"DAMN, YOU IDIOT! HOW COULD YOU BE SO INCOMPETENT?" Sullivan screamed as Deputy Sillus gnawed at the rope that bound Blackjack's wrists.
"It's not MY fault, Boss!" The ferret retorted in anger and embarrassment. "That weasel's as good as anyone I've EVER seen! Hell, isn't that why you an' the King hired 'im in the first place?" He asked.
Sullivan waved a dismissive paw. "Yeah, yeah. But how were we supposed to know that he'd turn on us an' join the enemy?" He asked rhetorically. Just then, with an audible snap, the rope around Blackjack's wrists broke and the binding fell to the ground. The wolf then wordlessly stomped off toward the path leading to Nottingham; the others quietly trailing a safe distance behind, not daring to disturb whatever dark thoughts of revenge their superior was probably contemplating against the former residents of the town and a certain former Captain-of-the-Guard.
At about the same time, in another part of the forest, Liam Wyclyffe rejoined his comrades as they hiked back toward their headquarters. "Any of them attempting to follow us?" Justin asked.
"Not that I could see." The hare replied. "They were all headed back for town, last I left 'em."
"Sullivan may be a lazy coward, but he's NOT stupid." Observed Justin. "He won't risk his skin unless he knows the odds of success are stacked squarely in his favor. On the other side of that coin is the fact that;
even with you," He nodded toward Brutus. "Your former Deputies," He then indicated Liam. "And a few gracious volunteers;" He nodded at Stabb. "We have precious few options for defending the Estate when
Sullivan's attack comes, and I speak with utmost confidence and from no small amount of experience when I say that an attack WILL come. The problem is that I have no way of predicting WHEN it will come." He added glumly.
"What about your nephew, Timothy?" Stabb asked. "After all, he did predict that fire and our coming to help you."
"No." Justin said with an emphatic shake of his head. "His 'gift' may be useful to us in its own way at times, but I'd be a fool to stake our success in this venture solely on that basis."
"It's gonna take a while to train enough troops to make the Estate truely defensible." Liam observed. "After all, we've only just started training in earnest and it'll be at least another couple weeks until any of the recruits are ready for actual weapons training."
Justin gave a resigned shrug. "We'll simply have to step up the night-watches and accelerate the training schedules as best we can. I know it's a hardship, especially to those with families, but we have to be ready for anything that Sullivan might be planning to throw at us." He said grimly.
"I suppose I could re-write the training schedule," Galen offered. "Make weapons training a higher priority."
"An' I can always reschedule the watches." Brutus said to Liam. "That'll take some of the burden off those with training assignments."
"Thanks,"Said Liam. "That'll help a lot."
The rest of the long walk to the Locksley Estate was made in thoughtful silence; other than the tap of Dr. Ages crutch against the hard, cold ground; as each pondered the implications, for better or worse, of what they had just been a party to.
It was near-dusk by the time they stepped out of the now-rather-oppressive gray cloak of the forest that would be their only sanctuary for who-knew-how-long. To the West, a half-orb of Sun reflected its waning
yellow-orange-pink off of an approaching line of cumulus and cirrus clouds that was growing along the tree-combed horizon. To the East, the darkness was pierced by the light of the first evening stars. In the cleared portion of the Estate enclosing the manor-house and its surrounding tent-city a small group of animals, mostly children, was gathered in a circle watching and applauding Will Scarlett; who was entertaining them with an impromptu acrobatics display.
While Liam and Galen stayed to watch the last few minutes of the performance; Brutus, Ages and Stabb went to see what was for dinner. Justin made straight for his office, where he found Mrs. Brisbee waiting.
"How did the meeting go?" She asked, though her expression told him that the question was purely rhetorical.
"'Meeting' is hardly the word I'd use, Marian." He said as he sank wearily into his chair. "'Confrontation' would be a far more accurate assessment of our encounter." He then closed his eyes and began gently
rubbing the fur around their sockets. "Hell, I may as well have been screaming at one of these walls for all the good it did us! Sullivan wasn't exactly receptive to anything that I had to say." He growled sharply.
