The congregation gathered for the meeting was actually rather small, occupying barely two-thirds of the Grand Dining Hall. (Even taking into account those who preferred to watch from the upper-level railings and Grand Staircase.) On the newly-cleaned Main floor, a large raised platform had been erected to one side of Jonathan Locksley's memorial marker (the moldy, damaged rug had been declared beyond help and had been disposed of) and several chairs and stools had been placed in a rough three-quarter circle on it. To one side of a large; almost opulent, presently empty; wingback chair (rescued at the last moment from a pile of furniture marked to be turned into firewood) sat Mrs. Brisbee and her children (she, Cynthia and Timothy in a smaller chair while Martin and Theresa fidgeted on a pair of stools to either side), and Linnette and Galen; who were dressed, respectively, in an attractive peasant-style costume dress and shawl (rather than her usual plain housedress and apron) and scarlett military Dress-tunic. (With all insignae except decorations and rank removed.)
To the other side sat the former Sheriff (in a chair almost as large as, if much more spartan than, the one in the center), Ezekiel Stabb (who now wore civilian clothing rather than the Guard uniform that Mrs. Brisbee had become used to seeing him in), Clyde Pegg and Dr. Ages.
In the surrounding sea of faces Mrs. Brisbee could see various animals she recognized. A few rows back from the platform Will Scarlet, who wore his acrobat costume, and Heather Kilcannon, resplendent in a blue velvet formal gown borrowed from Wilbur Splitbranch's oldest daughter, sat paw-in-paw engaged in dreamy-eyed conversation; seemingly oblivious to the dull roar of the crowd around them. She caught a glimpse of the two ferrets; Tom Binns and his older brother Robert, whose front paw still lay immobilized in a cast and sling; who had been introduced to her by Dr. Ages after he had arrived with his family late
the night before. Almost the whole Grand Staircase and most of a section of the floor below was taken by the Sheriff's former Deputies and their families, including every member of the Waning-Crescent Clan of weasels. Up in the rafters Jeremy sat dozing (or brooding, in the pensive sense of the word), a dark broad-brimmed hat that he'd found somewhere pulled low over his eyes, his black feathers and dark tunic melding with the shadows. Lady Kluck had volunteered to watch the nursery along with a few of the younger mothers and would be apprised of the decisions made at the meeting afterward.
All conversation stopped and the Hall fell silent as a lone figure began to make his way, through a roped-off aisle, down the Grand Staircase. A moment later, from somewhere in the back of the room, someone began applauding. Quickly, other animals began taking up the applause; and by the time Justin reached the platform the crowd was roaring, whistling and clapping its approval.
As soon as he stepped onto it, Justin raised his arms and began to signal the assembly to quiet. He looked much-refreshed after a good night's sleep and hot bath and the light from the candles of the main chandelier glinted off of the just-polished gold of his Guards rank-pin. Also; during the week that he'd been away from the Estate to bring back Mrs. Brisbee and the others, the female contingent of Nottingham had somehow found the time and material to make him a new shirt and uniform vest.
"Thank you. Thank you so much." He said after silence was restored. "I know," He began. "That many of you already know at least a few bits and pieces of the story of what has brought us here to this
particular place on this particular day. But for the sake of clarity I believe that a summary of the complete story would do much to give a better picture of both our present situation and the events that have led up to it." He said.
Justin then gave a detailed narration of Jenner's plottings against his adoptive brother, King Nicodemus; his work with his own half-brother and Dr. Ages to keep the Crown and Amulet (all eyes turned their gaze to the stone that hung around Mrs. Brisbee's neck at it's mention, much to her embarrassment) out of Jenner's grasp; Jenner's murder of King Nicodemus and Sir Jonathan and his own hasty flight from The City with the Chancellor's widow and children; his mourning of the deaths of his Sovereign and best friend (not a few animals cried during his description) and his weeks of effort to stop the worst abuses by Jenner's friends; the arson and attempted murder of himself, Ages, Mrs. Brisbee and her children and Jeremy (He was especially effusive in his praise of Jeremy's near-self-sacrifice in his effort to save Timothy, after which Jeremy took a good-humored bow and tipped his hat); the revelation of his relationship to Sir Jonathan (again eliciting more than a few tears) and his efforts to find his origins; his encounter with Brutus and the meeting and oath against Jenner in the Heath; and finally, his arrival and the news that Sullivan, the actual doer of most of Jenner's dirty work, was now the chief law-enforcement officer of the Shire. (This news, of course, provoked an outcry from the congregation.)
