What a madhouse! Until last night Locksley Manor had been virtually empty; except for himself, Linney and a few other families who had finished their harvests a bit early. But today at least a hundred families had shown up, all clammoring to be allowed under the protective wing of the Locksley name. Fortunately Galen Talbot, late of H.M. 9th Foot Brigade, was up to the task of sorting through the chaos that surrounded him. It would be at least another week before the breach in the kitchen wall was completely repaired because finding stones to replace those that were missing was taking longer than anticipated so nights in the manor-house would be breath-foggingly cold for a while yet, not that it really mattered; he, Linney and all the other animals were growing their thick, almost shaggy, Winter coats. By day, the cleanup of the interior was proceeding apace as the walls were stripped of the accumulated mold and covered with bolts of canvas until the day arrived when the exquisite murals could be restored to their former glory. A number of families, contrary to the former Sheriff's recommendation, had brought their furniture and Galen, as Justin's paw-picked representative, had laid down the law: Any "nonessential" furniture (i.e. bric-a-brac shelves) was either to be returned or used as firewood, and "essential" furniture (such as beds, tables and chairs or benches) would become property of the Estate until the original owners were able to return home after Jenner was overthrown; provided, of course, that they could produce the receipt that Galen had written out for them.
Not all families were opting to stay in the manor-house itself. A large tent-city was springing up around the edifice and a number of businesses including both a black-and coopersmith and a woodwright were providing for this impromptu village. Galen had placed the former Sheriff in charge of bringing some sort of order to the layout and resolving disputes among animals who might vie for a "favored" spot. This Brutus did with a flair and almost military precision that amazed the former Army Colonel. With several former Deputies, he carefully surveyed and divided lots among various families, assigning them as fairly as possible under the circumstances.
By Midday most of the major problems were being ironed out and both Galen and Brutus took a respite in the small office that Galen had set up in a small block of rooms that were assigned to become Justin and the Brisbee's living-quarters. Over bowls of hot mushroom and barley soup, prepared by Linney and the other wives, Galen said, "I really have to thank you for all you're help today, Sheriff."
Brutus smiled happily and shrugged. "'Twer'n't nuthun'. These folk know that Justin has theirbest interests in mind and, while there's always gonna be the potential for friction among them, I think they're also beginning to realize that he can't do it all alone and that he needs all the support and cooperation that we can give him." He said.
Galen nodded thoughtfully. "Unfortunately, this brings up something that I wish I could avoid,but really can't." He said.
"Oh?" Brutus asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes." Galen answered, pulling his chair closer to Brutus's "I'd like for you to take over as Justin's second-in-command when he gets back." Brutus was about to say something, but Galen raised a paw to
silence him. "I know. Justin chose me and I'm sure he had some very good reasons. But over the past several days I've come to the conclusion that, while our cause is important, so too is the commitment that I made to Linney when I fell hopelessly and passionately in love with her. I'm more than willing to serve in an advisory capacity, but I'm afraid that my main priority is looking to the comfort and safety of my wife. I hope you'll understand." He explained.
Again, Brutus smiled. "Of course." He said. "When he gets back I'll talk to your brother about taking over day-to-day operations. We should probably also see about having some sort of "town meeting", as it were, to elect or appoint some sort of council or other governing body so that we can bettersee to everyone's needs."
Galen nodded his assent. Just then, one of Brutus's former Deputies and his wife appeared at the door. She was quietly sobbing into her apron and his face was contorted in both anger and worry.
"Liam, Mrs. Wyclyffe. What's wrong?" Brutus asked.
"It's Declan, our second oldest; he's disappeared." Liam said quietly, obviously just barely in control of his temper.
"He-He was...helping us...with our move." Mrs. Wycliffe stated between sobs. "Bu-But we...we lost track of him sometime this morning."
"Alright, Deputy, you know the drill." Brutus said calmly, lifting himself from his chair. "Have everyone drop what they're doing and gather just outside the entrance to the manor-house so we can pick the search
teams." He turned to Galen and said, "We've had to search the forest for lost kids before so we set up a special procedure." The bear then led them out of the office, grabbing his ever-present quarterstaff, and took them to the top landing of the Grand Staircase. He then rapped the 'staff on the sturdy wooden floor and called for everyone's attention, the two sounds echoing and reverberating like thunder through the immense structure. He then ordered everyone outside as quickly as possible.
