Chapter 9 - Healing in the Haven

"In the belly of the beast..."

"Huh?"

"Oh nothing, just a thought that occurred."

Royce frowned. "Why aren't I in pain? Last thing I remember was being in pain."

"Well, it's difficult to feel pain when you're unconscious." Said Acheron, who was sat beside him on the stone bench. They appeared to be somewhere in a cobbled circular plaza surrounded by elaborate gardens, with benches around the perimeter. Royce didn't recognise the place and he had no idea how he got there.

"Nice place isn't it?" Said Acheron.

Royce nodded. It was a very nice place. Very calm and soothing.

"Shame they went and spoiled it with that ugly statue." The white tiger mused.

"What statue?" Royce looked about, but could see anything that could qualify as a statue.

"It doesn't matter." Acheron shrugged.

Sudden realisation washed over Royce. "This is another dream, isn't it?"

"Yes, you could say that I suppose." Acheron nodded.

Royce sighed. "Why do I keep dreaming of you?"

"If you want to get really technical about things," said Acheron, "that would be down to me. I would have been here sooner, but you must have been pretty feverish for several days. Fever dreams are pretty much impossible to break into. Didn't stop me trying though."

"Fever dreams? What are you talking about?"

"Don't worry about it." Acheron reassured him. "Since I had no trouble reaching you now, I'm guessing you're on the mend."

"This dream is getting very strange." Said Royce.

"Look, in the interests of moving things along, I'll just tell you this." Said Acheron. "This is not a dream. I mean, it is, but not a regular dream.

The white tiger shrugged. "I was hoping you'd figure out for yourself these weren't normal dreams after I turned up a couple of times. You know I really prefer for others to work things out for themselves rather than just sit there and be given all the answers. For one, I believe no one should just expect answers to be handed to them all the time, and two, it makes them more likely to believe and accept the truth if they discover it for themselves. Which is especially necessary for some of the more... outlandish stuff that surrounds me."

"But you're just a dream." Royce pointed out. "Some figment of my subconscious. You probably represent how much I've wanted to be able to talk to you all these years."

"I've wanted to talk to you too." Said Acheron. "I have missed you, Royce. But I knew I had to let you go and live your own life, and stay out of your way so that you could."

Acheron sighed. "But then I got wind of what happened to you in Pyre. I'm not entirely sure yet, but I'm beginning to suspect it might have been because of me. I have enemies, Royce, and there is a distinct possibility you have been targeted because of your connection with me."

"That's ridiculous!" Said Royce. "It's Nomack who's done all this to me."

"Yes, but who's pulling Nomack's strings?" Acheron asked.

"No one!" Royce said. "He did all this himself, he told me..."

"And you believe him?" Acheron said. "The one responsible for doing so much to you and you're automatically going to accept everything he told you as the truth?"

Royce hadn't looked at it like that before. But why would Nomack lie to him? Because he was Nomack was the first reason of many...

"Look, this is pointless," said Royce, shaking off that thought, "this is just a dream, so anything you say is pretty much meaningless."

"Guess I am going to have to wait until you realise I'm telling the truth here." Acheron shrugged. "Hopefully it won't take you too long. For now, tread carefully, Royce, you are in potentially dangerous territory at the moment. If nothing else, take this warning seriously."

The white tiger stood up. "Oh, and tell Tobias I said hello next time you see him..."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Royce awoke feeling far more comfortable than he really should have been.

His memories were vague and jumbled, he'd been drifting in and out of consciousness. The last thing he could remember with any certainty was laying in the back of a small wagon Tobias and Armin had apparently bought in order to transport him. They had been discussing taking him to some place called 'The Haven'. And how they weren't supposed to take him there.

But now, here he was, lying naked in a large and comfortable four-poster bed with soft sheets covering him. The room around him was grey stone, with daylight streaming in through a large window set into one wall. And he wasn't alone.

A female panda was gently changing the bandages on his right forearm. She was short and thin, dressed only in some simple robes. She looked up at him and smiled.

"So you're awake at last." She grinned. "It's about time."

"Who are you?" Royce demanded, weakly. "Where am I?"

"I am Liang Tavon." The panda explained. "I have been tending to you ever since Captain Clandrell brought you in. As to the where of things, you are in one of the guest rooms of Havensfield Castle. But we in the Brotherhood simply call it the Haven."

"You're with the Brotherhood?" Said Royce trying to sit up in bed. Liang helped him. There was a stabbing ache in his shoulder, where Nomack had impaled him, but it subsided a little once he'd sat up.

"Yes." She said. "Everyone you will meet here is. This castle is what you might call a Brotherhood stronghold. In fact, I can safely say you're the first in the whole history of the Brotherhood who has visited this castle while not being one of us. Old Tobias has caused quite a stir, bringing you here."

"How long have I been here?" Asked Royce, knowing he'd not like the answer. His injuries had healed some already, indicating to him he'd been unconscious for quite awhile.

Liang was a little hesitant in answering. "A little over a week."

Royce sighed. That was why he was so weak. He spent all that time lying in a bed unconscious.

