack seized power from the former dynasty, the alphas in this region were also replaced. The new ones were more easily bribed, and the wolf packs, far to the north, turned a blind eye to the corruption. All they cared about was the annual military support. Within a few years, cats were allowed to roam the streets virtually unmolested–if they knew whose palms to grease.
This had allowed the Underground unprecedented freedom of action; for the first time, sizable groups of members from both sides of the river could meet in the same place. But the general criminality of the feline immigrants made those not already Underground members unlikely to share idealistic dreams of peace.
And because many of the dogs in the area still openly hated cats, and those who sought peace with the Felid Kingdoms were unlikely to win the sympathy of the admittedly rather vestigial constabulary, the Underground had decided to remain, quite literally, underground.
After a few minutes of walking, Cortez arrived at the door to their meeting hall. Behind him, he thought he heard a soft plunk. But when he turned around, he could see nothing. Withdrawing his key from a pouch he carried on his shoulder, the Chihuahua inserted it into the lock. He thought he heard behind him a faint splashing sound. He turned the key.
Suddenly, instantly, an enormous paw covered his mouth and pulled him back silently, away from the door. He tried to cry out, but to no avail. His mouth was covered.
Then everything went black.
Red, Andreas, and Luna walked up the stairs and exited the smithy. As they opened the door, they were met by the frantic Cortez. He was waving his arms wildly as he ran toward them, and his fur was soaked in blood, especially near his head. “Andreas! Red! Luna!”, he screamed.
“Calm down, man”, whispered Andreas urgently. “Now what’s the problem?” Cortez approached closer. “You have to get out of the city, and you have to get out immediately.” “Why?”, Red demanded. “I was on my way to an Underground meeting, and I was attacked from behind by a treacherous son of a jackal. He knocked me unconscious and threw me in the sewer. I was bleeding from the head, and he probably supposed me dead. But I awoke. When I did, my first thought was to go into the meeting hall and see what had happened.”
“Yes,” said Luna anxiously, “and what had?” “Everyone was dead. Slaughtered, the lot of them. The place had been ransacked. I’m not sure exactly how it transpired, but if there was any struggle, it was short. The killing had been done rather neatly and efficiently, and all by one gigantic canine, it appeared from the claw marks on their bodies.” Luna drew in a breath, then uttered a single word. “Mingan.”
“Mingan? Who is this Mingan of whom you speak so angrily?”, asked Cortez. “Mingan of Bergebi,” Red explained, “the constable of the last town we were in. He caught on to our little prisoner act with Luna and has apparently been chasing us ever since.” “I thought I killed him,” Luna said rather bitterly, “but it seems he’s alive and well.”
“All the more reason you must get out of here, my friends.”, said Cortez. “We haven’t enough supplies to make it to the jungle,” said Red worriedly. “That is all right,” said Cortez, “I can provide you with food and water at my house. But then you must get going. Andreas, are you sure you’ll be all right by yourself?”
“Quite.”, replied Andreas. “I suspect he’ll go after these two rather than chasing an old fool like me. Besides, Goldpaw isn’t far from here. I’ll be fine.” “Good.”, replied Cortez hurriedly. “Come with me.” They hurried down the streets, Cortez leading them through alleyways and older, less-used roads.
Red struggled to keep up with the absurd pace of the tiny Chihuahua. Ducking under a low balcony in a backstreet, he tripped and fell flat on his face. Rather than stop, Luna simply swept him up under one arm and carried him for a moment, allowing him to right himself and hit the ground moving.
As the three dogs and one cat emerged from the backstreet into the larger thoroughfare on which Cortez lived, they were met by two German Shepherds. Red’s heart skipped a beat; he immediately thought they were deputies of Mingan. He looked at Luna as if for a signal. No words passed between them, but each could read the sentiment in the other’s eyes: Run. They doubled their pace, choosing not to stand and fight. As it turns out, this was wise. The two Shepherds were not deputies of Mingan, or were very incompetent deputies, for they did not chase or even appear to take especial notice of Cortez, Andreas, Luna and Red.
Cortez’s house was now in sight. It was growing closer. It seemed to grow rapidly in Red’s view. He was panting now; a sharp pain was growing in his left side.
They had arrived. But they weren’t finished, nor could they rest. Before them stood a massive, muscular black dog with brown coloration on his chin and underbelly. Red immediately recognized him as a Rottweiler. The breed was dangerous, partly for its strength and partly for its less-than-exceptional intelligence. And he stood in front of the door, muscles tense, arms held bent at his sides as if ready for battle.
Red and Luna turned to look at each other in the same moment. With a nod, they reached for their sword-hilts but did not yet draw their weapons. Cortez tried desperately to push his way to the front, but Luna held him back with one hand. She was also the first to speak. “Excuse me, sir,”, she said, “we need to get into my friend’s house. Could you please move over just a little bit?”
Brutus’s brow furrowed as his mind attempted to process the relevant information and determine a course of action. There was a tiger here. They had been looking for a tiger. Mingan hadn’t told him what to do if someone tried to get into the house.
Carefully, the deputy weighed his options. He could let them in. But if he wasn’t supposed to, he might get in trouble. Or he could kill them. He’d done that many times, and Mingan had almost never been displeased. Still, there was that pesky word almost. Eventually, Brutus decided to rely on his trusty axiom, the one that had never failed him. When in doubt, knock ‘em out.