He then had Mrs. Brisbee, Brutus, Ezekiel Stabb and Dr. Ages tell their stories in turn and implored his rapt audience to reflect on the facts that had just been related, after which the meeting was ajourned for lunch.
After getting his bowl of delicious-smelling pepper-bean soup, a plate of breadand a mug of mulled apple-cider; Justin hurried to the circle where the Brisbee's, the Talbot's, Tom Binns and his wife Jennifer (Robert and his nieces and nephews were eating not far away), Dr. Ages, Jeremy, Brutus, Ezekiel Stabb, Will and Heather, and Liam and his wife, Sian, were gathered. After various necessary introductions were made, Justin sat at a spot reserved for him between his adoptive sister and his half-brother's widow.
"I'd say you caught their interest." Brutus commented just before gulping down some of his cider.
Justin shrugged as he broke a slice of his bread. "I should hope so." He said. "These folk need to know just what they're up against. I'd be derelict in my duties as their possible leader if I withheld any of the
facts from them."
"'Possible' leader?" Jennifer Binns asked. "I was under the impression that you already had that position pretty well nailed down." She said.
Justin smiled politely and shook his head. "No, Ma'am. I'm not like Jenner, come to order you or your husband and sons and daughters into battle from on high for my own glory or; worse yet; to satisfy some desire for revenge on my part." He dipped the piece of bread into his soup and took a bite. After swallowing he continued. "If I'm to be a credible leader to you all, I must be approved by everyone in this building. If I haven't the trust or respect of even one animal who's joined me here, I'm as much a pretender to the leadership of this cause as Jenner is to Britain's Throne."
"But what of your vow?" Linnette asked.
Justin sighed. "I'd still be honor-bound to keep it to the best of my ability." He said, a hint of resignation in his voice. "I'd simply have to try and do so under whoever these folk picked to be their leader."
"Well I, for one, think you'll make a fine leader." Jennifer said. "From what Dr. Ages has told us, you more than deserve our confidence."
Justin smiled again. "Thank you, Ma'am. But I would prefer that everyone here voted their conscience rather than simply try to please me." Justin then became more serious. "If anybody has a better idea of how to
avoid a confrontation that will; inevitably, I'm sorry to say; lead to bloodshed, even I would gladly follow him or her. But every action that Jenner has taken thus far leads me to believe that some kind of opposition to his rule is not only warranted, but absolutely necessary." He stated flatly.
"Here, here!" Brutus said as Galen, Stabb, Tom and Liam nodded their agreement.
A while later, after the lunch had been eaten and all of the dinnerware had been sent to the designated washroom (for use until the repairs to the kitchen were completed), Justin once again called the meeting to order and submitted Brutus and Galen's recommendation that a "Council of Elders" be elected to see to the day-to-day needs of those present and nominated the former Sheriff of Nottingham as its Chairman. With only token debate over a few details (mainly how long the term of such an Office would last, the figure settled on being one year with the next election to be held on that date next; and the number of Council members, nine being the agreed-upon figure) the measure was approved unanimously. Next, nominations for Elders were called for, submitted and eventually voted upon. Elected in short order were Marian
Brisbee, Tom Binns, Ezekiel Stabb, Liam Wyclyffe, Wilbur Splitbranch, Dr. Ages and Jonah "Blinkey" Baylor.
