Being a leggy maned wolf, Simon Tallgrass cut an impressive figure when he was standing. Not so much when he was sitting, as he was now, cleaning Thane’s armor. He sat in the corner of the room, dropping bane-slimed rags into a bucket. When he was done, he would be sharing this room with Zeke and Thane. Rusty usually got her own room so long as the inns they visited were on her concert circuit, but now she was sitting on the rug, doing chording exercises up the neck of her lute. The bard could sing like a lark, croon sweetly as a dove, and had the ability to transform a tragic ballad into a piece more haunting than a loon’s cry.
She could do these things so well and so easily, in fact, that it bored her. She was beginning to experiment with a new technique she called “scream-singing”, a style which played very well at the rougher taverns, making her coin purse heavier than ever before.
The door behind her was open, letting in smoky amber light, the clank and bustle of the pub downstairs, and the occasional townsperson thanking Thane for saving their town.
The wolf prince himself was seated on the only bed, going into his fourth battle reenactment of the night for a sow and her litter.
“—dove for me so fast its feathers sliced off the tip of my whiskers!” The wolf bent low to show the young piglets his now-uneven whiskers.
“Are bane feathers sharp?” one asked.
“Of course they are, mudbreath!”
“Language,” warned the mother sow. Simon lifted his head.
“They sure are sharp, little one,” said Thane. He set his paws on this thighs and pushed himself back upright. “But not as sharp as my sword! See, when the bane dove, it thought it’d be able to fly right back up into the sky. But it didn’t count on getting its wings clipped by old Banebreaker!” Thane patted the now-pristine scabbard belted to his waist.
“Whoa!” exclaimed the piglets.
“Once I cut the primaries off the one wing, why, all it could do is fly in circles!”
The pig family all laughed with him. Simon looked up again as Zeke the possum wobbled in, arms heaped high with baguettes, jarred peach jam, and roasted turkey. A pitcher of punch hung on the loop of his naked tail.
As if by magic, Rusty’s lute was back in its case.
“Ah! Our feast arrives!” said Thane. “Stilts, be a chum and clear off your table there, will you? And let’s move it to the bedside here, we can all sit and eat.” Simon slid the bucket into the corner and began packing armor away.
“Uggh, hurry, Stilts, this is heav-vy!” said the possum. For every item Simon cleared off, Zeke laid two more down. He was already licking his small, pointed teeth.
“Madam, would you care to join us?” Thane asked the sow.
“Oh—we couldn’t,” said the mother. “We’ve potato casseroles at home that need eating before they turn. I’ve just been too nervous to eat, not knowing whether or not we’d have to leave our home.”
“Well, ma’am, I’d wager your litter’ll grow up in that same home now, unless you fancy a move on your own, of course. I hear Blueberry Town has some excellent schools!”
The mother tittered. “No, no moving for us—thanks to you, Thane—”
Simon blocked out the rest. He was too focused on trying to move the fully loaded table over to the bed without spilling anything. By the time he set the table down, the pig family was gone and everyone was licking their chops. Zeke put the dishes on the table, quickly poured drinks, and the pack fell upon the food. Everything was eaten in ravenous silence. Since the townspeople had all chipped in for the meal, there was a lot of food to go through.
When they were done, Zeke rolled back onto the floor. He placed a finger under his belt and undid the buckle. His belly blossomed forth like a bubble beneath his shirt.
“Oh man, stop me! I’ve got the chicken wing sweats!”
Rusty was familiar with Zeke’s bottomless appetite. “So…you’re saying we should put in another order of them for you in an hour.”
The possum moaned. He didn’t so much as twitch when the hog knocked at the open door.
“Come in,” said Thane.
The hog dropped a coin purse on the table. “Th’ reward,” he said, then left with the dirty dishes.
Thane’s tail wagged as he undid the purse’s drawstring. Rusty’s face stretched in a dreamy smile.
“Always looks so pretty,” she said, leaning this way and that to watch the glint of the gold twinkle in the lamplight.
“Now, Rusty, don’t start drooling…the barkeep already took away our napkins. Here’s your share, twenty two coins for the excellent publicity! The meal quality’s certainly gone up since we started working together.”
“My liege!” she curtsied, but only so she could swipe her coins into her skirts. She drew out a coin and turned it in her chocolate brown paw. “Oh yes, you’re Mommy’s favorite! You’re gonna buy Mommy some new strings, yessooare!”
Thane chuckled. “And as for you, my master gourmand…”
Zeke popped his head over the table, nose twitching.
“…though you may be a marsupial, you’re as loyal as any wolf I’ve run with. Seventeen coins for your share!”
“Seventeen ain’t bad, boss, but…listen…how many times have we eaten out together?”
“Oh, let’s see…” the wolf leaned back, “A good half-dozen times, I’d say!”
“Yup. And how many times, of those meals we ate out, did you get poisoned?”
The possum wagged a pink finger.
“And before you hired me, how often did you get sick?”
Rusty crossed her arms, tail swooshing. “You sure ‘bout that, Your Highness? What about that meat pie in Stag’s Landing?”
Thane’s ears fell at the same time his mouth twisted. His paw went to his belly as though reliving the memory. “Well…there was that…”
The possum narrowed his eyes. The flame of the lamp gleamed in their reflection.
