LIVING IN THE PAST
Chapter 1: Spying on the Enemy
Two months later...
He watched everything in the claustrophobic room from under a thick fringe of black hair that hid his eyes. No where was safe for him and the others which is why they kept to the mountains but they were in desperate need of information. Hence the risk. His normally short hair was long now and hid much of his features, making him nearly unrecognizable which worked to his advantage.
This tavern served a strong concoction of something that tasted like beer but was far stronger. He was very careful to sip it to keep up appearances. The so called tavern was located on the edge of a small village just outside a huge forbidding castle and was on the fringe of an immense forest.
He sat in a dark corner which wasn't as suspicions as one might think as the stinking excuse for a watering hole for travelers was barely lit well enough to see anything anyway. The only light sources were torches set here and there in stanchions affixed to the wood walls and that which came off the roaring fire in the huge stone fireplace across the room. The floor was dirt covered in straw and the tables and chairs were rough hewn wood. The bar was a thick piece of carved oak some six feet long and three feet wide, the only well cared for thing in the place.
Inside the fireplace hearth walls were hooks that swung out allowing pots to be hung then swung back over the fire. At the moment, one of them was being used for a huge cauldron, the smell of some kind of soup rising from it as it bubbled and boiled. Some of the rough clientele were waiting for it to be done as this was their only meal of the day and, if they had the coin, there was a thick, crusty bread, baked that morning, offered to go with it.
The big tom had chosen this spot both to remain far from the crowd near the fireplace but also just close enough to overhear their conversations. Some of the males waiting were soldiers. It was from them he most hoped to obtain new information on their enemy's movements.
Their surcoats displayed the hateful single eye that was their lord's coat of arms and it was he that had been responsible for snatching a small piece of the future and dragging them into the past. Since that horrific moment, the lost group were forced to learn to live in this dangerous and backward time period. As a result, too many hadn't adjusted well and had died over the two months they'd been here, many were kittens, females and invalids.
Though his face remained stone-like, inside he was crying and screaming. So many lost and he hadn't been able to stop it. That rankled within him like a sore that wouldn't heal. No matter how long it took him, he swore he would keep trying to return them home...even if it killed him attempting it.
Shaking himself mentally, he chastised himself, 'mind on what you're here for.' He took another sip of his drink to steady himself. One of those close to the fire had already said something very interesting that might be the break they'd been desperately hoping for.
Suddenly the door behind him opened allowing a brief blast of cool air to sweep in. A small, skinny appearing peasant dressed in rustic wool clothing with a cloak covering his body and head, and worn leather boots on his feet, came shuffling in. His face was covered by the hood of his outer garment so the flickering light only showed he was red of fur and had brown eyes. He looked quickly about before lowering his eyes to the floor, least he show disrespect to the soldiers there and incur their unwanted interest.
After giving the newcomer a quick once over and determining he was harmless, the soldiers paid no more heed to him. Shuffling away from the door, the slim tom moved toward the shadowed watcher. The big male in the corner eyed the tom as he approached but said nothing as the peasant sat down across from him and took the second mug waiting there on the table, taking a sip before setting it back down again.
The slim male leaned his head over the table, closer to the other, and murmured, "more soldiers are coming on horseback. Time to leave."
The bigger male nodded, took another drink then rose to his feet as did his companion. They made for the door moving at an easy stride, even though they had a strong desire to run. Allowing no fear or nervousness to show, they stepped out the door and moved with that same steady gait away from the sound of approaching horses.
Continuing casually down the street, the two peasants headed home, never looking back as they strolled past a hovel that barely served as a home for the ones running the bar. When they reached the fence made of simple stakes in the ground, they turned and went towards the back of the property, heading for the forest beyond it.
Once out of sight of the joke of a road, they picked up speed, setting off a squawk of noise from a gaggle of geese the bartender kept at the rear of his home. The noise made them take off at a dead run into the thick, dark woods, vanishing swiftly from view.
Despite the lateness of the hour, no moonlight, and being pitch black beneath the trees, the pair could see as if it were daylight thanks to the infrared goggles they wore which was why they were so surefooted as they ran, not stumbling over tree roots and other debris laying about the forest floor.
Even with torches, the soldiers would never be able to see them well enough to give chase and none were foolish enough to enter the forest at night anyway. But, even though they knew they couldn't be followed, the pair took no chances and continued to run through the darkness away from the village.
Fortunately, it seemed the arriving soldiers were not on a hunt so the pair ran undisturbed, not stopping until some fifteen minutes later when they switched to a swift ground eating stride to conserve energy as they had several miles yet to cover.
