Second Steps or Unexpected Connections

by Christian O'Kane

Knock, knock, knock.

Knock, knock, knock.

“He’ll never hear you if you knock like that. You have to hit harder.”


“George wake up, this is important!”

Behind the wooden door a large, plush bed sat in the middle of a well appointed bedroom.


Amidst the blankets a figure stirred slowly.


From underneath the blankets a tan, canine head appeared and stared at the door. “Who is it?”

“It’s Diane. Wake up. This is important George.”

“You take care of it, you’re the assistant patrol master,” the jackal under the blankets mumbled.

“Misha wants to talk to you.”

George muttered a curse under his breath. “All right I’m coming.”

The figure in the bed sat bolt upright and then swung his legs out and put his paws on the tile floor. Lighting a candle revealed a short, thin canine. He stood up and stretched to work out the kinks. George was nude except for a pair of shorts, but his fur kept him from being cold. The canines fur was tan darkening to black along his spine. Many gray hairs were mixed in among the black and tan.

Moving to the door he opened it and found a woman dressed in blue robes there. along with a servant. A girl too young to have been changed by the curse.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Misha wants to see you in his office right away. He said it’s about the green guy,” Diane explained.

George nodded. “All right. I’ll be there as soon as I’m dressed.”

Rickkter saw a figure out of the corner of his eye. It was just a momentary glimpse of green and a flash of silver and gold going down a side corridor. Usually he would pay it no mind but with the sighting came a smell. A most familiar smell. It was the sharp tang of a lutin. Nothing else smelled quite so foul or unwashed as one of those little green monsters.

With the memory of the Yule tide attack fresh in every ones mind a lutin in the keep was serious matter. Something that had to be taken care of. Rickkter drew a dagger from his belt and moved off in the direction the lutin had taken,

Moving swiftly he caught sight of the lutin just before it turned a corner. He got a better look creature. This lutin was taller then most, about five and a half foot high. Man sized. It was dressed in a full length, purple robe was edged in gold and silver. Dangling from a belt at his hip was a scimitar. Flanking the green skinned intruder were two keepers that Rickkter recognized. One was Padraic and the other was Danielle.

“Very interesting,” Rickkter said to himself. What is this lutin doing here? If he was a prisoner why is he still carrying a weapon. And if he isn’t a prisoner what is he doing here? The raccoon slowly put his weapons away and stealthily crept forward.

He came to the corner and carefully looked around it. The corridor beyond was empty. No lutin or no Long Scout escorts. The only thing that caught Rickkter’s eye was a door close to him. On it was painted the axe and bow emblem of the Long Scouts.

He silently crept up to the door and put his ear to the wood and listened.

“Exactly what does your chief want?” came a muffled voice that Rickkter recognized as belonging to Misha.

“Peace,” came the simple answer from an unknown voice that must be the lutins. “You don’t attack us and we don’t attack you.”

“Simple and to the point,” came another voice that Rickkter thought could belong to George the Patrol master.

“But he wishes to meet you Misha and the Duke face to face,” came the lutin voice.

“Why?” Misha asked.

“Great leaders must meet face to face,” came the answer. “One cannot trust a bargain made through messengers who can lie or twist the message they carry.”

“I don’t believe you,” came Misha’s blunt reply. “It’s simply an excuse to ambush us both.”

George held up a hand and silenced the fox. “The decision on such a meeting is not ours to make. The Duke will have to decide that.”

“The truce is still in effect?” the lutin asked.

“Of course,” Misha answered. “Both our people need the break. But I don’t believe in meeting face to face. It’s too dangerous.”

“My great leader expected that and he is willing to give you proof of his sincerity. They will be arriving tomorrow at the castle you call Outpost.”

“They?” Misha asked calmly.

“When you believe us then we will you be willing to talk?” the lutin asked.

“Yes,” George answered. “But until then we believe nothing.”

“What do you think Rickkter?” Misha asked loudly.

The raccoon froze for a moment then opened the door and stepped inside. “I don’t believe them. “This is a trick to keep us from killing them.”

“I agree,” Misha added. “But they have upheld the truce all these months so they have earned the fair chance to talk.”

“But the Duke has to decide not you or me,” George said calmly repeating himself.

“When will the Duke decide?” the lutin asked.

George shrugged. "It will probably take a while to actually decide but you'll have his answer before night fall.”

