Dim sat in the middle of her room. She had nothing to play with. Nothing to paint. Nothing to read. Nothing to do.
But Dimina Felix was not bored. No, not anymore.
She sat stock still, her arms clutched about her, little hands trembling. She drew in low little breaths and stared fixedly at the carpet. Three hundred and five. She told herself. Three hundred and five flowers on the carpet. Three hundred and five of them.
She had to think about that, and keep thinking about that, because if she stopped to think about the plumes of smoke on the horizon and all the running around that was going on outside and the way Father was pacing about…
Dim squeezed her eyes shut and hugged herself tighter. Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five.
It wasn't even the smoke so much that scared her. It was the faces. The faces of everyone in the castle. Pale, drawn, tight-lipped faces. People spoke either in faint whispers or short, clipped sentences, and moved everywhere as if in a great hurry. Silence hung over the castle like some vast pall of gloom, as if everyone knew but did not…
Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five.
Perhaps, several months ago, something like this would not have bothered Dim so. Perhaps several months ago she would not have even noticed what was going around her, except to be upset at finding no one to play with. Perhaps it would have been easier, not having to think about…
Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five.
Perhaps it would have been, but Dim would never know. Now, she could not help seeing, could not help noticing, could not help understanding, and could not stop thinking. No matter how many times she tried to distract herself with little counting games, her mind still came back to the things she had seen and had noticed. And inevitably, what those things meant.
It was the boy's fault, she told herself furiously. He had been the one to tell her about the weasels, it was because of him that she knew what was going on and why everyone was so frightened. It was because of him that she understood their fear and felt it herself. Otherwise she might still be sitting contentedly in this room, trying on new dresses or being delightfully bored.
Maybe it would have been better if…
No. Dim knew that was false. Even if she would have been happier if she'd never met him, she would not have been better. The mere image of her sitting in her room, trying on silk dresses while smoke rose on the horizon, made her sick. No, it was a thousand times better that she should be here, wise and miserable, than anywhere else, foolish and happy. Even if those plumes of smoke reminded her of the streets filled with burned and dying children miles away, and even if those same plumes of smoke might come here and fill their streets with…
Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five. Three hundred and five.
Or perhaps six.
"No. No, it was a wise decision, Canis. But you should have known my own men would already be sent." Ragas frowned at the boy hunched by the campfire. "I'm not one to make simple mistakes like that, you know. Your action was unnecessary."
Min shrugged, apparently unconcerned by the warlord's anger. "I couldn't be sure about that. And it was important that everything be in readiness, especially since I had information vital for the scouts to know."
"Mayhap that is so." Ragas' one good eye narrowed. "But I have heard all of what you told me regarding your time in the castle. There was nothing of immediate importance to scouts."
"I judged it to be important." Min replied simply. "That is all."
"What did you tell the scouts?" Eregus eyed his charge narrowly. "Rikbag could not tell us."
"Of course he couldn't." Folding his arms, Min stared back at the old dog. "I did not see fit to tell him. Nor do I see fit to tell you, unless necessary."
"Roch ne dentis!" Ragas exploded. "Such insolence, whelp!"
"Insolence?" Min raised an eyebrow. "How is this insolence? I am Canis, you are Cain. You are older and wiser than I, but I am not bound to let you know all of my comings and goings. I judged it necessary to tell the scouts crucial information that, for my own reasons, I do not wish to tell you. Is that insolence?"
The three sat in tense silence around the fire. Both Eregus and Ragas glared at the boy, who gazed at the fire with studied nonchalance. He had to. He could give no sign of nervousness, no sign of giving in, or everything would be lost.
Eregus spoke at last. "It may not be insolence, Canis, but it IS disrespect and disregard to not only myself, but one of your father's oldest friends who has kept the kingdom in readiness for you. And recklessness, also, to suppose that your slight experience is superior to a warlord of many years. You are, of course, perfectly free to be ignorant and endanger your own life, but you are not free to endanger those of your people."