"You see," Liang went on, "by the time you got here, a few of your wounds had become infected. You were very ill and feverish for days. Then yesterday, your fever finally broke, which was a huge relief. I think it's safe to say you'll eventually make a full recovery."

The weakened tiger frowned. He'd been feverish. Just as Acheron had said in his dream. He ignored the thought as irrelevant.

"Thank you." He said to the panda.

"Think nothing of it." Said Liang. She had fetched Royce a cup of water. He drank it down, relishing its refreshing taste, before handing it back.

"You know," said Liang, "You've become quite the sensation since you arrived. You seem to be all everyone's talking about at the moment."

"Hmm." Royce mumbled, too distracted too really listen. He had too much on his mind.

He had survived. He hadn't expected to, but he had all the same. And now what was he supposed to do? Nomack was still out there...

Thinking of the wolf merchant brought up feelings of anger and fear in equal measure. He was still out there and there was not anything he would be able to do about it. Revenge was beyond his reach now. And what of the future? How long would it be until Nomack returned, snatching him away from whatever life he now chose to pursue and once again make him into a slave?

His future looked bleak and depressing. The more he thought about it, the more he realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do with himself from this moment forward. He had no home, no money, nothing. The one thing he truly wanted, revenge against Nomack, was impossible for him to achieve, thanks to what Nomack had done to him...

"Now, there's no need to look so worried and down." Said Liang, breaking into his thoughts as she went about checking his bandages again. "You're safe here. The Brotherhood takes security very seriously."

Royce frowned as a new thought emerged through the anger and the fear. The Brotherhood, they were supposed to be powerful. Perhaps they could protect him from Nomack? Or maybe even track down the wolf and help him take the revenge he yearned for...

But he quickly discarded that notion. He went against his pride to run away, to go hiding in some secret society, and his pride was one of the few things he had left. Besides, from what he had gathered, the Brotherhood had a rigorous chain of command, and he would undoubtedly have to be a part of that. After all his time as a slave, he had more than his fill of taking orders.

So the Brotherhood wasn't an option. What did that leave? Not a lot...

"So the patient is finally awake, is he?"

The large tiger looked toward the door to see Tobias standing there. The old wolf was smiling at him.

"Good afternoon, Captain Clandrell." Liang nodded at him, finishing up her work on Royce's wounds.

"How is he?" The wolf asked.

"Very much on the mend." The panda reported. "I'd suggest he try and get up and get some exercise though, start rebuilding some of his strength. I've exercised his limbs while he was unconscious, as you know, so while he will be a little weak, it shouldn't be too bad." She looked at Royce. "However, you should still take it easy at first."

"Thank you, Liang, I'll see to it." Said Tobias. "You may go."

The female panda nodded politely and left, closing the door behind her.

"Well, welcome back to the land of the living." Said the wolf, strolling toward Royce's bed. "You had us all worried."

The bandaged tiger gave Tobias a dark look. "I suppose I have you to thank for saving my life?"

Tobias shrugged. "You could say that, yes."

"You should have just let me die." Said Royce.

The old wolf looked slightly shocked. "I disagree. But you are of course entitled to your opinion."

"I have lost everything." Royce moaned. "Even my chance for revenge. I have nothing to live for. I would have preferred to die."

"Then why not simply commit suicide here and now?" Tobias asked. "I'll even fetch a knife or something so that you can slash your wrists or cut your own throat, or whatever you want."

Royce stared at him, not appreciating his comments.

"It's easy to say you'd rather be dead." Said Tobias. "Not so easy to actually mean it. And I can tell you don't."

"How can you tell?" Said Royce, miserably. Tobias had been right. Deep down, he didn't really want to die, despite knowing it would all be so much simpler if he had.

"Experience." Tobias explained. "I know someone who wants to die when I see one. You don't want to die. But then, what do you want?"

"Let me guess." Royce spat. "This is the part where you try to convince me to join the Brotherhood..."

"No." Said Tobias. "This is the part where I ask you what you want. What do you want to do with your life?"

"What life?" Said Royce. "Nomack took everything from me. I have nothing."

"Except your life." Tobias pointed out. "Now you just have to figure out what you want to do with it. I will tell you this much. You can be more than just a pit-fighter. You can be something better."

"And what if I happened to like being 'just' a pit-fighter?" Said Royce.

"Then I've seriously misjudged you and that is the life you should pursue." Said Tobias. "But I..."

The door suddenly burst open and Armin ran in. "Captain!"

The old wolf looked annoyed at the interruption. "What is it Armin?"

"Sir, three generals have just arrived from Central." The leopard explained quickly. "From what I just heard they've been travelling for days, that headed here right after your report on the situation reached them. It's said that they are here to handle your disciplinary hearing."

Tobias sighed. "I was hoping I'd have a little time before I had to deal with this..."

"What's he talking about?" Royce demanded.

"I broke a few rules bringing you here." Tobias informed him. "I knew I'd have to answer for it. I wasn't expecting it to be this quickly though."