A few minutes later, all of the animals were gathered outside of Locksley Manor as Brutus explained the situation. He was about to pick search teams when he saw a familiar figure, pulling a hand-cart and followed by several other animals, emerging from one of the forest paths. Mrs. Wyclyffe shouted her joy as her son climbed wearily down from the cart and ran to him and gave him a loving hug. Liam strode over and quickly examined his son's bandaged wounds and said sharply, "I don't know whether to hug you or put you over my knee!" The little anger that was left on his face then faded to a relieved smile. "But since someone else has obviously dispensed your punishment, I guess I'd better give you a dose of comfort." And he too hugged his son.
By now the crowd was gathered around Justin and the strangers who accompanied him. In all the clamor, no one noticed the black rooster who was surreptitiously making his way toward the former Sheriff. The bird then approached the bear from behind, tapped a wing on his massive back and then drew it back.
Brutus felt someone tapping him on his back. When he turned around to see who it was, he found himself nose-to-beak with a young rooster wearing a dark poncho-like tunic with a cross-bow slung across his back and over one shoulder and a quiver of bolts hanging from his belt. "Yes?" He asked. This was all that he had time to say before his world suddenly went black.
Brutus had no idea how long he'd been laying in the grass when his eyes finally opened. Overhead a pair of young children, both rabbits, were on their haunches looking down at him. One, a female with a crudely made doll, asked the other, a male with eyes both sad and wise beyond his years, "D'ya think he's asleep?"
"No, Cynthia." The male answered. "His eyes are open now."
Cynthia took a closer look and her eyes widened with curiosity. "Are you alright, Mister Bear?" She asked.
A small crowd was now gathering around them and a ferret and a weasel had to jostle their way through them to reach Brutus.
"Let us through! Let us through!" The ferret ordered. The two rabbits made room for the two newcomers, but stayed by the bear's side.
"Brutus, are you awake?" The ferret asked, his voice heavy with concern.
Brutus shook his head and blinked when he heard the familiar voice. "I think so." He groaned weakly. "What happened?"
"Do you remember a rooster we tossed into a mudpit last Summer?" The weasel asked.
Brutus closed his eyes and dredged his memories. Hadn't he heard something about that solong ago? He opened his eyes again. "Vaguely." He mumbled.
"Well, your past just caught up with you. That was him." The weasel said.
Brutus lifted his head. A short distance away, the rooster stood rubbing the circulation back into his wing and staring impassively at him.
"D'you want we should take him into custody?" The weasel asked.
Brutus lifted himself to a sitting position and felt a tug on his cloak. It was the little girl-rabbit, Cynthia.
"You're not gonna 'rest Jeremy are you, Mister Bear?" She asked, her eyes welling with tears. "He's jus' mad because the King burned 'im when he tried to help Timothy after he set Doctor Ages house on fire!"
Brutus bowed his head. Justin had told him about Sullivan's; and by extent, Jenner's; attempt to kill Justin, Dr. Ages and the Brisbee family. And now here he was face-to-face with one of the intended victims of that horrific crime, an innocent child whose only crime was being adopted by the King's Chancellor. Brutus could feel tears of his own, tears of guilt, misting his eyes. He gently put a brawny arm around the child and drew her closer. "Don't worry, little one. I understand. No one will touch your friend." He assured her. He then raised his voice a bit. "Right boys?" He asked sternly.
The ferret and weasel looked at each other, not quite sure what to make of Brutus's suddenlyodd behavior. "Uh, sure, Boss!" The ferret answered nervously.
Brutus tnen got to his feet and dismissed them. The children were awe-struck by his size. "And what's your name, son?" He asked the boy-rabbit.
"That's Timothy! He's my little brother!" Cynthia exclaimed happily. "I'm Cynthia! Cynthia Brisbee! That ferret called you 'Brutus'. Is that really your name?"
Brutus nodded. "That's what my former Deputies call me when I'm off-duty, little one. But you can still call me 'Mister Bear' if you like."
Cynthia nodded back.
Sensing that this was a good time to leave, Timothy grabbed his sister's paw and began to lead her toward the manor-house, where Justin was heading with the hand-cart. "C'mon, Cynthia!" He exclaimed. "Let's go an' look at our new home!"
Cynthia waved a reluctant and affectionate goodbye to Brutus. "G'bye Mister Bear!" She cried.
