“Ms. Letren, you must tell us what you’re doing here!” Santena insisted, standing next to a bed in the castle infirmary. Kaytlen was awake now, but as silent as she’d been when she was unconscious. The stubborn fox shook her head furiously. The black wolf sighed. Why couldn’t these Westerners make things easy for once?
“Why did you leave your father, Kaytlen?” Gethnoel asked gently. She held up for another few seconds, then finally broke down crying. Through her sobs, she managed to give an account.
After she had refused to marry Gethnoel, and he had agreed, her father had become furious. In his rage, he had locked his daughter in her room for a full day with no water or food, intending the hunger to drive her to concur with his wishes. When that didn’t work, he had her beaten the next day. The lashes still stung her back as she told Santena and his king that she’d hoped for sanctuary here, and had run away to Karenian. “You’re the . . . only creatures . . . who have ever shown . . . me kindness,” she wept. Gethnoel took her up in his arms and held her. She didn’t even resist the comforting affection.
Gethnoel pulled away for a moment. “General Ironpaw, who was attacking her when you found her?” Santena knew that his king was serious, now. Whenever he used a formal title, he meant what he said.
“Old Clandon warriors, your Majesty!” He came smartly to attention. In the silence, he audibly heard Gethnoel’s teeth gritting. Santena continued his report. “Two dark-furred otters, carrying traditional Old Clandon weaponry and wearing assassin’s cloaks, sir! My apprentice and I caught them kidnapping her from beside the south wall.” He saluted, as was tradition for formal reports. Gethnoel stood, went to the at ease position, and nodded sharply.
“General, meet me in the council room. The larger one, and bring your apprentice,” the king ordered. Santena signaled Ithiniel and two maidservants. The maids rushed to take care of Kaytlen as Santena marched out of the infirmary, followed closely by his apprentice.
Fifteen minutes later, the general finally found the council room. He’d lived here for a year, and still didn’t know how to navigate this infernally large castle! Ithiniel had gotten lost somewhere, though, but ended up beating his master to the hall. He sat at the end of the table, next to King Swiftblade and three or four of his Majesty’s closest councilors. Santena sat down next to his younger counterpart, who was grinning cheekily at the general. “Wipe that smile off your face, Ithiniel. You’re working the obstacle course after this,” Santena growled. The smile fell away instantly.
“My good councilors,” Gethnoel began. “This ‘Old Clandon’ business has grown out of paw. We must do something to stop it.” One lord raised his paw. “Yes, Earl Fent?”
“What intelligence do we have on the matter?” the ermine asked wisely. “We can’t just rush into things.”
“Exactly right, my good friend! General, what have your searches uncovered about his clan?” Gethnoel turned to his bodyguard.
“Nothing much, but we have managed to find out that their most likely main camp is on the edge of the Mountainous Lands. Talk increases farther away from that point, making it obvious that the common folk are too scared. To say too much, that is,” he added. “They all use the same type of weapons: curved daggers and swords, no long-distance. All wear black assassin’s cloaks, dark tunics, leather vests, and one of these.” He held up a badge of black cloth, divided in half by a white stripe. “Nobody knows, though, what their hierarchy or leadership system is.”
“Thank you. Fent, did that answer your question? May I continue?” The earl inclined his head in the positive. “Thank you.” Once more, he turned to Santena and Ithiniel. “General, I want you to choose a score of strong, fast soldiers from our army. Preferably the ones who didn’t come from Northwind’s horde, though. Take them, leaving Ithiniel behind, and I would like you to find the main hideout of the Old Clandon clan.”
“With all due respect, Highness, why leave my apprentice behind? He’s the most powerful fighter in your military,” Santena added.
“He is to replace you while you’re gone.”
“He isn’t ready!” the black wolf insisted. Gethnoel looked him in the eyes, the two silver orbs locking with Santena’s black eyes. Finally, the general bowed his head. “Yes, your Highness.”
The next day, Santena stood in front of exactly a score of creatures. The front rank of five was all quick hares, then one of foxes, then otters, and the last row was entirely made up of white wolves. All wore standard chainmail and round-top helmets, and each carried a straight sword, by old rebel tradition.