"That's ridiculous!" Royce spluttered. "They're going to punish you for saving my life?"

"No, they're going to punish me for breaking the rules of the Brotherhood." Said Tobias. He looked to Armin. "I'd better go get it over with. Armin, why don't you find Royce some clothes and give him a tour of the Haven while I'm dealing with this? He needs a little exercise after all that time lying in a bed."

"Of course, captain." Armin nodded.

Tobias left them to it and departed, wandering out the door and off through the drafty stone hallways off the castle.

If they were planning to hold a hearing, they'd need to use one of the meeting rooms near the main courtyard, so he headed in that direction.

As he went, he vaguely wondered which generals had come to put him on trial. Almost certainly Atticus Warrick would be there. General Warrick had always disliked him for some reason, he could easily see that badger leaping on the chance to take some action against him. And Warrick was second in command of the Brotherhood, so he'd be able to see to it that no allies of his were among the other two. He had plenty of friends among the generals, but also a number of enemies.

He stepped out into the cobbled square that was the castle's expansive main courtyard, taking a deep breath of the cool fresh air. He glanced about, and through the various Brotherhood members going about their business, he spotted something surprising.

A tall lion in was standing on the other side of the courtyard, talking with an assistant, a young fox, about something. On his shirt was the badge that marked him out as a general. Tobias was surprised to see this particular general here.

He strolled across the courtyard toward him, smiling. If he was here, the hearing might not go so badly.

"Good afternoon, General Kimball." He said as he drew near.

The lion turned to face him, and then grinned. He glanced back to his assistant. "Looks like I won't be needing your help after all. Dismissed."

As the fox went about his business, the lion faced Tobias. "It's good to see you again. I was just about to send for you."

"It's good to see you too, general." Said Tobias.

"Tobias," the lion general scolded, "you know it's always Gunther to my friends."

"I just thought with a disciplinary hearing ahead of me," Tobias chuckled, "I should practice the whole being respectful to your superiors thing."

"That's fine." Said Gunther, leading the way across the courtyard. "Just try not to do it with me."

"I must admit," said Tobias, walking side by side with his friend, "I didn't expect to see you here. I thought Warrick would have come to handle this."

"He did." Gunther stated.

The old wolf frowned. "I don't understand. Then why did he ask you to join him, knowing you're a friend of mine?"

"He didn't ask me." Gunther elaborated. "His superior on this matter did."

"But Warrick's only superior is..." Tobias began, and then stopped in his tracks. "Are you saying Kane himself is here?"

The lion stopped beside him, nodding. "Oh yes."

"Oberon Kane, the head of the Brotherhood, came all this way to oversee the hearing of a minor captain?" Said Tobias. He was having a little trouble believing it.

"You don't do yourself justice." Said Gunther. "You're the most senior member of our organisation. You were a friend of Acheron himself. And you're liked and respected by most of the Brotherhood. You've never been a 'minor' captain, my friend."

"Well, I've always liked to think I am." Tobias muttered, as the two of them continued on their way.

"I know." Said Gunther, smiling. "And try not to worry about the hearing. You'll have me on your side in there. And Oberon didn't seem too angry with you. He'll likely be lenient."

"I wonder what Oberon's up to." Tobias mumbled to himself. "Coming all this way just for me..."

"He's not up to anything, Tobias!" Gunther sighed. "Honestly, I've never understood your mistrust toward General Kane. He's never given me any reason to do so."

"I expect so." Said Tobias. "But I will always remember a piece of advice someone once gave me..." He trailed off, and would say no more on the subject.

They arrived at the room that had been set up for the hearing. It was a small basic meeting room with a desk behind which the generals were to sit and a chair in front for Tobias. It wasn't anything elaborate, but it didn't need to be.

As they entered, Gunther headed for his seat with his fellow generals. General Warrick was looking at Tobias hatefully. He was a stocky badger dressed in simple casual clothing. In the centre chair of the three sat Oberon Kane, the one in command of the entire Brotherhood. He was a tall black panther with a well-built physique and a warm smile on his face, but a cold look in his eyes.

"Do come in, captain!" Said Oberon, waving the old wolf forward. "Please, take a seat. Then we can get started and get this whole unfortunate mess resolved quickly." His manner was friendly and pleasant and honest.

Tobias walked forward and sat down, facing the three generals defiantly.

"Excellent!" Oberon beamed in delight. "Now let's begin. Atticus?"

"As we all know," said Atticus, "we are here to examine the actions of Captain Clandrell here and determine appropriate disciplinary action."

"If any is warranted." General Kimball added, giving Atticus a meaningful look.

The badger narrowed his eyes and shot the lion a hateful glance. "Of course."

Oberon Kane stared at them both for a moment before continuing as if he hadn't noticed anything. "Now, we have all read the report you forwarded to Central, captain. Is there anything you wish to add to it?"

"I would just say that I did the right thing in bringing Royce here." Said Tobias. "He would have died otherwise. We couldn't risk getting him help locally, as his injuries would have required explanation and there would be many complications as a result. Do you believe I did the right thing, sir?"

