Shields and Stars
The Tale of the Stoat Uprising In Southsward
In the Tradition of Brian Jacques's Redwall Novels
Findarr probed the wall behind the small bookcase cautiously, seeking the small lever that was usually hidden under the wall hanging above. Tallon watched the hallway outside of the lower library, keenly watching for any passers-by. Kyol stood aloof, marveling the near-limitless amount of tomes and scrolls lining the shelves and scattered on the sturdy oak tables. Some of the margins had notes scrawled hastily in a tiny, flourishing print, but Kyol could not read the tiny letters save the beginnings of each sentence, they were so tightly packed. The rat could never have imagined a place so full of knowledge.
"Here, got it," Findarr called to them, and the hidden switch creaked shrilly as he turned it upwards. A section of wall paneling lowered flat, revealing a narrow, unlit hall built secretly into the great manor. The golden-maned stoat pointed a claw down the dark passage.
"How'd you know this was here?" Tallon asked, giving his friend a strong sideways look from skeptical eyes.
"You know us actors," he winked, "Once or twice we put on something a might bit offensive... Escape routes and hideaways are common knowledge to all who play in the Quarter Houses." He took long leggy strides down the secret hall, as if he knew already where to step. The two others saw his form stoop some twenty paces in, then a brief spark, and he was revealed in a sudden blooming of yellow light. An oil lantern coated in dust was held loosely in his paw. "Well, come along."
Following him, they were led along the dank, stone-walled corridor in the half-light, ducking under cobwebs and hanging filth with no description that could be put into words and still make sense to a sentient ear. Soon they came to a dead end, but a thin shaft of flickering light shone out from beneath one of the stone slabs.
"Here we are, gents." the stoat beamed. Tallon tapped the wall blocking their way and found it was not stone, but merely paneling wood painted to look like stone. "And now, if I could have some assistance..."
"Hellsteeth, Fin!" Tallon bent his back into lifting the secret panel, "Ya didn't tell me it was rusted shut!"
"Well-unh!-It wasn't like this last moon!"
Kyol strode over, his cape and hood stirring even in the stagnant subterranean air. Crouching down between them he set his claws in the crack that was emanating light and gave an almighty heave upward.
The panel made a horrible screech, then came free and slid upward on its iron tracks, slamming into the slot it was designed to retreat into. The two stoats gave each other an uneasy look as the rat warrior stepped between them once again to pass through the exit he had made.
"Where is this place?" he asked, looking about and sniffing. It was dark, but a candle or two were guttering in their sconces a ways away. There was a lilac smell and a few vague shapes of furnishings on the opposite wall. Tallon nodded towards them.
"Secret room, where else?" he said. "The Good Lady must've commissioned it be built in after the manor was stood. Somebeast been in here..?" He moved to one of the candles, noting that it was the cause of the pleasant aroma, "These ain't been lit but four hours ago or so."
"Five hours, actually."
The trio spun around at the voice coming from the portion of the room most in shadows.
Kyol put an exploratory paw on his rapier's hilt.
"What a rash way to greet the Master of the House of which you are guest," the deep feminine voice said in a mockery of shock. "I take it you, sir rat, are the one who has our domain very much worked up?"
The rat, realizing the power of the figure, let his paw slide away from the weapon and to his chest, balling it into a fist as he bowed. The pair of stoats cowered slightly as the form rose from the armchair she had been sitting in and took a few slow, deliberate steps towards them.
"You are the Lady of Stoat House, I presume?" Kyol looked upon her hard, noting the sheer height of the female, and her elegant garb. He could feel her deep green eyes on him, narrowed so that he almost could not see them under her long lashes.
"That I am," she said.
Kyol took a short glance back at his two guides. They were obviously fearful. He wondered if this Lady was the sort to turn in all lawbreakers, or if she could be swayed. His first suspicions were that she would be impossible to persuade away from whatever she had in mind for him; her very visage and presense spoke of infinite will and shaded ambition. She reminded him of others he had known, others that had conquered or died, according to their wit. The stoatess did not appear to lack that wit.
"I am Kyol, a warrior from the North who knows not your kingdom's laws," the rat introduced himself, his tone regretful as he relayed the latter half, "If it is your wish, Ma'am, I will take responsibility for my actions, be the punishment fair."
"Oh, will you?" Juivira smiled, "Well, that's a surprise coming from one who resists arrest and assaults the all-noble Guard."
"How so?" Kyol did not know what else to say to her. Her voice and motive were beyond his sight, hidden in layers of cunning rhetoric and false expression.
"In all honesty, I expected a brutish rebel, a child who fights without a cause," she laughed, "You seem an honest beast to me. Far more than I can say for poor Jargo, the squirrel you defeated. Now," she turned sharply to Findarr and Tallon, and the pair cringed visibly, "What of you..?"
