Author Topic: Short Story - "Loyalties"  (Read 629 times)

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Biologist

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Short Story - "Loyalties"
« on: September 19, 2017, 02:20:31 PM »
Hello there! I plan for this story to be a bit shorter than some of my recent ones (only two parts), so hopefully I can finish it in a reasonable amount of time. This story takes place in the aftermath of the events of my previous story, "Separate Ways". There are also references to some of my earlier stories near the end.  Part One is complete, Part Two should be coming soon. As always, I hope whoever reads this enjoys it.

Loyalties

Part One

     The sun was high in the afternoon sky over Oakenfall. A town of middling size, Oakenfall existed in relative obscurity save for one crucial detail: it was home to the oldest barracks and training grounds of the King’s Guard, from a time when they were known as the Retrievers of Oakenfall. The brave warriors who would later come to serve the King as elite bodyguards and officers of the law had lived there for generations, honing their skills and dedicating their lives to the protection of the town and surrounding environs. The origin of the Retrievers was lost to the mists of time, but the symbolic significance of Oakenfall was impressed deeply upon each new recruit into the Guard.
   
     Two creatures walked along the path leading to the venerable main hall of the barracks. One was a huge male badger wearing full plate armor beneath a tabard bearing the heraldry of the Order of the Rose. The other was a short female otter dressed in nondescript travelling clothes designed more for ease of movement than for protection against the elements.

     Sir Horace, the Iron Poet, Hero of Herald’s Pass, paused and regarded his companion. “Lady Violet, I wish to be clear: there is no turning back beyond this point. If our words cannot sway the Guards within this hall to our cause, then we will be arrested and, in all likelihood, summarily executed as fugitives.”

     Violet shook her head. “I’m not turning back now, Sir Horace. This is our only chance to help Archibald and loosen Sargon’s grip on Armello. Hopefully that tabard will help remind them of your past, and their true duty to the citizens of the land.”

     The armor Horace wore was not his original armor, which was still locked away in a chamber beneath the King’s palace, along with his personal tabard and axe. The armor he wore now had been kept as part of a cache from Horace’s time working with the Bandit King’s revolution. The same cache had provided enough funds for a tabard to replace the missing one. They had yet to find a suitable replacement for his battle axe, though the badger’s size and armor made him a formidable opponent. He carried a dagger that would have been a sword in a smaller beast’s paws. Violet was armed with several knives hidden in the folds of her traveler’s raiment. She also wore a short sword at her belt, which Horace had begun to train her to use. Neither of the pair would last long against an entire barracks full of Guards, however. Violet hoped circumstances wouldn’t come to that.

     As the pair approached the main gate of the hall, a canine figure in King’s Guard armor resplendent with insignia stepped onto a balcony above the entrance.

     “Halt,” the dog’s voice rang out, “This barracks is restricted to members of the King’s Guard, or creatures on royal business. State your names and purpose here.”

     His expression unreadable as always, Horace stepped forward. “I am Sir Horace, Knight of the Order of the Rose. This is the honorable Lady Violet, whom I have sworn to protect. I would speak with your highest ranking officer on a matter of grave urgency.”

     “Then you have accomplished your aim, badger, for I am Bartholomew Redpaw, Knight-Captain of the King’s Guard and commanding officer of this barracks and these Guards.” The Knight-Captain paused, removing his crested helm to gaze down at the two creatures before him with a mixture of surprise and disdain. “You are bold to show your face here. You and your companion both are named as traitors and enemies of the Crown, and it is my sworn duty to arrest you and deliver you to the King’s justice. Whatever your message for me, I will hear it on one condition: that you surrender yourselves without resistance. You will have an audience with me, and then you will be sent to the cells to await your fate.”

     Without hesitation, Horace nodded. “Very well. Your terms are acceptable.” Leaning down to murmur so only Violet could hear, he added, “Maintain your courage, lady otter. If we were to leave without accomplishing our aim, we would be of little use to our friend.”

     Slowly, the hall’s doors swung open, and six Guards emerged, halberds at the ready. Horace and Violet surrendered their weapons and permitted themselves to be led inside. Violet could only hope she hadn’t made a terrible mistake.
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     Scarlet, King of the Bandit Clan, stood at the west-facing window of her bedroom on the second floor of a manor house in Blueberry Town. The manor was one of several properties she had acquired for use as a safe house and headquarters for the leaders of the revolution. The vixen tapped the digits of her paws on the windowsill before her, noting that her claws were extending and retracting of their own accord: a nervous tic that betrayed her anxiety. The reddish rays of sunlight graced her fur with a burnished, coppery hue, but she had little care for her own appearance at the moment. Scarlet closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to appreciate the feeling of the sun’s warmth, the plush carpet beneath her paws, the soothing scents of sandalwood and cedar that permeated the room, but nothing helped.