The lutin nodded his head. “I understand.”

“This is a unique opportunity to finally see some peace but we will wait and see what this proof is before I decide,” Thomas commented.

“What could this proof be?” Misha asked. “He seemed very self assured that we would agree.”

George shrugged. “No telling but if it is a trick they are going to a great deal of effort for it.”

“This chief might be telling the truth. After all we did defeat Nasoj. That left a large power vacuum,” Rickkter commented. “A vacuum that only Metamor can fill.”

“This chief is trying to fill that vacuum himself,” Thomas commented. “He has been gathering quite a few of the tribes under his control.”

“Ten by my last count,” Andwyn commented. “Also at least as many are paying him tribute.”

“He took Wraiths Stronghold by assault!” Misha commented.

“He is rebuilding Wraiths Stronghold,” Andwyn added.

Thomas nodded. “That alone makes him dangerous.”

“Either we make him an ally or we kill him,” the bat said simply.

The fox nodded. “Agreed but let’s talk to him BEFORE you poison him.”

“He doesn’t poison everyone,” Rickkter commented.

“No. He has me and others do his killing,” Misha said coldly.

“I do what needs to be done to protect Metamor and the Duke,” Andwyn said calmly. “My only loyalty is to the Duke.”

“Now is not the time for a discussion on morality,” Thomas intoned harshly. “But Andwyn’s loyalty is not the subject here. We are here to consider the Lutins offer. Do we trust him?"

"No," Misha and Andwyn both said at the same time.

"But we have to give him a chance," George added. "We cannot keep fighting the lutins forever."

"Agreed," Thomas nodded. "We cannot miss this opportunity."

“How long have you and the Lutins had a truce?” Rickkter asked.

The raccoon morph and the fox morph were seated in Misha's office one on either side of his desk. Between them on the desk was a bottle of wine. Rickkter had his feet propped up on Misha’s desk.

“Officially since last March,” Misha explained as he sipped the wine. “But there was a live and let live policy in effect since right after the Yule attack.”

“So much has changed while I was away,” the raccoon commented.

The fox scout nodded slowly. “Oh yes! Some good, some bad. It started simple at first. Lutin raids into the valley almost completely stopped due to the harsh winter. When spring finally arrived the Lutins did not start raiding. And when there was a raid it was surprisingly bloodless. More like cattle rustling.”

“And how did it become official?” the raccoon asked.

“March 4th,” the fox answered. “A cavalry patrol of Andres unit was moving down a road when a voice called out from the woods. “We want to talk, the voice said. “We call a truce. You not attack us of the Sharp Fang tribe and we won’t attack you,” Misha said in an oddly husky tone.

“What happened?” Rickkter asked.

“They came back and Andre told me. I came out and spoke with the Lutins myself.”

“You met with the Lutins?”

“Oh yes! It was a subchief. One of the chief’s sons! That alone impressed me,” the fox exclaimed. “The agreement is simple. They stay out of the valley and leave us alone and we stay out of the territory and leave us alone. Since then they have honored the agreement very well.”

“Amazing,” Rickkter commented.

The fox nodded. “I’m surprised they have honored the agreement this long.”

“I am surprised both sides have honored it for this long,” the raccoon warrior commented dryly.

"Both sides?" Misha asked. "A lot of people here at Metamor just want peace."

"And a lot want revenge," Rickkter countered and took a deep drink.

  Misha shook his head. "But not me. I've seen too much killing. All I want is to live and raise a family in peace."

Rickkter nodded. "Many people do but the lutins have been attacking Metamor for millennia. Why should it change now?"

The fox shrugged. "Perhaps because it's long overdue."

The castle that stood before them had a long and checkered past, some good but mostly bad. Originally it had been a base for a legion of the Seuilman army when it first occupied the valley. Then it had been nothing more than an area of flat ground surrounded by a low bank with a wall on top and a shallow ditch. It had been intended only for a few days of occupation before the legion moved northward to conquer the Giantdowns. But the death of an emperor and the subsequent power struggle had halted the legion. The walls of wood had been replaced by those of stone. The ditch was broadened and deepened. When the massive wall later generations called the Giants Dike had been built it was decided to make this place a major defense point of the army. It’s walls were strengthened and pushed higher. Strong towers were added all along its length and the ditch converted into a wide moat with water.