"We are not here to answer your questions, captain!" Atticus spluttered. "You are here to answer ours!"

"Please do calm yourself, Atticus." Soothed Oberon. "Remember, we want to keep this pleasant and informal. I don't have any real objections to an occasional question from the good captain, if he really feels the need to ask them. Do you?"

General Warrick backed down immediately, regaining his calm under the panther's icy gaze. "No. I don't."

Oberon broke into a wide grin. "Good"

"Then do you believe I did the right thing, sir?" Tobias asked again.

"Oh captain, what I believe is of no relevance here." Said Oberon. "What matters here are the facts. I think we can agree on that, can't we, Tobias?"

"Yes, sir." Tobias replied. He hadn't missed how Oberon had skilfully avoided his question, even after defending his right to ask it.

"Then lets look at the facts." Oberon smiled. "You brought Royce Herrick here to the Haven..."

"Saving his life in the process." Gunther pointed out.

"Yes, General Kimball, quite right." Oberon smiled pleasantly at his lion comrade, but the panther's eyes were cold, betraying how he really felt about his interruption. He returned his attention to Tobias. "You are aware of the rules regarding outsiders being taken into Brotherhood strongholds, aren't you? Specifically how such a thing is not permitted under any circumstances?"

"Yes, general, I am." Tobias admitted. "However..."

"I don't think you need to be reminded that the rules are there for a reason." Said Oberon. His expression remained a constant picture of friendliness, but there was a steely tone to his voice. "The anonymity of the Brotherhood must be protected. Bringing outsiders into places like the Haven potentially puts everything at risk."

"I am aware of that, general..." Tobias was actually offended that he was being treated like he didn't know such simple things.

"Do you think you are above the rules, Clandrell?" Said Atticus.

"Of course not!" Said Tobias.

"Well, looking at your record tells a different story." Said the badger, thumbing through some notes. "You've had multiple disciplinary hearings over the years for various infractions of Brotherhood rules and regulations, including several counts of disobeying orders."

"I never break the rules or disobey orders unless I firmly believe it to be in the best interests of the Brotherhood!" Tobias snarled. "And will vehemently defend any example from my records."

"Since when does a lowly captain decide what is in the best interests of the Brotherhood?" Atticus bristled.

"Tobias is one of the most senior members of the Brotherhood." Gunther broke in, leaping to his friend's defence. "With more experience at accomplishing its goals than anyone."

"Yes, Tobias' long record of success is not in dispute." Said Oberon, attempting to bring a little calm to proceedings. "Nor is his sometimes... unorthodox methods in achieving those successes. We are here to focus on this recent incident, not any past problems, which, to the best of my knowledge, have all been settled."

Gunther simply nodded, but Atticus bowed his head. "Of course, General Kane."

"Now, Tobias has always been a reliable and diligent agent of the Brotherhood." Said Oberon, summing up. "And so, I move that we overlook his questionable judgment in this matter, since it did after all result in saving the life of a promising possible recruit. I suggest we close this matter and take it no further."

Tobias stared at the black panther in surprise. He had not been expecting that, for him not to receive any disciplinary action whatsoever. What was Oberon up to?

The old wolf glanced to the other two generals, who were similarly surprised, although Atticus' look of shock was quickly shifting into one of acceptance.

"Well?" Said Oberon, looking innocently at his companions. "Shall we end this here and now?"

Gunther nodded. He wasn't about to protest. "I agree."

"As do I, General Kane." Said Atticus.

"Excellent!" Said Oberon, clapping his hands together. "And since this hearing is at an end, perhaps you two could leave us for a moment? I wish to speak with the captain in private. I'm sure both of you would like to retire to your chambers for some rest. It was a long journey."

The other two generals got up and left, nodding and mumbling. Gunther looked momentarily concerned at leaving Tobias alone with Oberon, but a glance from the old wolf reassured him and the lion left the room.

"I just wanted to take the opportunity to congratulate you on another successful recruitment, captain." Said Oberon, gently, once he was alone with Tobias.

"Royce hasn't yet agreed to join." Tobias pointed out.

"I know." Oberon nodded. "But from what I gather from your report, Nomack saw to it that the life he had was left in ruins. He has nowhere else to go, no one to turn to. So I think there is a very good chance he will accept membership. Don't you agree captain?"

"Yes, sir." Said Tobias, carefully.

"In that case," Oberon continued, "I would like you to take care of Royce Herrick for the time being. Acclimatize him to our organisation and our way of life. Do whatever is necessary to convince Royce to join us. I firmly believe he will be an invaluable asset to the Brotherhood."

"I will do everything I can, general." Said Tobias.

The panther smiled at him. "That is all I ask, captain. Thank you for your time. Dismissed."

The wolf stood up and left quickly. He still wasn't sure how he had managed to avoid punishment for his bringing Royce in. He didn't trust Oberon, that was for certain. That panther was up to something.

With Tobias gone, Oberon stood up. He was smiling broadly when General Warrick re-entered the room a few seconds later. The badger bowed deeply.