Neither spoke as they'd learned, to their anger and sorrow, that sound carried too well in this time period. A few had been killed by soldiers because their modern senses weren't used to the quiet so they spoke too loudly and were caught.
Dawn was lighting the sky when the pair finally arrived at their base. It was very well hidden, a natural cleft in the rock wall barely seen from the ground below and further hidden by thick spiny bramble bushes that grew upward and covered most of the rock face.
The smaller one paused to pull a mask over his face before they climbed up and squeezed through the prickly bramble barrier, their cloaks the only thing protecting them from the spiny thorns, before reaching the rock slit only to be halted by the appearance of a brawny male blocking the entrance. They were quickly identified and the guard stepped back, allowing the pair to enter.
They had found this hideaway totally by accident when escaping the Pastmaster's castle just days after arrival in the dark ages. It had saved their lives and provided shelter and safety. At the time of their kidnapping, three hundred ten people had been snatched from their home time period. Of those, twenty had been killed by the Pastmaster and twenty more had been recaptured and made slaves, working around the castle. The rest had escaped to this cavern.
Unfortunately, two long months later, their numbers dwindled. Some were killed when caught away from their mountain sanctuary and others (mostly invalids and the young) from diseases not seen in centuries. But the worst losses happened during a riot begun by a pawful of individuals who thought they'd never go home again. Their leader had left with a small group seeking help, but had not returned after more than two weeks had passed. However, their leader did return only to be met with grim faces and more dead. It sickened him to learn there were only two hundred forty-seven survivors left in the cavern and the twenty still in the Pastmaster's paws.
And what made their grief worse was being unable to bury their dead. Because they were from the future, the bodies had to return with them. At present, they lay in a side cavern waiting like a macabre graveyard, wrapped in heavy muslin to preserve them. The entryway to this tomb was a line of dried sage, kept burning to offset the appalling odor.
That was the way of life for them now but, with the new information they'd gotten, hopefully not for much longer.
The two males hurried through the huge cavern, past the many small huts that made up life here, heading for a larger hut that was not far from the waterfall entrance to their hidden lair. A group of fighters stood waiting for them as word had spread by the guard of their arrival.
The two tired toms nodded at the group and went inside the hut, the others filing in behind them. A bonfire was already burning and warming the interior as they all sat down on the soft sand, forming a circle.
A female hurried in and served the two spies water and food. They gave her tired smiles and a nod of thanks before she slipped away again. The two gratefully dug into their food, while the others patiently waited and chatted amongst themselves. When the two finished their meal, the big male was the first to speak.
"We finally got lucky," he announced. That made everyone lean forward excitedly.
"One of the soldiers at the tavern tonight was apparently part of a contingent that was serving as guards for the Pastmaster's so called council a few nights ago. He'd overheard one of them say the bastard has finally finished preparations to capture Queen Callista using Ms. Briggs to help create and augment the spell he needs. That at least tells us she's still alive and we also learned he is going to do this major spell work on the night of the next full moon. That's eight days from now."
"Well, finally! I'm sick of this waiting and watching," a big sandy furred masked tabby spoke up, a look of grim satisfaction on his face.
"So how does that get us inside the castle and rescue our people plus take out old one-eyed?" A silver fur colored male demanded to know.
The slim built spy answered. "What we've learned from dealing with the Pastmaster before is it takes a lot of energy and concentration to create and work a spell of this size and complexity. This means he will be totally preoccupied."
"So? I know the Queen is going to join us but is her force big enough to handle the number of soldiers, trolls, gargoyles and dragons he has?" a slim, blond colored tom asked, worriedly.
The spy rolled his eyes in annoyance. "Did you forget that's what she'd been doing since we saw her last?" He reminded the tom. "Anyway, as her forces make a frontal assault, we will be getting in more sneakily. Our mission is to get into the tower, snatch the watch and book as well as Ms. Briggs, then get out in one piece, taking them to the Queen."
"So if we're not using the front door, how do we get in and who is doing this?" A tired gray striped tom questioned.
"A small team climbs the tower from the outside and slips inside."
"Like I said before when you mentioned this, it will also grab the Pastmaster's attention," a black with white furred female hissed, annoyance plain in her voice at the viability of such a plan.
"Maybe, but like I said, he's going to need total and unswerving concentration for such a large spell. It's not like the way he waved his watch around at us before and fired bolts of magical energy. No, this time he is doing a major conjuring and any interference during the casting could prove disastrous to him but perfect for us as he will be far too busy to break off and engage us. That's why this should work if we're fast enough getting in and taking what we came for."
"Except for the one who interrupts him to take the watch. So, how will we keep that person from being barbecued by the watch?" the sandy tom asked.
