George and Misha stood in the small anteroom. Around them were a dozen keepers; men, women and animal morphs of a half dozen different species. Some were putting on armor and weapons while others were removing them. None paid any attention to the fox morph and the man with the graying, light brown hair.
“Where are you taking me?” George asked calmly as they walked through the crowd.
“The main armory. I thought you might like some better armor and weapons before we go out,” Misha answered as he stepped towards a doorway.
George laughed. “I have enough weapons.”
“Then how about some armor? I’m sure they have something better then that rusty, old mail shirt to fit you,” the fox answered and stepped through the door into another room.
George followed close behind and found himself in a huge room! The massive hall was at least two stories tall and seemed to stretch on forever. Wherever he looked George saw row upon row of racks and shelves, all filled with armor and weapons.
“Impressive,” the man commented. “Even the Legion armory of Pyralis wasn’t this big.”
“You name it and we have it,” Misha explained.
“What can I take?” the old bandit asked.
“Whatever you want,” the fox said. Then he stopped walking and looked at George whose face was lit up with delight. “Let me rephrase that. Take what you want but you have to give it back when you’re done.”
George scowled. “We’re going on a raid right?”
“A revenge raid,” the fox explained and started walking again. “But I’ll give you a tour of the northern part of the valley. That’s the hardest hit.”
A tall mule morph dressed in a blue shirt and pants walked up to the two scouts. “Can I help you?” the equine asked.
“A good pack, boots, rations for half a month, waterskin, a long bow, a quiver full of arrows and armor,” George ordered.
“What type of armor?” the mule answered unfazed by the man’s blunt order.
The man didn’t answer but turned to Misha. “We walking or riding?”
“Walking,” Misha answered.
“Chainmail,” George told the equine armorer,
George shook his head. “No. I have my own.” In his right hand was a cutlass and in his left was another blade that was too small to be a sword but too large to be a dagger. Both looked deadly and were razor sharp.
It was dark by the time they made their way out of the Keep. The two walked slowly through the dark and quiet streets of Euper. They moved silently, neither of them talking. All the planning was done and both knew better then to waste time with idle gossip.
Andre watched his friend walking off with the old bandit. He was surprised how quietly they moved and the darkness quickly swallowed them up leaving the wolverine straining his eyes in vain to make out their forms. He had never liked George no matter how much Misha trusted him, but there was little he could do except watch the fox walk off. Once before he had watched the fox walk off into the night and he hadn’t returned for over six months.
Andre had know Misha since childhood and yet Misha had always managed to surprise him. Still Misha had been in a dark and violent mood since returning from Marigund. Maybe the old bandit would help temper his friend’s violent moods. George certainly was a survivor. He seemed to come through the worst situations unharmed.
George stopped suddenly and knelt down in the middle of the road. He ran a hand along the gray and worn stones. “How old is this?”
Misha shrugged. “No telling but it’s probably the original Seuilman stones and at least several centuries old. It originally ran all the way north to the Giants Dike and beyond but now it only runs as far as Tarrelton. After that it reverts to a dirt road and finally an overgrown game trail.”
George nodded. “Heading to the Keep I saw a group repairing the road. That’s good. Means this Duke takes care of the small stuff. I’ve seen too many nobles with huge palaces of marble and roads of mud and horse crap.”
“The roads in Marigund should be as well taken care of as Metamor’s are,” the fox commented.
The keep was several miles behind them before George spoke again. “I think we need to change our plans,” he said in a barely audible voice. The two had stopped in a small grove of trees for a short break.
“Oh? Where do you want to go?” the fox answered in a tone just as low.
“We go straight to the ruins and see the rest of the valley afterward.”
“Because my instincts tell me it’s the most dangerous place in the valley,” George explained.
Misha nodded. He had long ago learned to trust George’s instincts. They were always right. “But we’ll go through Tarrelton first. Then go straight north to the ruins. On the way there we’ll get a good look at the only road north to the Gaintdowns.”
Tarrelton was average in size for a small village. A dozen wood, waddle & daub houses huddled around an old stone tower. The entire group was surrounded by a ten foot tall palisade of wood. It’s stout timbers were pockmarked and cut in many places telling of countless skirmishes. In earlier years it had been a home to a half dozen legionnaires who had guarded the roads. Now the battered, old stone tower was a safe refuge for when the raiders came. An all too frequent occurrence.
“The walls look sound and I’m glad to see it’s patrolled well,” George commented as they approached the only gate. “But there is no one outside the walls. They need people in the fields surrounding the walls.”
“George there is only so much a village this small can do,” Misha countered. “You are right thou. I’ve had good pickings here. I can always find a few Lutins wandering around in the fields. They USED to like shooting flaming arrows over the palisade but I broke them of that habit.”
“Good. Any good scouts here?”
“I know at least one person by the name of Craig. We’ve gone lutin hunting together several times,” Misha explained. “He is skilled and patient. Just what we need.”
“I want to take him with us when we go out tonight,” George ordered.
“All right. I’m sure Craig will agree to go.”
The town’s only gate was guarded by two people both dressed in leather armor and carrying spears. Misha nodded to them. “Just visiting with my friend George.”