"L-Lady Juivira... We really meant no harm," the tall slender stoat interjected on both of their behalves, "Mister Kyol here needed a place to hide out, or s-surely the Guard would have either slain or imprisoned him for his... his... er, crime..."
"His crime?" Juivira's eyebrows raised. Tallon squirmed uncomfortably as she drew nearer to him. "And what was his crime?"
Tallon's insides felt like they would break apart into pieces of dust, crumbling away into nothing and leaving him a purposeless husk. He had never been put on the spot by one of the House Masters before, especially not anybeast with all the persuasive skill and guile as the Lady.
But something else stirred again within him along with the crushing fear. It proved itself mightier as the words rushed from the youngbeast's mouth.
Findarr looked on his younger friend aghast, but before he could turn and offer his profuse apologies to his Lady the tall stoatess began a long, drawn-out chuckle. Then, as the three watched stunned, the chuckle transformed into an all-out laugh.
"Nothing," she boomed, and the sound echoed up into the rafters of the chamber, "Aye, what a curious thought. Nothing wrong done, eh?" She quieted in an instant, returning to her ordinary poised demeanor, "What say you, Master Kyol? Did you 'nothing'?"
"Good Lady, I broke your laws," he began, shuffling his tail against the dust of the floor, "But please, I beseech you, I really must ask that you-"
"Ah, ah," she silenced him with a flick of her paw. "Who said that law against carrying arms was my doing?"
Struck dumb, the three malebeasts stared uncomfortably into various places in the dark. Findarr's eyes lit up with a sudden frightened revelation.
"Y-You don't mean..?!"
"Do I, dear Findarr?" she snapped her head towards him, smiling genially, "Must you even ask? Was it not you who entertained me and my court in the Spring? And was it not you who whispered your grievance to me, about the leadership of the hares?"
"I... I was he..." the lanky beast let out a strange, but relieved sigh, "I-I thought it was just an idea, a fool's jest. I was only a stagepaw and background voice. I didn't think you'd take it seriously, Madam."
"I take everything seriously," she smirked, "It is my living to do so."
Approaching the side of the room which held the armchair again, the Lady reached out and daintily shifted a pewter vase on a recessed bookcase. A clank sounded, and the whole wall lifted and slid to the side, revealing another secret corridor. Findarr even was surprised.
"What?" she grinned at them, "Did you only think there was one? Politics, my friends. It always pays to have more than one out."
The Grand Council Building was built upon a slight hill on the north side of Nuriem, square in the center of Hare Quarter, the richest of all but also the smallest. It was, if that were possible, and even grander edifice than Stoat House or any of the other Lords' and Ladies' manors. It was nearly twice the size of them, and at its greatest height stood a domed bell tower steeple. The figure of a mouse was silhouetted clearly in the dusk hours as he heaved on the ropes, sending the bronze bells, all eight of them, crashing into melodious motion.
"It rings six o' clock, gentlebeasts," the monocled vulpine in the grey silky robe commented idly, his deeply affected voice a high quaver. A group of similarly robed beasts occupied the same grand space, an audience chamber with raised surrounding balcony with a semi-circle of throne-like chairs for the esteemed delegates. The other creatures each wore a different color, according to species. Though Lady Juivira was absent and the Lord of Mole Quarter was otherwise busy, the assembly still had enough courtiers to carry on with the evening meeting.
A mouse, large, muscular and silver-furred, grumbled from the throne beside the fox. His robes were a dark crimson, and a shortsword hung conspicuously by his waist.
"Hrmm, so it has." the mouse Lord nodded. "Can you see with that? What is the first item on the agenda there?"
"An account of a crop blight, it looks to be," the fox answered as he squinted. "Either that, or some unusual tally of exotic fungus to be approved for sale in the markets..."
"Oh, bah," the mouse snorted, slipping a paw under his robe's hem searching for the flask of strong brandy he kept there, "Another long session with no change in the weather, methinks."
"Indeed," the fox looked slyly to his right. A fox, clad in servant's gray kirtle, came jogging breathlessly up. "Ah, and here's my runner come back. Excuse me a moment, Horm." The fox turned away, leaning over the arm of the throne as his lackey approached. "Please tell me some good news."
The messenger hesitated and swallowed nervously. The Fox Lord eyed him with contempt.
"Well? Out with it."
"Your Grace, the otter Gonwar, Captain of the Guard, has begun his searching in our Quarter. He's turned out three households who were holding illegal arms and-"
"Damn his slippery hide." The fox growled, "What else?"
"Er, he has also demanded a full examination of your manor, in case the fugitives have found their way in without your knowing..."
"Huh, 'found their way in'. Couldn't make it any more obvious what he means by that." the vulpine popped his monocle out and tucked it into his breast pocket, "Come a bit closer, friend, that I may reward you..."
