Tags

, , , , , , , ,


It’s a day late, but as I said last month, you get what you pay for. Here it is.

Running With the Pack: Progress

Red stood at the edge of the city of Dramstad, about to leave his hometown once again. He hoped this would be the last time for a while. “Curse you, Mingan.”, he muttered under his breath. “What’s that?”, asked his friend Luna the tigress, standing at his side as he waved goodbye to his friends and family.

“Nothing.” said Red. “Let’s just get this over with.” Red looked out over the crowd and saw that one Golden Retriever waved more vigorously than the rest. He turned her way and waved back. She blew him a kiss and he smiled.

“Let’s go,” he told Luna. Checking the saddles and reins on their horses one more time, they turned outward, and with dozens of Red’s friends cheering them on, they rode out toward the Great River.

They were moving fairly slowly, and began to talk as their horses trotted toward the boundary that separated their homes. “How was your vacation?”, asked Luna, then stopped herself. “Sorry, I mean..you know.” “Oh,” said Red, “aside from my town being attacked and looted by a psycho cat general in the employ of my old archnemesis, just fine, thanks.”

Luna shook her head. “I can’t believe he would do this.” “Mobius?” “No,” said Luna, “I don’t know Mobius, but if he’s an old-guard cat, I find it very easy to believe he would do this. I meant Mingan.” “Why is it so hard to believe that Mingan would do this? He hates me and he hates you. I don’t find it at all difficult to think he’s trying to lure the two of us into a trap.”

“I wouldn’t have trouble with it either,” said Luna, “but last time I saw him, I challenged him to single combat. He refused.” Red nodded slowly. “Ah,” he said, “The Law of The Challenge.” “Indeed,” replied Luna. ” I knew he was evil. I never knew he was shameless too.”

“Maybe he’s not,” replied Red. “Have you ever actually read the Law of the Challenge?” “No,” replied Luna, “Cider told me about it. Why?” “Well,” said Red, “there may be a loophole that allows him to get away with sending Mobius into Dramstad. Did you ever tell him that the people in my town were under your protective umbrella?”

Luna shook her head. “If he tried that, he should have been a lawyer, not a constable.” “Perhaps. Do you think he’s still at the cave where you last saw him?”

“I don’t know,” responded Luna. “It’s quite possible that he is. I don’t know of any reason to leave. But he might have.”

*******

Aeradde, alpha wolf of the City of Goldpaw, and by extension, of the entire Canid Confederacy, pushed his hair back and loosened his sword slightly in its scabbard. He had to be ready for anything. The heralds walked out in front of him, blowing their trumpets and carrying his throne and the throne of his wife, the alpha female of Goldpaw, to the bridge where he would be meeting the Coalition of Sambar Rock. His mate stood at his right side as he walked behind the heralds.

Across the river, he could see the five members of the coalition walking up, with no heralds and followed by their aides. They walked slowly. They must not want to get there first and look like they’re waiting for me., thought Aeradde, and he slowed down slightly himself.

A long race to be last was narrowly avoided when it seemed to Aeradde, and, apparently, to Jabari, that the leaders of the two nations were traveling at approximately the same speed.

As it happened, they were, and arrived on the bridge near the same time. The heralds set down the thrones and the members of the coalition shook their manes and sat down as Aeradde walked out in front of his throne, then took his seat.

Blast, he thought. They sat down first. Now it looks like I have an audience with them, like they’ve placed themselves above me.

Between the ground where the cats sat and the thrones where the wolves sat was a large stone table. Around the seven of them there stood many diplomats and high officers, and of course, a massive honor guard for both the coalition and the alphas.

On the table there were two copies of the peace treaty that had been drafted by the diplomats who came to Sambar Rock and Goldpaw. There was a brief, formal greeting, and then both sides set to reading it.

******

Gunter sat on his horse, his keen eyes peeled, keeping close watch over every soldier in his force. Seeing that they were rather neutral, both sides had asked him and the other officers brought by Red and Luna to act as a sort of peacekeeping force, and prevent any fighting from breaking out between the nervous soldiers on either side.

Beside him rode the young diplomat Camilla. Wait, he thought, shouldn’t she be over at the bridge? “Camilla,”, he said. “Yes,” she replied, in her sweet, melodic tone. “Why aren’t you at the bridge?” “I, er..slipped away.” “Did you now?”, asked Gunter. “And why would you be doing that?” “I needed a breather. And, I wanted to come see how you were doing.”

“Well, thank you,” he said. “I’m doing just fine.” “What’s the matter?”, she asked. “You seem preoccupied.” “I am,” he replied. “I don’t expect you to understand this, coming from your line of work, but any one of the dozens of crossbows held by the soldiers of either side right now could easily go off.”

“But they’re not aimed at anyone.” “True,” replied Gunter, “but that doesn’t matter. One shot goes off accidentally, and the whole game is up. This will turn into a battle. It’s my job to stop that battle if it looks like it’s going to start. So excuse me if I’m a little preoccupied.”

“Well,” she said, “you sure are–” Gunter raised his hand and said “Shh.” “Did you just shush me?” “SSSHHH!”, he repeated. “Well, that does it. I’m gonna–” “Enough!”, he shouted, and began to ride rapidly toward the cat side of the bridge. A moment later, he had reached the bridge, where he grabbed a crossbow from the hand of one of Aeradde’s soldiers and began to point it toward the other side of the bridge. Several members of the coalition ducked, and Aeradde rose to his feet. “Gunter!”, he bellowed. “What is the meaning of this?”

