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Just barely met the deadline! Phew!

Running With The Pack: Reconciliation

It had been two weeks since the Oligarch Brutus had agreed to provide delegations to aid Red of Dramstad and Luna of Sambar Rock in making peace between their peoples, as well as equestrians and legionaries to give them safe passage on both sides of the river that divided the Great Western Continent in two.

And today, the day had come to meet the diplomats who comprised those delegations, and, as it turned out, the officers who commanded the troops. Red had just finished lunch when they showed up at his hotel.

There were four diplomats, whom Red could discern from the four officers by the skinny court swords worn at their sides in place of the officers’ broadswords. Also, the diplomats were thinner and frailer, and rode gentle mares, while the officers were burly and muscular, and rode massive warhorses.

Two lionesses; apparently lionesses were type-cast as the Oligarch’s attendants; blew the trumpets and opened the doors as the diplomats filed in, followed by the officers. The lionesses then stepped forward to the front desk, where they talked quietly with the receptionist for about thirty seconds. Afterward, they walked over to the table where Red, his friend Luna, and their mutual friend the male tiger Jun were sitting, waiting for the lunch bill to arrive.

“Are you Red of Dramstad and Luna of Sambar Rock?” “Indeed,” said Red. Luna just nodded. “Your delegations are here to meet you.” “Oh?”, said Red, though of course he already knew that. “Yes. Come with us to the Meeting Hall, and you can get to know the diplomats and officers you’ll be leading.”

Red and Luna looked at Jun uncomfortably, but he waved them away with his hand. “Go on,” he said. “I’ll handle the bill. I get a sizable discount for working here.”

So Red and Luna stood up, and the lionesses led them back to the front door where the diplomats and officers stood. To the right of the front door as you went out was a long hall down which the Oligarch’s attendants led the Retriever, the tigress, and the delegates.

At the end of the hall were large wooden double doors, which the lionesses opened, allowing Red and Luna to proceed to the front of the room and sit down at the head of a small rectangular table. The diplomats then proceeded to seat themselves next to the head, and the officers next to the diplomats. The lionesses closed the doors from the outside, allowing our heroes and their delegations some privacy.

After a few awkward, expectant moments, it dawned on Red that it fell to him and to Luna to open up this meeting. He looked at Luna. A moment later, she, too, realized that it was her job to open up the meeting. “Greetings,” she said. A chorus of varied responses met her, from the abrupt grunts of a few of the officers to the flowery, overadorned language of some of the more effeminate diplomats.

“First of all,” said Red, “we should introduce ourselves. I’m Red of Dramstad, and this is Luna of Sambar Rock. And you are?” Immediately, a squabble ensued, with both officers and diplomats trying to get themselves introduced first. It was clear that each group held the other in contempt.

First, one of the officers, an older-looking lion with a thick mane, rose and began to speak. None of the officers interrupted him, which made Red think that perhaps he was senior, but the diplomats were not nearly so courteous. Before Red had heard even a syllable of the lion’s introduction, a tall, haughty-looking female leopard stood up and began to introduce herself.

The military response was predictable. The lion began to shout in an attempt to drown out the diplomat, who was initially above shouting in response, but tried to invoke her status as a diplomat and the act that this was, after all, a diplomatic expedition.

This progressed for a few minutes, with Red and Luna sitting at the head of the table in a state of shock at the ridiculously childish behavior of the Refuge’s best military officers and diplomats, and Red wondering if coming down here for help was such a good idea after all.

Finally, however, Red came to his senses, though he seemed to be the only one. He rose to his feet and pounded on the table, shouting “Quiet!”

The delegates, even the most delicate of whom were by now standing around the table and shouting, seemed to come to their senses. They looked around themselves as if they weren’t quite sure what was going on, and then sat down sheepishly.

“One at a time!”, Red bellowed. “You first,” he said, gesturing to the leopard. Each and every one of the officers’ expressions morphed to show anger, but Red didn’t care. Somebody had to be introduced first, and if grown dogs and cats were going to be so childish as to argue about it, that wasn’t his problem.

The leopard tried to affect a dignified air, but after her recent show of emotion, that was quite difficult. “My name is Clarice,” she said. “I’m one of the diplomats assigned to your delegation. I should warn you, the Sambar Rock pride will be quite unfriendly to your cause.” Red rolled his eyes. “No editorials, please.” Each of the diplomats seethed as if no one had ever told them what to do before.

In point of fact, Red was a bit surprised by his conduct himself. But with command of this delegation thrust upon him, he couldn’t afford to be soft. He had to establish who was commanding this expedition, or everything would devolve into chaos.

As the other delegates introduced themselves, Red could almost feel the tension between the officers and the diplomats. It would be quite dull to recount the entire process, so allow me to simply list their names and move on.

After Clarice, a tall, lean, battle-scarred Doberman officer named Gunter introduced himself, followed by another diplomat, a short, fluffy male poodle by the eminently humble name of Ancelin. Then it was the officers’ turn again. Red decided to alternate between them to minimize dispute. The next one was the thick-maned lion who had been interrupted by Clarice before. His name was Makalo.

Next came another diplomat, a beautiful(Red thought, at least) long-haired female Black Lab named Camilla, and then another officer, a cheetah by the name of Scipio. The last diplomat was a rather effeminate-looking male House Cat called Razo, and then the last officer, a relatively young Husky named Conrad.

Red’s delegation consisted of Clarice and Camilla for his diplomats, while his officers were Conrad and Gunter. Luna got the remaining diplomats, Ancelin and Razo, as well as the leftover officers, Scipio and Makalo.

With all the delegates assigned, the remainder of the three-hour meeting was spent getting a bead on who the various delegates were. Red asked questions, got answers, and traded stories with his delegates. Luna did the same, though their conversations were not quite separate.

It would be boring indeed for me to recount the entire three hours, so perhaps I should instead retell the conversation Red and Luna had afterward, as they compared notes.

*******

The diplomats and the officers had finally gone. Luna and Red walked down the hall to the dining room, where they would compare notes and brief Jun on what they had learned before dinner.

Though it was only about four o’clock, Luna found Jun expectantly waiting for them at their usual table. “So,” said Red, “what did you think of your delegation?” “Hmm,” said Luna, “I’ll have to consider that for a few minutes. How about you tell me about yours, and then I’ll tell you about mine?”

Red shrugged. “All right.” He sat down and scratched his chin. “I guess I’ll start with the diplomats. Clarice is arrogant and rude at times, not good qualities for one in her line of work. But I sense that, paradoxically, she also understands how to deal with royalty. Additionally, she seems to have great knowledge of beauracracies and how to get through, past, and around them. I’ll hate having her around on the trip, but she’ll be indispensable in the foreign land to which I am traveling. Camilla is, well, charming, pretty, and well-educated, but with little practical experience.”

Luna raised both eyebrows briefly. “Pretty, hmm?” “Oh hush,” said Red. “My officers seem capable enough. Conrad is not terribly experienced, but makes up for it with raw passion. I’m told he was quite the hero when he was an ordinary soldier not too long ago. Received some chivalric order or other I’ve never heard of. Gunter, on the other hand, is cynical and down-to-earth. He seems like the kind of dog who can give me a fair assessment of our chances, and is likely a strong logisticist.”

Luna sat back. “Seems like you’re off to a good start. Ancelin is quite a skilled diplomat. I hope he doesn’t abandon us at the first sign of a fight, though. He is supremely chickenhearted. Razo is also a skilled diplomat, but if it came to fighting, I think he’d get in the way rather than run away. His pride would likely force him to wade into the thick of things, or at least draw his sword and make things difficult for the soldiers.”

Red nodded gloomily. “I got much the same impression. What did you think of your officers?” “Well,” said Luna, “Scipio is as fast a thinker as he is a runner. But he’s also a fast talker, and sometimes his rapid jabbering gets confusing. Makalo is a seasoned warrior, but I wouldn’t want him on the front lines anymore. He’s not as young as he used to be.”

Red shrugged. “He seems spry enough.” “Perhaps,” said Luna, “but nevertheless, I think he ought to command from behind. His pride may not allow that, though.”

During all this time, Jun had held his peace. He continued to do so, looking pensive but keeping his thoughts to himself. Luna, for her part, was content to ponder on her own for a while, and the three ate their dinner in relative silence.