Brutus felt a tear roll down the fur of his cheek as he returned her wave. "Good-bye little one." He said in a choked whisper, now understanding completely why he had been willing to give up so much to fight for Justin's cause.
A short while later, after he had put the hand-cart away and settled the Brisbees, Jeremy, Dr. Ages and the others into their quarters, Justin gathered Galen, Brutus, Ages and Stabb into the office that Galen had prepared for him. Galen apprised Justin of his wish to be relieved of second-in-command status for the sake of his wife's needs and instead offered his services as an advisor on military and training matters. Justin reluctantly agreed to his brother's request andhanded the job to Brutus. (Stabb had offered his services at their first meal together at Justin's adoptive home and the fox had happily accepted.) They also suggested that a "town meeting" be held to elect representatives for the various interests of the quickly-growing community. Justin readily agreed to this proposal and added that he would also put the issue of his leadership of the effort to dethrone Jenner up for a referendum as well. "After all," He pointed out, "It would be foolish for them to try toppling one tyrant while following another."
They then turned their attention to the letter that Declan had given him. Justin and his travelling companions had found the young hare sitting on a rock and crying by the side of the road. After some gentle persuasion he had told them of his capture and release by the new Sheriff that morning and of his fear of his expected punishment at the paws of his father.Justin had told him that, while disobedience toward one's parents WAS a serious affair, he was relatively unharmed and his father would no doubt be too relieved that his son was all right to dispense anything too painful. This seemed to calm the hare, who introduced himself. When Justin had introduced himself and his companions, an astonished Declan had dug the note that the new Sheriff had given him out of a pocket of his badly ripped tunic.
At first, Justin had been more than a little surprised and angry when he'd found out that his former colleague was Nottinghamshire's new chief law enforcement official; noting dirisively that a conspirator to murder and arson could hardly be expected to competently, let alone fairly, administer anything even remotely resembling justice. Dr. Ages, ever the practical soul, pointed out that sooner or later Sullivan's lack of competence would probably make Justin's job just that much easier. Justin found this a dubious assumption, but decided not to argue the point.
He read the letter aloud:
"To the townfolk of Nottingham,
By order of His Majesty, King Jenner, I have been duly appointed and sworn to the Office of Sheriff of this Shire. I wish to reassure everyone that if you return immediately to your homes you will be made welcome and not harmed or disturbed in any way."
("Okay, that's the carrot."Justin thought to himself. "Now, Sullivan, where's your inevitable stick?")
"Failure to return to your homes will result in a declaration of "Abandonment of Property". Such a declaration will result in confiscation of all lands and properties thereon. Please send a representative to negotiate at your earliest convenience."
"Who does he think he's kidding?" Justin exploded, shaking his head in amazement and anger. "Any comments?" He asked once he'd calmed himself down enough to speak.
"Bloody arrogant if you ask me!" Brutus exclaimed angrily. "That implied threat of confiscation is as empty as his head! Jenner's already made it clear that he plans to seize everyone's property!"
The others nodded their assent.
"The 'negotiation' angle is an interesting touch." Stabb said. "In the little time I spent under him, Captain Sullivan never struck me as the negotiating type."
"He isn't!" Justin stated, his voice firm. "He doesn't have Jenner's subtleties when it comes to manipulations and machinations, so I can pretty much guarantee that anyone we might send to him will end up on a one-way trip to the gallows as an example to the rest of us!"
Again the others nodded.
"So we ignore the note?" Galen asked.
"That would be a mistake." Ages said.
"Oh?" Asked Justin. "In what way?"
Ages motioned for the others to follow him as he limped out of the cramped office and into the main hall. A dull roar of activity surrounded them as families and individuals went about various tasks. "During the time that we're fighting this war, because you all know that that's EXACTLY what this is, none of you must ever forget that this," He swept his paw around the room, "Is what we're fighting for. These animals are here because they've placed their trust AND their lives in our paws and we owe them nothing less than our own blood and possibly our lives to see that they don't end up as slaves in their own land."
"We know this already!" Justin said.
"Do you?" Ages asked, skepticism dripping from his voice. "Are you so sure of your cause that you're willing to throw away an option outright simply because of your anger at the one who has proposed it? I don't
dispute that Sullivan isn't to be trusted. But in addition to what I mentioned before, we owe these animals the opportunity to make their own decisions about the course of their lives; something which, I would remind you, Jenner is quite happy to deny them."
Justin conceded the logic of Ages observation. "But how do we meet him without endangering our own safety?" He asked.