Gunter didn’t answer, but kept scanning the town, behind the coalition. “Blast!”, he said. “I can’t see anything,” “What the devil are you talking about?”, demanded Aeradde. “I thought I saw someone inside one of those buildings with a crossbow.” “Well, it looks like you were wrong. Can we get back to what we were doing now?” Gunter handed the crossbow back to the soldier he had taken it from.

“I suppose so,” he said. “My apologi–” Thunk. A crossbow bolt quivered in the wood of Aeradde’s throne, just above his shoulder. “What is the deal?”, he bellowed as he ducked behind his throne and pulled his mate down with him. “Does everyone want me dead!”

*******

“So,” said Red, “if Mingan changes his mind and decides to accept your challenge, what are you going to do?” “Good question,” replied Luna, ducking her head to avoid a low-hanging branch. “I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I don’t want to have to deal with him again, but I don’t really want to kill him, and it would be fun to shame him in front of his pack for breaking the Law of the Challenge.” “So you’ll be fighting him then.” “What? Don’t think I can handle it?” “Well, last time you ‘handled it’, he got away.” “I still want to find out how that happened.” “Perhaps whatever black-hearted god was controlling our fate that day just liked Mingan too much to let him die.”

“I wish I knew how he escaped, though.”, said Red. “But it matters not. He’ll accept your challenge. I know he will. He has no other choice but horrible shame and expulsion from his pack.” “If he’s caught,” said Luna. “Mmm,” said Red.

*******

In a moment, the entire scene had erupted into chaos. Aeradde was pushing his wife out of the way, back toward their own side of the bridge, while he attempted to draw his sword. Soldiers from both sides were shooting and pulling out their swords. The five members of the coalition were crouched behind whatever cover they could find, and occasionally Jabari would pop up and shout something like, “What is the meaning of this?” or “I will conduct a full investigation!” Gunter struggled to keep the fighting under control, shouting at the top of his lungs for the warriors to call it off, but no one was listening.

Swinging out with his sword, he struck one unfortunate cheetah on the head and grabbed his crossbow. Reaching into his left saddlebag and pulling out some matches as he stepped back as much as he could, out of the battle. Striking the match against his leather saddle, he lit the bolt on fire and launched it in the air, getting it off just in time to duck the incoming spear blow of a large panther, who must have thought Gunter to be in the employ of Aeradde. Grabbing the spear by the shaft as it went over his head, Gunter twisted it out of the paws of his attacker and struck him on the head with the butt of it.

The panther went right down, and Gunter turned the spear around to fend off any more potential attackers. He tried to step back from the battle, and hoped his troops would recognize his distress signal.

*******

Conrad sat on his horse, watching over Gunter’s troops. As junior officer, he had not gone out to meet the other delegation, but he had been required to come out here and play second fiddle to Gunter.

Speaking of Gunter, the reason Conrad had to keep a sharp eye out was because their senior officer had mysteriously taken off. Conrad could see him out there, charging about and yelling or something. Has he lost his mind?

A moment later, a full-scale battle seemed to break out on the bridge. Conrad called the troops to attention. “I don’t know what’s going on over there,” he said, “but we’re going to stop it. Let’s roll!”

Conrad began to ride at a gallop toward the bridge, with the troops following him, when Camilla pulled up beside him. “I’m coming with you.”

*******

“It’s nearly dusk, Luna. Had we not better stop and make camp?” “Yes, we should.”, replied Luna. “We don’t want to get too close and be spotted first anyway.” “Just how close are we?” “Hard to say in these woods,” replied Luna, “but I’d say maybe a mile or two from here.” She pulled her horse to a stop, and Red followed suit. Looking around briefly, she nodded. “This spot might work.” She dismounted and began to kick away the rocks and branches scattered around their new campsite. “Yes,” she said, “this’ll do nicely.”

Red climbed down from his horse, and helped Luna to clear the clearing, before sitting down on a log to rest in preparation for setting up his tent.

Luna walked over to her horse and tied him to a nearby tree, then began to root through her saddlebags, looking for her tent. When she found it, she turned toward Red. “Come on, lazybones. Get to work. I’m glad you won’t be fighting Mingan.”

“I’d get an adrenaline rush from that, so I wouldn’t be so lazy.” Luna laid out her tent on the ground and began to hammer in the pegs. “Maybe you can get an adrenaline rush from setting up your tent, hmmm?” Red smiled and pretended to be thinking about it for a moment. “Probably not.” Luna rolled her eyes. “Just get to work, will you?”

“Don’t rush me, all right? I’m an artist.” Luna pounded in the last of her tent pegs. “Do you want me to get this set up before you?” Red shrugged. “I don’t really care, but I suppose I should start setting up.”

Red meandered slowly on over to his horse, and pulled his tent out of his saddlebag.

*******

“No, you are not coming with me. Have you lost your mind?” Conrad turned away and continued to ride, but Camilla sped up to catch him again. “Yes, I am coming with you.” “With all due respect, you’re not exercising the powers of persuasion which diplomats are supposed to possess. You can’t do anything but endanger yourself and anyone else there.”

Conrad called out to the drummer on his right to speed it up, and the troops did. In a moment, both Conrad and the regiment under his command had arrived at the end of the bridge that belonged to the Canid Confederacy. They could see that the fight was beginning to die down, and not too many people seemed to be dead, but Conrad could not allow it to continue any longer.

He turned to his men. “The flats of your blades when possible, please. And find Gunter.” With those now-famous words, he turned and charged, leaping over several dogs and wheeling around others. His small unit followed him, and he gestured for them to form a wall between the two battling armies.