Afterward, they wordlessly disappeared to their separate rooms, where Luna for one slept soundly that night.

*******

Red awoke the next morning to the low bonging of his room’s grandfather clock. Bong, one. Bong, two. Bong, three. Bong, four. Bong, five. Bong, six. Six o’clock. Red tried to go back to sleep, but soon realized it was no good and he got up.

Slowly reaching up to pull open his blinds, Red rose out of bed and opened up the drawer on his nighttable where he had stored the book he had borrowed from the library.

Picking it up, he began to read, but soon set it down and began pacing around the room. Then he sat back down and began to read again. For about half an hour, he sat there reading, and then walked downstairs to see what was going on in the dining room.

A few people were sitting around eating breakfast, but mostly the dining room was empty. It was then that Red got the idea that was to keep him occupied for much of the remainder of the journey. Perhaps I should keep a journal.

Well, I would have a great deal of catching up to do, that’s for sure. Red pondered for a few moments. But, I do have plenty of time.

So Red inquired at the front desk about where he might by a blank book, pen, and ink to begin his journal. It would seem, however, that the printer’s shop, where such things were sold and books were printed, did not open until six-forty-five.

Red thought for a moment, then decided to walk that way anyway. They would be opening soon, and it would probably take him some time to get there. So Red walked out the door and down the street to the right. On the right side of the road, about a hundred doors down, was the printer’s shop.

By the time Red got there, there was no clock near Red, except for the clock tower, which was near the center of town, and unfortunately too far away to read, so Red didn’t know what time it was. Not that it mattered, for he had no idea how punctual the printer was.

So he stood outside, leaning against the door and waiting for the arrival of the shop’s proprietor.

Over the course of the next ten minutes, several young males arrived, both cats and dogs. Last of all came a short, bespectacled dog, a brown cockapoo, twirling a keychain around his finger.

He seemed to be in a rather jovial mood, but the young males scowled at him behind his back as he turned the key in the door. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, he started, turning toward Red.

“Do you work for me? I don’t recall hiring you.” Red shook his head. “No,” he said, “I don’t work for you. I’m a customer, waiting for you to open the shop.” “Well then,” said the cockapoo, “Come on in.” With that he turned the key, opened the door, and held it for Red. Red walked in, followed by the other young men, who Red had by this time deduced were apprentices to the printer, who must have been the cockapoo.

“What can I be selling you?”, asked the shorter dog. “I need a blank book,” said Red, “a fountain pen, and some ink.” The printer walked over to a shelf on the opposite side of the room, collected these items, and handed them back to Red. “That’ll be twelve pieces of silver.” Red handed him the coins, and the cockapoo counted them, then looked back up at Red and his necklace. “You’re a Northerner, aren’t you?”

“How could you tell?” “Well,” said the printer, “I saw your necklace.” “Oh?”, asked Red, concerned now. “Yes. Do all Northerners wear them?” Red wasn’t sure how to respond to this. On the one hand, he was certainly relieved to find out that the printer didn’t know what the necklace really symbolized. On the other, he wasn’t sure what to tell him.

After a moment’s deliberation, which he would later come to think may have made him look rather suspicious, he said, “No. I didn’t know cats wore them at all. They come in several varieties, and are something of a status symbol among dogs.”

“Oh,” said the printer. “I thought I’d heard that Northern cats wore them too.” Red shook his head. “I don’t know anything about that.” “Hmmm.”, said the shorter dog. “Well, have a nice day!”. And with that, he ran off to check on the apprentices.

*******

“Where could he have gone?”, asked Luna. “I don’t know,” said Jun. “Perhaps he told the receptionist.” “Oh,” said Luna, “good idea.” She walked over to the front desk and asked the female House Cat standing there if a Golden Retriever named Red had left, and if he had said where he was going?

“Well,” said the cat, “there was a Golden Retriever who left earlier. I think he went to the printer’s shop. He’ll probably be back soon.” Luna thanked her and returned to the table where she sat across from Jun.

A few moments later, Red strolled in and sat down next to them. “Hey,” he said. “There you are,” said Luna. “I’ve been wondering where you went.” “I was at the printer’s shop,” said Red. “I’ve decided to keep a journal.” “I hope you don’t mind,” said Luna, “but I ordered breakfast for you.”

“Probably not,” said Red, “what did you order?” Luna shrugged. “Your usual.” Red shrugged in return. “Fine with me.”

*******

Over the course of the next few days, Red and Luna met with the delegates a few more times, and spent the remainder of their days seeing the sights of the town and engaging in various leisure activities at the inn. Perhaps the best way to give you an idea of what it was like is in Red’s own words. What follows is an excerpt from his journal, with the names of the days of the week translated into their equivalents in our own week for convenience.

Monday

Today we went and saw another play. It was some kind of a comedy, nothing like the plays we have in the North. It seemed to be all about one family, and their various trials and tribulations. It was an interesting form, but I doubt it would hold its appeal for long.

Tuesday

Today was rather boring and slow, so I’ve been updating my account of our travels so far. I have another meeting with the delegates tomorrow. I predict that the officers will want to discuss our strategy for surviving the trek to Sambar Rock, and the diplomats will insist on telling me about every inane feline custom.

Wednesday

Yesterday’s predictions pretty much accurate. I think I might stab myself if I have to listen to the officers and the diplomats arguing any more. We’re leaving in two days, so I need to start packing my bags.

Thursday

Friday

We leave for our big trek tomorrow. I’ve got the most accursed butterflies in my stomach. Luna seems distressed at having to leave Jun, but otherwise her usual levelheaded self. She gets so serene sometimes, it makes me nuts!

I’m getting to know the delegates better. Their bickering has slowed down a bit. At least I can stand them now. I hope they won’t be like this all the way to Sambar Rock. I’ll be nervous enough in cat territory without that nonsense.

On the big day, Red didn’t get an opportunity to write in his journal. He was quite busy from dawn to dusk.

With the first rays of sunlight, he rose out of bed and met with his four delegates, who were already downstairs. After a hurried breakfast, they began to load the packhorses with their things. Red traveled fairly light, and the officers carried little, but the diplomats were a different story.

While two packhorses sufficed for Red and both his officers, each diplomat required the same number. Red had no idea what they might have been carrying. Their packs weighed a ridiculous amount for Folk who wore no armor and carried only the lightest of court swords.

It took all afternoon for the team to get their horses loaded up, and for Red to check out of the hotel while his officers inspected the troops. Meanwhile, Luna was experiencing a similar hectic departure…

*******

Luna was up long before the sun, meditating and stretching out her muscles, and shaking all the grogginess from her mind. She could almost feel the tension falling off her muscles.

Luna had often been told that she radiated serenity. Luna believed that her consistent calm was in no small part a result of her daily meditations. She remembered one time she had missed one…

Luna was eight years old, a mere child. She had been off hunting, and had slipped over a medium-sized log and lost her quarry. On her way back home, her mother chided her on her carelessness.

No doubt she meant to do so gently, but young Luna chafed under the criticism. She already felt like a fool for losing the antelope; did Mother have to rub it in this way?

Luna felt different than usual. She rarely missed a prey animal, but it had happened. And her mother had criticized her for it. But never before had she felt this way, on edge, restless.

Then, Luna did something she would later regret. She looked over at her mother, her face contorting with anger, her muscles tensing. Finally, after a short pause, she turned and stalked off into the woods.

Luna shook her head gently. I behaved quite foolishly then. I learned, however, not to neglect my meditations.

Luna looked slowly to her left, then to her right, then rose to her hind legs and stood. Her meditations done, she felt calm and relaxed, ready to begin her long trek into the land of the dogs.

A few moments later, her minimal baggage slung over her shoulders, she was downstairs, eating a hurried breakfast and then helping the diplomats load their insane amounts of luggage onto the packhorses.

*******

Red halfheartedly spurred his horse forward. Steering closer to Luna, he kept his gaze fixed on the road ahead of him, leading up to the Canal that drew ever closer on the horizon.

“You nervous?”, he asked Luna. “No.”, she said. “I should have figured,” said Red. “You’re never nervous.” Luna attempted a polite lie. “That’s not true.” Red smiled. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it is true. How do you do it?”

