First light was still at least half an hour away when the quartet of guards selected by Carnotine assembled by lamplight at the front gate. They were armed with bows and arrows, though they hoped no bloodshed would be necessary. They wouldn’t hesitate to use them in defence of their chieftain, though, or the other members of this raiding party.
Dervarine and Carnotine, who had come to wish his guards well, turned as they heard voices. Mazimba and Fevan, looking excited but nervous, were making their way to the gate, accompanied by Batefimba. It looked to Carnotine like she was less tense than the previous afternoon.
As they exchanged greetings, two furry heads popped over the solid wooden gate.
“Morning folks, lovely day for a mission,” said Rupertonix. “This is Sebastionix.” He indicated his companion.
“Morning everyone, nice to meet you all. Looks like there’s some excitement ahead,” Sebastionix said.
“Hopefully not too much!” Batefimba said.
“I agree with you there, Ma’am,” the furriensis replied.
As introductions were made, Carnotine turned to see Monkeybreath striding purposefully towards the gate. She was not coming from the direction of her home.
“Morning, Ma’am,” he said.
“Morning Captain, I was just taking a look at the perimeter defences. Excellent work. I hope this will be one of those instances where the preparation is the bulk of the work and we don’t have to see those defences tested.”
“I agree, Ma’am. But if they’re necessary, I’m sure they’ll be up to the task.”
“I’m sure they will,” Lazarn responded.
“Now, it’s time we got going,” she said to the group.
They slipped through the gate to where Rupertonix and Sebastionix waited, with Carnotine and his guards ready to quickly lock the gate securely again.
Mazimba was surprised to see Batefimba exiting with them. “Umamba?” he asked.
“Monkeybreath and I discussed it last night. My presence will help to draw out Trevarn and Everarn, which is what we’re hoping to do to provide a diversion for you and Fevan,” she answered. “Don’t worry, my boy, I’ll be fine, and I’ll get to keep an eye on you for most of the journey too,” she said wryly.
Mazimba grinned and hugged her. “I’m glad, Umamba. But you take care,” he said, before turning to climb up onto Sebastionix, who had bent to allow him and Fevan access. Panthozine, the guard he had seen from the guest room window the day before, would be riding up front, with Haxavine behind them, watching their back.
Sebastionix stood upright again, alongside Rupertonix, who had Dervarine riding in front of Monkeybreath and Batefimba, and Brandotine at the back.
“All right,” Monkeybreath said. “I’d like us to make us much ground as we can before the sun is high and we’re more likely to run into someone. We will get close enough to Towering Pine to watch the comings and goings at the settlement, hidden from view, during the afternoon. That will help us to assess whether they are on any kind of alert as a result of Fevan’s disappearance.
“Then we will make our entrance just before the community is due to lock down for the night and guards are being changed over. The gathering darkness will hopefully add to the confusion our arrival will cause.”
“We will go quickly but carefully, Monkeybreath,” Rupertonix said. “Guards, please alert us if there is any reason we should hide.”
“We will,” Dervarine replied.
Rupertonix and Sebastionix set off at a pace brisk enough to keep them ahead of schedule without making it an uncomfortable ride for their passengers.
They had a dream run, with the two furrienses only required to retreat into a line of trees once, to avoid being seen by a group of elves they would otherwise have crossed paths with.
Shortly after noon, they were in sight of Towering Pine, and Monkeybreath asked Rupertonix to look for a hiding place that would give them a good view of the settlement. They stopped to rest up through the warmest part of the day in a clump of trees not far away. Mazimba climbed one of them to get a better vantage point, but after an hour he descended to tell Monkeybreath he had seen nothing to indicate the community was on alert.
It was simply a waiting game, and that meant trying to relax in the shade. Mazimba napped briefly, but the others were too on edge to do the same.
Finally, with the sun on the last stretch of its daily descent, Monkeybreath called them all to attention. “Right, it’s time. Sebastionix, you and your team know where to approach from. You head off now, and we’ll give you a few minutes to get into position.”
They watched as the strongly built furriensis, carrying the two teenagers, along with Panthozine and Haxavine, headed off in an easterly sweep away from Towering Pine, knowing they would double back and approach the settlement from the side, taking up position as close as possible to the point where Fevan had recently escaped.
After about 10 minutes, with darkness closing in, Monkeybreath decided it was time to move.