"I must say, sir," he said, "I don't understand why you let Clandrell go unpunished."

"Because it serves my purposes." Oberon chuckled. "What other reason could there be? Tobias is an idealistic old fool, but he does have his uses. If anyone can get Herrick to join up, it'll be him, the most successful recruiter the Brotherhood has ever known. Punishing him would have had to involve suspending him from his duties, at least for a short time. I don't want that. At least, not at the moment."

The panther stood up. "Besides, old Tobias has many friends and allies throughout the Brotherhood who I can't risk alienating just yet. Rest assured, I will fully deal with Captain Clandrell eventually. When the time is right for me..."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"And these are the gardens. They surround the castle for about half a mile in every direction."

Royce stepped through the small door Armin had led the way through, blinking in the bright sunlight beyond. Trees and plants surrounded them as the leopard led the tiger off along a path that meandered through the greenery.

"And what's beyond the gardens?" Royce asked, as he hobbled after Armin.

"Impassable swamp for several miles." Armin told him. "This place is built on a small island in the marshes, with a single road connecting us to solid land. The Brotherhood gets a lot of privacy here. Are you alright? Do you need to rest?"

The young leopard had noticed Royce's slow pace, but the tiger stubbornly refused to show weakness. "I'm fine." He lied. "These clothes just don't fit too well, that's all, they're a little uncomfortable." He was referring to the simple clothing Armin had fetched for him.

"As I said, they were the best I could find." Said Armin. "We'll have to get a tailor to come measure you up for some new clothes. There are a few here in the Haven."

In truth, Royce was feeling a little woozy from the tour so far, his legs tired and aching after spending a week in bed, but he fought it back. He was determined to make it through Armin's tour. He'd made it through the castle, wandering through drafty corridors listening to the leopard go on and on, and he wasn't going to give up now. He was going to make it through.

It was obvious Armin didn't believe that he was fine, but didn't question him. "If you do feel you need to rest, just say so."

Royce only narrowed his eyes in response and they carried on through the gardens.

He had to admit that the castle grounds and gardens were quite beautiful. He silently followed Armin, hardly listening to the young leopard as he droned on about the castle's history and the Brotherhood's occupation of it for use as a sanctuary and training of new members.

His eyes wandered across the immaculate flowerbeds and lines of trees as they went. Royce was trying to keep his mind off what had happened in New Abstan. He'd given it his best shot, but Nomack was still alive. Royce hadn't even been able to lay a finger on him.

And what of Nomack's claims that he'd eventually come for him again? Would his life now consist of constantly looking over his shoulder, awaiting the wolf merchant's coming? What else could he do?

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts, he almost walked right past the statue and the plaza without seeing it. When he did notice it, his train of thought came to a crashing halt.

To one side, another path wound it's way through a line of trees to a small cobbled plaza with benches around the perimeter. A few brotherhood members were there, sitting and talking, enjoying the sunshine. The sense of familiarity struck him immediately. It was exactly the same place he and Acheron had been in his dream, he could recognise it easily. There was just one difference.

At the centre of the plaza, stood atop a small plinth, was a tall, regal looking statue of grey stone. It was plainly a tiger, from the stripes carved into the fur. The figure was striking a heroic pose, a warm smile on his feline features. It was a face Royce recognized easily. It was Acheron.

Without realising it, he had broken away from Armin and wandered toward the edge of the plaza, utterly confused.

What was a statue of his mentor doing in a Brotherhood stronghold? It was definitely Acheron, there was no mistaking him. The name carved into the plinth even read 'Acheron Zelazny'.

"I see the statue got your attention." Said Armin, from beside him. Royce had been so distracted, he hadn't noticed him there.

Royce had to ask about it, but he wasn't sure giving away the fact that he knew Acheron was such a good idea right then, not until he knew more. He'd have to be careful.

"Who is he?" The tiger asked, cautiously. "Why has he got a statue here?"

"That is Acheron Zelazny." Armin explained, seriously. "One of the greatest the Brotherhood has ever known."

"He's a member of the Brotherhood?" Said Royce.

"More that that." Said Armin. "Acheron founded the Brotherhood. Built the entire organisation from scratch."

Royce glared at the statue of his old mentor in shock. That was unexpected to say the least. But if that were true, they maybe they knew...

"Where is he?" Royce wanted to know.

"I wish I knew." Armin sighed. "But he disappeared from the Brotherhood many, many years ago. No one knows why or where he went, or what he might have done since then."

No one except me, Royce mused.

"Of course," Armin went on, "some will tell you stories about how he left because he didn't like the way the Brotherhood was developing. But those are just stories."

They stood in silence for a few moments. Royce was still trying to take this in. His white tiger mentor was responsible for the creation of the Brotherhood.

"I'm told the statue is a very good likeness of him." Armin said at last. "Captain Clandrell says its pretty much spot on."

That comment grabbed Royce's attention. "Tobias knows what he looked like then?"

"Oh yes." Armin nodded. "He and Acheron were close friends. The captain often says that Acheron taught him everything he knows."