Election of the ninth member became problematic when Galen refused the submission of hisname for nomination by several of the farmfolk, explaining with some passion that his duties to his beloved wife precluded all others except advising Justin on military matters and helping to train the Army that would be needed to both defend the Estate and; some day, hopefully; topple Jenner from the Throne. A number of other names were submitted but no agreement could be reached. Out ofgrowing frustration, Justin was about to call a recess when Will Scarlet jumped to his feet.
"Oy nominay' 'Eather Kilcannon f'r th' Counc'l!" He shouted.
Heather (along with several others in the crowd) gasped at this breach of parliamentary protocol. She grabbed his wrist and tried to pull him back down. "Will, me love, have ye gone DAFT?" She demanded in an embarrassed half-whisper.
Will gave a wan, equally embarrassed grin and shrugged. His mind froze, as did the answer on his lips.
It was Ezekiel Stabb who came to Will's rescue. "I second the nomination!" He announced proudly. He then turned to Justin. "Captain Locksley. May I please address this meeting and the presently-elected members of this Council?" He asked, his eyes bright with emotion.
Justin smiled, bowed and motioned Stabb to the spot where he was standing. "By all means, Sir." He said, then retreated to his center chair.
Stabb adjusted his clothing, a military-pattern vest and shirt cut from peasant-style cloth, and hesitated a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Fellow Britons," He began. "I know that I'm a recent arrival
from the Continent and that you heard my story earlier today. But over these past several months I have developed a deep love and respect for this land and its inhabitants even as they have fallen under the tyranny of a King who would forsake them. But I believe that there is another story that needs to be told. As I was arresting those children of the King's Orphanage, and; sadly; I can think of no more accurate term to use, a crowd of students, who I thought to be nothing more than an irritating rabble at the time, began to gather in protest of the actions that I'd let myself be manipulated into. Little did I know at the time, but the protest had apparently been organized by the young skunk who had taken upon herself the task of guarding the backpack of the young hayseed who so thoroughly kicked my tail and woke me up to the Evil that I was doing to those poor kids.
"Later, after we'd made good our escape from The City, she gave me my first insight; my 'epiphany', if you will; into a gentler side of myself that I never realized I had. She also taught me that, whatever evils might haunt my past, redemption was and is still possible even for a foolish old soldier like me. Her wisdom, a word that I don't use lightly, is far beyond her tender years and her innocence and optimism made our search for Captain Locksley not simply bearable but, as I look back upon it, a pleasure that I will remember with a smile until the day that I'm summoned by the spirits."
Stabb then held an inviting paw in the direction of the spot where Will and Heather were seated. "Heather Kilcannon, would you join me on the platform, please?"
Heather shyly stood as the crowd burst into applause and she made her way through the rows of animals. Stabb and Justin met her at the bottom of the platform steps and escorted her to its center. By now, tears were freely flowing down her cheeks and Stabb's eyes were also quite moist. She tightly hugged Stabb. "Thank ye." She said, her voice a whisper that barely carried above the cheers of the audience. Stabb looked into her wide, awe-struck eyes. "No, girl, it's you I have to thank." He said as he felt a tear slide from his own eye and soak into the fur of his cheek. "For giving me back a soul that I thought I'd lost so many years ago." Heather gave Stabb another quick hug and Justin stepped over and lightly and respectfully kissed the silky black fur of the back of her paw. He then signaled the congregation to silence.
"Okay," He said. "A nomination has been made and seconded and an endorsement given. All in favor of electing Miss Heather Kilcannon to the last seat on the ’Council of Elders’, although if she IS elected we'll be stretching the definition a bit, (scattered laughter erupted from the crowd at this remark) signify by a show of paws or wing."
The vote was, of course, unanimous.
While the crowd again made known their approval, Justin escorted her not back down the steps but to sit at his center chair. He then, once more, motioned for quiet. "It's now time for probably the most important vote of the day." He stated, a tinge of hesitation readily apparent in his voice. "Until now, you have all followed me simply because I was willing to lead you. This, I suppose, is not in and of itself a bad thing. In times of crisis we often look to someone who is willing to take great responsibilities upon him, or her, self (at this point he traded a significant glance with Mrs. Brisbee) in the belief that this willingness is a sign of strength or wisdom, a word; by the way; that I also don't use lightly, that is given to just a privileged few." He paused a moment to let his words soak into the audience. "Unfortunately, Jenner would seem to be living proof that BEING a leader or a King and an actual TALENT for Leadership are NOT necessarily one in the same.