With the four tiny creatures on his back hanging on tightly, Rupertonix sprang from the trees and bounded aggressively up to the main gate as four guards tried to push it shut.
If the sight of the giant furriensis running at them wasn’t enough to scare them, the loud hiss he emitted as he stopped just short of them was guaranteed to get their knees knocking, and the four guards retreated behind the half-shut gate.
Rupertonix had brought all the aggression he could muster and he pushed on the gate with his head, defying attempts to shut it. Yells and screams came from the guards and other nearby residents. The sound of panic. They had definitely been caught by surprise.
Rupertonix stood his ground in the darkness, then Lazarn and Batefimba stood up on his neck, and Lazarn yelled “We want to see Trevarn, and Everarn, now! We’re not leaving without seeing them!”
She pointed at one of the guards already shaken up by his close encounter with the furriensis.
“You! Go and fetch them! Tell them Lazarn and Batefimba want to see them! The safety of this community depends on it!”
The terrified elf didn’t look at all sure of his ability to persuade the pair to comply, but just then the village chieftain, Nedavarn, arrived on the scene and, quickly surveying the situation, ordered two other senior guards to accompany him. “Tell them they need to get down here as soon as possible. We’re in danger!”
Turning to Lazarn, he called out. “Please, I have no idea what they’ve done, but spare the community, I beg you!”
He sounded sincere to Lazarn, but there was no time to focus on that now.
In their hiding place near the perimeter wall, Sebastionix and his passengers could hear an almighty row coming from the main gate, some distance away. They’d also seen a guard patrol go scuttling away in the direction of the noise, leaving this section of the wall unmonitored. It was perfect.
Sebastionix edged forward from their hiding place, allowing Fevan and Mazimba to step over the wall onto the branch that had been Fevan’s earlier escape route.
They would climb up to Trevarn’s house and stay hidden until they were sure he had left, and Everarn too. Fevan had been sure he would be there, given it was the weekend.
They were in luck. As they climbed, they heard yelling coming from a house. Mazimba looked questioningly at Fevan and she nodded confirmation.
Soon they drew level with the house and the shouting was decipherable. “Lazarn and Batefimba? Oh, this’ll be some show!” It was Trevarn.
“What if it’s a trap?” responded a voice Fevan knew was Everarn’s.
“Nedavarn orders you to come! If you continue to refuse you will both be arrested!”
A few seconds later, the door opened and from the shadows they saw two men emerge, flanked by guards and with an elf behind them, and head down towards the town square.
Framed in the doorway once they had stepped out was a white-haired elf with long hair, Venixan, Fevan’s grandmother. She looked out into the darkness and Fevan realised she knew it was time.
The door shut and they could see the movement of shadows in the room. They gave it five minutes, then headed for the door. The moment they knocked, Fevan’s grandmother reappeared, a young girl Mazimba could see was her sister behind her.
Fevan hugged them both, tightly, but kept any noise to a minimum. She introduced Mazimba.
“It’s time to go,” she said. “Grandmother, you and I will go first as it might take us some time to get down. Mazimba will bring Rivazan.”
Her grandmother had clearly been prepared and she pulled a backpack out from behind a couch. “Here,” she said. “It has some of your clothes in it as well.”
Fevan swung the backpack over her shoulders and then the pair stepped out into the darkness, lamplight from homes occasionally illuminating their way. It was a precarious process, and she held onto Venixan firmly. Her sure-footedness came in useful as they negotiated the last stretch along the branch, but soon they were seated comfortably on Sebastionix’s back.
Mazimba had decided to allow Fevan several minutes to get down before following. He didn’t want to be caught behind them on a tricky descent. Being able to move steadily and get down without stopping would make them less likely to be noticed, he thought.
Then, just as he decided it was time to go, and they stepped through the door, shutting it behind them, there was a yell. “Hey, there’s a capanguta here, and he’s got Trevarn’s granddaughter! Stop him!”
The elf, Trevarn’s neighbour, had just emerged from his home to check on all the noise coming from the town square when he spotted Mazimba and Rivazan.
Mazimba hesitated for only a second. “Jump on and hold on tight,” he said. Rivazan climbed onto his back and reached around his chest, as he leapt from the front step, grabbing the nearest branch and swinging into the shadows. The neighbour continued yelling, but he could no longer see them, only hear the sound of Mazimba’s agile movements getting further away.
