It was noon on Friday, and many of the citizens of Founder’s Valley had gathered around the front of the castle, in hope that the Earl would have a plan to save them. Already the rumors of the approaching pirate ship were running through the town.
“Good people! I want to set the record straight. We have one, just one, detailed description of the single ship approaching from down the lake. All we know for certain is that there is a skull and crossbones on the flag, so we must assume the worst. HOWEVER…” The Earl looked stern and swept his gaze slowly across the people assembled there. “… there is no evidence that they are slavers, that they intend to kill the men and rape the women, or that they are crewed by ravenous ghouls that are going to eat us all.”
The Earl smiled and extended a hand towards Billy in acknowledgement. “Meaning that I don’t, of course. I repeat, those are just rumors; there is no reason for panic, but there is every reason to ready ourselves. This ship may merely be seeking refuge from the law, or to trade in smuggled goods. We can deal with those things. What we can’t let them do is hold a position of power over us, immune from reprisal aboard their ship out upon the water. We can’t let them hold a threat over us – we need to keep the upper hand. What we need is naval power. Captain Flang!” The Earl searched the crowd with his eyes.
“Captain, can you direct repairs of the Narwhal?”
Flang scratched his head. “Aye, I guess I could sir. The iron parts should all still be there, and I think there is plenty of rope, canvas, and wood to be had in the valley. But sir, it would take a month or more just to clear the debris, assess all the damage, make a plan, and gather the materials. Too long to be much use in fending off these pirates. The only seaworthy boats around are the little dinghy and the Marsh family’s fishing boat, and neither of those would serve your purpose. Sorry.”
The Earl nodded sadly. “Thank you, Captain. It is as I feared, we lack a response to the threat of an amphibious siege. It is down to me, again, to summon aid from beyond.”
The crowd exchanged glances and a low muttering arose, but the Earl went ahead with the usual spectacle of a grand summoning. “I summon the most fierce mariners of all time, to come defend us from all enemies from across the waves!”
A large cloud of smoke, shot through with golden sparkles, rose up over the castle and drifted out over the water. He started down the steps and proceeded left along the wall toward the bridge gate. Several of his palace guard hurried ahead, and opened the intermediate gate for him, which led out to the docks. The crowd surged through both gates and spread out to watch the cloud settle upon the waters, a hundred yards or more off shore. Slowly the cloud dissipated and there rested a Viking longboat. One large square sail graced the mast and a row of shields lined each side. The oars along each side were fixed in a vertical position.
Four figures stood on deck, surveying their new surroundings in bewilderment. Eventually they spied the nearby dock and began arranging themselves with maximum of disarray and ineptitude. The one dressed in orange managed to tangle himself in the sail, then took a commanding position in the aft of the boat where he shouted orders at the others, which were ignored. The one with the brown beard took off his helmet, polished the horns, dropped it, retrieved it from the bottom of the boat, then headed to the bow where he struck a pose, and pointed toward the dock. The boat wobbled slightly and he pitched forward, only saving himself from the water by wrapping his arms around the dragon-head prow.
The other two manned a pair of large oars amidships. The first oar freed fell across the ship, striking the oarsman opposite. He took off his helmet and tried to throw it at the other oarsman, but it landed somewhere in the boat. Eventually they got their two oars functioning and stroked slowly towards the docks. It took them some minutes to get coordinated so that the ship did not zig and zag as it tried to make forward progress. Finally they got it up to a noticeable speed. As the approached the dock, they tried to slow the boat by dragging the oars in the water with the predictable result that they were both thrown from their seats. With a sickening crunch the longboat bounced off the jetty and ran partly up on a sectin of the dock, which collapsed in splinters.
The one with the brown beard was thrown forward out of the boat. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and retrieved his helmet, which he initially put on backwards, then straightened. He then struck a dashing pose, and smiled with amazingly white teeth.
The one in orange picked himself up and stumbled to the front of the boat. He raised his sword above his head and cried out, “I, Eric the Orange, leader of the most fierce mariners of all time, come to defend us, er, you, from all enemies from across the waves!” He glanced around at the townsfolk who stood in stunned silence. “That was my line, wasn’t it? That’s what I heard.”