"If I'm to be your leader, fine, I'll gladly accept that position and whatever burdens or privileges you happen to bestow upon it. But if I'm to function EFFECTIVELY as your leader, I need to know that I have the unanimous support of those I lead or, as I told someone recently, I'm no better than the tyrant that I'm supposed to be leading you all against.
"For myself, the vow that I made a week and a day ago still stands! Even if, by your vote, you decide that I am NOT fit to lead you, I'm still Honor-bound to do all that I can to the best of my ability to rid Britain of
the chains of abuse and slavery that Jenner has cruelly placed around the necks of his subjects. To those of you who took up my vow last week, I now release you from it so that you can vote your conscience and not feel unduly obligated to me; the same goes for those who have come to seek shelter from the terror of Jenner's rule. Brutus, would you please call the vote?" Justin asked as he stepped to one side.
Brutus stood and said, "By a show of paws or wing, all in favor of Justin as the leader of this effort to toss Jenner's tail off the Throne of Britain, please signify!"
Almost before he'd completed the phrase, one paw from each and every animal in the hall (plus Jeremy's wing in the rafters) shot up.
"Any opposed?" He asked.
A tense silence filled the room for a moment as no one dared to even breathe.
"Then by unanimous vote of those present I name Captain Justin Locksley the official leader of this motley rabble of townfolk and farmers!" He declared with a wide grin.
The crowd erupted instantly into giddy applause and Justin had no real choice but to adjourn the meeting as a festival atmosphere swept through the hall. Eventually he managed to corral the members of the Council of Elders, along with Linnette and Galen Talbot and Will Scarlet; who kept firmly arm-in-arm with Heather; and led them to what had once obviously been a sitting room in its better days.
"I apologize for the lack of accommodations," He said, a lopsided grin on his face. "But a large table isn't exactly high on the woodwright's priority list at the moment. Until he decides we're worth the bother, we'll just have to improvise." He then directed the Council members and his guests to form a semi-circle facing the fireplace, which radiated heat from a pile of still-glowing embers. "I'll also try to keep this meeting short so none of us misses too much of the festivities outside." Justin then noticed Wendell Cravenbrook; portable desk, ink bottle, pen and a small sheaf of paper in paw; hovering expectantly just outside the open door. Justin waved the former Deputy in and seated him to one side comfortably close to the heat of the fireplace.
"The first order of business of the first official meeting of this Council," He began. "Should be to determine what we should call 'this motley rabble of townfolk and farmers', as our esteemed Council President so
delicately and diplomatically put it."
From somewhere, a "Harrumph!" was heard.
"Someone has a suggestion?" Justin asked with mild amusement.
"More like an objection!" The otter who called himself "Blinkey" replied with a scowl.
"Which is?" Justin asked.
The otter stood. "Why shou'd we have t' call aurselves anythin'?" He asked. "We're just a bunch o' folk who've decided that we won't be pushed aroun' b' tha' idjit King no more! We don' need no name fer tha'!"
Justin shrugged. "Perhaps you're right." He said. "But tell me, weren't you a sailor before retiring to Nottingham to become a farmer?" He asked, his tone neutral and polite.
The otter rolled his one eye impatiently. "Aye, tha' I was, Boy. Bu' wha's tha' go' t' do wi' anythin'?" He asked.
"Well," Justin began, drawing out his pronunciation of the word. "Correct me if I'm wrong," He said airily. "But didn't the ships that you crewed aboard usually have a name of some sort? You know; an Important
Historical Personage, a Mythical Figure, a Captain or Builder's Wife or girlfriend..."
"Aye! So?" The otter asked, clearly irritated.
"So you were loyal to those ships and their names, were you not?" Justin asked.