“All right,” one of the guards answered. She was a tall woman with her black hair tied in a pony tail. “Things have been quiet here as of late. You come to do more hunting?”
The fox nodded. “Of course!”
Both of the guards smiled and the two new arrivals walked into the little town.
The house was a small one made of timber and plaster both weathered to a uniform dark gray color. Around the houses only door a number of animal hides had been nailed to dry including a rabbit and one that was probably a deer.
Sitting on a bench out front was a prairie dog species Keeper. He had the skin of a rabbit draped over one knee and was scrapping the last bits of flesh and fat from the back. “MISHA!” he shouted upon seeing the fox scout. He stood up and dropped the skin onto the bench and walked over to the new arrivals. “Good to see you!”
Misha and the prairie dog hugged. “Good to see you too Craig.” The fox answered. He pointed to the old bandit. “Craig this is George.”
Craig extended his hand and George shook it vigorously. “It’s an honor to meet you George. Misha has told me so much about you. I’m glad to finally be able to meet you face to face. Come in. We have a few hours till sunset. Time for a meal.”
They didn’t leave Tarrelton the same way they had arrived. Instead they slipped quietly out a postern so small that George was barely able to fit through. Stepping from beneath the walls they moved silently across the fields which were covered with waist-high grain. Each step they took was carefully placed, each movement slow and deliberate, designed to make as little noise as possible. Every noise, no matter how small or trivial was the subject of intense scrutiny, studied and analyzed to be sure no enemy lay nearby.
They were almost the full way across the field approaching a small grove of trees that stood close to the road when Misha suddenly stopped. He motioned to George and Craig with both arms. Then he pointed to his nose and then at the trees. The two nodded in response.
The three of them dropped to the ground and crept along on their stomachs moving even slower and more carefully then before. When they had gotten closer George could make out a large shape on one of the larger branches of a tall, pine tree. It was too large to be a bird or any other type of animal and it was shaped like a human.
The scouts crept closer and closer to the tree and its strange occupant making no noise. Their presence wasn’t betrayed. They were simply three shadows among many others in the dark field.
When they were less then forty feet from the trees they stopped. After several minutes Misha held up one finger. George nodded in agreement. Just one lutin, probably a scout keeping watch for a larger group of Lutins nearby.
George heard the faint rustle of leaves off to his left and looking that way he could make out faint shadows moving amidst the stalks of wheat. The Lutins were stealing the grain. He turned towards Misha and pointed towards the shadows.
Both the prairie dog and the fox nodded in response. They had seen them too. Misha nocked an arrow onto his bow and suddenly pulled his torso upright, kneeling on the ground. An arrow flew from his bow and the figure in the tree dropped to the ground without making a sound.
George was angry at Misha for doing something so stupid as attacking a lutin so close to a large group of them, but he couldn’t do anything now except nock an arrow onto his own bow and wait to see what the Lutins did. If they had heard their sentry die all three scouts would be in deep trouble.
Misha had judged correctly as the Lutins seemed to take no notice of the death of their sentry and kept harvesting grain.
Misha stood erect and slowly walked towards the Lutins. As the fox moved past him George could see a dangerous feral look in his friend’s eyes that unnerved him. George stood up, unsheathed his own cutlass and dagger and stalked after his friend. Craig quickly fell in step with George.
The fox broke into a low trot hefting his massive battleaxe as he moved. In spite of the speed Misha moved in total silence. He was a barely visible shadow moving though the darkness.
The Lutins didn’t spot him until he was almost upon then. Misha swung the full five foot length of his massive battleaxe and cut the first lutin completely in half. The two body parts tumbled in separate directions as the fox raced past, already swinging Whisper again.
The fight was over before George and Craig could get there. Most of the Lutins lay scattered on the ground in pieces. The rest had fled screaming into the night.
“THAT WAS STUPID MISHA!” George shouted. “You’re not some stupid axe-wielding barbarian. You had no way of knowing how many of them there really was!”
“This is a revenge raid George,” the fox countered in a hostile tone as he laid his ears against his skull. “We’re here to kill things.”
“This is no killing raid Misha,” George countered harshly. “You will keep that axe of yours sheathed. We’re here to look around not get involved in useless bloodletting.”
“George . . .” Misha objected.
“NO killing,” the old bandit ordered. “There’ll be plenty of time for killing later. For now we are just looking around. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” the fox said as he tucked his tail against his body.
It was a small thing that got them all worried. Most people, even Lutins would have walked past it without noticing. But skilled scouts like these spotted it instantly. The three were approaching a small creek. The only bridge had long ago been destroyed so they were approaching the closest ford. Close to the path leading down to the water George spotted a small patch of ground about halfway down the slope that had been worn smooth by recent use. A lot of use was needed to cause that much wear. The problem was this trail led only to destroyed towns and the abandoned fortress. No Keepers were using this trail or had for months. That meant this trail was being used by the enemy. Lutins and lots of them.
“Go home,” George ordered the prairie dog. “We’ll do this alone.”
“I’m not some child . . .” Craig countered angrily.
“I know that but I don’t know you that well. We’ve never scouted together. I have with Misha. Him and me have been doing this for a long time. When I know you better we’ll fight together. Until then I don’t want to take any chances.”