The two oarsmen came up behind him. “Um, Eric… Where are the cameras?”
The Earl jumped up on a crate and raised his arms. “People, people! Before you despair, I want to point out – we now have a functioning longboat.”
The crowd burst into noise, some laughing, some crying, some just howling as they stomped off in disgust.
Captain Flang and Achilles edged around the ruined bit of dock and proceeded to inspect the longboat.
Animus dragged his large collection of nets out into the town square, and began draping them over the concrete benches that flanked the fountain. Despite his care, there were quite a few tangles to be undone. The tiny trickle from the fountain sounded cheerful, and Animus found it hard not to smile as he untangled the nets.
Animus straighted up. “What? What are you talking about?”
Rita gestured toward the nets. “These are public benches. You can’t just turn them into your own personal work space.”
Animus clouded up. “I’m part of the public. And I’m just resting here, until I can use the nets to build…” He bit his lip, but it was too late.
Rita’s face blossomed into glee. “Ahh! So then, do you have a building permit? I don’t think so.”
Animus stuck out his chin. “I haven’t started the building part yet. Anyway, it’s for the good of the town. I’m going to trap and exterminate those vermin that have been tormenting the butcher. What does the town have to say about that?”
Rita grinned. “The town says you still need a permit.”
Animus groaned. “Fine then. Where do I get a permit?”
Rita grinned even more broadly. “Town hall, of course.” She then sauntered off down the main road towards the church.
Animus looked after her briefly, then, muttering, headed for town hall.
The moment Animus was out of sight, four animals converged on the nets. The rat gnawed at the connections, the cat tangled them in knots, and the duck splattered mud everywhere it could reach. The dog gripped one net in its teeth and started dragging it towards the river. The net caught on every snag along the way, so the dog’s progress was slow; he had almost made it to the bank when a ‘Scree, scree, scree’ sound came from the eves of the inn. The four animals melted into the shadows, and Animus returned to see the mess they had made.
Gritting his teeth, he set about repairing the actually (rather minor) damage. “I will get you vermin, if it’s the last thing I do.”
After a few minutes, there was a loud ‘foomp’ sound and the door to the butcher’s shop burst open with a bang. Gorbag emerged with one foot on fire. He ran to the fountain and stuck his burning foot in it, hopped a few times, then toppled over into the water.
Animus gave him a hand out. “Those vermin again?”
Gorbag shrugged, dripping but unharmed. “I didn’t see them this time. I was rigging a trap, you see. Say, what are you doing here with all those nets?”
Animus smiled. “Rigging a little surprise of my own for those furry little devils.”
Gorbag glanced back anxiously at his shop. “Well, good luck! I better make sure nothing else is burning. Talk to you later.” With that, he hurried back inside and closed the door.
Once Animus had the nets straightened, he moved down the alley between the general store and the butcher shop. At the end of the alley there was a wide space before the land fell down to the river. To the left was nothing but the back of the butcher shop and the beginning of the pens beyond it. To the right were quite a few planters behind the general store and apothecary, which were filled with exotic herbs and other plants. “I’d better be careful about them, probably worth a pretty penny.
Turning, he examined the architecture of the buildings. Each had vents in the eves, which must provide air to the low attics. He noticed that in place of gutters there was a trough or pipe that ran along the edges of the roofs, and continued to connect the buildings all down the row. “Probably the vermin are using that to get from building to building.”
Looking back upriver, he could see that the pipe started at the terminus of the aqueduct. “Aha, the old water supply, now dried up.”
He continued to stare at the buildings, hand to chin, muttering. “Okay, so if we flush them out of the attic, they’ll use the pipes to cross to another building. Make that fall out from under them, and catch them in the nets. It’ll work.”
He then began pounding large nails into the side of the butcher shop and general store, to hold open the nets. He then threw a rope and grappling hook over the pipe, and tugged on it to test its strength.
Animus looked at him scornfully. “Lend? At the rates I hear you charge, you’d be wanting back a whole arm, and a leg too if I was late paying. Why haven’t you been doing anything to help these poor folk, besieged by vermin?”