He and half his troops faced down the dogs, shouting at them to try to get their attention and the other half of his troops attempted to restrain the cats.

Slowly, the battle subsided. A few adrenaline-charged, or possibly revenge-motivated, warriors, tried to press the attack forward and had to be subdued, but for the most part, everyone settled down after a few moments.

A moment after the last battle-crazed soldier was pushed back to his own camp, Gunter and Conrad were reunited by one of the soldiers in their unit. “Sir,” said Conrad, “no one is dead yet, but many are severely wounded.” “You’re going to have to see to them, Conrad.” “Sir?” “I have a more pressing task. How many did we lose?”

“None dead, sir.” “Any wounded?” “A few. I haven’t been able to take a full tally, but it’s nothing major.” “Will they be too badly injured to aid with the severely wounded?” “No, sir,” said Conrad. “Good,” replied Gunter. “Give me ten of those who are still unhurt, then. We have a job to do in the city.”

“Sir?”, asked Conrad. “Yes, Conrad?” “May I inquire as to the nature of this, er…secret mission?” “I am afraid that you may not. I don’t want to alarm you, or anyone else who might overhear, if I am wrong.”

“Sir?” “Yes, Conrad.” “Permission to speak freely?” “Denied.” “Sir, with all due respect…” Gunter said nothing. “I may be the junior officer, but these are my men as well as yours. And you’re willing to tell them what you’re doing, are you not?”

Gunter sighed. “Your point is well taken. Still, I can’t risk anyone overhearing. You!” He pointed to a nearby herald. “Do you have a pen and ink?” “I do.” “And parchment?” “Indeed, sir.” “Give them to me.” “Yes, sir.” He handed it to Gunter. “You are dismissed,” said the officer. The herald nodded. “Thank you, sir, but, I will need my pen and ink back.”

“I’m sorry, but I must write this message confidentially. What are they worth?” The herald appeared to think for a moment, then smiled and said, “fifteen silver bones.” “That much?”, asked Gunter. “Hey, that’s a nice quill.” Gunter rolled his eyes. “Whatever.” He reached for his bag and pulled out the cash, handing it to the herald.

The herald smiled. “Thank you,” Gunter set to writing and Conrad stared for a moment. The older dog finished writing and proffered the piece of parchment. Conrad simply continued to stare incredulously. “Conrad?” “Oh. Yes, sir.” Conrad took it. “What was the matter?” “Sir, with all due respect…”, “Yes, Conrad?” “Perhaps I don’t quite remember the exchange rates correctly. Did you just give him fifteen silver bones for a pen, some ink, and a piece of paper?”

“Yes, I did.” Conrad began to say something else, but stopped himself. “Look, Conrad,” said Gunter. “If you’re through gabbing, I have a mission to accomplish. Now don’t unfold that message till you’re somewhere private.” “Yes, sir,” said Conrad. “Good,” said Gunter. “Now see to the wounded.” Conrad nodded and rode off.

*******

Gunter and his team of ten handpicked soldiers rod across the bridge and into the city. He split them up into three groups of three and joined one of them. “Whoever fired the crossbow bolt that disrupted the meeting at the bridge back there and nearly destroyed any chance for peace between the Great Western nations may still be in the city. If he’s not, he can’t have gotten too far. I want him alive, so if at all possible, don’t kill him. The senior warrior in each group is in command. You have full search powers in the name of the Oligarch Brutus.”

“Find him and bring him to me.” One of the squad leaders raised a question. “Sir,” “Yes, Leonardo?”, he replied. The fox answered, “How will we know when we find him?” “He probably has a crossbow,” said Gunter. “I think he is a cat, and he may have white fur.”

“That’s a fairly broad description, sir.” “True enough,” said Gunter. “I hope to encounter some witnesses at the building where I thought I saw him. The three of you other groups just patrol the city looking for anyone who meets the description or is acting suspicious. Detain anyone you suspect and bring them to me. Better safe than sorry. Let’s roll!”

Gunter ordered the three other groups to search, as rapidly as they could, different sections of the city, and meet up back at the town square when they were done. Meanwhile, he and his group went to the large apartment building where Gunter thought he had seen the assassin.

He turned to the senior member of his little party, a short Dachshund named Marty, and ordered him to dismount and enter the building with Gunter. “You two,” he said, turning to the remaining members of his group. “Guard the door. No white-furred cats come in or out. No one suspicious-looking gets away without being questioned.”

Both of the dogs who remained on their horses nodded, and the senior one, a tall, massive Rottweiler, said, “Yes, sir.” The two of them positioned themselves in front of the door, and Gunter drew his sword.

Marty followed suit, and the two of them entered the building, weapons drawn. The wizened gray House Cat behind the desk didn’t even look up from his work as he asked drily, “How may I help you?”

“Look up, you dimwit.” The cat rolled his visibly, though his head was still down. Grudgingly, he looked up at the two armed dogs that had just entered his apartment building. “Oh me, oh my, oh goodness gracious me!”

“Listen, cat!”, yelled Gunter, but he didn’t finish. Count to ten when angry, he reminded himself, laughing slightly. “Listen,” he repeated, in a quieter tone, “We don’t want to hurt anybody, except of course the assassin who nearly destroyed our hopes for peace. But we do need to ask you a few questions.”

The cat’s skin paled, which was somewhat visible as his fur stood on end, but said “All right, ask away.” Gunter furrowed his brow and rubbed his head with his hand, sending up a silent prayer to his patron god, Hundfroind. Oh Mighty Hunfroind, in my youth I was blessed with a wonderful memory. Let that gift be mine again, if only for a moment.