     On the surface, Scarlet seemed closer to accomplishing her goals than ever. She had at long last united all the bandit tribes under a single banner, and her propaganda efforts had rallied unprecedented support to her cause among the common folk. The King was either dead or incapacitated, and his advisor and self-proclaimed regent, Sargon, struggled to keep up a masquerade of authority. This should have been the vixen’s time to strike. Yet this was also the most vulnerable she had felt since her days as an underling among the mobs of Slantfang’s tribe. She had considered sharing the evening with a companion and a bottle of wine to banish her worries, but had decided against it. Scarlet was no longer confident in her own judgement, and she needed a clear head to sort out where she had gone wrong.

     Horace’s desertion had shaken Scarlet more than she cared to admit. Over the past few months, she had sensed the honor-bound badger’s disapproval for some of her actions. Her use of deception, her desperate gambits, her willingness to sacrifice the lives of her followers to further the greater cause, had all been sources of friction between the Bandit King and the Iron Poet. Despite that, Horace had sworn an oath of fealty to her, and would not have broken such an oath lightly. Perhaps he felt that she had already broken the terms of the oath herself, but what had been the tipping point?     

     She sighed as she considered other recent events. Despite what the badger, or his otter friend Violet, might think, she had not abandoned Archibald lightly. Scarlet acknowledged that she had used the rabbit as a pawn in her schemes, much as she had many other creatures, but she also acknowledged that she owed him a debt. She would do what she could to free him from his captivity – in her own time and in her own way. That Violet had disappeared along with Horace suggested to Scarlet that Archibald’s fate was indeed a factor in the badger knight’s decision, but she suspected there was more to the puzzle. Horace had long expressed disgust with the fanaticism and violence with which the lone killer known as the Fisher of Souls had dispatched members of the King’s guard on a quest for vengeance. Now that same killer had allied himself, however tenuously, with Scarlet’s revolution. Presumably, Horace could not in good conscience work with a creature he viewed as a murderer and a monster.

     Scarlet sighed again, drew the curtains, and turned, deciding to retire to bed early. As her gaze swept across the nightstand near the luxuriantly canopied bed, she froze, and her heart leapt into her throat. There, impossibly, was a note, pinned to the wood of the nightstand with a small knife. Scarlet searched the room with her eyes, ears, and nose, but she could detect nothing. She checked the room’s door; it was locked, just as she had left it. The note had certainly not been there when Scarlet entered the room. Whoever the intruder was, they had entered a locked room, crossed the floor behind her, left a note, and exited without alerting her or leaving any other trace of their presence. Her heart pounding, Scarlet padded over to the nightstand and picked up the note. What she read sent a chill down her spine. One simple phrase.

Mother wants a word.

   The note’s meaning was clear to Scarlet. Somehow, she had attracted the attention of the Night Mother. Soon, another messenger would come for her, issuing a summons she dare not refuse. The manner in which this note had been delivered was itself a message: Even the Bandit King was not beyond the reach of the Rat Clan’s most feared assassins. Scarlet stared at the note in her paw, once again feeling alone and vulnerable.
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     Archibald sat at a table in the Council Room of the King’s Palace, acting in the stead of the Lord Regent Sargon. Tapestries depicting the sigils of all four great Clans decorated the circumference of the circular chamber. Arrayed around the richly carved table were nobles and representatives of the various clans. Thane, Winter Wolf and Prince of the Wolf Clan; Mercurio, the Rat Clan’s foremost merchant prince; Sana, the Forest Sister, priestess of the Wyld; and Elyssia, Wardress of Warrens, the Rabbit Clan’s most accomplished architect, responsible for much of the design of the King’s Palace and its defenses.

     “Ladies and lords of Armello,” Archibald began, “The King is gravely injured, near to death, and his most trusted advisor, the Lord Regent Sargon, is desperately busy enacting contingency plans to prevent the spread of insurgency and insurrection throughout the kingdom. It falls to me as the Regent’s right paw, so to speak, to assure each of you that we will act with the best interests of the Clans and citizens of Armello until this crisis is resolved.” The brown-furred rabbit made a show of closing his eyes in concentration before continuing his speech. “In the unhappy event that the King proves unable to overcome the wounds inflicted upon him by traitorous paws, we shall, of course, provide for the swift and mutually satisfactory selection of a successor, the process of which will be overseen by Lord Sargon and myself.”

     Thane slapped a paw against the table. “Hah! So, you wish to play kingmakers, is that it? You’ve brought us all here to grovel and beg for your favor? I, for one, will not subject myself or the Wolf Clan to such insults.”

     Mercurio chuckled. “Calm yourself, Princeling. I’m certain the Lord Regent has nothing so crude in mind. If it comes to doing business, I’m sure we’ll all get a fair offer, but let’s not jump to any conclusions.”

     Elyssia said nothing, but rolled her eyes with impatience at the Wolf and Rat Clan delegates’ antics. Sana cleared her throat and attempted to steer the meeting to a less divisive topic.