Ragas growled in agreement.
Min licked his lips a moment, considering. "Fine." He sighed. "I asked the scouts to keep an eye out for refugees if the city fell. Especially noble ones. I figured that in the scramble, we might be able to pick up some prominent barons or something."
The tension in the room dropped significantly. Eregus let out a breath Ragas, while still a little suspicious, considered the idea a moment before nodding. "Given the confusion of a battle, it seems unlikely, but it is a harmless enough provision."
"I know it's unlikely." Min huffed. "That's why I didn't really want to tell you, because probably nothing will happen. But given the amount of nobles I saw at the castle, a few of them might very well manage to escape the battle. I thought it just as well to be prepared."
"I see." Eregus bowed his head. "Still, in the future, Canis, will you at least inform us of what you are doing, or consult us before acting?"
Ragas grunted agreement. "And though rule of the clans may be your birthright, Canis, recall that you have not yet been approved by the clans. You may wish to conduct yourself more… diplomatically."
"Right." Min nodded nonchalantly. Inside however, he was dancing a victory dance.
Canis, they called him now. He was getting closer.
They were closer the next day, and closer still after that. From her window the princess could see the black crowd of weasels advancing upon the capital, spreading across the landscape like a sea of ants.
A pinprick of red firelight suddenly erupted from the fringes of the blackness, and Dim winced. There went another farmhouse. She knew the farmers must have left long ago—Father had called everyone back to the castle, after all—and yet she felt a sharp pang at the sight.
With a sigh, Dim stared across the castle, across the town, to the outer walls that shielded them from the black tide. Somewhere down there, she knew, was Father, making last minute changes to the defenses, rallying the townsmen to the walls, and making sure everything was in order. Fil was probably down there too, tagging along and looking sullen as usual. She had seen Elcid around the castle a moment ago, so he must be preparing the royal guard for something.
Another farmstead burst into flame.
She wished she could do something. If she had had her way, she would be out on the walls with her brother (if only to listen), or down in the cellar stocking provisions, or even in the great hall, where Manca was helping to move around tables for some reason. But no one would let her. Everywhere she tried to help they simply told her, "Not now, princess," and simply went back to their work. And so she could do nothing except sit in her room and stare at the floor or stand on the balcony and stare at the flood.
Another one. Smoke began to drift skyward, joining countless other plumes rising from the land.
It seemed strange, Dim reflected, that all this should be happening on such a nice day. For some reason she felt that the sky should be red and angry, with dark gloomy clouds floating over the land. But aside from the smoke, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the plumes almost looked peaceful against the serene blue. The sun shone merrily down on the gleaming white castle and the dark sea of marauders. Dim had always loved days like this before, yet now she almost wished it would rain. It seemed as though that would be more respectful to the burning farmhouses below.
Dim shivered in the bright sunlight and drew her cloak about her shoulders. She glanced at it. It was a nice shade of purple, it must be… yes, it was the same one she'd worn that one night, wasn't it? She'd worn this same cloak through a rainstorm to try and scout the dog's position, because she'd been bored. And she'd worn it again, when she'd lurked through the castle to meet with Min at the window.
How foolish she'd been. Wanting to know of war, thinking it must be exciting, like something out of a book. Thinking she could solve conflict, when she knew so little of it. Now she understood war and conflict both, and liked it even less because she knew there was nothing she could do about it.
Or could she?
If he ever changes his mind, tell him to send an emissary to the Bull's Horn. One man, with two guards maybe, but no more. Even the dogs can still help in some way.
The boy's words echoed again in her mind. He had meant them. And as Canis, he could doubtless do something, or at least more than she, small little cat princess, could do. Once more she wondered if she should tell her father what the dog boy had said. But then she would have to tell how she knew, and what she had been doing, and… No. Dim shook her head. Not now. Maybe later, but not now.
Besides, she reasoned, why would Father need to know? A war was a war and it was terrible, but they had a castle and soldiers to guard it. And Father… Father would surely be able to hold them off. Father could do anything.