"That's why this is a multi-pronged attacked. Some will get Ms. Briggs, another the book, and others control the Pastmaster while the watch is taken from him. We have to gang up on him and move fast but someone must succeed in making it out with all three items intact," the slim spy warned them.
"Oh yea, a suicide run if ever there was one," the tabby sighed, rubbing his face.
The slim tom snorted. "Hey, you've been dying to get your paws on old one-eyed, now's your chance. Just remember, we absolutely must get the watch, the book, and Ms. Briggs or the plan falls apart and we remain here. Even if we succeed in taking one or two of the items, we will still be stuck here and fighting him until the next full moon. I don't know about the rest of you, but I want to succeed the first time."
"There are so many things that can go wrong with this plan," the leader interjected, shaking his head, "however it still sounds like the only one that has any chance of succeeding."
Tiredly, the slim spy nodded. "Exactly, so now that we have a plan, we need to get this information to the Queen ASAP."
"I volunteer!" the she-kat immediately jumped in.
The leader eyed her unhappily but nodded. "Alright. If you ride hard and fast, stopping only briefly, I know you'll get there in about thirty-six hours. The Queen said she can leave at a moment's notice so I hope she was right as you'll just barely make it back in time. Her troops may not get much time to rest but they are used to that here. I just hope the Pastmaster's soldiers don't see or get wind of them arriving."
"That's a large if, Uncle," she said, frowning.
"Nothing for it but to hope with his plans nearly ready, he won't be bothering about the protection of his realm and will be more inclined to keep his soldiers close to the castle right now. He hasn't shown any sign all this time that he cared about his people anyway. Just bring them as far to the left of the mountain as you can so they aren't seen until it is far too late," he told her. "Be safe and see you soon!"
"Yes sir, I'm on it and I won't let you down," she promised, standing up, saluting then hurrying from the hut.
Snatching her always packed bag from her sleeping hut, she hurried to the food hut calling out to one of the others nearby to have the horse readied to leave while she set about stuffing her pack with food and water. By the time she was ready to leave, the horse was being lead to the waterfall entrance, saddled and ready to go. They'd even remembered to tie a bag full of feed for the horse onto the cantle.
Thanking the person who wished her good luck, she took the lead and walked the horse carefully through the waterfall and down the slippery path to the more solid ground beyond. Mounting up, she urged the horse into a full gallop and was off as the day got warmer.
There was silence in the meeting hut for a long moment, each offering up a prayer their messenger made it safely as without the Queen they were lost in the past forever.
"It's going to be tight alright," the slim spy sighed then went on to cover other important topics. "Alright, now for the mission itself, I want to make it very clear, except for the team taking the Pastmaster's tower, no one else will be going."
That got him a roar of angry complaints especially from the mercenaries and security that had been forced to stay behind before and had to deal with the riot. Now they were being told to stay again and none of them were happy about it.
"Listen to me!" the spy roared, jumping to his feet to get their attention. Still grumbling, the group stifled their outrage and listened reluctantly.
"There are two reasons for not taking more than a few experienced fighters on this mission; one, the Queen's soldiers are far more experienced in attacking a castle and we'd only hinder them, and two, we need all our people to be in one place as the Queen must cast this spell immediately because she needs the full moon just as much as the Pastmaster does to make it work. If we aren't successful in getting done in time, we will have to wait until the next full moon." He paused a moment to stare at everyone.
"Are you sure she can handle so many? I know she said she could but..." their leader asked, worriedly when no one said anything to refute his harsh words.
"She never says what she doesn't mean. I only hope she has the strength to do the spell twice," he sighed. The leader nodded but the others that hadn't been with them when they saw the Queen gaped at him.
"Huh? Why twice?" one demanded.
"Because she has to send everyone here first then we who are going to be at the castle plus Ms. Briggs and the twenty that were recaptured."
"Oh, that's right," the person who asked grimaced.
"Well if we don't make it on the first trip, at least we'll be safe with the Queen while we wait," the tabby said with a shrug.
"Speak for yourself," a slim blond tom, on of the temp leaders, grumbled.
The tabby scowled at him. "It's not like we have a choice here. Better to be resigned and accept the fact we might have to wait then worry ourselves to death over it. But you're not going with us anyway so you have nothing to worry about."
The blond haired tom just snorted. The tabby might have thought going on the mission was worse than staying with all these people but he hadn't been here when they'd rioted. However, at least the likelihood these people would do that again was fairly slim. They were cowed by all the deaths they'd caused the first time they acted up.