“Double time march, soldiers!” the lieutenant under Santena called. All twenty of them jogged at a high pace from the front of the castle, off towards the west where the Mountainous Lands were located.
Five hours later, Santena called for a halt. All of them carried lightweight tents and bedrolls, but the general quickly discouraged the use of these. “Only a break for noonday meal. No campfires, not hot meals! Quick, pick it up!” he yelled. The soldiers immediately split up into their respective groups, which in most cases was by animal type.
Lieutenant Strend Walker, the fox who’d called out commands first, sat down beside Santena. He had an accent that distinctly reminded Santena of that of those living in the furthest north. “Sir, are we nearin’ yon Western border yet?” he asked. Santena shook his head.
“We passed it fifteen minutes ago, Lieutenant. Didn’t you know that? We actually ran right by Highlord Rock.” He took a large bite of some unintelligent bird’s leg. “Pay more attention.”
“Aye, sir!” Walker replied sharply. He attempted to salute, but accidently with the paw that held a ripe apple. “Owch . . .” he muttered.
Santena laughed. “A little too eager there,” he chuckled, then slapped Walker on the back. “Let’s finish quickly so that we can get this sorry lot on the move again.”
They did in another fifteen minutes, then the group was jogging again, armor and mail rattling as they went. Santena’s broadsword bounced at his side as he easily kept up with his troops. For another few hours, they kept an easy, but speedy, pace.
Eventually, they stopped again, this time for a longer period of time . . . in fact, the entire night. Santena gave a series of commands to Lieutenant Walker, then retired to his own tent, foregoing supper in favor of sleep. Strend turned to the soldiers and rapped out a series of commands in a lower voice than usual. “A’right, whae cook did we bring? Chalen? Bonny. Get the laddies some food, but nae fires, if’n ye ken what ah mean. Under the Set Treaty between our lands, we should be a’right, as we donnae mean harm, but we donnae want to take nae chances. Old Huffy the Spokesbeast’s huffed hi’sel into a grand ould mood, naow!” This got some chuckles. Tiren Letren was not too popular. He’d been resisting a treaty for two years. Even the Council didn’t like him, but still had to put up with him until . . . well, until he died.
“Aye, but he can huff until he’s blue in the face, we don’t care!” a voice called out softly. The soldiers roared with laughter at this, but Walker quickly calmed them down with motions of his paws.
“Nae, lads. We do care. By Doran’s almighty grace, we’re filled to thae bonny brim with his Spirit, and we can wish the same for Tiren! Naow, then, cook, get thae food ready!” The soldiers sobered at this, and began to set their tents. Chalen, the cook, moved off some way to prevent the other creatures trying to steal food while he prepared it.
The next morning, they were on the move again.
Santena held up his paw for the company to stop. “Quiet!” he ordered. “We’ve officially reached the edge of West Region, the border between the Mountainous Lands and the rest of Clandon. Be on the lookout for any trouble, smoke, or Old Clandoners. None of our army have come this far,” he added in a whisper. Strend repeated this to those in the back, and they started to spread out into a wide-spaced line, for less chance of being spotted. All of them had donned white and brown camouflage cloaks.
After a long time of waiting and looking as he moved through the tall grass, Walker finally spotted a tell-tale trail of smoke rising into the air farther into the foothills. “There ‘tis!” he murmured, and put both paws in his paws to whistle a bird-call . . . but never got to through the crossbow bolt in his throat.
One at a time, bolts started firing from the treetops above. Each was very accurate. The otters and hares, with the least strong hearing, didn’t know it until it was too late. Most of the foxes went down easily, being too distracted with their mission. Only one managed to get out of the forest and dash away across the plains.
Wolves have powerful hearing. Santena knew something was wrong when he started hearing distant, muffled cries of pain. Two of his arctic wolves flanked him, about twenty yards away. “Hit the ground!” he whispered, knowing that they would hear. Both looked at him suddenly, then dove into the remaining snowbanks in this warmer weather. Santena quickly fell to the earth, but had a disadvantage: his fur. It was black, standing out against the dead grass and snow.
