The line of animals proceeded along the narrow forest path as the chill early-morning air enveloped them; the occasional falling snowflake sticking to fur, clothing or ground, only to melt into oblivion seconds later. In the lead was a quiet and subdued Justin. In the nursery the night before, little Timothy had awakened; crying and in a cold sweat. A concerned Lady Kluck had fetched him, Mrs. Brisbee and Dr. Ages, afraid that the child had caught another bout of pneumonia. Ages had quickly examined the young rabbit and pronounced him to be quite healthy. But what had awakened his nephew was another one of those
awful prophetic nightmares. When asked to describe it, Timothy told them that he'd been dreaming of someone, a young female wolf, who was running from the half-lion, half-fox demon-creature who; until now at least, had pretty much faded from memory. He'd told them that while she was in some danger from the demon-creature, it was three males; though Timothy could not tell what their exact relation to her was; who were in more immediate peril. Justin could only shrug helplessly, telling Timothy that he had an idea of who fit this particular description, but that he had no way of rendering aid to them at that particular moment. The rabbit had nodded his understanding, a sadness in his tired eyes. He'd then asked if he might be allowed to speak privately to his Uncle. With a collective odd look; his mother, Ages and Kluck had excused themselves, leaving them to talk by the dim light of a small lamp, surrounded only by the sound of soft breathing or snoring of other sleeping children.
"I'm listening." Justin had said.
A strange, haunted look had now come to his nephew's face; making his eyes seem even sadder, if such a thing were possible. "I dreamt that someone, someone very close to you, is going to die." The rabbit had said very matter-of-factly. "I don't know who or when," He'd continued, "But the spirits have chosen to bring the soul of one of us to their realm."
Justin had been quite taken aback by this pronouncement from such a young child. While he'd grown more than a little skeptical over the years since his childhood when it came to his beliefs about the spirit world and affairs of the supernatural, Timothy's prediction of the fire and their narrow escape from Dr. Ages house had served to cast a shadow of doubt on the certainty of that skepticism. And now to have his younger nephew tell him that one of their number, and a close acquaintance at that, was somehow predestined to die and there was nothing that could be done to alter upcoming events, it was as if all of the strengths that had been serving him so well up until now; his leadership abilities, his training, his will to see Justice prevail and his vulpine survival instinct, the "wiliness" for which his species was so well
known and admired; were being mocked by a force over which he had no control. And it both bothered and scared the hell out of him. Needless to say he'd gotten very little sleep that night; especially since he'd had to awaken long before dawn to start this journey if he, Ezekiel Stabb, Liam Wyclyffe, Brutus, Dr. Ages and Galen Talbot were to make it to the Heath in time to make the necessary preparations for their meeting with Sullivan.
A few paces to his rear, Stabb and Wyclyffe were comparing notes on their first day of training their respective charges.
"Your boy certainly makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in discipline." Stabb told the hare matter-of-factly.
Liam shrugged. "I think he gets it from my side of the family." He confessed, a mixture of pride and embarrassment in his voice. "We Wyclyffe's tend to be a querelous lot."
"So I've heard." Stabb chuckled with amusement. His voice then became slightly more serious. "He seems to have all of the physical qualifications for being a soldier; excellent reflexes, sharp eyes an' the
like; but he doesn't seem to understand the concept that a soldier depends on his Troop, and vice-versa, to fight and survive. He seems to have this notion in his head that, with a little bit of help from the Nottingham Organization, he'll be the one to save Britain from the clutches of her evil Tyrant-King."
The hare shook his head in resignation. "I'm afraid he's always been like that." He said. "All through his childhood, all he ever talked about was someday becomin' a Soldier 'r a Deputy...'r even a Sheriff..."
"He can HAVE the job; that is, if he can talk the present occupant out of it!" Brutus commented caustically from his place further back in line.
"And what of Martin?" Justin asked quietly, not looking back.
"A fine young lad." The weasel stated. "Does what he's told, when he's told to do it, without the slightest hesitation or complaint. I don't yet know how much of the Warrior is in 'im, but he seems motivated enough."
There was an uneasy silence while they waited for Justin to answer or comment. But when none was forthcoming, Stabb asked Liam, "An' how'd your first full day of training go, Sergeant-Major?"
Liam shrugged. "About as well as I could have expected." He answered, his voice hardening a bit. "I did have a small dust-up with one of the Waning-Crescent weasels, but I think my charges'll stay in line from now on."
"I KNOW they will!" The bear once again interjected. "Ol' Wilbur reamed that poor kid out, but good, last night! Made it clear that if any other member of their clan does something that stupid again, he'll personally prosecute them at any Council meeting convened to decide punishment!"
"Miss Kilcannon," The hare continued, "Joined my Troop yesterday morning too."
At this, Stabb's ears pricked up with interest.
"Like you said about Martin: Does what she's told, when she's told to do it; without hesitation 'r complaint. Whether 'r not she's got the Warrior spirit in her as well, only time an' training'll determine." He stated
At this; Justin raised his right paw in a fist, signalling the others to stop. As soon as Dr. Ages and Galen, who had been lagging a bit behind the main group due to the effect of the cold weather on Ages
now-healed-but-still-sensitive leg, caught up, Justin gathered them in a huddle. To Stabb and Liam he said, "Remember, Sullivan's NOT one to play by the rules, especially if they were made by someone other than him! So your job is to find whoever he plans to have kill the rest of us and neutralize them. Clear?"
The weasel and the hare looked at each other for the briefest moment and nodded. Seconds later, they'd silently disappeared in opposite directions into the Forest.
Justin, Brutus, Galen and Ages now proceeded; also silently; toward their destination.