The capanguta dropped down from branch to branch, his excellent night vision helping him find his way, with Rivazan clinging tightly to him.
“Nearly there,” he said.
From the other side of the wall, those waiting anxiously for their arrival heard him yell “Look out!” Then he and Rivazan landed on Sebastionix’s furry back.
“Go!” yelled Panthozine, and the furriensis turned from the wall, cutting into the shadows beyond the settlement and retracing the route they’d followed earlier. “Let’s check on the others!” Panthozine said after a couple of minutes, and Sebastionix swung right, coming out in a clearing a little way from the main gate. They watched from a safe distance.
With Rupertonix still standing his ground and holding the gate open, Lazarn yelled: “I know what you’re up to, Trevarn! You tried 35 years ago and now you’re plotting again, the two of you!
“Well, it won’t work! I’ve come to warn you! This prejudicial nonsense is over!”
Turning to Nedavarn, she went on. “I think you need to take a good look at what some of your residents are up to. I’d be happy to discuss it with you. Feel free to visit Mighty Pine.”
She lowered her voice. “All right, Rupertonix, we are done. Magnificent work, my friend. “Hopefully that’s given the others time to accomplish their mission.”
Just as she said that, a piercing whistle came from over her right shoulder. It was a prearranged signal between the guards. “Yes, they’re finished,” Dervarine said. “We can go, Ma’am!”
With a final hiss, Rupertonix turned and headed in the direction the whistle had come from.
Spotting the movement, Sebastionix edged forward, but just as he did so, he stopped. His feline night vision had spotted a movement in front of him.
“There’s an elf down here,” he turned his head to convey the message to his passengers. “He seems to be heading away from Towering Pine.”
Sebastionix crouched down to allow them a closer look. Fevan, suddenly curious that it might be someone she knew, edged forward as far as she could, finding herself seated right on his furry forehead.
The elf was carrying a lamp, and as he held it up, she saw a face she certainly recognised. It couldn’t be, but it was. “Father!” she cried out. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh Fevan!” he cried. “I decided it was finally time to come home. I missed you and your sister so much, but I arrived to find the place in disarray, with a fearsome creature like this one barring the gate, and didn’t know what to do. I can’t believe I’ve found you!”
“They’re only fearsome if they don’t like you. Come up,” Fevan said, “we’re going back to Mighty Pine. It’s much more peaceful there.”
Stenovan nervously climbed up Sebastionix’s neck onto his back, just as Rivazan and Venixan rushed forward to greet him. The four of them hugged joyfully.
“Aw, that’s lovely,” Sebastionix said, but we’d better get back to it now. Here comes Rupertonix.”
As his friend drew alongside, Fevan quickly explained the reunion to Lazarn and Batefimba, and assured her Venixan and Rivazan were safe and well.
“Excellent, great work, all of you! Now, we need to get back to Mighty Pine as quickly as possible. Rupertonix, how fast can you two get us there in the dark?”
“Well, we are nocturnal,” the furriensis answered. “Let’s go!”
The friends cantered along tirelessly into the night, their wide awake passengers talking excitedly, and within just a few hours they were outside their settlement.
“We’ll need to be careful here,” Dervarine signalled the furrienses to stop a little way from the main gate. “Defensive traps will have been laid, so we’ll need the Captain to guide us in.”
He let out the same high-pitched whistle Panthozine had used earlier. Just a few seconds later, Carnotine’s head appeared over the wall, and he ordered his guards to open the gate far enough for the travellers to enter. He quickly climbed down from his vantage point and strode out to meet them.
“Well done, all of you!” he beamed. “I’ll guide you in, so we don’t spring any traps.”
“Thank you so much, Rupertonix and Sebastionix, you were marvellous!” Lazarn said, and her sentiments were echoed by every one of their passengers, the guards included.
“No problem, Monkeybreath. It was a privilege to be part of that. You were pretty scary out there.I was really glad I was on your side,” Rupertonix replied.
“I’m just going to pop back to the castle for a bite. An empty bowl will let the giants know I have been home. But then I’ll head back down and sleep nearby in case I’m needed.”
“I’ll do the same,” Sebastionix said. “If there’s more action ahead, I wouldn’t miss it.”
