It was a beautiful cheery day within Mossflower woods, warm sun filtering through the branches and making the foliage glow green, the ground soft underfoot, stream gurgling and birds twittering in the scent of earth and the open sky, and Victin Stubfang hated life.
Not all of life, really, he thought, fighting with his loaded satchel and trying to pull the bulging and patched bag's sides back up. But more like the part of life that involved hiking through Mossflower while still being decked out in complete Juska warrior regalia, false bird bone bracelets, pseudo hoop earrings, and painted-on tattoos (with artistic liberty) included. Victin was long since regretting his plucky words to the rest of his troupe— 'I'll catch up with you lot later, go on ahead.'
Five hours, six rum-shots with a highly questionable wildcat bartender, and one map-refusal later, and Victin Stubfang had successfully lost himself in the middle of the woods better than any concussed woodlander dibbun would've been capable of.
Well, this proves that Vulpez exists outside of Ripfang dressed in a tub-load of dye, stilts, and robes, Victin thought, growling and kicking away another briar patch while fighting with his stuffed bag again, and he does listen in on me sometimes.
The briar that Victin had kicked away swung up as he stepped off it, whipping upwards as he pushed a hanging loop of poison oak aside, and the stoat gave a high-pitched shriek very unfitting of a Juska warrior at where it lashed under his kilt. He scrambled away from the briars with his bag thumping against his back behind him, seams straining with every bounce and seeming fit to burst. Victin had to jerk the kilt and his tail away to keep them from getting stuck in the clingy vines and bushes. He quickly tried to find a clearer route, tail sticking closer between his legs than was necessary.
The stoat wasn't too fond of forest navigation to start with, but he'd honestly thought that the Juska get-up would be the easiest thing to travel in compared to the rest of the costumes he had stuffed in his bag— and since he'd been one in his troupe's rendition of The Otterly Ridiculous Taggerung last night, why not keep wearing it? Yet despite the fact that it was nothing but a patterned kilt, it had snagged on no less than seven bushes and briar tangles while Victin was trying to track his troupe down again, and he'd almost been thrown flat on his face multiple times tripping over it.
If he ended up biting his tongue off when he fell thanks to Oscela's blasted fang extensions and selective packing, Victin thought as he brushed by an oak tree and blinked at the spots of sun in his eyes, he was going to personally throttle the ferretmaid when he got back. Of course, she'd probably applaud him for keeping the fangs in (Victin wasn't going to admit he'd lost the adhesive dissolver between rum shots with that shifty bartender) and then go on a rant when he protested about having no real clothes to change into with whatever tongue had he left.
"It helps keep ya in character!" Oscela often said, gesturing wildly in whatever garish sundress or costume she was in like she was giving a dramatic soliloquy right then and there backstage. She never appreciated it when Victin demanded actual clothes in his satchel for after the play. "Ya never take this seriously enough, Victin! Changin' out of costume ruins the feelin' of bein' yar character an' puts ya right back into bein' just an actor— or pretty actress," she'd add, giving a seductive growl and preening at her face in the mini paw mirror she always kept on paw.
Oscela didn't have the same dark mask on her face that most ferrets did, and she was extremely self-conscious about it, painting herself on a mask with dye and constantly checking on it in her mirror with various narcissist looks. She'd flutter her long eyelashes at her reflection for a moment, then her dreamy expression would disappear as she pocketed the mirror and went right back to being a scolding terror. Costume designers, Victin thought. Always flighty pains in the tail, especially the females.
"When ya break out of character, it ruins it! Ya can't play the same beast as good as ya did the next day when ya've changed outta yar costume an' gone back to bein' you! I put so much into my costumes, Victin, an' ya don't wear them right! Why can't ya stay in character like Marvelo?" she'd suggest.
Marvelo was a broad-chested and passionate grey wharf rat that took his craft seriously to an almost insane degree. He had plenty of old but obvious scars from being a quarry worker for a warlord for years before he'd joined the troupe, and their leader frequently cast him and his imposing build in the roles of villains, which he prepared for weeks in advance. A few seasons ago, the troupe had put on The Seven Levels of Hellgates. Marvelo had been cast as Cluny the Scourge. The entire troupe had been on skittish edge over the reborn warlord wandering around their camp, and Ripfang the fox— the troupe's Slagar and special-occasion Vulpez— was terrified of the cooking caravan near his bunk for weeks after a nasty incident involving Marvelo in full costume and a bowl of wood pigeon soup.