“Hmmm,” Luna mused. “It hasn’t always been easy. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you my secret.” “Try me.”, said Red. “Well,” said Luna, “I stretch, and meditate, and I release my stress that way. It wakes me up, clears my mind, and I feel refreshed.”

Red snorted. Luna raised her eyebrows briefly. “Told you you wouldn’t believe me.” Red shrugged. “I believe you do it, and I believe you are quite serene. It may even be the cause, as you believe. But it won’t work for me. I should have known that whatever your secret was, it wouldn’t work for me.”

Luna pulled her horse slightly closer to his and began to talk in a lower voice. “Why not?” Red sighed. “I just don’t have the patience. I tried stuff like that a few times, but always felt as though it wasn’t working. After a few moments with no effect, I could no longer concentrate.”

Luna nodded and pulled away slightly. Red looked forward again, down the road. The Canal loomed ever nearer as his horse trotted down the thoroughfare.

*******

They had finally reached the Canal again. This, for the first time in years, brought a tear to Luna’s eye. It wasn’t because she had some great love for the cities and places of the South. And it wasn’t because she would be leaving Jun behind, though that didn’t make her happy and she would certainly miss him.

No, this tear was for her parting with Red, a dog to whom she had become quite close recently. Though there had been a time when she never would have thought it would happen, this canine had become her closest friend. And now, she would be going off into a strange country without his companionship, and he would be doing much the same without her.

She looked over at him. “I guess this is where we part ways.” Red sighed and looked down to the left, away from her, then sighed and lifted his head. As their eyes met, he nodded sadly. “Good luck,” was all he could think to say. Luna smiled, a tear now appearing in her other eye.

She placed her right forepaw on his shoulder. “Until we meet again, Red of Dramstad, until we meet again.” Red smiled. “Farewell.”, he said, and spurred his horse onward, down the path, across the bridge to the Eastern half of the Great Continent.

Luna lifted her forepaw to her forehead and gave a short salute. “Farewell,” she said quietly, and spurred her horse on to the left, into the unfamiliar Western half of the landmass where her people and his fought their pointless struggles.

Here, in those regions of the Great Western Continent which were farthest south, Luna’s eye beheld massive grasslands on the side of the river where she now rode. For a short time she could see Red on the opposite bank, but the river soon grew wider and the forest grew thicker between them.

Not ten minutes had passed since Red finally dropped out of Luna’s view for the last time, but a crazed-looking black dog came barreling down the path at an unbelievable speed. When he first appeared, Luna could barely see him, but within seconds, he was only about thirty yards away from her, and he showed no signs of stopping.

Luna reached for her sword hilt, but before she could draw, the dog, now only a few feet in front of her, screeched to a halt and rose to his feet. Doubled over and panting for breath, he waved his hand in front of his face for a moment, then, as he caught his breath, stood erect and, still wheezing, jingled the silver necklace he wore, which was shaped in the likeness of a spear.

Recognizing at once the symbol of her order, Luna gestured for the delegates to remain where they were and climbed down off her horse. “What is it?”, she demanded. Still breathing rather hard, the dog said, “Mingan…of Bergebi.” Luna clenched her fist. “Mingan. Where?” “End…of…the road. Also, deputies. Here…and across the river.”

“Across the river?” “Indeed,” said the messenger. “In case you went that way.” “That’s just it!”, exclaimed Luna. “Someone did go that way! Red of Dramstad!” “I wondered where he was.”, said the dog gravely. “There’s no one to warn him. He’s on his own.” “There’s got to be something we can do,” said Luna. “Nothing.” said the dog. “There’s no way to reach him in time.”

“What do you mean, there’s no way to reach him in time?”, Luna shouted. “Exactly what I said,” replied the dog. “In fact, if Mingan’s deputies are roughly in the same area on the Eastern side as they are here, he may have already met them.”

“Indeed, he may have.”, said a deep voice. Mingan, still scarred where Luna had crushed in his chest in their first battle, rose up from the tall grass around the road and stepped into view behind the dog who had warned Luna.

*******

Red spurred his horse forward, and caught a glimpse of something odd on the horizon. It looked like a group of dogs, though it was difficult to tell at this distance. He pulled back on his charger’s reins and turned the horse sideways, perpendicular to the road.

His delegates slowed to a stop behind him on their horses. Mingled between Red and his delegates, and among and behind said delegates, the fifteen or so soldiers granted by Brutus the Oligarch to assure safe passage for the group halted as well. “What is it, Red?”, asked Camilla, her voice enchanting and sweet. “Look, down there. On the horizon.”

All the delegates trained their eyes on the farthest portion of the road they could see. Gunter was the first to speak. “I see it. It looks like our feline friends prepared a welcoming committee.”

The blobs on the horizon began to move. “Those aren’t cats,” said Clarice. “What do you mean?”, demanded Gunter, turning his head sharply towards her. She lifted her chin and started speaking in an affected, haughty voice. “Perhaps none of you can tell,” she said, looking straight at Gunter as she said “none of you”, “but the way they walk is like no feline I have ever seen. In point of fact, they carry themselves quite distinctly as dogs.”

Red nodded, keeping his eyes set on the horizon. “I did think at first that they looked like dogs, though I couldn’t be sure at this distance.” Conrad’s brow furrowed, and he placed his hand on his sword hilt. “What would dogs be doing here?”

As Red turned back to face him, he saw a small, ironic smile cross Clarice’s face. Red decided to cut her off before she could make any snide comments. “The more important question is, what should we do?”

“We don’t know who they are, and Conrad has a point.”, said Gunter. “It is unusual to find dogs here. Do you know why they might be here, Red?” Red nodded gravely. “I’m afraid I do. On the way down to your continent, Luna and I made enemies of a constable known as Mingan of Bergebi. I was wondering when he might catch up with us.”

Conrad at once drew his sword. “We have our legionaries. Let’s fight, if Mingan’s men these are.” Gunter shook his head. “We have no idea how many of them there may be.” “True,” said Red. “Mingan always did travel with a large posse.”

“What about our safe conduct?”, asked Conrad. “Surely the word of Brutus will at least be cause for hesitation before harming us.” This time it was Red who shook his head. “If Mingan is with them personally, he may put up a show of honoring the safe-conduct. No alpha of the dogs is interested in evoking the ire of the South. But, if Mingan sent troops here, he also probably sent them on my side of the river. So Mingan may not be with either group, or he may be on the Western half of the continent. If it’s just his deputies, our safe-conduct will be worthless.”

“And,” Red added, “even if Mingan is there, and nominally agrees to honor the decree of Brutus, I don’t trust him farther than I can throw my horse.”

*******

“We have a safe conduct from Brutus, Oligarch of Hebrosh.”, said Makalo. “I didn’t find you,” replied Mingan, “you were devoured by wild beasts, perhaps.”

Luna’s horse began to whinny nervously. She reined him in, and looked Mingan straight between the eyes. “We have soldiers. We can fight. There’s only one of you.” “Not so,” replied the wolf, and snapped his fingers. Immediately, from the tall grass around them, from behind the great oak off to Luna’s left, from everywhere, it seemed, poured Mingan’s deputies. “I should have known,” said Luna. “You can’t do anything without your little private army.” Mingan’s face flushed and he clenched his fists.

“I should simply kill you and have done with it.” He lifted his hand to gesture toward Luna. “Deputies–” he began, but he was interrupted by Luna. “I demand the right of single combat.” Mingan cursed fluently under his breath, then tried to feign ignorance. “The right of what?” “Of single combat.”, Luna repeated. “A binding custom that even you must respect. You know the rules. I challenge you, and you and yours may not harm or molest me or mine in any way save you accept.”

“You’re a cat,” Mingan said, desperation tingeing his voice. “I don’t have to honor your challenge.” “Not so,” Luna said. “You know as well as I that it matters not who issues the challenge, only who receives it. The custom is binding on all wolves regardless of the status or identity of the challenger.”

One of Mingan’s deputies turned and looked at him. “Is she right?” Mingan bared his teeth and clenched his jaw, a low growl escaping his throat. “She is.”, he said.

“Another time, tigress.”, said Mingan. “Another time.” He snapped his fingers , and his deputies came to attention. He then turned on his heel and walked back the way he came.