"Then why bother to go at all? Why not have just stuck a knife with an ultimatum or a list of demands attached to it into his front door in the dead of night?" She asked, raising a questioning eyebrow.
Justin hauled himself out of his chair and began pacing restlessly. "A knife in the door would have told him that someone was unhappy with the current situation, but he wouldn't necessarily have taken it seriously. In Sullivan's, and by extension Jenner's, mind a few rebellious peasants are nothing more than a minor irritant to be ignored, avoided, or bought off if possible or; if they get too out-of-control; destroyed. Forgive me for sounding self-important, but my showing up changes that. Now he knows that he's up against more than just a bunch of dirt-poor, uneducated and untrained farmers and villagers." He said pointedly.
Mrs. Brisbee cocked her head questioningly to one side. "I'm no soldier, so I probably don't have your grasp of Military tactics and strategy; but haven't you sacrificed whatever element of surprise we may have had against him by revealing yourself as Leader?" She asked.
"Probably." Justin replied. He then stopped his pacing as a sly half-smile crept across his face. "But I also know that he has to report our 'conversation', such as it was, to Jenner. And I'd also be willing to wager
a cart-full of Crowns that he's shaking in his fur at the thought of having to inform His Infernal Majesty that his late, unlamented brother's ex-Captain-of-the-Guard is leading what could become a serious challenge to his already shaky rule. That alone may be worth whatever surprise has been lost." He said.
The vixen's brow furrowed with skepticism but she simply shrugged. "If you say so." She said, her tone distant.
Justin went to her and, kneeling down in front of her, took her paws in his own and gazed into her eyes; the look in them as distant as her voice had been. "Marian," He said. "I realize that I've taken a huge risk today. Everyone here has taken a huge risk with their own lives and those of their families. And while I'd be an idiot if I tried to lie to you and tell you outright that everything was going to be okay, I have to believe that we can win this fight. But, like it or not, in order to win I'm probably going to have to take many more like the one I did today. On occasion I'm going to be forced to trade one percieved advantage for another, hoping that I haven't needlessly traded innocent lives in the process."
For several seconds Mrs. Brisbee sat unmoving, staring into space as if in a trance.
"Marian?" Justin asked worriedly, reaching up to gently stroke the fur of one side of her face with the back of his fingers.
Mrs. Brisbee blinked and jumped in her seat a bit, as if startled. "I'm-I'm sorry." She apologized softly, a bit embarrassed.
Justin smiled. "No problem. It's not as if I got a full night's sleep either." He said sympathetically. At that moment there came a knock at the door. "It's open." Justin called out. Gwynnyth Wyclyffe peeked inside.
"Mama sent me to tell you that dinner's ready." The young hare; who had obviously been working in the kitchen, as could be seen from the food stains on her dress and apron; informed them breathlessly.
"We'll be down in a moment." Justin told her.
The child nodded and quickly left, closing the door behind her.
"Tell you what," Justin said as he stood and helped Mrs. Brisbee from her seat, "Why don't we just call it a day right after dinner? You know, just eat and go straight to bed. How does that sound?" He asked.
"Sounds great." Admitted Mrs. Brisbee, "But I've got to supervise the clean-up..."
"Let someone else do it." Justin said.
"But it's my job." She said.
"Why not let Linney supervise for once?" He asked. "After all, that's what assistants are for. One of the things that they taught me in Officer training was: 'Know when to delegate responsibilities'." He said.
Mrs. Brisbee thought hard for a few moments, but finally nodded her assent. "Okay," She said, "I guess I can ask her. And I'll have Klucky see that the children are put to bed."
"Great!" Justin exclaimed, his enthusiasm momentarily overcoming his fatigue. He waved an inviting paw toward the door. "Would Madam do me the honor of accompanying me to dinner?" He asked, his eyes sparkling with a merriment they hadn't shown for far too long.
Mrs. Brisbee smiled, genuinely happy for the first time in many weeks. "It would be my pleasure!" She exclaimed, taking his arm in hers.