“And how many gold coins would you pay to have that not ever happen again?”
“Ugh…Here, four coins more—but you can’t have more than Rusty, she’s been here longest. Like my second-in-command!”
The vixen punched the air. “Seniority, baby!”
The possum took his coins and put them in the pocket of his red vest.
“Now, as for you, Stilts—how many bags are we up to these days? Don’t count the armor, now.”
“Don’t count your own.”
“Oh. Four, then.”
“Then your share is twelve coins. Chin up! You’re a superb squire, you can only go up from here!”
“Thank you, sir.”
Simon took his coins and tucked them into the compartment on his belt. When he was done, Thane closed the purse and handed it to the maned wolf.
“In your bag, sir?” asked Simon.
The prince clicked his tongue and winked. “You won’t be omega long at this rate!”
Simon crouched over the prince’s rucksack and stored the gold in the appropriate compartment, along with the rest of the prince’s money. He crawled towards the bucket, ready to do more cleaning, but stopped when another visitor knocked and closed the door behind her.
It was the fennec.
Thane jumped up, arms outstretched.
“Nattieee! Nattie Fenn, always good to see you! Here, take my spot—good thing the dishes got cleared, eh? Zeke, grab a lamp, would you?”
Zeke jumped to as the fennec pulled up her robes and sat at the table. Thane took the chair next to Zeke, across from the fennec, while Rusty and Simon stood behind them, leaning in to get a better look at the map the fennec was rolling out.
“How’s the spy business?” said Thane.
The fennec’s tail lashed. “Lousy, if you don’t keep your voice down!”
“Sorry,” said the wolf, but his tail kept wagging. “What’ve you heard?”
“Plenty, lately.” Her finger slid across the map as she spoke. “Three bane sightings on the outskirts of the kingdom, and the King’s guard are never close enough to stop them before they demolish a town…” She looked up, wriggling her whiskers. “Southbank is VERY lucky you were here when you were.”
“Only following your tips, my dear. So, you want us to go after those three banes, do you?”
“No, I don’t,” said the fennec. “And if you want to hear all I’ve heard, you’ll need to pretend your neb isn’t as big as my ears, begging Your Highness’ pardon.”
“Sorry, Nattie.” Thane’s tail wagged again.
When he had been quiet (but still grinning) for a whole minute, the spymaster went on. “I myself overheard one of the rabbit clan heiresses trying to put together an envoy to the bears.” Her ear flicked. “Quite an odd tale she was telling, of seeing the King’s guard destroying a spirit stone underground.”
Thane scoffed. “Pfft! When they’re the only cure for serious rot? More likely that rabbit breathed some fumes down there, addled her wits.”
“I’m not so sure, Thane. The things I hear get are getting scarier every day.”
“Well, if the royal guard’d stop chasing their tails and hunt these banes down as fast as they bite ticks off each other’s rumps, that’d take care of it,” said Rusty. The possum nodded in agreement.
The fennec frowned at the map. “From what I’ve heard, the banes are the symptom, not the disease.”
“Go on, Nattie!” said the wolf prince. “You say there’s trouble—tell us how to fight it!”
The fennec peered into their faces. The candlelight flickered, lighting up her honey gold eyes.
“I’m thinking this next task will have less fighting and more talking. Or, I’m hoping it does. A warcaster bear came to market this morning. Bought berries and separated out the red ones into a red pouch, different than his food pack.” The fennec rolled her fingers around an imaginary berry. “Then he bought a new flint, even though he already had one around his neck. Finally, he bought an earth-glow amulet off a rabbit.
“I think the druids are near, and that he will try summoning them with these objects.”
“You think?” said Thane.
“But,” said Simon, “he didn’t say anything. About who he was seeing, I mean.”
“Actions speak louder than words,” said the spymaster. “The red berries could be an offering, as could the fl—” The fennec stopped, ears turning to the door.
“Get that please,” she said, before the knock came, Ba-dokka-DOK!
Simon opened the door. A chinchilla kit, homeless by the holes in her coat and the scent of spring mud on her feet, nosed her way past the maned wolf. She scampered up the bed and covered her snout, whispering into the fennec’s awaiting ear.
“Good work, little whiskers!” The fennec’s paw moved, and gold clinked into the kit’s paw. “Have a bed and soup on me,” said the spymaster. The kit zipped out of the room. Simon closed the door after her.
“My lookout. The warcaster is moving towards Cedar Vale. Track him down, see if you can find out more about this bane problem. And if you eavesdrop on his conversation with the druids themselves, so much the better. I hate having half the pieces to a puzzle. But if you’re going to track him, you’d better leave now! No one knows the forests like these bears, and he’ll likely kill you if he spots you following him!”
Thane had already slung his pack over his shoulder. The others scrambled to toss their supplies into their own packs.
“Thanks, Nattie! You’re the best!”
“Hush, you loudsnout wolf! I’m surprised the bear hasn’t heard you already!”
The door shut behind them.
I think I had this great fanart by steam user Nevan in the back of my head when I wrote this.
Chapter 3 will be posted tomorrow at noon! The game Armello and its characters are property League of Geeks. Buy it today!
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