*******

Red looked at his officers. “What do you recommend?” “I still say we should fight.”, said Conrad. Gunter turned in his direction and gave him a malicious look. “You have spoken out of turn, my good junior officer.”, he said, his voice a low, threatening whisper. Conrad’s skin turned red, just barely perceptible through his thick fur. “You’re right.”, he said. “I apologize.” “Right, what?”, said Gunter, his temper flaring even hotter than before. “Apologize, what?” “Sir,” said Conrad through gritted teeth.

“That’s better,” said Gunter. “Sir,” he said, now addressing Red. “I must advise against risking our small force against an unknown foe in unfamiliar territory. I suggest we wait a few minutes and see if they move. If not, they are clearly lying in wait for someone, and we would be well-advised to avoid them, even if it means doubling back and taking a different path. But if they move on down the path, we can follow them at this distance.”

Red nodded. “We will do as Gunter has suggested.” Red looked over at Conrad, whose face was contorted with barely held-in rage. Red could just hear all the ringing denunciations the Husky would like to make against him. Red didn’t care. Gunter was right. They didn’t know what they were facing.

For minutes that seemed like hours, Red sat on his horse, watching the figures moving about on the horizon. After a little while, he noticed that they were not remaining at the same distance, nor were they moving farther away. In fact, they seemed to be getting closer.

Red turned to Gunter. “They’re coming closer. What should we do?” Gunter shook his head. “I’m not sure. They could just be coming this way. But I don’t like it. I say we turn back and take another route.”

Red spurred his horse and trotted over to the back of the group. “All right, Gunter. We’ll double back, but I’m keeping my hand on my sword, just in case.” “A wise move, sir.”, said Gunter.

The delegation turned and rode down the path through the woods. Red turned back and looked at the dogs on the horizon. They were getting closer quite rapidly now. “I think they’re chasing us,” said Red.

“What?”, demanded Gunter, turning back to look at them as well. “They are.”, he said. Pulling himself up dramatically, he spurred his horse to a gallop. Soon they left their pursuers in the dust. The path had forked about a mile and a half back, and they took the opposite path now from the one they had taken before.

They charged down this new path at a gallop for a short time, but rapidly slowed to a trot. “Are they still following us?”, asked Red. Gunter looked behind them. “I don’t see them.” “I think we can relax now,” said Red. He reined in his horse to a walk, and slowly the rest of the delegation and the various legionaries pulled to a slow walk as well.

They walked on for twenty or twenty-five minutes, and then Red started noticing something in the canopies of the trees. It looked like buildings or treeforts or something. And every now and then, Red would see a lightly-colored shape dart back and forth among the trees.

After about ten minutes of this, the treetop buildings grew more prolific, to the point where Red was convinced it was a city. The officers and Camilla were staring at it too, but Clarice didn’t even seem to notice.

As they progressed deeper into the forest, Red could hear the sounds of battle. Loud, harsh cries and the moans of the dying. Soon, the fight came into view. A large force of leopards, with reinforcements continually leaping down from the city above, was doing battle with a valiant but vastly outnumbered and surrounded force of German Shepherds.

Red took one look at the dogs under attack and recognized them immediately. “Mingan’s deputies,” he said, turning to his delegates. “What should we do?” Gunter scratched his chin for a moment, then said, “I suggest we aid the leopards.”

Red raised his eyebrows. “Why?” “Trust me,” said Gunter. “If I explain it, it will take too long.” “Very well,” said Red. He drew his sword. “Legionaries, to me!”, he cried, and charged into the fray. “Wait!”, yelled Gunter, but Red could barely hear him. Lifting his sword and bringing it down, swinging left and right, he cut down dozens of Mingan’s deputies.

After but a minute or two, the battle was over. The earth was red with the blood of German Shepherds. But leopards had also fallen. About ten of the great cats were strewn across the battlefield, bleeding and moaning in agony.

Clarice leapt down from her horse and ran to the battlefield, where she stared in horror at the injured leopards. Not fifteen seconds had passed, however, before doctors and medics arrived to aid the wounded, and Clarice was pushed aside.

The newcomers, with Clarice’s exception, were loosely surrounded by spear-wielding leopards. They did not hold their spears in attack position, and Red and his comrades were not kept from moving about, talking, or watching the medics at work, but it was clear that if they tried to leave the area, it would not go well.

Soon the bodies were cleared away, mostly tossed into bushes by the roadside, and the wounded had been spirited up into the trees for medical care. Red could hear Clarice arguing with one of the warriors who had fought the German Shepherds. “Let them go!”, she said. “They helped you fight, didn’t they?”

“Listen, I know they helped us fight, but they’re strangers, they’re dogs, we don’t know who they are, and on top of it all, I don’t make the rules. I couldn’t let them go if I wanted to.”

“Well, who could?”, Clarice demanded. “My captain, perhaps,” said the leopard, “but it’s hardly worth pursuing. They’re only being kept from leaving until our chieftain can see them.” “When will that be?”, asked Clarice, her voice lowering and her muscles relaxing slightly.

“Right now,” said the leopard, pointing with his spear as a large, powerfully-built male leopard with a gold circlet on his head leapt down from the treetop city. Landing on all fours, he looked around, then rose to his hind legs and walked towards Red and his companions.

“Who are you?”, he asked. “We are delegates,” Red answered, “from the Underground.” “Underground?”, asked the leopard chieftain. “I have heard of this Underground, I think. That would explain what dogs are doing here. Take them away!”

The cat soldiers stepped forward a step to seize Red and his companions, and Red’s legionaries readied their weapons, but Red shouted, “Wait! We have a safe-conduct from Brutus, Oligarch of Hebrosh!”

*******

Luna looked over at the messenger who had brought her the warning. “So,” she said, “what’s your name?” The messenger smiled. “William,” he said. “I’m Luna,” Luna replied. “A pleasure, I’m sure.”, said William. “Who sent you to find me?”, asked Luna.

“An old scholar,” said William. “He’s part of the Underground. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. Name of Andreas of Dramstad.” “Andreas?”, asked Luna. “Indeed.”, said William. “So you do know him.” “I certainly do,” said Luna. “I traveled many a mile with that wise old Pekingese.”

“Really,” said William. “Of a certainty,” said Luna. “Would you like to go see him?”, asked William. “I would very much.”, said Luna. “I should ask about that binding custom. Is he permitted to harm Andreas?” “If Mingan knows Andreas is a friend of yours,” said William, “he will fall under the label of ‘you and yours’, and Mingan cannot harm him. But, if he doesn’t know that…”

Luna reached down and grabbed William by the arm, pulling him up onto the horse behind her. She spurred her horse rapidly down the path, gesturing for her delegates and legionaries to follow.

William, behind Luna, grabbed her around the waist. “See there,” he said, gesturing with one hand toward a large, walled city far off in the grassland. “That’s where Andreas is. If Mingan gets there without knowing Andreas is your friend, he’d be in grave danger.”

Luna nodded. “Let’s find Mingan.”, she said.

As her horse barreled down the path, Luna saw Mingan and his deputies some distance down the path. They were walking rather slowly, and Luna and her companions were galloping down the road. Soon they had caught up to the wolf, and Luna made a running dismount, dropping down in front of the constable.

“What do you want, cat?”, demanded Mingan. “To inform you of a critical fact,” said Luna, looking down toward the much shorter, though massive, wolf. “And what fact would that be?”, asked Luna. “That Andreas of Dramstad is under my protection, and that he is not to be harmed save you accept my challenge.”

“Very well. Know this. I don’t know any Andreas of Dramstad, but if he identifies himself to me, I will not harm him. Now, go.” Luna kicked her horse into action and cantered down the path toward the city.

*******

“A safe-conduct, hmmm?”, asked the chieftain. “Soldier!”, he shouted. The soldier who had been talking to Clarice jumped up and ran to the chief’s side. “Yes, sir!”, he said, standing at attention and lifting his hand to salute.

“Call for my council of advisors, and do it quickly!” “Right away, sir!”, said the soldier. He leapt up into the trees. For about two minutes, he stayed up there, then he bounded down from the trees, followed by several other leopards, taller and more lightly build than the chieftain.