"You two...," the slim spy pointed at the temp leaders being left behind, "...need to insure absolutely nothing of the future is left behind including the dead. Gather everything into one area so it's easier for the Queen to capture you in her spell the first time around. Also, you must take down the huts and scatter the encampment so it doesn't look like anyone had been here."
"But if the mission fails, we're going to need those!" The bigger of the two leaders objected, angrily.
"I'm sorry but if we fail, the Pastmaster will succeed in his spell, take over the Queen's kingdom then simply take us back as prisoners, and insure our few weapons that still work, won't any longer," the slim spy pointed out, not sugar coating the grim reality facing them.
The tom who had objected, paled and shut up. When no one else said anything, the slim spy continued. "Having everyone go about cleaning the area and tearing down will keep them from worrying about what we're doing so you should have less problems."
A collective shudder ran through the group at the reminder of the deaths caused by the riot.
"The only difficulty I foresee you encountering is sharing your waiting space with the dead but there's no help for that. I would suggest you put the bodies in a pile then cover with sand then set a ring of more sage around them to alleviate the smell."
"Ugh, that's just nasty and will freak some of them out," the second leader groaned. "We don't have enough people to survive another panic like that last one."
"If they know they will be going home, they should be more willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. You just have to keep them busy and not let them have time to think much. We're talking hours not days or weeks this time," the slim spy calmly reminded him.
"And that's the only saving grace about this whole affair," someone muttered.
"Don't start the clean up process until the morning of the full moon. Let them gather their few possessions now if they wish but nothing else or you'll have a problem keeping them calm. Now if they get the clean up done too soon then make them go over the grounds again and again to keep them busy until moon rise, only then will you have them gather close. Do a sing-a-long with them facing away from the dead but sitting close if you must to keep their minds occupied and keep reminding them they are going home," the leader ordered.
The two temp leaders grimaced at that last suggestion but said nothing...what could they say anyway. Again there was silence for several minutes.
"Don't you think that's an awful lot to try and get done in such a narrow window of time.. I mean, in one night while the moon is rising, you have to win a battle, get the book, watch, and deputy mayor without getting killed and then, if all that works out, the Queen has to cast the spell before the moon sets and do it twice..." one of the mercenaries voiced, doubt and worry in his voice.
"Yea, it definitely is tight but there's nothing we can do about that except to accept it and do our best to win this...just leave the worry to us," the slim tom said, fatalistically. "Any more questions?"
Everyone looked around but no one had anything more to say except for the tabby who stood and eyed everyone intently before speaking.
"Let me recap what's supposed to go down here...a small team will meet up with the Queen and while she attacks the castle...this team will split into two. They'll both climb the tower, one to each window and attack at the same time hoping they succeed in taking him out, grabbing the book, the watch and Ms. Briggs. Meanwhile, we hope the Queen succeeds in taking down the Pastmaster's defenses and gathering up our lost twenty personnel. If the mission succeeds the book and watch is given to the Queen who attempts to send everyone here home first, then the ones at the castle next...are we all clear on this?" he asked, summing up the whole mission so everyone were on the same page. No mistakes could be allowed now.
"That's it in a nutshell," the slim spy grunted, smiling wanly. Everyone else was silent then all were nodding their agreement.
However, none could stop thinking of the enormity of the task they'd set themselves, the time constraints and could they actually pull this off and save their people? It just seemed impossible but no one voiced that aloud.
"So whose going on this mission, sir," one of officer's asked, his face sober and grim.
The leader sighed and rubbed his face. Who would be best and how many? He glanced over at his fellow spy, having long since gotten over feeling odd at turning to the tom for advice of late.
"I would suggest a team of no more than four apiece, Commander. Demolition skills would be good and I think your niece should be part of my team as she's good at rappel," the slim tom answered the unspoken question.
The leader nodded. Eyeing the group intently, he finally came to a decision, "I, Toeclaws, Jasperson, and Laemon are in one group...Paulson will join your group making it four." The ones called nodded their heads gravely and mentally planned what they needed to take with them. "Now we need to brief the people on our plans so they can be prepared," he said, sighing as he stood up and stretched. "Then I want to get some sleep."
That signaled the end of the meeting. Everyone stood up and filed out of the hut. The leader, his fellow spy and his partner, walked to a ledge where they addressed the people when needed. The temp leaders collected their security teams and began circulating among the people, calling them to the meeting.
Standing on the ledge with the two males at his back, the leader addressed the crowd, the natural acoustics of the cave allowing his voice to carry easily. He briefed them on their plans receiving ragged cheering from many tired and defeated throats. Hope sprang anew and they moved with more energy at the thought of going home at last. Message delivered, the leader and his fellow spy went to get some sleep. All they could do now was wait until the Queen and her army arrived.