Frantically looking around for cover, he spotted an overhang of large, thick roots covering a hillside.
The general waited until the cries silenced, then stood up and made a run for it. A twig snapped in the tree on his near right, and he sped up, narrowly missing being skewered by a razor-sharp little missile. He was almost there! The overhang was ten feet away.
Just as he was going into a somersault towards the roots, a bolt whistled from the branches above and stabbed fiercely into his lower back. “Argh!” he cried, but still managed to get in among the roots, covering his bulk as best he could.
The black wolf held his breath. Nothing seemed to be moving outside, but he wasn’t going to take any . . . “Oh!” he murmured, stumbling back into a small cave. His glowing eyes determined that it was completely empty, and was made by collapsing dirt and roots long ago.
He waited a few more minutes, then decided that the attackers didn’t know where he was. “Now what?” he muttered. Well, first things first: his back wound.
He couldn’t very well stand in the small space, but couldn’t sit either, because of the pain, so Santena took a kneeling position. Quickly, he groped in the semi-darkness for his pack. Inside was a first aid kit. The general grabbed this, opened it, rummaged around for a few seconds, then pulled out a pair of small iron tongs. “Oh, Doran, this is going to hurt,” he whispered, then reached back with the tongs.
He had to bite down on his armor, hard, to keep from screaming. The bolt was barbed. It tore at his flesh and fur. Finally, he got it out and fell down to the earth.
“Damn,” he muttered.
Santena had to spend the night in the cave. He had no doubt that somewhere outside was an entire gang of either Old Clandon cultists or West Clandoners, just waiting for any sign of him. So, without any rations or support, he managed to stay up half the night before falling straight to sleep -- on his stomach, of course, as his bandaged back hurt too much.
The next morning, he was suddenly awoken by somecreature crashing into the cave. Scrambling as best he could to his paws, Santena ripped his sword from its sheath and grabbed his shield from beside him. “Freeze!” he ordered, holding out the broadsword.
The two white wolves did as he said. “State your names, ranks, and guilds!” Walker had picked out all his soldiers, so Santena didn’t really know if these were in his ranks. That was why he asked them for their guilds: nobody outside of Clandoran knew about the new system that seperated the army into guilds, based on their skill strengths.
“Second Lieutenant Qentan Mc’Seron, Swiftness Guild, sir!” one whispered fiercely. He certainly looked the part, as he was tall, lean, and appeared as if he could take off at the slightest noise.
“Sergeant Driv Vire . . . Force Guild, sir!” the other gasped. He was shorter by half a head and well muscled, but certainly not built for the hard running that he’d obviously been doing. He carried, instead of the typical straight sword, a broadsword like Santena’s. Besides, on his shoulder, he carried a patch with a mace and hammer crossed on it: the symbol of the Force Guild.
Santena himself carried a patch with a single star on his shoulder. This symbolized his own guild -- he belonged to the Guild of Instinct. Total, there were five guilds: Swordmasters, Force Guild, Swiftness Guild, Distance Guild, and Guild of Instinct. Swordmasters excelled in all kinds of weaponry, and were mostly naturals. Force Guild were the shock troops of the army. Swiftness Guild were the messengers, spies, and backup infantry, and Distance Guild were the archers, slingers, and crossbow handlers. Those in the Guild of Instinct (there were only about a score) were trained in all the arts of all the other guilds.
“Good.” He sat them down on the dirty floor of the cave. Both stripped their helmets off thankfully, sweat clotting in their fur. “How did you manage to escape?” He directed this question to Sergeant Vire. He had no questions for Mc’Seron.
“Same as you . . . General.” He pulled off his pack, then chainmail. “Have you . . . eaten?” Santena shook his head.
“Well, we can’t have a starving leader,” Mc’Seron joked, and pulled out some biscuits and dried fruit. Santena accepted it gladly, but a thought plagued his mind.
What will we do now?
I love fiction, fantasy, roleplaying, and reading. Nice to meet you too. All of my tales are little kid-friendly, except perhaps a few stories in the Rogue Captain universe. Those are more geared towards teens. Check with your parents, just in case.