The chieftain and his advisers conferred for a moment privately, then the chieftain turned back toward Red and his companions. He was about to speak, when Clarice stepped in front of him.

“Sire,” she said, “before you say anything, know that these are my companions, my fellow delegates, and my friends. If you do anything against them, you will have to take me as well. And I, though I come from the South, am of the People. There must be a proper trial, and perhaps there will be appeals, and all that will cost time and money.”

“Not to mention,” said Red, “we helped you fight against those German Shepherds!” Clarice gestured for him to be quiet. The chieftain fumed for a moment, then gestured away his soldiers. He pointed at Red and his companions. “Go!”, he said, his voice low and dangerous.

Clarice genuflected briefly, then turned and began to walk away. She gestured for Red and the delegates to follow. They remounted their horses and the legionaries relaxed their weapons.

*******

Days passed, and Red traveled deeper and deeper into the heart of the feline territory. Perhaps this is a good time to return to the subject of Red’s journal. During the time he was traveling northward, he made several significant journal entries. The dating system of Red’s world is different from ours, but the years are of the same length. Therefore, I have substituted the equivalent dates from our calendar, that you may have an idea of what time of year it was and how long the journey took.

Friday, July 6

Today we reached a large city, where our safe-conduct afforded us rest, though hardly a warm welcome. We stayed with a local Underground member, but had to make a show of forcing him so that he would not be suspected of sympathizing with us. This task will be difficult, but I am confident.

Saturday, July 7

On the road again. We must be constantly on the move lest our enemies find us. Our next stop is the city of Dondeburg. It is reported as being sympathetic to our cause. In fact, it was the second city, after Torena, in the Felid Kingdoms to close its doors to army recruiters.

Monday, July 9

It won’t be long now. Another three or four days, and we’ll arrive at Sambar Rock. Then the difficult part comes. I hope my diplomats can help me. I have a feeling convincing a pride of misocanist lions to make peace with our kind won’t be easy.

It was indeed, a short time after this last entry that Red arrived at Sambar Rock, but the telling of that story will have to wait until at least a little bit of Luna’s journey is recounted.

*******

As she sat in the sitting room of the dog in whose home she was staying at Goldpaw, Luna reflected on her week-long journey from where she had met Mingan.

In that short time, she had stayed in four cities, seen incredible stunning vistas, and faced revilement and persecution from the great mass of dogs she had met. Even the few Underground members she had interacted with had been forced to feign hatred of her to avoid suspicion.

It was hard, there was no denying it. She had come to bring these people the gift of peace, as best she could, but all they had for her was hatred and reproach. Yet, she determined, I will persevere.

I will fight for peace, whether the masses desire it or not. And both they and I will be better off for it.

Luna thought back to the places she had visited, the people she had spoken to. Many had seemed rather halfhearted in their condemnation. She wondered if perhaps they only pretended to hate cats, because everyone else pretended that, and they wanted to be accepted. But then again, perhaps old prejudices die harder than that. Only time, and an audience with the Alpha, would tell.

*******

The tension in the air of the city of Sambar Rock was so thick Red felt as though he could cut it with a knife. But it would have to be quite a sharp knife.

The city had divided itself into two unofficial but well-defined camps: The first consisted of those who wanted to kill Red and his delegates. and to Sheol with the safe-conduct and the legionaries. To Red’s understandable concern, this group had some support among the lions of the ruling pride’s coalition.

The other faction wanted to hear the “peacemakers” out.(“Peacemakers” was the nickname the delegation had earned among the people of the city of Sambar Rock, which Red had at first thought was rather flattering, until he learned that it had been the name of a mystery cult some twenty years before whose members had promoted peace between the peoples of the Continent and had been executed for it).

This camp was further subdivided into two less distinct groups. The first seemed to Red to have the potential to be “true believers” — idealists who genuinely desired and would work for peace. These advocated that the safe-conduct be honored, whatever else might be done, and that Red’s delegation be heard out and taken seriously.

The second group feared reprisal from Brutus should they harm those under his protection. This group nevertheless was no brotherhood-advocating band of pacifists and romantics. Some local Underground members had connections within the group, and the grapevine, whose reliability Red could not speak to with any certainty one way or the other, had informed Red that they were plotting to frame him for a crime.

Needless to say, it was something of a relief to Red when he was told the coalition would hear his case, and at the same time it left him filled with apprehension. The three days he had to prepare were a rush of activity, Clarice and Camilla preparing each other, themselves, and him for the big day. Red and Camilla exchanged furtive glances at each other while Clarice obliviously lectured them on the customs and manners of lions.

“You are guests of the Court. Be respectful, but not servile, and don’t grovel. Lions respect one who asserts himself, even to his superiors.” A glance at Camilla, a missed sentence from Clarice. When Red was paying attention again, Clarice was briefing them on the members of the coalition, almost a complete life history, it seemed to Red. He tried to listen, but the information was so useless, and the presentation so boring, he found his eyes glazing over.

Camilla reached over and squeezed his paw. He felt the warmth of her touch and smiled. Then she stood up to address the other two, and Clarice sat down. She expounded the coalition’s record regarding similar propositions; a truly dreadful one, to say the least.

Nine out of the fifteen cases like this one before had ended in death or banishment for the promoter of peace. Red doubted it would be that bad, with all he had going for him, but prospects were nonetheless grim.

One of the coalition members was an old-guard general in the cat military, and he was the second senior among them, and thus by lion custom, second most worthy of respect, honor, and obedience. But there was a glimmer of hope.

*******

Luna’s meeting with the Alpha was scheduled for a week from today. Until then, she had been oh so politely informed that it would be best for her if she remained in the house were she was staying.

Her only source of contact with the outside world was the Poodle with whom she was staying. Her name was Jean, and she was upbeat and bubbly. She spoke with an accent, and had an incredibly likable personality–in private. The danger of exposure was too great to be friendly in public.

So when the normally cheerful Jean crashed through the door with a look of horror on her face, gasping for breath, Luna knew immediately that something was wrong. “Luna! Luna!”, shouted Jean. Luna ran towards her and supported her body. “What’s going on?”, she asked.

“There’s a plot…to kill the alpha.” Jean was whispering now. “The more extreme members of the Underground are planning it. They say he’s opposed to our cause. They say the Confederacy needs a different leader.”

Luna shook her head. “This won’t help us an awful lot, especially if our connection with the assassins is discovered.” “I know,” said Jean. “We have to stop them.” “I agree,” said Luna. “But when?” “What do you mean, when? As soon as we possibly can!” “I’m not so sure that’s the best idea,” said Luna. “If we stop them now, we could keep the whole thing quiet, and avoid risk. But, if we let them attack the alpha, then save him, it will be clear to him that we have saved his life. Perhaps he’ll feel indebted, and at the very least, he can’t exactly kill or banish those who’ve just saved him.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” said Jean. “What should we do?” “I think,” replied Luna, “we should have an Underground meeting here tonight.

*******

Red smiled. His glimmer of hope was growing brighter all the time. One, just one, of the coalition members was in fact a known Underground sympathizer and frequent “associate”. (“Associate” was the name given by Underground members to those who aided them sometimes, but who chose not to become full members.) He’d been cast out of the pride he’d been in before for it, and now was very careful not to have his cover blown. He’d had to change his name and everything. But, he was likely to be sympathetic to Red’s cause. And Red had been working on him.

The cat he was staying with was a House Cat, but she was good friends with one of the pride’s lionesses. This lioness, whose name was Semira, had been over to the house where Red was staying several times to see Red’s host, whose name was Tassita, several times.

Semira put Red–and Tassita–in an awkward position. She was not herself an Underground member. She had no particular sentiment for herself as regarded the cause of peace. She was concerned with other things. A very worldly female, in the peculiar lioness way. She continually adorned herself with gold and jewelry, attempting to attract male lions with her beauty. In this she succeeded marvelously, but she also kept her hunting skills up.(In the strange world of a lion, or a lioness, a female is desirable as much for her skill in hunting as for her physical appearance.)

In any case, she was not terribly interested in promoting the cause either of peace or of war. For the sake of her friendship with Tassita, however, she could sometimes be persuaded to help them.