Gunter’s prayer may well have been answered, for he remembered the window where he had seen the shooter. “Tell me, which room has the third window from our right on the fifth floor?”

“I’m not sure, off the top of my head.” “Don’t you have a map or something?” “Oh, yes, of course, sir. Just one moment.” The cat ducked under the receptionist’s desk, and Gunter could hear him rooting through drawers and piles. Not terribly organized, is he?

A moment later, the cat came up with a map of the building in his hands. “That would be room one-seventy–er, wait a minute”–he turned the map around–”room ninety-six, sir.”

“Does anyone live there?” “Yes, sir.” “Who?” “An elderly leopard named Joseph.” “Hmmm,” said Gunter. The cat I saw was most definitely not a leopard. Still, perhaps this Joseph knows something. “Is he here?” “No, sir. He left about half an hour ago.” Just about when I saw the assassin in the window.

“Thank you,” said Gunter. “You have been most helpful.” “The pleasure was all mine, sir.”, replied the cat, his voice shaking nervously. “Come on, Marty.”, said Gunter. “Where are we going?”, asked the Dachshund. “Room ninety-six, of course,” replied Gunter.

The older dog was halfway up the stairs with Marty in tow before the receptionist cat found the nerve to speak again. “You can’t go in there,” he said. Gunter turned to Marty and laughed slightly. “You hear that, Marty? He says we can’t go in.”

“Yeah, I hear him.”, said Marty. “What are you going to do?” “Cat,” said Gunter, “is the room locked?” “I don’t know,” said the receptionist. “Do you have a key?” “No, sir. Of course not I. We hold the privacy of our guests in the highest regard.”

“In that case,” said Gunter, turning back to Marty, “We are going to have to hope that room ninety-six is unlocked.” “And if it isn’t?” “We have swords for a reason, my friend.”

Marty turned back and sneaked a glance at the gray cat behind him. He was clutching his desk, breathing slowly. The Dachshund chuckled. “Lead the way, sir.” “Thank you,” said Gunter.

Marty followed the older dog up the stairs, noticing the cheap pine wood they were made from. Clearly, this was not the nicest apartment building available. At the top, he saw imitation Eastern rugs, clearly made by two-bit craftscats in some offshore factory far, far east.

In the hall atop the stairs, the first room to be seen was number forty-six. Gunter looked to the left for a moment, presumably to verify that that was the way he needed to go, then turned and walked down the hall, Marty following close behind and keeping a sharp eye on their flank.

“Ninety-four, ninety-five, ninety-six,” said Gunter. “Now, Marty, if anyone says that we exceeded our prerogatives in searching this place, what are you going to tell them?”

Marty thought for a moment. “Probable cause?” “Good dog,” said Gunter. “I’m telling you, that one is a nice, vaguely-worded gold mine.” “Hey,” said Marty, “the door’s open. “Looks like we won’t have to break it down after all.”

*******

“Wake up, sleepyhead. It’s time to break camp.” “Huh?”, said Red. “Break camp? What are you talking about, Luna? Is this another weird midnight visit?” “Red, wake up!”, said Luna, more loudly. Slowly, Red came to and opened his eyes.

“Break camp? Luna, have you lost your mind? It’s not even light yet.” “True,” said Luna, “and with luck, Mingan and most of his troops will not be awake at such ungodly hours.”

“Ah,” said Red. “Well, they won’t be the only ones. Can I at least have some coffee first?” Luna sighed. “Fine, but make it snappy. I don’t have all morning here?” “What time is it, anyway?”

“Judging by the position of the moon,” said Luna, “you don’t want to know.” “You’re right,” said Red. “I probably don’t.” “Hey, do you think we’re far enough away to risk a fire?”

“I think we are,” said Luna. “And if not, he’s still bound by the Law of the Challenge, is he not?” “Mingan is. But Mobius and his men?” “Hmm,” said Luna. “Perhaps you’re right. We probably shouldn’t chance any coffee.” “Wait, wait, wait.”, said Red. “I’ll take my chances with Mingan and Mobius and their troops for a cup of coffee right now.”

“And risk my life in the process?” Red was already rubbing sticks together. “In a heartbeat. Besides, we have to face them eventually.” “I don’t like this,” said Luna. “Look,” said Red, “if they find us, we don’t have to go looking for them. It’s like you said.”

Luna looked on as Red went and got the coffee pot, setting it over the fire and staring blearily into the flame. “You know, just because I said it doesn’t make it right. I’m reconsidering that opinion.”

“Look, we’ll talk about it after I have some coffee. I’m only about half awake now.” Luna rolled her eyes. “Clearly.”

*******

“Luna, would you stop pacing? We’re in the middle of the woods. The fire is small and gives little light, and you yourself said we’re not that close to the cave. No one is going to see us.” Thus said the Golden Retriever, Red, as he poured his coffee into a small mug.

“Can we put out that fire now?”, was his companion Luna’s only reply. “Fine, fine,” said Red. “Use the leftover water from the coffee.” Luna rushed over to the fire, picked up the pot of water Red had used for his coffee, and doused the flame with it.

“I’ve broken camp already. When are you taking down your tent?” “As soon as I’m done here, Luna. Relax. See the moon? We’re right in the middle of the second watch. How far is the cave from here?”