Whittler looked uncomfortable. “Well, I have lots of other demands on my time. Legitimate needs of the community I am fulfilling.”
“For those that can pay.”
Whittler puffed out his chest. “Well yeah, sometimes. But seriously, it looks like you need a ladder. I’ll lend you one, no charge.”
Animus shook his head. “Thanks, but no thanks.” With that, he flew up the rope like only an elf can do. Whittler stared at him as he drew his skinning knife and began prying loose the nearest pipe connection at the edge of the apothecary roof.
“Hey! That’s private property! You can’t just tear apart the town’s water supply.
Animus detached his rope and jumped down lightly. “Oh really? You don’t say.” He went about the business of hanging his nets below the pipe.
Whittler hurried off toward the lumberyard.
Flicker and Sticker scrambled from the marketplace tree, from which they had been watching Animus, back on the roof of the inn, through the eves, and into the attic. Flicker stomped about in outrage. “He can’t do that! It’s outrageous.”
Sticker put one hand on the sash of his samurai robe, and the other on his miniature katana. “Right. Like you’re the only one that can break and damage things.”
Flicker looked indignant. “That was justified. The prophecy said I was to avenge the oppressed animals of this place and that, that…. butcher is the worst of the lot!”
Sticker shook his head. “That isn’t what the prophecy said. It said rescue, and it said something about cages. The butcher doesn’t have any cages.”
Flicker stuck out his chin. “Don’t tell me what the prophecy said, I heard it and you didn’t. So there.”
Sticker gave a mocking smile. “So you’re hearing things and I’m not. That only proves which one of us is more stable.”
Flicker turned back to the hole in the eves. “I’m going to go blast that elf right out of the valley. Just you see.”
Sticker caught his arm and whirled him around. “Oh no you’re not. We’ve been down that road before and see what trouble it has gotten us into.”
Flicker pulled out his wand and Sticker grabbed it from his hand.
“Give that back!”
Sticker scampered around the attic, with Flicker close behind, but getting more and more tired. Finally he sat panting at the bottom of a pile of crates, on which Sticker was standing, waving the wand. “Nah, nah, can’t catch me.”
Flicker gritted his teeth. “Oh yeah?” He started to roll up his sleeves, muttering, when both mouslings froze. The access hatch to the attic had popped open, and a head and shoulders emerged, staring at them.
Flicker jumped up and brushed at his robes. “How did you… what did you hear?”
Sticker dropped down from the box and passed Flicker back his wand.
Rufus climbed the rest of the way into the attic. “Oh, I’ve been watching you two for some time now. It’s quite humorous the tricks you’ve been playing on Animus. What I didn’t get until now is why. Why two such noble fellows as yourselves are here, in this valley, at this time.”
Sticker stepped in front of Flicker before he could speak. “Oh, we’re just passing through.”
Rufus shook his head. “No. You were led here by a prophecy, but you’re confused about your mission. Tell me about it.”
The two mouslings stared at each other, Flicker with crossed arms, Sticker jerking his head in Rufus’s direction.
Flicker dropped his arms to his side. “Alright, I was woken up in the middle of the night by an apparition. Big bosomed lady with wings – humanish – totally classic angel getup – robe and halo and all. She told me I was supposed to come here and protect…”
Flicker gave Sticker a dirty look. “Rescue these poor gentle creatures locked up in cages here.”
Rufus cocked his head. “Sounds like a crazy dream to me.”
Sticker raised his hand. “Only it wasn’t. Flick gave the most awful squeak about then and woke me up. I saw this… apparition too. In fact, it turned to me, smiled, blew me a kiss, and disappeared in a twinkling of light. It left behind some glitter on the bed, too.”
Rufus looked down at the floor. “Whoo. Can’t argue with that. Genuine manifestations are pretty rare though. Could somebody have been tricking you?”
Sticker shook his head. “Nah, we were traveling. Nobody there knew us. Nobody followed us. No point.”
Rufus looked up. “So where do these other mouslings come in?”
Flicker frowned. “Which ones?”