Red remembered how he had first prepared to get Semira involved in helping them before the coalition. He and Tassita had been sitting down to dinner. This was two days before Red had received word that the coalition was to hear his case.

“Tassita,” he had said, “do you think you could get your friend Semira to help us?” “What do you mean?”, Tassita had asked. “Well,” Red had said, “As a lioness, she has considerable, er…influence over the male lions of the coalition.”

“Indeed she does,” said Tassita, nodding. “I think it quite likely I can get her to influence them. She has to be careful; lionesses have been cast out of the pride and even killed before for promoting seditious ideas. But I think she can get them to hear you out.”

And so it had been. Subtly, quietly, but unmistakably, Semira had conferred her favors on the coalition members who supported Red’s cause. And slowly, very slowly, one or two had come around to the view that Red and his diplomats should be given a fair hearing.

And it had happened. The council had called him before them. He was now to argue his case, with the aid of Clarice and Camilla. He hoped to convince the lions of the coalition to meet with the alpha of Goldpaw Pack to discuss a possible peace settlement. Chances were slim, but Red had to try.

*******

The local Underground members had all met in Jean’s house that evening. At least, all the Underground members who didn’t support the plot on the alpha’s life. There were five of them, not counting Jean herself. Two, to Luna’s great surprise, were intimidating-looking wolves. They had massive muscles and scarred faces and arms. They were not typical Underground members. Luna smiled. “Looks like this branch has some muscle behind it.”

The larger of the two wolves looked up at her. “Now it does,” he said simply. Luna laughed and sat down. The other three locals, plus Jean, sat around the circular wooden table where Jean and Luna typically ate.

Luna noticed that the wolves remained standing. “This meeting has been called,” said Luna, rising to her hind legs, “because I have been made aware of a plot against the life of the alpha.” “I’m still not convinced that’s such a bad idea,” said the smaller wolf, whose fur was streaked with black.

“Of course it’s a bad idea,” said Luna, her voice rising slightly. “You know full well if it was found out anyone associated with our cause had been involved in this plot, we’d be finished. They’d never consider meeting with the cats, and we’d probably all be executed!”

“You don’t understand, tigress. If the alpha’s assassinated, no doubt his immediate family will be too. Legally speaking, it will be up to the pack to elect a new one, but it’s more likely a charismatic individual will fill the power vacuum and elections will be indefinitely postponed.”

“What’s your point?” asked Luna angrily. “My point,” said the wolf, his voice an angry whisper, “one of ours could take the throne.” “Too risky,” said Luna. “If we save the present alpha’s life, he’ll have to listen to us.”

The debate pressed on for hours. I won’t bore you with the details, but instead will skip to the end.

“So it’s settled,” said Luna. “We’ll stop them. You, Rama,”–here she addressed the smaller wolf–“will pretend to join the assassins. You will feed us information on their plans. We will thwart said plans dramatically, and at the moment of truth. We will then use the leverage thus gained to force the alpha to meet with the coalition of Sambar Rock.”

“Very well,” said Rama. “Adjourned,” said Luna.

*******

The great moment had come. Red was standing before the coalition of the Pride of Sambar Rock. All his training had not prepared him for this. All his time with the Underground, all his study with Camilla and Clarice found its culmination in this moment.

It was a cool day, but sweat rolled down Red’s brow. Had he remembered everything? Had he forgotten something? He hoped his diplomats could pick up some slack from him. After all, he was only canine.

So nervous he was, that until he felt the gentle, reassuring squeeze, Red was not even aware that he was holding Camilla’s hand. He breathed in, then out gently. Before him lay five lions on high rocks. They were arranged in a v-shaped pattern. The foremost lion was the most senior. His name was Jabari, and he was of middle age. He was not the oldest lion here, though he had been part of this pride the longest. He casually sharpened his claw for a moment before calling the hearing to order with an almost bored air.

“Red of Dramstad, dog, come forward.” Red stepped forward, into the center of the clearing where the coalition met. Briefly, he genuflected, according to cat custom. “Be it known,” said Jabari, “that because of your safe-conduct, and because of the desire of certain members of this pride and coalition, you have been granted a hearing before our imperial personage. You may speak.”

“Thank you, great one,” said Red. “I am here because I wish to request that you meet with the leader of my people, the alpha of Goldpaw. The Oligarch Brutus has offered to aid by providing a neutral moderator between us.”

*******

Everything was in place. Their informant had done his job perfectly. The stage was set, and the actors knew their parts. The would-be assassins had no idea that all their plans were known to Luna and her companions.

The assassins’ plot, as reported to Luna, was as follows: The day before Luna’s scheduled audience with the alpha, the conspirators(whose pedigree Luna could not ascertain; they seemed but ordinary mangy mutts as far as she could tell) would divide into two groups. The first group would go into the alpha’s home; a far less grand affair than anything in the jungle, rather a large house than a palace; and slaughter his family. This alone should communicate to you how desperate and how depraved these assassins were. Whatever the faults of the dog nation, Luna would not conscience the killing of innocents, regardless of the ends.

The second group would accomplish the primary goal. They would go to the town’s gaderspott, where the locals would meet to conduct business both with the alpha and with each other. One of them would cry out loudly and dramatically for justice. The attention of the crowd would be diverted to him. The other would come to about thirty yards behind the alpha with a bow. Before anyone could stop him, he would nock, draw, and shoot.

Luna had developed the counter-plan, but would not be able to participate in its execution. The two wolves who had met with Luna and the others in Jean’s house would handle the first group. They were to get to the house of the alpha early in the morning and warn his wife of what was to come. She was then to take the alpha’s daughter and baby son, and they were get out of the house and go hide themselves.

The two wolves, Rama and Dhiren, were then to go inside the house and wait for the conspirators. The assassins were then to be overcome, and at least one kept alive to prove to the alpha that they had indeed attempted to kill his wife and children.

Meanwhile–according to the extremists’ plot, at the very same time–the alpha must be saved. Thus, the three brothers, Incenzo, Levito, and Aequor, were, as soon as the chaos started, to draw their long saxe knives and sweep the area, seeking the phantom archer. When they found him, they were to cut his bowstring and bring him, alive if possible, before the alpha.

It remained now only to see if it would work, and tomorrow the moment of truth would come.

*******

Rama awoke early the day of the plan. His feelings still betrayed him. He wasn’t sure what was right. He certainly had no love of the current alpha. But to kill him, and worse, his wife, and worse still, his infant son, in cold blood? This would be a deed unchivalrous in the extreme.

Perhaps they could save the innocents, and leave the alpha, Aeradde, to his fate. But what precedent would that set? That the Underground was willing to accomplish its ends by murder? He certainly didn’t want that to become a pattern. And yet, did Aeradde not deserve to die?, asked his more vindictive side. “Indeed he does”, replied his conscience, “but not this way. You do this, you allow this, and you’ve become no better than him.”

Reluctantly, Rama had to concede the battle to his conscience. It was something of a moot point. Rama’s job was to stop the assassins from killing Aeradde’s innocent family members, and he’d better get going if he was to complete it.

Rama did not relish this task. The alpha female of the confederacy was unlikely to take kindly to being forced out of her home with limited explanation, even if it was only temporary. He hoped he could convince her to leave and didn’t have to remove her and her children by force.

When Rama arrived at the door, he saw that it was unguarded. This was not unusual. Goldpaw, though the capital of the Confederacy, was actually a fairly small town. Not that there were any really large cities in the Confederacy. Rama had never been to the Southern Jungle, but from what he had heard, the cities there were enormous, teeming with tens of thousands of people.

It wasn’t that way here. Rama knew the alpha female, though not terribly well. He knocked on the door. She answered personally. This was another feature of the small-town oriented government of the canids. Though they had come to power illegally, Graywolf Pack had much popular support, and they probably thought they had little to fear. As authoritarian as they could be at times, they had kept the Confederacy safer than ever before.

Rama genuflected, and made the sign of the pack. The alpha acknowledged him with a nod, and he looked around himself briefly. He was still waiting for Dhiren, who was supposed to be meeting him here at this very moment. “Look,” Rama began, having decided he could not wait for Dhiren, when the prodigal himself charged onto the scene, panting and wheezing for breath.