“About thirty minutes’ walk.” “Ah,” said Red. “So, even allowing an hour for me to break camp and be ready to go, which it won’t take, we’ll still arrive right at the end of the second watch. Now, that’s the perfect time to show up, because Mingan’s troops will be changing the watch. Both the one on his way to sleep and the one just waking up will be very tired, and so easier to deal with.”

Luna nodded. “You’re right. Good thinking.” Red nodded, sipping his coffee. “So relax, OK?” Luna nodded, sighed, and sat down. “This is how I used to wake up,” she said, settling into a meditative posture. “I was much more relaxed then.” She squeezed her side slightly. “In better shape, too.”

“What made you fall off?”, asked Red, sipping his coffee again. “Traveling with you and Andreas, mostly. I didn’t do it much while I was with you, and I got back on only intermittently after that.”

“Ah,” said Red. He sipped up the last of his coffee and placed the cup down on the ground next to the fire pit. “All right,” he said. “Now I will pack up my tent and we can go.” Luna merely nodded.

*******

Aeradde and his counselors sat around a table in the alpha’s tent. Well, his counselors sat. Aeradde was standing and pacing back and forth, his seat at the head of the table empty. “I don’t like it. I noticed no one tried to shoot Jabari.”

“That is strange,” said one of Aeradde’s chief advisers, a lanky, battle-scarred Rottweiler, and everyone laughed. “But, to be serious for a moment,” he continued, “Your Majesty must surely agree that this is hardly conclusive evidence that the coalition was behind the assassination attempt? After all, only one shot was fired, and any enemy of peace would have as much reason to shoot you as Jabari.”

“Then give me your theory, Elias. I see no one else with both motive and means.” “And opportunity,” said one of the junior advisers at the foot of the table. “Excuse me?” “Opportunity,” the young dog repeated. “Means, motive, and opportunity.”

“Everyone had an opportunity, fool!”, shouted Jabari. “Were you born an empty-headed son of a jackal, or did you go to school for it?” Elias raised his eyebrows. “Sir…” Aeradde turned to the Rottweiler, barely containing his rage. “Yes, Elias?”

“Perhaps, Your Majesty, we could return to the topic at hand. You were trying to decide whether or not you should continue negotiations with the Felid Kingdoms.” “Indeed I was,” replied Aeradde, “but it can wait a moment. I need some air. This meeting is hereby adjourned for five minutes.”

The bailiff, who sat on Aeradde’s left, banged his gavel on the table, and the advisers rose and followed Aeradde out of the tent. He began to wander off, however, and they collectively sensed that he would not want them to follow him, so they hung back and talked among themselves as he walked further on.

It’s getting late, thought the alpha to himself. The sun has already set? How long was I in that cave, listening to those fools arguing among themselves. He breathed in sharply and clenched his fist. It’s no good! All those morons do is argue with each other, and they act surprised when I get frustrated.

Aeradde sighed. They’re not doing me any good, he finally decided. I’ll have to make this call myself. He paced back and forth some more, still unsure exactly what he should do.

*******

“No one here,” said Marty. “You didn’t really think there would be, did you?”, asked Gunter. “Well, I wasn’t sure,” said Marty. “I had hoped maybe that the shooter might have forgotten something, and come back for it.”

Gunter suppressed a laugh. “Sure. Marty, there’s a reason they didn’t give you the job on the police force.” “Thank you,” said Marty, “for bringing up that very painful subject.” “Oh, grow up. We’re here to look for clues.”

“Don’t look at me,” said Marty. “The police turned me down, remember?” “Well, this is a stroke of luck,” said Gunter. “What is?”, asked Marty, his hurt feelings forgotten. “The shooter appears, in his panic, to have left his crossbow here.”

“How is that a stroke of luck?”, asked Marty. “Isn’t that just one more identifying mark we won’t be able to use to find him?” “Not necessarily,” said Gunter. “A weapon can tell you a lot. Sometimes they’re engraved with the name of their owners. Other times, they carry a lock of hair or some other clue that we can use to narrow down our suspects.”

“Well, how about this one? Are we having any luck?” “Shh,” said Gunter. “I’m checking. Well, well, what is this?” “I don’t know,” said Marty. “I can’t see it. What is it?” “It’s some kind of an emblem,” replied Gunter. “Looks like the letter M over the number 142, inside a golden ring with the words “Long live the Coalition” written underneath.

“So,” said Marty, “it looks like the coalition was behind this.” “Perhaps,” said Gunter. “But then, things are not always as they seem. Perhaps I need to have a little talk with the members of the coalition when we get back.”

“And the shooter?” “He may not be at all important,” said Gunter, “but then again, perhaps he’ll have some answers…if we know how to ask.” “But where’d he go?” “I’m not sure,” said Gunter. “Let’s keep searching the place.”

*******

Back at the meeting tent after a five-minute adjournment, Aeradde stood up. “You, my advisers,” he said, “have thus far been supremely unhelpful. I would like you all to return to whatever it is you were doing before this meeting was called. I have made the decision. There will be no more peace negotiations. We’re packing up now and leaving tomorrow. You are dismissed.”

“Sir, if I may–”, said Elias, but he was interrupted by Aeradde. “You may not, Elias. I have spoken.” “Yes, sir,” said the Rottweiler, nodding sadly.

*******

Red and Luna were now within a few minutes’ walk of the cave, hidden in the bushes of the jungle. “Let’s dismount,” said Luna, “and go the rest of the way on foot.” Red agreed. “Looks like they’re still there,” said Red. “Or they left their fire burning to fool us,” offered Luna. “Probably not,” said Red. “They don’t know we’re after them.” “Looks like it’s about the end of the second watch,” said Luna, gazing up at the moon. “Indeed,” said Red. “The moment to strike is at hand.”