No wonder the old wolf always seemed to know so much, Royce pondered as Armin led him away, returning to the tour of the gardens. Suddenly, a moment from his dream came back to him. Tell Tobias I said hello next time you see him, Acheron had told him...

Unnoticed by either of them, Tobias watched them go from the bench where he was sitting. He'd come here to think for a while on the outcome of his informal disciplinary hearing. He'd always found the plaza to be a relaxing and comforting place, helped of course by the representation of his old friend and mentor.

Tobias had watched Royce very closely as the tiger had looked at the statue. As Royce walked away in the company of Armin, the old wolf looked from him, to the Acheron statue, and back again.

"Well, isn't that interesting..." He muttered to himself.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Why are you so stubborn?"

Royce looked up at Armin. "What are you talking about?"

They had arrived back at Royce's chamber, Armin's tour concluded, and the tiger had immediately taken the opportunity to rest. Sitting himself down on the edge of his bed.

"Why couldn't you just ask to rest during the tour?" Armin said. "It was obvious you needed it. But your stubbornness prevented you from saying so."

"I was fine." Royce growled. "I am fine. You've given me your tour, so now leave me alone." He wanted to spend some time with his thoughts, figure what he was going to do with his life, such as it was.

But Armin didn't leave. "So you want to be left alone to wallow in self-pity?"

"And why do you say that?" Royce demanded, angrily.

"Because it's exactly what I would want to do in your position." Armin shrugged

"But I am not you." The tiger sneered. Why wouldn't this annoying leopard just leave him be?

"We are more alike that you'd believe." Said the leopard, a softness creeping into his voice. "I see so much of the way I used to be in your attitude."

Royce ignored him. Maybe that would make him go away...

"Now what I think is that you're stubbornness is you trying to preserve your dignity," Said Armin, thoughtfully.

"What are you talking about?" Said Royce.

"Nomack enslaved you." Said Armin. "He robbed you of your dignity, so now you're trying to preserve what you have left."

"Nonsense." Royce spat, even if it did sound plausible...

"Whether you choose to accept it or not," Said Armin, sitting down on the bed beside Royce, "there are some who understand what you're going through and want to help."

"Like you?"

Armin nodded.

Royce thought about it for a moment. The idea of accepting help was tempting, and Armin did seem genuinely sincere. But... but there was no way he or anyone could understand what he'd gone through, the humiliation and degradation Nomack had inflicted upon him. He was alone.

"There's nothing you can do." Said Royce, sadly. "I've had a rough life and you couldn't possibly understand me..."

"You think you've had a rough life?" Said Armin.

"I know I have." Said Royce.

Armin laughed, shaking his head as he stood up. "Your life has been a positive paradise compared to some!"

"Like whose?

"Like mine."

Royce stopped and stared at the leopard. "Oh, yes, I can imagine you've had a very rough life here among the Brotherhood and all its comforts."

"Do you think I was born into the Brotherhood?" Said Armin. "You have no idea what my life was like before I joined."

"Then why don't you enlighten me?" Royce scowled.

The leopard stomped toward him, pulling off his shirt and letting it fall to the floor. He spun around, showing the tiger his back. He reached over one shoulder and pointed to a spot on his left shoulder blade. "Take a look."

Royce leaned in close, suspecting what he'd find, but not being able to believe it until he saw it for himself. There was a slave brand there, beneath the fur.

"You were a slave?" Said Royce, shocked.

"Why so surprised, Herrick?" Said Armin. "Did you believe you were the only ex-slave in the world?"

"No..." Said the tiger, even though on some level, that was exactly what he'd believed.

"But the difference with me is, I wasn't born into slavery, I was forced into it." Said Armin, a pained look in his eyes.

"What do you mean?" Royce wanted to know.

"There are many in this world without scruples or principles." Armin explained. "Many slave-traders who don't like going through all the trouble of raising slaves in camps, even if that is the only legal way it can be done in this kingdom. There are some who find it much easier to simply kidnap their slaves, brand them, then beat them until they break their spirit. Then they just throw together some forged paperwork and they have a new slave to sell."

This thought was staggering. But Royce realised it was logical. There were some in the world who would be willing to do such a thing. After all, Nomack had done it. He remembered the bulldog, Drake.

"They took me when I was only sixteen years old." Armin went on, haltingly. It was clear that bringing this up was not an easy experience for him. "Tearing me away from my family and my life in the process. I was branded and beaten into submission, then sold on as a slave. At least back when you were a slave, you were able to take comfort in your beliefs. You were raised into that life and firmly believed it was your place in the world. I didn't have that luxury. The years I spent as a slave were filled with pain and agony, as throughout it all, I always knew that I wasn't a slave, that I wasn't supposed to be there, suffering through all that my owners put me through. Anger, hatred, loathing, it all built up within me until I just snapped one day. I attacked my then current owner and escaped. But my ordeal didn't end there."