"I shou'd 'ope so! A crew is loyal t' its ship an' each other! Tha's an unwritten Law o' th' Sea!"Blinkey proudly declared.
"My point exactly!" Justin exclaimed. "We have to name our effort against Jenner for the same reason that you would name a ship, to instill an unbreakable bond of loyalty between our cause and between each
other! If a Ship's Captain dies in mid-voyage, will the crew suddenly, aside from the burial-at-sea, just stop and not do their duties to the ship and for each other?" He asked pointedly.
Blinkey didn't hesitate a moment before answering. "No, Sir." He stated, for the first time a genuine respect in his voice.
Justin pressed on. "Even if, the spirits forbid, I should be killed in my efforts to keep the vow that I've made to you; isn't it reasonable to assume that the rest of you will pick up where I left off?"
A dozen heads solemnly, unhesitatingly, nodded in unison.
"Then this cause, OUR cause, must be looked at as a ship that has just embarked on a most perilous journey." He declared. "If, for whatever reason, I'm unable to complete the voyage then I expect someone to take my place as Ship's Captain and sail on until those who've survived me have reached a peaceful shore."
By now, tears were streaming from Blinkey's good eye and his head was bowed and he held his sea-hat, fidgeting with it like a child waiting to be punished.
Justin cocked his head quizzically to one side. "Have I said something wrong?" He asked, concern evident in his voice.
"No Sir." The otter said in a voice somewhere between a whisper and a sob. "Bu' I realize now," He continued, "Tha' I been showin' you a disr'spec' you ain't been d'servin' o'."
Justin shrugged. "If you mean your skepticism of my leadership abilities, I'm sure that you're far from the only one. I have the feeling that those few that I DO possess are going to be in for a fair amount of testing and questioning in the weeks and months ahead." He sighed and walked to the otter and put a consoling arm around the sailor-turned-farmer's sharply sloping shoulders. "It's inevitable that, over time, someone, at some point, is going to disagree with me over this or that detail; or even just get fed up with me barking out orders all day. It's just something that I've resigned myself to and can't let drive me crazy." He then turned the otter to face him and gazed into his eye. "Please don't EVER feel hesitant to point out any mistakes that you might think I've made. I'm not perfect and I expect to make plenty of them while I'm doing this so I'll need your help and everybody else's to keep me humble. Deal?" He asked, raising his eyebrows and giving the otter a good-natured grin.
Blinkey hesitated for a few moments, but finally matched it with a somewhat broken-toothed smile of his own. (This amazed Galen. The only expression that he'd ever seen on Blinkey was an ever-present scowl.) "Deal!"he said. He then spit into his paw and offered it to the fox.
Without hesitation, Justin spit into his own paw and they both shook to seal their bargain.
The debate over what to call the effort to fight Jenner didn't actually last very long. Several suggestions were made and rejected. But it was, of all things, a side "argument" between Martin and his mother that inspired the name that was eventually chosen. The Brisbee children had been patiently sitting through the meeting until the sounds of the party outside started becoming more prominent. Martin tugged on the well-worn hem of his mother's travelling cape but couldn't seem to get her attention. He then managed to snag one of the leaves of paper and a pencil that Wendell had brought with him and had written
something on it and shown it to her. Irritated by the interruption Mrs. Brisbeehad written an answer below, shown it to him and then placed the page back by where the young weasel was scribbling furiously away as suggestions were tossed out for consideration. Unconsciously, Wendell reached down and picked up the piece of paper and was about to shove it to the back of his sheaf when he noticed what the mother fox had written. He then handed the paper to Justin; who scanned it quickly as his eyes widened and jaw dropped in amazement.
"Of course! It's so SIMPLE! Why didn't I think of that?" He blurted so quickly that all in the room were taken totally by surprise.
"What? What's so simple?" Asked Linnette, who'd been trying to follow the meeting with little success even with the help of a whispered narrative by her husband.
"We can call our fight 'NO!'!" Justin said, joyfully waving the piece of paper over his head.
"But what's that supposed to mean?" Wilbur Splitbranch asked skeptically.