“All right,” said Luna. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll creep around to the top of the cave like I did last time I was here. If I hear anybody within, I’ll drop down in front and deal with whomever is awake silently. After you see me do that, come in, and we’ll give Mingan a little surprise.

“Will do,” said Red, “good luck.” Luna snorted. “I don’t need luck.” Red grinned. “Go get ‘em, then.” But Luna was already gone, lost in the foliage, and Red couldn’t see her anymore.

He searched, looking through the bushes for any sign of movement, but Luna was an expert. She wasn’t giving herself away. A moment later, he saw a dark movement on the top of the cave. There she is, he thought. Within an instant, she had dropped into position. There was no sound as she dealt with the guard. Red couldn’t see very well, but it looked like she stooped over to catch him after knocking him down so he would make no noise.

That’s my signal, thought Red. Time to go. He didn’t waste any time. Getting down on all fours, he charged toward the cave. After about ten seconds, he arrived, pulling up to his hind legs and panting for breath.

“Took you long enough,” whispered Luna. “And do you have any idea how to move quietly? You’re lucky you didn’t wake Mingan.” Red shook his head. “Never was good at that cat stuff.”

*******

Marty sighed. “Gunter,” he said, “there’s nothing here.” “Since when do you address me that way?”, replied Gunter. “My apologies, sir. It is simply that we have been here for two hours now. The city has been searched by our men. We haven’t found anyone who meets your description of the shooter. This is pointless.”

“You’re right,” said Gunter. “Are the men together?” “Yes, sir.”, said Marty. “Get them ready to go.” “Sir?” “We’re going back to the bridge. I am fairly confident our good friends with the coalition will know to whom this weapon belongs.”

“So we’re giving up, sir?” “No, we’re not. We’re checking out a lead. Let’s go.”

*******

“Conrad! Conrad!” The young officer was leaning over a wounded soldier, attempting to clean his wounds, as the medics had more serious injuries to attend to. He looked up, and saw the diplomat Camilla rushing toward him. “Camilla,” he said. “What’s the matter?” “I’m not sure, but I have my suspicions, she said, kneeling down to his level and speaking quietly.

“Well, do you want to tell me about them, or just act all concerned and mysterious on me?” “All right,” she said. “You know that as a diplomat, I’m allowed almost anywhere, almost anytime.” Conrad nodded. “Indeed I do.” “Well,” she said, “I wasn’t allowed into the meeting of Aeradde’s inner circle of advisers, and then I saw some of the dogs breaking camp!”

“Did you ask them about it?” “Yes, I did. They said they couldn’t tell me anything. One of the officers threw me right out of their camp! Threatened me, too.”

Conrad wrapped a bandage around the head of the injured soldier. “Threatened you? How?”

*******

“All right,” whispered Red, “now what?” “Now, said Luna, “this comes in handy. She reached over to her right side with her left hand and silently withdrew a long, shiny silver dagger. It seemed to glow a wicked red in the firelight. “Where did you get that? I’ve never seen it before.”

“You’re not very observant, are you, Red?”, she whispered. “I’ve had it for a while. I’ve been wearing it since we set out from camp. It was in one of my saddlebags before that. Now shh!”

She leaned down, placing the tip of the blade less than an inch from Mingan’s throat. She then moved her right paw over his snout and pressed down firmly. “Red,” she said quietly, “would you gently wake our friend here?”

“I would be happy to, Luna.” Red crouched down and struck Mingan on the side. His eyes opened, and he froze as he looked down his face toward the knife. “You found me,” he said. “Impressive. So, you haven’t finished me yet. Why not?”

Luna shook her head. “There is a saying among tigers, that the good can always outwit the evil. For the evil thinks only of himself, and this is easily imitated, but the good cares for others, and for abstract ideals, and this is something the selfish, wicked individual cannot understand.”

She turned back to Mingan. “I am not a killer, except by necessity.” she replied. “I would much rather turn you over to your pack, after you raided Red’s town in contravention of your Law of the Challenge.”

“Very well then,” said Mingan, “I accept your challenge.” “Excuse me?”, said Luna. “You have already violated the decree.” “True,” said Mingan, “but a challenge once extended cannot be taken back, or it is void–” and Mingan grinned from ear to ear–”retroactively.”

Luna looked at Red, who nodded. “He’s right.” Luna breathed in sharply. “Very well then,” she said. “Get up, and take care that none awake, or I will drive this dagger into your back, and to Sheol with the Law of the Challenge.”

Mingan rose slowly, and Luna kept the dagger pressed against his back the whole time as they slowly, quietly, walked out of the cave.

*******

The coalition sat in council, Jabari at its head. “This,” said that cat, “is yet more proof that I was correct the first time. This was a mistake. We should never have agreed to meet with those dogs.”

One of the junior members of the coalition spoke up here. “Sir Jabari,” he said, “Might I remind you that it was a cat, shooting from our side of the river, at Aeradde. Neither you nor any of us was ever in any danger.”

Jabari began to respond, but at that moment, the quiet hum of conversation outside their tent became quite loud. “What is that commotion?”, he asked, turning around. Suddenly, there was a thump and a crash, and a tall, battle-scarred Doberman burst into the tent, unannounced, carrying a crossbow in his right forepaw.

