It was a long night for the Autumn Guard. Having thoroughly searched through the masses of rats, weasels, ferrets, mice, foxes, stoats, hares, and the rest, they had found not a single survivor. The goodbeasts made sure that whatever vermin had been present at the time of attack were no longer alive. The seven soldiers had made camp in what used to be the Guard Palace tent. The last time they had seen it, several days before, the wood and cloth was not in a burnt heap but instead in a wide, grand brilliant pyramid. Only two corner poles were left standing now. The elite of the Fourfold Horde lived and trained there for future service in the four Guards. They trained there in sword fighting, boxing, wrestling, knife throwing, and the other deadly arts. None would be trained any longer.
"Tyrel is pretty quiet tonight," said Avesann from underneath his covers. The men didn't stay awake after hours out in the field, but back home they often talked from their bunks during the night. Creyor, however, fell asleep at lights out. The stoat was sleepy almost all the time, and nighttime was when he most enjoyed himself. In his dreams.
"Don't you have one of those jokes you always tell us? Like that one about the blind haremaiden who married a shrew? Or the corsair ship in the sea of ale? Or- "
"Oh shut yer mouth, you snail-brained weasel!" said Sliteye. "That pansy Tyrel pro'ably won't tell us another joke for two months. Delicate as a flower, he is! That time we gutted those three 'scaped prisoners he was so sick from the sight of their insides he turned white as snow! Couldn't talk for a day, that lily-livered ferret! Took forever to finally knock him back into the world of the living. How he got into our Guard I'll never know."
"And when was the last time you picked off eight mice in five seconds with your bow, Sliteye?" challenged Nak'ran. "He's gotten more food for our group in the short time he's been here than you have since you joined! Even takes some of your nightwatch duties, he does. Pull your weight before you start talking badgerdung about new recruits. You could learn a lesson or two about discipline and loyalty from Tyrel."
The group heard Sliteye snorting angrily and sharpening a knife in his makeshift bed. Moonlight poured in through a giant tear in the tent canvas and illuminated most of their area. Sliteye's knife blade shone dully in the light as it was scraped back and forth on his whetstone.
"If you weren't Captain, Nak'ran, sir, I bet Sliteye would draw his sword on you! Barbaric devil . . ." Ignotius commented.
"I'd bash your face in too, oh wonderful Ignotius! Though I'd be sorry to disturb your noble pallor! Your mother must've nursed you with honey, Monseer Albert!" sent back Sliteye.
"It's Monsieur d'Alburci, you thick-skulled bird-brain!"
"That's enough argument, ladies. If you don't want to rest up for tomorrow then you might as well listen to me," said Nak'ran. Ignotius stopped searching for his stilleto and Sliteye returned to his small whetstone. "I think we all realize that the Fourfold Horde doesn't exist anymore. Whatever other groups were out on patrol are the only ones left. Lord Terashi did not inform me of recent movements of any Guards or Armies. I have also never heard of this King Konstan. Any thoughts?" He added bitingly, "Or are all your mental powers focused on insulting your comrades?" There was a pause before someone spoke.
"I've heard of Konstan." Everyone turned to Kenvek, who had stopped writing in a little worn book. The large fox almost never spoke, except when he was hungry. "Otter. Lives in far east. Owns a keep, a village. Said to be related to Terashi. I don't see the resemblance."
"You've seen him? How does a vermin soldier lay eyes on a goodbeast warlord and live?" Tyrel gasped in surprise. "You saw what they did to the City! Didn't leave anyone behind! How'd you . . ."
Kenvek casually turned his head to the ferret, then moved it back to its original position and returned to writing in his diary. The others had learned by now that when Kenvek said something it was all he would say. Anything extra would be considered a waste of time, and Kenvek was the ideal conservationist.
"You shouldn't bother ol' Kenvek there," said Avesann. "He must've seen 'im 'fore he joined us. Those olden days are a mystery to the whole Horde."
"Y'know, I'm starting to wonder whether Kenvek really is the stout, loyal servant to the Horde Terashi saw 'im as." The group turned to Sliteye. "That's right, you heard me! I bet that ol' faithful buddy of ours is a double agent for this Konstan character. Listen to this rubbish he's feedin' us! How could he know where a goodbeast lord lives, or what he owns, or what family he belongs to! And what a family, too! Related to Terashi . . . Mousefilth!" Now Sliteye sprang from his cot, brandishing his newly-sharpened knife. "How do you think this surprise attack was launched? Hmm?! A goodbeast horde doesn't just 'appen to walk right into a vermin camp unnoticed! Someone on our side set it up for 'em! Told 'em where we were . . . What defenses we had . . ."
Everybody's eyes were upon the pine martin. Only Kenvek was staring at the moon through the fabric aperture, seemingly uninterested.
"Don't you think it's a little bit of a coincidence that the strike was planned exactly when the Guards were gone from the City? Even us! We, we the ones who watch! The ones who watch everything!" Unintelligible noises were coming from Sliteye's throat. He was now bent down and scratching in the ground with his knife. "Those damn Guards of Winter! 'Protectors of the Horde from unseen threats', my behind! And what about the Summer Guard? The blasted 'keepers of the armies' only managed to make the massacre as easy as farting for Konstan! That's all their moron captain Tarlaw is capable of! Of course nobody even cares about the Guard of Spring, they might as well be dibbun nurses.
"We're the only capable ones! And we didn't foresee this attack from Hell? How, I ask you? How?!" Here Sliteye stood up straight and pointed his knife straight at Kenvek. "I'll tell you how, fellow vermin. We have a mole here . . . and it isn't a fat funny-talkin' one either! Always keeping to his journal . . . Always keeping to himself! Why doesn't anyone know about his past? And more importantly, why doesn't he tell us about it? He's with the goodbeast scum, this secretive little vixen! He's with them, and they're now going to finish us off!"
Silence fell upon the remnants of the giant tent. The smoldering of the City had ended a little after dusk. Nak'ran heard the howl of the Lone Wolf off in the distance. The Lonely One was always with them. Nak'ran told himself he'd have to meet him someday. But right now he had to take control of his group before mutiny broke out. He leaned forward out of his bed. As Nak'ran was about to speak, the sound of shuffling paws and low murmurs reached his ears.
"Did you hear that?" asked Tyrel.
"I sure did!"
"Where's it comin' from?"
"The door flap!"
Half the vermin jumped out from under their covers and drew their weapons. Sliteye began yelling, "See! They're here! Kenvek's goodbeast buddies! He arranged for 'em to come after sunset to kill whoever came to the City! He was with 'em! I was right!"
"Hardly, Sliteye, you dolt."
From behind the shadows of folds in the tent walls emerged a large stoat and several rats. They all wore a Fourfold Horde uniform and the stoat was decorated with the badge of a Guard Captain. Nak'ran stepped towards him in delight. "Tarlaw! You're alive! Its certainly nice to see the Guard of Summer, for once."