The crony did his Lordship's bidding.
The Fox Lord's paw snaked out and grasped his subordinate's jaw roughly and pulled him to within an inch of his dangerous gold eyes.
"By blood and thunder, if those otters and hares find anything there, so help me I shall have you sunk in the compost heap where they'll never find you," he hissed, "So you know what to do. Rouse the others and get to it."
With a suppressed whimper, the servant jerked back from his Master's grasp and trotted off, grim and sure of his task. And especially devoted to it, for it was his neck on the line.
"Jolly good fellow," the Fox Lord turned back to Horm, popping his monocle carefully back in and scanning some papers before him on his lap, "Wonderful honest fellow. Though I do fear for his safety. Not every fox can be half so peaceable."
"Aye, Zyael." Dorm was not listening very closely. He was watching the conversing of the other delegates, his mind working furiously. Little did he know that Fox Lord Zyal's was as well. "Would you entertain a question for me?"
"I shall try, but questions are fickle beasties," Zyael tittered merrily, "Go on."
"What think you of Juivira's absence?"
"Ah, her. She's a busy bee, you know. Always working on something or other." he smiled. "They say it was a pair of weasels, or maybe stoats, who aided that rat who attacked a guardbeast, you know..."
"What are you implying?"
"Implying? Oh, no, not I." the fox tucked the scrolls away, "I'm merely saying that she must be overloaded with work tonight. I'm fair sure myself that the pair of rapscallions were weasels, but the rumors are cruel here in Nuriem. Suspicion is on her, poor bird."
"I would suggest not addressing a fellow House Master in such a manner," Dorm shot a subtle glare sideways at the vulpine. Zyael caught on but gave no indication of such, snickering slightly.
"A jest, Sir Dorm. I meant no offense."
"All the same, jesting can be deadly in the court of Lord Rainwhether." he said, "Hush, here he comes."
From behind an arras decorated with figures of sprinting hares and lilac bloom decorations came the one beast the delegates had waited patiently for, or at least had appeared to be patient. A hare, tawny furred on all but his bobtail and grey whiskers, wearing a splendid purple robe and a thick-banded coronet of gold and garnet stones, whisked in. A sabre, made as if for a great King, hung at his thigh by a laced cord. His half-lidded black eyes twitched about, scanning the courtiers briefly and with the expected level of disdain. Ascending a short set of lushly carpeted stairs, the impressive creature gave the room one more once-over, then seated himself in a much more comfortable chair than the other had the privilege to.
Two other hares, both in sharp new scarlet mess jackets, stood at attention either side of their Lord. One was incredibly thin, and a female, while the other was beginning to show signs of a potbelly, and wore four or five jangling medals upon his right breast pocket. Lord Rainwhether gave a wave of a paw, and his two guards relaxed somewhat, lowering their straining shoulders, pouching out their sucked-in cheeks.
A hedgehog seated upon a desk, slightly apart from the Lords and close to the grand hare, lifted a quill over a neat stack of more than two dozen pages of freshly prepared birch parchment. With that, the session was ready to begin.
"My good Lords and Ladies," the hare began, a twinkling smile of goodwill lighting on his face, "We gather under most uneasy circumstances to conduct the time-honored business of our community. As you all know and cherish," he looked smilingly over the crowd, pausing on a rat clad in dark brown, who blanched slightly and had to take a hasty sip from his water glass, "We rulers of Nuriem Township strive to build a kingdom of peace and of order. However, when that order is disrupted or threatened, we must convene to set things right." The Lord paused and cleared his throat, shooting a quick look over to a squirrel robed in light green, who nodded her head. "Lady Verida, would you care to present the first item?"
"I would do this, my Lord," she stood, bowing slightly in his direction. Afterwards, she rustled through a stash of notes on her podium in front of her throne and licked her dry lips. "Squirrel Quarter presents the development of a blight entering the area, one which afflicts the corn crop most disastrously. I put forth the motion that we bar all external trade of corn or its products until further notice."
There was a wave of murmurs. The scribehog's quill scrawled furiously.
"If I may," Zyael rose. The squirrel nodded in his direction. "Thank you, milady. I would second this motion, but under one condition: That corns products not be barred, only the raw crop."
"Sir, your intentions be frugal, not of the common good!" the younger delegate interjected. Lord Rainwhether peered down his nose at the two.
"Madam Verida, if you would kindly request permission to voice objections..." the hare reminded. The fox waved a paw in dismissal, smiling cheerily.
"Nay, nay, it's all well," he said, "I invite our fellow delegate's criticism that I may prove my point further." The squirrel female scowled as she realized that the fox had duped her into giving him a free turn to make his point elaborately clear, while she was left to stutter in the wake of his eloquent speech and seamless logic. As the matter was quickly settled, the final decision coming down in Zyael's favor, the session moved on with adroit precision.