"You see, through everything, it had been the thought of my family that had kept me going." Armin explained. "My parents, my siblings. So as soon as I escaped, I made my way home, and once there, I found them living quite luxuriously, even though our family had been pretty poor. I discovered that the source of their wealth had been me. I hadn't been kidnapped. My parents had allowed the slave-traders to take me in exchange for money that they could use to see to it my siblings led comfortable lives. I had been the fittest of my parents young, so I was the one they had given up, since I would get them the biggest price. My parents had sold me into slavery. I was horrified. I wanted to kill them all then and there for their betrayal. But they were still family. So I just left and never went back."

"And found the Brotherhood, I suppose?" Said Royce.

"I wish." Armin replied. "But the years following that, I simply wandered, struggling to survive. I didn't get the lucky breaks you did. I didn't get the comfortable celebrity lifestyle you got given. I went through difficulties you couldn't possibly imagine. I discovered that no one cared how you got a slave brand, if you had it, you were a slave, simple as that. There were several times during that period were I literally almost starved to death. There were times when I fell ill and almost died with no one to help or care for me. The things I did to survive during that time would shock you. They shock even me, when I look back on it."

"When Captain Clandrell found me," Said Armin, a smile now creeping across his face, "it was the luckiest thing that has ever happened to me. Other recruiters might have let me be when I turned away from them, but he didn't. At that time, I had come to rely solely on myself to survive, and had developed a healthy degree of arrogance as a result. I was filled with anger and hatred. So when some wolf approached me trying to tell me about some 'Brotherhood' I simply spat in his face and turned away."

"You spat in his face?" Royce found that hard to believe.

"Oh yes." Armin nodded. "I was arrogant, angry and stubborn. Much like yourself. I wanted to have nothing to do with whatever he wanted of me. And as I said, other Brotherhood recruiters would have left it at that. But not the captain. He saw past my arrogance. He saw that I could become someone better. He didn't give up on me. He eventually got through to me, although I most definitely did not make it easy for him."

Royce sat back on his bed, absorbing all this.

"So, you think you've had a rough life, Herrick?" Said Armin in conclusion. "Because you were betrayed, ripped away from your life and forced into slavery? Well, I've been there, done that. And beyond that, I've gone through a hell of a lot more than you ever did. Yet, I am able to get past it. I am able to think beyond myself and help to try and make this world a better place. Are you?"

Royce looked up at him. He honestly didn't know how to answer.

"The captain looks at you and sees potential." Said Armin. "He believes that you can be better than you are now. I don't see it myself, but I trust his judgment above anyone else's, so I will give you my help if you want it. But the real question is, do you want to be someone better? Or would you rather stay the hate-filled, angry tiger you are now? In the end, the choice is yours."

Armin grabbed his shirt from the floor where it had fallen and left the room, leaving Royce to try and think things through.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

General Kimball's sleep was interrupted by a loud knocking on his door. He rolled over and ignored it, hoping whoever it was would go away.

When the knock came a second time, Gunther pulled himself up from his bed, grumbling under his breath. "All right, I'm coming!" He called out.

The tall lion yawned and stretched as he made his way across his room to the door. It had been a long trip and he was tired. Now that Tobias' hearing had been dealt with, he had just wanted to get some rest. Evidently, someone didn't want to allow him any.

He unlocked and opened his door and Tobias came barging through it before he realised what was going on.

"We need to talk, Gunther." The old wolf said, turning to face him once he was inside. "About Royce."

Gunther closed the door. "Look, I'll be happy to discuss your assignment with you, but can't it wait until a little later?"

"We need to talk now." Said Tobias, firmly. "About Royce's connection to Acheron."

Gunther stopped for an instant, before looking surprised. "There's a connection between Royce and Acheron? I had no idea!"

"Nice try." Said Tobias, unconvinced. "But I could always tell when you were lying to me. I thought you knew that."

The lion dropped his act of innocent surprise. "Tobias..."

"Don't say a word." Said Tobias, an edge of to his tone. "Right now, I don't care to hear whatever excuses you may have for keeping such important information from me. I'll just say that I had thought better of you than that, that I thought we were close friends, and leave it at that for now. Right now, I just want you to listen. If nothing else, I think we can agree you owe me that much."

Gunther was awash with shame. Tobias had always been a close friend. The hint that the wolf maybe didn't consider them as such anymore really hurt. But he knew he couldn't have told Tobias all he knew, and had hated himself for it.

The lion sat himself down on the end of his bed. "Go ahead." He said.

"I knew from the very beginning there was more to this whole assignment." Tobias began, pacing back and forth as he talked. "Every step of the way, I got the impression that something else was going on, but I didn't know what. Then the pieces started to fit together a short time ago."

Gunther was starting to wonder why he had ever thought Tobias would never work it out. He knew how smart his old friend was. It had been stupid on his part to think the wolf would have stayed in the dark on matters.

"Not long ago, I was at Zelazny Plaza in the gardens." Tobias continued. "And Royce turned up. And he was very interested in that statue of Acheron we have down there. From where I was sitting, I saw his face. I saw the look of recognition. He knew who it was!"