For many long years that fortress had served its purpose, playing host to generations of soldiers who guarded and maintained the wall. But times change and the valley is a long way from the capitol. Emperors who cared more about their own enemies then about the empires slowly pulled the troops out. Little by little the fortress was emptied of soldiers who marched south out of the valley and never returned. Soon a mere handful of men were left to guard the wall. Still those warriors left were loyal and continued to protect the lands to the south of the wall.

But soon there were not enough troops to hold and the massive wall was breached and could not be retaken. Lutins by tens of thousands flooded through the valley and laid waste to all within reach. Those that could fell back upon the fortress and fought bitterly as wave after wave of attacks washed over it. For a time they held the attackers at bay. The corpses of many Lutins and other foul creatures lay heaped beneath the stone walls of the fortress. But that time soon ended as there were too few defenders and far too many attackers. The fortresses walls were eventually breached the same as the Dikes great wall had been and everything within laid waste.

The victors soon moved on to the richer lands to the south and the ruined fortress had been forgotten. In time tall trees and thick bushes grew amidst the tumbled down walls and burnt wreckage.

In time the victorious Lutins were themselves eventually defeated and driven back north. But the Empire was shattered beyond repair and no one saw fit to repair the great wall. The Great wall was abandoned forever but the fortress wasn’t. The trees and bushes were cut down and the debris removed. The walls and towers were repaired and again soldiers guarded and lived in the fortress. But these soldiers were no longer legionnaires of the empire. They wore the rampant stallion of the Dukes of Metamor. Inside the walls where there had once been a legions hone was now a prosperous town. But fate was not done with the fortress. In 699 the lutins again attacked and again the defenders fought valiantly but it was all futile. the fortress lay empty for only a short time before The troops of the Duke this time led by George and Misha retook the place. Since then under the leadership of Nestorius the mage the town had prospered. From its walls scouts and troops controlled the entire western half of the valley. Killing raiders and keeping the lands and people safe.

Misha and George arrived shortly after dawn. The griffon settled into the courtyard of the castle mindful of the closely confining walls nearby. Waiting for him was a woman dressed in armor. Her blonde hair was cut short, close to her head.

”When did they arrive Marcia?” Misha asked as he dismounted.

“Less than two hours ago,” the woman answered. “With an escort of no less the forty Lutins and an ogre.”

“Actually there were twenty five prisoners in the group,” Marcia explained.

George climbed from the saddle. “Where are they now?”

“In the Hospital,” came the answer. “Some were in pretty rough shape.”

“There are wagons and riders headed here from the Keep,” George said calmly. “With a score of healers and others to help.”

Marcia smiled. “Good we need the help.”

“I want to see them right now,” Misha ordered.

“Where are the Lutins and the ogre?” George asked.

“They’ve set up camp outside the walls.. Out of arrow range,” Marcia explained. “We gave them some food and drink and they seem happy.”

“You are watching them carefully?” Misha asked as they walked.

“Sir Dupre' is there now with a score of knights watching them.”

“One of my Long teams is headed here by air,” the fox explained. “They’re about an hour behind us and they’ll have some emergency supplies with them.”

The hospital was a small one; meant only for caring for the sick and wounded of the town and the surrounding villages. So the place was crowded. People from all over the town and castle were running around tending to twenty three people. These were huddled in chairs, others stood wrapped in blankets as Keepers hovered around them. Still more lay on beds.

Seated on the bed closest to him was a young man dressed in a clean, fresh tunic and who had recently had a bath as he was clean. But there was little flesh on the man’s frame and the scars and wounds were very new. On the bed next to the man’s was a female Keeper whose species was some sort of gray colored feline.

“Who are they?” Misha asked trying to keep his emotions in check.

“Keepers,” Marcia answered. “All of them.”

“NAMES!” Misha snapped more harshly than he intended.

Marcia handed the fox a sheet of paper. “This is a partial list.”

Misha examined the list intently for a moment. “George I see several our people.” Suddenly he muttered several curses. “She’s dead. She has to be dead.”

“Well you’re wrong!” Marcia countered. “I checked all the names.”

“Oh my god,” Misha whispered. “She’s been a prisoner for almost two years.” He tapped a name on the list. “Her. I want to see her now!”

Misha found her huddled in a bed in the far corner of the hospital. She had a blanket tightly wrapped around her body and her head down close to her chest.