Words clogged the air, when there was not frosty silence and coughing and shuffling papers of course. Zyael was on a roll that night, winning many debates and proposing a great many successful ideas. It was almost impossible to detect the tint of prejudging on the hare overlord's heavy eyelids as he looked on the vulpine.
"Well, we are to the final matter, it seems," Rainwhether spoke again, gesturing to the two hare guards. The delegates watched, Zyael with a sudden skepticism, as they disappeared behind the arras for a moment. "As you all know, earlier on this day an unknown criminal rat entered our domain and proceeded to assault one of our Guard when asked to surrender his blade. It is believed two creatures native to our realm, possibly of a vermin race, aided in the ruffian escaping our Guard's pursuit. I have presently ordered the continuation of a search in all Quarters' buildings for the three fugitives, beginning with the vermins' Quarters..."
The two hares returned, dragging behind them a chilling sight: Two foxes, both young and shaking with terror, were bound and shackled, their paws chained together, their jaws muzzled in bizarre masks, and collars around their necks attacked to a heavy chain. It was with this chain that the two Guard hares tugged firmly, yanking them forward and onto their knees before the assembly. Zyael was suddenly not smiling.
"Hellsfire..." Dorm murmured, staring at the two captives in shock. It did not surprise him, but it never ceased to earn such a response from him. He turned to the fox beside him, who had bit his lip to keep from harboring a frown. "You know them, Zyael?"
"Yes. They're my brothers." the fox said. "Though we did lose some love between us."
The mouse's face was incredulous. He blinked twice then turned back to the pair of prisoners, scrutinizing their faces for signs of truth in Zyael's statement.
"They look very like you." Dorm noticed. "What's going on then?"
"My punishment," the fox muttered, keeping a staunch face. Dorm rounded on him.
"Why do you say this?" he said. The fox adjusted his sleeves and sighed.
"Come now, you knew something would happen," he smiled, "I should never have spoken out. There are drawbacks to courage, it seems..."
Dorm sat horrified silently by the vulpine Lord's casual attitude toward the suffering of his own, his own brothers no less. Settling back in his seat, he tapped a woodmouse aide on the paw and beckoned him closer.
"Who do you say carries the most favor tonight, Ginkle?"
"Largely Zyael, milord," the mouse answered obliviously, "but Rohkko Stonerudder holds some as well. He did win the issue of relying more on the sparrows for intel and not warfare with nary an argument." he shrugged, "But then again, it could be because the vermin sorts never liked the sparrows and he'd always have their votes."
"Hmm..." the aged mouse looked over the otter Lord, clad in his Quarter's signature dark blue. "Take this note to him. Be sure he knows it was from me and not Zyael."
"Aye, Lord." The mouse servant accepted the folded parchment and hurried off, stepping unnoticed as a shadow at dusk behind the thrones of the other rulers.
"Well, well..." the mouse stiffened as he felt the Fox Lord's eyes on him, "Taking one or two stones for me?"
"What of it?"
"Naught. I expected as much from a gentlebeast as yourself. Not like the large majority of these crude oafs."
"Be warned about your words," the mouse smirked, "You never can tell."
"With vermin?" Zyael chuckled, "Ah yes. And pious mice too, if rumors are to be believed."
The note had reached the otter delegate, a stony-faced creature who looked more at home on a battlefield than an assembly chamber. He stood and gave a call to release the brothers of Zyael, given that there was no evidence of them aiding and abetting the three fugitives. After a long look, and a seconding from Lady Verida and the Rat Lord, the hare overlord called off his two lackeys.
"Forsithia, Meldrum," the two bowed and unlocked the chains rubbing raw spots on the wretched creatures' wrists and necks, "Take them out of here, release them back to their Quarters. We can very well trust the testimony of our two good delegates." the hare had a trace of a smug smirk hovering around his bristly lips as he gave a slight inclination of the head to Zyael. The fox did not even flinch. "With that, I believe we have no other items on the board. This session is adjourned, next assemblage is in two days, or sooner if word arrives of the capture or sighting of the fugitives!"
Chairs squeaked and papers rustled as if to imitate the leaves in a forest gale, and hubbub broke out immediately among courtiers and their attendants. Zyael, unlike his usual manner, rose stiffly and immediately and hasten without joining the chatter out the chamber door.
Dorm stared after him. The fox was not easy to read, but then, none of his fellow statesbeasts were. Not even himself, which for so long he had assumed an honest one, devoid of ulterior motive or capacity to cheat. Shaking his head, he rose as well, being aided by his trusted aide Ginkle through the marsh of bodies towards the door as well.
He was a rare one in this lightless realm, dripping with deceit.
Whoo! A long one, no wonder it took so long to draft up! Please remember to review! Even negative reviews! ^_^