Carnotine led the weary travellers through the gate. “We left a gap for your arrival, but we’ll be laying a net trap across it now you’re safely inside,” he said.
“Thank you, Carnotine,” Lazarn said. “How long is it until sunrise?”
“A couple of hours, Ma’am.”
“Right, I’m going to stay up until then to see if anything materialises in daylight. It didn’t look like anything was planned, or even as if most of Towering Pine supports the bigoted views of Trevarn and Everarn, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a swift response once he finds his wife and granddaughter gone.”
“There are plenty of bunk beds in the guardroom, Ma’am, if you’d like to rest there,” Carnotine answered. “And anyone else who would like one.”
It was music to the ears of the weary raiding party. All except the guards who had travelled with them, and were now focused on helping the defensive effort, despite their tiredness. This was why they were trained. They were wired by the encounter at Towering Pine hours ago, ready for further action.
As they so often had while she was chieftain, Monkeybreath’s forecast proved accurate. The sun had been up for about an hour when Carnotine shook her awake.
“You should see this, Ma’am.”
Lazarn got up, quickly followed by Mazimba and Fevan, who had heard the Captain. From the front of the guardroom, which afforded a view over the wall, they could see a series of distant shapes, colourful, shimmering in the early morning sunlight. They were getting closer.
“They’re swarmonixes, Ma’am. They’re flying towards us!”
Lazarn watched in surprise. She’d only seen one or two swarmonixes in her life, never in the swarms that gave them their name. Green, with rainbow wings. Quite unlike the flying creatures that sometimes nested near the top of Mighty Pine.
“How are we going to defend against those, Captain? We hadn’t anticipated flying creatures.”
All around the perimeter wall, traps had been laid that would see any creature crossing an area on foot unfurling a high square net that they would walk or run into, and then be dropped into a pit at its base. The nets, once unfurled, would hang from long, thick poles that reached up at an angle from the wall, but they wouldn’t be sprung by flying creatures.
“I have an idea, Ma’am. It might help,” Carnotine replied as he rushed for the door to speak to the guards. “I have a feeling those swarmonixes will be struggling a little with the weight of the elves. They’re not much bigger than the elves are,” he called back as he exited.
“Let’s hope so,” Lazarn said nervously.
Several guards were already stationed on an observation platform that ran along a length of the front wall, including behind the gate.
Carnotine quickly instructed Dervarine to gather the remaining guards and get as many rocks as possible to those observing as they could. Then he climbed to the observation platform and quickly issued instructions. “Wait until the last possible second,” he stressed.
The briefing came just in time. At least eight swarmonixes and their elven riders were seconds away from the wall. “Now!” Carnotine shouted, and several guards threw their rocks down. It was like a chain reaction as several traps were sprung and their flying foes thudded into the nets, before sliding down into the pits at the base. Once they’d collected themselves, the swarmonixes were able to fly away and make their escape. But their pilots were stuck.
Thinking it was all over, Carnotine breathed a sigh of relief, but then a guard called out “Look, sir!”
There were two more still coming. “That’s Trevarn and Everarn!” Dervarine called from just along the platform.
The two desperate friends were trying to urge their struggling swarmonixes to fly higher, to clear the nets. It looked as though they would make it. Carnotine wondered briefly what two old men could do against all his guards, but he didn’t want to take any risks. He’d rather they stayed outside the wall.
Just then he heard “No you don’t!” and a giant furry paw came whistling through the air above them, as Sebastionix batted Everarn and his ride down to the ground in front of the wall.
“This one’s mine!” yelled Rupertonix as he administered the same treatment to Trevarn. It was over. Guards quickly burst through the gate to apprehend the pair, recover their comrades from the pits, and march them to the Mighty Pine holding cells.
In the guardroom, where Lazarn, Mazimba and Fevan had been watching, they’d been joined by the others, awoken by the noise.
They all looked at each other, suddenly exhausted beyond words.
“Boy, what a weekend!” Mazimba broke the silence. “Umamba, can I please have the day off school?” he laughed.
“It just struck me,” Batefimba said. “In all this planning, we haven’t worked out where you’re going to stay,” she said to the new arrivals.
“I’ve got a feeling someone here has a massive house with quite a few empty rooms,” Lazarn interjected.
“Now I think it’s time for some serious sleep,” she said, leading the way out of the guardroom and across to the stairs.
(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)