The prairie dog nodded. “I understand. And if you don’t return at least word will get back to the Duke.”
“Of course,” George shot back.
Who had built first in this spot in the past was unknown. When the Seuliman had arrived there was already a centuries old settlement standing there. But even then there had been odd mounds and strangely shaped ditches that were far older. Neither Misha nor George were interested in those hills today. What held their interest was far younger. The tumbled down ruins had until two years before been a good sized castle and town. It had been home to over two hundred knights and soldiers until Nasoj had attacked it. The fight had been long and bitter but never in doubt. The odds were too great. The Lutins had overwhelmed the castle and killed almost everyone in it. Only a handful of people had survived.
Before the siege it had been a squat, stone tower seventy feet tall surrounded by a stone wall barely a third that high. Still for all its simplicity the structure had served its purpose well over the years, playing home to the soldiers who patrolled against the ever-present threat of lutin attacks.
What was left was not a pleasant sight. The tower was barely half its height, the top a ragged line of burnt and shattered stones like the ragged neck of a decapitated man. The wall had been reduced to low mounds of rubble in many places. Both had been hammered down by the repeated battering of siege engines over the course of the long siege.
Creeping along slowly around the ruins the two carefully examined the place.
The ruins were littered with the detritus of war, shattered weapons, armor and unidentifiable bits of wood, metal and stone. A shattered siege tower, burnt and worn down stood, listing to one side in front of the tumbled down remains of a stone wall.
Behind that ruined wall hunkered the stone tower that must have once been very impressive but was now just a battered, blackened stump. Still, even ruined it was an impressive sight. Misha also noticed that even ruined the tower looked to be fairly sturdy. He noted that the floor had survived in many places and the interior was probably for the most part dry on the lower floors.
Misha noted the countless places where a person could easily hide, lots of piles of debris, tumbled down walls and collapsed roofs all overgrown with bushes and weeds. A large group of people could hide in these ruins and never be spotted. Certainly not by someone riding past on horseback.
The first sign of lutins Misha had wasn’t sight or sound. It was smell. His sensitive vulpine nose picked up the sharp scent of an unwashed lutin body and he wrinkled his nose at the foul odor. He motioned with one hand towards George and then pointed to his nose.
The old scout nodded in understanding and smiled. Then George pointed to a large pile of tumbled stone blocks.
Misha had to stifle a laugh. George had spotted the lutin long before he had even with his heightened animal senses. The fox slowly hefted his axe and pointed to the place where the Lutins were hiding. George shook his head no.
Misha nodded and pointed to the left of the Lutins and made a walking sign with his hands.
With slow and silent steps Misha and George quietly made their way around the sentries always mindful of how close they were. It would take only one poorly placed foot or hand to make a noise and give themselves away. In the distance he heard a night bird chirping. A small object suddenly fluttered past him and Misha instinctively ducked. He hefted his axe but didn’t attack when he recognized the object as a bat. The nocturnal flier was probably hunting the insects that thrived in the forest nearby.
Still he didn’t move for several minutes listening and watching for any sign of trouble. Finally he started moving again, inching his way forward one silent step at a time.
It was several minutes before they were safely past the Lutins and up to the rubble that had been the curtain wall. Moving slowly and carefully through the wreckage Misha stepped into the interior of the castle.
The interior of the old fortress was vast, over six acres in size. Once in the distant past it had been a Seuilman fortress and home to an entire legion. Then the courtyard had been crowded with all manner of buildings; barracks, workshops, warehouses even a bathhouse and a small temple. After the fall of the empire it had played host to a good-sized town whose citizens were loyal to the Duke instead of some far distant emperor.
Now all that was gone. In its place was a labyrinth of tumbled down stone walls. Some walls were scarcely ankle high, others were almost shoulder height and still others towered high overhead. None were intact, merely ruined and weathered remnants. One building towered over the entire area. In one corner of the vast area stood the large squat tower Misha had seen earlier. It wasn’t a Seuilman construction. It had been built later by one of Duke Thomas’s ancestors who had taken advantage of the still standing walls. In this vast area of ruins there were countless places a person could hide. Lots of nooks and crannies to tuck a body into and not be seen by a passing patrol. A person would have to sweep the ruins on foot, checking each and every ruined building and tumbled down stone one at a time. Only then could you be sure the place was clear of lutins.
George walked up to a wall and ran his hand along the top. Misha looked where the old scout had his hand. The fox noticed how the stone along the top was a darker color than the rest of the wall. He also saw the faint scratches and gouges. Someone had been removing the blocks from the wall for use elsewhere. That alone meant little as Seuliman stones were highly prized and old ruins like this were routinely scavenged of their stones for new construction. But no humans lived anywhere near this place. All the locals had been killed or driven off. That meant not only were the Lutins here but they were using the stones to build something. Neither boded well.
George motioned towards the tower and Misha nodded in agreement. The keep was the obvious place for them to find Lutins. Certainly there wouldn’t be many there. The Keep was far too noticeable a place to hide. Any Keeper patrol moving though the old fortress was sure to give the keep at least a cursory inspection. But it was the tallest structure and a perfect place for a single person to hide and observe everything for miles in all directions.