Father did not need to know. Father would hold the weasels back without the help of the dogs. Dim smiled as the assurance washed over her. Chatilla would stand.
"Chatilla cannot stand." Ragas shook his head decidedly. "Not if we are to believe the reports of our runners. The Long Whiskers do not have the men to hold off so many."
"They're in that castle of theirs." A long-nosed greyhound chieftain pointed out. "The weasels are raiders, they probably don't know much about besieging a place like that. They could throw themselves at it all day and nothing would happen."
Rupeus, from the other side of the stone table the chiefs sat around, shook his head. "The weasels have already taken the castles of several nobles. They are no mindless rabble. Their leader is a cunning dog, it seems, who knows the ways of war. "
"The Felix is a cunning dog also." Commented a battle-scarred Labrador next to Rupeus.
Min, from his position to the left of Ragas, wondered idly why people were always "cunning dogs." Wasn't the Felix more likely a "cunning cat?" And wouldn't the barbarian leader be a "cunning weasel?"
He decided, however, against saying anything about it. Strictly speaking, he wasn't even supposed to be present at the meeting of the chiefs, but his insistence had paid off and they'd let him in, under Eregus' close watch. He wished Brutus were here—the sturdy warrior had always been a great help to him—but Brutus had gone to fetch the Terriers, who lived far in the North of the Perronese. He would not likely return for some time.
The greyhound stirred. "Mayhap the two shall wear each other down."
"That is our hope," mused Ragas, his long claws ticking against the surface of the stone. "The barbarians might destroy the usurpers, or the usurpers might destroy the barbarians, but either would emerge weak."
"How weak?" Objected the Labrador skeptically. "Even should Chatilla fall, the Felix's army assembles at Cargard."
Ragas arched an eyebrow. "They assemble without a commander. The royal family and many of the nobles are gathered in Chatilla. Though doubtless the cats will fight, should they win there will be none to lead them."
Min saw an opening. "And we all know how weak an army is without its king."
Ragas' eyes flickered over to him but he made no reaction. "In any case, we stray from the main question. What will we do against the weasels?"
"We shall do as Wulfgild dictates." Grunted an elderly bulldog. "Our ancestors bled and died against them. So shall we."
"Many of our kind fell when last the barbarians came here." Nodded the Labrador. "The time has come to exact repayment."
"Ah, but when?" Eregus spoke for the first time. "And where? Our home is in the mountains, and the weasels have little reason to come there. We cannot expect them to come to us so we may exact our blood-fee."
Ragas grunted in agreement. "And they are too numerous for us to meet them in the field. That, at least, is clear."
Silence fell across the table for a moment. "It is a pity," mused the greyhound after a moment, "that we cannot know which of the two will triumph. For if the weasels, then wulfgild could wait until they were weakened from the battle with the cats."
"But if we waited till then, we should have no means of repaying the debt upon the cats."
Min's thoughts had run in another direction entirely. "If the weasels DID win," he said suddenly, startling the others into silence. "are we sure we could beat them? I mean, I see that it would be easier then than any other time, but does that mean we could really do it?"
The chiefs blinked at the odd question. "Nothing is certain in war." Eregus answered his charge. "However, the two are so evenly matched that should one emerge triumphant, he would be exhausted from his struggle."
"In any event, we should certainly be able to collect the payment due our ancestors," shrugged the Greyhound.
"Yeah, but if we didn't beat them, there'd be problems." Min frowned at the tabletop. "Defeated weasels are fine and good, whether we or the cats beat them, but weasels victorious over us and the cats are dangerous. They could go throughout all of Angrad, burning and pillaging the whole countryside."
The greyhound wrinkled his long nose, apparently bored. "So?"