Sticker elbowed him. “He means the thieves.” Sticker turned towards Rufus. “There, uhh, might be other, uhh, mouslings concerned with our, uhh, activities here, but those two are just a couple thugs from the City. They’re harmless; they came in with you. We’ve been here about 3 weeks.”
Rufus looked thoughtful. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll let you know anything I learn about caged creatures or other mouslings, if you two lie low and stop making trouble for Animus, or Gorbag the butcher, or anybody else. Okay?
Flicker kicked his toe in the dust. “Well, I…”
Sticker elbowed him again. “We accept!”
The three lady adventurers and Friar Tuck led the mules past the old Withers Mansion. A 12-foot spiked iron fence, lousy with the gangly branches of a sickly hedge, ran between regularly spaced stone columns. As they approached the gate they could see, through gaps in the hedge, that the northwest corner of the estate housed an arboretum, with a wide variety of huge old trees, some of them now dead. They passed the arched iron gate, and peered down the driveway. A large fountain, inactive, was at the center of a circle in front of the mansion. Not a soul was in evidence, living or undead. Cleo put a hand to the gate and it opened a crack, with a huge groan of rusty metal. They all exchanged glances and hurried on.
Beyond the gate, they saw the same sort of high iron fence, this time giving peaks at an unkempt orchard of low fruit trees.
Just as they came to the edge of the estate, the road turned left towards the South Gate Bridge, leading into town. The graveyard, with its low iron fence, appeared on the left and they had to squeeze through a narrow lane between the two fences. The path was rutted as from wagon wheels, but the weeds were high.
Abruptly, the vegetation gave way to low, brown grasslands, the pathway continuing along the edge of the graveyard to the left. They had come to the edge of the Burnt Barrens. They could see far to the right where a line of trees, starting at the back of the Wither’s estate, marked the edge of the forest.
Sapphire turned to Friar Tuck. “Okay, this is where we leave the beaten path, and go hunting for a dragon. Are you sure you want to come with us?”
The Friar gave a dry swallow and opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Instead he just nodded vigorously.
Sapphire turned back, put a hand to her brow and scanned the trees. “Grace’s little bow can throw an arrow a hundred and fifty yards or so, but is only accurate to half that. What’s your range, Cleo?”
Cleo checked her bow, which was already strung, and her arrows. “Well, I can almost always score on a stationary man-sized target at that range, if I have time to aim, but to penetrate dragon’s hide, I’d rather it be closer to 100, 120 yards.”
Sapphire nodded. “Okay, everybody keep an eye peeled, but whatever you do, if you see a dragon, don’t scream it out. We need stealth. I’ll be making ready with an invisibility spell as soon as we spot him. Everybody okay?”
Cleo pulled out an arrow and nocked it. “Sounds like a plan.”
They crept along, Sapphire in the lead, each of the others leading a mule, with Friar Tuck taking up the rear. It was not long before Sapphire held up a hand and pointed to the tree line. Perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead, a great green shape was roosting in the trees.
Sapphire cast a spell, presumably to make them invisible, but they could see each other. A faint glimmer surrounded the party. They crept forward through the dry grass, trying to minimize the rustling sounds that they made.
Suddenly, the mule Shithead gave a tremendous bray and bolted, pulling from Cleo’s grasp. He charged right at the dragon. Grace was taken by surprise too, when Foggy Bottom pulled free and trotted slowly after Shithead.
Sapphire cursed, and dropped the spell. “Those damn mules!”
Cleo started jogging forward. “Come on, we’ve got to get in range, if we’re going to save them.”
However, the going was rough. Friar Tuck got his robes tangled in some brush and Grace stopped to help him. Sapphire called out to Cleo, “Hold up! We can’t afford to get separated!”
The group pulled together a good 300 yards distant as the dragon swooped down beside Shithead. It reached out a taloned claw and swiped at the mule, but the only result was that its saddle-pack slid to the ground. Astonished, the four stood and watched as the dragon nuzzled through its baggage. Foggy Bottom trotted up, and the process was repeated. The dragon showed more interest in nosing through the contents of that second saddle-pack, and Sapphire took the opportunity to signal the others. They marched forward, four abreast, weapons at the ready (Friar Tuck frantically working his rosary).