This time Misha spotted the Lutins first. The distinct, musky, stale scent that all Lutins seem to have came to his nose. Misha stopped and dropped to his knees.
Without a word or a gesture George followed suit and knelt next to his friend.
Sniffing the air the fox traced the scent to a clump of trees. Sharp ears picked up the faint sound of feet being shuffled back and forth. The fox touched his nose and pointed to the trees.
George nodded his head slowly and pointed to the left of the trees. The two slowly and quietly made their way past the sentries and deeper into the ruins.
Within five minutes they spotted more Lutins, this time hunkered down in the ruins of an old building. They spent more time slowly working their way around this group.
They had gone barely twenty feet when they came upon another group of Lutins and more time was lost in maneuvering around them.
The two knelt next to a large stone that was leaning against the base of a stone wall. It looked like any of a dozen other rocks nearby but this one had a large patch of brown and green moss on it. The dirt and earth in front of the stone were faintly disturbed. To any but an experienced scout familiar with the flora and fauna it would be just another rock, but to George and Misha that spot stood out as a glaring signal. This rock had been moved and replaced many times.
Misha carefully ran his hand around the inside edge of the stone feeling for a wire, a piece of wood or anything else unusual. Those usually signaled a booby trap of some sort. When he found nothing Misha began to slowly and carefully lift the rock off the ground. The fox moved slowly as George leaned forward and looked behind the rock for any sign of a trap or some sort of trip wire.
The old bandit shook his head and Misha pulled the rock the rest of the way from the wall. Where the rock had rested was a good sized hole that ran deep into the ground. Misha looked down into the hole and sniffed. His nose was assaulted by a sour, dank smell that spoke of sweat and sewage left piled up somewhere down below. He recoiled and shook his head to try and removed the terrible smell from his nose.
George smiled at his friend’s antics and then motioned for the fox to put the stone back in place. Gratefully Misha slowly put the large rock back where he had found it making sure to place it exactly as it had been before. Then they slowly backed away from the spot being sure to rub out any tracks they had left leaving no sign that they had ever been there.
Slowly the two made their way along the wall looking carefully at everything that lay around them. They would pause frequently to examine something. Often they found what they were looking for under a rock or behind a small shrub or bush. Within an hour they had found the entrances to over a dozen tunnels and a lot more Lutins on guard. They seemed to be everywhere. Thankfully most seemed to be asleep.
The ultimate find was located near the tower itself. In the midst of the ruins Misha came upon something unexpected; wagon tracks. Curious they followed them as they wound through the ruins till they disappeared into a pile of wreckage.
There they found a large pile of burnt timbers that looked too neat to have just simply fallen from the burning tower. After a moments examination Misha found no less then four traps scattered around the pile. Each one had to be carefully disarmed before he could turn his attention to the pile itself.
The pile looked heavy but it lifted easily when Misha pulled on one edge of it. The entire pile had been built on hinges and was carefully counterweighted. Beneath it a ramp large enough for a wagon led down into the bowels of the earth. It was an impressive piece of workmanship. The ramp had even been carefully paved with stone blocks and showed signs of heavy use.
After closing the large hatch, resetting the traps and removing all traces of their presence the two retreated quietly from the fortress. They didn’t stop till they were well out of sight of the ruins.
“I knew they were in the ruins, I just never knew there were so many and so well organized.”
“Forget looking over the rest of the valley,” George ordered. “We’re going right back to the Keep. This is too important to wait.”
Misha didn’t argue and the two trotted off into the safety of the forest together.
They were in the armory turning in their weapons, armor and whatever other equipment they no longer needed. The first thing they had done upon arriving was sending word to Thomas that they wanted to meet with him immediately. Then they had gone to the armory to get rid of all their equipment.
Misha noted that George kept back a pair of gauntlets and a pair of boots. He couldn’t help but laugh as when the curse took hold both would probably no longer fit.
As the two of them left the armory they were greeted by a messenger. The boy handed Misha a sealed envelope and then turned and left without uttering a word.
“It’s from Phil,” Misha said examining the envelope which had been sealed with wax in the shape of a carrot.
“And who is he?” the old scout asked.
“The Duke’s Chief spy. One of the most brilliant and strangest people I’ve ever met.” The fox explained as he opened the envelope. “He’s also a rabbit.”
“A bunny?” George asked and smiled. “Complete with the ears?” he waved his hands next to either side of his head imitating a set of long ears.
Misha nodded in reply.
“How does he handle being near you? Foxes eat rabbits.”
Misha was silent for a moment and shook his head slowly. “Poorly. Very poorly. His rabbit instincts are VERY strong. I’ve never been able to get closer then ten feet to him. Mostly we communicate through letters.”
The fox pulled out the letter and started to read it. “He has a long list of questions for both of us about our little trip. He also has some good information. The rabbit confirms that Nasoj had some sort of plan in motion but they couldn’t locate where. Also he agrees with your plan to rebuild the fortress.”
George laughed. “I like this rabbit already.”
“He’s also been investigating you and all the friends you brought with you, especially Arthlow. Phil tells me that Prince Harry’s eldest son, Gergard has started causing trouble for his uncle.”
“Little Gerry?” the old scout asked smiling and with a warm tone to his voice. “He was just a child the last time I saw him.”