“She’s in fairly decent shape physically,” the healer said. “But she has not spoken more than a dozen words since she arrived.”

“Narsanna?” he asked softly.

The figure stirred a little but did not look up.

The scout stepped closer. “Narsanna? Is that you? It’s Misha.”

The fox morph sat down on the bed next to her. She jumped and looked at him with panic filled eyes. The fear was replaced by confusion and then recognition. “Who?” the bundled figure asked. Her head had two large triangular ears set atop a head that ended in a short, blunt muzzle.

“Misha Brightleaf. Llyn’s leader.”

Her face brightened noticeably and she slow unwrapped the blanket revealing that she had wrapped her wings about her as tightly as the blanket had been. Misha noted that the flesh on the wings was tattered and torn in places. He also saw many scars both old and new all over. The bat had seen some very hard times. His fingers traced a complex magical symbol tattooed onto the skin of her left wing. “That keeps me from flying,” she said in a harsh, raspy voice.

Misha nodded. “I’ll get Rickkter or Teria to remove it.”

“Remove it?” she asked in a confused tone.

The fox scout examined the tattoo closely. It was an immobilization symbol. Meant to keep something or someone from moving or in this case flying. “We can remove it easily enough.”

"Nestorius has already examined it, "Marcia said speaking for the first time. "He will remove it this afternoon."

Misha nodded. "Good."

"What happened?" Narsanna asked. "No one came to rescue me."

Misha shivered noticeably and shook his head. "We tried. We searched all over. We tried to follow your last flight but all we found was a large pool of blood. We thought you were dead like Heurn,” he explained.

She slowly shook her head. “I wasn’t that lucky.”

“You’re safe now,” Misha said.

“What happened to Llyn? Did she escape?”

“She succeeded in stopping the towers,” the scout answered without giving the whole truth.

“Then she is alive?” the bat asked. Her voice raising in emotion. Whether that was good or bad Misha was unsure.

Misha pauses for a moment unsure how to explain it to her. “Llyn is dead.” He said flatly. “She was killed during the Yule attack.”

“Then she didn’t escape.”

“No. I guess she didn’t,” Misha admitted in a whisper.

“My family?” Narsanna asked.

“Fine. Your parents and your youngest sister were in Long House during the Yule attack. Your brother Andrew acquitted himself well and was promoted and decorated. His wife lost part of her foot but fought well.”

“When did Alisa learn to fight?”

“When four Lutins charged into her home on Yuletide eve and tried to kill her,” George answered calmly.

The bat nodded. “She was always a tough woman.”

"Not as tough of you," Misha countered.

"Me?" she asked in a confused tone. "I wasn't tough. All I did was live."

"Dying is easy," George said solemnly. "Living is hard."

Misha and Marcia stood outside the hospital. The fox was leaning against a wall his tail dropped along the floor and his one ear was laid back. His whole body was trembling.

“Are you all right?” Marcia asked.

“No,” came the flat answer.

“Who is Narsanna and why are you so upset to see her alive?” the woman asked.

Misha stopped trembling and stood up straight. “Narsanna is dead,” He said and looked at the closed door to the hospital. “At least I thought she was." Misha sat down on one of the benches near the door. "Two years ago I sent Llyn out on a mission along with two other scouts, Heurn and Narsanna. Things went wrong. Heurn was killed and Llyn only escaped with the help of Muri.”

“You mean Muri the skunk mage?” the woman asked.

Misha nodded slowly. “He was living alone in the mountains when Llyn stumbled onto him.”

“What happened to Narsanna?” she asked.

"I sent out people to find them," the fox paused and shook his head. “They found most of Heurn but all they found of Narsanna was some scraps of flesh and a lot of blood. We searched for her but not hard enough.”

“There was no way you could know she was alive,” Marcia countered. “The lutins don’t usually take prisoners.”

He shivered a little. “I do not want to imagine what she has suffered through these last two years.”

“All the prisoners have suffered,” Marcia commented. “And many have been held a lot longer than just two years.”

“I’m sorry Marcia. I realize that. It’s just that this one effected me harder than I expected.”

"If you think it is hard for you imagine what her family will be going through," Marcia commented.