"We could call a 'truce and parley'." Galen suggested. "He and a few of his Deputies meet with some of us at a place of our choosing."
Stabb chuckled dirisively. "You are a hopeless optimist, aren't you?" He asked. Then, in all seriousness he said, "Our backs are pretty much against a wall no matter what we do. Given a choice; my gut tells
me that the less contact we have with the Sheriff, the better. But we DO need to find out as much as we can about his plans." To Justin he said, "Let me go an' talk to him. If anything bad happens, we can chalk it up to experience and make a more cautious play the next time around."
Justin shook his head. "No way am I gonna send you or anyone else on any suicide missions." He said sternly. "We may have to take a lot of risks in this endeavor but needless, empty sacrifice is out of the question!" Justin turned angrily away and walked back to his office.
"Okay! Okay! Maybe that's not one of my better ideas!" Stabb said as he followed the others, a touch of embarrassment in his voice.
Justin reseated himself and began to rub at his tired eyes. "Don't worry, Mr.Stabb. I'm not angry at you; at least not specifically." He said wearily. "I'm angry that I have so little control over this situation and so few options for rectifying it. Your offer simply served to remind me of that. If you feel that you can talk to Sullivan, then put together some sort of workable plan and have it ready to present to me after the meeting
tomorrow." To Galen, Brutus and Ages he said, "Spread the word to everyone who's come to join me that we're going to have the 'town meeting' that you've suggested starting mid-morning to discuss both the exact nature and the future of this...this..."
"War." Dr. Ages stated flatly.
Justin nodded reluctantly. "I suppose I've been loathe to admit to myself that that's what this has come down to; But the good Doctor is right. We're at war."
Elsewhere in the manor-house, Mrs. Brisbee knocked at the door of Galen and Linnette Talbot's rooms.
"Come in." Linnette called.
Mrs. Brisbee opened the door and stepped in. "Mrs. Talbot?" She asked.
"Yes. And you must be Mrs. Brisbee." The older vixen said, a smile coming to her face. "Justin's told us so much about you and your late husband. Would you like to sit down?" She indicated a spot on the couch
next to where she herself sat.
"Yes, thank you." Mrs. Brisbee said softly, trying to hide the nervousness in her voice. Justin had given her specific instructions that his sister was to be treated like anyone else and not some fragile flower that
might wilt at the merest touch. She took a seat next to Justin's adoptive sister and decided to break the bad news as gently and diplomatically as possible and hope for the best. "I realize that it's not my place to come in here and..." She began.
"You're more than welcome to run the manor-house." Linnette said reassuringly. "I had no problem doing so when there were only a few families to watch over, so to speak, but now I must admit that the job has gone somewhat beyond my capabilities. And after all, who better than a trained professional to take over where this amateur left off?" She explained.
Mrs. Brisbee, somewhat nonplused by Justin's sister's concession, said, "Are you sure? The last thing I want to do is make you feel unwelcome in your own home."
Linnette smiled again, but Mrs. Brisbee thought that she could detect a certain sadness in the other vixen's unseeing eyes. "Yes, Mrs. Brisbee, I'm quite sure. This manor-house is only a temporary residence until Jenner is overthrown and Galen and I are free to move back to our cottage on the Heath." She said.
Mrs. Brisbee nodded and took one of Linnette's paws into her own. "Thank you, Mrs. Talbot." She said in a half-whisper. "I'm sure that you'll be able to go back to your home soon." Her voice then returned to normal volume. "In the meantime I happen to have a position open for an experienced Assistant Household Administrator, if you're interested."
Linnette's face brightened. "Okay, but only if we can drop all that 'Mrs.' stuff. It's WAY too formal for my tastes. Call me 'Linney'!" She exclaimed.
Mrs. Brisbee giggled. "You're right, it is." She said. "My name is Marian."
A few minutes later, as they were discussing plans for how best to run the manor-house, Justin and Galen passed by the door to the Talbot's rooms and stopped for a moment to listen to the school-girlish chatter and laughter audible from the other side.
"Sounds like Linney and Marian have worked things out amicably enough." Justin said, a hint of relief in his voice.
Galen smiled and nodded. "See? I could've told you they'd make a great pair." He stated confidently.
Justin returned the smile with one of his own. "If those two can keep this house running smoothly," He declared. "We should have no problems winning this thing."
Unfortunately, Justin couldn't have known just how wrong he would be.