“He’s grown into a noble, young man and he remembers both you and me,” the fox commented. “He sent the Duke a letter that spoke very highly of both of us and he offered a large amount of coins to get your help.”
George laughed and threw up his hands in mock despair. “I’m suddenly popular. Too bad it’s too late to take him up on the offer.”
“Can you think of someone who can help him?” the fox asked. “It’s a good cause.”
He nodded in response. “Pliny would be good,” the old bandit answered.
“I thought Pliny was dead.”
George shook his head. “No. He was in Isenport back in December and probably still is.”
“I’ll send a message off to him and Gerry tomorrow.”
“You could also mention Adon,” George commented.
“Who?” Misha asked, puzzled.
“I don’t believe you’ve ever met him. I can’t pronounce his real name but he’s called Adon the Assassin.”
“Now that is a name I’ve heard of. How would Gerry contact him?”
George shrugged. “No idea. But Gerry is a prince. Nobles have a nasty habit of knowing how to find assassins when they need to.”
The fox scout nodded in agreement. “All right. I’ll add that into the letter. Let HIM worry about it.”
“I’ve an idea in mind,” George said suddenly changing the subject. “Back when I was fighting for Prince Harry we had that group of elite scouts – The Ghosts. All were great scouts good at ambushing and raiding. They really caused havoc.”
“I remember them. You want to raise a unit like that here?” Misha asked.
“No I want you to do it,” the bandit answered. “I am going to be busy getting the scouts into shape but I could use a good group of elite scouts to do the really dangerous tasks.”
“No George. I’m not a leader,” the fox countered flatly.
“Everyone says you are constantly going north and killing Lutins and causing havoc. All I want you to do is bring along some friends to help with the killing.”
Misha gave a bark of laughter. “You make it sound like I’m going on picnic outings.”
“I’m fully aware of just how dangerous and suicidal some of the things you do really are,” George answered, “but I don’t intend to just sit around waiting for Nasoj to attack us. I mean to hit him first. And the things I want you to do you cannot do alone, not even with that axe of yours. I even know who to recruit first.”
“Craig?” Misha asked.
George smiled and nodded.
“Good choice. He’ll be a very good choice.”
“And why are you complaining? You helped me raise the Ghosts,” George commented. “I’m surprised Arthlow didn’t demand your head as well as mine.”
Misha nodded. “Me too. But it has been over a decade since then. He must really be mad to still want your head after all these years.”
“He was always a petty fool,” George said shaking his head. “I was hoping he would have gained some wisdom over the years.”
The fox shook his head. “Nope. Some people get older and wiser and others just get older.”
“What did you find?” Thomas asked the two scouts.
“The ruins are full of Lutins,” George answered.
“We saw signs of at least fifty or more Lutins scattered around the ruins on guard. Probably at least four times that many in hiding,” Misha added.
“They are slowly rebuilding the old Keep, strengthening the walls and floors as well as clearing out the cellars and digging new ones,” George commented. He sat down in a chair and poured himself a large cup of wine.
The staff had already learned George’s habits and when he and Misha had arrived in Thomas’ private audience chamber there were already three bottles of wine resting on the table next to a large platter full of pastries and other baked delicacies.
“Why?” Thalberg asked.
“A hiding place. When finished they would slowly fill it with supplies and troops. A few each night,” George explained as he selected a piece of pastry covered with some sticky goo. “Then when they were ready they would strike. You’d wake up one morning and there would be several hundred Lutins wrecking havoc.”
“Our first warning would probably be screaming and flames,” Thomas commented.
“We need to strike now,” Misha growled. “Before they get too well emplaced.”
George nodded in agreement. “I’ll need a few weeks to see my scouts and get them into decent shape before we move.”
“Scouts will go in first,” Misha commented. “They’ll take out the sentries and clear the way for the infantry.”
“One unit will surround the place while the other will sweep the ruins from one side to the other checking every hole and pile of rocks. Whatever they find they kill or destroy,” George said complementing the fox perfectly. “Then when they’re done with the sweep they’ll do it again and again till they stop finding things.”
“How many troops will you need?” the stallion asked.
George turned to Misha instead of answering the Duke. “Both groups will have to be the same size as the regiment that we took Warlington with ten years ago.”
Misha nodded. “Two groups of two hundred infantry each,” the fox said to the stallion.
“A mix of heavy and light foot backed by mages,” George added. “And a good sized group of cavalry in case we run into more then we expected.”
“That’s a very large force by Metamoran standards,” Thomas said.
“Would you rather wait till it filled with several hundred Lutins?” Misha asked caustically.
“Don’t worry about the regular soldiers,” the older scout added. “My scouts will probably do most of the fighting. The real trouble will come afterward when they realize what we’ve done.”
“True,” Thalberg agreed. “They are sure to attack in strength.”
“It will take more then four hundred troops to defend that place. Troops we cannot spare for such an errand,” Thomas commented flatly.
“Didn’t we already have this argument?” Misha asked sarcastically.
“Either we go as I’ve planned or Misha and me will go with our own people, alone and do the job our way,” George said flatly. “We’ll lose a lot of them of course.”
“Are you threatening me?” Thomas asked coldly as his nostrils flared in anger.