Justin huffed in exasperation. "Isn't it obvious?" He asked. "It means 'NO!' to Jenner's rule, 'NO!' to his enslavement of his subjects, 'NO!' to the Repossession Decree..." He began ticking off points on the fingers of one paw.
"I believe that what my colleague meant was, what will the initials 'N' and 'O' stand for?" Ezekiel Stabb interjected more calmly.
Wilbur nodded. "What he said." The weasel murmured.
"How about 'Nottingham Organization'?" Brutus asked. "It's short and catchy." The bear said. "Even the simplest peasant ought to be able to remember it."
"An excellent idea!" Dr. Ages agreed. "I'll second it!" He exclaimed.
"Marian?" Justin asked. "What about you? It was, after all, your idea."
Mrs. Brisbee shrugged with embarrassment. The piece of paper that Justin held was really nothing more than a request by her eldest son to join the revelry taking place outside and her refusal to let him; not because she wished to deny them a well-earned opportunity for some fun, but because she didn't wish to leave them unsupervised. "I-I guess I have no objection." She stammered.
"Alright then. All in favor?" He asked.
One of everyone's paw shot into the air, including Blinkey's.
"Well, I guess we've all just become members of the 'Nottingham Organization' then." Justin said. "This meeting is adjourned. Now go on out and have yourselves a good time."
After the others had left the room, Stabb showed Justin the plan that he and Galen had spenta good part of the night writing which detailed a way to make contact with Sullivan with minimum risk of capture by the new Sheriff.
"Are you sure this'll work?" Justin asked.
"Frankly, no." Stabb replied flatly. "But it's the best we could come up with from what little information we could get from the Wyclyffe boy. Anyway, you know Sullivan better than any of the rest of us; what d'you
think?" He asked.
Justin shook his head, anger mixed with sadness as he exclaimed, "I'm not sure WHAT to think! I HATE having so few options! I make one wrong decision and someone's husband, son or brother will probably die because of it."
Stabb nodded his understanding. "Believe me, Captain, I know the feeling well. But war's are about fightin' an' dyin'. Sometimes for somethin' you believe in, most times not. We just gotta make sure that we know which is which an' keep remindin' ourselves why we're fightin' this one." He said sympathetically.
Justin lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "You and Brutus must share the same speechwriter. That's pretty much what he told me about a week ago when we hatched this little plan." He said with a hint of sarcasm.
Stabb smiled a bit, but there was a certain sadness in his voice as he said, "His is a voice of wisdom while mine is one of long experience. You, my friend, seem to be blessed with an ample supply of both. Your problem, however, is that you wish that you could spare all of these folk the pain, suffering and death that lie in wait for them." Stabb's face then darkened and his eyes hardened, as did his voice. "But I can tell you right now that you're gonna have to close your Heart, your eyes an' your ears to the cries of the wounded an' dying once the blood starts to run an' concentrate on the fight directly in front of you or it'll drive you to the depths of despair and our cause,not just the battles we'll have to fight for it, WILL be lost."
Justin was shaken a bit by the vehemence of Stabb's words. "I guess we'll have to chance your plan." He said grimly. Almost as an afterthought he asked, "So who's gonna go into town to speak to Sullivan?"
"Missus Talbot tried to volunteer. Said the Sheriff'd never take a blind person hostage." Stabb said, a mischievous grin coming to his face as Justin's jaw dropped in horror. "Don't worry, Captain." Stabb
reassured him. "Colonel Talbot an' I nixed that idea right off. Mrs. Brisbee's friend, that Lady Kluck, has volunteered. Frankly, I think she's our best candidate. Sullivan may or may not recognize her, but I think he might be inclined to treat her as a neutral party for the time being." He said.
Justin again raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I rather doubt that "neutrality" has an entry in his battlefield manual; but you're right, I don't think that he'll perceive her as any kind of threat." He said.
"Then it's a 'go'?" Stabb asked.
Justin nodded. "Yeah." He said quietly, praying to the spirits that he was doing the right thing.