"I'd rather not lose my 'ead," Victin would reply, backing out of the tent after giving her one last sour look. "I'm not preparin' for insanity this play. Tell you what, though, I'll consider it when I get stuck playin' Folgrim the Mad; he an' Marvelo have plenty in common."
He'd get no reply to his snippy comment. By then, Oscela would be preening in the mirror again. She almost always won whether she spoke of it or not, except on the days when Victin snuck in his own casual clothes into his costume bag.
Trust fate that he'd get lost in the woods on one of the days he decided to let Oscela get her way about no regular clothes, Victin thought, the stoat kicking aside a rock in foul temper. It disappeared into a nearby bush with a crash of limbs, and the loud rustling of bushes in response further out in the woods made Victin give a un-Juska-like flinch as he immediately froze and hunkered down with wide eyes. That had been too loud to be an echo. His jewelry jangled against his fur, and the large prop sword hanging from his waist smacked into his shins along with his bag. Victin was too preoccupied with staring out into the dense forest with his fur on end to give his usual swear of pain.
Was somebeast else out there? Was there a path nearby? Oh Hellgates, there better not be any adders or robbers out here, Victin thought, nervously groping at his prop sword's hilt. The blade was wood covered in a fragile sheet of metal, and it was just as much a real sword as Victin Stubfang was a Juska warrior. He could strut and flash the bravado like one, Victin thought, slowly rising to his feet after craning his neck and seeing nothing, but fighting was something else entirely. He'd barely learned the basics of handling a danger in his village and had slit less than five throats in his entire life. Close combat would result in him lying six-feet-under more thoroughly than Drakan the Great's acting career and life after he'd gone solo and tried preforming in front of a wolverine.
There was more rustling further out in the woods, but the birds still continued their singing and twittering instead of going quiet. Whoever was out there wasn't an adder with those giant curved needle-like teeth— Victin shook his head to get rid of his unwelcome thoughts, shuddering at the image of those sharp points. He shuddered before getting to his feet, pulling his satchel strap over his shoulder again and balancing the giant bag's mass against his back. The dye tattoos probably looked like distorted blobs by now with all the rubbing the satchel had done against them, Victin thought, stoat straightening up.
He took a deep breath, closing his eyes and imagining the anticipatory whispers of the audience behind the curtain before it opened— their quarrels and weapons being sheathed— the last minute adjustments of his fellow performers around him as they took their places on whatever stage they'd found and made for themselves. The uncomfortable ache of the fang extensions and clutter of the bone jewelry faded. Victin puffed up his chest and drew back his shoulders with a rough cockiness alien to the untrained stoat. His eyes opened to reveal another beast entirely, one that looked over the thick trees with a practiced gaze and scanned for enemies and opportunities.
A sneer crossed the Juska warrior's face as he listened to the clumsy movements of his prey so nearby. The bone loops that hung from the stoat's ears didn't so much as give a ripple of movement as he began to stride forward, one paw gripping his sword hilt and the other holding the bag slung over his shoulder. He reveled in the feeling of the ghostly forms of the tattoos moving over his hardened back and flicked his claws against several notches in his sword hilt. He licked his lips, still sneering. Perhaps he'd get to add to his notches and supply bag if the poor mucker up ahead had some valuables on him… especially if he was a woodlander.
Underneath the skin of the Juska striding through the forest without caring about the briars and twigs ripping at his fur and kilt, Victin the actor stoat's heart beat faster. He hadn't the faintest idea what or who was up ahead, but he hoped they were intimidated enough by a Juska to back off. His character grinned toothily with his impressive fangs and began glorying in the idea of a fight and obtaining loot. Victin tried not to bite his tongue with the extensions or swear when thorns nipped his legs and prayed to all Hellgates that he wouldn't get killed.
The Juskan warrior with the fluttering heart in his chest headed towards the noises up ahead.
The path was clear and not overgrown by flowering weeds like most of the trails through deep Mossflower, the luscious trees leaned towards each other enough to form a rich and varied green canopy with a bright blue jagged line of sky between their branches, the whole setting was beautiful enough in its own right to make a poetical beast cry, and Tarquin Fleetfoot wasn't paying attention to any of it.
The sky might've been a pretty shade of blue, but it was no blinking slice of blueberry pie or a map to tell him how to get back to his company, Tarquin thought, resisting the urge to unsling the sack hanging over his shoulder and eat up the last crumb of rations he had. It was probably better to save it with the way things were going; he'd probably starve before getting back to the troupe before they took off without him. The hare's stomach rumbled at the thought, and he rubbed it through his stiff uniform and sadly stared at the crisp cufflinks on his wrists.