Misha finally found what he was looking for outside the town walls. A large group of a dozen lutins were seated around tables drinking and eating. They were surrounded by at least twenty soldiers, some mounted, others on foot. Standing close to the lutins was a Keeper, the ram morph was dressed in full armor and was carrying a large kite shield. A long sword in a sheath dangled from his belt.

The fox morph walked up to the ram. "Sir William," he said and bowed lightly.

William Dupre' gave a nod of the head. "Sir Misha."

"How are our green guests?" Misha asked.

"Quiet," the ram answered. "How are the people they brought in?"

"All are in rough shape to one degree or another but they're getting good care," Misha answered. "My people should be arriving soon with more help and a wagon load full of supplies."

William nodded without taking his eyes off his guests. "Good. We do not have the people or resources to help them all."

"George also has thirty more scouts spreading out in the valley," Misha added. "Also all the soldiers are on alert and the patrols doubled."

The ram nodded. "Good. So have I. This might be a trick."

Misha turned his gaze to the lutins. Most of whom were relaxing and enjoying the food and drink Nestorius had provided. He found the person he was looking for quickly. One of the lutins was seated at the end of the table. Unlike the others he was not eating or drinking, just sitting there looking around.

Misha recognized the lutin immediately. "Excuse me Sir William I need to speak with someone."

The fox made his way over to where the one lutin was sitting. “Hello Aldrick.” This was the oldest son of Althrig the chief of the Silver Knives. He was an important leader in his own right also a very good tactician and had the scars to prove it.

“Good to see to Aldrick. Congratulations on taking Wraiths tower at Wraiths Stronghold," Misha said. “Very nicely done.”

The lutin smiled bearing a set of stained teeth.. “Thank you. I was inspired by your attack on Stepping Rock Castle.”

Misha had mixed emotions on that. He knew that several tribes were trying to imitate his Long Scouts but hearing it first hand from a lutin was an unnerving experience. The idea that the Lutins might use his own tactics against Keepers worried him. Still it did boost his ego to know that someone finally recognized what he and his scouts had been doing. Even if it was the enemy. “Thank you, I think.”

"I thank you for the hospitality you Keepers have shown us," the lutin commented.

"What did you expect? A ravenous mob with pitchforks and torches?" Misha countered. "We do try and be civilized. And you did come bearing gifts."

The lutin didn't speak but just smiled.

Misha gave a yip of laughter. "I do have to admit a lot of Keepers are against even considering even talking to you and your chief," Misha commented as he took a seat across from the lutin.

Aldrick nodded slowly. "There are many with hard feeling among my people. They see talking and not fighting as weak and cowardly."

Misha gave a small bark of laughter. "The same here. Unfortunately, many think this is just some trick."

"Do you?" The lutin asked looking him directly into Misha's eyes. Misha looked at Aldrick's face. He saw curiosity and perhaps a touch of doubt.

"I believe it. It is too elaborate to be some subtle trick on your part. At least I hope it is."

"Oh?" Aldrick asked. There was a surprised look on his face. "Do I detect a weakness in the image of Misha the slayer?"

"Weakness or wisdom?" Misha countered. "The life of a slayer is violent and short."

"And glorious," Aldrick shot back.

"But still short."

Aldwick shrugged. "I think you're getting old."

Misha gave a bark of laughter. "That too. I think we both are. What do you think?"

The lutin shrugged. "What is that old saying? An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind."

"That's profound," Misha said, surprised. "I wish I'd understood that years ago. It would have saved me a lot of pain."

"Saved all of us a lot of pain," Aldwick added. "Do you think this could lead to something more? An alliance perhaps against Nasoj."

Misha nodded. "Someday perhaps but there is a long way to go before that. These 'gifts' were a good starting point."

“The chief wanted to send gold and jewels but I told him these would be better,” the lutin said proudly.

“You were right!” Misha commented and slapped Aldwick on the back. “This is a much better gift.”

As a paladin Edmund had forsaken many of life's pleasures. Drinking, gambling were things that others enjoyed. But as a paladin he had taken vows of abstinence and he was not allowed such things. But he did allow himself a few small pleasures. One of those was having a nice, long bath. Just relaxing and soaking in the hot water of one of the Keeps baths.

Edmund has removed his clothes and stepped into the large room where the bath was. At this early hour the place was empty except for Edmund and one other person. There floating in the water was another cheetah. "Stealth!" he called out. "Good to see you!"