      “Master Archibald, what is the purpose of this meeting? Aside from your confirmation of the King’s condition, what information do you have to impart to us?”

     Archibald nodded in acknowledgement. “As you are no doubt aware, despite the Lord Regent’s best efforts, there is a revolution brewing. The Bandit King is fomenting unrest throughout Armello and the Clan homelands, attempting to overthrow our sovereign. We must ask that in this time of strife, each clan renews their pledges and their efforts to support the Crown.”

     Thane nodded, smiling coldly. “Of course, Archibald. The Wolf Clan will uphold our oath to support the rightful ruler of Armello.” The wolf prince’s voice placed a slight emphasis on “rightful” which did not go unnoticed by the others at the table.

      “I have other business to discuss with each of you,” Archibald continued as if Thane had not interrupted, “but I can see that some of you may require a little time to consider this news before we proceed with specific plans. I suggest we call a recess to this meeting and convene again at this time tomorrow.”

     As the various representatives filed out of the room and collected their bodyguards and entourages, Archibald smiled to himself. Everything continues to proceed as predicted. Sargon was right; setting things is motion is going to be easy. The plan was simple: make a show of weakness, and lure the Clans into thinking they could challenge Sargon for the throne. Already the Wolf and Rat clans showed signs of taking the bait. Elyssia was frustratingly difficult to read, although if there was one thing Archibald knew well, it was Rabbit Clan society. For all the technological progress they had made in his era, some things had changed very little. He was confident he could manipulate the Rabbit Clan leaders, one way or another.

     That left Sana. Clearly, appealing to a lust for power would never work on her, but if she could be convinced there was a significant danger to be confronted, she might yet stir the Bear Clan to action.

     Rising from his seat, Archibald strode around the table toward the door, lost in thought as he exited the room. Sargon had explained that the rabbit’s tampering with history had, if anything, accelerated the collapse of Armellian society. Now, their plans would guide that collapse, and ensure that when the dust settled, it would be Sargon and Archibald who sat atop the ruins and lead the rebuilding. Lately, though, Archibald had begun to realize that he would really have little need for Sargon, once he had mastered his newfound talents. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself to ensure that he alone would rise from the ashes. For now, he would bide his time.
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      Far away, in an isolated cabin within the alpine forests of the Wolf Clan lands, a brindled half-wolf stirred in his sleep, caught in a nightmare.

     His first awareness was of darkness. Not the darkness of a moonless night, nor even of the monster that had nearly slain him years ago. This was a void. He could feel a surface beneath his paws, like smooth stone. He felt at his side for his sword, but it was missing.

    He began walking forward, his paws padding silently. As he pressed onward, the darkness gradually receded, until he stood before the doorway to a great chamber. At the rear of the chamber sat a large throne. In front of the throne stood a threatening figure, wearing a crown, radiating malice and pain. The shadowed form advanced silently upon him, raising an enormous greatsword. The blade swung overhead, and came crashing down.

     Patches awoke with a shout. His mate Thistle sat up beside him, instantly alert. “Patches? What is it? What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice tense.

     Patches shook his head, trying to force his mind back to reality. “I had a dream. The same one I had when I nearly died after I first fought a Bane. I think… I think it’s important. Something has happened, or is about to happen, that will put Armello in danger. Something to do with the King.”

     Thistle was silent for a moment. Then she spoke, softly. “It’s been almost three years, Patches. Xerxes and Alcar are gone. Salvador is dead. We tied up all the loose ends.”

     Patches shook his head. “Not all of them. Alcar was working as an agent of the King, at least in part. He had King’s Guards working as his enforcers. I thought when we’d stopped him, we’d stopped the main threat to the Kingdom, but what if we were wrong? What if everything that happened was just a prelude, a foreshadowing, of some greater event? There is a reason I had this dream again, I can feel it. We can’t afford to hide away here any longer. We have to at least alert the Den Mother.

     Thistle sighed. “Patches, we both left the Militia because we decided we were done with all of this. We’ve done our part. Let someone else come to Armello’s rescue.” Seeing him preparing to argue, she raised a paw in a placating gesture. “All right. I see you’re going to insist. Just remember, whatever you do, don’t get yourself killed this time. I don’t have healing powers anymore.”

     Patches nodded, grateful that Thistle had decided to accompany him. There was one altered detail to the dream that he hadn’t shared with her. In the original dream, the figure he’d faced had been a lion, the King of Armello. This time was different. The figure that had attacked him was a wolf.
Pet peeves: Apes are not monkeys, jellyfish are not fish, and tomatoes are not vegetables!

Biologist

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Re: Short Story - "Loyalties"
« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2017, 02:20:49 PM »
[RESERVED FOR PART TWO]
Pet peeves: Apes are not monkeys, jellyfish are not fish, and tomatoes are not vegetables!