Oh, the complete tragedy of a hare starving to death in the plentiful land of Mossflower. It was something they'd probably make a bally play out of with three acts and a long and dramatic title to bring out the irony, Tarquin thought wryly. Perhaps something like 'The Withholding of the Plentiful Feast' or 'Fate Favors All But the Hungered Hare' or— Tarquin's current personal favorite— 'The Highly Ironic and Cruel Death of Tarquin the Hare Thanks to Keelstrip the Otter Not Giving Him the Right Map Back to the Company's Campsite In Case of Separation.'
In the middle of all his musings, the military jacket itched against Tarquin's shoulders, and one side with a haphazardly popped collar rubbed against his neck.
"I swear on the bally shores of Salamandastron, this blinkin' jacket is worse than a whole swarm of bloodsuckers," Tarquin muttered to himself, pulling the collar away from his neck with one paw. There was a jangle of bright metals on the chest pockets that caught the light and glowed from where they dangled on various colored ribbons that supposedly represented some actual Long Patrol medals of honor.
Tarquin wouldn't know. He'd forgotten just about every metal identification class he'd ever taken seasons ago, if he'd even learned them to start with. The hare wasn't sure that the lessons of his parents and military instructors had exactly stuck with him, since he'd ended up nodding in dull agreement with whatever Kenna had said as the shrew had pinned the fake metals to his coat. But if round disks from a melted-down sword blade attached to colorful ribbon were enough to look like the real thing, Tarquin thought, then that was enough for him.
"This one represents showing bravery in the face of the enemy," Kenna had said, keeping a circular silver metal with a purplish blue ribbon hovering over the jacket until she'd found the precise place to stick it. Tarquin had hummed, standing still as the shrewmaid balanced on her three-legged stool to reach where she needed to.
"This one represents being heavily wounded in line of duty, but still remaining behind to aid fellow patrollers."
"Spot on, wot."
The shrewmaid had moved to another medal in her pocket and held up a black ribbon. "This one represents the successful completion of mission without any causalities."
"I'm familiar with that one. I earned three of them in one day; they're all at home, though. Bloomin' wish I brought them with me."
Kenna paused in placing the long black ribbon on Tarquin's chest, looking up slowly and giving the hare a significant look as she lifted the ribbon for him to see.
"Tarquin, this ribbon means you died in line of duty," Kenna said flatly. She still stared at Tarquin's face as he looked down at her, waiting for him to catch on. "It's awarded post-mortem."
Tarquin had still kept a straight face. "That's quite alright, Kenna. I've been mistaken for bein' dead more than once, especially after fillin' at my belly at dinner, wot— OW!"
Kenna was far more serious about identifying medals than he was, Tarquin thought, remembering the talk about how he at least needed to remember Long Patrol slang and recognize a few medals if he was going to be the general in Saber and Bloodwrath. Seeing he died horribly halfway through the second act via false rapier through the stomach the next night when the play took off, he really wasn't concerned with that. The gasping and shrieking audience hadn't been either if the fainting mouse in the front row was anything to go by. There was nothing quite like a smashed bag of red dye splattering over the stage to get the crowd going, whether with tears or out the nearest door.
The hare studied a few smooth pebbles on the road before adjusting his jacket collar again, trying not to groan about the absolute pressed stiffness of the whole Long Patrol outfit he was in. The coat was bad enough, summoning memories of barked orders in training camp before he was old enough to skip out, but the shoulder pads underneath it were even worse. Trust him to get separated from the troupe on accident when he was stuck wearing one of the most uptight costumes, Tarquin thought. Bartholo had believed he wasn't imposing enough to play the role of the general on his own, and so after some bantering with Kenna and Tarquin, the squirrel company leader had gotten his way.
Tarquin had been outfitted with a monocle and shoulder pads on top of the uniform to further complete the picture of a valiant general, and he'd practiced walking in military fashion again before taking to the stage and being killed by Keelstrip dressed up as a weasel assassin. The enthusiastic dark-furred otter was one of the only flexible and long-bodied stagepaws the company possessed, and as a result, he was often stuck playing the role of any vermin too tall and lengthy for any of the other actors— meaning any large weasels, stoats, pine martens, or ferrets. If anybeast was booed frequently for their character's appearance, it was river otter actor turned any mustelid vermin.