"So?" Min glared at the dog. "Then we have no kingdom! The whole point of this discussion is that we can claim power after the whole thing's over, right?" He saw a few of the chiefs shift uncomfortably at the blunt phrasing, but a short nod from Ragas confirmed the statement. "But if we can't stop the weasels, they'll destroy the whole country. Even if we did manage to regain our kingdom afterward, we would be rulers of a wasteland." He sat another moment staring at the crude map tacked to the stone table. "Actually, if they don't fight the cat army anywhere near the mountains, that sorta thing might happen anyway. We're not much good in the open fields, and it's not like the weasels would have a reason to go into the mountains."
He looked up. Most of the chiefs regarded him with a mixture of confusion and amusement, but Eregus looked thoughtful and Ragas had his brows drawn together in concentration.
"After all, this land was the land of our ancestors." Min frowned in thought. "We don't really want weasels running all over it, even if we can sit it out."
There was a short silence, then the Labrador chieftain spoke. "This land has long supported the Felix, and must share the Felix's fate. The riot of the weasels will be the reward Roch pays to traitors."
Rumbles of agreement rippled around the table and the chieftains moved on toward other matters. Min decided to yield the point for the moment. After all, it wasn't like the weasels would be destroying Chatilla anytime soon.
But the question still lingered in his mind, and he eyed the map on the table anxiously.
Filipo Felix looked up at the call. He could see them, long stretching ladders that wobbled in the air as they went up before crashing down on the ramparts. "Archers here!" He called. "Archers here! Bring the stones, the… give me that!" He grabbed a sizeable rock from a soldier next to him and hurled it down on the weasel already ascending the ladder. A shield shot up into place and the stone glanced harmlessly off.
Fil swore. He'd been doing that a lot recently. Quickly he ducked back and seized another stone from where they'd been piled. He moved back into place, shoving aside a doughty soldier who'd taken his place. "Have another!" He called as he sent his missile earthwards.
Again this hit the shield, but the weasel seemed to have much worse balance than before, and with a scream he tumbled backwards.
Fil grinned, but a sudden whistling warned him back as an arrow shot past his ear. Again he swore. Shouting, "Keep at it!," he ran back to the rocks, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him.
"Take it easy, your highness." Warned the grizzled commander. "You might easily be shot. Remain here and urge the men on."
Fil tore his shoulder away. "I'm not staying back while there's work to be done!" He insisted.
"To be sure highness. But with all due respect, your father has placed your guardianship in my hands, and I must remain faithful to that trust."
"I am of royal blood and you will not command me!" Fil hissed at him. "We have scarce enough men as it is, there is no room for me to be lax. Now out of my way."
There was a hint of frustration in the knight's eyes. "If your highness will not be angry, perhaps I can explain. You are our prince, our future king. If you fall, the kingdom falls with you. Your presence on the walls cheers the men, your death might cause them to despair." He carefully examined Fil's face. "For a moment at least, your majesty, rest."
Fil stared back at the man, weighing his options.
"Coming through!" Both started to the side as two men came rushing forward, a steaming vat between them. They hurried to the rampart and poured it over. Screams filled the air, followed by a loud cracking sound. The knights on the wall gave a ragged cheer as one of the ladders collapsed.
Fil turned back to the commander and nodded. "All right then." He said. "I'll take a short break. But keep the men on those ladders!"
The commander nodded and hurried off, shouting orders to his men. Sighing, Fil leaned against the stone rampart behind him. His feet ached, but he didn't bother to sit. He was the prince. He did not sit, at least not during a battle like this one. The prince must be standing for the men to see and be inspired by. Besides with all the men hurrying back and forth, Fil doubted there was actually even room for him to sit down.
This position gave him an excellent perspective on the state of the wall anyway. Fil's section of the wall was taking the brunt of the ladders, it looked like. There were a few other spots on the wall, but they seemed to be holding their own. That little hut against the left tower worried him—he knew it worried Father too—but for the moment there was nothing they could do about it. In any case it wasn't dangerous yet.