Without further thought, then, Brutus charged. His battle strategy was not the most intelligent; he relied mainly on his massive size. And he hadn’t given any thought to the fact that his opponents were armed.
As he charged madly, both the tiger and the Golden Retriever drew their swords from their belts. Brutus obliviously continued to run forward. The Retriever drew back his sword.
Red drew back his sword, preparing to plunge it into the forehead of the massive dog who now approached him. But the Rottweiler was not as stupid as Red had supposed. At the last moment, as Red brought his sword forward, the massive creature ducked and rolled, slamming himself into Red’s legs.
Red fell forward, slamming into the surprisingly hard sand and dropping his sword. Immediately, he was on the ground beneath the massive canine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Luna racing toward him. But he couldn’t wait for that. With a Herculean effort, he pushed the beast off of him. As the great dog slammed into the ground, Red rolled over and grabbed his sword.
He ran toward the Rottweiler, sword lifted. As he prepared to swing it into the dog, his target rolled out of the way. Still, his opponent was hesitating now, and that reassured Red. He advanced forward more cautiously this time, and had his sword arm grabbed at the wrist.
Twisting his body, he launched the larger dog toward Luna. He tried to bring his sword down on his opponent at the same time, but the Rottweiler was moving too fast and he was only able to inflict a light flesh wound on the larger dog’s shoulder.
Despite the rather insignificant nature of the injury directly inflicted by Red’s blade, he caught the larger animal off-guard and launched him in the direction of the behemoth Luna.
And Luna was not lax in taking advantage of this opportunity. But neither was she particularly inclined to killing. Instead, she struck him on the head with the pommel of her sword, and down he went.
Cortez finally pushed his way through to the front(Luna had been holding him back with one hand all this time, which had impeded her progress when Red was down.) He was quite indignant. “Oh, come on! I didn’t even get to see it! I should have been out there, helping! How could I allow a lady–” here Luna looked way down at him and he shut up immediately.
But in a moment he was talking again. “Quickly,” he said, “We don’t have much time. Come inside.” Andreas’s pony, as miraculously calm as ever, still stood near the door, apparently oblivious to all that was going on.
When the four of them were safely inside Cortez’s home, he said to them, “I have a cache of supplies intended for just this situation. It’s in the basement. Follow me.” He led them to a seemingly ordinary set of floorboards, which he pried up to reveal a staircase. At the end of the staircase was a door with a keyhole that appeared on further examination to Red to be quite oddly shaped. It was also quite low, and the door was quite small.
Cortez removed the silver spear from around his neck and inserted it into the keyhole. Then he turned it to the right, and the door swung open. “It’ll work with any Underground silver spear, in case you’re ever in need of it,” he said as they walked in.
The cellar was small, but packed. Cortez pulled down two pouches with straps, to be carried over the shoulder, and handed one each to Red and Luna. He then gave each of them a leather flask filled with water, with a similar strap. “You will need to refill these occasionally. I will give you a map to show you where the rivers are.”, said Cortez.
He then grabbed several wrapped parcels from the shelf, and handed them to Red and Luna, who put them in their pouches. He went back and forth several times hastily, until no more could be fit in the pouches. “There,” he said, “that should last you until you get to the Jungle.”
“Andreas,” he said, “feel free to restock yourself with anything I have here.” “Thank you, my friend”, said the sage, and proceeded to take Cortez up on his offer. Meanwhile, the Chihuahua explained to Red and Luna where they were on the map. “See,” he said, “this is the city, where we are, and you’ll be going out the South Gate, here. Andreas will turn west, but you’ll head straight south. It’s not far, but you should stay near the rivers anyway.”
“I’m all stocked,” said Andreas. “Then you must be on your way,” replied Cortez. “I would love to accompany you, but I fear I may slow you down.” “Nonsense,” said Luna, “you may see us off at the South Gate if you like.” “Let’s go then.”
Luna stood on the outside of the South Gate, at the edge of the city. A city she had been hoping to spend some time in, to rest a little before the final push to the jungle. At least long enough to learn the town’s name. But it was not to be. No rest for the weary, apparently.
Night had not yet fallen, and already she and Red were to leave. And they were to part with their companion of almost a week, who Luna had grown rather fond of.
“Well,” she said to Andreas, “I guess this is goodbye.” Andreas smiled slightly. “I’m sure we’ll meet again, if not in this life, then in the World Beyond.” He bowed slightly to her in the tigerish fashion. She returned the courtesy, and Andreas turned his pony slightly to face Red. “Farewell, Red of Dramstad. Be strong.” Red swallowed. “Farewell, honored scholar.” “Now, after all this time, you slip into the formal?”, asked Andreas.
“I guess so,” said Red, laughing slightly at himself. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Andreas, and this might be the last time I talk to you for who knows how long…” “Yes, my boy?” “How is it that your pony is never disturbed, never spooks, never even seems to take notice, no matter what’s going on around him?” Andreas looked genuinely surprised. “You mean you haven’t guessed?”, he asked incredulously. “He is both blind and deaf.”
And with that, the scholar turned slowly toward the soon-to-be-setting sun, uttered a final farewell, and rode off. Luna turned to Cortez. “Thank you for your hospitality.” “Indeed,” Red agreed. “You are most welcome, my friends.”, said Cortez. “May Lady Fortune be with you.” “I won’t count on that,” said Red, “but I appreciate the sentiment.”
And, like Andreas, Red and Luna said one final farewell to Cortez, then turned and left, heading for the south, and the Jungle they could just barely see on the horizon.