That wasn't to say that Keelstrip didn't enjoy it, perhaps too much. He'd gotten a bit carried away on the stage night when the time to assassinate Tarquin had come, feasting on the attention being thrown his way from the shocked and enraptured audience, and with a snarl on his face twisted enough to make any real vermin back off in a hurry, he'd driven the wooden rapier into Tarquin's stomach hard enough to make several of the crowd scream. Tarquin had found no trouble realistically gasping on the floor in pain as he bled out, though he'd had to hold back an undignified wheeze or two. Keelstrip had said sorry backstage after the encore. 'I'm sorry for killin' ye so hard' was one of the most interesting apologies Tarquin had ever gotten.
The hare was debating on whether or not to pull out the piece of paper in his satchel that was covered in Keelstrip's indefinable scribbles— perhaps that thick squiggly line crossing the other two crooked less-thick squiggly lines was really a certain path or representing something— when there was loud rustle of branches and shaking limbs nearby right from the woods. Tarquin froze in his place before immediately pulling his sack from over his shoulder and holding it like a mace.
"So not only I am hungry and lost, I also may be about to be attacked while I'm wieldin' a sack of costumes," Tarquin muttered to himself, trying to ignore the way his ears were suddenly twitching and a small pit of nervousness was filling his belly at the thought of being assaulted. Marauding vermin or opportunist beasts in general weren't exactly rare in Mossflower. The forest around him had gone oddly quiet again. The hare resisted the urge to give a laugh he had a feeling would come out high-pitched. "My luck jolly well keeps gettin' better and better, wot."
When there was no more loud noises, Tarquin swallowed down his heavily beating heart and lowered his sack. He couldn't see anybeast up ahead on the path as it curved around the trees like a flattened brown snake, and the hare had a sinking suspicion that he wasn't going to unless they saw him first. Why had he come out here unarmed, again? Or gotten separated from the company? Or thought not eating a giant breakfast was a good idea? (That was never a good idea.)
He might've been able to tolerate fake blood, Tarquin thought, edging forward on the path, but real blood was something else entirely. It unlocked a pit of deep nausea in his guts when he focused on it too long, something he had discovered after staring a corsair ferret he'd killed in his Salamandastron training days and then promptly throwing up on the feet of his commanding officer when he stopped by to check on him. No one in the Fleetfoot family had been able to look that officer in the eyes ever since. Actually, since Tarquin had barely been able to look him in the face before throwing up on his paws, he didn't consider it a great loss. Just the topping card on that which was the destruction of his entire future military career.
"Get yourself together, bucko," Tarquin said, shaking off the memories and forcing his body to into a strict military stance. He slung the bag back over his shoulder, taking a deep breath and snapping to attention.
He could do this, Tarquin thought, straightening his jacket collar and fishing the prop monocle out of one its pockets. He perched it against his face in its proper position, clearing his throat of all blockage like before a long delivery on the stage. His Long Patrol career had ended before it'd started in a not-so-glorious spew of retch and a string of ridiculous rule infractions before then, but nobeast out here besides him needed to know that. In fact, they'd probably turn tail and run or at least keep their distance from a hare general who was just taking a stroll by himself, Tarquin thought. There would be no fighting or blood involved. He narrowed his eyes in fierce concentration before molding his face into the same stoic and commanding expression playing the general's character demanded. His body followed afterwards, mind clicking into the role, and Tarquin Fleetfoot faded away without a peep.
The hare general marched down the small road in Mossflower, unarmed but still alert and poised. He held himself regally as he glanced at the surrounding trees from behind his monocle, taking in which strategic positions could be assumed against him from the forest. Every one of his steps was a snapping military walk honed by seasons of experience. His broad shoulders carried his uniform with the air of a beast who knew exactly how much importance they possessed. The hare general continued down the path without a pause. It was unlikely that the beast out there would take action against him, but if so, then they'd better be prepared to receive more blood and vinegar than they wanted.
Buried below the half-façade of military steps and pure confidence, Tarquin Fleetfoot the hare actor tried to dismiss his fears of what he'd run into and prepare himself for the worst at the same time. He was no pessimist, but with the way his luck was going lately, Tarquin wouldn't be surprised if a two headed lizard raised its ugly snouts around the bend. He just hoped it would recognize what a medal was before it had to pick out from between its teeth. His character went on with the same almost casual composure all high-ranking Long Patrol generals seemed to have and adjusted his monocle. Tarquin fought the squirming worms inside him the entire way and found himself wishing for one good scone in his bag, just in case.
The hare general with impatience burning in him continued down the path towards the noises.