“Rama,” he said, “the conspirators discovered…our counter-plot. They’ve changed the time.” “What?”, demanded Rama. “When will they be there?” Dhiren shook his head. “I don’t know.”, he said. “I overheard some of them talking in an alley, but I didn’t stick around for all the details.”

Rama turned back to Aeradde’s wife. “You are in grave danger, milady.” He paused for a moment, seeing the quizzical expression on her face, then continued. “There may be no time to explain,” he said. “There is a plot against your life. Take your children and hide. We’ll deal with the conspirators when they arrive.”

The female hesitated for a moment. “How do I know that what you’re saying is true?”, she asked. “You don’t,” answered Rama, “and I don’t have time to prove it. But better safe than sorry, right?” Aeradde’s lifemate nodded. “Indeed. I’ll get the children.”

*******

As Rama and Dhiren were trying to save the alpha female from the assassins, the three brothers, Incenzo, Levito, and Aequor, were doing the same for the alpha male.

Incenzo, Levito, and Aequor looked at each other and nodded. Quickly but quietly, they snuck around and began to discreetly search the area for the planned assassin. When the second conspirator began to cry out, and they still hadn’t found the planned shooter, they knew their time was short. Suddenly, Levito noticed something. It was the unmistakable sound of an arrow being drawn back. He looked over at the source of the sound. A small coyote dressed in a mottled gray-green cloak sat in the bushes, almost invisible.

But not quite invisible, for Levito saw him. There was no time to think, or to alert the others. He charged forward, hoping against hope that he might stop the arrow before it was too late.

*******

Luna paced nervously back and forth. This had to work. It just had to. If anything went wrong, it could be the end for them all. Luna shook her head. It wasn’t like her to act this way, and she knew it, but it was so irritating. Everything depended on her plan, and she couldn’t even see it through to execution. The Death of Ten Thousand Cuts by a dull blade on whatever muttonheads had started this ridiculous war, anyway! Luna then muttered several choice words which she probably would not wish me to relate to you.

She glanced anxiously at the sundial over in the side yard. A quarter past eleven. The fighting should be starting soon, if everything was still on schedule. Luna could do naught but sit back and hope it was.

*******

Rama stood grimly just inside the door while Dhiren escorted Aeradde’s wife Leah and her two children to a safe hiding place. He hoped Dhiren would arrive before the conspirators did. There would probably be two or three of the cowardly swine, and he could use some backup. Still, should push come to shove, Rama was prepared. He unclipped his pair of widowmakers–hand weapons akin to spiked brass knuckles–and fitted them snugly to his fingers.

At least one conspirator is to be kept alive, thought Rama almost ruefully. And then, he settled in to wait.

*******

Incenzo heard Levito’s war cry and turned to see what was happening. As soon as he beheld what was transpiring, time seemed to slow down, and he was transfixed, able only to watch in horror at the scene that played out before him in slow motion. As Levito charged forward, and Aequor turned his head toward the scene of the action, the conspirator noticed for the first time that he was under attack. In a movement that seemed to to take an aeon, though it must in reality have been incredibly swift, the assassin turned his bow on Levito and fired. No sound issued from the bow. The arrow seemed to creep along at a snail’s pace, and still Incenzo couldn’t move.

After what seemed like an age, the arrow found its mark. A direct hit to Levito’s unprotected chest.

********

Rama’s fears had been confirmed. There was a knock at the door, and he knew immediately that the hand making that knock was not Dhiren’s. Pulling his fists, widowmakers and all, into a guard position over his face, he stepped forward and kicked open the door.

He certainly caught his victim by surprise. When Rama stepped out the door, he found that two assassins, coyotes to be precise, were standing outside. Well, one was standing, his long dagger gleaming wickedly, its rough, jagged edge seeming to thirst for innocent blood, its crooked guard bent on murder, the jewel in its black pommel seemingly stained with the lifeblood the blade had spilt during its long experience as a murder weapon.

The other was lying sprawled on the ground, knocked over by the door. His comparatively nondescript knife lay about ten paces from him.

“Greetings, traitor,” said Rama, stepping forward and drawing back his right fist. “Coming from you, old friend,” replied the conspirator, “that’s rich. Sure you still don’t want to join our side?” “I’m sure,” said Rama. “Now surrender.” “I can’t do that,” replied the small canine who stood before the wolf. “Once the knife has been drawn, it must shed blood, or it brings down a terrible curse on the one who drew it.”

Rama’s eyes widened. “You didn’t.” “I did,” replied the coyote. “This is the very dagger that slew the last of the alpha males of the Old Order. Before that, it had a long history which we needn’t go into. Suffice to say, I will not put it away until its curse be cleansed by your blood.” Rama shook his head. “Have at thee, then!”, he bellowed, and charged toward the smaller canine.

The conspirator flipped the knife to a backhand position, ducked and swung. Rama saw the blow coming and brought his left fist, protected by the steel of his widowmaker, around to block the strike. The widowmaker’s spikes connected with the conspirator’s wrist, driving in deep and knocking the cruel dagger from his hand. The conspirator bellowed in agony. Under other circumstances, Rama–who was not a bad wolf, really–would probably have shown mercy, but he was in a battle rage.

Bringing his right hand over his left arm, he thrust it hard into the conspirator’s face.

*******

Incenzo watched in horror as his brother lost his balance and fell, face down, onto the ground. The arrow that had stuck in his chest snapped in two, and Incenzo and Aequor attacked the conspirator from opposite sides, their long, razor-sharp saxe knives held at their sides. The conspirator, expert bowman that he was, was able to get another arrow nocked rather quickly. Unfortunately, for him at least, he was not able to decide whom to shoot it at. Permit me the luxury of looking inside his head for a moment and telling you what I see.

There are several conflicting instincts here. The first is self-preservation. Obviously, the conspirator didn’t want to be cut down by Incenzo and Aequor. But, it was evident he couldn’t shoot them both, and each seemed as dangerous as the other. So self-preservation yielded no obvious answer. Next is mission. He came here, to the gaderspott, for a reason: to kill the alpha. Since he was likely to die himself no matter what, he might as well shoot Aeradde. Then again, these were Underground members trying to stop him. In some sense, he viewed that as treasonous.

Of course, by the time he had thought all this through, the brothers were upon him, and they were angry. Fortunately for the conspirator, or perhaps not so fortunately, depending on Aeradde’s mood, they had been instructed to keep him alive. They carried out these orders to the letter. Which is to say, they did keep him alive, but only barely. Aequor cut his bowstring, then lacerated his body in several places before going to tend to his brother.

Incenzo was not so merciful. Before the conspirator could blink, Incenzo, who was clearly an expert with the knife, sliced him up within an inch of his life. As the treacherous cur’s vision blurred, then faded, he could tell his attacker had been instructed to spare his life.

He could also tell Incenzo wasn’t through with him yet.

*******

Aequor knelt by Levito’s side, holding his hand and feeling his shallow breathing. Incenzo, through with the conspirator, rushed over to the scene. He looked at his brother and immediately feared the worst. “Is he alive?”, he asked. “Yes,” replied Aequor, “but barely.” Levito was barely able to force out the words, but he spoke. “Is…conspirator…” “Dispatched.”, said Incenzo, his voice cracking as tears rolled down his cheeks.

“And…the other?” “The other?”, asked Aequor, caught by surprise. “The one…ah.” Talking was growing more difficult for Levito. “The one,” he said, “trying again to force words from his mouth, “who cries out. Who distracts..the people.” And with these words, Levito gave up the ghost. Aequor reached down and reverently shut his eyes.”

But Incenzo was already standing up. “Come, Aequor.”, he said. “We can say our final farewells later, but now we should make sure he hasn’t died in vain.” “What do you mean?”, asked Aequor. “The other conspirator!”, said Incenzo impatiently. “Oh, yes!”, said Aequor, “of course.” He rose, the tears in his eyes replaced by a determined expression. “Let’s go,” he said.

*******

His battle rage fading, Rama pulled his widowmaker out of the assassin’s skull. As his berserk rush of adrenaline left him, Rama was filled with horror at the gruesome spectacle before him, all the more so because he was the cause of it. As he stared at the body of the slain conspirator, the one he had knocked out when he opened the door began to come to.