The cheetah morph was floating in the water eating a sugar coated pastry of some sort. Stealth waved to the paladin. "Hello! Come in! The water is great!"

Edmund dropped his towel onto a bench and slowly stepped into the pool. the water was hot but not too hot. he could already feel his body relaxing and his muscles loosening up.

"Have you heard the good news?" Edmund asked as he slowly made his way over to where his friend was.

"Mmmm," Stealth commented without stopping his eating.

"There has been an offer of peace from the lutins," the paladin explained. "An important chieftain has asked to negotiate with Thomas."

  "A lutin negotiating?" Stealth asked.

"YES!" Edmund replied cheerfully. "I think this could lead to peace with the lutins. what do you think?"

"What do I think?" Stealth snarled. "Kill all of them!" He clenched his fist squashing the pastry into a sticky mess that oozed out between his fingers.

"Why so hostile?" the paladin asked. Surprised by his friends reaction.

Stealth let the tip of his tail poke free of the water.

"I see," the paladin answered.

Stealth nodded as his tail sank back out of sight, "Besides, I remember that girl," he said in a whisper.

"Who?" Edmund asked. Confused.

"That poor girl, the one who was male, then became cursed and THEN a lutin slave. I heard what she said, Ed, the one you were talking to when we went to see them.

  “If those ranting little bastards want peace all they have to do is NOT attack us to begin with, let alone rape and eat us."

"That, my friend is what this is about. He wants peace,” Edmund commented.

"Why? What difference does it make now? For years, no, centuries they've been attacking us and they've always come off second best, now we just happen to have wiped out another generation of their best fighters and our defenses are stronger than they've ever been."

"And what happens in 20 years when the lutins have recovered enough to attack? They will attack us repeating a cycle that has gone on for centuries,” the paladin countered.

"Then we'll kill scores of them again and again until they learn. And if they don't that's their problem and their choice, not ours,” Stealth snarled.

Edmund shook his head. "Learn what Stealth? Learn to make peace with us?"

"Oh, please, you call this attempt peace? The only reason they're doing this is hereditary. Because one of ours was raped." Stealth countered scornfully, "Like I said, they want peace, don't attack us. It's not that hard, it's not like we want to fight them or invade their crappy barren lands."

"You make it sound so easy,” Edmund said sadly. “But reality never is."

"Then what do you expect to come from this?"

Edmund shrugged. "I don't know. But we have to break the cycle of violence somehow. Or our children and grand children will be fighting lutins."

Stealth waved a hand, "I'm not a bloodthirsty monster, Ed. If we decide to... try to make peace, so be it. I won't stand in the way."

The message and an explanation from the chief came with the freed slaves. It answered some questions but raised many more.

‘Dear Lord Thomas,

I am pleased that my little gift was so appreciated. I have always thought keeping slaves was detrimental in the long term. I do apologize for the poor condition of many of them. I only recently acquired them myself from Nasoj and there was little time for rest and recuperation. I believe that there are no other Keepers still in lutin hands although that foul monster Nasoj might still hold more.

I do have one request. The Long Scout known as Finbar MUST be present. To clarify I demand the presence of Finbar whose current species is a ferret and who fought so well during the Yuletide assault and personally killed General Selig.”


Kelrag (The Conqueror) Arthedain “

“Why does he want to see Finbar?” Thomas asked.

Misha shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve no idea but we do have a clue. He mentioned Finbar killing Selig.”

“He mentioned it twice,” Thalberg commented. “It must be important to him to meet Finbar.”

Thomas nodded. “Agreed but we will have to wait till we meet him to find out his exact reasons.”

“He gave his last name as Arthedain,” George said. “That’s not a lutin name.”

“It’s a name common among the human communities in the Giantdowns,” Andwyn commented.

Misha shook his head.” I’ve never heard of a lutin using a human family name except with the words ‘Slayer of’ in front.”

“We need more information on him,” Thalberg ordered. “What’s already known about him?”

   “Little personal information,” the fox explained. “He is the leader of the Crushing Fists tribe and has been for around twenty years.”

“He took control of the tribe in coup,” Andwyn added. “Which is fairly normal for lutins.”

“And many human governments as well,” George commented sarcastically.

“We believed he was allied with Nasoj but none of his tribe took part in the Yuletide attack,” the bat said.