“I do not threaten,” George answered calmly. “What I say I’ll do, I do. No idle threats. Fitz Williams will support that. I told them what I would do if they betrayed us.”
Misha chuckled suddenly cutting the tension. “We did cut quite a swath through the city.”
“It’s their own fault for using such cheap building material. We only burned the Guild hall.”
“Yes,” Misha added, “but the fire spread to half the town.”
“No. That fool mage they hired tossing fire spells around set the town on fire. Besides. I warned them Betray us and I’ll pull this pretty hall down on your heads.”
“You didn’t pull it down, you burned it,” Misha corrected.
George shrugged. “Close enough. They should have paid us what they owed.”
“Certainly would have been cheaper!” Misha added.
Thomas gave a short neigh interrupting the two scouts reminiscing. “I do not like risking so much of my army but I see little choice. We need to attack them before they attack us again.”
“How long will you need to prepare?” Thalberg responded.
“A month,” George answered. “That is as long as we can delay attacking. After that we run the risk of them attacking us first.”
Thomas nodded his equine head. “We will discuss this more at a later date but for now we will move ahead with the training and planning.”
“George!” Misha called through the closed door. “Time to get up.”
When he got no answer he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
He found George on the bed nude but not alone. Sleeping next to him in the bed was a beautiful, lady jaguar morph keeper her head resting on George’s shoulder. Both his arms were wrapped around her. She was as naked as he was.
“I didn’t know you like cats George,” Misha commented calmly to the two in the bed.
“MISHA! Sir, I . . . We . . .” the jaguar stuttered as she reached for her clothes.
“Relax Sarah,” the fox said waving his hand. “This isn’t the first time I’ve found George in bed with someone. But you’d best go anyway. He has a lot of people to meet this morning.”
The feline relaxed noticeably. She licked George on the cheek and nuzzled him tenderly. “See you later?” she asked softly.
“Of course,” he answered and kissed her on the muzzle.
Misha watched the still seminude lady leave. He enjoyed the view of the tail attached to her shapely rear, both swaying seductively with each step.
“How was it?” Misha asked after she had left.
“Fun, the biting on the neck and the yowling was new,” the bandit answered.
“What about all the fur?”
“She wasn’t the hairiest woman I have ever had.”
Misha shivered. “Now THAT is a story I do NOT want to hear.”
The first meeting of all of Metamor’s scouts was far from good. It took three days to gather all those people who claimed to be the scouts and hunters of Metamor keep. It was a motley group of just under 100 people. George saw men, women and a score of different animal species including an eagle and a griffon. The group was gathered in the middle of a small hall that had appeared just for the purpose.
George was dressed in a loose fitting shirt of red cloth edged with gold thread, both his cutlass and dagger hung in scabbards from his hip. He walked the entire length of the hall moving through the group with an air of confidence and authority. He didn’t speak but all conversation stopped anyway as he moved past.
He stood on a chair that rested at the front of the group and surveyed the group arrayed in front of him for a long moment. “My name is George,” he said in a calm voice that rang with command. “Duke Thomas has given me command over you all.”
From the front row came a loud, rude noise.
The scout stepped down from the chair and moved to the source of the sound. There he found a small ferret morph who stared up at him defiantly.
“You’re not going to give me any orders,” the ferret announced angrily. “No one orders me to do anything.”
George lashed out suddenly with his fist knocking the ferret to the floor. “Any other complaints?” he said harshly.
“Misha,” George called calmly. “I’ve got the second recruit for your little group,” he said and pointed to the ferret.
The ferret glared at Misha and then snarled at George.
“Relax,” Misha said cutting off any comments the ferret might have had. “It’s not a bad thing. George has a special job for both of us. How good are you at killing Lutins?”
The ferret didn’t answer but the woman next to him did. She laughed. “Finbar can sneak up on anything and kill it.”
Several others in the group nodded in agreement.
“And I don’t need some big, clumsy axe to do it,” the mustelid added proudly.
“What do you use?” George asked.
Finbar held up a pair of long and very sharp daggers in each hand.
“He’s almost as crazy as you are Misha,” a voice called out from the group.
“Oh?” Misha said and cocked his head to one side.
The ferret picked up a bag that had rested on the floor next to him and pulled a Lutin’s head from it. “I killed this one on the way here.”
Misha noticed that as quickly as the ferret had produced the daggers he made them disappear, quietly and with no fuss. This ferret was a knife man. A rare thing. Most people preferred bigger and more powerful weapons. To most a dagger was too small and perhaps a bit too personal. You had to get very close to use a dagger properly. Close enough to see the pain and fear in your opponent’s eyes as you drove the blade into his heart. Few used daggers but those who did master the dagger were both feared and highly respected.
The fox nodded his head. “Good. I need a few good people to help me do some special tasks. The pay is good but the work is very dangerous.”
“Does it mean I get to kill lots of Lutins?” the ferret asked.
“Sounds great!” Finbar answered. “I’m in!”
“I am not some stupid, pretty looking boy who got this command because my mother fucked some nobleman. I’ve spent my whole life fighting, scouting and being a bandit. The fact that I’m still alive tells you I’m good at it,” George said in a booming voice.