Fil lifted up his eyes a little farther, looking toward the gatehouse. Smoke was rising from crashed towers and shattered battlements, and even at this distance, Fil could hear the thud of the battering ram.
Father would be there, along with the royal guard. The battering ram would soon be down, and the weasels surrounding it slain. That maybe didn't fix the holes from the catapults or extinguish the fire from the arrows, but it would take care of the immediate danger. And Father would know how to deal with the other things too.
Sighing again, Fil ran a hand through his hair. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He knew it wasn't. Father and Elcid had supposed there would be SOME attempt at siege warfare, since the barbarians HAD destroyed the castles of several nobles, but nothing like this. These were fierce, cunning, overwhelming siege tactics. In fact if they'd been facing disciplined soldiers, Fil believed they would have fallen already. As it was… Fil wasn't sure how much longer Chatilla could keep it up.
A shrill scream interrupted his thoughts. He turned to the left to behold a cat locked in a death struggle with a weasel. The dark creature's eye's were bloodshot and slightly glazed as over as his hands clutched the cat's throat furiously. The cat soldier was trying to drag the hands from his throat, desperately hacking away at the weasel at the same time. Just behind the two, other weasels were clambering off their ladder.
"Get them!" Fil shouted, springing forward and lopping the first weasel's head off. With a fierce roar he threw himself into the battle.
He was Prince Filipo Felix. This was the city of his fathers, the city that would be his in days to come. He would not let it be taken.
"This is so incredibly boring!"
Marion glanced up at him. "Really? I don't think it's boring."
"It is so!" Min responded, flat on his back and several feet above her on a rocky ledge. They and Lupus had retreated to their hiding spot above the village, and Min had relapsed onto a favorite topic of his. "The biggest war to happen since the Cat invasion, and the chieftains refuse to make a move outside of the village until everybody gets here!"
"Perhaps because this is biggest war to happen since Cats." Lupus commented dryly.
Min folded his arms. "Hmph."
"I think things are exciting enough." Marion shivered. "All this talk about weasels and castles and fighting… It makes me worried." Distantly, it occurred to Min that she was perhaps also worried because her father was still off fetching the Terriers.
"But this is all so cool!" Min exclaimed. "This is the stuff that's always happening in those stories! These are weasels, the same kind of people that Aradacieus defeated, back in the day. The same sort of thing, except it's real!"
"Real as whip scars." Lupus remarked. "Not all stories happy."
Min winced at the reminder. His back had finally healed over, but he could tell that neither Lupus nor Ragas nor Eregus truly believed his story about how he'd received them—or rather, how he'd ended up in the dungeon where he had received them.
"That's different." He answered, trying to reintroduce a lighthearted tone. "That wasn't like a real battle or anything, that was just…" He shifted uncomfortably. "…that was just… stupid."
Lupus snorted. "Real battle might not be like 'real battle.' At least not 'real battle' in stories."
"Oh c'mon, who made you the expert?"
"I don't see why we have to fight in the first place." Marion said suddenly. "I mean, it's not like the weasel's are coming here, are they? We don't have anything they'd want. And we're always fighting the cats ourselves, so it's not like we have a problem with them doing that."
Lupus and Min glanced at her, surprised. "The weasels here before." Lupus muttered. "Kill many dogs."
"Or at least that's what the legends say," Min nodded in agreement. "They fought us and we fought them. And they killed many dogs who were never paid for—at least not adequately."
"Oh." Marion fiddled with her dress. "So… this is a wulfgild thing?"
Marion sighed and said nothing for a while. "I just don't get it," she finally muttered.
Min didn't see what was not to get. The weasels had left too quickly for the dogs to have properly avenged the many chieftains that had fallen. The debt had been made all the greater by the manner of some deaths—betrayal, hanging, drowning, roasted—the legends went into a disturbing level of detail on the humiliating deaths of several great dogs. And until those deaths had been avenged, their clans—indeed, all of the clans—would have a blot on their honor. Some even held that the cat's invasion and conquest had been Roch's sign of judgment on them for failing to exact the blood-debt.