Rama was on top of him in a flash, holding his spike-covered at his wrist at his throat. The coyote began to panic. “I surrender! Don’t hurt me!” Remembering his regret at the somewhat gratuitous killing of the other assassin, and his orders to keep at least one alive, and relaxed his fist slightly. “All right,” he said, standing up. “But you’re going before Aeradde.”

A look of fear crossed the face of the would-be murderer, and Rama smiled. Pressing his widowmaker into the conspirator’s back, he gave a stern command. “March!”

And march they did. I wonder what’s keeping that fool Dhiren, Rama thought angrily.

*******

Dhiren cursed rapidly and fluently under his breath. His right arm was bleeding badly and utterly disabled. While his skill with the sword, when counterbalanced by the disability of having to use his off hand, was barely enough to fend off the continual attacks by the conspirator he had encountered on the way back to the the alpha’s house.

Apparently this treacherous bloodhound had no actual role in the plot, but was sympathetic to the cause of the assassins. He had followed Dhiren for the last block or so, and had finally attacked him. Considering the place he had left Leah and her children — in a large, well-guarded Forthall, he did not fear for their safety. His own, however, was a different matter. The way Dhiren saw it, the only chance he had was if he could lead the fight into the gaderspott and get some help, or else escape completely.

Fighting lightheadedness due to the blood loss, and desperately trying to fend off the rapid strokes of his enemy’s mace, he retreated toward the place of meeting.

*******

While all this was going on in the dog realm, Red was facing a very different sort of danger, as he stood before the coalition of the Pride of Sambar Rock. “For centuries,” he said. “your people and mine have fought a senseless struggle. None of us know, anymore, what the grievance was.”

“Indeed,” said the lion, “I do not know what the original grievance was, this I freely admit. No one does. However, I do know this: my father was killed by a dog, he spent his life fighting dogs, and I will not allow his sacrifice to be in vain!”

“Sir, with all due respect, the loss of your father is indeed regrettable. However, were this chain of reasoning extended to its logical conclusion, you would see that the dog who killed your father could probably use a similar argument. And, the cat who killed whoever that dog was avenging could do the same. You must understand. I harbored a deep-seated hatred of your kind for a long time because my brother died fighting cats. I didn’t want to believe he had died in vain, and I certainly didn’t want to aid the race that killed him.”

“But here’s the sad truth. My brother Rudolph did die in vain. So did your father. Rudolph was a good dog; no doubt your father was a good lion. But they were blinded by the lies of their respective traditions, and ultimately sacrificed to the perpetuation of vengeance for some long-forgotten slight.”

“This must not continue! This must be stopped!” Red was by this point growing rather impassioned. Two of the lions on the sides were smiling, though the more conservative cats in the center frowned. Red continued, “Dog and cat were brothers once. What happened? No one really knows. But in my heart of hearts, I know this: the time has come. The gods are smiling on this. How else do you explain my standing before you today?”

“I have faced opposition from all sides; gone up against almost insurmountable odds. And yet, thus far, I have prevailed. Why? Because my cause is true. Right always wins out in the end! My prayer is that it will be sooner, rather than later, that our peoples reunite and our schism is healed, and I hope you of the coalition will agree with me, and will consent to meet with the alpha pair of Graywolf Pack!”

As Red sat down, about three quarters of the audience stood up and began to clap their paws. Many more clapped but remained seated. It was clear that the coalition would not be well loved by the people should they refuse Red’s request.

*******

Incenzo and Aequor slipped stealthily through the crowd, following the sound of the distracting conspirator, who was by now running out of story and probably wondering why Aeradde had not been shot.

As it happened, Aequor found him first. Creeping up quietly behind the Chow Chow, he pressed the saxe knife slowly but firmly against the conspirator’s back. “I have the other one alive,” he said darkly. “I don’t need you. So do exactly what I say, or you may find yourself lying on the ground with a long dagger in your back.”

“All right, all right!”, whispered the Chow, but before he could continue, the sound of clanging weapons was heard, and the gaderspott was invaded by Dhiren and his conspiratorial sparring partner. Within a moment, the whole area was thrown into a panic.

Dogs ran this way and that to escape the combatants, and in all the confusion, Aequor’s prisoner got away. Almost immediately, however, Aeradde stood up. And when he did, all heads were turned. The alpha was always the last to leave any assembly, and this one was nowhere near over.

If Aeradde was standing, this was a big deal. The alpha never stood during assemblies. It just didn’t happen, even when he was issuing a death sentence.

“Silence!”, he bellowed, rather redundantly. No one was making a sound anyway. He looked at Dhiren, bleeding from his right arm, and then at the bloodhound. “What is the meaning of this, Dhiren?” “Your Excellence,” Dhiren replied, “an attempt has been made on your life and on the lives of your wife and children.”

Aeradde turned visibly pale; a hard thing to do when one has a thick fur coat. “What?”, he demanded, the imperious tones of an alpha replaced now with the concerned voice of a husband and father.

“Don’t worry, my liege. Your family’s safe. I’m sure you want to know all the details, but I don’t want to get too involved in the story until we have disposed of my attacker.” Aeradde nodded and snapped his fingers. Within moments, Doberman guards had appeared, seemingly materializing out of nothing in the midst of the crowd.

In another moment, the bloodhound who had been fighting with Dhiren was carried off by these guards. Dhiren thanked the alpha. “Your Excellence, I am injured.”, he said. “I will explain, but I will make it brief. Incenzo, Levito and Aequor can explain the rest.”

At this point, Dhiren heard Aequor’s voice from among the crowd. “Levito can’t.” “What do you mean?”, asked Dhiren. “Levito’s dead.”, said Aequor, bowing his head slightly in despair. “I’m sorry,” said Dhiren. “He was a good dog. I am sure the gods will receive him to the Hallowed Halls.” “If there is any justice in the world, that will be so.”, said Aequor.

Aeradde, interrupting their commiseration in that slightly rude, selfish way kings can sometimes have, less because they are trying to be rude than because their subjects are too fond of their heads to explain to the king that he is being rude, said, “What about my family?”

Dhiren turned back to him, considered pointing out that this canine had just lost his brother and asking the alpha to wait a moment, then thought better of it and began to explain the story from the beginning.

*******

The senior lion of the coalition rose to his hind legs and gestured for the people to calm down. “Settle down, now,” he said. “He barely made a dent in their applause. “Silence!”, he yelled, at the top of his voice. Even after this, the applause slowed down only gradually before dying out.

Red couldn’t help but smile. Had it been his speech that had convinced so many? Maybe, but it didn’t seem likely. Had the Underground members from the City of Sambar Rock been engaging in much faster recruiting than was usually done? Possibly. Or could it just be that this was what everyone really wanted, but were afraid to articulate?

Red didn’t know, and ultimately, it didn’t much matter. Whatever the reason, the cause was being advanced. Red thus decided, for now at least, not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Though popular opinion was vastly on his side, Red knew that was at best only an influence on the real decision, which rested with the coalition.

He was quite nervous as they conferred among themselves. Finally, they all turned to face him, and Jabari, senior lion of the coalition and and well-known misocanist, was heard to declare, albeit in a rather reluctant and monotonous tone of voice, “It is the decision of this council, that if the alpha pair of Graywolf Pack will consent to meet with us to discuss a peace treaty, we will meet with them.”

*******

“You see,” said Dhiren, “Here is the unconscious form of the coyote who was prepared to shoot you.” He pointed at the lacerated body of the conspirator, barely breathing but alive. “And now,” said Dhiren, “I require medical attention. I have lost much blood, and…”

Aeradde snapped his fingers again. “Doctor!”. The alpha’s personal surgeon stepped forward from beside the throne. “Tend to this wolf.” He turned toward Dhiren. “My brother, I am in your debt. If there is anything I can do…”

Dhiren smiled. “Thank you, my lord. There is one thing.” “Anything,” replied Aeradde. “Up to half my kingdom.” “It is a rather bold request, sire. You know that Luna of Sambar Rock has come here to request that you meet with the representatives of the ruling lion pride to discuss a possible peace settlement.”

“I think I know what your request will be.”, said Aeradde. “I can’t promise that I’ll make peace with the Felid Kingdoms. But I can’t very well refuse your request. I do owe you a life debt.”

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