George started walking slowly though the assembled crowd. “You all are good at killing Lutins. I’m here to make you even better at it. I am going to organize this motley crowd into a group so good that not even a mouse can take a dump in this valley without us knowing about it. From now on not one lutin gets in without us knowing about it. From now on there will be no more raids on our homes. From now on any Lutins that enters this valley never leaves it alive.”
Several people in the crowd cheered and clapped their hands. Others nodded.
“First, you will be grouped into teams of five,” George held his right hand up with all the fingers extended over his head for all to see. “Each with a team leader who will report to me personally. You will remain with those people from now on. Whenever you go out on patrol it will be with them. NO ONE GOES OUT ALONE! EVER!” he shouted.
“Where and when you patrol will be ordered by me so that the entire valley is covered by an ever changing schedule and pattern of patrols. This is to keep the Lutins from guessing the pattern and slipping past us to raid a town.”
The bandit walked back to the front of the group. “But first I need to know how good you all are. So each team will be going out on patrol with either me or Misha.”
“Any mages in the group?” Misha asked. His question was answered only by silence.
“To be expected,” George commented. “Mages rarely want to get their shoes dirty in the woods.”
“Mages don’t walk through woods they just burn them down,” Misha added. “And then blame it on a conjunction of the planets.”
The whole group laughed at the fox’s joke.
“From now on you will take orders from me alone and no one else,” the old scout ordered. “It is that simple. No one but me can give you orders. Period. No excuses. The only one who can give you an order besides me is Misha,” he said and pointed to where the fox was standing. “And he takes his orders from ME!”
“Each one of you will make your way to that table,” he said and pointed to where a woman sat behind a small wooden table. “You’ll give Diane your name, where you live and what skills you have. Do not lie or exaggerate. That is my second rule; You can say whatever you want to others but NEVER lie to a fellow scout. Lives depend on the exact truth.”
“My third rule TELL NO ONE NOTHING!” he shouted waving his hands around. “Never discuss a mission, with anyone but your team mates. Not the smallest detail. Never tell anything about us or your team to anyone. Not even your family or friends. The less information that gets out is that much less that can make it’s way to Nasoj. Even the stupidest and most simple fact can lead to someone getting killed.”
A group of twenty scouts stood uneasily in a line at one end of the archery range.
“This is easy,” Misha said standing behind them. “We want to see just how good your aim is. What we are looking for is speed and accuracy.”
“We’ve been doing this for three days,” Finbar countered.
“And when your aim improves to where I’m satisfied we’ll move on to your favorite part – the sword and knife fighting. And after that we’ll move on to hunting and stalking.”
“We know how to stalk and hunt,” someone complained. “And Finbar is probably better at it then you are!”
The ferret puffed up with pride.
“I know he is,” Misha answered and looked at the ferret. “And he’ll be TEACHING the rest of us.”
Finbar’s ears and tailed drooped. “Me?” he stuttered.
Misha patted the ferret on the shoulder. “George wants his people to learn from the best and you ARE the best stalker in the Keep.”
Finbar stood straighter, his pride recovered but there was a trace of doubt in his eyes.
“Relax, just be yourself and you’ll do fine. Just don’t kill anyone.”
“I only kill Lutins,” he answered coldly.
Misha’s tail wagged in delight. “I like how you think!”
George was standing in front of a small group of scouts. The old bandit was dressed from head to toe in black, loose fitting clothing. Any part of his body that was not covered with the clothe was covered with a black dye, even his hair. It made him look very intimidating which was one point of dressing like that.
“What you’re seeing is the new camouflaged uniform for all night work,” George explained. “If you are going out at night you WILL be wearing this. All of you will be issued two such uniforms. And never mind the cost. The duke is buying!”
“Does the Duke know that?” someone asked.
“Not yet!” George answered with a sly grin.
The group erupted in a roar of laughter.
To the woodcutter passing it seemed like he had stumbled upon a madman. They saw a man dressed completely in green and brown clothing walking across a forest clearing shouting out loud to himself and throwing rocks at random. But to George and the rest of the people there it was serious business.
“Not good enough,” George shouted and threw a rock at small piles of brown vegetation.
The pile emitted a soft yelp and shivered.
“Now you’re dead,” George told the pile. “Stand up.”
The dead vegetation shifted and a young woman covered completely in brown and green cloth slowly stood up. “That hurt,” she said rubbing her shoulder.
“Be glad it was only a rock and not a spear,” George countered. “You did good Mabel but you forgot to change your cover and you had dead leaves and grass over you. It’s summer and there is a pile of dead grass in a field filled with green grass and bushes. Your worst mistake was making noise while hidden.”
“You hit me with a rock!” she countered.
“So?” George asked. “If the Lutins weren’t sure you were there they would be when you yelled out. You have to remain silent no matter what. Even if wounded you can’t make a sound. Sounds can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”
“Yes sir,” she said coldly.
“You have ten minutes to find yourself another hiding spot,” he said to the woman.
“All right. Who’s next?” he said as he turned to a small tree stump sitting at the edge of the field. “Please tell me no one was stupid enough to hide behind something so obvious as a tree stump.”
George slowly lowered himself into the water. The hot water of the bath felt good on his bruised and battered body. From his right came a soft yip and a chuckle.