“What is the meaning of this?”, bellowed Jabari, standing up and shaking his mane. “I agree with the previous speaker,” replied Gunter, unfazed. Jabari opened his mouth to speak again, but Gunter cut him off. “There is no use calling for your guards; they have both been dispatched. Besides, I mean you no harm.”

The junior lion who had spoken up before stood and said, “I don’t mean to doubt you, stranger, but if that is true, why did you dispatch our guards?” “Ah. Unfortunate, that. Seems you gave them strict orders not to let anyone in. I tried to explain that my business was most urgent, but they wouldn’t listen. Thankfully, I know a little bit about unarmed combat.”

“Very well,” said Jabari. “Since it seems you are not the most diplomatic of dogs, perhaps we’d better hear what you have to say.”

*******

“Here’s good,” said Luna. The threesome of Red, Luna, and Mingan had arrived at a small clearing far enough from the cave that they would not be heard. Luna pulled her dagger away from Mingan’s back, and Red took a step to his rear.

“It’s simple, Mingan,” said Luna. “The battle is between the two of us, to the death…or until you surrender.” “Now, wait,” said Mingan, “this isn’t quite fair. You have a sword. I have nothing.” “Red,” said Luna, “does my having a weapon and his not violate the Challenge Law?” Red shook his head. “You’ve never been a stickler for fairness before, Mingan. And you know, consistency is a virtue.”

Luna drew out her sword, and Mingan set his teeth. He leaned back and howled at the moon, and Luna drew her blade into a ready position, tip pointed directly at the wolf.

Mingan leapt toward Luna, and she ducked and slid to the right, slicing his chest. He roared in pain and rose up to his hind legs, again howling at the moon. He stepped forward, his fists raised in front of his face, this time careful to avoid Luna’s lightning-quick sword.

Mingan began to circle, Luna keeping him at a safe distance with her sword. He reached out with his hand, and in a single lightning movement, slapped it out of the way, taking care to only touch the flat. As Luna tried to raise her sword back into position, Mingan stepped in, so close that she could no longer use her sword.

She dropped it, and reached around to grab him from behind. At that moment, he slammed both fists into her stomach. She staggered back and fell down, but managed to pull him with her.

Now the two of them were on the ground, and Mingan’s sharp teeth snapped at Luna’s face as her claws drove into his back, and they turned and wrestled in the dirt, each desperately trying to gain an advantage over the other.

If only I could get to my dagger, thought Luna.

*******

“That’s all you want to know, sir?”, asked Jabari. “Yes, indeed,” replied Gunter. “Do you recognize the insignia there found?” “Indeed,” said Jabari. “It is the sign of the renegade General Mobius, the one who illegally ordered the raid on Dramstad.”

“Where is this ‘Mobius’ now?”, asked Gunter. “We don’t know.” said Jabari. “His last report indicated that he was a few miles south of Sambar Rock, but we’re not sure if he’s still there or even if he was ever really there.”

Gunter nodded. “Thank you. I’m sure your guards have recovered by now. I shall leave you to your business.” And with that he turned and left.

*******

“Threatened to have his troops carry me right out of the camp. Said he would be busy with other things, and unable to protect me, so I would be left entirely in the care of his soldiers until I was out of the camp.”

“Very well,” said Conrad. “I will go investigate. This is intolerable. Wait,” he said, looking up. “Here comes Gunter.” And he was correct. The senior officer wasted no time pulling his horse to a stop and dropping down from it. “Conrad,” he said, in the voice of the officer that suffers no disobedience, “report!”

Conrad rose, and saluted Gunter. “The wounded are attended to sir, but there is a new problem.” “What is it?”, asked Gunter. “Camilla has just returned from the dog camp. She says she saw them breaking camp and preparing to leave. She also says that they wouldn’t tell her what they were doing, and that she was threatened and thrown out of the camp by one of their officers.”

“Threatened?”, asked Gunter, his voice taking on a menacing tone itself. “Yes, somewhat obliquely,” replied Conrad. “I was just about to go investigate.” “No,” said Gunter. “No?”, asked Conrad. “NO,” replied Gunter, more slowly this time. “I will do it.” “Whatever you say,” said Conrad.

*******

Luna rose up, striking Mingan on the back of the head. He fell facedown in the dirt, and she pressed her hind paw into his back. “Do you yield?” Mingan could barely force out the words. “Yes,” he said, “I yield. What are you going to do with me?”

“Red is going to hold you here,” said Luna, “while I take care of General Mobius. Tell me, Mingan,” she continued, “where is the alpha of your pack?” “In all probability,” replied Mingan, “he is at that disgusting peace meeting.” “Very well,” said Luna. “In due time, that is where we are going.”

Luna withdrew her knife and tossed it to Red, who dropped into a crouched position and held it against the wolf’s neck. She stood and walked back toward the cave, no longer attempting to conceal herself. She knew what she had to do.

A few minutes later, she arrived at the cave. Everyone was still sleeping. The troops don’t matter, she thought. It’s Mobius I care about. Again she assumed her tigerish silence.

Slowly, she crept through the cave. One misstep, and it could all be for naught. Suddenly, she tripped. Her right foot got in the way of her left, and when she raised the latter, she nearly fell over.

She caught herself successfully, but unfortunately, the sound awoke a sleeping cat, who rose up and stared for a moment. As he opened his mouth to speak, Luna crouched down. As he reached for the hilt of his sword, Luna leapt. As he drew it, and as the faint echoes of the beginning of his alert began to sound, she flew over his head and pushed off the opposite wall.