The dragon looked up, and saw them. He waddled around to face them. “So who are you, to come sneaking up on me, with your bows and arrows? Are you not afraid?” The distance was still 250 yards or so, but the deep rumble of the dragon’s voice carried easily.
Sapphire called out as loud as she could, “Oh great Crysophordia, we come only to speak with you! But we do not come unarmed, as the treachery of the great worms is legendary!” They continued their slow march toward the dragon.
The dragon snorted. “You know my name, oh tender one? You need not yell, my hearing is quite keen. I suppose some of my kin would take your impudence as a challenge, and would feel honor bound to crush your bones and taste your flesh, for approaching as you do. But, I am not inclined to play, today.”
The dragon stretched out his enormous wings and leapt into the air. With a sound like a whirlwind, he twisted and landed in a treetop further on along the tree line.
The four reached the spot where the mules stood beside their ruined packs. Sapphire yelled towards the dragon. “We brought you gifts, but you have treated our possessions poorly.” They quickly looked through the mess. Nothing was missing except the minerals, though some of the food was ruined.
The dragon shifted around, causing the tree he was perched in to groan piteously. “Poor grade crystal fragments and ore samples. In short, crap. If that is all you have to offer me, I will harry the movement of your wagons and swoop down on your horses at night.” The dragon licked its lips suggestively.
Sapphire spoke in a more normal voice. “We do not come seeking free passage for horses, though Tinker at the stables might wish to make you an offer. They are his horses there, not ours.”
The dragon pulled back its head. “What then? Why do you disturb my reverie?”
Sapphire spread her arms, staff held upright. “A million pardons for disturbing your rest, oh great one. We are just a few of the adventurers who have been stranded here by the great storm, that destroyed the roads. Many of them have better bows and sharper swords than we, and may be less inclined to parley.”
The dragon shifted uneasily. “So, what is your point?”
Sapphire brought her staff back to the ground. “There is much heavy stone to lift, to repair the roads. We seek your assistance in this matter.”
The dragon threw back his head and laughed and laughed. The horrible sound of it hurt their ears. “Oh that is rich! You seek to hire me, like some laborer in the fields? I should be insulted, but I find the idea so ridiculous as to be vastly amusing.”
Sapphire’s shoulder’s drooped. “So you will not help us, Crysophordia, even for the finest gems? No caravans will pass this way until the roads are repaired, and you will see no more tolls. You will only see the troop of adventurers now camped on the beach, getting more and more restless, venturing forth….”
Crystophordia stopped chuckling and brought one claw to its mouth. “Hmmm. You have a point there. But simply repairing the roads will not bring back the caravans. You face higher hurdles than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you not know that the great storm, as you call it, was not a normal storm at all?”
“We suspected as much.”
Crysophordia raised up his body, towering high. “Indeed not. That storm was in fact a quartet of powerful elementals at play that night. And, I’m sorry to say, they have not gone back where they came from. They now spar with each other in the next valley, beyond the broken dam, where… the… road… used… to… gooooo…..”
Everyone was silent while the dragon’s words slowly penetrated. The implications were disheartening.
“I’m sooo, sooo sorry to break the news to you. Really I am.” Suddenly the dragon became brisk. “But first thing’s first, one step at a time, haste makes waste, and all that. If you seek muscle for your task, I suggest you camp for the night in the great forest. Not in this dry fringe, but circle back around the Withers estate and follow the first stream up into the forest. You should meet all manner of creatures there of a night, some helpful though some… not.”
Sapphire spread her arms again and made a little bow. “We are most grateful for your advice, oh noble one. But how might we deal with the elementals, lord of dragons?”
The dragon turned its head away and actually crossed its arms in front of itself. “I am done speaking with you. You drag me down from my dreams of clouds and riches. Be gone, before I change my mind and decide to eat you after all.” With that, the dragon took wing and flew much further south along the tree line.
When the dragon was out of sight, the four burst out laughing and slapping each other on the shoulder. Friar Tuck was no longer silent. “Well, I never, I never,” he kept repeating.
Slowly they gathered up their belongings and secured them on the mules as best they could. Grace looked concerned. “Shall we follow the advice of the dragon, and sleep in the woods tonight?”