For years the dogs had heard the stories of the weasels, and suffered the shame that they commemorated. Now, finally, the dogs had a chance to take vengeance and regain their honor from the years of past guilt.
So what was not to get?
Min decided to shelve the question and move onto something more important. Scouts reported that Chatilla had been surrounded on all sides. It was pretty safe to guess, then, that neither the princess nor the Felix would be sending delegations to the dogs like he'd told her. That, at least, took care of his worry about how to explain such a delegation to Eregus and Ragas.
But at the same time, it raised a new worry—the one he had brought up at the clan meeting. When were they to intervene? The cat army was forming at Cargad, but wouldn't go anywhere without a noble to lead it. If Chatilla fell, with all the major nobles inside it, the grand army would be leaderless and largely powerless. That would be the best time for the dogs to attack both, but unless the weasels had been severely weakened from the attack on Chatilla (which, from the scouts report, did not seem likely), they would still be far too strong for the scattered clans to mount a proper offensive against them.
Of course, the clans could always retreat into the mountains once they were finished and leave the countryside to the weasels. But Min couldn't help thinking of the Felix's words.
Your dogs are wild and untamed creatures, prone to pillaging the land as much as the enemy! You are no guardians, you are wanton scavengers!
He was wrong. Min knew it. The dogs too had been rulers like the cats. They had been guardians and administrators, adept in peace and war alike. Circumstances had driven them to their role, but they could protect as well as destroy. And Min was determined to prove it by protecting Angrad from the weasels.
But how was he to do that?
A sound from Lupus interrupted his thoughts. "Look."
On the path leading to the village, a jumbled crowd of dogs could be seen, their ragged, unkempt fur dark against the rocks. Light glinted from their axes and swords, and at their head could be seen a long-limbed chieftain swathed in a deep green cloak.
"The terriers!" Min leapt to his feet. "Finally!"
Marion leapt to her feet also. "Father!" she crowed, dashing down towards the village. Lupus and Min ran after her, kicking up loose rock with their long feet. Already in the town, women and men were coming out of huts, hurrying toward the trail head to meet the terriers.
Min and Lupus dashed ahead of them, but Marion dashed ahead of them all. Before they knew it, the three were upon the dark northdogs. Marion ran from one to the other, asking them where Brutus was.
Something made Min check his pace, though. The dogs all looked weary and curiously grim. He could see new wounds hidden behind bandages, and many of the weapons were dirty and stained. Now he saw that Ragas was walking alongside their long-limbed chieftain, and that both had troubled expressions.
"Dad? Dad?" He heard Marion's voice rise and fall as she ran through the large tribesmen. "Dad? Excuse me, sir, have you… have you seen my father? He's called Brutus, he… sir?"
Lupus had noticed it too. He slowed down immediately and glanced over at Min. With a jerk of his head, Min began to jog over to where Ragas stood.
Up ahead, they saw Marion run up to the two grim chieftains. Apparently daunted by the stern expressions they turned on her, she bowed her head. Min saw her mouth her question again.
The Terrier chief's gaze softened, and he muttered something in reply.
Marion's eyes widened. She backed up a step or two, mouthing something. Even as he ran up, Min could see her knees trembling, her lip quivering. Her eyes, blinking rapidly, were shifting back and forth as if looking for something.
"Mary?" Min asked, tentatively, as he and Lupus came up to her.
Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
A/N: Do you know, there are some stories on that haven't been updated in three years, and the author maintains she's still working on the next chapter? Kinda makes my--what, three months?--a bit more understandable, doesn't it?
Don't worry, I don't plan to wait that long before updating. I am still interested in this story. It's just between college and video games and other stories I'm working on... well, it kinda takes a back seat. But don't worry, things are definitely coming along. Some people complained there was too much talking and not enough action so... I tried to stick some action into this chapter. Probably shows why I don't do more--it stinks.
Anyway. Feel free to review!