“Feeling a little sore?” Misha asked. The fox had already stripped and settled into his own bath. Only his head, shoulders and arms were sticking out of the water. In his left hand was a large glass of wine. On the floor between them rested a bottle of wine, some bread and a small pile of cheese and meats.
“Very sore,” he answered. “That elk really tossed me good.”
“You have to remember that these aren’t people in animal costumes. William may walk like a man but he’s got an elk’s strength.”
“I am getting used to that but it’s a hard habit to break after spending my whole life fighting men and normal animals.”
“When do you think they’ll be ready?” Misha asked. “Thalberg has been asking me.”
“Soon. Another few days. I’d like to get in more patrols but there simply isn’t the time.”
“George, do you really think you can do this” Misha asked. “Retaking that castle with what little Metamor has?”
“Yes!” he answered bluntly. “Nasoj can’t openly attack so soon after being so badly defeated during Three Gates. He’ll have to stick with harassment and night raids. At least till he gets desperate enough to do something stupid.”
“George,” Misha said and pointed to his right arm.
Puzzled the old bandit looked from his friend’s arm to his own. He noted that his lower arm was covered with a tan fur.
“The curse it seems has finally made its choice. Looks like you’re going to be an animal like me,” Misha said and pointed to himself.
By the time the two had finished with the wine, the food and the bath the curse had finished changing George. Naked the old bandit stood in front of a mirror admiring the strange body that was now his own.
His canine head topped with large ears sat atop a lean, rangy body that was covered with short tan fur. Looking behind he saw a long, bushy tail. The fur on his back was black instead of tan like the rest.
“I’m shorter and a lot thinner,” George commented and shrugged. “At least I won’t go bald.”
“You’re a canine of some sort,” Misha commented. “A jackal I think.”
“A black backed jackal,” George corrected. “Southern animal. Scavengers and hunters.”
“They’re survivors George. Just like you.”
The new jackal’s ears swiveled all about as his nose twitched,” So many sounds and smells!” he said delighted. “It’s like I’ve had a whole new world opened up.”
Misha nodded. “And taste too! Food will never be the same again! And before you ask, yes you do have a knot like all canine males do.”
The jackal gave a short bark of laughter. “You know me too well. I wonder what Sarah will think.”
“You should be a goat instead of a jackal.”
George ran his fingers along the teeth in his muzzle. “I like the teeth. I’ll never have to worry about not having a weapon when I need it. And I have a full set of teeth. Even the ones I lost are back.”
“The curse seems to do that. It cures any problems a person might have. It’s even been know to regrow body parts!”
“I feel younger!” George said with a tinge of delight in his voice. “I really feel a lot younger!”
The fox shrugged. “You might have caught some of the youth side of the curse. There is very little really known about the curse.”
Craig and Misha stood at the table, still dressed in the armor and camouflaged clothing they had worn for the last two weeks. George stood on the opposite side of the table. If the smell of his comrades bothered him he didn’t show it. Spread out on the table between them was a large piece of parchment. On the parchment drawn in black ink was a map of the ruined castle and the terrain around it.
“The area around is only lightly patrolled,” Misha commented. “We only ran into three patrols outside the walls. But there was a lot of activity inside. There was at least one large group a night carrying supplies that arrived. Some nights there were two or even three groups. These groups were large, thirty or forty Lutins all laden down with supplies.”
Craig nodded. “Twice they brought in wagons.”
“Any patterns?” George asked.
“All the groups came in after midnight and departed a few hours later. All were long gone by dawn. They all entered and left through the east gate. Quite a few of the Lutins stayed behind because only half to a quarter of those who came left,” the prairie dog morph commented.
Misha pointed to a line on the map that represented the north wall. “This section of the wall has a large breach in it. The wall is down completely along a twenty five foot long section running from here to here,” he said and pointed to two spots on the map.
George took a pen and using red ink drew a thick red line between the two places Misha had pointed to. “Guards?”
“Two and both in the same place,” Craig answered. “In the center of the breach itself.”
George took another pen and drew a green dot on the center on the red line he had just made. “What about the flanking towers?”
“Left one is intact up to it’s full height and there is usually an archer stationed there at nights,” Misha answered. “But not every night. It seems to be random when someone is there.”
“Right tower is badly tumbled,” Craig explained. “Highest part is about ten feet high.”
The jackal marked the map with more red ink.
“The north gate is gone,” Misha commented. “The tower is there but the gate itself has been filled in. It’s a solid wall now.”
“Filled in with what?” George asked as he marked the map with black ink.
“Stone and whoever did it did a really good job. The stones were carefully laid and mortared well. It looked like it had been done years ago.”
The jackal morph nodded. “Probably one of the Duke’s ancestors.”
“The tower itself is in fair shape. The walls are solid but the floors and roof are gone,” the fox scout added.
“Good. Next trip out you’re to concentrate on the interior. I need to know what the Keep itself looks like along with what’s left of that town.”
“When do we go out?” Craig asked.
“Relax a little, get cleaned up and catch up on your sleep but be ready to leave in a day.”
“One day?” Craig asked surprised.
George nodded. “Time is getting tight. We can’t delay any more.”