Sapphire grinned, “Well, we don’t have to actually sleep; there are other things we could be doing.” Grace blushed and looked away.
Cleo cut in obliviously, hoisting the tent onto the back of Shithead. “Well, I think that’s the only clue we have. I’m in.”
Friar Tuck had clammed up again, with a slight blush. He nodded vigorously, though, so they set out back the way they had come.
Animus took a deep breath. “Okay, here’s the plan. Petunia, you get Shadow to run, yowling challenges through the town, to get the vermin to chase him. He ducks in the front door of the butcher shop, which Gorbag slams on them from inside, once they’re in. Shadow ducks out the back door, which Petunia slams from the outside. Gorbag then starts the smudge pots going and slips out the front. The smoke will drive the vermin up into the attic, then out onto the eves. I’ll be on top of the brewery to block them from going that way, so they’ll have to follow the pipes toward the general store, where I’ve loosened the pipe. It collapses and drops them in the net, where they are ours. We have a barrel of water standing by to drown the little devils. Any questions?” Animus gazed at each in turn.
Suddenly there was a riotous squawking from the alley between the butcher shop and the general store. Animus turned around and began sprinting that way. “If that damn duck is in the nets again, I am going to wring its neck.” Gorbag trotted after, squishing with each step.
Animus was pulling the duck from the water barrel when a sound above caused him to stop and stare up at the pipes. A large mouse leapt over his loosened section of pipe and ran toward the roof of the butcher shop. A cat in pursuit did likewise. Two gray mouslings chasing the cat did not fare as well; as they crossed the pipe, it gave way and they plunged into the nets.
Animus dropped the duck and grabbed at the nets. “Now I’ve got you!”
Gorbag came up then, and peered at the two captives. “But, that’s not them!”
Animus whirled around. “What? There are more of these things?”
Animus and Gorbag stared as Rufus took the bundled-up mouslings out to the street and sat down on one of the cement benches, whispering all the while. “You are safe, don’t fight the nets.” Animus and Gorbag of course understood nothing of what was said.
“I am Rufus, what are your names?”
The one with longer hair answered. “Penny and Percy. What’s your game, anyway?”
Rufus gave a little bow with his head. “I’m friends of Flicker and Sticker, do you know them?”
The one still clutching a tiny burlap sack answered. “Nah. We’ve seen them about, but we’ve been keeping a pretty low profile.” He shook the bag, which rattled like coins. “Too much exposure is bad for business.”
Penny huffed. “I wish you’d listened to me when I told you that, but no. You had to try and save that mouse.”
Percy looked indignant. “But the cat was after it! You’re just a chicken, admit it. You’re trying to blame me for something you know we had to do. Well, I listened to you about the mouslings on the wagon train, ‘cause there was nowhere to hide, but I’m not listening no more. So there.”
Rufus cut in. “What ‘mouslings on the wagon train’ are you talking about?”
Penny spoke up. “The ones in the fancy carriage, of course. They keep them like pet canaries or something and this mug wanted to rescue them. But that was too dangerous, no way. I stopped him, I did.”
Percy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, swinging from cages. From the ceiling, no less. Pitiful little civilized puff balls they were, the pair of them. Never would have made it on their own, if they had escaped.”
Rufus paused awhile in thought. “Do you two promise to never harass the butcher?”
Penny looked puzzled. “Why would we do that? Harass him, I mean. We never have and we never will. Like he said, bad for business. We’re thieves, no room for heroics and I hope somebody learned their lesson from this!” She stared hard as Percy, who looked away.
Rufus shook off the net. “I’m letting you two go, but you’d better make sure nobody sees you again, especially Animus and the butcher. They’re going to be fit to be tied.”
Percy grabbed up the bag and hoisted it over his shoulder. Penny bowed. “Thank you, Rufus. We are in your debt.” Then the two mouslings scampered off the bench, across the street, and disappeared into the marketplace stalls.
Rufus stroked his chin. “Gentle puffball mouslings in cages, in the fancy carriage. Well that is very interesting information.” He rose from the bench and turned to deal with Animus and Gorbag.