"After that, it was simple to start figuring things out. If Royce knew Acheron, when did he know him? It could only be during that period that is missing from Royce's file. From him being owned by Nomack to him turning up as a pit-fighter in Pyre. Which in turn explains why that part of his file is missing, purposely suppressed, I'd assume. For some reason, those who know don't want anyone else to learn that a clue has been found as to what Acheron has been doing since he left the Brotherhood."

"It also means Acheron is likely the reason the Brotherhood leadership wants Royce recruited so badly. He might be able to provide some clue to his whereabouts. Or maybe some are even hoping that having him among us will lure Acheron out of wherever he's been hiding."

Gunther simply sat there listening. He didn't want to confirm or deny anything.

"But Royce's recognition of that statue creates a new mystery in itself." Tobias added, thoughtfully. "I was there when the statue was carved. I know it is a very good representation of Acheron. As he looked when he was last with the Brotherhood. Forty years ago. Yet Royce's encounter with Acheron would have had to have been a matter of years ago. If Royce recognises Acheron from that statue, it would mean our founder's appearance has not changed in the past forty years. And I don't know how that could be possible. But I see you do know something about that."

The lion looked away from him. Tobias knew him too well. The old wolf could always read his face better than anyone.

"You have to understand, Tobias." Gunther urged. "I can't tell you anything! I am a general, you're a captain. There are things someone in my position knows that you will not."

Tobias nodded, looking disappointed. "You're right. I suppose it's my own fault really, for turning down all the promotions over the years. For wanting to stay a field agent. If I'd gone on to become a general, I could be the one keeping vital information from my friends."

"Please, Tobias, don't get like this." Gunther said. "I am very sorry for keeping everything from you, but I have to. This is a very difficult, very complicated situation. I can't go spreading around the information. I mean, it's not like you never kept secrets from me."

"Like when?" Tobias frowned.

"Why did Acheron leave the Brotherhood?" Gunther asked, innocently. It was a question he had asked many times.

"Now that is not fair." Said Tobias. "That is completely different."

"Not really." Gunther shrugged. "You are keeping vital information from a friend. You are one of the five who were in that private meeting with Acheron the day he disappeared. You are one of the few who knows the true reason he abandoned the Brotherhood. But you've never told."

Tobias grimaced. He didn't like this being brought up again. "That's because it's..."

"Difficult? Complicated?" Gunther finished for him.

"Something like that..." Tobias admitted.

"Then perhaps you can understand my position." Said Gunther.

"I think I can." Said Tobias. "But perhaps you should try and understand mine. The secrets and lies. Suppressing information. It's not what the Brotherhood is supposed to be. Whatever happened to the ideals the Brotherhood was founded on?"

"I'm able to see that occasionally compromises must be made to accomplish our goals." Said Gunther. "Ideals don't get things done."

"And I'm of the opinion that if you have to compromise your ideals to get something done," Said Tobias, "then you've paid too high a price for the accomplishment."

"Tobias..." Gunther began, even though he wasn't sure what he could say to make his friend feel better.

"I thought I knew you, Gunther." Tobias shook his head, making his way toward the door. "Guess I really don't have a damn clue who you are."

The old wolf stomped out of the room, and all the lion could do was sadly watch him go.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Royce walked through the corridors of the castle, lost in thought.

Around him, assorted members of the Brotherhood glanced at him as they passed by, taking a moment to stare and whisper among themselves. Royce simply ignored them. He was used to being the centre of attention from being a celebrity back in Pyre. Days that were long gone now.

His room had felt confining after a few hours spent lying on his bed thinking, so he'd gone for a stroll to continue rebuilding the strength in his legs.

He was starting to tire, so he stopped at a window, leaning against the frame and gazing out across the gardens spread out below.

He couldn't get his mind off Armin. He'd seriously misjudged the young leopard. He'd been fool enough to think there couldn't possibly be anyone who could understand him and his problems, and he'd been completely wrong. He wasn't alone, and that knowledge was a comfort to him.

When he next saw Armin, he'd have to apologise, talk to him more. He still didn't have a clue what he was going to do with himself and his life, but perhaps talking with someone who could understand would help get things sorted out in his head.

The tiger closed his eyes, and took a deep relaxing breath of the fresh air from the window. He'd return to his room in a minute, get some more rest.

Suddenly, he heard a couple of voices nearby, rising above the mutters and whispers that he'd been hearing around him on his walk.

"Mallory! I didn't realise you were back!"

"I just got here. I've been out on assignment."

Royce froze. He knew that voice...

"Assignment?"

"Yeah, top secret stuff. I can't talk about it."

The tiger crept toward the corner of the corridor. That was where the voice was coming from. It couldn't be who he thought it was, he had to check...

"Well, it's good to have you back. We should catch up!"

"Of course! You would not believe how glad I am to be back."

Royce peered around the corner. Standing a short distance away, talking jovially with a raccoon, was a puma he recognised.

It was Nomack's assistant, Mr. Thorne...

To Be Continued...

Read Chapter 10...

Raging Tiger/Kuman the Barbarian/Mitchell and Michael/Going Under/Beware the Transformer/Servus Inc./Farewell to Free Will

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