As he stood in shock, not sure whether he had really seen the tigress or not, Luna slammed into him from behind, knocking him down. She placed her feet solidly but silently on the ground, and struck him on the back of the head with one forepaw, while catching him with the other.

All this time, from when she first saw him to when she laid his unconscious form back on the floor of the cave, she made no noise, no sound. She looked around. No one else had awoken. Luna smiled, and continued to walk down the cave, searching for Mobius.

*******

Gunter stormed through the camp of the dogs, watching as tent after tent was broken, pack after pack assembled by the firelight, spreading the news of Aeradde’s decision. Gunter managed to figure out what was going on by crouching in the shadows around the pack circles until someone noticed that he was not of their pack.

After about the third pack meeting he was kicked out of, Gunter decided he had heard enough. Two missions, he thought. Stop the dogs from leaving, and find out who threatened Camilla. Now, should it be in that order or no? He thought for a moment. Best to stop them from leaving first.

Gunter flagged down one of the nearby dogs. “Excuse me!”, he said. “Yes…”, replied the other dog. “Has His Highness Aeradde broken camp yet?” “No,” replied the small Shih Tzu. “Could you direct me to his tent?” The smaller dog muttered something under his breath which sounded remarkably like “my gods, you must be daft,” but Gunter decided not to press the point. “It’s that way,” said the smaller dog, pointing back where Gunter had come from. “It’s the only one with purple and gold trim.”

Gunter nodded his thanks and took off for that tent at a run.

*******

Red kept the dagger pressed sharply into the back of Mingan’s neck. “So tell me, Mingan,” he said, “why did you chase us down? Why not leave well enough alone?” “Well enough alone? You killed my deputies? What could I have done?” “True enough,” said Red, “but they did attack us first. And we couldn’t very well just give in to them and be arrested, now could we?”

“Perhaps not,” said Mingan. “Still, I was only doing my job. And I don’t seem to have done it very well.” “Please,” said Red. “Had you not joined forces with General Mobius, had you not ordered the raid on Dramstad and attempted to kill many innocent people, in contravention yourself, by the way, of the Law of the Challenge, had you not also violated the law by your association with Mobius, I might believe that. As it stands…”

“I was desperate.”, replied Mingan. “Perhaps I went a little far. But then, perhaps not. It brought you to me, just as I planned.” “We just didn’t do what you planned.” “True enough,” said Mingan. “I must say I’ve been blind.” “Oh?”, asked Red.

But Mingan never got the chance to finish what he was about to say, for a moment later, Luna walked into the clearing, Mobius walking slightly in front of her, held in place with a sword at his throat.

“Great,” said Red, “you’ve captured Mobius. That is Mobius, right?” “Yes, it’s Mobius.” replied Luna. “So, what do you plan to do with him?” “Quite simple,” replied Luna. “When we take Mingan before his pack, we can turn in Mobius to the coalition.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that, tigress.”, replied Mobius. “Oh?”, asked Luna. “Why not?” “I sent one of my men to kill Aeradde. Chances are, he succeeded. Failing that, he certainly created too much suspicion for the peace conference to go on.”

Red pressed Luna’s dagger slightly more sharply into Mingan’s neck. “Is it true, Mingan?” “Yes, it’s true,” replied Mingan. “In all probability, the meeting is already broken up. If not, it certainly will be before you can get there. It’s three days from here, accounting for the fact that you have prisoners.”

*******

“Aeradde! Aeradde!”, bellowed Gunter, standing at the outside of the alpha’s tent. After a moment, the alpha rose and opened the flap that allowed entry. Gunter didn’t wait for an invitation, but stepped right in. “Who are you?”, demanded the alpha.

“I am Gunter Johannson, Corporal of the Oligarch Brutus. I am here to save the peace meeting.” “You’re too late,” said Aeradde. “I have spoken to the coalition.” replied Gunter. “They tell me the shooter was in the employ of a renegade general. I urge you, Your Highness, don’t give up yet. We just don’t know they were behind it.”

“We don’t know they weren’t behind it, either.”, replied Aeradde. “And in any case, neither I nor my mate is safe.” “Give us just a little bit more time, Your Highness,” replied Gunter. “I am sure we can apprehend this general and salvage the treaty.”

“Why should I?”, asked Aeradde. “You have my word as an officer of the Oligarch Brutus, the shooter will be dealt with. If he turns out to have been in the ccoalition’s employ, my men and I will go home, and so may you.”

“You have three days, Gunter Johannson.”, replied Aeradde. “I will send out the word that we are to stay. Three days, no more.”

Gunter nodded. “Thank you, Your Highness.” “Now go,” said the alpha. “One more thing,” said Gunter. “Yes?”, asked Aeradde. “One of my diplomats reports that she was threatened by one of your officers.” “If that is true, it was a violation of the officers’ code. I will make an investigation. Who was the diplomat, and what did she look like?”

“Her name is Camilla Darton, and she is a Black Lab, about so high.” “I’ll check it out,” said Aeradde. Gunter raised his right forepaw about to his shoulder height. “You had better. I want to know who did it, Aeradde,” said Gunter, all pretenses of deference now dropped. “If you don’t find out for me, I’ll find out for myself. And it won’t be pretty.”

Aeradde laughed. “I take it you have more than a professional interest in this case.” Gunter remained unfazed. “Just find out,” he said, and left the tent.

*******

Red and Luna rode down the forest path as quickly as they could with Mingan and Mobius tied to their horses. “It looks like we’ve won at last.”, said Red. “Don’t be too sure,” said Luna. “I get the feeling there are many challenges still ahead of us.”

Advertisements