“We can be certain of one thing,” George explained. “He hates Nasoj as much as we do.”

   “I like him already!” Misha said cheerfully. "I do know he led an alliance of tribes against Nasoj soon after the Yule attack failed. It was a very well planned and coordinated strike.”

“That means he knew of the Yule attack before it happened,” Thomas said.

“Yes and he also knew it would fail,” Andwyn offered.

George took a sip of wine. “Perhaps he helped it to fail.”

Andwyn and Misha nodded in agreement. “A lot of tribes did not join the assault against Metamor. I’ll bet he was involved in that. Talking, bribing and threatening tribes into not joining Nasoj," Misha commented.

“Agreed,” Thalberg added. “But why did he do that?”

“To increase his own power,” Andwyn said. “With Nasoj in control of the Giantdowns his power would be limited. He would have to follow Nasoj’s commands and only have what Nasoj gives him. But with the failure of the Yule attack Nasoj’s control of the Giantdowns is failing. That leaves a lot more room for him to expand and to take control himself. He's wasted no time in taking advantage of the chaos. He has attacked and conquered several nearby tribes."

"Also attacked Nasoj's troops at every chance," George added.

“Whatever his motives he has no love of Nasoj,” Misha said. “And that is something we can exploit.”

“I am sure Kelrag is thinking the same thing of us,” George added.

“Whatever his reasons, he deserves to be heard,” the duke said. “And meet me face to face.”

Dear Lord Kelrag,

I do offer you my heartfelt thanks for the return of our people. I agree to the terms of our meeting but insist that that it take place at Hareford in three weeks on the twenty first. I will be there myself along with a small entourage that will include Finbar. I do look forward to what we will be discussing.”


  Duke Thomas Hassan

Three weeks later

“Why am I here?” Finbar growled.

“How many times are you going to ask that?” Misha snapped back. A large group was waiting just inside Hareford by the Main gatehouse. Along with Misha, George, Finbar and Danielle was duke Thomas with a good sized entourage of knights and soldiers. Also present there seemed to be everyone in the town. The only ones not present were Nestorius and Dupre'. The lion had deemed it important to keep his distance. The mage was nearby and Misha had confirmed that he would have several powerful spells cast and others ready. Just in case. Dupre' was also nearby. Close enough that if a fight broke out he could rush in and help but far enough away that any deceptive attack would not get him as well.

“Until I get a good answer,” Finbar asked. The ferret was sitting in a dark corner with his head down and his arms, legs and tail tucked in. No one would come near him. Even Danielle was standing at arm’s length.

“Finbar,” Misha said coldly. “They requested you be here. They specifically gave your name.”

“I don’t . . “

“Finbar,” George barked in a cold tone. “Shut up.”

  Finbar didn’t say anything but bared his teeth at George. The old scout pulled his lips back revealing a set of teeth larger and sharper than Finbar’s. “I don’t care if you sulk just do it quietly.”

Misha couldn’t fault Finbar for being so confused and asking the question. They were all asking that question but no one had an answer.

Three weeks of waiting planning and more planning and now all they could do is wait for the lutins to arrive.

Further north in the valley another group of keepers waited. Most of this group was mounted. Some were riding horses, several were riding elk and other deer. All the riders were Keepers and so were some of the mounts they were riding. At the front was a tall wolverine morph riding a horse. He was dressed in full armor and carrying a lance. Andre was trying to look calm and seemingly having everything under control. But that was far from the truth. He had arraigned his outriders and Georges scouts were scattered in the woods and brush nearby. Ahead of him was the object of his nervousness.

Coming down the road towards the keepers was a large group of lutins. At any other time a group like that would have been attacked by archers while Andre's cavalry ran them down, killing all the lutins with arrow, lance and sword. But today these lutins were the guests of the Duke. So all the Keepers could do is wait as the group approached them.

When the group of lutins was within a hundred yards of André and his cavalry a figure detached from the mass and moved ahead. When this figure got close enough Andre realized that this was a human, a man dressed in loose flowing robes. Misha or one of his Longs would probably recognize who this person was but to the cavalry officer he was unknown. He was not wearing armor and had no visible weapons and he did not carry himself like a soldier. So the wolverine guessed he was probably a mage of some sort.

"Greetings," the man said. "Lord Kelrag the slayer comes to speak with the duke."

Andre gave a nod of the head. "Greetings. Lord Thomas welcomes you to Metamor Valley. I am to escort you to Outpost."

The man nodded in reply and smiled. "Thank you."

The chief arrived on time, Almost to the minute of the time he had promised. He arrived with a large retinue. First came no less than one hundred Lutins all dressed in plate mail armor and each carry a sword and shield. In spite of the bright and shiny look of their weapons and armor Misha knew these were highly skilled soldiers. They moved with the ease and confidence of veterans who knew well how to fight.

What came next surprised all the Keepers. Humans. Not slaves or farmers press ganged into serving. These men and woman wore a wide variety of clothing. Some wore armor, some didn’t. Many wore a variety of shirts, pants, skirts and robes. But all were obviously there of their own accord.

Walking at the head of the group was a black haired woman wearing a long robe that covered her from neck to toes. Her long black hair was braided and bound close to her skull.

“Hey!” Caroline commented in a whisper. “I know her.”

“She’s on one of Andwyn’s lists,” Misha commented.

“Several of them,” George added. “The reward for her head is quite large!”

“She's one of Nasoj’s Druzhina,” Misha commented. “All of them are.”

“Not anymore,” Caroline said softly. “They seem to have a new employer.”

George nodded. “Be sure that you keep Andwyn’s people away from them. The chief might get upset if some of them turn up dead all of a sudden,” he said in a tone loud enough for all to hear.

Misha nodded in response. “The cooks and servers are all my people and from Long house and I trust them but there is only so much I can do about Andwyn.”

“Who checked them besides you?” George asked.

“Rickkter of course.”

George nodded. “Good. Also be sure our guests don’t get creative and do anything nasty.”

“Rickkter is handling that as well,” Misha answered. Misha did not know exactly where Rickkter was but he was sure the raccoon was hidden nearby watching and waiting.

“What was his price?” the old scout asked.

“Three pages of information on his dagger,” the fox morph answered in a soft whisper.

George didn’t speak but looked at Misha for a moment.

“I told him nothing of deadly importance,” Misha said answering George’s unspoken question. “Beside those two need to start getting along sometime. It seemed a good way to start.”

The group of humans gave way to a pair of very large lutins. Each one was over six feet tall and had to weigh at least five hundred pounds. They were both carrying oversized scimitars. their bodies were covered with scars, telling of countless fights.

Finally the chief himself came into view. He was of five and a half feet tall and was wearing full plate mail armor that was buffed and polished to a high shine and was edged with gold and silver. Engraved on the chest plate was the image of an armored fist crushing a sword.

The lutin gazed at Thomas and nodded. He looked at George and then Misha and gave a polite nod of the head to each. He keep looking around at the keepers until his eyes fell upon Finbar. The ferret was standing at the very back of the group and was still sulking. The Lutin’s face brightened into a broad smile. Then he bowed deeply to Finbar. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

This took Finbar by surprise as much as it did everyone else. The ferret stood there for a moment. Danielle gently poked him in the arm and Finbar bowed to the lutin. “Sir,” the ferret stuttered.

The lutin looked behind him and then pointed to Finbar. Two servants left the group behind the chief and walked towards the ferret. Both were carrying an assortment of items. The first, a young female lutin was carrying a small bag that jingled loudly when she handed it to Finbar. In her other hand was a jacket of blue silk with gold buttons and braid. She held it out to the scout but Danielle took it from her. The woman’s eyes widened in surprise as she looked over the piece of clothing.

The second servant was a male carrying a small box made of a black wood. Every inch of the box was covered with intricate carvings. He opened the box revealing a pair of knives inside. The blades of both weapons were covered with gold and the hilts were of solid ivory.

The lutin held out the box to Finbar expecting him to take it. But the keeper did not move.

“I don’t want any of your gifts,” Finbar snarled. “Not now, not ever!”

“Why?” the lutin asked sounding genuinely confused. “You earned them!”

“MY MOTHER WAS RAPED BY A LUTIN,” Finbar snarled. His hackles were up and his teeth and claws bared.

“So was mine,” the lutin chieftain answered calmly. “By the same lutin.”

A very deep and profound silence filled the room that seemed to last forever. Finbar stood as rigid and still as a stone statue.

“You . . .” Finbar stuttered. “You’re. . . ”

Kelrag slowly nodded his head. “Yes brother, yes.”